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"Bud Shank is too much. I told him I had his contract ready, but I can't get him to leave California. He was the greatest part of Kenton's Neophonic concert the other night, and he was even greater with us the last two days. He even shook Johnny Hodges . . . Bud Shank is something else!"
-- Duke Ellington

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From Bud's Room III

Dear Sir,

I am writing a dissertation for my degree in Flute at RWCMD on the use of the flute in jazz. As a hugely-admired, incredibly successful professional jazz flautist as well as saxophonist, I would be very grateful if you could offer some insight into what you feel about the flute in jazz. The topics I am particularly interested in are:

  • Techniques you use for playing jazz
  • Your influences
  • How easy it was to break into the jazz scene on the flute
  • Whether changes in the jazz industry have helped or hindered your work as a jazz flautist
  • The influences of being trained classically
  • Why the flute isn't viewed as a jazz instrument as much as other instruments
  • How much you feel the flute is suited to jazz compared to other instruments
  • How playing jazz on the flute is viewed in the jazz world and the general public

I find enormous inspiration in the fantastic creativity, awesome technique and sincere musicality in your playing and I would be incredibly grateful for your views, not only for this project, but also as a budding jazz flautist that strongly admires your work. Please let me know if I also may be able to use any quotes.

Many thanks

Jane South
Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama

Hi Jane

Thanks for your letter and especially for asking good questions. Since I have been asked similar questions by other flutists and by "flute fans," with your permission I would like to use my response to your e-mail as an essay to be posted on my Web site. First, I do not play the flute anymore. I quit in the mid-'80s, more than 20 years ago. This probably answers a couple of your questions, but it also instantly asks another one: "Why?" The answers to this one are lengthy and sometimes complex, but here we go.

I got my first flute at age 19 (clarinet, age 10; saxophone, age 12). Soon after (1947) I was working with Charlie Barnet's Band, and that frequently deposited me in New York, not working! So, with time on my hands, I got my first flute lessons from and aging classical teacher named Victor Goldring.

In January 1950 I auditioned for and got a job with Stan Kenton's "Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra," basically a jazz big band with strings, etc. I then found myself sitting in front of 5 trombones, 5 trumpets, 4 French horns, and a tuba -- definitely a bad place for a beginning flute player to be. The only solution was to play loudly with a big sound, which is unfortunately, impossible for a neophyte flute player. Okay, so I'd try to play it like a saxophone, which is also impossible, but I tried anyway.

After I left the Kenton band I concentrated mostly on small jazz groups, first the Lighthouse Allstars and then my own quartet in 1956. I was still primarily a sax player, but I was also studying flute with Roger Stevens, at that time a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Also, I was working and recording more frequently as a jazz flute player. Slowly, it was starting to make sense.

Since there were no flute players who were doing what I was trying to do, I started listening more to pianists and vibe players. These guys were able to swing very successfully without being able to "bend" notes, a function all trumpet players, trombonists, and saxophone players are able to do with ease. The art of sliding in and out of the pitch center had become a very important color for all of these players. But not the flute. Not yet, anyway. More work to be done.

In the late '50s, when I wasn't on the road I began doing more and more studio work. I was frequently added to the motion picture music format (basically a symphony orchestra) as a second or third flutist, then kept after the end of the session, along with a rhythm section to do jazz "source music" cues, or jazz-type "chase scenes." This was great because I got to sit next to some great flute players like Arthur Gleghorn, Sherdon Stokes, and Lousie Ditullio. What an education! There I was, sitting 12 inches away from the business end of Arthur Gleghorn's flute. WOW! I did this for ten years, all during the '60s -- being next to these kind of players, working for composers like Michel LeGrand, John Mandel, Elmer Bernstein, Lalo Shifrin, David Grusin, and may other greats.

By the beginning of the '70s I was a "real" flute player. I also became a smartass. I decided I could also be a classical soloist. I started to occasionally do classical recitals and concerts, not many, but at least I did some. I even made several albums (CDs) climaxing in 1979 with a suite written by Bill Mays, which combined classical and jazz. Then it all started to hit the fan. I did a couple of flute conventions and other similar functions. Where I was exposed to younger classical flutists. Soon the rumbles were "Oh that's that jazz guy Bud Shank. If only we had the time, we could do anything he can do, and he will never be able to do what wedo!" So, who needs that?

From the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s I was working with a group called the LA Four, a classical guitarist, bass (Ray Brown) and drummer (Shelly Manne). We did a lot of classical things placed into this "chamber jazz" setting. Also I physically started to hurt. My left shoulder began giving me terrible fits. I sensed real trouble.

Jumping ahead in tine, in 1998 I had carpal tunnel surgery on my left hand, and in 2003 serious arthritis surfaced in my left shoulder. Now in 2006 arthritis is appearing in my left thumb. All of my doctors agree that all this has been caused by playing the flute, not just playing the instrument, but the WAY I played it: HARD. And for long hours at a time. Possibly you can see that with the rejection I got from the flute community and the surfacing of the first "hurts" in 1985, my decision to toss my flute out the window (I didn't really) was a valid one.

But wait, there's more! This one will probably be the hardest to understand. It was for me. Even after all those years of studying, practicing, performing, and trying to make the flute have a place in history as a valid jazz instrument, I finally came to the conclusion that it couldn't be done. I learned how to bend notes, to have different colors in my sound, to project my sound so that it could be heard over an energetic rhythm section, to really "dig in" and attempt to make the thing be accepted alongside the trumpet, trombone, and saxophone -- the traditional instruments of jazz music. Can't be done!

However, I don't want to discourage you or anyone else. There are some people out there who are getting close, but the ongoing problem of being heard still exists. Playing an amplified flute is ridiculous. By its nature it is an acoustic instrument. Attempting to play a concert using a house sound system is worse. You are completely under the control of some idiot staring at a bunch of dials or slide-pots and getting stimulated by all of the power he has. This is not good for creativity or any kind of acceptable performance.

In summation, I am still convinced that I did the right thing. I seriously miss the flute. It was a lot of work, but I am very proud of what I accomplished. Others may disagree, but I am not here to please the critics. Rejection by "legit" flutists still hurts (along with my shoulder). Now other players have the ball. Somebody (maybe already) will solve the problems that I encountered. As for me, I am happy. All that I ever wanted to be was a jazz alto saxophone player. I'm almost 80 and musically, things have never been better.

Good luck to you, and all of the other aspiring flute players out there. The ball is in your court -- you got it!

Best regards,

Bud Shank


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