Claude Bolling and The Mummy’s Tomb

This article originally appeared in The Syracuse New Times, April 7, 1982.

* * *

“All men who are really great can afford to be really human and to be shown so.” — Gamaliel Bradford

* * *

I am a stranger to my pajamas. It’s early Sunday morning, and I haven’t had a whole night’s sleep since Wednesday, but I’m not tired.

I am standing in a beautiful living room, somewhere in the stratosphere above James Street. The French pianist and composer Claude Bolling is seated at a Steinway, making incredible music. He has just played a song so beautiful, so perfect, that 30 people have become still, quiet, as if in a painting. When the music stops, I think, “What did I do to deserve this?”

I’m normally not an adventurous person. On special occasions, I might stay up until 11 and eat a bag of Mint Milanos. But a call from the Syracuse New Times — offering me a chance to interview Claude Bolling — changed that. Bolling was in town for the March 11, 1982, premiere of his “Baroque Suite for Chamber Orchestra and Jazz Piano Trio” with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. Since I’d always loved Bolling’s “Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano,” I seized the opportunity to tell him personally.

During our first conversation, Bolling munched on a chicken wing in the Tack Room of the Hotel Syracuse. Few people have the confidence to look you right in the eye while they eat a chicken wing, but Bolling did. Between bites of chicken and sips of grapefruit juice, he told me he hated to travel.

“The whole time I am here, I am thinking of all the things I could be doing if I were home,” he said. “Jean-Pierre (Rampal) loves to travel; I don’t.”

I asked him how he came upon his combination of jazz and classical music.

“That is wrong. I don’t like the word ‘combination.’ This is simply a dialogue between two kinds of music. I have made nothing new. This has been going on for a long time.”

I asked what instrument he would be writing for next.

“I don’t write for instruments; I write for people. I wrote ‘Suite for Flute’ for Jean-Pierre. Had I written it for another, it would be completely different. Each musician has his own voice, and I write for that. Right now, I am writing a piece for cello, and I have two musicians in mind. One, of course, is Rostropovich. He is a wizard. The other is Yo Yo Ma. He is a young man, Oriental; there is a lot I like there as well.”

:: How the “Suites” Began ::

“The first was actually for two pianos. I had been playing on the same TV show as Jean-Bernard Pommier, the classical pianist, and people kept saying, ‘Do something together.’ So finally we did. Jean-Pierre heard this, and he liked it very much, and he asked me to write something for him. At first, I did not think I could do this, but… it is like you are a priest, and the Pope asks you to dinner. So I wrote some things, and we played them and Jean-Pierre said, ‘Write enough for a whole record, and we will record it.’ And I thought that was that. But then Alexander Lagoya, the guitarist, heard it and asked me to write a piece for him. What could I say? These people are the finest musicians in the world.”

Because the Columbia label only wanted Jean-Pierre Rampal’s work, the “Concerto for Classic Guitar and Jazz Piano” with Alexander Lagoya was released on RCA. It was only when “Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano” began selling in the hundreds of thousands that Columbia became interested in another Bolling suite. Even then, they tried to dump album cover artist Roger Huyssen.

“They said he was too expensive,” Bolling explained.

Columbia still had no interest in releasing any of Bolling’s “own” work. So the jazz he loved, the solo piano, jazz trio and big band music with his Show Biz Band, as well as his film and television scores, were unavailable in the U.S.

Before I left the Tack Room, I apologized to Bolling because there was no jazz band playing in town that evening.

“We don’t need music,” said Claude. “We need company.”

:: Tuesday Night ::

Claude Bolling is the kind of person who knocks the snow off his shoes before getting into your car. He pays great attention to detail, and one detail that has gone by the boards was the planned first rehearsal of his “Baroque Suite” with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. He was not happy.

“Where is Mr. Keene?” he asked.

“He’s sick in New York with a sore throat,” I said.

“He does not sing,” was the response.

But when we arrived at the restaurant, Maggie Jordan’s, the mood lightened. There were eight of us, and Claude insisted we mix the seating so everyone could get acquainted. Bolling’s accompanists, Jean Luc Dayan and Jean-Francois Rouge, both in their 20s, have been playing with him for only six months. But the two of them have been playing together for 10 years and, as we were to find out, are practically telepathic.

Jean-Francois is the fourth generation in his family to play bass. Jean Luc, on the other hand, was encouraged to be an artist, but “just wanted to play drums.” He told me how excited they were about the trip.

“When Claude told us we are going to Syracuse, we are very happy. ‘Ah, Siracusa, the sun, lying on the beach…’ Then he said, ‘No, not in Sicily, in America.’ That was not so good.”

All told, the table held 14 years of high school French and 10 years of high school English, so the conversation perked right along. (With only a few snags: I recall a wilted flower arrangement that “needed a hairdresser.” Wrong word, but the mistake was funnier than the right word.) For entertainment, Claude balanced one spoon on another, struck the first and flipped the second into his wine glass. When he discovered that the women on either side of him were art directors in advertising, he said, “Ah, tonight you will be my heart directors.” This was Claude the Romantic Rascal, and we were to see much of him in the coming days.

Around midnight, as we sipped champagne in the Tack Room, Claude decided to play. The regular pianist was very good, but when Claude sat down, the piano sounded like a different instrument. I began to understand his earlier comment about a musician’s “voice.” And a change came over Claude as well; no longer joking or talking about music, now he was making it, and at the keyboard he was finally at home. Like Willie Shoemaker on a thoroughbred or Jackie Stewart at the wheel, he suddenly seemed whole and complete.

:: Thursday Night ::

Jean Luc and Jean-Francois prepared for the American premiere by watching TV: PM Magazine, M*A*S*H, but mostly commercials. A crown appeared on the head of a small boy eating margarine.

“That must be very good butter,” said Jean Luc.

A woman reacted furiously to an attack on her fabric softener.

“She is an actress?” asks Jean Luc.

“No,” I said, “and yes.”

Jean Luc nodded. “We have those in France, too.”

Claude came in just in time for four food commercials. “Ah,” he said as each began, “something to eat.”

Later at the Civic Center, I watched them play, amazed at Claude’s ability as a composer, at how well the whole thing was working. The second movement, “Sereine,” had a beautiful slow theme I could listen to for hours. The third movement, “Enjouee,” had people dancing in their seats. The fourth, “Aria,” was stately and full, like Handel. The whole suite was full of playful references to other classical works and classic jazz riffs. The audience loved it, and during the encore, the entire cello section leaned forward in their chairs to watch Jean-Francois’ hands at work on the bass. After the concert, I asked Claude how satisfied he was with the orchestra’s performance.

“I thought they played very well,” he said, and it was obvious he meant it.

:: The Mummy’s Tomb ::

We were standing in a bar called Scratch Daniel’s, with Claude, cellist Lindsay Groves, and walking encyclopedia of film Peter Scheibe. Claude told us that Francois Truffaut was thinking of making a film about him.

“Just make sure it’s about you and not him,” said Peter.

“How can I do that?” asked Claude.

“Keep him off the set,” suggested Lindsay.

“Maybe he’ll get Charlton Heston to play you,” I said.

“I have done a movie with Charlton Heston!” exclaimed Claude, suddenly very excited. “It is called The Awakening.”

“That’s a trashy horror flick,” said Peter, laughing in disbelief.

But Claude didn’t hear him; he was into the movie now. “When he walks into the Mummy’s Tomb, I have the music go oo-oo-oo-ooooo.” Heads turned as Claude made creepy noises in his throat. “And then he opens the case, ee-ee-ee-eeeee, and do you know what he sees?! His daughter! Da daaaaa!”

I have never seen one man get so much pleasure out of so many kinds of music.

:: Friday Night ::

The Tack Room was full of wrestlers. The state high school tournament was in town, and a number of very large people were drinking a very large number of beers. The band was playing “Oklahoma!” as we came in, and a dancing woman took a big puff on an elderly gentleman’s cigar.

We were in an equally festive mood. The Friday night performance was even better than Thursday’s, and now there were a bass and drums with the piano. Jean Luc and Jean-Francois, after days and nights of rehearsing and performing written compositions, were dying to get a little loose. A wrestling coach leaning on the piano wore a good natured but bewildered expression. Where did all these people with ties come from, and why were some of them speaking French? Canadian team?

Claude did a tune with Calvin Custer on bass and a local attorney on drums, and then Jean Luc and Jean-Francois sat in. Lindsay Groves, in a moment of delightful innocence, asked Jean Luc, “Can you drink before you play?”

Jean Luc hesitated, in wonder, and then said, “Before, while I play, and after.”

Claude seemed to be just warming up, after a day which included a full rehearsal with Hubert Laws for a Washington appearance on Sunday, the evening’s performance and two encores, one of them a James P. Johnson barnburner.

“How long can he go? I ask Jean-Francois.

“He is a superman,” he replied. “Once he starts, you cannot stop him until he is ready to stop.”

Paint began to peel as the Claude Bolling Jazz Trio let off some steam. During Claude’s solos, every one a miracle, Jean Luc and Jean-Francois watched his hands without blinking. The instant he stopped, they exploded with their answer, Jean Luc’s eyes focused straight ahead, his sticks flying through fiery, precise patterns. Beat for beat, Jean-Francois laid down something his great-grandfather never dreamed of. Later, Claude played alone for a long time, “Ain’t Misbehavin'” some other songs, until he was ready to stop. Then he got up, looking refreshed.

:: Saturday Night ::

The last performance. During his third encore, Claude grew Chaplinesque, charming the audience with a meandering piece that reminded some of Oscar Peterson and others of Victor Borge. He seemed very happy backstage, and said, “The orchestra was very, very good tonight, don’t you think?”

“For sure,” I replied, “and you keep getting better, too.”

“No, not me. I missed a note tonight.”

* * *

My original draft continued with our arrival home on Sunday morning, Laurie and I, at dawn. The air had grown warm; the snow was melting; the sun was rising. And as we stood in the driveway, we heard geese, and looked up at the long, flying V’s — seeing, hearing and feeling the coming of spring. The week of miracles was over, but here was one more. I found myself crying.

The New Times felt this ending was irrelevant and too personal.

Today, you can find Claude on the Web at www.claude-bolling.com/

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