Category Archives: Interview

For Lou Donaldson’s 86th Birthday, the Complete Transcript of A June 2012 Conversation For the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project

To mark Lou Donaldson’s 88th birthday, I’m posting the complete proceedings of a two-day interview that I conducted with him for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project on June 20 & 21, 2012, shortly after he was designated an NEA Jazz Master. If I may say so, it’s a fairly comprehensive conversation. Many thanks to Ken Kimery for giving me the assignment. I’m also linking to a 2011 post of the unedited proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that Lou did with me in 2006.

 

 

Lou Donaldson Oral History for Smithsonian (June 20-21, 2012):

LOU DONALDSON
NEA Jazz Master (2012)

Interviewee:        Louis Andrew “Lou” Donaldson (November 1, 1926-)
Interviewer:        Ted Panken
Dates:            June 20 and 21, 2012
Depository:        Archives Center, National Music of American History,
Smithsonian Institution.
Description:        Transcript. 81 pp.

[June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 1]

Panken:   I’m Ted Panken. It’s June 20, 2012, and it’s day one of an interview with Lou Donaldson for the Smithsonian Institution Oral History Jazz Project. I’d like to start by putting on the record, Mr. Donaldson, your full name and your parents’ names, your mother and father.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Louis Andrew Donaldson, Jr. My father, Louis Andrew Donaldson, Sr. My mother was Lucy Wallace Donaldson.

Panken:   You grew up in Badin, North Carolina?

Donaldson:   Badin. That’s right. Badin, North Carolina.

Panken:   What kind of town is it?

Donaldson:   It’s a town where they had nothing but the Alcoa Aluminum plant. Everybody in that town, unless they were doctors or lawyers or teachers or something, worked in the plant.

Panken:   So it was a company town.

Donaldson:   Company town.

Panken:   Were you parents from there, or had they migrated there?

Donaldson:   No-no. They migrated.

Panken:   Where were they from?

Donaldson: My mother was from Virginia. My father was   from Tennessee. But he came to North Carolina to go to college.

Panken:   Which college did he go to?

Donaldson:   The college he went to was the oldest black college… I’m trying to think of it now. But Olds-heimers has got me. Not Alzheimers. Oldsheimer’s. It was in Salisbury, North Carolina. What was that college… Can’t think of it.

Panken:   We can look it up.

Donaldson:   You don’t have to look it up. I’ve got all that information in a book.

Panken:   Maybe we can get at it tomorrow. But in any event, how old were your parents? When were they born?

Donaldson:   They were old. What can I tell you?

Panken:   You don’t know the birthdates?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I know the birthdates. I’ve got all of that. If you need that. But they moved to Badin… My mother was a teacher. She went to Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, and she came back to this town and was a first grade teacher and music teacher, and choral director, band director, everything with music. My father was an AME Zion Methodist preacher and an insurance salesman. So we had a pretty stable family.

Panken:   You had two siblings, I think?

Donaldson:   Me?

Panken:   Yes. Did you have brothers and sisters?

Donaldson:   Yes, I have two sisters and one brother.

Panken:   Would you mind stating their names?

Donaldson:   Yes. My brother’s named William—William Donaldson. My older sister is Elouise Donaldson. My younger sister was Pauline.

Panken:   Did they all play music?

Donaldson:   Yup. All played music. All went into education. All are now retired and rich.

Panken:   Was your mother the main teacher?

Donaldson:   Not really. I mean, she started them out, but they originally went to college…all of them went to college.

Panken:   Now, socially, what was Badin, North Carolina like in the 1930s when you were growing?

Donaldson:   It wasn’t too much…

Panken:   Was it segregated? Well, it was the South.

Donaldson:   You KNOW it was segregated.

Panken:   But was it a bad town, were there ways…

Donaldson:   No, it was segregated. It wasn’t a bad town because all of them worked together. Blacks and whites worked together in the aluminum plant. 220 degrees Fahrenheit. They used to wear these suits like space suits, and sometimes that ore would pop out and get on that suit, go right through the suit and right to their arms. It was a tough job. What they did, they separated the bauxite from… They got the bauxite from South Africa, and they’d process it and get the aluminum out of there, and it would flow out into some vats. It was a tough job.

Panken:   What was your entry into music? I think I’ve read that you started out playing clarinet.

Donaldson:   Yes, I started playing clarinet. I didn’t want to play piano, because when she’d give lessons she had a switch, and when you’d miss a note she’d hit you across the fingers. So I said, “No-no, not me.” I was a baseball player. So that’s all I did, play baseball. But I used to go around the house humming, like the Bach Etudes and Haydn and all that, because I heard it when they played it on the piano. She got me one day and said, “Louis, you’ve got more music talent than anybody in this family; you can remember tunes and everything.” She said, “You need to start playing piano.” I said, “Not me.” She said, “All right, all right.” So she went across town and got a clarinet from the Alcoa Aluminum bandmaster. They had a band, all-white, of course. He gave her a clarinet. I mean, he sold her a clarinet. She brought it back. She didn’t know anything about a clarinet. But he had a book, and we studied the book, and I just learned how to play it.

Panken:   You studied yourself out of the book?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   So you had a quick learning curve.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Obviously, you were meant to play music.

Donaldson:   Yeah, evidently.

Panken:   As a kid… You said you graduated high school when you were 15 and were the school valedictorian.

Donaldson: Yeah, right.

Panken:   So you must have had other interests besides music and sports. Or, if you weren’t that interested in school, it must have come fairly easily.

Donaldson:   Well, I was…what you call it…a precocious guy. I checked everything out. I could tell you right now New York Yankees in 1936.

Panken:   You mean the lineup?

Donaldson:   The whole lineup. I was a paper boy, and I used to deliver papers in the morning. I’d get up about 6 o’clock and deliver my papers, and about 7:30 I’d be finished with my papers, so I’d just sit on the front porch and read the sports. Way back.

Panken:   I know myself, box scores were a nice window into arithmetic and mathematics.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   But what were some of your other academic interests.

Donaldson:   Nothing really. I just…

Panken:   You just did well.

Donaldson:   I did well with anything, you know.

Panken:   So you graduated at 15. That’s 1941-42…

Donaldson:   ‘42.

Panken:   You were playing baseball, and you went directly to college?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Where did you go…

Donaldson: North Carolina A&T [North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University]. Greensboro, North Carolina.

Panken:   How far away is Greensboro from Badin?

Donaldson:   From my home town, 64 miles north.

Panken:   What was that school like?

Donaldson:   Well, it was an agricultural and technical school. They didn’t have a music department. I mean, they had a music department, but they didn’t have a music degree. But I got into the band, and got to play in it, so I was all right.

Panken:   What sorts of things did you play in that band, and what sorts of things were you used to playing…

Donaldson:   Marching bands and little semi-classical tunes.

Panken:   Where I’m going with this is, were you performing at all as a kid in Badin?

Donaldson:   No, no-no, no-no. Nothing in Badin. Nobody performed there but Country-and-Western. Roy Acuff. Hank Williams. People like that. They didn’t have no jazz.

Panken:   No black bands were coming through.

Donaldson:   No, no-no. We had a big station, WBT, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they had one guy there named Grady Cole. Grady Cole had one record by Louis Armstrong, “Bye, Bye Blackbird” on one side, “St. James Infirmary” on the other side, and he played it every… He loved it. I got to hear Louis singing and stuff. So that created my interest in jazz.

Panken:   Hearing Louis Armstrong on that record.

Donaldson:   That’s right. On that record.

Panken:   When you got to Greensboro, did jazz start to enter the picture more?

Donaldson:   No, not really. Because see, back then you couldn’t play jazz in college. If they caught you practicing jazz in the practice room, you couldn’t practice any more. They didn’t like jazz. They didn’t like nothing but classical and band music—the teachers. But what happened to me, a guy came from Seattle, Washington, named Billy Tolles, and he had been around all the musicians, and he had his saxophone. He could play. Excellent player. He knew Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” and he knew Lester Young’s “Just You, Just Me,” and used to play those things. He was way ahead of all of us country boys. We didn’t know anything like that. So we kind of idolized him and started to learn him. Whenever he went back for a break, we’d give him $2 or $3 to bring us back some jazz records, and he would do it.

Panken:   So you got into jazz, it sounds like, by memorizing solos…

Donaldson:   Well, not exactly memorizing. I sent for the music.  I got Benny Goodman’s records, “Let’s Dance,” and Artie Shaw’s record, “Summit Ridge Drive.” I got the music. He’d bring the music back, and I’d practice…I’d learn them.

Panken:   You learned the solos off the transcriptions.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   When did you start to transition from clarinet to alto saxophone?

Donaldson:   Well, it’s a funny story. In 1945 I was drafted into the U.S. Navy. I didn’t volunteer. I was drafted. And I went to Great Lakes. When you go to Great Lakes, you have a pool, say, of about 200 musicians. Anybody who says they’re a musician, they put them in the pool. A lot of them wasn’t that good. But I went in that pool, and I never went down to take an audition, because a lot of guys were there and they had this hair with the stuff in it…

Panken:   Pomade.

Donaldson:   They had the slick hair, and they’d walk with a hump in their back, and they brought their horn, their instrument. I didn’t take an instrument. I’d be talking to them and they said, “Yeah, I worked with Count Basie…” So I was there with my friend, Carl Foster. We came from A&T. I said, “Carl, no need for us to try out. We can’t compete with these guys. This guy has been with Lionel Hampton’s band.” They were lying, of course, heh-heh-heh. So we didn’t even take the test.

One day I went by the band room, and I heard a clarinet squeaking in there, SQUEAK-SQUEAK-SQUEAK. So I just stuck my head in the door, like in the Navy, you know, “Who the fuck is making all that noise in there with that clarinet?” The bandmaster was in there giving somebody a lesson. He said, “Oh, you think you can do better?” I said, “Yeah, give me that thing.” So he gave me the clarinet, and I ran it up. So he put up some music and I played it. I knew it anyway. Then he put up some hard music. I played that, too. He said, “You’re the best clarinet player around here. Do you play saxophone, too?” I said, “Yeah.” [LAUGHS] I hadn’t touched the saxophone! But what he did, he gave me a clarinet, which then was like an Army issue. Everything was metal. The clarinet was metal and the saxophone was metal. He gave me and said, “Take that back to the barracks, and come back two weeks later.” So I took it back to the barracks and I started practicing. By the end of the two weeks, I could play the saxophone, enough to read the music.

I woke up one morning, they had a sign up there that said, “Donaldson, report to the band.” Man, these other cats were looking sad! So as I was making my bags I’d walk by where they were, and I’d say, “You jive…” Neither one of them got in the band. Neither one of them. I told my friend, Foster, and he went down there and auditioned and he got in right away, because he could play trumpet and piano—he was an excellent musician. That’s how is started paying saxophone?

Panken:   Were you drafted in 1944 or 1945?

Donaldson:   1945.

Panken:   Ok. I’d read 1944 somewhere. There were a lot of musicians who were legitimate musicians at Great Lakes.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   Some of the names I have are Willie Smith, great alto player.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Clark Terry.

Donaldson:   Yeah, right.

Panken:   Ernie Wilkins.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Major Holley.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Jimmy Nottingham.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Wendell Culley.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Luther Henderson.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Talk a bit about how the band were set up, the types of things they played, the functions they played.

Donaldson:   What they did, after they broke down the bands, they had about ten bands. Now, these guys you’re talking about were a little older than me. They played in a band they called the A-band.  Then they had another band. The guys were a little older. The B band. I was in the C band, because I was 18, and most of the guys in the band where I was were 18 years old. We were young people. But at the end of all the rehearsals and everything during the day, they’d have jam sessions, so we’d go and sneak on in, and play with the big boys…

[END OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 1]

[BEGINNING OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 2]

Donaldson:   It was great. A great set-up.

Panken:   What sorts of things were they playing then?

Donaldson:   Whatever was happening during that day. “Take The A Train,” “Satin Doll,” stuff like that. “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” A lot of stuff.

Panken:   I also read that you had some leaves in Chicago, and you saw Charlie Parker for the first time in Chicago with Billy Eckstine.

Donaldson:   Yes, with Billy  Eckstine.

Panken:   Did you spend much time in Chicago, or did you go in every…

Donaldson:   I went in there every… Well, Chicago is not but 40 miles from Waukegan.

Panken:   So talk a bit about that scene, and the places you went.

Donaldson:   Well, I went in Chicago every weekend. I’d go down to the Crown Propellor and see Pete Brown. Pete Brown was down there. I’d go to another place to see a Dixieland band. I can’t remember the band right now, the names of them… Then I’d go down to the DeLisa Club. There was a guy named Red Saunders.

Panken:   He had the big band there. A drummer.

Donaldson:   That’s right. It was at 55th Street and State. Black people couldn’t go past there. You go past there… They’d shoot a black cat if he went past there. That was the end of the line. But they had a great show and a great band. Chicago was great.

But I went down there because the guys in the Navy had been telling me about Charlie Parker. I had never heard him, and I went down to see him in Billy Eckstine’s Band. When I saw him, it was very depressing, because he looked like he hadn’t had a bath in years, and his suit was hanging. I said, “Is that him?” But once he started playing, it was a different situation. I never heard anything like that. I said, “Man, what the hell is he doing?” Boy, he was PLAYING some saxophone.

Panken:   I’ve also heard that he was an extraordinary lead alto player? That he made the section phrase like him…

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   Do you have any recollection of that?

Donaldson:   No, I don’t have any recollection of that. Because the night I went down there, he was so high, he couldn’t play the lead. Budd Johnson had switched from tenor to alto, and he was playing the head in the band the night I saw him.

Panken:   Was Gene Ammons in Eckstine’s band then?

Donaldson:   Yeah, Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon. A lot of people were in there.

Panken:   By this time, were you listening more regularly to records…

Donaldson:   Well, they didn’t have many records. They had but one or two records, “Jumpin’ The Blues” by Jay McShann…

Panken:   But in general, not just…

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I’d listen to anything that I figured was jazz. But I wasn’t a record addict, because I didn’t really want to hear anything but what he was playing, and once I heard him…

Panken:   So based on “The Jumpin’ Blues” by Charlie Parker with McShann, it changed your…

Donaldson:   Yeah, that changed everything. Not me. Everybody.

Panken:   Talk about how it changed you. What did it do?

Donaldson:   Well, it made me want to pursue music as a profession. Because actually, when I went to college, as I told you, I was an honor roll—I was planning to go on to probably pre law school or something. My parents wanted me to do something else. Because I was asthmatic, and they figured that playing a horn is the latest thing they’d want you to do. But they were wrong, because playing the horn actually made me survive. The diaphragm, breathing, and stuff like that; it made my lungs much stronger than weaker. That’s what it made for me.

Panken:   Listening to you now, it’s obvious how influential Charlie Parker was, but you’ve also talked about listening to a lot of alto saxophonists who were active then…

Donaldson:   Yeah, I heard them.

Panken:   Eddie Vinson.

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   Tab Smith.

Donaldson:   Right. Louis Jordan.

Panken:   Earl Bostic.

Donaldson:   Yeah, Earl Bostic.

Panken:   Talk about those people, and how you assimilated…

Donaldson:   Well, those people were so great. Every one of those people had a different style. See, not like it is today when everybody plays the same way. But back then, they had a different style. Earl Bostic was the greatest technician I’ve ever heard on a saxophone. He could play three octaves. I eventually got to talk to him, and he told me what mouthpiece I should use, and reed, and I’ve been using them ever 1957.

Panken:   What kind of those?

Donaldson:   Meyer #6 mouthpiece, #2½ reed. Now I’m down to 1½ because old age has caught up with me, so…

[END OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 2]

[BEGINNING OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 3]

Panken:   We just took a short break, and Lou found a sheet of paper with information that perhaps can supplement some of the things we’ve spoken about. What have you got?

Donaldson:   Not what you want. This is not it

Panken:   Well, you know what we can do? Perhaps we can find it and go over that material tomorrow, and interpolate that later.

Donaldson:   yes, this is another thing here. It’s a family reunion schedule of all my people. But anyway, it was Livingstone College. That’s the name of the college that my father went to.

Panken:   We were just discussing alto saxophonists. You mentioned Earl Bostic. But could you talk a bit about each of the people I mentioned, and how they affected you? Let’s say, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.

Donaldson:   Well, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson affected me because he was a good blues player. That’s the way I play, you know. I used to see him all the time in Cootie Williams’ band. He was great in Cootie Williams’ band. Then he started doing solo, and I got to see him. He sang a little bit, too, which I’m doing now.

Panken:   You’ve been doing that for 20 years or so.

Donaldson:   Yes. Eddie was a good songwriter, too. He wrote a couple of songs that Miles stole and put his name on.

Panken:   “Four” was one of them, right?

Donaldson:   “Four.” Ha-ha. You know about it, yeah.

Panken:   “Tune-Up” maybe?

Donaldson:   “Tune-Up,” yup. Yeah, you know about it. That’s what was happening back then. It’s a different world.

Panken:   So you did see Cootie Williams coming through…

Donaldson:   Greensboro.

Panken:   This was once you got back from the Army.

Donaldson:   Yeah. From the Navy.

Panken:   But when you were there, were you checking Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter

Donaldson:   Right. I used to play all of Johnny Hodges’ solos. Benny Carter came through and wrote an arrangement for our college band. We played that. There were some nice cats. Tab Smith came through. At that time, Tab was playing with Count Basie’s band. But he was from Wilson, North Carolina, so he was a North Carolinian.

Panken:   When were you discharged from the Navy?

Donaldson:   I don’t know…it was the summer of ‘45.

Panken:   So you were only in for a few months.

Donaldson:   11 months, yes.

Panken:   So you went back to Greensboro after that?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I went back to A&T. A&T College.

Panken:   At this point, were you starting to be a professional musician?

Donaldson:   No, not at that point. When I went back, it was the middle of the semester, and I didn’t stay on the campus. I had to get me a room out in the town. I was still making up some courses that I had lost during those 11 months.  After I got the courses made up, I started actually to play a little commercial music in a club called the Mombassa Club. The guy I told you about, Billy Tolles, he had the band. Nipsey Russell was the comedian. First job Nipsey ever played. Nipsey was a Lieutenant in the Army, and he was a very smart guy, as you know, if you watch him on TV. He came to Greensboro, and settled, and started working as an emcee in this club.

Panken:   The spelling?

Donaldson:   M-o-m-b-a-s-s-a.

Panken:   Did I read somewhere that Ellington came through?

Donaldson:   Yeah, Ellington came down there. He came down to the club, and brought all the musicians. We met them, talked to them. Russell Procope…

Panken:   The band played an engagement there?

Donaldson:   Yeah, they played a dance.

Panken:   What was it like hearing the Ellington band?

Donaldson:   Oh, it was great. It was much different than the other bands. Ellington actually had a different type of band. But I had heard about all the guys and read about them, so I just wanted to see them—like Taft Jordan and Cootie Williams, then he brought Jimmy Hamilton in… He had a great band. Russell Procope. It was a great band.

Panken:   What other bands came through Greensboro?

Donaldson:   Oh, man, all of them came through there. Jay McShann. Andy Kirk. Erskine Hawkins. Lionel Hampton, of course. Illinois Jacquet, of course. Illinois Jacquet, of course. Louis Jordan. Several other bands—I can’t think of all of them.

Panken:   So this was all during that year or two after you were discharged from the Navy.

Donaldson:   Right. From the Navy. Right.

Panken:   They were all coming through Greensboro on their southern tours.

Donaldson:   Yeah. They had 60 one-nighters from New York to Florida.

Panken:   Who did? Each of the different bands…

Donaldson:   No, it was a tour down there they called the Weinberg Tour. A guy named Weinberg used to book them. He bought all the dance halls from New York to Florida, and he’d send the bands down there, and they played. Dizzy’s band came through there.

Panken:   What did the Mombassa Club look like? How was it set up?

Donaldson:   Ah, just a club. Kind of dark in there. It was an exotic looking club. Heh-heh. For the South.

Panken:   Did you get something different from all these bands? Did you like all of them? Did you have favorites?

Donaldson:   I liked all of them. I used to go to see all the bands. Because, see, we were in college, and we could go down and get in the dance hall before the customers got in there. They let us in there because they knew us, and we’d meet the musicians and talk to them. A funny story I had, I went down there, and… Luis Russell came through there. I went down there, and I saw this young kid back there setting up the drums. I said, “Oh, that must be Luis Russell’s son.” He set up the drums and everything, and started playing a little bit on them. I said, “Oh yeah, he can play a little drums, too.” Then eventually, all the band members came. And he went and put on a coat, just like the band members. I said, “Oh, he got a coat, too.” I never knew who he was. So finally, Luis Russell came in, and the kid was playing. I said, “Why is he playing? The drummer didn’t come?” The guy said, “He is the drummer.” I said, “What is his name?” “Roy Haynes.” Roy Haynes. Roy told me he was about 17 years old then. Every time I see him, he cracks up.

Panken:   Any other good anecdotes about the bands? Memorable experiences seeing them…

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. When I came back from the Navy, they had an Army base in Greensboro, the O.R.D., Overseas Replacement Depot. I was back at the cottage, and the guys from the Army band used to come over and play with the other band. They hadn’t seen me. Then I came back, and I’m playing bebop. I’m not playing like the guys around Greensboro. The guy said, “Who is this guy? Is this guy from New York?” They said, “No, he’s from here.” They said, “Oh, no, he can’t be from here playing like that.” But see, I had been in the Navy.  When I found out who was there—James Moody, Dave Burns, a saxophone player named Joe Gale, Linton Garner (Errroll’s brother), Walter Fuller (Dizzy’s arranger), all of them were right in that band. It was a great band, and then I started going, playing with them. I got to meet them, play with them. It was nice.

Panken:   Talk about how for you the Ellington band was different.

Donaldson:   Well, they had Harry Carney.  Anybody with Harry Carney, the saxophone section is going to sound different, because he was a great, GREAT baritone player. Big sound and everything. And Johnny Hodges, the way he played. It was a special band. You couldn’t… Duke had picked them just right. He wrote his arrangements very compatible with the guys who were playing them. Ray Nance run out with his trumpet… It was a different kind of band. It wasn’t just a jazz band. See, critics got carried away hollering about a jazz band, but they played a whole lot more stuff than jazz.

Panken:   You’ve been talking each of the alto saxophone players you liked—and I suppose on tenor and baritone, too—all having an individual sound, a stamp…

Donaldson:   Yeah, they played different.

Panken:   An “I.D.,” you’ve called it before.

Donaldson:   All of them played their I.D. Right. They had their I.D.

Panken:   How did that start to develop for you? Was it something you were consciously striving for?

Donaldson:   No, not really.

Panken:   Was it something that happened as a result…

Donaldson:   Not really. I wanted to play nothing but bebop. That’s all I wanted to play. But after I got married and had two daughters going to college, and I’m trying to pay our house mortgage, I had to play some other type of gigs. So I had to kind of temper my music to the people I was playing for. A lot of people said, “Oh, you’re not playing jazz no more.” But I was playing exactly what I had to play to keep those jobs.

Panken:   I want to talk about that. But what I’m trying to focus on now are these developmental years, before you get married, before you move to New York, when you’re still in North Carolina.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I didn’t…

Panken:   Were you think about that sort of individuality at the time?

Donaldson:   No, nothing but bebop back then. I wasn’t thinking about nothing individual.

Panken:   Was learning bebop a matter of getting all the Charlie Parker records and learning the solos…

Donaldson:   That’s right. Learning the solos and learning the standards that they came from. Most of those tunes came from standards. They just put another figure on the chords, and that’s how they played them. In fact, I wrote a thesis down there at North Carolina A&T, for my graduation thesis, and they took it and book-binded it and made it a book, and now all the students who go through the college have to study my book.

Panken:   What’s the name of the thesis?

Donaldson:   The Transition From Swing To Bebop.

Panken:   Is that right?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Is it a musicological analysis?

Donaldson:   Oh yeah. I got illustrations and chords, broke down the chords and everything. 1947.

Panken:   So you were extremely analytical.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. And critical. Analytical and critical.  So I was in good shape.

Panken:   I gather that you made your first visit to New York in 1948?

Donaldson:   1947. ‘47…or ‘48.

Panken:   Whatever the case, let’s talk about that experience.

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, our band came to play halftime at the New York Giants’ game.

Panken:   Ah, the North Carolina A&T…

Donaldson:   The North Carolina A&T band, One of our players, a guy named Stonewall Jackson [Robert ‘Stonewall’ Jackson] , was signed by the Giants, and we came up and played the halftime ceremonies.

Panken:   So he would have been one of the first African-American NFL players.

Donaldson:   That’s right. I got to meet all the guys. Frank Gifford. Emlen Tunnell was there. He was (?—13:17). But it was great. Then I went down to 52nd Street, of course, because I had been reading about it. We had a shortwave radio. We could pick up music from New York once in a while. It faded out, but you could pick it up. Bands from New York. Like, when they had the Benny Goodman Hour, the Chesterfield, and Harry James… We could pick up those bands, and we could hear that on shortwave down in North Carolina. And when we were there, I went over down to 52nd Street, and went to see Dizzy and… It was supposed to be Charlie Parker, Sid Catlett and them, but Charlie Parker wasn’t there as usual, you know, and they had this little short guy playing saxophone. Ray Brown was in the band. So I asked Ray, “Ray, who is that guy? He sounds almost as good as Charlie Parker.” Ray said, “He sounds better than Charlie Parker.” I said, “Oh, yeah? What’s his name?” He said, “Don Byas.” And sure enough, I went back the next night to hear the band, and the band sounded much better with Don Byas than it did with Charlie Parker. Because Charlie was all messed-up and couldn’t half-play, but Don Byas was great. He was great.

Panken:   Had you known about him before? Had you heard the records he did with Dizzy?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I knew about him.

Panken:   I think “Anthropology” was one of them…

Donaldson:   Yeah, I knew about him. And he made this record with Slam Stewart, Slam Stewart and Don Byas, just two instruments. He was great. He was a great player.

Panken:   What else did you do that first visit to New York?

Donaldson:   I went by the Onyx Club, too, to see my favorites. And very depressing. Heh-heh. The Onyx Club. That was on 52nd Street, too. They had J.J. and Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell, Miles, and every one of them was all messed up. It was terrible. Very depressing.

Panken:   Were they playing well?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah, they played good, but I said, “Man, I can’t… I don’t think I can handle this.”

Panken:   So this discouraged any ideas you might have had about coming up to New York right away…

Donaldson:   I mean, and playing with them.  It didn’t discourage me about coming to New York. But playing in that scene, I couldn’t do that, because it was too hazardous.

Panken:   Did you check out the scene in Harlem the first time you went to New York?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I came to Harlem, I went through Harlem. I saw the scenes. I saw the scenes in Harlem.

Panken:   Was it overwhelming to be in New York?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. It was overwhelming to be in New York. You got to see all the musicians. It was great. I went to the Baby Grand. By that time, Nipsey had moved to New York, and he brought me around to the Baby Grand. I got to meet all the musicians. It was great.

Panken:   Who’d you meet?

Donaldson:   Well, I met everybody who was playing in there. A guy named…I can’t think of his name…a bass player… It was a long time. But then I went on down the street, and I met other people, like Percy France, and I met another guy down there… Lockjaw was in Minton’s. Big Nick was over at the Paradise, and Willis Jackson was in Smalls. So I got to see all of those guys.

Panken:   That was a heady visit. A great preparation.

Donaldson:   A great visit. I couldn’t keep myself away from New York then.

Panken:   Well, it must have let you know that you belonged here, or that you’d be able to deal with the scene when you got here. It must have been a very good gauge for your own progress.

Donaldson:   Yeah, because the bands used to come through North Carolina, and I used to sit in with the bands. Like Dizzy and Illinois Jacquet, all of them used to say, “Man, what you doing down here? You should be in New York.” I said, “Well, I don’t know about that.” They’d say, “You need to be in New York, man. You’re wasting time down here.” So finally I just decided to come on to New York. So I came over to New York.

Panken:   Before we bring you here permanently, you played semipro baseball for a couple of years.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I played down there. Played baseball.

Panken:   You were a third baseman?

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   What sort of player were you?

Donaldson:   I was the best. Nobody better.

Panken:   Nobody better at third base, or nobody better…

Donaldson:   Nobody better. Nobody better. If black people had been able to get into the majors then, I’d have been somewhere. Or maybe in the minors. I don’t know if I could have made the majors.

Panken:   So you were the best in North Carolina…

Donaldson:   Well, I was one of the best. We had some good players, but I was one of the best. I could have easily made it. I was a player sort of like Eddie Stanky. That kind of player.

Panken:   Scrappy player.

Donaldson:   Scrappy. I could bunt.

Panken:   Contact hitters. All the fundamentals. Intelligent.

Donaldson:   I could bunt. You couldn’t strike me out.  They called me “Deadeye,” because they couldn’t strike me out. In fact, I’d be in school, and somebody would be pitching a no-hitter out on the ball-field, and they’d come and get me out of the room, to go out and break it up. I was tough! And I had a glove, man. I could wipe up a ball.

Panken:   You had good hands.

Donaldson:   Oh, man, I could wipe up a ball. I used to be the mascot for the senior team when I was a little kid, and after they did it, I’d take infield practice with them, and then they’d bet dollars that the guys couldn’t hit a ball past me. They’d try to hit a ball past me. They couldn’t get it past me. Anything I could reach, I got.

Panken:   Eddie Stanky was a winning ballplayer, that’s for sure. His teams won.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. He was a nuisance.

Panken:   Is that how you would describe yourself?

Donaldson:   Yeah, sort of like that. Sort of like that.

Panken:   So the fall of 1945, you come back to Greensboro from the Navy, and you get your degree from North Carolina AT&T. You’re playing semi-pro baseball. I think I read that you broke a pinky, and that ended your career…

Donaldson:   Well, it didn’t end my career. I just stopped playing, because I couldn’t play my clarinet once it puffed up.

Panken:   You’re continuing to develop your facility and artistry on your instrument, and you’re getting validation from people like Dizzy Gillespie and the cats in his band…

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   …and people like Illinois Jacquet…

Donaldson:   Jacquet, right.

Panken:   …and they’re telling you to come to New York—and you spend some time in New York. So finally, in 1950,  was it…

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   You make the move. Talk about the circumstances. I gather that you followed your future wife, who moved here.

Donaldson:   Yes, I followed my future wife. Because she came up as like a work-in maid or whatever it was. You know, they used to get girls from the South, bring them to New York, and they’d work. She came up here, then I said, “Well, I got to go,” and I came on up. I had a good set-up, because I didn’t have to do any work, because I was a G.I. So I went to the Darrow Institute of Music.

Panken:   On the G.I. Bill?

Donaldson:   Yeah, on the G.I. Bill.

Panken:   Where was Darrow Institute of Music?

Donaldson:   58th-59th and Broadway.

Panken:   What sort of school was it?

Donaldson:   You know, a music school. A lot of musicians. Right next to it was the Hartnett Studio, and they had big bands all day, so I could go over and sit in the section and practice.

Panken:   At this point, you’re playing primarily alto saxophone?

Donaldson:   Alto saxophone.

Panken:   Clarinet is a doubling instrument by now.

Donaldson:   Yeah, doubling. I was about to throw that away.

Panken:   So you’re a full-fledged alto saxophonist.

Donaldson:   Yes, alto saxophone.

Panken:    By the way, what your late wife’s name?

Donaldson:   Maker. Maker Donaldson.

Panken:   Talk a bit about getting settled in New York, and acclimated to New York. Where did you live when you came here?

Donaldson:   I lived with my brother-in-law, ex-brother-in-law. He had an apartment up on St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street. So I didn’t have to pay any rent.

Panken:   Near the Polo Grounds.

Donaldson:   Right across from the Polo Grounds. I used to go out and stand on the bridge out there with binoculars and see the whole game. I couldn’t see the catcher and the batter, but I could see the pitcher and everything. When they hit a ball, you could tell where it was going by where the outfielders went. Eventually, I got enough money to start going to the Polo Grounds. $1.75 for the bleachers. One day I was sitting out there, and I see this big fat cat come up, weighed about 400 pounds. He sat by me and said, “Yeah, Lou, what you doing out here?” It’s Bob Weinstock. I said, “Man! What you doing out here in the bleachers?” He said, “I can see the game better from here.” He was right, because we were sitting out there in 1951 when Bobby Thompson hit that home run. In the Polo Grounds, seat 7… The game started about 1 p.m., so it was about 4:30, and there always was a haze over the stadium. He hit the ball, and we couldn’t see where it went, but we saw all the people jump up in that Section 21, and once we saw the people jump up in Section 21, Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese turned their heads down and started walking back towards the outfield, because that’s where we were, sitting right out there…

Panken:   The dressing rooms were in center field, by the bleachers.

Donaldson:   Right by the bleachers. They started walking back. So we knew the game was over. Eddie Stanky runs down and jumps up in Leo Durocher’s arms. Leo was coaching third base that day. So I got to see all of that.

Panken:   By then, you’d been in New York about a year and a half.

Donaldson:   Two or three years.

Panken:   Well, if you got there in 1950, and his was 1951…

Donaldson:   Seemed like I’d been there longer.

Panken:   So you’re going to music school, and I assume that you start to make the rounds and establish contacts.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. Right.

Panken:   Let’s go into some detail about that. Who some of the first people were that you played with, and…

Donaldson:   Well, the funniest thing about it, when I got there and I got to playing, and the guys said, “Yeah, man, you play good, but you’d better get a tenor, because alto players can’t work in New York.” I said, “Oh, no?” So one night I took my alto, I went around to every club on ‘25th Street and down on ‘16th Street, and I sat in with all the bands, and I came back the next day and I was laughing. They said, “Why are you laughing?” I said, “I don’t know whether it’s alto or tenor, but any job there I can get, because the guys there can’t play anything.”

Panken:   Why did you say that?

Donaldson:   Well, that’s just the way they talked. “You’ve got to play tenor.” Because then, see, everybody was walking the bar, playing “Flying Home” and stuff like that. But I got to working with a club where they had singers.

Panken:   Which club was that?

Donaldson:   The Top Club, and some gigs at the Baby Grand, and some gigs at Smalls Paradise. They used to have entertainers. I got to playing in these clubs, and eventually I got to working with Dud Bascomb’s band, the trumpet player with Erskine Hawkins. He got a band, and we started working out in New Jersey, not too far from the prison out there, at a place called the Chicken Shack.

Panken:   In Jersey.

Donaldson:   In Jersey. That was my regular gig, I could play that, but I could take off any time I wanted to if I got another gig. I was set up pretty good.

Panken:   So you were interested in bebop, but on these gigs you weren’t playing bebop.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I played bebop when I took a solo. I played the music, but I played bebop when I took a solo.

Panken:   Who were some of the singers you played behind in those clubs?

Donaldson:   Oh, man, I played with great singers. A woman named Lady Hallocue [PHONETIC] [spelling?—26:46] She could sing. She had some weird songs. You really had to be up on your p’s and q’s. I played with a female impersonator, a guy named Phil Black. Best-looking man I ever saw in my life! He put on his dresses… He had the best clothes. I’ve never seen a woman with clothes that good! Every night, somebody was hugging and kissing him, and trying to take him home with them! That was good. It was good down there.

But it was good. I played behind Johnny Hartman. And Arthur Prysock. There were a lot of good singers around.

Panken:   So these clubs all had shows still at the time.

Donaldson:   They had shows.

Panken:   They had, like, a little chorus line maybe?

Donaldson:   Well, not a chorus line. They’d have one woman who was supposed to be an interpretive dancer, but she was…

Panken:   Shake dancer?

Donaldson:   …nothing but a strip. She wasn’t nothin’ but a striptease dancer.

Panken:   Exotic dancer, as they might say.

Donaldson:   That’s right. But she wasn’t no interpretive… Didn’t interpret nothin’ but stripping off them clothes. But that was good. See, the only thing about that, you didn’t get to play but one song. You’d bring on the show with the one song, and from then on you’re playing background.

Panken:   So there’d be a dancer, there’d be a singer, there’d be a comedian…

Donaldson:   A comedian, right.

Panken:   One instrumental act?

Donaldson:   Or one instrumental tune. The rest of them would be backup until you played the closing song.

Panken:   How big was the band?

Donaldson:   Usually three or four pieces.

Panken:   So who were you playing with? Were you the leader by this time?

Donaldson:   Oh, no, I wasn’t the leader of a lot of the bands. I played with a lot of bands. A lot of bands. I played with a guy named Charlie Singleton. He made a lot of background records for singers, and I got that, too. That was a little extra money. It was great.

Panken:   So no wonder you were learning all the tunes, had so many tunes in your bag.

Donaldson:   I knew all the tunes. Knew all the music, all the tunes, and I was just assimilating them and cataloguing them.

Panken:   So this is what you’re doing in 1950 and 1951… How long did you go to Darrow Institute?

Donaldson:   I went there until I guess about ‘52.

Panken:   ‘52 happens to be the year that you start your long relationship with Blue Note Records and make your first sessions with Blue Note? But before we get there, I have just a couple of other questions. Did you ever play in any territory bands?

Donaldson:   Unh-uh.

Panken:   Was Dud Bascomb’s  band a big band?

Donaldson:   Oh, we went out. We played…

Panken:   So you did play in some big bands?

Donaldson:   Yes, right.

Panken:   Was that a good experience, playing in big bands?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. Good bands.

Panken:   Talk about why.

Donaldson:   Well, because you got to travel. You got to go to towns. You got to see people.

Panken:   And they got to see you, I guess.

Donaldson:   Yeah. And you got to know the grinds of music. Because there was a certain grind you have to really go through before you get indoctrinated into the music business. Because, see, the bandleaders are always… I worked with Lionel Hampton for a while. The bandleaders always drive off to the Hilton Hotel, and stop the bus. Then you had to get out, and we had to walk down the street and find a Y, because they wasn’t payin’ no money, so we had to get the YMCA, $2 or $3 a night room. We didn’t make any money.

Panken:   Were there boarding houses, too? Did you stay in people’s private houses?

Donaldson:   Yeah, boarding houses.

Panken:   How did that work? Did they differ in quality, where some were nice, some weren’t nice?

Donaldson:   Yeah. Some were nice and some weren’t nice.

Panken:   They’d feed you breakfast?

Donaldson:   Yeah, most of them would feed you breakfast.

Panken:   If you don’t mind my asking just a few other things about Harlem, circa 1950-51? Were there restaurants where musicians liked to eat after the gig?

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   What were some of those restaurants.

Donaldson:   Well, the only place I ate was the Sheffield Café. That was on 126th and 8th Avenue. But most of the musicians used to go up to Wells, and have chicken-and-waffles. Wells Café. That was a famous restaurant.

Panken:   What sort of food did they have at the Sheffield Café?

Donaldson:   Well, they had breakfast food. Bacon, eggs, grits, biscuits.

Panken:   So breakfast after the gig.

Donaldson:   Yeah. $1.25. That’s all you had to pay.

Panken:   What was the schedule like at the clubs? 10 to 5?

Donaldson:   10 to 4 a.m. in New York and about 10 to 5 in Brooklyn.

Panken:   How many sets would that be?

Donaldson:   Well, what would happen was this. We’d hit at 10. We’d play 2 or 3 sets, and then we’d try to stretch it. But eventually, what would happen, about 3 or 4 o’clock, the pimps would come in with their women. They’d got the money. They’d come in and set up the bar, and the man said, “Well, they set up the bar; you’ve got to play a little extra.” So we ended up playing til 5 o’clock.

Panken:   Would they tip?

Donaldson: Joe Louis would come in there, and then everybody’d see him and then run to Joe, and Joe, you know how he was: “Give everybody a drink!” So the man said, “You’ve got to play a little set for Joe.”

Panken:   So you were playing for a full spectrum of society.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   Who would be there earlier in the night, and how would it…

Donaldson:   Oh, they had all kind of people coming in there. It’s hard to say now. I knew all of them. Adam Clayton Powell…

Panken:   This is Smalls you’re talking about?

Donaldson:   No, this is Minton’s. Malcolm X used to stick his head in the door, but he didn’t come in there. The big gangsters, Bumpy Johnson, all those people, they used to come in. Another guy named Red Dillon. He was… Phew! Dangerous man. But he used to come in there. See, they had a cook in there named Adele, and everybody loved her cooking.

Panken:   This was at Minton’s.

Donaldson:   At Minton’s. So they’d come in and eat.

Panken:   What were her specialties?

Donaldson:   Fish and chicken. She could cook. She was a good cook.

Panken:   Were meals on the house, or did you have to pay for them?

Donaldson:   No, we had to pay for them! Wasn’t no meals on the house.

Panken:   I’m actually surprised. Don’t know why, but…

Donaldson:   No meals on the house then.

Panken:   Another question. As a musician, you had to be sharp. You had to dress well. Were there particular tailors that the musicians went to, that you went to?

Donaldson:   No. I’d be working at Minton’s, and the boosters would come by.

Panken:   Oh, I see. Off the rack from the…

Donaldson:   They’d come by and look at you. “42-short.” Every time, I’d know what they’re going to say. He’d pull out a nice one. I’d say, “Oh, yeah, I like that.” He said, “Yeah? Well, $100.” They always do that. But I say, “All right. I’ll talk to you later.” But I’d wait until the end of the night, and when I see him on the corner he’s still got that suit. [LAUGHS] I said, “Man, here’s $25—give me that suit!] [LOUD LAUGH] And he gave me the suit. I saw a guy… One night, a guy had a brand-new cello. I don’t know where he stole it. He must have gone down to the Philharmonic or somewhere. He was outside the door. When I came out, he said, “Hey, Lou, here’s a cello.” I looked at it and I said, “Man, where did you get that cello from?” He said, “Man, don’t worry about that. $700.” I said, “Man, here. I got $75. Give me that cello. Because the police are going to come down here and ask you to play it, and you’re…” [DISSOLVES WITH LAUGHTER] If I’m taking it, they won’t say nothing to me, because they know I’m a musician, but you walking around the street with that cello…” I took it and gave it to my daughter. My daughter played cello.

Panken:   But this is probably a little later in the ‘50s. Earlier in the ‘50s, who was your contact person to bring you into Blue Note?

Donaldson:   Oh, nobody. They came up… Alfred Lion came up to Minton’s. He might have had Ike Quebec with him.

Panken:   I thought Ike Quebec was his talent scout.

Donaldson:   Yeah, but that was later on. But then, I don’t really know whether Ike was with him or not. But he came up to me and said, “Oh, do you want to record for Blue Note?” Well, you know I’m going to tell him “yeah.” He said, “But you’ve got to play like Charlie Parker. Can you play like Charlie Parker?” I thought, “No, I can’t play like Charlie Parker, but I won’t tell him.” I said, “Yeah, I can play like Charlie Parker.” Heh-heh. And I got the date.

Panken:   But before you did that date, you made a sideman date with Milt Jackson and a very interesting date with Thelonious Monk, with three horns.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Do you have pretty thorough memories of those dates?

Donaldson:   Yeah.

[END OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 1]

[BEGIN, June 20th, PART 2, TRACK 1]

Panken:   Back from a quick break. We were just getting to Lou’s Blue Note recording with Milt Jackson on April 7, 1952. This was shortly after Alfred Lion approached you at Minton’s?

Donaldson:   Yeah, shortly…

Panken:   Who was your band at Minton’s?

Donaldson:   I don’t know who I had then. I’m sorry. I can’t remember the musicians. But what happened, I knew this fighter, Art Woods…

Panken:   Oh, he used to work at Dayton’s Records on 12th and Broadway.

Donaldson:   Yeah, he worked in a record shop. We used to train all the time. He’d come to me… There was a place called Newman’s Studio down there on 116th Street. After I’d practice… I’d give the guy 50 cents to practice, and I’d practice about an hour, then he’d bring his gloves and we’d work out.

Panken:   So you boxed, too.

Donaldson:   Oh yeah, I would box.

Panken:   What was your weight?

Donaldson:   Featherweight. I was a good boxer. What I wanted to do, in case somebody bothered me, I’d knock them out. But I didn’t have nothing to worry about, because all those guys were junkies. You know what I mean? They couldn’t fight.

He told me, “Lou, let me tell you something. You go around here, you show up to the gigs on time, and you wear your black suit with your black tie, and you don’t drink no liquor, you don’t have no tab—you ain’t gonna make it in this business.” I said, “What you talkin’ about?” He said, “Man, you got to go around and act like you’re high, and buy up some liquor. Even though you don’t drink it yourself, give it to somebody else.” Man, I took his solution, and I haven’t been out of a gig since!

Panken:   Is that right?

Donaldson:   I’m telling you! I meet people every day who tell me, “Lou, you sure look good since you straightened up.” I say, “Straightened up from what? I don’t even drink a small Miller beer.” [LAUGHS] “No, man, I know I used to see you down there with Bird; you’all was gettin’ high!” I said, “No, you didn’t see me down there with Bird.”  I used to hang around with him, but I wasn’t doing what they were doing.

Panken:   Did you hang out with Charlie Parker at all? Did you get to know him?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I finally got to know him when I came to New York and stayed for a while, and I got to see him a lot.

Panken:   After 1950.

Donaldson:   Yeah, after 1950.

Panken:   Did you talk to him? Did you spend time with him?

Donaldson:   Yes, a lot of time spent…

Panken:   Can you describe the relationship?

Donaldson:   Well, he was a brilliant guy. We talked about politics…and a lot of things. He was a smart guy. But he had that bad habit.

Panken:   Did he show that habit around you, or did he keep it from you?

Donaldson:   No, he didn’t show it too much around me.

Panken:   I gather that certain people he might not show it to at all. They might not even know that he got high, unless they’d know what to look for.

Donaldson:   Well, he knew I knew he got high, but he didn’t really exaggerate it around me.

Panken:   Do you recall the particulars of any of your conversations? Any one or two encounters that stand out?

Donaldson:   Not really. Because he was like the rest of the people who were drug addicts. They worked 24 hours a day to get money for the next hit. That was their daily procedure.  A lot of times when I’d see him, I’d go to the other side of the street because…

Panken:   So you wouldn’t give him money.

Donaldson:   I didn’t have anything to give him.

Panken:   So part of your interaction was he would want to get a little money.

Donaldson:   Of course. Money was always… But he talked to me. We talked.

Panken:   Did you ever sit in with him?

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm. What happened, one night in the Paradise I was there, and he came in, and I was sitting in with Big Nick Nicholas, and when Charlie Parker came in, there were about ten saxophone players on the stand, and all of them ran, you know, like a rattlesnake was coming in there. I was getting ready to get off the stand, too, and he said, “No, you play with me.” I said, “Man, I’m not playing with you.” He said, “Yeah. If you don’t play, I’m not going to play.” So the manager comes by and says, “Man, you’ve got to play now, because Bird says he’s not going to play if you don’t play.” I said, “Ok.” So we played a couple of tunes, “I Got Rhythm” or something. I played, and he leaned over to me and said, “Man, what was that you played on that thing? That was some nice stuff” It was stuff I had copied off one of his records. So I said to myself, “Is he pulling my leg, or is he really sincere?” That’s when I realized the guy was a genius. He didn’t really remember.

Panken:   You mean, he’d invented it, but he hadn’t memorized it.

Donaldson:   He couldn’t remember it.

Panken:   But you were analytical. You’d written a thesis about the musicological transition from swing to bebop.

Donaldson:   Right. The change to bebop. The change to the alternate chords.

Panken:   How did that work when you were improvised? Did you have set solos, were you…

Donaldson:   No, I didn’t have no set solos, but I had set chord changes. I’d change up the chords a little. Not really a set solo.

Panken:   Again, before Blue Note, did you ever… I think I read on a liner note for one of your recordings that you were in a session or two with Bud Powell.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm. Yeah.

Panken:   What was that like?

Donaldson:   It was nice. With Bud, you know… When I came to New York, Bud was going nuts, going bananas. He was hard to deal with.

Panken:   Were you on an actual gig with him?

Donaldson:   I played some gigs with him, yeah.

Panken:   His band?

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Where?

Donaldson:    Oh, all around town. A place called Bowman’s up on 155th and St. Nicholas Place, and another club up in there…I can’t think of it… But I played a few gigs with him.

Panken:   So you played his music.

Donaldson:   Some of it.

Panken:   What did you think of his tunes?

Donaldson:   I was crazy about them. Crazy about them. But he was bad with the money. Because he’d get the money, and by the time you got ready to get your pay, he’s gone.

Panken:   Let’s move to these early Blue Note sessions. So Alfred Lion approaches you at Minton’s, or maybe Ike Quebec, we’re not quite clear… But one way or the other, you go in the studio for the first time, at least as recorded in the discographies, on April 7, 1952, with Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Kenny Clarke, and…

Donaldson:   Percy Heath.

Panken:   Percy Heath on bass.  What was that date like?

Donaldson:   It was nice. I didn’t particularly like John Lewis. But it was nice.

Panken:   Were you nervous to be in the studio?

Donaldson:   No.

Panken:   So by this time, you belong. You’re part of the thing.

Donaldson:   Right. I didn’t feel nervous at all.

Panken:   Any specific memories of the date?

Donaldson:   Not really. All I know is I liked Milt. Milt was a good friend of mine.

Panken:   The date with Monk, then. I’ve read a quote from you that you hadn’t worked with Monk before that; that you had to go in and basically read the music down…

Donaldson:   Yeah, try to.

Panken:   Maybe there was a rehearsal before.

Donaldson:   Try to read it. He didn’t write it out like he wanted it played. You had to rehearse it a couple of times. But it ended up fine.

Panken:   There were a couple of tricky tunes on that session.

Donaldson:   Yes, sir.

Panken:    “Skippy” for one.

Donaldson:   “Skippy” is tough. “Carolina Moon” is tough. Tough tune.

Panken:   How did the session go? He’d present the tune, you’d run through it a few times, and then…

Donaldson:   And then we recorded it.

Panken:   How did he express his intentions? Would he be singing it to you?

Donaldson:   He played it on the piano, you know…

Panken:   Had you known Monk before that?

Donaldson:   Yes, I knew him.

Panken:   Because he spent a lot of time at Minton’s, I would think, among other places…

Donaldson:   Not at Minton’s. He was at Blue Note. Every time I went down there, Monk and his wife would be down there, at the company, down there in back of Bloomingdale’s. They’d be down there all the time.

Panken:   What was the office like?

Donaldson:   Wasn’t nothing but just a little place. Wasn’t really an office.

Panken:   Were you a fan of Monk’s compositions, of his music, his musicianship?

Donaldson:   Not really.  I couldn’t use them on my job, because if I played them, I’d be fired. See, back then people hadn’t…they wasn’t compatible with Monk. It took a long time before they got compatible with Monk.

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   Well, they wouldn’t buy his records.

Panken:   Oh, you mean before people got used to his music and the sound of it.

Donaldson:   Yes. And the big companies wouldn’t record him. Like Capitol, Columbia, even Savoy—they wouldn’t record him.

Panken:   No, he was on Blue Note, then he went to Prestige…

Donaldson:   Prestige, right.

Panken:   …and then the Riverside things brought his name out… I guess this would be pushing to the future a bit. I read in one interview that you later on worked with Monk in a club with Kenny Dorham, Oscar Pettiford maybe…

Donaldson:   No, Oscar Pettiford was supposed to be there, but they brought Mingus in there.  Max Roach on drums.

Panken:   Where was that?

Donaldson:   The Open Door. No, the Famous Door.

Panken:   I think it would be the Open Door. The Famous Door was long closed…

Donaldson:   Bob Reisner.

Panken:   Yeah, that’s the Open Door. Was it a different experience working with him for a week or two?

Donaldson: Oh yeah, much different.

Panken:   Any memories of that?

Donaldson:   [LAUGHS] Only bad memories.

Panken:   Any bandstand memories? Anything positive you can say about the music…

Donaldson:   Well, what happened the first night, see, he was expecting Oscar Pettiford, and they brought Mingus in there, and he didn’t like Mingus, and he played ensembles, but he never took a solo. And about the second set, I was asking Kenny Dorham, I said, “when is he going to play?” He said, “He’s not. He don’t like Mingus.” I was a low guy on the totem pole. I didn’t have much to say either. So finally, Wilbur Ware staggers in there, and Bob Reisner takes him around the corner and gives him some vitamins…and he comes back. He don’t say nothin’; he just goes up and takes the bass from Mingus and started playing. Monk started to play.

Panken:   Well, he loved Wilbur Ware, yeah.

Donaldson:   Loved Wilbur Ware.

Panken:   I guess you did three 10-inch recordings…or two—one in 1952, one in 1954. The first one is with Horace Silver and Art Blakey and Blue Mitchell, and Gene Ramey.

Donaldson:   It wasn’t Art Blakey. Art Taylor. Gene Ramey.

Panken:   Were these guys you were working with?

Donaldson:   Yeah, basically.

Panken:   How did the session get set up?

Donaldson:   I set it up myself. We just went down and played them.

Panken:   These are things you’d been playing?

Donaldson:   It wasn’t no great stretch to play them.

Panken:   Do you remember…were you working that week?

Donaldson:   I don’t think so.

Panken:   Tell me about Blue Mitchell. That was one of his very first recordings.

Donaldson:   Great trumpet player.

Panken:   How did you meet him?

Donaldson:   I met him…he was working with Lloyd Price’s band, and I heard him, and he sounded so beautiful. I said, “Man, I got to get you a date.” So he came on over to the Blue Note. See, a lot of people don’t know, I brought Horace over there, too.

Panken:   I was about to ask you.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I brought Horace. Horace was working…was practicing down at the studio where we used to go and train for boxing, Newman’s Studio down on ‘16th Street. I used to hear him playing piano. So one day I knocked on the door. I said, “Are you a piano player?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “You want some gigs? Can you play a blues?” He said, “Yeah.” So I took him on a couple of gigs. He couldn’t play no blues. I said, “Man, you’re going to have to start playing blues.” Then I used to call him the “old Portuguese piano player.” I said, “Man, you got to go to Harlem and eat you some chitlin’s, some black-eyed peas and rice, and get some feeling.” [LAUGHS] So finally, he started playing kind of bluesy. And you know the rest. He made 15 hit records.

Panken:   So you met him in New York.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   So you had Horace Silver and Blue Mitchell on the date. Had you been working with Arthur Taylor?

Donaldson:   Yes. Art Taylor. Gene Ramey.

Panken:   Well, that’s a helluva band to be working with. Were they with you at Minton’s?

Donaldson:   Actually, we had a band with Kenny Dorham, but Kenny got busted or something. He couldn’t make the date. We had a band with Kenny Dorham and Art Taylor and Gene Ramey.

Panken:   You were pretty close to Kenny Dorham.

Donaldson:   Yeah. We had a band together.

Panken:   I guess you recorded a sextet thing in 1954. How did the relationship start?

Donaldson:   Well, it was just a matter that I had to do a record date, and I needed some musicians I thought could make it.

Panken:   Had you been playing with him before that?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I’d been playing with him a little.

Panken:   What kind of guy was he?

Donaldson:   Nice guy. Very nice guy. Very intelligent. But he had a lip problem, you know. Chops problem. But all of them did, Miles and all of them. Chops problem. I don’t know what it was. Probably they didn’t learn how to play correct. The best trumpet player around New York during those times was a guy named Idrees Sulieman. He could play better than any of those guys. But he knew he wasn’t going to get no gigs because all the promoters and all the club owners were Jewish, so he just packed up and went overseas.

Panken:   They didn’t want a guy with a Muslim name, an Islamic name.

Donaldson:   No. Muslim was out. Back then, the Muslims was out.

Panken:   I guess Sahib Shihab had that problem, too.

Donaldson:   Sahib Shihab, right.

Panken:   During the first part of the ‘50s, when you played New York, were you mostly playing in Harlem, or were you playing downtown?

Donaldson:   I was playing in Harlem.

Panken:   Was there a circuit in Harlem? Describe it a bit.

Donaldson:   Well, Harlem was a place where you had to play for the people 100% if you wanted a return engagement. You had to kind of do a little swing. So I got a chance to play at all these clubs. There was a woman around there named Hilda, and she worked… I guess she worked for the Mob—I guess. But she had the inside on all the clubs. So any time I wanted a job, I just called her. I got it right away.

Panken:   How many different clubs were you…

Donaldson:   About ten different clubs.

Panken:   So Smalls, Minton’s…

Donaldson:   Small places, too.

Panken:   If you don’t mind my asking, what would you make for a week in one of these clubs at the time?

Donaldson:   Oh, I don’t know. Not much. Maybe 125 bucks, something like that.

Panken:   That you’d clear, and then you’d pay the guys in your band what, $75 or something…

Donaldson:   Whatever they’d make. $50. Some of them didn’t make any money at all.

Panken:   You also did a very famous session for Blue Note with Elmo Hope and Clifford Brown in 1953.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   In the past, you’ve stated, as everyone has, the most laudatory things about Clifford Brown. Had you known him before that session?

Donaldson:   No, not really. I was working with Elmo. Elmo worked in Dud Bascomb’s band, and I saw him every night—you know, when he showed up. I had heard about Clifford Brown. In fact, all the musicians knew about him. But, like, you know, Max and Art, they wasn’t going to bring him to New York, because they’re looking out for theirself, which is I guess…it’s what you do when you’re a junkie. You live from day to day, trying to cop. So it’s a disastrous situation, but that’s the way it is. I knew he was working with Chris Powell, Chris Powell and the Blue Flames, which was a funk group. So I saw he was working in the park down in Harlem, so I went down there to see him, and he wasn’t working, because he was playing piano—because he’d broken his shoulder or something. He was accident-prone. Every time I saw him, he’d had some kind of accident. I told him I wanted him to make this date with me because I’d heard he was a great trumpet player. So he took the trumpet and laid up on the fence, and held it. That’s the only way he could play it. We played, you know, “Confirmation,” two or three tunes. I said, “that’s all right; that’s good.” I said, “Now, as soon as your shoulder gets better, call me.” And when his shoulder got better, he called me. He made the date.

Panken:   Then the following year, the Live at Birdland date with Art Blakey. Had you been playing with Art Blakey for a while?

Donaldson:   No-no, no-no. I wouldn’t trust Art Blakey around the corner.

Panken:   How did… Sorry to ask so many details about so many gigs, but…

Donaldson:   What happened, the company wanted to do a date. Originally, there was Kenny Dorham, Gene Ramey, Art Taylor, Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson. You can tell by the material, Horace and I got all that material together. Art was in California. He’d got busted out there. He couldn’t even get back to New York. But what he did, he saw a bass player out there and told this bass player that if he drove him back to New York in his car, he was going to be his bass player. So I see him one day, and he stops on the street, and he says, “Yeah, Lou, I want you to meet my bass player.” I had to hide my head to keep from laughing. I said, “What the hell are you doing with a bass player with all these bass players in New York who aren’t working?”

So finally, Alfred Lion evidently… Evidently, Alfred Lion was giving him money to get him back to New York, and I go down there and Alfred said, “Well, Art is going to be on the date, and Curley Russell,” which was all right with me, because they could play. The second night after we hit, after Clifford Brown was such a sensation, people were going crazy. Art gets up on the microphone, “Yeah, I want to get these guys together, these young guys…” Me and Horace was looking at each other, saying, “What the hell was he talking about?” The company date was gone. Art Blakey had taken over the date. Alfred Lion was afraid of him, or else he owed Alfred so much money, he made him the leader where he’d get his money back. A lot of people think that was… And then he talked about the Messengers. That wasn’t no Messengers. Art Blakey had a band called the Messengers year before…

Panken:   That was a big band.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Out in Brooklyn. Actually, Ray Copeland was working in that band. There was Art… Idrees Sulieman played trumpet in that band. Colbert Hopkins(?—23:26), Ray Abrams played saxophone… Sahib Shihab played baritone in that band, because Cecil Payne was the baritone player but he left and went on the road with Illinois Jacquet. And this guy, Howard Johnson, who played with Dizzy, played the lead, and the other boy, Ernie Henry, played the third alto. I saw the band. That was the Messengers. But the critics, see, they didn’t know. They said, “Oh, Art got the Messengers.” That was no Messengers band. Art was a con man.

Panken:   Great drummer, though.

Donaldson:   He was a great drummer—when he wanted to be. People ask me that all the time. I say, “Yeah, Art was great when he wanted to be.”

Panken:   What do you mean by that?

Donaldson:   Well, sometimes, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Art played so good you wanted to go back there and kiss him. But on the weekend, a lot of people came, especially if a woman comes up there and crosses her legs and pulls the dress up over her knees, the arrangement changed, everything changed…heh-heh. You got to know who the bandleader is, and you know ….(?—24:48)…. were drums. You’re supposed to play two choruses. You play one chorus, and you’d hear Art back there, “I got it, I got it, I got it.” [LAUGHS] He’d take over the… You had to let him have it, because he’d drop the tsunami on you back there! An earthquake. A volcanic eruption! I told him one night, “Art, man, you’re the greatest drummer in the world—sometimes.” And he just laughed. [LAUGHED] Any time a good-looking woman comes up there, she definitely has got to know who the bandleader is. She don’t have to ask no questions of nobody. She can tell right away who the leader is. Heh-heh…

Panken:   So that date was a week at Birdland.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   It wasn’t a one-night thing.

Donaldson:   It was a week, a whole week.

Panken:   Was that the only time for that particular band, or did you do further engagements?

Donaldson:   Yeah, that’s the only time.

Panken:   I read an interview in which you talked about the difference between bebop and hardbop, and presented that recording as a paradigm-setter for what hardbop was. There was a specific sense of the difference. Can you describe that?

Donaldson:   Well, that was hard bop. It was hard swinging. See, when you accelerate the energy and the sound, you’re playing hard bop. It’s hard to do that. And the way I play, if he upped the sound, you had to up your playing, and that made you press a little more, so you’re playing like hard bop.

Panken:   Was it  a matter of volume or a matter of where the beat was being placed?

Donaldson:    Well, it’s the volume and the beat. Volume and the beat.

Panken:   What about the beat was different between bebop and hardbop?

Donaldson:   Well, it was louder. Art probably was high. He got too high, and in his ears he couldn’t hear how loud he was playing. Evidently. I don’t know. What can I tell you.

Panken:   Did you gig with Max Roach much?

Donaldson:   I did some gigs with him, yeah.

Panken:   Was he playing hard bop or bebop?

Donaldson:   He was playing more like bebop.

Panken:   Again, was that a matter of volume? He wasn’t playing as loud…

Donaldson:   And pressing. Press down. When you bear down, it’s a little different than when you just play. You can play, but then you bear down…when you bear down…

Panken:   Then, between swing and bebop, is it a rhythmic difference, a harmonic difference…

Donaldson:   It’s a harmonic difference between that, and swing is steadier, a steadier rhythm, like the Count Basie mode.

Panken:   Like, say, the way Papa Jo Jones played vis-a-vis the way Max Roach played with displacements and so on.

Donaldson:   Yes, of course.

Panken:   So by 1954, when you’re making these dates, you’ve been primarily a leader for a couple of years, but you’re doing some sessions with other people. And you took a couple of years hiatus from recording, say from mid-1954 until early 1957, when you do the first in a long series of recordings for Blue Note, plus things with Jimmy Smith.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   Can you describe what you were doing during those years?

Donaldson:   I really shouldn’t tell you this, because I’m going to put it in my book. I got mad at Blue Note Records. Angry. Because I went out to do a session one time at Rudy’s house, and we played a couple of tunes, and then some guy came by with some vitamins, and all of them went in the bathroom—Rudy, too. I’m not saying he was doing nothing, but… But he went in there with them, and when they came out, you’re talking about some bad stumblin’ and fumblin’. So I went to Alfred. I said, “Look, Alfred, that’s it. I’m not going to record another record with a junkie. Forget it.” So for two years I didn’t do a record.

So he finally called me back, “You’ve got to do a date.” I said, “I’ll do it, but you’re not going to pick none of the musicians. I’m going to pick them.” And you can see the date, Blues Walk. I had Herman Foster, who was a religious singer, him and his wife—they sang religious music. But I had been going up to Connie’s, a place where they’d jam, and I had been playing with him, and he sounded so good, and we were compatible with our playing.

I went and got Dave Bailey, drummer. Now, Dave was a liquor salesman up on Boston Road. But I used to work at a place called the Apollo Bar up on Boston Road, and he used to come by and sit in—and he played good. I said, “Yeah, this guy is good.” Ok, so I got Herman Foster; I got Dave Bailey.

And then, I got Peck Morrison, bass player, who lived with me in the project. We were in the project. I got him on the date. Then I got Ray Barretto to steady down the rhythm…

Panken:   To play congas.

Donaldson:   Yes. I was working at Showman’s. I was the first band to work at Showman’s.

Panken:   Showman’s Lounge.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Showman’s was right down next to the Apollo Theater then, about 1956 or 1957. I’m working in there, and Ray used to come by and play. I said, “now, look, I don’t want no Puerto Rican drums. I want swing.” He said, “that’s what I’m trying to do; I’m trying to learn how to swing.” And he had his friend with him, a little alto player who had a hump in his back, a guy named Chuck Eubanks. They used to come by all the time. I used to let him sit in.

Panken:   Chuck Eubanks.

Donaldson:   Chuck Eubanks and Ray. So when I finally got ready to make the date, that’s who I had. Herman Foster, Peck Morrison, all these guys. Alfred Lion didn’t know any of them. So he comes there. “I don’t know these guys.” I said, “Alfred, I told you; I’m not going to record with no more junkies.” Because Alfred by then… Now, Alfred was nice at first. But by then, Alfred had a belief … [PAUSE AT 33:09 AS VOICEMAIL PLAYS IN THE BACKGROUND]

Anyway, Alfred Lion’s jaws puffed way out. “I don’t know…” See, at that time, Alfred Lion just didn’t believe that nobody couldn’t play unless they was high. He just got… Like the rest of the record companies. They want to see a guy nod, they go, “Oh, he’s great.” So he finally said, “All right, I’m going to take a chance on this; I know I’m going to lose money.” Man, we made that Blues Walk—let me tell you something. Symphony Sid started to playing it. Spider Burke started to playing it in St. Louis. Daddy-O Dailey started to playing it in Chicago. And this guy in Detroit started… That record was a hit. The first record… They don’t tell you that. The first record that Blue Note ever put out that all the distributors took it, from New York to California, and put it on the jukebox.

Panken:   So the date for Blues Walk that I have is July 28, 1958.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   But you had made three records before that, and Herman Foster was on two of those. The first one in the discography is Wailing With Lou, from January 1957. I’ve got Swingin’ Soul, which is from June 1957. Both are with those groups—Donald Byrd played with on Wailing With Lou. Then there’s a date that a lot of people like, called Lou Takes Off, which is a sextet with Curtis Fuller, Donald Byrd and Sonny Clark…

Donaldson:   And Jamil Nasser.

Panken:   Jamil Nasser and Arthur Taylor as well. Did you and Alfred Lion then reach an understanding?

Donaldson:   There was no understanding. He knew that he didn’t know what was on and I did. When the records started selling. And “The Masquerade Is Over” on the other side.

Panken:   Because you were traveling so much, you must have had a very good feel for what the public wanted to hear.

Donaldson:   That’s the key. I tell that at all my seminars. Every seminar, when I’m talking to young musicians, I say, “Feel out the audience. You try this kind of tune, that kind of tune, the other kind of tune—whatever you like, that’s where you lay.” You lay there with your setup.

Panken:   Now, in ‘55 and ‘56, even though you weren’t recording, you were working.

Donaldson:    Yeah, I worked.

Panken:   Were you starting to tour the country, go outside New York by that time?

Donaldson:   Right. I had my own tour.

Panken:   When did that start happening?

Donaldson:   I don’t know exactly the date, but I got my own tour from New York to California.

Panken:   Who was booking you at the time?

Donaldson:   Well, I was booking a lot of the gigs, but another guy named Warren Stevens, who used to work for Ruth Bowen Booking Agency… He’s a guitar player himself. He was a good friend of mine from Columbus, Ohio. He starts booking it.

Panken:   Describe the circuit a bit.

Donaldson:   Well, it was the greatest circuit in the world. I’m the only one that did it—first. Then McDuff and Groove Holmes and Jimmy McGriff and all of them came in later. We started in Rochester at a place called the Pythodd. Jon Hendricks’ brother owned it—Stewart Hendricks. Then we’d go from there to Buffalo, to the Pine Grill. Or another place up there was the Bon Ton. We had about four clubs we could work. Then we’d go to Pittsburgh, play Crawford’s Grill. Then we’d segue into Cleveland. Now, all these places were short jumps. So we didn’t have no transportation problems or nothin’. We’d go to Cleveland. We’d play Leo’s Casino.

Panken:   You’d be a week in each town?

Donaldson:   A week in each town. Sometimes two weeks. Leo’s Casino. Leo’s was on 55th and Central at that time, but he died, and his son took it over and put it on Euclid Avenue. His son is named Leo, too, but this was the original Leo.

Then we’d leave Cleveland, and we’d go to Columbus, Ohio. Now, Warren had a club there himself, right down in town, and he had an unsegregated club, way back then.

Panken:   Were they called black-and-tan then?

Donaldson:   No, this club was called the Sacred Mushroom. But it was integrated. Because somebody threw a bomb in there one night, a stink bomb.

Panken:   This was in Columbus.

Donaldson:   Columbus, Ohio. Then I go down to Dayton, Ohio, a place called the Lavender Lounge. I remember it like it was yesterday. We’d play down there, then we’d go to Louisville, Kentucky, and play a place called the Idle Hour. Some rich guy down there had some money, and he let us play the club. We’d go down there and play, free food and everything. We were on a budget. Then what we’d do…

Did I say Cincinnati? We played Cincinnati, too. We played Cincinnati. Babe Baker’s in Cincinnati. He was like the guy at Minton’s. He wanted nothing but a jazz club. In fact, one day, a disk jockey came in and put some James Brown records or something on the jukebox. He threw them out the window. He said, “don’t bring nothing in here but jazz.”

Then we’d go…from Louisville, we’d go on Highway 50, go into St. Louis. Played the Gaslight Square, sort of like the Village—a lot of clubs down there. A lot of people hang out. Then we’d play over in East St. Louis, which is just 7 miles across the river, right by the Dome, right past the Dome. And we’d go from there to Kansas City, which ain’t but 240 miles. From Kansas City, then we’d go to Wichita, Kansas. I had this all set up. We’d go to Dallas, Texas. We’d go to Houston, Texas. Sometimes, if we could work it out, we’d play one-nighters in small towns, like Port Arthur and Belmont, Corpus Christi—we’d play one-nighters. Then we’d get set and head for California. Get Route 66, we’re gone, all the way to Los Angeles. Played the It Club.

I knew all these guys. All these guys were hustlers, so I knew them. If I didn’t know them, I’d call them two or three weeks in advance and set it up. I was a lucky guy back then. Didn’t make a whole lot of money, but we worked all the time.

Then I’d work San Francisco, and Oakland, a place called M Major’s.  He’s dead now. But we worked in those clubs. Then we’d come on back. We’d bypass Utah, because we knew what was there, and we’d come on into Denver. Then we’d come on back into Omaha. We had a schedule. 500 more miles, we’re in Chicago. Joe Segal—he had two or three clubs. Then we’d leave there, we’d go to Detroit. Sure enough, before we got back, they wanted us so bad, we’d go right on back into Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and then come home.

Panken:   We’re not talking about ‘55 and ‘56, now. We’re talking about the ‘60s.

Donaldson:   We’re talking about the ‘60s.

Panken:   But in ‘55 and ‘56, you were starting to go out of town?

Donaldson:   Yes, I was starting to go out of town.

Panken:   Who were you taking with you? Was Herman Foster with you yet?

Donaldson:   Yeah, Herman was with me.

Panken:   So by the time you’d made those first records, you’d been working with him for a year or more.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Herman Foster, Peck. Morrison, and Jimmy Wormworth was the drummer. We went up to Buffalo, and hit some of the same clubs. But we had it set up…

Panken:   That’s when you started establishing that circuit and those relationships.

Donaldson:   Yes. Well, the reason I used an organ was because a lot of times we’d go into a place, and they didn’t have a piano—and renting a piano, that’s out of the question. People want a thousand dollars to rent a piano. Shit, a thousand dollars, we weren’t even making that much for the gig. So we decided we’d buy an organ, and we’ll get a bass player and a piano player at the same time. All we need is a U-Haul truck and a hitch. So I put a hitch on the back of my station wagon, and we’d pull it. We’d save money and made money.

Panken:   But if I’m not mistaken, you didn’t start touring with an organ until about 1960 or so?

Donaldson:   It was in the ‘60s somewhere.

Panken:   I’d like to stay in the ‘50s for now, if we can. What did you do when the piano was crap or a club didn’t have a piano?

Donaldson:   We couldn’t play the gig!

Panken:   So you wouldn’t play a gig without a piano.

Donaldson:   We couldn’t play it, no. So what happened then… You see, the funk groups were coming out, and the funk groups had these synthesizers and electric bass. We didn’t have that.

Panken:   You did so many gigs with Jimmy Smith in 1957 and 1958. People still treasure those recordings and play them, they’re a firm part of the history. When did you start establishing a performing relationship with Jimmy Smith?

Donaldson:   ‘57, ‘58, somewhere in there…

Panken:   Where I’m going is, was it set up by the record company? Was it your initiative?

Donaldson:   No. Babs Gonzalez set that up. He brought Jimmy to New York and told Alfred he should record him. So Babs was in the middle of that.

Panken:   So Jimmy Smith got the date, and then you got the call to do the record?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Were those satisfying engagements?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. No doubt about it. The Sermon is one of the greatest records ever made. It’s a great record.

Panken:   What do you think was the key to your simpatico with Jimmy Smith?

Donaldson:   We were compatible. He liked me. The organ sound and the alto sound is beautiful. Yeah, he liked me, because I played the blues, and that’s what he played.

Panken:   Can you describe personally what he was like during those sessions?

Donaldson:   Jimmy? Jimmy was carefree. Nice guy. In his latter years they said he was something else, but I didn’t know him then. I hadn’t seen him in a while.  But back then, he was just a carefree guy.

Panken:   Had you heard before he played organ, when he was a piano player?

Donaldson:   No, I hadn’t heard him when he was piano player. The first I heard him was a record he made down in Wilmington. That’s where I heard that record, and it was so dynamic. With Thornell Schwartz. That was a great record.

Panken:   Had you been playing with organ players before that?

Donaldson:   Not too many. I played with John Patton.

Panken:   Before Jimmy Smith?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I played with John Patton, Baby Face Willette, a couple of guys.

Panken:   The records with John Patton are around 1960, with Baby Face Willette around 1961. I wanted you to tell us about the Jimmy Smith recordings just because the records are so great…

Donaldson:   Yeah, they’re great.

Panken:   So whatever insight you can give us into how they were set up, or how…

Donaldson:   Jimmy was a musical genius. He can play. He was just like Art Tatum at the piano. It’s hard to play anything that he hasn’t played.

Panken:   Did that give you a feeling of freedom, that you could…

Donaldson:   Uh…yeah, freedom. Inspiration. Because he had good basslines. He could kick it.

Panken:   I’d like to ask about some of the alto saxophonists who were roughly your contemporaries who came into prominence in the ‘50s. Sonny Stitt is someone you’ve often been compared to stylistically.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   Cannonball Adderley hit the scene in 1955. I’m sure you were aware of him quite quickly. Jackie McLean was a local hero in New York, and a protégé of Charlie Parker. Phil Woods was coming into his own during those years. Were those all people you were touching base with in one way or another?

Donaldson:   Yeah, in one way or another.

Panken:   Can we say a few things about each of them? Sonny Stitt, for instance.

Donaldson:   Well, Sonny Stitt for me was the number-two man behind Charlie Parker. I always thought that. Sonny Stitt. But Sonny Stitt was a guy who knew the saxophone so well, he could get anything out of it. But…like, Charlie Parker was the only one I know that play that way and still play the blues in all of his playing. Sonny Stitt was more technical, but he was great. Great guy.

Panken:   How about Cannonball Adderley? Did you become aware…

Donaldson:   Cannonball didn’t even come to New York until after Charlie Parker was dead. So he was a big thing. But he’d have come while Charlie Parker was alive, he wouldn’t have been anything like that. But he could play. He was nice. He was a nice guy as far as I know. He played a little Country-and-Western. Sometimes he sounded like a hillbilly, but…

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   I mean, he played corny. You know what “corny” is, don’t you?

Panken:   I do.

Donaldson:   All right. He played corny. But he knew the saxophone. He knew it. In fact, Miles asked me to play with him two or three times when he had Coltrane there, but I wouldn’t play with Miles, because Miles wasn’t reliable with money, and I couldn’t afford to play a week without bringing in some kind of income.

Panken:   Were you tempted?

Donaldson:   No. No way. Because I didn’t want to do what you have to do to people like that. Because he was an icon, people liked him, and I wouldn’t want nobody to see me hit him upside the head with a baseball bat or something.

Panken:   Were you a fan of his music?

Donaldson:   Yeah. I was a fan of his musicians. Red Garland I loved. Paul Chambers. And Philly.

Panken:   Did you get to know Coltrane?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I knew him. Coltrane’s from North Carolina.

Panken:   I was going to ask you about that. Monk as well had roots in North Carolina.

Donaldson:   Yes, Monk’s from Wilson, North Carolina. I knew Coltrane real well. He was a hard-working guy. But most of his stuff was drug-related.

Panken:   What do you mean?

Donaldson:   He’d get high, go in a room and play eight hours, you know, without coming out. Drugs. They don’t tell people that when they’re talking about him.

Panken:   What was your practice routine like?

Donaldson:   Oh, practice…

Panken:   I’m talking about then, the ‘40s, the ‘50s…

Donaldson:   I was working a lot then. I didn’t have no practice routine. When I started playing a lot, I never practiced, because I’d just go to work. If I got tired of playing a song, I just played it another key or something like that. Keep myself fresh. It made me think about what I’m doing.

Panken:   Back to alto players, did you get to know Jackie McLean well?

Donaldson:   I knew Jackie McLean well. He was like a brother.

Panken:   When did you meet him? When you got to New York?

Donaldson:   Yeah. I lived up there. I lived on 155th. He lived on 158th. Sonny Rollins lived around the corner. Edgecombe Avenue. I’d see all of them. But these guys were junkies. They were junkies. Sorry to say, but I had no use for no junkies. Because I thought it would just be my luck to be talking to one of them and the police run up and get us—get everybody.

Panken:   You thought you’d be caught in the same net, you mean?

Donaldson:   You got it. Because all they did was hustle every day to try to get money, to get high. They had some musical talent. But they’re characters that I wouldn’t recommend.

Panken:   Now, people did change and get over their habits.

Donaldson:   I don’t know. I doubt it.

Panken:   When did you first meet someone who was strung out on drugs?

Donaldson:   When did I first MEET someone?

Panken:   Yeah. In North Carolina?

Donaldson:   Oh, no. No drugs in North Carolina. They’d give you thirty years for smoking weed down there. They didn’t have no junkies in North Carolina, not when I was there. When I got to New York, I saw plenty of junkies.

Panken:   So your attitude towards people who were abusing drugs was more based on self-preservation, it sounds like, than anything else…

Donaldson:   Well, actually, none of them played as well as they thought they was playing when they was high. I could have got somebody sober to play better. Because everybody was following Trane. But Trane jumped the track, and they jumped it right behind him. Now all of them are unemployed. I call that “unemployment music.” And they still play it. Disk jockeys and record companies are so stupid.  They don’t even acknowledge it because they’re stupid.

Panken:   Elaborate.

Donaldson:   Well, that’s a style of music that you can’t play in Atlanta.  Charlotte, North Carolina.  Birmingham. Big cities. St. Louis. You can’t play a steady gig there playing that.  Kansas City. All the big cities. You can play it in New York, maybe one joint in Chicago—although Joe Segal has now started mixing up his entertainment. Nowhere in California can you play it, not on a steady gig. And that’s very counter-productive.

Panken:   Back to alto players. Phil Woods was the fourth name I wrote down here. Were you and he friends in the ‘50s?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I like Phil. I like Phil very well, because Phil was one of the few white guys that, when he got famous, he didn’t forget the black guys. A lot of the white guys, once they got famous, made a couple of records and ran all off with the white bands. But Phil always kept some brothers around. Well, I guess he wanted the feeling in his band.

Panken:   Another alto player I can think of in the ‘50s who had his own sound was Lee Konitz. I recall when we did the DownBeat Blindfold Test, I gave you a track by him, and you had some interesting things to say.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I know Lee Konitz. Lee Konitz is a sax-o-phon-ist. I wouldn’t call him exactly a great jazz player, but he’s a good saxophone player. Him and Paul Desmond, too. They sound like they’re playing clarinets. They don’t even have the sound.

Panken:   So for you, it’s very important to have…

Donaldson:   I mean, a SOUND. A bluesy sound. They don’t have it. They can’t play the blues, unfortunately. They play what they’re playing. But the blues, a different thing. And if you can’t play blues, you can’t play jazz, period. Now, if you can play it and don’t play it, you’re still not playing jazz—period. I listen to all the stuff Coltrane’s playing. No blues. In fact, I did a survey… I didn’t do a survey. Mark Elf, guitar player. I had him to monitor the public commercial radio stations. He got the best tune that was hot, something by 50 Cents or somebody, and he monitored that tune for a week. You know how much airplay they got?

Panken:   How much?

Donaldson:   715 times. And I had to monitor Coltrane and see how much airplay he got on a commercial station. You know how many he got?

Panken:   How many?

Donaldson:   [RAISES HAND WITH INDEX FINGER AND THUMB IN A CIRCLE, AND THREE FINGERS OUTSTRETCHED]

Panken:   That’s three. Oh, it’s zero.

Donaldson:   That’s zero! Not one. Now, that’s no good. You can’t even stay in business like that. Because you know, and anybody else knows, that years and years and years, we got a lot of play on commercial stations with Duke Ellington’s tunes and Count Basie, “April in Paris” and all that kind of stuff. We got play on commercial stations. But now jazz…kiss it goodbye. TV? I haven’t seen a jazz show since Tony Bennett was on there years ago, and brought Count Basie on there.

Panken:   I’m going to move into another area. You were one of the first jazz group leaders to use a conga player, as you were describing with Ray Barretto on those Blue Note dates from 1957. I think you used the phrase just now, “straighten out the rhythm.” What exactly did you mean by that, and what…

Donaldson:   Actually, I meant control. Now you can see today you’ve got these guys like Poncho Sanchez and a couple of more Latino musicians making a lot of money, because they put that beat with jazz. Because there’s no such thing as Latin Jazz. You can kiss that goodbye. That’s a misnomer. It’s jazz with Latin rhythm. That’s all it is. And when they keep that rhythm, which is the heart of the thinking in their music, they can sell the records. We could have done it ourselves if we’d kept our rhythm, with Kenny Clarke and Max… Those guys were shooting a little cocaine…shooting a little heroin and snorting a little cocaine—they didn’t want to swing any more. They wanted to take a solo. Most of the time, when somebody else is soloing. That’s what the problem is. That’s how they’re losing out.

Panken:   But what was the value for you of having the conga player?

Donaldson:   To steady down the rhythm. That’s all.

Panken:   You had done a date in 1955 with Gene Ammons. It’s the one sideman recording with you that I know of from that period. I know that he also liked to use the congas.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   He used it a lot. Were you friendly with him?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   There’s something about your records in the ‘50s and his records…a very similar vibration.

Donaldson:   Well, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, it’s a groove. A groove record. It’s a swing record. Groove records. It’s hard to say, but that’s what jazz is all about. If jazz was played the way they’re playing now, there would have never been any jazz. In fact, people have played like Coltrane and… Well, I don’t want to, you know, beat on a dead horse, but it sounds like he’s playing a concerto! He states a theme, and then he [SINGS WILD SCALE]. That’s not jazz. A lot of times, when you play the theme, you’re playing the jazz. You take a guy like Louis Armstrong. He played the same way until he died. He never changed one thing. And when he was an old man, he started making hit records. “Hello, Dolly” and this other one…” [SINGS REFRAIN OF “MACK THE KNIFE”] Now, the way he’s playing it, he’s playing jazz in the melody. That’s what makes it. Like George Shearing. You hear him play “I Got Rhythm.” George played [SINGS IMPRESSION OF SHEARING PLAYING “MACK THE KNIFE”]. Louis Armstrong doesn’t play it like that. He said, [SINGS IMPRESSION OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG PLAYING “MACK THE KNIFE”] Man, he’s playing jazz in the melody.

A lot of people forgot that, and they go to these high-priced schools, they learn how to play music. They’re great musician. I mean, a lot of young saxophone players, they can really get over a saxophone. But they couldn’t play “Tea For Two.” I say, “Do you know ‘Tea For Two’?” “Oh, no, how does that go?” So I say, “How in the world can you play ‘Giant Steps’ and you can’t play the melody for ‘Tea For Two’?” there’s something wrong somewhere. That doesn’t make any sense.

Panken:   I think now we should stop for today, and we’ll get together tomorrow and bring this to the present.

Donaldson:   I hope so. Because we’re getting into some deep things about music now. I’m going to tell you why they should set Monk up in a different category. I’ll tell you exactly why he should be in a different category.

[END OF June 20, 2012, PART 2, TRACK 1]

[BEGINNING OF June 21, 2012, PART 1, TRACK 1]

Panken:   I’m Ted Panken at Lou Donaldson’s house for day two of the Smithsonian Oral History Project interview. It’s June 21, 2012. Nice to see you again, Lou.

Donaldson:   Nice to see you.

Panken:   I’d like to return to what we started off with yesterday, and speak a bit more about your family. You had some information you were going to think of. For one thing, I’m not sure whether we got on tape what college your father went to.

Donaldson:   Livingstone College.

Panken:   He was a minister. Was that a theological college? A seminary?

Donaldson:   No… I don’t know. It might have been. But he was one of the first black students there. It was the oldest black college. I don’t know exactly what they taught there.

Panken:   You said your whole family were educators.

Donaldson:   Yup.

Panken:   Except you.

Donaldson:   Me, too. I’m the most educated. No, what I was saying was most of them had doctorates. I got a Bachelors, but they got…

Panken:   I said educators, not educated.

Donaldson:   Oh, educators. Oh, yeah. All of them were educators, right. All of them went into education. Schoolteachers and people like that.

Panken:   Can you talk about what kind of person your father was? Was he very strict.

Donaldson:   Ah, he was… It’s hard for me to say. He was just a father.  He wasn’t that strict because I never did anything to make him angry. He was a preacher and an insurance salesman, and every Sunday I had my duties and the regular stuff I had to do. But other than that, he was ok. Heh-heh.

Panken:   And your mother? You stated that she was a music teacher, and you didn’t want to take piano because of the threat of the strap, but…

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   But what else can you tell us about your mother?

Donaldson:   Well, my mother had to be the greatest woman that ever lived. She was like, uh, the black mayor of Badin. Anything you had to do know once you crossed the tracks, they came to her to get the information. She was a powerful woman. Actually, she was a first grade teacher, so she knew all of the people in the town, because she taught them. She was a music teacher and she was choir director, and the church organist. So she did everything. She did everything in the town.  All the social activities. She just about (?—3:27) them. She sent all of us to college. We were the first kids from the town to really go to college. First black kids really to go to college. There were four of us.

Panken:   And they all played music, too?

Donaldson:   Yes, they played music.

Panken:   What did they play?

Donaldson:   They played piano.

Panken:   So European classical music?

Donaldson:   Not really. Just piano. Except my brother, he was a bandmaster. He played classics. He ended up in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was the director of the bands for years.

Panken:   High school?

Donaldson:   He was a high school teacher.

Panken:   That’s what I meant. He was director of high school bands.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah, high school bands. Right.

Panken:   I can’t remember if I asked you this yesterday. Coming up as a kid in Badin, did you have any instructors other than your mother? You taught yourself, I guess you said.

Donaldson:   Oh, to play the clarinet?

Panken:   Yes, to play the clarinet.

Donaldson:   Yes, I taught myself. And my mother…

Panken:   Your mother could help you a little bit.

Donaldson:   With the music and the notes. Keys. Signatures on the music and all that.  She didn’t know much about the clarinet, but I just read the book and found out about that.

Panken:   And you figured out the embouchure and all the details…

Donaldson:   Oh, yes. I figured all that out.

Panken:   Did you perform at all before you went to Greensboro?

Donaldson:   No!

Panken:   Did you play at home…

Donaldson:   Oh yeah, I’d play at home, and I’d play down… I’d go down in the middle of town and play like marches and things that I’d learned. All the kids would come around, because I was the only one playing music in the town. They’d come out, and they would listen to me. I used to tell them, “One day you’re going to have to pay to see me play.” And now, every time one of them comes to see me play, I act like I don’t know ‘em. [LAUGHS]

Panken: You don’t really do that.

Donaldson:   Yes, I do.

Panken:   Do you?

Donaldson:   Yes, I do. I was at the Club Barron one night, and this guy, Arthur Merriweather… I played with him at North Carolina A&T, in the band. He was a great trumpet player. We had a jazz orchestra and everything. What happened, they caught me playing in the band room some Benny Goodman solos, and they took away my privileges. So I didn’t have anywhere to practice. So in the middle of the day, when everybody else was at class, I’d go into the shower room and practice. He used to come by and say, “Oh, you’re the shithouse clarinet player.” I used to tell him, “All right, one of these days you’re going to have…”

When I was at the Club Barron, the guy said, “A guy is at the door from A&T that knows you who says he wants to get in.” So I went out and I saw him. I said, “I don’t know him.” Ha-ha. “Don’t let him in; I don’t know him.” After I finished playing a couple of tunes, I saw him sitting in there. He’d gone out to the car and got a picture of the band from A&T, and brought it back to the door and showed the guy. [LAUGHS]

Panken:   That was very enterprising.

Donaldson:   I was sitting right by him in the band. [LAUGHS] I cracked up.

Panken:   Did you acknowledge his existence at that point?

Donaldson:   Oh yeah. Of course. Of course. He was a great guy.

Panken:   So playing on a bandstand for people started when you were in college.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   First couple of years.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   The implication I got from the story you told about Great Lakes, where you peeked in and the bandmaster discovered you could play clarinet well… I’m interested in how you went from being a student to the idea that you were going to be a professional musician, how that crystallized in you.

Donaldson:   Well, once I heard the band at Great Lakes, I wanted to be a professional musician. Up until then, I hadn’t really thought about it.

Panken:   So that made you think “this is what I want to do.”

Donaldson:   Yes, that’s exactly what I want to do. After I heard Charlie Parker, that really solidified.

Panken:   But before that, you were talking about practicing the Benny Goodman solos.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Did you practice to a lot of clarinet players when you were 14-15-16?

Donaldson:   Oh, no-no, no-no. It was just me. I’d send to New York and get his music…

Panken:   The transcribed solos.

Donaldson:   Transcribed. And Artie Shaw. People like that.

Panken:   But had you listened to Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw by that time?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I listened to them. I listened to them on radio. I told you we had a short-wave radio. We could pick it up late at night down in the South. We’d pick them up. When they got to 12 o’clock, we couldn’t…

Panken:   I wasn’t sure of the timeline, whether that was before the war or after the war that you were able to do that.

Donaldson:   that was during the war.

Panken:   Of course. You were 15 when the war started. But what I meant to say was, before you were drafted.

Donaldson: No, that wasn’t before then.

Panken:   Are you more like one of your parents than the other?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I’m more like my mother.

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   Well, because she was a very passionate person, and she helped a lot of people. I tried to pattern myself after her. Actually, she just about controlled the black neighborhood in our town. Because many times, people would get into trouble, and she’d go over and talk to the sheriff—he’d let them go.

Panken:   So she knew how to approach the powers that be.

Donaldson:   She knew everything. Because she worked as a schoolteacher from September to June, and then she worked in the country club in the white section of town, which was a lot of big officials from the Alcoa Aluminum plant who lived in the country club. She was almost like an assistant to the woman that owned the club. She used to make me real angry. Because I told you she was just a passionate, nice person. Because somebody wouldn’t make up a room, like, she’d go in there and make it up herself. “Now, you’re not supposed to be doing that!” [LAUGHS] But she would, and had no thoughts about it. And you couldn’t say anything about race at the table, or else she’d pull out that switch.

Panken:   You mean say anything about race as far as saying anything about white people?

Donaldson:   As far as about white people. You couldn’t say nothing about white people. She loved white people. [LAUGHS] She loved the white people. Because we used to be mumbling stuff under the table, you know… Sometimes the sheriff would come over and, you know, shoot somebody or something. You know how it is down…

Panken:   The South, yeah.

Donaldson:   You couldn’t say anything about it. She wouldn’t let you do it. I never heard her say a bad word about anybody. Now, of course, that’s different from me. That’s one characteristic I didn’t pick up. Heh-heh…

Panken:   Was she a very religious woman?

Donaldson:   Of course. Religious. Very religious. She went to church four times every Sunday.

Panken:   Did you have to go to church?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I had to go to church. And once I got away from there, I haven’t been to another one.

Panken:   Is that right?

Donaldson:   That’s right. I told my father, once I get away from here, that’s it.

Panken:   How much music was there in the church apart from your father’s playing organ?

Donaldson:   All kind of music. My mother knew more music than anybody I ever met in my life. When I was a little kid, I was singing a lot of stuff that people started singing later on.

[BRIEF PAUSE AT 13:05 FOR PHONE]

Panken:   We were talking about church. Let’s start from the top. She was an organist, you went to church with her, and she knew all kinds of music.

Donaldson:   Yes. All kinds of music. When I was a little kid, I was singing songs like “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and I knew James Weldon Johnson—I knew about him. FMI(?—13:37), and all that stuff. “Precious Lord” and all those songs that the black composers wrote. I knew all about it. I knew all about Sojourner Truth and Highland Rebels, and all of them…black people after reconstruction. She taught us all of that.

Panken:   So you learned about black history.

Donaldson: She told us all about black history before I was 5 or 6 years old. We knew all about it.

Panken:   So her attitude about what you could talk about and couldn’t talk about at the table didn’t correspond to not giving you information about heritage.

Donaldson:   Oh, no. I got the information. She gave me information about everything.

Panken:   Do you feel that those experiences… This is kind of an obvious question; I’m sure I know the answer. But do you feel that your musical experiences in church as a boy and a teenager have an impact on who you are now as a musician?

Donaldson:   Of course.

Panken:   Talk about that.

Donaldson:   Well, what it is, we used to have these things down there they called sanctified meetings, where all the people would go to the church, and they’d start a beat [CLAPS THE BEAT], and they wouldn’t stop that beat for two or three hours. They’d be singing the spirituals. And after about two or three hours, the most dramatic stuff you ever saw in your life. People that had canes and had walkers and had wheelchairs would be up in the floor shouting. It was amazing. [LAUGHS] They used to have the sanctified meetings. It was amazing.

Panken:   And your father was leading the sermon?

Donaldson:   Well, not in that. That was something separate. He would preach on Sunday. But that was like in a special service in the middle of the week or something. And there would be a lot of preachers there.  A lot of preachers would come in from everywhere for that meeting, and everybody would have to testify and do all that kind of stuff.

Panken:   What was your father’s style of preaching?

Donaldson:   My father was a kind of in-between.

Panken:   In between what?

Donaldson:   In between intellect and… He would moderate his preaching to where the people could understand what he was talking about. But he was a real educated man. And back then, they didn’t like educated preachers. They liked preachers that used to yell and scream and… A lot of those preachers couldn’t even read the Bible. They’d have like a kid, a young kid reading the script, and they’d quote it after… It’s amazing. It’s a lot of stuff.

Panken:   So all those things factor into the voice you have on your instrument.

Donaldson:   Of course. The time, the tempo, the rhythm, the building up of like a solo—all of that goes into it.  And such wonderful singers. You never heard such wonderful singers in all of your life.

Panken:   Do you try to emulate that singing quality when you play the saxophone in any way?

Donaldson:   Actually, I was trying to emulate Johnny Hodges and those kind of people. I wasn’t really trying to emulate the church. Because I knew all of the… Like, Pete Brown, and another saxophone player I was very…I’d go to see him all the time…a cat who worked with Red Allen named Don Stovall. He had a beautiful sound. And he played like a ROUGH saxophone, and I tried to play stuff like him sometimes.

Panken:   Just stepping back again, was there any blues in town as a kid?

Donaldson:   In my town? Yeah, people would sing blues.

Panken:   Were you checking that out as a kid, or were you sheltered from it?

Donaldson:   Not really. Not really, because they’d be drunk when they started doing it, and I’d get away from there quick, because I’d know eventually what was going to happen. There would be some fracases. So I’d get away. Because they lived a tough life. They was working in this Alcoa Aluminum factory at 222 degrees Fahrenheit, and on the weekend everybody was drunk. And now that I’m old and I look back, I can see exactly why. That was tough work. Tough work. Because you worked ten years breathing those fumes and things, you had to be well messed up.

Panken:   You described the extraction process yesterday.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   And there was no EPA at that time.

Donaldson:   No-no.

Panken:   Just a little bit more about when you made the transition from clarinet to alto saxophone. Johnny Hodges was the prime first influence, and then Bird came into the picture? Is that kind of…

Donaldson:   Well, not really. All of them came into the picture about the same time. I heard Johnny Hodges with Duke Ellington. In fact, he was the first saxophone player I got to see. Somebody had a video… We went to a town, I think it was Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which was a much larger town than mine, and I put a nickel… I saw Duke Ellington, so I put a nickel in the nickelodeon, because that’s all it cost to play a record, and they had a video of the band that came up while they were playing, and I got to see Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, all of those type guys.

Panken:   So he made a quick impression.

Donaldson:   A big impression. I wanted to play like that.

Panken:   I’ve asked a few people from your generation how they felt and what the experience was like when they listened to Charlie Parker for the first time. You’ve told me that you heard “The Jumpin’ Blues” by Jay McShann…

Donaldson:   Yeah, “Jumpin’ the Blues.”

Panken:   …and you saw Bird in Chicago…it had to be 1944, because that’s when he was with Eckstine. Can you describe for me the impact he had on you at the time?

Donaldson:   Well, he was different. He was just different. The sound was different. The way he played was different, the way he would drive when he played, the power behind his phrases. Just different. And everything was swinging. Just different from anybody else. You actually would have to live back during that era to understand it. Nobody else was playing that way, but him.

Panken:   So it made you want to find out what he was doing…

Donaldson:   Find out what he was doing and play the same way. Play it the same way, if possible.

Panken:   How did you measure yourself in that regard? Did you just listen to the records over and over and over, and wear them out until you…

Donaldson:   That’s what I did. Listened to the record. I’d wind the record down to the aluminum base. They had an aluminum base. I’d cut it down. And when I couldn’t get the phrases, I’d put it down to 33-1/3 speed. It would be in another key, but you could still get the phrases. If you cut it down, he sounded like Lester Young—if you cut down the speed.

Panken:   How did you get the records?

Donaldson:   I got them from the guys in Chicago. See, some guys in my band came from Chicago, and they brought the records out to the base, and they’d be playing them?

Panken: Which records at the time? The Guild records with Dizzy Gillespie and Sid Catlett?

Donaldson:   Oh, no-no.

Panken:   “Red Cross”? Or before that.

Donaldson:   No. Way before that. Wasn’t nothing like that out.

Panken:   Well, he made those dates in 1945, but I don’t know if they were out at the time.

Donaldson:   No, I didn’t hear that until later.

Panken:   But apart from “Jumpin’ Blues,” what other Charlie Parker solos did you learn…

Donaldson:   “Jumpin’ the Blues” and “Sepian Bounce” with McShann. A couple of more tunes. But all of them were with McShann.

Panken:   Everything with McShann. So your experience with Charlie Parker…

Donaldson:   Was with McShann.

Panken: After you got out of the Army, did you stay up on all of Charlie Parker’s records, the Dials and the Savoys?

Donaldson:   Of course. Stayed on everything.

Panken:   Did you do the same thing with those?

Donaldson:   Yeah. Copied everything. Played everything. Played the solos.

Panken:   How did you learn what to do with that information as a performer?

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, the tunes that he did then were just variations of other tunes. So I’d learn the original tune, and compare that with what he was playing, and that gave you something to work on. It was nice.

Panken:   So you could use your imagination and creativity that way, by finding out the connections.

Donaldson:   Of course. Once I learned to resolve chords, go from one chord to another, I’d just buy the sheet music and I could see where the chords went.

Panken:   Now, I’m unclear from our conversation yesterday whether this was a solitary activity or whether you had people in Greensboro who were similarly interested in bebop and the new music.

Donaldson:   Yeah, of course. Everybody in Greensboro was interested in it. My good friend, Carl Foster. This other guy I told you about, Billy Tolles, who was a great saxophonist.

Panken:   Billy Tolles was from Seattle, right?

Donaldson:   Seattle, Washington.  He was a great saxophone player. He could play all that kind of stuff when he came down to North Carolina.

Panken:   Now, the people you played with in Greensboro… Were you moonlighting outside of school? Did you ever do three-four days out on the road with a blues singer, or go to a dance…

Donaldson:   No, we played in clubs. And we played bebop. We played a regular show, then we’d play bebop. You had to play a regular show first. Then we’d play some bebop tunes.

Panken:   You mean at the end of the show.

Donaldson:   At the end of the show.

Panken:   Now, you said that’s been your m.o. ever since.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:    You play during the regular show things that will communicate to the average man and woman, and then you…

Donaldson:   Once you get them in your corner, then you play whatever you want to play. One of the most amazing things that ever happened to me (I don’t know whether I told you this before) is that when I came back from the Service, I didn’t have a saxophone…

Panken:   You didn’t tell me that.

Donaldson:   I had to go to the music shop to buy a saxophone. I didn’t tell you that?

Panken:   No.

Donaldson:   I was in there, so I started to play the… [SINGS REFRAIN OF “GROOVIN’ HIGH”] All of a sudden, I hear this guitar player over there playing the same thing I was playing. I looked around the corner at him, and it’s a white boy. He had all this paint over his clothes and paint on his face. He looked like a painted Indian. He was a sign painter. And I said, “Man, how you know that?” He said, “Well, I’m trying to learn all the bebop I can learn.” I said, “I’m glad I saw you. So there’s one person in this town…” He said, “Can I come down to the Cottage?” I said, “yeah, you can come down every time.” So he started coming down there every weekend, and we’d play. And you’d never guess who it was.

Panken:   I think I might know. Let me try one guess.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Tal Farlow?

Donaldson:   Yeah. Tal Farlow. Tal Farlow. He was from Greensboro. He’d come right down, and we played. We was integrating everything. Nobody said a word. They loved it. That was great.

Panken:   I got so involved in talking about your musical path, but I wanted to pick up on a couple of things you were mentioning just before we sat down and the tape went on about your extended family. I think you mentioned your grandfather, or was it an uncle, who was a stone-mason and built…

Donaldson:   Oh, my great-grandfather. He built St. Paul University. He built the buildings. He was a mason and a carpenter.

Panken:   Was that during Reconstruction times?

Donaldson:   It had to be in the 1920s.

Panken:   Your great-grandfather?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   He would have been elderly at the time…

Donaldson:   Well, maybe my grandfather. My mother’s father. That’s who it was. My grandfather. A lot of my mother’s sisters taught in the college.

Panken:   If you don’t mind my asking, and tell me if you do, how far back can you trace your lineage?

Donaldson:   Way back.

Panken:   Talk about that a bit.

Donaldson:   Well, I had the paper to show you, but my sister-in-law absconded with it, so… I didn’t know these people myself.  My mother told me all this. I never saw these people. I saw her sisters. See, my grandfather had three wives, three sets of children, and she was in the first set.  There were some younger ones.

Panken:   At the same time, or serially?

Donaldson:   Yeah, at the same time. He was… I guess he was a playboy, whatever he was. Bigamist. Whatever he was. He had three sets of children.

Panken:   Hard-working man. Where was he from?

Donaldson:   I guess he’s from Virginia. St. Paul, Virginia. I guess.

Panken:   Perhaps if you do find that sheet of paper, the Smithsonian can get a copy, and it can be entered into the record of the transcript later.

Donaldson:   Yes. Maybe I can find it.

Panken:   Let’s jump, then. Our conversation yesterday took us to about 1960, give or take, around the time when you make the transition from carrying a pianist in your band to starting to carry organ players, and when, apart from Jimmy Smith, you record with Big John Patton, you record with Baby Face Willette, projects like this. But first, I’d like to talk a bit more about the bands you recorded with in the late ‘50s. Some had Bill Hardman on the front line with you; some didn’t. Herman Foster or Horace Parlan were the pianists…

Donaldson:   George Tucker and Al Harewood.

Panken:   Also Peck Morrison and Dave Bailey.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   In general, what qualities did those musicians have in common?

Donaldson:   Well, for me, they weren’t junkies. That’s why I used them. Because like I told you, I told Alfred Lion junkies had to go.

Panken:   But how about as far as what they did musically?

Donaldson:   Well, we played around New York together. I’d see them all the time. We had two or three places we played, and then we had one place we’d play every night called Connie’s. That was at 134th and 7th Avenue. We played in Connie’s… After the rest of the clubs was closed, we’d go up there and play from about 5 til about 10 in the morning.

Panken:   You mean the breakfast session.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Was that all week, or just Monday?

Donaldson:   Every night. Right across the street was Roy Campanella’s liquor store. Any time some famous ballplayer would come over there, they’d run across the street and tell us, and we’d go over there and meet them. Don Newcombe, Hank Thompson… In fact, Leo Durocher was over there one time. We got to meet all the ballplayers.

Panken:   I guess the New York Giants were Harlem’s team.

Donaldson:   Of course. The New York Giants. And the Brooklyn Dodgers. They loved the Dodgers, too. I was there the night Campanella got hurt. [January 27, 1958] What happened… This is an amazing story. I was in Small’s Paradise. Wilt Chamberlain owned it at that time. I was over there talking to Wilt, and Campanella came in there because once… He closed up about 1 o’clock, and Wilt stayed open til about 4. There was a girl, a barmaid that Roy liked, so he came over, but it was snowing a little bit, not much… He sat there until about 4 o’clock. By that time, the snow was getting deep, real deep, and I started talking to him.  I said, “Roy, I know you’re not trying to go home in this snow.” He said, “No, I think I’m going to go down the street to the motel and stay there the rest of the night,” because there were some bad curves getting back to Brooklyn. I said, “Ok.” I never will forget it, because when I got in my car, I came up Bruckner Boulevard, which was a two-lane street then but they were making it a four-lane, and they had dug these trenches, and if you slid in one of those trenches you never could get your car out. So I drove my car in low gear from Harlem all the way right to this house in the Bronx. When I got in, I was so late… My wife said, “What in the world are you doing coming in so late?” I told her I couldn’t drive fast, because if the car got stuck I had no way to get it out. I drove right in the middle of the road because there was no other traffic out there.”

I got into bed, and she came in at about 12 o’clock and said, “Roy Campanella had an accident.” I said, “What you mean, accident?” He told me was going to the hotel. He wasn’t even going to try to go home.” She said, “Well, he did, and when he went around some curve, he got injured, and he’s paralyzed.” I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. When I finally saw him 3 or 4 months later, he told me, “I didn’t listen to what you told me. You told me not to do that.” I said, “Because it was too dangerous.” I went up Bruckner because that’s a straight line. Wasn’t no hills or nothin’ up there, just straight up the street. If I had to go down some curves, I wouldn’t have any gone anywhere either. That’s amazing. Amazing story.

Panken:   So you were really around and in direct contact with the elite of a lot of different worlds.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. Everybody.

Panken:   In the black community mostly, but some in the white community, too.

Donaldson:   Yeah, of course. I could be called an historian. I met everybody, and I was out every night.

Panken:   Working.

Donaldson:   Working or looking. When I wasn’t working, I was looking. I met everybody. Everybody you probably can name, I met them.

Panken:   Wilt Chamberlain bought his interest in Smalls when? 1961? 1962?

Donaldson:   Something like that. I don’t know exactly. He had a lot of money.

Panken:   So you were working for him.

Donaldson:   Sometimes. Not all the time.

Panken:   You worked at Smalls. You worked the breakfast thing at Connie’s. Where else did you work in Harlem?

Donaldson:   I worked at the Club Barron. I worked at Count Basie’s.  He had a club. I worked down at the Baby Grand sometimes. Another place called the Top Club.

Panken:   About how many days a week would you say you were working from 1955 to the late ‘60s? 300 days a year?

Donaldson:   No, not that much. I wouldn’t work that much. There was three or four clubs out in Long Island I worked, too. Bop City and two more clubs out there I used to work.

Panken:   Brooklyn, too, I would think.

Donaldson:   Yeah, Brooklyn… I used to work the Baby Grand over there, and I used to work Scotty’s Club over there, and that other club on Fulton and Nostrand.

Panken:   Oh, not the Blue Coronet…

Donaldson:   The Blue Coronet. That was a tough club.

Panken:   Tough in terms of the clientele?

Donaldson:   That’s right. You had a few fights now and then.

Panken:   Again, talking about the band, do the Blue Note recordings from 1957-1958-1959, like Blues Walk or Sunny Side Up reflect what your band was playing in those clubs?

Donaldson:   No. Because I used all that on those things… I wasn’t even playing organ in those clubs.

Panken:   On Sunny Side Up you used piano. Horace Parlan.

Donaldson:   Oh, ok. Maybe I did. I went on the road with that group, Horace Parlan, George Tucker and Al Harewood, and I had Tommy Turrentine on trumpet.

Panken:   So the records were not a direct reflection of what you would do in the club.

Donaldson:   Unh-uh.

Panken:   How would it be different?

Donaldson:   Well, when they wanted a date, I’d just figure out something to do to make it. I’d change the personnel according to what I was playing at that time. What I used to do, I used to play… If I was going to make a date, two weeks before I made it, I’d play the tunes in the club to see what kind of response I got, and the ones I didn’t get a response to, I didn’t record, and I was home free. Because everything I made during that time, sold.

Panken:   Probably a lot of ‘78s also at that time.

Donaldson:   Many ‘78s.

Panken:   For the jukebox trade.

Donaldson:   Yeah, many ‘78s.

Panken:   When you started carrying an organ, it’s about 1960…

Donaldson:   Yeah, something like that.

Panken:   The first organist you traveled with extensively was John Patton, although you’d been doing some gigs with Jimmy Smith before that.

Donaldson:   Yeah, John Patton was the first one I took on the road.

Panken:   How did you meet?

Donaldson:   I don’t know how I met John. It was in New York. I met John Patton, Ben Dixon and Grant Green. We had a nice group. Nice group. I met Grant in East St. Louis, Illinois. In fact, I’m the one who brought him to New York.

Panken:   What was he like?

Donaldson:   He was a junkie.

Panken:   Can you separate your assessment of his personality from that, or does that define it for you?

Donaldson:   Yeah, he had no personality. A junkie got no personality. Junkie works 24 hours a day trying to get money to get a fix. That’s that personality.

Panken:   But you must have really liked his playing…

Donaldson:   I loved his playing.

Panken:   You had a group with him for several years.

Donaldson:   But I didn’t take him on the road.

Panken:   Oh, you didn’t.

Donaldson:   Oh, no. I never took him once on the road. Because they got the ten-year Mann Act. You cross the line with some drugs, goodbye—you’re gone. I never took him with him me. I didn’t take that chance.

Panken:   Who did you take on guitar with you at that time?

Donaldson:   I didn’t have a guitar. I took Bill Hardman on trumpet. Then I took Tommy Turrentine on trumpet.

Panken:   How did you meet Bill Hardman?

Donaldson:   I met him in Cleveland.

Panken:   Where he was from, where he grew up.

Donaldson:   That’s where he was from, yeah. He came by to sit in, and I liked him, so I hired him.

Panken:   I’d like to ask you a general question about balancing your creative impulses with the function of doing the gig, and how you satisfy your creativity within the dictates of making a living?

Donaldson:   What we did, we had one set we would play in a new place where we worked, called a “feel ‘em out set.” We played blues, then we’d play a little fast one, then we’d do some swing, then we’d play some other stuff, and whichever way the people went, that’s where we stayed. Stayed. That’s the secret. Most musicians who have work, they know it. They know how to do that. That’s still… Like I told you, we’d play exactly what they wanted to hear for the first set. Second set, they’re getting drunk. Third set, they’re real drunk. So we would play “Cherokee” or anything then. They didn’t know what it was. Because they’re drunk!

Panken:   One thing I’ve noticed seeing you in person however many times it’s been, is that you play everything as though you were playing it the first time, which is what Illinois Jacquet and what I’m sure most of the saxophonists who were your role models did. How do you do that? Do you play tricks with yourself? Is it a natural thing…

Donaldson:   Yeah, that’s what it is. You try to make yourself play different. It’s hard to do, but you try to do that while you’re playing the same songs all the time. Hard to do it, but you have to do it.

Panken:   What tricks do you play on yourself? If you’re not giving away trade secrets…

Donaldson:   No, ain’t no trade secrets. No tricks. We just play different phrases, different things on the same changes. We play on what we call chords and resolutions. Now, sometimes when I used to play on the road, we’d play the song so much because the people were requesting it, so I’d just start playing it in another key. It made me think about what I was playing. Because I played them in one key so long, I didn’t even think about it. I just went up there and played it. But if I had to play it in another key, I’d have to think. So that kept my mind sharp.

Panken:   For instance, every time I hear you go into whatever blues you’re presenting at that time, singing it, or other things you play that I can’t think of right now, there’s a certain conviction to it, a freshness. It’s the way James Moody would do his signature tune, or Jacquet would play “Flying Home.”

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   That’s difficult to do?

Donaldson:    No, not really. You build up to it. You play a variety of tunes, and when you get to that one, you’re ready. You’re ready to play it.

Panken:   You moved into the house we’re conducting this interview in, in 1963, was it?

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   In 1964, you start a couple of years recording for the Cadet label. What precipitated that, and what was it like functioning on Cadet?

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, Esmond Edwards, who was the A&R man at Prestige, went over to Argo, and he went over there and they gave him a lot of money, so he paid us 3 or 4 times what we were making at Blue Note. So I went over and made a couple of tunes. That’s the only reason.

Panken:   It sounds like you were functioning mostly as your own producer for Blue Note after you came back in 1957. Was that the case at Cadet, or were those more produced?

Donaldson:   I produced them. Just about everything you see on a record is produced by me.

Panken:   One of the records on Cadet, if I’m remembering correctly, is the first one I can think of where you’re working in a larger ensemble, like maybe 8 pieces, with arrangements behind you… Did you approach the Cadet dates any differently than Blue Note?

Donaldson:   No, not really. Same thing.

Panken:   The date I mentioned is Roughhouse Blues. Oliver Nelson did the arrangements.

Donaldson:   Oliver Nelson, yeah.

Panken:   That’s the first one I can think of (I may be wrong) where you functioned with an arranger. Everything before that was a combo date.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Why didn’t you do more larger dates before? Why was everything a combo?

Donaldson:   Because the other stuff was selling. We didn’t want to rock the boat. Next thing I did was the one with Duke Pearson, Lush Life.

Panken:   That was in 1967. Which I have to say, personally, is one or my 2 or 3 favorites of yours.

Donaldson:   That’s a beautiful record. A couple of records I made myself, and then George Butler added two or three pieces on it, but it wasn’t really me.

Panken:   Would those be the early ‘70s things on Blue Note…

Donaldson:   Yeah. They overdubbed them. Messed them up actually. But it doesn’t matter.

Panken:   I want to ask about the way you developed your group sound in the ‘60s. Alligator Boogaloo or Midnight Creeper are a very different sound and approach than, well, Lush Life, but also the records with Big John Patton four-five years before.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   Can you speak about evolving towards that way of thinking about making records and your sound, and how it reflected the audiences you were playing for and what was going on around in the music, which was changing in the ‘60s…

Donaldson:   I met Earl Bostic in ‘57, and he told me… I was playing a Brilhart mouthpiece, and he told me, “Get rid of that and get a Meyer.” He said a Meyer is better for the Selmer saxophone. He was right, and I got a different sound. Much clearer. I got the new sound, so I started playing slightly different. Not much. Slightly different.

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   Well, I started making a lot of groove records. The groove records depend on the groove. You don’t have to worry about anything else really but the groove. Because if you’ve got the right tempo, and everything is hitting where it’s supposed to hit, you’re in business. You can play variations on it, do anything on it, but if the groove is there, you’re in business.

Panken:   Are you saying you started to do that in ‘57-‘58, after you got…

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   Those earlier records seem to be a mixture of those sorts of tunes, and bebop tunes and popular tunes and blueses…

Donaldson:   Yeah. It was a mixture of bebop and swing.  That was the formula we used. And all those records were selling, too.

Panken:   But in the ‘60s, after you’d been touring with an organ for a while, and you pick up Lonnie Smith and George Benson and Leo Morris, also known as Idris Muhammad…the sound of those records is very different than the sound of the records by the previous bands.

Donaldson:   Yeah, but that’s Rudy. Rudy got some new equipment, some new Telefunken equipment. Plus, that’s a great band you’re talking about.

Panken:   I’d like to know how the band came together.

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, John Hammond fired George.

Panken:   In 1966.

Donaldson:   George was with Columbia. John Hammond fired him, and George… I knew it. I used to see George all the time. So I said, “Well, you ought to come and make a record with me if he fired you.” And he did. Lonnie was in his band so I got both of them at the same time.

Panken:   Anything else you’d care to say about how you addressed things with this band?

Donaldson:   Well, no. See, he had a great band. He had Ronnie Cuber… He had a great band himself. That told me right there that John Hammond didn’t know the first thing about talent. Because he wouldn’t know it, and the people listening to this or reading this are going to be surprised, because John Hammond fired George Benson (I mean, not fired him—let him go), Aretha Franklin, and Eddie Harris, and the next record each one of them made, you know what happened? A hit record. The next record they made, a hit record. Eddie Harris made Exodus. Aretha Franklin, I don’t know what she made, but you know what happened with her—everything she made was a hit. And George, the next record he made with me, which was a hit, and then he went on to CTI, started singing, and that was a hit. John Hammond missed all three of those people. They were right on the label.

Panken:   You were touring with them in ‘67, ‘68, ‘69…

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   What was band like live? Were you following the same format or stretching out more?

Donaldson:   We stretched out a little more on the “Impressions”(?—53:36) stuff.

Panken:   Now, your relationship with Lonnie Smith has been ongoing ever since…

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   …and it’s one of the great partnerships in this music. Can you talk about your interplay?

Donaldson:   We were so compatible, we just made records for years—15-20 years.

Panken:   Thirty.

Donaldson:   All of them were selling. That’s another thing. A lot of people say, “Well, you made all those records.” I say, “Yeah, but you got to understand; if you make a record for a company and it doesn’t sell, that’s your last record.” What we did, we’re going to sell some records, even if it’s not a hit. It’s going to sell some records, enough to keep us on the label. It worked that way.

Panken:   Working with Idris Muhammad put a completely different framework on what you were doing.

Donaldson:   He’s a great drummer. Great drummer.

Panken:   Did he come as kind of a package deal with George Benson and Lonnie Smith?

Donaldson:   No-no. I saw him down in New Orleans, and I got him from there. He was down there. I got him from down there. He’s a great drummer. Great beat.

Panken:   it was a somewhat different beat than you’d been working with.

Donaldson:   Of course.

Panken:   Can you talk about that a bit?

Donaldson:   I don’t know what to talk about. It was just a different beat. He used to, like, ruffle on the drums, RRRPPP, DUH-DUHT-DUH-DUHT, RRRPPP. He had a different thing, that he was sliding on the drums. Other drummers hadn’t picked that up, and that was a big hit.

Panken:   Those beats in still in common parlance. They’re being sampled…

Donaldson:   Yeah, but they don’t sound like him. Unfortunately.

Panken:   I’m asking about these sides because they’re still resonating with deejays, samples, in popular music… As you were describing earlier, though perhaps not this piece, Madonna had sampled a beat from one your sides, and you got a big check; Mary J. Blige has used these beats; and so on… Which is why I’m interested in what you were thinking about then in modifying your group sound in the latter part of the ‘60s?

Donaldson:   It wasn’t no special effect. It was just that we were playing, and everybody played well together. That’s what made it sound like that.

Panken:   So it had to do with everyone expressing their personalities on their instruments…

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   How would you say the audiences changed in the late ‘60s, or did the circuit change…

Donaldson:   Maybe a little, but not much. Maybe a little, but not much. See, at that time you had a lot of organ groups going around. Groove Holmes. McDuff. Don Patterson. Jimmy McGriff. A lot of organ players going around. We had a little circuit that we played, which I told you about, and we just went around it. We kept going around and around.

Panken:   So the slump that of jazz musicians encountered at this time didn’t really affect you…

Donaldson:   No.

Panken:   …because you were able to stay on your circuit.

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   How long did that last? Did things ever slow down, or did it stick…

Donaldson:   It didn’t really slow down. I just stopped making it when I got to making a little bit of money. A lot of places we played couldn’t pay. Because we played some of those places at a bare minimum. But it didn’t matter because we played consecutively. Sometimes I’d be at a club, and I knew I was going to be there for two weeks. So I’d just call around to the next down, and make a deal with somebody there, and we’d go over there and play. I was booking myself.

Panken:   You were traveling so much… I’d like to move onto a completely different tack. You were married for 56 years.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   And you were traveling half the time.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   It sounds like a very strong marriage.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. My wife was from close to my hometown. I knew her many years before we got married. She saved every penny, heh-heh…

Panken:   So you sent it home.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I sent money orders. Every week I’d send money orders. She raised the kids and put both of them through college. Both of them went on to get doctorates.

Panken:   What are your kids’ names?

Donaldson:   One of them, this one up here [POINTS TO PHOTOGRAPH BEHIND HIM] died. Lydia.

Panken:   With the violin?

Donaldson:   No, that’s Tracy. That’s my granddaughter. See, they moved…they changed the house around, so I don’t even know what’s up there any more.

Panken:   How many kids did you have?

Donaldson:   I had two.

Panken:   Lydia was one.

Donaldson:   And Carol.

Panken:   They both got doctorates.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:  In what, if I may ask?

Donaldson:   Carol’s is in psychology, and Lydia’s was in education. Some kind of… I don’t remember exactly what it was. In other words, she was a procurer for teachers down in Broward County.

Panken:   Oh, in Florida.

Donaldson:   Yes. She traveled all over the United States to the Black colleges, and tests the students and see if they were qualified to come back down there and teach.

Panken:   Was your wife working during those years?

Donaldson:   No.

Panken:   So you were able to support a family of four and send them to college as a constantly working musician, playing live, recordings… Did you ever do other sorts of sessions? New York had a huge studio scene in the ‘50s and ‘60s…

Donaldson:   All I did was background. I did background sometimes with Charlie Singleton’s band. Background for singers. We did backgrounds. But they always stole the material, so it didn’t matter.

Panken:   With your skill sets, reading and technique, it sounds like you would have done very well in the studios. For example, Phil Woods nailed a lot of those kind of gigs. I don’t know how much racial politics entered the equation… But was it ever a temptation for you to try to do the studio thing?

Donaldson:   Too confining. Too confining, and I wanted to be, not free, but have flexibility.

[END OF June 21, 2012, PART 1, TRACK 1]

[BEGINNING OF June 21, 2012, PART 2, TRACK 1]

Panken:   Before we paused, I was asking about the New York studio scene in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s, and whether that had tempted you at all. You stated it was too confining. Where I want to go from that is, when did you know you wanted to be the leader of a group? You haven’t done a whole of sideman things for 55 years or so.

Donaldson:   I knew I wanted to be a leader when I started working for guys that were junkies. Because they wouldn’t pay you. Rather than to beat them up, guys that I liked, I just said, “Well, I’ll get my own stuff.” Because I was tempted many times to go to work, heh-heh…

Panken:   Take matters into your own hands, so to speak?

Donaldson:   Go to work. One time Buhaina didn’t pay me. I said, “Buhaina, you’re a big rough guy, but you’re a junkie and I’m sober. All I got to do is wait for you to start nodding, and I’ll pull out my baseball bat…,” heh-heh-heh…

Panken:   To which he responded?

Donaldson:   “I bet you would do that.” I said, “Yeah, I would. I’m not gonna fight you fair!” [LAUGHS] But actually, it was so sad… But I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. And most people who are interested in jazz…

One time I played down in Washington, in the park, sort of like a Jazzmobile. It was on a Saturday. It was from 5 to 8. So I’m playing, and at the end, it was still light and everything, and I said, “Man, let’s drive back through Baltimore and catch Miles,” because Miles was at a place called the Wagon Wheel, down on Pennsylvania Avenue. So we drove, we went from about 30 miles from Washington to Baltimore, and when we get to the club, Philly Joe, Red, and Paul are sitting out on the curb, the drums out there and the bass out there. I said, “What you all doing out here?” They said, “the guy wouldn’t give us any money.” I said, “What you mean he wouldn’t give you your money? You’re working, aren’t you?” They said, “Yeah, but Miles drew out the money last night. He said he was going to New York and he was coming back—and he didn’t come back.” Heh-heh-heh… The guy was angry. It was a wonder the guy hadn’t beat ‘em up.

I said, “Well, I can’t take you to New York.” But I had my station wagon and I had my organ back in the U-Haul, and I didn’t really have any luggage or anything in the station wagon because I hadn’t intended to stay over at night. So all of them crammed back in there, put the bass and everything back in my wagon, and I drove over to Philadelphia, which wasn’t but about 50 miles. When I get to the outskirts of town, I pull into the gas station. They thought I was going to get some gas. But I said, “This is it.” They said, “What do you mean, man? We’re not in Philly yet. We can’t…” I said, “You don’t think I’m going to drive into Philadelphia with you guys, and all you guys are junkies.” Because they had a guy over there named Rizzo.

Panken:   Yes. Frank Rizzo.

Donaldson:   Frank Rizzo. I knew you’ve heard of him! Every time somebody would come over there, he’d pick, them up, especially Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. That was his favorite duo. I said, “No way. I’m not driving into town.” So they had to call, they had to call and call. So they finally got somebody to come out there and get them. I said, “Ok, I’ll see you.”

So I came home to New York. When I was here for a week, Red called me. He said, “Man, we quit Miles, we quit Miles. Miles would never come up with…” I said, “Red, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.” I said, “You guys are the greatest; you’ve the greatest rhythm section in the world.” I said, “I’m going to rent the Audubon Ballroom,” the place up there where Malcolm X got shot. So I went up and rented it for a month, and I played it every Sunday from 5 to 9, Lou Donaldson and the Red Garland Trio. Now, every week, Miles came up—about three times. So they’re hugging, and I know where they’re going to get some vitamins once they got that money…

The business got so good, we hired Betty Carter as a vocalist. I was raking in money! Philly Joe didn’t like Betty Carter, because Betty Carter was young then, and beautiful, singing straight-ahead, you know. She wasn’t doing her crazy stuff.  Every time she’d sing “Perdido,” she’d put her hips up in the air, and the people would go crazy. So he’d drop a bomb or do something. She came to me and said, “Hey, Lou, you got to stop that. Every time I start doing my song, Philly Joe messes it up.” So I went and I said, “Joe, listen. You can’t do that. The girl is trying to get over. Give her a break.” “All right, all right, all right.” But then, when the crowd started really screaming again, he said, “YAAAHHH.” He couldn’t stand it. Put another bomb in there. Finally, Jack Whittemore came up there and had a couple of gigs for Miles, and Miles guaranteed he was going to pay them, so they went back with Miles. But see, a lot of people don’t know that. [LAUGHS] I said to myself, “Man, I might as well get me a group and go out on the road,” and that’s what I did. I got me a group and went out on the road. And it worked out fine. Wonderful.

Panken:   You were able to be friendly with people whose personal behavior you disapproved or you felt would damage you.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   You could separate your feelings in that regard.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I’m an amazing guy, because I’m the only guy… Say, like, a guy like Miles… Miles did some bad things to people. He never did it to me. Any time I talked to him, he’d come up and we’d talk.

Monk. Monk would hardly talk to people. People asked Monk, said, “How you doing, Monk?” He’d just look at them. He wouldn’t say a word. Every time I saw him, we’d talk. We’d talk a long time. We were very friendly. In fact, I used to really feel sorry for Monk, because back then, his music wasn’t compatible. I started to say I’d take Monk on a couple of gigs, but I knew I’d get fired, not because of the way he played, but the way he acted. Because he’d sit up there and smoke a cigarette, wouldn’t say anything to anybody. You can’t do that in a ghetto club. You’ve got to be friendly with the people, or somebody will start bothering you.

I used to work with Elmo Hope. He used to work in the band with me with Dud Bascomb. We worked over in Jersey. I used to pick him up every night. What happened, the reason I stopped picking him up is that Ron Jefferson, the drummer, went down to a Cadillac place down there on 10th Street and bought him a Cadillac, and he was coming back home, and just before he got to Central Park, he picked up Freddie Redd, and they started home. People were standing out there waiting for him to come with the car. They had a party going on in there… Shit, he never even got through the park. The police got him. And Freddie Redd had some drugs. They took the car, put him in jail, and he never even reached home with his car. I said, “My God!”  So I told Elmo, “Look, Elmo, what I want you to do is to go down to the Holland Tunnel…there’s a subway stop right there, just before you go in the tunnel.” I said, “I’ll pick you up there every night.” So I’d pick him up right there, go through the tunnel, we’d work in Jersey, and come back, and I’d put him out right back there. I said, “I’m not driving through town with you in my car.”

Because junkies are hazardous people. Real hazardous. I remember one night I was coming up to 110th Street, Central Park, and I stopped at a light. They said, “Wait a minute. I got to get out, I got to get out.” So I thought he was going out there to take a leak or something. So he comes back and opens the back door, and I hear this noise back there, CLING-A-LING-A-LING-A-LING. So I took back there. Four hubcaps. [LAUGHS] I said, “Man, are you crazy?! Not only… You weren’t out there but a few seconds. Where did you get four hubcaps?” You know what he had? He had a can opener.

Panken:   That was a resourceful way to do that.

Donaldson:   I said, “Man, you ought to be… You could get away from the FBI.” [LAUGHS] They were some crazy people. Crazy people.

See, I got away from all of that by getting me a band with no junkies. Didn’t make much money, but we had a nice time.

Panken:   You mentioned yesterday that you hired Cecil Taylor to do some gigs. That must have been the middle ‘50s.

Donaldson:   I didn’t actually hire him. I had Freddie Redd. And when I came to work, Cecil was sitting…you know, bifocals. I said, “Who is that?” Didn’t nobody really know his name. So I started to playing, and he started playing. And he club-owner… Now, this guy…

Panken:   Which club was this, by the way?

Donaldson:   Showman’s Bar. Right next to the Apollo Theater. That’s where it was located then. This guy was a Jewish guy named Willie. Willie knew everything about music, at least he thought he did, but he didn’t know anything about it… But what happened, he came by there and he said, “Lou, who is this guy?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Well, if you want this job, he better not play any more. See, if he plays any more, that’s the end of it.” I said, “What?” So I went over there and I told Cecil. I said, “Cecil, you’ll have to stroll a little bit,” you know, lay out this chorus. He said, “How many choruses?” I said, “For the rest of the night.” [LAUGHS] For the rest of the night! And he did it. He did it, too.

Panken:   Let me ask you this. As objectively as you can, talk to me about how you were responding to some of the ideas that percolating in 1959 and 1960, when Coltrane was moving towards what he went to, and Ornette Coleman at the Five Spot. Without invective… Because when we did the Blindfold Test a few years ago, you said some very interesting things about Ornette Coleman. I’m interested in how you processed that when it was coming out.

Donaldson:   Well, I’m telling you. The first time I heard Ornette Coleman, we were… I was working in the Five Spot before he came there. Before Monk came there, too. It was groups like mine that kept the place open, because we didn’t make any money—$15-$20. First time I heard him, I said, “Man, they say this guy is a genius…” I said, “I didn’t know I was a genius; that’s the way I sounded the first day I got my horn before I learned where the notes were. That’s the way I played. So if he’s a genius, I’m a genius and I don’t know it.”

And Coltrane… See, Coltrane used to come down and play with Monk, and he’d run down in the basement after every set, rehearsing his songs and things that he had to play with Monk. Then he’d come back up and play them. It was strange music. Real strange music. It’s like overplaying music. Because you can give a person so much, but then you got to stop. Because if you overplay the music, that’s it. It’s all over.

Panken:   Did you listen to Coltrane’s records later in the ‘60s?

Donaldson:   I listen to everything. I keep up with all music.

Panken:   Talk about that some.

Donaldson:   Well, he started to get worse and worse, when he started making his stuff like “Ascension” and all that kind of stuff. It’s really some out music.

Panken:   Did you like records like “Ballads” or the record he did with Duke Ellington or things like that?

Donaldson:   No. I like nothing he did. To me he’s an amateur saxophone player. He plays the tenor like an alto. He never gets the pure tone out of a tenor, like a tenor saxophone player. In fact, they played a record by him the other day. I was listening to Sirius. And right behind that they played a record by Ike Quebec. Such a difference. Such a difference, I’m telling you. For me, I don’t understand why the critics don’t see that, but they don’t.

Panken:   That brings me to a whole other question, which is the way you’re received by writers, critics, the broad discourse about the music? Do you feel you’re properly understand? Insufficiently understood? Misinterpreted? Overlooked?

Donaldson:   Well, I don’t know. I’m a different kind of… See, I’m a guy that tries to play the traditional stuff, and I’ll stretch out a little—sometimes, but not much. They wanted to say I wasn’t playing jazz when I went to play on these funk records. But actually they’re not funk records. They’re swing records. The records are swinging more than… Because I changed the beat of the drums. See, my records, you don’t hear the same drum-beat. Like Eddie Harris. You don’t hear the same beat. Different kind of records, and they sell like mad. That’s why I did it, because I knew they would sell. See, because Coltrane with Elvin in there, he was never going in there.

Panken:   Well, he did sell a lot of records. You don’t agree?

Donaldson:   Ah…I don’t know about a lot of records. I mean, you hear them on the jazz station. He didn’t sell no records.

Panken:   We don’t have enough time to debate it, but A Love Supreme sold a lot of records.

Donaldson:   I don’t think so.

Panken:   Oh, you think that’s exaggerated?

Donaldson:   Yeah. That’s just a lot of BS. Herb Alpert had ten straight one-million-dollar record-sellers. Did he do that?

Panken:   Now, is that the criteria?

Donaldson:   If you’re talking about selling records. Selling records is selling records.

Panken:   In your opinion, why do you think Coltrane struck such a chord with a lot of people in the jazz public, younger people particularly, during the ‘60s?

Donaldson:   Well, he’s a junkie. Any time you see a junkie, and people like that. They like that. He used to play one chorus for an hour. That’s not no… And he played a lot of harmonics and technical things. Got nothing to do with jazz. Jazz, you can play one or two notes on a tune. You don’t think so, you listen to Gene Ammons. I used to see Gene and Sonny. Sonny used to eat Gene up playing stuff. Sonny was a technician. Gene played two or three notes. People didn’t even want to hear Sonny any more.

Panken:   You did both, kind of.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   You’re kind of a cross between Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt.

Donaldson:   Well, that’s what I said. I’m one of the in-between musicians. I try both sides. See, Trane… I listened to Trane… I took one of the old saxophone players, Wild Bill Moore. Now, he used to rock-and-roll, walking the bar, all that kind of saxophone playing. I let him hear “Ascension.” So he listened to it. I said, “What you think?” He said, “He sounds like a wounded rhinoceros that somebody shot and left out in the woods and died.”

Panken:   How did you feel about Sonny Rollins’ playing in the ‘50s and ‘60s?

Donaldson:   Not much. ‘50s good. ‘60s not-good. Sonny Rollins was a great saxophone player in the ‘50s. But once he went onto that bridge… It was reported that a cross-tie fell on his head while he was on…

Panken:   That’s not nice…

Donaldson:   That’s what they tell me. A cross-tie fell on his head. Just to see him now, it’s sad. Very sad. He looks like Santa Claus.

Panken:   Do you feel that you’ve been somewhat overlooked by people who write about the music? Not the public.

Donaldson:   Not really… Oh yeah. By the people who write. Yeah, of course. Of course. Of course. I told you I just went to Europe, and every place was sold out.

Panken:   Now, when did you start going to Europe regularly?

Donaldson:   The ‘70s and ‘80s.

Panken:   Is it different playing for a European audience than let’s say an inner city…

Donaldson:   Of course.

Panken:   Do you do the same thing, or do you take a different presentation?

Donaldson:   I play the same thing. Same thing. Same thing. This guy Wim Wigt started booking me.

Panken:   Hence, you started recording for Timeless and other…

Donaldson:   Timeless, yeah. He even made an album called The Forgotten Man. He said, “People forgot about you.” I said, “they didn’t really forget about me, because I started working, and I wasn’t in town.” I was working like on the road. And the jazz critics, people, they don’t get around that much.

Cut that off for a minute.

[PAUSE AT 22:42]

Panken:   [22:49] We were talking about critics, the press you received, and being perhaps misunderstood or improperly evaluated.

Donaldson:   Well, what it is, evidently, there are some people that are not too knowledgeable about what jazz really is, and when they see somebody trying to play straight-ahead, they probably say they’re not keeping up with the trends, you know. Because you take people like Jackie McLean and Tina Brooks, or this other guy who used to work with Bill Doggett… All these young saxophone players around New York…

Panken:   In the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Donaldson:   …when they would get stuck, they’d come to me and learn the changes to the songs. I read a book about hardbop in the ‘60s, and the guy didn’t say a thing about me. I was talking about Percy France, was another one.

Panken:   You have that book in your bookshelf. [Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music 1955-1965, by David Rosenthal]

Donaldson:   Yeah.  Percy France. Percy France and all of these people. I read it. I said, “I don’t know how he could have figured that out.” Hard for me to say. At one time, I used to work down at the place down there on…not the 5-Spot, what’s the other place down there…

Panken:   Sweet Basil?

Donaldson:   Sweet Basil. I was the house band there. I played all the time. The place was full of people every night. Never got a writeup.

Panken:   When was that? In the ‘80s?

Donaldson:   The ‘80s.

Panken:   Mostly with Herman Foster.

Donaldson:   Herman Foster most of the time.

Panken:   You linked up with him again for a long time in the ‘80s before you went back to the organ format.

Donaldson: They never said a thing about Herman, and Herman was a genius. Herman was a guy… Sometimes we’d play a year and never have a rehearsal. He knew everything. He was a genius. We played a concert once in Belgium. The guy had Dave Brubeck on there. I went and told the promoter, “You’d better let us play last, because if we play before Dave Brubeck, people are going to leave.” He said, “No-no-no, this is Dave Brubeck.” So Herman got to doing his stuff. Shee… Dave Brubeck came on, and everybody was outside trying to get Herman’s autograph.

Panken:   Now, in the ‘80s, it seems like the climate changed somewhat because of the infusion of young musicians who were interested in playing the music…who paid attention to the hardcore jazz tradition. It got more acoustic in some ways. Wynton Marsalis had something to do with it, but also Art Blakey brought all these guys into the Jazz Messengers. And you’ve kept track of the young alto players who emerged during that time, like Donald Harrison, Kenny Garrett, Vincent Herring…

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   What’s your impression of that… Well, they’re not young any more; they’re middle-aged, in their forties and fifties. But your impression of that particular period and how things played out with that group of alto players. Your sense of the state of the alto saxophone these days.

Donaldson:   Well, back in those days, see, Art Blakey had those Messengers… That was like a scam band. He did that so he could keep his habit going. He wasn’t interested in promoting no musicians. He talked it all the time, but he wasn’t. Because the reason all of them quit was as soon as one of them would ask him about the money, he’d get another one. [LAUGHS] See, I know that, but the critics don’t know that.

Panken:   Nonetheless, it did wind up being probably beneficial in the long run for these guys to have the chance to do that.

Donaldson:   For some of those musicians. Yeah, Wynton got famous with that. Wynton got famous with that, and he’s still famous.

Panken:   But apart from that band, just your sense of this group of musicians who started to emerge then? Was it a healthy thing for the music? Did it change the climate?

Donaldson:   Well, it’s always healthy when somebody new comes in. Because it’s like new blood. It’s always healthy. But what happens is that you get so many people… Lee Morgan was one of them, too. You get so many people until you can’t…you got a whole lot of chiefs and no Indians.  Because when they leave Art, they want to get a band. So what you got is a lot of bands, but no musicians, and no real definite sound. Now, you notice that nobody, even now, is dominant. What’s the alto saxophone player that’s dominant? I mean, other than Kenny G. David Sanborn. No jazz alto saxophone player is dominant.

Panken:   What do you make of that? Too many chiefs, no Indians, or…

Donaldson:   Well, not necessarily that. It’s because all of them come through the same thing, and they’re not playing anything, because all of them are playing the same.

Panken:   Is that because of the way jazz education is now? Coming up in conservatories and not bands?

Donaldson:   Well, partly. Partly. Partly. But anybody who comes through school and learns all the basics, they got to know that everybody is not supposed to sound the same. If you go through the school and learn the basics, you know that.

Panken:   Well, they have to sound a little different. When we did the Blindfold Test, you told them all apart. You could pinpoint who Donald Harrison was, and who Kenny Garrett was, and who Vincent Herring was…

Donaldson:   Yeah. Well, still you got to… Right now, I don’t know. Nobody is dominant. We did a survey, which the critics don’t know about. A cat bet me $100 that… I bet him $100 to $500 that I could stand down at the Apollo Theater and pool the people when they came by, and it would be ten times more people that knew Kenny G than knew Sonny Rollins. You know how it came up? We didn’t even have to stay there but about a half-hour. Everybody he asked about Sonny Rollins said, “Oh, yeah, I know him; he plays with the Boston Celtics. He’s with the Giants.” Not a living ass knew who Sonny Rollins was. Then he started asking people about Kenny G. Everybody he asked knew Kenny G. In fact, a lot of the people who came by there knew me. “Hey, Lou, what you doing out here?” But I told him, “I’m famous in Harlem; I used to live right on 127th and 8th Avenue. I know all about Harlem.”

But that’s just the way it is. It’s a sad situation. Sad situation.

Panken:   I’m going to ask one final question. I asked you about feeling…whether you’ve been overlooked, underrated somewhat. And you’re now in receipt of an NEA Jazz Masters Award. It hasn’t been announced yet, but it will be by the time this comes out. Does that mean something to you? How are you reacting to it?

Donaldson:   It’s a prestigious award. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m 86 years old…85 years old. It doesn’t mean a thing to me. Because I figure I should have had an award 25-30 years ago.

Panken:   I wouldn’t disagree.

Donaldson:   In fact, I could have had it if I’d wanted to. They invited me to the first or second or third time they gave out the award, but I was on the road and I couldn’t get back to New York to go to the meeting. I’m pretty sure I would have got it then. But it doesn’t bother me, because I’m very fortunate. I’m one of the horses who got out the stall. A lot of these guys get blocked in, and they’re down for years. Not me. I was lucky.

Panken:   Well, you know what Branch Rickey said.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   “Luck is the residue of design.”

Donaldson:   Yup. Yup. But, see, music… Let me tell you something about music before you cut this off. You talk about Wynton. Now, Wynton did something that is very hard to do. He brought this music back and got back the dignity, the stuff that people used to have in the music before the junkie era. Because I remember when I was a kid, musicians used to come through Greensboro and get stranded, and people would let them come to their house and stay, and they’d feed them and everything, until they got another job. But not during the junkie era. But he brought this back, and he does a wonderful job. Wonderful job. I wish all the best for him. He’s a nice guy.

Not my favorite trumpet player, you know… Because you can see that I worked with Clifford Brown, Blue Mitchell, Kenny Dorham… I worked with guys who really knew how to play a trumpet. Idrees Sulieman, a great trumpet player. Great trumpet player. Donald Byrd. I worked with these guys. Tommy Turrentine. But he did what he did, what he had to do, and he did it. More power to him. Only thing now…that he does now, he just tries for more of his type of artist than other artists, which is… Maybe he’s just doing it because he’s got a chance to do it. But you’ve got to spread it around.

Panken:   It’s complicated, because he’s trying to function as a composer also…

Donaldson:    Yes, and a musician.

Panken:   So he brings in people who play his sound, what he hears.

Donaldson:   And a musician. I just heard a record the night. It shook me up. I was listening to Sirius, and they played his concert, and he played “Blues Walk,” featuring Sherman.

Panken:   Sherman Irby.

Donaldson: Yeah, he’s a good saxophone player. I didn’t know that. So I called him and left a message. He didn’t call me back. I told him thanks. But he did a good job. And his father before him. I used to travel down through the South, way back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and his father had a progressive group then, down in New Orleans, which is almost unheard-of. Because you got too much competition here—all that Dixieland. Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, all those guys, they had everything sewed up. But Ellis also had his band.

Panken:   I think Ellis was working with Al Hirt for a while, too.

Donaldson:   Yes. He worked hard. He worked hard. He kept it going.

Panken:   Any final comments, wrap-up comments?

Donaldson:   I don’t know what to say. The NEA is doing a good job. A good job. It’s very rewarding to receive this reward. And… What can I tell you? I started to send it back, but then I thought about it. I said, “I’ll take it.”

Panken:   You mean because it had been so long coming, and it should have been before.

Donaldson:   So long coming. Plus, I don’t need the money. I’m not rich, but I’m comfortable. So just one of my… I’m a Scorpio, so sometimes I think first… But now, since I got to be old, I think before I act. [LAUGHS] But I’m not…

It doesn’t bother me that I was not recognized. You know, they haven’t had my name in the alto poll for over twenty years.  My name has not even been listed. And I was working over in Europe every day, and they have people in the poll that don’t even work any more, or couldn’t work. That bugged me for a while, because Eddie Harris used to come in… It bugged him, too. Because he had… Well, Eddie had a lot of hit records, so Eddie made a lot of money. He said, “Why we can’t get in the poll?” But we figured it out. We figured it out. And you’d be surprised what we figured out. If you don’t play with Miles, you don’t get in there.

Panken:   Critically…

Donaldson:   If you don’t play with Miles. Look at all these people that are in there. They played with Miles. Except Norman Granz’s people, but that’s years ago. Because you know, with Norman Granz, he had Jazz at the Philharmonic, all his people always won the polls. Oscar Paterson. Ray Brown. Jo Jones. Roy Eldridge. Dizzy. Charlie Parker. Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips. Who was the trombone player with Woody Herman?

Panken:   Bill Harris.

Donaldson:   Bill Harris. J.J. I saw that for years. Because I’m up on it. I watch it.

Panken:   So you haven’t stopped working since you were 20 years old.

Donaldson:   No, not really. But I was lucky, because I got a circuit to work. It was a tough one, because most of the guys that owned the clubs, the ghetto clubs, were like hustlers.

Panken:   Tough guys. Hustlers.

Donaldson:   Number writers, dope sellers, and whatever else they did. I didn’t never get really tight with any of them because I couldn’t afford to go to jail—you know, my family and stuff. But I even worked a club for Don King.

Panken:   Cleveland, must have been.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Corner Tavern. He had a club called the Corner Tavern. He won’t admit it, but I worked there. [LAUGHS]

Panken:   Mr. Donaldson, thank you very, very much for this very candid two days of interviewing.

Donaldson:   All right. I hope you got a little material to interest the people.

Panken:   Can’t imagine how they wouldn’t be interested.

Donaldson:   I can’t tell you my ending, because it’s X-rated, so I wouldn’t put it on there.

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Filed under Interview, Lou Donaldson

For Eddie Harris’ 80th Birth Anniversary, a 1994 WKCR Interview

In 1994, I had an opportunity to host the sui generis saxophonist Eddie Harris (October 20, 1934-November 5, 1996), who was performing in town, on my afternoon program on WKCR. Among other things, he spoke at length about his early years in Chicago. The transcript, posted below, has been available on the internet for more than a decade on the Jazz Journalists Association website.

Eddie Harris
June 29, 1994, WKCR-FM New York

[Music: “Freedom Jazz Dance” (1964)]

Q: “Freedom Jazz Dance”  became famous after Miles Davis reworked it for his own uses and recorded it. How did Miles get hold of the tune?

EH: Ron Carter came over to him. He came by and offered Ron more money while I was working at the Five Spot for a month. And I said, “Ron, you should take it. It’s more money.” And he took the tune over there, because we were playing it at the Five-Spot, and the rest is history. Miles recorded it, and all of a sudden I was hip. [Chuckles]

Q: So it was a working band that recorded your first Atlantic dates.

EH: Yes.

Q: You go and Cedar Walton go back to an Army band from the 1950s.

EH: Yes. Cedar and I were outside of Stuttgart, at Vahingen(?), and we had a Jazz band out of the orchestra that had formed. It was quite a jazz band. Leo Wright was head of the jazz band, people like Lanny Morgan, Don Menza was in the band . . . It was a very good band.

Q: Was this a band that was set up for the recording, or had you been working?

EH: No. These days it’s very seldom that you get quintets, quartets, sextets, octets as working bands. You generally get duos or trios as working bands. That’s where the business has gone. So I came in and recorded with this trio, and they had been working together. That made it easier for me.

Q: Were your originals composed for the date?

EH: I wrote two tunes for the date. Other than that, there’s a situation going on in Japan where they have some kind of deals with standard tunes in which they want you to play standard tunes. So I don’t mind. As long as they raise the ante financially, I’ll play all the standards they want.

[Music: There Was A Time: Echoes of Harlem, “Lover Come Back To Me”]

Q: I’d like to talk to you about your background in Chicago, Illinois, where you spent a good chunk of your life and developed as a musician. Your beginnings in the music are what? On piano? Saxophone?

EH: I started on piano first. Then I was singing.

Q: Where? In the church? Home?

EH: Yeah, in the church. The church. I mean, they used to stand me up on a table, because I could sing right in tune, in time, and I was only like five years old. But when I was four, my cousin was teaching me piano. She played for the church.

Q: What church was it?

EH: Shiloh Baptist Church. Later on, I was singing at Ebeneezer Baptist Church.

Q: Which I think was the largest church on the South Side . . .

EH: Well, they were very large churches. And my mother was a big wig there at that church, until she died; and she lived until 1991, and she was 91 when she passed on.

Q: Were your parents born in Chicago or did they come there?

EH: My mother was from down south in New Orleans, and my father was from Cuba.

Q: And when did they come to Chicago?

EH: I don’t know. They met in Chicago. I imagine they came in the teens, or maybe . . . I think they came in like 1913. He worked in the stockyards, and my mother worked in the laundry. And they weren’t particular about me playing music. Of course, my father didn’t really care. He died when I was a young guy.

Q: So your mother raised you.

EH: Yeah, my mother. I really took care of my mother and three aunts.

Q: How did the music develop for you? You obviously had an immediate facility for it.

EH: Well, really, Ted, I wanted to play sports. I was quite a sports advocate.

Q: All sports?

EH: All sports. And I could really play — football, basketball, baseball. To be honestly frank with you, because I was taught at such a young age, as I got older I didn’t particularly care for a lot of the people that played music. Because a lot of musicians were, like, too timid: “Oh, I hurt my hands, I can’t do this . . . ” I ran with the gangs, and used to even box at Nichols’ Gym, and I didn’t think about my hands or my embouchure or mouth. Musicians, I couldn’t really take ‘em. I didn’t dig it.

Q: When did you start finding people you could relate to on a musical level?

EH: Well, after I got up in the teens. When you get in the teens, you start meeting guys, like the late Charles Stepney . . . There became a group of us. Muhal Richard Abrams, Raphael Garrett, James Slaughter, Walter Perkins, Bill Lee. There was a small group of us who were on the same wavelength in trying things. And that was interesting to me, to try things, not just sit down and play an Ellis Larkins run or a Duke Ellington run — which could easily be done, because we’d deal with music all day. But these guys, we all wanted to try some different things. You see, most guys didn’t want to try different things. They just wanted to sound like whoever was happening at the time. Now, as young guys, we were listening to the guys that were coming off the JATP, the Jazz At the Philharmonic, which was Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and that group of guys, who was a little older than we were, that was playing some strange type music!

Q: So when did music become a thing that you were doing all day? Because you can’t be playing sports all day and be playing music all day?

EH: Why not?

Q: Well, maybe you can.

EH: [Laughs] When I say playing sports all day . . . What do you do as a young guy? In those days you had clubs on every corner. I mean, you could play somewhere in the evenings. So then you could rehearse, and when you’re not playing with guys, you can play ball. See, it’s not like it is today, where most young guys are trying to lobby for a recording. Well, all we wanted to do was play! Heh-heh. That was a vast difference.

Q: When you were coming up in Chicago, there was also a community of older musicians on a world-class level. Who were some of the people who really impressed you and that you modeled yourself after?

EH: Well, I was quite a pool shooter. I would go into different cities on a bus, go in and collect up some money until they’d get hip to me. And I found, from going over to Detroit, down to St. Louis, over to Cleveland, that Chicago (you don’t realize it when you’re coming up in an environment) had more individualism than anywhere else. Anywhere else. See, in other cities you had great musicians, but the group of guys, they generally played in one vernacular. Whatever that city held, it was like that group of guys produced that type of music.

In Chicago, you could go from one club, and you could hear a Gene Ammons, you had Budd Johnson, and you had Tom Archia, Dick Davis — just dealing with saxophone. Then you had all sorts of piano players that were really. . .really different. You’d go to one club, and the guy sounds like he totally comes from somewhere else. He didn’t sound like a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.

You can imagine a guy coming up from Birmingham, like Sun Ra, playing there. People said, “Hey, they got Monk in New York.” We said, “Yeah, but wait until you come to Chicago and hear Sun Ra!” You know what I mean? Chicago had everybody coming . . . They said, “There’s a guy who can really play drums, man, Max Roach, man — he’s bad!” “Yeah. Wait til you hear Ike Day.” “This guy can play all kind of bass man, this guy is terrific playing bass, Raymond Brown.” And I said, “Wait til you hear Wilbur Ware.” See, we had guys like that in Chicago. Like you’re finally hearing Von Freeman, which was outside years ago. And people said, “John Coltrane.” We said, “Well, you should hear Von Freeman.” That’s the way I thought coming up.

Q: What do you think it is about Chicago that produced that type of individualism? Is it just an accident that all these people were there, or is it something about the culture of the city?

EH: I think it’s the latter. Because people came up primarily from the middle south; that’s Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana. The train came, and Chicago was the train center, so they’d get off there. You had the stockyards and people could get work, primarily the African-American people of that time.

And the people in general were just regular people. In other words, that’s why it was considered the blues capital. They were regular people there. In other words, when you were playing on the stand, guys would just come up and tell you: “Hey, man, I really liked that. I didn’t know what that was, but it’s all right.” If you’re playing something else, a guy says, “Hey, I don’t like that, man. Why don’t you stop playing that.”

See, they were just straight out. They weren’t like the West Coast or the East Coast. On the East Coast they said, “Let me analyze what this guy is doing.” The guy maybe had just been playing two years, but they’re trying to analyze something — the guy’s trying to put something over on them. The West Coast is just write it out, have it all organized. In the Midwest they said, “Hey, man, I spent my money. Come on, play something for me. That’s nice, you experimented now . . . ” It’s like I’d play with no neck on the horn. “Okay, enough of that. Let me feel something.” And will go upside your head if you didn’t!

So therefore, guys that come out of this particular area were more rounded out musicians. Because you would experiment, then you would stop and learn a song in its entirety, knowing the correct melody or the lyrics. Because other than that, you might wind up getting beat up or have to fight some people.

Q: In Chicago at that time almost every major cross-street had several different clubs, and some, like 63rd Street, were almost wall-to-wall with clubs.

EH: Well, this was true in other cities. It was true in Philly, it was true in Detroit. But the only thing I can be repetitive on, Ted, is to say they had different sounding groups in different venues. That was the shocking part about it. And when you come up in that environment, you don’t realize it until you go elsewhere. You’d walk out of one club, and you just heard the blues, jumpin’ up and down, then go down the street, there’s a swinging jazz group, then go down the street to the next club and say, “What is that?” It’s just like you went to another space or another time. Which I didn’t see in other cities.

Q: You also experienced the very intense teaching methods of Walter Dyett at DuSable High School. Can you say a few words about him, and the DuSable situation?

EH: Well, it was a time in which it was segregated times, and therefore African-Americans primarily only were able to go to, like, five schools. And you could imagine that many people in one area . . . Before they had (what is it called?) the high rises or these lower-income homes, they had kitchenettes. That’s a big apartment with one family in the front, one family in the middle apartment, and another family in the rear apartment. So you were like crammed.

Dyett was an instructor at DuSable High School. He had been a captain in the service. And he had to be rough. Because the guys who came to that school were extremely rough. In other words, say you hit that part wrong. Some guys would just tell you, “So what? Go on and play the music.” And he didn’t tolerate that. He would either go upside your head, have you bring your parents up to school. I remember one time I fell asleep. He kicked the chair out from under me, and I got up off the floor with my clarinet all sprawled everywhere! It was really strange.

John Gilmore was in class with me, Pat Patrick — the whole Sun Ra band, as a matter of fact. He had moved into the neighborhood when he came from Birmingham, and he took us out of Dyett’s band, because we could just read tremendously. Because Dyett taught us like that.

Q: Dyett also had bands that would allow his students to work out in the community, too, didn’t he?

EH: Well, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton — I got a chance to hear all these guys. They’d come by because they just couldn’t believe the Booster Band was that hip. That was the jazz band. And when you miss a note, you’re out the band. He’d pop his fingers: “You’re out the band. Bring your mother up to school.” And a guy in the back would take out his instrument, he’d come and sit down, and he was just as good if not better. I mean, it was that kind of competition you came up under, which really helped you. And he taught you other things about self-discipline, like do not have on polkadot socks when you have on a black suit. Heh-heh. Little things like that. Being on time, knowing the music, looking at the music to first see if it’s the correct tune you’re playing, then see what key signature it is. Understand where your repeats are. Little things that you should know in music.

[Music: E. Harris: “K.C. Blues,” “Salute to Bird,” “Hey Wado!”]

Q: The first thing Eddie Harris said to me on the phone when we were arranging this was that you had been a professional musician in Chicago for 14 years, I think you said, before “Exodus” was recorded and you were “discovered.” One of these liner notes says that your first actual gig was subbing piano with the Gene Ammons band.

EH: Yeah, that was my first what you’d call paying job!

Q: Do you remember what the club was?

EH: Well, it wasn’t a club. I played at the Pershing Ballroom. The next time I played it was another place, Baker’s Casino. I didn’t play clubs more or less with him. They had a lot of ballrooms around there, the Trianon, the Aragon on the North Side, and like that. I subbed for a guy named James Craig, who later became a policeman.

Q: He’s on the very early Gene Ammons recordings, if I recollect properly.

EH: Mmm-hmm.

Q: The Pershing Ballroom was part of a hotel on 64th and Cottage that was a real center of musical life on the South Side.

EH: I played there a long time opposite Ahmad Jamal. I played there Monday and Tuesday nights, and opposite him on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Q: As a pianist or saxophonist?

EH: Well, I really wanted to play the saxophone, but I had Charles Stepney working with me, and Walter Perkins and Bill Lee. Then Bill Lee left to go downtown, and Walter Perkins hired a guy from Evanston to play with us — you know him as Bob Cranshaw. So when we worked there, I played piano and Stepney played the vibes, then he doubled to go to piano and I would go to saxophone.

Q: I’d like to ask you about a few of the people that you mentioned, and some that you didn’t. You talked about Sun Ra being active in Chicago He got there in the late 1940s, and did dual duty as an arranger for the Club De Lisa, which included the Fletcher Henderson band, and having his own band of young musicians out of DuSable High School, who as you mentioned, were strong readers, and doing his own music.

EH: Right.

Q: What did his music sound like in 1950 or ’51 . . .

EH: Heh-heh . . .

Q: What was your reaction to playing those type of charts?

EH: I didn’t have any adverse reaction to it, due to the fact that I played in the orchestras; I played classical music. The big thing was looking at the way he wrote them. It was like orchestra music. You had scales, arpeggios, flamadas and like that. He would write a note and make a zig-zag line to another note, and within that time frame you played what you wanted to play. Which is modern writing today, but I wasn’t too hip to that, you know. I would have liked to stay along with him and played a lot longer, but I couldn’t go along with his teachings that he had after rehearsals and after playing, when he said, “I’ve been here before.” Because he was talking about “space is the place” and going on with that. I liked his music. I liked to experiment. But I couldn’t go along with the teaching. So not being with him, that’s when I more or less started playing with another group of guys, who I named earlier, where we did our thing.

Q: You mentioned drummer Ike Day, who was maybe recorded once, and the sound of the recording isn’t so great. A few words about his sound. Because he made an impression on everybody who heard him.

EH: Well, what can you say about an Ike Day? Who can I say that’s playing like he did? He was a combination like Max with his hands, or Philly Joe with his type of swinging. He was just a fantastic drummer. It was just unbelievable what this guy could do with just two sticks, playing on tables, on chairs.

Q: Someone told me they heard him do a solo with his toes.

EH: Well, I never witnessed that. [Laughs] But you can imagine a group of guys playing together like Dorel Anderson and Wilbur Ware, and then you’d have a guy like Ike Day sit in and play the drums. Dorel played drums . . . I mean, it was just extremely talented guys in that immediate area of Chicago, which was primarily the South Side. And I couldn’t understand why they weren’t recorded more, because it was right there. I mean, even though they had little mishaps of drugs and like that, but so did a lot of other people that were recorded!

Q: A lot of people also came through Chicago from other places. For example, Sonny Rollins a couple of times set up shop in Chicago, so to speak.

EH: Sonny Rollins worked there at a day job. In fact, they hired him, “they” meaning Max Roach-Clifford Brown. Clifford had brought me to the band to play at the Beehive, and he felt I was quite a player, that I could read the parts, I could play . . . But Max felt my tone was kind of funny.

Q: In some interviews you’ve talked about your tone. And I think in the interview for the liner notes of Artists Choice [Rhino] you said that you ran into Don Ellis in the Army, and he said that your tone was too light or something. Talk a bit about how you formulated a saxophone style.

EH: Well, the whole point of guys who were more or less envious and guys who were trying to bag on me, trying to bring down my arrogance and egotisticalness . . . Because you have to have this in order to play. You don’t have to be dogmatic about it, but you have to believe in yourself. And they’d say, “Oh man . . . ” This is prejudice times, now; this is the late ’40s or the early ’50s . . . the late ’40s primarily . . . “Oh, man, you sound like Stan Getz,” and that’s supposed to have been a putdown. I even had caucasian guys telling me that, because I played in caucasian bands. And they didn’t realize that really Getz was playing like Lester Young before he lost his teeth. Because if you listen to his old sound, “Taxi War Dance,” Prez and Hershel Evans, he played like that, with a lighter sound. As a matter of fact, any saxophone player that’s trying to play fast or trying to play skips or high notes, he or she becomes a lighter player, because you cannot play heavy and play rapido. But that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, they put me down. “Oh, man, you sound like Getz.” So I had to live with that. Then finally, I started challenging the guys back because I just got fed up with it. “Oh man, but you know, you did sound like . . . ” See, they wasn’t listening to what I’m playing. People are just hung up in sounds. That’s even today, a person’s sound. They say, “Oh yeah, he sounds like Trane.” But what is he playing? Yeah, but as long as I get that sound, I’m automatically in. But not in as far as I’m concerned. But so many people just go by the sound.

See, I was trying to play higher notes, I was trying to play skips like that. But I was using that timbre of sound, which was really the Lester Young school as opposed to the Chu Berry or the Coleman Hawkins way, and to use that and make articulate playing, utilization of tonguing at least every other note, which I get a brass effect. And quiet as it’s kept, only one guy ever told me, he said, “I see, you’re trying to play like a trumpet on saxophone.” That was the late Pepper Adams, who was playing on a big band. He said, “Man, you’re the first cat that really peeped that I was trying to do that. Now, you see, I can play five C’s now, and you see I can hit high notes, and I do a lot of phrasing — I hit things like Miles and Clifford and them on the saxophone.

Q: And subsequently, of course, you used different mouthpieces, trumpet mouthpieces on the saxophone, or saxophone mouthpieces on the trumpet . . .

EH: Well, I was doing that to get different sounds. I was always trying different sounds. The only reason why I more or less put that on the back- burner was electric came out; then I started dealing with electric.

Q: Your relationship with Muhal Richard Abrams goes back to high school. In 1960 or 1961, you and Muhal organized a workshop band that got together briefly, then subsequently you parted ways. This band was the core of what became the AACM. What events, as you recollect it, inspired its formation?

EH: It was a thing that trying to play around Chicago, you figured there are guys that never played first chair, there are guys that never played on a big band, and there are other guys that never had an opportunity to write for a large number of people, and there are people that wanted to sing, and sing in front of a band — “so let’s form a workshop.” There were three of us. There was the late Johnny Hines, a trumpeter from the West Side of Chicago, and Muhal Richard Abrams and myself. And we just got this together at the C&C, which was a lounge, a large lounge. And the musicians . . . It was surprising that so many musicians came! I mean, it was just amazing. I think we must have had about 100 musicians.

But then you have this class set of the musicians who were more or less our age or older, who were astute musicians, then you had the younger musicians — and the astute musicians were like, “Oh, I don’t want to play with these guys, they’re just learning.” So a guy like myself, I’ll take a few charts and pass it out to the guys, and put guys in precarious positions. Like a guy I know that can play a good first, I’ll give him a third part. Now he’s got to play lower. [Laughs] Then you stomp off kind of rapid, and the guys would be missing notes, and then make the younger kids say, “Damn, they can miss notes, too!” And the guys would be all uptight who can really play. Then that deflates their ego some. Then we can get on with the workshop.

Lo and behold, it was going pretty good. But I had to travel, because I had this hit record, “Exodus.” But I don’t know what happened; when I came back there were divisions. Johnny Hines tried to take the musicians more our age; he wanted to go into the Regal Theatre so he could have a band to really accompany all the stars that come in there. Muhal had taken the younger musicians and let them learn in reading on scales and playing with each other. So that’s how that came about. And Muhal eventually got together with the Association . . .

Q: They chartered in 1965 and set up that whole . . . .

EH: Yes, they set it up. But that’s how that came about.

Q: Let’s hear an extended piece, I guess collectively worked out by the band from maybe around 1970 or ’71. This comes from Excursions, a double LP issued on Atlantic in 1973. The track is “Turbulence,” featuring Eddie Harris on electric saxophone and reed trumpet; Ronald Muldrow on guitorgan . . . ?

EH: That’s right, guitorgan. That was a guitar with pickups under the fret- board to make it sound like an organ.

Q: Muhal Richard Abrams on piano. Rufus Reid, who was living in Chicago in that period, around the cusp of 1970, on bass, and Billy James on drums.

EH: That was a working band.

Q: And you played all over, in many different situations.

EH: All over these United States.

[Music: “Turbulence”; E. Harris/E. Marsalis, “Deacceleration”]

Q: How did this duo album you made with Ellis Marsalis come about?

EH: Ellis and I have played together numerous times down in New Orleans where he lives, so I come down there and I play with him. On other occasions I’ve come down and played with different groups. And this guy I played with several times named Dave Torkanowsky, he had studied with Ellis, and he really enjoyed playing with me. He had an opportunity to produce a record, and he said he thought it would be great if Ellis and I would do a duo. He called me up and had me fly down to Dallas, and we did it on the spur of the moment — no rehearsals, nothing.

Q: Let’s talk about the scene in Chicago as it developed in the 1960s.

EH: There were a lot of guys playing good music around there in the ’60s. There was Gene Shaw who played trumpet, who passed later on. Then of course, there was the guy who had a group called the Pharaohs, which you’d know later on as the Phoenix Horns.

Q: I’m under the impression, though, that the club scene kind of declined and there were a lot fewer opportunities to work around Chicago then — although maybe you didn’t directly experience that.

EH: Well, the club scene was beginning to decline because television was on the rise, and as more television, people were staying at home looking at more of the wrestling matches and roller derby.

Q: You mentioned in an interview that you spent a good amount of time in New York and were working a lot, but you chose to come back to Chicago.

EH: I came here, and immediately, coming up out of the subway . . . After I checked into the hotel, I went and rode on the subway up to Harlem, and I walked up, and I’m looking at the tall buildings of Harlem, because I thought maybe they might be a little smaller in Harlem, because it was residential — that’s what I thought my first time here, in the ’50s. And what happened? I ran into the trumpet man. “Dag,” he says, “you’re lost. Oh man! What are you doing here?! Hey, man, come and play with my band.” I said, “Really? “Yeah,” he said. “If you’re in town here, you can come and play with me.” That was . . . I’m getting bad on names, man. Because see, you’re going back in time on me. He wrote this tune, [Sings the first few bars of “Blue Bossa”].

Q: Oh, that’s K.D. you’re talking about.

EH: Yeah, Kenny Dorham. And I went and played with him, and I walked around town here, and all the guys would hire me, because I played piano, I could play trombone, read, you know. And I can play clarinet, the oboe, bassoon. My flute playing is sad. It’s still sad, because I don’t think that is a double. Of course, I have several flutes at home, and I can make it through an amateur part, but I don’t care to play it. But I worked nine nights a week. I worked afternoons playing piano for some people tap-dancing, and I could play in pit bands. But I never had any money! I was living with Cedar Walton and Sam Fletcher, the vocalist, and I said, “Hey, man, I’m going back to Chicago.” They said, “Man, you’re crazy. Guys don’t come here and work like you.”

I just went back to Chicago. And what happened? That’s how I made “Exodus”. I was scheduled to go back to Europe and play, because Quincy Jones was going to hire me to take a guy’s place named Oliver Nelson, and he had me to play with him when I was over in Europe with his band. He said, “Man, I’m happy to run into you. You can go back to Europe with me.” I said, “Okay.”

I stopped by to see my mother, and she asked me what was I doing, and she said, “I’m going back over to Europe with a guy named Quincy Jones.” She started crying. She just made a big issue out of this. I said, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” She said, “I understood you was going to make a record.” I said, “Oh yeah, I can do that when I come back.” She said, “It’s a shame. I’m ashamed to tell people that you play music. Because everybody’s made a record but you.” I said, “I don’t care nothin’ about that. I’m working. I’m playing.” She said, “Well, you ought to make this one record, because VeeJay asked you to make a record.”

But they’d asked me to record on piano, because they wanted me to sound like the guy down the street at Cadet Records which I used to show chords to.

Q: Not Ahmad Jamal!

EH: No, Ramsey Lewis. [Laughs] Yeah, Ahmad was down there. Of course, he’s an outstanding piano player. But this guy had the Gentlemen of Jazz, this Ramsey Lewis, and that was selling. So they wanted me to do that down the street at Vee-Jay. And I wasn’t particular about that, so I didn’t care nothing about making a record. But my mother said, “Oh, please make this one record, then you can go to Europe, Asia, anywhere.” I said, “But won’t nobody want me then if I stay here and make the record.”

So I went down to Chess, and I talked with them, and they said, “Well, we don’t want you to play the saxophone; you’re too weird.” And I told him where to go. Well, there was a guy named Sid McCoy, and a guy named Abner, who ran the company . . . It was actually Vivian and Jimmy’s company, V-J, and Abner was the president, and Sid McCoy was the a&r, artists and repertoire guy. Abner, who had gone down there to college with me, said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll let you play several numbers on saxophone.” I said, “Okay, that’s fair enough.” I told Quincy that. He said, “One record?! Oh, man.” And to this day, when he thinks about it, he says, “One record” — because that one record turned out to be “Exodus.” Isn’t that amazing? A million-seller.

[Music: “Love For Sale” (1965); “Harlem Nocturne” (1990); “God Bless The Child” (1959)]

Q: Eddie Harris said they used that version of “God Bless The Child” for a TV story of Lady Day’s life.

EH: Yes, yes. It was great. Billie Holiday was very instrumental in trying to get me to understand that I could not only swing, that I played melodically. I was playing at the Pershing Lounge opposite Ahmad Jamal, and played the off-nights. She had a club underneath, which at first she called Birdland, then the people in New York here wouldn’t allow her to call it Birdland, so she changed it to Budland.

She came down one time, when we were rehearsing during the afternoon . . . She came down to all these rehearsals, any time she could, and she directed the rehearsals. “Hey, don’t do that?” “Why don’t you leave me alone?” And she said, “You can really phrase. Your timing . . . ” — and she used a lot of four-letter words that I won’t use over the radio!

But the point is that she encouraged me . . . Because I’m basically a quiet guy, standing back, and all the guys, it seemed like they were hipper than me playing the horn because of the fact they played the Charlie Parker licks, the Sonny Rollins licks . . . well, whoever, you can play the Rabbit [Johnny Hodges] licks . . . And here I could read all these things and play, but when I go to play, I played more phrasing melodically. Of course, you had Gene Ammons around there who played melodically, but he wasn’t tackling the type of tunes we were tackling. We were trying to play like these other guys, but then trying to solo differently than the other guys. In other words, you play a Charlie Parker line, but if you take off on your solo you didn’t try to be Bud, or the bass player didn’t try to be Mingus, and the drummer wasn’t trying to be Max.

So she was telling me I should continue phrasing the way I was. I’ll tell you something, Ted. I’m saying this primarily for younger musicians out there, or people who might have kids that play. Sometimes you can do something that comes very easy to you, and you don’t think very much of it due to the fact that it comes easy to you. As a kid I could always play, and the house would swing, pat their feet. I mean, I didn’t need a rhythm section. I really didn’t. I could just hit a groove, and people would automatically…

But most of my colleagues couldn’t. So I was trying to play like them, playing off-meter, double-time, like that. And she was trying to explain to me, “Just play what you play, and people will just go berserk.” But I wasn’t looking at that, because you have your peers. The majority of the guys double up, run over the instrument, look like they can play faster than you. But they really couldn’t when we stomped off something fast. I could play fast, but I play in meter.

Q: When you play something like that, it almost has the quality of singing, and you said you were singing at a very, very young age.

EH: Oh, yes. But you don’t realize what you have, because you’re just swamped up by others. Because see, most musicians do not and cannot play in meter. And I didn’t realize this until later years. And I mean “in meter,” just have a guy play by himself, and he’s not playing one note, [sings one note sequence], but just trying to play — and you’ll see how his time fluctuates. In other words, a lot of people swing when they’re with swinging people, but are they swinging themselves on the instrument? In other words, you hear a guy phrasing, you can imagine if you were at the control room where you can douse the board and take the rhythm section out and hear this guy play. I mean, it’s nice. He’s making the changes, he’s making the modulations. But why did you stop patting your foot? Because he has no more support from the rhythm. Because he’s not carrying the rhythm himself — or herself nowadays.

This next piece is currently the way I’m playing, trio piano in Europe. I’ve just come back from 36 one-nighters, and playing piano with the bassist, who is Ray Peterson, and the drummer, Norman Fearington.

Q: This is the current working band?

EH: It’s the working band, yes. Ray Peterson is playing with Les and me down there. Of course, Norman had to go to Europe, so we have Ben Riley in place of Norman.

[Music: “Ambidextrous,” “Airegin” (solo sax)]

Q: We’ve heard you establish yourself as a player very much out of the esthetic of the period you came from, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and that end of it, as a rabid experimentalist, dealing with every type of imaginable sound, and always within a very functional situation. It’s amazing that you’re able to play with the reed trumpet or the clarinet with no neck in front of some very tough audiences and make it come off. And we’ve heard the high standard of virtuosic saxophone playing, some great piano playing, and some singing. We haven’t heard “Why Are You So Overweight,” but I guess we could do that, too.

EH: If you ever get a chance one of these days, try listening to “Oleo” on Excursions, and you will hear me play the saxophone with the trombone mouthpiece, which makes it sound like a valve trombone.

Q: I’ll do that. But just a word about your piano playing, which we’ve touched on. We’ve heard two examples now, one where you play “Our Love Is Here To Stay” in a very expansive, Tatumesque, Nat Cole type of style.

EH: Mmm-hmm.

Q: On the last you were playing a Chicago left-hand boogie-woogie . . . Piano was your first instrument, I take it.

EH: Yes.

Q: A few words about your relationship with the piano.

EH: Well, I was taught by my cousin when I was a very young age, at four, and then I came up playing in the church, and I played and studied piano at Roosevelt College, where I had an awful time.

Q: Why was that?

EH: Because they wanted me to go to Piano 104, not beginning piano. I was taught in a church, and I was slow reading, and I had incorrect fingering — and I wanted to just learn the piano when I was going to college there. They said, “No, you’re not going to take this credit, because you play too well.” And they put me in a class with people running over piano, reading things — [sings fast, dense passage]. They was gone! And I stayed in there for quite a while, because I could listen to people play and I could sit down and play it. That doesn’t mean I could read it that fast, but I was telling them I wanted to learn it. I had an awful time trying to convince people that I was really trying to learn piano in the correct way. But no, they said, “You play too well.” So consequently, I didn’t go take private lessons . . . I didn’t care about the piano anyway. I just was doing that while I was in college. And lo and behold, I’ve made more money playing piano, working, than I have saxophone. It’s amazing.

Q: A lot of your early gigs were piano gigs.

EH: Yeah. Even recently, out in California, I started a club, and I played solo piano, then it wound up a duo and a trio — and now it’s one of the top jazz places.

Q: What club is that?

EH: That’s Bel Age. It’s a hotel, the Brasserie. One time I was here in New York, and I stopped on 23rd Street in a restaurant to get something to eat, and they had a piano there. I said, “Hey, can I play some while I’m waiting for the food?” The guy said, “Yeah, if you can play, man. Don’t be messing with the piano if you can’t play.” I said, “I can play.” I sat down there and played. And this guy offered me a gig! He says, “Oh, man, I like your feeling, the way you played, you know tunes . . . ” I said, “I wish this was where I lived. I live in Los Angeles.” He said, “Really? Well, come on up here and live!”

It’s strange. People like my piano playing. I wish they would like my saxophone playing like that. I don’t know what it is. The piano playing, maybe it’s because I can groove, I get across to the average John and Jane Doe. The saxophone, I don’t know what it is. I’ve never had that happen.

Q: The saxophone seems to me almost a laboratory for you, like you’re always looking for some new effect or new way to get something over so as maybe not to get bored… 

EH: Maybe that’s it. Because at the piano, I just don’t care. I just play, I make a run, when I run out of fingers I cross my hand over and I hit it with the back of my hand!


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Filed under Chicago, Eddie Harris, Interview, Muhal Richard Abrams, WKCR

For Wayne Shorter’s 81st Birthday, A Brief Conversation About Blue Note Records and a Link to a 2002 Feature In Jazziz

A bit of grandmaster Wayne Shorter’s flavor comes through in this brief conversation we had in 2008 for a DownBeat piece in which several dozen musicians talked about their favorite Blue Note recording. I’ve appended it below in recognition of his 81st birthday, and linked as well to a post from three years containing a feature piece I wrote about Mr. Shorter for Jazziz in 2002.

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Wayne Shorter on Favorite Blue Note Recording (Nov. 12, 2008):

WS:   You know like Duke Ellington said what was his favorite composition? The next one. Everything that happened is a work in progress, and that makes it great in itself. But favorites? That’s a controlled selling-marketing thing. It’s time to change just even the way life is perceived, so I’m starting right here. You can put that in. Downbeat can be one of the forerunners in changing how music and everything is perceived.

TP:   I wouldn’t disagree. But I’m wondering if , as a teenager, in your formative years, you were into Monk’s records on Blue Note as they were coming out, or Bud Powell’s records, or Miles Davis’ records.

WS:   I’ll just put it this way. More than…actually, not more than the records… Two guys, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, started Blue Note, and they had the perception and the kind of vision to stick to their guns—as Monk would say, stick to your guns. They stuck with something that was almost doomed to be like the low man on the totem pole or the marketplace, or even some people wishing it would fail. But I would say that you don’t have that kind of dedication… I don’t think they set out to be billionaires. But who is like that now? This is the 70th anniversary of Blue Note, and to capture that, who is like Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, the creators of that record label, and the musicians who created all that stuff then… It doesn’t have to sound like it did then, but who has… I think Downbeat would be well-advised to have their searchlight on who’s the Lone Ranger? Who’s sticking their neck way out there, in the middle of a falling economy and everything like that? The 75th anniversary in this falling economy is the time to create. That’s what I would celebrate for 75 years.

Whatever the music that was done on the Blue Note label expressed the challenge of doing this, the challenge of change. The only constant is change, so to speak. Without naming them all, all those artists that they had…I mean, they weren’t doing “Sunny Side of the Street.” They were not doing the hit stuff, the comfort zone stuff.

TP:   No, they were doing original music.

WS:   Yes. I think Blue Note probably had their finger on something, that you need that kind of resistance in the marketplace, that overwhelming resistance to commercial stuff to be used as fuel. It takes resistance for an airplane to take off. So we can thank the Madison Avenue marketing machine for all of the fights that they put up against originality.

TP:   Did you listen to, say, the Monk records on Blue Notes or the Bud Powell records when you were a teenager?

WS:   I listened to Monk before he was on Blue Note. I didn’t get into music until I was about 15, and I heard mostly on the radio… Some of that music was probably on Dial or Savoy, Charlie Parker and all that. I was listening to a show called New Ideas in Music… I know you want to pinpoint this to Blue Note.

TP:   Well, that’s what the article is about. But I’m all ears.

WS:   Not even being in music, I was listening to Art Tatum. I was listening to Shostakovich, all the classical people—New Ideas In Music, every Sunday it came on. I heard Toscanini do his last performance, where he put the baton down and said “goodbye” to the audience on the radio. Later on, I was checking out the music that was on Blue Note, what inspired the musicians, like, when they went to the movies—some of them talked about it. John Coltrane was on Blue Note for a minute. I know he went to the movies.  Charlie Parker wasn’t on Blue Note. But Blue Note or not, these musicians saw things in life that really escape us now, and I think Blue Note managed to capture a lot of the things that they saw in life. I think that Blue Note was a way of providing not just a musical voice, but a voice of what these guys wrote about, like Horace Silver. He wrote about things. Some song called “Room 608,” someplace, somewhere he had to stay, where he couldn’t pay the rent—stayed in a hoity-toity place. The wrote about and played about those things. If you just look at a lot of the song titles, and shuffled them, like put them in a puzzle, you’d probably get a sentence-tized story. You’d get a paragraph from a lot of the titles. You could spend all day doing that. [LAUGHS] All those titles, it becomes its own lyric. For me, it’s like gathering all of the things that have gone hither and thither and pulling them into a place where you can see what the celebration means of 75 years.

TP: It’s 70 years of Blue Note and 75 of Downbeat, which is a long time.

WS:   Yeah, I guess Downbeat was a voice for things people talk about that you couldn’t get. You won’t get this in the Enquirer. Pre-Internet, you could put Downbeat in that category. If you look up Downbeat on the Internet, you can say… It makes sense.

My job still, in jazz or what we call the creative process, is to break through the very mandates that they want in celebrating the 75 years of this and that, Downbeat and Blue Note. Someone has to break through that, too. That still has to be a creative process, even if you have to come out legless! Send me to the hospital with the veterans. I’m not being facetious. I’m just saying at this point, a lot of us are, symbolically…we can’t run around and jump around like a lot of the young guys do. So we take it like this. We have nothing to lose. Let’s have some fun, man! I’m taking the solemness out of it…the anniversary!

TP:   I hope this will not have been a waste of your time.

WS:   No! Hey, man, communication is important. Even the most difficult areas of communication is a challenge. Life is so complex, and life should be complex.

I’ll see you in the movies. The movie of your life, where you’re the producer, director and actor, describing your own destiny. We need you guys to write more novels…

TS:   We need more everything.

WS:   Yeah, we need it, man. Won’t you join?

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Interview, Jazziz, Wayne Shorter

Two DownBeat Feature Articles On Paquito D’Rivera from 2005 and 2009

I recently allowed the 68th birthday of Paquito D’Rivera, the singularly talented woodwindist (alto saxophone and clarinet) and composer, to pass without posting the texts of these two articles that I wrote about him for DownBeat in 2005 and 2009, respectively. The first one covers a spectacular 50th anniversary as a musician concert in 2005 at which Bebo Valdes, Cachao, Candido, Yo Yo Ma, Rosa Passos, Portinho, Dave Samuels, the New York Voices, and Bill Cosby, among others, performed; the second, generated by DownBeat award for “Best Clarinetist of 2009,” contains a long interview and a prefatory essay.

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Paquito D’Rivera Article from 2005:

At the mid-point of a Sunday afternoon rehearsal in January, Paquito D’Rivera held his clarinet to the side, exhaled, and exclaimed, “I have never played so much shit in one day!” Ensconced in a small room at Carroll Studios on Manhattan’s Far West Side, D’Rivera, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Alon Yavnai had spent the previous half-hour working out the nuances of the fourth movement of Brahms’ Concerto for Clarinet, Cello and Piano before  a crowd of photographers, videographers, a Spanish film crew, various publicists, and select lookers-on. This followed a runthrough of D’Rivera’s elegant chamber piece, “Afro” and “No More Blues,” on which guitarist-singer Rosa Passos whispered Antonio Carlos Jobim’s undulating melody.

“I have heard that so many times, that I think I know your solo better than you do,” D’Rivera, dead-pan, declared to Yo-Yo Ma. “I think I can play it on the cello, too.”

“I think you should,” Ma shot back. His shirt-back was dark with perspiration, and he seemed ill at ease with the motley crowd.

D’Rivera persisted. “How do you write that passage for the string instrument?” he asked, referring to the cellist’s soulful, kaleidoscopic intro to “Afro.” “You play the same passage, but it sounds totally different.” “I play one on the first string and the other on the second string,” Ma responded. “Rock-and-Roll cellists do that,” D’Rivera said. He laughed lightly, and took his first break of the afternoon.

D’Rivera, who first worked professionally as a 6-year-old soprano saxophonist, was preparing for a next-evening “this is your life” Carnegie Hall concert billed as “Fifty Years and Ten Nights of Show Business” to acknowledge his golden anniversary on stage. More than 20 friends and colleagues from 15 countries convened in New York to celebrate the milestone.

He was fresh, alert, and in fine humor, despite a low-sleep week that included morning-to-night promotional appearances around New York and a 48-hour cross-country jaunt to International Jazz Educators’ Convention in Long Beach, California, where he accepted the NEA’s 2004 Jazz Masters Award. In another 48 hours, D’Rivera would fly to Uruguay to perform at a festival he booked, followed by a duo concert in Chile. A week later, he’d alight in New York, lay off a day, and embark on a three-week U.S. tour with the Assad Brothers.

“When I finish all these things, then I am going to be tired,” D’Rivera  said. He recalled a Carnegie Hall concert by Celia Cruz a few years before. “She was sick already,” he continued. “But when she went out to the stage, it was like a 25-year-old Baryshnikov. She did that show with so much energy, and when she finished and went to the dressing room, she became the old lady that she was. Maybe this profession does that to you.”

When emphasizing a point in conversation, D’Rivera likes to interpolate references to food and its byproducts, just as he frequently signifies on his alto saxophone solos by quoting choice licks from the lexicon of Charlie Parker.

“It’s like having sushi and black beans and rice and Indian food at the same time,” he responded, as if on cue, to a question about the challenge of performing tangos, chorinhos, sambas, various Cuban idioms, hardcore jazz, and classical music over a single event. “But you have to be very sure of what you’re doing in all the styles. It’s like a cook trying to mix Chinese food with Cuban food. If you know both styles, that can taste really good. But if not, it’s like Ray Brown said once—‘chopped onions with chocolate ice cream.”

Relaxed in a brand-new black Jazz Masters t-shirt, jeans and tan loafers, D’Rivera had launched his Sunday marathon with ‘90s Caribbean Jazz Project partners Andy Narrell and Dave Samuels, tackling an intricate Samuels arrangement of “Night In Tunisia” and fine-tuning the details of “Andalucia,” a D’Rivera homage to iconic Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. The Americans exited and a trio of Brazilians—drummer Portinho, who had worked with D’Rivera throughout the ‘80s, guitarist Romero Lubambo, and Ms. Passos, who sang “So Dança Samba.”

“Caribbean music is pure happiness,” said D’Rivera. “But Brazilians are the only people in the world who get the feeling of being happy and sad at the same time. Saudade. I tried to translate that word once, and I said, ‘Well, that’s nostalgia.’ There was a Brazilian musician who told me, ‘no, it’s not nostalgia. Nostalgia is something else. This is saudade.’

“The Brahms Trio is hard to play, but that doesn’t matter. I have worked like a slave on some hard pieces, and nothing happened at the end. But this piece is so well written, so profound, so logical and original. It’s very jazzy, too. The polyrhythms of Brahms have a lot to do with jazz music.”

Across the room, D’Rivera spotted trumpeter Claudio Roditi, his frequent partner in the ‘80s. “When I came to New York, I surrounded myself with Brazilian musicians like Portinho and Claudio,” he stated. “I mentioned several famous names I’d been listening to, and they told me, ‘I think you have to do your homework again; that is not the real thing,’ and they illustrated. Then I became a new-born Brazilian!”

In strolled the members of the New York Voices, who collaborated last year with D’Rivera and Roditi on Brazilian Dreams [Manchester Guild].

D’Rivera rose for greetings and salutations. “Two of three people who made me forget to play are here,” he said. “Toots Thielemans was the first one. Then the New York Voices and Yo-Yo Ma. When they play, I forget to play sometimes.”
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“Paquito reminds me of the musicians I played with in Cuba,” said conguero Candido Camero, who left the island in 1955, and met D’Rivera for the first time in 1987. “Especially the ones who play saxophone, clarinet and flute. His style, his phrasing, his sound, the feeling, the touch. The new generation always have different ideas. But the root stays.”

D’Rivera concurred. “I grew up listening to this music,” he remarked as Candido, bassist Cachao and pianist Bebo Valdes, 255 years between them, settled in for their leg of the rehearsal.  “It’s like playing marbles with my father, or baseball.”

The camera-folk jockeyed for position, and Joseluis Ruperez, the producer of the Spanish TV crew, firmly pushed them back. The elders and D’Rivera spoke in Spanish as someone fetched tape for Candido’s hands and timbalero Ralph Irizarry found the right position. Then D’Rivera and Cachao—holding his bow as he plucked the refrain—began to play a danzon. They applied themselves to “Priquitin Pin Pon,” which appears on the 2001 recording El Arte De Sabor [Blue Note]. Over three takes, Bebo Valdes soloed effervescently, uncorking fluid, ascendant chromatic lines that reversed direction like dancers spinning and twirling. On his solo, Cachao transitioned seamlessly from pizzicato to bow; positioned behind the piano, Yo-Yo Ma observed intently. After working out the appropriate clave structure, they stretched out over several similarly dynamic explorations of “Lagrimas Negras,” which D’Rivera recently had recorded with Valdes and flamenco singer El Cigala on a CD of that name.

Applause erupted when they were done. The photographers broke down equipment, the musicians dispersed, and D’Rivera packed up, ready for a short dinner break and a Carnegie Hall evening rehearsal for the orchestral portion of “Fifty Years and Ten Nights In Show Business.”
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Earlier, at 10-sharp, D’Rivera, wearing a crisply pressed cranberry guayabera and blue flowered bowtie, briskly entered the Patrons’ Room at the Buckingham Hotel, a block down 57th Street from Carnegie Hall, for a photo session.  Soon, Bebo Valdes strolled in, fortified against the chill  in a down jacket from and plaid flannel shirt from Sweden, where he eventually settled after leaving Cuba in 1960. At 86, he sustained an endless smile, carrying his six-and-a-half foot frame with only a slight stoop. As Bebo and co-producer Ettore Strata mock-conducted to a photographed score of Paderewski’s “Minuet,” Cachao, on a cane, slipped in like a shadow, a wry smile on his face.

After a succession of hugs and poses, the room emptied. With saxophonist Enrique Fernandez translating, the legends, born a month apart in 1918, sat on a couch and reminisced about D’Rivera’s  father, Tito, a skilled saxophonist who sold instruments, musical accessories and records at his Havana music store. When Paquito was 5, Tito bought him a Selmer soprano saxophone,  taught him to play it, and played him records by Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie with Lester Young, Tito’s favorite saxophonist. He even introduced him to bebop.

“One day he came home with a 10-inch LP, and said, ‘I want you to hear something,’” D’Rivera recalls. “It was Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker!” He sings the refrain of “Thriving On a Riff” from 1945. “We heard the whole thing in total silence, and after the last note he asked me, ‘Did you like it?’ I said, ‘No. What about you?’ He said, ‘Me either. But they are good musicians, huh?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what is so confusing. I can’t understand anything, but I can feel that this is something special.’ So we kept listening. My father had played in a military band, and although he hated the military, he kept that discipline. But in some ways, he was very open-minded.”

Cachao worked with Tito D’Rivera as early as 1934 in a singing group called the Martinez Brothers, and later purchased bass strings from his store. “My first experience with Paquito was performing a clarinet and orchestra piece by Weber with the Havana Philharmonic when he was 12,” he said. “Even then he was more dedicated to jazz than anything else, but Tito imposed a lot of discipline. Paquito was complete.”

Bebo Valdes interjected an anecdote. “Way before Paquito was born, Tito was a boyfriend of a beautiful mulata named Silvia,” he said with a laugh. “I was a boyfriend of her sister, so the four of us always went out together. I played with him a lot at the Rivoli, which was a place for blacks and whites. He was a very good musician and a great person. When I started working at the Tropicana, the famous Havana nightclub, he sold instruments to the musicians who worked there. If somebody couldn’t pay the weekly fee for the instruments, he’d say, ‘Another week will come; don’t worry about it.’”

Then he became serious. “Paquito plays the saxophone divinely, with a really high range,” he said firmly. “But the clarinet is a thousand times more difficult than the saxophone, and I consider Paquito’s execution as good as any I’ve seen in my life. He’s a great soloist on both instruments in any genre or style, and he knows the very old traditional music from Cuba. His range is formidable. Now he’s focusing a lot on the music of South America, particularly things that are happening in Brazil and Argentina.”

Cachao emphasized that D’Rivera, in his insistence on addressing all styles of music with idiomatic thoroughness, follows the aesthetic imperatives that molded music in pre-revolutionary Cuba.

“In our day,” Cachao said, “the CMQ radio station and clubs like the Tropicana brought in artists from all over the world. You had to be ready to play with them all. Paquito follows that tradition. It’s his opinion as well as ours that the musician has no borders. Nationalities are not important.”
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Surprisingly, D’Rivera states that he had no interest in a pan-American aesthetic when he lived in Cuba, perhaps because, during his teens, the regime propounded a cultural nationalist line that frowned on jazz as a counter-revolutionary Yanqui diversion. Official opprobrium seemed to strengthen the youngster’s resolve to use jazz and improvisation as a vehicle for free expression. Informed by a samizdat of bootleg cassettes and Willis Conover’s Voice of America broadcasts, D’Rivera soaked up vocabulary from Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Thad Jones, Joe Henderson, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner. The learning curve accelerated after 1967, when the authorities, switching gears, authorized the creation of an orchestra devoted to jazz. Within several years, Irakere, the Cuban super-group, took shape.

In 1980, when D’Rivera was 32, he landed in Madrid for a tour with Irakere, ran up a down escalator to escape his handlers, and famously defected. “I was stranded in Madrid, and a group of musicians from Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay got me a gig in a place called Dallas Jazz Club,” he recalls. “It was the first time I mixed jazz standards and some originals with Brazilian and Cuban music, and tango.

“The environment in New York enabled me to explore further. I always prefer to have around me people who want to analyze all types of music and try to play them correctly. It’s like being in a school, but a mutual investigation. I am just the director.”

During a pizza break at Carroll Studios, some of D’Rivera’s colleagues commented on the qualities that distinguish his tonal personality. All spoke of his instrumental virtuosity and aesthetic scope. But they also referred to his voracious curiosity and energy, his insistence on mastering the details—in short, the attitude that enables an exile to create a room of one’s own in a foreign land.

“Paquito plays Brazilian music with the feeling of Brazilian people—the same heart, almost the same culture,” Romero Lubambo stated. “He doesn’t just play popular music, like the samba,” Portinho added. “He is able to play chorinhos, the classical Brazilian music which is very difficult to play right.”

“It’s been a real trial by fire education,” said Chicago-born Mark Walker, D’Rivera’s drummer of choice since 1989. “We go to all these South American and Caribbean countries, get the CDs, hang out with the cats. Sometimes, Paquito wants to play a rhythm from that place the night we arrive.”

“He understands the rhythmic cell of each musical style, which is why when he mixes them, one doesn’t sound like the other,” said Alon Yavnai, an Israeli of Argentine descent. “He’s a lizard. Not cold-blooded, of course, but he can change the colors, and still you know it’s Paquito D’Rivera after a couple of notes. I also love how quickly he thinks on stage. He gives a lot of freedom, and he’s unpredictable. Tunes don’t sound the same; today he plays one solo he will never play again. But again, his personality is always there.”
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“Now I have to forget everything,” D’Rivera said.

An hour before the concert, he betrayed no tension at the prospect of performing polyglot repertoire with constantly shifting personnel configurations—and also serving as his own emcee—before a sold-out house at the world’s most prestigious venue.   Still in soundcheck gear of t-shirt and jeans, he stood in the common area that centers Carnegie Hall’s third floor dressing rooms, examining a table laden with depleted trays of fried pork, meatballs, fried peppers, rice in squid ink, humus, and an enormous cold salmon flown in that day from Alaska by a friend, the proprietress of a restaurant called Ludwig.

“I didn’t recognize her,” D’Rivera remarked. “I could not believe that somebody flew from Alaska with a salmon to come to this concert! Really it’s the whole world!”

D’Rivera greeted the indifferent 3-year-old daughter of New York Voices singer Lauren Kinhan, talked numbers with producer Pat Philips, and laughed uproariously at the antics of concert host Bill Cosby, who made a beeline for the room in which Cachao and Bebo sat. With twenty minutes to spare, he finally made his way upstairs to change.

On stage at 8:05 sharp, Cosby stated, “The gentleman who is honoring…himself has done a brilliant job.” He concluded the roast with the observation that D’Rivera’s “shoes, when you see them, will be out of season.” Wearing white boots to complement his black suit, D’Rivera riposted. “I have not enough words in my limited English language,” he said, as Cosby departed for the wings, “to thank Mr. Bing Crosby…”

For the next three hours, D’Rivera—sustaining a steady stream of jokes and patter, moving traffic, playing immaculate ensembles, soloing with inspiration, and eying an 11 o’clock witching hour at which union overtime began—might have been presiding over a party in his living room. There were many highlights. A polyrhythmic, overtone-rich solo on “Andalucia” by Columbian harp prodigy Edmar Castaneda with the Caribbean Jazz Project. An abstract D’Rivera clarinet variation on “Why Not?” counterstating pianist Michel Camilo’s  florid declamation; a leaping solo on “Adagio,” framed by the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, conducted by Tania Leon, his conservatory classmate; a delicate duet with the harmonized a capella voices of Kinhan and Kim Nazarian on “Modinha.”

The chamber trios with Yo-Yo Ma and Alon Yavnai matched the intensity of the rehearsals. Cosby emerged to introduce the Cuban elders, remarking, “I think we should do this at the Museum of Natural History.” Striking the drum with his shaved head to punctuate the beats, Candido uncorked a showmanship solo, but Bebo and Cachao, perhaps fatigued after a three-hour wait in the dressing room, played with far less vigor than the previous day.

Fifteen minutes remained for the four orchestral pieces—a set of Gershwin variations showcasing D’Rivera’s wife, soprano Brenda Feliciano—and things got sloppy. At the closing vamp of the finale, “To Brenda With Love,” performed by D’Rivera’s sextet and the orchestra, Spanish flamenco dancer Raphael Tamargo, in a white-on-white suit-shirt ensemble, twirled, gesticulated, and stomped, resolving into a pirouette and a hand-clasp with the leader.

At the after-party, D’Rivera, momentarily anonymous at the bar, briefly bemoaned the union’s inflexible overtime policy. “Even in Germany, they’re more reasonable,” he said with some asperity. He sipped from a glass of red wine.

“My father was very strict about making sure that I kept a level head and didn’t let my ego get too inflated,” he said, shaking his head at the audacity of having made himself the centerpiece of such an expansive evening. “Confidence is a completely different thing, but there is a very thin line between them.”

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Paquito D’Rivera Piece From 2009:

“There was a great Cuban folklorist-writer called Lydia Cabrera, who went to study in Paris in the 1920s, and started missing her land,” said Paquito D’Rivera, relaxing in his dressing room at Manhattan’s Blue Note, a few hours before hitting the bandstand with his quintet. “She said, ‘I discovered Cuba from the bank of the Seine River.’ I discovered Latin America on the banks of the Hudson River.”

This process began in 1980, when D’Rivera, then 32, while on tour with the Cuban super-group Irakere, ran up a down escalator in the Madrid airport to escape his Cuban handlers, and famously defected. “Spain was my first Latin Jazz gig,” he stated. “Irakere was just a dance band that played some concerts—Cuban music mixed with classical and rock. But in Spain, I met up with a group of Argentineans, Brazilians, and Uruguayan musicians—they played Samba, tango some candomble from Uruguay. I started learning all those styles. Then here in New York, I had the opportunity to work with the Brazilians, who are people not from another country but another planet. I have dedicated a big part of my career, to Brazilian music. But I also like Venezuela, and Argentinean tango and Mexican guapango, too.”

D’Rivera wore a red guayabana shirt, crisply pressed black pants and well-shined black shoes. His face revealed deeply chiseled embouchure lines from a lifetime spent blowing on his array of wind instruments—he made his public debut as a six-year-old curved soprano saxophonist, graduated to clarinet a few years later, and launched his alto saxophone investigations at 11.

Deploying excellent English, he continued his account of becoming a polylingual musician. “In fact, this started in Cuba,” he said. “I composed one of my most popular pieces, ‘Wapango,’  in 1970 for the Carlos Azerhoff Saxophone Quartet. Later, I arranged it for strings and jazz groups and all that. For Irakere, I wrote ‘Molto Adagio,’ which is the second movement of the Mozart Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, arranged in a bluesy way. I like doing all those hybrids. Now I prefer to have around me people who want to analyze all types of music and try to play them correctly. It’s like being in a school, but a mutual investigation. I am just the director.”

In his predisposition to present repertoire drawn from a pan-American stew of musical flavors, addressed with attention to a full complement of idiomatic detail,  D’Rivera—who spent his first decade in the U.S. working extensively with ur-one-worlder Dizzy Gillespie, and employed such avatars of hybridity as Danilo Perez and Edward Simon in the piano chair in various ‘90s iterations of his quintet—has had an enormous impact on the development of jazz thinking over the past two decades. In truth, his musical production hews to the aesthetic imperatives that guided Cuba’s incomparable musicians before the revolution terminated the casino-fueled economy that had provided them gainful employment and offered them first-hand contact with musicians from around the world.

This reality came forth in a conversation several years ago with the late bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, who was playing bass when D’Rivera, then 12, performed Weber’s clarinet concerto with the Havana Symphony. “In our day,” Cachao said, “the CMQ radio station and clubs like the Tropicana brought in artists from all over the world. You had to be ready to play with them all. Paquito follows that tradition. It’s his opinion as well as ours that the musician has no borders. Nationalities are not important.”

Another continuity that links D’Rivera to his Cuban antecedents is his formidable command of all his instruments, not least the clarinet, as evidenced by his 2009 “Best” award in Downbeat’s Readers Poll. Sitting with Cachao in that same conversation, pianist Bebo Valdes, like Cachao a friend of D’Rivera’s saxophonist father Tito from the 1930s, stated: “Paquito is  a great soloist on both instruments in any genre or style. He plays the saxophone divinely, with a really high range. But the clarinet is a thousand times more difficult than the saxophone, and I consider Paquito’s execution as good as any I’ve seen in my life.”

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You like to quote a Frank Wess quip that the clarinet, which is made of five pieces, was invented by five men who never met. However, by your account in your memoir, My Sax Life, you’ve had two extremely good instruments. In 1959, your father got you a Selmer, and then in 1997, you ordered a custom-made clarinet.

I used Selmers all my life, because my father was the representative of the company in Havana. He had a very small office, about as big as this room! He even had contrabasses and tubas in it. He ordered for me a covered-hole, center-tone Selmer. Covered hole because I was very skinny, my fingers were thin, and he was concerned that I would not be able to cover the holes. That instrument is now in the Smithsonian Institute. Together with that, he ordered the open hole model, which he gave me when I knew the fingering of the instrument. That’s the clarinet I played until 1997, when Luis Rossi, from Santiago, Chile, made for me this wonderful instrument that I play now, which is made not out of black wood, but rosewood.

The great Al Gallodoro, who passed away a couple of years ago, when he was 95 years old, called what I play the “smart man clarinet.” It’s an instrument with 7 rings and an articulated g-sharp on the left hand, like a saxophone. It’s very comfortable. Benny Goodman used it for a little while, and also Artie Shaw, but the instrument never had success. For some reason. I’ve gotten so used to it that for me it’s very hard to play a regular, 17-key clarinet. When I showed my old Selmer to Buddy DeFranco, he told me, “Wow! Too many keys in the way!”

You played your first public concert at six in Havana, on curved soprano saxophone. Which jazz clarinetists did you hear and assimilate when you were young?

Benny was the first American musician who impressed me—that concert he recorded in Carnegie Hall in 1938, with Lionel Hampton and Ziggy Elman, Harry James, and the wonderful Teddy Wilson. Then Artie Shaw, and of course, Jimmy Hamilton from the Ellington band. But Benny playing swing—my father never used the word jazz, only “swing,” even if it was Ornette Coleman—but also Benny’s rendition of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. It was very illuminating at that tender age, that Ellington concept that there are only two kinds of music—good and the other stuff.

I tried to assimilate the different styles by copying them. I copied Benny with the soprano. Later on, my father came home with a 78 recording of Buddy DeFranco playing “Out of Nowhere.” [SINGS SOLO] When Buddy started improvising, I said, “Wow! What is that? A clarinet playing bebop?”—I’d already heard Dizzy and Bird. But a clarinet was not supposed to do that. What I heard in my ears was Jimmy Hamilton and Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. So this guy is going [SINGS FAST BEBOP LINE] [DO-PE-DO-DE-DIDDLE-PLA…] with a clarinet! Wow, what a surprise! So  I started trying to copy Buddy DeFranco. It’s normal to try to copy your idols when you are a kid. But my first idol was Benny, and he still is today. Sound is the main thing in music, and he had that characteristic clarinet sound. I used to transcribe not only Benny’s solo, but Toots Mondello and Harry James, and even Gene Krupa’s playing, and tried to copy some Lionel Hampton solos. [SINGS LIONEL HAMPTON LICK VERBATIM]

You wrote that your progression was from soprano to clarinet to alto saxophone, and that your father taught you alto saxophone with the Marcel Mulé method, the French school.

Yes. The French School was very strong in my formation. My dad had the Conjunto Sinfonico de Saxophones—Symphonic Group of Saxophones—in 1943, I believe. That was the year after Marcel Mulé was appointed professor of saxophone at the Paris Conservatory, and founded his saxophone quartet. He started bringing all those books, and the pieces that were written for Marcel Mule by Jacques Ibert, Eugene Bozza, and many others. I grew up listening to and playing that music with a pianist friend of my father. It’s hard to explain why French music is so influential on my style, but I feel it. Maybe in using the staccato a lot when blowing the saxophone. Most jazz players play legato lines. Very few use the staccato—Wynton Marsalis, Claudio Roditi, I can’t think of anyone else. It comes from classical training.

You’ve said that it was your father’s ambition for you to be a clarinetist in the symphony orchestra.

Yes, I did it for a while. But I like improvised music, and didn’t feel happy in the orchestra as a main gig. So I did it for a while, and I did some chamber music, which  I enjoy even more than the symphony. I went with my father to play in stage bands, with the second or first clarinet. Even in cabarets. When I started playing the alto, at 11 or 12, I’d go to a cabaret that had a variety show, and my father would say, “please let the kid play the show.” And the guy was happy. “Ok!” He’d go to the bar and I’d play the show for nothing. I had my uniform and everything. I was very tall. It was important to my father that I learn how to play in a section, not only by myself. He’d bring home the third alto book for me to learn the notes. I did different types of things, as did many Cuban musicians, who had to do any type of music for surviving. I still maintain that tendency. Of course, improvised music, jazz, is my favorite, but I love playing other things. I love the complexity of Igor Stravinsky’s music. Bartok. Certain composers are more appealing to some jazz people because they are hippest. But how do you explain what is more hip? There is something hip about Stravinsky. Brahms is a hip composer. Milhaud. Ravel. Debussy. They have more affinity with the jazz language.

When you played jazz early on, was it on clarinet or saxophone?

Mostly on the saxophone. I was into Charlie Parker then, and later on Paul Desmond. Jackie McLean I liked also—it’s amazing how he could swing playing one note, even if he played it out of tune!

In a New York Times performance review, Ben Ratliff wrote: “No performer should be at full voltage all the time, and the clarinet subdues Mr. D’Rivera’s super-abundant energy.” Is that a remark you can relate to?

I  think that’s right. When you maintain the same energy all the time, it can be boring. The alto and clarinet have totally different personalities. It’s two instruments that are cousins, like Palestinians and Israelis. They don’t get along! Clarinet players that try to play the saxophone with the same concept, it’s not going to work.

My father was a saxophone player, and didn’t know how to play clarinet. Later on, he bought one, and learned to play it. I’m not sure who taught him. But suddenly, he showed up at home playing the clarinet, then he showed me how to play. My father was a self-taught person. He went to school only to the sixth grade, because he had to work in a printing press. He told me it was so hard, and when he was 15-16 years old, he decided to buy a saxophone. He learned how to play with friends.

Was there a clarinet tradition in Cuban music? There’s a flute tradition in Cuban charanga music.

It’s a different type of flute, what you call the 5-key flute. But yes, there was a clarinet tradition that was lost. The clarinet was never a soloist. So it’s a tradition, but not a strong tradition of clarinet playing there.

So for you as a young person, the clarinet was more a window into classical music.

Classical and some swing also, because of Benny Goodman.

Can we say that the alto saxophone was more your improvising instrument?

Yes, especially because of Parker.

How did your sensibility on the clarinet evolve over the years? Now you use it…

More and more. Mario Bauza gave me a clarinet and a mouthpiece when I came here; after my ex-wife sent me my old center-tone Selmer from Cuba, I gave it back to him. Mario and Dizzy said, “You should play the clarinet more; there’s not too many clarinet players around.” The scene for the clarinet was not very encouraging. It still is not. It’s improving, but it’s there’s still very few of us. It’s too much sacrifice for something that people really don’t feel. It’s easier to feel the sound of the flute.

Do you mean feel physically?

Both physically and musically. To make the clarinet sound hip into the world of modern jazz, it takes double or triple or quadruple the effort than with the saxophone. For that, you have to love the instrument. You buy a flute and go [SINGS ‘FHWOOOO’]—it’s hip already. Only the sound of the wind. FHWOOOO. It swings already, like a trombone. The trombonist goes, BWOOH, and it swings, like a baritone saxophone. But to make a sopranino swing, it’s a pain in the ass!

An LP that inspired me to play the clarinet again was Breaking Through by Eddie Daniels, with arrangements by the great Argentinean composer-arranger Jorge Calandrelli, who arranged for Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett and so many others. Jorge told me about it. I hadn’t heard of Eddie Daniels in years, just from playing tenor with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. I didn’t know that he played the clarinet. I felt so inspired. Wow! Clarinet again! Mario and Dizzy were right. So I started playing it more and more. Eddie gave me the encouragement that I needed. He started getting big after that. He revolutionized the clarinet world.

I enjoyed your autobiography, My Sax Life. You write the way you talk, which is no small accomplishment.

I sent the manuscript to a friend who grew up with me in the neighborhood. When I called her, she started crying and said, “That book is like talking to you.” I said, “Is that good or bad?” “It’s great!”

A common theme from your musical partners is that, for all your extreme technique, you’re also a very spontaneous player who doesn’t repeat solos, plays fresh things, remains in the moment.

I agree. Many young players—and among them many Cuban young players—have a tendency to overuse technique. Weapons are to use when you need them. You use technique if you need it to play a certain thing. If not, it sounds like an imposition. It’s supposed to sound effortless. Some people use it and try to make it look harder than it really is.

In the book you convey a conversation with Maraca Valles, the Cuban flutist, where he offers an opinion that the quality of aggressiveness you just mentioned amongst younger Cuban musicians reflects the tension and generalized anxiety in their lives. of the musicians. At the end of last year, you debuted your first all-Cuban band since moving to the States.

That was a fantastic thing, to work with people like Charles Flores, the wonderful bass player, who has worked with Michel Camilo. I heard talk about him all the time, Manuel Valera played  piano—his father is an old friend of mine. We have a very good guitar player and singer (a tenor) who came from Canada, Mario Luis Ochoa.  Ernesto Simpson, a great drummer. Pedrito Martinez was singing and playing percussion. Pedrito is one of the most talented Cuban musicians around. He plays the percussion instruments beautifully, and he is one of the few Cuban percussionists who understand Brazilian music. That is another groove that they don’t mix. Like the Palestinians and the Israelis! They are cousins, but I remember a Cuban entertainer in Spain who told me, “Cubans don’t understand Samba and Brazilians will never understand clave.”

Why?

Nobody can explain that to me. I don’t see any reason. We are cousins. Even the same African religions and all that. But Pedrito can play the bandera very well. Pedrito understands any type of music very easily, and especially Brazilian music.

It’s hard to maintain that band, though. If you live in Miami or in Cuba, you have Cuban musicians all over the place, but here you don’t have ten Cuban trumpet players and four bassists. You only have one or two. So I only do it once in a while. My goal is to do a Cuban big band one day. Mostly we played modern Cuban music. It was an experiment. I wanted to feel it, and it was very nice. One day I will organize it again. I want to record. But I have to work with my regular quintet. I am in love with that band, too.

Did you play percussion instruments when you were younger?

I think most Cuban musicians know how to play a little bit. I know how to play a conga, for example. Or a bongo. For five minutes. After that, I look for someone else.  Folkloric rhythms were part of the decor. It was on the radio, with my mother sewing and cooking and listening to Celia Cruz, and danzones and so on.

How is your relationship with the younger musicians, who grew up under Castro? For example, at the beginning of the ‘90s there was sniping between you and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I know that’s long in the past…

Yes, it’s in the past. Now I understand them. They are sick and tired of listening to talk about politics and all that. They want to keep that behind them. It’s a totally different way of thinking. They grew up with that thing there, and they have ties with it. In my opinion, they see Cuba like a total disaster, but it’s like home. Then they come here, and this is different. They don’t have—and this is an assumption—the intention to change that for a better life. They want to help their family, send some money, send some medicine. They have no intention to protest, to denounce the atrocities—and I understand it. These new kids ignore the government. I cannot do it!.

With the transitions have occurred in Cuba over the past few years, what would you like to see transpire?

A normal country. That’s all we want.

By what process? What’s a realistic scenario?

With these people, there are no realistic ways. They don’t want to recognize the reality. So the realistic thing, no. I think the ideal thing is what happened in South Africa, what happened in Czechoslovakia, and what happened in Spain. Forget what happened, let’s start something new, blah-blah-blah. Czechoslovakia had the Velvet Revolution, and the country is working perfectly. The same thing with Spain and in South Africa. At least they didn’t kill each other or anything. But in Cuba they don’t want to change anything. People love to put words in their mouth. “No, they are going to change.” “No-no, I’ve been telling you for fifty years, we are not going to change nothing. We are going to PERFECT this piece of shit.”

So predicting what is going to happen, nobody knows. It’s too complicated. So like Americans say, let’s hurry up and wait.

Romero Lubambo once remarked, “Paquito always brings you to your limit, and then past it.” I suppose the corollary is that you’re as demanding of yourself.

Musicians sometimes don’t know how good they are. I force myself also to do things, and they force me to do things because they are high quality. When you are over 50 years in a profession, and you look back and see that your work has been fruitful, and you have conquered the love and respect of your peers, it’s an accomplishment. Those are my friends, part of my family, my musical family, the people who work with me. I learned a lot from Claudio Roditi, for example, and also from Fareed Haque, the guitarist, and from Michel Camilo, who knows Venezuelan music so well. Also Oscar Stagnaro, my bass player, who is my scout.

You launched your imprint, Paquito Records, last year with Funk Tango, which won the Latin Grammy. Will there be a followup in the catalogue?

My second project will be Benny at One Hundred. Actually, “Benny At One Hundred” is the name of the first movement of a sonata that was commissioned by the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. The first movement is dedicated to Benny Goodman, and it’s dedicated to his centenary, which is this year. I’m planning to go to the studio at the end of November and record  that movement and other pieces.

When my father, who was a classical saxophone player, played me that LP, Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, that changed my life until today. Jazz is still my favorite activity in my life. For me, it used to have a political connotation—I wanted to play only jazz in Cuba to contradict what the Establishment said. But I love improvising. It’s the result of a multinational country. The result is a multinational style of music, and you can add anything, and if you keep the spirit of this music, it still is called jazz. I love what Herbie Hancock said many years ago when he was asked what is jazz, and he said, “something impossible to define and very easy to recognize.”

[POSSIBLE FOR INSERT]

Gunther Schuller a few years ago wanted to do a music school  for professional musicians, not to play like Jascha Heifetz, but to play the violin so you can do a jingle in the morning, and then the opera, and learn to improvise a little bit. But now, the art of improvisation is a mystery for classical musicians. I remember the face of terror on a very fine young trombonist I wanted him to play not in a jazz style, but on top of a montuno that I was playing with the rhythm section—WHAAP-WHAAP, PING-PING-PING, WHAAP from A-flat to B-flat. That’s it. He looked at me so terrorized, like he saw Adolf Hitler or something! WHAAP-WHAAP, That is something that is missing in the music schools, on both sides. Of course, nobody paid attention to Gunther Schuller. But that was a great idea, to open a music school where people learn how to play Brahms and how to play Monk.

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Filed under Clarinet, Cuba, DownBeat, Interview, Paquito D'Rivera

For Bill Holman’s 87th Birthday, A Brief Interview From 2011

It’s the 87th birthday of the superb arranger, Bill Holman, who made his name generating charts for Stan Kenton during the early ’50s, and made some of the more phantasmagoric big band recordings of the ’80s and ’90s. I had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Holman at the end of 2011 when Jazz at Lincoln Center assigned me to write program notes for a Kenton tribute concert. The unedited transcript follows.

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Bill Holman on Stan Kenton (December 28, 2011):

TP:   Let me ask you a general question. It’s been written about, and I’m a little embarrassed to ask it, but: what do you feel that you brought to the Kenton band, and what do you think Kenton was looking for from you?

BH:   I don’t think I’ve ever been asked this before. I think I brought a little more of a jazz element into the band. Stan kept saying that he didn’t want a swing band, he didn’t want a Tommy Dorsey band or a Count Basie band. He was talking about rhythm, I think, mainly. He didn’t want that dancey, kind of jazz rhythm. He wanted straight eighth notes and everything very serious and solemn. I lightened up the band quite a bit, I think. The contrapuntal approach that everybody talks to was just a feature of the way I wrote. But I actually tried to write more jazz music for the band, and…

It’s funny. I was talking to somebody yesterday about the predicament that Buddy Childress was in. He was the lead trumpet player, he was the concert master of the band, and he was kind of responsible for the way the band phrased and the way the band played their eighth notes. Stan was still insisting that he wanted the straight eighth notes, and I was writing more of a swing feel eighth-note—and the two were different. So Buddy had to figure out a way to kind of get it in the middle, and he came up with a very strange conception that people have since called holding eighth notes. They weren’t mine, really; they were Buddy’s. I think after the first two successful charts that I wrote for the band, Stan probably realized that he was faced with a different kind of conception. He didn’t try to talk me out of it, and kept on with it, and finally, in 1955, a couple of years after I left, he had Al Porcino and Mel Lewis, and it was a swing band. Not one of the swingingest bands, but it was a swing band, and Stan went along with it for a while. Then finally, he had some kind of epiphany or something, and he let Porcino go and he told me to stop writing. It slipped back a little bit, but he was still doing more rhythmic things than he had in the past.

TP:   It seems that what you were doing in ‘52 and ‘53 and ‘54 was very suited to the band’s personnel—a lot of individualistic soloists, influenced very much by Lester Young and Bird and swing music, as you were. So your conception seems to have been a nice for the band.

BH:   I think probably the best arrangements for any band are written by people who are playing in the band, because night after night you get the feeling of what the band does well, and when it takes off, and you hear the soloists and hear what they can do… It’s a big advantage to be a member of a band.

TP:   In the charts you wrote for Lee Konitz, were you taking any particular factors into account?

BH:   No, I just wrote for Lee as a very capable soloist. I didn’t think too much about his…well, what I found out later, that he tries to do things that are completely original. He leaves out most of the jazz vocabulary that we know and love, but he prefers to just start at zero and do his own thing. I didn’t know this at the time. I was pretty young and inexperienced. So I just wrote the best chart that I could, hearing him. It’s funny. When we first rehearsed “In A Lighter Vein,” which was the up-tempo feature for him, he said, “I can’t get any feeling from this melody at all.” [LAUGHS] I said, “Jesus!—it bombed.” Then he turned around and played the shit out of it.

TP:   You and he are the same age, from different parts of the country, but both deeply influenced by the big bands and soloists you heard in your formative years. I know music became your avocation a little late. But were you a fan of the Kenton band in the ‘40s?

BH:   Oh, yeah. I thought they were terrific. I grew up close to the Balboa Rendezvous, where they got their start. We used to hear the band when it still had Lunceford influences. So I was aware of the band from the very start, and I really liked the things that they were doing in the ‘40s, which was before I became a jazz player and found out what real jazz was like, and realized that what they were doing wasn’t jazz.

TP:   Was there any sort of ambivalence for you when you joined the band? I’ve read 4-5 fairly thorough interviews on the Internet, and it seems as though and Kenton had a somewhat ambivalent relationship. Not that this needs to be part of the note… Was there any sense for you, joining the band, that the way you were thinking about things didn’t necessarily sync up with Kenton’s?

BH:   If I had been a functioning writer at the time, more than a player, I think there probably would have been. But I joined the band as a player, and I was just happy to join such a good band with such a great record. I was just happy to be there. I didn’t write for the band for quite some time. I’d written a couple of charts before I joined the band, but they were just total flops. I was trying to do things that I wasn’t hearing. So when I joined the band, I was just happy to be there, and Stan remembered that I was a writer, and pretty soon he started encouraging me to write. He paid me for everything I did. I did several charts before I really connected with the band, and he paid for those, and had them copied, and we rehearsed them and even played them a couple of times. I wrote one chart on “Star Eyes,” and it was just counterpoint from beginning to end. We played it one night, and Stan said, “You know, Holman, that sounds like a merry-go-round.” That’s a pretty good line.

TP:   Was his input helpful to you in developing your style?

BH:   [SIGHS] I’m trying to think, now… He didn’t talk to me much about writing, aside from egging me on to write. He gave me one assignment, which was a thing for Maynard Ferguson and Sal Salvador. It was “Invention For Guitar and Trumpet.” He kind of laid that out, what he was looking for. It turns out to have been a very successful piece, although I don’t like it at all. But it always seems to get put in the reissues and so forth. But mainly, he didn’t talk to me about what he was expecting or needing.

TP:   if I may ask you this for the 8-millionth time, what are some of your favorites of the charts that you wrote for the Kenton band?

BH:   Well, I always liked, “What’s New” and, of course, “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” which is a lot of people’s favorite. I like “Stella By Starlight” for Charlie Mariano, and “Yesterdays,’ and some of the early things—“Fearless Finlay” and I can’t think of the other name.  Does that give you enough?

TP:   Yes, I think that gives me enough. May I ask a more general question. What do you think were the qualities of Kenton as a personality and bandleader, and the band itself, that made the Kenton band so popular? It was a huge operation. What do you think people were responding to?

BH:   It’s hard to say. I don’t really know. In the ‘40s, he was doing his progressive jazz and the Rugolo thing. It’s hard to say. Maybe the precision and the brassy sound. I don’t really know. It’s a large band. I think large bands tend to be more impressive than small bands to certain people. Kenton’s personality. He was a very striking figure in front of a band. You got me on that one.

TP:   He’s one of these people, like Woody Herman or Ellington, who kept the organization going for years and years and years, building a body of music… If nothing else, it’s a real act of will, I guess. It strikes me in the course of thinking about him for these last few days.

BH:   I think that a lot of people had an affection for Stan, the person. He was always very gracious to the public, and took time-out to talk to people and kids… I meet these people now who come to the Kenton reunion concerts out here that Ken Poston puts on occasionally, and they seem to love the idea of Stan Kenton. He got to these people somehow.

TP:   Apart from the NEA Jazz Masters thing a couple of years ago, when the JALCO played one of your charts, is this your first collaboration with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra?

BH:   Yes, aside from that one shot.

TP:   Have you followed their history over the last 20 years?

BH:   Pretty much.

TP:   Do you any remarks about the orchestra, and the way they might or might not match up with the way Kenton thought about music?

BH:   Hah. Well, I don’t know. I’m kind of curious about that myself. Their emphasis has been on Duke and mostly black music, and this is the whitest of the white bands, I think.

TP:   Did you say ‘the whitest of the white bands’?

BH:   Yeah.

TP:   Perhaps that phrase might apply a little less to the stuff you put out 55 years ago, and the way the band treated it.

BH:   Yeah, but I think still, Kenton encompasses all of that. Stan Kenton stands for a certain kind of music that is kind of unemotional. I don’t know if that’s the right word. Clean. Well, you know how some musicians use the term “greasy” when they’re talking about funky jazz? Stan’s band was never greasy, regardless of who wrote for it. There, I’ve finally figured it out.

TP:   I guess it will be fascinating to see how the concert goes, and I’m sure you’ll be hearing more from them after the new year. You’re not presenting anything new for the band…

BH:   No.

TP:   All older stuff.

BH:   Yes.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under Bill Holman, Interview, Stan Kenton

For Producer Creed Taylor’s 85th Birthday, A 2005 Downbeat Article and A Pair of Interviews Conducted For It

Today is the 85th birthday of Creed Taylor, who put his imprimatur on CTI Records in the early ’70s, after distinguished tenures at Bethlehem, Impulse (which he launched) and Verve. Downbeat gave me the opportunity to write a feature about Mr. Taylor in 2005, when he was launching a new online retail venture. I’m posting the final cut, plus a pair of interviews that I conducted for the piece.

* * *

Known for his implacable self-confidence and laid-back urbanity through a  half-century in the jazz business, Creed Taylor grew up on a farm, a fact made apparent by the wrench-force handshake he offered after lunch on the Friday before July 4th. “I milked cows,” he explained, pointing to his forearm. New Yorkers streamed past towards holiday R&R. Taylor smiled. “I like it better here,” he added. Then he returned to his downtown office to tweak a software glitch that was wreaking havoc on the shopping cart field of his on-line retail business, http://www.ctijazz.com.

During the ‘50s, Taylor learned the ropes at Bethlehem, and built his reputation as a marketing-savvy, high concept producer for ABC-Paramount. In 1960, he convinced his ABC bosses to fund Impulse!, and signed John Coltrane, who would remain at the label until his death in 1967. During four years at the helm of Verve, he launched the Bossa Nova movement with Stan Getz and produced lushly orchestrated best-sellers with Wes Montgomery that remain a template for commercial jazz production. He continued to hone the pop jazz formula during a three-year partnership with Herb Alpert at A&M, and in 1969 launched a successful signature label, CTI (Creed Taylor, Incorporated), whose output of the ‘70s set the template for “smooth jazz.”

Taylor, 76, last produced a record in the mid-‘90s. Now he hires an outfit called Fulfillment House to buy, pack and ship reissues of his classic titles, all branded with his signature and the logo “Creed Taylor Presents.” Owned primarily by Universal and Sony-BMG, the albums reflect Taylor’s singular, detail-oriented aesthetic, built on meticulous ears, marketing savvy, keen design sense, and an intuitive feeling for the zeitgeist.

“The fundamental thing always, whatever idiom of music we recorded, was to go for a groove,” says Taylor, whose sides still resonate with dance-oriented deejays and remixers around the world. “With CTI we might keep the rhythm section playing for an hour on the same 12 bars—when it begins to sound like it’s just about to lock in, then you start to record. Of course, you have to start off with a good song. Now, Jobim was a genius beyond generations, who created melodies and harmonies that made the whole thing so appealing. Still, he would sit at the piano, or guitar, and work a samba groove over and over until it clicked. On Gil Evans’ Out of The Cool, we went four days without recording anything, because Gil couldn’t get it down on paper. Finally, Gil worked up a little groove with Tony Studd on bass trombone and the drummer. He wrote the chord changes on a four-bar riff on a matchbox, and handed it to Tony, who formed a bass pattern, and did the same with the lead trumpet and reed players. That became ‘La Nevada.’ On Blues and the Abstract Truth, Oliver Nelson knew exactly what he wanted, but it still took time to get the drum patterns down.

“You need a swinging foundation on which to put the improvisation. It’s like batting practice and pitching warm-ups before a baseball game. Then you come out and perform. I don’t see any difference.”

The son of a mill owner, Taylor, who worked comfortably with black artists throughout his career, grew up in Jim Crow times in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the western, Appalachian section of the state. “There was one black family, and their kids were my playmates,” he recalls. “It was like the racial thing didn’t happen, except for seeing  ‘whites’ and ‘colored’ drinking fountains at the Greyhound station, which shocked me.”

Situated “two mountain ridges over” from the Carter family, bluegrass—“hillbilly music, the real folk stuff”—was everywhere, and Taylor didn’t like it. By 10 he was listening to big bands on radio. Soon thereafter, he taught himself to play trumpet, and by16 was hitchhiking to hear every traveling dance band within striking distance. His most frequent destination was Roanoke, Virginia, 75 miles down the road, where such heroes as Woody Herman, Jimmy Dorsey, Sammy Kaye, and Benny Goodman played the all-white auditorium, counterpointing chitlin’ circuit one-nighters by Louis Jordan, Erskine Hawkins, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Earl Bostic, and Billy Eckstine at a warehouse over the Norfolk & Western railroad tracks.

“The dynamics of my marketing thoughts might have begun then, with the perception that black audiences like one thing and white audiences like another,” says Taylor, who in the ‘70s created Kudu—named for an African antelope and bearing the colors of the Jamaican flag—as an R&B crossover label to coexist with CTI. “Keep the genre clear and easy to find.”

In 1947 Taylor matriculated at Duke. He graduated four years later with a degree in psychology, played in the school band, and moonlighted on local club and dance gigs. He describes as life-altering a night when pianist Claude Thornhill brought to campus his short-lived band with Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Tony Scott, two french horns, and a book that included Gil Evans’ arrangements. Stan Kenton’s trombone-heavy arrangement of September Song, and Stan Getz’s recorded solos on “Early Autumn,” with Woody Herman, and “Autumn in Vermont,” with Johnny Smith, were other taste markers. So were Symphony Sid’s late night broadcasts from the Royal Roost and Birdland, which Taylor monitored; thus inspired, he periodically came to New York to get the sound of bebop first-hand, staying at a hotel near Bryant Park and frequenting the clubs of 52nd Street.

After two years in the Marines, including ten months of combat in Korea, Taylor settled in New York. He hung out, jammed, listened, observed, and formed as a first principle the notion that a recording and a live performance are different entities. Dates on Prestige or Blue Note or Verve might faithfully depict the heat-of-the-moment sound of a band in a Harlem or 52nd Street nightclub, but for Taylor they lacked nuance.

“I listened to a lot of Jazz at the Philharmonic records, and those extended solos didn’t make it for me,” he says. “The attention span can’t handle it. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking about audience participation and the excitement and the show business. The Prestige stuff was so rough. I immediately saw other things that could have been done with great soloists like Zoot Sims and Al Cohn by changing the drummer or something. Most records had no bass presence, and I liked the way Rudy Van Gelder could record it.”

Taylor would soon actualize his preference, booking Van Gelder to record a date for Bethlehem, a struggling independent owned by Gus Wildi, a Swiss businessman.“I told Gus I thought I could produce a record very economically,” Taylor recalls. He’d met singer Chris Connor while “hanging out at some recording sessions,” and matched her with pianist Ellis Larkins. “Chris dug up these great songs, and I packaged a ten-inch LP,” Taylor continues. “I got an announcer to introduce her on the record, and did little merchandising things. When she was booked into Birdland I put a life-sized statue out front. Things like that weren’t happening then, so it was a good idea.”

The record took off to the tune of 20,000 units, and Taylor was off and running. Over the next 18 months, he supervised some two dozen Bethlehem sessions by Oscar Pettiford, Carmen McRae, J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, Charles Mingus, and Herbie Mann, often under  the marketing slogan “East Coast Jazz.” He moved to the newly formed ABC-Paramount label as a staff producer, and built a jazz catalog with musicians he’d worked with at Bethlehem, adding artists like Quincy Jones, Lucky Thompson, Don Elliott, and Kenny Dorham. He also oversaw strong-selling concept-driven projects—drinking ditties, World War I songs, flamenco, Montoya & Sabicas, Italian pop singer Nicola Paone, and “Creed Taylor Orchestra” theme albums—that earned him trust from his old-school bosses. This translated into budgetary freedom, and Taylor spent liberally on A-list photographers and classy graphic design to give his product a striking visual identity that augmented Van Gelder’s trademark sound.

At Impulse Taylor parlayed his assets, releasing albums by Jay & Kai, Ray Charles, Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson, and John Coltrane, branding them with gatefold jackets, orange-and-black spines, and the logo “The New Wave of Jazz is On Impulse.” He bet that “by identifying all the records with quality sound and packaging, radio stations that normally wouldn’t play, say, Gil Evans or Oliver Nelson, might go along for the ride”—and won.

In the summer of 1961, Norman Granz, whose laissez-faire blowing dates had alienated Taylor a decade before, sold Verve to MGM. Taylor took the reins. Within a year, Jazz Samba, the Charlie Byrd-Stan Getz collaboration that internationalized  Bossa Nova, was in the can.

“Charlie went to Brazil on a State Department tour, and met Jobim, who gave him these songs,” Taylor recalls. “Charlie recorded sketches, brought them home to Washington, D.C., got on the phone with myself and with Stan, and asked if we were interested in recording them. I said, ‘Stan, let’s go,’ and we hopped on a plane to D.C.

Taylor carefully cultivated relations with Getz, his famously  truculent early idol. “When I came to Verve, I talked with Stan until he got to the point where he said, ‘I’d really like to do something with Bill Finnegan.’ That was Focus, which couldn’t have been more esoteric—no rhythm, no chords. It was a 10 o’clock date at Webster Hall, and Stan walked in on time with a quart of Dewar’s. He put it on the stool in front of him, put alka-seltzer next to that, got ready, and played. I knew the critics would like it, Stan’s fans would like it, and Stan would appreciate my having gone along with it— Norman Granz wouldn’t have stood still for something like that. Doing that made it possible for me to say, ‘Let’s do this thing.’”

Asked to compare himself to fellow Van Gelder devotee Alfred Lion, the auteur of Blue Note, Taylor offers a window into his thinking. “Alfred was interested in the pure ensemble, then blowing, and no nonsense,” Taylor says. “I was interested in that, plus an entertaining record that might appeal a little more to the general public. Beyond knowing what was good and what was swinging, Alfred didn’t look into conceptual kinds of album production, and I don’t think he ever had marketing or packaging per se in mind, although his partner Francis Woolf was a great black-and-white photographer, which gave the package an identity. But I don’t think they looked at how we’re going to sell more albums.

“Alfred also didn’t bring in what would have been for him foreign elements, like the concert-master for the New York Philharmonic, who became my key guy with Don Sebesky and Claus Ogerman. With the strings, it’s not just the arrangement. It’s who was the A-row and B-row of the violins, and who you don’t hire because between takes he plays cards or reads the paper or doesn’t pay much attention, and also, his intonation is not that hot, and the only reason he”s sitting there is because he gets a lot of jingle dates and hires his friends, and dah-da-dah. At A&M and CTI, we had the cream-of-the-crop string guys, the violins, violas or celli, performing at their zenith.”

Framing jazz individualists with well-wrought arrangements and danceable grooves on poppish material would become Taylor’s trademark. Still, the legacy of these lucrative years seems somewhat at odds with his personal listening, which spans the piano music of Ravel and Debussy, Focus, Thornhill, Oliver Nelson, Chet Baker, and “anything by Bill Evans or Wynton Kelly.”

“Something that backfired on me is being responsible in a very odd way for smooth jazz, that kind of nonentity of floating backgrounds,” he says. “When CD-101 started off, they loved Grover Washington, Jr. and those early CTI things in that vein, but I had no intention whatsoever to produce background music for beautiful people purposes.”

Among active producers, Taylor admires Manfred Eicher. “The discretion—he knows what to leave out and what not to push,” he says. “Everything I’ve heard that he put out has integrity. That doesn’t necessarily mean I liked it. And Quincy always knew the right thing to do, whether I was producing him or he was producing another record. We see music from different angles; I think I’m better positioned to look at it objectively from the outside.”

All in all, Taylor acknowledges, there are there many ways to make a jazz record. Does he think his way was best? “Don’t we all?” he retorts. “Sometimes I wished I’d done it another way, and I sure didn’t make that mistake again. But those mistakes are long gone into my deep subconscious.”

[—30—]

* * *

Creed Taylor (July 1, 2005):

TP:   What occurs to me in thinking about the projects you’ve been involved with is that your aesthetic has been consistent through 51 years in the record business. You seem to have operated on the same core principles, but with very different-sounding music in recordings made under different circumstances. Your consistency is remarkable. I’d like to explore how you came to your principles, how you came to hear the music the way that you hear it. That’s my overriding thought. That quality has stood you in good stead, and it seems that your instincts, which also were tempered by hard work, were quite accurate in each period you operated in. Any reflections on why you heard music the way you did.

CREED:   This is a roundabout…an opinion, as I look back on my early experiences. I grew up in the mountainous part of Virginia, close to West Virginia, and I was inundated with bluegrass. Bluegrass was all around me. This was before Nashville even…the big County movement hadn’t happened. It was the Carter family. The Carter family lived two mountain ridges over from where I grew up, so this was really hillbilly music, the real folk stuff. And I didn’t like it. I remember as a 10-11 year-old, I started listening to the radio, and I heard the big bands, obviously. Records weren’t that available at that point. It was still the 78 era anyway. But time went on, and I was able to start getting broadcasts from Birdland from Symphony Sid…

TP:   You’d have been 19 or 20. Birdland opened in ‘49, and the Royal Roost was in ‘48.

CREED:   Anyway, either I heard it broadcast from the Royal Roost, or… WMCA had a very clear, strong signal in the late hours, when I went to bed. I was listening until 12 or 1 in the morning, and getting up at 6 o‘clock to go to school, of course. But I was hearing those sounds. Then I began to buy records, and I was buying Les Brown, who had a great band, and I would listen to anything I could on the radio, including Sammy Kaye. I lived 75 miles from Roanoke. At that point I was 16-17 years old, and I hitchhiked to Roanoke any time a big band came through and played at the Roanoke Auditorium. That was the closest I could get live to anything remotely connected to jazz. Obviously, where I was, as I said before, there was nothing but bluegrass music.

TP:   Bluegrass was such a popular music. Do you remember what steered you away from it?

CREED:   Actually, it was the nasal, bluesy kind of sound that as an adult I understood, not that I… Later in life, I almost began to like a lot of that stuff. But when I was growing up, it was a very unappealing, rough kind of sound to me. Can’t tell you why. Maybe it was because I couldn’t hear anything else, and as soon as I heard something was not bluegrass, it was like, “Wow, this is the music.” So I was able to hear… Virginia Tech is pretty close by. I went to VPI to hear Boyd Raeburn’s big band, which was fantastic. I couldn’t believe it! Then I heard the Elliott Lawrence Band, which was also a marvelous band, at Virginia Tech. I remember coming out of the armory at Virginia Tech, and there was the big bus sitting there for the band, and as they got on the bus… I’m telling a lot of stuff out of school. I jumped on the bus and told Elliott Lawrence, “I’d like to get an audition on the band.” He gave me a card, and said, “Next time you’re in New York, come by. Call my manager.” I was in no condition to play trumpet on that band, but it didn’t bother me. I understood it. So I figured that I could do it.

TP:   You understood it from listening very closely to the bands on records and taking it apart in a kind of home-grown way? Did you have any theory…

CREED:   No, not at all. I didn’t have any music lessons even. I taught myself trumpet, and then harmony, I could play the chord changes, whatever. When it came time to go to college, I picked Duke University because of the background it had with the big bands. Les Brown came out of there, Johnny Long, and I believe Billy May might have gone there… It was okay with my family because they thought I was going to be a doctor.

TP:   You studied psychology, no?

CREED:   Well, I started out with pre-med to satisfy them, and then I switched to psychology because I couldn’t handle organic chemistry, etc. So at Duke I got on the band, which was really quite a professional band, and I learned a lot there. Then I had my own small group, with alto, bass, drums and piano. We played summers at Virginia Beach…

TP:   Society things?

CREED:   No, we were a bebop band. But then something happened with that band, and we lost that job at Bop City, but I hung around and got a job with a society band, a tenor band as they were called—two tenors, trumpet, trombone. I played the rest of the summer there, and I did that a few times. I was playing with dance bands essentially in Virginia.

TP:   So you came to the record business as someone who knew what it was to be a working musician, a professional musician.

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   And by the time you got out of Duke, it sounds like you had a firmly established aesthetic as to what you wanted to hear and present.

CREED:   Oh, absolutely.

TP:   You go into the Armed Forces…

CREED:   I was in the Marine Corps for two years, and then I came back to Duke. I was in Korea.

TP:   In combat?

CREED:   Yes. I had a record player with me, and a 10-inch Mulligan-Baker, the original quartet, and then some Zoot Sims records—actually stuff that was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s. Early on, I listened to Jazz at the Philharmonic, and I loved the solos, and it was at that point… I don’t recall the year…

TP:   He started Jazz at the Philharmonic in 1949.

CREED:   Well, it was something like ‘49 and ‘50. Anyway, before I entered the Service, I listened to a lot of Jazz at the Philharmonic, and I thought these extended solos and these interminable bass solos or drum solos or whatever, just don’t make it. The span of attention can’t handle it. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking anything about the audience participation and the excitement and all that show business.. But that’s when I seriously thought about recording, not knowing anything about recording, but I… This is reflecting. I didn’t know what I was really learning by doing what I was doing at that time, but I could see that it brought me to the point where I was saying, “This is the way I would like to listen to this record, and I think it should sound this way, and there’s no presence on the bass, and if you’re going to use a bass, it might as well be recorded like Rudy Van Gelder can record it.” Things like that were…

TP:   Were beginning to percolate. You certainly didn’t lack self-confidence. The story you’ve told is that you approached Bethlehem and ABC-Paramount and stepped in and did it…

I don’t think anyone lasts 50 years in the record business without a good sense of detail. You do seem to be an advocate of “God is in the details” as an operative…

CREED:   It happened that way.

TP:   Mr. Taylor was telling me about a problem on the website that he has to attend to later. But I was asking about your initial forays into the business. So for several years you’d be fantasizing about what you’d so if given the opportunity to record the people you were listening to.

CREED:   There are many ways to describe that phase of my mentality, personality, whatever. But I would say naive. It never occurred to me to be bothered about being able to do any of that sort of stuff. I wasn’t feeling competitive, and it wasn’t like I had self-confidence or didn’t have self-confidence; that was not the issue. The issue was to go do it. Apparently, just by not being bothered with “is he going to like me; will he hire me”… All of that never entered my mind.

TP:   That’s not unlike your experience as a musician, learning to play trumpet…

CREED:   That’s right.

TP:   Everything but organic chemistry.

CREED:   There was no doubt on that! It wasn’t a lack of self-confidence. No motivation.

TP:   People who grow up in the mountains are pretty resilient. I’ve spent some time in West Virginia.

CREED:   Well, you know that mentality of the culture.

TP:   I gather that when you came to New York, you spent a lot of time hanging out as well.

CREED:   Oh, yes, constantly.

TP:   Do you recall your first day in New York? Did you know someone? Why did you know where to go and what to do?

CREED:   It was easy. I had a first cousin whose mother came from Virginia, and they lived in New York, and he was an architectural engineer… Anyway, they put me up in a hotel on Bryant Park, and every night I would go to 52nd Street, the clubs that you’ve seen photographs of, and I went from one club to another, the brownstone…

TP:   This was before you entered the Marines.

CREED:   Before. Then I’d go back to Virginia and listen to Birdland. Anyway, I heard Oscar Pettiford, Count Basie, Erroll Garner, Billie Holiday, you name it. I spent my entire time… As soon as it got dark and the clubs started working, that’s where I’d be, hopping from place to place. Obviously, I had to go up and spend time with my cousins, but that didn’t take much time. Then I got on the train and went back to Virginia…

TP:   And enlisted in the Marine Corps?

CREED:   Was drafted in the Marine Corps.

TP:   Got out in 1952?

CREED:   I believe so. I was in the Pahmunjong area next to an Army unit. But we were constantly being picked on by the Chinese and the North Koreans, and there was a lot of mortar and stuff going on. It was really very combative. But it didn’t bother me too much. Then I came back into Reserve; we had a month off and two months back in Reserve. Lo and behold, they sent me to Yokohama to baseball umpiring school. I was not even a baseball fan, but I had a special services number.

TP:   What rank did you reach?

CREED:   Corporal. That was it. Any longer, and you became a Second Lieutenant, and you’re dead. That’s just about the pattern. So I umpired ballgames and got out of that alive. It was more frightening than the Chinese mortars. Meanwhile, I had my horn with me, and there were other guys who were also players. We had little jam groups. I tried to get the Marine band, but since I had a Special Service number, because of my psychology background, they wouldn’t take me in the band.

Jumping around a bit, I came back to San Francisco to be discharged. I had a whole month, I believe, on Treasure Island, and every night I would go into San Francisco to hear the likes of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond and Chet Baker, Cal Tjader and all those guys. I also heard the Stan Getz-Jimmy Raney group at that time. It was a very pleasing way to get out of the Marine Corps, I’ll tell you.

TP:   So you eventually settled in New York in ‘52 or’53?

CREED:   I think it was ‘53.

TP:   And you were continuing to pursue a career as a psychologist?

CREED:   Actually, when I got here, the first thing I did was to go out to American Airlines and apply for a job as a personnel tester. During that period, I also ran into this guy who went to Duke who was a drummer (he wasn’t a very good drummer) who had… Don’t quote me on this. This guy conned a Swiss stock market investor into starting Bethlehem. The way he did this was, his girlfriend was a dancing teacher at Arthur Murray, and she was looking out for some guy with some money so the Duke guy could start a record company. So he started a record company, the guy put his money in, and that was Bethlehem Records. They did a few 78 records that were just before LPs were a reality, and they were just about to go broke. I was hanging around…

TP:   Was this a guy named Joseph Muranyi?

CREED:   Out of the past! No, that isn’t the guy. It was Gus Wildi, Swiss. One day, I don’t remember exactly how, but I said, “Hey, Gus, you’re not getting anywhere with these 78s; why don’t you let me produce a record. I can do one very economically.” It turned out to be Ellis Larkins on piano with Chris Connor, and I think some guitar…

TP:   Not unlike what Ellis Larkins had done with Ella Fitzgerald not long before.

CREED:   Exactly. So Chris Connor had the idea to get Ellis to do this.

TP:   How did you know Chris Connor?

CREED:   From hanging out at a couple of recording sessions. Sy Oliver was doing these elaborate big band arrangements, and I met Chris, and talked to her about doing… She has a great sense of song. She dug up all of these…”it’s the wrong time, it’s the…” “It’s All Right With Me.” She found that song, and she found “Cottage For Sale” and… Anyway, we got along very well. We did that, and I packaged the 10″ LP, Lullaby of Birdland, and got an announcer who was on WNEW at the time to introduce her on the record, so that every time the record was played, it was, “This is Bob McGarrity, and you’re listening to Chris Connor sing ‘Lullaby of Birdland.’” So that record took off. I did little merchandising things. Like, when she was booked into Birdland I had a life-sized statue put out front… At that time, things like that weren’t happening, so it was a good idea.

TP:   How did you know about these things? You were 25 years old. Now, you’d seen combat, you were self-sufficient… But how did you know these things about the business?

CREED:   It’s intuitive. Strictly intuitive. It’s reading, looking around, and just being alive. What are you going to do? These people march into Birdland, she’s there. What a great way to promote the album. If they’re on their way in, they say, “Ah, Chris Connor has an LP.”

[PAUSE]

CREED:   …Verve Remix Volume 3 came out. No comment on that.

TP:   What do you think of those remixes. A lot of it comes from your time.

CREED:   Well, on Remix #3, the voice is filtered to the point where it’s not only unobtrusive, but almost unidentifiable. Obviously, I’ve got a bone to pick. It destroyed the essence of it.

TP:   Well, that’s the essence of what deejays do. But I’d like to get back to this question of your aesthetic. You’ve taken me from your formative years to your first producing efforts. And it seems that in your hierarchy of things, arrangement and presentation is primary. A recording is a different entity than a live performance. That’s something you seem to have firmly established early on. As opposed to a lot of Prestige or Blue Notes dates, which show you how someone might have sounded in Harlem or a 52nd Street club.

CREED:   The Prestige stuff is part of what drove me. I probably wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but it was so rough! You had these great soloists, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and then with all the other stuff that could have been done, on the same day, on the same tune, by maybe changing the drummer or changing… I immediately saw what I could do.

TP:   How did you know which arrangers or personnel you wanted to use? Was it from hanging out at the clubs? By ‘52-‘53, 52nd Stret was pretty much gone. The brownstones were going down. You had Birdland and the Broadway strip…

CREED:   The Copper Rail.

TP:   You start to form relationships with musicians. You mentioned that you met Oscar Pettiford and got along…

CREED:   Oscar and I became very good friends.

TP:   Before you were a record producer?

CREED:   No. That’s how I met him, at Bethlehem. But he was such a jolly fellow. He loved life, and… We were just on the same wavelength. Anyway, I should mention that Bethlehem I think was at 1560 Broadway, maybe at 52nd Street, and I only had to go down to the street and walk a half-block into Charlie’s Tavern. This was the place. In Charlie’s Tavern, I met an oldster like Gene Krupa, Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Parker, Oscar Pettiford, and on and on like that. Phil Woods. Once I remember I went into Charlie’s Tavern… Charlie was a jovial fellow sometimes, but other times he was more like George Steinbrenner. Once Charlie Parker was in a booth, and I don’t know what he’d been doing, but he went to sleep on a table. Charlie came over and picked him up and threw him out on the street. I went up to Charlie and said, “Charlie, how could you do that?! That’s Bird!” “Nobody sleeps in my place.” But everybody loved Charlie… Anyway, that’s how I got…

TP:   An equal opportunity abuser.

CREED:   Right! But you’d go out of Charlie’s Tavern, and there was an alleyway back into Birdland. The guys on their break would come into Charlie’s Tavern and have a couple of drinks or whatever. So it was all a very knit community. I found out things like why does Pee-Wee mispronounce guys’ names all the time. Kai Winding told me, “because if you don’t tip him, he will mispronounce your name.” They eventually realized that if they were going to get up there… He could come up with some of the most outlandish versions of a musician’s name just because he didn’t get tipped.

TP:   Also, in a situation like that, you get a sense of who has chemistry with each other, and how to put people together on dates…

CREED:    Sure. Being in the environment on an active basis. Look, I could walk into Birdland, and you went down steps and there was a glass booth over the steps, and there was Symphony Sid broadcasting the music that I’d been listening to in Virginia. When he was playing the records he’d talk about, “Oh, I see down at the bar, there’s Zoot and there’s Kai Winding, and I think Dizzy’s over there…” Ah, this guy! I’ve got to get up to New York and see what’s going on, because that sounds like the place to be.

TP:   Were you meeting people before you were a record producer? Were you already one of these guys who comes to New York and becomes part of the scene? Or did that happen through your professional capacity?

CREED:   That happened after I was in a position to hire people. What am I going to say? “Give me your autograph.”

TP:   So among the first people you worked with were Oscar Pettiford, J.J.  Johnson and Kai Winding… Did Mingus work with you on Bethlehem by the time you left…
CREED:   He did one thing.

TP:   There must be 20-25 recordings you did with them.

CREED:   I would guess so. I can’t remember what they are now.

TP:   I suppose that would teach you every element of the business. Invaluable. There are so many personalities that we could take a whole afternoon. I wrote down a partial list: Chris Connor, Oscar Pettiford, Mingus, Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Oliver Nelson, Coltrane, Ray Charles, Gil Evans, Stan Getz, Jobim, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Gil Evans, Jimmy Smith, Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, Stanley Turrentine, Quincy Jones, Don Sebesky, George Benson, Grover Washington. A lot of people, and that’s just the half of it. But you seem to have developed good relationships with all these people. Alfred Lion did it. I don’t know if Bob Weinstock developed relationships…

CREED:   I never knew him.

TP:   When you were preparing an Oscar Pettiford date, how much of the input would be Oscar Pettiford’s and how much would be yours?

CREED:   That’s a long time ago to really remember the specifics…

TP:   I’m trying to get at when you started to put your own producer imprint on records, and how it began. How it went from supervising a session to putting your personality on all aspects of it, which became your trademark.

CREED:   Well, I liked Chris Connor and enjoyed working with her. She was also a success. I happened to be doing Kai and J.J. at the same time, so I got them together. I would make suggestions at times. Maybe some of the mute changes that Kai and J.J. did… They did a lot of changes in the club. It was a very visual group. I would tell them, “You’ve got such a beautiful sound or blend on this, I don’t think you should use the solo tone mutes.” Being a brass player, I knew  very clearly what the solo tone… I also would have various comments about where they should be in the studio itself. Of course, I also had the good fortune of having a great engineer, Tommy Dowd. Of course, there was Rudy. Rudy has always been a big part of my recording life. He was a trumpet player, too, you know.

TP:   I didn’t know that.

CREED:   Yes. And he had a compelling sensibility about the musicality of the various players. He could put up with any kind of idiosyncratic behavior if he respected the talent. If he got some guy who was acting pretty nuts, then he didn’t work out very well. Anyhow, I formed kind of a buffer between the guys I knew and Rudy. I would not infrequently have conversations with the artist about the date we’re going to do, and there are certain little things that you shouldn’t be doing. So if you know up front, then there’s not going to be any problem. Well, smoking, of course, but back then it was a problem, you don’t smoke in the studio or whatever… The only time I can remember… Quincy and his new wife were living in California, and Quincy came in to do Walking In Space, I think it was, or one of those dates, and his wife came into the control room with a big bag of potato chips and started crunching potato chips. Rudy just was… Never mind the manners or whatever. OUT with the potato chips. She could have been the Queen of England. Out with the potato chips. Rudy appreciated that. And I knew the ground rules…

TP:   How did you meet Rudy van Gelder?

CREED:   I called him up and booked a date in his studio in Hackensack. He used his family living room for a studio. We started talking… He was interested in photography, and so was I and so am I. He liked Mercedes, and so did I and so do I. We became very good friends.

TP:   Both men with an eye for detail.

CREED:   I would say. Definitely.

TP:   Would you before you went into the studio have a very good idea in your mind how the record would sound once the project was complete?

CREED:   I had to say very little. But when I had something to say, Rudy would listen. I stayed very much in the background. That was his department, generally speaking. And it’s continued that way all these years.

TP:   When did the notion of putting your imprint on the entire package start to take form? Was that at ABC-Paramount?

CREED:   Mmm-hmm.

TP:   Was that because you had more resources and you could do it?

CREED:   A combination of factors. ABC-Paramount was recording Paul Anka, Eydie Gorme, all of those Philadelphia rock-and-roll guys, and I didn’t want to be identified with that genre of music. I think that’s what sort of started it. But then I started looking at how the packages looked and sounded, and I thought, “Well, I’m going to put my name on as a signature, as a guarantee to the listener that he’s going to get generally what he expects in quality from this recording.” It was as simple as that.

TP:   But that wound up encompassing the cover design, the whole package…

CREED:   Oh, yes.

TP:   Did a Rudy Van Gelder for Creed Taylor have the same sound as a Rudy Van Gelder record for Alfred Lion?

CREED:   No.

TP:   What’s the nature of the difference?

CREED:   Well, Alfred Lion, for one thing, would take a different rhythm section. He would approach it in a different way. He wasn’t interested in… I certainly respect that. He was interested in the pure ensemble, then blowing, and no nonsense.

TP:   What were you interested in?

CREED:   I was interested in that, plus an entertaining record that might have an appeal that might get a little further out to the general public.

TP:   Did that start with Bethlehem, or was that a function of your job at ABC-Paramount? Or were you always thinking about that?

CREED:   I was always thinking about that. But I got to thinking about it more because of radio as being the prime exposure for selling records. It got so that I had to remind myself that you’re not making this record for a radio. You’re using radio, and they will play your record, but be careful that you’re not just going in a direction that you know is going to get it on the radio at the expense of what it should be musically for the audience you’re going for.

TP:   Also at ABC-Paramount, you had to convince your higher-ups that projects were worth taking on. As Ashley describes, they were pretty tough, self-made guys who grew up in the Depression. They describe you as being very quiet. You’d sit back from the table somewhat to force people to pay attention to you, and you would always have a business plan for each record. “I can do this for this,” you’d give them a price, and then if it went over budget, they wouldn’t argue. Sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t.

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   How did you have the confidence to know that you’d be able to back up your words by that point?

CREED:   I’d feel like I was doing the right thing. If I didn’t think I was doing the right thing, I probably wouldn’t have had any confidence.

TP:   How did you know your audience? Through fieldwork? Hanging out…

CREED:   Fieldwork. Radio. Talking to record distributors and all those people. I had this little test store right across the street from the Paramount building, and they sold everything from belly dance to Chinese rock-and-roll or whatever was going on at the time. I’d talk to the owner and go look through the records and see what genre of music might be selling, if it were available. That’s sort of the way I found Nicola Paone. Nicola Paone had a song called “The Telephone Song.” It was a hit. I think it might have been on Columbia. But the owner of the store said, “You know, if you did a record with Nicola Paone, I think it might work.” So I got Harry Levine, my mentor, and suggested he get in touch with Nicola Paone’s manager and tell him to come and make a record. So I put a barbership quartet together with Nicola Paone, and he sang “The Telephone Song,” and we put it in the package. We shipped the 45 up to Buffalo or Rochester. I knew these radio stations up there that played…I wouldn’t call it ‘ethnic,” but Pop, Italian style. It took off in one place. Nicola Paone built his restaurant on 34th Street with the royalties from that record.

TP:   Is that the one on 34th and Madison?

CREED:   Yeah. He used to come down to my apartment. He and Harry Levine and myself would go in, and Nicola would take us back to the kitchen and show us how he prepared chicken cacciatore or whatever. A very friendly atmosphere.

TP:   Are you more proud of any two or three particular records from your Bethlehem years over others? Chris Connor you always come back to in your conversations.

CREED:   Yes. That’s probably because it was the first. But Kai and J.J., of course, and… [END OF SIDE A]…

We had sort of an interesting date that I did with Eddie Condon, a real Dixieland thing. He had a restaurant just off Washington Square, a bar…

TP:   On 3rd Street, right?

CREED:   Yes. I think it was 3rd Street. I enjoyed that because… I’m not saying that because I like to sit around and listen to Eddie Condon now. Well, I might if I had a record. That was Pee Wee Russell, Wild Bill Davidson, George Wettling and Pops Foster, and it was really an eye-opener for me, because I’d never been interested in that kind of stone Dixie kind of… To sit up in the control booth with Tom Dowd and watch those guys go through two quarts of vodka and still be able to sit up and play, I couldn’t believe it.

You talked about merchandising. What sort of started this off was, there was a priest in Chicago named Brother Matthew, and my wife at the time was a reporter for Life magazine, and she said she thought she could get us a story in Life magazine if we could record Brother Matthew on alto sax. So sure enough, we flew him in, and he sat in with this great all-star Dixieland group, and we got a great story. He couldn’t play very well; Brother Matthew was kind of weak. But that was a merchandising approach without thinking about a lot about is he sustainable as an artist.

TP:   Did you have a philosophy, such as Blue Note, where Bruce Lundvall says he pays for more purist albums through sales by Norah Jones or Cassandra Wilson or Diane Reeves? Did you follow the notion of having bigger sellers subsidize more art music?

CREED:   It didn’t work like Bruce Lundvall and his Norah Jones. I can’t go along with that statement. Here he’s got Norah Jones popped out of the blue…

TP:   Well, Cassandra Wilson and Diane Reeves were the people he used to refer to.

CREED:   Well, they didn’t sell enough to make you feel comfortable with the pursestrings until Norah Jones broke loose, and then he could do no wrong. I’m sure there were various stages in my producing life that affected me about whether I could take a chance with some less potential sales, because I liked the way the guy played. Joe Farrell [CTI] was maybe an example, because he was an enormous talent, but he didn’t have any particular idiosyncracies that I thought a whole lot of people would grab onto. But they are great records, I still think.

TP:   By idiosyncracies you mean?

CREED:   Some sound or stylistic… I instantly can listen to a demo and hear or not hear a sound, I think. By now, I’d better be able to.

TP:   Sounds to me like you could do that fifty years ago as well. Anything you’re particularly proud of during your time at ABC-Paramount? Relationships that springboarded into the next decade?

CREED:   Well, I continued with Quincy, for instance, on the Impulse Ray Charles. Quincy did the first arrangement for me in a recording session at Bethlehem with Oscar Pettiford. He hit New York at the same time I did. We were about the same age. I had a house on Waverly Place, and had parties there with Oscar Pettiford, Quincy Jones, Jackie and Roy, all the players and singers and whomever that would come by. It was just a big social thing. It didn’t just happen in the studio and in the office. It was like a  way of life. We all liked the same things.

TP:   The latter part of the ‘50s. That’s when modern jazz moved into the Village. ‘55-‘56, when the Bohemia opened, the Vanguard started being more of a jazz club…

CREED:   I heard Oscar Pettiford at the Bohemia. I used to go to the Bohemia and stay for the last set, then Oscar  would come by my place on Waverly Place, which was two blocks away. They hired Cannonball and Nat Adderley there when they first came to town around that time.

TP:   I’m trying to elicit ways in which your approach was distinct from the other comparable labels of the time. Which is why I’m asking why a Rudy Van Gelder-engineered date with Alfred Lion would differ from you…

CREED:   Well, I don’t think Alfred ever had marketing per se… I never met him. But I don’t think he had marketing per se or packaging in mind. Well, Francis Woolf was a great black-and-white photographer. That really gave the package some identity. But I don’t think they looked at how we’re going to sell more albums.
TP:   How about you vis-a-vis the Savoy label, which had a very different culture…

CREED:   With Herman Lubinsky?!

TP:   But he had intelligent producers, like Ozzie Cadena.

CREED:   Ozzie Cadena was intelligent.

TP:   The way you said Herman Lubinsky’s name…

CREED:   He sold used radio tubes during the war. At least Rudy told me that.

TP:   In a broader sense, between ‘54, when you started, and ‘61 when you start Impulse, did the social milieu in which jazz existed change greatly? They were certainly years of great change in the country.

CREED:   At ABC-Paramount, prior to Impulse. That’s when I was doing that research across the street. I noticed that there were no drinking songs LPs, so I don’t remember exactly how I got together with this vocal contractor… I think he went to Duke. A professional jingle singer. So we formed a group which I called The Four Sergeants, and I actually started out… I took a tape recorder to Yale University. I was going to record live from the tables down at…you know, “The Whiffenpoof Song,” that kind of stuff. It didn’t  work out, but it led to hiring professional singers to sing the same stuff. So I had a college drinking song, more college drinking songs, drinking songs sang under the table, and then that drifted into bawdy barrack songs, risque barbershop…

Oddly, one of the most successful… This came from my father, actually, who was in World War One. He gave me a photograph or two of where he was in the trenches. Then I started thinking about George M. Cohan and the great patriotic sentimental stuff. I found some sheet music in the attic in my home in Virginia, really old sheet music, and  we had a photographer do the cover for World War I songs. In World War I songs, aside from all the warhorses, I had a great radio voice recite In Flanders Fields. Do you know that poem? “In Flanders fields, where poppies grow amongst the corpses…” Anyway, I put a lot of reverb on it, and we had a bugle-playing Captain, and I kind of dubbed… It became a good-seller for ABC.

So with a few of these things sort of in my back pocket, Harry Levine was easily able to say to Sam Clark, “Look, why don’t we leave him alone, because look at what he’s doing; he’s building up the LP catalog.” Harry and I became great friends. He was a very quiet, nice old fellow. But he was #2 at ABC-Paramount, and he was the real brain-trust. He was the original booker of the Paramount Theater. He dealt directly with Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, whoever the band or the entertainers happened to be, because he had this quiet kind of… He wasn’t a rough Broadway kind of guy as they are portrayed in the movies or on Broadway. So he was able to talk with the artist and/or the artist’s manager, and arrive at an equitable, fair contract. So we built that sort of thing up to the point where I decided now is a good time to do this thing. Because I had Pete Turner and his great photography talents, and I had Rudy, and I had myself, and the relationship with the top jazz players out there—and it was as simple as that. Let’s put together some sort of an umbrella concept and start putting the stuff out.

TP:   What’s interesting to me and to other people who love the Impulse label… The five first albums were Kai & J.J., Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, Gil Evans, Out Of The Cool, Coltrane, and Ray Charles. From my perspective, apart from Ray Charles, the only one who would appeal to a wider audience would be Kai & J.J.  Coltrane had done the Atlantic records, but he was just becoming a leader. Gil Evans was a kind of esoteric arranger…

CREED:   But he had all that Sketches of Spain behind him. He had a bubbling, and he hadn’t done anything like this, Out of The Cool, with a package like that. So some of the music in that original release was absolutely directed at the broader base and at the radio stations which never played stuff like that, and with the display going along, the Out of The Cool or Oliver Nelson or whatever, which was not thrust up in the kind of pop-jazz crossover thing, would go along for the ride. And sure enough, they did. So by identifying all of these records that had quality sound, quality packaging, the people who normally probably wouldn’t go for something like that, would go for all of the Impulse records at that point.

TP:   Also, by 1960 hi-fi was becoming more popular, and stereo was getting into the marketplace. So good sound actually meant something. I gather that your designer actually shared your office at ABC-Paramount.

CREED:   Fran Scott. She was married to Tony Scott, who was really Tony Sciacca. I met tony Scott at Duke University at a Claude Thornhill dance. In the band, there was Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, Tony Scott, and Bernie Glow, and that was the most gorgeous sound I can ever remember hearing. First hearing something like that just made me feel goosebumps.

TP:   Is that an idealized sound in your mind?

CREED:   Oh, I play a Claude Thornhill CD (The Best Of, believe it or not) at home, because it makes me feel good. Fran Warren’s “Sunday Kind of Love.” Just to get away from Debussy or Ravel or something like that.

TP:   What else do you listen to at home?

CREED:   Classical piano stuff. I can’t listen to it all the time when I want to, because I have a daughter and a wife who would like to listen to the blues or whatever the pop stuff is that’s going on. So I’ll go back certainly to Oliver Nelson, and anything by Bill Evans, and anything by Wynton Kelly. That’s the top of my list. Chet Baker and Miles Davis.

TP:   Do you listen to a lot of new releases. Do you hear a fair sampling of what people are putting out?
CREED:   I’m on Universal’s mailing list. Now Universal has the bulk of whatever is jazz or near jazz coming out. So I listen to it, mostly once, unless something comes along. I go back and listen to Focus, Stan Getz. It’s right up there. It could have been recorded yesterday.

TP: Do you feel that you have had an impact on the way today’s producers think about presentation?

CREED:   I’ll tell you something that backfired on me. Being responsible in a very odd way for CD 101.9, that kind of nonentity of floating backgrounds, smooth jazz… Who’s the sax player they used to really love on CD-101.9?

TP:  David Sanborn.

CREED:   David Sanborn said about a year ago, “they stopped playing my records because I’m too close to jazz.” The fact is, that as they got smoother and smoother… He has an identity and it’s something… When he plays, you listen to it, and that’s not the purpose at that radio station. But when they started off, they loved Grover Washington, Jr. I know they listened to those early CTI things that were like that, but I had no intention whatsoever to produce music for background for beautiful people purposes. Then I came along, thinking, “What am I going to do, Emulate the stuff that I really started there?” I did a few records that I’m not at all happy with because I was trying to… Why shouldn’t I be able to do… I couldn’t do it. I won’t even records what the records were.

TP:   CTI began as a division of A&M, and then you evolved it into your own imprint?

CREED:   It began as a partnership that lasted two years. It was going great guns. Wes Montgomery was selling up a storm, and then there were good records by Paul Desmond. Again, this is off the record. Herb Alpert had his niche in the music world, in his style, the way he thinks about music, and it became a problem with me because he wanted to talk about musical details about records, and Gerry Moss, his partner, obviously was listening to him, and I found myself listening to him. “I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be influenced by Tijuana Brass. Enough already.” So it was no big breakup. It was just that  thought that this was something that was hovering…well, that was no good for what I could do. Music when spoken, or spoken about. takes on strange directions.

TP:   CTI was the first time you actually capitalized a label by yourself?

CREED:   Well, in the beginning with A&M, and then it went in…

TP:   But did you buy out A&M?

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   Your budgets kept getting bigger and bigger as…
CREED:   It started out like this. Wes died in ‘68, and what’s going to be next? They’re looking for billing, and they’ve got Peter Frampton and it’s evolving into a big label. The bigger they got, the more demanding it was to meet the sales quotas. I wasn’t in that party, and it was very comfortable for Gerry Moss to pay me a modest sum to say, “It was fun, but it’s over now.” So I took that and paid for the recording of Red Clay with Freddie Hubbard. It was that simple. I did another record by Kathy McCord, but that wasn’t…

TP:   What did you tell Freddie when you did Red Clay?

CREED:   Freddie had been recording for me, like on Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, and he was on Quincy’s albums frequently.

TP:   But how did you put your stamp on that sound?

CREED:   “Let’s go in with these players and see what we can get going.” He played that little sketch on “Red Clay,” that funky thing that became so popular, and that was it. Anyway, that was a relatively casual thing, and don’t forget it had Stanley [sic] on it.

TP:   Did you give the drummers instructions on those records?

CREED:   Oh, no. Neither did Freddie. We just knew what he played like. If you hire Idris Muhammad, you know you’re going to get a New Orleans authenticity. You hire a drummer for what he does, not for what you can tell him to do.

TP:   You’re also well-known for having musicians record popular songs of the day, like “A Day In The Life” or  “Let It Be” or “White Rabbit.” Was that organic, just responding to the dictates of the market…

CREED:   I know what you’re talking about. “Let It Be” came to me from Paul McCartney. He sent me the tape before they recorded it, because he liked what Wes did on “A Day In The Life” so much that he said, “Help yourself.” I took it to Memphis, where I’d hired a rhythm section at American Studios, which is where Elvis Presley did all of his stuff, and also Otis Redding. Now, that kind of R&B or blues studio band could just take a sketch and give you a record. Stanley Turrentine didn’t make it the following morning; 10 o’clock wasn’t good, there was something in the contract or whatever. So I called Hubert, and Hubert came down, and we recorded “Let It Be,” and we did the rest of the LP at Rudy’s. But here we had Hubert with the Beatles song, with Elvis Presley’s rhythm section in a Memphis recording studio that is conditioned to have that kind of a dry funk element, including the engineer who did all of the great Otis Redding dates.

“Day In The Life” was a lot of Don Sebesky. Don did these arrangements. Wes came in with a whole studio orchestra, and Don put the part up in front of him… He didn’t know that Wes couldn’t read music, and even if he sort of was suspicious, he thought it would be kind to Wes to make it look like he was reading. The date went on maybe for two hours, and Wes kept getting more and more unhappy. Don talked to him and I talked to him, and he said, “I can’t play this, with all these cats around who can read all this music. I can’t do it.” So he called that, and then we had a meeting with Wes. Don said, “I’ll make a tape before we do the next date of all this stuff.” He made a tape on fender rhodes, mapped out where he plays, and Wes listens to it when he’s on the road or whatever, and when he’s ready to come in, we book a rhythm section only. No strings. That’s the way we proceeded from that point on.

Don worked with me very well. He would bring a complete conductor’s score into the recording booth, give it to me, and when we got to the fourth bar down on letter-B or whatever it was, I would know exactly what to communicate to Don, to say, “Let’s cut it out now so we don’t do it in an editing session.” We communicated over the phone in the studio, so I could talk directly to him and none of the players could hear what I was saying. It wasn’t like I was chopping up Don’s arrangement. But we had a very comfortable relationship like that. Don, aside from being a very talented musician, is a very reasonable, intelligent fellow.

TP:   I’m remiss in not speaking with you up to now about Brazil. For one thing, you had an instinct that it would strike a chord, and didn’t you put in a number of trips to Brazil… Not true?

CREED: No way. Charlie Byrd went down on a State Department tour. He met Jobim. Jobim gave him these songs, and Charlie Byrd recorded sketches of the songs and brought them back up to Washington, and he got on the phone with myself and with Stan, and said, “This is what I’ve got; are you interested in recording?” I said, “Stan, let’s go.” So we hopped on a plane to D.C.  Then the parade of the bossa novas started happening.

TP:   So “Desafinado” is something Stan Getz wanted to do, and you’re his producer, and he trusted you implicitly, and you just went and did it.

CREED:   Here’s why he trusted me implicitly. When I came from across the street at ABC to Verve, here I arrive with a talent like Stan Getz. I’m not going to march in and say, “Stan, why don’t you do buh-ba-buh-ba.” So I talked with Stan until he got to the point where he said, “What I’d really like to do is something with Bill Finnegan.” Focus couldn’t have been more esoteric. No rhythm, no chords, or anything. Just strings. Well, one cut is Roy Haynes on snare, brushes. But I knew that the critics would like it, Stan’s fans will like it, and Stan will appreciate my having gone along with it, because he couldn’t do something like that with anybody else. I mean, Norman Granz wouldn’t have stood still for something like that, I know. So that made it possible for me to say, “Let’s do this thing, Stan.” From that point on, everything was cool. We had a couple of little altercations.

TP:   His behavior was still erratic during those years.

CREED:   Yeah. But the way it worked for me was, “Stan, if you keep behaving that way, I’m leaving. I’m just going home. I’ll go home, and if you feel like it, call me. But I’m not going to sit here and listen to this garbage.” So he calmed down. “Stan, look…” We’re at Webster Hall. It’s a 10 o’clock date, and he walks in on time, but he walked in with a quart of Dewar’s, puts it on the stool in front of him, and then he puts next to that alka-seltzer, and then he gets ready to play, and he plays. He made the Focus album like that.

TP:   It was a different time.

CREED:   Quite different.

TP:   People had different tolerances. I recall guys like Art Blakey going three or four days in a row and how they did it. You and Coltrane got along quite well, I gather.

CREED:   Coltrane was so quiet. If anybody walked in and said, “Do something this way,” I’m sure he would have quietly said no. He had a lot of spine.

TP:   You did only the Africa Brass date.

CREED:   Yes. I think Coltrane always wanted Dolphy. Dolphy was amazing. I just attended to the comfort of the musicians and the comfort of Rudy, and let it happen. I wouldn’t have walked into that at all. That’s a very involved, totally artistic kind of idiom. I’m not going to produce Coltrane or anybody else. I wouldn’t try to make a whole concept or anything. Whatever he’s doing at that moment in time is what he does, and that’s how that happened.

TP:   If you had stayed at Impulse, would you have been able to work with what Coltrane eventually evolved into?

CREED:   Of course. Bill Evans was another kind of artist, though. He was totally malleable. I didn’t tell him to do “Washington Square Jump.” It’s based on “Frankie and Johnny.” He also did Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” But he would play anything I asked him to play, within reason, of course.  But the only problem was that Bill had this enormous habit. When we recorded, I’d pick Bill up on the West 98th Street, and we’d drive to Rudy’s, and he’d tell me about the latest book he read, what do you think about who’s running for office, and all this stuff. He was brilliant. We’d go to the studio, and he would record, and everything was beautiful! Then maybe 3-4 weeks later he comes into my office at Verve, and I’m not there, but he sees Margot, my secretary. She gives him any promotion copy that we had around, and he takes it. Once I went up to Harlem, on 125th Street, to a club where they had a glass broadcast booth in the middle, and I’m standing up at the bar, and along comes Bill with his box of records. He’s selling the promo copies to the customers, putting it in his pockets, and then he’d go get his fix or whatever. That’s a strange world.

TP:   I don’t think producers these days have to deal with the same level of eccentricity as back then. What’s it been like for you to work with the younger players? Donald Harrison. Charles Fambrough.

CREED: It’s no different. What’s different is the marketplace and the hardware and the technical downloading, the MP3s. It’s taken part of the packaging of recorded music out of the picture. That’s what I find difficult to deal with. Not the changing styles of music or recording. It’s when you can’t count on being able to make a good-looking package to go with a great-sounding record, and getting it to a normal distribution route. What do you do? That is the real problem. You can’t put your finger on the marketplace.

TP:   You’re saying that you can’t put your finger on the marketplace since the Internet and digital distribution.

CREED:   Yes. And predicting what’s going to happen, or at least betting that this is the way it’s going to be. You don’t know. Because one minute, Sony is Sony; the next minute it’s Sony-BMG. Whatever happened to Impulse? That’s Universal. And where is Verve now, or Motown… It’s just so all over the place from a distribution standpoint. I can tell this from being on a mailing list, that there doesn’t seem to be any plan of what kind of artist, how they’re going to be packaged, the individuality of some kind of series. Nothing that’s going to reach the marketplace, other than that it’s another CD.

Well, I think there’s some hope that a dual disk, a DVD plus the CD. That puts it at another level for the pricing, so the record companies are more interested in dual disks, because they can charge… Also, the coming of the high-definition DVD. Everybody is going to have a high-definition DVD disk for sale.

TP:   Is that what you’re thinking about for your next project?

CREED:   That’s what I’m doing for a project that I’m having converted from the old high-definition format, which is a Japanese 1125-line. It’s being converted to 10-8 (?). Then I’ll remix the surround sound at Rudy’s, and we will then have a truly HD-DVD. When it originally came out in 1992, it was called Rhythm Stick.

TP:   Just about Dizzy’s last date.

CREED:   It was his last date. And Teo. And Bob Berg, who was killed a few years ago. Art Farmer.

TP:   Since 2000 or 1997, how many new projects have you done?

CREED:   None.

TP:   When was the last time you recorded a project?

CREED:   I try not to think about that. [LAUGHS]

TP:   So what you’re doing now is repackaging your old catalog.

CREED:   I haven’t even started that. I’m just working on this high-definition DVD project as a leader. Because there’s other stuff in the can. But this is also an hour of film program that’s really good. Brilliant color. Certainly, one that came out of Brazil, I have a whole hour of filming from Salvador with the northern Brazilan percussion players and Larry Coryell.

TP:   Do you own the CTI catalog?

CREED:   The thing Sony has? Sony owns it.

TP:   Do you own any of the work you produced between 1954 and 1992, from Bethlehem to Rhythm-Stick?

CREED:   No.

TP:   So are you licensing it from…

CREED:   Well, licensing… I use the Fulfillment House. The Fulfillment House buys it from Sony Distribution, and they pack it and ship it. I’m a retailer. On-line retail.

TP:   So CTI is now an on-line retailing service.

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   Do you find that in any way rewarding? Would you like to get back into producing?

CREED:   Yes. I don’t find it rewarding because I’m not a technical person. I’ve been telling you about the shopping cart going wacko on me.

TP:   Looking at the current landscape, what sort of projects would you like to be doing?

CREED:   Oh, I know exactly what I’d like to be doing.

TP:   But you won’t say, because it would…

CREED:   Well, of course.

TP:   If the opportunity arose, you would come in with your feet on the ground…

[END OF TAPE 1]

TP:   When I asked you about the enduring appeal of Creed Taylor, Inc., you said, ‘Look at the artists.” Obviously, there’s truth to that. You worked with the top-shelf artists of the day, and their work was popular. But the situations in which you put Wes Montgomery have a broader appeal than the things he did for Riverside. The situations you put Stan Getz in have a somewhat broader appeal. They penetrated popular consciousness in some ways others didn’t. We could say this for George Benson’s work. So again, we get back to this question of your aesthetic, and how that aesthetic played out in the 1950s, in the 1960s, in the 1970s, three very different cultural eras,. Yet your aesthetic is consistent. You’re dealing with different markets, and your persona, your own tonal personality somehow continues to resonate. I’m wondering if you can in any way summarize that Creed Taylor tonal personality.

CREED:   Look, I don’t know what other producers do, because I only occasionally attended other… But the fundamental thing that goes on, whether it’s the Brazilian stuff, or Bob James doing arrangements for another artist, is we go for a groove. Like, Blue Note went for a groove always, but a different type. We might sit there for an hour on the same 12 bars or whatever, with the rhythm section going… I’m thinking specifically about Bob James, Eric Gale, Ron Carter or Gary King on electric bass, and Steve Gadd. You let them keep playing, and then, when it begins to sound like it’s just about to happen—okay. Then you start to record.

I have an idea that most records are not made with a groove being foremost. Of course, you have to start off with a good song. With the Brazilians, everything was made… Jobim was a genius beyond generations. He singlehandedly put the melody there and the harmonies that made that whole time so appealing. But we would still sit there… He would sit at the piano or on the guitar, and he would work at a samba groove over and over until it finally clicked. Then we would start to record.

Jimmy and Wes were just a natural. I mean, they only did that one record, The Dynamic Duo. That was the thing, that Wes and Jimmy would work a little bit before the drummer started doing anything, and then the drummer would start, and then the bassline would come up. But any record date went for the groove, no matter what idiom of music you’re recording.

TP:   Whereas Blue Note with be thinking about an interactive drummer and soloist, and more shifts…

CREED:   Generally speaking, what Alfred was recording was a group that had been performing in the clubs. They’d do that how many nights in the club. So when they’d walk into Rudy’s, Rudy has to get a balance, but they know what the groove is. They have to play it a little bit. But it was like a band. You walk in with Benny Goodman or whomever. It’s all rehearsed, and you don’t have to do this thing that we did, that I was just talking about—getting great players to finally lock in.

A big factor, I’ve got to say… I really miss Eric Gale. He was an absolute genius for groovemaking, whether it was reggae or R&B or whatever. On “Mr. Magic,” Eric, Bob James and the bass player and drummer, had just done a record with Roberta Flack, and they recorded that song the previous day. So the same rhythm section comes in… I’d asked Eric to look out for a song at one of these sessions that… So he brought in a cassette of “Mr. Magic” that the rhythm group had formed. It didn’t happen for them. He handed it to me, and he said, “Creed, here’s the song. It ain’t shit.” “Well, let’s try it anyway.” So they tried it, and they got a groove going, and that became Grover Washington’s mantle. Huge.

TP:   Were those mostly one- or two-day days in the studio dates at CTI?

CREED:   Oh, no.

TP:   Did you use more studio time than the average jazz date?

CREED:   Yes, definitely.

TP:   So that’s another factor in why all the details are so precise on CTI.

CREED:   Yes. But another atypical session  would be Gil Evans’ Out of The Cool. We went four days without recording anything, because Gil couldn’t get it down on paper. Finally, Gil was at the piano, and he’s got Tony Studd on bass trombone and he’s got the drummer and… So they finally worked up a little groove, and then Gil took a matchbox, literally, and wrote down the chord changes on a four-bar riff, handed it to Tony Studd, who formed a bass pattern for the thing, and then he did the same thing with the lead trumpet and then the reed players. That became “La Nevada.” I’ve never seen Duke Ellington record, but I understand he recorded in a similar fashion. Strayhorn didn’t come in with big sheets of arrangements, I don’t think. At least he didn’t… When I recorded Strayhorn and Hodges, everything was formal. He came in with complete arrangements. It wasn’t like the Ellington band recording, even though it was the Ellington band.

TP:   But when you were at Impulse and ABC-Paramount, you weren’t spending an hour with the rhythm section looking for a groove. Or  were you?

CREED:   Gil Evans was one of them. Out of The Cool.

TP:   Probably not Blues and the Abstract Truth.

CREED:   Yes, it was. Oliver knew exactly what he wanted, but still took time to get it down. It wasn’t just a matter of reading and telling the drummer to listen to the patterns.

TP:   Probably because it’s Roy Haynes, he makes it sound so spontaneous and organic.

CREED:   Spontaneous, yeah. It’s like practicing the… You’ve got this guy, all the pitchers warming up to come out and win the game. You have to do all the batting practice and everything. Then you come out and perform. I don’t see any difference.

TP:   Except that the game doesn’t go according to a script. You have to use your talent to adapt to the situation at hand. If a lefty comes in to face a lefty… So there’s both, isn’t there. There’s preparation, and then responding…

CREED:   True.

TP:   For a successful Creed Taylor recording, what percentage does improvisation play and what role does the preparation and pre-organization play?

CREED:   Well, you’ve got a foundation to put the improvisation on. Once the improvisation is there and swinging, then you’ve got the…

TP:   But the bedrock is always the groove.

CREED:   Yeah.

TP:   It’s not the changes, it’s not the voicings…

CREED:   Oh, everything. But if you don’t have the groove and you don’t have the right song to start with, forget it.

Little things just popped into mind about this. The Brazilian rhythm. When I was in high school playing these dances and things, I was always a clave player. That gave me a foundation to rise above the bluegrass or whatever.

TP:   Did you record the Eddie Palmieri-Cal Tjader collaboration? It’s a seminal date in Latin music.

CREED:   Yes. Cal Tjader was one of my favorite artists to begin with. I loved Cal Tjader. That’s the only time I’d ever met Eddie Palmieri, and it was a little bit of… Eddie wanted to go his way, and Cal would go either way. That’s just my general impression.

TP:   You did Willie Bobo also.

CREED:   Oh, yes. I got along very well with Willie Bobo.

TP:   Your groove philosophy really fit in with those guys. Tell me more about the Latin market in New York in the ‘60s. I still think the contribution of Latin players to what jazz sounds like today is very underrated.

CREED:   Oh, sure. All of these great bands would come in… I did a lot of recording at Belltone Studios at 31st Street and Fifth Avenue. On my way out, the Latin band would be on its way in, and I used to listen to those bands, and they were just fantastic! Machito… Oh, we had a Latino hit with Wynton Kelly, called “Little…” What was the name of it… It was a real hit. That came out of a groove, and on the spot, Ernie Royal, the trumpet player, put the lick  together.

TP:   Well, the boogaloo beat became very popular in the ‘60s…

CREED:   Yes, the Afro-Cuban rhythm. Chico O’Farrill did a lot of arrangements for me. In fact, there was one lost in the stacks, a Candido album that he did. It was a Stan Kenton type of thing for Candido. He’s still around.
TP:   He’s 84 now. I interviewed him in January about Paquito. He speaks really good English, he’s in great shape, and he played a solo where he’d emphasize the beats with his head on the conga.

CREED:   I was also into the Flamenco idiom for a while. Montoya and Sabicas. That was great. We’d bring a wooden platform into Bell Sound Studios, and the dancer would come in, and Sabicas would sit there filing his fingernails in between takes. They drink brandy, 10 o’clock in the morning. These things would really get heated up. I mean, that music is intense. And to produce it in a cold studio on early in the morning…

TP:   Was a challenge to your motivational powers. Please don’t take offense at this question. You’re from the Jim Crow South. You worked with black musicians, formed relationships with black musicians immediately upon coming to New York. I don’t want to talk like a northerner stereotyping…

CREED:   You mean  where the guilt factor comes in?

TP:   You seem not to have any guilt factor at all. You seem to relate to people in a natural way, and your rapport seems unusual to me among producers who operated in that environment in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Alfred Lion seems not to have had that issue…

CREED:   He was German.

TP:   How did that work for you? Was your community not particularly racist…

CREED:   When I was growing up, it was race-less. There was one black family. And the black family’s kids were my playmates. I didn’t have any white playmates.

TP:   So it was never a factor for you for that reason…

CREED:   I don’t know if for that reason. The only time anything ever occurred to me about the racial thing when I was growing up was going to the Greyhound bus station and seeing “whites” and “colored” drinking fountains. That kind of shocked me a little bit. But it’s almost like it was in the movies, like it didn’t happen, the racial thing. It only really got bad, I think, in South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, down…

That’s how the “Red Clay” title came, from Mississippi. Freddie wanted to call it “Slap Your Feet On The Mississippi Mud.” I said, “Come on, that title has no dignity at all, Freddie!” And Red Clay, you know what just happened with Meredith…

The only time I observed anything was at Belltone, when Mingus was on a date…it might have been a Quincy date, and Billy Taylor was playing piano. Mingus was leaving after the date was over, and Billy Taylor said, “See you later, Charlie.” He turned around and said, “If you ever call me Charlie again, you duh-da-duh-da…” Billy was like, “What’s wrong?” “Charles. Charles Mingus.” I figure it comes out of  “Uncle Charlie…” Mingus was a combative person anyway.
TP:   He was also manic, I think. Deep mood swings. Chemical…

CREED:   Like Nina Simone.

TP:   What was it like working with her?

CREED:   That was serious. She had tax problems, IRS problems… Once she played here at the Village Gate, and they took her entire payroll. So she moved to Europe, and the only way for me to make this record was for me to come there. So I brought Eric Gale and Gary King and Dave Matthews, the arranger, to Brussels, put them up in the Brussels Hilton, and every day we would go out to this studio that had been converted to an old barn in Waterloo, and record. She had mood swings you wouldn’t believe! What is that medication that’s supposed to even out the ups and downs…

TP:   I don’t remember. But you were a psychologist. Perfect training to be a record producer.

CREED:   Yeah. She tried to throw a television set out of the window at the Brussels Hilton.

[—30—]

* * *

Creed Taylor (#2) – (July 8, 2005):

CREED:   I started thinking about some of the things you asked about, especially the black and white thing, and the background which produced absolutely no prejudices. I hadn’t thought about this actually… I’d been going to Roanoke, which was absolutely racial…

TP:   You mean it was Jim Crow.

CREED:   Yeah, Jim Crow. That’s a kinder way of putting it. So I went to one auditorium for the big bands, which were all white—by necessity, I guess. I guess Benny Goodman had started having any black guys in the band…

TP:   When you saw him. A little after ‘48 he had Wardell Gray, but not then.

CREED:   Also, I don’t think he would have taken Wardell to the south. Rooming accommodations were one thing. What hotel was going to take a black guy who showed up? Anyway, I started thinking about this. Very nearby… I don’t remember the name of the hall, but it booked all the… That’s why I listed all the guys. I went up there, and it didn’t faze me at all that there were no white people around.

TP:   You were the only white kid?

CREED:   I was the only white kid.

TP:   You could go there.

CREED:   I could go there, sure. It was a one-way prejudice. If anybody looked at me like, “What are you doing; you’re a white kid,” I was not aware of it at all. So at that point, I basically… I hadn’t thought about it until you asked me, actually, that… I thought all of the black people liked this kind of music and all the white people liked the other kind of music, and that’s why they were white down there and they were black up here. Nothing to do with any prejudice floating around.

TP:   This dance hall was on top of the Norfolk & Western railway tracks?

CREED:   Yeah.

TP:   Was it a tobacco warehouse?

CREED:   It might have been. It certainly wasn’t an auditorium like the Roanoke Auditorium, which had all kinds of event. Roanoke didn’t have that much tobacco, but it was a warehouse.

TP:   Did you hear that music on the radio, or were you just hearing the bands?

CREED:   A combination. But the most exciting part, of course, was going down and seeing these guys. I heard Louis Jordan on the radio, because he had a couple of big hits, Saturday Night Fish Fry and so forth. I liked the record so much that (I had just got my driver’s license) I got in the car, and went to West Virginia to look for Salt Pork. Actually, there is a Salt Pork, West Virginia. It’s in the corner of Virginia that butts into West Virginia, not far from Morgantown. Up in the mountains.

TP:   What did your father do? Was he musical at all?

CREED:   No, he was not musical at all. He was a businessman. He had a woodworking hobby. He didn’t understand what I was listening to.

TP:   Was he from that area? Did you have several generations back in Lynchburg or that part of Virginia?

CREED:  Oh yes. Several generations back down into Little Rock, Arkansas.

TP:   And your father settled there.

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   You’d gone to Duke, so I was wondering what your background was. Later you told me you had a farm. So I suppose it was a hard-working youth.

CREED:   Well, I didn’t like some of it. We had a farm and there was a dam with a mill on it.

TP:   Did he own the mill?

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   So your dad owned the mill in town.

CREED:   Yeah. It wasn’t a town.

TP:   He owned the mill. So the mill was the town.

CREED:   Virtually, yes. People used to come up with their bags of wheat, and take them in to the mill and have it made into flour.

TP:   So this was during the Depression. So you were doing, or not terrible.

CREED:   Well, I was doing well enough not to be aware that there was a Depression, let’s say.

TP:   You say you heard Gene Krupa at a warehouse in Princeton, W.V. What else did you want to elaborate on?

CREED:   I was thinking that when I got to Duke, I heard those specific records I listed, and they stuck with me as a stylistic kind of musical taste at the time. Certainly Summer Suite/Early Autumn, the Getz solo on it, and the Stan Getz-Johnny Smith, Autumn In Vermont. Also an atypical Stan Kenton, his September Song was a hit, and it was a band with some kind of studio singers and a huge trombone choir playing unison on September Song. I also heard the band in Raleigh, N.C., which is the next town from Durham, where Duke is. That’s where I also heard the Dizzy Gillespie Band, which was a high point of my musical experience. Chano Pozo, Ray Brown and all those guys.

TP:   It had to have been ‘48. That’s when Chano Pozo died.

CREED:   Must have been. Wonder where they stayed?

TP:   They must have stayed in people’s houses.

CREED:   I don’t think they slept on the bus.

TP:   Well, they were doing a tour of one-nighters. But some of the other notes you wrote: When you were in California in 1950, training to go to Korea, you heard Red Norvo, Tal Farlow, Mingus, Mulligan, Shorty Rogers. You heard them live, I guess.

CREED:   Oh, sure. And I talked to them. Shorty Rogers was so nice. I brought a manuscript in with Half Nelson, that Miles Davis tune, and he went through it and analyzed it, and said, “This is what you do when you get here.” I thought, “Wow, here I am talking to Shorty Rogers about this…”

TP:   Did you talk to people when they played at Duke or in West Virginia.

CREED:   Sure. I talked to Thornhill. I met Tony Scott there on the band, because he was playing lead clarinet on the very famous, short-lived edition of the Claude Thornhill band that had two french horns and Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz.

I also made a note here, jumping back to Duke, at #8: I actually went to the Durham Armory to see Lionel Hampton. The whole audience was black, and the dance floor was a gym floor—the gym in the armory. Wes Montgomery and Quincy Jones were on that band. I took a photograph of the band. I just looked at the personnel… I did some research, and I remember seeing the guitar player and the trumpet section. I didn’t know his name. I’m just saying it’s a strange world that I sat there and listened to that big band, and then lo and behold, a few years later, I’m recording Wes.

TP:   You were coming up to New York periodically in high school and while you were at Duke, and seeing these cousins and staying at hotels around midtown. When you settled here, where did you live initially?

CREED:   I got my own apartment at 86th Street and Riverside Drive.

TP:   Did you immediately start going out to clubs?

CREED:   Oh, yeah, I sat in with little… There were places to jam in the Village then.
TP:   Do you remember any of them?

CREED:   I can tell you exactly where it was. One was on West Fourth Street off Seventh Avenue. I think it’s still there. I can’t remember the name of the club.

TP:   Was it Arthur’s Tavern?

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   Randy Weston told me he did his first gig there in 1943 with Lucky Millinder’s guitar player.

CREED:   What do you know?

TP:   Oh, I forgot about the Randy Weston record you did.

CREED:   Right, that was with Freddie.

TP:   Did you keep playing trumpet all the way through?

CREED:   No. After I got connected with Bethlehem, I kind of stopped that.

TP:   So were you getting into the scene as a striving trumpet player? Is that how you started making contacts amongst musicians?

CREED:   Not quite. I got into the thing, and realized just how precocious or presumptuous I was. Thinking I could play with these guys? My God. By then I had a totally different maturity, let’s say. I told you when I jumped on the Elliott Lawrence bus… Nothing would stop me.

TP:   You sound like someone who when you’re determined to do something, you’re not shy.

CREED:   Oh, no.

TP:   The guy at Bethlehem was named Gus Wildi, and there was a  guy named Red Clyde. Was that the guy whose stripper girlfriend was hustling…

CREED:   No, he was the West Coast guy. I barely knew him. He came in as I was on my way out to ABC.

TP:   So you were there first.

CREED:   Yes. The guy I told you about who got Gus Wildi to come in and put up the money to start the record company was… He came out of Duke, too. He was a drummer. He was a very sad drummer.

TP:   But a good hustler.

CREED:   A good hustler. But the hustler only went so far, and then that’s how I came into the picture.

TP:   But Gus Wildi stayed with the label until the early ‘60s.

CREED:   I guess he did. I lost touch with Gus. I think he sold it in the early ‘60s.

TP:   You also wrote that “the dynamics of marketing thoughts might have begun with the perception that black audiences like one thing and white audiences like another, and keep the genre clear and easy to find.”

CREED:   Yes. I was just kind of free associating. I never thought about… The CTI-Kudi labels were coexisting. I don’t know if you know about the Kudi side.

TP:   Explain it a bit.

CREED:   In the first place, for Kudu I had black colors, orange, black and… The same colors as the Jamaican flag. So that was deliberate. And the kudu, as you probably know, is an African antelope. There are whole varieties of kudus. So anyway, I thought it would be appropriate to call it Kudu, because it had a nice ring to it and it was African. Anyway, that music was geared to R&B crossover… The R&B stations at that time, by midnight they’d turn to jazz. Fundamentally. So any of the strong-signal R&B stations did have their jazz slot, and the jazz slot kind of went into the… Actually, I thought that the Louis Jordan Tympany Five thing was… Even though he didn’t have extended solos, it was jazz. It was real swinging R&B stuff.

TP:   Then it was certainly jazz? Because what was jazz then? Jazz was swing music. It was dance music.

CREED:   That’s true. And Earl Bostic, certainly… I loved that stuff.

TP:   Earl Bostic was a huge influence on so many musicians. Even a guy like Greg Osby would cite Earl Bostic as an influence.

CREED:   Really.

TP:   His technique. His chops. His ability to play the horn.

CREED:   I never thought about that. I know I walked up the hill and went to the black venue and heard these great guys.

TP:   So Kudu and CTI in the ‘70s… You were talking about keeping the genres clear and easy to find, and you wrote down the names. “East Coast Jazz.” Impulse…

CREED:   At the time, the cool jazz out of California was popular. That was the Chet Baker era, and the Mulligan-Baker Quartet, and the Lighthouse… Anyway, I thought here we are in New York and we’re recording all this stuff; why don’t we start a series and put them in the category of East Coast Jazz? That was just a marketing thing.

TP:   We talked a little about this, but I’m interested in what you think of the music scene today. Is there stuff out there that you like?

CREED:   Sure. I like Bill Charlap. I knew his father. I think his nickname was Moose. He wrote a lot of Broadway musicals. A real nice guy. Kind of a joker. Not as conservative, I think, as a son.

TP:   Why Charlap? What about him do you like?

CREED:   I like the songs he picks. I like the way he plays piano. I just think he’s such a sincere… Great taste. Who else do I like? I don’t know… Name a few people.

TP:   Jason Moran.

CREED:   I like him. I’m not ecstatic.

TP:   Is he someone you could record?

CREED:   Sure.

TP:   Could you record Charlap?

CREED:   Oh, easily.

TP:   John Scofield.

CREED:   I recorded Scofield a couple of times. Actually, he’s on that thing called RhythmStick with Dizzy, but that hardly gave him room to be John Scofield. I don’t like the Ray Charles record he did. I don’t think he needs to go that way. Why warm up Ray Charles, when he is Ray Charles… I just don’t see trying to do something that Ray Charles would have done sort of the same way. It doesn’t ring true to me.

TP:   He’s trying to exploit the movie.

CREED:   Sure. I can’t fault him for that, but I don’t think he did it well.

TP:   How about Greg Osby?

CREED:   I think he’s great.

TP:   Could you work with him?

CREED:   Yeah… I’m hesitating because I’m trying to think of some of the people I don’t like so much. Pharaoh Sanders. I did not like him. Can’t put my finger on why.

TP:   Then or now?

CREED:   I don’t know what he’s playing like now?

TP:   A lot of ballads.

CREED:   He’s mellowed.

TP:   His stuff is very mellow. He would have been great on a CTI record, the way he plays now. He plays a lot of the Coltrane ballad book. All melody and tone and groove.

I suppose what interests me here is that your aesthetic seems to have been very consistent from the time you entered the business, and yet it produced very different-sounding records, according to the times they were done in. You’re still active, and I’m interested in how you see the scene. If you can tell me what sorts of things interest you without giving up anything proprietary, it would be of interest.

CREED: My brain doesn’t start turning until I get into a project. I go, “This drummer would be good with that bass player,” or, “What about the whole rhythm section with this horn player?” Unless I’m focused on some kind of purposeful project, it’s hard for me to generalize on it.

TP:   It seems you were out three-four nights a week, and really in the scene. Someone told Ashley that you always seemed to be out.

CREED:   That was Fran Scott, the designer.

TP:   But I’m assuming you were doing that in the ‘60s and ‘70s as well.

CREED:    I constantly listened, and there were a lot of things to listen to on the radio, for that matter. Unlike today. This age we’re living in is so formatted. I listen to WKCR. Sometimes it’s great.

TP:   But would not being on the scene as much make it more difficult for you to produce records? It seems you’re matching what Joe Lovano calls tonal personalities?

CREED:   That’s a great phrase. If you had a choice between a Stan Getz or Stanley Turrentine and a Mike Brecker or a Joe Lovano, or now you tell me about Pharaoh Sanders… I don’t know. I know if Steve Gadd would leave wherever he’s living now, and come down and record, I would probably build something from there up.

TP:   Steve Gadd is your man.

CREED:   Yes. He’s the greatest. All you have to do is listen to “Candy” on the She Was Too Good To Me album by Chet Baker. Anything in that album that Steve Gadd is playing on is just amazing. But if I had a Kudu project, my first choice would be Idris to this day. I know there must be other drummers out there. But I haven’t listened in an active way about who I would corral to do… What kind of a record? Is there a song to base the whole theme of the CD on? What?

TP:   The criteria have changed somewhat, haven’t they, in the last 25 years.

CREED:   Absolutely.

TP:   Would you have to have your imprint on a record today as much as before? Would you have to exercise the same level of control?

CREED:   That’s a very relative value. The same amount of control in what situation?

TP:   In packaging. CTI is your name, your design, the grooves are set up, there’s an aura that you’re looking to project. I’d say the same thing is true on the A&M records and maybe some of the Verve things. Blue Note wasn’t “Alfred Lion presents.” Blue Note was Blue Note. You were Creed Taylor Inc. I wonder if you still would want that level of control over the entire product today.

CREED:   It really would depend on the project, or proposed project. I couldn’t answer that. I think that I have a great degree of flexibility within a framework. But do I need that framework to work in? Probably.

TP:  Was there anyone you learned from among the other producers of the ‘50s and ‘60s?

CREED:   No.

TP:   Was there anyone you admired?

CREED:   I guess the discretion of ECM. Manfred Eicher. He certainly knew what to leave out and what not to push. Everything I’ve ever heard that he put out has a great deal of integrity to it. That doesn’t mean I liked it necessarily. But as a producer, I thought he was, and I guess he continues to be the real thing—if you like that genre of music.  Quincy.

TP:   Quincy.

CREED:   Certainly Quincy. Although I can appreciate why… I won’t call it going off the deep end, and why should I with Michael Jackson still around with us… Quincy always knew the right thing to do. Whether I was producing him or he  was producing another record… I think I produced better records than he did, but I admired him as a producer.

TP:   Why do you think your records were better?
CREED:   Because I think that he… Well, don’t quote me on this, because Quincy is my friend. But being in the midst of this stuff… We see music from a different angle. He looks at it from the inside and outside, but I think I’m in a position to look at it from the outside.

TP:   Do you think you have a more objective take on what you’re putting out? Is that what that is?

CREED:   I think so.

TP:   Without putting words in your mouth. I can say that?

CREED:   I guess. But don’t compare.

TP:   I won’t say you make better records. Is that okay?

CREED:   That’s okay.

TP:   What did you think of Alfred Lion as a producer? You did record a number of the same people. Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine…

CREED:   Well, look at our backgrounds. Rudy used to tell me… I never met Alfred Lion. He was always in there when I wasn’t, and vice versa, with Rudy. Rudy said Alfred would come out of the control booth and into the studio with no hesitation and say, “It ain’t swingin’,” without any specifics. Obviously, he was a jazz fan from the beginning of his life, and he knew what was good and what was not, what was swinging and what was not swinging. But beyond that, he didn’t look into conceptual kinds of album production. Either the band had it, or he would have a soloist with the band and let them as extended as they wanted to me. If it’s 16 minutes, that’s fine; if it’s 5 minutes, that’s fine, too.

TP:   In the ‘60s, he did some things that were not unlike what you did at CTI, with Duke Pearson as the arranger.

CREED:   Duke Pearson was participating not only as an arranger but as a producer.

TP:   I think what you’re saying is that your training as a musician enabled you to give specific inputs into the music that would leave no doubt as to what you wanted and what the sound was supposed to be. Whereas with Alfred Lion, he wasn’t coming at it from quite as informed a perspective.

CREED:   Well, that, and also he didn’t bring in what would have been for him foreign elements, like the concert-master for the New York Philharmonic, who became my key guy with Don Sebesky and Claus Ogermann, for that matter. With the strings, it’s not just the arrangement. It’s who was the A-row of the violins, who was in the B-row, and who you don’t hire because in between takes he plays cards or he reads the paper or he doesn’t pay much attention, and also, his intonation is not that hot, and the only reason he’s sitting there is because he gets a lot of jingle dates and he hires his friends, and dah-da-dah. I had a talk with the concert-master, and he said, “No problem, I know what you’re talking about.” So we had a pure…the cream-of-the-crop string guys, the violins, violas or celli, performing at their zenith.

Did you ever go to a session that involved a lot of orchestral people? If you put elements together that are disparate, like string sections or even woodwinds or whatever, the personality of the players and their interest…even if not as a jazz soloist, their interest in jazz brings to the recording an entirely different kind of approach. All you need is one guy who is not very attentive, whether a string player or wind player, and it’s… It’s like the Yankees. If they’ve got one guy who’s not performing, the whole thing goes to hell.

TP:   Do you feel that this kind of production is one way to get great jazz, or are there many ways to get a great jazz  record?

CREED:   Oh, sure. There are many ways. Absolutely.

TP:   Your way being one of many. Do you think your way was the best?

CREED:   Well, don’t we all? Sometimes I wish I’d done it another way, and I sure won’t make that mistake again.

TP:   What are some things you wish you’d done another way, if I may ask?

CREED:   I think they’re long gone into my deep subconscious.

I just got one of those records I talked about. I’ll take a look at it. Def Jazz with Roy Hargrove.

TP:   Sounds like a remix.

CREED:   Well, a remix or it started out that way. Anyway, the first cut is Roy Hargrove. He sounds good. He sounds like Hargrove. The rest of it sounds not unlike that Verve Remix #3. But this is a better record.

TP:   For instance, M’Shell Ndegeocello has a new record with a bunch of venturesome jazz soloists, and she put down all these grooves. Works really well.

CREED:   I know. I’ve heard it, and I love it. The singer that I like is Luciana Souza. She plays with Romero Lubambo, who’s one of my favorite guitar players. I recorded him… He went down to Salvador to do that thing with the Salvadorian percussionist, and Donald Harrison…

TP:    You worked with Donald, too.

CREED:   Yes. Donald’s such a pleasant fellow. He’ll do anything, within reason.
I’d like to plug my family. Plug it in however…

TP:    All three of your sons are graphic artists?

CREED:   Yes. They used to draw all the time together, and it rubbed off, I think.

TP:   Did they grow up in the Village?

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   Did they go to P.S. 41?

CREED:   No, they went to City and Country. Blake went to St. Ann’s, John went to Brooklyn Friends, and Creed went to Elizabeth Irwin. Blake was the art director of Fortune magazine. John was art director of This Old House.

TP:   Did you have anything to do with Cecil’s three tunes on Into the Hot?

CREED:   Gil Evans was always a very slow writer. About that time I was getting ready to go to Verve, and he owed Impulse! an album, and he wanted to go to Verve. The only way he could get out of his contract was by giving them another album. So we decided to get Cecil Taylor in on it.

[—30—]

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Filed under Article, Creed Taylor, DownBeat, Interview

For Keith Jarrett’s 69th Birthday, Full Interviews From 2000, 2001, and 2008, plus an 2008 Interview with Manfred Eicher

For Keith Jarrett’s 69th birthday, I’m posting a series of interviews I’ve conducted with him for various articles over the last 14 years. The 2000 interview was for a bn.com interview (it seems to be no longer on the Internet) on the occasion of the release of the trio release, Whisper Not. I coalesced this and a fall 2001 interview for a DownBeat piece generated by Jarrett’s earning “Best Acoustic Pianist” Award for 2001. The 2008 interview was generated by Jarrett’s election to the DownBeat Hall of Fame. I also previously interviewed Mr. Jarrett in 2002 for a long DB piece about the late Paul Motian (you can find it at the very bottom of that post). By the way, you’ll notice that the links to the DownBeat articles are contained with a DownBeat “micro-site” that contains DB’s Jarrett archive, beginning with a 1974 interview with the late Bob Palmer, and concluding with a 2013 interview with Ethan Iverson, whose 2009 interview with Jarrett  can be found here. Happy hunting.

* * *

Keith Jarrett (10-10-00):

TP:    The first thing that occurs to me in looking at this CD in relation to the other “standards” CDs is the preponderance of tunes associated with Bebop and the vocabulary of Bebop.  It’s an incredible selection of material.  Can you talk about why you were focusing on this particular repertoire at this particular time when the record was done?

JARRETT:  Well, it’s kind of a long story.  I don’t know how long a story you want.

TP:    I did read a clip on the Internet from an interview you gave an English paper in which you said that this was partly due to your illness, and you don’t have to exert as heavy a touch playing this music — it’s lighter, more dancing, a different quality of effort for you.

JARRETT:  Yeah.  The funny thing is, when I had that theory, I wasn’t prepared to run into the piano in Paris that is on this particular recording! [LAUGHS] It was the least… In general, German Steinways are bad for Bebop anyway, but this particular piano was like a Mack truck, very heavy and thick action.  So I had to throw all that out the window for this concert.  Luckily, it was the last of four concerts in Europe, and I just decided, “Well, I’ll just have to use whatever energy I’ve got, and if I make it through the concert, that’s good; if I don’t, at least it’s the last one.

TP:    Were you playing this repertoire throughout those four engagements?

JARRETT:  Yes.  Actually, you might know that the trio doesn’t normally rehearse.  I’ve said that many times.  The very first time we actually rehearsed was while I was still sick, trying to determine whether I could actually handle playing with them, maybe just the dynamics, you know.  I could play alone a little, but that’s not the same.  Since I had such a long space where I wasn’t playing, it just naturally occurred to me that… Actually, if you think about what we recorded in sequence just before this release, you’ll notice that it was starting to happen anyway.  I mean, we were starting to go in this direction a little more than we had before.

TP:    You played “John’s Abbey.”

JARRETT:  Yes, and even the way of playing.  We’re in time more, we’re not playing around the time as much.  So in one way it was natural, and in another way it had to do with getting back into concerts with a fresh outlook that also fit my energy level at the time.  But then, of course, meeting pianos that I had to work like amazingly hard to get anything out of, that made it beside the point.  Because I think that Bebop players that we’ve heard on record, or if we’re old enough in person… I think probably, without exception, the pianos those guys were playing had been pounded to death, and were probably all fairly light action and, if they were lucky, they were in tune.  But I would guess that the pianos the bebop players used, since they were all club date pianos, had their stuffing knocked out of them before Bebop came along, and those guys might not have been able to play that way at all if they weren’t playing on rather used instruments.

TP:    That’s fascinating.  I’ve never heard it stated like that before, but it certainly does make sense.

JARRETT:  I think it would have to follow also that the sound that we like in their playing has a lot to do with the pianos not being perfect.  If you listen to the way the horn players play in any jazz really, but in Bebop because we’re talking about it, their intonation is dependent on their phrasing.  A piano is a real structured thing, and it’s basically a percussion instrument, and when a piano is in perfect operating condition, let’s say ready for a Chopin recital, it doesn’t have much personality, because it’s so even.  In a funny way, I’m not sure how Jazz would have come about if everything had been perfect from the beginning.

TP:    So it’s a music whose strengths derive from imperfections or even mistakes.

JARRETT:  I would just say that there’s a character that comes about… Well, if you think of human beings and you look at somebody’s face, if they don’t have any lines on their face, you’ll say that their face is sort of characterless.  Well, those lines would be imperfections to a plastic surgeon.  But to you, you’re getting some information about them.  And I think Bebop, because of how fleet-footed it is, if a piano has a… Well, I released this “Deer Head Inn” recording you might be familiar with.

TP:    With Paul Motian on drums instead of Jack DeJohnette.

JARRETT:  Yes.  Well, that piano was absolutely… I shouldn’t say absolutely terrible, because that wouldn’t be fair.  I mean, it was a club piano.  And I couldn’t have played it louder if… Some people have reviewed it as though I was playing sort of not at the highest dynamic possible.  But I was.  So the problem you encounter with, like, the instruments that are not perfect kind of create a character that is contagious sometimes, and in improvising, an improvisor kind of works with that.

TP:    That said, is there a different aesthetic to performing jazz, to improvising within this vocabulary vis-a-vis dealing with the Classical vocabulary?

JARRETT:  Oh yeah.

TP:    How does the aesthetic diverge?  You’re saying that a lot of the character of jazz comes out of the peculiarities of the situation, whether it’s the particular way in which a particular piano has been pounded…

JARRETT:  Let me interrupt you for a minute.  You’ve probably heard a lot of jazz.  So if you think of some Wynton Kelly solos… If you were listening to them and you knew a lot about how pianos sound and what condition it might have been in, you’d probably realize that almost all the time, when things were really cooking, there was a particular quality of the piano that would never be able to be considered a good quality for anything but Jazz, I guess.  That’s what I was trying to get at.

TP:    How did that operate in these concert halls, then, when you have superb pianos articulating this music?

JARRETT:  Well, this is my special problem and this is my special expertise, I guess.  I’m coming from both places at the same time.  I’m coming from… Maybe if we play a ballad, I need the piano to do things that only an optimally adjusted piano can do.  But when we’re playing a bebop head, I wish the piano could change, like, radically.  And I am probably one of the few players that can move between those two places on the same instrument.  In other words, instead of one of those things not being effective, I’m finding a way more often than not to make the piano do what it actually doesn’t want to do, and sound appropriate for the situation.  It’s almost impossible to talk about it.  I wouldn’t even know how to talk about it to a pianist.

TP:    I actually think I do understand in pretty much of a layman’s way what you said.

JARRETT:  Let’s say you take a stiff thing, a fairly new, perfectly conditioned Steinway, the bushings are all new, therefore the keys are all evenly adjusted.   But when the bushings are new, the keys are tight.  That’s the way it’s supposed to be.  Except that isn’t really great when you want to play like a horn.

TP:    You can’t get that vocal inflection.

JARRETT:  That’s right.  And if you listen to the new CD, if you knew how hard that piano made it for me… Some of these things for me are personal triumphs for me [LAUGHS], just from what I already knew about the instrument.  I was forcing it to start to speak.  Every now and then, I just would be able to get it to speak.

TP:     I’d like to talk to you about the content.  Is this material that you learned and knew and internalized during your early years of playing, during your apprenticeship years?  Are these all tunes that are almost vernacular to you from your beginnings in music?

JARRETT:  No, actually not at all.  One of my sons is studying at NEC, and I think they are more vernacular to him.  For me, I just started to think about going to…for varying reasons, to eliminate the long introductions that I’ve often played before standards, and for the other reasons we spoke about… Moving towards a bebop thing was also good because I wasn’t all that… I hadn’t played these tunes very much at all.  So I knew the tunes from hearing them, but I hadn’t spent any time playing them.

TP:    Ah, so there goes my theory.

JARRETT:  Yes.

TP:    I was thinking that in your Boston days playing in the bar, you had done the various standards and bebop material.

JARRETT:  No.  Actually, I came along around the time when that wasn’t the thing to do any more.  I mean, I don’t know what we were playing.  I’m trying to remember.  Most of the jam sessions I was involved in in the beginning, they didn’t even have pianos, so I was playing marimba a lot. [LAUGHS] But I don’t think we played bebop tunes.

TP:    As a kid, did you listen to a lot of Bud Powell or George Shearing or Ahmad Jamal or Monk?  Was that part of your listening diet when you were first discovering jazz?  Because they were coming out at that time.

JARRETT:  Of those players… I once did a blindfold test in Paris for the Paris jazz magazine when I was with Charles Lloyd, in the ’60s.  And I wrote a list,, before I went in, of people that I was sure he was going to play for me, just to see if it was going to work out that way — just a little projection thing.  One of the names was Bud Powell, but I had never really heard Bud.  But I figured he was going to play them for me because, you know, it’s a legend.  And as soon as he played whatever he played, after the first couple of bars I knew it had to be Bud Powell because it was too good to be anybody else.  So I wasn’t steeped in these guys.  The only one of the people you mentioned, the white album of Ahmad Jamal, the “Portrait” album was something that accidentally came into my hands when I was fairly young, and that remains to me one of the milestones of trio recording — just what the trio can do.

TP:    Is that the one that has the famous version of “Poinciana” on it?

JARRETT:  Yes.  Well, maybe not.  Maybe that’s on a different release.  But it’s the same series.

TP:    So Ahmad Jamal was an inspiration for you as a younger player.

JARRETT:  Well, it wasn’t so much him as how he used the trio.  I think if there are trios that have created potentials for what that combination can do,, I would say it was his trio, at least in modern jazz, and Bill Evans.

TP:    Well, on “Poinciana,” Jack DeJohnette shows that he paid a lot of attention to Vernell Fournier when he was a young guy in Chicago.

JARRETT:  Well, Jack and Gary and I were together in a van going to a Berkeley, California concert.  This might have been ten years ago or something.  We had already been playing together quite a long time.  And we just were talking about everything, and the past and musicians, and we all ended up talking suddenly about Ahmad.  I mentioned the White album, and they both looked at me, stunned, because all three of us had had the same momentous experience when we heard that particular album.  I mean, we didn’t know each other until years and years later.  But that album meant the same thing to all three of us when we first heard it.

TP:    Well, it’s interesting, because you and Jack DeJohnette both had such significant experiences with Miles Davis, who was also inspired by Ahmad Jamal.

JARRETT:  Well, Miles would say the same thing.  I think Miles would say it was his use of space that he was influenced by, and I would have said more or less the same thing — that what they weren’t playing was very important, too.  The grooves they got with almost no ornamentation was pretty amazing.

TP:    So in dealing with tunes like “Hallucinations” or “Conception” or “Round Midnight” or “Groovin’ High” it’s a very fresh experience for you.

JARRETT:  Yes, that’s true.

TP:    One would assume that someone of your generation and period and what one might assume would be your orientation, would have the iconic versions of these tunes in your head.  But indeed, the tabula rasa approach can actually work for you with this repertoire.

JARRETT:  Yes, it can and it did.  And actually, we’re out of that phase now, and I’m glad we documented it when we did.  I mean, we do some of these things.  But at this moment in time, the summer of ’99, that was the first tour we did since I got ill, and this was the fourth concert.  So I wasn’t steeped in it at all.  I was fresh about it.

TP:    Can you talk a little generally about what the bebop period means to you, either musically or socially or aesthetically?

JARRETT:  Okay.  Well…let’s see…

TP:    Not to give you too specific a question there.

JARRETT:  Well, that makes it harder to answer.

TP:    Well, take any one of those that you care to.  I’m asking you the question because it seems pertinent to the content of this album.

JARRETT:  Well, here’s one thing that no one has mentioned yet in print that I’ve seen, about any of my playing.  Maybe they’re not going to mention it about this either.  But I am much more influenced by horn players than by pianists.  When I feel that I’ve been successful and with the trio in a jazz context, unless it’s maybe one of those long vamps where I am more like a string instrument, but a more primitive one… That happened occasionally on “Blue Note” or some of other releases.  When we’re playing tunes, it occurred to me (I think it was really around the tour this recording comes from, and then it’s continued through to this last summer, where we did another tour) that I was basically hearing Charlie Parker when I tried to play.  I mean it wasn’t like I was hearing what a piano would do.  I was hearing what a horn would do.  And the phrasing from that period has a character that I can’t quite figure out how to describe, but I would say that it’s both soft and hard.  In other words, it seems to have all the elements of jazz.  The Bebop era to me has the elements that all other periods of jazz have used, one way or another.  And it just focuses on the line.  I mean, if you listen to Ornette, there is… If you listen to anybody play jazz who is a good player, somewhere in there, Bebop has the qualities they’re using.  Whereas if you go back to the very earliest playing that we know on recordings, you know, they hadn’t flatted the fifth much yet… There are just these little differences.  But to me, Bebop is somehow center stage to what modern jazz has done even since then.  I don’t think you can really include Albert Ayler in that necessarily [LAUGHS] or a few other guys.  But you know, we’re using the same instruments, we’re using the same configurations.

TP:    I think it’s certainly the case with your quartet with Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden and Motian; your point is very operative with that whole body of work.

JARRETT:  Yes.

TP:    In forming your sensibility… I know you’ve been playing since you were unimaginably young.  But did listening to records, did listening to styles, to tonal personalities have a big influence on how your sensibility developed when you were younger, or did it come more from the functional imperatives of performance, applying your fundamentals to any given situation?

JARRETT:  I think you’re asking a bigger question than you intend to.  I was doing a tour once with J.F. Jenny-Clark [bassist] and Aldo Romano [drummer] in the ’60s, sometime like, say, ’67…I can’t really be sure.  Up to that time, I thought that what a jazz player is supposed to do is work on his voice and find out what he actually… Let’s see how to say this.   Up to that time, I was working on who I was musically.  If I’d played something that sounded like somebody else or something else, I think what I used to do would be to say, “No-no, that’s really not me.”  Then next time I’d hope that I could find where I was in that particular piece.  But one evening we were playing, and we took a break, and came back on stage, and when I came back on stage, I realized that what I thought was the last stage in a jazz player’s…what’s the word…in the things you work on… That to find your voice was probably way down the list.  Because once you find your voice, then the imperative is to play, and not think about that.  And so, I’m answering more than your question, but… Maybe I’m not even answering your question.

TP:    Tell me if this is an accurate paraphrase.  Are you saying that you decided to play, and whatever you played would be your voice?

JARRETT:  I think I determined by the time we finished the first set, and by the time I had played that much of my life (which wasn’t that much, but luckily, I started early, as I said), that it was possible to drop that other shit, and just say, “Well, I’m who I am when I’m playing.  I don’t have to be who I am and then make sure I am who I am by playing what I think I am.”  So that freed me to do really whatever I heard.  And it seems to me that if it’s… I don’t know whether it’s a forgotten thing, or whether it’s never been thought of. [LAUGHS] But I think it’s the way it works.  If a player doesn’t do that, if they get stuck in their own voice, then where do they go from there?

TP:    Is that a pitfall that you’ve observed?

JARRETT:  Sure.  You can, too, if you think about all the stylists we’ve had who started out being valuable contributors and then ended up being stylists.

TP:    Or prisoners of their own cliches.

JARRETT:  Yes.  Nature doesn’t follow that rule.  Nature doesn’t say, “I’ve got these materials; I’m only going to use them for one thing.  Make sure it’s me.”  Nature says, “I’m going to do as many things with this as I can, and let’s see how much there is.”

TP:    Let me ask you about this trio.  It’s one of the longest-standing entities in improvised music.  Obviously, each one is a master of their instrument and incredibly resourceful and imaginative.  But what is it about each of them, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, that makes them so suited to interact with you?

JARRETT:  I don’t know!  I guess if you interviewed each one of them, it would be interesting to get their take on this.  Not just mine.  You know the story about when we first recorded and…

TP:    Not really.  Would you care to tell it?

JARRETT:  Well, I guess I did a recording with Gary and Jack of Gary’s music, which was previous to the “Standards” thing.  Then I sort of forgot that happened somehow, and I was thinking I wanted to do… Probably Manfred and I were talking about “what about doing some kind of trio recording?”  He might have suggested Gary.  I don’t even remember who suggested who, or how it came about.  But once it came together… Now, I played with Jack since ’65.

TP:    I didn’t know it went back that far.

JARRETT:  Oh yes, with Charles Lloyd.  The first time I played with Charles Lloyd was in that band.  Jack heard me with Blakey before I met him, and Jack recommended me to Charles Lloyd when Steve…I don’t know, they needed a pianist for some reason.  I heard Gary play with Bill at the Jazz Workshop in Boston with Paul Motian.  I was impressed with Gary, not to mention also the recording “Trio ’64.”  And I don’t know, for some reason, I think we all… So you don’t know the dinner-before-the-first-recording story.

TP:    No, I don’t.  Would you prefer I look it up and not have to retell it?

JARRETT:  Oh, no.  I asked them to have dinner before we started recording, because I wanted to explain to them… You have to remember this was ’83, and it was not hip to play standard tunes in ’83.  It was not at all the thing to do.  Gary had been through the avant-garde quite soundly, and involved in a lot of different music.  Jack was with Sun Ra, and had done a lot of other crazy things.  And I had done a lot of things also.  We were sitting at dinner, and I said, “Okay, this is what it’s about.  We’ve all been bandleaders and we’ve all played our own music, and we’ve all played the music of the other bandleaders we work with.  But when I say you know how freeing it is to be just playing, you guys know what I mean.”  And of course, they knew what I meant.  In other words, not to rehearse your own material, not to say “use brushes here, we’ll go into time here,” the whole kit and kaboodle of that stuff.  I said, “Well, that’s why what I want to do is play standards.”

I think up until that moment Gary thought I was insane, and he couldn’t figure out why I’d want to do that.  I was a young pianist and I was a composer.  Why would I want to do that?  Then we did it, and I think it started to sink in that this was such a special situation that we could actually… Every time we play it’s like a reunion, instead of a program-producing, rehearsing mode thing.  And then I think over the years… There were times in the early years in the trio… First of all, I didn’t think we should play concerts at all.  I thought, “Okay, this is the recording, and that’s it.  Because I don’t want to go into big rooms; I don’t think the music will be happy there.”  So we did a club date at the Vanguard, then I think we noticed how great the music was again.  Then I decided we should do a tour of Japan because the halls in Japan are smaller and much better sounding than any other…well, certainly than our country! [LAUGHS] They are very similar to each other, and they are generally not bigger than about 1500 seats.  Then that worked, and I guess everybody was hooked on this working.  Every now and then, Gary or Jack would say, “You know, maybe we should play some new material.”  And then we’d try some new material, and they’d have the experience of knowing what I was talking about again, at that first dinner, like, “Yeah, here we are working on material.”  Well, playing jazz doesn’t depend on the material.  So what we’re doing, I think, is much more the core of what jazz is.  It’s not like we’re at a jam session, but we’re close.

TP:    Is it like the famous Miles Davis quote that he was… I think you may have expressed this.  That he was paying the people in the band to rehearse.

JARRETT:  You mean every time we played.

TP:    Yes.

JARRETT:  I’m not sure if I said that…

TP:    I don’t know if it was you or someone else who said it.  But I noticed the comment somewhere or another a day or two ago.  But it sounds very much like that same aesthetic or that same imperative.

JARRETT:  Well, I think Miles would have wanted it to be… Yeah, he never wanted to impress material on the band.  He wanted the band to find the material.  It’s only different in the sense that… My thought was, “What if we used material that was so impressed on us already, whether it’s in our head or in our fingers, that we don’t have to worry about it.”  Also, I knew that neither Jack nor Gary had played this stuff for a long time, and neither had I.  So I had the feeling this would be such a short-lived…a good idea but short-lived.  Well, it’s anything but short-lived.  And it got to be a better idea the more we played, and every time we play we find out more about it.

Now, what happened on the last tour is, I talked to Gary and Jack about maybe not playing material of any kind at some of these concerts, just as a theory for the future.  They said, “Yeah, right.”  And I didn’t know what I was talking about either.  We ended up in Montreux, Switzerland, in a hall that had funny sound; not that it was terrible, it was just kind of funny.  The tunes didn’t sound right.  No matter what we did, it just didn’t sound like the right thing for the room.  So I thought this is the time; just pull the carpet out from under ourselves completely.

TP:    That’s something you made a career out of doing as a solo pianist, but I guess not in a group setting.

JARRETT:  Well, in a group it’s a bitch, because I mean, the group has to be like wired together.  You know? [LAUGHS] There’s no format.  We have to be superconductors for each other or something.  And mistakes aren’t the same thing.  I mean, there are no mistakes.  Everything is etched there.  You have to use whatever you play.

TP:    It seems you did something like that on the “Bye Bye Blackbird” record, on that long piece called “For Miles.”

JARRETT:  Yeah, sort of.  But we stayed tonal, and we stayed within a sort of Miles vibe.  At least that’s what we were trying to do.

TP:    I haven’t heard this yet.  Of course, maybe that will be part of your next document.  But are you saying that you’re going back to the full range of all your experiences, that Gary can touch on the things he did with Albert Ayler and you can touch on your… Again, is it encompassing everything from very consonant melody to the most dissonant of timbre-making or something?

JARRETT:  Yeah.  It can be like chamber music for a minute, and then it can just find its way to some other zone, and it can be sounding like we’re playing the blues, but there’s no bar lines.  So yeah.  And that happened a couple of times.  Then in the best tradition of keeping things alive, we didn’t try to do it again.  If it happens again, it will happen again.

TP:    This makes what you’re doing with the songbook and jazz standard material sound as though it’s very consonant with everything you’ve stood for over the years in your approach to music.  It’s the sort of all-material-is-grist-for-the-mill type of principle, and you seem to embody it to the max.

JARRETT:  Well, plus change is the eternal thing.  I mean, the trio has a style in that we can’t play what we don’t hear, and we have limitations because we are human beings, and we only hear what we hear when we’re playing.  So Gary has things his fingers end up playing, and I have things my fingers end up playing, and Jack has ways of playing that are his.  But I think that’s where it ends.  And that’s where it’s supposed to end.  That was what the principle of the thing was.  So whether with material that we’re ultra-familiar with or with no material at all, I did have to say to them, like, “You remember this; you did this; don’t be worried about it. [LAUGHS] We all did this before.”  Because it was like a new thing all of a sudden.  And to me, that’s what’s consonant about it in terms of what I’ve done up to now.  It’s like a menu.  If somebody said, “how do you know you want to order steak?”…you don’t have an answer for that, but you do know.

I think in music, for players one great difficulty is that they get locked into their own food sources.  It’s like a biofeedback.  If you’re stuck in a tape loop, you’re stuck in a tape loop.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a small one or a big one.  It’s the fact of being stuck that makes what you do ineffectual to the listener.  Say somebody is a fan of somebody else.  Well, you can go only so far with that.  That fan can be stupid enough to accept the person they’re listening to doing the exact same thing the exact same way forever.  But what we’re talking about is the creative act, and when you’re trying to let that… The creative act continues to demand different things of you as a player.  It’s like the act asks you.  You don’t say, “I think it would be very creative of me to do this.” [LAUGHS] That’s not how it works.

To get back to the question you asked about why these guys, I think the reason is that it’s been working this long.  If you reverse how these questions are answered, it’s the future that proves the past.  We’re still doing things that knock us out together, and therefore we’re together!

TP:    Is practice and performance very different for you?

JARRETT:  Yeah, practice is… I don’t practice improvising.

TP:    You practice very specific tasks, as it were?

JARRETT:  No, actually I should change that.  I had to practice everything after I was sick.  But I can’t practice much, because it usually gets in the way of my performing.  It’s like it sets up patterns or my ears aren’t as open any more.  When I was a hundred percent fine, health-wise, I wouldn’t listen to piano music at all before solo concerts for months, including my own sometimes.  I would not have played the piano for months before playing Avery Fisher Hall or something.  And in the trio, it’s good to just not develop patterns.  I mean, the whole thing is to… I’ve often said the art of the improvisor is the art of forgetting.  Our brains can probably forget better than our fingers.

TP:    There are a lot of musicians, improvisors, who don’t listen back to their work.  That’s what they tell you anyway.

JARRETT:  Yes.  I am not one of those people.

TP:    You seem to listen voraciously to your output.

JARRETT:  Yes.  I listen more now than I did… When I got ill, I really had no choice but to listen to a lot of things I had done, because I wasn’t sure I’d ever do anything else again.  I was sort of leery of a lot of my choices musically and the ways that I had played.  So that’s another part of the answer to why we changed repertoire, to get out of the… It’s not just that we went to bebop.  It’s also that we went away from something else.  So I didn’t have the option of falling into things that I… I had enough time to erase those patterns, because I hadn’t played piano for a couple of years after I got sick.

TP:    That was ’96 to ’98?

JARRETT:  Yes.

TP:    So no piano for two years.

JARRETT:  That’s right.  I would say I touched the instrument.  Actually, “The Melody At Night With You” was done during those two years.  But I would never have been able to practice or anything like that.

[-30-]

* * *

Keith Jarrett (9-20-01):

TP:    When I spoke with you last year you spoke about moving into the area you’re addressing on Inside Out.  First of all, have your performances during the last 8-9 months basically been a mixture of the free playing and the standards playing, or has it been a mixture?  Is it dependent on the hall and the piano?  How does it play out in live performance which way you go?

JARRETT:  I hesitate to even guess the reasons sometimes, but it’s an improvisational call, just as everything else would be.  In London, when we did that recording… Usually, when we do a soundcheck, we try not to… I mean, we don’t want to play the concert for the soundcheck.  So we might choose some tune to just see how it feels, the way most people probably do soundchecks.  Nothing seemed to feel right.  There are some halls that, for whatever reason, whether they’re too dry or too lively or very… I wouldn’t be able to describe the reasons.  But we then might say to ourselves…I mean, I say to myself this may be one of those times when we can’t trust our usual choices.  That’s how it last began.  When did I speak to you?

TP:    On October 10th, to be precise.

JARRETT:  That was after this tour.

TP:    In this case, the article is going to be about you and the piano and what you’ve been doing in recent years.  Because you won the Readers Poll as Best Pianist, so the people voted for you, and we’re talking about recent activity.

JARRETT:  Well, for one thing, I’ve put all my marbles for the moment into the trio.  So my pianistic… I’m not spreading myself… Although I never was really spreading myself thin, because I’d turn off one thing when I did the other thing.  But I feel that there is much more possibility of focusing on what I do with the piano in this trio context. So that’s one of the things.

TP:    A possibility of focusing on what you do with the piano in the trio context.

JARRETT:  Right.  In other words, if a player decides what he’s doing is the whole… I mean, this is where he has to put his universe.  I’m doing more of that now than I was when I was doing many things within the year, like solo concerts or classical concerts, and then trio concerts too.  In other words, I guess I want to get out of this one context, and that has led to the trio starting… Well, when we went into the Bebop era, and we hadn’t done that.  I changed the way my left hand was behaving a lot of the time.

TP:    You changed the way it was behaving.

JARRETT:  Yes.  In order to feel more appropriate for the different material.

TP:    Did you make it more of a comping function and less of an orchestral function?

JARRETT:   I think I was using… I mean, it’s just a guess because I don’t listen to my old stuff that much.

TP:    Oh, you don’t.

JARRETT:  Not often.  It’s all old.

TP:    I asked you this before: “You seem to listen voraciously to your output,” and you said, “Yes, I listen more now than I did.”  When you got ill, you had  no choice but to listen to a lot of things you’d done because you weren’t sure you’d ever get to do it again.

JARRETT:  Yeah, that’s right.  But since we talked, I probably haven’t listened at all.  But when I started to try to play again with the trio, I think I must have told you that gave me an opportunity to rethink, for example, what my left hand’s function would be under certain circumstances.  So in a bebop situation, when I want to feel more of the era that the bop tune might have come from, there are various things that pianists might have been tending to do back in that time.  They might have been using more… Instead of Bill Evans impressionistic middle-of-the-keyboard sound in their left hand, they might have been down lower doing some 7ths or that kind of thing.  So when I would be practicing to try to remember how to play again, since I hadn’t played for so long, I could get rid of a lot of habit patterns, and that was one that I was happy to broaden.  I was broadening the palette of my left hand.  When you’re improvising, you often are only thinking of the line, and with a pianist that would be the right hand — most of the time.  I always thought like a horn player anyway, so I really don’t like thick textures in a rhythm section context.  I don’t like solos that… I mean, I’m not Brubeckian in that sense.  I don’t often feel that way when the trio is all playing together.  But there are other ways of getting a linear thing going without thickening the sauce.  I didn’t want to get in Gary’s way either, so I didn’t want to play obviously loud roots and things in my left hand.  That’s just one of the things that changed.

But then after we started to get into the bebop thing, which felt fresh to us because we hadn’t been thinking about that material for so long, it started to become… Every now and then, at a hall, there was that experience of “Oh shit, there’s nothing really that we can do with this.  I mean, we can give the audience the best we can do, but isn’t there something else we can try?”  I guess none of us had thought about it.  One day on an airplane I just said to Gary and Jack, “Sometime we might just scrap the material.”  That’s how it started.  It wasn’t quite successful the first time.  It was a very cautious thing.

It’s funny, because now when I listen to Inside Out it seems like a prelude to what we’re doing now.  It’s very weird.  I was asked to write an article for the New York Times about free improvisation, and I did, and I just kind of decided I’m temporarily not wanting them to run this.  I was writing it from the point of view of someone who already had gone much further than this recording!  So I was writing about what we were doing instead of what we had done a year ago.

TP:    Further in what sense?

JARRETT:  Further into the head space of free playing.  In other words, I would put it this way.  The uniqueness of Inside Out is that it seems like a suite of pieces.  But that leads to the feeling that there are structures, even though we didn’t have those structures ahead of time.

TP:    It certainly does feel structured.  It seems to me that it’s from the innate musicality of you all working together.  I think the term you used was “as superconductors” for each other.

JARRETT:  Yes, and because of how long we’ve worked together.  If someone were to say, “Why are you still playing with the same two guys?” I could point to this kind of thing and say, “How would anybody do this with people they didn’t trust?”  We’ve learned to trust each other in a very specific and 100% way.  The difference between what we’re doing now and what we have occasionally done since this recording… One of the concerts will be released next probably, the tapes from Tokyo, is that it’s become less and less like a suite and more like… If it’s a suite of anything, it’s a suite of impromptu less structured things.  So in a way it’s freer and in a way it’s not as easy to listen to.

TP:    It’s one long  piece, more or less?

JARRETT:  Often, yes.  Often that’s true.

TP:    When I think of people who are pioneers in playing free, one things of you, because you did this in the ’60s.  One thinks of Paul Bley, who was doing it — and Gary Peacock, for the matter.  One thinks of Cecil Taylor, although he’d say he’s proceeding off of composed structures and these are meta-compositions in a certain way.  One thinks of Sam Rivers, who did the tabula rasa concept with Dave Holland and others.  One difference is that, at least on this record, what you’re doing is quite lyric and consonant and not, for lack of a better word, as “Out” as the others, which gives a somewhat different impression, and is quite logical considering your absorption of a wide template of Western and non-Western musics.

JARRETT:  Yes.   I think it’s accessible also for that reason.  I think what’s interesting is that it will be a direct… It’s as though I’d written a two-volume saga so far, but the next volume isn’t released yet.  When Inside-Out comes out it will be the first volume of a two or three volume meditation on free music.

TP:    Do you see Whisper Not, the process of playing it, as free music, as the tabula rasa concept?  You said a year ago that that concept and aspiration of playing music was operative for that music?

JARRETT:  Maybe you can rephrase?

TP:    To my ears, Inside Out sounds very much like Part 2 of something you began in Whisper Not.  The approach the pieces sounds so unencumbered by anything but pure listening and finding the material in the moment.

JARRETT:  Oh, certainly.  It’s only in the abstract region of analysis that these things are not related.  That’s what’s so funny about the nouveau conservative alienation of free playing from their whole vocabulary.  It’s possible to look at it that way, but it’s also possible to look at it as, you know, just another step.  Or not even that.  The same thing, but without an object.  Long ago I read a book called Consciousness Without An Object.  Just the title describes what free playing can be.  But on Inside Out, as I said in the liner notes, the objects sort of appear before our eyes, and it’s mostly the piano that invokes them.  So I sort of invoke something, in the way I might invoke it in a solo concert.  And they see right away what I am hearing, or very shortly thereafter they see what they are hearing, and we all find the center of that thing.  Whereas in Tokyo and in the recent things, we just go into the ozone immediately.

TP:    May I step back with you for a second?  Can you tell me the circumstances under which free playing became appealing to you in your own development and your own career?

JARRETT:  I think it was when my youngest brother, Christopher, used to play the piano.  I was a middle teenager.  he knew nothing about the instrument.  He was probably 7 or something.  He didn’t know anything about the piano, but I had been playing for…well, quite a long time.  And what he did on it, knowing nothing, was, to me, something that someone who knew a lot about it might not be able to do.  He would just throw his body into it, and something would happen.  It wasn’t all good, but there was stuff there that no one I knew could have had access to if they already knew the piano.  So I guess that was my first experience.

TP:    When did you start incorporating that way of thinking into your approach to the piano?

JARRETT:  Oh, it took a long time.  I had a bass player who asked me once, “do you really want to play that clean all the time?”  I said, “That’s a very good question.  And no, I don’t.”  I was at Berklee, I guess or I had just left Berklee, and I had to work for a long time to get some…I wouldn’t call it dirt, but some imperfections in the technique.  Because that’s where the soul lay, actually.  Now, if you asked a wonderful classical guitarist to transcribe a B.B. King solo and play it, it wouldn’t be convincing, and it wouldn’t be convincing because there would be one thing he’d be doing too correctly.

TP:    So for you there’s been a lot of fighting against technique over time.

JARRETT:  Yeah, that’s right.

TP:    It’s as though the technique sometimes is a burden for you.

JARRETT:  That’s true.  It is a burden.  It wouldn’t just be for me.  It would be for anyone who had been trained to be a virtuoso.

TP:    But putting that into your career, trace for me how that became part of the sequence of documents that becomes the oeuvre of Keith Jarrett.

JARRETT:  Ives made a big impression on me.  I heard him supposedly playing studies for some of his pieces, and I knew the pieces on the page… I had studied classically, so I had looked at this music and I knew it pretty well.  And his supposed studies for these written pieces didn’t seem at all even related to the pieces that he wrote!  I just loved the fact that he could disregard entirely what he thought he was trying to do, and there was so much grittiness and passion in it… I think it’s the passion part that you lose if you perfect something.  If there’s too much control, you’re going to lose something.  I mean, that was the great contribution of the ’60s…even those players who couldn’t play anything.  The contribution was that this could actually happen, that drummers could drown out bass players and that bass players didn’t necessarily mid, that there wasn’t a tuxedoed Modern Jazz Quartet mentality of what the possibilities of the music are.  I mean, I love the MJQ; it’s not that (?).

TP:    But was there any mentor figure or leader figure who gave you license to do that?  Was it Charles Lloyd maybe, or did Art Blakey have anything to say about that, or other people who aren’t prominent in your discography?

JARRETT:  Well, before I met Charles and before I was even with Blakey, I remember playing with a vocalist in Boston (I used to like to accompany vocalists; it’s another art, actually), and I was playing on the strings, and I guess Henry Cowell and Ives, and seeing Paul Bley with Jimmy Giuffre….those were important things.

TP:    Those showed you ways to elicit the qualities that you were seeking to elicit.

JARRETT:  Yes, I heard something.  Put it this way.  I heard a lack of something.  That bass player’s question to me started those balls rolling to try to find out what that lack, at least in my case, might be.  What did I really hear?

TP:    I’d like to take you back in another sense, and talking about stylistic influences within jazz.  You’re so much written about, and I know this information is out there.  But in this piece, in the context of Whisper Not, which the readers would have paid attention to in their voting… I asked you this last year, and you said that between Bud Powell, George Shearing, Monk, Ellington and Ahmad Jamal, all of whose music you’re performing, Jamal had a particularly visceral impact with the record that had “Poinciana.”  But were you paying attention to these people in terms of trying to assimilate vocabulary?

JARRETT:  No.  That wasn’t what I was doing, I would think.  Each story was different.  But with Ahmad, for example, it was what the trio wasn’t doing that was important to me.  Up to that point, I probably had heard Oscar Peterson and some Andre Previn with Red Mitchell and Shelley Manne, and Brubeck.  Then I heard Ahmad’s White Album, and I thought: “This is swinging more than any of the things I’ve been listening to, but they’re doing less.  So what’s the secret here?”  I used to practice drums to that album all the time, because there was so much space in it..

TP:    So you and Jack are both influenced by Vernell Fournier.

JARRETT:  All three of us.  In a van going to a Berkeley, California, concert… I might have told you this.

TP:    You did tell me, and Gary Peacock reaffirmed Ahmad Jamal’s impact.  You seem in several records to be delving into the compositions of Bud Powell.  Can you address his impact on you?

JARRETT:  Well, Bud is the passion master.  That’s a terrible word.  I’ve never heard of that word before, so I wish I could think of something better.  I probably told you this, too that I did a blindfold test once…

TP:    I’m going to patch some of those things in.

JARRETT:  Yes.  Probably when it came down to it, if I heard an intensity in the playing, if you think of Ives… With Ahmad, the intensity was in the spaces actually.  It was the way they played simply that made the swing work the way it did.  There are times when this trio with Gary and Jack gets into a place where we’re swinging, and we know that you can’t get there by willing yourself and deciding you’re going to do it.  We all have to just be familiar with what it feels like when it was going on.  But in general, there was a thing that I got from passion and then there was a thing that I got from intelligence.  So I could say that to me Paul Bley was giving me a message that you could use intelligence in a certain way, back when I heard him with Jimmy Giuffre, and that it didn’t HAVE to swing — because that band did not really swing much! [LAUGHS]

TP:    It was pretty rubato.

JARRETT:  Yes.  But still, if you put all these things together, it does come up with something.  When I listen to Bud, what I hear is this commitment in his playing that is not just fingers coming down on the keys.  It’s coming from more of his body.  So that’s one I got from Bud.

TP:    You did title one of these pieces, after the fact, “From the Body.”

JARRETT:  Oh, I wasn’t thinking of that at all.  I was thinking of the fact that we have to bring this from the body, and not just from our head.

TP:    For you, as a classically trained musician, what was the biggest adjustment you had to make mentally in playing jazz?

JARRETT:  The technique.

TP:    Talk about how the technique is different.

JARRETT:  It’s almost… Mmm. [LAUGHS] Okay, there is a technique to playing Classical music.  The way they differ is that there is no technique that is THE thing to do in jazz.  It is a personal quest to find that.  They are so opposite in that respect that you can’t even compare it.  You can’t compare the techniques.  One is a technique; one isn’t a technique.  So when you’re looking for yourself, which is what the jazz audience would hope you’re doing (I hope they would hope that), you’ve got to throw away all the other rules.  That’s what was really a bitch, because I had already been given all these rules.

TP:    Right.  At the most formative period of your life.

JARRETT:  Yes.  And I was pretty fast… I picked these things up fast, so I went inside and I digested them fast, so I had to regurgitate them over a period of time!

There’s a body language in jazz that you would be avoiding at all costs in classical playing.  And I’m surely not the best representative of that on piano at the moment.

TP:    Of body language?  It’s part of your reputation, I must say.

JARRETT:  I mean, it’s correct that I move like that.  It’s just not correct that it’s a show.  It’s the last thing I’d want to move like; you know, if I was going to decide how to move.  But because you’re dredging stuff up from nowhere most of the time, or seemingly nowhere, you don’t have any chance to be poised and have a good etiquette at the keyboard.  So the technique of getting it out as a pianist in jazz is basically… First of all, you have to not care at all about your own health.  You have to not care about anything but getting out what you hear.  If techniques can differ more than that, I can’t imagine.  In Classical, when you’re rehearsing with an orchestra, you’re not even supposed to listen to the music.

TP:    Say that again.

JARRETT:  I have often been told, “You’re listening too much.”

TP:    When you play Classical music?

JARRETT:  Yes.  And I know what they mean.  I know what the conductor has meant at times.  It’s a bad thing to do, because you get engrossed in the entire affair.

TP:    Then you want to improvise.

JARRETT:  No.  No, but you might not come in on time.  Or you might just be off somewhere in the music.

TP:    Do you practice jazz?

JARRETT:  Well, since I was sick, yes; but before that, no.

TP:    But you practiced Classical music.

JARRETT:  Yes.

TP:    How is practicing jazz different than practicing classical music?

JARRETT:  It feels kind of stupid to practice jazz.

TP:    Is practicing jazz the same as playing?  Barry Harris said that Monk said that.  He said that once he and Monk played “My Ideal” for six or seven hours,  hundreds of variations on it, and that it was the same as playing.  And I’ve heard a similar story from maybe Walter Davis, Jr. on Bud Powell.  They went to his house, Bud was playing something, then they returned much later and Bud was still playing the same thing.

JARRETT:  It is the same, in a way.  I’ve never thought about it at all, but now that you’re telling me this… The thing that makes it the same is that you have to go to the same place to get it happening.  But with Classical, you don’t have to put everything together for sure until you’re performing.  So it is the same thing.  So now, when I go to the studio, I just make sure that I have the strength to do what I might have coming up… If I start playing tunes, if I don’t like what I’m playing, I’m either going to stop or I’m going to make it better.  And then it becomes a performance — for myself.

TP:    Why is jazz for you a trio endeavor vis-a-vis… Well, I guess that’s true on Melody… Let’s erase that question.

JARRETT:  [LAUGHS] Okay.

TP:    I guess you know where I was going on that one.

JARRETT:  I don’t really know where you were going.

TP:    Where I was going was that jazz to you seems to be a collective endeavor, specifically with this trio, whereas as a soloist it seems peripheral to the totality of your knowledge that’s coming out or that you’re accessing or drawing upon at any given time.  I mean, you hadn’t done standards as a solo pianist until The Melody…

JARRETT:  No, I actually I did a Japanese video that’s released, and I’ve also done it in performance.

TP:    So please allow me to erase that question.  I asked Gary Peacock if he noticed in you or felt any change in your sound in the aftermath of your illness.

JARRETT:  I’m sure he said yes.

TP:    He did.  He said a couple of things.

JARRETT:  He probably said, “Yes, and then it changed again.”

TP:    I’ll tell you what he said.  First he said that on the trio’s first outing after you resumed playing “we consciously tried to tone down the whole volume level of all of us.  His playing was lighter.  He was paying attention to not exerting himself so much physically.  And by quieting it down and getting softer, basically, instead of playing loud or having the volume levels high, what it did was allow his fingers to move in more of a horn-like fashion,” and that your playing sounded like a horn, which is possible to a certain extent when the volume level comes down.  He said that was something which the hall in San Francisco demanded.  Then I asked, “Stylistically is his playing  more compressed or more spare in any ways?” and he said, “No, I think it’s freer.  Less self.  More just the music.”  Do you have any speculations on this, vis-a-vis the tonal personality of Keith Jarrett?

JARRETT:  Well, I probably have speculations.  But  I remember on this last tour, which was in Europe only a couple of months ago: After the first or second concert, Gary said to me, “Your playing….I don’t know what to say about this, but it sparkles in a way that I don’t remember.”  Then later he said, “That wasn’t the right word,” and I can’t remember what he said the better word was.  But I knew what he meant.  There was a kind of… Wow, I wish I could think of adjectives.

TP:    Could it be something to do with cherishing every note?

JARRETT:  Well, it could be.  But I think it’s more of the joy of playing and  not knowing how long that joy will last.  And we all know that, but we don’t know it very well.  But after my illness, I knew it really-really-really well, that it’s always a privilege to be able to play at all.

TP:    And you might have taken it for granted before.

JARRETT:  Well, we all do.  Especially if you’ve played for 50 years!  53 out of 56.  I would say — although this isn’t really on anything that’s out there yet — that my playing has changed even since the time we did Inside Out.

TP:    From my perspective in listening to Whisper Not, it sounded very idiomatic and free as idiomatic music.  The way you put it a year ago was that you were playing more on the time.  I have an affinity for bebop, and it impressed me tremendously, as much as anything I’ve heard from you.  I feel similarly about Inside Out.  I’ve been personally moved by both records.  The words that occurred to me were “compressed,” “honed-in,” or… Well, I don’t know what the words are either.

JARRETT:  There’s a quality that I would call letting-go involved here, too.  When you play a phrase, you might want to… If I studied my own physical moves on a keyboard, I’d probably be making much different ones now if I were to compare them to before I got sick.  Then after I got more well, which still was happening even… This last tour was the first regular-sized tour I think we’ve done, meaning like eight concerts instead of five or three.  I would guess  that I am doing a lot of things differently that I don’t know I’m doing, and the result is that there’s a flow and a… I’m not trying so hard to… Yeah, there’s something about trying in here, too, and I don’t know what it is.

If I see a tennis player or a baseball player and see the way swing… You  know how some of the guys who can’t hit very far look like they’re putting immense energy into their swing, and some guys who do hit well look like they’re not doing that much.  I am still jumping around much more than my doctors would ever recommend.  In fact, probably more.  But where the energy goes is different than before.  So that’s one answer.  I just don’t know how to describe it.

TP:    Do you feel more connected to the tradition and lineage of jazz than you used to?  Or was there a hiatus when you put it aside and maybe came back to it more in dealing with bebop?

JARRETT:  I think a hiatus maybe, yeah.  When I was forced to try to reestablish my playing at home, I was then forced to practice playing tunes, and I never was doing that before.  Since I was alone, I had to make it sound right to myself.  So some of the things I changed because of that.  In other words, the trio wasn’t here every day, so I still had to feel good about what I was doing.  That allowed me to get more connected again to the history of the music and the performance practices of the past that I had already been playing long ago, like stride or… Well, I can’t really do that because my hands are too small, but I do something similar.

TP:    You did it just fine on “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams.”

JARRETT:  That’s why that tune was done that way, because I had actually been practicing at home, and when I practiced that at home, that’s how I felt it should sound — the way it starts.  Then we go into a more modern way of playing it.  But at Montreux on this last tour… You asked me before what do we do in concert now; do we do it free or is it a mixture?  I can just give you this example.  Because we never know what it’s going to be.  Most of this tour was almost all tunes, and there was not that much so-called free stuff.  Then there was Montreux, when we started playing tunes, noticed that the sound and the piano was a certain way, and it was okay, but then I thought “I’m going to something else,” and we started to play “Ain’t Misbehaving” or something like that in that same stride manner, and then we played three tunes in a row in that style.  Now, this wasn’t the usual fooling around at the soundcheck thing where we often just kid around with that, but it got serious, and we were really playing that way.  After that, we played “Straight No Chaser” and took that  out and we were playing very free off the blues completely.  Then we played more ballads and tunes.  So it was like everything! [LAUGHS]

TP:    So it’s almost as though you’re accessing the full jazz tradition in an idiomatic way as you used to do with classical music.

JARRETT:  Possibly.  I know what you mean.

TP:    A broader question.  Has the experience of the last couple of years, of practicing and relearning, given you a different appreciation as a form unto itself?

JARRETT:  No, I don’t think so.

TP:    Can you address your feeling of what jazz is as a cultural inheritance for us, as a people?

JARRETT:  My writer’s self comes up when you ask me a question like that.  The writer is saying, “Now, you don’t dare answer this with a casual answer.”

TP:    It doesn’t sound to me like you answer anything that casually.

JARRETT:  But when I write I get even worse.  But I don’t know.  All I know is we need it.

TP:    Why do we need it?

JARRETT:  Because I think it may be the only art form at this point in time that asks the player…not the conductor, not any detached entities from the actual playing…that asks the player to find  out who he is and then decide if it’s good enough to speak from that self, and then that player has to live with who he said he was until the next time he plays.  It’s an incredibly rigorous and merciless thing, unless you’re doused with some drugs or something.  And strangely enough, that rigorous thing is the representation in musical form of freedom.  So it is a metaphor for important things.

In life, if you think you’re in control, you usually aren’t.  You’re usually just thinking you are.  If you think you don’t have any control, you usually relinquish all control and let everything happen and therefore have no effect.  To play jazz and make something valuable out of it, takes such a perfect balance of those two things — mastery and the relinquishing of control.

TP:    Many of your generation, yourself included, served consequential apprenticeships with masters.  The oral tradition held.  For you, perhaps that was operative in your brief time with Art Blakey, or maybe not.  You could tell me if it was that way for you with Charles Lloyd.  Were there any other figures like that for you?

JARRETT:  Paul was like younger than I was!

TP:    Well, how about Art Blakey.  A lot of people who passed through the Jazz Messengers say that once a Jazz Messenger, always a Jazz Messenger.  Did he have an effect on the way you think about music or life or…

JARRETT:  Not really.  But he was a sweet guy.  I loved working with him.  But no, I wouldn’t say…

TP:    How about the years with Charles Lloyd?

JARRETT:  Well, Charles gave me carte blanche to do whatever I felt to do.  At the time he wasn’t paying me enough for anybody to do what I was doing, but I didn’t care — I was a young guy.  But that was an important thing, to have no restrictions on what I did.  Very few players get in a situation like that,  that early, and I think it was a fortunate combination for me.

TP:    A combination of the zeitgeist and the personalities in the band.

JARRETT:  Yes.  Jack had just joined, and that’s been a long relationship.  Philosophically, Charles was an astute… This sounds bad, but he was an astute businessman, so he kind of like…if you didn’t have to do it and his band was doing it for him, he probably would let it happen! [LAUGHS]

TP:    When I spoke with you last year, I asked you to pinpoint the qualities in Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock that make you so suited, and you addressed the question by telling me that I should interview them and get their perspective. I asked Peacock, who said that it was ineffable, but that you all share a set of common experiences — Jamal, Miles Davis, etc.  I don’t know if I’m going to get to speak with Jack or not.  Is this a question you can address for me now?

JARRETT:  Well, I had an answer for this years ago, but I’m not as lucid as I was.

TP:    Good.  Then we can create a new one.

JARRETT:  But I’m not as lucid as I was a couple of years ago.  Well, when I think about us as a unit and then as separate personalities, to me it’s as though if we didn’t play together, we would have been making a big mistake.  Each of us would have made a mistake.  Whatever that mistake would be, I don’t know.  But not having played together would have been a mistake.  I don’t sit around and think cosmic things all the time.  But I think we were intended to be playing together.

Jack is an inclusionist.  He is the kind of guy who would not want to say anything bad about another player — or anything.  He would want to give credit to everybody.  Gary is a thinker and a very specific… I had a word for this, but I don’t know what it is any more.  Gary lives in his head a lot.  Jack is a heart guy.  And I am a skeptic. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You’re the Skeptic, Peacock is the Thinker, DeJohnette is the Heart, the Passion.

JARRETT:  I am skeptical even as far as being skeptical of my own thinking, yes.

TP:    How do you put that aside when you play?

JARRETT:  See, that’s wrong with doing this.  I’m not sure these words are accurate for what I’m thinking.  I’m not thinking of the right adjectives or the right…

TP:    Is the quality of thought different from when you play than when you talk?

JARRETT:  No.  In some funny way we are all so confident… I don’t know what to say about that.  You know how you repealed that one question?   I can’t answer this.  It’s too hard.  It’s like we’re a family, and I can’t come up with the right…

What I’m skeptical about is all belief systems.  Gary has found one for him.  He’s a Zen guy.  And he would say it’s not a belief system.  Jack has found things he believes to help him, the way Gary found something he believes helps him.  And I actually have seen that Zen has helped Gary a lot anyway.  So it’s not a question of whether it’s effective or not.  It’s just that I believe that because there is a practice involved, it is a system.  That’s maybe why I chose the word “skeptic.”  What I mean by “skeptical” in this case is I never want to close a door on something I didn’t include  because my feeling is that it’s not part of my practice or my belief system.  So I am skeptical of all of those, including my own when they come up.

TP:    You have in the past had certainly strongly held belief systems, yes?  Gurdjieff.

JARRETT:  But the funny thing is that if anyone ever looks deeply enough into Gurdjieff, the one thing he was saying is that it isn’t a system.  It’s just that what we’ve gotten, just like with a lot of things… The flak you get back from it is not the real thing.  The rep it has is not what it is.

TP:    In the process of the trio, you said that you invoke and Gary and Keith pick up, and then  it becomes an equilateral triologue.

JARRETT:  In this one recording.

TP:    On the one hand, your sound and predispositions define what the trio does.  On the other hand, there is this constant three-way interplay going on all the time.  To what extent are you the leader and how does that operate?  I know it’s naive question…

JARRETT:  No, that question is not naive.  It would be naive to not have that question! [LAUGHS] I hope that I am the leader in the way I would guess a good leader would be.  I consider Miles to have been an incredible bandleader, in the sense that he never told anybody what to play, but he gave them the feeling that they could find it out for themselves, and when they did, he didn’t say a word to them except, “Let’s play it.”

I am like a guide.  I am a programmatic guide.  I think if I weren’t there, you’d hear some great music, but it might not connect the way it does.  I mean, if I put somebody in my place, a great player… I have instincts about form, even over large periods of time…not architectural form, but what you sense on Inside Out.  It’s kind of a miniature version of what I’m talking about.  I think without my little pushes and pulls, it just wouldn’t cohere.

I can give you a great example.  In Montreux two years ago, that was the first place where we tried to play no tunes.  That was the same tour as this London release, the Inside Out record, and we hadn’t tried it before, and whenever I got soft, so did Jack and Gary.  When I sounded like I was finishing, they went down.  So it was threatening to stop.  The music would keep threatening to be over unless I did something.  So I had to talk to them about it in  London, and I said, “Just remember that you’re not obliged to follow anything.  None of us have to follow each other anywhere.”  That’s when it started to open up more, and that’s one of the reasons we chose this to release rather than Montreux.  So I am leading the band without trying to.

TP:    How much are you feeding off of them in the in-the-momentness of the thing?

JARRETT:  More now than… Do you mean in the free playing?

TP:    I mean in any playing.

JARRETT:  Well, I hope I’m feeding off of them as much as I can!

TP:    It’s another naive question, but I was curious what you’d say.

JARRETT:  Obviously, if I had to have a substitute player for either of them, I would be cancelling the concert.  So I guess I would prefer to be playing with them.

TP:    Jack does magical things.  The sounds he gets out of that drumset… It’s so quick.

JARRETT:  Oh, definitely.  Well, when you hear the Tokyo tapes, we all sound like we disappeared.  But me less than them, because unfortunately it’s pretty hard to make the piano elastic.  It keeps popping back into being a lever system.  But Jack becomes not the “Jack deJohnette, drummer” that everybody knows.  Gary has done a lot of different things, so… But I have the feeling that our identities become erased in the quality of energy we’re working with.  In our situation, though, I still think that because my instrument is the chordal one, if there are any guidelines… I mean, if there’s any moment when there’s a slump coming up or we feel something is not there, the only person who can suggest tonality, or a lack of it, or direction, or motion, or dynamics in any quick and coherent way that could be grasped by the other two is the piano.

TP:    On Inside Out how did you decide on how you sequenced the document?

JARRETT:  It’s in sequence, except that the fadeout then leads to the end of the next night’s set.  The encore was one of the few encores we did.  There wasn’t any more room on the CD.

TP:    On “Riot” are you fading into something or coming out of something?

JARRETT:  We’re fading in on this thing that was already about 25 minutes long.  That was just crazy.

TP:    Were the concerts on the 26th and 28th completely different in pacing, content, etc.?

JARRETT:  Yes.  But the first two tracks are absolutely the way it went down the first night.  So that’s the first set, I think.

TP:    The third piece?

JARRETT:  I think that’s the beginning of the second set the same night.  “Riot” was the second night.

TP:    On Saturday I took my first trip to Manhattan since the bombing.  The only subway line I can now use goes through the Chambers Street station which abutted the World Trade Center.  The first track was on my headphones as I was going through this now ghost station, and it had a quality that made me very happy I was listening to it at that particular moment.  It’s a spooky thing; everyone was dropping their New York attitude and peering out the windows into the station as they’re going through.

JARRETT:  It’s actually a funny album title to be coming out at this exact moment.  Everything has sort of turned that way, hasn’t it.

I don’t think I can do justice to covering these guys’ personalities!  We’ve been together for so long.  I don’t know if I even think of them as…  I had this cutesy way of describing them.  It was in the Downbeat article.  Whatever I said about it then, I guess I must have thought about it ahead of time, and was more correct, at least in a semi-humorous kind of way.  But these are deep players.  Personality is what we’re trying to get away from when we play.  And we’re of course limited by being who we are, but that’s a tough one.  they’re just too beautiful to use an adjective for them.

TP:    There must be some innate characteristic of that personality, because it’s obviously you and it’s obviously Gary Peacock and it’s obviously Jack DeJohnette.

JARRETT:  Yes.  But the hardest to describe for any of us would be ourselves.  So I could say that Gary tends to be on the scientific, he-doesn’t-like-belief-systems side of things, which is good for him, and it works for him, and I need that.  Jack is in some ways the… In Gurdjieff there was a thing about Third Force.  There was a positive, negative and harmonizing force.  In some ways, Jack is a harmonizing force, and a…I don’t know what to… An inclusionary… He’s inclusionary.  But nothing is great on its  own.  No one word makes that person as great as I feel they are.  You know what I mean?

But it’s a challenging thing for me to think of.  Because when we play together, there’s an alchemy going on, and that alchemy comes from — to some extent, of course — the chemical and psychological natures of all three of us..  As you said, we are different people.  But it’s that chemical combination that I see more than I see our separateness.  So when I think of us as separate people, yeah, I know what my tendencies are in conversation, and what Gary’s are and what Jack’s are.  If Gary and I are having an intense debate about whether there’s one Truth or many, Jack might be the guy who says, “Okay, let’s go have some coffee somewhere.”  But the thing is that it all drops away when we play.  But on the other hand, those intense conversations don’t happen any more.  We’ve been together for so long and we’ve all learned so much during that time, that we’re now not who we were back at the other Downbeat article.  We’ve grown since then.  When Gary and I talk now, we get to some incredibly beautiful, deep places, and we understand each other’s language.  Sometimes it takes 18 years to understand somebody’s language.

TP:    It can take a lifetime.

JARRETT:  Yeah, and you keep interpreting it wrong.  Gary used to interpret several words wrong, and I think it’s because of his upbringing and religion; he doesn’t have a good feeling about the word “God” or anything like that.  Jack doesn’t mind those words.  I kind of do.  So it’s a nice combination where it all ends up being neutral, and it’s time to play…

TP:    I suppose that process is a metaphor for what happens in the musical language as well over 18 years — the conversation and the dialogue and the understanding evolve to that kind of collective simplicity.

JARRETT:  Yeah.  And trust.

TP:    You cut through a lot of the verbosity or whatever, not that the trio was verbose… That’s an interesting coda you’re giving me.

JARRETT:  I’m trying to.  Because I don’t think that one-word thing is really cool at all.

TP:    Oh, I wasn’t asking for one word at all.

JARRETT:  That was my choice.  I was trying to think of the words I had thought of before.  We’ve been watching each other grow all that time.  So it’s sort of like we’re friends and we’ve been together this long, but it’s also like we were watching kids grow up — and we’re one of the kids.  When we play, we’re morphing into more and more of what we could have been before, but we didn’t know it yet.

TP:    How much more in this year and the early part of next year is the trio scheduled to tour?

JARRETT:  We have five concerts in the States, and that’s it for the rest of this year, and nothing planned for 2002.  I have an ongoing physical monitoring system, and I have to take time off to make sure everything is…

TP:    Can you comment a bit on your physical well-being these days?

JARRETT:  Well, except for these disk problems, which I’ve had for years, which is really on my case, and I’m trying to avoid surgery…

TP:    Was that exacerbated by the CFS?

JARRETT:  No.  That was exacerbated by music.  Better not to put this in the article in case I want to get insurance.  But I am still on the medications for the bacterial parasite that I was being treated for…

TP:    Are those allopathic or homeopathic.

JARRETT:  They’re major medical, like antibiotics and stuff..

TP:    So you’re on a constant diet of antibiotics and stuff.

JARRETT:  All I can tell you is that I believe if I hadn’t gone on this protocol, you wouldn’t have heard any more from me.

[PAUSE]

JARRETT:  Are you aware of the anagram of “Riot”?  It’s easy but I bet no one is going to think of it.  “Trio.” [LAUGHS] How do you like that?  It’s one of those that’s just too simple.

TP:    Can you tell me what your daily regimen is?

JARRETT:  Besides the 79 charcoal pills?  Now, sometimes because of my shoulder and my back, I have to not have this regimen at all.  But here’s the day.  I get up (I won’t tell you what time, because that’s not fair).  I have breakfast, and then I almost every day take a very brisk treadmill or outdoor walk, depending on the weather, for 2-1/2 miles or so.  Then I do some stretches and exercises for my upper body, which I really can’t… I usually have  to see the chiropractor every day, and I usually practice in the evenings, 45 minutes to whatever amount of time.

TP:    What have you been working on lately?

JARRETT:  Just moving my fingers.  I’ve been just playing tunes in the studio.  Sometimes the Goldberg Variations.  That’s it.  I’m going to get my studio worked on, and I’ll try to get that practicing in before it all goes down.

So it’s a very boring day.  Then I always read at night.  That’s a must.  What am I reading now?  If you saw the house, there are so many books around that people often ask, “Did you read all of these?”  And I have to say, “Not all of them, but more than you think.”  I got involved with a writer named Gene Wolfe, and I am surprised about this guy.  I’m trying to give him as much space and as much time as possible.  If you saw the book in a bookstore… If you were me, you would never buy a book with a cover like these.  They look like these…what do you call them…these Quest novels, like Ursula Leguin type… But the guy is into some stuff that I feel is very good for the mind, and I actually recommend him, but you have to meet him halfway.  So let him do what he’s doing and be patient.  But I think anybody who’s read good writing eventually realizes how great this guy’s writing is.

TP:    Have you tended over the years to be more involved in fiction or non-fiction or both?

JARRETT:  Both.  If I had to say which I’ve read more of, I’d say fiction.

TP:    Any favorite writers?

JARRETT:  A lot of them.

TP:    Tell me a couple.

JARRETT:  Robert Musil.  Calvino.

TP:    A true skeptic, Robert Musil was.

JARRETT:  Yes.  He was also interested in Sufism, which I didn’t realize until I read his book twice.  I read Antonio Demassio, who writes about the brain and how we perceive things  That’s a mindblower in itself.  That’s neuroscience, not fiction.  But one of the books is titled “The Feeling Of What Happens.”

I have two kids.  One of them is 30 already.

[-30-]

* * *

Keith Jarrett (Sept. 9, 2008):

TP:   How does it feel to be inducted into Downbeat’s Hall of Fame?

KJ:   I was getting Downbeat when I was a teenager, and I’m aware of the magazine’s deep roots and history, and of the people who are there. So yes, it’s meaningful, as far as people thinking my work is important. But if I think of what fame means right now, it’s not so meaningful! Years ago, in Vienna, when I was about to do a solo concert, the press was interested in talking to me and I did an interview with Der Spiegel. One of their first questions was, “What is it like to be a star?” I said, “Man, that is out of somebody else’s book, not mine.” Then also, I remember, at the only class reunion I ever went to, the question was, “So, are you successful?” I said, “Yes.” They said, “So are you making a lot of money?” So these words like “fame” and “star” have relative meaning. If you were asking, “What’s it like to get a Grammy?”, I’d think, “No.” It would be the beginning of the descent from the mountain.

TP:    In his biography of you, Ian Carr places the beginnings of your obsession with jazz to your late adolescence in Allentown, Pennsylvania, when your parents divorced, and you began doing little gigs in town.

KJ:   When I was around 14, which is when my parents were having trouble, I had a remarkably good classical teacher, but once a week I had to take a little time off from the end of the school day and to drive to Philadelphia for the lesson. She was a firm believer in my not spreading the peanut butter thin. In other words, she didn’t like that I was interested in anything else but the Debussy or the Beethoven that I was studying with her. Strangely, in about a week-and-a-half in Philadelphia, I’ll be playing again in what turns out to be where she used to live, and it will be jazz.

Allentown was a cultural vacuum. There was one record store, I think, called Speedy’s Record Shop. As a kid, I had an allowance maybe, but we didn’t have much money. Occasionally, I would play classical concerts for the local women’s club, and I’d save as much as I could to look for new things that I knew nothing about. Every now and then my brother and I would try to sneak records out of the stores, because we couldn’t afford them. It’s not easy to steal a record! We got caught once, which wasn’t fun. Of course, the selection for pianists was between Oscar Peterson and Andre Previn, and also Errol Garner and Brubeck. One pivotal moment came when I found the Ahmad Jamal white album. I didn’t know who Ahmad was, but it looked interesting. Years after the trio was already a working band, Gary, Jack and I started talking about the album, and found we’d all had the same experience with it. I was playing drums at the time, and I got my drumming together through emulating Vernell Fournier’s great brush playing in the sparse spaces of Ahmad’s music. It was my introduction to actual jazz versus popular jazz.

After high school, when I was in Boston, trying to go to Berklee, I got a job with a vocalist in the upstairs lounge of the Jazz Workshop. Herb Pomeroy, who was my big band instructor, was playing downstairs, and one night when Ray Santisi, who was one of my piano teachers, hadn’t shown up, Herb asked me if I wanted to play. Pete LaRoca was playing drums, He was my favorite drummer at the time, and this was just too much to conceive of. If Ray hadn’t shown up, I would never have gone back upstairs. It was the most beautiful way to go through the gate, to the nirvana place that one would want to be.  That was my first world-class connection as far as actually playing jazz.

TP:   By then, you were probably up on what Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner were doing…

KJ:   No, I wasn’t. In the beginning, I was pretty conservative. I hadn’t heard Coltrane yet—or at least I hadn’t liked Coltrane yet. People would say, “You must be listening to Bill a lot.” “Bill who?” “Bill Evans.” I had heard him, but wasn’t feeling like I was in that direction. Actually, I’d heard Bill when I came through Boston on a summer bus tour with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. I won’t make any derogatory statements about that experience, except that it was, in all ways, terrible—except that some of the people were nice. They realized that I was talented. They also respected that I was resisting the urge to do something inappropriate for the musical format, restraining myself from being a crazy person in this situation. That made it worthwhile to do those things for a certain amount of time. I think it’s a mistake for people always to be able do what they want. I think my sons see my career as always having my way. But that’s because they were born after all this other stuff.

TP:   Early on, did you know that music would be your life?

KJ:   Yes. I had a very normal childhood, because that’s the way I wanted it most of the time, and when I did classical lessons, since I wanted to go out and play sports with my friends, I’d turn forward the timer on the kitchen stove, as my grandmother wasn’t paying much attention. But when my mother or father would discover I’d done 2 or 2½ hours instead of the mandatory three, they’d say, “Then we’ll have to sell the piano.” For all I knew, they were serious—my father was a real estate man and probably had enough, but he had five kids, and if the piano wasn’t being used… That stopped me in my tracks. I would think, “No, that’s not an option.” When I was 8, I got my first grand piano, after actually paying for it myself from concerts in Allentown. I slept under it in order to be able to play it immediately upon waking up.

Q: You seem to have been quite focused and mature about how to proceed—resisting the temptation to rebel when playing with Fred Waring, rejecting an opportunity to study with Nadia Boulanger, waiting a couple of years before you matriculated at Berklee.

KJ:  I didn’t know what the future would bring, but I had really good instincts about who I was. I couldn’t have explained why I said no to Nadia—I was looking to study with her! To me, I was not negating an education. But I didn’t want to learn the names of things. I wanted to be involved in a process that was pure, and I didn’t want to get analytical about that process, or have anyone tell me that something wasn’t possible because it wasn’t musical. My ears were going to guide me. I don’t fit that well into any particular category. Whatever musical story I tell is not all jazz; at times, it’s something uncategorizable. If someone started to tell me, ‘Okay, this sound goes with this sound,’ I might believe it, and I might never have experimented putting different sounds next to each other.

When I heard Brubeck’s quartet live the first time, I remember thinking, almost verbatim, “There’s more than this.” There’s always more, and if you get it all down, maybe there isn’t any more. If you make a map of something, and that map isn’t changeable, you’re stuck with the map. For driving, that’s good, but for music, I’m not sure. Inclusion has been what it’s about for me.

TP:   You’ve said that saxophone players influenced you, not pianists.

KJ:   Let’s broaden the statement to include horn players. There’s a fluidity in an instrument that uses air. I’ve always wanted to get as close as possible to subtracting the mechanism of the piano from the whole affair. Now, that may no longer be true. Every little period of time I go through, I reinvent what I do, and will let the piano be a piano. You can see that in my recent solo things.

Early on, my favorite bands were usually pianoless—for instance, the Gerry Mulligan small big band. Strangely enough, I would call Monk’s bands often pianoless—he wasn’t always comping, and when he was, it was more orchestral. Even his solos were not pianistic, because he wasn’t a virtuosic player; he sort of played like a composer. For Ornette, no piano. People whose ears were open always attracted me, and I liked what Paul Bley was doing with the piano, especially when it was a funky instrument. When I heard him on a Bosendorfer on something that was recorded maybe 6 or 7 years ago, I would never have recognized him.

Pianists in jazz do not work on touch. I was lucky that I started with classical hearing. I was also lucky—or smart—to play Mozart around the time that the trio was playing ballads, because Mozart demands a certain refinement of touch that I had not developed until I started to play Mozart. Only since then has my ballad playing been closer to what I hear.

TP:   Can you talk about your conception of the trio with Haden and Motian vis-a-vis the present group?

KJ:   The early trio represented three free spirits, and I chose them because of that. We were in the midst of that revolution period. and I felt that we were defying the norms of the time. That means in all ways. Free playing wasn’t the same as free players thought it was. Most free players couldn’t play time. Most might not even be able to play their own instruments, but they could be extremely influential because they did things that no one was willing to try. If we wanted to swing, we could. If we didn’t, we didn’t. If the overall context demanded both, we could do that. At the Village Vanguard one night, Max Gordon said to me, “Keith, you know, you could get a lot more people here. You guys can really swing; you should do that.” I said, “Max, it’s going to take a while, but the people will come, because we’re doing exactly what we know we should be doing.” Now, how did I know that? I was a young upstart talking to an old club-owner who knew what he was talking about. But my instincts were good. Words come out of your mouth and you don’t remember, “Gee, I’m not sure when I’m going to eat my next meal.”

TP:   That’s how it was during the ‘60s, wasn’t it.

KJ:   That’s right. We were trying to build a tradition. I would say I wanted to be free of everyone’s bullshit, and that included my own. I was never trying to be a stylist. So I wasn’t going to be sparing. I was going to be merciless on myself. If I could write something that could find its way to a different place than everything else, and it was still something I felt very close to, then that would be successful.

Now, how does that pertain to the present trio in 2008? I would say we’re trying to preserve those precious values. As opposed to the ‘60s, now it’s like, if we don’t do it, who’s doing it? If I think of one thing that it is, it’s how Miles attacked the beat on his trumpet. When we went into the studio to do our so-called Miles tribute, Bye Bye Blackbird, a couple of weeks after he died, I talked to Jack and Gary, and I said, ‘We’re not doing a tribute album. Maybe we’re going to play some material that Miles played. But my idea is to play as though I were Miles, not play like a pianist who would play Miles.” If you extrapolate from that to what we do when we play standard material, we’re trying to find this place that we don’t hear many people coming from. We don’t hear people swinging that often, if I can speak for Gary (and maybe Jack, too). What young players know about the music is so stilted somehow. They do their best, and they might be great players, but there’s a lot of wasted energy going on.

TP:   In light of that remark, it’s interesting that so many younger players mention both your American and European quartets as extremely influential. Do you have any speculations on the impact of those explorations on the way jazz sounds today?

KJ:   I don’t. But possibly one reason why I don’t sense it is because it was so personal. One of the reasons why the American quartet was so interesting is because none of us knew what the hell we really were doing. With both quartets, I took into account everything about these guys while writing the pieces. As an example, I did this for Jan Garbarek with strings, on Arbor Zena and Luminescence, where I got inside what I thought was Jan’s way of playing. When he came over to rehearse for Luminescence and look at the sketch, I played it on the piano and did his part. He asked, “Do I play like this pattern?” I said, “Yeah, you do it all the time.” He said, “I had no idea.” There was something like a minor second, and then a third down, and then a second, and then another third, so it was completely out of a key. I heard him do that many times. Another example is that Dewey Redman did not like to play on chords.

TP:   Now, you went from working incessantly with two different groups, after always having worked in groups beforehand, to making solo concerts the focus of your activity. How did the idea of creating form from a tabula rasa begin to gestate for you?

KJ:   I was just curious about the process. So far as I know, no one was investigating it. It happened by accident. After Facing You,  I came on stage after Friedrich Gulda at a festival in Heidelberg. I started playing a song, which I don’t remember, then I attached that, without stopping, to another song. Then there was some kind of transitional material, and it ended up being whatever amount of minutes of that. That led to me to wonder whether those transitions themselves were something, which led me to investigate that. It’s such a different universe. I wasn’t really even ready for this discovery, because only recently did I become a good enough player to use both hands properly under those circumstances! So whatever amount of years I spent doing it, it was as an inferior player to who I am now when I play now.

TP:   By “recently” you mean what?

KJ:   Five or six or seven years ago.

TP:   So not until after you had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

KJ:   Correct. And I worked my ass off in a new way. I realized jazz pianists don’t do their left hand. It gets to be just like an appendage. When they do solo albums, typically what you hear is, “Where’s the bass? I’m waiting for the rhythm section.”

I have to credit the disease with giving me a tremendous amount of creative information—it was a great opportunity to sum up my work. I had no idea if I’d ever play again, so all I had to do was think about what happened to me. When I’d listen to my solo stuff, I’d think, “What the fuck am I doing? There’s too many notes here. If I did this again, no, I’d never play this, I’d never play that.” Over that period of time, I realized that, if I ever returned to playing solo, I’d never do it that way. When I started to practice and was able to play at all, I found myself stopping, because I’d be playing something I didn’t really hear in my head. I didn’t like it any more.

TP:   You went through a similar crisis during the ‘80s, when you made Spirits, and transitioned from one set of habits into a new realm of investigation.

KJ:   That’s correct. Although when you’re sitting at the same 88-key instrument and you’ve got the same two hands to undo the architecture you’ve built up over two decades of doing this thing you thought you understood, it’s a freaky experience to go through. However, the freakiness only lasts a second, and then you realize, “if I have the energy to do it ever again, I at least know where to start.”

TP:   You’ve remarked that you discovered Gurdjieff while you were on the road with Charles Lloyd, and later became involved in Sufism. Did the solo playing have anything to do with constructing some kind of aesthetic philosophy from those investigations?

KJ:   All through my entire history, there’s a mixture of philosophy, spirituality, and just plain musical desire—desire for the instrument. I never took drugs, for example. I didn’t need that. I would see people…I would roll cigarettes for them. I was with the Animals in London. Jimi Hendrix was interested in doing a project, and I was working on ideas of how to work with him. I wanted to do a project with Janis Joplin. There was a rough mix of ingredients in the ‘60s and ‘70s that we really don’t  have now. We might call this the “information age,” but I consider that complete bullshit. What IS the information? Of what value is it if it doesn’t attach itself to something? In the future, I can see that there might be an audience that literally thinks all music is equal, and there’s no such thing as good or bad. So I’m happy to be as old as I am, and I’m happy particularly to get this award while I’m alive, because in that sense it does mean something. Somebody is saying that something is better than something else, and that’s a relief.

TP:   What are your criteria for documentation? It’s different than the actual process of music-making.

KJ:   It’s not all that different, in my life. At this point, I record all solo concerts, and if it’s good enough I might send it to Manfred Eicher—although on a different day of the week, listening to the same music, I might have an absolutely different take on it. I don’t really like to do that. When you’re aware you’re recording, it’s completely different than when you’re not being documented. It changes both the trio and solo music. It’s possible to forget it for a while, but unfortunately, coughs mean something if they happen when you’re recording. They might mean you can’t use this track, and you know that you’ve just played this the best that you’ll ever play it. There’s no second takes.

In 2006 I played a solo concert at La Fenice, which is the opera house in Venice that was totally destroyed by fire, and wasn’t rebuilt for several decades. That concert might never come out, but at the moment it’s at the top of the list. Since 2006, it’s been up there a couple of times, but then I decided, “No, there’s something newer that’s more interesting.” For whatever reason, it did not manage to be the right thing. I am not using that as the Bush version of “the right thing,” that I know what’s right. Just the instincts weren’t there for this to come out, because other things were more timely.

TP:   Although you are always the “decider.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

KJ:   Yes.

TP:   Why don’t you do studio recordings, by the way?

KJ:   Well (a) I hate studios, and (b) more of the time I feel that what I do is for a public that’s actually in the space. Manfred and I talked about me doing another solo thing in the studio, and I’m open to it, but in general, that vibe is wrong for me. There’s too many wires around. Too many lightstands, too much metal around. The control room and the speakers are usually worse than the ones I have in my house. I don’t know if I could engage that.

TP:   Is there something about performing for an audience that facilitates your focus?

KJ:   No. It’s actually the opposite. It’s harder to be focused. However, given that, I have the valid feeling that there are people there who are ready for whatever happens. That facilitates something, but I can’t call it focus. Focus is easier alone probably.

TP:   Do you have inklings to return to performing classical music?

KJ:   Possibly. I don’t really know. I’ve been thinking about the possibility of recording the Goldberg Variations again, for one example. But I haven’t taken myself seriously enough to undertake it. That would be done in, oh, a hall like the Salle Pleyel, with no audience.

TP:   You’ve been quoted that it’s insane to do both jazz and classical music.

KJ:   Yes.

TP:   What in your personality or character allows you to do it?

KJ:   It’s insanity.

TP:   You certainly don’t sound insane.

KJ:   No, that’s one of the great things about insanity! The thing is, you can do it, but you have to do it with scrupulous concern for both your mental focus and the needs of the music you’re about to do. When I was working on Mozart’s concertos before I got sick, I was doing as little of anything that was not Mozart as I could. Many people wouldn’t have that possibility, and if they don’t, then I wouldn’t recommend it. Like, back-to-back, “Okay, this is the classical stuff, then I’ll do improvisation after.” In that sense, even I am not that insane. [LAUGHS] That would be total insanity. Unless you want to strip them both of their innate qualities.

I did a bunch of harpsichord recordings, and you cannot seriously conceive of playing piano when you’re working with the harpsichord. Now, a few days after you’ve finished a harpsichord project, you might want to play a solo piano concert because you’re curious what will come out. The fact that it’s new, that it feels somehow different again, are positives. But I would have to set the stuff up with immense care to be able to do it without going more insane.

TP:   Because of the retrospective nature of this piece, I have to ask about your experience with Miles Davis. It does seem that your time with Miles was crucial.

KJ:   I believe I can call it camaraderie. From the moment I started to play with him, we had an understanding that it was temporary, that I had this other direction that had nothing to do with electronic keyboards, and that I wasn’t at all into that. Around 1967, Miles brought his whole band to a little basement club in Paris where I was playing with Aldo Romano and J.F. Jenny-Clark, who is not alive any more, and later, every now and then, he would show up to hear the trio with Charlie and Paul. I’d walk past the table, and he’d say, “When are you going to play with my band?” I’d say, “Well, I have a lot of work coming up, but I really appreciate that you like the music,” blah-blah-blah. Once I came off the stage from set with Paul and Charlie, and he said, “Keith! You play the wrong instrument.” What could I say? “I know!” So my comments about horns and voice and so on, he was hearing that already, even though we were playing this strange music. A couple of times, he asked me how I could play from no music. I said, “I don’t know. I just do it.”

Once, after we’d spoken, I heard the band with Wayne, Herbie, Ron and Tony at the Village Gate, and Miles played a beautiful short solo—he played all short solos—and then the rest of the band played long solos. He walked off the stage, went to the bar, had some water, stood there for a long time, and then finally went back on stage and played a tune, and then went out. I heard that happen each tune, and I thought, “You know, I’d like to help out somehow, but I’m not sure what that means yet.” When I joined him, the band started turning electric, and I wasn’t sure what my role could possibly be. He asked me which instrument I wanted to play, and I said, “You know, Miles, I hate them equally, so I want both.” “Okay.”

When I say “camaraderie,” I mean that I was meant to be a part of this, and I could tell Miles felt that. What he really needed at the time I joined him was someone on keyboard who could be both challenging and funky, and I think that’s what I contributed. Once the band with Jack and I and Mtume started to play, Miles was staying on the stage the entire time, and going into his crouch—obviously, I made him happy for a while, He didn’t have any question about who should be in that band then.

TP:   Back to your position on the jazz timeline, it’s hard to find anyone under 50 who doesn’t mention you and your fellow sons of Miles as key to the way they think about things. How do you see it?

KJ:   I think they’re right. [LAUGHS] But I think many of us got waylaid. Keyboard players got enamored of electric instruments, and never could go back, and they never have been able to go back since. These are artistic decisions, and you can’t make them lightly. It’s like a painter throwing away their paint, saying, “Well, I want to get these,” but they’re all monotone, and then, “Well, no, I want my old paints back.” Sorry. They went out in the garbage.

My generation’s impact should have been greater, because there were a lot more great players. But Fusion somehow ate them up. I don’t include Miles exactly in that, because Miles got away with being able to play his stuff. I mean, he always wanted to do something different, something new, and if that’s your M.O., it won’t always be correct. Actually, a Japanese producer friend of mine asked Miles if he would sit in with the trio—as Jack and Gary and I all had played with him already—at the Antibes Festival for one or two tunes. I was hoping he’d say, “Sure, that’s a great idea.” I was sure he probably wouldn’t. But I think his answer is very important. He said (of course, through this third party), “No, I already played with Keith.” I wrote him a note back through the same guy, saying, “You played with me, but not on my instrument.”

TP:   Did he respond?

KJ:   No. But he knew what I was talking about.

TP:   It seems like your M.O., rather than that straight line, is more of a circle.

KJ:   Could be.

TP:   Circling back and picking up on things you’d done before in a different context.

KJ:   Yes. I think if I were a different kind of artist, I’d use found objects. I wouldn’t go looking for new technology. I remember seeing Herbie backstage somewhere when he’d just started getting seriously into electronics. Instead of having a conversation, he was saying, “Wow, have you heard this wire, this thing, connected to this and this over here?” I said, “Herbie…no. I don’t want to talk about wires. I really hate seeing them on the stage.”

[END OF CONVERSATION]

* * *

Manfred Eicher on Keith Jarrett (Sept. 24, 2008):

 

TP:   To start, can you tell me how he came to join the label, how you became attracted to his music, and the process by which he began his contractual relationship with ECM?

EICHER:   I first heard Keith live in a festival in Norway with Charles Lloyd, and I heard him again with Charles Lloyd at   the Montreux Jazz Festival. I was very curious about his playing, and I was very moved by the trio as well that played with Jack DeJohnette and Ron McClure. That was before I even had a record label. I was just a student and playing in an orchestra in Berlin. So I moved around and heard people in jazz festivals. I heard Keith Jarrett also in Bologna in ‘68. Then when I had the label, I wrote to Keith, and sent him some test pressings—of a Chick Corea solo record as well as a Jan Garbarek record, Afric Pepperbird, which was my first recording, that I made in Oslo. Keith wrote back and said he liked this music and the sound, and he would be interested in talking to me. So he came to Munich with Miles Davis, and we met in the park in the afternoon after the concert, and talked about a lot of things, and decided to make a recording together. In my first letter to Keith actually, I introduced to him also a trio record. In fact, Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock was the idea. But Gary at that time didn’t play the bass; he came back from Japan and the West Coast, and was not sure whether he should continue or not. I suggested another thing, but he called me back and said he would like to do a solo record first. So he did a solo record in Oslo in ‘70, and Facing You was the first.

TP:   Then he continued for a while under contract to you and to Impulse…

EICHER:   While we talked, this was, so to speak, between the contracts. He left Atlantic, went to Columbia, and then started something for Impulse as well with the American Quartet. But the solo things and the trio, and all those kinds of things, he started to record for ECM.

TP:   It seems with ECM, he was able to do almost anything he wanted, to document almost anything that was preoccupying him at a given time…

EICHER:   I wonder whether it was so easy. It had also to do with what was my aesthetic idea was with the label, how I wanted to introduce music. Keith was the ideal partner. I liked very much his piano playing. I liked his aesthetics. I liked his ideas. The first recording we made was a solo record in the studio, then the next recording was a live recording of a concert in Bremen and Lausanne, which resulted in a trio record set. At that time, it was unusual to have an entire solo concert, live recordings and so on, put in a 3-record box. It was quite new for that time. Then Keith showed me his string quartet writing and he showed me other things, so I became very interested to introduce that kind of work from Keith, which was not the work of a jazz musician per se, but of a wonderful musician and talent who had other talents than playing the piano. So we introduced these things, and they resulted in orchestral recordings with soloists like Jan Garbarek or Charlie Haden, Arbor Zena, for instance, or Luminiscence, and the records with string quartets and quintets with a flute player. So we have a nice oeuvre from the very beginning that introduced the musician Keith Jarrett.

TP:   Can you speak more concretely about how the qualities of his aesthetics merged with your sense of what you wanted to produce?

EICHER:   First of all, I thought his way of phrasing, his touch, his quality of suspension, his way of (?) and rubato playing was very close to me as a European. So I heard many influences of the great American kind of jazz book, and I heard many influences from Chopin, Debussy, and all those kinds of things that I liked and I grew up with. To me, it was an idea of a symbiotic thing, because also his touch had reached me right away and touched me quite a lot from the beginning. So from then on, it was clear that whenever I could work with Keith, I would like to work with him.

I’d also like not to forget his great compositions. His way of writing was very idiosyncratic and special. One could identify a composition immediately when hearing Keith’s work.

TP:   It also seems that the influence of both the American and European quartets has been immense on an international level.

EICHER:   Absolutely. The American quartet consisted of Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian and Keith. It was a very individual group with a wonderful individual sound. But Keith also had another side which probably was a bit more virtuosic, more light rhythmically, weighted for the dialogue and interaction with players like Garbarek and Jon Christensen and Palle Daniellsen. When I suggested this group to Keith, he was very open, because he’d heard Jan Garbarek a long time ago, and he heard him again in the Molde Festival in Norway, playing trio with Arild Anderson and Edvard Vesala in a club. Keith and I were together, and he was convinced that this was the sound he would like to write for. So the Belonging group was Keith’s group that he was writing for. All the material that you hear there was around, and played by a lot of young jazz musicians—here, at least, in Europe. Pieces like “Belonging” and so on became classic.

TP:   The American Quartet’s influence has also been immense, maybe more on American musicians…

EICHER:   Not just American musicians. European musicians, too.

TP:   Everyone talks about that group.

EICHER:   A wonderful group. But it was so different. Keith could write for the idiosyncratic personalities in these groups very well. So these groups differ very much. Of course, it was entirely Keith’s introduction of the music, but the individuality of the players couldn’t be more different.

TP:    I was curious why, after years and years of playing in groups (and he seemed to like playing in groups and being in bands), he spent so much time absorbed in the tabula rasa solo concerts. Between 1977 and 1981, almost everything in his sessionography is a solo concerts. Can you discuss your experience of this?

EICHER:   That’s right. He started in the early ‘70s with solos, like Lausanne in 1972 or 1973, then followed by Cologne, the Japanese box, the Sun Bear concerts… There was always a lot of solo between the other groups. But then it became a very solitary thing for him to do solo only for a while, before he formed the trio with Jack and Gary. But I think none of us could have expected such a successful resonance to the first solo concert. These concerts became something different, became something else, because no improviser had played entire concerts before not interrupted by pieces, but entirely concerts that took sometimes 45 to 50 minutes, and maybe then a second set. That was something really new at the time, and it was very successful in Japan and in Europe, and Keith seemed to enjoy very much being on stage alone.

TP:    Do you have any speculations on why it seemed to suit the zeitgeist then?

EICHER:   I don’t know the zeitgeist…it’s still going on.

TP:   I mean, at the time, the late ‘70s…

EICHER:   Well, it’s speculative, because very different people… Like, Peter Stein used the music in Death, Distraction and Detroit, a production with Robert Wilson in Berlin, in the Schaub(?), which was a very advanced and important theater group in Berlin that went for this. Not many people would have used the Köln concert at that time. Marguerite Duras, in her diaries which were introduced in Liberacion, has written about Keith Jarrett’s Köln concert that she hears in France in the summer in different situations. Henry Miller. Many people have written… It was more than the zeitgeist. It was something that was coming out of the time, and blossomed out, and influenced a lot of people from very different genres, different kinds of music. All the art field was checking out what Keith was doing.

TP:   Most of his musical production since he was ill…well, a couple of solo concerts, and the trio is now in its 25th year. Can you speak of your first experience hearing this trio playing standard material?

EICHER:   Before they came together to play standards, we had already a recording under Gary Peacock’s leadership and with his pieces. That was the wished-for combination, the combination that I always wanted to have together in the studio to make this record, and it was something really remarkable, I guess. When I listen back to this record, it has such wonderful pieces, like “Vignette.” The way they played together was like they’d played always together.

So later on, Keith wanted to do a standard trio from the American Songbook, and we decided to do that. The evening before recording in Power Station in New York, we went to an Indian restaurant and talked about a lot of things, and made some plans, and went in the studio with the idea to make one record, but we had studio time for three days, and in those three days, when we came out of the studio, we had made three records, including the mixage. We had recorded and mixed. This process was unbelievable. The interaction between these three people was wonderful. You can hear it in the record which just came out again how close they were already in their understanding of each other, and how beautifully their exposition of each piece came out.

TP:   It’s certainly and developed, and they seem to take as much joy in it now as they did then. He’s also recorded a fair amount of European classical repertoire for you, and recorded as a classical musician. How did that transpire from your perspective?

EICHER:   We did a very special and remarkable recording on the piece of Arvo Pärt, “Fratres,” played together by Gideon Kramer and Keith Jarrett. It was their first meeting and recording, and the last recording. It’s still a classic, I would say, which you can hear on Arvo Pärt’s record Tabula Rasa. It’s an electrifying performance between Gideon and Keith. I would never miss that day and how it happened. It was wonderful.

Then we recorded all the Shostakovich, which still is in the catalog and very successful, and recorded Mozart, and he’s recorded Bach, The Well-Tempered Piano, Book 1 and 2—the second one was recorded on harpsichord. Then we did the wonderful recording with Kim Kashkashian and Keith on the Gamba sonata of Bach, and there are other plans eventually.

TP:   Can you speak to the qualities he brings to classical repertoire?

EICHER:   He plays it very truthfully as a musician without any outside musical ideas about showing his ability to do different phrasings and whatever. He has prepared himself very seriously for all these recordings. Some people thought Keith should maybe include more risky elements such as phrasing, and maybe even some cadenzas improvised, like in the concerts of Mozart. But he didn’t. In all the years after, many musicians, classical musicians talked to me about these recordings and how musical they feel they are. Keith’s approach was very pure and down-to-the-text, so to speak, not more, not less. I tend to listen to his Bach quite often. And to the Mozart…and if you wish, you can go into the whole scale what I listen to. But it’s very truthful, artistically done music, and without speculation for any kind of fashion or trend.

TP:   He said that immersing himself in Mozart was of great value to his jazz playing when he returned to performing after recuperating from CFS, that it developed his musicality, his touch, and also his left hand.

EICHER:   Definitely his touch and his left hand. He had a good partner in developing these things, with Dennis Russell Davis, the great American conductor who always was around when Keith played orchestra music, performing this music in America and Europe together.,

TP:   He said that he feels that his solo performances since the illness are far superior to what he was doing before, partly for the reasons that I mentioned. Can you speak about his personal evolution as a musician, both pianistically and conceptually?

EICHER:   Many things. I’ll relate it to the musical ideas and to the program of a musician. What Keith played in the ‘70s and ‘80s were quite different in musical approach than what he’s doing now, especially in the solo concerts. For me, his technical abilities playing the piano was always on a high level, and I would say that his touch has changed in all these years, and it’s remarkable how it did change this way, small nuances first and more and more into a fine-tuning. But it has also to do with his affinity for certain pianos that speak to him. All this together, I think, in the way he wants to be recorded today and how he was recorded in earlier times, digital, non-digital, piano tuning—all those kinds of things have a certain effect on what is documented, of course. But Keith’s playing these days is on the highest level as a pianist.

TP:   I spoke to him about documentation, and why concerts are successful, why he chooses to document one vis-a-vis another. He said that he records everything, that when he thinks something is good he then sends it to you, and what he decides to release pertains to his state of mind at the time. As an example, a solo concert from the opera house in Venice was at the top of his list, then something struck him as more interesting. How do you interact in determining what gets releases, the sequence of recordings, and the content. You’ve had a professional relationship for so long.

EICHER:   We’ve known each other 40 years or so. It has changed, his approach. In the early days, I was at every recording, and we were very close in deciding every little thing, in the studio and outside the studio, in how we approached it. Now it is not possible for us to be always in the same place. Sometimes we are just in different places, and then he trusts his engineer and manager, who are very important for decision-making. But when the music is done, Keith sends it, and then we start to talk and discuss and sometimes fine-tune on the thing, and then we decide together what to release. But we can always have a good agreement on what to be done. The sequence of releases is also discussed, and since they are concerts that go from A to the end, we don’t have to talk about the sequence inside a recording any more because we take the music as it is. If Keith feels it’s appropriate to do so, we release the music as it is.

TP:   That brings up the point that ECM is so known for the sound of the recordings, the way you address the sound in the studio, and it’s been a long time since he did a studio recording, and he doesn’t like being in the studio so much…

EICHER:   Any more. He used to like the studio very much, and he also has a studio at home. But in recent years…or for many years… It started with the trio. All these recordings are done outside the studio, in concert halls. That’s right. And he likes this approach. I think he needs also the interaction with the audience, and probably the risk of going to the edge there is more appropriate than being in an intimate studio where conditions are always very different. I think it’s not a question of better or worse. It’s a question also of interacting with the public.

Recordings like Belonging and the earlier recordings that we made in studios couldn’t have been made that easily in concert live. We have done wonderful recordings with great balance and sound that would only have been possible to make in a good studio situation. Later on, it did fly into other directions, and that’s also fine. It’s important to assist a musician in his needs and his ideas, and then get the best out of it.

TP:   Most of the Keith Jarrett Trio recordings of this century were made in 2001 and 2002. It seems that 2001 was a very interesting year for him, both as a trio and solo player.

EICHER:    That’s right. I don’t particularly look so much into the recording year. For me, time is flying so quickly that I forget sometimes that all these years have passed already. We are listening at the moment to a tape that we will release in January called Yesterdays, which is a Japanese recording from 2001. It sounds incredibly fresh and good. After he recovered from his illness, new life and new ideas were coming into the trio and the solo playing, so since then we have remarkable recordings already released, and we have still some very good recordings that wait to be released in our archive.

TP:   The Tokyo recording is also a trio date?

EICHER:   It’s a trio.

TP:   Will a solo recording come out in 2009?

EICHER:   I guess so. There will be a solo recording. Since we have not finally decided, Keith and I, I cannot talk about which one it will be, but it looks like there will be another solo record coming out.

TP:   Can you describe your overview of where Keith Jarrett fits into the timeline, both on the jazz stage and on the world stage?

EICHER:   When you think about how long Keith Jarrett already is an influential musician. It started when he played with Charles Lloyd, then later on got a lot of attention in Europe and with Miles and all, and he has written such wonderful songs, and is such a great listener when he plays with other musicians—and for the music always. He is one of the most influential and best musicians that I know. “Best” is always a strange term, but his musicianship and his personality, and also his influence to music-making means a lot to me.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

 

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