Category Archives: Liner Notes

For Gene Ammons 92nd Birth Anniversary, a Liner Note for The Prestige Reissue “Fine And Mellow”

No one who loves the sound of the tenor saxophone doesn’t love Gene Ammons (1922-1974) who first entered public consciousness playing alongside Dexter Gordon in Billy Eckstine’s band in the mid-’40s, and had the first of his many instrumental single hits in 1947 with “Red Top”. An unparalleled balladeer and blues practitioner  who could more than hold his own in any cutting contest (his solo starts at 7:32—rhythm section is Hampton Hawes, Bob Cranshaw and Kenny Clarke!), as evidenced on a series of recorded ‘jam sessions’ that he recorded for Prestige in the second half of the ’50s, including the 1958 date, Groove Blues, on which John Coltrane played alto saxophone. Ammons spent 7 of his prime years in jail on a trumped-up narcotics charge, which is perhaps why he’s less remembered than he ought to be. He came out of the penitentiary with powers undiminished and a raw edge, recording jazz funk classics, expressionistic ballads, and straight-up swing. He was state-of-the-art; the tunes sound better with time’s passage.

In any event, ten years ago or so, I had an opportunity to document my feelings about the maestro in a liner note for a reissue of the proceedings of three 1972 sessions that were released contemporaneously on the LPs Get My Own and Big Bad Jug, which I’ve posted below.

Gene Ammons, “Fine and Mellow” (Liner Notes):

No tenor saxophonist of his generation understood melody more profoundly than Gene Ammons, whose ability to make his metal instrument emulate the human voice with unparalleled presence and dramatic weight gave him great stature among his peer group.

“Jug’s one of my heroes of all time,” says tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, referring to Ammons by his nickname.  Now 81 and saying more on the tenor than just about anyone alive, Freeman met Ammons, two years his junior, in the middle 1930s at South Side Chicago’s DuSable High School, where both studied under the famous taskmaster Walter Dyett. “I give him a lot of credit, because he sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago. Then again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.”

Freeman is referring to the way individualistic tenormen like himself and Ammons, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Paul Gonsalves, Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson and Frank Wess — ’20s-born musicians who assimilated Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young before Charlie Parker entered the picture — blended Hawkins’ charging, arpeggiated, straight-up-and-down attack and thick operatic tone with Young’s relaxed, fluid, float-like-a-butterfly, bel canto conjurations. Ammons played economically, and he could accent his lines with stirring blues vocalizations, like Muddy Waters playing bebop saxophone. He had an unerring inner metronome, honed during an Art Blakey-booted two-year stint in Billy Eckstine’s orchestra; one Ammons note would launch the beat and the swing, and that note would permeate the room — or speaker. Plus, the ladies dug him; Ammons could bleed you to death with a ballad, smooth with quiet fire, like his idol Nat King Cole, or, a la Mario Lanza, oozing vibrato to maximize the melodrama.

Ammons possessed an incredibly powerful embouchure (Freeman recalls once seeing him snap off a saxophone neck while blowing), and in certain ways, his larger-than-life sound, which projected pain and jubilation in equal measure and seemed to emanate from deep in his innards, disguised his extreme musical sophistication. He inherited his rawer musical chromosomes from his father, Albert Ammons, the legendary boogie-woogie pianist-church deacon. He got the finesse from his mother, a music teacher and classical pianist.

“I used to go by Jug’s house,” Freeman recalls: ” They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything, but I didn’t know what I was doing. One day when I was about 14, his mother said to me, ‘Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you.’ She’d been on her son about that years earlier.  She said, ‘The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords. Come over here.’ Then she sat down at the piano and started playing chords.  She started me out.”

On the three autumn 1972 sessions that comprise “Fine and Mellow,” the 47-year-old, three years out of his second stint in jail, enters Rudy Van Gelder’s studio with a cohort of New York A-list studio pros, quickly comprehends the form and the texture of the songs and arrangements – here a melange of Billie Holiday material chosen to exploit the release of “Lady Sings The Blues,” MOR pop, and a few elemental originals suffused with funk-tinged blues sensibility – and lays down a succession of declamations that contain a surfeit of heart and soul, with the occasional wild edge, as he had done for the previous quarter-century on a series of jukebox staples like “My Foolish Heart” and “Canadian Sunset.”

It’s the sound and approach that made Ammons the people’s choice in Chicago from 1947, when he formed his own unit after Eckstine disbanded, until his death in 1974. “One night we had five gigs, all dances,” recalls pianist Junior Mance, who joined Ammons not long after he departed from Mercury Records, for which he recorded ‘Red Top,’ his first big hit. “In Gary, Indiana, which was our third gig, Jug’s car broke down and we couldn’t get back to the fourth. The club-owner took Jug to the union, and they called us down. We’re all sitting there, and Harry Gray, the local president, said: ‘You guys know better; why did you follow him in doing five gigs?’  Which was a stupid question.  If anybody offers me five gigs in one night and I think I can do it… Anyway, our drummer, Ellis Bartee, who was just out of the Lionel Hampton band and who was very quick, said, ‘Well, Mr. Gray, I’m just here from Kansas City. When I came here, all I saw was the name Gene Ammons all over everywhere, because he’s the most popular. So I just figured, well, that’s the man to be with. I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to work five gigs in a night.’ They all laughed, and that got us off the hook.”

Musicians as diverse as Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, Sonny Rollins and Henry Threadgill were hooked on Ammons. “Gene Ammons was sort of an idol of mine,” Rollins told me a few years ago. “He was out there doing it when I was still in school, and he was one of the older guys that I looked up to and respected a great deal. When I got to Chicago I had the opportunity of playing several times with Gene, and got to know him more as a colleague.”

Threadgill recalls a memorable week in 1961 or 1962 when Ammons guested with the Sonny Rollins Quartet at McKie’s, a popular 63rd Street club that Rollins immortalized in a song. “You can often hear things live that will never get on record,” Threadgill stated on WKCR in 1996. “On Sunday night, they locked the doors around 2:30 or 3 o’clock, and wouldn’t let anybody else in. They played until morning. I had no idea Gene Ammons could play like that.  He was playing pieces up in the harmonic section, the altissimo of the tenor saxophone, and never played below that. Very high notes, played all of these melodies an octave higher than Sonny Rollins. It was quite a lesson.”

Tenor players at all levels will find lessons aplenty in these sessions. Listen to Ammons bellow out his statement on “Lucille,” an impassioned love cry penned by Harold Vick. He imparts maximum blues impact with a minimum of notes on the downhome “Tin Shack Out Back” and on “Lady Mama,” the latter an elemental vamp on the chords of “Freedom Jazz Dance,” written by fellow DuSable alumnus Eddie Harris, who as a youngster subbed for pianist James Craig on Ammons dances at Chicago’s Pershing Ballroom.  He squeezes every bit of melodic juice from “Can’t Help Myself” and “God Bless The Child,” and, in the company of maestros Hank Jones and Ron Carter, evokes the surreal ambiance of “Strange Fruit.”

For all his personal problems, Ammons played with remarkable consistency, and these statements, like so much of his finest work, transcend the particulars of time and place and genre. With the reissue of “Fine and Mellow” another piece of his career mosaic falls into place, and we are the richer for it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, Liner Notes

For Denny Zeitlin’s 76th Birthday, An Uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test From 2005, My Liner Notes for the 2000 Release “As Long As There’s Music,” and Our Interview for that Liner Note

The magnificent pianist Denny Zeitlin turns 76 today. I first had an opportunity to encounter him whenwas asked to write the liner notes for his 2000 release (1997 recording) titled As Long As There’s Music, a trio date with Buster Williams and Carl Allen. Five years later, he agreed to sit with me for a DownBeat Blindfold Test. I’m posting Blindfold Test first, then the liner note, then our complete interview, in which Dr. Zeitlin offered a lot of interesting information about the Chicago scene in the ’50s, among other things.

* * * *

Denny Zeitlin Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Ben Waltzer, “The More I See You” (from ONE HUNDRED DREAMS AGO, Fresh Sounds, 2004) (Waltzer, piano; Matt Penman, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums)

Immediately when that track starts, I get the feeling I’m in the hands of a really good bebop player. Really sinuous lines, great time feel, the group is very much together. Then it goes into a very interesting statement of the head. I’m trying to remember the name of that standard. Is it “The More I See You”? Really a very charming treatment of that. Then some very good, solid blowing with single lines, right hand lines that are always crackling and popping along, and the rhythm section is very much together. This pianist, at least on this cut, is using his left hand primarily as a comping instrument, and some very interesting ostinato figures begin to emerge towards the end of the piano solo, which get repeated at the very end, and it sort of transmutes into an Afro-Cuban vamp at the end, which is a very nice way to end this tune, with a kind of surprise chord at the end. Overall, it was really nice to listen this really crackling trio. It seems to me this pianist is somebody who has listened a lot to Bud Powell, and is probably in the next generation. This could be somebody like Kenny Barron or someone else of that ilk. I liked it a lot. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know these cats, but they sound very good. Very solid. Very much out of that tradition.

2.   Eddie Higgins, “Someone To Watch Over Me” (from HAUNTED HEART, Venus, 1997) (Higgins, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

That was the old standard, “Someone To Watch Over Me.” It begins with a quite dramatic rubato introduction. The pianist obviously has a very nice touch. He chooses to play this piece with a minimum amount of reharmonization, at least at the beginning of the cut, moves into a stride-like treatment, sort of more old style treatment of this tune, with bass and drums staying very much in the background but certainly supportive, and several choruses of working with the changes of the tune. Overall, there’s an elegant, relaxed feel about it. I enjoyed the nice, Tatumesque series of changes coming out of the final bridge before the last statement of the melody. I could tell as the piece was developing, particularly the improvisation, that this was a pianist who was holding himself back a little bit, which makes me think about the context of a recording or perhaps some restrictions placed by the record label.  I would give it 3½ stars. I’ll probably be embarrassed to find out who it is, but I don’t recognize the player. You don’t know sometimes how much a producer, for instance, really gets into a recording session, or how an overall thematic approach to an album concept does. What I remind myself, and I wish listeners would keep in mind is that when they hear a cut from an artist’s CD, they’re getting a snapshot of what that artist was thinking, feeling and doing at that time. It’s not necessarily a statement about who he or she is musically in some global way at all. It’s merely a snapshot. [AFTER] Well, I’ve always enjoyed Eddie’s playing very much, and I’ll give myself credit for recognizing the touch. That’s something I’ve always been most drawn to in Eddie’s playing, is the touch. [Any recollections of him from Chicago days?] Yes. Eddie was one of the players who was established on the scene when I first started to play back in the ‘50s. He was very encouraging to me and opened some doors in introducing me to people, and has always been a fan of my playing, and I’ve always really admired his playing very much. He’s wonderful behind singers, too. A marvelous accompanist.

3.  Robert Glasper, “Rise and Shine” (from CANVAS, Blue Note, 2005) (Glasper, piano, composer; Vicente Archer, bass; Damien Reid, drums)

Wow, I really loved that cut. It was quite a journey. A wonderful piano player with great command of the instrument, and time and shapes. I loved the tune and the arrangement and the overall feel of this trio. You get the sense that this is a trio that’s worked together a lot. Very integrated and very interactive, and I love the different time signatures and their way of working with it. The solo consistently built and was intriguing and swinging throughout. Initially, I felt quite confident it was Brad Mehldau, and then towards the end some of the developments and figures were things I’ve never heard Brad do. Which doesn’t mean that he doesn’t do them. Just the cuts I heard didn’t have some of those things, and the recorded bass sound was a little different to the way his trio usually sounds. But I thought this was a terrific cut. 5 stars. My best guess would be Brad Mehldau, but I have a hunch it’s somebody who’s listened to Brad a lot, maybe some younger cat or someone contemporaneous with him. [AFTER] I’ve heard his name, and I know he’s done an album for Blue Note. People are talking about it. I have not heard him play. Terrific, I think.

4.   Andrew Hill, “Malachi” (from TIME LINES, Blue Note, 2005) (Hill, piano, composer)

That’s a very atmospheric mood piece, with a very unusual use of the sustain pedal, creating clouds and then abrupt disappearance of them, and new sounds appearing. It was almost entirely in one mode, which certainly sustains the atmospheric mood, punctuated by unusual use of dynamics with adjacent notes sometimes quite different in intensity, and occasionally punctuated by this little three-note motif, and then at the very end finally shifting the mode into a minor ending. Interesting atmosphere. 3 stars. I have no idea who it is. It’s someone seemingly coming out of a rubato classical tradition. [Any sense of it coming out of someone’s sustained body of work over the years? An older player? A younger player?] I would say that this is an older player. This does not strike me as a younger player’s work. It sounds to me like somebody who is steeped in the classical tradition, certainly has an understanding of how modes and atmospheres work, and… I don’t know much more to say about that. [AFTER] I always enjoyed Andrew very much. He’s one of the players who was playing actively at the time I started playing in Chicago. He always had a very original, unusual concept. Now knowing that it’s Andrew, and I could rewind the tape in my head and understand how it would be him. But I’ve never heard him play a piece like that. I’ve always heard him play much more angular kinds of things, either with a trio or with larger groups. But he’s certainly one of the original players, a real force in the music.

5.   Chris Anderson-Charlie Haden, “Body and Soul” (from NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART, Naim, 1997) (Anderson, piano; Haden, bass)

That’s one of my favorite tunes on this planet. I seem to never get tired of playing it or hearing it. This was a very relaxed, languid reading of this piece with a pianist whom I certainly don’t recognize off the bat, accompanied by I believe Charlie Haden. If I’m correct about Charlie, I know he also loves “Body and Soul.” I think he even did a project once with a whole bunch of piano players or maybe other instrumentalists playing “Body and Soul.” I never heard the project, but he was always talking about doing it, and I’ll bet this well could be a cut from that project. I don’t recognize the pianist. I’d say it’s a pianist who was probably actively playing back in the ‘50s. It was very relaxed, and I enjoyed it. Clearly, they just got together and just played it. It was like they jammed on this tune, and it had a very relaxed feel. 4 stars. [AFTER] Is that right? Wow. It didn’t sound like Chris. Knowing now that it was Chris, I’d say a little bit of the halting aspect to the right hand lines reminds me of some of the searching way that Chris would go at it. But what doesn’t tip me off to Chris on this particular cut is that he usually had such unusual harmonic progressions and voicings that he would bring to a tune. This piece doesn’t strike me as what’s the hallmark of Chris Anderson’s really quite innovative approach to jazz voicing. [What was the nature of his influence on you, or someone like Herbie Hancock, people who came under his spell during the late ‘50s in Chicago?] He was a legend in Chicago. Bobby Cranshaw first told me that I had to hear this cat play. When I first heard him, it was wonderful to hear the unusual ways he would put voicings together. That’s really what I think his contribution was. He himself was profoundly influenced by Nelson Riddle. He was very interested in the effects of doubling notes and not doubling notes. He was often very careful not to double certain notes. I remember grabbing this guy and saying, “Chris, you’ve got to show me how you voice that chord,” and I’d be sitting there writing down stuff and trying to figure it out. A lot of players in Chicago were doing exactly the same thing, because he really had a lot to offer.

6.   Fred Hersch, “Bemsha Swing” (from THELONIOUS: FRED HERSCH PLAYS MONK, Nonesuch, 1997) (Hersch, piano; Thelonious Monk, composer)

That was an interesting approach to “Bemsha Swing.”  I feel an affinity for that tune, having just recorded it myself as a solo pianist, and it’s always so interesting to hear what other people do with it. This pianist took it in a very different direction, dealing with a lot of the fragments of the melody, and it was played in a very spare way. It sounded to me like someone who has quite a bit of a classical background. I liked the originality of some of the figurations and way of approaching the tune, which I thought breathed some freshness into this. 3½ stars. No idea who it might be offhand. [AFTER] I love Fred’s playing, and I wouldn’t have picked this one out. Monk is so marvelous, because not only was he unique in the universe, but his compositions are springboards for so many players and improvisers to take things into their own realm. I don’t think the idea is to be “faithful” to Monk (I don’t think he would have wanted that), but rather than you could use these pieces as wonderful launching pads. So I’m always interested to see what other players do with Monk, and I’ve always found his compositions to be really inspirational. I think I started playing some of his stuff in high school. I heard some of the Blue Note things that I liked. Another album that really appealed to me was called Nica’s Tempo, a Gigi Gryce album on Signal. Half the album was Monk, Gigi Gryce, Percy Heath and Art Blakey, and they had things like “Gallop’s Gallop” and “Brake’s Sake.” I loved those pieces, man. And I loved the early Blue Note stuff, which I heard in high school. [Did you have to figure out fingerings and ways to play them? Was that part of the pleasure, too?] Sure. You had to figure out how to negotiate them. But I guess in some ways, more even than physically playing his tunes was the inspiration his compositions and improvisations gave to me to be able to take my own work into different spaces. I think that’s generally been true of how I’ve assimilated music. It hasn’t been so much that I’ve wanted to play a lot of the pieces of other jazz musicians, although I do and I’ve recorded, but even more, their gift to me is what I can do, and then take it in terms of my own compositions and improvisations. The same thing is true with the influence of the classical composers on me when I was growing up. I was always drawn much more to the modern people. Initially I made a big leap all the way from Bach to the impressionists and beyond. In more recent years, I’ve sort of been drinking in the period in between with a great love for Rachmaninoff and Chopin and lots of other people. But I was tremendously drawn to Ravel and Bartok and Berg and people like that, and then, of course, George Russell, when I heard him in high school, knocked the top of my head off. [Were these things in the air in Chicago at all? Do you think that you and generational contemporaries were listening to similar music and affected by similar strains?] I don’t know. I don’t remember talking to people a lot about, for instance, what classical composers they were listening to. We would talk a lot about records that had come out or players we liked in the jazz genre. But I had come up studying classical music throughout grade school, and had always loved these more modern people. But again, I didn’t have a tremendous interest in keeping up a classical repertoire and performing classical pieces. I wanted to use that material in my own music. That’s always been the way I’ve been built. [I’m also interested in the common strains? A Chicago school of piano playing?] I’m trying to think. I don’t remember having conversations with Chicago pianists about classical music very much. I remember talking to Chris Anderson a bit when he was talking about Nelson Riddle. He certainly loved the Impressionists and the voicings of those players. But I don’t remember talking about Classical music with the Chicago cats.

7.   Craig Taborn, “Bodies We Came Out Of” (from LIGHT MADE LIGHTER, Thirsty Ear, 2001) (Taborn, piano; Chris Lightcap, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums)

That was another piece that really takes you on a journey. I thought it had tremendous hypnotic drive to it, a very skilled pianist. I enjoy very much overlaying different time signatures against each other and asymmetric figures that crash through and drape over barlines, and this pianist enjoys doing that kind of thing, too, so I feel a kindred spirit with that. There was just a wonderful roiling feeling to it all the way through. The drummer was just terrific. Very enjoyable. 5 stars. Don’t know who that is, though. [AFTER] Don’t know him. Terrific pianist.

8.  Herbie Hancock, “Embraceable You” (from GERSHWIN’S WORLD, Verve, 2000) (Hancock, piano)

Boy, what a beautiful journey through “Embraceable You” that was. Gorgeous recording in terms of sound. The pianist has a beautiful touch. Now, these are the voicings that I would have expected from the Chris Anderson cut. If Chris were physically in better shape, I’d say this could be Chris, but he rarely was feeling physically well enough to be able to play at this technical level. As you know, he had ostogenesis imperfecta, and was always nursing injuries. It was amazing that he could play at all, given what he was dealing with. This was just a beautiful rendition, I thought. The rubato treatment. Beautiful and unusual reharmonizations throughout. Lovely surprises. You feel the pianist searching, taking his or her time with this piece. Going for not the easy answer. Some of the modulations I thought were heartbreakingly beautiful, and the improvisation using fragments of the melody rather than feeling that they had to be worked through in terms of the actual structure of the tune per se. Beautiful playing. 5 stars. I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Herbie? Wow. Beautiful. It’s gorgeous, and I’ve been a big fan of Herbie’s playing over the years. We had only a nodding acquaintance in Chicago. We got to know each other better when I was out on the West Coast and he would come through with Miles. We used to get together and do four-handed duets on my piano, and we’ve enjoyed each other’s  work a lot through the years. I am hoping, if Columbia ever releases a CD of this concert that was done in honor of Conrad Silvert back in the ‘80s… Herbie and I did a two-piano duet on “Round Midnight” which I would love to see included. I thought it was something really special.

9.  The Bad Plus, “Flim” (from BLUNT OBJECT: LIVE IN TOKYO, Sony, 2004) (Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums)

Certainly very different from anything you’ve played for me so far today. This is a melding of Pop and Rock and perhaps even Folk elements. Aspects of it remind me of the Bad Plus, but it doesn’t have the fire and the drive that I typically associate with their playing – at least that I’ve heard. It makes me wonder about a group that I haven’t yet heard, but I’ve heard about – whether this could be E.S.T.  Certainly the group was using these very simple motifs, and just laying them down very repetitive, I think trying to establish a hypnotic groove on those terms. It certainly seemed like it’s played by people who know how to play their instruments, and it’s just a question if one is drawn to this kind of thing. For my own personal taste, 3 stars. [AFTER] I thought it could have been screaming Europeans! I haven’t heard E.S.T. Do they sound like this at all? [They sound very Nordic – folk music, club beats, classical harmony] I heard them last year at IAJE, and I loved them. I thought what they did that night was terrific. But this didn’t have the balls.

10.  Edward Simon, “You’re My Everything, #1” (from SIMPLICITAS, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Simon, piano, composer; Avishai Cohen, bass; Adam Cruz, drums)

Nice treatment of an old standard, “You’re My Everything.” A pianist who obviously has a realized style, a very sumptuous, relaxed sound. Nice voicings. The whole group sounded very relaxed. There were some nice reharmonizations on the head. The bass player is terrific; took a couple of excellent choruses. Then the piano solo was interesting, had a great relaxed feel to it, some moments of nice right hand-left hand interaction. When they finally got into walking on this piece, there was a really good groove, and a very nice feel to it. I liked the way the head was approached at the end in a kind of loose way, and then they moved into this eighth-note vamp at the end which was very relaxed and had some interesting piano figures on it. Overall, a very satisfying cut. 4½ stars. [AFTER] Don’t know him. Never heard him. Nice player.

11.  Renee Rosnes, “Miyako” (from The Drummonds, PAS DE TROIS, TLE, 2002) (Rosnes, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Billy Drummond drums; Wayne Shorter, composer)

That was “Miyako” from my favorite living composer, Wayne Shorter. A very nice treatment, verging into the more dramatic ways of approaching the piece. The pianist had very, very nice voicings and command of the instrument. A very graceful style. It sounded more like Herbie to me than anybody. I doubt you’d play two tracks from the same pianist in the same Blindfold Test, but it’s somebody who has certainly been very influenced by Herbie. The bass player sounded like he was influenced by Charlie Haden, but also played very well. I thought the whole feel of the piece was very satisfying. 4½ stars.

12.  Eldar Djangirov, “Maiden Voyage” (from ELDAR, Sony, 2004) (Djangirov, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Todd Strait, drums)

A furious, tumultuous version of “Maiden Voyage,”  played by a pianist who I think must be Eldar Djangirov. I’ve never heard his recordings, but I did hear him live last year at the IAJE Convention. He’s a young man with obviously prodigious talent and technique, and hopefully he’ll stay healthy and have all the exposure he needs that will nurture his talent, and that more and more what will emerge will be his true voice, his true center. Right now, I think he’s facing the problem that almost all young jazz players face, particularly if they’re as gifted as he is, of becoming an editor of one’s own materials. There’s a tendency to want to put everything into every piece that one can do and that one knows. There’s a gravitational pull to do that. It can be very seductive. I think time will tell, and with this kind of talent he’s got a brilliant future. 3 stars.

13.  Ahmad Jamal, “I’m Old Fashioned” (from AFTER FAJR, Dreyfuss, 2004) (Jamal, piano; James Cammack, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums)

That was Ahmad Jamal playing “I’m Old Fashioned,” or somebody who clones himself after Ahmad. I enjoyed it tremendously. I will assume it’s Ahmad, and so make comments about him and what I think his music has meant particularly to the whole trio tradition. Coming up in the ‘50s in Chicago I had a chance to hear him, and his use of space and the way of floating over the time and getting that kind of groove. The groove on that piece was very typical of the kind of groove that Vernell Fournier and Israel Crosby would get with him back in the ‘50s when he was playing these kinds of pieces. There was always this wonderful sense of drama and surprise in his playing. He, too, had been influenced by Chris Anderson and had gotten some very unusual ways of reharmonizing and voicing chords I think at least partly from Chris. He certainly is an original and has his own thing. It’s a pleasure to hear this. I’ll be embarrassed if it’s somebody cloning himself after Ahmad, but that I think is worth 5 stars.

* * *

Liner Notes, Denny Zeitlin, As Long As There’s Music:

On As Long As There’s Music, pianist Denny Zeitlin, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Al Foster, who boast more than one hundred years of combined professional experience, embody the principle of the trio as an equilateral triangle.  Addressing a varied program of interesting Songbook and Jazz standards plus a few pungent originals, Zeitlin, guided by unerring melodic radar, ingeniously reimagines his material, reharmonizing and orchestrating with spontaneous elan, maintaining peak focus and flow throughout the recital, deploying towards unfailingly musical ends a prodigious technique that Marion McPartland, referring to a duet they played last year on her NPR “Piano Jazz” show, described as akin “to a tidal wave washing over me.”  Williams and Foster anticipate Zeitlin’s postulations, responding with laser quick precision, nuanced musicality and relentless swing; if you didn’t know that this was their first-ever encounter, you’d swear they’d shared bandstands for years.

Zeitlin is a psychiatrist with a large private practice in the Bay Area.  He also teaches at the University of California and lecture-demonstrates on the psychology of improvising.  So he can speak with some authority on the interpersonal dynamics of trio playing, of which this session might serve as a textbook.  “You always hope for a merger experience with your partners, which can be complicated in a trio,” he remarks.  “If things go extremely well, three people can feel that the music is just emanating from the stage — it’s hard even to know for sure who is playing what.  When my own personal creative forces are at their height, I have this feeling of merger.  I also have it when I’m doing my best work as a psychiatrist, a sense of inhabiting the world that my patients are talking about.

“If I had been a surgeon, I can’t imagine how I would infuse my three-thousandth appendectomy with new excitement.  As you do psychotherapy, as much as it’s true that you hear common themes in the human life cycle that endlessly repeat, every person’s experience and presentation of this is unique, so that it really never gets old.  In my psychiatric office, I am the accompanist.  I am trying to help the patient tell their story.  My function is to help them feel it’s safe to go into areas of their life they might not otherwise be able to investigate.  The role of accompanying another soloist on the bandstand is parallel.  The biggest difference is that I often solo for long periods of time on a stage, which I’m not doing in my office with patients.”

Now 62, Zeitlin is no stranger to jazz connoisseurs.  His five mid-’60s trio albums for Columbia won widespread acclaim, resulting in two first place finishes in the Downbeat Critics Poll.  He spent the ’70s focusing on a pioneering integration of jazz, electronics, classical and rock, culminating in the 1978 electronic-acoustic score for Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. He concertizes internationally, working with bass giants like David Friesen, Charlie Haden, and John Patitucci, appearing at one point or another with John Abercrombie, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, the Kronos Quartet, Pat Metheny, Tony Williams, and Paul Winter.

That said, most Zeitlin devotees probably don’t know much about his formative years, when he encountered the blend of cultural influences that shaped his sensibility.  It started at home, in Highland Park, a suburb north of Chicago. His mother, Rosalyn, was a speech pathologist and “fairly decent classical pianist,” while his father, Nathaniel, was a radiologist “who couldn’t read a note but could play the piano by ear.”  As he puts it, “I bilaterally had both fields — medicine and music — from day one, and always an atmosphere in the home that seemed to say people can follow their muse, that it doesn’t have to be either-or; from very early on I had a sense that I was going to be involved in some way in the two fields.”

Zeitlin remembers traversing the keyboard at 2 or 3; soon after he began “picking out little melodies and improvising.”  Formal instruction began at 7 or 8.  He recalls: “I always had a hunger for unusual sounds and combinations and dissonance.  I loved the Impressionists, particularly Ravel, and was tremendously excited by composers like Prokofiev, Bartok, Stravinsky and Berg.  I started to listen to jazz around eighth grade.  One night my music teacher brought to a lesson a recording of George Shearing playing ‘Summertime’ and I was knocked out.  Here was this guy who obviously had a Classical background and technique to burn, and what was this music he was playing?  I wanted to learn about this genre!  She began bringing Art Tatum albums over, and that was it.”

As a high school freshman Zeitlin formed a piano-guitar-drums trio called the Cool Tones for which he composed original music informed by the cutting edge of the zeitgeist.  He cites as early influences Bud Powell (“his power and angularity and originality spoke to me”), Billy Taylor (“he had consummate taste and such a beautiful touch; I was particularly drawn to the power of his ballad playing”), Lennie Tristano (“his harmonic conception and rhythmic subtleties with the line of a solo”), Dave Brubeck (“I thought he had his own thing and followed it with tremendous conviction”), and Thelonious Monk (“an utterly quirky genius full of endless surprise”).

Zeitlin began to partake of Chicago’s raucous jazz scene as soon as he could drive, hearing headliners and “resident greatness” at North Side institutions like Mr. Kelly’s and the French Poodle, hanging out in South Side rooms like the Beehive and the Stage Lounge until 4 or 5 in the morning.  By his senior year he was jamming with hardcore Windy City progressives, forming relationships that deepened as he pursued pre-med studies at the University of Illinois, in downstate Champaign, where Joe Farrell, Jack McDuff and Roger Kellaway were among the local talent.

“My parents knew I was utterly galvanized by this, that it was so deeply embedded in my psyche that it was important to encourage and allow this to happen,” Zeitlin explains.  “They had a tremendous amount of trust in me; that I wasn’t, for example, using drugs or having problems with alcohol, that I could be around that subculture without being involved in it.  And indeed, their trust was not misplaced.  I was able to take this opportunity of a priceless many-year informal apprenticeship in the music.  In those days there were no formal jazz schools.  This was the way one had to learn it.  I would collar somebody like Chris Anderson after the gig and say, ‘Man, sit down with me for a minute here; how did you voice such-and-such?’  By osmosis I tried to absorb as much of this art form as I could, and generally, I found musicians were gracious and willing to show me stuff and to give me a chance to play.”

By 1954, Zeitlin’s influences, as he puts it, “rapidly became non-pianistic.”  He honed in on Miles Davis’ “incredible sense of pulse and melodic elegance, never a wasted note, never a cliche, always pushing the edge.”  He was fascinated with the roles of drums and bass, particularly Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Percy Heath and Paul Chambers — he took up the instruments enough to do some gigging both in high school and college.  He analyzed the harmonic system John Coltrane was developing circa 1959-60, and analogizes the experience of hearing Coltrane as “like being shot out of a cannon, being at the center of a cyclone; I was tremendously drawn towards what some people have called his vertical chromaticism.”  He fell in love with the free improvisation aesthetic of the Ornette Coleman quartet; “I’d enjoyed free improvisation since I was 2 or 3 years, and here were guys making a whole life out of doing it in jazz.”

While Zeitlin attended medical school at Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore, he “had carte blanche, whenever I could sneak away, to come and sit in at the North End Lounge,” owned by the father of saxophonist Gary Bartz, where he played with musicians like the younger Bartz, trombonist Grachan Moncur and drummer Billy Hart.  In 1963, while attending Columbia University on a fellowship, he met composer-theorist George Russell — “We hung out, talked about music, played with each other; he was tremendously encouraging to me.”  During that time, Paul Winter, a Chicago acquaintance, “dragged me kicking and screaming to meet his producer, John Hammond.  I played a few tunes for John solo piano, and he startled me by saying, ‘Hey, I’d love for you to record; you can play whatever you want and use whomever you want.'”

Consider this complex matrix of experience as you listen to the assorted treasures — they’re primarily first takes — on As Long As There’s Music.  The title could serve as Zeitlin’s raison d’etre.  “I try to get to the piano every day,” he states, “not so much out of a sense of duty to the instrument, but that I am called to it.  Because I have played for so long, I have a certain technical base that endures even during periods where I’m not able to play as much as I would like.  I was never drawn to technical exercises.  I garnered new technical skills by pushing myself to play classical pieces somewhat beyond my current technical capability.  Now when I practice, I usually just improvise, sometimes with an ear towards possible composition.  Doing that keeps my fingers lubricated, and it nourishes my soul to be with music.  Every time I sit down at the keyboard I remind myself of how profoundly grateful I am to be able to play.”

The title track, which Zeitlin first heard on an early ’50s George Shearing quintet side, is a favorite of the bassist Charlie Haden, who Zeitlin met when the pianist arrived in the Bay Area in 1964 as an intern at San Francisco General Hospital.  Haden was on two of Zeitlin’s early Columbia LPs, and they recorded a duo version of the song on a 1983 ECM album.  On this version Zeitlin shifts the piece into waltz time, employs a bit of organic reharmonization, Foster articulates barely perceptible shifts in tempo and dynamics, Williams nudges the pulse along with subtle accents, and the trio rides out with a polyrhythmic dialogue on a sweet vamp.

Zeitlin notes: “The challenge of a standard is to be faithful to the original spirit of the piece, but find an approach that might breathe fresh life into it.  You can reshape it structurally, but most often you may want to reharmonize it, which can seduce you with its possibilities.  At its worst it becomes an exercise in how clever the musician can be.  Often, the tune gets lost, or becomes so cluttered that it becomes a logjam of material.  I try to keep those pitfalls in mind, but allow myself to see what new directions the tune might take.”

Zeitlin conceptualized “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “The Man I Love” for a Gershwin concert celebration a few months before the session.  On the former, after the trio serenely states the head, Zeitlin plays solo piano with a bit of stride and a nod to Art Tatum, which cues an increasingly intense piano-drum duet, which leads to a double-time trio section that evokes the essence of Bud Powell.  After Buster Williams’ spot-on solo, they transition to the original medium-tempo head statement.

The latter tune, which concludes the album, opens with a brief free piano improvisation which sets a mood, before a rubato melody statement that brings in the trio, which springboards off a vivid vamp into ever-escalating improvisational adventures.

Is the consummately lyrical Zeitlin a lyrics man or is he inspired by a song’s musical content?   “It’s more of the latter,” Zeitlin responds.  “I know many musicians feel it’s crucial to know the lyric — almost ‘How could you not know it and play the tune?’  But in fact, most of these tunes are written music first, lyrics second, and my allegiance is to the composer.  Now, the lyrics of some tunes end up embedded in my psyche, and I find myself hearing fragments of them.  Certainly I hear a lot of Sinatra in my head when I hear any tune that he’s recorded because I’m so totally taken with him.  Favorite female vocalists whose lyrics stay with me over the years have been Sarah Vaughan, Jackie Cain and Elis Regina.”

Add to that list Billie Holiday, the inspiration for “For Heaven’s Sake,” which Zeitlin played for years in solo, duo and trio contexts, but never recorded.  His reharmonized interpretation, framing a delicate Buster Williams solo, evokes the inherent tenderness and yearning in the melody.

“There and Back,” the first of two Zeitlin originals, moves back and forth between walking jazz time and a straight-eighth, funky feel, while “Canyon” is a clever “minor blues-oid construction.”  “I’ve always perceived improvisation as being spontaneous composition,” says Zeitlin, whose best-known piece is “Quiet Now,” which Bill Evans recorded numerous times.  “I hope my improvising imparts a sense of a journey, a feeling of inevitability about how it proceeds, that it isn’t just a hodge-podge of possibilities or a pastiche of colors or novelty for its own sake.  I often think of my pieces as roadmaps that we can loosely follow to get from one destination to the other, with some interesting roadblocks and detour signs along the way that challenge me and the musicians.”

Zeitlin heard Barbra Streisand sing “I’m All Smiles” on her ’60s People album; the trio plays it straight in a relaxed version that brings out all the beauty of the melody.

“Cousin Mary” continues a long line of Zeitlin interpretations of John Coltrane’s “Atlantic period.”  Zeitlin reharmonizes the head and drives hard-edged right into the blues; he sounds like a playful dancer, deconstructing the harmonic structure with wit and imagination.

There’s an elegant reading of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Triste,” and a heart-on-the-sleeve version of “I Fall In Love Too Easily” that Zeitlin describes as “a real organic journey.”

The same could be said for the entirety of As Long As There’s Music.  “I organized the arrangements to explore different things we could do as a trio,” Zeitlin concludes.  “I was hoping to see how deep and how broad we could go in this weekend we were going to play together.  I felt there was some special chemistry here.”

* * * *

Denny Zeitlin (For As Long As There’s Music) – (9-16-00):

TP:    Let’s talk about the circumstances of this record.  You haven’t recorded with a trio for 10-11-12 years.  What’s the most common configuration in performance, solo, duo, trio?  Are they all equally…

ZEITLIN:  In some ways they are yes.  Over time they’ve been pretty balanced.  Rarely I’ll play in a larger context, maybe a quartet, but it’s typically more of a solo, duo or trio setting for me.

TP:    Perhaps you could state in a succinct way the different experience of performing in each media, how each creates a different space for you.

ZEITLIN:  The solo playing offers the unique challenge of having to create all the music oneself.  I’ve always thought of the piano as a symphonic instrument, so it gives me an opportunity and a challenge of trying to paint with all the colors of the orchestra as best I can, using the piano.  It also offers me complete freedom as to where I might take the form from moment to moment.  I don’t have to really be concerned by the forces that might be mobilized by the other musicians on the stage.  In some ways that’s a plus as a soloist.  Out there all by myself, I can take it wherever I would like.  On the other hand, you can argue that I miss out on all of the input that another or other musicians would give me.  So there’s always positives and negatives to these situations when you compare them to other possibilities.  But just in and of itself, the solo situation is a marvelous one for me in that I do get a chance to take the music wherever it might want to go from moment to moment, and that I have this kind of unique possibility for producing all of it myself.  In that setting, on a psychological level, the kind of emotional connection I’m making is to the music and to the spirit of the music, and then to the audience in the sense of reaching out with this music to I guess what Stravinsky used to talk about as “the hypothetical Other” — the perfect audience person.  And I’m hoping there’s at least a few of them out there in the actual audience.  I’m sending the music out there in the hopes that the people will try to reach out and meet the music halfway.  When that happens, it’s a very palpable experience for me, and at its very best I end up feeling like I’m just a conduit for the music, and that we’re all in the audience listening to what’s going on.

TP:    Now, the duo situation I would presume has a somewhat different dialoguing quality.

ZEITLIN:  It does.  And it still contains the complement of sending the music out and hoping for a merger experience with the audience.  But in the duo setting, I’m hoping for a merger experience with whomever is my musical partner up there.  Since typically it’s been bass, although I do duets with David  Grisman, and I’ve played duets in the past with Herbie Hancock, with John Abercrombie, with Marion McPartland… It’s the most transparent kind of group playing, as far as I can see.  With just two people up there, there is a tremendous kind of interpersonal nakedness, which at its best can lead to some very special music.  It doesn’t have the complexity, in some ways, of a trio, but in some ways it has more freedom in that there is maybe more opportunity to take the form in different directions from moment to moment, because there could be a greater possibility that two people will be in synch than three.  And particularly with bass and piano, with no drums, there is a lot of opportunity for a certain kind of subtlety and nuance to be heard that might otherwise be covered sometimes, at least, by drums, no matter how sensitive a drummer might be, and very subtle shifts in timbre can be heard and perceived.  So I think of the duo situation more like a kind of group chamber music of a sort. And it’s a very exciting form, and I’ve enjoyed that.  I’ve done a lot of duo playing over the last 15 years with David Friesen; we’ve recorded a number of albums together, and that’s been a very special experience.

In the trio it gets more complicated.  I think we still have the opportunity and obligation to attempt the merger with the audience, but now we’ve got three people…if things are going extremely well, three people who could somehow have a kind of merger experience where we all feel that the music is just emanating from the stage, but it’s hard to even know for sure who is playing what.  I think when my own personal creative forces are at their height, I have this feeling of merger.  I think it’s also true when I’m doing my best work as a psychiatrist.

TP:    That you have a sense of merger with the patient.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, with the patient and with the material, a sense of really inhabiting the world that they are talking about.  I am hoping to achieve some measure of that in the musical setting as well.

TP:    Hopefully what a writer would wish to achieve with his subject.  Empathy.

ZEITLIN:  It’s empathy and also the flow experience, that Mihalyihas Csikszent has written about.  He’s written about a dozen books, starting in 1976, about the flow experience.  What’s the essential fun in Fun, and what is it that particularly will call people to do activities that don’t seem to have tremendous external rewards.  He over a period of time delineated the characteristics of the flow experience, which are things like utter concentration without being aware that one is particularly concentrating, an altered sense of time, a sense of tremendous internal rightness about what’s going on, a process orientation rather than a content orientation, the merger experience with the activity and often ecstatic feelings about it.  Those are parts of the flow experience, maybe not an exhaustive list of the components of it.

TP:    Had you ever worked with this particular configuration before?

ZEITLIN:  This was a first time experience.  One rehearsal the day before.

TP:    You sound like to me like you’d been playing together for ten years.

ZEITLIN:  I thought there was a special rapport that immediately generated with these guys.  I had loved their music for years.  I first heard Al with Miles years ago, and I heard Buster even earlier when he was with Herbie, and I had always hoped that someday I might get a chance to do a project with them.  In fact, Todd asked me to do a little personal liner for the album, and I mention that.  I’ll send you those few paragraphs.  I go into it, that I’d always hoped to do a project with them.  So when this came along, when Todd called me about doing this trio album, I thought immediately of them, and I was delighted that they were available and it turned out that they were both familiar with my music and had liked it, so that we approached it all of us having a good vibe about what we’d heard earlier in each other’s music, and I think considerable excitement about what we might do together.  Sometimes studio sessions can sound fairly mundane or just workmanlike, or people get together and the music is good and whatever.  But I felt there was some special chemistry here.

TP:    You’ve done a lot of live recordings.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, and I generally prefer the live setting for a recording, because I think it helps get people into that flow experience, that the presence and challenge of an audience can pull more for that sort of merger experience and a higher level of excitement.  So a studio poses a challenge of can you tap into this somehow.  I thought all the ingredients were present in this setting.  This was Clinton Studio A.  I’d never played there before.  I thought the room had great feel.  It was one of the best Steinway Grands I’d ever performed on.  It was impeccably maintained.  It was as if I had sat down at the piano and played a few notes, and the piano said to me, “We can do anything you want.”  Sometimes one gets a personal sense of connection to an instrument.  It’s interesting that almost everyone else carries their instrument with them wherever they go, so they develop I’m sure a much more intense personal attachment and connection to the actual instrument.  I am at the mercy of what’s at every venue.  So there’s always some anxiety, despite reassurances, as to what I am going to run into, whether it’s a performance or a recording.  This just happened to be an almost miraculous Steinway, one of the top 3 or 4 pianos I’ve ever played in my life.  The studio had a whole cupboard full of almost antique treasures, of tube and Neumann microphones, which are just gorgeous.  They gave that wonderful warm sound to the piano.  It’s I think a really extraordinarily excellent piano-sonic recording.  And the way it was set up, the earphone mixes were excellent, so I could hear everybody.  And Todd is a wonderful guy to work with.  He was sensitive, he was helpful, but totally non-intrusive.

TP:    Here’s the way I want to approach the note.  It’s a program that refers to a very wide span of material, and it’s consistent with… I’m afraid I really don’t know your ’60s music or the electronic things you did in the ’70s, but it seems that in the last 15-20 years a lot of your performance has been about including the dynamics of your whole range of experience.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I think that’s very true.

TP:    I would like to take you back a little bit into your influences in conceptualizing the sound of a piano trio.  I’d like you to talk about each of the tunes and the associations those tunes had for you, and a bit formally about how you approached those tunes.  And I would like to go into a little biographical detail about your formative years, which I haven’t read in any of these notes.  So let’s go back to the boilerplate things, and take it into something specific and informative about how it inflects on this record.  You started playing at an incredibly early age.

ZEITLIN:  I started when I was maybe 2 or 3 years old.  I do have memories of sitting on the lap of whichever parent was playing the piano, and putting my little hands on their hands and going along for the ride kinesthetically before I could even play a note.  I had a sense of what it was like to traverse a keyboard.  Then I started just picking out little melodies and improvising, and I think very wisely, my parents held off formal instruction, so that I think I was 7 or 8 before I really had a hunger to start studying music and learning how to read notes.  I was composing and improvising for some years by then.  They sensed that I just needed space and time to explore that.  It was I think a very important decision on their part.  My mother turned out to be my first music teacher.  She was a fairly decent classical pianist and also a speech pathologist, so she brought both medicine and music from her side.  And my father had a very good ear, couldn’t read a note but could play the piano by ear, and he was a radiologist.  So bilaterally I had both fields from day one, and always an atmosphere in the home that seemed to say that people can follow their muse, and it doesn’t have to be either-or.  I think from very early on I had a sense I was going to be involved in some way in the two fields.

TP:    Your first influences were classical, obviously.  When did you start to become aware of jazz?  And more specifically, when did you start to become aware of the notion that there were improvisers who articulated specific voices.  Improvisational personalities.  Let’s say the difference between Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and George Shearing, presuming those are people who are part of your matrix.

ZEITLIN:  I think it was really in eighth grade that I started to listen to jazz and really notice jazz.  Certainly I had heard the music.  But prior to that I was studying Classical music, always drawn much more to 20th Century music and the Impressionist.  It’s as though I took a leap from Bach, whom I always loved, all the way to the Impressionists and beyond.  I always had a hunger for unusual sounds and combinations and dissonance, and tremendous excitedly by composers like Prokofiev and Bartok and Stravinsky and Berg.  I loved the Impressionists, particularly Ravel.  This music just really always touched my soul.

In eighth grade I remember my music teacher brought a little 10″ MGM LP to a music lesson one night, and the title of the album was You’re Hearing George Shearing.  I remember hearing that; the first piece I ever heard him play was “Summertime,” and I remember being just absolutely knocked out, that wow, here was this guy who obviously had a Classical background and technique to burn, and what was this music he was playing?  The rhythmic drive on that album with other instruments… Boy, I just wanted to learn about this genre.  So she began bringing other albums over, listening to Art Tatum, and then I was in…

TP:    You had a hip piano teacher.

ZEITLIN:  Oh, she was great.  She couldn’t play jazz, but she was absolutely wide-open to anything I wanted to do.  It was a great-great blessing.  When I got into my high school, in my freshman year there were a number of other fledgling jazz musicians, and I formed a trio with drums and guitar… I still remember.  We called ourselves the Cool-Tones!

TP:    This was around 1952 or so.

ZEITLIN:  This would be ’52.  I started listening to Bud Powell.  The first trio I ever heard live, in terms of a touring band, was the Billy Taylor Trio, and I remember being tremendously excited by what he was doing and touched by his music.  I felt he had consummate taste and such a beautiful touch.  I was particularly drawn to the beauty of his ballad playing, and I loved everything he did.  Bud Powell’s power and angularity and originality spoke to me.  Lennie Tristano’s harmonic conception and the subtleties of what he would do rhythmically with the line of a solo.  I really was drawn to that.  I liked Dave Brubeck a lot.  I thought he had his own thing, and really followed it with tremendous conviction.  I continued to listen to George Shearing.  Certainly Thelonious Monk I liked a lot.  Those were the very early pianistic influences.

TP:    So you were very much in tune with your zeitgeist of your time, in many ways.  This is what the cutting edge was in 1955-6-7.  And you grew up in the north suburbs?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I grew up in Highland Park.

TP:    And when did you start partaking of music as beyond your immediate milieu.  You mentioned it briefly before, that at a certain point you started going into Chicago quite a bit, and specifically the South Side scene.

ZEITLIN:  I started going into the city to hear music when I was a freshman in high school, because I was tall and in a dark room I could pass.  But I didn’t actually start sitting in until I was a senior in high school or something like that.

TP:    So there’s the Beehive, the 63rd Street strip…

ZEITLIN:  Yes, the Stage Lounge I remember.  Then there were places like Mr. Kelly’s, the French Poodle…

TP:    How much hanging out did you do?  You did get into medical school eventually!

ZEITLIN:  I did, I did.  But in my spare time, I would just carve it out.  I was immersed in this music, listening to it, rehearsing, going to jam sessions, listening to great musicians.  And there was fortunately a tremendous amount of resident greatness in the Chicago area, as well as people who would come through, traveling headliners that I would get to see.  It was marvelous…

TP:    Were you paying attention to Ahmad Jamal during this time?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I liked Ahmad very much.  I wouldn’t say he was as much of an early influence as these other people I mentioned.

TP:    There are a lot of orchestrative things you do within the dynamics of this record… Well, I guess his impact was so pervasive on the sound of contemporary piano trios…

ZEITLIN:  It’s sometimes hard to… You get immersed in a form, and you listen to dozens and dozens of players, and you get… To some degree, we’re influenced by everything we hear.  What you hope is that you integrate it in a way and that you have something personal to offer, that you develop a personal voice.

I had a chance fairly early on to play with some really fine players, like Bobby Cranshaw, the bassist, and Wilbur Ware, Walter Perkins, a great drummer, Ira Sullivan, a marvelous trumpeter and tenor player, Nicky Hill, Johnny Griffin.  Really excellent players.  So all through college I would come up, frequently on weekends, and go to jam sessions and play with these guys, play gigs… Also, there were very good players at the University of Illinois, where I was an undergrad.  Joe Farrell, whose real name was Firantello, was there, and we used to play together a lot.  Jack McDuff was living down there at the time, playing bass as well as organ, and Roger Kellaway was around.  He also played very good bass, as well as piano.  I feel everywhere I’ve gone since high school I’ve been fortunate to find excellent musical opportunities to keep the juices flowing while I was studying either premed or medicine.

The same thing happened when I went to Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1960.  Gary Bartz’s father had a jazz club called the North End Lounge in Baltimore.  I used to go sit in with Gary and some other great cats who… I remember a couple of times Grachan Moncur was down there, and Billy Hart was a resident drummer.  I had a carte blanche invitation, whenever I could sneak away from medical school, to come and sit in.  It was just great fun.

Then in 1963, I stumbled really into recording.  I’d had some inquiries and nibbles early on, and really had some resistance to the whole idea of making a record.  I’d heard so many stories from musicians about how record companies ripped them off, subverted their musical identities, etcetera, etc.  And I figured, “Look, I’m going to be a doctor; I love this music; I can keep it pure; I’ll just play; I don’t really care about particularly a public career.”  Then I was in New York on a fellowship at Columbia in 1963, and Paul Winter, who had been at Northwestern for a number of years and had heard me play and had always liked my playing, he had been recording for Columbia for a year or so, and he dragged me literally kicking and screaming to meet his producer, John Hammond.  I played a few tunes for John solo piano, and he just loved what I was doing, and startled me by saying, “Hey, I’d love for you to record; you can record whatever you want, you can use whomever you want” — carte blanche.

TP:    Was what you played within the tradition or in the framework of stretching out?

ZEITLIN:  Both.  John was a marvelous guy with tremendously broad tastes, and he was as good as his word.  He wanted me to get my feet wet with recording by being the featured pianist with Jeremy Steig on Jeremy’s first outing for the label, which was in 1963.  That was a lot of fun.  I remember that session as being a ball.  Ben Riley was on drums and Ben Tucker was on bass.  I thought the chemistry was great among the four of us.  Then what followed were four trio projects for Columbia over the next handful of years.  Out here in California I was able to hook up with Charlie Haden and Jerry Granelli, and we were a working trio for 2-1/2 years and did an album and a half together.  Then I played with some other cats in a trio, and we recorded most of the last album I did for Columbia, which was called Zeitgeist, actually my favorite of the whole series.  That came out in 1967.

By that time, I’d been listening to quite a bit of Rock-and-Roll and some of the avant-garde electronic music, and I was interested in a lot of what was happening in modern Classical music, and I was getting restless with what felt like the limitations of the acoustic piano sound.  I wanted to be able to bend notes, I wanted to be able to sustain notes like horns and guitar players could.  So I really withdrew from public performance for over a year or so, and tried to do some R&D as to what was available, and I hired engineers to build me sound modules…

TP:    Boy, were you in the right spot in 1968.

ZEITLIN:  Well, a lot was starting.  But this was before you could walk to your corner grocery and come back with a Moog synthesizer under your arm.  This was the era where you take wires and you patch together a sound, and it probably takes you five minutes to do the whole cascade, and then you get one note.  You don’t get two notes.

TP:    It’s fascinating because you’re in on it from the beginning.  It’s as though someone presents something to you, you work with it, then they present something else, you can work with that, and it’s all fresh and new and un-cliched.

ZEITLIN:  I’ve always been drawn to new ways of trying to express myself.  I am attracted to the idea of stretching.  I have never been an either-or type of person.  I’ve always been a both-and type of person.  I think you were quite correct when you talked about the breadth of what I try to do.  For me, there’s no reason why there have to be artificial boundaries between Classical music, Rock, Funk, Jazz, Folk music, Electronic music.  There’s no reason why one has to, in some a priori way, say that some are off-base for others.  There is material in all of those forms that called to me.  Why not try to have a musical palette to paint with that can use all those colors?  That’s what I’m drawn to.  So I was just excited at the prospect of what I could do with electronics.  So I got people to build the various things for me, and sound-altering devices and foot switches and pedals.  A lot of it was totally customized at that point.  Gradually I developed what looked like a 747 cockpit of six or seven keyboard instruments, along with the acoustic piano and miles of cords and banks of flip switches that were more complicated than a B-3 pedal box.  It would take 6 hours to tear this down from my studio at home, take it to a local gig and set it up, play the gig, and then another 6 hours to undo it.  And for several years I did this.  There was a ten-year period, from ’68 to ’78, when I really was involved in this electronic-acoustic integration of all of these forms.  I found musicians who were willing to go on that exploration with me.  People I played with predominantly during that period were George Marsh on drums and Mel Graves on bass.  That’s when I did Szyzgy and the album Expansion, which was the first album of this kind of music.  When I wanted to make a record of it and queried some record labels at the time, I got a lot of responses back saying, “Gee, Denny, honestly we love this music, but we don’t know how in the world we would market it.  We wouldn’t know what conduit to put it through marketing-wise.”  So I ended up starting my own label, called Double-Helix records, to even put this out, and I sold out the first pressing.  Then there was a local, very avant-garde label called 1750 Arch Records which expressed an interest in taking it over, and I was delighted.  Because being an administrator and packing up LPs is not my idea of a good time.  So they took over Expansion, and then I did Szyzgy for them and also a solo piano album of totally free improvisations called Soundings which was released in ’78.

’78 really marked a turning point for me again.  I had an opportunity, again just by luck, to score a major motion picture film…

TP:    The remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

ZEITLIN:  That’s right.  Philip Kaufman was a Chicago guy, and he had heard me play and had it in his head that some day he wanted me to do a jazz score for him.  So he called me in in ’78, I guess, or maybe it was late ’77, when he was in the process of getting ready to shoot this film, and asked me whether I would be interested in doing it.  It sounded great to me.  I love science fiction, and I’d always hoped some day I would get a chance to score a major film but figured it was really unlikely.  Because to get that, typically, you live in L.A., you pound on doors for ten years, then you’re given maybe a dozen first projects where the budget is for a kazoo and a harmonica, and maybe if you’re lucky and play enough political games, about five years later you’ll get to score a major film.  So all of a sudden this back door seemed to be opening, and I was very excited about it.  But then it looked like it wouldn’t happen, because Philip’s idea about the film shifted, and it looked like he was going to need an 20th century avant-garde symphonic score.  I had no established credentials for this.  So I had to convince him and his producer that I could do it, and I sold them on it.  And it took some selling.  It was one of the more exciting and challenging experiences I’ve ever had, to be able to write for a symphony orchestra, plus do all of this electronic stuff.  I had the prototype of the Prophet-10 voice synthesizer.  It hadn’t even been released for sale, I believe, at that point.  I remember it wouldn’t even stay in tune for more than about 10 or 15 minutes.  I had to turn it off, let it cool off, and then reboot it.  But for studio work I could use it.  And it had some marvelous capabilities.  I did small group stuff.  I had Eddie Henderson come in, and Mel Martin recorded some things with me.  So I had a chance to do virtually everything I loved to do, plus this whole new experience of writing for a symphony orchestra, and going down to L.A. and having this orchestra play, taking the 24-track tapes back to San Francisco and overdubbing on that, and going back to L.A.  It was an exhausting 10-week project.

TP:    At this point you’re 40 years old and you’re always a practicing psychiatrist.

ZEITLIN:  Yeah.  I started my psychiatric practice in 1968, after finishing a three-year residency at the Langley-Porter Psychiatric Institute, which is part of the U.C. Medical Center in San Francisco.  I’ve been on the clinical faculty since ’68, teaching residents how to do various kinds of psychotherapy, and had a private practice.  So at this point, in ’78, I’m ten years out into practice, still teaching at the university, and having this marvelous opportunity to score this film.

TP:    Are you one of these people who needs 5 hours of sleep?

ZEITLIN:  Actually, if I can get 8, I’m delighted to get 8.  But I can get along, at least in short bursts, on less.  This was a particularly challenging period.  I remember I cut back on my practice 50% for five weeks, had a lot of advance planning so nobody got into any trouble, and I had coverage and everything.  But I do remember after this project was over, it had been very exciting, but so arduous.  I was working 18-19 hour days.  My wife would come down and literally peel me off the piano stool and deposit me in the hot tub to stretch out, put me to bed for a few hours, and I’d get up and do the thing again.  As exciting as it was, after all that, and then having to deal with the politics of Hollywood, which almost involved me having to sue the studio in order to get paid my money, I said to myself, “I’ve had my one experience, I’m very lucky, I’m going to quit while I’m ahead.”  I had some other offers, and I just shined them on.  I never wanted to do it again.

I was very grateful for the opportunity and very pleased that I was able to have a soundtrack album from it, but it did represent a turning point to me in that I wanted to get back to the purity of acoustic music, and I really haven’t done any major projects with electronics since.  I’ve just been focusing on the acoustic piano and acoustic situations.  What I found, to my pleasant surprise, was that all the years of playing other keyboards and dealing with electronic instruments and synthesizers had opened my ears in some way that I was able to get a lot more nuance out of the acoustic piano than ever before.  So that was an unexpected dividend.  A lot of people have had just the opposite experience, that playing multiple keyboards with different degrees of heaviness of touch, messes up their acoustic piano playing.  But I didn’t have this experience.  So since 1978, I’ve been focusing primarily on solo, duo and trio playing, with an occasional quartet of acoustic music basically.

TP:    It sounds that at a certain point you got very much into John Coltrane’s harmonic system circa 1959-60-61, and you also deal quite a bit with Ornette Coleman’s music.  Could you talk about the impact of that hypermodernism, if we can call it that, on you at the point when it was coming out?  Non-pianistic influences obviously.

ZEITLIN:  That’s a good question, because very rapidly, the major influences for me became non-pianistic.  I think most players start off with their major influences being on their own instrument, but they may then branch out.  Not inevitably, but I think it’s a natural tendency to broaden one’s horizons.  For me it really ended up that the major influences, if I had to look back, were non-pianistic influences.  Miles, Trane, Ornette, George Russell.  Those would be absolutely tops on my list.

Miles’ incredible sense of pulse and melodic elegance, never a wasted note, never a cliche, always pushing the edge.  I was tremendously drawn to him.

Coltrane, it was like being shot out of a cannon, listening to him.  He was totally ripping the fabric of jazz apart.  Sometimes I’d listen to him and feel like I was watching a terrier shake a rat.  It was incredibly exciting music.  It was like being at the center of a cyclone, listening to Trane in his exploratory earlier period, his harmonic period when he was developing what some people have called a kind of vertical chromaticism.  I was tremendously drawn to that.

George Russell’s writing and ways of thinking about music were tremendously important to me.  I never formally studied the Lydian chromatic concept of tonal organization.  But in 1963, when I was a resident at Columbia University for this fellowship (that’s when I met John Hammond), I also hung out with George, studied with him, and it was more a kind of mentorship.  We would hang out, talk about music, play with each other.  He was tremendously encouraging to me, and I think I could make a remark…

I think it’s often notable when people talk about their careers, that there are nodal points where the encouragement of a valued mentor or authority is extraordinarily helpful.  I remember three points in my career where this happened.  The first was Billy Taylor.  He came out to the house with his trio when I was probably a sophomore or freshman in high school, invited by my parents.  We had dinner, and my little fledgling trio played for them. [END OF SIDE] …[he said] there was no reason why I couldn’t do both of them, and talking about the hard life of a full-time working jazz musician.  So his encouragement was priceless.

Then I remember George’s encouragement in 1963, before I even began to record.  Then after I made my first trio album for Columbia, called Cathexis, I had read a Blindfold Test that Bill Evans had done for Downbeat where they played a track from Flute Fever, the first album I did with Jeremy Steig, and he was very complimentary about my playing.  So I figured, well, I’ll give Bill a call and I’ll see if he’s willing to listen to this record and give me a critique and see if he has any suggestions.  I went over and met him for the first time, found him utterly gracious, a gentle man, totally noncompetitive.  He was very secure in his music and didn’t have any trouble being generous to somebody else.  Basically what he told me was, “Look, I don’t have any suggestions other than just keep doing your thing — follow your music.”  That was extraordinarily helpful and encouraging to me at that point, too.

I think of those three guys at those points in my life as being very important moments.

TP:    Finally, the impact Ornette Coleman had on you at the time.

ZEITLIN:  When I first heard Ornette, I just loved that music.  I was in college at the time.  I think the first thing of his I heard was The Shape of Jazz To Come, and I just thought that was marvelous stuff.  I’d always enjoyed since I was 2 or 3 years old free improvisation!  So here were guys doing it in jazz and making a whole form, a whole life out of it.  I thought it was terrific. TP:    Is there anything within what I was talking about that you felt I neglected?

ZEITLIN:  I think we covered a lot of ground.  Just thinking in terms of all the parameters of what would be useful selfishly to me in a liner note, I would hope, though it’s always nice for an artist to imagine that everybody who will buy the album knows who he is, there hopefully will be some people who may hear me for the first time on the air, and say, “Gee, I’d like pick up that CD” and they get it… So if you would be willing to establish some of my credentials in context of the liner notes, the stuff that’s highlighted in the third paragraph of the bio.

TP:    Last night I did a search on you, and two things popped out.  One thing was a blindfold test that Leonard Feather did with Thelonious Monk.  Monk wasn’t listening to anything anyone was playing unless it was an interpretation of Monk, and at the end of the Blindfold Test he played him “Carole’s Garden.”  This was after Monk had pointedly gone to the toilet while Leonard Feather played an Oscar Peterson trio thing.  Monk was listening and said, “Yeah, that piano player knows what’s happening!  He’s a player!  He’s on a Bobby Timmons kick, and that can’t be bad.”  Then I noticed a Marion McPartland interview where she said your technique in playing was so fantastic when you duetted that she felt like a tidal wave was washing over her.  She’s a very gracious person, but not prone to compliments such as that.

How much time do you have now and how much need do you have now to practice?  Is technique something that’s innate in you from having played the piano for so long?  Do you have to practice a great deal to keep up your technique?  If so, how do you find the time to do that?

ZEITLIN:  I do try to get to the piano every day, not so much out of a sense of duty to the instrument, but I am just called to it.  I want to get my hands on the keyboard and I want to get into music.  Because I have played for so long, I have a certain technical base that endures even during periods where I’m not able to play as much as I would like.  I’ve never been drawn to the playing of technical exercises.  I think the way I build whatever technique I had initially was from always pushing myself to play classical pieces that were somewhat beyond my current technical capability, and the act of trying to get those pieces together helped me garner new technical skills.  Now when I go to play, usually I’m just going to improvise, or with an ear towards possible composition.  Very often when I play I just have a tape recorder rolling in case something comes up that I’ll want to refer to later.  I want to be free from the tyranny of having to remember everything I play in case I want to notate it later, and so the tape recorder takes care of that and I can let the music flow as best I can and just sort of get out of the way.  Doing that certainly keeps my fingers lubricated, and it really nourishes my soul just to be with music.  Every time I sit down at the keyboard I remind myself of how profoundly grateful I am to be able to play.  And I think that kind of attitude has also helped me at moments where I am in danger of being derailed by intrusive thoughts of some kind.  Let’s say getting ready to play a concert, and I’m on the road and begin to think about, “Gee, did I really make that plane reservation” or “Did I pack such-and-such?” or “What about my passport?”  I start getting bothered by this things.  I just gentle myself out of that by reminding myself of, in fact, how grateful I am to be able to play.  So it becomes kind of an internal mantra that I will invoke at times when I could be distracted.  This could even happen at a millisecond of playing, in the moment of improvisation.

I think it’s a challenge all improvisers face, is how do you stay in the zone?  It’s certainly a challenge that athletes face and write about.  I’ve played tennis for many years and follow the sport, so a lot of my observations of the parallels of sports and improvisation came from playing tennis and watching tennis and listening to tennis players in interviews talk about their game.  The challenge of staying in that flow experience, or, as Arthur Ashe put it, “being in the zone,” is a tremendous one.  And how do you wipe away your memory of the stupid shot you just dumped into the net at an important point in the match?  How do you make this next point absolutely new?  The same thing is in the line of improvisation.  If I stumble for a moment, if I find myself playing an alternate idea rather than what I was reaching for, am I going to get involved in some self-castigation or a burst of embarrassment, or will I allow myself simply to let it go and be in the moment for this next millisecond of play?  I have found at times just that gentle reminder of the gratitude of being with music has a tremendously therapeutic effect for me.  And I have found actually in my work with patients who are involved in the creative arts, particularly creative performance arts, that talking with them about that has been extremely helpful for the.  In my role as a psychiatrist, using that concept has turned out to be extremely helpful for them, because they end up actually thinking about that and using that, and it centers them in their work.

TP:    Tell me a bit about your practice.  You mentioned that a couple was cancelling… Do you do many different areas of therapy?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I do.  I can tell you a little bit about what I don’t do.  I don’t do hospital psychiatry.  I don’t actively engage in psychological or psychiatric research.  I don’t have time for that, so I am engaged in a research group for the last 25 years that studies psychotherapy research.  I don’t work with very young children, and I don’t do any administrative psychiatry.  Long ago, I realized that if I wanted to be involved in a really organic, passionate way in two fields, I had to be realistic with myself about what aspects of those two careers I could involve myself in with the necessary dedication and intensity to get back and to be able to give what I wanted.  So I pared away these areas I just mentioned in psychiatry, and decided what I wanted to focus on was doing psychotherapy and teaching psychotherapy — that that’s where my heart really lies in the psychiatry field.  So what I do is focus on intensive outpatient psychotherapy, and work with individuals, couples, and people in groups.  On occasion in past years, I’ve worked with whole families, but I don’t do that any more.  I tend to work with people for more than a year at a time, some people for many years, if they’re really involved in in-depth explorations of their lives.  And I find it endlessly fascinating.  If I had been a surgeon, I can’t imagine what it would be like to do my three-thousandth appendectomy and to infuse it with new excitement.  But as much as it’s true that there are common themes that endlessly repeat in the human life cycle that one hears as you do this work, every person’s experience and presentation of this is unique, so that it really never gets old.  So every opportunity to sit down with a patient in my office again is a parallel opportunity for me to be grateful for the trust that this person is placing in me, grateful for the opportunity to try to understand another human being and to be helpful.

TP:    So it’s not so dissimilar from improvising.  There’s a set of forms that repeat in certain ways, but the context is infinitely different, as is the context and vibration… Not to stretch the theme too far.

ZEITLIN:  Well, I think that there are tremendous parallels.  We were talking yesterday about this merger experience and empathy, and that that and the whole idea of communication is a tremendous parallel between the two fields.  The idea of improvisation holds.  The main difference is that in my psychiatric office, I am the accompanist.  I am trying to help the patient solo in the best possible way they can, to tell their story.  At times it requires a little added embellishment, the addition of a semicolon or a couple of hyphens or placement of a period or a clarification or a sidebar.  That’s my function, is to help them feel that it’s as safe as possible to go into areas of their life that they might not otherwise be able to investigate.  When I’m accompanying another soloist on the bandstand, the role is really quite parallel.  The biggest difference is that there are times when I am soloing for long periods of time on a stage, and I’m not doing that in my office with patients.

TP:    Let’s run down the tunes one to ten.

ZEITLIN:  All right.  I haven’t given this any advance thought; this is right off the top of my head.

TP:    The title track would seem to be emblematic of your philosophy that music is a blessing.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I thought it was an awfully nice tune to use for the title.  The first time I ever heard that tune was from George Shearing very early in my experience of beginning to learn how to play jazz.  I don’t remember what album it was that he played it with his quintet, but it was one of his early MGM albums.  I always loved the piece.  I’d never played it, except for a duo recording with Charlie haden for ECM in the early ’80s.  It was a piece that Charlie always loved, and we approached it as a vehicle for him to solo on. Then when I was getting material ready for this date, I said, gee, it really would be nice to revisit this piece in a trio context and really play on it.  It’s interesting, as many tunes as Buster Williams has played over the years (you can imagine, there’s virtually nothing he’s not heard), for some reason he had never heard this piece.  He was very intrigued getting into it, and then of course he played his ass off on it.

We had agreed there would be a little vamp at the end of this piece on a particular chord that we would use to just ride out the piece.  I remember this was just a first take, and we did it, and we got into I think this delicious end vamp where there’s all kinds of time being played simultaneously, and just being overlaid and going in and out of phase with each other, and I found it so delicious to play on.  When it was over, we looked at each other and said, “Well, we sure don’t need to play another take on this one.”

TP:    Was most of this record like that?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, that was very much the flavor of the project.

TP:    “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” has been done by numerous people, but what’s your association?

ZEITLIN:  Actually the pull to do that piece was really suggested a few months earlier, when I was asked to participate in a Gershwin concert celebration.  I sat down and thought about, well, if I’m going to do some Gershwin pieces, what would I really like to do.  So I began to approach that tune and “The Man I Love” at that point.  I always like, when I approach a standard, to accept it as a challenge to be faithful to the original spirit of the piece, but to allow myself to approach it in a way that might breathe some fresh life into it.  That often involves not only reshaping it a little bit structurally, but most often reharmonizing it.  I have felt often when musicians approach reharmonization, they can get seduced by possibilities, and at its worst it becomes an exercise in how clever the musician can be.  And often, the tune gets lost, or it becomes so cluttered with reharmonized material that it becomes almost a logjam of material.  So for myself, I try to keep those pitfalls in mind, but allow myself to just see where the tune might go in a new way.

In the case of this tune, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” I didn’t do an awful lot of reharmonization, and actually there’s relatively little.  What I did is really, in terms of the arrangement, move us through a lot of different approaches to the material.  We state the head, then I play some solo piano on it and allowed myself to cast a nod in Art Tatum’s direction, then at the end of the solo piano which involves a little bit of stride influenced material, to bring Al in for a piano-drum duet, which I’ve always loved to do with drummers, and which he got into just beautifully.  Then we bring in the whole trio.  When the bass comes in, another level of excitement is added, then we’re burning on the tune for a while, and Buster takes a great solo.  The arrangement has a kind of arch form, because as the more double-time part ends, we move back into the original approach of the head of the tune from the beginning.  So in a way, it does form a lot of arch.

TP:    I think I was thinking of that particular performance when I asked you about your experience with Ahmad Jamal’s music.

ZEITLIN:  I don’t really count Ahmad as one of my influences.

TP:    And I’m not going to try to make him one!

ZEITLIN:  But I would certainly underline the comment I made yesterday.  I’ve heard so many people, and I’ve tried to be as porous as I can, and take stuff in.  It’s one of the things I worry about when I write a new composition.  After I write it and start playing it, and it becomes familiar to me, then I start to say, “Unh-oh, where might I have inadvertently taken this from?”  I’ve talked to a lot of jazz composers who go through pangs of that and say, “Unh-oh!”  In a sense, nothing is totally original.  How could it be?  But you hope that you’ve had enough of an aesthetic filter and enough of your own voice has developed over the years that it really emerges as your own.

TP:    In your professional experience, you haven’t done very much playing for singers, have you?

ZEITLIN:  No, not an awful lot.  I don’t think I’ve ever recorded an album with a singer.  I did one album with a singer that hasn’t been released, a wonderful singer named Susie Stern who wrote the lyrics to “Quiet Now,” which is probably my most well-known composition, courtesy of Bill Evans, who just kept recording it and recording it!  It was so flattering that he never seemed to get tired of it.  He kept it in his repertoire for about 25 years.  So Susie finally wrote a lyric that I could accept for that tune, and I did an album with her where she sings, and it’s just beautiful.

TP:    I ask the question because so many pianists paid the rent by accompanying singers for long periods.  But you always seem to have had a trio thing going on for yourself and sustained it.

ZEITLIN:  Yes.  If I had been a full-time musician having to put bread on the table with it, I might have had to do a number of projects like that.  Maybe some of them I might not have liked.  But that is one of the privileges I’ve experienced because of having two careers, is that I’ve really never had to do anything musical that didn’t really call to me.  I’ve been very lucky that way.

TP:    You’ve been blessed in that way, too.  Another point in addressing the American Songbook.  Are you a lyrics man?  Are you thinking of lyrics, internalizing them, or is it more the abstract sound of the song?

ZEITLIN:  It’s more of the latter.  I’ve read a number of musicians who feel it’s somehow crucial to know the lyric, and almost “How could not and play the tune?”  But in fact, most of these tunes are written music first, lyrics second, and my allegiance is to the composer, really, not the lyricist, although certainly the lyrics of some tunes end up embedded in my psyche, and I do find myself hearing fragments of them.  Certainly I hear a lot of Sinatra in my head when I hear any of these tunes that he’s recorded because I’m so totally taken with him.

TP:    You’re a Sinatra man.

ZEITLIN:  I am a Sinatra man in terms of male vocalists.  I would say my favorite female vocalists over the years have been Sarah Vaughan, Jackie Cain and Elis Regina.  Those names pop into my head.  Probably an unusual trio of names to list together.

TP:    Billy Taylor said the same thing vis-a-vis lyrics.  Now let’s discuss “For Heaven’s Sake.”

ZEITLIN:  That’s a tune that I first heard Billie Holiday do, and I have to list her with those other three.  Of course, she’s in the top echelon for me.  That was my first experience with the piece.  I couldn’t right now tell you the lyric to that piece, but that’s where I first heard it.  That’s another tune that I reharmonized a bit, and I love to play it.  I’ve been playing it for years, played it as a solo, in duo situations, and in trios, but I don’t think I ever had a chance to record it before.  There were a number of occasions when it was on the roster of possibilities but somehow it didn’t get done.  So I was happy to get this take done with Buster and Al, and it had just the feeling I wanted.  The tenderness and yearning that’s somehow inherent in that melody and in the structure really comes through.

TP:    “There and Back” is your first of two compositions here.  It seems your two most famous compositions were recorded by the time you were 26 or 27, which would be “Quiet Now” and “Carole’s Garden.”  Is composition intertwined with the notion of improvising for you?  You mentioned that you composed some tunes back when you had the Cool Tones as a kid.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, I was composing literally at age 2 or 3.  It’s always been a part of my music, and I’ve always seen improvisation as spontaneous composition.  My hope, as part of my own personal aesthetic when I play, is that when I’m improvising there is a sense of a journey, that there is something organic about how it develops.  Ideally there would be almost a retrospective feeling of inevitability about how it had proceeded.  I don’t claim to reach that all the time, but that’s what I’m aiming at, I think, that it isn’t just a hodge-podge of possibilities or just a pastiche of colors or novelty for its own sake, but that there is something organic and a feeling of intentionality about it.

TP:    Is composing a systematic process for you, or is it more of the moment?

ZEITLIN:  Of the moment.  What happens usually is a few fragments or motifs will develop, and I’ll start working with them, and they’ll start building like crystals build in a solution.  There are rare occasions when something has just burst forth totally complete in some Mozartian fashion, but that’s rare for me.  I remember one tune that happened like that called “One Time Once,” which wrote itself as I was walking to a surgery lecture in medical school.  And there was a tune called “Brazilian Street Dance” which appeared all at once when I was working on a project for Paul Winter’s label, Living Music.  But what happens generally is that a section of a piece appears, or even a thematic idea that is like the beginning of crystallization or a seed from which a composition grows.

There’s basically two sections to “There and Now.”  The way we approach it once we’re improvising on it is that the A-section has more of a feeling of walking jazz time or more that kind of approach to it; the B-section has various kinds of funk or eighth-note/double-note feel on it.  I like the movement back and forth between those two feelings.  Harmonically the way it’s organized just happens to be a roadmap that appeals to me.  In many ways, I think of when I’m setting up pieces to be played by a group… I’m sort of setting up a roadmap that we can loosely follow to get from one destination to the other.  But there’s all kinds of possibilities for alternate routes, and I hope that they will be taken and I hope that I’ve set up some interesting roadblocks and detour signs along the way that will be challenging to myself and to my fellow musicians who are approaching the piece.  This piece has a number of opportunities like that, which I think brought out some interesting music.

TP:    I’m not familiar with “I’m All Smiles.”  Who wrote it?

ZEITLIN:  A guy named Leonard.  I think it was from a show.  I think the first time I seriously listened to that piece was on Barbra Streisand’s People album years ago for Columbia, which is my favorite album she’s ever done.  It had some fabulous arranging by Peter Mats(?).  It’s Streisand at her best.  It’s most free of the over-emotionality and stuff that she can fall prey to.  The purity of her voice and the feeling..it’s glorious.  And she sings this piece on it, and I’ve always loved it, and again, I was thinking about, “Well, what might I do for this album?”  I realized, “Well, I’ve never actually played that piece; why not get into it?”  So I did, and reharmonized it just a bit because the piece is so beautiful it doesn’t need much help.  We just approached it as a piece we could play and improvise on.  I think it unfolds in a very relaxed way.

TP:    Your “Cousin Mary” continues a line of Coltrane interpretations from that ’59-’60-’61 period of Coltrane.  I was listening to your solos on “Lazy Bird” and of “Fifth House,” which were real virtuoso turns, and I guess this one is very virtuosic, but a restrained, playful virtuosity, dancing through it and deconstructing it.  I was impressed with the ambiance of that interpretation.  Perhaps we can reprise some of your comments yesterday about your response to Coltrane.

ZEITLIN:  Well, I remember my response to the whole Giant Steps album when it first appeared; it was a pivotal album for me.  I was going away on a fishing trip where I wasn’t going to be near much of civilization for a while, and I actually went into a little record store that was near this fishing town.  I rebought the album and made a deal with the record store owner that I could park it with him, and that probably a couple of times in the next two or three weeks, while I was on this fishing trip, I would be needing to come in and hear it.  So that album was precious to me.  I’d played “Cousin Mary” before as a duo.  What I wanted to do again is certainly be respectful to Coltrane, but allow myself to experiment with the tune and its possibilities, so I did reharmonize the head, as you can hear.  Then we really approached it as a blues that you can do anything you want with, and this is what happened on that day.  There is quite a bit of deconstructing of the harmonic structure of the blues at various points in the improvisation.  I felt that Al and Buster were totally up for it.  We took it into some I thought rather unusual spaces that were very exciting and intriguing, and I thought that the overall rhythmic drive of the piece was never lost.  I liked trading sixes with Al; it just kind of happened, and worked out, I thought, very nicely.

“Triste” is a Jobim tune, a tune I first heard Elis Regina do in an album called Elis and Tom with Jobim playing and his arrangements.  I just love that album (it’s one of my all-time favorite Brazilian albums), and I love that piece.  I wanted a bossa-nova, and I’d never played this tune nor recorded it, and so we did it.  That tune I felt required no reharmonization from me.  We play it basically just as Jobim wrote it.

“Canyon” is a minor-bluesoid construction.  It has an unusual little melody the way it’s placed.  It’s a lot of fun to play.  I thought we just got into it and went on a journey with it.

“I Fall In Love Too Easily” is a ballad I’ve loved for many years.  I can’t remember who I first heard do it; I remember hearing Miles do it in the early ’60s.  But I had only started to play it in the last decade or so, in duo or trio formats.  I don’t believe I’d ever recorded it.  This is a ballad that’s full of all kinds of feelings, and I think we really took our time with it, and it unfolds and has this kind of organic feel in terms of how the improvisation developed which I am looking and striving for.  It also happened on the ballad “For Heaven’s Sake,” that there is a real organic journey.

TP:    Finally, “The Man I Love” which is iconic Gershwin.

ZEITLIN:  Again, I tried to organize this in terms of the arrangement in ways to explore different kinds of things we could do as a trio.  I was hoping to see how deep and how broad we could go in this weekend we were going to play together.  It starts with a brief free improvisation on the piano which sets up a mood, then the melody gets stated and the trio comes in and organizes around it.  There’s a big of reharmonization in the structure of the piece, and then there is a vamp figures quite prominently in this piece that serves as I think a very exciting springboard into improvisational overlays.  I get involved in doing this, and then eventually at the end of the piece a kind of climatic session where Al starts soloing over the vamp while Buster and I state it.  Then we ride out the piece on that vamp.

TP:    Is the program in the sequence you recorded it in?

ZEITLIN:  No.  I’d say that would be an extraordinarily rare event.  You  play the pieces, you see what you’ve been able to harvest, then you figure how it would be most listenable when put together.

TP:    And this is the path you’ve followed from your beginnings, a mix of interesting standards, some originals, and some of what are called jazz standards as well.

ZEITLIN:  That’s absolutely true.  I’ve always tended on these projects to program for maximum variety, to sort of reflect what I would do in a concert.

TP:    You came up in Chicago at the same time as Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock, [Eddie Harris], many of the people you mentioned.  I’m wondering if you see any particular Chicagoistic qualities in your approach to music.  People who came up then in Chicago talk about the ethos of Chicago musicians being individuality, that stamping your own sound and making your own statement was of paramount importance if you were going to be a respected musician in Chicago.  Apparently you were up 1960.  Your bio says you played professionally there, and the people you played with were individualists of the first order.  So the impact of Chicago on who you are as a musician.

ZEITLIN:  Not having grown up anywhere else, I can’t compare it!  As you say this, I flash back to remembering that there was a lot of value placed on somebody having their own thing.  There was a lot of respect; people would say, “Yeah, he’s got his own thing; he’s really doing something different; listen too that.”  That certainly is something I can recall.

TP:    But as far as forming your ideas, this sort of just happened.

ZEITLIN:  Yes.

TP:    As a teenager, once you started being able to drive is when you started going to clubs in Chicago?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, starting at age 15.

TP:    You’d go down Lake Shore Drive to 63rd Street and hit those clubs?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, and stay there til 4 or 5 in the morning and come home.

TP:    And go to school.

ZEITLIN:  Well, that was mostly on the weekends.

TP:    And your parents were fine with this?

ZEITLIN:  Well, they knew I was so utterly galvanized by this and that it was so deeply embedded in my psyche that it was important to just encourage and allow this to happen.  They had a tremendous amount of trust in me, that I wasn’t for example using drugs of any kind or having problems with alcohol,  and that I could be around a subculture like that without being involved in it.  And indeed, their trust was not misplaced, and I was trustworthy, and I was able to take this opportunity for this many-year informal apprenticeship in the music that was just priceless.  Because in those days there were no formal jazz schools.  This was the one had to learn it.  I spent hours and hours listening  to records and rehearsing with people in high school and with other people in Chicago, and then going and listening, and trying to get chances to sit in and get pointers from people, and collaring somebody after the gig and say, “Man, sit down with me for a minute here; how did you voice such-and-such?”  By osmosis trying to absorb as much of this art form as I could.

TP:    Did you check out Chris Anderson at all during this time?

ZEITLIN:  Yes, indeed.  That’s interesting.  Very few people even know about Chris.  But when I said I would collar somebody to show me a voicing, I was exactly thinking of a couple of experience I had with Chris where I said, “Chris, I’m not letting you go home.  You’ve got to sit down.  How did you voice this thing, man?”  He showed me some stuff.  I remember just a few remarks he made to me way-way back then that were very-very helpful.  He is an unsung hero, a wonderful musical mind, and everyone who was around in Chicago then knows of Chris and speaks of Chris.  Herbie Hancock talks of Chris, and Bobby Cranshaw remembers Chris fondly.  Chris is prototypic of the kind of musician I would try to collar.

TP:    So we could call him an influence.

ZEITLIN:  Yes, he was an early harmonic influence.

TP:    And perhaps a link between you and Herbie Hancock in some ways, as the two of you are roughly contemporaries.

ZEITLIN:  I never heard Herbie play until I heard him on record with Miles.  I never met him or heard him.  But we certainly grew up around the same period.

TP:    It’s fascinating to me.  You were very young and probably one of the few white kids who would be on that scene, and hanging with some people who had serious addiction problems, like Nicky Hill or Wilbur Ware or Wilbur Campbell.  I don’t know that most people who know you know much about Chicago, or how heavy the musical scene was in Chicago at that time.

ZEITLIN:  Again, having nothing to compare, all I can say is that I felt fortunate that there was so much going on and so much excitement that generally I found musicians so gracious and so willing to show me stuff and to give me a chance to play… I can’t say that it was always that way; there are instances where you try to talk your way into getting a chance to play at a jam session and it doesn’t happen because they don’t know you.  I certainly had experiences like that.  But overall, it was a very generous spirit in Chicago.  And also, I didn’t experience much Crow Jim flavor at all — only very rarely.  I got some of that in New York when I was sitting in at some places in 1963, when I was on a fellowship.  Got a little feeling of that and a little feeling of the ethnocentricity of New York.  But I didn’t feel that in Chicago growing up at all.  I didn’t feel racial tension at all!  I very often was the only white person in some of these clubs late at night, and I had no cause to feel like I was an intruder, that there was hostility coming my way or that I was in any kind of danger.  It just wasn’t happening.

The genesis of my two careers is the tremendous support I got from my parents, Nathaniel and Roslyn Zeitlin.  One anecdote I think will give you an idea of how supportive they were to me in both ways.  When I began to really get involved in eighth grade in high school and starting to play jazz, they would go to New York, where they typically would go every year because they loved theater, and they would go to all their shows, all their plays, and afterwards, even though neither had been a jazz fan at all prior to my interest, they would go to all the jazz clubs where all my heroes were playing, they would listen to their music, and they would get these players to jot down little notes to me on cocktail napkins!  I remember one from Marion McPartland, and one from George Shearing, and one from Billy Taylor on one occasion.

TP:    Bird?

ZEITLIN:  No, not Bird.  I only got to hear Bird play live once in my life, in a very unlikely context — playing in front of Stan Kenton’s orchestra.  He was looking very dissipated.  But it was a thrill just to hear him play.

[-30-]

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, Chicago, Chris Anderson, Denny Zeitlin, DownBeat, Liner Notes

For the 81st Anniversary of David “Fathead” Newman’s birth, A 1998 DownBeat Interview with him and Hank Crawford and a Liner Note

Today is the 81st anniversary of the birth of David “Fathead” Newman, a master practitioner of the saxophone family and the flute, whose sound helped stamp Ray Charles’ various units during the ’60s and ’70s and whose own leader career is documented on three dozen or so recordings. I had an opportunity to write the liner notes for one of those dates, Keep The Spirit Singing, and to interview Mr. Newman both on WKCR and for my first-ever DownBeat feature, a joint interview with him and his long-time saxophone partner Hank Crawford in 1998. I’ve posted the liner notes and the unedited transcript of the interview.

David Newman (Notes for Keep The Spirit Singing):

In the exciting times directly following World War II, when David Newman was a young man in Dallas, Texas, interstates, jet planes, mall culture and television did not exist.  People from different regions did things their own way.  For black tenor saxophone players from the wide open spaces, that meant cultivating the larger than life sound of the kind projected by luminaries like Herschel Evans, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Tate, Arnett Cobb and John Hardee on the popular recordings by big bands and jump bands of the day.  As much Newman and his peer group — Ornette Coleman, King Curtis, Booker Ervin, Dewey Redman — absorbed the startling modernist postulations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie during those years, they never strayed far from the elemental principle that the horn is an analog for the human voice.  The sound was of the essence.

Then, musicians learned by jumping into the fray.  Initially an alto saxophonist, Newman attended high school with future luminaries like Cedar Walton and James Clay and jammed on up-to-the-minute bebop with a teenage Ornette Coleman.  He played in bands led by a pair of little-recorded legends, the alto saxophonist Buster Smith, who was Charlie Parker’s earliest and primary influence from Kansas City days, and the tenor saxophonist Red Connor, who Coleman cites as a primary mentor.  We’ll digress with Newman’s comments on both.

“Red Connor was a very fine musician with a sound somewhere in between Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, or Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, with a little Don Byas or Chu Berry in there,” he recalls.  “Booker Ervin listened quite a bit to him, as you can hear in Booker’s playing.  I don’t know of any other players that had Red’s particular style and his sound; he was very much his own person and  didn’t particularly pattern himself on any of the forerunner tenor players.  Red knew all the Bebop tunes, he was playing Bebop always, and I got a thorough training by playing with the Red Connor band when I was in high school.

“At that time Buster Smith had moved back to Dallas, and he had one of the best big bands in the city.  One night I sneaked into a club to hear his band play, and he gave me a chance to sit in, which was a very big thing for me; soon I started to play with him.  Buster had an advanced approach, different from most musicians of his era.  He had a huge sound on the alto, and his execution was superb; he could get over the instrument really fast — he knew it backwards.  His phrasing and harmonic concept were modern, ahead of its time.  He was a self-taught musician with perfect pitch, and he could sit and write arrangements while we were riding up and down the highways — he wouldn’t have to be anywhere near a piano.  He would write out full arrangements, and on a jump blues that he wanted to extend he would set up different riffs for the saxophones, then someone in the brass section would set the riffs for the trumpets and trombones.  They called Buster ‘Prof,’ short for Professor, because he had this air about him, as this very well-educated professor.

“Buster put together small combos for the road or to back up people like T-Bone Walker and others who came through Dallas.  Around 1951-52, Buster organized a group with Leroy Cooper and myself to do a tour with Ray Charles, who was singing and playing the alto.  We played mostly the southern states out to California.  I had met Ray a little earlier, when I was playing with Lloyd Glenn, a piano player with a hit record called ‘Chickaboo,’ and Ray was with Lowell Fulsom, who featured him playing piano and singing.  We were traveling on the road at black theaters and dance halls with a package that also included Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker.  Sometimes Ray sounded similar to Charles Brown, sometimes he sounded like King Cole, even sometimes like T-Bone Walker, but you could hear his thing starting to come out.  I think Ray’s recording of ‘I Got A Woman,’ when he started to inject a Gospel feel, is where the real Ray Charles started to emerge.”

Newman blossomed as a star sideman with Charles’ brilliant small band from 1954 to 1964, but he’s never felt aesthetically encumbered by his past.  “Ray gave us a lesson in music appreciation,” Newman told “Downbeat” a few years back.  “Before I encountered Ray, my only real love was jazz and bebop.  With Ray I learned how to respect and admire and love all other forms of music.  This music is an incredible gift.  I want to expand my mind and expand the music as it comes through me, put my stamp on it, my feeling, and see what comes out.  I want to explore other areas, bridge the generations.  You can’t close yourself off as music moves on.”

Now 67, Newman sustains that attitude of freshness and exploration throughout Keep The Spirit Singing.  Performing on flute and tenor and alto saxophones, he sculpts his sound with refined nuance through a broad matrix of emotion and rhythm-timbre, enhanced by an ensemble of creative veteran improvisers who know the Old Master well enough not to have to waste time getting acquainted in the studio.

Pianist John Hicks spent his formative years in St. Louis and Atlanta, and knows intimately the language of blues and church forms; his distinctive voicings and ebullient beat fit Newman like a custom-made suit.  “I’ve known John a long time, and he’s been one of my favorite pianists for many years,” Newman says.  “He knows where I’m going, and we blend as a very good combination.”

On three selections Newman pairs off with trombonist Steve Turre, a fellow Charles alumnus who coaxed the master into playing four tunes on his recently issued In The Spur of The Moment [Telarc].  “I like the blend of the tenor saxophone and trombone,” Newman says.  “Ray’s standard instrumentation was two trumpets and three reeds, but in the ’50s when we played the Apollo and the Howard Theater, he would use the trombone.  I wanted Steve because he gets that wide-open, full sound.”

Newman first met Turre and bassist Steve Novosel when both were working with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, another devotee of extracting a full sonic palette from an array of horns.  “I first met Rahsaan in Chicago, when I was playing with Ray,” Newman digresses.  “Rahsaan was just getting his start, and had come over to Atlantic Records.  He would hang out at the Sutherland Hotel, where we stayed quite often in Chicago.”

Returning to the subject at hand, he continues: “Steve Novosel is a solid, great player.  I depend on him a lot for his ability to carry the melody.”

Like Novosel, trapsetter Winard Harper works frequently with Newman.  The relationship began when Harper hired Newman for a record date a few years back; the in-demand 38-year drummer plays with idiomatic precision and imaginative flair throughout. Joining him for several tunes is percussion wizard Steve Kroon, who dots the i’s and crosses the t’s with customary panache.

Guitarist O’Donnell Levy composed and arranged the Caribbean-flavored title track and the samba-esque “Asia Beat,” which frame the session, while Turre offers the pungent “Mellow-D For Mr. C.”  “I like the way the changes move in the tune,” Newman says of the latter, which refers to Ray Charles.  Does the Caribbean beat relate to the 12/8 feel Newman played over 45 years ago?  “Yes, it does.  It’s a very natural feeling.  A lot of people today seem to like that feel, and I am one of those people.”

Newman’s “Cousin Esau” showcases his vocalized flute sound.  “I adapted some of the things that Eddie Harris and Les McCann used to do with this particular beat,” Newman says.  “No one has a name for it, but I call it the Listen-Here beat.  Most drummers that I ask know what I mean.  It’s a four-beat rim-shot figure played on the snare drum; most people can groove to it.  I thought of the flute when writing this tune.  Through the years I’ve tried to get an identifiable flute sound, and somehow it’s starting to come together.  It’s a very earthy, open sound.  When I was a kid I used to blow across a Dr. Pepper or R.C. Cola soda bottle to get a sound; after I started playing the flute, I found it was a good way to get a good open sound.”

Newman wrote “Karen, My Love” for his wife; his bravura performance comes right out of the Gene Ammons tradition of heart-on-the-sleeve balladry using only the choicest notes.  “John Hicks helped me flesh this out,” Newman reveals.  “I knew exactly what I wanted, but John could put meaning to what I had in mind.”

Newman reprises “Willow Weep For Me,” which he recorded years ago for Atlantic, taking it here with a 3/4 feel.  It’s a showcase for his bright, declamatory alto saxophone style, and shows that his early experience with Buster Smith “has stuck with me all through the years.”

John Hicks composed “Life,” one of his many lovely waltzes, with Newman’s flute in mind.  “It has a natural feel,” Newman says.  “John wanted me to play it as I felt it fit me.”

Newman is no stranger to the Latin sound that inflects much of the proceedings.  “I guested many times with Machito’s band, and later on with other Latin groups, and that gave me the feel of the Latin beat as well as some things coming out of Cuba,” he notes.  “The jazz feel with the African-Latin influence and the European influence is part of what jazz is all about, especially these days — it’s all come together.”

Pushing the envelope remains the animating imperative for Newman, a musician who can retrospect on a career that spans a half-century — 45 years in the spotlight.

“You don’t want to get yourself into a dated position,” says the man whose sound defines soul tenor for several generations.  “I like to incorporate the modern approach I hear from the younger players in playing the changes, and I still include some of the things that I played and learned from the veteran musicians when I was young.  You take what you have and ride with it, put it all together, and keep moving with the feeling, keep going forward.”

Hank Crawford-David Newman – (3-3-98):

TP:    The first question I’ll address to you both is when you were first aware of the other?  Hank Crawford, did you first meet David Newman when you came into the Ray Charles band?

HC:    Yes, I first met him when I went in Ray’s band.  But I was aware of his playing from some records I had heard, solo things he had done with Ray Charles.  But the first time we met I’d just joined the band actually.

TP:    I’d like to talk to you, Hank, about your path into the Ray Charles band, and I guess we should start from your early years as a musician.  When did you start playing music?

HC:    I started playing at the age of 9.  I started on piano.  Piano was my first instrument.  I studied three years of private lessons; I guess that must have been at about the age of 6 when I started taking music lessons, and from there I went to the saxophone.

TP:    Why did you go to the saxophone from the piano?

HC:    My father was in the Service, and when he came back, he’d bought a saxophone with him, which was a C-melody — actually it was a C-melody saxophone.  I think he was sort of a frustrated saxophone player himself, but he never did go into it.  But he brought the horn, and I was studying piano and still in elementary school.  So I still had, I guess, 6th, 7th and 8th grade to go.  And once I entered high school in 9th Grade, naturally I wanted to be in the high school band, and piano was a bit much to march with.  So I just went to the closet and picked out the horn.  I’m self-taught saxophone.  I just got a book actually in Ninth Grade and taught myself after I learned the fingering, because I already had a slight knowledge of music from taking piano lessons.

TP:    You could read probably, and knew some chords.

HC:    Right.  And I started playing saxophone in Ninth grade.  Then after I taught myself the fingering and stuff, I just kept playing.  Later I had lessons on the saxophone, too, but that was in college.  That’s when I entered college.

TP:    What sort of music program did you have in high school?

HC:    Well, it was basically the marching band, a concert band, and a dance band which we called the Rhythm Bombers.  It was a 16-piece high school band.  Our band director in high school was a trumpet player by the name of Matthew Garrett, who is Dee Dee Bridgewater’s father.  Actually, Dee Dee’s given name is Denise Garrett.  Her father was Matthew Garrett, and he was my high school band director.  We used to play a lot of Woody Herman charts and Count Basie charts, just big band stuff.

TP:    Did he have you working outside the high school, like Walter Dyett did in Chicago, got his guys in the union?

HC:    Oh yeah.  We played a lot of Monday night things, usually on campus.  And then we played some things off-campus, which was in local clubs.  But even in high school, we were playing major functions.

TP:    Had you always been listening to records and other saxophonists?

HC:    Yes.

TP:    And when did the alto become the horn of choice, or the horn that suited your ear.  From the influences that you describe on your bios, you mention Bird, Louis Jordan, Johnny Hodges, Earl Bostic, later Cannonball, they’re all alto players.  So I assume that was the primary voice that you heard.

HC:    During that period I heard a lot of saxophone players, from Bird to Bostic, Tab Smith, and on up through to Ammons, Sonny Stitt, you know… So really, I can’t say just one more than the other inspired me the most.  Because I love to hear musicians play, all saxophone players.  I got a bit from each one.  But I always liked the sound of the alto, although I did play a little tenor or baritone.  But I could express myself more on alto.  That seemed to be my voice.

TP:    You also mentioned your church experience as being very important for you.

HC:    Oh yes.

TP:    And it seems to me that the alto saxophone is the sound that’s more commonly inspirational in the church.

HC:    Oh yes.  I think the alto is very voice-like.  I approach the horn vocally, as if I was going to sing.  I guess that comes across because of my early beginnings or early roots in the church.  That’s where I started when I was playing piano.  I used to play for the junior choirs, the senior choirs, prayer meetings.  My whole family was really involved in church a lot.  If they didn’t play, they were singing.  So all my life I was involved in spiritual music.

TP:    What was the name of the church you belonged to in Memphis?

HC:    Originally, Springdale.  Springdale Baptist Church.

TP:    That’s where you had your piano lessons, or played piano.

HC:    Yes, right there.

TP:    Well, we’ll stop with Hank in high school playing with the 16-piece band in high school with Matthew Garrett as the band director, and go through the same process with David Newman.  Your path on the saxophone.  When you started playing, what the circumstances were, etcetera.

DN:    You mean right from the very beginning.

TP:    When did you first put a horn in your mouth.

DN:    Well, it was the mid-Forties when I first picked up the alto.  Like Hank, I started out with the piano.  I had a few piano lessons at first, but I didn’t stay with the piano as long as he did.  I only had a few lessons, and then right away my friends started calling me a little sissy, so I wanted to pick up a more masculine instrument.  So I asked my Mom to get a horn, and I didn’t know exactly what kind of horn.  But then I heard Louis Jordan play the alto saxophone, and it just blew me away, and right away I chose the alto — that’s what my Mom bought me.  I was still in elementary school, and started taking private lessons from my music instructor, J.K. Miller, who was the band director at Lincoln High School.  He taught Cedar Walton and James Clay, alike from Dallas.  We called him Uncle Dud.  When I started high school I went directly into the band.  Uncle Dud was the one that gave me the name “Fathead.”  He wanted me to read the music instead of memorizing music like what I was doing, and he called me a fathead in class, and that’s been my nickname until this day.

TP:    Unapropos.

DN:    [LAUGHS] Unapropos, but nonetheless that’s the way it was, and it’s a trademark by now.  I don’t get offended by the name at all, because it goes so far back, and it’s just a nickname anyway.

TP:    What sort of music program did he have.  Hank Crawford’s describing playing contemporary Basie and Woody Herman charts, a 16-piece band.  Did you have something similar to that in high school?

DN:    We had something similar to that for the jazz band, some Basie charts, some arrangements by Buster Smith, who was a local alto saxophone player and arranger and composer from Dallas, and also some stock arrangements, which were published orchestrations.  I was playing alto for many years, and after about my second year in high school, a friend of mine introduced me to Bird.  He brought along a Charlie Parker record, a 78 on Savoy Records, and Bird was playing “Koko,” which was “Cherokee.”  I had never heard anything like that before in my life.  I was thinking that there was no other player that could play any faster or better than Earl Bostic.  Earl Bostic was the man at that time.  And when I heard Charlie Parker it just blew my mind away.

From that point on, I fell into the Bebop bag, and I started listening to all the Bebop tunes as they came out.  And during that particular time, it was very easy to keep up with all the new tunes that came out, because there weren’t that many.  So I would listen to J.J., Diz, Bird, Fats Navarro, Dexter, all the players.

TP:    What a lot of people describe is that when these records would come out, their whole little clique of musicians would get together, memorize the solos, and then…

DN:    Exactly.

TP:    Was that your experience, too, Hank?

HC:    yes.

TP:    Do you remember your first Bird record?

HC:    Maybe not by name, but I can say this.  Like David was saying, at that particular time it was the Bebop era that we both came through, you know, and some of the same people he named I really admire.  I love Bostic for power.  He was a power player.  But we all came through all phases of music, from the Blues, Gospel and Jazz… Actually, I was speaking about the spiritual side of music, but we were also playing Bebop.  That was the era that we really come through.  We always tried to play Bird’s solos, and did play them, note for note!

TP:    So you memorized your Bird solos also.

HC:    Oh yeah.  Oh yeah.

TP:    I’m going to ask you each about your contemporaries, because you each came up with a small group of distinguished cohorts.  In David’s case, you came up with James Clay, Cedar Walton and Ornette Coleman.  You’ve mentioned a good story about Ornette, playing in the park.

DN:    There was a park in Fort Worth (I forget the name) where we would all gather around the gazebo and play there.  I was playing with an older musician there named Red Connor, a very good saxophone player.  He never was that well-known because I don’t think he left Texas that much, but at the time he was the leading saxophonist in that area.  His sound was more or less between Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, and even maybe Don Byas.  He was a Bebop player, and he knew all the Bebop tunes.  I was playing in Red’s band, and Ornette would come and play.  I was playing the alto and Ornette was playing the tenor saxophone when I first met him.  We would play all of Bird’s tunes, and we both knew his solos, as well as Sonny Criss and the other alto players.  We’d learn these solos note for note, then after we finished playing whatever Bird had played, then it came time to do the individual thing, and this is when Ornette would go Ornette.  Then we could hear come in after he would run out of Bird’s solos, then he would go to Ornette! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Ornette as we know him today.

DN:    Ornette as we know him.  It was Ornette.  He wasn’t calling it harmolodics at the time, but that’s the direction that he would go into.  He would not conform to the chord structure.  He would just go completely different, because he had his own conception.  His concept was entirely different.  We knew he was on his way to being something different.  We didn’t know what it was, but we knew it was a different thing happening with Ornette.

TP:    Hank Crawford, I can think of two pretty fair saxophonists in your age group, George Coleman and Frank Strozier.  Were you all acquainted?

HC:    Yes, we were all in high school together.  In fact, George and I were in the same class.  Frank was a few years behind us, but we were all in the same band.  Speaking of local saxophone players, at that time the guy who impressed me the most was a tenor player named Ben Branch, who sounded a lot like Gene Ammons — and I always liked Ammons’ playing.  There was a guy who played alto in Memphis who I got my name from, an older man named Hank O’Day — really Hank, not Henry.  He was playing in a big band that was led by Al Jackson, who was the father of the drummer Al Jackson from the Stax scene.   There was George, and then a few years behind us was Charles Lloyd.  There was another guy who played saxophone who sounded very much like Bird… At that time, George Coleman was the king.  He was playing all of the Bird stuff.

During that era, we were studying a lot of Bebop.  That’s why we went from house to house, to learn all these bad tunes.  But basically, our primary function when we would go out to play was the Blues.  We’d practice the Bebop all day at each other’s house, but when we had to go out and play, we’d play a lot of Blues, Memphis being the home of the Blues, they say.  I walked bars and laid on my back on the floor with people dropping coins in the bell.

I remember listening to Johnny Hodges, and I remember Tab Smith played on “Because of You” that floored me.  I like melodies.  I really like ballads, and I think I’m most expressive on ballads.  I guess that comes from being around vocal music a lot.

TP:    You mentioned that starting in the church as well.  You mentioned that in your trademark horn arrangements, the horns are the backup singers, you’re the lead singer with the alto.

HC:    Yes.  I found that to be true when I joined Ray Charles’ band.  I started trying to write a little bit when I was in high school, and in Memphis, almost every band that you played with was at least eight pieces, from 8 to 16 pieces, five horns at least.  Big bands was a favorite of mine, too; I loved big bands.  I even had the opportunity to meet some of the great big band leaders later on in my career.

TP:    Lunceford was from Memphis from originally.

HC:    Yes, and Gerald Wilson.  And later, when I went to school at Tennessee State in Nashville, I had a chance to meet Ellington and Dizzy.  They would come and play the homecoming campus gig every year.  There would always be a big name.  I had an opportunity to meet Charlie Parker three months before he passed in Nashville.  I was a senior at Tennessee State, and Bird came through on a show with Stan Kenton, June Christy, Nat Cole.  There was a tenor player in Nashville named Thurman Green. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You’re laughing.

HC:    Well, he was funny.  He was funny just as a human being and then he was funny as a player.  We used to laugh at his playing.  He just played funny, man.  He knew Charlie Parker personally.  And Bird came through at that particular time with that show we were talking about, and he came down to a little place that I was playing called the El Morocco.  I was playing an off-campus gig, and Bird came down there, just hanging out.  He didn’t play anything; came with Thurman, his friend.  He sat there, and for about two hours, man, after we finished, I had a chance to sit next to him and talk.  I don’t know what we were talking about.  Just fun things.  This was like in December, and he passed in March.  That’s about three months.

TP:    It sounds to me that the thing you both share is you had thorough high school educations.  You got a thorough musical preparation in a lot of ways in high school, and then you were playing functionally on these type of gigs and getting professional experience from a fairly young age.  How old were you when you did your first professional gig, whatever amount of money it was?

HC:    Actually in high school we were getting paid.  Because at that time, at 14 and 15, we were going out playing the dances.  The senior players, they were out, too.  But at that time, Memphis was full of great musicians, man.  Phineas Newborn was there.  He was playing at that age, man, and he was just out of sight.  So we played all of the R&B gigs and all of the jazz gigs and so forth.

TP:    There wasn’t a differentiation between Jazz and other forms of music.  It was all one big pot, kind of?

HC:    Right.  Well, playing Bebop, that was our classroom.  That was the study period, you know.  But Blues just came as a natural if you were from that part of the country.

TP:    I take it that Dallas, Texas wasn’t so dissimilar in terms of the requirements for playing in public, am I right?

DN:    My experience in that area was we’d play Bebop in jam sessions, and maybe there was one club or two where we would play together for the door, which wouldn’t be very much money, like the Log Cabin in South Dallas.  But you couldn’t earn a living playing Bebop because the people, especially in the Dallas area, they weren’t that interested in Bebop.

TP:    What would happen if you might throw that into your playing?  Would they be very verbal and vociferous and clear in their displeasure?

DN:    Well, the younger people would dance to anything that we played.  They were receptive.  But the older generations, from the thirties on, they didn’t take too much to Bebop.  They would listen for the beat and that sound which they were accustomed to.  If it wasn’t Swing from the Big Band area, then it had to be something like Blues or Rhythm-and-Blues, something from a beat there, and the Blues, bluesy tunes.  So you had to play the Blues.  In order to make any kind of money playing music around the Dallas area and Texas, you had to play the Blues.  T-Bone Walker was from Dallas, and I would play gigs and go on gigs.  Whenever T-Bone would come through town, I would go on gigs, because Buster Smith usually put bands together to back up T-Bone.  Lowell Fulsom lived in Fort Worth, and I’d work with him.

TP:    Would you go out with them or just play gigs?

DN:    I would go out.  My first outing from Dallas was with a piano player named Lloyd Glenn, who had a hit record out called “Chickaboo.”  They would have packages on the shows.  It would be Lloyd Glenn’s band, Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulsom, and I was playing with Lloyd Glenn. That was my first outing other than going out backing up T-Bone Walker playing in Buster’s band.  But my first outing on the road professionally was with Lloyd Glenn.

TP:    Tell me a little bit about Buster Smith, the master of riff arranging.  How did you come to meet him?

DN:    Well, Buster was well-known.  Buster had left Dallas, and he was living in Kansas City.  He’d played in the Blue Devils, which was from Oklahoma City, and then with Bennie Moten, and then Basie, and then came back to Texas for various reasons in the ’40s.  He was very good arranger and he had control of the alto saxophone.  His execution was very good.  He was very fast.  This is how Bird came to listen.  When Bird was very young and later when he was playing with Jay McShann, he’d come over to hear Buster play, because Buster was really getting over the instrument.  Buster was a main influence on Charlie Parker more than most people realize.

TP:    What were your personal experiences with Buster Smith?

DN:    I played many engagements with Buster.  He was a very gifted musician.  I think he was a self-taught musician.  He had perfect pitch.  We’d ride up and down the road, and Buster would just sit in the car with his cigar in his mouth.  He wasn’t a drinker; he just had a cigar.  As a matter of fact, they used to call Buster “Prof,” short for Professor, because he had this air about him, as this very well-educated professor.  But he taught himself music, really, and he had this wonderful gift.  He could arrange and write without being around any kind of instrument at all from having perfect pitch.  I learned so much from Buster.

TP:    I don’t know if you recall this from our last encounter, but I showed you a transcript of an interview Buster Smith did for the Oral History Project at the Institute of Jazz Studies, and he said that he had a sextet with you and Leroy Cooper, and that Ray Charles used that band in the very early Fifties, and that was your first encounter with him.

DN:    That’s true.  Leroy Cooper and I were both from Dallas, and Leroy had been to the Army and was back.  When I came to Lincoln High School, Leroy had graduated and was going to a college called Sam Houston, and from there he went to the Army.  Buster had a small combo together.  He usually kept a big band, but for putting together bands for the road or when people like Ray Charles would come through, Buster would put together these little small groups, and that’s how Leroy Cooper and I came to playing together.  Leroy and I also played together behind a guitarist called Zuzu Bollin, who had a record out called “Why Don’t You Eat Where You Slept Last Night” that Leroy and I played on.  Yeah, we played on this record, “Why Don’t You Eat Where You Slept Last Night.”  Then after that, Leroy left and went out with Ernie Fields’ Big Band, and when he came back… See, Leroy was playing alto.  He was originally an alto player.  But when he went out with Ernie Fields, Ernie Fields needed a baritone player, and Leroy started playing baritone.  When he came back from Ernie Fields’ band, he was playing the baritone.  When he was playing alto, he just literally ripped the keys off the alto because he was so fast.

TP:    But do you recall the specifics of the linkup between Buster Smith and Ray Charles?

DN:    Well, Buster was probably recommended to Ray.  Because Ray needed a band to back him up when he came through, and Buster was the man around Dallas.  I don’t know what the connection was, who brought them together, but Buster was probably recommended.

TP:    What was Ray Charles’ style like at that time insofar as you mentioned.

DN:    He sang like Nat Cole, T-Bone Walker, Charles Brown.  He hadn’t found his own identity yet; he was still searching.  He could sound like probably anyone, but his favorite people were people like Nat Cole, Charles Brown, T-Bone Walker.

TP:    I’ll ask Hank Crawford now to talk about your college experiences and your beginnings as a professional musician, which were in college, but entering the fray from that.

HC:    Well, as I think about it, there was a route of, say, Memphis, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, that most road bands were covering at that time.  They all came through Memphis, and they used to play at places like the Palace Theater, amateur shows (we called them midnight rambles).  There was the Hippodrome, and there was Club Handy which was at that time in Mitchell’s Hotel.  They would all come through Memphis.  We didn’t have to really go too far to see these people.  That was one of the good things about that era.  We got a chance to see a lot of the people that we later got to know.  A lot of singers would come through town, like Percy Mayfield, but instrumentalists, too.  We got a chance to see these people.  Sometimes they’d come through maybe with not the full band and pick up locals, and we would always be the ones that would play for these certain entertainers, whether it be… Really, man, it was an era of everything going on.  You had tap dancers, comics, shake dancers — shows.  We played shows.

TP:    And you’d play the whole show.

HC:    the whole show.

TP:    You’d be playing for the shake dancer, for the tap dancer, for the singer, for the comedians act.

HC:    Yeah, for all of it, before the Apollo even entered my mind, you know.  That all was happening.  It’s a long story; I could think of a million things.  But that was part of it in Memphis, among a whole lot of other things.  When I left Memphis…

TP:    When did you first go out on the road?  Do you recollect?

HC:    Really, really go out on the road?

TP:    Was that at that time, or after?

HC:    Most of that time I was basically in Memphis.  When I went to Tennessee State, I formed a little group called the Jazz Gents, and we would play locally, and as far as we would get would be Louisville, Kentucky, at the Top Hat, and then we’d get up to Buffalo at the Pine Grill.  This was all while I was still in school, so we’d go out during the summer months and play for the summer, that southern route, New Orleans, St. Louis and stuff like that.  I was basically a student most of the time, but I had a chance to meet all of these people, because they would come in the locale that we were all based, really.

I had some great teachers at Tennessee State.  W.O. Smith was one of my instructors; he’s a bass player who was on the original recording of Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul.”  Frank T. Greer was my band director, when Florida A&M and Tennessee State started doing the “hundred steps, 8 to 5…”

TP:    Oh, that’s when they started that?

HC:    Yes.  When that started, FAMU and Tennessee State, you’d just be running down the field almost.  Anciel Francisco was my reed teacher.  I didn’t start studying saxophones and clarinets and reeds until I got in college.

I played around Nashville, and I met a lot of people.  I met Roland Kirk in Nashville, and Leon Thomas, and man, you could go on and on.

But really, I guess my big real-real going out on the road was when Brother Ray came.

TP:    Let’s talk about how that happened, for about only the three hundredth time you’ve told the story.

HC:    Well, I was still in school, and like I say, I’d heard Ray — “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” and “Drowning In My Own Tears”   were some of the first things I heard.  I remember I heard something about David.  One of the first things I heard him play was the solo he did on “Ain’t That Love.”  It knocked me out, man.  Actually, I had a couple of buddies who had already joined Ray’s band.  There was a trumpet player, John Hunt, and a drummer, Milt Turner, both from Nashville.  Anyway, Ray came through Nashville.  I think Leroy Cooper, “the Hog,” he had taken a leave of absence, and he was out for a minute, and they suggested to Ray that I would be the person to play that part.  I never played baritone in my life.  Never.  You know, just around the band-rooms fooling around with the instrument.

DN:    I took the same route.  I came in the band playing baritone.

TP:    Well, I think music before it was anything else was functional for you.  This was how you were earning your livings basically from the age of 14-15-16 years old.

HC:    Yeah, from day one.  I never did anything else.

DN:    We were both reed players, so we played the reeds.

HC:    I happened to be the Student Director on campus.  I had a big band at Tennessee State; I was fronting the campus band, a 16-piece band — I was writing then.  I was impressed by the sound of Ray’s small band.  Actually, in Memphis, we always had eight pieces, and always had that kind of Gospel type of sound.  So I kind of knew the feeling.  But getting into Ray’s band, it just made it much more better, because I fell into the same kind of groove that I had been raised up with.

So anyway, I went down, didn’t even audition.  I don’t think we had a rehearsal that day, because it was just quick notice.  I went to the campus band-room, I talked Mr. Greer out of the baritone, told him what it was for, so he agreed, and I took it down to the Club Baron where they were playing.  I sat in and played the gig that night, and that was the end of that.  Three months later, I got a call from R.C. — or his manager, Jeff Brown at the time — and he asked me if I wanted the job.

I never thought I’d stay as long as I did.  I was glad, because I felt the music, and worked a lot, and saw the world.  Ray was getting into his thing.  He was really beginning to blossom at that time.  The period that I’m talking about, when I joined the band…

TP:    Do you mean blossom musically or blossom in terms of the breadth of his audience?

HC:    The fans.  He was really going… I got in the band at a great period, man.  I really came in the band at a great period.

TP:    Let’s hold that, and I’ll talk to David about his route to Ray Charles so you can catch up to each other on the time line.

DN:    Well, I met Ray in ’51, when he was featured with Lowell Fulsom, singing and playing.  He had recorded a few singles, and he said that he was going to get his own band.  We became friends right away, and I asked him, when he formed his own band to let me know, and that I would love to come play with him.  And sure enough, he called me when he formed his band in ’54.  We’d played together in ’52 when he was touring around, and we played with Buster, backing him.  But when he formed his band in ’54, he called me, and I stayed with the band until 1964.

TP:    How did the band evolve from ’54 until Hank joined?

DN:    Well, the band just    blossomed right away.  I started out playing baritone, and Donald Wilkerson was on the tenor.  There was a trumpet player from Houston by the name of Joseph Bridgewater, and he knew John Hunt, and Ray needed a second trumpet, so Joseph Bridgewater called John Hunt into the band, and John Hunt in turn called Milt Turner from the band, who was from Nashville.  That was the Nashville connection.  Then we came through Nashville and there were already musicians in the band who knew Hank, so that was the connection.

But I stayed with Ray from ’54 to ’64, then by ’66 I came to New York and first played some gigs with Kenny Dorham and then later played a few gigs with Lee Morgan and did a couple of recordings with him.

TP:    Now, you switched to tenor while you were in the band, and it seemed like that was a great meeting of the minds and ears when you started playing tenor with Ray Charles.

DN:    Donald Wilkerson left the band for a minute.  Now, the tenor player was getting all the solos.  During all my time playing baritone I think I got one solo, and that was a tune called “Greenback Dollar Bill.”  I took a solo on that, because that was my one and only solo.  I wanted to stretch out, so I asked Ray could I take the tenor chair.  He didn’t have any particular tenor player in mind, so he said yeah, if I could get a tenor saxophone.  So I went out and got myself a tenor saxophone, and from that time on I started playing the tenor.  I had never played tenor before.  I had played baritone and alto, but not tenor.

TP:    How was the switch for you?  Natural, I would assume.

DN:    Oh, it was natural.  I was just eager to make the switch anyway, and I was eager to play.  I knew the book pretty well anyway; it was just a matter of switching from an E-flat to a B-flat instrument.

TP:    How do you see the differences between the two?  Are they different voices for you the way you play now.

DN:    I have a different approach on each instrument.  Whatever instrument I pick up, I tend to have a different approach.  It’s a different flow; I just feel them differently.  I can’t say exactly what it is.  I just know that I have a different voice on each one.

TP:    Now, you came in as the baritone player.  Was Ray Charles playing alto and piano in the years before Hank joined?

DN:    When we’d begin, the first half-hour or so before Ray would come in to do his singing and performing on piano, we would play these five-horn jazz arrangements Ray had written, and Ray would play the alto part.

TP:    Then Hank eventually took the alto chair. Clarify that for me.

HC:    See, I went in the band in ’58, and I played baritone 1958 to 1960, for two years.  I didn’t think I was going to be playing baritone that long, but for some reason Leroy didn’t come right back — it was a period of two years.

TP:    Did you get a solo?

HC:    Yeah.  In fact, I was playing baritone on Ray Charles At Newport, but I was called Bennie, my real name.  A lot of people ask me, “Now, who is Bennie Crawford?  Whatever happened to him?”  I say, “Well, he’s still around.”  Anyway, I played for two years on baritone.  And like Newman was saying, I was shocked.  One night, however it happened, here comes Ray Charles with his alto saxophone… See, that was one of the good things about that band, too.  It was educational, because everything we did was on paper.  We did a few head things, but even they sounded like arrangements.  We were just that kind of band.  In 1960 Ray graduated from the small band.  He had big band eyes.  I think that’s when he did “Let The Good Times Roll” and that big thing, which is on The Genius, one of my favorites.

DN:    Excuse me, but Hank played baritone when Ray Charles presented me to Atlantic and we did Ray Charles Presents.  He had solos on that and he did some of the arranging.

TP:    I was about to ask Hank about your arranging activities with the Ray Charles and the dynamics of it, the type of feeling you were trying to convey and what he was asking you to do.

HC:    When I joined the band with Ray, that was an avenue for me to do a lot of things.  Like I said, I had been writing for small bands a little bit in Memphis.  To be honest about it, Ray and I kind of clicked right away.  We became section buddies and we always communicated, and I think he might have had something with me, because I even got the job as music director when Ray got the big band.  I was directing the small band.  Even in the small band, when I was playing baritone, when Ray was not on the bandstand, that’s the first time that we introduced the electric piano.  There’s only two people I know who were playing electric piano at that time, and that was Joe Zawinul with Cannonball and Ray Charles.  Ray liked the sound.  I remember he bought a blond Wurlitzer.  I got a chance to kind of use my piano chops, because Ray wasn’t on the bandstand, so we only had bass and drums.

TP:    You play piano on a couple of the albums that are on the CD.

HC:    Whatever I could do on it, you know. [LAUGHS] When through whatever channels things went through, I was asked if I wanted to take the job as music director, naturally I agreed, because I just dug the whole scene.  And I kept that post for three years.  That’s when I got a chance to do a lot of writing.  I did most of the writing in the small band.

But back to your point.  As the thing grew, Ray started playing alto and he started writing more charts for the small band, which featured him a lot on alto.  And he was quite a fine alto player.

TP:    Who were some of the influences for you and Ray Charles as arrangers?

HC:    Well, I liked Quincy, Ernie Wilkins, Frank Foster…

TP:    So the Basie-Dizzy Gillespie type charts of the mid-Fifties when you were in school.

HC:    Yeah, and the Ellington things.

TP:    Had you taken those apart and analyzed them and studied them in a really exhaustive way, or were you just taking a little bit from here and a little bit from there and applying it as appropriate?

HC:    I would take a little bit from each arranger.  But basically, I was sort of being myself.  I think even after listening to all the saxophone players that we talked about, I found my own voice.  Even when I play now, I try to play like Hank, but you will find yourself playing a bit of this guy and a bit of that.  I’ve always been a melodic player, I’ve played in all sets, but like I said, I found my voice.  And being in Ray’s band is such a long story, but it was quite an experience.  I went to alto when the big band was organized.

TP:    You were playing together how many nights a year during that time?  250?  300?

HC:    Oh, man, we were busy.  We played the theater circuit, dance halls, clubs, whatever.  It was something else.

TP:    That gives the band the type of tightness that you can’t get in any other way, doesn’t it.

HC:    And the thing, too, about it, there were some great musicians in the band.  There was Fathead, Cooper, Marcus Belgrave, John Hunt, and there later came to be Bruno Carr and Philip Guilbeau — and all of these guys were dynamite players.  So it was a learning experience.  We all had knowledge of music, and we could play together well.  Whether we were playing outside or inside, whatever we played, the musicianship was so good that it happened automatically.  So everybody felt comfortable even in that setting, whatever we played.

Before Ray, I guess the band that really knocked me as a small unit was James Moody’s Octet.  Even before I went into RC’s band, Moody did some of the first small band records that I heard, and I loved the sound of Moody with an octet.  I’ve always loved the sound of a band.

TP:    That’s the sound you put on the recent record, Tight, five horns and rhythm.

HC:    I’ve always used horns on my records, except for a few I’ve used just a quartet.  I like the sound, and when I joined RC I studied his formula for it, how he’d take tenor, alto and baritone and two trumpets to come out sounding like a big band.  I found out there wasn’t that much really involved. It’s basically I, III, V, VII and IX.  I don’t think we ever played anything in that small band that had anything above a IX chord in it.

TP:    David, I think Hank’s looking at you to answer a question.

DN:    What’s that?

HC:    I was just talking about the simplicity of the music we played, and how it wasn’t complex, but it came off as the sound of a big band.  I was just saying I don’t think we ever played anything chord-wise in terms of the structure of a horn that was over I-III-V-VII-IX.  We didn’t get into the flatted chords and extensions.  Everything was basic.

DN:    With the five-horn arrangements and two trumpets, it really gave the sound effect of a big band, because of the brassy sound.  Ray preferred two trumpets to trombone.  His voicing for the five horns was very unique.

HC:    It’s like a vocal group.  You have soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass.  Those are your five major voices.  Anything over that, you’re doubling.  When you get into IX or XI, you’re only doubling the third or whatever you played before.  When you take a VII-chord, man, and it’s voiced right, five horns can sound like ten.  It’s when it’s distorted that makes it sound less.

[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]

TP:    Hank, the first time you met David?

HC:    Actually, it was in Nashville when I joined the band for that one night.  The band bus pulled up in front of Brown’s Hotel.  At that time it was called a Wiener.  Red-and-white, long airport style.  I was standing outside, and they pulled up, and I remember David getting out with this grin on his face.  I’d heard him, as I said.  He kind of bowed and nodded at me, and I nodded back.  I’m meeting David, you know.  It was just that simple.  That was the first time I actually saw him.

TP:    David, let’s talk about some of the productions on the record, inasmuch as you remember, starting with the first one, Ray Charles Presents David Newman.  First, how much input did you have into the material on these records.  Do you feel that these are a good expression of who you were in that period.

DN:    Well, yes.  My only tune    on here was a tune called “Fathead,” and that was my contribution to the arrangements.  Hank Crawford knew Paul Mitchell from Atlanta, and he introduced me to the tune “Hard Times,”  which he arranged.  Hank also arranged “Bill For Bennie,” and “Sweet Eyes” and “Weird Beard.”  Ray’s arranged “Mean To Me” and “Willow Weep For Me.”

TP:    Did this record evolve organically out of things you were doing in the band, plus your own interests?  Also, how were the records set up in terms of choosing material, personnel and so forth?

DN:    I had no idea that I was going to become an Atlantic recording artist.  Ray had just said that he was going to feature me.  I really didn’t know that he would be presenting me as such, and that I was going to become an Atlantic artist myself.  Because Ray was recording for Atlantic.  I just thought we were really doing an instrumental, and Ray was just going to feature me.  But what he did is, he set it up.  It was called Ray Charles Presents Fathead.  It was like setting me up.  And hence, from that recording on, I became an Atlantic artist, and I signed a contract then.

We did some of these tunes when we were on the road playing.  Like I say, Hank had introduced “Hard Times” to me.  I thought it was a helluva tune when he first played it, and I immediately asked him where he’d gotten it.  Then when Ray said this was going to be my introduction and he was going to present me on this recording, we started to think about tunes that we could play.  So Ray did the arranging on “Mean To Me,” he spent a lot of time on that, and then “Willow Weep For Me.”  Then Hank arranged most of the other compositions that we played, like  “Tin Tin Deo” and “Hard Times”…

TP:    What do you remember about Straight Ahead, with the slick New York rhythm section?

DN:    Oh, Straight Ahead was a wonderful date, because I particularly wanted to record with Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers, I knew Charlie Persip, and I asked him how he felt about playing with Wynton and Paul, and he said that he would love it because he’d never recorded with them before. It turned out to be a wonderful date for me.  It was the first time I’d recorded on the flute.

TP:    Does this reflect what you were able to do on the set with Ray Charles before he would come out?  You’d be playing Jazz for two-three-four tunes, and then the show would start?

DN:    On Fathead, not Straight Ahead.  Straight Ahead was later on, a separate thing.  Because I had been spending time living in New York when I did Straight Ahead.  In fact, I wasn’t even in Ray’s band at all when I recorded Straight Ahead.  That was done around ’65 or ’66. [THIS IS INCORRECT]  I was still playing with Ray when I did Fathead Comes On.  That was the second recording.

TP:    I know you probably want to get out of the Atlantics and talk about recent things you’ve done.  You did two very strong records with Herbie Mann, a former Atlantic recording artist, and his now-defunct Kokopelli label, both with strings, a smaller group on Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool, and then more lush arrangements on Under A Woodstock Moon.

DN:    Bob Friedman did the arranging on Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool , which was a tribute to Duke, with all Duke Ellington tunes.  Bob had played baritone for a brief spell with the Duke Ellington band and was familiar with the Ellington compositions.  I think the original concept about doing a tribute to Duke came from Herbie Mann.

TP:    Was it all material that was meaningful to you as a young musician?

DN:    Some of it was, and then some of the tunes, like “Azure” and “Almost Cried,” even at the time I started to work on the project.  My parents had all of the records by the swing bands of the Big Band era like Ellington and Armstrong.  Johnny Hodges was one of my favorite alto players, and I’d listen to him play “Jeep’s Blues,” a tune that I always loved, “Don’t Get Around Much Any More.”  I had heard “Prelude To A Kiss,” but I’d never played it before.

The second recording, which was Under A Woodstock Moon, was my outing as a producer.  I always wanted to do strings, and I’d had strings on an album entitled Bigger and Better for Atlantic, with Bill Fischer arranging in the late Sixties.  Kokopelli couldn’t afford to do a whole string section, so we did a string ensemble thing with a string quartet, which was as much as they would allow me to do.  Bob Friedman did the arrangements.  I had just moved to Woodstock, and this was a tribute to Mother Nature.  One of my compositions was “Under A Woodstock Moon” and another called “Amandla.”

TP:    It’s a very mellow, melodic record, with a lot of variety of color and texture.

DN:    The other tunes were a tribute to Nature, like “Up Jumped Spring,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” “Autumn In New York,” and “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square.”  I have another composition on there called “Amandla,” which is an African name for freedom.

TP:    Let me ask you one or two things that the editor wants me to ask you.  What do you think was the impact of the Ray Charles Band you were in on contemporary music, in terms of the way the grooves and the feeling has permeated it?

DN:    I don’t know about the impact.  I would say that there is definitely an influence on the music from the Ray Charles feel and what was happening musically with Ray.  Ray Charles certainly influenced my playing and Hank’s playing jazz-wise and in terms of music as a whole.  Ray gave us a lesson in music appreciation.  Before my encounter with Ray, I really didn’t have any kind of concept about music appreciation.  I only liked to play jazz and bebop.  That was my only real love.  But after meeting Ray and playing with Ray, I learned how to appreciate all other forms of music also, like the Blues, Spirituals, Gospel, and even Country-and-Western.

TP:    To play the whole range of music with conviction and soul.

DN:    Right.  And to have the respect and to really admire and to love the music.  So it was a lesson in music appreciation that I think we got from Ray.  I don’t know about the impact, but there was definitely an impact.

TP:    That’s a beautiful answer.  You’ve really stretched out a lot on your recent recordings, taken chances, worked with progressive musicians.  Is that your true heart in the music?

DN:    Well, yes.  Because this music is a gift, it’s an incredible gift.  What happens is the music doesn’t really come from me or from us; this music comes through us.  So I want to explore what I can do in all the different areas of music.  I don’t necessarily want to stick to a certain form insofar as the music goes.  I want to expand my mind and expand the music as it comes through me and as I feel it.  I really like to bridge the generations, so to speak, when it comes to the music that I’m playing, because this music is moving as the time moves on, but we still have these feelings about music.  So I want to explore and to play in other areas, even see how my music fits into the Rap situation — I mean, poetically.  I don’t really see anything wrong with Rap.  It’s just the content in Rap that’s a little offensive sometimes.  But the Rap music itself is really an extension of the music, coming from Louis Armstrong.

TP:    Do they use samples of your solos ever that you know about?

DN:    Not that I’ve heard.  Nothing that I’ve heard so far.  But I’ve become interested in this, just listening.  I was listening to Quincy Jones speak the other day about the music.  Jesse Jackson asked him why would he be interested in Rap, and Quincy said the same thing, that the music comes not from him, but through him.  That’s the same way I feel about this music.  It comes through me, and what you do is, you put your particular touch onto the music and what you feel.  You put your stamp on it, your feeling, let the music come through you and see what comes out.  You can’t close yourself off from the different forms of music as music moves on.

TP:    You also have access to so many sounds and colors from being a multi-instrumentalist.  How do you keep your chops up on all the instruments?

DN:    Well, I manage to keep my chops up, especially since I have moved to Woodstock now.  I get a chance to work on the different instruments.  I still have a soprano, I have an alto and a tenor and my flute.  I get quite a few calls to do studio work to record with various musicians, and I manage to stay halfway busy to keep myself going.  Of course, I know that to keep my chops up and play, I have got to pick the instruments up and play them.

TP:    People say it’s a struggle to keep one instrument up, and you’re keeping up four!  You’re doing pretty good.

DN:    Well, it’s a labor of love, that’s what it is.  I love the music.  I think I’ll always… It’s not about practicing, but I just pick up the instruments and play.

[PAUSE]

TP:    Equipment from David Newman.

DN:    I have a Selmer alto.  My mouthpiece is a hard rubber Otto Link.  I used to play the Meyer mouthpiece, but now I have Otto Link hard rubber.

TP:    Why?

DN:    I like the Otto Link hard rubber mouthpiece.  I don’t play the metal mouthpiece any more, because I have dentures now, and I’m a little more flexible on the hard rubber.  I like the Otto Link because I like the sound, especially the old Otto Links.  I use that on my alto and my tenor.  I have a Selmer soprano also, and I used a Meyer mouthpiece on the soprano.  I have a Selmer Mark-VI tenor that was made in the ’60s.  It was made in about ’60 or ’61, a very good time for Selmer tenors.  Any of the Selmer saxophones made in less than 100,000 would be really good quality material that they were putting into the instruments.  They still make very good instruments, but the newer instruments these days… That’s the reason why so many musicians try to get a Mark VI.  The Mark VI was really one of the classic saxophones.

I have a Germeinhardt flute.

TP:    Anything you want to say about why you use these instruments, or have you said your fill?

DN:    Well, my first flute was…when I first became interested in the flute… We were traveling in Ray’s band, and we came through Orlando, Florida, and we had a few off-days.  I passed by this pawn shop, and in this pawn shop they had two wooden ebony Haynes flutes, very good and expensive flutes.  Some guy there who had played with the symphony had these instruments, and the pawnshop owner let me have it for little or nothing.  He had a C-flute and an alto flute, and I think I gave the guy $25 for the C-flute, which had an E-flat trill on it.  I should have bought the alto flute also.  I brought this flute back, and the guys in the band asked me, “Do you know what you got there?”  I said, “It’s a flute.”  They said, “Man, you’ve got a Haynes wooden flute, and this is a very expensive instrument.”  And I started teaching myself to play the flute, and listened to other flute players, particularly James Moody and Frank Wess, and I eventually started trying to get a sound on the flute.  Rahsaan Roland Kirk and I, we both maybe started on the flute around the same time.  I was a couple of years older than him, so I might have started earlier.  Eventually, the flute was stolen from me, I lost it, and then I started playing other C-flutes, of course.  But my first flute was a Haynes flute, and the flute I have now is a Gemeinhardt.

[PAUSE]

TP:    David has left, and Hank and I are here together.  A few words about the recordings on Memphis, Ray and A Touch Of Moody.  What do you remember about More Soul, the first one you did?

HC:    Actually, that was my first recording as a leader.  I wrote some of the arrangements in Nashville, maybe a couple in Memphis, and the rest I wrote while I was in Ray’s small band.  But we played these arrangements in Ray’s small band.  We used to go 45 minutes or an hour before he would come on to sing — the band had it.  When we recorded that, we were playing at the Apollo Theater, doing a show, and we finished the late show.  We were doing five or six shows a day.  We finished at about midnight, and we went directly to Atlantic Recording Studio.  We got there I guess by 12:30, and we started recording at 1, and we didn’t stop until we’d completed it, which was 7 or 8 o’clock the following morning.  Most of the musicians and the music we were playing in the small band of Ray Charles.

That’s when I got the opportunity to start writing, because after I had been in there for a while, R.C. found out I that I was doing some arranging and liked to write, so he just kind of hinted, said, “You know, if you want to do some writing…” Plus I found it a good place to be, because I was very interested and very much into writing and arranging, and being in that band, since he liked to write and I had written for bands that size… See, I was familiar with the size of that band.  I just didn’t have the venues or the musicians to play the music.  I was still young and hadn’t been that far.  So that gave me an opportunity to write, when he found out I was writing a little bit.

TP:    The writing started in high school for you.

HC:    Yeah, I’ve been writing since then.

TP:    There are two Moody tunes, “The Story” and “Boo’s Tune.”

HC:    I did the arrangement on everything except “The Story,”  which Ray Charles did.  I told Ray I was doing the date and asked him if he would do a tune for me, and he did “The Story.”

TP:    So Moody’s band was very influential in a lot of ways that aren’t well known.

HC:    I loved him as a player and I liked the sound of the band.  I think Johnny Acea was writing for that band at the time.  I always loved the octet sound.  Moody’s was one of the first bands I heard that small that really knocked me out.  Of course, before that I was listening to Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five, which is just like five pieces.  But Moody’s band was like an octet, and I loved the sound of the band.

TP:    I have to tell you, when I listen to you I feel like I’m listening to the reincarnation of Earl Bostic, in a certain way, just in the way you approach a melody and the sound.

HC:    Well, Earl was a power player.  In fact, I play strong myself.  I’m naturally a power player.  That was the thing that I like about Earl, plus he was playing a lot of ballads and standard tunes.  At that time, you know, I was hearing a lot of Bostic, so he was just automatically one of my first influences.

TP:    And I’m sure it affected people when you played like that, just because of the way the sound is.

HC:    Yes.

TP:    Anyway, the second record, From The Heart, sounds more like what I’d expect to hear from you later, more range, lush textures and so forth.

HC:    Well, From the Heart was completely mine.  Nobody did any arrangements on that.  At this time I had really found my way of writing.  I was kind of comfortable with what I was doing on From The Heart.  It was basically the same band, because I was still with Ray.  But I was getting the opportunity to play these tunes before he would come out.  Once I got the job as music director, he pretty much just gave it up, and gave it to me.  So I used that, man, and I did a lot of writing, and the music got exposed because we were going everywhere, playing concerts.  It just gave me a chance to expand on what I wanted to do earlier anyway, being in that group.

TP:    Then there’s a strings album on this.

HC:    Ah, yes.  I asked to be recorded with strings, and I was surprised when I got a yes on it from Neshui Ertegun at Atlantic Records.  He agreed, to my surprise, and asked me who did I want to do the arrangements, and I said Marty Paich.  I had heard Marty Paich’s small band arrangements when he was writing for Shorty Rogers and Stan Kenton, the West Coast scene, and I liked the way he voiced the strings.  I found out the secret; he used french horns with strings to get that real melancholy sound.  So Neshui agreed, and we went to California to record the record.  I selected all the tunes except one, which really turned out to be sort of a signature tune for me, which was “Whispering Grass.”  Marty Paich suggested that.

TP:    You have quite a memory.

HC:    Oh yeah, I try to remember these things.  I mean, it stayed with me, man, because it was such an experience.  I heard Marty do a string session with Gloria Lynne, “I Wish You Love” and all those things, and I thought it was beautiful work.  To be honest about it, when Ray wanted to do his first thing with strings, around the time of The Genius, by me being close to him, I suggested Marty Paich to him, and he used it.

I was with Ray Charles 24-7, because I was the music director.  He would call me to come over to his house, and I would sit there all day and sometimes all night while he would dictate and I would notate.  So I was always busy.

TP:    So you have as much of an insight as anyone into the inner workings of his creative mind.

HC:    Oh yeah.  Well, after a while, he noticed how I was writing.  He’s an individualist, you know; he’s the only one.  Like, there are certain saxophone players, certain musicians there’s only one.  Like, I haven’t found anybody that has my sound yet, and I don’t think David… We all have our distinctive sounds.

TP:    That was the ethos of the time.  Everybody had to have their sound when you were coming up.

HC:    That’s the secret of survival in this business, is identity.  You can play all of the notes, and there are a lot of musicians out there now, man, that can play — I mean, young and old.  But nobody knows who they are.  And people buy identity.  You put on Miles Davis now, and automatically somebody goes, “That’s Miles.”  Then you put on Dizzy, and they know him.  But once they don’t know who you are, you don’t really sell.  Like, Louis Armstrong; they know Pops.  That’s what people buy.  When they go into a record shop, they say, “I want this guy.”  They’re not going there to listen to fifty other guys just to buy a record.  They know basically who they want when they go in.  So that’s what to me sells, is identity.

[PAUSE]

TP:    David just came in to mention to make sure I mention that he and Ron Carter were the two senior cast members on the 2 CDs for Kansas City.

[PAUSE]

TP:    Your comments on identity were a tangent from talking about Ray Charles.  You said you were with him 24-7, and the type of insights that gave you into the way his mind works.  Some general comments on his approach to music and the impact he had on you.

HC:    Well, see, it was so real for me to be there, because being around him and his background… There’s only like a four year difference in age between us.  So we are all from the same era, and we basically had the same experience with music, which was Gospel and the Blues and Jazz.  We’re all from that era.  So I heard the same things that he heard, and whoever was around at that time.  It just so happened that when I joined Ray, that was a period when things were happening within that unit that eventually went to the Moon.  Anyway, that’s what made it so easy for me to understand.  Because when he would dictate to me, writing his own charts… See, he wrote his own charts; he just didn’t put them on paper.  I was the one who was doing all the notating.  So when he found out that I had a background in arranging and composing and voicing chords and stuff like that, after a while, he would come in and make his initial statement about what he wanted, and he would write it, and then he would say, “You got it.”  So really I studied him.  It was another teacher, but it was not that much difference in how we felt about the feeling of music, because we all had the same type of background.

TP:    You were almost his alter-ego.

HC:    Yeah.  So I really understood where he was coming from.  I studied that, and I found out that, hey, I have some of the same kind of thoughts about this music, which made it easier for he and I to relate.

TP:    Is it harder for you to find people who have that sort of unspoken communication and empathy in the projects you do now?

HC:    Yeah, because you don’t have the association with musicians like you had at that time.  I mean, it was a community.  The Jazz community was great.  We were friends, man.  We hung out together and studied together, broke a lot of bread together.  We had venues to play.  There aren’t any venues now like there used to be, and the community is divided.  We don’t see each other as we once did.

TP:    You don’t cross paths in the same way.

HC:    Man, right here in New York City we used to walk down Broadway and go to 52nd Street or 50th Street, and stand right there on the corner — every day, 24 hours a day — and you would meet friends.  And we didn’t only play together.  We discussed music.  That whole era was a learning period from everybody.  But now, man you almost walk out like… You can’t find anybody.  Everybody’s moved out or they just don’t come out any more.  You know what I’m saying?  There’s just not the community like it used to be.  There’s no association, just, “Hey, how you doing, I’ll see you next time.”

TP:    But how does that affect your performing or recording projects, or the way you deal with bands right now.  I guess you have to dot a lot more i’s and cross a lot more t’s.

HC:    I’m not one of the type of players that’s concerned a lot about changing with what’s in.  No, I found my sound, and I think I’m going to stick to my guns.  I think that’s what destroys a lot of players.  Instead of being themselves, they try to be like others.  And in this business, there’s only one of one.  Like, there’s only one Bird, there’s only one Coltrane, and there’s only one whoever.  But what happens with a lot of musicians, I think, they’ll be inspired by somebody when they are learning, and they grew up trying to play like that person.

TP:    A lot of the young players.  Because they don’t have so many places to play.  They’re in school, and that’s the way they’re educated.

HC:    That’s it, man.  Like I said earlier, I’ve played in all settings, Jazz, Blues and everything.  I’ve had an association with all kinds of music, man, and with some great people.  I think I have established myself and my sound and what kind of player I am really, although I might play Jazz, I might play this, I might play that.  Like I said, I approach the horn as a vocalist.  I try to sing through the instrument, and play melodies, not a lot of technical things.  I think if I would lose that identity that I’ve established myself and that people know me by, and go into something just for the sake of saying, “Well, I can do this just as well as that person,” I think I’d lose my identity.  I could probably get away with trying to play some Coltrane for maybe a couple of tunes, and then your fans or your audience is going to say, “Hey, you’re trying to play like so-and-so; get back to yourself.”

TP:    That raises a question.  What you play on the surface is very simple, basic.

HC:    Yes.

TP:    Is it deceptively simple?  How complex is it really to do what you do?

HC:    For some people it’s hard.  For me, playing simple is almost a natural.

TP:    Because you’re a very sophisticated, educated musician.

HC:    I’m sort of a romantic when it comes to it.  The technical things… I’ve studied, man, and I can get off into some pretty hard Bebop.  But that’s not just me naturally.  I just play what I feel naturally.  And I’ve been into some great sets with some great players, you know, but it ends up that I’m better being myself.

TP:    George Coleman played all the notes.

HC:    Yes, in all the keys!  We studied that, too.  I tried that.  I said, “Well, you know, I can do a little bit of this, but that’s just not where I’m from; that’s just not me.”  So I chose to do what I do best.  Because if you’re going to survive in this business, man, you’ve got to have your own identity.  Nobody’s going to come to listen to one of my concerts or gigs to hear me sound like somebody else. That’s the biggest mistake I can do, for somebody to come and pay $20 or $25 and come in the door, and here I am on the bandstand trying to be somebody else.

TP:    Your name is your sound.

HC:    Right.  And once you lose that, I think you’ve destroyed everything.  You can turn on the radio, man, and you can hear this trumpet player or this saxophone player, and man, they’re playing!  But there’s something that don’t register with you if he doesn’t have a certain sound or play a certain style of phrasing.  If you can’t recognize that in a player, then you’re just listening to somebody and all you can say about it is, “Ooh, who is that?  He sure plays good!”

TP:    Are there any good young players, saxophone or any instrument, who you think have a sound?

HC:    Well, there’s a tenor player who’s young compared to a lot of people… I think Joshua Redman has his own sound.

TP:    That’s probably why he’s so popular.

HC:    That’s part of it.  There are a few others; I can’t think of them now.  But there are so many youngsters, man, that I hear and they sound good, they’re playing!  But that’s what’s missing.  And I’ll even go so far as to say this.  As far as the man walking on the street, who knows nothing about music, but knows it when he hears it, and he knows whether the player is playing or jiving, or he knows when you’re playing wrong and when you’re playing right.  All these people on the street, man, they know when you’re playing wrong and when you’re playing right.

There are so many players like… I just want to use a major influence on young musicians, and I mean nothing by this because I have a lot of respect for him.  That’s Wynton Marsalis.  What I’m going to say that is when I was talking about identity…

[END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]

TP:    Now you know it’s him when you hear him play.

HC:    The man has all the facilities in the world.  I mean, he’s a good trumpet player, he’s a good educator, he’s a good everything — I have to give it to him.  But the average layman, I’ll bet you, man, 75 out of 100 would identify a Freddie Hubbard or a Dizzy or a Miles faster than they would identify Wynton — as far as identity.  I mean, if you don’t really know, if you’re not a musician… And not only Wynton, but anybody.  If you don’t really know him and know the techniques of playing because you are a musician or a good listener, you would not be able to identify this bad cat, whoever it is.   It’s just like Count Basie.  One note.  You know the tag he plays, BOP-BOP-BOP?  I can go the piano and do it (it’s only three fingers) you could do it, I could teach my kids, anybody.  BOP-BOP-BOP, it’s all in one place.  But nobody sounds like when Basie hits it.  Same notes.  But when Basie strikes it, there is something else that comes out of the note.  You know what I mean?  And Oscar Peterson or somebody like that can go right behind and play the same thing, and you know how great Oscar is, but Basie has a stamp.  When he hits it, you automatically know it.

TP:    Do drummers today get the tempos they were in the Fifties and Sixties?

HC:    I like drummers.  A drummer is very important to me.  Because everything I play is basically to the root.  I don’t go outside too much.  A lot of musicians find that hard to do.  The simplest things can be the hardest sometimes.

TP:    The more you know, the harder it is not to go into everything that you know.

HC:    Right, man.  The drummer is very important.  You’ve got to learn how to be able to do what’s necessary for you to do in playing in a band.  In the drummer’s case, it might be necessary for him to just keep time.  It’s not necessary for him to play a solo.  Or anybody in there, but especially drummers.  Some guys felt like that was not enough just to keep time and complement the man out front, the front line.  It was a drag to a lot of people just to keep time until you get that give-the-drummer-some, that one solo a night.  Otherwise, he’s playing time.  And a lot of guys don’t like to do that because they like to do other things, but it’s not necessary for you to do nothing but keep time here — and that’s hard.

TP:    And tune to the drum to the sound of the band…

HC:    Right, and do that every night!  Every note.  It’s got to be this way every time you play it.  Certain music.  Certain music you just don’t explore on, man.

TP:    I need your equipment.

HC:    I’m just playing the Selmer Super-Action 80.  That’s what I’m playing now.  The mouthpiece is Barrett.  It’s really like a stock mouthpiece.  I never played anything other than stocks.

TP:    What is it about the Selmer alto?

HC:    It’s like the Rolls Royce of saxophones.  You ain’t got a Selmer… It’s just like having a Cadillac or a Rolls Royce.  It’s the king.  It’s a good horn, and most professionals play it.  There’s a lot of other horns, Bushes, Conns, all of them, but the Selmer is it for me.  The body, it’s got good weight, feels good, and it responds.  To me, it’s just the best horn.

[PAUSE]

TP:    Hank has some thoughts on Fathead.

HC:    Well, we go back to almost the beginning of my professional career, and we’ve been more than just musicians, section buddies.  We have a little friendship.  I respect him as a man, and we kind of have that respect as men — and I respect his playing.  I broke a lot of bread with David.  The thing I like about him is whatever he plays, for me, I can understand it, I can feel it, how he expresses himself.  He’s just the kind of player that I like, and there are many others, but David is one that I had the experience of being around a lot, so I know him from A to Z!  He’s a very soulful man, and he can play in almost every setting.  I think that’s what we all learned coming up through that period.  He’s just one of my favorites… He’s on most of my recordings.  Every time I use a small band, I always use David.  He has a beautiful sound, a warm sound, and he always finds the blue notes.  He’s a stylist, and I think that’s true of most of the musicians from our era.  We’re stylists.  We all style whatever we play; we put our tag on it.  That’s just the way it is.  And I like all music, man.  I’m not trying to put down anybody.  I have respect for anybody who gets involved in the business because it’s so competitive.  But when I hear a guy that can cross all bridges, and comfortable playing in each setting, that’s what I admire — and don’t feel guilty playing it.

I don’t feel guilty playing “Steel Guitar Rag” if I’m called to play it.  You know what I mean?  I heard that when I was coming up as a kid, man, at 6 o’clock in the morning.  Down South, that’s the first thing you’d hear on your radio, is Country & Western and Gospel music.  That’s what you wake up on, C&W and Gospel!  I spent many days listening to Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow and all of those people.  And we all liked it!  Even Jazz musicians, they can’t say they didn’t grow up listening to these people.  So I played it as a youngster, and I don’t feel offended by it.  I just do my best in it.  So it’s music to me.  I don’t mind being square because I play this tune.  In fact, it’s a blessing to be able to play in all the styles.  That’s when your phone keeps ringing!

TP:    Well, it’s like what David said about Ray Charles.  He said it was like music appreciation.  He learned to play with soul, from the heart in every different situation.

HC:    Look at Cannonball, man.  His biggest hits were Soul music, “Mercy, Mercy” and stuff.  And Cannon was one of the greatest saxophone players in the world to me.

[-30-]

Leave a comment

Filed under Article, Buster Smith, Cedar Walton, David "Fathead" Newman, DownBeat, Hank Crawford, Liner Notes, Ornette Coleman, Ray Charles, Uncategorized

For the 78th Birthday Anniversary of Bobby Timmons (1935-1974), A Liner Note and Five Interviews Conducted For It

For the 78th birthday anniversary of the late, great pianist Bobby Timmons (Dec. 19, 1935-March 1, 1974), I’m posting a liner note that I wrote for a Fantasy Records “Best Of” culled from his Riverside recordings, and interviews from an elite group of associates and friends: Albert “Tootie” Heath, Kenny Barron, Reggie Workman, Benny Golson, Cedar Walton and Ron Carter. I had fun putting this one together.

* * * *

“The Best Of Bobby Timmons,” Liner Notes:

It seems apparent, given the dearth of first person testimony in the liner notes for his numerous recordings for Riverside and Prestige, that in matters of self-description, pianist Bobby Timmons [1935-1974] held firmly to the dictum that music speaks louder than words.

Cherrypicked from seven Riverside albums between 1960 and 1963, The Best Of Bobby Timmons, if nothing else, highlights that Timmons was one of the seminal communicators of his generation. He was 24 when Lambert, Hendricks & Ross sang Jon Hendricks’ lyrics to the Timmons ditties “Moanin” and “This Here,” which had debuted instrumentally on stirring albums with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet that were released in 1959. Soon thereafter, Oscar Brown’s version of “Dat Dere,” originally documented by Adderley in February 1960, made it onto jukeboxes around the country. On the strength of these hits, Timmons cut his sideman affiliations in 1961, and accepted a string of national bookings with his own trio. Much to his discomfort, “soul jazz” would be the label forever be affixed to his name.

Out of South Philadelphia, a bebop hotbed in his formative years, Timmons’ music was relentlessly earthy and primal. He was anything but primitive, but a soulful perspective was in his bones.

“Bobby’s grandfather raised him around the corner from where our family grew up,” says drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, the baby brother of bassist Percy and tenor saxophonist Jimmy. “His grandfather was a minister, and Bobby played in his grandfather’s church. Later he came into jazz. We didn’t go to elementary school together, but later I saw him quite a bit. He took a lot of guidance from my brother Jimmy, who taught harmony to most of my young friends, and was an educator for a lot of people, like Lee Morgan and Jimmy Garrison. We played as a trio at dances at fraternity houses around the University of Pennsylvania, and were in a big band together with a guy named Tommy Monroe along with Lee and some other people who went on to get big names in jazz.

“We would imitate whatever we could from records – Sonny Rollins, Max Roach’s group – and we liked Ahmad Jamal. I loved Vernell Fournier and wanted to be like him when I grew up, and I think Bobby wanted to be like Ahmad as much as he could. Ahmad came to Philadelphia with Vernell and Richard Davis, and we were too young to go in the club, so we stood outside, and heard what we could whenever the door opened. Whenever we got a chance to play as a trio, that style would be in the back of our minds.”

In the trio, the aspirants completed the triangle with bassists like Garrison, Eddie Matthias, Spanky DeBrest, Jymie Merritt, and occasionally, Reggie Workman.

“Most of the time when we worked, the challenge was fulfilling whatever the engagement called for,” recalls Workman.  “We all had to do everything, jazz clubs as well as dances, cabarets and parties. That’s where the music was heard and made. I remember Bobby  as a young man, his brilliance, his jovial attitude, and his depth of soul — or depth of being, I should say. He was always an ardent dresser, neat in his music and in his personality. He was also very witty. It all turned up in his music. No matter what he was doing, he always had his personal voice. You’d know that it was Bobby Timmons doing it.”

Timmons moved to New York in 1954, honing his craft on consequential jobs with Kenny Dorham, Sonny Stitt and Chet Baker. In the summer of 1958, Benny Golson, recently recruited by Art Blakey to bring a new sound to the Jazz Messengers, brought Timmons, Morgan and Merritt into the fold.

“He was inventive,” says Golson, “He wasn’t locked up in a cylinder. He could play bebop and he could play funky – he could play a lot of things, and I thought it was the element that Art needed. He hadn’t had anybody quite like Bobby, who could go here or go there, rather than walking in a single corridor.”

As the Messengers hit the road, Golson noticed that Timmons frequently would “play this little funky lick in between the tunes.” He continues: “I got used to hearing it, and after he’d play it, he would say, ‘Ah, that sure is funky.’ I’d say, ‘Sure is.’ We were in Detroit when I really started to listen to it.  We got to Columbus, Ohio, and I called a rehearsal. Bobby said, ‘We’ve got everything down; why are we going to rehearse?’ I said, ‘You know that little lick you play?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You’ve got eight bars; all you need is another 8 bars on the bridge.’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s nothing; that’s just a little lick.” I said, ‘No, Bobby, I hear something else. Why don’t you go up on the bandstand and compose a bridge.’ In about half-an-hour he said, ‘Come and listen,’ and then he played it. I said, ‘Why don’t you try again, and we’ll go over here and talk some more.’ He did something, and called me over in about 15 minutes and asked what I thought.  I could see he didn’t think much of it. I said, ‘That’s it. Come on, Lee, let’s learn it.’ Then I said, ‘Bobby, you’ve got to give it a name now.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ ‘Well, what does it sound like?’ He said, ‘“Well, it sounds like moaning.’ I said, ‘Good, let’s call it ‘Moanin’.”

In the fall of 1959, Timmons left the Messengers for Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet, in which he, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes formed a slamming rhythm section on Live At The Jazz Workshop and Them Dirty Blues.  He returned in the spring of 1960, in time to appear on classic Messenger dates like Night In Tunisia, The Big Beat, The Freedom Rider and The Witch Doctor .

“I had to play ‘Moanin’ and ‘Dat Dere’ when I joined the Messengers,” says Cedar Walton, Timmons’ successor in the piano chair. “They were arrangements that were very accessible to anybody with any kind of talent. I was hardcore when I got in the band, and couldn’t imagine playing them. But once I got there, I found myself enjoying them. They were very simple, so you had to make something happen, which was a challenge.”

It’s a challenge that Timmons addresses with relish throughout this well-wrought compilation, consisting of six Timmons originals, each with hummable hooks and tasty changes, and seven show tunes of the torchy persuasion. Powell’s presence is everywhere. Note the fleet runs on “Old Devil Moon” and “Easy Does It,”  the stark substitutions he deploys on the brief intro to “God Bless the Child,” the voicings that pop up on “Spring Can Hang You Up The Most” and “Goodbye,” the Dameronian flavor on the bridge of “So Tired.” As Ron Carter puts it, “Bobby wrote some interesting songs, but he was not a composer like, Benny Golson. He was a wonderful improviser. He had the ability to play the melodies and songs so that the band could tell the difference from night to night, but it would sound the same for the audience. He was very giving, very loyal, played every night like it was his last chance to get it right.”

Although Timmons was a bandleader with a firm, distinctive point of view, he was never rigid. “He would accept input,” Carter says. “He always remembered my basslines from the other night. He’d remember what had almost worked the night before. Can we play the same idea in a different key, or play it slower, or develop another way to make the song work? I’d say, ‘Bobby, that isn’t working; can we find something else to do with that?’ and he’d say, ‘Well, what?’ If my idea worked, that would become part of the tune. Tootie would suggest something, Bobby would say, ‘I don’t know, man; let’s see how it goes.’ So he was open to any suggestion, and as a leader he would determine whether that suggestion fit the musical direction he had in mind. Good leaders do that.”

The chronology ends in 1963, when Soul Jazz was no longer ascendent, the national circuit was drying up, and the tragic shadow that dogged so many of Timmons’ heroes began to attach itself to him. “Bobby stayed in town more,” says Carter, who recorded with Timmons as late as 1967. “We did some duo gigs before he died, working in and out of the Village, at places like the Lion’s Head and the Needle’s Eye.”

“Bobby was a wild cat,” Walton says, and indeed, Timmons did drink himself to death, eventually succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver in 1974. But the darkness never entered his music. As Carter notes, “I’ve never seen how someone’s music can be interpreted as though it were HIM. I’m not sure how you can call ‘Moanin’” indicative of Bobby’s giving personality or ‘Dis Here’ with the fact that he would go to the mat for you.”

“He had no ego about him,” Golson adds. “He was always upbeat, never downbeat, and he never maligned anybody unless it was in a humorous way. Some people think he was just a funky piano player, and he could PLAY funky, but he could also get into things. Of course, now is a different time.  But then he was right on the cutting edge.”

Ted Panken

* * *

Tootie Heath on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    In reading the program notes from Bobby Timmons’ records, only one had an interview with him, and all of them say mostly the same thing. I was talking with Reggie Workman about another subject, and Reggie told me a little. But I knew you grew up nearby and were the same age, and knew him well.

HEATH:  We kind of grew up together and we grew apart together also. After the New York days, he went in his own direction.  I didn’t see Bobby much after Art Blakey. I think our trio was before Art Blakey.

TP:    I think it was after his first time with Art. He joined in ’59 with “Moanin’” — that’s when “Moanin’” because famous. Then he went with Cannonball.

HEATH:  Right.  For a short period. A year.

TP:    Then he went back with Art for a while. That seems to be when he formed the trio.

HEATH:  Right. That’s when the trio came in. After all of that, I guess.

TP:    A number of the first records are with Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb, so I guess he did those when he was with Cannonball, and maybe that’s how he came to sign with Riverside. But you were part of the first working trio?

HEATH:  Yes, I think so. With Ron Carter. We even played that around Philadelphia, before we left Philly, as a trio sometimes, with Jimmy Rowser and a couple of other local bass players. Mostly Jimmy Rowser, and sometimes Eddie Matthias, Jimmy Bond, and Reggie a few times.

TP:    Can you tell me anything about his musical background?

HEATH:  All I know is that we were all on the same mission. We were all practicing and studying and listening to records and learning as much as we could about jazz.  Bobby did play in church. His grandfather was a minister, and Bobby did play in his grandfather’s church. He lived with his grandfather. Actually, his grandfather raised him around the corner from where we lived, where our family grew up. So I saw Bobby quite a bit, and he took a lot of guidance from my brother Jimmy, who was there, teaching harmony to most of my young friends and a lot of people. An educator for a lot of people.

TP:    That would have been when he had the big band in ’47 and ‘48?

HEATH:  A little after that. Because Bobby… We weren’t quite there for the big band stuff.  I mean, I was there in the house. But we were 10-11 years old during that time.  But later in life, when we were in high school or junior high school…

TP:    ‘48-’49…

HEATH:  Yeah.  ‘50, around in there. Then Jimmy was very helpful with Lee Morgan and Bobby and Jimmy Garrison and a whole lot of people. That’s who played bass with us, too, a lot — Jimmy Garrison.

TP:    Did Bobby get to know Bud Powell at all, like McCoy Tyner did?

HEATH:  I have no idea. I never knew Bud Powell in Philadelphia. I knew his brother, Richard, but I never knew Bud. Bud was gone. And they lived outside of Philadelphia, in the suburbs. I knew Richard from his period with Max Roach.

TP:    May I ask one or two detailed questions? What was the name of the church where his grandfather was minister?

HEATH:  I have no idea. Bobby had a sister, too, named Eleanor, who died maybe 10-15 years ago, long after him.

TP:    When did you meet him?  You were 11-12 years old?

HEATH:  Yeah, I guess so. We didn’t go to elementary school together. I don’t know what school he went to. I went to school in South Philly with some different guys, like Sam Reed and Ted Curson and guys like that. But Bobby kind of came all of a sudden, because he was playing the piano, but he was playing church music, and he came later into jazz music, into being interested in jazz — around 15 or so.

TP:    Did you play in teenage combos?

HEATH:  Yeah, we played as a trio. We played some fraternity houses around the University of Pennsylvania. Bobby was kind of a favorite on some of those dances. I used to do things with Bobby and Ray Bryant. We also were in a big band together with a guy named Tommy Monroe, and Lee Morgan was in that band and some other people who had gone on to be rather big-name people in jazz. But Bobby was also in the big band with us, and we played some dances, and then we played some trio stuff around in the fraternity houses. That was kind of a good thing to do as a teenager.

TP:    So when you were 16-17 years old, ‘51, ‘52, ‘53.

HEATH:  Well, in ’58 I came to New York, when I joined J.J.’s band. But I used to go back and forth to New York, and I think all of us did that for a while until we all made the final move. We had an apartment down there on the Lower East Side with Bobby and Lee Morgan and Spanky DeBrest.

TP:    You all lived  in an apartment together?

HEATH:  Yeah, we had an apartment on Fifth Street, 315 East  Fifth Street. Elvin Jones lived across the street, Ted Curson lived on that block, Jon Hendricks lived on that block, Kenny Barron’s brother Bill. A lot of musicians. I think it was between Third and Second. We used to walk around the corner to the Five Spot.

TP:    Maybe it was 215.

HEATH:  Maybe it was 215.  But it was not far from the Five Spot. We’d go right around the corner, and Ornette was there and sometimes Mingus would be playing. Actually, we never played in there because we weren’t quite there yet. We were in bands. Bobby was with Art Blakey and Lee Morgan.

TP:    So you were part of the Manhattan contingent. There was a big Brooklyn contingent, too.

HEATH:  Yeah.  We all lived in Manhattan. Jimmy Garrison and I got a place in Brooklyn later, which didn’t last very long, but we did have one there.

TP:    When you were playing combo at 16 or 17 around Philadelphia, what kinds of things were you playing?  Was it mostly Bobby’s arrangements?

HEATH:  Yeah, some of it was his. A lot of stuff we were just imitating recordings. We would play whatever we could from records. Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach’s group — whomever.

TP:    But were there any piano trios he was emulating or trying to get with?

HEATH:  Yeah.  We liked Ahmad Jamal. Jamal’s music was popular around that time. Ahmad had his club during that time, and that’s when his stuff was real hot, because they sat in that one club and played for five years, and that’s where they developed the sound of the Ahmad Jamal trio. We heard their music. They used to come to Philadelphia, and of course, I loved Vernell Fournier and wanted to be like him when I grew up, and I think Bobby wanted to be like Ahmad as much as he could. Ron was going in his own direction already.

TP:    In ’51 and ‘52, Ahmad had recorded, but at the time he had a trio with Israel Crosby and Ray Crawford.

HEATH:  This trio that we liked and saw was with Vernell and Israel. Actually, the first one I saw was with Vernell and Richard Davis. They used to come to Philadelphia, and we were too young to go in the club, so we would kind of just stand outside, and whenever the door would open we could hear a little bit.  That’s how we got to loving Ahmad’s style of trio music. Whenever we got a chance to play as a trio, that style would be in the back of our minds.

TP:    That sort of organization.

HEATH:  Yeah, and the arrangements and the interesting things they used to do together.

TP:    Well, it’s a very orchestrated style. The drums would have a role and a voice and the bass…

HEATH:  That was it. Those were the guys for us.

TP:    How about pianistically? Was he modeling himself after anyone? You hear a lot of Bud in his playing. There’s some Horace Silver and…

HEATH:  He liked Horace Silver and Ahmad, and I’m sure he liked Bud, too.  But I didn’t get that part of him, the Bud Powell thing.

TP:    Do you remember him speaking to you about influences ever?

HEATH:  No.

TP:    Were you not such close friends, but just musical colleagues?

HEATH:  No, we were close.

TP:    What was he like personally?

HEATH:  That’s hard. We were young people, and being young guys.

TP:    Was he a humorous guy?

HEATH:  Oh yeah. He had a great sense of humor, and yeah, he had a great personality.  People liked him.

TP:    Do you think he maybe developed that in the church a bit, that performing for church people from a young age gave him a public personality early on?

HEATH:  I doubt it.  Because in the church, you don’t really have a voice in there. You just sit up and do what you do. I doubt if he… I don’t know. That’s a hard one.

TP:    Was he a very warm person?

HEATH:  Yes. Sure. He dressed immaculately all the time. He was very conscious about his appearance.

TP:    On all the albums, you see him in a very form-fitting suit, and he’s so skinny, he fits it well.  Was he a chukka-boot wearer?

HEATH:  He probably did. I think that’s something that everyone was doing at one time.

TP:    Was he painstaking with his arrangements?  Did he go over them with a fine-tooth comb?

HEATH:  Oh yeah. He was very particular about his music.

TP:    He was particular about the way he dressed and particular about his music. What were the rehearsals like? Was he very specific about the drum parts?

HEATH:  I don’t really remember. I remember us, as part of our development, sitting down and playing, but I don’t remember a so-called rehearsal where we had something… He just accepted whatever I did, and I listened to what he was doing, and tried to fill in what I thought it should be, and he didn’t have any specific drum parts or bass parts or any of that. We developed that from playing together.

TP:    There’s a recording on Riverside of a gig at the Vanguard. Do you remember the circumstances of that recording?  Were you playing as an opening act for another band?

HEATH:  No. I think we were the only group in there.

TP:    I remember seeing old handbills, and Ahmad Jamal would be opening for Miles or something.

HEATH:  No, we weren’t a part of anything like that. We had our own week down there when we did our recording.

TP:    Were there good crowds?  Was he very popular?

HEATH:  Yeah.  He had a lot of fans.

TP:    Because of those tunes.

HEATH:  Yeah, a lot of people liked them.

TP:    Were those tunes like “Moanin’” and “Dat Dere” and “Dis Here” on jukeboxes?

HEATH:  No. I don’t remember hearing them on jukeboxes until the vocal recordings came around, with Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross and those people. When they started doing them, then it took on a whole nother character.

TP:    Would the music evolve over a week, or once the music was set, was it set?

HEATH:  No, we played together. So it changed. Whenever he did something, we would follow him. Or if we did something that he liked, he would follow us. That’s how we developed. That’s how the Miles Davis band developed.  That was the way in those days. Sitting down and having rehearsals with parts and “you do this and I…” – that wasn’t a part of it. We were a working trio, so every night was a rehearsal.

TP:    Do you happen to recall the year the trio started functioning as a working trio? Would that have been around ‘60? When he left Cannonball…

HEATH:  I would say yes. But I’m sure you can look back and get some records on it.

TP:    But you had been out on the road with J.J., and you were playing drums on a lot of sessions, particularly on Riverside, and Jimmy had a relationship with Riverside at the time as well. Is there any particular quality about him that you’d want people to know about?

HEATH:  No.  I think he was just a person, and he was a decent person, and I never saw him do anything wrong to anybody.

TP:    Any injuries he causes were to himself.

HEATH:  Yeah, he did, like we all did during those days.

TP:    But he sure paid a heavy price.

HEATH:  Yeah, he did.  He got on out of here really young.

TP:    Your relationship sort of ended around ‘63-’64?  You didn’t see much of him after that?

HEATH:  I don’t know where Bobby was, but I was traveling around in New York with different people and playing with different groups and traveling myself, and I kind of lost touch with Bobby.  I mean, I talked to him whenever I’d see him somewhere.

TP:    I think he was a victim of the way the sound of the music changed then in some ways.  Did the trio travel?

HEATH:  We did a West Coast tour.  We went to Detroit; I remember that. We went out to California and the Jazz Workshop out there. We did a lot of playing around New York and in the New York area, the Village Gate and places like that around the city. Yeah, we played quite a bit, for maybe two or three years.

TP:    How much would you say you were on the road?

HEATH:  Well, our traveling wasn’t that intense.

TP:    So it wasn’t like you’d be in a car for 30 weeks a year, from Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Detroit. You didn’t do that circuit.

HEATH:  No.  Most of the times, we flew. We were flying.

TP:    Was he easy to play with?

HEATH:  Yeah. Well, I can say that I always felt that we were all in the same place in our development. I can’t say that Bobby was any greater than anybody else in the band, and neither was I, and neither was Ron Carter. We were all just kind of developing and trying to find our way.

TP:    But he was the composer. I guess that set him off.

HEATH:  He was the composer and he was the leader. He got the gigs. So that made him a little different.

TP:    Do you remember who was the manager or the agent?

HEATH:  I think Orrin did the California trip. I don’t remember who did the other stuff.

Kenny Barron on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    Did you get to know Bobby Timmons pretty well?

BARRON:  I didn’t know him in Philly. Only from seeing him in New York.

TP:    Did you get to know him in New York?

BARRON:  Not well.

TP:    Were you checking his stuff out?

BARRON:  Oh yeah. Actually, the first time I ever heard his name is when I was in junior high school, in my music class.  One day we had a substitute teacher, and she was asking if anybody liked jazz, and a few people raised their hands. Then she said… This was a black woman. She said, ‘I have a cousin named Bobby Timmons, who plays piano with Chet Baker.” That’s the first time I heard his name.

TP:    But you never caught him around Philly.

BARRON:  No, I didn’t meet him until I moved to New York.

TP:    Did you like the trio stuff?

BARRON:  Oh yeah. I did.

TP:    Did you ever play those hits, “Dat Dere,” “Dis Here”?

BARRON:  Yeah, I’ve played them.

TP:    What are they like to play?

BARRON:  They’re fun. They’re fun to play on.

TP:    Are they tricky?  Are there things in them that go beyond the obvious? Did he put  twists and turns in his stuff?

BARRON:  They’re not unusually tricky. I wouldn’t say that.  But they’re catchy.

TP:    People still like those tunes.

BARRON:  Oh yeah. When you can have somebody write lyrics for your stuff, that means there’s something there.
Reggie Workman on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    Is there anything you can tell me about your recollections about Bobby Timmons?

WORKMAN:  Let me turn the page.  The mental page.

TP:    I know you grew up in a different part of Philly, and you’re three years younger.  But I figure you must have crossed paths at various points.

WORKMAN:  Of course.  You know, the music community is very small — actually worldwide. No matter where you go, you always run into people who are thinking somewhat in the same direction that you are. Therefore, I ran into Bobby Timmons’ neighbors, and the Heath brothers, and Bobby Green and all the guys down in South Philadelphia often, because whatever was happening, if there was something musical happening, one of those persons would be there — and Bobby was often on the scene.  I remember him as a young man, his brilliance, his jovial attitude, and his depth of soul — or depth of being, I should say.  And it always turned up in the music.

You know who reminded me of him when I first saw him a lot at the school was Carlos McKinney.  The way that Carlos McKinney is now, Bobby used to be when he was young.  He was always an ardent dresser, he was always a very neat person in his music, very neat in his personality, and very witty as far as being a person was concerned.  That always turns up in the music.  And he’s always reflected his experience in his music, no matter what he was doing.  You could hear… And he always had his personal voice, no matter what he was doing.  No matter what kind of job he was doing, you would know that was Bobby Timmons doing it.

TP:    This being in Philly before he came to New York, as well as after…

WORKMAN:  That was Bobby.  And that was the aesthetic of the music then. Back in those days, that was as much of a thing to strive for as playing music right, was to find out this voice is MINE; this is the way that I express myself, and this is the way… Therefore, anybody you hear from the era that Bobby lived, you know who they are. You can hear who they are without question when you hear their audio sound.

TP:    Were you in the Messengers at the same time as he?

WORKMAN:  No.  He was in the Messengers before I was.

TP:    I think he did it twice, in ’59, the Moanin’ session, and then he came back in ’61, before Cedar came  in.  Were you ever part of his trio?

WORKMAN:  Well, we worked around Philadelphia on occasion.

TP:    What was he like as a leader?  Was he very organized, did he have…

WORKMAN:  That I don’t recall.

TP:    Was the music stimulating to play?  Were there challenges?  Did it go beyond the basic bass function?

WORKMAN:  Most of the time when we worked, the challenge was fulfilling the engagement, whatever it was calling for.  Because there are many different types of things we had to do. We didn’t come together that often, but when we came together, it was because of some situation around Philadelphia where we happened to cross paths, and instead of Eddie Matthias or instead of Spanky or instead of Garrison, I might be on the scene.  It was seldom, but it happened.

TP:    So those were the bass players he played with most often in Philly.

WORKMAN:  That I can remember.  Of course, there was Jimmy Bond, there was Jimmy Rowser, there was Jymie Merritt.  There were so many bass players from Philly that when you got a chance to cross paths with one of the musicians, you were lucky.  Of course, I was young then. I was just honing my craft, just beginning to develop, and I was from a different part of town.

TP:    At that time, would his scene be mostly in Philly’s jazz clubs, or would he be playing dances and parties…

WORKMAN:  We all had to do everything. We all had to do jazz clubs as well as dances… Dances and parties were as much a part of the… As you know about the Savoy Ballroom with Charlie Parker, they were as much a part of the arena in our community as any club or any other place. Cabarets and parties and dance clubs, and special occasions were… That’s where the music was heard. That’s where the music was made.

TP:    It was part of the community.

WORKMAN:  That’s right.

Cedar Walton on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    Did you know Bobby Timmons pretty well?

WALTON: Pretty well, yeah.

TP:    I’m doing a liner note for a best-of compilation. Was he in New York when you got here?

WALTON:  Probably so. I didn’t meet him until he joined the Messengers. The mother of my three children was friendly with his wife, and there was a Bobby Timmons, Jr. I think I got better acquainted with him when he was in the Messengers.  But he had gigs with Chet Baker and Kenny Baker, gigs all around.

TP:    Well, he got famous with “Moanin’” with the Messengers, then he went with Cannonball for a year, then he went with the Messengers for a bit, and then you joined the Messengers.

WALTON: Right. I replaced him.

TP:    Did he leave just because he had so many trio gigs?

WALTON: That was for him to know and me to find out. I just got the call. Where he went and what he did, I didn’t… But probably so.

TP:    What did you think of his trio at the time?

WALTON: I thought it was fine. It would be hard for me to find fault with anything. He had Ron Carter and Tootie Heath, as I recall, on his first trio outing.  But it might not have been his first. It’s the first one I know.

TP:    He recorded with Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb when he was with Cannonball, but when he got the trio working, it was with Tootie and Ron Carter. He grew up in Philly with Tootie. What kind of person was he?

WALTON: That’s a great question. All I know is he was the son of a minister, and moved into a building on Sterling Place in Brooklyn with Estrella and Bobby, Jr. Freddie Hubbard was a neighbor as well as Louis Hayes. But very shortly after that, Bobby made his home in the Village.

TP:    East 5th Street. Tootie said they had an apartment on East 5th Street.

WALTON: Right.  But he ended up in the West Village, hanging out at Boomer’s. His favorite bars were over on that side by the time I caught up with him.

TP:    Was he a witty guy? A friendly guy?

WALTON: Sure.  A typical Philadelphia type. I hesitate to…

TP:    What’s a typical Philadelphia type?

WALTON: Joking all the time.

TP:    Good dresser, too.

WALTON: Yeah, he did care about his wardrobe.

TP:    Did you play his tunes?

WALTON: Yeah.  I had to play “Moanin’” when I joined the Messengers, and also “Dat Dere.” I don’t think we played “Dis Here” but we played “Dat Dere.”

TP:    Did you play his arrangements?

WALTON: Yes, they were Messengers arrangements that were very accessible to anybody with any kind of talent. You could play them, in my estimation. I remember asking Walter Davis when he joined the Messengers for a little period. I said, “Oh, man, you got to play ‘Moanin’ and all that?” I was hardcore then. I couldn’t imagine any… But then when I got there, I found myself enjoying playing it.

TP:    Did those tunes pose any challenges for you?

WALTON: Certainly. They were very simple, so you had to make something happen with them, and that was a challenge. They weren’t difficult like “Tempus Fugit” or “Un Poco Loco” or things like that. They were simple and deliberately aimed at the commercial market.

Benny Golson I think composed the bridge to “Moanin’.” We used to do that all the time without any qualms. I remember writing a bridge to “Seven Minds” by Sam Jones. I actually wrote the ending of “Naima.” Mr. Coltrane had the chords. He said, “Cedar, what would you do with this I-IV, I-IV, I-IV?” I said, “Well, you could just go right up the scale.” And he kept it in. Those kind of things were just regular things to do in those days. I’m talking about the ‘60s, not too far back – but far enough.

Bobby was a wild cat. He could drink, too.
Benny Golson on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    I’m under the impression that you recruited Bobby Timmons into the Jazz Messengers.

GOLSON: Right.

TP:    How did you know him? What was your acquaintance with him in Philadelphia?

GOLSON: I wasn’t acquainted with him in Philly. But I had listened to what he had done. He was working with Chet Baker when I heard him. I didn’t really know him, but I liked what he did, and therefore, I recommended him on that basis. Well, I knew him superficially, but I didn’t really know him.

TP:    But you knew him from the Philly connection.

GOLSON: I didn’t know him from Philly. He was a different generation. He was much younger. I was gone by the time he started to make a little noise.

TP:    He was in New York by that time.

GOLSON: He was in New York, yes.

TP:    What was it about his sound that appealed to you?

GOLSON: Well, he was inventive, and he could play a lot of things. He wasn’t locked up in a cylinder. He was sort of, well, he could play bebop, or he could play this, he could play funky… “Moanin’,” for example.  And I thought it was the element that Art needed. He hadn’t had anybody quite like Bobby.

TP:    Because of Art’s penchant for backbeats and shuffles, you wanted somebody who could provide that?

GOLSON: No. It was to find somebody who could go here or they could go there, rather than walking on a single corridor. I thought he was a little broader. He was on a boulevard rather than a narrow street.

TP:    I know you brought him into the band, but you weren’t in the band that much longer once he was in it

GOLSON: About a year.

TP:    So you got to know him fairly well, I’d think.

GOLSON: All of it happened within a year.

TP:    Tell me what you can tell me about him personally. People say he had a very good sense of humor, he was amiable, a good dresser…

GOLSON: Absolutely. All of those things. He was clothes-conscious, he and Lee. Every night, they had a contest going on!

TP:    Around then, it was chukkah-boot time, wasn’t it?

GOLSON: They had the boots, yeah, and the pants were cut a little high so you could see the boots. I’m telling you, they were a card, those two guys!

TP:    Two wild young men.

GOLSON:  And they used to play this little funky thing in between the tunes, this little lick, and I got used to hearing it, and he would play it and he would say, “Ah, that sure is funky,” and I’d say, “Sure is.” We were in Detroit when I really started to listen to it.  We got to Columbus, Ohio, I called a rehearsal, and I said to Bobby… We had everything down. He said, “Why are we going to rehearse.” I said, “You know that little lick you play?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “You got eight bars; all you need is another 8 bars on the bridge.” He said, “Oh, that’s nothing; that’s just a little lick.” I said, “No, Bobby, I hear something else. Why don’t you go up on the bandstand…” We were in the club. Nobody was there during the day; they were washing glasses and stuff. I said, “We’ll go sit over here and just lollygag, and you compose a bridge.” So we went over, and in about half-an-hour he said, “Come and listen,” and then he played it. I said, “Hmm, that’s not really like the …(?)… 8 bars,” Bobby.  I said, “No, this has got to be your tune, Bobby.” I said, “Why don’t you try again, and we’ll go over here and talk some more.” “Okay, all right,” and he did something, and in about 15 minutes he called me, and said, “Well, what do you think?” I could see he didn’t think much of it. He played it, and I said, “That’s it.” I said, “Come on, Lee, let’s learn it.” We learned it, and I said, “We’re going to play it tonight, and as we play it, I’m going announce it, and let the people know that this is the first time they’re hearing something that they’ve never heard before.” He didn’t have a title for it either then.  I said, “I’m going to observe the audience, and they’ll tell us whether it’s of any value or not.” I said, “Bobby, you’ve got to give it a name now.” He said, “Well, I don’t know.” “Well, what does it sound like?” He said, “Well, it sounds like moaning.” I said, “Good, let’s call it ‘Moanin’.”

TP:    And it became a hit.

GOLSON: Oh, absolutely.

TP:    The audience responded to it right away?

GOLSON: Oh yeah. That and “Blues March.” Those uplifted the whole album.

TP:    If I’m reading between the lines, it sounds like for him, that it wasn’t… You might think it was a natural thing from his being in the church…

GOLSON: No.

TP:    But he was thinking about bebop, and he needed to be pushed to do these kind of tunes…

GOLSON: Oh, no.  It was there. Now, he MIGHT have been feeling like that because of the church, but I don’t think that the church was the primary influence on WHAT he was playing.  Because Bobby could play funky!  Many times he did play funky. I don’t think it necessarily had anything to do with the church. He was just feeling that way. People say that and try to make it sound psychological.

TP:    Well, he learned to play in the church and had all that experience when he was young…

GOLSON: Well, he did it.  But Ted, it was intuitive.

TP:    On this CD, there are trio versions of “Dis Here” and “Dat Dere” and “So Tired” and stuff like this. Did he write those then to capitalize on…

GOLSON: Yes.

TP:    Were you around at that time or not?

GOLSON: No. That came after I was gone.

TP:    Did you continue to stay in touch after leaving the Messengers?

GOLSON: No.  Just seeing him when I happened to see him. No deep phone calls or anything like that. I’d just run into him, “Hey, how you doing?” – like that.

TP:    Do you recall any impressions you had of his trio?

GOLSON: I don’t remember much about the trio. I can’t recall as we talk the natuure of the trio. I don’t even remember who was in the trio.

TP:    He worked with Ron Carter and Tootie Heath, and also with Sam Jones & Cannonball.

GOLSON: I’d forgotten all about Ron Carter.

TP:    But you brought him in from hearing him on the scene, and he seemed like good fresh blood for Art.

GOLSON: I brought him in on the basis of what I heard. It wasn’t that I knew him. It was just on the basis of what he played, his musical concept. Then I got to know him.

TP:    Can you give me any impressions about him just from that year?

GOLSON: Well, this was important to me. He had no ego about him. [LISTENED TO BENNY AND RESPECTED HIM AS MUSICAL DIRECTOR] [INAUDIBLE, BREAKS UP]
He was always upbeat. He was never downbeat. And he never maligned anybody. If he did, it would be in a humorous way, someone’s bad feet, the way he walks or something. But no, he was all right.

TP:    So his tunes reflect his personality, then.

GOLSON: Absolutely.  “Dis Here” and “Dat Dere,” that was Bobby. Some people think he was just a funky piano player, but no, he could get into things.

TP:    Well, there’s an “Old Devil Moon” where he runs off these fleet Bud Powell lines, and on another there are some Dameronian voicings.

GOLSON: I liked the way he played. Of course, it’s a different time.  But then he was right on the cutting edge.  And I thought that he would work well with the Messengers, and he did. That “Moanin’” thing helped quite a bit. Because it was epochal, that group in 1958 with Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, Jymie Merritt, and me. That’s when things changed. It was because of Bobby and Lee, and my composing, and “Moanin’.” When Art used to announce the All-Star Jazz Messengers, the regular group was there, but we were like an adjunct to it, and we’d come out for the second half of the show and play with them, and when he got to me, he’d say I was the one that started it all. That was kind of confusing, because he had that group together years before I came on the scene.  But he was talking about that band from that time. Because during that time, when I joined the band, he wasn’t making any kind of money.  But when I left, he was making money, I saw he got the right bookings… Because everybody listened to me. Looking back in retrospect, why did they listen to such a green kid? [ETC.] I said, “That picture has to go on the cover,” the booking office didn’t (?) the concert in Town Hall or Carnegie Hall. “But why hasn’t he been to Europe? Send us to Europe.” “We’ve got to wear uniforms, Art.” After the band broke up, he would come to me: “What do you think I should do here?” But that has nothing to do with Bobby Timmons.

There was the spirit of the whole thing.  And those guys were exactly right for that group.

Ron Carter on Bobby Timmons:

TP:    When did you first encounter each other? How did you first break bread musically?

CARTER: It was probably on some dates for Riverside Records on which he was a sideman, earlier Riverside dates on which Orrin Keepnews as a producer. Then he put together the trio, and we flew to the Jazz Workshop down in North Beach. We rehearsed with Tootie Heath… At the time, Riverside Records had a little studio across the street from the President Hotel on West 48th Street. So we rehearsed a couple of days, to learn the library, and went out to California, to San Francisco the next day and did a week there.  Then we went to the Purple Orchid in Los Angeles, came east and did a gig in Detroit, and went to a place in Philadelphia…

TP:    So when you did Live At the Vanguard, you’d been on the road a month.  What was his attitude towards rehearsing and the sound of the group?  Was he very definite about how he wanted pieces to sound?

CARTER:  I think he trusted that… He liked Ahmad Jamal’s sound of the trio. That was one of our favorite groups at the time.

TP:    He liked Ahmad Jamal’s sound.

CARTER:  And he liked the sound of Red Garland’s trio with Paul Chambers and Arthur Taylor. He knew Oscar Peterson’s trio with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. Eventually, the sound of the trio developed as we matured, as we got more gigs, and got the kind of sound we were looking for…

TP:    So your interpretation of the material molded into what the group sound became.

CARTER:  We dealt with …[INAUDIBLE]… what the first couple of choruses of the song would sound like, and then we were on our own to develop whatever we saw fit for the remainder of the arrangement of the tune.

TP:    Did the sound change from week to week?  Was he improvising a lot within the format of the trio from one night to another? Would his solos vary?

CARTER: He always remembered my basslines from the other night. I mean, I don’t think great musicians wake up in the middle of the gig and play something that no one ever heard before. I think great players get to that zone by developing what they stumbled on the night before, or the set before, or the chorus before. He’d remember what had almost worked the night before, or an idea really sounded good, and can we play the same idea in a different key, or can we play it slower, or can we play a bridge in the ..(?)… and develop another kind of way to make the song work.

TP:    Talk a bit about the dynamics of his compositions.
CARTER: They were simple. He wrote nice tunes or some ballads. He wrote some interesting songs, but he was not a composer in like Benny Golson, or other composers that I could think of. He was a wonderful improviser. He had the ability to play the melody and song different for the band but not for the audience. The band could tell the difference from night to night in the ..(?).. of the melody, and it let us know that we had even more range to develop our melodies as the gig wore on.

TP:    Who would say were his main influences?

CARTER: Bud Powell as far playing the piano was concerned.  He was aware of Ahmad Jamal’s approach and he played block chords like Red Garland could do, but his primary infiuence would be Bud Powell.

The trio had two or three gigs after the Vanguard, and then kind of separated. Bobby was staying in town more.  We did some duo gigs before he died, working in and out of the Village, at the Lion’s Head… He was getting sick even along the way.  The Needle’s Eye. He would play at Boomer’s.

He was very giving, very loyal, played every night like it was his last chance to get it right.

TP:    Good dresser, too.

CARTER: Well, back in those days, everybody wore suits. Shoes shined, tuxes.

TP:    Would you consider his music a reflection of his personality in any palpable way?

CARTER: I’ve never seen how someone’s music can be interpreted as though it were HIM. [INAUDIBLE] I’m not sure how you can call “Moanin’” indicative of his giving personality or “Dis Here” with the fact that he would go to the mat for you. I don’t know how you can find that in his tunes.

TP:    So he knew what to do as a leader.

CARTER: Absolutely.

TP:    And he had a firm and distinctive point of view, would you say?

CARTER: Well, it wasn’t rigid.  He would accept input. I’d say, “Bobby, that ain’t working, man; can we find something else to do with that?” He’d say, “Well, what?” And if my idea worked, that would be a part of it. Or if Tootie would say, “Bobby, let’s try to do this,” and Bobby would say, “I don’t know, man; let’s see how it goes.” So he was open to any suggestion, and as a leader he would determine whether that suggestion fit the musical direction he had in mind. Good leaders do that.

Leave a comment

Filed under Albert "Tootie" Heath, Benny Golson, Bobby Timmons, Cedar Walton, Interview, Kenny Barron, Liner Notes, Piano, Reggie Workman, Ron Carter

In Honor Of The 91st Birth Anniversary of Cecil Payne (1922-2007): A Liner Note and Full Interview

It’s the 91st birth anniversary of the late baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, who passed away six years. Despite various physical ailments, he was performing at a high level until into the early aughts. In 2000, I had an opportunity to write the liner notes for a Delmark recording, his fourth, titled Live At The Jazz Showcase, with Eric Alexander, Jim Rotondi, Harold Mabern, John Webber and Joe Farnsworth. I’ve appended first the liner note, and then the unedited interview with Mr. Payne.

Cecil Payne, Chick, Boom: Live At The Jazz Showcase:

“People know what a Mambo is, they know what a waltz is, and they know what a tango is, but they don’t know what jazz is,” says Cecil Payne, who, from the perspective of 78 years on the planet, 60 spent as a working musician, has some wisdom on the subject.  “When you play Jazz, you play Chick-a-Boom, Chick-a-Boom, Chick-a-Boom.  It’s been the beat of jazz from the beginning, from Louis Armstrong and Baby Dodds.  If you don’t hear that beat, it ain’t jazz.”

On “Live At the Jazz Showcase,” culled from three revelrous evenings in the hospitable ambiance of the venerable Chicago room, Payne and his hardcore unit — all but pianist Harold Mabern are 40 to 45 years his junior — apply that seemingly elementary dictum with a vengeance, conversing with a swinging simpatico that devastates any presumption of a generation gap.  The dialogue began one evening in 1993, when tenorist Eric Alexander came to Augie’s — the Upper West Side saloon that nurtured many of New York’s finest during the ’90s — to jam with Payne, the late tenor giant Junior Cook, and master-of-all-tempos trapsetter Joe Farnsworth.

“I had retired from music,” Payne recalls, “but I would take the bus to New York to play with Junior and Joe, because there’s something about playing with friends where you don’t have to worry about wrong notes.  I was having a great time.  I still am.

“From the first tune Eric played that night, I thought he was going to be great.’  He had style.  He still has.  And everybody now is way better than they were eight years ago.  They’ve been keeping me alive, putting fire behind me.  It’s not only the spirit of their playing, but these jokers are like computers in music theory.  I keep learning from them.  We didn’t have any music when we made this date, and Eric created the background harmonies.”

The sentiment is mutual.  “Cecil has a certain economy in his playing,” says Alexander, who along with Farnsworth and authoritative trumpeter Jim Rotondi comprise half of One For All, a cooperative sextet with five records under its belt whose members have evolved into consequential voices during their long association.  “In his soloing and writing he always seems to break down any series of chord progressions or melodies to the true essence of the tune.  I’ve never heard Cecil play anything corny or extraneous or trivial.  Then, his time is ridiculous, and he gets the most pleasing baritone saxophone sound I’ve heard.  A lot of times you hear baritone saxophonists bark or go heavy on the tongue, but Cecil’s approach is very light.  I think it comes from the fact that he was originally an alto player, and in addition he liked Lester Young, and tried to transfer that approach to the baritone.  He is from the era that we all wish we were from, and he is part of that revolution in the music that we wish we could have been part of.  For us, it’s a treat to be associated with him.”

Payne enthusiastically cosigns his passion for the President, manifested here by “Ding-A-Ling,” a modernist reworking of the Basie classic “Jive At Five,” and by the perfectly timed quote of “Taxi War Dance” that he deploys to springboard into the turnback of his solo on “Bosco,” a Latin rouser in B-flat-minor.

“When I was about 13, I heard Lester Young’s 2-bar break on ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ by Count Basie,” the Brooklyn native remembers.  “I told my father, ‘Buy me a saxophone!’  Every now and then I heard Basie at Bedford and Atlantic Avenues, and I stayed by that bandstand all night to watch Lester Young.  His horn was all green in between the keys!  But the sound that came out was something else.  My main influence was listening to Lester Young.  I bought every record that came out.  I learned every note, every solo.”

Payne’s father not only bought him an alto, but took him to neighborhood celebrity Pete Brown, the renowned jump alto saxophonist, for lessons at a quarter a pop.  By 19, Payne was “playing alto parts” in a band led by Boys High School classmate Max Roach (personnel included ur-boppers Victor Coulson [trumpet], Allen Tinney [piano], Leonard Gaskin [bass] and, for a short time, Charlie Parker) at Georgie Jay’s Taproom at 78th Street and Broadway for a 9-to-3 shift; he occasionally accompanied Roach to Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem to play the 4-to-8 a.m. afterhours shift.  He caught the ear of proprietor Clark Monroe; when Payne emerged from three years in the Service, Monroe, walking the walk on his determination to “get jobs for all my boys that come out of the Army,” sent the newly decommissioned young saxman to Roy Eldridge, who was looking for an alto player for a fortnight gig at the Spotlite, the 52nd Street club that Monroe managed.

“When I got there,” Payne relates, “Roy Eldridge told me he’d just hired Sahib Shihab to play alto.  I sat through the whole rehearsal, listening to all the great players, and when they finished, Roy said, ‘Where can I find a baritone player?’  I had a baritone I’d played in a stock band when I was 15, and he said, ‘Bring it tomorrow.’  Dizzy came in to see Roy, and asked me if I could come to the Savoy Ballroom, where he was working.  When I got there, they were on the bandstand playing, and I put on a uniform jacket and joined them.  Thanks to Pete Brown I could read anything, and then I took a solo in B-flat, maybe ‘I Got Rhythm’ — I couldn’t play much else.  Everybody, Moody and all them, just grinned.”

During Payne’s two years with Gillespie he recorded well-parsed, Prez-inflected solos on “Ow!” and “Stay On It” that cemented his rep as bebop’s first baritonist.  On a Fall 1948 session with James Moody and Chano Pozo he waxed the oft-recorded “Cu-Ba,” kicking off a career as a composer of pungent melodies and protein-rich harmonic progressions whose logic masks a subtle, complex sensibility.  That Payne retains the fire of the nascent bop years is evident in the chopbusting set-closer “Cit Sac” (it’s “Lover” in B-flat, with a sly quote of “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” on the bridge).  That he has not forgotten the passions that fueled that fire is clear on “You Will Be Mine Tonight,” a lyric champagne before the fireplace ballad of 1999 vintage inspired by memories of an Army buddy bandmate’s amorous adventures in a hotel room while on the road directly after the war.

Payne’s subsequent c.v. includes big band stints with Illinois Jacquet, Machito, Woody Herman and Count Basie, not to mention substantial combo work with the likes of fellow Brooklynites Randy Weston, Duke Jordan, Wynton Kelly, Kenny Dorham, and the indefatigably creative Harold Mabern, a friend and colleague for forty years.  There isn’t much jazz history he hasn’t seen or experienced.

“Cecil knows a lot, and if you want to find out what he really knows, you have to sit down and talk to him and ask him questions,” Alexander notes.  “When he explains how he approaches certain things, it seems so obvious and simple that you can’t believe you didn’t already think of it.  It’s the most obvious way, but it’s also the way that most people never even get to — it’s in front of their face, and they look right past it.  I think that explains a lot about the directness and honesty in his playing.  There’s no B.S.”

You’ll hear that directness and honesty in the declamations of all members on Chick, Boom, a session providing abundant proof that Cecil Payne’s DNA contains no atavistic genes.  Resolutely optimistic, Payne unfailingly wields his memories and experience as a springboard to future explorations and conversations framed by the jazz lifebeat.

Which is neither BOOM-CHICK nor BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM-CHICK.  In case you didn’t hear him clearly before, Payne reiterates what it is: “It’s Chick-boom, chick-boom, chick-boom, and-one, and-two, and… Before you talk, you have to open your mouth.  That’s ‘and.’  Then before you stomp your feet, you lift it up.  That’s ‘and-one.’ Then you bring it down to the ‘and-boom.’  Chick-boom.  It’s very easy.  It’s not very hard to understand what jazz is.”

* * *

Interview with Cecil Payne for Liner Notes:

TP:    This is your fourth record for Delmark, and on each one Eric Alexander has been by your side.  It sounds like you got a lot of inspiration from coming down to these sessions at Augie’s and hearing these guys, and that it’s been a reciprocal inspiration — they’ve obviously been inspired by you.  But it’s like a context or framework to just do your thing.

PAYNE:  What you’re saying is true.  It started in 1992 when I retired.  I was living in Camden, and I wasn’t playing much, just in some of the clubs here.  I ran into a friend, Junior Cook, the tenor player.  I had a Jazzmobile to do in New York.  I called everybody up, but I didn’t have a drummer.  I said, “Can you find me a drummer, man?”  He said, “Don’t worry about it.  I’ll get you  drummer.”  I said, “Who is it?”  He said, “Don’t worry about it!”  Up to the last minute I was thinking about it, because drummers have to play the right beat and keep the groove.  So here comes the drummer.  He has a blue suit on and a tie, and that was Joe Farnsworth.  I say, “Is that the cat?”  He says, “Yeah.”  I said, “Oh my goodness.”  He didn’t look that good.  But when we’d crossed the point where we’d played the first number, I turned to Junior and said, “Where did you find this cat?”  That was Joe Farnsworth.  And he’s a hundred times better now than he was then.

TP:    He sounds like no one else but him now.

PAYNE:  Yeah.  So it was me, him and Junior working at Augie’s.  Every weekend I would go to New York, just to play, because there’s something about playing when you don’t have to worry about wrong notes, just getting yourself together and playing with friends that you know and have the same feeling.  I was having a great time.  I still am.  That’s when Eric Alexander came down to play at Augie’s.  The first tune he played, I said, “Man, this cat is going to be great.”  Because he had style, too.  He still has.  Everybody now is way better than they were eight years ago.  They’ve been keeping me alive, putting fire behind me.

TP:    You just said a word that’s very interesting to me.  You’re able to have a conversation with these guys, and they’re all about 40-45 years younger than you.  That’s an amazing thing about jazz, isn’t it.

PAYNE:  Yeah, with jazz you don’t have to speak a language.  You can go to any country in the world and play with musicians, and you understand each other.  It’s a feeling for the music.

TP:    So what you’re saying is that playing with these guys, because they’ve mastered the fundamentals and they’re such fluent musicians, allows you to be free.

PAYNE:  Yeah, but it’s more than that.  You said fundamentals.  See, these jokers are like computers in music theory.  See, there’s not only the spirit of playing, but they also know everything they play on piano and the chord changes and the notes and everything they do.  They’re very advanced.   So it keeps me learning from them, too.  In the old days sometimes you’d play by ear, and then there were chords you’d play.  But these young musicians, they have computer minds that they can just stand up and talk to you about it ‘and tell you what note.  When we made the record date, Eric was the one who could create the harmony in the background at the date, and we didn’t have any music.  He, Jim Rotondi and Steve Davis all work together.  They’re like best friends.  I feel real comfortable when I play with them…for my last few days.

TP:    And Harold Mabern is also a constant on these records.

PAYNE:  Mabern is my teacher! [LAUGHS] We know each other from way back, since the ’50s.

TP:    He got to Chicago in ’56 or ’57 and then New York at the beginning of the ’60s.

PAYNE:  He moved to Brooklyn.  We lived right near each other.  Mabern is my mentor, man.  He knows that piano.  He’s like the foundation.

TP:    He’s one of the few with a real two-hand approach to bebop language.

PAYNE:  Oh yeah, he knows that.

TP:    Say a little something about each of the tunes.  “Chick, Boom.”

PAYNE:  “Chick, Boom.”  Most people say, “What is jazz?”  Nobody knows what Jazz is.  They know what a Mambo is.  They know what a waltz is.  They know what a tango is.  But they don’t know what Jazz is.  Jazz is Chick-Boom.  It’s not Boom-Chick.  When you play Jazz, you play Chick-Boom, Chick-Boom, Chick-Boom.  That’s Jazz, “Chick-a-Boom, Chick-a-Boom.  It’s not BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM-CHICK.  If you don’t hear that beat, it ain’t jazz.  Chick-boom, chick-boom, chick-boom, and-one, and-two, and… Before you talk, you have to open your mouth.  That’s “and.”  Then before you stomp your feet, you lift it up.  That’s “and-one.”  Then you bring it down to the “and-boom.”  “Chick-boom.”  It’s very easy.  It’s not very hard to understand what jazz is.

TP:    You were born in 1922 and you started playing before Bebop.  Is that the beat you remember from when you were first playing, and it continued in various forms after you played with Dizzy and so on?

PAYNE:  You’re going too far ahead.  See, when I was younger, the only thing I ever heard was calypsos, because my parents are from Barbados.  When I went to public school and was about 13, we moved into a house that had a victrola, and somebody had left a record on there, which was a Count Basie record, “Honeysuckle Rose,” and when they put it on I heard Lester Young make this 2-bar break.  I told my father, “buy me a saxophone!”  He bought me an alto.  There was a musician my father used to hear on Gates Avenue named Pete Brown.  We lived right by this 129 public school, and my father asked him if he could give me lessons, and he said yes.  25 cents a lesson.

TP:    So you studied with Pete Brown, one of the first jump alto players.

PAYNE:  I think I heard Pete Brown play once.  I never heard him play jazz.  But he taught me how to read.  If I came there and didn’t know the lesson, he would say, “Go home, man, and read and study.”

TP:    So he’d embarrass you into learning it.

PAYNE:  That’s right.  He made me… I didn’t know how to solo.  When I went to high school, at Boys High School, I met Max Roach.  I didn’t know I was older than him until recently.  There were some local bands we played with.  I played with some big bands, just reading music from those stock arrangements by Count Basie and the Benny Goodman band.  Max played with another group, and we became friends going to school.

TP:    Did the big bands play in Brooklyn?  Did Basie or Ellington or Lunceford play the Paramount Theater?

PAYNE:  Every now and then, if I was lucky enough, I could hear Count Basie up at Bedford Avenue and Atlantic in Brooklyn.  And I stayed by that bandstand all night.

TP:    So you could watch Lester Young.

PAYNE:  [LAUGHS] His horn was green!  In between the keys, man, it was all green.  But the sound that came out was something else.  Nobody had    a sound like Lester Young, man.  Paul Quinichette tried to imitate him.  But his sound changed after a while, too.  Lester got a new horn, and his sound was different.

TP:    So you’re coming up playing on alto, and switched to baritone.  But that beat, the chick-boom beat, is the beat of jazz and has been since you started playing.

PAYNE:  No, it’s been the beat of jazz from the beginning, from Louis Armstrong and all them.  That’s the jazz beat.  That ain’t from my time.  That’s the start of jazz.

TP:    It’s the continuity.  So the record begins with you stating that this is jazz.  Then “Ding-A-Ling.”

PAYNE:  That’s a Lester Young tune called “Jive At Five.”  I tried to modernize it a little bit.

TP:    It made me think of the way Illinois Jacquet might treat it, then I realized that you’d played with Illinois Jacquet.

PAYNE:  He’s like a father to me, although he’s only one year older than I am.

TP:    You were with him for three years at the turn of the ’50s.

PAYNE:  Well, I played with Roy Eldridge in 1946. That’s when Dizzy heard me.  He came to hear the Roy Eldridge Band, and he was looking for a baritone player.  That was a lucky day for me.

TP:    When Dizzy heard you, you were familiar with him, I guess.

PAYNE:  In 1943, I went into the Army for three years.  I was stationed at Camp Ellis in Peoria, Illinois, for about a year-and-a-half, then I went to Europe.  At first I was in the 520th Trucking Regiment, because I had a license.  I didn’t have any union card.  Then I was in the 1333 Engineers.  When the war was over in Europe, we went straight to Okinawa, and they had a band there that I got into.  When I came out of the Army, I was a Sergeant in the 219 Army Ground Force Band.

TP:    So you were 20 when you went in the Army. [19] Before you went in, you were playing around Brooklyn.

PAYNE:  I played with Clarence Berry’s Big Band, and I played with Max Roach’s group in the 78th Street Taproom on Broadway playing parts.

TP:    Oh, you played at Georgie Jay’s Taproom?

PAYNE:  Yeah, with Allen Tinney and me and Gaskin…

TP:    But you were in the Army when Bird came in and played with them.

PAYNE:  Bird came in one night and played my horn.

TP:    So that’s the first time you met Bird.

PAYNE:  Yes.  But he wasn’t famous then or nothing.  He just came and played it.

TP:    Do you have a memory of that?

PAYNE:  Well, anybody who played solo was better than I was, because I couldn’t solo at all.

TP:    I’ve heard Max Roach talk about that, that he had the gig at Georgie Jay’s, then they’d pack up and go to Minton’s, so they’d wind up playing 12 hours in two different clubs.

PAYNE:  Oh, Max got around a lot.  I got to go uptown.  He got me out of Brooklyn.

TP:    So when you got out of the Army…

PAYNE:  When I got out of the Army, Clark Monroe, who had an after-hour house where we used to go down… That’s where I heard Bird play.  When I got out of the Army, Clark Monroe said, “I get all my boys that come out of the Army jobs.”  He said, “Go down and speak to Roy Eldridge; he’s looking for an alto player.”  When I went down there, Roy Eldridge said, “I’m sorry, man.  I just hired an alto player.”  Believe it or not, the alto player was Sahib Shihab.  So I sat through the whole rehearsal, listening to all the great players, and when they finished playing Roy Eldridge said, “Where can I find a baritone player?”  I said, “I’ve got a baritone.”  He said, “Bring it tomorrow.”  I had a baritone that I played with Clarence Berry when I was 15, and it was (?) because I only played three notes on it — A-G-E.  Leonard Gaskin said, “It sure would sound good if we had a baritone to play those notes.”  So my father bought me a baritone sax.  $45.  In those days that was a whole lot of money.  Clarence Berry just led the band; he didn’t play.

TP:    So you wound up playing baritone with Roy Eldridge because he needed a baritone player.

PAYNE:  We played two weeks on 52nd Street, in Clark Monroe’s club.

TP:    That was the Spotlite, that club that Clark Monroe fronted.

PAYNE:  That’s it.  Dizzy came in to see Roy Eldridge, and asked me if I could come to the Savoy.  He was working up there.  Back then it was rehearsal.  When I got there, they were on the bandstand playing.  Bill Graham was playing.  I was scared.  I was going to go home because I heard the band playing.  Anyhow, Bill Graham said, “If he told you to come down, stay, man!”  When I went on the bandstand, Bill Graham gave me a uniform jacket, and we sat down there.  Thanks to Pete Brown I could read anything, and when I read the music, they were saying, “Oh, man!”  Then I took a solo in B-flat, like “I Got Rhythm.”  I couldn’t play much else.  In those days I wasn’t… You played chords, but you didn’t play chord changes.  Anyhow, I played the solo, and everybody, Moody and all them, just grinned.  They were happy.  But Bill Graham gave me (?).

TP:    So you joined Dizzy after Dizzy debuted at the Spotlite.  The way Moody tells the story, he joined Dizzy in the mid-summer of ’46 when they were at the Spotlite, the club that Clark Monroe was fronting.  You joined Dizzy after Moody had already joined the band, in late ’46, and you took the first solo people really remember was “Stay On It.”

PAYNE:  Well, my first tune, my claim to fame, was “Ow!”  They called me like the first bebop baritone player.

TP:    What do you think of that?

PAYNE:  Well, do you remember Serge Chaloff?  You ever hear him play?  He was playing like that before I ever joined Dizzy.

TP:    You must have heard Jack Washington and Harry Carney.

PAYNE:  Of course.  But I wasn’t playing the baritone then.

TP:    Were there any stylistic models for you on baritone, or were you winging it and figuring it out as you went along?

PAYNE:  The only influence was listening to Lester Young’s solos.  I bought every record that came out.  I learned every note, every solo.

TP:    So you know every Lester Young solo by heart.

PAYNE:  Mostly, yes.  Me and Lee Konitz!

TP:    Then “You Will Be Mine Tonight” is your tune?  It’s a nice ballad.  When did you write it?

PAYNE:  Not too long ago.  Last year.  I was playing with someone, an alto player a good friend who I’d known since the Army days.  He’s the one who got me into the band when I was in the Army.  I heard the band walking down playing “Reveille,” and when I’d look at them… Vincent (?).  He was playing alto in the band and he took me into it.  Anyhow, after we came out of the Army, we played in a band (I can’t remember who), and we went on the road, and he had his girlfriend with him.  We stayed in separate rooms.  They were in the room one night, and you’d hear him chasing his girl around the room.  He would say, “I will have you tonight!  I will have you tonight.”  So when I wrote this tune, I tried to think of him.

TP:    You made it sound much more romantic than that.

PAYNE:  Well, I changed the words.  I said, “You will be mine tonight.”  I couldn’t put “I Will Have You Tonight.”

TP:    On “Bosco”, midway through your solo, you quoted “Taxi War Dance.”

PAYNE:  “Bosco” is my stepson’s name here in Camden.  I got married in 1970, and my stepson’s nickname is Bosco.

TP:    That sounds like some of the things you did with Duke Jordan, like “Scotch Blues” and things like that.

PAYNE:  I played with Duke and K.D. for years.  We played together all the time.

TP:    You were very close to K.D., too.

PAYNE:  Yes.  He lived right there in Brooklyn, too.  He had six daughters.  Miles had five children.  Max has a whole lot of children, too.  And believe it or not, I don’t have any children, man.  I have a stepson.

I started writing way back.  Everybody started getting their own music together.  So I started getting tunes together.  I didn’t actually play them until I went to Europe.

TP:    About how many tunes would you say you have copyrighted?

PAYNE:  I have a whole lot of tunes.  I don’t know how many.  Don Sickler has them.  Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnet recorded two of my tunes.  I did them in collaboration with another fellow, whose name I forget.  He’s the one who got me to write the tunes with him.

TP:    Were you playing in Latin bands in the ’50s, or did that start when you went with Machito in the early ’60s?

PAYNE:  It started with Machito.

TP:    Of course you played with Chano Pozo.

PAYNE:  Right, with Chano Pozo.  But Dizzy didn’t play with no Latin beat.  We were just playing swing.  But Machito was when I started playing with Latin bands.  Their beat is unmistakable!  The timbales keep the downbeat, the bass plays 3/4.  You can play the same thing on jazz, but you have to turn the beat around.  They have their own beat.  Jazz is different.  It fits, but you have to change that beat around to synchronize it.  You can’t play a Latin beat with a jazz beat.  You have to play the Latin beat on another beat to make it sound right.

TP:    So you played with Machito for three years, and then Woody Herman.

PAYNE:  I had stopped playing and went into the real estate business, trying to sell real estate.  But I couldn’t sell anybody anything, man.  I didn’t care about it.

TP:    So you did that in the ’50s, and when you decided to get back into music is when you joined Machito and Woody Herman?

PAYNE:  It was 1958 or ’59.  I actually had stopped playing, but I did work with Machito, and then I had this thing with the Broadway production of The Connection with Kenny Drew.  I didn’t (?) into jazz at that time.

TP:    The scene was changing then, too.

PAYNE:  Yes.  Because in 1957 Coltrane changed everything!

TP:    So after “Bosco” we have “Here’s That Rainy Day.” You play flute.

PAYNE:  I’m still trying to play the flute.  But whoever wrote the tune, the last tune he hits is a minor chord, and I said, “If I record this tune, I’m not going to play a minor chord.”  The minor chord makes it sound real down.  It’s the same thing with “I Should Care.”  When I play that tune, if it wasn’t for the last bar, I wouldn’t even have thought about the tune.

TP:    Are you a big fan of singers?

PAYNE:  I’m a big fan of singers, but not playing with them.

TP:    The last tune is those “Lover” changes, with “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” on the bridge.  Racehorse.  Great set-closer.  That’s one of the tunes people liked to play.

PAYNE:  Well, Bird played that.

My lucky day was when I got hooked up with those young folks, man.  One thing before you leave.  When Joe Farnsworth was 27, it was his birthday, and he said to me, “Man, Cecil, I’m 27 years old, man!”  I said, “What the heck are you telling me that for?  I’m 72.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Baritone Saxophone, Cecil Payne, Interview, Liner Notes

R.I.P. Cedar Walton, January 17, 1934-August 19, 2013

News has already spread through our community that we lost Cedar Walton this morning. Fortunately for all of us, he was active almost up until the end. I had several opportunities to interact with Cedar during my years at WKCR, and more than several on late evenings at clubs like Bradley’s, the Vanguard, and Sweet Basil, and had the honor of writing liner notes for two of his recordings and having him to consent to sit with me for a DownBeat Blindfold Test a decade or so ago. I’m appending below the notes for Roots, a well-funded late ’90s reworking of some of his older “hits” with an all star band, and a wonderful 2009 solo date for Muse entitled Underground Memoirs. The note for Roots (Astor Place was the label) contains a fair amount of biographical information.

* * * *

Roots Liner Notes – Cedar Walton:

In the spirit of his muse, Duke Ellington, Cedar Walton doesn’t delete material.  Author of some of the most memorable tunes in the jazz lexicon, he continually refines, reinvents, recontextualizes, finds unexpected angles that provide fresh perspectives on familiar vistas.  While Composer, his successful Astor Place debut, focused primarily on new work, here the maestro revisits nine choice classics written over a 35-year span, orchestrated for a crackerjack horn section, underpinned by the first-call bassist and drummer in the world, and interpreted by three of the most prominent young improvisers of the day.

Above all else, Walton conjures melodies that stick in the brain.  On Roots, Terence Blanchard’s burnished trumpet sings a pair of them with warmth and grace.  Like Walton a composer of note, and a fellow alumnus of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Blanchard comments, “My teachers told me that you can learn arranging, orchestration, how to write for strings, but nobody can show you how to write a melody.  A person with that talent is special.  Cedar’s melodies are very striking, often taking unexpected directions.  He makes difficult chord progressions sound magical.  Art Blakey’s statements always ring true in my mind, and he’d say, ‘Let the punishment fit the crime.’  That means when you play a Cedar Walton tune, the melody establishes a certain kind of vibe or tone that you deal with — they have a character all their own.  That’s what makes his tunes interesting and challenging to play.”

Walton’s voice began to flower during a three year stint with the edition of the Messengers that featured Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and Curtis Fuller, the front line that recorded “Fantasy in D” (as “Ugetsu” on Live at Birdland, Riverside, 1963).  “Art demanded that we compose and arrange, and that’s the material he’d use,” the pianist recalls.  “He was a great coordinator, and when he added his final touch, it pushed the tune off the paper, added impetus and drive and presentation.  I always liked to conceive of original melodies; the Messengers allowed me an outlet, a platform, a vehicle to get my pieces played immediately by a group of fantastic players, and my arranging skills developed tremendously.”

Lewis Nash, whose precise tempos and ferociously elegant patterns are a highlight of Roots, listened exhaustively to that Messenger band.  “Cedar’s tunes with the Messengers have the defining characteristics of some of the swingingest and funkiest jazz music,” the drummer comments.  “He found a way to put the soulfulness of a great bluesy solo in his compositions, so you get the feeling that the melody is also something someone could have heard while they were playing their solo.  He’ll use a simple rhythm, repeat it and then slightly alter it so that it’s off by a half-beat or so, creating tension.  You’re allowed a lot of freedom to put in your own two cents, but the melodies and rhythms are so strong that only certain things will really work — which still gives you an infinite variety of choices.”

Nash also marvels at Walton’s cool perspective, the seemingly effortless control he maintains over the full context of every situation.  “He’s the type of musician where you know everything is in good hands,” he remarks. “No matter what’s going on up front, he knows the right thing to play.  It doesn’t seem like he’s trying; he just does it.  He knows how to set up an intro to a tune, to any standard, however many million times it’s been played, and come up with something interesting and a new twist on it.”

Cedar Walton operates intuitively at a level of craft that comes from a life devoted to music with single-minded passion.  Let’s hear the 65-year-old native of Dallas, Texas tell the story of his formative years.

“I began doodling at 6 or 7, mainly because there was a piano in the house.  My mother played from sheet music, and she taught students at our home on a regular basis.  Though she always wanted to be a pianist, she decided to teach school instead of pursuing a serious career.  She and my father were great Jazz fans, and they used to point out to me some of their favorites, who included Duke Ellington, Nat Cole, Cab Calloway, all the stars of the day.  We’d hear location broadcasts from various key dance halls around the country by Duke Ellington and Earl Hines — I even heard Art Blakey from Birdland on radio.  In the ’40s there was a weekly show called Piano Playhouse that featured a Classical guy and a studio guy, who would have a Classical and a Jazz guest artist.  People like Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Erroll Garner would be guests, always playing solo, never using accompaniment, and that greatly inspired me.

“I played clarinet and glockenspiel in the marching band at Lincoln High School in Dallas that would play halftime of the football games.  The band director, J.K. Miller, had been in some Jazz orchestras and had played trumpet, so he had experience in the real world of music.  He was quite good, very sociable, and inspired all of us.  I was able to play by ear, and very often Mr. Miller would say, ‘Walton, show them how that goes.’  When the football season wasn’t going on, we used to play stock arrangements of charts by Dizzy Gillespie, Ellington, Basie and a lot of other people.  It was a very good period for learning and experimenting.  On a lot of my early gigs while I was in high school, Fathead Newman was the leader, and we’d jam together after I graduated.  We were Jazz musicians, but we had to play sort of a rhythm-and-blues style, the shuffle rhythm — DONT-CHA, DONT-CHA — so people would dance, but we would also play ballads, and throw in a special arrangement that was purely bebop.

“I listened to a lot of records — there wasn’t much opportunity to hear people live.  We heard the very latest recordings by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray, the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, Illinois Jacquet, Art Tatum and Nat King Cole, who was a favorite.  I got most of my influence trying to emulate what I heard, and I consider Art Tatum and Bud Powell my major influences from those years.  Bud’s recordings were among my favorites, especially his comping on records like ‘Little Willie Leaps’ with Charlie Parker playing tenor; I’d been dazzled by Hank Jones in that regard, and Bud gave me another point of view.  Bird also fascinated me, and Ellington blew me away.  Once he played at the State Fair, and he was as close as I am to you.  Ellington left an indelible impression on me with his presence, his personality, his carriage, his style, his orchestrational and conducting ability, general stage manner, devotion to his audience, and last but not least his piano playing.  I always intended to escape the environment of my home town, and in listening to the Ellington, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker records I felt confident that I had a world out there to escape to.

“Even before I went to school, I liked to ‘make up pieces,’ as my mother called it—’Are you making something up again?’  I didn’t need too much encouragement.  I arranged by trial-and-error; I’d write notes down and ask people to play them, and they’d say, ‘Well, this isn’t written right!’  After a short time at Dillard College in New Orleans, where I was in the same class as Ellis Marsalis, I enrolled in the University of Denver, where I majored in Composition.  There we were obliged to play instruments other than our own, which was very helpful later on in scoring for them.  The music department was good, and I enjoyed my studies.  My forte was harmony and theory.  I had to study much harder than some of the pianists who could play very well, but couldn’t figure out the chords.  I more or less shone in the theory class.  I played with a very good bass player named Charles Burrell, who was a member of the Denver Symphony and also had a great jazz sound.  I started playing with a local band at an after-hours place called Lil’s where people from the national bands would go to eat and sometimes sit in after they finished playing, and I met people like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Richie Powell, and John Coltrane.”

Walton took the New York plunge in 1955, and began slowly to establish himself on the scene, making rehearsals, sessions and little gigs in all the boroughs.   A highlight was a brief gig in Philadelphia with trumpeter Kenny Dorham — a harmony master and sophisticated composer — who became a lasting friend.  Walton was drafted the next year.  He was posted initially to Fort Dix, where he met Wayne Shorter (then making weekend gigs with Horace Silver), then was stationed in Germany.  He worked his way into the Special Services, where bandmates included artists like Eddie Harris (yes, Walton was on the original “Freedom Jazz Dance”), Don Ellis and Don Menza.  He returned to New York in 1958, worked with Lou Donaldson and Dorham, jammed at sessions led by Babs Gonzalez at Minton’s and Monday nights at Birdland.  Trombonist J.J. Johnson, looking for a pianist to replace the departing Tommy Flanagan, heard the young aspirant at a Birdland session, and hired him to fill the chair.

He spent two revelatory years with Johnson that focused him on the primacy of melody.  “J.J.’s arranging techniques for small band were mind-boggling to me at the time when I was a sideman,” Walton recalls.  “He would play the complete arrangement in a compressed, effective way, like a condensed big band.  His compositions were outstanding and his discipline was unbelievable.  J.J. epitomizes melodic playing, and he’s a great master of improvisation and spontaneous playing as well as a more tempered and structured approach.  He was the last word in instrumentalism.  Listening to him nightly and hearing that kind of excellence was enough to convince me that I should work hard to achieve the same thing myself.”

Roots is the latest document to demonstrate emphatically that Walton attained that goal as composer, arranger and — not least — pianist.  He plays  with typical virtuosity, controlling the full instrument, spinning out long, inventive lines, in perfect synch throughout with Nash and nonpareil bassist Ron Carter, a cohort in every imaginable context since the early ’60s.  His complete, orchestrative trio concept is heavily inflected by “the vigorous richness of Nat Cole and Ahmad Jamal; you can’t get any better in terms of clarity, concept, technique, swing — everything is in there.”

Walton’s compositional process is immutably related to the piano, the voice that links him to the voices deep within.  “Usually I find myself sitting at the piano, and I search for original passages, phrases, melodies, harmonies that I haven’t heard before,” he states.  “A good composition will be interesting, have built-in pleasures for the player interpreting it, crossroads that we anticipate coming up as we proceed on our trip.  As far as form, the tunes only adhere to what comes to me as I’m writing them.  If they happen to be even, so be it, but it’s not deliberate.”

Cedar Walton is a survivor, an individualist with an instantly recognizable sound; he’s produced a remarkable corpus of recordings, all too often under less than optimal circumstances.  Roots is the first time in years he’s had a horn section to articulate his melodies, and he’s pleased with the result.  “It enhances your approach,” he says, “because it’s the utopia of a recording project if somebody asks you to bring all your own tunes, there’s enough budget to hire this kind of personnel, we use Rudy Van Gelder, and I choose who I’d like to produce it.  The ensemble gives the tunes a new wardrobe, so to speak — a new setting.”

One definition of “root” in Webster’s is “To turn over, dig up, discover and bring to light.” A second is “to have an origin or base.”  Both apply to this superb program of music.

* * * *

Underground Memoirs (High Note):

One of the most admired jazz composers of the past forty years, Cedar Walton is famous for a book of tunes marked by striking melodies, harmonic logic, bluesy soulfulness, and unpredictable forms. On Underground Memoirs, his fourth solo piano recording, he brings those qualities to 11 jazz standards and one original. For Walton, the tale’s the thing: with seemingly effortless control,  he crafts a fluent narrative arc through the subtle deployment of various keys, voicings and colors. Each tune evokes a personal experience. In short, Walton, 71, is relating a sort of autobiography of his aesthetic journey.

Here Walton works primarily with pieces that he plays frequently at home on his Steinway B. “I’m a person who likes to noodle and find original passages and phrases that I haven’t heard before,” Walton clarifies. “Hopefully, I can come up with versions that I find original to some degree.”

You’ll most often hear Walton in the context of the piano trio, a form of which he is an acknowledged master. Countless pianists have studied his methods—his resourcefulness as an orchestrator, his knack for imparting Waltonian identity to everything he touches while allowing great freedom to his collaborators, who have included such bassists as Sam Jones, Ron Carter and David Williams and such drummers as Billy Higgins, Louis Hayes, Kenny Washington, Lewis Nash and Joe Farnsworth. Here, though, Walton himself becomes the orchestra.

“The solo form is different, but totally enjoyable,” says Walton. “Some people play with a very ornate, complicated style, like Art Tatum, who was the ultimate piano soloist. But when I first heard Ellis Larkins’ duo records with Ella Fitzgerald as a young guy in Dallas, Texas, I realized you don’t have to be a wizard like Tatum to play by yourself.”

The aforementioned sides, from the early ‘50s, were part of a Walton musical diet that included Tatum and Bud Powell, as well as Nat Cole, Erroll Garner, and Ahmad Jamal. But Walton’s references here are not purely pianistic.

For example, Miles Davis inspired Walton to perform three of the tunes contained herein. “I still find delight in the way that piece was constructed,” he says, referring to Milestones, which opens the program. John Lewis wrote it for Miles’ inaugural leader session in 1947, and Miles subsequently appropriated composer credit.

“Miles had such a distinctive a way of arranging things,” Walton explains. “Look what he did with George Shearing’s “Conception.” Amazing insight. And I was mesmerized by “Venus De Milo,” which Gerry Mulligan wrote. In that period, Miles was delightfully consumed by harmony and how to modernize the materials he dealt with.”

As for “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Walton notes, “I wanted to have a 3/4 outing. It’s a monumental recording by Miles, and I was curious to see what I’d do with it in a solo situation. It’s not one I frequently tinker with at home. I’ve found myself playing it when people call tunes and say, ‘What should we play the next set?’

“I rarely play “Green Dolphin Street” solo either, but again, Miles enters the picture. One night around 1958 he took me, Lee Morgan, Spanky DeBrest, and Tootie Heath to his flat on Tenth Avenue, told us he wanted us to hear something, and played us an acetate of it. He had a great large apartment with lots of paintings, and one of those polar bear rugs with the mouth open. I dared go over to the piano, which was a long Steinway, to try to emulate the recording, and he rushed over and put his arms around my head and kind of brushed my fingers back. I wasn’t anywhere close to what Bill Evans was doing, but that’s how stupid I was at that time of night.”

“Lost April” first appeared in 1948, on the flip-side of Nat Cole’s hit, “Nature Boy.” Cole reprised it in 1961 on Nat Cole Sings, George Shearing Plays. “It’s one of my all-time favorite songs,” says Walton, who recorded it as a sideman for Milt Jackson on Olinga in 1974.

“I used to play ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’ quite often with Bags and Ray Brown as well,” he continues. “Here I went with their changes. I met Bags when I was in the Army, based in Germany, and the MJQ came through. I had a friend with a car, and we invited him to a club where people like Albert Mangelsdorff hung out. He heard me play, and we were friends from then on. We were very compatible, and had a mutual exchange of ideas. Ray Brown needed a little more grease from a piano player, but Milt always stood up for me.”

Walton got to play Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” in duo with the composer on a mid-‘80s tour. “I always liked the piece,” he says. “Once in Torino, we got this monumental piano, a 9-foot Steinway-D. That night there was considerable applause after my solo, and when he was supposed to come back in, before he put his horn up to his mouth, he said, so only I could hear it, ‘You didn’t have to play that much s___, m__f___!’ I’ll always be grateful for that compliment.”

The pianist recently decided to revisit Billy Eckstine’s “I Want To Talk About You” after hearing it on a compilation CD of the iconic baritone. “I was initially attracted to Coltrane’s version,” says Walton, who spent consequential rehearsal time with Coltrane in 1959, a year after the tenorist recorded it for Prestige. “The way the song comes out of the bridge is totally original. Some of it is simple, like a pop song, but some is very sophisticated and takes analyzing.

“I was always a big fan of Billy Eckstine. When I went to college, the gentleman in the dorm room next to me had endless 78s of his that he played all day and night on one of those little machines. Later, Art Blakey took me to Basin Street East one night and introduced me to Mr. B. His generation didn’t put on their trousers and suit coat until a second before they went out on stage, so there’d be no wrinkle. I noticed that when I was in his dressing room, and I also saw the rapport he and Art had. He seemed genuinely glad to see Art, and Art was kind of shy in his presence—if you can imagine Art being shy.”

Not long after Duke Ellington’s death, Walton responded with a memorial composition entitled “The Maestro.” Here he pays respects with a personal, highly ornamented version of “Sophisticated Lady.” “I play this a lot by myself, and I also like to do it in duo with a bass player,” he says. “Ellington was like a role model, or someone to pattern yourself after. I saw him in auditoriums in Dallas, and once at a state fair where he was right on the ground—you could almost reach out and touch the players.”

Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” Walton states, “is one of my favorite solo pieces. When I arrive at a hall and it’s time for soundcheck, I usually find myself playing it to test the piano. I usually play just the first part that appears on this record, but I found it very entertaining to elongate it for this occasion.”

On this tune, as throughout the proceedings, Walton takes great liberties, but never loses sight of essences. He sustains continuity, parsing, refining, reinventing, recontextualizing, playing no excess notes, imparting an aura of inevitability to the flow.

“When I first got to New York,” he recalls, hearkening back to the middle ‘50s,  “I’d see all these great artists and how they performed and worked. I thought, ‘Well, they didn’t teach that in school.’ Not the school I went to. This was the total professional world, and I was glad to be a witness to it.”

Whether so intended or not, Walton’s words are self-descriptive. On this reflective album, itself an underground memoir, he sublimates abundant technique and theoretical acumen to storytelling imperatives. In doing so, he teaches an invaluable lesson—which they don’t teach in school—about what it means to live your music.

* * * *

Cedar Walton Blindfold Test:

1. Art Tatum, “Just A Sittin’ And a Rockin’“, The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces, Pablo, 1953 (5 stars).

That’s either Art Tatum or one of the best imitators I’ve ever heard of him.  Incredible.  For some reason, during the first part of the piece… I haven’t listened to Tatum in a while, so I was wondering whether it couldn’t be possibly somebody playing in his style.  But as the song continued, it almost has to be him.  “Sittin’ and a Rockin’,” I think is the name of it.  I’ve heard this.  You know, I used to listen to Tatum practically every day.  So I must admit I sort of had forgotten how delicious he is.  It makes you want to play it.  And according to my piano, he’s in E-natural, which is a further challenge.  [TP:  He reharmonized it?] No, he just put it in a key that’s somewhat advanced. [LAUGHS] If my piano is in tune.  [TP: You have to give each one of these a star rating.]  Oh, I do?  Well, for it being Tatum, 5 stars.  If it’s an imitator… [TP: You knew it's Tatum.] Sure.  But guys like Markowitz and the late Jaki Byard could fool you for a while.  So if it’s Tatum I’d give it 5. [TP:  If it wasn't Tatum, what would you give them?] Oh, man I’d give them a 7!  Jesus Christ!  To come that close and not be him.

2. Stanley Cowell, “Evidence,” Sienna (Steeplechase, 1989)  (Ron McClure, bass; Keith Copeland, drums) (4 stars).

I was so fascinated by the drums and bass.  The piano sounded like someone who decided to give a lovingly mocking version of Monk’s “Evidence.” But I could be wrong. [LAUGHS] The drums were playing a Ben Riley style.  It didn’t sound like Buster.  I kept thinking of George Mraz.  The pianist is someone I don’t hear to often.  An educated guess would give me a combination of the gentleman who used to be with Strata East, Stanley Cowell. [TP: That's him.] That’s an educated guess, because I’m so close to the producer, Todd Barkan, who told me he had done something with Stanley.  So I am guilty of being educated on that one.  I’d give it 4 stars.  It was just delightful.  The only reason it wasn’t 5 is because…well, I just gave Tatum 5!  But 4 is pretty good, too.  It was an excellent rendition, and it was so swinging, I didn’t want it to stop.  I hope all of these aren’t that good!

3. Chucho Valdes, “El Rumbon (The Party)”, Religion of The Congo (Blue Note, 1999).

I don’t know exactly who this is, but again, an educated guess, Chucho Valdes has been very popular here lately.  From what I’ve heard, he wanted to utilize the percussion in that manner, almost as if, in some instances, he was playing one tempo and they were playing another.  Which didn’t disturb me; I found it intriguing!  Of course, I can relate to somebody playing the piano with different rhythms going on at the same time.  It made me feel immediately the challenge of how to straighten it out, more or less!  Who knows, maybe that’s something that doesn’t need straightening out.  So that just goes to hopefully highlight one culture as compared with another.  If it is Chucho, it’s Cuban jazz… [TP: It is Chucho.] So from what I’ve heard of him, he’s a strong player, and that sounded like a strong player.  Based on that, I would give it 4.

4. Mulgrew Miller, “Body and Soul,” (With Our Own Eyes, RCA, 1993).

A wonderful rendition of “Body and Soul” by a pianist who is obviously very well experienced in playing, and has just a totally what I call a full style — his or her chords are very full, utilizing some of the Coltrane approach to the song.  I don’t know who it is.  My first guess would be McCoy Tyner, but then some of the other aspects of the chordal approach suggested that it was not him, unless it was on a day when he felt like being subdued.  Then for some reason, Geri Allen came to mind… [TP: It was Mulgrew Miller.] Ah, Mulgrew!  Well, he does fit some of the first descriptions of the player, very full and experienced style.  I would give it 4 stars.

5. Bud Powell, “My Heart Stood Still” (The Bud Powell Trio Plays, Roost, 1953/1990)

That was somewhat difficult.  Of course, Bud Powell immediately comes to mind, somehow who I listened to over and over in my youth.  Then Barry Harris came along, and sometimes he’s fooled me and I thought he was Bud Powell.  Then, of course, the late Walter Davis, Jr., was even a more effective imitator of Bud when he was in the mood.  So I would have to go with Bud Powell in one of my big favorite songs, “My Heart Stood Still.”  However, if it wasn’t Bud, it might have been the other two.  I have to give it 5.  It was startlingly modern.  But I felt some of the recording equipment or technique was a little older than today’s, and that kind of gave me a clue.

6. Hank Jones/Chieck Tidiane Seck, “Hank Miri” (Sarala, Verve, 1995).

An educated guess, Monty Alexander.  But it’s not him, because it wasn’t quite Calypso-ish enough.  I couldn’t tell whether the same guy played on acoustic piano as the organ. [TP: They're different.] It’s two different people.  So I’m afraid you got me on that one. [TP: It's Hank Jones.] Who is the organ player? [TP: Chieck Tidiana Seck, a Malian musician who wrote the music, and it's a Malian ensemble.] Ted, I just wonder if anybody in this modern world could have guessed that!  I enjoyed it, but I need to hear more of it.  Now that I know who it is, I can hone in and see what they’re doing.  In Mali, I don’t know that music. [TP: What did you think of the way Hank Jones sounded?] Oh, he sounded great.  I’d know him, I think.  He sounds like the way I’ve studied and tried to learn how to play.  But the other people I did not know, and perhaps that’s normal. [TP: Well, one reason I like this record is because he makes himself part of the ensemble.  It's not like he's playing above it.] Oh, no. [TP: He did what a lot of American musicians won't do, which is...] Just join in. [TP: You join in, and he's still himself, which is why I like it.] Right.  For that reason I like it to.  Star-wise, I can’t give it but 3½, though, because I’m uneducated in that area.

7. Harold Mabern, “APAB and Others” (Straight Street, DIW, 1991).

A very fine solo performance by an artist I do not exactly know.  Many artists came to mind.  McCoy Tyner, Ahmad Jamal, even John Hicks.  But I do not know who it was.  I enjoyed the composition.  For that reason, I would give it 3 stars for the composition.  I don’t know who it is. [TP: Can you give it stars without knowing who it is for the performance?] Well, I’d give it 3½. [TP: It's Harold Mabern.] Aha!  Is it an original composition. [TP: It's "APAB," which I think is Ahmad, Phineas, Art and Bud.] Oh yeah, good.  Well, in that case he had a good composition going.  I love Harold.  He’s a dear friend and a very old acquaintances — probably 35 years. [TP: He took your place in the Jazztet.] He might have.  I haven’t heard him solo nearly as much as I would have liked to, and that’s why I may have missed it.

8. Ellington-Ray Brown, “Sophisticated Lady” (This One’s For Blanton, Pablo, 1972/1994).

There was a CD released recently called Some Of My Best Friends Are Piano Players.  So I suspect it might be Ray Brown and one of the pianists that he selected, but I don’t know exactly who the pianist was.  I would have to guess.  “Sophisticated Lady,” of course, has always been a classic, a big favorite of mine.  I like the song, I like Ray’s rendition.  He’s an impeccable soloist, I’d say the leading bass soloist in popular music.  Do I need to guess who the piano player is, too?  [TP: Yes.  You have to give it stars, too.] Stars I can give it.  I would give it 4 for Ray, 4 for “Sophisticated Lady.”  So 4 in all.  All around, 4.  But I do not know who the piano player was. [TP: Did you like the piano player?] Well, yes, but I’m annoyed because I don’t know who it is. [TP: It's Duke.] Ah, Duke Ellington.  Oh, okay.  So it was not what I said it was, Some Of My Best Friends Are Piano Players.  There was a run in there that was so distinctly Duke, I said, “Wow, that’s a guy who must have studied Duke pretty well.”  So there you are.  It was somebody who had studied Duke pretty well!  So forgive me, Duke.

9. Kenny Barron, “Have You Met Miss Jones” (Lemuria-Seascape, Candid, 1991) (Ray Drummond, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

It was a very crisp performance.  I can give it 4 stars for that alone.  Great song, “Have You Met Miss Jones.”  The pianist could be Kenny Barron, it could be Chick Corea; it could be Ben Riley, it could be Roy Haynes.  It sounded mostly to me like Kenny Barron or Chick Corea.  I feel like I’m probably wrong, but I’ll still give it 4 stars. [TP: No, you're right.  It's Kenny Barron, with Bulldog and Ben Riley.] It’s just excellent.  Par excellence.

10. Randy Weston, “Uncle Neemo” (Saga, Verve, 1995).

A delightful performance of probably an original piece, unless it’s a highly disguised version of a non-original piece.  I seem to have recognized Billy Higgins’ drum work, but if it was not, it was certainly one of his students, so to speak.  It reminded me of Randy Weston.  I couldn’t identify the bass player, even though he was humming while he was soloing, which should give him away, but I don’t remember anybody but Jimmy Garrison used to do that that emphatically.  But for the performance, I’d have to give it 4. [TP: It was Randy Weston, Alex Blake and Billy.] So I was close. [TP: You were on it.]  Was it one of Randy’s pieces?  It featured Billy a lot.  It was great.  4 stars.  Randy is still one of my favorite players.  He has a completely original style.  Loosely based on Monk at the beginning, but of course now he’s far away from those beginnings and he sounds like nobody but Randy.

11. David Hazeltine, “Waltz For Debby” (Waltz For Debby, Venus, 1999).

My guess is Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack deJohnette.   I’m dead-wrong, but I still enjoyed the performance.  It was a marvelous performance, even though it reminded me of those artists.  I would give it 4 stars for the performance.  I love “Waltz For Debby” by Bill Evans. [TP: It was David Hazeltine] I thought of him.

12. Ahmad Jamal & George Coleman, “The Essence” (The Essence, Verve, 1994).

[TP: First of all, Cedar said a minute into it: “Aha [LAUGHING], Ahmad Jamal and George Coleman.”  You’d heard about the record, then you inquired whether Ahmad would be comping or supporting.] Ahmad has a way of involving himself in the performance that is totally unique, I think.  It’s a very interesting record. Even though I’m not used to hearing Ahmad with the saxophone.  I thought especially the first part was very dramatic musically, and later on, too, some of the ways he dealt with sort of simple motifs that sounded like a minor motif. [TP: How has Ahmad Jamal's style changed from when you were listening to him in the '50s?] Well, it hasn’t changed that much.  It’s improved, if anything.  His technique is phenomenal now, but it was phenomenal then.  You know, “Poinciana” and “But Not For Me” displayed phenomenal technique, even though he had a lot more space which produced a lot of drama, I thought, and he relied heavily on his sidemen, Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier, to create moods which captivated the country.   I’d have to give it 4 stars.

13. Cecil Taylor/Elvin Jones, “It,” Momentum Space (Verve, 1998) 1947/1990)

[TP: Cedar said, "that didn't have to be Cecil Taylor, but that would be who I thought it is."] Yes.  And as far as the drummer, I couldn’t seem to figure him out.  I thought of Steve McCall and I thought of Andrew Cyrille. [TP: It was Elvin.] Elvin, I thought of him, too.  It was almost an accompaniment; there was very little of …(?)… I think I was able to guess some of the previous drummers with their accompaniment, but not in this case.  Anyway, Cecil has his own style, and I have a certain admiration for him for maintaining that style through the years.  He and I used to practice at Dave Amram’s house.  We both had keys, and Amram would go out of town, and sometimes I’d go there and discover him there, and vice-versa.  So we got to know each other.  I was working on my Bud Powell, he was working on his Cecil Taylor.  When I say “working,” that’s what I would hear him playing.  That’s how we became friends.  I still consider us friends.  We went in different musical directions.  But otherwise Cecil has had great success, and I say, for one, more power to him.  I’ll stick with 4 stars.  Cecil sounds like that, he plays like that; I wouldn’t know how to give him less or more.

14. Xavier Davis, “Old Folks” (Dance of Life, Metropolitan, 1998).

A very tasty rendition of a very old favorite, “Old Folks.”  The style contained many elements of a lot of people’s styles.  I’m guessing Tommy Flanagan.  I’m wrong.  I thought that might be wrong, because he did some things that Tommy doesn’t usually do.  So my next guess would be Barry Harris — and that’s wrong.  So I’ll have to go with I don’t know who it is, but for the rendition I’ll give it 3½. [TP: This is a young pianist, Xavier Davis.] Aha, good.  Well, bravo, Xavier.  You did a good job, and if you’re young and took an old chestnut like that and did so much with it, I think you have a very bright future.

_________________________________________________________________

I think it was a very representative collection of great pianists, and I found it very enjoyable trying to guess. I got a few right, and I knew I would get a few wrong.  The overall quality of that collection was of a very high level — first-rate.  I just think that if this level is maintained in this particular concept, if you will, which I consider Tradition, if that’s maintained, we of the Tradition community have nothing to worry about.

1 Comment

Filed under Blindfold Test, Cedar Walton, DownBeat, Liner Notes, Obituary, Piano

A 1997 interview with Buddy Montgomery for the Liner Notes of “Here Again”

In 1997, I had the honor of conducting interviews on consecutive days with Charles “Buddy” Montgomery (1930-2009), the vibraphonist-pianist, who was a kind of unsung hero on both instruments, for the liner notes for a Sharp-9 recording titled Here Again. In putting together the notes, I also called Slide Hampton, George Coleman, Michael Weiss, David Hazeltine, and Brian Lynch, all of whom were close to Montgomery, and admired his art tremendously. On the occasion of Montgomery’s 83rd birth-year, I’m posting the unedited transcript of all of the interviews below — lots of information.

* * *

Buddy Montgomery interview for “Here Again” (Slide Hampton, George Coleman, Michael Weiss, Tommy Flanagan, David Hazeltine, Brian Lynch):

TP:    Tell me about Jeff Chambers and Ray Appleton and your association with them?

BM:    As far as Ray as concerned, I played with him before I got to Milwaukee.  He’s from Indianapolis, like I am.  He’d done a couple of tours with me before I got to Milwaukee.  At one time he and Melvin worked with me in Milwaukee when I was playing vibes a lot.  I went back and forth between piano and vibes.  I used other guys, too.  I used (?)Roger Humphries(?) as a vibes player.  That particular trio was a (?) trio.  Ray I think has the best cymbal ride… I think there’s only a few guys who have that feel of the cymbal ride as Ray.  He has an original feel of it, pretty much from the old school, like Art Blakey, those kind of guys.  He knows the tunes.  We’ve had somewhat a relationship over the years, and it comes out in the music.

Jeff started so young with me.  He was about 18 years old, I think.  And he developed into a helluva good bass player.

I used them because when I write music it’s not always easy to put this music on any bass player or any drummer, so it’s best to use these same guys…

TP:    Talk about what you think is tricky about your music?

BM:    Well, it’s kind of hard for me to say what’s tricky, because I don’t see it as tricky.  I guess it’s the style I play or write or whatever you want to call it.  To me I think it’s simple as all-outdoors, but it seems to be a lot to remember, I guess, especially when I’m playing the vibes with other piano players.  There’s a lot to it.  It’s not just a few notes here and a few notes here.  And then I guess the way that you do it, the way you arrange a tune, your thoughts could be totally different from sometimes the regular case.  It’s a little bit different; I think just a little bit harder to get.

TP:    Did you start playing piano before the vibes or vibes before the piano?

BM:    I started piano first.  I started learning the instrument at 18 in a serious way.  Before I would just kind of sit around a lot and listen to music being played, Wes and other guys in my hometown coming by my house, jam sessions, and they used to try to show me a couple of tunes, and I’d listen to a couple of tunes.  I wouldn’t really get serious, and I would never sit down and try to learn the instrument until I turned 18 — then I decided I would get into it.

TP:    But obviously you must have been listening to music from the very beginning.

BM:    Well, it you want to put it that way, there was music in my soul from the time I was born.  My folks weren’t musicians, but they were singers and…you know, they were church people.  When I say “music in my soul,” that’s what I meant, because there has always been music in my family.  It was always there.  But that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in.

TP:    When did you start playing the vibes?

BM:    I bought a set of vibes in 1955, but they didn’t get delivered to me until 1956.  At that time, as soon as I got them, then I started practicing, and decided I wanted to do a lot of arranging.  I started making up tunes, making up arrangements, and I’d have whoever I could get to play them.  Actually, it was mostly… At that time my brother Monk had left town, so Wes played bass on a lot of my gigs.  He wasn’t a bass player, but he certainly would play the notes.

TP:    Who were some of the pianists in Indianapolis who were interesting to you who might have had some influence?

BM:    Earl Grandy.  He was, in my opinion, the daddy of music of Jazz, period, in Indianapolis.  He I would think is as far as any piano player I’ve ever heard, in my estimation, in terms of his knowledge.  His knowledge and his ear I don’t think could be beat by anybody.  Certainly there were things he couldn’t play as fast as Art Tatum, but his knowledge, as far as I’m concerned was up there.

TP:    Anyone else, or is Earl Grandy it?

BM:    Carl Perkins was about a year older than me.  We were friends, but we didn’t hang out.  We weren’t together that long in terms of being friends, because I got in it kind of late, and he left town a couple of years after I started getting into it.

TP:    You listed Tatum as your main influence in the Encyclopedia of Jazz.

BM:    Oh, yes.  Tatum I would say is probably on the top shelf of all piano players, and Bud Powell, and Erroll Garner, who a lot of folks think is too commercial, but I think he’s too incredible to say he’s just commercial!

TP:    Apart from in your family, did you go out to hear music in Indianapolis when he was a kid.  You’re about two years older than Slide Hampton, I guess.

BM:    Yes.

TP:    He mentioned there was a ballroom in Indianapolis that bands would begin their tours from.

BM:    Sure.  The Sky Club.

TP:    Describe the musical scene in Indianapolis as best you can for me when you were a kid.

BM:    Well, it was very lively, for sure.  There were an incredible amount of musicians for a small town like that.  It was just incredible.  There were an incredible number of good musicians at that time.  There was a tenor player there named Buddy Parker who I thought had a sound as good as anybody in the world, and he had a terrific style which didn’t sound like anybody else.  There was a guy by the name of Jimmy Coe who was an alto player who a lot of guys around the country really loved.  Cannonball heard him and liked him, and a lot of folks liked him.   There were two piano players who were brothers called the Johnson brothers, and they knew everybody.  They knew Art Tatum… They were stride piano players.  They were helluva players.

TP:    It must have been interesting to go to a party at their house!

BM:    Well, we had actually probably more parties than anybody at our house.

TP:    The Montgomery household.

BM:    Yeah.  That was kind of the hangout. [ETC.] Wes was six years older than me, and Monk was a year-and-a-half older than Wes.

TP:    I got some wrong birthdays.  Say a few words about each of your brothers.  Then I’d like to talk about how that family band started to get together.  First Monk, then Wes, musical and personal.

BM:    Before I do that, I’d like to mention something that no one else people aren’t familiar with.  I had an older brother, who was older than Monk or Wes, and taught Monk and Wes.  He was a drummer.  He was named after my father — Thomas.  I wanted everybody to know that, because he was a helluva drummer.  He was about two years older than Monk.  I didn’t know him.

As far as Monk is concerned, Monk was what I call the most colorful guy in the family.  He was kind of a leader.

TP:    He became a union leader in Vegas, I think.

BM:    Yes.  Oh, he did so many things.  He was just kind of a leader type person.  He was kind of head of the family, so to speak.  The older brother always is pretty much like that.  He started playing about the same time as Wes (they both started playing at about the same time), and he decided he wanted to play the bass, I guess, and he got into it, and he became pretty good.

TP:    What do you remember about how he started with the electric bass, since he’s known to be the innovator on that instrument?

BM:    Well, that happened when he joined Lionel Hampton’s band.  That’s when Hamp had him play the electric bass.  From there out he became the electric bass player.

TP:    Tell me about Wes, personal and musical.

BM:    It’s hard    to say about Wes, because the only thing you can say about him is how tremendous a player he was!  Everybody knows about …(?)…

TP:    Do you remember anything about his early years playing music?

BM:    You have to remember I’m 6½ years younger, and whatever I remember I wouldn’t …[CAR HONKING]… Like I say, most of my life I was not interested in music.

TP:    Why was that?

BM:    You’re asking me?  I should probably ask you!  I have no way of knowing.  I didn’t see music as anything that really I could get into it.  I wasn’t coming from the same place…

TP:    Was that because your brothers were so talented, or just because…

BM:    No.  And I never knew how talented they were!  You’re raised with them, you hear this all the time, and they weren’t no giant names.  A lot of people didn’t know who they were, just a few local people.  But Wes Montgomery wasn’t Wes Montgomery, the star.  They went to the table and ate like I did.

Wes was a hard worker at playing his instrument and learning his instrument.  He was a very lively guy.  He was very funny, a lot of humor.  You’d think you could think of a thousand things the minute you say “Wes Montgomery,” but it’s not like… You just need a few things to say…

TP:    I’ve read how hard he worked to get the mastery over the instrument.

BM:    Well, right.

TP:    What was it that made you all of a sudden get interested in music?

BM:    It was Wes.  Over a period of time he kept saying, “why don’t you check this out, or check this out.”  He and I were kind of close.  But I just never had been that interested in it.  I could hear him play, but I didn’t know that much about music.  It didn’t faze me anywhere like it does now.  But once I got into it, then I was a new person.  Then I was able to hear it, and down the line I was able to understand.  I could hear him talk about all those things, but I couldn’t… Hey, I was still a young teenager.

TP:    Did the piano come pretty naturally to you?

BM:    Well, I would have to say yeah, it came naturally, because if you don’t read music or anything like that, it’s a natural gift.

TP:    You don’t read music?

BM:    No.  None of us read music.  I guess that would be pretty natural.

TP:    Or in the soul, as you say.

BM:    Yeah.

TP:    What were some of the situations that the three of you first played together in around Indianapolis?  Did you work as a rhythm section accompanying bands from out of town or soloists from out of town?  How did that work?

BM:    We actually didn’t work that much together when I was beginning, because when I started playing I wasn’t very close to people like Earl Grandy.  I was just a beginner.  I was supposed to have been pretty good for a beginner.  But people always use that pretty loosely about this guy being good; you know, “He’s great” and all this.  You know, they kind of learn the instrument pretty well, they get around the instrument pretty well, but you still haven’t got to that one point where you’re considered a great pianist.  So I wasn’t on the level as Wes and Monk, but I was kind of cheered on as being great. [LAUGHS] But that wasn’t…

TP:    When do you think you started to turn the corner?

BM:    I think maybe kind of late, like ’53 or so.

TP:    So you’d been playing for about five years, and then you started saying something.

BM:    Yeah, I think I started turning the corner, and I started getting compositions… You know, bigger people.

TP:    When did you start functioning as a working piano player, then, with or without your family?  There’s a listing here that you went out with Joe Turner when you were 18.

BM:    That was only the one tour.  I was 18.  I really wasn’t qualifying.  This alto player I told you about, Jimmy Coe, he had the band behind the singer, and he asked me to go with him.  There was another Blues piano player, I think, who was scheduled to go, and couldn’t make it, so I was asked to go.  I didn’t know that much really as far as going on the road and playing on that level.  I was only 18.  I’d just gotten started; I’d only been playing for about six months or so.  But he thought I was good enough to go, so I went, and it was a very enjoyable experience for me.  It was down South.  My first time.

TP:    What was the Hampton Brothers band like?

BM:    Slide had a brother who I felt was one of the best trumpet players and arrangers around, named Maceo.  He and Maceo did arrangements, I think Maceo did most of them, primarily Jazz arrangements.  They had sisters and brothers, and I think the whole band, except maybe three or four, were family.  I had gone over to their house many times just to hang out.  He had another brother named Lucky(?), a tenor player.  The three of those guys were more into a heavier jazz thing, and I played with them off and on.

TP:    Were you playing exclusively Jazz, or a lot of different styles of music?

BM:    It was exclusively Jazz for the most part, except this one trip I took with a Blues singer.  Then naturally, back then, when you played shows, you played whatever the performers you played with were playing, the singer, the dancer, whatever — you played whatever that was.  But in terms of going looking for your own job, certainly strictly Jazz, Bebop and stuff.

TP:    Did you say that your writing and arranging began with getting the vibraphone?

BM:    Yes.  Well, I always did arrangements.  I did all the music for the brothers.  Everybody had a job, and that was my job, to take care of rehearsals.  Every now and then, Wes would write a couple of tunes.  He didn’t do that much arranging, but he had some tunes.

TP:    What was his job?

BM:    He took care of the getting back on time, the bandstand kind of thing, calling the tunes and all that kind of stuff.  Monk took care of all the business.

TP:    Who was Roy Johnson?  Again, the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet from ’55 to ’57.

BM:    Let me explain, because when you ask me a question, then I have to talk about each individual.  But if you mention the particular group, the group that worked at the Turf Club was called the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet.  There were two guys named Johnson and two guys named Montgomery.  Our drummer had played with Slide’s family band for many years, Sonny Johnson we called him (I’ve forgotten his real name).  And Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson was the tenor player.

TP:    A few words about the Master Sounds.  How that evolved, how you got from Indianapolis out to the West Coast.

BM:    The Master-Sounds happened after I brought my vibes.  After I brought my vibraphone is when I started trying to need a new sound, and that’s when I started writing, trying to get a new sound for a group.  That’s when I started using a piano player named Al Plank from the Indianapolis area.  He was never part of any group that I’d had, but he worked on several different occasions when I’d put this group together, and Wes was the bass player.  So this was my beginning in doing this quartet with vibes.  Then later I got with Monk.  Monk had just left our band and went on the road again, then he and I got together, and we moved to Seattle.  First we didn’t just move to Seattle; he was working there, and I called him, and he got a little gig for us — and that’s how it began.  [INAUDIBLE] He’s the one who contacted the piano player for us.

TP:    That’s the situation that brought the Montgomery name to public awareness, I guess, beyond Indianapolis.

BM:    Well, that’s the first time we did it on any kind of level.  Because we had recorded earlier, maybe three or four years before that, but nothing really happened out of the album.

TP:    You were briefly with Miles Davis.  What do you want to tell me about that experience?

BM:    There’s not a lot I want to say about that, because…

TP:    I’ve heard the story, whether or not it’s apocryphal or not…

BM:    There’s 50,000 different stories on that, and they’re all embarrassing.  I mean, that’s been the biggest issue of all!  I certainly can’t blame them, because there’s enough there to talk about.  And depending on how you look at it… It didn’t faze me any…

TP:    It was you and Miles on the front line on trumpet and vibes, or was Coltrane still in it?

BM:    You forgot Coltrane!

TP:    No, I didn’t know if you were in there after Coltrane left or not.

BM:    No, I was in after Cannonball left.  All the same guys were still there.

TP:    I have a clip that announces you joining the band at the Sutherland in Chicago?

BM:    Oh, really?  That was the first gig.

TP:    Apart from the stories, was it an enjoyable experience?

BM:    Well, it was a top-of-the-line experience.  I mean, it had to be with nothing but the top-of-the-line players.  It was the group!  It was certainly fulfilling, and it was certainly a level that kept you on your toes.  I joined them, and it was really weird, he respected me just as much as anybody else…. I got the respect, and I got a good groove, I got a good feeling from everybody.  It was just… It’s kind of hard for me to explain.

TP:    Did you tour consistently throughout the ’60s with Wes, or was there a time when Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb were the touring band?

BM:    I think they only did one or two jobs with Wes.

TP:    So that was primarily for recording.

BM:    As far as I can remember.  I’m not totally clear, but I don’t remember a whole lot that happened.  I remember the record date that they did in California with Wynton, because I was managing the club.  I’m the one that got them there to do it.  I remember they did concerts together then, one or two jobs, but that was it.  I know Wes went to Europe for maybe a week or something like that, and he used Jimmy Lovelace as the drummer (because Jimmy had worked with me in San Francisco), and he used Harold Mabern.  But you know how that is, guys go out with whoever and then they come back.  But that was just for that trip.

TP:    But the brothers toured pretty much until Wes died, I take it.

BM:    Yeah.  We were together up until he died.  I don’t know exactly when we got back together.  We were off and on, and the last maybe two or three years we were together.

TP:    Do you find different sides of yourself come out on the piano and on the vibes, and if so how would you describe that?

BM:    I have a problem sometimes, because the music that I arrange and that I try to compose is more important to me than actually playing.  Sometimes I don’t put as much… And I’ve learned to do it better and better as I get older, because I’m able to play equally or close to equally as well as I’m able to compose, and that’s not always been the case.  It’s like anything that want to do and you’re trying to work to make something happen, that’s the most important thing in your life…

TP:    That’s an interesting thing to say.

BM:    Yeah.  It means more to me sometimes to arrange something than it does to play it.

TP:    And you find that as you keep evolving and getting older, the intensity with which you improvise is becoming more focused?

BM:    It’s coming together to where, when I write a tune, I can somehow play it and feel that I’ve done a pretty good job playing it.  A lot of times in the past, when I was writing arrangements for the group, I would write the arrangement and that would be the only thing that was on my mind, because I knew that I knew how to play the instrument.  It’s just that once I got there, I didn’t spend enough time playing the instrument!  So on my earlier records, my playing was nowhere like what I know I can do.

TP:    Would you rank this record, Here Again, as the most successful, or one of?

BM:    I wouldn’t say that particular record… I’d say that today I’m able to put together… The piano I got to play was the piano I asked for, at least in name.  I wanted a Steinway, and that’s what they prepared for me.  But the Steinway I don’t think had been played that much, and it was a little stiff for my taste.  I might have done a better job with a piano that was a little looser.  It made some things a little sloppy.  A lot of people might not detect it, but…

TP:    Did you write the originals for this date, or are some of these older pieces?

BM:    Oh, some of these tunes I had done… I’ve got so many tunes that I just have not recorded.  A few are things I’ve done before.

TP:    How many tunes would you say you have that are still unrecorded?

BM:    Oh, it’s hard to tell.  I know for a fact there’s over 100.  Some of them aren’t completed.  It’s just that I never worry about completing my songs, because when it comes time I know how to put it together.

[END OF 9-1-97 CONVERSATION]

TP:    “Here Again.”  Mark says this refers to the reunion of the trio.

BM:    Well, let me start a little further back.  I write (or I compose a lot of tunes) and never put titles to them, because I’m not always inspired by a particular young woman or this or that or anything; I’m mainly inspired by the music.  So when I put a tune together, I hear certain things and that’s what I do, and for the majority of people that I know, that’s where I get my titles from.  I mean, not all the time, but a lot of times on titles, people say they heard a tune, they liked it, it sounds like this, and ..(?)..

TP:    Is composition something that you work on in a very disciplined way?  Are you constantly writing tunes, thinking about music?

BM:    I am constantly thinking music all the time.  I don’t think there’s any composer who can say every time he thinks of something he turns out music — or I don’t know of any.  But you hear certain things… I’m lucky to hear a good musical line that I think is creative, and I think has a good sound to it, a good feeling to it, and if I’m able to get anything more than that, then I’m more or less blessed.

TP:    When you are composing a piece, since you don’t read music or write music, does it become sort of imprinted on your mind, and you wind up teaching it to people by getting them a cassette or going over it one-on-one with them?

BM:    Exactly what you said.  I’m not a writer, because I can’t write, but I’m a composer, so when I put a tune together it usually stays in mind.  I can hear voicings over the years, certainly I hear voicings, and I know what I want everybody to play.  It’s the hard way! [LAUGHS] I did this album with my brothers and five others, you know, and that was with Freddie and a whole lot of people and I had to show each guy separate notes.  That’s not the easy way out.  If you can write this stuff down, you’d do it.  But since I couldn’t write, I just remembered everything I wanted.

TP:    I heard Thad Jones did that to some degree also for the Orchestra, although the parts down.  And it makes sense, because his stuff was so different than anybody else…

BM:    Yeah.  Well, Thad was incredible.  The difference is, he could read, too!  But where I’m concerned, I don’t really know how to write stuff down, and it’s nobody’s fault but my own.  But I rely more on my ear.  And I’m kind of comfortable with that.  It’s kind of the hard way out, but I’m comfortable with that, and I like to be able to sit down and show everybody everything, to be able to show the notes, and then if it’s not right I’m able to change the note — but it’s not that much different from what I hear.

TP:    That said, tell me about “Here Again.”

BM:    “Here Again” is a tune that I actually wrote for another record date, and it didn’t come across.  But I had written it some years ago, and… I have many tunes that I have laying around on tape, and when I talked with Mark about doing this, he said he’d like to hear me play more original tunes.  So I pulled some things off the tape that I had along with several other things, and I thought, “That could be one-of,” and another…

Let me tell you about the title of it.  The title of it, when we just got to New York, when the bass player, Jeff Chambers, got to New York, he said, “Well, we’re together again” — meaning that for the last 25 years we’ve been working off-and-on, sometimes a longer stint than the others.  He said, “Well, we’re back together again.”  He said, “Man, I’ve got a title for at least two of your songs, if you don’t mind.”  I said, “No, give it to me.”  He said, “Here Again.”  That’s where that whole idea came from.

TP:    Can you say something about the structure of it?

BM:    It’s kind of hard for me to talk about the structure of it, because I can’t put it in the way I’d like to put it, technical ways.  I’m no good at that.  If I feel I can’t really explain it where it makes sense, I won’t.

TP:    Why don’t we try.  And if it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t make sense.

BM:    Well, I’d just rather… Are you a musician?

TP:    I’m not a musician… [ETC.]

BM:    Well, I don’t know to say it.  It’s just not a tune that I can relate to you.

TP:    Fine.  Let’s talk about “A Thousand Rainbows.”

BM:    I recorded “A Thousand Rainbows” many, many years ago.  It was on a label my brother, Monk, had out of Las Vegas, the Bean label.  Monk used to call his son Bean.  It was on his label that I did this, and I recorded it with a sextet, Harold Land and Carmell Jones.  When he died, nobody knew what happened to the masters.  I have a copy of the record.  You know, they couldn’t find the masters for anything, but I had one because I helped finance the date.  Anyway, I hadn’t played it since, and I always kind of liked the tune.

TP:    Let’s talk about “Blues For David.”

BM:    I recorded that sometime ago; I think twice, I’m not sure.  I did it on a date with Fathead and Clifford Jordan, and I also recorded that with another one of my groups.

TP:    When you’re going in there on a tune like that, or “A Thousand Rainbows,” are you thinking of the previous version and trying to do something to differentiate from it, or has the tune evolved in your mind?  Do your compositions change over 30 years?

BM:    Right.  The basic thing doesn’t change, actually, but there are some parts of it that you want to make it sound more up to date, and you want to… It gives you a chance to do some things that you didn’t do on the first one.  On “A Thousand Rainbows,” the melody varies, especially in the bridge.  The basic structure is the same chord-structures-wise; in how it moves, they’re all the same.  But the melody differs just a little bit here and there.

TP:    The next one is “Hob Nob With Brother Bob.”

BM:    Well, I did a record date with… I actually found that on a date that I used Jeff and Ray and a couple of conga players, and I also used Herman Riley, a tenor player out here, and a trumpet player (the best trumpet player out here; I can’t remember his name) and Kevin Eubanks.  It’s never been released.  I still have the master.  I haven’t been able to get a deal on it yet.  But I recorded that “Hob Nob” on that date, and since that was over two years ago and nothing happened with it, I decided to do it again.

TP:    The last of the originals is “Aki’s Blues.”

BM:    That’s named after my godson, Jeff Chambers’s son.

TP:    Is that a recent composition?

BM:    Yes, within the last year-and-a-half.  I did this on a Kevin Eubanks record date with Ralph Moore and Jimmy Cobb, and he did the same as I.  He still owns the master, but nothing has happened with it yet, so I decided to record it.

TP:    So those two are more recent, and “Blues For David” and “A Thousand Rainbows” are older pieces, and “Here Again” is also an older piece.

BM:    Right.

TP:    Which you never recorded.

BM:    Right.

TP:    I’ll ask you about the standard.  “You’ve Changed.”

BM:    “You’ve Changed” is somewhat of a yesterdays tune for me.  It’s not anything new.  And I’m partial to old tunes.

TP:    Is it something you’ve been playing a long time?

BM:    Off and on, all my life.  But I mean, it’s not something when I go into a club I automatically think of playing.  It’s just every now and then I think of some of those old standards that I like.

TP:    Are you very interested in singers and in lyrics?  I gather you’ve played with a fair number of singers in years back.

BM:    Yes.  I would have to say some singers and some lyrics.

TP:    Let me put it this way.  In the tunes you’re playing that are standards, is the lyric something that’s paramount in your mind as you’re playing?

BM:    No.

TP:    It’s a purely musical proposition.

BM:    Right.  It has a lot to do with, after I play them, how do we come together between the song and me.  Because all of these tunes… I mean, there are thousands of songs I’ve played over the years, and I would play them.  Some of them were nice tunes, some were great, but we don’t come together enough to make a difference, if you know what I mean.  And there are certain tunes, just the way it falls, the changes don’t lay a certain kind of way that interests me.  Sometimes a melody might be great, but I don’t care about the changes.  There are certain things about certain songs.  But then you find a tune that has a nice melody and the changes are beautiful, too, and then it seems to come together with the way my thinking does — and then that’s me.

TP:    In playing piano, were you influenced, apart from pianists, by horn players, in thinking about creating lies and so forth?

BM:    Yes.  It’s kind of hard to get away from being influenced by horn players, because they are the front line, and usually you don’t get anything done until you hear them first. [LAUGHS] So your influence is when you hear them solo.  They can’t play two notes at one time.  I got (?) from Charlie Parker and Dizzy…

TP:    So in the ’40s, you were listening to Bird’s solos and Dizzy’s solos, and internalizing them?

BM:    Oh, so many, many guys.  Sure, all those guys and more.

TP:    Name a few others.

BM:    Sonny Stitt, Dexter, Gene Ammons… Not that I sound like any of them, but just the fact that you get something from each one.  Sometimes you don’t realize what you got from different people.  When I look at it, I’d have to say I got probably more of the chord structure and everything from piano, naturally, but your ideas can come from anywhere.

TP:    Plus I guess hearing your brothers.

BM:    Oh, certainly.  And then my brother had to hear somebody!

TP:    It’s an endless circle, isn’t it.

BM:    Sure.  We have to be inspired by somebody.  But when you hear him play, you don’t necessarily hear those people.

TP:    Some musicians started off copying solos off records, analyzing them, but you sound like someone who had an idea of what music should sound like, and went for that, and put what you heard within whatever situation you were playing in.

BM:    I wish that was true.  I’m more of an honest guy.  Like most everybody else, I copied solos.

TP:    Tell me three solos you copied when you were young.

BM:    Oh, I couldn’t tell you three.  I could tell you a hundred!

TP:    Well, tell me five then!  For instance, Tatum!

BM:    I can’t tell you solos I copied.  I can tell you people.  Bud Powell, Nat Cole, Erroll Garner, the guys who I think were the top players.  Art Tatum.  I mean, there was just so much I could copy from Tatum!  It was just too hard to imagine yourself trying to do some of that stuff.  But I mean, it didn’t stop you from copying some of the things.  But then you had to turn it around and… My good fortune is, you don’t particularly hear it.  You hear everybody at the same time you still hear me, and that’s all I was after.

TP:    That’s what everybody says, you don’t sound like anybody else.  Did those guys come through Indianapolis?  Did you get to see Erroll Garner or Bud Powell or Tatum first-hand?

BM:    Well, I didn’t see Bud first-hand in Indianapolis.  I saw him in New York at Birdland and Chicago.  But I saw Art Tatum… I saw those people there in concerts.

TP:    Where would they play concerts?

BM:    It was a place downtown called the Circle Theater?

TP:    Was that the main black theater in Indianapolis?

BM:    No, that was a White theater downtown.  People in our neighborhood probably couldn’t afford it.  But that’s the place where they had… It was those Norman Granz concerts.

TP:    Was Indianapolis a stop on the circuit for guys like Bird or Sonny Stitt or James Moody?  Would they pick up a local rhythm section…

BM:    They’d bring their own rhythm section.

TP:    So you got to hear all of them, and they got to hear you coming through.

BM:    In the earlier days they didn’t get to hear me because I really wasn’t good enough to play, but I went to hear them.

TP:    But by the early ’50s you…

BM:    Oh, by the early ’50s, when I was playing, sure.  I got to hear them, and they got to come out to jam sessions with us and all that kind of stuff.  If you’re talking about my beginnings, that started when I was 18.

TP:    Slide Hampton said that you and your brothers would practice all day long, for hours and hours and hours together, and you wouldn’t even play a tune in public unless you’d worked on it for several weeks.  Is that true?

BM:    That’s kind of true. [LAUGHS]

TP:    Does that kind of perfectionism mark the association all the way through.

BM:    We practiced all the time.  I’ll put it that way.   Especially Wes and I.  There was a time when Wes and I would practice, and nobody else.  But then the group would practice every day.  Maybe it was the kind of thing where we felt that strongly about what we were doing. [END OF SIDE]

TP:    Describe, if you can recollect it, what one of those days would be like, practicing all day?

BM:    I mean, it would just be putting some material together.  I couldn’t describe it any more than just working hard at what you’re doing.  A lot of that could be just personal practicing, and some of it could be just something you thought of.

TP:    I’m sure you’d mutually inspire each other.

BM:    Well, yeah.  It had to influence you a lot, certainly once you start playing together.  Say, man, you have got to be writing a boo    ok.

TP:    Just tell me what the venues in Indianapolis were that the brothers played.

BM:    The Turf Club.

TP:    Was that the main place?

BM:    That was the main place.

TP:    That’s where everybody came through?

BM:    That was it.  We played certainly a few jobs outside the city, and we played concerts here and there, one-nighters or a concert, but the basic job was at the Turf Club.

TP:    I have to talk to you about your time in Milwaukee.  Since this band is sort of a bringing back together of the trio in Milwaukee, I need to ask you about the circumstances, the scene, etc.  Flanagan and George Coleman both said they met you the first time when you were playing in Milwaukee at this hotel.

BM:    Right.

TP:    What was the hotel?  What were the circumstances of the gig?

BM:    It was inside the Mark Plaza Hotel, and the name of the room was the Bombay Bicycle Room – the BBC is what we called it.  It was just a room where they wanted music in there.  They didn’t care who or what.  They just wanted a guy sitting there playing piano by himself.  So I went in there as a single…

TP:    Do you remember what year?

BM:    It was 1970 or ’71, probably ’70.

TP:    So shortly after you moved to Milwaukee.

BM:    Right.  I went there playing singles, and I played there for several months, and then I got bored.  I said, “Well, I’m just going to have to quit.”  They didn’t want me to hire a trio or nothing, and so I said, “Well, what the heck.”  But then a strange thing happened.  Erroll Garner was working I think about six weeks across from me with his trio, and he used to come over on the break all the time.  We’d sit there and we’d talk.  One night I told him I was bored playing, sitting there playing by myself.  He said, “I know what you mean.  I had to do this a few times myself.”  He and I were somewhat friends.  Then he came out to dinner one day, and he said, “Buddy, I’ve got something to tell you.”  “What?”  He said, “Man, don’t quit the job.  I just heard through a meeting I was at that they’re going to let you have a trio.”  That’s how I ended up staying there so many years.

TP:    Did you stay there until you left Milwaukee?

BM:    I stayed at the hotel until about two years before I left, about 1980.

TP:    I gather from Brian and Hazeltine that you were not averse to letting young guys sit in with you and play with you.

BM:    Oh, no.  I used to do that all the time.  As a matter of fact, I kind of made a stage… Because I was also President of the Jazz Society there, and we brought people out.  That’s how George Coleman and a lot of folks got there.  I’d bring all kinds of people, Eddie Harris, you name them.

TP:    Was it a nice little scene in Milwaukee?

BM:    It turned out to be a nice little scene.  It was terrible before I got there!  But that turned out to be the place.  People would be coming down from Chicago to hear us play.  So we were drawing a lot of folks.  It got to be the place.  Not only that, you’d find a lot of stars every now and then come through there.  But when something comes to be the place, that’s the only place to go when you get there.

TP:    I know you said this yesterday, but just tell me once again how Jeff Chambers came into the group.  And about him as a bass player.

BM:    Well, I was auditioning bass players.  I started in with a different trio than Jeff and Ray.  I had a different bass player and a different drummer, and I worked there for a short while before I decided to change, and I would audition bass players.  Somebody told me about Jeff Chambers, and he came down to audition.  When I heard him, he didn’t know anything about Jazz, but he had a great feeling, and he was strong, he had good time.  I was really fortunate to have somebody who plays good time, and to be so young, he had such great time, and he had a good feeling.  I know that once I could teach him everything else that he needed to know musically, then that would be the guy that I’d want.

TP:    How would you evaluate him now?

BM:    I think he’s one of the best.  I don’t think he has the experience… He’s certainly not Ray Brown, he’s not on that level, but he’s one of the best of the ones that’s coming through.

TP:    When you spoke about Ray Appleton yesterday, your words didn’t come through so well over the phone.

BM:    Ray was working with me for many years before Jeff, off and on, not in a constant way.  I took him on a tour once with me, and then we worked a couple of things together.  But basically, we didn’t start working regularly together until I came to Milwaukee.  Ray has always had two things that I like about any drummer.  He has the cymbal beat, a beat on the ride cymbal that I think is his strength.  When you think about it… When you’re at a club you don’t pay any attention to it, but it’s there.  It’s got a feel.

TP:    You’d know if it’s missing.

BM:    Oh, definitely.  And I don’t mean that any drummer can play it.  He just has something that’s kind of built-in like Art Blakey, those kind of guys.  There’s just something there that you can’t explain it.  They can’t explain it!  It’s just there.  And he’s got that going for him.  And his feel, he’s got a feel that is part of that historical feel that old-line drummers had.  I think that’s the one thing that makes him different from anyone else, and when he’s really up to par and he really plays… He doesn’t always play that.  But when he’s really up to par, you hear some grooves that you just don’t hear.

TP:    I forgot to ask you about “Old Black Magic” and “Invitation.”

BM:    As to “Old Black Magic,” when I’m doing an album, I like to do mixtures of things.  I’d like to think I have a mixed bag of tunes and styles, and I’m not one of those musicians who feel like if I’m not playing Bebop I’m not playing.  I just feel like if I’m playing whatever it is the best I can do, then I’m going to play it.  Because that’s the reason I have it.  I just think that “Old Black Magic” is a different vibe, and the way I play it is a different vibe.  When I play a ballad I sometimes get caught up in it, because I don’t know whether to give it the same kind of feel on the vibes when I’m playing vibes… You can get caught up when you’re trying to play different styles sometimes.  If it comes out right, you’re in good shape.

TP:    How about “Invitation”?

BM:    “Invitation” is pretty much the same thing.  I try to… Some of those tunes, if you’ve got technical ability to do certain things, you can get caught up into the technical abilities without laying back and playing the tune.  That’s what happens to me sometimes.  I can hear both, but then there are times when I think the other, and it …(?)… That’s the only thing.

Slide Hampton on Buddy Montgomery:

TP:    Buddy said that he played with your family band.

SH:    We were already in Indianapolis.  My father and brother and sister and mother were all musicians.

TP:    He mentioned particularly your brother Maceo as being a great arranger and trumpeter, and you had another brother who played tenor.

SH:    That was Lucky who played saxophone.  He was great player, played very good, was also a composer and arranger. Maceo was the most talented one in the family.  He played trumpet and all the instruments, and he was a composer and arranger and everything.  Buddy and Maceo were very close.

TP:    Did you know Buddy when he started playing the piano?  He said he started taking it seriously when he was 18.

SH:    Well, I met him probably around that time, but they were already playing together with the Montgomery group.

TP:    What was that group like?

SH:    They were great.  Very talented guys, naturally.  Of course, they didn’t study.  All of their stuff was self-taught.  But the thing about the Montgomery’s was they used to get together and practice together all day, every day.  They practiced together for hours, and before they’d play a song in public they work on it for weeks!  They were very serious.

TP:    So they were always that thorough, from the getgo.

SH:    How would you characterize Buddy’s style in the early 1950’s or so, around the time he was playing with your brothers and you?

TP:    Well, one of his first influences was Art Tatum.  He and the whole family had really good ears, so they could hear anything and learn it.  They were just exceptional.  And they were very inspiring to us because they were so serious about the way they prepared whatever program they were going to play.  But he himself was just a really talented guy, one of those people who only comes along once in a while.

TP:    He’s one of the only musicians I’ve spoken to who said he has a natural gift.

SH:    It was completely natural.  It was so natural, in fact, it was so natural for them… They took it seriously in a way, but in another way they took themselves very lightly.  They did it because it was natural and they loved it.  They never thought about what trying to impress other people with whatever they did.  They just did it because they loved it.  And their arrangements… Buddy did most of the arranging for the group.  It was just incredible, because when he first started, I think he played usually in the keys that nobody else plays in.

TP:    And that was just a natural thing, what he heard.

SH:    That was a natural thing for him, yes.

TP:    He said his writing is kind of tricky for people.

SH:    It is.

TP:    What is it about his writing that’s tricky?

SH:    Actually, the kind of ensembles and things that he wrote, first of all, were completely different.  They didn’t have 32-bar forms.  I don’t think they ever did anything like that.  Their forms were always different, and they had a lot of different changes of keys and all of that.  It was never limited to any of the things that we… Usually, when we do a form, we do something in 32-measures in the key of B-flat, and most of the key center is around B-flat except maybe in the bridge.  But them, whatever key it was in, which I guess they sometimes didn’t know what key it was in… But they would never stay around the key center very much.  They would go around all the keys, and once in a while, I guess, the key center would show up.  Also, the melodies he wrote very extensive.  He wrote notey melodies with different kinds of patterns in them, patterns that most of the time we wouldn’t… Our things would be based on things that were a little bit more traditional.  But their things were very original.

TP:    Do you think that’s still the case with him today insofar as you listen to him these days?

SH:    I think he tries to be a little bit more conventional, but he’s still very original.  That’s the reason why most of his things are a little tricky for people.

TP:    Do you remember when he started playing vibes?  He said that’s what really spurred him to compose and arrange, because he needed to get a new sound.

SH:    Really?  I know when he first started playing, but I don’t know what year it was.

TP:    He said it was 1956, and he was playing in the Johnson-Montgomery band with Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson on tenor and Sonny Johnson on drums, and Wes was playing bass because Monk was out of town.

SH:    I didn’t know he started it that early.  At that time I was with Lionel Hampton, so I was away from Indianapolis.

TP:    How would you characterize his style vis-a-vis his style on the piano, if you can make that distinction?

SH:    It’s very similar.  Of course, the technique of the vibraphone is different, so there’s going to be some limitations there.  But you still hear the Buddy Montgomery lines.

George Coleman on Buddy Montgomery:

TP:    When did you first either hear or become aware of Buddy Montgomery?

GC:    Oh, I’ve been knowing about Buddy for a long time.  But I didn’t really know how great he was until I had an opportunity to play with him some 20 years ago in Milwaukee when he was living there.  The band was him, with Ray Appleton and Jeff Chambers.  I remember everything being great.  He played piano on this particular gig.  I think he had his vibes set up, and played a couple of vibe tunes, but basically it was piano.  But he’s excellent on both instruments.

One thing I can say about Buddy:  Buddy is probably the greatest musician that I’ve known who’s a natural.   He’s just a natural musician.  Buddy is not a reader and all of that.  Everything he does is great, though.  I mean, his harmonic concept on the piano, the way he voices his chords, and everything he does is like he’s classically trained.  But he’s not.  He’s like a cat sort of maybe like an Erroll Garner.

TP:    Who he said was one of his biggest influences.

GC:    Yeah.  Well, that’s what he is.  He’s one of those kind of guys.  He’s just a natural.  That’s what I mean by a natural musician, and his musicianship is great.  I’m able to determine his ability more from his piano playing,  because I can hear all those great harmonics that he plays, all those great changes and the way he voices his chords.  All of that stuff is original to him, it’s Buddy Montgomery.

Michael Weiss on Buddy Montgomery:

MW:    I think that Buddy and his brother, Wes, not reading music, has had a positive effect in the sense that they are such strong ear players, and players are like that are sometimes better equipped to play in any key easier than other musicians, because their ears are so strong.  That might have resulted in Buddy’s ability to play tunes in less standard keys.  They’re not encumbered by the written page as much, and they’ve had to survive with their wits, with their ears, and as a result are much sharper, have much sharper ears than guys who read music.

TP:    If you can come up with commonalities in his compositions, what would you say are the dynamics of his writing and his improvising style?

MW:    I guess there’s parallels to both.  We has a great harmonic sensibility.  He has a way of reharmonizing standards in a very sophisticated way, and this carries over to his own compositions, too.  He really understands how chords are put together, and when he reharmonizes standards he always finds a way to personalize those tunes with not only reharmonization but the new melodic possibilities that reharmonization presents.  A lot of people try and do this with much less success.  Buddy has a lot of success doing it because he has good taste and good musical sensibilities.  A lot of people try and reharmonize standards, but sometimes it doesn’t have the same kind of effect.  It sounds technical, it sounds obvious…

TP:    And he’s always musical.

MW:    Very musical, right.  However he reharmonizes a tune, or if it’s his own tune, it’s always going to be very musical and very soulful.  I think another things that really makes Buddy stand out as a composer and improviser is there’s just a very strong emotional element to the way he plays.  It’s very heartfelt.  He doesn’t play things that are just like throwaway technical kind of things.  The blues is always an active component.  It’s not in an obvious way; it’s an understated way.  There’s always a lot of feeling in what Buddy plays, let me put it that way.

TP:    How would you distinguish, if you can, between his style on the piano and the vibraphone?

MW:    Well, adding on to playing with a lot of feeling, he has… He can do two things.  He really knows how to breathe.  He can breathe and let… Some of his tunes, like “Waterfall”… When he plays a ballad, for example, he’s not afraid to leave space, to let a phrase hang out there and really sing.  I’ve learned a lot about that from him.  But on the other side of the coin, he can play long strings of lines, but they flow in such a sophisticated way that… He’s really cliche-free.  The thing about Buddy, he’s really his own man.  He is as modern as any of his younger generation, like the Herbie Hancocks and so forth.  I mean, he’s older than those guys, yet he sounds just as contemporary, but without being influenced really by that generation.  He’s really forged his own path in a very modern style without coming through all these accepted influential modern jazz piano innovators — McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea.8

TP:    Well, he says that Art Tatum, Erroll Garner and an Indianapolis pianist named Earl Grandy were the big influences on him.  And George Coleman without prompting said he reminds him of Erroll Garner because he’s such a natural player.

MW:    Right.  He has a lot of Erroll Garner in him.  But he puts it in a context where unless you’re really hip you wouldn’t notice it.

TP:    Buddy said (and Slide Hampton cosigned it) that his music is tricky to play. [ETC.]

MW:    Well, there’s a lot of intricacies that you just have to be ready for, I guess.  I think the main thing is, he doesn’t write music.  Whoever plays with him has to learn his tunes by ear.

TP:    How does that affect the way a band sounds?

MW:    I think it brings them closer to the composer and the leader, for the reason that if they have to learn the music from a tape of him playing it, they’re learning it right from the source.  Sheet music is kind of an impersonal second representation of certain elements of the music; in other words, the melody, the rhythm, the chords.  The music is just a representation.  Sometimes, if you’re just looking at music, you don’t have anything else to go on about what the music is about other than just these symbols in front of you.  But if you have to learn the music from the sound of the composer playing it himself, you will pick up on various nuances that you cannot readily notate.  Therefore, that brings you all the more closer to the music and how the composer wants to interpret it, and the whole feeling behind it.  So actually the best way for someone to learn your music is if they have to learn it by ear, sight-reading it.  Reading is often a very impersonal and kind of cold representation that gives only a bare outline.  The more people read, the less they hear.  When you don’t have music to distract you, you’re forced to give 100 percent to your ears.  And this is what someone like Buddy Montgomery has always been doing all along because he doesn’t read.

TP:    i think that’s really all I need to know, unless you can think of some points that I’m missing.

MW:    Well, Buddy is a big influence on me as an improviser and a composer.  He’s affected my playing quite a bit, a lot from the things we discussed, the strength of the feeling, the soul that he puts into his playing… Just trying to get a lot of depth of emotion in what you’re playing.  Breathing, taking time to say what you want to say.  His sound on the piano, his voicings.

[END OF CASSETTE SIDE]

TP:    …the way he’s influenced your playing.

MW:    The emotional integrity or impact that he has in what he plays, whether it’s chord harmonies or single-line.  There is an emotional intent with everything he plays, and it comes across.  It’s very strong, heartfelt playing.  His choice of harmonies also is very expressive.  He has a unique way of combining very simple harmonies with very complex harmonies, things you would never think of.  Sometimes just a straight triad.  And he does it in a way that it sounds so profound.  It has the same effect as a very dissonant chord just because of how he puts it in there.  We’re always saying jazz harmony has to always be very complex, but he manages to find the beauty in how he uses very simple harmonies combined with more complex ones.  He just has a very sophisticated color palette.

But I think the main thing is just how expressive he plays.  So much of what we hear sounds very impersonal and technical, and sort of going through all the established vocabulary…

TP:    George Coleman said you’ve transcribed some of Buddy’s tunes or solos?  What brought you into his music?

MW:    Well, he hired me more or less to arrange five of his tunes for the record he did on Landmark, So Why Not? from a solo piano tape.  So I had to figure out what was the actual piece, and notate it and write five arrangements for quintet.  As it turned out, Freddie Hubbard didn’t make the date as he was supposed to, and a lot of the arrangements became changed around and so forth, but nevertheless I did them.  I had also transcribed a couple of Buddy’s tunes that I wanted to add to my repertoire years ago.  I had some tapes of him playing some gigs that I really was intrigued with what he was playing, and I wrote out some of the things he was doing just from my own curiosity.

TP:    Were the qualities you referred to what initially attracted you to his playing?

MW:    Well, all the ones that I stated, yeah.

[ETC.]

The main thing is, he’s really his own man, and his playing and his music sound very fresh and modern, yet at the same time it doesn’t show any of the influences of all these major innovators that came along.  It just shows you that other people have come along through the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s on their own path, and don’t sound like Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, and Bill Evans even.  I think that’s a very important thing.  He doesn’t sound like a guy from the ’40s either.  He doesn’t sound like someone that’s just coming out of Tatum and Erroll Garner.  Try and imagine a musician whose influences are Art Tatum and Erroll Garner.  You wouldn’t come up with a Buddy Montgomery.

Tommy Flanagan on Buddy Montgomery:

TP:    How long have you known Buddy?

TF:    I met him in the Midwest first, when he was in location at a hotel in Milwaukee.

TP:    So that would have been the ’70s.

TF:    I guess so.  I knew Wes before I knew Buddy.

TP:    Just say a few words about the dynamics of his sound and style that    I can quote.

TF:    Well, I guess it’s in the family.  He knows where he’s going, that attitude musically, and he’s a very rhythmic, sure-handed player.  He plays beautiful piano.  I really enjoy his piano playing.

TP:    Slide Hampton was saying how tricky his compositions are, that because he’s a musician who doesn’t read they’re outside conventional forms in a lot of ways.  Is that a comment you would cosign?

TF:    I’d go along with that.  I’ve only tried to play one of his tunes.  They are not conventional, because you find they’re not that easy to remember right away.  They’re just a little out of the ordinary.  I guess it has such an individual stamp that you have to get a little closer to it to play them.  You’ve got to go over it more than once or twice to really get it, or even have it explained by the writer himself.  It’s like Monk used to say, the cats just have to sit with him to learn his music, and he had to play it over and over for them.  It doesn’t matter what caliber the musician was; they all had to go through that.

David Hazeltine on Buddy Montgomery:

TP:    What were the circumstances when you first heard Buddy Montgomery?

DH:    I had been playing some gigs around town, and was involved in groups with Brian and some other musicians.  This was in 1976, my last year of high school.  I’ll never forget the memory of that first night I saw Buddy at that club.  It’s firmly ingrained  in my mind because it was so unbelievable.  I had never really heard him play the piano before.  I had heard him play vibes in some outdoor concert settings, but when I came to the club he was playing piano, and it completely blew me away.

TP:    This was at the Mark Plaza Hotel with Jeff Chambers and Ray Appleton?

DH:    At that time Ray wasn’t there yet.  It was a local drummer, who was very good, somebody who has since dropped out of the scene.  His name is Sam Belden.  But Buddy was just incredible.

TP:    What was it about what he was doing that seemed so astonishing to you?

DH:    A couple of things.  First of all, his harmony was astonishing.  The way he manipulates harmony is totally unique, but it’s coming out of Art Tatum.  It’s sort of like Art Tatum meets McCoy Tyner and everything in between.  The second thing is the way he improvises.  His right-hand styling is very much like a vibes player plays, which is a very unique approach on the piano.  First of all, the percussive effect he gets on the piano is very similar to the vibes, and the way he phrases things on the piano is like a vibes player would phrase; his lines and his phrasing sound like what normally you would hear on the vibes.  Then the way he touches the keyboard, his physical attack on the keyboard is like a vibes player.  It’s very different from other piano players.

TP:    So you see his style as a vibraphonist and pianist being very linked in a lot of ways.

DH:    Oh, definitely.

TP:    There doesn’t seem to be that much separation to you?

DH:    Oh, no, other than the opportunities that are opened up by the piano; it’s possible to play a lot more harmony.  But aside from that, just talking about his improvising, his single note improvising, I think the way he plays on vibes and on piano are very similar.

TP:    Everyone has said that his compositions are difficult to play, or at least to assimilate …[ETC.]…

DH:    Buddy doesn’t read music, so he’s not inundated with the… I don’t think he feels compelled to play music in a formula the way most of us do it.  Actually that might not be accurate to say it’s because of the reading or lack of reading.  But he’s completely natural, completely an ear player, and that’s why it’s so pure, in a way.  What you hear from him is exactly what he is hearing and what his ears tell him to do, which is coming from his soul — it’s very uniquely Buddy.  Although he’s very influenced by Art Tatum and McCoy Tyner and everything else in between…

TP:    He mentioned Erroll Garner as well…

DH:    Oh, Erroll Garner’s one who definitely should be mentioned as well.  But it’s a completely unique approach because of the lack of European influence, the normal…

TP:    It’s very soulful, very blues-drenched, almost like a sanctified but very harmonically sophisticated thing. [ETC.] I gather he was very encouraging to young musicians.  Was that the case with you?

DH:    Yes, it was.  We developed this joking-around relationship.  I always would hit on him for lessons, and he never would give me lessons.  In fact, there was this brief period where he was doing this in-house teaching program at a prison, giving music lessons to these ex-cons, and I went and helped him for a while and did some teaching for him.  There was one day specifically I remember when he was across the room at the piano, and I was at the other side of the room with a singer, and he was saying, “Dave, can you play this song for the singer?”  He played the tune on the piano, and he played so much shit… He was just standing up behind the piano, playing, asking me if I knew this tune and could play it.  I was saying, “Wow, what is that you’re playing?”  I came running around, and as soon as I got behind the piano where I could see his hand he went to a real simple, single-finger version of the fucking thing.  We’ve always had a relationship like that.  He wasn’t going to give it up.

TP:    When he’d play vibes on that set, if it would happen, would you be able to sit in with him, or sit in with other people coming through, or…

DH:    Well, he didn’t play vibes there.  It was all piano.

Brian Lynch on Buddy Montgomery

TP:    When did you first encounter Buddy Montgomery?

BL:    I first heard Buddy around ’73.  I think I first heard him at his outdoor things, but I’d say around the first or second year I was in school I started coming around to the Mark Plaza and hanging out and listening and meeting Buddy.  He knew that I was a young musician, and he encouraged me to sit in with him and…

TP:    What was sitting in with him like?  A very informal thing?

BL:    Yeah, playing tunes and stuff.  I think at that point, in invincible ignorance, I was probably unaware of how much of the music was flying by me, because he was playing so much.  But he must have seen some potential, since he was great enough to actually have me… There was a tenor player named Charles Davis, Jr., who was living there, and we were kind of partners at the time, we’d shed together and play together a lot in school and out of school.  The two of us did a number of gigs with him, special things in the summer and in the parks and things like that.  We were playing his tunes, and that would necessitate getting together and rehearsing and learning them from memory.  He has got some real hip stuff, and stuff that takes more than a minute to get together.

TP:    What are the things that make his stuff so tricky?

BL:    Well, I think there’s a lot of individuality in his style of composing.  One thing that’s very strong in his writing is his rhythm, and the way he uses it… It’s always swinging, but there’s always hooks and things in the rhythm.  A lot of these things were Latin Jazz oriented.  It had that beat.  I didn’t realize the context of how very individual and hip and just… I think it’s some of the strongest Latin jazz writing I’ve ever heard.  I was exposed to that stuff really early.  And a lot of times he’d have percussionists with the band.  So all the elements were there, some things I picked up on a lot later, as you know.  So I was exposed to do so much through working with him and being around him that it stood me in good stead later, in a very informal but strict and rigorous way.  We used to rehearse the hell out of the stuff.

TP:    Talk about trhe rehearsals, the difference of learning something by ear vis-a-vis learning it off the printed page.

BL:    Well, learning stuff by ear, obviously you get the music together in a way that …[INAUDIBLE]… I think it’s good in general to learn things that way if you have the ears to do it.  It might take a little bit longer than just saying “the chart’s up and let’s go.”  But for a young musician, it was very good training because it helped with really understanding the nuances and stuff, too.  Because by the time we got it together, you learn more about how the thing works and how the parts relate to the whole; you sort of understand the music a lot better that way.  We’d write things out afterwards, and at certain points I’d be involved in transcribing some of his stuff so he’d take it other musicians later.  Around that time, ’75, he did a record date, and he used to rehearse with us and we’d write out the music, and then he did the date on the West Coast, a real nice date with Oscar Brashear and Harold Land actually.

Just being exposed to the way he arranged music and his originals…

TP:    Slide Hampton said he doesn’t use conventional or standard forms.  Is that the way it was in the ’70s, too?

BL:    Well, it’s the way he puts it together.  There will be like odd bars and things kind of meshing together in different combinations, phrases, the sections and stuff like that.  He’s very imaginative.  He’s such an imaginative person.

TP:    That’s why it takes such intensive, hands-on rehearsal to really make it work.

BL:    I feel that having had all that experience, doing that with him, I have understanding of his music that maybe I wouldn’t have had if I had just read down his charts.

TP:    Flanagan says it’s kind of like Monk’s music, you have to sit with and play it over and over.

BL:    Buddy’s like that.  Melvin Rhyne’s another person who has an interesting, distinctive composing style.  I think maybe there is some influence from Buddy in it.  He’s another guy who doesn’t write the music down, so you sit and learn it.  When you sit and learn things, you get an insight into the mind of the musician, and having done that with Buddy I really gained immense respect.  Just the totality of what he does is so incredible.

TP:    Do you remember the term of this trio?

BL:    It was like 1978-79-80.  Ray stayed with me for a little while… Well, Ray and Jeff were the rhythm section for my senior recital in college.  I went out and rehearsed with these guys, and boy, they were just playing incredible.  Being around that stuff on a daily basis, it was a real focal point for all the young musicians that were there.

TP:    he was President of the Jazz Society also?

BL:    Right.  He brought some people in.  He brought Freddie in, George Coleman, and some other people.

The Latin influence is very important in Buddy’s playhing and his writing, too.  It’s Latin Jazz.  I remember reading the liner notes to a Cal Tjader record a long time ago, when I was a kid, one of the first Latin Jazz records I was exposed to, and I remember the piano player saying Buddy Montgomery was one of his  main influences.  One really good record is George Shearing with the Montgomery Brothers and Armando Perazza on tumbadora with conga drums, and you can hear Buddy comping in that style.  But he does that all the time.  He’s just very fluent in bringing the Latin tinge into his music.  Just the fact that he likes to have percussion on a lot of his things… I would love to see a Latin Jazz record of his with all the guys on it.

Always strong melodies in his compositions.  His music sort of has some of the same qualities that you’d find in Horace Silver, but filtered through his own unique sensibility.

TP:    Slide said he wrote very extensive, notey melodies.

BL:    Yeah, there’s a lot of details and a lot of just hip things, but bluesy and expressive.  Really expressive.  Soulful.  I’d say soulful.  And with all these little twists and hooks in it.  They’re accessible.  It’s accessible music, too.  It’s not offputting.  It draws you in.  He’s the greatest.  Great man, too.  He’s always stuck to his guns.  He’s more concerned with expressing himself and making the music come off.

It takes high precision to play his music.  You have to be able to play your instrument well, and execute and play with feeling in order to play his music.

Leave a comment

Filed under Buddy Montgomery, Liner Notes, Piano, Vibraphone

A 1999 interview with Teddy Edwards

Several people have asked why I’ve kept the blog mostly inactive lately, to which I can only respond a blend of inertia and too much work. However, a Facebook post on Teddy Edwards from a friend prompts me to share this interview I did with him in 1999 for  a liner note for a two-tenor date that he did with Houston Person. He went deeply into his personal biography, but what’s interesting to me is that this recounting came about almost free-associatively, in response to questions about his relationship to each of the tunes. On the top is the liner note, followed by the verbatim interview — I had closely read an oral history that Patricia Willard conducted with Mr. Edwards for the Institute of Jazz Studies, which I had transcribed some years earlier — I’d love to share that as well, but am not at liberty to do so.

* * *
Though Teddy Edwards, sixty-two years as a professional musician under his belt, knows a thing or two about the cutting contest function, he claims that it was never a context he favored.  “I used to do it,” says the 74-year-old tenor saxophonist, “but I was never really a warrior.  I’d rather make love to the horn than fight with it.”

Which is not to say that Edwards wouldn’t enthusiastically tie it up with the fastest company back in the day or the here-and-now, nor that circumstance mightn’t occasionally raise the Taurus bull within him.  Iconic tenor champions Edwards locked horns and matched wits with in venues ranging from lowdown after hours joints and prestigious arenas include Gene Ammons, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Paul Gonsalves and legions of the famous and obscure.  In 1994, Houston Person, the tenorman with the mammoth sound who doubles as a producer, jumped on an opportunity to bring Professor Edwards into Rudy Van Gelder’s studios for a friendly encounter.  That was “Horn To Horn” [Muse 5540], and it came off so well, they decided to do it again.

Each tune is a memory-raiser, evoking complex webs of associations and relationships for the tenor cohorts.  Edwards’ recollections date to the early 1940’s, when he played a major part in codifying the vocabulary of post-swing tenor saxophone.

Consider the spirited version of “Twisted,” an ebullient Wardell Gray line from 1948 which inspired a still-hilarious lyric by Annie Ross (“my analyst told me that I was out of my head…”).  Edwards and Gray met as teenage alto saxophonists making their way up the ladder in Detroit.  “We first worked together in 1942 at the Congo Club in Detroit’s Norwood Hotel, ” Edwards recalls in his hotel room following at week’s engagement at New York’s Iridium.  “It was a great job, a great place.  Howard McGhee, Bernie Peacock, Big Nick Nicholas, Matthew Gee, Al McKibbon and a lot of great players came out of that band — Sonny Stitt, Rudy Rutherford, Milt Jackson, Hank Jones and Lucky Thompson were also in Detroit during those days.  We had a chorus line and we’d get the top acts for the week after they left the Paradise, Detroit’s black theater.  Wardell and I were partners in Detroit and later in California; we studied together through the years, practicing the various saxophone books, playing duets, developing our facilities.  Wardell was very thorough at what he did.  Every morning he’d take that saxophone out of the case and put it on the bed.  He was a light-hearted, joyful type of guy with a good sense of humor and a good spirit.  He had great confidence in what he was doing because he prepared himself.  If he was going to play in a jam session at night he’d get up early in the morning and get his thing together!”

Edwards arrived in Detroit in 1940, a 16-year-old professional who’d already worked four years in big bands arouind his native Jackson, Mississippi.  “When I was a kid in Jackson, I learned about harmony, which gave me a lot of security.  I was 12 when I met my father, a strong reading musician who played with Silas Green’s tent show (about the strongest one out there), but he had left an Orem harmony book on our piano, and I started listening to it as well as my cousin’s piano book.  All of the bands came through to play Jackson, which had over 100,000 people — it wasn’t a little whistle stop.  It had a lot of fine musicians.  We had two good big bands in Jackson, with good arrangers, and 19 miles away was Piney Woods College, which had several bands — the Sweethearts of Rhythm came out of there.  My grandfather, Henry Carson Reed, was one of the early upright bass players, so all of the guys knew my family, and they encouraged me and brought me along.  The people who ran the dance-halls knew me and what I was doing as a kid, and they let me come hear the bands.

“Some musicians in my first band talked about how a fellow who came through Jackson had chopped everybody down playing in a chordal style, and I started looking at the chords real seriously.  I learned to transpose them verbatim as fast as the piano called them to me.  I ran up and down the chords, until eventually I learned how to hook them up and make statements.  That’s the way I learned to play, not from records.  I loved Johnny Hodges, Willie Smith, Hilton Jefferson, Tab Smith and a lot of others, but I never copied them.  I learned how to improvise, turn the chords around, and make them melodies.  You learn how to choose the notes you want to make your statements out of these different sound bodies, which is what I call chords.  They aren’t numbers; they’re groups of sounds, and you reach in there and pick the notes you want to get the colors you’re looking for.  People have always responded to me, as far as I can remember.  When I was 12 years old I could always satisfy an audience of adults.  I was born with that.  I generate the feeling within myself, and then it goes out.  You put a little timbre on those chords, you can put some stuff on those notes, man!

Gene Ammons was famous for doing precisely that; he had an early ’50s jukebox hit with “Pennies From Heaven.”  Edwards met him playing with King Kolax at the Champion Bar on Hastings Street, where Detroit’s sporting crowd held office hours.  “I was young and full of fire,” he laughs, “and I’d go there and sit in with Jug and Lank Keyes, who were just getting their thing together, and fire it up!  Gene Ammons had that big sound and wonderful feeling.”  Edwards and Person take it at the camelwalk clip that drummer Kenny Washington likes to call the grown-up’s tempo.  “I like the song,” Edwards continues.  “It’s a good vehicle, and especially on rainy days and nights I play it as a perky thing, talking about the ‘pennies from heaven, and good fortune’s blowing all over town, even if your umbrella is upside-down.'”

Edwards switched from alto to tenor when he landed in Los Angeles in 1945.  “Howard McGhee decided to stay after he finished an engagement with Coleman Hawkins at Billy Berg’s,” Edwards told Patricia Willard in an interview for the Oral History Project of the Institute of Jazz Studies.  “He was searching around, trying to find a tenor saxophone player that he liked, and he couldn’t find anybody.  So he asked me to switch and hook up with him, and I thought it was a good idea.  I was able to transfer my knowledge of how to get through the chords.  I always had my own sound on both instruments.”

Edwards’ solo on “Up In Dodo’s Room,” a 1946 Spotlite recording, was significant in the evolution of swing-to-bop tenor vocabulary.  “I didn’t realize that the solo had any significance until I met Fats Navarro in 1948,” he told Willard.  “‘Look,’ he said, ‘do you realize that you changed the course of history?  That solo was the first solo by any tenor saxophone player that didn’t come from the Lester Young or the Coleman Hawkins school.’  If I remember correctly, the solo had all the half-steps; it had the major-seventh, which was just beginning to get popular; and it had the flat nine.  I played all the hip stuff that they call hip today in 1945.”

Back at the hotel, he continues: “The main thing I learned from Bebop in terms of harmony was the use of the flat-five, which Howard McGhee pulled my coat to.  You can’t be a bebop player if you don’t know how to alternate it.  It was a natural evolution, just going with the flow.  I moved into it as the music progressed, and fortunately I was in these different scenes as it was happening.  Naturally, environment plays a part, and the songs open your eyes to different things.  Charlie Parker, like Dizzy said, showed us how to really phrase that music.  But I had this knowledge that I carried with me all the time, and everything else became easy, especially once I got my hands to where I could play fast.”

At the time Edwards switched, Chu Berry, Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young had put their stamp on “Ghost Of A Chance,” a popular vehicle ever since for tenor players of the romantic persuasion, as Edwards and Person are.  It’s primarily a feature for Edwards, who vocalizes his horn to the max, a sour-sweet, been there-done that, never-jaded tone, extracting every bit of emotion from the lovely theme.

Person puts his trademark plush tone and intense melodicism on “Little Girl Blue,” his feature.  “It’s a saxophonist’s song,” says the 64-year-old South Carolina native.  “I’m a big Hank Mobley nut, and he did one of my favorite versions of it, so this was done with him in mind — I just played it like I play it.”

Which is the spirit they bring to “Blue and Sentimental,” a song rife with tenoristic implication since Herschel Evans recorded it as a tenor feature in 1938 with the Basie band.  “I never heard Herschel play in person,” Edwards states, “but the records I remember very well.  This was one of my favorites.  Herschel was in the Coleman Hawkins school, and he had a beautiful touch.”

“I was into Lester Young, and didn’t hear Herschel Evans until later,” Person recalls.  “That was my first song ever in my college band.  They had another saxophone player who played it great, but he was a senior and was leaving, so I got the spot.”  College was South Carolina State, where Person began playing the saxophone after years of diverse listening that spanned Charlie Parker and Illinois Jacquet (his main influence) to Stan Kenton to the Fisk Jubilee Singers.  “We had a piano in the house, which my mother played, and I had experience with the youth choir in church, but that was about it for me until my father got me a saxophone for Christmas late in high school.  I just liked the sound of it.  On the tenor saxophone it just seems you can get all the different sounds that you want.”  Person enrolled in the Army in 1956 and was stationed in Germany, where he encountered Eddie Harris (“he gave me a lot of helpful help”), lifelong friend Cedar Walton, and Leo Wright.  After his discharge, he enrolled at Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, and began his distinguished career playing all manner of gigs on the New England circuit.

Person often heard soul tenor king Willis “Gatortail” Jackson play “The Breeze and I,” Ernesto Leuconia’s Latinate line which ends the session.  Edwards’ notey, swooping style contrasts nicely here with Person’s blues-shout-style locutions.

Both have played the familiar refrain of “Night Train” — purloined from Duke Ellington’s “Happy Go Lucky Local” by Jimmy Forrest — thousands of times over the years.  “I became very familiar with this song when I worked in the burlesque clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the early and middle ’50s,” Edwards says.  “To eat and support a family, you had to come up with something.  But I learned a lot.  In the first place, I always felt that you make every experience pay off for you, regardless of what it is.  Now, the biggest thing I got from playing for those strippers was learning how to play the melody real well, because I had time to think.  You could build your strength, because you usually didn’t have a bass.  All those things make you strong.”

Teddy Edwards and Houston Person are self-made men, individualists who found their sounds by inner conviction and diligent work.  “There was a lot of do-it-yourself when I came up,” Edwards states, “because you didn’t have a lot of good teachers to go to like you have now.  You didn’t have play-along records.  On the other hand, you came up through bands which trained you.  That was before television, which took away the stages where things would come along naturally.  That’s when bands would travel on the road, really practice, have section rehearsals and get things down.  Now everything is wrapped up in a package for you.  I know some real famous musicians who I can tell didn’t have band training when I hear them play.  Something about coming through that band era gave you another thing.”

Neither got where they are by looking backward.  As Person puts it, “Cutting contests were a great ritual back then, and it was all done in advancing good musicianship and people trying to establish their turf, so to speak.  But this date isn’t a cutting contest.  We got together with an appreciation for what’s gone before and what’s happening now, trying to pay homage to guys who made contributions.  We tried to show mutual admiration for each other, and tried to have fun.  Everybody’s adding company to the legacy.”

* * *

Teddy Edwards (3-22-99):

TP:    With “Twisted” we have to think about Wardell Gray.

EDWARDS:  He was my first partner.  We first worked together in 1942, and we worked at a club called the Congo Club in Detroit.  It was a great job, a great place.  Howard McGhee came out of that band, Matthew Gee came out of the band, Bernie Peacock, and a lot of great, great players.  George “Big Nick” Nicholas…

TP:    You mentioned also the lead alto player with Lunceford.

EDWARDS:  Ted Buckner.  He came into the band after he left Jimmy Lunceford’s band.  He inspired me to… I was 18 years old, I was playing lead alto, so I said, “Well, I’m going to have to give up this alto chair, this lead chair” when he came in.  He said, “Youngblood, you’re doing fine.  You just stick to the lead, it’s okay; we’ll split the lead little,” and I sat next to him and heard him play.

TP:    And Kelly Martin was the drummer, right?

EDWARDS:  He was the original drummer, but we had two or three drummers while I was there.  Vernon Brown was another fine drummer, and Johnny Allen became a leader… During that time a lot of guys were getting drafted.  Al McKibbon was with the band during the time we were there.  We had a chorus line and we were getting the top acts when they left the Paradise Theater in Detroit.  They had a black theater chain where the bands would go to different theaters…

TP:    In Detroit they’d play the Paradise.

EDWARDS:  They’d play the Paradise Theater in Detroit.  When they’d go to Chicago…

TP:    Was the Congo Club analogous to the De Lisa in Chicago, a similar type of room?

EDWARDS:  Well, I imagine you could say that in the sense that they had a band and a chorus line and different kinds of acts.  But the Congo Club was something very-very special.  It was a beautiful room in the Norwood Hotel at 555 E. Adams in (?) Detroit.  But we were out in California when Wardell made “Twisted,” and then “Stoned” and what’s that other thing…”my analyst said”… [LAUGHS]

TP:    That’s “Twisted.”  It still sounds good.

EDWARDS:  Oh, that’s a great line.  I remember when he made that line.  That was in ’48, when he left Los Angeles to go to New York to record for Prestige Records.  We were real partners.  We studied together through the years.

TP:    You were all playing alto at that time.

EDWARDS:  In Detroit.  But when we got to California we were all playing tenor.

TP:    I know why you switched to tenor.  It was circumstances, because Howard McGhee had been with Coleman Hawkins…

EDWARDS:  He liked the sound.

TP:    Why did Wardell Gray switch to tenor?  Because Charlie Parker was taking up too much space?

EDWARDS:  No, it wasn’t that.  I think he switched to tenor because he liked it.  I think he switched to tenor with a band called Benny Carew, one of the Midwest bands.  But he just liked the tenor, like a lot of guys.  I don’t think it’s that Charlie Parker ran you off your instrument.  He didn’t run me off mine. [LAUGHS] But I think he just picked up playing the tenor.

TP:    You said that the two of you practiced together all the time.

EDWARDS:  We practiced in the books, the saxophone books, playing duets, all the Singerland stuff, developing our facilities.

TP:    You also said that I think the contractor for the Congo Club band helped you with your sound.

EDWARDS:  Oh, Stack Walton.  He was a tenor player.  He inherited the band.  The band was changing pretty fast in those days, the personnel.  When I first came into the band actually some of the guys preferred Sonny Stitt and Rudy Rutherford who were a little more advanced than I was in playing the saxophone and the clarinet.  But he liked what I was doing; he said, “I like what you’re doing.”  We were playing in a shell; man, that shell was eating my little sound up, so he showed me how to develop my diaphragm.  And I practiced real hard.  I practiced before the gig and after the gig…

TP:    Were you like a big sound alto player, like Willie Smith or Johnny Hodges?

EDWARDS:  I had my own sound.  I’ve always had my own…

TP:    Can you describe your sound on the alto.

EDWARDS:  Well, it’s hard to describe your sound.  You have to hear it.  But I’ve always had my own sound on the alto and even on the tenor.  I think it’s just a matter of me doing it my way, the way I learned how to do it.  I never tried to copy Johnny Hodges or copy Willie Smith, but I loved those guys.  I loved Hilton Jefferson, I loved Tab Smith, I loved a lot of them.  But I didn’t sit down and say “I’m going to try to play like this.”  I never did.

TP:    It was all functional for you.

EDWARDS:  Right.

TP:    Playing a situation…

EDWARDS:  Right, and learning.  Just learning.  Fortunately I learned about harmony real early, so that gave me a lot of security.  My father had left a harmony book on the piano.  I never saw him until I was 12 years old, but that Orem harmony book stayed on the top of our piano all those years, and then I started listening to it.  Then I’d look in my cousin’s piano book and think about what was going on with the music.  Then I heard the guys in my first band talk about a fellow who came through home playing a chord style named Devarney from Milwaukee.  They were talking about how he chopped everybody down playing these chords, and I started looking the chords real seriously.  I learned to play the chords verbatim.  I could transpose them verbatim as the piano called them to me; as fast as you called them, I could transpose them.  I’d just run up and down the chords, until eventually I learned how to hook them up and make statements.  That’s the way I learned to play instead of listening… I listened to the records, but I didn’t just copy off the records.

TP:    You had a very good opportunity as a kid to play with these very good, professional bands.

EDWARDS:  We had two good bands at home, with good arrangers.  We had two good bands in Jackson, big bands.  So I was very fortunate as a kid.  My grandfather was one of the early upright bass players, so all of the guys knew my family, and they encouraged me and brought me along.

TP:    It sounds like when you were a kid you needed a 36-hour day.  You were working pressing clothes, practicing, playing gigs, going to school and doing pretty well.

EDWARDS:  Right.  My aunt had a cleaners.  I used to press clothes in the morning, I’d clean clothes in the morning and go to school, come back and practice, and go do some more work at the cleaners, and then come back and rest and go to my night gig.

TP:    Say a few more words about Wardell Gray personally.

EDWARDS:  He was very thorough at what he did.  One thing that I saw him do first thing every morning, he’d take that saxophone out of the case and put it on the bed.  That way you’d pick it up.  You see?  First thing in the morning he’d take it out of the case and put it on the bed.  That’s what he would do.  He read all the time; he read all kinds of things, you know.  Every night when we got off, he’d get the newspaper.  He loved to read.  Hampton Hawes loved to read, too.  He had his way about him.  We were good friends.  He was light-hearted and kind of a joyful type guy.  He had a good sense of humor and a good spirit.

TP:    you can hear it in his playing.

EDWARDS:  Oh yeah.  Good spirit, a lot of spirit.  He had great confidence in what he was doing, because he prepared himself.  He really prepared himself, much more than I did, in a sense.  Because if he was going to play in a jam session at night he’d get up early in the morning and get his thing together! [LAUGHS] Get his stuff together to bring to the jam session.

TP:    Let’s move on to “Ghost of A Chance.”

EDWARDS:  During the ’40s, “Ghost of A Chance” became popular amongst the tenor players.  Illinois Jacquet had done his recording on it and Lester Young had done it.  So it was kind of a good vehicle for tenor players, popular among the tenor players.  So I was just another (?) to “Ghost of A Chance.”  And it’s a great song.  In fact, I should do it more often.

TP:    Well, for your sound it’s really custom-made.

EDWARDS:  [LAUGHS] Yes, I should do it more often.  I’ve done it once or twice maybe since I did this record.  But it’s such a great vehicle.  It’s got good room for you to work.

TP:    Let’s get back to your being an original stylist even though you were in the middle of things.  Lester Young had such a profound impact on people, and Coleman Hawkins on a lot of the Detroit guys like Yusef Lateef and Lucky Thompson…

EDWARDS:  Well, they came off that tree.  I think Ben Webster and Don Byas later on influenced Lucky more than Coleman Hawkins.  But they came from Coleman Hawkins.  They’re off that tree.  The big tree was Coleman Hawkins and the next big tree was Lester Young.  From Lester, Stan Getz, Wardell, Dexter, Gene Ammons and all of them leaned heavily.

TP:    But for you, what was your relation to that music?  I know you admired it.

EDWARDS:  I admired it.  I listened to all the great players, altos and tenors or whatever.  But when I changed from the alto to the tenor, I just transferred my knowledge.  I knew how to get through the chords.  And that’s been a very-very valuable thing to me, even to today.  I’m so thankful that I learned as a kid about the chords, how to improvise and turn them around and try them…

TP:    Make them melodies.

EDWARDS:  Make them melodies.  You learn how to choose the notes you want to make your statements out of these different sound bodies.  That’s what chords are.  I call them sound bodies.  You reach in there and get what you want.  You might not want but one note out of this one, or you might want three or four of them, then you might want to alter them, learn how to alter the chords, add to them and find the common tones that will work… In fact, I wrote a song called “April Love” that I can play one note all the way through the whole song; just one note is common to every chord in this whole song.  You look for these kind of things when you’re playing.

TP:    So chords correlate to sounds and colors for you.

EDWARDS:  Oh yes.

TP:    They’re not numbers. They’re sounds.  They’re vivid.

EDWARDS:  They’re not numbers at all.  They’re sounds.  I call them sound bodies, groups of sounds.  You pick what you want out of the sound.  I can run up and down, naturally; that’s how I learned how to play.  I can go down… But then I like to alter them, you know, sharp this or flatten that, or add this to it.  It might be a VII chord and I add a IX, or maybe a XIII to it, or raise the V or inflect the IX — anything to get the colors that I want to get.

TP:    Were you into that level of harmony by the time you got to California?

EDWARDS:  I was pretty much in it.  You know, the main thing I learned from the Bebop era as far as harmony was concerned was about the use of the flat-five.  I didn’t know that one.  Then Howard McGhee pulled my coat how to alternate like the V-minor VII to the chord, the VII chord and alternate it.  You can’t be a bebop player if you don’t know how to alternate it.  You’ve got to learn how to work it.

TP:    What you’re saying is that the really revolutionary thing in bebop was the way rhythm was approached and not so much the harmony?

EDWARDS:  Oh, the harmony was very important.  And the speed that you needed to play.  Guys were playing fast.  You needed good chops, good technique to play, and we practiced to have that.  No, the harmony was definitely strong.

TP:    Why for you was it such a big break?  Did you align yourself firmly as someone who was a Bebopper as-opposed-to, or was it just a natural line of descent?

EDWARDS:  It was just a natural line of descent.  I just moved into it as the music progressed, and fortunately I was in these different scenes as it was happening.  Naturally, environment plays a part on you, and the songs open your eyes to different things.  Charlie Parker, like Dizzy said, showed us how to really phrase that music, how to get the phrasing out of it.  But it was just a natural evolution, more or less.  Just going with the flow.  But I had this knowledge that I carried with me all the time, and everything else became easy, especially once I got my hands up real good where I could play fast.

TP:    Did you know Lester Young well?  I know he had a house in L.A.

EDWARDS:  Not real well, no.  But I had occasion to meet him.  In fact, he played my horn one night in San Francisco at Bop City.  But I met him after he had come out of the Army, and he was kind of…oh, what I say…

TP:    Introverted.

EDWARDS:  Introverted.  He didn’t want to have too much to do with anybody, because the Army had really…

[PAUSE]

TP:    Let’s talk about “Night Train.”  We can talk about Ellington and big bands and “The Happy-Go-Lucky Local,” and we can talk about Jimmy Forrest and that way of playing the horn.

EDWARDS:  Well, I first heard “Night Train” around ’44 when it first came out.  I was in Seattle, Washington, when I was playing a dance with Ernie Fields’ Orchestra, and I heard it on a jukebox.  Everybody was putting their nickels on this song, and it was very strong, very popular.  But it wasn’t exactly in the vein that I was in.  I was closer to the Bebop vein.  He had the Bebop knowledge thing going himself, Jimmy Forrest, but he chose to make this record, “Night Train,” which later on I found was almost a direct copy of Duke Ellington’s “Happy Go Lucky Local.”  Some might say he’s very fortunate that Duke Ellington didn’t sue him about it, which I don’t think he ever did bring a case against him — because he had a clear case as far as the copyright issue is concerned.  Then Buddy Morrow came along and put his twist to it, and he had a big record on “Night Train.”

Now, I used to play this song when I worked in the burlesque clubs for the dancers.  “Night Train” was one of the themes; they’d make their bumps and all that stuff.  The strippers had about four or five tunes that they really took a liking to.  I used to play it, and that’s how I became very familiar with the song.

TP:    You were still in Detroit?

EDWARDS:  I played in some burlesque places in San Francisco and Los Angeles.  When you had to eat and had a family, you had to come up with something.

TP:    In the later ’40s and early ’50s.

EDWARDS:  Mostly part of the early ’50s and some of the middle ’50s.

TP:    You’d be behind the screen?

EDWARDS:  Well, you would be off to the side.  You wouldn’t be hid behind the screen, but off the scene completely.  But I learned a lot by playing in those burlesque places.  In the first place, I always felt that you make every experience pay off for you, regardless of what it is.  Now, when I played for those burlesque dancers, I studied playing the melody.  I had to play the melody real well.  That’s the biggest thing I got from that, was learning how to play the melody real good, and I’m thankful for the burlesque clubs! [LAUGHS] I had time to think about the melody we were playing.  You could build up your strength in your playing, because you usually didn’t have a bass.  You’d have drums and a piano in those places, and sometimes you’d play two of you at a time, maybe just you and the drums playing 15 minutes and you and the piano player playing 15 minutes, then you’d play 15 minutes all together.  All those things make you strong.

TP:    you’ve been working since you were 12, right?

EDWARDS:  Right.

TP:    In this oral history, after about 3 hours of it, you’re up to age 18.

EDWARDS:  [LAUGHS]

TP:    There’s an obvious difference between the musicians of your generation and the people who are under 40, say.  Talk about that do-it-yourself quality.

EDWARDS:  During those days there was a lot of do-it-yourself, because you didn’t have a lot of good teachers to go to like you have now.  You didn’t have play-along records to play with.  On the other hand, you had bands to come up through and train.  That was before television.  That’s when bands used to really practice and rehearse and get the things down real good.  Traveling on the road together, you’d have section rehearsals, and before they’d put the band together… You don’t have much of that any more now.  Everything is so wrapped up in a package for you.  I know some real famous musicians who I can tell when I hear them play, like on their records…I can tell they didn’t have band training.  Something about them coming through that band era that gave them another thing.  I could tell.

TP:    It seems for a lot of the guys who came up during your time and a little before, a little after music was a religion.

EDWARDS:  Oh, that’s what it was.  See, television changed things a whole lot.  Television took away the stages.  Every little club had a little stage, and they’d have a tap dancer or something.  Television wiped all that out.  Television took away a lot of things that were coming along naturally.  If you were a dancer and you wasn’t dancing on television, you wouldn’t have nowhere to dance.  You see what I’m saying?  Then the music got that way.  If you weren’t sitting in one of those studio bands recording, you’re not getting too far, unless you’re a big star who can get out here and make it on your own.  But I would never aspire to be a musician, even though I played for the studio; they’d call me when they want what I have — in special situations.

TP:    They want your sound.

EDWARDS:  Right.  Like, I played on the movie, Jane Fonda…

TP:    They Shoot Horses, Don’t They.

EDWARDS:  I played on that one, too.  That was Johnny Green.  I did it for George Donen, who did Any Wednesday with Jane Fonda.  He had the contractor call me.  The contractor said, “Teddy Edwards?”  I said, “yes.”  He said, “Mr. Donen wants you on this soundtrack.  There’s a 60-piece orchestra.  Mr George Donen, who wants you on this soundtrack.”   He said, “Do you read music?”  I said, “I’ve been reading it all my life practically.”  “Well, he said he doesn’t care whether you read music or not.  He wants you on here, because he wants your sound on this movie soundtrack.”  Then he had me playing a special thing on clarinet, which I had no idea, with my name on my part, you know, to play this special clarinet part for this movie.

TP:    A customized part for you.

EDWARDS:  He liked my sound.  He had heard my playing with Gerald Wilson, and he loved the sound I got out of the horn.

TP:    Gerald Wilson’s band must have been a nice outlet for you over the years.

EDWARDS:  Oh, that was a great band.  That was one of the finest bands ever been, that’s for sure, the band of the early ’60s — the real band.  We had probably the finest reed section I played with; I liked the way we sounded.  We had Jack Nimitz on baritone, Harold Land on the other tenor, Joe Maini playing lead alto…

TP:    Did you meet Gerald Wilson in Detroit?

EDWARDS:  No, I didn’t really meet him.  He had left when I came there.  I’m trying to think of the other alto player.  He was a good alto player; in fact, I got him a contract with Contemporary Records.  [Jimmy Woods.] Anyway, we had a great blend in that reed section.  I played with Basie, with the saxophone section, but sitting in there it didn’t have that… It was a great section, but it had a lot of individual… Everything is individual in that reed section.  Even though when it comes out, it came out great.  But we were on a one-mind kind of thing with the Gerald Wilson saxophone section.  We were on the same thinking plane as far as the sound of the music.

TP:    And that seems to be a thing that you see throughout with guys from your period, who came up then, probably because of that band training.

EDWARDS:  Oh, it was a big help.

TP:    Now, in Jackson, it would seem kind of a backwater, but a lot of bands came through and you were able to keep up with a lot of music.

EDWARDS:  All of the bands came through Jackson to play Jackson.  Well, we had over 100,000 people in Jackson.  We had a 22-story building when they only had 12 in Los Angeles.  You know what I mean?  It wasn’t a little whistle stop.  It had a lot of fine musicians.  Then there was Piney Woods, down 19 miles at Piney Woods College where they had several band.  They had the male bands, then they had the Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first all-girl band which came out of there.  The Daughters of Rhythm came out of there.  So a lot of excellent musicians were in that vicinity.  Plus the bands that came through playing the dance, and the people who ran the dance-halls, they knew me and what I was doing as a kid, and they let me come up and hear the bands.

TP:    Well, you had a story of being able to hear the Ellington band through the grace of one nice guy.

EDWARDS:  One nice guy, yeah.

TP:    Which we don’t have to repeat here.  But you did say that Johnny Hodges was your early idol.

EDWARDS:  Well, he was the first one who really got to my ears.  But the first song I learned how to play was Wayne King’s theme song, “The Waltz You Sing For Me.”  That was the first song, from the radio, where I learned how to play it.  Then Johnny Hodges came, and I loved that sound and that feeling that he had, even though I never copied him verbatim — but he influenced me.  Then I heard Hilton Jefferson with Cab Calloway, and that was another thing of beauty to me.  He’s not the most famous saxophone player, but he was beautiful, Hilton Jefferson with Cab Calloway’s band.  There were a lot of different guys who came through. Tab Smith.

TP:    You had to have heard Budd Johnson with Earl Hines’ band which came through the south.

EDWARDS:  Oh, I heard Budd with Earl Hines’ band.  That’s when he had Billy Eckstine.  This was in the ’30s.  Billy Eckstine was with the band, he had George Dixon, the baritone player, who was the guy who played jazz on a flute.  A lot of guys claimed later, but he was the first guy…

TP:    George Dixon, huh?

EDWARDS:  George Dixon.  He was the baritone player with Earl Fatha Hines.  He had the great singer Walter Fuller singing with him, and Madeleine Green singing, and Keg Johnson playing the trombone.  Earl Hines had some fantastic bands.

TP:    But also, you mentioned you heard the beginning of the Earl Hines band that had Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in Detroit.

EDWARDS:  Oh, right, the first gig.

TP:    Bird left McShann in Detroit and joined Earl Hines.  Do you have a memory of the band?

EDWARDS:  Oh, it was great.  In fact, that picture in the book that Francis Paudras wrote about Charlie Parker… Opening up the book, they’ve got a picture of Sarah Vaughan in that band playing piano back-to-back with Earl Fatha Hines.  They had two white grand pianos back to back on the stage.  I was sitting there when that picture was taken.  I said, “Damn, I was there when that picture was made.”  I was at the opening show. [LAUGHS]

TP:    That’s when you first met Charlie Parker, was in Detroit at that time?

EDWARDS:  I met him the week before, when he was with McShann.  But I had listened to him on his recordings with McShann, like “Hootie Blues” and “Sepian Bounce” and “Swingmatism,” those great solos that he played.

TP:    so you knew right from the top that he was doing something special.

EDWARDS:  Oh, he was doing something special, no question about it.  He had a little tinge of Lester Young in him back then, a little tinge of Lester Young on that alto.  If you listen to him close.  Lester Young was his idol, you know.

TP:    When he did the few things on tenor, you can hear it.

EDWARDS:  The few things on tenor.  But I’ll tell you, he hadn’t played the tenor long enough for his embouchure to get right for the tenor.  It would have been brighter.  It was kind of dark because his chops hadn’t come up to that tenor thing.  It’s another kind of thing.

TP:    Talk about the difference, what the challenges are.

EDWARDS:  The big challenge is that if you play one, your ear gets set to that one.  If you’re playing a tenor, your ear gets set to the tenor, then when you pick the alto up, it’s a fifth away.  So your ear has got to make the adjustment, you see.  But now, if you play them both all the time a lot, then it’s easy.  It becomes natural.  But if you stay with one and go to the other… Then what you have to do, like in my case… You have to use your mind.  I know that this chord goes because I want to play this chord.  I can use my mind that way, see.  But it’s an ear thing, where your ear knows where the notes are.

TP:    A lot of alto players say it’s harder to play the alto than it is to play the tenor.

EDWARDS:  It’s not harder to play.  They have different demands on you.  Controlling the pitch of the alto is a little more delicate than the tenor, because it’s higher.  The soprano is really rough to control.  But the you’ve got to have more wind down on the tenor.  So they have their differences.

TP:    Let’s go to “Blue and Sentimental,” with a real Basie connotation.

EDWARDS:  I first heard Herschel play that with the Basie band on the records.  I never did hear him play in person, but the records I remember very well.  It was one of my favorites, and Lester played 8 bars on the clarinet on that recording of “Blue And Sentimental.”  Herschel was on the Coleman Hawkins school, but he had a beautiful touch. [SINGS REFRAIN]

TP:    Big and gentle.

EDWARDS:  yeah, he was something beautiful.  Died real young.

TP:    Were you as much into the Basie band of that time as you were Lunceford and Ellington?

EDWARDS:  Oh yeah.  Man, when Basie came along, that was a revelation.  When Basie came along with that all-American rhythm section, they had Lester sitting on one hand and Herschel on the other, they had Harry Edison sitting on one corner and Buck Clayton sitting on the other one.  Goodness me.  That was power-power-power.  Papa Jo Jones sitting back there on the drums.

TP:    On the previous record with Houston Person, you were dealing with a little later repertoire, like you did “Equinox” and Richard Wyands put “Moose the Mooche” on the intro to “Lester Leaps In.”  This one puts you more in the older school.

EDWARDS:  I guess so.

TP:    So if someone’s listening to this record, they won’t necessarily know what you’re a modernist player…

EDWARDS:  I imagine they’d be surprised.  Because I had most of the leads in the “Night Train” thing.  I thought about my burlesque days.  That’s going to be a strong song on this record, too.

TP:    Again, I don’t want to put you back as someone who stopped at 1952 in a burlesque house, because I know what you did.  Talk to me about how your repertoire… Do you work all over with a touring band, or do you pick them up when you come to town?

EDWARDS:  Well, mostly I’m picking up bands, because I’m not a big commercial item.

TP:    You’re someone for the connoisseurs.

EDWARDS:  Yes, more or less, the collectors and all those people.  And I gain all the time new people.  My problem has not been with the audience.  If I have a problem, it’s been with the negotiators — the agents and the managers.  They’ve never taken a liking to me.  But people have always responded to me, as far as I can remember, when I was 12 years old.  I could always satisfy an audience.  I never lost that.  I got that.  I was born with that.  Nobody can ever take that away.

TP:    you were born with that.

EDWARDS:  I was born with that.  I can make the people feel what I’m doing.

TP:    And when you were 12 years old…

EDWARDS:  I could do the same.  To adults.  I could do it then.  That’s just a thing that was natural to me.  Well, I understood in later years why I was that way.

TP:    Why?

EDWARDS:  It’s a case of… I’d compare it to a radio set.  You’ve got a transmitter and a receiver.  The audience is the receiver.  The artist is the transmitter.  Now, in order to transmit, you have to generate, and you generate it within yourself.  You see, I generate the feeling within myself, and then it goes out.  And it’s going to get through.  You can be sitting at the bar talking, but I’m going to get through to you in your subconscious.  I’m going to get through to you most of the time.  Because that’s the way I am.  I can project the music that way, because I can build it within myself.  And I know, because these sound waves can go through this building!

TP:    What sound does to people.  And chords are sound.

EDWARDS:  Oh yeah.  You put a little timbre on those chords, you can put some stuff on those notes, man.  It gets real deep.

TP:    Another guy who was like that was Gene Ammons, who I associate with “Pennies From Heaven.”  He had a little hit on that, didn’t he?

EDWARDS:  Oh, yeah, Jug did.

TP:    You met him in Detroit, too, with King Kolax.

EDWARDS:  Yes, with the King Kolax band.  He was playing at the Champion Ballroom on Hastings Street, and I used to go over there and sit in with him.  Because I was young and full of fire.  Jug and Lank Keyes and them, they were just getting their thing together, and I’d go over there and sit in with them and fire it up!  Yeah, Gene Ammons had that big sound and that wonderful feeling.

TP:    But you and he also had that good-natured cutting contest type of attitude… Not cutting contest, but matching sounds or wits or whatever you want to call it.

EDWARDS:  Well, that was going on.  I used to do it, but I was never really a warrior.  I’d rather make love to the horn rather than fighting it.

TP:    That can be a battle, too.

EDWARDS:  [LAUGHS] But that was the thing.  We were doing it.  Okay, let’s tie it up here.  Like, Stanley Turrentine still talks about the time he heard Paul Gonsalves and me in San Francisco.  He said, “I never will forget that as long as I live, the night I heard you and Paul get together.”  But you get together sometimes and the thing will be working.  And it’s good.  I did several tenor things.  I did a tour with Buck Hill and Von Freeman in Holland, on which we had a lot of fun.  It was a friendly fight going on between us.  And Dexter… All the guys through the years, we would tie it up there, and… A tenor player, Joe…

TP:    Joe Alexander.

EDWARDS:  No.  He was a white kid.  Played real good.

TP:    These days?

EDWARDS:  We made a record with Frank Butler together on Xanadu.

TP:    Oh, Joe Farrell.

EDWARDS:  Right, Joe Farrell.

TP:    From Chicago also.

EDWARDS:  Yeah, he was an excellent player.  Now, we kind of got off on a bad leg, but we got close.  I was sitting in the studio waiting on everybody to come in.  But he didn’t know me really.  I’m sitting there when he came in, I spoke to him, and he barely spoke!  So I said, “Okay.  We’ll see about this when they turn the tape on.” [LAUGHS] He didn’t know me.  I could have just been a chair sitting there as far as the way we talked about a greeting.  It kind of raised that old Taurus bull up in me a little bit. “Okay, when they turn the machine on, we’ll straighten all of this out.”  We became real close.

TP:    I was mentioning my associating Gene Ammons to “Pennies From Heaven.”  What was your association to it?

EDWARDS:  Well, I like the song.  It’s a good vehicle, and especially on rainy days and rainy nights I was would play it as a good perky thing, talking about the “pennies from heaven, and good fortune’s blowing all over town, even if your umbrella is upside-down.”

TP:    Do you sing in performances now?

EDWARDS:  No, I never went into singing too much.  I sing on Blue Saxophone, “Hymn For the Homeless,” but anybody could sing it.  It didn’t take a great singer to sing that.

TP:    But you’re a lyrics man, obviously.

EDWARDS:  I’m a lyrics writer.  Yes, I’m a lyricist.

TP:    When you play these tunes, you know the lyrics.

EDWARDS:  I have an idea about most of them.  I might not know what all… But I know what the lyricist is talking about.  I know the subject matter, and that’s important, to help you to express the song and know what it’s talking about.

TP:    Talk a bit about playing with Houston Person.

EDWARDS:  Oh, Houston’s a joy to play with.  He’s just like a big baby boy.  In fact, when he got his job producing with Muse Records, I think he might have been the very first person he called.  I was under contract to Polygram, which killed that, but then later on when we talked again I said, “I can record as a sideman or co-leader for another label, but I can’t record as a leader under my contract.”  He said, “Good, let’s make one together; we’ll co-lead it.”  That’s how we made Horn To Horn.

TP:    Tell me about the rhythm section guys.  Kenny Washington.

EDWARDS:  Oh, Kenny’s a beauty.  He’s steady as a rock.  I always enjoy playing with him.

TP:    He knows what to play, knows what not to play.

EDWARDS:  Oh yeah.  Well, in the first place he’s a music historian.  Not just jazz, many forms of music.  He’s an historian, and he knows what goes where.  He’s very knowledgeable about the subject.

TP:    Ray Drummond plays beautifully on this record.  His solos are like Paul Chambers.

EDWARDS:  He has that sound.

TP:    And Stan Hope?

EDWARDS:  Well, that was my first time playing with him.  The reason he made the date, somebody couldn’t make it, so Houston said, “We can use my regular piano player.”  I said, “If you like him, he must be good.”  And he was wonderful, played great.

[-30-]

1 Comment

Filed under Interview, Liner Notes, Teddy Edwards

An interview with Richard Wyands for the Liner Notes for Half and Half (Criss-Cross) — Feb. 7, 2000

Last night I had the privilege of conducting a public interview with pianist Richard Wyands at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. It was a last-minute call, so I had to prepare quickly, and since there is next to information (apart from this leader discography on Michael Fitzgerald’s invaluable website) about this extraordinary pianist, who has been playing professionally since 1944, I had to draw upon an interview that I had the opportunity to do with Mr. Wyands in 2000 for the liner notes to his Criss Cross recording Half and Half, with Peter Washington and Kenny Washington. To rectify this gap, I’ve appended that interview below.

During our conversation last evening, Mr. Wyands, who is 84, fleshed out some points that we’d touched on in our earlier conversation.

He met Mingus in 1944 or 1945 on a job with a prominent local bandleader named Ben Watkins, and subsequently gigged with him not infrequently when Mingus was living in the Bay Area, including a 1949 big band session that produced several tracks. Wyands, whose mother took him to an Ellington concert when Jimmy Blanton was in the band, stated that at this time Mingus was doing things technically, particularly with the bow, that were unsurpassed. He also recalled playing an engagement at the Blackhawk with Billie Holiday, one of the many singers booked there.

He went to hear all the big bands that came through Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco — Basie (his early stylistic model), Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie in 1948, Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong.

He stated that Ella Fitzgerald — he was her music director on a 12-week engagement (3 in San Francisco, 3 in Las Vegas, 3 in Palm Springs, 3 in L.A.) in 1956 — was extremely shy. If a celebrity entered the room, even a singer who was clearly her inferior, she would feel anxious. She wanted to fire the drummer, but couldn’t bring herself to tell him. After this gig, he decided he needed to get to NYC, and found a gig playing piano at a singers’ showcase outside of Ottawa; 10 months later, Carmen McRae took him on the road to NYC. He loved playing with Carmen, but found it difficult to adjust to her extremely slow pace with ballads.

While in San Francisco, he himself sang  from the piano bench; he also was in a bebop group with Pony Poindexter.

Below the text of the transcript with Mr. Wyands, I’ve appended remarks from a phone conversation with Kenny Washington for these liner notes.

Here’s a partial sideman discography — With Kenny Burrell,  The Tender Gender (Cadet, 1966);    A Generation Ago Today (Verve, 1967);   Night Song (Verve, 1969);     God Bless the Child (CTI, 1971);    ‘Round Midnight (Fantasy, 1972);    Up the Street, ‘Round the Corner, Down the Block (Fantasy, 1974);   Stormy Monday (Fantasy, 1974 [1978])

Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis,  Trane Whistle (Prestige, 1960); Frank Foster, Manhattan Fever (Blue Note, 1968); Freddie Hubbard, First Light (CTI, 1971); Etta Jones, Don’t Go to Strangers (Prestige, 1960); Roland Kirk, We Free Kings (Mercury, 1961); Charles Mingus, Jazz Portraits: Mingus in Wonderland (United Artists, 1959); Oliver Nelson, Straight Ahead (Prestige, 1961); Gigi Gryce, Savin’ Something; The Hap’nins; The Rat Race Blues (New Jazz); Reminiscin’ (Mercury); Gene Ammons, Nice ‘n Cool (Moodsville, 1961); Gene Ammons Tentet, June 1961; Roy Haynes Trio, Just Us (New Jazz, 1960 w/ Eddie DeHaas); Lem Winchester, With Feeling (New Jazz, 1961); Richard Williams, New Horn In Town (Candid, 1961); Charlie Mariano (Fantasy, 1953); w/ Mingus, 1949; Billy Mitchell (Smash—1963; Milt Hinton, Laughin’ At Life (Columbia); Eric Alexander, New York Calling (Criss Cross—1992);
Harold Ashby, Born To Swing (Epic–1959), I’m Old Fashioned (Stash–1991); Lisle Atkinson, Bass Contra Bass (Jazzcraft, 1978); Frank Wess, Tryin’ to Make My Blues Turn Green (Concord—1993)

Richard Wyands — Feb. 7, 2000:

TP:    I’d like to go into some detail with you about your early years and formative years.  You were born in Berkeley or Oakland?

WYANDS:  In Oakland in 1928.

TP:    Would you recount for me again about the beginnings of your piano playing, how you first came to it, and what your progress was?

WYANDS:  Well, I began at an early age, around 7 or 8, and I had some friends who I grew up with on the block, and their mother was a piano teacher, so I used to go over to their house, and she had a piano and I used to fool around with.  She told my mother to ask me if I wanted piano lessons, because she thought I had talent.  So my mother asked, and I said yes, so they got me a piano, and then they got me a couple of teachers.  And I studied classics.  That was it.

TP:    You had a proficiency.  You said that you took to it and became good pretty quickly.

WYANDS:  Yeah, that’s true.  You mean at the beginning?

TP:    Or within a couple of years.

WYANDS:  Oh, sure.  I was very good.  Almost a prodigy.

TP:    What was your repertoire?

WYANDS:  Oh, I don’t remember.

TP:    Were you playing like 19th Century repertoire?

WYANDS:  Oh yeah.  19th Century.

TP:    Liszt and Chopin and things like that?

WYANDS:  Right.

TP:    So you were doing all that as a kid.

WYANDS:  As a kid.

TP:    Did you have outlets to play?  Did you perform?

WYANDS:  No, just recitals.  Piano recitals along with the other students.  But I didn’t perform anyplace.  There was no place to perform really.  I wasn’t that good.

TP:    Then you said that jazz was always around and was always something that interested you.  Talk about what was in the air.

WYANDS:  Well, the radio, of course.  Plus my parents had some old records, some 78s of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson, and had an older Victorphone I guess you’d call it, one of these ancient turntables.  And I played Victrola.  I had a Victrola, so I played these records on that.

TP:    do you remember what some of those records were?

WYANDS:  Not the names?

TP:    “Carolina Shout” maybe?

WYANDS:  I don’t really remember.  I have no idea what the names of these tunes were.  And a neighbor had a player piano and she had some James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and the stride piano players — piano rolls.  I used to go to her house and put the rolls in and pump it away.

TP:    Would you match your fingers on it?

WYANDS:  Sometimes I’d try, yeah.  The keys were moving so fast it seems like there were three piano players playing on one piano.

TP:    When did that start to translate into your playing jazz?  You said you were about 12 years old, I recollect?

WYANDS:  I was picking things out maybe at that age.  I started studying with a teacher who was also a jazz pianist.  I guess I was around 14.  That was Wilbert Barenco.  He gave me about an 8-month course, and that was all.  He said, “Okay, you’ve gone through the course and you’ve done very well, and this is as far as I can take you; you’re on your own.”

TP:    This is about 1942.  What sort of things did his course comprise?  What was the jump for you in going from Classical to playing Jazz?

WYANDS:  Harmonically speaking, he showed me altered chords to apply, how to take a sheet of music on a simple tune like “Body and Soul” or “Stardust” or whatever… In those days they had the ukelele symbols on top of the chords, so I had to figure out the chords and make adjustments and write them in and play the tunes.  In fact, I still have a little record that I did with him.  It must have been around ’42.  I played “Stardust” and “Body and Soul.”

TP:    How does it sound?

WYANDS:  Not bad!  Not bad at all.  He showed me how to run little arpeggios on little chords.  Everything I learned, I had to do it in every key, which was a good idea.  He taught me how to make fills while I’m playing the melody — make little fills in between.  He didn’t actually teach me how to improvise, not really.

TP:    But he gave you the tools.

WYANDS:  Oh yeah.  And I watched him play.  He was working in a nightclub, I remember, in those days, every night.  He played me some of his recordings of his group.  I think Jerome Richardson was in his group.  I really didn’t care for the way he played.  He was more of a soloist.  He played too much to play in a group, and start with somebody.  In fact, most of the musicians said that he overplayed.  He would play through their solos and everything.  But even at that age, I could tell how I wanted to play, and I didn’t want to play like that.  He played great just solo piano, but he overplayed in a group.

TP:    I’ll take it that by then you were starting to listen to piano players for style and vocabulary as well.

WYANDS:  Yes.

TP:    So who were those piano players?  When you were 14-15-16, this is before Bud Powell’s records and Monk’s records come out.

WYANDS:  Teddy Wilson, Nat King Cole, Art Tatum.

TP:    Is that in any particular order of being favorites?

WYANDS:  Well, Teddy Wilson and Nat King Cole were my two favorites. I liked the way Teddy Wilson used his left hand.  He didn’t overplay.  He was very tasty — VERY tasty.  And Nat was just fantastic.  I had an opportunity to play opposite him in his early trio.  I played a couple of dances that he had play; I played with another group, so I got a chance to really check him out.  I loved the way he played, and he had such great taste and good chops and good technique.  Everything was fantastic.  Not to mention his singing, of course, but his piano playing was extraordinary.

TP:    Well, that leads me to ask what the scene was like in the Bay Area during the war.  I guess a lot of people were away, so that opened things up a bit for you to start playing when you were in high school, which I think is when you said you started to gig.

WYANDS:  Yes, I did.  The musicians were really searching for piano players especially.  There were a lot of horn players around, some who were actually in the Service but were stationed in the area.

TP:    Sam Rivers said he was stationed there and used to play all over the Bay Area, jamming.

WYANDS:  In World War Two?

TP:    World War Two, yeah.  He was in the Navy.  He was an office clerk, and so he could go off base, and he said he used to go around Richmond, California…

WYANDS:  Yeah!

TP:    …and San Francisco.  He said the place was hopping.  And he said his first professional gigs were with Jimmy Witherspoon band in the Bay Area.  He also said he heard the Billy Eckstine band when they came out in 1945…

WYANDS:  ’46. Yeah, I heard the band.

TP:    But if you could digress a bit on the scene in the Bay Area.  What kind of gigs were you doing?

WYANDS:  Oh, nightclubs and club dates, club dates meaning dances, private affairs.  There were plenty of those.  I used to work with a guy who used to have about three or four different bands.  He was like a Meyer Davis of the Bay Area.  His name was Ben Watkins, I never will forget him.  He was a lot older than I.  He was old enough to be my father.  And he was uptight, it was hard finding musicians, so somehow he found out about me.  I think he met me in a barber shop or something.  I was getting my hair cut, and somehow the conversation got to piano players, so I said, “Well, I play piano.”  But I was only about 16 and I didn’t belong to the union, so he said, “Okay, I’ll talk to your mother and see if I can… I’ll sponsor you.  I’ll get you in the union.”  So she said, “Okay.”  She was a little apprehensive about it, picturing me working in some joint at the age of 16.  But I’d already done that, though she didn’t know it, working in some tough joints in Richmond at that age.  Tough.  Very tough.  In one of these kid bands, you know; we made $5 or something, if that much.  But anyhow, Ben Watkins got me going, and I played in some of his bands.

TP:    So those bands would vary in size.

WYANDS:  They’d vary in size.  Some were at least two horns, and he used a couple of big bands, playing stock arrangements, and I played in some of those.  It was good experience.  Well, I didn’t have time.  I was going to school, still in high school, and then I went to college right after high school.

TP:    you get out of high school when?  ’45 or ’46?

WYANDS:  ’45.

TP:    Then San Francisco State College, and you get out of there in ’49?

WYANDS:  ’50.

TP:    With a degree in music.

WYANDS:  Right.

TP:    And you’re gigging all the way through, doing this dual track.

WYANDS:  Hell, yeah.  I worked my way through college.  I was working at night in San Francisco mostly.  Some work in Oakland and Richmond, and some of the areas around the Bay Area.  In California you can only work til 2 a.m.; the clubs didn’t stay open any longer than that.

TP:    But there was an after-hours scene in San Francisco.

WYANDS:  Oh yeah.  There was Bop City and some other places.  But by the time they got started, I was in college or about to graduate.  Jimbo’s Bop City was one of the places, and I remember there was a place called Jackson’s Nook. But there were a lot of little places where the musicians hung out, and jam sessions and all of that.

TP:    Who were some of the musicians you were affiliated with in San Francisco who people now would know about?

WYANDS:  Well, Cal Tjader.  In fact, we went to school together at San Francisco State University.  Jerome Richardson, who lived just around the corner from me in Berkeley.  There was Vernon Alley; I spent a lot of time with him.

TP:    Was Brubeck playing a lot around the Bay Area then?

WYANDS:  Oh yeah.  Paul Desmond.  We worked together before the Dave Brubeck Quartet.  We played in some bands around San Francisco, small groups.

TP:    Then after college you start to become one of the most in-demand pianists in the Bay Area is the sense I got from what you were saying.  You became house pianist at the Black Hawk, right?

WYANDS:  At the Black Hawk.  Well, I was still working with Vernon Alley.  He was the leader at all these jobs, at the Black Hawk, at a place called Saks, the Downbeat Club, some other places we worked.  He was a big man in San Francisco.  He had a big name in San Francisco, not further than that.  Vernon was the bassist on the original Lionel Hampton “Flying Home” with Illinois Jacquet — that band.

TP:    So the Blackhawk was very important for you, I gather, because you said that’s where you met virtually every musician coming through San Francisco.  It was a major stopping place.

WYANDS:  That’s right.

TP:    Tell me about the ambiance of the Blackhawk and the routine.  I think you said they’d play about 5 sets, they’d play 40 minutes, you’d play 20.

WYANDS:  40 on, 20 off.  So most of the time I was either playing in a duo, trio, quartet or solo, and opposite these groups.  Every now and then we played where we were the main attraction, but usually we played opposite these people.  Like I said, I played opposite Art Tatum, and I played opposite Erroll Garner, Dinah Washington…oh, a long list of people.  Red Norvo.

TP:    Let me digress for a second.  When you would be doing intermission piano, what kind of repertoire were you playing?  Were you very taken by bebop?  Were you playing a pre-bebop repertoire?  A bit about how your aesthetic was developing?

WYANDS:  Some of all.  Some of both.  I was paying pre-bebop, I was playing sort of stride piano.  I was trying to play like Teddy Wilson, and a little of Art Tatum.  I didn’t try to play like Art Tatum when I was opposite him, though.  I decided to leave that alone.  In fact, he told me, “You can’t compete with me anyhow, but keep it up.”  He encouraged me a lot.  No one can compete with him, no one in the world!  But he was very nice about it.  In fact, he was glad I was there, because he would talk to me while he was playing.  I’d sit right up there by the piano and he knew I was sitting there, even though he couldn’t see too well at that time, and he would tell me what he was doing and what key he was going into.  The audience didn’t have a clue other than the musicians, but the average person didn’t really have much of an idea what he was playing other than the tunes.

TP:    Wow, what an education.

WYANDS:  So we talked a lot.  But when he came off the bandstand, I had to get on, so we really didn’t have much time to talk in between — not really.  But just sitting there watching him was quite an experience, and I didn’t feel bad about it, trying to play opposite him.  I played what I could play, and that was that.  He’d wipe you out in a minute.

TP:    Were you ever house rhythm section for people coming through?

WYANDS:  Singers.

TP:    Let’s talk about how you got out of San Francisco.

WYANDS:  I moved to Canada, and played in Hull, Quebec, which is right across the river from Ottawa, Ontario, a so-called jazz club, but it became a singers showcase.  I played for a lot of singers there, including Johnny Mathis… Oh God, I can’t even think of all the singers.  There were so many of them.  Most of them aren’t around now or they’re not singing.  This was around ’57.

TP:    I think you said the year before that you were doing gigs on the West Coast with Ella Fitzgerald.  Talk about the impact on you of playing with singers.  I imagine it must have vastly expanded your repertoire and aided your ability to interpret the songbook repertoire just by internalizing all the lyrics.

WYANDS:  Oh yeah.  Well, first of all, Ella was a great pleasure to work with.  Only unfortunately, we didn’t do too much.  She had a certain repertoire she wanted to do on this particular tour which was sort of limited.  We did the same tunes every night.  Rodgers & Hart; I think that’s what she was doing mostly.  Of course, some of her famous things, like “How High The Moon,” this and that.  But it was great.  We did Vegas and Palm Springs, L.A., San Francisco.  But we stayed in each of those locations at least three weeks.  That’s how it was in those days.  So I was the musical director, and if there was a band I had to conduct the band.  Which didn’t amount to much really, because her stuff wasn’t very complicated.  It was just start and finish.  It was nice.  Carmen was a little different, though.  She had a vast repertoire.  She had more tunes than I’d ever seen.

TP:    She played  some piano, too.

WYANDS:  In fact, part of her act was playing piano.  She’d do a couple of tunes a set playing piano and singing just by herself, sometimes with the rhythm section and sometimes just solo.  That was part of the routine, though.

TP:    She did some nice records at that time when I think Ray Bryant was with her, and she played piano on a few tunes.

WYANDS:  Yeah.  That’s when I met Ray Bryant.  He was playing with her.  In fact, I think I followed him with her.  Anyhow, it was a great experience.

TP:    You were talking a bit about what led you to leave San Francisco.

WYANDS:  Well, I got tired of it.  It was time for me either to sink or swim.  I had it sort of made pretty well in San Francisco.  But when you’re the home town, I don’t care how well you can play, they still think of you as just local — the local guy.  So I decided I’m tired of being local.  If I’m going to be local, I’ll be local in New York.  So at least something to listen to, and really to better my playing, my whole outlook, from playing with different… Even though I jammed, played in a lot of jam sessions in San Francisco with the guys who came through, but that’s a little different when you go out… When you play with these people on a regular basis, it’s different.  In fact, I worked with Mingus in San Francisco before I left, before I even thought of going to New York.

TP:    So he was one of the musicians you met while you were in San Francisco who you hooked up with when you got to New York.

WYANDS:  I met him while I was working with this guy Ben Watkins in various bands.  Mingus had come up from L.A. with some group; I don’t remember who.  But I was really impressed.  I was watching him warm up back stage.  He had his bow out and he was sawing away.  I said, “Wow!”

TP:    This was in the ’40s?

WYANDS:  Mid-’40s.  ’44 or ’45.

TP:    Is this when he was billing himself as Baron Mingus?

WYANDS:  No, not at that time.  This came up a little later, as far as I know. But I made a record with him in San Francisco with a big band, a large orchestra.  In those days you just did one at a time.  You did two tunes, and it would be on a ’78.

TP:    I have a collection of Mingus rareties on an LP.  I wonder if you’re included on it.

WYANDS:  I have one, too.  There are a lot of different groups.  They’re all West Coast bands, but some of it was done in Los Angeles and some elsewhere.  L.A. and San Francisco.

TP:    So anyway, you leave Ottawa with Carmen and come to New York.

WYANDS:  Not directly.  We played at the Blue Note in Chicago, went to Detroit, and that’s when I first met Barry Harris.  He was playing intermission piano .  River Rouge Lounge was the name of the place.  Then we went to a few other cities, then we finally came to New York and worked around New York, and then I left.  We did the “Today Show” with Dave Garroway.  I never will forget that, because it was so early in the morning, live, and you had to be there at 6 o’clock in the morning.  I think I was asleep actually during the show.  But then I worked with her  I went down to Philly and worked with her; little places around the area.  Then that was that.

TP:    So talk about establishing yourself in New York.  You said it was lean times the first year or so.

WYANDS:  Very lean.  The union had me uptight.  I wasn’t able to work.  Because I came in on a transfer.  I transferred from the San Francisco union to Local 802.  They had this dumb rule where you had to sit, establish your residence for six months, and they wouldn’t give you a union card til you had been around six months.  And you weren’t supposed to leave town.  You had to stay.  They’d allow you to work a few jobs, but not much.  I worked in Harlem and some places in Brooklyn with no union card.  The business agent in the area usually would allow me to work; he knew I was trying to hang on.  Like a lot of other musicians going through the same thing.  So finally I got my card, then things started happening.

TP:    Your first record was with Roy Haynes, the Roy Haynes Trio record on New Jazz.  Talk a bit about your workaday life the first few years in New York.

WYANDS:  I really didn’t work that much.  Not too much.  I don’t really remember.  But it was difficult.  I finally decided to go to Philadelphia.  I met a friend who booked me into a club in Philly doing a solo piano — on the outskirts of Philly at that.  It was sort of a suburb, and it was kind of tough.  It wasn’t very nice.

TP:    Wasn’t fun.

WYANDS:  No-no.  The club owner was a pain.  He was a violinist, and he wanted me to accompany him after hours for his private guests.  I said, “Well, look, I finish at 1 o’clock” or whatever the time was, “and I’ve got to go home.”  So I finally got fired.  So I went to the union.  I said, “Look, this guy is trying to fire me instantly; you know, without a two-week notice.”  So they called and told him, “Look, you’ve got to give him two-week notice.”  Fortunately, I filed a contract with the union in Philly.  I really wanted to leave, but I said, “No, you’d better make these two weeks.  This guy’s a pain in the butt, but…”

So  I came back to New York after Philly and got a place in Brooklyn for cheap rent, and I started working with this guy rehearsing singers in Brooklyn, the guy I was living with in Brooklyn, in his apartment.  He was sort of an agent, so he lined up all these singers.  Some of them were good, some were terrible.  And somehow I met Gigi Gryce, and he was organizing a band along with Reggie Workman, Richard Williams and Mickey Roker.  We rehearsed and we worked at the old Five Spot, different places in Brooklyn, made about three dates on Prestige and one on Mercury — so I made four LPs with Gigi.

TP:    Was he important to you?  Did that gig help launch you in New York, as it were?

WYANDS:  Sort of.  I’d been around a while before I even started with Gigi — ’58 and ’59.  I was working with Jerome Richardson up at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, with Kenny Burrell.  But the group with Gigi was a great group.  I really loved it.  We had so much fun.  It was a happy group.  Extremely happy.  I’d never been in a group like that before ever, anywhere, where everything was just so happy and musical.  Happy musically and otherwise.  Everybody got along with each other, there was no arguing and fighting, no egos.  One of the best groups I ever worked with.  Then Gigi disappeared from the scene and we were all on our own.  So I just freelanced around New York.

TP:    I’d like to jump to the tunes in the tune order I have.

WYANDS:  I composed that tune for my grandson, Kosi.  I couldn’t think of a title, so I decided to put his name on it.  I wrote it just a couple of days before the recording session.  It’s just a blues.

TP:    “P.S., I Love You,” by Gordon Jenkins.  Your association with it?

WYANDS:  I don’t know.  I’d never played it before actually.  I might have played it with a singer or something.  When you work with singers, you play so many tunes.

TP:    You’ve probably played thousands of tunes.  There must be just subliminally tunes in various parts of your consciousness just burbling up at different times, with all the tunes you’ve played.

WYANDS:  That’s true.  I never think about all the tunes that I know, unless someone calls it — or requests it, I should say.

TP:    Then it just pops up.

WYANDS:  Yeah, then it pops up.  But “P.S., I Love You,” for some reason I thought of it.  I have no idea why.  I’d heard it done by Woody Herman with Mary Ann McCall singing, I believe.  This was done in the ’40s.  For some reason, I looked it up.  I looked through all my fake books and I finally found it, because I wasn’t sure exactly how the bridge went.  I found it, I thought, “Well, you’re in look; you won’t have to go to the music store to buy a sheet.”  So I made a little arrangement of it.  It’s always been a favorite tune, even though nobody plays it.  I don’t recall anyone calling that tune ever to play, other than perhaps a singer who would usually have a chart or something.

TP:    When you’re interpreting songbook material, is the lyric paramount in your mind?

WYANDS:  Yeah.  Definitely.

TP:    I wrote a liner note for Billy Taylor, and asked him, and he said, “I don’t remember the lyrics; it’s always a musical thing.

WYANDS:  I remember the lyrics impressed me.  It’s very intimate.  It reminded me of something in the past, writing to a girlfriend or something – long ago, before I even came to New York.

TP:    “Once I Loved,” by Jobim.  Is Jobim a steady part of your repertoire?

WYANDS:  Yeah.  I do some things of his.  Quite a few, in fact.  When I get a chance… I think I mentioned that I’d heard his record that Wes Montgomery did on “Once I Loved,” and I liked it.  And I’d play it quite a bit.  It’s one of my favorite tunes actually, and certainly one of my favorite Jobim tunes.

TP:    A few words about the characteristics about Jobim that make his music attractive to you.

WYANDS:  Well, his whole outlook is very, very intense, but very relaxed. Most of his tunes just fell right into place, all the things, the popular ones that most people know about.  “No More Blues” is one of my favorites.  I thought about recording that, but it’s been done so many times — forget it.

TP:    “Is That So” is that nice Duke Pearson tune.  The other person I’ve heard record this is John Hicks.  You knew Duke Pearson; he was a contemporary of yours.

WYANDS:  I didn’t know him that well.  I’d seen him around New York.  When I first came to New York I heard this record that he and Donald Byrd and Jackie McLean made together.  I have the record but I can’t think of the title.  I liked the way he played.  I saw him play at various places in Harlem.  I ran across the tune when I was working the guitarist Rick Stone, and it was part of his repertoire.  I said, “Wow, make me a copy of that.  I like it.”  In fact, we played it, and I said, “Yeah, I like this.”  I was searching for material to do, so I said, “well, I’ll play this.”  It falls a little differently.  I haven’t played it since, but I hope to.

TP:    “Daydream.”  Your association with the tune has to be pretty obvious.

WYANDS:  Strayhorn has always been one of my favorite composers, he and Duke.  I think this was a collaboration.  I’m not sure.  I don’t have a sheet on it.  But I remember the old Johnny Hodges vehicle of “Daydream,” the original one was beautiful – a ballad, of course.  I decided to put a little different beat to it.  It seems that every trio record I’ve done, other than the one I did with Roy Haynes, I’ve done at least Duke Ellington or Strayhorn tune.

TP:    Strayhorn and Jobim are both so harmonically rich.  There’s so much harmonic meat.

WYANDS:  Oh yes.

TP:    The way Teekens sequenced the tape, there are two solo tracks back to back, “Beautiful Friendship” and “Time After Time.”  Talk about playing solo.  I’m sure you’ve done lots of solo gigs, particularly in New York with all the restaurants with pianos.

WYANDS:  Yes, that’s true.  A lot of restaurants in New York.  Not so many now, but in years past.

I learned “Beautiful Friendship” while I was working with Ella Fitzgerald.  That was one of her features every night; she did it every night.  I’d never heard the tune before.  I loved the way she sang it.  Gorgeous. So I kept that in the back of my mind, I’ll do this tune some day.  Which I did . I’ve been playing that tune for a long time.  And I remember Sarah Vaughan had a nice record of “Time After Time,” and a lot of other singers.  It’s one of my favorite tunes.  I like “Time After Time.”  It’s always been… I didn’t have that in mind to play on the date.  It just came to my mind.  Gerry said “Well, let’s rest now.  Why don’t you do a solo thing?”

TP:    You said one thing that you like about solo piano is the freedom it ives you.  You can change keys, you can change tempos, you don’t have to worry about shaking the guy in the band, so forth and so on.

WYANDS:  Yeah, that’s true.  It’s complete freedom.  I can play anything.  I can play whatever comes to my mind.  There’s no particular form or structure, just play any tune.  If I want to go back to the bridge, I can do that.  If I want to change keys in the bridge, I can do that without having to have signals, which I would if there were some other musicians playing with me.  Sometimes it gets a little lonesome, though.  You’re playing by yourself, playing at some joint where all the people are running their mouths and talking loud.  But usually it can be very rewarding.  I can practice.  I use a lot of those solo jobs just to practice!  I can play tunes I haven’t played in years, and play those verses, all sorts of things.  It goes through a lot of different harmonic scenarios. It’s great, whether there’s a listening audience or not — unless they’re just yelling and screaming!  Which is quite the case in some instances.  A piano bar when they’re sitting right up in your face, and some drunk gets up and wants to sit on the piano bench and help you play the piano.  I’ve had to go through that.

TP:    You take all the romance out of the music business.

WYANDS:  Well, that’s part of it.  If you work in a saloon.

TP:    “As Long As I Live.”

WYANDS:  I think I mentioned that I played that with Maxine Sullivan.  Of course, I’d heard the old record by Benny Goodman, the sextet I guess.  Some of the older musicians used to play that a lot, especially when I was in California.  Because I came up with a lot of older musicians.  In the San Francisco Bay Area there weren’t that many young musicians around my age.  So I really learned how to play playing with older musicians.  Anyhow, I didn’t want to jump from the (?) to that.  But Maxine Sullivan sang that tune so great that somehow I… Sometimes I think about these tunes in my sleep.  I’m in bed and I think, “Whoa, I can hear her singing now.  Why don’t I do that?”

TP:    “Half and Half.”  That’s the title track and the one that Kenny Washington said busted his and Peter’s chops.

WYANDS:  Yeah.  They wanted to do it earlier in the date, and I think they were right, because we didn’t save it for last but right near the end.  I think we should have done it not in the beginning, but around the third or fourth tune.

TP:    What makes it so tricky and complicated, in your words.  You said you wrote it 35-40 years ago, and Don Sickler found it when he got hold of some of Gigi Gryce’s material.

WYANDS:  Right.  Because I didn’t have a sheet on it.  I misplaced it, and I couldn’t even remember how the tune went until Don sent me a copy of it.

TP:    Was that tune performed by the Gigi Gryce group?

WYANDS:  It was never performed by anyone.  It’s never been performed before.

TP:    But you wrote it then and Gigi had the sheet music.

WYANDS:  I don’t know what I had in mind for that tune.  I don’t know whether I wanted to do it as a trio thing or what.  But I put it in his publishing company, obviously, and that’s why he had the sheet on it.

TP:    Then you said you had to relearn how to play it.  You had to relearn your own tune.

WYANDS:  Yes, that’s usually the case.  I’ve got a lot of tunes that I don’t even play.

TP:    Have you done a lot of composing over the years?

WYANDS:  Yes.  Well, not that much.  But a lot of tunes I’ve written, I just wrote them for a record date, and then they don’t play them any more.

TP:    “I’m Old Fashioned” is the last tune.

WYANDS:  It’s an old standard that I really like to play. I’ve played it with a lot of horn players at various tempos.  Singers.  Slow sometimes.  I decided to do it at sort of a walking tempo.  It’s kind of difficult to play ballads.  Like, you can get away with it on a record, but it’s hard on a live performance because you can’t get the audience’s attention.  There’s too much talking.  On a concert stage it’s easy, but in a nightclub… But rather than do it as a straight ballad, I did it with a little tempo to it.

TP:    A few words about your partners, Peter and Kenny.

WYANDS:  Peter is one of my favorite bassists.  We’ve made a few things together, certainly not enough — mostly on records.  We did a few live things.  But unfortunately, we’d work together maybe a week, then that would be it.  We wouldn’t even see each other.

TP:    He’s a busy man.

WYANDS:  Yeah, he’s very busy.  So we never really get into anything.  Unfortunately, that’s the way the business is now unless you’re with a regular group.  But he’s been with Tommy Flanagan and Lewis Nash for a long time.  But I think the first time we played together was with Frank Wess at the Vanguard several years ago.

TP:    Anything about the dynamics of his style?

WYANDS:  He has good feel, intonation is good, he’s aware of so many different things, so many different styles that he can deal with.  Like I said, I haven’t known him that long.  I don’t know how long he’s been in the New York area.

And I love Kenny.  He’s one of my favorite drummers.  Very versatile, loose, and he’s very cooperative.  He’ll try to do whatever you want him to do if at all possible.  Nobody’s perfect.  Everybody can’t do everything.  There’s certain areas that we all can’t get into.  But I know I’m not going to have a problem with him.  Good technique, good sense… Well, being a DJ, he listens to a lot of older records.  Well, a lot of it he has in his own private collection.  I listen to his program on the radio when I get a chance.  He’s into the old big bands and all of that stuff.  I like his approach.

Kenny Washington on Richard Wyands:

TP:    Just to cut to the chase, talk about the dynamics of him as a piano player and the characteristics of his style and approach.

WASHINGTON:  Well, Richard Wyands doesn’t have any one set approach.  See, Richard Wyands is like a pro.  He is the kind of a pianist who has been around for many, many  years, and unfortunately, he is sort of-kind of taken for granted.  I mean, he has been on so many great recordings… He’s someone who is taken for granted, but then when you really start checking him out you say, “Geez, this guy, he’s an important musician.”  Because he does everything right.  He’s got the touch, he’s got the sound, he knows how to comp for horn players, good time.  He just knows what to do, when he’s supposed to do it, and nine times out of ten no one has to say anything to him about anything.  He just knows instinctively what to do.  That’s the kind of pianist that he’s always been, and a lot of times people don’t really notice him like they should.  In other words, he is somebody like a Hank Jones or someone like that, who just, they come in, they take care of business — they don’t make a big hoopla about it either.  That’s the other thing about them.  They just go in and do what they’re supposed to do, and it’s plenty-plenty, bye-bye — they’re gone.  And then after a while you start saying, “Man, this cat can really play.”  Any situation, man.

TP:    Well, he’s done just about every situation.  He’s been gigging since he was about 16 and playing before that back in the Bay Area.

WASHINGTON:  See, I’ve made several trio records with him, but then he was on Eric Alexander’s first record, New York Calling, and he came in, man, he took care of business on that.  Like, he can go any direction.  He can go in the direction like a Herbie Hancock, or a McCoy Tyner, play modal, and he can play bebop… He can do it all.  He doesn’t really say anything about it; he just does it.

TP:    And his style isn’t really what you’d call modern or old.  It’s just functional.

WASHINGTON:  That’s why he’s not noted more than he is.  Because people want to always typecast you, he’s a bebopper or he’s this or he’s that.  The problem with critics especially is that no one says, “Man, this guy is a great musician who can go in and play with Buddy Tate and Clark Terry, but then again he can come in and play with a young dynamo like Eric Alexander and still take care of business.

TP:    What are some of your favorite records that he’s on.

WASHINGTON:  He made Straight Ahead, didn’t he, with Oliver Nelson and Eric Dolphy. There’s a Gene Ammons record with…one of those records is Ballads, I think, and he really took care of business on that one.

TP:    I think basically you said what needed to be said.  Any particular memories about this session?

WASHINGTON:  The thing about Richard Wyands sessions, he’s the kind of guy who… They say you’re sort of-kind of like you play.  He’s sort of a quiet guy.  I don’t know him that well.  I mean, I know him well enough, I suppose.  But he’s a very quiet person, a very pleasant person.  He doesn’t say a whole lot.  He just says what he has to say.  So he calls me up and says, “Listen, I got this date; can you make it?  Would you like to make it?”  I say, “Of course, man!  Don’t even ASK me that question.  Of course.  The answer is just yes.”  So we came to the rehearsal, and he had some ideas for some music, and that’s when he pulled out that tune, “Half and Half.”  He said, “I have something, I don’t know how good it is, it’s kind of old, but let’s just try this.”  He passes out the music, and Peter Washington and I just looked at each other, “Unh-oh.”  I said, “Right, man, you don’t think this is much, man, do you.  Oh yeah, not much.”  And he started laughing.  At one point he was getting ready to change his mind, and I said, “No, man, let’s do this!”

TP:    He said he thought you should have done it earlier in the session, which you’d suggested to him.

WASHINGTON:  Yeah, that’s possible.  But see, he didn’t want to do it early in the session because that’s a butt-kicking tune.  The head of the tune, with all the syncopation and everything.  And he had never done that before.  He wasn’t… See, those are the kind of guys you’ve got to watch, man, because on all these dates I don’t think I’ve ever played any of his music.  He usually just comes in with standards… I think that’s the first time I’ve played a tune that was actually his tune.  Maybe there might have been a blues… I’m talking about in general.  There might have been a blues or something that he wrote.  But I don’t even think so.  And he just pulled this one out, and it turns out that he had written it with Gig Gryce… [ETC.]  So the thing about it is you say, “Lord knows what else he might have in terms of writing tunes.”  So we had one rehearsal.  It’s funny, because at the rehearsal he had stuff worked out.  I mean, he doesn’t really say much.  He plays the stuff down, you ask him a couple of questions.  “Well, how about this part?  What would you like?”  He said, “Well, that’s up to you, man.”  Or he might want something like this, and it’s “Okay, no problem.”  Peter and I can hear real good, so we had most of the stuff together.  That’s when he pulled out the tune “Half and Half.”  Then I think for a good portion of the rehearsal we were trying to get that tune together.

Leave a comment

Filed under Liner Notes, Piano, Richard Wyands

On Dexter Gordon’s 89th Birthday, my liner notes for The Complete Prestige Recordings of Dexter Gordon

Several years ago, before Concord purchased the holdings of Fantasy Records, I had the honor of writing the liner notes for an immense box set of Dexter Gordon’s complete recordings for Prestige. I researched and wrote the essay while simultaneously putting together a large assignment for DownBeat that involved interviewing a cohort of saxophonists about either their favorite musician or their five favorites on a particular label (can’t remember which), which gave me an opportunity to inquire about their sense of the Gordon’s impact. Maxine Gordon graciously cooperated as well. Gordon’s 89th birth anniversary is today, and, for the occasion, I’m pleased to be able to append these notes.

The Complete Dexter Gordon on Prestige (Notes):

One day in 1945, on his way home from school, a 14-year saxophone beginner named Jackie McLean made a pit stop at a Harlem luncheonette on 125th Street and 7th Avenue. As he waited for his hot dog and root beer, he heard emanating from the backroom jukebox the joyful noise of two distinctly different tenor saxophones exchanging a string of choruses over a thunderous tom-tom shuffle.

“It was ‘Blowing the Blues Away’ by Billy Eckstine’s big band, and that was the first time I heard Dexter Gordon,” McLean recalls. Not long after that, a friend across the street played me ‘Dexter’s Deck.’ That did it. I had been in love with just one saxophone player—Lester Young. But listening to Dexter taught me how to swing.”

Few jazz musicians have stamped the vocabulary of their instrument so definitively at such a tender age as Dexter Keith Gordon, who was not yet 22 when he recorded that iconic tenor battle with Gene Ammons. But he was already a seasoned veteran. The son of a Los Angeles doctor who counted Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton as patients, and a private student of noted L.A. educator Lloyd Reese, Gordon joined Hampton in December 1940, two months before his 18th birthday. A devotee of Lester Young’s records with Count Basie, he’d seen Young play the previous October on Basie’s first California visit. “Lammar Wright, Jr. and I ditched school that day to catch the first show, which I think was at eleven in the morning,” Gordon told Ira Gitler in Swing to Bop. “They opened with ‘Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie,’ and Lester came out soloing—he was just fantastic. I really loved the man. He was melodic, rhythmic, had that bittersweet approach. And of course, in his pre-Army days he had such a zest for living. It felt so good to hear him play.”

On the road with Hampton, Gordon mastered the ritualistic dueling tenors function, telling ebullient stories with pretty notes, Lester Young style, in counterstatement to the brash, declarative Herschel Evans tales of Illinois Jacquet. Midway through 1941, Hampton’s band came to New York to work Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom opposite Jay McShann, whose alto saxophonist was a 21-year-old virtuoso named Charlie Parker.

“Bird had a lot of Lester in his playing, and also Jimmy Dorsey, who was a master saxophonist,” Gordon recalled in Gary Giddins’s essay “Dexter,” from Visions of Jazz: The First Century. “He was playing so much saxophone, new tunes, new harmonic conceptions; he extended the chords, altering them fluidly. Pres stayed around ninths—he must have listened to Ravel and Debussy—but Bird went all the way up the scale.” On various New York visits in ́41 and ́42, the aspirant heard trumpet modernists Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Harris, and Victor Coulson. “I heard [the new sound] gradually here and there,” he told Gitler. “Not in an organized band or even with all the cats playing that kind of style in a group.”

Gordon wasn’t doctrinaire about his influences. He knew the Coleman Hawkins lexicon inside out, and drew inspiration from Dick Wilson (1911-1941), a much-admired tenorman with Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy. In The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller writes that Wilson executed “sinuous and unpredictable” lines “with consummate control. . .interposing quick flurries of notes with more sustained phrases,” and projected them with a tone distinctive for being “at once imbued with a searing old-style intensity and a subtle ‘modern’ coolness.”

During the first nine months of 1944, Gordon refined his skills on jobs with drummer Lee Young (Lester’s older brother), Fletcher Henderson, and Louis Armstrong. In October he received a call to join Eckstine’s seminal bebop orchestra at Washington, D.C.’s Howard Theater. Maxine Gordon, his widow, relates: “Dexter told Louis, ‘I’ve got to go; that’s my boys.’ ‘Is it a matter of money?’  He said, ‘No, the money’s fine.’ ‘Well, what is it?’ ‘I’ve got to play that music.’  He was like, ‘OK, I get it.’ Dexter said that the publicity about Louis being anti-bebop was way overstated, that Louis encouraged the young musicians. He said, ‘Try your new thing. What we played was new!’”

Soon after recruiting Gordon, Eckstine hired a young Chicago tenorist named Gene Ammons, a Coleman Hawkins disciple. For the next ten months, a Gordon-Ammons cutting contest became a highly anticipated nightly ritual, establishing both youngbloods as rising stars.

“Dexter was a child of Lester Young,” Maxine Gordon says. “He tried to play like Lester, thought he played just like him, looked like him and acted like him. Lester was his number-one man. But Gene Ammons was his favorite tenor player among his contemporaries. Dexter said that Gene Ammons could do something that he was never able to attain, which is to play one note and affect the people so much that they fall on the ground and faint. They didn’t have much time for their solos. Dexter would work out, play everything he knew, show all he’d been working on. Gene’s ears were so good that he would come up and play everything back, and then play a low B-flat or a note where people would just go ‘Wow!’ Dexter said he learned that if you only worked on technique and speed, and neglected tone, projection, and feeling, you weren’t playing the tenor.

“Dexter told me that he once yelled at Jug, ́Stop playing back my shit! Play your own shit; don’t play mine.` Gene was very sweet and quiet and sensitive, and he took it badly. Dexter and Lammar Wright went to hear Basie. They went out back, and Lester was there. Lester said to him, ́I heard you had a beef with Brother Gene.` People talk. Dexter said, ́Yeah. I’m tired of him stealing my shit.` And Lester said to him, ́Oh, really? You want to be careful about that.` Then Dexter was like, ́Oh my God, I’m stealing every note from Lester.` He was just mortified. ́Okay, I get it.` Then he went and apologized to Gene and tried to be quiet. He said he never forgot that.”

Blending harmonic lessons from Dizzy Gillespie—Eckstine’s musical director and first trumpet until the end of 1944—with tutelage from Ammons in the art of efficiently telling a story with notes and tones, Gordon learned to conjure concise, melodic riffs from extended chord structures. Although he retained Young’s horizontal phrasing and low-vibrato tone, he gradually shed the skin of his idol, projecting a robust timbre and surging attack that appealed to audiences in Southern tobacco warehouses, Western dance halls, and soul lounges in Northern inner cities. He sidemanned on Gillespie’s “Blue and Boogie” in February 1945 for Guild, and appeared with Charlie Parker on sessions led by trombonist Trummy Young and pianist Sir Charles Thompson. He led his first date in December 1945, and for the next three years—recording in New York for Savoy and in Los Angeles for Dial—tossed off a succession of attractive three-minute riff tunes with ad hoc quartets and quintets, including “The Duel,” a tenor joust with West Coast bop avatar Teddy Edwards, and “The Chase,” an epic encounter with L.A.-based tenorman Wardell Gray.

Both Gordon and Gray are in particularly good form on “Move,” taped at Hollywood’s Hula Hut on August 27, 1950. It was originally issued on The Wardell Gray Memorial Album, and is the first of the 88 tracks that comprise The Complete Prestige Recordings of Dexter Gordon. Over an unwavering, crackling beat from L.A. modernists Jimmy Bunn, Billy Hadnott, and Chuck Thompson, Gray uncorks a string of flaming, elegant, thematically linked choruses, constantly building momentum. There follows a classic solo by trumpeter Clark Terry, in town with the Count Basie Octet; fully cognizant of Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro, he’s completely his own man. Perhaps aware that it was Young’s 41st birthday, Gordon leaps in (4:22) with an eloquent stream-of-consciousness monologue that continues for 3 minutes and 35 seconds. Swinging fiercely and never repeating himself, he choreographs a continuous flow of melodic ideas, referencing Lestorian fragments as signifying guideposts, throwing in for good measure a well-timed phrase from “Let’s Fall in Love.”

It’s the kind of well-wrought eruption that caused Gordon’s peers and acolytes to keep him firmly in their sights. “Dexter was a tough man to beat in a cutting session,’” says Von Freeman (b.1922), who had first-hand knowledge of the fact. “He was very modern-thinking, could play the stew out of the horn, and you could tell he had studied a whole lot. He was among the very first modern tenor players to break away from Pres, to start emphasizing minor IXs, major IXs, XIIIs, and flatted Vs. In other words, he had some Bird in him early, which gave him an edge among a lot of tenor players who were playing like Pres, since Pres didn’t stress those notes, though he used them in the context of his normal playing. In bebop you start in or end on those type of notes, and that makes your playing different to people who study music. Dexter to me was that stop on tenor between Pres and Hawk, and then Coltrane.”

“Besides the gods, Lester and Hawk and Don Byas, Dexter and Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis were the guys that guys my age were listening to when we were coming up,” says Sonny Rollins (b.1930), who grew up in Harlem. “Dexter made a great contribution to the bebop language; in fact, I think he defined it during a certain period. He transcribed a lot of the stuff that Bird was doing, and brought that approach to the tenor without being a copier. He was an important figure in bringing people along. Coltrane at one time sounded a lot like Dexter, and I still hear that lineage. And one time when I was in Chicago, this guy had heard one of my records, and he said, ‘Yeah, man, you sound great; you sound like Dexter.’ I have nothing but praise for him.”

“Around Philadelphia, we all wanted to be like Dexter,” recalls Jimmy Heath (b.1926). “He had this relaxed, behind-the-beat way of playing that made him swing harder than most of the saxophone players. Coltrane, Benny Golson, and myself all were keyed into his sound, and we all were listening to his records, because we were so impressed with the way he adapted the bebop style for the tenor saxophone. One of his records was ‘Setting the Pace,’ and he set the pace.”

“Dexter could take those common chords and string a melody to it like an expensive necklace of pearl beads,” says Golson (b.1929). “His ideas were completely different than Don Byas and Lester Young. To me, they sounded a little more hip, and I guess they were, because he was much younger than them, and he came onto the scene with a new breath of air, so to speak. He had a lot of soul in what he was doing. He was suave—his  movements were that way, and his speech was so smooth and deliberate; he thought about what he was going to say. He wasn’t a person that you knew for playing an abundance of notes, though that didn’t mean he couldn’t. He wasn’t approaching his tenor saxophone the same way Charlie Parker approached his alto saxophone. Charlie Parker played a lot of double-time things. With Dexter it wasn’t a flurry of notes. It was the way he played the notes that he played! It was like he gave more attention to each note rather than a slew of ideas. Charlie Parker came with rapid fire, and Dexter came with single shots, but they were well-aimed. And it was those shots that touched my heart and my brain.”

Six-and-a-half feet tall and bronze-complected, with sculpted, florid cheekbones, full lips, and lidded, ironic eyes, Gordon oozed charisma. “Dexter was a movie star on the saxophone,” says McLean. “My aunt Miriam opened my room door one day when I was practicing and said, ‘Jackie, last night I was on 52nd Street, and this tall, beautiful guy named Dexter something was playing, and oh my God, he was so great.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute! That’s Dexter Gordon.’ I had a little windup record player, and I wound it up and put on ‘Dexter’s Deck’ for her.”

McLean recalls hearing Gordon play several afternoon jam sessions at the Lincoln Square Center, a converted stable in Manhattan’s west sixties. “The first time, Ben Webster and a bunch of other people were playing,” McLean states. “The next time I went, I stepped up with my dollar to get in, and the guy asked me, ‘How old are you?’ I tried to drop my voice down. I said, ‘18.’ ‘No. Come on, kid. Get out of the line.’ I was dejected, and went outside. Then I saw Dexter coming, and I ran up to him in the street. ‘Mr. Gordon, I want to go in to see you play, but they won’t let me in—I’m too young.’ Dexter said, ‘How much does it cost?’ ‘A dollar.’ ‘Give me your dollar. Just stay with me.’ I walked right in with him. Every time he tried to get away from me, to talk to the ladies or something, there I was! When he went to unpack his horn, I was looking in his case. Finally, he said, ‘Go have a seat, man.’ Ben Webster was already playing onstage, and Dexter walked out and joined him on ‘Cottontail,’ and tried to steal the scene. Ben didn’t like it too much.

“Ten years later, I went to the West Coast with Art Blakey, and Dexter showed up and started talking. I walked up to him and said, ‘Hey, Dexter, do you remember me?’  He said, ‘You lost a lot of weight, man, but I know who you are. You’re the pest.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’  He said, ‘I remember you, man. You were a chubby little kid. You used to be in my face all the time.’”

In Eckstine’s band, Gordon and reed section mates Sonny Stitt, Leo Parker, and John Jackson dubbed themselves the Unholy Four; their experiments with heroin quickly led to addiction. Sonny Rollins recalls encountering Gordon at a Forties dance at the Hunts Point Ballroom in the Bronx. “Dexter was strung out at the time, and I was a young cat whose mother had just bought me my brand-new tenor,” Rollins recalls. “He didn’t have a horn, so I lent it to him. He was already an established star; I was just a kid. But he didn’t steal my horn!”

Around this time, Don Schlitten—who went on to produce four of the albums that appear on this collection—first saw Gordon at a Sunday afternoon jam session at the Club 845 on Prospect Avenue and 160th Street in the Bronx. Soon after, he went to Lincoln Square Center to see his idol at a welcome-home party for the Billy Eckstine band. “They had Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Leo Parker, Fats Navarro, Art Blakey, Monk on piano, and John Simmons on bass,” Schlitten recalls. “Dexter was supposed to be there and so was Charlie Ventura. Charlie Ventura couldn’t make it, so he sent in a sub, who was Don Byas. The show was from 3 to 7, and everybody was waiting for Dexter. At 7 o’clock, the curtains parted, and Dexter stuck his head out of the curtains and waved to everybody hello. But he never played! Then Symphony Sid or one of those cats came out and said that Dexter would be here next week.”

Gordon remained enmeshed in his habit throughout the Fifties. He relocated to California in 1949, spent 1953 and 1954 incarcerated at the Chino State Penitentiary, and went back to jail soon after his encounter with McLean. He didn’t get out until 1960. Gordon didn’t like to talk about those years, telling friends simply, “It saved my life.” Maxine Gordon notes that, unlike Ammons, who spent most of the Sixties in a maximum security lockup in Joliet, Illinois, Gordon “always played, always had his horn. The jail had a band. All the best players were in jail at that time.”

On parole in 1960, Gordon led a house band at the Zebra Lounge and joined the Los Angeles production of The Connection, the Jack Gelber play about heroin addicts. Pianist Freddie Redd—who wrote the score—and McLean had performed in the famous 1959-60 New York stage and film production; in L.A., Gordon led an onstage quartet through several of his minor-key originals, and, writes Gitler in his vivid chapter on Gordon in Jazz Masters of the ‘40s, “handled an important speaking role that called for a lot of ad-libbing.”

During the play’s run, Cannonball Adderley approached Gordon to do a one-off date with Jazzland. The result is Resurgence, and a fine album it is, though the back story described by trumpeter Martin Banks (b.1936) indicates that Gordon was remaining in character outside the theater. “Leonard Feather and Shorty Rogers and all sorts of people were in the control room,” Banks told a reporter in Austin, Texas, his hometown, where he currently lives and plays. “Dexter had some manuscript up on the music stand, and he was pointing at it. But there was nothing written on the paper! He said, quietly: ‘We’re gonna make up this date, because they’ve already paid me for the music. And I’ve spent the money.’”

In point of fact, Gordon makes only two contributions to his comeback album. On the hard-charging “Home Run,” the front line slams out three bars of a chord not dissimilar to the opening of Thelonious Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie” before resolving into the form of Ray Brown’s “Two Bass Hit.”  Propelled by the unrelenting swing of Larance Marable, the “West Coast Philly Joe Jones,” Gordon, Banks, and trombonist Richard Boone—the latter an Arkansan who later gained notoriety with Count Basie for his authoritative “mumbles” vocalese, and moved in 1970 to Copenhagen and an eventual sinecure in the Danish Radio Orchestra—take concise, pithy solos. The tenorist also offers a soulful reading of “Jodi,” an original ballad that he would revisit in 1965 on the Blue Note album Clubhouse.

Saving the day is pianist Charles “Dolo” Coker (1927-1989), a Hartford, Connecticut native whose c.v. included gigs and recordings with Sonny Stitt, Art Pepper, and Philly Jones. The first of Coker’s four compositions is “Dolo,” a twisty “Rhythm” variant taken at a racehorse tempo. Gordon tears through the theme with impeccable articulation and, showing no strain, spins a solo that illustrates McLean’s contention that “Dexter was the master of swinging and playing just a little back of the beat, and then switching over and getting in front of the beat, like Bird often did.” Coker’s “Lovely Lisa” is a tipping blues with a Basie flavor, tight three-horn voicings, and nice changes that Gordon gobbles up; Boone’s vocalized solo crosses Bennie Green fluency with raspy Henry Coker tone. More a tango than a rumba, “Affair In Havana” affords everyone a solo, while “Field Day” finds Coker presenting his own take on the vocabulary of Tadd Dameron—Gordon’s strutting, pellucid solo is a highlight.

Not long after Resurgence hit the street, Gordon signed with Blue Note and moved to New York. Between April 1961 and August 1962 he made four superb studio albums—Doin’ Allright, Dexter Calling, Go, and A Swinging Affair—that reignited his career. Unable to procure a New York cabaret card, Gordon had trouble parlaying critical acclaim into work, and he extended a September 1962 engagement in London at Ronnie Scott’s into a two-year European sojourn. Gordon spent part of 1963 in France, where he made the classic Our Man in Paris with Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke, and received warm greetings in Copenhagen, which became his base until 1976. There he married, fathered a son, drove a Volvo station wagon and rode a bicycle, had a piano in his house in suburban Valby, performed steadily around Scandinavia and continental Europe as a combo leader and member of various big bands, and took working vacations in the Canary Islands.

“Dexter did things when he was living in Copenhagen that he never was able to do before,” says Maxine Gordon. “He would practice on his piano and work on music. But he wasn’t working on it because he had a record date that night or that week. It changed his way of playing and his way of thinking. He thought longer and worked with bigger ideas. You don’t want to think of his time in Europe as one when he fell into obscurity, and then comes back and is rediscovered. He was very active. He played with a lot of American musicians as well as Europeans. He played all the festivals. He could have worked all the time. He was very happy about this period of creativity, and I think his playing reflects it.”

After recording his final albums for Blue Note in New York on May 27-28, 1965, Gordon returned to Copenhagen, working most of the summer in town at the Jazzhus Montmartre. He took a break on July 31st to play the jazz festival in Molde, Norway, which included a jam session with tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin (1930-1970), an early Gordon admirer and an explosive stylist with a penchant for stratospheric flights through standard songs. Out of Dallas, Texas, Ervin signed with Prestige in 1963 after several strong sideman appearances with Charles Mingus and dates for Bethlehem, Savoy and Candid. By 1965 he’d recorded four freewheeling albums under Don Schlitten’s supervision, two with an anything-goes rhythm section—iconoclastic stride-to-avant pianist Jaki Byard, virtuoso bassist Richard Davis and Boston drum giant Alan Dawson. That October, Schlitten put together a tenor summit tour of Germany featuring Ervin, Gordon and Sonny Rollins, and booked a Munich studio to record Ervin with Byard, Dawson and bassist Reggie Workman. He decided to contract with Gordon to reprise the Molde meeting and documented a tenor battle between the master and his acolyte on two classic riff tunes from Gordon’s Savoy years.

The ensuing album, Setting The Pace, is a must-hear of the two-tenor genre. On the title track Gordon solos first and Ervin second, while on the Rhythm-rooted “Dexter’s Deck,” Gordon follows Ervin’s signifying deconstruction with a quote-laden down-the-middle testimonial that lasts 9 minutes and 35 seconds and justifies Schlitten’s comment: “It’s one of the classic saxophone solos ever put on record, like a summation of his entire playing before and after and during.”

Schlitten and Gordon remained in touch, and in February 1969, Gordon signed a two-album contract with Prestige. He arrived in New York in April, gigged a week at the Village Vanguard with Barry Harris, Ron Carter, and Mickey Roker, and recorded Tower of Power and More Power, his first studio dates in America since 1960. Their release over the next nine months caused elation amongst Gordon’s still sizable American fan base who had lost track of their hero over the preceding decade.

“We were going to do a session with James Moody and one with just the rhythm section,” Schlitten recalls. “Dexter came to my little studio on the Grand Concourse, and went through a batch of sheet music that I had there, took out his horn, and started to play all these different songs. I was sitting there, digging the private concert. He chose ‘Those Were the Days’ and ‘Meditation,’ which he recorded that week, and ‘Some Other Spring,’ which he didn’t.”

Blended for the LPs Tower of Power and More Power, the dates appear here in chronological sequence. Moody sounds out of sorts on the April 2nd performance, which has a tentative, edgy quality despite the synchronous rhythm section (Barry Harris, Buster Williams, and Albert “Tootie” Heath). Unfazed, Gordon roars through “Montmartre,” a up minor blues that he’d written about a year before the session. He navigates the sweet changes of Tadd Dameron’s “Lady Bird” with swinging lusciousness; at Schlitten’s instigation, the tenors juxtapose Dameron’s melody with “Half Nelson,” a Miles Davis variant that the trumpeter recorded on his first leader session, in 1947, with Charlie Parker on tenor saxophone. A Dameron connoisseur, Harris plays laid-back Bud Powell lines on both takes of “Lady Bird” and and comps valiantly throughout. On the alternate take of “Sticky Wicket,” a minor blues by Gordon, Moody responds disjointedly to Gordon’s quotefest; on the master take, Gordon concocts a new invention, and Moody plays only on the opening and closing unisons.

“Dexter usually took everything in his stride,” Schlitten notes. “He’d been around, understood everything and everybody, and did what he had to do.”

He’s in peak form on April 4th, which produced high-level performances. The tenorist digs into “Those Were the Days,” a Gene Raskin tune that was getting much airplay at the time. Inspired by the loose camelwalk tempo, Gordon—now 46—digs deep into the nostalgic lyric (“Once upon a time there was a tavern, where we used to raise a glass or two; Remember how we laughed away the hours, and dreamed of all the great things we would do. . .”). Shortly after his first jail stay, Gordon penned “Stanley the Steamer” for a 1955 Bethlehem date led by West Coast bop drummer Stan Levey. Fourteen years later, the pulse on this blues stomp shifts from mid tempo to a sleek up-medium, and Gordon devours the changes in his updated manner.

According to Thorbjørn Sjøren’s authoritative discography, Long Tall Dexter, Gordon first documented “Rainbow People” on a Stockholm radio broadcast the preceding January 20th, with pianist Bobo Stenson and expat bass giant Red Mitchell. Like much of his Copenhagen writing, it’s more a composition than a tune, with attractive changes that beg for a lyric. Gordon and Barry Harris swing deep into the melody deeply on both takes. Both bopwalk eloquently on two takes of “Boston Bernie,” a Gordon variant on the 1939 Jerome Kern song “All the Things You Are” (from the musical Very Warm for May) and on “Fried Bananas,” Gordon’s ingenious up tempo version of “It Could Happen to You,” by Rodgers and Hart. First documented in performance at Amsterdam’s Paradiso Club on February 5, 1969, “Fried Bananas” became an enduring staple of Gordon’s repertoire. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Meditation” is Gordon’s first investigation of a bossa nova. As Ira Gitler wrote on the liner notes for More Power, “Talk about creating a mood—Dex does it in all registers of the horn with a gorgeous sound and a feeling that envelops one with fireside warmth. Heavy romance. I have often mused how groovy it would have been to hear Pres and Bird work out on a bossa nova. Now I have a better idea.”

The April 4th meeting concludes with the unissued “Dinner for One Please, James,” a bittersweet ballad by Michael Carr, perhaps chosen by Gordon to signify on Moody’s absence from the session. Barely straying from the melody, Gordon lets his tone do the work, wringing out all the bathos.

His trip already paid for, Gordon set up several gigs to make it all worthwhile. These included a May 4th engagement at Baltimore’s Left Bank Jazz Society with a strong pickup group featuring pianist Bobby Timmons (1935-1974). Out of Philadelphia, Timmons had risen to prominence a decade earlier with Art Blakey, for whom he composed such soul jazz classics as “Moanin’” and “’Dat Dere.” Here he draws on bop and blues roots, playing with great imagination, intensity, and finesse on a hopelessly out-of-tune piano. Bassist Victor Gaskin and veteran drummer Percy Brice round out the unit. Both sets were recorded for posterity, and Fantasy released them on the CDs LTD and XXL in 2001 and 2002, respectively. The famous Gordon joie de vivre is evident on every note.

“The way he plays on the Left Bank gig is incredible!” Joe Lovano states. “I played there a few times with Woody Herman’s band and also with Jack McDuff in the mid-Seventies. It was like an afternoon into the evening party. Now, Dexter got you in different ways in different periods. In the Sixties he was up on his articulation and up on the beat, and his tone and presence and interaction with the rhythm section changed. A lot of joy always came through in Dexter’s playing, and it’s probably the thing about him that influenced me most. Just the way he hit one note made you feel great.”

LTD annotator Larry Hollis counts 11 Gordon choruses on  the set-opening “Broadway,” a flagwaver whose co-composer, tenorist Teddy McRae, brought the youngster to Armstrong in 1944. Lester Young made the song famous with Basie in 1940, and Gordon memorably covered it on Our Man in Paris in 1963. He uncorks a lengthy discourse on the various things that the aforementioned “Boston Bernie” is. The release of the Left Bank tapes would be worthwhile if only for Gordon’s sensual tenor reading of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” which he would record on soprano sax for Steeplechase in March 1975. Feeling his vonce before the soulfully enspirited Baltimore congregation, Gordon counts off the tempo for “Blues Up and Down,” the ritualistic set-closer, “roaring out the blocks hotter than a bowl of three-alarm chili, expatiating inventive verse after verse until the total rings up to an astounding 40,” in the words of Hollis.

The band picks up where they left off with Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning,” beginning with an intense 7:30 solo by Gordon. Timmons plays six blues-inflected minutes; Gaskin bows fiddle style for another four, and Brice steps out of his tipping role for an exciting five-minute display that exploits his quick hands and strong sense of organization. To the crowd’s delight, the leader digs into the famous refrain of Erroll Garner’s “Misty,” and develops the melody—with a nod to Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk About You”—at a leisurely lope. Timmons matches the mood, and Gordon returns for a heartfelt recapitulation and coda, quoting “How Are Things in Glocca Morra.” Gordon had recorded Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” at the Montmartre in 1967, and addresses it similarly, stating the theme over a Latin groove, as played by Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis on the 1958 album Something Else. At 3 minutes, the beat changes to 4/4 swing and Gordon notches up into the next gear, launching a four-minute explosion. Timmons and Gaskin have their final say, and Gordon swings through his summation and a stimulating series of exchanges with Brice, concluding an inspired sermon of tenor saxophony with the opening bars of “Soy Califa” (“I am the caliph”), a 1962 opus from Go!.

Prestige renewed Gordon’s option, and assigned Schlitten to produce the summer 1970 sessions that became The Panther and The Jumpin’ Blues. Three weeks before this American sojourn, he joined the Junior Mance Trio for a radio broadcast from the Montreux Jazz Festival. Mance’s label, Atlantic, couldn’t use it, and sold the master to Prestige in 1974, enabling Gordon to fulfill his contractual obligations to the label.

Addressing a good piano, Mance—out of Chicago, he was Gene Ammons’s pianist of choice from 1947 to 1950 and Cannonball Adderley’s from 1956 to 1958—solos and comps with as much authority and vigor as any pianist who appears on this corpus. Gordon responds in kind; playing with all the power and discursive invention he customarily brought to club sets, he projects a polish and concision apropos to a concert setting. He surges fluently through “Fried Bananas,” evokes the bittersweet aura of Ellington’s voluptuous “Sophisticated Lady,” and roars cohesively through Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning.” After Mance postulates a few McCoy Tyner chords, Gordon states the melody of “Body and Soul”—the first citation in Sjøren is a February 1968 Frankfurt concert; later that year, Gordon recorded it with Teddy Wilson on Danish TV—and cuts to the chase for a soaring, operatic improvisation on the “Coltrane changes,” concluding with an extended coda that references Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie” and Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now.” Gordon first tackled “Blue Monk” on a May 1970 recording with vocalist Karin Krog and pianist Kenny Drew. Here, backed by Mance’s soulful chords and Oliver Jackson’s subtle backbeat, he develops an ingeniously anthological treatise with vocal inflections, including a variation on “Parker’s Mood,” inexorably building the dramatic arc. Mance plays the blues as only he can, bassist Martin Rivera has a tasty solo, and Gordon starts his final chorus with the “Reinhardt, Reinhardt” motif of “Harvard Blues,” a 1942 Jimmy Rushing-Don Byas vehicle with Count Basie. The set concludes with the premiere performance of “The Panther,” an original minor blues in 5/4 with a catchy melody and a funky feel.

In New York’s RCA studios three weeks later with Tommy Flanagan (1930-2001) on piano, Larry Ridley on bass, and Alan Dawson on drums for his first formal session of the summer, Gordon has chiseled out a point of view on “The Panther.” Midway through his decade-long stint as Ella Fitzgerald’s pianist and musical director, Flanagan follows the leader’s sturdy arcs and planes with a graceful sketch. Thus begins a cohesive session on which, as Schlitten says, “the stars were aligned, the elements were right, and everyone was in the mood to play beautiful.” On this “Body and Soul”—“I always ask my favorite players to play it; it’s a sick thing I have,” says Schlitten—Gordon goes bel canto, subtly deploys timbre, his huge enveloping tone more Ben Websterish than Lestorian on an immortal reading. If “Body And Soul” implies a waltz feel, “Valse Robin”—Gordon’s dedication to his daughter—is explicitly so. “It floats along on a strong, buoyant pulse under an orb that is both Manakoorish Moon and Midnight Sun, and yet neither,” wrote Gitler in the notes. Dedicated to a British friend, the third original, “Mrs. Miniver,” is a medium swinger with another imprintable melody and meaty changes. It’s hard to imagine anyone extracting a more viola-like sound from a metal tube with holes than what Gordon achieves on Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song”—it’s pure tenor melody, like Ben Webster playing “Danny Boy.” The six-hour session ends with another brawny, architectonic Gordon solo on Clifford Brown’s “Blues Walk.” Flanagan lays out for about a minute at 1:55, and Gordon stretches the harmony, referencing “Chasin’ the Trane,” coming back inside after the pianist rejoins the fray.

“Europe has been very good because my lifestyle is much calmer and relaxed,” Gordon told Down Beat in 1972. “I can devote more time to music, and I think it is beginning to show.” In a sense, The Panther is the first extended document of Gordon’s mature style. Still functioning at a peak of physical prowess, he kept the fierce attack, deep swing, and populist imperatives of the Blue Note years, while internalizing the developments of the preceding decade.

“Dexter loved Trane,” Maxine Gordon. “He used to say, ‘Maybe if I didn’t give him that mouthpiece, I’d play as good as him.’ I said, ‘You do play as good as Trane.’ ‘No, I don’t.’”

“When Coltrane lived in Philly, I know he was listening to Dexter’s records, and Dexter later started playing some of Trane’s tunes,” says Jimmy Heath. “Dexter was over in Europe, and this revolution was happening here. He caught up with it later. There were a lot of people on his tail, so he had to move. Everybody has to. The free jazz movement influenced all of us to get a little freer in our playing, to try to get away from such a structured style. If you’re a musician who’s trying to get better all the time and improve your craft, you’re always looking for different substitutions, different ways to play on chords—or without chords. Different ways of expressing yourself. The search continues, and it continued with Dexter.”

“Dexter’s approach changed in the late Sixties and early Seventies,” says Eric Alexander, an astute Gordon student from a later generation. “When he resurfaced with Blue Note in the early Sixties, he was already playing with heavier articulation and swaggering swing, and more so by the late Sixties. Plus, he was listening to what was going on around him, and he started to extract bits and pieces of stuff he heard avant-garde players doing which start to show up in his playing. He didn’t stay in one place. He was constantly morphing into something else, even though he was Dex always.”

Piggybacking on the favorable reception for the Power albums, Gordon criss-crossed the States in the summer of 1970. He gigged at the Newport Jazz Festival, made a return visit to Baltimore, stopped in Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and took two bookings in Chicago. On the first Chicago visit, Windy City impresario Joe Segal hired Gordon to play afternoon and evening jam sessions at the North Park Hotel in the company of fellow expat Don Byas and old pal Gene Ammons. It was the first Gordon-Ammons recording since the Eckstine days, and Segal recorded the proceedings, placing a pair of Gordon-Ammons dialogues and one solo turn by each on The Chase.

Now we can hear the music in sequence, beginning with two quartets by Gordon and the afternoon rhythm section—idiosyncratic swing-to-bop pianist John Young (b.1921), bassist Cleveland Eaton of the Ramsey Lewis group, and drummer Steve McCall, who would become well-known later in the decade for his deft textural drumming with Air, an avant-garde collective trio. A staple of Gordon’s late Seventies repertoire, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” does not appear in his discography until an October 1969 TV broadcast with the Oscar Peterson Trio. Presumably omitted from the original LP for reasons of length, but included on the subsequent double-LP 25 Years of Prestige, “Wee Dot” is a J.J. Johnson blues first recorded for Savoy on December 19, 1947 by a septet under the nominal leadership of baritone saxophonist Leo Parker, joined by Johnson, Gordon, Leo Parker, Joe Newman, Hank Jones, Curly Russell, and Shadow Wilson. Gordon would wax a fire-and-brimstone version on a 1974 album for Steeplechase. Here he uncorks a solo as long and effervescent as his personality, quoting “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Here Comes the Bride” along the way. Ammons comes on board for a long ballad medley, sounding wistful on “Lover Man” and heart-on-the-sleeve on “My Funny Valentine,” while Gordon puts a light touch on “I Can’t Get Started” and “Misty.”

Manning the piano for the evening set is Chicago first-caller Jodie Christian, joined by local drum king Wilbur Campbell and bassist Rufus Reid, a member of Gordon’s working American quartet at the end of the decade. The surviving selections are a lively reprise of “The Chase,” Gordon’s notoriously popular 1947 tenor battle with Wardell Gray, and two versions of the popular Eckstine feature “Lonesome Lover Blues.” According to Segal, the intention was to record a new version of “Blowing the Blues Away,” with alto saxophonist/vocalist Vi Redd singing Eckstine’s  lyric, but Redd—who had not heard the tune for several decades—opens the first version [Disc 7:8] singing what Joe Segal describes in the original notes as “a combination lyric best described as “Blowin’ the (Lonesome Lover) Blues Away.” In response to her repeated request to “blow Mr. Gene, blow Mr. Dexter, too,” Gordon and Ammons begin with several choruses of call-and-response. Gordon sets forth a string of citations (the original line from his own solo on the Eckstine recording, “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” “Candy”) before resolving into several choruses of blues invention. Ammons starts slow, making each note count, belting out his phrases like a Kansas City blues shouter, moving into the upper register as he builds the dramatic arc of his testimony, quoting “Frankie and Johnny” back at his old partner. John Young solos, Ammons ripostes, and the tenors banter to a conclusion over an extended, sloppy vamp. On the second version, which seems to conclude the concert, the saxophonists play the heads more cleanly and are more organized on the vamp, but stay closer to the vest on the solos.

“If you want to learn how to really phrase the saxophone and slow your actions down, listen to Dexter Gordon,” says tenorist David Murray in a comment relevant to Gordon’s playing on the Chicago concert. “This is a guy who had the ability to think ballad during an up tempo piece, and that’s why he sounds so smooth and so full. The way he played was effortless. He wasn’t racing anywhere. He could play fast if he wanted, but he didn’t really need to. I played opposite him and Johnny Griffin, and Johnny prefers to play fast. But when Johnny soloed opposite Dexter, Dexter always—unless he was completely torched—would come out and get house because he was grounded. In complete command.”

Gordon returned to New York for another Lester Young birthday visit to the studio in the company of a A-list rhythm section selected by Schlitten. On piano, out of Brooklyn, is Wynton Kelly (1931-1972), slightly past his prime but still swinging hard, and on bass is Florida native Sam Jones (1924-1981), whose down-the-center beat, huge tone, and melodic conception gave him steady work with Cannonball Adderley from 1959 to 1965 and with Oscar Peterson from 1966 to 1970. Detroiter Roy Brooks (b.1938), a Barry Harris disciple and Horace Silver alumnus with a bop-friendly disjunctive time feel, has the drum chair.

While Gordon selected repertoire for The Panther that framed him with contemporary beats and harmonies, he harks back to his early years on The Jumpin’ Blues, and plays with unwavering consistency and focus throughout—there’s little to choose between his solos on the alternate takes and the masters. Written for the session, “Evergreenish” is an attractive AABA form with a Dameronian connotation. Gordon’s solo swings with staunch precision, but Kelly is tentative in his solo, and the flow peters out. Brooks strokes an introductory train bell tone on his cymbal, cuing the tenorist into a streamlined “Rhythm-a-ning.” Gordon puts himself in the mood to swing with “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”; Kelly finds his vonce; Sam Jones plucks a walking chorus; and Gordon and Brooks embark on bracing 16-, 8- and 4-bar exchanges. “I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons)” was a Billboard #1 hit for Nat Cole in 1946-47, and was subsequently charted by Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Spivak, Dinah Shore, Sam Cooke, and the Cleftones. Had jazz been the zeitgeist in 1970, Gordon’s orotund, mellifluous version—hewing to Lester Young’s dictum that knowledge of lyrics is the basis of informed interpretation—might have been as popular. Gordon had interpolated the climactic coda of Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now” in both his recorded codas of “Body and Soul.” Here he caresses the lyric bop melody of the 1946 Sarah Vaughan Musicraft hit, gives way to a gentle Kelly solo, and returns for a rippling final chorus. He closes this paean to bebop with two homages to Charlie Parker. Springboarding off Bird’s rumba-like intro to his famous 1950 recording of “Star Eyes,” Gordon launches another graceful solo over a rolling, medium-up 4/4, breaking up his phrases and moving easily up and the down the horn. Recording with Jay McShann in 1941 for Decca, Bird introduced his concept to the world with pungent solos on “The Jumping Blues” and “Hootie Blues.” Gordon digs into the former, a prototype riff tune, and gets creative, weaving a quote of “Raincheck”—a 1941 Ben Webster feature by Billy Strayhorn—into the end of his solo.

Gordon won the 1971 Down Beat Critics Poll for top tenor saxophonist on the strength of his four LPs with Schlitten, and signed his third and final contract with Prestige on July 14, 1971, to do two more albums. Much of the jazz fraternity was plugging in—on the heels of Bitches Brew, Miles Davis was about to record Jack Johnson; Herbie Hancock had cut Mwandishi at the end of 1970; and Weather Report had recently recorded their first album—and it probably seemed like a good deal. But hardcore jazz was Gordon’s game, and he was not about to change.

Asked by a Down Beat interviewer in 1972 to choose between the terms “jazz” or “black music” as a self-description, Gordon responded: “I prefer to call it jazz, because to me it’s not a dirty word. It’s a beautiful word—I love it. To call it black music  would be untrue, because many of the harmonic structures of bebop come from European music—from Stravinsky, from Handel, from Bartók. So to say ‘black music’? I don’t know what that is, unless it would be some African drums or something.”

Prestige got three LPs out of Gordon’s two sessions at the end of June 1972. First comes The Group, supervised by veteran A&R man Ozzie Cadena. Gordon shares the front line with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, then under contract to CTI, as he had done on his Blue Note debut, Doin’ Allright, and 1965’s Landslide. The rhythm section is pianist Cedar Walton, who had gigged with Gordon the previous November; bassist Buster Williams; and Gordon’s favorite drummer, Billy Higgins.

Though he’s a bit low in the mix, Higgins’s buoyant ride cymbal and subtle touch propels the soloists through the master take of “Milestones,” a John Lewis line for which Miles Davis took credit on his 1947 Savoy debut with Charlie Parker on tenor. Gordon again mirrors Bird’s asymmetrical phrasing and structural logic; Hubbard eschews pyrotechnics for a fat, burnished tone on a reflective solo; Walton is typically witty and incisive. On “Scared to Be Alone,” a 1968 song by Dory Previn [“When someone is around us/We don’t know what we’re seeing/We take a Polaroid picture/To find the human being”], Gordon again makes you feel the lyric message with his keening, commanding sound. Hubbard’s virtuosic solo includes clean upper-register triplet trills. Composed by Gordon for the occasion, “The Group” has an extended form and tasty bridge that propels declarative solos by Gordon and Hubbard—the latter struts into the upper register for much of his declamation, followed by a brief Walton summation. Composed by Henry Mancini for a Jack Lemmon–Lee Remick vehicle directed by Blake Edwards, “Days of Wine and Roses” is an extended ballad feature for the tenorist, who constructs his solo over Higgins’s inimitable medium bounce, before giving way for several well-conceived Walton choruses. All parties stretch out on Thelonious Monk’s “We See”—originally recorded by Monk on a May 1954 Prestige session with Frank Foster—to conclude a satisfying, no-nonsense convocation.

A week later, Gordon entered Van Gelder’s studio with a quintet of jazz virtuosos, and recorded seven tunes, several of blatantly commercial intent. His front–line partner is Thad Jones, one month Gordon’s junior, who worked in the Basie trumpet section from 1954 to 1963, and co-led the Thad Jones–Mel Lewis Orchestra from 1966 until 1978. Working with Gordon for the first time since the 1947 “Wee Dot” date is pianist Hank Jones (b.1918), who was then too busy in the New York commercial studios to get around much any more to serious jazz dates. After graduating from the Philadelphia Academy of Music the previous year, bassist Stanley Clarke had accumulated New York credits with Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Joe Henderson, and Stan Getz; with Chick Corea and Return to Forever, formed also in 1972, he’d bring the bass to the front of the band, inaugurating a successful career in electric jazz/fusion. Detroit-born drummer Louis Hayes (b.1938) hit the scene with Horace Silver in 1956, and spent much of the Sixties working with Cannonball Adderley and Oscar Peterson.

After Gordon intones the title, Clarke and Hayes lay down a relentless Afro-funk groove on “Ca’Purange,” recorded by Gene Ammons in 1962 and by Stevie Wonder in 1970. Gordon signifies on Ammons in his improvisation, substituting punchy phrases for his trademark long melodic lines. Thad Jones displays his singular harmonic concept and phrasing on an economical solo, and Hank Jones digs in as well. The leader returns to familiar ground on “Tangerine,” composed by Johnny Mercer and Victor Schertzinger for the 1942 film The Fleet’s In, and taken here as a up tempo burner. Roberta Flack won the 1972 Grammy for Song of the Year and Album of the Year with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and Gordon sticks close to the melody, again channeling the manly, warm mid-register voice that his fans could never get enough of. Propelled by a churchy Stax-Volt backbeat, “What It Was,” penned by Gordon, features another Ammons-centric effort by the leader and a fleet turn by Thad Jones, who manages to interpolate a fragment of “Fascinating Rhythm.” Gordon finds some changes he can dig into on two takes of “Airegin,” a Sonny Rollins line that debuted on a 1954 Miles Davis quintet session for Prestige. Laconic on the master take, Thad Jones blows a mouthful on the alternate, which also features a solo chorus by Hayes. A classic Hank Jones intro brings on Gordon’s second original of the date, “Oh! Karen O,” a medium-slow blues on which the tenorist and Thad Jones testify at length. The pianist does the same on the attractive theme of Gordon’s sprightly “August Blues,” perhaps cooked up on the spot, and offers his meatiest solo of the day, following some harmonic twists and turns from his little brother and yet another example of Gordon’s consistent ability to find new things to say on the most elemental forms.

In the ensuing week, Gordon participated in two recorded all-star jam sessions for the first Newport Jazz Festival in New York at Radio City Music Hall, before returning to Europe. Though these would be his last New York performances until 1976, American enthusiasts enjoyed numerous Gordon recordings with the Danish Steeplechase label, which signed him in the latter part of 1972. Over the next four years, he did several tours on a circuit that took him from Western Canada to his native Los Angeles. On one such L.A. engagement in July 1973, documented on the Up Front label, Gordon revisited the music he’d written for The Connection 13 years before with old friend Hampton Hawes on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, and ur–bop drummer and fellow expat Kenny Clarke.

A July 7th radio broadcast with that quartet at the Montreux Jazz Festival, issued contemporaneously on Prestige as Blues a la Suisse, wraps up this package. It may be the most swinging record of 1973. After perfunctorily outlining the theme on Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy,” Gordon bridges into a long, lick-filled solo, playing all over the horn with impeccable timing and a thick, ravishing tone. Hawes is guitaristic and percussive on the Rhodes, and Clarke precisely syncopates his off-beat accents on the snare drum. The title track is another name for John Coltrane’s “Some Other Blues,” which Sjøgren cites Gordon playing on two gigs the previous November. A slick klook-a-mop figure on the hi-hat and a tasty Hawes intro escort Gordon into the theme, and without further ado, boosted by Clarke’s crisp, inventive timekeeping, he essays a joyous declamation. Hawes again morphs the Rhodes into tuned drums, and Clarke says a mouthful with a minimum of strokes. There follows a stunningly beautiful, almost plainsong reading of Irene Kitchings’s “Some Other Spring,” introduced by Billie Holiday in 1939, and an extended romp at an unwavering boptrot tempo through Sammy Fain’s Oscar-winning “Secret Love,” written for the 1953 film Calamity Jane and sung by Doris Day. The quartet ends their hour with “Tivoli,” a gentle minor waltz by Gordon with nice melodic motion within the changes. Gordon is poetic, expressive and transparent; if this concert were the only recording of his oeuvre, he would rank as one of the great voices on any instrument.

Fittingly, the 88th and final track is a rousing Dexter Gordon–Gene Ammons tenor battle, augmented by Nat and Cannonball Adderley, on a spontaneous Ammons riff titled “’Treux Bleu,” in honor of the venue. Gordon inserts “3 O’Clock in the Morning,” “Candy,” “Mona Lisa,” “Stranger in Paradise,” “Chicago,” “Salt Peanuts,” and other good old good ones; Nat Adderley blows a few strong choruses before losing his lip; Ammons rip-roars through an ascendant oration with many “Wow!” moments; and Cannonball explores the lower depths of the alto with complete control, meeting the tenors on their own terms and adding something else.

Three years later, Gordon would sign with Columbia and relocate to the Apple to embark on his efflorescent final act. Until his death in 1990, he gigged around the world on a regular basis with several top-shelf American quartets, made records with good budgets and adequate rehearsal time, and brilliantly portrayed the shambling, dissipated jazzman Dale Turner in Bertrand Tavernier’s film ́Round Midnight. “I saw Dexter in the early days of the filming and asked how he was feeling,” says producer Todd Barkan, who booked Gordon into San Francisco’s Keystone Korner on a regular basis during his pre-“homecoming” years. “He said, ‘I have been preparing for this movie all my life.’ He considered it to be his life story.”

Long before he became a movie star, Gordon brought to bandstands on a nightly basis the emotional transparency that made him so effective in the film. His music was an ongoing memoir. The Fantasy holdings give us a clear picture of how consistently he was able to access his creative muse on impromptu jam sessions, concert performances, and studio dates executed with various degrees of rehearsal. Loyal to old-school values, he continued to grow, navigating the here-and-now on his own terms.

“Nobody was more hip than Dexter, or less doctrinaire or more liberal,” says Barkan. “I think he fit perfectly into the zeitgeist of the Sixties. His warmth and graciousness made him stand out in the musical community—an especially likable and well-liked guy. He was very urbane and appreciated the finer things in life, but he had a common touch with people—he got along with a whole spectrum.”

“Dexter could charm anybody,” Jimmy Heath affirms. “His personality was very open. The ladies loved him, but everyone liked him a lot. They liked his playing, they liked the way he looked, the image he had.”

And people still like Dexter Gordon. Consider this appreciation from Joshua Redman, who won the 1991 Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition with a version of “Second Balcony Jump”:

“The thing about Dexter that hits me more than anything else is the depth and hugeness and commanding power of his sound. Dexter makes you realize that the sound is everything. Because if you have the sound, all the ideas and vocabulary flow through it. Dexter showed me that it’s clearly not about which notes you play or how many, and it’s not about your technical prowess. It’s not necessarily about harmonic sophistication, even though he was very sophisticated harmonically. It’s about your voice. He was such a master of strong, declarative playing. And so relaxed, so behind the beat. You can hear it in his phrasing. Just taking his time. Allowing that big voice to speak at its own pace. There’s something very joyful about his personality, a subtle sense of humor that makes you smile. Those corners of your mouth start to go up as the solo progresses.

“For me as a saxophonist, trying to learn the language of jazz, and specifically the language of bebop, there was no better tenor player than Dexter Gordon to learn that from. Dexter’s improvisations lay out the language of bebop in very clear, strong, simple terms. He trimmed all the fat off of it. There’s no ornament. It’s pure substance. Pure content. It’s raw material spoken through this strong, elegant, powerful, and gentle voice.”

Even as life chipped away at Dexter Gordon’s constitution, that voice remained constant. However much he abused his body, he always sounded comfortable in his own skin. “Dexter liked the jazz world,” says Maxine Gordon. “He loved jazz musicians. He wanted to be remembered as the bebop tenor saxophonist.” When you’re done listening to this boxed set from beginning to end, you’ll agree that he was.

Leave a comment

Filed under Dexter Gordon, Liner Notes