Mike Zwerin, jazz journalist, musician, bon vivant dies at 79

A trombonist in Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool band, memoirist whose The Parisian Jazz Chronicles set a standard for wit and candor in self-examination, and writer for the International Herald Tribune and Bloomberg News, Mike Zwerin died April 2 in Paris, where he’d lived since 1969. Recipient in 2009 of the Jazz Journalists Association’s Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism Award, Mike was an inspiration ever since I read his reports from the jazz scene in the Village Voice in the 1960s, and I’m glad to say I got to know him as a friend.

images.jpegZwerin typically brought a light but penetrating touch to portraits, interviews and reviews he penned as a journalist covering mostly American vernacular artists but really whoever he was sent to hear (except what he called “serious music”) from his enviable post in the most sophisticated of European capitals. He was interested in everybody from Astor Piazzolla to Stevie Wonder, never pulled rank or pretense, and had such explicit jazz ways that, as he wrote in the preface to The Parisian Jazz Chronicles (published by Yale University Press in 2005, which I suggested he title “The International Herald Trombone”)  — 

I have overdubbed the book’s subjects . . . with “improvisations” consisting of interludes, modulations, tangents, introductions, codas, the running of changes, and shock-cuts leading to images of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. . .

Among his other books, La Tristesse de Saint Louis (reprinted as Swing Under The Nazis: Jazz as a Metaphor for Freedom) and Round About Close To Midnight: The Jazz Writings of Boris Vian (he edited and translated Vian’s post-WWII critiques) were equally personal, though in a sometimes oblique way. He also wrote The Silent Sound of Needles (about drug rehabilitation), A Case for the Balkanization of Practically Everyone (about small European countries) some text to Jazz in L.A., a book evidently featuring the photos of Bob Willoughby, a book that’s exceedingly rare; I’ve never seen it, and Amazon offers a paperback of it, new, for $1032.46. 
Of Mike’s musical legacy, it will always be recalled that Miles Davis walked up to the teenage trombonist and said, “I like your sound,” a high compliment indeed. Mike soloed on a live version of “Move” from The Birth of the Cool repertoire but has little exposure within the tentet arrangements on the famous Capitol recording. 
It’s not as well known that Mike toured Russia with Earl “Fatha” Hines under US State Department auspices, recorded with Michel Petrucciani, Archie Shepp and, on an album led by Alexis Korner, Eric Clapton, and was producer, arranger, director and bass trumpeter for Mack the Knife: The Sextet of Orchestra USA Plays Jazz Versions of the Berlin Theater Music of Kurt Weill (recorded in 1966, featuring Thad Jones, Eric Dolphy and John Lewis among an all-star cast). He worked with poet Ted Joans and produced an amusing album titled Gettin’ X-Perimental Over U in 1996, which includes hip-hop touches and processing along with some lovely, relaxed straightahead cuts. These pieces are all posted at his website — along with a generous sampling of his articles — but are otherwise not readily available. 
Also from the preface of Chronicles
Mike [as he used the 3rd person to get a little distance] is a misfit, addicted to margins, a dreamer, something of a jerk, innocent in the ways of the world. Although he traveled widely, learned a lot, and had good luck along the way, he was the type of person who always expected worse-case scenarios=. He could not find meaning in a life without drugs. Our heartwarming story is about Mike’s heroic, uphill, ultimately victorious battle for sobriety and fulfillment.

It’s gratifying Zwerin felt he was “ultimately victorious.” He was very proud of his son Ben, a bassist who picked up his dad’s Lifetime Achievement Award  (presented by Mike’s pal Rafi Zabor, author of The Bear Comes Home) at the Jazz Standard last June. I was sorry he couldn’t be there, but his illness made travel problematic. 

Well, thanks for the companionship, Mike. It was fun and I wish I’d met you sooner so I could have enjoyed hanging out with you longer. But I was reading you all the while, so that was something. Quite something. . . 

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  1. Rafi Zabor says

    “As the songs says: he was a friend of mine. For, let’s see, the past 23 years. We hung out together in Paris and New York; we played together in Paris in a trio with bassist Peter Giron; I crashed at his place when he was there and when he wasn’t; I got to know some of his family and became close, too, with his wife (later ex-wife but still close friend) Martine, and their son Ben (now touring with Claudia Acuna, even playing a gig with her in Paris Friday night; of course Mike would not only have understood but approved); and once he complained that I was drinking too much of his whiskey (hey, I was having an allergic cat-reaction and wanted to breathe); and I kept my drums and cymbals in his basement for years until they had to rebuild the place; and we talked about Bird, Bach, Miles, Trane, Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Elmore Leonard, Robert Stone, Don DeLillo, Mingus, Monk, love, life, age, death, fun, food and wine and good coffee, drugs, opera, women, taste in general, and writing (which I liked to do long and he liked to do short), the price of baguettes, where to get the best couscous, dope, how good his time was on the horn even when his chops were off, the hip chord changes he wrote for Eleanor Rigby (especially the bridge), what a bitch it is to play Chelsea Bridge, why I didn’t feel like playing fours, and okay, sure, I can play brushes on that, and why Peter was late again or suddenly couldn’t make it; and how terrific Martine was, even after the breakup and certainly during his last illness; and how when he found me an apartment on the Ile St. Louis I came over with Margaux ’83 and La Mission Haut Brion ’82 and we four (including my girlfriend Carol) roasted a duck and drank both bottles and thought the wine was pretty damn good . . . and he was a friend of mine. Hey Mike, happy landings. I’ll miss you when you’re not here, should that ever happen.”

  2. barney Kirchhoff says

    Thanks for the appreciation.
    I was Mike’s editor at the International Herald Tribune when he was writing his weekly column there and also went to some of his gigs while he was still blowing trombone.
    I drove him nuts with my questions and he replied in kind. Sometimes I had to hold the phone away from my ear for a while.
    Other than that, we got along fine. I’ll miss him.

  3. says

    Thanks for this, Howard. I never met Mike face to face, but we spoke and corresponded a few times after I found his interview with Jim Pepper and I learned that he and Pepper had spent some time together (“We had the same connection,” Mike admitted with a little laugh). He shared some helpful information with me when I asked him about Pepper’s work, and graciously allowed me to post his interview with Pepper on my Web site (www.wordpress.jimpepperlives.com/interviews/zwerin). Though I can’t say I knew Mike well, I definitely had the impression that he was, to say the least, a genuine character, with an interesting life story, driven by a desire to share his experiences and insights with the rest of the jazz (and more) community.
    His was a true jazz voice, in every sense of the phrase.

  4. Jason Weiss says

    Thanks, Howard. I knew him too, and appreciated him, even his amusing orneriness & how the Jewish New Yorker quality survived those four decades in Paris even if mellowed & wiser. I first met him at Jim Haynes’s place in spring 1980, who had inherited the atelier in lower Montparnasse from Mike when he left with Martine (I think) to go live in the Vaucluse region. I also did an interview with him, published in Coda in 1982 (?), and that was fun. Though he was a generation older than me, we shared many affinities, including appreciations of Brion Gysin, Glenn Ferris, etc etc. Last saw him in July, last summer, had a drink at his neighborhood cafe. Seemed in good spirits, not too anxious about his health, even a bit stoic. Still didn’t look near 80. We’ll miss you, Mike!

  5. Can Kozlu says

    Thanks for the article. Late 70’s in Paris he was my teacher, band mate and a friend ,not especially in that order, you know Mike ! Althought drummers were not his favorite instrumentalists he believed in me and pushed me hard when no one else did.Friends are like streams. Some just wet your feet. Others wash
    your soul. Oh well he’s having a ball up there
    jamming and down here we’re one ‘yardstick’ shorter.

  6. emin findikoglu says

    In 1963-64 the late Herb Pomeroy used to give me rides from Boston to NYC where he was to was to make the rehearsals of Orchestra USA of which both he and Mike were members. Nearly a quarter of a century later i invited Mike to play at the Bilsak International Jazz Festival in Istanbul. He brought in ZIP, a trio of Paul Breslin, Martin Ingle and himself. I still have a tape of this concert and i would like it to see the light. This was in October 1986. Mike autographed my old copy of Berlin Theater songs with a “Thanks for the 25 years, Mike”. I have some of his books and i got to read a good number of his articles. I will always be a Zwerin fan.