A few months after I joined WKCR for what would be a 23-year run, I made it my business to interview pianist Chris Anderson, who, despite the dual handicap of being both sightless and brittle-boned, made an enormous, underground impact on piano vocabulary as a person who famously influenced, among others, Ahmad Jamal, Herbie Hancock, and Denny Zeitlin as young pianists on the Chicago scene. You could still hear Chris play at this time, and he continued to have it together, as evidenced not only by the duo album with Charlie Haden titled None But The Lonely Heart, but also a terrific trio date for DIW titled Blues One with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins that followed a memorable week at Bradley’s in 1991, which was also documented on a 1994 date on Alsut.
Chris and I had two long conversations. The first took place in his apartment; the second comes from an in-person “Musician Show” at WKCR. In honor of the 87th anniversary of his birth I’m appending the complete transcripts below.
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Chris Anderson (3-16-86):
TP: Chris, let’s start with the basic facts. Are you originally from Chicago, Illinois?
CA: Yes, I was born there.
TP: What year was that?
TP: Tell me about your beginnings in music. How old were you when you first played the piano?
CA: It would be easier probably… I loved music, and I listened to a lot of it on the radio, the standard fare of the day, on the Jazz station — it was called Black Music or Race Music in those days. But I found myself trying to pick out… I found that I could pick out melodies on piano. And the harmony that goes with it, I knew in my head…I knew what it was — if I could just find it on the piano. It’s like taking off boxing gloves. I knew it would take a minute. Because I knew I had an ear for harmony and melody, particularly harmony. So I always knew from the get-go that I was going to play, was going to be a musician.
TP: Who did you hear on the radio?
CA: Oh, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, but mostly, oh, the popular singers of the day — Bing Crosby, Perry Como, all of them.
TP: And they’d be on the radio, and that’s how you…
TP: Did you ever get out to hear live music in Chicago when you were a youngster?
CA: When I was a kid, no. When I was really a kid… What got me into going places was when I got involved in music, got playing music, and then it forced me to meet people to play some kind of… I knew some people… They used to have things called tramp bands, with a guitar, bass, stuff like that. The bass fiddle would be a washtub with a stick and a rope nailed up to it. You’d turn the tub upside-down on the ground, and you’d nail a stick to it vertically from the ground up, and then you’d pass the stick up around the top, and you’d tie a big knot in the end of the string, and with the hole in the center of the tub, you’d pull it through that tub from the underside, you know, exerting tension on it — like a saw, the same you’d play a saw. And you had your bass fiddle.
I got to know these people, and some of these people graduated into being professional musicians. A professional bass player, a professional guitarist, stuff like that. And they told me about places where music was played. They said, “If you’re interested in music, you ought to go and hear some people play.” And they took me.
TP: Do you remember where they took you?
CA: Oh! That’s when I started learning about the… What’s the name of the place that Earl Hines played…?
TP: The Grand Terrace.
CA: Yes, the Grand Terrace, places like that. A place called Old-Timers on 47th and Cottage Grove. I don’t think there were too many. Oh, and of course on the West Side.
TP: What did you remember about Earl Hines’ band in the 1930′s and early Forties?
CA: Well, see, as far as Earl Hines is concerned, I didn’t get to know a lot about Earl Hines then. And Swing, as far as black people were concerned, was on its last legs. Bebop was getting ready to be born. The Grand Terrace closed for a while, and that was Earl Hines’ stomping grounds. And the War, World War Two closed down so many big bands because they couldn’t afford it any more. Everybody was going away, going into the Service. Everybody was putting together small combos.
That’s the only thing that gave me a shot at music. I remember asking my harmony teacher in high school if I could play professionally, and he said, “No, not unless you surround yourself with musicians who can get the jobs.” But being just a teacher and not a musician, he didn’t understand that the big band… The people in the sections had to read, but reading wasn’t necessarily going to be the most important thing for a while. So a lot of people got to learn and so forth.
TP: By the way, I didn’t hear where it was that you went to high school and primary school.
CA: I went to Douglas Grammar School in Chicago, and I went to Philips High School for a while, and then I also went to Marshall High School.
TP: Who was the bandmaster at Phillips High School. I know that’s where Walter Dyett had taught before he went to DuSable.
TP: But who was there when you were there?
CA: Let me see… I don’t remember his name. He was German. He was a German teacher. He was a character, too; he was a real character. I can’t remember… The (?) was in the band, but I couldn’t remember his name.
TP: What years are we talking about?
CA: I graduated from grammar school in ’41, now that I think about it. So ’41 to…
TP: Then when you first played professionally, were you still in high school or was that after you graduated from high school?
CA: I didn’t graduate from high school. Now, I had one more semester to go, and I got a chance to go on the road with a guitarist named Leo Blevins, who was very much a part of the Chicago scene. You having talked to a lot of people, people could have told you about him. He introduced a lot of people to a lot of other people. Anyway, I got a chance to go to Denver, Colorado, with Leo.. Well, it wasn’t his job. It was a bass player named Louis Phillips. And he had a chance to go to Denver.
No, my first gig actually was in Chicago at a place called the Hurricane on 55th Street, next to the Rhumboogie. I remember one of my first gigs, next door, a great guitarist who used to play with… I can’t remember his name either. He used to play with (?)Billy Slack(?), who had a very popular national hit — Billy Slack. A Blues guitar player…
Anyway, that was my first gig. Then after that, I went to Denver, Colorado for about two weeks. We were supposed to be gone longer than that, but the bass player got very ill, an illness that he never recovered from. I came home. Leo stayed a few weeks longer, until the bass player’s family could come get him home.
In fact, one of the reasons I left Denver to go back, couldn’t stay out there, I decided, “Well, I’ll go back and finish my last semester of school.” I got back the first of September, got home, and started over, and decided not to go back. I decided pretty much that music was going to be my livelihood, and you don’t need any education but music. [CHUCKLES] You understand? So I didn’t finish.
TP: What kind of music were playing in that band when you went to Denver? Was it Jump band type music?
TP: Was it sort of precursors to Bop?
CA: Well, from Jump to Bop… It was quite a thing from there. It was not like people in New York were doing, see. Because all the musically literate people were in New York, people that really were studying. Everybody else was just like playing cafes, or parties, or played strip joints. Just Jump and the Blues. And most of these people didn’t know many tunes. They just knew seventeen different types of Blues, and make it sound different, or some “Rhythm” changes, and they knew a few standard tunes — the people that I met in Chicago anyway. There were a lot of old standards. There were a lot of old-timers who knew a lot of real old tunes. These were the ones who knew a lot, the ones who were a lot older and had been around a lot longer, so they were the ones who were more likely to have been locked in the style of the late Twenties and Thirties, see.
That’s why I say making that jump, the music… In Chicago making that jump into Bebop was quite a thing. The young Turks coming along were… Well, they weren’t quite in the music, just on their way into the music.
TP: In Chicago in 1943, Earl Hines did have Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, although I know they were traveling and Chicago was just the base. But did you ever get to hear that band?
CA: I was just beginning to get into music then. I didn’t know anything about Charlie Parker. I didn’t know anything about Bebop! I didn’t know anything about anything. And I hope the point of your question is not “What do you know now?” because I’d have to say I don’t know very much!
See, with Earl Hines… The thing is, the advantage of the big band, you could solo a little bit and you could kind of make it, but the big thing is that all you had to do was learn the discipline of reading, being professional, and they just took care of the business for you. And the exceptional people that would come along, like Charlie Parker, who were going to make an art in their generation, make a new art form, out of a solo style that doesn’t need… In fact, a big band would get in their way most of the time. Even Satchmo, as much of an innovator as he was in his time, didn’t play enough notes to get in the big band’s way. Not that Charlie Parker would get in a big band’s way now. He’d play across it. He could play right across it. But it’s kind of… It was a different thing. People were beginning to look… Plus, the war years had gotten people used to listening to something else besides the big bands, so soloists had to do more as part of their playing and part of what they wanted to do, too!
I didn’t get a chance to hear any of that… Before 1945? No.
TP: When you got back from that ill-fated trip to Denver, Chris, did you begin to gig around Chicago? What was your process from that to working somewhat regularly?
CA: Well, the process was cementing relationships, developing relationships. I knew what I was going to do, or at least I didn’t have anything else to do. I found myself being with musicians for a good part of my time. That’s how you make contacts, and if you’re a go-getter and you hustle and do all these things (I never was a great hustler), then sometimes you just …(?)…
Music was developing, people were hearing about Bebop. The music was beginning to come alive in Chicago. For instance, there was a place in Chicago on 29th and Indiana called The Hole. And that’s where everybody would meet, experimenting with this new music. It was an after-hours joint, and it opened at 12, from 12 until about 7. So everybody who was interested in music would be there, you know. And that was where we began to find out about this music. We already had a feeling before we were there. But the thing is, with everybody in the same spot, you got to know everybody! See?
TP: Who were some of the people that you remember getting to know at that time?
CA: Well, I had heard of Wilbur Ware, a young bass player who I’d heard around. This fellow Leo Blevins, that I was telling you about, told me about Wilbur Ware. Leo introduced me to so many people and introduced other people to so many people. He was the kind of person who if he would walk in here now and tell me that the most unlikely person that I could imagine was a good player, I’d have to believe it. It seems that at that time, right then and there, Wilbur was in Milwaukee with Little Jazz; he wouldn’t be in town for another week. And I waited, and looked forward to it — and he was a person that was part of Chicago, one of the people I was most impressed with all of my life. That started it. I’d see many of the people who were going to be the mainstays, people who you’d look up to just as part of the music.
Shortly after that, Sonny Stitt came to town. He lived there for a while. I got to know him. He worked around. As good as he was, as great as he was… Well, he was one of the pioneers; a pioneer, you know, in Bird’s footsteps. But there was another fellow there named Henry Prior, and he was great, too, but he met a very untimely death, very early — about 1945 or ’46 maybe.
Anyway, the first gig I ever really had… I worked with Sonny Stitt with other people, in other people’s bands there. The first gig I had with Sonny Stitt was on an Easter, about ’47, I think. It was the Bird at the Pershing Ballroom. And that’s how I got to meet Bird. I worked with Bird a total of three times. And that was amazing.
Well, actually, it was Leo who introduced me to Sonny Stitt. We worked at another gig at a place called the…it was on the West Side…
TP: You and Sonny Stitt worked a gig on the West Side before you went into the Pershing?
CA: Yes. As part of his rhythm section. It was a famous club, I think on 47th and Western or something. We worked opposite Jackie Cain and Roy Kral. I remember that.
TP: Were you working with a regular rhythm section at the time, and you’d accompany people?
CA: No, we’d just put the rhythm section together for that particular gig. It was just two weekend gigs.
TP: And shortly thereafter you went into the Pershing?
TP: I’ve read that you were part of the house rhythm section at the Pershing Ballroom, and you played there with Bruz Freeman and Leroy Jackson, that you were the standing rhythm section to back up the soloists.
CA: Standing… Try sitting. Because it just worked out. You could say that. People get strange… There were a couple of… The last two appearances I made at the Pershing with Bird, one was with Von Freeman’s group — Von, Bruz and Leroy and so forth. The other was with a tenor player who used to be there named Claude McLin.
The one with Von wasn’t Von’s gig. I don’t remember how it came about. The pianist on the gig was named Prentice McCrary. I happened to come in, and they let me sit in. And somebody recorded it. They had a wire recorder. In fact, the way they recorded this thing, they had a back room behind the bandstand at the Pershing, and they had a speaker on the wall back there. They recorded this off the speaker. And they put this out on a record. And doing the research for this record, the people were going back in their memory, because this wasn’t… They didn’t try to get the documentation and stuff together. This was in the Seventies! They went to Bruz Freeman and a few other people, and they told them I was on the gig. I was not on the gig! I just happened to be sitting in. See?
So what I’m getting at is the information concerning this, because being part of the expanding house band… It was the luck of the draw. Let me show you how much it is a luck of the draw, things can happen to you. The third time, the last time I worked there with Claude McLin, this session was recorded, too. In fact, it was put out in about 1975 or something like that.
I was raised in a foster home. And I went to school with some kids who became close friends of mine, about three or four of them. They kicked around in foster homes, too. And they were brothers. So for a time we lived together in different spots. And we figured out… Like, the oldest brother that looked after them, he said, “Okay, I’m working; I’m going to take care of this aspect. Chris, I want you to take care of his cultural needs.” They knew I was a musician and so forth, and knew a few things in terms of Black culture, or whatever else there is to learn at that particular time. They wanted to keep him out of trouble. You know what I mean?
So this Sunday we were sitting around, we haven’t got any money, and I wanted to go hear Bird so bad! And I wanted to take him to hear Bird, because he hadn’t heard Bird. He had listened to his records. He was a sensitive(?) kid, bright, and liked good music. He just liked to move his foot. He liked to stomp his foot to music. So anyway, I’m really disappointed, because I told him I would like to hear Bird, and he would like it… It didn’t annoy him that much. But it annoyed me. I was getting pretty depressed about it. And he was trying to make conversation with me, and I’m not listening.
We were living in a rooming house. So someone came and knocked on the door and told me there was a phone call for me. I went to the phone, and it’s this guy Claude McLin, who said, “Look, what you doing?” He said, “Look, my piano player can’t make it. I’ve got this gig here with Bird…” [LAUGHS]
So that’s how I got on that one. You know? There was no standing rhythm section. They didn’t have no standing… A lot of times you’d work there with different people, then they’d call you standing. It’s not like the owner of the Pershing would say, “Well, you work every week with this guy and this guy,” you know.
But the people who worked there were people like Von Freeman (he worked there quite often) Claude McLin (he worked there sometimes) and a few other people. And there not a lot of pianists there! So that increased your chances. See? So everybody was getting a lot of the same events. You see what I mean?
TP: Another person you were associated with who was very prominent at the time and not that widely known about, one was the great drummer Ike Day.
CA: Yes. The first thing… You’ve heard a lot said about Ike Day, so I won’t be redundant…
TP: Well, I’ll tell you something. I haven’t heard a lot said about Ike Day, so I don’t think anything that you say about him will be redundant. I’ve heard a little bit about Ike Day.
CA: Okay. First, Chicago in the Forties, as I told you, before Bebop everything was Blues Swing… Before they called it Rhythm-and-Blues, it was just Blues — Supper Blues, Steak(?) Blues, whatever you wanted to call it.
This had to be about 1943. I had to still be in school — yes, of course; I was still in school. And I joined the big band… Because it was like the way… Just take a bunch of musicians in any high school in this land, whether it’s the Music Department, they learn to read, and somewhere in the high school or on the fringes of the high school, someone puts together a swing band. These musicians aren’t very good. And then they had this big band that most of the kids would end up in. A lot of the kids made it out of Phillips High School in the school band and so forth.
We worked a few places, like in community centers and stuff like that. I remember the first gig I had at the community center; I got paid a whole fifty cents! One night we got a gig called the Apex out in Robbins, Illinois. It happened to be Ike’s home base; Ike and his mother lived out there. And we went into this club. On the way we heard a strange noise. “What’s that?” We heard a drop(?). “What the hell is this? What’s going on?” We’d never heard anything like this before. The first thing that comes into our head, what’s wrong with these guys… Well, we’re late in the first place. We’d never been out there before. The driver didn’t know where we were going. We were late. So I said, “Oh, they hired another band.”
We walk in the other door, it’s no other band — just Ike Day. It turns out they had been running… They had a floor show there, and on this floor show they had this Blues guitar player named Johnny Shines. He was like Muddy Waters to me. Pure Blues, you understand? They had a shake dancer, and for music they had Ike Day playing. But the thing is, they were all separate acts. They thought so much of Ike Day out there, and Ike Day was so great, that Ike Day came in there and worked, just playing drums! And he used to have to play a little solo for about twenty minutes, then he was through for the night. He might play for the shake dancer if he wanted to. He didn’t play for the guitar player. The guitar player played by himself.
That’s how great he was. It’s as if… Someone once asked Earl Weaver about Brooks Robinson as a third baseman. You know how great he was.
CA: Okay. He asked Earl Weaver, “How great is Brooks?” He said, “You know, he plays third base as if he came down from another league.” That’s the way Ike was. He played drums like… He didn’t play loud drums. He was just so… Everybody was so awed, in awe of him, he was so great… Everyone was around him all the time, because he was just great. You know? He just was! You see? And I didn’t know what anything was about yet! [ETC.]
You think about how you assess things when it first happens to you, and the only thing that may make it valid are the changes thirty or forty or fifty years later; you can look at it, and you seem to still feel the same way. That was the darnedest thing I have ever seen! I have never seen anything like this.
This man was… And they had a lot of professional people coming in and out of this club, working at different times. You know? But just what was going on then… Man, we used to tease our drummer in our band, our big band — because this was a big band, about 12 or 13 or 14 pieces. We said, “Well, how long do you think you’re gonna last?” – we teased him! “You’ll be playing…” Or during intermission or something, he’d come back and find a cymbal missing, somebody had taken it and hid it. We teased him all the time.
In about two weeks, our drummer got the word that we can’t afford to have two drummers. So Ike wound up playing with our band for a while. Of course, the only thing our band could play were leaders’(?) arrangements and stock arrangements, Basie band, Jimmy Dorsey and stuff like that. That was the fare in those days. The change hadn’t been made yet, see. That’s why I tell you that ’43-’44 is what I’m talking about now.
TP: But you knew Ike Day over the years, though, until he passed.
CA: Oh, yes. I was in the hospital when he passed. I had a broken hip. Oh yes, I was in the hospital. He died of tuberculosis.
TP: And you played with him also over the years in any number of situations, small groups and larger groups and so forth?
CA: Small groups. I never got to play with him in large groups, no.
TP: Well, one thing, there’s a picture I’ve seen on the back of a record jacket, a Chess compilation of Chicago tenor players. And there’s Max Roach and Kenny Dorham all standing right over Ike Day and watching him play, and Max Roach has a look of rapt concentration on his face. Was this the kind of impact he made on everybody?
CA: Pretty much. Pretty much. Well, you see, people like Max and people who are sure enough great… And there was not only him. People like Jo Jones, Papa Jo Jones. When he knew he was going to retire, he tried to get…he wanted Ike to take his seat in the band. But Ike wasn’t thinking about going out on the road. Buddy Rich, all the drummers… All the drummers knew about him, and all the other musicians knew about him. But they didn’t all rhapsodize over him that much, because you took him for granted.
Ike was good with people, too. See, that’s another thing.
Vernell Fournier had a stool that belonged to Ike Day, a drum stool that belonged to Ike Day for years. He wouldn’t let anyone touch that stool. I don’t know if Vernell still has it. But he revered it so much, he kept that drum stool for years, all those years, because Ike Day sat on it.
TP: So I guess you were playing around town in these various situations in the late Forties and early Fifties. Would you go on the road with people for brief periods of time, or were you mainly just around Chicago?
CA: I stayed on Chicago. Going on the road… Me being handicapped was a problem. Besides, it wasn’t something that I wanted to do anyway. I went on the road for very short periods, two or three weeks at the most. And that was in the late Fifties. In the mid to late Fifties I did it for a while, with just one person, a guy named Cozy Eccleston, who had a rhythm-and-blues band in Chicago.
TP: Cozy Eccleston?
CA: Yeah! I went out with him. In fact, for a rhythm-and-blues band, he had one of the hippest rhythm sections that the world has ever seen. He had Wilbur Ware and a drummer named Dorel Anderson, who was part of the scene there (he was a great drummer who died also), and me. We went out a couple of times.
TP: That was in the latter part of the Fifties?
TP: Were you able to stretch out at all in any of those situations you played in?
CA: Well, he would love to go do his thing, and then he’d go sit at the bar drinking, listening to us! [LAUGHS]
TP: I don’t blame him.
CA: [LAUGHS] We didn’t get to stretch out a lot. It was his band and his program. He wouldn’t let things get out of hand. The thing is, the (?) stuff, we found a way to loosen it up. You know? We’d take it gently by the hand and make the music a little more endurable.
TP: There’s another story (tell me whether this is true or not) that you were in the rhythm section at the Beehive during Charlie Parker’s last appearance in Chicago. Is that correct or not? That was around February 1955.
CA: That I was working? No. I think Norman Simmons worked that job. Norman Simmons and Victor Sproles had that job at the Beehive.
[END OF SIDE A]
TP: What were the circumstances that brought you to New York?
CA: I got a chance to come out on the road with Dinah Washington. Joe Zawinul had just left her to go with Cannonball. And she had this club that had been called the Roberts Show Lounge; she bought it and changed it to Dinah-Land, and she worked there for a while. And while they were there, Joe Zawinul handed in his notice, because he’d made a commitment to Cannonball. So she tried a couple of local pianists there, and nobody really wanted to go on the road that much, and nothing was happening for me. So Eddie Chamblee and Leo Blevins, again, this guitarist again, told her about me. This is what I was telling you about. He’s a person who really helped a lot of people there. It was really because of him I got that job.
So I came… Let’s see. I think it was exactly six weeks. We went to Philadelphia first for two days at Pep’s. We went to the Howard in Washington for a week, then we went to the Apollo for a week. Then we went to Town Hill in Brooklyn. And she was coming back to Chicago, and I decided I wanted to stay here in New York. Well, everything can’t be perfect, but I don’t want to deal with any negatives now. Thanks to her, I got here, you understand, and I stayed here.
TP: Did you have work when you first got to New York?
CA: No. But, let’s see, I got work… I went through a very bad period there for a couple of years. I broke some more bones, and I was kind of out of it for a while. I had to really get my act together. I never did do a lot of working in New York until three or four years ago actually. I’d get a gig now and then, but I only had a few.
TP: You did record, though, in 1961.
CA: Oh yes, when I first got here. Well, see, the reason why that came about, Orrin Keepnews was connected with Riverside at that time, and he happened to be in Chicago. Johnny Griffin had told him to come hear me. He wanted him to record me. And he came by to see me and said, “If you’re ever in New York, let me know, and we’ll do a date with you.” So I happened to be here. So I called him and told him, “Well, I’m here.” So he gave me a date. So that’s how that came about. That was through the good offices of Johnny Griffin.
TP: Another one of your old running mates in Chicago?
TP: Can you pinpoint when you were first aware of Johnny Griffin, when you first heard him play?
CA: My memory of first hearing him is kind of vague, because the music was in the midst of change, and I was hearing a lot of other people. But he was fresh out of high school, came out of Captain Dyett’s band, like so many great people, like Jug, Gene Ammons, and like…
TP: Well, your friend Clifford Jordan came out of DuSable.
CA: Clifford Jordan. And what’s this great bass player…?
TP: Richard Davis.
CA: Richard Davis. Victor Sproles came out of there, too. And Gene Ammons, as I said… Anyway…
TP: Von Freeman also went to DuSable.
CA: Von Freeman, yes. Von, Bruz, George — the whole family.
Anyway, you asked me about him being called Little Giant. My memory failed me; I didn’t connect it at first. I consider it apocryphal. But there may been a reason for it. I can trace it to a time… And I heard about this more. I didn’t see it happen. But I didn’t know… When he… The thing that brought Johnny Griffin to the attention of the world, he got a chance to go with Lionel Hampton. And that was a time when Arnett Cobb was with him. Arnett Cobb was big. And that’s back in the days when you had these saxophone battles, the same way as in those days they’d have these big band battles. Johnny Griffin happened to join Hamp during an engagement at a place called the Rialto Theatre. The Rialto Theatre was a strip joint, but they changed it to a theatre. And Lionel Hampton was the opener; he opened that place. By the time Lionel Hampton and these two cats, Arnett Cobb and Johnny Griffin… They excited people so they threw people out, three fell out of the balconies… It was a riot! They closed that place after about two or three performances — the place couldn’t stand it! They turned it back into a strip joint!
And the clash, the battle between David and Goliath… See what I’m getting at? And out of this, I think Johnny Griffin got the name the Little Giant. Well, everybody wants to go for the underdog, you know. The new music was just beginning. But Griffin, he was into everybody else’s thing, Arnett Cobb honking and playing… But Bebop, the new music hadn’t filtered through. They’d play a few notes, but the new music hadn’t been born. But as far as sound was concerned, he held his own with Arnett Cobb! Everybody goes for the underdog. But he was the underdog only in size, so they called him the Little Giant.
TP: You played with Johnny Griffin quite a bit, though, around Chicago — yes or no?
CA: Not a lot. No.
TP: But at any rate, he of course knew you and you’d known each other a while, and that’s why he referred you for this date.
TP: I’d like to ask you about some of the tunes you did on the date. I don’t know if you remember it; if not, I’ll refresh your memory.
CA: Oh, yes, I remember.
TP: Were these tunes that you’d been playing for many years? Is the material on Inverted Image representative of the type of set you would play in Chicago?
CA: No. No, because… Well, the title of the album was decided upon pretty much before we… I don’t remember who came up with the idea for it. I think it was Orrin Keepnews who came up with the title, and the idea of the Rorschach thing. He said, “Okay, this should have a song for it.” So I wrote a kind of upside-down Blues; half the changes were upside-down, or inverted — I turned them around. So it all sounded like the Blues, but the (?) bars go in different directions, and you don’t know what it is until the last two bars. So that’s the inverted image.
Now, I wrote that, but Bill Lee wrote most of the rest of it. He wrote the ballad called “Only One.” There were a lot of standards.
TP: There’s also a collaboration called “See You Saturday.”
CA: No, that’s no collaboration. That’s Bill Lee’s tune.
TP: And everything else is a standard.
TP: “Lullaby Of The Leaves,” which Johnny Griffin did a great version of once on a record, “My Funny Valentine”… These were tunes that you’d been playing for quite some time, that were part of your standard…
TP: Von Freeman, when I interviewed him, said that you had the greatest harmonic ear that he had ever heard. Do you feel that you had any impact on other pianists who came up in Chicago during the Fifties?
CA: There are a couple of people who I influenced in Chicago, I know for sure. But I don’t think anybody else I influenced at all. They were going their own way and doing their thing. Because to really be influenced… Well, what I mean by influenced, a pianist to influence another pianist, you’ve got to spend time with him. Or if he plays something a little bit like you, in a song he finds a change or finds a way to voice something, that’s okay, but it’s not no big thing.
But to influence somebody, what I call influence, is maybe… As far as piano is concerned, there is only one pianist in Chicago that I have influenced, and he doesn’t live there any more. His name is Billy Wallace. The reason being we spent a lot of time together. We got into each other’s heads. I know what he knows, he knows what I know. And we know why.
TP: Billy Wallace played with Max Roach for some time…
CA: Yes, he did. And there was a bass player there named Bill Lee. He can play the piano and he arranges. But I’m talking about influencing him not so much on piano, but musically, in terms of every facet of it. People like John Young, Jodie Christian, Willie Pickens, the piano players that were there? No, I didn’t influence them at all. Muhal Richard Abrams? No.
There was something I wanted to tell you about this album, Inverted Image. It really didn’t sell very much. In fact, for a while, everybody I knew had got the album, they went by Riverside and got a free copy! I didn’t know anyone that ever bought it. It didn’t sell well. They didn’t promote it, of course. And to my mind, it’s not indicative of the thing I do the best.
And lately, the last four or five years… There was a thing we went through in the Seventies where there was no pianos to play, so you had to buy an electric piano, or even worse, before that, you had the organ in the Fifties and so forth — and they had such lousy pianos. Now they’ve got good pianos in most places, they have a grand piano. And more than a bebopper, I’m a sort of painter, in a sense. My friends have put me in the kinds of situations that allow me to do what I do best. Some people say I’m trying to be a Classical pianist, and that’s a painter, you know. Or you can call me a house painter! I’ll accept that. I’m still painting. Sometimes I like to play by myself. I like to paint around singers.
* * *
Chris Anderson (4-9-86) – (WKCR):
[MUSIC: BIRD IN CHICAGO, PERSHING BALLROOM]
TP: In the first part of the show we’ll focus on musicians Chris was involved with in Chicago, where he was an active member of the scene for about a 15-year period, wasn’t it, between 1946 and 1961 or so.
CA: Yes, that’s about it. Actually a few more years than that. But professionally, yes, you could say fifteen years. But I started playing around in the mid to late Forties. So it’s really more like twenty years. But yes, 1945 to 1961 professionally.
TP: Chris, tell us about working at the Pershing Ballroom. You played there quite frequently and different people would come in. What was the set-up like there?
CA: Well, the Pershing Ballroom was just that. It was a ballroom, a dance hall. They gave dances. But the thing is, in dealing with Jazz, dance halls were just used as a place for people to stand. People really began to listen more… Jazz was changing from something to dance to, to a music to listen to. You’d have a place like this with maybe, oh, twenty-five hundred people, nothing but wall-to-wall people. It was quite a thing. It was a dance hall in name only, because there was no room for anybody to dance in most cases. And even when they were, it was just… A stand-up nightclub, that’s all it was. That’s the best way to explain it.
TP: The Pershing also had an upstairs and a downstairs room. They would book two different bands at one time. Is that not right?
CA: Yes. Well, they had a place called Budland in the basement. Well, they had something there every week. That was dealing with the local musicians more than having big names come in. Big names would only come in once in a while, you see, so it wasn’t really quite the same thing. And there was the Pershing Lounge, so really there was three places in the same building. And that’s where Ahmad Jamal would hold fort for a long time, and put the Pershing on the map.
TP: Tell us about this date with Bird. What were the circumstances of that evening?
CA: You want to go through that again.
TP: Well, we went through it before, but that’s all right.
CA: Remember we were talking about the fact that I was supposed to be part of the regular house rhythm section there, and I explained to you that it didn’t happen that way at all. The saxophone player, Claude McLin, his piano player couldn’t make it for some reason. And I wanted to go so bad, I didn’t know what to do. I was sitting around the house depressed. And I got this call from Claude McLin, who asked me to come, and I got to hear Bird, and not only hear Bird, but to play with him. Of course, I had heard him before I played with him, once before, but at least it got me in. I had to work a little, but it was a pleasure. That’s about all there is to that.
[MUSIC: JUG-STITT, "Saxification"; JUG, "Down The Line"]
A strange incident happened to us once when we were working in Chicago. I teased Jug about it for years! I have to explain to you first, Chicago is known for the Blues, and there was a time that Blues was much more alive as Jazz than it was Rock-and-Roll before Rock-and-Roll came in. This was before Blues players made a lot of money. They made no money. So the Blues players were in a certain section of Chicago, called the West Side. They stayed on the West Side, while we stayed on the South Side.
TP: The Jazz musicians stayed on the South Side and the Blues musicians on the West Side.
CA: Yes, and never the twain shall meet. So a gig came along, and Jug having a name, we went over there. A friend of ours, a guitarist I’ve told you about, was very important in my life. His name was Leo Blevins. Now, he came from a Blues background… What I mean as Blues, he came from that genre, he could fit in just as well with Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, anybody who played Jazz… In those days musicians did some of everything, and they did it with feeling. Whatever was going on, they did it with feeling.
So we had this gig. It was a Blues house. There was not many people in the house, oh, maybe ten people. It sounded like three, the way it was scattered around. And we went into playing the Blues, what I mean, the Shuffle Blues. The rhythm was like ta-CHONK, ta-CHONK, ta-CHONK. It would be like what Memphis Slim was doing or something like that. Back in those days, guitar players would get down on their knees, I’ve seen bass players lie down on the floor and play their bass. They were required to be very entertaining.
So we finished this number. And everybody said, “Hmm, so this is a Blues house, huh? This ought to take care of them. That ought to fix them.” All of a sudden we heard a voice way in the back: “When you gonna play me some Blues?!”
And we stood there just dismayed, just stupidly! We hadn’t done a thing. And I teased Jug about this for years. I never would let him forget it. Sometimes people have a little antipathy toward each other anyway, and I teased him with that from now til Doomsday. I always think of that when I hear Jug play the Blues. But he was a wonderful Blues player; it was just a different thing.
TP: When did you start playing with Jug? How did you meet him?
CA: I don’t even remember how I met Jug. That’s something I could not tell you. See, I was not close to Jug. I was not close to Jug in the least. He had a name. He was in and out of town quite a lot. He was not a part of the Jazz scene when I got into it — or a regular part of the Jazz scene. He was in New York and traveling and stuff like that, so I didn’t get to know him that well. See? Just in the latter years that I was there I’d see him occasionally, work with him or something. But I don’t have a memory of when I met him. I don’t.
TP: [MUSIC OF JOE WILLIAMS]
CA: There is something that has always bothered me, it’s annoyed the hell out of me! — excuse the expression. When Joe went with Count Basie… This ties up a great deal with what I was saying about Jug and the Blues, and so forth. When he went with Basie, all of a sudden I was hearing this reputation coming back. I would hear it from disk jockeys, establishment disk jockeys; I presume critics wrote it up that way; “The greatest Blues singer in the world.” So when I think about Blues singers, I think about Blues singers. Joe Williams, as far as Jazz is concerned, singing, I guess he’d have to be the greatest Blues singer, because that’s all they knew about him from Basie.
But the thing about Joe, the reason why I’m annoyed by it… The first time I had the pleasure of having an exchange with Joe… A singer named Joe Evans called me to accompany him on a gig in a little after-hours spot in Chicago. I had never been there before, I had never seen it — I didn’t know the place existed. Sometimes you think you know all about your environment, you think you know where everything is, you think you’re pretty hip. Okay, I go down to this club and go in there… Remember, I don’t know this place exists. Who’s there? Joe Williams, Duke Ellington, Al Hibbler, Dinah Washington was there, another famous singer in Chicago whose name was Lillian Hunter, and a few other people that I can’t think of.
Okay. They asked Joe to sing a song with me, put me right on the spot. He says, “Look, can you play Pagliacci for me?” Well, the famous…the part of Pagliacci that everybody would know, the part that was written for Puccini, it was written for a tenor. Okay, he adapted to it, because he has a bass voice. And he gave it beautifully! He scared me death!
And I hate the thought of anybody thinking of him as a Blues singer. He’s just a wonderful singer. And as a ballad singer, he has no peer. I picked this particular track to give you an example of what he can sing like without a large orchestra. “Young and Foolish,” I think it is.
[MUSIC: Joe Williams, "Young and Foolish."
TP: We'll hear next some music by Von Freeman, another person Chris was associated with for quite some time.
CA: Mmm-hmm. I probably worked longer with Von than... Probably! I know I worked longer with him than anybody I have ever worked with. I spent five years in and out of his bands.
TP: Tell us about the band.
CA: Well, the band consisted of Von, his two brothers George and Bruz... George is a guitarist. In fact, he's the guitarist on that album with Bird you played. Bruz Freeman was a drummer. And we worked at different clubs around Chicago, and went on short tours to nearby states, and so forth, maybe for one-nighters.
TP: What was the repertoire of the band? What sorts of things did you play?
CA: Back then we played practically all standard tunes, some things that were written, new lines to old chord progressions, things like that -- but pretty standard. All the new Bebop tunes weren't on the scene yet. See, we're talking Forties. We're talking '47, '48 and '49...'51.
TP: Can you talk about what Von's sound was like in the late 1940's?
CA: His sound was very much like Ben Webster's. You could always hear the air coming the side of it. You could always hear that. That's one description. It was pre-Bebop. It fit Bebop, but... It fit then and it fit now. It fit Bebop the same way Don Byas or Paul Gonsalves would fit Bebop, so correct and so right. So when Bebop came in, all he had to do was alter a few lines; he'd do that, too. The basis for it was there already. Or he doesn't have to do that. Because if he'd deal with Bebop and think of it as such, he'd wind up playing certain cliches and lines, and it's hard to get out of it sometimes. It's not really thinking; it's doing what you hear, and what you hear is quite often what you've heard somebody else play, not something that you've put together. You may think you're putting it together; I guess you could say you are.
But Von wasn't just a wonderful instrumentalist, he was a wonderful musician. He knew a lot! He could sit down at the piano and play things, so I knew he knew about harmony.
If I go on about him, it's because we have a mutual admiration society going for sure.
TP: I know that, because Von has said about you that you have the greatest harmonic ear he's ever heard.
CA: He's one of my favorite people. He knows it. [ETC.]
[MUSIC: Von, "White Sands," "I Can't Get Started," "Sweet and Lovely"]
TP: Chris says that Von has been playing “White Sands” since 1946 or 1947.
CA: Yeah, that’s true. As I said before, back in those days they were just really starting to write new melodies to old changes. Well, that’s not true either, I guess, because they were already doing that to “I Got Rhythm” and writing different melodies to Blues. But they hadn’t extended out much further than that. They hadn’t taken too many standard songs with a lot of changes and so forth, and redoing them. At least not in Chicago. Chicago’s another place…
TP: Well, how about the younger breed? How about someone like Henry Prior, a young alto player in Chicago, who passed away too young, but…
CA: Now, see, I was talking about Henry Prior being one of the… I remember I told you that most of the people had to wait for Bird to make the next record, because they didn’t know what to do. And I was saying that Henry Prior was one of the few…one of the people that had the light. But I forgot to add, he was from New York! He brought the message from New York. He was not born in Chicago. He moved to Chicago. He knew what it was all about, as far as Bebop was concerned, the technical aspect of it. He just died too soon. He died too soon.
TP: That’s the case for a lot of musicians of that generation. There were a lot of perils involved, and it was not the safest time for a lot of people.
CA: No, it wasn’t.
TP: But the people who survived came out very, very strong.
CA: A friend of mine gave a birthday party for me a couple of years ago. His toast was, “We’re celebrating Chris just because he’s still here.”
TP: [ETC.] We’ll hear now “Two Bass Hit” by Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band. I know Chris has some things to say about it.
CA: I certainly do. When Dizzy had his big band, it was the first time I really… For bass players… This was before I met Wilbur Ware. But in the earlier years, the great bass players were Oscar Pettiford, Jimmy Blanton and so forth. But this is for their solo work, keeping in mind the technique of recording back in those days was not too good, and the music was such that…the music the bass players played as a background, playing behind people, you didn’t hear very well, and there wasn’t much to be said for it, I assume. But when music changed…
Well, the short of it (never mind the lecture), when I first heard Ray Brown, it hit me… I even remember the thought that I had. I had this thought three times in my life — “that’s how bass should be played.” And it just fit so well with the band. I’m not talking about his solo work. That’s phenomenal. I’m talking about just the way he sounded with the band. It just threw me completely.
And Dizzy… I never had the pleasure of playing with Dizzy, doggone it, but you know what he is to music. I keep thinking what makes Dizzy so different than the rest of the trumpet players — the fact that he’s such a great musician, or is it his personality, or what it is. And it hit me. He has music down… I heard him in an interview where he was explaining about him and Bird. The interviewer was trying to put Dizzy up as having a great personality as such, a good style. He explained that Bird was the one that had the style. What Dizzy, in all his humility, would not say (you don’t say this about yourself) the fact that he could arrange, he could write — he brought the music to everybody. In his first band, he used to teach everybody what everything was about. The trumpet players, the arrangers, so they would know what it was all about.
All the great trumpet players, coming down from Fats Navarro, Dizzy, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis, they have to take the music so serious, they all had something to prove, being the greatest. It’s quite a thing when you don’t write and can’t see the whole picture. And I had never heard any of them once… Dizzy is the only one I ever heard approach music with a sense of humor, and it’s no joke. He can have fun with the music. It’s so right, he can do anything with it. He will always be the boss.
And this record here was one of the first records that I ever heard that really impressed me. I am putting that wrong; they all impressed me. But this is the first record that I was really impressed by. Just his writing and Ray Brown’s playing, it pinned it down for me.
[MUSIC: "Two Bass Hit," Griff, W. Ware, "Woody 'n You"]
TP: Listening to Johnny Griffin and Wilbur Ware brings up a host of memories for Chris Anderson, who played with both of them pretty extensively.
CA: Yes. That’s asking me to tell you about a lifetime. Listening to Wilbur… Wilbur was not only a great bass player, he was good with people. He was good with kids, he was good… Everybody loved him. He had a laugh that you’d never forget. And don’t let him get to know you well, know your weak spots, he will get to you one way or another.
I remember an incident, he was working down at Pee-Wee’s, at a place on 11th Street, a club. The owner used to be the emcee at Birdland for a long time. Keep in mind, any family where you deal with each other all the time… I say “family” because that’s what we were. So we were making a fuss about something. I remember a time when I had a grievance against Wilbur, real or imagined. It wasn’t much. To show you how little it was, I went down to the club to hear him, which I don’t do that often. I decided, “Okay, I’m not going to even talk to him. I’ll ignore him. I’ll talk to everybody else.” He yelled at me, “Hi, Chris! Hey, Chris!” I wouldn’t say anything to him.
The bandstand was about three feet off the floor, so he was up there. He said, “So you’re ignoring me. Okay.” And after a while he called me again; I wouldn’t say nothing to him. He was coming at me from the other direction. So what he did, he took the bass and put it on the floor. And the bandstand maybe was 7 or 8 feet from the tables where I was. And he put that bass… All that music went out of the bass down through the peg, across the floor, through my shoes, up my legs, and through my body… Maybe I could tune out my ears if I wanted to, but… That’s the wonderful thing about acoustic bass. When it was played right, it felt right, and you could not ignore it. I must have looked up and said, “All right, I give.” I said, “I got it! I got it!”
TP: Wilbur Ware had one of the most distinctive sounds of any bass player around, I think.
CA: Yes, indeed.
TP: Again, this may be an impossible recollection, but do you recall the circumstances of first meeting Wilbur?
CA: There’s something I was telling you in my interview, Leo Blevins telling me… There was this place in Chicago called the Hole, where all the Jazz musicians would meet…
TP: Where was it?
CA: 29th and Indiana. And Leo was telling me about this great bass player, Wilbur Ware, that was coming to town, and he wanted me to hear him. Leo turned me on to everybody I ever met, and also was responsible in some way… I mean, he introduced me to somebody that introduced me to, at least! He was only twice removed from me meeting them, at least — not directly responsible.
Wilbur was in Milwaukee. He was in Milwaukee with Sonny Stitt. And when Wilbur came back, Wilbur and Sonny Stitt came to town for the first time, too, and lived there. I didn’t remember that before when we were talking about it. So I got to meet Sonny Stitt at this time. Wilbur lived in Chicago, of course; he was just out on the road. And when they came back, Sonny resided there. This would have to be ’47, ’46 or ’47. Let’s say ’47.
TP: You mentioned in the interview also a time with a Rhythm-and-Blues singer who liked to go to the bar and hear the rhythm section.
CA: Cozy Eccleston, yes.
TP: Would you do a lot of those type of gigs, not just Jazz, but Rhythm-and-Blues singers and Bluesmen and so forth? Or was it never the twain shall meet? What was the environment for you as a working pianist in Chicago?
CA: Listen. Remember, I was saying a while ago, musicians, they worked a weird assortment of gigs. You’d never know what was… The same thing I was telling you about Ike Day. He had this gig playing drums, no band, no nothing. Well, musicians, whatever there was to do or play, they did it. And Wilbur could play drums, he was a dancer, he was a drummer. He learned the entertainment business. He just happened to be a great bassist, that’s all. He played rhythm-and-blues gigs, he played Blues gigs, Blues gigs, b-l-u-u-z-s gigs. He played for singers, he played some… Everything that could be played, he played it. And to think someone like him graduated from a tub, a stick and a rope. That’s what he learned on.
TP: His foster father built him a homemade bass, I believe. Isn’t that right.
CA: Yes. That’s what we’re talking about.
TP: The Reverend Turner.
CA: I don’t remember… Yes, wait a minute. Yes, I do. I only got to know about him shortly before Wilbur died. We were talking about it, but I’d forgotten about that.
TP: The music we’ll hear next features Wilbur Ware in company with another tenor player who spent not that much time in Chicago, but the time he spent there seems to have been quite significant for him, Sonny Rollins.
CA: Yes, he was there a couple of years, I think.
TP: I think it was late 1950, early ’51, and then 1954-55.
CA: I think it was ’54 or ’55. Because he had a gig at the Beehive in Chicago. That was his last gig, then he left and came back to New York.
TP: I also read that he was there in 1950-51, and he played with Ike Day and jammed with Johnny Griffin and so forth.
CA: Oh yes.
TP: Anyway, what do you remember about Sonny Rollins in Chicago at that time? Anything in particular?
CA: He was warm. He was a wonderful musician. And being who he was, he helped the musicians out to learn. But he worked all the same kind of gigs that we worked. He worked gigs that you wouldn’t believe he’d be on, for his stature. But he was in the salt mines. He worked the Blues gigs, rhythm-and-blues gigs… There was even a place… There was a place outside Chicago called Calumet City that had a bunch of strip joints. We worked those even; we had to. He worked them, too.
TP: So Sonny really blended into the scene, and became part of the community.
CA: Exactly. It had to do with doing what you had to do. That’s a fact.
[MUSIC: S. Rollins, Wilbur Ware, Elvin Jones: "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise" and "All The Things You Are"]
Incidentally, that’s the second time I had the thought that that’s how bass should be played. Whoo!
TP: Wilbur Ware is such a heavy figure to talk about, we forgot to discuss Johnny Griffin, whose playing we mentioned before.
CA: I don’t know how I could forget to talk about Johnny Griffin, because he was responsible for me getting to record, too, as well as having many other jobs in Chicago, and a lot of things. I haven’t had a chance to see him much since I’ve been in New York. In fact, I’ve only seen him twice since I came to New York in ’61. But he wasn’t in town a lot…
TP: He lived in Europe, and didn’t come here for more than a decade.
CA: Yes. In fact, I think it was about ’79 or so, he did a concert at Carnegie Hall. I remember Wilbur and his wife Gloria went, and Wilbur was so debilitated at the time, he had to go up in a wheelchair. It was so difficult; I remember that. And I think I was ill or something; I didn’t get to go to that performance. So I didn’t get to see him then. And he was at the Grant Park once, and we were supposed to go…
TP: Grant Park in Chicago?
CA: No, not Grant Park. I mean, Grant’s Tomb in New York. He was finished playing, and I got to see him just for a second.
TP: I guess I keep asking you the same tired question…
CA: That’s because I don’t answer it.
TP: No, I’ll ask you one more time, as I have for various other musicians we’ve played, what were the circumstances by which you first met Johnny Griffin in Chicago?
CA: I don’t remember. It’s just like I’ve always known him. I can’t remember my first meeting with him. For the life of me, I’ve tried. Because you asked me in that interview, and I haven’t been able to come up with any more. It’s like Jug.
TP: What do you remember about playing with him?
CA: Oh, that I enjoyed it. It was fun. I can’t remember any particular incident that stands out.
TP: Did you ever hear Griff play alto sax? He started off as an alto player.
CA: I don’t remember… Yes, I did see him play the alto. There was a club called Swingland; there used to be a Cotton Club in Chicago, and they changed it to Swingland. Now, that was during the late Fifties. Now and then he would switch to alto.
[MUSIC: Sonny Stitt, "Casbah," "Idaho"]
TP: Did you play with Sonny Stitt on sessions?
CA: Yes, I played with Stitt, I worked with him… The first time I played with Sonny Stitt was Easter of 1947. We were supposed to work a gig at the Pershing Ballroom with Bird, the first time I worked with Bird. Sonny Stitt was supposed to be on that gig, but he got sick, and we worked some gigs…
Sonny Stitt by then was part of the local crowd, the same way we talked about Sonny Rollins. Sonny Stitt was in that same situation.
TP: In ’47, ’48, ’49?
CA: Yes. I worked a lot with him. I worked as much as any other piano players with him. I could say I worked a lot, as much as there were gigs.
TP: What was a standard set by Stitt like? A lot of standards, substitutions, Bop tunes?
CA: Well, there were a few originals, like “Ray’s Idea” that was coming on the scene, some things written on Blues and some things written on “Rhythm.” But there were not a lot of complete originals, with completely different chord changes yet. So they played things like “Idaho.” This is one they played back then. I haven’t heard anyone play this tune in maybe over twenty years now. They don’t play it any more. Things like “Fine and Dandy” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” those were the standards that they used in those days?
TP: Was he playing any alto at that time, or was it exclusively tenor in the late Forties?
CA: Oh, no. He played alto a lot. In fact, he played alto mostly. It would depend on which one he wanted to play, which was most convenient for him to play at the time. He had horns in different places. He might have used an alto last night, and it might have been too inconvenient for him, or he’d forget the tenor so he played alto — or vice-versa. Rarely did he switch.
TP: He was also playing baritone at the time in Gene Ammons’ band and other situations, I recall.
CA: Yeah, for recordings. But generally speaking, he didn’t do it too much.
TP: Do you have a preference for his alto or tenor? Or is that not a fair question?
CA: It’s a fair question. I prefer him on tenor. This medium, Bebop, to my ears, fits the tenor better. The only people that I ever heard fill up an alto, I mean sound-wise, were Bird and Cannonball. And alto players, despite their technical achievements out of the horns, I get a picture of a little-bitty horn when you play alto. But the tenor, it fits the medium a lot better with the things that they play on it. Most people, if they get a real big sound, it sounds like the sound is bigger than the horn to me. It seems to me like Bebop was made more for a tenor. It takes a special person to play it easily and get a big sound on alto. That’s just my opinion, that’s all.
TP: [ETC., STATION ID]
CA: I would like to put in a disclaimer here, so that I don’t get shot. Now, I know quite a few alto players still. Some of my best friends play alto, and they play it well and they do the job.
TP: There’s a wonderful record you’re on by Frank Strozier, for instance.
CA: Yes, indeed. And there’s C. Sharpe; he really plays. George Coleman switches from alto to tenor.
TP: And many others, and I’m sure they all know who they are if they’re out there. No offense intended.
CA: But they are the exceptions. That’s my feeling. More tenor players are going to sound good playing Bebop than alto players. That’s what I think I’m saying.
TP: [ETC.] A lot of what Sun Ra was doing in Chicago in the late Forties and Fifties is obscure, but I know he had a rehearsal band in the late Forties and early Fifties, and he was doing arrangements at the Club De Lisa, I think, and in the rehearsal band were people like Von Freeman, Red Holloway, Wilbur Ware… What do you remember about Sun Ra at the time?
CA: You see, before he got into this experimental music, doing things, Sun Ra was an arranger for the De Lisa Club band. This was a big show club, they had dancers…
TP: Red Saunders’ band was there.
CA: Red Saunders’ band, exactly. And he did his arranging with that band. But he did not have his rehearsals and stuff over there, to my knowledge. He rehearsed down in Budland, in the Pershing Hotel, where the Pershing Lounge was. That’s where they had the rehearsals.
TP: Do you happen to recall any of those rehearsals, what was happening in them?
CA: Well, first, to show you how experimental and how out he could write, one day I was talking to him on the telephone, and he played a tape of something. It was called “The Devil Dance.” And it scared me over the telephone! It really did. I had never heard anything like this in my life. But as far as his big band, it was quite a band; in fact, everybody would be in it at one time or another. Wilbur Ware and Victor Sproles would be in it, for bass players — I think even Israel Crosby did it for a minute.
TP: Von Freeman said that having played with Sun Ra made it possible for him to play any type of music anywhere. He wouldn’t be daunted by anything!
CA: Yes, that would do it! That would do it. We had the most wonderful exchanges, because we were into different kinds of music. And he’d have these rehearsals, performance rehearsals on Sunday afternoon. At this particular time, I was living in the Pershing Hotel. I came in one day, and he turned around and said to me… Because he’d been asking me to come down, but I’d never managed to get down there, because I was doing something, or not doing, or too lazy to come down. And he turned around, and he said… Everybody was looking at me. He said, “Well, you finally decided to come down, huh?” I tried to think of something to say: “Yeah. Well, I heard you were going to walk the water today; I thought I’d have to come down and see this.”
But he could really write. And one of the wonderful things about him, he took some musicians who couldn’t read too good, and taught them how to read, and made them stand up and be men. And he had a lot of these people in his bands for years. So he’s contributed a lot to the music.
TP: Some for thirty years, and the band is still going strong, except for Count Basie and Mercer Ellington, I suppose.
CA: That got to be quite an organization. Because even now, they… They all stay together. They’re a very close-knit group. He owns a big house up in Philadelphia, and most of the band members live there. So he has a way of keeping a band together. And that’s what you must do if you’re going to have any longevity as a bandleader. Because things aren’t going good all the time. Because he kept the band together, but that doesn’t mean that they worked all the time in this country. Sometimes they go to Europe, sometimes… They’ll work anywhere. But he still manages to keep them together. Keeping a band together, it gives the implication that they worked all the time and they worked regularly. This is not the case. He had other things going for him, and he found a way to keep his band together.
TP: And I hear that band rehearses like crazy. They rehearse all day long, every day to keep that discipline going.
CA: Yeah! Not only did it keep the discipline going, it kept a lot of people out of trouble, which was very important during those early days. That’s very important.
TP: “Young and Foolish,” as the song goes.
CA: Yes. What in the world were we thinking of?
TP: [ETC.] …Barry Harris’s record For The Moment, on Uptown Records, recorded live at the Jazz Cultural Theatre.
CA: Let me say one thing about this album. I didn’t know Barry had made this album, but I knew he’d made a lot of live albums. So I heard a cut one day on the radio, and something told me… I was listening to the cloud sounds, and something told me this was made at the Jazz Cultural Theatre. I don’t know whether it was wishful thinking or what it was. But when it turned out that it was, I was shocked. I have quite a thing about ESP and the supernatural and stuff like that. Anyway, it really surprised me. Maybe I think everything’s at the Cultural Theatre, because that’s been a home for me. It’s a place where I’ve been able to hold forth, thanks to Barry and… Well, I’m not going to talk much more about this, but…
TP: The piece we’ll hear is “To Monk With Love.” Barry Harris spent much time with Monk in the last years of Monk’s life, and absorbed a great deal, after having absorbed the vocabulary of Bud Powell. [ETC.]
[MUSIC: Barry Harris, "To Monk With Love," C. Anderson with B. Harris & Choir, "Come Sunday."]
CA: Barry Harris is so wonderful. He’s a great player, he’s a great arranger, and talking about good with people… He’s a wonderful teacher. He had these classes that they started at the Jazz Forum. And putting this thing together was something amazing to watch. There were days when we didn’t think it would work, human beings being what they are. The choir consisted of professionals, semi-professionals and so on, all the musicians were professionals. I had done some Symphony Space concerts with Barry before, but doing something in Town Hall was something special to us. And the feeling about the whole thing, it was amazing.
One of the reasons I wanted to play this, forgive me, this was one of the greatest nights of my life, bar none — and I have Barry Harris to thank for it. And I want him to hear it publicly. I’m always thanking him, but it will never be enough.
TP: [ETC.] The next two selections will focus on two tenor players who are very important to Chris, George Coleman and Clifford Jordan. Both LPs feature Billy Higgins on drums, and he’s a close friend of Chris.
CA: He certainly is. He’s one of my very closest friends. I remember asking him one day, “How many records have you made?” He made an attempt to answer, and he scratched his head, and he said, “This is ridiculous. I don’t know!” He didn’t have the faintest idea he’s made so many, because he’s recorded with so many people. But in the 1970′s he’s been the main man in Cedar Walton’s trios and quartets and quintets and so forth, but he has recorded and played with other people. He is just the greatest drummer… He has so much taste. He’s the personification of taste. There’s not enough I can tell you about Billy Higgins. And as a person… He’s the kind of person you go up to Grant’s Tomb, and people from all over show up from different facets of his life. He’s another one of those people that just attracts people.
George Coleman? Now, he’s one of the greatest phenomenons I’ve ever seen in my life on the saxophone. I met him when he came to Chicago from Memphis, him and Booker Little and Frank Strozier — two of them came together and one came later. I don’t remember how it was. I think Booker Little and Frank might have come first, and then George (I’m not sure) shortly behind. It was a case of saying, “You go ahead; I’ll be right behind you,” I’m sure.
But George, the first gig we had the Roosevelt College in Chicago, I remember thinking, “This man is going to go somewhere; he’s really going to go somewhere.” And he has so much talent. Sometimes I think one of the only things that may have slowed him up when he was getting off the ground… He has such phenomenal technique, I’ve had people tell me… You know, he practiced a lot. Like, Sonny Stitt in his early years was a practicer. Every time you’d see him, he had his horn in his hand. He didn’t have a natural talent for technique; he acquired it. But George seems to have this natural technique, and understanding of harmony and the melodic line. He understands it all. And he’s become a great arranger. He’s a complete musician. He’s just not a saxophone player. He’s just one of the most phenomenal men I’ve ever met. And he stands tall, he knows how to take care of business. He’s what he is. He’s always been the same.
And he’ll be standing tall fifty years from now. He’s the kind of musician (which is unusual for a musician), he gets up and runs in the morning. He gets up at five o’clock. He’s always been like this. So you got a health nut that’s a great artist, too! So he can sustain himself. He got involved in circular breathing along the way. So he had to keep himself in good shape.
[MUSIC: Eastern Rebellion (GC), "5/4 Thing," "Clifford Jordan, "John Coltrane."]
TP: Chris, you say Bill Lee is the third man who makes you think “That’s the way the bass should be played.”
CA: Yes. And I said a lot more, because he got to be quite a part of my life. All the great people that you know that play, there’s somebody you identify with more than others. It has nothing to do with greatness. See, he got to be a part of me. I know what he’s about and he knows what I’m about. I have to say he’s my favorite bass player in the world. He has some albums out on Strata-East, big band things. He’s a great arranger. He’s just a great musician. Poet… He does everything. I could be talking all night about him, so we’ll have to skip that.
TP: Clifford Jordan you’ve played with quite a bit.
CA: Yes, quite a bit. Cliff Jordan lived in Chicago, too, but I didn’t get to know him really until I got to New York. I got to know him starting in the Seventies, and played with him a lot. I’ve used up all the superlatives on George Coleman, but they apply to Clifford Jordan just as well, just as evenly.
TP: One of the most distinctive sounds in all of Jazz.
CA: He doesn’t just play Bebop. He doesn’t play cliches. He plays. I’m proud to know him. I can’t say much more than that.
TP: [ETC.] We’ll close the show with someone who comes from a similar line to Chris Anderson, but took the music in a different direction in Chicago, and was responsible for fostering a whole school of creative music, improvised music, Jazz if you will, in Chicago in the 1960′s. I’m speaking of Muhal Richard Abrams.
CA: He taught musicians how to write their own music, arrange, arrange their own concerts, take care of their business. He made complete musicians out of men. He brought about a new breed of musician. He really did. That’s what this generation is about.