Bill Milkowski is a respected veteran music journalist who is currently contributing to Down Beat, Jazziz and The Absolute Sound magazines. His writing has also appeared in Jazz Times, Guitar Player, Bass Player, Modern Drummer, Acoustic Guitar, Mojo, Swing Journal, DRUM! and Interview as well as magazines abroad such as Jazzthing (Germany), Vibrations (Switzerland), Guitar Club (Italy), Guitar (Japan) and Hudba (Slovakia).
What started you on this path? Was it writing, playing, the need for a job?
«My interests in writing and playing kind of developed along parallel lines. I picked up guitar at age 12. By junior high I was jamming a lot with my neighbor Rick Weinman, who also played guitar and sang. We were stone blues fanatics who emulated the likes of The Three Kings (B.B., Albert, Freddie) while also digging Johnny Winter, James Brown and the more psychedelic sound of Jimi Hendrix.
At the same time, I began writing a sports column for my junior high newspaper, The Samuel Morse Gazette. In college, as I continued to play guitar in blues and rock jams and occasional gigs. I began studying journalism in 1972 and by 1973 was writing concert and record reviews for the campus newspaper, The UWM Post. Around that time, I got more interested in jazz through straight ahead guitarists like Joe Pass, Herb Ellis and Barney Kessel and fusion groups like Weather Report; Return To Forever. I wrote my first paid piece for the alternative weekly, The Bugle American in 1975 and in 1976 I got a summer internship with the local daily newspaper, The Milwaukee Journal, but I was also honing my Hendrixian wah-wah-infused chops in jamming situations with friends. at the same time, I jammed regularly in a free jazz style with a flutist who was a member of the Divine Light Mission and a vibes player, who had an underground business making hash pipes So I was playing a wide musical swath, stylistically.
I began covering concerts at The Milwaukee Journal (everything from Kiss to Barney Kessel to Dolly Parton) in August of 1976 and continued to do so, as a freelancer, after that summer internship ended. Upon graduating from UWM in 1977, I started up a biweekly newspaper called Cityside with two partners. I was the arts editor and as such covered mostly jazz and initiated a Blindfold Test with local musicians called Crosstalk, where I played records to two musicians at a time and got their candid comments about what they were hearing.
Cityside published three years, at which point I moved to New York City (September,1980) to take a position as managing editor at a Long Island-based weekly called Good Times. That job lasted two years, at which point I became a freelance writer working at home and writing for a myriad of magazines including Down Beat, Guitar World, Modern Drummer and a whole slew of music publications in Japan, Germany and Italy. All this time, I continued playing in casual situations, mostly jams but occasionally gigs Simultaneously, my jamming situations became more adventurous and the music I was taking in around town (renegades like John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Fred Frith) expanded my own musical vision. Consequently, my musical palette expanded greatly. So the writing and the music have gone hand-in-hand since the 70s and continue to do so to this day.»
When were your first interviews? And with whom?
«My first paid interview was in 1975 with Stanley Clarke, the bassist from Return To Forever. In 1976, in capacity as a feature writer for The Milwaukee Journal, I interviewed Keith Jarrett, Barney Kessel, Billy Eckstine, James Brown, Chet Atkins, Fred Rogers from “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” the childrens show on PBS, and dozens of other musicians. I also wrote my first pieces for Downbeat in 1976 — a profile on guitarist Daryl Stuermer, a Milwaukee native who joined Jean-Luc Ponty’s fusion band that year, and another on guitarist Larry McGhee, who came to town with R&B star Norman Connors.»
What’s your impression of the changes which have occurred in the music biz since you first started?
«Everything has changed radically, both in the music biz and the music journalism biz. When I started freelancing in 1982, I was still working on a manual typewriter, using typex to make corrections. when I finished an assignment I would jump into my car and drive from Queens to the Fed Ex office on 42nd Street Manhattan to make an overnight delivery to Downbeat or whoever. I remember once in winter making that trip and spinning out on the icy pavement in my car. Could’ve died trying to meet a deadline! Now, all I do is press the SEND button on my computer and it instantly goes to the Downbeat office in Chicago.
As a music journalist, I’ve seen the industry change in terms of the product itself — from cassettes and vinyl in the 70s to the advent of CDs in the mid 80s and DAT tape in the 90s to the dawning of MP3s. Its still a business and as such is susceptible to trends and swings in public tastes. Speaking of jazz, which is the genre I have covered almost exclusively over the past 40 years, the record companies are making more conservative choices these days in terms of what they sign. In the 80s, Columbia Records, (a major label), signed such musical renegades as Tim Berne, James Blood Ulmer and Arthur Blythe, none of whom would get signed by majors today.
I’d say the biggest trend I’ve seen with regards to musicians is the move toward independent production, where more and more artists are taking matters into their own hands by producing and distributing their own product (and thus, earning more profit even if they are selling fewer units).»
Since you began, how has publishing changed, particularly relative to digital media? Do you see these changes as beneficial or adverse?
«Being a music journalist in the 70s and 80s and even into the 90s was like being part of an exclusive fraternity (and I use that term because there were not all that many women writing back then as opposed to now). Now with the advent of blogs and podcasts, Facebook, Twitter and myriad publications that exist only online (but generally do not pay contributors), it seems that everyone has an opinion and expresses him or herself, even if their readership is tiny. This, to me, has watered down the craft and undercut the value of quality writing.
I remember back in the 80s when a group of Down Beat writers tried to organize to get more prompt payment (along with increased payment) the publisher refused to negotiate, basically saying,“I don’t need to pay you anything. I can go down the road to the Medill School of Journalism and get students to fill my magazine for practicum credits.” That ended that negotiation!! I’m happy to say that Down Beat current treats its roster of freelancers very fairly these days, and there is a seemingly endless flow of new blood coming into the pages of the magazine. Other publications that offer very little money or none at all are printing dreck by naive writers who can’t present a clear argument and lack discerning taste. The end result is a general watering down of music criticism. There are, however, a select few who continue expressing themselves brilliantly on a wide variety of very specific topics in individual blogs; all of which helps elevate the game.»
What’s your opinion on all this emphasis on genre definition in the music field? Useful, gratuitous?
«I think, thankfully, its been disappearing over the past 10-15 years, partly because individual artists are expressing themselves in more personal and genuine terms than ever before. Many new intrepid artists are now allowing ALL of their influences show through in their original music — from rap to Indian music (in the case of Rudresh Mahanthappa and Rez Abbasi) to world music and contemporary classical as well as jazz. Another factor for the erosion of genre definition, in my opinion, is the disappearance (at least in NYC) of record stores. Back in the day, records were cataloged in the bins by genre — Jazz, Blues, Rock, Indie Rock, Fusion, etc. No stores means no bins and no more need to fit records into those specific bins. So the boundaries continue to blur.»
Do you think your eclectic taste in music has eased the way for many of your interviews? I notice that you put people at ease (even Keith Jarret ha-ha). Would you say that in part there is more trust because you are a musician also?
«Most of the people I have interviewed have never heard or seen me play. I have jammed with a rare few (Mike Stern, John Scofield, Dave Stryker, Fred Hersch, the late Robert Quine) but by and large they don’t see me as a musician. But it becomes very clear to one and all very quickly that I do indeed know what I’m talking about. I do my homework thoroughly before entering into an interview and can often bring stories to the conversation regarding my own participation and understanding of music that relate to the topic at hand. That happened once when I did an interview with guitarist Jimi Hazel from 24-7 Spyz and I told him some stuff about an interview I had done some years earlier with one of his heroes— guitarist Eddie Hazel from P-Funk.»
Your interview style is quite personal and intimate. Was this a natural evolution or a premeditated one. Or did you always have this form?
«Ive always tried to relate some of my own personal experiences in an interview situation to make if more of a conversation than a grilling of a subject. Often, if its an appropriately casual situation with plenty of time, I inject stories about my daughter, who was going to school in Vermont and playing violin. Sometimes, the subject will have a kid my daughter Sophie’s age (like John McLaughlin, for instance) or will have gone through a similar life experience with a child (like Larry Coryell). So what happens when I see and interview them again, the first thing out of their mouths is,“How is Sophie?” This kind of personal approach always breaks the ice and puts a subject at ease, particularly when they relate to my personal stories.
It doesn’t always go that way in interviews. I remember once in the early 80s doing an interview at the Columbia Records office with Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour and I was like the 20th guy to be paraded before him in the conference room that day. He was exhausted and was not into it by the time I sat down with him. But I was able to wake him up with surprising queries about his whammy bar articulation and phrasing on a particular passage of a song (he was hyping a solo album at the time and I had studied it thoroughly, so I had a bunch of musician-oriented questions for him that separated me from the rest of the pack, Im guessing)?»
Your interview diversity impresses me! From Keith Richards to Milford Graves, Stevie Ray Vaughn to John Zorn! Do you find any common connecting thread through all of this?
«Just the dedication that each artist has to his craft and the willingness to keep searching. As George Clinton once told me, “The secret is in the striving, not the arriving”.»
What was the strangest interview you had?
«Maybe a drunken Yngwie Malmsteem one morning at his hotel room in Manhattan. He had just gotten to NYC from a gig in Russia, so maybe he was jet lagged AND drunk. But he removed his girdle in the middle of our interview and started declaring that the Russian people eat pig food!
Or maybe it was interviewing Robert Fripp at the Cupping Room in SoHo in 1981 and midway through the interview I looked down at the cassette recorder (!) only to see that the tape was not moving and in fact had not moved at all (!!!). The batteries had died. When I nervously told this to Fripp, he stood up from his chair and said, Well, there it is…” and left the restaurant!
Or a surly Joe Henderson, or an impatient Keith Jarrett (who threatened to cut our phone interview short after two minutes) or an emotional Tony Williams at a bar over cognacs, shortly after Miles Davis passing in 1991, crying and angrily cursing out writer Stanley Crouch for calling Miles a whore in a recent New Republic magazine article.
Maybe it was my interview with B.B. King on a bus to Rikers Island, where he and his band performed a concert for the womens prison.
My interview with Jaco Pastorius at the 55 Bar in the middle of the afternoon in 1982 was certainly bizarre and revealing (this was three years before he would be diagnosed as bipolar during his six-week stay in the Bellevue Psychiatric Ward).
I remember a strange interview with rock singer Joe Lynn Turner (who later fronted Deep Purple) that took place after soundcheck where he took out a gun and nonchalantly started shooting rats backstage at an old theatre in Milwaukee as we chatted!!
I also remember once doing a phone interview with Joe Pass about an album that he absolutely HATED, where he covered Rolling Stones tunes. He cursed out the label, the producer and the music and barely gave me one word that I could use in print.
Another time, around 1977, I did an interview with Pat Martino that was so esoteric that I had virtually nothing I could use (a lot of psycho-babble about pyramids and waves of the ocean and such).
But maybe the strangest interview was with Johnny “Guitar” Watson in 1976. I went to his concert at the Milwaukee Auditorium and went backstage afterwards to talk to him about a possible interview for Guitar Player while he was in town. He said, “Sure, meet me at my hotel room,” and he gave me the info. I showed up and sure enough, there was a party going on. But Johnny split with two chicks — one white, one black — before and interview took place. His last words to me were, I’ll be right back.” I waited around for an hour before I finally split myself.
Another bizarre one was with Ray Charles at his hotel room after a concert a Lincoln Center. This took place around midnight and it was to be a joint interview with Ray and trombonist Steve Turre, who had been in Rays band as a young man and was performing with him again at this particular reunion concert. A photographer and crew had been dispatched to the same hotel room to get a cover photo of Ray for Jazz Times magazine. They set up a backdrop and did several lighting tests. And Rays manager explained to us, OK, Rays gonna come in here and hes going to sit down for this interview and you have 20 minutes to rap the whole thing up — interview and photos.” Sure enough, Ray came in, and his manager poured him a glass of cognac in a tall glass beer mug, filled to the top. I broke the ice with my encyclopedic knowledge of Louis Jordan, who was a hero to Ray. That got him laughing and reminiscing, and the rest was easy. The photographer clicked away as we chatted. Then right on cue, at 20 minutes, he got up and left with two chicks — one white, one black — and two bottles of cognac!!»
As humans we evolve through social contact both intellectually and emotionally. How has your work enriched you in those terms and how has this encompassing interaction with so many diverse musicians influenced you?
«I have been lucky to have encountered and exchanged ideas with so many inspiring, enlightened, worldly artists who possess either sage-like wisdom, a strong spiritual component or a truly expansive global view. They have all been my teachers, not only about music but about life itself.»
Do you find that it’s hard to be truly honest in this form of interview? And my meaning is relative towards interviewer and interviewee. Interview is a funny almost innocent format of writing, yet so revealing. How do you feel about the form itself after all this time?
«Its a valid form of communication. But again, I prefer engaging in a conversation with someone rather than grilling them on the witness stand. I like these conversations to be free-flowing and spontaneous, so I have never, over the course of 40 years, come to an interview with a list a questions.
I study the persons background, listen to their music, intuit some responses about how their music makes me feel and then have an open and honest conversation with them; basically picking up on what they’re putting down.
The interviews that I dislike are when the subject is obviously over prepared and give rote, studied answers; almost like reading from a prepared script. I had situation where I had what I thought were sincere interviews eliciting genuine answers, only to find out later the exact same quotes appearing in various other articles. These usually come from bigger pop stars who are prepped for a barrage of interviews with music journalists on a single day — like assembly line factory work. I much prefer interviews where it feels like youre truly in the moment, exchanging ideas as if youre talking to an old friend you haven’t seen for a while.»
Your output is also impressive!! How many books do you have out now? I suppose the Jaco book is the most successful in terms of sales and fame, no?
«The Jaco book (“JACO: The Extraordinary And Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius,”Backbeat Books) was initially published in 1995. A much-expanded 10th Anniversary Edition was published in 2005. It has sold over 70,000 copies worldwide to date (with translations published in Italy, Spain, Slovenia, Japan and France). I followed that initial first book with “Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries” in 1998, then “Swing It! An Annotation History of Jive” in 2004, “Legends Of Jazz” in 2011,“Here And Now: The Autobiography of Pat Martino” in 2011 and “Keith Richards: A Rock ’n’ Roll Life” in 2012. Here is my author page on Amazon.»
As a musician and a writer do you feel same satisfaction with both in terms of personal growth and simply a job well done’?
«Yes, I recently did a cover story for Downbeat on the bassist-singer-composer-bandleader-conceptualist Esperanza Spalding. Seeing her picture on the cover and seeing my byline attached to the story gave me a sense of pride. Likewise, I got the same from recently performing with my boys Dissipated Face at the Downtown Music Gallery. Same kind of rush after that gig — a real feeling of accomplishment!»
Finally, is the idea that artists are ahead of their time, myth or reality?
«It’s not only reality, it’s their job description!!»