I recently attended a concert which offered up a bill comprised of multi-generational musicians. With the older guys, were one to not watch them play but listen only, there would be no sense of having lost a step; no reduction in power or chops. The night had been dedicated to the recently departed Mulgrew Miller, a joyous sendoff yet a reminder too that the clock never stops ticking down.
Now added to the sad parade of names, Sathima Bea Benjamin and Marian McPartland. While I currently have a very full up schedule, I could not let these two passings go unremarked upon as I greatly admired both women and our paths ever so briefly intersected. This is by no means meant to be any kind of definitive, scholarly obituary but more a personal memento mori .
I had the pleasure of interviewing both women back when I used to bleed ink for All About Jazz. With Marian, I scored the interview basically as luck of the draw; I was up next in the bullpen to conduct an interview.
Her importance of place in modern jazz can never be overstated. Besides her own performances and recordings, her Jazz piano show did not so much humanize a diverse array of greats as add further, deeper layers to already compelling artists. I did thorough research so that I could ask the questions that I knew were expected of me but also more obscure ones as to try to do a definitive interview that covered her long career.
I was given an East Coast number to call and a time. I called at the appointed time, on the dot but no one picked up. Being her home phone number an answering machine came on. I did not feel it right to leave a message, I may have been wrong, and so hung up. A minute later my phone rang, that familiar voice sounding a little annoyed asked me;
“Did you just call me and hang up?”
I explained who I was and why I had called; asking if now was a good time to do the interview to which she said yes. A few questions in and she paused for a moment, asking me;
“But why had you hung up without leaving a message?”
As we continued on she realized I was not merely asking the standard run of the mill questions and warmed up to me. She was surprised that I had found out about her father having offered her one thousand pounds to stay in school at her career’s start. The interview was conversational and rich with jazz history. Two of my favorite moments:
Prompted by my questions, she went into great detail about the day of Art Kane’s photograph “A Great Day in Harlem” (1958). Among other thing Thelonious Monk holding up the taking of the photo as he tried on all combinations of jackets and hats to try to look different;
“[Thelonious] Monk wanted to choose an outfit so that he would look different from everybody else, but he wound up looking just the same as everybody else. He kept trying on different jackets and hats; I forget what he eventually wore.”
I asked her about having toured briefly in the 60’s with Benny Goodman. This was when Rock and Roll had already deposed Modern Jazz as soundtrack for youth, artists and bohemians, let alone the older genre which Benny Goodman had helped create. He did not like her playing and she asked;
“Benny I know you don’t like my playing. Why did you hire me?” He looked at me in sort of astonishment and said, “I’m damned if I know.”
The tour would be stopped with the death of President Kennedy.
She was a great lady and one of whom I was honored to have briefly interacted with.
The Sathima interview I got under different circumstances. I unintentionally became the go to guy for artists who were deeply genre defying; doing interviews with people propagating odd mélanges of the downtown sound or modern improvised classical. The benefit of these assignments was that I was turned onto artists I would otherwise not have discovered. The other type of interviews I was given were artists who had pedigree and an abundance of talent but their stature, to the more casual listener, was not on the same level as Miles or Sonny Rollins. These assignments I relished, as to me regardless of what tier they were placed on by other jazz writers, they were heroes. Again, I did my research finding far less information and what I did find seemed the reiteration of the same basic history from previous articles. At the time I was to do the interview, she was living in New York doing light club gigging and a soft promotion of the reissue of her A Morning In Paris album.
From the very start she was friendly, exuding a warm, earth-mother kind of vibe. She was beyond generous with her time, I had to keep changing tapes in my machine, both of us laughing as I had to tell her;
“Wait, please wait I must change the tape again.”
Eventually I ran out of questions to ask, we talked about the nature of creativity, cooking and Africa. She said that she liked my name and sort of sang-said it several times as she was mulling over the answer to one of my questions. Her life would make an amazing movie with no need of embellishments for the drama. She talked about not being well known in America and the hard logistics of trying to keep a band if not together as a permanent unit then steadily working for live dates, all without a trace of bitterness or regret. It seemed after a while; more that I was talking to a friend than being granted an interview. As we continued to chat I made bold by asking her about the pizzicato violin of Svend Asmussen, from the Paris album. As great of a musician as he was, to me it at times is distracting from the other things going on. She told me a fantastic story “off record” then as we continued to talk, changed her mind and said that I could put it in;
“So while we were doing this “Nightingale In Berkeley Square” he said now you are going to work with a trio. And then I did “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year” and other things, “Darn That Dream…” And while we were into that the door opened and in walked… Svend Asmussen. And Ellington said “Oh, hey—you are just what we need… I want you to play with her but listen and this is important…Please do not play the melody. She is the melody.” So is that not beautiful? Ellington said “You can play anything else but you don’t play the melody.” So that’s why he played all the pizzicato, which I found sometimes like really annoying me. But what could I do? I wasn’t in control of this. I wasn’t going to tell him.”
She was an amazing woman, whose acquaintance I feel lucky enough to have made. I would like to think that if my interview did not help her in any professional way, it at the very least pleased her.
Farewell to two great artists whose artistic lights will never dim.
August 21, 2013 Midtown
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