It’s just before 7 a.m. on a chilly Monday in March, and Bill Kirchner is on his way to work. The BX7 bus is running late. Three days a week he travels from his home in Riverdale to teach – currently either at the Manhattan School of Music or the New School for Jazz. Kirchner, never at a loss for words, sighs as the bus finally pulls up to the stop, “It’s like Phil Woods used to say: ‘Pay me to show up. I’ll do the gig for free.’ That’s how I feel sometimes.”
There’s a lot of wisdom in that quote. After more than 40 years on the scene he has continued to show up: as a highly accomplished jazz saxophonist, composer-arranger, bandleader, historian, radio producer and host, record producer, educator and book editor.
A native of Youngstown, Ohio, his earliest experiences helped foster his deeply felt musicianship, strongly analytical perspective, commanding authorial voice, and reverence for the tradition – and its iconoclasts.
“The first jazz I remember,” says Kirchner, “was the ‘Peter Gunn’ series on TV. That was 1958. I was five. Those were the Henry Mancini scores. I started playing clarinet when I was seven. And then I heard the Ellington band on the Ed Sullivan show playing ‘Satin Doll.’ The tune has been mangled over the years by bad lounge and club date bands. But hearing it played with those voicings and by that saxophone section was an unforgettable experience.”
Kirchner has put out nine albums as a leader. He’s written liner notes for over 50 recording projects. He is editor of the “Oxford Companion to Jazz” (Oxford University Press, 2000) and “A Miles Davis Reader” (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997). He has also co-produced both a five-CD box set, “Big Band Renaissance” (Smithsonian Recordings), and the six-CD box set “Bill Evans: Turn Out the Stars, The Final Village Vanguard Recordings” (Warner Bros/Nonesuch). Between 1984 and 1999, he placed in eight Downbeat polls as an arranger, and he won a Grammy for his 1996 liner notes to “Miles Davis and Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings.”
Kirchner is also widely known as one of the producer/hosts of the long-running radio program, “Jazz from the Archives, “which aired on WBGO from 1979 to 2014. He produced 131 episodes in a little over a decade.
“I can name people who can do every one of the things I’ve done, the hats I’ve worn,” he tells me, “better than I can. But I have been able to hit home runs in all those areas, and if I have developed an ‘authorial voice,’ that voice, I guess, comes from the fact that I have been able to glean from my experience.”
The bus takes us to our next transfer point, 207th Street, where we ride the elevator several stories down to the A train. Kirchner, disabled in 1993 after spinal tumor surgeries left his right hand partially paralyzed and affected his mobility, uses an electric scooter to get to work. (In the late 1990s, he had his soprano saxophone redesigned with alternate keys by repairman Perry Ritter, enabling him to continue playing jazz gigs.)
There are scores of ADA-compliant elevators operated and maintained by the MTA throughout its labyrinthine system. They don’t always work.
“They’re out of service more often than they should be,” says Kirchner, as we make our descent to the platform below. “If I get off at station X and the elevator is broken, it’s like ‘What do I do now?’ So I always have a Plan B. I am prepared to go to another station or whatever. I’ve had that happen far too many times. But I just give myself plenty of time, and I’ve never been late for anything.”
He tells me how he left Ohio to be an English major at Manhattan College in 1971. It was an excuse to be in New York, where the music was. He had already found a saxophone teacher, the great Lee Konitz, who had put an ad in Downbeat advertising for students.
“I sent him a letter,” recalls Kirchner, “and he said, ‘When you get to New York, call me.’ He lived on Central Park West and 107th Street at the time. I took lessons from him for two years. I went every two weeks for a half-hour lesson; that’s all I could afford. It was $8 for a half hour – or $15 for an hour. Konitz turned my butt around. At the time I was playing saxophone and clarinet and flute. But as far as my jazz playing, it was just a very crude Coltrane imitation, playing as many notes as I could with no real awareness of what I was doing. So Lee straightened me out rather quickly and got me down to essentials and constructing lines.”
The A train arrives. We’re on our way downtown. I ask him about his early days in New York and if the storied jazz club scene was still vital in the 1970s. Kirchner’s face lights up.
“Oh man! When I came here to college, in the fall of 71, I heard Lee Konitz playing with La Monte Young; the Elvin Jones Quartet with Joe Farrell, Dave Liebman and Gene Perla; Thad Jones and Mel Lewis at the Vanguard on Monday nights; Chick Corea and Return to Forever with Joe Farrell, Stanley Clarke, Airto Moreira and Flora Purim. And then Charles Mingus’s all-star big band at Philharmonic Hall with Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Gene Ammons and Joe Chambers.”
He adds, “That was in February 1972. And this was on my budget as a college kid. I only saw a fraction of what was going on. Anybody who tells you there was nothing going on in jazz in the 70s is full of it. It was a very rich period.”
As we roll through the old IND subway tunnel, Kirchner explains how he moved to Washington, D.C. right after college, in 1975, where he landed a job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He had taken the civil service exam, was about to get married and needed the work. He wrote and edited articles there, but eventually found himself in the company of J.R. Taylor, who worked under the celebrated writer, critic and historian Martin Williams. Together with a woman named Peggy Martin, Taylor and Williams ran the Jazz and American Culture Program at the Smithsonian Institution’s Division of Performing Arts. Before long, Kirchner was at the Smithsonian.
Washington had its own vibrant musical milieu, and by this time Kirchner had met a number of musicians, including the pianist Marc Copland. As we hurtle into the 125th Street station stop, he explains to me: “I sat in a lot. Copland and a lot of the black players of that generation who were there, like Buck Hill, Marshall Hawkins, Nathen Page and Bernard Sweetney. Then there was Blues Alley. There was a place called Harold’s Rogue and Jar. It was run by a psychiatrist named Harold Kaufmann, who was a good amateur jazz piano player.”
Kirchner also remembers “a club called the One Step Down that I ended up playing in a lot. I ran jam sessions there on Saturday afternoons for about a year, and they ended up bringing in players from New York on weekends.”
But the biggest thing that happened to Kirchner at the time had to do with meeting trumpeter Tim Bowen, who was in the Air Force Band. Bowen told Kirchner, “I’m playing in this rehearsal band on Sunday mornings. Why don’t you come over and hear it?”
The band was rehearsing at Catholic University. Kirchner recalls, “I went over there one Sunday and I walked in, and there’s this big band playing a chart on Otis Redding’s ‘Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay,’ and it was unbelievable. It sounded like Thad Jones. It was that good, but it wasn’t Thad. It turns out that the arranger was a guy named Mike Crotty, who was a staff arranger for the Air Force Band. He had just gotten out of Berklee three years before, and he ran this rehearsal band on Sunday mornings. And you know that the music’s going to be happening if you can get 17 guys out of bed on a Sunday morning.”
Crotty turned out to be a big influence. “He’s one of the really heavyweight composers and arrangers,” says Kirchner. “I tell people I went to the University of Mike Crotty, because then a year later, one of the tenor players left, and they asked me to take his place. He was writing for all sorts of doubles. The chair I was playing was tenor, soprano, flute, alto flute, piccolo and clarinet!”
Kirchner adds, “I started writing charts for the band, one of which got me an NEA grant to study with Thad Jones. But as it turned out, Thad picked up and left New York and moved to Copenhagen. So I was left with this grant and no Thad. So, I went to my friend Sy Johnson, the arranger, and said, ‘Can I study with you?’ And Sy said, “Well, that’s very nice of you, but the guy you should study with is Rayburn Wright, who is the head of the Jazz and Film Scoring Department at Eastman.”
Kirchner called Wright, who asked him for a tape. Wright took him on, and, for a year, Kirchner began flying up to Rochester one day a month to take lessons. It was a heady experience:
“Ray Wright at Eastman and Herb Pomeroy at Berklee were probably the two greatest jazz composing-arranging teachers in the history of the music,” says Kirchner. “Between the two of them they taught more reputable jazz composer-arrangers than anybody else. Even Duke Ellington took a string writing lesson from Ray Wright.”
The conversation drifts to Kirchner’s run-ins with major figures from Miles Davis (“Miles comes up, crouches down right next to me at the Vanguard, puts his hand on my knee, and says to my friend Joe Mosello, ‘You know, you shouldn’t drink beer on the gig; it dries you out,’) to Benny Carter (“So, I ended up picking up Benny at the airport in my chintzy little Chevette, you know. Benny Carter, the man who was class personified, who owned a Rolls Royce”), and our A train pulls into 14th Street; another elevator presents itself.
We talk a bit about Kirchner’s disability. He explains how, after he was laid up from surgery and in rehab, the union went to bat for him.
“Right after the surgery, I was basically paralyzed. I could hardly move out of bed. It screwed up my hand permanently. I have no feeling in my right hand and only two good fingers. I couldn’t work! So my social worker went to Local 802 President Bill Moriarty and said, ‘You know, this guy is laid up; he can’t work.’ And Bill went to the Musician’s Emergency Relief Fund. The fund paid my rent for several months. So to anybody who tells you the union doesn’t do anything for you, my response is: send them to me and we’ll talk!”
We now are at street level, and as we make our way across town towards the New School, I ask Kirchner, who joined Local 802 in 1980, about his years of work as a leader, and his deep experience composing, arranging, performing and recording.
“In July of 1980, I moved back to New York,” he recalls. “I was just short of 27. I had some savings, and I started making phone calls, calling everybody I knew, and hustled. Very quickly I started working. I got my nonet together, and a few months after we started rehearsing, I started getting gigs in clubs like the Jazz Forum, Seventh Avenue South and Eddie Condon’s.”
Kirchner remembers, “We worked in the Village and in midtown. All over the place. And we started doing college concerts and festivals. We did the Kool Jazz Festival. The first two albums we did (in 1982 and 1983) came out on the Sea Breeze label. But then later on three of our best concerts were recorded live and just came out in the last few years on the Jazzheads and A-Records labels. We did the 1987 Chicago Jazz Festival with Sheila Jordan as a guest vocalist. That came out on an album called ‘One Starry Night.’ Then we did a concert at the Smithsonian in 1990. That came out on an album – a two-CD set – called ‘Trance Dance.’”
Kirchner led his nonet for over 20 years and recorded five albums. “Of everything I’ve done, that’s what I’m most proud of,” he tells me. “With that band, we showed what was possible with a medium-sized jazz band. In terms of colors, we had lots of doubles. We played everything from straight-ahead to Brazilian to funk to avant garde. It was really an orchestral concept of a medium-sized band. Most medium-sized jazz bands are what I call ‘nine-piece quintets.’ You know, it’s like an orchestrated theme, a bunch of solos, and D.S. al Fine. This was way more than that. There was lots of soloing, but it was integrated into an orchestral framework.”
And then there’s the writing – of words. He had started submitting reviews for jazz magazines in the mid-70s when in Washington. Still in his early 20s, he contributed to Downbeat, and what was then called Radio Free Jazz (now Jazz Times) and a publication called Jazz Magazine. He was also a reviewer for the Washington Post for about a year. J.R. Taylor got him the gig, which involved “sitting in clubs and writing reviews on napkins and calling them in over the phone.”
But Kirchner long ago rejected the identity of jazz critic. He understood immediately the conflict of interest between being a working musician and someone who could be hired by a club owner to “do them a solid.” That did not appeal.
Eventually he stopped writing entirely, and didn’t resume it until around the early 1990s, when the critic Gene Lees encouraged him to get back to it. To avoid the critic/player conflict, he changed his focus to historical writing, and a booming CD reissue market helped.
I ask Kirchner about his role as editor of the “Oxford Companion to Jazz,” and how it came about. He tells me, “Dan Morgenstern (of Downbeat fame) recommended me to Sheldon Meyer for that gig. And Sheldon took me out to lunch and said, ‘I want you to do this book,’ and I said, ‘What?’ At first, I was kind of…no way, but then I came around and so, essentially, I had to pick the topics and pick the writers. Fifty-nine of them!”
As far as teaching, he began that in 1991, at the New School, with a course called Advanced Composing-Arranging, which he’s taught now for 27 years consecutively. He teaches an improvisation ensemble course there as well. He explains that the skills he teaches are in part designed to help young people navigate a career in the music business.
“Now more than ever,” he tells me, “a lot of the journeyman ways of making a living are more or less history, and so, as a young musician, you have to figure out a way to make the rent. I tell all my students, ‘You’re being trained as an improviser, and part of that skill is learning how to improvise a career, because there’s no set formula.’”
Since 1991, he has taught arranging, composition, improvisation and jazz history to well over a thousand students. (And since 2004, he has taught courses on the music of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis at Manhattan School of Music.)
As we near our destination, I ask him about the New School, and the union contract there. He remembers, “We organized the New School in 1997. Management didn’t want a contract. We had no raises. We had no job security. We had no benefits of any kind. We had no health care. We had nada.”
But, he recalls, “Once we voted in the union and Local 802 was recognized, I served on the committee that did the first negotiation. It took a long time, because there was a lot of stuff to hammer out, and they didn’t give ground easily. But finally, we got stuff worked out, and overall, it’s been good, cordial, positive. It’s been beneficial just to have all this stuff spelled out, in a way that it wasn’t prior to having the union here. Because you have to have it spelled out to have a contract; before then there was just too much that was amorphous.”
Kirchner’s a modest person. He tells me he’s not particularly disciplined, and that he just does things that he wants to do. It appears that he just happens to do many things very well.
“I guess maybe what I do better than anything else,” he explains as we cross Fifth Ave., “is I’m able to get gifted people to do things that they didn’t know they could do, whether that’s a bunch of guys playing in a nonet or a bunch of students in a classroom, or 59 people writing articles for the ‘Oxford Companion to Jazz,’ or a bunch of performers in a studio. That’s what I do. I don’t know how I do it, but I do it, and I guess maybe it’s just the product of being a musician who knows what’s going on – on a pretty deep level.”
We show up at 55 West 13th Street, an hour early for his 9:30 a.m. class. I ask him if there’s anything else he’d like to discuss.
“Yes,” he says, “I’d be hugely delinquent if I didn’t mention the contributions of my wife Judy Kahn to my life. She’s a musician herself – she plays classical flute and piccolo – and she’s an 802 member. We met in 1993 not long after I got out of the hospital, and we’ve been married for 22 years. For anything that I’ve accomplished since then, she’s been my major source of encouragement.”