Interview with John Altman: Part 1

Everybody’s heard John Altman’s music, whether they know it or not: he has composed for some of the world’s most high-profile films, TV shows, and acts, including Titanic and the Monty Python comedy troupe. Alongside a flourishing career as a composer, he also led a successful parallel career as a jazz saxophonist, working in circles that included Chet Baker, Herbie Hancock, Gil Evans, Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, and many others. Later in life he owned a private London nightclub known as The 10 Room, which hosted artists such as Pharrell, Will Smith, John Legend, and Amy Winehouse. This summer, as a researcher working on an extensive collection of jazz videos he personally donated to the University of Sussex, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr. Altman and interviewing him about the tapes and his fascinating career.

The following edited transcript is divided into sections with timestamps corresponding to the original interview recordings, which are in the University of Sussex’s possession.

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Part one of a six part interview with John Altman over videos contained in the Altman-Koss Video Jazz Archive.

We start with Altman choosing videos from his archive and giving me the inside scoop as we watch them. In this part of the interview, we also learn how Altman and Eric Koss came into contact with various producers in the jazz community and started to build their archive.

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As Altman searches for the first video, I ask him if Gil Evans ever viewed the archive.

00:45 John Altman: He just wanted to watch Louis Armstrong. I went to bed and he was watching Louis Armstrong, and I got up and he was watching Louis Armstrong.

Camellia Boutros: He must’ve been a big fan!

JA: Oh, fanatic.The document’s part of history, really. As I said the other day, these people were part of history, but that was 30 something years ago, and now it’s part of history as well.

2:40 JA: So this is the one that came out of the Swedish archive.

He plays a tape, and suddenly we’re watching  Sonny Rollins performing in Stockholm in 1957.

3:23 CB: So this was on the archive and then Sonny went back and found this and said, we need to publish this, or -?

JA: No, we found this. The director of Swedish television, he sent it to us, he’d never seen it either. We made a copy of it and sent it to New York, and every saxophone player in New York came to see it, except for Sonny Rollins, who came in the next day to watch it! So that was the story. And this was in the first batch.
3:45 CB: So that’s when you and Eric were starting the collection?

JA: Pretty much, yeah.

We finish watching that performance, and then Altman chooses another one of George Harris and Harry Grimes playing on a stage.

5:30 JA: George Harris is still alive… and Harry Grimes is still alive, I think he’s still alive… They found him recently –

CB:  Found him?

JA: Well, he worked as a janitor in a building, but had no idea that John Coltrane had died. Just cut himself off completely from playing the bass.
5:50 CB: Why?
JA: I mean, he had a lot of mental problems, that, uh…. But someone bought him a bass and got him playing again, so he reappeared.

CB:  How did they all start playing together, do you know?

JA:  Well – he was invited to Sweden where George Harris lived – the drummer – the drummer had just left his big band, so he, uhm – no, he’s still alive! He’s 81, there’s a very interesting article about him. Completely disappeared by 1970, presumed dead and re-appeared in 1982.

Just vanished, he was playing with everyone, Monk, and.. He was 22 years old.  He vanished in the late 60s. It was commonly assumed he’d died but he was rediscovered in 2002…

9:10 Altman is looking for a video of Charles Mingus performing with Eric Dolphy

9:30 CB:  How did you meet this guy from Sweden again?

JA: He was – Eric [Koss] was a European accountant. And he just traveled to Germany, Switzerland, Italy, wherever the company would send him. So they would pay him to go. Because he was a jazz fanatic, he wanted to go wherever there was a jazz club. The first club he came to in Scandinavia, he was told, “ You’re in luck, this is the guy who produces all the shows.” And he said, “That’s it.” And that’s what Eric did, everywhere he would go he’d stop, and talk, and chat… quite amazing. It’s unedited footage, basically. So you see, like – Oh, angry cameraman! [laughs]. “Not expecting me to do that.” [laughs]. It’s quite fascinating.

10:20 We watch as Mingus gets in a fight with the cameraman – Altman and I laugh over the unedited footage that got cut out when it aired on TV. Mingus says utters some pretty vulgar profanity.

11:15 CB: Love it, the parts you don’t get to see in performance [laughs]… or, well, on screen. So this was broadcast over Swedish television?

JA: Yeah well not this, this is uncut.

12:00 We spend a few minutes talking about the Mingus video, positioning of people. Altman points out some of the musicians look upset or annoyed and just want the gig to be over.

JA: You can tell they’re all fighting. Everybody’s fighting each other and they don’t want to be there, it’s wonderful.

CB: Even the way they’re arranged –

JA: Yeah, sitting.

CB: They’re all close in together, the guy in front of the drummer too, can’t tell… They stopped in the middle, what’s going on?
JA: Yeah, because, well, this is what’s going on. This is what you don’t see. This is show business.

13:20 We discuss the likelihood of the uncut video being duplicated elsewhere. Altman thinks it’s highly unlikely.

14:29 JA: Well you can see why it was so exciting, at a time before YouTube or anything – to have this stuff here –

CB:  Well it’s still exciting!

JA: Yeah.

15:25: JA: Later on there’s some small talk… Mingus asks Dolphy what he’s going to do in Europe, you know. It’s like we’re eavesdropping on history! It’s… 50 years ago now.

CB:  Can we see that part?

JA: Yes, it should be next. [Fast forwards]

16:39 CB:  I like that phrase that you used, “eavesdropping on history.”

JA: Well you are!

17:02 JA: [About the music] It was some very intense stuff, actually.

17:35 We hear small-talk, watch them relaxing a bit after playing.

17:55 CB:  Yeah they’re just taking a break and hanging out, huh.

18:06 JA: [about a musician] He’s like, “When is this gig over!”

18:27 CB:  He’s so serious!

JA: Oh, geez! So, you’ve got the whole show.

CB:  That was from 1964?
JA: ‘64, from his tour.

19:20 Altman’s put on a clip of Ellington.

JA: You can see this entire concert of Ellington.

CB:  Do you know where he is?

JA: Touring. 1958.

CB: You get to see the audience.

Duke Ellington speaking to the audience

CB:  I love that you get to hear him doing his commentary.

JA: Well these are all TV shows, these are – concerts, that were filmed.

21:00

JA: This is Snooky on his 90th birthday… [John was asked to put together a video compilation of trumpet player Snooky Young, to be shown at the LACMA for his 90th birthday]. I provided a lot of material so that they could show something at LACMA.

CB:  So you put this together out of the videos that you have  [from the Altman-Koss archive].

JA: Mmhm.
CB:  That’s another great use for this archive I hadn’t even thought of, isn’t it? You can use it to make videos to educate on jazz.

JA: Totally. Well I’ve done [compilations of] the great trumpet players, the great jazz players… I’ll show you actually, I should have it here.

CB:  [back to the video] I love that you can see the conducting.

JA: Snooks… lovely man, great player.
CB: So you were personal friends with him?
JA: Sorry? Oh yeah, yeah.

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