Backstage at the Nice Jazz Festival in July 1987, the great tenor saxophonist Stan Getz gave a recorded interview to Norwegian broadcaster and musician Harald Gundhus which, for some undisclosed reason, was never ever aired. It came to light through the involvement of Gunhus’s son Svein, and the distinguished Czech pianist Emil Viklický.
Thirty-four years later, and marking what would have been Getz’s ninety-fourth birthday, on Tuesday 2 February Jazz FM are broadcasting this conversation for the first time, as the centrepiece of an hour-long tribute to the the man known simply as ‘The Sound’.
Saxophonist Simon Spillett listens in…
It’s summer 1987, and backstage at the annual Nice Jazz Festival in Southern France, a suntanned saxophonist is preparing to give a radio interview. He’s a jazz veteran; a legend, with a career of over forty years of high jazz achievement behind him. And he’s still on top of his game. He’s talked to scores of journalists and broadcasters before, of course. In fact, it’s almost become a routine. Not that it’s always been enjoyable, for either party. Sometimes they’ve got short shrift from him, with more than a few interviewers finding their bland line of questioning greeted with a indifference bordering on the hostile. But today, he’s in a good place – musically and geographically. He’s relaxed. And he’s being interviewed by another musician too, always a good thing. In fact, right now he’s positively ready to talk, happy to give the man opposite him the experience of a lifetime; an audience with Stan Getz…
So, in a world overrun with ‘previously unheard’ vintage jazz recordings, ‘lost’ albums and the like, in which every last bit of a long gone legend’s musical legacy might be exhumed and delivered to the paying public, what does the discovery of this snatched moment of conversation really signify? Is it a ‘coup’ of real importance, or might it be just an overblown attempt to milk a milestone?
The truth lies somewhere between the two extremes.
Interviewing star names, be they from the spheres of music, film, politics, wherever, is always an exercise fraught with pitfalls. Will they reveal anything new? Are their answers going to be stock ones? Will the interviewer and his or her subject ‘click’?
Ultimately, what to ask?
In this regard the Getz piece tells us very little we didn’t know. There are the usual nods to seminal influences like trombonist Jack Teagarden (an early employer) and Lester Young; still more admiration for Benny Goodman and Chick Corea, to pick two musical extremes; snippets of background about his success with the sui generis 1961 album Focus (‘my best record’) and the happy alliance with the Bossa Nova (‘exactly my cup of tea’) and – something of a leitmotif through the entire interview – plenty of mention of how he didn’t like to ‘premeditate’ anything he played (‘you just do it. You do as you feel’).
Intriguingly, given that Harald Gundhus interviewed him during the same month in which he created two of his finest latter-day albums Serenity and Anniversary (both EmArcy) – smack in the middle of a late-career purple patch which saw him in many ways playing better than ever – there is nothing said about his contemporary work. Indeed, this is very much ‘interview as retrospective’. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and surrounded (as it is on the Jazz FM programme) with so much gloriously illustrative music, it actually works rather well – a sort of artist-guided tour of Getz in his pomp.
There’s a but, though. While this sort of thing works well as a primer, anyone who knows a little more of Getz will come away with mixed feelings.
Aged sixty at the time of the interview, within two months the saxophonist was to undergo surgery to remove a huge cancerous tumour from his chest cavity. Confronted with mortality, he told another journalist around this time ‘I made quite a drama out of it…I was singing my musical swan song.’ Late-eighties Stan then was very much about contrition. There’s even a funny story about it; one former colleague later recalled how Getz had told him he’d begun telephoning those who he’d unnecessarily fallen out with down the years. It was a marathon task.
‘I sure hope he doesn’t wanna borrow my phone’, noted the wit.
In the years before this, though, as anyone who’s read Donald Maggin’s voyeuristic but vital biography Stan Getz: A Life in Jazz (Quill, 1996) can tell you, Getz was anything but apologetic, not so much a victim of the usual ‘jazz vices’ more a man in harness to a form of violent sociopathy. The ins and outs of this horrendous behaviour need not detain us here, but there is a suggestion of Getz’ recanting, near ‘Born Again’ attitude in the Gundhus interview, which is dotted with references to a God ‘who if we let him will govern our lives better than we do.’
When he at one point opines ‘we make a mess of our lives’ you can’t help thinking that he’s referring to himself and his past misdemeanours. There were plenty to look back on. Hindsight, of course, tells us the rest of the story from here on; how by the early 1990s the cancer had returned and how, right up until a couple of months before his death in June 1991, Getz was still able to deliver deep, powerful and cogent music.
Whether you buy into the idea of the fully repentant Getz or not (for many the jury is still out) that’s not what this interview is about. It’s about a perfectionist performer appraising some of his musical highs, and remembering those who either inspired or facilitated them. If you want the dirt and degradation which hid in Getz’ murky past you’ll have to look elsewhere.
There’s one final thing though, and again it combines the awkward balance of fire and ice that characterised the saxophonist’s entire existence. I think it was Norman Granz who once noted how oddly alike were Getz’s instrumental and speaking voices, each displaying a superficial ‘coolness’. Indeed, heard here there is no hint whatsoever of a jazz ‘character’, the sort of garrulous raconteur witticism of a Dizzy Gillespie, or even the contrived ‘meanness’ of Miles Davis. Instead Getz occasionally sounds almost banal, functional, prosaic. And it’s exactly this which makes it impossible sometimes to connect his music with his persona, or, moreover, his peccadilloes with his placidity.
Yet that’s the thing with Stan Getz – it’s not all on the surface. Beneath that calm tone – be it spoken or saxophonic – lay untold emotional reserves, both good and bad. Or as Spike Milligan once wrote of him, ‘Like Van Gogh – he suffers, but God look what he gave us.’
Maybe, then, that’s what this newly unearthed interview provides; a further glimpse into a musical mind which refused to reveal all, even close to the end. And suspicions of spin set aside, it’s actually more important than the hype heaped upon it allows.
It’s a great jazzman talking about the music he made; an artist in his own words; the voice behind ‘The Sound’.