Just before Christmas 2018 one of the finest documentaries of a jazz musician ever made found its way onto the Amazon video streaming service. Talmage Farlow: A Film by Lorenzo DeStefano, originally released in 1981, is a gentle, intimate portrait of the man they called the “Art Tatum of the jazz guitar.” Yet Tal Farlow always maintained an air of polite bewilderment at any compliments aimed in his direction. A genuinely modest man, he never seriously contemplated jazz as a full time occupation, enigmatically dipping in and out of the big time throughout his life. Widely acknowledged to be the leading figure in defining the modern jazz guitar in the 1950s, he emerged as a member of vibist Red Norvo’s Trio with Charles Mingus on bass in 1950. The recordings they made between 1950-51 for Albert Marx’s Discovery label (later taken over by Savoy Records in 1953 and subsequently Atrista Records, who released every title recorded by the group as a Savoy two-LP package in 1976) assured his place in the jazz pantheon. They made history, regarded by many as among the finest small group recordings in all of jazz. While most young guitar modernists such as Sal Salvador, Jimmy Raney, Billy Bauer, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Chuck Wayne, Johnny Smith and Dick Garcia were following a broadly similar path, influenced by the likes of Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell, it was Farlow who was setting the pace.
Collectively, Norvo’s trio represented virtuosity writ large, but it was Farlow’s control and ease of execution, even at the fastest tempi, that caught the ear — had the guitar ever been played so fast and effortlessly? But like a duck gliding across a pond, there was much going on beneath the surface. Closer listening revealed a thorough command of bebop harmony; an ability to effortlessly string chains of arpeggios together to give contrast his single note lines; a very personal way of using large intervals and a highly developed melodic sense that allowed him to spin ideas across bar lines and chord changes plus he tuned his guitar an octave lower, giving a warm feeling to everything he played that contributed his distinctive sound. But there was one one extra ingredient that made his playing compelling, then as now. As guitar legend Johnny Smith put it, he and a fellow guitar player went to see Farlow perform with Red Norvo’s trio at The Embers in New York in 1950. “This guitar player said to me, ‘No wonder he can play so good, look at those long, skinny fingers,’” said Smith. “Well, I thought for a few moments and said, ‘No that’s not right…that kind of playing doesn’t come from the fingers, that kind of playing comes from the heart and soul.’”
The impact of Farlow’s playing on his fellow guitarists was profound. The seemingly effortless speed of his single note lines on pieces like ‘Move’ has lost none of its “wow” factor, even today. When guitarist Howard Alden played with Red Norvo in 1979, the vibist underlined just how much Farlow had shaken-up guitarists at the time, for example, the great Barney Kessel, like most Christian disciples, played mostly using downstrokes, but after hearing what Farlow was doing with alternate (down-up) picking, he completely re-thought his right hand technique. Listen to Farlow’s playing on the out choruses of ‘Zing Went the Strings of My Heart’ and you get a sense of what caused Kessel’s re-think. As a series of widely admired albums for Norman Granz’ Clef and Verve labels followed, he was voted the new-star guitarist in the 1954 Downbeat Critics Poll and took top spot in the magazine’s guitar polls of 1956 and 1957. But after a run at Sy Barron’s Composer club with pianist Eddie Costa and bassist Vinnie Burke in 1958 (the trio is captured on This Is Tal Farlow, Tal and The Swinging Guitar of Tal Farlow, all on the Verve label), he was not seen or heard of on the New York scene for almost a decade — although he continued recording for the Verve label until December 1959, his last sessions producing The Guitar Artistry of Tal Farlow and Tal Farlow Plays the Music of Harold Arlen. Four years later, in December 1963, Downbeat magazine ran a story by Ira Gitler somewhat plaintively entitled “Whatever Happened To Tal Farlow?” He was missed, uniquely as much by by fans, musicians and critics.
Recently married, he had settled for a simpler life at his riverside retreat in Sea Bright, New Jersey returning to his old trade of sign writing which he had pursued since apprenticing after high school — he had only taken up the guitar at age 22. Now he could enjoy boating, fishing and playing local gigs out of sight and out of mind of the jazz media. He seemed to like it that way. Then, in October 1967 he was finally persuaded by DJ Mort Fega to open at the Frammis club on Manhattan’s East Side. During his absence from the New York scene and without any new recordings, a mystique had developed around him, and with his knowing he had become regarded as a living legend. “It didn’t take long for word to get around that the guitarist was back in town and people came from near and far to hear [him],” said Fega in Downbeat magazine. “He turned everybody around…to a man, everyone agreed that, if possible, he was even more of a monster on his instrument than they remembered…It had taken considerable persuasion to convince him that he had been the undisputed champ when he quit the scene, and that since then no one had begun to approach his unique style, a style that had earned for him the highest reward — designation by many of his fellow musicians as the world’s best jazz guitarist.”
Then Farlow was gone again. To all intents and purposes, he was a homebody, “I don’t need expensive things or a hectic life, so I stay in Sea Bright” he told Downbeat magazine in 1979, and his activity during that decade reflected his in-out relationship with the big time. On 5 July 1969 he appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival as a member of the Newport All-Stars, briefly reuniting him with Red Norvo, and he recorded The Return of Tal Farlow that sounded as was as if he had never been away, “Basically, I play pretty much in the same manner [as I did on the 1950s Verve albums],” he said, “I guess if anything I’ve gotten faster in my old age.” He was 48 at the time. Participating in several more albums produced by Don Schlitten, including saxophonist Sonny Criss’s Up, Up and Away, and Sam Most’s Mostly Flute, he appeared again at the Newport Jazz Festival (now moved to the Wollman Amphitheatre in Central Park), this time in a duo with Jim Hall on 30 June 1973. On 4 July 1976 he appeared in Carnegie Hall accompanied by Hank Jones, Jack Six and Roy Haynes in a “Salute to Tal” concert as part of the Newport Jazz Festival in New York and the following month he began an association with Concord records, recording On Stage with Red Norvo, Hank Jones, Ray Brown and Jake Hanna live at the Concord Jazz Festival, in Concord, California. From then on, encouraged by Concord’s Carl Jefferson, more recordings followed — Sign of the Times from 1977, again with Hank Jones, and Tal Farlow ’78 — while his involvement in jazz beyond his local scene grew. Between 1980 and early 1981, producer Lorenzo DeStefano completed his documentary on Farlow’s life, Talmage Farlow, which began previewing mid-1981. In September, he and Red Norvo arrived in the UK for a series of dates arranged by Concord, and mid-afternoon on 23 September, I met them both off the train to take them to their hotel, where they had also agreed to do short interviews.
As events turned out, after a brief lunch, Red Norvo retired to his room for a nap, and it was Farlow who kindly obliged with an interview plus posing for the formal portrait shot above. I wanted to capture Farlow’s face half-in and half-out of the available light as a metaphor for his half in-half out career in jazz. I now see that the jacket he was wearing at the time also made a couple of appearances in DeLorenzo’s documentary Talmage Farlow. In our interview, Farlow references the documentary, which had been completed earlier in the year and had recently made its world premiere at the Carnegie Hall Cinema in New York City. The critical response was enthusiastic — “Superb. Brilliantly crafted. A remarkable film about a remarkable artist,” Sight & Sound; “A revealing glimpse of Mr. Farlow, both as a person and a musician. As much concerned with a philosophy of life as it is with music,” The New York Times; “One of the most striking portrait documentaries ever made, a classic,” Jazz Educators Journal. As a result, the clamour to hear him play became too great for even Farlow to ignore, resulting in his venturing from his Sea Bright retreat for international tours and festival appearances, including, in the early 1990s, replacing Barney Kessel in the Great Guitars line-up alongside Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd with whom he toured until shortly before his death. For our interview, Farlow was warm, friendly and generous with is time. I later learned he had the reputation of being the nicest guy in the music business, which gets no argument from me. Warm and witty, he often told stories on himself, underlining the denouement with his easy smile. Born in 1921, he died on 25 July 1998 without once ever having believed he was the true jazz great he really was.
‘Great interview Stuart! I will watch this now on Netflix,’ JACOB YOUNG, Guitarist, Composer and ECM Recording Artist.
‘I have shared this great Tal Interview with all my students,’ PROF/DR TOMMY SMITH, Saxophonist, Composer, Arranger, Artistic Director of Jazz, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, ECM and Spartacus Recording Artist.
‘Keep this work up!” RAN BLAKE, Pianist, Composer, Recording Artist, Educator and Recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, former chair of the Contemporary Improvisation Department, New England Conservatory and currently faculty member at NEC
Tal Farlow Interview Conducted by Stuart Nicholson on 23rd September 1981
© Stuart Nicholson 2019
Q: When you left Philadelphia for New York, I understand you roomed with Jimmy Raney, a fellow guitarist
TF: Well, we lived in the same apartment house in New York, we were there for the purpose of joining the Union
Q: The 802
TF: Right. You had to spend six months in the jurisdiction, you know? You had to become a resident of the city in order to qualify — we all belonged to other locals, but you had to establish residence for six months before you could work as a member of the 802, that’s what we were all doing there together, trying to get by.
Q: What was the story of Sal Salvador’s food parcels?
TF: His parents had a big store in Springfield, Massachusetts, and a big cardboard box would arrive with various things
Q: And you worked with Buddy DeFranco around this time?
TF: Yes, I worked with Buddy in Les Croupiers — he had Milt Jackson on vibes and John Levy on bass — John went with George Shearing
Q: Then came an interesting point in your career — working with Red Norvo and Charlie Mingus in Red’s trio and then working with bandleader Artie Shaw, and back to Red Norvo. Those recordings with Artie Shaw I’ve not heard, they’re pretty rare — in the UK at least — so perhaps we could kind of contrast your experiences with Artie Shaw and Red Norvo. Can we start with Artie Shaw?
TF: That was 1954, I guess
Q: What sort of character was he?
TF: Well, he was a terrific musician, a stickler for perfection; he liked playing very clean, and no guesswork, so that involved a lot of rehearsing
Q: Could you read [music] at this time?
TF: I didn’t have to on that gig because the things were pretty simple — they repeated, you know, riff type of things — it was no problem to learn them…there was music I think though…yeah, it was no problem. I could learn it as fast as we rehearsed it, very simple things, not that involved, and I had actually played several of the things that he had played in the past with the previous Gramercy Five — that’s what he called the group — I had played them before with other groups, I had heard them before, I knew those lines
Q: I’ve read he had a good ear
TF: Oh yeah! He was very, very…you know…he knew what he was doing! I was with him about six months, maybe a little bit longer, I played with him all over the U.S.
Q: Did you enjoy that work
TF: Yeah, I was different for me because as you say, I had been with Red before that. Red played a looser style, and the tempos we played on average were much brighter. You see Artie, he got into the business when dancing was the thing, and he always continued to think of that when he counted off the tempo, he had that sort of in the back of his mind — or maybe in the front of it! He would do these bouncy things, but they were a lot different — like with Red we’d play real uptempo, real fast, the instrumentation — not having drums or piano — called for a little more movement, so things don’t drag, you know, with just guitar, vibes and bass
Q: Those things first came out on Discovery I believe
TF: That was the original label, they came out on other labels too I think
Q: Yes, Savoy put them out, that’s where I got my copy. They were very fast, some of those things, quite a challenge I would think, those tempos
TF: Yes, at first. I had come from a society type thing, they played for dancing with no real fast things at all. Red had, er, well I heard him before I ever knew him, with Woody Herman, he was featured on things like ‘The Man I Love’ and ‘I Surrender Dear’, things like that where he would play it slow at first, at a sort of swing tempo then he would play at a real fast tempo, and we were doing trio versions of those things — I got along on the first two parts, but the last part I couldn’t keep up! I was…I didn’t have any choice, I had to do it, and the way I originally got by, before I developed the ability to keep up with him, there were things that fell real easy on the guitar, sort of gimmick type things, which you can play real fast and I would fall back on them until I got my speed up and be a little creative at the same time, but I worked on it, I guess I was at an age where I could sort of learn fast
Q: Sink or swim
TF: yeah, that’s right, keep going or go back to New York! That was real good for me, you know when you are put in a situation when you have to do something, there was just no choice
Q: How did the gig come about
TF: I replaced Mundell Lowe in Red’s trio. Mundell was working with him, I had never heard them so I didn’t know they played that fast! Mundell had a commitment with Frankie Laine, he was going on the road with him, and Red had been working around the East, but his home is in California, he wanted to go back there and I didn’t have any reason not to go there, so…and I had wanted to go to California, and that was the ticket for me, and I went out there and spent quite a bit of time out there. I was with Red for about two years and we worked around California and we made a couple of tours and ended up with me being in New York and going all the way back to California!
Q: So you were settled in California at this time
TF: Yeah, I got so I spent more time there than any place else during that period, it was sort of strange after I had gone to all that trouble to get an 802 card — I had just got it and I left New York and stayed away. But it was fruitful in that Red got me a 47 card as we worked so much in California — it wasn’t strictly by the rules of the Union; he went before the board and explained that I had been working with him and I was an essential part of his group, and he asked them to give me a card and they did without me having to put in the six months work, which I couldn’t afford to do, which was a real bonus. There’s real history there now ‘cos since then they have sent me a Gold Card — sort of combination Senior Citizen and honorary philanthrope! I got it here, I don’t have to pay any dues! Actually, I should have one from New York, I was in that one longer but they say you’ve got to go up there and ask for it — in other words, they’ll accept your dues so long as you’re willing to pay!
Q: When you came back to New York, you went into a club…
TF: Yeah, for there I went into a place called the Composer in New York with Eddie Costa and Vinnie Burke, Eddie played the piano and vibes, Vinnie on the bass and I worked around the eastern part of the country when they closed down
Q: What was your thinking then, because it wasn’t long before you retired, or withdrew from the scene
TF: Not retirement, more out of the public eye, I was still playing
Q: You were married by then
TF: Yes, but still working. I didn’t really miss that New York scene. Also, I’m a sign writer and I did some of that work, and then I would do the occasional jazz festival — Newport and things like that. But I stayed out of working in New York for about ten years, that took me to ’68-’69 I guess and then I worked in a room called The Frammis with my trio — Johnny Knapp and Lyn Christie. It was a real nice gig, and then I started to do more jazz concerts, you know, George Wein things, Newport festivals — they got moved to New York in about 1970 or so, they got out of hand — he started putting rock groups in with the jazz and you’ve got the two elements there that didn’t get along with one another.
Q: So, you’ve got your Gold Card, senior citizen, looking around today at the current crop of guitarists coming up in jazz, what are your impressions
TF: Some of them do real interesting things, I don’t listen to enough of it to be any kind of authority on it, but a lot of them…I started teaching a few years ago, at home, and I got a lot of guys — if not most of them — out of the rock thing, they wanted to get into jazz, a little more harmonically involved
Q: Do you read [music] now?
TF: Yes, not real fast, I’m not a good reader but I can do it
Q: So you were self-taught, playing by ear to Charle Christian I understand
TF: All by ear, yes, I memorised the choruses of the record, I mean if you play it over and over — like learning a language you know!
Q: So things have moved on in jazz guitar since Charlie Christian, not least by you, so how does he now stand in the guitar pantheon
TF: He was the first one I heard, that’s a little different to getting in and playing and later hearing someone, and I think just the novelty of hearing the electric guitar at that time was sort of attractive, because it had always been buried in the rhythm section in the jazz band or dance band. Dance bands were very popular then, most of the jazz came from the dance bands, the amplifier brought the guitar up to where it could hold its own with the sax and trumpet
Q: Have you worked in a big band
TF: No, the electric guitar is much more valuable in a small group
Q: You’re back on the scene again, how have you found things away from your local scene in Sea Bright
TF: Well the last two years I’ve been really busy, almost too busy, mostly going around from one place to another, with local bass players and drummers — I’d sure prefer to have my own group but that way it’s just a little bit unsure — putting up three guys instead of one and travelling by aeroplane and staying in hotels, it nibbles at the profit. They have at most every location I’ve played, they have a real good drummer and bass player and it works out well for them ‘cos they’re home, they’re working all the time with different people coming through, that’s the way it is. But I do prefer an organised group which I have at home, but I can’t take them any place! There’s several places I play, where I live — especially in the summertime ‘cos it’s sort of a resort area, a lot of people from the city come there
Q: You mention your own group, who is in that?
TF: Well, I have a bass player called Gary Mazzaroppi, I use him all the time, and one of half a dozen drummers if the gig calls for it
Q: But do you do seem to prefer working without a drummer
TF: It gives you a different kind of freedom, you’re free to reshape the harmonies ‘cos the bass player is going to play the fundamentals and you’re not going to stray that much, that you know, you’ll clash with him otherwise — a lot of things we have; we know where it’s going, we’ve made the change in it and we both know it and without a drummer there it doesn’t matter, then with the vibes I have to cue him in, so that’s one kind of freedom. The other thing is that when you’re playing with drums you sort got a rhythmic frame — with the bass and vibes, the bass is responsible for time, but with drums the bass player can play with me harmonically — in fact we’ve got a thing we do where I’ve got a frequency divider which drops the guitar down an octave when it comes out of the amplifier, and that puts me exactly in his range, he’s very good at playing up high on the bass — almost in the guitar range — so we just swop roles, and with the drums it’s like nothing has changed, nobody has to be told to do anything, we just change one to the other — it’s different!
Q: Did you bring this device on tour?
TF: No, it’s built into a stool and it’s a bit cumbersome to carry, its not really that big, it’s a very tiny little thing, I made it in about 1965. I first heard it with Eddie Harris but you couldn’t get them for guitar; a horn can sustain — he can hold the note — so I did the obvious thing, I just amplified to where there was enough signal (not out of the loudspeaker), it was amplified to drive the divider, it has to have a signal so that it knows what to divide, so I just boosted it up real high and clipped the transient — the first part of the note — so that it did in fact sustain, and it worked okay.
Q: My goodness. It’s funny, every guitarist I’ve known is also into electronics but this is another level, have you patented your idea so you can market it?
TF: No, it’s not anything you can patent, it’s called a flip-flop, er, that’s the slang for it, it’s really a bi-stable multi-vibrator, a circuit that picks out every other cycle. You have 440 cycles that represents A natural, you just eliminate every other cycle and you’ve got 220, which is down an octave — and they’re the basis of computers and computers have been around for a long time, a long time before transistors they had vacuum tubes for computers then. As you say, all guitarists are into electronics! I guess I got interested in all this because with an electric guitar you’re involved with an amplifier and that’s what gets you interested, and I guess others too. [Bassist] Red Mitchell was into electronics, this was back in the fifties, he sort of got me interested. I bought a couple of those kits you put together, they give you all the parts and you make an amplifier or whatever. I built a couple of those things, this sort of learned me the very basic things, about voltage, resistance, capacitors and things like that, but I really had to get a little deeper into it to make the divider — I burnt some holes in the rug with the soldering iron!
Q: You’ve had a remarkable career…
TF: Well, I guess for me I would say having known guys that I consider as real remarkable performers was remarkable for me. I just enjoy what I’m doing now, playing. I mean, I haven’t done any writing speak of, other than a couple of riff tunes for an album, er, I’m just happy playing, you know, trying to keep that going
Q: Can we back track for your thoughts on Red’s trio with you and Charles Mingus, as Mingus…
TF: Mingus got known for being sort of volatile, but that was after he left us. We didn’t have anything like that, he was a very sensitive guy, you know? He was in a sort of vulnerable position at that time, but I thought it went pretty well between us
Q: And again, contrasting that with Artie Shaw, did he socialise after the gig?
TF: Somewhat, yeah. At the time he was married to Doris Dowling — an actress — and she was with him most of the time, so the rest of us, we didn’t have our wives with us, we were sort of, you know, hanging out in twos and threes. I got to be with Tommy Potter most of the time, the bass player, and he got interested in electronics, and we were playing in Chicago, we found a place that would provide a kit to build a radio, and he and I put one together in the hotel room! We had one of my favourite pianists in the band, Hank Jones, and it started out with Denzil Best on drums..
Q: So a lot of guys who, for want of better words, were from the modern school, then, while Shaw was from the previous generation, the swing generation — did he adapt to modern trends with you guys?
TF: Yeah, he could do it. But I think he had such a big success with what he had done before that I think he couldn’t help but show a little allegiance — this whole thing was put together with the help of a guy named Ralph Watkins who owned The Embers — a club. Before that he had owned different clubs on 52nd Street — like a ghetto of jazz clubs — and he knew the business inside out, and he knew Artie Shaw and I guess they talked about Artie making a return. He’s been off the scene for I don’t know how many years, but it was a long time. So, actually Ralph helped get the band together, and every one of us who worked in that band had worked in The Embers — we were all Embers alumni ‘cos I had been there with Red about three different times, and stayed a long time each time. In fact, I wasn’t even in New York when I read in Downbeat that I was in his group! When I got back to New York they said they had been trying to call me, so I then went to a rehearsal, and we rehearsed — to show you what a perfectionist he was, The Embers was sort of s spotlight place, you know, all the celebrities came there, and so he took the group prior to the Embers engagement, which that was what it was put together for, he took us to Boston, like they take stage shows to break them in out of town, get them cleaned up, make little adjustments, fine tuning and get it just so for New York, and that’s what we did in Boston and played a couple of other dates elsewhere and then we had the grand opening night at The Embers in New York. The first night there the young lady was playing cocktail piano there, and then they announced the great Artie Shaw was making a return to the nightlife, and the place was just packed with celebrities — everywhere you looked there was a face you’d seen on television or in the papers or something, and we had to get on the bandstand first. I went over and reached over and turned the switch on the amplifier so the tubes would warm up and he had his clarinet sticking on a peg, and I knocked the clarinet over and it fell against the base of a microphone, so I just set it back up there and forgot about it. And we got on the bandstand and then Art makes his entrance to a standing ovation and he gets up on the bandstand and he picks up his clarinet and asks Hank Jones to give him a A and he goes ‘ding’ and Artie goes ‘parp’! So I went the colour of purple and so he turns to me and says, ‘Has any anybody been messing with my horn here?’ — only not quite so nicely — and so I said, ‘I bumped it when I turned my amplifier on, it fell over’. He went quiet for a couple of seconds and then he said, ‘It sure as hell won’t play!’ But he had another on on the piano, and he took that one and went on and played it, and I sat there thinking come the end of the set he’s gonna to wrap that clarinet around my neck or else he’s gonna go off for another 15 years and nobody will know where he is! So after the first set I was talking to him and he said, ‘You made nightmare come true for me tonight, I’ve often been asleep and woken in a cold sweat and dreamt that I’m on a concert stage and a key falls off my clarinet — you made it come true!’ He was real nice about it, after…But later on we played Chicago where all the music companies are based — most of them, anyway — the Gibson company, who make my guitar — so that when you work with a guy with a name as big as Shaw, they sometimes give you an instrument so you can endorse it and they use it in their advertising, so they gave me a brand new guitar from the man who was head of artist relations at Gibson — a nice man — and so I invited him to be my guest when he came to see Artie Shaw. His wife was curious to see this guy who had married all these film stars, they didn’t go out at night, but they did a matinee Saturday afternoons, so they decided to come in then. So we were playing this first set on this Saturday afternoon, and I saw them come in, and they sat down in front of me, so we finished the set, and I put this new guitar on the top of the piano — and it was still plugged-in and the amplifier was still on, and Artie — I had walked off the bandstand — Artie was swabbing his clarinet out, and he put it on the piano and as he walked away he tripped over my cord and pulled the guitar down on the floor, it hit the floor with the amplifier still on and it went WHAMMMM and the guy from Gibson just kind of looked at me in a real pained way! But it didn’t damage it! Artie said, ‘I got even with you didn’t I!’
Q: When did you develop your personalised guitar for Gibson?
TF: In about 1961-62. They started doing what they call an artist series — Barney [Kessel] did one, Johnny Smith did one and a guy not on the jazz scene, Trini Lopez did one
Q: Did you have any say in the design or any features you wanted to incorporate?
TF: I did the design, actually. But they didn’t follow it very closely, in fact the guitar I have with me is the prototype of the one they produced — it’s not like the one they produced, my copy of that got stolen at an airport, I think that’s where it went anyway, somewhere between San Francisco and Newark, so I’ve been playing this prototype, it’s a different colour — basically — as far as the dimensions go, it’s the same thing
Q: What did you incorporate in your model
TF: The only thing novel on it they couldn’t do, they declined to do it because they felt sure they would get them back for repair, was instead of having two stationary pick-ups on it, I suggested they make one on a track that could be moved into the finger board and the bridge, and that would cover all situations.. I proposed they use one pick-up and move it from one place to the other, but they said they were pretty sure it would develop rattles or whatever, all that circuitry that was necessary would pick up a lotta noise, interference, and so out through the amplifier and they would get them back in great quantities to the factory to be repaired, and they said they wanted to avoid that if they can. So they went ahead and put two pick-ups on it, so there’s not really anything novel about it, except maybe the colour!
Q: One thing I notice about your style is that, perhaps more than most guitarists, you use harmonics in playing the melody sometimes and in your improved line…
TF: Yeah, well I started doing it with Red, we had a couple of tunes that were well rehearsed where he and I played as if were written, together, and by playing harmonics it puts me in his register, it blended well with the vibes and it attracted people’s interest. It’s not really hard to do, I guess most guys can do it, Chuck Wayne can do it…
Q: And Johnny Smith on ‘Moonlight In Vermont’, that big hit he had…
TF: I’m sure he can do it, there’s not much he can’t do! We both came to New York about the same time — he wasn’t with us — he had just gotten out of the Army — I knew him when he was in the Army, he was stationed near Philadelphia, I was working there and he used to come in and jam, he used to play my guitar, tuned the strings down…
Q: Do you still see him, he seems to have disappeared from the scene
TF: He still shows up at concerts in the western part of the country, like Concord and down in Texas and Oklahoma. But see, he has this big music store in Colorado Springs in Denver, he’s very successful, he’s got his own aeroplane — he flies his own plane — he’s got a fishing boat in California, really doing well. I remember when he went out there, I was still in New York when he left, and he had a daughter that had an asthma problem and he told me he was going to move out there for her health, it seemed like a strange place for a musician, but he sure made it work for him, he’s really a genius type of guy, he can play any instrument and he has perfect pitch — he can listen to that music and tell you what key it’s in, what notes they’re playing — he really is an unusual guy, a real nice guy too, a lotta times he has helped guys around New York, including myself, he was a staff musician for NBC for a long time
Q: In what way did he help you?
TF: Just answering questions, I was interested in some help in learning how to read, and gigs he passed me
Q: If you were talking to your students what would you say about the importance of reading, notation, as opposed to chord symbols, although plenty of arrangements still use chord symbols and a small amount of notation
TF: Well, more is expected of a guitarist now. When I was starting you could get by — as you say — just by reading chord symbols, and that’s not very hard, and of course, at that time — as well as now — there were guys playing classical guitar, so reading is really one of the essential things. See, I haven’t been qualified to do studio work, so I’m sure that’s made my life different ‘cos that’s where the money is, for a lotta guys, i mean it keeps you home
Q: You sound if you’d have liked to have done studio work
TF: Sure, but now I don’t think I would, ‘cos er, well, I don’t really know, it’s never been possible for me to do it, so I’m sorta still looking at it from the outside
Q: Your association with Red goes way back to the late forties, early fifties, but you’re still working together now, so can you bring us up to date?
TF: Well, his home is in Santa Monica, California and we sometimes used to run into each other on the road, more often at jazz festivals, like the Newport Jazz festival, or something like that; if we were working on the same day they would always put us together, give us a bass player and call it the Red Norvo Trio. But I don’t know where the idea to play are regularly with each other really started, I was for it, and I guess Red was too. I think it probably started with Concord records about getting back together, we were going to get Red Mitchell, but he wasn’t in the country. When we started again Red [Norvo] had been working with a guy from Washington called Steve Novasel, he had been working on and off with him for about five years and he liked the way he played, I do too, so we got him and we rehearsed for a week at my house in Sea Bright and went into Michael’s Pub, but things come up that he’s been doing through the years and things that I’ve been doing, which doesn’t include each other, but it eventually works out so it looks like we’ll keep it that way for the future — he’s 73…
Q: A recent release here by Concord called On Stage had you both featured
TF: Yeah, that came out not too long ago, but it was taped in ’76 with Jake Hanna on drums and Hank Jones on piano. But I’m not proud of that record, I didn’t play well on that! But there’s another in the works with my group called Chromatic Palette with Tommy Flanagan on piano and Gary Mazzaroppi — my friend from Jersey — on bass. It’s the best Concord one I’ve done anyway. I don’t know who fixes the name for these things, but it’s okay…
Q: I’m surprised at what you say about On Stage — there’s some nice moments in there
TF: I don’t remember what it was, but it was an uncomfortable scene and I don’t remember for why, but er, also, taping a concert you…anything that is individual is lost in recording, people react and you hear them and you can’t figure out listening what they are responding to, it’s something they are seeing, not what they are hearing, you know? For instance, if I play, you can hear if I’m playing harmonics, but sometimes I play a chord [picks up guitar] and I put this finger over and play with this finger and pick like that…you know? And you might or might not know what I’m doing by listening to the record, and if you hear people react you don’t know that’s what I’m doing — you wonder what’s happening — maybe my pants fell down!
Q: Well, Jake Hanna, the old Woody Herman drummer from the sixties wasn’t he, plays well in small groups as well, which is not always the case for big band drummers
TF: Yeah, that’s true, but I think he’s got a position with Concord, as well as playing…really what got me this busy was er, that Concord opened up a big office in New York — it does more than just distribute records — they are putting packages together, like this thing now with Red, that’s one thing. The other thing that got me into New York was, er, a TV documentary on me an hour long, TV show, it hasn’t seen TV yet but it’s in the theatres in New York and Carnegie Hall Theatre, done by a guy named Lorenzo DeStefano, he produced it, raised all the money for it, I didn’t get to see it for a long time, working all the time, finally, we got out to California, when I got out there, he borrowed or rented a theatre and showed it to about 150 of us…so…it’s okay.
Q: Is a retrospective thing or does it cover your ‘comeback’, if that’s the right word…
TF: Everything. They even got me painting a sign on a boat, the stern of a boat, all kinds of things, and its got a lot of interviews with people I know — it starts with George Benson saying how big my hands are!
Q: So you enjoyed the TV thing but you don’t like listening to your records??
TF: It’s hard to be objective. But I have records I made some time ago and not heard the playback on them, and played them years later and not known who it was! My style, though, hasn’t changed over the years, I don’t think, that’s real hard to do, I think you grow into a style and at a certain age it sort of becomes set. But in a small, limited way i have tried to change, and it doesn’t really change that much, maybe a little different approach to harmony, I’ve also tried to develop the technique so that, say for instance you can play intervals as fast as scales, things like that [pause, picks up guitar again] it mean jumping around a bit [demonstrates] …I always tried to play not entirely scale-wise and not entirely wide intervals but just completely at home with any kind of harmonies, which is sort of what you do when you improvise, making new melodies instead of changes…
©Stuart Nicholson 2019