Donald Fagen on Our Secret Society
By Devon Wendell
Recently I had the opportunity for an exclusive interview with my great friend, mentor, and former employer, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan on the influence of jazz on his life and music. Here’s the result. And don’f forget that Donald, Walter and the gang will begin their summer tour of the U.S. and Europe in June.
Devon Wendell: Do you think jazz aficionados have inborn obsessive compulsive tendencies, like if I don’t go out and find every recording that Fats Navarro ever played on, I’ll go insane?
Donald Fagen: I still have a little of that OCD jazz fan thing. Luckily, I had much better taste when I was in high school. My rigid aesthetic eliminated all but the very best composers and improvisers – Rollins, Miles, Ellington, Bird and a few others – that was it. I refused to buy Blue Note albums on the grounds that Alfred Lion forced the players on the label to write all those tunes with the funk cliches in them. Moreover, my allowance limited me to only the very best albums , so I couldn’t obsess too much. Now I have horrible taste like everybody else.
DW: The fusing of rock with different genres of jazz is part of what’s made the Steely Dan sound unique. When was the first time you felt you accomplished that distinct ‘fusion” successfully in a recording?
DF: Because Walter and I were jazz fans, we were comfortable with the harmonic language of modern jazz. On the other hand, we also liked r&b, soul music, Dylan, Laura Nyro and so on. Aside from the fact that we knew there was something amusing about overdriving a delicately balanced 13th chord through a Fender amp, I don’t think we were consciously “fusing” anything.
DW: Didn’t you get the memo sent out in 1963 that no flatted 5ths or 7ths are allowed in rock n’ roll?
DF: No. but I remember that we had to inform certain guitarists that hanging on a flat 5th – as opposed to using it as an ornament in the way that blues players do – was mega-dorky, unless, of course, your intention was a surferesque farcical effect to begin with.
DW: What was the very first jazz recording you heard?
DF: Wow. Well, my mom had a few Benny Goodman sides from 30s.
DW: I notice that when you play piano at times, you attack the keys in a very percussive manner that is visually reminiscent of Monk’s. Is that an intentional or just a physical reaction to the music?
DF: Monk sounded totally natural to me the first time I heard him. And I remember thinking, hey, he plays like a gorilla, like me, it must be okay. Later I got to watch great studio players like Artie Butler and Paul Griffin. Like Monk, they basically played at Gospel level, like Aretha Franklin – tough and loud.
DW: Did you get to see Monk perform at The Five Spot?
DF: No, but I saw him later, at the Village Gate with Charlie Rouse – fantastic.
DW: Discovering jazz at a young age, did you feel that it isolated you from other people your age, like you were part of some swinging nerdy secret society?
DF: Yes, but I used to read a lot and I was skinny and Jewish so I was already isolated.
DW: Growing up, what were some of the most memorable jazz performances you witnessed, good and bad?
DF: Charles Mingus and his demonic drummer Danny Richmond were the most exciting. I saw them a number of times, usually at the Vanguard (Max Gordon used to give me a coke and sit me near the bandstand). Maynard Ferguson’s 1961 band was monstrous. I saw Monk, Coltrane, Basie, Coleman Hawkins with Roy Eldridge, Bill Evans – all bigger than life. And one country bluesman who killed me: Mississippi John Hurt.
DW: Jazz radio certainly isn’t what it was in the 50′s. Were you a fan of The Symphony Sid show out of NYC?
DF: My favorite was Mort Fega on WEVD. By the time I was listening, Sid was going heavy on the Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz thing.
DW: Did you get to hear his final broadcast?
DF: No, but someone sent me a tape of a 1961 Christmas show where he’s totally blotto.
DW: I remember being in the studio with you during the “Two Against Nature” sessions and I was playing a Coltrane recording from his early Riverside years and you remarked; “That’s when he was playing out of tune.” Has your amazing sense of pitch made it hard to enjoy some of Coltrane’s, or say Eric Dolphy’s, music when the intonation often seemed intentionally off for thematic purposes?
DF: Not at all. Coltrane rarely played out of tune, but, in any case, it’s only on some of those Prestige records with Miles – my favorite period for Coltrane anyway. I like him best as a wild, off-center hard bop player. Eric Dolphy plays out of tune, out of time and just plain out – and it’s always perfect. I couldn’t play Eric when my mom was home, though. Or the Stones, either.
DW: So many jazz artists that I’ve encountered of all ages are die hard Steely Dan fans, a lot of whom don’t particularly like rock music. How does it feel to have had such a huge impact on the music that has influenced your life so much?
DF: Actually, I know for a fact that some jazz people still hate us. And that’s okay. My jazz purist self still hates us. As I mentioned on the phone, I met Gary Giddins the other day and I said I really liked his work.. Gary said, “You know Robert Christgau’s a really big fan of yours!”
DW: What younger jazz artists have gotten your attention over the past decade?
DF: To tell you the truth, I’m pretty out of touch. I like Chris Potter. And the guys in our horn section.
DW: Do you feel any major innovations have been made in jazz in recent years?
DF: Search me. I’m pretty lost after about 1966 or so.
DW: I remember you commenting that the musicians you and Walter hire must know bebop changes. Has finding those kinds of players become an easier process over the years?
DF: Yes. Schooled jazz players can play just about any sort of music these days. Which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all great soloists. That’s as rare as ever.
DW: Are there certain jazz recordings that you must always have with you on the road?
DF: I have most of the records I listened to in high school on an itunes playlist.
DW: For jazz and most truly innovative music, it’s the packaging that’s added to the gestalt; art work, liner notes, photography, etc. With the digital age and downloading music, do feel this that this has been lost forever?
DW: Do you find that jazz lovers take the music too seriously and miss that sense of humor that people like Duke, Monk, Sonny Rollins, Mingus, Dizzy, and even Bird incorporated so naturally into the music?
DW: For many of the “purists”, “Smooth Jazz” is considered the nail in the coffin or something out of Revelations. How do you feel about the genre?
DF: I agree. Sirius Radio recently changed the name of their jazz station from “Pure Jazz”, which played great stuff, to “Real Jazz” which is a gagger.
DW: What’s your all time favorite Steely Dan cover by a jazz artist?
DF: I still like one of the first – “Do It Again” by Herbie Mann. Also, Joe Roccisano did some nice charts where he just used the tune as a jump off point. That’s the best way to go.
DW: Honestly, whose version of “The Goodbye Look” do you prefer, yours or Mel Torme’s?
DF: I’ve always been afraid to listen to vocal covers of my tunes. I’m scared of that “Sammy Davis Jr. sings the Bob Dylan Songbook” effect. Or, “Bob Denver reads “Howl’”. You know what I mean?
DW: I sure do. Thanks for taking the time to talk. It’s always fun to hear what you have to say.