An Interview with Art Farmer | You Have to Become

JM; I think a lot of people who have been listening to you recognize that you are a very foxy musician, as Snookie Young put it the other night, a musician who knows how to get into and out of traps perhaps better than the usual musician. It’s a funny question to ask you, but I’ll begin there since Snookie pointed to that the other night.

AF: You mean . . . ?

JM: I think what he meant, Art, is that you’re a musician who finds the unusual beauties inside of songs. As Snookie said, ”TeII Art to save some of the beautiful notes for me.”



AF: Well, I just try to do something different. Everybody has a different idea in their head if they just look for it and try to find some way to be different, you know, to sound different from everyone else. I have my idols, too, and boundary 2 22:2, 1995. Copyright @ 1995 by Duke University Press. CCC 0190-3659/95/$1.50.
38 boundary 2 / Summer 1995 it’s very easy . . . Well, it’s not easy to do it, but at least (it’s easy) to copy the people who inspired you.

JM; Yes.

AF: And you can devote your whole life to that, but then what do you have in the end?

JM; Then you become a copycat.

AF: Yeah, second-rate. Isn’t it better to be first-rate? You don’t get any credit the other way. You’re just giving someone else the credit.

JM: One night in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you and I sat down and talked about some of the people who have been important to you. You talked that evening about Ben Webster.

AF: Ben Webster certainly is important to me. To not only me, but people who value the things that Ben brought to his playing. One word for it would be beauty, but that would encompass a lot of feeling . . . a big warm sound, the essence of a song. The meaning of a song is not just a matter of notes, but how you play the notes. And he could play one note, and that one note could be so expressive that it was all said.

JM; Ben is one of my favorite musicians for those very reasons, Art. You certainly have incorporated inside your own playing, for decades, that sense of making individual notes resonant.

AF: That’s what it’s all about. That’s it. Ben is one of those guys. Miles Davis can do one note, too. He’s a one-note man. John Coltrane, although he played sheets of sound, was a one-note man, too. You know, that’s what you got to watch out for-these guys that can tell you something with one note. If they can tell you something with one note . . . well, then, watch out when they start playing more notes than that. That’s the essence of jazz, I think. As far as the song goes, first comes the sound, and then you decide what you want to do With the sound. But first comes the sound. That goes for singing, too. That goes for playing the drums. You listen to Philly Joe play the drums. He’s got one sound. You listen to Louis Bellson, he’s got another sound. The identity is the individual, and that’s what we start off with. As far as getting into corners and getting out of them . . .

An Interview with Art Farmer 39 AF; Technical limitations and ambition get you into a corner that you have to use all your wiles to get out of.

AF: (LAUGHTER) And you . . . you try to get out without embarrassing yourself too much. Clark Terry says you can get skinned up if you’re not careful.

JM; (LAUGHTER) That’s wonderful.

AF: (LAUGHTER) You know what he means by getting skinned up.

JM; Oh yeah. Clark Terry has said about one of my favorite trumpet players and a man who, for me, Art, represents one of the most resonant trumpet players of all time, and that is Joe Wilder . . .

AF: Yeah.

JM: . . . Clark has said about Joe Wilder that when he hears Joe, it’s like hearing an elegant woman jut bottles on her dresser and fumble around until she gets them right.

AF; (LAUGHTER) I’ve never heard Joe fumble. Everything he does sounds very exacting. He’s very sure of what he wants and how he wants to do it, and he always manages to do it. It seems to me that the trumpet’s an instrument where everything that you do wrong sticks right out like a sore thumb. It’s very hard to hide. It’s a truth-teller . . . everybody’s donna make a mistake sometime, but I don’t hear Joe ever pinning himself into a corner.
He always is able to carry off what he’s doing, just as he intended. And with a lot of style.

JM: And that’s probably what Clark really meant.

AF: Yeah, Clark is a good example and a good listener. He knows what’s going on. Clark was one of the very first players I heard who could really take care of the horn. When I first started living in New York in 1946, Clark came there with George Hudson’s band from St. Louis. I heard him at the Apollo Theater. He was featured on a ballad. I think it was “I Can’t Get Started,” or something like that. And that’s the first time I heard of Clark Terry. You hear Clark, and you hear somebody coming from nowhere sounding great.
You just say, ”Jesus.”

JM.. You don’t forget that.
40 boundary 2 / Summer 1995

AF: No. I had already heard of Dizzy and Miles and Fats Navarro and Kenny Dorham, but then here comes Brand X . . . you know, really, a monster.

JM; Yes. I

AF: So you figure the world is full of monsters.

JM; It makes you think you gotta go home.

AF: Yeah, you better go home and really get ready. Get yourself together.

JM; And maybe you could never be ready if there are that many.

AF: Yeah . . . that many. I thought I knew all the guys who were really playing, but he was great then, Jesus.

JM: It’s interesting, Art . . . no one has ever really approached the unique quality of Clark Terry’s playing. It really has a niche all to itself, without imitators.

AF: Right. I never heard anyone imitate Clark Terry. And he’s self-taught, He’s got the technique of the horn down. He can play solos or play lead or whatever it calls for. He can do it. Every note sticks right out there.

JM: He’s one of these people who plays the instrument almost as if he’s going at a chess game. It’s that complex. Yet, it seems so elegant, so obvious.

AF: Yeah, he’s spent a lot of time on that. He’s really mastered it. Really mastered the horn . . . the horns.

JM; You just mentioned somebody, Art, who I’m very interested in and who I think has been too often and too long neglected, and that’s Kenny Dorham.

AF; Yeah, Kenny Dorham. Well, younger generations of trumpet players are starting to become aware of Kenny Dorham, and I hear that some of them are actually trying to play like him. He came along at an unfortunate time for him, because there were other guys on the scene who got all of the attention.

JM; That’s right.

AF: I remember so well . . . it was Dizzy and Fats and Miles. There just wasn’t any space left for Kenny.

JM: Yes:
AF; And then some years later, Brownie came along. I remember when I left Lionel (Hampton) in 1953. I ran into Kenny one day, it must have been in ’54’or ’55, and he said, ”This is donna be our year, Art.” (LAUGHTER)

JM; (LAUGHTER) That’s great. That’s just great.

AF: ‘Cause he knew what was happening, you know. He knew that the public and the writers only have so much space and so much concentration.
These other guys just took all the limelight.

JM: Filling up a lot of space.

AF: Yeah, and (there) wasn’t nothing left for Kenny. But Kenny was unique, too.

JM; Oh, wasn’t he, though.

AF: He was a unique player. The only thing that I felt hurt Kenny was that he didn’t work enough. If he had worked enough, then he would have played better all the time. But you see, with the trumpet being the physical instrument that it is, it’s hard to be at your best all the time if you’re not Working all the time. If you’re working an isolated gig, some people hear you one time when you’re not at your best . . .

JM: Exactly.

AF.. . . . and then that’s the end, that’s the image that they go away with, and they keep that image. They say, ”Oh well, I heard him.”

JM: That’s right. And you didn’t hear him at all.

AF: That’s not fair, but that’s donna happen.

JM: I remember hearing Kenny in some of the lofts in New York in the early sixties, and he would play with little pickup bands. He was so far superior to the musicians he was playing with. That in itself seemed sad.

AF: You have to play with guys who are not as good as you are and with guys who are better than you. Of course, it’s better to play with the guys who are better than you are, but, you know, you learn from the other side, too. You can’t really look down your nose at somebody. When you start doing that, you’re only hurting yourself.

JM: It seemed to me he was such a sweet person, he never looked down his nose at anyone.

AF: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. Not at all. In talking to him, I never got that impression. He always wanted to put his best foot forward. He liked to be in a challenging situation. I know he enjoyed that. He enjoyed the give-and-take.

JM: You spent a lot of years in Los Angeles. In many ways, it is your home- town.

AF: I started playing as a professional there, but I was born in lows and grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. My brother and I went to Los Angeles when we were about sixteen years old.

JM. You spent some time with Ben Webster in those years?

AF: In the New York area.
JM; Oh, was that in New York? AF: That’s where I got to know Ben. Ben lived out in Los Angeles in the fifties, I think. His mother and his grandmother and his aunt, or somebody, lived out there. I was back east at the time. I did a couple of recordings- at least a couple of recordings-with Ben in New York. One was his album for Norman Granz. I don’t remember the name of the album. And there was another album that we both did as sidemen, some Broadway show. I don’t remember the name of the show now. And we worked on some jobs together. Some one-nighters, random jobs. Then I saw him over in Europe quite a bit, in Copenhagen, and then on other jazz festivals, like in Norway, Italy, or wherever . . . Finland.

JM: I remember a story you told me about going to Ben’s house and how difficult it would be to wake Ben up.

AF; Jim Hall told me that story. See, you had to touch him . . . touch him on the shoulder and step back.


AF: (LAUGHTER) ‘Cause he might wake up and think that he was being attacked by somebody, and he would just start swinging. If you were in the way of one of those blows, it was . . . down for the count.

JM: He was a big man.

AF: Yeah.

JM; Sarah Vaughan passed away yesterday.

AF: I just heard the news on the radio this morning. I was talking to Leonard Feather last week, and I asked him about her, because he had just come up from Los Angeles, and he said that he had spoken to her daughter, who said that she was doing better. She was out of the hospital and was discussing another album. Maybe make a tour of Japan.

JM; Amazing.

AF: Yes, amazing.

JM; She had quite a spirit.

AF: Yeah.

JM: She used her voice as an instrument, unlike any other singer.

AF; Yeah.

JM; She seemed to think of her voice as a horn.

AF: it’s true. But horns have a long way to go to catch up with her, ’cause the horns imitate the voice. So it’s like a two-way street. I know a lot of singers. They say, “Well, we listen to the homs.” But horns listen to a good singer and get so much from somebody like Sarah. And what was uncanny about Sarah-when you say she used her voice like a horn-she could play the piano. She had such a talent for harmony, for melodic variation, that she didn’t necessarily have to sing the notes that the composer had written. She would sing the words, but she would sing other notes, and the other notes would be just as sophisticated as the most knowledgeable horn player would ever think of. She was, by far, the only one. There was no one else in her category, in her league,

JM: I believe it.

AF.. She could just pick those notes from out of the blue, and you’d wonder where those notes came from. She didn’t do that all the time, of course. But she would throw in something of her own every now and then, and it would be just beautiful. She had good taste.

JM: Which is perhaps the most difficult thing to come by.

AF: Yeah, that’s the most valuable thing. Sarah knew how far to go. She i knew when to sing the melody and when to step out. She was one of my
inspirations. I remember going to hear her at the Apollo Theater in New York and just sitting there for two or three shows. During the intermission, there would be a B movie or something, and I would just sit there through that and just wait. In the forties-’46, ’47, when Dizzy had the big band- every time he went in, she would be on the bill, also. Just to hear her sing would send chills up and down my spine, really. She was so beautiful. And I never heard a singer like that. I guess I never will again, now. Thank God for records.

JM; That’s exactly right. The last time I saw her was last year after a concert that I reviewed for the Los Angeles Times. She was clearly ill. Even though she was in pain, no one in the entire theater could have seen that. Only afterwards, back in her room, could you see it. But she gave a ten-star, A+ performance.

AF: Yes, she had a stage presence that was very calming and relaxing and . . .

JM; . . . hip as hell.

AF: She was something special.

JM: Art, who helped shape your own compositional sense?

AF: As a writer? Duke Ellington’s number one, for sure. Benny Golson, Quincy Jones . . . they are accomplished writers who have all done some- thing fantastic. Thank God, because I’m not much of a writer myself. But there’s so much good stuff out there. It’s just a matter of finding something that you can put yourself into.

JM; You’ve come across someone in Europe, Fritz Pauer.

AF; Fritz and I have been associated for twenty-five years or so now. I guess I’m the first one who really started recording his music, as far as I know.
Maybe Johnny Griffin did some things over in Europe. And there’s another very good European writer, Francy Boland.

JM: Sure.

AF: I used to work with him and Kenny Clarke. That was really a top- heavy band,

JM: ILAUGHTERJ A bunch of monsters.

AF: All the Indian chiefs. (LAUGHTER)

JM; ILAUGHTERJ And then there was the chief chief.

AF: Yeah, right. The chief chief was the coolest one of them all. Everybody was hollering for a solo, and he was back there grinning.

JM: You’re talking about Klook (Kenny Clarke).

AF: Yeah. You know, in a band like that, where everybody’s so capable, it’s hard to split the time equally so everybody feels they’re getting enough chance to play. That’s the trouble with big bands, anyway. There’s only so much time. There’s only sixty minutes in an hour.


AF: But this was a great experience, a band with Johnny Griffin and Ronnie Scott. That’s a lot right there.

JM; People forget that Ronnie is a player, as well as a club owner.

AF: Yeah. He’s a great player. Johnny’s a great player, too.

JM; He is a great player. Griff might be the fastest, most articulate tenor sax player on the planet.

AF: Yeah, but he doesn’t overdo it. He also has good taste.

JM; I understand.

AF: You know, when you have the kind of technique he has, it’s hard. That technique is a blessing and a curse, ’cause you can overdo it. You can get to the place where it becomes very boring to hear a guy playing like an automatic rifle. After the first minute, you say, “Okay . . .”

JM: owe got the point.”

AF: Yeah . . . yeah.

JM: The Jazztet has a place in jazz history that is already legendary.
I’m wondering what plans you and Benny Golson might have to put that together again.

AF: We don’t actually have any plans, but we expect to get together from time to time when there is a recording date or a demand. If some promoter wants the Jazztet, well, then he’s donna get the Jazztet. That’s how we got together the last time. I just saw Benny the week before last. I was working
in New York at Sweet Basil’s
46 boundary 2 / Summer 1995

JM; Right before he came in there.

AF: Right . . . he came in . . .

JM: . . . the next week.

AF: Yeah, right. So he just closed last Sunday. In fact, Benny was the first one who told me about your place here in La Jolla (Elaro’s). He said, ”Write this down. This is a good place to go.”
JM: (LAUGHTER) He is a special guy.
AF: Special information.

JM: He is a special guy.

AF; Yeah, he really is.

JM: He called the week that you were working Sweet Basil’s, and he said, “I’m donna be at Sweet Basil’s next week, and I’ve gotta be ready.”


JM: He’s a funny, wonderful man.

AF: He’s a giant.

JM: Yes, he is.

AF: And I say, thank God for Benny Golson! If Benny Golson wasn’t in this world, I wouldn’t be sitting here the way I am now.

JM: Is that right?

AF: Benny has been very helpful to me. Benny is like a brother. He’s one guy who I’ve been able to go to over the years. Benny’s always had the confidence in me when I really needed it. Benny never failed me, and we’ll always be together in some form. When Benny told me that he was going into Sweet Basil’s, I asked what date he was going in. He told me on such and such a day, and I said, ”I’m in there right in front of you.” “Well,” he said, ”we just can’t be separated, can we?”

JM; (LAUGHTER) That’s great, He’s about as honest a man as I think we’ll ever know.

AF: He’s honest, but not . . . what’s the word . . . with malice. Not with malice.

JM: Absolutely. He’s a very kind man. Benny has something like a devotion to accuracy and truthfulness, also.

AF: Yes.

JM.. I believe it shows through in his writing, in his compositions, as well as in his playing.

AF: I think so, too. I think you get the man in his music. With some people, you don’t get the man, you get the man they would like to be. The music is different than the person, but in the case of Benny . . . well, the person is just as great.

JM; There’s a quality, Art, about Benny’s playing that is very hard to define.
Benny plays in registers and chooses notes with his own characteristic in- versions that are not only beautiful but strangely beautiful. He has a knack for the strangely beautiful.

AF; ”Knack” is the right word. Because I don’t think that he spends the time on his horn that he would like to, because of his writing. For him to be able to do as much as he does is amazing right there.

JM: And he’s writing a book, too.

AF: A book on arranging.

JM: Heavy stuff.

AF: Yeah, I know. It’s donna be worth reading even if you’re not an arranger.

JM: If you go back and scan your own career, Art, are there a couple of high points? One of them, obviously, is your friendship with Benny.

AF: (Gerry) Mulligan was very important. We’re planning on getting back together to do some more work. Mulligan was very important to me. Very important. Wardell Gray was also very important.

JM: You made the one record that I’m aware of with Mulligan, What Is There to Say. As good as the record is-and I love that record, it’s very special-! can’t help but believe that you guys must have had more power and created more beauty than what showed up on that record.

AF: That’s absolutely true. It was a very spontaneous group. When you’re in the studio and say ”take one” and ”take two” and all that, it doesn’t happen.
What did happen was good, but it just wasn’t the height that it could have
been if that had been a live recording. Like the way it can be done: take the equipment around and record every night. You get to the point where you’re not even aware [of the tape rolling] – that’s the best way to do it.

JM; Was Dave Bailey on that? AF: He was the drummer. For all the time I was in the quartet, he was the drummer.
JM: Although Larry Bunker sat in sometimes.

AF; Yeah, he was there before I was, when (trombonist) Bob Brookmeyer or [trumpeter] Chet Baker was there. For the year or so that I was in the group, it was Dave Bailey, but most of the time Bill Crow (on drums).

JM; I’ve griped for twenty-some-odd years about the fact that your group with Mulligan has only that one record. It seems to me one of the minor tragedies in jazz history that you didn’t make several albums together back then.

AF; We made an album with Annie Ross, I remember that. And we did some tunes for the movie I Want to Live. And that was it. It should have been more, but there wasn’t that much being done then. That was a one-shot deal for Columbia. We just didn’t think about it. But there sure was a lot of satisfaction there. It was a big challenge to work without the piano.

JM; I’ll bet.

AF: I’d just left Horace Silver then. Horace Silver is a very dominant pianist.
AII of a sudden, you find yourself in this situation where there’s no piano at all. A big change.

JM: How can you live in Vienna, Austria, and get over to this country so often?

AF: That’s something that I don’t think about. As long as people want to hear me, it’s just a matter of getting on the plane. It doesn’t take any more time to get from Vienna to New York than it does to go from New York to California, almost. If you’ve traveled as long as I have, and as much as I have, you learn how to relax when you have the chance. If you look at the older guys, like Basie and Ellington, they were . . .

JM: (LAUGHTER) . . . fifty years on the road!

AF; Right. The only thing that really saps your energy is when you can’t stick to the schedule. If the plane is going to be three hours late. Then you
have to lie around the airport for three hours. And you get on the plane and get to the place where you’re donna play, and you have to run right to the venue. You don’t have time to really prepare yourself. You don’t have the time to get a little rest, you just go and play.

JM; You sent me an article from Vienna, Art, a few months back, that you had done for the Christian Science Monitor, a very interesting article.
Among other things, you talk self-reflectively about how you have conversations with yourself in which you scold yourself-or whatever it is-for playing too many notes. You tell yourself, “Art, It’s time to come back to the essentials,” or words to that effect.

AF; Yeah, well, these are thoughts that enter my mind. They have to be checked out sometime. You just can’t go unmonitored. If you have a certain basic idea in your head, a certain conception of what you want to do, if you don’t do it, who else is going to? You’re the one who has the idea. If you don’t do it, you might as well not have it. And if you don’t do it, you’re wasting your time. There are certain things I want to be able to accomplish. Sometimes you have to keep your eye on the goal. You can get distracted, sidetracked.
Sometimes you can mistake the process for the goal. Our music is a matter of getting there, and you never are there . . . you never get there. But you have to remember where you want to go. You have to keep that in your mind. You have to remind yourself.

JM: I hear you.

AF: ‘This is what I really want to do.”

JM: One of the ideas, if I hear your word correctly, that I think you execute often and very well is the playing of the Billy Strayhorn canon. I’m thinking of ”Blood Count” and ”Warm Valley-” AF: That one’s Ellington . . .
dM: Sometimes you can’t tell the difference.

AF: That’s right.

JM: But you know what I’m saying . . – those gentle, deep, problematic songs that those two men turned out and that you have a large, gorgeous conception of. it’s hard to talk about music, as Kenny Burrell says, but if you have an idea about how you execute those, what would you say It is?

AF; I just want to get out what I hear in them. I hear that this is a great tune, and I have to play it. I’ve heard other people play it and admire what they’ve
done with it. I would like to be able to do something as well. And that’s all I can verbalize about it.

JM: Okay.
AF: I hear songs like ”Warm Valley” or ”Chelsea Bridge” . . .

JM’ ”U M M G.”

AF: Yeah, “U.M.M.G.” . . . “All Too Soon” . . .

JM; Yes.

AF: Well, you say, ”Wow, those are great tunes, and I would just like to play them weII.” That’s something you can strive for . . . for the rest of your life. Sometimes you touch on it, sometimes you’re able to slip into that slot where everything falls in place. That doesn’t happen every time, but at least you know it can happen. That keeps you going.

JM; ”Lotus Blossom” is another one of those songs.

AF: Yeah. Those fellows wrote some great music that’s donna be around for a long time. That’s really the classical music of our time.

JM; Earlier, when you mentioned how the fewest notes played well often wind up defining the music at its best, I immediately thought of both Ellington and Basie.

AF: Uh-huh. Yeah . , . they could have played more, but they knew when to edit.

JM; Right, exactly.

AF; And that’s a very rough thing to do, because we’re all self-critical, and we feel like we’re not doing enough.

JM; I agree.

AF: So then you do more, but you don’t know that you’re overshooting the mark. So you have to be very, very centered to be able to edit yourself and to know when to leave a space. Basie was really a master at that. He could play a lot more piano than he did, but he had the good sense to let someone else try to do that. He put himself on another level completely.

JM: Right.

AF: Not competing with Earl Hines . . .

JM; . . . or Art Tatum, or Oscar (Peterson) . . .

AF: Art Tatum . . . people like that. He was too smart for that. And Ellington was always the band piano player. Everybody said that he was the greatest band piano player there ever was. You know, there was not one piece the band played that featured him. If you have your own band, then you’re donna have your featured spot. But he never had a featured spot.

JM: He was always showcasing Rabbit (Johnny Hodges).

AF: Or somebody.

JM; (PauI) Gonsalvez or (Harry) Carney.
AF: Uh-huh, yeah. But he wasn’t featured. He never featured himself in any numbers at all. He might have a little small solo here and there. But it was just what was needed for that moment.
JM; You just mentioned a word, Art, ”centered.” If you’re centered enough, you might be able to achieve that editing and that clarification. Gene Lees, in a book of his that I’m sure you’ve seen called Meet Me as Jim and Andy’s, has written one of his best chapters about you. And he refers to you in that book as a stoic man. Stoic perhaps, but centered no doubt. When you talk about centering, you’re almost alluding to something that’s religious or deeply meditative.
AF: Yeah, well, I don’t . . . I don’t like to verbalize it too much . . .

JM: Okay.

AF: . . . because it’s an abstract thing. It’s more of a feeling than something that you can put your hands on. We all have that, one way or the other. It’s there, you just have to look for it sometimes . . . you have to become.

JM: Yes.

AF: You can’t force it, but sometimes you have to put a little energy in there to make it happen. You just can’t wait for it to happen.

JM: (LAUGHTER) You have to nudge it a bit.

AF: Yeah . . . you have to give it a little nudge, but you can’t force it.