Singer, musician and songwriter Bryan Ferry is known primarily as the frontman of the hugely successful English rock band, Roxy Music. Bryan stopped by the SiriusXM studios recently to talk with Ron Bennington about his new album with the Bryan Ferry Orchestra, “The Jazz Age”. Excerpts from the interview appear below.
* * *
Ron Bennington: Bryan, sometimes we talk about music being able to transport us, but that just take us into a whole other time and space, doesn’t it?
Bryan Ferry: It is. That was the idea – to do an instrumental album using the style of the 20′s, jazz from both New Orleans and kind of New York. It’s been a fascinating project.
Ron Bennington: Well, the fascinating thing about it is – what a song is able to do too. I don’t imagine you could do this with every song. You have to pick songs that I guess could make this kind of move.
Bryan Ferry: We just really wanted to do kind of…take a comprehensive look really at my catalogue really with Roxy Music and solo records and I guess we chose things that did well. We were very lucky. I think it’s all down to the players really – to be able to embrace each song. We kind of worked on arrangements, but the improvising part of it is very important I think.
Ron Bennington: So you gave them that kind of freedom to be jazz musicians.
Bryan Ferry: Absolutely. Yeah, which is what it is. However, even with all the rock records I’ve made over the years – I like to give freedom to the musicians because it always gives it extra life, you know. You kind of write the tunes, but you always hope that somebody’s going to transcend them and can take it into a different space.
Ron Bennington: Right. Sometimes it’s happy mistakes and sometimes it’s…
Bryan Ferry: Very much so, yeah. (laughs)
* * *
Ron Bennington: The thing about this too – when I first got the record I put it on in my house and living here in New York – it makes you not only think about these songs, but you think about the city. You think about what took place here. And the fact that the 20′s, that jazz age, was such an extraordinary time.
Bryan Ferry: It’s an incredibly interesting period. It’s like the beginning of so many things. It’s like the birth of modern music. And then all the dancing that went with it. And the fashions were kind of pretty amazing for time – what they had come out of was kind of I guess a Victorian quite straight laced. And suddenly it’s all – hey, it’s hedonistic, partying. And then of course, you had the dark undercurrent of prohibition and the crime.
Ron Bennington: Yeah. It really is the…you say it’s the birth of modern music. But it’s also really like the birth of a modern age where there was suddenly leisure time.
Bryan Ferry: Very much so.
Ron Bennington: And that led to this explosion of art. There was painting. There was dance. Cinema was really getting underway.
Bryan Ferry: Yeah and incredible inventions like air travel and broadcasting, beginning at that time. Modern poetry and of course, the great literature of the time. F. Scott Fitzgerald being the great chronicler of New York – of the kind of party lifestyle.
Ron Bennington: You know I walk past The Plaza everyday and I think about F. Scott Fitzgerald. When you live in New York, you can’t…you see that fountain and there was always the story of his wife diving into the fountain.
Bryan Ferry: Yeah, Zelda.
Ron Bennington: Yeah and it’s just this amazing thing that in a lot of ways here in New York, those things still kind of exist.
Bryan Ferry: They resonate, don’t they?
Ron Bennington: Yeah. There’s echoes and shadows that never go away.
Bryan Ferry: And when you see a kind of…when I think of the 20′s, I always think of a little bit of Paris and Berlin, but mainly New York. New York is like the place and that’s the face you see in all the archive footage of the time. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it?
Ron Bennington: Well when you think about the musicians that were playing here and the music that was being played uptown – it was also a time where race was kind of transcended, thanks to musicians because they wanted to play with each other. So they got out of that old style of class and education in music.
Bryan Ferry: Must have been amazing to be at the Cotton Club in the 20′s.
Ron Bennington: Phenomenal.
Bryan Ferry: With these amazing musicians and kind of low life guys with lots of money and all the dancing girls. It’s a very kind of heady kind of image.
Ron Bennington: And at the same time, when you go up in Harlem – most of those buildings still stand there. The architecture is beautiful. There’s some of the most beautiful buildings in New York. And because for many years it fell on hard times, now it’s being restored in the same…everything’s still standing.
Bryan Ferry: That’s great. Because I never really get up there, but I used to have this wonderful album which was James Brown, “Live at the Apollo” – which is a place I’ve never actually been to yet. I’d love to play there one day.
Ron Bennington: Oh God, we’ve got to have you at the Apollo. When Eric Burdon came in one time, he was telling me when he got to New York…
Bryan Ferry: I love that guy. I love his singing.
* * *
Ron Bennington: Oh he’s phenomenal. He went straight to Harlem. Having no idea – just embraced it immediately. And that’s the great thing I think about English musicians is that they have such a love for American music.
Bryan Ferry: Very much so.
Ron Bennington: More so than Americans seem to.
Bryan Ferry: We’re kind of very aware of it and how cool it was. So we kind of revered it. I remember seeing Eric Bourdon when I was a schoolboy and going to a place called The New Orleans Jazz Club in Newcastle, my hometown where he came from too – and seeing him singing with this jazz band. He was amazing – doing this kind of Jimmy Rushing kind of thing. It was really good.
* * *
Ron Bennington: It’s very interesting too that there’s so many types of music that it all keeps flowing back and forth. Like I don’t think most people that would have listened to Roxy Music in the 70′s which seemed like it had a future slant to it, to me. Like we’re jumping ahead in time – would think that Bryan Ferry had this love for 1920′s jazz.
Bryan Ferry: It kind of started in 1955 when I was like 10. And then I sort of…I don’t know – there were records on the radio. Jazz records. There was a traditional jazz revival in England at the time. English bands covering New Orleans music. You’d listen to them and then you’d go to the source of it all. It’s the same with blues. There was English guys playing blues songs and then you think - I want to hear Lead Belly and (CAN’T MAKE OUT THE OTHER NAME HE SAYS HERE) and similar even to the audience – Louis Armstrong, King Oliver. And then more sophisticated uptown in New York, the Cotton Club, Duke Ellington and his amazing band – kind of more arranged, more sophisticated stuff.
Ron Bennington: And that’s the other amazing thing about having a love affair with music is that you can keep following lines.
Bryan Ferry: Oh yeah.
Ron Bennington: No one ever just explodes by themselves.
Bryan Ferry: And then you start a kind of journey, a musical journey. So I then started listening to after that to I guess, Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday and then ultimately I suppose, Charlie Parker and then the bebop players – Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. And I used to memorize all the…every note of these records. Until the mid-60s’s and then suddenly there’s all this different kind of music which took over my life. Like the girl groups from New York and Phil Spector records and Motown and so on.
* * *
Ron Bennington: Your music is very English, and at the same time – there’s so much soul in your music.
Bryan Ferry: Yeah, I was being nourished by American music. We were very lucky in Roxy in the early days, we had so many different sounds in the band which made it sound a bit unique in terms of there weren’t many bands with an oboe player. Like Andy Mackay and then (Brian) Eno of course. And with our synthesizers, we could create some different sounds that you weren’t normally hearing. So, it has been interesting revisiting some of those songs which were done in a kind of more futuristic way with this 20′s approach which is an interesting sort of musicological adventure. (laughs)
Ron Bennington: Well the other beauty is the visual aspect that you always bring to your work. The album cover here for “The Jazz Age” – I need a large copy of this for my wall in my apartment because it would be perfect.
Bryan Ferry: Ah yeah.
Ron Bennington: This is stunning. This is just beautiful.
Bryan Ferry: Yeah. They’re kind of illustrations by a French artist from the 20′s called Paul Colin who was the boyfriend of Josephine Baker who was the singer / dancer from the states who went over to Paris and she became the queen of Paris night life. Her famous banana dress that she wore and so on. And so it’s good to use art from the period, I think.
* * *
Ron Bennington: Is this something that had planned for awhile or is it an idea that popped into your head?
Bryan Ferry: Well, I always wanted to do an instrumental album which would kind of highlight my songs in their own light rather than me as the singer of those songs. Take the spotlight off of me and on to the songs. Let’s do it this year because it was the kind of 40th anniversary of the first Roxy album. And we did a box set of those records, the Roxy records. And I thought this is a good time to do it. This side project of instrumentals of our stuff. And I thought the 20′s would be good because I had been listening, revisiting a lot of my old records…and some of the early Ellington stuff as well which is beautiful very haunting music. And I thought – hey, let’s do it like this.
Ron Bennington: Well as a fan of yours and somebody who’s not musical – it’s very interesting to hear these songs without the lyrics when some many of us are drawn to lyrics first. So a song like “I Thought” which I just love – to hear that done in this fashion is an entirely different experience.
Bryan Ferry: That was a song that I originally did. I co-wrote it with Brian Eno actually. And I sent him the record when we finished it, the 20′s version and he loved it. He said – this shouldn’t work, but it’s great.
Ron Bennington: Yeah. How do some of the players from the early songs feel about it? Some of the folks from Roxy and all, have they heard this?
Bryan Ferry: I haven’t actually heard from them other than from Brian. I’m sure they appreciate it, yeah. Andy would like it, Mackay, because he’s such a good horn player himself. He would appreciate the dexterity of the soloists, I think.
* * *
Ron Bennington: Well, when you were growing up in England, did you think about the states? Is it a place that…?
Bryan Ferry: It was a dream to go, yeah. Absolutely. First of all, with all the musicians that I revered. And then later when I went to college to study art, painting, then it was like – I want to go to New York because of Jackson Pollock and after that, Warhol who I met many times when I eventually did get to New York. And all the pop artists, Jasper Johns and (Robert) Rauschenberg and (James) Rosenquist. They were kind of great heroes for me.
Ron Bennington: And so much of that was happening at the same time of the music that you’re talking about, the visual.
Bryan Ferry: Yeah, exactly. The 60′s were a very important period.
Ron Bennington: What was Warhol like? It’s still somewhat of a mystery to people.
Bryan Ferry: A great artist. He didn’t say a great deal whenever I…there was always a lot of “wow” and “gee”. But an incredible artist. There was a big show of his in London a few years ago. Like a retrospective and the body of work is incredible.
* * *
Ron Bennington: There’s one room where you can just listen to tapes of conversations. Some of them, very mundane, but you’re just hearing him working or talking to people and it’s stunning. It’s stunning how much work. And another person that was thought of by the end of their life, more for their personality than really…
Bryan Ferry: Absolutely right. So sometimes the work gets overlooked. Because it’s such an overwhelming presence which he was in this city. I went to a show last night – a great exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Gagosian Gallery and there were some very beautiful pictures there. And I remember being with Basquiat and Warhol in New York and they did of course, work together and collaborated on some stuff. But they were an interesting pair.
Ron Bennington: Well, the Basquiat is another thing that at the time, people thought New York was on it’s way down and it was the worst possible time. Not knowing again, there was this art explosion coming from downtown. And Basquiat is a guy that I just find endlessly fascinating.
Bryan Ferry: Yeah. And he was very in to Charlie Parker also as I was.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, right.
Bryan Ferry: He was a big Charlie Parker fan.
Ron Bennington: Well, the thing about Basquiat and I think it’s so perfect to show to young people is that he would just bring in as many influences as he could. But when he worked, it always seemed to be a place of almost subconscious – of just working and throwing it back out there.
Bryan Ferry: Yeah, like he was riffing on things.
* * *
Ron Bennington: I think I brought it up to you the last time you were in, but one of the legends of Bryan Ferry that there is this tribe in the Congo, (Bryan laughs) that worships you as a god.
Bryan Ferry: I feel bad that I haven’t been out there yet. I haven’t seen to my duties.
Ron Bennington: And they worship you and think about you and paint and sing about you and dress like you. Do you even know how this came about?
Bryan Ferry: (laughs) I have absolutely no idea. The mind boggles really. I’m not sure.
Ron Bennington: They also…part of the legend is they say that you visit them.
Bryan Ferry: In my invisible airplane.
Ron Bennington: In an invisible airplane, but I always think it’s on another astral plane where you just show up when you’re sleeping at night.
Bryan Ferry: I hope “The Jazz Age” album doesn’t confuse them too much. I really am kind of invisible on that.
* * *
Ron Bennington: Are you going to keep working in this style or is this it?
Bryan Ferry: I’m going to take the players on tour.
Ron Bennington: Wow.
Bryan Ferry: Later this year, we’re doing some festivals, jazz festivals in Europe. And in the Autumn, we’re going to do a big tour of the UK. And I’ll have all the guys from the record, plus some of my rock band as well. So, I’ll be singing as well as listening too.
Ron Bennington: Now will you be singing in this style or will you be…?
Bryan Ferry: For a couple of things. In the first half of the show, and then we’ll bring it more up to date as it were – through the ages.
Ron Bennington: It’s “The Jazz Age”. The Bryan Ferry Orchestra. I appreciate you stopping back in so much.
Bryan Ferry: Always a pleasure.
You can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.
You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews atRonBenningtonInterviews.com.