Art Farmer: Interview 1
Art Farmer: Interview 2

Art Farmer (1928–99)

Farmer was an American jazz trumpeter and flugelhorn player. He also played flumpet, a trumpet–flugelhorn combination specially designed for him. He started to play the piano in elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona, before settling on trumpet at the age of 13, and began playing professionally while in high school.

Farmer moved to Los Angeles in 1945 with his double-bassist twin brother Addison, attending a music-oriented school, where he received music instruction and met other developing musicians. He subsequently moved to New York, where he performed and recorded with musicians such as Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins and Gigi Gryce, and became known principally as a bebop player.

Retuning to Los Angeles, Farmer was engaging in studio recording and the recording of his composition “Farmer’s Market” in 1952 brought him greater attention. During the 1950s, Farmer was featured in recordings by leading arrangers in a wide range of styles and was much in demand because of his reputation for being able to play anything.

In the 1960s, Farmer made several tours to Europe and in 1968 settled in Vienna. He began appearing with the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band with many well-known American and European musicians. He also played alongside well-known expatriates such as Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster. From the early 1990s, Farmer had a second house in New York and divided his time between Vienna and the US. He continued performing on both sides of the Atlantic and recorded extensively as a leader throughout his later career, including classical music with US and European orchestras.

Biography by Mike Rose


Second interview with Les Tomkins

Les Tomkins interviewed Art Farmer twice, in 1965 and 1988. Farmer talks about the many bands and musicians he played with and notes the Lionel Hampton band where he was part of a trumpet section with Clifford Brown and Quincy Jones. In the third interview, trumpeter Ron Simmonds writes an appreciation of fellow trumpeter, Art Farmer.

Art Farmer: Interview 3

Art Farmer: Interview 2

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1988
Interview source Jazz Professional
Image source credit
Image source URL
Reference number
Forename Art
Surname Farmer
Quantity 2

Interview Transcription

Good to see you back here, Art. Are you still living in Vienna?

Yes. I am, and I do quite a bit of work in the United States these days; so I'm going back and forth quite a bit.

When I'm not there I'm working over here one place or the other. I was last in the States in February of this year, and I’ll he going back in a couple of weeks. I took off the month of March because I had to have an operation at the end of February; this trip to Britain is my first work since then. I'll go from here to Germany, then to Finland, and after working a week in Vienna I’ll go back to New York City to do some work there. I’m doing a concert for the Duke Ellington Society on May 22, and then I'm playing in a theatre for the first week of June. After that I’ll be coming back to Paris, to work for week in a club there. So it's always back and forth.

So are you spending more time in the States as hitherto?

I would say I was spending more time in the States now than I was spending, say, five years ago. It seems like I'm spending more and more time over there, as far as working is concerned.

And how do you find it when you go back now? Has anything changed in the jazz world?

Well, there always seems to be another club to play in, in the New York City area. Also this last time I played a club in Los Angeles, which has been a kind of a dead area. And there seems to be a bit more interest than there was in the past. I think one thing that helps the clubs in the New York City area is that there's so many tourists coming from other parts of the world. I'd still like to see more places to play in other parts of the States— say, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, places like that —but those sections are economically rather on the low side right now. New York, as I say, benefits from tourism.

I think that both the level of musicianship and the level of audience interest are very high, though; so that's a good sign.

You’ve spent a few days in this country— what have you been doing over here?

I worked a couple of weekends at Pizza Express, and I did a session with the BBC Radio Orchestra. I worked a night in Cambridge, at a place called Club 96; another night I worked in a town called Norwich— there's an Arts Centre there, that has jazz concerts from time to time. I played there once before about two years ago; it's in an old church. And the audience was just great in both places. This is what’s been going on for me in England, ever since I've been coming here in the past few years— playing one night here and one night there, with local musicians, and sometimes with a different group of fellows every night. It's a learning experience for everyone involved.

You're well used to adapting to given situations, of course. What was your assignment with the Radio Orchestra, then? Were you playing some special music?

It was ballads. They've started recording, when soloists come over here on a tour such as I'm on, some ballads for latenight listening. I think the first one was another trumpet player— Bobby Shew. He did a session when he was over here a few months ago; now I've done one, and they say that they intend to keep on with that. It's a certain programme, that comes on late at night— I understand it won some kind of a prize just recently.

Oh, that'll be Steve Race Presents The Radio Orchestra Show, that won the Radio Programme Of The Year award. Would you call it a mood music' type of situation?

Yes, I guess that's what you would call it; everything wasn't so slow, but that's the general thrust of it. It was nice to be able to play with a big orchestra again— that doesn't happen so much these days, especially in the radio context. There used to be quite a bit of it, but there's been a trend towards cutting down on these large ensembles.

There was a regular radio orchestral setup in Vienna, wasn't there, that you were involved with at one time? 

 There was, and I left that in 1977. Then a couple of years later they decided that they didn't want to have the musicians under contract anyway; they just wanted to call them up when they needed them, because it saved them a lot of money as far as social expenses are concerned. Like I said, I had left that two years in front of the time that it broke up; so it didn’t bother me that much. The radio scene on the Continent doesn't seem to be as active as it once was— although I'm supposed to go to Berlin in December to do a concert and some recording with the RIAS band.

But there used to be much more. Oh, yes— Herb Geller's still working in Hamburg with a band there, and there's a band in Stuttgart that has at least a couple of Americans on it. As far as jazz concerts are concerned, there doesn't seem to be very much going on. You know how things go round. I guess it depends on who's in power.

Ron Simmonds has been reminding us in the magazine of the Peter Herbolzheimer band, that you were in together. Would you say that was a particularly outstanding band of its kind?

Definitely. And Peter's doing some work for the radio in Cologne— that's where he's located now basically. Of course, that was an outstanding ensemble concept, with rhythm and brass— that was what I would call a hot band! Around that same time I was also playing with the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland band. In fact, one night I played with both bands! It was on a festival— when one went on, I went there; then the next one went on, and I just went back up again.

Well, the ClarkeBoland band was another classic organisation.

But after Kenny died, that was it. Well, Derek Humble died first— and that was really the beginning of the end. It is said that no one is irreplaceable— but if anyone came near being irreplaceable, it was Derek Humble. He was one fantastic player, and a major part of the band's sound— he could do it all.

It must have been about three years ago now that Gigi Campi, who was the organiser of that band, put on a very extravagant concert in Germany, for which the people he got together included some former ClarkeBoland members. It turned out to be like a big band convention, plus members of the symphony orchestra— all in all, between seventy and eighty pieces. Plus Sarah Vaughan, and I think there were five backup singers from here; among them was Norma Winstone. The music was arranged by Francy Boland, and was written by a couple of Italian composers who had taken some poems that Pope John Paul II wrote before he became a priest and put them to music. Gigi Campi got the idea to present it to the public, and got Gene Lees, who is a very good lyricist, to make an English version of this. Then they got Lalo Schifrin to be the conductor. We rehearsed the whole thing during one week; on the night we played the live concert it was videotaped and also digitally recorded. It turned out very well, I thought— it was quite a project.

So is it available on a commercial record?

It's available— but not in the stores, though; you have to write off for it, because the record companies couldn't see where it would hit the charts! It was beautiful music, though. Tony Coe was there, and Benny Bailey, Jimmy Woode— quite a few of the guys who used to play with ClarkeBoland, and some guys who used to play with Peter Herbolzheimer also; so it was a great band. No, Ron Simmonds wasn't there— I didn't see him. This was in Bonn, and the last time I saw Ron he was living in the area of Saarbrucken, which is on the West border, between Germany and France. Actually, that's the last thing I've done with a big band.

That's more than just a big band, isn't it?

Extra big! Yeah— a big big band! It was really something— and Sarah Vaughan was just a gem. She's really perfection, and not only in one way, but in everything that she goes for— technique, the feeling, the sound.

Well, in fact, she's been expanding her scope, I would say, by doing quite a variety of material.

She has— and this was definitely an expansion. So I was really glad to be a part of that. Other than that— last year I recorded an album of Billy Strayhorn's music, with a quintet, featuring Clifford Jordan on the tenor, James Williams on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, and Marvin Smith on the drums. I also participated in a recording with the singer Mark Murphy, which hasn't come out yet— I liked that. Earlier this year, when I was in the States in February, I recorded another quintet album. These are for Contemporary— yes, Fantasy bought Cantemporary from Les  Koenig's son, John. So now I record for the label; also Frank Morgan and some other people have been recording— there are also reissues, of course.

Yes, Barney Kessel was telling me he's doing some things for them.

Right— it's a pretty active scene. Let's see. . . that's all I've done just recently under my own name, although I was involved in a couple of projects— one with a Finnish piano player by the name of Heikki Sarmanto, and one with a Finnish singer whose name I don't remember right now. Later this year I expect to do my third album for Contemporary. And I've also been working with the Jazztet— Benny Golson and I.

Ah— I was going to ask you about that; you have continued that revival?

Yes— we don't work all the time, but we work in New York City a couple of times a year, at a club there called Sweet Basil. We also go out to the Coast around once a year, and we go to Chicago once a year. We get together, do some dates, and then everybody goes their own way. Because Benny's back in New York again— back into the playing and writing thing, for jazz. Curtis Fuller also works with a group called Timeless; so everybody has their own things to do. And we also have a couple of Jazztet albums on Contemporary.

So you've maintained quite a reasonable output.

It's about as much as I would want to do— I don't like to spread myself too thin. It gives me time to find material that I would like to do. I don't like to make a recording just to make a recording— I think I've made enough of those already.

And as I always ask; is it still strictly the flugelhorn? 

For the time being— although I did buy a trumpet last year, and I intend to gradually do more playing with the trumpet. But I expect that the flugelhorn will remain my major instrument, for the remainder of the time that I'll be playing.

When people think of your playing, I suppose, they tend to have that familiar flugelhorn voice in mind.

That's what I think it has turned out to be now. But a lot of records are being reissued that I'm playing the trumpet on; so some people say: "Gee, we would like to hear you play the trumpet again."

Well, I must say that I was first attracted to your playing by one of those trumpet albums. In fact, the first time 1 took note of your name was probably when I heard you featured on a Lionel Hampton record.

Quite a while back. Speaking of Lionel Hampton, I'm supposed to do something with him in the very near future.

Benny Bailey and I are playing on some kind of a festival with Lionel in Germany— in a town called Mainz. I believe it'll be a jam session situation. That'll be interesting, because when I first went with Lionel Hampton's band, Benny was still there. And Benny's always been one of my very favourite trumpet players; I think he was the first what I would call `real trumpet player' that I got to really know closely, when I first moved to Los Angeles. Being able to hang out with him and listen to him play was an educational experience for me at that time— I was maybe about sixteen or seventeen years old. So it still goes on— because he keeps on playing, you know; he's not just coasting.

That was a classic trumpet section, with Lionel in those days— with yourself, with Benny and with Clifford Brown.

Well, Clifford came in later, after Benny had left. When Clifford came in, the other trumpet players apart from myself were Quincy Jones and a lead trumpet man by the name of Walter Williams— I think he's still alive; he lives  out in California and is still playing, I heard. We all know where Quincy is! Of course, he's unable to play any more— he had this operation, which meant he couldn't put the pressure on his head any longer. But he's doing okay without it! I think so. What do you feel, from a musician's point of view, about his more popslanted things? Have you appreciated those? No, some of it is just not interesting to me; I think it would be if it was less simplified than it is. Yet, ironically, to pull off that kind of simplification is a sign that the person who wrote them knows a lot of music. You either have to know absolutely no music or a large amount of music, to get that simplicity. I was just thinking about that the other day: Quincy is able to write in a real simple, basic way, that everybody can seemingly understand and appreciate— but he can go the other way too, and write some of the most beautiful, interesting big band arrangements that you would ever want to hear. I'd rather hear his normal big band writing.

I suppose he set down a fair amount of that in the past.

He did, for sure. But whatever he does, he's one hundred per cent there. He masters the situation, whatever it is— he makes a total commitment to it, and he does a great job.

In a sense, he raises the level in that area. You may not like the style, but it still has musicality to it.

You can say that. It has musicality and quality to it— and perfection to it. He really does what he sets his mind out to do; so I have to give him as much credit as there is.

Do you listen to a varied range of music? As you say, the pop thing isn't really for you; I don't suppose you spend a lot of time listening to that.

I don't spend a lot of time— but I have a sixteen-year-old son. So if you have a sixteen-year-old in your house, then you've got to hear some pop music! I listen to contemporary jazz, to hear what's going on, because I don't get to hear everybody out in public. More for enjoyment, I listen to the older things, though. It's not that I would listen in order to learn that much, but if you listen to big band playing going back into the 'forties or the 'fifties— that's what got me into music to start off with and I can groove and reminisce. And I even hear some things that I didn't hear before, because when I first became interested in jazz, I didn't know enough to know why I liked it— I didn't know anything about the technical aspects of music at all; I just liked the sound. Now, I do know a little something about it; so I can enjoy it on more than one level. To be able to still enjoy something after forty years, it shows there is really some quality there.

There's such a mass of reissuing going on nowadays, anyway— and enhanced by remastering, to improve the original recordings.

Right. This period that we're going through, of reissuing— it's not going to last forever, because they're going to run out of things to reissue. After that happens, then hopefully there will be an audience demand for more original music from the people who are playing now— I think that would be a very good thing. It's great to reissue the music, and it should be available, because there's a completely new audience out there, that hasn't heard these things, to listen to it. They haven't had the chance to hear them before. If their taste and their music appreciation has this foundation, then we hope that they'll keep on being interested in jazz, and support the contemporary players more.

And it's to be hoped that exposure to jazz of past eras when high standards of playing excellence were maintained will have the effect of raising listening and performance levels generally.

Sure— it can't hurt. Like, my son in Vienna plays with a little group, and an alto saxophonist who just started playing with them— a kid just like him— never heard of Charlie Parker! Which, to us, is incredible. But the music hasn't been available that much; unless it was in your environment, in your family background, you could go for years only hearing the new things that came out. So that's a good sign. And there's more and more education going on;  more and more people are learning the rudiments of jazz music and its appreciation. If they're getting a solid grounding in how to play and hear music, it bodes well for the future.

Is there more of a tendency now for players to be versatile, and not to specialise so much? I think there's a tendency for players to be able to play more than one type of music. The demands of this age are making it necessary that in order for a person to live and die as a musician, they have to be able to cover more than one style. They might be called on to do countless things; if they have to play a classical chair in a symphony orchestra, it doesn't means that they have to be a soloist, but they have to be competent enough to do that. They might have to play a jazz gig, an R & B gig, or a pop music gig— whatever it is, the more they can do, the more chance that they'll be able to support themselves playing music. If your heart and soul is music, you certainly want to make your living from doing it. I think, actually, that playing one type of music can help you in playing another type.

Anything that expands your ears and your consciousness has to help you. I don't hold to this theory that you should put yourself in one little box and just stay there— that doesn't make too much sense to me at all. You've got to respond to different challenges. And you grow that way. You have to be versatile, because the time of a person just playing the most simple rudimentary things in an ensemble seems to be coming to an end, in a certain sense. You have to be able to do more than that.

A trend of this kind could rectify public unawareness about jazz musicians— the idea that all they can do is play jazz.

Yes that is an attitude that we could well do without. Some jazz players can certainly do more, and I think in the future their numbers will increase— from education. It's a great thing.

To my mind, any kind of attitude which tries to narrow jazz down into an unnecessarily tight category and definition is bad.

It's detrimental to the whole thing, because jazz is freedom. It takes many types to make the world, and everybody's entitled to their own opinion. You can't force a person to like what they just don't like, but I think people should listen to everything, and then make up their minds what they like. Just because they don't like some other type or style of music, that doesn't means it doesn't have any validity to it. The more variety there is, it means the more people will be able to get something out of the music— that helps everybody. If you narrow it down to any one category, that just leads to nonparticipation for so many people in this world. I don't like that idea at all.

If you trace it back to the beginning of socalled jazz appreciation, there were those people who said you could only play jazz if you came from New Orleans; then they broadened it out to include Chicago. Then it was: okay, as long as you're a black musician, you can play jazz.

That's all been proven to be silly— jazz is being played by people all around the world, East to West, North to South. It doesn't matter what you are or where you came from; it matters how much you love the music, and how much you're willing to put into it— that's what counts. The main thing is: if you love it, you're willing to go to all efforts to learn it, and how to speak in it, and to find your own voice. That's what makes it happen. It's not at a11 fair to anybody to say you can only play jazz if you're black— you can reverse that, and say` "Well, he plays so good just because he's black." That's implying that the black guy didn't work in order to do what he's able to do— well black musicians have to study and work too. But they say: "Because he's black he plays that way— he really didn't have to work at it. It's natural to him. It's in his system and it just comes easy to him." That's not giving the person the credit that's due him, and it's certainly not fair. Not at all— it's silly.

Well, the only way you can, to some degree, categorise jazz is that some people, regardless of their origins, can play it better than others.

Some people can play classical music better than others too; some people can run the marathon faster than others.

We're not all equally talented— but we can raise our level somewhat. There certainly are a lot of players that I envy myself— but that doesn't mean that I should stop trying. I do what I want to do, and I do it the best way I can.

But a musician who aspires to play jazz, but somehow can't get into the kind of creative flow that a player like yourself can get into, shouldn't give up.

No, no— not at all. Absolutely not. You should keep on trying, because with the effort comes improvement— and enjoyment. You enjoy going from one step to another, even if you know you're not ever going to revolutionise the scene. Still, you go on, just for your own personal satisfaction. It's just like .anything else— to master something.

Jazz, like any art form, is always a state of getting there; it's all about the trip. You never say: "Well, gee, I got it made— here I am." There's always another thing for you to work on, to try to do, regardless of how good you are.

The rank amateur and the master are both working on something— that's the way it is. So the person who is just at a very low level should take courage in knowing that the person at the highest level is also trying to grow.

Copyright © 1988 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved