By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Benny was a superb technician, but he had a limited vocabulary. He never understood that there were more than a major, a minor and a diminished -- he just couldn’t get with altered chords. We worked together for years in radio, and Benny was pretty dumb. His brother Freddy managed one of my last bands, and I once asked him what Benny was like as a kid. He said, ”Stupid.“ I said, ”How do you account for his success?“ He said, ”The clarinet was the only thing he knew,“ and it‘s true. He was sort of an idiot savant -- not quite idiot, but on the way. He didn’t quite make it to idiocy.
Les Robinson was a great alto man in my band, and I taught him to play alto. He played with Goodman briefly, and once, while he was playing, Goodman was giving him a look. Lester‘s kind of feisty, so he said, ”Why are you looking at me like that?“ Goodman said, ”You learned some bad habits from Artie Shaw,“ and Lester said, ”Yeah? He can cut your ass anytime he wants.“ Goodman fired Les that night. He was such a child -- he’d get mad when guys in his band got applause! Anybody who was any good in that band ran in-to trouble.
You met Billie Holiday in Harlem when she was 15 years old, and she joined your band in 1936. What‘s your most vivid memory of her?
One that comes to mind was the time we went on a tour of the South. [Shaw was the first white bandleader to tour the South with a black vocalist.] We were a traveling band by necessity, because you can’t stay in one place and make any money, so we were on our way south in a bus. She was very troubled, and I was, too. She said, ”Should I do this?“ I said, ”Yeah, I think it‘s important,“ and she said, ”I guess you’re right. Let‘s try it.“ We got there and played a couple nights, and it was fine, very successful. They liked her. One night, we were about to start the next number and some cracker on the dance floor yells, ”Let the nigger wench sing another tune.“ He actually didn’t mean it badly -- that was simply his way of designating a colored girl. Billie had a short temper, and I didn‘t blame her, so she started mouthing off at him. I’d made preparations in case something like this happened. I had my bus driver and a couple of cops in the wings. I told them, ”If anything happens, I‘ll give you the high sign. Hustle her into the bus and drive away.“ So they hustled her away, and that was the end of the Southern tour for her. Billie understood. I used to invite her to parties, and she’d say, ”No, I ain‘t coming. It’s gonna be all ofays, and when the water‘s too deep, I can’t swim.“ a
Has the racism that then pervaded America lessened?
As with all such things, it takes a long time. But things have improved to the point that blacks can now go into hotels. I remember going to the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco to hear Joe Williams. There was a line of people waiting to get in, but Joe knew I was coming, so he showed up in the lobby, pulled my coat and said, ”Colored folks‘ time.“ I said, ”Great.“ Just a few years earlier, he would have had to come in through the back door. I remember the last time I played Vegas, I told the black guys in my band, ”We’re going to Vegas, and you‘re gonna make a lot of money, but you won’t be allowed to sit in the room. What do you want to do?“ They said, ”Let‘s go,“ so we got a trailer for them to hang out in. Cab Calloway had that, too. He was headlining at a big hotel and had to go to a trailer between shows.
How do you explain the fact that you never fell prey to drugs, which were so pervasive in the jazz world then?
I never wanted to screw around with drugs, because I have enough trouble sober trying to figure out this puzzle called living. What is it? Who are we? Where are we going? Any thoughtful person realizes the answers to those questions are a complete mystery. I certainly don’t have answers, but I do believe there‘s something here that doesn’t meet my eye. We have no concept of what the force is that made this topsy-turvy, insane cosmos, but something did. You can‘t make me believe it came out of nowhere and is nothing but an inane joke. How do you explain Bach’s B-minor Mass, or the proportions of the Acropolis?
Do you believe in God?
I think we are to God, if there is such a thing, like a microscopic cell in the left toenail of Gary Kasparov in the middle of a chess match. That cell has as much awareness of what Kasparov‘s doing as we do of God’s activities. We like to presume we know about the universe, but we don‘t know what we’re talking about. We have finite minds, and we‘re dealing with something called infinity. The most one can hope for is to live a good life and try to leave things a little better than you found them.