A Fireside Chat with Terry Gibbs
“ You could just stand in the street and listen to the greatest music you ever heard in your life. It was so fun to play because it was the music and the club owners were different. ”
There is the old adage, "Practice makes perfect." And having been road tested for 68 years, Terry Gibbs is in effect perfect. Jazz vocabulary is contingent on experience, and Gibbs has plenty of stories to tell. He narrates an account of the "golden age of jazz" with 52nd & Broadway: Songs of the Bebop Era and it is a fascinating tale indeed.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Terry Gibbs: I come from a musical family. My brother plays xylophone and had a xylophone set in the house. I used to fool with them when he wasn't around. And I've been on the road now going on 68 years. I've been on the road since I was 12 years old. There was a show called Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour in New York. It was like American Idol, but bigger. I won the contest and since then, I've been on the road.
AAJ: What are some of the lessons of the road?
TG: (Laughing) Just having your suitcase ready. When you've been on the road as long as I've been, wherever you go, that is a home for you while you are there. You just make the best out of what you're doing. If you complain about this and that, it will make it 20 times harder. The most important thing is that you have good musicians to play with. That's all I've cared about my whole life, just playing with good players and having fun. I'm at the point in my life that, I will be 80 in October, I don't leave my house unless I know I will have fun playing because that is the most important thing to me right now.
AAJ: 52nd & Broadway: Songs of the Bebop Era , your latest recording on Mack Avenue, is your homage to 52nd Street.
TG: It was one of a kind. First of all, the original 52nd Street had about four or five clubs on one side of the street right next to each other and then little clubs across the street. There were 10 or 12 clubs in one area. You would see Charlie Parker here and Dizzy Gillespie here and then Coleman Hawkins here and Lester Young here. All these famous musicians played, they became famous later on, they weren't famous at that time, but they were so great. You could just stand in the street and listen to the greatest music you ever heard in your life. It was so fun to play because it was the music and the club owners were different. I don't think there was much money being made by anybody, including club owners. The scale was $66 for the week for musicians and drinks were a dollar and there was never cover charges in any of those places. Everything was about the music in those days. They knew the music. You had to know the music to bring Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in at the time when everybody thought they were crazy for what they were doing.
AAJ: You left New York for Los Angeles and have been here since.
TG: More than half my life. The first time I came out to California was to join the Tommy Dorsey band in '47. I actually hated it. Everything closed at one in the morning here and in New York, you got dressed at 12 at night to go out. So I had nothing to do after one and when you're 22 years old, all you think about is playing music. I was in the wrong band anyhow with Tommy Dorsey. I quit the Tommy Dorsey band after playing one song. I was on a train for five days and set up my vibes, played one tune and I asked myself, "What am I doing here?" I was listening to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and they were playing "Song of India," which had nothing to do with what I was doing. So I gave them my notice and quit after the first song. But when you are young, the music is the most important thing. I am at a point in my life that if I don't think I'm capable of doing what I am capable of doing.
AAJ: You would quit rather than play to mediocrity.
TG: I used to box and my favorite fighters of all time were Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis. When I saw Joe Louis get knocked out by Rocky Marciano, it made me sick. He was only about 37, but in fighting, that was a little too old to be in the ring in those days. Just seeing someone go down that was that good, I don't want to do that. And nobody will know but me. I am a good technician. I know the instrument well. I am a classically trained percussionist and play all the percussion instruments. So I will always play the instrument well, but if I am not creating for myself, if I am not playing something different than I did last night, it is time.
AAJ: That won't happen anytime soon.
TG: No, I am lucky. My brain has always been a half hour ahead of my body.
AAJ: 52nd & Broadway is a testament to that.
TG: 52nd & Broadway was my baby. I produced that whole thing from the beginning. First of all, I had to get Nicholas Payton, James Moody, and Jeff Hamilton. I finally got everybody into the studio.
AAJ: And the strings are an integral part of the music, not background support.
TG: I used the strings like my big band, the Terry Gibbs Dream Band. That's how I wanted to use the strings. On the jump tunes, the up tunes, I used the strings like a brass section and saxophone section. I had Med Flory write out Charlie Parker choruses for the strings to play. And string players don't swing on their instruments. But they did it on this CD and I am really happy with it. I am really happy with how Nicholas Payton played and James Moody and Sam Most and everybody else.