Interview by Luigi Santosuosso (05/2002)

Photography by Frank Tafuri (Omnitone Records)

Perhaps, the best way to evaluate the importance of innovations is by measuring the degree of their invisibility years after their introduction. The Walkman, the short working week, the mobile phone, and increasingly so, the Internet, are all taken for granted today.

To remain in the domain of jazz, the emergence of electric instruments, the introduction of influences from various parts of the world, the use of the recording studio in creative ways are just some examples of innovations that have now been seamlessly absorbed in what is arguably the most adaptive and responsive genre of music.

Both in the field of technology and in that of music the innovations that last are those that are capable to transcend their initial nature of ‘ends’ and transform themselves into ‘means’ at the service of the higher needs of daily living or of artistic achievement. Mobile phones – initially a hot gadget for grown up kids with large wallets – have now become mere means of communications. Electric instruments – too often relied on insincerely, in the early phases of ‘electric jazz,’ to attract wider audiences of young listeners accustomed to rock and funk – are now just another brush in the hands of sonic painters in search for wider aural palettes.

The fame of the innovator, as a consequence, is fatally linked to that of his or her invention: from the cover of major magazines to the house of most families. Gloss gives room to a more substantial impact on people’s lives.

The mainstream (not in a jazz sense, but as synonym of ‘widespread’ or ‘prevalent’) jazz imagery has long revolved around instruments like the trumpet and the saxophone, together with the piano, the bass, the drums and the trombone. In recent years, however, instruments traditionally associated with other music genres have proven their capacity to be at the core of jazz’s vocabulary and not merely exotic, and short-lived, attractions used to capture the attention of blasé jazz fans. The cello, the accordion or the French horn may be the best examples.

varner-h-2With regard to the latter there is one name that immediately comes to mind: Tom Varner, the New Jersey born and New York State based musician whose debut album’s cover (“Tom Varner Quartet” – Soul Note) is a picture of a French Horn, and whose third album was programmatically entitled “Jazz French Horn” (Soul Note). One can legitimately read a certain desire to attract the attention to the novelty of the concept of French horn in Jazz in the choice of such a cover and a title for an album back in the early ‘80s. Eight albums later, however, considering Varner as a French horn player rather than a full-fledged artist should automatically fall under the category of ‘jazz crime’ (if such category existed at all). Few artists have demonstrated a degree of growth and accomplishment comparable to that documented by Varner’s records in the last twenty years, and – in particular - by his most recent effort “Second Communion”, release a few weeks ago by OmniTone. The skills of Tom Varner as composer and arranger are extraordinary, and allow him to create a coherent body of music out of his many and often seemingly incompatible influences, from Phillip Glass to blues. An ancient Chinese motto says more or less “when the wise man points his finger to the moon, the dumb man looks at the wise man’s hand”. Considering the amazing beauty of Tom Varner’s music one could rephrase that Chinese motto into “when the wise man points at Tom Varner’s music, the dumb man looks at his French horn”.

Considering the fact that the French horn is not the most popular instrument in the world (not only in jazz, for that matter), it is perhaps not surprising that Tom Varner started playing it somewhat by accident.

Tom Varner: At the end of “third grade” (around 8 or 9 years old for American kids) we were able to pick the instrument that we would have liked to play the following September when school “fourth grade” would start. I thought that I would pick the trumpet or the trombone, but when I saw the French horn from a little list of pictures, I spontaneously picked it. I had had one year of piano lessons at that point, and the teacher did a simple ear-training test and I guess they thought my sense of pitch was good enough, and they said that, yes, I could be in the band. I’m not sure if I had ever seen a French horn at that point—I think I might have heard one on a “Child’s Guide to the Orchestra” record that we had. I liked the horn, but it was really like just one of many activities for me, until I started taking private lessons at age 14 and began to take it more seriously.

A mix of natural talent and the lucky circumstance that Music was at the time one of the courses offered in schools (no longer the case in the US) are behind Tom Varner’s early steps.

Tom Varner: Well, my parents were not very musical. They were from a small town in Missouri, and my mom did play the baritone horn in marching band and took piano lessons, but she told me she was terrible and played in the band to meet boys! We had only a tiny children’s type record player until the late 60’s, when my two older sisters got a teenager type “stereo” for Christmas. We listened to a lot of Beatles and Judy Collins, and some classical music too. My parents did love music though—before I was born they moved from St. Louis to New Jersey, and we went as a family to regular concerts of the New Jersey Symphony. That was wonderful—I was able to hear soloists such as Isaac Stern, Marilyn Horne, and Alicia de la Rocha. By then, I was playing the French horn and was very interested in the horn section. We all (I have two older sisters and one younger brother) took piano lessons also, starting around 8 years old. I loved my teacher Ms. Capitola Dickerson (she would play 78s of Art Tatum for me), but I was a terrible pianist!

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Tom Varner 09/1973 © Tom Varner Collection

The destiny of so many great jazz musicians has often been irrevocably shaped by earth-turning epiphanies that took place in their formative years. So was the case for the young Tom Varner.

Tom Varner: I think there were a few such experiences. The first I can think of was when I was about 14. I had the opportunity to go see the Duke Ellington Band play a sacred concert—probably in 1970. At first, I thought I wouldn’t go, that it would just be boring, for “old people.” But I changed my mind. I went with my mom and with my piano teacher, Ms. Dickerson, and it blew my little brain away. When Cootie Williams soloed with the plunger (we were only about 4 rows back—I could see the musicians’ expressions), my conception of the power of music was drastically altered—the physical power of Cootie’s sound was a wonderful revelation. That power just hit you in the gut—but power with an incredible artistry, not just from giant amps. The band still had Johnny Hodges and Russell Procope and Harry Carney, too. I didn’t realize how lucky I was to see that concert until many years later.
Another life-changing concert was the Sam Rivers Trio, with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul, in late December 1975, at Karl Berger’s Creative Music Studio, at a New Year’s workshop. The intensity and power in a free-form setting was amazing for my by-then-18-year-old self. There were other concerts—I went to quite a few “loft concerts” in the mid and late 70’s—but those two stand out.
Well, in addition to the two I just mentioned, by the time I graduated high school I had seen Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard, Chick Corea and Return to Forever in two concerts in New Jersey, Mahavishnu in Central Park, Errol Garner and Blood Sweat & Tears (that was quite a double bill!) also in Central Park, and Weather Report, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and Eubie Blake, all at Avery Fisher Hall, but separately--not a triple bill! Also, Maynard Ferguson, Count Basie, and Toots Thielmanns with Sam Jones at various school concerts. Wow, looking back, I never thought of the extent of all those riches in such a short time, and at the right time. The first time in a “real jazz club” was seeing Joe Farrell, with Joe Beck, at Mikell’s in NYC. Remember “Moongerms” on CTI? All were wonderful and inspiring.
As far as albums are concerned, the first records that I bough were two used LP’s: Hank Mobley’s “The Turnaround” on Blue Note, and Monk’s “Big Band and Quartet Live at Philharmonic Hall” with Thad Jones, Steve Lacy, and the great Hall Overton arrangements. I still have both to this day—swinging, beautiful sound and conception, and some of the greatest compositions in jazz, like Monk’s “Four in One.”


Like many of the young listeners interested to rock and funk mentioned earlier, Varner was attracted by jazz’s ‘electrification’, or electric jazz before it morphed into the commercial hollow music which goes today under the name of fusion.

Things like Miles Davis and the popular “fusion” music oft that time like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever. From there we became more interested in Coltrane, and then in the entire scope of jazz history. I think you might find a lot of folks now in their 40’s who, in high school in the 70’s, went from electric Miles to all of jazz history and are still big listeners and supporters of the music.

If electric jazz had stayed like that played by Miles we would probably have more Tom Varners than Kenny Gs. The current ‘Jam-Bands’ phenomenon of today, however, seems to have all the promises to turn a whole new generation of music lovers into jazz fans. We’ll see.
Leaving this digression aside, let’s get back to Tom Varner’s musical developments as a teenager and his struggle in trying to combine his love for jazz and French Horn.

Tom Varner: At that time I also played trombone parts, on French horn, in our high school big band—but I still thought that being a jazz improviser was impossible because of my instrument, and also, that at age 16 I was too old to switch to trumpet! Then at age 17, a jazz-loving neighbor played for me his Thelonious Monk “Friday the 13th” LP, featuring Sonny Rollins and Julius Watkins on French horn. To hear a hornist improvising was a huge revelation, and I very quickly thought, “I could do this too—it can be done.” Now, looking back, I realize that hearing Julius Watkins for the first time was a life-changing revelation.

The wide ranging musical interests of Tom Varner were already evident as a young kid, jazz being somewhat of an ‘acquired taste’ that would develop in high school.

Tom Varner: Jazz was not really my first interest. I loved many of my older sisters’ records. 60’s pop music, the Beatles, and for a while I loved that horrible 1970/1971 pop like Steppenwolf and Grand Funk Railroad! I also loved classical music—the things we saw with the New Jersey Symphony, especially Beethoven symphonies (as I kept taking lessons and getting better, I began to play in small community orchestras and student orchestras and I loved that repertoire) the classical and romantic symphonies, etc. This would have been between 14 and 16 years old. Then in high school I became friend with other kids who loved jazz and so I also started listening and loving this music.

The wide ranging musical tastes remain one of the unifying factors of Tom Varner’s career all the way to his latest release dedicated to the music of Don Cherry. Varner, however, rather than applying the post-modern cut and paste approach that one can find in some of John Zorn’s albums seems to blend the most diverse ingredients in one coherent recipe that definitely tastes like Tom Varner’s music.

Tom Varner: I enjoy a wide range of music and I think it shows. I love so many different styles. “Straight-ahead jazz,” free improvisation, new “classical music”, folk musics from all over the world, etc. When I was learning to play jazz in the mid and late 70’s, , I was listening to Anthony Braxton, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ornette, AND Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Miles, AND Schoenberg and Berg and Webern and Messaien, AND Steve Reich and Philip Glass, AND African music and American folk music. You get the picture. I try, in some way that is not forced and with a personal vision, to incorporate all these musical loves.

Perhaps as a result of the nature of the attempt of bringing together very diverse sources, one senses the clear presence of written parts in Tom Varner’s music. This however does not come to the detriment of improvisation. Apart from those of Varner himself, all of his albums are replete with top-notch solos, especially from other horn players like his close associates, Ed Jackson, Rich Rothenberg, Ellery Eskelin or, more recently, Tony Malaby and Steve Wilson. This marriage of written music and improvisation seems to thrive especially in those compositions that span over a 10-15 minute range (listen for instance to “How Does Power Work?” and “$ 1000 Hat” from “The Mistery of Compassion” [Soul Note] or “Swimming” and “Strident” from the album “Swimming” [OmniTone], for instance), where the composed parts act as launching pads or nurturing backgrounds for searing improvisation.

Tom Varner: This is where the craft of composing comes in. One simply has to think about melody, clarity, balance, contrast, structure - but with soul and passion. I just love the contrast between improvised music and written sections. I also just get bored, unless it is really really good, with just free improv and with long boring notated pieces. I want that surprise.

A completely different project in Tom Varner’s discography was “Window Up Above: American Songs 1770-1998” [New World], an album that cover a territory as vast as that spanning from “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In”, Ellington and Gershwin to Hank Williams and Bruce Springsteen. The results are so impressive that they should silence all those who have voiced skepticism over the suitability of the modern song format in a jazz context and they confirm that the outcome of any artistic endeavor depends on the stature of the artist that performs it, not the format or the instruments s/he decides to utilize.

Tom Varner: Well if a song makes you cry, in my opinion it is a good song, even if written yesterday. As my wife likes to say, there is no such thing as bad material, only bad artists. Think of Coltrane doing “My Favorite Things,” which was from a recent sappy movie, “The Sound of Music”! Was it not suitable? For “The Window Up Above” I simply wanted to take a break from my usual compositional projects and take a look at songs that meant a great deal to me. Songs over a 200 year span, from the American Revolutionary War to the Civil War, from country and gospel music to early Tin Pan Alley to Bruce Springsteen. Some were done perfectly straight, some with radical rearrangements. It came out great and was a lot of fun to put together. I thought of the idea of an “American lieder,” with the horn as the main voice.


By reading the line up of Tom Varner’s various bands one may be surprised to see how often he surrounds himself with many other winds instrument (played in turn by such heavyweights as Ed Jackson, Thomas Chapin, Matt Darriau, Ellery Eskelin, Steve Swell, Rich Rothenberg, Frank London, Tony Malaby, Steve Wilson or Dave Ballou). With the exception of the first two albums in which Varner fronted a small band with Ed Jackson’s sax, all other records show how Varner’s emphasis is not on spotlighting his horn but on creating interesting and challenging music for mid-sized ensembles that gravitates around elegant compositions and arrangements.

Tom Varner: The French horn makes all the other instruments sound better! Well… any ensemble with a French horn sounds fatter and richer. I happen to also love the saxophone, and the trumpet too, and have tried over the years to grow as a composer making “new chamber wind music” that meets jazz and improvised music. I started with alto sax/horn/bass/drums, and later added tenor sax, and then on special projects added trumpets, tenor and bass trombone, other saxes, violin—just expanding the ideas as best as I could. On “Long Night Big Day,” I added a wind trio to my regular group on one cut. On “The Mystery of Compassion,” extra reeds and brass on one piece, a violin soloist (Mark Feldman) on another, and I ended the CD with just horn, trombone, and bass trombone. On “Martian Heartache” I added guitar and voice. And on “Swimming,” another feature for Mark Feldman, more guitar, and trumpet, to make it four winds and bass and drums. But I think it starts with the beautiful breathing sounds of winds, and the soul of swing—swing from both Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Tom Varner - a French hornist playing jazz, an artist with ears open to all sorts of music – would receive lots of attention in Europe and – unfortunately like many others of the progressive US jazz musicians (that is: unfortunately for them, but fortunately for all the European jazz fans) – would base most of his work in Europe, as a leader or sideman in the bands of Franz Koglmann, Peter Schaerli, George Gruntz, Roberto Ottaviano, Roman Schwaller, Rabih Abou-Khalil or in bands like Ton Art or the Vienna Art Orchestra.

Tom Varner: I think there is more of a tradition of supporting the arts in general in Europe while there is more of the “Puritan work ethic” in the US that is anti-intellectual and anti-“doing something NOT for the money.” That culture only values art up to a point, and sometimes a very shallow point, and no more. I think that in Europe it simply is easier to make a living and support a family while still playing creative music.

Because of a jazz career straddling two continents, we could not help asking Tom Varner an opinion on the alleged differences between US and European jazz.

Tom Varner: I think that now all those distinctions are pretty blurred. I play in “American” style straight-ahead jazz groups in Europe, and in “European” style free improvisation groups in the US. For example, last October I toured with the Roman Schwaller Nonet in Europe (very straight-ahead) and two days ago, I recorded in the US with Dominic Duval, Joe McPhee, Jason Hwang, and Tomas Ulrich (very free). Both situations were great!

The need to walk in uncharted territories, the lack of reference models to look at and to learn from how to shape a role for the French horn may explain – at least in part – Tom Varner’s highly personal music. Whatever the explanation may be, the bottom line is that unlike a trumpet or a saxophone player which has to deal with overarching figures like – for instance – John Coltrane or Louis Armstrong, Tom Varner had very little he could ‘steal’ from in the field of jazz French horn playing.

Tom Varner: It was more exciting, and a bit of a relief. There was really just Julius Watkins, and a very few others. I did not feel that “how will I not sound like John Coltrane?” kind of pressure. It felt like an open road. But I did, of course, reference and study the vocabulary of players like Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, Miles, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Gene Ammons, Coltrane, etc., even imitating these heroes at times, in the beginning, just to get the language down on my difficult instrument.


Just like the cello (to which Jazz’Halo has dedicated one of its recent special issues), the French horn is an instrument of a certain versatility that can combine the warmth and depth of a trombone with the articulation of a trumpet, its suitability for improvisation being paradoxically more evident to very early jazz musicians. 

Tom Varner: I think this has happened because there were no influential musicians who picked it up – perhaps because it was so much part of the classical world. And yes, the fact that it is an extremely difficult instrument to play probably contributed to this. It is just so damn slippery—like trying to do a ballet with just your socks on, as I’ve said in the past. It takes some extra time and effort to get the accuracy similar to a trumpet or sax. But interestingly enough, it was used on New Orleans riverboat brass bands up and down the Mississippi.
I have had to overcome any and all preconceived notions of what a French horn can or should do, or cannot do or should not do. I did this very early on by listening to everybody - tenor sax, trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, even piano - and trying to incorporate the language – sometimes slowly going over a phrase over and over, getting comfortable and relaxed with the musical idea, getting the fingers, brain, and breath to work together.


Interestingly enough several of the few jazz French horn players that have existed so far, like Gunther Schuller, David Amram and Tom Varner himself, are also excellent composers. One has to wonder whether it is necessary for a jazz French hornist to have great compositional skills in order to place his or her instrument in the most appropriate context.

Tom Varner: I think it might be about thinking “orchestrally,” or also about wanting to create new situations for our instrument. And Gunther and Amram are two guys always searching and growing all the time.

In the past years Tom Varner has organized a jazz French horn festival at the Knitting Factory in honor of Julius Watkins, one of the few musicians to embrace this horn and – for a brief period – also a teacher of Varner.

Tom Varner: I studied briefly with Julius in 1976. I was very lucky—he was my hero. I just asked him a lot of questions about getting over the difficulties of playing jazz on the French horn and, basically he said I would have to work hard and find my own way. No magic answers. He showed me technical things that he did (like play in the extreme high range!) that I still can’t do today — but was true inspiration. Very sadly, he died about one year later, before I had a chance to tell him I was still plugging at it. Julius was the real pioneer for making the instrument speak in a jazz setting. From Detroit, he was in the NY area from the mid-50’s till his death in ’77. In addition to what I mentioned before, he also played with Mingus, Gil Evans, Phil Woods, Milt Jackson, Randy Weston, Clark Terry, Coltrane’s Africa Brass, and many other groups.
However, it is important to emphasize that there are other jazz French hornists who go back to the 50’s who made important contributions, including David Amram, Willie Ruff, John Graas, and Gunther Schuller.

Considering the lack of widespread information on the history of French Jazz Horn we could not refrain from asking Tom Varner to provide us with a list of fundamental albums to learn more about French Horn.

Tom Varner: Remember, don’t just listen to the French horn, listen to good jazz. But there are some great jazz horn records. Of course, anything by Julius Watkins, especially when he soloed with Jimmy Heath, groups that also featured a young Freddie Hubbard (like “The Quota” or “Gemini”). Some of his work in the early 60s with the Quincy Jones Big Band was also incredible. Julius got a lot of solo space in that wonderful big band—many re-issues are now out. The Jazz Modes band he had with Charlie Rouse. Johnny Griffin’s “Change of Pace,” on Riverside. He was a sideman on many great records from the early 60’s. And John Clark is a great jazz player—his recent record, “I Will,” on Postcards, is super. Another great album is Vincent Chancey’s “The Next Mode,” on DIW.

What counts is that - as Tom Varner admits - the future for French horn in jazz looks bright.

Tom Varner: There are a lot of young jazz players who are very promising and classical players who are beginning to experiment with the jazz idiom. Today some great players out there include Mark Taylor, Alex Brofsky, Rick Todd, Arkady Shilkloper, Claudio Pontiggia, as well as the “veterans” like John Clark, Vincent Chancey, and Ahnee Sharon Freeman.

Too often the financial restrictions of jazz’s recording world render it necessary for jazz musicians to manage to compress a recording session in one or two quick days. Due to the nature of his music, one could only marvel about the even higher heights that Tom Varner could reach if he had a budget one tenth of that of an average pop band. What would Tom Varner do if he “Had a Million Dollars” (just to borrow the concept from the Barenaked Ladies’ hit – a song that has certainly grossed more than one million dollars).

Tom Varner: I would try to complete and record the project I’m thinking about now---a “double quintet.” That is, an extended piece for my group (horn, 2 saxes, bass drums) PLUS clarinet, trumpet, trombone, violin, and cello. With that million dollars, I would make sure we had lots of nice and luxurious rehearsals!
However, for the time being I want to keep working with my current project, the band on “Second Communion,” my new CD on OmniTone. We take a new look at the classic Don Cherry 1965 suite “Complete Communion” on Blue Note, and other Don Cherry works, and play music I wrote that pays homage to Don. “Complete Communion” was a big influence on me. It showed that the cornet, like a French horn, could be the lead voice in a long composed “free jazz” suite, with beauty and passion. That band is with Cameron Brown, who played “Complete Communion” with Don in ’65 and ’66, and with Don for many years later as well. Also, it is with Tony Malaby, Matt Wilson, Pete McCann, and Dave Ballou.

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© Tom Varner Collection 

The interview is almost over but we really needed to ask a last question to Mr. Varner, hoping it would help to lift a stone that weighed down on our hearts for the whole preparation and conduction of the interview: “Does it bother you that interviewers always end up asking questions about your French horn playing, rather than just looking at you as just a jazz musician?”

Tom Varner: It doesn’t really bother me, as I do want to let folks know about how beautiful this instrument is, but occasionally I think that the novelty of my instrument has overshadowed my accomplishments as a jazz composer, leader, etc. I have made 11 CDs as a leader and I hope that most listeners enjoy them as great music, music that happens to have this great instrument, well played, and mixing wonderfully with the other voices.

Pheew… we clearly did not want to commit a ‘jazz crime’ and we did not want to feel like the dumb man that looks at the French horn while the wise man points at Tom Varner’s music, because – really – it’s all about Tom Varner’s music. We can now lay back and relax, click the ‘play’ button on our CD player and listen to ‘Second Communion’ for the umpteenth time.





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