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Collectables: An Interview with Todd Coolman

Todd Coolman

Veteran bassist and educator Todd Coolman has worked with a who’s who of the jazz world. His resumé includes work with Horace Silver, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Benny Golson, Art Farmer, Tommy Flanagan, Ahmad Jamal, Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, and James Moody (with whom he won Grammy), among others. In working with these incredible bandleaders, he’s gathered what it takes to put together a great recording; a skill that’s evidenced in his latest album Collectables.

The release is his fourth as a leader and the first with his Trifecta trio completed by pianist Bill Cunliffe and drummer Dennis Mackrel. Coolman is a collector of sorts and sought to use the album as a vehicle for a musical collection.

“Among my many unrelated collections are baseball hats and ephemera, antique fishing tackle, drawings and photographs of birds, wristwatches (I am fascinated with the idea of time, generally), and various categories of books,” he explains. “So, it stands to reason that I would “collect” a repertoire of enjoyable and memorable tunes chosen from the thousands I have either heard or played (i.e. collected) over the years, thus beginning my first ‘tune collection.’”

The result is a sonic journey full of lush arrangements and inspired bass playing. We caught up with Coolman to get the scoop on his new album, advice for bassists who want to be bandleaders, and the state of jazz education.

What makes these songs “collectable” to you?

They’re songs that, first of all, I’ve always enjoyed playing. What they have in common for me is that the moment I heard them, I had a gut reaction to them and enjoyed it. Whether it was a nice melody or a nice framework for improvisation, the moment I heard those tunes I loved them so I wanted to learn them. I learned them and started to play them and really got into it. I thought, “Well, these are the tunes I enjoy hearing and playing, so I could gather them into a collection of personal favorites, I guess.”

I thought it was interesting, since you’ve had such a storied career and have worked with so many people, that you could pare it down to only so many tracks. That seems tough.

Todd Coolman: CollectablesWell it is, except the way I was thinking of it was that it’s sort of like a collection. For example, when you collect things, you want to get every variety of one type of thing. If you were a serious watch collector, you might want to collect every model of a certain watch from the years 1945 and 1950. So I thought, well I could make little collections out of the tunes that I love.

This collection is of songs I love to play and I know that the people I’m working with love to play them, too. Then maybe I could have another collection of tunes that I need to learn, for example. Or a collection for tunes that are good vehicles for teaching improvisation. Another collection could be tunes that are unusual, or originals, or other people’s originals. I looked at it as one little subset.

I collect fishing lures. So you might collect one type of lure and try to get it in every color pattern. That could become a collection. Another part of your collection might be a different type of lure that you try to get in every size they made. So, I didn’t really try to pare down my favorite music into twelve tunes. It would be impossible. I probably like over a thousand tunes! [laughs] So it’s not like I believed these are the twelve best tunes of all time, but they were just tunes that I really enjoyed playing.

Do you find your favorite songs more often than not give you that gut reaction, or do they tend to grow on you?

It’s a little of both to be perfectly honest. Some tunes, the minute you hear them, there’s something in them you love. I don’t know if it’s a melody or a harmonic sequence or some kind of hook that’s in the piece. Then there are other tunes that I didn’t always enjoy, but I kept working on them and kept playing them, eventually growing to enjoy them.

Sometimes you learn to enjoy a tune through other people’s treatment of the tunes. Maybe you’ve never really played the tune the way someone else does and as a result you’ve maybe missed a few things in it. I can remember years ago, I never really liked the tune “Satin Doll”. Everyone played it, but I never really liked it until I heard a recording of Wes Montgomery playing it. I think I walked into a room where the music was playing and I walked in during the middle of Wes’s solo. I thought, “God, what a great solo. How lyrical!” Then I said, “Gee, I wonder what tune this is.” As I listened, I thought “Oh no… that’s ‘Satin Doll’.” Then I thought if Wes plays such great stuff on that and I don’t like the tune, then maybe there’s something I’m missing. So I transcribed Wes’s solo and I made some discoveries as to what notes he was choosing and why they sounded so good. Then I thought maybe “Satin Doll” isn’t such a bad tune after all.

There are other tunes that have portions in them with chord changes that are similar to “Satin Doll”, and then you start seeing other ways to play on those tunes, too.

So yes, some tunes do grow on you. I found that to be the case, for me anyway, with Thelonious Monk’s music. I can’t say that I liked all of his tunes immediately, but after hearing them a while I grew to like them. Again, if you hear a certain performance of a tune that knocks you out, then you’ll think, “There’s gotta be something in the tune that I’m not finding because this guy found it.” Even just hearing somebody play the melody of a tune more beautifully than anyone else has can stimulate your interest.

A lot of times when I hear a tune that I don’t care for, rather than just throwing it away, I just file it away. I think, “Ok, maybe when my ears mature more, I’ll find a place for that tune.” On occasion I’ll come to the inevitable conclusion that no, I don’t like that tune. [laughs] I’ve tried every way to like it, and I don’t like it. That’s that!

With that in mind, it’s really important to pick your band members with the treatment of the song. How did you come about the Trifecta group for Collectables?

It’s funny how that came about, because I’ve been playing with Bill and Dennis over the years in various contexts, and I always enjoyed it. About a year or two ago, Bill and Dennis and I were playing and… It’s kind of hard to describe. We had played together for a while, but on this particular occasion I just felt the whole thing get to a whole other level of communication and closeness. It had a feeling that really had something substantive. I felt like our playing together had gone to the next step. That’s a great feeling, because we played together well anyways, but with this next step I felt like, “Wow, we’ve really got a chemistry here. I should try to work with these guys more often. This is a nice combination of people.”

A couple years ago, I changed my orientation at the college where I teach. I went from being a full time professor to being a part-time guy. Part of the reason was to open up more time to play more music and get involved in other things. I thought it would be nice to do some recording, then it hit me that Bill and Dennis would be up in Saratoga Springs when I would be and I knew a good engineer up there. To make a long story short, that’s how it came together. I knew since the three of us would not have a lot of rehearsal time, it wouldn’t make a big difference because I knew how I fit together with those three guys. I knew the results would be good, at least, because we had developed a kind of sound.

I think that’s an interesting point. Part of the deal with jazz is that everybody knows a certain repertoire and once you’re at a certain level it will work to play with anyone, but I think in that mentality a lot of people lose the idea that you need to play together for a while to really gel.

Todd CoolmanThat is so true, and it worries me a lot, frankly. It’s so different now than when I first came to New York. When I first arrived here, you could be in a band. You would go on the road and you would record. The whole industry was intertwined with promoting your music and promoting your records and getting you out there. The idea of taking a band on the road was tied into all these other things. You played night after night in all these different settings and situations. Plus, you lived through each day together and that creates a certain kind of bonding. The music does really evolve.

When I played with Horace Silver, he really liked to rehearse and we would go out [on the road] for twenty weeks at a time, so by the time we got to New York after all these other places it really sounded like a band. It really congealed and you developed a real strong feeling. I heard that in the other bands. For instance, you’d hear one of Art Blakey’s Messengers bands that had been together for a couple years. Then you’d hear them three months later and he’d have a new piano player and a new bass player, and it wouldn’t be the same. You’d say, “Well, they’ve got to be on the road a little while longer and it will start to come together.” Sure enough, you’d see them later and you could hear that.

Now it’s harder for people to put together and sustain work, so a lot of work is just that you hire people for an engagement. You can kind of hear some growth from night to night, but then at the end of three nights it’s like, “Okay, see you later.” And you don’t have enough work to make that your band, so then you get another three night engagement and you call the same guys but they’re not available because they’re out working with someone else. So you never really get the opportunity to get that “other level” happening. With Bill and Dennis, we were able to do that in spite of the fact that we don’t play together all the time. But we played together enough that it got to that.

There was already a rapport there.

Yeah. It’s like a friendship. Even if you don’t see your friend for a year and then you seen them all of a sudden, it’s not like you have to start all over. You just pick up where you left off. It’s really hard to do that when you’re freelancing and you don’t belong to a band, or if you do belong to a band and they don’t work very often. You might work with a band and go to Europe and play a few concerts, wait four months, play a few nights over here in Cincinnati, wait four months and then make a record.

It’s very difficult. Frankly, I even feel bad sometimes about the fact that we’re in situations where we have to read music on gigs because we have arrangements. It’s not like we don’t know tunes, but we want to play original music, too. We don’t have time to maybe rehearse a bunch and again, it’s not a band, but you want to work and present your music. I feel a little self-conscious when the audience is paying all this money and they come and you’re sight-reading this music. It’s almost like they’re paying to hear a jam session. For example, whenever you hear Phil Woods’s group, it just sounded like his group. Or the Bill Evans trio or any of those groups. Now when I go out to hear people, I hear a very high level of competency, a very high level of playing, some semblance of communication, but not that real deep next level stuff.

When I go hear someone like Mike LeDonne at [New York City jazz club] Smoke, he does a regular Tuesday night there. He’s been doing it for years and you can tell. Those guys have a thing just from the regularity of doing it. The freelance thing is a little different and it’s hard to get to that level. A lot of leaders can’t afford a band, so they fly to Denver and hire a local rhythm section. And they might sound fine, but it’s not quite the same as the other version. I’m concerned about it. It’s becoming more challenging because the paradigm of the business has changed so much. So much of the non-musical work is becoming the responsibility of the performers. That takes time, and it takes time from the idea of developing a band and getting it out there.

Do you see that changing anytime soon?

I try to remain optimistic in a general sense, but I have to call it like I see it. We’re talking about something that is actually a problem that I think is much larger than jazz or jazz business. I think it has to do with the fact that music is everywhere now. Recordings are everywhere. Everyone has a recording.

Music is being handled, at least in the United States, in a manner that is training the public that music is something to ignore, or is something in the background, or something to talk over. Or it signals that, “Oh, this is a happening place. Let’s go in there for coffee.” If there was no music playing, they might think, “Oh, it’s dead. Let’s not go in there.” But they don’t intend to listen to the music; they just intend to go in because they think it’s happening. I think the bigger problem is getting people’s attention directed to just listening to music. How many people spend thirty minutes at home just sitting still and listening to something? So I worry more about that than I do the jazz business, per se, because the jazz business is like a subset of that.

It’s more of a cultural problem, and I don’t see anything changing at the moment. I don’t see that changing. I hate to say that even, but I just don’t. There’s a lot of things going on right now that suggest that it might even be a microcosm of even larger problems. It’s like throwing a pebble in a lake and the rings kind of go out, because then we could talk about all the virtual stuff now: virtual friendship, virtual romance, virtual stardom, etcetera.

The truth is it’s really a great question. Yes, I’d have to be worried about these phenomena in the jazz business because they are part and parcel of this large problem. In other words, I’m concerned on many levels. In that regard, we might say, “Expect the worst and hope for the best.” So maybe something will turn around. Things happen, so who knows. Who would have thought that the LP would come back? LPs are outselling CDs now or something like that. Maybe that same generation at some point might say that it would be cool to sit still and listen to a record with a friend. That’s entirely possible.

I think it’s a cycle kind of thing that will come back around.

Maybe that’s the best way to look at it, and it’s probably the right way to look at it. Things do come and go, don’t they? So maybe we’re just on the other side of the pendulum.

You’ve worked as a sideman with big artists like Horace Silver and James Moody and so many more. What advice do you have for bass players that want to be bandleaders?

One thing is to just be aware that there is sort of a perception, at least in the concert presenters and clubs and stuff, that a bass player really isn’t a leader. That’s neither good nor bad, it’s just they have a hard time seeing it that way. That can make it a harder sell to put together a group. It’s a little different if you’re a person of extremely high visibility like a Ron Carter or Ray Brown, but throughout history there weren’t really too many bass player leaders.

Number two is that it pays something to know about arranging and about the other instruments and writing for them. Even for that matter, just preparing music for them. I mean, I’m learning stuff all the time about that. That’s a whole other issue.

Beside that, the best lessons you can take with you if you’re going to start leading a band is having been a bass player as a sideman. I just try to think about all the leaders I worked for and all the pleasant things that made my work more enjoyable, that made me feel more productive, made me feel more eager to play and make the leader’s vision come to life. I also think about some of the negatives about how band leaders might treat people and all that. It’s not hard for me to see everybody’s role through the eyes of a sideman. These guys that I worked for, like Horace and James Moody, they were leaders at a pretty early age so they were always bandleaders. Well, I’ve always been a sideman so I can see things through those eyes.

When I hire guys I kind of think about things that I always like to see in a bandleader. Don’t waste their time. Pay them as soon as the work is finished. Whether you get paid or not, that’s your problem. No excuses. Try to provide as much information to the band in advance so they have an opportunity to prepare adequately. Then whatever you’re asking them to do, whether it’s being on time or dressing a certain way, you make sure that you do that all the time.

Also, you have to think about accommodations, travel, and all of that stuff. I’ve probably stayed in every manner of hotel that there is and flown on every imaginable flight and routing, so you think about those things. The thing that I’ve been lucky about is that when I pick up the phone and say, “Would you like to do a so and so with me?”, almost always the answer is yes or they’ll try to rearrange their schedule. So the word out there is that I’ll take care of your needs [as a bandleader].

I think all most sidemen really want from a leader is to know you are doing what you can for him. Could the gig pay more? Sure, but if they think you’re doing your best, that’s a good job. Putting together bands is another thing. You want to think about people that are compatible musically, personally and all that stuff. You just try to pay attention to what you’re hearing about things. You may find out that a couple people you want to hire maybe aren’t too fond of each other. Well, you can still get around that if you need if they are indispensable to your music.

I’ve also been able to observe who the really good side people are, being one of them. When I call a guy, I already know he’s going to make my job easier, he’ll be prepared, he’ll play well, and I won’t have to worry about his conduct. Even as a sideman all those years, I tried to be observant so I have an idea of the people I’m looking for.

So that would be the advice: be observant. Observe how side people act on other leaders’ gigs. Are they prepared? Are they on time? Are they dressed properly? Do they seem to be affable? Do they project a positive vibe? If not, put it down in your book. You’ll even see people playing that are in a great band that are great players, but they’re not playing for the music. They are playing to impress someone from the New York Times or their new girlfriend or whatever. I don’t like to see that and I don’t want it in my band.

Education seems to be such an important part of your career as well. What kind of mistakes do you see students making across the board?

I don’t know if it’s the students or their teachers or the system… I think it’s all of it combined. Typical student mistakes I’d say are first of all misconceptions about the music business. Secondly, why are they in it. Thirdly, if they do all their assignments, they think they are done.

[They think], “I did all of my assignments and I got all A’s, so that’s all I have to do.” That’s just a toolkit. I think there’s probably not enough emphasis put on once the student gets the grasp of what the toolkit is, how does the student develop their own voice. How do they develop their own personality? And how does the teacher encourage that even if it’s not in the workbook? They learn this stuff and go out and play a Charlie Parker tune, but they don’t do it like Bird. Maybe they don’t play it like that, but what I care about is that they’re coming from an informed place. Then they can do what they want with the music. As long as I understand that they know what the basis of what they’re doing is, that’s important.

Students are in too big a hurry, too inpatient, and they feel like if they don’t achieve something by a certain young age that they are all washed up. That’s just not the case. They should be concerned more with longevity rather than how soon they’ll be able to play at the Vanguard. They should be thinking about, “How am I going to be in this business when I’m 50? What do I have to do to make it to there?” You know?

It’s funny. You know, I’ve taught thousands of students, I imagine, and the ones that are always successful are the ones that do more than is required. They do extra stuff on their own and pursue their own creative interests outside of class, like extracurricular interests. It’s the ones that are writing an arrangement before they even studied arranging, or the ones that you see at every jam session. No matter if the players are great or lame, they’re out there playing every chance they get. You start seeing that, and those are the students that are driven beyond someone telling them, “You have to do this by next Wednesday.” They come into your lesson and say, “I did everything you asked and have three extra things to show you.” That’s rare, but those are the [successful] ones. The ones that go out and make a little noise, they almost always have that in common. They weren’t content to just do the assignment, so to speak.

What do you see about teachers?

I think they get a little bogged down in having some kind of agenda that sets itself up so that it can be evaluated for purposes of grading and so forth. Maybe sometimes it would be better instead of saying, “Bring in this tune to play,” you could write ten tunes on the board and say, “Pick two of those and bring them back next week. Put together a group and play them however you want to play them.” Maybe that would be better. I don’t know. Trying to build something into the structure that enables students [to see] that it’s not necessarily right or wrong, but it’s poor or good or better or really great or whatever.

One of the big issues I see in teaching in jazz music – I don’t know if it’s in other subjects or not – I’m sorry to say is that too many college teachers, many of whom are part-time, are too overly concerned as to what the students think of them. Do the students like me? Do they think I’m cool? Do they want to come to my class? They have to suspend all of that. I’m not there to be anybody’s friend. I’ve got plenty of friends and I don’t need a bunch of college student friends. I’m there to teach, to mentor, to inspire, to critique, and to be honest. That’s hard sometimes. It’s really hard to call a kid out and say, “You really need to think about getting this together or just find another field. If your heart’s not in it, you’re in the wrong field.” I’d like to think that students like me, but not in the way that I’m cool or as a friend. They might like me because they see that I’m dedicated to helping them improve. That I can dig.

Too many teachers get invested in the rapport thing and the whole popularity thing. Then it leads to what I think is a dishonest relationship, because then they start telling them that they sound good when they don’t sound good. They give them A’s when they should be giving them C’s, and that’s not cool, you know? So there are problems.

These questions are important. It’s important that we talk about them. Maybe if we reveal some of our concerns, then somebody out there has a solution. I will say, though, that the state of so-called jazz education has definitely improved. More and more qualified people are teaching now. It’s had to evolve from an initially very uninformed place, but jazz education is relatively young. It’s grown in terms of quality and evolved. It’s still not perfect. I think a lot of the criticism you hear about it is based on a stereotype that may have been true in the ’60s and ’70s, but has changed since then.

Photos by John Abbott