Category Archives: Mal Waldron

For Mal Waldron’s 89th birthday, A Director’s Cut of a DownBeat Piece from 2002

In recognition of the 89th birth anniversary of the late pianist-composer Mal Waldron, I’m posting a “directors’ cut” of an article that ran in DownBeat in 2002, with a link to the two interviews that I conducted with Mr. Waldron — one on WKCR, another on the phone — that contributed to the bulk of the piece. It was an honor to meet and interact with him.

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An expatriate for roughly half his life, 77-year-old pianist Mal Waldron, New York born, finds it increasingly difficult to come home. “I don’t plan to return to the States for a while,” he noted in New York last August, two nights into a week at the Blue Note with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille. “I like to smoke cigarettes, and I can’t smoke on the bandstand. Having the smoke around me when I play the piano helps me to feel the mood, and feel relaxed and jazzy. That’s my ‘snoozedecker,’ like they say; my blanket of security, like the little kid in ‘Peanuts.'”
The image of a security blanket is a recurrent trope when Waldron discusses his musical personality, established over a career that spans half a century. “It’s support,” Waldron said, addressing the art of accompanying singers, a function he mastered on numerous gigs with Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Jeanne Lee and Sheila Jordan. “I lay down a blanket for them to walk on, the blanket is me, and they walk on me!” As his long-time collaborator Steve Lacy once put it, “All the thousands of people he’s played with love Mal because he makes them sound good. And he sounds good himself. He gets a wonderful sound out of the piano, and he’s got his own style, his own angle, a vast knowledge of structure, of harmony, of rhythm, time and space. He’s an ideal partner.”
Waldron knows how to articulate essences, projecting his voice with an understated, introspective style, building powerful statements through the incremental repetition of cogent rhythmic and melodic cells. “My technique was always nil and still is nil,” Waldron says. “I only play what I hear, and usually I have enough technique to be able to play whatever I hear. But other musicians hear things that I can’t play because my technique isn’t up to it.”
Be that as it may, it’s a good bet those other musicians appreciate Waldron’s memorable compositions, informed by sources as diverse as Eric Satie, Johannes Brahms, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and the blues. Structurally complex, deploying unusual time signatures and relentlessly logical chord changes, they have a dark, astringent feel, with spare melodies that penetrate your bones and stay there. Close to a thousand in number, they include repertoire classics like “Soul Eyes,” “Left Alone” and “Fire Waltz,” and more recent improvisational fodder like “Snake Out,” “The Git-Go” and “Hurray For Herbie.”
Waldron conceived the former set of pieces between 1955 and 1963, when he recorded with the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop, the Teddy Charles Tentet, Jackie McLean, Billie Holiday and Max Roach. He was also house pianist, arranger and composer for Prestige Records, where he imparted an organizing, cohesive quality to in-and-out-of-the-studio blowing dates led by the likes of Gene Ammons, Jackie McLean and John Coltrane.
“Composing went along with improvising, which is instant composition,” Waldron says. “I’d make my changes first, nice blowable changes that you could solo on beautifully, and then write a tune over them. My life consisted of thinking about the melodies in the daytime, writing them at night, and recording them the next day.”
By 1956, when McLean recruited Waldron to play on 1…2…3, the first of his several dozen Prestige sessions, the pianist had ample experience to draw upon. Raised in Jamaica, Queens, he had piano lessons from an early age, developing proficiency with classical repertoire. “I was forced to take piano lessons,” Waldron recalls. “I didn’t like playing classics, because I had to do it the same way every time, otherwise I got my knuckles rapped. But if I didn’t do it, my father would pound me in the face or something like that. Fear is a great motivator.”
Waldron’s “mind started moving toward jazz” when he heard Coleman Hawkins play “Body And Soul.” “My first jazz experiences were on saxophone,” he says. “I bought an alto, since I couldn’t afford a tenor. I got a big, hard reed and an open lay on the mouthpiece so it would sound like a tenor, and I got the music for ‘Body And Soul’ from Down Beat, and for 5 minutes I was Coleman Hawkins.”
Drafted into the Army in 1943, Waldron, stationed at West Point, spent some of his free time playing saxophone in an off-base swing band. More often, he rode the Hudson Line south to Manhattan, where he heard Art Tatum at the Cafe Society downtown, Bud Powell on 52nd Street and Thelonious Monk at Minton’s in Harlem, finally catching the early morning train to return for duty. “52nd Street was an energizing experience,” he recalls. “Minton’s had a front bar and a back room where the rhythm section would be pumping away on one tune, and the horns would solo chorus after chorus, getting more furious, then the pianist would get tired and another would take over. It kept going like that all night long. I heard Monk there even before I heard his records. He was a big man, austere and imposing. He looked like he had his whole world around him, and you couldn’t penetrate that world. His sound wasn’t immediately attractive to me; the way he hit the piano was so strange. But later it grew on me. It’s an acquired taste.”
After his discharge, Waldron matriculated at Queens College on the G.I. Bill. He pursued studies in composition and theory with Karel Radhaus, while continuing to chase the music, most frequently at a jam session run by saxman Big Nick Nicholas at the Paradiso. “I was trying to emulate Charlie Parker,” Waldron states. “But I couldn’t arrive, so I hocked the horn and went back to piano. I found my basis was strong enough at least to enable me to play the changes right.”
Others agreed; after graduating in 1949, Waldron became a professional, doing uptown rhythm-and-blues jobs with Ike Quebec, Lucky Millinder and Tiny Grimes, simultaneously nurturing friendships with a homegrown pianist peer group that included Randy Weston, Walter Bishop, Cecil Taylor, and Herbie Nichols, to whom Waldron dedicated “Hooray For Herbie.”
“Herbie was a fantastic musician in that he had his own sound, which I didn’t have at that moment,” Waldron says. “His themes were beautiful, intricate and tricky, but subtle and basic, too. His sound fit his personality. Observing him helped me decide that if you just played the way you spoke or moved in the streets, you would be closer to your own sound. Cecil was really out. But he was working on it, and I could see some form, a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Randy was more like me, more into formal music; he didn’t step outside and play free. We were both interested in waltzes, so we had a contest to see who could play the best ones.”
Mingus recruited Waldron in 1954, beginning a decade-long relationship. “Mingus was like my older brother,” Waldron says. “He gave me a lot of advice and helped me develop into a mature musician. I was into imitating Bud Powell from things like ‘Bud’s Bubble,’ making Bud’s runs and so on. Mingus said, ‘Don’t copy anyone. That’s not the way. An ordinary musician can play everybody, but a jazz musician can only play himself.’ That stuck, and I started working on my own style. Which entailed not thinking of changes as changes, but as sounds, so that a cluster would do for a change; just a group of notes could be an impetus for soloing. I learned that the piano is a percussive instrument; you beat on it. We realized that jazz is the music of people who were not satisfied with the status quo. You’d punch the piano as though you were striking somebody in your way.”
Through the ’50s, Waldron juggled Prestige sessions with demo dates for singers and gigs uptown, downtown and in the boroughs with hardcore jazzmen McLean, Art and Addison Farmer, Arthur Taylor, Doug Watkins and Paul Chambers. He even did jazz-and-poetry happenings at the Five Spot with Lacy, Larry Rivers, Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg.
“We were on the outer edges of the status quo,” Waldron states of his association with ’50s Bohemia. “We were the outlaws, really, so we ganged together. There was sawdust on the floor of the Five Spot! But this is in retrospect. They were just people I worked with on a gig, I got money for it and went home and fed the family.”

“It was an accident” is Waldron’s simple explanation of how he became Billie Holiday’s pianoman in April 1957. He held that job until her death, penning the melody to her iconic swan song “Left Alone” on a plane en route to a job in San Francisco. “She was working in Philadelphia, and her pianist conked out, couldn’t function any more,” Waldron relates. “She asked Bill Duffy, who wrote Lady Sings The Blues with her, Bill asked his wife Millie if she knew any musicians, Millie asked [bassist] Julian Euell, and Julian asked me. I said, ‘The buck stops here,’ and got on the train. I was a fan of her music, but had never played it. I got a crash course.
“Words were very important to me, and I discovered that words are important to music, too. You can improvise on the words; not on the melody, not on the harmony, but on the words. This gave me a bigger area to expand into.”
After Holiday died, Waldron and Euell joined Abbey Lincoln, whose then-husband, Max Roach, “came down to the club to see us work, to make sure nobody was hitting on his old lady. He liked me and took me in his band. He was a real teacher for me, and he taught me about different tempos and accents.”
Waldron appeared on several memorable Roach records during these socially turbulent times, including the 1960 Candid classic Straight Ahead, on which Lincoln sang “Left Alone” in dialogue with a soaring Coleman Hawkins, and Percussion Bitter Suite (Impulse!), a dynamic date propelled by Eric Dolphy and Booker Little. Waldron convened Dolphy, saxophonist Booker Ervin, Ron Carter and Charli Persip on his own 1961 breakthrough album, The Quest (New Jazz), on which for the first time he wove the various strands of his experience—Ellingtonia (“Duqility” and “Warm Canto”), modality (“Status Seeking”), quasi-serial music (“Thirteen”) and uneven time signatures (“Warp And Woof” and “Fire Waltz”)—into a distinctly Waldronesque quilt.
During a 1963 Chicago engagement with Roach, Waldron suffered a nervous breakdown on the bandstand as the result of a heroin overdose. “I couldn’t remember where I was,” he says. “I couldn’t remember anything—about the piano or anything else. I lost my coordination, and my hands were shaking all the time. I spent six-seven months in East Elmhurst Hospital, where they gave me shock treatments and spinal taps and all kinds of things to relieve the pressure on my mind.”
Waldron had begun dabbling during a 1955 run at the Cafe Bohemia with Mingus. “At that time every jazz musician was called a junkie automatically, and after a while it got to the point where if you had the name you just had to have the game, too. So I started using drugs, and it built and built. I thought I had control of this horse! I would bring him out and put him away; I thought I had him covered. All of a sudden he snuck up on me and knocked me down.”
Waldron recuperated, buckled down and began the arduous process of relearning his instrument. In 1965, director Marcel Carne asked Waldron if he wanted to write the music for the film Three Bedrooms In Manhattan in New York or in Paris. “What a choice!” Waldron laughs. “I said, ‘Paris, of course,’ and he paid my ticket. When I got to Europe, it was like the other side of the coin. In America if you were black and a musician, it was two strikes against you. In Europe if you were black and a musician, it was two strikes for you. So I decided to go for that.”
And in Europe he remained and flourished. “The main thing that affected me in Europe is their respect for the music,” he says. “They came out and made an effort to understand your music if they didn’t understand it. When they were done, they showed respect and appreciation that you were an artist. Which was not true in America.”
In Paris Waldron worked with Ben Webster and gigged at a chic expat soul food restaurant called the Chicken Shack. In 1966 he landed a steady radio gig in Rome (“lots of ‘giorna da festa’ holidays with pay; I loved it!”), then spent consequential time in Bologna and Cologne before settling in Munich, his home base for the next two decades.
During this adjustment period, Waldron resumed his association with Lacy on an impromptu duo in Italy. Thirty-five years later—a couple of dozen recordings, and hundreds of duo, quintet and sextet concerts behind them—they are one of the magical partnerships in jazz, spinning fresh variations on stories postulated by Ellington, Strayhorn, Monk, Powell, Nichols and Mingus. “We just improvised, and it worked,” is Waldron’s pithy description of their initial European encounter. “As time went on, we each brought out our tunes and began to work out tunes by all the people we liked. Music is a language, and if you have a large enough vocabulary, you can communicate with anybody else. If the vocabulary is the same, then you can communicate even better. Steve and I had pretty much the same vocabulary.”
Waldron quickly found a cadre of first-class Europe-based improvisers – expats and natives—with a good feel for that vocabulary, including trumpeters Art Farmer, Dusko Goykovich and Manfred Schoof, bassists Jimmy Woode and George Mraz, and drummers Pierre Favre and Makaya Ntshoko. “Things have advanced since I came in,” Waldron says. “Then the European musicians were at Level A, while now they’re on Level U or W, toward the end of the scale. But you can’t make generalizations. Some drummers had no concept of swing, but others could swing. There were saxophonists who had no concept of harmony, who’d thumb it all over the place, but others had a conception and played their horns well. It was a question of finding the right musicians, and they were everywhere.”
For the past decade, Waldron has lived in Brussels, Belgium, where the beer, chocolate and mussels are good, and he can smoke as many cigarettes as he likes. Having recorded close to 100 albums as a leader or co-collaborator for a variety of European and Japanese labels since 1969, his performing and recording career continues unabated.
“I hate monotony,” he declares. “To stay young, you have to change all the time and be like a newborn baby, always adapting to new situations. I want the people opposite me to be adventurous and take risks.”
A cursory scan of his winter schedule substantiates his point. As of late February, Waldron had performed several trio recitals with Lacy and bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel, after returning to home base from 10 days at two Japan Blue Note clubs with Avenel and drummer John Betsch. This happened a month after he recorded an album with Lacy and Avenel for Sketch, a French label, following up on a Billie Holiday oriented duo CD with tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp (enja), far-flung musical conversations with David Murray (Justin Time) and vocalist Judi Silvano (Soul Note), and a never-released ’70s encounter with bassist Johnny Dyani.
Proficient in German, French and Italian, and working on his Japanese, Waldron’s musical voice speaks to cultures around the globe, and he continues to “keep all the burners going” as he did in ’50s New York. “That’s the prerequisite of staying alive,” he says. “If you can communicate to people in their own language and not struggle for words, they love you more! You can’t communicate to anybody without a vocabulary, in music or speech or anything else. You have to have a repertoire.” DB

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Filed under Andrew Cyrille, DownBeat, Mal Waldron, Piano, Reggie Workman, WKCR

Two Interviews with Mal Waldron on The 86th Anniversary of His Birth

For the 86th birthday anniversary of the pianist-composer Mal Waldron, I’m offering a pair of interviews conducted during the last 16 months of his life. Our first encounter occurred in late August of 2001, when Waldron was performing at the Blue Note in trio with Reggie Workman on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums. It went well, and I proposed a DownBeat article. They agreed, and so did Waldron, through his Belgian representative. For this purpose, we had a phone conversation the following February. As fate would have it, DownBeat held off on running the piece, which ran in shortened form, as an obituary. Waldron passed away on December 2nd (he was 77), ten months after our second encounter. The interviews appear seriatem and—with a couple of exceptions—uncut.

Mal  Waldron (WKCR, Aug. 23, 2001):

[MW/BL/ED, “Fire Waltz”]

You’ve been recording with Reggie Workman for a good 25 years now.  What kind of bassist and drummer are ideal for the way you play and write music?  Well, Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille are ideal for the way a lot of people write music.

They listen and they try to adapt to what you’re doing.  That’s all you need, is somebody to listen and to adapt to what you’re doing.  Be like shadows. [LAUGHS]

Let’s step back to the Five Spot and that particular week, which resonates in many ways.  It’s one of the last recordings by Booker Little, who was in amazing form, although by all accounts he was already quite ill.  Eric Dolphy is in fine form, and it’s one of the first occasions Blackwell recorded outside of Ornette Coleman’s axis.  How did the band come together?

I think Booker Little and Eric Dolphy had the idea together, to form a quintet and play both of their musics, and they hired me and Richard Davis and Ed Blackwell to support the group.

You had a musical relationship with Eric Dolphy from early 1960, and appear on some recordings with him on New Jazz.

I was the house pianist at Prestige.  That’s how we hooked up.

So he signed his contract and you were hired to come in and play the music fresh.  But he also recorded a fair amount of your music on The Quest.

The Quest was my date.

You were a beautiful match.

We got along beautifully.  I learned from him, basically, because I was going through my student phase.  I was learning from everybody.

One would think with someone of your curiosity, it might be a perpetual student phase.

It is..

But your music certainly had its own sound by 1960.  You’re recognizably Mal Waldron by 1960.  No one could mistake you for anybody else.

Well, I’m not quite sure about that, because I was still learning and putting it together.  I was halfway through the tree.  In other words, I started out with a big tree and I tried shaving and shaving and shaving try to find the perfect toothpick, but I wasn’t there in 1960 — definitely.  I was nowhere near the toothpick at that moment.

But by 1960 you had played for a number of years with the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop, you’d worked with Billie Holiday and attained broader recognition just by dint of being her accompanist, you’d played with Ike Quebec, you’d played with Lucky Thompson, you’d played with Lucky Millinder — a whole range of vernacular and functional gigs.  You had a degree in music from Queens College.  So you were by no means a neophyte.

Well, I might not have been a neophyte, but I really was in my mind a neophyte, because I was always like a little child around these people.  Because they were all giants to me.

Is piano something you’ve done from the earliest days?  Was there a piano in your house as a kid?   You’re from St. Albans.

I was born in Harlem, but my parents moved out to Jamaica, Long Island, when I was 4.  There we had a piano, and I was forced to take piano lessons.   Really forced.  If I didn’t do it, my father would pound me in the face or something like that!  But I really didn’t want to play piano. I wanted to be outside in the street playing football with the other kids, but they said, “No-no, you’ve got to play piano.”

When did it start to take?

I don’t really know.  I can’t really remember.  I think when I heard Coleman Hawkins playing “Body and Soul.”

So you were 14 years old or so.

I think so.  At that point, my mind moved toward jazz and I started fooling around on the piano at that moment with jazz (?).

So in the ’30s as a student pianist, it wasn’t jazz you were thinking about.  You were studying the European Classical repertoire.

Yes, I was playing classics, and I didn’t like it because I had to do it the same way every time, otherwise I got my knuckles rapped.

Did you play in public at all, like in church or…

Yes, I did some concerts around… I’m trying to think where I played.  But there were a few halls I played in.  I can’t remember the names of them now.

But you developed your facility for the piano. Even though you were being forced to do it, it translated into some proficiency with the instrument.

Fear is a great motivator, you know!

Did hearing “Body and Soul” then start you off buying jazz records and listening to people…

Right.  Then I started listening to Symphony Sid’s After-Hours Jam Session, which by the time I got home from school was on, and I listened to them every day.

Who were the people who first caught your ear, especially among pianists?  1939-40-41-42, Teddy Wilson is out there, Art Tatum…

Art Tatum caught my ear.  Duke Ellington caught my ear first, and then Art Tatum, and then Bud Powell, and last, Thelonious Monk.

Did you go out and hear music when you were young?

Yes, I did.  I was at the Cafe Society when Tatum played there, and I caught Bud on 52nd Street. I was in the Army at that time.  I used to go down and hang out on 52nd Street, and then go back to West Point. I was stationed at West Point.

Was the Army after high school?

The Army was after high school, yes.  It was my first year of  college; I was drafted into the Army in ’43.

That’s just when the people from Minton’s were coming downtown to 52nd Street, and ferocious energies being unleashed.

Right.  They were still up there at Minton’s, though.  Because I used to go down to Minton’s, too, when I came down from West Point.

Describe your impressions of the scene.  There aren’t so many people we can talk to who witnessed Minton’s or, for that matter, the Onyx and the clubs on 52nd Street.

It was a very energizing experience, because you were able to sit for half-an-hour in every bar along the way for 50 cents — you could buy a beer and sit there and nurse it and hear all the good music, and then you’d move on to the next bar.  They were all very close to each other, and you could catch Billie Holiday in one, and Lester Young in another, and Bud Powell and Charlie  Parker — all the people there, just lined up.  It was fantastic.

At Minton’s it was a jam session type thing.  They would play one tune, and the rhythm section would be up there pumping away and the horns would be soloing chorus after chorus and getting more furious, then the pianist would get tired and another pianist would take over, and it kept going like that all night long.

When did you start to put your toes in the water?

I didn’t put my toes in the water at Minton’s.  I put my toe in the water at the Paradiso, which was a place around 110th and 7th Avenue that was run by Nick Nicholas.  It was very close to Minton’s.  The attitude was the same as Minton’s, and there were musicians passing through and sitting in.  That’s when I first dipped my toes in the water!

This was after the Army, and after you came back to Queens College on the G.I. Bill and studying music?

Right.

Did you continue to play piano all this time?

No, I was a saxophonist at this time.  My jazz experiences started with saxophone.  When I first heard Coleman Hawkins I was so impressed with the saxophone that I went out and bought an alto.  I couldn’t afford a tenor.  I got a big, hard reed and an open lay on the mouthpiece so it would sound like a tenor, and I got the music for “Body and Soul” from “Downbeat” and I read it, and for 5 minutes I was Coleman Hawkins!

So you’re born in the same 24 month period as John Coltrane, Randy Weston, Jimmy Heath, Bud Powell is maybe a year older than you, Max Roach a year older than you… Were you smitten with Bebop?  Is Bebop what captured you?

Yes, Bebop captured me.  I was into the Bebop scene..

So as a young saxophonist, who were you trying to emulate?

I was trying to emulate Charlie Parker!  But I couldn’t arrive, so I hocked the horn and went back to the piano.  Because I found my basis on piano was strong enough at least to enable me to play the changes right.

Then you started developing your technique.

Yes, solos.

When was that?  1949-50 or so?

This was a little before 1950.  Maybe 1947 to 1950.

During those years you made the transition from being an alto saxophonist to being a pianist, and gave up the horn around 1950.

That’s right.

Fifty years ago.  And by this point, you were a professional musician?

No, I wasn’t earning any money at it.  I was still going to college under the G.I. Bill, and I got my subsistence money from the Army to keep me going, and I lived at home with my mother and father, so I handled my expenses that way.  Finally, I got into Charlie Mingus’ group around 1954 — the Jazz Workshop.

But during those years you were on the scene and hanging out, and presumably formed a circle of acquaintances and like-minded people with shared interests.  Who were some of those people?

Randy Weston, and also Walter Bishop, Cecil Taylor, and Herbie Nichols, too, and Jackie McLean.  I played with Allen Eager’s group for a minute, and also Lucky Thompson.

If I could ask you for some impressions.  You’ve written a tune for Herbie Nichols, “Hooray For Herbie.”

Yes.  He was a fantastic musician in that he had his own sound, which I didn’t have at that moment.  I was interested in seeing how his sound fitted his personality, and that helped me to decide that your sound had to be your personality, so if you just played the way you spoke or automatically moved in the streets, you would be closer to your own sound.

He was a master on several levels, not just pianistically, but as a composer of fully worked-out pieces.  Did you go through his scores or compositions?

Not at that time.  I did that much later.

Were you aware of it at that time?  Did people who knew him know that he had an identity outside of playing gigs at Your Father’s Moustache?

No, I don’t think they were too aware of it.  But I know when he played opposite us on Barrow Street at the Bohemia, he played his own music at that moment and people became aware of it then.

How about Cecil Taylor in the early 1950s, and his sound and persona and manner?

Well, he was really out at that moment!  He was working on it.  I could see some form in there.  I could see the way it was going.  I could see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.  A lot of people didn’t accept Cecil, but I did.  I thought he was a fantastic musician and I still think he is a fantastic musician.

Randy Weston.

Randy was more like me.  He was more into the formal music.  He didn’t step outside, he didn’t play free, he played more In.  We were both interested in waltzes, so we had a contest between us to see who could play the best waltzes! [LAUGHS] We had a little waltz competition going on…off the record, of course.

[MUSIC: MW/RW/Blackwell, “Thy Freedom Come”; Mal/Jeanne Lee, “Soul Eyes”; Abbey Lincoln/Mal, “Straight Ahead”]

Mal Waldron has long experience in accompanying and gently prodding singers to their strongest performances, an ability I’m sure he honed during his several years with Billie Holiday. [ETC.] Have you always played for singers?

Pretty much, yes, because they had more of an in with the areas to make money than the musicians really did.

Discuss your thoughts on the art of accompaniment.

Well, it’s really support. I just lay down a blanket for them to walk on, the blanket is me, and they walk on me!

Whatever the key might be!

[LAUGHS] Right.

Doing that, for one thing, you accumulate a lot of repertoire.  And in doing so, I’d imagine that you internalize the lyrics for many of the songs that you subsequently have to play instrumentally, which would inflect your interpretation of those songs.

Right.  It really helps me to improvise, because the words give it a completely different atmosphere to improvise on.  You can improvise the words alone, instead of just improvising on the changes and the harmony and the melody.

Subsequently you wrote lyrics to “Soul Eyes,” after composing it… It’s hard to say which of Mal Waldron’s is the most classic, but “Soul Eyes” has particularly been a romantic tenor sax vehicle ballad showpiece — John Coltrane, George Coleman.

That tune was written for John Coltrane.  I knew he was on the date the next day.  The way the setup was in those days, they’d tell me who was on the set and then they’d tell me to write six or seven compositions for the date.  So I had to stay up all night long and write the changes, and next morning I’d come in to Hackensack, N.J., and make the records, then I’d go home and write some more music for the next date.

Not a bad way to get your craft together.

No.  Not a bad way to make money, too!

And you have royalties on a lot… Do you own this music?

Yes.

Prestige doesn’t own it.

Well, I get half and they get half.

So “Soul Eyes” was written for one of the Prestige Coltrane dates and not Impulse 21.

That’s right.  It was originally for Prestige with the Two Tenors, Two Trumpets.

You did a lot of those dates.  Gene Ammons, Jackie McLean, Paul Quinichette.  What a great apprenticeship.  How did it begin?

Jackie McLean is the one who first got me in there on a date he did, then Bob Weinstock liked me and Esmond Edwards liked me, and another guy named Ozzie Cadena was working for them, and he also liked me.  So they kept giving me more and more dates to write for.  That’s how come I’ve racked up so many compositions over the years.  I have about 400 compositions out there, at least.

I’m sure you have favorites.  I’ve listened to those Prestige dates, and the impression one gets of them is that they’re a little more substantial than the run-of-the-mill blowing session that Prestige dates could sometimes turn into, that your presence seemed to impart an organizing, cohesive quality.

I was very lucky in those days, though.  The way I’d write the tunes, the first important thing was to be able to solo on it.  So I’d make my  changes first, nice blowable changes that you could solo on beautifully, and then I’d write a tune over the changes.

Write your melody…

Over the changes, yes.

I guess the Prestige relationship starts in ’56, when the first Jackie McLean record happens. At this point you’d been playing with Mingus for a couple of years.  There’s a Teddy Charles Tentet date where you’d done “Vibrations,” a rather ambitious orchestrative piece.  A lot of work around New York.  So even though Mal Waldron says he felt like a child next to these musicians, he was certainly making his mark.  Was composing for you a functional thing, something you plunged into because of economics?  Or was there some inner imperative?

It went along with the improvising, which is instant composition for me.  So I just decided to write them down and work with them a bit more on paper than just running them off as solos.

What’s the first composition or a few of yours that you remember finding yourself satisfied with and that continues to be in your repertoire?  What’s with you now?  “Dee’s Dilemma” is on this ’97 date, so I guess that’s one.

That’s tough.

Well, we can skip that.  But obviously, your attitude toward old repertoire is accretive.  You keep things, you discard things, you come up with new things, and it builds.  Talk about the scene in New York in the ’50s.  By now your toe isn’t dipped in the water; you’re at least up to your waist if not headlong.  Talk about your daily life in ’54-’55-’56-’57.

Well, my life was consisting of thinking about the melodies in the daytime, writing them at night, and then recording them the next day.

But you were also working gigs.

Yes, I did some gigs, too, at that time.

I mean, all over New York, because there were so many clubs and so much music.

I was freelancing.  I didn’t work with one group all the time.  I worked with whoever called me.  That was the way you did it in those days.

So Jackie McLean would get a gig at some place on 145th Street and would call you and you’d go in.  Or then he’d go down to the Bohemia.  It would be a circuit type of thing.

Well, it was a snowball effect, because you played with one musician and there was another sideman on the band who was also a leader, and he heard you, too, and if he liked you he’d use you on his date.  Then he had another sideman on his date who was a leader, too… It just kept snowballing and snowballing until finally you played with all the musicians.

Talk about your association with Charles Mingus, which I gather was consequential for you.

Yes.  Well, Mingus was like my older brother really.  We talked a lot, and he gave me a lot of advice and helped to develop myself and become a mature musician.  The first thing he told me was “don’t imitate anybody.”  I was into imitating the people around me, like Bud Powell.  I’d make Bud Powell runs and so forth.  He said, “Don’t.  That’s not the way.  An ordinary musician can play everybody, but a jazz musician can only play himself.”  So that stuck with me, and I started working on my own style.

So you credit Mingus with helping you find the Mal Waldron tonal personality.

Yes, sure.

And before that you were trying to play in the manner of Bud Powell, a lot of single line runs…

Right.

What did creating the Mal Waldron style entail?  A more orchestral approach to the piano?  A more compositional approach?

Well, it entailed not thinking of changes as changes, but thinking of changes as sounds, so that a cluster would do for a change or something like that, just a group of notes — not thinking of a tonal concept, just a group of notes would be an impetus for soloing on.

Were you doing formal study after Queens College?  When did you graduate?

I came back in 1946.  I graduated in 1949.

I’m assuming that the curriculum dealt with classical music up to modern European…

Right.  I learned a lot about development of themes, too, from Karol Rathaus, who was the compositional teacher.

Did those lessons stay with you in your composition?

Definitely.

Your classical background never left you, your sense of harmony and shading…

And form and development, how to develop themes, sure.

I think people aren’t aware of how deeply classical music studies permeated musicians of your generation, who then created a lot of home-grown resolutions and utilizations of it.  Can you address that a bit.  I guess the G.I. Bill helped a lot of people.

Sure.  Well, it had to do with the concepts of Bach.  Bach is very basic.  The way he moves from V to I, that concept is very instrumental in how the musicians grew.  They moved from V to I, and they made it with a flat fifth and putting in stuff like extra notes in the chords and changes like that.

In your circle of friends with Randy Weston and Herbie Nichols, etc., were you talking a lot about classical music and listening to…

Yes, we discussed things like “Rite of Spring” and the sounds and things like that.

Then at night you’d be playing the blues in various places. I’m trying elicit a sense of the milieu in which sensibilities are formed. It’s very different today, how people find information and develop themselves…

Well, there were times when I would play with Tiny Grimes’ group, which was the Swinging Highlanders…

With kilts, right?

Yes, kilts.  I didn’t wear the kilts.  I just wore the tam, though!  But after a night of that we’d come home and we’d put on our records and  listen to Sonny Rollins playing things like “A Song In My Heart” and things like that.  We’d just get away from the sound of what we were doing all night long.

You played with Ike Quebec for a while.

Yes.  He was a beautiful person.  He was the straw boss of the Lucky Millinder group.  That’s how come I got into Lucky Millender’s band, too.

He became the de facto A&R man for Blue Note, although you wound up with Prestige, where Jackie McLean introduced you, and voila!

Right.  Well, there was a competition between Blue Note and Prestige, too.  If you went in one camp, you couldn’t go in the other camp.  At the moment I went in, it was one or the other.

Talk about the milieu of those Prestige sessions, which have a different character than the analogous Blue Note sessions.

I’m not too aware of what the Blue Note sessions were like.

But how would they go down?  You’d get a phone call, you’d write some music, a bunch of charts or tunes…

Right, and bring them in.  We’d run them through maybe for ten minutes, or just talk about them, and then we’d make the record.  They were usually all first takes, too.

I guess with people like Gene Ammons and Coltrane and Paul Quinichette and Frank Wess and Thad Jones, you didn’t need more than one take. [ETC.] In the previous set, we heard Mal Waldron with two great divas of the generation that grew up listening to Billie Holiday.  Mal Waldron played for several years with Billie Holiday.  I wonder if you can talk about how that happened and address the experience.

It was really an accident.  Because her pianist… She was working in Philadelphia, and her pianist just conked out, he couldn’t function any more.  So she needed the pianist.  So she asked Bill Duffy, who had written the book with her, to find a pianist, and Bill asked his wife, Millie Duffy, if she knew any musicians, and Millie asked Julian Euell, who was one of her friends, and Julian Euell asked me, and I said “The buck stops here.”  I got on a train and went there.  So it was an accident, but it was a beautiful accident for me.

Were you always a fan of her music?

Oh yes, I was a fan of her music, but I had never played it.  But I got a crash course!

And “Left Alone” was written for her?

Yes.  She wrote the words and I wrote the melody.  We were on a plane going from New York to San Francisco.  It took more time than it does now because they were propeller planes.  She just wanted to write tune about her life, so she wrote those lyrics, and I wrote the melody.  By the time we got off the plane, it was finished.

What was she like with the band?

She was very relaxed.  In fact, she didn’t make rehearsals.  She didn’t like to make rehearsals.  She just came on and did it.  So I had to rehearse the band! [LAUGHS]

I guess you always took on those responsibilities.  Let’s go to a 1956 session led by the vibraphonist Teddy Charles for Atlantic under the title, The Teddy Charles Tentet, which has an early and very ambitious Mal Waldron composition entitled “Vibrations.”  It’s a feature for Gigi Gryce, with whom you played a lot.  Art Farmer plays trumpet; he was on many of those Prestige sessions… [ETC.]

[MW/TC, “Vibrations,” MW/Coltrane/Shihab, “From This Moment On”; w/Jaymac, “Left Alone”; Abbey/Hawk, “Left Alone”; w/Dolphy, “We Diddit”]

Before The Quest in 1960, a lot of your compositions had been recorded, but something about this seemed to bring you to a different level.  It seems pivotal in some way.

Well, it’s hard for me to make that statement.  Because I was just growing; each year, each day, I was growing bigger and bigger.  There’s no real point I can point to and say this was my best.  I just growing every day.

In writing for The Quest, did you know who the horn players would be?  Did you write for musicians?  If you had a date with Gene Ammons and composed “Ammon Joy,” was that based on his…

Yes, on his sound.  They’re all connected.

Or writing for Thad Jones or Frank Wess or John Coltrane.  In each case you had their sound in  mind.

Their sound in mind, sure.  That’s the way you write.

So maybe it had something to do with the tonal personality of Eric Dolphy that made The Quest what it was.

Yes.  And Booker Ervin, too.  The sound just came to me as a whole entity.

You were describing the ambiance in the studio when Abbey Lincoln did “Left Alone” with Coleman Hawkins.  You said that Monk was there.

Monk was there, yes.  It was a very exciting day for me because Coleman Hawkins was playing my tune!  That was a big joy for me.  Then Thelonious Monk was in the room, and I had arranged one of his tunes for the date, “Blue Monk,” and I was interested to see if he would beat me up after the rendition.

What statement did he make?

He said, “That sounds good.”  So I passed.

You’d been paying attention to Monk since the ’40s, I guess.  Were you hearing him live before you heard his records?  You’d have had an opportunity to do so.

Yes, I heard him at Minton’s Playhouse before I heard the records.  It’s so long ago…  He was very different and kind of austere, kind of imposing.  He was a big man.  And he looked like he had his whole world around him, and you couldn’t penetrate that world.

Was his sound immediately attractive to you as a twenty-ish aspirant?

No, it wasn’t immediately attractive to me.  It was so strange, the way he hit the piano.  But later it just grew on me.  It just grows on you.  It’s an acquired taste.

Were you studying his tunes and taking them apart once the records came out? Andrew Hill, for instance, described to me that as  the records came out, and he and his friend, who were teenagers, would learn them directly off the records.  You were somewhat older, but was that the way you did it as well?

No, I didn’t do it quite that way.  I heard them and was impressed by them.  But I didn’t learn them off the record.  I was aware of the changes, so I approached them that way, and I tried to play them with my sound really.

On “From This Moment On” we heard the way you distilled Bud Powell, the fleet right-hand lines.  For instance, with Bud Powell, were you trying to play his solos note-for-note in your learning process before you emerged?  Were there other pianists like that?  Or was it always getting an impression and then going out and doing what you do?

No, it was really note-for-note.  I would try to imitate him when he played “Bud’s Bubble” and things like that.  I’d try to imitate the sound.  But that was before I got to Mingus.  Mingus put an end to all that, and said, “Stop that!” [LAUGHS] He was a very impulsive person, being a Taurus.  As I said, fear is a great motivator!

You’re on the session where “Haitian Fight Song” makes its debut. Coming up is “The Git-Go,” from a session with Joe Henderson.

WALDRON:  The git-go means taking it from the top, taking it from the beginning.  It has that funk and stuff like that…

[MW/Joe-Hen, “The Git-Go”, “Herbal Syndrome”]

We’ve kept Mal Waldron in the past, several generations ago, when he formed his sensibility and laid down an astonishingly strong corpus of work, which, had he never recorded another note after 1963, he’d still be remembered as one of the most consequential musicians of his time.  But that edifice has turned into a pyramid or the Great Wall of China or something…but he’s created a huge body of work during his 36 years in Europe — lots of composing, associations with the creme de la creme of European improvisers, record dates for Japanese and European labels with people like Joe Henderson and Jackie McLean…much too much to address in the time we have.  But I’d like to address the circumstances under which you settled in Europe.  You had an illness, and moved to Europe in the aftermath of that.  Let’s talk about getting established in Europe and your state of mind in the mid-’60s.

When I got to Europe, it was like the other side of the coin.  In America if you were black and a musician at that time, it was two strikes against  you.  And in Europe, if you were black and a musician it was two strikes for you, so I decided to go for that.

Where did you initially move to?

Paris.

There were a number of Americans in Paris at that time.  Arthur Taylor and Kenny Clarke had both moved there, Dexter Gordon…

Ben Webster was there.

Don Byas and Johnny Griffin.  Are those the people you began to work with?

I worked with Ben Webster over there, at…what’s the name of this place…

Le Chat Qui Peche…

No, not Le Chat Qui Peche.  Another one on the Right Bank.

But I’ll assume you landed in Europe playing…

Well, no.  I went to Europe to write the music for a film.  That’s how I got my plane fare over there.  Marcel Carne, who directed the film Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, from a book that was written by Georges Simenon, and the film had Annie Giroudeau… He asked me if I wanted to write the music in New York or Paris. [LAUGHS] Of course… What a choice!  I said, “Paris, of course,” and he paid my ticket over there and I landed in Paris.

And here we are in 2001…

Right! [LAUGHS] The musical scene was very varied in Paris at that moment.  I remember working at Buttercup’s club, The Chicken Shack, which was in Montmartre; Buttercup was Bud Powell’s second wife, and they had their child Johnny with them, and I gave Johnny piano lessons.  That was a gig for me, too.

Had you known Bud Powell before?

No, I never knew Bud, but I was aware of him.  I never got to know him.  When he came back to Paris, he was not very coherent.

Next we’ll hear Mal Waldron interpreting one of Bud Powell’s great ballads, which folks like Walter Davis and Barry Harris have played magical versions of.  It’s a duo with Steve Lacy, with whom you’ve performed probably several thousand times in the last 30-plus years, always doing it differently.  It’s perhaps the defining association of your many associations there… Well, for both of you in some ways.

Yes.  The first time I met Steve, we did Jazz and Poetry at the Five Spot.  That was our first meeting.

Who was the poet?

Kenneth Rexroth was the poet there, and also I think Ginsberg, and this artist Larry Rivers…

All of whom were drawing inspiration from jazz musicians, something the poets (not Larry Rivers) later renounced.  Talk about that scene.  Here I go again bringing you back to America.  But this would be of interest to people only the most general interest in jazz, is the relationship between the avant-gardes, as it were, of literature and poetry and art and jazz  music in the ’50s.

Well, they were together because we were both on the outer edges of the status quo.  We were not included in the status quo.  We were the outlaws really. [LAUGHS] So we ganged together.  There was sawdust on the floor at the Five Spot!  But we did some beautiful things together there.

On the East Village Frontier.  Did you have that view yourself in the ’50s?

No.  At that time, no.

This is in retrospect.

This is in retrospect.  At that time I was just a normal person, playing a gig and getting money for it, and going home and feeding the family and stuff like that.

So in 1958, playing a gig with Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg and Steve Lacy was just part of your quotidian, part of the big mosaic…

Right.  They were not stars to me.  They became stars when you look back, but they were not stars to me at that moment.  They were just people that I worked with.

So you’d do that, then go out to Hackensack and do a session, then play a set in Harlem with somebody, day-after-day, one day at a time.

That’s right.

But let’s get back to Europe.

We both got to Paris.  I hadn’t seen Steve in a little while, and then we met… They set us up for a gig in Italy, a duo, and we just came together and we didn’t have anything prepared, so we just improvised, and it worked. [LAUGHS] So that’s the way the duo started.

You both had an extremely broad range of reference, with Monk and Ellington as common points.

Well, music is a language, and as long as you have a large enough vocabulary, you can communicate with anybody else.  And if the vocabulary is the same, then you can communicate even better.  Steve and I had pretty much the same vocabulary.

You came up in a similar milieu, though you approached it from different angles.  You had a quintet with him and Manfred Schoof.  One of his quintets had you, though there was another one that didn’t have you.  It’s been a symbiotic relationship.  The last time you played together in the States was last summer at Carremour.

Yes.  And we the Iridium, too.  The Get Rid Of Them, I called it.

[Waldron/Lacy, “I’ll Keep Loving You”; “Johnny Come Lately”]

That scratches the surface of the oeuvre of Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy, which is massive and of the highest aesthetic level. [ETC.] You’ve been a resident of Belgium for some years now.

About 15 years in Belgium.

Do you work primarily in Europe or all over the world?

All over the world.  I go to Japan and  I go to South Africa and all over the world.  I work with several different groups.  For example, I do duets with David Murray, I do duets with Steve Lacy, and I used to do duets with Jeanne Lee, but she’s dead now.  Then I have a quartet with John Betsch on drums, Ian Horta on bass, and Sean Bergin on tenor saxophone.  I have the trio with Andrew Cyrille and Reggie Workman, who sometimes I bring to Europe.  And then I have a duo with Jackie McLean that we’ve been doing lately, too.

Then there are solo piano things. I guess.  You continue to write.

Yes, every day.

How do you decide when a melody works and when it doesn’t?

Well, when if it stays in my mind for two months then it works.

That’s the cutoff point?

That’s the cutoff point, right.

Say in the last two or three years, how many new pieces have come out?

Maybe 30, something like that.

You said you have about 400 copyrighted pieces.  Are they all within jazz form?  You do various commissions — ballets, film scores.

I didn’t count the ballets.  The 400 tunes are jazz tunes done under the Prestige mantle while I was the house pianist there.

Oh, you’re just talking about 400 tunes in the ’50s and ’60s.  Subsequent to what, what are we talking about?  How many compositions have your copyright on them?

There are a couple of ballet scores.  I did some things for Henry Street Playhouse, and I did some individual dance things with Florita Ropp(?) and other dancers around New York City in the early ’50s, I think.  Then the film music, too.

So your compositions probably number a couple of thousand.  How do you keep track of them and decide which stay in your repertoire?

Well, they don’t all stay with me.  A lot of tunes I just remember the name, but I can’t remember the way it goes or anything like that.  I can’t remember the changes.  I have scores written so I can refer to it in case I want to play it again.  But I go through stages where I’ll go backwards.  For example, with Judi Silvano I went back and did some things I did for Prestige that I haven’t done for a long time.

“Cattin’,” “All Night Through.”

That’s a ballad.  I haven’t played it for a long time, and Judi helped me rejuvenate it.  Certain circumstances make me go back and other circumstances take me other places.

From Zephyr we’ll hear a new piece, entitled “You.”

[MW/Silvano, “You”; Mal solo, “You Don’t Know What Love Is” (1972)]

Mal Waldron brought a tape of a duo he did with the late South African bassist Johnny Dyani, who was a mainstay of European music for thirty years.

This is kind of a safari feeling.  You’re out in the bush and you’re just moving.  The feel is like that.  It was done maybe 20 years ago in Paris.  It was just released by Futura Records.  It was done by the Jazz Unity at (?) which was functioning at that time, around 1975 or something like that.

[Mal/J. Dyani, “#1″]

When you hear Mal Waldron’s sound, you hear the New York sophistication, the stride piano thing, the Ellington-Monk continuum, the Bud Powell sound — and of course, Mal Waldron, as Charles Mingus admonished him always to retain… [ETC.] What do the next few months hold?  Can you tell us when you’ll be back in the States?

I don’t plan to come back to the States for a while.  I don’t feel relaxed here.  I can’t relax.  I like to smoke cigarettes, and I can’t smoke in the club, I can’t have one in the bandstand.  And for me, having the smoke around me when I play the piano help me to feel the mood and feel relaxed and jazzy.  You know?

You are old school!

That’s my “snoozedecker,” like they say; my blanket of security, like the little kid in Peanuts.

I guess in Belgium they have the good chocolate, the good beer, the good mussels.  But we hope it won’t keep you away for too long, because we need our old masters here, and Mal Waldron is palpably one of them.

[MW/RW/AC, “Dee’s Dilemma”]

Mal Waldron (2-25-02):

What I’d like to do is ask you about current events, and ask some questions that spring to mind around those events.  You just came back to Belgium from ten days at two of the Japanese Blue Notes with John Betsch and Jean-Jacques Avenel, your trio. Then you did some duos with Avenel and Lacy.  You did a record at the end of January with Lacy for Sketch.  You did a duo album for Enja with Archie Shepp of Billie Holiday material.  And you’re about to go on a tour of master classes.  You’re doing some festival appearances with a quartet, which is the rhythm section and Sean Bergin.  And you’re doing a duo CD with David Murray as well.

Let me ask you about the personalities that are most suited to playing with you.

Actually, I don’t know, because I try to fit to them.  I feel that the object is to make a beautiful sound, and if I can add to the sound, I play something to add to the sound, and if I can’t, then I don’t play anything, like Miles Davis once said. [LAUGHS]

You try to fit them and suit them.  But that said, one can have a conversation with anybody, but there are some people with whom the sparks just fly and certain people with whom they don’t, and it seems there are certain types of musical personalities you intersect with where the sparks fly.

WALDRON:  I think sparks fly with David Murray and I, because he’s adventurous, he likes to take risks, and I’m adventurous, I like to take risks — so we go up on that point together.  Jean-Jacques Avenel is a fantastic bass player, I love him and also Steve Lacy is very adventurous.

Is it that risk-taking quality?  That’s the main thing with you?

Yeah, that’s the main thing with me, because I hate monotony!  I think that that’s what makes you get old — monotony.  To stay young, you have to change all the time and be like a newborn baby, always adapting yourself to new situations.

Is that something that just happens, or are there processes you go through to get yourself there?

No, that’s something that just happens, really.  It happens when the people opposite me are adventurous and take risks.

So that’s why you seek out those types of people.  I guess they have to be also people like you, who have a very deep grounding in the fundamentals.  Because your music is always very rooted and earthy…

Well, you have to have your vocabulary.  That’s your vocabulary.  You can’t talk to another person without a vocabulary!  All of those things that went before in music is part of your vocabulary.

With Lacy, you’ve seemed to go through the whole legacy.

The gamut.

From Monk and Elmo Hope and Bud and Ellington to the songbook.  Do you listen to your records analytically?  Do you listen to them, or do you just do them and go on to the next thing?

I like to look forward.  I don’t like to look back too much.  Because I feel if you look back too much, you trip when you take a step forward.

But yet when you joined me on the radio, when you were selecting tunes you were pretty definite about which tracks you wanted to represent yourself with.  So you’re obviously conscious of…

Yes, I’m conscious of everything I’ve done.

With Lacy, who you’ve played together in duo for over 20 years, and with whom your association goes back to 1955, how has that evolved from when you began your European association?

The European association started out very free.  There was no material at all on the boards.  We just related for an hour-and-a-half or something like that.  Then later on, we started getting together and playing tunes.  Steve brought out his tunes and I brought out my tunes, and we started involving working out on tunes and doing tunes by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and all the people we both liked.

So you just organically evolved a repertoire, beginning with original music and then moving to common vocabulary. You’ve played with so many dynamic drummers.  We’re talking about Max Roach, not to mention the Prestige sessions with Arthur Taylor, or with Blackwell later on, and Cyrille right now, or Billy Higgins… Is there a particular kind of drummer who sets off sparks with you?

Yes, the type of drummer who doesn’t feel that one has to be fixed.  One should be fixed in their mind, and then they can play all over it, all around it, but they always know where the start of the bar is.

Is there any component to the way you think about playing music that’s like a drummer in terms of the percussive aspect of the piano?  Is it something you’re very conscious?

Yes, I’m very conscious of it, because I learned long ago that the piano is a percussive instrument.  It’s a percussive instrument because you beat on it, so it’s drum-like.  It’s basically a percussive instrument, so you have to use it like that.

When did you learn that?

Oh, way back, when I was with Charlie Mingus or earlier than that.

Is that when Mingus told you to stop playing like Bud Powell and be yourself, or words to that effect?

[LAUGHS] Right.  About that time.

Was that a difficult lesson to learn, that the piano is a drum?

No, it wasn’t too hard for me to learn, because I love to bang on things!  Even as a child, I used to bang on things!

Well, you and your friend Randy Weston came to similar conclusions about the piano. Cecil Taylor, too.  All around that time.  Maybe I’m being a bit too free and easy with chronology here.  But what was in the air then that gave you this sense of endless possibility?

Well, first of all, we realized that jazz was a music of protest, that it was the music of people who wanted to change the status quo, who were not satisfied with things going as it is now.  So that meant you would strike back.  So that gave us the punch to… You’d punch the piano like you were punching somebody who was in your way or something like that.

Is jazz still that?

Jazz is still a music of protest, right.

What were some of the stylistic antecedents you would have looked to in that?  Was that something, let’s say, you heard in Monk and Ellington?

I heard it in Monk and Ellington.  I heard it in Jimmie Lunceford’s band.  I heard it in Billy Eckstine’s band.  I heard it almost all over the place!

And you were an avid listener as well.  I know you told me when you heard “Body and Soul,” you bought an alto saxophone, changed the mouthpiece to make it sound like a tenor, and learned Coleman Hawkins’ solo, and you were on your way.

[LAUGHS] Right.

The chronology you gave me was this.  You said you were forced to take piano lessons, fear was the great motivator because your father would get physical with you if you didn’t do it.

He would kill me!

And growing up in Jamaica, you played little recitals here and there of Classical music.  Then you go in the Army after high school, and you worked during high school, which would be ’40-’41-’42, playing alto saxophone, on little gigs here and there.

Right, with Reggie Goodlette.

Was that a jump band thing?

That was a swing band.

You’d be playing the basic stocks?

Right, we had all the charts from Sy Oliver and all the people who wrote charts, and we would read those through.  Basie’s charts.  You’d read through those.

And you’d play neighborhood dances and little functions around the neighborhood.

Right.

Then you go in the Army.  Were you playing music in the Army?

No, this happened when I was in the Army.  I met Reggie Goodlette when I was in the Army, because he lived up in Nyack, near West Point, on the other side of the river.  He had this band, and I played alto, and I happened to hang out with him one night, we got together, and I tried to fit it into the band.

So before you got into the Army, you weren’t playing for little bits of money and things like that?

Yeah, I had played for little bits of money.  I had played with Al Brown’s Sheiks of Rhythm! [LAUGHS]

Same sort of thing?  Charts?

Same sort of thing.  Charts.

But you said while you were at West Point, you would go down to Minton’s.

Yes.

Which isn’t that hard to do from West Point.  In less than an hour you could be there.

Right.  I’d take the train down.

How did you know about what was going on at Minton’s at that time?  Was it basically in the air, among the circle of people you were hanging out with?

People would come back from the city and they’d say, “Man, you know who’s in town?  Coleman Hawkins is playing at 52nd Street, and Minton’s has so-and-so.”  They’d spread the word.  Then you’d go down and hear it, and you would spread the word.  “Yeah, they sound fantastic; you should catch them.”

And you heard Monk a number of times there.

Yeah, I heard Monk a number of times.

I saw an interview you did for an NPR show where you said “For me, Monk was perfection, because he didn’t say with 10 words what he could say with one word.  Very economical and his music was very basic and very subtle at the same time, and I liked that, so he was my perfect musician.  I learned from him that silence is important, too.”  Did you learn that then or did you learn that later?

Did I learn all those things that you said?  I learned those later, but through him.  I heard them first in him, and then I listened to it coming out in other musicians, and then I realized the importance of what he had done.

So Monk had an impact on you as far back as 1943 and ’44.

Definitely.

You’re one of the very few musicians for whom that could be a true statement.

Randy Weston was around there, too.  Cecil Taylor was around.

He would have been a bit young to be there in 1943-44.

Right, I keep forgetting!  Herbie Nichols would be up there, too.

You said about Herbie Nichols that you learned from him that if you played music in consideration of the way you walk and move and talk, that you would then be finding your personality, and you found that out through listening to him and how his music matched his personality.

Yes, that’s true.

You’re one of the few people who would have known Herbie Nichols well enough to say something consequential about him.

He was kind of an introspective type of person.  I was also introspective.  That meant that when we stood together, there wasn’t too much conversation going on.  But we said a few words, and I got his meaning and he got my meaning.  His themes were so beautiful and so intricate and tricky, but subtle at the same time — and basic, too.

Can you talk about how your notion of technique evolved over the years, and how technique plays into self-expression?

Well, my technique was always nil and is still nil.  I only play what I hear, and I usually have enough technique to be able to play whatever I hear.  But there are other things that other musicians hear that I can’t play because my technique is not up to that.

Are there things that you hear that you can’t play?

That I hear personally that I can’t play?  No.  I’m a rounded person.  So whatever I hear, I know I can play, I know I can reach.  In other words, if my technique isn’t enough to cover it, then the idea doesn’t come in my mind in the first place.

There were a number of people in your peer group who when bebop came along pooh-poohed the older music, who decided that wasn’t so material to their interests.  I know that process has been exaggerated a bit.  But what side of the fence did you fall on at that time?  Listening to you now, the continuities seem clear, but I don’t know how clear they would have been then.  What was your attitude in 1949 to stride piano or the Basie Orchestra or Louis Jordan?

I enjoyed all those musics, and I felt that they developed into the next phase.  Stride evolved into Swing, and Swing evolved into Bebop, and it goes on and on like that.  It just evolved.  Because after a while, when you work at it long enough, it changes its qualities and becomes bigger, and then it goes into a different class.

Also, a lot of your early gigs were with people for whom the differentiations didn’t mean anything.  People like Lucky Thompson, Ike Quebec and Big Nick Nicholas were all fully aware of bebop, but they were playing functionally, too, and their self-expression wasn’t limited to any one particular thing.

Right.  In other words, they just played music.  They didn’t play styles.  I think the styles came from the critics who wrote about it, and they had to put you in some type of box, so they said, “Well, he plays bebop” or “this is bebop and this is swing.” But when a musician sits down, he just plays music.  He doesn’t think about a barrier between swing and bebop.

Is it the same way for you now when you think about playing free and with Lacy’s more outer partials type of thing, or David Murray…that those stylistic differentiations don’t exist?

Yes, I feel that way.  They both feel the same way I do about that.  So we just play music together, and we don’t think about barriers at all.

Getting back to the here-and-now with your band, how much rehearsal do you do on tunes?  Do you give them a chart and let them play out what the version is going to be?

Yes.  If I hand them a chart, it’s just a melody and they can do whatever they want with it, because I’m interested to see all the possibilities that other people see in my music, and their possibilities enable me to grow and to develop into other areas, and then I write another tune that’s more developed than the first tune because I heard what the other fellows did with my first tune!  So it grows and grows and grows.

You also played with some of the most distinctive vocalists that ever sang on a stage, just to mention Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln and Jeanne Lee, plus the various others.  First of all, did you do a lot of that type of accompaniment work in the ’50s and after Billie Holiday died?

Yes, I did quite a lot of it.  Right after Billie died, I joined Abbey Lincoln.  We had the duo and trio with me and Julian Euell and Abbey Lincoln.

And before you joined Billie Holiday, you were doing a fair amount of it, too?

Yes.  Before I joined Billie Holiday, I was doing demo dates for singers.

What advantages did you draw from those experiences?

Well, the words were very important to me, and I found out that words are important to music, too, because it means that you have a new area that you can solo and improvise on.  You can improvise on the words.  Not on the melody, not on the harmony, but on the words.  This gave me a bigger and bigger area to expand into.

Do you continue to play with singers?  Judi Silvano, of course.

Yes, I did the record with Judi Silvano that I like.  Also I’m doing something with Sheila Jordan every now and then.

She comes to Europe and you do duos and trios?

Yes, duos and trios.  In fact, I’m performing with her in LeMans on May 3rd.  I hope they won’t be doing the Grand Prix that day!  At least not over the stage.

How much touring do you do these days?  First of all, you live in Brussels, right?

Right.  I’ve been in Brussels since about 1989.

So you go to Europe in ’65.  You get a ticket from Marcel Carne for this movie, and then you wind up playing with Ben Webster a fair amount, you played a lot at Buttercup’s restaurant… So Paris was your initial base.

Right.  Paris was my initial introduction to Europe.  I was in Paris for about one year. Then I moved to Italy.  I played six months in Rome and six months in Bologna.  In Rome I did the radio every week for about one year, lots and lots of “giorno de festa” holidays with pay.  I loved it!

Were they using you as a composer-arranger primarily?

No, just a piano player.

You did this in Bologna as well?

In Bologna I just did gigs.  I did the jazz festival there… The Bologna Jazz Festival was running there at that time, for two years.

I see.  And after Bologna was Munich?

No.  After Bologna I was up in Cologne, for about three or four months.  Then I went to Erlangen for about two months.  Then I moved to Munich, and I stayed there for almost 25 years.

You described to me in a very pithy way what the appeal of Europe was.  You said if you were a black musician in America you had two strikes against you, and if you were a black musician in Europe it was exactly the opposite.  What were the qualities of living in Europe that made it possible for you to blossom and function?  Maybe it was nothing more than that open-minded attitude and sense of being able to get away from all the bullshit. But if there were other factors, what were they?  And how did the European situation evolve over the years? I gather that the attitudes did change and the environment did change in various ways.

Well, to the first part of the question, it was the respect for the music.  Respect.  That’s the main thing that affected me in Europe.  Respect.  They all came out and loved your music and respected it, and they tried to learn about your music.  They made an effort to understand your music if they didn’t understand it.  And when they finally finished, they showed respect and appreciation that you were an artist.  Which was not true in America.

Has that been consistent over 35 years?

Yes, it’s been very consistent.

How has the European scene changed?

There’s more areas where you can play.  When I first came to Europe there was just France and Germany and Italy.  Those are the main things.  Now Spain has come in, and also many Eastern countries have come in.  Now there are festivals in Romania and festivals in Czechoslovakia, and festivals in Yugoslavia and festivals in Hungary where you can play now.

So since the Iron Curtain came down, it opened up a market.

Right.  Also Greece, which wasn’t too heavy on jazz when I came, but now you can get a gig down in Greece easily.

So for you it’s that the venues have opened up and you have a more capacious selection of places to play.  It’s easier to make a living.

Right.

But was the canard about European musicians true, that they insufficiently understood the principles of 4/4 swing and so on?

Of course, it’s individual.  Everything is always individual.  you can’t just make general statements like that.  But there were some drummers that didn’t have any concept of swing, but there were others that could swing.  And there were saxophone players that had no conception of harmony, they’d kind of just thumb it all over the place; and there were musicians who had a conception and played their horns well.  So it was just a question of finding the right musicians.

And was that something you did with a fair amount of success?

Yes, I did it with a fair amount of success because they were all over the place.

Who were some of the first people you linked up with?  I know in ’71 you did Black Glory with Jimmy Woode, who was over there, and George Mraz had one of his first gigs with you.  But it seems your associations in Europe have been very long-term for the most part.

I worked together with Dusko Goykovich for quite a while, too.  That’s who I came to see in Cologne when I first came to Germany.  His sister had a restaurant, and I lived above the restaurant and we played gigs.  Peter Trunk on bass, who was a beautiful bassist, who died in New York City.  Also Eddie Busnell(?), an alto saxophone player.  A very talented fellow.

Were you playing mostly your music on those gigs or a whole range of…

No, we were playing a whole range of stuff.  There would be some of my tunes in there, of course, but there would be other people’s tunes, too.

How aware of you were these musicians you worked with?  Did they know things like The Quest and the records with Gene Ammons and Jackie McLean and Billie Holiday?

They knew all of this, yes.

So they were quite familiar with who you were.

Yes, they respected me.

I was interested in how you described your procedure in writing for Prestige.  I think you said 400 tunes in the Prestige years.  You said you’d write 4-5 tunes the night before the gig… The first important thing was to be able to solo on it, so you’d make the changes first, “nice blowable changes that you could solo on beautifully,” and then you’d write your melody over the changes, and that’s how it went.  You’d think of the idiosyncracies of the different people you were writing for, so with Gene Ammons you’d go a certain way and maybe with Jackie McLean, another way, and maybe Frank Wess and Thad Jones another way.

Right, that’s the way it went.

Were you gigging with these guys outside of the record dates?

Some of them I was gigging with.  There would be things with Jackie McLean.  He was my ace buddy.  He got me with Prestige.  I did some things with Art Farmer and Addison Farmer, his twin brother.  I did some things with A.T., Arthur Taylor, and Paul Chambers, too.  And Doug Watkins.  There were a lot of little things we did around town, and we got together on those gigs.

So you were all over the scene, uptown, downtown, the boroughs.

You had to be!  That was the prerequisite of staying alive.  Keep all the burners going.

Getting back to Europe, would you say that the general level of idiomatic ability to deal with jazz has advanced during your time there?

Yes, it’s definitely advanced.  It’s made progress, sure.  At the time I came in, they were on Level A, and now they’re on maybe Level U or W or something like that, at the end of the scale.

A lot of people say there’s almost no difference, that because of jazz education, there are people all over the world who can play the music… Well, you do workshops and master classes, so you see it.

Right, I do.  And a lot of other musicians do workshops here, too, and musicians gain from that, profit from that, and they get better.  It’s been going on a long time, too.  Kenny Clarke gave workshops, too.

Did you touch base with him when you got to Paris?

Yes, I touched base with Kenny Clarke right away.  He was a very relaxed guy, very funny, and liked to laugh… He had idiosyncracies, things I thought were idiosyncracies, but I adopted them myself!  He used to collect change from all the different countries.  He had bottles with francs, and bottles with marks and bottles with lira — all those different bottles!  Now I’m doing it!

Now there’s the Euro.

Right.  So now I’ll take these bottles and try to get to the countries to cash them in!  He was smart.  He did it at the right time.  I did it too late!

By the way, did you get to know Monk pretty well, or was it more an admiration from a distance thing?

It was an admiration from a distance for me and Monk.  We were both introverted.

So like Herbie Nichols, same way with Monk.  Talk about your relationship with Max Roach a bit.  You were playing with Abbey, but quite a bit with him.

I met Max through Abbey.  He came down to the club to see us work, to make sure nobody was hitting on his old lady!  Then he liked me, so he took me in his band.  We played great.  I loved him.  He was a real teacher for me.  He taught me about time and different tempos and different accents.  He was a master of time.

You described to me when we did the show the circumstances of The Quest and Live At The Five-Spot.  Did you have any working relationship with Eric Dolphy or Booker Little outside of those two record dates and that week at the Five Spot?

Yes, we did the things with Max Roach together and we did things with Abbey Lincoln together.

Were those just record dates?

Record dates.

But on a gigging level, was there anything…

No other gigs.  Just that one week.

I would like to ask one thing, and please decline to answer if it’s too personal.  That’s the circumstances of your leaving America and the illness you had in the ’60s.  Is there anything you can say about it for the purposes of this article?

Well, I left America, because at that time every jazz musician was called a junkie, automatically, and after a while it got to the point where if you had the name you just had to have the game, too.  So I started using drugs, and I took an overdose, and I was out for about 6 or 7 months, in East Elmhurst Hospital, and they gave me shock treatments and spinal taps and all kinds of things to relieve the pressure on my mind, to get my memory back, because I couldn’t remember where I was, I couldn’t remember anything about the piano or anything.

You lost your memory from it?

Yes.  And I lost my coordination.  My hands were shaking all the time; I couldn’t keep time.  So then I got out of there, and when I got out of there, Marcel Carne asked me about writing music in Paris, and I said, “Of course!  Let’s go!  Let me get out of this.”  Then I got to Europe, and I found in Europe there was so much respect and love for me that I didn’t need any drugs.  I didn’t need any drugs at all.

So you didn’t get involved in it in the earlier years?  Did it happen later as an accumulation of being fed up?

Well, it happened when I was working with Charlie Mingus in the Bohemia, from as early as that. [1955]

Then it just built and built.

Built and built, yes.

For someone who was doing that, you were sure functioning on a pretty high level!  Not to use a pun.

I thought I had control of this horse! [LAUGHS] I would bring him out at night, and have him open in the daytime and put him away at night, and I thought I had him covered.  And all of a sudden, he snuck up on me and knocked me down!

It’s no wonder you stayed in Europe. When did you first return to the States after going to Europe?

In 1975, ten years after.

What was it like?  Did you approach it with trepidation?

No, I didn’t approach it with trepidation, because I knew where I was at that moment.  I knew I had everything under control.  So I just came to America, and I did I think about three or four weeks.  I did a loft and some other things; I can’t remember now.  But I had myself under control, so drugs didn’t affect me at all.  I didn’t use drugs at all.

Just cigarettes.

Those are not drugs, officer! [LAUGHS] They can’t confiscate my cigarettes.

I remember during the interview you were so upset about the attitude to smoking here that you wanted to go home to Belgium so you could smoke your cigarettes.  You used a term that means your security blanket.

My “snoozedecker.”  A “decker” is a blanket.  Sleeping warm and protected under your decker.  It’s a sleeping blanket.  It comes from Snoopy, from “Peanuts.”

So it’s not an old phrase.  It came about because of American culture.

Linus always had his “snoozedecker,” in the German cartoons at any rate!  I don’t know what they call it in America, because I wasn’t there at that time.

Do you have a facility with languages?

Yes, I do.

So you’ve learned German and French and Italian to one degree or another?

Yes, I’ve learned them all, and I’ve working on my Japanese now.

I guess that’s another good reason for people from those cultures to respect you.

Yes, I think that has a lot to do with it.  If you can communicate to them in their own language, they love you more!  I don’t have to struggle for words.

So vocabulary is essential in many different areas of life, I guess we can say.

Right.  You can’t communicate to anybody without a vocabulary, in music or speech or anything else.  You have to have a repertoire.

What music do you listen to now?

Right now I’m checking over the records I made with Jean-Jacques Avenel and Steve Lacy, just to pick out the right takes.  But other than that, I listen to… I like Herbie Hancock when he was playing, like “Wandering Spirits.  I like Geri Allen; I listen to a lot of Geri Allen.  I also like Miles Davis.

All of Miles?

All of it, all the way through.  Miles is a killer.

Did you know Miles, by the way?

No, I didn’t know him at all.  I’ll tell you a joke. When Miles first met me, he said, “You know, you look just like my brother.” I said, “Oh yeah, Miles?”  He said, “Yeah, and I hate my brother because he’s a faggot!” [LAUGHS] So me and Miles were never close after that.

But you like him anyway.

But I like him anyway.

Do you listen to other things besides jazz and improvisers?

Yes, I listen to classical music.  I like Brahms, and I like Bach, Beethoven, Ravel, and I like Stravinsky, I like Alban Berg, and I like Schoenberg, too.  I like Ray Copeland…sorry, Aaron Copland.  I like Mozart.

So that’s a big part of your listening experience, too.

Sure.

A lot of African musicians and Middle Eastern musicians reside in Europe.  Has being in their proximity inflected you since being in Europe?

No, it hasn’t really affected me that much, because I feel that we’re going in two different directions. African jazz is an older form.  The beat is almost like Dixieland, really, in the popular African music.

But that doesn’t apply to someone like Johnny Dyani or Bheki Msileku or Tchangodei…

No-no-no.  There’s a record that came out from me and Johnny Dyani that’s very interesting.

Do you have five favorite records from your corpus of work?

Yeah.  Impressions is one. [Addison Farmer & Tootie Heath] Then The Teddy Charles TentetThe Mal Waldron-Steve Lacy Quintet on America-Disk.  I like The Quest, with “The Warp and the Woof.”  And the fifth is with Joe Henderson on “Soul Eyes.”

Thanks for your wonderful answers.  It was very enjoyable talking with you.

It was very enjoyable talking with you, Ted.  That’s why I did this interview!

I don’t know if I’ll come back to New York.  I can’t smoke cigarettes in New York City.  I had trouble smoking them before; I know it’s even harder.

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