Jean-Jacques Perrey is a pioneering electronic musician who was born and raised in France. In his youth, he had asked his parents for an accordion and he taught himself how to play popular French songs. He eventually had formal piano training and performed jazz around the village as a teenager. While he was in college, he discovered a brand new instrument called the Ondioline, which was a predecessor to the modern keyboard synthesizer. Jean-Jacques took a job demonstrating this unusual instrument throughout Europe. A New York music industry businessman named Carroll Bratman, who specialized in supplying unconventional percussive instruments to the local recording industry, heard of Jean-Jacques and the Ondioline and persuaded him to move to New York, where he built a new experimental electronic recording studio for him. At this time, Mr. Bratman arranged for him to appear on the TV show "I've Got a Secret" hosted by Gary Moore to demonstrate the different sounds provided by the unique instrument. At the studio, Perrey experimented with sequencing sounds by tape splicing techniques, paving the way for today's Hip Hop genre. He then met Robert Moog and procured one of his first Moog synthesizers. With all this new emerging technology at his disposal, Perrey and his colleague Gershon Kingsley were producing new "space age sounds" for radio and television commercials. They also recorded experimental albums for the Vanguard label. Jean-Jacques eventually moved back to his native France where he continued to work in the entertainment field and developed music to help with insomniacs. In the 2000's, he returned to touring with a close friend by the name of Dana Countryman. The young, hip crowd really enjoyed the timeless music and danced up a storm during these performances. Today, Jean-Jacques Perrey enjoys his retirement in Switzerland with a wonderful view of the mountains. I recently had correspondance with Jean-Jacques.
R.V.B. - What kind of music were you exposed to around the house as you were growing up and what did you do for fun as a child?
J.J.P. - I heard popular French songs, songs for kids, opera and classical music. I liked to play jokes on people, such as hiding behind a tree and scaring them (but of course they knew I was there!)
R.V.B. - What instruments did you start off with? Did you take private lessons? Did you play in school?
J.J.P - When I was 4 years old, I asked for an accordion for Christmas, and received it ! I took no lessons, I tried for myself, and after a few months I was able to play popular French songs (my parents were so surprised!). When I turned 6 or 7 years old I started to play in front of my house in my country village in the evening or on Sunday afternoon, and neighbors would come and dance in the street. At school, I was asked to play at Christmas and at the end-of-the-schoolyear celebrations. I started playing the piano when I was 8 or 9. My parents sent me to a piano teacher, but I explained to her that I didn’t want to use scores, only play by ear. I deemed solfege as unnecessary. She was scandalized and at the same time very surprised to see me play classical music without using a score. (I’m still unable to read one, mind you!)
R.V.B. - When did you start to experiment with writing your own material? Did you do any of this in your pre college years?
J.J.P. - I started just after the war. I was then 16 and formed a kind of jazz band with three friends where I played the piano. I briefly took music classes at the Amiens music conservatory, but the director dismissed me because I was performing in public, which was not allowed to students at that school at that time. So I continued to play with my friends and was asked to join a professional band sometimes.
R.V.B. - I see that you were interested in medicine. Did you originally want to be a doctor?
J.J.P. - Yes, I studied medicine for 4 years in Paris, but then I decided to dedicate my life to music, particularly when I heard the ondioline invented by Georges Jenny!
R.V.B. - How did meeting Georges Jenny change your life? How did you get your job demonstrating the Ondioline instrument. Did you have any previous electronics background?
J.J.P. - It changed it completely, it pushed me to give up studies at university and to do music instead. When I heard this instrument, I ran to Georges Jenny’s place and begged him to lend me an ondioline as I wanted to examine it upside down and inside out. When I went back to his place to return the instrument to him, he asked me what I had learned, so I played some tunes for him with my right hand on the ondioline, accompanying myself on the piano with the left hand. He was so amazed that he immediately hired me as a professional demonstrator.
I had played some Ondes Martenot before, and knew about the Theremin, of course, although I never played it.
R.V.B. - Was it a big decision to relocate to New York? Where did you set up shop?
J.J.P. - Yes and no. While I had never travelled far, I was strongly attracted to the American culture. Thanks to French singer Edith Piaf, who liked the ondioline, I was invited by her friend Carroll Bratman, who had an instrument renting company in Manhattan, to come and demonstrate the ondioline to him as he was considering importing this instrument from France and selling it throughout the USA. I had planned to stay for 6 months, I ended up staying ten years!
R.V.B. - Did you work with electrical engineers to mix combining the arts with technology here in the United States?
J.J.P. - Actually, only with Bob Moog occasionally.
R.V.B. - Did you find Robert Moog or did he find you? It seemed like this was a meeting that just had to happen. Did you enjoy toying with the early Moog Synthesizer?
J.J.P. - When I heard the first Moog synthesizer, played by Walter Carlos, I talked to Carroll Bratman about it. Carroll then called Bob Moog and asked him to put together a second synthesizer (Walter Carlos was using the first one - after Bob’s own, of course) and to come and install it in my studio in Manhattan, which he did.
I was more than absolutely thrilled ! Bob showed me how to use it (it was rather complex - and new! - at that time) when he came to install it, and then he was kind enough to answer all my questions by phone when I was stuck. I loved playing with this instrument. It was like a dream for me to discover all the possibilities it offered. I was already very happy with the Ondioline, but the synthesizer had a thousand times more possibilities. I was like a child in a toy store!
R.V.B. - Where did you meet Gershon Kingsley and how did you share the writing process with him? Was it a fun time for you producing the two Vanguard records?
J.J.P. - I met him at Carroll Bratman’s studio. He apparently liked what he heard there (ondioline and synthesizer) as he suggested us to work together to produce a record for Vanguard, for whom he was already working. We had great fun putting our ideas together. After the 2nd album, we both went our ways.
R.V.B. - Did you realize at the time that you were on the cutting edge of music as you were creating sounds for TV and radio?
J.J.P. - I had absolutely no idea. I was only enjoying myself !
R.V.B. - Why did you return to France? Were you homesick?
J.J.P. - Yes, I missed seeing my family, and also Carroll Bratman decided to retire. I felt it was time for me to go back to France.
R.V.B. - I see you continued to stay busy in France. You seemed to go back to your medicinal roots by creating pieces to help with insomniac issues. What did you find that worked the best for this problem?
J.J.P. - Yes, I’ve always wanted to help people, my privileged means was music. For years I tried to create and assemble sounds that favored sleep. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not, and I have no idea why. I don’t work on a scientific basis, only by instinct, so I can’t tell why things work or why they don’t.
R.V.B. - What did you do in your brief period away from the music creation era in the 80's and early 90’s?
J.J.P. - I took care of my family, rested, thought, read. I thought I had retired from music until young musicians contacted me because they wanted to work with me, which was an enormous surprise to me.
R.V.B. - Are you proud of the fact that current musicians and television shows are still using your music today?.
J.J.P. - Yes, it is very rewarding. It makes me really happy to feel that youngsters are able to use the heritage I left for them. It is a great joy to share my creations with them in that manner.
R.V.B. - In the 2000's, you returned to creating more music and collaborating with other artists. Did you purposely work with different people to get fresh ideas?
J.J.P. - No, I had no intention whatsoever. I had retired, or so I thought, and suddenly those youngsters knocked at my door asking me to work with them! I was surprised and happy.
R.V.B. - What was some of your favorite moments of live performances?
J.J.P. - I always loved live performances, the contact with the public, the energy that it gives to feel that people appreciate what you are doing for them. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, I enjoyed feeling their surprise at discovering the ondioline and making them laugh.
R.V.B. - Do you have any other things that you like to do other than music?
J.J.P. - Yes, I enjoy watching the lake and mountains from the balcony of my apartment in Switzerland, watching movies (comedies, science-fiction, old American films), conversing with my dog, answering e-mails from fans, etc.
R.V.B. - Was the process of writing your book fun - thinking back to all the great things you have done in your career?
J.J.P. - Oh, yes, very much so. I think I am very lucky to have had such a wonderful life and career, meeting all those wonderful people, learning so much from them, and they giving me so many opportunities to work and discover new things. I am very grateful for all that.
R.V.B. - Thank you very much for taking the time for me. I really appreciate it and I consider it an honor. I'm sorry about maybe asking too many questions, but I only get one shot at this.
J.J.P. - You are very welcome. I always feel honored when someone is interested in my music and career.
I wish you the best of success in your life too.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form without permission
Thanks to Patricia Leroy for translating, assisting and for use of the pictures