The 1980s marked the last phase of Miles’s electric music era; guitarist Joe Beck marks the beginning of it. In December 1967, Beck joined Miles and his second great quintet of Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams in the studio to record a couple of tracks – the first time Miles used an electric instrumentalist. The two tracks Beck recorded with Miles, “Circle In The Round” and “Water On The Pond” weren’t released until long afterwards. “Circle” appeared on the album of the same name in 1979, and “Water” was on “Directions,” released in 1981. Sadly, the results of these sessions were disappointing, but the sessions planted the seeds that were to mark a radical shift in Miles’s musical direction.
In an exclusive interview with The Last Miles.com, Joe talks about those sessions, his own musical career and what he thought of the music and the musicians Miles had in the 1980s.
© and courtesy Joe Beck
TheLastMiles.com: Joe, can you tell us a little about your background. I believe you were born in Philadelphia.
Joe Beck: I was born in Philadelphia, but never really lived there. I was raised around New Jersey, but then my father transferred to San Francisco, so I got to live in the Bay Area from around seven year’s old.
TLM: How did you get into guitar and who were your influences?
JB: I was around five or six I found a banjo in the attic in my house and I started fiddling around with that and I was able to figure out to play a chord or two and have fun. Then I heard [Spanish classical guitarist Andres] Segovia on the radio – my mother was a classical singer and piano teacher – and I just flipped. I had never heard anything that and I said: ‘that’s what I want to do.’ I guess I was around six or seven at that point. That Christmas I badgered my parents into me getting a guitar and we didn’t have a lot of money, so they got me a guitar from Sears Roebuck, which was a catalogue store back in those days. It was a $9.95 purchase, but it lasted me for years!
TLM: Did you have any formal guitar lessons?
JB: I took six lessons right away and then we moved to California and that was the end of my lessons. The bottom line was I learnt the names of the notes on all six strings, but that was as far as I got with the teacher – I never got to play a chord! But if I had to learn any one thing that was a good thing. At least it put me in touch with the fact that music is written and you have to read it. Since I’ve sort of retired, I do a lot more teaching than I ever thought I would do and I see these kids who can play their asses off, but they have no idea what they’re playing. And that makes it useless – it takes any validity out of your playing, if you don’t know what it is.
TLM: What prompted the move to New York?
JB: I graduated from high school in Glenn Rock New Jersey. I was seventeen and was already working professionally for three or four years and I got a chance to play with a really fine trio in New York. I got this job through an absolute accident of fate and I ended up playing every night in New York City with a trio of Don Payne on bass and several pianists – such as Don Friedman and Warren Bernhardt – all kinds of great piano players went through that trio. So I spent eighteen months from about seventeen and a half to when I was nineteen playing at the club called Chuck’s Compository. It was a place for all the New York models – male and female – to hang out, so it was a very “in” club. It was a good trio and we had a lot of fans.
And it was the first stop when anybody came from Brazil. I’m not sure the reason for it, but it was absolutely prescribed the first stop after the airport. They literally came in the club with their suitcases! That included Sergio Mendes, who ended up sleeping on my couch for a month until he decided he was going to bring his wife and daughter to sleep on my couch too! I kinda drew the line at that! [Antonio Carlos] Jobim was there and Joao Gilberto was already living in New York at that point, but I got to know him very well and ended up playing with his wife Astrud on the road for a long time. But that little gig in New York was the jumping off point for what happened to me in subsequent years. That’s where I made all my contacts. It was just absolutely the luckiest place a person could be. So when people ask me ‘how do you get into the business?’ I tell them ‘I don’t know’ because the way I got into it was just pre-ordained!
There’s a negative side to that too, because I was put into musical positions that I really wasn’t up to. I always covered my ass somehow and got re-hired. I always made it through the gig, but man, I started to think by the time I was twenty or twenty-one that I was the greatest and that’s a very dangerous thing – especially when you’re not.
Joe Beck © and courtesy Joe Beck
TLM: You also made it big in the jingles market.
JB: It was a customer at the same club and he was a producer who took a liking to me and the music. He asked me if I wanted to write a demo for a commercial. I actually said no at first, because I don’t know how to do it. I think the budget was $1500, so I did all the parts myself basically and hired a friend of mine who had a recording studio. And lo and behold, I won the account and that started another career. By the end of that year, I had done 150 commercials for television and radio – it was ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous.
I got very lucky with orchestrations and stuff. After winning the song writing competition – which is what effectively it is – the same producer said ‘okay, the next day we have to record the song and we’re going to use a full orchestra’ And I’m gagging and thinking ‘what the hell am I going to do now?!’ I didn’t even know what a full orchestra was! I had heard a record by Harry Lukowski, he’s a violinist who did a jazz violin record that Bob Brookmeyer wrote, that was very successful and very cool. So I just screwed up my courage and called Harry Lukowski and said: ‘Hello, this is Joe Beck. I’ve got this problem. I have to write an arrangement and I don’t know what the hell I’m writing for, but I’m not going to tell my client that’ – and I didn’t tell him I was eighteen at the time!’ He said ‘Listen a good string session is eight violins, two cellos, and this and that, and I’ll get you those guys’. I said ‘I need a high soprano,’ and he said, ‘don’t worry, I’ll get one of those.’
To make a long story short, I wrote the arrangement and I had also met [composer] Alec Wilder in that same club. We met at the Algonquin Hotel to have breakfast. I show him this score and he says ‘God this is awful, but it’s going to sound okay!” And I said: “That’s all I care about. If it sounds okay, I’ll get through the awful one and I’ll work on making the next one better.’ Well the thing came out beautifully. Here I was conducting for the first time. I was conducting this high soprano who sang like a bird. I was writing in the same era with Don Sebeksy, Patrick Williams, George Romanos, Larry Wilcox, Al Cohn – all kinds of phenomenal writers and I was actually considered along with those as a competitive composer and arranger. I was good enough to get by, get it done and fool everybody – and that’s what I did. And it went on like that for years. I was paid $3-5,000 a day to learn how to write. It was just astonishing – nobody ever got this kind of a start. It was not based on ‘here comes this genius who deserves this placement. It’s ‘let’s take this average kid and put him in this situation and see if he can tread water. And I managed to stay afloat – it’s that simple.
TLM: You met and played with Gil Evans
JB: I can’t say for sure how I got introduced to Gil. I suspect it was because of Herb Bushler, who was the bass player, who remains one of my best friends. But then, my first experience with Gil was that he was commissioned to write a film score and whoever was contracting the musicians for the session called me and Gil liked what I did and used me for the next whatever years. I did several albums with him and did go on the road with him, because he was such a special human.
He was unique in the way he wrote – he was nothing like any other arranger. He was meticulous to the point of lunacy! He could sit for a full day at the piano playing a three-chord resolution and listen to it in all of its possibilities and listen to it for six or seven hours without writing a note – just playing the same thing over and over for hours just listening to what notes required what instrument. And then maybe go home not having written anything. He would come back the next day and pick up at the same chord progression and say ‘okay now I know the middle note has to be on the English horn and the bottom note on the bass clarinet’ and he’d orchestrate these things. Plus he wrote his scores in the tiniest print you have ever seen – it was just about undecipherable. I remember Herb Bushler was copying for him and squinting and couldn’t read it. And [Gil’s wife] Anita came by looking over his shoulder and said ‘why don’t you use a magnifying glass, because Gil does when he writes them!’
His scores were the result of such tedium – nobody else wrote like that. That’s the reason he has such a small body of work. Nobody could hire him. If you hired him for a week from tomorrow, you’re not going to get the music or if you did, it would be mostly blank and he would make it up in the studio, because he just couldn’t write under pressure – it just wasn’t his style. So what we did get from Gil was always so pensive and thought out perfectly – and that’s why it sounded like the way it did. You listen to Porgy & Bess – you can’t orchestrate any better than that.
TLM: People who knew Gil always seem to have warm feelings about him
JB: There’s nobody that didn’t like Gil Evans. There’s not anybody whoever met him who didn’t like him because he was the most positive, humble, supportive person in the whole business. He just didn’t react very well to pressure. I remember the last time I saw him [in 1987]. We had just done an album of Helen Merrill music [the album was called Collaboration and was recorded in August 1987. Gil Evans died seven months afterwards]. We were doing a session and Teo Macero was the producer and Gil was the arranger. I remember it so well because he handed me a part that looked difficult but not terrible.
But then I realised that it was really fast and I couldn’t play it. So I went up to podium and said: ‘Gil I’d have to take this and prepare for it. I can’t play by sight like this – it’s too hard.’ That wasn’t unusual because guitar players will often say ‘you’ve got to give me half an hour to work on this because it’s too hard’ – people write for guitar like it was a violin. The bad news was that this was a re-recording of an arrangement that he had done thirty or forty years before and Barry Galbraith was the guitar player. And I don’t think Barry had any trouble at all playing it. So I’m sitting there scrambling and thinking ‘I can’t play this goddamn guitar part’ and we start to record and Lew Soloff is playing trumpet. Lew stops the band and says ‘Gil, this is too hard. I can’t play it – I’ve got to practice this for a minute.’ And it turns out he and I had exactly the same part. So I figured if Louie can’t play it then I don’t feel so stupid. What happened was that while Lew was practising I was listening – so I stole the whole thing from Lew and played it perfectly. And everyone is thinking ‘wow, that Joe Beck is so bad!’
Gil was so cool – it didn’t matter to him. There was another time we were recording with Miles. He had me playing mandolin, tho’ God knows why, because I don’t play it. It’s tuned in fifths, two strings at a time – forget it. So I’m looking at the part and I come to this chord which has thirteen notes in it. Now, I’ve only got four strings. So I walk up to the podium and I say ‘Gil, I’ve got a problem. You’ve got thirteen notes and I’ve only got four strings, and he said ‘just play the good ones’!
He was unflappable in that way because he hired players that he trusted their judgment implicitly, so he never worried about wrong notes. If you wrote for Snooky Young and Jimmy Maxwell and Johnny Coles to play on the trumpet and one of the notes was suspicious, one of those guys is going to quietly fix it. We all knew what Gil was looking for and we would just adjust accordingly if there was a problem. Other arrangers are so obnoxious and so any opportunity to point out their mistakes would be taken, but not with Gil. We would never ever say anything out loud that would make Gil be possibly embarrassed. You’d always take him aside and ask him what he really meant and he would tell you. A miraculous man. There was nobody like him to work for.
TLM: Presumably you got to work with Miles through your association with Gil?
JB: Exactly. Miles just called me early one Sunday morning. The phone rang and I just heard this voice ‘get over here!’ And he hung up – that’s all he said. He didn’t say who he was or where ‘over here’ was. I couldn’t believe it – I knew this voice but I still thought it was a joke. A few minutes the phone rang again and it was Gil and he said ‘I think Miles is going to call you.’ And I said ‘I think he just did. But the problem is: where is over here?’ So he told me the address – it was right around the corner from my house. So I walked over with my guitar and Miles was there and it was the band with Tony and Ron and Herbie and Wayne. Now I had stepped into the cobra’s nest at this point.
TLM: You were only twenty-two then
JB: Barely. I wasn’t intimidated because I had already recorded with Herbie and Ron a lot. Herbie was such a warm, good guy – he was just a great guy to be under any conditions. He used to drive me out to the studio in his [Ford] Cobra – we had a good time. Ron on the other hand was kind of aloof and always kind of professorial. I mean when you’re six-five, you’re always looking down at people! Tony I was just getting to know and he was cool. But Wayne was glaring at me as if to say ‘what the hell we got this white kid for?’ Finally I said to Miles something along the lines of ‘look you asked me to come here. Let’s get this shit organised because I’m not interested in taking that crap from anybody.’ And Miles was happy that I had just put it out on the table because it disappeared immediately and there were no more issues.
The bad news was that that band was such an entity – where was the guitar player going to play? What could I possibly contribute that would improve on that rhythm section? I didn’t know, they didn’t know and Miles certainly didn’t know. As it turns out there was nothing I could contribute. The sessions were patently unsuccessful.
TLM: Did you feel that at the time?
JB: Oh yeah. I felt like ‘what am I doing here? I shouldn’t even be here.’ I knew what Miles wanted to do – he wanted to take his band from jazz into fusion. But I was in a position where I knew how to do that but I didn’t have the nerve to try and tell anybody in that band how to do it. How are you going to tell Herbie Hancock what to do? Even if I’d had a good idea I would never had said anything – this was like talking to a god. I hold him in such high regard that I would never suggest ‘Herbie I think you ought to do this.’ I couldn’t do it today and I still play with him on sessions. You just listen when somebody like that plays. I didn’t have any information for Wayne and Ron was singly unreceptive to anything I would say – he didn’t want to hear any suggestions from the likes of me or anybody else for that matter. I got the sense that he just wanted to get out of that band. And the band did break up shortly afterwards. They had already accomplished what they wanted to accomplish; the best quintet in all time in my opinion.
TLM: Did Miles give you any direction?
JB: None. He didn’t know what to do with me. He really didn’t have any direction for anybody. Once in a while he would suggest a dynamic, but he let the band just play. He was much like Gil in that you hire the right guys and don’t tell them what to do and let something good happen.
TLM: You said in an interview with Guitar Player you were flailing round like a drowning man.
JB: Trying to look for something to play in the presence of those guys.
TLM: Miles said some critical things about you, but some critics say he was very harsh on you because he didn’t know what he wanted from the guitar at that stage.
JB: I’ve never read any critics of those sessions to this day. I do know in Miles’s autobiography he refers to me as the first guy that he hired and moves on. And the next person he talks about is [John] McLaughlin. But in the interim he tried George Benson and some others that didn’t work. And the reason it didn’t work was because he hadn’t fired his band yet. It was never going to work by just shoehorning a guitar into that existing group. He had to come full circle and clean the whole house and get people who played electric music. Then it worked and then there’s room for [John] Scofield and Mike Stern and the great players that surfaced for that. To put George Benson in a band like that and here’s George sandwiched between Herbie on one side and Ron on the other, and Miles who wants to be dressed in a silk acid shirt! There was no hope it was never going to work – and it didn’t.
TLM: According to the notes about the track “Circle in the Round’ there were multiple takes joined together.
JB: I don’t know about any of that; that’s all post production stuff. I’ve never really listened to it. I went back and listened for about one minute of it years ago and turned it off.
TLM: It was too painful?
JB: Yes, I don’t even want to hear any of it – it’s horrible. But it was part of that growth of that music. I’m glad to be a part of it, but it was shameful performance. We tried it again, we did some other sessions.
TLM: One of these was “Water on the Pond”
JB: I don’t remember. The only title I remember from those times was we did a tune called “Cyclops” and it was because the second session I was released from the hospital. I’d had some eye surgery and I had this giant patch on my eye and so he called one of the tunes “Cyclops.” [This was subsequently released as “Water on the Pond.”].
TLM: Was there ever a second drummer on that session? Because one of the mysteries of “Water on the Pond” is that there’s a second drummer playing rimshot?
JB: That would probably be Tony overdubbing.
TLM: Where any positives from working with Miles?
JB: Playing with Miles was a significant step in terms of recognition and in terms of acceptance by people who would otherwise dismiss you. I remember Joe Zawinul – who I never got along with. I was out in San Francisco on the road. I walked into a club where Cannonball [Adderley] was playing and Joe grabs the mike and announces that one of his best friends Joe Beck has just walked into the club! This is utter horseshit – he didn’t even like me. But now I had recorded with Miles I was a member of the club.
TLM: Between 1968 and 1971 you effectively dropped out of the music business. Why?
JB: I somehow fell into this pile of success, none of it my own doing and that’s what I had to sort out. So it took me a while to come down to earth. In 1968, when I was twenty-three, I just realised that I had this vastly skewed vision of myself and the world and I quit. I bought a dairy farm and moved away for a couple of years. I had recorded with Miles. I had made as much money as I could make. I just couldn’t handle it.
TLM: Was it creative burnout?
JB: No. I looked around at players that were so far superior to me who weren’t even working. And here I was – I could do anything I wanted. It just didn’t seem right. Plus I was getting involved with drugs and working with some really rough characters. So l was fighting that demon as well as this ‘why am I so successful, I don’t deserve this.’ It just overwhelmed me.
TLM: Why did you choose dairy farming?
JB: I really didn’t. I just chose to get the hell out of New York. I had some land behind my house in Greenwich, New York, that was overgrown with weeds and didn’t know what to do with it and a neighbour came over and said ‘get some sheep and they’ll eat it.’ It seemed like a good idea and went over to this sheep farmer and bought seven sheep for seven dollars a piece. I put them in the backyard and one day I came out and there were more sheep – I now had twenty-one sheep. So I got into the sheep business! I just got so enamoured with this dairy farming life because all my neighbours were dairy farmers. I just kind of slid into it. I would be doing it today if I could make money from it.
TLM: During your time away I believe you did an interesting musical project that involved writing a soundtrack for a porn movie!
JB: It wasn’t porno! It was more like just gross. Porn has some value – this had no value. It was a kind of a prurient reference to Grimm’s Fairy Tales – it was horrible. I was managed at the time by a guy who used to import films from Europe and overdub English voices and re-do the soundtrack. But you know what? I love writing for films. With film, there’s a specific time and a specific feeling you had to generate. It had to be over at frame X. Once you establish a tempo and a life, you pretty much had your song written – you filled in the blanks.
TLM: You came back to music in 1971.
JB: And when I came back I had the same syndrome again. I made a record and had David Sanborn in my band. I put out the Beck record and I’m back in the saddle again. Now I’m a performer and a rock star!
TLM: After playing with Miles, did you take an interest in what he was doing musically?
JB: While it was happening, no, because I was totally involved in the studio business in New York, which is basically playing bad music for good money. That’s what recording musicians do. Every once in a while they do something of note and that’s nice. I was moving from one house to another and my appointment book fell out of a drawer. I picked it up and I noticed on one page that I had twenty-one sessions in five days. Now, there are not twenty-one good sessions a week on the planet, so you know eighteen of them are absolute horror shows. Studio life is lucrative but musically bare. I can only say that looking back. Back in the 60s, when I started doing it, [guitarist] Larry Coryell was living in my house and he was begging me not to get involved in the session scene.
TLM: I believe you met Miles in 1978 when he was staying at a friend’s of Larry Coryell’s wife in Woodstock, Connecticut.
JB: He wanted Larry Coryell and me to produce a record for him. He was very ill at the time. I remember him sending a limo for Larry and me to come down to Woodstock and talk about the project. He wanted to make a good record. His attitude was ‘I’ve got some good ideas and I want you guys to help’. We never got a chance to do it – I don’t know why exactly.
Larry Coryell and Joe Beck © and courtesy Joe Beck
TLM: You left the music business again
JB: In 1989, I retired to another dairy farm – a big farm with a lot of cows and a lot of land. I had a lot of money and I lost it all because dairy farming is like a hole into which you throw money.
When I came back from that disaster the studio scene had disintegrated and even if it hadn’t, I had. In 1992, I was 47 years old and that’s kinda old for a studio guy – they don’t want to see anybody that old. In the rhythm section they want young blood. So between that and the fact that the studio scene had died because of [Apple] Macintosh and Pro-tools, there wasn’t anything for me to do but to go back and play real music. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I put together a band and we went to Europe and started touring. And from then until now, I’ve been back on the road playing real music.
TLM: Did you hear Miles music in the 1980s? Some people believe Miles was coasting in the last decade.
JB: That’s just sour grapes. Who has the right to say that? This guy was issued a licence to do anything he wants, because from 1945 to 1965 he absolutely set the bar. He was the guy who decided how you were going to play. When you come up with Dizzy and Charlie Parker and early Trane and Prez [Lester Young] and you can stand in the band with those guys for twenty years, you are allowed to do anything. If somebody doesn’t like it, that their business. But to say he’s jiving…He wanted to be a star, that’s all. And he knew playing at the Village Vanguard was not going to do it. So what do you do – you try to be Michael Jackson. He did it the only way he knew how to do it, which was to get a fiery band as you can and get them to play what people wanted to hear. I thought he did a great job at it.
TLM: Did any albums or musicians impress you from the 1980s?
JB: Mike [Stern] and [John] Scofield. There are no two better guitarists on the planet, period. Scofield is my hands-down favourite player that I’ve ever heard – there’s nobody who can play like him. Mike has a miracle technique and knowledge – he’s spectacular. Some people aren’t aware what Marcus [Miller] did for Miles. I remember when Marcus first came to New York and was not considered a jazz player at all. And here was a guy who could sing, he could dance until you fell on your face and read anything, play anything, in tune, perfect time, great technique. He’s like [bassist] Will Lee, coming from the other side of the tracks – they’re two sides of the same coin. Will chose studios and Marcus chose the real world. Will Lee absolutely maximises the life of a studio player – you can’t do it any better than Will does. He’s just absolutely successful and never became anything less than a great player. Marcus had the same opportunity but he chose to achieve it from a more creative angle. He’s to me the reason why Miles’s success continued – I don’t think Miles would have been as successful in the 1980s without Marcus.
TLM: Final thoughts on Miles as a person?
JB: I have one specific story about Miles that sums up how I feel about him. He has this rap of being the boxer, the sports car driver, the turn-his-back-on-you guy. But that’s not him at all. On the second date I did for him I was released from the hospital because the surgeon was so flabbergasted that Miles had called me that he accommodated my wishes and released me during surgery. I noticed one particular day Miles was wearing this gorgeous sweater and I said: ‘Jeez, don’t take that sweater off or I’ll steal it’ – I just loved it. We finished the date and I went back to hospital and had surgery the next day. And when I came out of the recovery room and started to come out of the anaesthetic, I woke up and looked around the room and on my stomach is this blue sweater with a note that says ‘get well’ and ‘it’s yours.’ So this is the Miles tough guy. He was a good guy.
Many thanks to Joe for his time. Check out Joe’s website: www.joebeckmusic.com
Postscript: Sadly, Joe died on 22 July 2008, due to complications from lung cancer.