The Clarinettist

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Music
img_woodyallenband1A dialogue with trombonist Jerry Zigmont at the famous Carlyle Hotel, stomping ground for Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band. Plus, seven New York cultural highlights.

In 1977 Annie Hall won Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actress at the Oscars. Woody Allen wasn’t in L.A., though. Monday’s jazz night, so he was playing clarinet in New York. It’s an important source for his superb comic rhythms. Aged 77, he still turns up weekly at the Carlyle Hotel, immortalised in the likes of Manhattan. Watching from the packed floor, I enjoyed seeing the great pleasure Woody still gets from playing. He shares an instinctive rapport with longtime band members like band leader Eddy Davis (alongside him that night almost 37 years ago), and Jerry Zigmont. Before the gig I sat down with Zigmont, his hospitable, smart trombonist (and occasional vocalist). We talked Allen’s earthy directorial style, New Orleans and Treme, Louis Armstrong and ‘All the Girls Go Crazy’, among other lively subjects.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: I’m really into New Orleans jazz. Wendell Pierce’s character in Treme is a delight, some great music in there.

JERRY ZIGMONT: Yeah absolutely, great music. He’s got a lot of bravado and a lot of swagger to his character and what he does. It’s kind of laughable that he walks around town without his trombone in his case. And there was one episode where he was even given a new trombone.

AB: By the Japanese fan.

JZ: Yeah, and he had a case for a while, but then somehow, he doesn’t have the case anymore, he’s still walking around with it in hand. Very few musicians in New Orleans, even to this day—especially a trombone—would walk around caseless but it’s maybe an inside musical joke.

AB: You must have a funny band story you can tell me?

JZ: Coldplay’s Chris Martin came along with Gwyneth Paltrow and nobody knew who he was. Chris ended up coming back a couple times to hear the band he liked it so much. Coldplay were playing a big free concert in Madison Square Gardens and he asked us to open for them. Woody politely declined.

AB: Woody’s famously particular. How’s New Orleans going after Katrina?

JZ: I took my wife and kids about two years after Katrina, and it was really tough, you know the city was still getting on its feet. Treme has done tremendous work in that regard to get people really excited about the city again. But one of the interesting things, that I found, is that a lot of the street musicians that you saw before the floods, a lot of the people that had been there forever, it was like a whole brand new cast of characters were brought in. We heard from countless New Orleans natives that a lot of those people left and never came back not because they met their demise, but because they didn’t have the financial wherewithal to move back or there wasn’t appropriate housing for them, and we saw that on Treme near perfectly. Heading back to the airport there was this female taxi driver who was extremely vocal about it, way before Treme, and she was pointing out housing project after housing project that was boarded up. She goes: “Water never touched here, water never touched here.” And she felt in her own mind that it was the politicians’ way of just getting rid of the black people… New Orleans is really sad and I think it will never quite be the same.

AB: I hope to experience New Orleans sometime.

JZ: I think it’s gotten better and I think again with Treme and the awareness of it all. They’ve done a really great job with taking local people and giving them a voice on the show and so it’s lifted all that music.

AB: There’s certainly some strong music in Treme isn’t there?

JZ: Absolutely. There’s not too much in the way of the music we’ll be playing tonight. A lot of what we do is, by most New Orleans standards, archaic and it’s this real throwback to classic. And the closest thing that probably comes to what we do today is the Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans. Again, I’m not patting ourselves on the back, but I think we try to stay a little bit closer to the real thing—oh, I don’t know how to delicately put it. I think it’s very difficult to play in the style, especially with so many modern influences. There are so many great contemporary players that come out of New Orleans—guys like Trombone Shorty or a marvellous trumpet player, Kermit Ruffins. So it’s really hard for anybody who has all that great contemporary musical influence to play that old rough and ready 1940s, 1950s revival style. Woody’s clear on the direction of the path we’re intended to head on, and that’s to be a very close approximation of bands like the George Lewis Band or the Bunk Johnson Band from the ’40s and the ’50s.

Of course Woody loves Sidney Bechet. A lot of the Sidney Bechet recordings are very accessible to modern ears, but a lot of the stuff that Woody really listens to, the style that we’re trying to approximate, is not that accessible to modern ears because the recordings weren’t always done in a studio. They were done maybe in a dance hall from New Orleans. So it takes a while to really wrap your head around it and listen to the essence of what these guys are trying to say. They don’t try to intellectualise a lot of this or articulate it. They just sort of do it, and it either works or it doesn’t. A lot of the essence that Miles Davis bought to his music, we try to bring to our music. Miles Davis was very understated, very simplistic, and it was just total expression, almost minimalist in the approach. We’ll play songs downstairs that’ll be real flagwavers and it might seem like we’re going for a lot of notes, but a lot of it is very plaintive and simply stated to get the message across. Miles was one of those believers that if you could get your message across in half the amount of notes you were much closer to the purity of the style.

AB: Miles Davis is pure.

JZ: Kind of Blue, you wouldn’t say there was the trumpet virtuosity in that that you would hear from let’s say a Freddie Hubbard in his prime, or a Dizzy Gillespie. Or even like a Louis Armstrong during his grand period when he really arrived on the scene in the ’20s and ’30s. We do a lot of tunes that Louis recorded, although we do them in a much simpler way. A lot of his music, some of it was very simple in the arrangements and some of it really had a big band ensemble behind it, and it was very joyous music. So we perform a lot of the same material but in a very pared down fashion.

img_woodyallenband2AB: Louis Armstrong’s ‘Back O’Town Blues’ is sharp in the estimable Blue Jasmine.

JZ: ‘Back O’Town Blues’, yeah so that’s a song that we do. The realest connective tissue between this band and any of Woody’s films is a lot of the piano work in Blue Jasmine, and most distinctively in Midnight in Paris. So the singing of Cole Porter and all the piano playing in Midnight in Paris is done by our pianist Conal Fowkes. From time to time Woody’s used our trumpet player, Simon Wettenhall and [band leader] Eddy Davis in a few instrumental scenes, like the movie with Sean Penn.

AB:  Sweet and Lowdown. I’d like to see Woody make another movie about a jazz musician, a New Orleans subject like Louis Armstrong. I’m enjoying the Wild Man Blues tour soundtrack.

JZ: Woody went back and reviewed all the music that they shot in all the theatres for the documentary, and he didn’t like any of it, which is kinda typical. It wasn’t earthy enough, or whatever. So we went back and that’s why if you look at the Wild Man Blues CD it says “Rerecorded tracks from Wild Man Blues.”

AB: Woody’s long had a popular association with the hotel we’re sitting in today; in Manhattan, he and Yale come out of the Carlyle. You have people that come here almost on a pilgrimage to see Woody Allen play?

JZ: Right, and this is the perfect setting for it. It’s one of the last of the supper clubs in New York. It’s real old New York; a real throwback to the ’40s and ’50s. And I think that really resonates with people. We’ve been in here since ’98 and it’s very close to Woody’s apartment so he’s very happy here. There’s an intimacy about it.

AB: It’s impressive how he keeps going with the music (and everything else) at 77.

JZ: So most people don’t want to write about the music because they think that would be the most uninteresting thing about Woody. But if you think about it, I think it’s fascinating that he has had this devotion and this dedication to playing this music. If he’s ill, which is very rare, I mean he never misses a night, and the only times we have off is basically during the Christmas holiday, and then during the summer when he does his one film a year. But other than that this is recreation to him, like he says in interviews, “This is my golf game.”

AB: It’s in Woody’s bloodstream, like those old guys in Louisiana.

JZ: Yeah, and there’s a rich tradition of a lot of the New Orleans musicians who, up until the point of them passing on with the Preservation Hall Band, like the Humphrey Brothers—Percy and Willie Humphrey played well into their 80s touring all around the United States and even the world. And they died playing the music, I mean not literally on stage. But there’s that real connection to continue…

AB: …It’s moving, that sense of mortality and history in live music.

JZ: Woody certainly is iconic in films, but music for him again is a hobby. And a lot of these guys, with the Preservation Hall Band, most of these musicians were working musicians. For the most part it was functional dance music, and a lot of the music that we’re playing, a lot of these New Orleans musicians, they made a couple of bucks on a Friday or Saturday night playing at the dance hall. If they were a member of a brass band they would literally make money playing for funerals. And these social and pleasure clubs were designed in New Orleans where these members would pay dues, and then they knew that when they passed on they would have a decent burial. Because back in the day if you were a man or woman of colour you couldn’t buy life insurance; you couldn’t buy burial insurance; they just wouldn’t sell it to you. So this was a way for them to guarantee that they would have a good send off. Again, a lot of this music that we pull from sounds like marching band music, and that’s the repertoire, a lot of it’s like hymns and spirituals that would have been played in church. So it’s an interesting eclectic repertoire. A lot of these guys that toured around in the Preservation Hall Band, most of these guys are long gone from New Orleans. They were around in the ’60s and ’70s and that was about it. Very few lasted into the ’80s. They weren’t necessarily household names, like a Louis Armstrong or a Sidney Bechet.

AB: A prominent jazz critic back home enjoys nothing more than making fun of celebrity vanity projects. He thinks that Woody can play for sure.

JZ: Certainly he’s very effective playing in the style that we aspire to. He doesn’t want to sound like a Benny Goodman, but a lot of people are shocked by that. They think, like, oh… Woody Allen and clarinet, that’s gonna sound like Benny Goodman. You know, smooth and melodic. There are times where Woody plays purposefully a bit more earthy if he feels like we’re getting a little too smooth. A senior editor of Time magazine described this music as “rough house music.” These guys were stevedores and longshoremen—they’d go into some bar and they weren’t looking for the smooth sounds of Glenn Miller, they were looking for something they could sink their teeth into while drinking a beer. But Woody—to stay on point—with no sense of false modesty, is very critical of his playing. He’s said in interviews that he’s the worst musician in the band. Our guys know how to really play. It’s like playing tennis: even though you’re not a great tennis player, you know if you play with someone who’s really good, it elevates your game.

AB: In the superb, carnal Match Point, there’s that idea.

JZ: It’s all coming together because everybody knows what they’re supposed to do and nobody’s off in left field, trying to impress the pretty girl at the bar with your dexterous versatile playing. Everybody’s coming together for the collective good. Woody has said, “I’m not a professional musician, and all these people wouldn’t turn out for us if it wasn’t for my notoriety in the film world.” So, it’s an interesting duality. I mean we have played, without exaggeration, in some of the craziest places in the world that you could never imagine that a jazz band would play. Like we’ve played on the stage of La Scala, in Rome, and we played in the most famous Opera House in Venice.

AB: Turkey?

JZ: We’ve gone to Istanbul, very quickly. But we didn’t spend too much time in Istanbul. We’ve gone to Greece a number of times. We’ve played literally in the Campidoglio which is the Roman legislative building right next to the Roman Forum. So we did a live concert that was broadcast on Italian TV and, because of his celebrity, we’ve played for just the most amazing places. We played in the Opera house in Lucca Italy where Puccini composed all of his operas. The Teatro di Giglio, this little jewel box of a place. If you’re playing this sort of music, this is the best gig in the world.

AB: How was it playing in Venice?

JZ: We were there during the flooding, called acqua alta, so I have a picture of me coming back from the performance with my shoes off and my pants rolled up with my trombone case standing in a narrow alley. No matter where we go, of course, people are intrigued to see him. I think they’re a little disappointed at times because he doesn’t really talk all that much, and certainly doesn’t tell any jokes. He walks up to the microphone—he won’t talk at all tonight—but when we do these concerts [abroad] he’ll walk up and he’ll just tell the people what they’re about to hear. Woody will say: “This is music from the brothels and the whore houses and the street parades and the churches and the dance halls of New Orleans and we’re gonna do our best to play for you tonight.”

AB: What’s a brothel song you play?

JZ: ‘All the Girls Go Crazy’. This number, written by the great New Orleans trombonist Edward “Kid” Ory (1886-1973) in the early 1920s, is one that we will frequently play on tour. The title of the song was likely changed from ‘All The Whores Go Crazy’ to allow the number to be recorded and published. Recordings exist of the composer himself, playing and singing the refrain “All the whores go crazy about the way I ride”—‘ride’ being a slang term for solo and most likely a double entendre in this regard. I have the pleasure of singing this number with the band and we have performed it on some of the most elegant stages of Europe. It rocks along in a steady swinging medium tempo meter and builds to a climactic (no pun intended) finish. It’s one of our specialty numbers due to the subject matter and I think Woody enjoys some of its shock value. “They go down on their knees and say ‘baby, oh baby’.”

img_woodyallenband3AB: Tell me about a couple of other favourite touring tunes?

JZ: ‘Ice Cream’: this is a favourite of mine and I believe Woody as well. ‘Ice Cream’ is a novelty song written in 1927; a specialty number for the George Lewis Band in the 1950s.The challenge is to take this very basic melody and make it swing in a hard driving four-beat New Orleans style. Not too heavy handed or too apologetic, just straight down the middle. Woody will frequently throw in riffs and flourishes from some of George Lewis’s classic solos and I will give a musical nod to the great New Orleans trombonist Jim Robinson.

‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’: what makes the New Orleans repertoire so special is its mix of many different musical influences, and music from the church is no exception. This spiritual was written by the composer and reverend Thomas A Dorsey in 1932. It’s a beautiful melody that I get to sing and we will usually perform it with a light swing or slower, straight four interpretation. Woody’s clarinet is especially expressive in this number, taking advantage of the clarinet’s low register to full effect.

AB: It’s fascinating to hear the creative process you describe that he uses; it sounds similar to his style as a director in that he chooses very good actors he has a lot of trust in.

JZ: Exactly, you’re right. In countless interviews, if you go to him for direction he would just be like, “Just do what you want to do.” And if I asked him, I said, “How would you like me to play that?” which has come up one or two times, he would say “Just do what you want to do.” He’s that way and there’s that trust, whether you’re an actor or a musician, that you’ll rise to the occasion and bring that performance across.

AB: It must be gratifying being trusted like that as a performer?

JZ: It is. You know, it’s interesting playing this style, and I think this needs to be said, there’s literally hundreds of extremely talented trombonists in New York. And they all could probably do a close approximation of what I do. But there’s very few that I think could probably play a convincing trombone in our very eclectic style.

AB: What do you and the band hope that people will take away from the performances, like later tonight?

JZ: Because it’s played together for so long, there’s a real nice familiarity about this band. I’ve worked with all these guys for almost 20 years so it’s like there’s a real good sense of knowing where everybody’s going without being predictable. Because it’s all spontaneous. We have never any idea—even if we’re going on a tour for two weeks—we’ll never know what we’re going to play. Woody has the programme almost to a tee in his head. He doesn’t write it down, he’ll just call out the next tune. So it’s great for us as musicians because he keeps everything spontaneous, and you really have to dig deep sometimes because it may be a song that you really haven’t played in maybe twelve months. And literally we draw from, without exaggeration, at least 500 songs.

A lot of them are very simple songs, they’re all either ABA form or simple what they call head arrangements. But still, they’re different songs, and they can come out completely differently every night. So again, we have no idea—as a matter of fact that would be the antithesis of really what we would want to do, to have a set list. There are some favourites that he may call out, that you may kinda expect he may do. There’s nothing more that he delights in than doing successive nightly dates and not repeating a song. It keeps it fresh. I think the takeaway might be that people be pleasantly surprised. He’s being elevated into that real gem status: “I saw Woody Allen, I saw his band.” I think if they think we can swing it out and they get some kicks out of it, I mean that’s really what it’s all about, beyond the thrill of actually seeing him.

Hot Seven: New York Cultural Highlights

  1. Singular Park Ave Armory’s Massive Attack v Adam Curtis, an only-in-New York visual and sonic immersion. One unforgettable moment: Massive Attack’s intensely cinematic cover of Kurt Cobain’s ‘Leadbelly’ morphing into the original, powerfully indicting America’s prison industrial complex.
  2. New York Theatre Workshop’s Ali play is terrific, riveting drama. Funny and sad, very deftly paced and rousing. Many zingers, and potent physical performances. Nikki James show-stoppingly throws her arms up as the Champ’s wife, Michelle Obama style.
  3. Fancy a bit of the olde Ludwig Van? Joyful, stirring performance of the Ninth from Alex Gilbert’s New York Philharmonic, with plangent bass Shenyang.
  4. Savvy New Yorker South American expert Jon Lee Anderson sharply matched with scorching cinematic animal Gael Garcia Bernal, a highlight of the New Yorker Festival.
  5. Zachary Quinto (Margin Call) again brilliant in Tennessee Williams’s great The Glass Menagerie. Sad, funny, elegant, fresh.
  6. Father John Misty, excellent CMJ close, at homely Music Hall of Williamsburg. Sly, hilarious ‘I’m Writing a Novel’ to appealing ‘Everyman Needs a Companion’.
  7. Maestro Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra have a formidable rep. Carnegie Hall saw a vigorous, shrewd performance of Shostakovich’s Eighth, with a delectable Grieg/Liadov truffle of an encore.

Wild Card: The Nose, at the Met. Shostakovich’s absurdist opera lavishly and inventively staged by South African visual artist William Kentridge, under Gergiev’s baton. Muscular music, beguiling venue, witty scene with a bike. You can see it at the cinema in New Zealand now.

MAIN IMAGE: Jerry Zigmont performing with Woody Allen. Courtesy of Walter McBride.

Filed under: ARTS, Features, Interviews, Music

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Alexander Bisley is an editor-at-large who has contributed in-depth interviews and more to The Lumière Reader since 2004. He’s written extensively on culture (and sport) for all of New Zealand’s leading outlets, and also makes his living freelancing for international publications including The Guardian, Slate, and The AV Club. He’s published by The Independent, BBC, Vice, The Sydney Morning Herald, Playboy, and Slate France, and has been paid once by The New Yorker.