Ira Gitler talks About Drums with Tony Williams, Art Blakey,Cozy Cole, & Mel Lewis,AUDIO!;Part 1
The late Ira Gitler (1928-2019) was one of the foremost jazz critics and historians. Partly this was because he had “been on the scene.” He was an amateur alto saxophonist who loaned his horn to Coltrane in 1958 for a recording led by tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons. (Trane sounds great on it, of course.) He was second in command at Prestige Records, which means that he was present and often in charge at many legendary recording sessions of the 1950s. He wrote several significant books (more on these later), and over 750 liner-note essays. He contributed countless articles to most of the major jazz periodicals, including DownBeat, where he was Associate Editor for much of the 1960s. He produced concerts and hosted radio programs. Let’s stop there for now, but during this series, and others, we will have much more to share about Gitler, who I knew professionally over many years. In writing about Ira, I’m fortunate to have the help of his son Fitz, an archivist and researcher who has also been a D.J., writer, sound designer, and a music and podcast producer.
Today, I want to introduce something nobody has ever heard: Gitler’s own reel-to-reel tape of a panel discussion among leading drummers, which he conducted for a DownBeat article. The drummers are Cozy Cole (1909-1981), Art Blakey (1919-1990), Mel Lewis (1929-1990), and Tony Williams (1945-1997)—Wow! The discussion was held in Downbeat’s New York City office on January 28, 1964—Williams had turned 18 on December 12, 1963—and the article was published on March 26. I’ve attached the article here, and will also attach it to the future installments. It’s helpful to have it, but please be aware of several details about this and all other published magazine interviews:
—Magazine articles are not oral history transcripts. Not everything that is said is included.
—Even in what is printed, words and phrases are occasionally omitted or rearranged for clarity.
—In this case, there were three separate discussions. As noted in the article’s first paragraph, another one was held in Hollywood, and another in Chicago. The same questions were used at all of the panels, and the printed version presents selected replies from all of them, mixed together, but with each speaker clearly identified.
Here is the article as a PDF:
Notice that Gitler’s name is not mentioned anywhere in the article, nor is the West Coast author (who was possibly John Tynan, the Associate Editor for the West Coast), nor the Chicago one (likely the editor-in-chief, Don DeMicheal). It simply says that DownBeat conducted the interviews. That is standard practice, but luckily I had access to Ira’s own tape, which I digitized, and his voice is easily recognizable at the very beginning, so there’s no question that the New York contribution was his. In fact, here is a photo taken at the event, with Ira and Tony!
Because the conversation was about 84 minutes long, I’ll be sharing it with you in sections. Today you’ll hear the first 19 minutes. Ira asks the prepared questions, the same ones that were asked in Hollywood and Chicago as well, such as whether drummers get more respect than they used to. Although the questions were prepared, the follow-up question and comments from Gitler are of course his own. Much of this conversation appears in edited form on the first two pages of the article, and if you look at that, at least for the first few minutes, it will help you to identify the voices, to know who is speaking at each moment.
Blakey dominates, but everybody gets to participate. The last speaker in this first segment is Tony Williams. Here is the audio!:
At about 4:00, Blakey mentions an early review from when he was with Billy Eckstine (1944-46). It was written by a female journalist who described saxophonist Gene Ammons as a “snorting bull” and Blakey as an African Pygmy. He says that it was a positive review, and he didn’t let the racist language of the day bother him, “as long as she spelled my name right.” Blakey mentioned this review in other interviews as well. I haven’t found it in any jazz magazines, but it could be from a newspaper, so I’ll keep looking. (If you find it, let us know please.)
We will continue next time from exactly where we left off!
All the best,
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