Getting ready for the East Coast leg of the tour. What makes for a really big shoe? Duke Ellington: the original SexyMF. The dilemma of Danny Collins: give people what they know or do new material? Steely Dan and studio musicians. What it really means to be professional?
Roger CortonSo we were supposed to talk the weekend before you started but you were playing a gig. That surprised me. Just some bar gig.
RCWhy did you do that. I thought you would be resting up.
JCHYa know. I have no idea. The guy texted me a month ago and I just replied ‘Sure’. It was like a reflex. What was interesting was this: I hadn’t played with those guys in 2-3 years and ya know what had changed?
JCHHow’d ya guess? Seriously. I’m sincerely surprised you got that right away. I guess I shouldn’t be because that’s something you’ve whined about before with your own band.
RCPeople don’t change.
JCHI don’t wanna pick on them. In fact, I wouldn’t mention it at all if they didn’t have potential.
RCThey play only as good as they have to.
JCHRight. And I can’t get with that. I can’t…
RCSo did you say something? To them. Afterwards?
JCHAre you nuts?
RCWell, it would be like you to say something, dude.
JCH(laughs) It sure would. But no, I’m learning. People can change. So neener, neener to you. But my point is that I can’t imagine doing something the same way over and over.
I’ve met these Duke Ellington fanatics who keep like fifty performances of a given song. They used to trade them on cassettes like secret treasure. And now I get it. They’re all different. Duke was constantly creating new arrangements; sometimes because to fit new guys in the band and sometimes just to shake things up.
RCIt must’ve been good to be Duke.
JCHNo doubt. You know how I’ve gone on about how some women are so sexy I’d sleep with them even at like seventy?
RCI should get therapy to get that discussion out of my mind.
JCHDuke was like that. He was the original sexy motherfucker. And I mention it because you look at so many acts that just play the same ‘hit’ over and over
RCLike that movie Danny Collins.
JCHExactly like that. You gotta be seriously suave to play exactly what you wanna play every night. The charisma and self-confidence Duke had; you know, to just say, “this new version of A Train is gonna blow your mind.” Now that’s some manly shit.
RCNo doubt. No doubt. So do you struggle with that? I mean, changing things up, versus playing it “just like the record”.
JCHI never ‘struggled’ with it. Remember that conducting teacher story from last time?
RCThe guy who humiliated you and left you an emotional wreck for life?
JCHUh, right. He said something like on the first day that really stuck with me. “The conductor has an obligation to leads the audience as much as the orchestra.”
RCNow that is a fortune cookie, my friend.
JCHHe made this speech about how the real challenge for a conductor wasn’t flapping their arms but to be a leader. To constantly be giving a mix of what people want and what they need.
RCSounds like a preacher.
JCHEXACTLY! People go to church to get comforted. But you also have to challenge people too. And finding that balance. Keeping them on board. That’s what a great preacher does. That’s what a great conductor does. That’s what a great show is about.
RCComfort and challenge. That’s hard. Most preachers don’t do that.
JCHFor sure. And in my humble opinion that’s a huge reason why churches, as well as orchestras come to think of it, of all stripes have become so irrelevant in recent decades. You feel your ‘audience’ drifting away and the natural reaction is to give them more of what they like.
RCSo you’re saying that it becomes a feedback loop. You play the same tunes over and over to the same ever-shrinking, older fan base. Yeah, that sounds like my church. And pretty much every music genre.
JCHWell, I didn’t say all that! But I definitely could’ve. Clergy of all types get scared to say anything challenging. Conductors stop programming anything except Mozart. And Danny Collins loses his nerve and just keeps milking the same hit at the same casinos to the same seventy year old women throwing the same seventy year old panties.
RCYa had to go there, didn’t ya? But what about the bar band guys?
JCHYou’re right. That’s a different kind of fear or apathy. Maybe they don’t think it makes a difference beyond a certain point. They would say that the drunks don’t notice. But I think it does. It gets into that Mr. Miyagi deal we’ve talked about before.
RCThat it’s a spiritual exercise.
JCHRight. When you go out on stage, that’s church. I mean even if you’re playing Wooly Bully or The Wild Rover to a crowd of drunks. Man, you have an obligation to try to hit it like you’re going for your second degree black belt kata.
RCThat’s just way too intense for most people.
JCHLook, I’m not saying you’ll make it every time. And I’m not saying don’t have fun. But you gotsta try. It’s a calling. That’s why the parallels between music, religion and for that matter real martial arts stuff can’t be disentangled. They’re all cut from the same cloth. I know it sounds stupid to tell someone that playing “Celebration” at a Bar Mitzvah is some sort of some spiritual exercise, but.
RCI hear ya. But we need to wrap it up.
JCHWait it just hit me. I remember seeing an interview with Donald Fagen years ago where they started broaching the subject of why they disbanded after the second record and started hiring studio cats.
RCI remember that. It was pretty controversial for fans like me who loved those records. That’s when they were ‘a band’.
JCHExactly. In many ways those are still my fave Steely Dan albums for just that reason. But anyhoo, Donald didn’t seem to think so. He made it out like they were almost farting around. Definitely not his ‘end game’ at all. He went into this thing where he said he had always wanted to sound like a ‘professional musician’. He never wanted to sound ‘like just a rock band’, by which I think he meant ‘sloppy’. And I know what he meant. He was brought up in the era when there were still guys in the union you hired and you knew what to expect when you hired them. They would play the chart down right and it just sounded great. The guys in Frank Sinatra’s studio orchestra; or the guys that played on movie scores. That was a professional. So when Steely Dan made some money I know exactly why he wanted to ditch ‘the band’; he wanted to sound like ‘professionals’ and here was his chance. He wanted to sound precise. Like a ‘real’ musician. That doesn’t mean don’t have fun; it just means to carry out your business like the guy who’s building your house or doing surgery. No more, no less.
RCWhew. You pulled it out of a nose dive. Thanks. I hate when we end sounding all pretentious.
JCHThere’s a first time for everything.