Category Archives: Bass

For Bassist John Clayton’s 62nd Birthday, a DownBeat Feature From 2010

John Clayton, who continues to make his mark as top-tier bassist, composer and bandleader, turns 62 today. I had the pleasure of several conversations with him in late 2009-early 2010 when researching and composing a feature piece for DownBeat, which I append below.

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One of John Clayton’s favorite sayings is that he doesn’t do stress. “I’d rather roll up my sleeves and get the job done,” Clayton said. “I might have to go without sleeping, deal with difficult people, maybe have people scream at me—but it rolls off my back.”

It was the second Tuesday of January, and the bassist, 57, was anticipating the final installment of an eight-night run at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with the Clayton Brothers Band, which he co-leads with his brother, Jeff Clayton, to be directly followed by two days in the studio to record The New Song and Dance, a follow-up to Brother to Brother [Artist Share], a 2010 Grammy nominee. He had arrived in New York directly from a week at Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto, Italy, where he performed four duos with bassist John Patitucci and another four with pianist Gerald Clayton, his son.

On the previous evening at Dizzy’s, the only screaming came from a packed house of NEA Jazz Masters, who ate salmon, drank wine and mineral water, and rose up and hollered in response to a surging, well-paced set. “That band is great,” 2010 awardee Kenny Barron said later, summing up the prevailing opinion. “It reminds me of why I wanted to start playing jazz in the first place.”

Such approbation made sense: Since 1977, when the Claytons co-founded the unit, they’ve connected to the hip populism and presentational values that defined the musical production of such predecessors as the Adderley Brothers, Benny Golson’s Jazztet, Horace Silver, the Ray Brown-Gene Harris Trio, and Count Basie. Now they’re a pan-generational ensemble, with forty-something trumpeter Terrell Stafford sharing the front line with Jeff Clayton on alto sax and flute, and twenty-somethings Gerald Clayton and Obed Calvaire on piano and drums. At Dizzy’s, CBB articulated old-school aesthetics in a non-formulaic manner, addressing sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic raw materials with a sell-the-song attitude and acute attention to detail. John Clayton radiated the cool, composed affect of which he spoke—alert to all the nuances, he smiled encouragement at his band-mates, goosing the flow with consistently melodic basslines and ebullient, surging-yet-relaxed grooves.

“When I was 16, I studied with Ray Brown,” Clayton explained. “Milt Jackson was like an uncle to me at 17. Their music was extremely deep and serious, yet they had no problem allowing the joy that they were deriving from it to be expressed on their faces and in their body language.”

Known as Ray Brown’s protégé since those years, Clayton holds an undisputed position in the upper echelons of bass expression—in addition to his considerable jazz bona fides as both an ensemble player and soloist, his peer group gives him deep respect for having held the principal bass chair with the Amsterdam Philharmonic for five years during the 1980s.

“One of John’s talents is picking things up quickly—understanding concepts,” said Jeff Clayton. “I practice long and hard. John practices smart—always has. In preparing to audition for the Amsterdam Philharmonic, he just added another hour or so to his practice.

“ I was practicing a lot anyway, so I just added the orchestra audition material to what I was practicing,” Clayton said matter-of-factly. “Classical is just another kind of music. You’ve still got to push the string down to the fingerboard. You have to play detached notes or legato notes, forte or piano. Now, the instrumentation or the groove or some other aesthetic might be different—you learn those things.”

“I’ve always been analytical,” he added. “I’m more comfortable if I try to figure out why the characters in a situation say what they do or act as they do. Rather than play something from my lesson 300 times, I’ll play it 50 times, and each time analyze, say, what my elbow or wrist is doing.”

Clayton has applied his penchant for compartmentalization and mono-focus towards mastering various non-performative aspects of the music business—indeed, he does so many things so well that it is possible to overlook how distinctive a niche he occupies. “John is a visionary, who says, ‘Five years from now, I’ll be here,’ and then gets there,’” said Monty Alexander, with whom Clayton spent the better part of three years on the road during the middle ‘70s. “When John says he’s going to do something and then it transpires, it’s not by chance,” his brother adds. “We would write down goal sheets and follow them; once we’ve made it to ALL of our goals, then we set new ones.”

One platform is the area of composition and arrangement for small groups, big bands, and orchestras, a craft that Clayton learned in the crucible of the late ‘70s Count Basie Orchestra. While in Amsterdam, he continued to refine his aesthetic, creating charts for a radio big band. Upon returning to Los Angeles in 1986, he found steady work in the studios, and set to work establishing himself as a film writer.

“I was involved in a lot of film sessions as the only African-American musician in a 75-piece orchestra, and I thought as a writer I could help change that situation,” Clayton said. “But when it looked like the doors were starting to open, it became less interesting to me. I realized I was getting into it for the wrong reason; I’d be focusing on a lot of music and an environment that doesn’t define me. If you’re lucky enough to work with the great directors or producers, then fantastic. But to work with unqualified shlocks who are telling you what to do, and have no taste in music… I always say that jazz saved my life. I don’t make the kind of money that a successful film writer makes. But I smile a lot.”

Instead, Clayton focused on establishing the Clayton-Hamilton Big Band as a primary locus for his musical production, transmuting vocabulary from various Count Basie “New Testament” and Woody Herman arrangers, Duke Ellington, and Thad Jones into his own argot in the process of creating a book. As the ‘90s progressed, he served as arranger-for-hire, producer, and conductor on numerous recordings and high-visibility concerts, adding to his duties administrative responsibilities as Artistic Director of Jazz for the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1999 to 2001. While multi-tasking amongst these activities, he also taught at the University of Southern California (he retired at the end of the 2008-09 academic year), developing a comprehensive bass pedagogy.

In discussing his first principles as a bassist, Clayton referenced his initial encounter with Ray Brown at a weekly “Workshop in Jazz Bass” course at UCLA in 1969, which he rode four buses to get to.

“Ray came through the door, took out the bass, and showed the whole class what we had to learn,” Clayton recalled. “He played every major scale, every minor scale, all the arpeggios in every key. Later, he brought in recordings of Charles Mingus, Richard Davis, Ron Carter, Israel Crosby, George Duvivier, Sam Jones, and Scott LaFaro, none of whom I’d ever heard of. He saw how hungry I was, so in love with the whole thing, so he’d invite me to his recording sessions or club gigs in the area. I can pick out Ray in the middle of a 150-piece string orchestra. But he still has lessons for me, whether about tone, how to handle a groove from one tune to the next, and on and on.”

Mentorship evolved to friendship and ultimately productive partnership in Super Bass, the three-contrabass ensemble that united Brown, Clayton and Christian McBride from 1996 until Brown’s death in 2002. Most tellingly, Brown bequeathed to Clayton his primary bass—Clayton played it at Dizzy’s and in Orvieto. “It’s like a talisman,” Clayton said. “It’s as though by touching this instrument, I am infused with confidence, not egotistical, but as if to say, ‘You’re touching this bass, the music needs this, you can supply this.’ I tell my students that creativity begins from nothing and silence. When you touch the instrument, before you play a note, allow some silent moments so that you are immediately cool and chill and calm—and THEN give the music whatever it demands.”

[BREAK]

“I’m playing the piano, and standing next to me is this patriarch guy, caressing everything and making what you’re playing better,” Monty Alexander said, recalling Clayton’s comportment as a 22-year-old in his trio. “Sometimes I got mad because I wanted to say, ‘Hey, respect seniority here!’ He had a way about him that just made you happy to play.”

“My dad finds a way to translate his approach in life better than a lot of people,” Gerald Clayton remarked. “He’s got such a big heart, he’s thankful for the situation, and he brings that energy and love and honesty into the music. Even if he’s telling you to do something, it’s more like an invitation—sort of intimidating but loving, like a big bear.”

Asked to comment on this patriarchal trope, Jeff Clayton said: “Our mother raised seven kids as a single mom, worked ten hours a day at the Post Office, went to choir rehearsal, taught the junior and senior choir Tuesdays and Fridays and went to church all day Sunday, and took one class per semester, one night a week for 12 years, and got her degree in theology. As the oldest brother with that many kids, John had to be responsible.”

“Billy Higgins used to say, ‘You don’t choose the instrument; the instrument chooses you,’” John Clayton said, “I think that surely applies to me. People look to bass players as glue. We’re the go-between for the egos of the drums, or the piano, or the vocalist, or the trumpet—we understand where everyone is coming from. That molds your personality, and you move more towards what the bass represents.”

Clayton’s personal rectitude and groundedness, his impeccable craft, his insistence on privileging ensemble imperatives above solo flight, his staunch identification with the bedrock codes of jazz tradition, can impart the superficial impression of aesthetic conservativism. But his comments on  what he considers distinctive about his voice reveal an incremental sensibility.

“The changes and contributions I make to the structures we work with are inside, subtle, upper-level things,” Clayton said. “I was inspired by the way Israel Crosby, with Ahmad Jamal’s trio, superimposed within his bassline a tune on the tune he was playing. Or when Monty played a solo, the way he would anticipate my bassline and harmonize it before I created it. Now I’m listening to Terrell, and create my bassline based on a melody fragment he’s just played in his solo.

“Our ultimate goal as musicians is to become one with our instrument, and singing is the barometer that tells us this is happening. In fact, any time that my playing starts to go south, all I have to do is remind myself, ‘Oh yeah, I’m not singing,’ and it automatically clicks back into place.”

Prefacing his first Orvieto duo concert with Patitucci, Clayton introduced his partner as “a faucet that turns on and turns off and plays melody.” It could have been self-description. Performing such iconic bass repertoire as “Tricotism,” “Whims of Chambers” and “Ray’s Idea,” songbook chestnuts like “Squeeze Me,” “Body and Soul,” and “Tea For Two,” and baroque music, they engaged in open dialog, intuiting each other’s moves, playing as authoritatively with the bow as pizzicato, taking care to stay in complementary registers, switching from support to lead on a dime.

“It was the best musical experience I’ve ever had playing duos with a bass player,” Patitucci said. “He’s a consummate musician. The pitches lined up, which made the sonorities much richer; he’s so well-rounded that you could throw up anything and read through it, and it worked.”

The father-son duos at Orvieto proceeded along similarly open paths, the protagonists addressing blues, spirituals, standards, and originals by Clayton fils with abundant reharmonizations, and polytonal episodes, with a stylistically heterogeneous stance. Pere Clayton kept things grounded with a relentless pocket and elevated the mood with a succession of transcendent arco solos, including an introduction to John Lewis’ to “Django” that channeled Bach in grand Koussevitzkyian fashion.

“Each situation is about passion,” Clayton said of his unitary interests. “You immerse yourself in that language, and try to make it part of what you do, because you’re so crazy about it. I love classical and jazz styles 50-50, and I think that’s what you hear.”

On The New Song and Dance, the Clayton Brothers place tango, New Orleans streetbeat, and complex time signatures into the mix towards the notion, as Jeff Clayton put it, “that swing is part of a large cauldron of many ideas that we are allowed to visit in each song.” “It shows the wide span of creativity that the group represents,” John Clayton said. “The project is pushing me in ways I haven’t been pushed before; my brother’s songs don’t sound anything like songs he wrote four years ago. Gerald stretches us, too. If people thought they knew what we sounded like, they’re going to be surprised with different sounds.

“The things I write for the Clayton Brothers that I’m less happy with lean too close to being over-arranged. I always look for that balance to have it organized yet allow for a lot of freedom. With the big band it’s a little different. I want it to be a blowing band, but then other times I’ll write a chorus with no improvisation at all.”

Clayton anticipated a light touring schedule over the summer, the better to focus on expanding “Red Man, Black Man”—a programmatic 2006 opus commissioned  by the Monterey Jazz Festival as a collaboration between the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra and Kurt Elling, that year’s artist-in-residence—from a 25-minute investigation of the affinities between Native American and African American music into a concert-length performance. To frame Elling’s reading of original lyrics and poems apropos to the subject, Clayton orchestrates a Shawnee tribal stomp (“the singers were using call-and-response, the notes were primarily the blues scale, and the shaker pattern was CHING, CHING-A-CHING, CHING-A-CHING, CHING”) with radical techniques—the musicians blow silence, the saxophone section plays the transcribed stomp with wood flutes, chains and anvils strike the ground at measured intervals to represent a chain gang.

“I’m interested in different cultures and their music, and always tried, somehow, to incorporate them in what I do,” Clayton said, citing an unaccompanied bass feature that combines “Lift Every Voice And Sing” with “Danny Boy,” and, on a meta-level, the fall 2009 release, Charles Aznavour and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra [Capitol Jazz-EMI], on which  Clayton’s subtle arrangements—the guests include pianist Jacky Terrason and Rachelle Farrell—reimagine the iconic chanteur’s hits, and some choice new repertoire, in a swing context.

However his milieu evolves, Clayton does not intend to be left behind. “In the big band era, there were way fewer choices,” he said. “Now we can listen to so many categories of music. Many young musicians say, ‘There’s too much for me to absorb and learn and be held responsible for.’ I think, ‘That’s great—get busy.”

[—30—]

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A DownBeat Feature From 2009 and an Uncut Blindfold Test With Christian McBride

A few weeks ago, I missed a chance to observe bassist-composer Christian McBride’s birthday with a post of a DownBeat cover piece that ran in late 2008 and a slightly earlier Blindfold Test that I conducted with him not long before that. I’ve decided to rectify the omission, as I think both pieces are worth reading. I’ve posted my “director’s cut” of the feature (it runs about 900 words longer than what appeared in the magazine), and the original, unedited transcript of the Blindfold Test.

 

 Christian McBride, DownBeat Cover Article:

Late in the afternoon on Friday, May 8th, Christian McBride stood in the foyer of David Gage’s Tribeca bass atelier, poised to sound-test the latest addition to his arsenal. There was little time to spare—McBride had fifteen minutes to retrieve his car from the parking lot, a short walk away, and it was a mere 90 minutes til gig time at the Blue Note with James Carter’s new band with John Medeski, Adam Rogers, and Joey Baron. Still, McBride couldn’t restrain himself. Beaming at his new possession like a father cradling a newborn, he  put forth an elegant, funky one-chorus blues that the prior owner, the late Ray Brown, might well have cosigned for his own. Then McBride packed with a single efficient motion, enfolded Gage and his wife with a hug, and exited the premises, grabbing the car keys with two minutes to spare.

McBride was elated for reasons that had less to do with the excellence of the bass, which he declared superior to the one he had traded in to ameliorate the price, than with the pass-the-torch symbolism of the occasion. His new instrument had not come cheap, but he seemed to regard his possession of it to be more in the nature of an inheritance than the result of a transaction.

“It means the world to me, but I don’t think I’ll get that sentimental about it,” said McBride, who performed with Brown and John Clayton throughout the ‘90s in the singular unit, Super-Bass. “In my heart I’ll know it’s Ray’s bass, but I’m going to play what I need to. We had a very fatherly relationship. I don’t want to sound selfish, but I feel I SHOULD have it, since John has one of Ray’s other ones.”

Barely out of his teens when he joined Super Bass, McBride, now 36, was anything but a neophyte. Out of Philadelphia, he moved to New York in 1989 to matriculate at Juilliard, and quickly attained first-call status. By the fall of 1993, when McBride made his first extended tour with Joshua Redman’s highly publicized quartet with Pat Metheny and Billy Higgins, many considered him a major figure in the jazz bass continuum.

Perhaps this explains the vigorous blastback that certain elders launched McBride’s way in the latter ‘90s, when he began to revisit the electric bass, his first instrument, as a vehicle to investigate more contemporary modes of musical expression.

He recalled a backstage visit from Milt Jackson after his band, opening for Maceo Parker, played “a little tune I’d recorded that wasn’t a swing tune.” “Milt asked, ‘Was it necessary?’” McBride laughed heartily. “I said, ‘What do you mean, ‘necessary?’ ‘That ain’t the kind of stuff you’re supposed to be doing.’”

“I stood there and took it, because I loved Milt. But I had to ask: At what point am I allowed to get away from bebop? Is there some graduation process where Ray Brown or Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan comes to Bradley’s and gives me my diploma? Why do I feel that I’m going to get in trouble if I decide to get a little funky? I knew stretching out wouldn’t affect my bebop playing or make me alter my sound.”

In point of fact, Brown, a fixture on L.A.’s commercial scene, who, as McBride notes, “played pretty good electric bass” himself, was anything but judgmental about his protege’s populist proclivities. “Ray never said a negative thing to me,” McBride said. “His whole thing was about pocket; as long as it had a toe-tapping quality, he was into it. He loved that I brought my own thing to Super Bass as opposed to ‘trying to play like a bebop guy.’”

Over the past decade, McBride’s penchant for adapting his “own thing” to any musical situation, however tightly formatted or open-ended, brought him copious sideman work with a crew of auditorium-fillers, among them Sting, Bruce Hornsby, David Sanborn, Herbie Hancock, and Pat Metheny, with whom he toured extensively during the first third of 2008. It was the final year of his four-year run as Creative Chair for Jazz at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for which, since 2005, he had booked 12 concerts a year. Among the highlights were projects with Queen Latifah and James Brown, his idol, on which he both music-directed and played bass, and also such high-concept jazz fare as Charles Mingus’ Epitaph and a ninetieth birthday celebration for Hank Jones. McBride had not neglected his jazz education commitments—per his annual custom since 2000, he spent a fortnight as Artistic Director at Jazz Aspen Snowmass, and he maintained his co-director post at National Jazz Museum in Harlem, an employer since 2005. If this weren’t enough, McBride also assumed artistic director responsibilities at the Monterrey and Detroit Jazz Festivals, producing new music for the various special projects and groups presented therein.

The impact of all this activity on McBride’s Q-rating was apparent when the three Metheny devotees sharing my table at the Blue Note stated that his name, and not Carter’s, was their prime incentive for shelling out the $35 cover.

McBride did not disappoint: Playing primarily acoustic bass, he constructed pungent basslines that established both harmonic signposts and a heartbeat-steady pulse around which the band could form consensus. He also brought down the house with a pair of astonishing solos. On the set-opener, “Mad Lad,” a stomping Rhythm variant by Leo Parker, McBride bowed a fleet-as-a-fiddle, thematically unified stomp, executing horn-like lines with impeccable articulation, intonation, and stand-on-its-own time feel. To open the set-concluding “Lullaby For Real Deal,” by Sun Ra, he declaimed a wild Mingusian holler, then counterstated Carter’s balls-out baritone sax solo, chock-a-block with extended techniques, with a to-the-spaceways theme-and-variation statement that ascended to the mountaintop, danced down again, and concluded with an emphatic FLAVOOSH on the E-string.

At the Rose Theater a fortnight earlier, McBride performed equivalent feats of derring-do with Five Peace Band, the Chick Corea-John McLaughlin homage to the fortieth anniversary of their participation on Bitches Brew with alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Brian Blade. Halfway through the final leg of a seven-month world tour, with Blade on drums, FPB addressed the repertoire in an open, collective manner, and McBride switched-off between acoustic and electric feels with equal authority. On one McLaughlin-penned piece, he laid down crunching funk grooves on the porkchop, at one point mirroring a staggeringly fast declamation by the leader so precisely as to give the illusion that the tones were merged into one hybrid voice.

“Technically, I could have done that ten years ago, but I don’t think my confidence would have been there to try it,” McBride remarked. “From playing electric so much more on sessions and gigs, now I have that confidence on both.”

He elaborated on the sonic personality that each instrument embodies.

“The acoustic bass is the mother, and the electric bass will always be the restless child,” he said. “Sometimes the energy of a restless child is cool to have around. It gets everybody up, and it keeps you on your toes. But the mother is always there, watching over everything—a wholesome feeling. The acoustic bass isn’t as loud, but it’s so big—it grabs all the music with a big, long arm. It encircles it. The electric bass is clearer, more in your face, but it doesn’t have that wisdom. Even with Jaco at his creative peak—and he was easily to the electric bass what Bird was to the alto saxophone—you never got that feeling. But you would go, ‘Man, this cat’s from another planet; who IS this?’”

[BREAK]

“I don’t know what made me think I would be able to do Detroit and Monterrey back-to-back, though I managed to pull it off,” McBride said. “I’ve always prided myself on being able to take on multiple projects at the same time. But in 2008 I bit off way more than I could chew. By October, I was ready to collapse. Then I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to Europe for five weeks; I can’t collapse.’ Everybody was like, ‘You’re in town for three weeks? Let’s book some record dates.’ My brain was saying yes. But my body was like, ‘If you don’t go somewhere right now and sit in the dark for about three weeks, I’m unplugging on you.’ I’m trying to edit ‘09 a little bit.

“I’m ready to sink my teeth into my own music and see what I can finally develop on my own. Maybe one day I can be the guy leading an all-star tour or calling some other cats to come on the road with me.”

Towards that end, McBride was ready to tour with a new unit called Inside Straight, with saxophonist Steve Wilson, pianist Eric Reed, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, and drummer Carl Allen, whom he had assembled for a one-week gig at the Village Vanguard during summer of 2007 and reconvened to play Detroit. “I hadn’t played at the Vanguard since 1997, and thought it was time to go back,” McBride related. “‘Lorraine Gordon said, “Of course you’re always welcome at the Vanguard. But don’t bring that rock band you usually play with!’”

Said “rock band” was a plugged-in quartet with Geoff Keezer, Ron Blake, and Terreon Gully, which McBride first brought on the road in 2000 to support Science Fiction, the last of his four dates for Verve, to bring forth McBride’s “all-encompassing view of what jazz means to me.” The week before Christmas, during FPB’s December layover, they entered Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a “farewell-for-now” engagement. On the first set opening night, without rehearsal, they stretched out and hit hard, detailing a sonic template that spanned the soundpainting-beatsculpting feel of such ‘70s art fusion as Weather Report and Mwandishi and the inflamed ebullience that mutual heroes like Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, and McCoy Tyner evoked in their live performances of that same period.

Indeed, the group’s extreme talent far exceeded their recorded documentation or gig opportunities. “We got defaulted as a fusion band, which I thought was inaccurate,” McBride continued. “It seemed our gigs always got stuck in when I had two nights off with Pat or Five Peace Band, and it was hard to change hats quickly and think things all the way through. But we all like music that has a lot of energy. It could be funky or free, it could be bebop or Dixieland swing, or it could rock. As long as that jazz feel is underneath, what’s on top doesn’t really matter.”

Funk, freedom and rock are absent from Kind of Brown [Mack Avenue], McBride’s debut date with Inside Straight, and his first all-acoustic presentation since Gettin’ To It, his 1995 opening salvo on Verve. “I call it one of those ‘just in case you forgot’ recordings,” said McBride, whose twentieth-anniversary-as-a-New Yorker plans also include weekly hits over the summer with a big band, and Conversations With Christian, a still-in-process project comprising 20 duet interview-duo performances with select “friends and mentors.”

“I came to New York to play with all the great modern jazz musicians I could, and I became known doing that in the Paul Chambers-Ray Brown spirit,” McBride said. “In a lot of recent musical situations, I’ve found myself being a little louder than I really like, and I got the itch to come back to some good foot-stomping straight-ahead.”

It was observed that McBride had traversed a conceptual arc not dissimilar to the path of such generational contemporaries as Hargrove and Redman, whose respective careers launched on their ability to hang with elders on equal terms. While in their twenties, they embraced on their own ground the tropes of contemporary dance and popular music, but recently, perhaps no longer feeling a need to prove anything, have returned to more acoustic, swing-based investigations.

“I see everybody turning the corner again to the acoustic-based, swinging thing,” McBride said. “We were the generation that was able to assimilate all that had happened before us, and at some point decided to use with their jazz vocabulary hip-hop or certain types of indy rock, great music that not too many jazz people were keeping their ear on. It’s no different than what any other generation of jazz musicians did.”

[BREAK]

Regardless of the context in which he plays, McBride appears—has always appeared—to be grounded in a place not quite of his time. “My own mother told me once, ‘You really are an old soul,’ he said. “Coming from her, that almost scared me. I’ve never consciously thought we’ve got to bring back the vibe from the old days, but I probably do have a certain thread with an earlier generation. I’m an only child. My mom had me young, and she raised me as a single mom, so as much as we’re mother-and-son, we’ve always thought of each other as best friends. My childhood was hanging around my mother’s friends, listening to their stories, to their music.”

Referencing his fast learning curve, McBride added, “Having two working bassists in the family didn’t hurt.” One was his great uncle, bassist Howard Cooper, whose outcat gig resume includes Sun Ra and Khan Jamal. The other was his father, Lee Smith, a fixture in ‘70s Philly soul and R&B circles who began playing with Mongo Santamaria later in the decade. “He was a consistent figure in my formative years, in that I’d see him a few times a month,” McBride said. “We always practiced together, but after the initial ‘lessons’ when he showed me how to hold the bass and where to place my hands, it became just jamming. By high school, I spent all my time practicing classical etudes on the acoustic, which my dad didn’t play then.”

From the jump, McBride conceptualized the acoustic “as an oversized electric bass.” “Clarity was always the center of my concept of bass playing,” he said. “The  instrument’s range and frequency means you can feel the pulse that makes you move, but it’s hard to hear the notes. Much as I hate to admit it, I mostly hated bass solos, because I could never understand what they were playing. Notes ran into each other, and some cats would be out of tune—outside of first or second position, it gets dicey. I found that cats who play very clear and have good melodic ideas tended to be from the low-action, high-amplified school. When they’d start walking, all the pulse would go. Then, bass players with a really good sound and feel, who make you want to dance, when they soloed it was, ‘Ummm…go back to walking.’

“So my whole style was based on balancing the two—to play with a serious clarity of tone and still have the guts and power of the true acoustic bass. When I walk or am accompanying somebody, I wanted that soloist to feel they have the best tonal, rhythmic, and harmonic support possible, but I also didn’t want to bore the hell out of people when I soloed.  I was young enough when I started not to think that I had to get ideas only from other bass players. I thought, if I can play it, why not try to transcribe a McCoy Tyner or Joe Henderson line for the bass, and see how it comes out. Dumb 11-year-old idea.”

The notion of balance—triangulating a space between deference and self-interest, between pragmatic and creative imperatives, between acoustic and electric self-expression—is perhaps McBride’s defining characteristic.

“I’ve always tried to live in the middle,” McBride said. “I’d be a good U.N. diplomat! I’ve always found it interesting that I could talk about the same subject to two people who have violently different outlooks.” He recalled an early-‘90s encounter in San Sebastian with Lester Bowie—himself no diplomat—and Julius Hemphill when “they just started ripping into Wynton. ‘Man, Wynton’s ruining all you young cats. It’s a SHAME what he’s doing to you cats. But see, you got some different stuff happening, McBride! See, you got the opportunity to not be fazed by any of that stuff!’ I’m not really disagreeing or agreeing with them, just listening, ‘Mmm…mmm-hmm.’”

It’s unclear whether Bowie knew that McBride considered Marsalis “very much like a big brother or a mentor.” Old soul or not, he’s a child of the ‘80s, “one of the most fruitful periods for great jazz,” and, like many in his peer group, considered Marsalis’ recordings—along with those of the Tony Williams Quintet, Harrison-Blanchard, the various members of M-BASE, Art Blakey, Bass Desires, and Ralph Moore—“as important to my development as Miles and Freddie’s.” So when Marsalis came to Philadelphia in 1987 to conduct a high school workshop, McBride learned “as many of his tunes as I could.” Intrigued, Marsalis invited the 15-year-old prodigy to see him play the Academy Theater three days later, and invited him to sit in on “J Mood.”

Marsalis kept in close touch, conducting a regional Duke Ellington Youth Ensemble in which McBride participated, and “calling to check on me, telling me to keep my academics together” as McBride became a presence on the Philly scene. During these years, at Marsalis’ urging, McBride focused on the unamplified, raise-the-strings approach to bass expression  which, as he puts it, “seemed to be the new religious experience for young bass players coming to New York.” As his reputation grew (“people seemed to like what they were hearing”) he staunchly adhered to this aesthetic even through several bouts of tendinitis—although, upon Watson’s insistence (“Bobby, you don’t understand; the bass was not made to be played this way; maybe Victor can come down a bit…”), he did relent and purchase an amp for a Village Vanguard engagement.

Not too long thereafter, early in a duo week with Benny Green, Ray Brown heard McBride for the first time. “Ray said, ‘Why are you young cats playing so hard? You don’t need your strings up that high.’ I thought, ‘Shut up, and listen to Ray Brown.’ I saw him a few nights later, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Ray seemed to be playing the bass like it was a toy. He was having fun. Playing jazz, he had that locomotion I heard in the great soul bass players, like James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins and Larry Graham.  He wasn’t yanking the strings that hard, he had the biggest, fattest, woodiest sound I’d ever heard, and most of it was coming from the bass, not the amp. At that point, I slowly started coming around. I was able to find a middle ground where, yes, it’s perfectly fine to use an amplifier. It’s not the ‘40s any more.”

[BREAK]

A member of the last generation to receive a full dose of the heroes of the golden age of jazz, McBride is now well-positioned, through his educational activities and increasing visibility as a public spokesman, to facilitate the torch-passing process. His present views, informed by deep roots in black urban working-class culture and the attitude towards musical production that he absorbed during formative years, are not so very far removed from those of his mentors.

“Everybody’s nice now, but a lot of hard love came from those legends,” he said. “At Bradley’s, if you played a wrong change, you’d hear some musician at the bar going, ‘Unh-unh, nope, that’s not it.” They’d ream you on the break. After they finished, they’d buy you a drink. All of us wear those moments as badges of honor. When you see young cats doing the wrong thing, it’s not a matter of actually being mean or being nice when you  pull them aside and tell them what’s happening.”

Often he tells them not to bridle at the notion of marinating “in situations you’re not used to or that make you uncomfortable—situations where you’re playing bebop.”

“The people behind the scenes who pull the strings play on this idea of faction-race-gender-class, groove-versus-no-groove, intellectual-versus-street,” he said. “We’re in a period where the less groove or African-American influence, the more lauded the music is for being intellectual, or ‘this is cutting edge,’ ‘this is what you need to go see,’ ‘this is pure genius,’ whereas the guys who are grooving—‘that’s old; we’ve been hearing that for over half a century; we need to come further from that.’ The more European influence—or, shall we say, the more ECM—you put in your music, you can be considered a genius.

“At first, I thought it was racial. Maybe it is to a certain extent. But the white musicians I know who like to sink their teeth into the groove can’t get any dap either. Part of it might be backlash from when the record labels were dishing out the cash to advertise and market some straight-ahead ‘young lions’ who frankly didn’t deserve it. The recording industry did real damage to the credibility of young jazz musicians who were really serious about building on the tradition. It almost took an American Idol twist—some new hot person every six months. When it happened to me in New York, I remember thinking, ‘That could change tomorrow.’”

From the musicians in his family, McBride learned early that music is as much a business as an art form, and that to sustain a career requires labor as well as talent.  “My focus was always on being good,” he said. “If I’m the best musician I can be, I won’t have to worry whether someone thinks I’m hot or not; I’ll just be working with all the musicians that I can. I think that’s where I got my outlook to always try to find the middle ground.”

He intends to retain this attitude. “You see musicians reach a point where they no longer have to take certain gigs—and they don’t,” he said. “Some of us think, ‘They’ve lost that edge; they don’t have that passion like they used to.’ I never wanted to become one of those guys. My chops start getting weird. The pockets start getting funny. There’s a reason Ron Carter is still as active as he is. He’s playing all the time. Ray Brown was like that. They keep that thing going.”

[—30—]

 

Christian McBride Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Hans Glawischnig, “Oceanography” (PANORAMA, Sunnyside, 2007) (Glawischnig, bass, composer; Chick Corea, piano; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

I feel like I’m pretty sure on at least who two of three of those guys are. It certainly felt and sounded like Chick on piano. I’m going to guess that was Eddie Gomez. [No.] Really! Mmm! In that case, I’m a bit stumped. Whoever it was, I certainly feel like they come from the school of playing of Eddie Gomez, a lot of very pianistic, melodic lines way up on top of the bass, a wonderful melodic sense all over the bass but particularly in the upper register, and it didn’t sound like a very overtly powerful, kind of meaty, woody, kind of Ray Brownish school. The sound came more from the Gomez-Peacock-LaFaro kind of school. That’s why I might have thought it was Gomez. But if it’s not Gomez, it’s certainly someone I like a lot. I can’t guess who. I didn’t know who the drummer was at first. At first, I thought it might have been Jack. I thought it might have been Jeff Ballard. Knowing it was Chick, it thought it might have been Airto playing traps for a minute. So I’m a little stumped on who the bass player and drummer are, but I liked it a lot. Any professional musician playing changes that good and playing that good time, 5 stars. Hans! Very-very-very-VERY hip. Beautiful, Hans. Sounded great. Good job.

2.   Victor Wooten, “The Lesson” (PALMYSTERY, Heads Up, 2008) (Wooten, bass, hand claps, composer; Roy Wooten, cajon, shakers, hand claps)

I’m glad I heard that last minute. Got to be Victor Wooten. Only one man sounds like that on the electric bass. Victor has become the new bar, the new standard for a lot of electric bass players today. There has now been a legion born of Wooten-ites, as we call them, who try to play like that. I guess it’s very similar to what happened when Jaco came on the scene; now, every electric bass player had to sound like Jaco to be considered hip. So Victor Wooten is very much in that position these days. I love what Victor does. Is this a recent recording? [It’s coming out.] Well, one thing I’ve heard in Victor’s playing recently more than what I’ve heard in the past is that I could tell his level of harmony has completely blown way past the stratosphere at this point. When I first heard Victor, he was more or less a straight-up kind of R&B-funk guy, but his technique on the electric bass was so incredible you couldn’t help but be affected by that. But now I know he’s been working with a lot of guys like Mike Stern and Chick, so he’s been in situations where the musicality now is almost at the level with his technique. So it’s really great to hear what Victor’s done with this new thing. I love it. 5 stars.

3.   Omer Avital, “Third World Love Story” (ARRIVAL, Fresh Sound, 2007) (Avital, bass, composer; Jason Lindner, piano; Jonathan Blake, drums; Joel Frahm, tenor saxophone; Avishai Cohen, trumpet; Avi Lebovich, trombone)

Is it the bass player’s album? Is it his composition? If it’s his composition, I give him or her a few extra stars. I like the composition a whole lot. It was very soulful, interesting but not too complicated, as I know is a tendency to happen among a lot of jazz musicians in my generation and younger. We get so involved into the “hip” aspect of writing, sometimes we lose the simplicity of it all. This song had a nice, simple feeling to it. The only thing that I would have liked to hear a little different didn’t have anything to do with the bass player, but had to do with the comping behind the solo. I kind of wish the entire rhythm section would have come down a little more behind the solo, or maybe they could have raised the bass up in the mix a little more. But that was the only little minor thing that I heard that I might have thought I’d have done a little different. I could tell that whoever this is, is someone I know. The guys in the band, I could tell I probably I know them. But for the life of me, from that particular track, I can’t tell who it was. I’m not good at giving stars. Because any professional musician doing a helluva job like that, they’ve always got to get 5 stars. [AFTER] Johnathan Blake? I knew it! I should have said it. The last time Johnathan and I played together, I remember getting that same feeling. Listening to the drumming on this… When I did some gigs with the Mingus band, and Jonathan played drums, I remembered that same kind of feeling, like there’s someone behind chomping away! Not in a bad way, obviously. But I had a feeling it was Jonathan. Very nice, Omer. He’s such a jolly guy anyway. I love the cat. Omer! The big teddy bear.

4.   Eberhard Weber-Jan Garbarek, “Seven Movements” (STAGES OF A LONG JOURNEY, ECM, 2007) (Weber, electric upright bass, composer; Garbarek, soprano saxophone)

Stanley Clarke. No? Is this person American? [Why would you ask a question like that?] I think it’s a perfectly legitimate question. [Go through your thought process.] My thought process is that most bass players I know with this kind of sound and that kind of facility, if it’s not Stanley Clarke, it’s always been someone from Europe. [The bassist is European.] Thank you! That part there has got to be overdubbed. That’s humanly impossible to play on the bass. You can’t go from a high E on the G string down a low G on the E string. Now, that can be played on the bass. [MIMICS FINGERING WITH LEFT HAND] Is this Eberhard Weber and Jan Garbarek. He’s done a lot of stuff with Kate Bush, hasn’t he? [This is 65th birthday concert.] So he’s really playing that live? I’d love to see that. Well, I dig that a lot also. For that particular thing, I don’t think two guys have that sound more together than Eberhard and Jan. Even the American cats who have recorded for ECM who have tried to kind of get that sound, that’s… We have our own explicit sound… When certain cats get that sound, we have a certain American way that it sounds. But that particular thing there, that’s entirely theirs, and they have their own definite fingerprint on that particular sound—which is, frankly, European. That’s not said to be an insult or a compliment. That’s just what it is. I liked it a lot. [Any speculations on what’s European about it?] It was much more based on harmony and melody than rhythm. I’ve found that most European music tends to rely less on rhythm than melodic and harmonic content, which is cool if that’s what you’re in the mood for at that particular time. I think what we just heard is the preeminent way to capture that one thousand percent Euro sound. And it should be! 5 stars.

5.   Peter Washington, “Desafinado” (Steve Nelson, SOUND EFFECT, High Note, 2007) (Washington, bass; Nelson, vibraphone; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Lewis Nash, drums)

Is that my dear friend, Lewis Nash? [On bass solo.] Is that Peter? Anything Peter Washington plays on gets 5 stars. Peter Washington has always been one of my favorite bass players of all time. He has such a big, big sound and such great time. He picks such great notes. Hearing him on record is almost misleading, because when you hear him live, his sound is so much bigger. It still sounds great on record, but hearing him live is even a bigger treat. Of course, the way he and Lewis have played together through the years, they’ve established a chemistry that’s pretty special. The way Lewis always plays behind everybody, particularly bass solos, is why he’s the hardest working man in the drum business, and he rightfully deserves to be, the way he plays behind everyone, particularly bass players. That’s why Ron Carter loves him so, that’s why I love him so, that’s why Peter loves him so. But getting back to Peter, he sounds great all the time. I’ve never heard him have a bad night, never heard him sound a little bit off—he’s always right in the pocket. Since I got Peter and Lewis, I don’t know if I want to put an egg on my face and guess the other two. I don’t know who the vibe player is. I was thinking he didn’t sound quite as eagle-like as Bobby Hutcherson or Steve Nelson. They’re both so much in the stratosphere, unless it was one of them purposely holding back. I certainly don’t think it was one of those two. It was Steve? Okay, Steve was trying to hold back. We’ve all seen Steve Nelson just take off on a spaceship and go above the clouds. And I respect him! He was trying to be cool on this one! But he still sounded great. Just by an educated guess, was it Renee playing piano? No? Kenny Barron maybe? You got me. Mulgrew. Ah, of course. Well, that’s the A-band.

6.   Reginald Veal, “Ghost In the House” (UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS, Blue Note, 2004) (Wynton Marsalis, trumpet, composer; Veal, bass; Victor Goines, tenor saxophone; Wessell Anderson, alto saxophone; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Herlin Riley, drums)

Just from the sound of the bass, it only leaves a handful of people. It’s got to be like Ben Wolfe or Carlos Enriquez. It’s not Reginald Veal. These are gut strings on this bass. I’d be very shocked if this is not Wynton’s group or the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. So is this Carlos playing bass? Is it Ben? Reginald?! Really! This must not be new, then. What is this from? Ah, the Jack Johnson film. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Reginald play with gut strings before. It certainly sounds like gut strings. I’ll tell you a little secret about Reginald Veal. I’ve always been very happy he never decided to be part of the New York scene—to kind of hit the Bradley’s scene, the Vanguard scene, and work around with the New York cats. Because if that were the case, a lot of us wouldn’t be working! I’ve loved Reginald Veal for a very long time, and I’ve heard him in many different situations with a lot of people. I think he’s most known in the jazz world for his association with Wynton. Also with Diane Reeves, but with I don’t think he was able to really stand out in that particular group like he did in Wynton’s group. But this particular thing here I don’t think would be the best representation of Reginald’s great ability. This was obviously a wonderful track. He played great, he sounded great, as he always does. But those of us who have seen Reginald through the years know he’s a sleeping giant, as they say. He’s a bad dude. 5 stars.

7.   Scott Colley, “Architect of the Silent Moment” (ARCHITECT OF THE SILENT MOMENT, CamJazz, 2007) (Colley, bass, composer; Ralph Alessi, trumpet; David Binney, alto saxophone; Craig Taborn, piano; Antonio Sanchez, drums)

Is this Dave Holland? It’s killin’, whoever it is. I liked it a lot. I’m still trying to guess who the bass player was. Like I say, whoever it is, is really killin’. Maybe Patitucci. No? Good sound, good facility. Is that the bass player’s composition? There was a lot in there. I was trying to analyze it, but it’s hard to catch a lot of that stuff the first go-around. Obviously, it’s someone I could hearken back to when I talked about the…it has some very tricky parts in there. Compositionally, it’s built very well. For the first time around, it was a little bit of a challenge to find something to hang my hat on. I could tell it was definitely a really, really good composition, but from the very beginning I remember those slick dissonances between the bass part and the melody, and then how it kind of built into that section where it kind of explodes, where the drummer was kind of cutting loose at the end, and then the middle section where the solos were. So a lot of happening. Some good stuff going on. A couple of different drummers came to mind. Billy Drummond actually came to mind, but I know that’s not quite his sound. I’m a little stumped on who it might be, so I beg you to relieve me. 5 stars. Scott Colley? Dammit! Rooney, my good friend! Sure. I didn’t recognize Antonio’s sound, quite honestly. I’ve always known his drum sound to be a little different. But as I said before you told me who it was, whoever it was, was killing. Scott is definitely another one of my favorite musicians. I had no idea he was such a killing composer. I wouldn’t have guessed Craig.

8.   Francois Moutin, “Trane’s Medley” (Moutin Reunion Quartet, SHARP TURNS, Bluejazz, 2007) (Francois Moutin, bass, arranger; Louis Moutin, drums)

Is this Brian Bromberg? Well, that certainly would have gotten a lot of house in a big theater. It was certainly imaginative. Nice Coltrane tribute. My knee-jerk reaction is to say it might have been a little too choppy for me, and I don’t mean choppy in the sense that it didn’t flow. I mean choppy in the sense that whoever this person is has absolutely amazing chops, and it was used to the effect of garnish as opposed to meat on the plate. I say that with the utmost respect, because I know that people have said that about me from time to time. But with it being just bass and percussion, maybe that person felt a need to compensate for the lack of the piano and the guitar and whatever else was not there with some cute chop runs every now and then. But it was definitely imaginative, and it would have gotten plenty of house in a big theater. I don’t know too many acoustic bass players with those kinds of chops. After Bromberg, I’m a little stumped. 4 stars.

9.   Miroslav Vitous, “The Prayer” (UNIVERSAL SYNCOPATIONS II, ECM, 2007) (Vitous, bass, composer, samples; Gary Campbell, tenor saxophone; Gerald Cleaver, drums)

Is the bass player also the composer? Really! Is this from a movie? I feel like I’m watching a movie. [What do you see in the movie?] Like a war scene or something like that. The after effects, or something like that. I’m so into the composition that my knee jerk reaction is that it almost doesn’t need a bass solo in it. Whoever the composer is, I’ll give a bunch of stars, more than 5, just for the feel and the arc of the composition. I think the bass solo, whoever it was, with all due respect, I don’t think it was needed. The composition stands alone very well by itself without the soloing in between. The saxophone, too; not just the bass. I could have stood for even a little silence in those holes there. But definitely a bunch of stars for the composition. I couldn’t tell who the bass player was. Miroslav! I actually got to play with Gary Campbell once. But wow, Miroslav, a huge amount of applause for that piece of music. That was awesome. It was also my first time really getting to hear his orchestral samples kind of up-close like that. I’ve heard them kind of on their own, just as a demonstration once.

10.  Buster Williams, “The Triumphant Dance of the Butterfly” (GRIOT LIBERTE, High Note, 2004) (Williams, bass, composer; Stefon Harris, vibraphone; George Colligan, piano; Lenny White, drums)

[AFTER 8 BARS OF OPENING BASS SOLO] Buster Williams. I know that album pretty well. That’s a great, great record, with George Colligan and Stefon Harris. Buster Williams has created such a legacy. He’s such an influential musician and such a really, really great composer. I’m not quite sure why more bass players don’t give it up to him, because he’s certainly right on that level where you would mention a Ray Brown or a Ron Carter or an Oscar Pettiford. I have always felt you had to mention Buster along with those guys. He’s also been able to develop a pretty identifiable sound. Even before he was using an amplifier, if you listen to him on, like, Sassy Swings The Tivoli, he still sounds a lot different from a lot of bass players from that period, and it just developed and developed. He has a sound like no other. When he’s playing quarter notes, man, when he starts swinging, it’s treacherous!—in a great way. Five million stars for anything he does.

11.  Hank Jones, “Prelude To A Kiss” (FOR MY FATHER, Justin Time, 2004) (Jones, piano; George Mraz, bass; Dennis Mackrell, drums)

This sounds like an elder statesman. Is that Doctor Taylor? [What makes it sound like an elder statesman to you?] Just the way they’re playing the time. It’s nice and relaxed. The language. The style of chords. Just the approach. It sounds like guys who never got stung by the Herbie-McCoy ‘60s bug. Interesting to give it to the drummer on the bridge, because it’s such a pretty bridge. I’m not saying drummers can’t play pretty. I still think it’s one of our elder statesmen. Was the bassist Earl May, or someone like that? It’s got to be Hank or Billy or someone like that. Georege Mraz? Aggh! There we go. 5 stars.

12. Ornette Coleman, “Sleep Talking” (SOUND GRAMMAR, 2006, Sound Grammar) (Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Greg Cohen, Tony Falanga, bass; Denardo Coleman, drums)

Is this Ornette with the two basses? Greg Cohen and I forget the other one. I’ve only seen this group in person, not on the record. I dig it. It’s kind of hard not to dig Ornette—for me. I remember when Melissa saw Ornette’s group at Carnegie Hall with Abbey Lincoln, and she said it was amazing because so many of these so-called “culture experts” who so-called know that Ornette is a genius, they couldn’t hang past the first tune. But I give props to Melissa. She hung in there the whole night. She said, “I dug it.” I was out with Metheny, and we saw them somewhere in Eastern Europe. But I dug it, man. I like the basses. Ornette might be the only person who would be able to get away with putting together something this loose. But knowing that it’s… Put it this way. If someone other than Ornette had to put this together, I’m not sure I would have understood it as much. He’s reached a point where he can put together almost anything and it will work as long as he is in the middle of it some kind of way. First of all, it was always my own personal opinion that Ornette was never really that out. I know he gets called the genius of the avant-garde, but I’ve always thought Ornette was pretty funky. I still hear plenty Texas in his playing, even when he’s really, really way out there. So I like that. That kind of ties it all together for me. So no matter how out it is, there’s still some hint of brisket underneath. [Meat is a frequent metaphor for you.] Yeah, man! 5 stars.

[END OF SOUND FILE]

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Filed under Article, Bass, Blindfold Test, Christian McBride, DownBeat, Ray Brown

For Ron Carter’s 77th Birthday, a DownBeat Feature From Two Years Ago

Bass maestro Ron Carter turns 77 today. For the occasion, I’m posting a feature piece that DownBeat assigned me to write two years ago in response to his entry into the DB Hall of Fame.

* * * *

Near twilight on the first Sunday of September at the south corner of 27th Street and Park Avenue, a tall, eagle-necked African-American gentleman with perfect posture and a salt-and-pepper beard,  a pressed white dress shirt, black tie, black pants, and mirror-shined black shoes, stood at the curb by a late-model black Audi, tapping his right index finger on the bowl of his pipe as he spoke quietly into a cell phone. A passerby’s first instinct was to look for a photographer and klieg lights, but both the location and the hour seemed odd for a fashion shoot. Then it clicked that this elegant figure was Ron Carter, the 2012 inductee into the DownBeat Hall of Fame, taking care of business before descending into the Jazz Standard, halfway down the block, for the fourth and final night of his big band’s inaugural engagement.

About an hour later, after a crisp reading of “Caravan,” highlighted by Jerry Dodgion’s soaring soprano saxophone solo, Carter introduced his own “Loose Change” as “my personal commentary on the Republican Medicare plan.” He made his point with a long rubato meditation, teasing “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” out of the harmonies, interpolating the motif of “All Blues,” transitioning to an orotund passage from Bach, then introducing the melody and stating an insistent 6/4 vamp that propelled the funky theme. On “Con Alma,” in lock-step with drummer Kenny Washington, he smoothly propelled his breathe-as-one ensemble through stop-on-a-dime shifts of meter and tempo; soloing on “St. Louis Blues,” which moved from march to swing to stride sections, he signified with various Charlie Parker quotes; in duet with pianist Donald Vega on “My Funny Valentine,” he played the verse unembellished, caressed the melody, then complemented Vega’s inventions—which included a lengthy interpolation of Ellington’s “Single Petal Of A Rose”—with the customized attention of a Savile Row tailor.

On each tune save the latter, Carter fleshed out the versions that appear on the Robert Freedman-arranged 2011 CD Ron Carter’s Great Big Band [Sunnyside] with extra choruses and backgrounds, changing the bass part at will. This is one reason why, after just six sets over three nights, the new ensemble embodied the leader’s tonal personality—no-nonsense and expansive; informed by the notion that virtuoso execution, spot-on intonation, and exacting attention to the minutest details are merely a starting point; telling stories of his own or complementing those of his bandmates with vocabulary and syntax drawn from an encyclopedic database of the jazz and classical canons, with the blues as a default basis of operations.

A few days later, in the public area of his massive Upper West Side apartment, which spans almost half a city block, Carter recalled that he was initially reluctant to embrace the project, due in part to the logistical complexities involved in maintaining and adequately paying a large ensemble. Also, he stated, “I haven’t been interested in playing in the rhythm section of a big band—though I had great times subbing with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis when Richard Davis got busy. You get ignored all the time, and you’re at the mercy of the arranger.” In contrast, he said, “the studio is fun—you’ve got very little time and they don’t fool around; you just play the best you can.”

Therefore, Carter added, he decided to treat this orchestra “as a very large trio,” built around Vega and guitarist Russell Malone, his bandmates in the Golden Striker Trio. He does the preponderance of his touring with this group and in a quartet comprising pianist Renee Rosnes, drummer Peyton Crossley, and percussionist Rolando Morales-Matos.

“In a lot of big band arrangements, the bass parts aren’t so critical to the survival of the piece,” Carter said. “At one rehearsal, I told them, ‘All that changed when you walked in the door. I’m going to make sure the bass part sounds interesting every night. But for you to work from it, I have to have your utter focus.’ That’s my role with this 16-piece band. By Sunday, I thought I’d found enough things to hold their interest—16 points of view, 16 different concepts, 16 different events. My feature is to be playing every chorus of every song. It’s about my desire to let the soloists play something different every night, making the backgrounds feel different every night by my notes and rhythms. I’d much rather be known as the bass player who made the band sound great, but different, every night.”

[BREAK]

In a Blindfold Test several years ago, bassist Stanley Clarke commented on Carter’s duo performance of “Stardust” with pianist Roland Hanna (the title track of a well-wrought 2001 homage to Oscar Pettiford):  “Ron is an innovator and, as this solo bore out, a great storyteller. Probably 99.9% of the bass players out here play stuff from Ron. There’s Paul Chambers, and you can go back to Pettiford, Blanton and Israel Crosby, and a few people after Chambers—but a lot of it culminated in Ron, and then after Ron it’s all of us. Ron to me is the most important bass player of the last fifty years. He defined the role of the bass player.”

This remark summarizes the general consensus among Clarke’s instrumental brothers and sisters. For example, on other Blindfold Tests, John Patitucci praised the “the architecture of his lines,” “blended sound,” and “great sense of humor when he plays”; William Parker mentioned Carter’s penchant for “not playing a lot of notes” and “keeping a bass sound on his bass”; Andy Gonzalez noted his “shameless quotes of tiny pieces of melody from all kinds of obscure songs, which you have to know a lot of music to do”; and Eric Revis stated, “He’s gotten to the place where there’s Ronisms that you expect, and only he can do them.”

Per Clarke’s remark, these bassists and their cohort—indeed, several generations of musicians—have closely analyzed Carter’s ingenious walking basslines on the studio albums and live recordings he made between 1963 and 1968 with Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams, who considered it their mandate to relax the rules of the 32-bar song form as far as possible while still maintaining the integrity of the tune in question. They’ve paid equivalent attention to the several dozen iconic Blue Note and CTI dates on which Carter sidemanned for the likes of Shorter, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. They’re on intimate terms with Carter’s creative, definitive playing with a host of trios—grounding Bobby Timmons’ soul unit in the early ‘60s; performing the equilateral triangle function with Williams and Hancock or Hank Jones, and with Billy Higgins and Cedar Walton; or navigating the wide-open spaces with Bill Frisell and Paul Motian—on which he incorporates a host of extended techniques into the flow with a tone that has been described as “glowing in the dark.” They’re cognizant of Carter’s ability to shape-shift between soloistic and complementary functions with such rarefied duo partners as Walton and Jim Hall, and, more recently, Richard Galliano, Rosa Passos, and Houston Person. They respect his extraordinarily focused contributions to hundreds of commercial studio dates on which, as Carter puts it, “I maintain my musical curiosity about the best notes while being able to deliver up the product for this music as they expected to hear it in the 30 seconds I have to make this part work.”

Not least, Carter’s admirers know his work as a leader, with a corpus of more than 30 recordings in a host of configurations, including a half-dozen between 1975 and 1990 by a two-bass quartet in which either Buster Williams or Leon Maleson executed the double bass function, allowing Carter to function as a front line horn with the piccolo bass, which is tuned in the cello register.

Carter first deployed this concept on his debut recording in 1961, entitled Where, with a quintet including Eric Dolphy, Mal Waldron and Charlie Persip on which he played cello next to bassist George Duvivier, A son of Detroit, he played cello exclusively from 10 to 17, exhibiting sufficient talent to be “the first black kid” in the orchestra at Interlochen Music Camp, then burnishing his skills at Cass Tech, the elite arts-oriented high school that produced so many of the Motor City’s most distinguished musicians.

“Jazz was always in the air at school, but it wasn’t my primary listening,” Carter said. “I had other responsibilities—the concert band, the marching band, the orchestra, my chores at home, and maintaining a straight-A average. We were playing huge orchestrations of Strauss and Beethoven and Brahms, and the Bach Cantatas with all these voices moving in and out.”  Midway through Carter’s senior year, it became clear to him that more employment would accrue if he learned to play the bass, a decision reinforced when he heard “Blue Haze,” a blues in F on which Miles Davis’ solo unfolds over a suave Percy Heath bassline and Art Blakey’s elemental beat on the hi-hat, ride cymbal, and bass drum. “I was fascinated to hear them making their choices sound superb with the bare essentials,” Carter said. “These three people were generating as much musical logic in six to eight choruses as a 25-minute symphony with 102 players.”

During the summer after high school, Carter became a gigging bassist in Detroit, where he states, the local players were so highly accomplished that, “if they had all come to New York, New York would have sunk.” That fall, he matriculated at Rochester’s Eastman Conservatory on scholarship, where, for the next four years, he fulfilled academic responsibilities during the day, worked as a waiter, and attended “jazz school from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.” in local clubs, where he had the opportunity to back artists like Sonny Stitt and Slim Gaillard, and to be heard, he recalls, by “Dizzy Gillespie’s band with Sam Jones, or Carmen McRae’s band with Ike Isaacs, or Horace Silver’s band with Teddy Kotick and Art Farmer.” He also earned a position with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra (“I was again the only African-American in this group”), which, towards the end of his senior year performed in New York City for Leopold Stokowki, who, after rehearsal, told him, “I’d like to have you in my orchestra in Houston, but I’m afraid that the Board of Directors are not prepared to accept an African-American musician.”

“I thought, ‘Shit, man, when are you going to be ready?’” Carter recalls. “The jazz community who came through Rochester said, ‘Look, in New York everyone likes a good bass player.’ They had no idea about my classical background, that I’d been turned away. They thought here’s this tall kid from Detroit who has the potential to be a good bass player and he could only do that if he comes to New York.”

A few days after arriving in August 1959, Carter went to Birdland, where he encountered Chico Hamilton, who had auditioned him the previous fall in Rochester, and needed a new cellist who could play his difficult book. After a three-month tour, he settled into a Harlem apartment and enrolled at Manhattan School of Music for a masters degree. Before long, he’d earned respect from a community of bassists whose focus was less on “soloing or playing unaccompanied—although they could do it” and more on “can we make the band swing?” He admired Gene Taylor’s commitment to play Horace Silver’s written basslines, Doug Watkins’ “fabulous tonal quality,” the versatility of Milt Hinton and Joe Benjamin. He reveled in the challenge of analyzing “why Sam Jones’ sound was physically different than George Duvivier’s, or Scott LaFaro’s, or Richard Davis’.” Part of the craft was to use any bandstand performance—most consequentially during his half-decade with Miles Davis—as a laboratory in which to experiment and research alternate changes, “to think through the possibilities,” in his ongoing quest “to find the right notes” for any situation he might encounter.

“I tried to find changes—not from the original chord progression—that would fit if the bandleader or the soloist decided to put the melody over what I was playing,” Carter said. “If the changes worked, that meant there must be another sub-set that would make the melody sound the same, but feel different because of the harmonic underpinnings. When I play these notes that seem pretty far removed from the melody, they aren’t random choices. I’m still playing the melody in my head.  They don’t always work, but I’m OK with that. That’s one choice I don’t worry about tomorrow night. That’s off my list. We’ve got five more tunes; maybe we’ll work with them.”

[BREAK]

Asked to express his feelings about the Hall of Fame honorific, Carter replied with characteristic briskness. “To get this award means that there are enough readers of the magazine who have done some homework and some history, and know I’ve been playing this music for a very long time,” he said. “And, as they’ve listened, over time, they’ve found a level of consistency that appeals to them, not just in my performance, but my integrity and my sound. I’d like to thank them for deeming me worthy of a lifetime achievement, but to know that my lifetime is still here. If they have a Part Two, maybe I’ll be up for that.”

His manner was somewhat less composed as he formulated a response to Stanley Clarke’s aforementioned comments on his impact on bass lineage. “I’m embarrassed, actually,” Carter said. He bent his head, contemplating his cupped hands in silence for several seconds before resuming. “I’m from a time when one of the effects of society on African-Americans, especially African-American males, was to not acknowledge your success. Not that you couldn’t be successful, but when you were, you were kind of told not to ‘groove,’ so to speak, on that level of achievement. It’s taken me a while to get past that. African-Americans in my age group will tell you about someone telling them, ‘you can’t do this or that.’ For example, I remember my math teacher in junior high school told the class, ‘Don’t worry about studying Latin, because you’ll never need it—you’ll be digging a ditch.’ I told my mom, and she wigged out. All of us got that kind of response in these situations sixty years ago.

“So when I hear comments like Stanley’s, it floors me that I’ve had that kind of impact on an industry. I say, ‘Wow, I did that? All these guys do this because of my presence?’ It throws me a curve. There’s a list of what they call ten records that are milestones of the music, all different, and I’m on eight of them. When I hear people talk about that, I have to tiptoe out of the room, because it embarrasses me to hear that my impact has been rated as such. I had my hopes crushed at a very early age. I had peeks of what it’s like to play in a great orchestra, and to not be allowed to do that for the simple reason that I’m black … to this day I don’t understand that fuckin’ mindset, man. I don’t know what that’s got to do with playing a B-flat blues, man, or playing the Bach Chorale, or Beethoven, or playing an Oliver Nelson arrangement. But my family went to church every Sunday. We understood that there is somebody upstairs who is really in charge of the ballgame, so to speak. I’ve always thought that I was directed to do this because the Creator thought that I could be important in this industry. And I have to trust that he allows me to go out every night and try to find the best notes I can find. When he tells me, ‘Ok, you’ve had enough,’ then I’ll stop.”

That time hardly seems imminent. Carter has done stretching and free weights with a trainer three mornings a week for the last thirty years, seems not to have lost an inch from his six-and-a-half foot frame, can still palm a basketball, and looks more like a youthful 60 than 75. “Because I’ve found other ways to play the notes I’ve been finding and learned the science of how the bass works even more specifically, it’s less physically demanding to cover the bass than it was ten years ago,” he says. “One of my lessons is to assign students a blues and have them build a bassline out of the changes I give them.  I’ve been playing the blues a very long time, and these guys come up with lines that stun me—not because they’re so great, but that I hadn’t thought about those lines! Seeing this kind of awareness makes 75 feel like 15, when you’re just discovering what the world is like. It makes me feel that I’m just starting to learn the instrument.

“I try not to do stuff just because I can do it—because it doesn’t impact anybody. It doesn’t make a flower that opens. If I can make that flower open, that’s my night. I will go home and watch CNN and  have my yogurt.”

[—30—]

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Filed under Article, Bass, DownBeat, Miles Davis, Ron Carter

For Miroslav Vitous’ 66th Birthday, Two Interviews From October 2003

Ten years ago, I had an opportunity to conduct a pair of interviews with Miroslav Vitous — one on WKCR and one over the telephone — that wound up being distilled for a DownBeat “Backstage” piece. He had just released the ECM CD Universal Syncopations.  I’m posting both (the WKCR interview first) in recognition of the bass maestro’s 66th birthday.

* * *

Miroslav Vitous (WKCR, 10-16-03):

TP:    That was “Tramp Blues,” an original composition by Miroslav Vitous, who has a new recording on ECM called Universal Syncopations. Miroslav Vitous is in town, and he’s appearing at Joe’s Pub on Monday for a 7:30 p.m. concert for solo bass and a virtual classical orchestra comprised of sound files, samples of his own creation… A sort of concerto for bass and virtual symphonic orchestra. One of the legendary figures who emerged in the ’60s, and hasn’t been in the States much in recent years.

On this album, you gather four of the iconic tonal personalities who came of age during the ’60s, all of whom achieved great eminence in the music in their various niches, and all of whom, with the exception of Jack DeJohnette, who is also a leader, are used to playing their own music, addressing their own concepts in musical activity.  It’s not very often that you hear Chick Corea or John McLaughlin or Jan Garbarek as sideman.  Talk about conceptualizing the album from the gestation and how you put it together.

VITOUS:  It’s a long conversation, so I’ll try to pick a few points here and there. In a way, this album is a continuation of Infinite Search, the first album which was released in 1969, which was also with Jack DeJohnette and John McLaughlin, Joe Henderson and Herbie Hancock, most importantly in the way that all the instruments are equal.  If you know the album, Infinite Search, basically you will remember that the bass was playing not exactly in traditional way.  I was exchanging motives and having conversations with the horn player or with the piano player or with the guitar player, almost to the point that… Well, basically that’s the direction I’ve chosen with my bass playing anyway.

On this new album, much of it is in the same way, but it’s much further down the road, so to speak.  Basically, the bass is completely free at this point.  It doesn’t have to play any more roles.  I am strongly against roles in the music, in the pure sense of music, because you always have a bass player and drummer going BUM-BUM-BUM, SPANG-A-LANG, SPANG-A-LANG, keeping the time, the piano player plays the harmony, and the saxophone player will solo on top of that.  So basically, it’s an arrangement which doesn’t leave very much room for communication between the musicians.  After playing a long time like this, I finally got fed up with it and said, “This is getting really boring, because I am just playing some things, and there are guys over here playing that, and we’re not even communicating.”  So I started playing mainly by the example of Scott LaFaro with Bill Evans.  They started this basically in an overwhelming manner in the ’60s.  I started playing like this a lot in the ’60s, and basically in the compositions.

TP:    But to say that doesn’t imply any loss of grooves.  You’re creating very strong grooves here, as does Jack DeJohnette.  So when you say that you don’t believe in roles, it’s very obvious that the bass is playing both a melodic and supportive function at the same time.  It seems more of a simultaneous thing rather than a rejection.

VITOUS:  I can tell you something about this.  It’s not the same throughout the album.  There are three or four songs where this is very strong applied, like “Miro Bop” and “Sunflower,” and there are pieces that I am basically holding the thing together and setting the direction, so I have to be playing in that kind of way.  But for the most part, I am continuing with the idea of pure conversation between the musicians.  Nobody has to play time, nobody has to play the bass, nobody has to play the harmony.  Everybody is just free to communicate on a high level or whatever level we can communicate on.

TP:    This music obviously wouldn’t have been played in a performance situation beforehand because of everyone’s scheduled.  Is that sort of consideration important in creating an album, or is it overrated?  For example, people wish they could have workshopped this music or developed or fine-tuned it for a week before going in.

VITOUS:  It would be important in some ways.  But on this particular album it was a little bit different, because I was after refining this concept of playing this way, as I was describing before.  If the whole band gets together in place for one week or something, then we would face a lot of danger of falling into the old trap.

TP:    Why is that a danger?

VITOUS:  Because that would be a danger if you want to create something new.  You would not be able to do it, because the band falls in the old tracks.  That’s very likely to happen.  So I wanted to do something which… It would be very difficult to do this, like, on the spot.  So it was done a little bit differently, so that we don’t fall back into old traps, so the new direction can be set in a way.  It would be too difficult to explain-explain-explain, to rehearse-rehearse-rehearse, dealing with all the egos involved of all the musicians, and given all the ways they are used to be playing under certain conditions, all of that…it would be nearly impossible to achieve the new directions.

TP:    You’ve known all of these musicians for close to forty years.

VITOUS:  ’67 I met Chick.  ’68 I met Jack.

TP:    What did you notice about their own evolution during those years?

VITOUS:  Well, we are going ahead to some very serious issues with this.  Because up to a certain point, I felt that we could basically remain free and remain 100% free to play what we wanted to play artistically.  Until the period, in my opinion, anyway… And I felt this on my own skin as well, so I can  basically vouch that what I am going to say is definitely what everybody had to face.  When the disco came in and when the element of trad(?) jazz was introduced, the business questions of music got very big.  Unfortunately, from that time, every musician was influenced in a big way to change their music so it could be saleable, whatever would help them make progress in their career.  We were all influenced by this.  I basically had it so much up to here that I left the country.

TP:    You did a number of albums of that kind of after leaving Weather Report, no?

VITOUS:  I did albums only for ECM with my group.  Basically, I have never given into this direction, until the pressure got so large that I said, “Well, wait a moment; I don’t want to teach for the rest of my life, and I don’t want to play this kind of music which I am being requested by the recording companies so they can sell some albums; I am either going to play 100% art, what is coming from my heart, or I am not going to play  at all.”  So this was one of the major decisions which I made, and I had to basically leave the country, because of that.  This is true.

TP:    But you did get into academe.  You taught at New England Conservatory?

VITOUS:  Yes, I was chairman of the Jazz Department there for three years.  Basically, it was a very big issue for me to go to Europe, where basically I was left to play whatever I wanted to play.

TP:    So you’ve had the artistic freedom in Europe.

VITOUS:  Absolutely.  Well, now I have the artistic freedom, period.  Because I have done some other things asides from music to find a good way to make money without selling out or doing something cheap for money.  I am never for that.  So my financial situation is not dependent on my playing. This is the greatest thing that can ever happen for a musician who wants to play 100% art.

However, coming back into this, I still find the business to be basically this way.  So even though I have 100% artistic freedom, I still have to deal with the whole setup of the music business which is not oriented in this way.

TP:    Do you think that art in the real world can ever exist outside of a marketplace?  There needs to be an audience, there needs to be a way of getting people to hear it, there needs to be a context within which you’re performing.  If you’re a professional musician, it seems almost ipso facto you’re accepting the idea of a marketplace.

VITOUS:  You can take that to the logical extreme, where the only thing that counts is how many albums you’re going to sell and how…

TP:    But beyond that.  I’m not talking about selling 100,000 copies of a jazz album.  But you’re in town, and probably Joe’s Pub will be filled with people who want to hear it.  I’m not referring to the materialist excess aspect of the marketplace as much as operating within an established framework…

VITOUS:  The publicity and all this stuff still can exist without having to be part of a one million dollar organization.  It is a tough issue, but I definitely believe that the culture has been hurt greatly on the planet by money interfering with the art.  And we need the culture, we need the pure thing for us to go ahead through life and have the right values.  We cannot live on a plastic spoon.

TP:    It’s interesting, because you were raised in post-war Czechoslovakia under a Stalinist regime, though I don’t know how much it impinged on you.  And among your contemporaries were Jan Hammer, George Mraz, Emil Viklicky… Describe the climate in Prague when you were coming up.

VITOUS:  Basically, I consider myself very lucky.  Before I basically grew up completely, I was gone out of there.  I was a professional swimmer, in terms of being an Olympic contender style of sportsman.  I was going to the Concertgebouw, playing jazz concerts.  Nobody could leave Czechoslovakia.  I was playing on the jazz festivals in the West, playing with a trio.  I was going abroad with the swimming team to swim for the country.  So for me, I didn’t feel any pressure of Communism; only through my parents and people around.  Then I started to see limitations: Oh, somebody doesn’t want you to go to the conservatory, so they will try to do everything they can so you can go the conservatory.  There was a lot of that going.  And before the Communism really got to my bones, so to speak, I was out of there.  So I was very lucky.  However, the great thing about being there at the time is that I received some of the most valuable education you can ever receive from the giants of music at the conservatory in Prague.

TP:    What was the pedagogy?

VITOUS:  Well, it was something that you’re never going to see in the United States, or probably not even in Europe.  You can see it in Europe in some parts.  Total devotion to the music.  Total dedication and absolute love for it, like you have never seen.  Respect absolute.  Together with this, because the country was under the Communist influence and they could not speak freely, basically they were passing on the values of the country and their national pride through their teaching of the music, in this serious, deep way.  So talking about regular education, there’s absolutely nothing compared to what I have gone through there — what they gave us.  It was a double thing.

TP:    At the time, did jazz seem like something very separate from classical music for you?  Were they two different personalities, or all part of the same continuum?

VITOUS:  For me, I didn’t notice.  I played the violin at 6, piano at 9, bass at 14, and as soon as I picked up the bass I played both — classical and jazz.  Another great thing about being there is that at the time there was Radio Free Europe, Willis Conover, who was playing all the albums in the ’60s.  Every album released, the historical albums, and everything.  My brother and I used to tape them, and listen and study it.  When I came to the United States, I used to ask the other musicians: “Do you know this album?” “No.” “Do you know this album?” “No.” “Do you know this album?” “No.”  So I found out that I knew much more about the jazz music and what was being released and who played what by being there, rather than here.  So it was another valuable education point.

TP:    So when you came here, you had the technical training and you had jazz in your head, so you were equipped… What was the biggest thing you had to adapt to when you came to the States?

VITOUS:  I have to say rhythm.  I’ve studied this throughout the years.  It took me many years to get together a rhythm so that I would… Most bass players can tell you when they play with a drummer, they are basically dependent on the drummer.  When the drummer stops playing, they are like, “Oh, I’m swimming; where am I?” That kind of thing.  It took many years to get to the point that when the drummer stops playing, it doesn’t matter any more, because your own rhythm is so strong.  That took a long while to develop.  I think it has something to do with the freedom of thinking and the flexibility of being free or something.  Because in Europe, being restricted and all that, a lot of people think in a box — still very much old ways.  It’s in the air, and you have to deal with that. It is actually rhythmically easier to play on this continent than it is in Europe.  I have noticed that.

TP:    Rhythmically easier on this continent.

VITOUS:  Rhythmically, yes.

TP:    Still.

VITOUS:  I am going to tell you Monday night.  I haven’t played here in a long time.

[MUSIC]

TP:    Mr. Vitous is performing a concert for solo bass and a virtual classical orchestra comprised of orchestral samples he’s created over the years.  Which I do want to ask you about. Googling you last night on the Internet, I came up with a review:

“I’d heard plenty of music produced from the samples, but had never actually heard them raw.  So when Miroslav sent me a small collection of the larger set to evaluate, the ensemble, strings and brass-woodwind ensembles were intermingled on my evaluation desk, I loaded them up in my giga-sampler rig and opened up a pre-set performance — bassoon-oboe-flute.  Nothing could have prepared me for the sound I heard as I began to play.  It felt for all the world as if my fingers were being led from one key to the next as I played.  The sounds were vibrant and airy, living and reedy — one word that comes to my mind immediately is “thick.”  It reminded me of the first time I ever heard a really great flute player live.  Suddenly the flute wasn’t the thin, airy instrument I’d heard all my life.  It was a huge, forceful sound, vibrant…”

Do you have a whole body of scored music for this context?  Do you take different samples and improvise against them?  What’s the structure for these concerts?

VITOUS:  Basically I compose some motives and phrases which belong to the song which I am playing, and then I have them recorded and mixed with the library, and then I place them on a keyboard.  So that particular file, I can push the key and it will start playing whatever it is — 2 bars or 4 bars or 8 bars or 16 bars — whenever I need.  Which is great, because that means there is still all the room in the world for the creativity.  Because I will only play when I need it, when I want it.  So that means I am free to do anything I want to do.  I used to play before this with finished sequences, but basically I was tied to the sequence.  I couldn’t do very much.  When I felt like I wanted to do something else, I couldn’t do it, because the sequence was basically unchangeable.

TP:    Are the instruments virtual instruments or real musicians?

VITOUS:  They are real musicians.

TP:    They are playing the sequences, and then you enter them…

VITOUS:  No, they are not playing the sequences.  They are playing the notes.  The library is put together from notes of each instrument, each section, each of whatever the whole orchestra is…what have you.  It was gigantic work.  It took me seven years to do this.  And I did it with the sound… I needed as much of a realistic sound as possible.  And knowing classical orchestras, I used my ears to get that.  But the main point was, I asked the musicians not to play just the notes.  I said, “Give me some music,” when we were recording.  Like, to the strings, “Play like Wagner, play like Beethoven, play like Dvorak — give me some feeling into these notes.”  Because before this, everybody was just playing dead notes. So when you get a whole bunch of notes on the keyboard, then you play a chord, you have a dead chord.  So that was the basic difference between my library and all the libraries recorded up until today.

TP:    So you have a chord sequence from Wagner, from Dvorak…

VITOUS:  No-no.  Just the feeling.  They know how it feels to play Wagner or Dvorak.

TP:    But in other words, do you have all of those difference feelings?  Do you have the same note or chord sequence with each of those different feelings?

VITOUS:  No.  It would get so complex… I made this in 1992-93.  I think at that point, there was only 8 megabytes memory for the sampler.  It would be so gigantic for that time, I don’t think it would be even possible to comprehend.

TP:    When did you finish collating all the sounds?

VITOUS:  It was completed in 1991.

TP:    This was for you to practice with?

VITOUS:  No, it was to compose with.  Then when I got into it so deeply, I found out, “Wait a moment, half-a-million dollars has disappeared; I’ve got to do something.”  So I decided to complete it and release it for the public also.  But it was made for music.  It was not made for business.

TP:    What was the response when it got into the world?

VITOUS:  It was the same response I would have said, and that was, “Thank God we have finally something which is elastic.” Because we have the technology, we have the programs, we can freeze our compositions, but we had only [NASAL VOICE] sounds up to that point.

TP:    When did you start performing with them publicly?

VITOUS:  I started performing already in the ’90s with this.

TP:     How has it changed with the technology?  Is it a more fluid process now?

VITOUS:  No, it’s basically set.  The sound is there, the attack is there, the flexibility is there, the instrument plays very fast or slow or whatever.  So the technology does not affect the central orchestra.

TP:    Are you improvising against it?

VITOUS:  I am free to play anything I want.  It’s different, always different.  It’s basically the same composition and the same motives, but they are in different places.  I stretch them out, I go somewhere else sometimes.  I am free to be as creative as possible with this.

TP:    Did you approach the structures of your virtual compositions differently than creating music for Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin to play on over you and Jack DeJohnette?

VITOUS:  Well, it is different.  I am by myself, so I am basically free to do whatever I want.  In fact, at the solo performance, I am going to play at least one from the new record with some classical files answering the bass lines.  So it’s done in a different way.

TP:    You were saying that the biggest thing you had to adapt to when you emigrated here in the ’60s was rhythm.  But fairly soon after arriving here, you were playing in a trio with Chick Corea and Roy Haynes, who was and still is one of the most creative, imaginative, free drummers there is. Great training.

VITOUS:  Right.

TP:    That trio made a record, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, that instantly became part of the building blocks of jazz piano vocabulary.  Pianists still pay attention to it.  Almost anyone under 45 I’ve talked to, cites it.

VITOUS:  It’s one of the most influential trio music albums.  I can tell you what happened when I came to the studio.  It was the first time ever I played with Roy Haynes.  With Chick I’d played before; we did some jam sessions and a few things.  So we started to play, and I played like I usually play, in the way which was that aside from playing time I was playing little motives here and there.  We got to the point all of a sudden that we had to stop in the middle of the take, because we got off somehow.  Then I realized instantly at this point, okay, I’m just going to have to play the time and let Roy do the dancing around.  As soon as I did that, as soon as I realized that this is what I had to do because if we both do it it’s not going to work, then it worked perfectly. But I had to fasten my seatbelt sort of thing… [LAUGHS] It was very…not difficult, but… Yeah, it was difficult to…

TP:    To play the function, as it were.

VITOUS:  The first time you play with Roy Haynes and Chick Corea in the studio, making an album which is going to become a celebrity, in a way.

TP:    That band sporadically has continued to play.  The most recent example on record is Rendezvous in New York, the compilation record that Chick Corea made from the end of 2001. Within that band, do you still have to play the function?  Is it difficult for you to do that now if it has to be done, given all the life you’ve lived and how hard you’ve worked to sustain artistic freedom?  Is that somehow incompatible with playing the bass function in a band like that?  Or have you all grown?

VITOUS:  It’s a question of… We have all grown, of course.  There’s no question about that.  And also, it became less difficult.  We did quite a bit of touring ten years later with Chick and Roy, and so we got very comfortable play. Trio Live in Europe is a wonderful album.  Of course, I am a bass player in a trio, so I have to play differently than I would play either with my own group or solo.

TP:    Jan Garbarek and you have done a number of recordings over the years… What I’m getting to is the process of sustaining relationships and the ways that musical personalities continue to interact and grow together.  Did you play much with Garbarek in the interim from Star to Universal Syncopations?

VITOUS:  Atmos was between them, a duo album of me and Jan.

TP:    But is it very easy to pick up the thread, as it were?

VITOUS:  Jan and I have a fantastic rapport together.  The intuition is such a great element with us, that I know what he is going to play and he knows what I am going to play before we play it.  So basically, we become the instrument of the heavens, just play what we hear and the communication.  So it is not difficult at all to pick up the thread.

TP:    You said that in Europe you have a solo, a duo, a trio, a quartet. Which musicians do you play with there?

VITOUS:  I am trying out different musicians in Italy now, and some American drummers, until I decide who is going to be the steady member of the group.  Because after this, I believe a lot of opportunities are coming, and I want to make sure the band is the best it can possibly be.

TP:    So it’s still a work in progress.

VITOUS:  Yes, a work in progress.  And I like it very much.  Because I am beginning to realize that actually having different members in the band is very beneficial, because it changes the music and… I knew this from before already, that when you are with one band for a long time, you can very easily reach a stagnating point.  It’s very good to refresh, to keep changing things.

TP:    Would you describe yourself as a very interactive bass player?  Are you someone who really takes in the information and responds?  Are you influenced by what other people are playing?

VITOUS:  Absolutely, yes.  Communicating always.  Without communication, there is no music.  Everybody just plays some notes.  That’s what I believe.

[MUSIC]

TP:    About 30 seconds ago, Miroslav said, “Hear that?  Double time, 6/4, half-time.”  And it all comes together with logic and clarity.  Almost any…not just the compositions, but the ideas that are postulated could be extrapolated on in a very dense way, particularly by musicians of this caliber.  But the record is lucid.  The ideas are very clear.  It seems you deliberately went for simplicity and clarity within this.

VITOUS:  Basically, the compositions come from classical music.  When you write a motif or something beautiful, you don’t want to spoil it by covering it with something else and putting it inside of something else.  Let it shine and be absolutely brilliant.  It has space.  We don’t have to cover it up.  That was the idea for every motif, for whatever is being said or played.  Because the motives are absolutely gorgeous.  So let them shine to their complete, true potential, also with overtones ringing out.  When you play a motif, it takes a little while before the motif actually dies out.  And you don’t want to interfere with that either.  You want to let it ring out before you come in with something new after that, because otherwise you are basically destroying the work you just did.

TP:    What qualities do you think the five of you — Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, yourself, Jack DeJohnette — in the most general sense share in common?  You’re all musicians who emerged in the ’60s in a very efflorescent period of the music.

VITOUS:  I don’t know, and I haven’t really thought about it.  One thing we have in common, all of us, that is definitely very strong is creativity.

TP:    But there was a particular environment in which your creativity was allowed to evolve in a certain direction, which let’s say had you all encountered each other ten years before, in the ’50s, or ten years later, in the ’70s, would have gone on a different path. But you met when you met, and it went in the direction and directions that it did.

VITOUS:  Well, I have to thank very much everybody involved here, because I have such a beautiful relationship with each one of those musicians, and there’s a lot of respect going back and forth, and they respected what I wanted to do.  If I gave them some motives and some music, they completely respected it and they tried to execute it in the atmosphere and in the essence which I wanted to have.  I was assisting everybody personally.  So we were able to stay within this brilliant atmosphere with nothing getting confused, nothing getting overplayed, and nothing covering something else.  I think that’s the main thing, the love for the music by each of these musicians made it possible to do this.

TP:    What are you passions outside of playing the bass and composing?  You were an Olympic caliber swimmer in your youth?  Are sports something you still do?

VITOUS:  I keep swimming.  Not training heavily, but I keep working out two-three times a week just to keep my energies going.  It’s very important.  I do a lot of meditation.  I work with gemstones, I work with meditation, I work with Tao.  But one thing I have discovered, too, is that I don’t like to be part of any organization, of religion or anything like this, because I always found out that whenever I was part of that, that someone was there trying to play some kind of a power game or run your life or whatever. So after a while, I discovered, “Well, wait a moment; I don’t have to go down the street and then to the corner and then over there to get in touch with God — he’s right up there.” So I don’t need any more detours.

TP:    Does that predisposition to individualism carry over to your musical activity as well?

VITOUS:  I would think the clarity and brilliance has definitely helped me.

TP:    I mean the individualism. Not wanting to be part of an organized group, as it were.  Does that carry over to your musical…

VITOUS:  Not in that way.  It’s just that I like to be left alone to live my own destiny and my own life.  I don’t need nobody to tell me what to do.  I already know what to do.  Or, it is going to come to me, what I am going to do, anyway.  So everything else basically doesn’t make any sense.  It is just a detour.

TP:    How do you describe your solo bass performances?

VITOUS:  I think probably a good way to describe it is acoustic bass solo with virtual classical orchestra.
TP:    How did the concert go in Philadelphia?

VITOUS:  Great.

TP:    Good crowd?

VITOUS:  Yeah.  Almost full anyway.

TP:    That’s not bad.

VITOUS:  Yeah, that’s not bad.  And we had some equipment problems because we didn’t have the right things, but we managed anyway.  At Joe’s Pub it should be more up to date. Over there in Philadelphia, they are just beginning to do some concerts. But it was great. People thought it was absolutely fantastic.

* * *

Miroslav Vitous (Oct. 2003—telephone interview):

TP:    I want to talk about Universal Syncopations and how you developed it. Tell me how the project came to be.  It seems like it was a long gestation period.

VITOUS:  Yes.  Well, I wanted to do an album, so to speak, exactly what I wanted to do.  I didn’t want no one else involved, from the very beginning.  Because I have had experiences before, on many different locations with many different people, where the influence was somewhat… I just wanted to be alone, to do my best without anyone else interfering.  So I called Jack, and invited him to come to my studio in my house in St. Martin, and we recorded quite extensively for four days. So that’s how it began.

TP:    You recorded for four days.  Did you have the pieces conceptualized then?

VITOUS:  Yes.  I had the pieces… I don’t like to write any more charts, like an exact amount of bars.  I hate that.  It keeps you completely locked up and in a box.  So I make maps for myself.  You come up with a motif or some kind of series of changes or some rhythmical arc or a melody, and you write that down.  But you don’t write down an exact number of bars, you don’t write down how long it should last — you just let the music take its course. So it’s going from statement to statement.  We did that, and Jack was following what I was doing beautifully.  That was the first part.

I was either going to make the album with a symphony orchestra and this duo or I was going to make Miroslav and Friends.  I talked to Manfred Eicher about that, and he seemed to like the idea better about the Miroslav and Friends. I actually liked that better, too.  I continued recording, I asked Manfred if he would like to involve himself at this point by paying for the sessions and the musicians, and he said that he is not sure of the outcome, so that he cannot do that.  In any event, that was not a problem for me, because I had made plenty of money at the time, so I just went ahead and financed the whole recording until I was done.  I wrote parts for Chick Corea, then I recorded at his studio in Florida.  Next on the list was the brass sections; I wrote that out and recorded it in Switzerland.  Then I wrote parts for John McLaughlin, and we recorded it in my house in Monaco.  Then last was Jan Garbarek; we recorded it in Oslo.  Then I played it for Manfred and he loved it, so basically he made a decision right there that he is going to buy it.  Then I went on and kept everything for about 14 months to put everything together exactly the way I wanted it and what it was supposed to sound like.  So that’s the story how it exactly happened.  It took from March 2000 until I finished the mixing and mastering in January-February of 2003.

TP:    How did you approach Chick Corea and Jan Garbarek and John McLaughlin in interpreting the parts?  Did you direct their improvised sections, for instance?

VITOUS:  Well, basically I told them about the essence.  I wrote statements and motives for them which were to be played, because the bass was introducing them already.  You can hear it on “Univoyage,” for example, when it comes to a particular part where the statement is written and you can hear everyone basically playing the same statement, more or less.  So basically this, and in between the statements they were improvising, and I asked them to improvise within the content of the tune, so that the atmosphere and essence of the tune stays the same. What I mean by that is you don’t play everything on one tune in the sense of mixing together, like, pork with beef.  You either play pork or you play beef, but you don’t play all that.  That’s why the tunes are so specifically in its essence and atmosphere, each one of them, because they stay within the atmosphere of each tune.  So that was great. They all did it beautifully.

TP:    The bass and drum tracks you recorded initially, did you modify them at all from the original versions?

VITOUS:  No.  In fact, I even tried to open up some things on the bass, and it was like I was in another world.  It would never fit because it was a specific thing at a specific time. Boom, that’s it.  Nothing was taken down, nothing was erased, nothing was edited.  A few beats on the cymbals and stuff like that I moved around a little bit to make sure they were in a better place — sometimes — but that was it.

TP:    Did you change anything in the playing of Chick or Jan Garbarek or McLaughlin, or did their statements stand as well?  And how long did it take for each of them to get the feeling and do what satisfied you?

VITOUS:  It’s not easy remember this.  But I know that I edited some of Chick Corea.  I edited a lot of the guitar tracks.  There were so many guitar tracks, and I had to make very careful choices, because John usually doesn’t play in a collective situation.  So I had to be very careful to make sure it was coming within the context of the group.  So that took quite a long time, to find the correct charts and statements from Mr. McLaughlin.  I hardly touched Garbarek at all. I think I shifted a few statements from one take to the other, just because of the spacing, but basically I didn’t have to do anything.  But Jan was the last one to do the recording, so he heard everything which was on the plate.  He had the best full picture of all the musicians who were recording, because he heard the complete thing basically — almost.

TP:    Was that deliberate, or was it just a scheduling thing?

VITOUS:  It was just a scheduling thing.

TP:    I think we addressed this before, but I’ll ask again in this context.  Can you describe the quality of playing in real time with musicians versus setting up something like this?

VITOUS:  It would be very different.  In fact, I don’t think we could have accomplished this in this way.  There’s all of these great musicians in one room, and there are new tunes, and we would have fallen back into the old traps, playing the way we used to play — in the rhythm section context, also the way the piano would be playing, and all that. Plus there would be probably some clashes from time to time, because there’s a lot of us in the room and there’s a lot of egos and a lot of stuff.  So I don’t think we could have created this new music on “Miro Bop” and “Sun Flower” and “Univoyage,” which are the three on which the concept is groundbreaking — to me anyway.  I don’t think we could play like this in the studio, because even I could have explained that, no one had ever played like that, so we would be kind of fishing.  It would not be as certain and definite as it is this way, on the album. I think that’s a big plus. The way it came, it was not possible to do it any other way.  But if I did it any other way, we would never have ended up with this.  We would have ended up with something else. I think we might have touched on a new concept, but it would not be as clear as it is.

TP:    On Friday I played “Miro Bop” for John Patitucci on a Blindfold Test.  He figured out who everybody was, but it sounded to him like an old recording, from the ’70s or early ’80s.  I’m wondering if there’s anything you tried to do in the overall sound or mix.

VITOUS:  No, it was just done exactly the best quality it could possibly have been recorded.  I’m surprised about this, because he should have at least recognized that this could not be a ’70s or ’80s recording, because it sounds absolutely brilliant.  The sound is today sound.  It is not the sound of analog tape. We could never have gotten a sound like this in the ’70s or even ’80s. No way. So I am surprised about that. He should have known all the way through that it was a new recording.

TP:    You’re going to be working with this music in group situations for the next period of time, while this CD is still hot off the presses.  Do you have your next project in view?

VITOUS:  Yes.  The stuff which I am doing in the solo concerts, together with the classical parts, different phrases and different statements of the classical music made with my library… I am doing this within my solo. Again, this is something completely new.  This is different from the album. It’s another kind of thing.  I tried this with the band last summer, playing with those classical phrases and statements in between our playing, and it was sensational.  It was absolutely unbelievable.  I was playing several festivals in Europe last summer.  I had Aydin Esen on the piano, Bob Malach on the saxophone, and sometimes I had an Italian drummer and sometimes a guy who’s been playing with Charles Lloyd now, a very nice drummer. So we did a couple of concerts in Europe, and it was absolutely great.  The first concert was pure magic.  We had one rehearsal, I played them the sequences, and I placed them in between exactly in the right places, so it was sometimes like coming from extremely creative jazz playing, with a lot of space into the classical sequence, and going out that way.  It was like a really perfect marriage of the two musics, not only by concept, but also with the sound.  People absolutely loved it.  I was very surprised by the response.  They freaked out, basically.  It was like shocked.  So I am going to continue with this, to bring that in more.  I would like to make another album like this, because I have still quite a bit of material left from recording.  We did some extensive recording with Jack.  So there is another half-an-album already with Jan, Jack, me, Chick and probably John also, depending on the material which I find.

TP:    So at least two good albums of material set up.  You have a lot to work with.  What qualities does a musician need to be able to work effectively with you?

VITOUS:  Well, it has to be a musician on a very high level, or as high as possible.  Of course, some beginning or mediocre musician would not be able to cut it.  It is a communication.  As they say, you can only play as good as the musicians you are playing with. I find this to be so true.  That’s why I have to be very careful about who is going to play with me, because if they are not at least on an acceptable level of mastery, then I have a big problem because I cannot pull it off.  I cannot even do it.  It has to be a great musician, let’s put it that way.

TP:    Does that mean they have to be fluent in all the idioms you’re fluent in?  Do they have to have a full knowledge of classical music and a broad vocabulary in jazz tradition?

VITOUS:  Kind of like this, with a personal extremely strong rhythm, a sense of space and of development about music so that you don’t play the changes and you’re depending upon the rhythm section as a slave.  You are open to the new music, you know about that… Basically a very advanced musician.  Yes, I think this is the better way to put it.

TP:    Do you think there are a lot of them out there?  Do you think the musician pool has changed in the forty years you’ve been a professional?

VITOUS:  I think it has.  But I cannot give you a really valid opinion because I was out of the circuit for eight years.  So now I am basically reentering, looking around, and I’ve found actually some surprisingly good musicians here and there, but there’s also a lot of musicians who just learned bebop and just play bebop and they don’t know anything else. They could be excellent with that, but they don’t know anything else.

TP:    How are musicians today different than in 1969-70, when you were embarking on your first compositional efforts and your first leader things?

VITOUS:  It’s hard to say, because I was lucky enough to meet the talented ones always.  So it’s difficult to give an overall opinion.  I was not in a position ever to see everybody and know everybody.  I was kind of just going my way.

TP:    Why were you off the scene for eight years?

VITOUS:  Because of the library.

TP:    I see.  So that took all of your time?

VITOUS:  Yes, it was a tremendous project.  You have no idea.

TP:    Well, tell me about the amount of work involved.  Was it something like 8-10 hours a day in the studio?

VITOUS:  Yes.  More like 12 or 13 hours sometimes, including weekends, for four years, non-stop.  I lost some eyesight because of staring at these goddamn monitors.  But I had to do this.  Because I learned so much.  Without doing this, I would never have been able to put together this album that I just put together, because of the sound and… Many different things.

TP:    So it made you more attuned to the cellular structures of music.

VITOUS:  Really it’s sound.  I have learned where the sound is created, so to speak, inside — almost that close.  And the sound of each instrument, the timbre where they sound the best, and spacing, the overtones, all that.  And from then on, it basically grew inside of me to another kind of education, which I cannot even tell you because I don’t know what it is. It’s like I just hear it.

TP:    All the implications are coming out and being actualized.

VITOUS:  Right.

TP:    Where were you located when you were doing this?

VITOUS:  I did this basically in Germany.  I started doing this in Germany, when I was living in a house in Germany, finished it up in Switzerland, and still worked some more in the Caribbean.  The most time-consuming part is that there are six different formats.  You’ve got Kurzweil, you’ve got Sample Cell, you’ve got Emulator, you’ve got Gigasampler, you’ve got Akai, you’ve got Roland — all these different samplers.  And I had to make a library for each one of them.  They are not compatible at all.  So I had to basically take it from scratch and build every instrument, note-by-note again, six times over.

TP:    Is it still on the market?

VITOUS:  Yes, it is.

TP:    And has it made you a profit?

VITOUS:  Yes, it has.  In fact, a very comfortable profit.

A couple of people in Europe thought it sounded like a Miles Davis band in the middle ’60s. I have something to say about that.  The music of the ’60s, of the Miles Davis band, produced some absolutely most incredible musical things. Now, just because time went on, and we’ve gone through ’75, ’85, ’95, and today, that doesn’t mean the music is getting better.  On the contrary, that was the height.  So why not play the height?  Why do you go on and go down?

TP:    So do you think that period, ’68 to ’71, was the highest period?

VITOUS:  Absolutely.

TP:    What are your speculations on why the music hasn’t evolved from there?

VITOUS:  In the ’60s, it was an absolutely incredibly creative time.  And it hung over a little bit to the beginning of the ’70s.  After that, Disco came in and killed everything.  That’s the biggest reason, I think, was the business and the disco.  All the musicians had to stop what they were doing and do something to survive.  So it was interrupted by business, yes, completely.  And I don’t think the time was right anyway.  Because if the time was right, it would have happened anyway, as you know.  So by the middle ’70s, it was finito.

TP:    So you think jazz was ahead of its time then.  Do you think now might be the time?

VITOUS:  I don’t know. I think this album is returning back to the inspiration.  Let’s put it this way.  And the paradoxical thing about it is that people think it’s old, but they don’t understand that old was better than what is today. If you’re going to go to the top, you might as well keep playing the top.  Just because time goes on, you have to change to something that is worse?  I don’t see that.  So that gets me wondering what do these people know?  Is it possible that they don’t know that was the best, and from that point it went down to worse?  They don’t know that?  Well, excuse me. It’s peculiar.

TP:    But as someone who was involved in jazz education in a serious way, you know something about the information that younger musicians are getting.  What do they need that they’re not getting?

VITOUS:  Well, I can tell you the difference between Europe and America, a little bit.  In Europe almost all of them have more knowledge of Classical music than Americans.  I have tried to play with some even great American musicians.  I can’t tell you who it was, because I don’t remember and I don’t want to talk about individual names.  But I can tell you that they would execute some incredible things in one area of music, jazz music or improvisation or other things, and the next thing they would be a complete blank.  They would have no information.  So they would be full of holes.  The complete picture of education is full of holes.  It’s not a complete musical education.  And American musicians are lacking that.  This is true.  They’re lacking that, because they basically go the jazz school and they learn jazz.  The creative force is what jazz features, and this is what is so beautiful about this music.  But the jazz itself, in the name of jazz, is basically still a roles and slave kind of thing.  Putting people in the box and playing roles.  That’s it.  I’m sorry.  Playing roles.  It’s not really music.  If you knew more about classical music and more about that, you would be much more open to stand on your own and start communicate and talk. The total education will eventually have to be that everybody knows classical and jazz both; you use the creative force to improve the classical music, and use the classical music to improve the forms and wideness of the spectrum by knowing that.  I think this is what it has to come to.  In other word, you’re going to have to be not just a jazz musician, but a complete musician.  That’s a thing of the future.  It’s got to be.

TP:    Does that also include being fluent in the styles of the different cultures of the world — Africa, India, and so on.

VITOUS:  Of course they do.  But I think this would be small influences on jazz music — textural influences and stuff like that.  I’m speaking on a little bit bigger picture.

[ETC.]

VITOUS:  I am not influenced.  If you are after something original, you don’t want to hear everybody, because you are going to get influenced whether we like it or not.

[-30-]

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Filed under Bass, DownBeat, Miroslav Vitous, Uncategorized, WKCR

An Unedited Blindfold Test with Ray “Bulldog” Drummond On His 67th Birthday

Today is the 67th birthday of bassist Ray Drummond, whose huge sound, harmonic acumen and unfailing time feel have made him one of the major practitioners of his instrument since the end of the ’70s. To mark the occasion, I’ve posted the unedited proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test  that he did with me either in late 2000 or early 2001.

Ray Drummond Blindfold Test:

1.    Oscar Pettiford, “Tricotism” (Bass, Bethlehem, 1955/2000) (5 stars)

It’s obvious that it’s “Tricotism” in one of its versions.  O.P.  Oscar Pettiford.  I already know it’s 5000 stars.  O.P. is in the school, the great tradition of Jimmy Blanton; Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers and people since then who have adhered to this  tradition.  The melodic articulation.  He’s trying to play like a horn.  He’s expressing himself, telling a story, and it’s a very articulate story.  He seems himself as a melody player in the same way that a saxophone or trumpet player would.  Plus he’s got great time, his walking is strong.  Ray Brown comes from this same approach to the instrument.  Serious bass playing.  To me this is the main stem, the trunk of the bass tree.  All the branches come from this tradition, and every bass player has inherited this.  Blanton and O.P. and Ray Brown are three of my particular heros that I learned a lot from just listening as I was coming up, as a musician as well as a bass player.  That articulation!  Just a wonderful player.  It’s O.P.!  God is in the house.  I hadn’t heard that version.

2.    Marcus Miller (all instruments), “Tracy” (Who Loves You?: A Tribute To Jaco Pastorius, Concord, 2000) (5 stars)

This is Jaco Pastorius.  It’s not?  But it’s his tune.  He used to play this; I don’t remember the name.  The only person I can think of who gets into textures like this who’s an electric player is Marcus Miller.  That’s the first guy that comes to my mind.  He’s the only guy who has that kind of talent.  It’s just good music!  He’s playing all the instruments?  That’s even better.  He gets five stars anyway, in my book, because he’s such a musical talent.  He’s a great bass player, but he’s also a great musician.  Once again, going back to O.P., who was a great musician, not just a bassist.  Marcus has that sound.  It’s a little harder to catch, given the sound of the bass guitar.  I wouldn’t think I’d pick up on him, because I haven’t been listening to a lot of Marcus’s own projects.  Last time I saw him he was producing a David Sanborn record.  I haven’t seen him play in years.

3.    Rodney Whitaker, “Whims of Chambers” (Ballads & Blues, Criss-Cross, 1998) (Paul Chambers, composer; Whitaker, bass; Stefon Harris, vibes; Eric Reed, piano; Ron Blake, tenor sax) (3 stars)

At first I thought it was an older recording, but now as I listen to it I realize it’s a bunch of younger guys.  I have to figure out who they are.  It’s a P.C. tune.  But it’s definitely not P.C.  What the whole band is doing sounds a bit superfluous; as a producer I’d have to tighten it up a little by snipping out some of what I would consider self-indulgence.  The point is to tell your story, and there’s no reason to have extraneous stuff in your recording.  I think part of the problem is that the compact disk has allowed everybody to become a lot more self-indulgent.  They’re good players.  Younger players. [TP: How can you tell they’re younger players?] I can tell they’re younger because the tonal universe is broader than you would normally hear from the mainstream players of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I don’t know which young bass player this is.  I know it’s not Christian McBride.  It could be one of half-a-dozen guys.  The problem I have is to try to hear guys’ different sounds.  Like I say on my web-site, getting your own sound and projecting your own voice is not one of the paramount values that a lot of younger jazz musicians today are going for. When I came up, I was kind of the last of the generations of musicians who had been counseled, “No matter what you do through your musical life, if you really want to play, acquire a voice.”  You have a voice.  Understand it.  Play through that voice and project that, and understand that that’s you.  Even if your articulation never gets to be too hot, or your choice of tunes or your knowledge or whatever, if you never pursue a career… I can tell you  about many musicians all over the world, the guy might be a doctor or a scientist, and yet he has this gorgeous tone.  Can’t play hardly anything, he can’t improvise, he can barely play a section, but the guy gets up and plays one note — and you say OH!!!  Because he’s got this sound.  In music schools especially, I guess, nobody is teaching people to acquire their own voice as the basic value, as something even more important than getting all over your instrument.  to me that’s much more important than being able to run up and down the bass or the saxophone or drums or whatever.  Having that sound.  Some people play a couple of notes and you say, “Ah, that’s such-and-such” and “that’s such-and-such.” [TP: There isn’t one of these musicians you could say that about.”} Well, I’m listening, and I think I know…I  probably know every one of these guys.  I probably have even worked with  some of them.  But somehow I can’t get that sense.  I’ll give it 2-1/2 stars.  The musicianship is excellent.  For me, a little self-indulgent, which brings the star level down.  But in my opinion, I just don’t think that there is much personality as these players actually have.  So the producer didn’t quite get what I think is necessary to show off the musicians.  It was on the generic side.

4.    John Lindberg, “Hydrofoil (For Fred Hopkins)” (The Catbird Sings, Black Saint, 2000) (Lindberg, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums) (four stars)

It’s definitely post-Ornette style avant-garde playing, but I have a feeling it was recorded in the ‘80s or ‘90s as opposed to the late ‘60s or ‘70s.  To tell you the truth, I really haven’t listened to a whole lot of these guys.  I’m not familiar with people like William Parker.  I’m not saying that’s who this, but I’m saying I haven’t been paying attention to guys like that, because I’ve been out of that loop for a long time.  when I was coming up as a musician in California in the early ‘70s, there were a fair number of opportunities to heat that kind of music, and I did some gigs like that as well.  So I’m not from that school that tries to debunk anything or thinks this is not as creative or as important or as difficult to play as any other kind of music.  I like this music.  I wouldn’t want to play it myself as a steady diet, but certainly for contrast.  I won’t take any guesses. I like the drummer.  Barry Altschul comes to mind, for whatever reason, just from the sound of the recording; the cymbals sounded like ECM.  That’s I said Barry Altschul, because I know they recorded him like that.  But they recorded that kind of music in the ‘70s and they haven’t been recording that kind of music in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and this is recent.  I’d give it 3-1/2 to 4 stars for the energy and execution. [AFTER] I  haven’t heard John Lindberg in a long time.  He was a good player with the String Trio, but it was much more “inside” than what I heard here.

5.    Christian McBride, “Move” (Gary Burton, for Hamp, Red, Bags and Cal, Concord, 2001) (McBride, bass; Burton, vibes; Russell Malone, guitar) (4-1/2 stars)

The first thing that comes to my mind is… It feels like Ray Brown, but I don’t know if it is.  Yeah, it’s Ray Brown.  It’s got that feeling.  He’s the only one that pushes it like that. They played this Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool.  “Move.”  But let me listen more, because there are a couple of guys who might… I’m going to make a decision when I hear the solo.  It’s got to be Christian McBride, because that’s the only other person… We heard all the Ray stuff in the beginning there.  But this is Christian McBride.  I have to say that straight-out.  I speak about inheriting the mainstream tradition, Jimmy Blanton and how Jimmy Blanton affected O.P. and Ray Brown and the younger guys like Paul Chambers, and he obviously affected Ron Carter, then post Ron Carter you get players like me, Rufus, George Mraz, a whole raft.  And this young guy here, Christian McBride, really likes what Ray does.  That’s Russell Malone there.  I don’t know who the vibraphonist is.  The configuration reminds me of Tal Farlow, Mingus and Red Norvo.  Is this a tribute to that?  But they didn’t play like this.  They had another thing happening.  Probably Stefon Harris.  But if not, I don’t know who it is..  For the musicianship… It swings.  I can’t give it 5, but definitely 4-1/2.  It’s not at the same level as the O.P. [AFTER] Gary Burton?  I’m very impressed, because I did not know that Gary Burton had inherited so much Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo.

6.    Dave Holland, “Jugglers’ Parade” (Prime Directive, ECM, 1999) (Holland, bass; Chris Potter, saxophone; Steve Nelson, marimba; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Billy Kilson, drums) (5 stars)

It’s Dave Holland with Robin Eubanks, Chris Potter, Steve Nelson, Billy Kilson.  It has the different rhythms and they’re right on it.  I caught them last summer live.  We ran into each other at the Northsea, but nobody could listen to anybody, and then we saw them in Munich — we came in a day early and they were working downstairs.  Dave and I are the same age, and I’ve been listening to him since the late ‘60s.  The first I met him was a the Both/And in San Francisco in 1970, when he was playing in Chick Corea’s Trio; ECM had just been formed and they were selling “A/R/C.”  I had bought my copies of Chick’s solo improvised records and “A/R/C” from Chick there in the club, and that’s when I first met Dave.   I really enjoyed what he was doing.  That’s the first time I met him.  But the first time I heard him was in Miles’ band, at a concert they did at Stanford University in 1969.  And I was familiar with him from “Bitches Brew,” which is the first time I heard his name.  He’s got his own sound.  Again, he’s from that era where older guys would say, “Get your own sound, boy!”  Because that’s as important as anything else you’re going to do as part of your musicianship.  When I heard this band last summer, it was just a delight to listen to.  Dave’s got a whole concept.  It’s him!  He’s been playing this way all his musical life.  All the projects he’s been on, from Miles to now, it’s a concept that’s been Dave.  His voice and the message, the story that he tells, and that story has just gotten deeper and deeper and deeper.  I can’t say that about every musician that’s out there.  It’s the kind of thing that gives me a great deal of inspiration, that there’s a fellow bassist who is also a contemporary age-wise… I would never want to play like that, but I love to hear that.  It gives me a lot of ideas as a composer.  It’s just very inspirational.  5 stars.  It’s definitely on the same level as that O.P. piece.  Yay for Dave!

7.    Red Mitchell-Hank Jones, “What Am I Here For?” (Duo, Timeless, 1987) (5 stars) (Mitchell, bass; Jones, piano)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s Hank Jones.  From the first notes.  Even though that’s a Rudy Van Gelder recording, that’s Hank Jones’ piano with Hank Jones playing it.  Hank and Red Mitchell.  Red Mitchell.  Talk about someone with a concept, someone with a voice and someone with a great deal of… If you want to just someone by the content of their character, boy, you’ll never go wrong with Red Mitchell!  That was one serious musician.  We miss him a lot.  He had a way of playing… Of course, he strings his bass totally different than the “traditional” way that basses are strung, giving him another kind of approach as part of the concept.  Because he used to play bass the same way everybody else plays it, and then he changed his tuning in the mid-‘60s for whatever reason.  There are a lot of reasons advanced.  Two consummate masters.  Five stars.  You could listen to this all night and sip a few cognacs and pretend we’re back at Bradley’s again, back in the day.  They used to play together several times a year at Bradley’s, and it was always a treat to hear them.  Oh, would we could do such a thing today!  It would be wonderful to have that inspiration again.  One thing about Red Mitchell is that he could play with anybody, and I think a hallmark of a great musician, not just adaptability, but the ability to project that personality in such a way that you do interact with other musical personalities.  And the strongest ones, in my opinion, are the ones who are able to interact with one another using their own personal voices and their visions, and they wind up weaving a story together.  That’s what they did here.

8.    Barre Phillips-Joe Maneri, “Elma My Dear” (Rohnlief, ECM, 1999) (Phillips, bass; Joe Maneri, tenor sax) – (3 stars)

I have no idea who the musicians are.  Again, for me it’s like post-Ornette.  Well, that’s not fair, because Ornette is not the one who unleashed this.  I don’t get the sense of composition.  I get the sense of interaction  of two musicians, as if they just went in and did whatever they did.  This is part of a larger piece or concept?  That’s the feeling I get.  But it didn’t to me as if it was anything other than the two guys interacting with one another, that there wasn’t any kind of motif, or maybe there was a color that was trying to be established.  I’m relatively open-minded about the process, but in terms of the execution of this one I’d have to say 2-1/2 or 3 stars.  The musicianship definitely is good.  The guys know something about their instruments in the colors they’re trying to create and that sort of thing.  But I feel a bit lost because I’m not sure about the context in which they’re trying to place it.  That’s the only reason that I can’t give… I’d give a qualified 2-1/2 or 3 stars.  But I feel a little lost as a listener. [AFTER] I’ve never met Barre Phillips, but I’ve heard his name for a number of years.  And he’s definitely somebody who’s a trouper from the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Obviously, there’s no question about musicianship and that sort of thing.  But as a listener I felt lost.  You told me about Joe Maneri and his microtonal concept, so obviously there’s a context for what this was about.  I think you need to be more informed to be able to understand what’s going on  here.

9.    Michael Moore-Ken Peplowski, “Body and Soul” (The History of Jazz, Vol. 1, Arbors, 2000) (Moore, bass; Peplowski, clarinet) (4-1/2 stars)

Obviously, it’s “Body and Soul” in a clarinet-bass duo.  As far as the performers, that’s a tough one.  The clarinet player is a serious clarinet player, like Eddie Daniels or… It’s not Paquito.  But Eddie is the guy who comes to my mind because of the sound.  Ken Peplowski also has a sound like that, but I’m going to say Eddie, even though I’m probably way off the mark.  It’s somebody that really is deep into the clarinet.  The bass player is really lyrical, and the only guy I can think of…. I don’t know how these guys have played together… I’m sure they  have, but I’m surprised to see them on a record.   Michael Moore is the bass player.  Michael is the only one that…he’s got that… It’s Michael!  It’s hard to explain.  It’s his sound and his concept.  He’s a player like Red Mitchell because he’s very lyrical in his approach, the way he plays the melody.  I’ve never heard him play with the bow like that.  I’ve always loved Michael.  Again, to go back to Bradley’s, Michael played there often.  4-1/2 stars [AFTER] I’ve had the opportunity to play a couple of times with Ken, but I really didn’t get into his clarinet playing until just this past summer when we were all in Japan and I got to hear him play clarinet every night.  I said, “Oh my goodness!”  Ken is a serious clarinet player as well as a marvelous saxophonist.  The beginning was lovely, the way they wove a duet out of tempo together stating the melody and creating the improvisation around the melody and that sort of thing right in the beginning for one full chorus.

10.    Ray Brown Trio, “Starbucks Blues” (Live At Starbucks,  Telarc, 2001) (Brown, bass; Geoff Keezer, piano; Kareem Riggins, drums) (5 stars)

Look out, Brown!  Signatures.  Well, we talked about Ray Brown earlier.  But there’s no mistaking him.  The fact is that Ray  Brown has his voice, he has his stories, and he’s been playing like this for almost 50 years at this point.  The first time I ever heard Mr. Brown live was as an undergraduate in college in the mid-‘60s with the great Oscar Peterson Trio with Thigpen.  They came down to Shelley’s Manne Hole, and I’d be down there two or three nights a week if they had a two-week engagement, just to listen to this trio and this wonderful bass player, this incredible master.  Oh, my goodness, that’s almost 40 years ago.  And Ray hasn’t lost anything.  He’s gotten even more… Not just the maturity, but your voice deepens as you age, especially if you allow it to be.  He’s just such a consummate player, such a grandmaster.  Every time you hear him, it’s such an inspiration.  Five stars.  You’re talking about somebody who’s been the central part of mainstream bass playing for a very long time, and still waving that flag and carrying it for all intents and purposes… I hope as many people as possible will see him while he’s still here with us.  Because we’ve lost so many people and it’s so great to have one of the grandmasters still able to do that thing that only they can do.  God bless Ray Brown. [LAUGHS]

11.    Fred Hopkins, “Mbizo” (David Murray Quartet, Deep Rivers, DIW, 1988) (Hopkins, bass; Murray, bass cl.; Dave Burrell, piano; Ralph Peterson, drums)

I don’t know who this is.  It’s funny, because I get this picture of Cecil McBee in my head, but it’s not Cecil; it’s just somebody who would like to play like Cecil, but hasn’t figured out, in my opinion, how to sound like that.  It’s not Cecil.  Right?  Whew, good.  But as a bass player, this player is chasing another kind of a value.  There’s a lyricism  I think the bass player is trying to get to that he hasn’t figured out yet.  Part of it has to do with his articulation and his intonation.  But that’s part of what he’s trying to do.  Oh, wait a minute!  That’s David!  Damn.  That’s David.  Is this Fred on here?  Fred.  That’s who it is.   It is Fred.  It’s David and Fred and…it could be Andrew.  I’ll take a stab and say Andrew.  The piano player might be Dave Burrell.  I probably missed the drummer.  I’ll stick with Andrew, though I’m probably wrong.  Oh, it’s Ralph.  Yeah, he’s trying to play like Andrew.  He plays more like Andrew than he plays like Blackwell.  Four stars.  The thing is, I loved Fred.  I really did.  But the thing is, there was a kind of lyricism he  as trying to get to that I never thought he quite got to.  But what a talent.  And what an unrealized talent!  There were certain kinds of things that I know Fred wanted to do musically that he was not given the opportunity to do.  I think that he was not only underappreciated while he was alive, but I think a lot of people are still asleep as to what he was up to as a musician.  He was amazing.

12.    Wilbur Ware, “Woody ‘N You” (Johnny Griffin Sextet.  Riverside, 1958) – (5 stars) – (Ware, bass; Johnny Griffin, ts; Kenny Drew, p; Philly Joe Jones, d.)

There’s only one Wilbur Ware, just like there’s only one Ray Brown.  It’s marvelous.  I’ve not heard this with Griffin, so this is probably something from the Riverside days.  There are several versions of this tune is on Sonny Rollins’ “Live At the Village Vanguard,” from probably around the same time, and Wilbur takes some solos on that, too, with that sound and that concept.  Again, he’s got his own way of telling a story, and it’s very effective.  He was a good player.  Kenny Drew?  Sounds like him.  Sounds like Kenny Drew playing.  Art Blakey, Wilbur Ware and Johnny Griffin.  Marvelous date.  Five stars.  I have got to give it up!  [AFTER] I was going to say it could be Philly Joe playing his Art Blakey shit, but you know… It had that Art Blakey thing in the beginning.  But now it’s definitely Philly Joe.  Kenny Washington will probably kill me for mistaking Philly Joe Jones for Art Blakey.

13.    Peter Kowald, “Isotopes” (Deals, Ideas & Ideals,   Hopscotch, 2000) – (Kowald, bass; Assif Tsahar, bass cl.; Rashied Ali, drums) – (3 stars)

Again, we have an example of textures.  Obviously notes, too.  But we’re talking about textures and moods.  Colors.  At this point we’re into ostinatos.  Again, this is a hard one to rate.  All the example of “freer” music, if you want to call it that… But he’s using a great deal of the resources available for color… But it’s funny, because we always think of this kind of playing as so different than mainstream playing.  And yet I would submit… This is where a lot of bass players are asleep on Mingus.  Of course, this is not Mingus, so I’m not going there with this.  On “Money Jungle,” Mingus used those kinds of techniques, a lot of colors, where traditionally bass players play something else, something a little more “traditionally”-based.  This person has a lot of ability to play in this context.  It would be interesting to hear whether this person is into notes as well.  I’m not sure this person is.  But again, there’s a different approach to lyricism here, because it’s more about colors and impressions and mood creation and that sort of thing.  Ah, it’s a trio, with bass clarinet and drums.  Whoever this bass clarinet player is, this person loves Eric Dolphy!  We heard David playing earlier, and there’s some Eric in him.  I mean, he can’t help but be affected by Eric when he plays bass clarinet.  But this person in particular seems to have a real affinity for Eric.  It’s the same kind of rhythmic phrasing.  That’s definitely where David and Eric part, in the rhythmic phrasing.  Some of the concepts that David uses are similar in terms of how they approach the bass clarinet.  But Eric could have done something like this, too.  As for the bass player, I’ll say it’s Alan Silva.  But I have a feeling that this is later, probably recently, so I’ll have to back off it.  I’ll give it 3 stars.  For my taste, it gets a little self-indulgent.  Okay, you started a story.  Now, what happened?  Where’s the story?  The story has a beginning, a middle and an ending.  And we did.  On the one with David, with Fred, obviously there were some stories being told.  You may not exactly understand how everybody’s getting around it, but there was something being said there.  Here I thought they were saying something, but then it drifted off.

14.    Charles Mingus, “Mood Indigo” (Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Impulse, 1963/1995) – (5 stars) (Mingus, bass; Jaki Byard, piano; Walter Perkins, drums; Eddie Preston, Richard Williams, trumpets; Britt Woodman, trombone; Don Butterfield, tuba; Eric Dolphy, Dick Hafer, Booker Ervin, Jerome Richardson, reeds & woodwinds)

That’s the sound of Duke.  The pianist even sounded convincingly like it could have been Duke.  That was my first impression.  Of course, this is Charles Mingus with “Mood Indigo.”  There’s only one guy who played like Mingus.  Of course, we know him.  Listen to the lyricism and technical ability.  And he had a different way of… He just did what he did.  And a lot of bass players will not give it up to Mingus as a bass player.  If you ask them what is the contribution that Charles Mingus made in the music, the first thing most bass players say is his composing, and they think of him as a composer and they don’t think of him as a bassist.  I can’t tell you how many guys actually respond that way.  It really used to surprise me once, but now I’m not.  I think it’s because  Mingus is so individual.  Charles Mingus was so strong and had his own… He just would play anything at any moment.  And I think for some bass players, it kind of disturbs them if you’re not playing a traditional part… [LAUGHS] Mingus had such a fertile imagination musically, so he could do anything.  Five stars.  Jaki Byard.  Boy, that’s another soul we miss that we’ve lost.  One of the grandmasters.

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Filed under Bass, Blindfold Test, Dave Holland, DownBeat, Ray Drummond

A 1996 WKCR Interview with Ray Brown, Born 85 Years Ago Today

For bass king Ray Brown’s 85th birthday anniversary, here’s a piece that ran on the http://www.jazz.com website a couple of years, incorporating the proceedings of a 1996 WKCR encounter on which he joined me in the studio with Christian McBride. The introduction draws deeply on the obituary I wrote for DownBeat when Brown passed on July 2, 2002. After reading the WKCR interview, feel free to read the transcripts of my conversations with McBride, Geoff Keezer, Ron Carter, Monty Alexander, Herb Ellis, John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton, Benny Green, Quincy Jones, and Ed Thigpen, all of whom generously agreed to speak with me for the DownBeat piece.

* * *

Ray Brown’s supple sound, elemental beat, harmonic wizardry, and ability to create striking melodic lines at any tempo made him the definitive bassist of modern jazz. During his 58 years as a professional musician, he played with virtually every consequential figure on the scene. In the first stage of his career, he played on the first Gillespie-Parker combo recordings (“Shaw Nuff”), later making such influential sides as “One Bass Hit,” “Two Bass Hit” and “Ray’s Idea” with Gillespie’s seminal big band in 1946.  He joined fellow Gillespians John Lewis, Milt Jackson and Kenny Clarke in the first iteration of the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1951, at which point he had been touring regularly since 1948 with singer Ella Fitzgerald, his first wife, and with Jazz at the Philharmonic. Indeed, Brown’s relationship with Norman Granz led to numerous sideman appearances for Verve and Pablo until the latter 1980’s.  A short list includes recordings with Louis Armstrong, Gillespie, Parker, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, Phineas Newborn, Jimmy Rowles, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.

Many of those recordings found Brown in a rhythm section with pianist Oscar Peterson, whom he met on Peterson’s first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Montreal in 1949, and whose trio—first with guitarists Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis, and subsequently with drummer Ed Thigpen—he famously anchored from 1952 to 1966. In 1966, Brown came off the road, and settled in Los Angeles, functioning simulaneously as a musician and businessman. Over the next two decades he managed such artists as Quincy Jones and the Modern Jazz Quartet, contracted for the studios, co-founded the L.A. Four, co-owned a nightclub called Club Loa, and continued to freelance extensively.

In the mid-’80s, Brown returned to the road with pianist Gene Harris and drummer Jeff Hamilton.  The trio recorded a series of albums for Concord and Paddle-Wheel, evolving an ensemble sound that blended harmonic sophistication with grits-and-gravy blues imperatives.  Under contract to Telarc during the ’90s, Brown continued to challenge himself, sustaining trio excellence with such hand-picked young talent as pianists Benny Green and Geoff Keezer and drummers Greg Hutchinson and Kareem Riggins, and organizing Super Bass in 1996.

“When Ray laid the rhythm down, it was like a Mack Truck with a Rolls-Royce engine,” Monty Alexander told me in a tribute piece that Downbeat ran after his death. “He was the greatest support player, yet he wasn’t about to be a nameless character in the background, just doing the pedestrian work.”

“Ray gave me confidence,” Peterson remarked. “I never had to wonder and worry about where things were going harmonically or rhythmically. He listened to each performance that everyone gave, and adjusted his playing to you on different nights, which not a lot of bassists do. He would walk different lines behind me, change the harmonic pattern, just to see what I would do.”

“If you isolated Ray’s basslines and superimposed them over the chords in, say, a higher register, you’d find he was creating beautiful contrapuntal melodies all the time,” Keezer said. “I felt I had complete freedom to go whatever direction I wanted — and I took it pretty far out.”

“Ray’s approach to teaching wasn’t ‘Try this scale on this chord,’ Clayton stated. “Instead he would say, ‘Check out what Oscar Pettiford did on this record, or what Israel Crosby did with this bassline from Ahmad Jamal.’ He turned me on to Eddie Gomez, Richard Davis and Scott LaFaro. People forget that Ray Brown played Bebop, and when it hit, people thought it came from outer space; more jazz lovers could not relate to it than could. And Ray continued to search and stretch and experiment. His later arrangements involved more unpredictable voicings, chord changes and melodic movement than things he did five and ten years before.”

“He saw at an early age with Norman Granz in JATP how to run a business and take care of the musicians,” Jeff Hamilton noted. “He related that Norman once pulled the entire tour off of an airplane because, even though he’d bought a ticket for it, they wouldn’t allow his bass on board. Ray’s pride and sense of self-worth influenced his business techniques. ‘Well, if you don’t want me for this amount, you must not want me very much.’ They would inevitably call back. Ray said, ‘No, that was the amount you offered two weeks ago; now the amount is this.’ That kind of self-confidence came through every part of Ray Brown’s personality, musically and doing business off the bandstand.”

“After he moved to Los Angeles, we started working a lot together,” said Quincy Jones. “We got closer and closer. After a while, Ray started to take care of booking gigs and travel. He was an astute businessman. Old school played everything. We all played chitlin’ circuits. And you didn’t sit around whining about what you had to play, man. You played it, and tried to make it all sound good.  That’s what I loved about Ray. That’s where I think our chord struck, in being very curious about what the business side of it was and not wanting to be a victim. We wanted to be more in charge of our own destinies.

“A man never plays more or less than they are as a human being, and Ray was a very confident, take-charge person. He played bass like that and lived like that. He ate 17 different dishes like that. Wherever we were, whatever was good, Ray knew what it was. He’d probably eat a 249-pound catfish if he tried!  To me, he was the absolute symbol that if you empty your cup every time and learn to make it a habit, it always comes back twice as full. Give it up every time, man. Don’t save nothin’. I learned more and more about that from him all the time. In everything.”

On the final night of Super Bass’ debut gig at the Blue Note in 1996, Brown and McBride joined me on New York’s WKCR for a discussion about his life and times. An edited version appears below.

[MUSIC: Ray Brown/Basie/Roker, “One” (1975); Ray Brown Trio, “Con Alma” (1993); Ray Brown with Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, “One Bass Hit” (1946)]

I’d like to get things started by giving Ray Brown a bit of the third degree on his early years in music.  Hearing Count Basie and Ray Brown together puts you in touch with two-thirds of your deepest musical roots, because when you were 11 years old or so, you got to hear the Basie band on a fairly regular basis, didn’t you.

Oh yeah.  I went down there every day…

This was at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh. You sat under the piano, right near Walter Page.

Right, in Pittsburgh.

How did you find out that this was happening, and what was the cause of your interest at this time?

Oh, I knew everything about music.  We had a lot of music in Pittsburgh.  We had two theaters that had live shows 52 weeks a year.  We had jam sessions at the union every night of the week, and the guys from the theaters came down there and jammed with the local guysThere was a big band in each theater, and a big band played a concert once a week in Pittsburgh.  There was a ton of music.

What was the source of your being inclined to it?  Was music in your family?  Were your parents musicians?

No, they weren’t musicians, but they loved music.  When I was a little kid my father wanted me to be a piano player, and he loved Fats Waller.  We used to sit up and listen to Fats Waller, and he’d say, “Listen to that left hand; listen to that guy play.”  Of course, Fats Waller was fantastic, one of the best of all time.  Then he came in with another record and he said, “Yeah, I got another guy I like; you’d better listen to this guy.”  Then he put this record on, and it was Art Tatum.  So you get pointed in the right direction.

Did you have private teachers?

Yeah, I had piano teachers.  The first one was kind of uppity.  She would pass me in the street… I’d be playing marbles, and she’d stop the car and pick me up and say, “All right, let’s go.”  I had to go home and wash up and come in there.  She’d inspect my nails.  She was a very proper… I told my mother I didn’t like that piano teacher.  So my mother said, “Well, what do you want to do?”  I said, “Well, there’s a couple of ladies… There’s a lady named Ruby Young I want to study with.”  Ruby Young had her own band.  There were two bands in Pittsburgh at that time led by women.  One was Gertrude Long and her Nighthawks, and this was Ruby Young and her band.  So Ruby was teaching lessons.

How old were you when you started playing?

Oh, God.  Young.  10, 11, somewhere around there.  But anyway, I took my first lesson with Ruby Young, and after the lesson I said, “Can you play some jazz for me?”—and she struck out then!  I told my mother, “Now, that’s it.”  She just sat up and played some stride and everything, and then I was very happy.  This is what I wanted to do and this is what I wanted to hear.

I gather you lived next door to a trombone player who played with Gertrude Long’s Nighthawks.

Right.  I used to go over and sit on the floor while they were rehearsed. I was around music all the time.  And my father liked Fats Waller so much that when my folks gave parties, he hired a guy who looked like Fats Waller, who played very little piano, he sang a little bit, but he wore tails and a top hat just like Fats Waller, and my father would tell all the guests, “After you get a few drinks, he sounds real good.” [LAUGHS] This guy would imitate Fats Waller, singing “Your Feet’s Too Big,” sang all those songs, and he played the piano.  My father couldn’t get Fats Waller, but that was the best thing he could do.  So there was music all the time in my house.

So come 1937 with the Basie band sort of on their workshop month preparing for their sojourn in the north, you were there regularly.

That’s right.  He had Sweets and Buck Clayton and Dickie Wells.  All those guys were in the band.  Jo Jones, Walter Page, Freddie Green.  So I met all these guys when I was a kid.

Do you remember the interaction, things you asked them, what they said to you?

No.  I just remember sitting there listening.  So that record has two people who were very-very influential to me, Dizzy Gillespie (who we don’t even have to talk about) and Count Basie.

But you weren’t playing the bass at all in 1937 when you saw Walter Page.

No, I wasn’t playing the bass at all.

That happened when you heard Jimmy Blanton, I gather.

Well, it didn’t happen right away, but I was aware of Jimmy Blanton, and then when I started messing around with the bass it became very prominent.

How did it come about that you made the transition from being a piano player to a bass player?

Well, it was very simple.  I went to junior high school, and I signed up for orchestra, and they had about, I don’t know, 28 piano players and they had 3 basses and only 2 bass players.  So every day, there was a bass laying on the floor, doing nothing.  And I’m sitting over there waiting for my 15 minutes a week to sit down to the piano.  It’s difficult for teenagers to sit around all day and not do anything and stay out of trouble.  So I asked the teacher, “Hey, if I was playing that bass, I could play every day.”  He said, “That’s right.  We’re looking for another bass player.”  I said, “Okay, you’ve got one.”  And that was it.

Was there a good teacher there?

No-no.  I just played it.  Just figured it out.  The schoolteacher showed me what… He had to show everybody every instrument.  He tuned up everybody’s instrument and he showed you, gave you five minutes maybe, and then you were on your own.  But I was bringing these things home; I was practicing with the records.  And I luckily played a lot with Duke Ellington, because the guy who was on that record sounded best to me.  So I played with that record all the time.  Any Duke Ellington record.

So Jimmy Blanton was the guy you played along with.

Daily.

When did you start gigging on the bass?

When I got to high school, a guy who I used to deliver papers to named Henry Foster was looking for some guys, and I said, “Hey, I play the bass and my friend plays the piano” — a guy named Walt Harper.  He hired both of us, and we started working with them on Friday and Saturday and Sunday, making $3 a night.  That was a lot of money then.  There were no taxes either.

What type of places would you play, and who was coming to hear you?

Just local people.  I don’t know… A lot of that stuff is dim now in terms of me giving you accuracy about the people showing up.  All I can remember is playing and learning the tunes.

Was it piano-bass-and-drums…

Piano, bass and drums and saxophone.

Do you remember what kind of repertoire you were playing at the time?  Did you ever have room for features for yourself?

Not really, no.  But we played just the tunes of the day.  “Tea For Two” and “Satchmouth Baby” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”

And all this time you’re still going to the theaters to hear the big bands…

Oh yeah.  Well, when I got to high school we started playing hookey to hear… We were listening to Lester Young, Bud Powell with Cootie Williams, Oscar Pettiford with Charlie Barnet, way before he ever joined Duke Ellington.

In Pittsburgh what was the top level of bass playing you could hear when you were coming up?

I guess the top bass players were a guy named Bass McMahon, who wound up playing with Eckstine’s band.  Then a guy who wound up here in New York, who they called Crusher, named Carl Pruitt, and he was with Roy Eldridge’s band.  They were the top guys in Pittsburgh.

Hearing Roy Eldridge’s name, and he being from the Pittsburgh area, makes me want to ask you which of the many famous musicians who emerged from Pittsburgh were you in contact with, were your peers when you were coming up.

There’s more famous people out of Pittsburgh, I think, than any place in the world, which is just ahead of maybe Philadelphia and Detroit.  You go back to Earl Hines and Roy Eldridge and Maxine Sullivan and Billy Strayhorn and Billy Eckstine, and come up to Art Blakey and Erroll Garner and Stanley Turrentine and Tommy Turrentine, Mary Lou Williams, George Benson… It’s a long list.  Dakota Staton.  Henry Mancini.  Pittsburgh had zillions of bad dudes come out of there!  A lot of people came out of Pittsburgh. So there was a lot of music in Pittsburgh.  I think in towns (Philadelphia was like that, Detroit was like that) where there’s a lot of music going on, I think it inspires young people to get into it.

<Now, the only guy I ever had any contact with (I didn’t know Roy or Eckstine or any of those people) was Erroll Garner, who was a few years older than us, but we used to play hookey, go over to his house and listen to him play the piano.  He used to come by, this little band that we worked with… He lived around the corner, and on Sunday night we played this North Side Elks; he’d slip in there around 11:30 and come in there and jam with us.  It was a lot of fun when he showed up.

Was he playing the same then as later…

Well, he swung the same way.  But he was playing more like Fats Waller then.

Did you get to see Jimmy Blanton play in person?  Do you remember that experience?

I saw him at the theater, yes.  The problems with the bass back in 1940-41, which is when Blanton was very prominent (or any other bass player), there were no amplifiers. There was a microphone in front of the band, and the saxophone player came up and played solos off it, the singers sang, and the leader would make announcements on it.  I mean, there was just one microphone up there.  Until Duke Ellington showed up and had a special mike on Jimmy Blanton standing in front of the band, you never heard the bass that well.  I mean, you heard the guy playing, but you couldn’t do anything fast on bass because nobody would be able to hear it.  So Blanton was an oddity in the first place, and a lot of people didn’t understand it.  They said, “Why does Duke Ellington have this guy up there playing all them bass solos?”  “Hah!  Yeah, sure.”

From you, a quick evaluation how Jimmy Blanton changed the face of the bass.

Oh, he just changed it.  From black to white.  That big a change.  Just picking it up, he was different.  I mean, he had the best sound you ever heard.  He played the best lines.  He played the best solos.  He did everything!  And everybody was into Jimmy Blanton.  I mean, I delivered newspapers to Carl Pruitt’s house, and I don’t care when I went by his house; he was playing those records and practicing with the records just like everybody else.  This must have been done around the world.  Everybody said, “What?”  They heard a guy play a bass like that… PSHEW!

Let’s take you from Pittsburgh in a capsulized way to 1944 to New York and hearing Dizzy Gillespie.  What were the circumstances of leaving Pittsburgh?

I would have left Pittsburgh before I finished high school, but my mother said if I did she was going to have me picked up by the police.  So I had to finish high school.  Schenley High School.  What happened, really, Cootie Williams’ band was at a big theater downtown with Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots and some dance team, Cook & Brown or something like that.  It was a big show.  They had Benson & Hedges’ hot record, “Put Me In Your Brass Bed,” or whatever the name is… Anyway, that show was hot.  The bass player in that show got picked up by the Army because he didn’t pick up his draft notice.  They came and got him from backstage, put him in a truck and drove him off to the Army base.  So now they’re looking for a bass player, and they got Crusher, Carl Pruitt, and he finished out the week.  But somebody told them about me, and I went down there, and they tried the jacket on me — and Carl Pruitt was too big, the jacket fit me, and they offered me the job. [LAUGHS] So I ran home and told my folks.  I said, “I got a job with Cootie Williams’ band.”  They said, “You have no job.”  You’re going to school.  And I cried and rolled over and died a few times.  But my mother said, “You’re going to finish school.”

So you had to stay in Pittsburgh a little while more.

Absolutely.  If you knew my folks, you would have stayed, too.

So after high school, then what?

As soon as I finished high school, I went on the road.  I went to Buffalo with a guy named Jimmy Hinsley in ‘44.

Wasn’t Hank Jones in Buffalo at that time?

Yes, that’s where we met.

I’ve read about you meeting after the show, drinking milkshakes and then going to hear Art Tatum after you were done.

Yes.  What happened was, I got a room at the YMCA, and a couple of days after I’d gotten there I was coming down going to someplace I was going.  I used to take the stairs down, and you passed a door that was the door to the cafeteria.  They had a piano, for some reason, in the cafeteria.  And I heard what I thought was this record we had at home of “Begin The Beguine” by Art Tatum, which I knew very well.  I played it many times.  I knew it practically by heart.  And I heard this record playing, and I stood outside the door and I said, “Wow, there’s that Tatum record,” and I sat and listened to it and it played — but when it got to the end there was some more playing!  I said, “Whoa!”

I went through the door, and there’s a guy sitting up there playing the piano.  I walked over to him and said, “Hey, man, that was that Art Tatum record, ‘Begin The Beguine.’”  He said, “Yeah.”  I said, “Oh yeah!”  That was Hank Jones.  That’s how we met.  So after that, every day I would bring my bass home, and we would go down to the cafeteria and play — every day.  We were on different jobs, but we just played together every afternoon.

What sort of things would you play?

Anything he wanted to play, and I followed him.

You were part of the first group of musicians where the general level of knowledge required seemed to be more.  How much do you think your piano background helped you in dealing with the music you had to play later on?

Well, the piano has always helped me in music.  The bass helps you hear the chord, but the piano then spells it out for you, in case you don’t know what the other notes are.  The piano plays all the notes.  So between the bass and the piano you have everything.

Let’s get you back on course to New York City.  You’re in Buffalo with Jimmy Hinsley, you meet Hank Jones, you’re playing in the cafeteria.  The story I hear is that you were on the road with the Snookum Russell band, then you left that band and went to New York City.  Snookum Russell was one of those band that had major figures before they became major figures.

Well, everybody in those days… There were a ton of big bands, and when you left school and went on the road, you normally went, in those days, with a big band, and you would play with the big band and then you would get better and you would move up to a better big band.  Eventually, you would wind up with one of the major big bands, as you became better.  Two guys who were in Snookum Russell’s band just before I joined it were was Fats Navarro and J.J. Johnson.  Those are not too bad names!

What kind of music was he playing?

I guess you could call it almost a commercial jazz band.  He covered the hits of the day.  If Lucky Millinder had a hit with Bull Moose Jackson, “Who Threw The Whiskey In the Well,” we would be doing that.  What happened was, I joined Snookum, and then he found out that I knew all of this stuff that Jimmy Blanton and Duke Ellington had done, so he started doing it between the two of us — because he of course loved Duke Ellington.  So he started featuring me doing the Blanton stuff.  There was a saxophone player in that band named Charles Carman(?) out of Sandusky, Ohio, and this guy was a Lester Young freak.  He knew everything Lester Young ever made—every note!  When I met him, and we were talking (after he’d been in the band for a little while), he said, “Do you know anything about Prez?”  I said, “Sure.”  He said, “What do you know about him?”  I said, “Well, what do you want to know?”  He said, “Do you know any of his solos?”  I said, “Call one.”

What you need to know is when I was going to high school we had a club of musicians, and every record that came out, as soon as it came out, you’d buy it (and it cost like 29 cents, a ‘78), you had two days to learn any of the major solos on there, and if you didn’t learn it in two days then nobody would let you in the house, because you had to sing it before you could get in the guy’s house.  So you had to learn every solo off of every record.

So I said, “Which one do you want to hear?”  He said so-and-so and so-and-so, and then I started singing it to him.  I couldn’t get rid of him after that.  Now, Lester Young and Slam Stewart had these records with Johnny Guarnieri and Sid Catlett, and we started doing those things—““Sometimes I’m Happy,” all that stuff.  So we were covering everything.

So Snookum Russell was a stimulating experience.

Oh yeah.

But you left.  It’s a funny story I’ve heard, there were four or five of you, they were going to leave the band, and they backed out…

Well, we all said we were going to go to New York and try our luck.  We had been with Snookum about eight months, and we’re reading Downbeat magazine and reading about Coleman Hawkins and 52nd Street and all these things.  We said, “We’ve got to go to New York.”  Because you had to go to New York to make it then. You couldn’t make it anyplace else.  You had to come to New York.  I said, “Well, then, let’s go to New York.”  So five of us decided we were going to go to New York.  And the night before we were supposed to leave, I started packing, I looked around, and everybody was sitting around.  I said, “What’s going on?”  One by one, they said, “Naw…”  The other four guys backed out.  So I started to back out, and then I said, “No, I’m going.”  I had talked to an aunt in New York and she said I could stay with her.  So I said, “I’m going.”

How did you travel?

On the train.  Took two days.

What happened when you got here?

I went to my aunt’s, washed up, she gave me some dinner, and I asked her son, who was my age, “Where is 52nd Street?”  He said, “Well, you’ve got to get the subway to get down there.”  I said, “Well, as soon as we eat, let’s go down there.  I want to see it.”  And he took me.

And who was on the Street?

Oh God, I can’t remember every band, but it was frightening.  I know the Downbeat, the second club on the right, had Art Tatum and Billie Holiday.  Stuff Smith was across the street (I can’t remember the other band).  Benny Harris and Don Byas.  There was one band that I went to see every night for a month (I didn’t miss a set), which was a trio with Erroll Garner, J.C. Heard and Oscar Pettiford.  Never missed a set.  Never did miss a set.  It was ridiculous.  You would have died if you could heard that group, man.  Obnoxious.  But anyway, the third place there had Coleman Hawkins featured, and Billy Daniels was singing intermissions, and he was being accompanied by a piano player, and it said, “Hank Jones.”  So I ran in there, and I asked if Hank Jones was around.  They said, “Yeah, he’s back there,” and I went back there, and we sat down and started to talk.  While we were talking, “Oh, there’s Dizzy Gillespie coming through the door.”  I said, “Oh yeah?  Introduce me.  I want to meet him.”  Because I had heard all his records and stuff.  So he called Dizzy, and Dizzy came over, and Hank said, “This is a good friend of mine; he’s a good bass player; he just got in town.”  Dizzy looked at me and said, “Can you play?”  I said, “Well…” I mean, what are you going to say?  Hank said, “Yeah, he can play.”  So he said, “You want a job?”  And I said, “Yeah!”  And he gave me a card and said, “Be at my house tomorrow night 7 o’clock for a rehearsal.”  I got up there, and there was four guys in there—Bud Powell, Max Roach, Dizzy and Charlie Parker.  Can’t beat that.  If you won the lottery tomorrow, it wouldn’t be as good as that.

What happened then?

Well, I had a heart attack first, and then we started to play some music.

What did the music sound like to you?  Was it along lines you were thinking about?

Like nothing I’ve ever heard before. They played tempos and keys and songs that I had never heard of, and you’re just standing there watching and trying to keep up.  Dizzy and Charlie Parker played so good, it was a frightening experience.

Dizzy Gillespie was famous for showing musicians how to play the music that he developed.  Did he do that with you at all?

He did that with all of us.  He used to show Max a lot of stuff.  They were very meticulous about what they wanted from the drums, especially Dizzy.  But if you’d ask him, then he would show you.  I know after I had been with him for about three or four weeks, I said, “How am I doing?”  He said, “Well, you’re doing pretty good, but you don’t play the right notes.” [LAUGHS] So I said, “What do you mean?”  He took me over to the piano and showed me.  He said, “Now, this note is right.”  Then he played the chord and showed me.  He said, “You play this note.  It’s right.  But that’s not the note I want.”  They were using a lot of substitutions.  So I would be playing a D, but he would want me to play a B.  I didn’t hear that at first, and then after he showed me I started finding out.

A few words about your relationship with and impressions of Charlie Parker.

Charlie Parker was unique.  I don’t have to tell anybody in their right mind how well this man played his instrument.  But what you don’t realize is, he’s the only guy I ever heard who could cover <b>everything</b>.  If you wanted to play “Cherokee” as fast as you could play it, he would eat it alive.  If you wanted to play some swing, like “Now’s The Time” or something like that, he would kill that.  If you wanted to play a ballad like Bird with Strings, he would eat that up.  And then,  he was the best blues player you ever heard!  He just covered everything.  There was nothing he couldn’t do.When you ask me for a few words about Charlie Parker, in a capsule that’s covering it pretty well.

Did he always play fairly short solos?  Was the way he plays on records or the various broadcasts with four or five choruses the rule, or did he extend…

He stretched out a few times.  But I’ll never forget what he told me.  One night somewhere we were playing, and after one of the sets I walked up to him and I said, “Bird, it feels so good when you play, why don’t you play more?”  And he looked at me and he said, “Raymond, if I played any more, I’d be practicing.  I do my practicing at home.”

A few words about Dizzy Gillespie.

Wow, that’s difficult.  I don’t know where to begin.  He was responsible for a lot of things that happened to me.  And he taught me a lot of things.  This is something that we as musicians don’t talk a lot about to people, but we learn many things from our mentors or people who we work for or who we admire or who are in front of us.  You don’t even realize how much you’ve learned from them.  You carry it with you all your life, and then you pass it along.  I just learned a tremendous amount of things from Dizzy Gillespie. Needless to say, he was a magnificent trumpet player, and he was a prolific songwriter, and he was a prolific arranger.  But I just keep going back to his knowledge of music.  Because in that band, which was a fantastic band that I just talked about… In fact, they picked up Milt Jackson a couple of weeks later.  Dizzy organized all the music.  He laid all the music down.  What can I say?  It’s history!

Were you in there at the very beginning of the big band?

He had a big band before, but it didn’t go, and he had to give it up.  I joined him when he had given up the big band and was getting ready to start another small band.  That’s when I showed up.  Then when we came back from California, he told Milt Jackson and I, “Listen, I’m thinking of getting another big band, and if you guys want to stay with me, you let me know.”  So we both said, “Absolutely!”  Then we opened up on 52nd Street.

What were the early rehearsals like?  Is it true that Monk was involved…

Monk was the piano player in that big band before John Lewis.

Was that a similar experience to hearing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in 1944 on coming to New York?  Did it sound like anything you’d ever heard?

No, not like any big band I’d ever heard.  Very exciting.  The music, the writing, the approach was all different.  The harmonies.  The only guy who experimented with harmonies to that extent was Duke Ellington, and he was always ahead of his time.

How did your first and still famous features for the band come to be?

Well, most leaders look at a band and they see who they have there to exploit, who has some talent that they can feature.  When he looked at this band, I guess it was Jackson and I, and James Moody who enjoyed a lot of the solo space along with Dizzy.  Other guys got solos, but we got a lot of space.

It was a great opportunity to really develop your conception in a variety of ways.

Yeah, but all these things are designated by the leader.  It’s like Jimmy Blanton joins Duke Ellington, and six months later he’s standing in front of the band playing solos all night. So Duke Ellington saw something and he was right.  He was absolutely right!  Here’s a guy who had under his thumb at any given time, Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster and Harry Carney and Ray Nance and Cootie Williams—all those guys!  But this was a diamond he had just discovered, and he did something with it.

In talking about Blanton before you were mentioning the difficulties bassists had in big bands because of the lack of amplification.  Now, you had to play very fast with Dizzy Gillespie.  Did you have amplification by that time?  How did you deal with…

Well, I didn’t play fast solos.  We were just playing fast tempos.

CHRISTIAN McBRIDE:  “Things To Come”! [LAUGHS]

When I was talking about playing fast I was talking about the way Christian McBride plays now.  20-30-40 years ago you wouldn’t have heard all those notes he’s playing.  Now you can hear every one of them.

But then, from what I gather, people heard you pretty clearly, and those are some tempos that haven’t been caught up with yet!

We’re not discussing tempos, now.  We’re discussing solo lines.  That’s a big difference.  Nobody dared play anything that fast because you couldn’t hear it.  Oscar Pettiford played some magnificent solos, and you didn’t really get to hear him until he joined Duke Ellington.

I’d like to talk you about Coleman Hawkins and your impressions of him.  I read a story that you and Hank Jones were trying to work out ways to trick him…

[LOUD LAUGH]

…on “Body and Soul” or something, and he just threw them right back at you.

That’s what I was talking about with all of the great saxophone players, how they differed.  For instance, let’s take Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.  We were on Jazz at the Philharmonic, and Coleman Hawkins was playing “Body and Soul,” which he had to play whenever he took his saxophone out.  Hank Jones and I rehearsed in the daytime, we devised about 15 different sets of changes on “Body and Soul.”  And it didn’t make any difference.  Whatever we played, he just ate it up!  He just turned around, looked at us and said, “Hmm, THBBF,” and would go right through it.  We just broke up.  But it was good.  This guy had a magnificent ear!  On the other hand, Lester Young, you could play what you want back there.  Doesn’t matter.  He’s playing little stories.  He makes up melodies of his own, so he’s not interested in the changes.  He didn’t miss the change, but then he had his own interpretation of how to do it.

McBRIDE:   What about that story you told me about Ben Webster, when you were doing one of those Jazz at the Philharmonics.  That one wasn’t as smooth, huh?

Well, but that’s how you learn, though.  That’s why I can play songs in all the keys now.  He’s kind of responsible for that.  They had a ballad medley on Jazz at the Philharmonic, and each guy would walk up… They had ten horns.  Each guy would walk up two bars before the other guy finished and tell the rhythm section what he was going to play in what key.  So Coleman Hawkins would say, “‘Body and Soul’ in D-flat,” then he’d go out and play.  Roy Eldridge would come by and say, “‘The Man I Love,’ E-flat.”  It was just like that.  Until you get to Ben Webster, and Webster would come up and say, “‘My One And Only Love,’ B-natural.”  And we’d be back there scrambling for those changes!  So after the show was over, I would be in the back, packing up my bass, and somebody walked up behind me and hit me on my head.  I turned around and it was Ben Webster.  He said, “You messed up the chords tonight.”  I said, “Man, you were playing in B-natural.”  He said, “Don’t you have a B on that bass?”  Enough said.  Christian likes that story!

McBRIDE:  I’m sure we’ve all been through that a couple of times!

But it’s good for somebody to bring that to your attention.  All it does is, it improves you as a musician.

All those saxophonists had very different sounds and different approaches to projecting sound.  Ben Webster, for instance.

Oh yeah.  That may be the best saxophone sound I ever heard in my life, just the sound he made coming out of that horn.

You once described it, I think, as he and Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges had the most mature sounds that you had heard.

Well, Charlie Parker used to call Johnny Hodges the Lily Pons of the saxophone.  Now, Lily Pons was a famous opera singer; what a beautiful voice.  That’s what Bird called Rabbit, the Lily Pons of the saxophone.

Staying on various personalities, Hank Jones was obviously very important to you at that time.

We call him “Mr. Piano.”  There’s just not a lot of people around who are that prolific on that instrument as he is.  He plays everything well.  I mean, he’s sort of like I said about Charlie Parker; this guy just does it all.  Magnificent player.  Wouldn’t you say so, Christian?

McBRIDE:  Oh, definitely.  I’d like to ask Ray about the short movie clip of Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band, Jivin’ in Bebop?  You were saying how Duke used to put Jimmy Blanton in front of the band, and Dizzy does that to you on the video where you guys play “One Bass Hit.”

Oh yeah.  Well, they didn’t have to put me up front, but I guess if you’re featured on a tune, doing this movie the tendency was to bring the soloist up front.  It was unusual for the time, but they did it even with a bass player.

McBRIDE:  Every note you played came through crystal-clear.

Such as it was.

I’d like to talk to you about some of the drummers you’ve played with, since bass and drums are so interlocked.  First of all, Kenny Clarke, a fellow Pittsburgher.

That’s right.  I didn’t name him, but I left out a lot of people.  Kenny Clarke was a special drummer.  I never will forget, I would come to work on 52nd Street… Because he was in that first rhythm section, Monk, myself and Kenny Clarke.  He said, “Now, I want you to stand behind the bass drum, because I want your bass notes to go through the bass drum so it doesn’t come out BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.  It will sound almost like a bass coming out of there.  And he would come down early and have a damp cloth and wipe down his bass drum and tune it, and then tell me exactly where he wanted me to stand, because he said that makes the rhythm section sound better.  Most guys aren’t that meticulous about music.  He was special.  And he could swing.  That’s another thing about those Pittsburgh drummers.  Art Blakey, PSHEW!  Boy, those guys had some beat.  They had a beat, man.

<But we were talking about Hank Jones.  We did a session, and I challenged him on this… I said, “Do you ever remember a song that Fats Waller used to sing called ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’?”  He said, “Hell, yeah, I knew that tune.  I grew up with that.”  I said, “Well, let’s play it.”  And we played it on this record date.  So this is just for Hank Jones.  I hope he’s listening, because he’ll fall out.

[MUSIC: RB/HJ, “Your Feet’s Too Big” (1976); RB/HJ/Bags, “Nancy” (1964); OP/RB/Ella, “Street of Dreams”]

That was Ray Brown’s selection of music with your first wife, Ella Fitzgerald.

Well, there’s been so much since she passed away.  They’ve done so much.  I’ve heard it on the radios everywhere we’ve gone, Europe and the United States.  We’ve just lost one of the best ones.  A magnificent woman and a magnificent singer.  One of the best who ever did it.  I have great memories just for the fact that… The first trumpet player, and one of the best of all time, Mr. Louis Armstrong, he and Ella did a lot of stuff together, and I was fortunate to be on a lot of that stuff.  But I’ve been overly blessed to play with all the way back to Louis Armstrong and all the way up to guys like Christian McBride now.  And I’m just elated to still be able to go up on the bandstand and play.  It’s a great feeling!  And to have gone through all of those people I’ve played with.  All of those saxophone players, Prez and Hawk and Ben and Sonny Rollins, Johnny Hodges and Bird and Cannonball.  Sweets and Roy and Fats and Dizzy…Clark Terry.  I can’t name everybody.  All the piano players I’ve played with, all the guitar players, and all the drummers.  Just I’ve worked with almost everybody in this business, and that’s a blessing.  can’t describe it.  It’s just too overwhelming.

Just a few words on how This One’s For Blanton came to be.

Well, I made maybe half-a-dozen sessions with Ellington, whom I had always wanted to play with ever since I was knee-high to a duck.  But Norman Granz said to me, “You and Duke ought to do some things like he and Blanton did.”  I said, “Oh, I don’t know about that!”  But I said, “Well, let’s talk about it.”  He tried for years to get us together.  We were just in different places all the time.  Duke was busy and he was someplace, and I was busy someplace.  Of course, this was the last record he made before he passed, and I was fortunate enough to get in the studio with him.  The second session we did, he was pretty sick.  He had a fever. But he came in and played magnificently.

REMARKS ABOUT RAY BROWN:
Christian McBride

TP:    Talk about Ray Brown’s legacy in the music, in a synoptic way.

CHRISTIAN McBRIDE:  If I can make this as simple and poignant as possible, I would have to say that Ray Brown was to the bass what Charlie Parker was to the saxophone.  He revolutionized the instrument.  He took what Jimmy Blanton started to an entirely new level.

Ray Brown was arguably the very first bass player to revolutionize note lengths.  Most bass players before Ray Brown played very short, choppy notes, and Ray Brown revolutionized the sound of the bass in that his notes were very long.  Every note got its full value.  A quarter note was actually a quarter note.  A half note was actually a half note.  A whole note was actually a whole note.  How Ray Brown came across playing that way during a time when nobody did, it will always be beyond me, but I guess being in the company of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, and the man who I’m with now, Roy Haynes, I’m sure greatness and innovative ideas would run rampant.

TP:    When did he build his technique?  Did you ever get that from him?

McBRIDE:  Well, he always had that technique.  But I never really got a chance to talk much to him about any of his teachers or his early studies.  But Ray always talked about Jimmy Blanton.  That was his main man. That’s what made him want to play bass.  And it’s quite amazing that Ray Brown… When Jimmy Blanton hit the scene, that was really only seven years before Ray Brown hit the scene.  So there really wasn’t that large of a gap in age difference between the two of them.  That just proves how much of a sponge Ray was, to be able to pick up what Jimmy Blanton did.  And not to slight all the other bass players who were around then, like Milt Hinton, of course, or his fellow beboppers, like Al McKibbon and Nelson Boyd and Tommy Potter and Curley Russell.  But Ray, in most people’s eyes, was head and shoulders above the rest.

And his intonation was impeccable.  That was another one of his calling cards throughout his entire career.  Every note was always perfectly in tune.

TP:    I guess there was a hand-in-glove type of thing going on between he and Oscar Pettiford.

McBRIDE:  Absolutely.  Ray talked a lot about Oscar, too.  But even talking to a lot of guys who were there, like Roy Haynes or Hank Jones… Needless to say, Oscar Pettiford was a revolutionary in his own right, not just bass playing, but playing the cello and being able to play all those wonderfully melodic lines that Charlie Parker and Dizzy were playing, and incorporate that into the bass.  But his sound, the way he played his notes, still came from an older style.  Oscar Pettiford’s notes were still kind of on the short side, and Ray Brown elongated them. The bass had much more of a forward motion with the notes ringing out that much.  They almost ran into each other, his notes were so resonant.

TP:    How did his sound evolve over the years?  This is someone, it seems quite evident, who kept his curiosity, and particularly in the last ten years nurtured young musicians.

McBRIDE:  I think the fact that Ray Brown never stopped playing… I mean, even after he left Oscar Peterson’s company and moved to Los Angeles in the ’60s and started working on a lot of television and film, the “Merv Griffin Show” and whatnot, he never got away from the groove and the swing.  He played that style every day all of his life, and of course, when you do something like that every day, you can only get better and develop.  He never lost focus of his strength.  All during the time when people would think that being in Los Angeles and working on film scores and doing a lot of things that weren’t very jazz friendly, he might lose his chops.  But he never did.  I think the fact that he was able to stay so active during his time in L.A., when he really wasn’t traveling a lot, going on the road with other bands… When he decided to start a trio again and go back on the road, people realized, “Oh my gosh, he sounds better than ever.”

TP:    I’m looking my file of the interview, and he told the story that in junior high school he signed up for orchestra, and there were 28 piano players and 2 bass players, and there was a bass lying on the floor, so he asked the teacher if he could play it, and the teacher said he could.  He said he just figured it out himself without a teacher.

McBRIDE:  I totally believe it.  I never heard him mention having a private teacher. That’s testament to the man’s genius.

TP:    Talk about your personal relationship.  Of all the young musicians, you and John Clayton might have been the closest to him.

McBRIDE:  I can only say that a lot of musicians tend to call older guys “Dad” in a very loose manner.  But Ray Brown was not only a father figure to me, but I know he was to John as well as Benny Green and Diana Krall, or even people like Dee Dee Bridgewater.

One thing I loved about Ray more than anything else was that he took a very simplistic view toward life. Ray was not into over-conceptualizing.  He was always able to get right to the crux of the matter without doing a lot of dancing around any type of subject.  That’s the way he approached his music.  You watch a lot of musicians, and sometimes we have a tendency to do that, to over-think, to always want to try to get to that next level by thinking it out and a lot of trial-and-error.  Meanwhile, Ray had this ability to see it and go for it.  I’ll give you a perfect example.  Ray and I were talking about playing with the bow one time, and of course, traditionally there’s a way you hold the French bow and a way you hold the German bow.  I was talking to Ray about that one time, and Ray said, “I don’t see what the big deal is; it’s nothing but hair.”  He said, “If you hold it with your fist, you’re still going to do an up bow and a down bow, and it’s still going to sound okay.”  I said, “wow, I’ve never heard anybody quite put it like that, Ray.”

TP:    He wasn’t joking, though.

McBRIDE:  He wasn’t joking.  He was dead-serious.

TP:    So it was a totally pragmatic thing for him.

McBRIDE:  Totally.  And he lived his life like that.  He was always able to get right to the crux of the matter, and not being evil or being indignant; that’s just how he felt.  He was able to get right to the core of the matter.

TP:    He was a very standup guy also, I gather.  Someone you didn’t want to cross in any manner.

McBRIDE:  Absolutely not.  He was a very astute businessman, too.  He had that jazz club in L.A. for a long time, the Loa, and of course, he managed the MJQ for a while, and he also managed Quincy Jones for a while, when Quincy was really starting to heat up in Los Angeles, writing for Sanford and Son and Ironside and all those shows.  So this man had it together on both sides of the fence.

TP:    Would you describe for the 8-millionth time how you met?

McBRIDE:  I met Ray Brown at the Knickerbocker.  He was in town playing at the Blue Note with his trio, which at the time was Gene Harris and Jeff Hamilton.  Mary Ann Topper, who was manager to Benny Green and I at the time… I was playing in Benny’s trio at the time.  Mary Ann said, “Listen, Ray has got to hear you guys.  There’s no way in the world he wouldn’t dig you guys.”  So Benny and I were playing at the Knickerbocker, and Mary Ann got Ray to come over.  Needless to say, Benny Green and I were scared out of our wits.  I think a lot of times… I know some guys are different, but a lot of musicians, the last thing they want to do if they’ve been playing all night is go hear somebody else play.  They just kind of want to chill out, have a drink, and be cool and just vibe with the cats.  So Ray comes over, and we could tell he was tired, but he sat down and listened to us, and gave us some really nice words of wisdom, not anything too over the top, but he said, “You guys sound great; keep it up; you guys have really got it together; come see me play tomorrow night.”  So Benny and I went and saw Ray; it was his last night, a Sunday night.  Much to our surprise, he acknowledged us from the stage.  He said, “Last night I went to this club around the corner, the Knickerbocker, and I heard these two young men, and they were swingin’ like dawgs.”  I’ll never forget, those were his exact words, “swingin’ like dawgs.”  He asked us to stand up in the audience.  And about eight months later, Benny became Ray’s pianist, took Gene Harris’ place, and about four months after that, almost a year after we met, he started the new version of Super-Bass with John Clayton and myself.

TP:    What was it like playing with him?

McBRIDE:  All I can say is, I always wanted to know what a drummer felt like, playing with a really, really great bass player.  I always used to hear Billy Higgins say that when he played with Sam Jones, the drums played themselves.  He was like, “I don’t have to do anything; I can just put my stick right up on the cymbal, and it sounds good, because Sam is just laying it down.”  When I got to stand next to Ray Brown and hear him walk…I mean, feel him walk… I mean, physically the stage moved.  “Man, I’ve never felt perpetual motion like this!”  I was supposed to solo on top while he was walking, but I just couldn’t do it, because I was so amazed at the energy and force his bass lines created.  I was stuck for a minute.

TP:    What do you think Ray Brown’s legacy is going to be in the music?

McBRIDE:  That he was able to make the most simple musical statements with such ease… Like I said before, his music was like his whole outlook on life.  It was very direct and to the point, and it felt really good ,and I don’t think there will ever be another bass player that will be able to physically move a band quite like Ray Brown did.

TP:    Why is that?

McBRIDE:  I don’t know.  To kind of follow on Ray’s simplistic viewpoint, I really believe there are some guys who are just born with it and some guys who aren’t.

TP:    Are you talking about a specific quality or his essence?

McBRIDE:  I’m talking about a specific quality.  Because you would think that, the way Ray Brown plays, there would be a lot of other guys who would kind of… Because it’s a very simple style to figure out.  But nobody has really quite done it like Ray Brown.  You listen to somebody like Miles Davis.  Miles Davis has a very singular style that’s very easy to figure out, and you can analyze it for days and years and decades, but nobody will ever be able to quite do it like that.  It’s the same thing with Ray Brown.

Geoffrey Keezer

GEOFFREY KEEZER:  You’re never prepared for something like this, since he wasn’t ill, really.  It kind of took us all by surprise.

TP:    He had a sort of indestructible vibe to him, didn’t he.

KEEZER:  That’s a good way of putting it.  I think it was the quality of his generation.  Art Blakey was like that, too.

One thing that I could say that seems to be consistent from that era, whether it be Art Blakey or Ray Brown or Roy Haynes or Art Taylor or…not so much Hank Jones… Generally, they really hit hard!  Every single time they play, it’s as if it could be the last time they ever play music.  I always felt that these musicians always gave 150% every single time.  That’s a quality which I think doesn’t always migrate to younger players.  I think there’s something in the way these older people lived, there’s something that they survived early in their life that gave them this kind of warrior quality.  I think things are just generally easier.  It’s easier to live now.  We’re not dealing with the same things that they were dealing with.  We don’t have segregation, among other things…

TP:    Not so many gangsters now either.

KEEZER:  Yeah.  I remember one conversation, I don’t remember where, but I was in a dressing room with three generations of bass players.  It was Milt Hinton, Ray and Christian McBride.  The conversation went something like this.  McBride was complaining about the hotel or something that we were staying in, and then Ray said something to the effect that when he was young they stayed in real fleabag hotels, with bugs in the bed, just really bad conditions.  Then Milt Hinton jumped in and said, “Yeah, at least you had a hotel.  When we were young, we stayed in a hole!”

TP:    They’d go to town and black families would board them because there was no hotel.

KEEZER:  Yeah.  Not having lived it myself, I can only speculate.  But I think perhaps life was harder, and I think the music took on this sort of warrior quality.  From being with Ray for three years, besides all the musical things I got, I also was able to observe him on a daily basis, just how he handled the business side of things.  In contrast to someone like Art Blakey, who was a little bit more chaotic, Ray was really meticulous about business.  He would be up at 6 o’clock every morning on the phone; he would call Europe early in the morning; then he would go play golf; then he would be on the phone more in the afternoon. He never had an agent or a manager; he always did everything himself.

TP:    Well, he was a manager himself.  He managed Quincy Jones and the MJQ, plus he functioned as a contractor for the studios.  And did that carry over to the way he organized the band, his approach to setting up sets or repertoire?

KEEZER:  There was definitely a quality of attention that he brought to whatever he did.  In terms of what he did on stage, Ray was aware of the show-biz side of things, and he was definitely an entertainer as well as a great artist.  I think actually some young musicians take the whole thing way too seriously!  Of course, you have to take your practice seriously and take the music seriously, but I’ve always felt that it’s also entertainment, and he really understood that side of it.

TP:    I think that might be another characteristic of the generation.  They played shows.  They’d go on a show, and there’d be a dance act, a chorus line, some comedians.

KEEZER:  So he was always sensitive to the kind of audience we were playing for, and he would adjust accordingly.  If we were playing for an older, gray-haired kind of crowd, he would usually play more kinds of old standards, favorites, swing-oriented things, and if we were playing for a younger crowd he would throw in more Funk.  Especially in my last year in the band, we had a lot of guest stars.  We would have guest vocalists, somebody like Marlena Shaw or Diana Krall or Kevin Mahogany, or sometimes Stanley Turrentine would play with us.  So he was aware of the value of presenting interesting packages.

TP:    That’s evident on the “Some of My Best Friends” series.

KEEZER:  He was just as adept as a businessman as he was as a musician.  Which I think is a good quality to have.  And for him, I think it was in balance.  For some musicians, they’re all about business, and the playing suffers.  The reverse is also true.

TP:    Let’s talk about him as a bassist.  Talk about the quality of playing with him on a nightly basis, how he played and created basslines under you.  The dynamics of operating in a high-level trio with Ray Brown.

KEEZER:  I’m so glad that I had a chance to tell him this the last time I saw him, which was at Catalina’s in L.A. about a month ago.  With some distance and really being able to hear his trio from the audience as opposed to being in the middle of it, because sometimes when you’re in the middle of it, it’s harder to hear everything that’s going on, because you’re so sort of involved in what you’re doing at the moment… But hearing his new trio and how much Larry Fuller had improved in the couple of years he was with Ray… He went from being a good pianist when he started to being a really exceptional pianist.  I had a chance to tell Ray how much I appreciated playing with him every night for three years, and how I thought it was really the best thing I ever did for my piano playing.

TP:    Why was that?

KEEZER:  Number one, just because we’re playing every night.  Number two, because what Ray brought was such a wonderful kind of support.  For me, Ray embodied every quality that I like in a bass player.  He did everything really perfectly, and he did all the things that you can’t really say to a bass player, but all the things that you just wish they would do! It’s almost like with another bassist, you want to say, “Why can’t you do what Ray does?” but you don’t want to say that.  I’m trying to think if I can explain a little bit more clearly.

First of all, his beat was so huge, and he swung really, really hard.  Also harmonically speaking, he was so completely aware in every moment of what I was doing, and I felt that he was truly accompanying me. Even though he was the leader and it was his band, I felt like I had complete freedom to go whatever direction I wanted.  If you heard some of the records we made, you know I took it further out than any other pianist.  I only remember one time when he sort of said something about what I was playing. I started playing the Darth Vader theme in the middle of something, and he leaned over and said, “Jazz, please!” But other than that, I got to do as much as I possibly could, and he was right there with me.

TP:    [READS RAY’S QUOTE ON KEEZER]

KEEZER:  What I appreciated is that he let it happen.  There’s another thing about his bass playing which I always talk about in workshops.  That’s his understanding of how to play a walking bassline.  Very few people really understand this.  What he was doing at all times was playing melodies.  And a lot of younger bass players play four notes to the bar, and the notes they choose usually relate to the chords in some way, but the actual notes don’t connect up to any kind of melody.  And with Ray, if you isolated just the bassline and superimposed it over the chords, let’s say in a higher register, you’d have a beautiful melody all the time.  This is similar to what Bach does.  But what that means is that not only was he aware of the chords and being a rhythmic instrument, but he was also creating these melodies all the time underneath everything that I was doing — contrapuntal, in a way.  It’s really an advanced level of bass playing.  There’s only a couple of guys I can think of off the top of my head who can do that — Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Ray Drummond, and a handful of younger players.  It’s a very subtle aspect of playing bass, which hasn’t really migrated well to the younger generation. TP:    Can you talk about how your relationship began and evolved?

John Clayton

JOHN CLAYTON:  When I was 16 years old, I was getting serious about the bass, and started my first Classical lessons.  Also around that time, I heard my first Ray Brown record, with the Oscar Peterson Trio, and my mind was blown.  So I mentioned the name to my Classical teacher, and asked, “Have you ever heard of him?”  He said, “Sure, I know him; he’s a friend of mine.”  My eyes got wide.  Then he took out a letter from Ray Brown that said, “Dear Mr. Segal, would you please tell your students about a class I’ll be teaching at UCLA called ‘Workshop in Jazz Bass’?”  That was my last Classical lesson with that guy.  I paid $65, and I enrolled in the extension course at UCLA.

TP:    What was Ray Brown like as a teacher?

CLAYTON:  Phenomenal, because he knew the importance of correctly learning the instrument.  In the beginning, Ray Brown was self-taught, as are most of us.  But then at some point, Ray Brown, while on the road with Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson and those kinds of people, started to hook up with principal bass players in major orchestras, and he had lessons in between his gigs on the road.

TP:    So he set up a network of teachers for himself, taking advantage of his travels?

CLAYTON:  Yes.  And he did that really, frankly, in terms of studying and practicing…he did that until he died. He practiced.  Ray used to tell me, “A lot of people say, ‘Boy, you’re just so talented and so good,” and he’d say… He’d usually use an expletive and say, “They don’t understand I PRACTICED to get together what I have together.  I’m not as talented as most people think.  I had to WORK on it.”  That was very enlightening.

The course at UCLA then led to me following him around to gigs and studio sessions and all of that sort of thing, basically doing whatever he told me to do.

TP:    Once getting past fundamentals, did he teach principles of improvising or playing basslines in a functional situation, that sort of thing?

CLAYTON:  He only led me to other people, not himself; how other people would do it.  He never talked about, “Try this scale on this chord” or that sort of thing.  He never had that approach.  Instead he would say, “Check out what Oscar Pettiford did on this record or what Israel Crosby did with this bassline from Ahmad Jamal.”  He’s the guy who turned me on to Eddie Davis, Richard Davis and Scott LaFaro.

TP:    It seems he kept his ears open to everything happening in the music.

CLAYTON:  As long as you were serious about the music and you were doing something that had something, Ray… People forget that Ray Brown played music that people thought came from outer space — Bebop.  And when bebop hit, there were more people who could not relate to it — I mean, jazz lovers who could not relate to it — than people who could.  So it was a very inside music.  That hasn’t changed.  That was a part of Ray Brown that was in him all the time.  If anyone ever does a thesis on Ray Brown and his music, they’ll see that he continued to search and stretch and experiment.  His later arrangements involved a lot more unpredictable chord voicings and chord changes and melodic movement than things he did five and ten years ago.

TP:    As a friend and someone who deeply analyzed his playing, what were the essential elements that made Ray Brown be Ray Brown?

CLAYTON:  Sound.  His bass sound was absolutely separate and distinguishable from every other bass player on earth.  Sound, his bass lines and his melodic bass solos.  And of course, oops, his drive.  Those things to me really set him apart from everybody else.

TP:    As you’ve implied, he befriended musicians from many walks of the music and many different generations.  But it seems like after the band with Gene Harris and Jeff Hamilton broke up, he made a real choice to go with younger musicians and use them in his touring bands.  Maybe that was in part a practical decision, but what’s your take on why he did that?

CLAYTON:  Because he wanted to keep the youth in his music.  The only practical part of it might be that some of the older musicians that he would ask were busy with their own groups. But also, like you pointed out earlier, he had his ear to the ground, so he was really digging what a lot of these younger musicians were doing.  So it sort of also evolved on its own.  It goes from Benny Green joining the group, and when Jeff Hamilton finally leaves, then Benny can recommend another one of his friends that plays swinging drums, and next thing you know, you’ve got Greg Hutchinson.  All of those guys helped keep Ray up on what was happening in the younger jazz world.

TP:    So they stimulated him.  He needed that constant stimulation.

CLAYTON:  Well, they did stimulate him.  I think all artists need that.

TP:    It sounds like he got some of that as well from Super Bass.

CLAYTON:  That was sure stimulating for me.  Ray and I had actually done a Super Bass record together before he put the group together with Christian.  It’s on Capri Records.  That, of course, kind of set the idea going in our heads.  And when Christian McBride came along, then at some point Ray asked what I thought about putting together a Super Bass group with Christian.  I said, “Are you kidding?  When can we start?”  Of course, we all got along so well together, it really became a family trio.

TP:    Were there any particular stories or incidents that you can think of that get to his essence?

CLAYTON:  There’s one which I told at his funeral, in my eulogy, which really sums up Ray Brown from my perspective.  This is in regard to his concern for musicians.  When I was following him around to the studios, I got star eyes.  I just loved what he did in studios, and was enamored by this whole life of the studio musician, working with all these stars, and I’d see his name stencilled on his equipment, and it all looked so impressive.  So I asked him if he could help me become a studio musician when I got out of college, and he hit the ceiling!  He cursed and screamed, and told me I didn’t even know how to play the effing bass, and the first thing I needed to do was learn how to play it from top to bottom, and then get on the road and play some music, and then if I want to come back and play this garbage in the studios, it will be here waiting for me.  He and I laughed about that a lot in later years, because he was really pissed at the idea that I might get sucked into something that was not helping me to develop as a musician.

TP:    He was also a very practical man, wasn’t he?  A good businessman, a manager, an entrepreneur.

CLAYTON:  I know that for the last twenty years of his life, he did not have a manager.  He handled all of his business, he booked all of his concerts; if it was Carnegie Hall or a funky dive someplace, he booked it.

TP:    And he handled all the details.

CLAYTON:  He did.

TP:    I gather his routine was to get up at 6-6:30 every morning, do business, play golf, come back, do more business, practice, take his nap, and if there was a gig, go to the gig.

CLAYTON:  That pretty much was it.

TP:    A very disciplined man, then.

CLAYTON:  He was.  It wasn’t always 6, but it was early in the morning.  You’re right.

Ron Carter

TP:    When did you first hear him, and what impact did it make on you when you did hear him?

RON CARTER:  The first time I saw him was with the Oscar Peterson Trio with Herb Ellis at the Village Vanguard, right I came to New York in August 1959. Oscar brought his piano in, of course, and that was quite impressive to know a guy could get a gig and bring his own piano.  Up to that point, I hadn’t known piano players to have the command to do that.

What I hope his legacy is, Ted, is that bass players remember that the bass player also plays time.  I think most of us kind of got away from that part of the process of playing bass with a group.  One of his legacies to the bass community is how great his time was and how he always commanded attention by the way he played great time.

But what impressed me at the Vanguard, THEN, was his professional approach to the instrument.  I’d seen Wyatt Ruether, Bull Ruether, one of the early bass players who was with Chico Hamilton when I joined the band.  He played the bass without a lot of skill level, and while he had the interest, it just didn’t seem to have the command of the instrument that Ray had.  Later on, I saw George Duvivier play in New York with Lena Horne and Chico Hamilton, and again, I was impressed by their professional approach to the instrument.  I mean, they were playing it like a bass, not like a baseball bat.  They used a different combination of notes and great intonation.  Those things impressed me with Ray when I first heard him.

TP:    Did you become friends with him?

CARTER:  Much later.  I’m fortunate to say that I saw him when he was last in New York at Birdland with the flute-led quartet.  He and I and Sandy Jackson had a great talk.  I hadn’t seen him for a while.  The last time I’d seen him was at the Blue Note, and he was just thinking about undergoing some knee surgery or hip surgery.  He looked in great shape.  We had a nice conversation.

TP:    But did you ever at any point analyze his playing, or wasn’t it like that.

CARTER:  No.  When you kind of have your own track in your head, the most you can do is just appreciate people who have found their own track.  He was clearly out of the Jimmy Blanton school, but he had his own sense of where to play the time.  There was no question he thought that the time belonged right here.  He wasn’t afraid to play where he thought the beat was, and he would play it until everyone agreed with it.  He just kind of towered over the rhythm section.

TP:    And it seemed he got stronger and stronger up to the end of his life.

CARTER:  Yeah.  I was as stunned as anyone else to know that he passed away, whatever the circumstances, because he seemed so vital and he sounded great that night I heard him at Birdland.

One doesn’t know when their last chance to play the bass is going to be.  I’ve been telling my students for a very long time that you’ve got to play the bass like this is your last change to get it right.  And he always brought that kind of energy to the instrument.  He never fooled around, never spun the bass, he never told jokes.  He just played the bass like it was his last chance to do it, and he was going to appreciate the Creator’s intent for him and he was going to do it.  That’s that whole mindset that’s escaped some of the bass players, I think, who see the bass as a tool for something other than creating a good level of music within a group.  That wasn’t his mentality.

TP:    So your main point would be that his impact on the way bass players play grooves and play in time.

CARTER:  Absolutely.  He made it that way.  There’s a record, “For Musicians Only” with Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Herb Ellis, Ray and Stan Levey.  It’s a fabulous record of how to play time.  This was 1956 or something like that.  He just nails it in place, man!  What a perfect example of how a bass player who wants to really oversee the rhythm section, making things Stan plays… Perfect example, man.

Herb Ellis’ Written Statement and Remarks

“Ray never met a stranger.  He was the friendliest and warmest-hearted man I ever knew, always willing to help any musician, giving lessons and tips for playing not just the bass, but he was able to help anyone become a better player.

His sense of humor is almost as well known as his unbelievable talent.  That he was one of the greatest bassists and innovative leaders is a given, changing the role of the bass into more than just a rhythm instrument.  His love of music, life, friends — and, of course, golf — are legendary.

I feel so blessed that he was my friend for over fifty years, and that I got to play with him for so many years.

He is missed now, and will always be missed for all who knew and loved him, and will always be in our hearts.

TP:    Do you recollect when you first met?

HERB ELLIS:  I first met Ray in Boston when I was playing with a group called the Soft Winds.

TP:    Did that coincide with your hearing him for the first time in person?

ELLIS:  Yes, it did.

TP:    What was your impression?

ELLIS:  I was just blown away.  I couldn’t believe his talent.  And fortunately, I got to play with him much of my musical life.

TP:    In the Oscar Peterson group, within that trio format, do you recall his role in putting together the voicings and arrangements in the group?

ELLIS:  I’ll say that he was the very best.  You could take the bass notes he gave you and take them anywhere in the world.  He was the epitome of bass players.

TP:    John Clayton mentioned to me that when he was on the road, either with Oscar Peterson or the JATP, in different cities he would take lessons with symphonic bass players.  Do you remember that?

ELLIS:  Yes, I do.  And Ray was always willing to give lessons, which was …(?)… to work at being a better bass player.

TP:    Do you feel that he evolved very much as a musician during his career as he got older?

ELLIS:  Yes, he did.  He became better and better.  He was getting better right up to the very end of his life.  He always was trying to be a better bass player.  Not that he needed to, but that’s what he strove for.

Monty Alexander

TP:    When did your association with Ray Brown begin?

MONTY ALEXANDER:  It began around 1966 or 1967.  I saw him on several occasions, and he saw me as a tiny kid who just wanted to get to know him better.  He didn’t hear me play music or anything; I just phoned him and started hanging out with him, and he welcomed me into his social life, and he came to New York, and I remember we met, and I took him to a club with mutual friends of ours, and I was talking about Wynton Kelly and Sam Jones, and I took him to see them play at a little bar.  I saw the camaraderie between them, and we hung out and had a lot of laughs. Then I took him to see Coleman Hawkins down at the Half Note, and he saw his old friends… So he liked it, and I ended up being in his company.

Then I saw him in Los Angeles a few months later, when he was doing the “Joey Bishop Show,” which became later the “Merv Griffin Show.”  I went to say hello, and he invited me to hang out with him again.

But the real association happened one evening when I went to where he was playing.  They were on an intermission, and when the time came to play a tune, just to sign off for the night… Because they weren’t really listening to the music; it was a sort of Hollywood club.  The pianist had one drink too many (I won’t call his name), and I said, “Can I sit in?”  Ray said, “Yeah.”  We started playing.  And in a few bars, I could hear his joyful sound, and mine too.  It was the beginning of knowing Ray Brown in music.  We just played some blues.  Then I got off the bandstand, and he asked me if I could join him in (?) that summer, just like that.  This was 1968.

TP:    When was the last time you played with him?

ALEXANDER:  We made what probably was his last recording.  He and I and Russell Malone have a release coming in October on Telarc.  We were all very happy to be together.  We had toured Europe last year, then we made this album, just the trio, and had all these dates in October and November, and next year we were going to tour Europe.  We were just happy to be together, and everybody loved the band — and we loved the band.

TP:    And you played with him with varying degrees of frequency and consistency between 1969 and early this year, then, on various gigs and recordings.

ALEXANDER:  With varying degrees of consistency is a great way to put it.  Because for a while, there was a lot of activity, and then I just went off doing what I do, and he started touring more and playing with Gene Harris and a trio.  He would have a trio.  Before that, Herb Ellis and I and Ray played in a group that everybody called The Triple Threat.  We made about five CDs for Concord.  We were playing and having a good thing.

TP:    Over the 34 years of knowing him well, did you hear him evolve as a musician?  Did Ray Brown in 1968 sound different than Ray Brown in 2002?  I assume the answer would be yes, but I wonder what the quality of his evolution would be.

ALEXANDER:  Ray Brown was like Art Tatum.  I’ll tell you why.  The first time you hear Art Tatum play, it was so incredible… I mean, his first recordings, whatever he did, to many us that heard it, it was as incredible in his latter days as in the beginning.  So it was already beyond words.  And Ray Brown was that.  Ray Brown was a continuous circle of beyond normal.  There was nothing on the planet… And I’m not just saying it out of emotion and sentiment.  In my opinion, what he stood for, just when he laid that rhythm down, it was like… I used to conjure up terms to try to explain how it was, and it was a Mack Truck with a Rolls-Royce engine.  That’s what it was.  I mean, that’s just my little parlance.

To me, the last times I played with him, every time from the beginning there was that sense of excitement that I would get, that I’m playing with this guy who is like a royal duke.  He’s a king.  He’s not a normal level of bass player.  He had something in him that was brilliant, just brilliant.

TP:    It seems he would play exactly in the right manner for any situation, and always make his personality shine, and yet never make himself outshine the situation.

ALEXANDER:  He was the greatest support player, and yet he was so strong with what he did, and you knew it was him.  He wasn’t about to be just a nameless character in the background, just doing the pedestrian work.  He was definitely so unique, that sound he got just from those fingers on the strings and what he heard.  A musician plays what he hears, and Ray heard this thing.  It was just a fat, beautiful tone.  I think as the years went by, it wasn’t so much an evolution; it was just a matter of, as you age, you don’t want to pull the strings as hard — so maybe he lowered the strings a little on the fingerboard.  Maybe.  But I couldn’t prove it.  I was always astounded.

TP:    Why do you think he went to younger bands in the last 10-12 years of his life?

ALEXANDER:  Well, the old guys were fading away also.  Whether or not he used young guys is not the point.  The point is that there weren’t that many older men that he would lock in with that would have the enthusiasm or spirit or the spirit of swinging that he was all about.

TP:    So it was because of his own exceptional energy that he wanted someone to match that and sustain it.

ALEXANDER:  Exactly.  And you have a better shot when you get a young, growing, fine musician who is also so desirous of matching his strength.  Which, by the way, was still leaps and bounds in terms of endurance.  Because whenever I saw him playing with anybody, it was like they were trying to keep up with him.

TP:    As someone who started off as a student and evolved into a peer, what would you say were the greatest lessons he imparted to you that impacted what you do as a musician?

ALEXANDER:  Well, I was never a student.  When I got on the bandstand with him, I felt like I was right there shoulder to shoulder.  That was my attitude in music from the beginning.  I was just so stubborn and ignorant!  I would say in many ways his mentoring to me was more about life and attitude than how you play.  Because he sensed in me from the beginning that I understood why and what he was, and I would play… When I played with him…  And I think Benny and Jeff would say the same thing.  We didn’t play with him; we played for him.  It was like we played together.  At least, that’s what I saw and heard.

TP:    So his lessons to you were life lessons.

ALEXANDER:  Yes.

TP:    Comportment and sustaining yourself within this big sharkpit.

ALEXANDER:  You said it well.  It was about fortitude and straight-ahead, and no matter what, don’t stop.  It’s like the way he played.  In other words, if the stuff is falling apart, keep on rockin’!  That’s what he did.  You hear that bass, from the first time you heard it, you knew it was this exceptional thing.  He told me, “Man, I got tired of playing out behind all them horn players at Jazz at the Philharmonic.”  The horn players would take 50 choruses apiece, no matter who they were.  Enough was enough.  And as he got older, he didn’t want to do that any more.

TP:    I’m sure that kind of pretty formulaic for him after a while.  But it would seem like no matter how formulaic the situation, he would never sound…

ALEXANDER:  The point is, no matter what he had to put up with, if he had to put up with it, it would never sound like there was any kind of backing-up.  He never backed up a thing.

To me, whatever note Ray played was like the first and the last note of his life.  He played like his life depended on that note.

I can’t get over the fact that man isn’t alive.  Because he was larger than life.  Most of us couldn’t consider the fact that the day could come he wouldn’t be alive!  This is emotional and personal.  He was almost like an uncle, a father, a big brother.  But he was so larger-than-life that it’s like… He was a survivor, and he… With all the new technology… Ray didn’t have a cell phone.  I mean, he finally got one, but he didn’t use it.  He didn’t do email, he didn’t do all this stuff.  But yet, he was so busy.  Larger than life, man.

Benny Green

BENNY GREEN:  If it’s all right with you, since you edit things down, I’m going to err on the side of giving you too much information.

The first time I heard Ray in person was 1978. It was also my first time hearing Oscar Peterson in person.  The band was a trio of Oscar, Ray Brown and Louis Bellson at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, California. It was 15 or 16, and it was the first time as a child, basically, that I had been moved to laugh out loud and cry tears all in one sitting through the music itself, through the depth of emotion that was being conveyed. That was a lot for me as a kid to be feeling, and that was the level that these gentleman were communicating on.  I was overwhelmed with this sense of heritage, which also was a big concept for a young person to be able to understand.  But that’s again how clearly and powerfully they conveyed their lives through the music. Ray had his bass turned up quite audibly, and you could just feel the vibrations from Ray’s bass throughout the seating area of this amphitheater.  It just resonated.  He was speaking the truth, his truth, playing the music he had devoted his life to.

TP:    So you fell in love with his sound right then.

GREEN:  His sound and his feel.  His time was like…I know of no better way to describe it than to say it was akin to a heartbeat, something that organically resonates within the listener as a human being.  Oscar was playing all that piano, and yet Ray was just at the bottom of everything, holding everything together and directing traffic, and doing so with such consummate grace.  It was really apparent to me as a young person that I was witnessing mastery and just the greatness of the music.  Now that Ray has passed, I understand more clearly that that beat and sound I felt and heard is, in fact, a direct connection to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and all of the real pillars of the music who he actually played great music with.  Not just made casual record dates with, but he was obviously personally involved with these people, the way I can say I was involved with him and Art Blakey.  He had countless just geniuses in his life who were very proud to get to play with him.  They weren’t doing him any favors.  He is the music.  He isn’t just someone who plays it well.  He is the real thing.  Anyway, I was able to feel that as a kid who hadn’t really lived too much, and that’s how effective the music was.

Moving a few years forward: The first time I got to speak with Ray Brown, I’m pretty sure the year was 1984.  I was working with Betty Carter.  I must have been 20-21.  We were playing a festival in Canada — Edmonton, Alberta.  We finished our concert that evening with Betty, and I went to another venue at the festival where Ray had the quartet — I suppose it was co-led — with Milt Jackson, Cedar Walton and Mickey Roker.  They played this version of “Misty,” and it was so beautiful.  Again, it was the same thing I experienced, where Ray’s bass notes were at the bottom of everything, just affirming this sort of truthfulness, this authenticity to the song.  He was really portraying the essence of Erroll Garner’s song.

I was so moved that I finally got up the nerve, as shy I was, to actually speak to Ray, and after they finished their set, I went up to this icon, who even physically was like towering over me, I was so small a guy in those days.  I mustered up all my courage, introduced myself, and I asked him if it would be all right to put a musical query to him.  He said, “Sure.”  I asked him, “What were the changes you were playing in the fifth and sixth bar of the bridge of ‘Misty?'” Ray leaned down, got right up in my face, like almost nose to nose (man, I was petrified), and he stared me down and he said, “The right changes.”  I said, “Okay, thank you,” and sort of backed away.  Thereafter, I would go see Ray in the next few years with Gene Harris and Mickey Roker, but I was terrified to speak to him.  He really dropped something on me when he said those three words, because he completely demystified his whole image to me by saying that. It wasn’t like some magical secret that he held.  He was saying to me, “If you want to know what changes I’m playing, go pick up one of a hundred albums where I’ve recorded that song, and learn it!” — just like he did with Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford and Slam Stewart.  “Just learn the music.  It’s there for you.”  He gave me that message with those three words.  It’s not about trying to read his mind or figure out this mystic, intangible thing.  It’s like the information is there on the records.

TP:    He himself had started off as a pianist, and was a huge fan of Tatum.  Wynton told me that he sent him the Tatum complete solos, and told Wynton to study the harmonic language.  Wynton said, “I did.”

GREEN:  He knew Tatum and he told me a few stories about Tatum that I can tell you if you have time.

TP:    I remember not long after you joined him, we were on the radio, and you made a comment I thought was very telling.  You were very much into Gene Harris and the Three Sounds, and your trio with Christian was very much influenced by that.  So here you are replacing Gene Harris, and then I think you said it that Ray Brown was hearing you be a little too respectful, maybe, to the Gene Harris sound, and said, “I didn’t hire you to play like that; I hired you to play like yourself.”

GREEN:  True.  Which is the exact same thing Betty Carter told me about John Hicks.  These great bandleaders have some things in common. As well as having their own unique facets, these people are really about the music, and it’s clearer than ever when they pass on and you look at their legacy.  You say, “This is what they were devoted to.”  Once the smoke clears and you have a little hindsight, you realize they did everything within their powers to perpetuate their music and pass it on to the next generation, and recruit anyone who ever heard them play to become lovers of this African-American art form.  That’s what their life was devoted to.  And part of that whole legacy is finding that natural, honest balance between embracing the heritage and all your influences and bringing something to the plate that’s your own at the same time.  Otherwise, you’re not really contributing to the music.

TP:    Perhaps you could tell the story I related back to you in your own words.

GREEN:  The thing is, Ray and Oscar Peterson have a musical language, and they’re like brothers.  Oscar’s whole approach to the piano is so largely inspired by Art Tatum and Nat Cole and Hank Jones in particular, and he would say the same… In fact, Oscar told me that every time he sits down to play, he endeavors to pay homage to those three, if at all possible.  Ray Brown clearly comes out of Jimmy Blanton, Slam Stewart and Oscar Pettiford, and these people are proud to embrace their influence every time they play, and yet, when you hear Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson play, you know it’s Ray Brown and you know it’s Oscar Peterson.  Nothing about it feels derivative.  It’s not one or the other.  It’s both.  You hear the influence, and yet they are just clearly their own men.  That’s where it’s at.  They’re teaching by example when they play.

So in getting back to what Ray stressed to me:  The influence from Gene Harris was an honest one.  His music felt good to me.  That’s why I’d been soaking up those Three Sounds records and attempting to absorb what he was doing with Ray’s trio.  That sort of aligned me with the privileged position of actually getting to play with Ray, because I was honestly pursuing this path that Ray was about.  Ray had a certain approach to music and to his trio, where pianists like Hank Jones, Oscar Peterson, Monty Alexander and Gene Harris were just part of a language, a palette that he heard when he put together a trio arrangement.  These were musical personalities that became part of the fabric of Ray’s trio sound.  So it was natural for me to be pursuing this music, which was infectious to me, which felt good to me, and it also put me in a musical position where, when Ray heard me, he understood beyond any words that I was a young person who was eager to be a part of that heritage.  I wasn’t listening to Gene Harris so I could cop the gig.  I was doing it because I loved the music.  Thankfully, that resonated with Ray.  So he heard Christian and I play…

TP:    The story Christian told me is he was at the Blue Note that week, you guys were at the Knickerbocker, Mary Ann Topper said, “You’ve got to come hear them,” and maybe on the Saturday night he came over and heard you, invited you to the Blue Note the next night, and then called your name from the bandstand.

GREEN:  That’s exactly right.  Shortly thereafter, Christian and I were playing with a group that opened up for Ray’s trio in Japan.  As soon as we finished our set, Ray grabbed me backstage to say, “Would you be available to record?”  Obviously, without batting an eye, I said, “I would love to, Mr. Brown.”  So he said, “Give  me your information, and I’ll be in touch.”  So I wrote down my number, and he called shortly thereafter and invited me to fly to L.A. to record a record date with James Morrison, himself and Jeff Hamilton.  That was my first opportunity to play with Ray.

The first thing I remember noticing about the feeling, once I connected with Ray musically, was, one, how easy and buoyant he made the music feel.  To me that’s always a measure of musical maturity.  Because anyone can be difficult to play with.  An absolute beginner can be hard to play with.  But to really manifest the attitude of “What can I do to make you feel more comfortable; how can I lead you down this garden path?”, that takes not only experience and seasoning, but also just a certain attitude, a certain willingness to help and support.  The other thing I noticed was that this man takes a lot of chances when he plays, and he always lands on his feet.  He always lands on one, on the perfect note to ground what’s happening in the ensemble.  But he wasn’t just playing some sort of stock bassline. He was all over that bass, and filling and doing all sorts of rhythmic and melodic things, and would always land, BAM, right on ground one to support everything else that was going on.

TP:    So he was fearless.

GREEN:  Oh, most definitely!  He really, really went for it.  He went for the jugular every time.  He played with such passion.  There was more than just testosterone behind his confidence.  It was the fact that he knew, through this life devoted to music, that the music was his.  It wasn’t something he was trying to get towards.  He owned the legacy that had been given to him by all his forefathers, and he wasn’t afraid to stand tall and say that “Jimmy Blanton and Slam Stewart and Oscar Pettiford have left us, and I’ll never be quite like they were.”  He was like, “Okay, I am the bass now.”

TP:    So it was a fresh experience every night, being on the road with him, no matter how similar the repertoire.

GREEN:  Oh, in so many ways.  When we finished that record date, he told me the trio was going to be going to Australia soon for a lengthy tour, and that Gene Harris wasn’t going to be able to make the first two or three weeks, and asked me if I’d be interested in playing.  I said, “Are you kidding?  There’s nothing I’d be more grateful to do.”  He said, “Okay, what I’d like you to do, then, is pick up some of our CDs, and why don’t you learn about 10 or 12 of our tunes.  I’m not even going to tell you which ones to learn.  Just learn the ones you’re most comfortable with, and that will give us something to play.” At that point, I wanted to show Ray more than tell him how much I wanted to play with him.  I already owned all the CDs, but for the next few months before that tour came up, all I did was woodshed that music, just sleep with it, practice to it… [END OF SIDE]

When we got together to rehearse in Australia for the first gig of that tour, I told Ray that I knew all the tunes in his book, and we could rehearse and play anything he wanted.  So he proceeded to call tunes, and I knew them all.  He didn’t say a word, but just kept going through tune after tune after tune.  He said, “Okay, we can take a break now,” and he stepped outside to get some air.  Later on that day, Jeff Hamilton told me that while they had stepped outside, Ray turned to Jeff and said, “I can’t believe he learned all of that music.”  But to me, he didn’t say a word.  He was just scoping me out.

When we finished that tour, I said to Ray, “Listen, I know that you have a band right now, but if you ever are at a point where there’s going to be personnel changes, I want you to know that I would be so grateful to get a chance to play with you again.”  “All right, I’ll be in touch.” And thankfully, he called me a few weeks later from Australia, to say that Gene was going to be leaving the band soon, and asked me if I wanted to join the trio.  I was so excited.  So I began playing with him in the early spring of ’92.

One of the first things I noticed about Ray as a professional is that he was always punctual.  When there was a lobby call, he would always be downstairs, clean, a few minutes before the time we were actually expected to meet.  And to be honest with you, at that point I had a habit of being 10 to 15 minutes late all the time, and thought that was okay.  I didn’t understand at that time that when you do that, you’re not even being part of the band.  You’re just being a single agent.  It’s incredibly selfish, and it ultimately does enter the whole vibe on the bandstand when you do that.  Eventually, after the few gigs, I noticed that every time I came downstairs, even if I was only 5 minutes late, instead of 10 or 15, Ray was always down there.  So one day I said to him, “I see you’re not of the mindset that the bandleader can afford to be the last one downstairs.”  He didn’t even look up.  He said, “Nope.”  I then realized that it was unprofessional and disrespectful for me to be…that the young kid in the band is having Ray Brown waiting on me.  So I got it together.  I was never late again.  And to this day, I have Ray Brown to thank for that.  I know that however long it takes me to get ready, if it takes two or three hours, to allow that much time, and not start getting dressed five minutes before the lobby call.

TP:    He was an immaculate businessman, wasn’t he.

GREEN:  Completely.  But the interesting thing is that he told me there was actually a defining moment in his life when he got that all together.  There was a time prior to that defining moment when he was more like the old stereotypical image of a musician who didn’t care, who didn’t take responsibility for business.  He hadn’t been paying his taxes for a few years.  He was with Jazz At The Philharmonic, and they’d been sending him notices, which he just disregarded, and one day they played a concert with Jazz at the Philharmonic somewhere in the Midwest, and the evening after the show, the curtain went down, and the Feds were there to physically haul him off to jail.  Norman Granz, as you know, had a lot of money, and he bailed Ray out right then and there on the spot, so they never took him.  He just coughed up the cash and had a talk with Ray.  He said he was a changed man from that moment forward.

But obviously, the Ray Brown that you and I knew was so incredibly balanced with the left and right brain.  He could be so creative and so plugged into the music all the time, constantly honing the band’s arrangements, staying at the very top of his game and continuing to challenge himself as an instrumentalist.  No matter what time we were in, he woke up at the crack of dawn, getting on that phone and fax machine, doing business, booking gigs one or two years down the road.  That’s very rare for someone… There are obviously musicians who are great businessmen, and oftentimes, on some level, the music suffers.  Sometimes the people have so much talent that they’re able to carry it off, and you don t realize what you could be hearing were they totally putting all their eggs in the basket.  But with Ray, God, you could never say, as much as a sharp-shooter he was as his own booking agent and manager, that anything ever, ever suffered in the musical arena.

TP:    Do you think that part of that constant imperative to develop as an instrumentalist from the high level he had attained was one reason why, in the last decade of his life, starting with you really, he started using young musicians on a regular basis?

GREEN:  With Ray and Art Blakey and Betty Carter, something… Art was doing that from early in his career.  But in the case of Betty and Art, there was a period where initially the bandleader was more playing with their peers, and then at some point they really got this bug to have like new young blood in the band, and they really found personal gratification in helping the young musicians, and, with whatever surface idiosyncracies people could observe them as having, their pure love for the music clearly showed.  They were passing it on, really kicking their young players in the behind, challenging them, making them reach beyond a superficial comfort zone, and really pull the depth of their untapped reserves of talent out of that.  In fact, they instilled that kind of fire in their sidemen, hopefully so that these younger players could go out there and perpetuate the music.

TP:    But do you think there was reciprocal benefit he garnered from using young talent? He said that using you or Keezer or Larry Fuller forced him to practice so he could play the way he used to.

GREEN:  I can’t say for Geoff or Larry, but I can tell you first hand that Russell Malone and I played a private party for Ray in St. Paul a little over a month ago, and, man, he kicked our tails in the most positive way.  This guy is 75 years old, and when he gets on the bandstand, the whole level of musicality is so profoundly elevated.  You really get this deep sense that you’re on the bandstand with the same lifeline as Duke Ellington.  You feel it.  It can’t even be put into words.  But you can feel it in your body, you can almost taste it…

TP:    Oh, I understand that.  What I’m saying is, he thought of his trio as the Ray Brown Trio, not Ray Brown Plus Two.  So he’s incorporating the musicality and musical personalities of the people he has in his band.

GREEN:  Oh, definitely.  When I joined the band and was trying to play like Gene, he said, “Okay, for these first few weeks, we’ll continue playing these arrangements that I wrote specifically for Gene, but the more we play, I’m going to scope out what you do and I’ll start writing new arrangement that embrace your sound and feeling so we can help you develop.  He took pleasure in that.  Obviously, nobody can play something in a slow bluesy groove like Gene Harris.  Nobody can do that.  And that certainly includes Benny Green.  I would try to, but I wasn’t raised in the Black Baptist church, I didn’t have Gene Harris’ life, and I wasn’t physically built like Gene Harris.  Ray knew that.  It’s almost not honest to try to force yourself to play like someone you love.  That love can come through naturally once you accept it’s there and live in the moment as yourself.  So Ray was encouraging me to do my own thing, and he started to write arrangements that incorporated more swift tempos, more linear kind of things that he felt were more suited to what he heard as something that was a more natural part of what I inherently did.

TP:    It seems he revisited and reinterpreted a lot of areas from his earlier career with you and Geoff, a lot of bebop tunes that I don’t think were too much of the repertoire with Gene Harris.

GREEN:  That makes sense.  And I’m sure once Keezer joined the band, he probably opened up that much more harmonically because of what Geoff can do.  Not to get anything real specific and narrow anyone’s approach down, but he prided himself on doing that.

Once early on in the band, we did a show, and I ended a couple of tunes with an Ahmad Jamal ending that Ray hadn’t written, just the patented two-note ending that Ahmad plays on most of his trio arrangements in the trio with Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier.  Ray didn’t say anything on the bandstand.  He came to the dressing room afterwards, and he was livid.  He said, “That is not my sound, that is not what we do in this band.  Don’t play that any more.”  And I didn’t.  He was very clear about it.  At the time, I felt, “Wow, it’s just two notes; why is it such a big deal.”  With the passage of time, I came to see it was a very big deal, because he wasn’t just playing the music, however it might come across.  He had a very specific language, something I couldn’t possibly understand as someone who wasn’t even born when Ray was already a past master.  So I just respected that this man knew what he wanted.  Betty Carter and Art Blakey both were the same way.  Certain things weren’t appropriate.  They didn’t want their approach to the music to just become sort of homogenous.  There was a certain sound and feeling, and when we hear it, there’s things they do and things they don’t do that give us a specific feeling as a listener.  So it’s very much a language.  A younger person, no matter how talented or intelligent or soulful they may be, is not really going to get that in the way that someone who has lived it all their life who is a veteran of the music knows down deep.

TP:    You played with Ray Brown what years?

GREEN:  From the early spring of ’92 to the fall of ’96, 4-1/2 years.

Two things I’d like to say I think are very pertinent.  One (and I’m sure every other musician who worked with Ray will tell you the same thing) is that I never once asked him a question about music that was uncool to ask.  I never asked him a question and got a non-verbal communication that it was something he didn’t want to discuss.  Every time I asked Ray a musical question, he would sit with me, look me in the eye, and talk for however long it took.  Everything else going on would stop.  And he wouldn’t stop talking until he felt that I really understood what it was he had to say.  It was never about telling me how to play.  It was just about being a better musician, and just bringing this feeling, imparting life experience through the music — never about how to play or a style.

The other thing which I’ve really been feeling strongly about Ray since he passed is how much of an ambassador he was, like Louis and Duke and Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, among others.  Sometimes we would play venues, concerts or festivals where the bulk of the audience were real jazz aficionados, and they loved the music, they knew who he was, and they appreciated him.  But other times, we would play some places where the crowd would be quite stiff, maybe a money crowd, and they weren’t really passionate about jazz.  And I can tell you first-hand that any time we played for that latter type of an audience, by the end of the performance he would have made absolute converts for life out of every single person in the house, where they left loving the music, wholly disarmed, coming up to us and talking, showing their emotions, and showing by example, by doing that, that that’s the level we need to aspire to when we bring the music… That we can’t just be satisfied with playing to impress one another, but any time we have an opportunity to play this music for someone who has never heard it before, whatever our individual approach to the music is, we really need to bring something of an emotional substance that any human being can relate to.  I interpreted it that this was his ultimate homage to those great masters that he played with.  Because we know that Louis Armstrong did that and we know that Duke did that.  You couldn’t help but love this music, no matter what you’d heard about it or what you’d been told or what you’d heard that you didn’t like.  When you heard them, you knew this was like something really great and about some love and some life.

TP:    You played with him just a couple of weeks before he died.

GREEN:  Yes.  It was perfect.  Lord knows, I didn’t know it was going to be our last time.  But everything from the time he entered the room was a lesson, and I remember it vividly.  First of all, at the soundcheck, he did what he’d always done.  He was showing me a tune that I had heard from Nat Cole’s repertoire but never played, “I Just Can’t See For Looking.”  He was ready to leave the bandstand before we played and get comfortable, but I still wasn’t quite secure with the melody, and I asked him to stay and help me out, and he did just that.  Whatever it was he wanted to do off the bandstand was on hold, and he stayed up there on stage with me, made sure I had it together, and after he was done he said, “Do you have it now?”  I said, “Yeah.”  He said, “All right,” and then he walked off the bandstand.  That’s how he always was, no matter how physically fatigued he might have been.  Nothing came before the music.

After the gig, he said one of the most beautiful affirmations to me.  He said, “Benny, you don’t have to worry about anything; you just keep playing the piano.”  That meant so much to me coming from Ray Brown.  Then he sat up with me for about two hours.  We didn’t leave the venue.  He just sat with me and talked about the music, and talked about the great pianists.  He was teaching me.  I think back on what he was saying and how he tied his conversation about different pianists all together with the message he was trying to give me about me and the piano.  Then I left him for a moment again, not knowing this was the last time I was going to see him, and I went to the piano on stage and started to play, and then he walked over to the stage and just stood there and listened to me play, and talked about the songs I was playing.  God, as long as there was music going on, he never wanted to go to bed. I’m so thankful that before we said goodnight I gave Ray a big kiss, and I thanked him for charging my battery, and I told him that no matter how much I might not have understood things he’d said to me in the past at the moment he said them, that they were all inside, and that so many gems he’s given me continue to come up as I play music, and that I’m thankful for what he’s given me.  That’s how I left him, and I’m so thankful we had that beautiful closure, because no one was ready for this.

It’s a blessing he was taken so peacefully, so mercifully, doing what he loves. We’ll always remember Ray being strong and vital and taking no prisoners.  He never faded.

Jeff Hamilton

JEFF HAMILTON:  I met Ray in 1976 at the Lighthouse in Los Angeles.  He was booking Milt Jackson, and had booked Milt with the Monty Alexander Trio, and came into the club to see how we were doing.  That’s the first time I met him.  I asked him that night if I could meet with him and ask him some advice on what I should do with my career.  I was all of 22 years old.  He said, “Sure, we can meet — if you buy lunch.”  So that was the beginning of our long friendship.  Based on what he heard that night, he kept me in mind, and hired me for the L.A. Four when Shelley Manne left.

TP:    I haven’t spoken with a drummer yet about the experience of playing with him.  Can you talk about the qualities of his playing that made him distinctly and identifiably Ray Brown, from your perspective behind the kit?

HAMILTON:  My first awareness of him was listening to him on an Oscar Peterson Trio record with Ed Thigpen, and wanting immediately to pick up a stick and hit a cymbal with that trio, play along with that groove that the three of them had together.  And the more that I listened to it, I kept keying in on Ray more and more, and thinking that I really wanted to play with his quartet notes.  The older I got, I realized that it was the intensity in his playing, in his beat and his time and his sound, that was so big and full that it just raised the band and urged them to get into that same groove that he was playing, and invite them into his sound.  That’s what I felt as a drummer, that I needed to crawl into that big sound of his and match the sound with the intensity of the drums.  It also has a big full sound, and the trio would come out sounding like a big band.

TP:    That means in some ways you would match the length of his notes through the way you articulate beats?

HAMILTON:  Not so much the length.  Just the urgency of how important every note is.  The first night that I played with him, I thought, “Well, this is a lot more intense than I thought it was going to be from listening to the records.”  When I was able to adjust to that and make that happen, then I thought, “Okay, now I can play with Ray Brown.”  Then the first time I played with Ray and Oscar, it was that next level of intensity.  I thought, “Man, I’ve got to step this up.”  Not so much in nervousness or frantically trying to keep up with them.  I don’t mean that.  I just mean bringing your intensity to the time and to the music, like you’re in a conversation with two other people and they’re really going after it, and you’re kind of sitting there going, “Uh-huh, uh-huh.”  It doesn’t work.  So you’ve got to jump in and join the conversation with them.

TP:    You did many tours with him where you shared a bandstand night after night for a month or six weeks for a good chunk of the year.

HAMILTON:  For 18 years!

TP:    Was he a very creative player from night to night?

HAMILTON:  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from night to night.  First of all, his stamina from night to night was something that I had never witnessed before.  I have played with musicians who wanted to be great every night and were trying to do it, and had that in mind.  But I’ve never seen anybody like Ray, be able to get on the bandstand and play like it might be his last night.  I don’t know where that came from, but it was such an intensity… I keep going back to that word, because that’s Ray Brown. In every walk of his life, he was very intense.  And the need to get up there and really stretch out and try to push us was I think maybe instilled by the days with Dizzy, and playing with Bird, and having that need to play some new music and try to push the arrangement into something else.  I think that’s evidenced by looking at the evolution of his own trio.  When I go hear those arrangements we did with Gene Harris, and they’ve changed with every trio.  They’ve gotten a little more modern, and Ray is at the bottom, changing things around.

TP:    That raises another question, which is the level to which playing with you or playing with younger musicians like Benny Green or Geoff Keezer affected his conception.  Benny described it that when he first went out with the trio (I guess you were the drummer), he was very much influenced by Gene Harris, Ray knew it, and Benny said that the trio would play those arrangements, he’d scope Benny out, and would try to write new arrangements that suited him.  You could hear it, because he played more bebop, modernist material.  I’m wondering how you evaluate the presence of younger musicians within his orbit having impacted what he did, if at all.

HAMILTON:  Well, he was smart.  One of the great things I learned from him was how to make everybody in the band sound as good as they possibly can.  So he would go to their strong points, and he’d play music that fit everybody in the band.  That was his thought with every personnel change, “how can this person’s influence change this musically, and yet we can all still vibrate together.”  So he would arrange things. I think that was probably influenced by Duke Ellington’s writing for personnel in his band.

TP:    I’d like to get back to the nature of your relationship, personal or musical.  He befriended you when you were 22 and he was 50. Benny described him as being an unfailing mentor.  Any time he had a musical question, he would be there to answer and would take as long as necessary.  Does that jibe with your earlier relationship?

HAMILTON:  When Benny came in, he really took Benny under his wing.  When I came in, he looked more to me as “you need to be an equal with me,” and I think he kind of classified me in his generation. There isn’t thirty years between us.  And I’ve always kind of been old for my age anyway, and I think he picked up on that.  I’ve been pretty mature for my age — and musically.

TP:    When you were 20, you were playing with Hampton…

HAMILTON:  I’d already played with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with Murray McEachern, and with Lionel Hampton, Monty Alexander and Woody Herman.

TP:    So you’d had a full complement of experience by the time you joined him.

HAMILTON:  Right.  I had some touring under my belt.  So he knew he wasn’t getting a kid, and that I’d listened to his music and grown up with his music when those records came out.  I didn’t have to wait and get them on CD twenty years later.  I talked to him about that.  I had a different relationship with Ray, and I think he tried to make me an equal because of the L.A. Four situation.  He hired me, and everybody was a leader in that group.  Shelley Manne had been an equal part of the L.A. Four, and that’s what he needed.  They weren’t trying to make a kid grow into the seat; they needed someone who could come in and do it.

TP:    Another common thread everyone has mentioned is that he played always as if it was the last time he was ever going to play.  They also mention how deftly he was able to balance his creative life with the practicalities of business.  It seems he was incredibly disciplined.

HAMILTON:  I think that goes back to him being smart, and being in the right situation with Norman Granz in Jazz at the Philharmonic, and seeing how business could be run in jazz, and what jazz musicians deserve, and having somebody go to bat for them to get what they deserve.  That was instilled at an early age.  I think he kept that pride factor for what he thought his self-worth was, and for other musicians, and that entered into his business techniques. “Well, if you don’t want me for this amount, you must not want me very much.”  And they would inevitably call back.  Ray said, “No, that was the amount you offered two weeks ago; now the amount is this.”  He kind of played hardball with some of these guys just to get his point across, that you can’t just take advantage of a jazz musician and offer him $50 to come and play for you.  So I think there was a combination of the pride and the smarts, and being smart enough to learn from those early days with Jazz at the Philharmonic.  He always referred to Norman as taking care of the musicians.  He once told a story about Norman Granz pulling the entire tour off of an airplane because they wouldn’t them bring his bass on board — and he had bought a ticket for it.  So Norman announced that everybody had to get off the plane, if the bass wasn’t going to go on.  The plane took off about 15 minutes later.  It’s that kind of thinking of, “Listen, this is what I think my self-worth is, and this is the self-confidence I have in myself,” and that came through every part of Ray Brown’s personality, musically and off the bandstand, in doing business.

TP:    John Clayton said that he was constantly practicing all the time, right up to the end.  Would you practice together?  Oscar Peterson describes him and Ed Thigpen sitting in the room rehearsing harmonic and rhythmic patterns so they could be prepared for anything.  Did you do that?

HAMILTON:  Not so much.  Our arrangements weren’t Oscar-like, so that we had to sit down and digest things together.  The other thing is that Ray and I really didn’t have to think too much about what we did.  It was a pretty natural hookup.  So we’d just look at each other.  In fact, I was reminded of this on the 75th birthday tour last July, where there was a guest artist, and Ray just turned, gave me a look, and I knew what he meant.  We went into this introduction, and the person said, “How do you guys know to do that?  Nobody said anything.”  But that’s just sort of what Ray and I had together, and we grew into being able to raise an eyebrow and know that meant an “and-a-4″ or some kind of beat we’d played before. Or he’d just say a word, and it would trigger something.  I think because of that, we didn’t have to rehearse a lot.  He would go to Hawaii for a month every January with his wife, Cecilia, and he would write new arrangements for the trio.  He was so excited about coming back and starting about three days of rehearsal in February, before we’d go on the road.  But that’s about all we rehearsed.  It wasn’t really knock-down, drag-out rehearsals.  But he did talk about those Oscar Peterson rehearsals.  In fact, he and Herb Ellis roomed together, and start playing those arrangements that sounded so tricky!

TP:    Oscar Peterson also described that they’d play the London House, and after the room closed at 4:30, they’d stay til 7 working other things out.  So they did the other end of the hang, too, I guess.  When you met him, he was still in the middle of his period of being extremely busy in the studios.  I’m an East Coaster and a bit younger than you, so I’m not sure how much the L.A. Four was working.  Did that mark the beginning of his move back out of the studios towards more hardcore performing?

HAMILTON:  That was part of it, I think, but that group was more in the studio, actually, with Laurindo Almeida and Bud Shank, and Carl Jefferson of Concord Records, which was pretty new at that time.  I think that’s how that group got off the ground.  But I think the actual idea happened in a recording session with Laurindo and Bud.  That was partially responsible, but I think, too, he’d been working with Milt Jackson at that time, and kept sneaking out of the studio to do these records at Shelly’s Manne-Hole, and still was playing jazz, still was doing tours during all that Merv Griffin stint.  I think that after a while, real jazz players really can’t take the studio that much any more, and are looking to get out when they can.  That was a period where his not getting out of the studio was one of the things, but it also made him think about, “I’ve got to get my own trio.”  So he would do things with Monty Alexander and Gene Harris and Mickey Roker and with Jackson, and so that got him… All those things got him back in the loop.

TP:    So it was a gradual process of weaning himself out of what he’d gotten into.  Do you have any particular favorite anecdotes that might get to the essence of who he was to you? Someone told me you would have some golfing stories.  Was there an analogue between his his approach to golf and his approach to music?

HAMILTON:  Again, intensity! [LAUGHS] Intensity on the golf course.  He wanted to play really well, and he wanted everyone else to play as well as they could when he was playing with them, so he would offer comments to help you.

TP:    Would they help?

HAMILTON:  Of course not!  Just like on the bandstand, in the heat of the battle somebody turns to you and says, “Hey, do this now!  Try this!”  You go, “Uhh…okay, but I’m trying to do everything else at the same time.”  But it was all meant well, and we used to laugh about it.  He said, “Anybody who opens their mouth on the golf course will get an automatic penalty stroke.”

TP:    What was his handicap?

HAMILTON:  For a while, he said he was around an 11.  Somebody told me he was an 8 at one time.  I think when he was in Toronto, with the Oscar Peterson-Thigpen school up there, they were playing every day, and I think he was probably down to an 8 then.  But in later years he was around 11.  After he had the knee surgery, he started to get his game back, and he was playing an awful lot.  I never beat Ray on the golf course.

TP:    Was that psychology or talent?

HAMILTON:  I think mostly talent, because I didn’t start playing… I was a tennis player for thirty years, and I had elbow surgery from tennis.  He was so mad at me, because I had to take time off from the trio to get the surgery!  He said, “Why don’t you play golf?  You’re not going to blow your ligament off the elbow playing golf.”  So I finally did, and then he gave me a set of clubs that he had won at a tournament.

TP:    What a practical man!

HAMILTON:  Yes! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Was he also a practical joker?

HAMILTON:  Are you kidding?  The funniest one to me is the Oscar Peterson anecdote at Jazz at the Philharmonic, when Oscar went to Norman Granz and asked Ray to be introduced last out of the group.  Just to keep peace among the group was the way Oscar presented it to Norman.  Norman said, “Oh, really?  Because I’ve been announcing you last.”  “No-no.”  So Oscar goes out first, and sits down at the bench, and Ray’s bass was laying on the floor next to the piano bench.  While Norman is announcing Herb Ellis, either Jo Jones or Buddy Rich, Oscar leans down and detunes Ray’s bass.  Then “Ladies and gentlemen, Ray Brown!” and Ray Brown came out and picked up the bass.  They had already started the introduction to the tune.  Ray started to play, and of course he sounded like he was underwater.  “And Ella Fitzgerald!”  So Ella came out, turned around, and said, “What is going on back there?” Ray just kept tuning up with his left hand and plucking with the right, and said, “Just keep singing; I’ll be there.”

The next time that he got Oscar Peterson… He told him, “I’ll get you.”  They were in Japan. Do you know about Pachenko?  It’s a game with little round silver balls, like a vertical pinball machine.  Ray hit the jackpot, and all these balls drop into a metal tray and make a lot of noise, then you cash them in.  Instead of cashing them in, he put the balls in his pocket (he had about 20-25 balls, I guess), and walked right over to the concert hall, and lined the balls up in the piano strings of the piano.  And that night, Oscar Peterson was the last musician introduced, and he came out, they’d already started playing, and Oscar played like two chords, and all these balls started bouncing out of the piano.  I guess Oscar’s feet came off the floor about two feet!

TP:    Did he ever get you on a good one?

HAMILTON:  Oh, boy.  There are so many funny little jokes.  There was one night at the Blue Note… I have a pretty loose grip, and sometimes my sticks will fly out.  He used to kid me about it.  This night the stick hit him in the chest, and rolled down on the other side of his bass, and off of his bass onto my hi-hat, and rolled onto the snare drum and over to the mounted tom, and then back to the snare drum, and I picked it up and continued playing.  He said… Well, I can’t tell you what he said!  He said, “How the hell did you do that?!”  And I didn’t do anything.  Just the stick happened to land where I could pick it up and play.  A lot of funny things like that on the bandstand. TP:    You met Ray Brown in ’48, and when was the last time you played with him?

Oscar Peterson

OSCAR PETERSON:  I guess the last time I played with Ray was when I did a couple of dates in New York with he and Milt Jackson.

TP:    That were documented on the Telarc record, “The Very Tall Band”?

PETERSON:  Yes, that’s right.

TP:    So 50 years of making music with him.  He was already an extremely experienced musician when you met him for the first concert, and when your partnership began.  Was there any way in which he help show you the ropes or helped you get grounded?  The broader question is what impact he had on you as an instrumentalist and musician?

PETERSON:  He gave me one thing, and that was confidence.  That’s probably the most important thing that a bass player can give anyone that he or she is playing for.  When I played with Ray, he gave me confidence, because I never had to wonder and worry about where it was going either harmonically or rhythmically.  And if you can reach that plateau with any bass player, you’re in the right place at the right time.

TP:    So he never threw you any curve balls.

PETERSON:  No, he never did.

TP:    And if he gave you a 95-mile-an-hour fastball it was something you could hit.

PETERSON:  [LAUGHS] I more than likely would see it coming!

TP:    You roomed together.  You probably saw more of each other than any other person.  What does that level of proximity do for musical communication?

PETERSON:  I’ll tell you one thing.  It gives you a better insight into the inner weaknesses and strengths of your roommate.  I mean that professionally.  You can tell just from conversations with them… I knew right away the people that Ray admired musically, and including bass players.  I don’t want to mention names, but I knew who he admired and who got to him and who reached him, and I knew the bass players he didn’t care for.  So you get to know the innards of a person a lot better.  And he knew the pianists that I admired and revered and he also knew the pianists that I did not like.  With this kind of information, we had a better insight into what and how to play with each other.

TP:    Did you tend to share the same likes and dislikes?

PETERSON:  I have to say yes to that.

TP:    He was a reasonably proficient pianist.

PETERSON:  Ray was what I call a compositional pianist! [LAUGHS] Ray would sit at the piano and would harmonically play what he wanted to play, and would sing the melodic things that he wanted to go over, because he didn’t have that kind of dexterity on the piano.  He was a bass player.  That wasn’t his instrument.  But you could tell that he knew where he was going.  In fact, one of my gifts to him one year was to give him a keyboard he could travel with, so he could write tunes on the road.

TP:    John Clayton said that at a certain point — and you would know this better than anyone — he started forming a network of symphony bassists in the different cities you would visit, either with the trio or JATP, and would then take private lessons going from city to city.  The larger point being that everyone says he practiced and strove to improve incessantly, without letup.

PETERSON:  He did.  He really worked at it.  People think that it was just raw talent, which it is, but it was not the complete talent.  But Ray, to be very honest with you, had great respect for what the classical bassists could do with music, because he knew that it was a very difficult instrument to in play in certain aspects as far as being in tune and certainly in time.  He was always working to try to perfect these fine points of the instrument.

TP:    But it’s correct that he did this rather systematic study with different people in various places.

PETERSON:  He did that, and he also did it the other way around.  He would do that with classical bassists, because they wanted to get an insight into his playing.  So quite frankly, it worked both ways.  But he also would hold his own little clinics in his room with different local bassists, as he went from city to city.

TP:    In hearing him for fifty years, looking back, what would you say were the qualities of his playing that evolved most noticeably?

PETERSON:  First of all, I have to say his concept of time.  That’s the essence of all of jazz, I think.  Secondly, his harmonic sense from an accompaniment standpoint when he was playing with someone.  He knew what to play, where, when he was playing for and with someone.

TP:    So he refined those skills, and made them better like fine wine, as it were.

PETERSON:  That’s right.  Certain things that he would play behind me, or certain things that I played… And it could be the same tune.  But certain nights, he could sense… He was a great listener.  There’s one of the things.  He listened to each performance that everyone gave.  But certain nights he’d play a certain way for you.  He played differently because you were playing differently!  That’s something a lot of bassists do not do.

TP:    So along with you, he helped make the trio a creative entity every night, even when you’re in the middle of four sets a night, six nights a week.

PETERSON:  Oh, yeah.  It was a challenge.  He would walk different lines behind me different nights, just to see what would happen.  He would go a different way.  He didn’t have a set routine harmonically for me.  He would change the pattern different nights, just to see what I would do with it.

TP:    Did he always have his keen penchant for business?  His business skills after moving to Los Angeles are somewhat legendary.  Did he always possess this acumen?

PETERSON:  I think so.  Norman Granz used to tell him, “Why don’t you just be a booking agent and get it over with?”  He said, “Pick one or the other.  Either be the world’s best player or the world’s best booking agent.  Take your choice.

TP:    I guess the exceptional thing is that he was the world’s best player and a pretty darn good booking agent.

PETERSON:  I’m not going to dispute anything you say or anything Norman said.  I think it was Ray’s choice, and he lived his life the way he wanted to.

TP:    It sounds like you’ve been able to do the same.

PETERSON:  I’m trying.

Quincy Jones

TP:    I know he was managing you and working with you.

QUINCY JONES:  He was.

TP:    Before we speak about that, may I ask when you first became acquainted?

JONES:  Ray Brown?  On records, when I was about 13 years old.  We used to listen to 78 records at Sherman & Clay, a record store in Seattle.  We couldn’t afford to buy them. I’d just discovered music two years before.  They had glass booths where you could play the 78s, and didn’t have to buy it.  I’d listen all day long — Dial Records, and Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Miles and Slam Stewart.  We were working in nightclubs at that age… Because Ray Charles got up there a year later.  When I was 14, Ray Charles was working up there, too.  He was 16.  During the war.  Seattle was jumping during the war.  It was really jumping.  Because it was the last stop before Japan, what they called the Pacific Theater.  So we were absolute junkies with all the bands.  Everybody.  Dizzy’s band…

We were at the Washington Social Club one night, and I saw this guy come in with just a little stingy brim hat, an Italian suit on, and real cool kicks (what we used to call shoes), and he had a trenchcoat on.  They said, “That’s Ray Brown, man.”  Since we were kids, we were trying to determine who the hell we were.  Because in the ’40s, man, music… There were no TV shows.  Radio, forget it.  And the books, too.  So the definition of who you were, you had to just try to figure it out through the people who came through, sailors and so forth… I know I’m making this a long answer here, but this is what happened.

Then I started to see the bands come through, like Basie and Duke and Erskine Hawkins and Louis Armstrong, and then Dizzy’s band came through.  I’d sit there, and I knew then I was hooked on 5 saxophones, 3 or 4 trombones, and 4 trumpets and a rhythm section the rest of my life.  I’d sit there just mesmerized all night long.  How do they play all at once and not play the same note?  Not only that, but these brothers are dignified, they are unified, they’ve got wit, they have fun, they’re talented, and they’re doing what they want to do.  They had everything.  I said, “That’s the kind of man I want to be.”

TP:    They were clean, too.

JONES:  Oh, clean as a chitlin’!  Please, man.  And all the girls… They had everything, man!  The sailors, they were pretty cool.  We used to dress like sailors for a while, when we were 11.  But man, when the musicians… I said, “No, that’s it, man, please.”  Because they had the music going.  And the sounds… It just took over my soul.  When I saw Ray Brown… I can’t even express it because it was just so powerful.  We didn’t have any connection with anything.  There was no MTV or anything else.  You’d hear everything on the grapevine, with the guys coming through, like blues bands, they’d say, “Charlie Parker just put some dexedrine in Peg-Leg Bates or Rubberlegs Williams’ coffee or something…”  And all the tunes, “Little Willie Leaps” and all the things… Personally, I learned how to write music then.  I’d write all the stuff down.  We were just like totally obsessed.

TP:    You’d take the stuff off the records?

JONES:  Yeah.  And people would give you copies of it.  It would travel around like the Dead Sea Scrolls or something.

TP:    It was a true oral tradition then.

JONES:  It was!  And they were like griots, you know.  All the bands.  We’d go backstage in our little bebop bags, and try to play grownup and sneak in, because we couldn’t afford to see the bands, and everything was cool when it was Duke and Basie, but then the first time they said, “Where are you going, man?” I said “We’re in the band.”  It was Les Brown!  “No, you’re not.” [LAUGHS] Or Skinny Ennis or somebody with Gil Evans’ arrangements.

TP:    So Ray Brown was one of the people who formed your conception of what music and the life was.

JONES:  Yes.  See, a skilled writer can say that in one word.  It takes me a half-hour.  Basie was, too, and Clark Terry was.  Those three guys were very important.  Ray Charles, Clark Terry, Basie, they were something.

TP:    So before you were a professional musician, these are the three people who really affected you…

JONES:  We were professional then!  We were playing clubs!

TP:    But before you got out in the broader world.  And you wound up playing and becoming involved with all of them.

JONES:  Exactly.  But that was the first bite.  And just what the lifestyle was about, the intelligence and wit — everything.  It just was so addictive.  Then I didn’t see Ray for another few years…

TP:    You didn’t see him for a number of years.

JONES:  Right.  But I kept up with him.  The grapevine was very strong then about what was happening in New York.  Because we had never seen New York; through our imagination was the only thing on 52nd Street and all that stuff.  Then finally, I got a scholarship to Boston at the Berklee School in the fall of 1950, which was the Schillinger House then, and Oscar Pettiford played across the street at the Hi-hat.  It was just love at first sight.  I’d go to the nightclub every night.  [b.1933]

TP:    So Ray Brown is only seven years older than you, but nonetheless…

JONES:  Right!  But he was 21 then, and that’s a huge difference.  He was big-time.  Ray Charles was two-three years older.  Anyway, Oscar Pettiford took me to New York while I was in school there, and said, “Would you like to write two arrangements for my record date?”  He saw some of the tunes I wrote while I was in school at the Hi-Hat.  I lived across the street.  Then he said, “I would like you to come down and do a session with me.”  Mercer Records.  Leonard Feather was the A&R man.  That was my first New York minute, and I was like Dracula at the blood bank.

That was the first time I saw New York.  I met Mingus… It’s ironic, because you’re talking about    bass player, and Oscar introduced me to Mingus and Art Tatum, and then I kind of followed Ray around on 52nd Street.  We still hadn’t hooked up, though, you know.  Then to make a long story short, in the ’50s, when I was working out in L.A. to do some arrangements for somebody, I went to see Sidney P…Poitier (because we started together almost at the same time, in New York, starving to death together) at the Knickerbocker Hotel, and Ray was… I was going to Sidney’s room (this must have been in ’55 or ’56 or ’57), and Ray was playing golf in the hall. [LAUGHS] He was putting down the hall.  That time we hooked up, and it was forever.

One thing led to another, then he did a record date with me in 1959 on my Birth of The Band album, and I was just… They had to put cold water on me just to cool me off.  The idea to even have Ray Brown play on your music, it just blew my mind.

TP:    Did you follow the Oscar Peterson Trio during those years?

JONES:  Oh yeah.  I was a Jazz at the Philharmonic junkie.

TP:    Talk a little about Ray Brown’s role in JATP and the trio.

JONES:  That was equivalent to the Rolling Stones today, or whoever you want to say…about Voodoo or whatever… It was the same thing.  They had the crowd screaming, man, and Ella and Oscar Peterson, Nat Cole, Bird, Flip Phillips — everybody.  It was incredible.  That was our Rock-and-Roll.

TP:    I understand.  But I’m asking about Ray Brown’s function within that situation.  Because I think it was quite a special one.

JONES:  Well, at that time he was married to Ella Fitzgerald.  That’s a pretty big function, playing all that bass and Ella Fitzgerald’s husband, too.  At that time, everything was bigger than life to us.  That was probably the most influential thing — that and the big bands — for a whole life.  It was not just the music; it was the lifestyle, too.  And bebop, with all this freedom and this exploration, of breaking out of the entertainer role for black musicians.  I guess that was one of the key things, too.  It wasn’t so much about entertainment. It was serious, serious musicians.  And we heard the word about Oscar Peterson, and then Ray and he hooked up… I don’t know, just the grapevine was so strong… I know I’m not on a straight line here.  I don’t know how to do it.

TP:    You’re saying it was no more about entertainers, but it seems Ray Brown was very much an ambassador, as was Oscar Peterson, through their comportment and level of commitment to being on every minute…

JONES:  Everybody was like that, Ted.  Oscar Peterson.  Nat Cole was like that.  Earl Hines.  Everybody was like that then.  That was the tenor of the times.

TP:    It was like a different way of being an entertainer.

JONES:  They were on another planet. I remember when the Big Band school went into Bebop, and there was a little friction there at first.  You know, Pops wasn’t crazy about that.  Louis talked about Dizzy playing all that weird stuff.  I loved both of them, big bands and bebop.  But bebop was my heart.  And Ray was the personification of bebop.

TP:    But then at JATP, he’d be playing with Prez and Illinois Jacquet, swing guys…

JONES:  The best in the world. And that was probably the metamorphosis of swing into bebop.  Because Dizzy came out of Cab’s band and Bird came out Jay McShann, and then they converged with Earl Hines, and then Billy Eckstine took ALL of them over then.  The whole bebop workshop was going on over there, you know, with Sassy and Art Blakey and J.J. [sic] and Dizzy, Fats, Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, everybody.  That was the real melting pot, Billy Eckstine’s band.  That was a pure bebop band.

That’s how I learned how to write, when I was really getting into writing.  I remember I asked Ray Charles, “How do they play all this stuff and not play the same notes?” I was 13 or 14.  And Ray hit a B-flat-7 chord and a C7 on top of it; it was like a B-flat-13 with an augmented fourth.  BANG!  Why, it just opened up a whole passageway.

TP:    So you were heavy into the Jerry Valentine charts.

JONES:  All of them.  Gil Fuller.  Everybody.  Everything he played, man.  The Cuban stuff.  Cuba was BIG then.  “Cubana Be, Cubana Bop” and “Manteca.”

TP:    They were all playing on top of each other on 52nd Street.

JONES:  Chano Pozo.  Mario Bauza, man.  I worked with him as recently as eight years ago.

TP:    Oh, right before he passed you worked with him.

JONES:  Yes, indeed.  We were at the Montreux together.  There was a big band in Montreux.

TP:    So ’59 is the first time Ray Brown plays with you, and you meet him around ’55-’56-’57 in the hotel and make that connection.  So you like each other…

JONES:  Yes.  As people we hooked up together, and then musically we hooked up in ’59, and it just never stopped.

TP:    Talk about what he was like at a session.  Most of these situations would have been sessions rather than live performances or tours.

JONES:  Right.  But for arrangers it didn’t make any difference.  You had to put all the stuff down on paper before you got there, and know who your soloists are and let them stretch.  I always loved that, to keep a big band mentality but have a little band sensibility about the solo stuff.

TP:    What I specifically want to get at with this question is his manner in his studio.

JONES:  A man never plays more or less than they are as a human being.  Ray was a very confident person, a take-charge person.  He played bass like that and lived like that.  He ate 17 different dishes like that.  That’s the eatingest sucker… At the eulogy, everybody had their own little focus.  Mine was on the eating.  Ray could EAT, man.  Whoo!  We ate everywhere on the planet, man.  France, you name it.

TP:    What was his favorite meal?

JONES:  Oh, whatever was good.  Kobe beef and Shabu-Shabu in Japan; and Peking Duck in Hong Kong; foie gras at Lafont; or ham hocks or whatever at Sylvia’s.  Wherever we were, what was good, Ray knew what it was.

TP:    From downhome haute cuisine to haute haute cuisine.

JONES:  That’s right.  I started that way and still am.  If they’ve got fresh produce and they know what they’re doing, I’m your man.  And Ray was, too.  But Ray… [LAUGHS] I’ve never seen… We were in Japan once with Mr. Nakashima… He was my manager by then.  We took the big band over there in the ’70s or ’80s, and we stayed over after the gig.  He took us all to great restaurants… Nakashima was a great promoter over there and a great friend.  He said after three days, “I think you guys have eaten up all the kobe beef in Japan.”  Ray said, “Man, you’ve been so nice, I think we’re going to stay over three more days.”  He said, “Oh, no-no.”  He drove us to the airport.

TP:    How did you begin the relationship of manager-artist?

JONES:  Well, all of these things just sort of evolved.  We started doing dates together, and then he came to me… A lot of record dates.  Movies.  I mean, TONS of movies.  Like, remember In Cold Blood?  Well, that was Andy Simpkins and Ray played the two killers, Bobby Blake and Scott Wilson.  They were the metaphors in the score for the two killers.  Richard Brooks… It was amazing, on the way to Ray’s funeral, Richard told me about Rod Steiger leaving us, too.  But we did dozens of movies together.  We did record dates, we did TV shows, we did the Cosby Show, and we got closer and closer together.  After a while, Ray would just say, “Man, I’ll take care of this,” and “I’ll take care of this…”  We’d do tours in Japan, he’d get with the promoter and stuff, and we’d just do it.  We did a tour with Roberta Flack, one of the best concerts I ever did in my life.  All of us… We had 37 musicians at the Greek with Roberta Flack.

TP:    I heard a story that Norman Granz once said to Ray Brown, “Why don’t you just become a booking agent and be done with it?”

JONES:  He did!  Ray had the ability to do that.

TP:    What does it take for a musician to be such a creative… I don’t think word “genius” would be misused with Ray Brown.  So he’s a creative genius and an extremely gifted businessman…

JONES:  An astute businessman.  It takes using all of your brain. [LAUGHS] It’s all in there.  You just have to use it.

TP:    The left side and the right side is there with him.

JONES:  That’s right, the left-right brain thinking.  There’s a great book out called Six Thinking Hats, and Ray’s was… That’s what it’s about, is using all of your brain.  The stuff he uses for booking gigs and travel and all that stuff is using a part that you don’t use when you’re playing the bass.

TP:    Did his management activity with you begin after 1966, when he moved to Los Angeles, or had he started to do this before?

JONES:  It started around that time, yes.  Because I didn’t get out there permanently until ’64 or ’65.  I came out to do Cary Grant’s last movie, is when I started to stay — Walk, Don’t Run.  I was in a house, and I was like all New Yorkers, talking loud about California, about the palm trees and all this stuff. [LAUGHS] Nobody said anything.  And then you have to eat your words, because that Christmas I was out in my backyard, picking some oranges off of a tree at the place I had leased, and I said, “Man, I don’t need three other seasons.  This is it.”

TP:    Basically you did so much work together, it would be hard for you to pinpoint anything.

JONES:  God, it’s just so much, Ted!  I think of the things… The Ellington special.  One of my passions was to do a special with Duke Ellington on a network.  They resisted it so much in the beginning, but finally, a guy named Phil Capece(?) said, “Let’s do it.”  Clarence Avon, a friend of mine, helped me get that connection together.  We were trying to find out who to go to.  Ray was involved.  I think from that spot on, we started to work together.  We did the album of “Walk In Space,” all those things… Then Grady Tate… A thing that stands out when he and Grady Tate first met each other. Man, it was a match made in heaven.  Amazing.

TP:    Did he ever indicate frustration with you at any of the limitations of studio playing?  Eventually, he did get out of it and went back to touring.

JONES:  Frustration?  No!  Ray did the shit out of whatever he was doing.  We didn’t get into that.  Because, you know, old school comes from… Also Clark Terry, who was my teacher when I was 14.  They come from Silas Green’s Circus, man.  They played everything.  He’s older than Ray.  But they’ve been around.  They’ve played chitlin’ circuit… We all played chitlin’ circuits.  And you didn’t sit around whining about what you had to play, man.  You played what you had to play, and tried to make all of it sound good.  That’s what I loved about Ray. That’s where I think our chord struck, in being very curious about what the business side of it was and tired of always a victim — not wanting to be a victim.  That’s the same thing in Ray, and he saw it in me.  We wanted to be a little bit more in charge of our own destinies.  Then I had the good fortune in 1957 to live in France, and live next door to Picasso.  Man, Picasso was totally in charge of his life. Lithograph plants.  He didn’t have to take any shit from anybody.  And I LOVED that idea.  Because I heard all the victims… Black musicians were HUGE victims in the ’50s.  And I watched it.  I watched my idols… Like the Duke, the man who’s like the god of American music. We were producing a show once, and saw him in Vegas, and it just tore my heart out.  He was 75, man, and he was playing in a lounge in Vegas.  It just killed me!  Because the man I used to watch in the white suit with Al Hibbler when I was 12, 13 or 14, and he’s playing in a lounge, and Paul Gonsalves was walking around the tables, man, like a violinist.  It hurt me.  It hurt me for him.  It really hurt me.  Basie and I used to talk about that all the time.  Basie was like my father, you know.  From 13 years old on, he took care of me.  Brother, father, manager, everything.  He’d get gigs for my band — everything.

TP:    He was a true survivor, wasn’t he.

JONES:  Oh, what a beautiful man.  I feel so blessed to have come up from that school, with Dizzy and Basie and Ray Brown and Ray Charles.

TP:    You’re a modernist with old-school values.

JONES:  Yeah.  I came up in the middle of the best damn thing, in the ’40s, after the war.  I was a kid.  Then I was with Lionel Hampton for three years, ’51 to ’53, and Dizzy’s band, and writing for Basie.  So jazz and big band was just equal ambidexterity.

I’d like to add one thing.  I never saw him do it… Going back to the eating thing.  As a bass player, he’s the King of Humididing and Spangalang, please!  And he could probably eat a 249-pound catfish if he tried!  Ray could eat that.  We used to have so much fun.  I guess it’s that campfire thing.  After you do all your other stuff, it’s always sit at the table around the campfire.

TP:    Well, another aspect of people from your day is that they all knew how to have a good time.

JONES:  Absolutely, man.  Ben Webster taught us how to drink.  It was great.

I’d like to say one more thing about the man I love here.  Ray to me was the absolute symbol of if you empty your cup every time and learn to make it a habit, it always comes back twice as full.  What I’m saying is give it up every time, man.  Don’t save nothin’.  That we definitely shared, and I learned more and more about that from him all the time.  In everything.  In relationships.  Everything.  Give it up. TP:    You said you first met Ray Brown at a JATP concert in Tokyo in 1953.  Was that your first experience listening to him?  I’m sure you’d heard the records before hearing him live.

Ed Thigpen

ED THIGPEN:  That was in 1953.  When I went into the Army, I was with Cootie Williams, and I hadn’t really been exposed to… Well, I had JATP.  But when did Oscar go down there?

TP:    He started going out in ’49, but would do more of a feature, and I think in ’50 he started going out as a duo act with Major Holley, and then he linked u with Ray Brown in ’52, around the time when his relationship with Ella Fitzgerald was dissolving.

THIGPEN:  Okay.  That puts things in perspective, because Ella was on that concert in ’53 in Japan as well.  Prior to that, I had heard JATP, but I wasn’t really into… I got out of high school when they started out, and I’d been working with territorial bands… I got to New York in ’51, but I was working with Cootie Williams.  I was on the road with Dinah and rhythm-and-blues bands.  I’m a little more than four years younger than Ray.  Whatever.  But anyway, it was ’53.

TP:    But you knew the records with Dizzy.

THIGPEN:  Oh yeah, I’d heard that in high school.

TP:    So you knew who Ray Brown was from when you were very young, and a formative musician.

THIGPEN:  Yes, but you know and KNOW who he was.  I didn’t have a record player when I was in high school.  I didn’t get a record player until I was a grown man.  But I heard a lot of live music growing up in L.A.  Anyway, that’s another story.

TP:    All of this is a roundabout way of asking what was your impression of his sound and his aura as a musician.

THIGPEN:  To be honest with you, the group was just so overwhelming with Herb, as I told you in the letter.  That pretty much summarizes what I thought. What impressed me was his kindness.  He was a nice guy.  Everybody played… I was looking at Ben and Benny Carter and J.C. Heard.  But mainly, when I met him, he was a nice person.

TP:    Good enough. Then I’m going to jump ahead to 1959, when you join the band, and the orientation of the trio changes from piano-bass-guitar, very orchestrative, to you kind of driving the band from the drums.  The way Oscar Peterson put it, they would change their articulation to suit the type of fills you would do, and this became more part of the structure of things.  First, how were you recruited to the band?  Through Ray Brown?

THIGPEN:  Well, I guess so.  As you said, Oscar said he recommended me.  I remember that in 1958 I was working at the Hickory House in New York, and Oscar came in.  He didn’t say anything to me.  He just came in at dinner, like Duke Ellington used to do at the Hickory House…

TP:    A steakhouse.

THIGPEN:  A steakhouse, right, on 52nd just off Broadway.  Earlier I was working there with Billy Taylor, Jutta Hipp, Toshiko and different people.  I was working with Billy during 1957-58.  But he came in, and that summer I got a call from Norman Granz saying that he wanted me to join Oscar Peterson.  There was a little discrepancy in the money… Anyway, I didn’t go with him right away.  Which I was very shocked by it.  I said, “What have I done?!”  Anyway, six months later, it was just at Christmas break, he called me again and said, “Okay, we’ll give you that.”  Boy, I said, “Thank you, Lord.”

TP:    So you’d never played with Ray Brown up until…

THIGPEN:  Oh, yes.  We had done a record with Blossom Dearie prior to that.  I’d started getting on the scene because I was in New York, working with Billy.  critics started liking my work, and I was getting recognition.  I’d go see Ray, and somehow we hooked up, and we did this date.

TP:    But that was just in the studio.  So your first bandstand experience with him was the rehearsals and then going on stage with the Oscar Peterson Trio.  Tell me about the experience of playing drums with Ray Brown.  What were the qualities that made Ray Brown, Ray Brown?

THIGPEN:  Well, his sound and his time, his attack. And it wasn’t just playing fast, it was the whole approach, the musical approach for me. In other words, taking your instrument and making it an orchestra.  How do we play together?  How do we blend together?  It was much of the tradition that I’d heard from Kenny Clarke and Jo Jones and my dad about how a rhythm section functions.  It was very dominant.  But they had an edge, playing on top of the beat, laying in the middle of it, laying behind it, shifting gears… But sound.  How our sound blended.  So on my own… He didn’t tell me what to play, but it was like how he played.  And I loved it so much — same with Oscar — that I developed techniques of my own that I thought would be compatible with what you were doing.

TP:    You played with him night after night for 6-1/2 years, maybe 200 nights a year…

THIGPEN:  We worked ten months a year.

TP:    That’s 300 days a year.  Was he an extremely consistent player?

THIGPEN:  Extremely.

TP:    And was he an extremely creative player from night to night?

THIGPEN:  Extremely musical, creative… It was…

TP:    That’s hard to do.  On the road for ten months a year?

THIGPEN:  It isn’t as hard to do when people are compatible.  It’s hard not to do because it’s not acceptable not to do that.  You don’t lay on… It was never coasting.  Oscar and Ray were at another level altogether, and their penchant for excellence was dominant.  But Ray was never forceful with me.  Just you wanted to be the best it was at what you were doing.  So you were giving your all every evening.  And once you get used to that, it’s unacceptable to come below that level.

TP:    Did you rehearse a great deal with Ray?

THIGPEN:  Oh-ho!  Well, we lived together.  He shared a room with me.  He was like a big brother, taking care of me, guiding me — just a lot of things in general.  We would practice every day.  After two weeks, I said, “I guess we got it.”  He said, “not yet.”  And two years later, we’re still practicing how to play time together, and dynamics, and me play his part, sing his parts and play mine, and vice-versa.  What was Oscar doing?  Then when we’d do things with the orchestras, when it was augmented, how to shift… How to work a rhythm section, how to really make it work.  We worked at that every day.

TP:    So he never rested on his laurels.

THIGPEN:  Oh, no!

TP:    By 1963, he’s Ray Brown, the heir to Jimmy Blanton, but he’s continuing to work on himself and perfect what he does.

THIGPEN:  I wrote (and I took some time to word this correctly in the email) at the end that Ray Brown was a worker at everything he did.

TP:    You said he “was a natural leader, dominant but not forceful, he was consistent, a very persistent, patient hard worker. Brownsk was in the trenches with you leading by example.”

THIGPEN:  That’s it.

TP:    It’s wonderfully put, and I’m talking to you for elaboration and examples, which you’re giving me.

THIGPEN:  That was Ray.  Everything he did.  He came home, he studied all the time, he practiced all the time, trying to improve all the time.  I think all great artists are like that, but the ones I’ve had the pleasure of working with are really exception.  Like, he would get together with symphonic players; he wanted to improve the bowing, he wanted to do this, and they would come down to see what he was doing.  He was always open.  But there were some things that were definite that they had stylistically that worked, and those things they were very adamant about, because they worked.  I’m speaking of Ray and people of that caliber.  We’re talking about the very top of the heap, now.  Whether it was Buddy Rich or Oscar Peterson or Ray Brown… Ray Brown, after he heard his father play Oscar Pettiford, he came off the road, and went back and learned everything Oscar Pettiford was doing before he’d go back out there again.  Oscar Peterson didn’t feel he was ready to come down when Norman asked him, and when he felt ready he came down, and jumped right to the top of the line.  So those guys are going to be the best possible, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to lay on it.  Because that instrument is challenging and the music is like that.  The instrument tells you.  There’s always somebody coming along, like a new fast gun.

TP:    I interviewed him in 1999, and he said he had to practice all the time so he could execute all the stuff he used to play.  I think that’s one reason why he had young musicians in his trio.

THIGPEN:  That’s right.  He told me, “When you go out…”  Because I’d been off, I was raising my kids and blah-blah-blah.  But he said, “You get you some young boys, because they’re gonna be on top of it.”  So that’s what you do.  You’ve got to get where the energy is.

TP:    So your friendship lasted the duration, after leaving Oscar Peterson.

THIGPEN:  Oh yes.  My spiritual brother, Donald, and every… Oh, Ray was more than just a friend on the bandstand.  Ray spiritually was like a big brother.  He didn’t press you for anything, but if I needed to know something or whatever…encouragement… Ray was always there.

TP:    Was his business acumen always extremely evident?

THIGPEN:  Well, let me put it this way.  I knew he was a fast study.  I certainly couldn’t keep up with him.  But he would try to pull my coat about certain things which I just couldn’t grasp until later years.

TP:    You mean business things.

THIGPEN:  Business-wise.  But he’s one of these guys who could read the “Herald-Tribune” in 15 minutes, and you ask him a topic and just give him the page number and the subtitle, he’d tell you everything in the paper.

TP:    So to use the word “genius” wouldn’t be overstating the case with him.

THIGPEN:  No, I don’t think.  “Genius,” dictionary-wise, says a person of exceptional talent, unusual creativity and talent, and how to use it.  That’s the dictionary form of the word.  I think he fit the category.  You have nuances.

TP:    Well, everyone has their idiosyncracies.

THIGPEN:  But as far as these extra-special gifts that he had, and how you use them is what’s important…

TP:    Can you think of any one or two anecdotes that really get to his essence?

THIGPEN:  Yeah, my last little paragraph.  I thought this out; it wasn’t just random.

TP:    What I mean is that over the forty years of friendship, any thing you remember happening that brings into relief his qualities and his character.

THIGPEN:  What I mentioned is that he was consistent, and as I said before, he’s a very caring and thoughtful person.  This is very personal.  He became a very integral part of my life, as I said, as a spiritual brother and by example as a human being, thinking of me as a person… Unlike a lot of people, they talk to you and they don’t really listen to what you have to say from your perspective. He was one of the most fantastic listeners.  He knew how to listen to people for what they had to say.  Not for what he was perceiving them to say, but what they HAD to say.

TP:    That exactly correlates with what he did on the bandstand, too.

THIGPEN:  That’s right.

TP:    As you know, Oscar Peterson has an incredible feel for people’s voices.  How they speak, how they phrase things… It’s uncanny, and it really adds to the book.  He said he was doing his job, because he had to listen to them, because he had to play with them…

THIGPEN:  That’s right.  I mean, I always felt like that. My father had told me that, and that’s a deep-rooted scene.  And you learn that as an accompanist.  He was the perfect accompanist.  That’s an art.  You’re not afraid of losing your identity by being subservient or serving up something good to enhance another person’s performance. That was him.  When I said he was a caring and thoughtful human being, he was a caring and thoughtful musician in everything that he did, and it was like, “‘How do you make it better?”  And that was the thing that… That put it on for me.  And living with a person like that, when you’re able to practice it every day on the bandstand, then that’s something else.

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Filed under Bass, DownBeat, Interview, Jazz.com, Ray Brown, WKCR

A Pair of Interviews with Bassist Fred Hopkins (R.I.P.) on his 64th Birth Anniversary

Few bassists ever played with the energy, drive, and virtuosic derring-do projected by Fred Hopkins (b: October 10, 1947; d: January 7, 1999), who made his mark playing Henry Threadgill’s compositions in the collective trio Air and in Threadgill’s Sextet, as well as various ensembles led by David Murray, Don Pullen, and a host of other creative music luminaries of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Born in Chicago and seasoned in the AACM, Hopkins moved to New York in 1975. Posted below are two interviews that I had a chance to conduct with him on WKCR, one from 1985, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary celebration of the AACM, and the other from a six-hour profile of his music in the summer of 1987. The latter interview has been on the web for many years on the http://www.jazzhouse.org site.

Fred Hopkins (December 3, 1985):

Fred, did you ever play with the AACM Big Band after graduating from high school and during your further studies in music in 1967 and 1968?

Well, I started playing with the Experimental Band, which was comprised of AACM members and also non-AACM members at this time.  But this was later.  This would be like the early Seventies when I first played with them.  Of course, prior to that, like the founding members… We’re talking about Muhal, Steve McCall, Phil Cohran and Jodie Christian as the founding members.  The AACM band was different from the Experimental Band, because it was all AACM members.  Which was very interesting.  At first I didn’t understand what the difference was.  And the only difference was that it was actually the members.  And it’s just like being a Democrat or a Republican; you could still participate in people’s projects, but unless you’re a member, then you’re not considered that.

The thing that happened to me was, as I stated earlier, I had been listening to the cats, and… I don’t know how people’s names come up and all these things that happen to bring people together.  For some reason — and a fortunate reason for me — I remember my first rehearsal with Muhal. This was with the Experimental Band, not the AACM band.  In fact, we were rehearsing down at Muhal’s at his space on the South Side of Chicago… And I had such a great time.  It’s one of those things.  You know, it’s very difficult to express sometimes verbally things that happened, aesthetic things like that. It was all about performing music, and performing music with others, which really didn’t leave too much room for the normal (abnormal, really) ego situations that a lot of the music has today, whereas you have the leader or the best musicians in the band and all these things, which really are irrelevant, and have nothing to do with the music.  And I have always considered myself as being a team player.  I don’t really like to solo….. Well, I do.  I do like to solo!  But it’s not necessary.  I’d rather have a good performance.

So this organization, the AACM, afforded me the opportunity to really dig into a lot of music.  And one of the things also that happens is that a lot of people think, when they consider Creative Music… Because I won’t call it Experimental, because you know, how long does it take to experiment on things?  We’ve been playing this music all these years.  Come on, it’s no more experimentation; we know what we’re doing.  To be creative with the music requires, you know, all the form styles, old and new… I mean, you have to have all these things under your grasp, because all the different composers in this organization might write anything suggestive of a particular era of music, or a song, or something totally modern, and you had to be able to fit into this and also be creative with that from composition to composition.

And many different people were composing for the big band, four-five-six people whose work you were playing, or was it just Muhal’s work?

From my recollections, it was mostly Muhal’s music.  Because the way it started, the AACM band, when it finally started to become an actual reality, was based off of Muhal’s energies and insight to go in this direction.  So at the time, he was writing most of the music, because of the guys at that time weren’t that adept at doing that.  But the band, or the Association’s idea has always been centered around people developing themselves, so as time progressed, there were more composers contributing music for the bands.  And of course, for the small groups it goes without saying.

So you as a young musician were fortunate enough to be in highly structured situations that yet allowed you a certain amount of freedom — with Walter Dyett at DuSable High School and with the two big bands.

Oh, yes.  Which were vast differences, but very close at the same time.  Because my experience with Walter Dyett was very demanding and very exacting.  I mean, I was supposed to play certain things, and I did — I mean, mostly I did.  And the same with the Creative Music; the same thing — very exacting things.  To be called upon to play a Blues, you had to play a Blues.  It might written… The horn line might be very different from the standard or popular Blues songs at the time, but the feeling had to be there.  And that’s what I was required to do.  It’s very tricky.  You’re looking at some music, and you’re reading the music, but you know it’s suggesting that you play this, so… This is where the interpretation part comes in that I had to get involved with.

Also there were many splinter groups out of the Big Band for small units.  Many formed in the Sixties.  Joseph Jarman formed a group, Roscoe Mitchell formed a group, Kalaparusha formed a group.  You first recorded on a Kalaparusha date called Forces and Feelings.  Can you tell us some of the other small groups that you were playing with in the early 1970s?

First of all, rather than considering these to be splinter groups, as you said… It’s not so much the terminology that the idea was that people were supposed to perform their music.  So that always the original idea.  It’s always been that way.  And as people developed, then they wrote more material that was being performed.  And quite naturally, the whole thing was for each individual to develop themselves musically.

And I came in with Kalaparusha, which I’ll tell you, was the most different thing I ever did musically.  Coming from where I was coming from… I mean, I was stone Art Blakey at the time.  I mean, I was really into grooving.  And I met Kalaparusha (I don’t know who introduced me to him), and he said, “Hey, man, you play?”  I said, “Yes.”  He said, “Come on down to this rehearsal.”  So I came down to this rehearsal with Sarnie Garrett on guitar, Wesley Tyus on percussion, and Kalaparusha and myself.  And it just happened.

In fact, all the groups I perform with now, it’s the same thing.  I afford myself the luxury of playing with… Since I couldn’t make my first million dollars when I was thirty, the next thing I wanted was to play with the best musicians and composers.  So that I’ve been working very diligently to try to bring that about.  And I’ve been fortunate to be with these cats.  But all these bands that I work with have had this spark, this special thing, this undefinable thing that always get stuck with trying to express this part.

But Kalaparusha for me was a very enlightening experience.  It was like letting the lion out the cage.  Because until then, I had really thought about a very structured type way of playing the bass, and he said, “No.  Play what you hear that should go with this song.”

It’s my impression that you were studying the Classical bass at this time, after high school.

Yes.  Well, because Walter Dyett’s standards were so high, we were all required to go as far as we could go with our instruments.  And of course, playing concert band music, sometimes we would play some of the orchestral pieces.  So what happened was that… And I was scared to death.  He told me to go down and audition for this orchestra, which was the Civic Orchestra, the training orchestra for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Chicago.  He said, “Look, man, go down and audition.”  And I’ll tell you, I was scared.   I said, “Oh, man, I don’t know if I’m good enough” and all these things… One of the AACM members, in fact Charles Clark, had just recently died, and they had a special scholarship that the Chicago Symphony set up in his honor.  Brian Smith was in the orchestra at the time.

And I remember going down there and I played this stuff… I was a pretty good reader.  So I got through my prepared pieces, and I did a sight-reading piece, which was okay — I got through it.  So then the teacher gave me a look, he said, “Look, why don’t you play something you want to play?”  So I said, “Okay.”  So I played this piece, “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and he said, “Oh, okay.”  And what he was telling me (I mean, after all these years have passed and I look back at it), he could hear the potential of someone playing an instrument as opposed to being an orchestral bass player or a Jazz bass player; rather than those type of labels, he heard that.  And basically, that’s what I wanted to do.  I wanted to study my instrument, and also… I mean, I love all kinds of music.  So to play orchestral music, Beethoven and Strauss and Bach, that was just another icing on the cake for me.  But that was a great….that was a very incredible… So if you can imagine playing orchestral music and the AACM music at the same time…

Then you met Henry Threadgill and Steve McCall, and Air was born.

Right.  Boy, I love it.

[MUSIC: Air, “G.vE,” “RB”]

When Air hooked up, it was for the production of a play called Hotel in Chicago.

Actually, I guess the best terminology would be magic.  Because it’s something that you want to happen, of course; in all the things that we do, we want the best things to happen.  And always, as I stated earlier, I definitely wanted to play with the best musicians.  And the thing is, you never know when you meet these people, until you meet them.

So what was happening, actually, Henry and I were living actually right next door to each other.  Henry lived at 48th and Drexel in Chicago, on the South Side.  So we would see each other.  And I had heard him… In fact, this was during the time when I was meeting and listening to the AACM musicians.  And I would see Henry, and we would speak and say hello and stuff, and I would hear him practicing over in his apartment, and I would be over in my apartment practicing.

So finally, what happened, Henry got commissioned to write the music and perform for this play, The Hotel: 99 Rooms, with Don Saunders, the director.  In fact, not that long ago we performed one of his pieces at the Public Theatre.  So we got together and we performed this music.  And what happened was this special thing… After we performed for about… God, I forgot how long we worked at that time — but several months.  And after the play was over, we said, “Wow, we can’t just drop this now,” because we had gotten so close musically — and as friends also.  So we decided to get together and form a band.

An interesting note is that at that time, I really wasn’t even thinking about where we was going to go with this in terms of making all these records and making money and traveling, but of course, in the back of my mind, these were things I wanted to do.  And the main emphasis was on the fact of the way the music came out.  We were saying, “Wow, this is really some good music.”  So we continued working on the music, and we did some other things.

In fact, our first name was…we used our last names.  The name of the band was (I forgot who was first) McCall-Threadgill-Hopkins, and then the other name was… Oh God, what was this other name we had?  I can’t remember the second name of the band.  But anyway, then finally it evolved into Air.  We found out that we were all Air signs, two Libras and an Aquarian, and so we used the letters from our names, and came up with this.  And it all came out pretty good.

[MUSIC: “Sir Simpleton,” “Just The Facts And Pass The Bucket,” “Cremation”]

That’s very indicative of Henry’s writing.  He has such a spectrum… Henry is one of those guys who doesn’t sit still about the things that he’s done already.  He has a continuous waterfall, it’s a waterfall of just… Because he’s working on new things now, and always pressing forward.  So it’s been a great experience for me to work with him.

We were talking a little bit about what  playing creative music of this sort does for a musician. Maybe we could paraphrase for the listeners.

Well, one thing it does for me, it solidifies…. Not  to get too philosophical, it solidifies a purpose in terms of… Why study all these notes and why appreciate all the different kinds of music, from Beethoven to Duke to Abrams to Coltrane — all this stuff.  Unfortunately, because of the way the music industry is structured now, we don’t have these gatherings of great artists, as I would imagine had happened before, and if it didn’t, it should, and probably it will happen in the future…

What happens is that you get a chance to actually utilize your information, for lack of a better word, in an unstructured atmosphere.  With those particular groups, I had very structured things to do, but at the same time, I had all the freedom that was required to bring the composition off.  And as far as I’m concerned, there’s really not that many people writing like that, you know, where you have that kind of freedom and is that demanding, too.  So what it does, it allows you, to coin a phrase, express yourself within the confines of someone else.

Fred Hopkins Profile (August 2, 1987) – (WKCR):

[MUSIC: Threadgill, “To Be Announced”; Air, “Children’s Song,” “Roll ‘Em”; Kalaparusha, “Ananda,” “USO Dance”]

“USO Dance” was performed at Studio Rivbea before Air had recorded any LPs, in 1975 — back in the so-called good old days.

[LAUGHS] I was a young kid and all that stuff.

This was when a lot of musicians had moved to New York from the Midwest and the West Coast, and were really making an impact and changing the New York scene around.  The Wildflowers series was a springboard in introducing these musicians to a broader audience.

It certainly was.

You were doing quite well in Chicago at the time you came to New York.  Maybe we could go into your background as a bassist in the Chicago area and how you came here.

Well, part of my experiences there were my early training, which started… I guess I have to start with my family first, of course, because there were seven musicians in my family.  I had two brothers.  One brother played all the woodwinds, flute, saxophone, clarinet, and he even played bassoon.  Another brother played drums.  I was in  the band together with my younger brother, Dennis Hopkins.  My older brother, Joel Hopkins…

This was in high school?

In high school.  This was at DuSable High School with the famous, incredible teacher, we called him Captain, but his name was Walter Dyett.  And also I had a sister, Patricia, who is now deceased, and she played clarinet — she was in the band with me at the same time, too.  Those were my formative years.

Also, one other important influence at that time, which  was the deciding factor for the instrument that I chose… When I originally started off,  I wanted to play cello.  So I went to school, and Captain Dyett said, “What do you want to play?”  I said, “I want to play cello.”  He said, “We don’t have cello.  You’re a bass player.”  He actually told me I was a bass player.  And he also intimidated me.  He was one of those old-style teachers who tells you what’s happening, and you learn later.  And I liked that; I like it now, I didn’t like it then.

But anyway, one of the other early influences was, I’ll never forget this Sunday afternoon watching one of the public broadcasting stations, Channel 11 in Chicago, and it was a performance by Pablo Casals.  He was in this old Gothic mansion in this large room by himself, and he was playing this music, this solo cello.  And I heard the sound and I said, “That’s what I want to do.”  Before that time I was listening to all these instruments, and I didn’t know which one I wanted to play, but as soon as I heard the cello, I said, “Okay, I know I want to play cello.”  But as I mentioned, there was no cello, so I ended up playing bass.

Walter Dyett had many generations of Chicago musicians, as many people know, but some don’t.  Talk about his legacy at DuSable.

Well, some of his students included people like Nat “King” Cole, Johnny Griffin, Von Freeman, George Freeman, and people closer to my generation like Oscar Brashear, who lives out on the West Coast now, who is doing very well as a recording musician and also is doing a lot of contracting work… God, some other guys…

You could list a hundred performing professional musicians who are graduates of the DuSable program over a thirty-year period.

Right.  And not to mention all the people who were in the band who went to other professions in terms of being lawyers, doctors, bus drivers and all this.  The thing about Captain Dyett is that the information that he gave us, you could apply to anything.  After I left high school, several years later that’s when it started to sink in that this information, whether I became a musician didn’t really have nothing to do with it.  He was just a positive thinking type person, and those were the things that he put on us.

I believe Dyett had been a violinist in his younger years?  Did you find he had any particular gift for teaching strings, or was he adept at every instrument?

Yes.  Because like I said, his philosophy, since it included using your brain… He actually made you think, is what it was.  So you can apply it to any instrument.  But he was a violinist.  In fact, any of the listeners who might know more factual things about this, please call.  From what I understood was that he was in the Army; that’s where his thing was.

After World War I he was in one of the Illinois regimental bands which he organized, and I think he also had aspirations to be a doctor, which he gave up on because of the racial situation…,

Right, in America at that time, and maybe at this time, too.

…and so went into education.

Anyway, what happened was, a fact…a small fact… My mother was at DuSable first went there to teach.  So then, generations later, here come her kids and the same teacher is still there, which I think is quite incredible.

Anyway, what happened with Captain Dyett, as I understand it, is that once he started teaching there, and especially at this time we’re talking about the Forties, Fifties, and when I was there in the Sixties, the teaching level was a little bit higher than now in the Black areas of major cities.  They said he could have been teaching at some of the higher universities, and he had a lot of offers to do things like that, but he said, “No, I won’t leave, because if I leave, who’s going to teach you little…” — I can’t tell you what he called us.

But an incredible man.  He put his stamp on me, and I think I was really fortunate to be one of his students.

You were in DuSable around 1961 or ’62?

Yes, I went to DuSable in ’62.

So what kind of things would the band play?   Which band were you in?  He had several.

I was in the concert band.  They had the concert band, they also had a choir, and also there was a dance band, which we called the Jazz band at that time, because we’d get a chance to groove, you know.  First I started off in the concert band, and we played only concert band music.  And  an interesting fact for all the bass players is that for the first year that I studied bass, he did not let me use the pizzicato at all.   I did nothing but bow — and on threat of death.  No pizzicato.  Only arco work.  Because his idea was that you start from the foundation of anything, and then once you get that correct you can go on and do whatever else you want to do with it.  Again, later on I discovered that was some invaluable information for me.

What kind of material would the Jazz band be playing?

They did a lot of the stock big band songs, things like “Cute,” some of the Ellington classics, and some other people that I didn’t know — probably if I saw the book again, I could remember a lot of things.

How about music in the community?  Were you hearing music apart from school in the neighborhood?

Yeah.  Well, at that time, every little tavern, every little bar… This was during the period of live music, and every place had some kind of combo.  I lived on 45th Street and State in Chicago, and actually there was a tavern across the street from my mother’s house.. In fact, I always remember hearing this bass going, just boom-boom-boom.  As a little kid, I used to sit on my porch late at night, and I’d see all  this commotion over there, and people talking, and all the things that go on in taverns — but I always remember hearing a band.  So my influence in that sense was everything… And also walking through the neighborhood, I could hear Gospel music, Blues, Jazz, the Rhythm-and-Blues of that day, and Classical music.  In other words, I was exposed to all kinds of music as a kid, and it affected me subconsciously, I would imagine.

Were you listening to Jazz records at that time also?

Not really.  You know, I really didn’t listen to Jazz until actually when I started playing music, and then I could appreciate what was happening with it more.  I was listening more to Classical music at that time, my personal choice.  And my brothers and sisters played all kinds of different music.  So like I said, I was exposed to a lot of  things.  But I didn’t really actually have a preference when I was a kid.  Not really.

The question was really leading toward the hackneyed old influences question.

Well, in fact, I was looking for this list that I made for this interview, and I’m sure I left out several people, but it included about fifty people.  Most of them were musicians, of course, but all kinds of people — even my accounting teacher in high school.

How about bass players?

Even though I may not sound like it all the time, I’m really kind of old-fashioned in that I like an old, fat bass sound, and people like Jimmy Garrison and Paul Chambers — those were my real early influences.

Let’s get the course of events that led you out of high school to the Chicago Civic Orchestra and into the AACM.

Oh, yeah.  I think they thought I had a little talent!  But anyway, what happened was that after I left high school, I was… Actually, I was just working.  And once I left high school, in fact, because of Captain Dyett’s method, which is the more talent you have, the harder he is on you, and he gives you some encouragement, but not really, so that you won’t get a big head and you won’t have any ego problems.  So when I left school, I didn’t know I even had talent, because he was so hard on me.  So for about two or three years, I was working at A&P!  I was playing a gig like every month or two months or something like that.

Then I met a couple of other friends of mine, like Hobie James, who was a trumpeter (he’s a pianist now), who at the time was working on his Masters Degree in Music Education.  I became his roommate, and I got re-interested in it, and really wanted to perform.  So I started practicing again…

Anyway, in fact, on Captain Dyett’s recommendation, even after high school…. He stayed in touch with everybody, or we stayed in touch with him also.  He suggested I go and…

[END OF SIDE 1]

…and a sight-reading piece, which you didn’t know what that was going to be, and then you can do one thing that you liked that you thought you did the best.  So on the Beethoven piece I did pretty good, because I liked Beethoven, and the Bach piece I was okay, and the sight reading I did okay.  But still I almost didn’t get in, because there were people who had really actually studied orchestral music a little bit more than I had.  So my auditioner said, “Look, why don’t you just play something you want to play.”  So I said, “Okay, I know what I’ll do.”  So I did this improvisation on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” — arco.   And he said, “Oh, okay.”

So anyway, that’s how I got into the orchestra.  And I  studied with Joseph Gustafeste, who was the principal bassist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  It was another very valuable period for me, because it was like… Instead of teaching me orchestral bass playing, he actually (on my request, by the way) taught me about the instrument.  And once you know about your instrument, you can perform any kind of music.  And that’s what I was really after.  I didn’t know all this at the time, by the way.  But those were the things that were happening.

I stayed with the orchestra for about three years.  In fact, most of the world-renowned conductors of the day, in all of the major orchestras, had conducted our orchestra, because all the guest conductors conducted the Civic Orchestra also.  So all these guys like Muti, and in fact even Georg Solti conducted the orchestra one time.  It’s amazing, the power… It’s just like an instrument.  I mean, the power that a conductor has over an orchestra is amazing.

How broad was the repertoire of the orchestra?

Well, we played all the repertoire of the Chicago Symphony.  In fact, we used their same music.  And let me say that some of the music was very difficult music, and also very enjoyable.

So I stayed with them for three years, and then it was time, of course… As things happened, it was time to change and do something else.
We’ll get into what something else was after we hear some music, with two of Fred’s frequent collaborators over the last decade, Hamiett Bluiett and Don Pullen… [ETC.]

[MUSIC: Bluiett, “Mahalia”; Pullen “In the Beginning”]

When we went into the music, we were talking about Fred’s time in the Chicago Civic Orchestra, and what he did afterwards.

I kept working, that’s all.  It’s just a logical progression.  But as we were saying, fortunately, I had good teachers, and the whole thing was to… Everything is like a step towards something else.  It’s never a final… You don’t finally become a good bass player, you don’t finally become a good electrician; it’s always about learning more and opening yourself up for more stuff.

Where you achieved renown as an improvising bassist was  in the AACM in Chicago in the early 1970’s.  So let’s recapitulate the events that brought you into the AACM.

Well, that was actually a very exciting period for me, because up until that time… You asked me earlier if I had listened to Jazz music, which I didn’t when I was a kid — not knowingly, I should say.  And the same thing with the improvisation in music of the AACM in the Sixties.  In fact, at that time I was still in the Civic Orchestra, and I was doing like piano duo gigs in the Rush Street area of downtown Chicago, and more traditional type of gigs like that.

Then I just remember hearing about the AACM; this was in the early Sixties.  That’s actually when a lot of the guys started going to Europe, and people like Muhal Richard Abrams and Kalaparusha, Henry Threadgill was part of it at that time, too, the musicians of the Art Ensemble, John Stubblefield, Braxton… So anyway, I started hearing about these guys, but I had no idea what their music was about.

So one day I went to a concert they were having in Hyde Park, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of this music, but it felt good… And also, by the way, chronologically, Coltrane and Albert Ayler and these people were playing at the same time, too, so there was a lot of excitement about doing some different type of things with music at that time that I was becoming exposed to.
Anyway, I went to this concert, and I heard… I can’t remember what band it was.  It might have been a collaboration of all these different people in the AACM at the time.  And I said, “What are they doing?’  But it felt good.  But I couldn’t figure out technically what was happening, and all this freedom and things, and all these different arrangements.  Some bands had no bass player, some had two drummers and a violin, people like Leroy Jenkins… And I said, “What are they doing?!”

Anyway, I didn’t get back to that music, because like I say, I continued my studies and these different things.  But then I met Kalaparusha, and he asked me did I want to play with him.  I said, “Well, sure.  I’ve never done this kind of music before, but I’ll do my best.”  And it was like someone took the shackles off of me.  They said, “Okay, Fred, you can do anything you want to do” — as long as it’s musical, by the way.  And I said, “Wow!”  I really enjoyed that.  In fact, my first band in this particular type of music was with Kalaparusha.  Kalaparusha, Wesley Tyus, Rita Worford, and Sarnie Garrett on guitar.

I guess being my first band and my first experience to the music, it really opened me up.  And I was amazed at myself (and it’s not just an egotistical thing I’m talking about) that I was able to do as many things as I could, simply because we had at that time… Very little music was written down for me personally in the bands that I played with, and so I was able to get into this whole improvisational aspect.

So anyway, that led to meeting other musicians and playing with other bands, and also letting me listen more.  Then I think one of the really deciding factors, when I really decided, I said, “This is what I’m going to do”… I heard an album of John Coltrane’s, the first album he did after he left Miles Davis and these people, Coltrane Sound, and it really changed my whole outlook on music.  I knew then that I could do anything I wanted to do — and once again, as long as it’s musical.  And from that point on, I just got more involved, and started meeting more people over the years.

Were you playing with the AACM Big Band?

At that time I actually wasn’t a member of the AACM. I became a member of the AACM when I moved to New York.  A lot of people didn’t know that was happening.  But I was fortunate enough to perform with most of the members of the AACM at that time.  And so I became associated with the AACM, and consequently, a lot of people thought I was a member, and I was treated as a member by the musicians and also the listening public.  But I was actually playing in Mr. Abrams’ Big Band, is what it was.  Because the AACM had a big band, and then also Mr. Abrams had a big band.  So like I said, I got more involved in this music.  But I joined the AACM when I moved to New York, which is kind of weird.  I was on a trial basis up to that point!  Because we had people like Malachi Favors, so they didn’t need me, because he’s such a great bass player himself.

But among other groups, you were playing with Muhal Richard Abrams’ Sextet of the time, I think…

Yes, around 1974, with Steve McCall, Henry Threadgill, Kalaparusha, and Wallace MacMillan.  Up until this time, by the way (for the other musicians), I was holding back.  I really don’t like amplifiers.  Hate ‘em, by the way.  And at this time I was still playing acoustically, and they would put a microphone on the bass or something like that.  So I was able to actually develop a sound.  Because then you’re not playing through the amplifier.  You’re actually through the instrument.  I mean, you really have to play the instrument to project over drums and saxophones and all these things, you know.  In fact, that sextet with Muhal was really an incredible experience for me.  In fact, after I left Kalaparusha, that’s whose band I went to.

Then soon after that, we went to Air, and Steve McCall, Henry Threadgill and myself.

That was only a brief formulation at the start.  It was set up for the score of a play called Hotel, I believe, in 1971.

Yeah.  In fact, it was like your normal thing, a musician calling on a musician to perform with him on a gig.  And what happened, I’ll never forget, we were doing this play, and we actually had a chance to listen to ourselves while we were performing.  And we all said, “Wow!  Hey, this sounds pretty good.”   So we decided to stay together.  And of course… Well, for the people who know the band, we’ve been together for what, twelve years now…

Well, if it was 1971, it’s sixteen years.

It was ’71.  It’s about that now, that’s right.  And that has been a very rewarding musical experience, being a part of that band, a co-leader or whatever.

In 1975, Fred Hopkins moved to New York City, along with many musicians from California, the Midwest, and all over the country, spilling into New York and really changing things around, and he began a whole new set of affiliations.  We’ll start talking about that a little bit after we hear another set of music.  We’ll hear a bass solo by Fred Hopkins as part of the David Murray Trio in 1976, live at Studio Rivbea on Bond Street.

[MUSIC:  “Dedication to Jimmy Garrison”; “In Your Style”]

Around the time you moved, you formed  a lot of alliances that have lasted to the present really, with remarkable continuity — Arthur Blythe, Oliver Lake, David Murray, and Don Pullen, as well as Air, Henry Threadgill…

Actually, when I look at my professional alliances and associations now, I’m basically playing with the same people I started playing with when I first moved to New York.  It’s the same group of people.  And of course, there are some new musicians that I am performing with now.  But when I look at my book (you know, you look back at your book every year), I see all the same names in there from ten years ago.  “Call Oliver,” “Call David,” recording session such-and-such day with Oliver, or Henry Threadgill.  And it’s interesting that it developed that way for me personally, with these musicians in this particular area of music that we’re performing in.

Because it wasn’t a plan or nothing.  This thing just kind of happened.  I didn’t really want to exclude myself from… I didn’t think I could do any orchestral playing, but I felt I might be able to perform maybe with some chamber groups and things like this.  But it seems the nature of an artist in New York is that you get pegged as something, and that’s who you are and that’s who you remain. In fact, I was warned of that before I moved to New York.  The guy said, (and I’ll never forget this), “If you start off playing Avant-Garde, you’re going to end up being an Avant-Garde bass player.”

And it’s a double-edged sword.  First of all, I enjoy doing exactly what I want to do, which is I enjoy having the freedom to interpret music, and most of the people, in fact all the guys I work with give me free rein to interpret their music… I have to read it, too, by the way, but I still have a lot of space there.  But I do miss, by the way, playing a lot of other musical situations.  But like I say, once again, I really enjoy doing exactly what I do right now.

Well, one place that was a center was a club called the Tin Palace, which is now a place where they have singing waiters and is a so-called crab house…

Crab food…

It doesn’t have quite the same ambiance as it did seven or eight years, when they booked Jazz full-time, and it was a core location for jazz life in New York. It could be said that you were almost house bassist there. Of course, there were others, and remarkable bands played there. But you could hear Fred at the Tin Palace at least one week out of every month, I’d say, and that might be understating it. You played there a lot with Arthur Blythe’s In The Tradition group with John Hicks often.

Right.  Ahmed Abdullah, of course, Henry Threadgill, Olu Dara… God!  And you know, the thing about that period, by the way, the “loft jazz” period, what was happening… We’re talking about…

’75, ’76, ’77, ’78.

What was happening was that most of the club owners in New York were hiring only Bebop musicians.  And that’s not a  putdown, by the way; that’s just one of the classifications they give us.  So anything like in the vein that we were dealing with was considered Avant-Garde, and they’d say, “Well, you can’t draw a crowd” and all this mess that they used!  Or even if they did let you in, they gave you like a Tuesday night, one night, and they’d expect you to fill the house — all these things.
So what happened is that there was… For me, the spirit of the Loft Jazz from the musicians’ point of view was that the musicians took it upon themselves to find their own venue.  And it just so happened that the Tin Palace was open for something of that nature… They didn’t even know they were getting into this, by the way.  I think they started off with…

Sunday afternoons or Saturday afternoons.

Yeah, right.  Then Stanley Crouch took over the booking for them, and Stanley Crouch being a very knowledgeable person about the music and about the musicians, he started hiring all these different cats.  And at that time, a lot of the guys were pretty new in town.  Several of us, like Blythe and different people, had been here a couple of years before, and Olu Dara had been here some time before, but I was told they weren’t really working here that much at that time.

What happened was that, like I say, it developed on its own.  And the bottom line is that people go to hear music.  Club owners do not listen to the music — I men, so to speak.  They do listen; that’s not what I’m saying.  But there’s only one club owner in each club, but it’s hundreds and thousands of people who go to hear the music.  So what happened was that the people got a chance to hear all these different bands.  And I must say, the music was very exciting at that period.  Because it was like everyone was unleashed.  You could do anything you wanted.  You had all your own compositions, you didn’t have to play anybody else’s music — or you could play someone else’s music.  There was some nostalgic music being performed, there were new pieces being performed.  I remember one particular night someone called me, and they said, “Well, look, the bass player can’t make it; come on down” — and we didn’t have any music!  Man, we just started playing, and we played for four hours, and we had a good time.

But getting back to my point, the musicians took it upon themselves, some of us maybe unknowingly, to create their own work space.  And the other thing about it is that we became known internationally first from that club.  I will never forget some of the people from the Japanese media first started doing the reviews and different things on us, and then the American and New York people started writing about it.

The first LPs are on European labels.  The group with Arthur Blythe, John Hicks, yourself and Steve McCall was one of the most remarkable groups to emerge at that time…

Yeah!

Because everybody was so out and in at the same time, or something like that — and especially on that wonderful piano at the Tin Palace!

Oh, ask the piano players about that one!  In fact, they finally had to have one leg propped up or something.

When they finally got a good piano, then the place closed down.

Of course.  But one of the things which was remarkable, too, was that the pianists who played on it were able to make it sound good, which is I think something that all musicians should think about — that the sound actually comes from the musician, not the instrument.  It’s good to have good instruments, by the way.  But it starts from yourself out.

[MUSIC:  Arthur Blythe, “Christmas Song,” “Naima,” “As Of Yet”]

I haven’t worked that much with Arthur in the last year or so.  But that was a real fun period for me, man.  That quartet…heh-heh… In fact, I want to try it again.  Where is Arthur at?  But with Steve McCall and John Hicks being consummate pianists, and Arthur Blythe, of course… Now, as we were saying while we were playing the music, we had some other performances that were never recorded when we performed at the Vanguard with that particular quartet, and was able to get a little looser because the time allowances were different; you know, you can play a song as long as you want, and things like that. The bottom line is being able to play together.  Because I mean, personally, I was taught to do  music from an ensemble approach, which to me might be a problem today I think.  There’s too many people interested in being soloists these days.  I don’t know if it’s because maybe that’s the way that they get into music first, or what it is… And also, I know the industry pushes that, too, by the way.  Everybody has to be a bandleader, you’ve got to be a star, and all this stuff.  But I really enjoy… In fact, when the ensemble is playing, I don’t really want a solo.  I don’t need a solo.  Because I feel so fulfilled when the song is over that, you know, I didn’t really feel like I needed one.  Not to say that when I take a solo, the music’s not going well, by the way.

But that period was really a very good period, because I think that up until time, I was doing… I mean, the music we were playing at that time, we were doing less traditional things at that time.  So when I started playing with Arthur at this period, the music you just heard, it was fun, you know, to be doing some groove stuff and some up-tempo walking — you know, the old traditional bass stuff.  It was a very exciting period for me.

[MUSIC: (Private tape, arco solo), Hopkins, K. Bell, R. Ameen, Muneer, Betsch, J. Santos [TITLE UNKNOWN]; O. Lake, “C Piece,” Air, “G.vE”]

We’ve heard a wide variety of music, music in-tempo or up-tempo, slow music, textural music, giving you some idea of Fred’s versatility and scope.

Well, as we were saying earlier, it’s about playing music.  And fortunately, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of these different musicians who make these type of demands on my playing abilities.

That other song, which was a more rhythmic thing, “G.vE,” which was for a very good friend of mine, Ghisela Van Eichen, was a more rhythmic thing, because… You know, my first instrument actually was conga drums.  I never performed on them, by the way.  But I started off studying them.  And I found out that my hands couldn’t take that kind of pain; I’m sorry, I’m just not into that!  And fortunately, like I said, then the high school days came, so I was able just to switch to a less painful instrument — so I thought…

The bass is a less painful instrument?

Yes.  So I thought!  So my fingers still hurt, but I seem to be a little bit more into this instrument than congas!

But that was another period.  Now, we played some Air stuff there, and also Oliver Lake.  Of course, as I mentioned before, Air was my first band that I stayed with for a long period of time.  We did about nine albums before Steve left.  That’s indicative of ensemble playing, from Henry’s compositions to the approach to the music to the actual tuning of the drums — because the system we used was tuning the drums to the bass, so we could get more resonance and a more harmonious sound, so to speak, from the two of us, since we didn’t use piano or nothing like that, right.  But that band, like I say, is indicative of people trying to perform on one composition together.  A lot of times you would you think, like, with a traditional setting, that the horn player would be the leader in terms of the way that sound comes off.  And we always attempted to…(and maybe even sometimes did it!)…attempted to blend and use the sound of the drums as part of the harmonic as well as rhythmic structure, and also the bass, vice-versa.

And Steve McCall was uniquely adapted to that function in an ensemble.

Oh yeah.  Steve McCall, I mean, I can never speak enough about his style of playing drums.  One thing, I could have fun with Steve!  We could take a lot of chances.  And that’s another part of the music.  Sometimes… I mean, I’ll look at some music, and I will just try to do something different.  Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t.  And it’s good to be with people who, if they see you falling, they will catch you.  And also, you might even discover some new things that way.  But Steve… That was a very rewarding association for me.

Coming up we’ll hear a tape of the John Hicks Trio featuring Fred and Idris Muhammad, from an NPR broadcast from New Year’s Day, 1985 at Charlie’s Tap in Boston.

[MUSIC: Hicks Trio, “Miles Mode,” Bluiett, “Ebu”]

Coming up now are some collaborations by a newly-formed group featuring Fred with cellist Deirdre Murray…

Well, it’s a real pleasure, and it’s a challenge to play with her. Also we have a lot of fun.  We have a friendly challenge amongst ourselves, so that we tease each other about who’s going to play the best tonight and all these things.  But she’s such a fine cellist.  And anyway, it’s a similar type of occurrence in my life that I had with Air, where you meet someone musically, and it just gels right away, there’s no problem, you don’t have to explain nothin’ to anybody — you just play well together.

So Deirdre and I, we decided, we said, “Let’s do something on our own.”  So anyway, we prepared this music you hear now with Rod Williams on piano and Andrei Strobert on drums.  One thing to remember, though, so that the listeners won’t misunderstand, when you say we’re presenting this in order to get some work on a commercial level… Meaning two things.  One thing is that, first of all, we are a performing band.  I consider myself a performing artist who records, as opposed to a recording artist who performs.  So we would like to perform.  So we actually have submitted this tape to record companies and to club owners and things.  But it seems like maybe our work will probably start in Europe first, and we are planning on doing this thing starting next year — hopefully you’ll see us around.

[MUSIC: Hopkins/Murray, “#2,” Threadgill Sextet, “A Man Called Trinity Deliverance,” Hopkins/Murray, “Junko San”]

Actually, it’s interesting working with two drummers in a band [in the Henry Threadgill Sextet].  I would imagine probably some of the older bands, like in the Forties and Fifties, the type of bands they had then used a lot of the same type of….

Some of them had two bassists, like the Ellington band of the Thirties, but I can’t really recollect two drummers playing.

Yeah, in the same set.  But I would imagine if we looked at the history, we probably could find a band or two who did it.  But in a weird kind of way, instead of locking me in, it actually frees me up more.  Because although I’m still responsible for my parts in the music, and like the bass is responsible for rhythmic and harmonic structures, at the same time, if I don’t want to play it, I don’t have to, because one of the drummers is going to hit it, so I don’t have to worry so much.

Well, it seems like a lot of the music has to deal with you and Deirdre working in interaction rather than you being a traditional bass player…

Well, more than composition, Henry’s orchestration… He utilizes the personalities as well as the instruments.  So since Deirdre and I work together so well… I don’t know if that’s the reason why he did it, by the way.  But especially in some of the later pieces, he’s been writing some things for us.  And I might add, some of the pieces are very difficult to play!  But we manage to get through them.

But right now, that’s one of my fun bands.  Because of the different choices of material that Henry has, I can be very subtle in some instances, and then actually, for lack of a better word, just go crazy with the music. We really get a chance to do, for lack of a better word, some difficult pieces, and also there’s an element of fun involved with it.  It’s a real show band.

What is it that makes the pieces difficult?

Difficult only means that they’re very well written, and you’re expected to play the whole range of your  instrument and all the techniques involved.  I mean, some things that I play are Classical in nature, some are bluesy in nature, there are some island-type rhythms we do — different things.  And he constantly adds new pieces to the book, all the time.  So it’s not really that it makes it difficult, but you really have to be on your toes.

It’s a real plus to work with someone who you have a musical relationship with, and you understand his systems, methods and approaches to music.  So I can get into the conceptual part of his music quite well these days.

I’ve walked in the footsteps of some great bassists, and  I’m with bands that give me pretty much free rein, so I’ve been able to work out a lot of things over the years.  And a lot of things I’ve kept.  I particularly like the old style of bass, which is the sound itself, where you’re actually playing the instrument as opposed to playing the instrument through a pick-up, which is a different sound altogether.

What kind of amp do you use?

I use PV(?).  I happen to like it.  It has the power and the strength that I like.  And it’s a pretty large-sized amp.  But because I like to be on the bottom of the music, I usually can’t use like smaller amps.  I don’t quite get the sound that I like.  But I use that, and I’ve been using a Fishman pickup, which really has been the most successful with me for my style of playing, where I can use arco and pizzicato and still get a decent sound.

Do you double at all?  Any electric bass?

No, I don’t.  I don’t play any of those instruments.  And by the way, those are quite different instruments.  Many people think that the electric bass and the acoustic bass are the same.  But even though the notes are in the same place, the techniques are totally different.  I have a lot of respect for cats who can double on those instruments.

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