That’s what drummer, poet, teacher and author Michael Stephans said in reference to the sales numbers in recent years that were generated from jazz music releases about five years ago, calling upon an article he read in the New Yorker regarding the shrinking audience for jazz. He followed it up quickly, however, by noting how resilient the genre is and how many storms it has successfully weathered during its long, complicated history.
It’s a history Stephans chronicles in his new book, “Experiencing Jazz: A Listener’s Companion,” released last year by Scarecrow Press. At 502 pages, the text took about four years to write and is a sprawling look at the genre with which the professor is most associated. Its sections are broken down by instruments and confessionals not only from some heavyweight names in jazz music, but also from Stephans himself.
He’ll be signing copies of it at 7 p.m. Saturday at Curious Iguana, where he also plans to bring DVDs of some past performances to discuss with the crowd. He spoke with us recently about his latest book, the current state of jazz, and what it was like following in the footsteps of drumming great Elvin Jones.
How did the idea for the book come along?
I taught a class called The Jazz Experience (at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania), and it became very popular. Every semester, the cap on the class was 50, and I had 50 every semester. It was a lot of students from all walks of life. I had thought to myself, “If I could take 10 of these students every semester that really, really are interested, who would go on and listen to this music and make it part of their lives, then in the span of five years, I could have, say, maybe 100 new jazz fans.” Then I started thinking about a book and I sent out a proposal to a couple different publishers. The idea behind the book — and why it’s different than any other jazz book I’ve ever seen — it’s basically a book that is a hybrid book. The idea is to combine some history with my own personal experiences in the trenches as a musician. Rarely do jazz musicians write books about jazz. Most of the books on jazz are written by academics, who happen to like the music a lot and teach courses at the university level, or people who are jazz critics. But by the same token, looking at it from the inside out is a whole different way to approach the book. So the book is part history, part memoir, part guide book, and it’s part interviews — interviews with some very, very prominent people.
What were your goals with the book when you first began working on it?
Largely, it was to expand audiences, but also to say, “This is real. This is beyond entertainment.” Jazz is the everyday reality of life oftentimes because musicians tell their stories through their instruments. We don’t play this music because we’re making a ton of money. We do it because we love it and we want to see it grow and succeed and continue. I wanted to also give back to the music. Since I was a child, the music really enriched my life, completely. It made me so aware of so many things, so I wanted to give something back by helping expand its audiences.
You’ve played with saxophonist David Liebman, who has also played with Elvin Jones (John Coltrane/Charles Mingus drummer) and Miles Davis. From a drummer’s standpoint, was that intimidating to you when you first sat down with him?
I heard David in Los Angeles, probably about 25 years ago. I went with a friend to hear him play in Hollywood and I said to my friend, “You know what? I’m going to play with him someday. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but I’m going to do it.” And I did it. It wasn’t intimidating and here’s why: We did my record, “OM/ShalOM,” in two days in New York. The night between the two sessions, he said to me, “Let’s go out and have a bite to eat.” We went to Gallagher’s Steakhouse and had a fantastic dinner, and we sat there for damn near four hours. Lieb had to know everything about me. Everything. My family. My upbringing. All of that. We exchanged a lot of really personal and wonderful information and became very good friends in a span of four hours. That’s his thing: He’s intensely curious. That curiosity and that level of interest, to be interested in someone like me, who is not somebody he had heard of before that recording, really relaxed me. It took away all of my inhibitions. I have played better with Liebman than I think I’ve ever played in my life.
Do you have any favorite memories from when you researched the book? Were there any ah-ha moments you experienced?
There were a number of them, largely in the interview sections. The book is organized by instruments, which is very unusual for a jazz book. There’s a couple of chapters of history and then the major part of the book goes through all the instrument families, or most of them. At the end of each of those chapters, I interview the very high-profile or famous jazz musician. I asked each one of these people the same two questions. One question was, “How would you encourage a listener to approach your music?” I got 12 different answers, and they were beautiful answers. The second question was, “If I was to start with any one of your recordings, which one would you select?” There was a revelation in every one of those interviews for me. I really developed some very good friendships with a number of these folks, notably Joe Lovano, the saxophonist. I had a really fascinating and honored journey that was filled with those kinds of ah-ha moments.
I hear a lot of people talk about how in the current day, jazz is dead and jazz has been dead. I don’t really agree with that, but are there certain new artists you’d like to see get more recognition, especially considering the naysayers?
Your question is a good one, in terms of younger talent. There’s a section in the book that names a lot of younger talents. In each instrumental section, there’s highlights. For example, the drum section. I interviewed Jim Black, who is one of the most original drummers on the scene today. There are all kinds of people that we should be listening to, all kinds of young folks in each section, young Lyons and people out there doing it today. I do foresee a second edition (for the book) only because there will always be new people. There are people I was not able to profile because they came out after the book. There are lots and lots of players that are really coming along. I’m very inspired by all of it.
Dead or alive, who would be in your dream quartet?
Well, it’d probably be expanded into a big band, but there’s so many. When I played with Joe Lovano and David Liebman and Tony Moreno on bass, that was a dream quartet. When I played with Bob Brookmeyer and two other fine musicians from Los Angeles, that was a dream quartet. I’ve played with a lot of dream quartets and I like to play with anybody — anybody who is dedicated to the music would be in my dream quartet. As long as the music is organic and comes from the heart. There’s a saying in the book: ears, mind and heart. If you draw an arrow from ears to mind and one arrow from mind to heart, that’s what I like the music to do. It comes in through your ears, you process it in your brain, and if you’re lucky, if the music is right, it goes directly to your heart, where it starts resonating. That’s the path that I see when this music is successful, and if this book can help that, cool. That’s my dream situation.