© Deborah Feingold
Music journalist/musician Chip Stern has been writing about all things music (be it musical instruments, pro sound recording/high end audio gear or the creative output of America’s most progressive musicians) for nearly thirty years, establishing an international reputation for his colorful prose, musical insights and fair-minded approach. In the fall of 2000 he was honored with one of ASCAP’s 33rd annual Deems Taylor Awards for excellence in jazz feature writing—a JazzTimes cover story on the brilliant Cuban-American clarinetist and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera.
L-R: Abraham, Jennie and Martin Stern; Shirley, Sonia and Meyer [Lavitzky] Lavey
Chip’s father was an engineer and a graphic artist,
his mother a nurse, and about the time his younger brother Richard was born,
the family moved to Plainview, Long Island, where Martin and Shirley’s Stern’s
three-year old son was entranced by his parents’ extensive collection of
classical music. “I grew up in plain
© Collage by John Potis
Bach, Beethoven and Brahms
“Still, in retrospect, there was a lot of good music around the house and good audio, too. My dad was a really gifted carpenter, and he put up planks of knotty cedar on the living room walls, which gave the room an acoustic response that was palpable—recorded music just came alive.
“And he had some decent early Hi-Fi gear (which he told me I wouldn’t be allowed to touch until I was eighteen), and while the amp and pre-amp were nothing earth shaking (General Electric separates as I recall), we had an early reel-to-reel ¼” Sony tape recorder, a Dual turntable and a set of the original AR-3 Loudspeakers a pretty famous three-way acoustic suspension design which coupled really beautifully to the acoustics of our living room.
“It was a very compelling environment to get lost inside of music, and as a little kid, while I heard a lot of ‘50s Broadway musicals, what really got me going were music from The Three B’s: long playing records of Bach’s piano music, and reel-to-reel tapes of the complete Beethoven and Brahms Symphonies as conducted by Joseph Krips and Bruno Walter.
“But it was in 1955, when I was three years old, that my mother introduced me to a recording which completely captivated me and had an enormous influence on my way of hearing, giving my ears a decidedly abstract orientation: conductor Fritz Reiner’s historic rendition of
Conductor Fritz Reiner
Composer Béla Bartók
© Collage by John Potis
Béla Bartók’s Concerto For Orchestra on RCA Red Seal, which was just alive with color and rhythm and dissonance and mystery—it blew my mind. I would make my mother play it for me over and over again and would conduct along with a spaghetti baton,” he recollects with a sheepish grin. “Yet as spooky and complex as the music was, I was hearing all of these other parts and singing along in my own brand of toddler counterpoint…very rhythmic, always rhythmic.”
The drums always fascinated Chip. However, when his mother was growing up her younger brother, Ira Lavey played the drums, inspired by the Benny Goodman Orchestra’s flamboyant rhythmic dynamo Gene Krupa.
M: Gene Krupa
R: Sam Ulano and Chip Stern
He had a room of his own, while Chip’s Mom shared a
room with her grandmother until she entered nurse’s training. In a curious confluence of events, Chip’s
Uncle Ira was mentored by fellow
After an abortive attempt at trombone, Chip began
taking guitar lessons around the time he was 12—to no particular effect. “There was really nothing in my environment
that inspired me about the possibilities of the guitar as a means of
expression. Hell, I didn’t even know I
was looking for a means of expression. I
guess I picked up some basic technical rudiments that served me well in latter years. Still, I didn’t get anything back from the
guitar I was playing, and yes, yes…I know the instrument isn’t supposed to mean
a damn thing, just your soul, but trust me, I had this $35 Danelectro hollow
body electric, a truly grim instrument fashioned from prime East Los Angeles
Formica and Masonite. My parents
purchased it from this Joseph Telasco fellow who ran a dance/music school in
D’Angelico New Yorker Deluxe
Johnny Smith Gibson
Danelectro Masonite-Formica Electric
R: Xavier Cugat
“Who knows how accurate my boyhood memories are, but I do recall Brother Telasco to have been something of a blowhard, and that his wife’s dance studio was the real moneymaker, with a constant stream of little girl-types running about in their tights (including three male triplets, which really impressed me as to their parents’ visionary ambitions—I mean, tap-dancing triplets…what a concept). My first guitar teacher was an older Cuban gentleman, Mister Messchereli. He’d played with Xavier Cugat’s big band and had these gnarled, spatulated fingers—beautiful hands, which seemed especially expressive to a youngster who couldn’t bar an F chord. Thereafter it was a succession of Italian guitar teachers with bad complexions, Mel Bay guitar methods and fancy D’Angelico arch tops.”
With few if any records possessing an authentic jazz pedigree in his parents’ collection (save for Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours and Dinah Washington Sings Fats Waller), Stern took a circuitous path towards developing a progressive-music/modern jazz consciousness, hearing Motown and R&B at summer camp (he was particularly taken with Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, the Temptations and the single “[I Wanna] Testify” by Parliament), while developing a taste for folk music, which eventually led him to graduate from Peter, Paul and Mary to the works of Bob Dylan, The Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel.
© Collage by John Potis
Voices Of Chip’s Youth
The Chairman of the Board & The Empress of the Blues
Frank Sinatra & Dinah Washington
During college he became fascinated with the heady electric blues-jazz-rock improvisations of The Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band and Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention (circa Trout Mask Replica and Freak Out), which oddly enough led him to John Coltrane’s roiling free form work, Ascension.
Finally, in a conclusive epiphany, Chip was working
as a DJ at WJRH/Easton,
© Collage by John Potis
In short order Stern discovered: Bird, Dizzy, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Charles Mingus on Jazz At Massey Hall; the bassist’s Mingus Presents Mingus (with Eric Dolphy, Ted Curson and Dannie Richmond); Sonny Rollins’ East Broadway Rundown and Saxophone Colossus; Miles Davis’ Miles Smiles and Bitches Brew; John Coltrane’s Crescent and A Love Supreme; The Tony Williams Lifetime’s Emergency and Turn It Over; Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity and New York Eye And Ear Control; John Tchicai, Roswell Rudd, Lewis Worrell and Milford Graves’ collective work as The New York Art Quartet, Sonny Sharrock’s Black Woman and Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica (“I used to employ those discs to scare away prospective roommates.”); Ornette Coleman’s The Art of The Improviser and Free Jazz; Don Cherry’s Complete Communion; Duke Ellington’s In A Mellotone and The Money Jungle; Lester Young/Coleman Hawkins’ Classic Tenors; Max Roach’s The Many Sides Of Max and Clifford Brown & Max Roach; Count Basie’s The Best Of Count Basie on Decca, and The Louis Armstrong Story, Volume 3—With Earl Hines. “In a couple of months I worked my way back in reverse chronological order from all of this wild, freaked-out avant garde jazz to Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines on ‘Basin Street Blues,’ ‘Weatherbird’ and ‘West End Blues.’ I was hooked.”
And so it came to pass that
Chip’s vague aspirations of a legal career were supplanted by a fascination
with the art of improvisation and all manner of progressive modern music,
particularly American jazz and blues. He
began to commute back to Long Island from
R: Johnny Smith
L: Andres Segovia
Of Modern Guitar
Chuck Keuvning, a student of Johnny Smith, who had
worked with Mundell
Lowe and recorded with songwriter Roger Miller
on his trailer-park anthems “Dang Me” and “King Of The Road.” Then a series of developments tipped Chip’s
hand. Keuvning decided to leave the
music biz and transplant his family to rural
“I’d just heard Andres Segovia in concert at CW Post
Between 1972-1976, Stern met his wife-to-be Mary, a piano teacher, had a daughter, Jennifer Jill, and continued to explore the guitar and bass guitar in earnest—eventually devoting himself to a study of the drums.
L: Jennifer Jill Stern Invokes Her Muse
R: Mary Morgan Stern As A Teenager
He also made his first tentative steps as a
music scribe while finishing his second collegiate stint at the State
University of New York at
Fellow drummer and SUNY-Oswego alumni Tom McGrath read some music features Chip had written and volunteered, tongue only partly in cheek, as to how “…this is great stuff. The images and ideas are so vivid and clear. You should really pursue the writing aspect—you write a lot better than you play.” This led Stern to try his hand at writing about the music—more or less informed from a musician’s viewpoint—and after several false starts he finally passed muster, and in the Fall of 1977 began contributing essays to editor Robert Christgau’s influential music section in New York’s Village Voice, beginning with pieces about Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin’s Shakti and Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions. In due time he penned pieces for every important music publication including Rolling Stone, Musician, DownBeat, Modern Drummer, Guitar Player, Guitar World, Playboy, Playbill, Penthouse, The Soho Weekly News, The Boston Phoenix, Cashbox, Billboard, Spin, Launch, MUZE, JazzTimes, Global Music Network, Amazon.com and many others.
Over the next twenty five-plus years Chip developed an international following through his liner notes, bios, interviews, reviews and features on the likes of Joni Mitchell, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, Max Roach, Papa Jo Jones, Art Blakey, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Julius Hemphill, Sam Rivers, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, George Clinton & Parliament/Funkadelic, Ornette Coleman, James “Blood” Ulmer, Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society, Melvin Gibbs, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Hamiet Bluiett, Oliver Lake, David Murray, James Newton, Lester Bowie, Arthur Blythe, Henry Threadgill, Steve McCall, Fred Hopkins,
Five Decades of Innovation and Counting
Jimmy D’Aquisto, Ned Steinberger, Randall Smith, Joe “Papo” Daddiego, Robert Moog, Erik Paiste, Robert Zildjian, John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, L. Shankar, Vassar Clements, Leroy Jenkins, Regina Carter, Jean-Luc Ponty, Bernard Edwards & Nile Rodgers of Chic, Tony Thompson, David Sanborn, Olu Dara, Mark Knopfler & Dire Straits, Peter Gabriel, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, David Byrne & The Talking Heads, Stewart Copeland, Andy Summers, Sting & The Police, Tom Verlaine & Television, Roger Troutman & Zapp, Daryl Hall, James Carter, Patricia Barber, Odean Pope,
Legendary Luthier Jimmy D’Aquisto
Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, George Benson, Stanley Jordan, T-Bone Burnett, Don “Captain Beefheart” Van Vliet, Frank Zappa, John Entwistle, Mick Fleetwood, Fran Christina, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Julie “Earth Girls Are Easy” Brown, Pete “LaRoca” Sims, Elvin Jones, Thelonious Monk, Illinois Jacquet, Branford Marsalis, Dave Brubeck, M’Boom Re: Percussion, The Crusaders, Joe Sample, Nesbert “Stix” Hooper, George Cables, John Hicks, Gary Burton, Cindy Blackman, Joe Chambers, Joe Gallivan, Charles Austin, Jeremy Steig, Eddie Gomez, David Sanchez, Lew Soloff, Don Grolnick, Little Jimmy Scott, Jeff Beck, Pat Martino, Ron Carter, Marc Johnson, Steve Swallow, Stanley Clarke, Charlie Haden, Ginger Baker, Bill Frisell, Jim Keltner, Michael Carvin, Neil Peart, Charlie Watts, Allan Holdsworth, Joi [Gilliam], Barbara Sfraga, Renee Fleming, Ursula Oppens, Elliot Carter, Three Mo’ Tenors, Tal Farlow,
© Chip Stern
Tito Puente, Art Taylor, Jimmy Cobb, Vernon Reid, Hiram Bullock, Don Byron, Clifton Anderson, Joey Barron, Roy Haynes, Phillip Wilson, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Jerome Harris, Gerald Veasley, Roberta Guaspari-Tzavaras, Dolette McDonald, Manfred Eicher & ECM Records, Peter Bernstein, Billy Taylor, Richard Wyands, Bob Cranshaw,
L: Pianist Ahmad Jamal
R: Tenor Saxophonist Sonny Rollins
© Chip Stern
The World Saxophone Quartet, Wynton Marsalis, Ron Miles, Doc Cheatham, Nicholas Payton, Clark Terry, Terence Blanchard, Eddie Henderson, George Mraz, Eric Alexander, John Pisano, Billy Higgins, Louie Bellson, Sam Ulano, Allan Schwartzberg, Barry Altschul, Walter Davis Jr., Polygraph Lounge, Rob Schwimmer, Mark Stewart, Jon Iverson, Ron Affif, Michael Hoenig, Egberto Gismonti, King Sunny Ade, Lyle Mays, Muhal Richard Abrams,
© Deborah Feingold © Chip Stern
World Saxophone Quartet [and Chip], 1979 Ron Miles
L-R: Julius Hemphill,
Pat Metheny, Dinah Washington, Big Nick Nicholas, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, Dexter Gordon, John Lewis, Booker T. Jones, Hank Jones, Richard Davis, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Frank Kimbrough, Keith Jarrett, Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, Weather Report, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Art Taylor, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Bobby Moses, Jaco Pastorius, Jeff Berlin, Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano,
The Bill Evans Of Jazz Guitar
© Oskar C. Neubauer
The Nicholas Brothers, Mike Clark, Tony Williams, Clyde “Funky Drummer” Stubblefield, David “Panama” Francis, Richard “Pistol” Allen, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Paul Motian, Howard Roberts, John Scofield, Mike Stern, Larry Coryell, Joe Beck, Anthony Braxton, Paul Wertico, Django Reinhart, Ry Cooder, Fred Frith, Manuel Galban, Jay Hoggard, Jim Hall, Dave Holland, John Abercrombie, Herbie Nichols, Jack Wilkins, John Williams, Oregon and Ralph Towner.
Over the intervening years Chip worked in and out of the music business, refining his craft as both an editor and a freelance writer, while working in a number of music related positions, such as an extended stint as manager and chief buyer for a huge jazz department in HMV’s 40,000 square foot Upper East Side Manhattan store, before going on to create content as an editor for the Muze database.
In 1994 Stern got to give something back to the music, in a collaboration with one of his earliest rhythmic inspirations, when he produced drummer Ginger Baker’s first jazz recording, the best-selling Going Back Home for Atlantic, enlisting Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell as collaborators. The range of music Ginger and company explored with a jazz attitude on Going Back Home startled long-time listeners who might ordinarily have associated Baker with rock and roll dinosaurs of some long-forgotten epoch, but Chip suggested a fresh range of repertoire and encouraged Baker to pursue the type of adventurous interplay and improvised music that originally inspired him to become a jazz drummer in the first place.
Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson
But then Chip Stern has long championed an inclusionary point of view about jazz as part of the greater fabric of the American musical experience—while writing provocatively about the European classical tradition, as well as progressive popular forms, blues, roots rock and R&B, and pop/folk music from the so-called third world. A passionate advocate of the best music to emerge from the heady experimental experiences of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Chip refuses to play into the notion of jazz as some sort of dusty museum piece. “Perhaps too much is made about the notion of originality,” he states firmly. “Not everyone can be an innovator, but like Satchel Paige once said, ‘Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common.’
© Phil Johnstone
Ginger Baker at The Cream’s Debut Performance
July 31, 1966
“So to me, you can never have enough individuality in jazz—that’s its lifeblood. I mean, by all means, let’s honor the giants of the past, but the best way we can do that is by recognizing that they were contemporary artists who mirrored their times and followed their own muse, and to try and do that in our daily work—not to simply recreate what they did. Which isn’t to say that I don’t cherish the purest expressions of the jazz spirit and repertoire—it’s vitally important to preserve, protect and extend that music. But I also believe that there is a jazz attitude that manifests itself in the search for a personal voice, and in how you relate to other musicians in a collective situation—no matter what the context of the music. Anything that precludes that give and take of ideas, or circumscribes what sources you are allowed to draw from is anathema to me. Jazz at its best has always been a music of inclusion.”
© Chip Stern
Going Back Home Sessions, March 1994
Ginger Baker’s album was a commercial success by humble jazz standards, and its impeccable aural ambience and realistic dynamics (it was recorded at Allan Sides legendary Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood, California) engendered quite a buzz amongst audiophiles, which in turn led to Chip’s long term involvement with, Stereophile, the bible of high end audio, where Stern developed a considerable following with his writings about progressive music and audio gear between 1996 and 2004.
“Much as jazz is a music of inclusion that engenders a profound emotional reaction in the listener, likewise in high end audio, where the whole point is to deepen one’s involvement in the experience of music. Sophisticated gear is great fun, and we’re all captivated by the latest and the greatest, the most technically advanced and expensive, but it’s all a means to an end—and not an end unto itself.
Get Their Shot at Stardom, 1967
“People have been led to believe that you have to possess a small fortune to enjoy real high-end audio, or that some sort of special spiritual connection is required—magic ears. I’ve always thought that was a steaming pile of elitist twaddle. The key to good audio is system synergy—making your compromises work for you—and once you’ve come to appreciate the nature of a great audio system, you can readily understand how to achieve analogous results at something resembling real world budgets—reduced in scale perhaps, but not in sonic involvement.
“This is not quantum physics, and those snobs who go around with their noses in the air about “common” equipment, let alone MP3 and iPods and computer music systems and all manner of high-compression/lower resolution media, only marginalize the market and limit the growth of the audio industry—we’ve got to figure out how to take part in that party and get those people involved in the experience of real music played by live musicians in real acoustic spaces.
© Chip Stern
L-R: Mike Clark, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes
“I’m as captivated by top of the line gear as anyone, but I’ll always be committed to making the experience of high resolution/high value gear more palpable to readers—letting them in on all the fun. We tend to intellectualize the daylights out of the experience, and I’m as guilty of that as anyone. But the bottom line is this…how does it convey the spiritual emotion and physical presence of music? When it comes to high end audio, something this much fun should be shared with as many people as possible.”
© Deborah Feingold
Chip Stern and P-Funk’s George Clinton Wait For Their Meds To Kick In
Neo-Soul Innovator Joi [Gilliam] Waits For Her Ship to Come In
It is precisely these notions of sharing which animate Chip Stern’s continuing involvement in all things music. Stern has participated in every area of the music business—from high-end audio and record retailing, to extended stints as a world music importer and magazine editor—and now, with the introduction of Chip Stern’s Epicenter of Hip, he has fashioned a web site/webzine format expansive and inclusive enough to readily address those musical issues that are of interest to him, his fellow contributors, and his long-time fans.
© Chip Stern © Chip Stern
Going Back Home Sessions, March 1994
Charlie Haden Delivers His Punch Line
Jim Keltner Serenades Bill Frisell
“I’ve really been very blessed. I’ve spent time around some of the greatest musicians who ever lived; been privileged to share their trust and friendship—even to play with a few. And every now and then, just when you think nobody notices, I’ll meet up with someone who lets me know just how important something I wrote was to their appreciation of the experience. And while the collapse of print media has been a drag for me as a professional writer, thanks to the outreach of the Internet, I’ve gotten a new lease on life and a fresh opportunity to communicate with friends and musicians from all over the globe.
© Chip Stern
C: Daughter Jennifer and Wife Mary
L & R: Chip with his Father Martin, Mother Shirley and Brother Richard
“Which is why the launch of this web site means so much to me. Because in a sense, while this thumbnail sketch honors the people who’ve inspired me, in reckoning the distance between where I came from and how I arrived at this point in time, this bio isn’t so much about where I’ve been, as where I’d like to go—as we explore new sounds, network with new friends, and discover a whole new set of possibilities. I’m not satisfied that I’ve even begun to scratch the surface of all I’d like to share creatively, but I reckon I still have a few at bats coming up, and feel as though my best swings are still ahead of me. What else are our lives but works in progress? Those reports trumpeting the death of real music and the written word have been greatly exaggerated, and if we have anything to say about it, this web site will be an oasis for fresh ideas, as people who believe in the power of music and who enjoy good writing have a place to share their enthusiasm with like-minded spirits.”