Saw Les Paul: Chasing Sound on PBS American Masters. Amazing film, very well done, about an amazing man who just kept innovating.
The most moving moments are watching him, at age 90, on stage during his Monday night gig at Iridium Jazz Club in NYC. He started the show 25 years ago after the heart bypass, when his doctor told him to work hard and stay friends. Now it’s “like therapy” for him, which is why he does it for peanuts.
It is amazing to see him in conversation with other performers; singers, piano players, guitarists, and so on. He catches with them and they communicate, with eyes and fingers, notes and vibes.
As I watched, though, I realized that his entire life has been a conversation. He started with his mother, went on to country music, to jazz and so on. He understands that communication requires the willingness to open and change, which is why conversations with Art Tatum, Django Rheinhart, Bing Crosby, and even Gene Autry have changed his life.
Through the years, he innovated to help him express what he needed to say, from the electric guitar to the solid body, through overdubbing and more. Now, when he plays with younger artists — and almost all artists are younger than 90 — they use the tools and forms he offered to speak, from a Les Paul Gibson guitar to an overdubbed track to a special lick. He taught himself to make his music, doing it for the first time, and opened up a whole vocabulary for musicians, one that crosses genres and times just as he does.
And, of course, he is always in a conversation with his audience, trying to give them something excellent that they will want to come back to. Not something they already know they want — who could have known they needed “How High The Moon?” before they heard it — but something that when they hear it, they know is powerful and precious.
That was his message to artistslike Miles Davis; if you want an audience, you have to connect with your audience.
Seeing the 90 year old Wizard from Waukesha having these conversations, with other artists and with audience, well, it makes me well up.
Of course, part of that is just how separated from artistic conversations I am, here in a place where few people are willing to let conversation change them, where that therapy is missing.
But the other part of it is the same reason I prefer the live cast of Hairspray to the movie soundtrack; that live, present, and immediate performance is powerful, even when we are just talking to ourselves.
But Les Paul has had a hell of an artistic conversation with the world, and in doing so, he has given others the power to speak and hear their own music, and that is, at least to me, magical.
A standing ovation for Les Paul, from me here alone in this room.
A conversation that good and that long deserves it.