Photo Gustav Eckart
Were you affected by the Hungarian revolution in 1956?
AZ: Of course, the Russians came in with tanks and everything, but I was already out of the country by eight years.
Was your family still in Hungary?
AZ: My mother was still there. I never saw her again. I couldn't go back to Hungary at that time. The next time I went back to Hungary, that was in '66. My sister is still there.
Was she there during the revolution?
AZ: Yes, they were all there. Four weeks ago, we had a big celebration in Hungary.
What is your sister's name?
AZ: Forget it. It's a hard name. You don't know how to spell it; we do. You have to forgive me; I hate this kind of a thing (an interview). I hate to do this. I'm 70 years and over, OK? And I'm not starting my damned career, you know. And now you're coming with an interview. This is 30 years late.
That's why I wanted to talk to you. You have more insight and experience than a 22-year-old musician would. I'd like to document what you have to say.
AZ: I know.
You sat in with Oscar Pettiford and other Americans in Europe.
AZ: The second time I came to (the United States), I met Oscar here. And then he came on tour to Germany at the end of '58. In '58, I was in Hamburg, and Oscar said he would like to stay in Europe. So he said, "Is there any work here?" I said, "Sure. We always need a bass player." I mean, Hans Koller would always have a bass player - a really good one, you know. And he was willing to play with us. We played then a few months, from October of '58 to February. In 1959 was when we made that record (Black Lion) in Vienna. That's when I had to play double bass on a couple of tunes. There was no bass player around. But we never thought that it was going to come out. I wouldn't have played bass then if I knew they would release this album. I don't like to be put down. Somebody said, "That guy has some nerve playing bass with Oscar Pettiford." I mean, it was just a helping out. I played the right notes. It was Jimmy Pratt on drums at that time.
You recorded with Oscar Pettiford the year before he died.
AZ: He was a healthy man then. Yeah, but he died from a stupid car accident, you know. He didn't take care of himself then after that, just like I don't take care of myself now. He was in a car accident with Hans together, you know. They both came out with a big bandage on their heads. I didn't see them coming out of the hospital. I just had the idea that I should try to contact a hospital. When they didn't arrive in Vienna, I thought, "Shit, man. I'll ask at the hospital maybe." He was in the hospital at that time, and then I don't know. The accident looked very bad because O.P. had his eye hanging out. It just looked like that, though, because he was cut on his right eye. Around the eye somewhere he had an injury. It looked like his eye was just open with no skin on it. They fixed everything, you know. He looked normal in a couple of days.
But he didn't take care of himself.
AZ: And later, then we took care of him. Everything was fine, but he couldn't give up that vino. O.P. wanted to have wine always. He wouldn't take his medical advice from his doctor. He'd say, "Ah, come on! Ah, come on! Just one! One little glass." You don't feel pain, and then you just drink another one.
You were in New York in 1958?
AZ: Ah, yes, that was '58 already. That's when I played with Tony Scott out of town, of course - not in New York. We played in colleges too in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg - different concerts with Tony. I had one interesting gig that I played that was in the Showplace over on Ninth Street, you know. That was with Bill Evans and Pete LaRoca and Jimmy Garrison. In '59, I was here the whole summer. When I came back here, I played also bass in an East Side club, the Rain Tree. This was a little bar with a duo. Jean Cunningham had played piano there; she was Bradley's first wife. You know Bradley's, the club. And then I played bass there. I didn't have a union card yet, so I had to play in kind of a black market.
Why did you decide to move to the States in '59?
AZ: In '59? Because at that time I knew already that if I wanted to learn Jazz right, I had to be here. And then I got a scholarship to Lenox School (of Music). Jim Hall got me the scholarship. He taught there, you know. There were no guitar players.
How long did you study at Lenox?
AZ: I was there for two weeks, I guess. Then we were rooming together with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. We were the three oldest guys. There were not single rooms there; they always doubled up. They tripled us! It was a big room. At that time, we got into a lot of arguments about this stupid kind of a playing what he was trying to do - playing without changes, you know. And then after a couple days, I (stood) behind him. I put some psychology to it. But when somebody is into changes like I was at that time already, that was why I made it so fast in Austria and Germany. That's why I could play like that - because I had some ears. But I found out in between then that people don't have ears. Most of the people play the music how they know it, and that's how they play their machines. They don't feel the music. They don't play the music right. They don't know even what it says. Anyway, I'm not going to begrudge them because I never made it. It doesn't matter. I'm still making records. I'm too critical.
Then you went with Chico Hamilton after you came to the States.
AZ: Yeah. For me that was already after the Lenox thing. Chico was always probably asking around because he needed musicians for traveling, you know. And I was just the perfect cat because I had nothing and I could travel. I just got married at that time, and we didn't want her to stay on the road - my wife at that time. We have been divorced already for 30 years. I was just married for ten years.
How did you meet Chico?
AZ: Chico? Well, he called me. He was asking around. Someone recommended me. I guess he asked Kenny (Burrell) probably. That was what he said. Anyway, that was for six months. And then he stayed there in New York. And then we formed a group with Bobby Jaspar. He's a Belgian tenor player. It was very nice - with G.T. Hogan and Eddie de Haas. That engagement was in the Vanguard.
Was that recorded?
AZ: No. I have recordings from that group, you know, but not in the Vanguard. We did some private recordings because we tried to make demos, you know. We went to Europe; we played in the festivals in '61.
And you joined Herbie Mann after that.
AZ: And then I came back, and this bossa nova thing started. Chuck Israels - he was my neighbor on that street - one day he came over and said, "Listen to this record here." It was Joao Gilberto singing. I said, "Nice. Nice commercial sound. Nice singer." But it wasn't Jazz, you know. Anyway, that groove caught on in a few months. Then Stan Getz came out with a big hit. And Herbie Mann played it. I stayed with him for three years at least. We went several times to the West Coast and Japan. He always had engagements (in New York). For 20 weeks a year, we played in the Village Gate alone. The Village Gate was where we lived!
When did you meet Don Friedman?
AZ: Ah, that was in between. We got Don into the band. I met Don in 1960 in the Five Spot when he played opposite Ornette Coleman. Don played that kind of a music I liked to hear in those days. Like Paul Bley. Already in the beginning, I said, "You're going to change the whole music scene, huh?" to Ornette, you know. No more Bachs. No more Mozarts. No Beethoven. No changes. Just blow, man. Blow what you feel. (Laughs) And then what is the bass player supposed to do? He's supposed to play some tune, huh? The drummer is all right because he has no pitch. They say, "Oh, just play close to the melody." That is what they said. What melody? (Laughs) "What do you play? Was there a tune?" To find out the melody, you have to find the right sounds. We got behind it. You know, it's not supposed to sound harmonious. But it's always melodious. They played always very nice melodies. You know, that's what I didn't understand. It came out so good always. Charlie Haden did a great job there too with them.
I'm talking about the Five Spot already when I saw Don there. And then I got together with Don at the Five Spot, and I heard his previous album, Flashback (1963 Riverside). He was into that kind of music, so I said, "Let's try some originals." We started to rehearse, and Don had another date coming up. And we played The Horizon Beyond kind of music. I mean, my date was The Horizon Beyond; that was the name of the album and also one of the tunes. But we played also free stuff with Don Friedman. He was writing free stuff. That's where the "Weather Report" name comes from. You know, I saw Zawinul when he was with Cannonball. We've been friends since Vienna. I brought down my records that I made - Cat and Mouse, The Horizon Beyond (Emarcy) and what I had already recorded. And then he said, "Your band sounds like all these seascapes and blizzards and springtime." He said, "Your band sounds like a weather report..." (Laughs) "...Talking about the weather always." And then five months later his new group was named Weather Report. (Laughs)
Did you join Red Norvo and Benny Goodman after joining Don?
AZ: Yes. Tal Farlow was an old friend of mine from a long time ago because in '58 when I was here I was every night in The Composer where he was playing. He was my big hero. We used to hang out, and I would go home with them - you know, his wife. She was very nice - Tina. They invited me over. We used to play there early in the morning. It was a good lesson for me. Always he'd say, "How do you know these chords?" I'd say, "I'm looking at you." He'd say, "And you can get it right away?" I mean, at that time I'd look at him and that's how I learned. And for some nice voicings that he was doing, nobody can get the grip, including me because I have such big hands. Anyway, he's been a good friend of mine for a long time. He was writing with Red Norvo. And Red came to town and needed a band in the Rainbow Grill, and (Farlow) asked me if I wanted to put a band together for Red. I said, "Sure." That's when I played with Red. Of course, Benny heard about it, and the next time Benny hired me. It was a good thing to do that because anybody who heard The Horizon Beyond might have the idea that I couldn't swing. That's why I played with them - so that they lose that impression. If you play with Benny Goodman for more than one night, then you must be able to swing. I played in the Rainbow Grill (with Benny Goodman) again. And then we went for a ten-day concert tour. There was a record date too, I remember - like Benny Goodman in Paris (1967 Command) or something like that. It had some French tunes that we were playing there: Michel Legrand stuff and so on.
After Benny Goodman, you had a group with Lee Konitz in it?
AZ: In '68, we went on a tour to Germany. That was my tour. It had Albert Mangelsdorff and Lee Konitz. I mean, Lee wanted to come. I said, "I can't take you to Europe as a sideman." "Why?" "Because you are Lee Konitz!" But we were friends already for many years. But he said, "Hey, I want to do this." He wanted to go to Europe, you know. We recorded an album called Zo-Ko-Ma (MPS). "Ma" stands for "Mangelsdorff." Lee wanted to play free also, but he was not able to do free Jazz. I'd say, "You're not doing it the right way." He didn't have the picture of how it was supposed to play free. If I play with him, I want to play changes. And now he plays changes. He sounds great. For the last three or four years now, Lee is playing his ass off. (His playing) is so vital and much stronger...not that cool shit, you know.
In '70, I recorded Gypsy Cry (1969) on Embryo label. It was on Atlantic, actually, with the Herbie Mann production label. And they called that series "Embryo," which recorded about five other artists, including Ron Carter and Arnie Lawrence. He had a whole bunch of them. (Mann) recorded musicians who used to work with him. He bought Miroslav Vitous' tape because he found out that some of the tapes had disappeared. So they bought the whole thing and just put it on a shelf. Herbie Hancock played piano on The Gypsy Cry. At that time, Herbie Hancock was struggling. The drummer was Sonny Brown, and now he's disappeared and I don't know where he is. Reggie Workman was on bass. Also, Victor Gaskin was on too because I wanted two dates. It was two different kinds of music I played on the album. I played one part avant garde stuff and another part of popular stuff. The dates were on Tuesday and Thursday. The first date had standard type of styles, and the second had Hungarian folk-type motifs. They were all original compositions, of course, but I own that Hungarian style. We tacked on this free Jazz playing. We had started to do that. Ornette Coleman, you know, turned everybody on to this free type of playing. So anyway, we played that type of thing and regular Jazz. That's why I had two bass players. Reggie is better at the free stuff.
Was it tough in the 70s?
AZ: Everybody was struggling in the 70s. The 70s were a hard decade, but I did try a few important things. One was playing solo. Nobody soloed on guitar and worked in a Jazz club. A lot of people play solo guitar, but in a Jazz club it was never yet an act like later what Joe Pass would do with solos. But I played the whole set solo at that time. I thought I started something, and then Joe Pass came out with his Virtuoso albums. So I lost interest in that direction.
Did you record a solo album then?
AZ: Then I didn't. I just meant to make one at that time of solo pieces. I thought I had established a guitar style of "having your band with you in your head." (Laughs) And I tried to play that way and not trying to play the way Joe did, you know. That isn't everything. Some can learn the tunes and play the same way that they're written and everything. There is no interaction between the strings. You know what I mean? Each string has a voice to play. Ah, I don't think I should explain to you solo playing. That is already complex. After (Gypsy Cry) came out, then I saw that the record disappeared. That's why I say I didn't have a good time (in the 1970s). I had a nice record out and they didn't promote it.
To Be Continued