This article originally appeared in Isthmus on June 30, 1995.
Ben Sidran has had a full schedule for the last 16 months. He has won applause for his Life's a Lesson CD and his soundtrack for the acclaimed basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, toured Italy and mixed tracks for vocalist Gege Telesforo at Minneapolis' Paisley Park. He has also produced discs by David Letterman's bassist, Will Lee, and David Sanborn's keyboard player, Ricky Peterson, as well as "a great R&B thing" by Phil Upchurch that features Chaka Khan and Mavis Staples. New editions of his seminal 1971 book Black Talk -- written for his dissertation at the University of Sussex -- are being published in Germany and England. And he's gigged around Madison once or twice a month, playing keyboards with Tracy Nelson at the Crystal Corner Bar, with Telesforo at Cafe Montmartre, with Frank Morgan and Richard Davis at Mr. P's Place and with his son, Leo, 18, on drums, all over town. If he misses "New Visions," the award-winning show he hosted for VH-1, he doesn't have time to admit it.
Sidran has been a Madison fixture since 1961, when he came to the UW campus from Racine in search of an undergraduate degree. With Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs, he was a key figure in the local music scene at a time when the Vietnam War came home to Bascom Hill, when some of the city's best reporters wrote for the Daily Cardinal and when Paul Soglin was a threat to the establishment. As his recent schedule suggests, Sidran has jumped the fence to become a jazz scholar, producer and musician of international repute.
Yet he's unassuming enough to make his own trips to the post office. That's were the foundation for this interview was laid. We found ourselves in line together late last fall at the Capitol Station downtown, and Sidran had a lot to say. He was equally voluble in subsequent chance encounters. Finally, over a cup of coffee, he sat down to talk about artistic rejuvenation, fallout from his notorious attack on critics, and the Academy Awards' controversial snubs of .
Medaris: Hoop Dreams was essentially frozen out at the Oscars. What was your reaction?
Sidran: A couple weeks before the awards were announced I talked to Peter Gilbert, one of the producers, and he said he was concerned about whether Hoop Dreams would be considered. I said, "You gotta be kidding. C'mon, this is the most celebrated documentary." He said, "No, it's a funny committee, it's happened before." And he was right. The interesting thing is that in some ways the exposure the film got was the best thing that could've happened, because being nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary is kind of ho-hum. But those big ads in the New York Times and Variety -- Paul Newman and Danny DeVito and Jimmy Smits took out a huge ad in Variety urging the Academy to investigate what happened to Hoop Dreams and consider giving it some sort of special recognition. You can't buy that kind of publicity.
The soundtrack could have been nominated as well.
Right. Fine Line was taking out ads in all the trades: Please consider Ben Sidran for the best score, "Hoop Dreams" for best song, Peter Gilbert for best cinematographer....
Are you disappointed that you weren't nominated?
No, because it was a really far reach. Over the years I've made records I thought should definitely be considered for a Grammy, and they never have been. After awhile you get really good at not even thinking it can happen. If it ever happened it would be a total shock at this point.
Do awards matter?
When I put out a record I really only have to sell one person on the record, and that person is the president of the record company that's distributing it. It's really a disposable business. There's about a six-week window of opportunity when you release something -- a record, a film, a book, anything. If the reviews aren't strong, they go on to the next thing. There's no such thing as career development anymore in show business.
What about recognition by peers, the public, the press. Does that matter?
Well, the press was fantastic on Hoop Dreams. They really came out in force to say this is an important movie and you should see it even though it's three hours long, it's a documentary, it's about basketball and you might not be interested in any of these things. But in terms of what you do? No. Reviews don't affect what I do or don't do. A lot of times the reviews you get compare you either more or less favorably to somebody else. That always misses the point unless it's putting you in some sort of historical context, which is what I think a review should do. I listen to what musicians say to me. If there's a player I like, and that player comes up to me and says something, I definitely pay attention. I mean, I appreciate it when somebody says, "Hey, your shoe's untied."
Has your opinion of critics mellowed at all since you wrote the song "Critics"? That was pretty scathing, and it drew a lot of flak.
Oh yeah. It sank that record. It got me a full page on the back of Cashbox and the International Herald Tribune, both from critics attacking me for attacking them. The hook to that song is, "Critics, they can't even float, they just stand on the shore and wave at the boat." What that meant to say in some artistic way was, "If you can't do it you shouldn't be able to tell other people how to do it." I was in my head distinguishing critics from journalists or from historians, who can put something in context. A critic basically sits there and says, "That's good, that's bad." They just don't know how they affect people.
Do you think "Critics" has anything to do with the fact that you don't show up much in the national press?
I think so, yeah, absolutely. It definitely cost me a lot of ink. On the other hand, it didn't cost me the opportunity to do Hoop Dreams, it didn't cost me the opportunity to make Life's a Lesson, it didn't cost me anything I do.
Last November, when Tracy Nelson was in town doing her Thanksgiving show, she called you up on stage and introduced you as the man who "made me sit down and listen to this music." There was so much going on in your face I couldn't read it. What was going through your mind?
I remember hanging out with Tracy 30 years ago, and Steve, Boz. Everybody was enthusiastic about something and would insist that you listen to it. Steve insisted I listen to Jesse Hill and T-Bone Walker, and I'm sure Tracy Nelson played me some folk music that I'd never heard. But I was into R&B. I remember saying to Tracy, "You've gotta do this. You've got the voice. You can do this." And the fact that she remembered was really sweet. Remembering the past implies a lot about a person, because if you remember, then you have to remember how many people helped you. When I perform, I always try to bring in the names: Horace Silver, Mose. To put Mose Allison's name out to the public and say "This guy's important to me," these little things are like seeds you plant.
You're one of the great keepers of recent musical history here. What's changed since you first arrived in Madison?
Except for the fact that there's this marked lack of optimism and idealism and no real center or core of faith, the times are definitely better. They're better for music, they're better culturally. I've seen a lot of people come and go, but good people go and good people come.
We're sitting here talking. I'm having coffee, it's Thursday morning. This is exactly what it felt like in 1962, 1964. History never felt any different than this feels. If you want to say, "Man it must have been great when you were hanging out with Steve Miller," it felt just like this. When Clyde [Stubblefield] and I used to play over at the Jazz Workshop, it felt like this. Every day and every night has the same potential to turn into something great here. I think the scene's very healthy now.
You told me you've gone six out of the last 10 years, doing your show for VH-1, producing records in Japan, doing studio work. Whole years have gone by when you haven't played in Madison.
That was intentional.
In the late '70s I played every Wednesday night at the Creperie. I was traveling a lot then, and I would play the Creperie for the door to make a statement, to say I live in Madison and I'm going to do it regularly, I'm going to play here with Clyde and Dennis Oliver or sometime Gary Zappa, whoever. Some Wednesday nights I would lose money and some I would make money. If it was February and five below there'd be four people there, but man, I'd fly in from New York to make that gig. I had to go through that to realize that it's really better for me not to play a lot where I live. I lost my effectiveness as somebody who could do benefits. I always do half a dozen benefits a year, and I found that if I'm out there a lot, I lost my effectiveness that way.
You've been playing more lately. What's behind that? You've attributed a lot of your rejuvenation to your son, Leo.
I got to the point where, just like I didn't care if I played in Madison anymore, I didn't care if I played anymore. You know, I played Carnegie Hall with Dizzy Gillespie once. I played all the great gigs with my heroes, and there's a of trials and tribulations in playing gigs. It was getting harder and harder. Having done it for 30 years, I was okay if I didn't perform anymore.
Leo and I were always playing at home for fun, just goofing around, shooting hoops, doing something physical. Then Leo started wanting to play out. Coincidentally, I got a call from Gene Parks a couple years ago saying, "Man, why don't you come in here and play at Mr. P's?" Well, I've got a real nostalgic feeling for Mr. P's, because I used to play there in the '60s when it was the Tuxedo Lounge. I said, "Aw Gene, I don't know -- wait a minute. I'm playing with Leo. If it's okay if Leo and I come in there, yeah." He said, "I don't care who you come in with, man, come on in." So, great. Leo and I went out and we played Mr. P's and it was the most fun I'd had playing music. I started playing all these great bebop tunes I'd stopped playing.
You know, there was a point when I was on tour with Steve Miller about four or five years ago. I was really burned out and I didn't want to be there on that bus. Then Leo came out and rode the bus with us one summer, and I started to see the tour through his eyes. I got out of my personal space, which was narrowing and narrowing and narrowing down, and I enjoyed that tour. The same thing happened with music. My view toward being a player was narrowing down. All I could feel was the negative. Suddenly I started seeing it through his eyes, and it started opening up. Now I use Leo like a bellwether. If he wants to play somewhere, I immediately say yes and go call. His instincts are absolutely right. That gets me in touch with how I felt when I was 18. When I met Tracy Nelson I was Leo's age.
You've been busy being born.
Being born, absolutely. It's that Dylan phrase, If you're not busy being born, you're busy dying. That's exactly right.
I've been blessed 100 times over. When I started, if you told me I was going to meet Horace Silver, that would have been beyond my wildest dream. If you'd told me I was ever going to make one record, that would have been beyond my wildest dream. So I've been gradually doing all the stuff I ever dreamed of doing. But waking up and caring about things becomes more problematic after you've done when you thought you were going to do. You need a dream to pull you. You have all the technique now, the access to your craft, but what becomes a rare commodity is having a dream or the passion to do it because it's got to be done. Leo makes it real for me. He gave me another 10 years in music. I'm 51 years old and I'm down in it now.
You told me a great story about something Rags [former UW Prof. Wilmott Ragsdale] told you when you were taking a journalism class from him. I want to hear you repeat it, because I think it's really resonant.
It was in the mid-'60s and the Vietnam War was on, and we were all abusing various chemicals and staying up all night long listening to John Coltrane records and trying to play that way, and we were anywhere but in the classroom. I kept showing up to classes like Ragsdale's because he was a real guy. But my work was suffering. I went up to talk to him, and I was giving him all the reasons why my work was late, and I was telling him about what was going on out on the streets and the war in Vietnam and on and on. He was in his way kind of diffident, and he said, "Ben, work, don't think." It really stunned me. What do you mean, "Don't think"? And I walked out of there, and those three words stayed with me like a Zen koan I had to wrestle with. One day it hit me: Just do your work. Don't think of all the reasons to do it or not to do it. The work is why you're here. He was absolutely correct. Even in the middle of the revolution, if you are part of the revolution, work, don't think. It turned me around.
One of the real issues on the street these days is rap as newscast, and that's something that you foretold in your book Black Talk.
You know, if you grasp the central premise, you can use that to foretell anything. The premise is that the music is not just a reflection of the culture, it's the cause of the culture. I think that's a pretty obvious tool to use to understand what's going on out on the streets. By listening to the music, the use of certain rhythmic and melodic and harmonic conventions -- what does that say about the people? The whole principle of black music is based on reinterpreting tradition, being prepared to innovate on the spot and to some up with an original response to traditional data. That technique is invaluable. Black Talk was really written at a very opportune time, when these things were just apparent but nobody and written them down. That's really all it was. In fact, a couple musicians have said to me, "Yeah, man, you wrote it down. We knew that, but you wrote it down."
I think the second edition talks about the real reason I wrote Black Talk. Once, when I was listening to Coltrane, I heard my mother's voice. I mean, I was listening to it and I thought I heard my mother call me. What was that? That was the opening of the rabbit hole.
How deep into the rabbit hole are you at this point?
Deeper. You are such a Buddhist sometimes.
Yeah. When I was in Japan this last time, The Teaching of the Buddha was in the hotel room next to the Bible. I started reading it, and a lot of it seemed really resonant to me.
Fifteen years ago, I felt really frustrated. there were so many more things I wanted to do, and I didn't have the opportunities.
Because of time?
No, nobody was returning my calls. I had all these great ideas for TV shows or radio shows or records, and there were all these reasons in the business world why I wasn't able to make them. I was spending a lot of time down in Yahara Park and being grateful for the space. Now I have all these things and all these opportunities and I feel frustrated by not having the space to sit in Yahara Park, right? Well, there's something similar between these two situations here, and it doesn't have anything to do with the opportunity. It has to do with learning to be where you are, so in that sense I'm definitely deeper.
What's on your agenda?
I'm very close to hooking up a distribution deal so the 20 or so albums I've done n the last five years will be available in the United States. That's taken a lot of time.
I have maybe 20 ideas on my desk. I'm determined to write a book. You know Gurdjieff's Meetings with Remarkable Men? I love that book. I wouldn't say I want to write Meetings with Remarkable Men, but I want to write a book that's disguised as a casual stroll down the road. To do that, I have to carve out the space for it to happen, and to carve out that space I have to actively not do other stuff, which means I have to give up some of my record production. I've got to go sit in the park. I'm going to stay home this summer. I'm going to actively not do stuff. I'm gonna stay in Madison and try to do this.