Category Archives: Jazz.com

R.I.P. Paul Motian, 1931-2011

When I launched this blog last May, I was looking for apropos material to post. As it happened, Paul Motian was at the Village Vanguard that week (it was one of his eight scheduled 2011 engagements) helming a  newly-configured quartet with vibraphonist Steve Nelson, and I decided to share the unedited proceedings of a Blindfold  Test we’d done in 1999.

I last saw Paul towards the end of September, when he was at the Vanguard in a marvelous unit with Greg Osby and Masabumi Kikuchi. He played with characteristic focus and creative energy, and was looking good. But when I spoke with Paul after the set, he told me that he’d been feeling poorly, that his energy was low, and that it had been difficult for him to make it through the week. So when I went onto Facebook yesterday and saw numerous posts from several dozen of the world’s most prominent improvisers, drummers and otherwise,  stating their sorrow about his passing (the cause of death was myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood and bone-marrow disorder) and expressing their heartfelt feelings about his brilliance, it wasn’t entirely a surprise. But I’m deeply saddened.

Still, all in all, it seems like Paul Motian split on his own terms — a life in which illness precluded him from playing music may not have seemed to him like a life worth living. Furthermore, by expanding his circle over the last decade on one-offs with such luminaries in his peer group as Hank Jones, Ron Carter, and Chick Corea, and a good chunk of the best and brightest of younger generations from several continents, he ensured that his spirit would continue to inform the music timeline after his body had left us.

I got to know Paul during the early ’90s when he joined me on WKCR to publicize a gig by the Electric Bebop Band at Sweet Basil in Manhattan. As the decade progressed, more radio meetings ensued, and we learned how to speak with each other.  Our last public conversation was in 2008—I’m posting the proceedings below (it appeared on http://www.jazz.com in 2009). There will follow a DownBeat feature article that I wrote about him during the week of 9/11/2001 to mark the release of the first album of his second run on ECM.

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Paul Motian (WKCR, Sept. 4, 2008): (Jazz.com)

“I think rehearsing takes away from the beauty of the music,” says Paul Motian. “I’ve been playing long enough to know what I’m doing at this point of my life! I’d rather depend on my skills and intuition to play well when the time comes.”

At 77, Motian is an iconic figure, his laid-back, minimalist parsing of rhythm and timbre a fixture on the jazz landscape..

“Just one strike of the cymbal, there’s something transcendent in his sound,” Brian Blade observed earlier this decade. “A lot of people miss how Motian moves the music and gets inside it. He possesses an amazing lyrical looseness, but at the same time keeps a swing and pulsation that injects the music with a good feeling.”

That feeling seduced a number of drummers who, like Joey Baron, came of age aesthetically in the early ‘70s, when Motian propelled Keith Jarrett’s influential trio and quartet,  more than a decade after he attained international visibility playing drums for several editions of the Bill Evans Trio between 1956 to 1963.  “At a certain point,” Baron once remarked, “I started hearing interplay that wasn’t necessarily about stating 4/4 all the time, but a floating kind of time, more like a circle than a straight up-and-down hard groove. It’s the way Paul Motian would really PLAY a ballad; he made it interesting rather than just a straight boom-chick, which a lot of drummers did.”

Motian’s contemporaries feel similar enthusiasm for Motian’s clear, pellucid beats and unremittingly in-the-moment focus. “Paul always played like someone who listens and interprets what he hears immediately,” noted Lee Konitz, who first shared a bandstand with Motian more than half a century ago. “He’s an idea man as opposed to a language man,” added pianist Paul Bley, who helped Motian transition into a speculative improviser during the early ‘60s. “I hear him play one idea on the drums, and there is a silence, and then there is another idea. It’s way beyond accompaniment per se. He’s playing as many ideas as the people he’s playing with, and sometimes more vividly because of the silences.”

That quality of musical conversation permeates all of the bands that Motian leads. There’s the increasingly dense and complex Electric Bebop Band, comprised of two saxophonists (they’ve  included Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Chris Cheek, and Pietro Tonolo), two guitarists (among them Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ben Monder, Steve Cardenas, and Brad Shepik), an electric bassist (often Steve Swallow, and also Anders Christensen). Initially a vehicle for off-kilter blowing on core bebop repertoire by Parker, Dameron, Powell, and Monk, Motian now uses it to showcase increasingly involved arrangements of his original material.

There’s also Trio 2000, in which bassist Larry Grenadier triangulates Motian and Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, a master of rubato improvising at achingly slow tempos, in a dialogue with saxophonist Potter on the 1998 recording Trio 2000 + 1 or, as on the 2007 album Trio 2000 + 2: Live at the Village Vanguard, with Potter and alto saxophonist Greg Osby, both Winter & Winter releases.

No Motian project has more deeply impacted the sound of 21st century jazz than the Paul Motian Trio, a super-group with guitarist Bill Frisell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, who were just beginning to make their mark when they recorded It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago [ECM], the PM3 debut, in 1984. Motian no longer travels, and for the last five years or so, the trio has convened only for an annual fortnight run around Labor Day at New York’s Village Vanguard. Without soundcheck, completely in tune from the first note of this year’s run, they spun out collective improvisations of the highest order.

“Every time Paul hits the drums, he has this way of surprising even himself — and of course, it surprises everyone else,” Frisell said. “We’ve been playing 25 years, and I still don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Nor does Motian. “Red Garland once told me that if you have an idea in your head, somehow it will come out on your instrument,” he told me in 2001. “That’s what I do. My eyes are closed, I play what I’m hearing, I play musical ideas, and when they come out, I find myself doing technical things on the drumset that I’ve never done before in my life. Sometimes it might be awkward; maybe if I studied what I was thinking about, I would figure out technically the best and easiest way to do it, and do it differently.”

On night three of the Trio’s Vanguard engagement, Motian joined me at New York’s WKCR to speak about its history, its two most recent recordings (I Have The Room Above Her and Time and Time Again [ECM]), and many other things.

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PM:   We did the new trio recording, plus our trio recording about two years before that, in one afternoon, five or six hours. I go in with new music, and Joe and Bill are great—they can read the stuff right away, and we make little changes now and then.

TP:    Your custom over the last decade or so, since everyone’s schedule got even busier, is to get together after a long hiatus, and just hit, even with the barest soundcheck.

PAUL:   We’ve been playing together for such a long time. Now we do two weeks every year at the Vanguard, around this time in September. I don’t think we do anything in between. We don’t rehearse. I came in with a new tune last night, “Olivia’s Dream,” that Joe had never seen before. I put up the music and he played great.

TP:   How did you assemble the group?

PAUL:   I had a gig  in Boston, and Pat Metheny was playing with me. I said, “I’m putting together a group; can you recommend some guitarists?” He told me about Bill—he mentioned another guitar player (I can’t remember his name now), but he said he thought I would like Bill. Bill came over to my apartment, and we played, and we got along great. That was in 1980, I guess. So I started with Bill, and then I think Marty Ehrlich came in, and we rehearsed as a trio for a while. Then Marc Johnson, the bass player, came by, and we rehearsed with him for a while, and then Marc recommended Joe—or maybe it was Ed Schuller. Then Joe recommended Billy Drewes. Anyway, that quintet came together in ‘81 or so, and the trio thing happened three years later.

TP:   Was it a matter of strategy or circumstance?

PAUL:   It just happened. We were playing a gig with the quintet, and at one point during one of the songs, the bass laid out, and it was just Joe and Bill and I playing, and right then, that’s what I heard. I said, “Gee, I could get away with this, guys.” Economically it made sense, plus the music was really happening. So I stayed with that.

TP:   You’ve worked with many powerful bass players. The Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro, Gary Peacock and Chuck Israels. David Izenson in your own trio. Charlie Haden in the Keith Jarrett Trio and Quartet. In Oscar Pettiford’s bands in the late ‘50s. More recently in Bill Frisell’s trio with Ron Carter. Can you speak about the dynamics of playing with a bass player vis-a-vis playing without one?

PAUL:   That was going through my head last night as I was playing. Without the bass, I can do whatever I want. I can change the tempo. I can play free, without a tempo. I can play free for a while, and then play in tempo for a while, and not play, and lay out. I’m totally free, and it’s totally open for me to do whatever I want. Now, it’s got to make sense to me, and it’s got to be musical. With the bass, sometimes I can almost do the same thing, but of course, the bass makes a big difference.

TP:   The Paul Motian Trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano toured extensively in the ‘80s and into the mid ‘90s.

PAUL:   I got burned out. That’s why I don’t tour any more. It just got ridiculous.

TP:    Not just with them, though. You developed a number of groups by the end of the ‘90s.

PAUL:   Yeah, plus I was playing with other bands, other people. People would call me from Europe, and I’d go to Europe or Japan, and play with people there. It’s ridiculous.  Now it’s worse than ever, I understand, from when I talk to people now.

TP:   It’s been said that you don’t like to leave the environs of New York City, and would probably prefer not to leave Manhattan Island, if possible…

PAUL:   Well, no…

TP:   Not entirely true.

PAUL:   I mean, sometimes I’ll see a film of maybe a small town in Paris that looks really great, and I remember having a good time there, and I miss that. I played all over Italy, and I miss friends and people, and great food sometimes. Not all the time! Sometimes. But I love New York. I’ve been here forever.

TP:    But you haven’t been wanting to travel so much for the last couple of years.

PAUL:   No. It’s a hardship, man. Plus, I don’t take my drums, so I’m playing a different drumset every night, playing in a different hall every night. You don’t know what you’re going to come up with. Plus, they gave me a hard time on the airlines. When I was playing with Keith Jarrett and we toured, I would take my own drums. When I started with my own trio, with David Izenson and Charles Brackeen, I would take my drums. But after a while, it got harder and harder, and they charged more and more money. People used to take basses on the plane for free! Put it on a seat and strap it in. Free, man. Now you can’t even take a bass on a plane. Then I would just take my cymbals. Then they started giving me a hard time with my cymbal. “What’s that, mister? You can’t take that on the plane.” Blah-blah-blah. So I said goodbye.

TP:   Is it important for you to play with your own drums?

PAUL:   Sure. Yeah.

TP:   Did you ever feel happy with how you played not on your own drums?

PAUL:   Very seldom. Occasionally, I would come across a good drumset.

TP:    Would the difference in quality not be discernible to anyone but you and other drummers?

PAUL:   I feel that it would be. People have told me that I still sound like me, and I’m able to play like me and sound like me no matter what the drums are. But I don’t agree!

TP:   What do you use?

PAUL:   It’s a Gretsch drumset that I bought in a drum shop here in New York about 30 years ago. I love the sound of those drums and I love to play those. I’ve been playing the cymbals that I use for quite a few years now. They’re a mish-mash of different companies. I gave my old drumset to Joe Lovano.

TP:   Tell me about playing with Thelonious Monk.

PAUL:   I played with him a couple of times—a week in Boston, and earlier at the Open Door at Lafayette and Third Street. Lou Donaldson came to the Vanguard the other day, and we were talking about that, because Lou was in Monk’s band—with Donald Byrd and I don’t remember the bass player—the first time I played with Monk. I knew Monk was playing at the Open Door with his band, and I went to hear the music. The promoter, Bob Reisner, knew I played drums—he had seen me around town. When I arrived, he said, “Paul, Arthur Taylor hasn’t showed up; if you go home and get your drums, you can play with Monk.” Man, I ran home, got my drums, and came back. Monk paid me ten dollars at the end of the night. When I told Lou Donaldson that story, he said, “Oh, yeah, that’s all he paid anybody.” Donald Byrd once told me he’s got a picture of me playing with Monk on that date. I’d love to see it. That had to be 1955 or 1956. Then in 1960 I played for a week with Monk in Boston with Scott LaFaro and Charlie Rouse.

Monk said that he liked one take, and Charlie Rouse also talked about it. If there was anything more than, say, a take-two, they would just move on, go on to the next thing. Once you’re into the second take, it’s like a copy somehow. It doesn’t sound real enough. You’re trying to correct something, man. I remember doing record dates, not my own, like just somebody called me to do a recording, and talking about take 15 and 16. That’s ridiculous.

TP:   On one of the Bill Evans Trio dates, Portrait In Jazz maybe, from 1959, you’d done a month at a club called the Showplace, finished the run on a Sunday, then went in the studio to do the session.

PAUL:   That was a club on Third Street. That’s the first record we did with Scott LaFaro.

TP:   But fifty years ago, long runs were more commonplace.

PAUL:   Oh, yeah. There was a club on 52nd Street called the Hickory House. I played in there for three months with Bill Evans, and for three months again with Joe Castro, a piano player. I remember playing 10 weeks with Lennie Tristano at the Half Note. Nine weeks at the Vanguard with Bill Evans and Gary Peacock. One or two weeks or more at the original Birdland. That’s the way it was, then.

It slowed up for jazz around the mid ‘60s. I don’t think I played with Bill Evans after 1964 or so, then I started with Keith Jarrett around 1968. Those couple of years in there, I was doing commercial gigs. I played at a nightclub on 72nd Street with acts coming from Israel. I played with a Hungarian violinist and a Romanian piano player. Great shows!

TP:   Was that a valuable time for you? Did it affect the way you heard music?

PAUL:    It paid my rent. That was it.

TP:   But between ‘63 and ‘68, your personal aesthetic seems to have changed in certain ways. You played with much more radical players.

PAUL:   True. There was a wonderful piano player in Boston named Lowell Davidson, who isn’t around any more. He was very original, and played great. I used to go up to Boston just to play with this guy. There were different bass players. We did a concert of his music at a church I think in 1976, and the bass player was a guy named Jon Voigt, who was the librarian at Berklee School of Music. Lowell Davidson recorded it, and I had a ¼” reel-to-reel tape in my closet for about 20 years. Finally, I told Manfred Eicher at ECM about it, and he said, “Well, give me the tape, and maybe we can do something with it.” I was ecstatic that maybe this could finally be a record, because the music was incredible. I loved that stuff. But now Manfred tells me now that they don’t know where the tape is!

But anyway, I did things with Lowell, and played with Paul Bley and Gary Peacock at a club in the Village with Albert Ayler and John Gilmore. That was a helluva gig!

TP:    So in 1963, you’re playing with Bill Evans, and in 1964 you’re playing with Paul Bley, Albert Ayler and Gary Peacock. Opposite ends of the spectrum. Why did this happen?

PAUL:   I don’t think of it as being that far apart. They were gigs, and it was music. Just playing music, man. Continuing, going forward.

TP:   But if my recollection is correct, you weren’t too happy with the way things were going with Bill Evans. Didn’t you leave mid-gig?

PAUL:   I left Bill Evans. We were playing at Shelley Manne’s club in California, and it seemed like I was playing softer and softer until I finally felt like I wasn’t there at all. So I said, “Bill, I’m leaving.” He begged me not to quit, but I did. I paid my own way back home. He got Larry Bunker to play drums. They went up to San Francisco, and then they went to Europe for the first time. So I wasn’t happy with the music. I just felt I wasn’t playing.

TP:   Was that because of his own direction, what he was asking you to do, or did it just seem that this was where the music was taking you?

PAUL:   I had started playing with different people in New York, and the music for me was going in a different direction—the Jazz Composers Orchestra and with Paul Bley. I wanted to be part of that. I felt like this was the way to go, and with Bill I felt I was standing still.

TP:   In the late ‘50s you were one of the busiest drummers on the scene. I’ve seen your gig book. You were working 330-340 days a year, sometimes twice in a day.

PAUL:   Yeah, I was. I missed that photo shoot of Great Day In Harlem. I had three gigs that day, man. I was told about the photo shoot, that I should go, but I couldn’t make it. I think I played a wedding, a parade, and a gig. One time I was at the Musicians Union, and I was going up the stairs and somebody was coming down. He said, “Hey, Paul! You’re the house drummer at Birdland.” I wasn’t, man, but he just had seen me there a lot.

TP:   A lot of the gigs you were doing demanded you swing and keep really good time, but not a whole lot else.

PAUL: Sometimes. I did a rehearsal with Edgar Varese that was recorded. That had to be 1955-56. There was a tape, and Teo Macero told me that he had it. I don’t know what happened to it. I had a drumstick in one hand and an iron pipe in the other, and I had music in front of me. There were staffs, but not notes. There were open-ended triangles placed in different parts of the staff, and you were supposed to play according to what you… Art Farmer was on it, Hal McKusick, Billy Butterfield, the tuba player—an 8- or 9-piece band. I don’t know how come I got the call to do that, but I did.

TP: Well, you got a lot of calls.

PAUL:   Yeah. Somehow. I don’t get it.

TP:    When did you hit the New York scene?

PAUL:   I was in the Navy during the Korean War, and for a year I was stationed at Brooklyn Receiving Station, across the street from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I had an apartment in Brooklyn. It was like going to a day job. In the morning, I’d go in to a band rehearsal, and if there was no function or no dignitary to play for or anything, I’d go home, then get my drums and find someplace to play. Go play somewhere. Every day, if I could. I got out in September 1954.

TP:   It  was such an active time. For one thing, with the G.I. Bill, a lot of musicians were studying…

PAUL:   Well, I went to Manhattan School of Music on the G.I. Bill for a semester. Then in the middle of the second semester, I got a gig with George Wallington and Teddy Kotick at a club called the Composer Room on 58th Street off of Sixth Avenue—sort of a trio room. Teddy got me the gig; I’d met Teddy through Bill Evans, who I met pretty early on. I started falling behind in my studies, so I quit the school then.

TP:   Was your experience there valuable for you?

PAUL:   Sure. I was studying tympany and xylophone and piano and all of that.

TP:    So you learned something about theory and orchestral percussion, and it refined your skills, I guess.

PAUL:   Oh, yeah. I’d go in for a tympani lesson, and the first thing the tympani teacher would say was, “Sing A.” I never got it right!

TP:   No perfect pitch.

PAUL:   No, not me.

TP:   Do you hear the drums as a melodic instrument?

PAUL:   Yeah, definitely. It can be an orchestra, if you want to. You’ve got cymbals, you’ve got different tuned drums, you could have a string section, or whatever. But you’ve got to put that in your head. If you put it in your head, it can become real.

TP:    What drummers were your modeling yourself after?

PAUL:   Kenny Clarke, number one. I used to go the Bohemia, which opened in 1955. Charlie Parker was the first player they booked to play there, they had his name out front, but then he died. Before that, I went to the Bohemia to play jam sessions. No money. There was no band there. You’d just find some people to play with, then go to the club and say, “Is it okay if we play?” “Yeah, sure, go ahead.” Then people started to hear about it, and it became a club. Anyway, I heard Kenny Clarke playing there with Oscar Pettiford, George Wallington and different people. I was there every night.

I loved Kenny Clarke. His time, his feel. Did you ever hear the movie Miles Davis did the music for, Elevator to the Gallows? Boy, there’s some great stuff on there. Kenny Clarke’s playing brushes on snare drum, really fast tempo. Just the snare drum and brushes, man. It’s great. It’s swinging like a…I don’t want to say it, but you know what I mean?

TP:    We did a Downbeat Blindfold Test on which you also expressed your admiration for Shadow Wilson.

PAUL:   Sure, Shadow Wilson, but also Philly Joe Jones. I was at the Bohemia nightly to hear Miles Davis with Coltrane and Philly Joe. I’d also go to Birdland to see Art Blakey with his bands. Art Blakey, Philly Joe, Kenny Clarke—those were the people I was listening to, who were playing a lot. Roy Haynes wasn’t on the scene that much then. He was with Sarah Vaughan, so I didn’t get to hear him that much.

Lately, I’ve been listening to drummers from the ‘20s and ‘30s. I mean, Jimmy Crawford with the Jimmie Lunceford band, is a motherfucker, man. They used to call him Craw. Great. Manzie Campbell with Fletcher Henderson. There are drummers from that period who nobody talks about or knows about any more, but they were great drummers. I have a recording of Papa Jo Jones playing a duo with Willie the Lion Smith, and a trio with Teddy Wilson and Milt Hinton. Incredible. Simple, but just incredible music.

TP:   Were you listening to those older musicians at the time?

PAUL:   No. It’s only been lately I’ve been listening to all that.

TP:   How did you become interested in the drums in the first place?

PAUL:   There was a drummer in the neighborhood.

TP:    The neighborhood was in Providence, Rhode Island.

PAUL:   Right. I was friendly with his younger brother, who was sort of my age, and this drummer was maybe 16 or 17. He used to play in his house, and a lot of kids used to sit out front, listening to him. One day I went with my buddy to hear him play, and I fell in love with it, and asked if he would give me lessons.” I guess I was around 11. That’s how it started. He wasn’t really a teacher, though. He gave me some drumsticks and pulled out a practice pad, and he played me Gene Krupa doing “Sing, Sing, Sing” with Benny Goodman, then he gave me some sticks and told me how to play a roll or something like that.  After that I found a teacher, and went on from there.

TP:   Did you start playing in bands soon after?

PAUL:   Right after I got out of high school, I went on the road with a big band around New England, like one of those territory bands, playing Glenn Miller stuff. Perry Bourelly and his Orchestra. Also I used to play with other musicians in the neighborhood. I remember going to someone’s house and playing with an accordion player and a guitar player, playing popular songs from the ‘40s and so on.

TP:   Were you listening to records also, checking out drummers?

PAUL:  I’d hear records on the radio, and send away for them. I sent away for Count Basie records and things with Max Roach, who I also heard on broadcasts from Birdland.

TP:    You were coming of age right when when bebop was getting a lot of media attention.

PAUL:   Yes. When I was in high school, someone took me to a record store and played me a Charlie Parker record. It freaked me out. I didn’t know what was going on.

TP:   According to your gig book, you first worked the Vanguard maybe at the end of ‘56?

PAUL:   ‘57. With Lee Konitz. That was the first time I played there.  In those days, they’d have two bands. The Bill Evans Trio opposite the Miles Davis band. We played opposite Mingus. They’d have comedians—I played there with Bill Evans opposite Lenny Bruce. The place was never that full! One night with Bill and Scott LaFaro, there were only three people in the club. Now it’s packed. It’s unbelievable. It’s quiet, and they clap when you walk on stage. That never happened in those days!

TP:    Over the last few years, I’d speculate that your different bands occupy 6-7 weeks a year on the Vanguard schedule.

PAUL:   I think it turns out to be two months total. I’m going to go in there with Bill McHenry’s band at the end of this month, going into October. I think Ben Street is the bass player, Duane Eubanks on trumpet, and Andrew D’Angelo on alto saxophone.  Then I’m with Trio 2000 + 2 at the Vanguard the last week of November. I’m in the Vanguard in February with the trio of Jason Moran and Chris Potter, which we did last year. Jason Moran was saying that should be recorded live, so maybe I can talk to ECM about it and see. Also, in January I’m doing a week at the Blue Note with Bill Frisell and Ron Carter in January.

TP:   Are you under contract…

PAUL:   No-no-no.

TP:   Each record is a one-off situation?

PAUL:   Right.

TP:    So ECM and Winter & Winter split your time more or less evenly?

PAUL:   Pretty much. I do whatever comes up.

TP:   Your history with ECM begins with Tribute in 1972, doesn’t it? I guess your interest in bandleading began while you were with the Keith Jarrett Quartet.

PAUL:   I was playing with Keith, maybe in Boston, in 1976, and I told Keith’s booker that I was thinking about putting together something of my own, and asked if he’d get me a gig if I put a group together. That’s when that company got me a gig in Minneapolis with Charles Brackeen and David Izenson, opposite Earl Klugh. I wanted to do my own music, and I started taking piano lessons and composition lessons. That got me started.

I started playing with Keith around ‘68, coming out of that period with Paul Bley and Lowell Davidson—one thing grew into something else. We rehearsed a little bit, I remember, but not all that much. He didn’t dictate to do this or do that, or play this way or that way. It was open for everybody to play how they played, and everything fit. I left Keith when I started the trio with Charles and David. Actually, Bill Evans called me then and said, “Philly Joe Jones just quit on me; would you play with me again?” I said, “Well, I would love to, but I just started my own trio, and we’re about to do a European tour.” So that didn’t happen.

TP:   Did you get to play with him any more before his death?

PAUL:   No. After I left him in ‘64, the only time was at the Vanguard, when he was playing maybe with Eddie Gomez, and I sat in and played a couple of tunes. I felt very uncomfortable. It seemed like the music was on the edge of a mountain and we were about to fall off. It almost felt like it was speeding up or something. But it wasn’t. We ended up at the same tempo we started with. Miles Davis was in the club that night, and he drove me home, and he asked me how I felt about it. I said, ‘Man, it was okay, but the music just felt like it was speeding up.” He said, “Well, man, it’s only a trio; you got to push with a trio.”

TP:    In the ‘90s, you started developing a number of bands, the Trio+2 being one of them, and also the Paul Motian Electric Bebop Band. The Bebop Band evolved from a unit with odd instrumentation that played standards into a forum for expansive arrangements of your compositions.

PAUL:   Boy, that thing keeps growing and growing. The last time I played with it at the Vanguard, a few months ago, it was like an octet plus a piano player—nine people. I guess I felt like just playing with the trio with Bill and Joe wasn’t enough somehow. Also Bill and Joe started doing a lot of their own stuff, and I felt I wasn’t busy enough. Pretty soon, I started throwing in my music. Now it’s mostly my music; it’s hardly any bebop at all. I feel like you have to keep going on, keep doing stuff, try to do better and better, and try to grow. I’m still trying to grow. I’m still learning.

TP:   You employ a lot of young musicians, people under 40, even under 30.

PAUL:   It’s usually by recommendation. Somebody plays with me, they recommend somebody, and somebody will recommend someone else. I’m not thinking about age or whether they go to school or how they learned to play. Then, when they play with me, if I hear something I’d like to play with, I give them the gig. What’s interesting is that the young players who play with me go on to become bandleaders themselves. Chris Potter started playing with me right after he left Red Rodney. I think he was 23 years old. Kurt Rosenwinkel wasn’t much more than 20 when he came to my house the first time. Now these guys have their own bands.

TP:   We’ve talked about a lot of things.

PAUL:   I’ve been around a long time, man. There’s a lot to talk about.

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Downbeat (article from 2001)

“I think rehearsing takes away from the beauty of the music,” says Paul Motian. “I’ve been playing long enough to know what I’m doing at this point of my life! I’d rather depend on my skills and intuition to play well when the time comes.”

For Motian, 70, making music is as natural and necessary as drinking water; his laid-back, minimalist parsing of rhythm and timbre is a fixture on the jazz landscape. Consider how next-generation drum-masters Brian Blade and Joey Baron regard the drum icon.

“Just one strike of the cymbal, there’s something transcendent in his sound,” Blade observed  several years ago. “A lot of people miss how Motian moves the music and gets inside it. He possesses an amazing lyrical looseness, but at the same time keeps a swing and pulsation that injects the music with a good feeling.”

That feeling seduced a number of drummers who, like Baron, came of age aesthetically in the early ‘70s, when Motian propelled Keith Jarrett’s influential trio and quartet, more than a decade after attaining an international reputation as the drummer in the Bill Evans Trio from 1956 to 1963. “At a certain point,” says Baron, “I started hearing interplay that wasn’t necessarily about stating 4/4 all the time, but a floating kind of time, more like a circle than a straight up-and-down hard groove. It’s the way Paul Motian would really PLAY a ballad; he made it interesting rather than just a straight boom-chick, which a lot of drummers did.”

Hard swingers and hardcore abstractionists alike favor the clarity of  Motian’s beats and unremittingly in-the-moment focus. Every moment is fresh. “Paul always played like someone who listens and interprets what he hears immediately,” says Lee Konitz, who first shared a bandstand with Motian 50 years ago. “Every time Paul hits the drums, he has this way of surprising even himself — and of course, it surprises everyone else,” adds guitarist Bill Frisell, who received his “Miles Davis phone call” from Motian in 1980. “People say he plays like a little kid. At the same time, he’s a virtuoso, so deft and with so much technique, but the music always overshadows the instrument somehow.”

“Paul is an idea man as opposed to a language man,” says pianist Paul Bley, a partner since the early ‘60s. “I hear him play one idea on the drums, and there is a silence, and then there is another idea. It’s way beyond accompaniment per se. He’s playing as many ideas as the people he’s playing with, and sometimes more vividly because of the silences.”

Bley’s description precisely suits the ambiance of the 12 tunes that comprise I Have The Room Above Her [ECM], the [tk] album by the Paul Motian Trio with Frisell and tenor hero Joe Lovano since Motian’s previous ECM date,  It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago, from 1984. On the day after Labor Day, they convened at the Village Vanguard to begin a sold-out fortnight. They needed no soundcheck: Completely in tune from the first note of “Good Morning Heartache” – they wove collective improvisations of the highest order, springboarding off of Motian’s pellucid ideas, pristinely executed with no excess strokes.“We’ve been playing for 25 years,” Frisell says, “and every time we play, I still don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“Red Garland once told me that if you have an idea in your head, somehow it will come out on your instrument,” Motian said. “That’s what I do. My eyes are closed, I play what I’m hearing, I play musical ideas, and when they come out I find myself doing technical things on the drumset that I’ve never done before in my life. Sometimes it might be awkward; maybe if I studied what I was thinking about, I would figure out technically the best and easiest way to do it, and do it differently.”

Often, it seemed, Joe Lovano took timekeeping responsibilities. “That’s true,” Motian responds. “They played some of my stuff for one drummer on a Blindfold Test, and he said, ‘That’s bullshit. Anybody could do that.’ He didn’t get it. On one record we played ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ and the pianist and bassist played the time in 3/4. I’m playing maybe double or half what they’re doing in three, or playing in four, or maybe playing completely free. But I know exactly where I am in the song. I won’t do anything that interferes with what they’re doing. I’ll just try to make some music out of it without being locked into playing a certain thing.

“I remember when I played with Scott LaFaro the first time with Bill Evans. I’d worked with Oscar Pettiford, Tommy Potter, Curley Russell, Wilbur Ware, who played straight-ahead 4/4 time, but never a bass player who played like that. All of a sudden, the time started to break up. Maybe that’s when I started to realize that the time was already there; you don’t have to play it all the time. Maybe.”

“Paul knows how to accompany in any direction and any style,” notes Lovano, who recently matched the drum elder with Hank Jones and George Mraz on his straightahead Blue Note dates I’m All For You and Joyous Encounter. “He plays with total feeling, and creates amazing texture within the form of a tune. Paul plays with all different elements within the music. He plays like a pianist, where he’s playing the melody, the changes, the rhythm—he doesn’t have to just play a repetitive beat. He leaves a lot of spaces. A lot of counterpoint happens. He’s one of the most creative musicians in jazz.”

[BREAK]

“I wanted to try stuff, and I wanted to get it right,” Motian says of the trio’s early years. “I didn’t know if people who were going to play my music would like it. Is this music valid? What the hell am I doing? So we rehearsed a lot.”

Motian was almost exclusively a sideman until his early forties, when he acquired Keith Jarrett’s grand piano, took composition lessons, started writing tunes, made his first records, Conception Vessel and Tribute,  for ECM, and began his second career as a bandleader. “I began to realize that you could write little ideas and have people interpret them,” he says. “Manfred Eicher told me that I could record my own stuff, and that kicked my ass.”

The son of Armenian emigrants who settled in Providence, Rhode Island, Motian draws heavily on Anatolian and Persian melodies that he heard as a child.

“To some extent, Paul’s Armenian-ness comes through in his sound,” says Jarrett, who recruited Motian for his trio in 1968. “He plays like he’s on a caravan! Paul isn’t particularly jazzy, and I think he contributed a feeling of openness that wouldn’t have been there if he were a hip jazz drummer. Paul definitely was not going to play like any other drummer, nor could you force him to at gunpoint. It’s almost like he has no choice. Paul has kept the doors open. It’s as though he’s purposely eliminated stylistic sophistication in order to stay pure.”

Motian learned the tradition inside-out before setting it aside. As a Providence teenager, he rapidly developed skills on dance gigs with talented local peers and through intense study and emulation of the Savoy and Dial recordings by Charlie Parker and Max Roach. At 19, he enlisted in the Navy, and wound up in a band that joined the Admiral of the Sixth Fleet on his various postings. Posted to the Brooklyn Navy Yard after two years of sea duty, he moved to New York in 1953.

For the next few years, Motian hung out and jammed with a vengeance. “Wherever anybody played, I was there,” he relates. “Every chance I got, I’d take my drums on the subway.” At Birdland, the aspirant soaked up Art Blakey with Horace Silver and Curley Russell or Max Roach with Clifford Brown and Richie Powell; at the Bohemia, he dug how Kenny Clarke “got so much music out of a little amount of equipment” with Oscar Pettiford and George Wallington. “I thought it was par for the course,” he notes dryly. “Everything was like that.”

In the fall of 1954, shortly before his discharge, Motian attended an audition held by clarinetist Jerry Wald, and was impressed by the piano player. “Someone said, ‘Oh, that’s Bill Evans from New Jersey,’” Motian recalls. “I was hoping we’d both get this gig, and we did. We toured to Puerto Rico and different places on the East Coast during 1955. Then somehow, [clarinetist] Tony Scott hired us, and we went on tour with Tony. That was the beginning.

As documented in his gig books, yellowed pocket-size calendars chronicling the names, venues, and wages that comprise his career, Motian spent the next several years swinging for the likes of Eddie Costa, Oscar Pettiford, Don Elliott, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, George Wallington, Lee Konitz, Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans.

“In those days, we played from 9 or 10 at night until 3 or 4 in the morning,” he recalls. “I didn’t see the sunlight. You never went out of town. You spent $2 in a taxi to get to a gig, it took half-an-hour to get there, and you played for 6 hours or more.”

On Thursday, November 5, 1959, Bill Evans called Motian to sub for drummer Kenny Dennis on a trio engagement at Basin Street. By the final week, Motian had the job, as did LaFaro, a new arrival from the West Coast. The trio developed their sound during a subsequent month at the Showplace, on Third Street, after which they spent 9 hours in the studio recording Portrait of Jazz, Motian’s favorite of the Bill Evans Trio recordings, on which his symbiotic connection with LaFaro is already evident. In the ensuing 18 months until the bassist’s fatal motorcycle accident in the summer of 1961, Motian began to reconceptualize his approach. “Scott played the bass like no one ever had heard or played,” Motian states. “Of course, it made a strong impression. I always play from what I hear, and I tried to incorporate what he and Bill were doing into my playing.”

Word reached Thelonious Monk, who hired Motian and LaFaro for a week at Boston’s Storyville during the second week of 1960. Otherwise, Motian committed himself to the trio even when times were less than flush. “At a lot of our gigs we didn’t have full houses and people screaming and clapping,” he says. “I remember playing in the Village Vanguard with only four people in the club, and asking Max Gordon if we could go home. He said, ‘Oh, no, you’ve still got a table of people and you’ve got to play another set.’”  Still, Motian didn’t budge when Evans fell ill in late 1960, taking sporadic gigs and drawing an unemployment check for the hefty sum of $427 for 9 weeks.

“We were pretty busy from the beginning of 1961 to the summer,” he sums up the conclusion of his first career peak. “We were hot!  Then Scott got killed. Then it went on from there.”

[BREAK]

The ascension of the Bill Evans Trio occurred against a New York backdrop of Ornette Coleman’s hellraising at the Five Spot, the ever more intense form-stretching of Charles Mingus, the politicization of Max Roach, the spiritual blossoming of John Coltrane, and the growing visibility of a cadre of young musicians with an avant-garde sensibility. LaFaro and Motian wanted Evans to test those waters, but the leader was reluctant to shift his parameters, and Motian felt the first stirrings of aesthetic restlessness.

The breaking point came during a lucrative January 1964 engagement with Evans and Chuck Israels at Shelley’s Manne Hole in sunny Los Angeles, on the heels of a 1963 itinerary that included time-keeping gigs at Manhattan’s Hickory House with Evans, Martial Solal and Joe Castro. “Every day the music was going downhill,” he remembers. “I felt like I was playing a club date. I was playing brushes, barely touching the drums, and everything I did was too loud! I got pissed off, and I quit and went home. I’d been playing in New York with Paul Bley and some other people, and music was changing. It was getting exciting.” On his return, Motian happily took a $5 a night gig with Gary Peacock, Bley and John Gilmore at Take III, a Bleecker Street coffee house.

Excitement waned during the lean years that followed. Motian became involved with Boston-based pianist Lowell Davidson, whose sound he describes as “like Cecil Taylor with a Bill Evans touch,” and with the Jazz Composers Orchestra; for rent he played floor shows at Café Sabra, a West 72nd Street Israeli nightclub. In 1966, on a Monday off-night, Tony Scott called him to play at the Dom, a club on East 8th Street. “When we walked in,” Motian recalls, “this young guy was playing ‘The Song Is You’ with Henry Grimes on bass. I said, ‘Tony, who’s the pianist? Cat sounds great!’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s Keith Jarrett. I discovered him.’ Tony always said he discovered everybody. We hooked up, and toured the country with Charles Lloyd after Jack deJohnette left the band. In late ‘68, when Keith wanted to put together his own trio, he called me and Charlie Haden; he said he’d always liked my work with Bill Evans and Charlie’s work with Ornette, and thought it would be a good combination.”

Jarrett first heard Motian with Bill Evans at Boston’s Jazz Workshop. “He looked like a businessman in his suit, sitting pretty still, using brushes,” the pianist recalls. “Then I heard a tape of him with Lowell Davidson, and what struck me is that I didn’t know who the drummer was nor who it could be. The enormity of the difference between how he played with Bill and with Lowell made me think that he was not one of those players who would decide ahead of time what he liked and what he didn’t. He doesn’t seem to have a thing about categories. Paul likes good songs; he is probably the most vivid example of a drummer who likes music above his own involvement in it. He would request that we play ballads in the early trio with Charlie! We listened to Bartok together. We’d listen to whatever was good.”

With Jarrett, Motian saw an opportunity to pursue ideas that gestated during the LaFaro-Evans years. “My first record with Bley and Gary Peacock was a turning point,” he recalls. “I started playing a little more open, a little freer. I never thought so much about sound before; I realized how much sound turns me on—I’ll do something on a drumset and that sound will make me do something else, which will grow into something else. Anyway, the way Keith played seemed perfect for me. It seemed like that was the way to go—an improvement, an evolution. Let’s play!”

* * * * * *
Thirty-seven years later, “Let’s play” remains Motian’s mantra. Burned out from decades of road work, he no longer travels, allowing the world to come to him in New York City. “I don’t go on vacation,” he says. “I go to the Vanguard!”

In June, the hallowed basement hosted Motian’s  exploratory unit Trio 2000 + 1, with Chris Potter, Larry Grenadier and pianist Masabumi Kikuchi. In August he displayed his pellucid touch with tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry’s quartet, including bassist Reid Anderson and guitarist Ben Monder. The latter has worked extensively with Motian’s Electric Bebop Band, which plays the Vanguard in January. Formed in 1991 with Josh Redman and Kurt Rosenwinkel, it’s a sextet with a signature configuration (two saxophones, two electric guitars, and electric bass) whose evolution from a crisp not-quite-a-cover band – the repertoire includes compositions by Monk, Parker, Bud Powell, Tadd Dameron, Charles Mingus, Herbie Nichols, and Motian – to a creative ensemble is evident on a just-mixed ECM recording set for a 2006 release. Also new on ECM are meet-in-the-studio New York trio dates with Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson and with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava and pianist Stefano Bollani.

“I trust Manfred Eicher 2000 percent, especially during the mix,” Motian says of the producer who encouraged him to begin his journey as a leader. He notes that James Farber, who engineered these records as well as I’m All For You, “is really good at getting my sound.”

“On trips to Europe, I had to deal with whatever drumset I got, although I still managed to play how I play,” Motian continues. “But the sound I really love is my own drums, and by playing and recording just here in New York I’m able to use them. It’s the way they’re tuned; the intervals between each individual drum and a kind of bottom sound that I love. It makes a lot of sense to me. It’s very musical.”

“The things people ask me and say make the stuff more important than it really is to me somehow,” concludes the man who was drummer of choice for two pianists who rank high on the influence tree of modern jazz, and whose various groups inspire several generations of improvisers. “I started playing drums at 12 years old, and I just went and took the gigs. I love to play, and I love music, and I would get involved with anything I thought was musical or great—except the commercial, but that was so I could survive and eat. Now I can play bebop, which I love, and play my music, which is open and free. I can do what I want. I’ve got the whole world right there. How good can it get?”

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Drummer, Interview, Jazz.com, Obituary, Paul Motian

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh yeah.  I went down there every day…

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

Right, in Pittsburgh.

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

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

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

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

Did you have private teachers?

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

How old were you when you started playing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I wasn’t playing the bass at all.

That happened when you heard Jimmy Blanton, I gather.

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

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

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

Was there a good teacher there?

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

So Jimmy Blanton was the guy you played along with.

Daily.

When did you start gigging on the bass?

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

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

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

Was it piano-bass-and-drums…

Piano, bass and drums and saxophone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was he playing the same then as later…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So after high school, then what?

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

Wasn’t Hank Jones in Buffalo at that time?

Yes, that’s where we met.

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

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

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

What sort of things would you play?

Anything he wanted to play, and I followed him.

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

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

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

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

What kind of music was he playing?

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

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

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

So Snookum Russell was a stimulating experience.

Oh yeah.

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

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

How did you travel?

On the train.  Took two days.

What happened when you got here?

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

And who was on the Street?

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

What happened then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few words about Dizzy Gillespie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[LOUD LAUGH]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such as it was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REMARKS ABOUT RAY BROWN:
Christian McBride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    He wasn’t joking, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    What was it like playing with him?

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

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

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

TP:    Why is that?

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

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

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

Geoffrey Keezer

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

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

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

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

TP:    Not so many gangsters now either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Why was that?

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

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

TP:    [READS RAY'S QUOTE ON KEEZER]

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

John Clayton

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

TP:    What was Ray Brown like as a teacher?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    And he handled all the details.

CLAYTON:  He did.

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

CLAYTON:  That pretty much was it.

TP:    A very disciplined man, then.

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

Ron Carter

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

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

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

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

TP:    Did you become friends with him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herb Ellis’ Written Statement and Remarks

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

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

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

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

TP:    Do you recollect when you first met?

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

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

ELLIS:  Yes, it did.

TP:    What was your impression?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monty Alexander

TP:    When did your association with Ray Brown begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    So his lessons to you were life lessons.

ALEXANDER:  Yes.

TP:    Comportment and sustaining yourself within this big sharkpit.

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

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

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

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

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

Benny Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    So he was fearless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    You played with Ray Brown what years?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

HAMILTON:  For 18 years!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Would they help?

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

TP:    What was his handicap?

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

TP:    Was that psychology or talent?

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

TP:    What a practical man!

HAMILTON:  Yes! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Was he also a practical joker?

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

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

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

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

Oscar Peterson

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

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

PETERSON:  Yes, that’s right.

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

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

TP:    So he never threw you any curve balls.

PETERSON:  No, he never did.

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

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

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

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

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

PETERSON:  I have to say yes to that.

TP:    He was a reasonably proficient pianist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PETERSON:  I’m trying.

Quincy Jones

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

QUINCY JONES:  He was.

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

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

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

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

TP:    They were clean, too.

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

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

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

TP:    It was a true oral tradition then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    What was his favorite meal?

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

TP:    From downhome haute cuisine to haute haute cuisine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ed Thigpen

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

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

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

TP:    But you knew the records with Dizzy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    A steakhouse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

THIGPEN:  We worked ten months a year.

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

THIGPEN:  Extremely.

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

THIGPEN:  Extremely musical, creative… It was…

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

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

TP:    Did you rehearse a great deal with Ray?

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

TP:    So he never rested on his laurels.

THIGPEN:  Oh, no!

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

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

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

THIGPEN:  That’s it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Was his business acumen always extremely evident?

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

TP:    You mean business things.

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

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

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

TP:    Well, everyone has their idiosyncracies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

THIGPEN:  That’s right.

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

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

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

Two Interviews with Drummer Brian Blade

Continuing our mini-series on drummers informed by the Afro-diasporic elements of New Orleans culture, here are a pair of interviews with Brian Blade, who turned 41 on July 25th.  The first conversation, which originally ran on http://www.musician.com,  comes from 2001, not long after Blade had joined the then newly-formed Wayne Shorter Quartet with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci. The second, which ran on the now-dormant webzine, http://www.jazz.com, is a composite of  a June 2008 interview on WKCR and a phone conversation in the spring of 2009.  Most of the expository text comes from my introduction to the jazz.com piece.

As I wrote in my preface to the earlier piece, Blade, then 30, was “one of the few drummers with a distinct personality in hardcore jazz—credits include Kenny Garrett, Joshua Redman, Pat Metheny, and Mark Turner—who also has stamped his imprint on popular music through stadium gigs and recordings with Joni Mitchell, Daniel Lanois, Seal, Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan.”

At the time, Blade had just released Perceptual [Blue Note], the second release by Fellowship Band, on which the leader and his unit—Kurt Rosenwinkel, guitar; Myron Walden, alto saxophone; Melvin Butler, tenor saxophone; Jon Cowherd, piano; Christopher Thomas, bass—interpreted original tunes by Blade and Cowherd that drew on a range of heartland folk styles, with guest turns by Lanois and Mitchell punctuating the flow.

What were your earliest musical influences?

The way I was brought up, boundary lines were never laid on the ground between people or the music. I always felt comfortable trying to surrender to the situation, no matter what banner may fly above it. You’re always trying to serve the song. My father is a minister and a great singer. My brother, Brady, Jr., who is five years older, is also a drummer. He left for college when I was around 13. He had been playing drums in church all this time, and when he left it was like everyone turned to me and said, “Okay, it’s your turn.” It was my duty, in a way. I never thought about it in terms of continuing into the next decade.

So you were just plunged into the waters of drumming, as it were.

[laughs] In a way, in the church environment, but there it was okay, because there’s tolerance there.

What was the sound of that music?

My father would tell me of his memories, and how there wasn’t even a piano; when he was coming up, people would clap their hands and sing and stomp their feet. I played right behind a great organist named Colette Murdoch, and there was piano and, of course, myself and the voices. Hindsight reveals that it taught me the essentials needed to be a part of a group, not only as a musician, but as a human being.

You mean beyond technique, in terms of the spiritual aspect of participating in a collective.

Absolutely. These people who would sing these songs didn’t come to music in a methodical way. They didn’t study it. They just sang, because it was praise! Hopefully, that’s what you’re trying to reach for. People get used to structure and chord progression. But when you’re not aware of these things, the spirit has to move you. So you surrender to that. I think it means a lot. Of course, it’s good to have balance. Now that I am playing music and making recordings, I want to know more and more.

Was Shreveport anything like New Orleans in microcosm, a smaller version with a lot of cultural influences coming in?

Not really. In a way, you could split the state of Louisiana in half culturally. Where I grew up, at the northwestern tip, there is this triangularity. Texas and Arkansas and Louisiana collide there. So it’s quite different from New Orleans, being this port of entry for so many cultures. It’s more inland, so you don’t have such a thick soup, so to speak, on the streets.

Was there a lot of blues?

Oh, absolutely.

A lot of country music?

Absolutely. Bands from the South and from across the globe would come to Shreveport. I saw the Modern Jazz Quartet there, Dizzy Gillespie was my first concert, the Neville Brothers would come through… So the Diaspora was presented to me.

Did it all seem like a continuum to you?

It absolutely did. That’s another wall that never came up for me, the sacred and secular. I’m still trying to do the same thing, and hopefully project the same feeling. I was always playing in high school, different music. When I went to New Orleans it just became more of a concentration on instrumental and vocal jazz music.

It’s interesting, because your teenage years coincide with the trend toward compartmentalization of music in the broader media – more compartmentalized radio, MTV is beginning. Maybe in Shreveport it wouldn’t have hit quite so strongly.

Yes. I’m thankful for the folks I grew up around in Shreveport, because everybody was open to so many different things. Even the ones who weren’t had a certain discipline that they wanted to share with me, and I am thankful for that, too. But I always knew, no matter what, that playing the music was always a joy, whether it was jazz or an R&B gig, or playing with a country band. It was always the joy of it. I try to carry that into every situation.

How do you prepare for the different feels of, say, swinging on the ride cymbal in jazz vis-a-vis, say, laying down a rock backbeat?

I think it’s important that you realize what the situation requires. No matter what your strong suit may be, hopefully you can find that singular thread that knits the music together, rhythmically. Again, for me, it all boils down to serving the song. Technically, I draw on the things that I’ve practiced, that I still practice, listening to recordings and trying to learn how Elvin Jones might execute something, or Art Blakey, or John Bonham for that matter — people who have created a sound, possess such an amazing groove and a great sense of tone and projection. When you analyze and absorb as much as you possibly can, it sets you up for any situation.

Let’s talk about some of your major influences. You’ve mentioned Elvin Jones as your hero.

Yes. Fortunately, I’ve been able to see Elvin several times over the last ten years actually, and God, it gets better and better every time. A Love Supreme was one of the first records that sticks in my consciousness. It’s an ideal that you aspire to. Also the things that Elvin plays on “Ballads” with only the snare drum, bass drum, cymbals and hi-hat. It sounds like a village of folks playing rhythm! He can create such a wide dynamic.

I should also refer to my teachers in New Orleans. John Vidacovich was and still is important. Sometimes when I hear him I think, “Oh God, I’ve stolen everything from Johnny V.” But hopefully that’s not the case. Aside from having always the deepest sense of groove, Johnny is always concerned with this sort of melodic motion coming from the drums. He moves the music and shapes it, and kind of gets inside of it. He’s more of a philosophical teacher than one that taught in a methodical way.

He did that great book with Herlin Riley.

Yeah, New Orleans Drumming. Totally. Herlin is another from New Orleans, and David Lee, Jr., who used to play with Sonny Rollins. Herlin to me almost embodies what New Orleans is. It’s like a perpetually modern approach. When you hear brass bands in New Orleans, the arrangements are like turn-of-the-century, coming into 1900! But the grooves and approaches are still evolving. So Herlin somehow takes these street rhythms, and breathes into them a new perspective from a New Orleans viewpoint.

I used to hear David Lee play trio all the time with the alto saxophonist Earl Turbinton and the bassist James Singleton, and also in a piano trio with Ellis Marsalis. He always moved the music forward, kind of an unwavering force, totally swinging all the time, never losing sense of that motion. As a teacher he had me learning the names of certain beats — “This is a Merengue, this is a Calypso.” It was very specific. He had me playing out of books. A very methodical way of approaching the drums. He and Johnny Vidacovich had very different ideas of what they felt they needed to impart to me, and I kind of got the whole picture. It was good to have both perspectives; each is valid, and I don’t think you can have one without the other.

Was Ed Blackwell’s sound universe a big influence on you?

Absolutely. In Ed Blackwell there’s this Africanism, moreso like a Western African playing a drumset, in a way. He’s always playing these sort of little conversations within this four-legged instrument! It’s interesting how many ideas can come from one place.

Which emanates pretty directly from the fact that New Orleans historically was a place where drums could be played.

Totally. I used to go to Congo Square. From what I’ve learned, a slave would walk from Mississippi just to be there for a day, you know, to have this vigil, this drum… There is storytelling in the instrument and what you put into it — but only what you put into it, I think. You have to go to it wanting to tell people something. If you’re only playing beats, then what is it for?

In New Orleans there are certain idiomatic things that you have to do in playing certain functions that traverse the whole timeline. Was that part of your experience there?

Well, I did march in a few parades during Mardi Gras. For me, the most fun thing is to see the brass bands, and how the past, present and future all collide at that very moment when you’re listening to them. I listened to Paul Barbarin records at the suggestion of Ernie Ely, who is another hero of mine down there. I was a busboy at a little place on Decatur Street called the Palm Court, where a guy named Greg Stafford played trumpet and Ernie was the drummer. The way they played the swing beat was real! They were playing these songs the way I felt they should be played, with the sensitivity but the passion for it. It wasn’t as if it was something relegated to olden times.

Have you studied in any systematic way African music, Afro-Cuban music?

Only as a music fan. I love to listen to music, and I buy a lot of recordings. Most recently I’ve gotten into this singer who I think is from Mali; her name is Umu Sangare. The drums are very soft on these recordings, but the rhythm is so strong. I think that’s what creates a groove, the interplay, and realizing that you may not have to do so much as the drummer to create something quite intense.

Is the science of rhythm in those cultures a different perspective than the trapset philosophy?

I think using all four limbs, perhaps it’s easy to get wrapped up in that, like the fact that you can create quite a complex landscape of rhythm. But to find that singular thread that makes the music live, that’s always the challenge. I’m a big fan of Paul Motian, and particularly Elvin Jones. Just one strike of the cymbal, there’s something transcendent in the sound.

You also mentioned John Bonham. Who are some of the people who influence the approach you take in your Rock life?

Well, for me John Bonham stands as one of the great drummers of any time. This density that comes from his sound and his sense of groove is unbelievable. So laid back, too, but at the same time moving the music forward. I always admired him. As well as Levon Helm of the Band records. He has this feeling that comes from a certain part of America, like Tennessee…

Shreveport!

[LAUGHS] Well, there’s this thing that happens, like all these musics, Country and Bluegrass and R&B, they all kind of collide, and out of it comes someone like Levon Helm. You hear the Motown sound and you hear these Stax records; all of these grooves kind of come out in his playing, but it’s uniquely him at the same time.

What’s the attraction of Paul Motian’s sound?

Johnny Vidacovich introduced me to Bill Evans records, because he liked Paul Motian so much. He possesses this amazing looseness that is so lyrical, but also at the same time the pulse. People sometimes miss that Motian really moves and gets inside of the music. It’s quite a different approach from records where you hear Art Blakey or Philly Joe Jones play the drums. But at the same time there is this swing and, like I say, this pulsation that injects the music with a good feeling.

You were talking about David Lee being extremely specific and almost pedagogical in his teachings. Tell me about practice — what you practice now, and how much you practice? Or is it more bandstand-oriented?

Since I have been on the road quite a bit for the last six or seven years, it has been difficult to practice regularly, and it’s important to take advantage of the time you have. On the road a lot of it happens mentally. I play the guitar every day regardless of where I am, because I can take it into hotel rooms! It’s good to have that musical connection, no matter what.

When I’m at home and do get to practice, I like to sit at the drumset and play time for periods of ten minutes at a time. Sometimes I play song forms, but sometimes I just play time, make this continuous line of different things so that hopefully, in live situations which are so unpredictable and when all this stuff goes out the window, your physical instinct will kick in. I try to get around the drums comfortably and play things that I hear, challenging myself to execute things. Usually it’s the distance from your head to your hands that’s the problem; you slow things down and speed it up again, that sort of thing.

What was your practice like when you were younger and forming?

In New Orleans I spent a lot of time playing with my friend Christopher Thomas, the bass player, in bands with Peter Martin or Nicholas Payton, or just the two of us for an hour or two on different tempos, playing blues or song forms or just quarter-notes together to see how disciplined we could be, to see where each of us felt the pulse and if the groove was together. I think it’s important to have companionship with someone, to try to find your place in a group. Because you’re going to be playing with people hopefully! There won’t be many solo drum concerts coming in the future for me.

So as important as it is to tell narratives and so forth on the drums, it isn’t going to happen without extensive preparation.

I don’t think so. Some folks just have this ability to tell a story, but I don’t think anyone can bypass these fundamental things. I don’t think anyone wants to really! Most times it’s lonely, like spending time in your room, listening and trying to see how things are played and how to get a certain sound, so then you can hopefully be free of it once you play more and more with every experience.

A final point. Rather uniquely among drummers of your generation you’ve made a mark in the Pop and Jazz worlds. But your imperatives seem to come out of jazz in a very profound way, and to inflect your stance towards the other areas.

Well, jazz definitely is predominantly what I do play. I’m not offended by the word “Jazz.”

Some people are.

Yes. Well, I think we get caught up in terminology too much. Maybe it’s just where I grew up, but for me the music was this singular thing. I never put up too many walls between genres and all this. Maybe that’s presumptuous or puffed-up to say, I don’t know, but…

That said, what does jazz mean to you?

There’s the improvisatory freedom that you don’t really experience in other musics. Within the forms and constructions you play, it gives you the opportunity to take flight and create your own picture with each performance of maybe the same piece, or with a different group of people, or with the same group of people — you challenge each other to tell a story every time. It’s the improvisatory freedom which makes it magical. It’s unseen. Hopefully you go with no preconceptions, so that it truly is of the moment. That’s the beauty of jazz music. Not to say that you aren’t playing songs, because that’s also the challenge: With that freedom, can you really create this narrative and take the listener as well as the people playing together on a journey that completes a sort of circle.

* * * *

In 2008, after an eight-year gap, Fellowship—comprising the same core personnel stated above—performed on Season of Changes [Verve], a succinct, streamlined suite on which Blade shaped the flow through subtle permutations of groove and drum timbre.

During that interim, Blade had toured extensively with Shorter, Redman, Garrett, Herbie Hancock, Bill Frisell, David Binney, Edward Simon, and other upper echelon improvisers from different points on the stylistic spectrum.  In the process, he burnished his stature among his generational peer group. In a Downbeat Blindfold Test a few years back, after remarking on Blade’s “real old-school sound,” drummer Jeff Ballard said: “Brian’s choices are amazing. What he plays is all for the composition. His mix of texture and tonality is perfect for that moment in the whole tune. So is his matching of sound to what’s going on in the placement. Also, he’s got patience with the biggest P on the planet. He forces things not to be automatic.”

Shortly before the jazz.com piece appeared,  Chick Corea had hired Blade to play the second half of a long tour by his Five Peace Band project with John McLaughlin, Garrett, and Christian McBride, made a similar point. “After working with Brian for a couple of tours, he’s become one of my favorite drummers of all time,” Corea stated. “He thinks as a composer, and he’s very expressive. He carries the tradition not only of Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes and Tony Williams—in my mind, he kind of holds the torch of the creation of jazz drumming—but he also does what might be considered, in more conservative music, radical things. Like playing very quietly, Or not playing at all, or playing very edgy and bombastically, all within the same framework. He came in and the whole set turned around.”

This interview was framed around the release of Mama Rosa [Verve], on which Blade  plays not a single beat on drums, but instead communicates with his voice and his guitar, revealing himself to be a first-class singer-songwriter. The 13-tune recital includes 10 Blade-penned songs that comprise a quasi-autobiography, touching on themes of faith, family, love, loss, and remembrance. Blade sings them without affect, allowing the power of his words to come through with phrasing and nuanced articulation. Lanois, the date’s producer, counterstates Blade’s message on guitar, Kelly Jones provides eloquent vocal harmony, and Fellowship colleagues Cowherd and Rosenwinkel also contribute to the proceedings.

“Revealing more of ourselves is always daunting,” Blade stated in the publicity materials attendant to the release. “But I feel like I need to keep challenging myself and peeling away layers to get to the core of who I am and what I have to offer.”

On Mama Rosa you reveal a side of yourself that you haven’t previously offered to the public. It’s a suite of music that includes ten songs you wrote while touring over the years. Can you tell me how the recording took shape? Is there an overall narrative arc, and did the songs fit cleanly into it? Was a lot of production involved?

As you say, it has been running parallel to my writing for the Fellowship Band, but in a very private way. Everything on the record was recorded at home on my 4-track, and it gave me enough satisfaction just to know, ok, they exist, and I’m fine with that. I’m thankful that I’ve had a little bit of time to write down my memories and experiences, and thoughts about my family, and life in general, and connect them with music. Some of those original four-track recordings are on the record as I did them in my little room, or various rooms around the world. But then it got to the point where I’d share them with my friend Daniel Lanois, and he encouraged me to try and make an entire record of it. As we went through the process he’d say, “Ok, I don’t think we can better this version from your home recording, so that’s on the record.”

Which of these songs is the first that you wrote, and when did you write it?

I guess “After the Revival.” Yes, that first song. I want to say on guitar, at least 12-13 years ago, even before Fellowship music started to come to me. It was a song written from the perspective of my mother, say, 1964, when she’s about to have my first child, my brother Brady. I was trying to think of what she might have been feeling at that time. My father is a pastor, so he often used to go out to preach at revivals when we were growing up. He was trying to build a home and take care of his family, but also go forth with his own mission as a minister. It’s really all about my grandmother Rosa, who is my mother’s mother, and also my mother and brother.

Can you tell me something about Rosa? Is she from Shreveport?

Yes, she is. Basically, she always took care of people’s houses, like a housekeeper her entire life, and she ran several kitchens at Southern University and places like that around Shreveport, Louisiana. Actually, the cover photograph is from the Jaguar Grille, which is the Southern University kitchen there. She’s a sweetheart! So I felt it was fitting to dedicate the record to her, and what she means to me, and hopefully the songs embody the joy she brought to my life and to so many other folks.

I gather you’ve recently moved back to Shreveport.

I’ve been spending more time there since I gave up my place in New York, just to connect with them more than just Christmas every year, as I get older and they get a little older.

This happened about two years ago. Has living there had any impact on your musical production? You remarked in conjunction with this recording (and I’m paraphrasing) that in a certain way you feel it’s time to be more open about who you are.

Well, maybe so. I don’t think I was ever concealing anything necessarily. But particularly with this Mama Rosa music, they almost feel like diary entries to me. It’s kind of like, “well, do I want the world to read my diary?” No, not really. But at the same time, it’s my music, too, which is something I love to share. So I felt, well, I  have to let it go in order to move forward and feel like I’m doing the right thing not only for myself, but for the grand scheme of things.

When did you start writing songs?

I want to say ‘96-‘97, just before the first Fellowship record came out.

So the process begins during or right after the time you’d been on the road with master singer-songwriters—Emmy Lou Harris, Dylan, Joni Mitchell.

Exactly. And Daniel Lanois.

Who you met in New Orleans. Was writing something that always had interested you? Did it start to emerge for you at that time?

It did, particularly from being around my friend Daniel Lanois, and watching him in the process, how he would write down ideas and form them into poetry and connect them with music. Obviously, Joni Mitchell, too. She’s my hero and my greatest inspiration for this way of seeing a story unfold, and putting down your observances and experiences in some way that might strike against someone else’s life and experience. That’s why I think her music endures and keeps getting deeper and deeper, the more I listen to it. It’s always a privilege to be around her and to be around Daniel or Emmy-Lou or Dylan, and to see the attention they place on all the elements of storytelling.

Are you or have you been a big reader? I noticed in an old interview that you majored in anthropology at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Yeah. I always sort of wanted to be Alan Lomax in this life, just go around finding cultural significance through people’s music. In a way, I’m doing it as a musician, strangely enough, not necessarily documenting other people’s music, but trying to take in as much as I can, and having it distill itself in me. It’s a constant research, a constant study, and you’re never there—you’re just on the trip, I think.

You moved to New Orleans in ‘88. How soon after arriving did you meet Daniel Lanois?

It would have been around ‘91-‘92. Maybe a little later.

By then, he’d already produced Dylan.

Yes. The second record, For the Beauty of Wynona, was about to come out, and he was going to go on tour with Darrell Johnson, who played bass with the Neville Brothers at the time. Daniel made a record with them called Yellow Moon. But we met and rehearsed at a little theater in Algiers where he was holed up, and became fast friends. We went on the road for three months, and we haven’t stopped since. We’re bound as brothers.

Was he the person who led you to Joni Mitchell and Dylan and Emmy-Lou Harris?

I was already very aware of their music and a fan.

I meant personally.

To Joni…yes, I guess to Emmy and Bob as well.

Songwriting. Apart from the inspiration and the message behind the words, it involves a specific craft. Did it take a long time for you to develop the craft?

It’s a good thing that in my time off from the road, or even on the road, I  put down every little fragment, or thought, or word, or chord that might be an inkling to something whole, something larger, a full song, a full idea. In those times, it’s almost like a meditation. You just try to stay in it as long as you can, to focus on the thought. Hopefully, I’m getting better and better at that. Same with the Fellowship Band music. I’m trying to write specifically for the guys in the band and for myself to hopefully get in on this story, to be able to deliver it and know it well. I guess the challenge is to do that…well, not necessarily quickly, because you can’t rush it. The process is still a mystery to me. You’re still almost grabbing…reaching out into the darkness for these little points of light, and you’re not sure where they’re coming from. But if you can just be in the moment and hold onto it as long as you can… It’s hopefully getting better.

But from what you’re saying, storytelling has always been an abiding interest for you.

Absolutely.

I’d imagine that your time in New Orleans perhaps influenced you to apply the notion of storytelling to the way you think about drumming.

New Orleans was my first time away from my family, starting college in a whole new community, one of the greatest places in the world, so unique in feeling and just the emotional vibe on the streets and the beat that lives there—and my teachers. John Vidacovich was very important. There’s a deep sense of groove, but also a deep concern with creating melodic motion from the drums, with moving and shaping the music. He’s more of a philosophical teacher than one that taught in a methodical way. David Lee had me play out of books, and placed names on certain beats—one is a calypso, another is a Merengue.

I guess along the way, my experience in New Orleans finds its way into all my music. Unconsciously, it’s just a part of how I go about making music.

Your creativity emerged on this very solid foundation. It sounds like a similar process was at play in your songwriting.

I must say that my teachers definitely gave me that foundation. You’re always grappling with that place between your head and your hands that you want to connect, and not have a gap between what you hear and what you execute. I used to go to Congo Square, where a slave would walk from Mississippi just to be there for a day, to do this vigil and play the drum… There is storytelling in the instrument, but you have to go to it wanting to tell people something. If you’re only playing beats, then what is it for?

Now, with the songwriting, I felt I was a little on my own. But the thing is, even before I met Daniel or Joni or Bob Dylan or Emmy-Lou, their records existed. What I definitely know is that when I hear something that touches me, then I go into the analytical process after it touches me, to say, “Ok, what is it that touches me about it? And can I put it into words? What makes it so emotionally powerful?” So I try to step away from my own writing and hopefully have that objectivity as well. “After the Revival.” What is this song trying to tell you? Who’s involved? Where are we? Is it in a specific place? Is it literal or is it more metaphorical? When you start to put words on things, too, perhaps it gets a little closer to the bone. Joni Mitchell’s influence also infuses the instrumental music, the Fellowship Band music, and it’s just as close to my heart as the Mama Rosa songs, but when the words enter the picture it’s maybe a slightly different trip, a more personal trip.

A lot of the songs on Fellowship Band’s Season of Changes sound like they could very well have lyrics, and for all I know, they do and you haven’t recorded them.

Some of the songs do begin with a lyrical idea, but then they end up living in the instrumental world. I guess I’m never so sure as to where a song is going to end up living. The process is that either I end up develoing this one sentence into a full lyrical idea, or else that idea is just a starting point that will give me the instrumental story. I’m never sure. Maybe that’s the great thing about the mystery, too. It throws you into the process, and you just have to take the trip.

When did you form Fellowship Band? You’ve had a fairly stable personnel.

It starts with Jon Cowherd. Jon was already at Loyola when I arrived in New Orleans in 1988, and we became fast friends and played all the time. That was the genesis of the band, actually—not knowing it, of course, until a decade later, when we made our first recording. A year or so after I met Jon, in 1989 or 1990, Chris Thomas moved to New Orleans to attend the University of New Orleans, to study with Ellis Marsalis. So there was this trio core in New Orleans that was the beginning of the band.

You must have met Myron Walden after moving to New York in the ‘90s.

Yes. I met Myron at Manhattan School of Music. I was playing with Doug Weiss and Kevin Hays, and Myron was there.

It’s hard to think of too many other bands in which I’ve heard the excellent tenor saxophonist, Melvin Butler. His sound seems perfect for what you’re trying to do.

It is. Melvin’s tenor voice, and how he delivers melody and emotes the feeling, the essence of what I feel the music is… He’s just a gifted person. It’s in his heart and in his soul. He went to Berklee, and had relationships with Kurt Rosenwinkel and musicians in New York, like Debbie Dean and Seamus Blake, who were all at Berklee during that same period of time. I met Melvin through Betty Carter, when she hosted her first Jazz Ahead at BAM. At the time, Chris Thomas and Clarence Penn were in her band. Peter Martin, too. Melvin is a very studious man, very much on a mission. He’s a professor now. Ethnomusicology. He’s busy writing, but he’s got a dedication to the band, which I’m thankful for.

Do you hear the drumkit differently playing with Fellowship than with other people?

I don’t necessarily think it’s different. The vocabulary is all the same. Within each situation, I’m primarily trying to do the same thing—serve the moment, serve the song. Thankfully, I’ve been given that liberty in almost every situation I’ve been a part of. Sometimes I’m amazed. I’m back there, I’m looking at Wayne Shorter, and thinking, “God, this is what I do!” There he is, the very man himself. When you encounter your heroes, it becomes even deeper and greater to you in terms of your reverence and respect for them, and love, just as people.

Are you composing or thinking of the overall sound of the Fellowship Band from the drums? Or are you thinking in a similar way as you would as a sideman, reacting to the flow around you?

That’s interesting, because obviously, I have a connection with Jon Cowherd… Whatever Jon brings to the table musically, I know I’m going to—hopefully—give the right thing for it. Myself, after I’ve written something, I then have to leave the guitar and sit by the drums, and it’s really kind of new for me at that moment, as if I’m playing someone else’s music. Especially when it’s in the hands of the people in my band, all of a sudden it becomes alive to me. So I have to create a part for myself in the moment. I suppose I’m always doing that. Insofar as how it fleshes out in terms of the group dynamic, I think everyone is sensitive to finding their thread and fabric, so to speak. That’s what I’m always trying to do.

As a working drummer in live situations, you always have to play the room. One week you might be playing the Village Vanguard, after spending a month playing concert halls with Wayne Shorter.

True. I think a lot of it comes from my earlier experiences, firstly playing in church in Shreveport, and doing many, many gigs in ballrooms and hotels and lounges, all these different environments, different musics. That has informed my ability to adjust, to adapt to the environment quickly and say, “Okay, this is the sound,” and be able to fill it but not overwhelm it. It’s always a challenge. Every day is a different experience.

Can you speak to the band’s name, Fellowship?

I guess the big idea is what I hope to present with the music itself, this bond and this solidarity, not separatism or things that place boundary-lines between us. The music is perhaps not always easily defined, but I would call it our folk music, and it’s based on our relationships.

In a previous conversation, we spoke about the role of location being crucial to your broad conception of music—American heartland music. Shreveport is situated more or less equidistantly between the Delta, the Bayou, and the Ozarks, which is the confluence of a lot of streams, I suppose you absorbed a lot of them as a kid.

I suppose I did. Gospel, of course, being at the core of it. But then, I heard so much music. Chuck Rainey and the Neville Brothers, Asleep at the Wheel, this kind of cross-section of Soul and Country and roots music, as well as all the recordings I was trying to listen to. So yes, it is a curious place, right at that point in Louisiana.

Have your experiences with Wayne Shorter modified-morphed your views on presentation, or forms of tunes, or how you tell a story on the drums?

It’s definitely given me a greater degree of courage, to take chances. That’s what I love about Wayne. He’s such a master, such a genius composer, such a funny man. So for him not to rest on what he’s already established, absolutely the bedrock of this music, his unrivaled compositions… He’s still searching for new pathways and a different direction every night. So I try to do that myself. There is that unknown, which Wayne embraces wholeheartedly, and he’s brought us into that, like, “Okay, flashlights on—let’s adventure.” But then also, Wayne is always writing and bringing things in, and often, as a trio, Danilo and John and I will go through things at soundchecks. We may not get to them for a while. But Wayne is always planting seeds, and the growth comes slowly but surely.

The concerts give the impression of being 60 minutes of collective improvising, with occasional references to the tunes. How does it function? Are there cues? Is it just that you’ve been playing together for so long that you have that mutual intuition?

Right. After nine years, that unspoken language develops, just from that immeasurable amount of time together. But beginning from nothing, there are points at which someone might actually play something that we are familiar with. “Oh, I know that melody.” “Oh, do you want to play that?” “Okay.” You might agree, and everyone goes there, but sometimes four threads of thoughts are intertwining. So somehow, within all that variance, comes a singularity as well. Wayne loves that. He loves for you to make your choice and stick with it.

There’s a quality of real sound-painting, almost as though he’s seeing the sounds as colors and shapes as he’s creating them.

His imagination is so incredible, and you can hear it in his tone and his improvising. I think of it as always this cinematic view running. There’s also the symphonic aspect of everyone’s vision. It always seemed to exist in Wayne’s music, all the records I bought while I was in college, all of his Blue Note recordings, and later his Columbia recordings, and obviously Miles’ quintet with him, and also Weather Report.  He always projects some other idea somehow, something bigger, something out of this world. Wayne is such a pictorial thinker, and he has such a cinematic, descriptive eye, and it’s great to feel like we’re part of that vision that can make his music. It’s perfect on paper. As far as I’m concerned, we just have to play what’s on the page and I would be so satisfied with that. But he wants to break out of that form almost immediately, before we even get to it, to create something that’s all of ours, so to speak. It’s been such a privilege with him to hear and just play one note, and what’s in that note is so profound and beautiful. But it’s also been great for me and for Danilo and for John to have played together for so many years now where we can walk out on the wire, so to speak, with no script, and improvise, compose together for the moment. It requires a great deal of trust, and also simultaneously, ambitiousness, and patience to put yourself in a vulnerable place, and hopefully have your instincts kick in and deliver the goods.

You mentioned how important the recordings that Wayne Shorter was on were to you as a young guy. Parenthetically, I once presented a track of yours to a veteran drummer in a Blindfold Test, and he mistook you for Tony Williams, which indicates your command of that vocabulary. Could you speak of the drummers you studied early on?

As to Wayne’s recordings, of course his Blue Note recordings with Elvin Jones, but I also initially tried to absorb Art Blakey as much as I could. Max Roach as well. Definitely Tony Williams. After I met Greg Hutchinson and Clarence Penn, they said, “Man, you need to check out Philly Joe Jones, you need to check out Papa Jo Jones.” So obviously every thread connects. Then you start to look at the progression. You can hear Papa Jo in Elvin. You can hear Art Blakey in Tony. Even Tony at 17, you’re talking about a fully formed genius. He set the bar so high, and you can hear that he absorbed the history of not only swing, but how to command a sound at the instrument. I guess I’m trying to do the same thing. Those are my pillars.

Were you an emulative drummer as a kid? What I mean is, would you try to play as much like Elvin Jones as you could, or as much like Art Blakey as you could, or as much like Tony Williams as you could, and then form your own conclusions out of that to become Brian Blade? Or was it more an osmosis thing?

Well, at home, in practice, I would try to. I did a little bit of transcription, but also less writing of it and just sitting at the drums and trying to learn how to execute these things that I liked. But when you’re playing in a situation with people, you make music in the now and not play something that you… It becomes a part of you, hopefully, and you can transmit it, but I know where it came from. I had so many opportunities to play all kinds of music. I was always listening to Steve Wonder, and Earth, Wind and Fire, or Todo! Again, these connections. Like, I’d hear Jeff Porcaro play a beat, and then later I would come to hear Bernard Purdie, and say, “Oh. Bernard Purdie!” I’d start to go deeper into the roots of where things come from. Sometimes when I listen back to things and hear myself, I think, “Wow, there’s New Orleans!” It’s always there, that pulse and memory of that place, my teachers and heroes there. It all has formed my way of playing music and seeing the world to a certain degree as well.

Did guitar precede the drums for you?

No. Violin did, however. But after, I guess, junior high, the line got blurry—I started playing snare drum in the sort of symphonic band. But for me, the guitar… I never had a great connection with the piano. So for me to be able to travel with this acoustic thing, and feel like, “oh, these little gifts are coming to me, and if I have 15 minutes somewhere as we travel along…” You never know. So I always like to keep it with me, and even if I get a fragment of an idea, who knows? It might develop quickly. But at least I was there to receive it.

Did any of the tunes on Season of Changes stem from guitar explorations?

Absolutely. “Rubylou’s” and “Stoner Hill”. The one song that I wrote at the piano is entitled “Alpha and Omega.” John and Myron do this amazing improvisation that precedes it, and then connects to that little piece of music. I’m proud of that one. I fancied myself in my room, the electricity had gone off, and I’m at my little piano, and Laura Nyro kind of came into the room a little bit in spirit!

When you played at the Village Vanguard with Fellowship last spring [2008],  the distinctive sound of Kurt Rosenwinkel was prominent within the mix. Jon Cowherd sat stage left at the piano, Rosenwinkel stood stage right, and, as I believe you mentioned at the time, their sounds comprised the pillars through which you navigated. Speak a bit about the band’s texture, the sound you’re hearing from the unit in your mind’s ear.

Obviously, Kurt’s brilliance and expressive power and eloquence comes from this core love of harmony. Also John, the same thing. This interweaving conversation is happening within every beat. They’re constructing these, I guess, monoliths! As a band, when it all comes together, the lines move in a linear way, but then also move in blocks, as these stacks. I often write that way. Not so much long lines, but more sung, shorter phrases perhaps. Jon and Kurt are able to make those two chordal instruments not collide with each other, but create a sort of fabric, and we all are able to stand on and jump from these posts.

Kurt Rosenwinkel was one of so many consequential musicians who developed their musical ideas at Smalls from the mid ‘90s on, as is well-documented. At that time, you played there regularly on Wednesday nights with Sam Yahel—the ambiance was more a straight-ahead, kicking drum thing, signifying on the approaches of some of the drummers you mentioned before. Can you talk about those years?

I miss it. To go down to Smalls with Sam and Peter Bernstein, for a while, every Wednesday, helped me. In our development as people, but specifically as musicians, you hit these plateaus, where you feel, “okay, I’ve been able to express these things, but I’m stuck there now.” So you have to place yourself in situations where you’re going to be challenged. With Sam and Peter, it was always a feeling, “wow, I have to raise the bar,” because they were really talking on a high level. It helped me so much. And it was fun. You’d walk out of there at six in the morning, and it was as if, “Okay, we had an experience tonight.”

But it seems that towards the latter ‘90s, leading up to Wayne, you started to move from “blowing” drumming to longer-form sorts of things. Now, this is a gross generalization, since everything goes on at the same time. But I’m wondering if there’s a kernel of truth to this observation.

I suppose so. I feel my writing became much more compact on Season of Changes—little 3-minute statements, very short sentiments. But we’re also able to balance that with, say, Jon’s writing, “Return of the Prodigal Son” or “Season of Changes,” that are much more of a trip, much more of a landscape through the mountains and valleys. I don’t know. It’s ever-changing. Maybe I’ve got another suite in me somewhere around the bend.

You mentioned that you started playing snare drum in junior high school.

I started playing drums when I was 13. My brother, Brady, who is five years older than me, was playing in church. At the time, he was leaving for college, so it just seemed it was my time to step into the seat in church once he left. It was an unconscious move, really. It just felt like, “Oh, that’s your duty.” “You want to play? Oh, great.”

You once mentioned to me that when you started playing drums in church, you were directly next to the chorus.

Yes. But particularly the organist—or piano, depending on which side and which church we were in. There’s been three locations of our church, Zion Baptist. We started in one part of Shreveport when I was very young, and for most of my life we were in a second location. Once I moved away to college, we moved to yet another location. So it was a different arrangement within each church, but very similar. The choir is always behind the pulpit, and the piano and organ are always behind the left and right, and the drums could have been on either side.

That’s a very dramatic context in which to play drums every week. Did those early experiences have a big impact on the way you think about playing drums now?

It is definitely the ground on which everything stands for me. Every situation which I’m a part of, that initial experience of serving the song, where it’s about praise and not some show or entertainment, but the rhetoric and being in worship service…I feel like every time I play, I’m in that place, even in an unconscious way. I think it gave me a certain focus to hopefully get out of the way! Obviously, there’s a lot of practice that we all have to do to get better at playing and expressing ourselves. But those lessons and that experience is where I come from, I think, in every other situation.

Can you speculate similarly on whatever impact your father’s sermons or rhetoric may have had on the way you express yourself and tell stories?

Yes. Actually, I’m writing a song for my dad right now, because we’re going to make a record for him later this year. I guess a lot of times, people don’t necessarily see Biblical stories as being connected to their lives. But my father had this great ability to break down parables. Often in church, when something speaks to people, they say, “Make it plain!” By “making it plain,” it’s like, “ok, I see what you’re saying; it’s real to me in this moment, in my life.” I’m trying to do that with songs. My dad definitely has inspired me and influenced me so much in trying to make it plain, these things that sometimes can be heavier thoughts or seemingly abstract.

Does the “Make it plain” notion have anything to do with the way you approach playing drums in the flow of things?

Perhaps it does. I remember my brother, when I was starting to play in church, would say, “It’s all about the train.” Keep the train moving. Just the simple thought of CHUG-CHUG-CHUG, seeing my role as being the train, so to speak, or the engine of the thing. Then you find yourself in that description. Ok, maybe the train is a colorful train. Maybe the train makes little stops on its route. So I try obviously to express myself, but at the same time not lose my sense of responsibility in a situation.

Eight years ago, you told me, “Jazz definitely is predominantly what I do play. I am not offended by the word ‘jazz.’”

Yeah!

Then you followed up with a remark that we get caught up too much in terminology.

I think so. Perhaps it’s so loose… I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to define what jazz is. But maybe it was something much clearer to folks when it was somewhat popular music, say, from the turn of the last century til as late as the ‘60s. You could look to Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong, and just say, “Ok, this is jazz.” But as things became much more combined and influences started to come together, those lines started to disappear as to clear definitions. But when I think about jazz, certain folks come to mind. Thelonious Monk. Duke Ellington. Or hopefully what the Fellowship Band is doing I would call jazz—but other elements and feelings come into our music as well.

Hopefully, what we provide for each other is this trust, the confidence to take chances. We don’t want to rely on what we played last night, or any automatic rote actions. We want to be in the moment as well, and surprise ourselves, and surprise each other, to have that mutual connection and know that everyone is completely submitting themselves to the whole idea. I think the audience feeds off of that. I’m not comparing us to the John Coltrane Quartet, but they are the example of what great group interplay is and the power that comes from that. Each individual is so virtuosic and delivering such emotional power on their instrument, but then there’s even something higher that we can reach together, something unseen, something that is a grace that’s been given.

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Filed under Drummer, Interview, Jazz.com, New Orleans

Chick Corea is 70 Today

To note Chick Corea’s 70th birthday, I’d like to share an interview from two years ago that was conducted for the  now-dormant webzine http://www.jazz.com.

Chick Corea (May 26, 2009) – for jazz.com:

“I like all kinds of sounds,” Chick Corea told me some years ago. “I’m always realizing over and over again that the instrument itself is just a vehicle for the actual guts-and-blood of life, which is creating something and communicating it to other people. They’re just instruments. An instrument is a tool with which to do something. I’m interested in the instrument, but I’m more interested in the effect. Sounds are sounds, and a musician uses sounds to paint music with.  So I keep trying to use whatever instrumental techniques I have to create effects.”

This remark is particularly apropos to Corea’s musical production across his seventh decade, during which he’s navigated multiple stylistic environments, moved back and forth between electric and acoustic feels, written books of music for various duo projects with old and new friends, recontextualized iconic units from his past, and also created new ensembles. The most consequential of the latter is Five Peace Band, Corea’s collaborative venture with John McLaughlin in observation of the fortieth anniversary of their mutual participation on the transitional Miles Davis albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, the dates that established the template within which, over the next decade, the movement known as Fusion took shape. Spurred by the prevalence of electric guitar in ‘60s pop culture and by the presence of electronic instruments barely out of the beta-testing stage, Corea (Return to Forever) and McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra) plugged-in along with such fellow sons of Miles as Herbie Hancock (Mwandishi and Head Hunters), Tony Williams (Lifetime), Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul (Weather Report), setting up experimental hybrids of jazz with contemporaneous mass market dance-oriented music, specifically rock, soul, and funk, as well as folkloric idioms from India and African- and Iberian-descended diasporic cultures. Towards sustaining that spirit, they convened fellow Milesian Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone, Christian McBride on bass, and either Vinnie Colaiuta or Brian Blade on drums, presented them with a corpus of original music, and developed their interpretations during a seven-month world tour that transpired over four legs, and concluded at the beginning of May.

Above all else, Corea is a musical storyteller, whose vocabulary contains a global range of reference—Bach and bebop, Bartok and the blues,  Mozart and montunos, Ravel and rumba, Stravinsky and samba, all tempered with the Spanish Tinge. The hybrid is uniquely his own. He is also a master of his instrument, able to caress a lyric passage with the delicacy of a bel canto singer or articulate a wide repertoire of grooves with the precision and grace of a tango dancer. His hands are completely independent, and he tosses off fleet embellishments with no apparent effort. But he’s no showoff, and never deploys his enviable technique as an end unto itself. Again, whichever keyboard he uses, the intent is to treat it as a sound carrier, a tool of his imagination.

It is apparent that Corea’s music is the sum total of his personal biography, which began in 1941 in Boston, where his father, Armando, a trumpeter, led a successful dance band. Coming of age, he soaked up the radical bebop and compositional strategies of Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver. He put his lessons to use on jobs with his father’s band and with Boston’s community of progressive musicians. He moved to New York in 1962. While studying Bartok and Stockhausen at Juilliard, he played Afro-Cuban music with legendary conguero Mongo Santamaria and funky bebop with trumpeter Blue Mitchell. In 1966, he made his first recording, Tones For Joan’s Bones. That year he hit the big time with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, and in 1968, upon a recommendation from drummer Tony Williams, a Boston friend, he joined the Miles Davis Quintet. During his two-year adventure with Miles, Corea went electric and stretched form to the limit. Then for a year he explored ways of improvising freely on abstract musical in an acoustic experimental quartet called Circle, with Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. During that time he returned to melodic lines and harmonic progressions on two intensely meditative solo albums for ECM. Late in 1971, he plugged in again and made a commitment to melody, structure and consonance with Return to Forever, the fusion super-group that made him a mega-star.

We caught Corea while he was enjoying a little down time before embarking on his next journey, a summer tour of Europe that will find him playing solo and duo. In the fall, he tours again, this time in trio with bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White, both RTF partners.

“At first, I thought that the trio was the trio and the piano is the piano and the 4/4 tempo is the 4/4 tempo,” he told me in the conversation cited above. “But as I began to experiment and put my attention on the way a lot of different artists make music—ethnic music, classical music, written music, improvised music—I finally realized that in the field of art there are no ultimate authorities with rules that say you must do it this way or that way.  I guess slowly the conviction grew in me that whatever material I could use that would make a creation bright and interesting was valid.  The fun is the joy of creating.”

* * *

You’ve been touring almost continuously since the beginning of last year—two marathon tours over the 14-15 months.

Yes, the Return to Forever tour and the Five Peace Band kind of butted up against one another. But it hasn’t been consistently out on the road. There are a couple of one-week breaks here and there. But for the most part, I pretty much keep my suitcases ready to go at every point.

Do you enjoy the road?

As the years go on, actually, the travel part of the road gets harder and harder. So we need to use more and more organizational energy to try to keep that part of it livable. But the payoff is the nightly playing—playing music with my partners, and playing music to live audiences everywhere. That’s my lifeblood. So in that sense, I would never stop touring. That two or three hours a night is what I live for.

Five Peace Band, which I saw twice at Rose Theater in April, seemed really to be set up for creative music-making. I know you’ve discussed this eight million times, but could you first discuss FPB’s genesis and the various steps by which it coalesced?

Simply put, it’s been a goal of mine for decades to get together with John McLaughlin for a musical project. We would always cross paths, or talk occasionally, as friends will, and there’s always been a very mutual high respect and admiration between the two of us. John is such a magnificent and unique musician. One of my criteria for wanting to get together with specific other artists is my desire to learn something new, and expand myself musically. John is one of those musicians with whom I felt I could do that. I wanted to get more inside his musical universe, to play with him—and learn. I love to learn new things. So with that desire in mind, maybe a year-and-a-half before we began the tour, and actually before we began to talk about even the Return To Forever tour, I began to present John with this idea. I had more recently worked with Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, and Vinnie Colaiuta in various situations. I had never worked with Brian Blade before. But they were also at the top of the list for musicians whom I love working with and with whom I wanted to work some more. So in my head, I kind of put together a dream band. Gee, who do I want to go out on the road with and spend some time? Those were the guys.

Just before I presented the initial idea to John, I had dropped the idea to all three guys—to Christian, Vinnie, and Kenny—in a casual way. “What would you think about it if we could get together with John?—blah-blah-blah.” “Yeah, man, let’s go for it.” So I kind of had their interest up on it before I even approached John. When I told John, it didn’t take too long before he said it was a great idea, and all we had to do was find a schedule. I guess we settled on that period of time only some weeks after that—the end of last year through the beginning of this year.

It was a seven-month tour in four legs.

Yes, approximately that.

You’ve mentioned that each band for you is a body of music, a body of work. How did the body of work for Five Peace Band take shape? Was there an overriding concept for the repertoire?

For the kind of music that we were playing with that band, and the kind of music I like to play in a small group, I regard the compositions as kind of game plans. Different games. Different areas you can go in that have certain rules and certain freedoms that make a certain game that we would like to play.

Actually, the first thing John and I talked about was what the repertoire would be, and it turned out to be several new compositions by me and several compositions that John chose off of his recent recordings. However, that was only a small percentage of the input that finally resulted in what the music turned out to be. When we got together all the guys at the first rehearsal, and then the first couple of gigs that we did, the atmosphere of whatever that was that we did together got pretty firmly agreed-upon. Like how far we would stretch material, how much freedom we would take in developing it, and all of that, started to settle into a groove after four-five-six concerts.

For instance, I’ll give you an example. When John and I discussed it, John said, “Maybe we should have different guys soloing on different songs, so that not everybody solos on every song.” He also said, “For me, I’d like to keep the solos kind of short and not like the old days.” I said, “Well, ok, let’s give that a try.” Heh-heh. That idea immediately went by the wayside, including John liking to stretch out himself. So it turned out that the game plan became anywhere from 15-minute to 45-minute renditions. Actually, 15 minutes was short for us. At the very end of the tour, even after you saw us (or maybe in New York as well), we were playing five tunes a night.

I think you played six in New York in a three-hour concert. You went past the union closing time! It sounded like you were tailoring the originals for the individuals in the band.

Well, the most tailor-made was “<i>Hymn to Andromeda</i>.” I wrote that suite with everybody’s feature in mind, as it turned out. But the other pieces? I wrote “<i>Disguise</i>” kind of just to add a mood to the band. But I did write absolutely with those musicians in mind. That’s the fun of writing for me, to have musicians to write specifically for who I love to play with.

You’ve mentioned a number of times how deeply the drums feed you, how attuned you are to rhythms. On FPB, you deployed two drummers with very different approaches to stating a beat and navigating the kit. In fact, it almost sounds like two different bands, Band A and Band B. I’m wondering how you conceived of it with Vinnie Colaiuta vis-a-vis Brian Blade.

Well, the conception was one thing, and what came out was a slightly other thing. I conceived of it only because those guys were the musicians I desired to work with. The other part of it, I guess, is that, because the way the tradition of a jazz rhythm section has developed through the decades (not all the time but a lot of the time), the drummer can really set the atmosphere of the group, especially if those playing with him give him the freedom and openness to do that, and encourage it to happen—which, in this case, is the case, because John also, like me, loves the drums. He could play with just drums all night. So both Vinnie and Brian, when they took hold of the music, really set an atmosphere and an energy for our renditions. As you noticed, which is pretty obvious, the two styles couldn’t be any further apart! [LAUGHS] The same set of compositions came out completely-completely different when Brian added his touch to the band. Especially what Brian did. After working with him for a couple of tours, he’s become one of my favorite drummers of all time. He thinks as a composer, and he carries the tradition not only of Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes and Tony Williams, but he also…I don’t know… In my mind, he kind of holds the torch of the creation of jazz drumming. But he does do what might be considered, in more conservative music, radical things. Like playing very quietly! [LAUGHS]—or not playing at all, or playing very edgy and bombastically, all within the same framework. He’s very expressive. He came in and the whole set turned around. I’m hoping at some point we can extract from those last couple of tours another live set. Marketing-wise, it’s kind of funny because it’s all the same tunes, but they came out so different, they’re worthy of being produced, I believe.

Another interesting thing is that the way FPB mixed electric and acoustic feels, although my impression is most of your recent band projects have been one or the other. Am I completely off on that comment?

You can never be off on anything subjective. It’s the rule of communication. It’s the ethics of communication, is what I feel. It’s a better conversation on what it is you actually observed than to try and pander.

I’m not trying to pander.

No, I know that. Maybe “pander” was the wrong word. I meant try to be nice. But it’s interesting you mention it like that, because since maybe halfway through my experience with the Elektrik Band in the ‘80s, my goal has been to produce a band sound and a group sound that easily accommodated both the nuances of acoustic music and the impact of electric music. I like both sounds. Keyboard-wise, I like playing both ways. But drumming-wise and texture-wise and communication-wise, I like the stage texture to be such that we can always hear each other comfortably, and in order to do that, each musician has to develop a pretty wide dynamic range. It’s actually quite a technical feat to be able to do it. But it requires a drummer like Brian to be able to do something like that. Fortunately, John is probably, up to now, the only guitarist I’ve ever worked with who can do that with a solid-body electric guitar sound. He can play within the context of a delicate acoustic piano, and he can play with the impact and energy that was produced when he’s playing with Vinnie Colaiuta playing full-out! Being able to do that enables me, as a player and a composer, to explore a really wide range of emotions in music.

I guess Christian McBride also was doing something that very few bassists can do, transitioning between the electric and the acoustic seamlessly and with tremendous virtuosity. That’s also a characteristic of John Patitucci and Stanley Clarke, with whom you’ve played extensively.

It was the first time I’ve played with Christian with his electric playing, and I was very happily surprised. He’s a master at it. He’s also a master at being able to blend the instruments. This problem of introducing electric instruments onto an acoustic stage… We do play in concert halls, and this has been happening since the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s always-always been a problem,  as soon as you bring a P.A. system and drums with impact, and other instruments with impact, and amplifiers and so forth. The first mistakes that have been made and the horror that’s been created from acoustic stages with the use of electric instruments through the years is…well, it’s legendary, isn’t it!? [LAUGHS] It’s produced a lot of writing in print. But it is an actual problem. That’s one of my high interests, because it’s an actual living, physical problem that impinges on the creativity of the musicians and the enjoyment of the audience, and it’s really one that needs to be solved fully.

FPB’s creative approach fit in with the marketing of the band as a response to the fortieth anniversary of Bitches Brew, and the mutual intersection that you and John McLaughlin shared during that period with Miles Davis, with whom that kind of attitude towards nightly performance before large audiences was the default mode.

Mmm-hmm.

Were you thinking about that approach as an overriding template from performance to performance?

Well, John and I certainly wanted that from the very beginning. We talked about it, and we didn’t need to talk about it a lot, because, in fact, it’s what we both wanted as far as the blend on stage and the dynamic range of the music. That is, we wanted to be able to easily include the piano and the saxophone, and to play with a wide dynamic range. We strove for that, and I think, to a great degree, we accomplished it.

I’ll apologize in advance for asking this question, as I know it’s come to you 18 million times. But looking back on your days with Miles Davis, and particularly Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way, since these experiences so palpably influenced Five Peace Band, how do you now perceive that time?

All experience to me is… Life is a cumulative thing that’s lived day by day, hour by hour, and you just keep living. Life is always right now, you see. So you just keep going, you live, and you have experiences. For me, what I think I try to do, and I believe what all people try to do naturally, is take with them successful actions, successful things, things that please them. Things that I liked, I take with me, and try to leave the things that were painful or unsuccessful behind—and just keep going. But it’s hard to evaluate, and maybe unproductive also to try to evaluate particular things in the past and how they were influential. So when I think about my period with Miles, and Miles generally, as the universe of music that he is, it’s hard to pinpoint things, other than to say generalities.

Fair enough. I asked because you don’t seem to let go of experiences in your musical production, as is evident from the Rendezvous in New York DVD set, where you revisited and updated so many different bands. I find it interesting that you’re able to create new contexts in which these old relationships can continue.

I know what the truth of this is. The truth is that the experiences themselves are not what’s important. What’s important are the people in them—the relationships. Any friend that you had for a long time, for years or whatever, the important thing is the friendship itself more than the individual experiences. The communication. The thing that you had with that person, with your wife or your family or your musical partners—that kind of thing. For me, my life is as rich as I have friends and musical partners and family, and people who I love and who love me. The pay for life is living. The pay you get for the thing you do that we call “life” is the actual pleasure of living, and the pleasure of living comes about by the pleasure of relationships with people.

You did tell me once that each one of your bands turned into a little family. Perhaps that’s another way of saying the same thing.

Yes, it’s associations with individuals and groups that is what makes life, life. It’s what makes it pleasurable. So the thing of “returning to the past” or “reexperiencing” something, or the terms like “reunion” or “recreation” and all that kind of thing, I put them aside, because it’s all the bric-a-brac of the past, and what makes life exciting is always doing something new. Always. If I have a rich relationship with John McLaughlin, for instance, or Kenny Garrett, or my other musical associations, that is a richness that never goes away. If, hypothetically, Miles Davis took on a new body and came and played with us now, it would be a new creation. Do you know what I mean? That’s really the excitement of it.

That sixtieth birthday party that I had at the Blue Note with all of my musician friends brought me to the extreme realization of how important my friends are to me. That experience really brought it home. So rather than trying to be cool and hip and say, ”Yeah, I never return to the past; I always do something new,” which would irrationally equal that you never wanted to talk to your old friends again, is stupid. So I actually started to actively go back and find my old friends again, because the relationships were so rewarding—and the rewards have been coming. These two projects, Return to Forever and the Five Peace Band, are examples of that.

Let’s talk about the 2008 Return to Forever tour, then. There’s a new double-CD  and also a 2-CD anthology of the old music. Anyone who is interested in RTF can saturate themselves in that body of music. Now, the edition of Return to Forever with which you toured last year wasn’t the only one. I know you’ve talked extensively to the press on this project, but please trace the genesis.

Return to Forever was probably, and probably always will be my breakthrough into having a band of my own. Not working for another bandleader, but either working in partnerships or with my own music. It was the first time that I did that, and it was a return to myself. It was a return to my own universe of music. In a sense, the concept of that band will always be special to me. Yes, the band has had many versions. RTF-1 I call the band with Flora Purim and Airto, and Joe Farrell, and Stanley Clarke. RTF-2 consists of the bands with mainly Stanley, Lenny White and myself, along with Billy Connors, then Al DiMeola. RTF-3 was shorter-lived but still was a creation that lasted a year to 18 months, the big band that Stanley and I had with Music Magic, with Gayle Moran, my wife, and the brass section. Getting back together, especially with Stanley and Lenny, brought that whole experience back to life.

Why the choice of Al DiMeola as the guitar voice?

Stanley, Lenny, and then Al were the guys who were in communication with me about wanting to keep the band alive. That version of the band was the one that had the most road experience together in the ‘70s. We made more records and did more concerts than any other version of the band, and created a wider repertoire. I guess it’s the version that most people remember.

Within that band, you created some of the compositions that are most associated with you, compositions you’ve revisited in many forms—an efflorescent burst of composition. Did the formation of RTF spur you in that direction?

You’re talking about the time of the ‘70s. Well, I was on a roll of the creation of that sound, and also on a roll of enjoying creating my own music, creating my music with musicians who turned out to be partners, like Stanley in particular and also Lenny. So the compositions kept rolling out. It was like having a personal orchestra to write for, and I took as much advantage of that as I could.

One of the most noted characteristics of the band is your use of Spanish and pan-Iberian rhythms within the flow. You’ve mentioned that your experience playing with Afro-Caribbean bands, a la Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo, had a big impact on the way you think about music—although you would move away from that approach for several years when you joined Miles and then did Circle and the trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. But Return to Forever seems like a logical extension of what you were doing in those earlier bands.

There’s a natural magnetism that any person has for certain cultural things, certain artistic things, certain ways of doing things. In music, that’s always been my sort of geiger counter. That’s been my pointer. It’s been the thing that has led me into studying certain kinds of music, or learning from certain kinds of musicians. It’s the reason why, for instance, in the ‘50s, when I was growing up, or even in the ‘40s, when I was still a young boy, I was attracted to musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. There was a magnetism to it, an interest that led me to that kind of music, rather than, say, Elvis and rock-and-roll back then, which I pretty much completely bypassed. It held no interest for me. So in a way, all through my life my interest and attraction has been towards jazz music, but also towards Latin music. Especially when I got to New York in the early ‘60s, the salsa scene, or the Latin jazz scene that was going on was very magnetic to me. I have great pleasure-moments of the stints that I did at the old Birdland at 52nd and Broadway, because five doors north on the same side of the street was the Palladium. On practically every break took from the gigs I had at Birdland, I’d be at the Palladium, checking out Tito Puente and Machito and Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri. I had and always retained this attraction for Cuban music, Puerto Rican music, South American music, and then finally, in the early ‘70s, for what we call the flamenco music, from southern Spain. Whether I’m writing music directly out of that rhythm and dance spirit, like I did with Touchstone, or whether it’s just an echo of a flavor, it will always be there for me.

The Latin music is an extroverted dance music, and that was a great complement to the seriousness of jazz that I was into.  Jazz and Classical music of the ’60s was already a serious, almost introverted kind of performance.  Jazz musicians never looked at an audience and were quite serious in demeanor, especially on stage.  Go to a Latin dance, heh-heh, and you’re back into the joy of life again, you know.  It really was the complement I needed in my life to open me back up again to communication and sociability and the importance of an audience.  That’s mainly it.

There’s a couple of different definitions of serious, and I don’t want to confuse the two.  When you say “he’s a serious professional,” that means that the guy is really competent and ethical about what he does.  He puts his nose to the grindstone, and he really works hard and he gets a product.  That’s what that definition of “serious” means.  There’s another definition, which is the one I’m talking about, which is the seriousness that one gets when one becomes very serious about a subject, and it’s kind of heavy.  That kind of seriousness to me is anti-art.  You see someone on stage who is a little bit too introverted with his own scene.

Latin music took me out of all that, and I’m happy for it!  Actually, my jazz heroes were always kind of extroverts.  Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong were extroverts.  Miles was a total covert extrovert.  He looked like he was introverted, but he never was.  He was really communicating to an audience all the time.  And Coltrane, even though he didn’t tell jokes from the stage, was very warm with the audience, even though he didn’t say a lot on the microphone.

You once told me an anecdote of spending a long run at the Apollo when you were playing with Mongo Santamaria opposite Monk…

Yes. It’s a story I often tell when I’m trying to describe to other people that era or talk about Monk in particular. That’s definitely one of the things I experienced that shows what his humorous personality was all about. That’s one of my great pleasure moments.

That was in the early ’60s, about a five-week stint at the Apollo Theater that Monk’s quartet was on when I was playing with Mongo Santamaria, so I got to be around him a lot and watch him play.

Did that have a big impact on you?
Totally.  Completely, yeah.  The man was just doing something completely unique and uncompromising, and it wasn’t that flashy.  It was just…hip. [LAUGHS] On this particular occasion at the Apollo, I was watching him through a hole in the curtain, which was right by his piano, and he played this set.  He had Charlie Rouse, John Ore and Frankie Dunlop.  His first tune, he played “Rhythm-a-ning.” He played the tune, he stated the melody, and they played the tune all the way through with long solos. The drums soloed, bass, saxophone—everybody soloed.  It must have been a 10-12-15 minute piece.  He stopped, and the people loved it, and they applauded, and Monk took a breath, and sat there for a moment, and then he started the next piece—which was [SINGS REFRAIN OF “RHYTHM-A-NING] He played the same tune, same tempo, and they played the tune all the way through with solos fresh as a daisy, rhythm beautiful, everything was great, the audience loved it, and they applauded.  And yes, he took a breath, and played it a third time.  Same tempo, same tune.  It was just hilarious.  That’s audacious!  It’s of the moment.  He thought, “I’m going to play this again.” Who knows how he came around to deciding that?  But there was no question about it, because once he launched into it… These guys, Bud and Monk, had a power of certainty about what they were doing that made their creations so unique.

I don’t want to put you in the position of comparing yourself to them, but the quality you evoked in that last comment does seem to infuse your musical production over the last number of years. In any way, can we take it as a self-description?

I stay completely away from self-descriptions, as you know. They are unproductive. But I can tell you that that quality of, oh, you can call it artistic certainty or just your own knowingness about what you like… When I teach music or when I talk to music students, that’s one of the high concepts I try to get across in a simple way, is to trust your own judgment, to think for yourself, to know what you like and know what you don’t like. It’s the basis of all artistic creation. You cannot create based on some idea that someone else gave you that you’re just using without it being your own. I have noticed that the kind of artists and people that I get interested in, that I get attracted to, that I like to learn from, are ones who have that quality in abundance. You’ll find that same quality in every artist who is creating their own way, their own individual expression. That’s the quality of life. That’s the thing we struggle to keep alive. You can take that idea into reviewing social issues, and how society develops or de-develops, based on whether individuals are thinking for themselves or not. That was the whole idea of our founding fathers, for instance, if you want to take it into that subject. It’s the thing we love about the idea of democracy or a republic, in a social way—that it involves people thinking for themselves and interacting with one another, taking responsibility for life as individuals. It’s an attractive quality. It’s a basic spiritual quality. The more of it you have and can develop, the more life there is in life.

Bud and Monk were musical adventurers in New York.  They were New Yorkers, just like I sort of was; I was a Bostonian, but I came through New York as well.  There’s the whole wide world, and here’s this thing called music and jazz and improvisation.  They were the guys who for me on the piano held on to a creative motivation, a world of music that they heard that they immersed themselves in.  They became their compositions in music. That’s all they did, and spent their life that way. What they created was inspiring.  So it was sort of like having someone who was doing something that I wanted to do, so they became mentors and teachers and inspirations, and I ended up spending a lot of time with their music.

Were you around in the summer of 1964 when Bud played Birdland?

Yes.  He came back, and I heard one night of him playing at Birdland. It was very emotional to watch him play.  It pissed me off in a lot of ways, in the sense that he was obviously mutilated by the psychiatric community.  But through it all, he was still there, and once he got his hands on the piano, there it was, Bud’s music.  John Ore was there that night, and I think J.C. Moses was playing drums.

But you didn’t get to spend any time with him.

No, I never got to meet my hero.

Talk about approaching his music as a fresh avenue of creative expression.

Well, it’s totally a deep repertoire of music.  Bud wasn’t ever acknowledged enough as a composer.  He was as a pianist.  But his compositions stood on their own as great works.  Some of the musicians would play some of his music;  Miles recorded some of his tunes.  So I had incubated the idea for years of doing a Bud Powell project where I performed all of his music.  I had already done that with Monk, but it didn’t get called a Monk project.  But there was a recording I made in ’81…

On ECM with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes.

That’s right.  A record of all Monk’s music.  So I did my tribute to Monk, and this was my tribute to Bud.

Speaking of trios, let’s talk about the trio you’ll be playing with starting in the fall, which is the Return to Forever rhythm section, but as a trio. Is it a new entity unto itself?

It’s definitely a new entity unto itself, although it’s an old entity that we’ve done before. There’s a glorious week that Stanley and Lenny and I will sometimes reminisce about, which was kind of the inception of RTF-2, the electric version. It was a trio gig at Todd Barkan’s old club in San Francisco, the Keystone Korner. It was Stanley on his amplified upright bass, and Lenny on a small kit of drums. He used to have this bass drum that we called an oil can, because I think it was basically an oil can—it was a wild 18-inch bass drum. That week I played exclusively Fender Rhodes. I didn’t have a synthesizer or a piano. I just played Rhodes all week. One of the intents of that week was to audition guitar players for the eventual quartet that we wanted to play in together. But from that point forward, that rhythm section has become like an old, comfortable shoe that you put on. Working with those guys, that same warm pleasure is still there now. So we’ve decided to explore it some more.

This summer, you’ll be touring Europe mostly solo, and a couple of duos with Gary Burton and one with Stefano Bollani in Perugia. Speaking of Gary Burton, you made Crystal Silence  right at the time that Return to Forever came out, beginning this dual track between what people have called your “acoustic chamber jazz” and more dance-oriented, beat-oriented music. It’s a very long-standing duo. It’s 37 years since then. You’ve reunited on a number of occasions, most recently Native Sense: The New Duets   in 1997, and The New Crystal Silence  in 2007. Talk about the mutual attraction.

It can be easily explained. I think of that magnetic artistic connection that I make, that I go and befriend someone like Gary, who is this magnificent musician who makes a particular sound. We first played together, on a couple of gigs when Gary first founded his own quartet after he left Stan Getz—Steve Swallow had brought me on Stan’s gig after Gary left. Anyway, I was working other gigs, and that wasn’t a preferred gig.  But when we played our duet together, something clicked that was really pleasurable to both of us. We started discovering how pleasing it was to just play piano and vibes together. We didn’t need anything else. We weren’t thinking, “Well, this is nice; let’s get a bass player and a drummer and do some gigs.” It was, “Wow, this is kind of nice; let’s do this some more.” When we first got together, that idea was encouraged along by Manfred Eicher, who heard us play, and immediately, with the genius perception that he has, or the genial perception that he has sometimes of something that strikes him as interesting, he offered us a contract to do a recording. That was the beginning of the duet. Just like my association with Stanley Clarke, it’s one of those lifetime relationships. You go into it, and an infinity of music is possible. It’s amazing how Gary elicits all that music out of what I’ve thought of as a metal thumb piano. Through the decades, I’ve found myself constantly going back and playing with Gary some more, and we’ve always come up with a new idea of some other area that we want to explore, until recently we finally realized this orchestral project. I think we touched on it years ago when we did Lyric Suite for Sextet, and we played the duet with that wonderful string quartet. It seemed such a beautiful sonic setting that I never forgot about that, and I always wanted to use strings again with the duet. So here we had the opportunity, and we thought, “let’s go for it,” and we created those orchestral arrangements for the duet and did that last record. So the duet just keeps going on.

We have another idea now, another recording that we’re going to finally do, or a set of music we’re going to develop, that we began developing during that last tour, which had to do with, well, standards, and songs that I’ve always wanted to try to play. Like, for instance, the repertoire from Birth of the Cool, Miles’ record. I’ve always loved those songs, and not too many guys play them. Gary and I started exploring Bill Evans’ wonderful repertoire. Things like that will be the direction of our next project.

Duos seem to be a particular love of yours, and your most recent duo recording is Duet with Hiromi. It’s very far-flung, very sprightly, and seems to have been a mutually energizing project. You even did some Bill Evans on it—“Very Early.” You did Monk’s “Bolivar Blues.” Many things. You also recorded not long ago in duo with Bela Fleck.

Philosophers and poets have eulogized (is that the right word, “eulogized”)…have poeticized about the beauty and microcosmic aspect, universal aspect of the relationship of two people. It’s the basic act of communication, living communication, one person directly with another person. In music, it certainly is the most intimate ensemble and, in a way, allows for everything that I like about music. It’s got an incredible amount of space and freedom, just because there’s only two people playing, of course. But then it’s got this intimacy of just a straight communication line with one other person, which can be explored infinitely. So when I find compatible partners like Gary, or like Bobby McFerrin, or more recently like Hiromi or Bela Fleck, it’s a great joy.

Also, the other kind of mechanical aspect of the duet is it’s very practical to tour with.

But it’s interesting that you seem to have created separate books of music for Bela Fleck and Gary Burton, and each partnership has taken on its own tonal identity.

Yes. That’s the beauty of it. Recently, I got together with Bobby McFerrin; we jammed a little bit and started putting together ideas for another project. When I step into a musical universe so huge as that, gee, all of these kind of new, fresh things occur. So it is a great way to make music.

Stan Getz seems to have been such a pivotal job for you.  So much music you would do subsequently spun out of relationships that you formed in that band. In fact, you also seem to influenced his own musical production for a number of years after.

I felt that Stan always wanted to learn new things.  He had already developed a beautiful lyrical style and had made his fame with “Desafinado” and the Bossa Nova.  But he always wanted to try new things.  That’s why he loved playing with Roy Haynes, I think, and that’s why he started to like playing my compositions. Stan was a wonderful performer.  He taught me the lyrical side of music and the quieter side.  I was coming from playing free music, and Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and Stockhausen and Bartok were my mentors.  When I got the gig with Stan Getz, I had to learn how to deliver up something a little bit more lyrical and compact.  He didn’t want 15-minute piano solos.  He wanted two choruses. I learned a lot doing that.

Classical music  seems to be the foundation of a great deal of what you do.  Were you studying classical music from very early on?

Not really.  As a matter of fact, when I first was getting into music and playing the piano, classical music seemed conservative to me.  I didn’t get into the sound of it at first.  What really attracted my attention was the jazz big bands, the trios, Charlie Parker’s music.  When I was 8 or 9, my dad sent me to have piano lessons with a local pianist in Boston, a wonderful man named Salvatore Sullo, who played every year with the Boston Pops.  He thought it was kind of silly that I played jazz.  I auditioned for him and played “Perdido,” and he said, ‘Oh, like Dizzy Gillespie,’ and he blew air into his cheeks or something like that.  He introduced me to the piano music of Chopin and Bach, the easy pieces, and I became interested in Classical music through the piano music more than anything else.  But I didn’t intensely study it.  My interest in classical music was more analyzing orchestral scores as a composer.  I fell in love with Stravinsky’s and Bartok’s music, and that was my first passion with Classical music. But it wasn’t until the early   ‘80s that I became interested in what we term ‘classical music,’ meaning the music of the 18th century—Mozart’s music, for instance.   Then I decided that it would be a challenge and really fulfilling to try to perform some of that music live, and that’s when I started to get involved.

Could you tell me something about your father, about what sort of musician he was?  It’s obvious that you were hugely influenced by him in your musical path.

My Dad was a real sweetheart and a great father. He let me have my own mind, as my mother did.  They encouraged me in every creative effort I ever had.  When I wanted to stay out late and hang out because of the musicians, they let me do it.  Plus, he was a very, very good musician.  He played very soulful horn.  He played trumpet mostly.  He played a little bit of piano.  He played bass.  He played some drums.  He played violin earlier on in his life.

Was it a lead trumpet sound?

No-no.  He was always the second trumpet player who played the jazz solos. He was the soulful guy.  He was always up on the times.  He had another trumpet player friend, and they used to listen to Miles play.  I used to catch them.  I’d come into the house, and they’d be in the back room where I had my hi-fi set, with Miles records on, smoking cigarettes, and with their elbows on their knees, close to the speakers—crying sometimes! He was a sweet man.  He had a band.  I used to sit in with his band.  We played a lot of dances together as I grew up.

Was he a full-time professional musician?

Yes.  He was a working musician.  He had a successful band during the Depression.  He played radio shows, and played at the hotels.  His band played at the places where the guys would go and hang after the theater gigs, that sort of thing.  They’d sit in with his band.  But later on, as he got older, he didn’t have his own bands any more, but he continued to get calls for work around town.

<When you were younger, were you part of that very hip Boston scene?  You’re a little older than Tony Williams.  I’m thinking of people like Sam Rivers and Jaki Byard and Hal Galper and Alan Dawson and Herb Pomeroy…

I connected with some of those guys.  I used to go listen to Herb Pomeroy’s band play, at that club he played every Tuesday night, and I knew Herb a little bit.  I played with Paul Fontaine and Jimmy Mosher.  I played with Tony a little bit in Boston.  I worked at Conley’s a lot—I worked there with Pony Poindexter and Sonny Stitt. My school friend was Lennie Nelson, one of the young great drummers around town—unknown but great.  And Bobby Ward, another wild drummer from that era.  Roy Haynes I never knew as a Bostonian, but Tony I connected with.

So in a sense, your father taught you to be a professional, just by example.

Exactly.  And how to live a life where you did something that you really loved, and where that was good to do, not something that was considered frivolous.

Was your father a first-generation American, or did he come here from Italy?

No, he was a first-generation Italian-American.  He was one of 13 kids, and his father and mother only spoke Italian.  So when I sat on my grandfather’s knee, he used to tell me stories in Italian.  I didn’t understand a word he said, but I used to dig it.

Did he play Italian music also as part of his…

No.

That was corny for him?

It was corny for him.  He was a jazzer.  He wore loose shirts.  He used to buy a new white shirt… I used to see him do this—I’d hang with him.  He’d take the shirt home, and the sleeves would always be way too long for him.  So he’d measure it like about 2 inches above his wrist, which is where he felt comfortable, and he’d take it off, and he’d cut both sleeves with scissors.

You like to wear those baggy, guayabana shirts yourself.

Yeah.

Was your mother also musical?

She was a great mom.  She was not a singer or a musician or anything, but she supported us, and went in the candy factory and worked her butt off and bought me a Steinway piano.  She was the greatest.

So she really sacrificed for you.

She totally worked her butt off.  She kept both of us in line.  I was the only child.  So she cooked for me and my Dad, and kept the house clean, and kept us going and encouraged us, and she was the best.

Perhaps as a wrap-up question: I’m not sure if you gave yourself this name or if it was given to you—“The Chameleon.” Who did give you that name?

I have no idea. But it’s used sometimes to describe people, isn’t it, “the chameleon.”

It is, and it seems like a wonderful cognomen for you. It’s very descriptive of your ability to project your own personality within so many diverse situations consecutively. I read an interview where you mentioned Dustin Hoffman as a model, because he’s so good at portraying different characters, as opposed to DeNiro, who is always great, but, you said, pretty much always DeNiro.

Years ago, when I would try to describe what it’s like to invest myself in different musical directions, that was the first analogy that I came up with. I thought, “well, maybe I’m the Dustin Hoffman of music.” But that’s apt, and that’s the way it goes. My desire as a musician has always been just to learn—always to learn something new. I think learning and growing more aware and more skillful is an infinite process. I don’t think it has a ceiling. So in order to do that, it’s always necessary to find something I can’t do, that I want to do, and then just go there. I’ve never had a sense of trying to be myself, if you know what I mean, or try to create my own sound, or my own way. I’ve never had my attention on that. I don’t care what I sound like, because it’s not where my attention is. My attention is outside of myself, and I’m always happiest when it’s that way, and whatever comes out, comes out. So what tends to happen is, I find myself playing a lot of different roles, or being a lot of different ways, or expressing a lot of different emotions, and it makes life interesting and rich for me.

It’s a great way of staying young, too. Mentally.

I guess, yeah! How about that?

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Filed under Interview, Jazz.com, Piano

Roy Hargrove At The Village Vanguard

This evening, trumpeter Roy Hargrove brings his working quintet (Justin Robinson-alto sax; Sullivan Fortner-piano; Ameen Saleem-bass; Montez Coleman-drums) into the Village Vanguard to launch a two-week run. He’s morphed gracefully from young lion to esteemed veteran, is one of most singular trumpet stylists out there, and has incubated no small number of next generation movers and shakers in his bands over the last 15 years, and yet gets less dap from the jazz media than his abilities, conceptual daring, and body of work would merit.

I’ve been following Roy since he hit NYC twenty-plus years ago, and finally  had an opportunity to do a piece on him in 2009, when I was doing a lot of work for the jazz.com website. This Q&A was conducted on August 11th of that year, in the offices of the Jazz Gallery.

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By his own account, Roy Hargrove spends about two-thirds of his time on the road, as was the case over a seven-week summer 2009 sojourn during which he toured all three of his bands—his quintet and big band, both devoted to hardcore jazz, and his crossover unit, the R.H. Factor. Back home in New York for a week, Hargrove was decompressing, relaxing in the daytime and spending his nights jamming at various New York venues—Small’s, Fat Cat, and the Zinc Bar in Manhattan; Frank’s Place in Brooklyn. Still, on this hot Tuesday afternoon, the 39-year-old trumpeter, resplendent in a pink-check jacket, shorts, and a narrow brim, strolled into the Jazz Gallery exactly on time for a discussion framed around his new recording, Emergence [EmArcy], his first with the big band, following strong quintet releases from 2008 and 2006 entitled Ear Food [EmArcy] and Nothing Serious [Verve], respectively, and Distractions [Verve], also from 2006, and his third recording of R.H. Factor.

In point of fact, Hargrove may be singular among mainstem-oriented hardcore jazzfolk of his age group in his projection of an old-school attitude regarding road warriorship, song interpretation, blues feeling, and swing, while simultaneously tuning in to the popular music of his time on its own terms. Which of Hargrove’s peers of comparable visibility would embrace the requirements of playing third trumpet in the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band with as much enthusiasm as Hargrove devotes to the various ensembles that he leads? Which other highly-trained post-Boomer would deliver a lyric like “September In The Rain,” a staple of Hargrove’s sets for at least a decade, with as much brio as Hargrove projects when uncorking cogent, thrilling solos on structures ranging from bebop to post-Woody Shaw harmonic structures? Indeed, in his ability to blend the high arts of improvisation and entertainment with equal conviction, Hargrove is a true descendent of such iconic elders as Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, and Dizzy Gillespie, all musical highbrows who wore their learning lightly.

How does the big band sound now vis-a-vis when you did the record, after playing quite a number of gigs over the last year?

It’s really tight. I’m trying to get them to the point where they have the music memorized, and don’t have to use the written music any more—being able to play by ear is so important. When I played with Slide Hampton and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, I tried to memorize the parts so that I could pay attention to everything that’s going on with the conducting, with the dynamics, and try to make it very musical. It’s getting close.

How big is the book? There are 11 tunes on the recording.

There’s probably 30 songs or so.

In the program notes, you stated. “I always wanted to work in a big band format. The sound is so full and rich, and it provides opportunity for congregation, which is much needed among today’s younger musicians, most of whom have come of age in small group settings.” I’m also thankful for the opportunity to exercise my compositional and arranging skills. Music is such a vast world, and I intend to explore every avenue possible. The cast of players on this project are all guys I met in school and on various gigs and jam sessions over the last twenty-odd years. I think we all share a strong passion for music that comes from the heart.”

Two themes arise which are a common thread in your career. One is this notion of congregation, communication through music, speaking across generations and styles. Then also curiosity, hunger for information. I can recall watching you as a young guy getting your butt kicked by the elders at Bradley’s, and not being daunted or fazed, but taking it in a constructive way and coming back for more.

True.

Now, in the liner notes, Dale Fitzgerald writes that the first day he met you, you told him that to have a big band was an aspiration. You were always interested in that notion?

Yes. I always watched Dizzy’s big band on video, and it was very inspirational to me. When I started to embrace playing jazz as a teenager, the big band format was my training ground, in learning how to read, and learning how to play in a section in a group. For me, it’s kind of going backward. Earlier, there were big bands and then they went to the small groups; now it’s small groups, and I’m trying to bring back the big band thing.

I believe it’s really important that we all have to know each other when we play together. Most big bands, if it’s a great ensemble, the soloists are ok—they have one or two. But this group is a band full of soloists, so it’s challenging for me to try to bring them all together and have them play where the entire ensemble is thinking in the same direction, with tight cutoffs and everybody breathing at the same time—the things that normal big bands do. A few guys work in the Broadway shows, so they have a lot of experience…everything’s by the numbers. So there’s a balance between discipline and at the same time keeping it very loose and spontaneous.

You just mentioned that watching videos of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band was an early influence.

Yes. The way Dizzy conducted the band, and the way he seemed to have so much fun—and they were having fun. This was inspirational to me, and I wanted to have a group like that.

Playing with the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band over the last number of years has probably been a great training ground in putting together your own group.

Oh, it’s been great. Especially playing in the trumpet section there, playing the third trumpet part on Slide’s arrangements. The third trumpet part is a kind of focal point within the band, because you get to hear all the different ensemble parts written around the voicings. A lot of times, the third trumpet part, or even the third trombone part, has special notes that make the chord grow. I’m a sponge, listening to everything and taking it all in. It just gives me more information to transfer along to the group.

The program of Emergence contains many flavors—Latin, straight ballads, you sing a bit, exploratory pieces arranged by Gerald Clayton and Frank Lacy. But somehow, the template seems rooted in the mid-‘50s Dizzy Gillespie Big Band; the Ernie Wilkins-Quincy Jones synthesis of Dizzy and the Basie New Testament band, seems to be a jumping off point for the feeling you have in mind.

Exactly.

It’s a nice blend of art and entertainment.

I think that musicians should always have fun when they play. Sometimes it gets too serious. That’s just my opinion. When we play, it has to be tight, but at the same time I like to have the freedom to go outside of the box a little bit.

Talk about the process of recruiting this band.

Now, that’s difficult. With a big band, there’s hardly ever any money to pay guys, so it’s hard to get cats to be available.

It started off as a sort of Monday workshop thing, as often happens around New York…

Actually, the first hit was about 15 years ago, in Washington Square Park, where I was able to pull together a kind of all-star thing, with Jesse Davis and Frank Lacy, and even Jerry Gonzalez in the band—Jerry was playing fourth trumpet and percussion! I was able to do that first hit because the Panasonic Jazz Festival, which was running the event, paid us enough that I could give each one of those guys a grand or something. They were excited. “Ok! You got some more gigs?” But at the same time, throughout the process, the music grabbed them, too, and here it is, fifteen years later, we’ve brought it back, and everybody seemed to want to be part of it.

The other thing is that there aren’t really any gigs out there, and there’s a lot of musicians. People want to play. So it wasn’t that difficult to find musicians to be in the group. But it’s always a different gauge to try to find people who are available. For example, we did a few things here at the Jazz Gallery, and I was trying to find trumpet players. We shifted around a few different people, but we finally got what seemed to be a lineup of ringers—Tania Darby, Frank Green, Greg Gisbert are all very good lead players, too, and Darren Barrett, who I went to Berklee with, is a great soloist—Clifford Brown-Donald Byrd stuff. I guess finding the trumpet section was the hardest part; for a while, we had some mishaps. But we managed to pull it together.

I’m always at jam sessions, like I was last night, so I’m always running into musicians. I just go into my mental rolodex and pull out the people I know.

It takes time to accumulate a book. How did you accumulate repertoire?

I arranged a few of my songs for it, just to begin, then I told the cats, “If you want to write something, bring it in.” For this album, I asked Saul Rubin to write the arrangement on “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” and I had written “Tchipiso” and asked Gerald Clayton to do the arrangement. Then, of course, there’s our theme song, “Requiem,” by Frank Lacy, which we’ve been playing. That’s the chop-buster for the whole band; they like to play it, but it’s kind of difficult. It’s very powerfully arranged.

I try to include the music that I learned when I came to New York, from cats like John Hicks, Walter Booker, Larry Willis… Right now, a friend of mine is working on an arrangement for Hicks’ “After the Morning,” which we used to play at Bradley’s all the time. My premise is to try to pass down the information I picked up from cats like John Hicks, Walter Booker, Clifford Jordan and Idris Muhammad when I started cutting my teeth in jazz.

Apart from the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band, what other big bands have you been part of after high school?

I think that’s the only group I’ve actually played in. I’ve sat in with a few, played with some large ensembles here and there, but not anything that happened more than once.

Playing in big bands was a rite of passage for many of the older musicians who were your heroes, who came up before 1955-1960.

That’s why I think the music needs this. It creates some kind of humility. It’s very needed. Excuse me, but a lot of times, especially now, when I got to the jam sessions, people are so ego! I’ll give you an example. We’ll play an F-blues, and everybody with an instrument will get up and play, and it goes on for three hours. Each musician will play 100 choruses. There’s no humility there. Big bands, large ensembles create an environment where you don’t have to play for two hours and stretch out. Everybody can’t be John Coltrane! Sometimes you can just play half a chorus. Charlie Parker will play a half chorus and blow your mind! There’s something to be said about being able to trim it down—say less but have it have more meaning.

Is that something you learned early on, playing in your high school big band?

No, I didn’t learn that early on. I’m still trying to learn that!

It’s a quality that you aspire to.

Yes, I aspire to it. Sometimes, you have to make the amount of music that is just enough. You don’t have to over-crowd it.

How do you see this band vis-a-vis other contemporary big bands? It isn’t as though the scene is totally devoid of big bands, though there aren’t so many that work steadily.

Yes, there aren’t that many.

Maria Schneider, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the Vanguard Orchestra, the Mingus Orchestra, Carla Bley…

My group is not quite that streamlined. I’m still trying to get it to that point. My group is filled with hooligans.

No hooligans in those other bands?

No hooligans over there. There’s plenty in my group, though. My vision of that just seems like there’s those groups, and they’re all very clean-cut and organized, and then there’s my group, which is complete chaos. A lot of characters. It’s never a dull moment around those guys. When we’re hanging or traveling on the train, all I have to do is go around them, and it’s entertainment all day.

Does the composition of the band somehow reflect your personality?

Maybe so. I’ve never really thought about it like that, but yeah, probably.

So you’re talking about camaraderie and the jazz culture. This band evolved through this location, the Jazz Gallery, which has served over its decade-plus…

As a breeding ground.

…as a breeding ground and also a kind of communal space for a lot of young musicians from many different communities.

That’s right.

Talk a bit about the interface between the Jazz Gallery and the evolution of this project. Your quintet identity was already long-developed, but the big band identity not so much.

I have to give it up to Dale Fitzgerald, because it was his idea to bring this back into the picture. The first gig we did here at Jazz Gallery, people got really excited. That got the ball rolling. Then I got excited about it. I figured, well, it’s been over ten years; we might as well record the thing now, try to take it out on the road. I guess that’s an uphill battle, considering the economy and everything else going on right now. But still, I think it’s very needed. The kind of conversation you’ll get with it is worth more than money. To me. Because it would help if we can feed jazz with something fresh. It’s difficult right now. People don’t want to swing any more. That dance element is getting buried, more and more and more. It’s got this esoteric sound. People want to be so hip. They want to create the new thing. But the new thing, to me, is the dance. They’ve buried that. I like hearing drummers when they play the ride cymbal. You can’t get drummers to play the ride cymbal any more. They’re always playing like a drum solo throughout the whole song. The ride cymbal, that is your beat. That’s your identity. The way the bass and the drums sound together is a big deal. People just forget about that. Everybody’s on their own program. That’s why I’m doing this whole big band thing. That’s why I’m doing all three bands. Instead of music just being in the background, music should be like therapy for people. When you go to hear music, you should feel better when you leave. Like you’ve been to the doctor and he heals you.

Another flavor of this band which also hearkens to Dizzy Gillespie is your embrace of Afro-Cuban rhythms on several pieces. Two things come to mind. One is that the Jazz Gallery has been an incubator for some of the most creative Cuban jazz musicians of this period…including some of the more esoteric ones.

Excuse me!

But then also, it’s the place where Chucho Valdes entered the New York picture during the ‘90s, and the venue where you first touched base with him and gestated Crisol. Let’s talk about Afro-Cuban rhythms and how they fit into your notions about swing.

It goes back to the dance thing. When I went to Cuba the first time in ‘96, they was partying in there! Here’s people who don’t have anything, they can’t even go to the store and buy orange juice. You’ve got to go to somebody’s house to buy beer, or something to drink. They don’t even have their own bathrooms. It’s crazy. But when they party, when the music starts, it’s like a festival. They REALLY know how to get down. This inspired me…the possibilities exploded in my head. I owe so much to Chucho for turning me on to that world. Before that, I had no idea. Not really. Not like that, before I went down there and saw it for myself. The level of virtuosity with the musicians in Cuba is out of this world! One guy would have five different facets in his realm. For instance, you might have a trumpet player who plays congas and is also a visual artist who can dance.

When I hung out with Anga and Changuito, playing with these guys, even though they didn’t speak English, I was still able to communicate with them through the music, and they showed me so many things. They showed me how to play the different rhythms based on the clave, things that inspired me… But I didn’t really get to dive into it on this album the way I wanted to. We had one percussionist. I wanted to do a bunch of overdubs, but we didn’t have time to get into it the way I really wanted on the big band thing. There’s still some music floating around from the Crisol era that hasn’t been released.

Did the Cuban experience have an impact on your improvising style, on the way you phrase? Is it something you can dip into, go out of? How does it play out for you?

Just being around those guys, I soaked in some of that. I’ve always been into rhythm and movement. When I play, I’m trying to be a part of the dance. I want the music to go into your body, the way you feel where you have to tap your foot and snap your finger, or move your head, or something. Hanging out with those guys strengthened that feeling, made it more prevalent. When I play, I’m thinking about the drums the whole time, and trying to sit in to the rhythm of whatever the drummer is doing. I pay attention to the drummer always. If the drummer isn’t really happening, then I can’t really play. Sometimes I can, but most of the time it’s a struggle if at least the time is not steady.

So it isn’t so much the style or whether they’re playing swing or straight eighth that’s important, but the quality of the beats. Or is that not the case?

It’s a combination of things. It’s the steadiness of the beat and also the way it feels, like if it has an oomph behind it as opposed to it being very quiet, subdued. I prefer to play with a lot of energy. That’s why I liked having all those drums when we were doing the Latin project, because it inspires me to play with energy and force. Drums and brass just go together.

Let’s segue to the R.H. Factor project, which is a much more explicit manifestation of your dance orientation.

In the beginning, I started off trying to do a tribute… My father was a record collector. He had foresight. People used to come to our house to see what we had, so they could go and buy it. They wanted to know what the new thing was going to be, because my father would have it.

So whatever Roy Allen Hargrove was getting, that’s what…

Yeah, they used to come to our house to see what he had in his collection. Every weekend, my dad would buy two or three records, and come back home, and then two weeks later it would be a hit. He just bought what he liked, but apparently that would be what everybody else liked, too—but later. I lost him in ‘95. So I wanted to do a tribute to him in a way that… He always said to me, “I like the jazz, but when are you going to do something a little bit more contemporary, something funky?” I’d say, “I’m getting to it.” He got out of here before I could do it. So I began to collect all of these recordings from my memory, out of what I knew he had. I would go out and get Herbie Hancock with Headhunters, and Earth, Wind & Fire, and George Clinton—just reeducating myself. I’d always been doing little home recordings of my own original music, and I decided to take a few of them out of the archives and transfer it into a live setting, which was the beginning of R.H. Factor. We went into Electric Lady Studio for two weeks. Once the word got out that I was doing something different, all the musicians in New York started coming through!

A lot of musicians.

A lot!  I’m saying every day it was somebody new. It’s funny how the world is small. When the word gets out, it gets out. You know how that is, here in New York. We were at Electric Lady, and the first day I couldn’t find anybody. Nobody was around. I didn’t have a bass player, no drummer, no nothing. It was just me and Marc Cary, trying to get it started. We had Jason Olaine calling around, trying to find us a bass player. Finally, Meshell Ndegeocello popped up and brought her drummer, Gene Lake, and that’s how we got started—and the whirlwind of creativity began at that point. For two weeks, cats were just coming… Even Steve Coleman came by one day. There were some people who I actually called to come through, more mainstream entertainers like Q-Tip and D’Angelo and Common, Erykah Badu. These are my friends. It was a little bit difficult to get them, but they still came through. The only problem was that the budget spiraled out of control, because there were so many musicians, and they had to pay all of them. But that first one, once it got off the ground, was a lot of fun to do. I had Bernard Wright there, and my homeboys from Texas —Keith Anderson, Bobby Sparks, and Jason Thomas. That’s the nucleus of what was going on.

Just let me interrupt momentarily. Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, D’Angelo, Common, were all people you’d come to know during the ‘90s. Now, you’re best known as the leader of a hardcore jazz quintet playing swing, in a milieu where the jazz police are serious.

Mmm-hmm. But I never paid attention to that.

Well, you mentioned your father’s question, “when are you going to play something more contemporary?” That made me wonder whether there was a tipping point where you decided…

No-no. I never was satisfied with just staying in one place with music. I get bored. I always try to keep it rounded. When I was in school at Berklee, people thought I was strange because I would hang out with the jazz guys and the R&B cats, and then just sit there and listen to the gospel choir, saying, “they don’t understand.” Because there especially I met people who got into their locked-in things. You’ve got the guys that just play like Bird, then ones that just play like Coltrane. You got the guys who are strictly R&B, and they think the jazz guys are stuck up. You got the jazz guys who think the R&B guys are ignorant and can’t play changes. I never really sank my teeth into being in one of those groups. When I started recording professionally, I chose to do straight-ahead jazz, because that’s where my development was at the time, and I was trying to learn how to do it. I thought there was enough people trying to rap and do all that other stuff. There was enough of that at the time! I’m fascinated by Clifford, Fats Navarro, and these guys who were like institutions.

It was high art.

Yeah. I’m fascinated by that. Once I got locked on to that, I couldn’t stop. For me, it’s a blessing to be able to record jazz in THIS day and age. So I just went with that. But then, when it came time… Actually, it was really difficult for me to try to branch out and do something that wasn’t jazz. When I make a jazz recording, no one says anything. They’re just like, “Ok, take 3. Thank you.” Or “maybe we need another one, just for safety.” But then, when I started branching out into something else, everybody had an opinion. Everybody wanted to try to tell me how to write the songs, how to arrange the songs, do this, do that, “you’ve gotta get this singer, you’ve gotta get that one.” Everybody became an authority. People in the jazz world, they all think, “He’s a bebopper, he doesn’t know what he’s doing; he can’t play that.” But I’m from the generation that hip-hop came from, so it’s going to come out of me, too. I mean, my favorite group was Run-DMC when I was like 13 and 14. I actually bought Kurtis Blow’s first album.

Did your father like hip-hop?

He had one song he liked, “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash. “Don’t push me, ‘cause I’m close…”

In his very warm liner notes, Dale Fitzgerald writes that you started playing in an elementary school jazz ensemble in Dallas. Then people started hearing about you when you were 14-15, when you attended Booker T. Washington High School, which had a distinguished lineage stretching back to the ‘40s and ‘50s. During that time, were you working outside school? Blues bands, R&B bands, church situations?

Yeah. Once I got hit by the music bug, I couldn’t stop. I wanted to do it all the time. They had to pull me out of the band room. I was the first one there, and always the last to leave. I’d stay there until 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening, because I loved it so much. It was also a kind of deterrent from being in the streets. People talk about South Central L.A., but South Dallas is no joke! Erykah is from South Dallas. We went to high school together. Yeah, people don’t talk about South Dallas. If you picture the ghetto in South Central L.A., or Compton, which they glamorize on TV and have the gangs… Just imagine ten times that. It’s so bad, they can’t even show it on TV. You go to Texas, and the ghetto is crazy. People are just crazy for no reason! I grew up around that in the 1980s, the late ‘80s, when a lot of gangs were beginning, and there was a lot of crack. One time my father told me I couldn’t go outside after 6 o’clock. So being around all that…having music really helped. Having something to do to keep me out of the streets. Otherwise, it might have been trouble. I’m thankful for that.

Did the idea of having a distinguishing voice on the trumpet come to you pretty early? Were you modeling yourself after the cats you were listening to? Did it just naturally come forth somehow?

Being in Texas, you hear blues all the time. Blues all the time. People love to listen to the blues. Every Sunday, my father and his friends would get together and play dominos, and put on Z.Z. Hill and B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland, and listen to the blues. My grandmother and my aunts and all of them had 8-track tapes of Tyrone Davis. A lot of blues. So the blues gets in there. So when I first started learning how to improvise and took my first solo, it was based on playing the blues. My band director showed me a couple of licks… I guess coming up in church, you learn how to project yourself emotionally through your instrument, if you play an instrument, or if you sing—whatever you do. Texas is the Bible Belt. People know what that is when you go to church, and somebody sings a solo. That becomes a part of you. My grandmother put that in me when I was little. My spirituality has always been what keeps me going. That’s what is coming through.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started to hear people like Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard. Now, hearing Freddie Hubbard pretty much turned my whole life around. Clifford Brown at first, because I had never really heard jazz trumpet like THAT. Clifford’s technique was so good that it sounded like he wasn’t even playing trumpet any more. It went into like a woodwind sound almost, as though he had practiced so much and got so good that his sound went past being just a trumpet—it was just music. But then, Freddie Hubbard really got me,  because he had a contemporary thing in his sound—it reached back to cats like Clifford and Fats Navarro and Dizzy, but it also had a thing from my father’s generation, from the ‘70s. I could definitely latch onto that, especially the way he played ballads. I always liked his ballad playing. Just ballads in general. I like to play the slow songs.

So I started from blues, and then I started learning bebop when I came to New York.

That was right after high school?

Well, I was in Boston for a couple of years.

Didn’t you come to New York before you went to Boston…

Well, yes, I actually did, once. But it was for a competition. I was still in high school. I didn’t really leave the hotel.

But before you came to Boston and New York, there were a couple of national figures who entered the picture for you a little bit, right?

Yes. Clark Terry and Wynton. When I sat in with Wynton that first time, I was really nervous. But I thought, “Ok, you’ve got to step up to the plate now; you’ve got to deliver.” I wasn’t afraid, but at the same time I was really nervous.

Is stepping up to the plate something innate in you?

I’ve always enjoyed when people enjoy. When I’m playing and someone is feeling good from that, I’ve liked it, ever since I was little, when I first started. When I play a few notes and somebody goes, “Yeah!” I’m like, “ok, yeah, I want to do that every time.” so yeah, step up to the plate, make it happen.

Back to R.H. Factor and the first record that came out with Common, Q-Tip, and artists like this, what was their sense of you as an instrumentalist? Were they thinking of you as a jazz player? As a common spirit? Apart from the friendship and the collegiality, what was the artistic relationship like?

Like Herbie always says, “I’m a human being first, and a musician second.” I guess there’s something to be said for a doctor with a bedside manner. You have to know how to deal with people. So when I go to the more mainstream artists, I switch the way I work with them as opposed to when I work with the jazz players. In some cases, they’re used to special treatment, and you can’t be so technical.

Give me a concrete example.

For instance, with Q-Tip, I put him in the booth and let him write to the track, and just have the first 8 bars, or something like that, keep looping over and over, For about an hour I left him in there by himself. He wrote to the track, then we went back in and cut it, and he did it first take. But there’s no formula. It’s different with each person. It depends on their personality. With Common it was a little different. He and Erykah were dating at the time, so I had to pull him out of the studio. Finally, I got him out of there at 5 a.m. or something, and he came down. He didn’t even write anything. He just improvised his thing, which was one take. I couldn’t believe he did it in one, so I was like, “Can you do that again?”—and he did it again! It was great. But then I went through all of this crap with his manager, because he didn’t like the improvised thing. He wanted him to write something. I’m like, “You don’t understand what’s going on. I wanted it to be improvised.”

Does this emphasis on bedside manner represent your attitude as a bandleader in all the different situations?

Definitely. It takes patience and forward thinking. You always have to be thinking for the other guy, thinking what he’s going to do. Is he going to miss that note? Ok, is he going to come in? I’ve got to count him in. It’s like a juggling act sometimes, trying to… Well, not really like a juggling act—I’ll take that back. What I mean is, you have to think forward, think ahead. With the big band especially—conducting and bringing in all the different sections and whatnot—you have to always be at least 2 bars ahead.

I guess you have to be like when you’re leading the small band, too, keeping the crowd in mind, what to play at what time—gauging all those dynamics.

I mean, it’s not that much different from the small group to the big groups. I think that, in a way, the approach should be kind of the same. With the small group, sometimes we play the big band arrangements, pared down, which is exciting for them.

A different flavor. Changes things up.

Changes things up, yes.

So you hit New York in 1990 after two years at Berklee. Was being there helpful to you?

Yeah, definitely. Billy Pierce was there. I did my first couple of gigs with James Williams while I was there. Greg Hopkins, too. At Berklee, I was in the Dizzy Gillespie Ensemble, which is how I learned a lot of that book. Greg had some of the same arrangements, so when I got in the band with Slide, I had played a lot of the arrangements before. That helped me professionally. I already had some training, and I got a lot there, too, though I wasn’t there very long. Not just from being in the school, but from being on the streets. Going to Wally’s every night. I heard a lot of great music there, and I got to know some great musicians as well, like Antonio Hart, Mark Gross, Delfeayo Marsalis… Being away from Texas was a culture shock for me, but also very enriching as far as my education in jazz.

Then you get to New York…

Then it got really deep! While I was at Berklee, I was starting to learn a little bit of some bebop, but I was really just trying to learn how to read chord changes. I’ve always played by ear, from when I first started. The first trumpet player got mad at me, because I would play his part, but I’d be down at the third trumpet! I think the ear training is such a big deal, though, especially now. We’re in the information age, and you can get everything at the push of a button. So musicians have to be very complete. You have to be not only good readers and be up on the technical side of playing music, but also be able to play what you hear. That’s sometimes lacking. I know a lot of musicians who can read flyshit, but if you whistle something to them, they can’t play it. Ear training is a big deal.

Anyway, it got deep when I got to New York. I started sitting in with people like John Hicks. I followed John Hicks around New York for a while.

Let’s paint a picture. You were around 19-20, and spending a lot of time at Bradley’s, both playing bookings and sitting in. You were playing with Hicks, and you were playing with Larry Willis, and the musicians who play on the record, Family… I personally remember an occasion when you were sitting in with George Coleman and Walter Davis, Jr. on the second set, they kicked your ass, and then you came back on the last set and hung right in there. I saw similar situations transpire several times. It’s kind of an old-school way of learning, but I think it says something fundamental about you.

I’m very thankful, because people like George Coleman and Walter Davis taught us how to be men on the bandstand—how to be grownups. I never will forget that same night you mention, when I was playing with George and we went through the keys on “Cherokee,” which was like a lesson on harmony and then another lesson on rhythm. Then we played “Body and Soul,” and he started changing up the meters—he played in 3 and then in 5, and then BLAM, really fast. [LAUGHS] Then he turns around to me and goes, “You got it.” I go, “ok. What am I going to do after all of that?” But I stuck to my guns and tried to ride it out. Man, they were so helpful to me. That’s why I think we just need something now. Musicians need role models, something so that they can see how it’s done. I’d glad I got a chance to see it in person. Bradley’s was an institution, to me. It was like going to school. It was like your Masters. You go in there, and you’re playing, and then there’s Freddie Hubbard at the bar! What do you do? This is very humbling. Everything I’m playing right now I owe to that whole scene.

Before I interrupted, you mentioned following John Hicks around the city, and you remarked earlier you’ve commissioned an arrangement of his piece “After the Morning” for the big band. Hicks was a musician who is underappreciated in the broader scheme of things in jazz…

Yeah, but he was a true musicians’ musician. My manager, Larry Clothier, told me about John in the beginning. He said, “You’ve got to hear him; he elevates off the piano. Really. He starts levitating.” When I saw him the first time, it happened! I was like, “whoa!” So I latched on to John, and he was like my uncle. He was like family to me. His music was an influence. I was influenced by a lot of pianists as far as how I write and my approach to harmony. there’s John Hicks, then also Larry Willis, then also Ronnie Matthews, Kenny Barron, too—and James Williams, of course. My writing was influenced mostly by James Williams and John Hicks, the use of the major VII-sharp XI chord. That was my favorite chord when I was in college, and I used to use it on a lot of songs. They showed me how to use that chord, and make it very melodic. Sometimes the guys in my band would get tired, because I would write them like inj parallel… “Man, you got some more major VII-sharp XI chords?” A lot of my tunes had inflections from John or James or even Larry Willis, and they still do today.

One thing that I think shone through at Bradley’s was your ability to play a ballad. At 19 you could have been called an “old soul,” but we can’t really say that now, since you’re turning 40 this year.

I think that’s just my upbringing. I’ve always gravitated towards the slower songs. Ballads have an emotional quality to me. You slow it down, and you hear everything, all the nuances… Maybe I’m a romantic as well. I guess I believe in love! I like the slow songs. I like when it’s broken down. Sometimes that’s where the beauty is, when you bring it in the slow tempo. And I always listened to singers. Nat King Cole and Shirley Horn. Sarah Vaughan is my favorite. Of course, I owe a lot to Carmen McRae. I got to hear her live a lot, and she used to let me sit in with her all the time. Her delivery… I heard Freddy Cole at Bradley’s as well.

There’s a vocal element in my music. I try to play like a singer. I try to sing through my instrument like a vocalist would sing. I’m always thinking about the lyrics. I was told by Clifford Jordan that you have to know the words of the song, because then you really understand what it’s about, and when you play the melody you really understand the mood you’re projecting. Also, it helps your phrasing.

It sounds like there was never any generation gap for you.

Man, I have extreme respect for my elders. I believe in that. Somebody who’s been on this planet longer than me, I have to respect them. Even if they’re dead wrong, I’ve still got to respect them! There’s something to be said about the fact that they’ve been here longer than me, and they’ve survived. When it comes to musicians, it even gets deeper.

Another thing that’s interesting about how Bradley’s played out for you is that, because your business arrangements turned you into a leader quite quickly, it became the primary venue for your apprenticeship. You never did the sideman thing too much, if I recall correctly.

No, you’re wrong about that. I did a lot of sideman things, but it wasn’t anything steady. I started off playing with Frank Morgan and the Ronnie Matthews Trio, and  it went from there to Clifford Jordan, Barry Harris, and Vernell Fournier, and then Charles McPherson.

Were these one-offs or were you touring with them?

I was touring with them. I would do a week here, two weeks there with different groups. Most of them were veterans, with me, the young kid, as the special guest. They were so encouraging. Whenever I showed up on the scene with my trumpet, the older guys, like Clifford Jordan, would be like, “Man, come on and play.” Nowadays, people get very protective over the bandstand. You want to go sit in with them, it’s like 2 o’clock in the morning, and they say, “We’re going to play a few songs, and then we’ll invite you up.” You can’t do that at 2 o’clock in the morning, man! It’s too late for all of that. Let’s have some fun! But people get very protective. I think the reason is because there’s no gigs. That creates a thing where when somebody gets a gig, even if it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, they want to play all their original shit and they want to speak their piece.

But the older cats were very welcoming, even though I couldn’t really even play changes that well. “Hey, come on and play.” Sometimes, when I didn’t want to play, they’d be like, “Get on up here.” Like, Kenny Washington one night, we were at Bradley’s, and he was playing some fast, crazy tempo. Kenny was known for playing 220! I went to go sit down, and he was like, “Unh-uh, come back up here.” [LAUGHS] He wouldn’t let me go. “Yeah, you’re getting some of this, too.”

But even if my premise is wrong that you didn’t do so much sidemanning, pretty much you were leading groups from…

I didn’t have my own quintet until ‘93-‘94, with Greg Hutchinson, Marc Cary, Rodney Whitaker, and Antonio Hart. I tried to create a couple of bands before that, but nothing really stuck. I had different projects. I had one group with Walter Blanding, Chris McBride and Eric McPherson early on.

I’d like to talk about your development as a trumpet player over the years. What your weaknesses were, how you worked on them.

Trumpet is a beast! When I was in high school, Wynton referred me to a guy named Kerry Kent Hughes, who was a trumpet professor at Texas Christian University. He was my very first private instructor on that level. I’d been studying at school, and pretty much teaching myself, for the most part. This was the first time I actually had someone who would come to my house and work with me. Man, I learned so much. I couldn’t pay him. We were poor. But he did this out of his heart. He was a classical player, but he also did musicals and shows and so on, and he was very versatile. Actually, he came to the Vanguard the last time we played there, and it blew my mind, because I hadn’t seen him in so long. But Kerry Hughes would come to my house every week or so, and show me little things to help me with endurance. We worked on Cichowicz flow studies and stuff like that, and also the Arban method. This really instilled in me the importance of an everyday routine on the trumpet, certain rudimental things that you do just to keep your chops up. With a hectic schedule and touring when you have to go to the airport and so on, you don’t get a lot of opportunities to practice, so you have to develop a daily routine to keep your chops up. I learned a lot from him in that respect.

I’ve picked up things as I go. A few years ago, I learned something called the Whisper Tone that really opened me up, helped my range a lot, helped me to be able to play more around the horn. I’m still developing, trying to learn as much as I can about the trumpet. It’s a beast. Dizzy says, “It lays there in luxury, waiting for someone to pick it up, so it can mess up your head.” [LAUGHS]

Dizzy Gillespie sure messed up the heads of a lot of people. You don’t hear too many who can emulate him.

I was just listening to something last night, “Birks Works” with Milt Jackson.

At what point do you feel you got past influences?

I’m still not. I’m still there.

Were you transcribing trumpeters? Were you doing it more by feel?

When I was at Berklee, I had to transcribe some Fats Navarro. Jeff Stout was my teacher, and he had me transcribe a couple of Fats Navarro solos. But I never got into transcription as far as writing it down. I don’t think that you get much from that. It’s better if you transcribe by ear and learn it, because some things you can’t really write down all the way—certain inflections and the feel that comes from someone’s conception. But I transcribe a lot by ear, not even really trying to. If I hear something more than three times, I’ve pretty much got it memorized.

That’s a gift, to be able to do that.

Yes, I think so. Thank God for that. But it’s also training. Because if you listen to music all the time, which I do, then it becomes part of you. It becomes part of your breathing. It’s just like drinking water or eating. I listen to music all the time. Even when I’m not listening, it’s still in my head.

So the quintet is your longest continuous entity.

Yeah, I like the quintet format. It has everything there. I have tried some other formats, though. That’s why I like coming to the Jazz Gallery to play, because I get to do other things—like the organ trio is fun.

You’ve also paired off with other trumpeters on various gigs here. Back to the notion of camaraderie and collegiality, it seems that you like to have another voice to play off of.

Yes, I like it.

It doesn’t seem that quartet would be your favorite format.

Well, it depends. With quartet, I would probably play more ballads. But it’s hard to play ballads now, because the young guys don’t know the American Songbook. They don’t KNOW the songs. It’s difficult. I go to jam sessions a lot, and when I start calling tunes, nobody knows anything. You either get “Beatrice” or “Inner Urge.” That’s it!

Gerald Clayton, who was your pianist for several years, has command of that…

He does. He knows the language of it. If he doesn’t know the tune, he can figure it out. For his generation, he’s one of the better ones. But then, his father is John Clayton, so he’s getting it honest. But I could stump him, too. He didn’t know “After the Morning.”

But in any event, you’re always bringing new young musicians into the band. Is there a disconnect for you with that generation?

I miss being able to hear some music that I just can’t get enough of! I’ll give you an example. Just two nights ago, I went into Smalls, and we were hanging out, jam session, everything’s pretty straight line, and then my friend Duane Clemons gets up and plays—and I was so happy! It was like touchdown! Know what I’m saying? It was like throwing a pork chop into the middle of a hunger-starved place. I felt so good just for that little bit. Man, if I could just have a LITTLE bit of that all the time. I was telling Duane that, “Man, you should really play more, because that’s FOOD.” He was playing the real language. He was playing bebop. He was playing the real New York stuff. The real fabric of the language of the music. When you hear it, you know what it is.

You do some workshops and clinics, too. You’re in touch with younger musicians.

Sometimes. I did a thing with Roy Haynes at Harvard not too long ago. It was real cool.

What do you think is alienating musicians from that way of playing? Is it lack of information, or…

Lack of information.

…is it attitude?

It’s both, One feeds the other. First of all, I think people sometimes come into the arts for the wrong reason now—because they want to be famous and rich and have a nice life, instead of trying to reach people’s consciousness and make a difference. Doing something for someone else besides yourself. People come into this, and, “Yeah, I want to be rich, I want to have a car, I want to have people waiting on me,” and so on. It gets weird when that’s your main focus. So you get the jazz musician who learned how to play in school who already thinks he’s learned it all. I like to meet musicians like that, because then I like to challenge them. That’s why I started this big band. I wanted to challenge the peacocks, musicians who think, “Oh yeah, I already know everything.” But you don’t!

They don’t get it. But if you love this music, you’ll go out and find what you need. That’s one thing I like about Jonathan Batiste, the new piano player who’s been playing with me. He seeks out cats like Kenny Barron and Hank Jones. That’s different than the guys in his generation, who are more into McCoy and Herbie—Jonathan checks out the REAL thing. I have to say, he did a great job on this last tour. I was really excited, because he came out and took care of business. This cat played in all three groups.

Jonathan Batiste is out of New Orleans.

New Orleans. What are they feeding them down there?! I don’t understand. Them New Orleans piano players. I had two of them in the past months, Sullivan Fortner and then Jonathan, and these guys are so complete. There was nothing I couldn’t throw at them. I’ve been working towards having the type of group where if I wanted to show them a new song, I could sit down at the piano and play it, and then they’d hear it—I don’t have to write it out or anything. Now is the first time I’ve ever had a group like that; with Jonathan, I could sit down and play it once, and he’d pick it up. Something about New Orleans.

So the present group is either Sullivan Fortner or Jonathan Batiste on piano…

Yes. Amin Salim is playing bass. Montez Coleman is on drums. Justin Robinson on alto saxophone.

Is the quintet a more open-ended format for you than the big band or R.H.  Factor?

“Open-ended.” What do you mean?

In your current bio sheet, you remark about the big band, “There’s not much left to chance.”

Yes. With the quintet, it’s always up in the air. The book is so vast with the quintet right now (excluding the new members, like Amin Saleem, who doesn’t know the whole book yet—but he’s learning it) that we can go in any direction you want. I can actually do the Big Band and R.H. Factor set with them, too. This version of the quintet is probably one of the more versatile units I’ve had. When we play the Latin thing, it’s real Latin. When we play some funk, it’s real funky. When we play straight-ahead, it’s tippin’. We can go anywhere. That’s basically my whole premise. I believe in variety, and also I believe in spontaneity. There’s no rule book. As soon as it starts to get to be in a rut, then I change it right away. With the quintet, we never play the same thing. Each night I try to change up the repertoire a bit so that everyone stays focused. We never get bored.

Being a bandleader is very interesting and challenging in that way. You have to keep everybody focused, and also motivated. Even outside of the music, trying to keep morale up is a balancing act as well. When you’re on the road and nobody’s slept for a few days, people get tired of looking at each other and it gets real dark. So I try to keep a very positive energy around everyone, so we keep it going.

You yourself must get tired, too.

Yes. I get tired. But I’m ok. My spirituality is what keeps me going, for sure.

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