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
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.