Sunday, April 12, 2015

Hey, 'Nineteen': Garth W. Caylor's instant classic

There didn't seem to be much risk involved in plunking down $21 for a copy of Nineteen +. A couple weeks back, my friend Stephen Buono tipped me off to this Wire news item concerning a book of interviews with jazz musicians that had recently been self-published by its author, Garth W. Caylor Jr., 50 years after its completion. (Caylor completed the manuscript in ’65 but shelved it after he was unable to find a publisher.) I took one look at the time frame, 1964–65, and the list of artists involved—Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Milford Graves and Steve Lacy are five of the 19 names—and knew that I needed to have this. With those artists on board, Caylor's book had to be at least interesting.

I'm about halfway through Nineteen +, and I'm comfortable labeling it as an essential jazz book. Off the top of my head, my personal short list in that regard would look something like:

Valerie Wilmer
As Serious as Your Life

Ben Ratliff
The Jazz Ear

A.B. Spellman
Four Lives in the Bebop Business

Arthur Taylor
Notes and Tones

Graham Lock
Forces in Motion

Lock's classic Anthony Braxton tome is the odd volume out there, in that it focuses on one artist. The rest of these books are compilations of sorts, where each chapter concerns a different artist or set of artists. Nineteen + is of the latter type. Among those listed above, Caylor's book probably most closely resembles Taylor's classic collection of artist interviews: Unlike with the Ratliff and Spellman books, the chapters here are short (about eight pages on average, and the book itself is small: a paperback just larger than pocket-sized), and unlike with Wilmer's, the author doesn't seem to have much of an agenda in mind. I say "much of" because he does seem to be attempting to get to the bottom of the "inside"/"outside" binary that was a hot-button issue in jazz at the time and which is still a source of occasional debate/commentary; the chapters on Zoot Sims and Al Cohn (they're heard from together here, as they often are on record) and Bill Evans contain some fascinating insights in that regard, e.g., Sims and Cohn's complicated stances on Coltrane (they admire his technique but seem to find his aesthetics abrasive).

Caylor is more or less reporting what he experienced and recorded, aiming not exactly for a portrait of each artist he visits (he interviews the majority—all?—of the musicians in their own respective homes) but for a sketch of their personality and philosophy, aesthetic and otherwise. He uses the Q&A format occasionally and quotes large, sometimes pages-long, blocks of the artists' words verbatim. But these aren't mere transcriptions. Caylor frames the conversations with his own prose, and the effort is beautifully unobtrusive, like an expert lighting job. (In the introduction, Caylor describes how, at the time he was compiling these interviews, he was working as an architect, and the elegant yet unassuming way he structures his chapters seems directly related to that career.) He offers just the right scene-setting details—starting his Jaki Byard profile, for instance, by describing an interaction between the pianist and his young son, or his Steve Swallow chapter thusly:

Steve Swallow lives among tables and chairs of wood, shelves of paperbooks, and shelves of spools of colored yarn above that, all the way to the ceiling because his wife weaves things. They serve coffee with chicory, I think, from cups and saucers of baked earth. There is a bass fiddle, a piano, a loom and some cats in the tall room.
Or even transcribing bits of phone conversations he overhears: serendipitously, Mingus happens to ring Byard during Caylor's interview of the latter, and Miles happens to call up Herbie Hancock while the author is visiting. ("Miles said, 'So you're gonna take what all the musicians say and put it in a book and get all the money for it'—is that right?")

The pieces are far shorter and less commentary-heavy than Calvin Tomkins's wonderful New Yorker artist profiles, but there's a similar kind of sensitive mind at work here. The writing is musical but not gaudy. Caylor also includes complementary quotes from various texts by authors that either come up directly in the conversations or whose work is relevant to the topics discussed in the interviews. Interestingly, he often lets these authors have the final word in a given piece. Art Farmer mentions Ravel, for example, so Caylor closes that chapter with several apropos 1930s quotes from the composer; Caylor and Swallow discuss Zen Buddhism, so the author appends an excerpt from D.T. Suzuki.

What strikes me is how freely Caylor gets these musicians to speak. The insights pour out. After reading each piece, I really do feel like I've spent an hour in the company of the artist in question. I've already dog-eared this book to death. A few excerpts:

[Playing with Paul Bley] was an overwhelming experience—I got physically sick afterwards—I stayed in bed for three or four days and thought and thought… Playing with Paul Bley was the first wholly musical experience I'd had—it wasn't recreational and it wasn't social. It had an awesome effect on me.
Steve Swallow

So really Charles Mingus's band is about the only group I can think of that I could play for and be able to play every thing I know on piano.
Jaki Byard

The kind of group I want is say a quintet where each piece is a composition by all five players. I want to get an interaction of sound caused by an interaction of minds. I want everybody to be playing together, not necessarily all the time, but maybe so. Maybe two guys will solo at once. Maybe more.
Herbie Hancock

…[Going] to a museum clears my head—I get a lot of inspiration looking at pictures, and I don't make literal associations. I don't compare it to what I'm doing—it makes me feel much "braver" about my own playing and writing.
Jim Hall

So you see what I mean. Caylor gets these artists talking about what matters, which is the music. If you, like me, have an endless thirst for this kind of primary-source interview material (the phrase "Musicians on music," which John Zorn employs in the subtitle of his Arcana volumes, seems apropos, although in Caylor's book, the musicians are just as often talking about literature or visual art), you're going to gulp this concise book down.

I should point out that the Milford Graves conversation is especially valuable. We're lucky to have a thorough documentation of Graves's current viewpoint, but I don't think I've ever read an interview with him from the mid-’60s, when he was making so many indelible contributions to jazz, drumming and music in general. The Graves interview is a torrent of ideas, free-flowing but absolutely coherent. Caylor sees a handwoven basket (presumably Native American, since he includes a picture of a Washoe basket in the text, one of many tastefully incorporated visual aids in Nineteen +) on the floor in Graves's home and asks about it. Graves replies:

It's sort of an environmental thing for me, first of all it makes me think of a snake, you know; it keeps my coordination together when I think about it. An object that I can look at for a while sort of helps me inside, edifies me, builds my mind and makes me comfortable.

Funny, because Graves drumming does all those things for me. At another point, Graves provides an eerily apt description of his musical asethetic:

…[My] thing is not to capture sound, you know. My feeling is just to move along with it, just to get into the sound, to make myself a part of it and just move along without making any stops.

I'm reading this book and I'm underlining incessantly—consuming these marvelous first-person insights in a state of joyous disbelief. For jazz people, the publication of Nineteen + is a major event. I'm confident that if it had come out 50 years ago, it would be held up as an all-time classic in the field. As far as I'm concerned, the book attains that status instantly. It's an invaluable work of artists-on-art scholarship—as WKCR taught me, the hierarchy goes 1) the music itself, 2) the words of the people who made it (i.e., the majority of Nineteen +) and 3) everything else—and my only wish is that there were several more volumes of Caylor's conversations to follow. Purchase immediately.

P.S. In terms of musicians-on-music, I've also become an avid fan of Joe Wong's drumcentric podcast, The Trap Set. Try the Drumbo, Dale Crover, Ndugu Chancler interviews.

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