An Interview with Ted Howe
By Casey Pukl
Pianist and arranger extraordinaire, Ted Howe, is no stranger to turning classics upside down. From Duke Ellington to Elton John and everything in between, Howe’s imagination runs wild turning ballads into sambas and rock tunes into swing.
Howe’s latest adventure has resulted in a show unlike any other. The music of the legendary James Bond series was thrown onto Howe’s chopping block a few years back, and since then, he’s only picked up more steam. “Shaken Not Stirred” now features talented vocalists like Sweet Baby J’ai and Cheryl Bentyne of The Manhattan Transfer.
I had the great opportunity to catch up with Howe last week and pick his brain a little about his arranging techniques. Read on for some seriously geeked-out musical fun!
CP: How did you come up with the idea to put this show together?
TH: Well I have to say that it wasn’t my idea. I got called a few years ago from a friend of mine in New York who books a lot of productions and shows at Hofstra University in New York outside of New York City. Every year they do a symposium for a week for somebody big, like Frank Sinatra, things like that. Every year they do one, and this year it happened to be James Bond [laughs]. They bring in all the actors that are available— the stunt people, the cars, all the gadgets, and all that stuff. It goes on for a week. They wanted to wind it up with a concert of Bond music presented in a different way— not the usual orchestral stuff. So I wrote this show for that particular symposium, and it wound up belonging to me even though I was commissioned to do it, but it is my show so I started taking it into theaters and clubs. It has been very successful for me.
It was kind of like an accident. I was traveling around with this Duke Ellington show, and I was looking for something else to do. I had some ideas, and this thing came along I said, “Wow! I’m getting paid for it too [laughs]!”
CP: [Laughs] That’s always a bonus right?
CP: Excellent! I personally know your background just from going to Berklee; your name gets thrown around a lot. I would love let our readers in on a little bit of your background in music. How did you get your start and became such an incredible arranger?
TH: Actually it started late! I didn’t start until I was about fourteen. I loved music, and back in the 50′s, I had a HiFi system. They didn’t have stereo yet, and all I ever bought were jazz records— just jazz LPs, you know, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Paker, and Oscar Peterson. My sister was taking piano lessons at this time, and her teacher came to the house. He was a great piano player in Boston. He’s still alive and still teaching there in his late 80′s. Long story short, she came up the stairs one day and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore!” She then slammed the door, and went into her bedroom. The teacher, seeing my record collection and my HiFi system, said, “Why don’t you come down and finish off her lesson? You should be playing something.” I went down and spent the last 20 minutes with him, and then he started coming twice a week. Then I wound up taking lessons at Berklee when I was still in high school.
TH: Yeah, I studied with that teacher back in the old days on Newberry street. I wound up going to the army and playing piano in the third army band in Atlanta, Georgia during the Vietnam years, and I didn’t have to go over there and fight.
So I got out of the army and went back to Boston and started working at a supper club in Boston playing all these major acts, and then I got a gig teaching at Berklee. I was there for about 9 years before I moved to Atlanta in the early 70′s. So it’s been quite an interesting career, I’ve done a little bit of everything— arranging, accompanying people, teaching at three different colleges, two others beside Berklee: Georgia State University in Atlanta and LaGrange College just outside of Atlanta. I’ve been working here with Cheryl Bentyne and Lainie Kazan. I still work with her, but right now at this point in my life the main thing I’m doing is all the shows that I have. I travel all over the country doing my James Bond show and my Duke Ellington show. I do a little bit of arranging producing here too for people in Los Angeles. You know CD producing for singers and instrumentalists here, just to keep busy.
CP: Right on. I know the thing that I most recently heard was your Elton John record. (Author’s note: Listen to this on Spotify ASAP! Your ears will thank me).
TH: Oh you heard that?
CP: It is beyond incredible. How did that kind of come about?
TH: I have always loved his music, and I always felt that jazz artists neglected him. There are very few people who covered his music, you know? When it did it at the time, nobody I researched had ever done a whole complete CD of Elton’s music.
So I’m with Summit records, and so I told them about the idea and they said, “Do it! sounds great!” So I got two of the best guys on the planet to accompany me and arranged the music. We still kept it recognizable, I didn’t do what a lot of jazz guys do and take it so far out that people don’t know what you’re playing [laughs]. You might as well write your own music if you do that. It was successful for me. It did great though. It didn’t do really well on the radio because some of the “jazz police” or DJs that would not play Elton John on a jazz station, which I found to be snobby. But, it does well when I go out on tour. I sell CDs, and I have all three with me and people go right for that one. They always buy the Ellington stuff, the one that I’m doing, and I have them all on the table and the other ones go like crazy. So it was a lot of fun, I took a chance with it. I knew I might get in trouble with the DJs— especially since my Ellington CD did really well when it first came out but it didn’t get to #1, it got to #5 on the charts. Elton stayed down in the 40s.
CP: When you’re arranging, what’s your process for taking something like that and breaking it down? Where do you really start with that— the harmony? The melody?
TH: Well I start with the melody. Thats what I love about Elton’s music. If you stop and listen to it melodically and get rid of the antics of the piano and the glasses and all the visual things and listen to the music, that’s what attracts me— the melodic content. If that’s there, then I start fooling around and changing the harmonies around so it will sound more in the jazz genre. Then I turn it into something that it wasn’t before. If it was a hard rock tune, I might turn it into a samba. That one from The Lion King, “Circle of Life”, I turned that into a Cuban dance feel. When you mess with the harmonies of the tunes, you can take them anywhere. My whole concept has always been that. What I like arranging for people now is taking a tune, just wrapping it up and taking it somewhere it’s never been before. That’s what I love to do when covering other people’s material because it’s so much fun to take something that’s really great to start with and not necessarily make it better, but present it in a different way.
People say, “Wow, I’ve been listening to that song for 30 years,” in fact one of the reviewers said, “This whole CD sounds like standards that I’ve missed,” [laughs]. You know, it’s even better because I did some obscure Elton that not a lot of people know. When I stopped and thought about it, I thought, “Gee, most jazz people don’t know a whole lot about Elton.” They may just know “Bennie and the Jets”, or “Your Song”, and that’s about it. But they listen to this, they think, “Well who is this? Is that a current tune? Gershwin tune? Broadway tune? Boy what is it?” I was getting that all the time from people.
CP: That’s awesome. What are you most looking forward to about bringing your Bond tribute show to Anthology?
TH: Working that room! I’ve seen so many videos of friends of mine that have played there. God, they have a gorgeous piano, and I hope that we’re going to get a nice crowd. They also have that big screen in the back we’re going to be showing a little slideshow here and there of some of the pictures of some of the Bond movies while we’re playing. I’ve never played in a club yet, this is the first time I’m playing this show in a club. I’ve been doing it in theaters all over the country. I’m really curious to see how it’s going to go over in a club, and that’s a pretty big room. I haven’t been in it, but from what I understand from the pictures is that it’s pretty big. I’m just looking forward to it to see how it goes with more of a jazz audience present. When I do it in a theatre, we call it the performing arts business, we describe the series and they don’t always know what they’re going to hear and sometimes they’re not jazz fans, but they just come because they just want to get out on a Saturday night. My shows always go over really well, so I’m really curious to see how this one goes over at a club that I think would be way more of a hip audience than I get in the theaters and performance centers I work at all over the country. It’s going to be fun.
Special thanks to Ted, Sweet Baby J’ai, and Cheryl Bentyne for their time and contributions to this three-part interview series! Come out and join us tonight for their incredible tribute to the music of James Bond, and if you feel so inclined, why not throw on your best suit and order up a martini at the bar— shaken, not stirred of course.
Ted Howe on Spotify
WHAT: Shaken Not Stirred: The Music of James Bond with Ted Howe & Company featuring Cheryl Bentyne and Sweet Baby J’ai
WHEN: Thursday, July 5, 7:30pm
TICKETS: $10-$35 Buy Tickets
MORE INFO: Artist Profile