When I first started at WPFW, I naively tried to arrange an interview with one of my vocal heroes, Betty Carter. As a young man, I had more nerve than skills or common sense, not realizing I would have to pass her test before she’d agree to invest her time with someone so green. I went to Blues Alley two nights in a row before even approaching her. When I did, she asked me some questions, then sang a bit of melody in my ear and asked me if I knew the tune. I lucked out and told her it was the verse to “Stardust,” after which she agreed to give me 15 minutes following the next set.
You tour all over the world. What do you think of the way jazz is presented on radio in this country?
Lousy! [laughs]. Not enough of it to expose the young kids to it, to make them aware of what’s been going on and what is going on. There’s really not enough music on the radio, jazz that is.
Have you been able to compare that with radio stations abroad; in Europe? Japan?
Radio stations abroad, some of them are mixed stations. They don’t just have one kind of music. They don’t have hours and hours of rock and roll, or something like that. It’s mixed. They’ll have just about everything. It’s different over there, too, but this is where the music is supposed to be born. It’s supposed to be born here. I think we have an obligation to it, you know, by keeping it around for your young kids. Keeping them aware of our music. It’s not necessary that they have to dig it. Just be aware and know it exists.
You’ve owned your own record company since 1971. How important is it to have a hit record?
[laughs] To some people, very important, but to me, no. It’s not important to me.
So you don’t measure success by record sales?
No, of course not. You can’t do that. I mean, do you think you can do that?
Most people do.
Think about how many people that you know, or you did know, or you use to know that had a hit record that you don’t even remember their name. Think about it. Dozens of people had big records. But within 2 or 3 months you forget who they are if they don’t have a second one or a third one or a fourth one. Once you start on that road, that hit record thing, you have to keep it going. Otherwise, they won’t know you’re around. That is, unless you become a good performer, which is really the only thing that’s going to keep an audience coming back to see you. It’s what you do on stage to please them, not your record. Believe me. That may be the initial introduction to some people, but that introduction can be soured if the performance is bad.
Do you think success is more important when it comes from something developed straight from your heart rather than…
Don’t you think that? Think about that. You’re saying what it is. It’s about heart. It’s about something that you love, something that you care about. You work diligently for it. When you get on a stage, your job is to please people, to make them happy, to make them forget their problems for an evening or to fall in love for an evening, to discover things about themselves. This is what you’re supposed to be able to do when you get on stage; to perform before them. A record is exactly what it is. It’s a record. If you are a good performer, you won’t need to have a hit record. I have never had a hit record.
I notice you have certain signature tunes: Movin’ On, Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love, Don’t Weep For The Lady. How does your performance of them differ from night to night?
I never know what differences. I know there are differences. I mean, I couldn’t nail ‘em down. I know that they’re all different.
The response and everything is different. I mean, I know that my improvising is different. I know that’s never the same. But the feeling is also different. There are certain things that can happen to tighten you up. You’re doing three shows on a Saturday night and you really want to do the first show as good as you do the second and third shows. Even though your first show is your awakening show [laughs]. Everybody wakes up during that show, you know? But you still want to do a first-class job on that show too, if you care. I mean, you can say: “Well, this is my first show and you can get out there and shuck it. You know what I mean. But the first show people spent just as much money as the second show people spent, and they care too. They want to be pleased. So when you fall short of the first show, not pleasing them, it can work with you mentally. It can make you feel pretty bad. You know when you’ve done that. You know when it’s not really clicking.
In line with that and your role as leader, in your second set performance on Tuesday night, there was a piece in which you improvised the introduction before singing the tune. How do you feel allowing the musicians to do that and how do you feel it’s time to transition between the improvised intro and the piece itself?
[laughs] It’s going to always roll back to the structure. It’s just a lot of things can happen in between. Sometimes you can find the kind of musicians that can hear good enough to use their imagination and come up with something that is different, while still remembering where the tune is basically structured. But within that structure, there are a lot of things that can happen. It’s up to us at that moment to deal with whatever we’re coming up with, and to come out of it as we should
But being the boss, is it hard to surrender that to others, or trust them to know?
Well, you just hope [chuckles]. It’s all from the hip. And you hope it’s groovy enough to inspire them to do something slick that you can deal with and you can bounce off of. Then, in turn, you find something that they can bounce off of, and then you’re bouncing and they’re bouncing and finally you got something really happening because you’re listening to each other. So it’s all part of listening. You know I can feel when they are not listening. They can get complacent, those young kids.
I know you’ve got to get ready for your next set. In closing, can I get your impressions on two of the giants who left us recently? The first is Thelonious Monk.
Did you ever work with him?
We worked on the same shows together.
So, what do you most remember about him, your outstanding impressions?
[laughs] His whole approach to life was uniquely Thelonious Monk. And then you’re talking about the other gentleman, Sonny Stitt? Well, Sonny Stitt I’ve known ever since my beginning from Saginaw, Michigan. He used to come to Detroit and sit in. He was Detroit’s own Charlie Parker at that time. So Sonny Stitt I’ve known through the years. We just did that cable television show together, which included “Everytime We Say Goodbye.” He does that wonderful saxophone solo on that.
Didn’t you also do “Can’t We Be Friends” with him?
We did that too. Think about it. I went in a complete circle with him, with Sonny. I liked that tune “Can’t We Be Friends.” He recorded it, then I recorded it, then eventually I was able to record it with him before he died.
Interview recorded between second and third sets at Blues Alley in Washington DC, Aug. 15, 1982.