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Living Jazz History

It’s a warm, summer, Friday afternoon, the first Friday after the Fourth of July holiday, and I am a bit nervous as I enter into the condo complex in Dobb’s Ferry where I am about to conduct an interview with the jazz pianist Steve Kuhn. It’s my first interview and I am wondering how the hell I ever I came to this place.

Doing an interview with a prominent musician was something I didn’t take lightly. Being a fan, I sometimes feel somewhat in awe of those who can so easily produce the evocative sounds that move and entertain us so much. Not being a formally trained musician was also a factor that I was well aware of and I felt I had to over compensate for this shortcoming by being especially well prepared. To this purpose I started my research with diligence and inquisitiveness.

I carefully checked out his biography on his website, as well as other bios on the Impulse and Sunnyside records sites, and in the media. I searched the web and discovered a carefully constructed discography, and with this invaluable tool, I was able to fashion a time line for the questions that I was trying to develop.

As I delved deeper and deeper into this artist’s life and work, I was surprised to discover how truly important his insight might be, especially since he was present at the center of some of the most important jazz history of the last fifty years!

I was surprised to find out that he was brought up in Brooklyn, but spent a lot of his formative years in Boston. I discovered he had played with the post be-bop trumpeter Kenny Dorham and was befriended by the great pianist Bill Evans! I learned about his encounters with fellow students, Gary McFarland, Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman at the 1959 Lenox Summer Music Program, a musical life defining moment. By going through his discography, I learned that he had played with virtually every major jazz bass player of his era from Paul Chambers and Scott La Faro to Ron Carter, Eddie Gomez, Steve Swallow and Buster Williams. I discovered that he had spent years living in Scandinavia and toured Europe in the late sixties, and that he was one of the first pianists to successfully bridge the so called "Third Stream" style of music, fusing classical arrangements with jazz improvisations in his and Gary McFarland’s October Suite, back in 1966. I discovered that his compositional skills started in the late sixties and that his preferred format was the trio.

It was apparent that it had been his life long ambition to record an album with a complete string orchestra and that this culminated in his recent offering Promises Kept, a record he is most proud of. I also learned that he had been interviewed several times before by various competent interviewers, most with considerable more skill than I have, and that it would be a formidable task to find out something new, and to ask different questions than those that had been asked so many times before.

I had hoped to find some insight into the music, the choices and the people that he had encountered in his fifty years of playing music professionally during one of the most prolific and important times in American contemporary jazz music. I had also hoped to find a little bit more about the man behind the music. With this in mind, I entered Steve’s unassuming condominium home, video recorder in hand and questions in tow, with a great deal of respect and also a great deal of trepidation.

It was two days after the fourth of July and he had a small American flag propped on the top of a large evergreen bush that stood sentry at the entrance to his front door. He greeted me at the door in his loosely hanging, short-sleeved shirt and a pair of well-worn jeans--a man at home in his modest, but comfortable surroundings.

We entered past his galley kitchen, through the living room and down a short flight of stairs to this lower level, skylight lit, family room that housed his ebony Baldwin grand piano, two humongous state of the art speakers, a sophisticated tube amplifier, and bookcases filled with CDs.

I had entered into the inner sanctum and I hurriedly set up my video camera and recorder, positioning him seated at his piano in the hope that I might get him to interact with it at some point during the interview. I found him to be a man who was extremely gracious and forthcoming, with no hint of self-consciousness or doubt in who he was and what he was about. The ease with which he spoke to me, and the comfort within his own skin that he exuded, dissolved all the anxiousness that I was experiencing prior to meeting with him. My natural passion for the music and the artist started to take over and we began the interview.

The most compelling part of our discussions about his early childhood is the revelation that he was somewhat of a musical child prodigy. With neither parent being a musician, his inspiration came from the playing of his father’s 78’s [records] of the big band era and swing. The most defining moment in his formal musical education was his experience with the teacher Madame Chaloff in Boston. It was Madame Chaloff who became a surrogate mother, as well as a musical mentor, to the young Kuhn. "She was my main teacher, who tore down certain technical habits that I had already developed and reeducated me," said Kuhn. Madame Chaloff, a well-known teacher in the Boston area and the mother of Woody Herman saxophonist Serge Chaloff, taught Kuhn the "Russian School of Technique," which I asked him to demonstrate on his piano for me. "You center yourself on the keyboard...you let your arms hang loose so that there is no weight at all, you have curvature at your hands so you don’t play flat fingered, and then its all about the sound you want," he said.

His absorption of this technique has served him well, as he is able to summon all the power, as well as the nuances of this instrument, with his extraordinary control. He explains, while seated at his piano, how you gauge the power of the sound you want from the instrument by visualizing how far down into and through your body you want the sound to emanate from. "(Coming down from) the toes being the loudest . the first digit of your finger being the quietest," he explains, "which is like playing a horn, the analogy being the fingertip being your mouth and the key being the mouthpiece of the horn." I likened it to the act of consciously sending breath through the whole of your body during meditation, to which he readily agrees. "It’s all about getting the sound from the piano that you should get and allowing the sound to flow from your body," says Kuhn.

I was interested in his first hand knowledge of black/white integration in bands in the fifties, especially in Boston. "It was fine. No Problem, everybody was together," he says. His smile belies a time when things were simpler and less complicated, when musicians just thought about the music.

Steve Kuhn is a Harvard graduate and admits frankly to being somewhat surprised at having had the opportunity to attend such a prestigious institution, but he clearly took away from there, an education that has served him well throughout the years. His well-documented experience at the Lenox School of Music in the summer of 1959 was obviously a musical turning point in his life. He discovered the likes of George Russell, John Lewis, Günter Schuller, and was cast together with fellow students Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman and Gary McFarland. He also met pianist Bill Evans and trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and both would prove to offer lifelines to the young musician when he made his way to start his career in New York. It is here that I sense the first conflict between his love of improvisation, his classical training and sensibilities, for it is here when paired with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry that he finds himself somewhat confused as to his role in the making of the music. "To comp with them in the traditional way, laying down chords, made no sense ." He found himself "strolling" around their musical directions as they delved into a more non-harmonious approach to the music. This didn’t sit well and the same discomfort would later be revisited when he played with John Coltrane.

When Kuhn eventually traveled to New York to start his career, he landed a gig with trumpeter Kenny Dorham, an under appreciated talent according to Steve, whom he says became somewhat bitter at not getting his due, along with the other giants of his era, Miles and Dizzy. This gig with Dorham became an important step to Kuhn eventually being able to join John Coltrane’s newly formed group, clearly a milestone in this young musician’s life. He was twenty-one at the time.

"You played at the Jazz Gallery on St. Marks Place, right?" I asked. "That was the only place I played with him," said Kuhn " . eight to ten weeks . then ultimately McCoy Tyner took my place. Six nights a week-- that was the way it was in those days. It was just extraordinary!" he said. "We were playing a repertoire of stuff on Giant Steps...then he got into Impressions then he didn’t quite know (where he was heading) He eventually went the course he did, away from all that dense harmony to almost inharmonic (sense)."

"Did you feel up to the task?" I probed. "Some of the time I did," said Kuhn, "and some of the time I didn’t."...Basically, when I heard McCoy with him, he just wanted a carpet, he didn’t want anybody to fuck with him, so to speak he really didn’t articulate that to me. I said, &&&John is everything okay?&&& And I’ll never forget this he said &&&I respect you too much as a musician to tell you how to play.&&&"

When asked about the most significant part of his experience of playing with Coltrane, we find the true nature and commitment of this musician. "Just being around someone who for the first time in my life that was completely dedicated to the music. There was no interest in drugs, he wasn’t screwing any women, he was married," says Kuhn. "He really was just focused on the music going forward." Even with this apparent simpatico concerning the purity of the musical quest, I got the sense that these two artisans were treading off in different directions.

Steve and I talk about some compositions of Coltrane that I had seen him perform and he explains the comparison of the structures of tunes like Miles Davis&&& "Tune Up" and the similarities with Coltrane’s "Countdown," which is apparently a derivative of the Davis tune. He also demonstrates a few bars of the Richard Rodgers tune "Have you met Miss Jones?" and tells of how he once spoke to John about the similarities between the release in this popular song and "Giant Steps," a Coltrane original. This is just further proof of how often interrelated musical influence can be.

After his time with Coltrane, Kuhn&&&s musical odyssey continued with saxophonist Stan Getz. I am surprised to find out that it is his relationship with bassist Scott LaFaro that ultimately brings them together. "So when Stan called Scotty...looking to form a band, Scott told Stan, &&&I’ll join you, but I want the rhythm section that I want.&&&" Scotty was maybe twenty-four. How audacious! I responded to the idea of a young LaFaro making demands to the older, more established Getz, "But he could back it up. He was great, an extraordinary player." Steve insists without hesitation.

It becomes apparent that Steve’s relationship with Scott was closer than I had realized. The two had formed a trio with Pete LaRoca Sims and had aspirations. "Yes, we made a little demo together Japan put it out...just to hear Scott on it is worth the price."

Scott LaFaro had a relatively meteoric rise in the world of jazz bass. With only six years behind him on the bass, he revolutionized its playing by introducing guitar like responses to the instrument’s repertoire, and adding a conversationalist aspect to the role of the bass in jazz. The work he did in the famous Bill Evans piano trio, at the time, with drummer Paul Motian, is often considered some of the most seminal playing ever produced in the trio format. And what about his work with Evans? I queried. "Scott loved Bill, but he also felt somewhat constrained," explains Kuhn. "With me, I guess he felt that he was with someone with a similar attitude, I don’t know. So he was looking to leave Bill, but at the same time, it was work and he was (also) with Stan so he had a pretty good situation going...unfortunately, the accident."

Here the previously composed pianist is obviously moved by the recollection of the untimely death of his former collaborator and friend. His pained expression belies the personal grief of a lost friend and lost opportunities as he describes the crash, the burning car, Scott’s propensity to drive fast and his own grim remembrances of the only identifiable remains of the wreck, Scott’s St. Christopher’s medal. Despite Steve’s obvious emotional ties to Scott’s memory, I press him further. "What made Scott LaFaro so special?" "Well," says Kuhn, "he had incredible harmonic knowledge and had incredible ears so he knew exactly where you were going, and then he could take you from there. If you were up to it, you could have a real conversation nobody that preceded him, played like him. He knew what the function of the bass was," Kuhn continues. "He could play the bottom...he played it more a like a guitar...he could walk...he could do it all."

Ultimately, their performance together with Getz and Pete LaRoca Sims at the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival in New York would be the last time Scott ever performed in front of a live audience. No discussion about Scott could be left without asking about Bill Evans, one of the most influential jazz pianists of his era. Steve’s first experience watching Bill Evans, once back in his college days, made him realize he had to find and take his own musical path. "Jesus, this guy is doing what I am, but he has gotten it together. He is so much more developed than I am. It sort of threw me, but I loved what he was doing except now, I had to take a little detour and try my own way," he says. "Bill knew about the sound, the piano sound we were talking about. One of the things I admired about him was that he had extraordinary technique, but you never heard that technique the way you would with Oscar Peterson, for example." "Less is more," I interject. "Less, exactly," says Kuhn.

I think this sums up Steve’s approach to playing succinctly. While he has a phenomenal command of the entire keyboard, more so than many modern jazz pianists, and formidable speed and technique, his wizened playing makes use of these attributes sparingly, and to great effect. His overriding maxim is sparseness and can speak volumes.

Steve’s coming of age with his own musical compositions started with his introduction to another great jazz bassist, Steve Swallow, when they both played in Art Farmer&&&s band. "Swallow was the one that got me started writing originals, says Kuhn. "He sat me down and said, &&&You&&&ve got to write some music.&&& He challenged me. At the time I was living in Sweden," Kuhn says.

It seems Steve went off to Sweden to follow a love interest, a Swedish film star and vocalist named Monica Zetterlund. Prodded by Swallow, Steve started to write prolifically during this period and played extensively throughout Germany with bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christiansen, as well as with Monica. Again, as with so many musicians of this era in search of acceptance of their musical identity, Kuhn found Europe more understanding and appreciative. He ultimately lived in Stockholm from 1967 to 1971. After returning to the United States, his association with ECM records produced a seminal album that featured Steve Swallow, Jack DeJohnette and Sue Evans. The album, Trance, was my first exposure to Steve and its driving Swallow bass lines, subtle DeJohnette cymbal work and Steve’s hypnotic piano work immediately captured me.

We talk of people he wishes he could have played with or opportunities lost in the last fifty years of being a professional musician. He had one opportunity of which I was unaware. "I am sorry I didn’t get a chance to work with Miles," Kuhn laments. "I had a chance to, I was with Stan Getz at the time and Miles was looking to form a group with Ron Carter. Ron called me and asked me if I was interested in joining his group. Miles was very erratic in terms of dependability. His band would be in Chicago and he just wouldn’t show up," says Kuhn. "It was economics. I was working with Stan and I was doing pretty well, so I said no. I regret it because I missed out on it and would have loved to."

Who is the only other living player he still would cherish playing with? "I never worked with Sonny Rollins...that might be nice," he continues. "I don’t know now in this day and age." I offer, "Wouldn’t a Sonny Rollins and Steve Kuhn concert be a wonderful event?" "I don’t know," says Kuhn, "I am sure Sonny wouldn’t think of it if I wanted to pursue it, perhaps. I have the utmost respect for him, he is one of my heroes!" says Kuhn. In my own Machiavellian way, I hope Sonny gets a chance to read this, is moved and perhaps this concert would not be a mere fleeting dream.

Steve Kuhn and I spoke of his influences, Tatum "God! [He] really had it all," says Kuhn. "Errol Garner, Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly, Horace Silver, and of course, Bill Evans," Kuhn continues. "What About Monk?" I questioned. "More so his music than his playing...he didn’t have great technique, but he had enough of a technique to do what he wanted to do. His compositions were extraordinary!" Kuhn says.

We talk of his contemporaries, Chick, Herbie, Keith McCoy and Paul Bley and where he gets his musical inspiration these days. "I get my musical inspiration from people I meet, relationships I have. I listen to classical music." When I was younger, says Kuhn, "I used to hang around all the time, going out every night at sessions or hearing people at clubs. I just sort of ran the gamut. I just take the time to synthesize these experiences and put my stamp on it, if I can."

I am interested in his experience playing with seasoned players like Ron Carter and Al Foster, with whom he has played on his recent release "Live at Birdland," and comparing the synergies of his playing with a younger rhythm section like David Finck and Billy Drummond. David and Billy " don’t have the history (that Ron and Al have), but they listened to and know the history," Kuhn says. "That’s very important. Some of the younger players think that the music started with late Coltrane. They don’t know, for example, how Coltrane was influenced by rhythm and blues and had an incredible knowledge of standard tunes all the way back to Louis Armstrong," he says.

On a personal note I ask Kuhn about whether he felt that drugs and alcohol were ominous shadows that lurked over the industry, and if so, how they affected him? "Yes, in the beginning when I came to New York, most of the people I was hanging around with were involved and so I got peripherally involved myself, without getting into details."

We spoke of a Sheila Jordan interview [Sheila has been one of the few vocalists to have played and recorded with Steve over the years] where she offered that not being understood and times of self-doubt were the times when drugs and alcohol became easy distractions. "It is a lonely feeling," Kuhn remembers. "You can be depressed. She has had some issues too. Personally, I was looking to get the career going, and what not, and it was very frustrating. It was difficult. It would have been very easy for me to get involved in that situation. I dabbled, but I never got heavily into that situation," Kuhn says.

I questioned him about any personal experience he may have had with reverse segregation or prejudice, being a white musician in a predominantly black musical culture. "In the mid-sixties," Kuhn remembers, "I was in Sweden. Before [then], there was always an embrace when [musicians] would see each other. Now, there was a bit of &&&standoffishness.&&& I mean I understood it, but I figured in jazz music, we were exempt from that. To this day, it is still there to a certain extent, not for me particularly, but I feel bad for young white musicians, for example, who really can play and don’t get a chance to play in mixed bands."

Being a fan of fusion, I am taken by his stark, but steadfast refusal, to view fusion music as anything but a foray into electronica. There are no apparent redeeming qualities for him in this music. He prefers acoustic jazz despite having dabbled with electronic keyboards in the past. He continues to express his belief that jazz music may have run its course. "I hear, the little I hear of the other players, is revisionist history," says Kuhn. "They are playing the bebop or post bop, playing the hell out of it and doing it extremely well. But in my view, I haven’t heard anything that has made me change my mind--that the music may have run its course, and that is the way it is," he states emphatically. "In terms of innovation like Coltrane, or Bird, or Miles or Ornette, for example, I haven’t heard anything beyond them that is truly innovative."

We ultimately talk about ballads. His latest album is a Japanese release entitled Play Standards, and I mentioned how I had heard that Miles once said that he loved ballads too much to keep playing them. Steve unabashedly professed his love for them and refuses to deny himself, or his audiences, the pleasure that they invariably bring. Ballads " are an important part of the literature," he says "...a great vehicle for expression, and there is art to it. As I have gotten older, I’ve gotten more appreciative to play them, the challenge that is involved."

This is perhaps the most revealing aspect of Steve Kuhn the musician, and the man. At 69, Kuhn has lived through bypass surgery several years ago and has come back, by his own admission, with a new and reinvigorated urgency to his playing. He evokes sensitivity and passion in his playing that comes from a genuine dedication to his art, a dedication that consciously sacrificed many personal indulgences that most of us require to live.

"Is the musician’s life a personally difficult one?" I question. "Absolutely," he says. "I made a conscious decision years ago...I didn’t get married or have children, I mean I did get married once, but no children. Because economically, I would have to do something else in order to support the music. I have done nothing but music all my life. I never had another job, but in order to do that, I sacrificed having children, which I regret to some extent, but it was a conscious choice. I had opportunities early on to go out to California and get into the studio scene, also, offers to teach in schools full time," Kuhn remembers. "I just wanted to play, so I made that choice economically. I paid the price and still do. Raising his hands, he sweeps them in a gesture that offers the expanse of his modest living room as an offering. "This is my castle, right here. I am grateful to have it, but it is not about the money."

What does this proud man wish to be remembered for? "Just the music that I leave [that] comes from the heart," says Steve Kuhn. "It’s honest, it’s pure, there is no bullstuff, [and] I never compromised."

This is the essence of Steve Kuhn the man, the musician, the pianist. At the heart of his playing, which he readily admits is now probably at the zenith of his skills, is a portal to his heart, his musical heart. With its subtle nuances that are the product of his life long experiences, being intimately involved with some of the jazz world’s true icons and some of jazz histories most amazing experiences. His sage playing, utilizing a staggering technique that he unleashes sparingly, all the while harnessed by the egoless, matured sensibility of a minimalist’s approach.

I ended the interview and sat with him on his couch trading personal stories. At my request we listened, together to his wonderful rendition of Henry Mancini’s "Slow Hot Wind" from his Live at Birdland recording, over his state-of-the-art stereo system, the one true extravagance I witnessed in his humble abode. He humored me by playing a solo rendition of "Trance" on his Baldwin, and I left thinking I just spent the last two hours with a living giant of the jazz world, a true gentleman of extraordinary kindness and a master of creating this sensitive art from the seat of a piano.

Steve Kuhn played at the Jazz Standard on July 18th & 19th with George Mraz and Billy Drummond. He will join saxophonist Joe Lovano at Birdland for a Coltrane birthday celebration on September 18th, and will be appearing at the Iridium on September 28th for one night as part of a tribute to Bud Powell, with Eddie Gomez. Anyone who has not seen him perform owes it to themselves to witness how a living legend, one of those who has lived some of jazz’s richest history can demonstrate what a lifetime of dedication to the music can offer.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Steve Kuhn
  • Interview Date: 7/6/2007
  • Subtitle: An Interview with Pianist Steve Kuhn
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