Thursday, March 23, 2023

Interview with Pianist Steve Kuhn from July 2007 Originally published in JazzReview

Interview with Steve Kuhn 
Friday July 6, 2007, Dobbs Ferry, New York.

Steve Kuhn at the Piano (photo credit unknown)


Steve Kuhn, maestro, jazzman, pianist extraordinaire who has been a professional musician for over fifty years. During his remarkable and expansive career, he has been at the center of jazz musical history. He is an important, participant, observer, innovator, and contributor to the music in its many forms and variations. He has borne witness to an era and an industry that was intimately apart of the cultural, economic, and racial transformations of its time. He has successfully collaborated with some of the foremost musical giants of the jazz world. During these collaborations he has undoubtedly left his musical mark on some of these icons while, in turn, being profoundly influenced by them. His playing continues to entertain audiences and inspire younger developing musicians. It is my great pleasure to introduce Mr. Steve Kuhn.


RAM: Hello Steve.

(Steve is seated at his Baldwin piano in his Dobbs Ferry home.)

 SK:  Oh, hello Ralph.

 RAM: Let’s start at the beginning or at least the musical beginning. You dedicated your most recent album Promises Kept to your parents and a cousin. What is the source of this dedication?


SK: Well, it is actually dedicated to my grandparent on both sides, my parents and a cousin who passed away suddenly from pancreatic cancer about five years ago.  She was incredibly vibrant and a wonderful kid. …. Basically  ….I always wanted to do a recording with a large string orchestra. I had done a couple with string quartets in the past, which is great cause I love the sound of strings, I love violin concertos especially…. composers from the early twentieth century.  So I was afforded the opportunity to do this with ECM records with whom I have been associated with since the seventies. They allowed me to do this and it’s been a life long dream. It’s really a dedication to my grandparents from both sides that migrated from Hungary; my mother was born in Hungary my father was born here…. in honor of them coming to this country in order to live in a free society, and to my parents for carrying on that dream and eventually allowing me to express myself in this free society where anything is possible, with a recording like Promises Kept.

RAM:  Tell us a little bit about the early Kuhn household in Brooklyn. Where was the neighborhood and what kind of neighborhood was it like?

SK: It was Sheep head Bay, Avenue X it was a series of attached row houses. The main level, of two levels. My folks bought the house back in 1937 for $6500, which was a lot of money back then, and still is! That’s where I grew up. My recollections of it are basically that I showed a very early interest in music. I was featured in a popular book at the time by H. Allen Smith, in 1941 called Low Man on the Totem pole…. It featured people with special talents…. My father had an extensive 78 jazz collection and even before I could walk or read I could identify the artist, like Benny Goodman, with the album cover in baby talk. I responded to music my father played very early on.


RAM: What did your parents do for a living? Was either one a musician?

SK: No. My father sold rawhides to companies that used it to produce shoes and other items. My mother was a schoolteacher. Neither one were musicians.


RAM: What was the ethnicity of your Brooklyn neighborhood?


SK: Italian and some Jewish, some Afro-American but not that much. Mostly Italian.


RAM: Kuhn is A German surname, isn’t it?


SK: Kuhn is, but the name was originally Kün when my grandparents came to this country it somehow got changed to Kuhn. Over there they pronounced “Koon” which I don’t like but I let it go in Europe but not here. It is a Hungarian name, but it was changed back then.


RAM: When did you start piano lessons and when with Madame Chaloff?


SK: I started studying when I was five years old in Brooklyn. We later moved around to Chicago and wound up in Boston around 1950 and at the age of twelve, I started piano lessons with Madame Chaloff, who was the mother of the saxophone player Serge Chaloff.


Steve Kuhn (photo credit unknown)

She was my main teacher who tore down certain technical habits that I had already developed that were not really right and re-educated me. She became very important in my life as a mentor, as a surrogate mother and as a teacher. She was just an extraordinary woman. In terms of the technique, she taught me, it was the Russian School of Technique.

All about playing as fast or as slow, in terms of the speed and having the control to play in a range of speed from the slowest to the fastest and also dynamically from softest to loudest and getting a sound on the instrument.

 Steve demonstrates this technique on his Baldwin piano.

You center yourself on the keyboard between E & F. You sort of let your arms hang loose so that there is no weight at all you have curvature at your hands so you do not play flat-fingered, and then its about the sound you want. So, if you want a very, very loud fortissimo or triple fortissimo …you envision the sound coming from your toes, coming up through your legs, up your back and coming out at your fingertips, which is like playing a horn.  The analogy being the fingertip being your mouth and the key being the mouthpiece of a horn. Same principle, you’re blowing into the instrument, same with drumming everything is the same principle. It is just easier to visualize if you’re a horn player that the sound is coming out at the fingertip or your mouth into the reed or, on the piano, the key which is then transmitted through the soundboard of the piano and out.


RAM: So it’s like a flow of energy, similar to the way meditation techniques use breathing to flow the energy through the body?


SK: That’s right. Yes, absolutely. The problem is if you are playing and you don’t have a light arm, another word you support the whole weight of your body on your fingertips and if you don’t do that the sound gets blocked at whatever point your arms are restricted. This produces a different sound. Madame Chaloff was very conscious of getting a real piano sound that all great classical players had and have, but not many jazz players are aware of or care about that much and that’s fine. She really stressed that, so it took me a long time to develop this technique. She was right and one of the things I pride myself about is getting a good sound out of the piano, and in fact, it has been noted by various reviewers that I have such a sound and having that is very important for me.

 RAM: I noticed when I saw you in concert that you develop a tremendously powerful, resonant sound from your playing and yet you can play with such quiet tenderness.

SK: It’s all about getting the sound from the piano that you should get and allowing the sound to flow from your body. If you want a delicate sound, you visualize the sound coming from the second or third joint from your fingers. The more powerful the sound you want the deeper you visualize into your body all the way down to your toes.

RAM: You talked of Serge Chaloff before. He was a baritone sax that played with Woody Herman and was one of the original four brothers. Do you remember who the other three brothers were?

SK: Stan Getz, Herbie Stewart, and Zoot Sims.

Serge Chaloff, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Herbie Stewart (phot credit unknown)

RAM: That’s right. Eventually, Herbie was replaced by a man I once saw in a club in New Jersey, Al Cohn.

SK: Al was a lovely player with a great sense of humor. I worked for him a little bit. He was a funny guy.

RAM: Did you ever get a chance to play with Woody’s band?

SK: No. When I first came to New York I had a chance to go with the band he had at the time. I just decided that for me in a big band, a piano player is, unless it’s your band….

RAM:  Like Count Basie’s?

SK: Yeah, it’s just kind of boring. I really wanted a small group situation where I could solo and comp and do things in a much smaller context, so I turned that job down.

RAM: You played with Serge though, right?

SK: Yes, when I was a teenager…. We played around Boston just a trio with no bass. Drums, myself, and Serge…. He was really relentless on the bandstand. If I played the wrong change or if I did something he didn’t like he would yell at me, it didn’t matter where we were or who was there.

But I learned a lot that way, some people would wilt …. I just thrived in that kind of environment. He was like my big brother to me and I learned a great deal from him in a short period of time. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1955 or maybe it was 1957.

I learned a lot about comping; I learned a lot of tunes. I played tunes I never heard before a lot of blues changes, stuff like that.

RAM: This was Boston in the fifties?

SK: Yes, we moved to Boston in 1950.

RAM: What were the social conditions concerning musicians, race and integration of bands at this time?

SK: In Boston? It was fine. No problem. Everybody was together. There were a lot of very good musicians up there black and white…. Boston has a reputation, especially in athletics, which is true, but in the musical, jazz community we were all playing together. Nobody ever thought about that. 

 RAM: Did playing with horn players influence the way you play your lead solos?

SK: I don’t know. I haven’t given that much thought. I think I am aware of the piano as an orchestra on to itself. I approach it that way. I don’t necessarily think so. Most of what I learned was about comping behind a horn for support without overplaying. I learned a lot when I played with Stan Getz too. He didn’t say much, but sometimes I would tend to overplay, and he would say either “stroll” or layout a couple of choruses while he was soloing or just be more sparse. Over the years I learned that this really works the best. Sometimes if you are playing with someone who is insecure, then that happens rarely, but it happens more with singers, they like fuller accompaniment behind them because they are a little insecure in terms of what they are doing. I just shy away from that because it just doesn’t feel comfortable to me, and I can play over them, and I don’t want to do that. It is just about being sparse and staying out of their way.

 RAM: Jumping ahead a bit, you graduated from Harvard. Was it in music?

SK; No, I got a BA in Liberal Arts and took all the courses. I was amazed I got in. I took all kinds of courses.

RAM: Then you got into the Lenox Summer Music Program in 1959 up in Lenox Massachusetts.

SK: Yeah, that was just a three-week program.  I got a scholarship to attend from Schaefer beer and they chose different students from different colleges and non-college musicians of promise. That year I attended with Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Gary McFarland to name a few.

RAM: These three weeks seem to have left an indelible impression on you. That is where you met Kenny Dorham as a faculty member isn’t it?

SK: Kenny was on the faculty, the whole Modern Jazz Quartet was on the faculty, Dizzy Gillespie, George Russell, Günter Schuller, Bill Evans …..and they were the teachers, but we were all just sort of hanging out together, members theoretically studying, but it was a little more informal than that. I had a chance to meet a lot of people there and it was a very intense three-week period.

RAM: You eventually joined Kenny Dorham’s quartet. How did that happen?

SK:  I moved from Boston to New York and so I called around to see where I could get some work. So, I called Kenny and he happened to be looking for a piano player so he hired me. It was so nice to be able to work with him. He was an extraordinary player, underrated ….and he was somewhat bitter about that because there was Dizzy and then there was Miles and then there was Kenny…… by this time Brownie ( Clifford Brown) had passed away. Kenny felt he was in the same position as they were…. maybe a tad under, in my opinion, but he was ….a wonderful composer and a great trumpet player.

RAM: You played Lotus Flower one of KD’s compositions on your recent Live at Birdland album, any personal significance for you about this tune?

SK: No other than it’s a nice tune to play harmonically…. I also play his Blue Bossa Which I have recorded a few times. They are just nice to play. The melodies are lovely and if you will it’s a homage to Kenny, I loved Kenny.

RAM: You mentioned in another interview that you played together with Ornette and Don Cherry at Lenox and that you found it uncomfortable so you “strolled” or laid off a lot with them because they were branching off into a non-melodic form of music even back then.

SK: It wasn’t that so much. I really didn’t know what to do. To comp with them in the traditional way laying down chords made no sense……John Lewis of the MJQ was the leader of this particular group up at Lenox, and his advice to me was to do what he did with the MJQ. He didn’t really chord, he used to play counter lines to Milt Jackson’s vibes. I really didn’t take to that either. So for me the easiest thing to do was to lay off when they were soloing. In fact, over the years most of the recording Ornette has ever done was done there was no keyboard.

RAM: You heard that Ornette just received a Pulitzer Prize for his writing.

SK: God bless him. (With his music) there really is no need for a piano in my opinion.

 RAM: Was Lenox your first encounter with Gary McFarland?

 SK: Yes.

 RAM: In 1966 you created with him the beautiful piece of music called October Suite.


SK: He created it, I just played on this.

RAM: Well, you were nonetheless an important contributor. Some people call this the Third Stream in jazz music …. what is your comment on this movement?

SK: Well, there was a period of time when people were making recordings of classical with jazz. Some of it was more successful than others. I didn’t care too much for most of it because they were trying to get the classical musicians to have that …swing, which is impossible with classical musicians especially. What Gary wrote for this particular recording, he wrote half for a string quartet and then there was a woodwind quintet and then there was a harp, and he wrote just straight ahead for them and then I was the jazz improvisational element on piano everyone else was straight and so I think it worked.

 Some of the fusion of the Third-Stream stuff back then was not very successful, in my opinion, because it was written in a way that was trying to get the so-called classical part of it to swing. To get classical musicians who are used to playing in a certain way, they don’t have the intuition to do what we do and we don’t do what they do, and its very, very rare to get that meeting that works successfully.

RAM: You played with Ron Carter on this date. Is this your first meeting with Ron?

 SK; Probably not, I think we played some together before this but it may be the first time we recorded together.

 RAM: After working with KD you were hired by John Coltrane to join his first quartet after he left Miles in early 1960. You actually cold-called John for the job?

SK: Yeah I was working with KD and I got his number and I called him and …….I heard he was looking for a piano player, he had just left Miles….I was twenty-one…..after two meetings talking and playing, one at his home in Queens……a week or ten days later he offered me $135 per week to start. I nearly fell off my chair because I was only making $100 a week with KD and I was getting to play with Coltrane.

RAM: This first group was you, John, Steve Davis on bass, and Pete LaRoca Sims on drums. You played at the Jazz Gallery on St Marks Place in NYC.

SK: That was the only place I played with him……. It started out as a two-week gig and the it kept being extended to four weeks, six weeks …… I was there about eight to ten weeks …..then ultimately  McCoy Tyner took my place……they went on for an unheard 24 or 26  weeks I believe at the time. But we were working six nights a week for that period, and it was just extraordinary. Six nights a week that was the way it was in those days.

RAM:  This was after Giant Steps. At this point was he starting to go into his searching mode?

SK: Yeah. We were playing a repertoire that consisted of the stuff on Giant Steps that had a lot of harmonic density, then he got into Impressions  with just two harmonies on a 32 bar …..and he didn’t quite know (which way to go)  ….he was leaning toward the less harmony but still playing the other stuff which I guess people wanted to hear……He eventually went, of course, the way he did. Away from all that dense harmony to almost a-harmonic…..

RAM: Do you think his musical direction was coincidental with yours or do you think he was going in a direction that was a little bit different then you felt you wanted to go.

SK:  At that point I was twenty-one years old…… I was thrilled to be there, and I was just trying to do the best I could do to support him and learning.

RAM: Did you feel up to the task?

 SK: Some of the time I did and some of the time I didn’t.  It wasn’t because I was trying to find my own voice, I just didn’t know what to do for him. A lot of times I would chord and then sometimes he would be out there doing what he was doing and I would be out there with him maybe inspiring him to do other things or further or…basically when I heard McCoy with him, he just wanted a carpet, he didn’t want anybody to fuck with him,so to speak. Let him alone, McCoy just layed down a nice carpet which was really what he wanted. He really didn’t articulate that to me. I said John …is everything okay, he said, and I’ll never forget this, I respect you too much as a musician to tell you how to play. I said John I am asking if there is anything you want me to play, really! …he just couldn’t …. he didn’t speak very much anyway. But when I heard McCoy with him after I had left…

RAM: You felt that that was a match that was more compatible?

SK: Yeah. Absolutely, that is what he wanted but he was not able to articulate that to me for whatever reason. Really it was a historical time for me, something that I will never forget. I was just happy to have those couple of months with him.

RAM: Do you think that ultimately, had you stayed with Coltrane, you would have picked up more of his musical odyssey along the lines of non-harmonious direction and his exploratory nature?

SK: I don’t know. Possibly. He influenced me a great deal prior to me working with him and he continues to do so. the stuff he did at the very end of his life I am not as crazy about as the prior stuff. I don’t know…. if I had stayed with him, career-wise I would have been potentially accelerated but….I don’t know.

RAM: Besides the historical significance of playing with John, what do you think is the most significant aspect of your time with him for you?

SK:  Just being around somebody who for the first time in my life was completely dedicated to the music. There was no interest in drugs, he was straight as a pin in those days, he wasn’t screwing around with women, he was married. He really was just focused on the music going forward.

RAM: Was he on a spiritual path yet?

SK: He was starting, I think, but not really.  That with A Love Supreme, and later but this was two or three years prior to that.

RAM: I was at your performance at the Fazioli Salon recently and you played Coltrane’s Countdown. Is there any significance to that particular song for you?

SK: Other than that it was one of the songs that we played when I was with him and I have played it since then from time to time on recordings. That is a song that is based on Tune Up which is a Miles Davis song (Steve demonstrates the chords of Tune Up on his piano and then compares the changes to Countdown which is an apparent derivative) ……the formula John used in the tune, it started in one place and ended in the same place…so that’s what it was based on. Whenever there is a song when the harmony didn’t move very much, he was able to interpolate the formula that he had, which is the formula he used for Giant Steps, which is an original and isn’t based on anything else. (Steve now plays the first few bars of Giant Steps to demonstrate his point). The release, I remember mentioning this to him, of Have You Met Miss Jones……. is the same formula as Giant Steps, (Steve demonstrates the similarities of the songs by playing a few bars of each …) but that was the way it was written by Richard Rodgers. I remember mentioning this to John and he just smiled at me. He built a whole thing on that simple formula.

RAM: Let's jump a little bit ahead. You left John Coltrane and joined Stan Getz I believe.

SK: Well I left John and went back to work with Kenny for a period. …. then I got a call from Scott La Faro, who was an extraordinary bassist. He had gotten a call from Stan asking if he wanted to join in a new group that Stan was forming. Stan had just gotten back from living in Scandinavia and wanted to work in the States again. Scott said “Well I’ll join you, but I want the rhythm section that I want. Scotty was maybe twenty-four.

RAM: He was quite audacious, wasn’t he?

SK: But he could back it up. He was great- extraordinary player. So, Stan said sure. So, he called Pete LaRoca, and he called me. The four of us met one afternoon at the Village Vanguard just to play and Stan hired us and that’s how that started.

RAM: Now how did you know Scott?

SK: Just …. he was around ah...I don’t remember how we met…he was two years older than I was, but we were sort “of an age” and he was working also with Bill Evans at the time.

RAM: I wanted to talk a little about that. You are at a sort of a nexus of events here. Scott is playing with you and he is playing with Bill. Bill being one of my favorite pianists.

SK: As he is mine also.

 RAM: I had heard Bill…. I never met him until, I guess I met him before Lenox. He did a concert at Brandeis University with George Russell’s band when I was at Harvard. That is the first time I heard Bill play and I said to myself …Jesus, this guy is doing what I am doing but only he has gotten it together, he is much more developed than I am. It sort of threw me. But I loved what he was doing.  Except that I now had to take a little detour and try my own way, but I was still in college. Scott was working with Bill. When I first got to New York I called all the guys I met at Lenox, and I called Bill. Bill was one of the guys I called. He took me in sort of like a little brother, and so we got along great. Scotty and Paul Motian were working in his band, but Bill wasn’t working all the time.

So when Stan called Scotty, Scott was doing both.

RAM: Scott was supposedly only playing the bass for about six years and yet is still considered one of the premier innovators on the instrument.

SK: I don’t remember the number of years he had been playing bass, but I know it wasn’t that long. He played something like before I can’t remember what.

RAM : I read somewhere that you and Scott were thinking about forming your own trio at this time before his untimely death?

SK: Yes. We did a little demo record together with Pete LaRoca and I had the master put out on CD and Japan put it out. It’s about thirty minutes, but just to hear Scott on it is worth the price. It never happened. Scotty loved Bill but he also felt somewhat constrained. With me I guess he felt that he was with someone with a similar attitude I don’t know. So, he was looking to leave Bill but at the same time it was work and he was with Stan so he had a pretty good situation going unfortunately, the accident.

RAM: I had once seen Bill at the Bottom Line with I believe it was Eddie Gomez toward the end of his career and I witnessed how he could almost float over the keyboard.

SK: Bill knew about the sound, the piano sound we were talking about. Once of the things that I admired about him, was that he had extraordinary technique, but you never heard that technique the way you would with Oscar Peterson, for example. Bill could play, he could play but he chose to ….

RAM: Less is more.

SK: Less, exactly and to me it was a great lesson, and he got a sound on the instrument that was quite extraordinary!

 RAM: I found some of your most memorable compositions, at least for me, like Trance and Oceans in the Sky are very rhythmically oriented. I find that they way the seem to have a driving rhythm.


SK: Well, its sort of an ostinato. Trance and then Oceans in the Sky they are both 6/8 

(Steve plays a few bars of each on his Baldwin).

RAM: I watched you at a recent concert and you use a technique of playing over the entire keyboard which I don’t see as much with other jazz players and you use tremolo effectively to build suspense in your songs.

SK: The piano is an orchestra, so why not use it.

RAM: Getting back to Scott. What would you say made Scott LaFaro so special?

SK: Well, he had incredible harmonic knowledge and had incredible ears so he knew exactly where you were going and then he could take you from there. If you were up to it you could have a real conversation. His hearing, his harmonic knowledge and his facility on the instrument….. nobody that preceded him played like him, more like a guitar, but he also could walk. He knew what the function of a bass was. He could play the bottom. A lot of people didn’t realize that he could do it all.

RAM: Was his consideration as such an innovator on the instrument mainly the technique of using the bass more like a guitar?

SK:  Yes, to some extent, absolutely. But he really had everything going. He could do whatever was called for.

 RAM: You were at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1961 with him. That was quite a bill with Miles Davis and you with him and Stan Getz. Was this the last live performance with him.

SK: Yes. After the gig he had taken a week off in upstate New York, where he was from, to help his mother move and help her pack. He tended to drive fast. I remember when we were out in California and when we were with Stan and he would drive those winding roads like  hell and I said please! Unfortunately this time ….after working at packing all day he was probably tired and probably driving too fast and he smashed into a tree. It was such an impact that the tree came into the car started a fire and the car was burned…. the only way he was identified was by his St. Christopher’s medal. The next morning after this had happened, Stan gets a call, we were upstate working somewhere, Henry Grimes was the bassist and Roy Haynes was the drummer ….Stan gets a call from his agent that they had heard over the wire that jazz bassist Scott LaFaro had been killed in an automobile accident. Stan couldn’t believe it so he calls and wakes me up to check and sure enough that is what happened. I guess a few days later we drove up to where the funeral was. That was the week he should have been working with us.

RAM: How long were you with Stan Getz?

 SK: Two years altogether. It was a year first with Scotty and Pete LaRoca then with Roy Haynes. There was a six-to-eight-month period where there was a hiatus, then another group after Scotty was killed with, Roy Haynes and John Nebbs the bassist from Boston. That was the trio until the band broke up. A year after that Stan started the hot bossa nova …. So, he had Al Harewood as the drummer and Tommy Williams was the bassist and then he would have different guitarists to get that sound…… which I wasn’t that crazy about. Piano and guitar which, unless you really work stuff out or layout, while the guitar is soloing…. the tendency is to get in each other’s way. So that lasted about another year and that was the end of that.

RAM: You started to play with Art Farmer a very lyrical player, especially on flugelhorn. What was the sense of lyricism that you got from this experience.

SK: He influenced me most definitely. The thing I took away from this experience, besides loving Art and respecting him greatly, was the rhythm section which was bassist Steve Swallow and Pete LaRoca. This was the first trio that I had had, the first trio that I recorded as a leader.  This was a chance to play together as a rhythm section so that was a special time for me. It was a chance to play with those guys and Swallow was playing stand up bass at the time.

RAM: Looking through your discography I noticed that you have recorded Steve Swallow’s compositions more than any other composer besides yourself.

SK: He is a wonderful writer, and we have a very close personal relationship. He is the brother that I never had.  I think he is a great talent as a writer and a player The way he composes just strikes a chord…so to speak.

RAM: He is obviously a prolific composer, and it seems a little coincidental that it is at this time you start composing and recording your own work. Was Steve the influence on you starting writing? The first piece that I saw on your discography that you wrote was Today I am a Man in 1966.

SK:   Swallow is the one that got me started writing originals because I had a repertoire of standards that I did the way I did them and at some point, I had recorded all the repertoire. He sat me down and said to me…you got to write, you got to write some music…. he challenged me. At the time I was living in Sweden and I went back to Stockholm and I started to write. Today I am a Man is a melody based on confirmation.

(Steve plays a few bars of the song) but it was predetermined chord changes. Then I did something that based on So What….  there were a couple of things where I used something that had been already written, but then having used up everything I realized Swallow was right. It hit me hard that night, I remember telling him about it, especially since I had so much respect for him. I went back and I composed, in a very short period of time, I composed thirteen songs. I have recorded them all since then, some more than once.

RAM: The Three Waves album was recorded with this trio and that was like a personal metamorphosis shortly thereafter? 

SK: That was before the Paris meeting with Swallow. Today I am a Man was one of them. Memory was a dedication to Scott LaFaro, which was a straight original….

RAM: Your years in Sweden and Europe are a bit of a mystery. Can you fill us in as to what you were doing and why you choose to leave New York?

SK: I fell in love with a Swedish actress.

RAM: Was that Ulla, the namesake of one of your originals?

 SK: No Ulla was a somebody that passed away prematurely while I was living there. She was a friend of a woman I was living with named Monica Zetterlund...a very well-known actress and singer, she did a number of films and recordings. As a matter of fact, other than with Tony Bennett, The only other singer Bill Evans recorded with was Monica in 1966 I believe. They did some concerts and did a recording which is now around. I think they released it in Japan. I met her here at Steve Swallow’s house, he had known her from touring with Art Farmer while touring in Stockholm, prior to my joining the band. She was staying with Swallow and his wife in New York, and Swallow had a party and shortly after that night we just started a relationship. I wound up going to live in Sweden in May of 1967 and stayed there for four years. I flew into the States but essentially I was based in Stockholm at the time.


RAM: You did a lot of concerts in Germany at the time?

SK: I had formed a trio with Palle Danielsson on bass and Jon Christensen on drums and we toured all over Europe and we accompanied Monica as well. So, it was a combination of both. So that is the reason …. plus, I had never been there and I had heard it was a much more fertile territory in terms of working and stuff like that. A combination of being there with her and working with a trio as I did, so that is the four years there 1967 and 1971.

RAM: Is there any pianist that you feel you borrowed most from? I know you have mentioned Art Tatum as a great influence on you any others.

SK: A lot of pianists. Starting off with Tatum who I think its been is said … “God”.  Really had it all. Solo piano, harmonically, rhythmically, technique but not for the sake of technique, different from Oscar Peterson. You have to dig at times to understand why.

But from Tatum then Errol Garner was a strong influence, Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly, Horace Silver ….and Bill I would say, he was probably the last to really influence me.

RAM: What about Monk?

SK: More so his music than his playing. I was never a big fan of his playing …at the time……., now I have much more appreciation for his playing cause technically he was very unorthodox, he didn’t have a great technique, but he had enough of a technique to do what he wanted to do. His compositions were extraordinary!

RAM: Why do you think musicians are so enamored with his songs and his compositions.

SK:  They’re different, they’re challenging, they’re unorthodox, the bar lines present a unique challenge and they are uniquely Monk. When you hear a Monk tune you know it’s Monk.  For me as a composer, he is unbelievable.

RAM: Are there any modern-day musicians that you regret not getting a chance to work with?

 SK: Modern day, do you mean younger than I am? Not really that is with all due respect to them. I am sorry I didn’t get a chance to work with Miles. I had a chance to, I was with Stan Getz at the time and Miles was looking to form a group with Ron Carter. Ron called me and asked me if I was interested in joining this group. I was working with Stan at the time and at that time Miles was very erratic in terms of his dependability. His band would be in Chicago, and he just wouldn’t show up….and stuff like that. In those days economics was a big thing and I was working with Stan, and I was doing pretty well so I said no. I regret it because I missed out on it and would have loved to. I never worked with Sonny Rollins…. that might be nice, I don’t know now in this day and age, but otherwise, not really! 

 RAM: Many musicians have had difficulties with the specter of drug and alcohol abuse. Over the years your early collaborator Serge Chaloff was known to have had addiction problems. Obviously, Charlie Parker…. Bill Evans had his troubles. Did you feel this was an ominous shadow lurking over the industry and did it affect you personally?

SK: Yes in the beginning when I came to New York most of the people I was hanging around with people were involved and so I got peripherally involved myself, without getting into details. There was also a part of me that was afraid. Somehow, I was able to stay out of the mainstream and that’s the best thing, but in the early days when I was here, career wise, I was looking to things, looking to get the career going and what not and it was very frustrating, it was very difficult and it would have been very easy for myself to get involved in that situation. But I dabbled I never got heavily into that situation, thank goodness.

 RAM: That’s interesting. I read in an interview with Sheila Jordan, one of your few vocalist collaborators, that for her there were many times that she had felt she was not being accepted or being understood with her music and it was during these times of doubt and desperation that lead to the use of drugs or alcohol for herself as well as other artists. Do you agree?

 SK: It’s a lonely feeling. You can be depressed. She has had some issues too, but now …. her schedule is unbelievable, she is seventy-nine in November, she travels all over, I don’t know how she does it……she does a lot of workshops with singers, does concerts.

RAM: She was one of the first vocalists to use the solo bass and voice format and she speaks of an out-of-body experience that she has experienced on several occasions when she apparently communicates so perfectly with the bass player that it takes her to another world. Do you experience anything like this when you play with some of the phenomenal bass players that you have had the privilege of playing with?

SK: I can relate to this. There is a whole different psychodynamic between Sheila and I, but I still get what she is talking about. She is absolutely right to feel the way she does, because I know she does. When everything is working right, all thinking in the same way, the music almost plays itself. It’s really very special.

 RAM:  I was always impressed with all the fantastic bass players that you have played with over the years, a virtual who’s who. A few that are missing Ray Brown, Richard Davis, Charlie Mingus any regrets not having played with them?

SK: I think I played with Richard once, I think. Mingus and Ray Brown were really before me.

RAM: Any favorite bass players now?

SK: Well, the bass player I have been playing with over the last couple of years, David Finck is a very talented player, but I have also been working Eddie Gomes, George Mraz, Ron Carter and Buster Williams……I have been lucky to work with some many gifted musicians.

RAM: You mentioned Sonny Rollins earlier. You played his Airegin at a recent concert. You were so into it while your playing………, he is obviously an inspiration ……wouldn’t a Steve Kuhn and Sonny Rollins concert be a wonderful event.

SK: I don’t know. I am sure Sonny wouldn’t think of it. If I wanted to pursue it perhaps…. I have the utmost respect for him, he is one of my heroes.

RAM: On your recent Live at Birdland album with Ron Carter and Al Foster did you guys’ practice before you recorded it live?


SK: Not on this last one. With these guys we the trio runs by itself. It’s really a pleasure, they are both incredibly talented and wonderful players so its very easy.

 RAM: I read somewhere that Bill Evans never liked to practice before a gig. He liked the spontaneity. Is that the way you like to do it?

SK:  Yeah, I never practice before a gig.

RAM: Who do you consider to be your piano contemporaries?

SK:  Well in terms of age I guess Keith, Chick, Herbie, McCoy, Paul Bley we’re all around the same age.

 RAM: Who would you like to see perform live just out of curiosity or interest to see what they are doing?

SK: I don’t have a burning desire to see anyone, I mean I am not saying that because I am above it or anything like that…I don’t know, that’s just where I am at now. I have enough problems doing my own thing and figuring out what to do at this stage. When I was younger, I use to hang around all the time, going out every night, at sessions or hearing people at the clubs. I just sort of ran the gamut.

RAM: So, you don’t seek musical inspiration from other players at this point?

SK: People I meet, relationships I have. Music that I listen to, I listen to classical music. I don’t know. I don’t consciously think about it. I just now take the time to synthesize these experiences and put my stamp on it if I can.

 RAM: I am interested in the differences that you find when playing with say Ron Carter and Al Foster who are contemporaries of yours and have shared the same musical history in comparison to when you play with younger players like David Finck and Billy Drummond who don’t have that history?

SK: But they do. They don’t have that history, but they listened to and know the history, that’s very important. Some of the younger players think that the music started with late Coltrane. They don’t know, for example, how Coltrane was influenced by the rhythm and blues and had an incredible knowledge of standard tunes. He went way back to Louis Armstrong, these guys …. know the history of the music and use it as a common ground. Then as a generation, that say spans a period twenty years younger, they bring to me stuff that I wouldn’t necessarily be that aware of, because I am twenty years older, and I have other things focused on my mind. So, it’s a learning experience for me to play with them as well as for them to play with me. As long as they know the history of, the music, because if they don’t it shows in their playing……where it all came from, it’s important.

 RAM: You mentioned one time in an interview that in the mid-sixties there was some reverse integration that you witnessed when black artists only wanted to play with other black artists……

 SK: It was the time. In the mid-sixties I was in Sweden at the time and people were coming over from the States. Before, where there was always an embrace when we would see each other, then all of a sudden there was now a little bit of standoffishness. I noticed and it disturbed me because to me I had always played in mixed bands, and they would hire me because they thought I could play and that was the end of it. In the mid-sixties with the revolution, Martin Luther King and black awareness, I mean I understood it, but I figured in this part of the world, music, jazz music we were exempt from all that. We all used to get along, and I noticed a dramatic change in the mid-sixties and to this day its still there to a certain extent, not for me particularly, but I feel bad for young white musicians for example, who really can play and don’t get a chance to play in mixed bands that much. I have heard a number of black leaders say I am not going to hire any white musicians even though they may be better than their black counterparts. I have heard this, and it is sad. Hopefully, that will pass, but I think it’s gotten a little bit easier as time goes on. It’s unfortunate in jazz music. I understand the situation but ….

RAM: It was like before you were almost immune to it in jazz.

SK: Yeah, but I understand the situation with all the stuff that the black community has gone through and continues to go through, but in the music it would be nice if everybody just tried to get along. Deal with the music and that’s the challenge.

RAM : You once said that you thought the music was not progressing and that it may have run its course. Do you still believe that?

SK: I hear, the little that I hear from other players is revisionist history. They are playing the bebop or post-bebop and playing the hell out of it and doing it extremely well. This had led me to think that several years ago. …. that the music may have, as we know it,  run its course and that is the way it is. Something else may come along but the jazz as we knew it from early 1900’s for a century. In my view, I haven’t heard anything that has made me change my mind, and there is nothing wrong with what is going on, it’s very healthy. A lot of young musicians are revisiting the music of forty, fifty, and sixty years ago and doing it their way. but in terms of innovation like Coltrane or Bird or Miles or Ornette, for example, I haven’t heard anything beyond them truly innovative.

RAM: What do you think of the fusion era?  Musicians and their attempts to try something different through techniques and virtuosity?

SK: It's electronics, it's away from the acoustic instruments which I have a very big prejudice in favor of….

RAM: You played electric keyboard during your career.

SK: I did, but to me it was like a toy, a diversion. You could just do so much with that.  I am still trying to play this thing (pointing to his Baldwin piano) and it’s a lifetime, every time I sit down it’s as if I have never been here before it’s a constantly challenging and I never found that with an electric keyboard or synthesizers or anything like that, but the advances in terms of electronics that have been made is astounding.

RAM: But just to say it’s a result of electronics…. I for one think fusion was more than that.  Some say it was a dead-end path.

SK: As long as there is an electronic genius out there, but in terms of the content of the music they were just taking the acoustic music and playing it on electronic instruments, synthesizing it…. I mean from what I heard…. I haven’t heard anything truly innovative come out of fusion music. By definition being what it is, it limits itself by being called fusion.

RAM: I know you have been vocal about the use of technique for technique’s sake, and you are sort of a proponent of less is more.  Ballads have always been a format that has been utilized over the years to emote feelings even from great technicians like Parker, Coltrane and Miles and yourself…. yet to paraphrase Miles; he was asked later in his career why he didn’t play ballads much any more and he said something like….  I like them too much.

How do you, as a musician, who has a predisposition to emotional playing, keep yourself fresh from falling into the trap that Miles was apparently so afraid of?

SK:   I love playing them. I’m not going to deny myself playing them. I specifically, each set, do a ballad and I love ballads. They say things that are just very close to my heart for me. They are very important it’s a part of the literature, it’s a part of the repertoire and they should be played.

RAM: Do you think Miles had a point about them being limiting?

SK: I don’t know, maybe he had his tongue up his cheek…(laughter) but Miles was Miles. I just think it is a great vehicle for expression and there is an art to it. As I have gotten older, I’ve got more appreciative of how to play them, the challenge that is involved. When I did this recording with string orchestra, Promises Kept, it was pretty sparse playing, no florid technique or stuff like that. Swallow, I remember sending him a first copy before it was released, and he said …. you know it sounds like it is stuff that you have written out even though I know you were improvising …..which he meant as a compliment. Carlos Franzetti did a wonderful job. I with met him a number of times, I said I just wanted this to come from the heart. He really got it….

RAM: Do you have a personal favorite composition that you have written.

SK: No.  I love the string album and I love the Live at Birdland. For a live recording which is very challenging, because not only are you recording, but you have to be aware of the audience unlike in a studio where you can start and stop and start and stop. Of course, the advantage of a live recording is that you can feed off the energy of the crowd, but at the same time you can’t keep starting and stopping.  You do the best you can, I have done several live recordings in the past, but this one worked out quite well. The string album, Promises Kept, I am really very proud of.

RAM: Do you have any sage advice for young aspiring musicians or singers?

SK:  If it is in your heart of hearts, go for it, ‘because you’ll know down the line if it’s meant to be. There are so many discouraging things that can happen along the way, it’s a tough, tough road. I would not recommend it to anybody unless it’s something that they lived and breathed. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. Give it a shot!

RAM: Is a musician’s life a personally difficult one, hard on family and relationships?

SK: Absolutely. I made a conscious decision years ago. I didn’t get married or have children…I mean I did get married once, but no children. …Because just economically I… would have to do something else in order to support the music. Sheila Jordan did that. She worked in an office for I don’t know how long and then she decided to take the leap, the risk and it’s worked out for her. I have done nothing but music all my life, I never had another job …. but in order to do that I sacrificed having children which I regret to some extent, but it was a conscious choice I made for economic reasons. I had opportunities early on to go out to California to get into the studio scene out there. Some friends of mine had the beautiful homes with the swimming pools and were married, it was tempting, also the teaching in school’s full time. I just wanted to play, so I made that choice so economically I paid the price and still do. (He raises his arms and sweeps them open offering the expanse of his modest living room) This is my castle right here, I am grateful to have it, but it not about the money.

RAM: Do you have anything that you want to be remembered for?

SK: Just that the music that I leave comes from the heart. It’s honest, it’s pure, there is no bullshit, I never compromised, I probably should have, I probably could have done things differently, but I always believed in being honest and sincere and never sold out, so to speak, or never chose a path that I didn’t feel comfortable doing. Not to say that I didn’t do a lot of different things in my life…. sounds like I am talking from my grave. (laughter) But I just …there was a sincerity and honesty in what I did, not to compromise just to follow the path that I wanted to do. It wasn’t easy and it’s not easy and it’s continuously challenging.

RAM:  Promises Kept and Live at Birdland are you two latest releases?

SK: No there is one that came out in Japan called Play Standards on the Venus label, it just came out, and that is the result of a poll from Swing Journal in Japan which is like the Downbeat or Jazz Times in Japan. They polled their readers I guess which songs they would like for me to play. They chose maybe fifteen songs and from those I chose seven of them to play on this recording and that was the genesis of this album.

SK: I am doing another one for them. It is a follow-up of an album, of one that I did on a classical theme a few years back, which was called Pavane for a Dead Princess, and they want another classical-themed album, so we are doing that one in August.


RAM: You have some upcoming gigs in New York?

 SK: Yes, I will be at the Jazz Standard with George Mraz and Billy Drummond on the 18th and 19th of July.

Steve Kuhn, Billy Drummond & George Mraz (photo credit unknown)

RAM: And another date at the Iridium later?  

SK: That is one night on the 28th of September with Eddie Gomez. They are doing a week of piano tribute to Bud Powell….and I am one of the featured pianists.  Then I am doing an eightieth Coltrane birthday celebration at Birdland with Joe Lovano, I have done that for the last four or five years and we’ll do it again on the 18th of September at Birdland.

RAM:  Do you have a favorite club in New York. You probably shouldn’t answer that.

SK: My favorite club always has been the Vanguard, cause of the sound and the history I think there is something in the walls, its magical I always loved to play there.

RAM: Remember some of the old clubs like Slugs or Fat Tuesday’s?

SK: Oh Yeah. Well, I did a live recording at Fat Tuesday’s. Slugs when I worked with Charles Lloyd that is where I worked with Tony Williams and Ron Carter. But I think Birdland is a great club, it has great sight lines and I love the staff.

RAM: As Sheila Jordan said …its really all about the music.

SK: That’s right. I think I am playing some of my best piano right now.

RAM: And its sounds it. Well, that’s it Steve. Any song you would like to end with here?

SK: Not really, unless you have a favorite

 RAM: Could you play Trance which was the album that turned me on to your music in the seventies.

After a moment I get Steve to play an impromptu rendition of his song Trance which he does masterfully.

RAM:  Thanks very much Steve.

 SK: My pleasure, Ralph. My pleasure.


If you have a chance to see this artist at the Jazz Standard, the Iridium or at Birdland in the coming weeks be sure not to miss him. He is an underappreciated jazz legend and is surely at the top of his ever-inspiring form.



©Ralph A. Miriello 2007


No comments:

Post a Comment