Todd Barkan is very proud and happy to be on the same faculty with two of my all-time heroes, grandmaster drummer/educators Billy Hart and Alvester Garnett, for the JAZZ HOUSE KIDS SUMMER WORKSHOP at Montclair State University for the first 2 weeks of August.
In my long and varied career, I’ve produced albums by artists like Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard, Tommy Flanagan, Grover Washington, Jr., Jimmy Scott, Cedar Walton, Jimmy Smith and many others. Here are five things I’ve learned along the way.
1. What’s our story, Morning Glory?
I almost always begin a project by trying to find out from the artist(s) some idea about what kind of a musical story we are trying to tell with the album we are making. Since this music is all about telling your own story in your own way, I like to talk through with the artist as much as possible, and in as many dimensions as possible, about the most unique and freshest approaches he or she might be able to take to each of the songs and original compositions that are going to be recorded.
2. Take care of the music (and the music will take care of you).
I try to start out with quite a bit more artistic “grist for the mill” than we will eventually need for the final album. That way, we can experience the wonderful creative process of certain material coming to the fore and other stuff falling by the wayside as we prepare for the actual studio or live concert recording process. Quite often, we are blessed to have a vibe or central mood emerge in harmony with the story we are hoping to tell, and sometimes the music takes on more of a surprising life of its own while it is actually being recorded.
3. The music is the magic.
As jazz vocalist Abbey LIncoln wrote and sang, “The music is the magic.” No matter what, it is most important that we are recording material that the artist really wants to record, and quite often by far my most important job is to get out of the way to let the magic happen with as much unfettered swing, imagination and passion as humanly possible.
4. Create a circle of love.
I learned very early in my over 50 years of presenting jazz as a club owner and concert/recording producer, that, as seemingly corny and utopian as it may sound, our music is all about love, dedication, honesty and integrity, and it is a supreme necessity that the musicians can hear each other and themselves with warm and natural clarity. I try to never to lose sight of the fact that “we” don’t really create this music, but we do have the invaluable job of helping to create the best possible environment to allow the shared creative cycles of our music to happen.
5. Make lemonade.
One of my primary mentors, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, liked to tell me, “If all you got is lemons, then just make some great lemonade.” When I was producing a McCoy Tyner album for a Japanese record label in the 1990s with a whole group of great young jazz lions like Christian McBride, Joshua Redman, and Antonio Hart, quite out of the blue we got a very special request from the label to cover a Dolly Parton tune, the suggestion of which I felt absolutely certain was not going to bring a smile to McCoy Tyner’s heart, or be well received by any of his all-star sidemen either. Fortunately I remembered that the Japanese music lovers had a huge and enduring passion for certain classical themes by Chopin and Beethoven, and I suggested some of the these themes as a counter-proposal to the Dolly Parton request. The very successful album we made with McCoy & Company wound up being called “Prelude and Sonata.” Who knew?
We’re all Partners in Time. And our music makes time our friend, not an implacable foe. This music makes time an endowment, not a stress-inducing limitation.
In the early 70s, when Dexter Gordon would come back to my office at Keystone Korner after his Quartet had sold out three cookin’ sets at the club on a Friday or Saturday night, he used to love to say, “Well, Toddsy, I think we paid the light bill tonight.” Our House of Jazz has an infinite number of lights and windows and all kinds of swinging doors with lots of levels to explore and many living rooms and a gloriously big ole kitchen with the pots on around the clock.
This warm and inviting home of our music could only have been built (and is still being built upon every day!) by the supreme song of Jazz Masters like Dianne Reeves, Pat Metheny, Joanne Brackeen, and all the other Jazz Masters, sung and unsung, whose inspiration, dedication and living legacy are the lifeblood of the work we try to do for this most democratic and-at-the-same-time most singular music --which builds both homes and bridges for people while it erases borders between them.
Thank you, Jazz Masters, for playing and living the love which most often can’t be spoken, but only felt, and danced, and sung. Thank you for playing the love that feels like a hug even when it’s tight enough to mold our souls back back together when they’re broken, to somehow heal and surprise our hearts at the same time.
No matter what generation we are blessed to be born into, we all stand on the shoulders of our teachers, parents, heroes and all those elders who have lit the path for us.
Just as Michelangelo saw an angel in the marble of a cathedral and carved and carved, and then carved some more until he “set the angel free,” so the eternally-renewing miracle of our music can make our dreams a reality, and our reality a dream.
When will we ever know, and how can we ever show, what’s real, what’s really in our hearts? The universal language of our music, born of both deep sorrow and wide-eyed wonder, of great pain and inextinguishable joy, is also a prayer of thanks for the gift that gets us here, and the grace that lets us stay, re-telling a story as old as the ancients but as brand new as the life of each new journey through time.
Extra special thanks to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones who joined forces to help us build Keystone Korner by performing together for a benefit concert at the Oakland Paramount Theater to help buy the club a hard liquor license in 1973. And I also want to give special thanks to Miles Davis for handing me back $2500 in cash from the fee I had just paid him for a week at the Keystone in 1974, “you and the club need this money a lot more than I do at this point.”
Profound gratitude to the NEA Jazz Masters Program, and to my longtime mentors Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jack Whittemore, Dexter Gordon, Cedar Walton,…. and to my beloved wife Ilene. After every set that Johnny Griffin played at the Keystone Korner, the Little Giant signed off by telling us to “keep hope alive, keep jazz alive.”
My recognition as a 2018 NEA Jazz Master both deeply humbles me & inspires me to re-double my efforts to take care of the music so that it can take care of all of us. Hope swings eternal!
Thanks to all of you for being such an essential part of paying the light bill, of keeping the lights on.
Love does find a way…
—Todd Barkan, April 16, 2018
at the NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert at the Kennedy Center
There will be a special “My Jazz Life,” 3-hour broadcast on Sirius XM Real Jazz Channel 67 on Thursday, April 12th by Todd Barkan talking about his career in our music and playing cds he has produced in his 54-year career stretching from the Keystone Korner through Jazz at Lincoln Center to recently being named as a 2018 NEA Jazz Master along with Dianne Reeves, Pat Metheny, and Joanne Brackeen.
Todd Barkan’s “My Jazz Life” broadcast on Sirius/XM Real Jazz will be aired twice: from 3-6 pm on Thursday afternoon, April 12th, and then re-broadcast from midnight to 3 am on Monday morning, April 13th.
2018 NEA Jazz Masters Todd Barkan, Joanne Brackeen, Pat Metheny, and Dianne Reeves will all be featured in an All Star NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert, on Monday, April 16th, beginning at 8 pm at the Kennedy Center, featuring performances by Eddie Palmieri, Christian McBride, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Angelique Kidjo, Helen Sung, Terri Lyne Carrington, Antonio Sanchez, Pasquale Grasso, Sullivan Fortner, Dan Wilson and many others.
This concert will be live-streamed from Kennedy Center via www.arts.gov and broadcast by WBGO and Sirius/XM Real Jazz.
I’m happy and proud to be preparing jazz video lectures for the Summer Jazz House Workshop for the Jazz House Kids July 31-August 11 at Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ. https://jazzhousekids.org