(Count Basie at his piano in 1955. Photo by James J. Kriegmann)

 By Tom Robotham

Whenever someone asks me what kind of music I like, my go-to answer is, all of it. I’d be hard-pressed to pick a single favorite genre. That said, when I reflect on the richness of my experiences with music over the course of my life, my love of jazz stands out prominently. 

The seeds of that love were planted early on by mother, a classically trained singer with a degree in music from Florida State University. Not that she liked jazz, per se. But she sang constantly while doing household chores, and favored tunes from the American Songbook, that great body of popular standards drawn from Hollywood and Broadway musicals. Many of those songs became jazz standards as well—thus, when I heard my first jazz recordings, I recognized the melodies immediately. 

My mother also instilled in me a love of instrumental music, by sitting me down for my first piano lesson when I was 5. I loved vocal music, too, of course—especially The Beatles. But from an early age, I was fascinated by records without vocals, such as those by The Ventures. Later on, because of this, I was powerfully drawn to the instrumentals of prog-rock bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes. Greg Lake’s and Jon Anderson’s vocals were certainly part of the appeal, but they were secondary to the dazzling virtuosity of Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, and Carl Palmer. 

None of this was jazz, of course. But it set the stage for me, as did jazz-influenced sections of John Barleycorn Must Die, by Traffic, which I first heard at a friend’s house when I was 15. 

With that in mind, I bought my first jazz record a year later while flipping through the bins at Korvette’s department store: A Big-Band anthology, featuring Sing, Sing, Sing, In the Mood and other Swing-era classics.

In spite of this, I remained partial to rock until I went off to college. The great turning point came when I got a gig as an on-air host at WPLT, Plattsburgh, my college radio station. The large record library included hundreds of jazz albums, in addition to rock, folk and classical, and it was there that my education in jazz began in earnest.

That education grew ever more intense when I graduated and began my career as a newspaperman in the early ‘80s. The timing could not have been more fortuitous, as America, during that period, was experiencing something of a jazz renaissance, led by Wynton Marsalis and other young players who were devoted to reviving interest in this uniquely American art form. Spurred by the interest in these musicians, record companies like Blue Note and Verve began reissuing many of their old recordings as well. 

Coinciding with this was my great good fortune to be granted a weekly music column at my paper, The Staten Island Advance. Armed with this credential, I got free records and free admission to jazz shows at clubs and concert halls, especially during the Kool Jazz Festivals. 

The beauty of this period—from 1980-1983—lay not only in the creative output of the young musicians like Marsalis, but in the fact that so many giants of the music were still going strong. As a result, I got to see Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Art Blakey, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Ron Carter, Max Roach, Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughan, and dozens of others. 

Better still, I got to interview some of them. One show that stands out is a performance by Count Basie and his orchestra at a Knights of Columbus Hall in Staten Island. I’d seen many of those other artists at Carnegie Hall, and they were wonderful, due in part to the extraordinary acoustics of that iconic venue. I remember Getz’s performance, in particular, because at one point he sent his sidemen off for a break, walked to the front of the stage alone, with his sax, and said, “Now I’m going to show you why this is the greatest concert hall in the world,” and proceeded to play without a mic. His silky-smooth tones filled the hall to the rafters. What made the Basie performance so special, on the other hand, was that the band played in front of a large dance floor. I was accompanied by my girlfriend at the time, and for the better part of two hours, we danced to our hearts’ content. It felt as if we’d gone through a time machine, back to the 1930s or the war years. After the show, to top things off, the concert organizer introduced me to Basie. He was ailing at the time, confined to a motorized wheel chair, but his mind was still sharp, and he’d had complete control of his ensemble. He also could not have been friendlier, and he thanked me for the preview article I’d written.

As fine as that memory is, however, another experience stands above it. When I got wind that Dizzy Gillespie had a show scheduled at a club in New Jersey, just over the bridge from Staten Island, I arranged to interview him by phone for another preview piece. That went well, but phone interviews aren’t ideal, so I resolved to follow up in person. Fortunately, a few nights before the Jersey gig, he was playing at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village. I’d called ahead to tell the manager what I was doing, and when I arrived, he ushered me to a seat directly in front of the bandstand. 

“I hope you don’t mind sharing a table,” he said, pointing to a woman who was already sitting there. Naturally, I told him that was fine. When I sat down, she immediately extended her hand and said, “Hi, I’m Sylvia Syms.” She’s not all that well remembered these days, but in the 1950s and ‘60s she was a popular jazz singer. As I soon learned, she and Dizzy—whom she called by his real name, John—were good friends. While we were waiting for the show to begin, she regaled me with stories about their heydays, and I got a particular kick out of one remark. 

“I remember when Miles Davis first came on the scene,” she said. “He was such a sweet young man.”

Later, during a break between sets, Gillespie came over to join his old friend, and I introduced myself as the one who’d interviewed him by phone. We talked some more, which fleshed out material for my column.

“What’s that book you have there?” he said, pointing to the paperback sitting on the table. (I never went anywhere without a book in those days.) It was Nat Hentoff’s The Jazz Life. 

“Oh,” he said. “Nat’s a great writer and sure knows jazz.” 

As a journalist, I tried to avoid acting like a mere fan, but at that moment I couldn’t resist, and asked him to sign it. He gladly obliged, and while I was never a big autograph hound, I cherish it to this day. It’s especially meaningful to me, not only because it reminds me of my warm encounter with one of the great pioneers of Bebop, but because Hentoff was also a major influence on my jazz education, with his books, liner notes, and columns in The Village Voice.

Years later, when I became editor of Port Folio Weekly, Hentoff and I became friends, which led to one of the greatest honors I’ve ever received. He read my Editor’s Notebook every week and was struck by one in particular—a column in which I’d written about why I, as the editor, devoted so much space to jazz coverage. He ended up devoting an entire Jazz Times column to what I’d said in Port Folio, praising my comments under the headline, “Bringing Newspapers into Jazz.” That meant more to me than any award.

The Port Folio years allowed me to continue the jazz education I’d started while working at the Staten Island Advance, but the 1990s were a rich decade as well. Before I got the editor’s gig, I continued working part-time in New York, flying up every week for six years. I was working for Hearst Magazines at the time, which also afforded me great access to things, and when I learned that Blue Note records wanted to issue a series of compilations under the Esquire magazine brand, I jumped at the opportunity to shepherd the project. (Esquire was owned by Hearst at the time, and the project made sense because the magazine had done so much to promote jazz over the years.) 

The many meetings I had with Bruce Lundvall, the legendary head of Blue Note, are as fondly memorable as my encounters with the musicians themselves. One day, he mentioned that he was going to Bradley’s (a great jazz bar that, alas, no longer exists) to hear a young pianist named Jacky Terrasson. He invited me and my boss to join him, and it turned out to be another serendipitous event in my life. It was fascinating in part because the president of Verve was also there and interested in signing Terrasson. Lundvall won out. 

“I threw in a new piano as a bonus,” he told me later.

That aside, though, I was just blown away by Terrasson’s playing. To this day, he remains one of my all-time favorite jazz musicians. 

When I finally took the Port Folio gig, I was initially concerned that being anchored to Norfolk would cut me off from jazz, other than what I had in my record collection—and I did miss places like the Vanguard, the Blue Note and Bradley’s, among others. But to my delight, I soon met a number of jazz musicians based here, including Jae Sinnett, Jimmy Masters, Woody Beckner, Russell Scarborough, Justin Kauflin and others. And in keeping with the commitment I laid out in that column, I wrote about the local scene whenever I got the chance. I’m especially glad to have produced a cover story about the experiences of jazz musicians in a less-than-top-tier market. I’m also grateful to have had the opportunity to write about the great jazz saxophonist and Basie alum Frank Foster, who’d moved to Chesapeake. A short time after relocating here, while on tour, he’d had a stroke, and I wanted to chronicle not only his stellar career but the challenges he now faced as a result of his disability. 

My friendship with Rob Cross, director of the Virginia Arts Festival, led to yet another great opportunity: the chance to help produce a Port Folio concert series. Among the musicians I got to bring here was none other than Jacky Terrasson, who performed a superb show at the NorVa. Afterwards, my friend and Port Folio contributor Jim Newsom went to dinner with Terrasson, and that was, needless to say, a delight, closing the circle that began years earlier at Bradley’s. 

I’ve related all of these experiences here for one reason: to publicly express how extraordinarily lucky I feel to have had this exposure to America’s greatest art form. As Ken Burns so beautifully articulated in his multi-part Jazz documentary, the music is so quintessentially American because it’s about individual freedom and improvisation, tempered by the need for group cooperation. It is, in other words, the American experiment expressed in sound. The story of jazz, of course, is also the story of race in America. 

That’s the intellectual part of the appeal—and since I’m passionate about American Studies, the focus of much of my writing and nearly all of my teaching—this idea also has great emotional resonance for me. But deep down, my love of jazz is rooted in my gut-level response to its elements: the unmistakable feeling of swing, the spirit of the blues coursing through its veins, the combination of soulfulness and dazzling virtuosity that the best players bring to it, and the remarkable exhilaration that comes from witnessing people making up great art on the spot. The great jazz writer Whitney Balliett once called it “the sound of surprise”—and that sums it up. Nowadays, especially, when so much pop music seems utterly formulaic and predictable, I feel especially grateful that even old records that I’ve listened to a thousand times can blindside me with joy.