If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know I devote much space to interviews with jazz legends. You can't beat first-hand recollections, and I'm constantly trying to improve what I do as an interviewer, journalist and historian. So I spend my downtime reading the greats—not only for the jazz stories but also for lessons in improving my craft.
From the reader's perspective, a Q&A or an oral history provides three distinct pleasures: You get to hear evidence directly from an eye-witness; the language used by the subject is often expressive and colorful (provided the interviewer left the original language intact); and, if the tale is told well, there's energy and drama in what's being said.
The secret of a great oral history, of course, isn't just taking notes as the subject talks. If only it were that easy. You need to know what you want to get from the outset, which means research. Questions have to be carefully prepared and perfectly phrased. You have to listen very, very carefully to what's being said—and not being said—so you can be ready to ask additional questions not on your list. The language and phrasing of the person talking needs to be preserved. And the information has to be accurate, which sometimes means verification.
Then all the cards have to be organized in a deck that engages and excites the reader. As you can imagine, it's a time-consuming process and requires great care and devotion. After all, a jazz interview or oral history is successful only if readers feel they've spent quality time with the eye-witness, not the writer.
Here's a splendid example from Ira Gitler's book—featuring tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson (pictured at the top of the page) talking about the birth of bebop:
"When I came to New York to settle down in 1942, I joined Diz, Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach, and all those men at the Onyx Club. We really started to get into it, getting down arrangements, head arrangements, and recordings and all of that. So that's what I did. That's when it started.
[52d] Street made everybody aware of this new music. Dizzy was the theoretician to this music to my way of thinking and my knowledge, and he was really. It was lots and lots of fun.
But some guys it didn't really influence too much—a lot of guys like Don Byas and Lucky [Thompson] and all of 'em. They stayed more in the Hawk thing, but they got the swiftness and the changes but they didn't necessary sound in the exact style.
Dizzy tried to hum everything; he had to hum everything to everybody to get them to see what he was still talkin' about. It would be hard to explain it. It could be notated, but it was very hard to read because cats weren't used to reading—he would be writing in double time, but the rhythm would be going [sings rhythm], so you gotta feel a double time feel against 'one, two, three four,' say, and then therefore, you're looking at 16th notes and 16th rests and 32d rests and of that thing—which the cats were not used to doing—you have to kinda say, 'Hey, wait a minute, let me...' then you gotta get the melodic structure of it, and once you heard how it goes, you say, 'Oh.'
So Dizzy would sing, and actually that's how I think it got its name, bebop. Because he would be humming this music, and he'd say, 'oop bop ta oop a la doo bop doo ba.' So people said, 'Play some more of that bebop' because he would be saying 'Bebop.' And the cats would say, 'Sing some more of that bebop, and actually I think that's how it got its name, because that's the way he would have to sing it to make you get the feeling that he wanted you to play with."