- Historic Sites
An Interview With the King of Swing
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
I’ve tried. It’s hard to generalize, but it seems to me that a lot of the avant-garde music nowadays—maybe not the innovators, but certainly the copiers —is really kind of rough to listen to. I think one problem is very basic: they don’t tune up. I don’t see how you can play if you’re out of tune. Awhile ago, someone I know who’s very knowledgeable told me to listen to this girl flute player. Sure enough, when she started to play she was a quarter tone out—she just wasn’t a musician. And tone—let’s face it, the old-timers, like Louis, Bunny, Bix, Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds—they had lovely sounds. Individual, but beautiful. It seems to come with their talent for improvising, their overall musicianship.
What about having today’s younger musicians play the sort of music you’re most closely associated with- Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements, for example? Would it sound right?
I wish I knew. It takes a lot of work: we used to rehearse one arrangement, just one, for three or four hours. Nobody does that now. Then we’d play it on the job for a week or so before using it on the radio, just to make sure it was really tight. And even if you find guys who are willing to do that, they have such diverse backgrounds. I mean, try finding and putting together four saxophone players who have at least similar vibratos.
Were things of that sort really priorities in those days?
Sure. How can you have a real ensemble otherwise? I mean, how can a string quartet play together if they don’t have some similarity of tone and concept?
Those are pretty demanding standards. Are they responsible, I wonder, for some of the friction that has existed over the years between you and various musicians who have worked for you?
I think Gene Krupa expresed it as well as anybody. He always said about me — and I don’t think he was being kind, ut really rather critical— “Well, you know, Benny expects a hell of a lot out of himself, and just naturally expects it out of everyone else, too. To do the best they can.” Then they let me down, I get irritated- although I know that it doesn’t do any good. Might as well just go along with it. Also, it all depends how I feel: if I’m not playing well myself, I might blame anybody. If I’m playing extraordinarily well, I think everybody else is wonderful, too—until daylight hits. Then I say, “Well, this guy really wasn’t much good.”
What do you think of today’s popular music?
I don’t really stay that much in touch with it. All I’ll say is that I can’t imagine someone forty years from now reminiscing fondly about having heard Blondie, or even the Rolling Stones, or—what was the name of that group the other day—Clash. What could they say about it? “Remember the volume, the flickering lights? Remember when we got high?” I kind of doubt it.
And a final word in self-evaluation. Where do you think you fit?
I think I’ve done a lot in this business, whether through screwball methods or not I don’t know, that has helped other bands. I made a kind of road for them, you might say. If I raised my price, they found out about it and raised theirs. But somebody had to start it, to make the first move. You have to have the courage and confidence in your own ability. You have to know what the hell and who the hell you are in this business. Music may change, but I don’t think that ever will.