24 CDs plus rare photos from Lee Tanner, extensive liner notes and essays from Gene Lees, Michael Cuscuna, Peter Straub, Ben Sidran and Craig Werner.
"Ben Sidran's interviews with jazz musicians, many of whom are now dead...were consistent, intelligent, not glib or jivey, and revelatory to the extent that these musicians would reveal themselves...the closest thing in jazz to the Paris Review's interviews with writers...expensive but addictive...can consume hours at a stretch; a commuter in your life may be grateful for it." -- Ben Ratliff, NY Times
"Talking Jazz is rife with all of the stuff that makes for humanity, selectively touching, in particular, those who happen to be jazz musicians...Mr. Sidran has gone far below the surface of emotions to the very core of our feelings." -- Benny Golson
"Listening to this collection is rather like eavesdropping on a particularly eloquent and focused chat." -- Mike Hobart, Financial Times of London
"Relaxed and illuminating" -- Musician Magazine
"Ben's knowledge about the music and interest in the music is really inspiring to us as musicians." -- Max Roach
"A fascinating kaleidoscopic view of jazz's major proponents..." -- Philadelphia Tribune
"Sidran doesn't just ask questions...he interacts with guests much in the same way he would if he were accompanying them on a jazz gig...his poise, intelligence and ease of delivery puts the most guarded musicians at ease...a godsend to the jazz musicians“ Eugene Holley
An oral history of jazz in America -- the life and times as told by the people who lived it: Miles Davis talks about "Kind of Blue"; Sonny Rollins tells what really happened on the bridge.
From the essay by Craig Werner:
In the middle of his conversation with Ben Sidran, Art Blakey launches into a meditation on the challenge of melding individual personalities into a group. "There's gotta be cohesion, gotta be love, and then the sound and the band begins to come together." A moment later he adds, "When we look at each other, they know just what to do." On paper, it's a good piece of jazz philosophy. Hearing Blakey say it, the way he stretches the word love into something rich and lingering; the non-nonsense staccato of what to do takes it, as they say, to a whole different level. It's a true jazz moment, one that reminds you that if you had to choose a single word to sum up what jazz is about, it would probably be voice.
That's why this collection is something special. The 24 CDs orchestrated by Sidran document the speaking voice of jazz musicians in a way thatâ€™s never really been approached. Individually, the conversations provide fascinating glimpses of creative minds at work, testing phrasings, hesitating at chasms, nailing down hard-won truths. Hearing the voices brings the musicians' creative personalities into sharp focus. Consider, for instance, Max Roach offering a graduate seminar on the theory of indeterminate pitch. "The best drummers," he says with absolute clarity and precision, "know how to beat the instrument into the key the music is being played." When Sonny Rollins reflects on the tonal qualities of pedestrian walkways, his voice resonates with the untranslatable knowledge he found while playing on the Williamsburg Bridge. There's an irresistible amusement in Herbie Hancock's matter of fact voice when he describes his response to Mongo Santamaria's version of "Watermelon Man." To offer one last example, it's more or less impossible to imagine anyone arguing with Betty Carter when she challenges her peers to stop complaining and start training the younger generation.
What's best about the box set, however, is the way the individual voices come together in a kind of jazz symphony, a conversational equivalent of Three or Four Shades of Blue, or Black, Brown and Beige. Themes sound, fade away, reemerge. You hear arguments about discipline and tradition, commerce and craft. You can feel the difference between regions, generations, and musical schools. You can put together mini-courses on the theory and practice of particular instruments. Begin with Dizzy Gillespie, shift to Miles (and that amazing rasp), move on to Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard and wind up with Wynton. Follow the piano motif from Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock to Keith Jarrett, Joe Sample and Doctor John. My favorite sequence centers on the drummers, Roach, Blakey (who Sidran accurately refers to as a "one man university", Paul Motian, and Tony Williams. It may be because they play a set of instruments rather than a single piano or horn, but the percussionists seem particularly attuned to and articulate about what it takes to turn a set of powerful individuals into a group that can go places no one could have made it to on their own.
The creative tension between the individual and the group emerges as one of the dominant themes linking these conversations. The great novelist Ralph Ellison, who was trained as a jazz trumpeter, pinpointed the central issues when he described "true jazz" as "an art of individual assertion within and against the group." Differentiating "true jazz moments" from "uninspired commercial performance," Ellison defines the jazz impulse as a "contest in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition." Under Sidran's expert guidance he plays the role of Miles Davis as group leader, not so much directing the results as setting things in motion and blocking the entrances to blind alleys--, these conversations probe the complications of jazz identity. You won't find any definitive answers, but you won't go long without encountering a luminous suggestion, such as Dizzy Gillespieâ€™s reflections on Charlie Parker. "Everybody knows that I am a contributor to this music. And even to say a major contributor to this music. But there are other things in the music that take preference even over my contribution, such as style. Charlie Parker, he's the one that created that style of playing. And playing it. That's what got it, you know?"
The sense of individual voice as part of a call and response with community and tradition extends deep into the soil of African American history. From Middle Passage to the prison system of the 21st century, black people have found themselves confronting a society that ignores, denies or attacks their very humanity. A slave was a possession, not a person, a "nigger" a nightmare of non-being. With great regularity, white supremacy generated strategies designed to reduce blacks to silence: the suppression of African languages (linguistic and musical); the legal proscriptions against teaching slaves to read; â€œseparate but equal Jim Crow schools; the indefensible catastrophe of today's urban schools. Abused, scorned and called out of their names, Africans in exile were never silenced. Making a way out of no way, they confronted the most fundamental of existential and political questions: how to affirm and assert their humanity ”inseparable from the humanity of their ancestors and children” in a world that denies it?
The most profound answers to that question, the ones that echo through the discs in this set, have been offered not by philosophers, politicians or academics, but by creative artists, especially those grounded in jazz. Rooted in the sacred and secular traditions of African American music, gospel and the spirituals, dance music and the blues, jazz provides a way of putting together the fragmented pieces of experience into something new, something that gives us a chance of making sense of our suffering and envisioning a better world. It's a vision deeply grounded in the specifics of black life, but it's open to anyone willing to accept, as James Baldwin wrote, "the immense suggestion that we speak for ourselves."
The musicians whose voices you hear here most definitely speak for themselves. It's possible and enlightening to listen to them for what they tell us about their lives and times. But, in the final analysis, they offer more. In tones as various as the traditions they shaped-- in laughter and anger and moments of cool reflectionâ€”these conversations call on each of us to become what jazz poet Yusef Komunyakaa calls "an active listener" someone who doesn't have to be told the whole story. A transmutation of mind and sound: a third something is created. He was a deep listener. . . . Clusters of chords. A woman's walk. A man's bluesy cry in the night. Expansion rather than constriction. The listener helps to decide the music's shape, keeping it organic and alive. Always becoming.