In the fall of 2000, ASCAP honored Chip Stern, bestowing their prestigious Deems Taylor Award for excellence in feature writing (a JazzTimes cover story on the gifted Cuban-American clarinetist and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera).
Born in New York City on February 8, 1952, Chip’s parents grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, while their parents, in turn, came over to America, between 1900-1910, from the Rubishov region of Poland, Minsk in Belarus and Kiev in the Ukraine.
His father was an engineer and a graphic artist, his mother a nurse, and about the time his younger brother Richard was born, the family moved to Plainview, Long Island, where Chip was captivated by his parents’ extensive collection of classical music. “I didn’t realize how isolated and congenitally Caucasian ‘50s suburbia was until I began spending my summers at a sleep-away camp in the Bear Mountains, and got to hang out with kids from a wider variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, during which time I was initiated into the wonders of R&B and Soul music—which really got my juices going.
“I was lucky to have grown up in a house with a decent audio system. My dad put up these thick planks of knotty cedar on the living room walls, which conferred a vivid acoustic character to the listening experience—it really made recorded music come alive.
“So I found myself getting lost inside of music, and as a little kid, while I heard a lot of ‘50s Broadway musicals, what really got me going were long playing records of Bach’s piano music, and reel-to-reel tapes of the complete Beethoven and Brahms Symphonies as conducted by Joseph Krips and Bruno Walter.
“Then around the time I was five years old, I got to hear conductor Fritz Reiner’s historic rendition of Béla Bartók’s Concerto For Orchestra on RCA Red Seal, a great sounding record, which was just awash in exotic colors and rhythms, dissonance and mystery. I would make my mother play it for me over and over, pretending to conduct. As spooky and abstract as the music was, I got into the habit of imagining all of these other parts in my mind’s ear, other layers of counterpoint…very rhythmic, always rhythmic.”
After an abortive attempt at trombone, Chip began taking guitar lessons around the time he entered junior high school—to no particular effect. “I experienced a succession of Italian guitar teachers at this music school in Hicksville, who were notable for their bad complexions and fancy D’Angelico arch tops. They walked me through some of the Mel Bay guitar methods and I suppose I picked up a thing or two, but it’s not like I was hearing anything which particularly inspired me; maybe if I’d heard someone like Wes Montgomery or Eric Clapton I might have been inspired to plunk away more diligently on my thirty-five dollar Danelectro—a guitar made of Masonite and Formica, believe it or not—and I kind of lost interest.”
With the exception of Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, and Dinah Washington Sings Fats Waller, there was nothing to incline Chip towards developing a progressive-music/modern jazz consciousness. However, over time, he was exposed to the likes of Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, the Temptations and Aretha Franklin; and one summer evening, at an inter-camp dance, he heard the single “[I Wanna] Testify” by Parliament (decades before he would pen an influential cover story on Parliament/Funkadelic honcho, George Clinton). He also developed a taste for folk music, graduating over time from Peter, Paul and Mary to the music of Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and The Byrds.One summer, following his freshman year at college, Chip was captivated by the heady electric blues and jazz-rock improvisations of Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, as well as the edgy explorations of Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band and Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention (on their recordings Trout Mask Replica and Freak Out). “Finally one night, as a sophomore, some brothers I was partying with, grew so weary of my inevitable requests for Cream, that this cat put on a copy of John Coltrane’s Ascension.
(The implicit message being, ‘Can you get to this, white boy?’)
Well, having cut my teeth on Bartok, not only didn’t it scare me, but I found it really exciting.”
About this time, in a conclusive epiphany, while working as a DJ at WJRH (on the campus of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania), one of his fellow DJs tossed on a copy of Bird & Diz.
“It was like getting hit by lightning. As Charlie Parker came swooping out of the sky on “Bloomdido,” I was reminded of those parallel melodies I’d imagined while listening to Bartok as a kid. There was an immediate connection, and I was inspired to learn everything I could about the people on that record—including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Buddy Rich—and straightaway I was inspired to delve much deeper into the entire jazz heritage.”
In short order Chip discovered one historic performance after another: Bird, Dizzy, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Charles Mingus on Jazz At Massey Hall; Mingus Presents Mingus (with Eric Dolphy, Ted Curson and Dannie Richmond); Sonny Rollins’ East Broadway Rundown and Saxophone Colossus; Miles Davis’ Miles Smiles and Bitches Brew; John Coltrane’s Crescent and A Love Supreme; The Tony Williams Lifetime’s Emergency and Turn It Over; Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity and New York Eye And Ear Control; drummer Milford Graves’ recordings for the ESP label with The New York Art Quartet and collaborations with artists as diverse as Albert Ayler and Sonny Sharrock; Ornette Coleman’s The Art of The Improviser and Free Jazz; Don Cherry’s Complete Communion; The Best Of Count Basie on Decca; Duke Ellington’s In A Mellotone and Money Jungle; the Classic Tenors collection featuring Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins; Max Roach’s work with Clifford Brown and his latter work with Booker Little on The Many Sides Of Max…
Charlie Christian uptown at Minton’s. Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli on ‘Exactly Like You.’
And Louis Armstrong with and Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines on ‘Weatherbird’ and ‘West End Blues’ from The Louis Armstrong Story, Volume 3. I was hooked.”
And so it came to pass that vague aspirations of a legal career were supplanted by a fascination with the art of improvisation and all manner of progressive modern music, particularly American jazz and blues. Chip began to commute back to Long Island from Easton once a week to study guitar with Chuck Keuvning, a student of Johnny Smith, who had worked with Mundell Lowe and recorded with songwriter Roger Miller on his trailer-park anthems “Dang Me” and “King Of The Road.” Then a series of developments tipped Chip’s hand. Keuvning decided to leave the music biz and transplant his family to rural New England where he’d purchased a piece of property with a sawmill. Chuck offered to sell Chip his Gibson Johnny Smith signature arch top guitar for weekly installments of $50.
“I’d just heard Andres Segovia in concert at CW Post on Long Island with my mother, and it was so inspiring. Then later that same month, after being energized experiencing by a transcendent performance by John McLaughlin and The Mahavishnu Orchestra at Muhlenberg College, I left school in order get a job—so that I could buy that guitar.”
Chip continued to explore the guitar and bass guitar in earnest, even as he met wife-to-be, Mary (a piano teacher) in upstate New York. Shortly thereafter they had a daughter, Jennifer Jill, in the summer of 1974. During this time Chip finally got himself a set of drums, while completing his collegiate studies at the SUNY Oswego, working for a while at Public Radio station WRVO.It was while living in Oswego that Chip took his first tentative steps as a music scribe, when fellow drummer/SUNY-Oswego alumnus Tom McGrath commented on some pieces Chip had penned for the college paper–volunteering an enthusiastic, if gently back-handed, compliment.
“This is great stuff, Chip. The way you depict your images and ideas is so colorful. And your descriptions are so vivid, I get a really clear picture of how things actually sound. You make the music come alive. Maybe you should consider pursuing the writing aspect of music—because you write a lot better than you play.”
This led Stern to begin freelancing as a music journalist—more or less informed from the perspective of an aspiring musician—and having brought his family back to New York City, after several false starts, he finally passed muster, when in the fall of 1977 Chip began contributing essays to editor Robert Christgau’s influential music section in New York’s Village Voice, beginning with pieces about Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin’s Shakti and Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions.
During the next thirty-five years Chip worked in and out of the music business while fulfilling freelance and editorial functions for many of the leading music venues such as Musician, DownBeat, Rolling Stone, The Record, Modern Drummer, Guitar Player, Guitar World, Playboy, Playbill, Penthouse, The Village Voice, The Soho Weekly News, The Boston Phoenix, Cashbox, Billboard, Spin, Launch, MUZE, Us, JazzTimes, The Global Music Network, Amazon.com, Stereophile, Positive Feedback On-Line and many others.
Over the course of this journey, Chip developed an international following through a series of features, interviews, liner notes, bios and reviews on the likes of George Clinton & Parliament/Funkadelic, Joni Mitchell, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, Max Roach, Papa Jo Jones, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra,
Sam Rivers, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, James “Blood” Ulmer, Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society, Melvin Gibbs, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Hamiet Bluiett, Oliver Lake, David Murray, James Newton, Lester Bowie, Arthur Blythe, Henry Threadgill, Steve McCall, Fred Hopkins, Tal Farlow, James Carter, Patricia Barber, Odean Pope,
Jimmy D’Aquisto, Ned Steinberger, Randall Smith, Joe “Papo” Daddiego, Robert Moog, Erik Paiste, Robert Zildjian, John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, L. Shankar, Vassar Clements, Leroy Jenkins, Regina Carter, Jean-Luc Ponty, Bernard Edwards & Nile Rodgers of Chic, Tony Thompson, David Sanborn, Olu Dara, Mark Knopfler & Dire Straits, Daryl Hall, Peter Gabriel, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, David Byrne & The Talking Heads, Stewart Copeland, Andy Summers, Sting & The Police, Tom Verlaine & Television, Roger Troutman & Zapp,
Julius Hemphill & The World Saxophone Quartet, Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, George Benson, Stanley Jordan, T-Bone Burnett, Don “Captain Beefheart” Van Vliet, Frank Zappa, John Entwistle, Mick Fleetwood, Fran Christina,Pete [LaRoca] Sims, Elvin Jones, Thelonious Monk, Illinois Jacquet, Branford Marsalis, Dave Brubeck, M’Boom Re: Percussion, The Crusaders, Joe Sample, Nesbert “Stix” Hooper, George Cables, John Hicks, Gary Burton, Cindy Blackman, Joe Chambers, Joe Gallivan, Charles Austin, Jeremy Steig, Eddie Gomez, David Sanchez, Lew Soloff, Don Grolnick, Booker T. Jones, Little Jimmy Scott, Jeff Beck, Pat Martino, Ron Carter, Marc Johnson, Steve Swallow, Stanley Clarke, Charlie Haden, Ginger Baker, Jim Keltner, Michael Carvin, Neil Peart, Charlie Watts, Allan Holdsworth, Dolette McDonald, Julie “Earth Girls Are Easy” Brown, Three Mo’ Tenors, Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras, Joi [Gilliam], Barbara Sfraga, Renee Fleming, Ursula Oppens, Elliot Carter, Muhal Richard Abrams,
Jimi Hendrix, Tito Puente, Art Taylor, Jimmy Cobb, Don Byron, Clifton Anderson, Joey Barron, Roy Haynes, Phillip Wilson, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Jerome Harris, Gerald Veasley, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Vernon Reid, Hiram Bullock, Manfred Eicher and ECM Records, Peter Bernstein, Billy Taylor, Richard Wyands, Bob Cranshaw,
Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Dinah Washington, Big Nick Nicholas, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, Dexter Gordon, Richard Davis, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Polygraph Lounge, Rob Schwimmer, Mark Stewart, Jon Iverson, Ron Affif, Michael Hoenig, King Sunny Ade,
Keith Jarrett, Weather Report, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Ahmad Jamal, John Lewis, Hank Jones, Frank Kimbrough, Andrés Segovia, Michael Lorimer, Robert Quine, Béla Fleck, Victor Wooten, Roy “FutureMan” Wooten, Bill Charlap, John [Johnny Rotten] Lydon, Kate Bush, Wynton Marsalis, Ron Miles, Doc Cheatham, Nicholas Payton, Clark Terry, Terence Blanchard, Eddie Henderson, George Mraz, Eric Alexander, John Pisano, Billy Higgins, Louie Bellson, Allan Schwartzberg, Barry Altschul, Walter Davis Jr., Herbie Nichols,Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Bobby Moses, Lyle Mays, Jeff Berlin, Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano, The Nicholas Brothers, Art Taylor, Mike Clark, Tony Williams, Clyde “Funky Drummer” Stubblefield, David “Panama” Francis, Richard “Pistol” Allen, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Paul Motian, Howard Roberts, John Scofield, Mike Stern, Larry Coryell, Joe Beck, Anthony Braxton, Paul Wertico, Django Reinhart, Ry Cooder, Fred Frith, Egberto Gismonti, Manuel Galban, Jay Hoggard, Jim Hall, Dave Holland, John Abercrombie, Jack Wilkins, John Williams, Oregon and Ralph Towner. In 1994 Stern got to give something back to the music, in a collaboration with one of his earliest rhythmic inspirations, when he produced drummer Ginger Baker’s first jazz recording, the best-selling Going Back Home for Atlantic, enlisting Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell as collaborators, thus encouraging Baker to pursue the type of adventurous interplay and improvised music that originally inspired him to become a jazz drummer in the first place. He subsequently brought Ginger into collaboration with Max Roach and Tony Williams, when he helped Max to organize their Percussion Summit with the M’Boom Re: Percussion Ensemble at a jazz festival in Verona, Italy.
But then Chip Stern has long championed an inclusionary point of view about jazz as part of the greater fabric of the American musical experience—while writing provocatively about progressive popular forms, blues, roots rock and R&B, pop/folk music from the third world as well as music from the European concert tradition. “Jazz has always been a music of inclusion. Least ways, that’s how I’ve experienced it, and that is a big part of what animates my journey.
“I’ve really been very blessed. I’ve spent time around some of the greatest musicians who ever lived; been privileged to share their trust and friendship—even to play with a few. And every now and then, just when you think nobody notices, I’ll meet up with someone who lets me know just how important something I wrote was to their appreciation of the experience. And while the collapse of print media has been a drag for me as a professional writer, thanks to the outreach of the Internet, I’ve gotten a new lease on life and a fresh opportunity to communicate with friends and musicians from all over the globe—not only about music, but musical instruments, audio gear and a variety of issues that concern me, and experiences I’ve had.
“In reckoning the distance between where I came from and how I arrived at this point in time, this bio isn’t so much a reprise of where I’ve been, as a template for where I’d like to go–as we explore new sounds, network with new friends, and discover a new set of possibilities. I’m not satisfied that I’ve even begun to scratch the surface of all I’d like to share creatively, but I reckon I still have a few at bats coming up, and feel as though my best swings are still ahead of me. What else are our lives but works in progress?
Those reports trumpeting the death of real music and the written word have been greatly exaggerated. And if we have anything to say about it, this blog will be a way-station for fresh ideas, as people who believe in the power of music and who enjoy good writing have a place to share their enthusiasm and join in the conversation with like-minded spirits.”
Join the conversation.
Commune with you soon…