What makes Bobby Jaspar so appealing to the ear is his ability to swing softly. Jaspar on sax or flute had a West Coast sound before the sound existed. In some respects, he was simply delivering a European interpretation of Lester Young's phrasing. Then again, this wasn't so far afield from what the European-trained West Coast musicians wound up doing in the early 1950s—combining formal training with Young's sound and swing. It's just that Jaspar may have arrived in that place first given his European background and love for Young's records.When Jaspar came to New York in the mid-1950s, he quickly gained recognition among the city's jazz musicians and record producers. Within months he began to record on more and more dates for Savoy, Columbia, Prestige, Atlantic, Riverside and other labels—primarily as a sideman but also as a leader.
In Part 2 of my two-part interview with David Amram, the French hornist and composer-arranger who knew Jaspar well in Paris and in New York, talks about Jaspar's view of jazz, his impressions of New York, and how he fit into the American jazz scene:
JazzWax: Did Bobby Jaspar love jazz because he enjoyed the music or the idea of America?
David Amram: Both. Bobby embraced jazz, American life and a lot of other experiences in a way that was never patronizing or slumming. His love for jazz was pure. Bobby never felt that jazz was somehow beneath him and his ability or that playing jazz was a noble thing to do. There was no shading or nuance with Bobby. He immersed himself in jazz because he realized he could make a small contribution to the art form.
JW: Were you at his wedding in Paris to singer Blossom Dearie?
DA: No, but their marriage was a perfect union. Blossom was a fantastic individualist. She was original and came to the music because she loved it so much. She had avoided career counselors her whole life. She established her own voice and her way of singing. When people came to hear Blossom, they were coming to hear her signature style.
JW: Was visiting Bobby and Blossom at their apartment fun?JW: Dearie reportedly was a notorious collector of offbeat songs.
DA: When you went to their place, it was a double university. Bobby would tell me all about his adventures in philosophy and talk about things like European culture and French band music. Then he’d insist I listen to a Thelonious Monk tune. Blossom would then ask me to check out a song she had discovered. She’d come in with both arms filled with sheet music.
DA: Blossom probably had the biggest collection of American popular songs of anyone I’ve ever known. Most of that music she had memorized. Bobby enjoyed that about her because he was always hearing new songs to play. And Bobby was always showing Blossom different things musically from a more advanced jazz vocabulary that he had figured out.
JW: Was Jaspar focused on the technical side of jazz?
DA: Not at all. Bobby wasn’t a person who played mechanically. He knew the vocabulary of jazz—but he also knew that jazz was at its heart a spiritual statement. The same was true of Blossom. When Bobby and Blossom were together, they cared so much for each other. Blossom had a fantastic sense of humor, so they spent a lot of time laughing.
JW: Did you see Jaspar when he came to New York in 1956?
DA: Oh sure. It was so great to see him. When he came to New York, he looked at the place and said, “Oh, God.” He was overwhelmed by the asphalt jungle. But after he was here for a time, he realized that the musicians he had worshiped were struggling to survive just like he was. That baffled him.
JW: Did the reality of New York dash Jaspar's romantic image of the city and how life would be for a jazz musician here?
DA: No. But to a certain extent, all musicians in New York found it hard to accept that artists who were so fantastic could perform while an audience in the club would be talking and not paying full attention. The callous lack of appreciation, wonderment and respect was baffling, especially to someone from Europe. Musicians are trying to say something to audiences through their instruments. Back then, when audiences talked, musicians felt the way you do when the person you're talking to starts a conversation with someone else. There's frustration, as though what you're saying isn't important. Back then, musicians had to work harder to listen through the noise to hear the other musicians playing on the stage.
JW: What kept Jaspar from becoming better known?
DA: There were dozens of great artists back then who weren’t well known and are completely forgotten today. I think with Bobby, it was just the luck of the draw. You have to remember that most people, even those who were recognized, weren’t successful by today’s standards.
JW: Was jazz a struggle for Jaspar?
DA: The biggest struggle we all shared was paying our rent. The concept of having a career, as they call it today, was almost nonexistent then, particularly in jazz circles. I still don't have a career. I hope that someday my music will have a career.
JW: In today's world, not viewing what one does for a living as a career is a hard concept.
DA: That’s the orientation we came out of. As a jazz musician, if you were lucky, you got to play with Dizzy Gillespie or Lionel Hampton or Oscar Pettiford, as I did, and maybe you wound up with an eight-bar solo on a recording with them. Most musicians didn’t have that shot. Let's face it, by the mid-1950s, jazz was not the way to go if you wanted a career in music. There was television, movies, pop and Broadway, which were much more lucrative than playing in clubs. Musicians who played jazz did so against the advice of everyone who told us to do other things for a fulfilling living.
JW: Jaspar’s death was so sudden in 1963, at age 37.
DA: Bobby had had a heart operation. I think he had a heart valve replaced. But like in many of those situations, there were deeper complications. We figured he was such a strong cat.
JW: Was Blossom Dearie devastated?
DA: She was, completely. But she was so strong that she just continued on. If she didn’t have the music, she would have perished. Blossom loved Bobby very much, and she had a wonderful rapport with him. She had experienced happiness with Bobby so she had something to treasure. Blossom would always talk about Bobby after he passed, stopping every so often to say, “Well, you know Bobby.”
JW: Sounds very positive.
DA: She was. I think Blossom realized that some people never have five minutes of happiness let alone 10 years. Blossom was unsinkable, graceful and overcame so many odds. She was a petite woman, with a petite voice singing songs no one wanted to do and getting better and better over time without ever becoming bitter or negative or selling out. She just loved the music.
JW: What’s one line Bobby said to you that still resonates?
DA: I remember I was down in Greenwich Village in 1959 or so with guitarist Attila Zoller, and Bobby joined us. We were comparing the jazz scene in Europe with New York's and how compact and tight-knit the scene was here. We were saying how wild it was that we could see and casually hang out with the jazz musicians we worshiped. Bobby at one point said, “In New York, you’re just another cat.” That still echoes in my head.
DA: Because Bobby’s revelation was that in New York, regardless of who you were and how big you became, you were still just one of many monsters. New York was crowded with enormous jazz talent.
JW: Quite a different era.
DA: It was. In jazz then, the whole essence of the music was that we were all part of the music, creating it, moving it forward. Scarcely anybody was selfish. Nobody snubbed anyone else. It just wasn't done. That positive outlook to Bobby was considered so democratic and American. He said, "It's worth being in New York just to be just another cat."
JW: Was there a sense of sadness or frustration in that phrase?
DA: No, no, not at all. What Bobby meant was that to be just another cat meant to reach a higher level as an artist. The music, not individuals, was No. 1 in America, which was the antithesis of Europe’s notion of top dog and status and the class system. To be another cat here meant to be part of a special group committed to art. Attila, who was from Hungary, appreciated that concept, too. All the musicians who Bobby and Attila admired and had met had appreciated them for what they were and what they could play, not where they came from or who their families were.
JW: What did Jaspar think about his plight here?
DA: Bobby said, "I'm more appreciated in New York than in Europe, where I was better known. But the musicians I played with didn’t understand what I was trying to do. Here, they do."
JW: That an interesting concept, the value of peer appreciation versus audience visibility.
DA: Bobby somehow found his niche in New York, but he didn’t live long enough to celebrate that with more opportunities and employment. He was the kind of person who was happy just to be in it for the music. That's a lost concept today.
JazzWax tracks: Bobby Jaspar's early recordings in New York were with J.J. Johnson and Hank Jones. The J.J. Johnson recordings are on the Complete J.J. Johnson Columbia Small Group Sessions (Mosaic), which is now out of print. The Hank Jones recordings are on the Hank Jones Trio Plus the Flute of Bobby Jaspar (1956) for Savoy, also out of print.
I'm happy to say that one of Jaspar's finest recordings from this period is back in circulation. Clarinescapade, a 1956 recording for Columbia, is now a Fresh Sound release here. This is a gorgeous album featuring Jaspar on tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet and alto flute. His playing and taste appeals to the ear instantly.
Jaspar gems from 1957 include The J.J. Johnson Quintet: Complete Recordings (Fresh Sound) here, Bags and Flutes with Milt Jackson here and Tenor and Flute with Idrees Sulieman and George Wallington here.
In 1958, Jaspar recorded two particularly terrific albums: Guitar and the Wind with guitarist Barry Galbraith here (doubled on a CD with a superb Oscar Pettiford recording), and The Bobby Jaspar Quartet in Paris here.
In 1960, Jaspar is on flute on vibraphonist Johnny Rae's Opus de Jazz Vol. 2 here.
On January 2, 1962, Jaspar recorded Chet Is Back, which featured him on tenor saxophone and flute along side Chet Baker. That January, Jaspar also recorded with John Lewis on A Milanese Story, a movie soundtrack here.
As for Jaspar's wife, Blossom Dearie, the pair recorded together just twice. The first time was in Paris in 1956 on Blossom Dearie Plays. Originally recorded on the French Barclay label, the album is out of print. They recorded again in 1959 for Verve on My Gentleman Friend, which can be found here.
A JazzWax thanks to Dave Langner and Han Schulte.