A Conversation with David Grisman (continued)
PM: I was surprised to find in your bio that your extensive knowledge of jazz and music theory was partially the result of a failed attempt to learn alto sax.
DG: Well, that might be an oversimplification. [laughs]
PM: I'm sure it was. You're a musician, and you would have looked into it anyway.
DG: I got into jazz in the mid-60s. And I figured I didn't really have any jazz mandolin role models -- except for Jethro Burns. But I hadn't met him or ever heard him play, and I wasn't aware of anybody doing that. So I figured, well, you have to have a jazz instrument. So I went out and bought an alto sax. But I had very little ability in making one note sound good.
PM: What jazz figures would you say have influenced your life most profoundly?
DG: Jazz is kind of an idiom where you pretty much have to be great to play jazz. You have to be a complete musician, or at least you have to be technically accomplished, and you have to understand theory, and know a lot of difficult tunes. So in terms of influences, there are just countless guys: Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Ben Webster, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, I mean, the whole -- Louis Armstrong. I love Louis Armstrong.
DG: Of course, all the string jazz pioneers, Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, and Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, and Svend Asmussen. I went and visited Svend Asmussen in Denmark last November. And I'm talking to him about doing a project of his older recordings.
PM: Now, Svend, I'm ignorant of that man's work.
DG: He's 85 now. He's one of the original jazz violin players. He started the same time as Stephane Grappelli.
DG: He made his first recording in 1935. Are you familiar with Oscar Aleman?
DG: Well, I put out a double CD of Oscar Aleman. He was a black Argentinian guitarist who was in Paris the same time as Django Reinhardt, and played in a very similar style, but, in a way, with more drive. If Django was Duke Ellington, he was Count Basie.
PM: Oh, wow. I got some catching up to do there.
DG: Leonard Feather said, in 1939, that he could out-swing Django.
PM: Wow. [laughs] Leonard Feather said so.
DG: Yeah. Not that that matters, but --
PM: But he was somebody.
DG: He was definitely a key player and widely overlooked because he moved back to Argentina during the war, and stayed there, and made a lot of incredible records in Argentina, swing records, with a similar group to Django's. And Jerry Garcia actually turned me on to him -- he's where Jerry learned "Russian Lullaby" from.
PM: Wow. Thanks for the hot tip.
DG: Anyhow, his recordings were mostly available on a bootleg -- a few bootlegs existed in the 60s and 70s. And so I put together a double CD compilation of his greatest recordings that I could find copies of. And it's called Swing Guitar Masterpieces, on Acoustic Disc.
PM: That's great.
DG: Anyhow, Svend recorded with him in 1935. And also -- a similar kind of story -- Svend never got too well known, because he never really left Denmark. He toured briefly in the late 50s with a vocal group called the Swe-Danes, that, you know, was on The Ed Sullivan Show. But he was an incredible jazz violin player.
I met him in 1985 and invited him to come to the United States and play some gigs. And we did. We recorded an album together, which is now out of print, but it's called Swingin' with Svend. He's also on a few cuts on DGQ 20.
There's a record that's long been out of print called Duke Ellington's Jazz Violin Sessions. That was with Stephane Grappelli. I think it's Stephane, Svend Asmussen, Ray Mann, and Duke.
PM: That sounds like a real classic. Now, with a record like that that's gone out of print, could an entrepreneur like yourself take it from that status and put it back out?
DG: Probably. But usually licensing is a bad business deal. In other words, they charge you so much. Are you familiar with the Jacob do Bandolim records I put out?
DG: That's mandolin music from Brazil, and I made a deal with RCA in Brazil. Everybody said, "Just bootleg it. Just bootleg it." But I don't believe in that. So he's like the highest paid royalty artist on my label.
DG: Yeah. Because when they license something, they figure, well, you're not investing any money in making it, so they'll gouge you for -- well, I mean, all deals are different. But yeah, it is possible, but I've shied away from trying to do that a lot, other than certain instances. It's certainly possible, but I view myself more as a record producer than as a packager of other people's productions.
PM: A creator, not a manufacturer.
DG: Right. In my opinion, one of the pitfalls of having a small independent record label is putting out too many records. Because then nothing gets promoted, and it's expensive. I love all kinds of music, but I have to realize that that doesn't mean that I have to put out everything that comes my way, or that I can think of, because then I'd have hundreds of records in my catalog, but --
PM: Yeah, and it's already really big.
DG: -- maybe I wouldn't be doing them a service. Because if I can't do a good job for those records, what would be the point? continue