Skip Heller on LES BAXTER

Interviewed for Canadian radio.

Our guest today is Skip Heller, producer of the new CD, Les Baxter By Popular Request, a live recording of Baxter from 1961. Welcome Skip.

Thanks, John. It's nice to be on with you.

Okay. Now, this is the remainder of the live concert you issued part of as Les Baxter, The Lost Episode. Tell us about it, what it is, how you found it...

You knew Les Baxter. What was he like?

He was a pretty blunt talker, but he was a very sweet, generous man. If you took a sincere interest in him and his music, he could't do enough for you. He was very good to me. He always picked up the checks, and he gave me my own room at his house in Palm Springs.

What was his house like?

It was a tasteful rancher in Palm Springs, two small bedrooms and a master bedroom. Two bath. Huge garden, which Les planted and attended, until his health gave out. The decor was tasteful and understated, no tiki heads or anything. Baby grand piano in the corner of the living room. Very roomy, very neat. Beautiful house. We used to sit out by the pool and listen to music and talk about music.

Who did he name as his influences?

Stravinsky and Ravel. He loved to listen to Stravinsky. That was a great pleasure for him. And he'd play Ravel on the piano for his own recreation. Also, he would talk about his days as a tenor saxophonist in the Freddie Slack band, and he named Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster as his influences. He also really loved Art Tatum. I mean, aside from the classical orientation, he was really a product of the big band era.

There were a lot of interesting people in the Freddie Slack big band, like Ella Mae Morse and T-Bone Walker. Did he say if they influenced his later work?

I don't think he copped any blues licks from T-Bone or anything. But things can influence you in different ways. Maybe he heard something that somebody in the band did that made him think about different rhythms or phrase lengths or whatever. It's not always the notes that influence you. It can be the idea that gets you to arrive at those notes that ends up being influential.

Did any big band arrangers influence Les Baxter?

He loved the Ellington band, the '39-'41 band with Ben Webster in it. He told me he would go see 'em in L.A. and just stand right up front, mesmerized. And he really remembered what they played and how it sounded. That music really stuck with him, I can assure you.

Do you think any of his earlier work had an influence on his later things?

Yeah, because he was in the Mel-Tones, who did that early style of close-harmony jazz singing. That crops up again on Music Out Of The Moon. Listen to "Moon Moods" and you hear what I mean. Also, the Mel-Tones backed Artie Shaw around that period when he was doing jungle-theme stuff like "Dr Livingstone, I Presume" and "The Chant", and I'm sure Les had his ears open.

Did Les ever mention Artie Shaw?

Only to say he preferred Benny Goodman. But, you know, I didn't take every word as gospel. Some of the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.

Les recorded prolifically for Capitol. Is there any unreleased material in the vaults that you know of?

I think there is, because the scores I saw were often enough slightly different from what made it to the records -- like the recordings being played at different tempoes than were written on the score, sometimes different instruments. Also, there were a few scores for tunes I had never heard of, but if Capitol went to the expense of having parts copied out for the tune, I'm sure it was recorded. That kind of thing is too expensive to sink moeny into without recording. So I think there's

Do you think Capitol will ever release these cuts?

No. They might have if the boxed set had sold more copies, but I think their attitude is that they did their definitive anthology, so they're done.

What did you think of the Exotic Moods box?

Well, no two people would make the same compilation. I think Brad did an okay job, but it's not the job I would have done, and, frankly, I'm the guy who really knows this stuff, and knows what Les thought about the stuff. But that doesn't mean Brad didn't do a good job. He has really smart taste, I think. But a lot of Les's favorites of his own stuff didn't make it.

Such as?

"Sophisticated Savge", "The City", and "Sea Nymph" were his favorites.

R.J. Smith wrote the liner booklet, and the general feeling seems to be you should have done the notes. I remember him writing about Les for the LA Weekly, and he quoted you as saying you thought Les's Ritual Of The Savage was as important to exotica as Elvis's Sun Sessions were to rockabilly. Then he said you smiled an "exotica smile", as if you were being ironic about the importance of Les's music.

I was shocked that he said I did that. He wouldn't have known if I had, in fact.


It was a phone interview.

(both laugh)

Did Les give you composition lessons?

I would stay up after he went to bed and I'd study his scores. Then, when we'd have coffee the next morning, I'd bring up different things I'd have found in the music-- "Why did you do this?", "how did you come upon this chord?", different points of orchestration. Mostly that. My concept of harmony was already pretty developed by the time I met him. But he showed me more about texture than I'd ever imagined.

You did the liner notes for the Scamp Records reissue of Que Mango, which was Les's last exotic album. It paints a picture of a man who was bitter because the industry never embraced him the way they accepted Mancini. But he seems to have felt vindicated by the acceptance he got shortly before his death.

He was. He really was. It was a real happy thing for him to get that last bit of attention. It meant the world.

Was there any writing about him or interview with him that you think was particularly good?

The one that James Call and Peter Hustis did for Hypno Magazine was really a nice one. Stewart Sweezy did one that's coming out as a book, and that's pretty amazing. It should have been out by now through the same publisher that was supposed to have my Mickey Katz book out last year.

You wrote a book about Mickey Katz?

Yeah, Clarinet Connotations. But I don't know when it'll be out. It's a study of Jewish music and Mickey's place in it. I had Joel Grey's co-operation, too. I hope it comes out.

You recently joined Yma Sumac's band, by the way, as her guitarist.

Yeah, it's been really insane. She cancels a lot of shows, so it really hasn't been a real "band" experience. We just get the call, do a rehearsal, and make the gig. It's really a lot like playing a broadway show or something. It's not really about how she sounded in the heyday. We don't really sound like the record. I hate to be this way, but it's just a job.

Does she ever talk about Les with you?

No, not much. They parted on rather bad terms, so it's not a very friendly subject for her.

Do you spend much time hanging out with her?

We have lunch from time to time, but nothing really close. She's not big on hanging out.

What's she like to work for?

She rough, because she makes vague demands that she can't articulate in musical terms. It's hard to know what she means.

You're working on a record of your own. What is that going to be.

It's a bossa nova record. I just got done working on a rockabilly record, producing Ray Campi, so I wanted to something a little more lush. I think it's going to be called Motel Matches, but I don't know. I think it'll be out in time for Christmas.

Well, we'll be playing it here.

Alright then.

Well, thank you Skip Heller for joining us.

Thank you, John.

Other Interviews:
The Eclectic Warrior: Skip Heller
Thinking Man's Guitar: Skip Heller