Ben Sidran, 'Talking Jazz' with the Masters Ben Sidran's latest release is a whopping 24-CD box set — and not a second of it features any actual music. Hear the jazz pianist and former NPR host speak about his new compilation of interviews with luminaries of the jazz world.
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Ben Sidran, 'Talking Jazz' with the Masters

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Ben Sidran, 'Talking Jazz' with the Masters

Ben Sidran, 'Talking Jazz' with the Masters

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Ben Sidran has been playing jazz, writing about jazz, listening to jazz, talking about jazz, probably even dreaming about jazz for at least 40 years. He is familiar to many public radio listeners as the host of the "Jazz Alive" and "Sidran on Record" series, and to many cable TV viewers from VH1's "New Vision" show, that's when they actually did stuff about music on VH1.

"Talking Jazz" is a collection of interviews that Ben Sidran conducted - 60 of them to be exact - with jazz greats including Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock.

Ben Sidran joins us now from the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison. Ben, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. BEN SIDRAN (Jazz Musician): Oh, Scott, thank you.

SIMON: How difficult is it to interview a jazz musician?

Mr. SIDRAN: Well, for me, it's not difficult at all. It's just a pure pleasure. I love these guys. I love what they do. And from the beginning, when I started to do my interviews for National Public Radio, I kind of took it as my mission to demystify the jazz musician and the life of the jazz musician, and show that these guys are just like the rest of us, only more so.

SIMON: I've got this big beautiful box set but no music on it.

Mr. SIDRAN: No music. Well, the music is out there for you if you want it. I mean, these are people who are widely recorded. And so the music exists but the language, I think, is just as important in some ways in terms of understanding who they are - just the sound of their voices, the pacing of what they do, and of course, what they choose to talk about and how they deliver that news.

SIMON: Well, let's begin with Miles Davis. Now, Miles Davis did not give a lot of interviews, did he?

Mr. SIDRAN: He did not. And he was kind of notorious for being a difficult person to interview. But I found it just the opposite. He immediately warmed up to the idea of talking about "Kind of Blue," which everybody thinks of as probably the greatest jazz record ever made. And when I said that to him, Miles, you know, "Kind of Blue" is the greatest jazz record on everybody's list. He said, well, isn't that something. You know, he was almost immediately nostalgic for that period.

SIMON: Let's listen to a clip.

(Soundbite of "Talking Jazz")

Mr. MILES DAVIS (Jazz Musician): Bill Evans is one of my all-time favorite pianists. His approach to the piano just - just brought that piece out. Bill used to bring me, he used to bring me pieces by Ravel, "Concerto For Left Hand and Orchestra." And Bill used to tell me about different modes, which I already knew and we just agreed on something and that's the way the album went.

Mr. SIDRAN: When I listen to that, the first thing I hear are the waves on the beach. I was sitting on the deck of his beach house in Malibu with him. And he was sitting across from me and he was drawing on this pad. You know, he spent most of the latter years of his life drawing. And he actually is one of the great advocates of putting creative people in a room and mixing it up, seeing what happens.

And he credits the experience of "Kind of Blue" to being in that room with the right people at the right time. And, you know, it makes you realize that we're all living in the middle of history all the time, although sometimes in retrospect, we can see it was historic. But Miles in that room with Bill Evans, they were just leaning that way.

(Soundbite of Miles Davis song "Blue In Green")

SIMON: Thelonious Monk.

Mr. SIDRAN: Yes?

SIMON: You - Is not on this collection.

Mr. SIDRAN: He passed away just - you know, at the point where I was feeling confident enough to try to contact him. You know, his phone number was listed in the Manhattan phone directory.

SIMON: You know, I've heard that story for years. I didn't know if that was the case but...

Mr. SIDRAN: It was the case. And you know, all those times I was in New York, I thought, well, why not just call him up. But, no, I didn't talk to him. But I have to say that his name came up more than anybody else's name in these hundreds of hours of interviews that I did.

SIMON: Well, you've talked to Charlie Rouse about what it was like to play with Thelonious Monk.

Mr. SIDRAN: Yeah. Charlie was in Monk's band for years and years. And many people thought that the sound of Charlie Rouse's horn was emblematic of Monk's music. He certainly was one of the most important interpreters of Monk. And what I love is when he talked about how Monk rehearsed with him. Monk never said anything to him about how he was supposed to play this very angular and often exotic-seeming music. He would just play the song over and over and over again for an hour or two hours until Charlie found his way.

(Soundbite of recorded clip)

Mr. CHARLIE ROUSE (Jazz Musician): What's in the - on the music, on this sheet, is not necessarily how it should, you know, how you should play it like that. Well, how can I explain it to you. Like when you say "Blue Monk."

(Soundbite of horn playing "Blue Monk")

Mr. ROUSE: Now, that's what you will see on the music transcript. But now, if you have a record player or you listen to how Thelonious would - how he plays it, he plays it - he plays it always one way. I mean, the phrasing of it is always the one way like...

(Soundbite of horn playing "Blue Monk")

Mr. SIDRAN: That's what the music is about. The music is about all these kind of gestures. I mean, that's what that felt like to me when he was playing that. It's not just notes. It's a gesture that's almost, like, balletic or something.

SIMON: Where did you talk to Herbie Hancock?

Mr. SIDRAN: I talked to him in a hotel room in the old Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West. I mean, most often, I would try to get these guys to come into the studio on Broadway where I was working. But, you know, Herbie and -Dizzy Gillespie also, when I talked to Dizzy, went to what he referred to as the Ritz suite on the Sweet(ph) Street where he was hanging out. And Herbie was somebody who lived in hotels and, you know, I thought we'd go there.

SIMON: We want to play a clip of him talking about performing "Watermelon Man."

(Soundbite of recorded clip)

Mr. HERBIE HANCOCK (Jazz Player): Even just before the record was released or just after, I got a gig with Mongo Santamaria, and I had never played Latin music before, never played with a Latin band. So when we started playing, Mongo gets up, says, keep playing it. He walks over to his congas. And as soon as he started playing the congas, it fit like a hand in a glove just perfectly.

You know, and little by little his band members joined in. The bass player started watching the notes I was playing in my left hand, checking out the form. So he picked up the bass line. And then the horn players picked up the melody line, and somebody started soloing it. Little by little, people - it was a supper club, you know, so people danced. So little by little, people got up from their tables and started getting on the floor. Pretty soon, everybody was dancing.

SIMON: Boy, that's the process of creation, isn't it?

Mr. SIDRAN: Yeah. And I think, especially for jazz, the process of creation often takes place where people are dancing. You know, this is a very physical music, always has been. And jazz musicians get a lot of feedback from the people in the room. It's not just music that goes out and whoever picks it up, picks it up. The way it goes out is often determined by how it's being picked up.

(Soundbite of Herbie Hancock performing "Watermelon Man")

SIMON: Ben, anybody you've really wanted to interview that just hasn't worked out yet or won't because they're gone?

Mr. SIDRAN: Oh, yeah. Oh, there's so many. You know, when I was doing these interviews, it was at a particular time in history. You know, it was sort of the end of the first and second generation of jazz players. And you know, Wynton and Branford and these people were just starting to come along. You know, it was a watershed moment.

And, again, it keeps coming back to this for me that these people embody something. They embody not just the notes but a way of life and an approach. And it's not just an approach to music; it's an approach to everything. It's an approach to how you bounce your baby on your knee, how you walk down the street. And when you work on it, when you work on your instrument - for example, if your instrument is a saxophone, you can spend hundreds of hours blowing into this copper tube. That copper tube won't change but you will. When you work on this music, you work on yourself.

SIMON: Ben, thank you so much.

Mr. SIDRAN: Oh, Scott, thank you.

SIMON: Ben Sidran. His new 24-CD collection, "Talking Jazz" is available at talkingjazz.com. And to hear more of his interviews with jazz greats, you can visit our Web site, npr.org.

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