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Leo Sidran on ten years of The Third Story podcast

Will Lee
Sandrine Lee
Will Lee

Ten years ago, on a bit of a whim, I invited bassist Will Lee to come over to my home studio in Brooklyn to do an interview with me for a new project I was starting: a podcast. I was totally hooked on the concept of casual long form interviews among peers.

Although I didn’t have any real experience as a journalist or a broadcaster, I knew I could do it. In fact, maybe more than anything else I’ve ever done professionally, it was the most natural decision I can ever remember making.

But the format was a bit of a mystery. Who was I supposed to be? An expert on music? A friend of my guests? I thought maybe we would perform together. Or maybe they would demonstrate something. Or maybe it would be a document of the local scene in New York - in the early episodes I asked my guests “where are you coming from today” and “where are you going after this”.

Actually, those are pretty good questions. Maybe I should go back to asking them again.

I spent a month futzing with my Will Lee interview, carefully editing each pause and “um”, working and reworking the introduction. I designed a crude logo based on a Google Earth image of my house in Park Slope, and built a website on Squarespace.

I posted the episode and sent an email to my friends to explain the new project. I wrote:

Since moving to New York nine years ago, I have tossed around the idea of conducting informal interviews with musicians in my studio when they come in to record. Over the years so many great players and singers have shared tremendous insights and history with me, and it seemed like such a missed opportunity not to record it. Of course, everything changes when the “red light” is on, so the question for me became how to maintain that same level of spontaneity and candor in a somewhat more formal setting.

Then I sat nervously with a pit in my stomach, not knowing what I had just done. Would anyone like it? Would anyone care? Was I any good at it?

Ten years and 268 episodes later, I continue to refine, to tweak and futz, to agonize and scramble to the finish line every time. As I write these words it is 12:30am, and I sit in my darkened studio - essentially an extension of my bedroom - with my wife, Amanda asleep just a few feet away, and our daughter asleep in the next room. That is to say that The Third Story has become an extension not only of my life, but of my entire household. Fortunately the initial nausea has passed but it has been replaced by a constant sense of urgency to get the next episode finished.

I have also developed a style, an unstructured but intentional approach to talking to people, in search of a narrative thread in each journey, an attempt to get somewhere together. Sometimes it’s more technical, sometimes it’s more esoteric, sometimes it’s personal. There is no real theme to the show, and there is no real dogma. If it’s interesting to me, the hope is that it will be interesting to others too.

The good news about an ongoing show like this one is that there’s always another episode to make, so you can never get too precious about any of them because there will be more. The bad news is the same as the good news: no matter how much time you spend on one episode, or how good it was, you still have to make another one, and you’re probably already behind schedule.

The project has become a way of moving through both space and time for me. It provides a kind of structure when I travel - nearly everywhere I have gone over the last decade, I have returned home with at least one interview.

Whether talking to Gabriela Quintero in Mexico, Jorge Drexler in Spain, Madeleine Peyroux in Paris, Butch Vig in Los Angeles, Howard Levy in Chicago, David Garibaldi in Oakland, David Maraniss in Madison, or Jack Stratton in Cleveland, the interviews have provided purpose to my movement through the world.

I have traveled specifically to cover jazz festivals like Copenhagen, Newport, Montreal and Umbria, and chronicled my own tours too.

I have used the platform to mark the passage of time and significant events along the way. From The 2016 and 2020 Elections to the Covid outbreak, from my 45th birthday to my father’s 80th, from the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris to memorializing lost friends like Tommy LiPuma, Clyde Stubblefield, Tim Luntzel or Richie Cole.

I have captured both first and final conversations with some remarkable people. I did the first long form interview with Jacob Collier in his house in London in 2014, and the last long form interview with Creed Taylor in his New York apartment 2015. Interviews with Peter Straub, Howard Becker, Clifford Irving, George Wein and Al Schmitt now live on as part of their legacies.

While The Third Story has never become what you might call “popular” it has become kind of a cult show. I continue to be astounded when I meet someone who knows the show. It happens more often than I expect, and I have made more than a few real meaningful friendships that way too.

When in 2022 I was asked to partner with WBGO Studios, it was an acknowledgement that I was on the right path, and when we won a Signal Award in 2023 I was further encouraged.

Last month, on another whim, I called Will Lee again to see if he would like to meet up for a reunion and to help me celebrate my tenth anniversary. When I first talked to Will for episode one, he was still performing nightly on The Late Show with David Letterman and we talked about his career as one of the most recorded bassists in history, his early education, playing on Letterman, his solo projects… the kind of general overview conversation that has come to loosely define what I do here. This time was more casual and more conversational. We sat on the couch in his Manhattan apartment and traded quips, and I managed to gently extract some new information from him.

Then I asked my wife, Amanda, to join me to help process this anniversary in more domestic terms: how does it look and feel to live with someone who is constantly in the process of mining another life story for content and making podcast episodes? What are the similarities between her career as a yoga teacher and mine as a… whatever I am? What do raising a child and producing a podcast have in common? It was extremely entertaining, as is usually the case when Amanda joins me on the show.

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Leo Sidran is a Grammy winning multi-instrumentalist musician, producer, arranger, composer, recording artist and podcast host based in Brooklyn, New York.