One of the most pleasant associations I ever had during my time playing Jazz back when the World was young was formed during an afternoon I spent in the company of Clare Fischer at his home in the lovely Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles.
My close friend and bassist Harvey Newmark telephoned to ask if I could make a rehearsal with Clare at his home.
Clare was forming a new trio as bassist Gary Peacock had just left for New York and drummer Gene Stone had gone on the road with a vocal group.
Clare was a cordial host and we spent the afternoon making music with occasional breaks to brew coffee. Clare ground his own coffee beans, used a Chemex glass coffee pot and paper filters and produced some of the most delicious coffee I had ever tasted.
The music he made was “delicious," too, and over the years, I followed Clare’s career closely and heard him perform in person on a number of occasions.
I found Clare to be one of the most articulate and erudite persons I ever met, in or out of the Jazz world.
The following piece by Clare is another of the examples that Gene Lees offered in support of his premise that Jazz musicians, on average, are a highly articulate group. Here’s how he explained this argument in the February 1985 edition of the Jazzletter from which the Fischer article is also drawn.
“Jazz musicians are often extremely well read. They perceive and think subtly and deeply, although they are often cautious — not shy — about whom they share their insights with. If they know you, they'll talk your ear off. I have already dealt, in one of the early issues of the Jazzletter, with a tendency of jazz musicians in the old days to let outsiders believe they were dumb, in both senses of the word. But this was an affectation, growing out of slavery in America — the camouflage of one's intelligence as a way of lying low. It was a bit of an act, that hey-baby-wha's-happ'nin' manner, which eventually developed into a sort of self-satirizing in-joke. Anyone deceived by it didn't know jazz musicians very well. While I have known a few musicians who fit the shy-inarticulate mould, they have been the exceptions. And even then, you never knew when they were merely taciturn, rather than inarticulate.”
By Clare Fischer
“When I read the Jazzletter, I am constantly amazed that I find myself so stimulated. I envy the forum you have created, whether for getting something off your chest or for fine humor. I laugh, sometimes so strongly I'm sorely conscious of doing it by myself. I cry, thankful that I am by myself. I get angry over some inequity you are dealing with. Never have I responded so often to so much from a single source.
You touch on many areas that seem to strike similar experiences in my own life. Language seems to be my undoing. I have, as you have, had interesting experiences in foreign languages. I see such parallels between music and language. But that which is so important to me doesn't seem to mean much to anyone else. And so I know what it is to be a minority in this world.
In whatever area of endeavor — physics, medicine, music, you name it — less than ten percent of the people have real insight and capability. Though the remaining ninety percent are stamped, licensed, approved, given degrees and other approbations by the State, you will search long and hard to find a really good doctor, a really insightful professor, a good musician. Most of them are going through the motions, teachers who have nothing to teach contriving to give the illusion of teaching and firmly convinced that they are doing so. The ninety percent are of course the democratic majority and, as such, make up the membership of the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, and N.A.J.E. In this democracy where everyone is equal, few people perceive how unequal we are.
Ears, for example. Most people do not have accurate or perceptive hearing. Each person evaluates what he hears convinced he has the total.
Language goes through its degeneration in a variety of ways, but one of the most common is through not hearing accurately. In old English, those words which we now spell with wh were spelled hw, and even though some scribes transposed this to wh, we continued to pronounce the aspirated h before the w, thus being able to differentiate whale (hwale) from wail, why from Y, what from watt, and where from ware. One of the funniest examples of this deterioration occurs in an Angie Dickenson toothpaste commercial. She does not pronounce the h in "whitest", and since she pronounces intervocallic t like d, "whitest" comes out "widest". Who wants wide teeth? And who wants to save the wails?
The same thing happens with harmonies. People hear to a degree commensurate with their level of understanding. Many are incapable of transcribing solos or arrangements from records because they fit what they hear through what they understand.
The worst ramification is the effect the unperceptive ninety percent have on the insightful ten percent — the American Medical Association fighting off innovative ideas and procedures from the minority; the following of musical styles in vogue by the many and the squelching of the individuals in music. The majority go through the motions, convinced they are playing music. And that is a description of this year's Grammy awards!
When I was a young musician, having first listened to Meade Lux Lewis, Fatha Hines, Nat Cole, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell, I paid attention to pianists. Subsequently I found more interest in the horn players and composers - Hawkins, the Duke, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster among them. They were mostly sax players, and alto sax players at that. I followed Diz and Bird most devotedly and vividly remember the marvelous unfolding of the bop period. But I soon tired of that unperceptive majority who were aping Parker.
I had a strong black influence in my early years, and worked at the age of fifteen at a Crispus Attucks American Legion Hall with an all-black band. I wore what we called drapes during that period, the only time in my life that I was clothes conscious. I was ostracized by my high school class because of my "mixing". I only knew that this music was alive in a way that contrasted sharply with so much "white" music. I listened only peripherally to the Dorseys and Glenn Miller, being more interested in Ellington, Basie, Henderson and — out of Chicago - King Kolax.
When I went on to college, I roomed with students from Latin America, especially a Puerto Rican by the name of Roberto Fortier. This, the late 1940s, was the heyday of the mambo, and could he dance! I was besieged by Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodriguez and many others. I listened, but did not myself attempt to play this music.
It was about this time that I heard Lee Konitz for the first time and, developing now along more sophisticated lines myself, I embraced his work as a devotee. I mean everything he touched brought response of the strongest kind. I transcribed his solos by the dozen. I copied them on vellum so that I could give them to others. This is the one player who influenced me most.
I never cared for Lennie Tristano. He seemed too stiff and tight-assed for me. Lee was loose, with a melodic angularity and harmonic originality. Then what happened? Lee was the talented ten percent pressured by the democratic majority. "He played a lot of notes, but he didn't swing." He did not receive the acclaim he deserved because the ninety percent said Bird, Bird and nothing but the Bird. He didn't sound like Bird. He didn't play like Bird. He was an absolutely original voice.
The era of black political awareness was dawning, and although jazz had been one of the first areas where black-white equality was practiced, now a strong exclusionary attitude set in among many black jazz musicians. Some of it was conscious, some of it was unconscious, as in a wonderful quote from Gerald Wilson in a college listening course: "This was one of the better non-black bands."
To be a white jazz musician in certain circles at that time, one had to carry a passport with visa. Lee Konitz, the sensitive Jewish kid, began chasing after his "black soul", as he was quoted in Down Beat. The result? He has changed radically from what he was originally. He lost his genius and is now indistinguishable from any number of saxophone players. He uses a plastic reed, is capable of squawking, and at times can play extremely out of tune.
Jazz was and is a street music, but as each generation has played it different elements have entered it at different levels: greater instrumental technique, more sophisticated harmonies, more complicated rhythmic structures and those who react against them - - starting with the bop-Dixie conflict and growing, ever growing, until each part has split off from the main stem to the point where there is no main stem. The latest thing seems to be fusion, which many see as a development of jazz but which I contend is a development of rock and roll.
With all this divergence, and knowing that there is no one jazz that is universal, one tries to maintain that element necessary to function totally -- self-confidence. To some it comes early, existing in youthful naivete. To others, like me, it comes late.
I started out to be a classical composer and got sidetracked into jazz. I have been as influenced by Bach, Bartok, Berg, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Dutilleux, Schoenberg, as I have by Ellington, Bud Powell et al. When I play the blues I fuse Meade Lux Lewis' old chord changes with Duke Ellington colors voiced via Stravinsky. I feel I am more influenced as a pianist by what I have explored or developed as a writer, and more influenced by composers than pianists.
When I came to Los Angeles in 1958 I spent much time in East L.A. finding out what Latin music was made of. I had known instinctively that what I heard jazz musicians play for Latin was ersatz. During this period I met and played with Cal Tjader. I wrote several albums for him. Then raising a family took over my life, and I became heavily involved with studio music. For about ten years I did that almost exclusively. When I did play in public the press usually said, "Studio musician fronts jazz group." And all the while I thought I was a jazz musician who played in the studios. Finally, about eight years ago, after a hiatus in Latin jazz of fifteen years, Cal asked me to record and play again with his group. At this time in my life, my late forties, I started with my own group, Salsa Picante, and with my vocal group 2 + 2.
Suddenly everything in my life coalesced — my interest in the Latin culture, my self-confidence, and above all, feeling good about what I was doing.
Unless the instrument is a beauty, I do not play the piano now. I prefer electric pianos, digital pianos, and organ, because the sound sources are so exciting. Plus, with amplification, you don't have to beat your arthritic knuckles to the bone fighting drummers whose dynamic sensibilities are of the Mack truck variety.
Every player has to find those aspects of his own work that are unique in order to believe in himself. When you at last know you are good but do not manifest conceit in talking about it, it seems to me that maturity sets in. I have ample technique, but there are those whose chops leave me in the dust. There are those who play faster and swing harder than I do. But I know my strengths: harmonic voicings and harmony in general, sensitive and innovative melodic turns, with my own sense of rhythmic phrasing.
I'm in virgin territory, blazing my own trails. After years of being influenced by others and developing my own voice out of all of it, I now at fifty-six find myself influencing others. And that's scarey. Here I am, not completely established myself and others are utilizing my stuff before everyone knows where it comes from!
The following video features “early” Clare on Things Ain’t What They Used To Be with Ralph Pena on bass and Larry Bunker on drums.