Ernie Krivda is among a small group of tenor saxophonists after hearing them blow eight measures of a tune, for example, you’re able to identify them. Krivda’s playing is a mix of sophistication and raw horsepower. Those traits are evident on his new release “A Bright And Shining Moment,” an album Krivda made two-decades ago with his then popular band Swing City, but he never released. In fact, he forgot he even made it. Last year, he founded it cleaning out his basement, and after listening to it decided to put it out. The 16 tracks on the album cover a lot of ground swing, bop, and the blues. In his native Cleveland, Krivda is a jazz God with a work history that includes stints with Quincy Jones, Jimmy Dorsey, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy DeFranco, and Sarah Vaughn. As a bandleader, Krivda has populated the planet with a string of hit albums such as “The Alchemist,” “So Nice to Meet You,” “The Glory Strut,” “Blues for Pekar,” and “Requiem for a Jazz Lady.” Being a jazz educator is equally important to Krivda as creating great jazz music. A few weeks back, I Dig Jazz talked with Krivda about “A Bright And Shining Moment,” his humble beginnings as an opening act at the famed Cleveland jazz club The Smiling Dog Saloon, and his perspective on the current state of jazz education.
Congratulations on another wonderful album.
Well, thank you.
I listened to it again last night, and I believe it's the kind of swing that you don't hear a lot of currently. Will you talk about the making of this album?
My wife told me that the basement was a pigsty and to go clean it. So, as I'm cleaning the basement, I came across this CD. I said, "Oh, I forgot about this." I listened to it, and I said "Wow." I really like this. I said, "Jeez, why did I forget about this?"
Were the musicians on the album from your Swing City band?
Yes. Swing City, the band on the CD was put together to teach at Tri-C jazz studies program, which had just started. It wasn't like this was the faculty, and then they put the band together. This band was put together to be the faculty. The program was all about teaching from the standpoint of the old-time mentoring. We all wanted the teachers to be guys that were working musicians because that's the way the young musicians back then learn. It always was for me.
I like the spectrum of jazz. If you listen, the music on this album actually combines a lot of different elements. There's like small group swing like you would hear in the 40's. Then there's kind of a West Coast elements that you would listen to in the 50's. It's kind of a combination. I wrote all the charts except two, and six of the tunes are mine. The band was a working band, and we were paid to rehearse by the school. We were doing programs all over town. It was a very unusual situation.
So, all the music had been recorded.
How popular did Swing City become?
We were working all the time, and we won local awards, and we did all kinds of programs. A lot of the music comes from some of our concerts. We did a tribute to Gershwin, and we did a tribute to Hoagy Carmichael. So, we were doing all kinds of stuff. We were very prominent.
Why did you guys split up? Listening to the album, it’s obvious it was a unique band with loads of chemistry.
A guy that was very instrumental in putting this whole thing together was a guy named Max Dehn, a young guy who went to school in Michigan. Well, he's not a young guy now, but he was a young guy back then. He came in, and he wanted to do this. And he had a lot of experience getting grants for nonprofits. He had a vision, and I shared his vision. So, we kind of worked together at putting this program together. And then he left. He went to become a lawyer. And so, when he was gone, the support for what we were doing kind of started dissipating. And so, we couldn’t keep the same personnel. Because the personnel came from all over. Like, the bass player was Marion Hayden, who I’m sure you know.
All right, and the drummer is John Bacon. John Bacon is from Buffalo. And the trombonist was the late, great Gary Carney. He's out of Columbus. So, we had people from all over the place.
Now that the album is out, do you have any plans to reunite the band for a tour to promote the album?
Well, I'll be traveling with a quartet playing music from the album. As far as putting together the old Swing City band, this is 20 years later. A couple of people, Marshall Baxter Beckley, who sings “Summertime “on the album passed away. And Gary Carney passed away. And everybody is a little older. We were always playing, continually rehearsing. It would be challenging to capture that again.
Did you have to do a lot of fine-tuning to the album?
I had it remastered. But the only thing I did then was put together the package. You know, liner notes and all that, and I got a digital artist to put the cover together and all that kind of stuff.
It was a great thing that your wife sent you down to the basement to clean up.
I know, that's the way things happen sometimes. I don't know if I would have found the recording otherwise.
Do you recall why you shelved it in the first place?
When it was finally done, that's when everything started changing at the school. I guess I went on and I was doing other projects. I went into a period where I recorded a lot of different music. So, that may have been how I forgot about the recording. Plus, the tension of what was going on at the school at that time, and everything changing, and the band not being together anymore.
You have a fantastic body of work. How does this album compare to your others?
It's like, I really can't compare. It's like your children. Because that's what it is. So how do you compare your children? Well, they're different, you know. And you could talk about the differences and the different things you were thinking about at this time or that time. But they were all unique to that time, which is probably why I recorded them.
How was Cleveland’s jazz scene back in the day when you were getting started professionally? I heard that Cleveland had a fertile scene back then.
Well, it did. It was the 60's, and of course at that time jazz was a relatively popular form, and a lot of cities had good jazz scenes. Cleveland had a good jazz scene the location of which was in a kind of the middle of a circle of a bunch of other great jazz scenes. So like, Detroit, for example. Detroit was just a couple of hours away, and Detroit musicians always used to come down and play. I knew saxophonist Larry Smith. You know Larry?
Oh yes, Larry is one of the significant cats in Detroit. He has been for decades.
So, I knew Larry since 1950. You know, he was down here playing with Eddie Bachus. That's the first time I met him. And I got a great tenor man named Weasel Parker, who you probably don't know because he was in Detroit with the Basie Band. Then he came down here. Joe Alexander, a great tenor player, used to spend time in Cleveland and go back and forth to Detroit. Then you have over to the east, you have Pittsburgh, which is a great jazz town, especially then. And Buffalo. And down south, Columbus. All these cities are just like hours away. We were kind of right in the middle, and Indianapolis to the west. You got Cincinnati down there too.
So, all these jazz scenes kind of circled Cleveland. And the music always came through, you know, like touring bands. Like, if you were traveling, if you were going east you came through Cleveland. If you were going south, you came through Cleveland. If you're going west, the same thing.
So, there was a lot of, a variety of music that came through. But I always loved the music of the region. And there was a lot of common threads that bound the musicians together.
There was a trendy jazz club in Cleveland that was instrumental to your development because you were able to play with some nationally respected jazz musicians the club booked. And you were able to learn the trade from cats such as Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderly, and Chick Corea. Tell me about that club.
The Smiling Dog Saloon. I cannot tell you, describe to you the neighborhood it was in, which is the near west side of Cleveland. You know, if you're going to open a jazz club, this would be the last place you would open a jazz club.
And how it began, it's just an unbelievable thing. But it happened. It was an old converted building. It kind of had some size to it, but it was a dive. It was filthy. It had the smallest dressing room that I've ever seen in my life. But for five years, from 1970 to 1975, every touring jazz act of that period played The Smiling Dog Saloon. Everyone. It is easier to mention the musicians that didn't play there.
McCoy Tyner played there. Elvin Jones played there. Cannonball Adderley and Stan Getz played there. The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band played there. The Maynard Ferguson big band played there. Yusef Lateef played there. Eddie Harris played there. Woody Shaw played there. I mean, it was just everybody. Every touring jazz act, six nights a week. And I was very fortunate to get the gig as the house band at The Smiling Dog Saloon.
And the club had this thing where a local group would open for the headliners. So, I had the band that opened for these guys. So, I was able to spend all this time listening, learning, seeing how they performed, the show that they put on, the showbiz aspect of it. And just all kinds of things. I was very fortunate to be able to sit in with many of the bands.
Some of them became my friends. Cannonball Adderley became a close friend, a mentor of mine. And I had always idolized Cannonball as a young musician. So, I couldn't believe this was happening. Anyway, and this environment, you know, Weather Report played there. It was also the time when composing started to become important. I mean, it was always going on, but it became important. So, I was writing, and I was encouraged to write.
And so, in that period, I developed the music that I eventually recorded for Inner City in 1976 and 1977 for that label. It was my first recording. I developed that music at The Smiling Dog Saloon. And I sold it. I was able to get to New York because Cannonball hooked me up with Quincy Jones. And I toured with Quincy, and I made some money, and I saved it up. That's how I went to New York, and I was there for four years. It all started at The Smiling Dog. The learning, the focus on specific aspects of what I was about, and it was an incredible time. I couldn't have paid for that kind of education.
It seems that being an educator is just as important to you as being a major player.
The Smiling Dog period, by the way, that was the end of the six nights a week thing. Because it was right after that, the reason that ended because many jazz musicians started playing concerts and could make more in one night than they could the entire week playing at The Smiling Dog Saloon.
So, that whole mentoring process of playing on the road with bands changed. So, everybody started gravitating towards education. And I always looked at it like this; jazz musicians, the first reason they get into teaching is that they need money. So, they start teaching.
After you've been teaching for a while, you start to become altruistic. You, say things like, "Well, the music has been really good to me. And I feel I need to give something back to the music." So, every jazz musician just patting themselves on the back as they become altruistic about teaching. You start to realize you need the students as much as the students need you.
As you get older, things change. Being around young people is wonderful because they have this incredible growth energy. They want to get better. They need to get better. And you feel that energy. And that helps you maintain.
They keep you learning, and music is a lifetime learning situation. You either get better, or you diminish. So, you need to be around the people that are trying to get better, and teaching that became so important to me just relating to these young musicians.
How do you feel about the way that young jazz musicians are coming up? It seems to me they are really learning more in academia now. Back in the day, the learning ground was sessions and playing in various bands and orchestras.
Well, that was the thing, that’s how we learned to be a part of a band and traveling.
You learn from the leaders, the different leaders that you play with. That was one of the reasons that the jazz studies program at Tri-C, that's how it got started with the idea of using working musicians. I felt that teachers were teaching, everybody was starting to play like they teach, rather than teaching like they play.
I have problems with a lot of jazz education. It used to be, you learn from bandleaders. Now, bandleaders, and what is the primary objective of a bandleader? The primary aim of the bandleader is to keep the band working. So, if you have a gig with somebody, you had to help him keep his band working. So, and you learn that.
Then if you went to another band, it was the same thing. A guy that had to keep his band working. How'd that happen? So, if you played in enough bands, then you started to learn how you keep working. And the big factor is, how do you relate to the audience? How does the audience relate to you? How can you work on this communication? Most of the young musicians are playing for each other. That's all they have to play for.
There seems to not be a lot of situations for these young jazz musicians to play with older musicians. In Detroit, for example, you have a lot of young musicians who graduate high school or college and immediately start their own bands.
So, it's a kind of learning as you go situation for them. And it's almost kind of sad to see. They're coming up in a time where there's no established band, and the youngsters must rely on their own devices. I noticed there is a severe lack of professionalism. You made a reference to how they relate to the audience, and you’re right. It seems like they only play for themselves. Most of the time, you can tell that they aren't rehearsed. They don't have set lists thought out. They're poorly dressed.
They're poorly dressed. They have music on the stand. They're reading off the stands.
Yeah, so do you believe that can be corrected? If so, how?
I still teach at Tri-C, and I have what is called The Jazz Workshop. That is my student band. Now, I run this band as if it is my band. I play with it. And we play, we don't just have rehearsals; We play gigs, all right? But they have to play as if they're playing in my band. There's a lot of guys that have been in this Jazz Workshop, and they're out there playing. Many have their own recording contracts and are doing it.
Also, you must wonder if youngsters are out to develop their own sound.
Well, here's the thing; first, that used to be a mandate. We're talking about stylists. So many different stylists played this music. It's unbelievable that you can tell within the first eight measures who those stylists were. Right, now, this used to be something that was valued. And one of the reasons it was appreciated is leaders like to hire guys that had their own thing, which gave their band some distinction, and the audience would like that.
You know, hearing something that was distinctive to the band. And of course, you had groups, like the Duke Ellington Orchestra where the whole band had its own uniqueness. But that was quite common then. It was like it was a marketing vehicle for a musician to develop his thing. So, it was encouraged.
There's no way you can really teach somebody to have their own thing, you know. But you can encourage that. And so, there, if you start listening seriously to players like Yusef Lateef. I think he was great, I loved the way he sounded. Oh, there's Paul Gonzalez. He had his own thing. Of course, Coleman Hawkins, you know, he had his own thing. Stan Getz, he had his things. So, you start listening to all these different people, and if you start listening seriously enough to the things they do will become part of what you do. And the combination of these things can make up a distinctive style.
At least, that's what I did. And I think a lot of guys do that. They put together various aspects of different people and came up with their own way of doing things. And that's one way to look at it.
The youngsters that I’ve heard are serious about the music, but what I hear mostly is technique.
Right, because you can teach technique. You can teach theory. You can teach patterns. But what happens is, everybody is coming out of school, and it's all the same. They're playing the same vocabulary, the same manner. And that is the problem. There are things that you do when you're trying to relate to an audience through the band that you develop, that you cannot teach in schools.
|Saxophonist Ernie Krivda|
Sounds like jazz education programs have some shortcomings.
Where else are we to go, though? I mean, frankly, if it wasn't for the schools, I don't know where the music would be. So, you have to say that. Jazz music has kind of given up on the idea of being important music to a large part of the country, to the world. It's kind of settled comfortably into being a niche. I have a big band called The Fantasy Big Band.
The band has been together 27 years, but every time we play, whatever, the audience size is, whether it is like the thousand that showed up a couple of weeks ago at this Jazz Fest to hear us, or 75 people, or 20 people whatever the band plays it has an impact that's obvious to people. Why can't it impact much more? This music can’t just be some cerebral endeavor, a science project. There must be robust, emotional, and physical elements in the music. I mean, you're competing against Rock and hip-hop.
So, you can't compete with that music being up on the stand dressed like a bum, you know, with reading music off a wire music stand, up there and not really having rehearsed the music well. And not thinking how it's going to go over.
There must be, I think, more effort. And one of the things I say about the music on “A Bright And Shining Moment,” it's a people's music. It's there for people to groove to, and that music came out of an educational situation. We did it a little different, mind you, but that's where it came from. So, it certainly, if something can't be taught, it could be encouraged. So, anyway, that's my two cents on that.
It's not the young musician's fault. It's just the situation that they find themselves in. And they're trying their best given the cards they've been dealt.
Yes. And there aren't a lot of people explaining things to them.
That's another issue, too. Nobody is telling them you know, you don't show up for a gig wearing sneakers and skinny jeans. You should have on a shirt and a tie."
Right. You try to look like you're doing something important, you know.
You should look like playing jazz is an important thing. And it's got some gravitas. The other thing is if you think about it for a second when jazz education first started, and I talked about this before it began to build up in the 60's we got old guys who were kind of coming off the road. And they were starting to go to school. They went to school to get a degree so they could teach. Now, that first wave of guys who were teaching in school, those guys were ex-road rats. Those guys were working musicians that you know, now we're teaching. So, they had a direct connection to that which made jazz musicians. How many generations removed are we from that now? It's a considerable number. So, each generation has less of a connection to the stuff that we're talking about, that happened back then.
Was touring with Jimmy Dorsey your big break?
If it were the 1940's, it would have been my big break. But this was in 1964. And Lee Castle was running the band. He's a great player. And he played with everybody. And he had a close affiliation with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. And there were a couple of good players. But we were a ghost band, and so we were playing the hits of the Dorsey’s. And we're going around playing one-nighters. We weren't catching anybody's attention in the jazz world, really.
You know, we were just working. We were at the tail end of the big band thing. And it was the same 16 guys all the time, so we weren't picking up anybody like they started to do later. So, it was the same guys. So that was good. And it was a great learning experience. It was my first gig. I had to buy a tenor to play in the band because that was what was open. So that was a big deal. Because I always wanted to do that.
And then, so I got an opportunity, and so I borrowed this and that and got a tenor. And that's when I started playing tenor. And so, it was the first road gig that I had. And it was the first working under a demanding leader. And so, once again, a little story here. So, Lee Castle was not a bebop guy. Tommy Dorsey was not a bebop guy. Lee Castle worshiped Tommy Dorsey. All right, I, on the other hand, was this young bebop guy. So here I am, and then once again, the leader's interest is to keep the band working.
And so, to do, that at this time, the mission of the band was to recreate the music that Jimmy Dorsey and the band made famous. So I mean, they played "So Rare" every night. You know. The guy played that did a great job on that. But then there were various things that I had to do. There was this medley of tunes.
And one of the tunes in the medley was "Indian Summer," which is a beautiful tune. And Lee says to play the melody, and I started adding all this bebop stuff, and Lee told me again to just play the melody, and again I started with all this bebop inspired stuff. And he comes to me, he says, "Look, if you don't play the melody on that tune, I'm fining you 25 bucks."
Now, I was getting 135 bucks a week. Next time we went to play the tune, I played the melody.
That's jazz education. You're in a professional situation. You got to do what's necessary, you know. So, you must learn how to do that, or it's going to cost you money. When it starts to cost you money, then you begin to realize the importance of being able to do that.
Yeah, the band wasn't put together for you to be playing bop licks.
No, that was not the goal of the band. It was a dumb kid thing. I was 18. So that's how you learn. That's how I learned, the hard way.