8 years ago

Volume 12 - Issue 3 - November 2006

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On our Cover:Stepping

On our Cover:Stepping into Jazz Historywith Gene DiNoviInterview by Pamela MarglesEntering Gene DiNovi's studio is like stepping intojazz history - but this is history as it's still beingmade. The large room on the top floor of his downtownToronto townhouse is dominated by a Steinway grand. On thepiano lie some of his arrangements of Gershwin tunes he played ata concert in Kitchener the previous night. The walls are coveredwith photos and posters of concert dates from around the world.Books and scores are piled up everywhere.DiNovi has played piano with legendary singers like PeggyLee, Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, Anita O'Day, Carmen Mccrae,Billy Holiday, Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra, and worked withjazz greats like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Buddy Defranco,Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Zoot Sims, RubyBraff, Benny Carter, and even Frank Zappa.He points to a photo of the Claude ThornhillBand's rhythm section. 'My son William isnamed after Thornhill's drummer, Billy Exiner.Billy never made the history books, but he was avery interesting guy, and a great influence. At28, he had never played drums, but one night hejust sat down at the drums at a dance .. . . He wasour cultural guru. I called him the 'sleeping sage'because he would sleep anywhere. The Thornhill band created anincredibly impressionistic cloud-like sound, and Billy would literallyfall asleep playing.''Claude's orchestra was seminal in the forties . But whenever hebecame successful, he would break up his band. He couldn't standsuccess. But his rhythm section wanted to stay together, so they putan ad in Downbeat Magazine, "Rhythm Section for Hire". PeggyLee, who was very smart, hired them. They'd go to Nola's Studioin New York and play. Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Brew Moore, allthese guys would walk in and join them. That's how I startedworking with them.'Two portraits of DiNovi in the studio were sketched by TonyBennett. 'Tony is a great ballad singer, and he can get a rhythmthing going better than Frank Sinatra. But it's more show businessthan jazz. Sinatra's not a jazz singer, either. There's a recording ofhim trying to sing Billy Strayhorn's Lush Life. He just couldn't doit. He tried Have a Heart, which I wrote with Johnny Mercer, andsaid, "Nobody can sing this. " Whereas Peggy did it easily, withphrasing and subtlety. Peggy swung.''I actually learned the most from working with Lena Horne and herhusband, the arranger Lennie Hayton. Lena's not a jazz singer either.But who cares - she's a great performer, even more than a great singer.,'A lot of swing musicians hired us because they wanted to learnabout bebop. Artie Shaw called me to his apartment to show himwhat bebop was about. You know everything when you're eighteenyears old! But there was a lot of friction between the swing andbebop players, with people hating each other. The older musiciansdidn't think we could swing, and they were quite right, at thatpoint. We were great but we weren't good, if you know what Imean. But we did fantastic things that scared the older guys, sothere was a lot of backlash. And we sure did learn to swing ....I never knew back then if I was going to play great or badly. Wetook chances. Playing that kind of music, you have to take hugerisks because it's very hard.''When I joined Benny Goodman's group, he really wanted tofind out about what we were doing. The only time Goodman wastruly happy was when he was playing the clarinet. He was justmade to play that instrument - and he played it like no one ever"When people ask me howto play jazz, I always say,study Ravel for harmony,play the Bach Inventions fortechnique, and swing, becausethey swung. Afterthat ... learn all the tunes."played it. I used to sit alone with him all day in the back of hishouse in Connecticut just playing. He could be very thoughtless,and didn't realize when he hurt people. But I would love to wakeup tomorrow and be able to play with him again. There's an impetusof swing with anything he did, something you can't define.'DiNovi, who was born in 1928, started studying piano whenhe was twelve, and was already playing professionally at fifteen. 'Iwas so in love with the stuff, and I was so young I didn't have thesense to be scared. My brother used to take me to vaudeville. I sawChick Webb's band with Ella Fitzgerald when Iwas about six, and she was about sixteen.''My first teacher, Frank Izzo was a hatblocker and a Communist. He loved music.But he was a really bad player. My brother wasan artist, and he earned his living by decoratinghouses in Brooklyn. Frank gave me some lessonsinstead of paying him for painting hishouse. It wasn't first-class teaching but hemade an eclectic out of me. A lesson wouldconsist of a Bach Invention, a novelty tune like Dainty Miss. Thenhe had me studying Joseph Schillinger's permutations!''When people ask me how to play jazz, I always say, studyRavel for harmony, play the Bach Inventions for technique, andswing, because they swung. After that you can learn all the tunes.Bud Powell used to play Bach and then go and play Bud Powell -and it all showed.''I've always been in love with harmony. It's supposed to be along suit of mine. I learned from Chuck Wayne, a great virtuosoguitar player. He taught me the tunes and the chords. He hadworked with a gorgeous piano player named Clarence Profit, whowrote Lullaby in Rhythm, which was really the first bebop tune.The older I get, the more I feel that I don't need frills. Basie wasthe most original piano player of all time - he just found his ownway of playing. But he could do stride and all that other stuff too,which he learned from Fats Waller.''The best thing we can do is find our own way of expressingourselves that we really feel, so it comes out with substance. A lotof players get ruined when they try to be little John Coltranes, BillEvans, or Charlie Parkers. We all listened to each other, and itshowed. You have to give a guy like Paul Desmond credit forplaying a different way from Charlie Parker. You've got to try foryour own thing. We all are able to do it if we understand that wecan all do things that the other guy can' t do, and we can't do thingsthat he does - that's the beauty of it. Music will eventually humbleyou, one way or the other.'DiNovi gestures to a photo of a very large man with a beautificsmile. ' I dedicated my recording Live at the Montreal Bistro to thegreat Tiny Kahn. Tiny was about 6'4" and 300-and-somethingpounds. He looked like a whale. He was a wonderful wiz, and anincredible personality. I remember when we were waiting to recordwith Lester Young. I was all of twenty, and he said to me, like thiswas a dream, "Man, you' re going to record with Prez." Tinyswung, so Lester really liked him. Now I realize how ill Lesterwas at that time, but, boy, he really played.''Lester had his own language. You just had to figure it out.He would turn to you while you 're playing, and say, "GeorgeWashington". Okay, he meant "Go to the bridge of the tune". Ifhe liked something, he'd say, "Bells". And ifhe didn't like some-12 WWW.THEWHOLENOTE.COM N OVEMBER 1 - D ECEMBE R 7 2006

··'From left to right:DiNovi with Teddy Wilson(c.1967, photo TommyShepherd);With Benny Carter (1995);With Duke Ellington (1968).thing, he'd say, "No bells". This was an inventive mind. There usedto be a saying that if you threw something out a window in New Yorkin those days you would hit a Lester Young-type tenor player'.'But if Lester got drunk, you ran the other way fast. Zoot Simswas the only junkie I ever knew who was always affable, without abad bone in his body. Even in the worst times he always had a greatsense of humour. He was a fun-lover, and he played that way.''But those guys didn't play better because they did drugs, eventhough they thought they did. They were just so good they wereable to do it. We're talking about maybe twenty-five very talentedmusicians. But there were another 2,000 who were also killingthemselves with drugs and drinking, but couldn't play anyways. Ijust never understood. I guess I would have had a bigger name todayif I had been one of them. But I'd be dead like they are.'DiNovi has always spent a lot of time with classical musicians,like the avant-garde composer Stefan Wolpe, who taught some ofDiNovi's jazz friends. 'We were around him all the time in NewYork. He liked jazz musicians. I used to listen to records with him.He was an egomaniac, but I liked him. He was very dramatic, verygrand, and he had a bit of confidence. But let's face it, if you'regoing to write music like that you've got to be able to afford it.Guys would put money in a bowl for him.'When I ask DiNovi whether there is anyone he wishes he hadplayed with, he is, for the first time during our interview, at a lossfor words. 'I was lucky enough to play with everybody we've talkedabout. So it's more a matter of some people I wish I had playedmore with, like the drummer Kenny Clarke.''But playing alone is absolutely the badge of honour. If you'rereally comfortable doing that, you've passed a supreme test. I'm stillnot there, but I get closer every time. That's why I still practice. Alot of bass players don't like two-fisted piano players. I knew I wasstarting to play really good solo piano when a bass player walkedout on me. He said, "You're playing my part, man".''But it can be a pleasure to give up being that definite with theleft hand when you're with a great bass player like Dave Young,Neil Swainson or Don Thompson. In my era, the bebop thing wasto hit a chord and then be brilliant with the right hand. So we didn'thave to use the left hand, even though there were very few greatbass players in those days, not as many as there are now. But I'malways developing my left hand.'Since his move to Toronto in 1972, DiNovi has found terrificmusicians to record and work with. Along with Young, Thompsonand Swainson, there's the remarkably versatile clarinetist JamesCampbell, known primarily as a classical musician, as well as drummersTerry Clarke and Joe LaBarbera.DiNovi has a special rapport with audiences. 'I like people. I liketo talk to them.' He reaches them directly. It's a talent that has puthim frequently on radio and television, and taken him all over theworld performing and giving masterclasses. In fact his latest disc,Flower of the Night, was recorded on one of his many trips to Japan.'I went to Russia in 1967 with Dinah Shore. Dinah was anAmerican icon at that point. It was like she was in her living roomwith these people. But we were playing in a circus in Minsk. It wasthe most interesting experience of my life. I never want to do itagain. The orchestra was great. The lead trumpet player played sobeautifully he could make you cry, but the guy right next to himcouldn't play anything. We couldn't figure it out. They gave DinahEXPERTS, MAKERS AND DEALERS INFINE INSTRUMENTSBased 11pon three generations of experience and internationalreputation, we continually strive to ju!jill the exacting requirementsof plqyers, teachers and progressing students alike.Pianos: Toronto'sSteinway Gallery andRestoration Centre, ~Ifeaturing the entire lineof Steinway designedpianosStrings: Violins,violas, cellos, andbows fromstudent level torare masterworks.Professionally setup rentals, repairsand valuationsare alsoavailable.~-Sheet Music & Books:Canada's largest sheetmusic selection for allinstruments and voices.Guitars: A uniqueselection handcraftedfrom Canada, theUS and Europe.lMusiKids: Anentire departmentdedicatedto inspiringchildren withmusic.STEINWAY & SONStSStAwww.remenyi.com1h. "> /1 . .;. ... ·\

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