1999 interview at AllAboutJazz.com


Meet Clare Fischer

March 1999

By Craig Jolley

On Career Turning Points…

We’re talking about a conceptual thing. For my whole life I can’t remember not doing what I’m doing now, and I’m seventy. I was picking out four-part harmony at eight and nine years of age on the piano. Why? I don’t know. I don’t care. All  I know is it’s there and harmony is something that really stimulates the hell out of me. I just saw each thing as a logical exposure to something which I developed further.

I had never written any vocal arrangements prior to the Hi-Lo’s. I wrote an arrangement of “Tenderly,” the most popular recorded song of that era, and everybody loved it, and that opened to something else.

I’m traveling with the Hi-Lo’s in 1958, and in Stockholm, Sweden I run into Donald Byrd, the jazz trumpet player. Donald and I had known each other when I was at Michigan State University, and he was a musician from Detroit. Damned if I don’t get hired to write the first complete album of music for somebody with strings and woodwinds and French horns with him playing trumpet.

They didn’t put it out. My company went and sought out the masters after twenty-five years of being in the can, and that’s why it came out.

And that’s part and parcel of another thing I do. I make my own opportunities.

Donald Byrd played an acetate of that album for Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy hired me to write an album of music called Portrait of Duke Ellington. That was my first thing with somebody who was a so-called ‘big name.’ That was an interesting experience.

On the other hand, the company left my name off. So the album comes out. They’re offering it in Down Beat as a reward for subscription. My name is not on it. So, Donald Byrd’s in the can and that’s that. But, as far as crossing barriers, you never cross anything. You just keep getting the next barrier.

While I was with the Hi-Lo’s, I ran into the personalities of other people. When I came along in the Hi-Lo’s, there’d been only one guy writing arrangements. He’d grown up terribly insecure. Tremendous writer, but he had to look at writing as if he were the best. And so you minimize what other people do. I was screwed out of my credits for my first eight arrangements with the Hi-Lo’s. [Besides “Tenderly,” some of Clare’s other uncredited arrangements were “Yesterdays,” This Heart of Mine,” “Solitude,” “Fairyland” and “On the Alamo.”]

And when I asked about a credit, I was asked what I wanted them for. It took me years to figure out that the man who wrote the original arrangements was a competitive-type person. I’m not a competitor. I like to sit and listen to somebody play an instrument over here and see what he’s doing and go, “My God, that’s so simple. Why didn’t I think about it?”

You find that you have an orientation toward your writing, and everybody’s different. And that’s an interesting thing to share. That’s not something for me to go back and say, “You do well, but you’re not as good, and therefore… ” That bothers me in people.

There is a pop singer by the name of Robert Palmer who I did several albums for. And it finally got so that a thing came up with a producer, and the producer was the dumbest thing you ever met in your life. I won’t give you that producer’s name, but on page 230 of the Miles Davis autobiography, he cuts him up quite badly. I finally had to let this guy know I don’t work this way. I do not write arrangements to have somebody come along and screw with them.

Now is this the person or is this the era? Ever since the rock thing came along, they started putting things together by pieces. First you get someone to do the rhythm section arrangements. The guy puts his voice on. And then you give it to somebody else to write brass parts. Somebody else comes in to write strings. Too many cooks spoil the broth. And yet that’s what most pop recordings are, out there.

I have to let people know that they hire me for a reason, and that reason is not to rewrite what I do. I will discuss anything they want beforehand, and I will do my best to meet them, but I will not have somebody rewriting my arrangements who doesn’t have the slightest idea, for instance, of string players or string writing. He could be a producer whose only concept of strings is a string synthesizer played by a keyboardist. They don’t understand either. So you end up fighting every inch of the way. You finally have to say, “I’m sorry, you have to get somebody else.” Sometimes you lose a lot of money.

When you get into the politics of being a record company and a performer, that’s a sad story in itself. You mentioned the word ‘money.’ Money is not the cause of anything. I don’t write arrangements only to earn money. That’s an end result. I write arrangements because I’m interested in music. And if they want to sit and say, “Well, we paid you…” I say, “Go get somebody else.” Because what it amounts to is you’re like a call girl. I’m not putting down call girls, but you have to consider what that is. She’s not your run-of-the-street whore who’s getting twenty bucks a crack, and so you give her a little more social status, but, nonetheless, when she gets through, it’s still the same.

On Choice of Keyboard Instruments

[The day before, in a conversation, Clare mentioned he went to the trouble of transporting his own concert grand across town for his solo recital at the recent IAJE convention.]

I guess I’m not a gambler. A pianist has terrible conditions under which he has to work. He’s expected to practice on one instrument, and he gets so he knows what’s going on there. Then you go out and play on another. It’s not just a question of each pianist being different. I find that some pianos are user-friendly and some are not. When I get on a piano that is not user-friendly, I can sit and lay out my best stuff that I know will sound and I won’t get any response from it.

This piano here [Yamaha grand] sings. [Demonstrates with a magnificent harmonization of Everything Happens to Me.”] It has tone. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing [picks up tempo slightly and plays more percussively] and digging in. It sings. And that’s an important thing if you’re playing a melody because if it doesn’t sing you don’t get the insides. What are you going to play? All the chords you know will sound fine, but it won’t do anything for you. On an instrument like this, you can go [plays simple triads] and it will sound good. Now, a piano dies away as you play it. A lot of arrangers beat a chord with their left hand, and they keep beating that chord over. What they’re doing is looking for the intensity of a voicing.

Here’s a standard type of thing [plays a chord hard and waits a couple of seconds]. The intensity is gone. The tones are still there. That’s not like it is when you get to an orchestra. Most people who write purely on a piano end up constantly reiterating these notes in order to get that intensity, and yet whenever they hear it played by either a band or a string section or whatever it is, those notes last.

[Goes across the room to his digital keyboard and plays Jobim’s “Insensatez” dreamily with the chords held out.] See? It’s more orchestral, and that feels different underneath what you’re doing. [Returns to the acoustic piano.] Now, this piano? I love to play on it. Playing blues becomes a different thing. I utilize both, and not just because I’m a pianist. I think of myself as a writer who plays the piano. [Plays a passage in which the little finger of the right hand plays three melody notes while the other fingers hold.] That’s not what you would call piano-type technique. That’s arranger-type technique. But because I’ve played the keyboard so much, I probably play more than most arrangers do, and I arrange more than most pianists do.

So, I don’t care where I am. I just know it’s there, and it allows me to do what I do. And what I mainly like to do is feel.

On Feeling and Sensitivity…

I had a concussion nine years ago, and that changed things. I had always been sensitive musically, but now, since the concussion, I find the emotion is there immediately. There is no build. I hear several chord changes — it could be three or four chord changes from a string orchestra — and, man, I’m just gushing tears.

I don’t take it as a weakness. Sometimes it might get slightly embarrassing to observers. On the other hand, I’m not putting it on. I’m in no way trying to exaggerate feeling. My feelings are exactly the opposite. Sometimes I wish I wouldn’t be quite as sensitive because then I wouldn’t have to go through this thing when I write.

Writing is dealing with a prolonged time perception because it’s not passing as real time. Language and music pass in real time, but when you write, the tendency is to lose track of how much of that time has gone. And composers have a tendency to blow their wad too soon. They spend hours doing what they’re doing, and when they get there they say, “My God, that went by in thirty seconds.” I find these things interesting psychologically or philosophically the older I get.

On Vocal Music and Lyrics…

In my life when I observe jazz or whatever, I find singers are abusive. Singers and drummers: even the worst of them think they are wonderful. With drummers and singers, you constantly get these stories that are jokes. I’m involved with singers. I started out years ago writing for the Hi-Lo’s, the hippest thing around at that time. [Recites the lyrics to “Everything Happens to Me,” then plays half a chorus to fit the mood of the lyrics.] The words are there, and there are a lot of songs that aren’t worth knowing the words. [Plays half a chorus of Gordon Jenkins’ “Goodbye,” then sings, “So you take the high road and I’ll take the low…”]

You have to recognize those writers who are artists in the same sense as the musicians. “Catching colds and missing trains.” Man, I wish I could say something that clever. Johnny Mercer was a wonderful lyric writer. You have to appreciate those. And then you get into the other thing where the lyricist says, “It’s not the composer, it’s what the lyricist did that’s important.” Come on. When I find a song that is equal parts of both, that’s a damn good song, and that’ll be one of the songs I use all the time. There are several like that in my life. On the other hand, there are the wonderful songs that Billy Strayhorn wrote. I think that’s one of the failings of the Duke Ellington thing; the people they got to write the lyrics were peons.

On Brazilian Music…

My recent trip to Brazil was not an individual thing. Forty-some years ago I was exposed to Brazilian music through a Brazilian friend. This was years before Tom Jobim and the bossa nova came to this country, at least eight years before then. I suddenly heard this music and was fascinated by it, so I started getting into it.

There was a guitarist, Baden Powell. The first time I heard him, I thought, “Man, he’s got to have three hands. That time is going on so good.” He became a great influence on my comping style in Brazilian music. When I actually play that instrument there [pointing to his digital keyboard], which I prefer for Brazilian music, I’ve got this procedure which is like a guitarist playing. I play a melody, I play comping chords, and I play a bass note on the first and second beat of every bar.

So here I’ve been going with all these influences.

In 1964, my first steady job in the studios in this city was with the NBC Orchestra playing for the Andy Williams Show. So who comes on that show but Antonio Carlos Jobim. And he comes over to the orchestra, doesn’t say a word to me. He sits down to the piano and starts playing a bossa I had written [probably “Carnaval“] I had written that the Hi-Lo’s recorded. I mean, he’s heard of me?

And there were other people I became very involved with. What finally happened is I heard an album called Samambaia that had a guitarist by the name of Helio Delmiro [Cesar Camargo Mariano was co-leader of the group]. And he asked the Brazilians down there on a festival to hire me to play with them. We had no idea of what was going to go on. But, man, we found we had a hell of a rapport.

I did an album for Joao Gilberto about eight years ago. I don’t know whether the word is ‘egoist’ or ‘egotist.’ When you run into an ‘artiste,’ we’re talking about the same ego the drummers and the singers have. When I did that album for him, I found those things out. There was a fellow who wrote an article about the writing I had done for that album in Portuguese in a Brazilian paper. He got his information from Joao Gilberto. Joao had only sent me a cassette tape with his voice and the guitar. You cannot separate them [voice and guitar]. Instead of him saying that I had transcribed what he had done and then fit my stuff over, he looked at it that everything I wrote I got from him.

I thought, “Oh, man, forget about you. I’m not going to argue the point with you. I had fun doing the album, but, after it’s over, to go through this type of…” The first thing we had to do was put on a bass and a drummer, which he insisted upon. His time varied. If he was singing, his time was one thing. If he was playing without singing, it was another. Sometimes I had to vary the tempo to fit his time. The producer called him on the phone and mentioned that his time was errant. He said, “Oh, no. Oh, no.”

Anyway, now I’ve met Helio Delmiro. I go down, and I play with him. We strike up a wonderful rapport. And so I just spent six thousand dollars to bring him up here to record an album with me. And we’ve done some original stuff in it, and we’ve done some standards. And it’s varied. I don’t just play Brazilian music. He doesn’t play Brazilian music. He can play some of the funkiest-ass blues you’ve ever heard. And what kills me is a person I recorded with and knew very well, Joe Pass. He was a wonderful guitarist as a single-line improviser. Joe Pass never got into anything, harmonically. Helio not only has it in the way some of the chord voices he plays, but the notes he picks to improvise to the chords. So it’s a completely different thing. We did this album, and it was so wonderful. Now I have to find a way to sell it and get it all set, and we’ll see what I can do.

On the Bugle Band…

Every decade of my life, something new has come along. And that becomes my learning experience of that decade.

About eight years ago I turned on the television and got, of all things, a competition for drum and bugle corps, a national competition. First of all, you have to get rid of the images  of the women carrying white flags and white rifles who go through all that. That’s show business, and it has nothing to do with music.

My wife and I went down to La Mirada the next year to hear the previous year’s winners. Man, they were turned away from us, playing softly, and, mind you, you’re talking about eighty people strong. They turned towards us and held their instruments up and played a chord. Every hair on my body stood up, and I have plenty of hair.

I had heard good symphonies and good orchestras and good concert bands, but I’d never heard anything like that. And at that point, I went out and spent fourteen thousand dollars and bought an entire family of bugles. I mean an entire family: soprano bugles, alto buglesmellophones, down to baritone bugles and contrabass bugles which go clear down to [hits the lowest C# on the piano].

I loved the sound of them. But it was a learning process. Most instruments people play in bands are in B flat or E flat. Bugles are in the key of G. People who play them have to have ears that transcend their B-flat trumpet. There’s many a trumpet player who plays a B-flat trumpet very well. But, by God, if you hand him a C trumpet or a D or an E flat, forget it. He can’t even find where he is on that. All of his sensitivities of the lips and everything are geared toward the pitches he expects from the B-flat instrument.

On the other hand, there’s  small percentage of people, maybe 25%, who can pick up any of those. And they are the people who play all sorts of strange, funny little things.

What I had to do… For instance, I’ve got soprano bugles, alto bugles and mellophone bugles, and they all have the same range. Now if you have a stack of chords, where do you put them? I had to get those instruments out and screw around with them. My impression was that the alto would be the third voice down, and, yet, when I started playing them, I realized the alto bugle is the extension of the soprano bugle sound, and then it changes when you get down to the mellophone. And so I had to play the instruments to learn where they went, orchestrationally, in the stack.

[Note: Clare has recorded a CD with his thirty-piece bugle band featuring Gary Foster, Don Shelton, Steve Huffstetter and others. The music is definitely recognizable as jazz, but it has unique sonority and a big sound. The Jazz Corps is available online.]

On West Coast Jazz…

Again we’re getting into a philosophical end of things. There never has been a ‘West Coast Jazz.’ However, Gerry Mulligan, who is from the east coast, came out here at a certain period of time and ran into Chet Baker, and they recorded albums out here. I believe it was for Pacific Jazz. Some east coast musicians didn’t like the idea that it was quiet, that it was thoughtful and very popular, so they had to play hard-ass funky in order to say this is ‘East Coast Jazz.’

It’s like if you don’t know what to call something, you feel like you have to give it a name. And so you get into terms like ‘New Wave.’ Nobody can define what ‘New Wave’ is. All it is, is a marketing technique. Ii has no significance. ‘West Coast Jazz’ and ‘East Coast Jazz’ have no significance. Gerry Mulligan was a good player, a good writer. They were all good musicians. It had nothing to do with the west coast. I came out here with the Hi-Lo’s. Am I ‘West Coast’?

I have a background that is too varied. I don’t pay any attention to things like that. Even now, when I go back east, I get it. I played a jazz festival at the University of Pittsburgh. Most of the guys were from New York. They gave me a trip. They give me that ‘West Coast’ shit. And if you know somebody who is prejudiced concerning blacks and black music, you’re going to find a problem there, no matter what.

Now the opposite exists also. Some New York musicians get so, like, “We’re it!” There’s that competitive thing again. Somebody has got to be worse than I am so that I can be good.

On the Concussion He Suffered Nine Years Ago…

There are too many people here now. When I came to L.A., seventeen thousand people moved here every day. I work better when I don’t have to run into all these aggressive drivers on the road. That’s why I had my concussion.

There was a thing going on out there in traffic. I finally pulled over to the side of the street and waited for him. He showed up five minutes later, stripped to the waist, and stuck his face one inch from mine.

Now, you don’t get one inch from somebody’s face unless something is going to happen. I have a naturally low center of gravity, and I grabbed him and got a choke-hold around his neck. And he thrashed around for maybe seven or eight minutes.

But what I didn’t realize was that at sixty-one years of age, my balance mechanism was not as strong as it was before. And, finally, after a point, we went down. He fell on me and my head hit the concrete — a fracture right behind my left ear, a concussion.

I went to the hospital and almost died that night. I finally had to stop taking care of myself as I always had, physically. I didn’t go out looking for fights, but if somebody came along and… I was capable of holding my own. Now, at seventy years of age, I have to adopt the attitude, “That’s young man’s shit.”

On Education…

Gary Foster and I went to North Texas University to spend four days doing clinics and teaching. When we got there, we found something out. They had had the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band, and you name it — every name in the business who played well but could not discuss music. They were surprised when they found musicians who were capable of expressing themselves and making it digestible in terms that somebody could understand.

I hadn’t thought about that, but then I realized I can make analogies with music that strike home. For instance, at the Berklee School of Music, I’ve got a class of forty. I said, “I want you to do something. When I give you a downbeat, I want you to all start talking, and none of you stop. Just keep talking.” I gave them the downbeat. It went on, and they started laughing. And then, finally, I cut them off and I said, “That’s the current state of jazz. Everybody is talking and nobody is listening.”

I don’t want to talk about the bass player whose sole purpose is to be fleet-footed in public as opposed to really having good time and playing music for what it is. Jazz is time. Think about it.

On Sociological and Philosophical Considerations…

Because of the record industry, the choice of music has gone down the tubes. Let’s say you are a jazz performer. That’s a limited area. And, what’s more, it has become a more limited area every year in my lifetime.

What it was when I first started playing in the forties, was pretty much a universal thing. Everybody was jitterbugging and dancing to this and listening to the bands and listening to music.

And, one by one, these things started splitting up until you got this kind of jazz, and another guy over here playing this kind of jazz, and each one thinks that only what he is playing is what it is. It’s the equivalent of a Catholic and a born-again Christian shooting each other because they don’t believe in the same God. There is no cure for the limited sociological aspect of what goes on in the world.

I love George Carlin. Rather than trying to understand the United States government and how it operates from the court system and anything else, he says, “Where are the assassins when we need them?” There’s always somebody out there, ready to take somebody’s life for what you might call a limited cause. It could be somebody killing the people who have abortion clinics. Nobody has the right to do that to anybody. But they do, and you know that.

I got the first taste of that when they shot Kennedy. I couldn’t believe it. The modern era and we’re shooting presidents? What do you do with that? Do you take it to its logical end which is deep cynicism? If you do, you’re going to make yourself physically sick. You have to find some way to lighten things up after you know the truth. And, of course, what life is, in general, is adding one more year of experience every year you’re alive, which makes you grow.

I found, once I passed the age of forty, that I have a good sense of humor. It’s only through that I can keep stuff off and go through my life. If you sit and try to take on everything that is going on out there, you’re going to end up with problems.

That’s where I feel music. And music becomes the way in which I express feelings. And, because it allows me to have contact with my emotions, it’s a constant catharsis, not just playing and writing. By doing that, you alleviate something inside of you. And who knows where that comes from?

© 1999  AllAboutJazz.com

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