With his trademark hat and cigarette, Mike Zwerin is a recognizable figure in any Paris jazz club. In fact Zwerin wears two hats, as a trombonist and as a columnist for the International Herald Tribune. We met recently in his comfortable home in the 11th arrondissement to discuss both “chapeaux.” Is it tough living a double life? “It’s not quite a double life because both jobs involve music. But it is very hard to mix the two. If I go to play at a festival, it never crosses my mind to do any interviews on the side. I’m there strictly as a musician.”
It’s the musical side to him that’s getting attention these days, thanks to the release of his latest CD, “Gettin’ X-perimental over U” (Verve). Recorded with his group, Zip, made up of Americans Paul Breslin and Marten Ingle and a Breton, Erwan le Marc’hadour, the CD takes swing dance tunes from the ‘30s and ‘40s, refashions them with samples, computer beats and new lyrics, and voilà, acid swing.
“Jazz used to be dance music and that’s what this is,” Zwerin says. “It was a nice slot that nobody else was in and a lot of fun to do.” Although he’s played with everyone from Miles to Eric Dolphy, he thinks of himself primarily as a be-bopper and admits that his new record reveals a side to him he didn’t really know was there. “The biggest shock I got was when we were doing ‘One O’clock Jump’ and Irwan put the computer funk backbeat on top of Basie’s rhythm section. It had such a great feel! I heard that and thought, wonderful, that really is new!”
“Newness” is also an issue with his writing, facing down the same problem at least once a week for over 20 years: how to say something fresh in a 1,000 word format. What’s his approach? “Basically I try to find a story where there isn’t one. A friend once told me that ‘the holes in your Swiss cheese are somebody else’s Swiss cheese.’ What somebody else will leave on the table because it’s ‘not interesting’ will be the center of my piece. When the Stones played Paris, for example, there was literally a fight at the press conference to get to Mick. It was quite unpleasant. There was no way I was going to get into that. So I was standing back, beginning to feel sorry for myself, when I looked in the corner and there was Bill Graham, their manager, standing on his own, and I thought, ‘There’s the article!’ That was the hole in the Swiss cheese.”
On occasion the tone of his pieces can be biting. Zwerin demurs. “Can it? I don’t know. I would never be biting with some young jazz musician if I didn’t like the way he played. It’s too cheap a shot. It’s hard enough to make a living. I’d rather just ignore him. I guess I can be biting if I can’t hurt the person’s career.” Like his piece on Woody Allen’s Dixieland tour last year? “I hope I wasn’t too tough. I love his films and Woody’s one of the best for picking music for soundtracks. But I didn’t like the idea of that tour or the way Woody played… In the end, the idea of being read by people who are not jazz fans is the challenge to me. When somebody tells me, ‘I don’t know anything about jazz but I really like to read you,’ that’s when the satisfaction comes in.”
After his CD launch, Zwerin has some gigs with Zip before going to Miami to research a book that’s been kicking around in his head for a long time. “It’s a great story set in the ‘30s and ‘40s, of how Miami used to be. It feels like a novel.” And it sounds like Mike Zwerin’s just tossed another hat onto his stand.