At about 12:45 pm yesterday, my office phone rang. When I answered it, a voice at the other end said, "Hi Marc? This is Billy Joel." A friend had told me he shared yesterday's post with the famed singer-songwriter in Miami and that Billy might call to talk about jazz and Just the Way You Are. Big pause on my end as I scrambled to figure out a way to get the guy on the phone to prove he was really the Billy Joel. "Billy, please don't take this the wrong way," I said. "I've been doing this for a long time. I don't want to find out the day after tomorrow, after our interview appears, that the real Billy Joel is touring someplace in Australia and that I've been had."
Laughter on the other end. "No, no, it's really me," Billy said. "But I know what you mean. I call people all the time and when I say who I am, they hang up on me—or ask me to sing to prove it." So I asked Billy a series of questions about his bio. He answered them all instantly, adding his mother's maiden name and the phone number for a contact at Maritime Music, his company. Then we both laughed and went on to chat for 40 minutes about his favorite jazz pianists, the running tensions between rock and jazz musicians, and the story behind Just the Way You Are.
Please note that this site is devoted to jazz of the 1940s and 1950s, with occasional ventures into later decades. While Billy Joel obviously isn't considered a jazz pianist, he's much more of a jazz enthusiast than you might imagine. Let's put it this way, Billy knows his Bill Evans.
Here's Part 1 of my two-part interview with Billy Joel:
JazzWax: Why is jazz so difficult for rock and pop musicians to play authentically?
Billy Joel: Jazz takes a good amount of technical expertise to get it right. You need a great deal of study and discipline. A lot of people in rock and pop don’t necessarily have that kind of background, and they don’t have that well-developed a technique.
JW: What's the difference between the two?
BJ: I think a lot of rock-and-roll and popular music comes from innocence and naivete. Whereas with jazz, you have to learn to play the ax inside and out before you know how to improvise the way great jazz players do. It also seems like a lot of great jazz musicians have a pretty thorough, comprehensive knowledge of song catalogs. These guys don’t just pick stuff out of thin air, unless, of course, it’s a fusion-jazz thing. Great jazz players are able to take a well known song or standard, which might have been a simple ballad, and turn it inside out and upside down and explore all different ways to play melodies and variations on themes and rhythms.
JW: What do you think about jazz musicians?
BJ: They're as accomplished as classical musicians. I have enormous respect for them. I have long admired jazz keyboard greats like Bill Evans [pictured], Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. I also love the jazz organists, like Jimmy McGriff and Jimmy Smith.
JW: Why did you choose rock instead of jazz?
BJ: When I got to a certain age as a teenager, in the late 1960s, rock-and-roll was kind of the way out of the ‘hood. I loved jazz. I used to play the Hammond B3. That’s still my favorite ax, playing the blues and jazz organ, you know, much more so than the piano. But I realized early that it was going to take years and years of paying dues to get as good as guys like Jimmy McGriff [pictured] and the other jazz artists I admired on the instrument, and I didn’t even know if I would ever get that good.
JW: What is most surprising about jazz musicians?
BJ: The total dedication. To be a really great jazz player, you have to join the jazz monastery and give up a lot of other things in your life—like your personal life, steady income... food [laughs], making regular rent payments and a lot of popularity. For better or worse, that was all taken by the rock-and-roll and pop musicians. There’s a small inner circle of people who appreciates jazz today, and sadly that circle is getting smaller. I have a hard time finding jazz radio stations down here in Miami. I would hate to see it disappear. That kind of musicianship should be disseminated so people can hear it more.
JW: When you hear Just the Way You Are on the radio or at airports, do you still love Phil Woods' sax solo?
BJ: I love his solo. Actually, Phil recorded a bunch of solos for that song. From what I remember, there were at least a half dozen solos laid down, all different tracks. I liked all of them. I was just knocked out that Phil Woods was playing on my song in the first place. I was just in awe.
JW: So you already knew of him and his playing at the time?
BJ: Oh yeah. Phil [pictured] was a protege of Charlie Parker. I mean this guy was and is amazing. I had already hinted about him in a song I wrote called Christie Lee [later released on An Innocent Man in 1983]. It’s a song about a sax player "who knew the Bird like a bible." It was kind of a tribute to a jazz sax player.
JW: What did you think of the solos?
BJ: I thought all of them were great. I had a hard time understanding where that song should go because I didn’t know if I even liked it. I thought it was a good chord progression, it was a nice melody, I thought the lyrics were well written and it was well intentioned. It’s a sweet sentiment. But I was worried that I was going to get tagged as a lounge singer
JW: You thought it was too soft?
BJ: It's what we call a "chick song." You know, girls would like it but guys would hate it. Even though I liked it musically, I just worried that I would get tagged as a wedding singer kind of guy. So I had problems with the song from the beginning. I mean we didn’t even know what drum beat to put on it to make it work. Originally, I think we played it like a cha-cha. Then we tried different rhythms—samba, merengue and then a baione. Phil Ramone kind of took us through it. He was trying to explain it to Liberty, the drummer, how he wanted it. He explained it as a backward samba. But it worked. And it all fell right after that.
JW: Why the Byonne?
BJ: It didn’t feel like a cha-cha or The Alley Cat [laughs], which is what we worried about. So that fell into place. But I still had my doubts about the song. Then came this great Phil Woods saxophone part on the recording, which I think took it to a whole other stratosphere. All of a sudden, now it wasn’t just a lounge ballad. It was potentially a jazz classic.
JW: Is that something extra the edge in Phil Woods' sound?
BJ: It's just the way the guy blows. His phrasing, his sound, the notes he picked, how he got to those notes. I don’t know how he does it.
JW: Grabs you by the throat, doesn’t it.
BJ: Oh yeah. I mean it’s so fluid and inventive and musical on its own that it became a song within a song, a piece within a song. So I said great. That lessened the problems with the song for me.
JW: How did that work?
BJ: I remember being at the editing session that they did. I didn’t really understand a lot of the technology. This was back in the analog days. Back then, you’d make a copy of all the solos and then you’d edit the tape on another copy. Well I didn’t know this. I thought they were working with the only tape that was available. So Phil Ramone was listening to all these solos that Phil Woods did—and they were all different. Each solo was brilliant, each solo was completely different.
JW: What did you think?
BJ: How the hell is Phil [Ramone] going to make all of this work on one solo. He had six tracks to work with, and they’re all different. How does he know where to grab a note, how does he know where the phrase ends and comes in, and how is he going to make sure there isn't a click in the tape where the cut is. And he’s cutting it with a razor blade and using faders! He starts off with [sings one part of the solo and then sings louder for the next solo]. And then there’s another bar with another solo at a different level.
JW: How did Phil Ramone pull it off?
BJ: Phil Ramone is a really good musician, as you know. He was a violinist and child prodigy. He just knew where to find these things. Both guys are so good, Phil Woods and Phil Ramone. It worked. I didn’t think it would work—I was just afraid they would lose a piece of tape and Phil Woods’ solo would be gone forever.
JW: Too bad the outtakes never surfaced
BJ: Somewhere there’s a copy with all those solos. Phil Ramone would probably know how to find them.
JW: Who’s your favorite jazz pianist?
BJ: I go back and forth between Bill Evans and Art Tatum.
JW: Which album of Bill Evans'?
BJ: At the Montreux Jazz Festival (1968). What a great trio that was, with Jack DeJohnette on drums and Eddie Gomez on bass. Bill's chording with his left hand was so unusual and so unorthodox. I didn’t really understand how he played those things.
JW: Did you ever put on the album and try to play what Evans was playing?
JW: And what happened?
BJ: I got lost
JW: Seriously? Come on...
BJ: I mean I could find the key he was in and the basis of the chord he was playing. But I couldn’t figure out how he got there. And while his right hand was flying around, his left hand was throwing out these chords. Very introverted kind of stuff, real inner harmony. Which to me shows terrific musicianship. Inner harmonies—the ones you don’t even hear that are there.
JW: Who else does that?
BJ: Art Tatum. That’s the same reason I like him, although his left hand was obviously different. Tatum would play runs with his left hand and just throw them away. You know, like you’d hear it once and you’d never hear it again. I’d find myself sitting there going, “Please do that again.” I couldn’t hear what the hell that was that Tatum did, so I’d have to lift up the needle and go back, you know.
JW: Did you ever sit down and try to play like Art Tatum?
JW: I think most people assume you can play anything you hear once.
BJ: No. I can play some things by ear. But not guys like Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson [pictured]. They’re doing so many things and throw away lines like in a gesture of defiance or maybe they’re just having fun. It's as if they're saying, “Did you catch that? What about that?”
JW: Because they’re playing with the listener?
BJ: I think they’re doing it for the other guys in their group. ‘Cause I know that in my case, sometimes we’ll throw in a spontaneous thing or an improvisation. It's not for the audience. It’s really to kind of perk up the ears of the other guys in the band: "Did you catch that?" When you do it, you get that look. Cats in the band give you the look. “Ah, yes, I caught that. That was cool. How did you get away with that?”
Tomorrow, Billy talks about Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck and Ray Charles, why he's still intimidated by jazz musicians, why jazz and rock musicians often clash intellectually, why he isn't planning to record a jazz album, his other favorite jazz albums, and the night he played jazz with Toots Thielemans at the Blue Note in New York.