When I first moved to Nashville, there was a guitarist I kept hearing people in the jazz scene talk about in the most glowing of terms: Andy Reiss. It was hard to find Andy playing in a ‘typical jazz setting’, although the first time I heard Andy was in an ensemble with George Tidwell at the Nashville Jazz Workshop. Lots of people were humming about the Western Swing band Andy played in every week at the Station Inn: The Time Jumpers. I didn’t realize then that Western Swing = jazz, so it took my stupid self some time before I got hip to the band, but boy am I glad that I did (their weekly spot is now at 3rd and Lindsley).
Last week Andy and I sat down at one of the tiniest spots on Nolensville Road for an authentic Mexican lunch (mole poblano in Nashville!) and a discussion about the Andy’s work in Nashville, jazz, and Western Swing. Andy is the featured guest at this coming Sunday’s NJW Jam Session.
EC: What were your first gigs in town?
AR: Well I was really lucky. Through a friend of a friend I hooked up with a record producer and steel guitar player named Pete Drake. Pete was a very, very influential player in the 60s and 70s. He played with a couple nobodies like Paul McCartney, George Harrison…he literally taught Peter Frampton how to use the talk box. So he was a heavy hitter and a really great guy. The best thing was that he was a really active producer at that point, and his “school” was come down and watch recording sessions. That gave me a great opportunity to see how it was really done by all the really great players. It was amazing.
EC: So having moved to Nashville in 1980, did you find that the word ‘jazz’ was something you wanted to avoid? Was it a bad word?
AR: Nashville was really fragmented back then. You were a club guy, or you were a studio guy, or you were a road guy. You were not any combination of that. Studio guys were studio guys, period, and they were the elite.
EC: Was the fragmentation because Nashville was a handshake kind of a city, and back then there wasn’t as much exposure of all the facets going on?
AR: Partly, and partly because there was a lot of work for studio musicians then. They were a larger group. I mean now there is probably a larger group than there was then, but there are very few people who can really make a good living only doing studio work. There are some guys who do it and make a really good living, but it’s tough. Stylistically there was fragmentation too. If you were a rock guy, you were a rock guy – you were not a studio guy – you were not a country guy. And jazz guys were jazz guys, period. I may have hurt myself because Mel Deal and I used to sit in Pete’s front office and play guitar duets all day long.
EC: Do you think you missed opportunities because people thought ‘Andy Reiss is a jazz guy’?
AR: There’s no way to really tell. There’s an attitude “this guy just strums a G chord…what the hell anybody can strum a G chord!” Then I realized it’s a very subtle art, the rhythm guitar. I’m ashamed that I had to learn that.
EC: Were you playing full-time in San Francisco when you moved to Nashville?
AR: When I was seventeen I graduated from high school and pretty much hit the road. I started with a rock band for six months and then got a gig, so I’ve always been a professional musician. I guess I’m proud of that even though it’s not always been great.
EC: Was it the connection to Pete Drake that made you decide to move here?
AR: I had already moved here at that point. I married a southern girl, and in San Francisco the only professional music really was rock’n roll. You could make a living playing in clubs: play country music, do a few jazz gigs and casuals… but that started kind of drying up in the late 70s and early 80s. And that was always a cliquish thing – there were maybe ten full-time country music club gigs in the area. They payed good for the time – 300 to 350 bucks per week, which in the late 70s was pretty nice.
EC: I think there are guys busting their butts down on Broadway for that kind of money now!
AR: Yeah I saw a thing online about some guy who wants a commitment, you’ve got to stick with the gig, for a gig that pays 400 to 600 per week. How the f$@k can you do that?
EC: Yeah I’ve seen some scary stuff posted in that new Facebook group for finding Nashville gigs.
AR: Yep. I mean how can you do that?
EC: Do you mean from the vantage point of paying somebody that and asking them to commit, or from the vantage point of actually taking that gig?
AR: Well that’s one thing, the arrogance and stupidity of the offer, but I mean from the side that there were guys trying to hit him up for the gig!
EC: It’s a pretty startling and frightening scene on that page.
AR: Yeah. But that’s a lot of people’s reality too. I was really lucky because I got to see what you want to do right from the beginning. See how the guys acted, how they learned songs. I got to meet the guys and hang out with them and that was certainly valuable.
EC: Do you see people today who move into town and get to have that experience?
AR: There’s no place like that now. I don’t know, maybe there is. There’s a kid who moved to town who’s sort of a protégé of Brent Mason – Brent still works all the time, he’s a fabulous musician – so he got to go around with Brent on his stuff and learn that way.
EC: So when you were meeting the main studio guys, would you tell them you were a jazz player?
AR: I kind of turned my back on jazz for quite a while there because I really wanted to be a part of the scene and be successful.
EC: Is that something you felt the need to do, or did happen naturally because you were working in different areas?
AR: It happened naturally. I had done a pretty good amount of jazz in the Bay Area. I had a really good teacher there, a guy named Dave Smith who was a Joe Pass disciple – student, I should say. And I got together with guys regularly and just played, which has always been the best thing you can do in my opinion. I still do it. There was probably ten years where I didn’t do any jazz here. But then I started getting together with a couple friends just about every week and realized how much I loved it. We had what I always think is so important – what you’re doing with the Jazz Workshop jam session – a place where you can f#@k up and nobody will be mad at you! A place where you can learn how to approach tunes.
EC: Sometimes it does seem that in Music City, because so many people work in studios, they don’t take chances when they play jazz like you might be used to in other cities. Many of our players’ approach to jazz seems really down the middle.
AR: It does. If you have an eight-bar solo – if you’re lucky – it’s got to be perfect the first time.
EC: In 1980, was anybody in Nashville able to work full-time as a jazz player?
AR: Well J.C.’s was happening. Guys like Denis [Solee] and George [Tidwell], Bob Mater was doing it. There was a scene, although it was nothing like it is now. For a long time there really weren’t any upright bass players. The country had mostly made a transition to electric bass at that point, so you had Rob Moore and Jim Ferguson, but that was about it. At that point Jim was playing jazz, but he was working as a background vocalist a lot.
EC: Were there any seminal moments between then and now that you can point to as changing the dynamics of the jazz scene in Nashville?
AR: When Lori [Mechem] and Roger [Spencer] started doing what they’re doing that was huge. I think just having more musicians move to town. When Chris Brown moved to town, all of a sudden Bob wasn’t the only game in town. We started getting more jazz bass players. Gradually more and more people started saying “there is a jazz scene in Nashville – I can do this here.” And now guys like you come to town and it’s great.
EC: So the other week a musician friend of mine whom I’ve worked with asked me “do you want to play any gigs besides just jazz?” Besides the antiquated notion that ‘jazz’ is “just” playing in quintets that sound like the late 1940s and 50s – I hear jazz in the majority of styles of today’s music –
EC: and in 2013 there are maybe five people in Nashville who can afford to play “only” ‘jazz’ gigs and not play other genres. I thought it was a crazy question – of course I want “other” gigs – I want to work and make money! I enjoy playing in different genres too. I find it so interesting that the word ‘jazz’ has these negative connotations that don’t serve the music that we love, either in its proliferation or our ability to grow a career.
AR: It’s kind of like you’re part of this arcane knowledge. Like “ooh you speak conversational Latin.” What do you do with that exactly?
EC: So what’s the secret to making people understand that a pursuit in jazz doesn’t equate to a disinterest in other genres?
AR: Quite simply you do gigs in those other genres and you go out there and kill as an R&B saxophone player so people hear it and go “yeah!”. Denis always played plenty of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. If I had to point out one musician that I’ve learned the most from, it would be Denis.
EC: Anything specifically you can share?
AR: Musicality. I used to do these society gigs with him and Roger [Spencer], just the worst gigs you could imagine. We’d be standing in front of the Belle Meade Country Club playing Dixieland tunes with some guy beating us up about how we’re not doing it right. So Denis would find one song a night and make it intensely musical. That really inspired me. He wasn’t doing it for the gig, certainly – the gig was easier and better if we slept-walked through it. He wasn’t doing it for me or for Roger, he was doing it for Denis. I thought that was amazing.
EC: When you first came to town, would you say yes to any gig that came your way?
AR: I still kind of do, although I made a decision about fifteen years ago to not play music that I hated and only play music that really meant something to me. And that meant not making certain amounts of money, definitely. But it’s been good. That’s what got me into the Time Jumpers, and that’s a really good fit for me musically.
EC: Can you tell me about how you initially connected with the Time Jumpers?
AR: Hoot Hester, who’s the staff fiddle player at the Grand Ole Opry, got together to play with a couple of friends at his house. Around the next week or so I did a road trip that he was on and the steel player was on. I knew they had got together and played Western Swing just for fun, so I was like “how could you even think about doing that without calling me!” So I kind of buffaloed my way onto it, and now I’m the longest running member of the band. It was just something for fun. I always liked the music, because it’s as simple or complicated as you want it to be. It’s the perfect vehicle for superimposing chord changes over simple structures, which I love to do.
EC: Between you and Paul Franklin, I never know what to expect when I go hear the Time Jumpers. It’s a simple blues but then suddenly it has the depth of a Bird Blues.
AR: My musical relationship with Paul is probably the best that I’ve had in my life. He’s a genius on his instrument. He totally transcends the instrument. And we communicate stupid good.
EC: How would you describe the difference between jazz and the country western swing that the Time Jumpers play?
AR: Well it’s 1948 jazz, for one thing. Paul will get a lot more modern than I will, harmonically speaking or phrasing-wise. But western swing is swing music. It harkens back to the tradition of Texas fiddle music, which generally was one fiddle & one guitar or two fiddles & one guitar. The guitar players developed this really unique style of superimposing other chord progressions on top of them. So it started out being simple songs, two chord or three chord songs, but these guys would do things like on a I chord start on the minor iii, go flat-iii diminished, minor ii and V chords, things like that.
EC: What’s the time frame that this is happening? Is it concurrent with bebop?
AR: Earlier – the early 40s. A lot of those guys were really sophisticated jazz musicians, and there were a lot of jazz musicians who would walk the line and play western swing, regular jazz gigs, and just kind of go back and forth. The most famous band in the genre was Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. At one point he had something like a six-piece horn section. People always wanted that gig because he paid more than The Dorsey Brothers or Artie Shaw. They were really popular.
So good musicians are always curious about everything – you can imagine you’re in Texas trying to play saxophone and all of a sudden you hear Coleman Hawkins, you’re going to want to go there. Same with guitar players – the impact of Charlie Christian on guitar players was unbelievable. He was the young genius who played with the Benny Goodman Sextet in 1939 and really defined electric guitar as a solo instrument, changing the guitar from just a rhythm instrument. The vocabulary he developed all by himself is still heard in guitar players today, everywhere.
EC: Looking at the history of Texas swing music, did they steer away from the word ‘jazz’ even though there’s not so much of a discernable difference? Perhaps Western Swing isn’t borne out of New Orleans?
AR: But it is. Texas is very close to New Orleans. There’s a story of Bob Wills riding a mule a hundred and fifty miles just to hear Bessie Smith sing in Memphis. So there’s definitely a major cross-fertilization of musical styles. And I don’t think people were as rigid then either. Now everything has to be “is it metal, or is it speed metal, or is it death speed metal?” There’s all these really intense subdivisions in a lot of forms of music.
EC: Does that come from the recording academy?
AR: Not from the recording academy, I think it comes from radio. And people like to categorize so that you don’t have to really think about something. “What’s it sound like? Oh it sounds like this.” It makes it safer and people like safe.
EC: So amongst the Time Jumpers, do any of you call your music jazz?
AR: Nah, we don’t call it anything, we’re not into labeling.