Billy Joel's relationship with jazz fans has always been a bit tenuous. Much of the rancor dates back to Billy's 1978 album 52nd Street. With jazz on the ropes in the late 1970s, Billy's followup album to The Stranger featured the young singer-songwriter standing on the cover holding a trumpet and posing in a New York City alley. Though Freddie Hubbard played on one of the album's tracks, 52nd Street's cover sent an unintentional and chilling message: Rock's dominance of the music business was so complete that one of its stars felt comfortable enough posing as a jazz legend. In effect, the rocker was perceived by jazz fans as using their art form as a kitschy prop, which only rubbed salt in a festering wound.
Ever since, there has been a latent hostility among jazz fans toward Billy and his style of narrative-rock. In retrospect, the 30-year grudge has been foolish and misplaced. As Part 1 of my interview with Billy yesterday illustrated, the pianist actually has enormous respect for jazz and jazz musicians. He also admitted to being intimidated by the art form, which came as a shock to me. The great Billy Joel, antsy about improvisation and jazz legends? Apparently so.
In Part 2 of my interview with Billy, the legendary singer-songwriter talks openly about his experiences with jazz musicians, the physical toll that arena rock takes on headliners, the unspoken tensions between rock and jazz players, his upcoming concert tour with Elton John, and the wordless conversation he had with Ray Charles in 1986:
JazzWax: You name Bill Evans, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson as personal favorites. Any others?
Billy Joel: Yes. Dave Brubeck.
JW: Pretty percussive choice there.
BJ: Well you know, the piano is a percussion instrument. People forget that. They think it’s a string instrument. Not so. You strike a piano, you hit a piano, you bang a piano. As a matter of fact, there’s an arpeggio in one of my songs called Prelude/Angry Young Man. It’s essentially a copy of a pattern on Wipe Out. [Billy sings the repeated guitar riff]. You know Wipe Out, right?
JW: Sure. The Surfaris.
BJ: Right. Well, if you played that riff on a middle C on the piano, that’s what I’m doing—Wipe Out. Because we always used to drum it on the desk in high school and drive the teacher nuts [laughs]. Hey, all pianists want to be drummers and all drummers want to be pianists. [laughs]
JW: Did you ever want Stan Getz to record with you?
BJ: Hmmm. I met Stan Getz at one of those music convention things in the 1980s. He was like just so legendary I was afraid to say hello to him. I did the same thing with Dave Brubeck [pictured]. He had to come over to me to say hi to me because I was too scared to say hi to him.
JW: Come on...
BJ: Oh yeah. Are you kidding? With great players? It’s intimidating. I mean I met [Frank] Sinatra once and I didn’t know what to say. I was dumbstruck, and he knew who I was! Which blew me away. Tony Bennett, the same thing. Ray Charles, same thing. We’re in awe of those cats.
JW: Speaking of cross-music awe, do you think there's an unspoken tension between the jazz and rock worlds?
BJ: I think there’s a good deal of that out there. I personally don’t feel like that. I think good musicians appreciate good music, no matter who’s doing it, whether it’s rock, pop, folk, jazz, classical—any of that stuff. I don’t find any boundaries at all. But there are some guys who do.
JW: What do you mean?
BJ: There may be some bitterness below the surface among some jazz people that rock-and-roll guys get all the money and the attention. And with the rock guys, they may look at the jazz guys and say, "Hey, they’re not talking to me" or "The music is too esoteric." Or that jazz artists aren't really of the people, or that they're off in their own universe. There’s a snobbery on both sides, which I frankly don’t get.
JW: Thinking about recording a jazz album?
BJ: No. I’m not good enough.
JW: Oh give me a break...
BJ: No I’m not. I’m really not that good a piano player. My left hand is virtually useless. I just play bass notes with my left hand. With my right hand I can arpeggiate. I play like a drummer. I just beat the crap out of the piano. But when I say that jazz takes a lot of commitment, I don’t mean that rock-and-roll doesn’t. I’ve pretty much committed my life to music, and I live that life.
JW: Watching you in concert, playing arena rock must be exhausting.
BJ: Yeah, there's an athleticism to it, and it certainly gets harder as you get older. That’s true. But a lot of my energy and commitment goes into the composing end, the writing of songs. That's the hardest part. Playing is just fun.
JW: Is playing rock really fun?
BJ: It’s a blast. It’s fun to make that noise. We manipulate sound. Rockers are kind of magicians and wizards. We take sounds and play with them, you know, and then we put it out there and do magic to people with it, and it gets this big response. [pause] And chicks dig it. [laughs] It’s this great power. But I have a lot of respect for jazz musicians. That's hard in a completely different way.
JW: So at the end of the day...
BJ: ...there's a certain amount of “He’s a rock guy," from jazz musicians and "He's a jazz guy" from rock musicians, and both write the other off by saying, "What does he know?" It's dumb really.
JW: When is your next concert tour?
BJ: I’m going out with Elton [John] in March. We’re rehearsing at the end of this month up in Jacksonville [FLA]. We start there and get to a few cities in the South. In the second half of March we'll be on the West Coast.
JW: Rock concerts are getting pretty pricey.
BJ: I try to keep the ticket price down. It’s a battle. You have all these ticket vendors now. And I’m working with Elton, so it’s double the nut. Now the tickets are $150 to $200 to get in. Kids just don’t have that kind of money. It’s a battle.
JW: Some irony, really. Rock is built on youth but only aging boomers can afford those prices.
BJ: I know! If you don’t have kids coming in to see you, you’re going to be extinct. I don’t want to just play for the same people. I’m grateful for their loyalty but you need new blood, man.
JW: You really need to be up to play in front of tens of thousands of people, don't you?
BJ: Yes. Which is why you need a good audience. If you’re playing for an oil painting, you suck. That happened the other night. We did a private gig. It was a nonpaying audience and they didn’t even know who I was. It stunk. We lay on the stage like an old stinky fish. Nothing happened. If there’s no energy coming back from the audience, you just don’t put on a good show. It can't be helped. You just give up.
JW: What are your three favorite jazz albums?
BJ: Let me see. Well, right off, that would have to be Jimmy Smith's Blue Bash with Kenny Burrell, Dave Brubeck's Time Out and Bill Evans' At the Montreux Jazz Festival.
JW: Have you ever played live with jazz artists?
BJ: I was going to play with Tony Bennett, recently. He has a great piano player. But I was too scared.
JW: Oh stop...
BJ: Seriously. I didn’t do it. I chickened out.
JW: Who have you played with live?
BJ: Toots Thielemans. He had played on one of my albums, An Innocent Man. In 2002, when he was at the Blue Note in New York, he invited me down. Now that place is a hard-core jazz club with a hard-core audience. I think I did one or two songs.
JW: Which ones?
BJ: I think on one night we did Leave a Tender Moment Alone from An Innocent Man and Toots' Bluesette. Toots is fantastic. He has no airs about himself, no prejudices. That night was a scary moment for me.
JW: Why? Didn't you know Bluesette?
BJ: I did but I think I faked my way through a lot of it. I knew enough to just fake it.
JW: You mean the improvising?
BJ: I did that old technique of playing as many notes as you can think of and making sure you cover all the positional keys you’re supposed to be in. Playing with Ray Charles was scary too.
BJ: Well...he’s Ray Charles. He had this way of swinging everything. He had this great blues knowledge in his hands, right in his hands. You didn't even talk about it. You just hear him play, and he’s throwing out these little blues riffs.
JW: What did you play with him?
BJ: I wrote Baby Grand to do as a duet with Ray [for The Bridge, my 1986 album]. I was tense at first. The way we broke the ice was by sitting down and playing the piano together on the basic track. I just played the chord progression and he played all the riffs. And then I kind of started to loosen up.
JW: What felt good about it?
BJ: It was like we were talking. Musicians start talking to each other with their axes. It’s a great way of communicating. I'm saying to myself, "He said this so I’ll say that." It brings out the improvisational parts that you’re not even aware are there. It was like we were talking through our hands: “Hey, how you doin’?” “I’m doin’ OK.” That kind of thing.
JW: So eventually you and Ray were in sync?
BJ: Yeah. But at first I felt like a scared little schmuck from Long Island. But by then end of the session everybody was in a great groove. We were all having a good time.
JW: It's so strange to hear Billy Joel say he struggles with anything, let alone playing jazz.
BJ: I'm familiar with a lot of good jazz. I listened to it all through my teenage years. And I still do to this day, I love jazz. I wanted to be a jazz guy. I just didn't. I don't have the chops.
JW: So jazz is truly a part of your thing.
BJ: It is. Hey, I’m just thrilled to be able to say that I know who these artists are and to have the pleasure of listening to their music for so many years. And it did have an influence on me.
JazzWax clip: Here's a clip of Billy Joel and Ray Charles singing Billy's Baby Grand in 1986. The conductor at the beginning is arranger Patrick Williams, and the bearded gentleman applauding in the engineer's booth toward the end is legendary producer Phil Ramone...