Category Archives: Jazziz

For the 84th Birthday of Muhal Richard Abrams, Two DownBeat Articles (2006, 2010), one Jazziz Article (2011), and a Profile for All About Jazz (2007)

Best of birthdays to maestro Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 84 today, and is doubtless following his daily regimen of practicing and writing music.  I’ve had the honor of writing three feature pieces about Muhal in recent years. The first in the sequence posted below was written in response to his election to DownBeat‘s Hall of Fame in 2010. The second features a dialogue between Muhal and Prof. George Lewis in 2006, in response to Streaming (Roscoe Mitchell’s voice is also heard, but as the piece focused on the in-person back-and-forth, it was complicated to incorporate his voice sufficiently). The third piece is a Jazziz feature from 2011, which includes extensive testimony not only from Prof. Lewis but also recent MacArthur grant designee Steve Coleman.

For further insights on Muhal, this link contains a dozen of Jason Moran’s favorites.

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 Muhal Richard Abrams (Hall of Fame Article for DownBeat) – (1st draft):

“Interesting,” Muhal Richard Abrams said over the phone upon receiving the news of his election to Downbeat’s Hall of Fame. After a pause, he said it again.

Arrangements were made to speak the following day, and, in conversation at the midtown Manhattan highrise where he has lived since 1977, Abrams explained his laconic response to the honor, bestowed on the heels of his selection as an 2010 NEA Jazz Master.

“Well, why me?” he said. “There are so many worthy people. The only claim I make is that I am a pianist-composer.” He added: “I’m honored that people would want to honor me, and I have no objection, because people have a right to make the decisions they arrive at.”

It was noted that Abrams had communicated precisely the latter dictum forty-five years ago at a series of meetings on Chicago’s South Side at which the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts by which the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) continues to operate were debated and established.

“Oh, in terms of individuals being free to be individuals, of course,” Abrams said. “It is a basic principle of human respect.”

Informed of Abrams’ reaction, George Lewis, the Case Professor of Music at Columbia University, who painstakingly traced the contents of these gatherings in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), hollered a deep laugh. “‘Why me?’ Are you kidding?” Assured of the quote’s accuracy, Lewis, an AACM member since 1971, settled down. “That’s Muhal for you,” he said. “He’s not an ego guy. Originally, the book was supposed to be about him. He said, ‘I think it should be about the entire AACM.’”

Lewis then opined on his mentor’s “Why me?” query. “Muhal transcends genres, categories, and the little dustups that often happen in the jazz world,” he said. “He’s his own person.  He spent his life reaching out to many musical constituencies. So it makes a lot of sense to have him represent a new way of thinking about the whole idea of jazz. Muhal’s major lesson was that you’d better find your own path, and then, once you do, learn to be part of a group of people that exchange knowledge amongst each other. He provides support for an autodidact way of doing things.”

“I don’t characterize myself as a teacher,” Abrams remarked. “It’s my contention that one teaches oneself. Of course, you pick up information from people whose paths you cross. But I’m mainly self-taught—I found it more satisfying to do it that way.’

It is one of Abrams’ signal accomplishments to have been the prime mover in spawning a collaborative infrastructure within which such AACM-trained composer-instrumentalists as Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Leo Smith, Amina Claudine Myers, and himself could conceptualize and develop ideas. Another is his own singular corpus, as documented on some thirty recordings that present a world in which blues forms, postbop themes with jagged intervals, and experimental pieces in which improvising ensembles address text, sound, and space, coexist in the same breath with through-scored symphonic works, solo piano music, string, saxophone, and brass quartets, and electronic music. His arsenal also includes formidable pianistic skills, heard recently on “Dramaturns,” an improvised, transidiomatic duo with Lewis on Streaming [Pi]—it’s one of five performances on which Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, grouped in duo and trio configurations, draw upon an enormous lexicon of sounds while navigating the open spaces from various angles.

“It’s a vintage collaboration,” Abrams said of the project. “Our collaborations date back to Chicago, and the respect that transpires between us on the stage, the respect for the improvised space that we use, is special. Of course, they’re virtuoso musicians, but I’m talking about silence and activity, when to play and when not to play, just from instinct and feeling and respect.”

Asked about influences, Abrams said, “I find different ways of doing things by coming out of the total music picture.” His short list includes pianists James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, and Herbie Nichols, who “individualized the performance of mainstream music and their own original music”; Vladimir Horowitz and Chopin’s piano music; the scores of Hale Smith, William Grant Still, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Scriabin, as well as Duke Ellington, Gerald Wilson, and Thad Jones. “So many great masters,” he said. “Some influenced me less with their music than the consistency and level of truth from practice that’s in their stuff.”

The influence of Abrams’ musical production radiates consequentially outside the AACM circle. Vijay Iyer  recalled drawing inspiration from Abrams’ small group albums Colors in 33rd and 1-OQA+19, both on Black Saint.

“Muhal was pushing the envelope in every direction, and that openness inspired me,” Iyer said. “The approach was in keeping with the language of jazz, but also didn’t limit itself in any way; the sense was that any available method of putting sound together should be at your disposal in any context.”

“I think my generation clearly heard the effect that the AACM and Muhal had on Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who played with Muhal,” Jason Moran added. “We took some of that energy into the late ‘90s, and it continues on to today. He defines that free thinking that most jazz musicians say they want to have.”

Both Lewis and Moran cite the methodologies of Joseph Schillinger—whose textbooks Abrams pored over on set breaks on late ‘50s gigs in Chicago—as a key component of Abrams’ pedagogy. “It helped me break the mold of sitting at a piano and thinking what sounds pleasing to my ear, and instead be able to compose away from the instrument—to almost create a different version of yourself,” Moran said.

“Schillinger analyzed music as raw material, and learning the possibilities gave you an analytical basis to create anything you want,” Abrams said. “It’s basic and brilliant. But I don’t want to be accused of being driven by what I learned from Schillinger. I am the sum product of the study of a lot of things.”

This was manifest at the January 2010 NEA Jazz Masters concert at Rose Theater, when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, encountering an Abrams opus for the first time, offered a well-wrought performance of “2000 Plus The Twelfth Step,” originally composed for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra. As the 15-minute work unfolded, one thought less of the predispositional differences between Abrams and Wynton Marsalis, and instead pondered Abrams’ 1977 remark: “A lot of people will pick up on the [AACM’s] example and do very well with it…who those people will be a couple of years from now, who knows?” Indeed, it seems eminently reasonable to discern affinities both in the scope of their compositional interests and their mutual insistence on constructing an institutional superstructure strong enough to withstand the vagaries of the music marketplace.

“It’s two different setups, but both very valid,” Abrams said, when asked to comment. “There’s no real underwriting for the music of the streets. Never was. It’s very important for an entity to maintain a structure in which work can be expressed to the public, whatever approach or style they use.”

For the AACM, he continued, “the organizational structure was necessary to the extent that we were involved in the business of music. But it did not supersede or overshadow the central idea, which was to allow the individuals within the group a forum to express their own particular worlds. There was no hierarchy. Everyone was equal. As time has shown, every individual from that first wave of people came out as a distinct personality in their own right.

“If you want a house with ten thousand rooms, you don’t complain because nobody has a house with ten thousand rooms to give you. You build it yourself, and do it with proper respect for the rest of humanity. You’re busy working at what you say you are about—doing it for yourself. When you take a different way, people often get the impression that you are against something else. That certainly wasn’t true in our case—we never threw anything away.

“I just go as far as the eye can see in all directions. There’s no finish to this stuff.”

[—30—]

* * *

DownBeat Article on Streaming, 2009

George Lewis’ light-filled office on the campus of Columbia University, where he is the Edwin H. Case Professor of Music, contains a metal desk, a file cabinet, bookshelves, and a wood classroom table at which he and Muhal Richard Abrams were awaiting Downbeat’s arrival.

On the table lay an open copy of Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. “When you say ‘the beginning,’ I question that,” Abrams responded to Lewis’ paraphrase of Sublette’s assertion that Puerto Rican musicians were prominent in the early years of jazz. “Now, I don’t question people’s participation.”

“I think that’s all he’s saying,” said Lewis. “Just participation.”

“Well, he needs some other language then,” Abrams responded.

It was noted that Cubans flowed into New Orleans in the 1860s and 1870s, participated in Crescent City brass bands and orchestras, and played a vital role in the development of jazz sensibility.

“I disagree with the claim that Jazz started in New Orleans,” Abrams said. “New Orleans people think so. But it was in Mississippi and Alabama, too—that whole area. And who can account for what happened in Sedalia, Missouri? Or  what happened all along the Eastern Shore, in Baltimore and New Jersey, what Eubie Blake did and that crew of people before him, who we never heard of?”

It turned out that Abrams, a stride piano devotee whose answering machine greets callers with James P. Johnson’s piano music, had met Blake around 1974 in Chicago, when the rag master, then 91, was on tour with composer William Bolcom.

“Bolcom really didn’t have a feeling for what Eubie was doing, though he could play the notes, but it was cool, because he loved Eubie,” Abrams said. “I told him that I had been transcribing some of his music. He stared at me, then asked someone, ‘Did he really do that?’ and she told him that I had. I was shooting pictures, and the next time he noticed me, he thought I was a photographer. We talked a bit. He had boundless energy. You’d call his name from the other side of the room, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, what do you want?!’—he’d be right there.”

Abrams’ own boundless energy comes through on Streaming (Pi), a heady recital by Abrams, Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, who were, respectively, 74,52 and 63 at the time of the recording. Documenting the first meeting of these protagonists since a heady 90-minute concert at the Venice Biennale in late 2003, Streaming embodies the accomplishment of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians as fully as any recording in the canon.

Each man is a multi-instrumentalist proficient at deploying an array of extended techniques by which to extract a staggering array of sounds. They’ve codified and orchestrated these multiple voices, scored them into compositions spanning a global template of forms, and performed them on numerous concerts over the decades.

For this occasion, though, they chose to explore—and spontaneously chart—what Lewis calls “the open space” rather than work with a preexisting roadmap. Abrams played piano, percussion, bell, taxihorn and bamboo flute; from his arsenal of reeds and woodwinds, Mitchell brought a soprano and alto saxophone, as well as a generous selection of calibrated-to-the-sinewave percussion instruments; Lewis played trombone and laptop, generating samples and electronic sounds with Ableton Live, a loop-based digital audio sequencer designed for live performance.

Through three trios, one Mitchell–Lewis duet and one Abrams–Lewis duet, the old friends eschew collage and pastiche, shaping their idiosyncratic vocabularies, syntaxes and postulations into erudite, polylingual conversation.

“I’m trying to develop a language that will work in many situations,” said Mitchell over the phone from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. “Muhal and George are doing the same thing.”

“We’re organizing sound, and everything it takes to organize sound into what we call music—the structure, the melodious and harmonic component—in the same moment, through participating in a mutually respectful manner,” Abrams explained. “We produce what we are.”

Lewis contrasted the operative aesthetic on Streaming to that at play in his numerous meetings with first-generation European improvisers Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. “Derek and Evan wanted to open up their notion of improvisation to include the freshness of the immediate encounter—that is, someone with whom you’ve never performed,” Lewis said. “I became interested in that, and we built up a history of a lot of immediate encounters. Now I need to do what I can to renew and deepen already existing relationships. This project takes our existing collaborations in a new direction while also deepening the relationship.”

[BREAK]

Abrams and Mitchell first shared recorded space on the 1973 Art Ensemble of Chicago classic Fanfare For The Warriors (Atlantic), 12 years after Mitchell—just out of the Army and a student at Wilson Junior College—began participating in a workshop orchestra called the Experimental Band led by Abrams and Eddie Harris at a South Side Lounge called the C&C. Abrams, Mitchell and Lewis first worked together in 1971, initially documenting their exalted simpatico on Mitchell’s Quartet, a 1975 Sackville date with guitarist Spencer Barefield,  and subsequently on Lewis’ Shadowgraph (Black Saint, 1977), Mitchell’s Nonaah  (Nessa, 1978), and Abrams’ Spihumonesty (Black Saint, 1980).

“That was the first recording I was on with anybody,” said Lewis of Quartet.

“Why are you referring to the recording?” Abrams asked.

“It seems like we’re going too far back there,” said Lewis, whose exhaustively researched history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) comes out in spring 2007.

“It’s important to accept how we view the basis of this,” Abrams said. “George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

“You know that alternate take on the Coltrane record of “Giant Steps,” where Coltrane says, ‘The cats be makin’ the changes, but they don’t be tellin’ no story,’ and then somebody says, ‘Well, I don’t want to tell any lies’?,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to do that. What I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration, the sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multiperspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Lewis returned to Quartet. “That first recording is part of the collective memory, and not just us, so maybe it’s not a bad idea to think about it for a moment,” he said. “I felt completely new to what we were doing. But everyone else seemed to feel they were new, too. For instance, Roscoe’s piece ‘Cards’ is a set of graphic symbols which we were reassembling on the fly. You were free to actuate your part whenever you felt the need to, in accordance with your own analysis of the situation. There was that sense of experimentalism, working with the unforeseen as a natural component, not working with received wisdoms or ideas that are already set up. I’d never seen anything like Roscoe’s card piece, and after doing music of various kinds with a great diversity of experimental composers, I still haven’t seen anything like it. Everybody was able to contribute and have their contributions accepted. The attitude that produces a recording such as this new one is that same sense that we are not in a space of hierarchy, of overweening authority by some individual.”

“It had to become equal,” Abrams said. “That happened because we all consented to perform Roscoe’s piece in the way that he preferred we approach it.”

“In the AACM there were diverse aesthetics, but there was a lot more agreement on the ethics, which is a larger point,” Lewis stated. “To get to how that basic ethics evolved and was maintained over the years is a pretty intense question. Having tried to write this history and make sense of it all, I have to say that Muhal’s sense of openness was critical. He had to fight hard to keep people focused on the idea of openness. A larger world out there is saying, ‘Well, what’s all this free thinking?’ Somebody has to provide an example. Jodie Christian said, ‘I went along with it because Muhal said it was good.’ Muhal had a lot of respect and people wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.”

[BREAK]

In an article entitled “Experimental Music In Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985,” Lewis noted the attraction of AACM composers to “collage and interpenetration strategies that blended, opposed, or ironically juxtaposed” the disciplines of composition and improvisation, “simultaneously challenging and revising various pan-European models, dialoguing with African, Asian, and Pacific music traditions.” Such a stance towards composition, Lewis continued, quoting theorist Kobena Mercer, “critically appropriates elements from the master codes of the dominant culture and creolizes them, disarticulating given signs and rearticulating their symbolic meaning otherwise.”

With the AACM, Abrams spawned an infrastructure within which nascent composer-improvisers like Braxton, Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and Lewis could assimilate and process such information in a critical manner, and provided them manpower with which to workshop and develop their ideas. The polymath attitudes towards musical expression that they represent in their maturity stem in great part from the inspiration of watching Abrams follow his own autodidactic predispositions.

“I was always curious, and I always felt I needed to make my own way,” said Abrams, a self-educated composer who studied Schillinger between sets on ‘50s Chicago gigs. “Get the information, but do it my way. I am sure this ultimately led to the Experimental Band, and the attraction of the Experimental Band led to the AACM. I could speak of the process in terms of historical tangibles, but I believe that things happen because they’re supposed to. The little routes that are taken to get there are like a bus process in a computer program, which takes the information where it’s directed.”

Was openness to new information always prominent within Abrams’ mindset? “Yes,” he said. “Over a period of time, it became apparent to me that in order to learn, I had to concede that my ideas are housed in my personal universe, and that another individual’s ideas are housed in theirs. To learn about this infinite setup of universes, I had to listen and be willing to learn from others.”

“Listening is dangerous,” Lewis added. “The problem is to channel it into fruitful paths. You encounter ideas you’re not prepared for, that you may not understand, to which you may respond negatively. You have to respond to input. You’re not free at that moment; you can’t just say whatever you like. You have to connect with other people, somehow become part of them, have a sense of acceptance about it. For me, acceptance is the hardest part of listening.

“In improvisation, the superficial aspects—instruments, notes, rhythms, harmonies, timbres, durations—are carriers for the much deeper signals with which we as musicians have learned to exchange meanings which are broader, but also much more direct than these elements. One meaning is this notion of a non-hierarchical ethics.”

“Any idea you encounter gives you an idea about yourself—or I think it should,” Abrams said. “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discriminate as to what stays and what goes, and proceed in your own manner, which I’ve always tried to do. It’s good to study something, but making a copy to lean on is another question.”

[BREAK]

“On this new record, I’m trying to hear what Muhal and Roscoe would like to do, how they see the situation, and whether they’re not doing anything or doing something,” Lewis said. “My primary approach is an instant hermeneutics, an interpretation of what is coming through the sound at that moment. This allows me to tell a lot about them. All of the history we’ve been talking about comes through the sound. As musicians, we learn to interpret these sounds, but we also learn to interpret them as human beings. If people could fall back on the fundamental primordial aspects of their own human nature, it would be a lot easier for them to understand and to hear this music. When Muhal plays piano, I know its sound like I know the sound of my dad’s or mom’s voice. I know what Roscoe’s instruments sound like. That hits me before anything. That history is undeniable. It got built up over years and decades. At the same time, I don’t know what that voice is going to say. I feel comfortable with that. It’s almost as if a door opens up, once you forget all the theories and start to concentrate on just what the sound is telling you.”

“I agree,” Abrams said. “The world of sound is an abstract idea. The word ‘musician’ depicts one who allows himself to be trained to organize sound and produce it in the form that we call music. But before it appears, it’s sound without preferenced organization. What does sound want? What does music want? Someone comes along hearing sound differently from anyone we’ve ever heard, and we wonder what causes that. What causes Ornette Coleman to sustain a note, change his position in the sound world and make you believe it changed? It’s the way he hears sound, which is special to him. What makes Cecil Taylor get the textures he gets out of the piano or the AACM people do what they do?”

This seemed a touch abstract. Was location, for instance, at all a launching point for the way Coleman (Texas), Taylor (New York) and the AACM people (Chicago) hear and organize sound?

“No, it’s separate; but yet, yes,” Abrams responded elliptically. “We have many possibilities, and each individual has different points in their time cycles that cause us to hear sound in the particular ways that we do.”

“It’s interesting to consider personal history situations and their impact upon particular directions of music,” Lewis said. “There’s a collective direction, but there’s also that individual space. We’re looking at the paradox that you want to have the history or experiences, but at a certain point, history becomes meaningless and should just not exist, otherwise you become its prisoner. That’s a common conceit. To be without history means you’re not responsible and can sort of do what you want. Well, from my standpoint, as a descendent of slaves, I don’t want to be that disconnected with that history, because people tried to erase it, and we spent all that time getting it back. But I want to be able to abandon it when necessary, to reach these other places that I want to go.”

Lewis began to parse Abrams’ comment about organizing sound. “You have to organize the sound that’s coming in, not just the sound that’s going out,” he said. “In fact, organizing the sound that’s coming in is more important, because what we’re organizing is not just how it’s going to fit technically, but more importantly, what it means, the organizing perspectives on the sounds, what the sound is really saying to us. That can also change—something we remember later in the piece can bring up a consequence we hadn’t considered when the sound came up. So call-and-response is a problem. I want to have call without response. The idea that we’re not stuck in that kind of motion, but are free to challenge even that so-called fundamental wisdom with a fundamental investigation-exploration, and find what we find. You may find situations where call-and-response is an inappropriate methodology, and prepare to take the consequences.”

“I consider each day different; each person is different every day,” Mitchell remarked over the phone, illuminating this issue. “Today I might touch on a sound timbre, tomorrow a rhythmic situation. I hear something and think, ‘Percussion with this,’ start with the idea, and move to what I need to do. It’s instant theme-and-variation. But there are so many levels of improvisation. You don’t want to follow or copy someone. One thing you can do, if you hear something you want to extend, is not use it until another time. Then you avoid the heaviness that happens when someone follows in an improvisation, and maintain your individualism. I tend to fare better if I keep refreshing my mind and go with that flow.”

[BREAK]

“I didn’t teach them how to be themselves, and I didn’t create a situation that caused them to be themselves,” Abrams said of his distinguished progeny. “I helped inspire other people to be themselves from my example: ‘I am going to be myself, and you have the opportunity to be yourself.’

Still, there remains the question of how Abrams, the autodidact, came to pass along his own non-didactic ethos of informed individuality. “There were two older musicians in particular from whom I learned quite a bit—Walter ‘King’ Fleming and William Jackson,” he said. “In  mainstream music, they taught me and allowed me to pursue my ideas, mistakes and all, and it caused me to grow and to eliminate the mistakes. Their kindness and benevolence infused me with that feeling. They brought out what I had. I passed on that continuum when I got to the Experimental Band or AACM situations. All of us created the atmosphere that was created. I realize that some of the musicians feel that this wasn’t the case, that it was me—and that’s OK. I was the first observer. I saw them when they didn’t see themselves. They did it.”

“This is not something you get for free,” Lewis said. “The dynamic does not appear without resistance. At a certain point you get the inspiration, you start to become yourself, and other people say, ‘What the devil are you doing?’ Then you realize that people are still doing it in the face of potential consequences, and that’s the real inspiration.” DB

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams in Jazziz (2010):

At noon on a warm June day, pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 81 in December, escorted me  up the stairwell of his midtown highrise to a second floor roof garden for a chat about core principles. “The fact and idea of individualism is important to talk about,” the 2010 NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Fame awardee said. “I also want to talk about life and sound.”

Having stated the ground rules, Abrams settled in under a shady pergola. He preferred not to discuss the particulars of his new recording, SoundDance [Pi], a double CD that documents an  improvised encounter from 2009 with the late Chicago tenorist Fred Anderson, and one from 2010 with trombonist-electronicist George Lewis. Instead, Abrams went straight to metaphysics.

“Individualism is a basic constant among humans—and animals, too,” he said. “Each person approaches a situation quite differently, which lets other individuals know it can be said or done that way. I’m not talking about a process of copying anyone. It’s the fact that we learn from each other because of our individualism.”

He warmed to the topic. “To seek one’s individualism seems to be limitless. There’s so much one can pursue.” He called the names of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, William Grant Still, Beethoven, Chopin, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. “Their pursuit of individualism—not their IDEAS—inspired me greatly to pursue my own.”

Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, his home until 1977, Abrams, a sports-oriented youngster who knew a thing or two about the street, was 16 when he decided to drop out of DuSable High School and enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University. After a while, he decided to study on his own. “I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things,” he told me a few years ago. “I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

As the ‘50s progressed, Abrams trained himself to fluency with Joseph Schillinger’s mathematically-based compositional formulas and analyzed Rosicrucian arcana; some years later, he assimilated several programming languages. The fruits of his determination to follow his own muse are by now well-known. For one thing, there’s his uncategorizable corpus, perhaps half of it publicly documented on some thirty recordings. Ensembles ranging from quartet to big band interpret elemental blues themes, hard-hitting postbop structures with winding melodies, textural soundscapes, and experimental collage pieces that address text, silence, and space; tabula rasa improvisations share pride of place with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and electronica.

Of equal consequence is Abrams’ primary role in embedding his principles within the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective that coalesced in 1965. Within the AACM setup, he mentored, among others, such singular composer-instrumentalist-improvisers as Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph  Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins, and Lewis during their formative years. He focused his pedagogy on creating an infrastructure that offered to each individual an opportunity to critically analyze ideas from a global array of sources and refract them into original music, performed by ensembles comprised of AACM personnel in AACM-promoted concerts.

“During the week, we’d all show up at Muhal’s place,” Mitchell told me in a 1995 WKCR interview. “We studied music, art, poetry, whatever. It was a school. Muhal would be bothered with us for that whole week, and still come to the rehearsal on Monday with a composition for the big band.”

Abrams’ partners on SoundDance are more than passingly familiar with these principles, which manifest in different ways. An AACM member from 1965 until his death in 2010, Anderson customarily recorded trios and quartets in which he blew long, clarion lines over fast, rumbling grooves. In the first moments of their conversation, Abrams is sensitive to the outcat tenorist’s tentative, softly stated postulations as he attempts to orient himself to the wide open space. He presents ideas, listens as Anderson utters his own, [and] negotiates common ground via subtle sonic cues until, at a certain point, as if to offer a mnemonic signifier, he plays a hammering rhythmic figure, eliciting Anderson’s confident trademark roar, which remains operative for the duration.

The latter duo—which Abrams opens with variations on a four-note figure that begins in high treble range and concludes in the deep bass register, Lewis riposting with electronic tones—is epigrammatic and staggeringly erudite. Now the Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia University and author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, and himself a paradigm-shifter both in reshaping the sonic possibilities of the trombone and in creating software that improvises in real time, Lewis—then 19—met Abrams in Chicago in 1971. Thirty-nine years later, he and his mentor transition from one concept to the next—the range spans stride piano to post-Stockhausen—without a blink, as though two 18th century  philosophes were conducting a 45-minute colloquy on the sum total of human knowledge.

I asked whether Abrams’ shared background with Anderson and Lewis in any way inflected the music.

“No,” he responded bluntly. “The sound of that document had to do with what we did in that moment only. There is no shared background that comes to the stage when you’re performing. It’s the individual’s background. Each individual brings his or her path in to collaborate with the other individual’s path, and makes the choice as to how they contribute to the improvised space. That’s it. There’s nothing to reach for in the past or any place else.

“I listen to all kinds of music all the time. I practice all kinds of music, every day. I practice here”—he pointed to his head—“and here”—he unfurled his long, tapered fingers, each vertically imprinted from fifty-five years of incessant practice. “I write all kinds of music. So when I go to improvise, it’s just a continuum of how I feel in general through listening to all these things. I’m endeavoring to be continuously musical in the pursuit of organizing sound until I stop the improvisation.”

Lewis noted that Abrams’ ability to execute any idea he wants at any time, and to react to anything that anybody can throw at him, poses certain singular challenges. “In most cases, I feel that when people make the sound, their inner lives become an open book,” he said. “You read the mind through sound, or sonic gesture. I’ve never been able to do that with Muhal. Somehow, there’s a certain opacity. I’m not a big believer in pure spontaneity, but with maybe with Muhal you have to think differently about that. With him, you really shouldn’t rely on previous encounters, or make assumptions about what should happen, or about style, or method, or technique, or sound—not least because I think that Muhal is very good at detecting people who do that, and the banana peels will start coming thick and fast. You have to find your way moment by moment through an infinity of possibilities, before a path suddenly appears that you have to follow. If that path doesn’t happen to be the one you preferred, you have to make do. A lot of what goes on in improvisation, musical or otherwise, is a process of making-do, trying to work with and take a stance to the conditions you find, which are whatever sounds the other person is generating at that moment—pitch, timbre, a sense of the rhythm, the rate of change. It’s very prosaic.”

However prosaic the process of creative gestation, these instantiations of Abrams’ musical imagination are never dry or wooden. For one thing, even at 80, he accesses his immense database of sonic information with pentium quickness in the heat of battle. There’s his mastery of the universal laws of rhythm, which “he hears and then allows his harmonic style to infiltrate,” as Jason Moran wrote for http://www.jazz.com two years ago in a piece citing a dozen favorite Abrams tracks. He pulls his voice from the piano with an arsenal of attacks that span whisper to thunderstorm, infusing highbrow concepts with a blues sensibility developed in early career as a Chicago first-caller.

“Chicago was a blues town, so we all could play the blues real well,” Abrams says. “Playing the blues and playing jazz used to be one and the same; later, people separated the music into some that can sell and some that can’t. To say jazz is a deep part of who I am is fine. But not to say, ‘Well, he can play changes, so he’s all right. Not as a reference for the young people today who are doing all kinds of things, but don’t know anything about the mix I’ve been playing—they’d be confronted with something that might obstruct their approach.”

Abrams probably wasn’t referring to present-day movers-and-shakers like Moran, Vijay Iyer, and Steve Coleman, who regard him as a deep influence figure on their respective paths. In a long conversation about Abrams’ qualities, Coleman, himself a Chicagoan, noted Abrams’ penchant for rotating between the “inside” and “outside” factions of the South Side music community.

“Muhal played with cats like Johnny Griffin and Von Freeman, who you couldn’t get up on stage with if you didn’t know a certain amount of information from the tradition,” he says. “It impressed me that he had a wide-open concept that included cats from strong blues and R&B backgrounds who didn’t go through that tradition, some guys who initially couldn’t play anything. He didn’t impose those strictures on anyone. Muhal was like, if you’re sincere, and you have a burning desire, then we’re open to your coming in and experimenting. It wasn’t some shit like, ‘We want you to come in here and be a joke.’ But all these different backgrounds were able to come together and try to develop a common thing on which they could communicate. That involved a tolerance that I found interesting.

“Muhal has a Yoda quality, a sage kind of thing. You’re struck right away that this is an incredibly wise cat, whose breadth of knowledge goes way back. But he doesn’t lord it over you or come on egotistical or try to sell you something. I think people’s respect for him comes from that standpoint. Muhal can discourse with you about anything you want to talk about—esoteric stuff, whatever. Talk about walking down a street with somebody, and he can tell you how this relates to music.  He told me stories about being in Washington Park when he was a little kid, listening to elders debate all this metaphysical stuff; they’d pass the stick, and whoever had the stick would talk. Muhal grappled with these things early in his career, and thought deeply about them. He sees them all as connected. I can see why the AACM concept came up with him, because his playing has an unusually broad palette.”

Both Lewis and Coleman are clear that Abrams’ primary legacy will be situated not so much in the specifics of his musical production as the example he sets by it. “There are different kinds of ethos embedded in what people do,” Lewis says. “For some, it’s amazement at what they’re doing, how intricate and virtuosic it is. I don’t come away from a Muhal performance thinking about any of that. I come away thinking, ‘Boy, this certainly gives me a lot of work to do.’ Just when I thought I’d figured it out, there’s another facet of the puzzle which Muhal has brought out without pretending to solve the puzzle. It’s the confrontation with the puzzle which he encourages and exemplifies in his work—the puzzle of creativity, the puzzle of creation.”

That Abrams himself anticipates his ninth decade with a similar spirit can be inferred from his response to a hypothetical proposition that he play a ten-day retrospective of his oeuvre. “I probably wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I’m not interested in repetition. It’s not that I don’t like it. I use repetition, but in different ways. I’m interested in creating a new event that’s just right for the occasion that comes up. When I say ‘right for the occasion,’ I mean designing something that’s special for how I want to be musical at the time. That’s my focus.”
[–30–]

Five Muhal Richard Abrams Recordings:

Muhal Richard Abrams’ discography is so remarkably consistent that it’s complex to pick just five. On July 9, 2011, these seem like the ones to emphasize.

Sight Song (Black Saint, 1975): In duo with bassist Malachi Favors of Art Ensemble of Chicago fame, Abrams offers idiomatic, swinging meditations on ‘50s South Side associates Wilbur Ware and Johnny Griffin, before  proceeding to push the envelope every which way.

Lifea Blinec (Arista, 1978) A two-woodwind (Joseph Jarman and Douglas Ewart), two-piano (Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers), and drums (Thurman Barker) session that addresses the leader’s preoccupations with a cohesion and precision that anticipates such ‘80s signposts as Colors In Thirty-Third and View From Within.
Hearinga Suite (Black Saint, 1989): Hard to choose amongst Abrams’ big band recordings, which also include the Black Saint dates Blues Forever, Rejoicing With the Light, and Blu Blu Blu. At this moment I’m impressed with the unitary, narrative quality of this impeccably executed, seven-piece suite, which has a 21st century Ellington feel.

One Line Two Views (New World, 1995): On this masterwork, which opens with a soundscape and concludes with a blues figure, Abrams fully exploits the tonal and rhythmic possibilities of a tentet that includes violin (Mark Feldman), accordion (Tony Cedras), harp (Anne LeBaron), and an array of woodwinds and percussion.

Vision Towards Essence (Pi, 2008): A transcendent hour-long improvisation on which Abrams evokes the inner self. He traverses a 360-degree dynamic range, conjuring a stream of thematic ideas that don’t repeat.

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams article in All About Jazz (2007):

 

At a certain point in the mid-‘60s—the exact date escapes him—pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, a lifelong resident of the South Side of Chicago, visited New York for the first time, on a gig with saxophonist Eddie Harris at Harlem’s Club Barron.

“New York suited my energy,” Abrams recalled recently. “Of course. But I was already in that sort of energy. I had no doubt that I could be in New York. No doubt at all.”

Doubt seems to be a concept foreign to Abrams, 76, who moved to New York permanently in 1975. In 1983, he established the New York chapter of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, commonly known as the AACM, which launches its 24th concert season on May 11 with a recital featuring Abrams’ quartet (Aaron Stewart, saxophone; Brad Jones, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums) and a duo by Abrams with guitarist Brandon Ross at the Community of New York at 40 East 35th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues.

The institutional pre-history of the AACM began in 1961, when Abrams and Harris joined a West Side trumpeter named Johnny Hines to organize an orchestra where local musicians could workshop their charts. By Harris’ recollection, over one hundred musicians of various ages and skill levels attended. Although it disbanded within a few months, Abrams decided to begin another orchestra, which he called the Experimental Band. He recruited younger musicians like Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, who were interested, as Abrams puts it, “in more original approaches to composing and performing music.” Over the next few years, musicians such as Malachi Favors, Leroy Jenkins, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and Kalaparusha entered the mix to participate in the adventure. A certain momentum developed with the Experimental Band as the nucleus, and in 1965, Abrams, fellow pianist Jodie Christian, trumpeter Phil Cohran, and drummer Steve McCall convened a meeting towards the purpose of forming a new musicians organization devoted to the production of original music with a collective spirit. Thus, the AACM was launched.

Under the AACM’s auspices, Abrams mentored composer-instrumentalist-improvisers like Mitchell, Jarman, Braxton, Smith, Henry Threadgill and George Lewis in their nascent years. He also spawned an infrastructure within which each individual had autonomy to assimilate and process an enormous body of music from a broad spectrum of sources in a critical manner, and gave them manpower with whom to workshop and develop their ideas while evolving their respective voices.

The AACM first hit New York in May 1970, when cultural activist Kunle Mwanga produced a concert at the Washington Square Methodist Church with Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton, who had relocated from Chicago three months earlier, their AACM mates Abrams, Smith and McCall, and bassist Richard Davis, also a South Sider. At the time, Abrams had recorded two albums of his own music—Levels and Degrees of Light and Young At Heart, Wise In Time—on the Chicago-based Delmark label. Added to the mix by 1975 were Things To Come From Those Now Gone (Delmark), and Afrisong [Trio], the latter a lyric solo piano date. Once settled in New York, however, Abrams would record prolifically for the next two decades, with 16 albums on Black Saint, in addition to two dates for Novus, two for New World Countercurrents, and one for UMO. You can’t pigeonhole his interests—in Abrams’ singular universe, elemental blues themes and warp speed postbop structures with challenging intervals coexist comfortably with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and speech-sound collage structures.

Abrams resists the idea that location factors into the content that emerges from his creative process. “What affected my output is the opportunity to record,” he says. “In Chicago, if an opportunity presented itself, I created something for the occasion. When I got here, there was no difference. I am always composing and practicing for myself. Actually, it’s more like studying than composing; I research and seek and analyze music—or sound, rather, because sound precedes music itself—and things come up. When a recording or something else comes along, I put some of those things together, and it becomes a recording. Of course, in New York, I’m hearing more around me, but it doesn’t make me process things any differently. I’m still dealing with my individualism.”

The notion of following one’s own muse at whatever cost was embedded in South Side culture during the years after World War Two, when African-Americans were migrating en masse from Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama to Chicago for factory, railroad and stockyard jobs. As Harris told me on a WKCR interview in 1994: “In Chicago, you could hear Gene Ammons in one club, Budd Johnson in another, or Tom Archia or Dick Davis—just speaking of the saxophone. Then there were all sorts of piano players that were really…different.  You’d go to one club, and the guy didn’t sound a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.”

“You were expected to do whatever it is that you felt you wanted to do, and nobody said a word,” Abrams says of the ethos of the South Side’s world-class musician pool. “The jam sessions were like that. We played bebop and kept up with the geniuses like Bird. and them. But I was never that interested in copying something and then using it for myself. I was interested in copying it in order to analyze it. Then I would decide how I would use or do that same thing. Chicago was full of musicians who distinguished themselves as individuals.”

As an example he cites pianist John Young, best known outside Chicago for his work with tenorist Von Freeman, and a prominent stylist since the 1940s. “When you listen to John, you hear remnants of Fatha Hines,” Abrams notes, leaving unsaid Hines’ presence in Chicago from 1926 until the late ‘40s. “He was very influenced by Fatha Hines, but John  had his own way. We were impressed with the individualism from him, Ahmad Jamal, Von Freeman, Chris Anderson,  Johnny Griffin, Ike Day and Sun Ra and the Orchestra. People wonder how an AACM could develop in a city like that. It’s because you could do individual things, and nobody bothered you.”

Abrams himself is a self-taught pianist and composer. “I used to play sports, but for some reason, whenever I’d hear musicians perform, I had to stop to listen,” he recalls. “It fascinated me, and one day I decided that I wanted to be a musician. So I took off and started to seek out information about how to play the piano.”

Although Abrams attended DuSable High School, where the legendarily stern band director Walter Dyett held sway, he preferred sports to participating in school-sponsored music programs. But by 1946, he decided to enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University in the Loop. “I didn’t get too much out of that, because it wasn’t what I was hearing in the street,” he says. “I decided to study on my own. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things. I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself how to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. I listened to Tatum, Charlie Parker, Monk, Bud Powell and many others, and concentrated on Duke and Fletcher Henderson for composition. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

Abrams documents all his New York performances. Still, the decade between 1996 and last year’s issue of Streaming [Pi], a compelling triologue between Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, shows only one, self-released, issue under Abrams’ name. As of this writing, no releases were scheduled for 2007.

“That’s okay,” Abrams says. “I think things that are supposed to reach the public, eventually will. I understand that people want to be able to hear whatever is happening at any given time. However, the recording industry has ways that it does things, and sometimes this may not be consistent with what the musician wants to do. Business has a right to be whatever it is, and the artist has a right to be whatever the artist wants to be. I also think the fact that musicians can do these things themselves today because of technology causes output to come out a little bit slower. But the quality is pretty much equal, often higher, than it used to be, because the musician can spend more time preparing the output. It’s important for people to hear what I do, but the first point of importance is my being healthy enough to do it. I don’t worry about whether it gets distributed right away.

“I always felt that you need to be about the work you need to do, and that’s to find out about yourself. That’s pretty much a full-time job. You pay close attention to others, but the work that you have to do for yourself is the most difficult. I seem to move forward every time I reflect on the fact that I don’t know enough. If you feel you have something, it’s very important to get that out and develop it. Health is first. But your individualism I think is a close second.”

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Filed under AACM, Article, DownBeat, Jazziz, Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Coleman

For Wayne Shorter’s 81st Birthday, A Brief Conversation About Blue Note Records and a Link to a 2002 Feature In Jazziz

A bit of grandmaster Wayne Shorter’s flavor comes through in this brief conversation we had in 2008 for a DownBeat piece in which several dozen musicians talked about their favorite Blue Note recording. I’ve appended it below in recognition of his 81st birthday, and linked as well to a post from three years containing a feature piece I wrote about Mr. Shorter for Jazziz in 2002.

* * *

Wayne Shorter on Favorite Blue Note Recording (Nov. 12, 2008):

WS:   You know like Duke Ellington said what was his favorite composition? The next one. Everything that happened is a work in progress, and that makes it great in itself. But favorites? That’s a controlled selling-marketing thing. It’s time to change just even the way life is perceived, so I’m starting right here. You can put that in. Downbeat can be one of the forerunners in changing how music and everything is perceived.

TP:   I wouldn’t disagree. But I’m wondering if , as a teenager, in your formative years, you were into Monk’s records on Blue Note as they were coming out, or Bud Powell’s records, or Miles Davis’ records.

WS:   I’ll just put it this way. More than…actually, not more than the records… Two guys, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, started Blue Note, and they had the perception and the kind of vision to stick to their guns—as Monk would say, stick to your guns. They stuck with something that was almost doomed to be like the low man on the totem pole or the marketplace, or even some people wishing it would fail. But I would say that you don’t have that kind of dedication… I don’t think they set out to be billionaires. But who is like that now? This is the 70th anniversary of Blue Note, and to capture that, who is like Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, the creators of that record label, and the musicians who created all that stuff then… It doesn’t have to sound like it did then, but who has… I think Downbeat would be well-advised to have their searchlight on who’s the Lone Ranger? Who’s sticking their neck way out there, in the middle of a falling economy and everything like that? The 75th anniversary in this falling economy is the time to create. That’s what I would celebrate for 75 years.

Whatever the music that was done on the Blue Note label expressed the challenge of doing this, the challenge of change. The only constant is change, so to speak. Without naming them all, all those artists that they had…I mean, they weren’t doing “Sunny Side of the Street.” They were not doing the hit stuff, the comfort zone stuff.

TP:   No, they were doing original music.

WS:   Yes. I think Blue Note probably had their finger on something, that you need that kind of resistance in the marketplace, that overwhelming resistance to commercial stuff to be used as fuel. It takes resistance for an airplane to take off. So we can thank the Madison Avenue marketing machine for all of the fights that they put up against originality.

TP:   Did you listen to, say, the Monk records on Blue Notes or the Bud Powell records when you were a teenager?

WS:   I listened to Monk before he was on Blue Note. I didn’t get into music until I was about 15, and I heard mostly on the radio… Some of that music was probably on Dial or Savoy, Charlie Parker and all that. I was listening to a show called New Ideas in Music… I know you want to pinpoint this to Blue Note.

TP:   Well, that’s what the article is about. But I’m all ears.

WS:   Not even being in music, I was listening to Art Tatum. I was listening to Shostakovich, all the classical people—New Ideas In Music, every Sunday it came on. I heard Toscanini do his last performance, where he put the baton down and said “goodbye” to the audience on the radio. Later on, I was checking out the music that was on Blue Note, what inspired the musicians, like, when they went to the movies—some of them talked about it. John Coltrane was on Blue Note for a minute. I know he went to the movies.  Charlie Parker wasn’t on Blue Note. But Blue Note or not, these musicians saw things in life that really escape us now, and I think Blue Note managed to capture a lot of the things that they saw in life. I think that Blue Note was a way of providing not just a musical voice, but a voice of what these guys wrote about, like Horace Silver. He wrote about things. Some song called “Room 608,” someplace, somewhere he had to stay, where he couldn’t pay the rent—stayed in a hoity-toity place. The wrote about and played about those things. If you just look at a lot of the song titles, and shuffled them, like put them in a puzzle, you’d probably get a sentence-tized story. You’d get a paragraph from a lot of the titles. You could spend all day doing that. [LAUGHS] All those titles, it becomes its own lyric. For me, it’s like gathering all of the things that have gone hither and thither and pulling them into a place where you can see what the celebration means of 75 years.

TP: It’s 70 years of Blue Note and 75 of Downbeat, which is a long time.

WS:   Yeah, I guess Downbeat was a voice for things people talk about that you couldn’t get. You won’t get this in the Enquirer. Pre-Internet, you could put Downbeat in that category. If you look up Downbeat on the Internet, you can say… It makes sense.

My job still, in jazz or what we call the creative process, is to break through the very mandates that they want in celebrating the 75 years of this and that, Downbeat and Blue Note. Someone has to break through that, too. That still has to be a creative process, even if you have to come out legless! Send me to the hospital with the veterans. I’m not being facetious. I’m just saying at this point, a lot of us are, symbolically…we can’t run around and jump around like a lot of the young guys do. So we take it like this. We have nothing to lose. Let’s have some fun, man! I’m taking the solemness out of it…the anniversary!

TP:   I hope this will not have been a waste of your time.

WS:   No! Hey, man, communication is important. Even the most difficult areas of communication is a challenge. Life is so complex, and life should be complex.

I’ll see you in the movies. The movie of your life, where you’re the producer, director and actor, describing your own destiny. We need you guys to write more novels…

TS:   We need more everything.

WS:   Yeah, we need it, man. Won’t you join?

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Interview, Jazziz, Wayne Shorter

For Artie Shaw’s 104th Birthday Anniversary, Two Uncut Interviews From April 2002

In 2002, Jazziz assigned me to interview Artie Shaw for a mid-length piece on the occasion of a self-selected CD box set. I posted the text on the occasion of Shaw’s birthday three years ago, not long after I’d started the blog. At the time, I stated I’d hold off on putting out the raw transcripts until another day… I think you’ll find them entertaining. The first interview happened off-the-cuff; I was calling Shaw’s assistant to set up an interview time, he picked up the phone, and told me to proceed right then and there. For the second one, I had some time to plan. Twelve years later, I have to say I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with him at such length.

* * *

Artie Shaw (4-2-02):

TP:    I’ll start with a nuts-and-bolts question.  That question is, very simply, why at this point did you want to put out the box set in the manner that you did it?  Was it a labor of love?  Was there satisfaction in looking back at your work?

SHAW:  Well, call it a cluttering of the desk.  There’s been a lot of clutter about me, all over the place.  Every time I hear something about myself, there’s an element of “I’ve heard this somewhere else,” there’s an element of falseness in it.  And I thought I would get one sort of repository in which I had the stuff that I think is okay, not the stuff that RCA or anybody else thinks is okay.  I think it’s high time that we understood that if a man does something and he does it well — or extremely well, as the case may be — that he be given a version of those things he did that he considers his best, as opposed to other people judging it.

TP:    Did you have very definite ideas on what your best was, or was there a process of discovery involved in going back…

SHAW:  You mean the criteria?  Very simple.  Those things which came closest to what I had in mind when I was in the studio, or those things which came back to me from airchecks or other sources that I thought mirrored what the band should sound like, as opposed to the more or less rigorous demands made upon you in a studio where, as I wrote in my liner notes, it was like putting your foot in cement.

TP:    Putting your foot in cement?

SHAW:  Yeah, a little bit like that.  You put something on a record, in a studio, and it’s going to follow you around for the rest of your life.

TP:    It’s true.  And you were dogged by that.  You’ve been quoting as despising “Begin The Beguine”…

SHAW:  Well, I don’t despise it.  I think it was a helluva good record in its day.  It’s just that I despise it being regarded as the apogee of my work, or as any way symbolic of my work.  It was one record out of many others.

TP:    And it was a great hit.

SHAW:  At the time it was a hit, I think, because… This is hindsight, obviously. But I think that it was a hit because it was so unexpected.  In those days, the so-called thing… I hate the word “jazz.”  The bands that played the music we call jazz did a lot of riffing.  Everything was riff-riff-riff.  And I thought it was nice to play a nice little melody and play it with a beat, with a so-called jazz beat.  That’s that it was.  So it must have come as a great surprise to the listeners.  The other side was supposed to be the hit, “Indian Love Call.”  This was an afterthought.  But the afterthought made more sense than what everybody was going with.

TP:    Let me ask you about the milieu in which you developed your mind.

SHAW:  Oh, God, that’s going on.  That’s not stopped.

TP:     Of course.  But there’s a beginning point.

SHAW:  Oh, I don’t know.  I guess the day I drew my first breath was the beginning point.

TP:    I’m talking more about the time and the place and the climate…

SHAW:  I think I was 6 or 7 years old when I began to read, and the idea that somebody could put thoughts down on paper with a series of symbols called language was a remarkable discovery for me.  So I’ve never stopped reading.

TP:    You were born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and lived in New Haven for how long?

SHAW:  Well, I lived in New Haven until I was 15, left home, and never looked back.  Yale cast a great shadow in New Haven.  I was very aware of that.

TP:    So in other words, that gave you an intellectual plane towards which to strive?

SHAW:  A respect for knowledge.

TP:    A respect for knowledge.  When did you begin to play music?

SHAW:  At 15.

TP:    At 15 was when you first picked up an instrument?

SHAW:  Well, I wanted one, but I couldn’t afford it.  My parents and my father always made fun of it.

TP:    What did they do for work?

SHAW:  My mother was a seamstress and my father was a frustrated inventor, artist, and ended up as a tailor.

TP:    Had they come here from Russia?

SHAW:  Well, my father came from Russia.  But I learned later that he must have been born in Poland.  I deduced that.  His name was Arshawsky.  That sounded like a Russian name, and he lived in Russia.  It took me fifty years, I was 50 years old before I found out where he lived.  My mother said he lived on a sea.  I said Russia didn’t have any seas.  Finally I said, “Was it the Black Sea?”  She said, “Yeah.”  So I said, “Was it Odessa?”  She said, “Yeah.”  I was 50 by then.  I never got to know him.  He left when I was 13, and I didn’t much care.

TP:    Just on a personal note, my grandparents were all born in Russia and Poland between about 1888 and 1895, from Kiev and Tuparov and places like that.  It’s one reason why I’m interested in asking you this and in what the climate was…

SHAW:  I think you’re more interested in it than I am.  I have no regard for antecedents or precursors.  I don’t care about that.  My family thing is totally nonexistent.  I have no family sense.  I feel as though I came out of whatever I came out of, and I managed to get to where I am in spite of anything.  There’s a line I cherish that George Bernard Shaw said.  He said, “Looking back at my life, I realize that whatever success I achieved was done in spite of all the good advice I received.”

TP:    When you’re 15 you pick up the alto saxophone or the clarinet?

SHAW:  C-melody saxophone.

TP:    And you had an instant affinity for it?

SHAW:  No!  Not instant at all.  I had to learn to play it. It was a very tricky thing.

TP:    When did you become proficient enough to start doing gigs on it?

SHAW:  Well,there’s never any time.  You start and you get better, and you get a little better and a little better.  If you keep working at something, adding a little bit each time, you finally get to be pretty good.

TP:    But was that in dance bands in New Haven or…

SHAW:  Yeah, there were a lot of little dance bands around, like there always are.  Today it’s guitars and singers.  In those days it was instruments, and we had four or five instruments, and we’d play little bar-mitzvahs and weddings and whatever came along.  So I learned to play.  I listened to other people.  I made a rule at that time: Always play with bands where you can learn something.  If you get to the point where they’re learning from you, move to another band.  Finally it gets kind of lonesome.  There aren’t many you can hear that you can learn anything from.  And eventually I got to the point that I didn’t listen to anybody, because I knew what I was doing.

TP:    How old were you, would you say, when that started to happen?

SHAW:  Oh God.  Until I got to be about 20.

TP:    So 1930 or so, which is when you move to New York and go into the studios.

SHAW:  1929 I  came to New York.

TP:    And you instantly found work.

SHAW:  There was no work.  I couldn’t work for six months.

TP:    Because of the union?

SHAW:  The union!  It was an atrocious thing, one of the most miserable six months I ever spent.  But I learned a few things.  I found my way to Harlem, and I met Willie Smith and started playing with them, up in Harlem.

TP:    Where did you go in Harlem?  Pod’s & Jerry’s?

SHAW:  Pod’s and Jerry’s.  I wrote a piece about that.

TP:    Would you describe the atmosphere there?

SHAW:  I’m sorry.  I wrote that in the short story “Snow/White In Harlem, Circa 1930,” and I can’t go through it again.  It’s the first story in the book, “The Best of Intentions.”

TP:    So you can’t tell me anything about Harlem.

SHAW:  There’s nothing I can tell you anything because I’ll be bored.

TP:    You’ll be bored?

SHAW:  I wrote it.  Once you write something, you don’t want to go back over it.  I’ve discussed it 100 times.

TP:    But it seems like spending the time in Harlem was fundamental to the instrumental language you started to develop.

SHAW:  Well, it is.  But I can’t go into it.  It’s like talking about the War.  I don’t want to talk about World War Two or my part in it.  It’s one of the minions of my life.

TP:    Well, I’m less interested in talking about World War Two than I am in how you became Artie Shaw, the musical personality…

SHAW:  I was Art Shaw.

TP:    Art Shaw.  Excuse me.

SHAW:  I was Art Shaw.  I wasn’t Artie Shaw.  That was a made-up name once I signed a contract with RCA Records.  My first recording of “Begin The Beguine” was Art Shaw.  Art Shaw was a studio name.

TP:    I understand.  You had to change your name as did many people in show business.

SHAW:  Well, Art Shaw was a changed name.  The “Artie” was added later only for euphonious reasons.  I mean, Art Shaw sounds like a sneeze.  So they changed it to Artie Shaw.

TP:    Since we can’t talk about Harlem…

SHAW:  Well, we can talk about it, but there’s been enough said about that.  And if you read that story, it’s pretty much a fictional version of what happened.

TP:    It’s probably impossible to ask you something you haven’t asked before or that hasn’t been written about before.

SHAW:  What’s that?

TP:    Well, I’m improvising here, because I wasn’t expecting to talk to you today.  But in your process of learning how to play — and learning to improvise — who were the people you listened to?  Who were your stylistic models?

SHAW:  Well, the first ones who were important to me were Bix and Trumbauer.  They were white and I was white.  I had no experience with what they call black today — then it was Colored.  I knew there were colored musicians around, but when I was 16 or 17, playing in Cleveland, before I came to New York, Bix and Trumbauer were the guys I listened to until I discovered a record on which Louis Armstrong played — “Savoy Blues.”  Then from there, I listened to all of his music, including taking a trip up to Chicago to hear him in person.  First thing I ever heard him play was the cadenza at the opening of “West End Blues.”

TP:    Where did you hear him?  What was the venue?

SHAW:  Savoy Ballroom.

TP:    The Savoy Ballroom in Chicago.

SHAW:  Yes.  I sat on the bandstand.  It was about 3 feet off the floor, I had a rug on it, and I sat on that, and out he came, and I looked up at this guy who was like God to me.  He played that introduction, and I thought, “Holy Christ, where did that come from?”

TP:    How long did you stay in Chicago?

SHAW:  Long enough to hear him.  Later, when I was 19, I came through Chicago on the way to New York with Irving Aronson’s band.  I had left Cleveland to join the Irving Aronson Band.

TP:    And you heard him again?

SHAW:  We came through Chicago, and we played til 4 o’clock, and after 4 o’clock I’d go all around the South Side of Chicago, and listening to everybody, sitting in with bands like Earl Hines or whomever was around.  I heard Jimmie Noone.  I heard a lot of people.

TP:    I was about to ask you about Earl Hines and Jimmie Noone.

SHAW:  I wrote that in “Trouble With Cinderella.” If you read that, you’ll find out there the answer.  That’s the first book I ever published.  That’s in print.  The publisher is John Daniel.  Daniel & Daniel, in Santa Barbara.

TP:    So your trip to Harlem was not the first time you’d played with black musicians.

SHAW:  Well, there were no other musicians around.  There were a couple of others.  There was Teschemacher, Floyd O’Brien, and there were a lot of guys around — Chicago musicians.

TP:    But I’m saying that for you going to Harlem was a natural thing because you had already played and sat in with black musicians…

SHAW:  In Chicago.

TP:    Yes, in Chicago.

SHAW:  Yes, that’s right.

TP:    How did the Harlem scene differ from the Chicago scene?

SHAW:  Not very much.  Just different names, different people, all playing the same generalized kind of improvised music that we call jazz.

TP:    So whatever stylistic differences critics and historians ascertain…

SHAW:  I don’t care about stylistic differences.  I don’t listen to that.  That’s a lot of nonsense.  I play music, and that’s all I care about, is people who play music.  Otherwise, it’s not interesting to me.  I can’t say I dislike Rock.  But I have no use for it.  It doesn’t tell me anything.  It sounds sacrilegious to say, but from the Beatles on, music in America stopped.

TP:    While you were functioning as a working musician, once you got in the studios and became quite busy, did you also have time to study music in a more formal sense?

SHAW:  Well, I didn’t study.  But I listened an awful lot.  I had a phonograph and a lot of records.

TP:    You were listening to Classical music, listening to…

SHAW:  I don’t call it Classical music.  Call it Long Form.  Classical was Bach-Mozart-Haydn.

TP:    Okay.  You were listening to contemporary long-form music?

SHAW:  Yes, I listened to everybody.  I listened to everybody I could get.  From Stravinsky through Debussy, on to Bartok and down through whatever.  I just listened to everything.

TP:    But in the 1930s you probably didn’t have much access to Bartok.  Who were you listening to then?

SHAW:  I listened to whatever was recorded.  If it was any good, I listened to it.  “La Mer.”  I must have played “La Mer” a hundred times.  I would play the records until they were worn out, and then get new ones.

TP:    Did you also play them on clarinet?  Did that become part of your instrumental practice?

SHAW:  That only happened when I had my own band.  The clarinet is a double for saxophone players.  Don’t forget, we’re not talking about jazz.  We’re talking about dance music.  In those days, that’s what we had — dance bands.

TP:    How would you differentiate between jazz and dance music?  What’s the difference?

SHAW:  I don’t know the difference.  People seem to… Always in our country, it’s almost illiterate, you know.  We talk about “jazz,” we don’t know what the hell we’re talking about.

TP:    Well, you just made the comment “we’re not talking about jazz, we’re talking about dance music,” so…

SHAW:  Well, that’s what it was.  Now, because you can’t afford to travel big bands around, you’re calling it “jazz” in clubs, and people come in and sit up and applaud no matter what’s being heard.  You know the old joke about the tour guide in South Africa who begins to hear drums, and he puts his hands up to his ears and says, “Oh my God, listen.  Drums.”  And people in the tour say, “What’s going on with the drums?”  He says, “After drums come bass solo.”  That’s jazz.  They don’t know what the hell they’re listening.  We’ve trained an audience to stand up and applaud after every solo.

TP:    Who were some of your contemporaries that you were friendliest with in the ’30s, between arriving and becoming a studio musician, and forming your big band?

SHAW:  I never thought about contemporaries.  All I did was play with the people around who played well where the gigs were.  I played in the staff band at CBS, the radio station, and then later I went out and free-lanced, and I played with everybody in New York.  Wherever I was called, I played.  So I knew Joe Venuti, I knew Tommy Dorsey, I knew Jimmy Dorsey, I knew Benny Goodman — all the guys who were around.  Manny Klein.  Name it.  I knew them all.  I was working with them.  I was the new kid on the block, sort of.

TP:    Did those become social relationships in any way?  In other words, did those become friendships in any way, or were they purely musical relationships?

SHAW:  I knew them, but they were musical relationships.

TP:    One thing that I think is interesting for anyone who takes a cursory look at your career is the avidity of your intellectual interests, which is not necessarily a typical thing for musicians.  I’m wondering if you continued to read and assimilate culture in the same voracious way while you were making your living as a studio musician.

SHAW:  Yes.  That’s what I did.  Constantly!  I read and read and read.  And I’m a loner, so I pretty much did all this alone.  But I’d meet people who I thought knew something, and I would ask them questions — and depending on their answers, I’d learn something.

TP:    What were a few books that made an impact on you?

SHAW:  Oh God.  I don’t know even where to begin.  I’ve been reading all my life.

TP:    For instance, was there a particular author of fiction, whether Dostoevsky or…

SHAW:  I read everything I could find that I thought was interesting.

TP:    Did it all have equal value?

SHAW:  They were all influential one way or another.  I got my name “Shaw” from Robert Louis Stevenson, a book called “Kidnapped.”  That was one of the earliest books I ever read.  I was about 7 or 8 at that time.  “Kidnapped” had a man living in the House of Shaws.  Shaw means a thicket of trees.  So I took the name when I went into show-biz.  When I decided to become a saxophone player and play in bands, it was easier to say “Art Shaw” than Arthur Arshawsky.  Plus, in those days there was a great deal of anti-semitism, just as there is today.  But a little more overt in those days.  Why was everybody in Hollywood named after a President back in the ’30s?  I mean, think of it.  Cary Grant, and all of the… Think of it, they’re all… Marilyn Monroe.  There were Jews running the Hollywood thing, and they all used American things.  Julius Garfinkel became Jules [sic: John] Garfield, and on and on and on.  If we wanted to spend enough time, I could give you a hundred examples of that.

TP:    I’m sure you could!  Probably 200 if we spent enough time.

SHAW:  Yeah.

TP:    So basically, during your teens and twenties you’re practicing incessantly, you’re reading voraciously, you’re probably going to the museums in New York and soaking up the art as well…

SHAW:  All of that.

TP:    And you’re living the life of a journeyman studio musician.

SHAW:  You could call me an autodidact.

TP:    I wasn’t going to use the word.  Thank you for using it for me!

SHAW:  Well, that’s what it was.  That’s the word we use.

TP:    I think it was more common in the times you came up in for people to get their education in a more autodidactic manner.

SHAW:  Yes.  Also I have a great distrust of authority.

TP:    Continue.  You have a great distrust of authority.

SHAW:  That’s right.  That came I think out of my father telling me that the instrument I played was silly.  He called it a “blowzer.”  Read “Trouble With Cinderella.”  That’s my first book, in which all of this stuff is expressed.

TP:    He called it a blowzer.  Is that a Yiddish term?

SHAW:  Yes.  I means a blower, a thing you blow into.  Like a kazoo.  He classed it with nothing.  And he made his contempt for it very plain to me.  I’ve often thought since then, whenever some signal honor has been bestowed upon me, “If you were here, Pop, you’d learn what a blowser is.”

TP:    Because the conversation is impromptu, I haven’t read up on my dates.  Did the big band begin in ’36 or ’38?

SHAW:  Mine?

TP:    Yours.

SHAW:  Well, it hit in ’38, but it began in about ’35 or ’36.  I had to kind of do it bootstraps, doing my own arranging and get a bunch of guys together and rehearse, and finally had a band.  You can’t have a band unless you have a job.  Again, if you read my book, you’ll see what happened.  I had that concert at the Imperial Theater, that led to agents, and agents led to my band.  I didn’t want a band.  I got out of the music business shortly before then.

TP:    That’s also in the book, I take it.

SHAW:  Yes, it is.  Try Amazon, you’ll get my…

TP:    Yes, I understand.

SHAW:  You’ll find the answer to a lot of the questions you’ve been asking.

TP:    Absolutely.  I’m interested in getting your responses on tape, but I haven’t been interviewed 18,000 times like you have, so…

SHAW:  Yes.  This is pretty boring, you know.

TP:    I’ll try to change the tenor of my questions.

SHAW:  All right.

TP:    Let me get back to your comment about mistrusting authority and operating within the cultural climate of the ’30s?  Did you become involved in the various political streams of the ’30s as well?

SHAW:  It was a little later.  But as a result of my early upbringing, which was lower middle class, obviously I leaned in that direction.  In other words, I was always a Democrat rather than a Republican.  Actually, my real credo was anarchism.

TP:    Kropotkin and…

SHAW:  I read Thoreau and I read Kropotkin.  I read all those mutual aid books, and all that.  Again, that’s in my book.

TP:    So you never affiliated with Trotskyites or Communists.  You were an anarchist and a lone wolf.

SHAW:  I was called up before the Un-American Activities…

TP:    But you were a lone wolf and an anarchist.

SHAW:  Well, I vary.  I veer between no authority at all and the idea that you have to have some government to deal with this cantankerous creature called a human being in last cause.  Lionel Tiger, who is a good anthropologist, once made a remark which I think is very apt.  He said, “Mankind has evolved into a creature which functions best in bands of 50.”  And we’re functioning in bands of 50 million.  How do we know what we’re doing.  We don’t know who to trust.  Look at the last election we had, this progressive country, which is probably the leading power in the world today.  Look at that election.  We act like we could be called the Disunited States.  There were two countries there.

TP:    I wouldn’t argue with you.

SHAW:  Well, I don’t think anybody in his right mind could argue with that.  There was a red and a blue United States.  It was right there on the map.  And the red part won, so we got George Bush.  The other side would have been Gore.  And I don’t know which would have been better or worse, if there is such a thing.  Calvin Coolidge said once that the business of America is business.  And it seems to function with a lot of Presidents.

TP:    Tell me about entering the role of being bandleader?  Was it comfortable for you?

SHAW:  A band is a group of musicians.  Somebody has to decide which way that band is going to jump.  If you’re going to start a magazine, you’re going to have one guy who edits it.  If you’re going to start a newspaper, it’s the same thing.  The bandleader is the guy who functions as the fulcrum or the center of the group.  The direction of the group is determined by the leader.

TP:    Did you feel that your bands were able to pursue the aesthetic direction that you truly wanted?

SHAW:  You never can fully achieve that, but you try.  You have a general aesthetic that you want to achieve, and the bands you get… Don’t forget, there’s a public there also, telling you what you can and can’t do by not supporting what they don’t want.  So you have to finally mediate.  You have to temporize with what’s there.  When “Who’s Who” asked me for an epitaph… After 50 years they ask you for that.  And I said, “He did the best he could with the material at hand.”

TP:    Was the material at hand satisfactory to you at that time?

SHAW:  Never fully.  You do the best you can with the material at hand.  You’ve got a public on the one side, telling you what they like, and you have your own interests and things, and then you’ve got the group of musicians, all of whom are awfully good or they wouldn’t be there.  You could say they’re all geniuses.  It’s like the New York Yankees.  Think of all the kids who play baseball all year, minor leagues and so on, and then you get to the New York Yankees.  You could say the nine guys up there in the starting lineup are all geniuses.  But then you have the Joe DiMaggio, the Babe Ruth, the Willie Mays.  What are they?

TP:    Well, you’re a kind of equivalent to the people you just named…

SHAW:  I try to be.

TP:    But I mean, in terms of the history of the music and in Popular Culture, you sort of were.  What qualities do you think brought you to that level?

SHAW:  Stubbornness.  Persistence.  A certain amount of high ideals, an awareness that you can’t achieve those, but you can only approximate them ,and the closer you approximate them, the better off you are and the better you feel.  It goes back to the definition of a fugue.  The instruments come in one by one, and the audience walks out one by one.

TP:    Were you always so self-aware?  I mean, you’re looking back at yourself… Did you have a quality of self-detachment, I guess I’m asking…

SHAW:  Well, everything is accident.  Everything is luck.  But yes.  There was a period in which I lost my mind.  Too much success.  I’ve said this often. The only thing worse than utter failure is unmitigated success.

TP:    And you had unmitigated success for a while.

SHAW:  I sure had that for a while.  And it was almost fatal.

TP:    Why was that?

SHAW:  I lost my mind.  I lost who I was.  I lost all sense of purpose.  I didn’t know what I was doing any more. For the audience to stand up and applaud everything, how are you going to know what’s good or not?

TP:    So you believed your press clippings, is what…

SHAW:  Well, I read some of them, but I hated them.

TP:    But I’m saying in a more metaphorical sense, like you don’t believe…

SHAW:  I know what you mean.  I know what you’re saying.  It’s just not true.  I read them, but I mostly thought they were pretty stupid.  There’s a great deal of an attitude on the part of writers for publication who look down… They want to look down on you.  They want you to be the black, sweaty Negro.  If you’re a White “intellectual” and know more than they do, they don’t like you.  So I was a victim of that.  An awful lot of critics, so-called, hated me, because they couldn’t patronize me.

TP:    You mean the purist jazz critics of the ’30s and ’40s.

SHAW:  Well, to this day, that happens.  People expect you to be stupid.  For example, ASCAP gave me an award, and they gave me a statement they wanted me to read, that I was grateful to ASCAP.  I said, “I can’t say I’m grateful to ASCAP, because they wouldn’t have done anything for me if I hadn’t done this.  It’s my doing.”  I’m back to G.B. Shaw’s quotation of… I think it was Dr. Samuel Johnson’s: “Send me a life raft when you reach the shore in safety.”

TP:    But the acclaim you received was enough to throw you out of whack despite all of the defenses you’d undoubtedly built up as a working musician over the years.

SHAW:  Well, for a while it got to be pretty hairy.  But then the War came, and that was a bath of cold reality.  When I came back to so-called civilization, and I went into analysis.  Again, that’s in “Trouble With Cinderella.”  Psychoanalysis I think saved my life.

TP:    Was it Freudian psychoanalysis?

SHAW:  The first one was pretty strict.  It was five days a week, every morning.

TP:    On the couch?

SHAW:  Yeah.

TP:    So it was with a Freudian psychoanalyst.

SHAW:  That was, yes.  Whatever that is.  There is no such thing as a Freudian one unless Freud gives it to you.

TP:    Of course.  But in the school of.  And that was in New York?

SHAW:  No.  It was in California first.  Then when I went to New York, I found that the West Coast analysis didn’t work on the East Coast!  So I went to a man named Abram Cardiner, a very famous man, who wrote books on… He was the beginning of the Cultural Anthropology idea — Margaret Mead, etcetera.

TP:    So in other words, he could help you put your own…

SHAW:  No.  He kept saying, “Mmm, what does that mean?  What do you mean by that?”  And then you’d say it, and then he’d say, “Well, that’s not what you said.”  And you’d go on and on and on, dissecting everything you thought… You’d come in in the morning and he said, “What happened?”  And you’d tell him.  Then he’d help you pull it apart.  I learned a very important lesson.  It can be summed up in three words.  “Maybe it’s me.”

TP:    That’s a good lesson.

SHAW:  It sure is.

TP:    Another aspect of your place in jazz history is that you were one of the first Caucasian musicians to employ African-American musicians — or “colored” as they call them then.

SHAW:  That’s debatable.  I only had one in the band each time.  But the audience would not hold still.  I was supposed to go on a tour when I had Hot Lips Page in the band.  It was a very lucrative tour in the South, and I agreed to do it and signed the contracts.  Then my agent came to me… It was Tom Rockwell in those days.  It was Rockwell & Keefe.  Remember that agency?  It became GAC, and then the alphabet soup started.  But anyway, he came to me and said, “Artie, we’ve got a problem.”  I said, “What’s that?”  He said, “They don’t want to take Hot Lips in the band when you go down South.”  So I said, “Well, then they don’t have to take the band, because he’s part of my band.”  So he said, “Well, it’s a problem.” I said, “Well, then let’s cancel it.”  So he said, “No-no, wait.”  Then he came back to me and said, “I’ve got a solution.  Lips can go with the band, but he has to sit 15 feet from the nearest man in the band.”  At which point I said, “Screw this.”  The tour was cancelled.

TP:    Did you have problems in the North?

SHAW:  We had problems everywhere.  The black people couldn’t live in the same hotels.

TP:    But in terms of your band specifically, and having a black artist in the band…

SHAW:  It was always a problem for the black guy.  Whether it was Billie Holiday or Hot Lips Page or Roy Eldridge, it was always a problem.

TP:    Did you bring them into the band because of the qualities they embodied musically?  Was that primary reason?

SHAW:  That was the only thing I cared about.

TP:    What were those qualities?

SHAW:  Oh, Jesus.  How do you define “good”?

TP:    Well, in many different ways, because there are so many different ways of being good.  But people project a different energy and aura.

SHAW:  Well, Hot Lips Page was good in a way that Roy Eldridge wasn’t.  Billie Holiday was good in a way that Sarah Vaughan wasn’t.  I mean, what can you say?  You listen to somebody and you say that they’re good.  They know what they’re doing.  I didn’t believe in geniuses. I believed in having the best people I could get.

TP:    Fair enough. Let me push you forward a bit.  On the box set, you devote maybe a disk-and-a-half to material from the 1950’s, those 1954 sessions you did with the reconstituted Gramercy Five.

SHAW:  On, the last ones, with the small group.

TP:    What is it about those sessions that you find so special?

SHAW:  Well, I think I played better clarinet than I ever played before.  I didn’t have any regard for the public and whether they liked it or didn’t like it.  And I was playing with peers.  I had a guy like Tal Farlow, a guy like Hank Jones, a guy like Tommy Potter on bass.  They were all good players, and you had to play very well in order to be what you were.  I was the leader of that group.

TP:    Well, they were all modern players as well.

SHAW:  It was modern days!  I wasn’t going to go back and play music of the ’30s.

TP:    What was your take on Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker when you first heard them?

SHAW:  Well, I thought they were remarkable players.  I didn’t see any pertinence or relationship to the audience.  I still don’t.  I think one of the problems with the so-called “jazz” today is that they’re playing for each other.  The audience is left way behind.  The mass audience is listening to Rock.  Jazz is probably 3% of the record-buying public.

TP:    Less than that.  1.8% is the last figure I saw.

SHAW:  Well, that’s what I’m saying.  So you see, what they’ve done is painted themselves into a corner.  The black guys are saying, “It’s our music.”  Well, I don’t know who the hell has a patent or ownership of music.  You’ve got this guy, what’s-his-name, who made the record…

TP:    Ken Burns.

SHAW:  Right.  He don’t know a goddamn thing about it.  So it’s jazz according to Wynton Marsalis and Gary Giddins.  They dominated the program.  And that wasn’t their doing.  It was his doing.

TP:    But that being said, I want to get back to your own response whenever it was that you first heard them, round about 1945.

SHAW:  …(?)… There again, we’re dealing with reality.  In 1954, when that group was formed, I had quit the business.  But the IRS didn’t want me to quit the business.  They wanted money.  And I had to go and get that.  So I had to get together a band.  The ’49 band I had was called “the bebop band.” Well, there’s the best band I ever had.  If that had stayed together, I don’t know where we would have gone.  But the audience would not accept it.  They couldn’t “dance” to it.  They wanted to dance.  They wanted a dance band.  And by this time, this thing called Jazz had taken over, and it was such a confusion.  You know, we are aliterate people.  Aliterate, not literate.  Not illiterate, aliterate.

TP:    In the sense of amoral or asexual…

SHAW:  That’s right. And musically, we are almost illiterate.  So when you have some really good music, the audience does not respond to that.  Or they respond like apes to it.  They get up and applaud after every solo, whether it’s good or bad.  It has nothing to do with music any more.  I can’t stand going to concerts.  The audiences drive me nuts.  The people who run the business do not insist on having any sort of dignity.  I used to say to Woody Herman, who would say, “And now, ladies and gentleman, Joe Miff-Miff played the trumpet, and this is so-and-so,” in the middle of the chorus, and I’d think, “Woody, why the hell don’t you wait til it’s over, and tell the audience to sit down and you’ll introduce the soloists one-by-one.”  He said, “Well, this is what they want.”  I said, “What about what you want?”  He couldn’t understand that.  Or didn’t want to understand it.  It’s very important that the leader of the band set an example.  And if he wants any kind of dignified response to what he’s doing… I mean, can you imagine a symphony audience applauding after each cadenza.

TP:    I hope you won’t think this an impertinent question.  Were you able to take that stance because of your financial means at the time?

SHAW:  Well, it helps.  If you can’t afford to do something, you don’t do it.  I mean, you can’t have a band if the audience won’t help you pay for them.  So the audience as it is, imperfect or alien as it may be, is necessary.  And so you’ve got to face the fact that you’ve got to give them… It’s called “three chords for beauty’s sake and one to pay the rent.”  That’s my mantra.

TP:    One thing that’s so interesting about the totality of jazz is how much beautiful music was created within the parameters of financial necessity.  I mean, someone like Ellington, say, being able to sustain a band for…

SHAW:  Ellington and Lunceford and Chick Webb and those people were playing for Colored people mostly.  So they could get away with a lot that White bands couldn’t.  They had a hipper audience.  Black people will accept things that White…they did, at least accept things that White audiences wouldn’t in those days.

TP:    What sort of things?

SHAW:  Well, certain extremes of jazz that you played.  I don’t like the word “jazz,” but I don’t know what we could call it any more.

TP:    What sort of extremes?

SHAW:  Well, when Ellington wrote a thing called “Concerto For Cootie,” what audiences were looking for that?  Until it became a song, “Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me.”

TP:    I think he disguised it by dipping… He’d have the singer go out, then he’d bring out a more complex instrumental…

SHAW:  I don’t think you can compare Ellington’s situation and the audience he had with my situation and the audience I had.

TP:    Fair enough.  Did you ever play for Black audiences, by the way?  Did you ever go on that circuit at all?

SHAW:  Yes, I would occasionally play for Black audiences. It was always very liberating.  You could do anything you want.  They were much more receptive, and much more aware.  I can’t say intellectually aware, but musically aware.  Like Billie Holiday.  Billie had a natural musical intelligence.  She didn’t know anything.

TP:    But she’d heard it all.  It was part of the fabric of who she was from a very young age, I would think, so she heard it.  It was part of her.

SHAW:  Billie would take a song and make it hers.  She had no regard for what the composer wrote.  I remember I made a recording with her years ago, when she was still recording for Columbia…Brunswick.  Bunny Berrigan and myself and George Wettling I think on drums, and Joey Bushkin on piano — whoever it was.  We made this record called “Summertime” and “No Regrets” and “Did I Remember” and “Billie’s Blues.”  The way she phrased “Summertime”… She made it hers.  So there was a kind of unconscious musical intelligence at work.  She had that to an enormous degree.

TP:    It’s amazing, because she probably would never have seen the songs until she entered the studio, so she was doing it from reading down a lead sheet most of the time.

SHAW:  Well, she had her own way, you see.  And you try to do that.  I had my own way.  With a ballad, for example, I would hear it, and I would hear it the way I wanted to hear it and play it that way.  But it was always recognizable.  Today you don’t even know what the hell they’re playing half the time.

TP:    You mean people don’t concentrate on melody.

SHAW:  Well, it’s important to know what the tune if you’re going to do something.  Why not write your own?  I asked Bud Powell that one time.  He sent me a record called “Embraceable You.”  I met him later, and he said, “What do you think?”  I said, “Well, I don’t know where the hell ‘Embraceable You’ fit in.  Why don’t you call it ‘Opus V?’ and get the royalties?”  He said, “Well, that would have been fraudulent.”  I said, “Well, what you do is fraudulent. You’re playing ‘Embraceable You’ and ‘Embraceable You’ is [SINGS REFRAIN].  I don’t know what you’re doing.  You lengthened the bars; instead of 8 bars, you made it 10.  You changed the chords and you changed the melodic structure.  So what the hell does ‘Embraceable You’ have to do with that?”  Well, if he were alive today, I think he’d agree with me.

TP:    Was Roy Eldridge similar to Billie Holiday in the sense of being able to transmute everything into his own voice?

SHAW:  Well, Roy had his own voice.  So did Hot Lips Page.  What they did was different from other people.  What I did was different.  Very few people copied me on clarinet because the sound I got came out of the formation of my embouchure and mouth and jaws, and my own musical ideas of how it should sound.  People are all trying to sound like somebody else.  I don’t know… If I hear two clarinet players in a room, I don’t know which is which outside the room.  In my day, it was Benny Goodman and me, and you could tell instantly which it was.  We each had our own sound.

TP:    Was there any particular clarinetist who was an idol of yours when you were forming a style?  Was Jimmie Noone one?

SHAW:  No.  I didn’t have any idols, except way back when I first listened to Louis.  I mean, I listened to the best ones and I liked them, but I don’t believe in idols.

TP:    How about of the people who followed you on your instrument?  Are there any that you favor?  Do you listen…

SHAW:  I listen, but I don’t much care for what I hear.  I listen to piano players mostly.  Brad Mehldau, for example. Charlap.  Whomever.  Good ones.

TP:    You like them.

SHAW:  Yeah. They’re good.

TP:    But on your instrument, you’re not particularly crazy about…

SHAW:  I haven’t heard anybody that’s done anything to drive me… I like Buddy DeFranco as a guy, and I know he can play clarinet, but it’s not my aesthetic.  It’s a different aesthetic.

TP:    Whereas with a piano player, it doesn’t hit so close to home.

SHAW:  Exactly.  I can listen to the music.  It’s more impersonal.

TP:    On clarinet, you must be thinking, “I would do this, I would do that…”

SHAW:  I do that when I hear me!  Some of the records that people think are great, I think, “Oh, Jesus, I wish I had done this instead of that.”  But then, what I did was, as they say, hip, au courant, whatever you want to call it.  And as the times pass, people would accept more, and your ears change.

TP:    Let me ask your impressions of a couple of iconic musicians in the way the language of the music developed over the last 55 years.  I asked you about Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and you said they were great musicians but connected insufficiently with the audience.  Is there anything else you could say about them?

SHAW:  Well, they were remarkable players.  But isn’t it interesting that Dizzy was a virtuoso on his trumpet, and Miles Davis is the one we’re listening to.  Why do you think that is?

TP:    I might contest that.  I think a lot of people listen to Dizzy.  But what trumpet players tell me is it’s because Dizzy is too hard.

SHAW:  I think it’s because Miles has more regard for musical content.  Dizzy had more regard for the trumpet.  It’s like me and Benny Goodman.  Benny was a superb technician, but musically there were a lot of gaps in his awareness.  He was limited. His vocabulary was limited.

TP:    But certainly, in the case of Dizzy, the quality you’re describing — just for argument’s sake — didn’t come out in his compositions.  He wrote beautiful, enduring pieces…

SHAW:  You mean “Tunisia”?

TP:    “Woody ‘n You”, “Con Alma,” things like that…

SHAW:  Well, we know what they are.  But on the large scale… I mean, we’re listening to Rock, don’t forget.

TP:    Well, if we’re talking about the large scale, we can’t really talk about any of these people.

SHAW:  Oh, yes, we can.  We can talk about some of them.  Billie has transcended it.  I transcended it to a degree.  People are still buying my records.  They’re not buying Goodman much any more.  And people aren’t asking for Dizzy’s big band.  You have to have a very specialized audience for that.  Most people don’t realize that these people are speaking to each other.

TP:    What about Charlie Parker?

SHAW:  Well, he had a big influence.  Remarkable.  But I don’t know if for altogether good.  His influence with drugs was as great as his influence with music.

TP:    Well, if we can separate the two, and talk about his influence on music, how would you assess it?

SHAW:  For a while there, every saxophone player was a clone of Charlie Parker.  Is that good?  He enlarged the musical vocabulary of this kind of music.  He did things technically that no one had done before.  He was a very, very accomplished man.  I would call him a genius, in the sense that a genius is somebody who does something for which there is no accounting.  Armstrong was a genius.  When he first started to play trumpet and did things like “West End Blues” back in his early days, that was genius.  There were no predecessors.  So if you come up with something no one has ever done, and you keep doing that, you’re going to make a mark.

TP:    Let me ask you about John Coltrane.  Did you listen to him?

SHAW:  I listened to him, but toward the end he became indecipherable.  When they start talking about “sheets of sound,” you might as well say too many notes.  When he was playing, he was a remarkably good tenor man.  But there are a number of those.

TP:    How about Ellington?

SHAW:  Ellington was a very interesting guy.  He did things that were very good with the big band.  He did some awful things, too.  The band was like the little girl with the curl on the forehead.  When they were good, they were good; when they were bad, they were horrid.

TP:    I think he had such an eccentric collection of personalities that it couldn’t be otherwise.

SHAW:  Well, I don’t know about that.  But he chose the personalities.  It’s like saying the newspaper was a good newspaper, but the people couldn’t write.  A good newspaper is… It’s under a rubric.  Ellington, sometimes his rubric worked, other times it didn’t.

TP:    When you were active as a bandleader, did you have a favorite big band apart from your own?

SHAW:  I don’t know about favorite, but I think the big band with strings, the first one that made “Stardust” and made “Moonglow” and “I Cover The Waterfront” and “Concerto For Clarinet,” that was a helluva band.

TP:    I’m sorry. I didn’t make myself clear.  I was asking apart from your band, were there other big bands…

SHAW:  I liked Lunceford’s band.  Lunceford at his best was awfully good.  And Ellington at times was very good.  There weren’t many big bands that I liked in the sense that I’m qualified.

TP:    How about contemporary arrangers.  You’re talking about Lunceford; hence, Sy Oliver must be someone whose work you admired.

SHAW:  He was good, but he got a little too impressed with himself.  Sy, when he worked for Lunceford, was very good.  Lunceford was a good disciplinarian.  He kept the men in line, and they did what they had to do.  He was very good at that.  Lunceford had a lot of respect for what he did, and I think he imbued the musicians with that.  The leader of the band has a great deal to do with the temper of the band.

TP:    Did you know Ellington?

SHAW:  Yeah, sure.

TP:    Did you know him pretty well? In a casual manner?

SHAW:  Not terribly well.  We lived our own lives.

TP:    Jumping to the here-and-now, you’re still listening to music, you keep yourself apprised, a lot of it you don’t like, there are things you do like, including Mehldau and Charlap…

SHAW:  People send me a lot of recordings.  People send me CDs, and I listen to them, and some — very few — I really like.  Mostly I think, “Well, that’s adequate.”

TP:    And the two artists who come to mind are Brad Mehldau and Bill Charlap.

SHAW:  Well, there are more, but I can’t think off the top of my hand.  I still think that Art Tatum was the standard of a great player. I think that Hank Jones has turned out to be a remarkable player.  There are a number of people that I think are very good at the piano.  There aren’t many horn players that I think are good in the sense of having any connection with the audience.

TP:    In this period, because of the melodic component.

SHAW:  Well, because of the disrespect for the melodies they play.  A guy said to me, I won’t mention his name, but he’s a very, very capable and well-known arranger… I took him to task one time for what he did with a very well-known popular tune.  I think there are certain tunes that should be left alone.  Don’t try to mess around with “Where Or When” or “Dancing In The Dark.”  Those are major melodic statements.  The lyrics, too.  I said to him, “Why do you do this?  Why do you lengthen the bars, change the chorus, why do you change the melody?”  He said, “I reserve the right to do anything I want with any melody.”  I said, “Fine.  You’re reserving the right, then, to be an utter failure.”  And he is.

TP:    I have to say one of my pet peeves with arrangements is cleverness for the sake of cleverness.  I think it’s ridiculous.

SHAW:  That’s it.  Cleverness to impress other arrangers.  There are books like that, writers who write for each other.

TP:    I think this is part of the academization of jazz.

SHAW:  Well, maybe call it the decadence.

TP:    What do you see the function of jazz music as being in this particular period, having observed it for 75 years?

SHAW:  I think it goes in with everything else cultural.  A man named Jacques Barzun wrote a book at the age of 90 called “1500 to Decadence.”  1500 was the Renaissance, and he wrote the history of what we’ve done, Popular and all kinds of Culture, to Decadence.

TP:    Do you think in a compressed manner that a similar argument can be made about jazz, that Louis Armstrong is the Renaissance, and there’s a slope to decadence?

SHAW:  Like everything else, it has a crescendo and a decrescendo.  A crescendo and a waning.  I was interviewed by a guy named Anthony Sommers.  He came from Ireland, he was down here, and we did this.  We talked about Sinatra; he was doing a book on him.  At the end, when it was all spoken and everything was said that we had to say, he said, “Are you in agreement, then, that what you think and what I think is that he was a perfect symbol of the decadence of the last half of the century?”  I said, “Yeah, I think that says it very well.”  We took a plain, ordinary singer, who was a good singer… There was nothing wrong with that.  He was able to sing.  And we made him into an icon.  It had nothing to do with singing.  We made him a crony of Presidents, and then when he couldn’t get along with the President because of his propensity for gangsters, he went to Spiro Agnew.  He was a man with utterly no principle.  That’s a form of decadence.

TP:    Of course, it wasn’t so dissimilar in the ’20s, when you came up.

SHAW:  It was an efflorescence.  We were growing.  And we grew and grew and grew, until finally we reached an apogee, and now it’s gone downhill.

TP:    Speaking of singers, would you say Billie Holiday is the one you most admire?  I’m putting words in your mouth…

SHAW:  I can’t say “admire,” but put it this way.  When she does certain songs, I have to say that’s pretty good.  “Autumn In New York,” for example, which is not an easy song from chord structure and all that — she did a beautiful job on that.  She’s a good singer.  But Sarah Vaughan was a good singer.  Ella Fitzgerald was a good singer.  There are singers around right now… I listen occasionally at night to a public radio station out here called KCLU, and they play jazz, and occasionally singers come along.  There’s a guy called Kurt Elling.  Kurt is a very good singer.  But he can’t get an audience.

TP:    Well, for jazz these days, he has a pretty good audience actually.

SHAW:  Well, pretty good.  It’s a long way from Sinatra.

TP:    There’s not one male jazz singer who has anything close to that sort of audience, except for Bobby McFerrin, who isn’t really a singer.

SHAW:  Well, Tony Bennett comes fairly close to being a popular idol.

TP:    He does.  I guess I don’t think of him as a jazz singer.

SHAW:  Well, but he does some reasonably accurate facsimile.  There’s no real intellect there.  I asked him one time… We worked together on a series of concerts, the big tents, those great big musical extravaganza places.  My orchestra was rehearsing with him, and after they did “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” he came over to sit with me.  He said, “The band is great” and so on.  I said, “Good, I’m glad you’re happy with it.”  Then I said, “Tony, what goes through your mind when you sing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’?”  He looked at me and said, “What do you mean?”  I said, “Well, you’ve been doing that song, and it expresses at most a meager philosophical statement.  Don’t you ever get a little bored with it?”  “No,” he said.  “I’m very lucky.  The audience…”  I said, “I’m not talking about money or success.  I’m talking about your inner view.”  He didn’t have one.  That’s an interesting gap, you know.  What you could call a mindless man.

TP:    I don’t know that one statement or expression necessarily denotes such an absolute assessment of him.  But maybe it is.

SHAW:  I think it is.  I think it’s a comment on him. It tells me a lot about him.  We did about half-a-dozen engagements.  And I began to realize that this guy was intent on singing, like Goodman was intent on the clarinet.  The philosophical basis for this was totally lost.  They were not aware that there was such a thing.

TP:    And you feel that denoted a character flaw.

SHAW:  Well, I think it’s a lack of understanding, or lack of depth to thinking.  It’s a surface view of life.  Things are not what they seem, and it’s the duty of any person who pretends to be aware to try to understand what it really represents.  It seems to me that’s an obligation.  That’s what I try to do, understand what is going on — in its deepest sense.  What does it say about the human condition?  The point of the words “human condition” I think is lost on a lot of people.  Also, they use language so imprecisely that their thought is imprecise.  We say “jazz.”  What are we talking about?  What is it and what isn’t it?  I mean, the name of the magazine, “Jazziz.”  Jazz is what?  It’s like saying “Bird Lives.”  Well, in that case, Beethoven lives.  What they mean is some of the music lasts.

TP:    Do you play any musical instrument now?

SHAW:  Well, I play piano a little bit.

TP:    Do you practice it?

SHAW:  No.  I did for a while, but I learned that if you want to get a vocabulary on piano, you have to practice it all the time.  And I have a low tolerance for boredom.

TP:    So if you can’t do something well, it holds no allure to you.

SHAW:  Well, I have no interest in half-ass.  I have no interest in being an amateur forever.  I don’t want to be an amateur now.  If I have to do something… I played golf for a while, and I got so bad I realized that the only thing you can do is live on a golf course.  I don’t want to do that.  It’s no fun to me to know that I am not very good at what I’m doing.  We can all be better than we are.

TP:    So you can’t go to the piano and just get some musical nourishment because you’re so conscious of your failings.

SHAW:  I can do it for myself.  Alone.  Yeah, I enjoy that sometimes.

TP:    I wasn’t talking about public performance.  I was talking for your own personal pleasure.

SHAW:  Yes.  I will do this occasionally.  Although lately it’s been difficult, because I’ve been incapacitated by this injury of mine.

TP:    What have you done in your senior years to stay so fit and alert?

SHAW:  Well, I don’t know! [LAUGHS] I just keep reading and thinking and looking and talking to people who know more than I do, or people with whom I can have interesting, speculative conversations.  Most people like to blab.  They get together, and they chatter.  I don’t like that.  I’m a loner.  I’m still alone. And now and then, people come along that I can talk to.  There’s a man who just sent me a computerized picture of a watch he’s developing.  He’s a great watchmaker.  He’s a third-generation watchmaker.  So it interests me, because a great watch is like a work of art.  And so on.  There are people like that, that I like to talk to.  But there aren’t a great many.  There never have been.

[-30-]_

* * *

Artie Shaw (4-16-02):

TP:    Do you recall anything from our last conversation?  The tenor of it?  I realize you’ve spoken with 18,000 people.

SHAW:  I get a little confused with which is which.  Give me a little resume.

TP:    As you may recall, it was an impromptu conversation.  I was calling Larry to set up a time to talk to you, and you grabbed the phone and said, “Let’s talk.”  I was winging it.

SHAW:  It was sort of general, in a way.  That’s fine.

TP:    I asked a few things that you thought were stupid, and there were a few things you didn’t feel like talking about…

SHAW:  I don’t know what those might be.

TP:    One was Pod & Jerry’s and one was World War Two.

SHAW:  World War Two, no. I have a very deep aversion to that whole episode in my life.

TP:    I asked you about certain people you’d encountered.  We spoke about some singers.  You talked about Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

SHAW:  Miles?

TP:    You talked about Miles in relation to Dizzy, as someone people are still listening to because of his command of melody.  You felt Dizzy didn’t pay sufficient attention to melody.

SHAW:  Well, he paid very little.  Dizzy was a virtuoso, and he got lost in that sometimes.  It happened to Oscar Peterson, too, often.  A remarkable piano player, but you know, we’re not looking for piano, we’re looking for music.

TP:    And it’s all the more remarkable when you hear him on an occasion that is musical, which does happen.  You spoke some about Sinatra and Benny Goodman, I guess, in a critical way…

SHAW:  Not really.  I think that Benny was a remarkable instrumentalist.  Not much of a musician.  I’m talking about the difference between instrumentalists and musicians.  Anybody can learn to play a horn if he just devotes himself to do that.  But some people are able to do it through that horn, go beyond the notes.  Benny was very good at what he did, but it was limited.  And Sinatra, that’s a bore to me.

TP:    I thought at the end we got into some interesting stuff.  You said that today is an age of decadence, you actually referred to Sinatra…

SHAW:  As a symbol of that. It wasn’t Sinatra, but the idolization of him.  We made him into something larger than life, and he wasn’t.

TP:    Which coincides with the ratcheting up of the apparatus of popular culture, with television.

SHAW:  I think.  The media darling thing.

TP:    Were you ever involved in TV in the early days?

SHAW:  No, I was in radio.  I did the Old Gold show.  But there was no television in my day.

TP:    But you were still active in the early days. Your name still meant something to people.

SHAW:  No.  ’49 was about the end of my big band experience.  That was a very abortive one, because the audience didn’t care for what we did, and I had to break up that band.  It was probably the best band I ever had, and it could have been one of the most remarkable bands that ever was.  But the audience wouldn’t support it.

TP:    Why do you think it had that kind of potential?  Do you feel that you could have developed more had the band…

SHAW:  There’s no question about that in my mind.  If I’d had an audience that would allow me to keep paying the men… Without that you’re dead.  There’s nothing you can do.  If the audience will not support you, you’re out of business.  I keep trying to tell that to modern musicians.  If you play beyond the perception of the audience, you can’t expect them to reward you.

TP:    That band had a very stimulating repertoire.

SHAW:  Well, you only heard one record of it.  That’s all there was.  We had stuff there that was trailblazing.  Nobody had ever done what we did.

TP:    By which arrangers?

SHAW:  Not arrangers so much.  We did Ravel’s, “…(?)… Son D’Abenair(?)”.  We did a sonata somebody wrote for me.  We did things out of tempo.  It was a great band.

TP:    So you were playing your entire repertoire with that band.  You used that band as a vehicle to sum up everything you’d learned in your 25 years…

SHAW:  Well, I was using as much as I could get into a ballroom where… Don’t forget, we were making our living as a dance band.  And the only engagement we ever had with that band that was completely perfect was at the Blue Note in Chicago.  Dave Garroway was a big music fan.  He told me it was the most amazing musical experience of his life to hear that band.

TP:    You never played Birdland with that band or anything like that.

SHAW:  Not Birdland, but we were supposed to go to Bop City.  By that time, I had changed to the worst band I ever had.

TP:    Which band was that?

SHAW:  Oh, not to talk about.  A bunch of guys that could barely read a stock arrangement.  It was a terrible band.  I was doing it as a joke, to see what the audience would like.  If they hated the best band, and I went to the ’38 band and they loved that, then let’s see what happens with the worst band.  And I did that.  And they loved it.  It’s one of the reasons I quit the whole music business.

TP:    We also spoke about Ellington, who you were comparing to Jimmy Lunceford…

SHAW:  Ellington has been hyped.  In the last ten years Ellington has become like the avatar.  He was a good band, but he was one of the good bands.  But then, you know, he was smart.  He did some pretty smart stuff.  The long form things that he did, they weren’t long forms, they were just pastiche, a lot of little short forms put together.  “The Drum Is A Woman,” blah-blah-blah, that stuff.  But the audience bought it.

TP:    He could seduce everybody.

SHAW:  Yes, he did.  He was a very smart guy.

TP:    Do you consider him a master of short form jazz?

SHAW:  Well, I don’t know about a master.  I think there were about five great bands in those days.  There was Goodman, there was me, there was Basie, there was Ellington and there was Lunceford.  That about sums it up.  Tommy Dorsey had a great band, but it wasn’t what you’d call… They weren’t playing jazz.  They were doing a lot of things with big singers… It was known as the General Motors of jazz.

TP:    How would you evaluate Chick Webb’s band in those days?

SHAW:  It wasn’t up to that.  Chick had a good band, but it was not up to that.  Ella was the thing that made Chick.

TP:    How about Earl Hines’ band?  Did you ever get to hear it?

SHAW:  Well, he was never known as a great bandleader.  Hines was a great piano player with Louis.  That’s where he came through.  He was on “West End Blues” and some of those records, and he was a new voice.  So he was very interesting.  But as a bandleader he was not significant, maybe because the big band era was over when he came along.

TP:    Here’s what I was leading to by referring to our having touched on Ellington and Lunceford.  Ellington, as is commonly known, used the band as — and his success in being able to sustain the band with popular songs and having copyrights — a way to sustain his own creativity and keep himself interested, as a kind of vehicle for personal growth.

SHAW:  Ellington said that to me.  When I quit, he said, “Man, you’ve got more guts than any of us.”  I said, “What are you talking about?  You could do the same thing if you wanted to.”  He said, “I wouldn’t know what else to do.”

TP:    But did you see your band as a similar vehicle for you creatively, or potentially so?

SHAW:  That’s what it was.  The band was my instrument.  Instead of playing a clarinet, I had a band, which was my instrument.  I played the clarinet with it.  But it was an instrument.  The orchestra is an instrument.  If you look at a Beethoven score, it’s an instrument.  I mean, a band is not a series of players.  If you do the right thing with them… It’s like a newspaper.  If you run a newspaper, you’ve got a lot of disparate talents in there.  Or a magazine.  Like Harold Ross.  He had Walker Gibbs, he had E.B. White, he had Thurber, he had writers there that he could match.  But he welded them into an instrument.

TP:    I think you made that analogy to Sudhalter.  It’s a great analogy.

SHAW:   It’s a good metaphor.  The bandleader is an editor.  Sometimes he’s a good instrument, but mostly… I mean, Woody had some good bands.  But he was never up to the band.

TP:    But you apparently brought your band up to you.

SHAW:  Oh yeah.  I tried to make them play better than they thought they could.

TP:    How did you go about doing that?  You’re known as being a little…

SHAW:  Cranky.

TP:    …curt with people or…

SHAW:  I’m cranky.

TP:    But musicians seemed not to think that that was the case.  They say you were a taskmaster, but very fair and a good person to work for.

SHAW:  I tried to be fair.  I tried to be reasonable with them. But on the other hand, there’s an old saying, and I believe it’s true: Nothing of any lasting value is ever achieved by a reasonable man.  Somebody once asked me if I considered myself reasonable.  I said, “It depends on what your term ‘reasonable’ means.”  I do know that if you were really reasonable, you’d go down the road and do the job and be a good insurance man. But if you’re unreasonable, you’re quarreling with everything that is, and you’re going to make it better.

TP:    So your approach would be just to make them do it until they got it right.

SHAW:  Oh yeah.  God, I was a great rehearser.  We would rehearse all the time.  If one guy did something wrong one night, I’d call a rehearsal the next night and say, “Look, we’ve got to fix that.”

TP:    So everybody would be responsible for the one mistake.

SHAW:  Well, not everybody.  But you had to rehearse the band.  The guys didn’t mind it.  They liked the idea of the quest for perfection.

TP:    You also were quite a talent scout, particularly in some of the later bands.  I’m looking at some of the people you brought into the picture, and there was Dodo Marmorosa and Barney Kessel…

SHAW:  Jack Jenney.

TP:    Did you always keep your antennae out?  Did you make it your business to go out and listen?

SHAW:  Well, when I had the men I needed for a band, during the period… The band that made “I Cover The Waterfront” and “Concerto For Clarinet” and “Stardust,” and those, I didn’t mess around with that band.  That was a perfect band for me, as good as you could play and have an audience.  So I didn’t mess around.  But then I had to break the band up, for various reasons, and then I had to put a new one together.  And I couldn’t put the same band together because the men were off doing whatever they were doing.  So you always tried to get the best people you could get to fulfill what you had in mind.

TP:    You remark that the band is an instrument and you played clarinet with the band.  You nonetheless were obsessive in your quest to extract every sound of the clarinet that suited your vision, which entailed being a virtuoso on the instrument.

SHAW:  Well, that only occurred… The business of playing the clarinet to my absolute limits, and I think to the clarinet’s limits, was with the 1954 band, the small group.  There I wasn’t trying to please an audience because we were playing in jazz clubs.  We weren’t playing dance music at all.  The advent of Jazz had taken place, this so-called thing that people call jazz, with audiences listening.  That occurred in about 1953 or ’54.

TP:    You organized that band because of IRS problems.

SHAW:  Well, I put the band together to make some money to pay them.  But that’s not what I was doing.  Once I got the idea that I had to go out there with a band, I didn’t want to bore myself to tears.  So I got the best men I could find.

TP:    Did having been an alto saxophonist first have an impact on your conception of the clarinet?

SHAW:  Well, I think that everything is connected in some way or another.  But I don’t think they were the same.  My view of the alto saxophone… I was a great lead saxophone player, but I also could play jazz.  But in my day, there wasn’t a great deal of jazz being played on the alto sax.  Johnny Hodges was a notable exception.  There were very few  alto players… Like today, you have Phil Woods, you have all kinds of guys playing alto sax… Jackie McLean, etcetera.  In my day, that wasn’t happening.  But I felt that the clarinet would be a little more expressive, and also it could soar above the high brass notes.  So I was able to be heard, which I couldn’t have done with an alto.

TP:    When did you start playing clarinet?  Back in the ’20s…

SHAW:  Oh, you had to play clarinet to make a living.  You had to double.

TP:    So you were doubling on clarinet and alto sax in the dance bands.

SHAW:  Oh gosh, yes.  When I was a kid I started playing clarinet.  But I wasn’t taking it seriously.  I played it as a double.  Then later I got interested in the instrument, and I got better at it.  But then when I got my band, I started to specialize on the clarinet.

TP:    Some musicians say they hear a sound in their mind’s ear before they’re ready to go for it or even know what it is, and they progress toward the sound. Now, maybe they’re mystifying the process somewhat.  But was that the case for you as a…

SHAW:  That is the case with any fine musician.  He hears a sound in his ears and he tries to approximate it.

TP:    This is what happened to you with a clarinet player.

SHAW:  It happens with Heifetz.

TP:    But I’m talking to you about you.

SHAW:  Well, it’s the same thing.  Music is music.  I don’t care who you’re talking about.  If a guy is good, he’s got a sound in his head.  That is not to say that that’s all.  Because what he does with it is also important.  But the sound is paramount, as far as I’m concerned.  You go into a room, and there are two guys playing, and if they both sound the same, then they’re not the same mouth, they’re not the same throat, not the same anything — but they sound the same.

TP:    Did you see the clarinet as an instrument with any limitations on your self-expression?  People speak of the clarinet as being fraught with difficulties, the difficulties of adapting it to be bebop, etc.

SHAW:  Oh, I don’t care about those labels.

TP:    But did you ever see the clarinet as posing any limitations?

SHAW:  I felt that I had reached the limitations of the instrument in 1954 with that last group. I don’t think anybody can do more with it in the way of expressiveness.  I mean, there are guys who are virtuosos. I suppose you could be swifter.  You could play from C to C faster.  But that has nothing to do with music.  I mean, it’s not a foot race.

TP:    Would you regard your instrumental personality as being more of a stylist or more of an improviser, if you had to choose those two categories?

SHAW:  I couldn’t choose.  An improviser has to have a style. It’s his style.  If he’s going to make style… The French have a phrase, “Le style est l’homme,” the style is the man, the man is the style.

TP:    Let me put it this way.  The 1949 band, when you played, was it…

SHAW:  Well, I certainly played differently then than I did in the ’38 band.

TP:    But the question I’m going to ask you is: Did you play your solos differently every night?

SHAW:  I had to play some of them a certain way, pretty much standardized.  For example, I couldn’t play “Stardust”… Well, if you listen to the ’49 band, there’s a different chorus of “Stardust” altogether.  But basically, playing for an audience, they would expect to hear certain things that sound more or less the same.

TP:    Like Johnny Hodges had to take the same solo…

SHAW:  Yeah, you freeze something.  You get something that’s so good that it’s recorded and people want to hear that.  After all, you can’t totally ignore your audience, or they won’t support you.

TP:    Would your preference have been to do something different every night?

SHAW:  Oh, sure.

TP:    So that would have been the imperative… Forgive me for bringing back Pod & Jerry’s, but the process you described in your fictional short story about finding yourself someplace you never even dreamed you could go would be the imperative that animated you.

SHAW:  Well, I don’t know if that’s the way to put it.  But something like this is what I’d say.  You have this instrument.  It has its own requirements and its own difficulties.  And you try to do something with it every time you play it that has never been done before.  That’s your aim.  And if you’re successful, which is rare… Mostly you do things, and they’re pretty good, and sometimes, if you’re professional and really good, they’re always good.  But this thing of hitting something that’s never been done before, that happens occasionally, like it did on “Stardust” with me.  There was a phrase in there I played that went on and on and on.  I didn’t know when I set out to make that record that I was going to do that.  That was extemporaneous.  And once I did it, I listened to it, and I go, “It’s not going to get any better than that.”  That’s the one that Sudhalter talks about, for example.

TP:    Two people I didn’t ask you about who I wished I had in the previous conversation were Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young.

SHAW:  Well, they’re the two guys who invented the tenor sax as we know it.  Coleman had one sound, which you could describe as Herschel Evans, and Lester had another sound, which was his.  Lester I prefer, because it was a little purer musically.  But Coleman was a remarkable player. But if you ask me my opinion, which I like better, it would be Lester.

TP:    Hawkins, though, is not unlike you as a musical personality, in that he kept up with every development in the music, and dealt with the younger players…

SHAW:  Yes.  But he didn’t get to where Lester did.  Lester got into a series of areas that Coleman never approached.  If you listen to them, you’ll see what I mean.  Talking about music is limited.  It’s like talking about painting.  You’ve got to look at it finally.

TP:    I’d like to ask you another question about improvising.  There are a number of musicians who when they discuss the process of improvising, say they see sounds as corollary to colors, or that this sort of analogy goes on.  Maybe it’s impossible to articulate this in language. But how did the thought process of working out an improvisation function for you?

SHAW:  You didn’t work out an improvisation.  Improvisation is something that happens while you’re playing.  You don’t know where you’re going.  It’s like jumping off a cliff in the darkness.  You don’t know where you’re going to land.  Along the way, you might find a handle of a tree growing out of it — something.  You grab whatever you can.  And sometimes, the grabbing makes things happen that you would never have done if you’d thought it through.  You’re doing something that has no beginning, middle or end.  You don’t know where you’re going.  When you start out, you’re starting out to play something, and here’s the tune, here are the chords, here is the structure.  “All right, what can I do with this?”  It’s like asking the painter, the dripper…

TP:    Jackson Pollock?

SHAW:  Pollock.  Asking him what he planned.  He didn’t know what he was planning.  He would drip paint.

TP:    Those paintings weren’t improvisations.  When you see the paintings all together in a retrospective, there’s thematic consistency.

SHAW:  They’re all improvisation.

TP:    That may be, but they’re all within a predetermined form.

SHAW:  Well, that was true with what I was doing.  It’s within a form.  If I were playing “Stardust,” I couldn’t do the same improvisation that I could do if I were playing “Traffic Jam.”  There are different moods, different feels, different tempos — different everything.  So you worked within the structure of the piece you were playing, and did what you could with that to make it something of your own.  It requires a certain musical intelligence.  And it requires a certain amount of instinct, too.  You can’t really define this.  The word “define,” people forget that the definition is based on the word “finite.”  So if you define something, you are limiting it.

Language is wiser than the people who use it.  Language has been used for a long, long time by a number of people in different ways.  We are the heirs to that, and if we use language precisely, we have a little better chance of making ourselves clear and making other people understand what we’re doing, than if we use it sloppily, as people do.

TP:    Do you think of music as a language?

SHAW:  Well, it’s a form of language.  Of course it is.  We have three languages.  There’s the verbal one — oral-verbal.  There’s music.  And there’s mathematics.  There are three different languages.  I don’t know of any others.

TP:    Do you see the act of improvising as telling a story, as many musicians like to say?

SHAW:  Those are words.  I don’t know what that means.  You’re saying something.  If that’s telling a story, I don’t know.  The half-chorus I played on “Stardust.”  Everybody says that’s one of the great things they’ve heard.  Well, I don’t know if I told a story.  I was playing something.

TP:    Well, it’s a phrase you’ve undoubtedly heard 18,000 times.

SHAW:  Well, I’ve heard it a million times.  But I have no use for those cliche phrases.  People are saying what they’ve heard instead of saying what they think.  The cliche is based on truth, but it’s somebody else truth.

TP:    Then of course, there are people who invent their own cliches.

SHAW:  I don’t know how to go with that.  The word “cliche” for me means a mindless repetition of something you’ve heard that was once true, because it was uttered by somebody who had something to say.

TP:    Did you feel yourself forced into cliches by the dictates of the market, the aspects of the music business you’ve complained about over the years?

SHAW:  Well, I wasn’t so much complaining about it.  I felt restricted by audience demands.  There’s that line, I think I quoted it to you, and I forget who said it…G.B. Shaw, I believe; “Looking back at my life, I realize that whatever success I achieved was done in spite of all the good advice I received.”  I received a lot of advice, and fortunately I ignored most of it.  I tell that to people today who ask me for advice.  I said, “You can’t follow my advice.  Follow your own.  Find out what your deepest instincts are, and follow them.”  Few people know who they are.  I finally came to begin to know who I am.  Musically I knew who I was.

TP:    Musically you knew who you were.

SHAW:  Yeah, I sure did.

TP:    When did you start to know who you were musically?  Always?

SHAW:  Oh, not always.  But as I grew older, as I matured… By the time I got my first band, I began to know who I was.

TP:    So you were about 26 years old.

SHAW:  22, 23, 24.  When I played that first Imperial Swing Concert, so-called.

TP:    That was 1936.  You were born in 1910.  So you were 26.

SHAW:  Yes, in 1936, so I was 26.  I wrote a piece for strings and clarinet.  Nobody had ever heard of that before.

TP:    Well, one thing that’s very different about your circumstance than any jazz musician today is that by 26 you were already a veteran professional musician.  You’d been on the road for ten years.  And I think I read that by the time you were 16 or 17 you were making 175 bucks a week?

SHAW:  Oh yeah.  Sure.  In Cleveland.

TP:    That’s amazing.

SHAW:  [LAUGHS] Well, I was apparently worth it to the man who hired me.  I was making arrangements.  In those days you got 25 bucks for an arrangement, you know.  But in those days 25 bucks was the equivalent of $150 today — or more.

TP:    25 bucks a week wouldn’t be a bad salary then.

SHAW:  That’s right.  And when I was working at CBS on the staff band, the scale they paid… Most of the men got 100 bucks a week.  I insisted on $125, because I was angry with them for having screwed me up with the first… They made me audition for the job, and they gave me something to play that made no sense at all, and somebody else got the job.  I didn’t like what they did.  It was very sneaky.  Union stuff.  So when I finally decided to take the job, when I was offered the job, I insisted on 25 bucks a week more.  But that was a significant amount.

TP:    125 bucks a week in the Depression?  My God, you could…

SHAW:  Yeah, right.

TP:    You had an apartment on Central Park West then?

SHAW:  No, on West 72nd Street between Broadway and West End Avenue.

TP:    So you’re 21-22 years old, and you’re born to a working-class family, and by age 22 you’re in an upper economic bracket.

SHAW:  I guess so.  I didn’t think of it in those terms, but I was earning money.  The money was there, and I was being paid in accordance with what the leader thought I was worth.  It was in the Wylie Band where I began to really make some money.  I ran his band for him.  He just stood up in front of it and gave downbeats.  Or sometimes I’d beat off the tempo for him on a piece he hadn’t heard yet.

TP:    And you were 16 years old.

SHAW:  16, 17, 18.  I left there at 19.

TP:    And you went out to California, where you joined Aaronson.

SHAW:  That’s right.  I joined the Aaronson band, which was a terrible band, but it was a name band.  They were going to New York, and that was my idea of where I wanted to go.

TP:    And you wrote an essay on how the air show would benefit Cleveland that got you out to California?

SHAW:  The first national air races were held in Cleveland.

TP:    So you flew out to Hollywood in 1929 from Cleveland.

SHAW:  That’s right.

TP:    What was that airplane flight like?

SHAW:  It was pretty weird. [LAUGHS] I was all alone in a tri-motor Fokker plane, a four-metal plane, and they flew me out to Hollywood, and I saw my father.  I wrote this in “Trouble With Cinderella.”  I was out there for a while.  I met some guys I had known from New Haven who were working in the Roosevelt Hotel, which in those days was a pretty sharp place, the “home of the stars” and so on, and it was nothing to go in and be playing and see Clark Gable, or see Howard Hughes with Jean Harlow… It was a pretty posh place.  So I saw these guys, they were Tony Pastor (Tony Pastrito) and Charlie Trotter from New Haven.  We ran into each other.  They heard I was out there, and we met.  And so, when they came to Cleveland, they had talked it up, and Aaronson hired me.

TP:    That was your first time in California.

SHAW:  Yes.  Well, we left California and went to Chicago.

TP:    Then you had a six-week engagement, and you went to the South Side every night.

SHAW:  Yes, at the Grenada Cafe, at 68th and Cottage Grove.  I remember that.  And every night I would go out around the South Side and find somebody to play with.

TP:    You’d drive down to 35th Street and 47th Street, and play… You played at the Apex Club?

SHAW:  Yes, I played with all those people.

TP:    What was your impression of Jimmie Noone?

SHAW:  I just liked the way he played.  He was a legitimate clarinet player.  He knew how to play the clarinet.  He got a good sound out of it and he played  interesting things. Unfortunately, Benny copied him note for note.  Benny did stuff that was Noone’s invention. [SINGS REFRAIN] That was Noone.  Benny got a lot of stuff from him.  I heard him play, and I was influenced by him, but I didn’t believe in direct copying.  It’s the difference between using a quote from a book you’ve read if you’re writing, or another one is plagiarizing… Just using it without saying where it’s from.  I just thought Noone was a very good player, and I realized he did things on the clarinet that I had not done before, that I had not heard done before.  So he opened up doors for me.

TP:    Did you hear Omer Simeon when you were in Chicago?

SHAW:  No, I never did hear him.

TP:    Earl Hines you played with as well.

SHAW:  Oh yes.  I sat in with the band, and I’d look around, and there’d be other guys, like …(?)..

TP:    Were a lot of white musicians sitting in with black musicians on the after-hours scene?

SHAW:  Well, yeah.  You’d sit in wherever they were playing.  The thing about these bands… For example, Earl’s band played until 4 o’clock in the morning.  Some of us played until 6 a.m.  I finished work at whenever it was, and there was no place to go.  I wanted to play somehwere.  And the band I was in, the Aaronson band, was a terrible band.  So I wanted to get some playing done.  That’s what I did, I went to these places, and you could sit in and play whatever you wanted.

TP:    When you did, were you playing alto saxophone or clarinet?

SHAW:  Alto saxophone mostly.  Then I played tenor for a while.

TP:    How did you like playing tenor?

SHAW:  It never did work for me.  I could play the notes, but I didn’t get… It didn’t work for my particular embouchure.  I never could get the sound of a tenor that was comparable, say, to Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins.

TP:    Alto saxophonists all say that the alto is the most difficult to keep up the chops.

SHAW:  All instruments are difficult.  We used to have a saying when I was in the radio business… We were playing with a great pool of musicians.  There was Tommy, Benny, me, Manny Klein, Dick McDonough, Carl Kress — great musicians.  Our saying was “music is a tough instrument.”

TP:    You’re saying that you don’t believe in styles, that it’s all music.  But were the people in Chicago playing music with a different attitude than the people you met in Harlem?

SHAW:  Well, I don’t know.  The so-called Austin High gang, they were out there.  Bud Freeman certainly didn’t sound like anybody else, and Bud and I became good friends and we played together quite a bit.  I mean, jammed together.

TP:    But I’m thinking of the way let’s say Earl Hines thought about music vis-a-vis the way, say, Willie The Lion Smith thought about music.

SHAW:  Well, Willie was earlier.  Willie was one of the early guys.  Earl came along a bit later.

TP:    True.  But Earl Hines was playing professionally from 1923.

SHAW:  Earl came along when Louis started using him in the Hot Five.  That was a whole different era than when Willie Smith was starting.  Willie came out of the James Johnson school of piano, although he wouldn’t have liked to hear that.

TP:    Earl came out of Pittsburgh, more of a midwest tradition.

SHAW:  All you can say is that different people do different things.

TP:    But one thing that’s interesting in looking at the history of this music is the sense of regional difference.  That’s one thing that’s been lost with television…

SHAW:  We’re going towards more and more standardization, more and more cloning.  There’s a book by Jacques Barzun, and the name of it says everything: “1500 to Decadence.”  When you stop to think about it, here’s Shostakovich writing, and here’s Beethoven writing, and here’s Mozart writing.  They all influence each other.  If there hadn’t been a Mozart, there wouldn’t have been a Beethoven — not the Beethoven we know anyway.  Then from Beethoven you’ve got Brahms, and after that you go into Impressionism with Debussy.  Well, they’re all different countries, different cultures.  The music was different.  Each composer had his own particular field.  It’s not much different than the world of jazz.

TP:    In many different circumstances, you describe yourself as being angry about this or that.  Is there something you can pinpoint that precipitated that anger in your life?

SHAW:  Well, I think my anger is because of the cheapness of people, the cheapness of what they will accept.  Today they accept stuff that I wouldn’t dream of doing or having a band do.  And they accept crap.  What you’re hearing is absolute shit.  There are very few people that are popular and making money and making a big audience that are doing anything worth hearing.  I mean, we talk about the Beatles as if they were the anointed of God.  They didn’t do anything I cared about musically.  They wore funny clothes, they looked funny, they wore the same haircuts, and they did things like “Eleanor Rigby.”  Well, there was an American poet who wrote stuff like “Eleanor Rigby.”  He wrote little pieces about people… Edgar Lee Masters.  See, we’re dealing with illiterates.  People are illiterate.  They don’t listen back.  Those who don’t learn from history, etc.

TP:    Sudhalter in his chapters on you pointed out a contradiction, in that you plunged headlong into the music business, where you had to know you were going to be faced with this attitude…

SHAW:  No, I learned that when I got into the radio…

TP:    Oh, you didn’t know about that.

SHAW:  No, I had no idea.  When I was playing in Cleveland and with Aaronson, I just thought the world was wide open. I was young.  I had no idea that music was something that people did or did not understand.  I didn’t know that the great audience in America was aliterate.  There were shows on radio that I would have died if I had to play on.  Shows like “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round.”  They were big, big shows.  But they were dreadful music.  I remember George M. Cohan did one show.  Everything was [SINGS PEPPY REFRAIN], “Over there, over there, and the Yanks are coming.”  Such horseshit.  Pure horseshit.  I remember once we were playing, and the band was so loud that I stuck my horn into Larry Binyan’s ear, who was right next to me (tenor man), and I pressed all the keys down, the high notes, and went YAK-YAK-YAK, YAK-YAK-YAK… Nobody heard the difference.  You couldn’t hear it.  It wouldn’t matter what I did.  So musically, that was a horrifying experience.  It paid well, and when you make a certain amount of money you live up to that amount of money, and pretty soon you’re being dictated to by that.  So I stayed in it as long as I could take it.  I quit at the age of 23, moved to Bucks County and tried to write.  Can you imagine my thinking I would write a book and people would buy it?  I had no idea.  I thought I could maybe make a living as a writer.  I had no idea what that entails.

TP:    Do you think of music as a higher form than writing, or writing as a higher form than music?

SHAW:  Literature for me is probably the major art form.  You can do anything with literature.  Painting is limited to the eye, and music is limited to the ear.  But literature appeals to all of us.  You can do anything with literature.  people have done it.  Not many, but some writers have done it.  Thomas Mann comes close occasionally.  Faulkner came close in a story called “The Bear,” one of the great utterances I’ve ever read.  And so on.  These are very complicated subjects to discuss.

TP:    But they’re very interesting and rewarding to discuss.

SHAW:  They’re interesting.  I don’t know whether an audience that buys “Jazziz” would be interested in what I’m talking about.

TP:    You never can anticipate.  You never know.

SHAW:  No, you never know.  All I know is that most people in jazz, or in what we call jazz, have very limited horizons.  They are stuck with that and they don’t know much else.  You’ll notice that, for example, fine painters and fine musicians, so-called legitimate musicians, they read.  They’re interested in what goes on in art forms aside from music.  You talk to the average musician, and he hasn’t read much.

TP:    I have to say that most of the musicians I know 35 and under, the paradigm is different.  They have a very different orientation.

SHAW:  Well, the younger ones seem to have that.

TP:    Someone like Mehldau, for instance, who you spoke of favorably, knows quite a bit about German philosophy and poetry and literature.

SHAW:  I find that encouraging.  So they may do something with music that will not be the same old cliched stuff that we keep hearing.  See, I don’t know what McCoy Tyner is like as a person.

TP:    I take your point.  I’ve met a lot of musicians from different periods.  A lot of older musicians have a great deal of mother wit and knowledge and sophistication about life, but you wouldn’t call them particularly…

SHAW:  They don’t know much else.

TP:    They’re not particularly well-read.

SHAW:  They’re not well read at all!  That was always a very strange thing to me.  How can you live in this world and not read?  For example, I’m reading a book now called The Battle for God, which deals with fundamentalism at war with itself.  You have fundamentalist Islamists, fundamentalist Jews and fundamentalist Protestants.  I mean, a woman who works for me here, takes care of me at night, she came in the other evening and said, “There’s only one God.”  I said, “what about Allah?  What about Jehovah?”  Well, that gave her pause.  She hadn’t thought about that.

TP:    Would you call yourself at atheist?  An agnostic?

SHAW:  I don’t know.  I would say agnostic is closer.  I believe there’s a force… I was talking to a scientist who visited me here yesterday, who has written some books, and is a very smart guy, and I spent several hours with him.  We talked about the fact that we do not seem to understand that there are many, many approaches to the same goal.  For example, if you wanted to know something about theoretical physics, it would broaden your horizons if you learned about that.  Your horizons no matter what you did.  If you’re a writer, if you’re a musician or if you’re a painter, you look at things differently.  Your horizons broaden.  People don’t seem to understand that.  The more you know about everything, the more resonance there will be in whatever you do.

TP:    It’s an age of specialization.  I think Sudhalter mentions that Jerome Kern, your former father-in-law, wondered why you went after what I think he called “nitpicking knowledge,” and your answer was that given the choice between knowing a lot about a few things or a little about a lot of things, you would prefer the latter.

SHAW:  Yes.  And then keep trying to add layers to your awareness.  Basically, it comes down to seeking… My book, “Trouble With Cinderella,” ends on a simple note.  What is the aim?  And the aim for me is to achieve the highest degree of awareness you can do within the span of a lifetime.

TP:    Which sounds almost Buddhist.

SHAW:  Well, I guess it is Buddhist.  But then, Buddhism was also something that has to do with awareness.  It’s an emotional, religious kind of feeling.  There you come to that famous triptych: Who are we?  Where do we come from?  Where are we going?  No one has ever come up with an answer to any of those three questions.  How many musicians in jazz do you know who even concern themselves with that?

TP:    More than you would think.

SHAW:  Well, now they’re…

TP:    Ellington wrote the song “What Am I Here For”?

SHAW:  Well, “Why Was I Born?” was before that.  But that doesn’t… “Why was I born, why am I living, what do I get, what am I giving?” That’s child’s stuff.  That’s high school things.

TP:    In the previous interview, I asked about your parents and where they were from, and I read what you said about your father.  And you said that you’d pretty much sundered your ties and never looked back…

SHAW:  I don’t have anything to do with family.  I really do not care about family.  My view is that if we had a reasonable society, we would pay people to take care of the raising of children.

TP:    You’d be losing a lot.

SHAW:  Four 6-hour shifts, and pay people who like kids and have 6 hours with them, and that’s it, and they’re totally devoid of all this sentimental flesh-and-blood horseshit that we get today.

TP:    Goodness, why do you feel it’s horseshit?  It’s such a fundamental human imperative.

SHAW:  I think the family is a series of cannibals eating each other.

TP:    Psychologically?

SHAW:  Yes.

TP:    That can happen in a collective situation — say in a kibbutz.

SHAW:  Not if you only have six hours with a kid.  You can’t do a lot of damage.  You’ve got another one coming in for six hours, or another… Four 6-hour shifts a day.  Or six 4-hour shifts.  Whatever works.  There’s no reason why a society can’t do that, raise children in a fairly reasonable and dispassionate and objective way, rather than the highly subjective bullshit that we get with the average family.

TP:    I don’t know that it’s possible to be objective in raising children, even for the people who are professionals and detached.

SHAW:  I think it is.  If you’ve got a six-hour shift, you can be pretty objective.

TP:    Children need love, though.  They need that sense of belonging to something.  They really do.

SHAW:  You’re generalizing here.

TP:    I’ll just go by my child’s experience.  She has to know that.

SHAW:  You don’t know what damage you’re doing the child.

TP:    I think psychic damage can come from many different places, Mr. Shaw.

SHAW:  I think if people are trained and are taught about pedagogy, and they go on and learn that, and they’re professional people who raise a child because they love children, and they spend six hours… That’s about all you can handle.

TP:    There are techniques and tactics involved in raising children, just as there are in any other craft.  Any parent who is a good parent has to have some objectivity.

SHAW:  I think what you’re saying is that there are flaws, of course.

TP:    We’re human.  The nature of being human is to be flawed.

SHAW:  All right.  So if you take the father and mother away from the child, the chances of flawing are lessened.

TP:    It sounds very utopian.

SHAW:  Read Huxley’s “The Island.”

TP:    I did many years ago actually, in high school.

SHAW:  Well, read it again.  That’s a good book.  He poses a good society.  Also he points out at the end that it can’t succeed.

TP:    Well, we’ve seen what’s happened in your lifetime.  You’ve witnessed the formation of utopian societies, and then their decadence and fall and decline.

SHAW:  It can’t work.  There is no such thing as Utopia.  I agree with that.  I mean, a utopia would be taken over by the first guy with bigger guns.  It’s that simple.

TP:    That’s exactly right.  It took me a long time to come to thinking like this, but it seems that the mess and flux of a market-oriented society and democratic institutions is really the only sensible way for human beings to interact.

SHAW:  Yeah, but if you agree with me that the majority is always wrong, democracy is pretty dangerous.

TP:    Yes, but consider the alternative.

SHAW:  Well, we’ve got Plato.  The Emperor-Philosopher.  Who the minute he becomes an Emperor becomes no Philosopher.

TP:    Well, he becomes the Tyrant, and so there we go.

SHAW:  That’s right.  He doesn’t have to be.  But his son might be.  So we’re back to Nero again.

TP:    Well, you never know.  Then there’s the person with the biggest gun.

SHAW:  Yeah.  All I’m getting at is it’s an insoluble problem.  Governing the human being is impossible.  Human beings are not governable.  That’s the one thing we’ve learned from history.

TP:    But getting back to the question of looking forward and sundering ties with family: Do you consider yourself Jewish?

SHAW:  I don’t know what that means.  I certainly don’t believe in Jehovah, and I don’t believe in the stone tablets, and I don’t believe in the Burning Bush, and I don’t believe in any of the myths.  And I don’t know what it means to have a seder, because I don’t think it’s particularly interesting.  I mean, why is this day different from any others?  Well, Jesus, why is July 4th different?  They’re all different.  But I don’t really care about these concretized myths that we deal with, called religion.

TP:    To me, being Jewish doesn’t mean that you practice the religion.

SHAW:  Well, what does it mean?

TP:    I’m not sure.  I think there’s a set of cultural predispositions and aspirations…

SHAW:  Oh, I think that’s chauvinistic as hell.  In every kind of world there is, there are predispositions.  The Arabs certainly had a lot of predisposition to…remarkable individuals.  I don’t know the answers to that.  I don’t think being Jewish is a specific… I don’t know what it means.  Is Jewishness a tribe?  Is it a nation?

TP:    I’m not sure what it means, but people…

SHAW:  You say you’re not sure what it means.  How can you say I am that?

TP:    I think it means being formed in a certain way…

SHAW:  Well, it depends on which Jewish parents.  There were a lot of ignorant ones.  Mine certainly didn’t give me anything except genes.

TP:    I think those genes are what defines me as Jewish, and you and whomever.  Had we been placed in central Europe when you were in your twenties, we wouldn’t have this conversation.

SHAW:  We’d be dead.  Well, there’s also the business of the expulsion of Jews in 1492. It’s not new.  If you know your history, you’ll know that in 1492 or so, when the Jews were expelled, along with the Moors, the Jews were given an option.  They could stay if they wanted to be baptized.  Many did.  Thousands left.  I would say that the ones who were baptized were smarter.  We still today have great respect for the Sephardic Jew.  The Sephardic Jew is considered a notch higher.

TP:    As opposed to the Ashkenazi Jew?

SHAW:  Culturally.  I don’t know the answers.  These are sects, and I hate the idea that you can typecast people and put them in a case where they won’t have to… It doesn’t work.  Human beings are too malleable, they’re too disparate from each other…

TP:    It’s true, but this is how the world defines us.  When you hired black musicians, they can think of themselves as individual as they’d want, but in the eyes of the world they were still black.

SHAW:  We’re back to the question of being a reasonable man.  I was not reasonable.  So whatever they defined me as, I became an Artie Shaw.  That’s not a Jew.  I don’t know if I told you, but I was on the “Tonight Show” one time, and the conversation got general, which it doesn’t usually.  Johnny Carson got himself into a thing where everybody was talking at once.  And the question came up: What did you want to be when you were young?  What was your ambition?  When it got to me, I said, “I wanted to grow up and be a gentile.”  And the audience cracked up, and so did the band.  There were a lot of Jews in the band.  And then, the laughter died down, and I said, “And I made it.”

TP:    Were you telling the truth?

SHAW:  Yes!

TP:    So you did think of yourself as Jewish.

SHAW:  I made it as a gentile figure.  Artie Shaw leading a band was hardly Jewish.

TP:    And were any of your wives Jewish?

SHAW:  Well, one was. [LAUGHS] I didn’t know she was until after we married.  She was half-Jewish.  Betty Kern.  Her father.  I thought he was a Welshman.

TP:    So you did think of yourself as Jewish, and you made it. It was like a big trick on the world.

SHAW:  That’s right.  And I was the only guy who could laugh at it.  But I don’t think that has anything to do with anything — for me.  It’s just one of those things that you happen to have brown hair or dark hair or red hair or whatever.  Red Buttons didn’t choose the color of his hair.  He chose his name.

TP:    People these days tend not to get married eight times; they tend to go from one person to another…

SHAW:  Well, I would have done the same thing back then, but it wasn’t permissible.  I mean, women like Ava and Lana had morals clauses.  If they lived with a man openly, they were subject to being thrown out.  In those days you either married or you divorced.  I was very conventional.  I did both.

TP:    Other musicians have described seeing Ava Gardner as being very enthusiastic about music, seeing her at Birdland and California clubs.  I find her persona so appealing from the films she was in…

SHAW:  Oh, she was the same Hollywood mess as everybody else was.  She told me once that she stood in front of the Queen, in one of those lineups where the women…the celebrities met the Queen.  She didn’t curtsey, she didn’t bow, she said to me rather proudly.  I said, “Well, why did you go there?”  Well, because she considers herself as good as the Queen.  And the interesting thing is, when she died, she had two Welsh Cordies.  Those were the Queen’s dogs.  So you can see there’s some sort of peculiar coincidence there, isn’t it?  I don’t know what that’s all about.  When I met her, she was a young and relatively unspoiled person.  And then she got celebrity, and that can kill you.

TP:    So you met her at the time when her career was beginning to take off.

SHAW:  I helped her.  I helped get started.

TP:    How did you do that?

SHAW:  Well, I was instrumental in getting her into pictures.  “Whistle Stop” was her first starring role.  A friend of mine named Frank Cavett, who is now dead, Frank was a writer, and he knew the guy who was producing it, and they were looking for a female lead to play with George Raft.  He was the star. Ava was the one who was chosen finally, and I had a lot to do with that.  And when she got into “The Killers,” which was her next film, Siodmak was the director of that, and I told him to make her act.  She couldn’t act.  And he got her angry and shot her while she was angry.  And she hated him.  He said, “He’s going to hate me.”  She did.  Anyway, he made her.  So Ava was a product, like any Hollywood star.  If she were not a product, she wouldn’t be there.

TP:    And is that story you told this woman that after your marriage, she asked you if sex was very good, and you answered…

SHAW:  Of course.  She was living with Sinatra.  That’s true.

TP:    I have to say I got a good belly laugh out of that anecdote.  I couldn’t believe she’d said it.

SHAW:  Well, it’s true.  She wanted to know whether she was okay, because she said with Sinatra it was hopeless.  Then later, of course, Ava had this great, peculiar thing about standing by her man.  So then she’d make remarks like “he weighs 105, and 95 percent cock.”

TP:    About Sinatra?

SHAW:  Yeah.  And I know damn well that wasn’t true.  Because I’ve heard it from other women.

TP:    You were married to your last wife, Evelyn Keyes, though, for 28 years.

SHAW:  That doesn’t mean a goddamn thing.  We just didn’t get divorced.  We weren’t living together.  We were separated after about a year-and-a-half.

TP:    Why was it so hard for you to establish a…

SHAW:  You’d have to know the movie woman, the type of woman that’s made by Hollywood and manufactured by Hollywood.

TP:    Why did you keep going for those sort of women, then?

SHAW:  Those were the ones I met!  And it’s pretty hard to say no when a woman like Ava Gardner comes up to you and says to you, “I like you.”  You’ve got to be a pretty stupid guy to say, “Well, go away.”

TP:    But at a certain point, after eight times, you might think, “Hmm.”

SHAW:  Well, it wasn’t eight, and they weren’t all glamour.  I married Betty Kern, and she was one of the worst.  And Doris Darling, certainly one of the worst.  I don’t know.  You can’t generalize about this.

TP:    Well, I apologize for asking about your personal life, but it’s part of the persona and your legend.

SHAW:  Sure it is.  But I can’t pick and choose why I did certain things.  The only line I can think of is it seemed like a good idea at the time.

TP:    How long have you been living unattached?

SHAW:  Oh, Christ, I can’t think of how… A helluva long time.  Evelyn and I separated I don’t know how long ago.  Many, many years ago.  I’ve been living in this house 22 years.  And I wasn’t unattached.  There were other people.  There were some nice ones, too.  One of them became an academician, and I couldn’t very well go that way, because I would have to live where academicians lived.  So it’s a complicated story.  People talk about doing a film version of my life, and I say, “Which life?”  I’ve seen those pictures.  The Goodman story and Tommy Dorsey and the Battling Dorseys, super saccharine… The Glenn Miller Story.  That’s awful shit.

TP:    Well, if someone like Martin Scorsese made the movie, it would be different.

SHAW:  Well, he doesn’t know about that, and doesn’t want to know.  They know everything.  They made a picture called “Cotton Club,” which was a piece of shit.

TP:    “Cotton Club” wasn’t too good.  He made a movie called “New York, New York,” though, where Georgie Auld trained De Niro.

SHAW:  That was pretty shitty, too.  The one with Georgie Auld playing the bandleader.

TP:    What do you think of the development of cinema since then?

SHAW:  I haven’t seen a movie in about three years except for on my video.  I don’t look at movies any more.  It’s like I woke up one day and I didn’t read any more funny papers.  “Why am I reading about Blondie?” I said to myself.

TP:    But were movies just something that was socially customary for you to do, or did you get something out of them?

SHAW:  Well, movies are a custom.  People go to them as a custom.

TP:    But did any filmmakers or films enrich you in the manner of Thomas Mann or Faulkner?

SHAW:  As in every other endeavor, there are better and worse.

TP:    Well, who are some of the better, in your opinion?

SHAW:  I think Jack Ford was good.  I think Huston made a fine picture with “The Maltese Falcon.”  He made a good picture with “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.”  Well, there have been a number of good directors.  But I don’t really care much.  I know too much about the workings of the film business, and I can sort of read between the scenes and say, “Well, he did this because of so-and-so…”  You know, the suits run the business, just like they run the record business today.

TP:    Oh, always.  It’s even more sophisticated than it was with the marketing and the testing and changing the ending and all that.

SHAW:  The record business has suffered enormously because of that?

TP:    Well, what constitutes your pleasure these days?  Is it primarily reading and discussion?

SHAW:  Reading, reading, reading.  Talking to people, having good conversations, looking out at the world, and looking at the sunrise and sunset.  Wild ducks live near my house.  I have a pool back there, and they go in the pool.  I don’t know, what can I say?  You just live your life and do the best you can.  I live with the phenomena of the world, and in some wonder mostly.  I am beset with wonder.

TP:    You’ve been working on a long autobiographical novel for many years.

SHAW:  Well, it’s a novel.

TP:    A long novel.

SHAW:  Yes.

TP:    With someone who may or may not be a protagonist or a stand-in for you or a fictionalized you.

SHAW:  Well, the book is, like any other fictional book, permeated by me.

TP:    Is the book close to completion?

SHAW:  I’ve written it.  It’s 95 pages [sic: chapters] long, and at the end he’s only 25.

TP:    How much have you cut?

SHAW:  I’m cutting, cutting, cutting right now.  I’m up to chapter… Let’s see, what chapter did I just finish cutting.  Chapter 48, I think.  We’re going to try to get down to Chapter 60, and my editor, who is a woman at Knopf, will then take the book and present it.

TP:    You have 60 chapters in… You didn’t say 95 pages, did you?

SHAW:  I said 95 chapters.

TP:    I thought you said pages.

SHAW:  No, chapters.

TP:    I couldn’t quite correlate.  I thought you were joking with me.

SHAW:  It’s a big, big, long tome.  But I can’t write it shorter.  It would not make any sense.

TP:    Do you use the computer?

SHAW:  Yes, when I write.  Right now I’ve got a different system.  Larry, my assistant… I take some material that I’ve got down, and that I’ve edited as much as I can, and pencil out pages, and then I give it to him and he types it up.  He’s got it all in the computer.  So he fixes the pages and sends them back to me.  Two or three exchanges, then I put it away.

TP:    Computers are amazing.

SHAW:  Then you go into the pre-publication trauma of editing and whatever.  Have you read that book of Stephen King’s called “On Writing”?

TP:    No, I haven’t.

SHAW:  It’s a helluva book.  It’s the best book of its kind I’ve read.  He’s a very smart guy.

TP:    Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.

SHAW:  Oh, yes, Saul Bellow I have reservations about.  Since he won the Nobel Prize.  Before that, he was a good writer.

TP:    Do you think it went to his head?

SHAW:  Well, there’s no question that it did.

TP:    Well, you would know, wouldn’t you.

SHAW:  Yeah, I sure do.  I know that you have to be very, very careful about success.  There’s nothing worse than failure, except success.

TP:    Well, you probably haven’t failed at very many things except the marriages.

SHAW:  Oh, yes, I have!  You don’t know about my failures.

TP:    Can you reveal one or two for us?

SHAW:  Well, there are lots of failures that I don’t publicize.  You can’t do everything well.

TP:    As I was researching you on the Web, I found a project that Buddy DeFranco and Tom Rainier are undertaking…

SHAW:  They did do it.

TP:    Is it that they’re extracting your solos from the backdrop and creating new backgrounds for them?

SHAW:  I have certain reservations.

TP:    How did it come about?

SHAW:  Buddy wanted to do it.  His mantra is, “You haven’t heard the end of Artie Shaw yet.”  So this one record they made was on “The Shadow of Your Smile,” which is a tune I never played. It wasn’t published while I was playing.  They used various riffs of mine and fit it in.

TP:    And created a solo out of your…

SHAW:  Not a solo, but various fill-ins, and not really… I have very mixed feelings about it.  I think it’s a little creepy.

TP:    Well, this is something that’s almost a commonplace in the digital age.

SHAW:  Yeah.  But it’s going to cost an awful lot to do.  They’ll need a lot of money to do this, because it’s not an easy undertaking.

TP:    You have a very rare perspective on the trajectory of our technology.  You were born around the time when electricity became commonplace, and now you’re living in the age of digital technology still in full possession of your faculties.

SHAW:  Like all things, it has its advantages and disadvantages.

TP:    What do you think are the advantages of digital technology?

SHAW:  The advantages are you can change anything into anything you want.  You can do the same piece and make a different ending, a better ending, and put it on there.  You can make a better riff here.  If a singer misses a high-D, they can put a high-D in there.  All of that is good, I suppose.

TP:    Do you think that’s a good thing, or do you think some imperfection is…

SHAW:  Well, I was coming to that.  It’s good for the singer, but it’s bad in the sense that we don’t get any spontaneity any more.  It’s like Vermeer.  Once a guy starts copying Vermeer, it gets to the point where you never know, when you look at a Vermeer, whether it’s real or a copy.  There’s a rumor out that most of the paintings in museums are copies.  I don’t know if that’s good or bad.  If you want to democratize art, then I guess it’s good, because anybody can own a Vermeer.  But if you want to see the original, I don’t know the answers.  There’s a certain spontaneity in jazz that is lost.

TP:    On recordings?

SHAW:  Well, when you start doing that, you fix something.  And sometimes the error is part of the deal.

TP:    What do you think you’d have done in 1938 or 1940 if you’d had digital technology available to you?

SHAW:  There were certain things I did that I didn’t particularly care for as much as others.  But I never let a record out that I thought was no good.

TP:    But what I’m getting at is, given the option to use digital technology to create…

SHAW:  I don’t think I would have done that.  I didn’t use digital technology in my last group, and it was available.  The 1953-54 Gramercy 5.

TP:    It wasn’t digital technology.

SHAW:  They had digital technology.  You could cut things out.

TP:    You could splice, but it was a different process.

SHAW:  Oh, I don’t know. I get lost in all these…

TP:    Well, it’s easy to get lost in those things.  I’ve taken a lot of your time, and I should probably let you go.

SHAW:  Well, why not?  Maybe you’ll regroup for the next time.

TP:    I’d love for there to be a next time, although I don’t think there has to be for this particular piece.  You were talking about listening to jazz music today…

SHAW:  First of all, I hate the word “jazz.”  I wish we could find a better term.  American improvisational music.

TP:    But we can’t call it that.  Because now we have good musicians from all over the world playing it.

SHAW:  Well, then there’s French improvisation, there’s Dutch, there’s German…

TP:    But it’s a real hybrid.  I don’t know if it’s so evident on the West Coast, but in New York…

SHAW:  The word “jazz” is used as a catch-all, and unfortunately it does not include when you’ve got the extremes today…what’s his name, the alto player who plays with Mehldau…a black alto player… Anyway, if you’re going to include him and you’re going to include Bessie Smith under the same rubric, I don’t know what “Jazz” means.  It’s too broad a word.

TP:    By the way, I gather you were friendly with John Carter, the clarinettist.

SHAW:  I knew him.

TP:    What did you think of the avant-garde music, Ornette Coleman…

SHAW:  I can’t listen to it.  It’s like I can’t read… I’ve tried, but I can’t read William Burroughs.  He’s a good writer, but he writes shit I don’t want to hear about.  Rectal mucus?  I don’t want to hear about that?  I don’t need that.  It’s not what I would consider in any way informative or in any way broadening.  It’s the same thing with a lot of jazz.  I hear it, and I think, “who are they playing for?”  I just threw out a book.  I very rarely do this.  I was talking about yesterday to this scientist, and he said, “Yeah, I know this guy.”  He’s a guy at Yale, and he writes a book called “The Miracle of Existence.”  Well, that’s a good title.  So I pick it up and I find myself reading the same sentence four-five-six times, and saying, “What does that mean?”  I finally concluded that he’s writing for other scientists to show them how smart he is.

TP:    Academicians write for other academicians.

SHAW:  That’s right.  Well, those jazz players are playing for other jazz players.

TP:    You’re referring to a certain group.

SHAW:  I’m talking about the new ones.  People send me CDs of their stuff, and I don’t know what they want me to do.  I ask them, “Why do you send me that CD?  I don’t send you mine.”

TP:    You said that among the people you like these days are Brad Mehldau, Bill Charlap…

SHAW:  Phil Woods.  There are good players.  But I don’t know what the hell they expect an audience to do.  I mean, they get off into something that they lengthen the phrases from 8 bars to 10 or 12, they change the chord structure, they drop the melody entirely… And what are they doing?  What is the average person going to make of this?  So they lose their audience.  What they’re doing… I told you my definition of a fugue.  Instruments come in one by one, and the audience walks out one by one.  Well, this is what’s happening with jazz.  They’re down to 3% of the buying public now.

TP:    1.8% actually.

SHAW:  That’s a pretty low percentage.  And see, Rock came along and Rock met a specific need.  You don’t like it, you don’t think they’re doing anything, but they are perceivable.  They are perceptible.  The audience can identify with what they’re hearing.  So I’m afraid that jazz has painted itself into a corner.  It’s okay.  Modern Art did the same thing, and then it got talked up and people are buying it.  That may be true with certain jazz clubs.  But you’re not going to get rich playing modern jazz.

TP:    No, but there are so many people who continue to do it.  It’s a source of fascination to me.

SHAW:  Well, they do it because they have no other choice.  What else can they do?  What, for example…this alto player, I can’t think of his name, a black guy who works with…a young guy… I don’t know what he’s trying to do.  He starts playing harmonics above the alto range, and they play a whole tune on that.  Well, you can do the same thing with a soprano sax.  So I don’t know what the point of that is.  Is it an attempt to show your dexterity?  I’m afraid that’s a large part of it.  Look at how many things I can do on this instrument.  And the audience is not particularly concerned with that.

TP:    It’s interesting, because the act of playing jazz extended the range of many instruments.  The brass instruments and saxophones were certainly taken above their…

SHAW:  I don’t know what the advantage is in playing high F above C.  What is the advantage?  I don’t know why one needs to do that.  It’s dexterity.  “Look what I can do” is what you’re saying.  And I don’t think that’s particularly interesting to the non-playing audience.  So they’ve painted themselves sort of out of an audience.  It’s the same thing as Pollock.  Pollock would never be heard if you haven’t had those Greenbergs and those other guys, the critics…

TP:    But what’s interesting is that now it looks logical to people.  I felt very dubious about Pollock, and I saw the retrospective a few years ago and found myself very moved by it and responding to it.

SHAW:  Well, I find myself saying, “what’s the point?”  The same thing… There’s a guy named Varnedoe…

TP:    Kirk Varnedoe, the curator at MOMA?

SHAW:  Yes.  And he talks about Art and language that I sometimes have to say, “What is he trying to say?”

TP:    He’s trying to market it and up its value and make collectors think they’re doing something daring and ahead of the curve on the ordinary person.

SHAW:  Yes.  He talks about acquiring a Matisse for the Museum of Modern Art.  You show a picture of that Matisse to most people, and they don’t know what they’re looking at.  That doesn’t mean Matisse wasn’t a good painter.  But they call it “ravishing.”  What do you mean by that?

TP:    You quit when you were 44.  Of your audience, how many appreciated you for what you were actually doing, and how many were looking at an image and not understanding anything?

SHAW:  I don’t think that was a question that occurred to me.  I wasn’t thinking in those terms.  I was thinking very privately between me and the men in the band… Like in the last group.  Hank Jones and I had a great rapport, and we did things together that felt right.  If you listen to a record called “Don’t Take Your Love From Me,” we did things on that that I don’t think you can do better.  Good record.  So you say, “Well, what can you do more?”  And at the same time, I think it’s musical.  An audience can respond to that.

TP:    Well, it’s a very complex life.

SHAW:  It is indeed.  So we do the best we can, that’s all, and hope for some kind of recognition.  It’s as simple as that.  The bigger the recognition, the better pay you get.  But I am no longer interested in that.  I would like to see the records go out and sell.  But if they don’t sell much, well, so be it — I did the best I could do.

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For Cecil Taylor’s 83rd Birthday, A Jazziz Article From 2001

Master pianist and meta-musician-poet-dancer Cecil Taylor turns 83 today. I had the honor of writing a lengthy feature about him in 2001 for Jazziz, which I’ve appended below, as well as the transcripts of phone interviews that Andrew Cyrille and Tony Oxley graciously gave me towards this  project.

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 “The best preparation for playing with Cecil Taylor is to be fit and open your ears.  Things happen that have nothing to do with strategy or even preparation.  The joy is so much more immense if you prepare yourself to go where the music will take you, and not try and make it go where perhaps you want it or where you think it might go.” — Tony Oxley.
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For three weeks in February, in a smallish basement performance space at the Turtle Bay Music School on Manhattan’s East 52nd Street, the meta-virtuoso pianist Cecil Taylor guided a hand-picked master class — the final iteration comprised 11 sax and woodwinds, one recorder, one trumpet, one bass trombone, six pianists, one guitar, two violins, two vibraphones, one bass, two trapset, one percussion, one voice, and includes a poet and a painter — through ten intense rehersals of ten of his compositions.  Each musician paid $300 for the opportunity to observe how Taylor organizes material, how he chooses to express it, how he shapes it into strong images, how he makes the drama develop.

Around four o’clock on the final day, the orchestra was concluding their “dress rehearsal” with a spontaneous joyful roar.  After a dinner break, they were to reassemble for a culminating, self-conducted public concert, to be followed by a Taylor performance with as-yet undetermined personnel.  I sat in the pale light of the school’s foyer with Trudy Morse, Taylor’s confidante and frequent liaison to the outside world.  A mother of six with 20 grandchildren, Morse is 82, six months removed from her third near-death experience and three months past major surgery, but her voice is clear, her diction precise, her grip firm, and her eyes probe you like a laser beam.

Shortly after the death of her husband in 1987, Morse traveled to Huddersfield, U.K., to attend an electronic music festival, where she witnessed a concert featuring pianists Roger Woodward — performing Ianis Xenakis’ “Herma,” “Evryali” and “Mists” — and Cecil Taylor.  At the post-concert lecture-interview, she perceived amongst the gathered cognoscenti a tone of condescension towards Taylor as a “jazz artist.”

“This puzzled me,” she relates.  “I stood up and apologized to the scholars, and asked them if they understood Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  One man responded, ‘What are you talking about?’  I said, ‘Well, Heisenberg said that the spectator actually controls the experiment.  I would suggest to you that in music it’s the same.  We bring something to this concert.  That’s the way Cecil Taylor strikes me, although I don’t know him personally.’  Cecil Taylor suddenly looked at me and wondered who I was.  I sat down.  Later I noticed that he kept turning pages of music with very interesting notation.  I said, ‘Mr. Taylor, I don’t mean to be too curious, but what kind of notation and whose works are these?’  From then on, it’s history.  Cecil Taylor puzzled me enough that I accepted his invitation to tour with him.  I’ve been touring ever since.”

Morse met Taylor a little more than a year after the death of his significant other in music, the alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, his collaborator and alterego since 1961.  From 1964 to 1975, Lyons and the drummer Andrew Cyrille developed with Taylor a way of collectively improvising with furious lucidity off of shapes and structures at whirlwind velocities that picked up where the likes of Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and Max Roach left off.  Their investigations, documented in the pathbreaking recordings “Unit Structures” and “Conquistador,” inspired musicians around the world as a guidepost to the future.

Over the phone, Cyrille described their process: “As the years went by, after we began to play together consistently, Cecil would say, ‘This is our music.’  He meant ‘our’ inclusively, because we were all creating it from whatever we brought to the table.  I’d say, ‘Is there anything you want me to play in particular?’  I think only twice during the eleven years I played with him did he ever say, ‘Play five beats of this’ or ‘give me three beats of that.’  We would rehearse, listen for hours upon hours, days at a time.  It opened me up and allowed me to try things that I had never played before.

No matter how deeply Taylor, Lyons and Cyrille ascended to the outer partials of abstraction, their connection to the jazz lifeblood was implicit.  After 1975, when Cyrille stopped playing full-time with Taylor, the pianist worked with a succession of drummers — Ronald Shannon Jackson, Jerome Cooper, Steve McCall — who postulated definite rhythmic ideas, bringing forth a certain tension between the personalities from the contrast, the opposition, the push-and-pull.  After 1986, Lyons was no longer available to demonstrate instantaneously and authoritatively how his notes should be phrased, and Taylor — whose aversion to authority or canons or systems of any sort is legend — had to develop a sort of pedagogy by which he could concretely communicate his intentions and maximize the understanding of the other musicians.

During the ’80s Taylor began to crack open a Pandora’s Box of improvisational possibility in encounters with Max Roach, with AACM individualists like Henry Threadgill, Fred Hopkins, Roscoe Mitchell, Leroy Jenkins, and Thurman Barker, and with European outcats like Enrico Rava, Tomasz Stanko, John Tchicai and Peter Brotzmann.  He increasingly incorporated his authoritative knowledge of Native American, African and Japanese ritual into his performances.  Then festivals in Berlin and Amsterdam in 1986 and 1987 spurred him to focus more steadily on Europe not only as a welcoming theater for his music, but as a source of broadening improvisational nourishment.

Taylor’s inexorable forward march gained irreversible momentum during a June 1988 residency in Berlin that juxtaposed him with the creme de la creme of European free improvisers in a series of concerts documented on 13 CDs on FMP.  There followed consequential [visits] in 1989, 1990 and 1991 that left a permanent mark on the European scene.  During those years Taylor collaborated on several hundred occasions with the English drummer Tony Oxley, whose capacious tonal palette has inspired comparisons to an improvising Varese or Harry Partch.  Taylor now employs in his various units such virtuosi from the European speculative improv community as drummer Paul Lovens, cellist Tristan Honsegger, and soprano saxophonist Harri Sjostrom.  Recent encounters include improvised colloquies with Oxley, Derek Bailey, Barry Guy, and the American vibraphonist Joe Locke, three supreme duets with Max Roach, six with Elvin Jones, and a 1998 meeting with Andrew Cyrille.

“Cecil was very sharp,” Cyrille recalled.  “We had a magical dialogue.  This kind of music and improvising is a matter of very close listening and trading of information.  It’s like a game.  We put forth sounds, ideas, rhythms, melodic fragments that turn into much longer statements, and we surprise each other with replies and continue to evolve within the dialogue.  It can be endless.  And when we decide to resolve what’s happening, it’s as though we’ve finished a conversation.  We’ve grown, matured, to some degree even mellowed.  It’s always a struggle to create art.  But the way the effort is put forth is so much smoother and nuanced.  We’re so much more confident with the language than we were.”
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The Turtle Bay project gestated prosaically.  At a party in March 1999, Morse met the guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil, a faculty member.  She inquired whether the school, which has neither a jazz nor an avant-garde tradition, would be interested in hosting such an event.  Eisenbeil investigated.  The answer was yes, providing Eisenbeil would organize it.  Needing to recruit 20 participants to meet expenses, Eisenbeil sent a mass email announcement to several contact lists and a slew of websites, and received 40 responses.

The age range of the musicians who gathered for the first rehearsal was  12 to 60.  Apart from a few Taylor veterans — violinist Ramsey Ameen (1978-1980) and Elliott Levin (a veteran of a 1973 Taylor workshop at Glassboro State University and of an octet that formed from a huge orchestra project at the Knitting Factory in 1995) — they had no idea what to expect from the maestro, a sylph-like man who retains the elastic musculature of a dancer one month shy of his 72nd birthday.  Dressed for work in stocking feet, black stocking cap, gray sweatshirt tie-dyed orange on one side, pants dyed white-aquamarine on the left and pink-gray on the right, Taylor first asked each participant to take a one-minute solo.  Speaking quietly, in calm, declarative sentences, he dictated a sequence of chords, then sang the line with a variety of attacks.  “Whatever you play, play it so people who hear it can hear the magic,” he urged.  “Try to remain connected; I want you to have control of each note you play.”  The musicians separated into sections; Morse strolled from point to point bearing a pot of hot tea.  With his brisk, precise dancer’s movements, Taylor glided to the trumpets and to the strings, imparted information, then sprang to the stage to recite another chordal sequence, seemingly conjured in instant response to what he was hearing, which he demonstrated with stunning precision on the piano.

“Play notes exactly/the way they are supposed/to be played,” he intoned, punctuating his words with well-timed vertical hand-chops.  “I played you just a single line.  Unless you play this extension chord, you have all sorts of possibilities within that sound.”  After a break, Taylor read off another passage, fine-tuned each section with a total command of detail, then played the passage with his left hand and launched into seven or eight variations.  Tenorist Moshe Ras spontaneously applauded, and embarked on a few minutes of spirit-catching through his horn.

Taylor concluded the session with a statement of purpose.  “There will be time for solos,” he told the ensemble.  “But we have to play so that everybody can get the information.  Each of you has the right to say, ‘I would like to hear this part over again.’  Each section has its technical problem.  What is the relationship of the note to the overall structure?  I can show you where everything is connected, but I don’t want to be in the position of telling you how to play it.  Where do you want to begin?  How do you want to proceed?”
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Over the course of the next nine rehearsals, several key themes emerged.  During the second session Taylor distributed photocopies of his scores, giving the musicians a chance to look at how he thinks about tones.  He divides the scores into small modules, which he calls quadrants.  Each has specific rules, with cues and gestures as to how they can be played, and each fits with the others in some manner.  He uses neither bar lines nor staves, but presents the notes as pictographically arranged hieroglyphs of letters, ascending from A to G and descending from G to A, with register and pitch indicated specifically according to the distance in whole steps from middle C.  They look like the branches of a tree, abstract landscapes of plateaus and mountains and valleys, perhaps a graphic representation of a dance.

“The scores seem to be what I would call fields,” says Dan Marmorstein, a composer-pianist whose friendship with Taylor dates to 1985.  “Each page might have a group of 12 to 20 sections of notes.  Each section might notate a melody or group of melodies (sometimes repeats are specified), but it might also be suggestive of a certain collection of notes that can be treated as a scale or mode.  Part of the fun is too discover the possibilities of combining these notes in different ways.  Soometimes Cecil stacks sequences lines of tones, and you get a sequence of diads or triads or polyphonic chords.  These areas of the score can be very dense, and once again, the player has to keep alert and on his toes and decide whether to deal with the vertical stacks and the horizontal lines as consecutive tones or as simultaneously voiced chords.

“The musicians are asked to breathe their own poetry into these melodies and shape them as they will according to their own library of experiences.  This being said, Cecil will often play the line on the piano and expect that we will be capable of hearing that this is the way he wants it to sound.  Sometimes you can hear it, but sometimes if he plays it with his own customary incessantly florid fluidity, it can be difficult to hear the bare skeleton; he’s asking us to sketch the daisy when he’s given us a daisy surrounded by roses and orchids and African violets.  Cecil sometimes simply is playing a melody voiced in four octaves.  Of course, when he does it, it sounds like he is playing single notes on the piano — with authority!”]

Taylor is able to process instantly all the possible permutations of each quadrant, and splice them together in endless combinations.  But how are mere mortals to self-orchestrate?  For example, how to navigate section-to-section transitions?  Once he suggested: “Play it as many times as it is rhythmically of interest.  Play dynamics.  When it’s exhausted, that’s when it ends.  I am only giving you suggestions.”

The essential issue facing the orchestra was how to sustain a dynamic level that kept them dancing in and out of the vortex, like a magician who enters the maelstrom of a column of fire and exits unscathed.  Taylor incessantly emphasized the imperative, in Marmorstein’s words, “to play in such a way that they could leave room, make space, and listen to one another.”  Early on, he offered a lyric sequence at the piano, then asked each section to repeat it.  “Play it as soft as you can,” he told the saxophones.  “Tenors, think of Ben Webster.  Think of the breath.  Whoo-oosh. It should float.”  He distributed the next section, which began with a three-note sequence for the tenors followed by a three-note response by the strings, commenting, “This piece is rather rapid.  After all, that was pastoral.  This is FIRE.”

Attention to breath, the silence before the note, is crucial. As the ensemble worked through possible approaches to Section 10, Taylor gave a telling exhortation.  “After each sound you’ve got do this” — he inhaled — “so that each component becomes very clear.”  One sound is exploding out; the next time when you repeat it, it’s exploding in — in other words, it’s becoming softer.  We want to separate each quadrant, so that it doesn’t become a blur.  It’s the continuation of the piece.”

Occasionally Taylor would decline to demonstrate.  To a saxophonist who asked him to phrase a sequence, Taylor responded, “No, I’ve done that. It’s an emotion; you didn’t just walk into the room.”  But soon after, Taylor stated, “We’re going to change the mood,” and set up a rolling bass line reminiscent of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy,” tossing it off on the left hand with flawless nonchalance.  Another time Taylor sang a four-note sequence and asked the group to play it twice.  “But I also want you to break up the rhythm,” he added.  “These notes are divided into different rhythmic registers, and that could be the basis of a whole improvisational…” Rather than complete his sentence, Taylor demonstrated five or six variations at half-speed.  “Anything is possible,” he said.  “Let’s try it.”
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By the day of the concert, Taylor had convinced the ensemble, now winnowed down to 30 members, that anything WAS possible.

Bruce Eisenbeil compared Taylor’s organic process of orchestrating, arranging and composing during the rehearsal, coping with the colors and timbres of every instrument in real time, to the way Duke Ellington would state a chord, play it on the piano, and begin assigning notes to specific members of the orchestra.  “Cecil’s musical vocabulary speaks of what’s going on today,” Eisenbeil said.  “His body of work is idiosyncratic to him, as the music of Ellington and Miles Davis is idiosyncratic to them.  As well as Xenakis, or Bartok, or Stravinsky.  Each has a unique sense of rhythm, full of life and urgency.  When he told the saxophones, ‘I want the breath tone; I want Ben Webster’ — that’s calling on the continuum!  That’s so key and central to what the jazz vocabulary is about.  Older musicians relate how Dizzy Gillespie taught them to play the new language of bebop fifty years ago.  This is what you get when you hang out with Cecil today.”

The ensemble’s cogent, flexible navigation through four Taylor constructs — the emotional landscape spanned signature Taylorian canned lightning bellows to achingly ruminative rubato elegies — showed in a way that the rehearsals could not foretell how deeply they internalized the maestro’s principles.  They played like an organic unit, with restraint, dynamic nuance, and idiomatic articulation; the brainy soloists conjured an array of rhythmic attacks, playing with concision and structural variation, always with the overall narrative in mind.

Perhaps the most startling “piece” was “Ka-Kaba”, a 45-minute masterpiece of tension-and-release.  Pianists Dan Marmorstein and Alex Tarampi stated the core melodic kernel, the horns and violins dialogued over a swelling ensemble tone that ascended to a joyful roar.  Elliott Levin and alto saxophonist Aaron Ali Shaikh commenced a firebreathing passage which subsided, giving way to a delicate shakuhachi-like recorder solo.  The band clapped and hollered the syllable HA!! over entexturing violins and percussion; from the churning sound emerged a voice-like bass trombone statement.  The band roared the syllable SO!!, counterstated by flutes, vibraphone glisses, pizzicato violins, guitar sonics, sax-breaths, and synth tone-shapes — Levin’s solo brought the section to climax.  Poet Ulla Dydo chanted a Gertrude Stein-inspired poem (“Better and most and yes and yes, Yes and yes and more and yes”) complemented by synth, guitar, drum scrapes and clarinet microtones.  The roar swelled oceanically, was becalmed by precise pizzicato violins and pointillistic piano, then returned with a high-overtone horn ensemble interlude.  Clarinetist Kevin Sullivan floated over synth nachtmusik, John Keith’s malleted tom-toms gently underpinned a lissome bassoon-piano-bass trombone conversation.  Then Rosi Hertlein sang a piercing DRRAAA-HAAA; trumpeter Amir El Saffar answered the call.  She cried A-HA-HAA; the horn section, breathing as one, found a tonal analogue.  The full ensemble reiterated the original theme, decrescendoing until the recorder emerged from the depths to play free rubato melodies with the violins and guitar until nothing was left to say.

For another hour the ensemble conjured fire and air in equal measure over two more Taylor compositions; they left the stage to a well-earned ovation.  Before they could bask in the afterglow, Taylor abruptly strode to the piano, cellist Tristan Honsegger and trapsetter Jackson Krall in tow, to begin a furious fanfare.  Poet Naima Wade embarked on an impassioned recitative about slavery, miscegenation, and hegemony of the master race’s world view.   Honsegger responded with the dagger-like syllables “mata, mata, matamatika!!”, creating long, startling shapes, playing with such intensity that his bow began to shred, yet hitting the notes and tones with the spot-on articulation of a virtuoso.

He inspired Taylor, who may possess more ways of extracting sound from 88 keys and 3 pedals than any pianist in the world.  Playing as though his arms were attached to springs, he deployed an awesome lexicon of meticulously choreographed snatches, grabs, clutches, swoops, crawls, snips, clips, slides, thrusts, plucks, punches, slaps, thumb glisses, and elbow crashes, each movement honed to micron-precise specificity.  As the poet referred to Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington, Taylor answered with blindingly complex right-hand passages, riposting with exquisitely executed left-hand flurries.  Honsegger danced around the cello, Taylor laid down a stride figure, Honsegger stomped, chanted and bowed demonically and consonantly with his decomposing wand.  The poet sat.  Honsegger took a dark solo that turned into a Bartokian stomp, answered by more Taylorian variations, left hand completing long, ascending runs begun by the right.  Krall dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s.

There was more.  The unit evoked rainfall, the forest, the sounds of creatures large and small.  They wound down with a collective rubato triologue, Honsegger miraculously conjuring music with his all but disintegrated bow, Taylor’s head cocked to the right, his vigilant left ear attuned to sounds that he might alchemize so as to extend this iteration of his singular ritual.

Indeed, Taylor evoked the mythic half-man, half-dragon persona of Keqrops, the Egyptian who founded Athens in 1600 B.C., whose name titled a composition that Xenakis wrote for Roger Woodward some years after the Taylor-Woodward concert in Huddersfield that Trudy Morse attended in 1987.  We thought of Tony Oxley’s delirious encomium, “To play with Cecil Taylor, you need the stamina of an athlete and the imagination of a God!”

“There was a lot of intensive work during my three years with Cecil,” Ramsey Ameen had stated midway through the rehearsals.  “Now, twenty years later, I see a purification.  Cecil has cleared a path to reach the basic elements of music that go beyond all elements of style, that go to human expression.  Anything extraneous to that is irrelevant.  He’s talking about sound, volume levels, what the ensemble should play very precisely, what they should not play too stiffly, and so on.  I keep thinking I have to go back and read again the Herman Hesse book, Magister Ludi (The Music Master), a person who is constantly deepening into this state of musical grace.”

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Andrew Cyrille on Cecil (3-16-01):

TP:    Do you perceive any change in the way Cecil approaches music since Jimmy Lyons passed away, conceptually or emotionally or in his inclusiveness of other vocabularies?

CYRILLE:  I don’t know whether it’s changed really in terms of how he prepares.  When I played with him two or three years ago… It must have been ’99 I did that concert in Berlin which was a live recording in Berlin..  We rehearsed, and it was an open kind of improvisation.  I remember years ago… He probably still does this.  I haven’t worked with him since.  He would give out notes.  The last time I saw him giving out notes before a concert we did was in Austria probably in 1987 in Nickelsdorf.  He gave notes out to John Carter, Leroy Jenkins and Roberto Miranda, then later on in the evening we got together and performed the music he had given out.  The last time, Tristan Honsegger was the cellist and a bassist from Curacao whose name I can’t remember.  He lives in Holland.  Anyway, we had a rehearsal, but the rehearsal was based on how we listened to each other and how we would feed each with the music that we made on the spur of the moment.  We rehearsed for hours, I remember, that night.  Then the next day, when we got a good idea of what each other did or could do, then we went ahead and did the concert.

I can say this much.  I think that Cecil was very-very sharp.  His technique had just gotten much better.  He was much more comfortable.  He listened.  I remember he and I on occasion, when maybe the other two would lay out in a performance, we just had this dialogue, and we were having a great deal of fun.  It was magical in terms of what was going on.  Because what happens with us and that kind of music and improvisation, it’s really a matter of very close listening and trading of information.  It’s like a conversation.  It’s almost like a game, so to speak, where certain things are put forth — certain sounds, certain ideas, certain rhythms, certain kinds of melodic fragments that turn into much longer statements.  It’s how we surprise each other with replies and the ability to continue to evolve within that kind of dialogue.  If anybody is listens closely, they can hear the creativity, the way that we spontaneously play and listen and create this music.  It’s just endless.  It can be endless.  And when we decide to resolve what’s happening, we just go ahead and resolve it as though we’ve finished saying something to each other in some kind of conversational story.  There are so many parallels that can be thought about. It’s almost like a dance sometimes, where we can be inclined(?) with each other, and just move along and glide so easily.

But in order to do that, you’ve got to be on top of your game with your technique, what you want to do, and the other person has to be on top of their own technique.  But it’s a matter of being able to listen and to hear and to create with what’s being delivered.

TP:    Earlier you said that Cecil’s technique has become even better and sharper.  One thing I noticed at  this workshop was how many methods he has of eliciting sounds from the piano, the mechanics of how he does.  I found the following verbs to describe what he does with his arms and hands: snatches, hammers, fences, flutters, clips, grabs, clutches, swoops, crawls, snips, slides, scrapes, thumb glisses, clusters, slaps, punches, plucks, spooling notes even…

CYRILLE:  That’s right.

TP:    All of those things, and all calibrated to micronic degrees of specificity.  Was he that specific in eliciting sound production 30 years ago, or was it a different quality?

CYRILLE:  No, it was the same.  We were all in a sense, moving in the same direction that way.  But I’d say we’ve gotten better at doing it.  The older you get, as is said, the wiser you’re supposed to be.  I know I’ve accumulated more information and I’ve been able to deliver more information in a wider variety of ways.  I know more about drumming now.  I feel more comfortable about drumming and what I did over the years than I did 20 or 30 years ago.  And the beautiful part of it is that I’m not finished.  I’m still learning and still evolving.

You made a very good analogy with the term fencing.  It was like, “Hey, we’re crossing the floor, and you back up and you thrust it forward, and sometimes you touch somebody and sometimes they touch you, and sometimes you knock the blow away, etc.  So all that can be considered sports-like or dance-like or maybe like a card game.  But it was just delightful!

TP:    Could I paraphrase that both you and Cecil have become more subtle players, more nuanced over the years?

CYRILLE:  I would say yes.  Because we’ve grown.  We’ve matured to some degree; to some degree even mellowed.  It’s always a struggle to be able to create art.  There’s always a certain amount of effort that one has to put forth.  But the way that the effort is put forth is so much smoother.  And as you say, nuance.  Yes.  Listening to Akisakila, which we did in 1971, if I were to do it again, it would be so much different.  That was formidable, but now there’s so many other things happening.  We’re so much more confident with the language.

TP:    Did Cecil use the notation he uses now when you first met him?  Can you comment on how it evolved?

CYRILLE:  He uses the same method.  But for this particular concert, he did not give out any notes.

TP:    The way he presented the notes to the people in the group, they looked almost like graphic renderings of a dance.  They were like pictograms.  Is that the type of notation he was using 35 years ago?

CYRILLE:  Yes.  See, he gives out notes, and he has his own particular way of drawing the lines.  They may move in a number of different directions, going up, going down, for instance going straight-up vertically, on the other axis going horizontal… They’re like branches, in a sense.  This is how his compositions look.  So when he gives those notes out to the other instrumentalists, he will tell them whether they will be higher or lower or in the same register.  Then the individuals write down the notes that he’s giving, and they play the notes.  Interestingly enough, sometimes there may be unisons and then sometimes there are contrasting rhythmical lines, and sometimes the rhythmical lines are created by the players themselves with the notes.  See, sometimes he doesn’t necessarily give the rhythms.  He lets them decide their own rhythm with the notes that he gives.

TP:    Can you give me the short version of the story of how you first linked up?

CYRILLE:  It was so coincidental.  It was Ted Curson, with whom I went to a rehearsal he was having with Cecil at a school called Hartnett-New York.  This might have been ’57.  I was living in Brooklyn, and that same day I was rehearsing with another pianist named Leslie Braithwaite.  Ted and Harold Ousley heard the music from the street and came to investigate, and Leslie and I were about to wind down our playing for that afternoon, and Ted said he had to go to Manhattan to play with this piano player named Cecil Taylor.  He told me, “You’ve never heard anybody play piano like this guy; come over and check him out.”  So I went with him, and walked into the studio where Cecil was, and he was sitting down at the piano just playing.  Ted said, “This is Andrew Cyrille,” and Cecil looked up and said, “Hi, how are you doing?” and Ted asked him if I could play.  He said, “Yeah.”  So I sat down and started playing.  And to some degree, more or less, it’s like what we do now.  It’s kind of like what we did at the concert in Berlin.  It’s just that now I know, to some degree, what’s happening in terms of how he plays and how I would play with him.  When I first met him, it was a thing whereby you play and you wonder what is it that he would want.  Do I play the rhythms the way that I play with other people?  I guess that is part of it.  But nothing was said, except for the fact that we played with each other and it was something that we wound up exploring.

After that rehearsal, I knew a place up in Harlem… School closed, and I knew this club on Amsterdam Avenue that used to have jam sessions and was a place that had a piano trio with a guy named Cecil Young at night… I knew the bartender because I had gone there several times for sessions.  Cecil and I went up, I asked the guy if we could play, and he said, “Yeah.”  This was late afternoon.  I had a snare drum.  Cecil sat down at the piano and started playing, and I started playing with him.

That’s more or less how we met.  There was never any tension or conflict or, “Man, I don’t know what you’re doing.”  I was listening to him, trying to do what I could with what I heard him play, and I’m sure vice-versa.

As the years went by, after we had begun to play together on a consistent basis, he would say, “This is our music.”  And he meant “our” inclusively, in terms of me and Jimmy and whomever else was playing, because we were all creating the music at that particular moment.  So whatever we brought to the table was ours.  And putting it together, we got this whole.  Yes, of course, he gave us direction so far as allowing  us to do what we wanted to do within the context of the concept.  We would rehearse with each other, we would listen, rehearse, listen, rehearse.  We did a lot of that, days, hours upon hours, within that period of time.

TP:    Was it improvising or was he giving notes?

CYRILLE:  He was giving notes for the players who played those kind of diatonic notes.  But he never really told me to play anything.

TP:    How did it change your conception?

CYRILLE:  It opened me up..  It allowed me to try to play things that I had never played before, some new things.  When we had these rehearsals, in order to make sure that I’d play the same rhythms when he called a particular piece, I’d memorize what I played.  Those things, in a way, became how the heads were made.  It made me feel as though I was really responsible for whether or not this thing came off in terms of what I was adding as a drummer.  I’d say, “Is there anything you want me to play in particular?”  And I think only twice during the eleven years I played with him did he ever say, “Do this” or “Play five beats of this or give three beats of that” or whatever.  He’d say, “Man, you know what drummers do.  You’re the drummer.  You know how to play drums.”

So it was incumbent upon me to make sure that my integrity was as true-blue as Baby Dodds or Zutty Singleton!  Because this was what was going on in my head.  I did not want to do anything to the tradition and the memory of those guys, and the people whom I learned from, listening to Max and Art and Philly Joe Jones, because it could be said that it wasn’t genuine, that it wasn’t blue-blood so to speak.  So I worked on that stuff, man!  I got my information together, and I brought my information to the table.  “Hey, man, look what I found now.  Check this out!  I worked on this.”  That was on every aspect of the drumset, with the independent coordination, the foot-play, the dropping of the bombs, being tasty, playing in the spaces, accompanying, the way that the other members of the rhythm would accompany horn players…. But it was my own sense of how to do it.  It wouldn’t necessarily be the same kind of rhythms that they would play or the way that they would parse the rhythms or how they would organize the rhythms, etc.  But then again, it was!  It was the same but it was different.  Because  I played the same kind of drumset as most of those guys, and on occasion I’d play all kinds of percussion instruments, too.  It’s like when we did that recording, “Niggle Feugle,” for BYG.

TP:    When we did the Blindfold Test, you made a comment about Cecil with Tony Oxley which was very interesting.  When you play with Cecil, when Max Roach plays with Cecil, when Elvin plays with Cecil, you postulate very specific rhythmic ideas, there’s a counter-dialogue.  Another approach, which Sonny Murray did and Jackson Krall and Tony Oxley, is “matching color textures with Cecil’s panorama of sound colors and textures and dynamics rather than playing his own contrasting rhythm,” so there isn’t so much push-and-pull, but it’s more a unison or a synthesis.  Jackson Krall referred to it similarly.  Did your approach change a great deal once you were performing constantly with him?  Was there a difference between the rehearsal and the performance?

CYRILLE:  No.  It’s just that sometimes during the rehearsals, we would play some stuff that I wish would have been played during the performance.  Because it’s improvisation.  So sometimes certain things come to mind that are really gems, etc..  And a lot of times, what also has to be taken into consideration is the way you feel, the sound of the room, where the musicians are located in relationship to each other; in other words, where Honsegger was sitting, where this bass player was standing, where Cecil was, where I was…

TP:    Honsegger is something else.

CYRILLE:  Yes, Tristan is an excellent player.  But I heard Cecil a few years back when he did a solo in Paris, and at the same time the segue to the concert with a group he had that was Honsegger, Harri Sjostrom and Paul Lovens playing drums.  But the solo concert he played was just so magical!  I mean, he just played, and his command of what he was doing… It was almost like a laser beam!  He’d focus on something and he’d go after it and he get it!  It was so pliable!  And the place was packed, SRO, and it was in France.  The people were just enthralled with what he was doing, and then he danced in conjunction and spoke his words, etc.

What I’m saying is that years ago the ideas were there, and we went ahead and did what we wanted to do.  But as the years evolved… It’s like you’re cooking something, and you learn over the years how to make this thing come out and taste a certain way.  It’s like he was the master chef now.  You can put some stuff on the stove and say you’re going to experiment with this and sometimes it comes out beautifully and sometimes not so well and sometimes it’s a bomb.  But on this particular night, it was like he was the master chef, he knew just the exact ingredients to put into the food to make it come out being sumptuous.

TP:    Ramsey Ameen made the comment that when he was with Cecil, Cecil didn’t say much during the rehearsals.  He said he thought one reason why is because whenever the ensemble needed to know how to phrase a section, Jimmy Lyons would just play it, which would give everyone their cue.

CYRILLE:  Right.

TP:    The implication might be, again, that absent Jimmy Lyons, Cecil had to become more inclusive.

CYRILLE:  That’s just what I was saying before in terms of a strong rhythmical player playing the certain notes.  When you say “phrasing,” what is phrasing?  It’s just make a rhythm out of what you have.  Jimmy Lyons was a master at doing that, because he and Cecil played together in combination longer than any other individuals.  He was with Cecil for 25 years.  That’s double the time I played with Cecil on a consistent basis.

It’s so good.  It feels so good.  Like, if I have to sit down and do something with a big band, whether it be Muhal or John Carter or Murray doing Ellington’s music, you know there are certain things you can do in order to bring the music to the level that it should be.  A certain amount of risk is always involved, but you mature and you bring the weight of that maturity with you.  So if I want to play “Northern Lights,” I do the rhythm with a certain amount of conviction.  It’s not that I’m timidly doing it because I wonder whether this is the right thing to do.  I’m doing it because I know this is the right thing to do!  So it’s the same parallel when I play with somebody like Cecil.  Hey, this is what we’re going to do right now, this is what I’m going to do…

The thing that Cecil also appreciates, which is also why he doesn’t say anything, is because he wants your talent to come forth to inspire him.  And when that happens, that’s when you have this beautiful dialogue where there’s laughter and all these elements of surprise that come up.  It makes you want to continue doing what you’re doing, because it’s evolving on such a high creative artistic level.  And you just don’t want to stop.  It’s fantastic what’s happening at the spur of the moment.  I heard that happen with Max to some degree when he played with Max at Macmillan Hall in 1979.  I haven’t heard him play with Max in duet again since.  And I haven’t heard him play with Elvin.  But all I’m saying is that you have these two giants of the drum coming with all of their artillery, the full weight…the bag of all the stuff, and knowing what’s in that bag and knowing what they can use, and they selectively use whatever they feel is apropos.  I feel the same way at this point.  And as far as I’m concerned, hey, let’s do some more.

TP:    How do you assess Cecil’s stature both in the music’s timeline and vis-a-vis people you’ve worked with, like John Carter or Muhal or Anthony Davis?

CYRILLE:  These people feel as though he is definitely a seminal figure.  He helped change the direction of this music.  Before Cecil, there were certain things that were not happening.  The expanse of the compositional arrangement… In other, it’s not like AABA (though that’s still a viable form, and people use it in many ways).  But the music moves in so  many different directions which aren’t necessarily limited by a prescribed traditional way of playing.  The way, again, he would give out notes and expect people to bring whatever it is that they did to the table.  This is where the weight of the sound, the creativity of his different bands, comes out.  Because he is giving these people the chance to play what they play juxtaposed to what he plays.  Like all those records for FMP with Bennink… He absorbs all of that, and they absorb him, and they juxtapose what they do in relationship.  Now, you can’t find a whole lot of people who would allow all of that on their bandstands and that they would want to deal with.  Then again, you have so many people now who say, “Well, this is the way it goes.  I can do this.  I can play duets with anybody.”  And that’s with anybody on the planet.  A man like Cecil has broadened the palette of technical possibilities — I’m talking about ways of doing things — that was not necessarily available outside of a certain kind of structural way that music had been made or had been produced before.  Another way of manufacturing it.

TP:    The people who played in this master class all paid 300 bucks, and everyone could play.  Some were more adept improvisers than others, but everyone had command of the instrument.  Jackson Krall said he thought that they had a certain focus he hadn’t seen in similar ensembles because they had paid money, and people left their egos at the door, so to speak.  But when I spoke with them how the experience of working with Cecil matched their preconception of who he was, a couple of them were coming at him from a jazz perspective, and seeing him as kind of the apotheosis of the jazz timeline, and others were fascinated with his relationship with European classical music and 20th Century music.  Do you see him as having achieved a sort of ultimate cultural synthesis.

CYRILLE:  I don’t know if I’d use the word “ultimate.”  But he’s found a place where he feels comfortable with what he has acquired and learned over the years from both cultures, the African and the European put together in the African-American in this country.  There are other parts of Cecil which he doesn’t talk about too often, but on occasion he will mention his Indian roots.  I’m talking about Native American.  A lot of what he feels and thinks comes out of that cultural perspective also.  Maybe somebody should ask him how much does he feel very close to this that he brings to the surface.  You talk about being integrated and being a true American.  It’s embodied in person like that — and many others also.  When you talk about the synthesis of Europeans and Africans and African-Americans in how all this stuff comes together… All jazz musicians play European music, or most of us do in some way-shape-or-form.  We get information from that area also.  Africans don’t play the same kinds of chords that Europeans brought to the table of humanity.  They don’t play XIII chords and flat IXs and sharp XIs and all that sort of stuff.  That’s not in their vocabulary.  It may come out incidental, but there’s nothing in their vocabulary that says that, okay, now we’re going to play this kind of chord and use this kind of color or voice it like… All that stuff comes out of Europe.

The thing that the African-American does is bring a feeling.  The Europeans might make the clothes, but hey, we’re going to put it on and style it the way that we want.  We’re going to make it ours with what it is that you put on the table.  And it could be because maybe there’s nothing else available.  But we’re going to do it this way.  Then of course, there are other ways of manufacture of clothing by people from Africa, like the robes, free-flowing kinds of dress where you can have air that passes through because it might be a hot, arid place or whatever.  As far as I’m concerned, all of it is valid, because all of it is valid in terms of giving life to human beings in the place where they live — to stay alive!  So one can’t be more important than another.  You wouldn’t wear the same kind of clothes in Northern Europe that you would wear in Sub-Saharan Africa.  The same thing comes about more or less with the music.

All this makes me feel better about myself.  As you ask me these questions and I try to give you some good, qualified answers, it lets me know t some degree that I’m not crazy.  I have more students now than I have ever had who are coming to me, asking me about playing free.  So there has to be a certain kind of qualification and certain parameters.

TP:    I guess the paradox of the notion of musical freedom is the incredible discipline you have to have internalized to be able to do it.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  There is nothing free.  Not really.  Number one, you’re confined by the properties of the instrument you play.  But the reward comes out of finding things in that instrument that bring you to other places.  You say, “Wow, I can do this with the instrument.”  You listen to how you brought forth something you weren’t aware of that you can do with the instrument.  That’s the beauty of it.  That’s the beauty of the creativity and the evolution.  Which certain kinds of methods don’t particularly allow you to do.  But within the forms of those methods, you can find certain elements that are magical also.  But you can go beyond that, too.  So for me, that has been the contribution of a person like Cecil Taylor.  I think it’s fantastic.

* * *

Tony Oxley (on Cecil Taylor) – (3-20-01):

TP:    I am interested in what CT has indicated is an aesthetic and personal evolution in the last fifteen years, and it may be that your tonal personality is the one he feels the most affinity towards.  So first: What was your first exposure to Cecil’s music?

OXLEY:  It was in the ’60s, of course, with the legendary records Conquistador and Unit Structures.  Of course, I heard something before that.  I think it was from Denmark.  I remember that showing up in the ’60s as well.  But I think you’ll appreciate that living in Britain at that time, it was not easy to get this music.  In fact, there were various people who worked on the Queen Mary who used to actually smuggle it back from New York — as well as equipment, American drums, Gretsch and stuff like that, which you couldn’t get here.

TP:     People in the ship bands?

OXLEY:  Yes.  So a lot of this early culture and contributions of Cecil… I mean, it would have wonderful to be able hear…. On the few occasions he was working in those days, it would have been wonderful to be able to hear this live.  but the real impact for me was Conquistador and Unit Structures.

TP:    You became interested in speculative improvising at an early period, before those records came out.  How did hearing that, if at all, affect the course of how you approach the drums and spontaneous composition?

OXLEY:  Well, I found it very refreshing, very optimistic.  For me personally… I can tell you that the people who were interested in that music in Britain who I knew used to use it as their standard-bearer, if you like.  If they were trying to inform anyone to what was happening in New York with Cecil’s music, those two records would be the thing they would be talking about.  Of course, people were starting to tape this stuff and send it to each other, because you could only get very few records.  So the impact of it for me… It was an alternative, you see, that was not exploited over here in Europe.  That really comes out of what went on before in New York, a continuation in some ways.  Very surprising.  For me, very different to Ornette Coleman, which was a bit more predictable, in a way.  The rhythmic elements in Cecil’s work had a lot more possibilities, in my opinion.  Ornette’s approach had quite a traditional rhythm moving behind it.  It was well-commented-on.  It was noticed over here.  But Cecil seemed to give the space in every direction for what seemed to be the right thing to do at the time, and the right way to go, and how to respond to the way he was working.  So I think there was a lot more openness in the rhythmic side of the music to match the harmonic side.

TP:    When you’re referring to the music as a continuation of what went on before, are you referring to Cecil’s immersion in Bud Powell and the jazz tradition, or are you talking about the early roots of jazz music in the U.S.?

OXLEY:  I don’t know if he comes out of Bud Powell in a direct line.  I wouldn’t like to speculate about that.  But I do know how much of an admirer of Thelonious Monk Cecil is.  And there might have been some kind of connection between what he does and Thelonious Monk.  Now, of course, that might seem ridiculous on first hearing — kind of the opposite.  But influence works in many ways, and it does not work in imitating, in my view.  The philosophy is the thing you learn from, not the imitation.  I would hesitate to recommend anyone imitating.  But that’s another question.

TP:    If I may go on a tangent, who are the drummers whose aesthetic philosophy you assimilated when you were developing?

OXLEY:  Of course, the big band era was very prominent when I was growing up.  So consequently, the big band drummers were very prominent in the public eye.  But for the more discriminating jazz listener who would be brave enough to look for small groups (because big bands really dominated the scene), I would have to say that, first of all, Art Blakey, and then Elvin Jones, and then Milford Graves in those plays were very influential in showing the real issues in American jazz music.

TP:    The real issues?

OXLEY:  Well ,the reality, if you like.  What was important and how to do it.  How they do it.  Because they were all different.  Roy Haynes was another very interesting player in my development for years.  Of course, we’re always developing.  We never really stop, I suppose.

TP:    Was your development entirely through listening to records, or were you ever able to witness any of these people in Britain?

OXLEY:  I did actually.  Because Norman Granz used to send shows with four or five bands in them around Europe, and fortunately, they showed up in Sheffield, where I lived.  So I was able to hear Monk and Blakey live during that period of time.  But it wasn’t very easy to anticipate what might be coming, because you’d have Ella Fitzgerald on the bill, then Monk or Blakey…a variety of music.  But never Cecil Taylor.

TP:    But also in the ’60s, around the time Conquistador comes out, you’re the house drummer at Ronnie Scott’s.

OXLEY:  That was in ’66.  But in ’61 and ’62 and ’63, I did take some work, deputizing for the regular bands on the Queen Mary, and that meant three trips a year because there were three bands that needed to be deputized for.  Of course, on those trips, with the 36-hour turnaround in New York, that 36 hours was consumed entirely by chasing around, looking for the best music we could find.  So as a kind of pattern of activity, I would say to you that it would start in the late afternoon at the Metropole, listening to the Woody Herman Big Band.  The Metropole was just one long bar; the band was all strung out along one line, like washing.  There were mirrors on the opposite wall so they could see each other through the mirrors.  And people stood at the bar, so that meant you’d two yards away from the trumpet section.  That was unbelievable!  Lift you off your feet.  Then we’d move on to Birdland to hear Blakey.  Then we’d move on to the Vanguard and hear Bill Evans or Miles Davis.  Then we’d move to the Five Spot to hear the legendary quartet with Thelonious Monk.  So doing that three times a year, hoping that they would be there…  It wasn’t always Blakey at Birdland when we happened to be in town.  But at the best times we had, it was such a ritual as that.  And that was ’61-’62-’63, so quite early in my active professional life I was able to be exposed to some of the realities of New York at that time.

TP:    And I guess you were able to bring that sensibility back to what you were doing in England.

OXLEY:  Well, it couldn’t be ignored, could it.  It was a very dramatic experience for me, I must confess.

TP:    So in the ’60s you were able to function as both a straight-ahead, timekeeping drummer and as somebody interested in a more open-ended form of pulse and texture with the kit.

OXLEY:  Well, at the same time, I was very interested… In ’62-’63 I was starting to work with Derek Bailey and Gavin Bryars.  I’d previously been playing diatonically Classical music, i.e., Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev, Haydn, this kind of area.  I was in the Army, and this was the kind of thing we used to be doing…heh-heh, apart from other things.  Of course, when I came out of the Army, I continued my interest in what’s called Classical music, European Classical music.  So that interest transferred itself to 12-tone music.  So during this time, around ’63, I became very aware of Schoenberg and Anton Webern, and of course, that led to John Cage eventually.  So this was happening at the same time as hearing the developments in improvised music, i.e., Cecil Taylor-Bill Dixon, and my interest was continuing to develop in what’s called Classical music, only the second Viennese School.  So there were a lot of influences going on with me at that time.  And I was very hungry as well to hear it.  I suppose that might answer your question.

TP:    Between then and when you wind up playing with Cecil, it’s another two decades.  When were you first actually able to witness a performance by him?

OXLEY:  It would be in the ’70s at Ronnie Scott’s.  There was a production for a week at Ronnie Scott’s, and Cecil was included on the program with Sam Rivers, Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille.

TP:    The Fondation Maeght recordings are from ’69.

OXLEY:  It could have been.  The date I don’t know.  But it was in that area, and there was a whole week of television from Ronnie Scott’s, and Cecil was  the program with that quartet.  I think I’ve got a recording of it somewhere!

TP:    What was your impression?

OXLEY:  Well, I was more worried about how Cecil was going to find the piano.  Because the kinds of pianos that he needs…really they have to be in very good condition.  This has nothing other to do than that the way he approaches the music, the instrument has got to be in good shape.  And I wasn’t so sure about the piano at Ronnie Scott’s holding up!  We’re talking about the late ’60s now.  But from the musical point of view, of course, I was very happy to be there and hear what waas happening.  I remember speaking to Cecil, but of course he wouldn’t remember that.  Many people were saying “hello” and “how’s things” and how’s… I remember  asking him how was the piano.

So it was the ’70s when I first heard him live.  Then I don’t remember him coming to Britain… .The impact of playing with him in 1988 kind of obliterated any preconceptions I might have had about what the music that he might be playing… It was such an impact, that all my concentrations went onto that and not so much an historical view.

TP:    So in other words, it erased anything but the immediate moment of getting sound out.

OXLEY:  Absolutely.  I felt I needed all my concentration and effort, and to try to put out of my head anything that I’d heard him do with other people on record.  And the only records I had were those two that I mentioned.  I tried to put that out of my head in order to approach it with a cleaner palette.

TP:    Does playing with him demand new strategies and approaches on your instrument?

OXLEY:  The music speaks for itself, you know.  When you’re playing with Cecil Taylor, there is only one Cecil Taylor.  And when you become involved in the music, things happen that have nothing to do with strategy or even preparation.  The best preparation I’d say is be fit and open your ears!

TP:    I’ve heard you quoted that you have to have the stamina of an athlete…

OXLEY:  …and the imagination of God! [LAUGHS] You can quote that, if you like.  Well, it’s just to give a sincere answer to a kind of general question, ,to bring it into some kind of perspective.  I think just recently, when we played in the Tonic, I think the power of his work and the power of his imagination was evident.  I thought it was best in ’88 anyway to try to approach it as prepared and unprepared as possible.  Let’s put it that way.  It’s a contradiction, but…

TP:    Over the years have you sustained that strategy of no-strategy?  Do you go into each performance with him with that blank slate?

OXLEY:  Well, I am fortunate, because I love to play with Cecil Taylor and I love to be with him — and so does my wife.  We actually are always together when we are with Cecil.

The joy…and believe me, that word is very, very important when I have to describe the experience of playing with Cecil… The joy is so much more immense if you prepare yourself to go where the music will take you, and not try and make the music go where you want it perhaps, or think it might go.  With Cecil you don’t have to have any of those worries.  There is always something happening.  So you can relax and have this experience of working… He has his language.  I have my language.  And we think, I hope…at least  I think that the compatibility is quite special.  That is one of the most important aspects to remember when you’re either listening or thinking about his music.  That’s about the best way I can describe it.

TP:    Can you discuss your philosophy of playing this music?  Do you have a philosophy of playing with Cecil Taylor?

OXLEY:  No.  As I say I don’t have a plan.  I think by whatever grace, whether it’s the grace of God or the grace of whoever, we actually came to the point where we play together.  Now, before that, I don’t know if he had heard  me.  I doubt it.  So I don’t think there’s any answers to this question in that direction.

But I will say to you that when I was growing up, leaving school, I was a steelworker in Sheffield, and I think that that environment, which I paid close attention to, not only listening, but physically it wasn’t, shall we say, something you wanted to jump out of bed to do every morning…but anyway, it had to be done… The sounds and the rhythms of that kind of environment, I’m pretty sure, had more influence on me than I have ever appreciated, and I am starting to think now that maybe that has quite a significant role to play in the way I work with percussion.  For the rest of it, we’ll wait for the book! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Some of your interactions with Cecil are totally improvised and some would involve his notation, I imagine, with the larger ensemble perhaps.

OXLEY:  Not very often.

TP:    So you’re the wrong person to talk to about his notation..

OXLEY:  Of course, I’ve been quite close to Cecil since ’88, and I’ve seen him in situations with ensembles.  But to put it on a basic level, it would rather depend on the ensemble.  If people come along and they’re well aware of Cecil… Why would they be up there, I suppose, if they weren’t?  But if they come along with the right attitude and they want to be there…

TP:    Trudy Morse said that one reasons she’s very proactive in instigating these workshops is because she wants to introduce as many musicians as possible to Cecil’s notation.  And having seen a number of the sheets he was passing out, they’re graceful, poetic, dancelike…

OXLEY:  You’re talking about this last project, and of course it would be difficult for me to comment about that because I wasn’t there.

TP:    But there were people who had participated in projects of his from 1970 and 1973 who said that the notation was similar.  I thought you’d be interesting to ask about it because of your immersion in modernist classical music?

OXLEY:  It would be easier to talk to Cecil about that.  Have you tried to approach him about that question? [ETC.] Cecil is one of the most generous, sensitive people I know.  But it has to be respected that he also needs time to himself and he also has his way of dealing with a situation.  He works at his own pace.  But believe me, at the risk of repetition, he is one of the most generous and sensitive people I have ever had the privilege of working with and playing with.  So it’s nothing other than having to catch him at the right time.  Between you and me, when I’m ringing him, which is reasonably often, I can ring three or four times and not even get him on the phone, and the machine comes on, and I’ll leave him a message.  He has his own way of working, and that I respect 100 percent because he gives me the same freedom also.  If I’m not there, I’m not there.

TP:    Let me ask you one more question that I raised in the fax.  You addressed Cecil’s impact on the community of European improvisers in the ’60s.  I’m wondering how his intense interaction with that community in the last 15 years has affected the music in Europe.

OXLEY:  You mean personally or musically?

TP:    Both perhaps.

OXLEY:  It’s hard for me to speak for other people.  But of course, I am aware of the people who have worked with him over here in various things, particularly in that production for FMP, the box, which accounts for quite a few people.  I know quite a lot of them, and I know that the impact was quite surprising.  There are different drummers in the duets who show different ways of approaching the music.

TP:    More generally, can you describe the impact he’s had on the community?

OXLEY:  Different people have different views on it, as far as I can gather, and I would only be prepared to speak for myself on that.  Because people change their views.  And the views that I heard in ’88 would probably be very different now.

TP:    Without quoting anyone, can you tell me what views you heard in ’88?

OXLEY:  This time he spent in Berlin I think left a mark in history that will never be erased, in my view.  I think that’s about as much as I can say there.   Musically, it was absolutely phenomenal.  And after we finished…there were gigs being prepared even before he went there.

TP:    I looked at the website.  I counted 24 different gigs.  Not individual dates, but gigs of varying length between 1988 and 1991.

OXLEY:  Well, that’s only half of them that we did.  There’s a 10-CD production coming out from London which I expect will be called “The London Trios.”  If you think about that, that’s ten CDs, and go  back to the box and also go back to the productions Jost Gebers made outside of the box, which I think there are 7 CDs that I’m on… If you look at that amount of work and that amount of playing, it’s quite a phenomenal achievement, when you think about it.

[ETC.]

TP:    You used to use an enormous…

OXLEY:  A cowbell.

TP:    Well, not just a cowbell.  Your drumset incorporated things that normally wouldn’t be found.  Do you still have such an expansive tonal palette in your drumkit, or  have you pared it down?

OXLEY:  Well, I’ve cut it down, but not from when you heard it in Sweet Basil.  I cut it down from the late ’60s when I had electronics as well.  I actually devised a system of having live electronics with the kit, which there are some records around.  Pity you don’t know them..  But it’s an interesting way of working, and I found it great.  I worked with that until about ’78 or ’80.  If you’ve got February Papers… Some of Howard Riley’s recordings; I played the electronic stuff with his trio.  But anyway, around ’80 I gave up the electronics, and went back to playing acoustic entirely, and that’s the kit I used at Sweet Basil.  More or less.  You change a few things here and there, bring a few different things in.  If you have a sound you want to reproduce, then you have   to find a way of doing it.  If you have to make something, then you make it and then, of course, you add it to your language.

* * * *

Dan Marmorstein on Cecil Taylor (3-29-01):

TP:    A little of your personal history with Cecil.  Where did you first meet?  How did you become involved with his music?

MARMORSTEIN:  I first read about what Cecil was doing in the Leroi Jones book called “Black Music.”  I was largely living on the West Coast then when I was about 14 years old, so for me to read about this phenomenon of this kind of inferno of musical activity that was taking place largely on the East Coast fit in with my mindset, which was that nothing was really happening out there in the suburban West Coast, and I was looking for some kind of sanctum-sanctorum of energy and consciousness, which seemed to be being described in Jones’ book.  I went and got the records.  I guess the first record I got was Looking Ahead, which is still one of my absolute favorite records made by anybody at any time.

TP:    Were you playing piano at this time?

MARMORSTEIN:  Well, I’ve always played around on the piano, and I’ve always been involved with the piano enough to feel comfortable on it, but never enough to really call myself a pianist.  That’s still largely the situation.  So my approach to all this stuff is as a composer.  I’ve basically taken the piano thing and written things for other people to play, even on my own releases with my music.

TP:    And was your interest in composition then beginning?  Did it begin with Cecil?  Did it begin before  Cecil?  Was Cecil tangential to it initially?

MARMORSTEIN:  Cecil’s music functioned more as a magnet for me to stay connected and close to the idea and process and activity of making music, whatever that may be, in the way that other things have operated on me as kind of magnets.  I would also call S. Balanchandra, the vina player from Madras, a kind of magnet.  I would also call the Grateful Dead a kind of magnet in the same way.  But in the field of let’s call it modern improvisational American Music, I’m closer to Cecil’s music than I am, for example, to Duke Ellington’s music or, for that matter, even bebop.  Cecil’s music speaks to me more directly in a certain way, and always has.

Starting with Looking Ahead was coming in on a good page.  I think from Looking Ahead I went to Conquistador, which I still think is a beautiful symphonic seance.  That’s what I would call it.  Both sides of it.  The last couple of years I acquired the CD where you have the alternate version of “With/Exit”.  And you can understand why they chose the one that they chose . But even hearing those characters try the same piece twice…things like that brought home to me how compositional Cecil’s music is.  You used the word “structuralist” in one of your questions, and that’s not a word I feel completely facile in using because I don’t know exactly what you meant.

TP:    I’m interested in the way Cecil puts his compositions together, and I thought you’d be the best person to discuss with among the people there.  Because you see the scores and you have a sense of his process and how one process links to another and you attended every one of the rehearsals.  How he presented the material, how the material was received, how the linkages came together, the psychology of the band.  I’m interested in your overview.

MARMORSTEIN:  I’m real qualified to talk about that.

TP:    I know.  First of all, tell me how you met Cecil.

MARMORSTEIN:  My meetings with Cecil as a member of the audience were numerous, before I actually met him personally.  He was already such an object of… There was so much admiration there that I was too shy to approach him or come up to him in several situations, even in several what I would call pretty close encounters.  One the more interesting of the encounters was… Is it okay to say things that I’m not sure if I want…

TP:    Anything you want off the record, just say so.

MARMORSTEIN:  One of the most interesting encounters was when I went to Duke Ellington’s funeral at St. John’s the Divine, which was packed with people, and various artists were performing from the pulpit.  There was no place to sit down.  I came in just as the funeral was starting.  Somewhere about ten minutes into the service, a woman stood up and left, and I decided to grab the seat.  I walked up several aisles in the apse of the church, and turned to the left, and I was about to sit down at the empty place I said to myself, “My God, that’s Cecil Taylor sitting there.”  So I sat next to him for the whole funeral.  And I knew from the things I’d read that for him Ellington was a kind of spiritual father.  So in no way, shape or form was I going to disturb him there.  Then when we left the church I managed to both evade him and take another street down and get away, but when I got on the subway to go downtown, he was on the subway also.  Then I ended up going on the same subway car with him, and we were alone in the subway car.  This would have been my chance to say, “Hey, you’re a big influence in my life.”  But the guy was coming from a funeral and I was coming from a funeral, and it just didn’t seem appropriate.

There were a couple of encounters like that.  Once a guy came to my college and we were going to take a ride to Montreal and Toronto, but on the way we were going to stop off at a little college in Vermont where his brother was teaching, which was Goddard College, and we got to Plainfield, Vermont, which… I’m from New York.  This is in the middle of nowhere, and there was this college, Goddard…oh, and by the way there was a concert there that night.  And who was playing?  Oh, yeah, some guy from New York named Cecil Taylor.  I actually think that concert was recorded and put out on a CD or a bootleg.  It was a stunning concert.  He played solo.  As I remember, there were 50 or 60 people in the audience.  A month later he came to my college, to the music department at Brandeis, and played for less than 50 people with Sirone and Andrew, and then they answered questions.  But Cecil got tired of the public quickly.  Somebody asked him a question, “What kind of musical cues do you give each other?”  Cecil didn’t like the question, and he got very upset at that question, and he let Andrew take over the rest of the question-and-answer session.  Andrew had a very direct and strong way of confronting the audience which impressed me very much.

So there were experiences and close encounters.  But then we have to cut about ten years later.  I was living in New York, and finally I asked somebody who I knew was in touch with him if it was possible to obtain the phone number and phone him.  And I did.  I introduced myself on the phone and told him I was calling him because I had started composing music fairly late in life, but I had been very influenced by his music since I was in my early teens, and I had always wanted to approach him and ask him if I could take a composition lesson with him — or several composition lessons with him.  He said to me, “I don’t give lessons.”  But he said it in a nice way, and we continued to talk for over an hour.  Then he said, “Why don’t you come over tomorrow at around 11 and we can continue this talk.”  I remember I somehow made a reference that I’d be coming over at about 11, but maybe I could stop into this place and some… Then I realized that he wasn’t asking me to come at 11 in the morning.  He was asking me to come at 11 at night! [LAUGHS]

So I came over at 11 that night, and we talked, and we must have talked for several hours.  Around 3 o’clock, he said to me, “Well, this piano piece that you told me about on the phone that you wrote, did you bring it with you?”  I said, “Actually I did.”  Even though he had said he wasn’t going to give me a lesson.  He said, “Can you play the piece yourself?”  I said, “Yeah, sure.”  He said, “Well, go in the room and play it.”  So he’s got this rather large piano.  I have basically a four-movement piano sonata, and I went in the other room and played it for him.  It took me about 50 minutes to play it.  Then I came back in the other room, and he was sitting there, and he began to talk about the piece.  And he spoke so directly and so insightfully and so analytically and constructively about the piece that it was the lesson that crystallized what I was doing up until that point and which I have continued to draw from since.

We became friends from that meeting, and I never broached the question of having lessons with him again since that.  As you know, Cecil is a guy…

TP:    You approach him at his own pace.

MARMORSTEIN:  He’s a guy who goes at his own pace. [LAUGHS] I’ll just agree with you on that.  And you have to catch it when you can.

TP:    So you’ve had a relationship since you were about 30.

MARMORSTEIN:  Right.  Since about February 1985.

TP:    Just so I get it straight: You are an American who lives in Denmark?

MARMORSTEIN:  I am an American.  I lived in America my whole life until 1982, when I moved to Holland, and lived in Holland for two years, and attended the Stedelink Conservatory and studied with Misha Mengelberg.   I was a guest student in the Improvisational Department.  At the end of that year I had kind of run out of gas in Holland on a lot of levels, especially… Well, that’s a whole other subject.  But then I moved back to New York to tank up, especially economically, and I lived there for a year during which I met Cecil.  I was able to pick up some teaching jobs.  Then the woman who I had when I was in Holland who lived in Denmark came to New York and had an art show there, then we lived together, and in the summer of 1985 I moved to Denmark.  And I’ve been here ever since.

So my contact with Cecil, during the time I’ve known him, has largely taken place when I’m in New York for anywhere between a week or two weeks or a month at a time.  Maybe I’ll see him once or twice.  Maybe I’ll see him more than that.  Very often I don’t see him at all.  I might phone him several times, or we get the machine — and you never get any clue whether he’s around and just not answering the call, or whether he’s out of town.  Since 1989, a lot of my meetings have actually taken place in Berlin.  He’s in Berlin a lot, and Berlin is close enough to Copenhagen.  I’ve been to Berlin to see him three or four times.

TP:    Did you witness the June ’88 event?

MARMORSTEIN:  I wasn’t there for any of the box, but I was there in ’90 when he played at the Bechstein Hall.  I think that concert recently came out on Free Music Productions.  Off the record, I don’t think Cecil is very pleased with the release of that, because I don’t think he authorized it.  That’s the Workshop Orchestra.  I was also there for a concert he played at the Berlin Opera House a year after that, in the summer of 1991.

This invitation to the workshop came as a thrilling surprise to me. I have a computer, it’s hooked up to the telephone, and who knows what’s going to happen?  Usually you turn the thing on, and it’s nothing but a lot of junk mail asking people to do this or do that.  But all of a sudden there was this letter that was forwarded to me from Trudy Morse that had been sent out by Bruce Eisenbeil about the workshop.  It was a very nice thing for Trudy to do.  I had met Trudy in Berlin a couple of times with Cecil.  I responded right away.  I guess first I emailed Trudy and said it sounded really good, and should I really  take this as an invitation.  Because to me this was like rubbing the magic lantern.   This is what I wanted to do.  I wanted to study composition with Cecil Taylor, and to be invited to participate in a master class like that.

So I emailed Bruce, who I’d never met, and said, “I’m not a skilled jazz pianist; I don’t play changes.  I’m not an expert classical pianist.  But that being said, if I am still welcome to participate in the workshop without taking up a place that would be better reserved for a more adept pianist, then I’m in..  I would love to do it.”

I remember Bruce’s response.  He said, “Thanks for your email..  I think you should come to this workshop.  You’ll have a blast and you’ll learn a lot.”

The workshop definitely lived up to that.  I had a great time and I learned a lot.  It was a pleasure.  There was one day when I think you weren’t there when Cecil got a little bit tight, and he kind of scared all of us!  But I think for the rest of it he was in a great mood, and I think he was very-very generous with all of us.

My impression is that he was writing the stuff the night before.  Maybe some of it was old stuff that he had lying about.  But he came in with veritable reams of composition.  I could see from what I could guess that… You can’t talk about pencil markings as being fresh; you can only talk about ink markings that way.  That was my sense, that the graphite was fresh on the paper.  He came in with this stuff day after day.   He brought in about ten compositions which we played….we rehearsed ten compositions over the course of the event, and played four at the concert.

The first day of the workshops, my recollection is that he didn’t give out any paper at all.  He dictated the tones to people.  If you weren’t ready with your pencil and your paper before he started talking and you weren’t 100 percent concentrated as he was talking, then you simply couldn’t keep up with the succession of tones.  He was dictating them really rapid-fire.  So I was actually able to get some of that stuff, and some of the other people in the class were able to get some of the stuff.  So what we were able to practice the first week was pretty much what we were able to get.

Then by the second class he came in and gave us a score, so we were able to look at the score and look at his way of thinking about tones.  There are certain  intervals that he likes.  There are certain links that he likes.  There are certain licks, especially in connection with octaves and how octaves are filled in.  One lick that seems to be quite prevalent in his music is something being voiced in octaves and…

[END OF SIDE]

…middle will stay where it is.  So a lick that turns up a lot in these scores is something like a C to the C above it, with the G in between, and then the C# to the C# above it, but then still with the G in between — or things like that.  Then maybe you’ll go up from the D to a D, and probably keep the G as a pedal tone.  There are a lot of sounds like that.

Also, as a pianist, it was interesting to see that a lot of the power of his playing and his melodic statements have to do with the fact that he simply plays these rather curlicued and very harmonically dense melodic lines, which don’t always follow a diatonic sequence of tones but a much more chromatic sequence of tones, but that these lines are played sometimes as octaves or as double-octaves or, in many cases, simply as triple octaves — Cecil is simply playing a melody over four octaves.  But of course, when he does it, it sounds like he is playing single notes on the piano.  But that gives a color and a dimension.

The scores seem to be what I would call feels.  On the page of the scores, he has a group of anywhere between three or five or as many as ten, and sometimes he may stack sequences of lines, in which case you could have 25 or 30 different tones.  Quite frequently, more than one tone is described.  The way that music is transmitted to the musicians is that the musicians are basically being asked to breathe their own poetry into these melodies and shape them as they will.  But that being said, with Cecil being there, Cecil will often play the thing on the piano and expect that we can hear that that’s the way he wants it to sound.  And sometimes you can hear that, but sometimes if he plays it with his own floridness, it’s hard to hear the bare skeleton through this beautiful flower.  He’s asking us to sketch the daisy when actually what he’s done is given us a daisy surrounded by roses and orchids.

TP:    Ramsey Ameen made the point that before Jimmy Lyons died, basically personnel took phrasing cues from Jimmy Lyons’ articulation of the melodies and lines, that Jimmy’s phrasing would tend to be the authoritative guidepost for the musicians.

MARMORSTEIN:  [ETC. ON JIMMY] I wasn’t around…

TP:    The essential issue with the orchestra seemed to be how to phrase this music and how to create a dynamic level that didn’t keep them in the middle of the fire, but enabled them to maybe go into the vortex and then skip out, and go in and out and in and out like a magician going into the center of a maelstrom of fire and coming out unscathed.

MARMORSTEIN:  I think in this workshop situation, Cecil was sitting back and listening quite a bit.  I think he wanted to hear to some extent how this music would sound in a large group of people, and his coaching of the group tended to be on the minimal side — unless he really felt that it had become messy and that people weren’t listening to each other.  His coaching largely consisted that people should play in such a way that they could leave room for each other, make space for each other, and listen to one another.  That was not always the case in the rehearsals.

The miracle of the concert for me, from where I was sitting, was that suddenly everybody seemed to be listening to each other, and suddenly these pieces really functioned as finished pieces.  Okay, maybe not recording studio quality, but interesting enough for people who hadn’t been part of the building-up process to sit and listen to it.  As you probably know, we didn’t know what we were going to play until just before we played before the public.

TP:    How do sections come together in Cecil’s music?  First, is his notation singular unto him?

MARMORSTEIN:  I’ve never seen it before in any other composer.  But the composer Glenn Spearman had charts which are the only things I’ve seen which look something like Cecil’s composition.  But I know Cecil was doing it before Glenn Spearman was.

TP:    As a composer and someone who is immersed in post-Webern European music, can you speak to the Cecil’s connections structurally and on a more metaphysical level to that music.  I mean, during our conversation he was talking a great deal about Xennakis.

MARMORSTEIN:  And I guess Xennakis died a few days later, on the same day as J.J. Johnson.  He did tell that story about Xennakis being kind to him the way he was.

TP:    Trudy met Cecil on a Xennakis festival. [ETC.] Obviously there are palpable connections.  Without your necessarily going into the details of how that concert was put together, I wonder if you see connections in their musical thinking.

MARMORSTEIN:  I certainly can hear connections in Xennakis’ music with Cecil’s stuff, to the extent that when I first heard Xennakis’ piano music,  I thought this was somebody who was trying to play like Cecil Taylor.  But when I mentioned this to Cecil, Cecil didn’t seem to be too thrilled about that kind of cross-comparison.  I think Cecil… I get this as much from what’s written in the Spellman book than actually talking about it at great length with Cecil.  I think Cecil’s attitude about compositional music that’s built around a system of any kind is…I think he tends to stay away from that.  I think he almost tends to eschew that….

TP:    Are you saying that he tends to stay away from the system or that he’s internalized the system so comprehensively that he is able to use that as a part of his improvising vocabulary without even thinking about it?

MARMORSTEIN:  Well, yes, but that still wouldn’t be right, because I think by nature he avoids system.  He would avoid Serialism.  He would avoid any kind of licks stuff.  John Cage’s famous objection to the word “jazz,” as I remember it, is that…

TP:    He said it’s imprisoned by the beat.

MARMORSTEIN:  Did he?  I knew also that he said something about the fact that jazz players learn licks and then stick with that.  I think Cecil is trying in every which way to not be confined to his own shtick as such.  Yet, what I think he tries to do is cultivate a familiarity and an honesty about…you know, definite, clear, sort of subject-predicate-adjective sentences.  I think he tries to say things in music which can only be said through music, a la Schoenberg’s response to Webern’s music when he talked about the Bagatelles — that famous preface.  I guess that’s why I gravitate both to Cecil and to the Webern-Berg Schoenberg thing.  But whereas I would say Webern-Berg-Schoenberg were interested in positing systematization, especially Papa Schoenberg, I think Cecil is not interested in that.  He is not interested in creating a system.  He is not interested in creating a George Russell type theory.  Although I know he respects that thing.  I know he respects George Russell and what he has been doing, by and large.

That’s why it’s a funny thing to be in a workshop situation with Cecil. He doesn’t really want to teach his approach.  What he wants to do is motivate the participants to find their own poetry and their own way of getting started with this stuff.  I think what he wants his compositions to do is to get people to think about music as a process activity and not just a kind of finished product.  I think that’s his game.

I use the word “game” because to me the scores function a little bit like games.  You asked me how did we move from one field to the next.  Cecil gave various directives on that.  In one instance, he simply said, “When you feel that you’ve exhausted the material in one of these melodic sequence fields, when you feel that you’ve said it the way that you wanted to say it with as much variety as you can, especially rhythmic variety, then take a breath and move on.”  That was a very explicit instruction he gave.  Now, how do you translate that when you have 39 participants in the workshop, which had boiled down to about 30 by the time the concert rolled around.

That was funny paradox of the rehearsals at the concert, that for me during the rehearsals it never really-really jelled or was clear.  But somehow, when the public was sitting there, and people were forced to collectively in not an antagonistic us-against-them but in a cooperative us-and-them situation… When you have the performers and the public, you do have an us-and-them situation.  You have the people you’re playing with, and you also have people that you know are listening, who have taken cut these few hours out of their otherwise busy prime-time Saturday night and paid a their money, and you want to offer them something.  You’re not just playing for yourselves.  Now you’re playing for them.  And somehow, like magic, it worked.

Cecil turned to us literally five minutes before the public came in and he said, “Okay, we’re going to play this one and this one and this one and this one.”  Then shortly after that, he said to me, “The first piece is called ‘To be’ and the second piece is called ‘Ka’ and the third piece is called ‘Ka-Ba’ and the fourth piece…”  When he gave those names, that’s the first time I or anyone else had heard those names, and I think it’s the first time that they had names.   So I that the process wad done like that.  It was like finally the creator of the games decided that these four games were the ones that would work best together, and then he gave then names which gives the audience a chance to remember them.

So I’d say each one of the scores has an element of chess or a game of Go, where different variables happen in one area and different variables happen in another area.  In some scores, you’d play through the whole score and then there was a da capo, where you started again and went back to a certain point.  The link between the “Ka” and the “Ka-Ba” pieces, which was the second and the third piece, was something that maybe Cecil had in mind.  I guess he did bring those pieces in on the third day.  But we all could feel that it was a very natural progression from one piece to the other.  But otherwise, the pieces seemed to function as independent… And I use “games” on the highest level I could use the word.

TP:    Do you feel that Cecil’s music is singular in the world of music?

MARMORSTEIN:  I think that’s definitely the case.  I don’t know any music that sounds like that except… I would say that as a pianist, Cecil is the next step from Thelonious Monk.  Also Duke Ellington, but certainly Thelonious Monk, in the same way that for me Eric Dolphy is the next step from Charlie Parker.  It’s a certain way of taking the predecessor, and expanding it and stretching it out and making it little more Gaudi-esque in its shape.

TP:    Do you feel that Cecil’s absorption of architectural shape and form and structure influences the arc of his pieces.

MARMORSTEIN:  Absolutely.  That’s something you know if you talk with him for ten minutes.  And I absolutely think that ballet…dance in general, but for me, his interest in the Classical Ballet…

TP:    It’s like he’s dancing over the piano.  That’s what his gestures are like.

MARMORSTEIN:  His fingers are making the same kinds of leaps that the dancers make in space.  I’m sorry I never saw the duet he made with Baryshnikov.  Another thing that I think is super-important to him these days is singers and vocalists.  So I think we can’t really talk about his piano playing or his composition without talking about architecture, dance and singers, especially the jazz singers, or opera singers, or singers of any kind who have influenced him.  He’s got so many things coming into him.  He’s so hooked up to the outside world and he’s got so much input, that it comes out with this kaleidoscope of stuff which doesn’t sound, to my mind, like what anybody else is doing.  But sometimes, in terms of the internal intelligence and humor in the melodic sequences, you could say that his music is kind of Monkish.  I don’t think Cecil would take too much offense at that.

TP:     I kind of see him as a cross between Monk and Tatum.  I can’t think of any other pianist who ever had that kind of technique.  Of course, he admires Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal, who are contemporaries of his.

Can you address Cecil’s relationship to the European improvisers community?  It sounds like you’re an interested observer in that scene, and I think one of the more interesting developments of the last 15 years is the mark Cecil has made on that community, and I think they’ve made quite an impact on him.

MARMORSTEIN:  That’s a tricky question.  I don’t know if I can come up with so much on the last one.  My impression is that Cecil misses some blues in the European music.  He misses some basic things that for him are essential in the music.  He misses some American Indian and he misses some Blues, which to me the European guys often don’t have.  My impression is that the European guys sometimes manifestly eschew it in their way.  They say, “We don’t want to just be like blues guys.  We want to come up with something all our own.”  Of the European guys, there’s quite a few of the drummers that he feels have something very important to offer.  I don’t know his feeling about the wind players and the pianists.

I think the impact Cecil has made on that community is enormous.  But in my opinion, the impact that community has made on Cecil is more social and humanitarian, in a certain way, than musical.  I think Cecil likes the respect and the fair treatment and the admiration that he gets in Europe, which pleases him.  But I don’t know how much of the music itself…

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A 2007 Jazziz Article and Four Interviews with Roy Haynes, who Turns 87 Today

Roy Haynes, who turns 87 today, is the living embodiment of the notion that, for certain human beings, age is nothing but a number. Haynes continues to astonish with his brilliance and creativity at the drumkit. I’m posting below an article that I wrote about the maestro for Jazzizin 2007, the interview that we did for that piece, and three prior interviews—from 2005, for a birthday piece in the New York Daily News and an article I wrote for Downbeat about the  emergence of modern jazz in Greenwich Village; from 2000, for an old webzine (http://community.musiciansfriend.com/docs/DOC-2453); and from 1996, when Mr. Haynes joined me live on WKCR for about three hours of a five-hour Jazz Profiles show devoted to his work.

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Jazziz Article (2007)

“I am old school with a hip attitude,” Roy Haynes announced from the front of the Birdland bandstand, head cocked, jaw jutting upward, his eyes darting around  the room. He had just concluded a pithy, precise and forceful variation on the form of “Trinkle-Tinkle,” a notoriously involved Thelonious Monk line that Haynes first encountered close to half-century ago on an extended gig with Monk at the legendary Five Spot in Greenwich Village.

Haynes wore boots of soft calfskin leather, visible in a narrow crescent beneath flared black velour pants with buttons up to the calves, into which was tucked in a trim black t-shirt underneath a flowing, open tan shirt. He swayed, rocking on the balls of his feet.

“I’m playing the same stuff I played a long time ago,”Haynes continued. “And it’s working.” Suddenly he rat-a-tatted a sequence of syncopated steps, ending with an emphatic left foot stomp. He laughed at his audacity .

With a hoofer’s elegance, Haynes, three months shy of 82, pivoted to his drumset, each of the toms encased in white pearl. He lifted his Yamaha 14″-by-5½” signature snare drum, made of hand-hammered copper, cradled it, and presented it for the house to admire. After further banter, he returned the snare drum to his stand, sat on his stool, and sticked crisp triplet variations on the snare. He answered himself with a complementary bass drum pattern, and responded to that with a rumbling dance on the toms, interpolating hi-hat splashes to decorate the ever-surging rhythmic puzzle, subdivisions piled upon subdivisions. Bassist David Wong stated a vamp, pianist Martin Bejarano played dramatic altered chords, and alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw stated the insinuating melody of Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs To Daddy,” which Haynes had recorded with Charlie Parker in 1954. Bejerano uncorked a whirling, ascendent solo that launched Shaw into a high-intensity declamation that channeled the spirit of John Coltrane, whose quartet Haynes propelled on numerous occasions between 1961 and 1965 when Elvin Jones—himself deeply influenced by Haynes in his formative years—was unable to make the gig, including several recordings that rank high in the Coltrane canon.

During the preceding fifty minutes on this middlingly attended Thursday evening first set, Haynes had propelled his group of twenty-somethings,  titled the Fountain of Youth Quartet, through repertoire that represented a sort of musical autobiography—Parker’s “Segment,” Wayne Shorter’s “Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum,” Pat Metheny’s “James,” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.” Strayhorn was the only composer with whom Haynes had not performed or recorded during his sixty-plus years as a professional musician. It’s a linkup that might have been had Haynes accepted Ellington’s job offer in 1952.

“I was with Bird and we’d just finished playing a double bill with Duke at Carnegie Hall,” Haynes related a few days before. “Duke called me, but I knew that the horn players, the older guys, would have had a problem with my style.” Some twenty years later, Haynes played a Jazz Vespers concert with his group, the Hip Ensemble, at New York’s jazz church, St. Peter’s, on the anniversary of Strayhorn’s death. “I used to come out of a drum solo and go into ‘Lift Every Voice And Sing,’ which was known as the Negro National Anthem back in the day,” Haynes recalled. “As we went into it, and I went into 3/4 time, I noticed Duke and his doctor, Arthur Logan, standing up with the whole congregation. I had many highlights during my career, but that one stands out in my mind.”

Ellington is one of the few jazz immortals with whom Haynes did not perform—he mentions Benny Carter and Ornette Coleman as two missed opportunities. Hence, his strategy of performing tunes to which he has a direct connection—in addition to the aforementioned, Haynes references the likes of Lester Young, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz, Oliver Nelson, McCoy Tyner, and Chick Corea, all employers at various points—imparts a sense that one is hearing entire history of jazz from an insider’s perspective. Indeed, while earning a living as a first-call sideman, playing the function at hand in an idiomatic, team-oriented manner, Haynes contributed consequentially to almost every stylistic development of the idiom—bebop and postbop, piano trios and singers, Coltrane’s energy music and the more chamber-oriented aspects of the ‘60s avant-garde, the jazz embrace of the beats of Africa, the Caribbean islands, American dance music.

“Once in Chicago, a lady came over and said that my music reminded her of the four seasons,” he remarks. “I thought that was a compliment, because I try to express a bit of what was happening in the different seasons of my life.” Those seasons represent a timeline in which Haynes links King Oliver and Baby Dodds (in 1945, Haynes left Boston, his hometown, to join pianist Luis Russell, Louis Armstrong’s musical director throughout the ‘30s) to such potential stars of 2040 as FOY members like Shaw, Bejarano, and Marcus Strickland, or Haynes’ grandson, 19-year-old drummer Marcus Gilmore, who currently plays with Corea.

“With Roy, you never feel you’re listening to a player whose style is locked into a certain period,” says bassist Dave Holland, who recorded on the 2001 Haynes “all-star” project, Birds of A Feather, on Haynes’ superb 2002 studio album Love Letters, and on a 1998 Gary Burton-led quintet with Haynes, Corea and Metheny entitled Windows. He also played on Question and Answer, a 1990 Pat Metheny album that brought Haynes to the attention of a post-Boomer audience.

“I see a lot of similarities between his playing and Miles,” Holland continues. “Roy developed a way of playing drums that, at the core, was essentially him, but transposed into being able to work in many different contexts. It’s an open, fluid way of playing that gives you a chance to really get inside the dialogue.”

“Miles cut it off in a slick way,” Haynes acknowledges of Davis’ break with his roots in the plugged-in ‘70s. “He dressed like his audience, so to speak — dressed better than them, of course. But when he was playing the mute, he was still playing his regular shit, surrounded by the other things. That’s where he tricked motherfuckers. That’s packaging.”

Unlike Davis, a close friend with whom he shared a taste for fast cars and contemporary threads, Haynes shapes foundational vocabulary to suit the here-and-now while still honoring his origins. “Sometimes I’m still playing a little TITTY-BOOM,” he says, referring to an apocryphal story in which Lester Young, with whom he debuted on a dance gig at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in 1947, tells him, “don’t drop no bombs on me, Lady Haynes, just give me a little TITTY-BOOM.” “I’m still playing DING-DA-DING, DING-DA-DING on some of the stuff, but not everything. It varies. The song says ‘nothing stays the same…’

“Some people tell me I’ve changed, but I don’t agree with that one hundred percent. I may approach some things differently, but I had all of these things in mind a long time ago, when I was playing with a lot of people. I didn’t do them then, because I didn’t know if they would fit.”

During his 1947-49 tenure with Young and over the next four years with Powell, Davis, Getz and Parker, Haynes differentiated himself from the pack and made it fit, sustaining an intense four/four swing groove with a kinetic, non-metronomic ride cymbal beat, punctuating with bass drum interpolations, not relying on second and fourth beat placements on the hi-hat as a security blanket. “I can’t even do that if I tried,” Haynes said. “Now, sometimes I just put my foot on the side, and play it when I want to play it, rather than keep a continuous beat on the hi-hat. Which I didn’t do too much, although certain people liked that or wanted that.”

By eschewing that rhythmic grid, Haynes was able to create a continuous flow and avoid cliched patterns. “I dance around the 2 and 4, but it’s still there,” he says. “But some people depend upon the drummer for the time; maybe they go against the time and wait for the drummer to let them know where it is. But I like to play with people who have a built-in drummer. Coltrane had it. His notes were so even. Miles was hip to it, and so was Gene Ammons. When I was with Luis Russell, playing the Regal Theater in Chicago in 1946, I’d walk down State Street to a place called Club Congo to sit in with Jug. He could play with a drummer. Same with Lester Young and Bird and Monk and Chick. The time is right there. All you have to do is design around it. I tap dance on the drums sometimes. I’m always thinking about rhythms and beats, even when I walk, which dancers do.”

“Roy has a way of  looking down a long line of rhythmic permutations, 32 or 64 bars ahead,” says pianist David Kikoski, who played regularly with Haynes between 1984 and 2002. “He’s feeling it. He can count it if he wants, but he does it in a very natural way. He jumps around, but it all works. He plays more odd time phrases than anyone. On his solo drum sections, he does a lot of groupings of 5 and 7. But he might not know that he’s playing in 7, or he might not think of it as that.”

As drummer Lewis Nash points out, Haynes has long used all the tools at his disposal to express these ideas. “Roy wasn’t just comping with his left hand,” Nash says of his early-career recordings. “He comped pretty much with all four limbs, and wasn’t afraid to do things that highlight the basic pulse rather than stating it. Nobody else was doing this to the degree he did. Jack DeJohnette and Tony Williams and others who came along in the ‘60s and wanted to be considered modern and fresh, were building on things that Roy was doing. Now, Roy had a strong concept of swinging, and if you really digest him, you won’t miss the stuff that Max Roach or Kenny Clarke did before him, because it’s in there. But you will in addition get some other, more adventurous ways of approaching timekeeping.”

In developing his approach, Haynes—who regards ‘30s big band swingers like Jo Jones, Chick Webb, and Sonny Greer as early models, met Clarke, Roach and Art Blakey in Boston during the early ‘40s, and admired Chicago drum legend Ike Day—may have drawn inspiration from Ubaldo Nieto, a Puerto Rican drummer who played with Machito, a frequent presence at the original Birdland. “He had timbales, a bass drum and no hi-hat his setup,” says Haynes, who is himself of Barbadan descent. “I listened to him all the time,  and I was always going up the street to the Palladium to hear Tito Puente and all the other bands.”

“Roy incorporated elements of the Afro-Cuban thing way before it was fashionable,” says bassist John Patitucci, who joined pianist Danilo Perez in a brilliant Haynes-led cross-cultural trio between 1999 and 2001 “By the early ‘50s, he was combining funky straight eighth note playing with triplet-based swing, which is indicative of New Orleans music and other African music. Every drummer’s calling card is their ride cymbal feel, and Roy’s is incredible, with a great forward motion, but loose, not nervous  at all. It propels the music with incredible buoyancy and a beautiful force, and hip as it was, I never felt like I was being covered up. That kind of relaxed burn is unusual. Also, he can play very dense at a lot of different volumes. That’s virtuosity.

“Once I told him that it drives me crazy when drummers play all this incredible stuff behind the soloists, and when it comes time for the bass solo, all of a sudden it’s TICK-TICK-A-TICK-TICK on the hi-hat, real soft, with nothing happening. He said, ‘Wait a minute. You watch. I got some special stuff on the hi-hat for you, too.’ He proceeded to shatter my whole theory that you can’t play hi-hat behind the bass and be hip. Again, it wasn’t overpowering but it was really slick.”

Towards the end of the ‘60s, Haynes discovered Carnaby Street fashion and brought straight eighth feels and odd-meters more explicitly into his sound, first in Gary Burton’s pathbreaking Jazz-Rock unit, then with the Hip Ensemble, a wild band that included outcats George Adams on tenor saxophone and Hannibal Marvin Peterson on trumpet. Haynes introduced them on a gig behind a singer covering Beatles repertoire at the Scene, a West Side disco.

“Jimi Hendrix saw us there, and came up on the stage, though he didn’t play,” Haynes recalls. “Chick Corea was living in Queens then, and I rehearsed at his house. He came to the club opening night, and he said, ‘Roy Haynes, you really can form a band.’ We played some funk, too; I was doing a lot of stuff in 7/8. We had a regular piano, but an electric bass, and I was using big baseball bat drumsticks that belonged to the drummer in the other band. Billy Cobham was checking us out, and Chick came to my house to get a cymbal, the flat ride that all the drummers had to play when he started Return to Forever.”

“Roy has an open mind to many different things,” says Kikoski. “He knows the lyrics to songs by the Doors or by Paul McCartney; different kinds of music through all the generations. That’s why he still sounds so contemporary. He’s drawn from all the different cultures and mixed them together in his style, some consciously and some I’m sure unconsciously. With his Barbadan roots, he definitely has that island groove thing happening. You also hear the 12/8-ish African thing. Then you hear the East Coast hard-swinging kind of thing.”

“They’re all within what I play, but I don’t particularly analyze it as such,” says Haynes. “It’s in my walk. It’s in my strut. I’m not a metronome, and I don’t play in a way that everything has to be metered down to the numbers. I probably wouldn’t be able to keep that up. My mind would start wandering, and I’d be in another meter somewhere else. I never got into the rudiments. If I did, I probably would sound like everybody else—maybe. I did a thing called Drum Festival in Montreal. A lot of drummers there. Now, if I played rudiments, they’re hip to that. But  I come up with the Roy Haynes shit, and it blew all of their minds. I breathe the way I breathe and sneeze the way I sneeze. I think there can be a poem there!”

He refers to a kaleidoscopic drum solo from his latest CD (Whereas [Dreyfus]) entitled “Hippidy Hop,” a spontaneous polyrhythmic meditation on vernacular dance steps from tap to hip-hop. “I can go into another gear, sometimes one that people are not aware that I can go to,” Haynes says. “I recently participated in a Drum Roundtable where it was played at the end, and I was screaming. I didn’t practice that solo. I said, ‘Man, I’m going to learn that,’ but I’ll probably never be able to play it again.

“When I get behind the set, sometimes I don’t know what direction I’m going to go. It’s like an abstract painting, adding certain things and leaving out others as you proceed. I try to let the music stroll. I get up more than I used to, and let it breathe. Sometimes I take chances. I’ll go overboard. We can play the same song all night, make something different happen within it, and take it to the moon. You won’t know where we are. When you get that kind of understanding on the bandstand, it’s the greatest feeling. Talk about eating some good food or having some good sex! It tops all of that.”

* * * *

Roy Haynes (Dec. 11, 2006) – (for Jazziz):

TP:   Didn’t Sugar Ray own a club?

ROY:   Sugar Ray had a bar on 7th Avenue, yes. Sugar’s Ray’s.

TP:   Did he have music there?

ROY:   Later on he did. When would it have been? Maybe late ‘50s.

TP:   Did you play there?

ROY:   No, I never played there.

TP:   Did you box ever?

ROY:   Not really. I had a bag. It’s in Vegas now. I bought a place in Vegas in the last few years, since 9/11. I’ve got a house in Vegas with a pool and everything…all of that crap. It’s something I wanted to do, and I did it.

TP:   What the editor wants me to do on this piece, roughly, is what everyone else does when they talk to you these days. It’s the cover story for an issue of which the theme is traditions. He want to talk about traditions, continuity, and looking into the future. Now, any interview with you is about traditions, continuity and looking into the future. Now, at this point, I’ve done three fairly comprehensive interviews with you. Once on WKCR, you talked a lot about your early life. We did one that’s on the Internet where you talked about the way the drums have changed and drum styles have changed. And we did this interview two years ago for the Daily News.

What does the word “tradition” mean to you at this point? Does it have any meaning to you? Is it a meaningless term?

ROY:   When I hear the word “tradition,” it makes me think of a long time ago. It makes me think of something that happened a long time ago. That’s the way it grabs me.

TP:   My impression is that you have a very good memory for things that happened a long time ago.

ROY:   I hear that a lot of old people do. I hear a lot of old people say they can remember what happened twenty years ago, but they can’t remember what happened last night.

TP:   it doesn’t seem to be that way for you, though.

ROY:   A little bit. The last few years, man, I put down something, and man… A lot of that’s happening.

TP:   First I’d like to talk a little generally drums and you in relation to drums. What got you interested in drumming? You mentioned that your parents knew that you were interested in drumming, and they got you lessons with a guy on your block in Boston…

ROY:   Herbie Wright.

TP:   Herbie Wright, who’d been in the Jenkins Orphanage. He taught you mama-daddy and all this…

ROY:   Right, right. You’ve got a good memory yourself.

TP:   What got you interested in doing this? What kind of guy was he? Just how the notion of being a musician entered your consciousness.

ROY:   Well, ever since I can remember, I was banging. I was playing on things. Rhythm. Listening to a lot of music. On the radio… They had good radio stations in Boston.

TP:   Even in the ‘30s?

ROY:   Definitely, man. That’s when I heard Artie Shaw, naturally, Basie, Duke, singers like Billie Holiday, Fats Waller—all of that was on the radio. Basie made a tune called 9:20 Special. I guess that was on the dial, the 920 Club. Man, I heard everything there, ever since I can remember.

TP:   Were you always paying attention to the drummers? Were the drums coming through on the radio?

ROY:   Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a drummer. So I was listening to the drummer… Everything. Listening to the singers and listening to the lyrics. I learned lyrics early, a lot of the old songs. I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I wanted to play drums…

TP:   Well, 9:20 Special was about 1937 or 1938, so you would have been 12 or 13.

ROY:   Yes.

TP:   And you were interested in the drums before that.

ROY:   Yes, I had that rhythm. I was a natural drummer, as they said in those days. That was a term they would use when somebody just woke up and started playing.

TP:   How many siblings did you have?

ROY:   Three brothers. Two older and one younger.

TP:   One of them studied music though he wasn’t a professional musician.

ROY:   That was Douglas, the oldest one.

TP:   Did you have a brother who was a minister.

ROY:   Yes, Michael, the one who’s younger than me. He’s still in Boston.

TP:   Was it a family where music was part of the network of family relations, part of the overall thing?

ROY:   No, not necessarily. Because my mother was very religious. She didn’t like the idea of me playing all my records, especially on Sundays. And I played them all the time—Sunday, Monday and Tuesday!

TP:   Branford Marsalis told me that when he was in Boston, he met your brother who admonished him not to go to New York…

ROY:   Really? I haven’t heard that. I’ve heard Branford say many times that my brother told him not to play jazz. But my brother doesn’t seem to remember that. I mentioned that to him. Branford must have mentioned it to quite a few people.

TP:   Was it just an accident that you became a professional musician? Do you ever remember wanting to be anything else?

ROY:   I never remember wanting to be anything else. When I was a teenager, I started playing gigs, making a few dollars…

TP:   A guy named Tom Brown, a Charlie Christian style guitarist.

ROY:   You remember that. Yeah. Tom Brown, and a pianist who played with us also named Hillary Rose. He probably was the older one. He could hustle and get gigs. Naturally, all pianists can always get gigs—trios or solo or whatever. So I was working with them when I was pretty young. I think the first gig I got paid for was with those guys.

TP:   Who were your models? You mentioned as your idol. You dug Cozy Cole, too…

ROY:   You’ve read it! Cozy Cole. I met Shadow Wilson a little later. J.C. Heard. Jimmy Crawford I didn’t meet until I got to New York. He was the drummer with Lunceford. I didn’t really get close to Sonny Greer until I was much older, here in New York, when we got very close.

TP:   What I’m aiming towards is how you started to form your approach to the drums? Was it a meticulous, analytical thing? Was it more of a flow?

ROY:   I would think it’s more like a flow. I was naturally listening to Art Blakey a lot when I was a teenager…

TP:   You knew him, too.

ROY:   Oh, yeah. We got very close. He used to call me his son back when he was in Boston. He came to Boston with Fletcher Henderson a couple of times. One time he came with Fletcher and stayed there. Then, naturally, I was listening to Max when he first recorded. I think he recorded with Coleman Hawkins; that was the first recording I heard him. Then, BOOM!

TP:   Did the things they were doing seem logical to you as a young guy? Did it make sense to hear the way the drummer on Woody ‘N You was approaching things, or on Bird and Dizzy’s first records? Did it immediately make sense to you?

ROY:   It made sense to me right away.

TP:   Why did it make sense?

ROY:   I don’t know. Being the age… I’m a year younger than Max, and I never did know Art Blakey’s age until… What year was it?

TP:   I believe it was 1919.

ROY:   He would have been 87. A year younger than Hank Jones.

TP:   He’s six years older than you.

ROY:   That last question you asked was a hard one.

TP:   But I think it’s an important question.

ROY:   Ask me the question again.

TP:   As a young guy and a student of the drums from very young, and also because of the functions and requirements of the gigs you were playing, you had a certain way of hearing what you were supposed to do. It was supposed to swing and make people move their feet, and probably not be too loud so the guys… Drummers should be felt and not heard type of thing.

ROY:   Oh, you read that. I’ve said that many times.

TP:   You were coming up within that. A lot of drummers of your generation felt the drums were being muffled, held back, and the idea is that many things that happened after WW-2 were a flowering of rhythmic self-expression, unchaining the drums. Since you’re so articulate about what you do and your memory is so strong, and since what you’re doing now is so Right-Now  and not Then, I think it would be an interesting launching point to bring you back to your mindset at 16-17-18.

ROY:   That’s a hard one. But, what they told me I did have was… The word “swing” had somewhat of a different meaning during that period. That was really the feel that you had. That’s the word that would be used today, would be the feel — “you’ve got a good feel.” But to swing mainly was with that right hand, BING-DING-DA-DING, DING-DA-DING, and whatever I had, it was really loved by most of the older musicians at that time, such as Lester Young… I played a little with Coleman Hawkins. I used to play a lot with Pete Brown, the alto player, when he would come to Boston. The guy who used to help me with my drums, Scottie, he often said that Sweets Edison said, “Roy Haynes is the swingingest motha…” Heh-heh.  He was with Basie, and Basie was known as the King of Swing. Well, they called Benny Goodman the King of Swing, but then they nicknamed Basie the Jump King of Swing. They called Benny Goodman the King of Swing, but we know… But that thing is what a lot of the older players liked in my style of playing, and I know that’s what gave me a lot of gigs. I joined Prez in 1947…

TP:   That was two years after you came to New York.

ROY:   Yeah. I came to New York in 1945. I joined him at the same place I joined Luis Russell, the Savoy Ballroom, where people were dancing while you’re playing. There were always two bands there. Prez loved it. After a couple of tunes… I’ve said this many times; I won’t even repeat it now…

TP:   He said, “Prez, you sure are swinging.”

ROY:   Exactly.

TP:   But he didn’t say “give me a little titty-boom.”

ROY:   He didn’t say that, no. That’s the way he would talk anyhow. But he didn’t suggest anything to me, what to do. Because I knew what he wanted, and I was still dancing with my left hand and my right foot back and forth, and I was giving him that.

TP:   Could you have given him that in 1943 or 1944?

ROY:   Of course.

TP:   So your right hand conception of the cymbal was together when you were 17-18 years old.

ROY:   I had that, yeah.

TP:   Did Art Blakey ever talk to you about drumming, aesthetics, dos and donts?

ROY:   Art Blakey always used to tell me about…what’s that drummer’s name from Chicago…

TP:   Not Ike Day.

ROY:   Ike Day!  Art Blakey was telling me about Ike Day when I was very young. You know, sometimes you’d come and play your heart out, but there was always someone else telling you it was great, but you should hear BUM-BUM-BUM.

TP:   He was the baddest of them all, according to some people.

ROY:   He was something!

TP:   did you hear him?

ROY:   Yes. Oh, I met him. In fact, when I was with Sarah, playing the Chicago Theater, he was in the hospital then, and he snuck out of the hospital with his hospital clothes on to come backstage to see me—to ask for something. Heh-heh. When I replaced Max with Charlie Parker, which was 1949… Well, you heard that story, too. I was playing with Miles, and Miles used to say that Charlie Parker stole his drummer. So I was still playing with Charlie Parker at the Three Deuces, and they always had two groups there. After Max left… I never knew until maybe a few years ago that Max wanted to come back. He said, “Roy Haynes took my gig and never gave it back to me.” I said, “oh, I was supposed to?” Anyhow, he comes into the Three Deuces with Bud Powell, and I was playing with Bird. I had his original gig. In the meantime, Slim Gaillard was coming into Bop City from California, and he had Ike Day. Maybe before he opened, the night before (he got in a day early), he came to the Three Deuces. Max was playing with Bud Powell and I’m playing with Charlie Parker. Max had him to sit in, and Max grabbed me by the arm and said, “Okay, we’re both going to sit down and check him out.” I’ll never forget that. It was pretty wild. Everybody loved this guy, man.

TP:   Can you give some appoximation of his style?

ROY:   He could swing. All the drummers from the West… I’m not talking about the West Coast; I’m talking about Chicago or Kansas City. Most of those drummers could really swing. They had that thing. I wish I could have heard him more, or if he had recorded then I could listen to that and explain his playing. But he was a younger guy from Chicago who was very hip.

TP:   Was he breaking the rhythm?

ROY:   That I don’t remember exactly. But I’m sure he was playing little things.

TP:   Someone told me that someone hired Ike Day similar to what Buddy Rich did with Philly Joe Jones… Maybe Woody Herman.

ROY:   Could have been.

TP:    But Art Blakey was telling you to check out Ike Day. I’m sorry to keep harping on the ‘40s…

ROY:   No problem.

TP:   But it’s such a direct connection… If the drum vocabulary is a language, then you have a direct connection in a way that hardly anyone else has now, to the way people were speaking on the drums in the ‘30s and ‘40s, when the function was very different. The way we think about drummers in the ‘30s has to be very different than what it actually was because of recording technology. When you were at a ballroom, it had to be a different thing to hear Jo Jones and Jimmy Crawford right there than on one of their three-minute records.

ROY:   But that swing thing was the main thing.

TP:   Did drummers take liberties with the drums, with the timbres within the kit…

ROY:   Some drummers did. A good guy for that was Sonny Greer. He had a kit. He had the chimes and the timpanis and wooden blocks. Chick Webb had temple blocks, three or four or five of them.

TP:   So some of these guys were playing a whole percussion orchestra behind their kit in real time.

ROY:   Oh, yeah.

TP:   When did people start to play tempos at the velocities that became more common after World War 2?

ROY:   Fast tempos? That was happening at the jam sessions like Minton’s. I started going there in ‘45 when I got to New York. It was happening moreso here in New York than on a lot of recordings way back, until Bud Powell and Bird… Heh-heh.

TP:   Those ‘45 recordings like Shaw Nuff and Ko-Ko. Between ‘45, when you were with Luis Russell, and ‘47, when you joined Prez, I guess you probably on the road a lot. Did your conception of the drums change then? Did playing in the big bands affect your ideas vis-a-vis combos?

ROY:   When I joined Luis Russell, I didn’t realize that I had changed the sound of the band. Nobody told me. But they told my brother. That’s when I realized. I said wow. I didn’t realize I was that hip. But I guess my concept that I was hearing and had in mind was there. But the big band, I did two years. That was great. But the slick thing to do now, with this new music, so-called bebop, was to play with small groups. So I wanted to leave the band and go down to 52nd Street, which is what I did anyhow.

TP:   Did you set out deliberately to differentiate yourself from Max and Kenny Clarke? Did it just come out that way?

ROY:   I think it would come out that way rather than deliberately try to do something else. Max Roach often told he heard something and he thought it was him! Unless he was just joking. But my notes on the cymbal were different than his. That part was different anyhow. So automatically it just happened.

TP:   You mean the way you struck the cymbal was different?

ROY:   The space that I would leave. How I would do it. Yeah, that was me.

TP:   In this interview with Josh, he spoke about how, when he was playing with you, he noticed he was getting the sound he associates with bebop drumming, and you had your foot on the hi-hat but weren’t actually hitting the hi-hat, so you were getting the groove and the sound without actually using the techniques more commonly associated with this style of drumming. You were impressed that he caught this, and you quoted Miles Davis’ comment about “itchin’.”

ROY:   See, that’s hard. Like, IT-CHY-BOOM, IT-CHY-BOOK, IT-CHY, ITCHY-BOOM, ITCHY-BOOM, ITCHY-BANG, ITCHY-BANG. ITCHY, ITCHY-ING, DING-DA-DING, DING-DA-DING. What word did Prez use now?

TP:   Titty-boom.

ROY:   TITTY-BOOM, TITTY-BOOM. It’s still BOP-BA-DAH, BOP-BA-DAH, BOP-BA-DAH, ITCHY… There’s a certain thing I was doing that Miles said, “Well, Haynes is itchin’.” It was just a term. The hi-hat was not the itchin’ part of it. It was still the right hand. Everybody was playing 2 and 4 on the hi-hat. I can’t even do that if I tried. I can’t even keep that up. So now, sometimes I just take my foot off, put my foot on the side, and play it when I want to play it, dress it up periodically, rather than keep a continuous beat on the hi-hat. Which I didn’t do too much. Sometimes playing with certain people, they needed that or they wanted that. Some records I know I did that. At Rudy Van Gelder’s, he would always put a mike at the hi-hat. So that would be your highlight or something. Like Arthur Taylor… Jackie McLean said, “I wanted to take the hi-hat away from Arthur Taylor,” because it was continuously on 2 and 4.

TP:   So it would sort of put a grid on the music.

ROY:   Yeah.

TP:   You didn’t do it, so it created more of a flow.

ROY:   Exactly.

TP:   When I talk to Dave Holland about you, or Pat Metheny’s quote, they say “the father of modern drumming.” That’s a generalized statement. What exactly does that mean? Well, maybe it means that you’re able to sustain the swing and the groove and play in a manner apropos to all these different situations. So maybe that predisposition of yours allowed you to be so relevant to all those situations, that you didn’t fall into those patterns.

ROY:   Yeah, it could be. That’s a good way of putting it. I like it to flow. I don’t always like to… I don’t want to call the saxophone player’s name, but he’d be clapping his hands on 2 and 4. Sometimes that’s within us anyhow. I just dance around that, but that’s there. But some people want to hear that.

TP:   The back…

ROY:   The backbeat. Is that what you started to say? If you play with the right people… That’s one thing I liked about playing with people… Miles was hip to that, too. Gene Ammons. When I was with Luis Russell, playing the Regal Theater in Chicago, I used to walk from the Regal down the street to a place called the Club Congo. I couldn’t wait to sit in with Gene Ammons. I’m talking about 1946. He could play with a drummer. Coltrane had that thing. Prez, naturally, had it. Some people are depending on you to give them that. But I like to play with people who have that within them. Every now and then we can state it, but we just dance around it.

TP:   Bird was like that, too, of course.

ROY:   Well, Bird! It’s sort of a freer way.

TP:  On Billy Hart’s website, there’s a long interview with Billy Hart, where he says that you and Max were listening to a lot of timbales players, that you were playing like a timbalero. Was Afro-Cuban music important? Were those drummers important to you?

ROY:    I’ve mentioned that many times, especially in the last few years. Some of my solos were into that timbale-type thing. In fact, Mongo and Willie Bobo talked about that many years ago, my concept on my solos. It was there, definitely.

TP:   Was that innate? Did you go to the Palladium to hear those bands…

ROY:   Man, you could just walk from Birdland on Broadway to the Palladium outside and hear the drums playing. Birdland had Machito’s band there a lot, or Tito, and I was checking it out a lot. I was into that. I loved that.

TP:   Would you sit in or guest with those bands?

ROY:   Yes. I played at the Village Gate on Monday nights.

TP:   I suppose you elaborated those rhythms and approach more specifically in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, when you had the Hip Ensemble.

ROY:   Yes. I used a conga player most of the time anyhow then. I did a lot of that.

TP:   But for a lot of people, I think, what you were doing in that band is a kind of bridge into using eighth rhythms and so on that entered the general vocabulary. I remember once you came up to WKCR with Graham, and we were playing Anthropology from an aircheck at Birdland, and the tempo, as Arthur Taylor liked to say, was completely supersonic. Graham asked you how you did it! So we have you doing things with Bud Powell and Bird. Playing the function with Sarah. This complex music with Eric Dolphy and Andrew Hill. This incredibly intense energy music with Coltrane. At the same time, you’re playing with Stan Getz, which is another thing, and Chick Corea, which is something, and the Hip Ensemble, where you’re bridging the dance rhythms of the ‘60s and ‘70s and transmuting it into your own thing. There are all these different flavors, but always you…

In the ‘50s, when recording quality gets better and people can really start hearing what drummers are doing on records, you’re with Sarah… What happens between in terms of your ideas between 1953 and 1959? You come off the road when you start having kids and moving to another phase. Are you thinking differently during those years about what the drummer can do?

ROY:   When you say the ‘50s, it could have been… I left Sarah in ‘57 or ‘58. Sarah would take off maybe four weeks during the summer, and when she did that in ‘57, I did something with Sonny Rollins. Other than that, I didn’t do too much.

TP:   The Sound of Sonny.

ROY:   But I made a gig with him in between. But he fired all of us.

TP:   Sonny Rollins fired you?

ROY:   Yes, Sonny Rollins fired me. He fired the whole band. That’s when Pete LaRoca first came on the scene. He hired Pete LaRoca.

TP:   Did he ever tell you why?

ROY:   He fired the whole band, man. It was Kenny Dorham. We rehearsed with Sonny. He got a studio and he rehearsed. This was the first time he went in the Vanguard in a long time. When we got to the Vanguard, he didn’t play anything he’d rehearsed. I could analyze on it more, but I don’t want to… He fired everybody, man.

TP:   but to fire YOU is different than firing some people.

ROY:   Yeah, but… Heh-heh. Then we did a record after that… [“Grand Street”] Hank was supposed to make The Sound of Sonny, but something went down and Hank left, something went down with him and Percy, and Sonny Clark did it. Sensitive as Sonny is now, I don’t want to hurt his feelings. But he was uncomfortable. When he came back, he was fighting musically what was going on. He played the Jazz Gallery. It was his first gig after The Bridge. People were waiting, they didn’t have no airconditioning… He came in there, man, and… He’s a nervous wreck, and he can’t stand too much against him. He used to come to my house when he was with Lester Young. I didn’t even know he played a fuckin’ instrument! Sonny Rollins sometime when I lived on 149th Street. He’d come there with a friend of ours who wanted to be a pianist, but never was. So I knew him way back.

TP:   He was probably in high school. He lived there.

ROY:   I know he lived there. He was probably out of school, but I didn’t know him that long. I was playing with Prez when he came to my house.

TP:   He said Monk gave him his first gig in 1947-1948 at Club Baron.

ROY:   Monk was hiring on all those kind of gigs.

TP:   When did you first work with Monk? Not until the Five Spot thing, or before that?
ROY:   We may have played a hit someplace before that. I don’t remember where it was exactly.

TP:   Let me do what a lot of people do and ask you to speak spontaneously about some of the people you played with. Let’s start with Monk.

ROY:   Monk. Man, that was something special to be around. Not on the bandstand even. Just to be around this guy. It was a trip. I loved every moment of it, man. The two most original people I ever met that I can remember is Lester Young and Thelonious Monk.

TP:   How so?

ROY:   The way they talk. What they talk about. How they describe things. They were just original. Lester had a lyric… Oh, man. Two years with this guy. I laughed.  It was enjoyable. $100 a week for two years. And they took out tax. I go ninety-something dollars. That didn’t even bother me. I enjoyed every moment. With Monk, at the Five Spot, it was $100 a week. Shit. But to go to work every night… Leroi Jones in the audience, a lot of the hippie guys, the poets and… Oh, man! They had a guy who used to make hamburgers. The Five Spot on the Bowery, that was a funky place! And we’d enjoy those hamburgers, man! It was dynamite. But man, those two guys… What can I say?

TP:   How about Bud Powell?

ROY:   That’s a whole different situation, with the mental thing. But there was a period… He lived on St. Nicholas Avenue and 141st Street. He even went off with the big band around that period. We would walk to his house, and he would put on the latest record that he had just recorded (it wasn’t out at the time) with Max and… He also would play his latest compositions. He’d like play a concert for us. That was a great period, too. I’d go over with this same guy who used to go over, named Leonard Montanez, Charlie LoSista… His father was a big man in Harlem. You know, up on Sugar Hill, most of the younger guys, their fathers either were great musicians or something big. We had a lot of that on Sugar Hill. That’s where Sonny Rollins and Arthur Taylor, Kenny Drew, and those guys were from. Most of those guys were younger than me.

TP:   You were already established.

ROY:   Yes. That was a helluva period. A lot of those guys, we’d just go over to Bud’s house, and he would perform. He’d be in his bathrobe, and just like a genius… I’ve said this in many articles. I’d go over to his house, ring the bell, and knock on the door. He’d look at me and say, “Close the door. We don’t want no geniuses in here.” Then he’d open the door back and say, “Come on in, mother…”

TP:   But you’re the drummer on a couple of his best records… By the way, have you ever heard these March 1953 broadcasts from Birdland? The tempos you’re playing are…it’s like a magic carpet, so fast but so smooth… Did you practice those tempos or did they just happen?

ROY:   Good question. I’ve been saying for the last 10-15 years, I’m like a doctor on the gig. I’m practicing then. That’s my feeling.

TP:   So even back then, it was a total gig thing… You told Joshua that you weren’t a rudimental drummer at all.

ROY:   That’s coming up a lot, man. We did this drum roundtable thing a few weeks ago for a German magazine and Modern Drummer, and that came up. I may have brought it up, the rudiments shit.

TP:   Well, you said Herbie Wright taught you Mamma-Daddy and the roll…

ROY:   That’s the first time I ever heard Mamma-Daddy. I never even got that shit good. That’s the first time I heard the term.

TP:   Art Blakey had the story that he played for Chick Webb, and Chick Webb cursed him out because his rolls were sad, and told him to practice, and hence he developed his press roll. Perhaps some embellishment, but a little truth to it, too.

ROY:   Ha-ha! Knowing Art Blakey. I still never got into the rudiments. But if I did, I probably would just sound like everybody else—maybe. Know what I mean? So to keep some interest… I did a thing they call Drum Festival in Montreal. A lot of fuckin’ drummers there. Now, if I played rudiments and all that shit, they’re hip to that shit. So I come up with the Roy Haynes shit, man, and it blew all of their minds, man.

TP:   You also told me that you’re sort of tap dancing when you play drums, that’s what you’re visualizing.

ROY:   Well, some of the stuff. I get into that period. I can shift gears. I can go into another gear. Sometimes I’ve got to go into a gear where people are not aware that I can go into it.

TP:   What sort of gear might that be?

ROY:   Well, the latest one. Hippidy Hop.

TP:   I was just listening to that this morning?

ROY:   [GETS UP] I got to get up for that one! They played it at the Roundtable thing. That’s what they closed with. Man, that shit… They had me fuckin’ screaming. I’m not a guy who practices, so I can’t say I practiced that. Sometimes I come min, and if I feel it… Man, I listened to that shit. Hippidy-fuckin’-hop. And there’s two segments. I don’t know which segments they played at the drum thing. I said, “Man, I’m going to learn that shit.” But I’ll never probably be able to play it again. THAT shit…

TP:   You have another solo piece, Shades of Senegal

ROY:   Oh, yeah, I used to do Shades of Senegali. I recorded that a few times.
TP:   But those solo drums things, is it just a completely spontaneous thing?

ROY: Hippidy Hop, yeah, that’s a feeling I had at that moment, that time. Plus, something to make me feel good about it, they nominated it for a fuckin’ Grammy, man! Somebody’s checkin’… To get into that… There’s really no theme… Shades of Senegal has a melodic theme. This was just some school…

TP:   You used to have that Snap-Crackle tune, that you recorded on Out of the Afternoon and on a direct to disk thing with Flanagan.

ROY:   Tommy says “Roy Haynes” on both of those, though.

TP:   What’s your attitude to drum solos? Were you soloing a lot in the ‘40s and ‘50s?

ROY:   Well, with Luis Russell I had a spot where I would do a drum feature.

TP:   Would it be spontaneous?

ROY:   Well, I probably would have a theme in mind then.

TP:   Was it very different than what what you did on Snap Crackle 18 years later.

ROY:   Snap Crackle doesn’t have a lot of drumming on it. It’s a minor blues, 12 bar.

TP:   Were you doing things with that sort of touch and attack, that kind of crisp thing, with Luis Russell…

ROY:   No.

TP:   Were you tuning your drums differently then?

ROY:   I probably was. With Luis Russell I had Slingerland drums. It was a whole different thing, a whole different period. I went with Ludwig when I was with Lester Young.

TP:   How were they different?

ROY:   I was much younger, in my twenties. I don’t know if I spent a lot of time tuning the drums, even though I had certain things in my head and my mind, how I wanted them to sound. In fact, somebody gave me a record, in London I think…or I bought a record I was on with Luis Russell’s band. I had it on a CD. Moving, I lost a lot of things; I know it’s in here someplace. My grandson and I listened to it. I played probably a 4-bar break in there. I said, “Wow.” Go back to the memories of that period and that time, that approach. I probably was still more into Art Blakey. At least that’s the feeling I got from it.

TP:   Did Art have a stylistic influence on you early on?

ROY:   Yeah, he had an influence, but not that much. The big band, the way he would build into a phrase or something; some rhythm things, the way he would build, go into it. I got a lot of that from listening to him. We were very close. I used to hang out with him all the time. When he was with the big band, they used to play up in Harlem with Billy Eckstine’s band, I’d go hang out with him for the rest of the night.

TP:   That was the master of the hang.

ROY:   Oh, man. The last few times I saw him, I had to sneak away from him. When he was talking to a lady, that’s when I’d sneak away.

TP:   You spoke to me once about how the dimensions of your drumkit were different. The bass drum was bigger, and so on…

ROY:   They didn’t even make small ones. I had a 26″ bass drum, I think, when I was with Luis Russell. I think it was a 26″. That was supposedly small compared to a 28″. Coming up, 28″ was the fashionable thing with the old-timers. I was a younger guy then. So when I got a 26″… I went from a 26″ to a… I got one of the first 20s when I was with Lester Young, I think.

TP:   So the size of the drumkit got smaller and more streamlined, in some ways?

ROY:   Well, it got smaller, because I didn’t have no automobile when I was with Lester Young, so I was on the subway sometimes going downtown with just a snare drum and a bass drum, with your traps and the rest of that stuff.

TP:   You’d be carrying all your stuff.

ROY:   Or taxi. You could get a taxi. But sometimes you’d play those gigs, man, all the girls were gone by the time you’d take your drums. I didn’t have a roadie. With the big band I had a roadie, but when I was with Prez, I had to take them down most of the time myself.

TP:   But by 1960, for instance, when you’re making Far Cry with Eric Dolphy or with Coltrane, did the dimensions of the drums, the technology of the drums have anything to do with your approach or the flow you were projecting?

ROY:   Well, I started tuning the drums a lot. Don’t ask me what notes I was tuning them to. I would search for different melodic sounds, notes that I thought would fit what I was trying to do in the music that we were playing during that period. 18″ bass drums started getting popular during that period. In fact, I had a small sports car, and I put a certain rim on there so it would fit into the trunk on some of those Firebirds I had.

TP:   So it was purely functional.

ROY:   Yeah. The hoops on a bass drum, most of them are wooden, and they’re a couple of inches. I said that in order to save about an inch, I would get a metal hoop which is maybe an inch, so I would save another inch, and that would fit in my car good. Drummers like Tony Williams would come up and say, “Roy, why do you have that metal hoop on the bass drum?” I said, “It’s only because it fits in my car.” People thought it probably had something to do with the sound, but I was looking for it to fit in my car.

TP:   That makes me want to talk about you as an influence. Elvin Jones was into you. He checked you out microscopically, I’d imagine. There’s a story that he’d meet you at the train station in Detroit?

ROY:   He took me to the train station. Yeah, he checked me out, of course. He said that himself.

TP:   Tony Williams definitely did, and was explicit about it…

ROY:   In fact, Miles asked me that once. He said, “Did Tony say anything about you?” I always wondered why Miles asked me that. He would come by my gigs when I would go to Boston, very early, and sit there, of course. One day I asked him to sit in, and he did a roll. I was impressed right away.

TP:   Sam Rivers told me that Tony could play one tune exactly in the style of Art Blakey, another tune in the style of Max Roach, another like Philly Joe Jones, another in your style… He’d taken everyone apart and put together his own conclusions. But in the early ‘60s, were you checking out Elvin with Coltrane, Tony with Miles?

ROY:   When you say “checking them out,” what do you mean?

TP:   Checking out their styles.

ROY:   I never bought any… Well, I bought Coltrane records. I never bought records to listen to the drummer later on. Maybe when I was very young, I did that. But I would check them out in person as much as I could, of course.

TP:   Did you pick up vocabulary ever from drummers who were influenced by you…

ROY:   When you say vocabulary, you mean stuff to play.

TP:   Stuff to play on the drums.

ROY:   Maybe subconsciously. Intentionally, I can’t think of any incident. But subconsciously, the mind… The mind is something, man. Years ago, I was listening to Max, and he played something, and I said to myself, “I thought of that same thing, too. To myself. I didn’t say it to anybody. But I’m thinking, “Man, I could have thought of that same shit.” But lots of time, you hear somebody do something in a band, and sometimes it gets a little confused in there, and confusing to the next guy, especially a younger guy coming after you who will hear somebody do something that they got from somebody else—someone else was doing it a long time ago, but they heard this person do it, and they think that’s where it originates. A lot of people are quiet about that. Once in a magazine I talked about how drummers would come up to me and tell me that they were influenced by… I’d hear that a lot of times, guys who come up and say that. But then when I read their favorite drummers, I would see some other names. I’ve said that in a magazine. One guy, he didn’t know who it was… I was talking mainly about Joe Morello. But I got a call from a guy in Boston who grew up in my neighborhood, Alan Dawson. Alan thought it was him. I wasn’t talking about him. He told me he thought it was… That’s kind of weird. A lot of people aren’t hip to what Alan… Alan was listening to a lot of stuff that Roy Haynes was doing, but he did it another way. He was more rudimental-sounding.

TP:   Well, he did all those Prestige dates that Don Schlitten produced.

ROY:   Right, he was like a house drummer at Prestige for a minute. But I’m talking about when we were teenagers. Even when I was at a camp that we went to, I had a little wooden drum that I had someone send down to the camp. When it was sent down, he was the first one to check it out. That’s before I had a set of drums, so he probably didn’t have a set of drums at that time.

TP:   When did you get your first set of drums?

ROY:   I bought them piece by piece. There was a store in Boston on Huntington Avenue called Rayburn’s. I think there’s still a Rayburn’s up there. They would have cracked cymbals on sale, new cymbals from the factory with a crack. I didn’t have no money, man. I would buy a little cymbal here, a little… When I had my first gigs, I didn’t even have a hi-hat. There was a trumpet player who used to say to me, “When are you going to get a hi-hat, motherfucker?” In other words, I had to play the ride cymbal like a hi-hat. I was showing that to a drummer. I went over to Birdland when there was a Dixieland band there, and I saw the drummer playing, and I said, “Motherfucker, you reminded me of when I was a kid.” But he had a hi-hat. I can show you how I used to play it maybe before you go.

TP:   Maybe that has something to do…

ROY:   I didn’t have a hi-hat. In other words, I had to use the left hand with a stick in it to say TCHIK-TE-SHHH… Open it up with the thumb. So when I had to make a break, I either had to make a break with one hand or take the hand off the cymbal and make a break and then go back to it. I didn’t have…The trumpet player used to say, “Man, when are you going to get a fuckin’ hi-hat?” I was making $12 a week at that gig.

TP:   How much did cymbals cost in the ‘30s?

ROY:   I don’t even remember. Probably $20-$30. So on my first gigs, I didn’t even have a complete set of drums. Then I bought one piece… That piece went to that same summer camp… Oh, that’s where I bought my bass drum. The same summer camp that I used to go to as a kid, and the money I made there, I bought a bass drum. There was a war on, and I wanted it to be pearl, but all they were selling was wooden shit then, on account of the war. I took some imitation leather and covered the heads and everything to try to make it look slick! That same drum was on my first gig when I played with Frankie Newton in Boston at the Ken Club. That’s where I met George Wein, too. Warrington and Fremont Street, a downstairs joint. Cozy Cole came in one night, when he was playing with Cab Calloway, and I had him sit in. Somebody took a photo. I have my initials on the bass drum as big as you could see! That same little wooden bass drum, the snare drum that someone gave me somewhere—probably stole it or some shit.

TP:   Let me jump in time. When did you first meet Coltrane?

ROY:   It was probably was when I was with Bird, of course. I don’t really remember. He was no big name. All those guys would come to the club. Jimmy Heath, all them guys in Philly. He was among all of those guys, so he wasn’t outstanding that I would remember him. But I remember seeing him. He used to drink a lot during that period. In fact, at one period we were kind of messing with the same girl. I talked about that, too. I probably met him in the late ‘40s-early ‘50s, when I was with Bird.

TP:   when did you start to notice him as a musician?

ROY:   I started to notice him when he was with Miles.

TP:   When you did those records, you were up on what he was doing, I guess. Were you up on the developments of the late ‘50s, Coltrane’s evolution and Ornette, and were you interested?

ROY:   Ornette came to the Five Spot while I was there. I was still around. In fact, we had jammed way early, at the Five Spot. I think only one set that I can remember during that same period.

TP:   What did it seem like to you in 1959?

ROY:   I could still hear Bird. He had that plastic horn. I’d been with Bird when he had the plastic horn, so right away I knew that he was into Bird, regardless of whether he’d admit or not, and in some of the lines of his tunes I heard a little Bird anyhow. Abstracted. I dug it. I dug his audiences. His audiences were so sincere, I could go down there, yeah.

TP:   So it hit you.

ROY:   Yeah.

TP:   When you heard him or Eric Dolphy…

ROY:   Well, I knew Eric before Eric played like that. I knew Eric when he was playing all Bird licks. We knew each other a long before we recorded.

TP:   You said he used to come to your house.

ROY:   He used to come to my house, and when he was in California I couldn’t get rid of the guy. When I was in my last days with Sarah, or on a big show playing with Bud Powell, Eric was always there. He’d hang out with me… We were close until he died.

TP:   But it sounds like the situations you were placed in during the ‘60s with Dolphy and with Coltrane, were very intellectually stimulating for you.

ROY:   That was a very stimulating period. For me, I was more excited about Coltrane than Eric. Eric was a young guy who was searching. Coltrane was searching, too, but he was searching DIFFERENT. I didn’t rate Eric with Coltrane. Maybe some people did.

TP:   Well, Coltrane was only a year younger than you.

ROY:   I know. But he was a late bloomer. Know what I mean?

TP:   And you were not a late bloomer!

ROY:   Well, a lot of people were not hip to me because I didn’t… Mine was laid back for a long time. Maybe that’s why I’m so anxious to play. People would describe Roy Haynes, like maybe Billy Taylor would say, “A musician’s drummer” or “a drummer’s drummer.” A lot of drummers all over the world were always hip to Roy Haynes. I know guys who’d come on the boat from England…traveled on the boat and came to New York to buy some Roy Haynes drumsticks. Ludwig made a Roy Haynes drumstick even before Slingerland. So I had all that stuff a long time ago. But now what is so great, like, the world can learn more about me, and that’s been happening in my travels. Ladies in the audience sometimes say to me “I never heard a drum solo like that” or all those type of things. I love it, man. That’s very inspiring to me.

TP:   Let’s talk about some of the Baby Boom musicians you… I gather you met Chick Corea with Stan Getz and got involved with his projects later.

ROY:   I met him before Stan Getz. I knew his father played an instrument, too. His father knew me when I was the youngster around Boston.

TP:   The record Now He Sings, Now He Sobs was very influential on a lot of pianists. As for that matter, is Reaching Fourth…

ROY:   That’s a quiet one. A lot of people aren’t hip to that.

TP:   Both are core records for any pianist under 50.

ROY:   Only a few people are hip to the one with McCoy.

TP:   Well, all the pianists know it. Let me put the question another way. When you were doing these things in the ‘60s… I don’t know how much you would have been gigging with Chick. But was there a sense that you were doing something new? I’d imagine that back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, there had to be the sense that you were in the artistic vanguard. Was there also that sense in the ‘60s through your associations, and was that important to you?

ROY:   That was important in a lot of ways. Not only the music, but the scene. You could just feel everything changing. And to be around and feel it… The audiences were different. That’s when people started wearing their hair long. Everything!
TP:   You said you couldn’t wait to get out of the suit.

ROY:   I was so goddamn glad, man, to get out of it, to have a tie on…

TP:   Those Andover Clothing stores…

ROY:   I was wearing the slickest shit out, and custom. Me and Miles… George Frazier and I went to the same tailor, the Andover Shop, in Cambridge, Mass.

TP:   You and Miles got out of those suits with a vengeance.

ROY:   Oh, Miles! Well, in the ‘60s he couldn’t wait, man! All that crazy shit. I mentioned Carnaby Street in London. I used to go there and buy shit. I’ve still got shit probably in boxes downstairs that are from Carnaby Street. It don’t fit me now. I got some boots some Carnaby Street. But yeah, it kind of felt like there was some different stuff happening.

TP:   Is it still important to you, that notion of having what you do be…

ROY:   Well, when you talk about those two records, it has to be something that’s important. It’s all over the world, man. All over the world people are talking about that still.

TP:   The one with Chick, Now He Sings…

ROY:   Yeah, that one, man… There’s not a week that someone in the audience doesn’t bring that up.

TP:   It’s a universal landmark for jazz piano players.

ROY:   Yeah. But there are a lot of people who didn’t play piano. Well, Herbie Hancock, that was the first time he heard me playing like that. He just complimented me to death.

TP:   What musicians always mention is the openness of your mind, to be able to place yourself in all these contexts in a very free-thinking way. I know you rarely play as a sideman any more, but you did through the mid ‘90s… Except with Chick, I guess.

ROY:   That’s one of the things that sort of brought me out when I stopped playing with a lot of other people, though, and playing with certain people. Because there are a lot of things that I had in my mind before to do, but I didn’t do it. Some people say, “You changed” or… I don’t agree with that 100%. There may be a different approach to something, but I had all of these things in mind a long time ago, even though I didn’t know where they would fit. So that’s why, doing my own thing, I do what I want to do. Sometimes I may feel over-anxious and overdue, but I know what should be done and how to do it.

Sometimes I take chances. One time I told a guy who was interviewing me, “I’m a gambler.” He didn’t know what I was talking about.” He thought I meant I wanted to go to Las Vegas and gamble.But I’ll go overboard. You talk about playing free or something. That’s part of the beginning of playing free, not playing the hi-hat on 2 and 4 and letting that stuff be loose. You don’t have to play anything in 7/8 or 6/8. It’s all there anyhow. You divide it up and you try to surround yourself with people who are going to understand that, and we take it to the moon, man. We can play the same song all night and make something different happen within it, and you won’t know where we are. When you get that kind of understanding on the bandstand, man, you can lift that. That’s one of the things that Coltrane had. Sometimes I get it with my young groups, and I work on it, and man, it’s the greatest feeling. You talk about eating some good food or having some good sex! It tops all of that.

TP:   It’s up there.

ROY:   It’s up there, when that happens. And when the whole house feels that, and… What’s happening on the bandstand, we’re giving it to each other, and as a group we give it to the audience. The audience gets it and gives it back to us. Man, you can’t beat that.

TP:   A lot of things that people are hearing from you since about 1990, when we start to hear about one record every 18 months or two years… You were thinking about those ideas farther back than when you started playing. Did a lot of those ideas, though, develop when you had the Hip Ensemble? That’s the band that people know less about now (probably because the records are out of print) than some of your other things. Can you discuss that experience a bit. When I was younger, I’d listen to WRVR and Ed Beach, “Roy Haynes and the Hip Ensemble,” and it just seemed very, very hip…

ROY:   Those were some wild days. Wild days. Oh, man, the first band with George Adams and Hannibal, I think the first recording we did was entitled Hip Ensemble. I think some of those are going to come out in this box set that they’re talking about. A lot of stuff is going to be licensed. That’s the big talk these days. There’s some stuff I did with Ray Charles, a big band that I expect to be in there.

TP:   So let’s talk about those years, since it’s pertinent. Those years obviously were a bridge to what you did later, forming the bands with Ralph Moore and David Kikoski…. What sorts of ideas were you thinking about in the ‘70s? Bringing out contemporary dance rhythms…

ROY:   It was some of that. At some points, I recorded with the electric piano, the fender Rhodes… We would travel with the fender Rhodes. The first guy was Carl Schroeder, and I had a guy who went with Miles—Cedric Lawson. He was a very talented guy. A little poco loco. A lot of the guys were poco loco in those bands. That was a very wild period. We couldn’t do… Everything had to be…

TP:   You mean drugs.

ROY:   Oh, yeah, man. The first gig with the Hip Ensemble was at a place in New York called The Scene on the West Side. This was an Acid Rock joint. How I got the gig in there, I had to accompany this singer who was singing Beatles songs. I forget his name. Jimi Hendrix came to see us there. He didn’t play. He came up on the stage with us. All of those guys were hanging around the scene. But opening night… I rehearsed at Chick Corea’s house. Chick was living in Queens then; maybe I didn’t have a piano or something at that time. He came down to the club opening night, and he heard the Hip Ensemble. This was before he started Return to Forever, if I started correctly. He said, “Roy Haynes, you really can form a band.” He took that out early. We stayed there for two weeks. A lot of people don’t know… Acid Rock. We played some Funk, too. I think I needed some drumsticks, and there always was another band there, and I was using the other drummer’s drumsticks. Man, I said, “Oh, this is a secret; you can really play slick with these big baseball bat drumsticks. I’m playing loud, I’ve got an electric… We had a regular piano in there, but we had an electric bass. My bass player at the time was… We had a couple of different guys.

TP:   Did you use a bigger kit?

ROY:   I must have had an 18″ bass drum. Oh, I had a lot of drums then, I think; I had a lot of melodic drums, yes.

TP:   Is this before Billy Cobham started bringing out all those drums? Do you think those guys were checking out the Hip Ensemble?

ROY:   You named one. He was, man. Billy Cobham. In fact, he’d come to my house to get something. Chick came to get a cymbal, the flat ride that he used when he started Return to Forever, that all the drummers had to play when he played acoustic piano. I don’t know if you’re aware of that.

TP:   No, I wasn’t.

ROY:   Well, that was the case.

TP:   Were you incorporating new rhythms, experimenting with new rhythms?

ROY:   Experimenting, of course. Definitely.

TP:   What sort of new rhythms.

ROY:   I was doing a lot of stuff in 7/8. I had a group before the Hip Ensemble at Slugs with Wayne Shorter. I had Cecil McBee and the pianist was…he died. Wayne talks about it in his book. That was still in the ‘60s, and a lot of crazy stuff was happening. They had sawdust on the floor at Slugs.

TP:   Do you think a lot of the things you were experimenting with in the Hip Ensemble in the ‘70s then became part of the Roy Haynes style that we hear in the last twenty years?

ROY:   Maybe some of it. None that I can think of offhand.

TP:   The attack. Playing harder…

ROY:   If I want to turn it up a bit, yeah. In that period, it was fashionable to put your cymbals high in the air and all that stuff. I got ‘em down, where I can talk to them a little more.

TP:   It’s fair to say that the Hip Ensemble had a lot to do with bridging you…

ROY:   The Hip Ensemble had something to do with it. I don’t know if it was a lot. Maybe. Things like that I don’t really…

TP:   Of course. But if you have any ideas.

ROY:   Well, the Hip Ensemble was very important.

TP:   Why was it important?

ROY:   Well, for those reasons. Sometimes I don’t know why or how it was important. But it was. It was important. We were doing that stuff before it really was that popular! I did something maybe a little after the Hip Ensemble that was being played on rock stations only—Thank You, Thank You. George Cables was on it.

TP:   Everyone knows that in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the jazz market had declined a lot. How much of your doing that had to do with just needing the work, and how much had to do with your actual interest?

ROY:   I don’t think I did it to get jobs. Maybe I did, and didn’t realize it. Because I could get gigs. I was known for getting gigs. Whether it was the Hip Ensemble… Maybe I felt that that’s the direction I want to go at the time. I want to express that feeling. Sometimes I don’t know why I do things. But I know every now and then that word comes up, the Hip Ensemble, and somebody says it with some feeling, so I think there must have been something to it.

TP:   Well, it was the greatest name for a group. I mean, it’s the HIP Ensemble.

ROY:   [LAUGHS] One time a guy wrote about it, when the record first came out. He started out saying, “Being hip was always one of Roy Haynes’ problems.” He probably meant it as a compliment—I hope!”

TP:   Do you feel that doing dates like Question and Answer helped bring your name out… In other words, that advocacy of you by younger musicians…

ROY:   Well, we did Question and Answer with Pat Metheny anyhow. That was the title of a CD. I heard something many years ago. I used to play a place in New Jersey called Gulliver’s. It was during the period before they started charging per show. It might have been after the Hip Ensemble; the Hip Ensemble wasn’t working in there. I was getting younger audiences, so they weren’t drinking a lot. They were going outside between shows and doing whatever they wanted to do. They weren’t drinking. And late at night, a lot of the “boys,” so to speak, as they were called, would come in and they wouldn’t have no place to sit because all these young people were staying and not drinking. I took that as a compliment. I’m getting these younger audiences. I had to use it. I kept doing certain things, and people started mentioning it. “Roy, I noticed something; you’ve really drawn a young audience.” And it’s grown. If I play Question and Answer now, somebody can relate to that in the audience, regardless of whether they know the name of the tune or if they realize it’s a Pat Metheny tune. Some do and some don’t. Also, I get some older people who remember me and want to check me out. So it’s an interesting mix when you come to some of my performances, to see the people. So I can’t answer that, but maybe that’s why.

TP:   Well, that’s a good answer. This brings me to another point, which is the way you set up sets and the repertoire you use, which touches on all of your associations, and brings them into real time, as it were.

ROY:   There you go.

TP:   Something from Prez, something from Bird, something from Monk, something from Sarah, something from Getz, something from Chick, something from Metheny, something from Coltrane, something from Oliver Nelson.

ROY:   Then I’ll hook up and play Hippity Hop.

TP:   Or things like Praise. But how did you evolve that strategy, as it were? Was it a strategy?

ROY:   I think you could use the term “strategy.” It’s what I’m feeling. I had a lady in Chicago once, who wasn’t particularly young… I don’t know her age. But I was standing in the lobby as the people were coming out, and she stopped and told me how she enjoyed the music and how it reminded her of the four seasons. I took it as a compliment. Not the group the Four Seasons… The spring, summer, fall, winter.

TP:   You took her on a trip.

ROY:   Yeah, evidently. So that’s kind of hip. You say, “Wow, she’s getting all this…” She happened to be an actress. That’s what she got from it. You know what she said then? She said, “How are you going to the airport?” I was leaving the next day. She said, “I’ll send a limousine for you.” Now I can’t get rid of her. She shows up, sends limousines… Something is working.

TP:   WBGO is on. Do you keep your ears open to what a lot of the younger drummers are doing?

ROY:   I always listen. There are so many damn drummers! There’s a lot of drummers out there. A lot of musicians. But there are a lot of drummers. I mean, more than ever. Every other month I’m hearing about some new guy, and I’m checking him out on a record, and I’m liking them. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference, who’s who. A lot of them sound alike. In the old days, we could usually hear somebody and tell who it is. One thing I read about myself recently, in a couple of bars…

[PAUSE: BATHROOM BREAK]

TP:   You were talking about a couple of things. Younger drummers, they’re good, you can’t always tell them apart…

ROY:   Well, I don’t really want to say that. It’s kind of hard for them now, anyhow, to… They’ve got everything to listen to. Everybody. They can listen to all the old shit, and they can see whoever is left.

TP:   They can also hear all the rhythms from other parts of the world. All that stuff is quite accessible.

ROY:   Yeah. And they’ve got schools, and some of the teachers are players. That wasn’t when I came up. I had a guy, Karl Ludwig, at Boston Conservatory for a little while. All he could say was [SINGS ROLL] BRRPPP, BRRPPP. He was a German guy. I had him for a short while.

TP:   You learned to read music and so on…

ROY:   Well, I was familiar with a lot of the writers, the guys who wrote the music. That was the thing. When you’re a natural drummer, if you didn’t read that good, which I couldn’t anyhow… Now I can’t… I could read better years ago.

TP:   Your eyesight.

ROY:   I’ve got these goddamn spy glasses. But I don’t want to read shit. Somebody can hire me for what I do…

TP:   For your sound.

ROY:   And for my imagination as well. They have to be a writer that’s into me. That’s why Chick and I were so cool, and even Pat.

TP:   Why?

ROY:   Because they’re into what I’m trying to do. I’m not a guy for hire. I know I’m an individual, and my concept is what it is. That’s the way I feel. I’m not a guy on call, that you can call to do this project. No-no. Never was. But worse now. You’d be surprised… Some years ago, a singer would call me up and tell me she’s a singer and wanted me to record with her. I said, “Look, I played with Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Leave me the fuck alone.” Not like that, but almost. That’s not nice to say. They act like they’re doing me a favor. When I was with Sarah Vaughan, man, I was buying a house then. My first house, boom. It’s different now. I don’t want to do that shit now. I did it. Diddit and diddit and diddit. Ever hear that joke? Chick Corea was the first one to tell me the joke. He said, “Max Roach did it, Art Blakey did it, Philly Joe did it, but Roy Haynes did it and did it and did it and did it.” [STOMPS THE TIME] DIDDIT-AND-DIDDIT-AND-DIDDIT-AND-DIDDIT. That’s Roy Haynes’ shit.

TP:   So with your band, you’re referring back to the 60 years of experience every night, really, every set, because you’re playing this material…

ROY:   Sometimes there’s something left out, and it may come to me on the last day, or never come to me during that gig if it’s a weekend or week or whatever. Periodically, something will come to me that I may associate with Louis Armstrong when I played with the big band for a week. I may think of something related to that.

TP:   Or Nat Cole, you played with.

ROY:   Yeah-yeah.

TP:   but more or less, within your set, that’s your orientation. It covers your whole…

ROY:   Yeah.

TP:   How do you work out arrangements in the band? Who does them…

ROY:   I usually do. I usually rearrange, or change, or add something to them. We’ve got one of Chick’s that we do that, I do it a different way… Bud Powell. There are certain little riffs that I handle different than the way he wrote it.

TP:   Another one you do a lot is Green Chimneys.

ROY:   I haven’t been doing that too much. A lot of other people have recorded it.

TP:   It’s on the 2002 record, but Bemsha Swing is on the new record.

ROY:   Yes. See, the new record was not really a record date. It’s not recorded good or anything. A friend of mine is a drummer; he has this place in St. Paul, and he had arranged with the Mayor to have the Roy Haynes weekend. That’s paying off for him. His place has a nice size. And he got the Roy Haynes snare drum and that whole thing.

TP:   Also the group Birds of a Feather is like that.

ROY:   That was mostly Bird, though.

TP:   The point being that you’re always referring to the foundation of your career and your aesthetics. But most people who are 60 and 70 and 80 look at those times…

ROY:   As past tense?

TP:   Or from a certain point, they stop evolving their perspective. Even Max in a lot of ways. It seems like you’re in both places at once. You’re back then…

ROY:   But still now?

TP:   Yes, still now. That’s a hard trick for people. Miles dealt with it by cutting it off in a lot of ways.

ROY:   He cut it off in a slick way. But he still… When he was playing in the mute, he was still playing regular Miles, but he was surrounded by the other shit. He’s playing Miles. That’s where he tricked motherfuckers. He’s dressed like his audience, so to speak — dressed better than them, of course. But he’s playing the same shit.  That’s packaging.

TP:   But you’re not playing the same shit.

ROY:   Well, no. But sometimes I’m still playing a little TITTY-BOOM. It’s the way I’m playing TITTY-BOOM, though. I’m still playing that, DING-DA-DING, DING-DA-DING on some of the stuff, but not everything. It varies. The song says [SINGS] “nothing stays the same…”

TP:   Are you playing 9/4, 7/4, odd meters?

ROY:   Like I tried to explain earlier, all that is within what I’m playing anyhow. I don’t particularly analyze it as such. It’s in my body. It’s in my walk. It’s in my strut. So it comes out. It doesn’t come out evenly number-wise. No, I don’t play like that. I’m not a metronome. I don’t think like that.

TP:   That puts you right in with what people are doing now. It’s the age of people doing songo, the 7/4, and people doing 5 real slick…

ROY:   You don’t breathe the same way. So if I’m going to play it some way that everything has to be metered down to the numbers… [1:43:43] That’s not me. Then I probably wouldn’t be able to keep it up. I wouldn’t be able to keep it up anyhow. Because my mind would start wandering, and I’d be in another meter somewhere else. So that’s the way I play. Just because it may seem fashionable… Although a lot of the youngsters can really do that now, because they’re learning that in the schools. Like I said, we didn’t have those schools earlier. I wouldn’t want to do it like that anyhow. I breathe the way I breathe and sneeze the way I sneeze. I think there can be a poem there!

When I get behind the set, sometimes I don’t know… I’m reminding myself of Adderley. Cannonball. “I don’t know!” I don’t know what direction I’m going to go when I go on stage, and I start… It’s like somebody painting an abstract picture, an abstract painting, and as they go, they add things and they leave certain things out. What I try to do now with the music, I let it stroll. I get out of their way. Sometimes I just get up. That’s part of my thing now. I get up more than I used to, and let them just go, and let it breathe. For the listener, that’s interesting, too. They’re hearing it come in at a certain point.

TP:   That painting notion, do you see… A lot of musicians see rhythms or sounds as colors. Do you?

ROY:   Oh, yes. One guy, Morgan Harris, he’s not living now, who was an artist, and he’d talk about the colors when he’d come to my sets. He’d tell me, “you’re using a lot of blues there.” I’m into the earth tones.

TP:   That’s how you’re dressed now. Khaki shoes, khaki pants, the pattern on the shirt is an earth-tone black-brown-gold.

ROY:   Feels good, man.

* * * *

Roy Haynes on 80th Birthday for Daily News + for Jazz in Greenwich Village Article (March 1, 2005):

TP:   First, you’re coming from Louisville, and you’re about to go where?

HAYNES:   I did tell my audience that I was catching a plane to go back to the U.S., back to the States. They all got offended, I heard. Not all of them, but that’s the message I got. They thought I was calling them hicks, but I do that periodically. I said I was going back to the States. It was just like a humorous thing, and people from the college called my agent. That’s what I heard yesterday. The hotels were screwed up, too. So I talked about it…in a loving way.  They were hurting, I heard, afterwards.

TP:   You’ve always been known to speak your mind.

HAYNES:   Well, I think when you’ve been on the Planet Earth awhile, what’s the sense of being fictitious?

TP:   Do you travel often with this band?

HAYNES:   I travel periodically, yeah.  I don’t know if you’d call it often. This band, we went to Chicago three years in a row. We’ve been doing that Charlie Parker thing in August. And we’ve been to Boston. I think I went to Europe the year before last. Newport with the band one year. We’re going to Boston soon.

TP:   And have you also been working a fair amount with Birds of a Feather?

HAYNES:   Every now and then I do something with Birds Of A Feather. We’ve got a few things coming out. I’ve been trying to do less of it, but I guess they get calls for it.  My agent loves it, naturally, because he gets a pretty good chunk of that.

TP:   But it’s a helluva band. By the end of a week, it’s something to behold.

HAYNES:   Well, we haven’t been doing too many weekly gigs with Birds of a Feather. We did the Blue Note, I think, with the full personnel.

TP:   But Fountain of Youth is the continuation of a format that you’ve been working in for years, the quartet format. Just so I’m clear, it’s going to be Marcus Strickland, Martin Bejerano and John Sullivan. How long have they been playing with you?

HAYNES:   As I just said, we’ve played in Chicago three years in a row. But we don’t go steady, because Marcus does a lot of other things with a lot of people, and Martin had been playing with Russell Malone. So there are times when I don’t see them for quite a while, and then we get back together. It works good that way.  Years ago, I had a band and I kept the same personnel and tried to work steady.  Now I don’t particularly try to. It just happens.

TP:   You had a long time band with Dave Kikoski and Ed Howard…

HAYNES:   Dave has been with me for a lot of stuff. He started with me over 15 years ago.

TP:   Twenty years.

HAYNES:   It could be! I don’t keep track. I don’t try to. But I was one of the first bands he started playing with.

TP:   You’ve been working in that format for over forty years.  Different drummers who’ve led bands have tried to present themselves in different ways. Max Roach was trying to do a certain thing, Art Blakey… What qualities are you trying to bring out in the bands you lead.

HAYNES:   Well, naturally, top quality.  But I’m not always looking for one certain thing. Well, when you use four instead of using five, you cut down on the expense. Also, you don’t have to really rehearse-rehearse. If you have two horns or something out there, naturally, if you want them to be tight, you’ve got to concentrate on that more, and if you can’t always get the same personnel, it’s going to be pretty involved. So with a quartet… Then, it sort of reminds me of the certain days with… Well, Bird was mostly two horns. But with Trane, the times I would fill in, it was one horn. I don’t really plan it. It just seems to happen itself. I don’t have one certain thing in mind.

TP:   For instance, the way you select repertoire, are you selecting pieces to represent different  aspects of your tonal personality? Is it just that a piece appeals to you?

HAYNES:   It’s a combination of the whole thing. Sometimes I play certain tunes that I know the musicians enjoy playing. But after you play them for a while, you’ve got to do different things on them. I’m into the spring-summer-fall-winter… Once a lady told me… When I was playing in Chicago, after I had finished a set, this lady came over to me and said that my music reminded her of the four seasons. I thought of that as a compliment. Because I tried to express a little bit of what was happening in the different parts of the season, and in my life… I am connected with some tunes I love that maybe Bird had played or Trane had played. I like the guys to be comfortable.

TP:   You also play tunes by Chick Corea. Tunes associated with Sarah.

HAYNES:   There you go. A lot of people that I’ve been associated with.

TP:   So is it kind of an ongoing… This is probably going to seem kind of far-fetched, but a kind of ongoing personal autobiography?

HAYNES:   Ha-ha. It could be.  But sometimes I stretch out and go to some people whom I haven’t even played with.

TP:   Are there people you haven’t played with?

HAYNES:   Well, I’m sure.  Benny Carter used to say that to me. He used to say, “Roy, when are we going to play together?” That’ s something to come from an older great guy like that. I never worked with Ornette.

TP:   There’s still time.

HAYNES:   You’re damn right there’s still time. It’s on him, man! He doesn’t seem to like to work too much. I’m sure there are other people I haven’t played with.

TP:   Again, remember I’m doing a piece for the Daily News as I ask these questions.

HAYNES:   Really? The Daily News is hip to Ornette and Benny Carter.

TP:   How do you keep your energy going? You always play at a very high level of energy, every time I’ve seen you.

HAYNES:   Well, I imagine that comes from the heavens. Sometimes when I go for a long period without playing, I am like a goddamn tiger in a cage. I try not to overplay, I try to restrain myself and work up to it. But I look at every time I go to the bandstand, every time I play, it’s a very serious affair with me.  And as I get older, it becomes more serious. So I just try to put my all in it.

TP:   Do you think you might be playing with more energy now than forty years ago?

HAYNES:   Energy is a funny word. Heh-heh. You say forty?

TP:   Let’s say 45 years ago, when you left Sarah Vaughan, in 1958.

HAYNES:   Well, I was with a singer. Naturally, I’m  playing with more energy now. In fact, I didn’t even hear the term “playing with energy.” I think I started hearing that more with the rock business.  But before… Then, by me being a leader of most of the groups I’ve been playing with, except… Okay, with Chick, we did that Remembering Bud Powell thing. There were three horns on most of that, so I think that calls for a little energy. Denzil Best used to tell me years ago, “Play like it’s the last time you’re ever going to play.” He used to say that to me in the ‘40s, way when I first came to New York. Which was 1945, by the way. I started playing around 52nd Street a little after that, but I met him even before I came to New York, in Boston.

TP:   So not only is this your eightieth birthday coming up, but your sixtieth anniversary as a New Yorker.

HAYNES:   Yeah, that’s interesting.

TP:   Where did you live when you first came to New York?

HAYNES:   I lived up on Sugar Hill. I lived at 149th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway. It was a brownstone. 526 W. 149th Street.

TP:   What was the neighborhood like at the time?

HAYNES:   The neighborhood was beautiful. You could stand on Amsterdam Avenue looking west towards the Hudson River, seeing that sun come up in the evening, walking… I loved it. I still drive by there periodically to look at the house where I used to live.

TP: Do you remember the address?

HAYNES:   526.  I loved it from day one. In fact, on that same street, there were so many  musicians, older musicians that lived around there. Miles lived around the corner.  Miles lived on 147th between Broadway and Amsterdam. At one point, Kansas Field, the drummer, lived there.  John Simmons lived at 149th Street. I think they lived in the same building. One of the trumpet players that played with Basie lived there, not Buck or Sweets…

TP:   Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean talk about the neighborhood…

HAYNES:   Well, they grew up there on Sugar Hill.

TP:   Coleman Hawkins lived there.

HAYNES:   He lived on 153rd Street between St. Nick and Amsterdam, I think. I remember the name of the building. King Haven Apartments. I loved it up there.  All those guys did, too.  Jackie still talks about it.  A.T. talked about it until the end.

TP:   You play like someone who lives completely in the present, but I know that the past must give you a lot of sustenance, having had all those experiences.

HAYNES:   That’s true, of course.  There’s a lot of the past that’s naturally still in me. But I’m trying to think ahead a little bit and stay in the mix.

TP:   But it seems people have always noted you for doing that. Prez didn’t have any problem with anything you did, Bird…

HAYNES:   It was so beautiful to have played… I remember the first night playing with Prez, at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. I’ll never forget that. He just went along. He was into what I was trying to do.

TP:   Apart from playing at the Savoy, did you ever go there to dance or for your own entertainment?

HAYNES:   I was dancing on the bandstand, of course. But that’s where I joined Luis Russell, too. And joined Prez there, two years later.

TP:   There are probably too many highlights in your career to ask about the highlights, but…

HAYNES:   [LAUGHS] I can tell you. There’s one I remember. When I had the group, the Hip Ensemble, we were doing a Jazz Vespers. The church then was on Lexington, but it wasn’t the same one. Gensel, naturally, was there. It happened to be the anniversary of Billy Strayhorn’s death. When I had the Hip Ensemble, George Adams and Hannibal were my front line, I’d come out of a drum solo and go into “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” which we recorded for Mainstream. When we went into “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Duke Ellington happened to be in the audience, and his doctor. Dr. Logan. Dr. Logan was a very tall man. They were sitting near the back, and I noticed when I went into it in 3/4 time, they stood up, and the whole congregation stood up. That was known as the Negro National Anthem back in the day. That was one of the highlights that I always remember. Naturally, there were many more.  But that’s one that stands out in my mind.

TP:   What does New York mean to you?

HAYNES:   Oh, man!  New York means a lot of things to me!  Just to come to New York was like going to heaven. In fact, there were people up in Harlem who used to say, “I wouldn’t leave Harlem to go to heaven.” Harlem is part of New York. [Yahwk.] But New York is my home, even though I was born in Boston.

TP:   How long did you stay in Harlem?

HAYNES:   I stayed in that house five years. Then I went back to Clarement Avenue, near where Juilliard is now. In fact, I was a few doors from Juilliard.  I stayed there for a couple of years. Then I went to Boston for the winter and came back. I think at that point I stayed in hotels. I bought some property in Queens.  Now I live in Nassau County, but I still have property in Queens where my children hang. Really why I got out of Manhattan (I still love Manhattan) I started owning automobiles, and the garage bills and starting to get tickets… I knew I had to get a house with a garage.

TP:   What was your favorite car over the years?

HAYNES:   I think the one I’ve had the longest is that Bricklin, with the gull-wing doors. It’s been on the news and TV. I’ve had it on tours. I had it in quite a few car shows back in the days. I still have it.

TP:   How many cars do you have?

HAYNES:   I have four.

TP:   Are they all fast cars?

HAYNES:   They’re all fast. I’ve got one of those Magnums. It’s fast as hell. I had one Eldorado in Vegas. I have a place in Vegas. And I have a Benz; one of the coupes.

TP:   You were also an Esquire Best-Dressed Man, weren’t you?

HAYNES:   Yes.  The article was written in the ‘50s, but it was used, I think, in 1960. It was titled “The Art Of Wearing Clothes” by a writer named George Frazier. They had forty American men, along with people like Fred Astaire, Walter Pidgeon, and Miles Davis, Roy Haynes. We were the youngest, Miles and myself, and the only musicians and the only blacks who were in it!

TP:   What sort of threads were you wearing in the ‘50s? Miles was wearing the Italian suits…

HAYNES:   He started the Italian suits I think a little later than the ‘50s…I’m thinking.

TP:   How about you?

HAYNES:   Well, let’s see. Actually, George Frazier and I had the same tailor, which was the Andover Shop in Cambridge, Mass, and Andover, Mass. Yeah, Miles and I used to talk a lot about clothes. In fact, during that period, there were a lot of guys our age that we were talking about a lot of clothes all the time.

TP:   What are some of the biggest changes you see, if any, between young musicians today, like the guys in your band, and when you were their age, or when you were in your forties… Do the young musicians today have a different mindset from those of your day?

HAYNES:   I can’t speak to their mind.  But their whole world is so different. People coming up now, it’s almost automatic. But there are some serious young players out there, some very serious GOOD players.  But everything is so different now. I would think a lot of the younger musicians coming up now, they really don’t have to pay dues that were paid back in the old days.  The idea of traveling and making maybe $20 a night and living in hotels when there was maybe three people in a room… With big bands, I’m talking about. That whole thing as far as paying dues. It’s a whole different thing now. Guys come out of school, they’ve got their own projects, they’ve got their own bands. That didn’t happen back in that period when I was coming up. So it’s really hard to compare those times and the musicians now to the musicians then. The whole world is different.

TP:   How about when you were just going out on your own as a bandleader, which started to happen in the early ‘60s, a time of social tumult and change in the music. Can you generalize about attitudes then vis-a-vis younger guys now? Then you played with Andrew Hill, Joe Henderson…

HAYNES:   Some of them were lucky. Andrew Hill had a deal with Blue Note right away.  I think I remember him saying that Alfred Lion was going to buy him a piano. We weren’t that lucky before that. So even that was a little different. The ‘60s was a happy period, a helluva period.

TP:   A few sentences on some of the people you played with. Sarah Vaughan.

HAYNES:   I had heard that record that Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Sarah… First thing, I was always into lyrics and checking out good singers. I loved that.  And she was such a great musician that, BOOM…! It was hip to be with Sarah then. I didn’t realize that I would stay there for five years, but I went there and got comfortable. I started going to places I hadn’t been. I think it was the first time I went to Europe, was with Sarah. So it opened some doors.

TP:   Coltrane.

HAYNES:   [LAUGHS] I’ve got some stories. But some of them are too long. Too lengthy.  I was once asked what was it like to have played with Coltrane, and I said playing with Coltrane was like a beautiful nightmare. My niece said, “Uncle Roy, how can a nightmare be beautiful?” But when you have to try to explain that to somebody… I can’t explain it. That’s what I said then.

TP:   It’s a poetic image, that’s all.

HAYNES:   Yeah.  And it was something. The drums just seemed to go when I was there.

TP:   Monk.

HAYNES:   Monk. Misterioso.  That’s the title of one of his tunes, and I think it’s the title of a CD of his that was made live at the Five Spot.

TP:   With you.

HAYNES:   Yes.  Monk was cool. Monk used to say, “Roy Haynes…” He used the expression, “You’re a bitchin’ drummer.” Did you ever hear that word, “a bitchin…?” He used to use that term. But it was quite interesting to play with Monk. Playing with Monk at the Five Spot, man, there was no money made at all.  But it was such a memorable occasion. I used to love to go to work. Sometimes the place would be packed, and Monk would probably come in maybe two or three hours after we had been waiting, walking past, and go right to the kitchen, and lay down on the table and go to sleep. There were some really exciting moments with Monk. The set would start, I guess, when they would get him up. But it was a kick. I loved playing with Monk.

TP:   I’ll move this to the Five Spot for a minute. What was the atmosphere like in the Five Spot? Always very intense and stimulating?

HAYNES:   Yes, because first of all, that’s when the word, maybe even before it started popular, beatnik… Words like that. That’s when the audiences started…the look was changing. People started wearing their hair long.  That was about the period when they really started doing it. The late ‘50s going into the ‘60s. A lot of writers.  Leroi Jones, as he was known at the time, he used to be around there. It was a kick to go to work every night.

TP:   Both Randy Weston and somebody else told me that the place was filthy. Dirty.

HAYNES:   Listen, it WAS dirty.  But I’d be back there in the kitchen. They had a guy who made…

TP:   Bob, making funky hamburgers.

HAYNES:   We used to be back there eating them. I didn’t care about the dirt. It was dirty.  But a lot of places were dirty. Well, let’s see, before… When places like Birdland opened, that wasn’t dirty particularly. And on 52nd Street, you had to be dressed up. That was a whole different thing. In those days, we wore ties… When I worked the Five Spot with Monk, we were wearing suits and ties and jackets.  But sooner or late, that all stopped. I couldn’t wait to take off a tie and play drums, man! After all of those years… Because when I started out as a teenager, you had to have a tuxedo.

TP:   Was the piano any good at the Five Spot when Monk was there?

HAYNES:   The piano sounded out of tune, but it was fashionable for pianos to sound out of tune. They weren’t as particular as some of the pianists today. Now, guys say, “Oh, that has to be tuned right away.”

TP:   Did you ever play with Monk and Coltrane?

HAYNES:   Yeah. It’s on that record. But I didn’t play with them much. I think there may have been only a night or two when Coltrane was in there.

TP:   What can you tell me about the experience of playing with them?

HAYNES:   First of all, it was a short experience. I can’t really hardly remember. When I listened to that record, I said, “Wow, yeah! Listen to that!” But I have no particular memory, because it wasn’t lengthy. Sonny Rollins was in there, too, in the Five Spot a little bit. I played with him and Monk during one of those long… We were in there a couple of times, for 18 weeks at a time.

TP:   But not with Sonny and Monk for 18 weeks…

HAYNES:   Johnny Griffin was there the longest when I was there.  But maybe some nights… I don’t remember if it was before Johnny started that Sonny was in there.

TP:   Well, you recorded with Sonny in 1957 on The Sound Of Sonny.

HAYNES:   I used to go down there and catch Monk and Trane and Shadow Wilson. That’s where I got the idea of playing the theme of Misterioso like I did, when Shadow did something similar to that during the theme.

TP:   Back to these impressions of people. Bird.

HAYNES:   Ha-ha. Bird. Ha-ha-ha. It was up and down. Some nights when he was really feeling good, you couldn’t beat that. It was a hell of a period and a cool thing to be on the bandstand with Bird. It’s hard to describe.

TP:   Did being with Bird make you raise your game? Or was your game already right there?

HAYNES:   Well, I came to New York…a bandleader had SENT for me. Luis Russell, who played with King Oliver. Luis Russell never heard me. That’s a helluva thing, a guy just turning 20 years old and being recommended by Charlie Holmes, who played with Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and those guys. He was a saxophone player. During the war, we played together in New London, Connecticut. He told Luis Russell about me. I got this special delivery, “start with Luis Russell.” In Boston, even before I joined him, if someone needed a drummer or a band came to town, it was usually me. But there were some great drummers in Boston during that period. There was a guy named Joe Booker. He could swing you to death. One time he got the call to fill in for Shadow Wilson in the Basie Band.

TP:   You answered that question well.

HAYNES:   Did I?  I just went around the block. I just came to New York, man, and I didn’t realize it, but I had changed the sound of the band. Because the people in the band told my brother that. They didn’t tell me that. But Luis Russell believed in me, and I learned a lot. Then I started hanging around 52nd Street. During my nights off, I’d stay out all night, down on 52nd Street.

TP:   Who did you first play with on 52nd Street?
HAYNES:   It wasn’t Bird… I was still with Lester Young, and he went out with Jazz at the Philharmonic. That was the summer. I think I went in the Three Deuces with Kai Winding, Red Rodney, Curley Russell on bass, and George Wallington on piano.

TP:   So you were in New York for four years before you had a steady gig on 52nd Street, because you were on the road so much.

HAYNES:   Well, we used to play off-nights. They always had two groups. So I did that before I worked steady on 52nd Street anyhow. But that would have been the summer of 1949.

TP:   You joined Bird in ‘49.

HAYNES:   Yeah. I was with Miles before that. Miles used to say that Bird st0le his drummer. Those were his exact words. That’s the period when I really started working on 52nd Street.

TP:   You said you didn’t play the Bohemia…

HAYNES:   No, I didn’t play there steady. I don’t even remember playing there one night.  But I used to go there and hang. It was a dynamite place. It had a long bar, and then the bandstand was straight ahead as you walked in. The owner, Garofalo, I remember  him good. He seemed like a jolly guy. Well, from what I could see. He was well and happy and… I remember one night there, with my wife; I don’t even know if we were married at the time. We were all at the bar.  I was still with Sarah then. I remember I was getting ready to open in Chicago. And Dinah Washington said, out loud, “Roy Haynes, we’re going to hang out when we get to Chicago!” My wife naturally got an attitude behind that. Dinah Washington was known for doing things like that.

TP:   I just read her biography. She was very forthcoming.

HAYNES:   Tell me about it, man. She loved drummers, too.

TP:   Tenor players, too, I’d think, since she married one.

HAYNES:   True.

TP:   Were you in the vicinity when Cannonball Adderley made his New York debut?

HAYNES:  I’m not sure.  When I was on my last gig with Sarah, we were playing the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach. Richard Davis was in the band. I had my notice in. That’s when I met Cannon and his brother. They took me and Richard Davis to some down-home restaurant that had a jukebox, and they put money in the jukebox and said, “I want you to hear his record.” It was Ray Charles on his early records, that still sounded good, and that was my first introduction to Ray Charles.

TP:   They must have known him from Florida.

HAYNES:   Well, they knew of his records. I don’t know if they knew him. Because they were two square guys.

TP:   There’s the famous story of how he made his big splash in New York. He comes to town, Oscar Pettiford’s playing there, he sits in, Oscar Pettiford takes the tempo way-way-way up on Cherokee, and Cannonball nails it, and within a week he had a recording.

HAYNES:   I could have been there. Like I said, I used to hang out a lot.

TP:   Did you ever hear Miles and Coltrane at the Bohemia?

HAYNES:   Of course.

TP:   You also said you played the Half Note a lot.

HAYNES:   A lot from the late ‘50s going into the ‘60s. What I didn’t like about it was that the bandstand was way up in the air. It was in the middle of the club, and they had two sides.  The bar would separate one side from the other side. The bar was in the center of the place, and it was sort of up in the air, and you were sort of over the bar. It was really weird. But I played there a lot, and I used to enjoy it. They made the greatest sandwiches, because they were right near Little Italy, and they’d bring in the bread.

TP:   I get the feeling the Half Note was a place where musicians used to enjoy hanging out.

HAYNES:   Oh, yeah. Al and Zoot used to play there. I played there with them, and had my own projects there. I don’t think I played there with Trane.

TP:   Was it just Birdland that you played with Trane?

HAYNES:   I’m thinking. Just Birdland, I think. I went to the Vanguard to catch them one night, and they happened to be recording. I think Elvin hadn’t shown up. That’s why I turned up on something live from the Vanguard.

TP:   Do you have any memory of that?

HAYNES:   Well, I was just hanging out. I didn’t go down there prepared to play. But Eric was there then. Before that period, around that same period, I had a group with Eric… It couldn’t have been the same time, because I had a group with Eric, and we were working at a place on West Fourth Street. I forget the name. I had Eric Dolphy with me, Jaki Byard was there for a while on piano, splitting the gig with Richard Wyands, and on bass was Reggie Workman. Trane was working the Vanguard. After he’d finish his gig, he would be right over to my gig sitting in a corner. When we would get off the bandstand, he was there.  And he hired all them guys to join him!  That’s when Reggie joined him. And Eric.

TP:   What was the appeal of the Village?

HAYNES:   The Village was hip. Even the Lower East Side, as it was known in those days, it started moving from the Village over to the Lower East Side. All around there, it was exciting as hell. It felt European or something. The mix of the people, and just the whole atmosphere. It was different than… Well, I played the original Birdland at 52nd and Broadway. It was loose. You didn’t feel like you had to be dressed. Ha. Even though we were into dressing.  But we were dressing down in that period. It was just an exciting feeling in the Village.

You had Slugs. You didn’t mention Slugs. Talk about someplace that was dirty!  They had sawdust on the floor. But I loved it!  It smelled like an old, old saloon. You know, back in the day they used to have saloons where the women were not even allowed. That’s what it smelled like. Not that I went to those places. I was too young. I didn’t even drink until later on. But I had a gig in Slugs with Cecil McBee on bass, I had Wayne Shorter for a few weeks, and there were some reel-to-reel tapes from that period that I think got lost.

TP:   Would  that have been around ‘66 or so, when Miles was off for six months or so?

HAYNES:   It might have been in there.

TP:   Randy Weston said when you played in Harlem or Brooklyn, you had to satisfy the audience. There was the feeling you could be more experimental in the Village?

HAYNES:   Yeah. That comes from playing the Apollo Theater, man. You can’t fuck around. You had tough audiences. Black audiences were tough.  And they knew the deal.

TP:   So in the Village, it wasn’t that the audience was ill-informed, but perhaps they were more tolerant of some diffefent stuff, or…

HAYNES:   Well, you could experiment more in the Village. Because a lot of the audience were poets or writers, or people who wanted to be writers or wanted to be musicians.  You had hipper audiences.

TP:   A few more impressions. Stan Getz.
HAYNES:   I start to get serious now. Stan Getz.  Good musician. Could be an asshole at any moment. There was a period when I was with Stan, we were playing a place on one of the main streets of Hollywood… We were scheduled for a few weeks, and we followed Miles Davis into the club, and Miles was packing them in. When Stan got there, the business was not too good. So they cut it down. I think we were doing maybe six nights a week, and they cut it down maybe to three. We just started doing weekends. I’m staying at a hotel right close to the club, and one of the days that I was off, Coltrane comes by the hotel. He’s getting ready to open at a club in the other part of town. I don’t know who told him where I was or that I was in town or that I was off! He got me to play the first part of the week. Elvin didn’t come in til later. It was like a relief to play with Coltrane and express what I had in me to express. It was nice playing with Stan, but Stan sometimes would be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For that period, I had to play with both guys; the first part of the week with Coltrane and the second part of the week with Stan.

TP:   It sounds like Coltrane was a kind of soulmate for you.

HAYNES:   There is something there. There’s a tape that I think Ravi has which was supposedly at the Showboat in Philadelphia. McCoy was on the gig, but he was late a lot during that period, and Trane was playing… I don’t know if the bass player was on the stand, but it sounds like a top quality recording, so you could hardly hear the bass. It sounded like a duo between Coltrane and myself. A lot of people have been hearing it lately and telling me about that. I think my son played it for me. I may have a copy of it here, even though I understand I was supposed to give it back to Ravi.  That was kind of early.

TP:   How about Pat Metheny?

HAYNES:   The interesting thing about Pat and some of the other people whom we haven’t named: He used to come hear me play before I knew him! I never knew that til later. I remember once when they had the Kool Festival, as they used to call it, he was playing at Lincoln Center with Jaco Pastorius. I loved the stuff they were doing, so I went to check them out, and I enjoyed it, not even realizing that he was hip to me and we would playing together later. So there’s something there, in the air, like this guy is checking me out a long time before I’m realizing it, and then I’m checking him out, and then we play together years later.

TP:   In jazz, if you go through that degrees of separation process, from what you’ve told me, you’re connected to King Oliver.

HAYNES:   Yeah, isn’t that something? From King Oliver to Pat or Chick or the guys in my young band.

TP:   They’re going to connect you out to 2050. Marcus Strickland will certainly be around.

HAYNES:   Sometimes I’m in a club, and I say to the audience and also to the guys on the bandstand, “I wonder what Charlie Parker would say and think if he walked in here at this moment and I’m playing with these guys, and he’s checking it out.” I often say he would just… [END OF SIDE A] When you have to do a lot of talking, it’s going to take longer for the person to get it.

TP:   You just said that some of these younger players, they’ve just got it. Marcus has got it.

HAYNES: When you have to try to explain something, explain it! When it just happens naturally, it’s an amazing thing. And that’s what can happen with this music. And some nights when it happens, oh, man, you can’t beat that!

TP:   I’ve heard it happen many times with you.

HAYNES:   This will be the first time going in the Vanguard in a matter of years, and it’s got to be a special thing.

TP:   You have a grandson with whom you played on the bandstand at the Rose Theater, and he’s playing great. How does that make you feel?

HAYNES:   Oh, man.  That’s a serious dream. That’s heavy. On top of it… That’s magical, man!  I could go into that so deep… I only have one daughter. Two sons and one daughter. When he was born, when she went to the hospital, my daughter’s words were, “Daddy, I wanted to give you a grandson.” She gave me granddaughters. I have granddaughters.  But that’s what she told me when I went to see her the day she was born. “I wanted to give you a grandson.” That’s heavy. And he turned out to be like this. He goes to Manhattan School of Music, which is where the old Juilliard was. His dorm is right next door to where I lived when I was with Charlie Parker. I told him what floor I was on. When he passes there, he looks. Right next to where he’s staying. On top of that, to end it, he was born in the first house I bought.

TP:   Did you teach him directly?

HAYNES:   He was learning probably even before I realized it. He was checking.

* * *

Roy Haynes Profile (WKCR, March, 1996):

TP:    I guess the first and obvious question is your origins.  Is the drums a lifelong interest?  Can you ever remember a time when you weren’t drumming?

HAYNES:  Not really.  I’ve been trying to play drums ever since I can remember.  Way back.  Mmm, I don’t remember how old I was when I picked up a pair of drumsticks at home.  A long time ago.  And I had the feeling before that to want to play.  So the beat continues to go on.

TP:    In your house I gather there was quite a bit of music.  You had a brother who studied music formally.

HAYNES:  Right.  My older brother Douglas Haynes was really into the music.  He would leave Boston, where we were living, come to New York, go to the Savoy and check out the battle of the bands, with Basie and whatever other band was battling.  He’d always come back and tell the stories about it.  He had all the records.  And he had some drumsticks at home, and that was my first affair with the drumsticks.

TP:    What did he play?

HAYNES:  He didn’t really play professionally.  He went to New England Conservatory and studied theory.  He had trumpets, a ukelele.  I remember him playing.  He knew all the songs.  He knew everything.

TP:    But he was able to go to New York when you were still an adolescent or…

HAYNES:  Oh, when he was very young he lived in New York with some of our relatives.  Later he worked on the railroad, so he’d travel on the train.  He came back and forth after that.

TP:    What are your first memories of listening to Jazz music?

HAYNES:  I heard it on the radio at home.  I heard a little of everything.  There were a lot of shows in Boston when I was growing up.  One was called “The 920 Club”; I guess for 920 on your dial, with Benny Goodman’s “Goodbye” as the theme; I wanted to hear that every day, just to check that out.  They played all kinds of music — Basie, Duke, Tatum, Artie Shaw was very big around there, naturally Goodman and Krupa.

TP:    So all the bands came through Boston, and there were local and national broadcasts.

HAYNES:  Exactly.

TP:    Do you remember noticing the drummers in those bands?

HAYNES:  Sure.  Interlude.  Drummers, a lot of them.

TP:    Talk about some of those drummers, the people who inspired you when you were knee-high, as it were.

HAYNES:  Well, so many of them.  If they played anything good, it would knock me out.

TP:    For instance, did you get to a point of being able to analyze drummers that you heard?

HAYNES:  I didn’t analyze.  Whatever I heard I guess automatically was going into my system.  I didn’t try to figure out, really.  But naturally I was into Jo Jones with the Basie band, and Jimmy Crawford was with Jimmie Lunceford, Sonny Greer was with Duke Ellington — on and on like that.

TP:    When did you start going to see the big bands around Boston?

HAYNES:  I didn’t start to go in the nightclubs until I was a teenager, maybe 17 or 18.

TP:    So that would have been right before you left Boston.

HAYNES:  I was 20 when I left Boston to join a big band.

TP:    When did you start working in Boston?

HAYNES:  I started working in Boston when I was still in high school, so I was probably 16 or 17 years old.

TP:    What were the circumstances?

HAYNES:  In Boston there was a guitarist by the name of Tom Brown.  He was into Charlie Christian.  Tom Brown knew all of his solos on whatever records, and he would play those same solos.  I started hanging around with him and making gigs.  On my first gig, I didn’t even have a complete set of drums, maybe just a ride cymbal and a snare drum.  That was with Tom Brown.  I got a few dollars; I don’t remember exactly how much.

I started playing with a lot of people, and I started working steady while I was in school, then I didn’t feel like waking up to go to school in the morning — like that, heh-heh.

TP:    Were there ever lessons in school, by the way, or was this strictly a self-taught proposition?

HAYNES:  No, there were no lessons in school with the drums.  But my father knew I was interested in playing drums.  A lot of drummers lived on our street, though not at the same time, including one named Herbie Wright.  I think he was from South Carolina.  He had the high cheekbones, very dark-complected.  There was a band from the South that Jabbo Smith was involved in young called the Jenkins Band.  They’d come through the neighborhood at different times of the year and would play outside.   Herbie Wright sat in with them, and I was impressed.  He had a thin-looking metal snare drum.  My father started to give me drum lessons with Herbie.  They were very loose, not formal.  I remember him teaching me to play mamma-daddy, learning to roll and all of that.

TP:    Describe, if you will, what the audiences were like at those neighborhood gigs in Boston.  I’d imagine the music was just everywhere at that particular time.

HAYNES:  Music was.

TP:    And the people who listened were really knowledgeable, it would seem.

HAYNES:  They were.  Yeah, you really hit on that right away.  I didn’t go out of Boston much, other than gigs around New Hampshire and Vermont and Connecticut.  But the audiences there were really into the music.  They knew what was happening.  It wasn’t like today, a lot of questions.  The people could feel the music and would groove with it.  Later on, when I started working steady, the wars were on.  I started working in downtown clubs, where there were a lot of servicemen — sailors and soldiers.  They were happy just to be hanging out, so they dug the music in another way.  But when I would play with people like Tom Brown and Sabby Lewis and other local people around neighborhood places in Boston proper, man, it was unforgettable.

TP:    Well, Boston is a town with a great musical legacy, from Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges to Charlie Holmes, who I think is the guy who recommended you to Luis Russell.  Were you very conscious of these other Bostonian musicians?

HAYNES:  Probably, but moreso later, I think.  I knew about Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney  and a lot of people I was around, their mothers knew him — a lot of the young ladies.  Yeah, I was aware of all of that.

TP:    When you started playing professionally coincides with when in New York things were really starting to pop at Minton’s, and the new way of playing music was coming about.  When did you first become familiar with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach?  Did you hear about them in Boston, let’s say, in 1942?

HAYNES:  Certainly.  I heard about them.  I met Kenny Clarke in Boston in 1942 or ’43 when he was with Red Allen, before I was familiar with the word “bebop,” when I was playing some of my first jobs.  I’d heard about Charlie Parker with Jay McShann.  I had the record Dizzy and Bird made together, “Groovin’ High” and all that, before I got to New York.  I had some Coleman Hawkins.  I think Max came to Boston with the Benny Carter Big Band.  I was on top of all of it.

TP:    So as ideas about rhythm and time and how to elaborate them were coming through, you were right there and playing the full 360 degrees of what music was at that time.

HAYNES:  Well, maybe. [LAUGHS] I was trying.  See, in Boston, a lot of the older musicians were very strict, especially with drummers, especially a young person coming up.  During that period I was the youngest in all the bands I played with.  But I was very positive on what I wanted to do, and I think I did it in the best way.  As far as drummers breaking the rhythm, that was almost a no-no back in the day.  That was the term they used when you’d get away from the beat and put some extra stuff in with the bass drum and whatever — which became almost my trademark, so to speak.  They were strict, but I tried to do the right thing in what I was playing — and it worked.

TP:    Were there any younger musicians you hooked up with in Boston who had similar ideas in the modernist vein, as it were?

HAYNES:  During that period?  Maybe not, when I first started.  Like I say, I was usually the youngest.  In one band they called me “the Kid.”

TP:    Let’s talk about your leaving Boston, then, and making your way as a professional musician.

HAYNES:  Phil Edmond(?) had the last band I worked with there.  He had maybe six or seven pieces, a lot of arrangements.  We played in a club called Little Dixie, which was at Mass Avenue at the corner of Columbus Avenue.  That was one of the hang parts of town.  I think Big Nick was in the band then, too.  We had a job for the entire summer in Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1945.  I got a special delivery letter from Luis Russell.  I had joined the black local, 535, when I was 17.  Luis Russell sent the letter there, asking me to join his band, telling me about the band, the places he played, and the different type of salary scales at the different theaters.  I sent back a telegram telling him that I was interested, but I couldn’t join until after Labor Day — I wanted to finish this job I was on.  Then he wrote me another letter, and it went on like that.  I sent my drums to New York, and did my first New York gig with the band at the Savoy Ballroom.

TP:    What do you recollect about that night, the crowd at the Savoy, the New York atmosphere?

HAYNES:  [LAUGHS] Well, I was young and very exuberant!  Luis Russell loved what I was trying to do, and it worked.  That was really my first big band, I mean, 17-18 pieces.

TP:    Were you familiar with who Luis Russell was…

HAYNES:  I’d heard the name.

TP:    …and Paul Barbarin and that aspect of drumming?

HAYNES:  I had heard about him.  I didn’t know too much about him.  But I knew enough that he was connected with Louis Armstrong… You know, I went to London a couple of summers ago with my band.  This wasn’t the first time going to London, of course.  But there was a man waiting to interview me there, and he had all kinds of photos of the bands.  He knew what year I was with Luis Russell, he knew the records I’d made, which a lot of people in our country don’t know anything about.  I learned that Luis Russell was hooked up with King Oliver!  I didn’t realize that then.  I think I met Paul Barbarin when I went to New Orleans with the band.  He was one of the great drummers.

TP:    You said Luis Russell dug what you were trying to do.

HAYNES:  They told me later that I changed the style of the band.  One of the trumpet players in the band told that to my brother, and my brother told me.  They didn’t tell me.  I wasn’t aware.  I knew what I was trying to do.  Mainly I knew how to keep the beat and how to give that feeling, that swing.  They had a certain Savoy beat.  I learned a lot there.  The Boston saxophonist Charlie Holmes told Luis Russell about me, though I don’t think he’d ever heard me play with a big band.  He wasn’t in the band either at the time.  Evidently I was doing something that they wanted.

I stayed with Luis Russell one year, then I got tired of traveling on that bus going all through the South.  I had never been in the South before until 1945.  The furthest south I had been was New York, Harlem!  And that’s north. That’s uptown.  It was like what you read and hear about.  I don’t really want to get into all of that.  But at least they told you! [LAUGHS] They told you what was on their mind down there.  They’re a little more sophisticated up North; they didn’t tell you, but would stab you in the back.  But I went back with the band in 1946.  Lee Richardson was a young vocalist with the band at the time, and his first record with them, “The Very Thought Of You,” was a hit, a big seller.  They couldn’t use his name for some reason, so he went by “Mister X”.  It had nothing to do with Malcolm either!  So Luis Russell had a hit record.  I remember playing a week at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia that year.  A lot of girls were coming out to check out Lee Richardson, and the Nat Cole Trio was headlining — the original trio with Oscar Moore and Johnny Miller. I had to play with them that week, too.  I always talk about the great singers I’ve played with, especially the big three, but I’d forgotten about that all these years.  Now I can put it in my bio.  He was out of sight

TP:    He was a real rhythmic master, too, wasn’t he.

HAYNES:  Yes, that’s right.  He had that rhythm.  He could play.

TP:    Did he have a lot of interplay with you?

HAYNES:  Well, he was singing the ballads and so on, so he didn’t do much of that.  But he did some up-tempo things.

TP:    What were some of your activities in between temporarily leaving Luis Russell, then rejoining him?

HAYNES:  Downtown on 52nd Street wherever.  Hanging at Minton’s.  Just hanging out.  New York was very exciting during that period.

TP:    Do you remember your first night on 52nd Street, and where it was and who you heard?

HAYNES:  I do remember the first night on 52nd Street.  My other brother, Vincent, who is still living in Boston, had gone into the Army.  He was going to have his first furlough, and we hadn’t seen him.  My father and my brother’s wife come on a train all the way to New York — and they miss him.  He didn’t have a furlough, for some reason.  So they came the following week.  The following week I went with them, which I think was my first trip to New York.  My brother, his wife and I take the train down to 52nd Street.  I couldn’t believe all the names, all the people who were appearing, who I’d heard about and had the records, like Don Byas and Art Tatum and Billie.  Everybody was down there!  I couldn’t believe it.  Walking around was like a dream.

TP:    The first night you played on 52nd Street.

HAYNES:  I remember the first night going moreso than remembering the first night I played.  They used to have off-nights Mondays and Tuesdays, so that could have been the first time.  It could have been with Don Byas.  But the first time I had a steady job on 52nd Street was with Kai Winding at the Three Deuces in 1949.

TP:    But you had joined Lester Young several years before that.

HAYNES:  Well, that’s when I left Lester.  And the only reason I left Lester was because he went with Norman Granz, and naturally the band didn’t go, so I had a lot of time off.

TP:    How did he find you?

HAYNES:  He’d heard about me.  Dense (Argonne) Thornton was with the band then, he was around Miles and Bird during that whole period, and I was hanging around at Minton’s and all that stuff.  I first remember meeting Prez in Detroit when I was with Luis Russell’s band, but I don’t know if Prez remembered me from then.  I listened to him talk, with his high voice… [LAUGHS] He was very comical, a very comical guy.  I joined him also at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, and I’ll never forget the first night.  I played the first couple of tunes, and he dug what I was doing.  I knew he was sensitive, and I was busy with the left hand and the right foot, as usual, but I just kept the rhythm going.  And once you do that, and you’re not too obtrusive… It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

TP:    Within that time, I’d imagine, between hanging out at 52nd Street and being at Minton’s, is when you met and got to know Bud Powell and Charlie Parker and so on…

HAYNES:  Well, I met a lot of people in Boston.  I met Bud there while he was with Cootie Williams.  We were all about the same age.  He was always very fiery, man.  Fast tempos.

TP:    When did you first meet Charlie Parker, if you recollect?

HAYNES:  I don’t remember.  When I used to go to 52nd Street and listen to him, I was never introduced.  In those days, a lot of the time you didn’t even have to be introduced, especially if you had something to say musically on your instrument.  That took care of it for you.  Somebody would know you, or… There were less of us then.  There was a place on 52nd Street, around the corner, called the White Rose Bar.  I didn’t even drink in those days; I used to be in the White Rose Bar.  So that was the hang.  Between shows everyone’s in there.  You could meet anyone.  [LAUGHS] Ben Webster and Don Byas, they could hang in the bars a lot.  They’d have their mouthpieces, blowing at each other just with mouthpieces in the White Rose Bar.  Then at Birdland there was a bar upstairs.  There were all these places to hang.  So it’s hard to remember how you met somebody during that period, at least in my case.

TP:    How about drummer talk?  I assume you knew Max Roach and Art Blakey and so forth?

HAYNES:  Yeah.  I met Art when I was a teenager in Boston.  He came through there with Fletcher Henderson.  Then he decided to stay in Boston for a long period, and we were hanging out every day.

TP:    What did Art Blakey sound like in the early 1940’s?  This must have been before he joined Billy Eckstine and encountered Dizzy Gillespie.

HAYNES:  It was.  In fact, he joined them in Boston.  He sounded very fiery, as always, and… Hmm, he sounded almost the same!

TP:    Talk a little bit about the ambiance at Minton’s, and getting on the stage and so forth.

HAYNES:  That was quite a place.  There was a long bar when you walk in, and all the sporting crowd, naturally, was at the bar.  They’d come in the back, too.  Lots of times when the music was really hot, a couple of guys would always get on the floor and start dancing by themselves, and everyone would try to cut each other dancing, improvising different steps.  Oh, man, the music was always hot.  Monday nights was the night for the jam, and lots of nights you’d have drummers waiting in line to sit in.  When I first came to New York with Luis Russell 1945, Buddy Johnson and his big band was always playing at the Savoy, with Teddy Stewart, who was from Kansas City, playing drums.  We joined our respective bands around the same time.  One night we got back to the Savoy Ballroom, and Teddy says to me, “Did you go to Minton’s last night?”  That was the first time I heard about Minton’s.  Even though I had been through there during the day.  Before I came to New York to live, I went there to meet Pete Brown, who I played with in Boston.

I started going to Minton’s a lot on Mondays, sitting in.  The musicians would get free food usually, biscuits made from scratch, not that stuff that you get today.  Those were the days of all of that.  Good food and all of that.

TP:    And at Minton’s it would go to 5-6-7 in the morning?

HAYNES:  4 o’clock legally.  Many years later they had a downstairs; that’s where they would go all morning.

TP:    Are there any anecdotes about Lester Young you’d like to share that are particularly telling about him, how you felt about him and so forth?

HAYNES:  I can’t think of anything right now.  There are a lot of things I could talk about, but right now I’m not in the mood to.

TP:    I won’t press you.

HAYNES:  Well, go and ask and see if I can deal with it.

TP:    There’s a story I seem to recollect that may be with you, it may be apocryphal or not, “just give me titty-boom, titty-boom…”

HAYNES:  Never.  He never suggested anything.  I know that story about Prez, “the little titty-boom.”  He loved what I was doing, and he never told me anything like that.  He may have had to tell a lot of people, you’d think he would have, but I think I knew how to handle it.  Swing ‘em to death, man.

TP:    That sounds like your philosophy all the way, is do whatever you want but always swing within it, and make everybody happy.

HAYNES:  Yeah, in most cases. [LAUGHS] Somebody made a record recently, I think a drummer, that says, “It don’t mean a thing if all you do is swing.”  Maybe he’s listening!

TP:    In ’49 you made that incredible date with Bud Powell.  Were you working a lot with him also?

HAYNES:  He didn’t work steady during that period.  We made an appearance at the Orchard Room, which was changed from the Onyx after they changed managements.  That was just before Birdland opened, and everyone was coming there.  Charlie Parker was working across the street, he’d come over — the place was packed.  Bud was burning.  He was on fire.  Much fire.

TP:    You left him, joined Kai Winding, and I’d imagine you joined Charlie Parker shortly after that.

HAYNES:  Right.  But I was with Miles in ’49 before joining Charlie Parker.  Miles used to say Charlie Parker stole his drummer.

TP:    Was he right?

HAYNES:  Well, a lot of these things happened in 1949, so who’s to say who belongs to who?  And who worked really that steady back in those days, to use the term “my drummer” or “my pianist” or… No one belongs to anybody.  Miles had left Charlie Parker first, and I went with Miles’ band.  There was a place in Brooklyn called Soldier Myers, in the Brownsville section. That’s where I met my wife, in fact, in Brownsville.  Miles sort of opened the room up with a jazz policy.  I think we had Tadd Dameron first on piano (it ended up being Walter Bishop later), Nelson Boyd was on bass, Sonny Rollins was there for a minute, and Sonny Stitt was there for a minute playing alto.  After that gig had finished, Max left Charlie Parker.  Max was from Brooklyn, so he was going to Brooklyn and Soldier Myers, and he suggested I replace him with Charlie Parker.  Then Charlie Parker came over to the Onyx, the Orchard Room, and asked me himself, and I made it.  I did most of the period between 1949 and 1953.

TP:    Did you do much traveling with Charlie Parker?

HAYNES:  I used to go to Boston with him, St. Louis, Chicago.  We used to go to Chicago quite a bit.

TP:    Was the repertoire pretty consistent?  Would he bring new material into the group, or was that mostly for records?

HAYNES:  When we did new material it was probably during the period of the strings, when “Repetition” and all that stuff had come out, and some of the ballads, like “Autumn In New York.”  That was one of the things he did with strings.

TP:    Would he play for a long time, or did he generally play with the type of brevity that happens on the records?  I heard a story where he told someone if he played more than four choruses he was practicing.

HAYNES:  During that period nobody really played long — during the late ’40s and ’50s.  They didn’t play long solos the way some of the artists do now.  That was great.  I didn’t mind that at all.  In Philly, for instance, you played something like 40 minutes on, 20 minutes off, usually five sets.  Then he would have to stick with that.  There were some times when he didn’t feel up to it, but some nights he’d come in and burn all the way through.

TP:    Was he very loose about the way you played?  Was anything you did just fine, or did he give you input?

HAYNES:  Very seldom.  One thing I remember Charlie Parker telling me, when you go into a new place, like a new hall or something like that, where you haven’t played before, sort of feel it out, rather than just go in with your usual volume or whatever.  I take that all the way with me, every place I go now.

TP:    He was such an incredible rhythmic player.  When he’s soloing you never hear the same rhythmic phrase for more than 4 bars or 8 bars.  It must have been very stimulating to play with him.

HAYNES:  Right.  He could turn things inside-out, take it and turn it around.  Oh boy, what an experience.  He was playing the drums when he was playing all the time. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You joined Sarah Vaughan in 1954, but I read in a liner note that maybe around 1948 you were at the same venue as she with Lester Young, and she mentioned she’d like to have you in her band.  Is that true?

HAYNES:  I think that’s true, yes.  I played with Lester at Chicago’s Blue Note (I think we were there as long as three or four weeks sometimes), and sometimes I would accompany Sarah Vaughan.  Her husband-manager then was George Treadwell, and eventually he sent me a note at a place called the Downbeat on 54th Street, asking me to join Sarah.  That’s how it started.

TP:    Now, was that a gig that took a lot of rehearsal and dealing with arrangements?

HAYNES:  Depending on what project.  We did a lot of big band stuff and some record dates with big band.  We travelled a lot with the Basie Band.  They put together shows called the Birdland All-Stars of whatever year it would be, with a whole package — Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine and different bands.  She would always use big bands for those type of gigs.  Yeah, we would have to rehearse.  Then sometimes when she was getting ready to do new material, we’d rehearse.  We had some really slick trio arrangements that were not written, but developed over time.  Man, they got so tight.  When Jimmy Jones was there with Joe Benjamin and myself, it was like heaven.  Jimmy Jones had some kind of trick with the pedal — I don’t know if it’s something he got from Art Tatum — where he would sound like strings and harps.  Oh boy, he was involved.

I enjoyed my five years with Sarah, especially after being with Bird for a long time.  Like when we worked in Philadelphia with Bird (I know I’m changing the subject a little), he’d commute from Philly to New York, and some nights we’d wait until daylight to get paid — the union man would be there.  Now, all that was great.  I always got all of my money.  But I just enjoyed being with a singer, even if we were wearing sometimes bowties or whatever.  We were playing the Waldorf-Astoria, traveling all over the world, the West Indies, Europe.  I got comfortable there.  Lots of times I’d drive my own car to Chicago just to hang out and enjoy life.  And like I said once, I stayed too long at the fair.  Before you know it, it was five years, man.  When I left, it was time to leave.  I never stayed any place else that long.

TP:    You did the famous Five-Spot recordings with Monk in 1958.  Did you meet Monk at the same time in Minton’s, too?

HAYNES:  No, I met Monk in Boston.  It was Coleman Hawkins’ gig, and Denzil Best was there; Al McKibbon may have been playing bass.  Coleman Hawkins had Don Byas playing with him, one of the greatest tenor players in the world using another great tenor next to him.  That knocked me out.  That’s when I met Monk.  For long periods, Monk didn’t play any gigs in New York, like Bud Powell; probably it was the cabaret card.  Monk reminded me of Lester Young a little.  He didn’t say much, but when he did say something, he would say it.  One time we were standing backstage at the Apollo Theater at 126th Street, which was the only time I played the Apollo with Monk.  We’re standing on one side of the street, Monk takes a coin out of his pocket, walks across the street, hits the lamp-post with the coin, and comes back to me and says, “I thought so.”  It was a certain note he had in his head, a certain pitch maybe.  But he was like that.

TP:    How much did you play with Monk apart from these sessions at the Five-Spot?

HAYNES:  I think we did it a couple of times at the Five-Spot, two or three times, and it was always lengthy — one time the whole summer.  Sometimes Monk would be there, sometimes he wouldn’t.  Sometimes he’d come in at midnight.  I’ll never forget when the Jazz Gallery, a bigger place than the Five-Spot, opened on St. Mark’s Place a bigger place.  The first night they opened with Monk, or maybe Monk and Coltrane, but it was like a double-bill.  It was during the summer.  They didn’t have air-conditioning, and it was loaded with people.  We had to wait all night for Monk to show up! [LAUGHS]  People would wait him in those days.  Now probably they’d be asking for their money back.

TP:    I’ve heard comments from drummers that it was very difficult to play with Monk because his rhythms come in such odd places, so unexpectedly.  What was it like for you?

HAYNES:  Oh, it’s very true.  It was very interesting.  Monk would say drummers can only play a few tempos.  You take them out of those few tempos that they like to be comfortable in, and then they’re uncomfortable.  He was kind of slick.  He knew a lot. But really, it was easy to play with him — to some extent.  It was a challenge.  Shadow Wilson played with him.  That was it!  And Art Blakey, Max, Frankie Dunlop, Ben Riley, who came in after me, all sounded great with Monk.

TP:    Fantasy put out a box-set of the complete Eric Dolphy recordings, and you’re on eight dates with Dolphy and Oliver Nelson almost continuously between 1960 and 1961.  Were you working with Dolphy in a band, or were those dates where the producer would call you to come into the studio?

HAYNES:  Probably a combination of both.  When Oliver came to New York, we worked a lot together in the studio.  I guess he dug the direction I was going, and he wanted me on most of his dates.  Eric as well.  I did Eric’s first date, Outward Bound.  When I would be in California during the ’50s, Eric was always hanging with me.  Even when he came to New York (I think he came to New York with Chico Hamilton), he was always over at my house.  When he did his first date he wanted me to be on it.  In California, he was more into Bird, but he went in a different direction when he got to New York.  He said he always loved listening to the birds sing in his yard in California, and he was into that with his horn as well.  He was really into the music.  It seems I like him more on the bass clarinet than the alto — it’s more mellow.

TP:    You made two recordings with Andrew Hill that rank among the classics of that time, Smokestack and Black Fire.  Were you working with him on gigs?

HAYNES:  I never did work with Andrew.  In fact, I remember him asking me to do the date.  Seems like a lot of writers think if you recorded with somebody that you worked with them, but that was not the case.  Sometimes somebody just wanted you to make a record, and you did it.

TP:    He seems to be able to set up a very dynamic rhythmic situation, and you’d seem to be the ideal drummer for him.

HAYNES:  His music was different.  He was somewhere else as well.  He reminded me…a little Monkish, but not.  He was really somewhere else during that period. [LAUGHS]

TP:    Talk about the challenge of playing with Coltrane.

HAYNES:  You really had to keep your mind on what you were doing with him, because the feeling would go in different directions.  I once said in a magazine that playing with Coltrane was like a beautiful nightmare.  People ask what I meant by that.  I guess some nightmares can be beautiful.  It reminded me of sort of a Pentecostal Church.  It was very spiritual.  I found that John Coltrane had a built-in drummer, and all you had to do was accompany him.  That’s the way it was in my case.  A lot of things that I’d thought about doing when I played with some of the other great innovator saxophone players, I could do with him.  The ’60s was a different period anyhow for life in general.  People were taking more chances, whatever.  We were talking earlier about Charlie Parker playing only a few choruses.  Coltrane may be one of the few artists who could play a lot of choruses and keep you listening.  I mean, he’d come to one climax, build and come to another, very intense, and have something to say.

Earl Bostic used to do it a long time ago.  I think that’s where Trane got it.  One time Trane played something, and when we got through with that set I was thinking of what he was playing.  I said, “Where did you get that from, Coltrane?”  He said, “Earl Bostic.”  Yeah, Earl Bostic used to play.  I remember jam sessions in the Bronx.  There was a place on Boston Road called the 845 Club.  I remember Sunday afternoon sessions there in the late ’40s, Earl Bostic would be there, he would play lengthy, and he would satisfy the people.  He had something.  So maybe some saxophone players should check out Earl Bostic, like Trane did.

TP:    Well, he was in Earl Bostic’s band, and Johnny Hodges…

HAYNES:  Yeah, he was in his band and Johnny Hodges.  Maybe that’s why he could play ballads so damn good.  You’re listening to it right there, you know.

TP:    He referred to you and Elvin Jones as being able to…

HAYNES:  Spread out the rhythm.

TP:    Right.  I don’t know if I have a specific question about that.  Do you have any thoughts on that?

HAYNES:  I hadn’t heard that term before, but I thought he described it very good — “spreading the rhythm.”  I would never have come up with it.  Someone else can sometimes describe what you’re doing or trying to do better than you.

TP:    So the things you did with Coltrane were almost like the demands of the music.  You had to do them to execute what you heard in your mind’s ear…

HAYNES:  You didn’t have to do any one special thing except keep it burning for him.  I was in my car stuck in traffic in Manhattan once listening to “One Down, One Up”, and at one point McCoy was playing, then Coltrane came back in and he was screaming!  I said, “Something must have happened.”  I was in my car, by myself driving, and people probably thought I was going crazy!  Oh, man, he had me.  Evidently, I may have had him to help him to scream as such.

TP:    Would that sort of thing happen, let’s say, with Lester Young or Charlie Parker?

HAYNES:  Not that way.  Sure, it would happen, but not quite like that — because of a lot of things.  The ’60s, man, whoo — it was a serious period.  I was very wild in the ’60s.  What can I really say?  It happened, and I’m glad it was captured.

TP:    During that time you were part of Stan Getz’s working band.  You recorded with him back in 1949.

HAYNES:  That’s very true.  At one point, speaking of Stan Getz I’m in California, we were doing six nights in a club on Sunset Boulevard when John Coltrane was there.  They cut us to three nights, just the weekend, so I did the first part of the week with John Coltrane.  That was in the ’60s.  It was a helluva period, to play with these two different guys, both so great.

TP:    Well, some of your freest playing happened with Chick Corea in the late ’60s, not like with Coltrane, but extremely open and spacious.  That concept of spreading the time I think really flourished in that trio.

HAYNES:  Okay.

TP:    Did that relationship begin through Stan Getz?  He played with him briefly.

HAYNES:  We did play together with Stan Getz.  Yes, that’s the first time we played together.

TP:    What was your impression of Corea’s music?  You’ve recorded his compositions on almost every record.

HAYNES:  Oh, I always liked his writing.  Like Coltrane, he is a drummer.  In fact, I just learned this year that he was making some gigs on drums when he was in New York, on the East Side, different places.  You walk into his house, the first thing you see sometimes is a set of drums.  I never heard Trane talk about drums or anything like that, but in his playing he had a built-in drummer.  He feels it.  His notes are so even.  Some people depend on the drummer for the time, they go against the time maybe and wait for the drummer to let them know where the time is.  But with Trane it wasn’t so.  You’re just there.

TP:    Was that also the case with Charlie Parker and Lester Young?

HAYNES:  Sure.  Different period, though.  Lester Young, when he says.. [SINGS CHORUS FROM “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid”], one-two-three — it’s right there.  All you’ve got to do is design around it.

TP:    That’s a very nice word you used, designing the rhythm.

HAYNES:  Yeah, man.

TP:    The implication there is dance.

HAYNES:  Tell me about it.

TP:    No, please tell me about it.

HAYNES:  [LAUGHS] Now that you’re talking about Prez, at the Savoy Ballroom they danced sometimes when we were playing.  When I had the Hip Ensemble, a few years back, I was playing a gig outdoors in Harlem, and when I drove up there was a young guy waiting for me who I didn’t know.  He says, “I’m waiting for you.”  This guy danced all during my drum solos, improvising.  I was amazed to see what this guy was doing.  I’m playing all these breaks, and he’s dancing through all of them. It’s marketable.

TP:    Speaking of which, did you ever play with tap dancers on these shows?

HAYNES:  Oh yes.

TP:    Like Baby Lawrence.

HAYNES:  I sure did.  When I was 16 or 17 years old in Boston, a lot of those gigs I had, I had to play for tap dancers.  I used to try to tap dance — at home only.  I tap dance on the drums, you know.

TP:    Is that part of what you’re thinking about when you play?

HAYNES:  I guess I’m thinking about it in my subconscious mind.  I’m thinking about rhythms, even when I walk.  I’m thinking constantly about rhythms and beats, which dancers do.

TP:    You even sit at the drum-kit differently than most drummers.  You sort of half-stand and you’re dancing at the drum kit.

HAYNES:  Well, hey, I try to be in it, inside of it.  Yes.

TP:    I’d like to talk to you about the way you organize your bands.  On your records you seem to record music by people who have been significant to your career.  Every record has a Chick Corea tune, every record has a Monk tune, there’s always a ballad, probably Sarah Vaughan sang, there are things by Coltrane and things Charlie Parker recorded.  Can you comment?

HAYNES:  Sure, it’s influenced by the different artists.  I mentioned the drum thing Coltrane and Chick have, and Monk, with his special quality, his special tempos and very unique writings.  These things stayed with me from being around these people.  Charlie Parker, of course.  Some of the tunes I try to include in our repertoire are tunes not often played.  Usually, after we play them a while, then they become a little more popular, especially if they are being played on the air and whatnot, and then we play them in person.  But those are things that feel fresh to me, and I like the feeling of the way the tunes lay.

TP:    There’s also been for a long time an aspect of Caribbean music and Caribbean rhythms.  Your parents I believe were Barbadan, yes?

HAYNES:  That’s correct.

TP:    Was the Caribbean music something that was always there in the household, or…

HAYNES:  No, it was not in the household much.  But maybe just listening to them talk with their accents, it’s naturally there.  Not the tunes themselves, but the feeling of it.  I love it!  I go down there a lot.

TP:    Have you dealt with hand drumming much, or with hand drummers?

HAYNES:  A little, not too much.  I went to Senegal a couple of times.  There’s a lot of great drummers, but one in particular, Dudu Rose.  One time when I had the Hip Ensemble, we had to do two concerts.  One was a free concert, and we were to play together at some point.  I thought he was going to sit in with my band, but he didn’t speak English and we didn’t talk about it.  When I got there, word was that I was to sit in with his band.  He had all drummers.  They played with one stick and one hand.  I sat in with them and we played.  There was nothing rehearsed and we didn’t discuss anything, but at one point we just started getting down on the instruments.  I had to feel it and listen for when certain people would be playing solos.  At one point they were playing something that sounded like a background, and they were all looking at me, which made me think that it was my time to solo, and they were backing me up.  Man, we got involved, so involved that everybody was screaming.  They speak sort of French with a dialect, and when I got off I could just hear, “Roy Haynes!”  Somebody told me I could have run for office and won right away.  So yeah, I’m into hand drums, and I listen to all different types of drums.

TP:    Do you practice a lot with your moves?  Probably not now, but at an earlier point did you do a lot of practicing?  Or was it always an on-the-stand type of thing that was in function with the music?

HAYNES:  I am constantly practicing in my head.  In fact, the teacher once in school sent me to the principal, because I was drumming with my hands on the desk in school.  My father used to say I was just nervous.  I’m constantly thinking rhythms, drums.  When I was very young I used to practice a lot; not any special thing, but just practice playing.  I’m like a doctor.  When he’s operating on you, he’s practicing.  When I go to my gigs, that’s my practice.  I may play something that I never heard before or maybe that you never heard before.  It’s all a challenge.  I deal with sounds.  I’m full of rhythm, man.  I feel it.  I’m thinking summer, winter, fall, spring, hot, cold, fast and solo, and colors.  But I don’t analyze it.  I’ve been playing professionally over 50 years, and that’s the way I do it.  People do it different ways.  I do it like that.

TP:    What are the qualities somebody needs to be part of the Roy Haynes circle?

HAYNES:  I don’t know always.  You’ve got to have some feeling and imagination, and there has to be some warmth in whatever instrument you’re playing.  It has to be not rigid, not tight; the music is tight but it’s still loose.  I don’t look for things.  I try to adjust.  Usually one guy will recommend another guy that maybe he went to school with or something like that.  I’ll listen to those guys, then I’ll try to put together what I’m feeling from them.  I try to understand their concept, then I take it all the way out and see if they’re going to understand my concept.  I feel it back and forth.  I don’t put it into words, and it’s not an audition.  I’m not into all of that.  First of all, I don’t want to work steady.  Years ago I was saying I was semi-retired.  I don’t have to say that any more, because they took me out of my little semi-retirement.  But I work, and then I cool out and I think and I dream and go throughout the world, and it’s great.  I don’t like to analyze everything and put everything in a certain position and it has to stay in that position.

TP:    Do arrangements form themselves in the band?

HAYNES:  To some extent, but I structure them like riding a horse.  You pull a rein you tighten it up here, you loosen it there.  I’m still sitting in the driver’s seat, so to speak.  But I let it loose, I let it go, I see where it’s going to go and what it feels like.  Sometimes I go out, and sometimes I’ll be polite, nice and let it move and breathe.

TP:    Very unpredictable sets.

HAYNES:  Maybe, to some extent.  But still in the pocket and with feeling.

TP:    Do you try to surprise yourself in every set?

HAYNES:  I do surprise myself.  The worst surprise is when I can’t get it to happen!  Then I go the bar.  But usually it comes out.  I don’t play for a long period, and I’m like an animal, a lion or tiger locked in its cage, and when I get out I try to restrain myself.  I don’t want to overplay.  A great musician told me he came to hear me, and I played a whole set without playing a solo.  I kind of doubt that.  Sometimes I play my solos at the end.  I don’t always trade 4’s or 8’s with the guys.  I like them to trade and just keep it moving, and spread the rhythm, as Trane said.  Keep it moving, keep it crisp.

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Roy Haynes (for Drumworks):

TP:    Do you still practice.  And if you do still practice, what do you practice?

HAYNES:  My practicing now is like a doctor practicing.  When they say a doctor is practicing that means he’s operating on you or doing his thing.  I’ve been doing that for years; on the gig is my practice.  Sometimes I may sit behind the drums, because I was taking long periods when I wouldn’t play at all.  Those have become a little shorter, though now and then I cool out for a month or so.  But I’m always thinking drums.  I’m walking drums.  That’s my whole rhythm thing.  But naturally you’ve got to keep that blood flowing and the juices in your body, so you can be loose enough to play.  So I don’t really sit down and practice.  What I was doing some years ago, I would invite certain people out to my house and we would just play.  Like, Kevin Eubanks would come out when he was playing with me, and Ralph Moore, and all those guys; David Kikoski still comes out.  And that’s my practice.

TP:    You practice by playing.

HAYNES:  Exactly.  Because I don’t know what to practice.  I never was into the rudiments and all of that stuff anyhow.  I’m not a rudimental drummer.  Not really.  I’ve got my own rudiments.  I never learned that even hand stuff.  I tried at it; I was never good at it.

TP:    I gather you were pretty much self-taught, and there was a drummer on your block named Herbie Wright who gave you some lessons.

HAYNES:  Yes, Herbie Wright.  He was an older guy.  He played with the Jenkins Orphanage Band in South Carolina that Jabbo Smith and Cootie Williams was in.  Herbie Wright was a short guy, and I imagine that he was from North Carolina because he had high cheekbones, very dark skin.  But we just did some informal things.  He had a snare drum in his living room someplace, and my father knew him.  I went up to him a couple of times, and that was it.

TP:    So other than that it was pretty much learning by doing.

HAYNES:  Exactly.  Which I’m still doing.  I’m still learning, you know.

TP:    That leads me to ask who are your drumming heroes.

HAYNES:  Well, Papa Jonathan [Jones] was my main guy, even though I was into Cozy Cole, because I had that record, “Crescendo In Drums,” that he made with Cab Calloway.  I had a record of Chick Webb, whom I never did see in person.  Some of the younger guys later, such as Kenny Clarke, whom I met in Boston in the early ’40s.  I met Art Blakey in Boston when he came there with Fletcher Henderson.  I didn’t meet Max when he came through with Benny Carter, but I caught him, and I had the records he was on with Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy and all of that.  Shadow Wilson I met when he was with Lionel Hampton, and later he was with Earl Hines.  All these guys were part of my thing.

TP:    You also said that you’d go to hear the big bands, and you’d hear Jimmy Crawford and Sonny Greer and the others who came through.

HAYNES:  Yeah.  I couldn’t get close to them, though, in terms of meeting them.  Later in life Sonny and I became very cool.  But Jo Jones, he was open.  In fact, when I went to the RKO Theater in Boston where the Basie band was playing, I went backstage and told them I was his son, man, so I got right in.  The guys in the band got a kick out of that.  They said, “Here’s your son, man!”  I was ahead of the time as far as the word “Papa Jo” was concerned!

TP:    Did you emulate these drummers in forming a style, or a sound?

HAYNES:  Well, I tried.  But I wasn’t too comfortable trying to do that.  It didn’t work for me.  So I had to go out and dig for myself.

TP:    Well, who are some of the young drummers today you most want to know about…

HAYNES:  You know what?  I get that question all the time.  I can’t answer it.  There’s a lot of great talent out there.  A lot of the youngsters are really into it, and I’m going to leave out somebody.  I’ll say that there are some pretty hot ones. They’ve got good hands.  I don’t know if I dig where they put things.  I don’t always dig their imaginations, but they’ve got a lot of stuff to work with.

TP:    So if there’s anything lacking in young drummers, it’s their imagination?

HAYNES:  I wouldn’t even want to say that there are things lacking.  Even though there may be, you know.

TP:    What do they most want to know about when they talk to you?

HAYNES:  I get all kinds of questions in general.  They ask me all kinds of things.  I can’t think offhand of one thing.  A lot of them, not only the drummers…. Well, this is a drummer’s thing.  But just musicians ask me questions in general, not particularly drummers.  They try to check out things and…

TP:     Well, obviously they watch you and try to emulate.

HAYNES:  Some of the guys write down some of the stuff you play.  And a lot of that stuff is hard, I’m sure, especially the direction I go now, which is soloing.  It’s elastic, it’s back forth, there aren’t always measures to count.  That’s my concept now.

TP:    How does your current band facilitate that concept, with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci?

HAYNES:  Well, a lot of people want to play with me, naturally, because I’ve become the link, so to speak.  They want to be associated with people I’ve played with; for instance, pianists like Monk or Bud Powell or Chick Corea.  They want to be part of that.  But what I am trying to do at this stage of my life is to do anything and everything that comes to mind, but try to place it in a place where it’s going to mean something.  Years ago, when I played with those people, I didn’t do everything that I was capable of doing because it wouldn’t fit.  So now, whatever I do, if I play with somebody else, they sort of have to go in my direction, because there’s no telling what I’m going to do.  And these guys are up for it.  I’m stretching the beat, I’m going fast and slow…taking it fast and slow and hot and cold.  And it seems to work.  There’s an audience for it.  They seem to love it!

TP:    Well, Danilo Perez almost seems like a second drummer.

HAYNES:  Well, he’s got a lot of rhythm!  So it can work.  Sometimes we meet up with the same thing, the same beats — not even trying to particularly.  It happens spontaneous.  That’s what they were thinking of calling the trio record.

TP:    And this record, like all your records of the last decade, surveys your career and your connections and the people who played with.  There’s a Monk piece, a piece associated with Bird, one with Bud, one with Sarah Vaughan, one by Chick Corea, and so on.

HAYNES:  Exactly.

TP:    Your style was so beloved by singers, and you played with Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, and even once for a week with Nat Cole.

HAYNES:  I did a week with Nat Cole in 1946 in the Earle Theater in Philadelphia.

TP:    What’s the art to backing a singer, from your perspective?

HAYNES:  I guess I was just learning then when I was trying to do it, and whatever it is, I think I captured it.  I can’t always put it into words.  It’s still that thing of listening and being sensitive.  When I played with Billie Holiday, sometimes I wasn’t sensitive enough maybe.  But I know what you have to do.  I knew what they wanted.  I said recently in an interview that playing with Sarah Vaughan was like playing with Charlie Parker.  She had that kind of mind.  She was ready for new things.  Playing with Billie Holiday was like playing with Lester Young.  And playing with Ella Fitzgerald was like playing with the Basie band.  She’d work you to death, Ella Fitzgerald, man!  She’d sing long and she’d scat but she was SWINGIN’ in there.  So I had a taste of all that.  I recorded with Ray Charles, too, and Carmen and a lot of different singers.  I played with Lee Wiley up in Boston.

TP:    Are you someone who knows all the lyrics?

HAYNES:  I know a lot of lyrics.  I didn’t particularly learn them playing with the singers.  A lot of people say, “Yeah, you played with Sarah Vaughan…” I knew lyrics before that.

TP:    Do you sing?

HAYNES:  All the time! [LAUGHS]

TP:    What do you remember most from your time with Coltrane, and was there anything in particular that he wanted to hear?

HAYNES:  Well, Coltrane had with him one of the greatest drummers ever — Elvin.  Each time I played I was sort of filling in for Elvin.  It wasn’t really the same, but Elvin was familiar with me from the period when I was with Bird.

TP:    So I hear.  I gather he used to meet you at the train station.

HAYNES:  Yeah, he talks about that.  That’s when I was with Ella Fitzgerald, because Hank and I were playing together then.  So a lot of people haven’t realized that he was hip to me way back before they were — “they” meaning maybe some of the writers and journalists and historians.  But I think they’ve learned that since then.

But what did Trane want?  Trane didn’t say too much about what he wanted.  There was something in me that I guess he was familiar with, and that I just had to lay back a little and let it happen.

TP:    You told me that Coltrane was one of the very few artists who could play a lot of choruses and keep you listening, which you said he got from Earl Bostic.

HAYNES:  Well, yes.  Earl Bostic was very long-winded.  He’d play a lot of choruses.  Trane may have got that from him.  I remember one time Trane was playing something, and afterwards I hummed what he was playing to him, and I said, “Man, where did you get that?”  He said, “Earl Bostic.” [LAUGHS] He told me that himself.  He worked with Earl.  During 1946 there were a lot of jam sessions around New York.  There was a guy named Johnny Jackson who is not living now.  He used to give sessions in the Bronx, at the Club 421 I think the name of it was…or maybe not the 421… It was something on one of the main streets.  Earl used to be part of that, and I used to play with those guys.  I was usually one of the drummers.  Sid Catlett was the drummer on some of those sessions.  So I got a taste of all of that, too.  And I learned later how important Earl Bostic was.  He was a crowd-pleaser, plus he was very musical.

TP:    Plus an incredible technician, a scientist of the saxophone.

HAYNES:  There you go.

TP:    Coltrane also had the phrase “spreading the rhythm” in reference to you.

HAYNES:  That’s the term he used describing Elvin and myself.

TP:    It’s an interesting term.  Do you feel it’s something that got unlocked in you from playing with him, or is it something you were doing all along?

HAYNES:  I would think that’s something that I was about.  Because even back when playing the hi-hat, the sock cymbal on 2 and 4 a lot, I didn’t really do a lot of that.  Sometimes on a record I would do it, because certain musicians needed or wanted that.  But I sort of played loose.  That’s one thing that really got me with Lester Young.  He liked that looseness.  It’s still swinging.  I’m still doing a lot of little accents with the bass drum in my left hand, even in my early career, and it could work with somebody if they could play, if they had the rhythm.  I’m talking about the person you’re accompanying.  Some guys needed that whole thing all the time for you to give them the 2-and-4 feeling.  But with Trane, all I could do is just swing and play.  With Lester Young, too, and Charlie Parker.

TP:    You’ve referred to Coltrane as a drummer, Bird as a drummer, Chick Corea as a drummer, Lester Young, Monk… You referred to them all as drummers.

HAYNES:  Yes.  They have a drummer inside them.  All you do is accompany them, man.

TP:    You said all you have to do with them is design around it, designing the rhythm.

HAYNES:  Yes.  Mingus used to say, “Roy Haynes doesn’t always play the beat.  He suggests the beat!”  That’s somebody describing me, and maybe to that extent he was right.

TP:    Which sounds like choreography, choreographing a tap dance to a certain extent.

HAYNES:  There you go.  I used to try to tap dance years ago at home, not in public.  Every now and then I still… I’ve got more of a right foot than a left foot, though!  But even now, I’m into checking out Savion Glover.  And Jimmy Slyde is my buddy; he’s still around dancing, and we sort of grew up together,.  Also when I started playing as a teenager, I played for a lot of tap dancers through my early career.

TP:    You can kind of hear it in your attack, too, because your strokes are so crisp and your punctuation so precise.  Is clarity of ideas always your goal and focus?

HAYNES:  Sometimes.  I guess maybe most of the time in solos.  It’s like having a conversation, or telling a story, painting a picture.  Sometimes it’s abstract; sometimes it’s right there to the point, right in the rhythm; sometimes it spreads out.  That’s what I try to do.  I try to make it say something.  Take you someplace.

TP:    You mentioned that even when you were very young, you were always playing the drums in your head, always thinking about drums, always thinking about rhythm…

HAYNES:  Yes, playing with my thumbs even at school, with the desk.  The desk had an opening.  The desk was made like a drum; it was hollow on the inside where you could put your books and everything.  So I liked the sound of it.  I would do that, and the whole class would be listening to me rather than listening to the teacher — and they would throw me out!  They sent me to the principal’s office in high school.  Because I was always playing with my little nervous hands.  You know what I mean?  I was always drumming, man.

TP:    You’re playing very free and, as you said, you’re soloing all the time, but there are structures within the songs, and certain arrangements, whether they’re loose or tight or whatever, and I’m wondering about how you guide the flow of a performance.

HAYNES:  It varies.  It may depend on my mood, or it may depend on the song itself.  Usually, when I have, say, my quartet, I don’t always solo.  I wait for a while.  I have to really feel relaxed or comfortable enough.  I have to be comfortable around how I’m sitting, how the audience is, if they’re loud or attentive.  That’s when I figure I’m best at soloing, when I’m ready to, rather than have to play with somebody who is going to tell me when to solo — they’re going to trade here or they’re going to trade there.  I don’t usually like to do it that way.  Lots of times, when I have a saxophone, I’ll have the saxophone and the piano playing fours against each other, and I’ll just be designing around them.  I don’t always like to play fours.  I did that with Prez back in the ’40s; I don’t always like to do that.  So I like to solo when I’m ready, and it seems to work, because the audience really seems to eat it up that way.  There’s an audience for what I’ve been trying to do, I’m finding out, all over the world.

TP:    You started out playing for dancers a lot.  When you came to New York, your first gig was at the Savoy, and you’ve referred to how the Savoy beat imprinted itself on you.  What’s the difference between playing for dancers and playing in a sitdown concert situation, which is how life is in the jazz business these days?

HAYNES:  Well, there’s a certain thing that you have to do to keep the people dancing.  I’ve had some times when the people won’t dance until you get a certain… Or sometimes you play a melody that they like, then once you get them on the floor, man, you can take them where you want to take them — to some extent.  But there’s an art to doing that.  I did a lot of it, and I tried to get away from that, and just play concerts for people listening.  But I know how to do it.  I know how to handle that.  I can still do it if I wish.

TP:    You’ve always had a very distinct snare drum sound.  Why do you tune it high and tight with lots of crispness?

HAYNES:  It seems to be effective.  It seems to work.  I don’t always know why I do things, but there sure is a reason up there.  But whatever the reason is, it seems to really get over.  It seems to work!  I don’t know why, though.  I just found out last night, when I was doing a soundcheck… From night to night you go to different places, and your drums may change.  Danilo was telling me I always get that same note.  There are two notes; I get one or the other.  He would hear me hit the drums playing a melodic thing, then he would hit them on the piano.  I knew what I wanted in my head all the time, all these years!  And he says it’s always the same notes, either one or the other — one of two notes.  That’s pretty good.  I tried for that.  That’s what I tried to do.  Now, he answered without me even asking.  “Yeah, Roy Haynes, you always get that note, man.”

TP:    You also have a real wide-open bass drum sound.  It’s instantly recognizable for certain drummers.  They hear one stroke, and they know it’s you.

HAYNES:  How about that.  That’s interesting.  In fact, it’s so wide open… It may have been wide open at Birdland, sometimes maybe too much for the bass player.  It’s an 18″ bass drum.  I don’t like bass drums all cluttered up, unless I’m just playing a whole Rock thing — but I’m not a Rock drummer.

TP:    What does it mean, you’re not a Rock drummer?

HAYNES:  Well, that speaks for itself.  I’m not.  Someone was asking me earlier about the technicians today in the studio and studio playing.  I’m not always comfortable in a studio.  Everything is geared toward that Rock-Funk thing, mostly.

TP:    Is it too mechanical?

HAYNES:  It’s very mechanical.  It’s a very mechanical sound.  Most of the drummers that play today, they all sound alike.  Their drums sound alike.  I’ve never wanted to sound too much like anyone else, ever since I’ve been an adult.

TP:    So being an individual has always been your animating imperative, really.

HAYNES:  Somewhat.  One year I had bought a new convertible, and one of my buddy drummers was in the car, and he says, “Roy Haynes, what are you trying to do?”  I said, “I’m trying to be myself!”  I said that then, in 1950!

TP:    I need to know the components of your kit.  If you don’t want to go into it, tell me who I should ask, so I can get the accurate information.

HAYNES:  Joe Testa at Yamaha.  He’ll give you all the details.  I have different sets.  I have two floor toms, and I don’t always use them.

TP:    What do you have with you now?

HAYNES:  I don’t know all the sizes.  An 8″-by-10″, I think, and a 9″-by-12″ rack tom, as they call them now.  I have one I think 14″ or 16″ floor tom; I’m not sure which.  I have two crash cymbals.  A flat ride cymbal that was sort of copied after the cymbal that I used on “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs,” which has become very classic and very popular.  In fact, the cymbal that I used on “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs” with Chick Corea was a flat ride Paiste, which is when they first started making them.  I had one of the first ones.  I may have been the first drummer to record with it.  When Chick Corea started Return to Forever, he came over to my house and borrowed a cymbal, and kept it all of these years.  Then last year, I think, he took that same Paiste cymbal and brought it to Zildjian and had them try to copy it — a sort of cloned cymbal.  They gave me three or four, and they gave Chick a few of them.  So that’s what I’m using right now, and it really worked with this trio.  It’s only an 18″ flat ride.

TP:    Why does it work so well with this trio?

HAYNES:  Well, John Patitucci, most of his stuff is pretty light on the acoustic bass.  He likes to play light, so this cymbal works with him, along with the piano.  Even though I know the bass drum sometimes probably can get a little boomy in there!  But sometimes I don’t play it, or sometimes I just let him play solo without the drums.

TP:    And you do a lot of exchanges on the record.

HAYNES:  Oh yes.  We did some 12s on “Sippin’ At Bells” and some of the other stuff.

TP:    How has drum equipment changed over the years, from when you were playing with Lester Young and Charlie Parker to today?  Is it a much more efficient instrument?  Have the materials changed your sound in any way?

HAYNES:  Well, not too much.  Except they started making all of the drum stands and the cymbal stands and the drum throws and the seats…they started making them heavier.  I guess a lot of the Rock drummers were breaking up the stuff, so they started making everything stronger and heavier, which cost me a lot of money traveling.  If I’m the leader, that comes out of your expenses — the overweight.

But let me say this.  When I was with Lester Young, which was 1947 to 1949, I think my drums had got stolen.  I think I had a 22″ bass drum, because I came from the Luis Russell Big Band to Lester Young.  Then I had one of the first 20″ bass drums in 1949.  Then after that they started making smaller ones, so I got to the 18″, and I’m pretty comfortable with the 18″.  So it went from the 22″ when I was with the big band, Luis Russell… 22″ was considered small because a lot of people had 24″ bass drums, and 28″ was standard for a bass drum in the ’40s, or at least the early ’40s.  Then I had this small snare drum, 3″-by-13″, which we called a bebop snare.  That’s in that famous picture with Monk, Mingus and Bird, taken at the Open Door — that little snare drum.  I still have another one at my house in Long Island.

TP:    Are cymbals similar to what they were then?

HAYNES:  Well, everything has improved.  They last longer.

TP:    A lot of drummers, when they talk about you, describe you as having an internal clave.  It’s not explicit, it’s almost implicit in the way you…

HAYNES:  It must be Latin drummers who talk about that.

TP:    No.  They’re drummers who are interested in Latin music, but not Latin drummers.  Could you talk a bit about your relations to Latin music and diasporic music within your trapset style?

HAYNES:  I was always into the Latin music.  My folks were from the Caribbean anyhow — Barbados.  And I always listened to it.  When I first came to New York, there was a lot of great Latin music — uptown, all over Manhattan.  When places like Birdland opened, and the Royal Roost, Machito’s band was very popular.  He had a drummer named Uba, and we were always checking Uba out.  He didn’t play with a complete trapset.  He had timbales in his set, and a bass drum, and no hi-hat… I forget exactly his setup.  But I used to listen to him all the time, and Tito Puente and those guys, way back in the day.  I was very close with Willie Bobo.  Mongo and Willie Bobo were living in the same complex in the Bay Area when they were playing with Cal Tjader. They had checked out my concept way back then on records and from in-person appearances, and they would say that I approached the drumset like timbales.  They were telling me that in the late ’50s and early ’60s.  So there was some relation.  And that was my approach.  I felt that.  I was into that on a lot of solos and everything.

TP:    I guess Danilo Perez must really relate to that in your band.

HAYNES:  Oh, man, he loves it.  All night long he’s telling me, “You’re the only one, man!  You’re the only one!”  Jack Hooke and Symphony Sid used to present Monday Latin Night at the Village Gate, and sometimes they would feature a jazz guy with one of the Latin bands.  When Jack called me to do it, I was to play with Tito Puente’s band as a guest.  And man, we got hooked up so heavy there with the rhythms that Tito… The lead trumpet was the musical director of the band, and, man, we got so involved, he gave them the cue to take it out.  It got too hot!  Tito was my buddy.  We knew each other from the late ’40s.

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Filed under Drummer, Interview, Jazziz, Roy Haynes

For David Murray’s 57th Birthday, a Jazziz Article From 2007 and a DownBeat Blindfold Test From Ten Years Ago

David Murray turned 57 a few days ago; he’ll be in NYC next week to present his latest project, a big band collaboration with guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, a partner on various projects over the last 35 years. I’ve appended a feature piece that I wrote about Murray in 2008 for Jazziz, framed around the release of Banished, and also a Blindfold Test from the early ’00s.

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“I’ve always been around poets,” said David Murray, in New York City in January to play the Knitting Factory with his quartet. “They bare their soul so much. When I get my hands on a good poem, I can see the music jumping off the page. The word is powerful.”

Recently arrived from his home in Paris, Murray was having a pre-gig dinner at Chez Josephine. The walls of the West 42nd Street bistro are festooned with photographs and memorabilia of Josephine Baker, the famous African-American dancer-chanteuse out of St. Louis, who sailed to Paris in 1925, at 18, and transformed herself into a staple of French popular culture. After the second world war, she adopted a dozen impoverished French orphans, one of them the proprietor, who reinforces a tone of soulful Francophilia, both with the menu — fried chicken and collard greens share pride of place with snails and bouillabaisse — and the entertainment, provided by an elderly black woman in her Sunday best singing to her own piano accompaniment and a woman of similar vintage blowing melodies and obbligatos on trumpet.

Murray and his pianist, Lafayette Gilchrist, sat near the piano, facing Valerie Malot, Murray’s wife and manager, and Jim West, who runs Justin Time Records, which recently issued Sacred Ground, Murray’s 10th release for the label. On Sacred Ground, Murray and his Black Saint Quartet stretch out on seven songs — on two, Cassandra Wilson sings lyrics by Ishmael Reed — that the leader wrote for the soundtrack of Banished. The PBS documentary film, which premiered in February, examines three towns in Georgia, Missouri, and Arkansas from which residents of African descent were forceably removed during the years after Reconstruction, and which remain lily-white today.

Banished is the most recently realized of an ambitious series of projects, all touching on Afro-diasporic themes, that Murray, 52, launched after he migrated from New York City to the City of Light in 1996 to join Malot, with whom he has two children. It follows Pushkin, a fully-staged quasi-opera, as yet unrecorded, on which Murray wrote a suite of songs to French, English, Creole, and Bantu translations of texts by the immortal Russian poet, himself the great-grandson of an Ethiopian prince. During his dozen years of self-imposed exile, Murray, among other things, has composed big band and string music for Cuban ensembles, and created repertoire for bands comprised of musicians from Guadeloupe (CreoleYonn-de, and Gwotet, Senegal (Fo Deuk Revue), and the Black American Church (Speaking in Tongues). Later that evening at the Knitting Factory, he intended to touch base with poet Amiri Baraka, the librettist of “Sisyphus Syndrome,” scheduled to open on May 19th, Malcolm X’s birthday, for which Murray had as yet completed only five of 15 songs. In two days, he would fly to Cuba, to audition a string ensemble to perform as-yet-to-be written arrangements for a proposed celebration of Nat “King” Cole with Cassandra Wilson.

After ordering the fried chicken, Murray took his glass of vin rouge to a quieter spot at the front of the bar. “Next week I’m going to be writing like crazy,” he said. “But the deadlines keep me motivated. It’s like Duke Ellington said, ‘If I want to get something finished, all I need is a deadline.’ But between Banished and Sisyphus, I have music to play with my quartet for the next two years.”

In the summer of 2006, Banished director Marco Williams, a Murray fan since the saxophonist’s New York glory days in the ’80s, contacted Malot about Murray’s availability and sent a two-hour rough cut to Paris. “He wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to use me, but I forced myself upon him,” Murray said. “I stopped everything else I was doing, didn’t wait for nobody to give me no money, started writing songs, and had Valerie tape them and send them to him over the Internet.”

“It was a challenging process,” Williams relates. “David is not someone who’s going to write notes that hit a certain cut. Frankly, I couldn’t tell whether the music was going to work or not. But I wanted a collaborator, not someone just to score the film. And it was completely evident that David got the movie, it meant something to him, and he wanted to express something. The music was so beautiful, so evocative. I told my editors, ‘We’ll just get all the stems, and cut down as needed.’”

“Basically, this is ethnic cleansing,” Murray elaborated. “You see that monster, you got to cut the head off. My way of trying to cut the head off was to send him tunes.”

Without much prodding, Murray revealed that the film’s particulars resonated with his own family’s experience.

“Most black people who know their family history talk about how they got ran off,” he said. “We don’t know the terms ‘banished’ or ‘ethnic cleansing.’ We say, ‘We got ran off.’ When a town decides it don’t need you no more, that’s just how it is.” Murray cited his maternal grandfather, George Hackett, a sharecropper who went to Midland, Texas, and struck oil. “They ran him off the property, but he managed to sell his oil rights, and moved to California,” he said. “He was very enterprising. He went north to the Bay Area, but that was too far. A black man at that time couldn’t do nothing with the sea. Then he remembered he’d seen cotton in Fresno. He knew cotton, so he turned around to go where the produce was. He bought a block in Fresno, called Hackett Flats. It still has that name, and I own property on that plot.”

By Murray’s account, his paternal grandfather, a Nebraskan, was less fortunate, leaving his wife six months pregnant with Murray’s father when he fell from a scaffold in a gusting wind. Born in 1925 and full-grown in 1940, David Murray, Sr. hopped a train from Nebraska to Los Angeles, started a body and fender shop near Central Avenue, sent for his mother and older brother, and at 17, lied about his age and joined the Navy. Decommissioned in 1946, he moved to the Bay Area, tried out for the San Francisco 49ers, even joined the circus as an acrobat, but then returned to body-and-fender work, raised his family, and played guitar at church in a band with his wife, sons, and two nephews. Murray played bongos, but for one evening’s gathering, having just received an alto saxophone from his junior high school band director, Phil Hardiman, he brought his new possession.

“I didn’t know jack-shit, just squeaked and squawked,” he says. “I probably sounded a little like I do now, but now I actually know what I’m doing. It was like, ‘Wow, that young Murray is exuberant. He’s got a lot of energy.’ Then a couple of weeks later, ‘He’s starting to learn the songs now. Oh, yeah!’ I knew the melodies because my mother was always playing them. You can say that I am an on-the-job training type of guy.”

Physically mature like his father during high school, Murray, who ran a 4.3 40-yard dash, starred as a football tailback, got good grades, and earned money playing music. “I was always a leader,” he said. “From 13, I was bringing money home to give to my dad. We won a youth contest to play all the Shakey’s pizza parlors in the Bay Area. We had a gig every weekend for three years. We’d do any song, like ‘A Taste of Honey,’ and I’d improvise, not even knowing that I was playing jazz. Then I began to learn it. I’d heard Sonny Rollins play a solo saxophone concert at the Greek Theater, and he was a mighty influence. That’s when I started playing tenor. Later I had a funk group called the Notations of Soul, one of the tight bands in town. We played all the dances and proms. We played a lot of James Brown, of course. They started calling me ‘Murray-O,’ after Maceo Parker.”

During Murray’s teens, post-bop titans like Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw settled in the Bay Area, but Murray — who was slowing down Coleman Hawkins LPs to 16 r.p.m to analyze his solos — opted for the freedom principle, particularly the high-intensity post-Coltrane direction emblemized by Albert Ayler, himself a son of the sanctified church with early R&B experience. On a tip from trombonist Ray Anderson, whom he met during a successful audition for a horn section, Murray matriculated at the University of California-Claremont, and spent the next few years refining his craft with the likes of Arthur Blythe, Bobby Bradford, John Carter, and Butch Morris, all regulars at informal sessions at the house of Stanley Crouch, then a playwright, poet, and professor on the Claremont faculty, and a  drummer under the sway of Sunny Murray.

In 1975, Murray moved to New York City, sharing a loft with Crouch over the Tin Palace, an ultra-hip bar on the Bowery.

“All my Dad said was, ‘Just go out there and make some money — you’ll get good,’” Murray said. He followed that advice, performing as a peer of such A-list outcat elders as Sunny Murray, Don Pullen, and Lester Bowie, as well as Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Hamiett Bluiett, his future partners in the World Saxophone Quartet. In 1979, he assembled an octet, hiring the likes of Olu Dara, Anthony Davis, George Lewis, and Henry Threadgill. As the ’80s progressed he gigged frequently with two quartets, one a boisterous harmolodic unit with Blood Ulmer, the other a quartet with hardcore jazz masters like pianist John Hicks, bassists Fred Hopkins and Ray Drummond, and the iconic drummers Edward Blackwell and Andrew Cyrille. He also led ad hoc encounters with Randy Weston, Jack DeJohnette, and Milford Graves, and conceived elaborate homages to such heroes as Hawkins and Paul Gonsalves.

“I figured out that I could actually call the best musicians in the world and they’d show up, that I’d have one of the best bands just by hiring the best rhythm sections,” Murray said. “They taught me how to play. But I became a man in the World Saxophone Quartet. I’d be saying too much about myself if I said I was their equal when we began. But after five years, my sound started getting bigger. Finally, I became their contemporary — and they let me know it.”

Murray attracted a worldwide fan base through the lyric swagger and raw edge of his tonal personality. He drew criticism from many ’80s “young lions,” who attacked him as a poseur, suggesting that his predisposition to blast off to the outer partials stemmed less from an independent aesthetic decision than insufficient grounding in the tropes of tradition. As Crouch, who had championed Murray during the ’70s, joined forces with Wynton Marsalis to establish the Jazz at Lincoln Center juggernaut, Murray was unceremoniously deleted from the mainstream conversation. He recorded ever more prolifically, for multiple labels, and toured regularly with his various ensembles, but he was falling into a rut, and his rambunctious lifestyle was beginning to take a toll.

“I was troubled, and I needed to leave,” Murray recalls. “I had Paris in my sights.” For one thing, Paris was a magnet for African musicians. For another, Malot, who grew up in North Africa and whose sister’s husband, Klod Klavue, is a master Gwo-Ka drummer from Guadeloupe, understood — and through her booking and production experience was in a position to actualize — Murray’s desire “to get closer to my African roots and do a little personal research” on them by traveling to and performing with “groups of people in Senegal, in Ghana, in South Africa, in Cuba I’d met that I could relate to.”

“Jazz has the primal feeling of African drums and the sophistication of the city,” Murray says. “A primal force, like [drummer] Dudu Ndiaye Rose, brings very complex rhythms. I bring the harmonies and melodies. It  makes me want to play and sweat, like praising the Lord, going into a trance and getting back to roots. I’m trying to get to the core where the musics fuse.”

Today, Murray is less enamored with Paris than he once was. (“[The French] have an attitude that gets on your nerves.”) Nonetheless, Murray finds family life a sanctuary that provides space to think and focus, to work more systematically than the distractions of the New York City allowed.

“I used to put out five albums a year; now I put one out every year or 18 months,” he says. “I worked all the time and took pretty much any gig; now I take select gigs, maybe 120 concerts a year. I’m in Paris half the time, moving around the other half.  I’m not aligning myself with the avant-garde or the bebop, I’m just David Murray. I take my kids to school at 8:30, then I exercise, and I’m home at 9:30. I write until noon, and practice the rest of the day till 6, going through my books, trying to keep my chops up and my mind open. When a project comes up, I get very serious, and don’t study nobody else’s shit but mine. That will last for three months, and then there’s no project. Then I go back to my little everyday shit.”

He’s restless, though, and perhaps another journey is imminent.“One year I’m going to take my saxophone and go around the world myself,” he said. “I’ve got to do it soon, before I’m 55. What kind of music do people make in Tibet? What are people doing in India? I want to play with them.”

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David Murray Blindfold Test:

1.    Charles Mingus, “Better Get Hit In Your Soul” (from “Live at Antibes,” Atlantic, 1960/1994), Mingus, bass, composer; Booker Ervin, tenor sax; Eric Dolphy, alto sax; Ted Curson, tp.; Dannie Richmond, d. (5 stars)

That’s Mingus.  “Better Get It In Your Soul.”  I just love… I heard this on the radio in Paris the other day.  We were in a car.  Everybody said, “Who’s that guy back there?”  I said, “That’s Mingus.  He’s pushing the band on.”  He’s saying all kind of stuff.  We need people like this guy.  We need more people like him.  Is the trumpet player Lonnie Hillyer?  [It’s not Lonnie Hillyer.]  Who’s that bald-headed guy, that trumpet player?  [Ted Curson.] That’s Ted!  I could be wrong, but I get the Clifford Jordan vibe from the tenor player. [No.] So it’s Ted Curson, Eric and…goddamn, who is it?  [Well, how did you like the saxophone player?] I loved him.  It wasn’t a long solo.  He was kind of breaking up there at the top, but I liked him.  And definitely it’s before the period when George came into the band.  It couldn’t have been him.  I’m trying to think of who was in that band, because I’ve never seen that band… [Should I tell you?] No, not yet.  Because I might come up with it.  [How would you describe his sound?] What’s the characteristic of his sound?  [Warm.  A little brittle at the top.  [Do you get a sense of where he’s from?  Could you locate him geographically by his sound?] Texas. [You got it.] Texas.  I’m just trying to think who the heck it is.  What’s that tenor player…Red Conner? [No.  But this guy was under Red Conner.] Under Red Conner. [He heard that when he was young.  People say he sounded very close to Red Conner.] That’s a very good hint.  Under Red Conner.  And this guy is still around. [No, he died.] Oh, boy.  Texas.  Who’s from Texas.  He sounds like a few different people to me.  That’s why I thought it might have been Clifford, because of the way he started that solo.  Because Clifford always had that restraint, then you’d wait for him to bust it, then he finally busts it at the end.  To me, that’s Clifford.  When I was playing with the Mingus All Star Big Band on that record we did in Paris, I was sitting between Clifford and…who’s that alto player, that guy who’s riding on the horse… He did like one of them slick tunes.  I can’t remember his name.  He teaches at University of San Francisco. [Not John Handy.] Handy.  I was sitting between Clifford and Handy.  Damn, this guy is dead, huh? [For many years.] From Texas.  The only guy he sounds like to me… [AFTER] Goddammit.  I love Booker.  Man, I love him.  I should have got that. {How about the Mingus band?  Did it have an impact on you?] I heard that a lot.  In fact, that… [Your octet reminds me of that sort of feeling.] Sure, of course.  Because I love Mingus’ music.  My son is named Mingus!  That kind of explains things, too.  Just having those three horns or however many horns he’s got, and me having five horns, you get a balance… You could go many ways, especially if you have at least five horns up there.  It could go so many different ways.  Mingus taught me that, how you could try to make a small or middle sized band sound sometimes like a big band, sometimes like a small group, have that flexibility.  Booker Ervin, what a beautiful player. [You have to give stars.] On a recording like this, it’s stood the test of time.  It’s got to be a 5.  Of course.

2.    Charles Lloyd, “Homage” (from “Voice In The Night,” ECM, 1998), Lloyd, tenor sax; John Abercrombie, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; Billy Higgins, drums. (4 stars)

He’s got that Trane thing happening.  Coltrane influenced a lot of people, man.  The guitar, that’s interesting.  I wasn’t expecting the guitar.  Man, there was like a budding genius… I forget his name.  He played tenor and guitar and piano.  Remember that guy?  He died. [Arthur Rhames.] Arthur Rhames. [It’s not him, though.] But he had Trane down, though.  Is tenor his only instrument? [He plays flute, soprano, but primarily tenor.] Wow.  [He was very well known thirty years ago.] Is he still alive? [He’s still alive.  This is a recent record.] This guy did an album of Billy Strayhorn… [Oh, Joe Henderson.  It’s not Joe.] It don’t sound like Joe. You got me on this Bay Area thing, though.  Who the hell was this… I got out of the Bay Area so fast.  As soon as I got out of high school, I was gone. [Should I tell you?] No, let me hear it out. [You might want to think about who the drummer is, too.] [MIMICKING THE STROKES] Sounds like Billy Higgins.  [It’s a studio band, though they did tour.] He just loved Coltrane, whoever the hell he is!  But everybody loved Coltrane when I was growing up. [Where does he sound like he’s from?] Is this guy really old? [Not really old? [Not really old.  The generation right before us.] Who’s this tenor player, he plays a lot in the studio… He had the same piano teacher who I studied with.  He’s from the Bay Area, but he wouldn’t be the next generation before us.  He would be 25 years before me.  But he doesn’t sound like him.  Tell me. [AFTER] Charles Lloyd!  That’s Charles.  He had that Trane thing down.  I love Charles Lloyd. I guess he was in the Bay Area, but I always thought he was hanging out in L.A.  Yeah, that’s the second time I’ve been stumped by Charles Lloyd.  They played a piece for me in Japan one time, and all I could think of was John Coltrane.  But that lets you know how well he absorbed the Coltrane legacy.  He doesn’t necessarily sound like Coltrane that much now.  But during that period he was certainly all over. [Well, that was the one piece on the album that was in Coltrane’s style.  How many stars?] I’d have to give it at least 4 stars, because Billy’s back there playing and boppin’, and I’ll leave off one for creativity perhaps.  How can I say it… Coltrane is such a large figure that… Can’t nobody do it like Coltrane.  I don’t care who you are.  That’s why, in my explorations of Coltrane, I tried to stay away from trying to sound like him, because that’s too easy.  All the notes are written somewhere.  When he studied Coltrane, I’m sure he absorbed it mostly from the records.  In old times, you could slow it down and put it on 16 and get the solo, and then speed it back up.  But now you’ve got all these Coltrane transcriptions.  I have a book over here with all of the different versions of “Giant Steps,” transcriptions of just “Giant Steps”…

3.    Michael Brecker, “Freedom of Expression” (from Milton Cardona, “Cambucha,” American Clave, 1999), Michael Brecker, ts; Milton Cardona, shekeres, doo-wop vocals; Sergio Cardona, percussion (bells). (3½ stars)

Doo-wop with like the shekere, an African kind of thing — that’s nice!  That’s creative.  I want the tenor player to play more.  When was the recording made? [’99.] My first reaction would be… I know it’s not James Carter.  What’s that guy?  Who are some of the new guys… Whoever it is, they like me.  I mean, I don’t know if they LIKE me, but they’re influenced by me. [That’s questionable.] Well, I hear it.  [This guy is older than us.] Well, then it is questionable. [And he was very prominent when you came to New York.  Although in a different area.  Do you know who the shekere player was?] He’s an old guy.  Chief Bey. It sounds like him on those shiko drums, that low drum.  Can you play it again for me? It was so sparse, I could never get a fluidity thing. [I think that was in the arrangement.] Probably so. [Because it wasn’t his arrangement.  He was playing someone else’s concept.  I’ll give you a hint.  This is a Kip Hanrahan project, and Milton Cardona is playing shekere.] Oh, Milton, yeah!  He has a strident kind of tone; maybe it’s the recording.  Is this guy alive? [Oh yeah.] [AFTER] I would have never got that.  I like Michael Brecker.  He can play his ass off.  But it’s not something that I listen to often. [I was playing that because you’ve done so many things with African rhythms.] It’s interesting.  I like the doo-wop part of it.  He always comes up with good ideas. [It was Milton Cardona’s project, and they used him.] I’ve never consciously listened to Michael other than I used to hear him play sometimes at Seventh Avenue South through the wall, because I used to live through the wall there.  I like him, but I would never have named him.  3½ stars.

4.    Von Freeman, “Solitude” (from “Never Let Me Go,” Steeplechase, 1992), Freeman, ts.; Jodie Christian, piano; Eddie DeHaas, bass; Wilbur Campbell, drums. (5 stars)

Ah, this is “Solitude.”  He has a nice touch.  Is he from Chicago? [Yes, he is.] Sounds like Von to me.  You know, that motherfucker is so bad.  I was in a bar… He plays at the Apartment Lounge I think every Tuesday night or whichever night of the week.  But whenever I’m there, it’s a must to go hear Von, because he’s one of the last great tenor players.  See, I have a problem in general with… Certain people’s sounds stick in your head, because it really is their own.  That’s probably why I got this one and didn’t get the others.  I hear parts of people in other people’s sounds, but I hear pure Von.  That’s him, man.  He’s great.  It’s just the way that people from Chicago play.  When you hear Johnny Griffin, there’s a certain kind of distinctiveness between the beat.  He’s going to fit as many notes, but it’s the way he lands that makes you know it’s him. [SINGS SUPERSONIC GRIFFIN PHRASE] Damn!  How’d you get all those notes in that couple of beats there.  Incredible.  I’ll give that 5 stars for being Von, for all of the things he’s done and all of the people he has influenced, including his son, who is also great.

5.    Charles Gayle, “Touchin’ on Trane, Part B” (from “Touchin’ on Trane,” FMP, 1991), Gayle, ts.; William Parker, bass; Rashied Ali, drums.

Sounds like Frank Wright.  Is it that guy who used to play with Cecil?  You know the guy who does those festivals… [William Parker.] Is that William?  [Yes, that’s William.] [AFTER RAISING HIS EYES] I keep making these facial expressions because… Maybe it’s David Ware or somebody.  I don’t know.  [Not David Ware.] I don’t want to be negative, but I… Let me not be negative. [Be constructive.] What’s that guy that used to be homeless? [Charles Gayle.  That’s who it is.] He wears a clown suit sometimes.  In Europe, Sunny Murray did a gig with him, and he said he was wearing a clown suit.  There’s a struggle that you can do when you play with your horn.  When it’s not really relaxed, it sounds like you’re fighting your horn or something like that.  That’s why I keep grimacing, is because I’m not hearing the fluidity.  But what I do hear, I like the mood of the piece.  I like what William Parker is doing.  Let me think about who the drummer is now.  It’s somebody I played with.  That’s Andrew, it sounds like. [No.] I don’t know. [It’s Rashied Ali.] Rashied, okay.  It’s hard to tell who’s playing when they play brushes.  He knows how to play the brushes.  I’ve got to give it 3 stars.

6.    Ben Webster, “Chelsea Bridge” (from “Ben Webster with Strings,” Verve, 1954/1995), Ben Webster, ts; Billy Strayhorn, piano, arr.) (5 stars)

That beautiful string arrangement that Billy did.  You know, I did a string arrangement kind of based on his string arrangements when I did the Ellington thing this past summer.  We had a big band, plus we had 20 strings with 2 harps.  So I kind of listened to what Billy had done with the arrangement he did for Ben. It’s beautiful, so I took that and tried to add to it.  I had 20 strings.  He only had a couple.  But it sounded like a lot of strings; it sounded great.  That’s the way the saxophone is supposed to be played.  There’s no struggle.  It’s like he’s having a conversation with you.  Now, in the Billy Strayhorn book, he said that Ben was kind of proud of Billy, and he kind of took care of him like a little… I can see that happening, because he LOVED him, because he knew how great he was.  They appreciated one another for their music.  That’s what I aspire to be. [LAUGHS] I want to be just like that when I grow up.  Shit, man, this is pure music.  And it’s not the genre even.  No, it’s not the genre.  Like, the last thing… Well, I don’t want to go back.  They could have been playing anything.  But it’s just the way that you hold that horn, the way you use it as your form of expression, it’s almost like you love it… Do you love it, or is it just a piece, a thing that you use to spit through?  Do you love it?  He loves that horn!  Shit.  I don’t know if you were around when I did that string concert at the Public Theater years ago.  I did all ballads.  I think I had 14 strings.  That was one of my most successful concerts, because people were actually weeping in the concert.  I wasn’t weeping, but I had a little funny reaction, and then a couple of years after that this family comes up to me on the street and there’s this little baby, and they said, “You know, we have to thank you, because our son was conceived that night you played this concert; it made us really fall in love.”  I did my job!  To me that was the highest compliment that anybody ever paid.  And Ben and Bird with Strings… Every saxophone player has to realize his potential in playing in front of the strings.  I think it’s a wonderful. [So I don’t need to ask you how many stars for that.] Oh, man, if they could give more stars, they could give him the tip-top.  That one stood the test of time, jack!

7.    Eric Alexander, “Straight Street” (from “Solid,” Milestone, 1998), Alexander, ts; John Hicks, piano; George Mraz, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums. (4 stars)

This is a classic recording.  This is the one, right?  Oh, it’s a remake of it!  Oh, they got my piano player.  That’s John Hicks, for sure.  It sounds like Ray, too.  Wait.  No, that’s not Ray.  Hell, no.  He’d kill me!  Let me put my thinking cap on.  I like this one. [LAUGHS] Is that Curtis Lundy? [No.] I like his sound.  He sounds a younger guy, but with that old sound.  Whoever it is, he’s got it down.  I can’t say I know who he is.  I could take a wild guess, though.  When was this recording made? [’98.] Who are some younger tenor players?  I don’t really know who’s around. [AFTER] He sounds really good.  He sounds excellent.  I’d give it 4 stars, because it’s a remake of a legend.  I’d give it 5 if it were the real thing.  But John Hicks gets 5 stars for just being John Hicks, man!

8.    Sonny Rollins, “Cabin In The Sky” (from, “Plus 3,” Milestone, 1995),  Rollins, ts; Stephen Scott, piano; Bob Cranshaw, el. bass; Jack deJohnette, drums. 3½ stars.

I know this guy.  I don’t want to be stupid too soon.  I think I have a good idea already who it is.  It’s not who I thought it was at first.  I don’t know this guy’s name, but he is a contemporary of mine, this guy… No? [He’s older than you by a fair piece.] Is he living? [He is living.] It’s Sonny Rollins when he was going through his teeth problems.  That’s  what it sounds like.  He’s going through his teeth problem.  Because it ain’t CLASSIC Sonny.  Ah, how can I say this without being negative to Sonny.  It just sounds like he’s dealing with serious dental problems.  Let’s talk about it.  Let me say something different.  Sonny Rollins, but… Let’s just say it’s not the period of Sonny Rollins that I really, really am fond of.  I think Sonny Rollins… Sonny is such a… That’s why I was grimacing during that.  Because when you play tenor, when it’s a struggle to play certain notes for somebody that great, you know there’s something physical going on.  You can tell.  Because some of the notes that he was struggling with, somebody with regular dental work wouldn’t have.  So it probably was during the period of time when something like that was happening.  Well, I loved it!  It’s Sonny Rollins.  I love Sonny Rollins.  I mean, I love him for being Sonny Rollins.  That’s not one of his best recordings, I would say.  3½ stars.  He’s going to kill me.

9.    Sam Rivers/Tony Hymas, “Glimpse” (from “Winter Garden,” NATO, 1998), Rivers, tenor sax; Hymas, piano. (5 stars)

Whoever this is, they have a very nice sound.  You know, the saxophone is the kind of instrument, when it buzzes, you know you’ve got something.  When you don’t hear that buzz, you get a flat sound.  It’s too straight.  This horn has got a buzz.  It’s alive.  He knows his horn.  Now let me figure out who it is.  Is he from this continent? [Yes.] I like the tune.  It’s beautiful. [The saxophone player wrote it.] It’s great.  He’s a good writer.  It’s got that real international kind of sound.  I’m not quite sure who it is. [He was also very prominent in your scene when you got to New York, and he was already in it.] Oh.  In my scene.  [Or parallel.  And he’s old enough to be your father.] Okay. [And you’ll kick yourself if you don’t know who it is.] I will kick myself.  Who’s the brother who teaches in upstate New York… [Not him.] Play me a little more.  I don’t want to be kicked by myself.  I love it.  Whoever it is, I really dig it. [PLAY “Impulse”] My father is almost 75 years. [That’s how old he was when he made this.] Incredible.  Is it Sam Rivers?  He’s the only guy it could be!  Sam Rivers is such a great person.  He gave me my first gig in New York.  It sounded like somebody who just knew… He’s probably forgotten more shit than most people know.  It sounded like somebody like that.  It really helped this other tune.  I may have never gotten it with just that ballad.  That’s a beautiful song.  You know when you hear a song and it sounds like it doesn’t matter what year it was made… [It’s like Classical music.] Yeah, it’s like Classical music.  It’s always going on.  You could sing it in a different language, and it will still work. [Why did you ask if the saxophone player was from this continent?] Because at first it sounded like somebody from Brazil, like what somebody Ivo Perelman might do.  I like Ivo.  But then as it went on, it sounded like somebody more mature who has been through generations.  And when you said he was old enough to be my father and you put on the faster song, I could hear Sam’s rhythms.  Rhythmically, Sam has a different kind of expression because he’s been through so much, I guess.  His rhythm is not like Sonny Rollins, where it’s like BOM-BOM, right on your head, the way he attacks.  He’s snake-like; he kind of slides through.  But he’s got that sound.  God bless Sam Rivers, man.  I hope he lives to be 100.  I’d give that tune 5 stars.

10.    David Sanchez, “Lamento Borincano” (from “Obsesión,” Columbia, 1998), Sanchez, tenor sax; Edsel Gomez, piano; John Benitez, bass; Adam Cruz, drums; Richie flores, Pernell Saturnino, percussion.  (4 stars).

Is it a recent recording? [Yes.] Everybody loves Coltrane, man!  He’s probably the most quoted tenor player since Bird, I guess.  I take it these are Spanish musicians. [Hispanic-American, U.S.-based.  But mostly from Puerto Rico.] I’ll just take a guess that it’s David Sanchez or somebody like that.  One time this guy had a funny idea to do a Three Davids —  David Murray, David Sanchez and  Fathead! It was funny, man.  People run out of themes sometimes.  So we did this thing.  And it was nice.  We did it with an organ player.  I kind of remember his sound from there.  I kind of like David Sanchez.  He’s still young.  He’s got a ways to go.  But he’s going to be one of the great ones.  I think in about two years he’ll be where he wants to be.  It takes time to be… You’re thrown in there, and there’s this big fray in New York, and they expect you to be great already.  And I’m sorry, it just doesn’t… I didn’t get my own sound til I was about 28, and I feel like I got it early. [So you feel you didn’t get your own sound until about ’83-’84.] Something like that.  I had to absorb all this stuff around me, people saying this about me, they’re writing about, “Oh yeah, you’re the next blah-blah-blah.”  What the hell, I don’t know, man.  I’m trying to play my horn.  So David Sanchez, he’s getting a lot of recognition, but at the same time, this is a young man.  Give the guy a chance to develop.  He’ll be good.  I’ll give it 4 stars.

11.    Paul Gonsalves/Sonny Stitt, “Perdido” (from “Salt and Pepper,” Impulse, 1963/1997) Gonsalves, Sonny Stitt ts; Hank Jones, p.; Milt Hinton, bass; Osie Johnson, drums. (4½ stars)

It’s two tenor players.  Paul sounds different than before he really got plastered! [You think this is before or after?] This is before.  When he gets really plastered… Here I am going negative again.  But before he’s really libated…he slips and slides even more when he… Before that, he sounds more like a normal tenor player.  You know what I’m saying?  when he plays his little figures.  But when he gets plastered, he sounds like he’s in his own zone.  And I hate to say it for the youngsters, but the guy sounds good when he’s plastered! [LAUGHS] I don’t know!  It’s like no abandon, just pure… I love Paul.  He’s my favorite tenor player, man.  This is definitely pre.  He seems pretty sober here. [Then you have to figure out the other one.] Let me see who’s in the right here.  Paul is in the left.  This is like a separate recording from an Ellington project.  This is not an Ellington project at all.  They both sound wonderful.  That’s all I know.  He’s not an Ellington tenor player. [No.] Not at all. [Not at all.] This is from a whole nother zone. [He had his career as a hired gun.] Okay!  With the correctness of the way he plays, it sounds like it could only be Sonny Stitt.  What comes to mind is the Sonny Rollins-Sonny Stitt thing with Dizzy where they both play their ass off, then Dizzy ends up smokin’ them both!  You’re not going to find two better tenor players on the planet anywhere than Paul Gonsalves and Sonny Stitt. [Any idea who the piano player is?] Let me hone in.  Is he alive? {The piano player is alive.  He’s an elderly guy now, but this was 40 years ago.] [AFTER] I couldn’t really get his left hand, but I should have figured that was Hank Jones.  I played with Hank once in a tenor battle in 1978 at the Northsea Jazz Festival in the Hague.  It was Archie Shepp, Lockjaw, Fathead.  Hank Mobley got sick and I took his place.  Illinois Jacquet was running the session.  Hank Jones was on piano and Max Roach on drums and Wilbur Little on bass.  That’s when everybody in Europe recognized me and said I hung pretty good with the old guys.  So that was my moment.  I’d say 4½ stars for this, only because I’ve heard Paul play better, I guess maybe for the reasons I mentioned!  I don’t know why.  But it passed the test of time again.

12.    Branford Marsalis, “Attainment” (from Jeff Watts, “Citizen Tain,” Columbia, 1998), Marsalis, ts; Kenny Kirkland, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Watts, drums. (5 stars)

Is it one drummer?  I like the tone of the sax player.  I’m waiting for them to get into it.  It’s nice how they got into it finally, like a lilt kind of.  [4 minutes.] I’m not quite sure who this is, but the spirituality of it is something that I can sort of relate to.  Is this a young player, or an older one? [A little younger than you; not too much.] Sounds good, though. [He’s someone you have encountered over the years.  You’ve had a dialogue.] A word dialogue? [I just mean a dialogue.] Oh, a dialogue.  That sounds good to me.  You mean we played together. [I’m just going to say you had a dialogue!] Okay, man.  I’m trying to figure out… It sounds familiar.  Somebody that I know.  Geez… It’s not Chico.  [Okay, you played together.] I’m trying to think what tenor players I played with.  A tenor player that I played with and is younger than me.  [Not that much younger, but definitely affiliated with a different generation than you.] Branford Marsalis.  He sounds good, man.  The spirituality comes through.  It sounds good! [So you can probably figure who the other guys were.] I guess with his band perhaps.  Jeff Tain and the brother who just passed away, Kenny Kirkland.  It was a very nice piece.  I’m impressed.  We encounter one another in Europe all the time.  He’s playing a lot of soprano.  He don’t play tenor that much on the gig.  But I admire him.  He’s a great player.  I’ll give that 5 stars because the spirituality is there, and you feel something. [That was Tain’s record, not Branford..] Tain did a good record, then.  God bless him.

13.    Joe Lovano, “Fort Worth” (from “From The Soul,” Blue Note, 1991), Lovano, tenor sax; Dave Holland, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums. (4 stars)

It kind of sounds like Dewey. [Dewey’s influenced an aspect of his playing.] Dewey’s son. [No, it’s not Joshua.] Okay.  He definitely likes Dewey.  But he sounds good.  I like the composition… [Who’s the drummer?] I wasn’t even listening for that.  Give me a few more minutes, a little glimpse of the drummer.  I’ll play you the one before, a duo. [PLAY “Modern Man.”] It’s definitely not Dewey now.  He sounds completely different now to me. Is it a recent recording? [1991] I think I need a clue. [The saxophone player has become very prominent in this decade.  This was a sort of breakthrough recording for him.  And he’s a year or two older than you.] Oh, that’s great.  Gee.  A year or two older than me.  It’s not Don Braden or someone like that.  I don’t know who it is. [AFTER] Oh, I know Joe.  I should have known that.  I don’t really know his sound.  He sounds good, though.  I’ve seen him over in Holland; we were hanging out in Amsterdam.  I don’t really know his sound, so I probably would have never guessed that. [Who’s the drummer?  Do you know?] [AFTER] That’s Blackwell?  No shit.  4 stars.

14.    Ornette Coleman, “Feet Music” (“In All Languages,” Verve, 1987/1997).  Coleman, tenor sax; Don Cherry, tp.; Charlie Haden, b.; Billy Higgins, drums.

It sounds like they’re out of the Ornette Coleman school.  Which is a great school.  Sounds like Dewey to me.  Is that Dewey? [No.] That’s Ornette on tenor!  No wonder it’s out of the Ornette school! [LAUGHS] There’s one note Ornette always play when he plays tenor.  He plays like he’s playing alto, and it just hits that note!  I think he can play any saxophone.  But I’d like to hear him play baritone one day.  He probably could play the shit out of that, too.  People have to recognize that there are… If we’re lucky enough while we’re here, we’ll come across maybe 3 or 4 geniuses whose music really is something that has a lot of influence, and Ornette is one of them.  There aren’t many of them out here now left that their concept was maybe the strongest thing… The concept supersedes even the playing itself.  That’s what brings his genius into it.  That’s why you can hear his… When he did this thing at Lincoln Center, I heard about it.  I heard it was wonderful.  I want to hear some recordings from it.  But those kinds of things Ornette is brilliant on.  We need to hear him more.  He gets 5 stars for all the abuse they’ve given him over the years

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A Jazziz Article on McCoy Tyner from 2003 {Plus Interviews}

To mark the 73rd birthday of piano maestro McCoy Tyner, I’m posting a feature article about that I had the opportunity to write for Jazziz in 2003. I’ve attached below the verbatim transcripts of the two interviews that I conducted for the piece.

* * *

Thirty-six years after the death of John Coltrane, with whom he famously played from 1960 until 1965, McCoy Tyner remains a jazz icon. The 64-year-old pianist reinforced that stature one night last March, during a thrilling set with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Charnett Moffett, and drummer Al Foster at Manhattan’s Iridium in the middle of a week’s stand supporting Land of Giants (Telarc), Tyner’s superb 2003 release.

“There’s a prayer that comes through as the music is being played,” Hutcherson noted during a subsequent conversation. Hutcherson, who first recorded with Tyner in the mid-’60s, when both were Blue Note artists, is perhaps Tyner’s most inspired foil. “You’re vulnerable, naked. McCoy knows how to mold the group and make it sound the way it should. We just fall in and then we’re swept away. He throws out so many suggestions and then asks what you think. If you catch it, you catch it. He implies the color or the one note throughout a sequence of chords that says, ‘Play me, play me again!’ — and with that starts the prayer. After every set I’ll turn to him and say, ‘Boy, you were really praying.’ He’ll laugh, but he understands exactly what I’m saying.”

When I paraphrased Hutcherson’s remarks to Tyner, he laughed. “Did Bobby say that? I’ve got a name for him: Rev!” As we sat on the backyard patio of his booking agent’s brownstone office on a bright, 90-degree July afternoon, the pianist looked clean as a whistle in a contoured black sports jacket, a textured, blue silk shirt, a white patterned silk tie, and white linen pants. He wore his hair marcelled into short neck-clinging braids that didn’t betray a speck of gray.

“I don’t want to sound overly poetic,” Tyner continued, on a serious note, “but you do feel cleansed when you’re done playing. I pay homage to the Creator for what he has given me and all of us. But I’m not preaching. If people hear things in my music and identify with them, that’s good! The music speaks for itself.”

I mention that Hutcherson’s description of how it feels to make music with Tyner evokes the collective catharsis that Coltrane stirred in audiences on a nightly basis during the ’60s. “It was a spiritual experience every night,” Tyner reflects. “We were giving everything we had, and you never knew what would happen. There was no time for ego.”

Tyner stands out among professional contemporaries because of his grounded persona and the relentless consistency of his career. He is no stylistic eclectic in the manner of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Chick Corea, all of whom continue to follow the example of their former employer, Miles Davis, in seeking new worlds to conquer. Rather, Tyner’s path more closely resembles the High Modernism aesthetic of Coltrane — and the likes of Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, and Keith Jarrett — who coalesced and refined diverse influences into a holistic musical conception.

Like all of the aforementioned, Tyner possesses a vocabulary of global dimension. Core sources include Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, and Coltrane. Every other year or so, he releases a new recording, invariably acoustic, on which he reframes elements of his long-influential style in different contexts. Every important jazz pianist from the mid-’60s until the present — including Hancock and Corea — has assimilated his homegrown system of navigating harmony with fourth intervals. For improvisational fodder, he deploys an exhaustive knowledge of the rhythms and scales of Africa, Cuba, Brazil, and India, as well as the chordal structures of the American Songbook. And he articulates everything with soulful cadences drawn from the Afro-American urban-church and blues cultures of his youth.

Tyner differs from his distinguished contemporaries in that he has never shrunk from expressing his tonal identity within the framework of his roots in mainstream jazz. Perhaps that predisposition — in conjunction with a pronounced lack of personal eccentricity and the middling skills of his working trio of the latter ’80s and much of the ’90s — explains why, despite the fact that Tyner commands universal admiration among musicians and retains what market researchers call a “high recognition quotient,” many “progressive” connoisseurs perceive him as a conservative figure. But no such considerations deterred several thousand New Yorkers — young and old, and with a larger African-American contingent than usually turns out for jazz events south of 96th Street — from packing a cavernous concrete space on the south edge of the Lincoln Center acropolis, called Damrosch Park, on a humid August night for a free concert by Tyner’s trio, with guest flutist Dave Valentin.

Stimulated as much by the crowd’s support as by the inventive accompaniment of bassist Charnett Moffett and drummer Al Foster, Tyner stretched out through seven originals on the trio portion. With unerring logic, impeccable touch, and an astonishingly powerful left hand, he conjured yearning, inflamed melodies from dense harmonies and complex polyrhythms, ornamenting his designs with luscious voicings and elegant figures. He executed every idea with magisterial authority while sustaining the aura of instantaneous creation. For all the baroque grandeur of the lines, he stripped every idea to essentials, imparting an air of poetic inevitability to the arc of each improvisation. With Tyner as the attentive moderator, the trio transcended notes and beats and achieved seamless musical conversation, rendered in cogent sentences and paragraphs.

BREAK

Unfailingly amiable and gracious in conversation, Tyner is not one to expound on the particulars of his art. However, his colleagues are happy to fill in the gaps.

“McCoy is a consummate accompanist,” says tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, who won a Grammy for his solo on Coltrane’s “Impressions” on Tyner’s 1996 album, Infinity [Impulse!]. “He gives you a lush, wide-open cushion, and you have a feeling of complete freedom. If I hint at building a harmonic tension, he’ll be there instantly, almost like he’s reading my mind. It’s powerful to hear that quality of tension-and-release on the great Coltrane records, but to actually experience it first-hand is incredible.”

Some of Tyner’s most efflorescent playing has occurred in Afro-Cuban and Brazilian contexts, most recently on the prosaically titled McCoy Tyner and the Latin All-Stars [Telarc, 1998]. “McCoy is a master of rhythm,” says trombonist Steve Turre, a regular participant on such projects, who has also played in Tyner’s big band since 1984. “A lot of guys don’t commit to a rhythm; everything is kind of abstract. But McCoy never floats. Rhythm permeates everything he does.”

“Rhythms have languages, and even if you don’t know the language, you can sense what it is and play it,” says bassist Andy Gonzalez, recalling an occasion where the pianist performed as a guest with Libre, the unit Gonzalez co-leads with iconic timbalero Manny Oquendo. “I asked McCoy if he wanted to play Latin-jazz tunes with [chord] changes or montunos, and right away he asked for the montunos,” Gonzalez says, referring to the triplet-based vamps that counterstate the drumbeats of clave. “I had Charlie Palmieri play a real down-home, Cuban-dance-rhythm montuno at him, and it was fascinating to hear him answer it with his own chords and rhythmic feel. It was effortless. Montunos are related to the kinds of pentatonic modal scales that Coltrane was working on, and improvising in those kinds of modes is really McCoy’s forte. That’s very African, very deep-rooted, getting to the very beginnings of music.”

Gonzalez mentions a late ’60s conversation with Tyner during a set break a Slugs, an infamous club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The pianist revealed that a window opened for him after a concert at Harlem’s Apollo Theater when Coltrane, sharing the bill with Machito, borrowed the Cuban bandleader’s bassist, Bobby Rodriguez to fill in for an absent Jimmy Garrison. Tyner confirms this. He also emphasizes the impact of Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, to whom Coltrane was close, on sustaining his own awareness of African roots. But African music entered Tyner’s consciousness in the early ’50s, when a Ghanaian drummer named Saka Acquaye arrived at Philadelphia’s Temple University to study political science, and earned tuition money by teaching African rhythms to local drummers at a dance school that employed the teenage pianist as an accompanist.

“I fooled around with the drums, but the joints of my fingers started to hurt, and I had enough sense to stop,” says Tyner, who began formal piano studies about a year before the drummer came to town. “I observed Saka and learned how to connect one rhythm with another, how to operate with different layers of rhythm. I was fascinated with the drums even before I met him, and I’ve incorporated those rhythms into my style along with other things.”

Tyner acknowledges regarding the piano as a kind of extended drum. “Thelonious Monk did, too. Monk was very percussive and rhythmic. He’d do stuff that was off-rhythm or against the rhythm or tempo of the song. It was miraculous to me how he could interject so much feeling and depth into such simple ideas. It wasn’t about how many notes he played. It was the immediacy, the spontaneity of the situation. He taught me that what’s important is what you do with the idea you’re trying to portray – the will to push the envelope.”

While Tyner’s ensembles at Damrosch Park and Iridium played with a palpable attitude of freedom, critics cite numerous ’80s and ’90s recordings and performances with less resourceful partners on which his playing sounds attenuated and rudimentary, as though he felt responsible, say, for stating both the drum and piano parts. “I have a mixed personality in that respect,” Tyner admits. “I have a controlled sense of experimentation. I go outside, but there has to be something to work with. I conceived one tune on the new record as having no melody; we just used tonal centers, moved from one tone, one sound, one cluster, to another. I had that experience playing with John. But I use it when it’s appropriate for me, not as a main way to express myself. It’s a tool, and that’s all. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone, and I don’t want everything to be predetermined. It’s not artistic.”

Perhaps that sentiment explains why, last year, Tyner decided that his two-decade association with bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Aaron Scott had “served its purpose for that time period” and formed the current rotating unit with bassists Moffett and George Mraz, and with either Foster, Eric Harland, or Lewis Nash on drums. “You can’t get so attached to someone that you restrict them from doing what they ultimately have to do,” he explains. “I had my previous trio for a long time because I hadn’t heard anyone — and I knew there were guys around — who could really do what I was looking for. Then they came along. The right thing always comes around eventually.”

What precisely is Tyner looking for? “I like guys around me who are willing to take chances, explore and feel the situation at hand, as opposed to, ‘Oh, I can’t do this’ – but on a level of professionalism that stands out. It’s not good for an artist to feel that kind of fear. But it’s very personal. You’re asking a person to be honest with themselves and not be afraid. And most of us have fears and sometimes we’re not honest! We spend a lifetime, or at least we should, trying to find out who we are. It’s crazy to stick with something forever.”

The ethos of risk taking was customary during Tyner’s years with Coltrane and was a key component of his formative years in Philadelphia. A late starter, he studied classical music formally for two years before putting aside the books and finding his own solutions in functional situations. “I developed facility because I practiced all the time,” he says. “And the dancing school taught everything, so I heard a lot of music there. I studied things by Bud Powell like ‘Celia’ and ‘Parisian Thoroughfare,’ and I heard Monk’s records. Bud and Monk were my main influences — and John, of course. But I listened for the individuality, not to copy. Monk respected you if you had your own direction. A lot of things come out of so-called ‘mistakes.’ In reality, nothing is a mistake; it’s how you shape music, how you resolve it.”

Like trumpeter Lee Morgan, a childhood pal in Philly, Tyner learned to think on his feet in the crucible of live performance. He played with blues singers and R&B bands, worked fraternity dances and graduations, and, with Morgan, worked two summers in the no-holds-barred environment of Atlantic City. By his late teens, Tyner was a first-call pianist for national bands passing through town, and he spent memorable weeks with, among others, Max Roach’s quintet with Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham, and with a unit co-led by Red Rodney and Oscar Pettiford. By then, he’d been playing several years with local trumpeter-composer Calvin Massey, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Tootie Heath. Massey introduced Tyner to Coltrane in 1956 after a matinee job at a neighborhood spot called the Red Rooster.

“When guys from the older generation saw you had some talent, they’d call you for gigs and show you tunes,” he recounts. “And you learned by accompanying. Guys expected you to be supportive, and I learned a lot that way. That cocky attitude of ‘I can’t wait to get my own band’ didn’t fit in at all. The standards were very high. Appearance, presentation — you had to be on point. I came up in an era when Art Blakey would say, ‘People see you before they hear you.'”

I ask if his mother, Beatrice, a beautician who kept McCoy’s piano in her shop, was the source of his fastidiousness. “My mother had a lot to do with everything in my development,” he replies. “She was very elegant, not in terms of her clothes or attitude, but just her demeanor. She was honest, personable, and caring, and people loved her. She loved music, and she’d let me know when anything came up that she thought would interest me. We had a very close relationship. I took her to cotillions. Once she wanted me to play a concert at Mount Olivet Baptist Church – not church music, but the songs I had learned from my instructors. She wanted me to put on tails, and I did.”

I thought of that image toward the end of the trio portion at Damrosch Park. After a venturesome a cappella introduction by Moffett, Tyner — who did not remove his navy, double-breasted blazer throughout the high-energy set — launched into the thunderous theme of “Manalyuca,” carving out the melody with his left hand and comping with his right, using them interchangeably in an improvisation that built to an immense crescendo. He gave way to Al Foster, who, Max Roach-style, stated the design of the melody and transitioned into improvised variations on a march. Tyner re-entered at the peak he had reached before desisting, then, through a gradual decrescendo, reached the final melody statement. He immediately launched into a boogie-woogie figure before embarking on formidable two-handed blues variations that foreshadowed a deeply swinging, medium-tempo excursion through “Blue Monk.”

As at Iridium a few months before, he reminded the witnesses precisely why his name means what it does in the jazz timeline.

“I only did what I was supposed to,” Tyner says of his career. “I mean, people think it’s fabulous, and when I look back at my musical history, I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had, and to have risen to the occasion. I like simplicity and balance, and I’m dedicated to music, but it doesn’t consume my every minute. I don’t need to be put on a pedestal to feel good. But I don’t downplay my contribution or creativity. I’m confident, but I don’t allow myself to feel I’m in command of everything. Confidence is a tool to get where you want to go. I feel I did the best I could. And I thought it was pretty good.”

* * * *

McCoy Tyner (6-10-03):

TP:    I’ll try not to burden you with too much stuff that’s commonly known, but if I write a longer piece, I may want to ask you some other things.  Let’s talk about this group and this project.  It’s obviously not the first time you’ve joined forces with Bobby Hutcherson, but is this the first time you and he have worked together in a while, or has it been ongoing?

TYNER:  It has been ongoing over the years.  Periodically Bobby and I connect on a project.  We did a duet record, “Manhattan Moods,” just him and I for Blue Note, and several things in the past.

TP:    “Sama Layuca” and “Solo and Quartet.”

TYNER:  Right, with Herbie Lewis.  And he was on “Time For Tyner.”  So quite a few projects.  Then last year we went on tour in Europe, with this particular band.

TP:    Which generated this record.

TYNER:  Yes, it was a nice tour.  We just closed at the Iridium.  Eric wasn’t with us, because he’s been doing things with Terence Harland.  We try to set it up so everybody will be available to work with me, but we set that sort of thing up gently so that there won’t be any bad feelings.

TP:    Al Foster isn’t a bad guy to have available in a pinch.

TYNER:  Let me tell you.  Al is fantastic.  He adds so much to the music, and knows just what to do dynamically.  So it’s a pleasure having him around so we can play together.  He’s going to Italy with me tomorrow.  It will be a trio with Charles Fambrough.  I’m in transition at the moment, kind of floating a bit, and it’s real nice.  I’ve got some guys who are sailing right along with me.

TP:    You mean you’re changing personnel.

TYNER:  Yes, I’m changing personnel.

TP:    Because you were with Aaron Scott and Avery Sharpe for many years.

TYNER:  Yes.  Avery was with me over 20 years, and Aaron about 16-17 years.

TP:    Thinking of Charles Fambrough, it occurs that you have a bunch of alumni from your bands who are prepared to step in and serve as almost interchangeable parts.

TYNER:  Fambrough hasn’t worked with me for a while, but when he was with me it was a great band.  We had George Adams and quite a few people.

TP:    Right, and Joe Ford.

TYNER:  Right, Joe Ford and George Adams and Wilby Fletcher and Charles Fambrough.  I can always give them a call when I get stuck.

TP:    what are you looking for in your musicians?  Apart from the usual things, sensitivity and technical proficiency, is there a particular perspective they need to have on music, or an attitude?

TYNER:  What it is… I was looking at some of the younger guys, not just because of age but because of talent, and if I think they have potential for growth and development, and they can bring something to the table in terms of my music… A lot of them have grown up listening to some of my music, along with other artists.  Like, Eric had been with Betty Carter, and she was a consummate teacher and very strict about what she wanted, and so she got him in the right place.  Charnett’s father worked with Ornette Coleman, so he brought something else to the table.  It just so happens, I’m not the kind of guy that randomly fires people.  I try to give a guy a chance to see what he can do.  George Mraz has done some things with me, we went to Europe not too long ago.  And Al is a real professional and a great guy.  So I’ve got a bit of selection.

TP:    With Bobby and Charnett, it was interesting, because it provided you with two foils.  Because Charnett is such a strong soloist and projects such a powerful sound, he was really a match for you.

TYNER:  Yes.  He’s been quite an individual, and has been from a very young age.  His father gave him the right idea about what the music is and said “Go ahead, take a shot, go your way and see what you can do.”  With me, he’s able not only to free himself up, but he wants to learn something else about structure in the music, some traditional stuff, which I like to do.  I like to do a lot of different things.  He’s able to do that.  He follows very well, listens, and he’s got a good sound and a good concept.  I like those two guys very much.

Of course, Bobby and I go way back, and we play well together conceptually.  We’ve been like that for a long time.

TP:    It seems you have an exceptional simpatico.  It seems you follow each other’s ideas intuitively.

TYNER:  We phrase a lot alike.  His wife even commented.  She said, “Sometimes I can’t tell,” because we’re both keyboard instruments.  We have the uncanny ability to phrase a lot alike.  It’s kind of unique.  A lot of fun.

TP:    It’s great to hear the two of you together.  You had that sort of simpatico with Joe Henderson on the various records.  And I think it would be hard for people to get that with you, because your conception and execution is so formidable.

TYNER:  Joe sounded great on his records that I did, and I’m very happy with the things he did with me — “The Real McCoy” and “New York Reunion.”  I really miss him a lot.

TP:    It seems one thing you and Bobby share is a fascination with pan-diasporic music in its many varieties, rhythmically, the melodies, the scales and so on.  I wanted to ask you about the evolution of your incorporating that information in your sound.  I gather there was a certain point when you went to Senegal.

TYNER:  Well, actually it started when I was a teenager.  I was very fortunate.  I came up in a very active community musically.  The musicians that were around and the jam sessions that were going on.  We had this guy Saka Acquaye, who was from Ghana, and he came to Philadelphia and taught some of the conga players and drummers in that genre of playing.  A lot of different rhythms, and how to connect everything, how sometimes you play one rhythm and that connects with something else, and you have different layers.  He was great.  And his sister taught African dancing.  I’m writing a book and someone is helping me, and she happened to run into Saka’s name.  I don’t know the correct spelling of the name, but it’s definitely in the book.

TP:    Did you study drums ever, apart from piano?

TYNER:  I was fooling around with it.  But it started in the joints of my fingers, and I said, “I can’t mess…” A lot of these drummers wore tape around the joints of their fingers, so it wouldn’t hurt so much.  I always had a fascination with the drums…

TP:    From the time you met him?

TYNER:  Actually, a little before.

TP:    How old were you at that time?

TYNER:  I must have been about 14-15.

TP:    So it would have been 1952-53.

TYNER:  Something like that, in the early ’50s.

TP:    A lot of Africans started coming to the States after the U.N., like the dancer Asadata Dafora in New York.  Do you think of the piano in a very percussive sense?

TYNER:  That’s part of my style, I think.  I’ve incorporated those rhythms into my style.  Also other things.  But I used to play for a dancing school, and they did a production of “Viva Zapata” that was… It was a song, actually, kind of a hit song back in the ’50s.  So I played piano for them…

TP:    This was as a teenager in Philadelphia.

TYNER:  Yes. Saka was studying at Temple University, political science or something, and was teaching on the side.  I never actually got instruction from him, but I watched him teach the guys who were playing congas.  At the time, there was a lot of identification with the Africans, because during that time… Not political.  Cultural.  Everybody wants to politicize it.  But I think cultural identification is good.

TP:    Were people like Edgar Bateman checking him out?

TYNER:  I’m not really sure.  He was around during that time.

TP:    I’m just thinking of some of the progressive musicians around Philly.

TYNER:  Like Eric Gravatt.  Eric had a very keen knowledge of African rhythms.  Because he worked with me for a while.  Then he went to Minnesota and took up residence there.

TP:    Michael Brecker told me that when he was a teenager, they used to play tenor-drums duets.

TYNER:  I wouldn’t doubt it.  Michael is a fantastic musician, and being from Philly… Guys from Philly have a certain kind of feeling.

TP:    But you had an orientation toward African rhythms at the time that you met John Coltrane, and certainly when you were in the band.

TYNER:  Yes.  And when he came to New York, Babatunde Olatunji was here, and John and Olatunji were very good friends.  John would play at his place in Harlem sometimes.  So there was a keen interest in African culture.  That was good, identifying with the roots.

TP:    Do you feel that inflected your compositions, the melodies and scales, and some of the rhythmic patterns?

TYNER:  Yes.  Especially certain compositions.  I think affiliating with this dancing school, I heard a lot of different kind of music.  Because they did ballet, they did everything, so I had a chance to check out a lot of music.  Also, I studied with two teachers, one a beginning teacher and the other an Italian teacher who took me through Bach, Beethoven, and other areas of European classical music.  So I had a wide range of experience in that respect.  I tried to keep my mind open.  And I always liked Latin music.  The music world is so broad.

TP:    People of your generation I think learned the music differently than the generation today.  Kenny Barron told me that as a teenager he’d play gigs until 3 in the morning, and then go to high school the next day.

TYNER:  Yeah, we had a lot of jam sessions around Philadelphia.  A lot of jam sessions.  We’d be at my house one time, the Heath Brothers would have jam sessions at their house, one time I played up at Lee Morgan’s house.  Plus, Philadelphia is in close proximity to Atlantic City.  So I would go to Atlantic City in the summer and play… We didn’t have much money, but we managed to scrape up three meals!  I played at the Cotton Club in Atlantic City with Lee Morgan’s quartet.  It was fantastic, because we had a chance to see… I met J.J. Johnson, and Tommy Flanagan and Tootie Heath were playing with J.J.  Dinah Washington.  Atlantic City was one of the entertainment capitals of America.  That was a great thing.  We spent two or three summers down there.

TP:    That’s on a very professional level.  There were places with chorus lines and so on.

TYNER:  Yes.  You learned from… There were some fantastic guys around, older guys, the older generation.  They took you under their wing, and if they saw you had some kind of talent, that was all they needed to know.  They’d call you for gigs and show you tunes, old standards.  You would learn just by accompanying.  A lot of the things I learned were by being supportive.  It wasn’t so much like now, where a lot of people want to set up their own band.  There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to get your own band, but when I was with John I wasn’t necessarily looking, “Oh, I can’t wait to get my own band.  I just savored the experience of being with him, and I learned so much just by coming together…” You learn how to do that.  When I was growing up, that’s what the guys expected from you.  They weren’t looking for you to have that kind of cocky attitude.  That didn’t fit in at all.

TP:    I think it would be a situation with Coltrane where you could play the whole history of the music and frame it as individually as you would want.

TYNER:  Well, John was in the R&B band.  Sometimes we’d travel and these guys would show up.  He used to play with a guy named King Kolax, who would show up when we’d play the Midwest.  I played with guys who played what we called House Rockers — the cat would get up and honk his horn and the rock the house, and people would put money in the bell of the horn.  That was a great thing, because it wasn’t about a lot of articulation — it was about feeling and sound.  If you had a sound on your instrument and a good feeling, hey, that was it.  I played with those kind of guys, coming up with blues singers and all that sort of stuff.  So yeah, it was on a professional level, even if you were young.  That didn’t have anything to do with it.  The thing is, to get that experience was wonderful.

TP:    Does it make a difference in the way you play what kind of drummer you have with you?

TYNER:  Well, it doesn’t change the way I play, but I think what it does, if the drummer is playing WITH me, as opposed to just sitting there playing time, I think… That’s a very important element.  But I think if he’s responding rhythmically to what I’m doing on the piano, it’s a tremendous asset.  Because I play very rhythmic anyway, so rhythm is very important, and then I’m able to go from there to other things.  It’s a good point of departure.

TP:    I want to continue on the rhythmic aspect.  In the ’50s and ’60s were you listening to Cuban or Puerto Rican piano players, and that style of playing in clave, which is different than jazz improvising.  Because your own brand of that music is so idiomatic and yet personal to you.

TYNER:  Well, I think that has a lot to do with the African influence.  The jazz and Latin rhythms came out of the African experience.  But because we were from the Americas, it’s a little different.  But that’s the foundation of gospel music and blues, and jazz came out of that.  So those rhythms have been able to last.  But that’s basically where I had a real pleasure just… I played with a lot of Latin musicians over the years, and we feel as though there’s very little separating us, and more connecting us than anything else.

TP:    I did read that you had gone to Senegal, and that it was an important experience for you.

TYNER:  It really was.  It must have been 7-8 years ago. I flew into Dakar, and then we drove from Dakar all the way down to St. Louis.  The French government put on a festival there.  A guy who produced several of my recordings of the big band, who has some affiliation with that festival. It was beautiful.  We went through many villages on the way down.  When I got down there, there were some djembe drummers who played with me.  I went down with Jack DeJohnette, and these guys sat in.  They were a family of drummers.  What happened is that they liked us so much, the French guys and the Africans, that they asked we do a tour of France with… I think Jack did the tour, and there were two drummers from that family.  It was great, and we were able to create a nice marriage.

TP:    Was it a very organic process to start bringing this material into your music circa 1969, when you did “Expansions,” and the early ’70s?

TYNER:  Yes, I’d say it was pretty organic because of my previous experience with African rhythms and drummers, guys who played… One of the guys who played regular trap drums in my R&B band when I went into modern jazz was a conga player, Garvin Masseaux, and he studied under Saka, along with a guy named Bobby Crowder.  They played together a lot and they were good friends.  So from an early age I’d been influenced by African music.  Bobby played and did some recording with Red Garland.  Those guys were our premier conga players around Philadelphia.  Garvin played with my R&B band.

TP:    And I gather that’s the band that you started you off in writing charts and writing tunes.

TYNER:  Yes.  I wrote this chart that never ended. [LAUGHS] Well, it seemed like it never did!  Boy, it was long.  I must have been about 14 or 15.

TP:    Jimmy Heath described his early writing efforts in Philly in a similar manner, and so did Benny Golson, so you’re not alone.,

TYNER:  Yeah.  You have a lot of ideas and you try to cram them all in one song.

TP:    When did your early mature pieces come, things like “Effendi,” and so on.  Did you write them in the early ’60s, or did you bring them up then…

TYNER:  Yes, that’s after I got… John and I were the first two jazz artists on Impulse, and “Inception” was my first record.

TP:    Wayne Shorter, for instance, said that he was writing pieces from the early ’50s, and some of them got into the Art Blakey book when he joined up.  I was wondering if you had been that prolific before coming to New York and entering the public stage.

TYNER:  Yeah, I was writing some things when I met John.  But I came to New York after the Jazztet.  I worked with the Jazztet for a while, because John was committed to Miles and he couldn’t leave, and he wanted people in his own band and it took him a while, so Benny Golson asked me if I was available to go to San Francisco.  He had three weeks at the Jazz Workshop over on Broadway in San Francisco.  I said sure. Then John left Miles not too long after that.  That’s after we did the Meet the Jazztet record, where we did the first version of “Killer Joe.”  It was a great band, but completely different from the direction that was about to develop being with John.

TP:    Benny Golson said he knew it was confining for you.

TYNER:  Well, the thing is, he wrote some nice charts!  Benny’s a heck of an arranger.  And he wrote some nice tunes, “Along Came Betty,” “I Remember Clifford,” some nice songs.  I enjoyed my experience with them.  But I had a verbal commitment with John that whenever he left Miles I would join his band.  So to make that transition took a little time — not too much, because I was with the Jazztet only 7 months.  Then John left Miles, and he came to me and… It was very tough, because I grew up under Benny.  It was tough for me, too, because they were such nice guys and really very helpful, but it was something that had to be done.  I think Art and Benny realized that later on.

TP:    Are you writing for the personalities that you’re playing with?  Is there any of that in your composition?  Or do things just come out and people adapt to them?

TYNER:  What it is, you want to surround yourself with people who can interpret what you write.  With the big band I have more that type of thinking, because it’s a different type of thing — but not so different.  I’ve had the big band since the ’80s. Some of the members of the band, like John Clark and Joe Ford were in the band when I first started it, and they’re still there.  So I know their personalities, and I know generally which songs I like.  I mean, anybody can play on any songs, but with some guys it’s just tailor-made for them.  I think that’s what happens.  Duke Ellington wrote for some of the guys who were in his band.  You can’t help but do that, I think.

TP:    Also, there are a number of your songs that have been performed in many different contexts.  Are you still writing prolifically?

TYNER:  This record has some songs I’ve recorded before, but a lot of them are new, like “December,” “Serra Do Mar,” “Steppin'”.  “Manalayuca” was recorded before; the title has changed a bit.  I’ve recorded “For All We Know” before.  So there’s the mixture.

TP:    And were these written and chosen with this personnel and instrumentation in mind?

TYNER:  Well, yes, in a way.  Definitely, because I knew who was going to be on the date.  I don’t really earmark… See, Bobby and I have no problem in terms of concept, because we think alike conceptually.  But I don’t necessarily all the time… “December” was a song that I had in mind… When I wrote that, I thought it would be wonderful to hear what Bobby could do with it.  Because I know it fit his style.  And I felt like Eric and Charnett would really be able to handle “Serra Do Mar” because it goes from one rhythm to another; different segments of the song interchanged, and I thought they’d be able to interpret that well.  But often I don’t necessarily write everything to tailor-make the song to fit a person.  But I try to pick people who I think like to play my music or can interpret my music well, as opposed to, “Oh, let me write music for this guy.”  But I like to surround myself with people… Because if a guy doesn’t fit into the concept that I have, then he doesn’t need to play with me — that kind of thing.  I shouldn’t say it like that, because I have played with guys who aren’t necessarily used to playing with me, and it’s different for them.  I’ve heard people say, “You’re moving all the time.”  But that’s from playing with John.  He liked me to move around.

TP:    Just talking to you, the program seems almost autobiographical.  There’s material that addresses pan-African rhythms, and you have the blues and the standards and the Ellington and the ballads, and it’s all part and parcel of your musical biography.

TYNER:  I think that music should reflect you.  If you’re the one who’s performing or composing, it should reflect who you are.

TP:    You do concept albums, which is logical, because to keep putting out albums, you have to find ideas to tag them on and give people different angles.  But this has a very organic quality.  It doesn’t seem like there’s any imperative involved except something coming out of you and what you’re thinking about at the moment.

TYNER:  I think you nailed it.  I’m glad that came out, because that was actually the way I felt.

TP:    Seeing you at Iridium put an exclamation point on it.  They had me sitting right up by stage left so I could see you at the piano, and I’d never been that close to you before, and I noticed that you play with a minimum of motion.  For someone who gets as huge a sound as you get… For instance, Ahmad Jamal moves a lot around the piano and dances around the piano.

TYNER:  Keith Jarrett does, too.  He really gets around.  It’s whatever works for you.  For me, in how I utilize the instrument, and it has many characteristics… I approach it a certain way in terms of touch and uses of the pedal, and that gives me the power I need.  I figure it has a lot to do with the touch as well.

TP:    Was that a sound you heard in your mind’s ear and worked towards, or did it come out of your development as an instrumentalist.

TYNER:  I think it was already up here.  I think your sound is who YOU are.  That’s exactly what it is.  You can’t create it if it’s not there, and you can’t embellish on it if it’s not yours.  We have our own sounds!  When you talk, when people recognize who you are, I’ll say, “That’s Ted.”  You have your own sound, and it comes out when we play an instrument.

TP:    But if I put my hands to a piano, people would say “shut up!”  There’s truth to what you say, but there’s also a craft component.

TYNER:  Have you studied piano?

TP:    Many years ago, and I’m not suggesting I couldn’t develop a certain proficiency…

TYNER:  If you ever played the instrument enough, you would hear Ted coming out.  You have your own identity, man.  I think we all do.

TP:    Many musicians would tell me that the instrument is an extension of themselves, and that music is just another vocabulary…

TYNER:  A language.

TP:    And they say it gets passed down.  One of the great things about jazz is that the oral tradition still holds true.  Who for you are some of the people who passed down that oral tradition…

TYNER:  I was very fortunate.  I met Bud Powell.  He lived around the corner from me when I was a teenager.  My mother was a beautician, and my piano was in her shop.  So Richie Powell was on the road with the Max Roach-Clifford Brown band, and Bud occupied Richie’s apartment.  It was right around the corner for me.  And my mother did the superintendent’s wife’s hair.  So she came and she said, “There’s this piano player around the corner who doesn’t have a piano; can he come around and practice on your son’s piano?”  So I asked my mother who it was, and she said, “Bud Powell.”  I said, “Of course.  He can come around any time he wants.”  But he was a hero to us.  We used to follow him around.  We had a place where musicians would hang out, and we’d get him to go up there and play.  His recordings were fantastic.  And Thelonious.  I used to… But I didn’t listen to them to copy them.  What I heard was individuality, the fact that they focused on who THEY were and they did their thing. But they were very inspirational to me.  And later on, Art Tatum, because [LAUGHS] he was an impeccable musician. But stylistically, Bud and Monk were really major influences on me — and then John, of course.

TP:    There’s that German word, the “zeitgeist,” of the time.  They were absolutely one with their time!

TYNER:  Yes, that’s right.  And they were so inspirational.

TP:    So it wasn’t so much that Bud Powell said, “Here’s how I do this voicing” and so on.  You soaked it up.

TYNER:  No.  You have to do that yourself.  You have to find out what your voice is yourself.  That’s it.  Not only is it lasting, but you can develop something from your own personality, your musical personality.  Otherwise, you’re not going nowhere with it.  You’re just limited to whoever the guy is you’re copying, or you’re trying to model yourself after.

TP:    Were there any pianists you did that with?  Herbie Hancock told me that when he was 13, or maybe 11, he found a guy in his class who could play, and he’d been playing Mozart and classical music and was a prodigy, but he couldn’t do this.  Then he found out it was George Shearing, and his mother had a George Shearing record at home, and so he played along with it until he got the accents and phrasing, and that launched him.

TYNER:  Bud Powell was that image for me.  I had Bud’s records, and I was trying to play things like “Celia” and things like “Parisian Thoroughfare” and a couple of other things.  But then I knew that, “Hey, that’s Bud Powell.”  Because that’s just the way it is.  You can’t go but so far.

TP:    But those were things as a kid, you memorized and…

TYNER:  Well, you have to… A lot of the horn players were playing as well.  Actually, what it was, we knew certain pieces like from Clifford Brown-Max Roach and Dizzy’s music and Bird’s music, all these guys playing Charlie Parker’s music.  So I had to learn that stuff in order to play with them.  When I was a teenager, Sonny Stitt would come through… I would play with different people.  Sometimes Sonny Rollins would come through, and Sonny Stitt.  I was playing around locally with a lot of the older musicians.  So I had to learn the tunes.

TP:    Was that at a place called the Red Rooster?

TYNER:  Well, that was I met John, at a matinee.  It wasn’t far from where I lived.  It was a local kind of…not an elaborate place, but a fairly decent place, and people used to come there to listen to music.  I was playing in Cal Massey’s band.  Cal was the friend who introduced me to John.  And Jimmy Garrison was in Cal’s band, and Tootie Heath.  John came out and checked the matinee.  He was on sabbatical from Miles, there was a little period there, and then he came up and he and Cal got back together… Cal was a composer as well.  So that’s how I met John, one afternoon.

TP:    But back in 1960, you weren’t the average 22-year-old.  You were a pretty experienced musician.  I think you recorded with Curtis Fuller in ’59.

TYNER:  Yes, my first record.  I think it was “The World of Trombone” or something for Savoy.  That’s actually before the Jazztet was formed, and after that they had a meeting with Art and Benny and Dave Bailey and Curtis, and they said they wanted to form a band, and I said, “Okay, but when John leaves Miles, I’ve got to go.”  It was a tough one.

TP:    Did you play with any vibraphonists then?

TYNER:  Yes, there was a vibraphonist around Philadelphia who was very popular…

TP:    There was Lem Winchester in Wilmington and Walt Dickerson.

TYNER:  Walt was the guy.

TP:    And he had an expansive concept himself.

TYNER:  Yes, he had an expansive concept.  Absolutely.

TP:    As I recall, the “Time For Tyner” record was a live record in North Carolina?  That’s when you and Bobby first hooked up.

TYNER:  No, it wasn’t live.  Let me tell you what happened.  People have made that mistake because of the way the guy wrote the liner notes.  I played a concert at this university in North Carolina, and the guy came down and reviewed it.  Then for some reason, he happened to mention that on this recording, and it left people with the idea that it was recorded live — and it wasn’t.

TP:    But was it a working band?

TYNER:  No.  Bobby and I never worked extensively together. But we knew each other very well.  We came up in the same generation, so…

TP:    And you were both on Blue Note.

TYNER:  Both on Blue Note.  Wayne and a lot of guys were all on Blue Note at the time.

TP:    What’s interesting is that a lot of the things that were recorded on Blue Note were just in the studio and didn’t have to do with working bands.  Was that the case with you?

TYNER:  Yes, after late ’65, when I left John… It was almost six year.  Which records are you talking about?

TP:    “Expansions” or “Time For Tyner.”

TYNER:  No, those weren’t working bands.

TP:    “The Real McCoy.”

TYNER:  No.  Joe Henderson just happened to be in town, and they wanted to do a date.  I did some recordings with him.  “Recorda-Me”, I think.  Kenny Dorham was on it.  But I didn’t have a working band at the time.  Ron Carter did a lot of recording with me, too, but I didn’t have a band.

TP:    But with Bobby Hutcherson, it just emanated from…

TYNER:  Our musical association.

TP:    And it just kept cropping up again.

TYNER:  Yes, exactly.

TP:    Does the record label you’re recording for have any impact on the type of music you’re recording, or does it just have to do with the time and the place.

TYNER:  No.  Telarc is basically a jazz label, as far as I know.  But they have no bearing… They know when they ask me to record what they’re getting into.  I don’t do that.

TP:    So all the projects you’ve done for Telarc have been at your initiative?  The trio and “Jazz Roots.”

TYNER:  Absolutely.  If they make a suggestion, maybe I’ll try this or that or whatever conceptually, but I have the final word on everything.  If I don’t like it, I won’t do it.

TP:    Are you exclusively with Telarc now?  Or are you still a freelancer?

TYNER:  I’m not signed with them, because I like to be a free agent.  But I have done some consecutive work for them.

TP:    Since that thing for Impulse, “McCoy Tyner Plays John Coltrane,” I think everything you’ve put out has been on Telarc.

TYNER:  Yes, that was done in 1997, but they released the tapes in ’99.

TP:    Tell me about the Jazz Roots album, the tribute to your various influences.

TYNER:  It wasn’t so much influences.  It was a dedication to the musicians that I knew — and know — and who were part of the history of this music, and guys who passed on and a lot of them who are here.  It’s a tribute to jazz pianists.  That’s basically what I was doing.  Erroll Garner, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Chick, Bud Powell, Thelonious… It was just a conglomeration of different people.

TP:    was it easy to choose the repertoire, or a difficult process?

TYNER:  Not really difficult.  Because I chose songs that I thought fit these guys, and did the best I could to do that.  I felt pretty good about it, the choice of songs for each guy.

TP:    Is performing in front of an audience for you a very different experience than performing in a studio?

TYNER:  It’s different.  The thing is, it all depends.  If you’re working with people consistently for a long period of time, it has to make a difference.  Like, “A Love Supreme” was sort of a culmination of all the musical experiences that we’d had with the quartet, and it was a high point.  But we knew each other.  We knew each other’s musical vocabulary.  If you talk to a person long enough and you live around a person long enough, you begin to get familiar with how they phrase, in terms of the words the pick, whatever.  Even if you can’t nail it right on the head all the time, but you have a sense of where they’re going with what they’re saying.  And it’s the same if you play with somebody for years.  You don’t have to second-guess.  You can just about go where you’re supposed to.

TP:    Your solo records are so rewarding.  I have the three solos or duos you did for Blue Note, and then this one…

TYNER:  I like to play solo.  I really do.

TP:    You sound free when you play solo.

TYNER:  Yes, because you can go where you want to go.  You don’t have consider if the bassist is following you.  Well, you can hear.  You don’t have to worry about the drummer, if you’re dealing with the rhythms or the melody or with the harmonic content. It’s all about what YOU want to do.  And that’s a lovely thing.  I like playing with a group, because if you can bring that kind of sensitivity to a group setting, it’s wonderful to have two or three or four guys or a big band do that, be sensitive to what’s going on, and listening and responding.  But if you really want to talk in terms of empathy, I think you can’t beat solo playing.  It’s about you.  You’re the only one there.  You can’t lay the blame on anybody!

TP:    Do you still practice a lot?

TYNER:  No, I don’t.  Not at all.  I should.  But I play a lot.  I perform a lot . But I try to compose.  I hear things in my hear and try to do that.  But I really don’t spend time practicing.  I used to years ago.  But my whole career, I’m very fortunate that I was working a lot with John… I haven’t really practiced since I was a teenager.  I spend time at the piano composing. That’s about it.

TP:    If you were going to practice, what might it be that you’d want to work on?

TYNER:  You know, Miles never practiced either.  There’s something about… When you play before the public, it’s better than practicing, I think.  Because you know that there is a communication that has to be made.  The music is about communication, too.  And I don’t mean playing down to people.  I mean just acknowledging the fact that they’re there, listening, and you’re going to take them on this journey.  I think that’s basically what it’s all about.

TP:    Philly Joe Jones once made the comment that he knew exactly what his hands were going to do, so why did he need to…

TYNER:  Yeah.  Well, see, you want it to be automatic.  You want it to be real self-expression.  And practicing is… I already had the tools that I need to work with.  It’s just a matter of ideas and how you present it.

TP:    You said that Miles didn’t practice, and he didn’t rehearse either.  And I gather you have a fairly liberal attitude about rehearsal.

TYNER:  Yes.  Because we didn’t rehearse… With John, I think we might have had… Well, I wouldn’t say a rehearsal.  We ran over some material we were going to record, maybe the Ballads album, and all I did was get like an intro and an ending, and that was it.

TP:    So getting together with Bobby for the European tour and presenting this new material, how did you let it evolve?

TYNER:  Well, we had to run over the material, because there were certain things I wanted to emphasize. But I wouldn’t say practicing.  It was just reviewing the music.

TP:    Because you’ve known each other so long.

TYNER:  That’s what it is.  It’s true, what Philly said.  Because if you have the tools, what are you practicing?  If you HAVE the tools, then it’s just a matter of the ideas and the feeling.  That becomes paramount, as opposed to “let me get in a couple of more runs under my fingers.”  Eventually that happens if you play enough over a period of years, that you can execute without thinking about it.

TP:    Would you talk a bit about the distinction between composition and playing?

TYNER:  I like to play my songs actually.  But then, again, I stuck that Duke Ellington song in there, “In A Mellow Tone,” because I like it.  And Duke’s songs have a tendency to swing!  Just playing the melody itself.  But basically I do like to play on the songs that I have written.

TP:    I guess they suit your style.

TYNER:  Yes, that’s what it is.

TP:    I’ve heard many musicians refer to improvising as spontaneous composition.

TYNER:  That’s a good phrase.  That’s exactly what it is.  And a lot of times, you’ll come up with a melody based on something you’ve played — that you are playing.  “I’ve heard that before.” “Oh, I played that last night.” [LAUGHS] Maybe you think about that.  I don’t know.  You don’t know where exactly it’s from, but it’s part of your expression in some kind of way.

TP:    I don’t know exactly how many records you’ve done, but there can’t be many things you haven’t done in your career.  I’m wondering if you have any aspiration that you haven’t fulfilled yet.

TYNER:  We’ll see.

TP:    You’ll let it come along.

TYNER:  Yes.  Something will tell you.  You just do it, and something will say, “Well, yeah, that’s the right thing.”  It just comes to you.  If music is your world, or whatever it is, it becomes intuitive. You don’t have to sit down and plan it for a year.  I can write a whole date in a couple of weeks in advance.  I wouldn’t advise people to do that.  But I’m just saying that when I’m placed under pressure, I do pretty well.

TP:    Pressure is the great motivator.

TYNER:  Yes, it sure is.  When you have a deadline.  But that’s good, because you learn how to deal with it.

TP:    You bet.  And it makes you stronger.

TYNER:  That’s right.

TP:    So this summer, are you going to be out a good bit, and any with Bobby?

TYNER:  I’m going to Italy and to Japan for about three weeks, and George Mraz and Lewis Nash will be playing with me.

TP:    You’re just getting all the second stringers, aren’t you.

TYNER:  George is a wonderful bass player.  He knows how to play with a piano.  For some reason, you can go where you want to go, and George is right there.  He’s a nice man, he’s fun to be around, and it’s nice to have that kind of selection of people.  He played with Oscar, he played with Hank, he played with Tommy Flanagan.  He knows what to do when it comes to piano players!  He’s not trying to take it out.  He’s the kind of guy that likes to blend into what’s going on.  But when he solos he’s got a beautiful sound on the instrument.  I love George.

TP:    You’ll have fun with Lewis, too.

TYNER:  I did an album of Bert Bacharach’s music that Lewis is on.  I host at Yoshi’s in Oakland every year (this will be the tenth year), and a lot of guys play, and each week is a different band.  Lewis and Christian McBride, who’s one of my neighborhood guys, played very well together.  This year it’s going to be Tain Watts.

TP:    Tain told me a story about having an initiation with you, back in ’87, when he played with you and put out all his stuff on one tune, and he said that after that he was hanging on for dear life, because he’d played it all already.  You were just beginning and he’d played all his stuff.

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Well, he’s increased his knowledge.  He seems to have a lot left.

TP:    Well, he told the story with relish. It was, “Yeah, McCoy got me.” But again, Art Blakey did it, Miles did it… You’ve become this jazz elder…

TYNER:  Elder statesman? [LAUGHS]

TP:    Well, a jazz elder griot type of thing, where the material gets passed down in this manner to so many people who then sustain it.

TYNER:  I’ve been fortunate to have known a lot of great people who were great inspirations, and I’m very thankful for that opportunity — or whatever you would call it.

* * * *

McCoy Tyner (7-25-03):

TP:    I’d like to talk first of all about your summer itinerary, the configurations you’re working in, the musicians you’re playing with.  I gather you recently did three weeks with Lewis Nash in Japan.

TYNER:  Yeah, he went with me to Japan, and we did a tour of the Blue Notes in Japan.  It’s very nice; Blue Note franchised out the name over there.  It was a great reception.  I’ve been going to Japan since 1966.  The first time I went over was what they called the Drum Battle (it was more like a reunion to me) between Tony Williams, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey.  It was the first time I went over, with Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Owens, and I forget the bass player.  Of course, I’ve gone back after that with my own bands over the years.

TP:    You did a number of recordings there.

TYNER:  I did a solo piano thing, “Echoes of A Friend,” which was dedicated to Coltrane.

TP:    You did it in ’72.

TYNER:  Yeah, something like that.  But there’s a solid base there.

TP:    Japan is part of your regular touring itinerary.  I guess the trio with George Mraz and Lewis has a certain type of tonal personality. Do you go in a different direction, say, with that personnel than, say, with Charnett Moffett and Al Foster.  Or if Jack DeJohnette were playing in a trio with Ron Carter.  I’m just throwing out names.  I’m wondering how different musicians of different attitudes affect the way you respond and listen.

TYNER:  Well, it’s always like that anyway, when you play with people of different characters and characteristics, different personalities.  It’s just like meeting an old friend.  You can’t compare him to the one you ran into yesterday.  They’re completely… Well, they’re not completely different, but what it is, they know what my style is like.  So what they do is, they know they have to listen, and that’s all I ask.  Because I wouldn’t have chosen to have them on this tour if I didn’t think that they could perform with me.  And individually, they have.  George played with me and Al when we did this Coltrane tribute, and Lewis did the Bacharach thing and something else with me.  So they know what they’re in for basically.

TP:    Do you know what you’re in for beforehand?

TYNER:  No, I don’t want to know.

TP:    Do you like the surprise?

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Yeah.  I’m surprised all the time.  Because they’re growing, and I say, “Oh, wow, there’s something different this time.”  It’s always different anyway, but it’s nice to hear them move in a positive way and develop.  Because we’re all growing.  That’s what it’s all about.  One tour you do with a guy one time, and then the next year or so it’s different.

TP:    But you had a working band for many years with Avery Sharpe and Aaron Scott.

TYNER:  Yes, I did.

TP:    You did other projects, but that was basically the band.  Now it seems like you’re experimenting with different configurations.

TYNER:  Yes.

TP:    What was the reason for disbanding at this point?

TYNER:  Well, everything runs its term.  What I’m saying is that everything has a term.  I had a great rhythm section with them for years, but then I thought it might be a good time to do something different.  I think if you force something to happen, even if it’s change, you can have a negative response. But if it happens naturally… In all the bands I’ve had, it reached a point where it served its purpose for that time period.  Then it was time for me to choose something else.  But I didn’t force it.  Avery was with me for 20 years and Aaron was close for 17-18 years, so it served its purpose.

TP:    Can you describe what the purpose might have been with that band?  I mean, they were obviously very suitable to you.  You had a three-way affinity.  You’re not going to do anything you don’t want to do for two decades.

TYNER:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    Talk about the qualities.

TYNER:  It was very good qualities.  The thing is that they were very consistent in what they were doing, and determined.  They were eager to learn and develop.  And that’s one thing I do like about people who work with me.  I hope that when it’s served its purpose, that they walk away with information that they didn’t have before they joined my band, and had the opportunity to develop.  I think that’s very important.  But I think it went as far individually as it could have gone, and as a group, consequently, if you don’t move, then everybody is sort of stuck in a situation… You want to be organic.  You want to be healthy no matter what the configuration is.  You want that healthy attitude.  And we can only do what we can do.

TP:    It sounds to me as though you’re now in a mind space where it suits you to play with as many different empathetic personalities as you can, and are able to give yourself a lot of leeway.  Would that be true, or are you looking to find a steadily working group again?

TYNER:  As long as they’re compatible, is what I’m doing.  If they’re not compatible… I can tell sometimes by listening to people.  I heard Eric when he was with Betty Carter.  We were in actually, of all places, Beirut, Lebanon!  They invited us over.  I was a little hesitant at first, but then I’m glad we went.  They were very nice people who invited us there.  Eric was playing with Betty then, and I was playing I think with the Latin band opposite her.  I had a chance to hear Eric then.  I had met Eric actually as a teenager in high school in Houston.  I went to the university to give a little bit of a talk, and met him.  He was a kid at the time.  Of course, he’s developed quite extensively from when I met him with Betty, but it was nice…

TP:    She raised him good.

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Well, the thing is that we were able to play together and have fun, and that’s good.  He plays with Terence Blanchard and other people, and I think he was with Charles Lloyd recently.  I think Charles heard him in London when we did the thing in London, and said, “Oh, I want that guy to play with me.”  It’s not a steady gig, but he definitely has been making some appearances.  But hey, whenever possible.  That way, I don’t have to dependent on any one guy — on one bass player or one drummer.

TP:    So there’s the trio, and are you doing anything with Bobby Hutcherson this summer also?  Or are you resuming that quartet in the Fall?

TYNER:  I think we’re resuming in the fall.  We’ve come back from Japan not too long ago, maybe ten days ago, and we’re doing something at Lincoln Center on August 2nd.  Dave Valentin is playing flute, and Charnett Moffett and Eric on drums.

TP:    I’d like to ask about the Latin band a bit.  This will take me back a bit and focus on that Philadelphia territory.

TYNER:  Are you from Philly?

TP:    No.  I know a lot of people from Philly, though, and I’ve talked with a lot of musicians who are your peers and older than you and younger than you, like Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath and Reggie Workman and various people.  When we spoke earlier, you said there was an African drummer in Philly whose name you couldn’t quite recall the spelling of, who taught you in the early ’50s…

TYNER:  He didn’t teach me, but I was in his presence.  He taught guys who percussion was their thing.  That was their instrument.  I played piano.  I was just messing around with him.

TP:    You said you did fool around with the drums, but it damaged your fingers.

TYNER:  Yeah, in the joints.  That’s why you see a lot of conga players who have tape on the joints.  They say, “I’m not going to ruin these babies.”

TP:    The crown jewels!

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] I had enough intelligence even during that time!

TP:    You mentioned Garvin Masseaux, Robert Crowder…

TYNER:  Rob’s still there.

TP:    Eric Gravatt might have been an extension of that.  But what this guy was doing filtered into your consciousness, sort of became imprinted on the way you think about music.  Then there was a quote in Lewis Porter’s biography of Coltrane from your former wife Aisha that Latin music was very big in Philly, and everyone danced the merengue.  So all this stuff was percolating for you when you were a young player, in formative years.  I wondered if you had anything to say about how that environment became more solidified as you became a more mature musician.

TYNER:  I was exposed to African culture when I was a teenager because the atmosphere was conducive to that.  So Saka coming to study at Temple University (I think it was political science or something like that), and bringing his sister over to teach African dancing was very appropriate, because at that time people were involved and being conscious of who they are in history.  From that point, we then… Of course, we met Olatunji in New York.  Although my association with the dancing school at the time is where Saka came to teach the other guys, the percussionists.

TP:    So when his sister would teach African dance, he’d come in and play or bring those guys in to play with the class?

TYNER:  Yes.

TP:    And did you play in the dance class that he was teaching, or the drummers?

TYNER:  No, the drummers would.  The only thing I did was, I composed a…not composed, but I just played a little piano for one of those things they did, a kind of South American production, along with other things…

TP:    I think you said “Viva Zapata.”

TYNER:  Yes, “Viva Zapata.”  I played that for the dance company.  Because they did some choreography for that, and that was kind of a big…

TP:    But when you started composing music… You said your first charts were with that R&B band you had, but I’d think your more mature compositions began when you were 19-20-21…

TYNER:  No, before that.

TP:    What’s the earliest composition of yours that you recorded?

TYNER:  Well, I did an album called Inception on Impulse!, and there’s a song called “Sunset.” “Effendi” is another thing.

TP:    “Effendi” you wrote in Philly?

TYNER:  No, I didn’t write that in Philly.

TP:    I just wondered if there was anything when you were 18 or 19…

TYNER:  Yeah, I wrote a song, but it was so long, I should have called it “When Is This Going To End”?  I wrote a few songs, but I don’t remember exactly the title of the song.  It was something I wrote for my R&B band. But what we did was play “Flying Home” and some Tiny Bradshaw stuff…

TP:    You were how old then?

TYNER:  14 and 15, like that.  I improved very rapidly, you know.

TP:    It sounds like your learning curve was immense.

TYNER:  Yeah.

TP:    You didn’t play until you were 13, but by the time you were 17, Coltrane was impressed!

TYNER:  Yes, it was meant to happen.  I played with a lot of people.  Red Rodney moved to my neighborhood, and he knew Oscar Pettiford, and Oscar came in.  We played one week at a local place called the Blue Note.  Red had played with Bird, and he moved into my neighborhood, so he found out about me.  Then, of course, I met Calvin Massey way before that, and that’s who introduced me to John.

TP:    People in Philly born in 1938 include Lee Morgan and Reggie Workman and Archie Shepp.  Pretty good company.

TYNER:  Yeah!  I used to play with Archie and Lee.  Lee and I used to play fraternity dances.  We did a graduation at Cheyney College outside of Philly.  We did gigs around.  We went to Atlantic City, which was fun.  Then Max Roach came through.  I met him when I was 18, right after Brownie and Richie had passed, and he was trying to get me to join his band.  But Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham were playing on there, and George Morrow.  That was a heck of a band.  But I didn’t travel.  I did the week at the Showboat.

TP:    The story you told about Max was that he asked, “Do you know ‘Just One Of Those Things’?” and you played it at his tempo, and he said, “Ah!”

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Yes.  I loved playing with Sonny.

TP:    So the standards were high when you were coming up.

TYNER:  Yes, the standards were very high.  Appearance, presentation — you had to be on point for that.  It was good training, because things to changed as time went on, and people started looking at it completely differently.  The musicians, basically, the way they presented themselves, and… Of course they were very talented people.  But still, I think presentation is a major part of the music.

TP:    You’re obviously someone who pays a lot of attention to personal style.

TYNER:  Uh-huh.

TP:    It’s obvious, just seeing you now.  It’s 90 degrees, and Mr. Tyner is in a very nice, dark blue…is it a silk shirt?

TYNER:  Yes, silk.

TP:    A beautifully textured silk shirt, a white patterned silk tie, and it looks like white linen pants.

TYNER:  Yeah, that’s what it is.

TP:    Now, maybe you have someplace to go now.

TYNER:  No.  I just…

TP:    But you always look tip-top when you’re performing.

TYNER:  Yes, that’s important.  I came up in an era when Art Blakey used to say “People see you before they hear you.”  It’s just a respect for yourself and what you’re doing that I think should emanate before you go up.

TP:    No doubt.  Your mother was a beautician, had a beauty shop.  Did she have a lot to do with your personal style and sense of presentation?

TYNER:  My mother had a lot to do with everything in my development!  Her name was Beatrice — Beatrice Tyner.  She was just the ultimate classic person.  Very, very elegant, my mother.  I don’t mean that in terms of using clothes or to make her better than anyone else, but just her demeanor, her personality.  She’s a very honest, very likeable person.  People really loved my mother a lot.  She was caring, a very caring person.  She loved music.  She loved piano actually.  She didn’t play, but sometimes we’d go to somebody’s house who had a piano, and she’d tinkle a little bit.  But when anything came up that she thought I should be interested in, she’d let me know — and be very supportive.

TP:    It surprises me, just because of your level of technique and fluency with the instrument, that you started playing at 13.  It sounds like you were listening to music from way before that.  It sounds like all this was in your head and your body by the time you started playing.

TYNER:  Yes, I’d say so.  I listened… From my affiliation with the dance school and the fact that I had two good teachers in the beginning, one guy who taught the beginner piano and then I had an Italian teacher who went through the books and all that.  That was kind of before I formed my R&B band.  I was 13, 13-1/2, whatever.  Then about 14, I put the books kind of the side, and just started studying a little theory.  I went to Granoff School, but that was more like… It was a basically European approach, and that wasn’t what I was looking for.  And the (?) Music Center, which was a nice place…

But I think that mine just came from… I had the facility, because I used to practice all the time.  But like I say, you can’t describe why you have certain treasures, why certain things emanate from you, why certain things just emerge.  It’s hard to explain a gift.  I mean, how can you explain that?  It’s just one of those things.  You keep doing it.  And of course, I had the encouragement of a lot of older musicians around Philadelphia.  Even before I met John, there were guys who were very encouraging — older musicians who heard about me.

TP:    Piano players?

TYNER:  Well, there were piano players around town that were very nice.

TP:    Who were some of your mentors?

TYNER:  Well, Bud Powell was around the corner from me.

TP:    Was he personally encouraging?

TYNER:  No, not personally encouraging.

TP:    Did he have a wall around him at that time?

TYNER:  Well, he was kind of like a child prodigy.  But he needed care.  He needed somebody to be with him.  He needed somebody to take care of him.  He couldn’t function alone.  So he always had these guys.  I don’t know how sincere they were, but they were around him.  But the level of musicality around Philadelphia was on a higher level.  The jam sessions… We used to have jam sessions all the time.  See, what you can’t do… If you’re going to add to what’s there, if you’re going to contribute something, you can’t copy from… You can’t copy people.  It has to be there.  It has to be something that you’re born with.  I never wanted to play like… As much as I loved Bud and Thelonious, I learned a lot from them, from listening to them, and then, of course, meeting Bud and meeting Thelonious later…over the years… They taught me… And Monk was adamant about it.  He respected you when you had your own direction.  He loved that.  I mean, I learned a lot.  I used to kind of try to (?) Monk when I was still (?).  But not to the point where I wanted to be them or wanted to sound just like them.  But Monk was definitely the kind of person, like, “You have your own thing?  Great!”  Because that was the way he was.  I was very fortunate to know him kind of on a personal level.

TP:    There’s that old jazz cliche, “make a mistake; do something right.”

TYNER:  That’s right.

TP:    Benny Golson had a story about playing maybe with Buhaina at the Cafe Bohemia, and his eyes are closed, and he looks up, and there’s Monk in his shades, and after the set he made a comment to the effect that he was playing too perfect, and he just stop thinking about being perfect.

TYNER:  Yes, that’s true.  A lot of things come out of so-called “mistakes.” Really, it’s how what you do with it.  How you shape music.  Nothing’s a mistake.  It’s how you resolve.  When you play something, how you resolve it.

TP:    Thinking on your feet.

TYNER:  Yeah, thinking on your feet.

TP:    At this stage of your life, do you ever make mistakes that you resolve?

TYNER:  [LAUGHS]

TP:    There’s a certain sense of magisterial authoritativeness to the stuff you do!  I don’t know how else to describe it.  But there are times when it sounds as though you’re allowing yourself to get to the other… It sounds like you get into separate spaces when you play, that sometimes it’s just the way it’s supposed to be and presentation, and sometimes that it’s more open-ended.  Now, I don’t know you at all, but am I anywhere close to the reality?

TYNER:  Yeah.  Well, the thing is, I sort of have a controlled sense of experimentation.  That’s what it is.  I go out, but I have to come from something.  Whatever it is, there has to be something there to work from.  Or it can be created.  If it’s sort of a song that’s open, like one of the songs on the record…I forget what I called it… Not “The Search,” but the title is something like… We didn’t have a melody, but it was conceived that way — no melody.  So we just used tonal centers, moved from one tone to another, from one sound, one cluster to another — that kind of thing.  Which I had that experience paying with John.  But I try to use that when it’s appropriate for me, as opposed to using that as a main way to express myself.  It’s another tool.  That’s all.

TP:    It’s interesting that you can go in and out of those attitudes.  A lot of people who have a total sense of their music, who are composers, don’t allow themselves to get into that space, or very rarely so. And you seem able to access both parts of yourself.

TYNER:  Yes.  I have sort of a mixed personality in that respect.  I can do that.  I’m not trying to prove anything…to no one.

TP:    I wouldn’t think.

TYNER:  Just trying to have some fun, and trying to find out more about myself musically.  And sometimes, you find out after you listen back at something.  You say, “Wow, that’s what I did.  Where was I going?”  Because I don’t want to reach the point where everything is predetermined.  It’s not artistic when everything is predetermined.

TP:    I don’t want to burden you too much by dwelling on your time with John Coltrane, but your comment makes me think of a comment I read in a French magazine, where you spoke of your contribution to the evolution of that music, and that it was rooted particularly in your time, in the authority of your left hand, that he always had a home base to come back to somehow, and that you always have a home base to come back to somehow.  I wonder if you could talk about that for the purposes of this conversation.

TYNER:  Well, something’s got to come from someplace, go somewhere, and then return to someplace.  Maybe it might be a different place that you ultimately return to.  But I think it’s good to have these different dynamic dimensions, to go from here to somewhere, using that as a base, and go somewhere and then from there to return…or to resolve it.  Resolution is very important.  Sometimes you listen to people and they go into very interesting places, but then they leave you hanging.  Where are you going from here?  You going to leave me here?  Whatever.  But I always like to make it a complete journey — a departure, a flight and then a landing. [LAUGHS] Sort of what I do normally when I travel!  A good analogy.

TP:    You haven’t crashed yet.

TYNER:  Hopefully not.

TP:    You said you were interested     in drums before encountering Saka.  Who were some of the trap drummers who were favorites of yours in your pre Coltrane years?  I imagine Philly Joe Jones must have been one.

TYNER:  Yes.  I didn’t know Philly when he was there, though.

TP:    Specs Wright.

TYNER:  I knew Specs.  Philly had left, because he was with Miles — him and Red.  But I knew they’d been around Philly a long time.  But there were guys from my generation who were around Philly.  Tootie Heath.  We jammed together.  Lex Humphries was there; he left to go with Dizzy, but he was around for a while.  A guy named Eddie Campbell, who passed; he was a good Art Blakey style drummer.  There were a lot of good guys around who played well.  We were very fortunate in that way.  I mean, we did have good musicians around.

TP:    Were you leading trios around Philly?  Actual piano trios?  When you did Inception, was that just something you went into the studio and did, or had you put some time into that format?

TYNER:  I did some things trio, but not many.  When I’d go to Atlantic City, there would usually be a horn player.  The first time I went was with Paul Jeffries.  Paul came from Philly, and some kind of way Paul got that job in Atlantic City.  We worked at a place called King’s Bar.  That’s really what it was, a bar.  The guy liked my playing so much, he went to Philadelphia and bought a piano.  He bought a little spinet.  Because his piano was horrible.  So Paul and I, we worked together down there for a while.

Then I went down with Lee Morgan.  With Eddie Campbell one time.  I know once with Lex Humphries.  There was a place called the Cotton Club, big-time, that had two stages.  Dinah Washington came in, she was on one stage with Wynton Kelly on piano and Jimmy Cobb on piano.  Then J.J. Johnson came in with Tootie and Wilbur Little on bass and Tommy Flanagan on piano.

TP:    A heady summer.

TYNER:  Yes.  We spent a couple of summers down in Atlantic City.  I think we came back to that same club, the Cotton Club.  It was nice, because we’d have jam sessions late at night after everybody got off at the Steel Pier, all the big bands, and they’d converge on this club until dawn.  How I learned how to play was hands-on.  It wasn’t examining somebody.  Just okay, sit down and play for a while, and then when you’re done there’s another piano player, get up and let him sit down and play.  So everybody had a chance.  When I used to look back and see the line of tenor players that were looking for me to comp, and there would be about ten guys, each looking to play.  Then my mother’s shop was a favorite place.  And a lot of the homes.  Another place called Rittenhouse Hall.  This guy loved the music, and he loved to have dances on the weekend.  People danced to bebop music.  It was the music of that period that I came out of.

TP:    You said somewhere that in doing the gigs, you had to learn the tunes of the day by Bird and Dizzy and Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins.  Sonny Stitt might come through and call those tunes, so if you wanted to make the gig, you had to learn the tunes.  It was an organic thing.  Your quotidian, as they say.

TYNER:  What was so unique about playing for Sonny Stitt, was that whenever Sonny would come to town, there would be four or five tenor players in the club waiting to sit in and cut Sonny.  What he would do… He solved that very easily.  When he saw these guys, he said, “Come on up!  Come on!  Don’t be hesitant.”  The cats would get on the stage.  He’d say, “‘Cherokee'” – [CLAPS FAST] Like this.  And then he would modulate half-steps.

TP:    He’d play every key.

TYNER:  Every chorus he would go up half-steps.  B-    flat, B, C, C-flat… Then the guy would be shaking… “What’s wrong with the saxophone?”  He solved that problem.  Sonny was an amazing musician.  And then, to work with Sonny Rollins and K.D. was… From playing with Max, I really had a chance to meet some very fine…

TP:    Had you chosen to leave Philadelphia in 1958, say, you would have been equipped to do so.

TYNER:  Yeah.  I was ready.  I was ready to do the album John required, Giant Steps.  I knew those songs.  Of course, he used Tommy.  Tommy was in New York.  I guess he felt, “This guy is so young.”  But I was really poised to be on that date.

TP:    You’ve expressed that in print on many occasions.

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] But to question his judgment… Then eventually, of course, I moved up to New York.

TP:    Well, you seem to have had such a sense of certainty that you were meant to be with Coltrane.  Anything I’ve ever seen written about you, you express with utmost certainty that it was meant to be from years before it started.

TYNER:  Yes.  Because he was like family to me.  His wife at that time was very close to my girlfriend, who was going to be my wife, and then, my sister-in-law was a singer.  He was like family.  I didn’t have a big brother.  So he was like a big brother, and his Mom… I’d go to his house, and sit up while he composed “Countdown” and all those songs.  So we had a beautiful, friendly relationship.  It’s almost, like I said, like a family.

TP:    Walter Davis, Jr. would talk about being a teenager and going to Bud Powell’s house when he was composing “Glass Enclosure” or “Hallucinations,” and Walter Davis would play motifs so Bud could hear it.  There was that synergy, so he felt totally intimate and at one with Bud’s music and with Bud.  It was a destiny thing.

TYNER:  Walter Davis was a beautiful guy.  I miss that guy.

TP:    But it seems it was the same way for you with Coltrane.

TYNER:  Yeah.  It was more than just me being a piano player.  He used to call me “Coy.”  “Hey, Coy, what about this?”     It was a very, very close, more of a family kind of relationship.  He had confidence in me, and he knew that that’s where I needed to be, whatever he’d want in his band.  Of course, it took a while, because Miles had to figure out how to get used to him not being there. [LAUGHS] It’s hard to get rid of a guy that great!  Anyway, there was no question that’s where I belonged.

TP:    I’d like to talk about the solo record, Jazz Roots.  Maybe I’m overstating the case here, but I wonder if you could give me impressions of some of these piano players who you signify on here.  Is it okay?

TYNER:  Yeah, if you want to ask me questions about it.

TP:    Let me start with one who isn’t on here, Ahmad Jamal.  When I listen to your earlier records, it seems you were listening to him a lot at that time.

TYNER:  It’s hard to cover the whole spectrum of pianists because there were so many.  I knew Ahmad very well.  But I think I was mainly influenced by Bud and Thelonious.  I really think that was my main influence at the beginning.  Of course, being with John… John was really maybe the number-one instrument, but on the instrument, Bud and Monk.  But the thing is that playing with the Jazztet, when we did “Killer Joe,” that situation kind of reminded me of Ahmad’s playing. Miles loved Ahmad, and I think Benny picked up on that.  So that might have been what that was.  But I just did what I thought Benny wanted for that song.  But Bud and Monk were my main influences.

TP:    I’m not so much looking for what you picked up as your impressionistic sense of what it feels like to hear them.

TYNER:  Individuality.  You see, that’s the key to the whole thing.  You cannot be anybody else but yourself, even if you want to be!  I would like to be like this guy.  Why do we need those kind of heroes?  A guy is already a hero, whether you acknowledge it or not, any time they make that kind of impression on the scene — on music, I should say.  It’s nice to give people the props and give them the praise for what they’re doing and what they’ve done.  But to make them supersede what you ultimately want to be by being them, it’s impossible!  You can never be them.  You have to be yourself.

TP:    Does everyone who plays with you have to have that quality, too?  Do they all have to be straight-up, individualistic players?

TYNER:  I hope so.  In other words, at least look for that.  I think we spend a lifetime, or at least we should, trying to find out who we are as people, as individuals, as opposed to “Let me copy that guy, let me copy that guy…” It’s a blind alley, I think.  Because you can be a spy about somebody, but to say, “Okay, wow, let me stick to this for the rest of my life” is crazy.

TP:    Is it harder to find those type of individualistic personalities now than it was, say, when you started leading groups in the mid-’60s after you left John Coltrane?

TYNER:  Well, yeah, it became a little difficult, I guess.  Everybody had graduated, and I had my band and some of them formed their own bands and carried on with their own lives, and I thought maybe that was very good.  You can’t get attached to someone to the point where you restrict them from doing what they have to do ultimately. So if they’ve learned something from working with me, then I have to continue to look, to see what’s next on the agenda, who’s going to be the next guy that works with me.  That’s it.  Who knows?  You never know.  I had my previous trio for a long time, because I hadn’t really heard anyone — and I knew there were guys around — who could really do what I was looking for.  Then they came along.  Lewis. Of course, Al was around, but he was busy; he worked with Miles for many years.  So it was one of those kind of things.  It always come around eventually, if you keep trying.  The right thing comes around.

TP:    You made a comment in our previous conversation that.. [END OF SIDE] ..what might those qualities be?

TYNER:  You have to have an open mind and the ability to execute the ideas that you hear within your limitations — or within your conscious limitations.  Because you might be able to do a lot better than you think you can.  I think not being afraid to take chances, not being afraid to feel the situation at hand, as opposed to feeling, “Oh, I’m limited; I can’t do this.”  It’s not good for an artist to feel that kind of fear.  If he wants to consciously do something particularly simple or maybe for this particular song he wants to keep it simple, that’s different.  But being afraid to explore, I think is… I like guys around me who are willing to take chances, but do it on a level of professionalism that stands out, as opposed to just doing… But it’s a very personal thing, because you’re asking a person to be honest with themselves and not be afraid.  And most of us have fears and sometimes we’re not honest! [LAUGHS]

TP:    On that level, of chance-taking in a professional way, I can’t think of a more deft foil for you than Bobby Hutcherson.

TYNER:  Yes, Bobby and I play very well together.  His wife said that sometimes she listens to the way we phrase, and she said sometimes it’s hard for her to tell who’s playing, or which is playing, the vibes or the piano.  We phrase very much alike.  We have a similar approach.

TP:    It seems you read each other’s minds.

TYNER:  That’s right.  He’s a very responsive and creative individual.

TP:    Listening to this record through headphones is a lot of fun!

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Now, that’s a main point.  You said what are the qualifications of people playing with me.  You like to have fun.  I love to have.  It’s very important.  You’ve got to have fun!

TP:    If you’re a performer, you can’t communicate that sense to other people unless you’re experiencing it yourself.  It may not be a qualification for other professions, but as a musician…

TYNER:  Yes.  You’ve got to be able… You’re out there… I remember a guy told me one time… I was playing a solo gig, and he said, “Yeah, you’re out there, you put yourself out there.”  He admired that, because he knew that took courage.  Playing music, you have to love it, but you can’t be afraid to express yourself.  You’ve got to just jump in and do it.

TP:    At this stage, the name McCoy Tyner is known around the world.  You have a world-wide audience, you have a visibility beyond the jazz audience.  In some ways, you’re almost as iconic a figure as Coltrane was in his day. You’ve lived another 35 years at a high level of creativity and accomplishment.  I did a piece on Sonny Rollins a few years ago, and he said to me, “I’m supposed to be a legend, right?”

TYNER:  [LOUD LAUGH]

TP:    “But I still have to go up there on the stage, so what good does it do me?”  Something to that extent.  How do you respond to that persona?  Obviously, you’re living your life day-by day, you put your pants on one leg at a time.  Blah-blah-blah.  But you also know that you’re McCoy Tyner.

TYNER:  Well, you have to keep that in mind, that you put your pants on one leg at a time! [LAUGHS] Don’t lose sight of that!  Right.  The simplicities of life are very important.  And I think when you start riding on this high horse and thinking of this and that… I only did what I was supposed to do, and basically it… I mean, people think it’s fabulous.  And when I look back at my musical history, I’m very thankful for the opportunities I’ve had and to have been able to rise to the occasion.  I think it was really great to have been in that kind of environment and been able to do that.  But as far as labels and so on, I think that one should never down play one’s contribution or creativity or look down on themselves.  I don’t do that.  I feel as though I did the best I could.  And I thought it was pretty good!  It wasn’t bad!  Some people sort of might want to rest on their laurels or they don’t feel good unless somebody’s putting them on a pedestal.  I’m a very simple guy.  I like simplicity in life.  But I don’t downplay what I’ve done, not at all.  I have the confidence in myself.  That’s very important to me.

TP:    Can I ask you what you like to do in your off-time when you’re not playing music?  Are you a reader?  Do you watch films?  Do you go fishing?  Do you work out at the gym?

TYNER:  There’s one four letter word I like to use — “r-e-s-t.”  Rest.  I do like to rest, and I drink a lot of health juices.  There’s a juice bar across the street from me.  I’ve been doing that since I was a teenager — carrot and celery juice and all that stuff like that.  I need to exercise more, but sometimes I’m so tired from going through airports… I like going out to the theater.  I’ve seen musicals on Broadway, and various plays, and I like that.  I have friends that enjoy me asking them out to dinner and then a play.

TP:    Are you vegetarian?

TYNER:  No.  It’s funny, because I do like the vegetarian cuisine, and I do have friends who are vegetarian.  But I’m not like…

TP:    You’re not a fanatic.

TYNER:  No, I’m not a fanatic.  No way.  I’m not a vegan.  But I like the juice.  I have a juice machine at home.  I don’t use it, because when the juice bar moved across the street I said, “I’m not cleaning this machine!”  I go to his place and let him clean his machine!  I love the diet, but I’ve never claimed to be… I like meat and chicken and fish.  I have a pretty normal diet. But I try to eat good and healthy, and not overdo it.

TP:    Are you someone who thinks about music all the time?

TYNER:  No.

TP:    There’s stuff around us right now, and some people would say, “Ah, I hear music in the rustling of the trees; I can put that into a composition…”

TYNER:  I think it has to be like osmosis.  I don’t think you necessarily should consciously say, “Wow, man, that leaf is so gorgeous, I see a song!”  But I think when you put yourself in good environments, or you happen to be in an environment that’s uncomfortable, whatever it is, you will get something from it.  I think it should be an unconscious assimilation.  When I say “unconscious,” it’s nice when you can absorb things without saying it.  You can feel it if you’re getting something.  To sensitize yourself.

TP:    But you don’t practice.

TYNER:  No.  Not any more.  Somebody asked Miles that, and Miles said, in his blunt way, “Practice for what?!”  What it is, once you attain a certain amount of technical ability, then it’s what are you going to do with it?  It’s not about attaining more.  John even said it.  John said, “After a while, you have enough technique” — because he used to practice a lot to do thing that he wanted to do, that he heard.  And I think he reached the point where he felt like he had enough.

TP:    Really?  He stopped practicing?

TYNER:  No, he would practice.  Because he was hearing a lot of things.  But he reached a point where I guess he felt as though he had enough of a facility, but maybe he was practicing for another reason — for sound and things like that.  Because if you step away from your instrument for a long period of time, you don’t lose the connection, but it’s not the same.  I feel as though I’m in a very good state when I’m performing.  If I stay away from performing for a long time, from playing for a long time, being in contact with music, it’s not as healthy for me as when I’m playing.  I feel very good when I leave the gig and I’ve had a good night — I feel elated.

TP:    Do you keep a sort of steady but not overly… There are a lot of people who say that they just practice on the bandstand or at soundcheck?

TYNER:  You see, what it is, like I said before: The physical side of playing is having a facility to execute certain things — to have the ability to execute.  But how you… Like Lance Armstrong, for instance, this guy who had that bout with cancer.  He’s won the competition now for how many hears?  But there’s something that kicks in that has nothing to do with the fact that… I shouldn’t say nothing.  But maybe it’s more the ability of wanting to win or wanting to overcome or whatever it is, to show just how far you can push the envelope.  whatever.  So I think that’s sometimes more important than having the facility to do things.  The physical aspect is one thing, but if you don’t have the motivation, then that’s…

TP:    The will.

TYNER:  The will.

TP:    Do you ever write stuff for yourself that’s beyond your technique to give yourself a challenge?  Maybe there isn’t anything that’s beyond your technique.

TYNER:  I never do that. [LAUGHS] I never do that!  I don’t want it to be an exercise.

TP:    I’m not suggesting it would necessarily be an exercise.  But is there anything you conceptualize that you have to stretch to play?

TYNER:  Why strain myself? [LAUGHS] I like me!

TP:    Maybe that’s what it is. If that’s your answer, that’s your answer.

TYNER:  What can I tell you?  If I do write something that’s challenging, it’s good!  It’s good.  Like the rapper say, it’s all good.

TP:    I think that precedes the rappers.  I think it comes from the jazz musicians.

TYNER:  I think so.  They took a lot of things from the jazz musicians.  And then when you tell them, it’s “Hmm, really?” [LAUGHS]

TP:    So your attitude about technique is that it’s at the service of…

TYNER:  It’s a facility.  That’s all it is.  Look what Thelonious did with so little.  That to me was miraculous, how he would take a very simple idea and with the feeling he interjected into that idea… It wasn’t about how many notes he played, not at all.  It was about the idea and the feeling that came out of that situation.  He would tell Charlie Rouse… Charlie would want to do another take in the studio, and Monk said, “sorry, that’s it; whatever we did, that’s all you’re going to get.  That’s it.  I’m not doing another one.”  The immediacy of it all. The spontaneity.

TP:    Did you spend a lot of time with Monk?

TYNER:  What happened is that John had worked with Monk for a while, with Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware.  I heard that band.  Oh my God!  I walked into the Five Spot… Before I came to New York, my wife and I actually came up… We knew John.  Like I said, it was a big family.  I heard he was playing with Monk, so I said, “Oh, man, one of my heroes…” I walked into the Five Spot, and Shadow was set up right near the door.  And that cymbal beat, and then Wilbur… Oh, man!  Monk was up at the bar dancing and John was taking a solo.  Oh, man, I’ll tell you.  Whoo!

TP:    Imprinted on your memory.

TYNER:  Yes, it sure did!  But it just goes to show you how important simplicity is.  It’s so important. Sometimes even more than having the facility.  Having facility… It’s what you do with it.  It’s the idea you’re trying to portray, more than having… Look, it counts for something.  Everybody has their own way.  Bud was different.  And he loved Monk for that reason, too.  A simple idea and the depth that he was able to demonstrate with simplicity is amazing.

TP:    Your style has so much ornamentation, but there are always very melodic ideas, and it never gets far away from the melody no matter how far out it might get.

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Yeah.  John said that in one thing he wrote.  He said that I try to make things sound beautiful.  I don’t know about that…

TP:    Maybe that’s just part of who you are.

TYNER:  Yeah, you can get away from yourself.  That’s for sure!

TP:    I’ve been listening as much as possible to your various records, and a lot of the songs sound like they were made to have lyrics put to them.  Have you ever written a song that got onto mainstream radio?

TYNER:  I did an album called Looking Out for Columbia, on which I had  Carlos Santana and Phyllis Hyman. That’s when Bruce Lundvall was at Columbia; he got a lot of jazz guys on the label.  So they wanted me to do something they felt was a little more accessible.  I knew Carlos, and Carlos loved the music I did with John, John was a big hero of his.  So he said fine, and I tried that.  I wrote a song for Carlos kind of in the Latin Rock kind of thing.  I liked it.  My mind is very wide.  I deal with the situation at hand.  So I wrote a song called “Love Surrounds You Everywhere,” and Phyllis sang it.  I wrote the lyrics for it.

TP:    “You Taught My Heart To Sing” just seems like a natural.

TYNER:  I’ll tell you.  I wanted Barbra Streisand to do that.  I kind of felt as though she could do a good job with that.  Of course, Diane Reeves recorded that.  Sammy Cahn wrote the lyrics.  Somebody mentioned that to Sammy, and he’d heard me… I went up to his New York apartment, and Sammy was on the typewriter, we were back-to-back that way — he had a little spinet.  Sammy said, “Play that again.”  He wanted to hear the actual melody.  He said, “Just play it straight.”  And he was typing away!  He must have had a good…

TP:    Did you play much with vocalists?  Apart from the Johnny Hartman Trio, for which I can’t imagine a more sympathetic trio… Did you have much experience?

TYNER:  Just my sister-in-law, that’s about it.  Because she was around locally in Philadelphia.  I did a thing with Ernestine when she came through Philly.  I worked with a few vocalists around Philly.

TP:    I think of the Bradley’s school of pianists, or someone like Jimmy Rowles, who knew the lyrics and chords for the whole American songbook?  Are you like that?

TYNER:  No-no, those guys are special. Jimmy Rowles and Ellis Larkins.  They’re special!  That’s their thing, and nobody… Also, Jimmy Jones, who played with Sarah Vaughan.  Norman Simmons, who played with Carmen for years.  They’re special guys.

TP:    But in your tunes, is there a narrative, a message, some sort of story?  Are they musical ideas and the story comes later?

TYNER:  Well, that’s what accompanists do.  They learn… I have an idea what the song means.  But those guys know the lyrics so they can construct their chords and the nuances to the music.  But a singer may phrase something, and she says, “It’s raining,” and it sounds like water running off of a rock — whatever.  If he knows that, he’ll accompany her at that moment to give a description musically of what’s happening.

TP:    So in Jazz Roots, when you’re playing “My Foolish Heart” or “Sweet and Lovely,” you’re not thinking so much of the lyrics as of the musical ideas you’re trying to express.

TYNER:  Yeah, and I don’t want to sound like the guy that I was honoring.  I want to sound like me.  It’s just something that reminded me… I had a thing called “Happy Days” that kind of reminded me of Keith, and “My Foolish Heart,” Bill Evans had recorded that, and Monk and Bud Powell… I wasn’t trying, “Oh, let me sound like Bud here.”

TP:    On “Night In Tunisia” you sort of did, but I think it was an accident.

TYNER:  Well, I’m guilty.  Okay? [LAUGHS] Guilty as charged!  You got something on me.  What can I say?

TP:    Are you in the planning stages for the next record now?

TYNER:  I’m thinking about it.  I’ve got a big band date coming up at the Chicago Jazz Festival.  It’s been a while since I recorded it.  We’ve won two Grammies with it.  The big band is still a baby.  I need some time to work on some new charts and new directions I’m hearing with the band.  That’s an ongoing kind of endeavor that I need to…

TP:    You have the big band, the trio, this quartet, the Latin group, the solo activity.  There are these files of activity that overlap and intersect with each other that you can return to and refresh yourself.

TYNER:  Yeah.  I’m not a one-dimensional guy that way.  I try to confound myself. [LAUGHS]

TP:    Do you?

TYNER:  No, it’s not conscious.

TP:    Some people do.

TYNER:  Some people do, that’s true.  Everybody functions on a different level.  What makes one guy happy confuses another guy.  So everybody has whatever vibe, whatever level they’re functioning on.

TP:    You seem like one of the most grounded musicians I’ve ever met.  Did that come from your mother?

TYNER:  I think so.  My mother gave me many gifts, and I think that’s one of the things she gave me.  I either learned or got it from her, inherited certain things… You don’t expect too much.  Just do the best you can.  That’s all you can do!  Do the best you can.  Sometimes we set these goals for ourselves, and we want this… I didn’t set a goal for myself.  I just did the best I could.  I think that’s all you can do.  You start setting goals for yourself, “I’ve got to get here, if I don’t get here by next year…” Come on!

TP:    But it’s obvious that you have a certain sense of destiny. You just said “those are accompanists,” which means, “I don’t think of myself as an accompanist.”

TYNER:  I adapt.  When I did something with Johnny Hartman, Carmen heard that, and she said, “Oh my God!”  She thought it was good!  That’s all.  All it is, is my…

TP:    And when you played sideman on those ’60s Blue Note dates, it was obviously a different mindset.  Obviously, a Wayne Shorter date with you and a Wayne Shorter date with Herbie Hancock are two fundamentally different sides of Wayne Shorter.

TYNER:  That’s right.  Because he and Herbie do well together.  It’s wonderful.  That Miles thing, whatever it is; I don’t know.  They’re very tight.   Bobby and I have that kind of affinity.

TP:    He has that sort of groundedness also…

TYNER:  Well, if you don’t ground yourself, you’ll fall off the handle!

TP:    He can go all the way out like this, but comes back…

TYNER:  I like that about him.  We’ve learned some good lessons over the years, I think, and that’s great!  It’s good to learn from this.  It can be arduous at times, and demanding and challenging.  But as long as it serves you, that’s… It always has to serve you.  You don’t want to be a slave to this.  I love it. I mean, music is a whole other story.  I don’t think you should be a slave to music or anything like that.  I think it should work for you.  It is very demanding, the level that you want to perform, but you can always rise to that occasion if you have the right focus and realize what it is — that it’s there to serve you.

TP:    You always seem to come back to Ellington.

TYNER:  Yes.

TP:    My first record of yours was Plays Ellington, before I even knew about Coltrane.  I didn’t know anything about jazz.

TYNER:  I still play Ellington.

TP:    Did you see Ellington when you were a kid? Did he make a big impression on you always?

TYNER:  Yes, I saw him, and I knew everybody in his family.  I knew his sister, I knew Stevie, I knew Mercer.  But the thing  is, he represented an era in the music that was… I mean, all of it is important.  Louis Armstrong.  Fats Waller.  All those guys.  But Duke had an iconic kind of image in his music.  Duke was a hard worker, traveled a lot.  He really paid his dues and really earned his rep.  He was a consummate genius of music, always writing and always totally involved.  And that kind of sacrifice isn’t… I mean, it’s nice if you can do that.  I like being dedicated to music, but not to the point where it just consumes my every minute.  I’m not that kind of person.  I like a balance in life — whatever balance is.  But a balance for one guy may be not a balance for someone else.

TP:    You’re born in 1938, and when you’re 10-11-12 is right when big bands start to decline.  People like Jimmy Heath talk about going to the Earle Theater to hear the big bands, and playing hooky for school.  Was that any part of your experiences, going to hear those bands, going to dances, things like that when you were younger?

TYNER:  Yeah, we had a band.  Tommy Monroe had a band…

TP:    But did you go to hear the traveling bands?  Say, Basie when you were 15?  Or if Ellington played in Philly in 1953 or 1954, would you go to see him?

TYNER:  I was kind of young.  But I was able to hear the records and things like that… Dizzy’s band.  Lee Morgan joined Dizzy’s band as a kind of child prodigy.  When Lee was about 17, he was in Dizzy’s band.  Benny Golson and a lot of big players were in that band.  Melba Liston, Walter Davis.  So I had a chance to hear Dizzy’s band more than Basie and Duke.  I saw Basie and Duke on TV, and I heard the recordings, but I didn’t actually physically see him until later.

TP:    Did you attend the Ellington Meets Coltrane session?

TYNER:  I couldn’t get there.  I tried.  My car broke down.  I was so disappointed.  Because I knew Mercer. I knew his family.  But I wanted to meet Duke in person.  Stevie told me he knew who I was after I did that album of his music.  But I couldn’t get to the session.  That’s the way it goes!  Now, I heard Duke’s band at the Newport Jazz Festival [1962-3].

TP:    But your mother… So there was a musical environment for you all the time, but she wasn’t the type… A lot of people I’ve spoken to, their parents would take them to live music from early on.  It sounds like she let you be a kid until it was time for…

TYNER:  Thank goodness for that.  I took her to cotillions.  I was very close to my mother.  She was a wonderful person in my life.  I was very lucky.  I wrote a lot of songs for my mother and my sister, my ex-wife, whatever.  I had a very close relationship with her.  So I can conclude by saying that life is good!

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