I have published three oral histories with another in the works.
The spine of this work is based on interviews, then and now, over the past sixty years. It grew out of my career as an arts journalist.
What started out of necessity, gathering information for reviews and features, developed into an art form.
An early influence was watching Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes. He would deliver killer lines on the order of “Do you still beat your wife?”
That evolved into a style of attack journalism which is richly evident in the books.
But like a major league pitcher, you have to work the batter (subject). You use the full arsenal from curveball, slider, painting the corners, then high heat down the pipe. You have to toss some chin music when the subject crowds the plate or becomes sly and evasive.
What doesn’t work for me is puffball, flattering interviews. Like what’s your favorite color? Or who influenced you.
They have heard all that a thousand times. The cardinal rule is never to bore the person you are talking to. Another is not to be flattered, awed, or assume that this famous person is your friend.
That remarkable access to the talented, famous, rich, and powerful is based on one simple fact. The subject is not talking to me but to a member of the media. The bottom line, everyone likes getting ink.
Another aspect is constantly finding yourself out of your comfort zone. You are treading on their turf and expertise. The assumption is that they know more than you do. The process is to grab that information and make it accessible to the reader.
If that works well you are a conduit. The hope is that information begins to accumulate into the education of the writer. With time and exposure, there is more in the tool kit. That morphs into more focused and probing interviews.
Not to say that there is ever a level playing field between the journalist and subject. It comes down to hanging tough and going one on with remarkable individuals above your pay grade.
There is an adrenalin rush to get as much as you can into a limited window. That can be as little as a couple of minutes catching someone on the fly for a quick comment, or an hour plus sit down.
Miles Davis took me to school.
The night Miles fired Chick Corea
Columbia PR dude Sal Ingeme hooked me up with Miles.
Every situation is different. That means being a chameleon matching the aura of the subject. They set the tone and you follow. It is best to be fearless and exude no ego. It’s their show and you are their messenger.
Starting out I had no idea what I was doing. I had just been hired as the rock and jazz critic for the daily Boston Herald Traveler. I started as a fan and enthusiast but initially found myself shadow boxing in the dark.
One of my first ventures was covering drummer Elvin Jones at the Jazz Workshop. Between sets I asked Fred Taylor, owner of the club, to introduce me to Mr. Jones.
He pointed to the dressing room and said “Knock on the door.”
With temerity, I approached introducing myself. His diminutive Asian wife was in the process of stripping off his shirt. She took the undershirt and rung out sweat that poured on the floor.
I said something brilliant like “Boy you sure do sweat a lot.” He said that he generally shed several pounds but it came back after a couple of beers. That broke the ice and I asked him about playing with Coltrane. Scribbling notes I left with enough for a good piece.
It was a good start as musicians took me to school over the years.
You learned to take the heat. When during dinner with the band the blind Roland Rahsaan Kirk railed about how “The muggafuggin white critics are ruining the music.” The band suppressed laughter as I asked “Is that the white muggafucking critics?”
In an elevator, Gerry Mulligan ranted about the canned music. The bad mood continued until I said, hey I’m just trying to write about your gig. That settled him down and we had a great discussion about the passion and challenges of playing baritone sax.
When I asked Elton John what’s happening in London he answered “Me.”
Shooting pictures Philip Glass said, “I can’t talk to your camera Charles.” The images have outlived the text.
Seemingly alone with Yoko Ono in a suite at the Ritz, she called on an assistant to take our picture. There was a poignant discussion of John as well as her work as an artist.
Meeting with Duke Ellington is a suite he greeted me in a dressing robe with a doo-rag. He had just ejected a woman with quite a ruckus of suitcases tossed in the hall. “Some people can be so rude” he commented calmly.
”I’m writing about my favorite subject, me.” He said. Looking at my notebook he said “You seem to have enough. Now I have to lay my head on some feathers.”
Most interviews were one-offs but some musicians I came to know quite well. Buddy Rich was always good for a quote. It was poignant to talk with Stan Kenton. Captain Beefheart kidnapped me several times and invited me to join the band. Elton always invited me backstage for Boston gigs. I smoked a joint with Joe Cocker before he went on stage at the Tea Party. Don McClean called me an asshole on live TV during a press conference.
But I learned the most from Miles Davis.
It was the summer of 1970 and the recent release of the landmark double album Bitches Brew.
Part of my job was to write a one-page feature each week for the Sunday tabloid insert Showguide in the Herald.
Given the importance of the release and the stature of Davis, I decided to write a series of features that traced his career. For that I got the cooperation of record companies to send me the albums on Blue Note, Prestige, and Columbia. As well as, the seminal single release on Capitol, Birth of the Cool. It was an intense but insightful project. For weeks on end, I listened to nothing but Miles. Including the early alternate takes that Jean Michel Basquiat documented in his hip-hop paintings.
I covered his Harvard Stadium concert and that same week a gig at Lennie’s on the Turnpike.
Columbia PR guy, Sal Ingeme, who knew Miles worked with me on the project and promised to try to get me an interview. As an inducement, he gave Miles all the Herald features I had published.
But it seemed like a no-go. I was headed to the car when Sal caught up with me. “Miles wants to talk to you,” he said.
There was a gut wrench as Davis was known for eating critics alive. As it states in the Iliad, I girded my loins and prepared for combat.
But round one ended in a TKO. Mine. Miles and Sal shared a love of boxing.
I led with a jive question. “Miles what was it like to blow with Bird.” I had done the research and knew all the takes. Miles looked at me over his shoulder as he combed his hair in front of a mirror.
He floored me with a left hook.
“Sheeet muthafuggah, it’s such a drag to talk about the past” he snarled in a gravely, hoarse tone.
I was on the ropes but countered with “Miles, what do you want to talk about?”
He asked me for advice. “You were at the gig tonight” he stated rhetorically. “I got Keith (Jarrett) and Chick (Corea) and I can’t keep them both.”
In sync with the synergy of the new fusion music, he had them both performing on electric Fender keyboards.
That night the band also comprised Jack DeJohnette, drums, Michael Henderson, bass, Gary Bartz reeds, and guitarist John McLaughlin sitting in.
After a reflective pause Miles stated “I’m going to keep Keith. He gives me more.”
It was disheartening that all my research came to nothing. But from then on I tried to find what the subject wanted to say and focused on that.
In hindsight, it was a great story: The night Miles fired Chick Corea. I always felt he made the wrong decision.
Perhaps there’s a book in the making here, Charles? A collection of your favorite interviews each with a short intro and/or afterthought – a sort of “best of” or the “greatest hits”.
Just a suggestion.