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 Bess Bonnier

 An Interview with Bess Bonnier
SEMJA Update - Dec 97
(Southeast Michigan Jazz Association)

by Michael G. Nastos

Bess Bonnier is known throughout the metro Detroit area as one of the premier jazz players over the past five decades. Internationally she's not that big a deal, doesn't really want to be. But when you stack her up against the other Detroit piano legends like Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan or Sir Roland Hanna, you quickly realize she belongs right up there with the true greats of jazz.

Bess is not only a marvelous be-bop player, but an adept interpreter of the classical repertoire. Noteworks Records has recently issued Bonnier's CD Love Notes, featuring the Ann Arbor rhythm section of vibist Cary Kocher, bassist Paul Keller and drummer Pete Siers. Bess is also due to do some traveling as a member of the Midwest Arts Satellite Touring Program in the new year, with the possibility of concertizing in some nine midwestern states. We talked to this affable musician on the telephone from her home in east Detroit, and as you soon understand she's as sharp with turning a phrase as she is delicate and precise a pianist.

Michael G. Nastos Please direct me in pronouncing your name correctly Bess.

Bess Bonnier It's BAH-near.

MGN Very good, thank you. Now, you have a history of playing this music, and over the years you've had your share of experiences. What are some of the things that continue to motivate you?

BB It's an abiding love and curiosity about this wonderful instrument, the piano. And I want to say that, of course, people have to earn a living. I'm not into the starving artist concept. I like challenge. I love concerts and clinics. I like things that captivate me. Particularly now I'm happy to be working with Paul Keller; he's my bassist of choice. I like to be involved in, and contribute to, interesting arrangements, which involves as though you were taking a painting with a brush and accenting things here and there. Musicians call them "hits." You have a musical composition that has shape, like a sculpture. It's a sound sculpture. I love that. I like having to work hard at it, even though I get upset. Then there's the concert, and to me a concert is a shared experience, and as much as I can, I try to push my ego down, which is a hard thing for players to do to share music with an audience. I do play, not down to an audience, but for an audience. Usually the audiences we play for are relatively sophisticated, or they want to be.

MGN Also many people say to themselves, jazz is too heady, too academic for me, I'll never understand it, I don't even want to try to listen to it.

BB That's their prerogative. When we do give concerts, I give brief comments so that people feel included so they're not in the dark. That brings some of them along, and I don't want to be patronizing. In intimate concert settings that's very do-able. When I really get immersed in the piano and get lost in what I'm doing, I thank God because it can put away other thoughts about the mundanity of life, what you have to do at home, filing things, working on getting jobs, working on the CD. All those things exist but finally, it's the notes that matter.

MGN How do you conceptualize jazz being the classical music of America?

BB You know, the whole business of music is concept. This is a new conception, and then the conception varies from ragtime to dixie to traditional to swing to bop to how people shape it. If you think about it--even if you don't think about it--in the 18th century, people were improvising all the time. Their improvising was extended. So jazz, the pins that it stands on, are improvisation, syncopation, timbre of instruments. I happen to be very be-bop centered and a lyric player, not that I'm not interested in going outside. As far as I've gone is to fool around with polytonic harmony and playing over the scales beyond the key that you're in. I remember Dave Brubeck saying play two scales at the same time. I head toward lyricism, and much of my life has not been jazz. I pop into it deeply, and then out of it for a while. I'm a voracious reader. I like friendships, walking, cooking, sailing. I have a life outside of jazz and I don't apologize for it.

MGN A woman playing be-bop is something I think people are still not used to, even though there are plenty of players.

BB To tell you the truth, I am who I am. I'm not out to convince anybody because that would be insincere. I love to play. To try to defend my position is different. There are many wonderful players who happen to be women. There are men players who happen to be short or tall. There's a spiritual thing when it's really working that transcends any of this. It's a wonderful thing, like a meeting of minds, and you may meet on a intellectual level, but that may be a stepping stone to being together. One of the best things that has happened to me recently is my friendship with Cary Kocher and Paul Keller. And how a lot of musicians don't say anything to you, when you play a solo. They go on, and they might say, yeah. They [Kocher and Keller] are more open to that [kind of reaction] and it's wonderful. Also people talk about who lives in Ann Arbor, or Detroit, or California. A musician is a musician, and they could pick up and play in Tanganyika, but it's still the same player. I try not to get caught up into location = player.

MGN I remember the concert you did last year with James Carter and had a great time listening to you, digging into those tunes, and I thought to myself that I enjoy hearing you play Gershwin's "Prelude No. 2" as much as "Chasin' The Bird." There's also a certain classicism in the be-bop language that you've mastered.

BB I was classically trained happily. I've memorized a lot, and before we got into this CD, I began to memorized one I treasure, the Schumann A Minor Piano Concerto. I adore that piece, and the Mozart A Major. It's all music. It's music that is in my system, and thanks to a wonderful teacher of mine that opened my eyes, ears and arms to work towards good tone production. It's achieved by arm weight, the fingers are though they are levers, or the toes of a ballet dancer. Then I investigated piled fourths, or quartal harmony. Those are very interesting. Then there's pentatonic harmony, and one of the people who's a master is McCoy Tyner. Those will pop into your playing, sprinkled here and there amidst the be-bop. I listened to Herbie Hancock, and I certainly don't play like him. That's fine with me. Then sometimes I didn't hear people. Sometimes I didn't listen!

MGN The other thing about be-bop that I think is misunderstood is that I think people conceive it to be speed when it's more about harmonics.

BB Yeah, it is. I don't know what this thing is about speed. I've got something funny I tell players. They'll take a tune, as [saxophonist] Scott Peterson says, "be-bop at unknown speeds," and I say, well, I know what I'm going to do. Maybe only musicians will understand this. I plan on playing tied whole note triplets over the top...did-did-duh, did-did-duh, did-did-duh...they're playing at breakneck speeds and I'm back there picking out notes that wind up being really laid-back. That's a lot a fun.

MGN Can you talk about "Love Notes," and also the fact that Bess Bonnier is a person who is known locally and in New York, but not outside of the state.

BB Ira [Gitler] has been very helpful. He's been having me send reviews to Italy. I will be in his "Encyclopedia Of Jazz" by Oxford Press. He was very happy about the CD. We also sent it to Japan and Swing Journal, and various other places. You plant seeds. Paul Keller initiated this thought that we should play more concerts. You have to have a new CD in hand, just like the professor, publish or perish, and I'm the one who invested my money in it. Dave Usher, God bless him, lent me a thousand dollars, and I just paid him off last week. That's another thing, too, is you make a lot of friends along the way when you play. I played solo piano at The Summit Restaurant for five years, and that really expanded my circle. As to "Love Notes," it was a marvelous experience, even with the mishaps and the little somersaults. It came to fruition and I can't believe it. We had to go through all the procedures, and I'm the one that keeps the records and direct sales to a mailing list, though I wouldn't want to go through this responsibility again. Usually you want to just play the thing and that's it. But I'm not unhappy about it; it's been quite an experience, and the sales have been excellent.

MGN How about any upcoming plans?

BB The concerts for this year [1997] are done; the rest are private engagements. We are making arrangements to be in the touring guide of the Michigan Council For The Arts& Cultural Affairs. And Midwest Jazz has requested a performance. It's going to take planning, and it'll be a hard thing to do, but we're ready for it.

Michael G. Nastos can be heard Monday through Friday, 8 p.m. to midnight, on WEMU, 89.1 FM. (Detroit Metropolitan Area)

Reprinted from SEMJA Update

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