- Historic Sites
An Interview With the King of Swing
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
Why, at the height of your success as a jazz musician did you begin to involve yourself heavily in playing classical music on the clarinet?
Well, it had actually started earlier. Somebody arranged for me to record the Mozart Quintet with a string quartet. I was playing somewhere in Wisconsin and drove to Chicago to do the recording. I got to the hotel about two or three in the morning, and to the recording studio at about nine. There were these four Frenchmen or Belgians who hardly spoke a word of English; well, we started to record the Mozart, and after playing for maybe five minutes, I started saying to myself, “What the hell am I doing here? This is nuts. I don’t know this piece.” I just wasn’t prepared. So I excused myself, saying, “I’m sorry, gentleman. Thank you, but this was my mistake. I hope I didn’t inconvenience you—but some other time, perhaps.”
You didn’t give up, though: there were soon concerts and records with prominent classical musicians—Igor Stravinsky, Bêla Bartok, the Budapest String Quartet, and original works were written for you by Bartok, Paul Hindemith, Aaron Copland, Malcolm Arnold, and others. This is not a common course for a jazz musician to steer. Can you account for it?
Well, sometimes I was just kind of overwhelmed with the greatness of some of that music. I’d ask myself, “How the hell can you improvise any better than that?” I mean, I’ve played all the choruses on “Lady Be Good” ninety million times. I’ll always be able to play ‘em, I think. I wanted something else to do, to give myself a challenge. It’s a sense of—well, growing up, I guess. If I hadn’t done it, I probably would always have regretted it, felt there was something I should have done. I mean, here we are on a stage and where is jazz? And what is jazz? What are you going to do, go out and play “Lady Be Good” again, forever and ever? How many times? Is somebody going to write the great jazz composition? I don’t think so—and I never believed in that third-stream stuff. Either you play one thing or you play the other.
Is this a point of view you developed gradually, or did it happen all at once?
Hard to say. I was so brash in those days—I did things a more cautious head would never have done. One time, for instance, I decided, “Well, now I think I’ll play with the New York Philharmonic.” I wanted to do both the Mozart Concerto and the Debussy Rhapsody. And I prepared, worked very hard. When the time came, I was ready—played the Debussy then probably better than I do now. Sir John Barbirolli was conducting then, and the orchestra was giving him a hard time. They were a bunch of tough bastards, and Barbirolli had the misfortune of following Toscanini, so they really gave it to him. Well, we ran one of the works down, the Mozart I think. And at the end, you know how they go—tap-tap-tap with the bows, “very good,” and all. All I said was, “All right, once more from the top. ” And we finished it, and the same business, “tap-tap-tap.” And once again I said, “All right, now once again from the top.” You know, thinking of it in retrospect, I think Barbirolli got a kind of vicarious kick out of it. He couldn’t handle them that way at that point.
Did you ever entertain the possibility that you could have fallen on your face?
No, no. Not at all. Later you get wiser.
That’s in keeping with the way you’ve always approached things professionally. No doubts or hesitations. You’ve never, in a figurative or real sense, thought poor?
No, never. I always wanted to do things with style. Don’t care if it was clothes, or eating, or women. Or making music. Especially that. If you’re going to do it, do it right. Don’t take second class. You know—I’d rather have one or two good suits than a bunch of crappy ones. One of the things I think is wrong with a lot of what you see today is that it doesn’t have that sense of style, of elegance. I don’t know where it’s gone.
In the days we’ve been talking about, a band had to be dressed correctly: shoes polished, suits clean and pressed. Even your horn shining. You don’t want to look like a bunch of ragamuffins. Even to this day, I don’t like people walking on stage not looking good. You have to look good. If you feel special about yourself, then you’re going to play special. We used to wear tails at the Pennsylvania Hotel on Saturday nights — it was no problem to put’em on. I can’t stand, have always abhorred, seeing a musician walk in for a job wearing some damn Taj Mahal jacket or whatever they call them. Look, what I mean is this: If an individual allows his own personal standard to be eroded, something of what he does is going to be compromised. It’s a matter of detail, sometimes. When you start losing detail, whether it’s in music or in life—something as small as not sending a thank-you note, or failing to be polite to someone—you start to lose substance.
What about the newer developments in jazz? Do you listen to any of it—and do you like what you hear?