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
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?
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
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
BB The concerts for
this year  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