An Interview with Stan Getz by Mel Martin
Originally published in the Saxophone Journal, Winter 1986
Edited by Ed Joffe
Music critic/historian Irving Kolodin writes in the Introduction to “The Unconscious Beethoven” by Ernest Newman: “…music exists only as a succession of impressions that must be correlated sequentially if a total impression is eventually to be derived.” I believe that the improvisations of saxophonist Stan Getz epitomize this description. His endless flow of creative melodic lines weaved together in the most logical fashion offer the discerning listener a landscape of everlasting beauty. This interview provides a brief glimpse into the mind of Stan Getz.
Mel Martin: The one question that is most important to me when I think of you and your music is your sound. Could you fill us in on how you conceived your sound and how you actually developed this concept?
Stan Getz: I never consciously tried to conceive of what my sound should be. I never said, “I want this kind of sound!” I believe it was because of the bands I played with from the ages of 15 to 22. The first one was Jack Teagarden, who we all know played trombone. But his sound was so great, so…(pause) sort of legitimate, and effortless. I never tried to imitate anybody, but when you love somebody’s music, you’re influenced. Then I was with Benny Goodman when I was 18 and I believe his sound had an influence on me. Such a good sound that he had in those days. And, in-between I heard Lester Young of course. And it was a special kind of trip to hear someone like Lester, who sounded so good and almost classical in a warm way. He took so much of the reed out of the sound. I really don’t know how I developed my sound, but it comes from a combination of my musical conception and no doubt the basic shape of the oral cavity. I did always try to get as much of the reed out of the sound as I could.
MM: You mean, hear more of the reed?
SG: No, just the opposite. I always wanted to take as much reediness out of the sound as I could and hear more of the breath. I came from an era when we didn’t use electronic instruments. The bass wasn’t even amplified. The sound was the sound that you got, and I discovered that my dark sound could be heard across a room clearer than somebody with a reedy sound. It had more projection. My sound always seemed to fill a room. I also did a lot of practicing in the Hollywood Hills in the open air. That’s God’s sound! I appreciate men like Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins very much, but I just don’t like a reedy sound. I have to work hard to get my sound because I use a harder reed (medium-hard Van Doren). People think that I play effortlessly. I remember doing a record date with Bill Evans and afterwards he said to me, you make it sound so easy but when I get right up next to you, you’re working hard and making it sound easy!
MM: Does not composing your own music sort of free you as a performer? I often think it’s a bit of a curse to have to play one’s own compositions and especially at times when that particular selection might not be appropriate, but it’s yours and there is a commitment to perform them.
SG: I’ve always regretted the fact that I’ve never formally studied and learned the mechanics of writing music. I don’t know if it frees me, but it’s a pain in the neck to have to depend on others to write things, or if I have something in mind and am barely able to tell someone what to play behind me. Most musicians seem to be able to follow me because I’ve learned enough chords to be able to play them without even knowing their names.
MM: I’ve heard you play some very complex stuff, like Chic Corea heavy duty changes. Are you saying that you don’t analyze chords but instead simply play them by ear?
SG: I try to throw the changes away after I’ve looked at them and play by ear. I don’t believe in playing over the changes, which I may do a lot, but I don’t like it. When I’m really free, I like to play totally by ear, knowing the basic structure of course. It’s like forcing yourself to let go so you don’t use a chart as a crutch. It’s the biggest single problem I encounter with private students on saxophone, at workshops, and for that matter, at jam sessions. In the jazz program at Stanford, students won’t be taught just from a book. [Getz was a visiting Artist-in-Residence at Stanford University when this interview was conducted.] They’re going to play with other good musicians and will have to use their ears and memorize songs. They don’t have the foundation we had. Life is too full of distractions nowadays. When I was a kid, we had a little Emerson radio and that was it. We were more dedicated. We didn’t have a choice and we didn’t have big allowances. I got out of the Bronx by taking that saxophone in a room eight hours a day and playing it! Now there are more distractions like movies, videos, and sports. Early on we made records to document ourselves, not to sell a lot of records. I still feel that way. I put out a record because I think it’s beautiful, but not necessarily commercial. I remember being assailed by the wife of a famous trombonist after receiving eight Grammys for a record that I thought was just beautiful. She screamed, “you turncoat, you went commercial.” I thought the Bossa Nova music was just beautiful music. I didn’t care if anybody thought it was commercial. Commercial can be a good word, too. It means getting to a larger number of people. Records used to be documents but now record companies want “product.” They want to sell a lot of records and guys want to get famous. I never thought about being famous or having a band. I just wanted to play music.
MM: Focus is one of my all-time favorites and one of the only albums where a great jazz player was able to maintain a personality and truly improvise with written strings. Could you tell us about those sessions?
SG: I always liked the Sauter/Finnegan band. I sat in with them once and I loved the arrangements. When Verve was sold to MGM, I was asked to pick a project, so I picked Eddie Sauter to write something. I didn’t want rearrangements of tunes but instead wanted him to come up with something interesting because he knew my playing. When you work with a good composer you don’t tell him what to write. If he knows your playing he’ll do what he thinks is right. After nine months, Eddie had this idea and it took three weeks to write it out and that’s how it came about.
MM: How many takes did you do?
SG: Two-thirds of it was done with earphones. The tracks had already been recorded because my mother had died the week it was to have been recorded and I was unable to finish the project at that time for obvious reasons. I’m Late and one other tune were recorded live. The rest were taped and a few months later I overdubbed the saxophone. I’m not a many-take guy. Each time it seems to get more stale to me. Usually, it’s the first time because I get tired of hearing myself. That’s the whole thing you’re taught in jazz, the spontaneity of it. That’s what I really love about jazz.
MM: What classical music do you listen to?
SG: I find something good in just about all classical music. I just heard Bernstein do Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at Davies Hall. It’s so great. I just like all the classical composers. I don’t listen to much jazz, mostly classical music. There’s only a few so-called classics in jazz that I want to go back and listen to.
MM: What would those be?
SG: Miles. Those classic Miles dates like Kind of Blue, and Round Midnight with Philly Joe Jones. They’re just tremendous jazz classics. And of course, I’ve listened to Duke Ellington a lot. But there is something refreshing about so-called “classical music.” You can play a classical record in the morning and it purifies your soul (laughs). It’s almost religious.
MM: What combination of mouthpiece and reed are you currently using? I believe you mentioned using a medium-hard Vandoren reed.
SG: I’m using an old Otto Link rubber mouthpiece. It was a 5* but was worked on by Ben Harrod. Otto Link had sold the company to him and some of the best Links ever made were made by Ben. He’s retired and now lives in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. He’s very good and is also a musician and an honest man. He’s refaced it for me. I’m uncomfortable with a rubber mouthpiece. It’s too big. Every time I try a metal mouthpiece, I wish it could work for what I want. But I use rubber mouthpieces because they afford me what I need. I like to hear the brass vibrate in the sound, not the reed. Like I mentioned earlier, I like a dark sound, which is contrary to what just about everybody else is looking for. One of the drummers I was working with (Billy Hart) had also worked with Joe Henderson. We were working in Chicago and I wasn’t using a mic. He said, “I thought Joe would have a big sound and you wouldn’t, but it’s just the opposite. Your sound is much bigger.” So what you hear from a mic is not necessarily the sound.
MM: When you recorded the Poetry album with Albert Dailey, did you use a minimal number of microphones?
SG: We only used two mics. It was recorded in my studio, which I had built on my estate in New York. It is built of all wood with window views out in the country. It has a high ceiling and we used two B & K calibrated mics, one on me and one on the piano. They went directly into a modified Studer two-track. No mixing board was involved. I guess that’s why engineers and boards came into being because musicians forgot how to blend themselves. That’s why so many use monitors now. We used to play so that you had to listen to each other and mix your own thing on the spot. You had to hear everybody more than yourself. Then vocalists would need some reinforcement and that’s when sound boards came in. Symphonies are recorded with two mics and Benny Goodman made all those great records with one or two mics. Musicians used to mix themselves. That has become a lost art. It is and it’s a reflection of their musicianship. Maybe it’s a combination of the use of electrical instruments and playing larger venues. When you record, if you use two mics properly positioned, it will sound like your two ears are in the room with the musicians. There are some engineers who don’t understand how to record acoustic instruments because they want everything to sound as if it’s in your face.
MM: Do you generally mic your horn from a distance?
SG: I stand far from the mic and I try not to use one if it’s at all possible. Sometimes we mic the piano a little and of course there’s the bass amp. I have to use mics to balance with where the drummer is at. You start with the drums. There are lots of places, however, where I don’t use a mic, like Fat Tuesday’s, Blues Alley, and the Old Keystone Korner. You learn how to project your instrument and think projection. Try to see the corners of the room. You don’t have to play louder, it’s just a certain center to the sound that you can get going through the room. It’s not loudness but sound, and brass vibrating, or resonance without reediness.
MM: What are some prerequisites that you would need in order to work with young jazz musicians and develop them?
SG: We just had a different kind of dedication than kids do today. Although, they have records to jam with, it’s not the same thing. Interaction is what jazz music is all about. First of all, I would need time. The summer programs can be very frustrating. It’s over just as you get going. You need more time, maybe four years in college. Guys come on my band for three or four years and they learn. That’s what I’d like to see happen with the jazz program at Stanford. You can read all the textbooks and listen to all the records, but you have to play with musicians that are better than you. What needs to be done is to simulate the atmosphere of a club. Maybe a place in Palo Alto where four nights a week, under supervision of the teachers, the students can play under actual conditions. In addition, take the big band on tour to Montreaux and other festivals. There’s a way to train young jazz musicians without having to go on the road. In the traveling academies I was with, I learned many things, more than playing music, some of which I regret (laughs). But there’s a way to get kids interested. And every teacher must be a great player.
At Stanford, I wouldn’t have it be all music. I would have people like my music business lawyer, Elliot Hoffman, who is a genius and handles people like Pavarotti, Cindy Lauper, Dizzy Gillespie, etc., come and lecture. Somebody who could teach these young people how to avoid the pitfalls I went through. I’d have sound engineers, people that could talk about acoustics and sound recording, come to speak. I’d record the kids and show them the difference between how I sound and how they sound. I’d give them something to aim for…. A certain amount of study, including reading and writing music, is necessary but you need to play and play a lot!
MM: What would you like to say to all the saxophone players reading this interview?
SG: Switch to piano! No, really, if you like an instrument that sings, play the saxophone. At its best it’s like the human voice. Of course, it would be best if you could actually sing with your own voice. The saxophone is an imperfect instrument, especially the tenor and soprano, as far as intonation goes. Therefore, the challenge is to sing on an imperfect instrument or “voice” that is outside of your body. I love that challenge and have for over forty-five years. As far as playing jazz, no other art form, other than conversation, can give the satisfaction of spontaneous interaction. A good quartet, listening closely to each other, is like a good conversation among friends interacting to each other’s ideas.
Editor’s Note: Stanley Gayetskis (Getz is the shortened version of the family name) was a musical prodigy. Starting at age 13, he worked with noted woodwind doubler Bill Sheiner for a few years and became proficient on bassoon, all of the saxophones and clarinet. By the age of 15, he was already on the road playing tenor sax with Jack Teagarden and the rest is history. A veteran of the big bands of Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman & Woody Herman, Getz became renowned for his beautiful tone (nicknamed “The Sound”) and tasteful improvisations. One of the most melodic improvisers in jazz history, he was blessed with perfect pitch and photographic memory and was widely admired by some of the greatest saxophonists in history, including John Coltrane and Sonny Stitt. (Coltrane was quoted as saying “We would all play like Stan Getz if we could.”) During his illustrious career, he recorded hundreds of albums as a leader and sideman. For those who may not be as familiar with the work of this tenor titan, the following is a list of a few of my favorite Getz recordings: Stan Getz Plays; For Musicians Only; Focus; Jazz Samba; Getz/Gilberto; Stan Getz and J.J. Johnson at the Opera House; The Complete Roost Recordings; Sweet Rain; & People Time. Finally, there is a very fine biography by Donald Maggin titled “Stan Getz: A Life In Jazz” that is worth reading.