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Loren Schoenberg -- Writings

Studs Terkel - The Spectator

Inspiration can come at any time and from any place, and the publication of Studs Terkel's The Spectator (published by The New Press) has certainly sparked this reader's imagination more than the great majority of jazz books published this year. A few words of introduction: Terkel is 87 years old, hosted a radio interview show in Chicago for almost 50 years, and is the author of a series of acclaimed oral histories covering 20th century Americana (books on World War II, the Depression, race among others). This one reflects his life long passion for the cinema and the theater, and the list of interviewees is astonishing. A partial list would include Moms Mabley, Alfred Lunt, James Baldwin, Buster Keaton, Sybil Thorndike, Eubie Blake, Ian McKellen and Federico Fellini. What is fascinating is how relevant many of the conversations are to the very issues that all of us (both musicians and listeners) in the jazz world face.

What is the relationship between improvisation and creativity, and what happens when one tries to recreate a moment that happened spontaneously? This is not just an issue in jazz repertory, but one that all players face. You played a solo last night on a particular piece that really seemed to click. You try the same thing the next night and you fail to make any sort of connection with either yourself or the audience or the musicians. I once asked Bob Brookmeyer about this very issue in the midst of a tour, and he nailed it on the head: instead of practicing your solo in your mind, practice being spontaneous. Sounds simple, but try it sometime. It's not. More light is shed on this thorny issue in Terkel's book by the actress Carol Channing, known for her portrayal of dizzy blondes, but who is very articulate and astute: "The day you get perspective on yourself is the day your act is lousy. As soon as I think I've got it – ah, there's the answer – I'm self-conscious for the next show. Your joke is no longer funny." There's more, but what is equally exciting is the way Terkel inserts related quotes from other interviews throughout each chapter. The Channing quote is interrupted briefly by Tallulah Bankhead, while Channing's portion flowed out of a lengthy section on the choreographer Agnes DeMille.

DeMille's experiences on Broadway and in Hollywood parallel those of many jazz players who have had to tread the line between keeping true to one's own instincts in the wake of commercial pressure. She also addresses what all good improvisers know: there is no such thing as a wrong note if you know where to take it. DeMille remembers a conversation with Freddie Ashton of the Royal Ballet: "…he said he always made allowances for what he called the accident of the theater. Something might happen which would clarify or change, and he would use this. You see, the thing is that there's nothing on paper. I have to say, ‘Do you remember what you did Tuesday, but not Thursday?' And they do, if they're experienced. It's a most incredible act of memory. They say, ‘Well, you got this far. You got eight bars of this on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday we did this.' And I say, ‘Well, we won't do that now, we'll do what we did Monday.' Factor this against the Ellington rehearsals on the recently issued Cote D'Azur Verve box and you've got something intriguing.

Terkel is a great jazz fan, and friends with many jazz musicians. His oral histories are organized in a fashion that leads the reader to glimpse all sorts of connections that may have been obscure before. Jazz has had three similar books – all classics: Hear Me Talkin' To Ya (edited by the two Nats, Shapiro and Hentoff), Ira Gitler's Swing to Bop, and the most recent, Stuart Nicholson's Reminiscing in Tempo. We need more.

 

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