I had come out of the army and had worked for a couple of bands including Ray McKinley, where I met Eddie Sauter, and that's how I got to Wolpe. I told him that I was scrapin' the bottom of the barrel. I'm stealin' from myself and I keep writing the same things. [Eddie] was funny. He went through a whole string [of teachers]. "I studied with Marion Bauer," and he named all of these big East Coast teachers. I'm not saying that that's who he said, but names like that. "But don't go to any of them. Go see a man by the name of Stefan Wolpe."
[Stefan] was living in 110th Street then, the big huge apartments they used to have. The first thing he wanted to know was what I did. So I showed him some of these scores, and I played some of these things. I remember him saying, "Aha, Prokofiev," which I was unaware of at the time. I said, "Oh, yeah?" His idea, of course, was to kind of place the student's ear development. Figure out where he was ear-wise, what he could tolerate. Was he up to Ravel and Debussy. I guess he hoped you were up to Schoenberg. But if you weren't, he worked from wherever you were and showed you how to go beyond that. He was very concrete, very to the point about how one does things. To him musical devices and means were part of one's arsenal. He said, "I give you these techniques to put in your arsenal, what you can use." And they were very practical, very known procedures. He would like you to find your own application for these things. As a matter of fact, he was very funny about that. If you brought something in and you demonstrated a certain kind of technique, he wouldn't even bother to name it, if you could do it. He'd say, "Oh, you know about this." I'd go, "About what?" He said, "Well, about this procedure here." I'd say, "Well, yeah, I've done that before." Well, O.K., that's it, and we wouldn't even bother with that. He never bothered with anything that you already knew. If you could demonstrate that you knew a certain technique, he went on from there.
And then later on he started the Contemporary Music School, which was on the list, and so I studied some more on the [G.I.] Bill of Rights and took some other things besides. He had great classes in that school, because they were small, and there were mostly professional people that had already good backgrounds, like myself, commercial musicians. No nonsense. I took another class with one of his other students, James Timmens, in ear training, which was invaluable. I also took a marvelous class with Stefan himself in analysis. We analysed Beethoven, Mozart, Bartók scores, whatever was up at the time. He had a marvelous approach. He didn't think that the study of any of the little details was of any importance. I remember one class where somebody was saying, "Well now this first motive Mozart took it and here he turned it upside down." You know, very detailed, four notes at a time kind of thing, where this came from, where that. He finally grew impatient and said, "Does everybody understand this?" And everybody said, more or less, "Yeah, we see that's O.K." He said, "Now what's important is where does he go, and why does he finish this section and initiate this new section?" The idea of trend, that was the point. What makes them change from this thing to this next thing. Especially with somebody like Mozart, almost without error, just about when you were getting tired of the first theme, bam, he was into this next theme. Oh, saved! That course was beautiful for that reason. This was for about a couple of semesters, about a year. At some point or another I think the school got into trouble financially and they couldn't keep going. They had these good people--Ralph Shapey and Jim Timmens--teaching there, Wolpe people who were oriented in this direction. First of all it extended all the possibilities, especially harmonically, which of course if you're an improviser immediately gets into that. You find out all these other notes that you can play besides the ones that you've been playing all along. For a chord that's distributed all over an area he used to call them constellations. Instead of C, G, B, the extensions of that were all available with the extra notes, the D, F, and the A, and so on. Also, and probably more important, that in the process of studying these techniques, which were basically twentieth-century, highly chromaticized if not atonal, you listened to a lot of the best examples of this. You listened to a lot of Berg, Webern, Schoenberg, Stravinsky. So your ear progressed to a point where, when you took it back to the jazz field, what one hears is already an extension of what you would ordinarily hear if you hadn't heard these things. [...]
I think that Stefan picked up a marvelous appreciation for jazz in the listening. There's almost nothing in his music that's like jazz. Let me rephrase that. People talk about jazz as if it's with a capital J. I resent that highly because jazz is just another by-water of music, so in that sense it's related to all other music. If you're a musician the way Stefan was, a musician that knows the difference between Charlie Parker and some lesser player, or Stan Getz--I mean why would he pick Stan Getz, for instance? He knew. He heard. He said, "Wow!" Why? Because on the basis of music alone he recognizes this as superior music. Not because he suddenly understood some kind of art.
I think I took him to see Miles, or I might have even taken him to see Charlie Parker with a rhythm section at the old Royal Roost. It was even before Birdland. I think it was with Charlie Parker, and Curly Russell was playing bass in a typical jazz way with plucking, but not legitimate pizzicato, which is different. We're sitting rather far back, and he's listening, and he hears this bass doing what it's doing, and without paying attention to the head waiter he just ran down right through the crowd, right through the whole bunch of tables, and stood there and watched how Curly Russell did this on the bass. To me this really exemplifies how he was about music, that you study ways and means by observation, by trying to do it, by watching somebody else do it. I'm sure that's how he came to write that [Saxophone Quartet]. He heard a piece with a saxophone, in this case a baritone saxophone, and he wasn't happy with just a drum set. He wanted the percussionist to be able to run over and play some notes on the marimba or the xylophone. [...]
So here's Stefan, and he's in the middle of this stuff, and he's already made a name with enough of the guys involved in that, starting with Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan, and Ken Hopkins, who was a commercial writer who was writing for the radio, the Lucky Strike Hit Parade, movies and so on. So he got all of these people. He had access and was influenced, or at least was familiar with, everything that was going on then, which was considerable. I would imagine that he heard [jazz] on records. He didn't go out to that many clubs at all anyway. After a year, or a year-and-a-half, I stopped studying with any regularity. I would go out on the road, and I'd have to break off, and then I'd come back and take a lesson or two. Finally that petered out, but I never stopped being an acquaintance. He became a real family friend.
What his big impact was more than anything, I think, and I'm speaking to start with for myself and for a lot of other people, was that he opened up a tremendous amount of doors as to what one could do. Not like Schillinger. What [Schillinger] did was he made a bunch of successful arrangers that could write quick. He didn't expose anything new. His whole system was based on known music. He analysed Tchaikovsky, let's say, or whoever. As a matter of fact Stefan and I talked about that, and we agreed that that's like learning something in French, then you translate it back into English again, which is ridiculous. If you know how harmony and composition work, you don't need to put it on a graph. [...]
Stefan would show you some kind of a tool, a musical tool, and then you would go and use it. He didn't care how you used it just as long as you incorporated it. Sometimes I would have arrangements to write, and I really couldn't sit down and write etudes, so I used to somehow or other figure out a way to use this device or this technique in an arrangement and bring him the score to the arrangement. See, there's another kind of jazz influence that he would not have gotten otherwise, because quite a few of us were jazz arrangers. The way we scored, there were certain things that we did as a matter of course he would never do in legitimate music, in the symphonic thing. The way you group brass, and so on, he would marvel at--and I'm sure he'd never forget it either. He'd look at it and say, "Oh my!" And I'd say, "Oh, we do that all the time." Very off-hand. And he'd say, "Oh yeah? How's it sound?" I'd say, It's nice and rich and full, interlocking chords, or stacked. The trumpets cover a couple of octaves maybe, with a lot of doubles an octave lower with some other notes. Or maybe spread out a different way, widespread at the bottom and close at the top, which would give a tremendous amount of sonority. This is where he would get into your thing, into my arrangements. He'd say, "How about if you'd change this to this?" And I'd go, "Oh yeah? Let me see what--Yeah, keep that in." Like one of my best pieces. Every time we spoke about it when he was still alive, I used to try and give him credit. I'd say, "That's partly your piece." Because somebody would say, "Well, boy, your student here, he wrote that great piece Israel." I'd say, "Well, that's partly Stefan's piece, because he did make some changes." When I write something like this, it was an ongoing thing. This was for Miles. I think originally I wrote a big arrangement of it for Woody Herman's band. And I'm sure that I brought it around to Stefan. If I was working on it, and I was studying with him, which I was at the time, he saw it. He suggested certain changes in it which I would incorporate gladly. Because he always had some ideas that were startlingly beautiful. What I had was pretty nice, but what he did to it, put that in! A new problem arose when I had to arrange the piece for a smaller band, but the Woody Herman band never played them.
John Carisi (1922-1990), trumpeter and composer, arranged for and played in various dance band including Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman, and Ray McKinley. He also worked in television, most notably on Sid Caesar's Show of Shows and the Philco Playhouse. His works have been recorded by, among others, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans and Bill Evans. Interview: AC, New York City, 21 October 1984.