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…
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…
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.