Interview with Jazz Great Dick Sisto

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Jazz is a fickle mistress.  It has bewitched many of men, who have given up everything to follow her many whims.  Dick Sisto is one of them.  As a premier vibraphonist, he has spent his life playing with some of his generation’s jazz legends, and he himself has become one of the most respected names in the business along the way.  The Chicago native, who has made Louisville his home for the better part of fifty years will be performing Sunday, May 18th, at Clifton Center – where he will perform the score, in its entirety, that he composed for the locally produced documentary “Soul Searching:   The Journey of Thomas Merton“.

Sisto, is an affable man, who is eager to discuss the music to which he has devoted his life.  As he was preparing for his show this weekend, Mr. Sisto took time out of his schedule to chat with us about Jazz, his career, and his old friend Thomas Merton.

Louisville.com:  How did you start playing the vibraphone?
Dick Sisto:  Oh, it’s a funny little story.  I started playing the drums, I’m from Chicago, I started playing drums with my friend who played drums too…this was grammar school.  He was more or less the ringleader, and one day he said to me, “Ya’ know, we can’t both play drums or we won’t be able to play together, so you’re going to play vibes.”  (laughs)

Louisville.com:  Were there any old albums or recordings that you recall, that just made you fall in love with jazz?
DS:  I was fortunate enough that when I grew up, I graduated in ’63 – Chicago, like New York at the time, had several name jazz clubs.  So [guys like] Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson, all these people came to town to play; and in those days they’d play five nights a week.  As a youth you could go into those clubs alone, or with a parent, they’d sit you in the peanut gallery, sell you a Shirley Temple for two bucks, and you’d listen until your heart’s content.  My buddy and I would go to the south side and we’d be the only two white guys in the place, and we’d see Miles Davis and that great sextet, or Horace Silver, or Art Blakey.

Louisville.com:  That’s when you know you found the right club, right?  When you’re the only white guys in the place.
DS:  Oh yeah!  Exactly!

Louisville.com:  You have taught a lot of jazz over the years, how do you approach teaching an art form that hinges on improvisation?
DS:  Obviously, another great question…boy, that’s a tough one.  The best answer for that I have is, you really can’t teach a person to learn jazz, but you can show them how they can approach it.  There’s an old quote:  “You can’t be taught to play jazz, but you can learn to play jazz.”  It’s a self-taught art.

I believe there is a spiritual element to it.  Because the spirit is what moves, and the spirit is the spirit; one person says it’s this God or that God – but the spirit is something that’s a live and moves in you.

Louisville.com:  What is one jazz album everyone should own?
DS:  I guess if you’re going to limit me to one…A Love Supreme [by John Coltrane].

Louisville.com:  What brought you from Chicago to Louisville?
DS:  I came to Louisville in the mid-60’s.  I loved Chicago for a lot of reasons we’re not going to mention, but I found Louisville very comfortable, and I loved it, I still do.  I love the city, the way its laid out, and how its just big enough.  And there were fewer musicians, kind of a big fish is in a little pond routine, so I could work a lot.

Louisville.com:  How did Thomas Merton come into your life?
DS:  So I worked this jazz club on Washington Street, it was down on the river.  It was kind of, in its day, a very famous local club.  They would bring big people in, and locals would play there – and whenever Merton would, ”Go over the wall,” as they say; with the excuse of going to the doctor or meeting a friend in Louisville, he would always go to the jazz club.  So I knew he loved jazz.  And one night, I came off from a set, and the bartender said, “That monk was in here again.”  So the next time he was in I met him, and then we started exchanging letters, where we would talk about jazz.  He was in hermitage by that point, but he was really into late era Coltrane.  A Love Supreme, for sure; but he also loved Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.  He was a very eclectic guy, a very open and beautiful person.
He was also a very music minded person, he could play some boogie-woogie piano, and he loved to play bongos.

He was a wonderful person, and he was completely present to whoever he was talking to.  He just acknowledged your individuality and was interested in who you were.  And at the same time, if the conversation became either too chatty or boring, he would just all of the sudden say, “Gotta go.”

Louisville.com:  Having known Merton, how do you think he would feel if he saw the world as it is today?
DS:  Ya’ know, he was an incredible prophet of our time.  The things he knew back then of how it was going to become, have become true.  You can find out exactly what he said it was going to be in an essay called “The Time of the End, is a Time of No Room”.  Now he wasn’t one of those guys that was like, “The end is near!  It’s all going to end now!”  He was far too intelligent to simplify it like that.  But the problems that we are experiencing now, the dehumanization, for instance; the pollution of the environment.; the proliferation of war-like situations, and the continuation of war.  He didn’t speak directly of it, but he alluded to, now we have children killing children.  Things are happening now that weren’t happening when I was a youth.  “The Time of the End, is a Time of No Room” – meaning that this time that we’re in is a time for no room.  There is just no room for anything anymore, and its written so eloquently – but the title really says it all.
 

Tickets to see Sisto perform the music of “Soul Searching:  The Journey of Thomas Merton” are still available.  The performance will be this Sunday, May 18th, at Clifton Center.  The show begins at 7:00 PM, and tickets are $10.

 

About Brent Owen
Born and raised in Louisville, I have lived here most of my life (except during a short furlough, when I, lovelorn and naive, followed a girl to Baton Rouge). My roots are here, my family, my friends, and my life are all here. I work primarily as a free-lance writer for a few local and regional publications. I have also written two books (one a memoir, the other a novel) that barring some divine intervention, will probably never see the light of day.
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