Sunday, January 04, 2009

Hooray for Herbie // Un-Will-ing

Was shocked, in a pleasant way, to turn on WKCR last night and hear an interview with Herbie Nichols. I really wish it were archived so I could link to it, but I'll have to settle for a recap of what I can remember.

As part of a birthday tribute to the late Nichols, who would've turned 90 yesterday, tireless jazz warrior Phil Schaap played a recording of a 1962 WBAI radio interview with the man. As many jazz fans know, Nichols remained obscure, even tragically so, during his lifetime, so it was a major surprise to learn that such a recording even existed. In conversation, Nichols came off as he does in his music and his liner notes: extremely thoughtful, and a bit eccentric--a man with a lot of conviction and a trace of bitterness.

The broadcast in question was from June of '62, less than a year before Nichols's death of leukemia in April of '63 (age 44). He spoke of early influences--apparently he originally admired Prokofiev and wanted to work in the classical realm--and how he felt as though he was bursting with creative energy when he was first beginning to write music. I can't remember the words Nichols used, but he said something to the effect of, "I just had so many ideas and I had to get them out in some way." I haven't listened to Nichols much in the past few years, but hearing his Blue Note works last night I was reminded of how lively, clear-eyed and peculiar they are--his compositions are extremely charming and singular; yes, the ideas blaze forth. His is a very crisp, fully articulated sort of genius.

Nichols came off in the interview as a very exacting man, someone very serious about his craft. He spoke at one point of how he was extremely disappointed with the musical discipline of his peers when he first began playing, re: how they couldn't read music well and how they didn't seem to want to work to interpret his tricky compositions. (This was deeply sad to hear, especially considering that there have been so many Nichols repertory projects over the past few decades.)

He was hard on jazz critics as well. In conclusion, Nichols said something to the effect of "We need better jazz criticism." I remember him using the phrase "My only beef..." and expressing the notion that all jazz critics should be required to earn music degrees. The host--can't remember his name--seemed a little threatened by this. He was like, "Well, Herbie, *I* don't have a music degree." Nichols didn't bail him out, and I'm glad to hear it. I think it's a very valid point (though one I don't have any real rebuttal to, considering my own spotty knowledge of music theory).

The Nichols story is often rendered as a tragedy, and there was definitely some note of frustration to the conversation I heard last night. He certainly wasn't belly-aching, but both Nichols and the host seemed to want to know the "Why?" of Herbie Nichols, i.e., why couldn't he ever really break through during his lifetime?

Personally, I need to fill in the gaps in my Nichols knowledge, e.g., finally get around to his Bethlehem session Love, Gloom, Cash, Love, which I've long thought was maybe the coolest jazz record title of all time, and also the Nichols chapter in A.B. Spellman's Four Lives in the Bebop Business.

Check this quote from Spellman's intro: "But what a frustrated career. Here was a personable, clean-living artist who was rejected at every turn although everybody knew that he was a master. I did not know him intimately, but the disillusionment in his face, voice and demeanor those few times I did meet him, in his last years, could not have been more apparent had I known him all my life."

Maybe a tad melodramatic, but this is obviously one of the sadder cases in the jazz annals. It's a special thing indeed that nearly 50 years after his death, Mr. Schaap took pains to afford him a worldwide listening audience.

As part of the broadcast, Phil also shared a strangely affecting story about having been lost on the subway as a young boy in the early '60s. A helpful man pointed him in the right direction and sent him on his way with the sports sections from his newspapers. When Schaap saw Nichols's obituary in Downbeat about a year later, he recognized the pianist's picture immediately: He was the man who had helped him navigate the train that day. An odd yet heartwarming story. And if anyone doubts it, Phil Schaap would *never* forget a face--or anything else for that matter.


Also, wanted to give props to Kelefa Sanneh's hearty piece on Will Oldham in the latest New Yorker.

It was a strange article, mainly in the sense that it had sort of this undercurrent of antagonism between journalist and subject. The article starts with Sanneh arriving late to meet Oldham and the latter taking on an implicitly surly tone. And there's much talk of Oldham's general press-shyness and "orneriness," both from associates and from the artist himself. Oldham makes no bones about being unsure as to whether he should have agreed to cooperate with Sanneh in the first place.

That tension makes for lively reading though. As does the piece's powerful sense of place. Sanneh shadows Oldham in his hometown of Louisville and it's fascinating to read about his stature as a local quasicelebrity. Sanneh also met Oldham's mom, and she seems like a very cool lady who's completely hip to the depth of what her son is up to.

There's also some intriguing discussion of Oldham's penchant for pseudonyms and the notion that his current Bonnie "Prince" Billy guise really ought to be read as a full-fledged character. On this same tip, Sanneh does a good job of weaving in material on Oldham's acting background.

As a longtime Oldham enthusiast, I was mainly just psyched to be reading such an in-depth piece on him, period. I've long felt that he was the only singer-songsmith around today that, when the dust settles, will truly measure up to Dylan, Neil, Joni and those types. I used to be a fanatic Oldham completist, but I've lost track of the past few full-lengths. Even so, I can't imagine I'd ever regard Oldham as anything other than a rare genius.

As I read the piece, I wondered how it would read to someone who didn't know Oldham's work. I'm not sure it would quite do its job--i.e., lead said person to want to check out Oldham's actual music. Maybe it would come off as just another tale of a "difficult" artist; maybe Oldham would come off as a big baby.

That said, it's hard to really convey what it is that's so great about Will. I'm surprised there's no audio content posted with the online version of the article to aid in this endeavor. Anyway, if you haven't heard I See a Darkness, Arise Therefore (damn, what a strange and outstanding album), Master and Everyone, Hope or any of the countless others, you've gotta get with it.

Here's "Lie Down in the Light," live at Funtown, apparently from the show Sanneh describes in the article. How about that voice? Damn.


Anonymous said...

Just to follow on Herbie Nichols and his disappointment in his peers and "how they couldn't read music well and how they didn't seem to want to work to interpret his tricky compositions." It has always depressed me in listening to (particularly Blakey on) those Blue Note sides and listening to them just maul the tunes. Every time the tune ends and there are 8-12 bars of drums just stumbling along at the end it makes me cry.

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Thanks for your post! I have loved listening to Herbie Nichols ever since buying his Bethlehem album and the Mosaic Records box set of his Blue Note recordings. Herbie, Monk and Elmo Hope are favorites among the pianist-composers (along with Duke) and I never tire of listening to his great music.