Tom Dowd On Mingus And More
(In December 1997, I interviewed legendary engineer/producer Tom Dowd in regard to his work on Charles Mingus’s classic 1956 jazz album Pithecanthropus Erectus, then about to be reissued by Atlantic Records. Some fascinating first-hand accounting here–which, as you’ll read, was something he valued highly. Dowd died of emphysema in 2002. Check out Mark Moormann’s documentary on the man, 2003’s Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music if you have the opportunity. –dd)
What are one or two most memorable aspects about working with Mingus for you?
I think about the intensity that he had–and his deportment, when we were in the studio, when we were recording. That’s the first thing that strikes me. The second thing–and I do this in some lectures that I talk about–is that two of the times where I recorded him, the circumstances were so unusual, because earlier in the same day, on one of the occasions, I was doing the Coasters–and I don’t know if I was doing “Yakety Yak” or “Charlie Brown”–and then like 10 hours later I’m doing “Haitian Fight Song” (laughs), thinking, “What am I doing here?” The culture shock was ridiculous. And yet he was very serious. Any time that he was recorded, he was very, very serious–about the endeavor and the preparation.
Did he seem to know exactly what he wanted?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, when he came in [the musicians] were supposed to be fine-tuned–and if they weren’t fine-tuned, they’d watch him, and he’d give them verbatim instruction. He wandered around carrying the bass as he was playing it. Encouraging people, nodding to them or shaking them off or something.
Were these recordings that required a lot of retakes?
There were sections that were drilled in–and when the solos started, you were into another…He’d actually change personality from one portion of a composition to another, so that the ferocity of what he wanted in the composed, prepared sections was predetermined, as opposed to when they were playing solos–they’re going fine, you’re going in the right direction–you know what I’m saying?–but when it comes back around to getting in line or something, it would be hard. No, I don’t remember too many occasions where we went past two, maybe three takes at most.
Did he often seem to know the best as soon as it went down? How was that compared to other people you worked with?
I’ll be honest. It’s one of those things–I have always said I will never fight or argue taste. Something might have gone down and [producer] Nesuhi [Ertegun] or I would sit there and kind of look at each other, or Nesuhi might say. “Oh I think we can do it better than that.” Charles would either say, “Oh, OK,” run off and say, “Let’s go,” and we’d fly–or he’d say, “Let me hear, what’s wrong?” He’d come running in to hear what it was we were protesting. But for the most part, unless it was something really off the wall, he didn’t challenge our saying, “Can we try one more?” And if I said, “Hey, I blew it” or something–if we could not coerce him to try one more, than it would be my turn to be the bad guy, say, “Hey, I messed that up,” and that would be an excuse to get another performance.
How was your relationship with Nesuhi during the making of these sessions?
In those days, the format was that Nesuhi would sign an artist to the label, and go about the preparation of recording. In some instances, he would ask that I meet with the artist or go to a concert or something to become more familiar with what it was they were going to do. And then when it was time to record, he’d say, “OK, we’re going to record so and so next Thursday in the afternoon” or something, and I’d be prepared for it then. Sometimes Nesuhi would be punctual, and other times he might show up anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or two hours late–but know that were hell-bent going in the direction were supposed to go. Because there had been that much preparation, and there was that much accord among us–saying you do this, you do that and so forth.
As an engineer, how did you deal with the various “whoops” that theoretically were off-mic but really weren’t?
Well, you didn’t have too much choice. When I described Mingus walking around the room, the method that I employed to record him was to tie or tape a microphone to the tailpiece of his bass and have a cord on it. I had him fenced off from the obviously bad leakage problems that I would encounter, but he was free to walk around. And if he’d been playing and couldn’t catch somebody’s eye, or something was going that was adverse to what he expected, he would promptly just pick up the bass an start walking as he’s playing for where it was he wanted to get (laughs). Or if he couldn’t get there, he’d just plain yell.
In terms of his personality, how did he interact with the members of the group he assembled?
For the most part, the people that worked with him had a respect for what it was he was trying to do, and they would never argue with him about anything that he wrote. They might argue with him like, “I thought you meant this,” playing something, they’d get into–and now they’d get into taste, which as I say is endless. But most of the band members had a great deal of respect, and through rehearsals and seeing his temperament knew what to expect, so they were prepared for whatever
went down. There were no surprises. And I imagine that during rehearsals, he was just as headstrong and positive about what he wanted as he was during recording.
You’ve worked with literally the best musicians in the world for lengthy periods of time. Is there anyone from the many Mingus bands that struck you as particularly noteworthy, that stood out as being incredible–or even problematic, for that matter?
(pause) I couldn’t…in all sincerity, no. Let’s put it this way: If he was a film director, he’d cast his damn pictures well. That’s about the best way I could surmise. When he hired you to do the role, you’d better damn well do the role, or I’ll kill you!
In terms of the studios used–was there just one, or were there many?
Now here’s the strange thing. There is a reissue of Pithecanthropus Erectus and they have the wrong studio notated. And I can understand why. I was up in Atlantic back in April, May or June, and protested this and so forth, and they showed me the master book. And I realized that somebody translating some information, they did the natural intuitive thing, saying, oh if it was his name, then it has to be there and there and there. Pithecanthropus Erectus was done in the Atlantic studio, 234 W. 56th street. My assistant on that series of dates was a young man named Carl Lustig, whose brother Hall owned a studio called Audio-Video on 711 Fifth Avenue. And Hall and I had know each other for years, and Hall called me up one day and said, “Hey, my kid brother wants to get in the business and I figure you’re one of the guys he should learn from, can you take him on?” So I hired the young man and he worked with me for about two years before he then went to work for his brother. It was during that time that we did Pithecanthropus Erectus And when they see “Lustig,” they say, “Oh, it had to be at Audio-Video.” In a pig’s ear! I can understand the mistake, but when they transcribed some of the books and copied information from smaller books into bigger books and so forth, some people just didn’t put two and two together. And then when they had the fire that destroyed all the tapes, they had no record of anything on the boxes to designate where anything came from. So, boo-hoo. As I say, that album in particular was done in the Atlantic Studio that was an office and so forth. Depending on the instrumentation, what rooms we had to go to, because the Atlantic studio was limited at that time as to how many people that we could take.
How did your technique of recording stereo evolve during that five-year stretch?
Let’s put it this way. Starting in 1952, I made it a point to try to record any Atlantic jazz dates in two-track format. Nesuhi Ertegun became an advocate of that. I was introduced to it by a man named Emery Cook when we did an early Dixieland jazz album, and I because addicted. And the powers that be were not enthusiasts about two-track recording when it came to Joe Turner or LaVern Baker or Ruth Brown, but when I was doing other things, they didn’t really fancy which way I did it, as long as I got the doggone thing done. And so whenever possible, I’d record two-track. Now when Nesuhi came East, and he saw some of the things that we were doing, and the fact that I was recording on two-track, he insisted that all jazz dates be done in two-track. And by 1958, I had installed the first eight-track machine for Atlantic Records, so that everything we were recording was multi-track for the purpose of being able to remix. And that ensured in later years everything we ever did, being able to come out in stereo before stereo was invented. It’s backwards and silly, no one would every think of it that way, but that’s what did happen.
Did that horrible fire you brought up destroy all the multi-tracks but leave the stereo masters?
When that fire took place, every multi-track tape in Atlantic history and some of the early monos all vanished. (exhales) Everything prior to 1971 or 72. It went up in smoke. It’s a long story. I fought tooth and nail for like two or three years, and fought a losing battle. And when I came back from a recording trip, I went asking for some things that I could integrate some earlier things that I had recorded–and that’s how I found out they had a fire. And I cried. That was pitiful. And I was angry, what can I say?
Your estimate in terms of what might’ve vanished in that fire? A lot? A little?
Oh, a lot. A lot.
When you hear Mingus’s Atlantic stuff, does anything seem essentially different than his recordings for other labels?
Mingus was–musically, he was a cut above the rest in the sense of daring. And spirit-wise, and humanity-wise, he was light years ahead of what the society that existed was practicing. And not too many people took kindly to things he stood for or said or did. That didn’t make them right or wrong–he was there before they thought about it, and he was living in that tradition before it was the accepted norm. And whether it was in music or in presentation or in the political or social or racial standing, he was just light years ahead of everybody else. And too many times people took offense at the…if you were equating his music, you didn’t criticize him politically, but that was not the case, if you know what I mean. And if you took exception to this matter–he was always being cross-indexed instead of being taken at face. He would be, if he said something that was racially insensitive–not insensitive but ahead of the times–then his music was no good. Or if you said, “this music, who could understand it?” people would say, “That’s because he’s black.” I mean, he was never taken one-on-one.
Do you think that in all the accounts that have been written about Mingus, people have been missing some essential element about him that guys like you–who worked with him–know very well? Do you know wh
at I mean?
I understand exactly what you’re saying. Its an interesting observation and question, because I fight tooth and nail this day when there are a lot of people who are learned, who are enthusiasts, who have taken hours in libraries and listening to records and all–and decided how this happened or why this happened, etc. In a way, I have an empathy for them, but I object to the fact that they do not interrogate a Rudy Van Gelder, an Al Schmitt, a yours truly, an Orrin Keepnews, a Bill Traut, and find out what the hell went down. They are database, computer-fed people who do not, or have not lived the times or the circumstances, and that I resent. Strangely enough–and this is something that young people don’t grasp quickly–there’s a writer for the Washington Post by the name of Nat Hentoff–Nat was an ardent jazz enthusiast, and would sit in sessions and take notes and live and die jazz before he became a political writer. Nobody asks Nat Hentoff what he thought of this and that–and he lived it, he was there. He was going to the Chockful o’ Nuts and Horn & Hardarts with everyone else, you understand what I’m saying? And nobody–“Nat Hentoff, he’s a political writer, what the hell does he know?” What does he know? He was there, you jackass! You know what I’m saying? If you read your god-blessed [biography] and it says, he did this and he did that–yeah, ask Nat Hentoff, and he’ll tell you the day and whether it was raining or whether the sun was shining. That’s the man you want to ask. It’s funny, because I’m working on a book and I’ve had a number of people say, “Oh, you ought to get so and so to edit this” and so on. And I say, “When, where?” “Oh, well, he graduated from Yale in 1979” and this and that, and I think, he was teething on the goddamn 45s that we were making. And all due respect to–I don’t care what school he went to, he probably knows more about some things than I do, sincerely, and I would not challenge him, but I don’t want him casting opinion on something that I am doing from recall as opposed to something he read on the back of an album and then somebody made a comment in John Wilson’s column…forget that! I don’t resent any of it. But I do enjoy lecturing and talking about it.
Hey, an aside that will just wrap everything and put it in a nutshell: Last year, Ahmet Ertegun and I were invited to a surprise birthday party for a young man in Orlando. Florida. It was his 95th birthday. OK? Ahmet and I went back with this man 40 some-odd years, almost 50 years. His name is Jesse Stone. His other name was Charles Calhoun. If you look at big band arrangements and songs, he wrote the song called “Idaho,” which was a big band favorite back in the ’30s. If you get back into the late ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, “Money Honey,” “Honey Love,” “Mama Don’t Allow No Rock ‘N’ Roll Music ‘Round Here,” and a little thing called “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” OK? So the man has lived and died music longer than most people ever live! And when Ahmet and I both made silly jokes about him, this and that, everybody’s delighted, and Jesse got up, and he walks without assistance, he reads without glasses, he’s incredible, and Jesse Stone said, “It’s so nice to see all of you here. And I’ve got to tell you. They’re talking about old records and old times. I remember when the man came knocking on the door to my house, he came in and turned off the gas and put in the electricity.” And I thought, “He could write a book.” You understand what I’m saying? He remembered the guy coming in, turning off the gas and putting in the electricity. And that, to me, that’s a credential. If I didn’t know the man and he remembered that, I’d have to say–boy, this guy’s lived, he’s seen change. I mean, I’ve seen flight across the Atlantic, I worked on the atomic bomb, I’ve done all these kind of weird things, I’ve seen radio broadcasts, television broadcasts, crazy kind of things–but this guy remembers going from gas to electricity.
That Fred Goodman book, The Mansion On The Hill–a great book, I love the way its written and I have a great deal of respect for what he said. As compared to things like Hitmen, which are personal things and so forth. I like Stiffed and I like the Mansion On The Hill out of all those books.
Its funny. I was out at NARAS meeting last Wednesday and Thursday in California, it was the Blue Ribbon committee. Al Schmitt and I go back 45-50 years–we’ve known each other for a long time. I looked at the board and I just sat there. There was Orrin Keepnews–I went to college with Orrin in 1945 at Columbia. Hadn’t seen him in 30, 35 years. There was Bill Traut–I did folk dates back in the ’40s, ’50s, I hadn’t seen Bill Traut in 40 or 50 years, and I just looked around at this table and I thought, “Wow, this is a heavy committee. There’s no flakes on this one, I’ll tell you.” But at the same time, I was kidding with [then NARAS head] Michael [Greene] later on. I said, “Hey Michael, this is among the last years you’re going to get this depth of knowledge in one room at one time.” Because we’re expiring little by little, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But there are going to be people who are going to second-guess things we’re saying and they don’t know why we’re saying them. Because we lived it. And none of us would defy the other one–we’d just look at other and say, “You mean…”—and it comes out clean right away.