RR LogoMark Winkler Talks About Being Hip, Jazz and Other Four Letter Words

Mark Winkler Photo OneOne look at the eleven songs that appear on platinum award winning singer / lyricist Mark Winkler’s current album Jazz and Other Four Letter Words suggests this is a hip guy, with hip music and a hip attitude about life. If that is the conclusion that you reached, you would be right. There are songs such as the original tune that he co-wrote with Rich Eames, “Stay Hip,” and then there is the Dave Fishberg and Bob Dorough song “I’m Hip,” that he performs as a duet with Cheryl Bentyne. There are also songs that testify to his hipness, such as the swinging “My Idea Of A Good Time,” a Mark Winkler and Greg Gordon Smith collaboration, then there is the convergence of love and Jazz, both hip, as told through the words and music of “Your Cat Plays Piano,” (music by Bill Cantos, lyrics by Mark Winkler). For those old enough to remember or whose parents told them about the Beatnik culture of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, the story Winkler tells in “Your Cat Plays Piano,” is of a person who had they been born a few decades earlier might have fit in well as a Beatnik. One look at the eleven songs that appear on platinum selling songwriter Mark Winkler’s current album Jazz and Other Four Letter Words leaves the definite impression this is a hip guy, with hip music and a hip attitude about life. If that is the conclusion that you reached, you would be right. There are songs such as the original tune that he co-wrote with Rich Eames, “Stay Hip,” and then there is the Dave Fishberg and Bob Dorough song “I’m Hip,” that he performs as a duet with Cheryl Bentyne. There are also songs that testify to his hipness, such as the swinging “My Idea of a Good Time,” a Mark Winkler and Greg Gordon Smith collaboration, then there is the convergence of love and Jazz, both hip, as told through the words and music of “Your Cat Plays Piano.” For those old enough to remember or whose parents told them about the Beatnik culture of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Winkler sings that if the person to whom he is singing had been born a few decades earlier that individual would have been a Beatnik.

Mark Winkler says, “Stay Hip,” has a story behind it. There is a DJ in Kansas City named David Basse who is also a singer and who is a very good friend of mine. He had been telling me about this fan of his radio show who wrote him a handwritten letter every week for ten years. Four years ago he mentioned it to me and I thought that was incredible. He said yes you have to read some of these letters, because they are so beautifully written. It has gotten to the point that I will play songs and she will write me the week before she suggests the song. They had a very close relationship and she was housebound. She was older by that time. She died a couple of years ago and David did a eulogy, which he sent to me and then he sent me a lot of her letters. I was so taken by them, because they were signed, Your Co-Pilot, Stay Hip, Nan Hill. I thought this would be an amazing subject for a song. I would inhabit the voice of Nan Hill and I could write the song to Jazz lovers everywhere. That is how that song came about.  I had no idea that I was going to write something and I finished reading this one letter and I thought it just came to me. It is amazing how you get these ideas. I feel very close to her. I really do love people who love Jazz. Nobody loves Jazz for any other reason except the love of Jazz. They aren’t trying to be cool or to make loads of money or to get sex or to be groupies, they just love Jazz, because they dig the music. I dig the fans of Jazz.

Rich Eames is one of my collaboraters. He is one of my piano players. He actually, arranged and played the whole West Coast Cool album with Cheryl and me. When I am not using Jamieson Trotter, I am using Rich Eames. Rich Eames is a fantastic keyboardist and songwriter.”

While the title of the album Jazz and Other Four Letter Words, might suggest that an explicit warning be attached to the CD cover, there is no need for concern, as Winkler explains how the album and the song of the same name ended up with this moniker.

“I read a couple of articles last year and there was one that said Jazz is over, that Jazz is no good and that Jazz is out of date and here am I and the stuff that I love is Jazz. I love Jazz singing and Jazz musicians and I didn’t think that was true at all. I am usually pretty hardnosed about the entertainment business. I am the first one to say hey, I think Jazz could be doing better. I wish in the United States they would play Jazz on the television. There really aren’t any outlets. On The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson used to feature a lot of Jazz and once David Letterman and Jay Leno came on they would just do the latest flavor of the month or an alternative Rock band. Jazz has a hard road in that part of the entertainment business. There are incredible people who are selling out shows in Jazz, like Gregory Porter, Diana Krall, Jamie Cullum, whom I love and Melody Gardot who are doing it very well and they are using the vocabulary of Jazz and mixing it up, Soul, Folk and whatever. Then there are all of the instrumentalists who are so wonderful and happening right now.  I think that Jazz is very relevant to music and that is why I wrote the song “Jazz and Other Four Letter Words.”

Jazz is not even on PBS, because somebody like Andrea Bocelli’s record label will spend a million dollars on a special and they will give it to PBS. You don’t have that large of an infrastructure in the Jazz world. There aren’t that many labels in Jazz and they don’t seem to be putting the specials on with the Jazz artists and I wish they were,” he says. One look at the eleven songs that appear on platinum selling songwriter Mark Winkler’s current album Jazz and Other Four Letter Words leaves the definite impression this is a hip guy, with hip music and a hip attitude about life. If that is the conclusion that you reached, you would be right. There are songs such as the original tune that he co-wrote with Rich Eames, “Stay Hip,” and then there is the Dave Fishberg and Bob Dorough song “I’m Hip,” that he performs as a duet with Cheryl Bentyne. There are also songs that testify to his hipness, such as the swinging “My Idea Of A Good Time,” a Mark Winkler and Greg Gordon Smith collaboration, then there is the convergence of love and Jazz, both hip, as told through the words and music of “Your Cat Plays Piano.” For those old enough to remember or whose parents told them about the Beatnik culture of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Winkler sings that if the person to whom he is singing had been born a few decades earlier that individual would have been a Beatnik.

Mark Winkler has been thinking about ways to try and “galvanize” the Jazz community to bring about a higher profile for the genre on television.

He says, “Television still has a very big reach. It is amazing that when I teach music and when I teach songwriting in colleges, it is not that kids don’t like Jazz. They don’t even know there is such a thing as Jazz. That’s what is scary. I mean some kids. I am trying to think of ways to expose it more.”

Winkler considers it a good sign that within the education system there is still a strong focus on Jazz music in both the lower levels of education, as well as the college system. He points to friends of his whose children are in a school that has what he refers to as a great music department. One of the children plays the trombone, another the trumpet and the third one is playing drums and all of them are into Jazz music.

“I think the vocabulary of Jazz is great and I love to use it. I love to use the rhythms and I love to use the freedom. Even though I am not an improviser, I am improvisational in terms of my phrasing. I think it is a great vocabulary to use and it is a smart music. I like smart music wherever it is. If it is smart Pop, if it is smart Opera and I like Elvis Costello. He is smart. I like Taylor Swift, because she’s smart. She writes good songs and she follows the rules. She does good lyrics. I am not a big fan of dumb music. (He laughs) Duke Ellington said there are two kinds of music good and bad, well Mark Winkler is going to say there are two kinds of music, smart and dumb and I don’t like dumb music. It is like one chord, with someone saying baby, baby, let’s back it up to the fender or whatever. There is a lot of stupid music out there, but there is good music too. I seek it out, because I need to let my students know that (it exists) in every genre. In Country there are some fantastic lyricists and alternative music and singer-songwriters and even Pop. Max Martin producer, singer-songwriter writes some great tracks. Those Swedes know how to write good melodies, I’ll tell you, ABBA. I like all kinds.

Jazz fits me really well, vocally. I never had a raspy kind of Rock voice. I wasn’t Joe Cocker,” he says.

The conversation segues back to being hip. Winkler says that it was Cheryl Bentyne who brought the song “I’m Hip,” to his attention and there has been some talk about the duo doing an East Coast Cool show as a follow-up to their West Coast Cool tour that launched the duo album West Coast Cool a couple of years ago. As for the song “I’m Hip,” he considers it to be a great song that is a lot of fun. He also refers to it as a laundry list song, so we asked Mark Winkler to explain that term for our readers.

“I teach songwriting at our university here, UCLA. I do UCLA extension, one quarter a year, spring quarter and I also teach privately and I have been doing that for about ten years. It is fantastic and one of my favorite things in the world to do. One of the things that I teach people is a form called the laundry list song. The laundry list song has been around since the beginning of songwriting. It is basically a list of things in the song that ends in the title. If it is a Great American Songbook song like, “I wish you blue birds in the spring / I wish you…./ all the things that I wish you, I wish you love…(“I Wish You Love.” or “You’re The Top” (A Cole Porter song from the 1934 musical Anything Goes). “You’re the Louvre museum / You’re the top.” It is a list of things, “You’re a Bendel bonnet / A Shakespeare sonnet / You’re Mickey Mouse,” and it is just a list of things. It is like Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” is a list of things, saying we didn’t start the fire.  “Get Here,” by Brenda Russell is (a list) of all the ways that you can take to get to this person. It is a wonderful form to use in songwriting and I love to use it a lot. I have a lot of laundry list songs and “I’m Hip,” is a prememinent one. “Better Than Anything,” is another laundry list song,” he says. (Editor’s note:  The song “I Wish You Love,” had English lyrics by Albert A. Beach, but it was originally written in France by Léo Chauliac and singer-songwriter Charles Trenet and recorded by Trenet in 1943 as “Que reste-t-il de nos amour? (“What remains of Our Love?” The song was recorded in America in 1957 by Keely Smith and was given the new title “”I Wish You Love.”)

I think of myself as a songwriter and I am always writing songs and with the last two albums that I did, West Coast Cool and The Laura Nyro Project, it took a lot of time. The previous album before that Sweet Spot was the closest one to this one, which was an album that featured a lot of Mark Winkler songs, so by the time that I was done with West Coast Cool and a year had passed, I was ready to do an album of my own material. I had plenty of songs to pick from. I always like to do an album every other year, so I knew I was going to be doing a Mark Winkler album and everything came together,” he says.

One of those Mark Winkler songs (with music by Bill Cantos) is “I Chose the Moon,” a love song dedicated to his partner.

“I will tell you the whole story. My partner and I celebrated out thirty-fourth anniversary together. We got together in 1981 and we have really had a wonderful relationship and we still have a wonderful relationship. I wanted to do something special for him this year. I was thinking about that and oh, I want to write a song for him and then I happened to be looking through some old lyrics, because sometimes that causes me to write a new lyric. I had written a musical about ten years ago called, Too Old for the Chorus, But Not Too Old to be a Star. There was a song in that musical that had a first version where the lyrics were quite different. There was a line in that version, “I chose the moon, I left the stars behind,” and when I saw that I thought, how did I not put those two lines in the song? Those are great. I immediately thought of Richard and our relationship and what that song could mean, so I wrote the lyric.

Love songs are very hard for me to write. That song talks about something that I don’t think people talk about a lot. When you are in a committed relationship that means you aren’t fucking around with other people. I don’t believe in that. I don’t think it works. Yet we are only human and we sometimes think, hey this person would be great or what would my life have been like if I would have done that? It is that moment when you are thinking about it and then you think of your relationship and you go, you don’t know. I made this choice and it was the best choice that I ever made. It is a pretty heavy thing for me to write about, but I didn’t do it in a heavy handed way. It is an interesting thing and relationships are interesting creatures,” he explains.

Continuing with the thought about relationships and how it ties in with the song “I Chose The Moon,” Winkler provides an insight into something he truly values.

“There was this movie that I almost had to leave, because it was so upsetting to me. It wasn’t a very good movie, Artificial Intelligence by Steven Spielberg and I remember there was the little robot boy and he got close to the family. I think they threw him away when there was another model that came out or something. It was about how people don’t value things and if something better comes along they will just move along to the next thing and throw away the old thing. There is that beautiful Randy Newman song called “When You Were Mine,” and it (talks about) when the little girl throws away her doll and then the doll sings the song. That scene in the movie when they leave the little robot boy got me very upset. I almost left the movie theatre. We do throw away things, relationships, and children and even our own identities in search of something that we think is better,” he says. 

The album is titled Jazz and Other Four Letter Words, but the songs are about a man who is hip and who has a great heart.

You can visit Mark Winkler on his website where you can also listen to some of his music or you can follow him on his official Facebook page.

You can visit Mark Winkler on his website or you can follow Mark Winkler on his official Facebook page            Return to our Front Page

This interview by Joe Montague  published September 28th, 2015 is protected by copyright and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine © All Rights Reserved.  Photos and cover art courtesy of Mark Winkler  protected by copyright ©, All Rights Reserved This review may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine, All Rights Reserved