Nate Chinen: The CirdecSongs Interview

(Top photo by Michael Lionstar)

I have a lot to learn.

CirdecSongs interviews are not conducted to put the focus on myself. Quite the opposite. But when it comes to talking about music journalist Nate Chinen, it is necessary to add a bit of my own story to his.

I became a Chinen (chi-NEN) fan when I discovered his 2018 book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century. Despite my avid love for the great music form, I realized a couple of years back that I had essentially skipped over an entire generation of musicians. My father gave me the gift of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, and other legendary artists. I got into the Young Lions era, consisting of Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, and others on my own. My jazz education ran very nicely from c. 1940 to about 1991.

And then everything just … stopped.

The “Alternative” movement got its hooks in me, and I went in a different direction. I still liked having “Jazz Sundays” like Dad did when I was growing up, but I simply fell back on what I already knew. It took nearly 20 years to realize I had been treading water. Oh, I picked up on a couple of acts like Medeski, Martin & Wood, Wallace Roney, Kenny Garrett, and Charlie Hunter, but I didn’t make a concentrated effort to move beyond there. I was stuck. It was time to move forward again. Problem is, I had no idea where to begin. I got some scattershot advice from a few people here and there, which was helpful. And Bandcamp certainly offered up many possibilities. But I had nothing concrete. I needed a genuine tour guide.

Enter Nate Chinen.

His book was the answer to my musical prayers. To extend the metaphor, Playing Changes became my Bible. As I read it, I put tabs and highlights on the pages wherever I learned about an artist to explore, and there are TONS of them. In the back, the book lists his “129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far).” I made a concentrated effort to listen to at least part of every single record, rating them 1-5 based on my level of interest. There have been very few 1’s. More than a few records have since made their way into my personal collection.

Chinen seems to have a taste for the avant-garde sound I have often struggled with. Disjointed melodies, constantly shifting rhythms, and unconventional chord shapes resonate just fine with him. This sends a great deal of the music he enjoys into some interesting directions. It would be easy for a “traditionalist” to blow these sounds off without a second thought. But I have frequently learned that hanging in with musicians in question can yield the most unexpected and positive results.

My friends often credit me for my musical knowledge, particularly in the realm of jazz. For a moment or two, I almost bought in to it. But having learned about Chinen, the truth becomes clear: I am a rank amateur. I suppose it only stands to reason. For the last quarter of a century, my primary life has been law enforcement. That doesn’t always leave a lot of room for musical exploration. Chinen, in the meantime, has been in the eye of the musical hurricane.

Who is this guy? Where did he come from? I could only assume that such a voice emanated from New York City, Chicago, or New Orleans. I was very wrong. In fact, I needed to look much further west.

Chinen was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, the son of nightclub entertainers. He went to college on the American east coast, in Philadelphia. It was there he started writing about jazz for The Philadelphia City Paper in ’96. His star rose quickly, as Chinen soon found himself working for the venerable New York Times as a jazz writer. His words also found their way into magazines like DownBeat, Blender, Vibe, and JazzTimes, where he had a longtime column. After 12 years at the Times, Chinen has become the Director of Editorial Content at WBGO (88.3 FM), in Newark, NJ.

As it turned out, I had been introduced to Chinen’s writing back in 2012. I simply didn’t notice it. He contributed an essay to a coffee table book called Miles Davis: The Complete Illustrated History. But even before that, Chinen co-authored the autobiography of renown festival promoter and producer George Wein, called Myself Among Others: A Life in Music. Lest we think I am the only one enamored with his writing, Chinen is the 13-time recipient of the Helen Dance–Robert Palmer Award for Excellence in Writing, presented by the Jazz Journalists Association. This pretty much makes him the New York Yankees of jazz writers.

And now there is Playing Changes, which was published in paperback form last year, and has also been translated into Spanish and Italian. I’d say I found my tour guide. While the book uses jazz as its foundation, it also illustrates how many music forms of the 90’s — chief among them neo-soul, electronica,  and hip-hop — have proven a tremendous influence on modern jazz, and vice versa. I never would have made the connection between rapper Common and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, but there it is, plain as day! Revelations like this appear throughout the book. It is clear Chinen is trying to remind us of the Miles/Marsalis generation that there is plenty more music to be found, should we bother to take the time to look. These days, I can barely bother to do anything else.

Chinen came to my hometown last fall for a book reading. We were able to speak briefly, where I met a warm, sincere, and passionate man happy to engage anyone sharing his enthusiasm. When I showed him the markings and tabs in my copy of Playing Changes, he offered a grateful, but almost embarrassed look of appreciation. We agreed to an interview that day, but it would have to be later down the road. That became spring, and I re-sent my request. He was onboard.

And then COVID-19 struck, knocking the entire world — and music in particular — on its collective backside.

Jazz has taken a particularly big hit, since most of its most revered musicians are of advanced age, making them highly susceptible to the virus. Chinen has spent more than a little time absorbing the passages of luminaries like Ellis Marsalis (father of Wynton and Branford), Lee Konitz, Wallace Roney, Giussepi Logan, and Bootsie Barnes. This does not necessarily put one in the most positive mindset. But like the rest of us, he is doing his best to keep moving forward. His participation in International Jazz Day on April 30 was a prime example.

I suppose it’s accurate to call Chinen a kindred spirit where music is concerned. But while he is most definitely younger than me, I tend to see him as an older brother, someone much more worldly and experienced in an area where I seek to become much more knowledgeable and worthy of the “expert” label one or two people have attempted to give me, only to have me roundly reject it. Chinen is the kind of person who responds to that level of enthusiasm in a most positive way. While he has no doubt heard some questions dozens of times, he has no problem with answering them again in an attempt to get as many people as possible on the proverbial same page. He is the music teacher we would all be fortunate enough to have.

From his home in Beacon, New York, Nate Chinen took time out of his busy day for a CirdecSongs interview.

CirdecSongs: How are you holding up these days?

Nate Chinen: It’s actually been — for the most unfortunate reasons — one of the busiest stretches that I can recall. Every day is just an onslaught of stuff. So, some people are having a slower than usual time at the moment, but the opposite is true for me.

You mentioned in the Miles Davis book that you were 15 when he passed away. When did you know jazz was for you?

Probably a few years earlier than that. I grew up with jazz, to some extent. My parents were entertainers. Not necessarily jazz singers, but they were both trained in jazz, so I had a familiarity with it. But more generally, I was around entertainers and music, so jazz was a part of that. I was a drummer and began taking private lessons at age 12. I was turned on to jazz partly through my teacher, who was a pretty accomplished jazz drummer. And if you encounter the right person who nudges you in the right direction, it will often lead you to jazz.

Starting out, it was a mix of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, the real Big Band-oriented stuff. Wynton Marsalis was on the rise during that time, so Wynton was the first living, accessible jazz hero I knew, followed shortly after by his brother Branford.

I read an article in Esquire magazine back in the 90’s that talked about a comparison between the two brothers. The article said, “Wynton Marsalis plays jazz, while Branford Marsalis IS jazz,” which I thought was really interesting, given that Branford was coming off his gigs with Sting and (as the musical director for) The Tonight Show. It seemed like he was trying to walk those things back a bit to get back to his roots, more or less. 

You know, that’s a pretty loaded statement, and I think I get it. But I wouldn’t put my name on it (laughs). I’ve seen incredible performances by each of them in the last several months. And, of course, the loss of (their father and pianist) Ellis was one of those that we’ve sustained in the last several months. But anyway, it was pretty early on that I realized this music was continuing to be played and it had its contemporary heroes.

How did you feel about Ken Burns documentary (Jazz)? I’ve heard it semi-mockingly called “East Coast Jazz,” and I’ve even called it “Jazz to a Point,” because it seemed to stop in the early 60’s.

I’m not among those who thinks it’s a travesty, although I know people who feel that way. I think (the documentary) is an extremely persuasive argument, and it’s a valuable document. Ken Burns really knows what he’s doing, and it’s a very watchable and absorbing experience. I think in a lot of stretches it’s pretty unassailable in the way it weaves together. You know: the social fabric of the black communities of that time, and the hardships that racism in this country imposed, and the way jazz provided an answer to those circumstances. All of that is really powerful, and it’s rooted in a lot of important scholarship by the likes of Albert Murray, so there’s a real point of view there. And of course, the footage is incredible.

But as I get to in the book, the final episode is extremely problematic for any of us who have, you know, a stake in this music, or just love this music. Because it’s not only about where it stops or the kinds of exclusions that it engenders. I mean, exclusions are part of the deal when you’re making a film like that. It’s about the narrative, and there’s this irresistible desire on the part of the film-making crew to sort of tie things up and to present this kind of “life cycle.” And it just flattens the art form into this really reductive set of tropes. And in doing so, it writes a lot of important and influential and consequential work out of the historical record. That’s extremely damaging.

It’s kind of funny: had the series been Ken Burns Jazz and stopped around 1965, I think it would have been quite an uncontroversial document. My book is in no way intended as an answer to Ken Burns Jazz, but it does set out to fill in a lot of those gaps. Not as an objective, but as a matter of course.

What do you say to people who are more or less stuck in the jazz of the past? Your take on jazz includes a lot of music purists might kick to the side, like the electronic, hip-hop, or soul-oriented material. How do you react to someone who can’t fathom jazz going into those particular realms?

I’m very familiar with that perspective and can respect it. I work for WBGO, where a lot of the people who listen regularly have that perspective. Far be it from me to tell you what kind of music to respond to. But I do think at a certain point, we got so concerned with defining the music and with drawing a perimeter around it. I think that was useful, and I understand the motives behind it. But there was a lot of collateral damage, and it really did have a cooling effect on the culture of the music. And so, to me, the question of what is or isn’t jazz is quite uninteresting at this point. I feel like it’s a very 20th century question, and we can afford to leave it there.

You know, we’ve seen so much evidence to the contrary. And if you hear something that does not strike you as, you know, acceptably belonging to jazz, then that’s your prerogative. Every musician and every listener have his or her own compass, as far as that’s concerned. What interests me is the work being created, not necessarily where it lands on the style continuum.

Whom among “classic” jazz musicians do you think would have thrived in today’s scene?

Well, I like to think you could take any musician from any period and drop them into any other period of the music, and there would be a way to make it all make sense. When you think of all the musicians active in the so-called “Classic Period,” we don’t have to look very far, you know? I mean, Miles (Davis) already did it, right? He was relevant in the 80’s. He was relevant in the 70’s. It was a tale of constant re-invention. And I think his example was embraced by the likes of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Chick Corea. That’s the thing that interests me, and this is something I wanted to cover in the book. It’s the thesis of the chapter I call “The New Elders.” It’s the idea that the post-Miles generation are now the people we look to as our lodestars, and they took more liberties than anyone. They did basically everything that is possible to do in terms of crossing lines and breaking boundaries.

So, to me, it’s a very meaningful and profound kind of thing when the elders are setting the definition or … I think of this as the North Star ideal. They are the ones we look to as the essence of music, right? And they are all these cats who were playing funk and psychedelic rock and whatever when they were in their twenties. And some of them push pretty far into free jazz. They’ve done everything, and I think that by definition changes the parameters of the art form. Like Cole Porter said, “Anything goes!” With the proviso that anything goes as long as it has the rigor and intention of you as a musician. You need to attack that rock beat or the electronic groove with the same level that you attack the most swinging kind of bebop groove. That’s a long-winded answer, but I feel like jazz musicians have the right kind of tools — the tools and the sensibility — to adapt to whatever circumstances surround them.

Are there a couple of “definitive” albums for you from the Classic period of jazz that people don’t refer to? Everybody talks about Kind of Blue, or Time Out, or A Love Supreme. Is there an album or two out there that you feel people should know about that never reached the so-called mainstream?

Well, that’s hard! It’s hard because there are so many of these albums! We talk about that level of fame where everybody knows these albums, but there’s so few that meet that criteria, you know? And then there are some that are on that next tier where serious jazz fans know. Your friend who likes Miles Davis but doesn’t know Freddie Hubbard … that’s where the sweet spot is. So I’ll rattle off a few that have meant a lot to me, personally. They’re not obscure, but they should be better known. One that comes to mind very quickly is Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, which to me is just a perfect album. It’s so thoughtful, has such atmosphere, and the playing is incredible. The writing is incredible. It’s got Eric Dolphy on it, you know … there’s so much humanity and beauty on that album. It should be at least as well-known as Horace Silver’s Song for My Father. Then one of my favorite albums of all time is Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil. What can you say about that album? 1964. It’s one of the greatest collections of compositions by one of the greatest jazz composers at a period of peak productivity. And the playing is outstanding!

You know, thinking of the “Classic” period, there are so many (John) Coltrane albums that are celebrated. For me, if I were to rescue one piece of Coltrane documentation out of everything, for personal reasons, it would be The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (a four-CD box set released by Impulse Recordings, Coltrane’s label at the time). It’s not designed as an album, if you have the complete collection. There are definitely some moments that are better than others, but the feeling of that music … it reaches something really profound and spiritual. And some of this, too, is … I have formed relationships with these albums at really crucial junctions in my life. So that is something I discovered in college and really locked into it.

I could come up with more obscure selections. You know, stuff from Herbie Nichols, whom I love. And I think the early work of Sheila Jordan is slept on in a certain way. But those (other selections) are in my personal canon, for sure.

Let’s talk about your book. What spurred you to write it in the first place?

It was really just a feeling that I’d borne witness not only to a lot of great music, but also some really important developments over the last twenty-odd years I had been covering jazz. And I didn’t feel like there was an existing treatment of that time period that really rose to the occasion. So, in short, I wrote the book because there wasn’t a book to read (laughs)! I felt like there was a need to be filled. As I looked, I felt so much vitality on this scene and the historical record had not caught up. On a day-to-day basis, jazz critics like myself have been doing the work and chronicling this stuff, so it’s not that I thought this music was going to be unremarked upon. But a book provides a certain opportunity to provide a kind of historical synthesis and a longer critical argument. So, it really felt like the right kind of format for me to put this together, and make it make sense.

Who was your target market?

There’s no simple answer to that question, and it sounds disingenuous to say I wanted it to be aimed at everyone. So, I’ll qualify that answer a little bit and say that it felt like maybe this is partly a function of my generational placement. I’m kind of on the tail end of Generation X — I was born in ’76 — and I feel very much in between these two generational cohorts. And when I think about my elders in jazz criticism, I think about people like Gary Giddens and Stanley Crouch and Francis Davis. These are people I greatly admire. And then there are a few people my age, and there’s a whole bunch of people coming up now who are really excited about artists like Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, Esperanza Spalding and Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah.

So, I look above to the “Boomer” age critics and I look below to the “Millennial” age critics, and I felt like they each had good points. But they weren’t speaking to each other! I thought for the older critics, they were missing something. There was something about this newer (group of musicians) that had come up in the early 2000’s that they didn’t fundamentally get. They didn’t get The Bad Plus like I do, they didn’t get Brad Mehldau the way I do, or Vijay Iyer or Mary Halverson. I felt like I understood this music in a more intuitive way. When I looked at the younger critics, I didn’t think they were connecting the dots the way I wanted. They didn’t have the historical perspective or the critical framework. And I felt like I really want to be a bridge in some way.

I know that sounds a little egotistical to think that I could be the person to do that (laughs). But in terms of my age and what I’ve witnessed and the kind of apprenticeship I’ve done, I felt like the person to do it. So, to answer your question, this is a book for people who want to put the pieces together and connect those dots.

One of the things I’m proudest of is that I hear from people who are not connoisseurs, and they say the book speaks to them. And then I hear from people who are ensconced in the stuff and really know everything, and they feel like the book speaks to them. I don’t know how that happened! I feel very grateful that was the outcome … that this book isn’t condescending to folks, but it’s also not dumbing anything down.

Speaking of a sense of disconnect, you have a real taste for the avant-garde. I really struggle with it. I bought a record from the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and I just don’t get it. How do you help someone connect the dots there? Or can those dots even be connected?

You know, it’s so personal. One thing — and this is a difficult thing to say right now — but one piece of advice I always have for people is “go see something.” If you see the Art Ensemble in person — and this was especially true back in the day, or even last fall when I saw them most recently — it’s an experience. There is something that happens in a room that doesn’t really translate to a recording. And I love my Art Ensemble albums! But I’m fully aware that I missed an opportunity to see them in the 70’s or 80’s. I feel like with the avant-garde in particular, there is often a process, like a kind of sorcery, that clicks when you are able to experience it. So that’s one thing.

But another thing is, put it aside and try something else! It’s interesting to me how Ornette Coleman’s reputation continues to be that his music is kind of challenging and off-putting. And then you put on those Atlantic recordings, and it’s some of the swinging-est, most celebratory, most human (music). If you play that for someone who doesn’t have any kind of preconception about jazz, they’ll think this is just radiant, happy music. And it grooves like hell!

So find what your entry point is. Find the thing that resonates with you, and then from there you can kind of extrapolate outward.

What has surprised you most about the modern jazz scene? I know that’s a broad question, but have there ever been times where you’ve said, “Wow, I didn’t think something like that could ever happen?”

Well, one thing that’s been a surprise — and this is a difficult question, because I’m not sure where to place the “modern jazz scene” as a qualifier — there have been a lot of really interesting developments recently, since the book came out. Like very young — meaning in their late teens and early twenties — people getting into this hyper-geeky, very chops-heavy, harmonically simple but rhythmically complex jazz music. I don’t know what else to call it. My shorthand is to call it “Berklee College of Music” music (laughs). (Note: Berklee College of Music is a prestigious Boston-based music school, not unlike Julliard in New York City, but for non-classical musicians.)

There’s a real audience for it, and that audience overlaps significantly with the jazz community. Now there’s an example of stuff that doesn’t personally register as jazz to me. It’s a little more “jammy.” But the people playing it have jazz educations, and it’s only a matter of time before that music has an influence on jazz. I don’t know what the implications are. It’s not like with Kamasi (Washington) where you see a kind of cultural dimension with his music and where it reaches a kind of spirituality. I understand why people respond to (the Berklee sound) even if they have no basis for the music. But it’s found a lot of traction, and that’s a bit of a surprise to me.

We’ve reached a stage where music is becoming wonderfully indefinable, even as we try to call it jazz.

I wouldn’t argue with that. I mean, I think there’s so much of the best music being made right now. It’s kind of hard to pin down. You look at what (rapper) Kendrick Lamar has been doing and it’s very clearly hip-hop, but it’s so deeply informed by jazz and soul. And that’s a great sign of someone really doing some work and thinking about what connects. One of the most acclaimed albums this (year) is Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and there’s a lot of experimental ambient stuff that doesn’t sound related to her other albums, or sounds like jazz at times, and that’s cool. I think this may be connected to streaming services. So many people now listen to music in a borderless, frictionless experience. Gone are the days when you’d walk into a record store and gravitate to a section. I think there are generational implications. I see it with my kids, you know? It’s a different framework than the one we grew up with.

How do you keep track of all these artists?

Well, you know my job at WBGO is a great spur. It kinda kicks my ass in gear in a certain way. One thing I do is that every Monday I publish a thing I call “Take Five,” which is five new and noteworthy tracks from five different albums that are just about to be released, or may have just been released. What I try to do every week is have a really interesting sort of stylistic spread within those five tracks.

So, similarly to how you asked who this book is for, “Take Five” is designed so that whatever your stylistic preference, there will be at least one track for you to fall in love with, and there may be two or three that piss you off. That’s okay, because maybe there will be one that you thought would piss you off and you actually like it, and then I’ve really won (laughs)! So the exercise of putting that together every week is an enormous amount of research and listening that goes into every single week. That keeps me honest, keeps me listening, and keeps me sort of searching. That’s one way.

And then the other way (to keep track) is that I’m so accustomed to it. For many years as a critic at the Times, I always had a huge stack of records to go through. So that’s like my natural state of being.

Is it a question of the music coming to you? Or are you going to the music?

It’s probably like a 70/30 mix. I mean a lot of stuff does come to me — I’m pitched a LOT — but I’m also checking stuff out and searching, because I don’t want to get complacent and just respond to stuff that’s getting pitched. So, it’s a combination.

Is jazz for you best experienced live, or can you rely more on records? Is there a venue you like to visit to help the music come through?

Well, I’m a big advocate for seeing jazz live. I think there’s no substitute for it, especially in a room with a certain intimacy or scale, like Jazz St. Louis. I haven’t seen anything there, but I’ve seen footage. And I’ve walked into the room and I know it’s a good-sized space.

Thanks to you, I saw Brad Mehldau in that room. I also saw Branford Marsalis there recently. 

Oh, Branford in that room! That’s really something! I saw Branford at the Rose Theater at the beginning of the year. That’s a big concert hall, and he blew the roof off the place (laughs)! I’ve also seen Branford at the Village Vanguard, which I think it’s safe to say is the greatest jazz club in the world. It’s the greatest place to hear music, still! I desperately hope that when we come out of this current level of social distancing … I really hope the Village Vanguard is one of the places that is really able to bounce back. Like the Jazz Standard or Smalls, which serves such an important role in the ecology of the music.

Like the Jazz Gallery, which has been just a super important incubator and platform, right? Especially for the music that is in its developmental phase. Those are all really important rooms in New York. And the Constellation in Chicago or the Blue Whale in Los Angeles … you know, there’s a bunch of those places that really constitute the infrastructure for jazz in this country, and we have to try to ensure they can come back just like the musicians can come back.

Have you gotten into the British jazz movement? I’m a big fan of the Gondwana label, which consists of artists like Matthew Halsall, Mammal Hands, Portico Quartet, and GoGo Penguin before they moved to Blue Note. 

Well for me, the real nexus of the U.K. scene has been the Brownswood Recordings label, which has been home to a network of great musicians in their twenties and thirties. They are largely, but not exclusively, Afro-British musicians who have family roots in the Caribbean. So Shabaka Hutchings — who’s now on Impulse, but previously had been on Brownswood — has roots in Barbados. Moses Boyd, this incredible drummer; Theon Cross, this tuba player; Nubya Garcia, a saxophonist … they’re all these great players.

And they’re not only great players, they’re terrific bandleaders and they really understand the music’s bond with the bodies in a room. They’re incredible live acts! They’ve amassed a terrific following not only in London, but around the world. And that, to me, is a really exciting development. I was able to very briefly touch on that in the book. If I were writing the book today, that whole development would receive the better part of a whole chapter. But that’s an indication of how fast stuff is moving.

It’s funny … in a certain way, I’ve been thinking about my book in light of the current situation. It feels like this is one of the last historical documents from the pre-COVID era. I really do think that this [pandemic] will mark a dividing line in our historical narrative. But the developments I’ve charted in the book are still unfolding, even though there’s this incredibly disruptive, sort of existentially threatening thing that is not included. The music goes on.

I know this book just came out, but are there any thoughts of a sequel?

There are no concrete plans, but I’m always paying attention and documenting and chronicling, so it’s possible. This book was screaming to exist, in a certain way. So, I feel like there will be a point when I will feel that kind of urgency again. I don’t want to feel like I’m throwing together a sequel because I’m thinking, “Well, that worked. Let’s do it again!” So there really needs to be a sort of raison d’etre for me. But I could see it happening at some point.

I have a couple of impossible questions. Can you think of a couple of your favorite concerts of all time?

Well, that’s really tough!

Impossible, yeah. 

Well, I will tell you that just a few years ago, I saw the Wayne Shorter Quartet in Newark. It was on the occasion of Wayne’s 80th birthday. He got a key to the city of Newark and played a concert where he and Herbie Hancock opened with a 40-minute duet. Then there was a break, and then the quartet came out. I’ve seen the Wayne Shorter Quartet seven, maybe eight times — maybe more — in four or five different cities. And this was on another level. It was one of those concerts where you leave and feel like you’re levitating the whole way home. It was marvelous! That’s one that quickly springs to mind.

Then I think of Cecil Taylor, solo piano at Harlem Stage. That was really something! That was an incredibly special concert, and now that Cecil’s gone, I feel so fortunate to have experienced it. There’s a night that I recall in the book. The night of the Grammys, when the Soul-Quarians (a group of neo-soul artists from the early 2000’s — ed) had an all-night jam session at B.B. King’s. It was (drummer Ahmir) “Questlove” (Thompson), (keyboardist) James Poyser, and Raphael Saadiq or Me’Shell N’degeocello alternating on bass. And then all these neo-soul people hopping on and off the stage. And the beat never dropped! I was on the dance floor for four hours. That’s a special one for me.

Remember that, for the 12 years I was at the Times, I was out usually four or five nights a week. And there were a lot of forgettable nights mixed in with there, but there was a lot of really good stuff I saw, too. So, it’s a little difficult (to choose).

I understand. One of the reasons I’m dying to move to Chicago is because of the live scene. Chicago is the kind of place where I can see a show I’m interested in every night. I tell my friends that it’s the difference between catching a gig every ten days in St. Louis or catching two gigs on Thursday in Chicago.

That’s a scene that’s so vibrant in and of itself. I know some Chicago artists who tell me they liked the book, but they wish there was more Chicago in it (laughs)! And that is an entirely valid point. And I’ve heard something similar from colleagues and friends in Europe, right? And my answer to that is, “Absolutely!” But I had to write the book that reflected my own experience, and I’ve had this perch in New York for all this time. And rather than report secondhand on someone else’s scene, I felt like the most valuable thing for me to do would be to acknowledge things, but to really bear witness to the stuff happening in my backyard. But the Chicago scene merits its own series of books, both historically and with what’s happening now. The stuff on the International Anthem label in the last three or four years has been hugely important.

Is there anybody you could see repeatedly and not get tired of them? I have friends who have seen certain bands more than a hundred times. I can’t fathom that. I love King Crimson more than life itself. I’ve seen them six or seven times, and I’m GOOD! 

You know, that’s the beauty of jazz: it’s different every night! So, all the people whom I love, whom I consider myself fans of, including Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, Joshua Redman, or Mary Halvorson, or someone like Branford … I’ve seen them dozens of times. It’s a joy every time. And there are those occasions when I’ve seen someone multiple times in a week. Usually, it’s a joy the second time, too! So, this is one of those things where, distinct from prog rock or metal or lots of other music, jazz really does lend itself to revisiting again and again. Even the same artists playing the same music because it’s not the same music! Because it shifts.

I think it was Miles Davis who told one of his soloists, “You played that shit last night” after one of his solos. (laughter)

One of the artists we lost recently was Lee Konitz. Over the past 30 years or so, there were a dozen tunes Lee played again and again. I must’ve seen Lee Konitz play “Cherokee” 30 times. (Tunes like) “All the Things You Are,” you know? There was this handful of tunes that he just figured, “You know what? I haven’t exhausted the mysteries of this thing yet. I’m gonna keep working at it.” And the thing is, it was always fascinating! It wasn’t always great, but you could always sense that he was searching.

I wrote about one of these. I went and saw him play “Cherokee” in a first-time meeting with Danilo Perez, and this magical thing happened. I think Lee was on his last solo chorus that ended on … I think it ended on the tonic. And then he went up a half-step, just like this rebellious hint at modulation. And Danilo laughed out loud and promptly changed it to that key and played a chorus. And at the end, he went up another half-step. The next thing you know, they’ve gone through all 12 keys (laughs)! They played “Cherokee” in every single key! I compared it to a Ferris wheel. Just magical. It’s the kind of thing that would be corny if you had set out to do it. But in the moment, it was transporting and incredible, and Konitz is the reason it happened!

You don’t sit down and plan something like that.

No! I mean you can, but then people would be like, “Why do you want to do something like that? It sounds stupid!”

Jazz is music that is literally “of the moment.” As in, “Look at your watch because it’s happening right now!”

Yep. I would agree with that.

Who would you like to interview but you haven’t had a chance to?

You know, there a recency bias here, but we just lost (drummer) Tony Allen. I never sought him out, and now I’m realizing that was a mistake because it would have been pretty incredible to get insights from him. But when you ask that, I’m assuming you mean people that I could have this dream interview with. I feel like I could have had a real affinity with John Coltrane. It would have been a wonderful thing to have a conversation with him. But you know, Coltrane died a decade before I was born. I’m not one of those people who wishes I could have interviewed Miles Davis. I feel like, “I’m cool. It’s all right.” I feel like my level of intimacy with Miles is right where it should be. But someone like Coltrane, I feel like I could have … I don’t know. Maybe I flatter myself when I feel like we could have reached some interesting places in conversation. So that’s definitely one.

Is there anything you believe a jazz fan — be he a veteran or a neophyte — should be focusing on right now? What should we be listening for these days? 

Well, I think one of the messages of the book — a real hobbyhorse for me — is that this feeling of being overwhelmed, like, “Man, I don’t know where to turn and there’s just so many different directions that the music is going.” Embrace that! That’s a feature, not a bug. That’s the indication of an art form that is in good health. The fact that there’s some stuff that interests you and other stuff that doesn’t? That’s also cool. Another thing I don’t think I stated outright in the book, but there is evidence of it that I try to articulate: we’ve seen, even in the last five years, a really encouraging change in terms of women’s acceptance by the jazz community. Women have been crucially important contributors to this music at every juncture. But they’ve often been written out of the history or their contributions have been downplayed. I’ve been seeing a gradual, but significant and substantial change in the culture around the music, especially when it comes to women’s voices and women’s autonomy. That’s really important and really overdue.

Playing Changes

Nate Chinen


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My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers.

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