In the 1980s, a student intern transcribed some of the interviews with Dr. Billy Taylor that I conducted for The Talking Violin National Public Radio five-part series. Billy had performed with several historic jazz violinists. My original intention was to use the interview material for the series, but after meeting with him I realized that he would be the best possible host for the entire series.
Transcription of Audio Interviews with Dr. Billy Taylor:
Billy Taylor 1988 Interview: About Historic Jazz Violinist Stuff Smith
The first jazz violinist I ever heard was Stuff Smith. I heard him in the 30s on the radio, and the thing that really impressed me was not that he was playing the violin, but that he was the swinging-est guy in the band. It was as formidable band in terms of jazz musicians. The swing started right at the top. I mean he was — he was really saying, “Hey fellas, this is the way it goes.” And I had never heard — I had heard Clarence Cameron White and many of the black violinists who played classical music, but I never heard anybody play the violin like this. And it was just fascinating, because there was no condescension. “This is the violin and it must go this way.” He said, “This is a jazz instrument, and this is the way you play jazz.” And it could have been a trumpet, a trombone, or — or any other wind instrument, the manner in which he played it.
As a jazz musician in the 30s, and he [Stuff Smith] had started, of course, earlier — I mean, by the time I heard him, he was already a well known player, playing on the radio. So that meant he had paid a lot of dues prior to that, working in dumps and doing all kinds of things. Unfortunately for musicians like Stuff Smith, he had to work wherever the work was available.
So he worked in places owned by gangsters and he worked in really dives, I mean places which were not nice places. And he became quite an entertainer, I mean he put on funny hats, and he — he did all kinds of outrageous things. ‘Cause he had a tremendous sense of humor, and he found that that worked for him. I mean it — he just — just did — he sang and he played, and he did all these outrageous things, entertaining things.
And it helped him like a Louis Armstrong, or — or anybody else who was — Fats Waller — any of the other humorous players of the day. It helped him get over. It did not interfere with the quality of his music. And one of the things that many people miss in Fats Waller’s music, in — in — Louie’s music, in — in Stuff’s music, is the fact that whenever they began to play, it was serious. I mean, all of the jokes and everything — they might do some musical jokes, but I mean the quality of the music never varied. It never sank below the level of — of high professionalism that they aspired to.
You would think that someone who had played theatres and who had played on the radio, and who had done a few little mot — bits in motion pictures, and so forth — you would think, “His talent is recognized, and people will hire him and — and he’ll play all over the place he’ll become a star.”
Because he was black, he never had those kinds of opportunities. The bits that he did in movies, or the bits that he did on Broadway or in other shows, were things that could be taken out of the show. I mean they — they were not indispensible to the totality of the show itself. That was deliberate. It was done so that if people objected to a black guy doing this, they could just take it out. It was not — it had no relationship to whether he played well or not, which he did.
But he didn’t get the opportunities. I mean, people like Joe Venuti, and others who played on Eddie Cantor’s show, and got an opportunity to do what he did, this kind of thing was — was not something that was available to Stuff Smith. And Joe Venuti was a fine violinist he played very nice — he played good jazz, he was a very humorous guy. But you would think that since he was established; now here’s a guy who has a sense of humor, and who plays the violin, and who does all these different things. Then this would give an opportunity to someone like Stuff Smith.
The violin in the hands of a guy named Rubanoff, –I think was actually the guy on the Eddie Cantor show — Venuti did many other things. He was with Paul Whiteman and other things — but Rubanoff was — was considered much more of a comedian than a violin — I mean a violinist. And so the point I’m making is that on the radio, this character of the humor — of the violin — of the violinist with a sense of humor was established. Why not have a — a black guy who had a demonstrable l sense of humor, who played marvelously, who was very outgoing, who — who audience related to, why not use him in that context? It’s radio, nobody’s gonna see you, so you don’t know whether he’s black or white. But racism was so so much a part of the — that business at that time, that he never got those opportunities.
Well, he recorded primarily for small jazz labels, and he, unfortunately, was — he had become a good leader of a six-piece group — the one I mentioned with Jonah Jones, and Cozy Cole, and others. And that was a — an identifiable sell — a group that you could sell. It was like a John Kirby Quintet or it was a well-known group. Yet, the — the managers didn’t — didn’t book him.
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He didn’t get the kind of bookings he should have gotten. He didn’t play the cafe societies and the other things that would have kept him moving along at — as he should. So, his — he recorded for all these small labels, and ultimately, he cut his group down, I mean he kept cutting the group down from 6 to 5 to 4 and finally he ended up with a trio, with just — bass, piano and violin. And even in that context, it was marvelous. The trio that I remember hearing him that — the first trio I heard him play with in that context, had Jimmy Jones, the marvelous pianist who was the — later the accompanist for Sarah Vaughan, and did a lot of arranging for Wes Montgomery and many other jazz artists, but who was an excellent pianist. The bassist was John Levy, who is now one of the big managers. He was the bassist with the George Shearing Quintet, and then he went on to manage George, went in –went into the management business and manages Nancy Wilson, and Joe Williams and many other jazz stars. John and Jimmy were a great rhythm section. Their recording of “Desert Sands,” and many other Stuff Smith staples were classic jazz records.
I mean, it was — it was a totally different sound. But the kinds of things that — that Jimmy and John, both of whom were superb accompanists — I mean these were two guys that didn’t want to solo. They really just wanted to make Stuff sound good, and that’s what they did. I mean — I mean– this is not to say that they never took solos — of course they took solos, but basically they were right up under him, giving him all the kind of support that he needed. It was a marvelous group.
Well, in one of the — every now and then I go back and — and listen to a record that was made around the corner from where we’re recording in Town Hall. It was the first time that I’d ever played in Town Hall and it was his trio. It was a Sunday afternoon concert, and it really typified the things that I learned from Stuff Smith.
He was just the quintessential swinger. I mean just the — the — the rhythmic aspect of what he did was so exciting. You had to do that, I mean you were out of place if you didn’t try to match the — the intensity and the energy that he had.
We played “The Bugle Rag” and we played “Perdido,” and we played a couple of other things that were just things that he was playing in those days. And it was really exciting. Today I can listen to — its one of the few records that I made when I was a kid that I can go and listen to , and — and really enjoy.
It was put out — it’s on a– it’s called Town Hall Concert. And its — we just have — I think there are two lp’s . Milt Gabler, I think, had the record company that put them out. I don’t remember the name of the company. But it was just one of these — Milt and so many other people were producing jazz concerts on Sunday afternoons and on Saturday afternoons in those days. And this was just one of a series of things that was done.
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Billy Taylor Interview 1988: About About Historic Jazz Violinist Eddie South
I had heard of Eddie South, but because he was a legendary musician. People — when jazz musicians would talk about great jazz musicians, they would — he was one of the people they talked about. He had been to Europe, he had worked with the Hot Club of France, and had established a — a big reputation along with Coleman Hawkins, and Benny Carter, and other people like that, in Europe as jazz musicians.
And so it was sort of with a little injury then, a lot of people would say, “Oh yeah, there’s some — some guys don’t have to go through the changes we go through here. They’ve gone to Europe, and they’re treated like kings over there. Guys like Eddie South and Coleman Hawkins –” and they’d name all the guys that — that were still over there.
And so I’d hear his name being bandied about by musicians like that. But I never heard him play. And there were records out. He had recorded for Columbia Records, and so forth, but for some reason or another, I never heard those records. And so I came to New York and was free-lancing.
I got a call from someone that said they wanted me to come down and play in this 10 piece band, that was gonna open — gonna play for a show that opened the famous door — they were gonna open — try to re-open one of the legendary 52nd Street Clubs. And the star of the show was Pearl Bailey. And they had a guy who danced on the vibraphones. His name was Jimmy Smith. And they had — it was a — — it was the knd of show one found in Small’s Paradise or in one of the Harlem clubs, as opposed to what one found downtown. There was a guy who lifted tables with his teeth. I mean ^, he danced around — I mean a table this size, — wild combination of things. They were very entertaining.
And so we were the house band — we were the band that accompanied all this. And I had never met Eddie. And so we rehearsed, and we rehearsed mostly big band. I had some charts written for his big band, and we rehearsed the arrangements for Pearl and for the other people. There were some dancers and some — some other people on the show. I think they had a chorus — I’m not sure right now. But at any rate, we played for the show.
Eddie had a featured piece in the — in the show, that just featured the rhythm section and himself. And it was a gypsy thing, if I remember correctly, a czardas. And — one of many things he was famous for in those days. And I was very impressed, it was a very well-written piano part, and everything, and it sent me home to practice a little bit. I said, “Oh yeah, oh right, this is nice.” And so it was a very challenging job, and I enjoyed it.
And he seemed pleased with my work, so when the job ended — cause it was just for a few weeks or something like that — he asked me if I’d like to continue to work with him. And I said, “Sure. — What — — What you got in mind?” He said, “Well, I’m going to Chicago.” Well, I had never been — I came from Washington, DC, but I’d never been on the road, if you will. So this was gonna be my first time on the road.
And so we went out to Chicago, to play at a place called Elmer’s, which was down in the Loop, right across from the State and Lake Theatre, in Chicago, down the street from Marshall Fields, a big store there. And this was a little dive, and right — literally right next to a theatre where people would come out of the theatre and come in for a drink, and so forth. And we — we were there — we were supposed to be there for four weeks.
And it was terrific, because right around the corner on Randolph Street, Stuff Smith was working. And this was the first time I actually heard Stuff play in person. He and Eddie were — were old friends, and so he came in to see us. We opened — opening night — he had already been working — I think it was the Garrett or something like that — I can’t remember the name of the place. At any rate, he came around, and — to say hello and pay his respects to Eddie. And they’d — as soon as he came in, Eddie began to play the blues, and began to play all of his jazz stuff that we played, and I didn’t — I didn’t see Stuff, I didn’t know what he looked like, I had never seen him. And I didn’t — I couldn’t imagine why Eddie had all of the sudden just like that had — had changed the repertory. This wasn’t what we normally played. And so he’s playing all these blues things, and he’s doing all — all the things we never played, and so after the set we came off, and he introduced me to Stuff Smith.
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I said, “Oh! That’s what that was all about!” And so later that evening, we went over to hear Stuff, and hear his trio. And this was the trio with John Levy and — and Jimmy Jones that I’m speaking of. And Stuff began to play “Claire de Lune” and — and play all the classical stuff that he — I said, “You guys gotta be kidding.” I mean — — I mean that was not his bag. Nor was it Eddie’s bag to do what Stuff did. But that was their their way of paying — paying reverence to — to someone they admired very much. So it was really a very exciting experience. Eddie was such — by the time we — we had rehearsed prior to going to California, and he pulled out all of his classical stuff, and we played an interesting mixture of classical, pop, and jazz.
I mean, it was not just — we were playing in a dump, a bar. But this is what he’s playing. He should have been playing concert, but I mean, every set was literally a concert, because he would — he would balance it off. He might play “Hejri Kati” which is one — was his theme, very lovely violin piece, or he’d play a gypsy air or a czardas or something like that, he might play a blues, he might play one of the pop tunes of the day, and he had made transcriptions of sever classical pieces — “Liebesfreud” and — and pieces like that, which sometimes he played in tempo, he didn’t even play it as a classical piece. He had other classical pieces that he played as classical pieces.
And — so it was — it was a fascinating job, I mean, because it — I mean he worked me to death, I mean he really put me in the woodshed to try to learn those piano parts. And I — especially the gypsy things, because the gypsy piano parts that he had, seemed to be transcriptions of what the zimbalin players did. And so the page would be black with notes. I’m running all up and — arpeggios all over the place. And he’s playing very beautifully these long lines, and I mean I’m saying, “Yeah, OK. Thanks alot.”
But that worked. I mean it — it — it really was the context.
If later, when I heard Gypsy orchestras which he was — he had studied in — in Hungary, in Budapest was very familiar with the gypsy repertory as well as the European classical repertory. And he played those gypsy melodies so authentically, that the King of the Gypsies used to come and hear us. And he’d come in with all of his entourage and everything, and they’d sit there and cry –he’d — Eddie would play all these things and they’d cry (). And Eddie’d invite them down, they’d have champagne, and they’d tell him what a great artist he was, and that he was a black gypsy. They really loved him, and they paid such homage to him wherever he worked. I mean he would get telegrams, he would get flowers. I remember one time someone called him long distance and asked him to play something for them over the phone. And so he was on the phone, playing unaccompanied whatever this melody was. Just — the people who respected him really loved his artistry. He was a remarkable musician.
Right. Yeah. Sure. Well, they both died — both Stuff Smith and Eddie South I’m convinced died of a broken heart, because if — for instance, in Stuff’s case, here is one of the great jazz musicians of all time who never got the kind of attention and respect and had the kind of career that he deserved. If he played tenor saxophone, he probably would have had a better career, ’cause it was a more accepted — what he did was more accepted — more readily accepted on that instrument. And he seemed penalized because he played the violin.
And it seems we’ve lost — we lose by denying him the opportunity to do what he did. Prior to my working with him, in New York — this is before I joined Eddie — he had done some things around — no, I’m sorry, this is after I worked with Eddie, ’cause he came to New York — yes this was — this was after — late 44. He would go around to a man’s house — it was — a matter of fact it was down the street — this — we’re on 46th Street. At 46th Street and 5th Avenue there’s one — there’s a brownstone as you come from 5th Avenue, it’s the first brownstone that you come to — it’s a store or it’s something else now, but it’s still a brownstone.
At any rate, that — up on the 2nd floor was an apartment, which was the apartment of a man named Timmy Rosencranz. Timmy Rosencranz was a Danish baron, and he was the black sheep of the family — the Rosencranz family — the plays and all that stuff. And they just — they paid Timmy to stay out of the country. They said, “Don’t — please leave Denmark and — and don’t embarrass the family. Go somewhere else.” So he came over to New York.
Loved jazz, he had a tremendous jazz collection. Spent — he lived as close to the 52nd Street as he could, would invite all the musicians down to his house after hours, and they’d play. I heard Stuff Smith playing with a man whose name was — this is not my day for names. He was a pianist from the — from Chicago. He was a classically trained pianist, who liked Scriabin and who liked all the contemporary players. And the — he wanted to learn to improvise, cause he had great love for jazz musicians. He was not a jazz musician. He didn’t play jazz very well, but he wanted to be in that context. And so he began to school himself. He was gonna — he said, “Look, at this point I’m not, but I’m gonna be. I’m gonna really get this together.” And so he would go to Timmy Rosencranz’s house, and jam with musicians.
He and Stuff played some of the most far out music that I’ve ever heard. This is way before Arnette Coleman and Lenny Tristano, and — and many of the other musicians who became famous for playing in a very abstract way. They were playing abstractions of jazz, totally improvised, Stuff was trying to play quarter tones on the violin, and the pianist — who’s name I will remember at some point — was playing all of these kind of clusters and all of the kind of things which were based on the 1two tone approach to composition, and so forth. So you got this real weird combination of musical statements. And yet it had a form, it had — had — had some kind of balance between the two. And this was in 1944. I don’t think any of this was ever released.
I know that it w — Timmy recorded it — Timmy Rosencranz recorded it, so there are recordings of it. I don’t know whether they’re in Denmark, or whether any of them were ever released here, or just whatever. At the same time that this happened, Errol Garner did some recording with Stuff Smith — in this man’s house, and these kinds of things Errol Garner was playing in a much more abstract way than he became famous for. So, I mean it was — there was a lot of creative juices flowing. Alot of things were happening beyond the ordinary in terms of what these musicians were actually playing in public.
Well, it gave — what it did, it gave different perspective of what some of the musicians like Stuff and Eddie South were about ^. I told you how difficult the piano parts were in –in working with Eddie’s trio. Well, after wrestling with all these parts and — and seeing him sail through all the vi — violin things, we were working — after we left Chicago, we went to North Dakota. We were in — up there for about — it was in dead of winter, we were at this club in North Dakota ^. And so I had plenty of time. The snow was this high, I wasn’t going out a lot, so I sat around and — and wrote some music. I decided I would give Eddie a challenge, he’d been challenging me all this time, and I’d been with him all this time, I said “I’m gonna test his metal, I’ll see what he’s all about.” So I sat down and — and — and arranged a rhythmic version of some of the themes from “Rhapsody in Blue.”
And I said — there’s nothing that’s more difficult than something that you already play, and we already played the classical version of that, and the concert version of that. And — so now to change that around and — and — and put it in another perspective, I said, “This is the throw-away ^.”
So I — I came in — well, I was young (). I came in to the rehearsal one day, I said, “Eddie, I just finished this arrangement. You wanna try?”
So he said, “Yeah, it looks nice.” Puts his glasses on, ran through it just like he wrote it. So that’s the last time I tried to challenge him. He was a remarkable musician, he — he — not just in terms of sight-reading as in that particular case, but in terms of the sensitivity with which he brought — which he brought to everything he played. He was the first musician that I ever worked with who I really saw move people to tears, move them most obviously emotionally, like a singer. He — he really just exhorted like — exhorted that kind of thing from — from — from the violin. It was just really — it — it was electric to work with him, the people — you would feel that in the audience.
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Billy Taylor Interview 1988: About bassist Milt Hinton
Well, Milt Hinton is a unique musician who worked — he’s best known for his work with Cab Calloway, but like Eddie and other musicians that I mentioned, he really, I think, epitomized what many jazz musicians have done. He worked very hard to improve his craft. He wanted to be able to play anything, he wanted — inspired by Eddie. He — he worked with Eddie South when Eddie was playing these classical things with the 6 piece group.
So he had a guitar, and he had a piano, and he had many of the arrangements that really were full arrangements. Some of these arrangements, I believe, were done for Columbia records. And they had been released on Columbia. There was a record of the “Rhapsody in Blue” arrangement that I’m talking about, which is available on an album called “The Dark Age of the Violin” which we actually recorded. But I had as a point of reference those records that — that Milt made with him — and he was quite proud of Milt, he — he — he said — quite often he said, “I got bassist work with me, and of the music — I’ve got a lot of good musicians working with me, but one of the very best is Milt Hinton.” He said, “You probably know him from slapping the bass and all that with Cab Calloway. But he’s for — formidable. He plays classical music, and he played he played the bass part like a symphony player. He really played with the — with the same kind of feeling that I want.” He said, “That’s very difficult to get in jazz musicians.” And so he’d always refer to him and he used Milt as a — sort of a model for subsequent bass players.
He said, “Now this is really what I want you to sound like. When you play this — do your own thing when you play jazz. But when you play classical music — this is really — this is what I’m trying to get. Here, I want you to sound like this when you bow and ^,” and so it — it really — Milt — because he played violin first, his first instrument was a small violin, and — he really wanted — he aspired to do the kinds of things that — that Eddie did. And then for a variety of reasons he switched to bass. Once he did, he tried to maintain that same level of creativity.
Billy Taylor 1988 Interview: About historic jazz violinist Joe Kennedy, Jr.
Actually, I was a disc jockey here in New York and a guy who went into business — the record business with Dizzy Gillespie had a record label called Red Anchor and he sent me Dizzy’s records, and he sent me some other stuff he produced. And among the things he sent me was this record of this violinist that I’d never heard of. And I said ^, “This guy’s terrific. He reminds me of both Stuff Smith and Eddie South. I love it . Who is he?” He says, “A school teacher.” And so I says, “Oh yeah?” And so I used to play his records here.
And it was a small company, it never got the kind of distribution that they should, so he never became as well known at that time as he could have. But I learned a little about him, he had been one of the original players in a group — a cooperative group which included Ahmed Jamal Ray Crawford and Ahmed Jamal, and — and this was four of them — Ray, Ahmed, and I cannot think of who the bass player was, and Joe Kennedy. And at any rate, I never heard that group. It was called the st — the 3 Strings, the 4 Strings, or whatever it was.
And — but when I began to play his music, one day I got a call from — from Ahmed and — who was a friend, and he said, “Hey man, where’d you get that record?” And so I told him, and he said, “Gee, I didn’t even know it was out. Where can I get it?” And so forth and so on. And he told me a little about — about — about Joe. And so I continued to play — I never met the man, and I continued to play his music over the years and he didn’t do a lot of recording after the Red Anchor thing, and began to teach, began to do — in Richmond, Virginia, and do a lot of things in — with the Richmond Symphony and with classical groups. He played with string quartets and chamber groups and he did all kinds of things as well as jazz. He always played jazz.
But he also played these other things, as Eddie South did. Yet his feeling of swing his — his — his approach to the beat, was, I felt, much clear — much closer to Stuff’s than — than Eddie South’s. He — the sound was — was close to Eddie, but the — the rhythmic feeling was more out of Stuff. And so at — many years later — and this is a few years ago, I was recording for Concord Records, and by this time, Joe was beginning to come out of the closet. I mean, he — his cousin — Benny Carter had talked him into going to Europe, to one of the festivals or something, and he was a smash. Everybody heard him, loved him, and nobody knew who he was, and everything. Well, the guy had a family now and kids . He — he was pretty well settled, so he wasn’t about to jump out on the road and play nightclubs and anything like that. But the — the concert thing kind of interested him and he began to — he was still teaching, he was still working with the symphony orchestra.
And the guy from Concord Records heard him and — and asked me if I would be interested in recording with him. And I said I’d be delighted, because it — I really admired his work. So I picked a whole program of original compositions — things that I had written. And these were all things that I had written for the violin in mind. I mean, when I wrote these things, I could hear Stuff or Eddie playing them. And I picked the particular ones that I thought fit what he did. He gets a kind of almost viola sound in the lower register there. And I could just hear him doing these things, and sure enough, it really exceeded my expectations, because he’s such a creative and — and — and remarkable musicians — musician. And he breathes so much just soul into whatever he’s playing. It’s — it’s a different — it becomes his kind — he — he — he really internalizes, it becomes his composition. And once again that’s — that’s a quality that I associated with the — his two models. And it — it was just tremendous association. We’ve done a couple of concerts together down in Richmond, and out in California. But any chance I get, I always like to perform with him because he’s very special. I did a special — on Duke Ellington for PBS, and I used him in what was supposed to be the Ray Nance Jam playing the violin. But, once again, he put so much into it, that was just — it’s not good, better or best, it was different from what Ray did. And it added another dimension to — to the music.
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Billy Taylor 1988 Interview: About Historic Jazz Violinists Ray Nance and Ray Perry
There were two musicians that I also heard around in the 40s, actually the late 30s. I heard Ray Nance, and I heard Ray Perry, who was a saxophone player and they both worked on the street during this time that Stuff Smith — I worked with Stuff. And the jam sessions on the street were just remarkable, cause, I mean, here are those 3 guys playing, and I don’t think that was ever recorded — it may have been, but I know that Stuff and the two Rays hooked up at the Onyx Club one night and it was just unbelievable, I was just — it made my hair stand on end, what was going on. It was really very exciting. And I can’t recall — I was trying to recall who the rhythm section was, but the main order of business was those three violinists.