Imagine you are watching a table full of animated jazz musicians having a conversation. All these musicians are household names for the well informed: Milt Hinton, Frank Wess, Nat Adderley and Joe Williams. They seem to be enjoying each other’s company. What are they talking about? I would imagine they were discussing which band swung more, Basie or Ellington. Or perhaps they were having a debate about whether tenor sax player Lester Young really deserved the title “Prez” or did it rightfully belong to Coleman Hawkins.
Exactly this situation happened to me early in the interview process, on a jazz cruise on which dozens of well known musicians were sailing. I had a reason to approach the table as I had an urgent question for Joe Williams, who was helping to coordinate the interview process. To my delight I was invited to join them around the table. Wow, I thought — now I’m really going to hear jazz insights from the masters in an informal setting.
Frank Wess had the floor as I sat down, and he was discussing, in full animation, a National Geographic special he had seen on TV which had filmed copulating camels. Usually mild-mannered Frank, with his nasal tone of voice, was mimicking the sound they were making and saying “you never saw something so uuugleee in your whole life.” The others chimed in about other weird copulating animal pictures they had seen, and they were having a good old time laughing and trying to top each other’s stories.
This was a eureka moment for me. I would have fully expected these old friends to be talking shop and trading stories about the good old days. But for the entire time I sat with them, the subject of music never arose.
I know now that discussions about music, for them, are more often of a practical nature. Maybe they’ll suggest you check your calendar to see if you’re available for a gig next month. Most discussion occurs just prior to hitting the stage, such as deciding which songs to play and who will be featured where.
It’s like this in jazz, just as it’s like this in nursing for example. When nurses sit around the table at lunch time, they’re not talking about the last wound they dressed or what medication regimen some patient is on. They’re not talking shop. That talk is reserved for conversation in the operating room or on the unit. In mixed company, where there are nurses and non-nurses present (spouses for example), talking shop would probably be considered rude and unnecessary because it excludes others from the conversation. Who wants to talk shop off the job, or in the case of the jazz musicians, off the bandstand?
Obviously there are jazz stories to be traded, and jazz musicians love to do this too. It is likely to be heard upon announcement of a fellow musician who recently passed, or who is sick. At that time will flow forth funny or poignant first-hand memories about their fallen comrade, or reminisces about what things were like on the bandstand with that person.
I love to hear those stories too, but they are best passed on a one-on-one basis. In the last few years of Kenny Davern’s life, I was fortunate to be what I consider his close friend. From New Mexico, Kenny frequently telephoned me just to “shoot the shit,” and in those conversations he talked about minutia of note choices or funny stories, not one of which I had ever heard or seen before in print. I always felt fortunate to have had that experience with Kenny, as he was an extraordinarily well-read man with a sarcastic and caustic wit which flowed from him easily and often caught me off-guard. On the last weekend he visited our area, a couple of months before his abrupt passing, my wife, Kenny and I went out to lunch. During that conversation, we both enjoyed Kenny’s company, but he certainly didn’t talk shop. The conversation was broadened for the more inclusive audience.
Kenny was an eminent conversationalist and clearly one of the best clarinetists of his day. Recently I was called by someone writing a biography about Kenny and the biographer told me something I didn’t know, that Kenny practiced excessively every day. Now that I think about it, it makes sense because of the facility he maintained on the clarinet. But as well as I knew him, Kenny never mentioned his practice regimen to me. Maybe he just assumed this is a practice that all musicians of quality pursue, and so there was never a reason to discuss that daily habit. Thus I propose the following unwritten law: the higher in the jazz hierarchy one rises to, the less likely that person is to have incessant discussions about the craft. Nurses do their job. They don’t need to talk about what they do, because all other nurses know simple nursing truths.