Category Archives: Piano

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.

* * *

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

For Geri Allen’s Birthday, a Jazziz Feature Article from 2010

In recognition of the birthday of the magnificent pianist-composer-educator Geri Allen, here’s the text of a long piece that Jazziz gave me the opportunity to write about her in 2010.

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“Music can be a lot of different things. It can be about the celebration of the intellect. It can be about the celebration of the body and movement. It can be about a quest. It can give you an inner strength, create a fertile place for peace to exist. I think that what I’ve come to want from music is to have all of those things in it.”—Geri Allen

Geri Allen’s concurrent spring 2010 releases on the Motéma label, Flying Toward The Sound and Live, her first since 2006, are works of high distinction. The former, a tour de force subtitled “A Solo Piano Excursion Inspired by Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock,” is a suite of eight original compositions on which the composer “refracts”—her terminology—the vocabularies of that distinguished troika into her own lyrical, kinetic argot, conveyed with authority and refinement. The latter, culled from a pair of concerts, is the bebopcentric debut recording of Timeline, an Allen-led unit, conceived a decade ago, with veteran bassist Kenny Davis, youngblood drummer Kasa Overall, and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut, who propel a succession of improvisations that are a step up in intense rhythmic edge and speculative spirit from Allen’s more programmatic, curated recordings of the past decade.

Both offerings were imminent last April when Allen did a week at the Village Vanguard, and considering the context, she might well have treated the occasion as an opportunity for a preview. Instead, she convened a new quartet, with two old friends—tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and drummer Jeff Watts—and up-and-coming bassist Joe Sanders. Each contributed two compositions. She functioned as essentially a co-equal member of the ensemble, allowing interpretations to coalesce from night to night in a workshop-like manner, lightly guiding the flow.

“It’s my band, but I decided that I wanted it to be free,” Allen explained over lunch a few days before the summer solstice. “I want everybody to have this opportunity to own it together.”

“Whenever I work with Geri, it’s a family thing, like going to my cousin’s house,” Watts remarks. They met at the cusp of the ‘80s when Allen was working towards a Masters in ethnomusicology at the University of Pittsburgh. “I was pretty new to jazz, trying to figure things out,” he recalled. “Geri was fluent in blues and bebop, had absorbed a lot from Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and was studying world music, things about South India and Africa—what pygmies were singing and so on—and applying it to her music. She was already a professional great musician.”

This became apparent to the broader jazz public when Minor Music, a German label, issued Allen’s 1984 debut, The Printmakers, a trio date with Anthony Cox and Andrew Cyrille, and Home Grown, a 1985 solo recital. Numerous next-generation pianists took note.

“Her perspective was rooted in tradition, but simultaneously daring and experimental—a truly modern musician,” says Vijay Iyer, who soaked up Home Grown at 17. “Her music contained intense polyphony, like African drumming at the piano. Her groove was really strong, but variable and fluid, almost speechlike at times. She created vibrant colors, and she wasn’t afraid to work with technology. She never had a bag that she was playing, but sounded like herself all the time.”

Jason Moran experienced his eureka moment upon hearing Allen’s brief solo towards the end of the first song on V, a long out of print Ralph Peterson ensemble date.  “I heard phrases I’d had never heard played on piano before, more assured than Andrew Hill, freer than Herbie Nichols—firm but strange ideas that felt almost familiar and inviting, but you were unsure what it was,” he says. “I was convinced she’d made the newest mark on modern jazz piano, the next step into the future.”

It’s hard to think of any comparably prominent musicians among Allen’s ‘80s peer group who matched her willingness to engage with multiple musical dialects, to incorporate both  “inside” and “outside” approaches into her expression. “I don’t see this as a conflict,” Allen says of her comfort zone with crossing lines that most players won’t. “I see it as a right. All artists have the right to make a statement, and it’s my right to interject all my influences, to walk through different points of view, to give respect to all these musics I love while remaining grounded in jazz as my core expression, and embracing the rigors of that choice.”

Towards actualizing this aesthetic, Allen has piggybacked on “the rebel spirit” of the visionary pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams, whose compositions and arrangements she most recently performed and music-directed during a three-night centennial birthday tribute at the Kennedy Center in May. Allen launched her intimate relationship with Williams’ corpus during Pittsburgh days, took it to another level when she portrayed Williams in the Robert Altman film Kansas City, and documented it on the 2005 recording Zodiac Suite: Revisited, Allen’s only recording not devoted primarily to her original music.

Most consequentially, Williams’ insistence on establishing her own terms of engagement throughout a half-century in the music business made Allen “feel entitled to try to find my voice through composition.” A further draw was “her level of fearlessness—to be so well-prepared that whatever you throw at this person, they’re going to land on their feet.” At the same time, Allen adds, “Mary represented the absolute core of jazz. She understood the power of knowing and embracing whence she came, which is where true freedom must live.”

Which is why, in 2008, when Williams’ personal manager, Father Peter O’Brien, wrote a Guggenheim Fellowship grant proposal for Allen to develop a solo piano project, she opted to draw on Hancock, Tyner and Taylor for raw materials. “I’ve been teaching a lot for the last few years, and focusing on ensembles,” she said, referencing her position as Associate Professor of Jazz Piano and Improvisation Studies at the University of Michigan. “For this, I decided to create a research opportunity that could morph into focusing on the challenges of what playing the piano is.

“These musicians changed the way we think about the piano’s function in ensemble and solo contexts. Their solo language broke through and created shifts. They’re heroes who celebrate human ingenuity. They let us know that to join this continuum, you must do the formidable task of learning the tradition, but also find your voice in that.”

[BREAK]

Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson calls his first Allen sighting—a 1990 Minneapolis performance with Anthony Cox and drummer Pheeroan Aklaff—“one of the most important concerts I ever saw.”

“It was something to do with Africa, something to do with free jazz—spiritual and surreal at the same time,” says Iverson, who was then 19. “She seems to have thought about and reinterpreted each style that concerned her—Mary Lou Williams, Herbie Hancock, Eric Dolphy—in a postmodern way. She’s like a chameleon.”

“Chameleon” is an apropos descriptor for Allen’s pan-stylistic sensibility, informed by several overlapping streams of influence, not least of which emanate from Hancock, Taylor and Tyner for “the amazing power of their sound production, their approaches to touch, their attacks on the instrument,” and their projection of identity through composition. But “Chameleon” is also the title of a popular Hancock tune from 1973, when the teenage Allen was paying close attention to Hancock’s plugged-in Headhunters band. “That sound was on the cutting edge of what I was experiencing growing up,” she says. “It had a feeling that I knew from Detroit’s avant-garde scene, and it opened up my playing, my ideas on freedom, maintaining an audience’s interest through a 25-minute tune. Also, the new sonic quality of the electronica was thrilling.”

She connected to Hancock’s “world-is-my-oyster” attitude “where you could do anything you want with music.” Allen mentioned Hancock’s 2008 Grammy for River: The Joni Letters. “I don’t know if anybody else could have done it,” she said. “That’s the product of a meticulous, well-planned journey—it doesn’t just happen. Then the courage of doing Ravel in G major [“Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G, 2nd Movement” from Hancock’s 1998 release, Gershwin’s World] to create a modern evolution of a piece that was etched in stone.”

Indeed, Allen mirrored Hancock’s path—both developed formidable chops through early classical piano studies, and gestated polymath interests within the pragmatic black culture ethos, particularly prevalent then in enlightened Midwest circles—of placing all musical food groups on the same plate. “It was made clear that, to be a musician, you were fortunate if you could make a living,” she says, “and to do so, you would have to be versatile and open.”

Familiar with jazz through her father’s record collection, involved in music-as-ritual both through church activity and the ferocious R&B and funk soundtrack of the day, Allen—mentored by trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who would inspire several subsequent generations of Detroit jazz musicians—embraced the notion of a jazz career not long after entering Cass Tech, Detroit’s top-shelf arts high school.

“I was ready, and once my parents got over the shock, then I was good,” Allen says. She adds that her father, an educator and the son of a minister, was initially dubious about exposing his teenage daughter to the bars and lounges where jazz was played, but relented on the counsel of his close friend Earl Lloyd, a former Fort Wayne Piston who was one of the first African-Americans to play in the NBA.

Another Detroit mentor, dancer Jackie Hillsman, ran a studio on Grand River Avenue where, among other things, dancers and musicians spontaneously improvised together. “Having Maurice Chestnut on stage with me now is directly influenced by that experience,” says Allen, who first documented her sound-in-motion concept on a single duo track with Detroit tap dancer Lloyd Storey on her second album, Open on All Sides…In The Middle. “Coming up in Detroit, we’d play bebop, and there was a generation of folk who would get up and dance,” she recalls. “I practiced having the impact of that feeling in my improvisations, whether in the solo line or the ostinatos I use, and juxtaposing it with the harmonic challenge.” She mentioned a lengthy call-and-response with Chestnut and Kassa Overall on Charlie Parker’s contrapuntal chopbuster “Ah Leu Cha” from Live, noting that Chestnut “shares our challenge to articulate Bird’s virtuosic line and improvise within the same structures.”

Most important, Allen was learning her craft in real time, in the crucible of public performance. She recalls her very first gig, playing keyboards with bassist Ralphe Armstrong at Dummy George’s Jazz Room on McNichols Avenue. “The union man walked in and asked me for my card—I immediately felt the reality of being a professional musician.” Later that evening, local hero pianist Teddy Harris “sat down and slipped me right off the piano bench because I was playing the wrong changes. That established my level of heart,  right off the bat. You learned on the bandstand, and if you were serious you had to develop a thick skin.”

[BREAK]

Allen hit New York in 1982, settling to Brooklyn, where rents were reasonable. She soon found work with Oliver Lake and Arthur Blythe; calls from Art Ensemble of Chicago members Joseph Jarman and Lester Bowie soon followed. She met a cohort of best-and-brightest Kings County  peer groupers—among them Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Vernon Reid, Robin Eubanks, Terri Lyne Carrington, Lonnie Plaxico, and Mark Johnson—and they gradually formed a collective known by the acronym M-BASE, exploring ways to extrapolate mixed meters, electronic sounds, and tropes from R&B and Rock into jazz expression.

Within M-BASE, Allen found a space in which to incorporate her varied interests. “In the beginning, it was very organic,” she says. “We were all around the same age, trying to make ends meet, always out listening to music. Everybody was writing, experimenting, sight-reading hard music, challenging each other to upgrade our professionalism. We were embracing everything we liked.” The use of electronics and mixed meters, she adds, “wasn’t a new idea. We took inspiration from Tony Williams and Lifetime, from Miles and Herbie, and then refracted their music in our own way. I was dealing with mixed meters before I came to New York; the goal was to make them sound natural, so it wasn’t like the dress wearing me, but I’m wearing the dress.

“When we think of M-BASE now, it’s definitely Steve Coleman’s conception—he had very specific ideas about composition, so his tunes had an individual sound, as did everyone’s initially. Eventually, the sound became much more institutionalized, so to speak. I have a fluid way that I like to hear music and sound, which wasn’t fitting into that any more, and that’s partly why I decided to move on creatively.”

As that door closed, another opened with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and an equal-billing trio with Haden and Paul Motian that made four recordings between 1987 and 1991 on which Allen established a stylistic room of her own, spare and poetic. On Ralph Peterson’s Triangular, from 1988, documenting another trio, she brought forth a rollicking, buoyant, confident take on bebop roots.

By 1996, Allen had augmented her c.v. with three transformational associations. One was a 1993 project on which she, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette fed the fire for master bebop singer Betty Carter, who admonished Allen “to play upbeats to give momentum to the rhythm section—what I think of as the style of Red Garland.” She continues: “At the time, I wasn’t thinking about comping that way. I was hearing something darker, warmer, richer…in other words, more akin to Ellington and Monk and Herbie Nichols. Jack and Dave had played with Miles, and they understood what she was saying.”  Thus prepared, Allen recorded a ferocious date in March 1994 with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, “where I went from being an excited observer of that sound to an actual participant,” foreshadowing a subsequent decade spent assimilating Hancock’s pianistic vocabulary into her own conception, particularly on recordings by trumpeter Wallace Roney, then her husband.

There was also a heady three-year gig, including two recordings and several tours, with Haden’s one-time employer Ornette Coleman, who had last worked with a pianist more than thirty-five years before, who honored her by performing two duo selections on Eyes…In the Back Of Your Head, her final Blue Note recording, released in 1997. “Playing with Ornette shifted my conception of the piano,” Allen says. “The sound was more important than the notes, though technical prowess was important, too. It’s very much like your first try at double dutch—what not to do, how not to reduce what’s there, but contribute something to help propel the music.”

A broader lesson, which Allen seems always to have understood innately, is to be willing, when necessary, “to be told what to do” in order to meet the demands of distinguished elder artists. She recalls her early New York years: “Some concepts I was more prepared for than others, but I’d go back to the drawing board and work through the equation. If you choose to deal with your weakness in an area that’s being challenged, you grow; if not, it just gets harder the next time you have to confront it. It does not go away. This is how life is.”

[BREAK]

Even in 2010, the upper echelons of instrumental jazz remain primarily a men’s club. It’s no easier than it ever was for jazzwomen to balance the demands of their profession—the travel, the need to carve out personal space to practice and reflect—with those of parenting.  Allen’s responsibilities are nothing if not substantial—a single mother of three since her recent split from Roney, she continues to tour while also fulfilling a weekly three-day obligation in Michigan when school is in session. But nothing seems to deter Allen from moving forward creatively.

“Women in my family always worked, including my mother,” Allen says. “As I was growing up, she was a defense contract administrator for the government, high up in rank, and well respected for her work ethic and fairness. Then she came home and was a great mom. She and my father raised me to be fearless, and pray. I felt that it would be a challenge as a jazz musician, but it couldn’t be so different from any other working mom who traveled as part of their career.”

She brought her children on the road until they reached school age, and retained a mother’s helper, who remains in her employ, when her youngest daughter, now 12, was six months old. “I have never had to worry about whether my children were well cared for,” Allen says.“That idea of family has been core in my life. My church has also become core in my life. My family is spiritually based, and service to the community is an important part of our legacy. I’ve seen that from the way my father mentored students through the years. In the same way, musicians in the community shared themselves with and made room for the next generation.”

Such bedrock kept Allen’s focus on the bigger picture at “rough moments when I felt musicians really were being mean” because of gender. “Most of the musicians were coming from a place of respect for the music, trying to get to something, and so was I,” she says. “I choose to remember the life-changing experiences, the ones that are pure humanity—life lessons about connecting with  people in highly evolved ways.  I think the real power of this music is that it can transform through authentic connections with others.

“It’s amazing to take a bird’s eye view of all the connections. I’m grateful and proud to have earned my place in New York, to be part of something so important that goes way back. I wouldn’t trade any of it—each and every breakthrough, and those other moments where you wondered why you were still trying to be here. The ups and the downs. I have faith that there is a reason for both.”

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Filed under Article, Detroit, Geri Allen, M-BASE, Piano

To Mark Larry Willis’ 71st Birthday, an Unedited DownBeat Blindfold Test From 2006

Pianist Larry Willis — a Harlem native and alumnus of Music & Art — turns 71 today. To denote the occasion, here’s the unedited version of the Blindfold Test he did with me in 2006.

Larry Willis Blindfold Test:

1.  Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “The Hard One” (from SUPERNOVA, Blue Note, 2002) (Rubalcaba, piano; Carlo Enriquez, bass; Ignacio Berroa, drums)

I can’t quite pinpoint who this is. But whoever it is, the way he plays lines, the note ideas, he’s obviously listened a lot to Herbie. I hear a lot of that in this. Some of it might remind you a little bit of Randy Weston. But I say that rhythmically. He’s got great facility. I’m going to give this 4 stars. I like the approach. It goes everywhere. So everybody is obviously thinking about how to deal with this rhythmically. That’s the thing I like about it. I like both the rhythmic and harmonic approach. But I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Boy, what a fantastic pianist he is. He’s a very welcome addition to today’s jazz piano. Besides, he’s a really nice kid. [He’s 43.] Well, he’s a kid to me. I got him by 20 years. The composition rubs me a little bit on the negative side. I honestly feel… The Cuban part I like, but it’s very difficult for me to focus in on anything. There’s just a little bit too much going on for me.

2.   Michael Weiss, “Walter Davis Ascending” (from MILESTONES, Steeplechase, 1998) (Weiss, piano; Paul Gill, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Jackie McLean, composer)

I don’t know who it is, but the touch is so reminiscent of Hank Jones. Maybe not so much the ideas. Maybe Lewis Nash on drums. But it sounds awfully good. I’m having difficulty trying to hinge the tune. I love the composition. The left hand is not quite in that style, but I hear Bill Evans also. Compositionally, it sounds like something that Bill might play. Is this a contemporary of mine? [No.] Older? Younger. He’s a teenager. I’m going to step out on a limb. Is this Kirk Lightsey? This is this tune written by somebody that I know very well. It’s Jackie’s tune. 3 stars. It doesn’t quite grab me. It’s good, but it’s not exceptional, as far as I’m concerned. But the performance of it is good.

3.   Chano Dominguez, “No Me Platiques, Mas” (from CON ALMA, Venus, 2003) (Dominguez, piano; George Mraz, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums)

It’s a nice waltz. I don’t think it’s him, but the touch and harmonic approach remind me a lot of Ray Bryant. But I don’t think this is something Ray would play. Then here again, I don’t know who could be playing. I love the sound of the trio. It’s very well-integrated, everybody’s listening to everybody, and I like the approach, the concept of what they’re doing. It’s quasi early Bill Evans trio. The bass player is playing very loose, the drummer is not playing time so strictly, and I like the approach. Could the bassist be George Mraz? Yeah, it sounds like Bounce. We call him the Bouncing Czech. Is this Richie Beirach? A lot of Bill Evans here. Could this be somebody like Denny Zeitlin? You got me. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know him, but I know who he is.

4.   Denny Zeitlin, “Bemsha Swing” (from SOLO VOYAGE, MaxJazz, 2005) (Zeitlin, piano; Thelonious Monk, piano)

“Bemsha Swing.” One of the problems that I’m having is that Jazz, as far as the growth and development of the art, has reached an impasse. I’ve heard no new voices, particularly at the piano, no new schools of thought since 1968, and I think a lot of that has had to do with the way the record industry has crept into this, and basically destroyed a lot of the bands where young players could serve apprenticeship. When I came along, there was the Jazz Messengers, there was Miles’ band, there was Trane’s band, there was Horace Silver’s quintet, a lot of working bands where you could develop. But that doesn’t exist. So what I’m hearing is a lot of retread. [In this performance?] In general. This sounds like Randy to me. But here again, I don’t know who it is. I love what he’s doing. I’m going to give it 5 stars. He plays enough of the piano to let you know that he knows what he’s doing at the instrument, but the whole thing just comes off. I like the harmonic approach. The ideas are nice. I know where it’s coming from, but I can’t tell what records he’s listening to. Let’s put it that way. I like that. He’s put some thought into what he’s doing. [Older guy? Younger guy?] Maybe my age. The concept. He plays good stride. I like how he’s interpreting Monk. Understanding that music is not necessarily something that falls out of a tree. And he doesn’t play too much. Let me put it this way. The element of taste is very prevalent here. What he’s doing, everything seems to be in the right place; he does it at the right time. When he starts to stride, it adds instead of making me feel he’s doing it just to show you that he can. All this is integrated into the music. [AFTER] Denny Zeitlin? Makes a lot of sense to me.

5.  Martin Wacilewski, “Plaza Real” (from TRIO, ECM, 2005) (Wacilewski, piano; Slawomir Kurkiewicz, bass; Michal Miskiewicz, drums; Wayne Shorter, composer)

This is a nice trio. I don’t know who it is. Harmonically I love it. Also, the piano is really well-recorded. He’s listened to Bill, that’s for sure. That last little run is a Bill Evans run! He was a very influential piano player! But there’s also a lot of Herbie’s harmonic approach. Right there! I like it. 4½ stars. [AFTER] They should keep doing what they’re doing!

6.   Dave McKenna, “C-Jam Blues” (from LIVE AT MAYBECK RECITAL HALL, VOL. 2) (McKenna, piano; Duke Ellington, composer)

This sounds like it might be two piano players. Sure is covering a lot of ground. There are two piano players. [Who are they?] Is it Hank and Tommy? No, that’s not Hank. Or Tommy. I haven’t a clue. [Are you sure it’s two piano players?] Yes, I’m sure. Or at least somebody overdubbed something. [It’s one piano player.] Wow. [Live.] Live?! The lines are good. They’re not great. But to play that much with just two hands is doing a lot. It’s not Oscar. I haven’t a clue. 3½ stars. It just doesn’t reach out and grab me.

7.   Jason Moran, “Out Front” (from PRESENTS THE BANDWAGON, Blue Note, 2003) (Moran, piano; Tarus Mateen, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums; Jaki Byard, composer)

There’s something almost Steve Kuhn-ish about this—approach, concept, touch, ideas. But I know it’s not Steve. I like it. He’s got a lot of chops, whoever he is. [Are you familiar with this tune?] No. But for some reason, the name of Jaki Byard is sticking in my head. It sounds like some music he’d play or some music coming from him. It just rubs me that way. I love the treatment. But I can’t figure out who it is! Sounds like they’ve been playing together for a minute. Sounds like a younger player—the sound of the instrument. It doesn’t sound like an older personality. I’m almost going to step out on a limb and say it’s somebody like Marcus Roberts. There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of information here to decipher. [Do you like that?] Yes and no. I’ve always been one to think that less is more, and because the piano is such a complicated instrument, the 88-to-10 odds empower me to be more simplistic in my approach. I think sometimes piano players get so involved in the 88-to-10 odds that the music takes somewhat of a back seat. That’s happening here. It’s more of a show than music. 3 stars. It isn’t bad! If it gets below 3, that means I don’t like it.

8.   Edward Simon, “Abiding Unicity” (from UNICITY, CAM, 2006) (Simon piano, composer; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

The bass player is great. It’s not George. It’s not Eddie Gomez. Is it Richard Davis? I’m trying to think of how many bass players have that kind of arco technique. Is the pianist from outside of the United States? [Yes. But he’s lived in the States for a long time.] I asked because of the approach to rhythm. [What part of the world is the piano player from?] He’s either from Europe or he’s from Japan. How can I put this? Because I’m an American and jazz comes from here, and I’ve been listening to it for a long time from an American perspective, the whole concept of playing inside the pulse framework is a little deeper here than I hear coming from other places, and I think… It’s not a putdown. It’s just that if you don’t grow up in a culture, it’s very difficult to assimilate the little subtleties of whatever that is into your playing if you haven’t experienced it. [That affects how you’re hearing this.] Yes. But let’s back up. It affects me in this context. What I am trying to say is not a bad thing. That’s just how it is. For example, as close as he came to being involved with an American approach to playing jazz, I still hear that difference in somebody’s playing like Joe Zawinul, for example. There’s always a tendency to… It sounds like it’s on the surface almost. The piece is okay. It started out great, and then it went someplace else that I didn’t particularly care for. If it started like what he’s doing now, then I might feel more compelled to… It just doesn’t get inside my body. 3 stars. [AFTER] Patitucci and Blade always seem to be together. I heard them with Wayne, I heard them with Herbie…

9.  Oscar Peterson, “Sweet Lorraine” (from FREEDOM SONG, Pablo, 1980/2002) (Peterson, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; Niels Henning-Orsted Pederson, bass; Thelonious Monk, composer)

I like the piano player. It’s a very nice, refreshing treatment of this song. Whoever it is, they’ve certainly paid attention to the Nat Cole Trio—or the King Cole Trio. I like this. I’m almost going to say Mulgrew. Is the guitar player Russell Malone perchance? Is the guitarist an older player? [Yes.] Older than me? [No.] Well, it’s not Cedar. It doesn’t sound like Barry Harris. Now, that sounds like Hank right there. Whoever it is, they’ve really listened to Hank’s approach to playing the instrument. Hank’s got one of the cleanest, clearest, prettiest sounds coming out of the piano in the history of this music, I feel. And whoever this is, I like very, very much. Harmonically, technically, just the general approach to playing the instrument. He’s got a great sound. 5 stars. [AFTER] [LOUD LAUGH] Okay.

10,  Bebo Valdes, “Lamento Cubano” (from EL ARTE DEL SABOR, Blue Note, 2000) (Bebo Valdes, piano; Israel “Cachao” Lopez, bass; Carlos “Patato” Valdes; congas)

An older pianist. From Cuba. Bebo Valdes. The sound, concept, touch. That’s Bebo! He’s a really unique player. First of all, as a pianist, he’s assimilated the world’s concept of playing the jazz piano and formulated it into a very unique concept of playing the piano—and playing that music, playing Cuban music. I love him, first of all, because he’s got a great sound from the piano. Then, his minimalist approach pleases me immensely. In a sense, he reminds me, if I can make an analogy, of Ahmad Jamal, for example. He shows you just enough technique to let you know that he’s got it, but the rest is focused on playing some music that will allow you to assimilate it. 5 stars. I asked Miles one time… There’s a great story about him going over and hearing Clifford Brown, and then just saying to him, “Brownie, why are you playing all of those notes? Nobody hears that.” I asked Miles about it, and he said, what it is, when you’re playing music for people other than musicians, they can’t assimilate and decipher all that information and have it come out music that touches their souls. So a lot of what you play gets wasted on just you showing off and how much technique you have. Oscar doesn’t do that, and he’s got a world of technique. Art Tatum didn’t do that, and he had a world of technique. But a lot of players play too much. Too much information. The ultimate objective of all of this is not to be the greatest… I’m not trying to be the greatest piano player in the world. I want to be the best musician I can be. Because the instrument is there for you to play music on.

11.  Chick Corea, “Celia” (from REMEMBERING BUD POWELL, 1997) (Corea, piano; Bud Powell, composer)

It sounds like Barry Harris playing “Celia.” Or somebody from that generation. [It’s someone from your generation.] They really understand the concept of bebop, the bebop school of thought as far as playing the piano is concerned. Kenny Barron? He’s listened to bebop quite a bit. He’s played it quite a bit. Hmm. From my generation? 4 stars. [AFTER] Okay. All right. Aside from the music that he’s been able to come out with and has been so successful with, there’s a bit of a chameleon in Chick as far as playing the piano. I’ve heard him play duets with Herbie, and he’s got one face there. I hear this, it’s another face. I hear what he does, for example, with Return to Forever; that’s another face. I heard him with Stan Getz; that’s another face. Yes, Armando!

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Larry Willis, Piano

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.

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

It’s Barry Harris’ 84th Birthday: A Link to a 2011 Post of a Downbeat Article, and Several Verbatim Interviews Conducted For the Piece

It’s Barry Harris’ 84th birthday. Here’s a link to a post I uploaded on his birthday two years ago, with a “director’s cut” DownBeat feature on the maestro from 2000, and an oral history conducted by Aaron Graves for the Smithsonian, after Mr. Harris was awarded his NEA Jazz Mastership.

Below, I’ve appended the interviews that I conducted for the DownBeat piece. One contains Mr. Harris’ remarks when he joined me on WKCR in 1999; the other two are transcriptions of phoners that we did after DB assigned me the piece. There are also interviews with Tommy Flanagan, his close friend and contemporary; Leroy Williams, his drummer of choice for 18 years; Don Schlitten, his producer for 20 years or so; and Charles McPherson, one of his most distinguished students.

* * *

Barry Harris (WKCR, 4-8-99):

[MUSIC: BH/GM/LW, "I'll Keep Loving You"]

TP:    A few words about this particular group of musicians, and what they do for you in articulating the music.  George Mraz, first of all.

HARRIS:  Well, George Mraz is a very-very special bass player.  I felt sort of privileged to play with him on this record, because he’s one of the fastest cats!  I don’t mean tempo-fast.  I’m talking about fast catching-on.  He’s a very special person.

TP:    Have you played with him much over the years.

HARRIS:  Never.

TP:    Because you’ve both done your share of playing what Cedar Walton would call the piano saloon emporiums of New York.

HARRIS:  He played mostly with Tommy Flanagan.  I never really played with him.  So this is a first meeting, and I really enjoyed it.

TP:    I’ve heard you with other drummers than Leroy Williams over the years, like Vernell Fournier for a while in the ’80s and Billy Higgins, and there are others, but it’s hard to think of Barry Harris without thinking of Leroy Williams.

HARRIS:  That’s been a union of about 30 years.  What I found out about Leroy, one time I was working at Bradley’s and I couldn’t find a bass player.  So then I decided, “Well, later on the bass player; I’ll use Leroy on drums.”  What I found out from that is that Leroy knows me the best.  Well, after all those years don’t you think he should?

TP:    What do you think it is that made him so empathetic to you in the beginning?

HARRIS:  Well, Charles McPherson said to me, “Barry, you’ve got to hear this drummer; I think you’ll like him.”  I said, “Oh, yeah?”  So that’s the way it started.

TP:    Well, he knows how to break rhythms without breaking up the flow.

HARRIS:  Well, we have a special relationship.  I’ve played with other drummers.  I like Billy Higgins, too.  Billy Higgins is a very special drummer, too.  But between Billy Higgins and Leroy I’m sort of selfish.

TP:    Do you play off the drummer?

HARRIS:  Oh yes.  That’s part of the deal.  I think it’s all a matter of heartbeats.  We have to adjust our heartbeat to each other, so I think between Billy Higgins and Leroy we do a better job than most people. [LAUGHS]

TP:    Back in the day in Detroit, before you came here, you used to play with Elvin Jones.

HARRIS:  Oh, he was special, too.  It’s years since I played with Elvin.  People come to New York and we’d end up on different tracks.  It’s weird, too, what happens to the closeness we might have had in Detroit.  When you come to New York, it’s like you go separate ways.  I used to play with Frank Gant.

TP:    He’s on your first recording, for Argo.

HARRIS:  That’s right.  He’s a Detroiter, and he’s one of the first cats I played with.  There were a few cats.  But Detroit was a very special place.  We had so many good musicians.

TP:    What was it about the climate there?  Was it because of the quality of public education, Cass Tech…

HARRIS:  I think it had something to do with the public education.  We played in the orchestras, in bands.  We had bands at school.  I mean, it’s a big drag now that whenever they cut something, they cut the music, which is the most ridiculous thing.  The thing about is, we have the instruments.  The instruments are all in a warehouse somewhere, rotting.  There’s a school on Ninth Avenue where the instruments are in the basement rotting away.  But we had music in the schools.  Most of us were too poor to have instruments of our own.  So the bass player, Ernie Farrow, he’d borrow the school bass, we’d borrow the school drums, and go to a gig on the streetcar.  That’s the way we went to the gig!  So we had music in the schools.  Plus we had good musicians around.  I can name cats you’ve never heard of.  Willie Anderson…

TP:    Piano player.

HARRIS:  [LAUGHS] That’s right.  Will Davis, piano player.  So many players.  We had Cokie, who was an alto player.  To us he was like Bird.  We had really good musicians.

TP:    Detroit was a musician’s town all the way back to the ’20s…

HARRIS:  Oh, that’s what I heard.  I heard that Art Tatum and them used to be on St. Antoine, which is a street where there were bars, and all the musicians had been there.  We must have been the carryover from that period.  Because we really learned the music.

TP:    Well, Teddy Edwards has described coming to Detroit from Jackson, Mississippi, when he was 16, and playing at a Black-owned club called the Congo Club which had elaborate floor shows, the acts would come there after their stints at the Paradise Theater.  Musicians in the band there included Howard McGhee, or Wardell Gray, Kelly Martin who was later with Jamal…

HARRIS:  A whole bunch of people who contributed to the culture.  So we had a good group to listen to.  We listened to records, too, but we had a bunch around Detroit.  I had a tenor player tell me one day, “Barry, you’d better learn how to play ‘I Got Rhythm.'”  I said, “I thought I was playing it.”  He said, “No-no, no-no.  ‘I Got Rhythm’ is not the blues.”  I was playing two choruses of the blues, then played the ‘Rhythm’ bridge, and then a chorus of the blues — which is all wrong.   But there were people there who told us how to do it right.  Plus we jammed all day, man.  We had a ball.  Donald Byrd, Sonny Red, Yusef, Kiane Zawadi, all these musicians.

TP:    So you had a felicitous blend of the oral tradition at its most practical plus quality pedagogical education.

HARRIS:  And plus, this was the Golden Era of the music.  We had Lester Young, we had Coleman Hawkins, we had Ben Webster, we had Charlie Parker, we had all these good musicians.

TP:    Now, when you were a teenager, were you listening to all the latest records by each of them and memorizing…

HARRIS:  Mostly.  I guess we were, yes.  Because we started out as teenagers.   That’s the odd thing about now.  All the people trying to learn to play jazz, they’re grown folks, 20-something years old.  Which is sort of hard.  Because when you’re a teenager and you’re home and somebody else is taking care of you, you can learn to play very well.  But when you’re a grown person and you’re going to try to learn to play music, most people have to go to work every day, so a person would have to be very special.  He would have to learn what to do in an hour, where we had eight hours to mess up, or six hours to mess up.  And not know what we were doing, but we’d learn in those six hours.  But these people nowadays have to learn in one hour.  So it’s very hard.

TP:    Now, you are well known particularly in the early part of your career for being a devotee of Bud Powell, and someone who assimilated that vocabulary into your own particular take.  But before you encountered Bud Powell, who were the pianists who struck you?

HARRIS:  It’s hard to say.  Art Tatum struck everybody!  But you know what happened with me?  I could chord.  I could chord when I was young, a teenager, maybe 13-14-15.  I didn’t solo too well.  Then I started going to the West Side of town.  See, I lived on the East Side.  I started going over to the West Side.  And the cats on the West Side could solo.  The piano players.  They couldn’t chord as good as me maybe, but they could solo.  So when I got back to the East Side and went home, I said, “Oh, Lord, I’ve got to learn how to solo.”  So I took this record by a blind girl named Bess Bonnier in Detroit… She’s got stuff out, and plays very well.  She had a record player, and this record player was very special, because you could take this record player and you could stop any place and go all the way through.  She loaned me this record, and I took this record, and that’s how I learned how to play.  So the first thing I learned how to play was “Webb City”!  Now, see, “Webb City” is Sonny Stitt and Bud Powell.  So that’s what I learned.  It just happened it wasn’t Oscar Peterson.  It just happened it was Bud Powell with Sonny Stitt.

TP:    Well, if that was contemporaneous, you would have been 17 years old or so, before Oscar Peterson emerged.

HARRIS:  Well, Oscar Peterson came out with Jazz at the Philharmonic and stuff like that.  So this probably was before him, yes.

TP:    When did it become apparent to you that you were going to be a musician, that this was going to be your career, your life, your profession?

HARRIS:  All my life.  I knew it at the age of 4.

TP:    Were you playing piano that early?

HARRIS:  That early.

TP:    Who started you?

HARRIS:  My mother.

TP:    You had a piano in the house?

HARRIS:  Oh yes.  Every house had a piano almost.  Like people nowadays have televisions?  Every house had a piano.  Somebody could play the piano in almost every house.  Because the piano was the form of entertainment then.

TP:    There wasn’t any television.

HARRIS:  There wasn’t any television.  Myself, I regret the television now, because it’s made… I look at the teenagers and I say, oh, it’s such a drag, because they all… They don’t travel, see.  But if they could go from one city to the next city, they could see that they all do the same thing.  They all dress the same way.  They all got the baggy pants…the same thing.  When I grew up, 20 miles away in Pontiac people played different.  60 miles away was Toledo, where Art Tatum came from; people played different there.  Not only did they play different, they dressed different.  See, people were different.  They were individuals. [LAUGHS] Now it’s like everybody’s got to have Nike sneakers.  To me, the only way you’ll see Tommy Hilfiger on my back is he’s going to be paying me.  I’m not going to be paying him.  He’s going to say, “Please wear this so people will buy it.”  And I would wear it.  It would be nice to make some money off of him.  But to see people walking around with stuff like that makes me mad.  Somebody bought me some sneakers and it had Nike on it, and I gave them away.

New York… I’m a transported Detroiter.  I call myself a member of the world.  Because I got tired of people saying they were from Brooklyn, or they’re from here, and Brooklyn’s much better or Queens is much better.  I’m tired of that.  Because musicians are everywhere in the world.  So I’m from the world.  I consider New York the center.  See, I don’t consider New York as the followers.  I regret that the young people here don’t see it.  We aren’t supposed to be followers.  We are leaders, and we’re supposed to act like leaders.  So that means we do not go to the front of the store and buy stuff.  We go to the back of the store, the stuff that is not in the window.

TP:    Well, it’s certainly hard to resist the power of television.

HARRIS:  Oh, of course… [END OF SIDE 1]

TP:    You began playing at 4, and it sounds to me like you were gigging and doing neighborhood things as an organic thing all the way through.

HARRIS:  Well, the way it was, you began at 4.  You began at 4 and you played church.  Most of us were church piano players.  We grew up going to church.  We grew up playing in church.  And then there comes a time when there has to come a separation.  My mother was a very gentle and beautiful person.  One day my mother said to me, “What do you want to do?  Are you going to play the church music or are you going to play the jazz?”  I said, “I’ll play jazz.”  She said, “Oh, that’s cool, then.”  So that’s where I went.  And she was cool with that.  So I played jazz.

TP:    Did you do it through really studying soloists, like Bud Powell, etcetera, or did you do through functional means, like the gigging situations you were referring to?

HARRIS:  Well, you start out a certain way.  You start out taking things off records.  We didn’t have any schools to go to.  These people have schools to go to now, which aren’t too good in the first place.  But you start out with records, and then you have people who could play around you.  See, when we were in school we played for high school dances.  We played for dances in the first place, so we had a lot of gigs.  And we played for dances, and our contemporaries danced to the music.  Probably the biggest drag for us… I remember Donald Byrd one day saying, “I don’t want to play in a bar, I don’t want to play in the dance hall; I want to play on the concert stage.”  That might have been the biggest drag thing that ever happened to us, to separate the music from dancing.  You aren’t supposed to separate the music from dancing.  If you listen to Monk, you will not hear Monk play “Round Midnight” as slow as Miles Davis played it.  I don’t know why Miles Davis played it that slow, because he sure wasn’t thinking about dancing.  But if you listen to Monk’s version of it, you will hear that it has a tempo, and it has a tempo where somebody can get up and dance to it.  See, that’s the way they played.

So we played for a lot of dances.  We had a lot of musicians who knew how to play!  I could tell about a cat, Leo Osbold(?)… See, I went to integrated schools…

TP:    Detroit was one of the few in the nation that did that in the ’40s.

HARRIS:  Oh, we had it.  Probably one of the worst things that happened was integration! [LAUGHS] Sometimes I think that’s the worst thing that happened.  I could tell you about that.  I got to think about integration.  See, when I grew up as a musician, when I went to different towns, of course we weren’t allowed to go to certain hotels, but we had black hotels in all these cities.  I can remember being in the black hotel in Cleveland, a black hotel in Philadelphia, a black hotel in New York, a black hotel in Indianapolis.  See, when integration came, we were the ones who said, “I’m going to see if they’re going to let us in,” but they didn’t say, “I’m going to see if you’re going to let us in.”  So our hotels went out of business.

So it was a different situation back then.  We had a different thing.  We played for dancers.  We had dance-halls.  We went to these dance-halls.  We had the Grand Ballroom, the Mirror Ballroom, the Graystone Ballroom — all these ballrooms.  I heard Bird in a ballroom.

TP:    And you had the Paradise Theater, too, the Black theater in Detroit.

HARRIS:  Well, every town had a theater like that.  Just about every place had a theater like that.  We had the Apollo.  The Apollo was a jazz place.  That’s where Sarah Vaughan and a lot of people got started — in the Apollo.  It’s been separated.  We separated the music from dancing.  We knew how to dance.

Why I say that is this.  Bird could play “Cherokee”… Wait, let me tell you about an incident.  There was a shake dancer.  Now, the shake dancer’s name was Baby Scruggs.  Now, Baby Scruggs would come out and she would say, ‘Play ‘Cherokee’ as fast as you can play it.’  And we played “Cherokee” fast, my brother, and if… I wish people could have seen Baby Scruggs shake-dance while we played “Cherokee” fast.  Because Baby Scruggs could do very special things.  She could make tassels move individually from different spots.  She could do so many things…

So we played for shake dancers, we played for dancers, we played shuffle rhythm, we played rhythm-and-blues. We played all of it.  All of it was part of the deal.  Recently I’ve become reacquainted with Berry Gordy.  See, now, Berry Gordy…when we were in high school, the two boogie-woogie piano players were Berry Gordy and Barry Harris.  We might have got messed up when Theodore Shieldy came to town, a cat from Georgia who came in and and went to the school.  See, because when he came, he not only played better boogie-woogie, he could improvise.  So we got Theodore Shieldy, we had Will Davis.  All these cats could improvise.  So you’d go around… What I would do, you’d go to the dance and you’d stand in back of the piano player and you’d steal a couple of chords and you’d go home and play them chords, just learn how to play them.  That’s how you’d learn how to play.

TP:    Among the people who were roughly your contemporaries, some a few years older, some a few years younger, who all came to New York around the same time, give or take a few years, were Billy Mitchell, Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Elvin Jones, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers, Frank Foster, who came to Detroit…

HARRIS:  Now, one of the best things that happened to us in Detroit was that Frank Foster came to Detroit.  See, Frank Foster learned… Pepper Adams, Bess, myself, all of the Detroit musicians, we learned a lot from Frank Foster, because Frank Foster could really play.  Frank Foster really knew a lot.  We had a music society in Detroit of 5,000 people.  We had a music society before I even heard any other jazz society.  Kenny Burrell was the first President.  It was called the World Stage.  It’s weird, because Billy Higgins has a place out in L.A., and it’s called the World Stage.  So we had a World Stage, and we had about 5,000 memberships.  Everybody played there.  Max Roach played there.  When piano players came to town, they came looking for me.  You see?  Piano players would come looking for me, because they’d heard about me, you see.

But we learned from each other, and we learned from records.  See, I’m more a Charlie Parker disciple.  Bud Powell is important to me.  Charlie Parker became very important to me.  Even more so now… Coleman Hawkins was very important to me.  I was very lucky; I played with him.  That really was a lucky period.  I played with Lester Young for a week in Detroit at the Rouge Lounge, where I was the house pianist..

TP:    What sort of place was that?

HARRIS:  Just a jazz club.  Not really in Detroit.  I guess it was in River Rouge, which was a little bit out.  I played there with Flip Phillips, I played with Lester, I played with quite a few people there.  I can’t even remember all the names.

TP:    But the people who would come through on the circuit, you’d…

HARRIS:  Yes.  But you’d be surprised.  We really tried to learn how to play.  I might have known a little bit more than the rest.  You know, there’s a book…

TP:    Were you more schooled than they were?

HARRIS:  I don’t know if I was more schooled.  I think Tommy Flanagan was more schooled than me.  I mean, as far as playing Classical.  We did a recital together as youngsters.  It’s like… I was really into it.  Because I was very quiet and kind of the shy cat. I was the cat who was very quiet.  Wasn’t no baseball, none of that stuff; no basketball, none of that.  No sports.  I was a piano player. [LAUGHS] Down Beat Magazine in 1958 or 1957 had a yearbook (I think it’s ’58), and in this yearbook there’s a picture of Paul Chambers half the page.  On this side they’re talking about the Midwest, and they say, “Mostly all the musicians who come from Detroit come from Barry Harris.”  See?  So what happened, my house was like a mecca.  All the musicians came to my house.  Joe Henderson came to my house and learned.  I was a cat who… I don’t know what you would call me.  I’m not the catalyst.  I’m the thing that gets set off by the catalyst.  What would you call that?

TP:    The reactive agent.

HARRIS:  Maybe that’s it.  But you know what happens with me?  A cat can say something about music, about chords or something, and then I can say, “Oh, if you’re going to do it like that, you’d better do it like this.”  Don’t ask me where that comes from.  That doesn’t come necessarily from me.  It comes through me, whatever it is.

TP:    You’re a born teacher.

HARRIS:  It’s almost like that, some kind of thing.  I know how to show you… If you come up with something, I can say, “You should do this, too, then.  If you don’t do that you should do this.”  It’s that kind of thing.  So I’ve been doing that for years, and I’m probably the oldest jazz teacher in the world.  See, I go to schools, and they don’t have me back too often because I sort of upset things a little bit in schools.  And I can upset things in schools.  There are a few schools, like Virginia Commonwealth, in Richmond, Virginia, where I go quite often.  The reason I go there quite often is because the teachers want me to come there.  In most of the schools the teachers wouldn’t want me to come back.

TP:    It’s too orthodox, and you’re anything but.

HARRIS:  I’m anything but.  I’m too unorthodox.  Plus I tell students things, and the students will go back to teachers and say, “Why didn’t you tell us that?” [LAUGHS] So I’ve got a problem.

TP:    They’re paying tuition.

HARRIS:  That’s right.

[MUSIC: "I'm Old Fashioned" & "To Walter Davis with Love"]

HARRIS:  [LYRICS FOR WD] “Who knows just when one’s life is bound to end.  Perhaps it’s written in the stars.  Some of us learn to live and cherish every breath, fulfilling dreams, bringing beauty to the scene.  Such was his life, so short but oh, so long.  He filled our hearts with a song and brought us, oh, such a joy, just with his precious gift.  It’s not goodbye, but so long.  We will meet again.  It’s not goodbye, but so long.”

TP:    We took Barry Harris through his years in Detroit, when he established his considerable reputation.  You came to New York about 1960?

HARRIS:  No, it was before that.  See, I came first and made some records with people.  I came in ’56, the year Clifford Brown and them got killed.  Donald Byrd and I joined Max Roach’s band, so we traveled with Max.  Then I went back to Detroit, because we didn’t stay with Max that long, and left out again in 1960 with Cannonball.  After that I’ve stayed mostly in New York.  I still have family in Detroit.

TP:    Cannonball was one of the people you’d played with in Detroit?

HARRIS:  Oh, no.  Well, when he came through, he knew me and I knew him.  I guess Bobby Timmons was with him, and Bobby was going out on his own to do some trio stuff, so he had me come join him.  Something like that.

TP:    So you came to New York on a gig, and that began.  Then you signed with Riverside, which was through Cannonball as well?

HARRIS:  That was through Cannonball.  I made my first record out on the West Coast, Live At the Jazz Workshop with Sam Jones and Louis Hayes while I was with Cannonball.  I had made one before that on Argo.  I went to Chicago from Detroit with Frank Gant and Will Austin, and we recorded with Sonny Stitt there.  See, what happened, we recorded with Sonny Stitt, and after that was over the cat said, “Why don’t you all make a trio record?”  I said, “Okay,” and we made a trio record.

TP:    You mentioned several musicians who played extremely important roles in your life as mentors, people you learned from, and also friends.  Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Monk.  A few words about your experiences with each of them.

HARRIS:  Well, one time Charlie Parker came to town, and his band didn’t show up on time.  He came to the Graystone Ballroom.  So what I did…me and a bunch of young musicians who were there, he let us play with him.  So when he did come to town, to the Mirror Ballroom, I sat in with him there, and we young ones, we played with him at the Graystone Ballroom when his band didn’t show up.  I played with him in this bar, which I forget the name of…

TP:    Not the Bluebird.

HARRIS:  No, not the Bluebird.  This was on Grand and River.  I can see the place, but I can’t name it now.  I was very fortunate.  I got a few chances to sit in with Charlie Parker.  Then I was in the house band, as I told you, with Lester Young.  That was luck.  Then Coleman Hawkins; that was luck.  When I came to New York, see, I went to a place, and I sat in with Coleman Hawkins, and the only thing he could say was, “Oh boy, another one of them Detroit piano players.”

TP:    He worked with Tommy Flanagan at the time.

HARRIS:  Well, he worked with Tommy Flanagan, with Roland Hanna, with Hank Jones — and that’s all Detroit!  Then here I come, and it’s another Detroit.  We really worked together until he died.

TP:    I’d like you to talk a bit more about Charlie Parker, the impact he had on you and the people of your generation, and why.

HARRIS:  Well, he had a… I couldn’t even tell you that, man.  This was like the greatest thing that ever happened in the world for us.  See, it was sort of like a breakaway from the big bands.  That’s part of what the thing is.  It allowed for a little more creativity.  With the big bands, I can see where the same background in back of you could make you maybe play the same solo over and over.  But the breakaway… Look, man.  Everybody…all the young people… We didn’t hear Charlie Parker on the radio.  They didn’t play Charlie Parker that much on the radio.  This was like an individual grapevine thing.  You could be walking down the street, and the cat over on the other side would holler and say, “They’ve got a new record by Bird!”  That kind of thing.  It was some other kind of thing.  So to us, it was the most modern… It was everything.

TP:    He was giving you the language that you wanted…

HARRIS:  Whatever it was, it was the language we wanted to hear at that time.  So we learned from it.  Sonny Stitt learned from it.  All of us learned from it.  Sonny Stitt learned from Bird, same thing, and then he became Sonny Stitt.  Fortunately, Bird and them were very correct playing people.  Correct changes.  Correct movements, I’ll say.  Because Coleman Hawkins would say, “I play movements; I don’t play chords.”  People get confused today.  Most people think you play chords.  You don’t play chords; you play movements.

TP:    Would you elaborate on that?

HARRIS:  A lot of horn players, unfortunately, they sit at the piano and they think they’ve learned how to play the piano.  So what they do is, they sit at the piano and they hit a chord and then they hit another chord and they say, “Oh, they sound good together!”  Then they proceed to say, “Ooh, I’m going to write a melody on that.”  In the first place, that’s wrong, because what they’ve done is learn to melodize harmonies as opposed to harmonize melodies.  See, the old cats, they harmonized melodies.  [LAUGHS] My illustration of that is a cat ran in one day and said, “Oh, man, I’ve got this good melody; put some chords to it for me.”  He sang [...MELODY OF "WHITE CHRISTMAS"] That came first.  See, “White Christmas” came first.  The chords were put down after.  That’s why that melody is going to be remembered through history.  Melodies are remembered.  See, these cats melodize harmonies, and what happens is, you melodize harmonies and most people don’t remember a thing you played.  It’d be hard to hum what you played.  They just sort of miss the boat.  That’s all.

TP:    And everything Charlie Parker played was a melody.

HARRIS:  That’s right, just about.  It was melodic.  See, those people knew how to run correctly from one place to another.  There are only so many moves.

TP:    It’s how you put the moves together.  There’s an infinite number of ways to put them together, but there are only so many moves.

HARRIS:  That’s right.

TP:    Like the chessboard.

HARRIS:  That’s right!  All the chessboard moves have been done before.  It’s just the way the person puts them together at that time.  Shoot.  It’s all the same.  They were very special for us, every young person at that time.  And all of us played instruments.  There were at least 20 or 30 cats who played instruments.  Not that they all continued, but they all played instruments.  So we had a ball.

TP:    A few words about Bud Powell.

HARRIS:  Well, I didn’t hear Bud Powell in person until much-much later.  I came to New York around 1953.  Doug Watkins and I were working with a cat called Rudy Rutherford, and Rudy said he was going to New York for a vacation, and we said we’re going to go too.  So we saved our money, and then when the time came Rudy Rutherford couldn’t go, so we just went anyway.  So we came to New York.  We stayed with Sheila Jordan, who is a Detroiter, and with Jeannie Dawson.  Sheila Jordan almost got me killed, too.  I always tell people the story about her almost getting us killed.  We were working at a bar in Hamtramack, Michigan, which had a big Polish community.  So we’re working in this bar, and here comes Jeannie Dawson and this other girl, they come in the bar and come right over to us — “Ooh, hey!”  And boy, every eye in the bar was talkin’ about, “What’s going on here?”  I’ll tell you this.  We left that bar just in time.  A streetcar came, and we left just right to catch that streetcar before they caught up with us.   They were trying to catch us and mess with us.  So that’s how prejudice… That stuff goes way back.

See, Sheila… I learned a lot of soloing from a scatter named Skeeter.  Skeeter and Sheila and another fellow, they were the special people who could scat.  I learned something about soloing from listening to Skeeter scat.  Now, Skeeter could scat, man!  So we learned a lot from all this.

TP:    Now, 1953 was the year Bud Powell was playing at Birdland almost every week.

HARRIS:  He was playing at Birdland, yes.  So I had a chance to hear him in person.  Which is special.  Because I didn’t get too much chance to hear Bud in person, until… I heard him when Francis Paudras brought him back to New York.  Then he worked at Birdland a week.  I went there every night to hear him.  Well, that was a different kind of Bud, in a way, because he wasn’t the Bud Powell.  He was just something…

TP:    Was Bud Powell to you the pianistic equivalent of Charlie Parker?

HARRIS:  That’s right.  Exactly.  Well, you see, I’ll give you a little assignment.  You’ll have to go get some records.  This is the record you have to get.  Cootie Williams.  There’s a record of Cootie Williams with his band.  “Round Midnight” is on that record, “Cherry Red Blues” is on that record, “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” is on that record.  Now, if you go and listen to that record… You have to be in some place dark, too, where sound sort of… Because underneath that record, while Cleanhead Vinson is singing “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” you’ll hear this piano player, and all he’s doing is double-timing and running minor arpeggios — the most beautiful stuff in the world.  You say, “What is this?”  But when you listen to the record, you won’t hear this.  And if you listen, Bud Powell is on this record.

So Bud Powell was with Cootie Williams; Bird was with Jay McShann.  To me, they were heading towards a summit.  I don’t think that Bud was influenced by Bird, and I don’t think that Bird was influenced by Bud.  I think that they were heading for a clash, and I think they clashed really.  I think in some way they might not have been the most compatible pair. [LAUGHS] I can understand it, too, because they both had this special something.  I’m sure Bud… [LAUGHS] I don’t know.  To me it’s a combination thing between the two of them.  I think they were heading together.  I don’t think one influenced the other that much.  I think whatever they were going to do, they were doing… Bud was with Cootie Williams doing his, and Bird was with Jay McShann doing his, and then they suddenly met, and with Dizzy… See, there are records where Diz sounds older.

TP:    By which you mean older stylistically.

HARRIS:  Older stylistically, yes.  Then there’s a Diz that sort of caught up with them.  I think that’s what happened, that Diz caught up with them.  Special people, that’s all.  We loved them.

TP:    You listened to all the Bud Powell records as they came out, the Blue Notes and Norgrans?

HARRIS:  Yes, all of those things.  We were beboppers.  That’s all.  It looked like in every city there were beboppers.  This was like a real revelation for us, a musical revelation.  And it was like a renaissance.  We were different from… You know, I went to Jaki Byard’s memorial service, and I was thinking about Jaki Byard.  Some people played a lot of Jaki Byard on the radio.  Jaki Byard could stride so good… See, Jaki Byard was born in 1922 and I was born in 1929.  Now, him being born in 1922 means that he was a teenager in the ’30s.  Me being born in 1929, I wasn’t a teenager in the ’30s.  I became a teenager in the ’40s.  So him being a teenager in the ’30s, he learned more about the Stride stuff…

TP:    Earl Hines.

HARRIS:  Yeah, he learned more about the Stride.  Art Tatum and everybody.  Whereas when we came up, when we became teenagers, we heard Al Haig, Bud Powell, George Shearing, all these cats accompanying… These people were slightly different from the stride piano players, so we aren’t striders. [LAUGHS] We aren’t the best of stride piano players; there’s no kind of way.

TP:    Coleman Hawkins was in many ways the bridge between the two periods…

HARRIS:  I think [Hawk] he was like a chameleon.  He could adjust to anything.  I always wanted to hear him with, oh, maybe Max Roach or Bud Powell, those kind of people… Well, he did do that thing with Bud in 1960.  I always wanted to hear him in… Because he could just play, man.  See, I heard Coleman Hawkins play “All The Things You Are.”  When I think of “All The Things You Are,” I think of Bird and Diz and Bud.  But when I heard Coleman Hawkins play it I said, “Unh-uh, there’s something else, too.”

TP:    Talk about your years with him.  You were his pianist from basically 1963 until he stopped playing.

HARRIS:  I was with him until he died.  I put him in the hospital.  He didn’t want to go to the hospital, but I had to put him in.  I had gone to live with him, and he had gotten too heavy for me to move him around.  But being with him was one of the highlights of my life.  Because I learned more about music, a different thing… I learned about movement.  He used to say he played movements.

See, I was very fortunate.  I learned from Monk.  Monk and I…I wish somebody had taped… One day Monk said, “Come on, let’s play the piano.”  I said, “Okay.”  So Monk started playing a tune.  It was called “My Ideal.”  He played a chorus, I played a chorus.  He played a chorus, I played a chorus.  I guess we played about 100 choruses apiece, where he’d play one, then he’d make me play one.  I wish it had been recorded.  It just wasn’t.  We recorded a lot of stuff, but not that. [LAUGHS] He was a very special kind of cat.

I have the thing that Monk was hipper than most of the jazz musicians today.  Where he was hip, Monk didn’t practice practicing.  Monk practiced playing.

TP:    Where is the difference?

HARRIS:  Oh, it’s a great deal of difference.  You could hear a piano player sitting at the piano, play in tempo one tune by himself for 90 minutes.  That is practicing playing.  You know what happened one time?  Frank Hewitt told me this story.  He’s a New York piano player.  He’s one of the best piano players, too.  He’s never recorded.  He plays around New York.  He’s a very special cat.  He told me a story.  He said him and some cats, they went by Bud Powell’s house early one day and said, “Come on, let’s go and have a ball.”  Bud said, “No.”  So they left out and they went and did whatever they were going to do, and messed around all day, and when they went to Bud Powell’s house he was playing “Embraceable You.”  This was early in the morning.  So they went out and spent the whole day.  And when they came back that night and knocked on Bud Powell’s door and went inside, he was still playing “Embraceable You.”  That’s practicing playing.

TP:    You were saying off-mike before that you don’t really listen to your records so much, but you said that Monk did listen to his records and listened only to Monk.

HARRIS:  I think he did.

TP:    And we sort of made the point that he could distance himself, or so it seems to us, to say, “That’s Monk playing” and not “That’s me playing.”

HARRIS:  I think one probably should listen to oneself to correct whatever one doesn’t like.  See, if there’s something you don’t like, then you say, “okay, I shall correct that.”  So you correct it.  Oh, it’s hard!

TP:    Had you met Monk before coming to New York?

HARRIS:  No, he’s someone I met here.  Monk… Well, we lived together for ten years, that kind of thing.  I had a good relationship with Monk.  We were good friends.

[MUSIC: BH/KB, "Embraceable You"; BH solo, "Parker's Mood"]

TP:    First we talked about your days in Detroit.  In the second one we touched on Detroit, and talked about getting to New York and establishing yourself here.  Here just some various things about the last few years.  First, for listeners who may not be familiar with Barry Harris’ discography, you’ve been recording with fair regularity between 1960 and about 1980.  There were some strong records for Riverside, then a lengthy relationship with Don Schlitten for both Prestige and Xanadu on which not only were you featured as a trio player and leader of groups, but as sideman supreme with your pick of the great instrumentalists of the period.  Then you’ve recorded more selectively in the last 15-20 years.  Barry Harris set up the Jazz Cultural Theater, which as we said at the beginning of the program, was only around for five years, but from its impact seems it was around for 20, and many of those relationships still hold to this day.

HARRIS:  That’s true.

TP:    Talk about the Jazz Cultural Theater, its impact, and your idea behind it.

HARRIS:  Well, there are still people who come looking for it! [LAUGHS] One time I went in the store that’s two doors down, and the cat said, “Boy, they still come and say, ‘Where is the Jazz Cultural Theater?'”  Well, it was just an idea.  Larry Ridley and myself and a couple of other people had an idea, and we opened it up.  We stayed there five years, and it was classes, and we had entertainment there on the weekends.  Looks like we started the tap dancing again, because we had the tap dancers, we had a couple of shake dancers… It was a nice little thing.  Jaki Byard’s big band used to play there every month.  Sun Ra played there.  It was really a nice little place.  So from that, like now, I give a big concert.  I started a big class.  The only reason I started a class is because occasionally we would teach for an organization, I think it was Jazz Interaction, and one day I was supposed to teach and I forgot.  I was supposed to teach at 4 o’clock, and I forgot, and at 7 o’clock I remembered.  At 7 o’clock I jumped in the cab and said, “This is ridiculous; ain’t nobody gonna be there.”  When I got there, everybody was there waiting on me from 4 o’clock.

TP:    Had you ever taught in a formal situation before that, or was it an extension of what you’ve done all your life?

HARRIS:  No, it was just an extension of what I’ve done all the time.  So what I did, I said, “Okay, I’ll keep the class going.”  So all we had to do was pay the rent.  That’s what we do right now.  I still have a class going, and I give a big concert every year.  I have a big concert coming up on May 22nd at Symphony Space.  People should remember that date.  Generally on my concerts I have about 200 little children who sing jazz, I have a big band and a string section and the adult chorus, and the adult chorus and the children’s chorus sing together.  I have tap dancers, like Tina Pratt and David Gilmore.  I generally have featured horn players.  At the last concert I featured Jimmy Heath and Charles Davis.  I feature musicians on the concert, and I do arranging for the whole thing.  So we have the whole thing arranged for 200 people, which is fun.

TP:    You’ve continued to grow and develop in a very purposeful way as a piano player, more so than the average, in that you’ve continued to study…

HARRIS:  You know what it is?  If you teach, really… See, I have a thing about teachers.  We’re the teachers, but we’re the dumbest members of the class because we’ve been in the class the longest.  So what we have to do… Then on top of that, I’ve got some young piano players who’ll be trying to overtake you.  When you have this challenge put up to you, I look at them and I say, “I’ll be doggone if I’m going to let you outplay me.”  So you’ve got to practice and you’ve got to keep going and you’ve got to keep learning things.  As a teacher you’ve got to do this.  It’s been fun.

TP:    I notice on your records and hearing you live that your sense of melody has become much more essential.  When I’d hear you even 15 years ago, you’d play a lot of notes, very fast lines, but now you get to the core of the matter on almost everything I hear you do.

HARRIS:  That’s the way we do it… I hope that’s aging properly! [LAUGHS] Because I think that’s what ends up happening.

TP:    One other thing, which is about the tune we’ll send you off with.  Every time you’d hear Barry Harris, he’d stand up at the piano and start playing this very lovely Latinish vamp, which is “Nascimento.”  The origin of “Nascimento.”

HARRIS:  Don’t ask me, man.  No, what it is, tunes just come.  You don’t know how they come.  You don’t know how a melody comes. See, it’s not chords that come; it’s melodies that come.  And this is one of those melodies that came.  I named it after a little drummer from Brazil who played the tall drum with a mallet.  He was playing with Sun Ra’s band.  I never even heard anybody play this kind of drum.  I named for him.  Most people think I named it for Milton Nascimento.  He was a nice little cat.  Couldn’t even speak English.  It just comes.

TP:    I was going to ask you about Sun Ra.  You mentioned him twice; he played at the Jazz Cultural Theater.  You’re supposed to be “conservative.”

HARRIS:  No-no-no.  Well, let me tell you, man.  One time at the Jazz Cultural Theater we had Sun Ra come in.  I was teaching there most of the time, and usually when I got through teaching I’d leave.  I wouldn’t stay for nobody’s performance.  You know what?  I stayed for Sun Ra’s performance, and that was one of the best performances… He was very in.  He was playing some Fletcher Henderson.  He had these little things he did that he called out, but he was very in.  And I loved it when he went into his thing and turned his back and played the piano like that backwards.

TP:    A real showman.

HARRIS:  A real showman.  Really-really.  One time I went into a place, and they started singing, and all of a sudden I heard my name.  They were singing, “Welcome, Barry Harris.”  The most beautiful melody.  I tried to find the melody.  We recorded it, but I never found it.  But he was a sort of special person.  So we had a special relationship.  All I can say, he was very in!  When I heard him, he was playing his Fletcher Henderson… I was so happy to hear that, because it reminded me of when I used to go to the Paradise Theater in Detroit!

First Phone Interview with Barry Harris in 2000:

TP:    When we were on the radio, you talked about playing piano from a very early age, piano lessons from your mother, and you didn’t really play jazz until you were 15 or so.

HARRIS:  I was younger than that.  But I didn’t start out playing jazz; I started out playing boogie-woogie.

TP:    But you said that what happened is that you started hanging out on the West Side of Detroit…

HARRIS:  Oh, that was later on.  See, we all took lessons from a preacher named Neptune Holloway.  He taught quite a few of us.  I saw a picture somewhere, and I think Dorothy Ashby was in that picture, myself, Harold McKinney who was another piano player from Detroit… Some of us took classical lessons from him.  I guess the hanging out on the West Side came later.

TP:    So you were taking classical lessons from the Reverend, and your mother as well?

HARRIS:  Well, no, my mother was the church thing.  Classical was with Neptune Holloway and Mrs. Lipscomb, which was in a private home.  Then Tommy and I took from Mrs. Dillard, Gladys Dillard.  We were on a recital together one time.

TP:    So you’ve been playing piano all your life.

HARRIS:  Oh yes.

TP:    In the liner notes it says that around 1946, or so, “then I got to be hip.”

HARRIS:  Oh, that’s when I messed up in my high school. [LAUGHS] Not too much to say.  I was one of those people who was good.  My brother was always trying to get ahead of me on the honor roll, and he couldn’t do that.  But in my last year I got sort of trifling.  I changed because I was playing music, and you sort of changed a little bit!  I missed cum laude by a point or two, something like that.  But I had been on honor roll every time.

TP:    That would be the year you found Bud Powell; it’s the year “Webb City” was recorded.

HARRIS:  I don’t know; it was something like that.  Berry Gordy and I were the boogie-woogie piano players in high school together.  We both was playing pretty good until a cat named Theodore Shieldy came along.  Theodore Shieldy could not only play boogie-woogie; he could improvise, too.

TP:    So you had a two-handed thing going as a high school player.

HARRIS:  Well, see, at the high school we played for dances and stuff.

TP:    You went into a lot about the dancing on the radio.  I want to get into your starting to play professionally.  It says in ’51 or so…

HARRIS:  No, I started pretty early playing professionally.  I had to ask my mother could I go to Pontiac, and then I had to have a place to live there in order to stay there and play a couple of days.  I was pretty young then.

TP:    Who were you playing with?  Do you remember anything about that situation?

HARRIS:  There was a little girl that played drummer.  I wanted to say Barbara, but I’m not even sure.  There was a girl who played drummer and Landis Brady I think played guitar and sang.

TP:    What sort of music?

HARRIS:  We’d be playing songs…

TP:    Was it a blues type of gig, or jazz as such?

HARRIS:  It was jazz and other things, too, I guess.  We probably played some shuffle rhythm, too, and stuff like that.  But we played some jazz tunes, too, because it’s all sort of related. [MENTIONS 1958 DOWNBEAT YEARBOOK]

TP:    the note says by ’54 you were house pianist at the Bluebird.

HARRIS:  I thought I was playing before that, though.

TP:    The note says, “Barry turned fully professional in 1951.  By ’54 he had taken over as house pianist at the Bluebird Club in Detroit…”

HARRIS:  That might have been true.

TP:    “…where he worked with many famous visiting jazzmen, including a three-month stint with Miles Davis.

HARRIS:  I’m just trying to figure out when I became 21.  1950.  I celebrated my birthday in the Bluebird.  Because before that, I would come and knock on the window.  The pianist there was a fellow named Phil Hill.  The bandstand was in the window, and I’d knock on the window and Phil Hill would see me, and after they finished their song he would get down and I would run in and jump up on the piano, and play a tune, and run back out.

TP:    Because you weren’t of age.

HARRIS:  I wasn’t of age.  21 was the age thing in Detroit.  So when I became 21, I definitely celebrated my birthday in the Bluebird to let them know that I was 21! [LAUGHS] So that would be 1951.

TP:    Let’s talk a bit about the Bluebird.

HARRIS:  The Bluebird was a very special place, man.  You know how Marvin Gaye sings, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”?  I think there was truth to it.  The Bluebird closed as 2 o’clock, and at 1:30 Sarah Vaughan would come in or Bird would come in.  And do you know what?  Before ten minutes that joint would be packed with people.  And you didn’t see people running the phones; it wasn’t even like that.  It was like some kind of grapevine or something.  Because somebody would come in there, all these people would come to the Bluebird.  Yeah, the Bluebird was a very special place.

TP:    When you were there who was the rhythm section you played with?

HARRIS:  Oh boy, don’t ask me.  Probably Beans Richardson on bass fiddle.  Who would be on drums…I couldn’t even tell you…it might have been Elvin Jones.  Well, Elvin Jones, Yusef and I, we played there, too.  It might have been Elvin, too, some of the time.  I played with Yusef and I played with Kiane Zawadi, Luther McKinney…I think I mentioned his brother Harold McKinney earlier.  Plus we went to the dances before that, and I sat in with Bird and stuff, too.  I sat in with Bird at least three or four times.

TP:    In one of these liner notes you were emphatic that you had only sat in with him for one set.  But it was more than that.

HARRIS:  Oh, no, it was more than that.  I sat with him at the Crystal Bar, so I must have been of age then.  We have to find out when Bird came through Detroit at the Crystal Bar.  Then I sat in with Bird at the Graystone Ballroom.  I think I sat in with Bird at the Mirror Ballroom.

TP:    Did you talk to him at all?

HARRIS:  He let us play with him.  His band didn’t show up one time, they were late, and so we played with him — just one song.  We played a blues in C.  I remember that.  C-blues, that’s all I can tell you.

TP:    And you heard all his records as they came out.

HARRIS:  Oh, yes.  We all were doing that.  Somebody would let us know that something new was out.  All of us, that’s what we did.  We were strictly Bebop people.  Almost strictly.

TP:    Now, for you, learning the Bebop language as a young guy, did it just come very naturally to you?  Was there anyone who was sort of a hands-on stylistic mentor?

HARRIS:  No, not really.  Really I got mine off of records.

TP:    So you learned from listening to the records how to play Bebop.  The fingerings and all…

HARRIS:  Yes.  Well, I don’t know about the fingerings and all that stuff, because you can’t see how the cat is fingering.  But that’s how I learned.  As I said before, when I went to the West Side, the people over there could solo.  I wasn’t good at soloing.  So what I did, I came home and I tried to learn how to solo.  So I was pretty lucky then.  I had this record with Sonny Stitt and Bud Powell and Fats Navarro, “Webb City,” and that sort of started me.  I can’t tell you the rest.  I can’t tell you even how it went.  It’s like you do it and then you say, “Oh, I can solo.”

TP:    Any anecdote about when you played with Charlie Parker.

HARRIS:  He was beautiful to us.  I think the best experience that I always tell people is he was playing with strings one time at the Forest Club, which was a roller rink.  It was a dance at this time, and we stood in front, and the strings started, and the most spoiling thing of all was that when he started playing chills just went all through, starting on your toes, and went on through your body, man.  It was everything imaginable.  Orgasms, everything to us.  It’s really a spoiler, because I don’t like to go listen to people because I’m expecting somebody to make me feel like that.

TP:    Did Bird have a huge sound in person?

HARRIS:  Oh yeah.  I remember one time when he was at the Crystal, he was at the back of the room when Lee Konitz had come in and was sitting in with him.  (?)Emperor Nero(?) was playing alto, too.   Bird was over to the side, in the back by the kitchen or something, and Bird just started playing from there.  He had a great big sound.  Gene Ammons used to do that, too.  He’d stand in the back of the Club Valley… Frank Foster, Leo Osbold(?), Billy Mitchell maybe were at the mike playing.  He was up… There was some kind of thing that went up at the top, he started playing — he had a great big sound.  He always let me sit in with him.  When I was very young, he used to make Junior Mance get up and let me sit in with him.  I always loved to see him come to town, because he was one cat really I could sit in with.

TP:    Describe what the Bluebird looked like, what sort of joint it was.

HARRIS:  A very ordinary place.

TP:    Just a bar that had a music policy.

HARRIS:  That’s all.  A bar that had a music policy.  There were a couple like that.  I played in another one that was called the Bowlodrome, which was a bowling alley that had a bar, and I played there with Frankie Rosolino.  That might have been one of the first steady gigs I had, was with Frankie Rosolino.

TP:    That was in the early ’50s.

HARRIS:  yes.

TP:    So you think you might have been playing in the Bluebird before ’54, though, as the house pianist.

HARRIS:  Maybe.

TP:    How long were you house pianist there?

HARRIS:  Oh, I don’t know.  Not that long.

TP:    A number of years.

HARRIS:  Nothing like that.

TP:    Did you do a three-month stint with Miles?

HARRIS:  No.  I played  with Miles there, but it wasn’t that long.  Positively.  I think I might have been the first pianist to play “Solar.”

TP:    Then you went out in ’56 with Max Roach.  How was that experience?

HARRIS:  It was nice.  It was good working with Max.  But it was hard for Max to get over Clifford and them…

TP:    He was having a hard time.

HARRIS:  He was having a hard time.  So I stayed for him a little while, maybe two or three months, mostly on the road.

TP:    You mentioned coming to New York in ’53 with Doug Watkins and hearing Bud Powell at Birdland.

HARRIS:  That was my first time.  Then we went to another place in the Bronx and heard Art Blakey.  There used to be a joint over in the Bronx that New Yorkers could tell you about, by the overhead El, and cats played at this place.

TP:    Did you meet Bud Powell at that time, or were you just looking at him from afar?

HARRIS:  No, just looking at him from afar.  Maybe I met him later.

TP:    You met him in ’64 when he came over here with Francis Paudras.

HARRIS:  Yeah, he was over here a little while; he came over a day or two.  He was up here, then we didn’t know where he was.  We had to call the police…

TP:    I read Paudras’ book.  Is that accurate?

HARRIS:  Oh yeah.

TP:    So you got back to Detroit after you were on the road with Max Roach, and then you went in the Rouge Lounge.

HARRIS:  I don’t know.  I might have been at the Rouge Lounge before that.  I forget when it was.  I really don’t know.  I think it might have been the Rouge Lounge before ’55…

TP:    The liner note says in ’55 you joined Max Roach, but after only a few months on the road you decided to return home, becoming house pianist at the Rouge Lounge.

HARRIS:  Okay.  Maybe that’s the way it happened.

TP:    “There his on-the-job training included working with Lee Konitz, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster,” and you developed a theory of jazz instruction…

HARRIS:  Put Flip Phillips in there.  I don’t know about all those names you called.  I know about Lester Young and Flip Phillips.  That’s what I remember.

TP:    At the Bluebird did you play with visiting cats, or young…

HARRIS:  No, that was stuff that happened.  Cats would drop in there.

TP:    So you had a local group with young guys and people would drop in, but at the Rouge Lounge they brought in national acts.

HARRIS:  Yes.

TP:    Can you describe the Rouge Lounge?

HARRIS:  It was in River Rouge, Michigan, right outside Detroit, sort of like a suburb.  I can’t tell you thing about it! [LAUGHS] It had a nice stage.  I remember seeing Carmen McRae there and hearing her sing for the first time.  There was a song she sang called “Guess Who I Saw.”  Someone else sang it, but I could never appreciate anybody else singing that song except Carmen.  I was in the audience that day, and that’s all I can remember.

TP:    Were you playing for singers then, too?

HARRIS:  I did one time.  I played with Nancy Wilson at Baker’s.  The only way to be able to tell what year that was is because Nancy Wilson was pregnant.  The most beautiful pregnant woman I think I ever saw in my life.  So however old her first son is, that’s when I played with Nancy Wilson.

TP:    Did you stay at the River Rouge until you played with Cannonball, then.

HARRIS:  No.  These were all just little gigs; you’d get a gig here and get a gig there.  It might have been some other piano player who played at the Rouge Lounge.  I might have played with a few there and Tommy might have played with a few of them there.  I don’t know.  That kind of thing.

TP:    I guess Tommy came here in ’56.

HARRIS:  Yes, he came here a little earlier than I did.  We had a lot of piano players.  Will Davis.  Boo-Boo Turner.  Abe Woodley who played vibes, too.  We had Theodore Shieldy, who could play…

TP:    Was he just a boogie-woogie player, or did he play other…

HARRIS:  Oh, no.  Theodore Shieldy was one of the first cats I heard really improvise.  I really thought he was going to be the best of all of us.  But he went in the joint and went there for a long time.  I think he worked with King Porter or someone.  But he went in a long time, and he wasn’t quite the same.  I really thought he was going to be the greatest of all of us.

TP:    Just a few words as an overview of Detroit, what the music scene was like…

HARRIS:  Very special.  Because we had a lot of older musicians, and they were good.  That’s how we learned.  We had older musicians who were good musicians.  We had Cokie, we had Warren Hickey, we had Billy Mitchell, we had a whole lot of cats who could play.  Thad Jones was around there.  Frank Foster was there.  I learned more from Frank Foster than anybody.  I still have a sheet here… When Frank Foster got ready to go in the Army, I said, “Frank, can you write me out a sheet where I can know how to maybe arrange for a band?”  I’ve still got the sheet.  I would never part from that little sheet where he told me how to arrange for a band.  So there are a lot of things.

Second Phone Interview with Barry Harris in 2000:

TP:    Let’s talk about the affiliations you made when you first came to New York.  You got there after the “Jazz Workshop” date.

HARRIS:  Well, before that I’d recorded with Thad Jones on Blue Note.  And you know, I recorded with Frank Rosolino.  That might have been the second recording that I ever made.   I had a cat tell me I recorded with a cat named Willie Wells, who was a trumpet player, but I don’t remember that one.  But I recorded with Frank Rosolino.  You’ll find “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”; that’s me on piano.

TP:    Were you pretty much determined to get to New York?  Was that your aspiration?

HARRIS:  No.  I really had no plans to come to New York.  I was a scary kind of cat.

TP:    You mean you were feeling a little wary of New York?

HARRIS:  Yes.

TP:    You had a nice setup in Detroit, I guess.

HARRIS:  No, not really.  I was a poor son-of-a-gun! [LAUGHS] I was so poor I just sat on my foot!  No, I was very poor in Detroit.  Then I had a little daughter.  I was the cat who went to the supermarket when they had sales.

TP:    What was it like when you settled in New York.  Talk about your first being here, and the people you met, and the places you hung out in getting yourself established.

HARRIS:  Well, for one thing, I stayed downtown.  Where I stayed, if you went there now, all you’d see is big buildings.  I stayed on Broad Street.  I used to go down to the Staten Island Ferry and walk on South Street a couple of blocks, and then you’d come to Broad Street.  I stayed on Broad Street in an unheated loft.  Well, we had a coal stove.  We were lucky because around the corner was some kind of place that made stuff with wood, and so they had scrap wood all the time, so we could get that scrap wood.

TP:    Were you living with some other musicians?

HARRIS:  Oh yeah.  I was there with Ira Jackson, a fellow who plays tenor and piano, who is still around New York.  Harry Whitaker stayed there.  There was a bass player whose name I can’t remember; it was almost like his pad.  There was the bass player and another fellow who ended up playing the lute.  It was Frank Ayler(?) or something like that.  Frank used to read about Greek history a lot.  Now he lives in Paris and he played the lute.  It’s real weird.  He didn’t play an instrument here, but it ended up where he played the lute.  I’ve forgotten the bass player’s name; he’s probably still around.  I wonder whatever did happen to that bass player…

TP:    But you were sharing a cold water loft with a bunch of musicians.

HARRIS:  Yes, it was a cold water loft.  So I ended up catching up pneumonia.

TP:    Did they have a piano there?

HARRIS:  No.  There wasn’t no such thing.  I used to go to Kiane Zawadi’s loft on East Broadway where they had a piano, and I used to practice at Colin Studio on 53rd Street, which is still there.

TP:    Did you start getting gigs right away?

HARRIS:  After I left Cannonball?  Yeah.  I worked with Yusef, who had a few gigs, and I started working at Junior’s, which was around the corner from Birdland on 52nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, right down the street, a little bar.  They had a piano in there, and it would be a duo.  I worked with Hal Dotson there.  They had a good chef who cooked good food!  I’d meet a cat (he isn’t working there now) who was one of the men who worked out in front of the Port Authority putting people in cabs and stuff, making sure the cabs do right, and this one cat would always say, “what’s his name asked about you,” and he would always say the name of this cat who… He could cook!

But see, between Junior’s and then running around to Birdland.  I might have worked a few times at Birdland, too.  The real Birdland; I’m not talking about anything else.

TP:    You already knew a good chunk of the New York musicians just through their having passed through Detroit.  It wasn’t like you were coming in as an unestablished young guy.

HARRIS:  No, it wasn’t like that.  A lot of the cats knew about me before I even knew about them.

TP:    What was your sense of the New York scene when you got there.  That was right in the middle of “the times, they are a changing” stuff going on.  Mingus was doing all that Jazz Workshop stuff, Coltrane was developing his thing, Ornette Coleman…

HARRIS:  It was a little different.  I might have heard…let’s see… Bud Powell came back.  I guess that was later.

TP:    Well, that was 1964.  When you got there, what was your sense of the scene and your relation to it.

HARRIS:  Well, the scene was entirely different, because Bird was dead, Art Tatum was dead, Prez was dead.  Coleman Hawkins was still alive.  I was lucky to end up working with Coleman Hawkins, but that was later, too…

TP:    I think the listed date is ’62.

HARRIS:  Well, see, around that time I was working with Yusef.  Yusef had a few gigs, and I worked at Junior’s.  I worked in quite a few joints.  I worked at the old Five Spot with Wes Montgomery.  I worked with Charles and Lonnie at the new Five Spot at St. Marks Place and the Bowery.  I worked at Slugs later…

TP:    You recorded with Lee Morgan, too.

HARRIS:  Yes, a couple of times.  I worked with Sonny Red, who worked at Slugs.  I had to walk out of Slugs, because Slugs had a piano where all the middle notes didn’t play.  I told Sonny Red, “Sonny, I’ll see you; I’m going to show(?).” [LAUGHS] I couldn’t make that at all.

TP:    So basically, you got to New York and you were working.  It’s not like you were getting rich, but you pretty much could hit the ground running.

HARRIS:  Yes, I was able to do it.

TP:    But could we get back to this question of how you perceived the musical scene around you.  Because when people wrote about you, the attitude that came out was you as a keeper of the flame, as it were.

HARRIS:  Well, that’s all I knew.  What I knew was Bird and them.  That’s all Coltrane knew! [LAUGHS] Coltrane decided late in life to really take care of business.  Which is what he did.  He started very late and started practicing very hard.  That caused Sonny Rollins to do the same thing; he used to go back by the bridge or something.  There was a different thing going on.

I recorded with Hank Mobley.  I had already recorded with… I don’t know when I recorded with Carmell Jones.

TP:    “Jayhawk Talk” is in ’64.

HARRIS:  [GETS OUT HIS DISCOGRAPHY] This cat in Holland, Piet Koster, did a discography that says I recorded with Willie Wells and Wild Bill Moore, Doug Watkins was on bass, and Bob Atchison on drums.  I wish I could remember that.  We recorded a thing called “Football  Boogie,” “Blue Journey,” “Bubbles”… I recorded with Frank Rosolino in September 1952.  I recorded with Donald Byrd… Oh yeah, we recorded in Detroit in 1955 with Yusef Lateef, Bernard McKinney, Frank Gant, Elvin Jones on bass.

TP:    For Transition maybe.

HARRIS:  Yeah, that’s right!  For Transition.  Then I went to New York in 1956… Well, I had gone to New York in 1955 after Clifford Brown and Richie Powell died…

TP:    Well, that was June of ’56.

HARRIS:  Oh, all right.  Well, I joined Max Roach’s band then.  So I recorded with Thad Jones in 1956 in July.  Then in July again I recorded with the Hank Mobley Quartet.  It’s weird.  The same year, July 14th, July 20th with Hank Mobley, then with Hank Mobley on July 23rd for Savoy.  I did more recordings that month than the year…

TP:    Those Hank Mobley dates and the Thad Jones dates are all ’56.  I know all those dates.

HARRIS:  There was another one, a Donald Byrd-Art Farmer thing for Prestige.  I recorded in 1958 for Argo with Sonny Stitt and my trio.  Then in 1958 with Benny Golson for Riverside.  “The Other Side of Benny Golson.”  I don’t remember that at all!

Now, let’s get up the ’60s.  I recorded with Cannonball.  That’s when I came back to New York.

TP:    You did “Live At the Jazz Workshop,” your trio record, which is very popular among younger players.  I know a couple of players who that’s their bible of trio playing.

HARRIS:  It’s a good one.  When I listen to it, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, in some kind of way.  The way I played together with Louis Hayes and Sam Jones.

TP:    Well, you were a unified rhythm section.

HARRIS:  We’d been playing together for about three months.  Then I did a trio with Joe Benjamin on bass and Elvin Jones.

TP:    Oh, “Preminado,” a very different record, and the solo record for Riverside.

HARRIS:  Right, and I did Dave Pike.  Yusef Lateef Sextet with Voices.  I don’t remember that one at all.  Then Sonny Red I did June 28, 1961.

TP:    Can I interrupt you for a minute on the discography.  When I spoke with Tommy Flanagan, he said Tatum was in Detroit a lot, and he played a lot at an after-hours club.  Did you hear him there?

HARRIS:  Tommy did.  I found out about that later.  Tommy did see him in these spots.  I didn’t.  I saw Art Tatum in person at the Rouge Lounge.  I know there’s an instance where he played at an after-hours place and Tommy had seen him.

TP:    Tommy said he had almost a house gig at Baker’s also, and the after-hour place was called Freddie Ginyard’s.

HARRIS:  Freddie Ginyard’s, that’s right.  I never went there.

TP:    Was Tatum like your first love among the piano players?

HARRIS:  I don’t think so.  Man, I don’t know really.  All I know is, I think I was… We used to play… When you think about high school and stuff… We used to have a band, and we’d play stock arrangements.  I remember playing “9:20 Special,” one of them pieces that there’s a stock arrangement on.  I think that’s our first sort of encounter with jazz.  Then I think I started hearing Bird.  I didn’t hear that much of Monk.  I don’t think I paid that much attention to Monk when I was getting started.  Monk might have sounded very hard.  I could play some boogie-woogie, and a few changes to the songs.  I learned something about changes.  Other cats could solo better on the West Side, and I’d come back… [ETC.] I heard “Webb City,” which was Sonny Stitt and Fats Navarro with Bud Powell.  That’s how I started learning how to play.

TP:    Did you listen to Tatum’s records, or study with him before?

HARRIS:  I had heard Art Tatum before.

TP:    I’m not so interested in the particulars as I am in the impressions and the essence and what you have to say about him.

HARRIS:  [LAUGHS] Art Tatum was the person that I could listen to a little while.  Because you’d end up with “Oh, my head hurts” or something.  It was sort of complicated, listening to Art Tatum.  He was so much, it was like ten piano players playing at once.

TP:    The level of complexity but also just so beautiful.

HARRIS:  Beautiful, oh yeah.  Beautiful, complex.  Oh, man, I think we all loved him.

TP:    So no matter how deep you got into Bebop… A lot of people say that everything that was ever played in Jazz was contained in Tatum.

HARRIS:  Well, that’s what they say.  It’s almost like the way you hear cats play, and individually you might say that Erroll Garner was Erroll Garner, but Art Tatum was also Erroll Garner, Art Tatum was Bud Powell, and Art Tatum was all of them… Art Tatum was Monk and Art Tatum was Duke Ellington.  All of them, in some kind of way.   That’s the one felt.

TP:    Did you ever go so far with trying to transcribe Tatum?

HARRIS:  No.  But they had books with his solos; Art Tatum, Pete Johnson, all that kind of stuff.

TP:    When you were listening to Bud Powell and “Webb City,” were you transcribing at that time, or was that more trying to correlate by ear what was happening and put that on the piano.

HARRIS:  It was by ear.  That’s the way you did it.  You had to learn by ear, slow it up and get it.  There was one piano player… Did I ever tell you about Johnny O’Neill?

TP:    The one who played with Art Blakey for a while, right?

HARRIS:  That Johnny O’Neill.  He can play so close to Art Tatum, it’s unbelievable.  I used to wonder.  One time he came over to my house, because he was in town and people told him he had to come over to my house because, like, you had to be accepted by me — or some kind of nonsense like that!  I was in Detroit.  So he came over, and I heard him play.  I heard him first play in Chicago, and I couldn’t understand it, because he sounded sort of like Art Tatum, and he was a young cat.  Not too many young cats you hear trying to sound like Art Tatum.  So he came by my house and he played, and he still sounded like Art Tatum!  I said, “Now, how the heck do you sound like Art Tatum, young as you are?”  He said when he played for church, boy, if you could hear what he played… My Lord.  If that was playing for church, my brother… You ain’t never heard nothin’ like that.  He could have played Chopin’s Left Hand Octave Concerto easy as the devil — and that’s a hard one, too! [LAUGHS]

But I asked him one day, “How in the hell did you learn how to play like Art Tatum?”  Well, he decided he wanted to play jazz, and his mother had these records, these Art Tatum records.  He said, “So what I did, I sped them up.”  I said, “You sped them up?  What the hell does that mean?”  He said, “Well, that’s what I did.  I sped them up, and then when I slowed them back down to regular, I could hear everything.”  Dig that.  He listened to them sped up, and then he’d slow them down and heard everything.  That’s the funniest thing I ever heard in my life.

TP:    Makes sense.

HARRIS:  Well, it makes sense.  But we used to do the opposite.  We slowed it down.  He sped it up!  You know, I still haven’t done that.  I’m going to do that one day.  Now I’m really going to do it, now that I’m talking to you!  I’m going to speed up one Art Tatum and see.

TP:    With Bud Powell you slowed it down, too?

HARRIS:  Oh yeah.  Well, we had a machine that you could slow it down in any key.  See, they stopped making them real proper machines so that young people could really continue learning to play the music more by records than by education.  They’d be better to learn by records, I think.  This education thing is ruining the music, some kind of way.

TP:    When did you begin to relate to Monk’s music?

HARRIS:  Oh, I think I always did.

TP:    But you said early it seemed hard to you.

HARRIS:  Well, it seemed complicated.  But the pieces… You heard these beautiful songs.  Because Monk made up some of the most beautiful melodies, like “Round Midnight,” the first recording of Cootie Williams…

TP:    Then he did his own for Blue Note.  He did so many versions of it.

HARRIS:  Well, see, Bud Powell was on the first one with Cootie Williams.  The very first recordings of it were really nice.  So you gradually grew into Monk.

TP:    As far as getting into Monk’s style of playing, that didn’t begin for you until you knew him…

HARRIS:  No, if you deal with Bud Powell, you deal with part of Monk.  Bud Powell was influenced by Monk in some kind of way.  You could tell by the way Bud Powell…the whole tone scales and some things that Bud Powell would do, that he was influenced by Monk.  And you would be influenced by Monk, because Monk was odder than all the rest.  He did more unorthodox things, not the regular, run-of-the-mill stuff.  Monk played the whole-tone scales a lot.  It gave him a certain sound.  There was an East Coast sound as opposed to a West Coast sound.

TP:    Do you think that sound comes out of the stride piano legacy?

HARRIS:  I don’t know.  I know there’s a difference.  The East Coast sound is strong and very virile.  West Coast is wishy-washy.  The Midwest is dulcet. [LAUGHS]

TP:    well, not in Chicago.

HARRIS:  No, not in Chicago.  No, there you think of Albert Ammons, boogie-woogie.

TP:    I think of a shuffle rhythm when I think of Chicago.

HARRIS:  Oh, that’s right.  Well, we had to do it in Detroit, too.

TP:    But you didn’t meet Monk until you moved to New York, is that correct?

HARRIS:  Yes.

TP:    Was that at the Five Spot?  Do you remember when you first met him?

HARRIS:  I can remember playing at the Five Spot and Monk coming in and walking back and forth through the joint all night with his hat and coat on.   That might have been when I first met him.

TP:    Do you remember when you first talked to Monk?

HARRIS:  No, I can’t tell you that.  And you’ve got to realize, Monk didn’t talk that much.

TP:    Let me put it this way.  When you first started communicating with him.

HARRIS:  Well, we became sort of friends through the Baroness.  I think that’s what it is.  Through the Baroness we became good friends.  I went with her by his house and stuff, and we’d pick him up and we’d all three be going some place.  That kind of thing.  I think that’s how I knew him mostly.

TP:    So it began as a social relationship through your musical connections.

HARRIS:  The social more than the musical.  Social because we were musicians, but I don’t think he’d ever heard me play and I might not have heard him in person.  Or I might have heard him in person… I’m trying to think when I first heard Monk; I couldn’t tell you.

TP:    But you knew his records, though.

HARRIS:  Yes.

TP:    And when you met him, did his personality seem to totally correlate the music you knew?  Did he seem at one with it?

HARRIS:  yeah, he was that kind of cat.

TP:    Did you feel like you knew him already from knowing his music?

HARRIS:  Yeah, I think so.  Well, he was an odd fellow.  He didn’t talk.  He didn’t waste any conversation.  Monk never wasted words.

TP:    Or notes.

HARRIS:  Or notes.  That’s the same thing.  That’s what I’m talking about.  That was like his music.  And that’s really true, too.  He certainly didn’t.  Oh, I don’t know.  How long we been talking, man?  I’d better go.

TP:    Did you meet the Baroness in New York?

HARRIS:  Yeah.

TP:    Shortly after?

HARRIS:  Something like that.  I don’t like to talk about her too much, so let’s talk about some other subjects.  Let’s go elsewhere.

TP:    Can we say anything about her for the purposes of this story?

HARRIS:  Well, we could say that she was beautiful towards musicians.  All the musicians knew it, too.  And she probably helped us all in some kind of way.  She was a help… [LAUGHS] One of the greatest ways she helped us, I think, is that it was the one time you could go to a jazz club and find a Bentley or a Rolls-Royce parked out in front of the jazz club.  I think she drew people!  I think people came to the club to see who was in there with this Rolls-Royce or who was in there with this Bentley.  They protected that car, like up in Harlem and stuff.  She never locked the trunk and she never locked the glove compartment, and the car was never touched.  Nobody ever touched that car.  If you touched that car you probably got beat up!  Nobody would let you mess with that car up in Harlem.  The only time that car got messed up was when I opened my joint at the Jazz Cultural Theater, and she parked around the corner, and somebody took a knife and went all along the top of the car.  Slashed the whole top.  Unbelievable.  In midtown.  It didn’t happen in Harlem.  It wouldn’t have happened in Harlem.  You know, it’s real weird about that kind of thing.  There was a different kind of feeling about that car.  And I think people looked out for her no matter where it was parked.  She could park any place up there.  Nobody would mess with that car.  In front of Wells, in front of Smalls Paradise, in front of Minton’s.  Nobody would touch that car.

TP:    And she made all of those scenes.

HARRIS:  Oh yes.

TP:    It sounds like she made it her point to hear everything that was going on.

HARRIS:  Oh, she was a jazz lover.  That’s no stuff.  She was one of our assets.  She was a good one for us.

TP:    And you and Monk became…

HARRIS:  Yes, good friends because of her.

TP:    Is there anything you can tell me about living with Monk, the way that was?

HARRIS:  Well, Monk was sort of sick then.  So that’s like a different thing.

TP:    So he couldn’t really communicate…

HARRIS:  He didn’t communicate much.

TP:    You did tell me that one time you sat down in a room…

HARRIS:  Oh, now, one time we played.  One time he was very clear and we sat down and played “My Ideal” over and over, maybe 100 choruses apiece.  He’d play one, I’d play one; he’d play one, I’d play one.  And we did that back and forth for a long time.

TP:    This may be impossible for you to answer, but if you could talk about how being around Monk inflected your sensibility about music, how would you describe it?

HARRIS:  Well, his songs you wanted to know.  I never transcribed particularly in later times.  I may hear something and learn it, learn the melody or something.  But there’s a lot of cats who can play a Monk piece that maybe they try to play note for note, that kind of thing.  I’ve never done that particularly.  I just learn the piece and I play it.  Learn the melody, see how it goes.  He showed me “Round Midnight” one time, parts of “Round Midnight.”  That’s why I get mad when people play “Round Midnight.”  They play the changes so wrong.  They don’t have that too good.  The way he voiced things, the way he did it, the way he…how simply he did it.  He did it much simpler than cats try to do it.  Cats try to take it all out and everything, but he just did it real simple.  Just three notes sometimes. HARRIS:  I don’t plan a record date much.  I just do it.

TP:    So for you, going into a record date is just an extension of what you’re doing at the time?

HARRIS:  That’s all.  I’m one of those people that like… My preference is the live recording.  But I also had a good time recording with Pepper and Slide Hampton, Junior Cook… I recorded with a lot of…

TP:    Well, you recorded a number of group dates, which you had done much with Riverside.

HARRIS:  No, but they did let me do it, so I did it.  I enjoyed those because I had a chance to try to arrange.  I was sort of young at arranging.  I’ve still got a sheet right now… I was showing this to somebody the other day.  Frank Foster showed me a sheet when he went into the Army.  Frank Foster went into the Army in I think 1950, and before he left (this was in Detroit) I said, “Frank, why don’t you leave me a sheet so I can learn something about arranging.”  And he left me this sheet which says stuff like… How did he say it?  I can’t even remember, but it was “MF.” [LAUGHS] And so, from that sheet that helped me tremendously.  Most of the stuff that I try to do comes from that sheet.

TP:    Was it mostly harmonic information, or things about voicings?

HARRIS:  Voicing information.  Like how to voice for the four trumpets, or how to voice for a big band, how to voice for a small group — all kind of things like that.

TP:    At the time you met Schlitten you were pretty established in your own way on the New York scene…

HARRIS:  Pretty much so.  Don was an A&R man for Prestige.  We just had this strong relationship.  No contract or nothing, just a handshake.  And I always sort of stuck to that, except I might not have stuck to it too much lately.

TP:    The way he put it was he came up with the idea for Prestige to play the “Classical repertoire of jazz,” as he put it, and he said, “there was no other choice than Barry for the piano bench.”  Then I asked him if your style dovetailed with playing the repertoire of classical music in its ’60s incarnation.  He said you knew all the tunes; everyone knew the changes, but you knew the melodies, and had a way of comping and playing the changes that inspired the guys playing… [ETC.]

Had you before this played with people like Illinois Jacquet or Dexter Gordon or James Moody in rhythm sections, or were these dates the opportunity to do that?

HARRIS:  The dates were the opportunity to do that.  Of course it was nice, because you always dug those people, so it was a nice opportunity.  I came to New York before I even lived here to record.  I recorded with Thad, I was with Benny Golson, I recorded with a lot of people… So it was an honor.  It’s not that I worked with Dexter or… I think I did one concert.  We did a concert on one of Dexter’s birthdays at Lincoln Center, and he asked me to have some singers, and we took some of his music and I arranged it for the singers and we backed him up.  Now, that was my time playing with Dexter.  I played a few things with Moody over the years; I can’t much remember them.

TP:    I’m asking you more in general than the specific about how you developed over that time.  Perhaps it’s for me to say, not you.

HARRIS:  I don’t even know how to answer such a thing as that.  I just think I was lucky.  I call it luck, because I was sort of trifling.  I was a cat who loved to go to the racetrack.  When I first came to New York, I was really a practicer.  I would go to a studio.  Riverside had a studio across from their place on 46th Street that was on the third floor, a little building that’s still there.  I had a key to that building, see, and I could go up to the third floor, and there was a piano up there (there was an old grand piano brought in there that I never played), and I would… I had a Greek cat who would give me breakfast in the morning.  He gave me breakfast in the morning, made sure I had a nice meal, and then I’d go up there and look up and it would be night.  People who knew about this kind of thing (you’d have to ask them), Joe Zawinul, Harold Mabern…a lot of people knew Barry was at that studio, because a lot of cats joined me there.  Sometimes they would join me there.  I was a cat who just practiced all the time for that little…

Then there was a trifling period where I went to the racetrack every day, or went to OTB and stuff like that.  But I was fortunate that I continued in some kind of way to learn things.  I think the reason why I started my classes and things like that was to keep me out of trouble.

TP:    To have something to do with that excess energy when you weren’t playing music.

HARRIS:  Right, besides hanging out in OTB or going to this show or this and that.  I used to see Wes Montgomery all the time.  He’d be going to the cowboy movies just like me. [LAUGHS]

TP:    It sounds to me like, say, between the trio section with Cannonball’s rhythm section or Chasin’ the Bird or Preminado and the record you did at the end of the ’60s with Ron Carter and Leroy Williams, there’s something… It’s very intangible, but you sound like a more confident player, and you sound somehow more interpretive of the material.  It may or may not, but is it possible, or is it bullshit…

HARRIS:  Well, I can’t really say.  I can say that I feel like I’ve improved. [LAUGHS] I felt like I improved.  I would say I imagine that I did improve.  Anyway, I was lucky.

TP:    Well, could that have to do with being in New York, and playing for five years with Coleman Hawkins…

HARRIS:  That was a very important part of my life.  I can remember the first time sitting in with Coleman Hawkins.  He said, “Doggone it, another goddamn Detroit piano player.”  I think he was playing at the new Five Spot on the corner of 8th Street and 3rd Avenue, and I sat in with him.  He called some tune that, in my head, I knew the melody, and I figured I could figure out the chords, if you know what I mean.  So we played it, and all he said was, “Another Detroit piano player.” [LAUGHS] Because he went through Detroit piano players, you realize.  Hank Jones, Roland Hanna, Tommy Flanagan, me… So he had a Detroit relationship.  So I worked with him quite a while; I worked with him til he died. [MET HIM AROUND '65]

TP:    Can you pinpoint anything that you particularly gleaned from him?

HARRIS:  There’s not too much I wouldn’t want to talk about, because he was always a beautiful cat.  I felt I was lucky to have worked with him, because he gave me a little different outlook on things.  One time (I’ll never forget this) he called out “All The Things You Are,” and we played it, and after he played it I just said, “Well…”  See, what he would do is play a phrase, and… I was a cat always thinking, “What was that phrase?” and I’d be trying to get that phrase.  He’d laugh his butt off because he knew I was trying to get the phrase.  I wasn’t chording.  I was trying to steal his phrases!  He played so good on that, it just gave me a different kind of outlook.  It sort of let me know that there’s a lot more to be played than what we’ve heard.  We can’t think of anybody really as the end. There’s a lot more.  Maybe the closest… It’s just a lot more, man.  We were the kids who were…the bebop boys.  That was our music.  But playing with Coleman Hawkins sort of showed one that there was a lot more to play than Bebop, than what Bird and them played.  So one had to work at trying to reach this other level and see if one can do some of this stuff.

TP:    So he could still access that even toward the end of his life…

HARRIS:  Oh, you kiddin’?  He had a special philosophy.  For one thing he would always say he never played chords; he played movements.  And I’m a firm believer in that; it isn’t chords, it’s movements, and how you go from one place to another.  A chord might come in there, but you’ve got to know how to go from one place to another.

TP:    So that it goes beyond the chords and becomes purely about melody.

HARRIS:  There you go.  It’s purely a melodic kind of thing.  Knowing how to go to the relative minor, knowing how to come from back the 4 to the 1 — all these different little things.  That’s what one should know, but what these young cats don’t really know nowadays.

TP:    Why do you think that is?

HARRIS:  For one thing, right now we have a lot of horn players who sit down at a piano, and they play one chord to another chord and they think that’s hip, and then they make up a melody.  And see, music is more than that.  Music is movement.  They have to play a chord that moves… We should know more about movement; then we can venture away from it.  You can’t venture away from something if you don’t know it.  Most of these people don’t know it, and these horn players will be writing these tunes and writing for these bands, and they don’t know anything about movement.  How to go from here to there.  And that’s the first thing they should be learning about.

But see, they’re messing up our young now, because they’ve got them learning these funny songs that don’t have movement.  So the young people aren’t even getting a chance to learn how to play.  And this is quite true all over the country, all over the world.  There’s some dumb stuff going on.  And it’s quite wrong, because everybody should know how to move from one place to another.  Their main thing must first be, “I must first know how to move from one place to another.”  It is a case of these horn sitting down and knowing something about chords, and they hit one chord and then they hit another chord and say, “Ooh, that sounds good.”  That ain’t right.

TP:    Let me get back to Coleman Hawkins for a second.  You took care of him for a bit.

HARRIS:  Nothing too much to say.  I moved in with him, because he wasn’t doing that well.  He was living on 97th Street.  Finally I had to put him into the hospital.  He was a recoverer.  He always recovered.  He might overdo things a little bit, and then he’d cool out and he’d recover and he’d be all right.  You know what I mean?  It just happened this time he didn’t recover.

TP:    I hear he loved opera.

HARRIS:  Oh, he loved Classical, period.  That’s why he kept talking about movement and stuff.  He loved Classical.

TP:    Did that spark an interest for you in absorbing Classical, or were you already…

HARRIS:  Well, I already was into Classical music.  I was taking lessons, which I still do.  It helps me technically, and it helps musically, too.  Because these cats knew about movement.  See, there’s no jiving.

TP:    Is there a difference for you between Classical technique and Jazz technique?

HARRIS:  I don’t really understand that.  Technique is technique as far as I’m concerned.  I can’t say anything about Classical technique.

TP:    I’m thinking about in terms that Monk, say, developed a technique to play the music in his mind, which might not have been appropriate to articulate Classical repertoire.

HARRIS:  It might have been very good! [LAUGHS] I don’t think you can say that.  A lot of people assume that Monk didn’t have technique.  I can tell them that they’re lying on that issue because he really did.  I saw him play a run, and I tried to play it and I couldn’t play it.  That’s one thing.  Monk danced a lot.  And he would sit behind the piano, and any note Monk wanted to hit, he hit it.  That’s the only thing I can say about him.  He suddenly threw his hand out way at the top of the piano to hit a note.  That note was hit.  You see?  The way he would play a whole tone scale coming down, I don’t know if anybody ever played like that before!  So he was very influential.  He influenced Bud, and other cats, he influenced them some.

TP:    My favorite record of yours is Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron.

HARRIS:  That’s the one with Gene Taylor.  Personally, I like Live At The Jazz Workshop with Sam Jones and Louis Hayes.  I think it’s because it’s live.  And I think some of the engineers record better live than you do in the studio.

TP:    Live In Tokyo, where you do the Bud Powell is also wonderful.

HARRIS:  I like that one, too.  I never would stay for mixing and stuff like that.  I never could stand it.  I always felt that it didn’t sound right.  And it’s so strange, one time I did stay, and the engineer cut off my part of it and was doing something with the drums.  And what I heard coming through the drums of me, that was me.  What I heard coming through that was supposed to be me, that wasn’t me.  A run I played, I didn’t play my run staccato; I played my run legato.  Why should my run come out staccato when I played it legato.  So it’s something about engineers; one gotta really watch ‘em.

TP:    Schlitten said one reason he moved away from Rudy Van Gelder was that he recorded all piano players the same, and he wanted to get your sound the way that it was.

HARRIS:  Well, I don’t know about engineers.  I heard that Art Tatum recorded and the mike would be up towards the ceiling.  See, when we record, they put the mike inside the piano.  The mike picks up a lot of metallic stuff, and the mike picks up clicks and things from the metal or something.  Not like a piano.  I don’t think I’ve been recorded right.  I’m convinced of that.  I just haven’t heard anything that sounds right to me.

TP:    That represents your sound.

HARRIS:  That represents my sound.  I’ve heard very little.  I think that Live At The Jazz Workshop… I think some of the live things come closer.  Otherwise, it’s like engineers…I don’t know.  See, we have a bunch of engineers now who are young people who know nothing about jazz.  I mean, they know so little about jazz that you can go in, and when they have something on to test their equipment, that is the worst music you ever heard in your life — but they’re using it to test the equipment.  And then they want to record you, and you’re a jazz musician — and they know nothing about it.  Not a thing!  You can’t even trust them. Like, if you give a concert and you get somebody for the sound, you know you come in and, damn, they’re playing some Rock-and-Roll stuff!  And here you are, a jazz musician.  They don’t even know anything about jazz.  That’s what’s wrong with the advertising.  The advertising people know nothing about jazz.  That’s why no jazz is on the television too much.  Because the dumb people, all they know is this Rock Guitar sound or something.  It’s ridiculous.  They’re young and dumb.  They don’t know anything about American music.  It’s almost like they cut off… We lose a radio station that did play some old standard stuff, so you could hear it.  We had Great American Composers.  Get out of here!  To me, the worst thing that ever happened to the USA was the Beatles.  I consider them the worst thing that ever happened to us.  They messed up our whole thing, over some dumb stuff.  And they wrote a few things that were nice; that’s all right, but they messed up our thing.  It’s always England.  I’m sort of mad at England; they sort of mess up our thing all the time.  The new plays, the Phantom and stuff, they’ve got some of the ugliest music.  I’m almost convinced they don’t know a thing about music.  They’re horrible, man.  Good gracious.  It’s like they try to take us over another kind of way!

TP:    Can I get back to Tadd Dameron?

HARRIS:  Well, Tadd Dameron was very special to everybody.  There was something about Tadd Dameron, that’s why I wanted to try to learn how to…one tries to learn how to arrange like Tadd Dameron.  Because Tadd Dameron was very special at arranging.  But I think it was a special thing about Ohio.  I’ve heard other arrangers from Ohio.

TP:    The Wilberforce College influence maybe, where Horace Henderson and Benny Carter went…

HARRIS:  I think Frank Foster went there, and Joe Henderson, too.  Joe came from someplace like that when he came from Detroit — I think.  [ETC.] But there was some special stuff.  I know some arrangers you’ve never heard of.  There was an alto player named Willie Smith, not the famous one; he used to arrange for Little John, Little John and his Merrie Men, they were called, which was a nice…about four horns…a real nice sound.  Then there was another cat who came to New York whose name was Bugs Bauer; I don’t know his real first name.  They all arranged alike. There’s something very similar… There’s something about Ohio, I don’t know… And Tadd Dameron is the epitome of it.

TP:    Were you listening to him with the same avidity as Bud Powell and Bird when those records were coming out?

HARRIS:  No, I doubt that.  But I was listening to him.  Because I liked Tadd’s arrangements and stuff.  Yeah, I was listening to him pretty good.

TP:    It’s such a lyrical record.

HARRIS:  Oh, it was a special project.  It was one I wanted to do.  Because Tadd wrote a lot of beautiful songs.  So to get a chance to play his songs, that’s all.

TP:    Did you ever get to meet him, or know him before he died?

HARRIS:  Not really.  What year did he die?

TP:    1965.

HARRIS:  No, I never really met.  I never really knew him.  I can’t say I never really met him, because I might have met him and just don’t know it.  I just don’t remember, that’s all.

TP:    You did a lot of great records with Sonny Stitt as a sideman.  He’s someone who seemed to have an impact on a lot of musicians through the strength of his personality.

HARRIS:  Well, he was a special kind of cat.  And it ended up where I was… The record owner knew that I was a good influence on him…

TP:    You mean you kept him concentrating and focused.

HARRIS:  Yeah.  Towards the end, the A&R man said he may as well forget about being the A&R man; I should be the A&R man.  Because, see, Sonny, if he was messing around and wouldn’t want to do nothin’ and taking his time, I would say, “Sonny, let’s play ‘Idaho,'” and he said “okay,” and we played it.  See, I would say something like that, and he would do it.  It ended up where I was sort of a good influence on him.  He would do it!

TP:    There’s one of those dates where he plays a 10-minute “I Got Rhythm,” the first solo is on alto, then the piano solo, then a solo on tenor.

HARRIS:  Yes, that kind of thing… It really took me some time to get him started.  So we had a pretty good relationship.

TP:    You seemed to get his creative juices stirring.

HARRIS:  And he would go ahead and he would wail.  We had a good time.

TP:    You did a lot of good records with Dexter also.

HARRIS:  Yeah, we did about two or three.

TP:    Did you meet him through those projects, or had you known…

HARRIS:  I think I met him more through those projects, and just knowing he was Dexter Gordon, if you know what I mean.  Because he wasn’t here that much.

TP:    Do you remember the dynamics of working with him?

HARRIS:  Oh, he was a lot of fun.  Dexter was a lot of fun.  He played standards.  So one had a lot of fun with Dexter.  That’s all I can say.

TP:    In comping for him, was he very dominant in taking the lead, or was he interactive with you?

HARRIS:  Well, I think those cats were more interactive anyway.  It isn’t a case of anybody being dominant as it is everybody sort of blending in together or something like that.  Probably the hardest part about a record date is that there are so many heartbeats.  That’s the way I like to talk about it.  You got five cats with five different heartbeats, and what ends up happening is five different interpretations of what the tempo is.  So what has to happen is a compromise from all the individuals.  So we have to compromise, and then we can make the record.  You know what I mean?  It takes this compromising one to another.  And I think we were able to do that pretty good.

TP:    It’s kind of the magic of jazz, isn’t it.

HARRIS:   Oh yes.  It’s the magic of… I mean, it’s ceased to happen for us.  Everybody is writing their original stuff mostly nowadays.  The reason they’re doing that, of course, is because that’s one way for us to make some money.  Record companies aren’t the most trustworthy things in the world, so the only way for you to really make something is to have your original music.  What happens is that now we can’t have the jam session thing too much, because people are playing their original music.  You can’t go in the joint and the cat says, “Come on up and play with me a song.”  I could go in when Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins be playing, and I could go on up there and play, because they’re going to play something I know.  They’re going to play a standard or something… There’s a bunch of standards that everybody in the world should know, and you will find that you can go to Japan and play with some musicians there, you can go to Australia and play with some musicians there because of these special tunes, like “How High The Moon,” “Just You, Just Me.”  You could name off these songs, and those songs everybody should know.  The young people nowadays don’t even have a chance to go to a jam session.  It’s terrible.  That’s why when I had my place, I tried to keep a jam session going, even though it never was anything.  It never made any money, but I had a jam session every Wednesday night.  So the young people could play if they want to.

TP:    Tell me about your own writing.

HARRIS:  It’s funny.  I don’t even play my own music.  I never have.  I’ve always played Monk and Bud and Charlie Parker music.  I’m still the same.  It’s about time for me to change that.

TP:    You had a beautiful group with Clifford in the ’80s, and I remember you playing “Bean and The Boys.”

HARRIS:  Oh yes.  I loved that song with Clifford.  There were a few songs Clifford and I loved to play.  We loved to play “I Waited For You,” which was Diz’s song.

TP:    You were talking before about how when you got to New York, you were a practicer.  Talk about practicing versus live playing?

HARRIS:  Really, one should be more like when it comes to practicing.  See, what Monk did, Monk practiced playing.  He didn’t practice practicing.  He practiced playing.  So that Monk would play by himself in tempo a song, and maybe play it for half-an-hour, maybe play it for 90 minutes.  You understand?  Really, it’s hard for me to do this… I think I do most of my practicing mentally now, and I do most of my practicing through my class.  Not that I should, because I should be practicing more myself.  See, I did that when I first came to New York.  I got away from it, but yet I need to get back to it.  Because there’s just so much to learn.  I’ve got one piano player who sort of inspires me to want to practice more, because he takes the stuff that I talk about in my class and he really knows how to play it — and it’s unbelievable. TP:    When did you start teaching formally?  Have you had students since you came to New York on a formal level, or did that start with the Jazz Cultural Theater?

HARRIS:  No, it started before the Jazz Cultural Theater.  It started probably with Jazz Interaction, which was Joe and Rigmor Newman’s group.  They’d get money to have a class about once a year.  Once we were in a school on 76th or 77th Street, then another time we were at Storyville which was on 58th Street.  I think it’s from the 58th Street Storyville that the class continued.

TP:    So it’s early and mid-’70s, which is when Storyville was around.

HARRIS:  Uh-huh.  One day I was supposed to be there at 4, and I didn’t get there until 7 o’clock, and everybody was there.

TP:    Leroy Williams told me a story where you were coming back from Japan, and then you got in a cab and went right to your class.  He said, “Why are you doing that?” and you said, no, you had to go to your class.

HARRIS:  That has happened.  That’s right.

TP:    Talk about what your ideas were at that time, 25-30 years ago, about teaching jazz, and how they differed from the orthodox?

HARRIS:  Well, it differs from the orthodox in that I believe in scales. And I don’t mean a whole lot of scales, like most people believe in a whole lot of scales.  I don’t believe in a lot of scales.  I wanted to pay attention to the pentatonic scales and stuff like that.  My thoughts have changed since I started.  I believe in the dominant 7th scale.  Because I figured dominant means dominating, and so if it’s supposed to dominate, then it dominates.  So I believe in the dominant 7th scale.  Then to figure out how to apply it to everything that one runs into is the question.  And one can apply it to just about everything one runs into.  So now I am more of the opinion that you need more than that to the students, because what they need is a little basic harmony about how to go from one place to the other.  Then to combine that basic harmony with the scales, and then I think one will be on the right track to teach.  I don’t know if there are too many teachers on the right track.

TP:    How hands-on do you get with students?  Do you instruct privately as well as in the group?

HARRIS:  No, I don’t.  I just instruct within the group.  Every once in a while I may take somebody privately.  That’s very seldom.  I wouldn’t encourage that.  Because everybody wants a private lesson, and then I become a piano teacher for real.  That’s why I insist on having a class.  You want a lesson, come to my class.  So I’ll keep the class going.  I don’t care about making money and stuff.  I’ll keep the class going, just pay the rent, and that’s it.

TP:    Do you enjoy having relationships with younger piano players?  I’ve written liner notes and articles on several who love you a lot, like Michael Weiss, Rodney Kendrick…

HARRIS:  There are a lot of piano players who I’ve come into contact with.  I’m a person who is… I’m not the catalyst.  People are the catalyst, and I’m the one who gets set off by the catalyst.  I can come up with things that we need to learn.

TP:    So you’re the catalytic agent.

HARRIS:  Yeah, okay, like that.  I’m the agent.  That’s all it is.  So it comes from someplace.  I don’t know where it comes from.

TP:    Do you listen to a lot of the records that come out, or what younger musicians are doing?

HARRIS:  I don’t listen to records too much at all, because I don’t like too much what the younger musicians are doing.

TP:    Is there anyone you’d care to mention amongst the younger musicians who you do like?

HARRIS:  I’d hate to even say something like that, to say I like this one or that one.

TP:    Why is it that you don’t like so many of the younger players?

HARRIS:  Because I can’t understand their logic when it comes to jazz, or their understanding of jazz, their disrespect for older musicians, and why they play certain ways.  I don’t understand why they play this way, and Monk didn’t play that way, Art Tatum didn’t play that way, Bud Powell didn’t play that way, Al Haig didn’t play that way, Bill Evans didn’t play that way.  So I don’t quite understand where they come up playing like they play!

TP:    Can you describe how it is they’re playing?

HARRIS:  Well, the left hand has suddenly become the chord thing.  The last couple of weeks I went to a school, and two places I’ve run into this the last couple of weeks where the piano players play chords with their left hand.  They can’t play two-handed chords.  They think that the right hand is just for single notes — and that’s bull.  And whoever taught them that is full of shit, and whoever came up with it is full of stuff.  This music is two-handed music, and they come up with this stuff with this chord only in the left hand, and it’s just ridiculous.  It’s not supposed to be that way.  And the music isn’t that way.  All you got to do is listen.  And yet, these people will say that they’re listening to Monk and different people, and I know they’re full of stuff.  They aren’t listening to them.  It’s impossible to listen to them and play the way they play.

TP:    How are they disrespecting older musicians?

HARRIS:  Well, for one thing, they don’t show the proper respect, man.  Some of them act like they know it all.  Some of them, you have to prove that you know more than them, and then they still aren’t even hip enough to say, “I’d better check him out” — which is what they should do.  I had one of them in a class, he’s suddenly a great musician now, but I showed him some stuff he never knew existed in the music.  I’ve never seen him since.  So I judged them by that.  They don’t believe.  Even when they get the real deal, they don’t believe — and that includes all of them.

TP:    No exceptions.

HARRIS:  Hardly any exceptions.

TP:    To listen to you, it would seem that you’re very pessimistic about jazz…

HARRIS:  Well, I am.

TP:    …and yet you persevere, and it would seem the opposite of your actions which are those of a profoundly optimistic man.

HARRIS:  I am pessimistic, but I insist on being optimistic in trying to see if I can’t… Well, what it is mainly is to leave something.  I’m older now, and I don’t know how much longer I have.  Any knowledge that I have, I’m not supposed to die with it; I’m supposed to pass it on, I’m sure.  So I try to pass on my knowledge of this thing.  And hopefully, some of it will win out in the end.  See, I know some of the stuff I pass on is the right stuff.  I’ve got piano players playing stuff that no other pianist has ever played in life, because we’re thinking totally different about the piano.  We think about scales.   We have a scale for chording.  Most piano players don’t know anything about that.  They don’t know anything about a scale for chording.  And there is a scale for chording.  That means that every scale that a man plays… Every chord that a man plays comes from a scale of chords.  99% of the chords we play come from a scale of chords.  And if you don’t know the scale, that means that you’re missing out on 7 or 8 different chords that somebody never told us were chords.  See, they tell us about augmented ninths, but they don’t know that augmented ninths comes from a scale.  So you should be able to take that augmented ninth chord up a scale and find out what the second chord is, the third, the fourth, the fifth, and then you’ll start hearing sounds that you never heard before in your life.  And nobody can come up and say, “Oh, that’s a so-and-so with a so-and-so and a so-and-so.”  These are chords… They gave us one chord out of a scale of chords.  That’s not enough.

TP:    How did you figure it out?  Did it just sort of come to you piecemeal, by trial and error?

HARRIS:  It came piecemeal.  So don’t ask me how.

TP:    but it’s a homegrown thing.

HARRIS:  Oh yeah.

TP:    You did have instruction and so forth, but you didn’t… I mean, did you study Schillinger…

HARRIS:  No.  I could show you examples of it in the playing of different musicians, where I know that in some way they do know a little bit of it.  They know a little bit of it, but they don’t know the whole deal.  What I’d like to do is line up all the piano players, the ones who are considered the best, and one time sit down and have a discussion with them and show them about this scale.  Because every one of them should know this.  It isn’t just a case of I’m doing it or a few people know it.  Every musician in the world should know about it; classical musicians, everybody should know about this.  There’s a scale that we’ve neglected, and we shouldn’t neglect.

TP:    To what extent is music to you mathematics, and to what extent is it about color, for lack of a better word?

HARRIS:  Well, of course, mathematics is endless.  The more you find out about music, the more you believe in God, too.  It’s almost like the scientists.  The more they find out about how this universe is put together… This isn’t haphazard shit!  This isn’t haphazardly put together.  This stuff is exact.

TP:    It’s a science of sound.

HARRIS:  It’s a science, man, and part of the music is science.  But we think there’s something above the science part; there’s something above the logic.  There’s a freedom at both ends of the barrel, man.  There’s a freedom in anarchy, but there’s another freedom that comes from knowledge, then there’s another freedom that comes that really is the freedom we seek.  And that’s what all of us want, is this freedom.  I think by knowing that the music is not chordal, but scalar, changes the whole thing.

TP:    What do you think jazz has to contribute to the 21st Century, to the Millennium.  Why is it important that Jazz survive?

HARRIS:  It is important that Jazz survive because Jazz is the music.  Jazz is Classical music.  Jazz is everything.  If Beethoven and Chopin and them were alive, what would they be playing?  Where do you play original music?  They don’t play original music in symphony halls.  They play dead people’s music.  See, symphony halls play… Carnegie Hall plays dead people’s music.  Lincoln Center is the same thing.  Very seldom do they play somebody’s music living.  Every once in a while they’ll commission somebody.  But God, we have more inventors, people who can play…

TP:    When you say that, are you referring to Classical music at Lincoln Center or Jazz at Lincoln Center.

HARRIS:  Everything at Lincoln Center.  Generally it’s dead people’s music.  That’s all.

TP:    Are you saying that articulating the Ellington repertoire or Jelly Roll Morton…

HARRIS:  I’m not saying that you aren’t supposed to do that.  I’m not saying that.  I’m saying that our main thing…not so much articulating that as learning from that.  That’s the main thing, man!  Okay, so we have cats… I remember hearing one band, the band arrangements was Charlie Parker licks, and then Dizzy’s solo was part of the band arrangement.  But when they soloed, they couldn’t solo.  And yet when you learn the solo of Charlie Parker and them in an arrangement, what you’re supposed to do with that solo is learn how to solo from it.  Not how to play the solo.  Learn how to solo from the solo.

TP:    Take it as the springboard for your own invention.

HARRIS:  That’s right.  A springboard to find something.  That’s all it is mainly.  The same thing with Ellington.  What are we supposed to do with Ellington?  We’re supposed to learn from Ellington.

TP:    Among your peers, who are some of the people you really admire who you’ve shared the same time span with?  I’m not talking about Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, your mentors as it were; I’m talking about your peers.

HARRIS:  It’s hard to get away from the mentors!  Well, I like… Probably one of the best tenor players in the world is Charles Davis, who…I can’t even explain it…who knows about improvisation.  Who really knows about improvisation.  To explain what I mean by “really knows about improvisation,” I can’t even do it.  It’s hard.  Really can play.  He’s a person who really can play.  Of course he’s underrated and you don’t hear that much about him and stuff.  But man, when he puts the stuff together, it’s some of the best-put-together stuff that I’ve heard.  And he really can do it.

Tommy Flanagan.  I’m so used to Tommy Flanagan, because I like to watch his hands.  I’ve spent my life watching his hands! [LAUGHS] Watching his hands and learning from him.  Hank Jones.  These are beautiful people.

I wish that I could have a meeting with the teachers who are supposed to be teaching this music, so we could have a little discussion about how you teach this music.  I hate to go to a college and find students that can’t even play a major arpeggio, can’t even play a diminished 7th, can’t even play diminished 7ths all over their instrument, or play major arpeggios all over their instruments, all inversions.  I mean, if the people don’t know the ABC’s of the music, then how are they going to learn the music?  We’d be funny walking around here not knowing our ABC’s.  It would be a funny thing.  You have to know the ABC’s of the music, and a lot of people don’t.  You’d be surprised at these schools.  They have stage bands, and so these kids practice in bands, and they don’t know anything about music.  Now, that’s not right.  Some of the schools are terrible.  See, that’s why I don’t go back to these schools that often, because once I go, the kids know.

TP:    Within a year, about how often do you go out teaching?

HARRIS:  To schools?  Quite often.

TP:    Like 15 weeks in a year?

HARRIS:  Maybe something like that.

TP:    So maybe you spend a quarter of your year in academic situations as an artist-in-residence.

HARRIS:  As an artist, yeah, and performing, too.  There are a couple of good ones, too.

TP:    How about in your own teaching around New York?  Where do you do it?

HARRIS:  I have a class at Lincoln Neighborhood Community Center, which is on 250 West 65th Street, right in back of Lincoln Center.  I teach there every Tuesday that I’m in town.  It’s for anybody; anybody can come.  There’s a $25 registration.

TP:    How many people?

HARRIS:  It varies.  I have singing… See, my class is different.  I start out with piano players.  Then I have singers, who are the greatest number, and the piano players help me accompany the singers, so they learn about accompanying.  Then after the singers, the horns come in and we have an improvisation class, which also includes the singers who should stay and be a part of the improvisation class.  So it all works together like that.  So I don’t know actually how to say how many.  Over the years I wouldn’t even know how to estimate it.

TP:    How long have you been in this location?

HARRIS:  I haven’t been there that long; that’s just where it is now.  I was at Ry Baltimore’s music store at 48th and 7th Avenue after he closed for a long time.

TP:    What do you personally get out of teaching?

HARRIS:  I have nothing.

TP:    I don’t mean materially.

HARRIS:  That’s the whole thing about teaching; you just learn from teaching.  I have them trying to catch up to me, and I insist that they don’t.  So that keeps me on my toes.  It really keeps me on my toes, because I ain’t gonna let ‘em catch up to me.

* * *

Tommy Flanagan on Barry Harris:

TP:    He and I have been talking some about Detroit, and I just wanted a few memories of him within the Detroit scene and his position.  What are your first memories of him?  You had the same piano teacher?

FLANAGAN:  I don’t think we had it all the time, but I think at one point we had the same teacher.

TP:    Was that Gladys Dillard?

FLANAGAN:  Yes, that’s right.  Did he mention it?

TP:    Yes, that you both… Well, I remembered that you had studied with her, and then he mentioned that he had studied with her.

FLANAGAN:  Right.

TP:    And he said that you did a recital once together in high school?  A Classical recital?

FLANAGAN:  I forgot that one, but maybe… They did happen.

TP:    I guess he remembered it better than you did.  What are your early memories of him, and what are the nature of those memories?

FLANAGAN:  Well, he always had a nice dynamic attack and approach to the piano, and he had a lot of confidence, too.  He was one of the few guys who would just wait for Charlie Parker to come to town and go up and sit in with him.  That’s more confidence than I had.  I just didn’t have the nerve.

TP:    Were there any older bebop pianists in Detroit, or did you have to learn it off the records pretty much?

FLANAGAN:  We had quite a few pianists there.  They weren’t all in the bebop school, but they played very well, like from the Art Tatum school.  We had one, just a natural musician, who played about six different instruments very well, named Willie Anderson.  He was a great pianist.  He could play all kinds of styles.  Then there was Will Davis.  Will is a dynamic type pianist.  We had so many.

TP:    He said that he and Berry Gordy in high school were the two boogie-woogie players, and then a guy came to town named Theodore Shieldy…

FLANAGAN:  Oh, Ted Shieldy, yes.

TP:    He said he had high expectations for him that weren’t realized.

FLANAGAN:  Well, yes.  I can’t remember them all, but he’s one of them.

TP:    But the gist of what I’m asking is, in terms of assimilating bebop and learning the vocabulary, did that come mostly from records and memorizing solos?

FLANAGAN:  Mostly from my records.

TP:    Barry also said that he was always a natural sort of teacher.  This may or may not have had to do with you, it was probably after you left Detroit.  But that he always seemed to have a knack for finding a correct way of approaching a situation.

FLANAGAN:  Well, I know he always had that bent toward teaching. He had a lot of young prospects that really went on to become well known.  Charles McPherson, Lonnie Hillyer, guys like that.  Those were the two most outstanding.

TP:    He’s listed as having been house pianist at the Bluebird in the early ’50s, and you had some sort of residence yourself there, didn’t you.

FLANAGAN:  Yes, I did.

TP:    When was your residence?

FLANAGAN:  It was before I went in the Army.  I guess it had to be late ’50s, because I went into the Army in ’51 and came back in ’53.

TP:    That makes sense for hm.  Because he said he celebrated his 20th birthday there, which was in late ’50, and then in ’51 he sort of got that gig a little bit.

FLANAGAN:  Also there was Terry Pollard, who was a fine pianist, one of the woman pianists in town.  She had that gig for a while, too.

TP:    Did you ever play at a place called the Rouge Lounge?

FLANAGAN:  Yes.  I played there with… Sometimes they used to augment a band or look for someone to fill out a headliner that came in without a group.

TP:    From the way he described the Bluebird, it sounds almost like a Bradley’s of Detroit, like a place where everyone would gather, where all the young talent would appear.  He said things just happened there.  Could you describe it a bit from the perspective of being a musical center?

FLANAGAN:  It was on the West Side of Detroit, which was kind of the hipper side of Detroit.  There were a lot of musicians there, and their styles… Even the laymen were very hip.  And the Bluebird, being a corner bar right in the heart of that neighborhood, when they started having music it attracted a lot of the people who wanted to be on the scene.  It attracted all of the good musicians.  I mean, there were always fine musicians working in the club.  So it was more than a Bradley’s, because we had all kind of horn players who came in from out of town, like Joe Gordon, Clifford, Miles, Sonny Stitt and Wardell Gray.

TP:    Oh, I see.  They’d gig at the Bluebird.

FLANAGAN:  That’s what I’m talking about.

TP:    Oh, what I gathered from Barry was that the national acts came into the Rouge Lounge, but the Bluebird was local young bands.

FLANAGAN:  Well, no.  Also I played there a long time with Wardell and with Sonny Stitt and with Miles.  For about two months Miles was there.

TP:    Was that after the Army?

FLANAGAN:  I think so.

TP:    I think someone on a liner note confused you with him.  They listed him as playing a three-month gig with Miles.  And he told me no.

FLANAGAN:  Not in Detroit.

TP:    That’s where they thought he did it, so it must have been you.

FLANAGAN:  Right.

TP:    So the Bluebird was just a bar that had a music policy, as it were?  Did it have a music policy for a very long time?

FLANAGAN:  Yeah, it did.  But I think it really became well-known when Thad Jones and… Well, even before Thad, Philip Hill had a group there I think with Billy Mitchell.  That’s when they started bringing in guest saxophonists like Wardell, and Frank Foster was there for a long period.  Of course, all the main Detroit musicians.

TP:    Barry said he and Yusef Lateef and Elvin Jones were in there for a while.

FLANAGAN:  Oh, right.  I almost forgot Yusef.  Also that place in almost midtown; there was a place called Klein’s Show Bar.  Yusef was there, and Pepper Adams played that place a lot, and Paul Chambers.  But everyone played all over the city.

TP:    Why was the West Side of Detroit hipper than the East Side of Detroit?

FLANAGAN:  I don’t know.  It was just more collectively together.  It wasn’t spread out like… Well, it was kind of, you could say, like a Harlem, only it was… Just a part of town… Of course, I can’t say it was like a Harlem either.  There were several sections of Detroit that used to have labels on them, like the north end, the west end, the east end, the east side, the west side, and where I lived, Conant Gardens… Oh, there were several places like that.

TP:    He said he didn’t start getting hip until he started going to the West Side of Detroit where people could solo.

FLANAGAN:  Yeah, that’s right. [LAUGHS]

TP:    So basically what you could say is that he always had a very dynamic style and command of the piano and that he was very confident.

FLANAGAN:  Yeah, he was.  Well, he was quick to get hip to Bud Powell, more into it than anyone else on the scene then.

TP:    Before you did, huh?

FLANAGAN:  Well, about the same time.  But he took it another step.  I mean, he devoted a lot of time to it.

TP:     How was it different for you dealing with Bud Powell’s music?  Was he more obsessed with it or something?

FLANAGAN:  I wouldn’t say obsessed.  He gave it more attention than I did.  I was still dealing with Tatum and stuff like that.

TP:    Would Tatum be playing in Detroit during that time?  Did you get to see him?

FLANAGAN:  Oh yeah, I saw him a lot.  He stayed in Detroit a lot, because his home was in Toledo, which is about 60 miles away.  He almost had like a house gig at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, so he was there quite a lot.  Then I saw him some at an after-hour place called Freddie Ginyard’s.  He always loved to hang out and play late, so that was a good place to see him.

TP:    There was a place called the Congo Club that was around in the earlier ’40s and late ’30s.  Was that around later when you were coming of age?

FLANAGAN:  I know what you’re talking about.  It was the same location, but they changed the name to the Club Sudan.  That was a pretty hip little club, too.

TP:    It was owned by a gambler and everything was pretty much a first-class situation.

FLANAGAN:  Yeah.  Well, most of the clubs were run by somebody with a shady background.

* * *

Leroy Williams on Barry Harris:

TP:    When did you first meet Barry Harris?  Were you in Chicago or New York?

WILLIAMS:  No, I was in New York.  The first time I heard Barry in New York he was playing in this club with Paul Chambers, just a duo.  So I went there with a friend of mine to listen.  When I first heard Barry, I told this guy I was with, “That’s how the music is supposed to be played.”  Those were my first words that I uttered about Barry.  I said, “That’s it; that’s the way the music is supposed to be played.”  Then I went and told him that.

TP:    How so?  Can you analyze that a bit?

WILLIAMS:  Well, it was the feeling, the beauty, the touch, the depth of his music.  It was perfect to me, coming out of the Bebop period and Charlie Parker and Monk, which is the music I like.  He just sounded perfect.

Anyway, when I first had a chance to play with Barry was through Charles McPherson.  We were playing in Brooklyn somewhere, and he said, “Barry Harris sure would like the way you play.  I’m going to have a jam session at my house — come out.”  Anyway, I went out there and we played.  That was our first… We just kind of fell in love and jammed.  That was my first meeting with Barry.

TP:    When was that?

WILLIAMS:  It must have been about ’68-’69.

TP:    Was that when you came to New York, or had you been here awhile?

WILLIAMS:  I came to New York around ’67.

TP:    And you’d been in Chicago before that.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, I was in Chicago.  Anyway, we played at Charles’ house, and he said, “Man, I got a record date; do you want to record with me?”  I said, “Yeah.”  So we did…

TP:    That’s Magnificent with Ron Carter.

WILLIAMS:  Exactly.  So that was my initial experience with Barry, and it was just a marriage.

TP:    Did Barry sound substantially different than other piano players at the time you heard him?  Did he stand out?

WILLIAMS:  He stood out to me.  Barry had a lot more depth to me than a lot of piano players.  A lot of musicians, really.  Barry’s deep, man.  He has the depth and he has the beauty, all those things it takes to make the music so wonderful.

TP:    Does it seem to you that he feeds off you a lot when you’re playing together?

WILLIAMS:  I think we have a special thing.  We’ve always had a visual thing together, because we can just look at each other sometimes…

TP:    And know where the thing is going.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, we have some kind of a magic going.  More so than with anybody else, when I play with other people.

TP:    It’s been thirty years.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, that’s a long time.  I think about that.

TP:    Let’s analyze a bit the components of what he does that make him so exceptional.  Is it any one of the things — his harmonic knowledge, his melodicism, his sense of rhythm.  I guess it’s the whole thing, isn’t it.

WILLIAMS:  Right, it’s all of that.  What Barry has to me that a lot of other people don’t have is the depth of his playing and the sincerity and the beauty.  He has all that.  It’s the depth, the conviction, all of those things that make him so wonderful.

TP:    Is he a man on a mission, do you think?

WILLIAMS:  Oh, yes. [LAUGHS]

TP:    What’s the mission?

WILLIAMS:  The mission is beauty.  The mission is to spread this… He believes in the music so much.  That’s why he has this class… He believes in it so much.  One time we came from Japan, and we did a two- or three-week tour over there.  We got off the plane and this jet lag and everything was on everybody.  I said, “Oh, man, I’m going home.”  Barry said, “I’ve got to go to my class.”  I said, “Are you going to your class now?”  He said, “Yeah, man, I’ve got to go to the class; I can’t miss that.”  When he said that, it’s just another thing about him; I said, “Man…”

TP:    You have to match it.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah.  I said, “Not today.”  He said, “Yeah, I can make it.”  But I’ll tell you, there’s another thing that makes me know how tolerant and patient Barry is.  When he had the Jazz Cultural Theater he was coaching a singer, a girl, and she was pretty bad, and I sat and watched, and when he finished I said, “She was pretty rough,” and he said, “Man, you should have heard her last week.”

TP:    He has a long-range perspective.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah.  I said, “Man, okay…”  So Barry is long-suffering, and he’s so dedicated.  He’s the most dedicated person I’ve ever met really.

TP:    What do you remember about when he began the Jazz Cultural Theater?

WILLIAMS:  Well, that was something he always wanted to do.  He was really up about it and he was happy about it.  He wanted to have it there for the music and for the teaching also.  It was like a dual thing.  He wanted to have the classes and he wanted to perform.  He was very adamant about not having any alcohol there.  Barry’s into that, and he believes in that.  He was very adamant.  I know sometimes the rent would be due, and I’d say, “Why don’t you get some beer in here or something to make some money?” and he said, “No, I want to keep it cool, and I want the kids to come in and make sure they’re around a positive environment.”  So that’s a part of him…

TP:    Well, I guess he’s seen just about everything there is to see.  What’s he like in recording sessions?

WILLIAMS:  Barry is very relaxed.  That’s how he plays.  That’s who he is.  He’s very relaxed, and things are pretty loose.  He’s not too structured.  The main part is the music.  Some guys record and they want everything to be just so, but the inside is really what’s happening.  But Barry is very relaxed in the studio.  He’s relaxed, he’s confident and he knows what he wants to do.

TP:    There’s an impression from people who don’t know him as being a sort of hard-assed purist.

WILLIAMS:  No.  I know what you mean, but no.  Barry loves the music of that period, and so do I.  I think it’s some of the most profound music that’s been on this planet.  So purist?  That music is deep and Barry is deep, and he realizes how great that music is.

TP:    When you were coming up, Leroy, who were your role models musically?  Were you on the Chicago music scene?

WILLIAMS:  Yes, I was there.  When I was growing up in Chicago, Johnny Griffin and all those guys were a little older than me, and those were the guys I listened to.

TP:    Well, they were on the jukeboxes and all.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, Gene Ammons and those people were around.  I met Wilbur Ware, Wilbur Campbell; all those guys were a little older than me.  Those were the guys I looked up to.  So I’m sure that’s why Barry and I… We come from the same place.

TP:    Did you go to DuSable?

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, I went to DuSable High School.

TP:    Any Captain Dyett anecdotes?

WILLIAMS:  Actually, I wasn’t in the band.  See, when I was in DuSable, I started taking music my second year.  You had to be in the band four years.  So when I attempted to join the band, Captain Dyett said, “Well, you have to have four years of band.”  So I didn’t play under Captain Dyett.  So he recommended a drum teacher for me named Oliver Coleman.

TP:    Who played with Oliver Coleman.  He taught Smitty Smith.  He was a teacher for a long time.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, Oliver Coleman was a great guy.  So Captain Dyett said, “You go see Oliver.”  Me and Steve McCall!  We took lessons from Oliver.

TP:    When did you start gigging?  I guess that had to be the mid and late ’50s.

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, the late ’50s is when I started playing professionally?

TP:    Was it a local thing?  Did you play with people like Nicky Hill?

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, pretty much.  And (?) with all the guys.  Wilbur Ware was a real influence on me.  He was kind of a mentor in Chicago.  He was a great bass player, and he kind of guided me away from things and not to things.

TP:    Were you ever involved in any of the AACM activities in Chicago?

WILLIAMS:  No, I wasn’t.  But I was at the first meeting.  I remember when it was formed, and I was at the very first meeting.  I knew Muhal and a lot of the guys, but no, I wasn’t really in there.  I was the other way.  I was more into Bebop, for lack of a better word.  I was more over there.

TP:    I think a lot of them, for whatever reason, didn’t want to pursue that direction at that particular moment.

WILLIAMS:  Well, I know Muhal was always a great musician.  Muhal was the sort of musician who could do anything he wants to.

TP:    How do you see Barry’s playing having changed over the years.  I don’t mean in terms of his physical capacity so much as the evolution of his ideas and content and so forth.

WILLIAMS:  Over the years, Barry has really grown.  I don’t know if a lot of people can see it.  I can see it and hear it.  He might not play as much, as long as he used to.  But what he plays now, he could probably put more in.  He’s probably got himself condensed down to a point where he probably doesn’t have to… When I first heard him, he played long, fast and hard all the time.  But as he’s gone on, just like anything else, you get to where “I don’t have to do all of that to say this!”  So he’s grown in that way, and I think that’s the ideal way for most people.

TP:    Do you think being around Monk had something to do with it?

WILLIAMS:  Oh yeah.  Monk was a spaceman.

TP:    Well, it seems half Barry’s personality is the spaceman and half this eminently practical, pragmatic, utilitarian person, and he seems to have the two in perfect balance.  Does that make sense?

WILLIAMS:  Yeah.  Because he’s both of those.  I know one time where we played a duo gig at Bradley’s, Barry and I.  Usually the duo is piano and bass.  Barry said, “Come on, man, we can do it.”  So we played a gig for a week at Bradley’s, just Barry and I, and you talk about really free… Man, I was really free.  I didn’t have to worry about no bass player… Oh, he kept going, reaching things I’d never heard him play before.  He wasn’t restricted by a bass player, and he was free to do anything he wanted to do.  It was a wonderful time.

TP:    He did that wonderful solo record, too, Bird of Red and Gold.  Would you say that was a highlight of your association with him?

WILLIAMS:  That particular gig?  Every time we play is a highlight.  Barry never ceases to amaze me.  Sometimes I play some of these old records, and I say, “Oh my God.”  Barry is just amazing.  I talk with some of his students, and they tell me, “I have this record of Barry playing Tadd Dameron,” and then I go home and listen to it, and I say, “Wow.”  It’s beautiful.  And Barry is beautiful.  He’s like Tadd Dameron in that way.  Tadd Dameron was a guy who just loved beauty, and Barry is that way.

TP:    But at the same time, he’s also a theorist of jazz.  Can you talk about the theoretical component of what he does?

WILLIAMS:  Well, Barry had something worked out that he believes in.  I don’t know exactly what it is, but he has a formula…

TP:    So he’s into the mathematics of it as well.

WILLIAMS:  Oh yes.  He’s so orderly, and yet at the same time it’s free within that order.  It’s really hard to describe in words, but when I play with him, I can hear it all.  But he has a basic thing that he believes in.

TP:    What do you think it is about the way you play that gives you such an affinity.  I always heard you as one of the modern masters of Bebop, breaking up the rhythm, Kenny Clarke type of thing, and I always assumed that he and Max were your two role models.

WILLIAMS:  Well, they were.  All those guys, Philly Joe and Art Blakey…all those guys.

TP:    But those are references I make when I…

WILLIAMS:  That’s probably true, because I was into Max in the beginning, and Kenny Clarke, but naturally you try to get out of there, but the shit is so embedded…

TP:    I guess if you’re playing with Barry, the idiomatic way to play that music… Billy Higgins is a Kenny Clarke man, too.  I guess you and Higgins are the two drummers Barry likes the best, I think.

WILLIAMS:  Well, that’s the language that we all grew up under.  Billy and I are about the same age and came around at the same time, and you know, everything was happening at the same time.  He was in California and I was in Chicago, but everything was in the air.  So we drew from the same sources.  So those are the things… Barry is a little older.  Those are the things that make the music what it is, because we all come from the same place.

TP:    Who are the pianists you played with in Chicago?

WILLIAMS:  I played with Jodie Christian, and a pianist named Don Bennett I used to play with a lot, then a girl named Judy Roberts I played with a lot.

Don Schlitten on Barry Harris:

TP:    When did you first hear Barry Harris and become aware of him?

SCHLITTEN:  Well, being involved in this music since I was 12 or 13 years old, I was very aware of who was coming to New York to play.  I don’t remember whether I saw him or heard him on record for the first time.

TP:    Well, he got here in ’60, but he had that little recording flurry in ’56 when he recorded with Hank Mobley and the Thad Jones Blue Note record…

SCHLITTEN:  Then I probably heard him at that time.  In other words, I was very involved in all the new records that were coming out, going back to 78 days.  That probably would have been my first hearing of him.  Of course, I was always a Billy Mitchell fan, so that helped that particular situation.

TP:    But he moved to New York I guess in the summer of ’60.  Is that when you can remember seeing him on a regular basis, or what clubs they were?

SCHLITTEN:  You are asking me about things that happened 40 years ago.  It’s more than likely.  I couldn’t swear to where and how, but I certainly did listen to the records, and probably saw him in various joints.

TP:    Let me reorient the questioning to how you and he started to become professionally affiliated, and what qualities in your mind at that time made him such a felicitous sideman for the sound you were trying to bring out.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, I think the first time we worked together was when we were at Prestige during my decade there, and I had… I’m trying to backtrack now.  The first session that I think we did together was Bebop Revisited with Charles McPherson, so obviously I’d heard Barry before… At this point, I’ve convinced the powers-that-be of Charles McPherson.  So obviously Barry had been heard by me, though he may have been with Riverside at the time, I don’t remember…

TP:    Well, he’d just finished with Riverside, or Riverside had just shut down at the time he did that record or was about to, and he was working with Charles and Lonnie at that time.

SCHLITTEN:  That’s right.  And I was working with Carmell Jones, and I came up with this idea to play this music, the Classical repertoire for the music, and there was no better choice than he on the piano bench.  I believe that was the first time we had worked together.

TP:    So it was with Charles McPherson and some sessions with Dexter, Moody…

SCHLITTEN:  Oh, they came on later.

TP:    Right, they came on later.  But does his style dovetail with your idea of presenting the classical repertoire of the music in its ’60s incarnation as it were?

SCHLITTEN:  Well, that’s an interesting way to put it.  He knew all the tunes.  Everybody knows all the changes, but he also knew the melodies to these things.  He had a certain way of comping and playing the changes that was inspiring to the cats who were playing this music, and he brought a certain kind of enthusiasm and joy which, as far as I’m concerned, is what makes jazz what it is, and turned the other cats on.  So therefore, he became a very integral part of whatever it is that I was trying to present in terms of preserving this particular form of music.  I always felt that that little difference that he had would inspire people who might not have been listed under the category of Bebop musicians, like Illinois Jacquet or somebody like that, but he would push that kind of thing and make those kinds of people play even better.  And it seemed to work all the way down the line.

TP:    So initially for you it was his comping and spirit.  Did that also interest you in his own concept, in terms of Luminescence and Bull’s Eye and those dates.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, yes.  Then I loved the guy and I loved the music, and I wanted to present him in every way I could.  Unfortunately, none of the people I worked with were really superstar sellers.  I’m sure you’re aware that this music is not really commercially oriented.  Some of the guys would do a little bit better than some other guys.  Barry, unfortunately, did worse than anybody.  Barry is the only artist I have ever worked with during all my years and knowledge of Prestige, which goes all the way back to 1949, that the company said, “Let’s give him the money we owe him rather than record him; his records don’t sell even that much.”

TP:    Why do you think that was?

SCHLITTEN:  I don’t know.  There’s no way to explain any of that.  You just put your heart and soul into the music and whatever it is that you’re doing, and you hope that somebody responds.  Sometimes they respond and sometimes they don’t.  Who knows about that?  It’s some kind of weird magic.

TP:    When I listen back to something like Luminescence or Bull’s Eye, I think he was getting his chops together as a small group arranger, and I think the trio and solo stuff was more his forte.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, all that is possible.  But you’re talking about an attitude of jazz fans at a certain time in history, which is certainly a different attitude than was presented 20 years  before or 20 years later.  How do you figure it?  It’s weird.  It’s weird, because sometimes there are some things that you say, “Shit, this is not right,” and then all of a sudden somebody says it’s great.  Then by the same token you say, “Listen to this; this is fabulous,’ and somebody on the other hand has a long face and doesn’t hear it.

TP:    You had a really ongoing association for about 18 years, and even longer than that.  How did you see his playing grow and progress and his sensibility grow and progress through the years, whether or not it had anything to do with that steady recording and the situations he recorded in with you…

SCHLITTEN:  Well, all of that adds to it.  Life is full of experiences.  Now, I would imagine that this person would never have played with half of the people that he played with had it not been for my producing those particular artists and using him as the pianist.  I doubt very much whether he and Al Cohn would have gotten together, or he and Illinois Jacquet would have gotten together, or whatever.  Part of my job is to try to create the proper atmosphere for the best music to be played, and one of the prime important parts of that is to create the proper band to play with.  So it’s not only a musical meeting; it’s also a psychological meeting.  Most of the time I would have to say, in all humility, it worked.  Of all the things that I’ve tried to do in my lifetime, I seem to have done a pretty good job in that area.

TP:    Let me just say, as far as the way he was playing in 1967, when he did Bullseye, or ’69 when he did Magnificent, and let’s say in ’76 when he did the Japanese tour and he’s doing that great record where he plays “Poco Loco” or Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron, to me, I hear a pianist who’s increased in confidence and lyricism and is more interpretive, and I wondered if you had any comments on that.

TP:    What was his demeanor like during the sessions he did with you, particularly as a sideman?

SCHLITTEN:  Oh, he always came to play.

TP:    But how was he in relation to the other musicians?  Did he sort of take charge of those sessions?

SCHLITTEN:  Oh, no.  It would depend on the people.  That’s what jazz is all about.  It would depend.  Now, for instance, you could bring one guy in and he’s in charge of everything.  You could bring another guy in, and you’re in charge of everything.  And you could bring a third guy in, and he’s looking around for his colleagues to help him.  So everybody is different, and depending on the mix of all your elements it will all be always different.  The end result has to be that the music is cooking, that’s all.  And my job would have to be to figure all that out in front.

TP:    It seems he was adaptable to a wide range of situations and functions.

SCHLITTEN:  Oh yes, that’s the beauty of it.  That’s why we continued.  That’s why it kept going.  If at one point that didn’t work, then that was the end.  But that’s how I felt about things.  I’m painting a picture, and if the red isn’t red enough, then I’m going to go for orange or whatever it is.

TP:    Do you feel he was head and shoulders over the other pianists who were available… Well, Jaki Byard you had a similar relationship with.

SCHLITTEN:  That’s a different world.  That’s a different kind of music.

TP:    All I’m saying is that with what you were trying to do… Not that they were the only ones you used, but the two pianists who created that palette for you were Barry Harris and that very fertile period with Jaki Byard.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, for what I was trying to do, Barry was the right pianist for certain projects and Jaki was the right pianist for other projects.  I believed in both of them as talents that had been neglected, so I saw from a lot of press that Barry gets… Jaki never even got that.  My karma was to do what I can to help these people, because I really believed in what they were doing.  Other players were good players.  I worked a lot with Tommy Flanagan…

TP:    Like The Panther.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, no, before that, the very first record I ever produced… Red Rodney worked with Tommy Flanagan, and the first record I produced at Prestige, Dave Pike Plays Oliver, Tommy Flanagan was on that.  But Tommy, for whatever reason, didn’t need my help.

TP:    Well, he was on the road with Ella, steadily employed.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, whatever.  Guys would come off the road and I’d use them, and sometimes I’d wait for somebody to come off the road if I felt that was the right person for whatever it was I was doing.  But the point I was trying to make was that he didn’t need my help, whereas I felt both Jaki and Barry did need my help, and if I didn’t do what I did, who knows how their lives would have evolved.

TP:    I’d like you to talk about conceiving some of the trio projects you did with him, particularly for Xanadu, and also the MPS date that’s never been issued here.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron is probably the most popular Barry Harris record in Japan, and has been from its inception.  Now, here’s a perfect example, why the Japanese jazz people hook up onto something and never let go… It’s another story; just another one of those magical things.  But they hooked up onto this record, and it’s just been released again on CD in Japan with a new licensee that we have, and this is about the fourth or fifth time.  Every time they do it, they get the seal of approval and etcetera, etc.

Now, as far as my personal tastes are concerned, I would say that’s one of my favorites.  I do, however, like Live in Tokyo, very-very much.  A lot of that has to do with the interplay with the bass player and the drummer.  Now, the drummer is always Leroy, because Leroy is absolutely perfect.  So the bass player is the moving force really.  So depending on the bass player, that will, in its own way, turn Barry around, in, out or whatever, and also in terms of notes and also in terms of the sound of the recording.  So if you like a light bass, then you probably would like Gene Taylor more than you would George Duvivier.  So all those things are just parts of the puzzle, and they work differently.  A lot of it depends on your personal taste.

TP:    But each of those records has a certain type of narrative going on.  With Tadd Dameron it’s a rumination on a certain compositional and sound aesthetic, when he’s doing his own compositions there’s a more exploratory aesthetic going on, and Live In Tokyo is more of a jam session.

SCHLITTEN:  Well, I don’t know about that.  In Tokyo, he’s really playing Bud Powell.  So if you want to call it a recital, that’s okay, but I always think of it as Barry’s Bud Powell album.  So when you think of the albums we made, it’s Tadd, Bud, and Barry.  Or that’s how I did think of them then.

TP:    Did you think of Barry when you first heard him as a personal, idiomatic stylist unto himself, or as someone who was very indebted to other stylists, particularly Bud Powell?

SCHLITTEN:  I don’t really think he was.  That’s why I think his Riverside records are great if you love the music and you love him, but they’re not really special — because I don’t think he had found himself yet.  And I don’t think he found himself until he had dug deeper into the history of the repertoire or whatever it is, and I think that’s what was taking place in the second half of the ’60s, when we were working together.  I don’t think that was the case early on.  I remember seeing him with Yusef Lateef way back when, and I remember he recorded with Yusef Lateef in the early ’60s or late ’50s, I don’t remember, and his touch wasn’t as heavy.  He has very tiny hands.  He needed to develop a little heavier touch, and he also needed to get recorded properly.  And some of those people at Riverside and at Blue Note, especially Rudy Van Gelder, they recorded everybody the same, and every piano player has a different touch, and therefore every piano player needs to be recorded a little differently — which is why I left Rudy Van Gelder.  It wasn’t until we started working with other engineers that I felt his touch started to get better, and I think by hearing himself and hearing that, he started to get better.  Because what happens is, you turn yourself on!  When you’re playing the tune, you go listen to the take, you listen to yourself, and sometimes you inspire yourself.  Sometimes you can depress yourself, too!  But all of that adds up.  It’s life.  Those are the experiences of life.  We’re focusing down now on a piano player, but it’s really life.  It’s the different experiences — the sounds, the people, the time, how you feel.  If your foot hurts you’re not going to play as well as if your foot doesn’t hurt.  So all that comes into play.

* * *

Charles McPherson on Barry Harris:

TP:    When do you first remember encountering Barry Harris?  Was it those days as a teenager going by the Bluebird?

McPHERSON:  Yes, it was.  I lived right around the corner from Barry, and I met Barry when I was about maybe 15.  I had already been introduced to jazz, and I knew that this club called the Bluebird was down the street and featured jazz music.  This was during the time when I was going down there, standing out, looking inside, looking in the window and listening outside the door.  That’s when I met Barry, because he was the house piano player who was working at the Bluebird.  I met him that way, and then I knew he lived around the corner.  One day I was walking down the street, me and another musician, and I saw where his house was, and then I spoke to him.  He told us, “Well, you guys need to learn your scale” — because he had heard us play.  We had already sat in at the club.  Because the owner let us sit in if we’d bring our parents over.  This was during the time that Miles Davis was living in Detroit for a couple of years, and Miles was actually working at the Bluebird.

TP:    Do you remember that time?  Was it late ’53-early ’54?

McPHERSON:  Oh, sure.  This is when Miles stayed in Detroit a couple of years, right then.  So we sat in, and Barry said, “Well, you guys don’t really know about theory and harmony and all that; you need to know about these things.”  So we started coming over to his house, and that’s how it started.

TP:    This was after you’d heard Charlie Parker and were serious about it.

McPHERSON:  Right.

TP:    What’s his teaching like?  Why is he so good as a teacher?

McPHERSON:  Well, I think he likes what he’s doing, and then he’s knowledgeable, and he has conceived of a certain methodology of giving the information.  It’s hard to do it without using technical terms.  But I can say that he just had a certain method in showing certain things about chord changes and how to look at them and how to think about them, and then how to use them.  It was kind of his way of… Because of how he had thought about it, and he came up with this method of teaching, pretty much like the Suzuki method, when little kids learn how to play.  It’s just a methodology of teaching, knowledge that’s being taught by other means, other ways.  But he has his little way of thinking about certain things, and he thought it facilitated the person to play better, faster.

TP:    Was it oriented towards Bebop playing?

McPHERSON:  Oh, no.  It was just music.  Dealing with improvisation.  So really, it’s about chord changes — dominant 7ths, that kind of thing.

TP:    So he had a theory of improvising that he was able to impart to young musicians.

McPHERSON:  Yes.  Or this would lead to improvising.  It’s just a way of looking at things.

TP:    What sort of manner did he have with you?

McPHERSON:  Well, he was kind of fatherly.  When I look back on it, it’s ridiculous; he was 25 years old!  But I guess maybe like a big brother or something.  What happened was that Barry’s house was kind of a hub of activity with the musicians.  A lot of musicians would come over and play.  Because he worked at night at this club, and in the daytime he was free, and he just practiced and played music all day long, then at night he’d go to work.  So in the daytime anybody might come by there.  I was over there every other day or every day, and then people would come in town… One time Coltrane came in town with Miles.  Now, this is after Miles had left and got really kind of strong out there, and then he had the band with Trane and Cannonball and all that — and one time Trane was over there.  Because traveling musicians would know to go over to Barry’s house.  There was always something happening there.

TP:    So it was like an ongoing workshop and blowing and…

McPHERSON:  Yeah.  Guys would come over and play.

TP:    Talk about some of your contemporaries, too, who were going there at that point.  Trace your development in terms of being at his house.

McPHERSON:  Well, Lonnie Hillyer, a trumpet player who eventually played with Mingus.  Paul Chambers.  Roy Brooks, the drummer who worked with Horace for a while.

TP:    And Lou Hayes was the same age about.

McPHERSON:  A few years older but essentially the same age.  It was almost everybody, almost all of the Detroit younger people that age.

TP:    So basically, that quality of his where he’s always established followings and groups of people around him begins then, basically — and even before.

McPHERSON:  Yeah, that’s true.

TP:    Do you think he’s a natural teacher?

McPHERSON:  Yeah, I think so.  And he’s a real good piano player.  You know, most piano players are very knowledgeable, and he certainly is.  I don’t know, he was always a guy who seemed to like to experiment or theorize about things, especially about harmony and so on.  And Paul Chambers, Doug Watkins, those guys… It was just a scene over to his house.  Sometimes it was just talking or just hanging, but most of the time some kind of music was going on.

TP:    It seems like the Detroit guys came out professional.  If there’s one common thing, you absorbed the language and came out professional.  No nonsense.

McPHERSON:  Yeah, no-nonsense and intelligent. [LAUGHS] In other words, for sure there is a certain logic in their playing for the most part.  The improvisation is very logical, how they connect things together.  The connections.

TP:    Talk about how the relationship continued once you were both in New York.  You recorded together quite a bit from ’64 to ’76.

McPHERSON:  Well, I did start working with Mingus in 1960, and Barry was doing whatever he was doing, working with other people, so Barry and I didn’t really… Well, we saw each other and all that, but there wasn’t much going on between us.  Then maybe in the middle ’60s or late ’60s is when we started working together again.  We were in a group with George Coleman, Lonnie, myself, and different drummers coming in and out of there, and Peck Morrison on bass.

TP:    You did Live At the Five Spot in ’64, then there’s McPherson’s Mood from ’68 or so.  Those document ongoing playing, but it wasn’t necessarily a steady working group.  It was more about being kind of in parallel on the New York scene.

McPHERSON:  Well, we did work.  We didn’t work as steadily as we would want, but we did work.  We worked at Minton’s a lot in the late ’60s, before it closed.  We worked at Boomer’s on Bleecker and Christopher.  In Brooklyn we worked at the Blue Coronet.  So we worked around New York.  We did road gigs.  We did gigs in Baltimore for the Jazz Society up there…

TP:    Talk about improvising with Barry comping.

McPHERSON:  Again, there’s a certain kind of musical intelligence that a lot of Detroit piano players have, with Hank Jones and Tommy and that kind of thing.  Barry is one of those guys.  His comp is very rhythmic.  I know he tries for the symbiosis.  It’s very symbiotic with the horn players.  He’s listening.  I would say that the comp is pretty much like a drummer’s snare drum comp.  He’s very good at that actually.  There’s different ways to do it.  Some people aren’t as sympathetic or as complementary.  But he does… At least with the way that I phrase, I guess, so it works for us.

TP:    It sounds to me like his solos come organically out of what the previous soloist is doing.  He’s very ensemble oriented.

McPHERSON:  Yes, at least the first couple of bars, which is a good musical thing to do — to allude to the last soloist.

TP:    So there’s continuity.

McPHERSON:  Right.  And from there, you kind of… That’s a nice thing to do.  It’s a very good musical thing to do.

TP:    Can you say a few sentences about what he has meant to you, and his impact, and his position in the musical community?

McPHERSON:  Sure.  Well, I owe so much to him in terms of just helping me establish a real firm foundation just on a musical level, and also technically in terms of harmony and theory and chord changes and scales and that kind of thing.  But also, he instituted a certain kind of musical intelligence for me in terms of taste and musicality.  I was shown also, beside all these technical things, that certain things were not to be indulged in in terms of, like, corny phrases.  You always try to be musically honest.  Don’t use technique just for the sake of using technique, but try to use the emotionality along with analysis.  Technique is just a means to an end, not the end.  All these things that are important.  Some people never learn it, don’t really know, have no concept at all.  But things like that.  Like, technique is wonderful, but it’s just a means to an end — it’s not the end.  Technique is just to facilitate your total musical thing, but it’s not like you indulge in pyrotechnics just to impress.  So the elements of good taste and musical discretion…even though subjective in some sort of way from his musical point of view, but everything is that, I guess.

Those kind of things were taught to me and I learned that, too, as well as what a C-minor-7th is.  And also he did something which has nothing to do with music, but then it does have something to do with music.  He took an interest in my schoolwork.  I would come to his home after school, and one day he saw my report card, and he saw that my card was quite average.  There was nothing spectacular about; it wasn’t bad, but kind of average.  He looked at it and he said, “Let me see your report card.  You got your card today.  Let me see what kind of marks you got.”  Then he said, “Well, that’s okay, man, but that’s some real average stuff.  You know, all your heroes, like Charlie Parker, those guys were everything but average.”  And the minute he said that, it was like…

TP:    He knew how to push your button.

McPHERSON:  Yeah, he really got… I’d never thought of that, and I never cared about really trying hard.  My whole thing at that point was just do enough to get through and, you know… But when he said that… He said, “Charlie Parker might be kind of a bad boy in society, he’s doing a lot of things that’s not cool, but I’m gonna tell you, on the intellectual level the guy is brilliant.”  Charlie Parker could sit down and talk to people about absolutely anything.  I didn’t know that.  I just knew a little bit about his music.  I didn’t know about Bird’s persona.  And that indeed was true.  Bird was a guy who could sit down and talk to people about science or anything.  He was a real self-taught, book-reader type guy.  He knew everything about modern art.  He could look at paintings and tell who painted it and all that stuff.  He was way ahead of a lot of musicians when it came to things other than music, because he was a guy that sort of read a lot.  And I didn’t know that.

So Barry really instilled in me to try… In other words, the hipper your intellectual thing is, the more you know, then the more you have to play about, the more there is to play, because you’re playing your life, your experiences.  Well, I had never thought of it like that.  Well, that changed my whole concept of school.  He said, “All those cats are brilliant, man.  You can’t be an average guy or a stupid guy playing this kind of music — not this kind of music.  There’s too much shit going on.”  You have to really become agile to play to this level.  For that level of playing music, there’s some stuff required.  You’d better tighten up your stuff.

TP:    How long has it been since you played with him?

McPHERSON:  Oh, I played a gig with him maybe a year ago.  I don’t play with him steadily, of course, but there’s always occasions.

Anyway, from that point on, I actually turned my life around school-wise.  I became like an honors student overnight.  The teachers could not believe that!  They were used to seeing me just being a certain way.  I was in my home room class, and the teacher looked at the card, and she said, “Is this your card?”  I said, “Yeah.”  She said, “You got…”  I actually got all A’s.  It was easy.  From that point on, I learned how to do that without being all day doing homework, I could rip it off — it just changed my whole life.  From that point on I started reading books.  I had never read a book all the way through, but shoot, by the time I was 18 or 19 I had read all of Henry Miller’s books, I had read The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich

So Barry did more than just music for me.  He opened a whole intellectual curiosity that changed me also.  So he’s a very interesting character.

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Filed under Barry Harris, Charles McPherson, Detroit, Don Schlitten, DownBeat, Interview, Leroy Williams, Piano, Tommy Flanagan, WKCR

For Ellis Marsalis’ 79th Birthday, a Jazziz Feature from 2002

For Ellis Marsalis’ 79th birthday, I’m posting a feature piece that I wrote about him for Jazziz circa 2002, the interviews that I conducted for that piece, and a pair of WKCR interviews from the ’90s, on one of which he joined me at the studio with Jason Marsalis.

* * *

By Ted Panken:

“Jazz is about the art of discovery. Not discovery in terms of guesswork. You give a person a certain amount of information, and make sure that information is communicated. From that point, they begin to make decisions about that information. All you really need is the spirit of adventure, applied to the music that is being presented to you.”
—    Ellis Marsalis, June 2002.

Widely known as the paterfamilias of a musical dynasty, Ellis Louis Marsalis, Jr. retired in August 2001 after a phenomenally productive 37-year teaching career on the high school and university levels. Ironically, the 67-year-old pianist, a professional improviser for half-a-century, never intended to make education his life’s work. Early tangents began to surface while the New Orleans native attended Dillard University between 1951 and 1955, moonlighting as a journeyman tenor saxophonist on local gigs with blues singers like Big Joe Turner and playing piano behind Big Maybelle and other singers at an Uptown boite called the Dew Drop Inn. Other possibilities arose during these years as he worked on and recorded original music with a peer group that included drummer Edward Blackwell and clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and later with saxophonist Nat Perrillat and drummer-composer James Black.

After earning his Music Education degree from Dillard, Marsalis enlisted in the Marine Corps (stationed in Southern California, he spent off-hours in 1956 woodshedding with Blackwell and Ornette Coleman), was discharged, and returned to New Orleans where, in quick succession, he married Dolores Ferdinand, and fathered his famous sons Branford, in 1960, and Wynton, in 1961. With a young family to support, Marsalis today recalls that “the gig situation in New Orleans, which was never great anyway, had changed tremendously, with virtually no jazz — as we consider it — to speak of. I figured I might as well try to use my degree.”

From 1964 until his retirement, Marsalis dual-tracked as a performer-educator. He took a position as band director at a high school in a small Louisiana town, serving until 1966. From 1974 to 1986 he taught and designed a curriculum at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), a multi-disciplinary arts magnet high school that students attended on elective from their home school. Marsalis’ pupils included his four sons — saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, and drummer Jason – as well as Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Kent Jordan, Reginald Veal and Harry Connick, Jr. In 1986 he left New Orleans to head the jazz program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He returned in 1989 to create the jazz program at the University of New Orleans, remaining there until his retirement.

The beginning of Marsalis’ teaching career coincided with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which abolished Jim Crow laws that had stood for decades. Living under statutory segregation, he had accumulated and processed the vocabulary of jazz “in a sort of shotgun approach — a piece here, a little there,” and could draw upon no codified pedagogy to teach it. At Dillard, he recalls, “We got the basis of European music, taught in a slapdash way, depending on who was teaching. The rules of the music department were modeled to be a kind of mini-conservatory, focusing on the things band directors are expected to do, with an abundance of courses in theory and almost no practical. So there was virtually no sound, formal training ground that emanated from a specific black tradition where you could learn to play jazz on the instrument. You learned just about everything on the job, because there wasn’t any place else for you to get it. Jazz was always second-class.”

Jazz continues to be but a blip on the collective consciousness of popular culture, but the idiom’s stature has evolved tremendously since Ellis Marsalis was a young man. Under the artistic directorship of Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center, jazz enjoys  equal institutional pride of place with classical music and opera at America’s equivalent of the French Ministry of Culture. Furthermore, dozens of universities offer degrees in jazz performance. Marsalis is one of a national cohort of pioneer improviser-educators (others include Donald Byrd, Jimmy Heath, William Fielder, and New Orleans colleagues Alvin Batiste and Kidd Jordan) who revolutionized the way jazz is taught, and his curricular first principles are seminal in the recent intellectual history of jazz education.

At NOCCA, Marsalis relied on those first principles while cobbling together a pragmatic, homegrown pedagogy designed to teach the building blocks of jazz and improvisation so that, as Wynton Marsalis puts it, “people can go out and get a gig, whatever kind of gig they can play.” “Whatever it is that I managed to do didn’t really come by way of a philosophy,” the elder Marsalis notes. “Mostly it happened by reaction. I heard a story about Thomas Edison. His assistant said they had done 150 experiments. None of the lightbulbs worked. He said, ‘Man, we ought to give up on this, because we’re making no progress at all.’ Edison supposedly responded, ‘On the contrary, we know 150 ways that do not work.’ We don’t always think about going to the things that don’t work as a path to finding what does.”

Like a painter in medieval Europe who required apprentices to mix paints and prepare canvases before allowing them to wield a brush, or a master bata drummer breaking down the beats for an initiate, Marsalis taught with artisanal focus, forcing students to learn the skills of their trade before they can think about expressing their personalities through the medium. “You can get into a lot of trouble trying to figure out at what point it becomes art,” he reflects. “That becomes more philosophical than realistic. I’m concerned about whether these guys can put one foot in front of the other.”

Asked how he would synopsize his method to a grant-bearing arts administrator, Marsalis responds: “Basically, it’s important to learn the three elements of music — rhythm, harmony, and melody, not necessarily in that order. We didn’t distinguish between European music and jazz. All the students at NOCCA had private instruction. New students learn two songs a semester. You apply those component parts to each piece, drilling on intervals, on individual notes, on the correct scales. Then, if your personality is suited to it, you work on the concept of improvisation.”

Marsalis began his work at NOCCA by focusing on the blues. “Learning how to play blues is like mastering the fundamentals of arithmetic before moving to algebra, trigonometry, and calculus,” he says. “It’s the simplest approach to learning improvisation. I would write out 12 measures of chords that, when played, turned out to be a blues. They got the sound of the notes in their ear, and got their fingers used to the positions. They got a tangible manifestation of the form of blues in one chorus. The chord symbols represented vertically sounds they would deal with in a linear manner. And they’d be sensitized to the rhythmic flow, to deal with music in motion.”

Ear training is crucial. Marsalis insists students internalize the fundamental building blocks so that transcription and memorization of classic repertoire will become a more organic process. “Without the oral component of music, you take away its natural ingredients,” he says, lifting an analogy from his bottomless well of metaphors. “It’s like the difference between preserves and fresh fruit. Preserves tend to taste the same; you can get them whenever you want. But the apple on the tree will be there only so long. In the same way, a solo only exists in the moment. The students who really pursue this have to learn that the concept of a solo is not unlike a novel or short story, with a beginning, a developmental section, a peak, and ultimately a climax or ending. The more references you can draw on, the more possibilities you have.

“Too much academic description can make a student lose the ability to hear certain subtleties. Someone might analyze a solo by discussing its technical components, for instance, that so-and-so used this scale and that scale and another scale – but the person who did the solo wasn’t thinking about that at all! It’s bad enough you’re listening to a recording, which can remove the essence of what was actually going on. There’s a story that somebody was talking to Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines about the recordings of Art Tatum, and Fatha Hines said, ‘Man, forget the recordings; you got to have been there!’ It makes you realize that whatever analysis you apply to this music is inadequate in terms of what was actually going down.”

BREAK

With his utilitarian bent, Marsalis is a lineal descendent of such mid-century African-American teacher-autocrats as Walter Dyett from DuSable High School in Chicago and Samuel Browne from Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, whose programs produced dozens of outstanding jazz musicians from Marsalis’ generation. Eschewing the authoritarian methods by which they kept students in line (Dyett was legendary for the accuracy with which he hurled his conductor’s baton at erring students), Marsalis won hearts and minds by treating his charges as young adults with minds of their own, as individuals accountable for their actions and decisions.

“Ellis encourages and motivates his students, but he’s also direct and won’t pamper you,” says Victor Goines, Director of Jazz Studies at Juilliard School of Music. A 41-year-old New Orleans native, Goines studied privately with Marsalis in the ’70s, apprenticed with his combo in the ’80s, and has played saxophone and clarinet in the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra from 1989 until the present.  “With me, he could be painfully truthful, but also compassionate to my needs as a young man. If it sounded bad, he didn’t pull punches. He was for real.”

Goines borrowed a number of Marsalis’ dicta in creating the jazz program at Juilliard, beginning with the notion that working musicians are the most effective teachers. “Ellis brought to the classroom experiences from the oral tradition he’d learned as a performer, as opposed to learning the theory of education in the classroom and trying to go out and play after the fact,” Goines says. “He believes that working with small ensembles is important because of the freedom for improvisation. Students need to have perspective on the music’s history. They need to be able to function in different idioms, and to always realize that you’re not preparing for the gig you’re doing now, but the unknown gig to come. Ellis puts you in situations that you have to work your way out of. He always told me that to try to get to something great, you have to be willing to take chances, to make a fool of yourself. He said that you shouldn’t get on a bandstand with someone you wouldn’t get in a foxhole with; if everyone isn’t working toward a common goal, it’s a waste of time. He even teaches you to take care of the business aspects. He covered all the aspects of what it takes to be a professional musician.”

“I was shocked as a kid the first time I went to his school, and heard his students call him ‘Ellis,'” says Branford Marsalis. “That just didn’t happen in the South in the ’60s and ’70s. Later I understood how hip that was. My pops was just having a dialogue with the students, to the degree of almost demystifying education. He points the finger and forces you to think for yourself. He twists standard American colloquialisms so that they make more sense to him. He’d always say, ‘You know, son, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him thirsty.’ That’s brilliant! Once he told a student to listen to a piece of music. The student said, ‘I don’t want to.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Man, I know what I like.’ My father said, ‘No, son, you don’t know what you like; you like what you know.’ I thought about it, and realized that in order to say that you know what you like, you have to know a helluva lot. What he was getting at is that you should study the music for your own sake, not just because he tells you to. If you don’t, you’re putting yourself behind the 8-ball.”

“My father’s first principle is, ‘You don’t know unless you know,'” says Wynton Marsalis. “Don’t assume anything without first-hand experience. Don’t get chord changes out of the book; get them off the record. He always gets you to question what you know. He stresses that there’s no right or wrong way to hear. He’d guide you in a direction, but he wouldn’t tell you what to do. He gave you the opportunity to figure out your own thing.”

For a teacher to give students that much rope demands not only self-confidence, but tremendous faith in human nature. An unflinchingly realistic man devoid of illusions, Marsalis is explicitly not religious. To trace the source of such fundamental trust is therefore an intriguing endeavor.

“My father believes in jazz — real jazz,” Wynton Marsalis declares. “He never believed that jazz was White or Black. He believes it’s a universal expression, a thing that brings whoever addresses it into contact with their greater self. He doesn’t suffer from cultural intimidation. He’s very clear and uncompromising that you have to face jazz — or J.S. Bach — on its own terms, not change the music or put it on a lower level so you can feel comfortable in your relationship to it. If you practice and learn what you have to — and have the ability — you can play it. If you don’t, you can’t.

“The foundation of how I teach — what I think and know — comes from watching him. Long before we even had Jazz at Lincoln Center, when I was 19 and 20, I did workshops and went in the schools, because I saw my father doing it. The way to conduct a workshop, to present material, to pick tunes to play, to use analogies to make something clear, the importance of teaching form, the central position of the rhythm section in the band — all these concepts come from him.”

For all the inherent optimism implied by his lifelong struggle to communicate jazz values, Ellis Marsalis is not exactly sanguine about the present state of things. “The schools are teaching jazz with a conservatory approach, nice clubs are cropping up, and jazz is now a respectable area to function in,” he says. “But mainstreaming it removed a lot of individuality. Listen to the saxophone players in the conservatories that have good jazz departments. All of them can play! But when they solo, you can’t tell them apart.”

What case, then, would Marsalis make for talented musicians to study jazz in school?

“I don’t necessarily think they should,” he responds. “Jazz is a highly individualistic art. You’ll do better with a good private instructor and being around people who are well versed in the style of music you’re trying to play. Actually, there’s no real reason why anybody should continue to play jazz at all, aside from the music speaking to you. But more and more, I think that the study of jazz, across the board, can help a musician or lay person better understand America, because the music reflects the whole of the citizenry so completely. In some ways, jazz is a form of glue that keeps American culture centered. We live in a world where people do not necessarily even have to have a skill to become rich and famous as a pop artist. So a disciplined approach to anything is something this country very much needs.

“I often think of America as a 10-year-old kid whose folks died and left him a candy store, with nobody to guide him. He goes into this candy store and proceeds to be a 10-year-old kid. If he’s not unfortunate enough to get diabetes and die, he’ll ultimately learn, after he gets a bellyache, that there’s something to know when you got this place. It’s not just, ‘Oh, great, this is mine.'”

No longer teaching in any capacity, Marsalis is focusing on his retirement, making decisions about his future involvement in education. He works most Fridays at the prestigious Snug Harbor club in a trio with youngest son, drummer Jason, and leaves town for occasional jobs. In the autumn he’ll release a self-produced trio CD on ELM, his own label, and will go in the studio to record several CDs worth of material. In his manner, he’ll continue to do what he can to help that 10-year-old grow up.

“My father never preached,” says Branford Marsalis. “And he never wasted any time trumpeting his strengths. He was always interested in addressing and eradicating his weaknesses. That’s something I believe in. The great thing he passed on to us was to always go for something you like, because it’s about expanding, not finding your little place in the box and staying there.”

[---30---]

INTERVIEWS:

Ellis Marsalis (6-24-02):

TP:    Some nuts and bolts questions.  Are you still teaching, or are you now retired from any institutional affiliation?

MARSALIS:  No, I retired August 10th, 2001 from the University of New Orleans.

TP:    So you’re retired for a year.  Are you still teaching in any capacity?

MARSALIS:  No.

TP:    So your artistic focus is on being a piano player.

MARSALIS:  I’m focusing on my retirement.

TP:    How are you spending it?

MARSALIS:  Well, first getting used to it.  I started putting some unfinished portions of things into my computer, which is something that I’ve been slowly learning about doing.  Because the program can be very difficult.  But I’ve got some gigs.  I usually play every Friday night at a local club called Snug Harbor.

TP:    That’s the top club in New Orleans, isn’t it?

MARSALIS:  Right.  And I go out occasionally.  This summer we have a couple of grandchildren who are staying with us, going to some summer camps. So I’ll be here doing that; my wife and I will be taking care of that.

TP:    When did you begin to teach?  How long have you been teaching?  What were the circumstances?  Was it the NOCCA experience in the mid-’70s?

MARSALIS:  Well, not really.  When I graduated from Dillard University.

TP:    So way before the 1970s, then.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  I didn’t really want to teach, but eventually I went into the military and got out, and got married, and the gig situation in New Orleans, which was never that great anyway, changed tremendously, and as a result, I figured I might as well try to use the degree I’ve got.  So I started to teach in 1963.

TP:    In what situation?

MARSALIS:  It’s hard to really describe.  Because I went in to be like a music teacher, and they never had a band in there at the school.  What happened, I ended up with two or three science classes and some general music classes, with one period to develop a band.  So I stayed there for a year, and I said, “Well, I know I need the money, but I’m not going to cripple people because I need the money.”  And I didn’t know nothin’ about no science!  So I left there, and I started teaching in a small Louisiana town, Browbridge.  I was band director there for a couple of years.

TP:    Is that when you started to develop a pedagogy?

MARSALIS:  Yes, I would say.  Definitely.

TP:    By 1964, you’re an established musician in New Orleans, such as the scene was, and you’d been playing professionally for a little less than 15 years.

MARSALIS:  Wait.  When are you talking about?

TP:    Let me see if my chronology for you is correct.  You’re born in ’34.  You go to Dillard when, about ’51 to ’55.  You go in the Army in either late ’55 or early ’56?

MARSALIS:  No, I was in the Marine Corps in ’56.

TP:    You spend a lot of that time in California, and it seems that your military service wasn’t so arduous as to prevent you from playing music.

MARSALIS:  Well, basically, that became my job.

TP:    So you’re another one of the people who got to play music as part of their Service duties.

MARSALIS:  Right.

TP:    And you get back to New Orleans around ’58 or ’59, and you start to have your children, and because the economic situation in New Orleans was what it is, you start to teach.  And in the mid-’60s, you’re teaching in that high school in Browbridge.

MARSALIS:  Right.  ’64 to ’66.

TP:    In one of my earlier conversations with you, you spoke about how you learned, about your formative process, that you started playing clarinet when you were 11, started playing tenor saxophone in high school, did a lot of rhythm-and-blues gigs, and you were studying the piano, and that when you got out of high school you decided to be a music major, that Dizzy Gillespie turned you on, a bunch of things turned you on.  You said: “I had been studying with a really great piano teacher. Of course, studying piano at that time either meant that you were learning from a mentor in the church that you went to, or you were learning from someone who was either in your family or was a friend of the family that would teach you the tradition of the music according to earlier styles, or you studied with a piano teacher who basically was teaching formal approaches to European music.”  You said that you weren’t playing in the church, which was to your regret, and you didn’t know anyone who was really playing piano from a traditional jazz point of view, and you gravitated to the two areas that were closest to you, being Rhythm-and-Blues and Jazz, and I guess some European tradition — which you’re not saying here — with that piano teacher.

MARSALIS:  I didn’t really study with her long enough to develop a repertoire.  I studied with her maybe about a year or so, and then I started at the university.  And I couldn’t put it together to continue studying with her.  Her name was Jean Coston Maloney.  You see, I couldn’t put that together, because if I had thought about it and had figured it out, I could have continued studying with her.  But I said, “Well, I can’t study with her and be a music major over here at the same time.”  I said, “When I graduate, I’m going to go back and start studying with her.”  Of course, by that time she had left town.

TP:    Would you say you had a good music curriculum at the high school that you attended?

MARSALIS:  No.  There was no music curriculum. There was none at all.  There was the marching band and the concert band.

TP:    What was the level of instruction that you received in that band?  How was learning done?

MARSALIS:  Well, that school was in transition at the time, and in fact, it closed my sophomore year.  And the band director, who had really been great, left the year before I got there, and went off to Southern University to direct bands there.  So what we did was sort of limp along.  The last part of the year, we didn’t have a band teacher at all.  We just did it ourselves.  So I didn’t learn much about music at all in high school.

TP:    I see.  Because I’ve talked to a few of your contemporaries from New Orleans, like Clyde Kerr, and I gather his house was a focal point for a lot of like-minded musicians.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  That was true with Clyde.  Clyde, Sr., was a music teacher also.

TP:    Were there any teachers in New Orleans who were equivalent to the great black high school teachers of segregation days — such as Walter Dyett or Samuel Browne or the woman at Cass Tech in Detroit — in inspiring musicians of your generation?

MARSALIS:  If I had to pick somebody, it would be Yvonne Bush.  There’s a book coming out which is going to be very interesting, and she’s featured in that book.  In fact, the guy who wrote the book, Al Kennedy, had in his first printing of it a chronology of all of the people that she influenced.  It was one of those pullouts.  Now, I don’t know if Scarecrow is going to keep that.  I mean, it may make it and it may not.  But Yvonne Bush is one of the people that I would tend to think was close to what you’re talking about.  She was a trombone player, and I think she had spent some time playing with the Sweethearts of Rhythm during their later days.

Anyway, Clyde Kerr… There was also a younger guy named Alvin Thomas who helped a couple of guys.  But he died young.  He was younger than me.  He was still in high school when I was doing my (?).  He was also one of the students of Yvonne Bush.

TP:    But in the process of learning the vocabulary of jazz and the tools that you would need to be effective, how did it operate before you went to college? Was it totally informal, like you and Alvin Batiste would get together and take down solos from records?  I know a lot of people from your generation were very homegrown, but then, other people had substantial formal instruction.  And given the subject of this article, I’m interested in how you accumulated and processed vocabulary.

MARSALIS:  In a kind of shotgun approach. Some here, a piece over there, a little bit here, a little bit there. Because once I decided that I was going to be a piano player, one of the things that I didn’t know was the dimensions involved.  That is, if you are a tenor saxophone player, you play the tenor saxophone, but you may have studied the chronology of saxophone players who played your instrument, so you get a pretty good understanding of who came before you.  But when you’re a piano player, the significance of being a piano player is that you wear several different hats. There’s solo piano, which Art Tatum scared everybody to death with that. Then there’s the trio piano playing, the stuff that Oscar did and various other people who played. Then there’s playing piano in a rhythm section, which is one of the things that you end up learning to do because of working conditions.  Usually, all of the piano players at some point end up playing in a rhythm section.  And the accompaniment role, in some cases, if you happen to be in a group with a singer.  And it’s all different.  And there was nobody there to tell me that, so I just learned it as well as I could.

TP:    You made a comment in my second radio session with you that accompaniment is the most difficult thing to teach.

MARSALIS:  It really is.  It shouldn’t be. But the reason why it’s so difficult to teach is because music programs are not structured in a way that the vocalist and the other instrumentalists are taught in a complementary manner.  By “complementary” I mean this.  If a person says, “Well, I’m interested in playing jazz piano,” unless you have a singer who is interested in singing jazz in accordance with the tradition in the same sense that that piano player understands their role, you don’t have a thing!  You see?

Most of the metaphors that I used when I was teaching was through athletics.  I would tell the students various things, especially when Jordan was still playing.  I would try to get them to focus on learning melodies to a song, make sure you know what that melody is.  If there are words to that song, at least learn the first verse to it, so that you see how those words connect with that melody.  The harmony is a part of that.  Learn that harmony the way that the guy wrote it, so when you hear the alterations from other people, you have a reference point. Know the rhythm so that you understand what category the piece falls in.  It may be a Rhumba or a Congo or a Bossa-Nova, or it may be a ballad, or it may be up-tempo.  I used to use Michael Jordan.  I said, “When you look at him, what you see is somebody who has developed every facet of the game, whether it’s his defensive play, or his ability to shoot around the perimeter, or it’s the various ways in which people develop moving the ball around, the free-throw shooting…”  Like, all of the aspects that go into the whole of the person.

Music teachers rarely teach like that.  The reason that music teachers rarely teach like that is because you have too many people involved, and they only hired one music teacher, and that music teacher is expected to teach a band well enough to go out on a halftime football show.  So it can become very difficult to try to deal with subtleties when it’s just you and 100-and-some students.

TP:    How did you deal with that when you were at Browbridge?

MARSALIS:  I didn’t deal with that.  I had a concert band which I dealt with, and then the football season.  I had somebody who could do the little halftime steps and all that, and teach the band that, and go out and do the halftime football show.  Basically, that’s it.

TP:    At Browbridge.

MARSALIS:  Right.
TP:    And at that point, would you say that by the age 30, you had developed pretty much the pedagogy — given, of course, the various refinements and elaborations over time — that you continued to teach? Or did it springboard you into developing that pedagogy?

MARSALIS:  See, it’s hard to answer that, because I didn’t pursue teaching sort of like in a straight line.  Like someone who wants to be a doctor.  You may end up being a surgeon or internal medicine or a podiatrist.  But you still go in a straight line.  But see, I wasn’t really that interested in teaching, and when I left Browbridge, I came back and started playing in the Playboy Club, and I stayed there until such time as… I mean, the job in and of itself was not really going anywhere.  It was a good job, playing six nights a week.  But I wasn’t satisfied with it.

TP:    Not artistically satisfied.

MARSALIS:  Well, not really, man.  It was a jazz gig.  It wasn’t like you had to play something other than that.  But even if you’re playing jazz, if what you are playing isn’t really saying anything… And then, it really wasn’t my group, so to speak.  So even though I was playing every night, there was little or no chance to do anything with them or with anybody else.  Because the city at that time had just moved away from legal segregation — maybe two years earlier, in 1966.  So it was a city in transition, and there were still a lot of older clubs and older musicians playing, and a lot of younger guys coming in who were bringing a different brand of funk to what they were doing.  There was virtually no jazz — as we consider it — to speak of.  And there wouldn’t really be any straight-ahead stuff until, oh, much later.

TP:    Let me step back to Dillard and address the way the curriculum you received there affected the musician you became.

MARSALIS:  Well, what about it?

TP:    Let me put the question to you this way.  Do you feel you received a solid music education at Dillard?

MARSALIS:  Not really.  It was a small school, a private school, and the emphasis was on the nursing school, which had a very good reputation, and also on education.  Because heretofore, teaching and education degrees were areas that college-minded Black students could go into and get a job as a schoolteacher.  So the idea of performance was ludicrous.  At the time, I didn’t really know that was the way people were thinking who were administering the school!  So what we got was really the basis of European music, and in some cases, taught by people in a kind of slapdash way.  Not everybody.  It just depended on who you got.  It was modeled, so to speak, kind of after a poor man’s conservatory — which most of them are.

TP:    You mean most of the black colleges during segregation?

MARSALIS:  Well, most of them were anyway, even the ones that weren’t Black.  The thing is, your primary customer… For example, even at the University of New Orleans today, the primary customer is one who is going to be in music education.  So consequently, what you get is all of the rules that are set up in such a way that resemble a mini-conservatory.  So many hours on your major instrument, so many hours on the minor instruments, all those kinds of things that they expect band directors to do.  And for the most part, courses in theory.  In a lot of cases, you have an abundance of theory classes and almost no practical.

TP:    Whereas people like Yvonne Busch and Walter Dyett and Samuel Browne were extremely practically-oriented and performance-oriented.

MARSALIS:  I imagine so.  But it’s kind of hard to tell.  I used to talk with Eddie Harris about Walter Dyett, because Eddie studied under him.  And I talked a little bit with Joe Williams about the Colonel, from Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago.  He went under a guy who had been a Colonel, I think, in the Army.

TP:    The guy at Wendell Phillips was Major Clark N. Smith, then Dyett succeeded him, then Dyett went to DuSable when the school was founded in 1935.

MARSALIS:  Yes, it must have been the Major.

TP:    He had the Chicago Defender Boys Band, which Lionel Hampton came out of.  I think he was a no-nonsense Marine, like you!

MARSALIS:  Also the school in Detroit, Cass Tech, where Donald Byrd… A lot of those cats went to Cass Tech.  See, we didn’t really have schools like that.

TP:    Oh, I’d been under the impression that one of the black high schools in New Orleans had a good music program.  I guess I was under the wrong impression.

MARSALIS:  How long ago?

TP:    I was thinking the late ’40s and ’50s, but my memory may be incorrect.

MARSALIS:  Well, when people say that so-and-so had a good music program, you don’t ever know what that means!  I had a guy that told me he was going into the studio down here, and he was trying to get some musicians, and he heard that St. Augustine High School had these great musicians and this great music program, and he got some of them kids in the studio.  I knew what he was trying to do, and I didn’t call him on it, but he was trying to get over cheap.  But anyway, he got those kids in there, and they didn’t know jack!  They’re not being taught any of that.  They’re a marching band, and their reputation is that.  But a lot of times, people don’t really know.  They look at these situations, and they’re not involved in music, and go, “Oh, this is a great program.”

TP:    One thing that occurs to me is that in thinking of people like Dyett and Samuel Browne and these high school music programs through which talented young black musicians emerged and were prepared to become skilled jazz musicians in the period when segregation was operative, there was a certain type of pedagogy and a certain type of attitude and a certain type of world view that was conveyed that helped these musicians function.  Looking at you from the outside, I see your work as very much in a continuum of that, granted, of course, that you were doing it in a different time.  So I’m fishing here to see if this sort of attitude stuck to you and informed your perspective on your own teaching.

MARSALIS:  Well, by the time that I started to teach music in high school at the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts, which was a different school… There was no marching band.  There was no band.  There was no core curriculum of math or science or any of that.  This was an arts high school that students went to, using their elective from the home school.  You could not graduate from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts with a diploma that was recognized as anything.  In other words, you had to go to the regular certified high school that taught math and science and English and history, and then half-a-day, you would study your discipline.  Now, a discipline at NOCCA could be dance, theater, music, visual arts, or creative writing.  And we had a faculty of artists.  So the curriculum was designed by the artists for young people who would anticipate becoming professional musicians, dancers, singers, whatever.  That was the greatest faculty that I was ever on.  There was only three of us.  That faculty was fantastic.  I learned as much as the students did.

TP:    Was that you, Alvin Batiste and Kidd Jordan?

MARSALIS:  No-no, not at all.  Alvin was teaching at Southern.

TP:    He wasn’t teaching there at all.

MARSALIS:  No.  Alvin was the artist-in-residence, I think, for the Orleans Parish School system.  So when that school opened, Alvin called me, and told me that they were opening up the school, and that it would probably be good for me.  By that time, I had already gone and started taking courses at Loyola Graduate School, and wasn’t interested even in interviewing for the job.  Because I had developed a plan, a modus operandi, which took me to graduate school, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to veer away from that plan.  But I did go and interview, and eventually they hired me.

So I was able to function on a great faculty.  It was Bert Braud, who was also an instrumental music teacher, and also a vocal teacher, Lorraine Alfaro.  One of the things that we didn’t really do was to emphasize or make a distinction between European music and jazz.  All the students had to study.  All the students had private instruction.

TP:    I gather you had a grant, and members of the Symphony were teaching for the amount of the grant.

MARSALIS:  Well, not always.  They would take the grant, and sometimes the students would have to supplement the grant.  But it wasn’t a lot of money for the level of instruction.  The grant was about 8 bucks, and the symphony people at that time were teaching for $12 for the students.  But it was a marvelous opportunity for them.

TP:    Would you say, then, that your pedagogy developed through the imperatives of setting up a curriculum for NOCCA?

MARSALIS:  That’s right.

TP:    So you get your first class or your early classes, and what do you present them with?

MARSALIS:  When I first started there, I hadn’t a clue as to how I was going to approach this.  But invariably, I just started with teaching students a lot of blues.  Then I’m trying to pick standards that I knew related to a particular instrument.  For example, I knew that just about all of the trumpet players should be expected to play “I Can’t Get Started With You” and tenor saxophone players would be expected to play “Body and Soul.”

TP:    You broke down those tunes and they had to show…

MARSALIS:  They had to play them.

TP:    Did you give them recordings to listen to, or first principles that they should follow?

MARSALIS:  If I had them.  Yeah, I would do that if I had them.  We eventually hustled up some money and bought some recordings.  Also, we bought some old Collins speaker.  They might still be in use, man!  Clyde Kerr was using the same speakers, and doing…kind of piecemealing what we could do.  But I was very big on the practical side of playing.

TP:    How do you mean the practical side?

MARSALIS:  That’s it.  Play.

TP:    When did you ascertain that a student was moving in the right direction?  Was that through your knowledge as a working jazz musician?  I’m thinking about criteria, the right thing and the wrong thing.

MARSALIS:  Well, the right thing and the wrong thing is easy.  Because one of the things they had to do was be able to play scales.  Either you understood and played the right ones, or you didn’t.  And if you did, I’d work on the concept of improvisation, which is not something that’s suitable for everybody’s personality.  But there are ways in which you can get people to improvise if they are susceptible to that process.  When I say susceptible, what I mean is that some people are just not comfortable with the process of improvisation.  If it’s not written on a page or instructions that come from on high or whatever, they are just not comfortable improvising.

TP:    So when you found someone who you determined had talent… I assume that given the type of students who were coming in, you were able to take very individual approaches with each of them.

MARSALIS:  Yeah, but not because of who was coming in.  Mostly because of the way it was structured.  Because we just got public school students, period.  Whoever came to audition.  We didn’t know who was talented and who wasn’t.

TP:    I did a piece earlier this year on Harry Connick that was a cover story in “Jazziz,” and I talked to Branford about him.  He said this: [ETC.] “…if you walk in the room, my father says, ‘okay, why are you here?’  Virtually every other teacher would say, ‘Turn to page 13.  Okay, that’s great. Come back next week and give me another $100.’  My father is like, ‘Why are you here?’  ‘I’m here for you to teach me.’ ‘What do you want to learn?  I don’t know.’ ‘Come back when you’ve figured it out.’

MARSALIS:  [LAUGHS]

TP:    I said, “What do you think Harry wanted to learn?”  He said, “I don’t think Harry knew, and that’s what my father wanted to get to — what is it you want to learn?”  He says he doesn’t know what you taught him, he and Wynton would rough him up and go outside, but he assumes you would do studies on the blues because that’s what you made piano players deal with first, blues and rhythm.

It seems that so many people who have studied with you are able to access the maximum of potential from themselves, and I’m interested in your philosophy of dealing with people, particularly at that very sensitive time in their lives, when things can go in so many different directions.

MARSALIS:  Well, I don’t know that I had even developed a philosophy.  See, the thing that I remembered, that I fell back on, is that when I was in elementary school, in the early elementary school, first through sixth grade, that [things were done by drill]  ….[END OF SIDE]…. We had English classes, we had math class, and in all of those classes, one of the key components was drill.  So when I started teaching at NOCCA, I began to use that aspect.  Because it stuck with me.  You just drill on something and you drill on it until they get it.  And it wouldn’t matter…

See, this is another thing.  It wasn’t so much about whether somebody was into jazz or classical.  The drilling aspect had to do with whatever the subject matter was at the point that you were teaching.  Because I was also responsible for teaching Classical students, not just what we call jazz students, and I had to develop a sight-singing class which everybody had to take.  The biggest part of that that I used was drill — drilling on intervals, drilling on individual notes, drilling in all of that.  Basically, you concern yourself a lot with whether or not somebody wants to be a certain thing.  Like, I would ask students, “Give me an example of a model or somebody that if you could be like that, if you could sing like that or play like that…who would it be like?”  And you would use that sort of as a guide of trying to figure out how they were thinking.

But I think what Branford was talking about was usually private teaching.  Because you can’t do that in a school!  Now, one of the things that we used to do also was make students responsible.  You see, one of the major problems with public school education today is that, from what I can see, students are never responsible for anything.  You don’t have to be responsible.  I just read in the paper the other day where this woman in a town, she and 12 other people just resigned, plus the principal, because they wanted her to change the grade.  The parents were calling up all hours of the night… What it was is that she gave an assignment, and 23 of the students cut-and-pasted their way over the end of that, and turned the papers in, and she could see what they had done.  So she gave them all zero, and got in a lot of trouble because of that.  Because nobody wants the students to be responsible.

But that was one of the things we had that was in our favor.  We had a principal at NOCCA whose discipline was theater.  His name was Dr. Tom Tews.  The only thing he asked us to do was, “Just tell me what you’re doing,” because he didn’t want to be blind-sided by somebody coming up to him saying that the faculty is doing something he didn’t know nothing about!  But we had unlimited opportunities to restructure what we were doing curriculum-wise, and change it around to meet the needs of the students that we had — just to do a lot of things that were flexible.  But we would make students responsible, even when the parents would come in hollering and screaming.  And I think that’s basically what the problem is right now.  They’re not allowed to be responsible.  Then they get out in the world, and there it is!  But that’s a whole other story.
TP:    It would seem that a magnet arts school, where you have motivated students, would be well suited…

MARSALIS:  Well, that’s a myth, see.  The whole idea of having very motivated students comes either after they get there and discover that there’s something they can develop if the platform is suitable for their individuality.  Otherwise, the motivated students usually get turned-off at school.  Because schools do not emphasize individuality.  And when people become motivated, they become motivated as an individual.

TP:    Do you emphasize individuality?

MARSALIS:  Oh, we had to.  That’s the only way an arts school can work.  You cannot herd an art school and have it really work effectively.

TP:    Donald Harrison told me that Kidd Jordan would call him at 8 in the morning to make sure he’d done what he was supposed to, that he’d take extra time and so on.  Did you take a role with students outside of the school?

MARSALIS:  Not a lot.  Well, I had a lot of other responsibilities.  If it was something that I could help them with and it took some extra time, I’d find that.

TP:    Let’s get through NOCCA, and start talking about… You started teaching at the University of New Orleans when?

MARSALIS:  1989.

TP:    So the timeline is, you’re at NOCCA from 1974 to what year?

MARSALIS:  ’86.

TP:    Then you go to Virginia Commonwealth.

MARSALIS:  Right.

TP:    That’s where Victor Goines and Clarence Penn and various others come under you, then you get a faculty position at the University of New Orleans.

MARSALIS:  Yes, but that’s not really so much true for Victor Goines.  See, Victor was a kid that I knew along with my kids when he was still in high school.  He didn’t go to NOCCA.  For a while, he was at Loyola.  Before he graduated from Loyola University, he started to study privately with me.  And eventually, I just put him in my band.  Because I had a quartet.  The band went on a Southeast Asian tour in the month June of 1986, before I left to go to Virginia Commonwealth.  Because see, Victor was teaching math at St. Augustine High School.  After I left, he decided that he wanted to come up and go to graduate school!  That’s what he did.  But to tell you the truth, while I was at Virginia Commonwealth, I never had any classes that Victor was in.

TP:    So there are three different categories.  There’s the New Orleans public schools, the Catholic schools, and there’s private tutelage.  So musicians in New Orleans coming up would go through any combination of these routes.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  There was also the total practicum, like the kids who went to the junior high school and learned some basics, and then put a band together and went out on the street, and opened up their cases, and started playing for the tourists.

TP:    Which is something that’s distinct to New Orleans.

MARSALIS:  Well, a lot of places, they’ll put you in jail if you play on the street. You can’t just play on the street.  But in New Orleans, that’s a different town.  They may have some restrictions by now.  But man, a lot of people were playing on the street, some who now have careers!

TP:    Kidd Jordan disapproved of the effects of that.  He said it sort of stifled the urge to learn or expand or explore.  In a broader sense, how do you see the impact of the vernacular aspect New Orleans music and the Caribbean tinge of New Orleans culture on the way musicians develop and evolve and think?

MARSALIS:  Well, for the most part, I think it’s all economic-driven.  I mean, those people who call themselves music teachers in public schools… It’s economically driven.  If there were no jobs out there, they would not subject themselves to four and five years of college training to get a degree not to work.  And these kids get an early start, especially from some of these junior high schools with these brass bands.  Now, I don’t think that it’s anathema to learning at all.  I think kids get turned off by adults very early in life.  It’s not the music that’s causing them to do that.  It’s the mere fact that there’s nothing going on in the schools.  If there was something going on in the school, they wouldn’t quit.  Or if there was something happening musically, they wouldn’t want to… For example, Terence Blanchard was going to John F. Kennedy High School.  A marvelous band instructor over there.  I mean, this guy was great — the concert band.  Well, he played in that concert band while he was a student at NOCCA, because there was something going on over there.

Branford went to de la Salle, and the music program over there was okay.  But Branford was talking at one point about going and being a lawyer or something.  Which was all right with me.  I didn’t care.  But it didn’t appear to me that he was doing what he needed to do to be at the school.  So we came to the mutual agreement that he ought to leave that school and go to the one of the public schools, and then just attend NOCCA and study the music for the remainder of his high school time.

TP:    So to you, the cultural thing in New Orleans where the younger musicians play and the oral tradition aspect is a very positive thing.

MARSALIS:  Of course.

TP:    Could you elaborate a little on why it’s a positive thing?

MARSALIS:  Well, mostly it’s positive because, first of all, it’s economically driven, and the kids who do it generally need whatever monies they can come up with.  It also promotes a certain amount of teamwork, because it means that these kids have to organize themselves into a functioning unit with virtually no adult supervision at all.  That’s another thing.  And that skill is a very useful skill for anybody or any group of people to learn early enough in life.  The next thing is, they begin to understand a friendly relationship with the general public.  When you go out there on the street and open up your case, there are things that you can get to learn.  You learn what people will put money in the case to hear you play, and probably they don’t want to particularly put their money in… In other words, if you’re out there and you have a group, and your group was playing some Bach chorales with a brass ensemble, the amount of money that you get is going to determine whether you keep playing that.  Now, if you keep playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” and people start putting money in the box… I mean, it don’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out!  So these kids go out there immediately playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” or some other piece like that.  Now, it’s anybody’s guess to assume that at some point they will have wanted to play some chorales of J.S. Bach.  We don’t really know.  And a lot of people say, “well, if they wouldn’t have been doing that, then they would be learning this over here.”  We don’t really know that.

There have been numerous times… There was a wonderful band teacher who passed on, named Donald Richardson.  Donald Richardson had a junior high school, and he was totally devoted to his kids, and when they would graduate from that junior high school, if they went to a high school and that high school didn’t have a challenging band, the horns were in the case, the case went under the bed, and they went and did something else.  So we can’t make the assumption that kids have this undying need to learn certain kinds of music.

TP:    What kinds of music?

MARSALIS:  Any kind.  Anything that would be considered by the people who make those statements as challenging.

TP:    There’s a quote in an article I saw on the Web from Jason Marsalis that instead of telling a musician everything, you tell them just enough so they’ll discover certain things on their own.

MARSALIS:  Yes, I think jazz is really about the art of discovery.  And I don’t mean discovery in terms of guesswork.  What I mean is that give a person a certain amount of information, and you have to make sure that that information is communicated.  Then from that point, they have to begin to make decisions about that information.  And like I said earlier, not everybody has the personality to improvise.

TP:    What sort of personality do you need to improvise?

MARSALIS:  All you really need is the spirit of adventure, and it’s applied to what your understanding is of the music that is being presented to you.  Because it’s very easy, man.  I did a workshop, and I can’t remember where it was, but it was a guy who had a band; there was a whole room-full of students in there, and it was just me and this little raggedy piano.  And I developed a way where I could give a kid maybe five notes, and play some little things on piano.  If you just play those five notes any way you want to play them, you can’t go wrong — except if you don’t play at all.  This one kid was playing vibraphone, and I said, “I want you to try it.”  Oh, no.  He was real shy.  And his fellow students started to encourage him.  So finally, he decided that he’d try it, that he’d play, and I backed him up as he played.  And about ten minutes, man, we couldn’t shut him up!  He wanted to play the rest of the workshop!  Now, I don’t know that he had an opportunity to do that before. He didn’t act like he did.  But he didn’t even want to try.  So you don’t really know.
TP:    So half the battle is breaking down the resistance to trying.

MARSALIS:  Well, if it’s in the personality.  There was a young man who was a trumpet player, and he came into the class.  And I could not communicate with him what it took for him to experiment in improvisation.  It didn’t appear to be in his personality to want to do that. I mean, he tried and he wanted to do it.  He went on eventually, man, to become a principal trumpeter in the symphony orchestra.  So the musicality was already there.

TP:    Let me get back to what Branford said you do with piano players, and what you said you did initially in NOCCA, which was deal with the blues.  Now, there’s no established pedagogy for the blues, certainly not when you were beginning 27 years ago.  How did you organize your principles of teaching the blues?

MARSALIS:  See, what I had to do… It reminds me of dealing with a kid with Play-Dough.  What you do is, you give him the play-dough, and you say, “Here, take this and make something out of it.”  I would write out some notes which, when played, would be 12 measures of the blues.  So they could do two things.  One, get the sound of the notes in their ear; the other is to reposition their fingers in such a way that they would play when they would practice.  Their fingers would get used to those positions.  I have one exercise where it was just the left hand, another exercise where it was both hands, another exercise where it was the left hand with some different chords.  But it was all based on the blues.  And there again, it’s just a matter of drill.
TP:    A matter of drill and then their personality accepts it or it doesn’t.

MARSALIS:  Yeah.  Well, with the piano players it could be a little different.  Because with the piano players you’ve given them notes which basically outline a whole form.  It’s a different thing with a piano player.  The piano player still has to do the same thing from an improvisatory standpoint.  But what you do is, you give them all of the notes in the beginning.

TP:    Would you say that your experience as an improviser informs your teaching and the way you relate to students?

MARSALIS:  Yeah, definitely.  First of all, it helps me to understand a lot better what it is that I’m trying to get them to do.  Because if I can’t improvise myself, there’s no way that I’m going to be able to teach them.  But see, what causes one to be able to teach, and somebody else to be a great improviser and maybe not be able to teach, is that they don’t necessarily do respective thinking about what they are doing so that they can convert it and create a language to communicate that.  Because all of teaching centers around a language.  How could you teach Medicine if you don’t have a name for the principles.  It’s the same thing.

And a lot of times, the problem… Well, I don’t know if it’s the problem or not.  There is not a codified language for jazz.  There are some things, the blues… But “blues” is a general term.  It’s not by any means as specific as, say, the heart would be if a doctor studies medicine.  That’s very specific!  But what I’m saying is that we have to have enough terminology so it can communicate what the essence is in terms of studying jazz improvisation.

TP:    In one of these things I saw on the Web, the writer describes you asking a trumpeter if he knows “Caravan,” the student replies that he has the sheet music, and you say that “the sheet is always secondary — always.”  Does jazz continue to be an oral music in any manner?  And how do you deal with that quality within the prerequisites of teaching within an institution and a curriculum?

MARSALIS:  Well, the thing about jazz being an oral music is that if you don’t have the oral component of the music, what you will have done is taken away the natural ingredients of it.  It’s sort of like the difference between preserves and fresh fruit.  See?  Like, if you could walk up to a tree and there are some apples on that tree, you can pick an apple, and you can eat that apple.  Now, there are people who learn how to make preserves, and in most cases, they always taste the same.  And you can get it whenever you need it.  But the apple on the tree is only going to be there for so long. Like the solo.  I mean, if somebody plays a great solo, if you’re not there when they do it, then you won’t hear it.  If it’s a recording, you hear sort of a replication of it.  Which would be like the preserves.  Which is why the term “preservation” comes into play.

TP:    That’s a very interesting metaphor.

MARSALIS:  But that’s basically what it is.  And any student has to develop an understanding of what a solo really is.  Solos are not unlike a novel — or a short story.  You have a beginning, you have a developmental section; you have a point or a peak; and then ultimately you have a climax or an ending.  Solos are like that.

TP:    To what extent do you give students vocabulary from other players as part of their repertoire?  A process a lot of people do, maybe you did this yourself with Oscar Peterson or Bud Powell, is the imitation of solos and an understanding of how master artists organized vocabulary in different periods.  Is that important to your curriculum and pedagogy?

MARSALIS:  Yes, but I don’t like to academize it.  See, students spend so much time with academic descriptions of things, until they begin to try to put everything in that category, and they begin to lose the ability to hear certain subtleties.  I mean, it’s bad enough you’re listening to a recording, which can sometimes take the essence away from what was going on.  It reminds of something I read that Earl “Fatha” Hines said. Somebody was talking about the recordings of Art Tatum, and Fatha Hines said, “Man, forget the recordings thing; you’ve got to have been there!”  That’s a whole other level of experience in that music.  Students have to learn, the ones who are really going to pursue it, that the concept of a solo is in the development of it, and the more references that you have to draw from, the better possibilities you have of a solo.

TP:    To extrapolate on that Fatha Hines quote, “You have to have been there,” it’s becoming increasingly hard for younger musicians to be there in terms of at least of expressing the older vocabulary as expressed by the people who created that vocabulary.  Is there any contradiction in there?

MARSALIS:  How could it be a contradiction?

TP:    It could be a contradiction, because if someone is dealing with getting the sound of Jelly Roll Morton together, such as Eric Reed, who dealt with it functionally in the LCJO, he wasn’t there to witness it, but he dealt with it in a real-time situation.  One thing that’s often noted by younger musicians is at once the increasing options of vocabulary available to them and the increasing distance from the people who created that vocabulary.

MARSALIS:  I know what you’re saying.  Well, the point is this.  There again, I use metaphors in athletics.  The same could be said of Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson.  Those who were there when Magic was doing what he was doing, got the experience that those who were not there didn’t get.  Now, it doesn’t mean that those who were watching Kobe Bryant cannot appreciate the game, the style of play, which essentially was a part of the same thing that Magic was doing.  But I think what happens with music is that it becomes so academic.  When I say “academic,” it becomes like the analyzation of a solo in which somebody starts talking about the technical parts of it, and the scale, and how he used this scale and that scale and another scale — and that’s not what the person who was doing the solo was thinking about at all.  I’ve also used as a metaphor that it would be like if somebody asked a student to do a book report, and when they got ready to do the book report, they’d stand up and say, “Well, the person who wrote the book led off with two prepositions, three nouns, two adjectives, followed by a period,” and go through that whole thing.  Now, if you want to analyze the sentence structure, that may be true.  But I doubt very seriously if that’s what the person who wrote the story was thinking about.  And it’s a similar kind of thing with music.

So when Fatha Hines said that you had to have been there, I mean, that’s one of those things that sort of vibrated sympathy.  Obviously, he couldn’t have been where Tatum was, but it expressed something that makes you realize that whatever analysis you apply to this music is inadequate in terms of what actually was going down.

TP:    How important is it for students to know about the milieu in which the music was going down?

MARSALIS:  It’s important totally.  There again, it’s the same thing with athletics.  I mean, the average kid, when he comes into the NBA today, he knows about the City Game!  They know about the City Game.  Kareem knew about the city game.  All of them!

TP:    Well, Kareem was part of the City Game!

MARSALIS:  So what I’m saying essentially is that what a lot of students don’t get, in some cases, is the academic complement.  I think if you can get an academic complement, so that the experience becomes total…

TP:    But the way I mean the question is: Is it important for a kid who is marching in brass bands and is then going on to further musical education to understand, let’s say, the historical origins of brass bands, how marching bands might relate even to customs in Africa, as you once described on a radio show we did.  Is that sort of well-rounded knowledge essential to a contemporary aspiring jazz musician?

MARSALIS:  Yeah.  I was listening to one of those guys in a brass band doing an interview.  And one of the first things he said when a young guy came into the band… He said, “The first thing you’ve got to understand is that this is part of a tradition, but when you come here, you don’t come here with no strange attitude.”  And he wasn’t talking about music to him.  What he was talking  about are those things that are peripheral, those things that put some meaning into that.

I remember Wynton made a statement to me one time, and he was waiting for me to rebut him.  He started talking about bebop.  He said, “man, bebop brought a negative element into the music.”  And I said, “Yeah, you’re right.  It did.”  And that’s a generation that I was a part of.  And the reason why that occurred had as much to do with the recording industry as it did with anything else.  Because in the recording industry, technology advanced to a point where people could begin to play longer and longer and longer. When you go back and listen to Charlie Parker…

TP:    Three minutes.

MARSALIS:  Well, maybe five.

TP:    He has the famous quote, “If you can’t say all you have to say in two choruses, you’re practicing.”

MARSALIS:  That’s right. So essentially, what happened is that another negative element… Well, actually, I don’t necessarily consider that a negative element.  When they started to emphasize the whole drug scene.  Well, that has to do with something else.  I mean, whoever controls the press decides what’s going to get in it.  And if anybody was paying attention, the amount of jazz musicians interested in drugs wouldn’t even register 0.000-whatever.  So that element I didn’t consider.

TP:    I think in bebop it was a pretty consequential element.  I’ve been doing articles on people like Jimmy Heath, who had that experience.  I spoke to Frank Wess on Friday for a piece, and he said one reason music today is better than it was then is that the musicians then dissipated themselves in an almost commonplace manner, and today that isn’t the case.  I think that’s a fact about at least a lot of the musicians of the time, for better or for worse.

MARSALIS:  Well, it’s not so much that that’s not a true statement.  But I don’t know that that could be proven.  I’ll tell you the reason why I say that.  First of all, there are peripheral factors involved.  When I say “peripheral,” let’s take, for example, the first fifty years, from 1900 to about 1950-ish.  The total economy of the jazz musician was gangsters.  There was no other economy.  Now, that managed to produce a lot of fantastic players in spite of the fact that that was the situation.

Now, as great as some of the young players are today, the democratic process that goes on with the schools teaching jazz and some clubs coming along, and… Like where I work.  It’s a nice club!  The situation is conducive now to make jazz a respectable area to function in.  In reality, it has lost a lot of its individuality as a result of that.  Because when you mainstream something… Everything has a good and bad side.

TP:    It’s a dialectic.

MARSALIS:  Right.  But when you go back and you start listening to all them tenor players, man, from Chu Berry on, and people who were lesser lights, like Eddie Lockjaw Davis, and…

TP:    To some, he is not a lesser light.

MARSALIS:  Well, when I say “lesser light”…
TP:    I know what you mean.

MARSALIS:  Believe me, man, Jaws was a personal friend of mine.  I loved Jaws and I worked with Jaws. I listened to Jaws play some introductions, man, on his own… [LAUGHS]

TP:    I’ve heard people from every sphere of music talk of him, like how did he get those sounds with the fingerings he used?

MARSALIS:  The only reason why I said “lesser light” is because Lockjaw Davis never forgot that he was in show business.  He could never have been a John Coltrane attitude-wise.  He was never that.  So that level of dedication was not going to be there.  And it was the same thing like a Charlie Parker, who spent an enormous amount of time practicing, trying to figure all of this stuff out.  Jaws was a product of the times!  He was going to be representative among the players who was there.  He was the straw boss of Basie until he couldn’t… He and Basie philosophically fell out.  But what I’m saying was by no means saying a lesser light…

But when it comes down to it, when you listen to these kids, you hear them and you say, “Oh, man…”  My youngest son, Jason, is very responsible for some of these younger kids, and he’s almost like a senior to some of them.  The reason why is because Jason has learned the importance of researching the older guys, so he can tell a young drummer about Dodds!  About Baby Dodds!  See, he’s already researched that.  He can also tell them about, “Look, when you’re getting ready to present a solo, this is what you do.”  He did a session just recently with Curtis Fuller, who was in New Orleans during Jazzfest.  When Curtis got ready to play a ballad, the producer was saying, “Look, this is just with piano, bass and trombone.”  And Jason immediately knew what the problem was.  He didn’t say nothing.  So when they started playing, Jason got behind the drums and started sweeping.  So this guy said, “Yeah, man, that’s hip.  Not too many young guys can even play brushes at all.”  But see, he knows that.  And he knows about people not knowing the technique of playing brushes.  And he also understands when it started, and the whole ball of wax.

So I’m saying all of that to say that it is necessary that young kids understand and learn all of these things, because otherwise it becomes kind of like a guitar player, a kid who came to NOCCA when I was teaching there.  He was a senior, and usually we didn’t take seniors, because it was too late.  I said, “Look I’ll take you, and whatever I can do for you in a year, I’ll do.  Play the electric guitar.”  I put some records on to let him hear that.  I put George Benson on, and the recording George Benson made of “Paraphernalia” with Miles.  When the record was over, I said, “Well, what did you think?” He looked real bewildered.  He said, “I don’t know, man.  All I ever thought there was to Benson was ‘Breezing.'”  So consequently, what you get is a bunch of kids who just don’t know!  Because there’s been nobody there to say, “Hey, man, if you’re playing tenor saxophone…”

[END OF SIDE 2]

TP:    …among black musicians was the notion of having your own sound, above and beyond just about anything else, in many ways.

MARSALIS:  Essentially, that was one of the things that contributed to the fact of whether you were going to work or not.

TP:    So again, it’s economic.

MARSALIS:  Well, that was one of the factors.  It wasn’t just the only one.  But the thing is, there was no uniformity.  You go up to Eastman.  They’ve got a great music department at the Eastman Conservatory. Look at the cats in that band.  I mean, there’s a conservatory approach to jazz.  All the saxophone players got the same sound.  And they can all play!  And you listen to these guys playing a solo, and you can’t tell which one is what!  There is no individuality, man.

And having your own sound has as much to do with… I remember Jug told me, Gene Ammons told me… See, Gene Ammons went to school under Walter Dyett.  Gene Ammons said, man, “When I went to study in the band, the first thing the dude did was gave me the mouthpiece, and I had to play that for a month.  Then I got to the neck, and I had to play that for another month or so.  Then finally, I got the horn.”

TP:    Von Freeman told me the same thing.

MARSALIS:  Yeah!  He said by that time, what you do is develop a sound.  In some cases, it’s not so much my sound as much as it is a sound.  Because when you start to play jazz especially, you hear differently than what happens when you study classical music.  And even with Classical music, there are people who have individual sounds with that, even though you’d have to be really attuned to hear them.

TP:    Well, connoisseurs can tell Michelangelo Benedetti from Pollini, or Dinu Lupatti from…

MARSALIS:  Michelangelo Benedetti was one of my favorites, especially for French music.

But for the most part, I think that’s one of the things that sometimes people misconstrue when they say “my sound.”  Everybody’s got a sound.  Because once you learn how to play that instrument, whatever comes out of it is going to be your sound anyway.

TP:    I’m trying to circle around to an ending.  How, within your pedagogy, did you give students that imperative of developing your own sound?  Is that just implicit within what you give them?

MARSALIS:  Essentially it is.  Because I never had them for that long.  That’s the one thing you’ve got to realize about teaching in a high school.

TP:    But now I’m talking about college, too.

MARSALIS:  Well, college is totally different.  See, the thing about college and universities, you get students in clumps.  If you’re teaching an improvisation class, you get all of the students that’s taking that at that time.  Now, they’re studying their instrument with somebody else.  You see?  And if you happen to have a combo that you’re teaching, there are some things you can pass on to them in that context. That’s teaching a combo.  But that individual approach is not there nearly as much.  Because by the time you get to the university, you have to spend a lot of time, hopefully, in dealing with refining what’s there.

TP:    But do you use the same principles in dealing with your university students as you did with your students at NOCCA?  Is what you did at NOCCA the building block for the Ellis Marsalis way of teaching?

MARSALIS:  Yes, definitely.

TP:    Let’s say I’m some administrator giving you a grant.  How would you boil down your principles for me?  The one or two minute synopsis.
MARSALIS:  Basically, it’s important to learn the three elements of music — rhythm, harmony and melody, not necessarily in that order.  And you apply that to each piece that you play.

TP:    Since you only took ten seconds to answer: How are you going to go about giving it to them?  Through drill?

MARSALIS:  Yes.

TP:    It’s all drill.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  You can really study two songs a semester, and teach everything that you need to teach in that given semester.

TP:    What two songs would those be?

MARSALIS:  Any two songs that have to do with the form.  Like a 32-measure form, AABA… It doesn’t matter.  Because all of them are going to have rhythm, harmony and melody.  It’s a busy-word(?) concept to give somebody 25 songs to learn.  I was telling my colleague that.  He said, “Man, they ought to learn 25 songs at a minimum.”  I said, “But what are they going to play on those songs?”  You take one song and say, “Okay, here is the verse, here is the melody, this is what the harmony is.”  Now, the first thing you’ve got to do is learn how to play each of those component parts.  And it takes time to do that.  Now, you multiply that by ten, and what time do you have?  You don’t have no time.  You’re scuffling, trying to make some arbitrary deadline.

TP:    So you really are like Walter Dyett and Samuel Browne in a lot of ways.

MARSALIS:  I hope so. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You really are.  I’m glad I’m not imposing some rigid thesis on you.  One final question.  What do you think of the state of things in jazz now?  We’re talking about some negatives, like maybe lack of individuality among young musicians, but overall, what’s your sense of the state of things as opposed to 15 years ago, when you started at Virginia Commonwealth, or 28 years ago, when you started at NOCCA?

MARSALIS:  Well, those are very short periods of time.  I think that jazz ultimately will become a major part of the cornerstone of American music.  I just heard a trio… This was a classical group.  I think all of them went to Juilliard, and they were playing a piece by one of their contemporaries, who is a violinist, who has been playing with a Rock band, and is now composing music, and has been playing violin with Ornette Coleman.  It was piano, cello and either violin or viola.  When they started to play his piece, I could hear “Lonely Woman,” man, in the beginning theme of it.  That’s the direction that the music is going in.  And the people who are going to make the biggest contributions towards it are the same as it was in Europe as composers.

TP:    When you say “that’s the direction,” do you mean Ornette Coleman or do you mean the hybrid?

MARSALIS:  The hybrid.  That’s it.  It’s going to be like this violin player, the bluegrass player… He’s written a composition that’s very interesting, too.

TP:    A young guy?

MARSALIS:  Not too young.  He’s younger than me.  Top of the list.  Top line.  The representative of that.  Well, anyway, I’ll think of it.

TP:    Another aspect of the hybrid is all the musicians internationally who are coming here with substantial idiomatic knowledge of jazz and bringing their own cultural information to the table.  I’m thinking particularly of musicians from all over the Caribbean and South America.  And it seems to me that the rhythmic template of jazz, things that were maybe esoteric 10-15 years ago, are no longer esoteric.  Do you perceive this internationalization of the music, that it’s incorporating more information at this point?

MARSALIS:  Of course.  That’s the way that is. That’s why we get terms like “globalization.”  I don’t think music is the only representation of that.  I think whatever you see is happening in terms of economics, in terms of the market, in terms of trade… There was a big thing in the paper here yesterday, they’re trying to make a deal between France and New Orleans to build a super-port.  So it’s all-inclusive.  That’s what I’m saying.  It’s not really a separate thing.

TP:    So the world is smaller, people can transcend the particularities of their locale, and you can get anywhere in a day, that sort of thing?

MARSALIS:  That’s right.

[-30-]
* * * *

Ellis Marsalis (7-01-02):

TP:    Virginia Commonwealth was your first university position?

MARSALIS:  Correct.

TP:    What was the situation when you arrived there, and what did you do?

MARSALIS:  There’s different layers to that.  First of all, there’s the idea of moving to another state at that time in my life, and a lot of pressures that it brought on my wife.  That’s one situation.  Then not only was it beginning a job, but a university job in a program that was rather young.  They had a jazz program when I got there, but it was not totally defined in any strict way.  The band director, Doug Richards, was probably the best jazz band director that I had ever seen; he could really get a tremendous amount out of a jazz band.  But there wasn’t anybody there who really wanted to actually head a program.  In other words, we had a whole lot of soldiers and no real chiefs.  The faculty was a very able faculty across the board.  There were 44 people on that faculty, most of whom were in classical music, but it was not an antagonistic situation.  So there were things I had to get used to.

But it’s one of those things that the more I did it, the more I found out that it wasn’t that much different than teaching at NOCCA.  The reason for that is that when you teach in a typical high school, there’s an adversarial situation between the administration, the teachers, and the students which is built in.  And the laws of any given state do not permit you to treat the students as really the way they are.  They’re really like young adults who have intelligent.  But the various state laws don’t permit you to function with them like that.

TP:    As young adults.

MARSALIS:  Right.  So teaching in the average high school, they have virtually no real responsibility that’s allowed.  All the classes are like herds.  you go in one herd to Class A, and then to the math class, and then to the history class, and then at some point you go home.

Now, at the university, there’s a lot less pressure from that end, because the students decide what they take and what they don’t take.  So it creates a different kind of pressure, if you will.  Because students who go into high school are going mostly because they either need it as a means to get somewhere else or because it’s mandated by the state after a certain age.  At the university, when a student chooses to go to a university, they do so because they think that it’s going to affect their lives in some way.  So the way that we taught at NOCCA, it was very much like a college, even though it wasn’t a college, because the students that we would retain were students who had shown a determination towards performance at a professional level.

TP:    Did they tend to sort themselves out?  How did you ascertain that they were ready for that?

MARSALIS:  Well, it isn’t a case of them being ready for it at all.  It’s a case of them making a decision based upon what was asked of them, whether or not they wanted to pursue that particular discipline as a career.  There were five disciplines at this school.  Then what they had to do was to look at it and make that decision.  And encouragement for professionalism was always there.  At the average high school, band directors would never tell students in the band that they could be professionals, unless that person was a pro himself and would sort of pick somebody and put him in a group with them and say, “Look, if you want to, you could probably do this.”  Because in most cases, teachers who teach in high schools… I remember something that the chairman of the music department told me at Virginia Commonwealth, which I really thought was tacky.  He said, “Most of the people on this faculty are failures.” I said, “What do you mean, they’re failures?” He said, “Well, they really want to do what you do, but they don’t really have it, so they teach instead.”  I said, “Damn, man, that’s a little bit jive.”

TP:    I’ve heard a lot of musicians say, for instance, who went to Berklee, that they were taught by someone who couldn’t play, etc.

MARSALIS:  Well, a lot of times, people are hired on that basis.  The reason for the preponderance of an emphasis on certification by way of academic credentials is that it creates the means by which people can hire someone, and as a result, blame it on somebody else if it doesn’t work out.  Because if you have a Ph.D and whatever, that’s the justification to pay you X amount of dollars and give you certain… I think my wife was telling me, or somebody, that the corporations are beginning to look differently at MBAs, saying an MBA is nothing, that hiring people on the basis of that is not the thing to do.  The school system here just got rid of the second superintendent in a row, and it’s decided that the procedure they’re going to go through is not to go and look for some superstar somewhere, but to actually go within the university community to see if they can get someone to be the superintendent of the public schools in the city that they function.

TP:    So someone who knows New Orleans to deal with the New Orleans schools.

MARSALIS:  Well, that could be what their mindset is, but believe me, nothing could be further from the truth.  Like I said before, man, there’s a lot of things about the law which nobody really deals with, which just doesn’t permit you to do certain things in the schools.  And the kids know the law.

TP:    I’m getting away from the college, and I want get back to it.  But it seems the subtext to what you’re saying about what you were able to accomplish at NOCCA is that you were able to do it precisely because it was a magnet school.

MARSALIS:  Precisely.  It was a magnet school, and we had a principal who came from the theater as a background [Tom Tews].  Consequently, his philosophy was, it’s much easier to get forgiveness than permission.  So we would do a lot of things that were good for the students, and if necessary, tell the school board people later.

TP:    I think I’m restating we talked about last week, but you developed a lot of your ideas about what was good for the students through your experience as a working jazz musician and an improviser.

MARSALIS:  Precisely.

TP:    I had asked you to boil down your educational philosophy as though I were an arts administrator, and you said, “Learn the fundamentals of melody, harmony and rhythm, and do it through drill.”  Can you boil down what it was you learned as a professional jazz musician and improviser that gave you the sense of what your students needed to know?

MARSALIS:  I think I discovered the relationship between the Blues and the American Canon, the music canon, and how it related to… How can I put this? Learning how to play Blues became like learning arithmetic.  Before you can get to algebra, calculus and trigonometry, you must have mastered the fundamentals of arithmetic.  The Blues is like arithmetic.  It’s the simplest approach to learning improvisation.  And that’s one of the things I learned about Blues.

TP:    And why is it the simplest approach to learning about improvisation?

MARSALIS:  Because you don’t have a lot to deal with.  Like, 12 measures is equivalent to one chorus.  It’s a repetitive situation, chorus after chorus after chorus.  And the students can be given relatively few notes.  I would write out 12 measures of chords that would turn out, when played, to be a blues.  I was doing two or three different things at the same time.  One, I was presenting them with a visible manifestation of the form of blues in one chorus.  Two, I was using chord symbols to represent in a vertical manner the sounds that they were going to deal with in a linear manner.  See, after a while, this thing gets to be complex.  The next thing is getting them to a point where they could deal with music that’s in motion.  When you start to play and you count off the Blues, they begin to understand that you have to be at Measure 1-2-3-4, in a certain time frame, so you become sensitized to the flow of the rhythm.

TP:    Of the knowledge you had accumulated up to this time, what percentage of it was vernacular and functional, and what percentage of it came from your academic training?

MARSALIS:  None of it came from my academic training to speak of.  First of all, I did not go to a music school.  The university that I went to had an ample music department, which was sort of typical.  It was sort of like, “Okay, this is a university, we need to have music, so we’ll just put something there.

TP:    Didn’t Dillard have a very good art department in the ’30s and ’40s?

MARSALIS:  Well, in the ’30s and the ’40s, there were people there who had the beginnings of what could have evolved into a great music program — or a great anything.  See, when you start to talk about the ’30s and the ’40s, you’re talking about a completely different America.  What happened after the Second World War had a tremendous amount of effect on shaping what we’re going through right now.  I don’t care if you want to talk about Enron and WorldCom and them, or whether you want to talk about those young guys who’s out there playing a million notes a second in the name of Jazz, or the rappers who, when all else fails, curse.  It doesn’t matter.  What happened at the end of the Second World War set the stage for the American culture that we see today.  Now, what was going on before that was the beginning of something that sort of was just left behind.

TP:    What sort of things?

MARSALIS:  There were things that were common among universities.  For example, at one time, university presidents could help shape public policy.  Nowadays, university presidents are about fundraising.  Then, we’re talking about a predominantly black university, and there were several of those, and they were producing very good students.  For example, Tuskegee had George Washington Carver, who was doing miracles with the soil in Alabama and actually created crop rotation.  People like Charles (?), who at Howard helped to develop plasma, which saved the lives of a whole lot of guys in the Second World War.

What I’m saying is that the seeds that were planted during those days could have evolved in a lot of different directions.  Now, it’s for another generation at another time to go back and begin to ford all of that stuff out.  It’s sort of like looking at why the Roman Empire collapsed.

Anyway, in reference to what you were talking about as far as college is concerned, one of the first revelations that I had after I got there… I ended up meeting with the Chairman, and the Chairman said, “I was just looking over the applications that came in for the Fall, and I don’t see any jazz students’ names on these applications.  So what are you going to do about that?”

Well, that was a shock to me.  Because I had never been in a situation where I was under the gun for the RR — Recruitment and Retention.  See, that’s one of the things that you have to face when you’re going into a university — Recruitment and Retention.  Then I was forced to begin to say, “Now, who actually is the jazz student?”  We would take the big band and go straight up I-95 in Virginia, and go to these  different towns and these different high schools, and we’d leave there and go up into Maryland, where the high school similar to NOCCA, the arts high school… Antonio Hart came from one of them.  Then we’d leave there, and go on up to Philly, and go into that high school where Chris McBride and Joey DeFrancesco, some of them came from.

But eventually, what I started to realize was that most of the students we ran into, especially the trombone players, the good straight-up musicians, not necessarily people who were well-versed in jazz, but the good musicians — they were all talking engineering.  And the ones with the 1400s on the SAT, none of them were talking about going into the music.  And it wasn’t that I blamed them!  It’s just that I had never really thought about jazz studies.  Because in a high school, like at NOCCA, we were there for students to explore the possibilities of a career in one of five disciplines, whereas once you get to college, the students who come to a college are there to make decisions that will affect, if not the rest of their lives, at least a sizable chunk of them.  And whether it does or doesn’t, the motivation for going to a university is based on, “Hey, I’m trying to make a decision that’s going to help me to get a job here, doing this or that.”  Jazz was not viewed as economically viable in terms of university students, period.  Now, there’s always exceptions.  But you can’t run a program off of exceptions.  That’s one of the things I learned real quick.

TP:    Well, Chris McBride and Joey DeFrancesco went right into the fray.  They didn’t go to college, or at least not into that sort of program.

MARSALIS:  That’s right.  Well, those are exceptions.  That’s why I said I wasn’t talking about exceptions.  There are people who do that now.  There are even people, man, who are leaving high school and going into the pros.  In fact, they’re not the first ones anyhow.  Moses Malone did that.  I think essentially, if you can stay, that does… Because even if you go all the way through college, that doesn’t mean you’re going to stay.

TP:    That’s right.  You can go backwards in college.

MARSALIS:  [LAUGHS] Yeah.

TP:    So you were faced for the first time with having to recruit a band.  It brought your job description to a different plane than it had been before.

MARSALIS:  Yeah, I had go to out and try to find some students.

TP:    And I guess in competition with other programs, too.  You had to be like a coach.

MARSALIS:  Well, you’re always in competition with other programs.  Everybody is.  With the exception of whatever those programs are that just automatically get a huge body of people that they just have to say, “Well, we don’t want any more.”  I don’t know if Engineering is like that.  It may not be.  I was talking to a friend of mine who knows a professor at UCLA who teaches composition.  I had one lesson with this guy.  I forgot his name, but anyway, he was telling him that at one time, of his composition students at UCLA, he would get maybe 4 or 5 or 6 who were interested in film scoring.  See, all of them are now.  Every single one of them.  And when you think in terms of what has been happening lately, there is much more of a pronounced emphasis on John Williams, on Howard (?), on even one or two of the Newman family, of which there’s been an abundance in the film scoring world!  So television and movies play an important role in the decisions that people are making, and I think ultimately, the universities haven’t really figured out some of that.  I’m sure some institutions have.  But when it comes down to it… I was reading where Harvard University had a course called (?) that they just got rid of, because there wasn’t anybody taking it.  One of the things that was an assist when I got to UNO is that there were a lot of courses which had been approved through committee, and there was nobody teaching it.  So those numbers were there, and see, a lot of times, man, if you know what they are, you can go and take the number and develop a course without having to go totally through committee.  Because going through committee can sometimes be a hassle.

TP:    So you’d do an end run.

MARSALIS:  It’s kind of like an end run, yeah.

TP:    But at VCU, a number of musicians went through who are making an impact now.

MARSALIS:  Well, there’s only three that I know.  Clarence Penn, Alvester Garnett and Loston Harris.

Victor was teaching math in high school in New Orleans.  He’d been in my group.  I used to tell him, “Vic, if you really want to teach, I don’t see anything wrong with that, but to me it doesn’t make any sense to be teaching at these schools.  You ain’t got no benefits, man.  They could fire you tomorrow!  And you have no recourse whatsoever.  So if you really want to teach, you ought to teach in public school.  At least you’ll get some benefits!”  And when I left to come to VCU, he told me he’d thought about that, and he said, “Man, look, I don’t want to be sorry one day looking back and saying ‘I should have.'” So he split and came up there to work on his Masters.  He really did it in a year, but they wouldn’t let him finish in a year. They made him come back and register for a recital.  Eventually, he started to utilize his saxophone skills in different ways.  He went up to New York and was doing sub work in some of the Broadway type shows. I think at that time “Ain’t Misbehavin'” was running and a couple of other ones.  I remember he told me that when he went up to New York, somebody up there was talking to him at an audition, and the guy said, “Hey, man, do you know how to read?”  And he said at first he got insulted!  “Man, what is this?”  He said after he was around New York for a while, he found out why he was asked that. [LAUGHS] A lot of the musicians up there couldn’t read!

TP:    What would you say you brought to the faculty at VCU that hadn’t been there before?  Did you bring a new attitude, a new way of teaching?

MARSALIS:  I don’t think so.  Because I wasn’t there long enough.

TP:    Three years, right?

MARSALIS:  I was there for three years.  And I’m not sure to what extent that would have been a possibility to do.  Because I came in without the benefit of the kind of experience… Just to give you an example, there’s a guy at Virginia Commonwealth, a trombone player named Tony Garcia.  He edits the “Jazz Educational Journal,” which is the official organ of IAJE.  He sent me an email and asked me if I would be able to come up as part of a program that they are doing, and he outlined some of the things that he was able to do.  This is over the period of one year.  It’s fantastic.  Because what this guy was able to do is nothing short of miraculous.  Well, for one thing, he was instrumental in getting somebody (I don’t know the guy personally) to give 2 million bucks to the jazz program at VCU.  No jazz program has ever gotten that kind of money.  Not in a state institution.  I was the recipient of a million dollar chair.  But when it came down to it, nothing like that.  What it takes to be able to do that is the kind of press-the-flesh…

TP:    You need to have very solid political skills to pull off something like that.

MARSALIS:  That’s right.  There’s just an awful lot of things, man, that he was able to hook up.

TP:    The question has more to do with philosophy: Looking back, what would you have done that you didn’t?

MARSALIS:  One of the first things that I realized about Virginia Commonwealth was that being in Richmond meant… There was no music tradition in Richmond.  There was one little small space — I never went to that space — where some of the guys would play.  There was another space that was like a restaurant, but it was bigger.  And every now and then, they would bring somebody in.  But for the most part, the benefits of being in a city that had a history of music, where students who were coming out of high school as well as those who were coming out of the city of Richmond to go to VCU, would have been able either to participate in or just be a spectator of.

When I go to work on Friday nights at Snug Harbor, there’s a live band that’s playing right across the street.  On the corner from there, there’s a place Cafe Brazil, with live music.  Across the street from Cafe Brazil, there’s live music.  Now, we’re not even talking about what might be happening on Bourbon Street.  Then there’s all of these other different places in the area.  On North Rampart Street, there’s three spaces within two blocks of each other, one called Funky Butt, the other one called Donna’s Bar & Grill, which specializes in brass bands, and then a blues joint which the owner of Funky Butt owns.\

Richmond didn’t have that.  So when I looked at that, I started to realize that getting some people to come to Richmond, especially during the ’80s, to study Jazz, was seemingly very difficult.  So I decided that if I was going to stay here, I needed to find a niche, something I can, which would really not only justify being here, but make it a positive musical experience for most of the students.  So I was thinking of concentrating on developing rhythm sections — the piano, bass and drums.  That would mean getting people to come here and trying to specialize in that area.

TP:    Thus Clarence Penn and Alvester Garnett.

MARSALIS:  Right.  Now, Alvester I met while he was still in high school.  He came to VCU the following year.  So I was there I think a year while he was there.

TP:    I want to step back to your comments about what happened after World War II.  Is what you’re saying, in one sense, that the focus on core curricular values started to deteriorate at this time and it had a deleterious effect on the culture?  You made a very strong statement.  The tone of voice is strong.  The words are strong.  It seems what happened is an important issue to you.

MARSALIS:  I need to be more speculative here than direct, because it’s very difficult to be as close to that and be accurate historically.  What I’m beginning to realize is that we tend to be judgmental about things which are different from the way we grew up.

Anyway, the thing that happened after World War Two was television, for one thing.  And for the first time, here we have an invention which goes right into people’s homes, and within five years, which would put it right around 1950, there were about 10 million sets in the country.  Now, what television managed to do was twofold, at least.  One was to instantly let you know whatever was going on in almost any other part of the world that the networks chose to broadcast. Unlike, for example, “War Of The Worlds” on the radio with Orson Welles in 1939.  I mean, there were people out there in fields in the Midwest with guns waiting to go to war with the Martians.  And America, before World War Two, was not that much different, even going back to the past century.  I mean, there just was not that much of a difference in terms of the way the country was going on.  But as soon as World War Two came in, things like plastics were invented… I wish I knew all of them different inventions.  I remember we got our very first refrigerator in 1941.  Before that, it was the icebox.

TP:    In New Orleans, that was an important thing.

MARSALIS:  Well, it was an important thing everywhere.  Because what it meant was that you could now keep food one or two days longer than you could otherwise.  So many things started to happen.

I think what happened with jazz is that jazz moved closer toward the musical objectives that have been prevalent primarily in European Classical Music.  What I mean is this.  During the time of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and Kid Ory, all of these earlier guys, they played music for the sheer entertainment of people.  They played dances, and when they played the blues, it was for people to dance to.  They had cutting contests, but the cutting contest was music played at the level of the audience themselves.  For example, what they would do, they would have these flatbed trucks, and two bands would come. [The ballyhoo.] Whoever won that one, that’s where the people would go to dance.  By the time World War Two came (and I’m using World War Two more as a marker than the cause of anything), you had musicians coming out of the Swing Era with the dance bands, like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and various people… The top level of people was one thing, but then there were all of the disciples, if you will, like Sonny Stitt and various other people.  So the emphasis started to be placed on the soloist.  The elements of the music carried over was related directly to the band.

TP:    Max Roach used to say that had something to do with the tax the Federal government started putting on dance…

MARSALIS:  I know what you’re talking about.  That was in Dizzy’s book.  During the war, the government put a war tax of 10% on all venues that had a show.  Now, shows could be anything from juggling to dancing girls… For example, the Cotton Club, where Duke played.  Now, I don’t think the Cotton Club uptown was going on during the war years, because Owney Madden had gone to jail by then.  But anyway, 52nd Street had a lot of these little bitty clubs, and they would put a combo in there.  So with the combo, not having a show, the guys, especially the soldiers and sailors passing through… Ultimately, what you begin to get were bands that played for people who were sitting around the bar.

TP:    Minton’s wasn’t unlike that either.

MARSALIS:  Actually, Minton’s looked like a toilet almost.  There wasn’t nothing happening when I went to Minton’s in the ’50s.  It was in August and there were some bands there, but it was just a big old space.  I think there was a piano in there.  But it was like a lot of joints I’d seen in New Orleans.

Anyway, most of those places were like hustles.  That’s what I called them.  A hustle is when a guy opens up a club, because he either likes people or he’s fortunate to have someone leave him a piece of property, or whatever, and you didn’t really need anything other than connections to get a license and sell some booze.  Because at that time, I don’t know if anybody was dealing with food in these places anyway!  But Prohibition had gone by the wayside by 1933, when Roosevelt came in, so you’re looking at the development of the urban community on all fronts.  At the end of the war, you start to see the suburban community come into effect.  They’re building all of these post World War II houses in these little towns, and selling it, and the veterans is coming back, man, $500 to get you a house… [LAUGHS]

All of this played out in terms of signalling exactly what was going to be happening in America, and the music was no different.  Monk came out of the dance bands, too.  But when Monk started to play Monk, Monk was expressing Monk via his musicality and his intellect.

TP:    [rambling question on the way Monk, Bird, Powell were educated vis-a-vis contemporary musicians]

MARSALIS:  You’re looking in terms of trying to get an analogy between they learned and the way musicians learn today.  For one thing, it’s hard to really nail it down.  For example, on the back of a vinyl album, Willie The Lion Smith made the statement that a lot of people don’t understand how important it is to develop the left hand through learning the music of J.S. Bach.  James P. Johnson was very good classically; he was accompanist for a soprano at that time named Sister Rita Jones. Fats Waller was one heck of an organist.  So there had been all along people studying and learning European music.  Except as we get later and later into the century, we begin to find that schools primarily utilize European music as a discipline criteria to reinforce the attitudes, in some cases cultural, in some cases blatantly racist, and exclude anything else than European concert music in terms of teaching — you develop orchestra, choruses, choirs.  Everything you do centers around practicing and playing European concert music.

So jazz and any folkish music was on the outside.  The bluegrass players were like fiddlers.  Some of them used to have a joke that said, “He was a great fiddle player, but he went to college and learned to become a violinist.”  So the folk music aspect was kind of forsaken.  And jazz really was a folk music.  But the difference between jazz and other types of folk music was that jazz became grist for the mill of composers, even Ravel.  I think we are now beginning to get some composers looking at bluegrass.  Copland did to an extent, but it was all surface with Copland — “Billy The Kid” or “Appalachian Spring” you can hear that influence slightly.  But jazz sort of became a more formal statement of Americana through the development of the instrumentalist.  And when I say “the development,” what I mean is that the process of improvisation was something that was an intellectual development, and it occurred over a period of time with a considerable amount of musicians honing in on it, and it became separate from dance music.  Lester Young came to maturity with a lot of the stuff that he did in the Basie band, which was a dance band.  Woody’s band was a dance band.  Stan Kenton’s band was a dance band.  All of those bands were dance bands.  So the soloists had kind of a minor role.  In the early days, Billie Holiday used to complain about the fact that she had to go up there and sing just half-a-chorus and go back and sit down.  All the rest of those bands, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Bob Eberle…

TP:    Jimmie Lunceford.

MARSALIS:  Definitely.  Lunceford was a straight-up show band.  What I’m saying is that basically the bands were really like dance bands.  Sometimes in colleges they would refer to them as “swing bands.”  When I was in high school they had what they called a swing band. You could go buy arrangements.  There would be stuff like “9:20 Special” or you could get the stuff that Harry James was doing.  You couldn’t get no Duke Ellington, but you might get an arrangement somebody made for a standard band of something that Duke did.  But for the most part, that’s the way it turned out to be.

TP:    One thing a lot of people who passed through the bands note is that they themselves were a training school, like a functional conservatory, in terms of standards upheld and information being passed on.

MARSALIS:  In some cases you would find that.  But for the most part, there were several differences just in terms of who was doing what.  For example, jazz had always been a music that you either already had to know how to play, or you had to have a significant skill on the instrument in order to get it, and you just about learned everything on the job, because there wasn’t any place else for you to get it.  And there were a lot of kids learning because their daddy was a player or some other relative.  I saw that among musicians in New Orleans who were younger than me.  Clyde Kerr. The French brothers, Bob French and George French, the sons of Albert French, who played with Papa Celestin.  Sammy Alcorn, whose daddy, Alvin Alcorn, was a trumpet player.  But invariably, it was always second-class.

TP:    Jazz was second-class.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  It wasn’t like nowadays.  When I read the stuff that was done at Lincoln Center, they have status with the other aspects of Lincoln Center now.  There’s a big building going up, which they have a part of.  We’re speaking about a whole different thing.

TP:    It occurs to me when you say that many of the principles you espouse or the way you teach, in terms of how they got filtered through Wynton, are very much responsible for why Lincoln Center is in the position that it’s in, or what Victor Goines is doing at Juilliard.  So again, what your first principles are would seem to be very significant in the intellectual history of jazz at this moment because of the way they’ve been transmitted and filtered through other people. Maybe you think I’m wrong or overexaggerating, but I don’t think so.  When I hear him speak and hear you speak, I hear a lot of similar thought processes.  His own mind, certainly, but similar thought processes, similar metaphors.  This piece is about you as an educator, but I’m trying to pinpoint what it is about your first principles, the principles you bring to conveying information and the way you’re able to do it that has stuck.  The proof is very much in the pudding here.  We have these facts, these institutions.  This is a tangible change from 1987.  And in 1987, when the Lincoln Center Jazz program started happening, it was a very tangible change from 1974.

MARSALIS:  I think that the whole process is somewhat like America as a nation.  We’re still in the process of evolution.  We’re still evolving.  And I think the same thing is the case for the music.  I think if you would look at the formal aspects of European music, for example, at some point there was a peak which was reached by way of the composer.  And, to some extent, not only by the composer, but the performer.  I mean, Beethoven never heard his music on a Hamburg Steinway.  He would have no idea what that sounded like!  But it didn’t prevent him from writing the kind of music that makes stars out of people who do play on Hamburg Steinways.

So what we’re looking at is a multifaceted kind of thing.  The guy who invented the saxophone, his invention was too late for the European Masters, as they called them.  And the Rhapsody that Debussy wrote… He didn’t even like the saxophone.  Some woman gave him a check for about $500 for a piece, and he delayed as long as he could, and the woman aggravated him to a point to where he finally wrote this rhapsody for saxophone.  Now, there were other French composers who probably didn’t feel the same way about the saxophone.  Probably Ravel, because he wrote saxophone into “Bolero” which played a rather prominent part.  But the thing is, you can’t overlook that also.

So whatever it is that I managed to do didn’t really come by way of a philosophy.  Mostly it came by way of a reaction.

TP:    The music and the circumstances were telling you what to do at any given moment, and you were responding.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  And I would begin to do, I imagine, since I haven’t really studied, something similar to what Thomas Edison was doing.  I heard a story that his assistant said they had done about 150-200 experiments, and none of the lightbulbs worked.  Finally he said, “Man, we ought to give up on this, because this thing ain’t workin’!  We ain’t makin’ no progress at all.” And Edison supposedly said, “On the contrary, we know 150 ways that do not work.”  We don’t always think in terms of going to what doesn’t work.  That was one of the things that I started to learn.  For example, I remember one of my colleagues who was teaching instrumental music, he said, “Man, these kids need to learn 25 tunes a semester.”  Well, what are they going to play on those 25 tunes?  Because his expertise in terms of improvisation was really not that strong.  So he didn’t understand that you do practice improvisation, that you do actually do that.  But basically, I didn’t have a philosophy per se.

TP:    But you had first principles.
MARSALIS:  What do you mean?

TP:    You had a set of aesthetic values that governed your responses to these situations, and you had a culture and a milieu from which you emerged to face these situations.

MARSALIS:  Right.  That’s true.

TP:    This is all I’m saying, and it’s one reason why I’m so interesting in hearing you address the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, and how you perceive those times vis-a-vis today.

MARSALIS:  Essentially, the situation in the ’40s and a large portion of the ’50s was based on the entertainment side of music.  So jazz did not enjoy an acceptance in any academic sense.  And it’s not that people didn’t study.  I think I told you about this book that’s coming out on Yvonne Bush.  People went to school, and they studied, and the better teachers you had, probably you were most fortunate to have learned whatever you learned.  But when it came down to it, how to apply it was sometimes tied directly to employment opportunity.  I remember listening to stories… See, I had a chance to work with Cab Calloway.  I also had a chance to work with the Judge, Milt Hinton, and I knew Dizzy also.  The Judge would tell me how, during the break between shows somewhere they were playing, Dizzy would say, “Come up on the roof, man,” and he and Dizzy would get together on the stuff Dizzy was working on, and he’d tell him what to play.  Cab told me how… This is a little ancillary story.  They were doing a live broadcast for NBC Radio, and while they were going through the broadcast, Cab got hit in the back of the head with a spitball…

TP:    And it wasn’t Dizzy.

MARSALIS:  No, it wasn’t.

TP:    It might have been Jonah Jones.

MARSALIS:  It was.

TP:    Then they had the knife fight…

MARSALIS:  Yeah.  Then Dizzy stuck him in the rear with the knife.  But Cab told me, “Man, the next time I saw Dizzy, Dizzy came through with this arrangement, man, and said, ‘I’m going to try this arrangement; listen to this.'”  So they played it, and Cab said, ‘Man, what is that?'” Dizzy said, “Man, this is the new stuff; this is what’s happening.”  There were all of these people, like Gil Fuller, who was doing some of the writing, and Tadd Dameron.  To some extent, some of these people were also teachers.  For example, John Lewis was a teacher at CCNY.  I think Ron, too.

See, I have several ideas that I have yet to be able to implement.  First of all, I think that the drumset is the most important instrument in the jazz band.  That’s the first thing.  I’ll tell you an example.  I was doing a workshop in North Carolina with the jazz band at a university called Shaw.  It was a pretty good sounding band.  So after they finished playing, I asked the guys in the band, “Can you guys hear the drummer?”  See, a lot of times what happens, nobody takes the time to find out whether or not some of these people in the band can really hear from one end to the next, and unless they’re experienced players, they don’t know to tell the band instructor, “Hey, man, I can’t really hear what this guy is doing over there.”  So I asked them, could they hear the drummer, and they said, “Yeah, we can hear.”  So I said, “Let me ask you something.  When you listen to the drummer, tell me what you hear.”  Do you hear [SOFT ARTICULATED BEATS] or do you hear [UNDIFFERENTIATED BUZZ]?”  They said, “Yeah, that’s what we hear [LATTER].”

So I knew what was wrong with that.  And these were all very serious players.  I’ve done some workshops where guys come in with marching band sticks broke in half, no tips, paper on them.  They’re not even serious.  So I asked the drummer, “Hey, man, what size sticks are you using?”  He said, “I’m using 7A.”  He said, “Well, 7A, man, is a combo stick.  If you’re going to play and kick and a big band, you need at least a 5A, and if you’re going to play with a 5A, when you practice, you need to practice with a 3A, so that you build up to that.”  See, these are some things that I found out later on.

TP:    Very practical.  To help them succeed.

MARSALIS:  Oh yeah.

TP:    So you take for granted that they are going to have the fundamentals down through drill.  It’s as though the process of learning music is like learning a trade or an artisanal skill, and then it becomes art through all the permutations to which those skills are applied.

MARSALIS:  Well, you can get into a lot of trouble, man, trying to figure out at what point it becomes art.  That becomes a lot more philosophical than it does realistic. I mean, I listen to cats talk about “the art of hip-hop.”

TP:    But I’m talking about the art of Charlie Parker.

MARSALIS:  Yeah, I know.  But, see, that’s where the argument comes from.  Who gets the right to use that word?

TP:    The word “art.”  Do I have the right to use it.

MARSALIS:  Well, everybody has the right to use it.

TP:    But you know what I’m saying.

MARSALIS:  Yeah.  But it at some point it may become art, and it may not.  See, that’s the thing.  We don’t really know to what extent it will or won’t become art.

TP:    But you’re not concerned about that when you’re teaching, then.

MARSALIS:  No.  See, what I’m concerned about is whether these guys can put one foot in front of the other.  Because it becomes very difficult to start dealing with philosophy.  I think I might have told the story about the guitar player who was doing… When you get students like that, they have not had enough experience dealing with anything of a philosophical nature to start trying to preach “art” in that sense.  In most cases, you get to be lucky if they can play their instrument.  And if they can play their instrument, we just go from there.

TP:    Let me take you to University of New Orleans, so I have the chronology.  You stayed at VCU for three years, and then for a variety of reasons, I’m sure, you move back to New Orleans.

MARSALIS:  Well, for one reason.  The chancellor came and he made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse.

TP:    But I guess he didn’t have to hold a gun to your head to get you back to New Orleans.

MARSALIS:  Oh, no!  I still thought that New Orleans was the best place to develop a jazz program.  I think that New Orleans today is still the best learning town in the world!

TP:    Why is that?

MARSALIS:  Because of the various places that exist to ply your trade, to practice.  There are so many different spaces here to play in, so many different kinds of places.  You could play a brass band, you can play in trad bands, you can play in a traditional jazz band, you can play Ska.  There’s all of this stuff.

TP:    You can play in Latin bands now.

MARSALIS:  That’s right!  The people who come from other places to come to New Orleans, they don’t have to concern themselves nearly as much about property.  At one point, guys were going around Soho…well, they weren’t even calling it Soho then…

TP:    You could rent a cold water flat cheap.

MARSALIS:  Yeah, you could get a loft, man.  Now that’s all gone.  New York becomes one of those places that if you go there, you’d better have a gig when you go there, and when the gig runs out, you’d better be ready to go back somewhere else.

TP:    So you’re saying that in New Orleans you can learn music on a major league level without having to shell out $2000 a month for a railroad flat.

MARSALIS:  Yes.

TP:    Very practical.  What was the program like at UNO when you got there?

MARSALIS:  There was no program.

TP:    So you actually had to start the program and get it off the ground.

MARSALIS:  There was one guy on the faculty named Charles Blancq.  In fact, he’s got a son who I think is living in New York now, who was at one time teaching at Queens, named Kevin Blancq.  A good little trumpet player and arranger.  Anyway, I knew Charles for years, even when he was a music student at LSU, the club that I had, and all the rest of that… Anyway, the Chancellor asked me to come back to New Orleans, we finally came to terms, and I agreed and went back.  I did one more year at VCU, for the seniors before they left.  So Charles Blancq and I put together a curriculum over the telephone, and that enabled Charles to go to the committee at UNO to get the courses certified for a degree.  Because it was a liberal arts degree.  They were all basic courses.  Because as a freshman going into this university, a good portion of what you took in the first 17 hours was like English, Earth Science, history, just the fundamentals — not music.  You got so many hours for playing in a combo.  It was maybe three or four years before we really got a big band.

TP:    Around ’94 or so?

MARSALIS:  I forget the year.  Maybe even later.  But what I’m saying is that this is where we went to.  Ultimately, we had a series of meetings where we tweaked this or changed that, or tweaked that and changed this, or reorganized that… We knocked it down from 132 hours to 128 hours to graduate.  All the while, putting a major emphasis on performance.  We had to develop ways for evaluation.  Like, when we listened to the guys play, what were we listening to?  A lot of things that we started out with and ultimately changed were concepts we got from the existing wing of the music department, which was the Classical Department. We eventually got permission to do recital hours with just the jazz students.  Also, we were able to get the jury… Most times what you would get would be the faculty for a particular instrument, and the private teacher would come in, and they would talk about the student, and the student would play whatever they were working on.  So we had meetings about that.  We said, “Man, this doesn’t really make a lot of sense.  What we really need to do is go and listen to the students in the context of what they’re playing, hear them in the combo that they play with.  Because that’s really where they function.”  So we were able to change that.

TP:    Is University of New Orleans part of the State University of Louisiana?

MARSALIS:  Right.  But basically, those are some of the things we were able to do.

TP:    You retired last August.

MARSALIS:  Yes.

TP:    Who are some of the students who came through University of New Orleans?

MARSALIS:  There’s a guy in New York right now named David Morgan, a piano player.  He was the first graduate from our program.  There’s a saxophone player who came at the same time he did named Bryce Winston.  There’s a couple piano players — a guy named Josh Paxton, who works down here, and finished in the graduate program.  There’s some people who came and didn’t really stay.  Nicholas Payton came and stayed a semester.  Irvin Mayfield stayed a couple of years.

TP:    Was Peter Martin involved?

MARSALIS:  No.  Peter was teaching, doing adjunct teaching over there.

TP:    Why should people go to school to study jazz?

MARSALIS:  Well, I don’t necessarily think they should.  That’s not a statement that I would make.  I think if they really need… Well, let me put it another way.  As I mentioned to you earlier about the concept of being in a state of evolution, there may be a time in the future when going to school to study jazz would be maybe the same thing as going to school to study engineering.  Maybe.  But as it stands right now, jazz as we know it is such a highly individualistic art, until, if you get a good private instructor and you’re around in a situation… I’ll have to say that this excludes pianists.

TP:    Why?

MARSALIS:  Because you can play by yourself.  You can do the Keith Jarrett thing.  But if you are around people who are well enough versed in the style of music that you’re trying to play, then you really don’t need it.  You’ll do better with private instruction and just going out and playing.

TP:    Why should people continue to play jazz?

MARSALIS:  There’s no real reason why anybody should continue to play jazz.  Aside from whatever personal reasons that they bring to it, that the music speaks to you.  Now, I think more and more that the study of jazz, across the board, whether it be as a musician or as a lay person, can help you to better understand America and its relationship to the citizenry as a whole.

TP:    Why is that?

MARSALIS:  Because the music itself reflects the whole of the citizenry, moreso than any other music.  In other words, you can listen to and develop an appreciation for the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, but that don’t have nothin’ to do with America!  Neither does any of the other musics developed in that canon.  But if you listen to “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong, and really get to appreciate what was going on in there, you begin to understand what was going on in the early part of the century in America, and you begin to connect that to the numerous blues players that were wandering across the country during the time when the Depression was on and nobody had any money.  You can connect it in Chicago, where all these blues players were.  That’s basically what I’m saying.

TP:    But how does that pertain to the here-and-now?  It’s an interesting situation.  You have all these skilled jazz players of many different generations, and as far as the broader culture is concerned, even with Lincoln Center and the various institutional stronghold in the universities, it’s just a blip on the consciousness of popular culture.  As an educator and thinker and the father of four extremely accomplished musicians, what do you think playing jazz offers to young people of today?

MARSALIS:  I think in some ways we can look at jazz as a form of glue that keeps American culture centered and provides avenues for research, whether it be formal research or whether it just be chasing down the name of somebody you find and enjoy and seeing what else that person has done.  In the kind of world that we live in now, people do not necessarily even have to have a skill to become rich and famous as a pop artist.  So consequently, a disciplined approach to anything becomes something that’s very much needed in this country.  As I mentioned to you, jazz is the only music that started as a folk music and evolved as a folk music.  Most of the other music that started as folk music, especially the music in the European tradition, started as folk music, stayed folk music, but became an influence on composers — so the composer became the filter.  For which you heard various… “Hungarian Dance #3,” and all the stuff Bartok ripped off from them gypsies.  Well, I won’t say “ripped off.”  But their music was a predominant influence.  But in America, jazz remains a folk music that evolved as a folk music.  And even though you might hear Charlie Parker with Strings, if you were to take that recording and bleep out Charlie Parker, what do you have?  You have some whole note-half note violin players sawing away, and a Mitch Miller solo on oboe.

But for the most part… One of the things that has not yet become a staple is the quintet.  When I say a staple, what I mean is as a course of study, as a recognized ensemble.  For example, if you study classical music, there are several ensembles. String quartet is one.  The symphony orchestra is another.  Then there are various others, brass quintets, brass quartets… Invariably, there are combinations that are not necessarily that standard. But in jazz, it’s the quintet, the tenor saxophone, the trumpet and the rhythm section.  There’s more recordings made with that combination that have yet to really be studied in that context, where you look at it and say, “Okay, this is an ensemble that’s representative of a jazz ensemble of this period.”  Whereas if you go earlier to traditional jazz, especially when it’s New Orleans, what you get is the sextet, with the trombone, cornet and clarinet.  Which was a big influence on Duke.  On “Mood Indigo” that Duke Ellington did, he flipped everything upside-down.  He took the trombone and made the trombone higher, then he took the clarinet and put the clarinet on the bottom, and the trumpet was playing the melody with a mute.

I hear some younger kids today, some kids who play with Jason, and as young as Jason is, he even recognizes that some of these don’t have really any idea about their instrument — about the tenor saxophone.  At one time, there used to be this person who was a tenor saxophone player, and he was recognized as a tenor saxophone player.  Nowadays, some of these guys play the tenor, and there’s no particular reference to that instrument in any particular fashion in terms of what they play.  That is, when you listen to them, you don’t get the feeling, “Well, man, I think he may have listened to Ben Webster” or he might have listened to Gene Ammons or Sonny Rollins or Chu Berry — some of the more well-known tenor saxophone players.

TP:    So that link to the broader narrative thread that runs through the music ceases to exist.

MARSALIS:  Well, it’s like writers.  You read a writer and think, “Has he ever read Hemingway?  Has he ever read Faulkner?  Has he ever read Mark Twain?”  I think what is beginning to happen… I clipped an article out of the paper by a local writer who was talking about two people who were at a university in the State of Louisiana in education, and the chairman of the department used to like to take them on junkets to different places — South America, China — talking about education techniques.  As soon as they get a couple of miles away from the university, they were minority kids in dire need of (?) an education techniques, and there was no observation of that at all.  So eventually, this guy and his wife… This guy got to be dean of the school, of the education department, and he and his wife took a year and they went to the furthest corner of Louisiana, near the Arkansas line, and for a year they taught in an elementary school in a rural parish which is extremely poor, and they wrote a book… I don’t know if they did it together or he did.  He taught fourth grade and his wife taught the third graders.  In this book, they talked about the instance that LETA(?), which is what they call the standardized tests in Louisiana… They actually said that it was fraudulent.  I’d never seen anybody say so strongly that this is fraudulent.  I mean, I’ve always thought that.
But when you think in terms of young musicians and jazz musicians, you realize… Like the guitar student I had.  They don’t really know that there is something to know about what it is that they’re doing.  I was working once with a student on “Summertime,” and I said, “Have you ever heard the original rendition of ‘Summertime’?”  He said, “Yeah, man, I got that recording by Miles.”  And I had to explain to him about this aria in an opera called “Porgy and Bess” that was written by George Gershwin.

This is one of the dilemmas that we have.  And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that this is a very young country.  I often think of America the way that I would about a 10-year-old kid whose folks died and left him this candy store, and he had nobody to guide him or nothing.  So he just goes into this candy store and, like, proceeds to be a 10-year-old kid.  And ultimately, he has to learn every time he gets a bellyache, if he’s not unfortunate enough to get diabetes and die before then, that there’s something to know when you got this place.  It’s not just, “Oh, great, this is mine.”

I think that invariably, the sources of information, as they descend, becomes filtered to a point where there’s very little meaningful information that gets through in terms of any discipline.  And unless it’s popular enough, it doesn’t get through at all.  Just to hear some young guys come up to me in school and say, “Hey, man, what do you think of Hip-Hop and Jazz?”  I cannot think of more of an oxymoron than Hip-Hop and Jazz.  And there are people who defend that.

* * * *

Ellis Marsalis (#3):

TP:    As I understand it, it would sound like your two cornerstones were Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson.

MARSALIS:  Actually, not Bud so much. I got to Bud later.  But Oscar Peterson was the first major influence on piano.  See, the thing about it is, I was primarily a band piano player.  I didn’t study piano the way Oscar and Bud studied piano, so I came into it playing piano in a jazz group and sort of filling in the blanks.  So I didn’t really develop that pianistic philosophy that people develop when the study the instrument, like a Keith Jarrett did, he had all these recitals… You learn to play the piano with the objectives that go along with the history of that instrument.

TP:    With you, it had more to do with the function of playing in bands and combos.  Did you play piano in rhythm-and-blues bands also, or is that something you did more as a tenor player?

MARSALIS:  It was more as a tenor player.  By the time I got out of college, looking back at it, the scene here was changing a lot.  This was in the mid-’50s, and I started practicing and working on learning some pieces… At that time, Clifford and Max was a great influence on us.  Because I was then playing with Edward Blackwell and either Peter Badie or Richard Payne on bass, and Nathaniel Perrilat.  But we never really succeeded in getting a trumpet player to round out the group.  So a lot of times we would play those pieces just quartet-wise.  But it was still essentially like a band thing, because that’s where I was concentrating my energies.

TP:    When did that band with Ed Blackwell begin?

MARSALIS:  It’s really hard to say.  Because it evolved more than it began.  Edward was a cat who always was interested in playing.  He might call me up and say, “Why don’t you come over?”  There was a tenor player named Clarence Thomas, who later became known as Luqman.  He would go over to Edward’s house, and then I’d go over, when I first started trying to put the piano together, and we’d play things and work on stuff.  We didn’t have a bass player.  Eventually, Harold Battiste started writing some original pieces, and we just would get whatever bass player we could find and started playing some of that material.

TP:    This is while you’re at Dillard.

MARSALIS:  And after.

TP:    So it begins around ’52-’53, like that.

MARSALIS:  Right.  ’52-’53 was sort of the beginning of the end when it came to the rhythm-and-blues thing with me.  When I look back at it, I realize that the whole rhythm-and-blues concept was changing entirely, and I was not a part of the people who were doing it.  In the earlier years, in the 1940s, see, the rhythm-and-blues catered primarily not only to the singer, but there was a lot of blues being played.  Big Joe Turner was singing blues, Louis Jordan was singing blues, Wynonie Harris… There was a lot of blues singing going on.  So if you were playing in one of those bands, essentially your function was to deal with that in playing blues.  You’d learn a lot of shuffles if you were a piano player or guitar player or drummer in the rhythm section.  There’d be a lot of shuffles going on, and you had to learn that.  If you were a saxophone player, usually that’s who would play the solos.  And if you played the backgrounds, they were usually riffs… It was a rather simplistic kind of thing.  Everything about it was primarily functional.  It wasn’t a band thing, like a string quartet gets together.

TP:    Or a bebop combo.

MARSALIS:  Well, even with those.  The bebop combos got together pretty much the same way.  You had to go out and find somebody who could play the music.  You see, there was no training ground officially where you could learn to play the instrument that emanated from a specific tradition, and that there were formal instructions involved — which is the reason why I mentioned the string quartet.  So this is basically how that whole thing went.  And if you were playing rhythm-and-blues, you were playing rhythm-and-blues because you had a gig.  Pure and simple.  Otherwise than that…

TP:    There would be no reason to play it.

MARSALIS:  Right.  And there was virtually no real opportunity for you to learn it, unless you were actually playing.  The other performance-oriented situation was in the church, and sometimes in the earlier years, if you were playing in the church, it was advisable to conceal the fact that you might be playing elsewhere.  I didn’t have that problem, because I didn’t play in the church.  But for the most part, a study of that period of time in terms of jazz, is a lot more about the communal aspect of the way the musicians lived than it is about any formal study.

TP:    Are you saying that as a general principle, or are you saying that about New Orleans?

MARSALIS:  I’m saying it about New Orleans because I’m from here, and when I talk to other people, essentially it was the same thing where they were.  In other words, there were lots and lots of people who studied music, but there were very little opportunities to really study jazz music.

TP:    Unless you were in New York or Chicago…

MARSALIS:  Even if you were in New York or Chicago.  I mean, you didn’t do that.  I mean, if you were Herbie Hancock, you were playing classical music.  Herbie played with the Chicago Symphony when he was 11 years old.  Or if you could study with Walter Dyett or Major Clark Smith before then.  But if you talk to, for example, Benny Goodman and Milt Hinton, they both went to the same classical music teacher.  Because the Judge was a violinist.  He switched to bass because he couldn’t get no work.

* * *

Ellis Marsalis (WKCR–Out To Lunch) – (8-5-95):

[MUSIC: Ellis/Branford/Tain/Hurst, "L'il Boy Man" (1994); E. Marsalis/R. Brown/B. Higgins, "Swinging At The Haven" (1992)]

TP:    I’d like to start from the beginnings, your musical background.  I gather your family had a place in New Orleans which was a gathering place for musicians, where musicians played, or is this incorrect?

EM:    No.  It makes for wonderful mythology, but it’s really not true!  My father was in business.  He had a motel.  And I succeeded in convincing him (this was after I had gotten out of the Service; I had spent a couple of years in the Marines) to allow me to take the house that we had been living in, and turn it into a club.  Because I had fantasized that operating a club wasn’t really that difficult.  You know, so that I could have the band and play.  Well, I found out that none of that was true, that either you’re going to play music or you’re going to operate a club.  You’re not really going to do both of those and do either of those well.  So I was in business about six months.

TP:    Ooh!

EM:    [LAUGHS] And from that came the last selection, “Swinging At The Haven.”  The Music Haven was the name of the club.  Harold Battiste, who is currently one of my colleagues at the University of New Orleans, had been instrumental in developing AFO Records.  One of their initial jazz projects was to record some of the local musicians, of which I was one, doing some of our own music, and playing jazz as opposed to some of the other things that the label was recording.  They had had a very big success with a recording of Barbara George singing “I Know,” and there were a few other R&B type things that they were doing.  So Harold thought for posterity we should really record these people.  And that boxed set from 1956 to 1966 is the result of Harold Battiste.  Now Harold is slowly reissuing a lot of things on CD.  But it’s still the same old shoestring operation, so he’s got to piecemeal it here and there.  But it’s coming along.

TP:    Did you start playing the piano very young?  And how did you go about it?  Was it lessons, or through the family?  What was your path into the music?

EM:    Well, I started playing the clarinet when I was about 11.  In fact, it was around the same time that I met Alvin.  We were in elementary school.  I started to play tenor saxophone in high school, somewhere around a sophomore, I think, in high school, because the tenor saxophone was the rage instrument for reed players in rhythm-and-blues, and we were playing a lot of rhythm-and-blues in those days.

TP:    What years are we talking about?

EM:    1948, 1949, around that time.  But I was always interested in jazz.  I had had the chance to hear the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band in 1949 in the spring, the one where he was doing “Things To Come” and “That’s Earl, Brother” and “52nd Street Theme,” I mean, that screaming, brand-new Bebop that was coming on the scene.  And man, that whole experience really just took me out.

TP:    They came through New Orleans.

EM:    Yeah, they came through New Orleans.  And it was really… I can’t really describe it.  I had a chance to talk with Diz about that.  But it was really a tremendous experience.  Because I knew when I heard that band that this was really what I wanted to do.  Man, that was it, what those guys were doing on that stage.  I was about 14 or 15 then.  I had started piano lessons, but I was not that serious about it.  I just liked to play.  But I was mostly concentrating on tenor saxophone.  So when I got out of high school and decided to go to college, I decided to be a music major.

I had been studying with a really great piano teacher.  Of course, studying piano at that time either meant that you were learning from a mentor in the church that you went to or you were learning from someone who was either in your family, or a friend of the family that would teach you the tradition of the music according to earlier styles, Stride or what have — or you just studied with a piano teacher, and the piano teachers was basically just teaching European music, formal approaches to European music.  The other two I didn’t have.  I wasn’t playing in the church, which is to my regret, and I didn’t know anybody who was really playing piano from a traditional jazz point of view.  So I gravitated towards the two areas that were closest to me, Rhythm-and-Blues, tenor saxophone playing, and Jazz.

There was not as much of a line drawn… Well, what I mean is, the difference between Jazz and Rhythm-and-Blues was extremely narrow at that time, because most of the same people that was playing, Sonny Stitt… Charlie Parker had been with Jay McShann’s band.  I don’t know, but I think Monk somehow avoided all of that.  I don’t know if there’s any record of Monk ever playing in that idiom.  Maybe so.

TP:    I think he traveled with some traveling preachers in the Carolinas in his teens, but after that I don’t think so.

EM:    Yeah.  But for the most part, that’s what I gravitated towards.  And the solos at that time were basically influenced by religious music and secular music, which were sort of like opposite sides of the same coin.  I was living in what was then a racially segregated society, so it became inclusive.  The experience was all-inclusive in terms of economics, in terms of social interaction, in terms of education.  All of that was basically within the American-African community.  So we would play music that was reflected… We sort of bounced off of each other.

And the newer recordings of… Well, the recordings of the new music, which would be called Bebop, was coming out at least on a monthly basis, and they were all like 78 records.  So you would go the record store, and there was sort of like a phone chain.  There was a lady in the record store, I can’t think of her name, but anyway, she would call a couple of people; you know, I’ve got a new record in by Charlie Parker or Miles or whoever it was.  And we would, in turn, call people and say, “Hey, there’s some new stuff in,” and we’d go down to the record shop.  It was a place called the Bop Shop, and we would go down and listen to it and buy it, and then start working on the solos.

That was an integral part of the learning process.  It was not within the context of the system.  The schools were not amenable to that at all.  So…

TP:    Was there any jazz in your high school band at all, or was it all marching band and brass orchestra type music?

EM:    It was mostly marching band, John Philip Souza marches, (?)Ed Bagley(?) marches.  And there was a group in one high school that I went to that was what you call a swing band.  Now, the swing band played those stock arrangements.  There was stock arrangements, like “9:20 Special” and Harry James’ “Back-Beat Boogie” and most of that.  But there was nowhere to really get at the whole idea of soloing.  Because unless you could figure it out for yourself, there was nobody there to do it.  And even the swing bands were sort of tolerated.  It wasn’t something that the music teachers looked upon with great favor.

However, New Orleans was a little different (I have to say a little different, because I don’t know about the rest of the country) in that there were several music teachers who were jazz players in previous generations.  Some of the older guys were teachers.  So if you happened to be fortunate to get one of those… It reminds me of what Eddie Harris used to tell me about Walter Dyett, and a lot of people talked about him in Chicago.  And there was another band teacher in Chicago that Milt Hinton used to talk about…

TP:    Clark Smith, Major Smith, who had the Chicago Defender band.

EM:    Yes.  So as time went on, we began to get less and less of the kinds of fundamentals that produced the level of musicianship that was being produced at that time, especially within the context of a jazz idiom.  Invariably what would happen, you would begin to get people who would study the more formal approaches to European music, and then try and figure out how to make those application, people like Phineas Newborn — and Charles Lloyd, too.  When I met Charles Lloyd, Charles was at USC.  I think he was a freshman at USC, and I was in the Marine Corps.

But that was basically what I had done, was to kind of piecemeal some things, and become a music major at Dillard University.  Which was very standard.

TP:    Describe the music scene in New Orleans when you were a teenager, and going into college.  Were you doing little gigs when you were playing the saxophone and clarinet in high school, for instance?  And what kind of gigs would they be?

EM:    Oh, yeah, we were still playing some dances.  The YWCA was one of the places that we would play dances.  And different schools.  We would go to a lot of different high schools and just play dances with the local R&B pieces, “Blues For The Red Bar,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” Roy Brown’s piece, Joe Liggins’ stuff, all of the people who was doing the dance music of the day.  What Jazz there was going on, I didn’t know anything about at all.  Especially the Trad, especially traditional jazz, I didn’t know anything about that.

TP:    You weren’t involved in the Second Line in any way as a kid?

EM:    Not as a kid, no.  I didn’t know anything about that.  So eventually, what I would start to do in the high school was play those rhythm-and-blues solos.  Because I could hear those.  Also it was an interesting thing, if you could play the dance music of the day, then you could get the attention of some girls, you see!  Because I was too small for football, too slow for track, too slow for basketball — and there was no future in that in those days anyway.  So when I realized that I could learn these solos, then I said, “Oh, okay, this will work!”  So I started concentrating on some of that.  Eventually, I would get real serious about jazz, and then found out that nobody wanted to hear that!  But by then, you’re stuck, like a habit.

TP:    Who were the pianists whose solos you were emulating once you started getting more serious about Jazz and more advanced?

EM:    Actually, you know, it’s funny.  I never did transcribe any solos at all.  I listened to Oscar Peterson a lot.  But for some reason, I never did really try to play those.  I’m not sure what it was.  I mean, I would always try and play whatever I heard.  But the transcription was not something that I was doing on piano.

Now, when I first started trying to play the solos on saxophone, I remember there was a recording of Charlie Parker, “Parker’s Mood,” and I tried to play all the solos on there on tenor saxophone, John Lewis’s solo on piano and Charlie Parker’s solo — but there was a lot of Charlie Parker’s solo that I couldn’t get!  All of those recordings were really short then.  You know, this was long before Trane started making those LP’s.  In fact, they didn’t even have LP’s at the time!

So I started essentially like that.  Eventually, when I was old enough to go to the local nightclubs…

TP:    Who was playing in the nightclubs then?

EM:    Well, most of the local musicians.

TP:    Name some names.

EM:    There was one club called the Dew Drop Inn which was sort of the anchor club, if you will, in the American-African community.  Lee Allen would play there; he would eventually make all of those recordings with Fats Domino.  A lot of times that scene was more a matter of a show.  That is, the club-owner would put together a band.  He’d get a bass player, then a piano player and a drummer, and maybe get a singer.  There was one female named Bea Booker who used to sing there, and there were some other singers, but I never did work with them at the time.  I think Anna Laurie and Paul Gayton, and I think Dave Bartholomew used to play (he was a trumpet player).

But by the time I came on the scene, some of those people were no longer working in that establishment.  And then a lot of us started to work there.  When I say “us,” I mean a lot of younger guys who would comprise the sidemen in the band, being the piano player or what have you.  We would play behind the strip dancers, local singers.  Every now and then somebody may come from out of town.  But a lot of times when they did, they would get the better players — of which I was not one!

TP:    Who were considered to be the better players?

EM:    Wow, let me think.  There was a drummer there named Earl Palmer, who is now on the West Coast.

TP:    He played with Ray Charles for many years.

EM:    Who, Earl?

TP:    Oh, I’m incorrect.  Excuse me.

EM:    No, not Ray.  The drummer from New Orleans who did play with Ray Charles… Edward Blackwell did for a very brief period of time.  But Wilbur Hogan played with Ray Charles’ band.  In fact, that was the very first time that I ever heard Ray Charles, was at the club, the Dew Drop Inn.  They had a jam session, and I was playing saxophone at the time, and a local trumpet player named Raynell(?) Richards, who was in his band… Ray was playing piano, and I mean, this guy was burnin’!  And I knew just about all of the piano players who could play.  I knew who they were.  And I asked the trumpet player, “Who is that?”  He said, “Oh, that’s this guy, Ray Charles.”  I said, “Where is he from?”  “Oh, he’s out of Florida.”

But basically, it would be a matter of choice among some of the singers as to who they liked.  There were some piano players who were better suited for some songs, and they would also make a lot of gigs with some of those people.  And I wasn’t really making a lot of gigs, because I was still in school.  I remember there was a group in New Orleans that was called the Johnson Brothers, which was Raymond Johnson and Plas Johnson.  Plas left to go to California, and Raymond asked me to join the band — and my father said no!  So that opportunity passed me by.  And by me being in school over an extended period of time, I was always maybe just playing on the weekends or whenever I could.

TP:    Two of the musicians you’re best known for having worked with regularly in those early years are Alvin Batiste and Edward Blackwell, and according to the books, Ornette Coleman came through New Orleans for a while and you were going through musical adventures with him.  Can you talk about that?

EM:    I didn’t know Ornette in New Orleans.  I didn’t know that at all.  Melvin Lastie I think knew Ornette.  I didn’t meet Ornette until 1956, when I went out to California and Harold Battiste.  The three of us went out there.  I had just graduated, and was really not doing much of anything.  Actually, it was the summer of 1955, really.  So I decided, “Well, I’m going out to California.”  Basically, that was when I met Ornette, because Ornette had sent for Blackwell to come back out and start trying to do some work with him.

TP:    Tell me about the young Ed Blackwell.  Were you involved with him in any way as a youngster, or did that start a little later, too?

EM:    Well, no, he was a little older than I was.  I met Ed Blackwell basically the same way I was telling you about the other situation.  Whenever he couldn’t get the better piano players, he’d call me up!  I remember the first time I went over to his house, he was living Uptown in New Orleans on Danille(?) Street.  He was living with his sister I think.  And he had his drum set out.  And it was the most melodic set of drums I’d ever heard, but then at that time I hadn’t heard that much anyway.  He was the first drummer that I ever heard play a drum solo on a ballad, and it made perfect sense!

There was a saxophone player, I think his name was Clarence Thomas.  He was up in New York; I think he was going by the name of Luqman.  But anyway, the three of us was at Edward’s house one day, and we were playing.  It was the first time that I had ever been over there.  And it was a captivating moment for me, because we started to play with some degree of consistency… I have to say some degree of consistency, because there was not that much employment around for what we were trying to do.  So we would play whenever we could.

There were two guys in the city of New Orleans named Al Smith and Clarence Davis.  They used to rent the spaces, and then hire jazz groups.  And they’d hire us, too, to play.  Clarence Davis had been a drummer with Dave Bartholomew’s band, and Al Smith was really trying to play the drums.  So they had something like Al and Beau Productions, I guess you would call it, and they would rent spaces on holidays, you know, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, which was one way of hedging your bet.  And we would go out and play, and people would come out.  That was some of the few times that we really had a job as a whole quintet.

TP:    Let’s hear the reconfigured American Jazz Quintet at the Ed Blackwell Festival in Atlanta, Georgia, which was hooked up by Rob Gibson from Jazz at Lincoln Center.  The proceedings were documented on Black Saint Records, FroM Bad To Badder.  We’ll hear a trio track on that featuring Ellis Marsalis, Richard Payne and Ed Blackwell, a composition called “Nostalgia Suite.”  Any comments?

EM:    Actually, I’m not sure what that is right now.  When we did it, I think “Nostalgia Suite” was a fancy name for what we used to call medleys!

[MUSIC: "Nostalgia Suite" (1987); AJQ, "Chatterbox" (1956); EM/Branford/Wynton/J. Black, "Nostalgic Impressions" (1982)]

TP:    Was the bassist on “Chatterbox” William Swanson or Richard Payne?  I don’t have it right before me.

EM:    I’m not altogether sure.  Swanson came in town with the Billy Williams band, and we started just jamming.  Because he liked to play with us.  It was just about that time… When I say “that time,” I mean, it was somewhere close to December.  Because we went into the studio and did this just before I went in the Service, and Swanson was still in town at the time, and Harold used him on a couple of selections.  But I’m not sure exactly which ones right now.

TP:    Blackwell was the drummer, though, and we can hear, just from the evidence in that, that his sound was all there back in 1956.

EM:    Oh, yeah.

[ETCETERA]

TP:    On our last conversational segment, we took you out to the West Coast.  What was your Army experience like?  Was it a time when you were able to do a lot of playing?  Were you in the Army as a musician or were you in the line?

EM:    Well, I was in the Marine Corps, which first of all meant that I had to do the basic training.  It was between conflicts, that is, I went in just after Korea had ceased, and it was before Vietnam.  So I wasn’t involved in combat.  Most of the time that I spent on the West Coast was really due to the fact that I was in the Marines at the time.  I did go out earlier at the time that I went out with Harold and Edward, but I only stayed a couple of months, and then I came back home.  Because at that time, the military was still conscripting and I had gotten the notification to report to the draft board.  In fact, I’ve often thought about how it was a lot like Caesar said, everybody should go home to be taxed.  Well, you had to go home to be drafted into the Service!

I volunteered for the draft, which is what that was called, and they sent me back to California.  So I ended up doing basic training at MRCD in San Diego, and was sent to the air base at El Toro, which is in Santa Ana.  So I was able to drive into Los Angeles quite frequently.

TP:    Moving up in a totally disjointed way here, we heard James Black, and I’d like you to talk about some of the musicians you worked with after returning from the Service in the early Sixties in New Orleans, like James Black and Nat Perillat.

EM:    Well, when I got out of the Service, I went back to New Orleans, and Edward Blackwell was playing a trio gig at a place called the Jazz Room in the French Quarter.  I went to hear him play one night, and the piano player… On the night that I went, the piano player got into a dispute of some sort with the owner, and he came back to the bandstand after the break was over and started the song, played his solo, and got up when the bass player started playing a solo — and left!  And the bass player and Edward Blackwell were playing, and it took a minute before they realized that he wasn’t coming back!  So to make a long story short, the owner asked me did I want a gig.  I had just got out the Service, and I said, “Yeah, definitely.”  So that was how I got on that gig.  I stayed on it for about six months, and  it ended up going the way that the other piano player went, except I got fired instead! [LAUGHS]

But for the most part, that first band was with a bass player named Otis Duvirgney(?) and Edward Blackwell.  Durvirgney(?) was an interesting bass player.  He was sort of like a self-taught bass player.  I mean, he had the strongest groove — swing you to death.  But it was difficult to record, because his technique…the notes weren’t really true, and the microphones would pick up a lot of that.  But it was a great feeling to play with Otis.  Eventually I think he left and moved over to the Coast, around Biloxi, and we started working with another bass player named Peter Beatty, Chuck Beatty, who had played some time with Lionel Hampton’s band and different groups.

We tried to get Nat Perillat on the gig so we’d have a quartet, and we succeeded in doing that for the most part.  It was always hard to get club-owners to go beyond a trio, because with the trio being a complete band, they couldn’t see justifying the expense.  So we were able to get Nat on the gig for the most part… In fact, now that I remember it, I think Nat outlasted me on that job.

TP:    Talk a little bit about his sound and style and approach to music.

EM:    Nat didn’t have a big tenor sound.  It wasn’t thin either.  But he wasn’t a tenor player in the tradition of what has become known as the Texas tenor, like Arnett Cobb and a lot of those saxophone players that came out of Texas.  But Nat was a diligent musician that practiced for extensive periods of time.  His facility was flawless.  In fact, one of the best examples of Nat Perillat is on that album that we made in 1963 (which is on From 1956 to 1966) where he played on “Yesterdays.”  I mean, he played a solo on “Yesterdays” that sounded as good as anything anybody’s playing now.  He and Alvin were both practice practitioners extraordinaire.  I mean, it was nothing for them to practice seven-eight-nine hours a day, every day.

I was never that kind of a practicer.  I mean, I could practice long enough to get some things that I needed together.  But my discipline wasn’t substantial to practice that amount of hours!

TP:    You were creating a lot of original music at that time as well, and the music was quite substantial, as evidenced by the recent release Whistle Stop where you recapitulate a lot of compositions from thirty years ago that sound totally fresh and contemporary.

EM:    Well, a lot of that was James Black, too.  Because James…!  He had a genius about music that didn’t pervade his whole life; but musically James had a concept which was unique, to say the least.  I’m really sorry that he didn’t pull a lot of other things together which would have permitted him to have document his music, and wrote and recorded even more.

TP:    Talk a little bit about the particulars of his sound that made him so distinctive.

EM:    Well, James was also a guy who could sit down and play a paradiddle for a solid hour on a snare drum to get his technique flawless.  And his cymbal sound… He had a clean attack, the definition of his cymbal.  See, when we talk about definition, a lot of times you hear guys going, DING-TING-A-DING, TING-A-DING.  Well, if the definition isn’t there, you usually get that TINKATENGADDDDD…you just get a hint at that whole thing.  Because each stroke, each attack and release on that cymbal has not been developed with the particular technique that is needed for it to be clear.  And James was a master at all facets of playing each one of the drums, whether it’s floor tom, mounted tom, bass drum, ride cymbals, sock cymbals.  He had studied it to that extent, and was meticulous about it.

Edward Blackwell, for example, was more of a Max Roach drummer.  And when I say a Max Roach drummer, his major influence was Max in terms of the way he set up his phrases, his early ideas.  Eventually, Edward would evolve into being his own person, playing some of the music of Ornette Coleman and also studying some music of West Africa, which came as a result of some jobs that he played with Randy Weston — because he played with Randy, I think, a lot, and had been over in Rabat in Morocco.  So he had a lot of those influences.  And he was a true percussionist in the absolute sense of the word.

Whereas James Black, he had played solo trumpet in the concert band in the university, he played guitar, he could play piano, he could write — I mean, he was a more comprehensive musician.  But drums was… I remember Harold Battiste made a statement which was appropriate about James Black.  He said whenever he thought about James Black, he never thought of him as a drummer; he just thought that drums was one other thing that James could do.  It was, for the most part, his instrument of choice.  He had the best time sense of anybody that I ever played with.

TP:    Did you mutually influence each other’s ideas and writing?

EM:    Oh, I’m sure that occurred.  I know he used to tell me about various… In fact, this tune “After” was influenced by at least one chord I got from him.  Because he used to tell me about things that he got from me playing piano.  But it’s very hard to talk about your influence on somebody else, because that has to come from them.  I mean, sometimes you can listen to it and you can say “Oh yeah.”  But then you’d have to be really aware of where you are, because your things also came from being influenced by somebody else, so you can’t always be sure if that person is influenced by you or by the person who influenced you!  It never comes at you, usually, in an absolute way.  It usually comes somewhat almost like a point of view.  So that when you hear it, if they don’t say, “Well, you know, I took this right here that I got from you and then I did this with it,” sometimes you won’t even notice it.

[MUSIC: EM w/Branford... "A Moment Alone" (1994); Marsalis/ Black/Perillat, "Monkey Puzzle" (1963)]

TP:    While “A Moment Alone” was playing, you said you liked the way your son played on that particular track, and indeed, on this recording he plays all of the music with great subtlety, nuance, swing and a great sound as well.

EM:    Branford has an unusual gift, that is, to be able to play in any idiom.  I mean, it doesn’t matter what it is.  I have a tape of him doing I think it was the Jacques Ibert(?) with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra!  And he plays, as you know, the latest Funk licks and Hip-Hop, and he’s got two or three albums that I hope will be released where he did a live concert with he and Jeff Watts and Bob Hurst as a trio, Jazz recordings that is really out there!  So it doesn’t really make much difference to him what the music situation is.

And the most difficult thing I think there is in any kind of music is to really be able to play slow.  That is… I mean, a lot of people are impressed with virtuosity and speed and agility.  But believe me, to be lyrical and play slow is very difficult.  And to some extent, I think that there are people for whom that’s a gift.  Even if it’s a gift, you still have to work about it.

TP:    Well, I don’t think we can allow you to speak about one of your sons without mentioning the other three that I know of that play music.  So I’m sorry to do this, but a few words about the qualities of each of your very strong and individual sons.

EM:    Well, the thing of it is that all four of them are really great musicians.  They bring different things in their personalities to the music.

Wynton is likewise comfortable in any idiom.  He chooses not to be involved in some Pop idioms, which doesn’t mean that he couldn’t do it — it just means that that’s what he chooses not to do.  His contributions to the history of the trumpet, as far as European music is concerned, is already documented.  There’s any number of recordings that you could get to hear that.

Delfeayo is kind of a late bloomer performance-wise, because he spent a lot of time with production.  And he’s been playing with Elvin Jones lately, which means that the more that he begins to play in a setting like that, the better he will get at it.  And he’s a real good writer.  His album Pontius Pilate’s Decision was very well crafted and well constructed in terms of arranging.

Jason is probably the most amazing.  I think Jason probably has more natural talent than all of us combined.  It’s going to be enjoyable to watch him develop, because he chose the most unlikely instrument for his ability; his ability to hear pitch as accurately as he hears it.  And then to choose the drums… Of course, that is the instrument of choice now.  I have no way of knowing what he will do at some future time, see.  But he has a very strong interest in percussion, and he says that he wants to write for percussion.  He’s got a stack of original songs that he’s written for his own band even now.  But he’s one of those kinds of people that will not be confined to the arbitrary lines of music that are drawn up.

See, we’re moving more and more towards a real concept of what is called world music.  World music can mean a lot of different things.  But I think that with technology being what it is today and what it promises to be in the future, being exposed to as many different kinds of instruments, instrument concepts, performers, cultures and all of that, we can begin to find these other influences being a standard part of various composers.  There are some composers that I have had an opportunity to hear… I can’t even remember the name of it.  There was a clarinet conference at the Virginia Commonwealth University.  I was on the faculty there for three years.  And the last year that I was there, there was a clarinet conference in which some new music, that is, music say since 1980, was being performed for various combinations — piano trio, piano-clarinet-violin.  And some of the composers’ techniques for clarinet were right out of the jazz book, but they were all written in the context of the piece itself, and all of the players were totally European-trained and European performers…I mean, the music was European.  So it wasn’t a case of getting a jazz player to come to do it.  And it’s coming to be more and more a part of the compositional techniques of various composers.  I’m not sure if it would even be limited to American composers, even though it’s largely American music that they’re drawing from.

TP:    We’ve been speaking with Ellis Marsalis, and he has to meet his car, so we have to say so long.  There are many other things we could discuss.  His teaching activities in New Orleans over the last twenty-five years, and the many musicians who highlight today’s stages around the world who began under his tutelage.  We could talk about his ideas about the distinctive New Orleanian quality of music, but he’s grimacing, so I’m glad we didn’t time to ask him that.  And many, many other things, but he has to catch his car.  We’ll send Mr. Marsalis off with a selection from the most release, Joe Cool’s Blues, which seems to have been co-marketed with the producers of Peanuts.

EM:    You know, it’s difficult to talk about this project because it didn’t all come under one roof.  I was in New Orleans, and I think Delfeayo produced it, and Delfeayo asked me to come into the studio and record some of the Peanuts music.  I worked on it, and we recorded it.  A pianist who works with Delfeayo, Victor Atkins, was asked to do some arrangements. and one of the arrangements that he did was on “Little Birdie.”  Well, we had laid a track down for “Little Birdie” from which the arrangements by way of Victor, and the vocalist, Germaine Bazile, came in later and sang that.  Eventually, when I did hear the whole thing, Wynton’s group, the things that they were playing, I heard later on.  Some of it came from the show that the Peanuts characters did on the Wright Brothers!  It was such a potpourri of things until it didn’t seem like a project to me.  Because I was sort of like one of the chessmen in the game!  So I never really got a whole feeling of this… For example, when I did the recording with Wynton on Standards, Volume 3, The Resolution of Romance, that was a complete project that went from beginning to fruition with everybody that was involved.  But this was piecemealed in such a way that I didn’t get a real holistic feel of it.

TP:    Nonetheless, I don’t think the listeners will really be able to tell that…

EM:    Nor do they care!

TP:    We also haven’t had a chance to talk about your brief career as a football coach.

EM:    Where did you hear about that?

TP:    Your son told us about that about a year-and-a-half ago.  He said they almost won the game also.

EM:    [LAUGHS] Believe me, it would definitely take some time to go into that.
[-30-]

* * *

Ellis & Jason Marsalis (WKCR, 1-16-97):

TP:    Ellis Marsalis, have you performed in New York with Bill Huntington before?

EM:    I performed with him, but it wasn’t in a club scene.  It was in a university.  I can’t remember exactly what the event was.  I can’t remember what university even.

TP:    You’ve been playing with him for a long time, though.

EM:    Well, I usually think of it in terms of, I’ve been playing with Bill for as long as the State of Louisiana’s laws would permit me to do so — since 1964.

TP:    So it must be very nice to come here and play with someone who breathes alongside you, as it were.

EM:    Yeah, it is.  It’s quite interesting, because the latest musical endeavors have always been with younger people.  I think there’s a positive side to that, but there’s a difference in terms of… I remember I was listening to Frank Morgan play, and at the end of his performance I said to him, “Man, I had almost forgotten what that sounded like.”  Because most of the guys that I had been playing with were youngsters.  And it doesn’t take anything away from them.  It’s just that there’s something about age… I guess in a way it’s sort of like vintage wine.  There’s something about the age and the seasoning of a player that’s just different from the talent and the exuberance of a younger player.

TP:    In a certain way perhaps, the frequency with which you play with younger players has to do with your considerable reputation as a teacher of the music and someone who communicates its fundamentals to young musicians.  I’m sure this must have been the case with you, Jason, coming up.  I recollect seeing you play in the Jazz Heritage Festival when you were 12 years old; I don’t remember exactly which year.  How old were you when the drums became your overriding interest.

JM:    Well, it depends.  When you say overriding, I guess age 13 was about when that happened.  But the first instrument I played was not the drums, but the violin.  How exactly did I get started on that?  Was that your idea?

EM:    Well, it was a Saturday afternoon program at a public school about six or seven blocks away from the house.  This was part of the Suzuki program.  They had 35 violins, and the first 35 people could get a violin for their kid for the cost of the insurance, which was 10 bucks a year.  I said, “Wow, I can’t beat that deal!”  So I made sure I was one of the first 35 people.  Jason probably was 6, 5, somewhere around that age, which is sort of typical of when younger players start in that Suzuki program.  He stayed with the violin until we went to Richmond, Virginia, for three years — I was on the faculty at the Virginia Commonwealth.  When we came back in 1989, that was the end of the violin.

EM:    Richmond was the reason for that, though.

TP:    You couldn’t find a good teacher there?

JM:    Oh, no-no.  There were good teachers in Richmond, Virginia.  That was not the problem.  What happened was, is I had always played in student orchestras in New Orleans for a long time, and when I got to Richmond, Virginia, it was the same kind of thing except in Richmond they called it the Sinfonietta, the Junior Youth Orchestra, the Youth Orchestra or whatever.  Well, in sixth grade, I believe it was… I was in sixth grade in school, about 12 years old, and I was in the Junior Youth Orchestra at this point, and this was the first orchestra I played with that had a percussion section.  It had a percussion section with a timpani and snare drum.  I had never played with an orchestra that had a section like that.  When I first got there, I was upset.  I was like, “They have a percussion section?  Why am I over there?  This isn’t fair!” [LAUGHS] Then a year later, when I got back to New Orleans I said, “No, I want to pursue percussion a little bit further.  Violin is nice, but that’s not really what I want to do.”

TP:    How long had the drums been part of what you were doing?  I gather you’d been playing drums all along.

JM:    Yes.  I had started drums at age 6, a year after the violin.  I used to sit in on gigs with my father, played just off and on.  It wasn’t really an everyday sort of thing.  That didn’t really start until I was 12 or 12, when I became more serious about the drums and it became a more ongoing thing.

TP:    Was it something you were just picking up by yourself?  What kind of instruction did you have when you were 6-7-8 years old?

JM:    The first drum lessons I had were from James Black.  I was about 7 years old.  I was a kid.

TP:    That’s quite a teacher.

JM:    Oh, definitely.  I was fortunate enough to study under him.

TP:    The last time I interviewed your father he made an interesting comparison between two of the drummers he was involved with, James Black and Ed Blackwell.  Encapsulate the style of James Black and what made him so special as a drummer.

JM:    Well, the thing about James Black is that he was more than a drummer.  He was a musician.  To my knowledge, he played trumpet and guitar besides drums.  Also he was a great composer.  He had written a lot of great, challenging music.  I mean, he had written music that involves odd meters, which is something a lot of drummers do.  I notice drummers always write tunes in 5/4 meters, 7/4 meters, and he was a drummer that did that.  James Black also I guess you could say always was looking forward.  He had a knowledge of the history of the music, but he was always one to look forward from what was happening in the music at the time.  Whether it was happening in the ’60s or ’70s, he was always looking forward.

TP:    There was a real flow to his music also.

JM:    Oh yes.

TP:    It would be in an odd meter, but you wouldn’t necessarily hear that first off.

JM:    Oh, no. [LAUGHS] Not the way it was being played.

TP:    Ellis, what was your first contact with James Black as far back as you can recollect, and what were the circumstances when you began playing together?

EM:    James was a few years younger than I was.  I had really been introduced to drum concepts in a small group setting by Edward Blackwell, who was really a Max Roach style drummer.  It was through Edward that I first began to hear drums.  By “hear drums” what I mean is that Edward would play solos very musically.  See, you can play drum solos that are rudimental, which is almost like marches, and you just have a little signal at the end of your rudimental playing, and everybody comes back in.  But Blackwell, following the path of Max Roach, would play in the form of the songs and play phrases that were like horns.  So I had to learn to hear those kind of phrases.  Blackwell was the very first person that I heard do that.

In 1960 Blackwell moved to New York, and we didn’t have anybody who was going to step in the shoes of Edward Blackwell!  There were a few drummers at home.  Nathaniel Perillat, the saxophonist, and I tried a couple of guys, and they were okay.  Then Nat Perillat told me about this kid, James Black, who was at the time I think a student at Southern University in Baton Rouge.  Nat had been going up there playing jobs, and he said, “Man, we ought to try this guy.”  So we tried James.  At first it was that typical energy kind of thing. but as James began to settle in with the group, especially whenever we got a chance to play quartet, the whole jazz scenario became like his world.  Because all he really needed was an avenue to express the abilities that he had.  So he was able to write, because he knew whatever it was he wrote, there were some musicians who could play it.

We had different assorted engagements.  Because there was really not a scene, so to speak, in New Orleans for Modern Jazz.  We did a stint at the Playboy Club for a while, and we lost that job because… See, we were hired to accompany all of the Black artists, singers that were coming into the Playboy Club, and because of segregation, when they stopped coming we didn’t have a job.  That lasted about three months.  Then we would play wherever we could, a club here, a club there, about two or three months here, a couple of jobs there.  Finally, we sort of went in different directions.  Because the ’60s were a little different.  James left I think to go with Lionel Hampton.  He came to New York and played, I think, with Horace Silver for a while, joined Lionel Hampton, he recorded with Yusef Lateef.

TP:    Live at Pep’s, I think.

EM:    Yes, and there’s also an album called Psychomosis, Psycho-something that I think he’s on.  In fact, Yusef recorded the “Magnolia Triangle.”

Eventually James came back to New Orleans, and we started to play again wherever we could.  We played off and on together I guess until just about the time I left to go to Richmond.

TP:    Jason, when did you begin studying individual drummers in terms of styles and the different approaches they took, the different voices of trap drummers — and who were they?

JM:    Very good question.  That didn’t start until I’d just moved back to New Orleans, like Eighth or Ninth Grade.  That’s when I started looking at individual drummers.  I had always heard drummers.  I’d heard Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey, but I hadn’t really studied them.  Around this time I started studying them, and the first drummer I started studying was Jeff “Tain” Watts.  His style with all the polyrhythms he’d be playing and just his powerful sort of style attracted me.  He was the first drummer that I really emulated, copy solos and so on.  A lot of my earlier playing was really influenced by him.

Then after a while I wanted to branch out and deal with the history, like Max Roach, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, like I mentioned earlier.  I decided that I wanted to investigate what these drummers were playing, and I did that for a while.

Then after a while I started investigating drummers like Ed Blackwell.  My Dad would drop me off to school and whatever, and on the way we’d listen to the jazz radio.  There would be some mornings when Ed Blackwell’s drumming would be on the radio, and I’d think, “Man, this is interesting; I’ve never really checked him out; I’m going to have to investigate his playing.”  But the unfortunate thing is, a month later, the next thing I know, he was dead.

TP:    What were the qualities of Blackwell’s style that were so appealing to you and struck you so singularly?

JM:    Well, the first recordings that I started really getting into that he wason was the music of Ornette Coleman.  What I thought was so interesting was his sound.  It was a really clear sound.  Also it had an African quality to it that’s kind of hard to explain.  That’s one of the things that my older brother Wynton was always telling me about.  He said, “Man, check Ed Blackwell out.  He has that African sound in him.”

TP:    Let’s explore that a bit.  How would you define that aspect of his sound?

JM:    Well, Ed Blackwell, from what I know, was really into African music and the African drums.  Pretty recently I’ve been listening to some African percussion, a percussion group from New Guinea.  The rhythms of that music are interesting enough, but there’s a quality about the sound, a very pure, very natural kind of sound, and that’s sort of how Blackwell sounded — it was very pure, very natural, very deep.  I think the way that he would play syncopations was a little different, too, the way he would play on the downbeat.  But that natural, pure sound in his playing was what was really interesting.

TP:    Who are some of the other drummers you’ve gone into and analyzed in depth?

JM:    Another drummer, also by the recommendation of Wynton Marsalis, was a drummer who played with Thelonious Monk by the name of Frankie Dunlop.  When I started getting into him, one of the first things that attracted me was his getting into the beat, so to speak.  Most drummers usually have a set way that they play, a routine way of playing.  But Frankie Dunlop’s playing was not like that.  He was always playing around with the beats.  You’re almost not really sure where the beat is almost.  It’s like someone who plays a trick on, so to speak, like someone who’s joking with you.  You’re not really totally sure where the beat would be.  His drumming has that playful quality to it.

TP:    I’d like to take Ellis Marsalis back a bit, and talk about pianists who had an impact on you back in the 1950s when you were starting to formulate your sense of how your piano style should be, and the ensemble sound as well.

EM:    Well, there was Oscar Peterson, Oscar Peterson and Oscar Peterson.

TP:    That was it.

EM:    Actually, around 1950, Peterson had been in America for I think a year.  He was touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic, and they came to New Orleans.  At that time he was functioning in a duo format with Ray Brown.  I went to hear them, and it fractured me, so to speak.  I had a recording called Stratford Up On Avon with the Oscar Peterson Trio, a vinyl recording, and I just wore it out.  First of all, I had never heard anybody play with that type of agility, in that format.  I had heard Art Tatum play, but Art Tatum was a wizard.  I mean, everybody understood where Art Tatum was coming from who listened.  But Oscar Peterson was a trio player who utilized that medium.  First of all, I never heard anybody play as fast as that in that format.  I just loved it.  In fact, I was so enthralled with Pete, it was years before I went back to listening to Bud Powell and really trying to get to that!

There were lots of influences.  In a way, in the Jazz arena, a pianist sometimes is not always a pianist.  It just depends.  Oscar was definitely a pianist of the first magnitude.  But when I always thought of Thelonious Monk, for instance, as the piano being a vehicle for his music, and his writing was equally as important if not more important than his piano playing.  I mean, it’s as though his piano playing existed to play his music.  Monk apparently could do a lot of different things.  I’ve heard him play Stride, but when he plays Stride it doesn’t sound like Willie the Lion and James P. — it sounds like Monk playing Stride.  And Duke Ellington, who was a wonderful pianist, but somehow it didn’t matter, because what Duke was about was so much bigger than whether he was a piano player.  John Lewis was the same situation.  I love John’s playing, its subtleties, but with him also what he did as a composer was bigger than just the fact that he was a good piano player.

Also, there were the band players.  When I say “band players,” what I mean is there were the players like Richie Powell with the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet, the different piano players that Miles Davis’s band had, the different piano players in Art Blakey’s ensembles.  There are a lot of recordings of musicians that at the time I thought were bands, but they weren’t; they were just recordings where somebody was a leader, and would go out and find some gigs from that recording.  There were a lot of piano players like that.  Wynton Kelly was one, and Red Garland was another one.

Tommy Flanagan was one of the better of those.  But see, Tommy was also bigger than that.  Tommy spent a lot of years with Ella Fitzgerald, and accompanying a vocalist is a very special thing.  Accompaniment is the most difficult thing to teach.  I’ve been teaching for better than twenty years, and I’ve devised methods lately of dealing with the concept of accompaniment.  Usually my piano students, when they get to a certain level, they have to bring a singer into their lesson, and we work on pieces where they are accompanying the singer.  That’s the only way to really do that.  In a setting where a lesson is occurring, we could talk about it all day.  There are a few things about accompaniment everybody should know.  First of all, you should definitely show that you know the song in and out.  If you’re accompanying the vocalist, you’d better know the words.  Also, you’d better be prepared to learn how to breathe with that instrument.  Even though it’s not a wind instrument, the concept of playing is directly connected to the concept of breathing, and you have to understand that each singer… It’s also true for instrumentalists, but I dwell a little bit more on singers from the accompaniment side, because singers are working with something that’s a little different.  The interplay with a soloist is not quite the same.  A singer is trying to deliver a message through the sound-word.  So the enhancement of that is what is expected from the pianist.  I would say, get a recording by Hank Jones, who by the way I think is the consummate concept of a pianist, I mean, a total pianist… Believe me, this doesn’t take anything away from anybody else.  But from an academician who is trying to create Jazz programs, I’d say Hank Jones would be my model of the consummate pianist.  Hank Jones recorded a duo album with Abbey Lincoln recently.  Every student of recording and accompaniment, that recording should be under your pillow, on your CD, wherever you go.  And there are others.

TP:    Could you comment on the piano trio concept of Ahmad Jamal?  Did that have an impact on you in the 1950’s.  I know that Jason also works with the Marcus Roberts Trio, and the first person I thought of when I heard you play (not many people can make me think of this) is Vernell Fournier, a fellow New Orleanian.  Jason is deferring to his father, so Ellis Marsalis first.

EM:    I don’t know if that’s correct, because you addressed it in terms of drumming…

TP:    Well, drumming and the piano trio concept.

EM:    I’ve gotten to know Ahmad, but I’ve never been able to sit down with him and talk about it.  But based upon what I have heard… Ahmad influenced me in ways which I would not consider very complimentary to me or Ahmad.  When he did “Poinciana,” it was one of those songs that we all had to play as a trio.  So what happened is that I listened to “Poinciana” and learned it (in the wrong key, I might add, which is neither here nor there for the listening audience), and it was sort of like emulating Ahmad Jamal, not appreciating the real subtleties of what he was doing.  How many different kinds of grooves he was playing.  How he would use those vamps in ways… A vamp is a consistent pattern that’s played which allows you to play something over that, kind of a static groove, if you will.  It would be years before I would really listen to Ahmad in ways that one needs to listen in order to get the real message.  Without having spoken to him about it, I think maybe that hit he had probably threw a lot of us off.

Now, Miles thought so much of Ahmad Jamal that Miles recorded a lot of Ahmad Jamal’s solos, just played them right out.  I think some of the younger drummers and piano players are now beginning to discover Ahmad.  “We ain’t never heard about that!”  They are now beginning to discover Ahmad.

TP:    One thing about “Poinciana” is that the beat Vernell Fournier is from a vernacular New Orleans rhythm which is now known as the “Poinciana Beat.”

JM:    Well, it’s really some second-line.

TP:    There you go.

JM:    When I first heard that beat, I didn’t know Vernell was from New Orleans, and I was kind of suspicious.  I said, “Man, this sounds like some Second Line.”  But then when I found out he was from New Orleans, I said, “Oh, okay, that solves everything.”  But that’s really the influence of the New Orleans music, the traditional music of New Orleans, be it brass band music or whatever.  That’s really where that beat comes from.

Now, as far as Ahmad Jamal’s trio, it’s interesting, because I’m working with Marcus, and that’s someone Marcus listens to a lot.  When you listen to the Gershwin For Lovers record, you can really hear a lot of the influence of Ahmad Jamal.  One thing Miles Davis said about him was that he liked the fact Ahmad would let the music breathe.  Ahmad used a lot of space in his playing, and that’s one of the things I found interesting about his music as well.  He didn’t necessarily have to razzle-dazzle and play all kinds of fancy stuff.  He would let the music breathe.

Not only that, but my Dad mentioned students… Down in the New Orleans area, every young musician was into Ahmad Jamal!  I don’t know of any young musicians who are not into Ahmad Jamal.  All of them just loved Ahmad Jamal records.  It was really a big thing.  But I think a lot of young pianists and drummers these days are especially influenced by Ahmad Jamal.

TP:    And extrapolating, Vernell Fournier.

JM:    Right.

TP:    One thing about Vernell Fournier and Idris Muhammad, who credited Ellis with bringing him to a Jazz concert for the first time… Idris said he got his unique concept of the bass drum his assimilation of Second Line rhythms.  But both are masters of drum timbres and the sounds of the different components of the trap set in combination.

JM:    That’s a kind of complex thing there!  Well, there’s something about the bass drum that New Orleans drummers have always played differently than drummers from anywhere else. Whether it’s Funk drums, a drummer like Zigaboo Modaliste from the Meters, or whether it’s the traditional Jazz drummers, there’s always something about the bass drum, the way the bass drum grooves that’s always different.  I think one thing is the emphasis that the drummers put on the beat-four.  That’s one of the things I’d say that’s different.

But as far as different timbres, so to speak, there are so many nuances to that, especially listening to a drummer like Vernell Fournier.  One of the things I like about his playing is his brush sound, which was subtle as well as powerful.  Even playing sticks it was sort of the same thing.

TP:    Have you had a second line experience for yourself, in one form or another?

JM:    I’ve had a few.

TP:    Talk about that a bit.

JM:    I’ve done a few performances, Second Line gigs I guess you would say, playing with brass bands.  I’ve played snare drum a few times with some brass bands, and I marched in the Mardi Gras parade once playing snare drums.  So I have played snare drum in a brass band on a few occasions.  There’s also one interesting experience in New Orleans, which can only happen in New Orleans, that a brass band will be just playing in your neighborhood down the street, you’re in your house, then you hear this band playing, and there’s all these people just following them around, and marching in second line along with them.  That’s something that happens, like, whenever.

EM:    That’s an    African tradition.  If a group, especially those who live in the bush, go through a village in a ceremony, the people from the village, some of them will just join right in and follow the ceremony.  That’s the common pleasure that exists today.  There are what they call social and pleasure clubs, and every now and then what they will do is get a brass band and stage a parade.  Which doesn’t specifically have anything to do with Mardi Gras.  They will just stage a parade, and they will march in the area where their club functions.  They just get permits, and they march down the street, and people in the various neighborhoods just jump right out in the street and start what they call the Second Line.

For people who don’t really understand what that means:  See, the Second Line goes all the way back to the days when people who passed away was interred in a grave-site that was always within walking distance of the community that they lived in.  So they would get a band to go out and play some religious music, “Flee As A Bird,” “Just A Little While To Stay Here”…

JM:    “A Closer Walk With Thee.”

EM:    Yeah, “A Closer Walk With Thee.”  After the body is interred, at what is considered to be, as they would say, a respectable distance from the grave-site, you would hear a trumpet player.  He would say DO-DIT-DAH-DIT, like that, which was sort of a signal to the other musicians that they were going to start.  Then usually what would happen, they would start to play something like “Didn’t He Ramble.”  Now, without going off into religion and philosophy, the Christian concept of rejoicing when one passes on, that’s part of that.  The person has lived a life and is now passed on, and the celebration belongs to the people who are alive.  So they would start to play something like “Didn’t He Ramble.”  What would happen, the members of the bereaved’s family would be right behind the band.  The Second Line would be those who had no real kinship, but just came out and joined the celebration, following behind the family, which would be considered the First Line.

Now the tradition, in a somewhat modified sense, is still going pretty strong in New Orleans, except that now grave-sites are not within walking distance, and you may find a band playing and you may not.  But in other kinds of ceremony, you will find… There’s a lot of brass bands.  Whoever is going to New Orleans for the Super Bowl, when you get off that airplane, there will be a brass band at that airport to meet you.

TP:     Speaking of brass bands, Jason, have you been studying and analyzing the older New Orleans drummers such as Baby Dodds?

JM:    Oh, yes.

TP:    Talk about that, and the importance of that concept of playing to a contemporary drummer performing contemporary music.

JM:    It’s good you should mention Baby Dodds, because he’s someone I’ve just started to investigate.  Baby Dodds’ playing is much different than playing now.  One thing that’s different is, for example, he didn’t play like drummers play on brushes, time on brushes and time on the ride cymbal.  He didn’t play like that at all.  I have a recording that Dr. Michael White gave me to record where he’s playing an early form of the drum set, like snare drum, bass drum, two toms, and he’d have woodblocks and cowbells and so forth; the basis of his set was the snare drum and the bass drum, while the other drums were used for decoration.  In the brass bands, the basic setup of the drums was you’d have a snare drummer and a bass drummer — two different drummers.  In his setup, the snare and the bass drum was the main thing happening; the other drums and stuff was just decoration.  That was just some stuff he’d use for fill-ins and so forth.  So how he used his setup is one of the things that’s different about him.

TP:    How do you incorporate that concept, if you do, into what you do in the here and now.

JM:    A very good question.  Well, there are certain things that Baby Dodds played that can be used in the music today. But the music played back then is so much different than the music being played now.  It just was a different time, a different era back then.

TP:    Ellis Marsalis, you said in an earlier interview that you weren’t particularly involved in Second Line experiences, but you were playing saxophone and playing a lot of Rhythm-and-Blues type of saxophone?  Do you think your experience as a saxophonist had a substantial impact on the way you approach the piano?

EM:    Definitely!  In fact, Edward Blackwell told me once that I was not a piano player; I was a transposed saxophonist to piano.  It took me a while to figure out what he meant.  See, I had studied piano, but I had not really approached the piano like Phineas Newborn, Oscar and people like that.  And when I started to play in bands, especially with Blackwell and Nat, and we would do things from Clifford Brown and Max Roach and Miles, the pianistic approach for me was sort of like patchwork.  For one thing, I also realized later on that the concept of accompaniment, or comping as it’s called, was still in a state of evolution.  When you listen to what Bud Powell was doing in earlier years, that kind of accompaniment was nothing close to what was occurring when Miles had Tony, Ron and Herbie.  That rhythm section defined a peak in terms of accompaniment, solos, every aspect of it.

TP:    People are still dealing with the implications of that rhythm section.

EM:    Oh, they’re going to be dealing with that for a long time.  I mean, that was a major breakthrough.  It was like Isaac Newton’s theory.  That was something that was a major breakthrough, and it’s around, and it will be around.  Physicists come and go.  Newton’s concept stays!  That rhythm section virtually defined the small group approach to rhythm section playing and accompaniment.  It was a similar kind of thing that was beginning to evolve.  Wynton Kelly was playing with Miles, and his approach was a lot more closely associated with Paul Chambers and what Jimmy Cobb or Philly Joe Jones was doing.

The historical significance of the Jazz musicians, the contributions have come to us in patchwork, because we’ve never had an institution, a Jazz institution that was a part of the culture.  If you go to Brazil, you’ve got a Samba Club, lots of Samba Clubs.  In Trinidad, there are steel pan bands, lots of them.  It’s in the fabric of the culture.  Jazz has never been in the fabric of American culture.  So everything that came about, came about as a result of so much patchwork.  That’s why people from New Orleans were unique to that.  That was a lot closer to the Caribbean experience.  You talk to some of the guys from Detroit.  I mean, there’s a lot of musicians!  P.C. came from there, Doug Watkins, Ron Carter, Bob Hurst… [END OF SIDE A]

…of the dance, you see, and the dance came about by way of what the American-African brought to that whole experience.  If you were to come to New Orleans tomorrow and there was a brass band down the street, and you would see guys in the Second Line, what you would see is guys doing a strut.  Now, it’s not a military band.  In fact, if you ever go to see what we call SWAC (Southwest Athletic Conference), the Universities of Texas Southern, Jackson State, Southern University, Florida A&M, all those historical Black colleges, you’ll see those marching bands at halftime — they don’t march like soldiers.

TP:    The most advanced trap drummers can be conceived of as analogous to African dancers because in African dance the interdependence of motion of each limb in conjunction with each other is the principle of the dance, and I guess a trap drummer is trying to make the rhythm from each limb, the extension of himself or herself, their own personal dance.

EM:    Well, in the African dance, the difference is going to be in the age.  There are some dances which are primarily for males, older people.  And there’s also some dances and music and rhythms that are primarily for females.  Mainly today we talk about those things which are traditionally done in the bush country.  You get into Lagos and those cities, then you’re looking at skyscrapers and cars and traffic jams, all the things that happen everywhere.

TP:    [ETC. ON MUSIC] A few words about “Cochise.”

EM:    That’s a piece Alvin wrote based on the chord structure of “Cherokee.”  We made a recording of this as youngsters.  I don’t know if it will ever be released.  It was so fast, it was ridiculous.  Talk about youthful energy and arrogance borderlining on stupidity to play like that!  Anyway, it’s a very difficult piece because it reflects the highest level of virtuosity.  Alvin wrote that, and we used to play it, because in those times were going through that young period when you’re feeling your oats.  Like, everything was about how fast can play — that kind of thing.  Forget about the music.  How fast can you play? [LAUGHS] I think “Cochise” was one of the pieces we used in that manner.

[MUSIC:  B/E/J Marsalis & B. Hurst, "Cochise" (1994); E. Marsalis-E. Harris, "Homecoming" (1985); E. Marsalis/ Perillat/J. Black, "Swinging at the Haven" (1962)]

TP:    A few words about the project with Eddie Harris, the great saxophonist and musical thinker who died last year.

EM:    Eddie was an enigma.  It’s very hard to really put him into a category.  As a musician he was extremely well prepared for practically anything.  He evidently had some rather inventive qualities, too.  I remember hearing Eddie play with a machine that had a tape loop, and he would play a Blues, he’d play a chorus, and he would put a solo on it, then it would play back, then he would record another one against that, those two would play back and he would record another one.  I’ve heard him go up to six different tracks on that machine.  And there came a time when he didn’t travel on that machine very much.  I’ve heard him play trumpet by putting a saxophone mouthpiece on the end of the trumpet in the place of a conventional trumpet mouthpiece, and play that. [LAUGHS] And done of these were gimmicky.  It was not a gimmick.  He actually figured out how to make this work.

TP:    He was someone who was tremendously concerned with the permutations of sounds in motion, in many ways.

EM:    Well, Eddie Harris covered a lot of bases.  He had a unique approach to playing jazz, especially those wide intervals that he played, and he was very comfortable in the Pop idiom where there was quality music being played there.  He and Les McCann did several wonderful projects together.

TP:    What was the genesis of your duo recording?  Had you known him for a number of years?  Was it something that just got set up by circumstance?

EM:    It was a combination of both things.  Eddie used to book himself a lot.  He happened to call a club called Tyler’s in New Orleans, which is no longer there.  I happened to be working there that night, and during the break the owner says, “Hey, man, I’ve got Eddie Harris on the phone.  How about a duo with you and Eddie?”  I said, “Yeah, sure.”  I think I’d played with Eddie before at another club in New Orleans, so I knew him.  Anyway, he came in, and we did the duo at this particular club, Tyler’s.

As I remember, maybe David Torkanowsky set the session up.  We went in to Dallas, Texas, to do it.  I’m not sure of all the particulars, but I think David’s the one who set it up.  Now, “Homecoming” was a piece I was surprised was even on the album, let alone the title.  I’d written the piece, and as I was walking out the door to catch the plane, it was laying on my desk, so I said, “Well, I’m not going to do this, but I’ll just take it with me and get Eddie to look at it.”  So I almost didn’t take it to the studio, and we ended up recording it!

But it was always fun to record or work with Eddie, because Eddie was a funny, funny cat.  He had a wonderful sense of humor.  I remember once he told the audience, “I have decided to make a career change, and I am going to be a Rock-and-Roll singer.  I have all of the qualifications necessary — no voice and nerve.”  He was always making witticisms like that.

TP:    Jason Marsalis, what is it that makes your father an educator who is able to produce musicians of the quality of those who’ve come from under his tutelage?

JM:    Bright students perhaps! [LAUGHS] That’s a very good question.  Hmm.  I don’t know…

TP:    Not to put you on the spot or anything.

JM:    It’s interesting, because a lot of people ask me what has my father taught me.  Now, I’ve learned from him in different ways, but not necessarily in the concept of teacher-student.  It’s moreso father-and-son than teacher-and-student.  As far as teacher goes, he’s always found good teachers for me when it comes to studying percussion, whether it was classical percussion or studying drums or whatever.  He’s always found good teachers for me in that aspect.  But as far as his qualities as a teacher, it’s hard to tell.

I think one of the things with him teaching at the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts in New Orleans at that particular time… One good way of explaining it is maybe it was one of those things that was the right place at the right time, the way the whole school jelled.  It was a great faculty… Just the people who came together at that time.  The students that were there.. There was just something about that particular time.  I mean, I was a baby then!

As far as him being a teacher, one thing is that teaching wasn’t what he was set out to do at first.  Playing was really the first thing.  In fact, me and my older brother Delfayo had a debate about that, whether my father was a teacher or a player.  Delfeayo was, “He’s a player!” and I was, “No, he’s a teacher!”

TP:    There are some strong personalities in the family, in case people out there don’t know it.

JM:    There sure are.

EM:    This is probably very difficult for Jason to answer, because he was the only musician who went to that school that I didn’t teach, because I wasn’t there at that time.  But the thing about it was that… A lot of what he said, too, was correct.  First of all, the time in America was such that the magnet school concept was prevalent.  A lady named Shirley Trusty, who is now Shirley Trusty Corey(?), was very instrumental in getting a grant that ultimately helped to create the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.  As a result, we were able… When I say “we,” I mean the whole faculty, because there were four disciplines… Let’s see, it was five disciplines eventually.  I started out with music, dance, theater and visual arts, and then creative writing was added later.

When we started out, our mission was to give students the opportunity to explore the creative area so that they could make career decisions relating to the arts.  It wasn’t the objective to crank out a bunch of Jazz musicians or Classical musicians or anything!  It was really to try to help students to understand what this was all about and make decisions in high school.  Those who needed to go further, went further, and left and attended Juilliard… Branford left and went to Southern University and eventually to Berklee.  Donald Harrison went to Berklee.  Later on, Harry Connick, Jr., went to Loyola University for a semester, and later attended Manhattan School of Music.  And there were any number of people who went into Classical music and conservatories.

What we tried to do, and had the opportunity to do mainly because this was a magnet school, the students who came to the school could use their electives to choose which discipline to be in.  So we had a model school.  We had 100 percent opportunities to present what we wanted to present the way we wanted to present it.  We had virtually no support from the Board of Education.  There was no budgeting for anything like what we were doing.  The Federal Government was fast disappearing from those concepts.  But for the most part, we were able to get students at a young enough age… We had a grant, which was very important to our program.  It was only $8 an hour.  That was it!  But most of the guys in the Symphony Orchestra would agree to teach for the grant and a couple of dollars above that.  That meant that the students got very good instrumental instruction from people in the orchestra.  And it didn’t matter… See, we didn’t really deal as much with the concept of Jazz and Classical music as a separate thing.  If a person wanted to concentrate on Classical music, obviously that’s what they did, and they spent as much time as it took for them to get into a major institution.  If the student said, “Well, I want to be a Jazz player,” he got the fundamentals from studying what would be Classical music –but major scales and triads are not necessarily Classical music; they’re just the fundamentals.

TP:    That word “fundamentals” is perhaps the key to your gift as a teacher, that you seem to have the ability to break down almost any body of work into its fundamentals and are able to communicate them in a very practical way to students, and I think the proof is in the pudding.

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Filed under Alvin Batiste, Branford Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis, Jason Marsalis, Jazz Education, New Orleans, Ornette Coleman, Piano, Wynton Marsalis

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.

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

For Kenny Barron’s 70th Birthday, A 2005 DownBeat Feature and WKCR Interviews From 1991 and 2004

To mark the 70th birthday of the magnificent pianist-composer-conceptualist-educator Kenny Barron, who made it to the big leagues of jazz at 18, not long after he moved to New York, and has remained there ever since, I’m posting a pair of interviews we did on WKCR — a Musician’s Show in 1991 and an appearance promoting a week in a club in 2004. I’m also putting up the first of two interviews I conducted with the maestro for a DownBeat profile—which leads this entry—that I pitched and was given the opportunity  to write in 2005.

Kenny Barron Downbeat Article:

The wall of windows behind the bandstand of Dizzy’s Coca-Cola Room revealed a twilit tableau of Central Park treetops and the Fifth Avenue skyline as pianist Kenny Barron, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Mino Cinelu prepared to begin set one of the Kenny Barron Festival last April. Barron put down his glass of red wine, cocked his head slightly to the left, and began to play “Prelude To A Kiss.” He spun out flowing rubato variations on the melody, imparting to his lines the joyous ache of romance, then brightened the tempo and stated a kinetic Caribbean beat as he painstakingly built the arc to ecstatic resolution.
As the sky turned indigo, and the lights of Fifth Avenue twinkled in the distance, Barron sustained the Spanish tinge with discursive three-way dialogues on “All Blues,” a tune he played frequently during a lengthy ‘70s stint with Ron Carter, and “Calypso,” a lively original that he first recorded on a 1981 solo album for Xanadu.  Then he parsed the melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Shuffle Boil,” and embarked on a solo tour de force, conjuring luscious voicings atop a rock solid stride to complement the long, fluid, melodic lines he carved out with his right hand, deviating slightly in tempo and inflection from a version that appears on The Perfect Set, a new release on Sunnyside that documents an April 1996 engagement at Bradley’s, the saloon that was then New York’s sine qua non for piano jazz.
Thus inspired, Barron concluded the set with “Madman,” built on a fourth interval theme constructed around a bass line he heard in his teens from Hassan Ibn Ali, a famously eccentric Philadelphia pianist who regularly came to Barron’s house to practice with his older brother, Bill Barron, a tenor saxophonist with a taste for navigating the outer partials. He channeled the into-the-wild-blue-yonder side of Bud Powell,  engaging in intense rhythmic dialogue with Cinelu; at the end, he announced that this was his first public performance of the tune, which he recorded in duo with Roy Haynes on Wanton Spirit [Verve] in 1995; he deviated from the record by adding a free, rubato coda.
The festival lasted three weeks, and Barron framed himself each week within a different sonic environment. He shared the stage with Cinelu for the remainder of week one, joined by bassist George Mraz and kora player Abou M’Boop on nights three and four, and Mraz and guitarist Romero Lubambo on the final two evenings. During week two, Barron addressed hardcore, straight-ahead modern jazz, assembling a crackling sextet, fueled by drummer Victor Lewis, to interpret his fire-to-romance compositions. For the final week, Barron recruited Drummond and drummer Grady Tate to form a Bradley’s style “classic” trio.
Throughout the engagement, Barron followed the imperatives of the moment, resolving audacious ideas with the panache, in the words of Victor Lewis, of “a cat who always lands on his feet.”
“The rhythms were all over the place,” Barron said of week one. “I don’t think we played anything straight-ahead, which forced me to play other things. We started with no preconceived ideas or notions, and the tunes went whichever way they went.”
“What always surprises me about Kenny is his apparent nonchalance and very casual approach, and yet the tiger within,” said Cinelu.  In 1996 he and Barron collaborated on Swamp Sally [Verve], a free-form electro-acoustic project on which Barron referenced an exhaustively global lexicon of strategies and attacks.
Swamp Sally is one of a string of Barron recordings since 1992 on which French producer Jean-Philippe Allard encouraged Barron—now a serial poll-winner and Grammy-nomintee, but then typecast as a bop-oriented sideman supreme—to allow his imagination to roam, and paved the way for him to assume his present stature as a distinguished jazz elder. These albums include a kaleidoscopic duo with violinist Regina Carter; two recitals of Barron’s Brazil-inflected compositions, including Canta Brasil, a 2002 encounter with Trio de Paz; and several venturesome quintets and sextets comprising diverse personnels and instrumental configurations, most recently Images, with vibraphonist Stefon Harris, flutist Anne Drummond, and drummer Kim Thompson, all young stars on the rise.
Barron infuses each of these recordings with a spirit of spontaneity, human warmth and dance-like grace that often eludes musicians who possess his surfeit of technique.
“Kenny knows how to play inside the drums, and make the drummer sound good,” says Danilo Perez, a keen student of Barron’s music. “He knows how to syncopate—how to jab behind the beat for a swing feel, and jab on top, pushing it just like a Latino. With the Brazilians, he plays the subdivisions pretty much in their style. He’s a master of knowing what to do at the right time, whomever he’s playing with.”
“I like music, and I like all of it,” Barron stated. “I don’t want to be put in any kind of pigeonhole, even though I’m sure I am. Ideally, in one set I can go through everything. One song might come out as straight bebop, the next may go outside or be Brazilian. You don’t know what it sounds like until it reveals itself, so to speak. I like not-knowing. That’s the fun. Let’s see where it goes. I don ‘t think I need to go to school and study Brazilian music for three or four years. I just need to LISTEN to it, and respond whatever way I can.
“As you get older, you start to give yourself permission to make a mistake. There’s another chorus coming! You can try it again. Whether you make it or not, you’ve got to reach. Very interesting things can develop through that process.”
* * * * * *
Barron bedrocks his predisposition for risk on a strong foundation in the jazz tradition, which he absorbed first hand as a Philadelphia teenager. “Bud Powell is at the core of what I do,” he said, citing Horace Silver, Ahmad Jamal, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, and McCoy Tyner as other strong formative influences. At the top of Barron’s list, however, is Tommy Flanagan. The infatuation began in ninth grade, when a friend brought the 1956 Miles Davis-Sonny Rollins recording of “In Your Own Sweet Way,” on which Flanagan sidemanned, for their art class to paint to.
“I stopped painting,” Barron recalls. “It was so crystal clear, and the touch was so light, so delicate. I fell in love with Tommy’s playing right then and there. Nothing tugs on my heartstrings the way Tommy could.”
Within several years, on Bill Barron’s say-so, Philly’s finest were calling the youngster for cabaret gigs at Elks Clubs and Masonic Lodges, as well as some less savory venues. “I remember an after-hours place called the Northwest Club where I played with Jimmy Heath, Mickey Roker and (bassist) Arthur Harper,” says Barron, who recalls playing until 3, taking the last bus home, and waking up for 8 a.m. classes. “The rhythm section had to play a show, and there wasn’t always rehearsal. I played for singers, comedians, shake dancers and tap dancers—a lot of standards,  songs based on ‘I Got Rhythm’ and rhythm-and-blues. It taught me how to listen and helped me with musical language. It prepared me for New York, where I still had to do those kind of gigs. I didn’t start working at Birdland right away.”
In point of fact, Birdland was the site of Barron’s first New York gig—a Monday night in 1961 with his brother and Ted Curson. Not long after, he hit the majors on jobs with Roy Haynes, Lou Donaldson, and James Moody, In 1962, he married, moved to Brooklyn, and, on Moody’s recommendation, joined Dizzy Gillespie. His four-year stint with Gillespie kicked off a three-decade string of high-profile sideman jobs with Freddie Hubbard, Yusef Lateef, Ron Carter, and Stan Getz, all admirers of his consistent creativity and lyric gifts, and with Sphere, the Monk-inspired collective quartet he co-founded in 1982 with Riley, Charlie Rouse and Buster Williams. At Lateef’s urging, he earned a college degree, and took a position at Rutgers in 1973, where for the next thirty years he mentored young talent like David Sanchez and Terence Blanchard, repeating his high school ritual of making early morning classes after finishing the third set at Bradley’s a few hours before. He moonlighted extensively, working with top-shelfers like Moody, Bobby Hutcherson, Benny Carter and Frank Wess and playing duo in various New York piano rooms. He documented his point of view on an impressive series of albums for such independents as Muse, Xanadu, Enja, Reservoir, Candid, and Criss Cross between 1975 and 1991.
“Each bandleader I worked with had a different style,” Barron says. “For example, Dizzy’s band was very tight and precise. I learned to keep stuff in reserve, not play everything you know all the time. Yusef was looser, the music was freer; you could play out, as far as you wanted to go. Ron likes hills and valleys; I learned to use dynamics. Stan and I shared a love for lyricism. We fed each other. He was one person who could play a ballad and really make you cry.”
As documented on Bossas and Ballads: The Lost Sessions [Verve], a 1989 quartet session that was not released until 2003, Getz played Barron’s tunes—these included such present-day standards as “Sunflower,” “Voyage,” “Phantoms” and “What If?”—and related to him as a de facto co-leader. Still, Barron was not able to generate consequential interest in his own projects—around 1985 he Barron formed an incendiary quintet with Eddie Henderson, John Stubblefield, David Williams and Victor Lewis to play his compositions—until Getz died in 1991.
“For some reason, the industry was late getting to Kenny,” states Lewis, whom Getz employed throughout the ‘80s. “It was frustrating, because we were all active members of the jazz community, we felt the  group and Kenny’s writing were special, and we couldn’t understand why we never worked much. We did a tour of the West Coast, and Kenny took out a loan to pay the airfare, to try to promote us.”
Perhaps one reason for Barron’s tortoise-like breakthrough lies in his genial, understated personality, devoid of visible idiosyncracy. During his sextet week at Dizzy’s Room, for example, Barron functioned as the band pianist as much as a leader, comping enthusiastically for his youngish front line—youngbloods Jeremy Pelt on trumpet and Dayna Stephens on tenor saxophone next to veteran Vincent Herring—and soloing when they were through. “I have to give cues,” he chuckled. “So it’s easier that I take the last solo. I like to think of myself as a team player, so I’m less interested in myself sounding good as much as the group I’m with, whether as a leader or a sideperson.”
“Kenny has incredible ability, and yet he is never flashy about it,” says Cinelu. “Which I guess frustrates everybody but him. He has a special touch. It’s easier to get the message when you see a musician who has a lot of obvious charisma and an obvious routine—who is very visual, let’s say. Kenny is not that. Yet, his message passes. He’s one of the great jazz pianists.”
It’s interesting to compare the gradual arc of Barron’s  career to the rapid ascent of such generational contemporaries as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, all Miles Davis alumni who broke ground as young men and then, inspired by Miles, established themselves as leaders by differentiating themselves from the jazz tradition. In contrast, after apprenticing with Gillespie, Barron—who enthusiastically abstracted form during tenures with Hubbard and Lateef—was never willing to shed mainstream values.
“Things evolve the way they should,” Barron says. “I don’t know what other choice I could have made. I was influenced by Herbie with Miles and on Blue Note, like Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage, not so much the electronic stuff. By Chick’s writing more than his playing; to me, Chick in the ‘60s was still sounding a lot like McCoy. But I didn’t know quite what to make out of Herbie. His stylistic influences were harder to pin down, other than some he shared with Bill Evans, like French Impressionism.”
“Kenny has a unique approach, a kind of blending of styles,” says Mulgrew Miller, Barron’s partner on a dozen or so duo concerts in recent years, following an initial mid-‘90s encounter at Bradley’s. “He’s rooted in the bop language but takes risks you don’t necessarily hear from people we call bop players. He wasn’t breaking down barriers like McCoy or Herbie, but he’s always trying to reach past his limitations, and he shares with those guys a command of the language of whatever area he’s dealing with.”
In a manner almost unique in 21st century jazz, Barron’s tonal personality encompasses the entire jazz timeline organically and unaffectedly. In the course of a set, he’ll stride with a percussive force and joie de vivre that would not sound out of place at a Harlem Renaissance rent party or a Roaring Twenties Park Avenue soiree. He channels the hard-boiled, warp speed attitude that marked the bustling 52nd Street bars and soulful uptown lounges where bebop flourished after World War Two, and the nuance and polish of the trios that entertained the bibulous mix of gray-flannel suits and tourists who patronized midtown’s upscale grills in the ‘50s. He’s au courant with the craftsmanship and sophistication of the American Songbook, and interprets  it without irony, on its own terms. The airy melodies and surging rhythms of Brazil and the Caribbean dapple his compositional palette, and he has an intimate relationship with the tropes of the Saturday night blues function and Sunday church ceremonial.
“I like Kenny’s touch,” adds Billy Taylor, a friend since Barron’s Gillespie days. “Whether he’s playing a bossa nova or wailing on something with guys playing Art Blakey kind of things behind him, he has the thing for that. To be able to change your touch that way is remarkable. He’s curious, so he’ll take a gig playing ballads. That gives him a chance to play beautiful songs that not everybody plays. Then he works with a group that’s straight-ahead with a soul thing happening, and he’ll go back to church with you. I used to hear him with groups that, quite honestly, were not up to what he was capable of doing at the time. He always found something in that group to take with him. That’s the mark of a first-rate artist.”
It’s also the mark of a pragmatist, a man with responsibilities. Barron intends to work as much as possible as he moves through his seventh decade. Although his stated intention after retiring from Rutgers in 2003 was to eschew teaching for practice and musical exploration, he soon received offers he could not refuse from the jazz departments of Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, where he taught a total of 10 piano students privately during the 2004-05 school year.
“My daughter’s getting married, and I’ve got a wedding to pay for,” he says. What wouldn’t he do? “I’d probably hate playing Hawaiian music,” he responds, perhaps with tongue in cheek.
Has he always been a practical person?
“Practical? Do you think I’m practical?”
Well, yes. Married for 42 years, Barron is a musician who sustained creative edge while paying the bills and found a way, like Tommy Flanagan, to maximize his value as a performer in the world in which he functioned.
“I would be inclined to say it’s there,” he says. “Not that other people haven’t helped me. Yes, I’ve been able to function and be consistent. Work. Be married. Try to be in creative situations as much as possible. Whatever the word for that is, yeah, I am.”

[—30—]

* * * *

Kenny Barron (March 21, 2005):

TP:   First, the editor wants me to write about the different groups. When we spoke on the radio, you said that playing in different situations all the time, which is what you do on your records, keeps you fresh, keeps you thinking differently…

KENNY:   Oh, it does.

TP:   Have you ever done a three-week event like this, where you showcased a different sound over the course of an engagement.

KENNY:   Actually, I have. I did at the Vanguard twice. It was the same rhythm section every week, myself and Ben Riley and Buster Williams, and each week we used a different horn player. One week we used Vincent Herring, another week David Sanchez, I think Jesse Davis… It was fun.

TP:   But that’s a different proposition. These are three different…

KENNY:   Three totally different environments. True.

TP:   The first week with Mino Cinelu… You called the record Swamp Thing. This is a pan-Latin, pan-Brazilian…

KENNY:   Yeah, it’s a little bit of everything! Every two nights it’s going to change. The first two nights it’s myself, Mino Cinelu and John Patitucci. The next two nights John was unavailable, so George Mraz is going to play bass, myself Mino and Abdou M’Boop, the percussionist, who will also play kora. The last two nights will be George Mraz, Mino, myself and Romero Lubambo. That will have more of a Brazilian cast.

TP:   Have you played with Abdou M’Boop before?

KENNY:   No, I haven’t.

TP:   But you’ve played with Mino and Romero.

KENNY:   True. But I haven’t played M’Boop. He came by here and brought his kora, and it wasn’t quite what I expected it to be in terms of how it’s approached, so I have to rethink how it’s going to be used.  But he also plays talking drums, so he’ll be playing percussion as well. Kora is an interesting instrument, because once it’s tuned it has to stay in a particular key. It’s not a chromatic instrument, it’s diatonic, so you tune it to a particular scale and it stays there. If you tune it to B-flat, you can’t play in A-flat. He can retune it, but it’s a very time-consuming thing. He can’t do it between songs.

TP:   So you have to do the whole set in a particular key.

KENNY:   Well, the pieces that I’m going to use will all be in the same tonality. If it’s B-flat, it can also be G-minor, which is the relative minor of a B-flat. So it can be major and minor, but the notes will always be the same.

TP:   Keeping that interesting will be a challenge.

KENNY:   Very much so. There’s a way to do it. We ran over some stuff here.

TP:   That will be the one premiere of this week. Let’s discuss each of the people. Mino Cinelu  is one of the great pan-diaspora percussionists. He seems to have everything…

KENNY:   He can do almost anything. Well, he does. He does everything. He has some very interesting equipment. He has a wave drum, which produces all kinds of interesting sound effects and colors, and I’m sure he’ll use some of that. On the recording, we also did some all-acoustic stuff duo. We did a couple of concerts in Europe.

TP:   So you have a repertoire.

KENNY:   Yes, we have a repertoire. I don’t know that we’ll necessarily be doing… Since we have bass player, we’ll try to expand it. Because there was no bass player on the recording we did.

TP:   With Romero Lubambo, you had a project that had legs with Trio de Paz. But in this case, it’s George Mraz and Mino.

KENNY:   I’m sure we will do some Brazilian stuff, but we’ll do some other stuff as well.

TP:   You and Mino are the ones who are going to shift what you do to suit each environment.  This is an old question. But I’d assume that your involvement with pan-African rhythms goes back to playing with Dizzy.

KENNY:   To a certain extent, yes.

TP:   Did it precede it when you were in Philly?

KENNY:   Yes. Especially Latin music. More Latin music. This was before bossa-nova and Brazilian music. But Latin music was always popular in Philly when I was coming up.

TP:   Did you play Latin gigs?

KENNY:   I didn’t play that many, no. But I’d hear the records by people like Joe Loco and Machito, Perez Prado. I listened to that music a lot.

TP:   Was your peer group interested in it?

KENNY:    Not so much. It was something I liked to listen to.

TP:   How did it come to you?

KENNY:   I heard it on the radio, and said, “Wow, listen to that.” There weren’t stations so much that played it. But there was a jazz station that played it… I don’t know if you know Joe Loco.  He was Cuban, and he had a lot of hits on standards, but always with an acoustic kind of group, trio or whatever. As I got older, when I moved to New York, I started listening to Symphony Sid, who played a lot of Latin music. That’s when I really…

TP:   Did you go to the Palladium at all?

KENNY:   No, I never went to the Palladium. Again, just listening to the radio.

TP:   When you came to New York, it was an efflorescent period for Latin music.

KENNY:   Yes. I came in ‘61.

TP:   Did it give you the same feeling as jazz? Did it add something to your palette?

KENNY:   I think it added something.  I always found Latin music to be very joyful. There’s always dance… It sounds kind of corny, but it was happy, happy kind of stuff. It was fun.

TP:   That’s interesting, because it isn’t a quality that all your contemporaries embodied in their playing. Certainly, modern jazz of the early ‘60s in New York wasn’t so much about keeping a groove going.

KENNY:   No, certainly not. During that period, music started to really become concert music. It got to be THAT kind of thing. I was into that myself. I wanted to be SERIOUS. But that’s one of the elements that I think Monk had, was humor, a sense of fun, playfulness in the music. I think that’s often missing. We’re all so busy being serious, or trying to show that we’re not really enjoying it. That’s what I loved about Billy Higgins. Billy was always smiling. He loved what he did! And that joyfulness, it showed.

TP:   It came out in his sound, too.

KENNY:   Yeah, it came out in the music, and it kind of infected everybody in the bandstand and the audience.

TP:   Did you and Mino first play together on that 1995 project?

KENNY:   No, that was really the first time.  I first heard Mino in Nice with Miles. We had a mutual friend who kind of thought it might be interesting for us to play together. I started going over to his house, and just talk about music… We became really good friends, which we still are. His wife would fix these great meals, and we’d sit and talk about music, and he has all this great equipment. Consequently, a lot of the stuff on the recording we did in his music room. We also did stuff in the studio, where I overdubbed this or that.

TP:   You’ve been very bold in your aesthetic choices. You won’t ever let anyone put you in a bag. One recording you’ll do ballads with Charlie Haden. Another one is wild duos with Mino. Then you’re doing a new quintet with young players, with a flute up front, you’re doing your take on post-bop with the sextet, a duo with Regina… What you’re doing over three weeks characterizes the way you’ve presented yourself over the past 15 years, when you began to do records with serious production values.

KENNY:   I don’t want to do just one thing.  The thing is, I really like all kinds of music. I’d like to expand it even further, do some other things. Another project coming up, and I don’t know if it will come to New York, is I want to do some stuff with the Turtle Island String Quartet. We’ll do something in November, but right now I don’t think there are any concerts slated for New York. So that will be a challenge for me, to play in that kind of environment. I don‘t want to only do one thing. There’s too much to learn.

TP:   Certain people, when they go into Brazilian music or Latin things, deeply study the idiomatic nuances of each idiom. That’s not your approach.

KENNY:   No. I just listen to it, and I respond in whatever way I can, so it’s organic. I’m not Brazilian, so I can’t be Brazilian. But I love the music. So whatever I do, it’s going to be my personal take on it, so to speak.

TP:   But with a lot of people, there might be a quality of superficiality in addressing something without… It’s like someone playing bebop without knowing the changes. Your personality comes through. You always sound completely at home.

KENNY:   Yeah. I don’t know why. It just is. I think it’s because I love the music. I don ‘t think it’s necessary for me to go to school on it. I don’t think I need to go to school and study it for three or four years. I just need to LISTEN to it. That’s all that’s necessary, is to listen to it.

TP:   Was very Dizzy very much about breaking the stuff down for you in the early ‘60s

KENNY:   He didn’t do it for me. He was very helpful in terms of showing me voicings, harmony. But I saw him do some stuff with Rudy Collins, where he wanted a particular rhythm. So he told Rudy, “Do this with your right foot, do this with your left foot; play this with your right hand, that with your left hand; hit the cymbal here.”

TP:   Do you do that when you play with younger musicians?

KENNY:   I don’t like to do that. If I hire somebody, it’s for what they can bring. My idea about leading a band is to let people do what they do. That’s why you hired them.

TP:   With Romero, you told me that Trio de Paz played for a long time at the Coffee Shop on 16th & Union Square East. I don’t know if you made it a destination, or if it was by accident…

KENNY:   Well, the first time was totally by accident. My wife and I were there shopping at the green market, and we said, “Let’s go get something to eat.” We went in there, and there they were along with Duduka’s wife, Maucia(?), who was singing. Then it became a destination. So every Saturday we were in town, we went there to hear some music. Then we met them and became good friends, and eventually it turned into, “Boy, I’d sure like to play; let’s play something.” Then it turned into, “Let’s do a record.” It evolved that way. We did some tours and concerts. I’d like to do some other things with them, because I enjoy playing with them a lot.

TP:   It sounds like all these projects evolve organically out of your life as a musician…or your life in general.

KENNY: I think so. A lot of things just happen. If I hadn’t gone to the Coffee Shop, the whole thing would never have happened.

TP:   You would have heard about them eventually. But maybe not.

KENNY:   Yeah, or maybe not. You never know. But I would have missed a lot.

TP:   Have you played much with John Patitucci?

KENNY:   Only once, actually. But I love his playing. I have one of his records that I really love. It’s called Communion. The first time we played was actually on a recording with a singer, Cheryl Bentyne. I’ve always loved his playing. So I’m really looking forward to this.

TP:   You and George have played together, but not that much.

KENNY:   When I first started working with Stan, we played together. A couple of times, I’ve subbed for Hank Jones, and worked with George and Dennis Mackrell. But I haven’t played with George in a long time. Actually, on one of the very first gigs with the Ron Carter Quartet, Buster Williams wasn’t available, he was in California, so George made that. That was in the early ‘70s.

TP:   After Dizzy, you played a lot with Freddie Hubbard. Was that a fairly steady-working band?

KENNY:   It was a working band. We didn’t work as much as I’m sure Freddie would have liked, but yeah, it was okay. We didn’t do long tours. It was mostly around New York, working at Slug’s, and a place called La Boheme, which was at 61st and Broadway, and the Coronet in Brooklyn.

TP:   What else were you doing in New York after you left Dizzy?

KENNY:   One thing I did right after I left Dizzy was work with Stanley Turrentine at Minton’s for five or six weeks. The rhythm section was Herbie Lewis and Joe Dukes. That was great, working uptown in that kind of environment. Six weeks back-to-back.

TP:   Dizzy’s time at Minton’s was long gone.

KENNY:   He’d gone past that. Financially, he was past that. But when I left Dizzy, I more or less freelanced for a while, working with as many people as I could.

TP:   The thing with Ron Carter began in the early ‘70s? The mid ‘70s?

KENNY:   Probably the mid ‘70s. Before that was Yusef Lateef. We toured quite a bit, especially during the summer. Yusef was teaching at the time at Manhattan Community College. He actually got everybody in the band to start going to college. He encouraged everyone, “You should go back to school.” So I did. It was a two-year school, and I got an Associate’s Degree, and after that I went on to get a Bachelor’s Degree from Empire State College, which is part of the SUNY.  When I was going to Manhattan Community College, and we were going on the road, I would always tell my teachers, “I’m going on the road for three weeks; what material will you cover in that three weeks?” They were always pretty cool about telling me. I’d bring math. We had math, and I had never had this kind of math before in my life. When I came back, I was ahead of the class.

TP:   You didn’t allow yourself to be distracted.

KENNY:   No, I did the work. But I attribute that a great deal to Yusef’s personality, because that’s the way he was. He was very centered and very into doing what you have to do to make things work.

TP:   I’m sure the relationships between music and mathematics make the logic systems clearer.

KENNY:   You’d think so. But that didn’t necessarily happen.

TP:   Your involvement with Ron Carter was long-standing.

KENNY:   Yes. How that gig started, I was working at the Keystone Korner with Yusef, and Ron was in town and came by. That’s how that happened. It’s a question of being in the right place at the right time.

TP:   When did you first start to lead two- and three-horn ensembles? Your first record is ‘71, I think, forMuse.

KENNY:   There were no horns on that. It was basically trio. Sunset To Dawn. On one tune, by Freddie Waits, Warren Smith said, “Why don’t I play vibes on this.” So it’s a really fast Freddie Waits tune, “Alkefa.” “I’ll play vibes on this.” he was incredible. But there were no horns.

TP:   When did you start?

KENNY:   One of the first times was at a place in the Bronx, the Blue Morocco, where I used Bennie Maupin and Bill Hardman. It was the same rhythm section, with Freddie Waits and Herbie Lewis.

TP:   Was that because of the gig, or was something in you wanting to…

KENNY:   No, that was just a gig. But in terms of starting to write music and say, “Okay, I hear this for quintet,” probably happened first when I had the quintet with John Stubblefield. The ‘80s. Wallace Roney did the first record, What If.

TP:   Was that just percolating? A lot of pianists showcase their instrumentalism and wind up playing trio. But you’ve built up a large body of work for various ensembles.

KENNY:   I like being part of a team. One of the things I like is that I can write for it. I find it difficult to write things for trio. People do it all the time, but it’s more difficult for me. I have no idea why. But it’s easier for me to write things for horns. You can showcase harmony and movement and stuff like that. In that particular group, it started as part of a grant. I had applied for a grant to write some original music, so that was the band I chose.  I’d been knowing John for a long time, and Victor Lewis and Cecil McBee. I got the grant, and did a concert at what was then Carnegie Recital Hall, and they made a tape. It sounded so good I thought I’d like to record it, and I talked to Enja Records. That was the beginning.

TP:   Does a song like “What If” come out of your trio experience?

KENNY:   No, for the quintet. I really heard it for those particular people, for that group. When we first started playing as a group, the music at the time—live anyway—was going to the left. It was starting to go out. Which I loved!

TP:   That would be John’s propensity.

KENNY:   Yes.  But again, it was organic. Nobody said, “Well, let’s play out.” But it just started to move that way. One of our first gigs was a place called Joanna’s [18th Street]. We did a set, and played two tunes in an hour or something. But it never got boring, because the music went in so many different places. We had such a great time. When we did the record, there are considerations of time and length, so it didn’t…

TP:   But subsequently on your ensemble records, you added different flavors. Some had more of a pan-Caribbean-South American feel, some were more hardboppish…

KENNY:   Right. I didn’t set out and say, “Okay, this record is going to be bebop and this one…” It just happened.

TP:   I suppose it speaks to the fact, again, that you’ve assimilated so many musical languages. Is there ever an element where they’re competing for space within you? A bebop side competing with the lyric Brazilian side competing with the classic piano side… This is probably an absurd question. But I find the tonal personality you express so personal but also encompassing so many flavors. I’m sure it seems totally organic to you because you’re living it, but I want to see if we can pinpoint where it comes from.

KENNY:   I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t feel competition in terms of different styles or different idioms. Ideally for me, in one set of music, I can go through everything. What it is, I think each tune kind of carries itself. Each song is a development in itself. One song, if you play it, it may actually be straight bebop. That’s how it might come out. The next song may go out. Or the next song may be Brazilian. All in one set.

TP:   Do you know beforehand?

KENNY:   No, I don’t. It just happens. We may play a blues, especially with the group I have now with Anne and Kim Thompson, and it may go out! I kind of like that. I like not-knowing. That’s the fun for me. Let’s see where it goes.

TP:   Do you think of the different styles as different styles?

KENNY:   Probably not. There’s 12 notes.  There are only 12 notes. It’s just music.

TP:   What differentiates them?

KENNY:   It’s rhythm primarily that will make a difference. The way you approach the rhythm, and phrasing. If you’re playing bebop, for instance, there’s a certain kind of phrasing that works best. The attack. If you’re playing R&B, or if you’re playing some funk, there are certain kinds of voicings that won’t work so well. If the voicings are too sophisticated, they won’t work.

TP:   The sextet you’re bringing in the second week has a new tenor player, Dayna Stephens.

KENNY: I met Dayna in California at a clinic I did for a week at the Monk Institute at the University of Southern California. He’s one of the people who was there, and he really impressed me. When I was looking for a tenor player, I thought about him, but I didn’t know how to get in touch with him. Then somebody told me he had just moved to the New York area. I think everybody will be very surprised. He’s a very good player.

TP:   Everyone else you’ve played with…

KENNY:   Oh, yeah, for a long time. In different situations. Actually, I haven’t worked with Victor in quite a while.

TP:   New repertoire?

KENNY:   Some new stuff, and then some stuff that will be recalibrated or whatever.

TP:   Do you always recalibrate?

KENNY:   Not always.  But sometimes just having a new player will make that happen.

TP:   Benny Golson discusses the art dearth writing, trying to make three horns sound as big as possible. Is that a concern… Let’s put it this way. What are you trying to put forth on this sextet than the quintet?

KENNY:   In terms of instrumentation, the sound is heavier because it’s three horns. And harmonically, with three horns you can do more rhythmically and in the way you can use them. The different colors also that you can have from three horns. Dayna plays tenor and soprano…

TP:   Like most young guys.

KENNY:   Yes, like most young guys. Those are different colors that you can utilize. So for me, it’s about the harmonic movement that three horns allows you. Eddie is only doing two days, and Jeremy Pelt is doing the remainder.

The third week is the trio, what they call the Classic Trio. Ben wasn’t available, because he’s going to be in Europe with his Monk Legacy. Well, he does get back in the middle of the week. But I wanted someone close to Ben in style and age, and I called Grady Tate. Grady does this tour I do every other year in Japan called 100 Gold Fingers, and I’ve always enjoyed playing with him. He’s a very tasty, very sensitive drummer.

TP: What does the term “classic trio” mean to you?

KENNY:   I have no idea.

TP:   But does it mean something to you? Jazz? Classic?

KENNY:   It’s a trio.

TP:   Well, is it a trio that you play a certain type of repertoire and not another type of repertoire?

KENNY:   Well, that could be true. With a trio, I tend to play more standards and… Yes, that’s basically it.

TP:   Well, you probably have 800 tunes that you can draw from.

KENNY:   Yes. I remember we did this at Bradley’s one week with Ray and Ben, no repeats. [18 sets] I have to think about whether to do that again!  But it might be fun. Not repeat any songs. That means there won’t be any “arrangements.” You’re saying, “Oh, let’s do this song.”  But at the same time, I don’t want it to be a jam session.

TP:   So in a certain sense, the classic trio is closer than the other formats to being what that idealized notion of what jazz is supposed to be.  It’s this older material, but you’re approaching it in a totally spontaneous way.

KENNY:   Yes, a spontaneous way. So you won’t know what a song is going to sound like until it starts to reveal itself, so to speak. Again, that can be a lot of fun. Again, I don’t know if that’s what we’re going to do, but it’s a thought.

TP:   So you’re telling me that you don’t go into any performing situation with the whole arc of a performance planned out. There’s always room for openness.

KENNY:   Oh, yes.

TP:   There are general outlines or motifs, and every night you’re approaching it in a different manner.

KENNY:   Hopefully, I’d like that to happen. Almost nothing is planned, other than, “We’ll do this song.” But how the song evolves is up for grabs.

TP:   That doesn’t happen as often as the commonplaces about jazz would have you think it does, to actually approach a set with that attitude. It’s kind of risky in some ways, because you have to get the stuff out there, and a lot of people aren’t so interested in leaving themselves open that way.

KENNY:   I like that. When you reach for something, you have to say it’s okay if you don’t make it. But you’ve got to reach. We all have bad days.  But sometimes you have to reach for it and say, “Well, I didn’t make it.”

TP:   Is  that innate? Or did you learn to do it?

KENNY:   I think as you get older, you start to give yourself permission to make a mistake. Because there’s another chorus coming! So you can try it again. That’s one of the things that makes music interesting for listeners sometimes, is to hear someone reach for something, and maybe not making it, but trying it again. Sometimes very interesting things develop in that process.

TP:   One reason why you don’t hear much chance-taking is that young musicians go to school and study everything so thoroughly. That can be at odds with what we’re speaking about. Now, you’ve been an educator for thirty years. How do you address your students on this issue?

KENNY:   I put a lot of stress on being as creative and lyrical as you possibly can. I’m not big on transcribing solos. I never have been big on that.

TP:   Not even Bud Powell and Ahmad Jamal back in the day?

KENNY:   I said transcribing. I learned solos, but I learned them by rote. By hearing them and then playing them. A lot of people are into transcribing, but I find that when you transcribe solos, you only get involved with the notes. There’s a lot of other aspects to a person’s playing. So if I’m listening to Red Garland with Miles… When that record Round About Midnight came out, I knew all those Red Garland solos. I never wrote them down. But one the things that happens when you write them down is you only deal with the notes. If you learn it by rote, then okay, you get this person’s touch. It’s easier to emulate this person’s touch, phrasing, all of that.

TP:   So Red Garland was one of the guys you got into your body.

KENNY:   Yeah.

TP:   Who were some of the other people?

KENNY:   I used to listen to Horace Silver a lot. I’m talking about junior high school and high school. Tommy Flanagan, Wynton Kelly, Hank Jones. They were all different. Wynton had this feeling, and a harmonic concept that was unique. Red had this touch. Everybody had something different to offer.

TP:   You’ve paid some explicit homages to Bud Powell, with that piece “Bud-Like,” and “Madman” has certain qualities to it… It’s an area that you seem to have a fondness for.

KENNY:  Oh, I do. Probably that particular style is at my core. I think Bud is really at the core of what I do.

TP:   Did you ever meet him in Philly?

KENNY:   No. I got to meet him once, when he was not doing well.

TP:   Did you ever meet Monk?

KENNY:   No.  I saw him, but he was always such an awe-inspiring person that I would never go up and say anything.

TP:   Do you mean intimidating?

KENNY:   Yes. He was intimidating, actually. He was very big and… I had just come to New York, and… So I never went up to say anything…

TP:   [Ben Riley’s story] You’ve been in New York since 1961. Initially in the East Village.

KENNY:   I stayed next door to my brother, 314 E. 6th Street, where all the Indian restaurants are. It was a great block. A lot of musicians lived there. I stayed at Vishnu Wood’s place. The rent was something like $60 a month, and it was hard to make that. But it was just one room. Across the street was Lee Morgan, Tootie Heath and Spanky DeBrest, all Philadelphia people who had an apartment. Upstairs from where I lived, Pepper Adams and Elvin shared an apartment. Reggie Workman lived with Lee and Spanky, too. Ted Curson lived a couple of doors up from them.

TP:   A real Philly enclave on East 6th Street.

KENNY:   That’s right. I could walk to the Five Spot and the Jazz Gallery, which were owned by the same people. Coffee shops, like the Fat Black Pussycat, Café Wha, Café Bizarre, all in the West Village. There was so much music. I met Sonny Clark at the Five Spot. I heard Cecil play duo with Clifford Jarvis at the Café Wha?

TP:   What does living in New York have to do with your embrace of so many vehicles of self expression?

KENNY:   Well, I think because it’s all here. Music from everywhere is here in New York, and you can hear it all.  Just life in New York in general, especially during that time for me. I was young, and it was exciting, and all the people whose records I would buy, I could go hear them, I could talk to them, I could see them. Then other things as well. I really got into Latin music then, mostly due to radio. But I really got into it then. Everything is right here in New York.  Just the vibrancy of the city. It’s such a great city.

TP:   You’ve been in Brooklyn for how long?

KENNY:   Actually, I was in Manhattan only one year. I got married in ‘62, and I’ve been in Brooklyn ever since. The first place I lived was on St. Marks and Franklin, and then I moved to Prospect Place and Nostrand.

TP:   There was a fairly consequential scene going on in Brooklyn then.

KENNY:   Oh, there was a lot of music in Brooklyn. There was the Coronet, the Continental, and quite a few other places. There were also a lot of musicians. When I moved to Prospect Place, I discovered that Cedar Walton lived around the corner on Sterling Place. Freddie Hubbard and Louis Hayes lived around the corner in the same building on Park Place. Wynton Kelly lived around there on Lincoln Place. Cecil Payne lived nearby.  There were a lot of musicians.

TP:   Were the Brooklyn audiences different at all than the Harlem audiences?

KENNY:   I don’t think so. One of the things that was happening during that time is that the audiences for the music… If you went to the Coronet to hear music or to play, you would see the same people all the time. Neighborhood people came out to hear the music. That kind of stopped in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s.

TP:   Did that impart a different flavor to the way you played?

KENNY:   I don’t know if it added a different flavor.  But it was definitely inspirational.

TP:   For people in New York at the moment you arrived, you could hear the whole history of the music, people who effect the outer partials of what’s happening now, like Cecil or Ornette (whom you’ve played with), or you could hear Willie The Lion or Ellington or Coleman Hawkins. And you told me that you did.

KENNY:   Yes, I did. I remember working at the Vanguard playing with Freddie Hubbard, and we played opposite Coleman Hawkins for two weeks. Barry Harris was playing piano with him. I don’t remember who else was in the band, but I know Barry was there. That was amazing.

TP:   A lot of younger musicians in the ‘60s were perhaps not so embracing of the older forms, but it seems that even that is part of… On the Live At Bradley’s record you played Blue Skies and Sweet Lorraine, and a lot of tunes you’ll play with the trio are from that era.

KENNY:   Well, apart from bebop, I grew up listening to… Well, the first person I heard do Sweet Lorraine was Nat King Cole. And I loved it from that point. But it was a long time before I started actually playing it. But you have memories of these things, and you say, “Oh, I remember that song; let me start playing that.”
TP:   But someone born after your generation probably wouldn’t have heard Sweet Lorraine on a jukebox.

KENNY:   No, they wouldn’t have. Or Canadian Sunset. I remember hearing that on a jukebox.  Eddie Heywood. And Jug also recorded it.

TP:   Someone like me heard it because I went out looking for it. But it wouldn’t have been an organic part of my upbringing unless I was in an extremely specific house or environment.

KENNY:   Right, it was all around. You’d go into a luncheonette, and on the jukebox there you’d see John Coltrane, Blue Train or Moment’s Notice, or Ahmad Jamal, Poinciana. Any jukebox. In a luncheonette, a restaurant.

TP:   So those things come out in your sound.

KENNY:   Yes.  That stuff was all around. You’re exposed to it.  People who are younger have to search for the music. You have to look for it on the radio. You certainly don’t hear it on television…. Well, you didn’t hear it on television then either. But you have to look for it now.

Plus there were certain experiences, playing situations we were able to get as young players that aren’t available. They weren’t necessarily “jazz” gigs. I used to play dances a lot. We called them cabarets. You had to play standards. You had to play rhythm and blues. That’s what that really meant: I Got Rhythm and Blues. A lot of songs based on that. You had to play for singers. You’d have to play a show.  A singer would come up. “What key are you doing this in?” “I don’t know.” There wasn’t always a rehearsal. If you played, you’d also have to play for a comedian, tap dancers, stuff like this. You’d get to play all this…

TP:   You’d play a whole show. What was the club in Philly…

KENNY:   Oh, there were many clubs. Many. Sometimes they weren’t necessarily clubs…

TP:   The Masonic Lodge, the Elks…

KENNY:   Exactly. That kind of stuff. But I remember there was one club in particular in Philly that was called the Northwest Club. They had a lot of after-hours clubs. I remember working there one time with Jimmy Heath, Mickey Roker, and Arthur Harper was the bass player. But as part of the rhythm section, you had to also do this other stuff. You had to play with the singer and the comedian. That was just something you did.

TP:   That had to have been ‘59 or ‘60, if you did it with Jimmy. So you were 16 or 17.

KENNY:   Yes.

TP:   That prepared you for New York.

KENNY:   Yes.  There are certain kinds of experiences you had. You knew how to play for a show.  You knew what to do, how to end songs and things like that.

TP:   It’s a very rare musician under 45 who’s had had that experience. Although there are a few.

KENNY: There are some. But it’s rare.

TP:   What  did that do exactly?

KENNY:   Well, one thing, it taught you how to listen. It taught you how to listen, and then it helped you with the language. Musical language. It wasn’t enough just to know… Well, one thing is that you have to learn songs. We used to play for what was called shake dancers, kind of tame strip-teasers.  They would dance to Duke Ellington, Caravan… Exotic dancers. Jimmy Forrest, Night Train, a bump thing. Those are the kind of things you learn. It really prepared you to come to New York. Because it didn’t change that much once you got here. You still had to do those kind of gigs. You didn’t come here and start working at Birdland right away.

TP:   But you came here and soon started working with Dizzy.

KENNY:   Well, I came here in 1961 and started working with him in November 1962.  I graduated high school in ‘60, then I kind of laid around Philly, and came to New York in the Fall of ‘61. Then I got married in ‘62.

TP:   You grew up very young, didn’t you.

KENNY:   Well, I got married very young.

TP:   It wasn’t like a whole lot of time to “find yourself.” But maybe you did that later.

KENNY:   Well, still.

TP:   But a lot of people in that situation would take jazz as a job. You’re always very open-ended within the function stuff you do. You were a professional from 16-17-18. Music was a job, a livelihood from that age, and there are a lot of functions you have to play.  Some things must have felt rote to you. Some people would allow their imagination to be stifled in those situations, and many people have allowed their imaginations to be stifled. Others settle on one kind of sound and stayed with it—and evolved it, which is great. You’re not that way.

KENNY:   I think one of the things that helped was having an older brother who played, having friends… There was a drummer, for instance, named Jerry. I used to go over to his house. He always had the latest records. He built his own stereo system.  We would sit there and listen to the latest records. That’s the first time I heard Ornette, was over at his house. “Wow, what is that?!” So I’ve always been into listening and trying to hear new stuff.  Trying to do it, too.  That’s part of growing. I didn’t want to become stuck. I never did. I don’t know if you believe in astrology, but that’s part of being a Gemini. “Oh, let’s try this.” I think that’s part of it. Just being exposed to other things is is important.  When I came to New York, my brother Bill had been working with Cecil Taylor. He was really into avant-garde.  That was his thing. He loved that. He listened to Stockhausen and showed me 12-tone row music and stuff like that. It made me listen, too.

TP:   You did a tune, didn’t you, called Row House?

KENNY:   Yes, I did, which is a 12-tone row. So again, there’s always something to learn, something to try.

TP:   What was it like playing with Ornette?

KENNY:   It was different.

TP:   Has there ever been a situation that didn’t quite work?

KENNY:   I wouldn’t say that situation didn’t work. But there’s always hindsight. I wished I could have done this, wish I could have… But it came out okay. I was surprised that he called me. Because I think the whole idea was to recreate the group he had with Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden, who were both there, and Wallace Roney to take the place of Don Cherry. But one of his first groups had piano.

TP:   What I recall about the concert is that he took out his trumpet and played a chorus, and summed everything up in that chorus.

KENNY:   I enjoyed it. Probably even more memorable than the gig were the rehearsals, as he tried to explain his harmolodic concept. Which I never really got. So I just played.

TP:   Lee Konitz told me that Charlie Haden told him, “We really play changes.”

KENNY:   On some of the earlier things, the stuff is so melodic, it really sounds like they’re playing changes, or playing around changes. There’s some stuff there you can hear on The Shape Of Jazz To Come. That’s one of my favorites. Lonely Woman. You can hear harmonic structure in all of his pieces. It’s not just willy-nilly. They’re playing some stuff.

[—30—]

* * *

Kenny Barron (WKCR, September 2, 2004):

TP:    Sitting across from me, looking extremely cool and relaxed on this beautiful day, after a subway ride, is Kenny Barron. Next week, he enters the Village Vanguard with a sextet comprising Terrell Stafford, David Sanchez, Vincent Herring, Kiyoshi Kitagawa, and Ben Riley. On Wednesday, he starts his semester at Juilliard. On Thursday, he starts his semester at the Manhattan School of Music. So it will be like old times for Kenny Barron, who during the Bradley’s days, would leave at 3 in the morning, and go out to Rutgers the next day at 8 or so. You’ve been doing this for a long time.

KENNY: Yes, I have.  And as you get older, you get tired faster!

TP:    Well, there are no 3 in the morning sets any more.

KENNY: Not any more. Although I kind of miss it.

TP:    That’s the thing. You want to hang out late, but then in the morning you feel sort of happy that you didn’t do it. But several years ago, when you retired from Rutgers, I recall you saying, well, you wouldn’t be teaching any more. You were going to devote your time exclusively to music, and practice…

KENNY: I did say that, didn’t I.

TP:    What happened?

KENNY: Well, I got a call from Justin DiCioccio at Manhattan School of Music, saying, “We would like you to come and teach?” and I said, “I want this amount of money,” and he said, “okay.” And I only wanted a certain number of students…

TP:    And he said okay.

KENNY: Yeah.  So it’s been working out actually.

TP:    And at Juilliard as well.

KENNY: At Juilliard as well.  Well, I guess from the beginning, I’ve only had two piano students there. So this semester, starting this week, I’ll have four.

TP:    This show is not about education. But what sort of students do you have?  You’re not teaching them the basics.

KENNY: Oh, no. They could almost teach me. I mean, some of them are so incredible, especially in terms of technique, and they really understand the language very well. Actually, it’s fun to teach them. Because they really challenge me. They’re great students. A couple of them have won some competitions.

TP:    It’s a truism by now that, given advances in jazz pedagogy and education, that the technical level and proficiency of young musicians today…they start younger and younger, and they can do more and more. What things don’t they have?  What do they need to get?

KENNY: I guess the things they need to get, they’ll only get by living. Experience.  Experience and paying dues; as Ben Riley likes to say, “having their hearts broken.” So they’ll have some stories to tell. When you’re young and everything is fine, you don’t REALLY have any stories to tell.

TP:    You yourself were 18 when you moved to New York.

KENNY: Right.  In 1961.

TP:    You moved to the East Village, I think.

KENNY: Right.

TP:    Everyone was living on East 5th Street and 6th Street.

KENNY: East 6th Street I lived on.

TP:    You were working, and then joined up with Dizzy Gillespie and got your first college education on the road with Dizzy Gillespie. Subsequently, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you went back to school and got a degree…

KENNY: I did.  I went to Manhattan Community College, and got an Associate’s Degree from there.  They had a program, part of the State University of New York, called Empire State College, and I got my B.A. from there.

TP:    I don’t want to put you in the position of looking back to the good old days. But just step back to those days a bit and discuss the climate then, and the attitudes of the musicians you were running with when you came here from Philly. What was percolating? What was in the air.

KENNY: Well, there was a lot. The block I lived on was the block where there are now a lot of Indian restaurants—Curry Row, they call it.  Sixth Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue. I lived at 314. I was staying with my brother for a while, and then I moved next door with a bass player named Vishnu Wood. Upstairs, for instance, lived Elvin Jones and Pepper Adams. They shared an apartment together. Across the street lived Lee Morgan and Tootie Heath, and a bass player from Philly who’s passed away named Spanky DeBrest, and Reggie Workman also, and two doors up from that lived Ted Curson. It was a great neighborhood. I could walk to the original Five Spot, which was on the Bowery, and the same guys, the Termini Brothers, also owned the Jazz Gallery on St. Marks. So I could walk to all those places. All the coffee shops. I first heard Cecil Taylor, for instance, at Café Wha in the Village.

TP:    On McDougal Street.

KENNY: Yes.  I heard him in that year, ‘61. I met Sonny Clark at the Five Spot. I first heard Kenny Dorham.

TP:    Was there a lot of collegiality? Were people supportive of each other?  Was there a sort of give-and-take?

KENNY: Oh, I think there was.  I would have to say yes. Especially among the musicians from Philadelphia.  There was always a kind of brotherhood, so to speak, among the musicians from Philly.

TP:    So even if someone was from Germantown and someone was from South Philly, once they get out of Philadelphia…

KENNY: Oh, yeah.  Well, even in Philly there wasn’t any kind of neighborhood rivalry.  You were a musician. You were one of the cats.

TP:    Prior to that, had you been working a fair amount on the Philly scene?

KENNY: Some. I was doing a lot of local stuff, and occasionally I would get to work in… When I was there, Philly had two major jazz clubs, the Showboat and Pep’s. At some point I got to work there. One of the highlights, I was still in high school, and I got to work there with Jimmy Heath and Lee Morgan and Tootie and Spanky DeBrest. I was thrilled to death.

TP:    This would have been shortly before you came to New York?

KENNY: Yes, shortly before.

TP:    I seem to recall you mentioning to me that while you were in high school, you’d play jam sessions, and catch the last bus home, and get home at 4 or 5 in the morning, and then go to school. I may be overstating the story…

KENNY: Well, not a jam session… But that is true. I would be out a little late, and my mother would be very upset!

TP:    I’m sure there are exceptions, but young musicians don’t have these kinds of experiences these days.  Again, not to get you embroiled into an “our generation had these things,” but do you see it as a different quality by which the information is processed when it’s processed in such a functional situation?

KENNY: I don’t know. I guess there’s something to be said for both. There’s something to be said for going through academia, and there’s something to be said for just learning it organically, through the streets. However you learn it, it’s great. But I guess one of the things when you learn it on the street, so to speak… For me, I think it really stays with you. You get more… This is hard to explain.  There’s more spirit involved. In school, sometimes you can over-intellectualize everything, and everything becomes about scales… It becomes too intellectual.

TP:    Philadelphia may be known as the City of Brotherly Love, but I gather that doesn’t necessarily apply to the attitude of audiences when you’re not doing things as you’re supposed to.

KENNY: Oh, no.  They’d let you know. You get embarrassed a few times, and you’ll work on your stuff.

TP:    What dicta did the older musicians tell you? Would people be quick to correct you on the spot?

KENNY: Well, yes, they would. If I was interfering with what everybody else was doing, yes, they would definitely be quick to point it out to me. But if it wasn’t too bad, they would wait til after the song was over or after the set was over, and pull me aside.  But generally speaking, they were very willing to share information and to let me know: “Voice this chord this way” or “These are the right changes here.”

TP:    So when you got to New York at 18, it was that, but on an everyday basis.

KENNY: On an everyday basis.  And you might say at a higher level, too, in terms of the musicians who were here in New York.  But it was more of the same, yes.

TP:    I apologize for bringing you back 43 years on the third question. So let’s step up to the present. Kenny Barron is performing at the Village Vanguard next week with his sextet. You’re one of many musicians of different generations who express themselves through different configurations. I think you have two-three forms of sextet; there’s one that’s sort of straight-ahead hardbop, another uses strings and flutes, a Brazilian-tinged group, there’s trios, duos, the quintet that you’re working with flute and vibes… Did this also happen organically?  How did it come about that you use so many modes of expression?

KENNY: I like different things.  That’s basically it. With the Brazilian project, for instance, I used to go to this place called the Coffee Shop. [Union Square & 16th]. That’s where I first met Duduka DaFonseca, Nilson Matta and Romero Lubambo. I just happened to be passing by, heard the music, went in, introduced myself, and we talked. Then I wound up going there every Saturday just to listen to them. Eventually, I said, “Wow, I sure would like to play with these guys,” and we figured out a way to make that happen. They were there for 12 years.

TP:    Were they doing a brunch gig?

KENNY: Yes, every Saturday afternoon.

TP:    But your exposure to Bossa Nova goes back to the American involvement in the idiom with Dizzy, who picked up on it fairly quickly.

KENNY: That’s true. Actually, the group that started me really listening to Brazilian music was Sergio Mendez, Brazil ‘65. I still have that vinyl record that I bought in 1965.
TP:    I’ll assume the group this week, to use the term in a totally generic way, a more straightahead, hardbop oriented thing.

KENNY: Yes, it is more straight-ahead.

TP:    The three horns…if you were around in 1990, you’d call them young lions, but now all are established tonal personalities on their instruments. David Sanchez has been on a few of your records.

KENNY: Yes. David actually was a student of mine at Rutgers. That’s when we met. I was there when he auditioned, and I remember how nervous he was. I don’t think he graduated. He left because he actually started working. I ran into him a couple of years later at the Village Gate. They used to do Monday nights where they’d invite a jazz artist with a Latin band, and I was playing with Eddie Palmieri, and happened to turn around, and David Sanchez was playing on the band.

Although he wasn’t my student, Terrell was a student at Rutgers University. Vincent I met a long time ago, and always loved his playing.

TP:    Kiyoshi Kitagawa has frequently played bass on your gigs.

KENNY: Yes, frequently. That started at times when Ray Drummond wasn’t available, and then Ben Riley actually told me about Kiyoshi. I love the way he plays.

TP:    You and Ben Riley go back a couple of minutes, too.

[MUSIC: “Um Beiju”; “Things Unseen”]

TP:    This was Kenny’s core quintet for about a decade. Eddie Henderson and John Stubblefield, KB, Ray Drummond, Victor Lewis, and Minu Cinelu… Perusing the recordings here, you’re the composer of all but two tunes on Spirit Song – 8 or 10. You’re the composer of all the tunes on Things Unseen from ‘95. On Images, the latest release, you composed 6 of the tunes. And your compositions comprise the preponderance of the material on many of your records. You’ve been composing for a long time, and some of your songs and little melodic hooks are part of the vocabulary now. You hear musicians quoting “What If,” for example. However—and I could be wrong about this—people don’t necessarily think of you first and foremost as a composer of the scope and breadth that you demonstrably are.

KENNY: Well, it’s funny, because I don’t think of myself as a composer. I write tunes. It’s a work in progress. I’m still working on trying to find things to write. I’d like to try to write something for a larger group.

TP:    Aren’t you being unnecesarily modest here? Do you mean that you don’t through-write? What to you is the difference between a tunesmith and a composer?

KENNY: Maybe what I mean is, the stuff I write isn’t terribly complicated. For a lot of people, it’s not a composition unless it’s difficult.  The stuff I write is really very simple. And sometimes that’s a good thing.

TP:    Do you write for personnel?

KENNY: Generally, if I’m writing for a particular project, then I’m writing for the people in the band who I’m going to be playing with. Not necessarily for the instrumentation, but for those particular people. I kind of know what they sound like, and I think I know what they’re capable of.

TP:    Since the ‘70s, when you first recorded for Muse, your tunes incorporate a lot of exotic scales, a lot of world rhythms—Brazilian, Latin and African rhythms. You have a rather broad template, which you’ve used for at least thirty years, and perhaps even going back to your days with Dizzy.

KENNY: I enjoy listening to all kinds of music. I enjoy trying to incorporate various aspects of different cultures into the music, as much as I’m able to.

TP:    Are you trying to find new material to improvise on?  Is the goal always to find something to take off from?

KENNY: As a jazz artist, I think ultimately it’s about improvising and having a vehicle for that.  But at the same time, I would also like to get more involved in through-composing, really writing a piece all the way through. I think it would be interesting to do.

TP:    Who are your models as a composer?  Among your contemporaries are some of the major people, and you worked with Dizzy Gillespie who codified bebop composition.

KENNY: Among my contemporaries, I love Wayne Shorter’s writing. Of course, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. That goes without saying. Some of those pieces they wrote, like Blood Count, Lush Life, they’re really incredible. Bud Powell, things like Glass Enclosure and Tempus Fugit.

TP:    For example, this week with the sextet… You occasionally recycle or reconfigure compositions, but not too often. Usually a Kenny Barron record presents a bunch of new pieces. Are there new things in the book for the sextet next week?

KENNY: Most of the things we’ve done before. I think we’re going to try two or three new things next week?

TP:    Are you a deadline-oriented composer, or is it a matter of when the spirit moves you?

KENNY: If you give me too much time, I won’t do it! If I have three months to write something, I’ll wait until the day before…or a week before. It’s really just a question of developing a certain kind of discipline, which I have yet to do; to just sit down and… I remember sitting down with the pianist Hassan in Philadelphia, who I’d known since I was a little kid, and he told me that he wrote a tune a day.  That’s 365 songs.

TP:    You must have at least 100 copyrighted.

KENNY: Maybe a few more than that.

TP:    You haven’t exactly been a slouch… Having spoken of composition, we’ll hear some blowing by Kenny on the piano, of which there are ample recorded documents.  This trio worked frequently at the time; you could hear them every 3 or 4 months at Bradley’s. Am I exaggerating?

KENNY: No, you’re not. We were there a lot.

TP:    It’s a one-hour recital of ten tunes, and it reflects the flavor of what your sets would be like. There are tuneful originals with nice rhythmic feels, there’s a couple of Monk, a couple of great standard songbook things, some soul tunes…

[MUSIC: Sweet Lorraine, Alter Ego]

TP:    Lemuria would have done when the trio did a no-repeat week; a week at Bradley’s without playing the same tune twice. That would be 18 sets. I think it happened around ‘91… Playing this music from Bradley’s: You worked there a lot with this trio. It was a real locus for New York’s piano community for about twenty years.

KENNY: I think the first time I worked there, they had a spinet piano. The first time I went there, I heard Bobby Timmons, who was there quite frequently, and eventually I started working there. But I loved working there.  The ambiance, and like you said, it was a really great hang. The last set sometimes would be full of musicians coming by from their gigs. I remember one really memorable night. I think Tommy was working there, and Carmen McRae was working at the Blue Note, and she came by after her set, and I think she played almost the whole last set at Bradley’s. She sat at the piano and sang and played. Only at Bradley’s could you catch something like that.

TP:    What does it do to a musical community to have a gathering place like that? There hasn’t been anything quite like Bradley’s since 1996.

KENNY: For me, I felt very much at home there. I think most of the musicians did.  It was like home.  You’d go in there, you knew everybody… I never had to order a drink!  Because the bartender knew what I drank. He just put it right in front of me.

TP:    So even if you wanted to change for that night, you still had to drink it.

KENNY: Yeah! [LAUGHS] I miss it. I really do miss it.

TP:    A more general question. Is there a New York piano school? Obviously, we’re not talking about people born in New York, because the majority of musicians who make their living here come here from someplace else.  But that being said, it seems that the overall sound you’d hear at Bradley’s from one week to the next and from year to year kind of crystallizes a New York approach to piano.  But it’s unclear in my mind specifically what that approach might be. So do you think of it that way, or is that a bit too general?

KENNY: It’s a little hard for me to think of a New York school of piano playing. As you mentioned, everybody comes here from somewhere else, and all those forces come into play. You’ve got people who come from Detroit, like Tommy and Hank and Barry Harris and Kirk Lightsey. But oddly enough, there is a Detroit sound. Especially with Tommy and Hank and Barry and Roland Hanna, those guys had a particular sound. I think whatever happens is just an amalgamation of everything that’s happening around the country. Because everything comes here; everybody comes here.

TP:    The last time you can really talk about an indigenous New York sound might be the ‘50s, when you have people directly coming out of the stride pianists, and Bud Powell and Walter Davis and Walter Bishop. When you got here in the early ‘60s, what were most of the piano players listening to? At the time, you got here is the same time Herbie Hancock got here, it’s the same time Chick Corea got here… I mean, roughly.

KENNY: Yes, it was around the same time.

TP:    Keith Jarrett got here then. You all arrive in New York with diverse influences, but coming out of the same things that were in the air.

KENNY: I’m trying to think of what I was listening to when I came to New York, the people I would seek out to listen to. For me, it was Tommy and Hank, even though they were rarely in New York during that time. I think they were always busy working, so I never got a chance to hear them live that much then. People like Sonny Clark. I used to listen to Erroll Garner. I never really got a chance to hear Bud, unfortunately. I heard him one time, and he was really not himself. So it was kind of sad for me to see. And Monk; I got to hear Monk.

TP:    As one of the founding members of Sphere, you played Monk’s music extensively in the ‘80s, after he died. Did you get to know Monk?

KENNY: No, I didn’t really get to know him. When I saw him a few times earlier on, I was very young, and I was so much in awe, I would not have approached him at all. Plus, he was a very awe-inspiring looking figure. He was a very big man. I’m a kid. I said, “Wow.”

TP:    You didn’t know what he might say to you.

KENNY: Right.  But I certainly did listen to him.

TP:    And being with Dizzy Gillespie, I suppose that would be a first-hand channel into the attitudes and tales of the music of the generation before you.

KENNY: Oh, sure.

TP:    Is that something you were very curious about at the time? I’m asking in this context. For a lot of younger musicians who didn’t have a chance to experience those lifeblood artists first-hand, didn’t get to see Monk, didn’t get to see Bud Powell, maybe didn’t get to Dizzy—didn’t even get to play in those bands, a lot of them. So for them, the notion of being around New York in 1961, you’d think of it as a kind of golden age. Here’s Coleman Hawkins.  Here’s Monk. You can hear almost the whole history of jazz on any given night in New York in 1961 or 1962 or 1963.

KENNY: That’s true.

TP:    Was it that way to you at that time?

KENNY: Yes, it was.  It was that way to me at that time. I got to hear, thankfully, a lot of people. I got to hear Willie The Lion Smith.  I got to work opposite… I was working with Freddie Hubbard at the Vanguard, and we worked opposite Coleman Hawkins for a week. We played opposite Cecil Taylor for a week. I heard some incredible music.  And I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great people.

TP:    Have you always had a very open attitude to music? Looking at your discography in recent years, on the Bradley’s record you play “Everybody Loves My Baby But My Baby Don’t Love Nobody But Me,” a ‘20s Tin Pan Alley thing, which you play in the stride manner but in your own style.  Then with Minu Cinelu on the track we’re about to hear, you’re prerecording fragments of material, recording electric keyboard bass, using the latest technology. On another track, you explore intervals that you might associate with Cecil Taylor or Hassan. There’ s a lovely arrangement of Bud Powell’s “Hallucinations.” Really, your music and musical persona seems to encompass very comfortably the whole timeline of the music in a rather organic way.

KENNY: I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and I love and appreciate a lot of different kinds of music. In terms of being open, I think I’ve always been that way. I’ve always listened to all kinds of stuff. I’ve always wanted to play as much as I could, all different kinds of music.

TP:    We have a set of duos by Kenny Barron with different people. First is “Mystere” with Mino Cinelu. A few words on how this recording was set up.

KENNY: We did a lot of stuff that you’d call preproduction, setting up certain things—in his living room actually.  He’s a whiz at the computer, so he’d add different things with the computer. I know nothing about that stuff, other than how to get my email. He did all of that.  Then in the studio, I opened up the acoustic piano on most of it. On my solos, he added other things electronically and altered the sound on certain things with the computer. So when I heard it back, it was totally different.  On quite a few tracks he altered the sound or added things to it. But on the track you’re about to play, we did some of the stuff in his living room, we came in and I overdubbed the piano solo, and I also played keyboard bass.

[KB-Cinelu, “Mystere”; KB-Regina Carter, Fragile; KB-Roy Haynes, “Madman”]

TP:    A set of duos concluded with a few signifying drumstrokes by Roy Haynes, concluding a piece called Madman, from Wanton Spirit. Was that your tune?

KENNY: It is a tune, actually. I’ve never done it live and never recorded it since then. But I think I will start doing it.

TP:    You played Sting’s “Fragile” in duo with Regina Carter.

KENNY: My wife was working at the time, and I went to pick her up, but she wasn’t quite ready, so I went to a bar next door in Soho. I was having a drink, and they were playing Sting singing this particular song. I thought it was so beautiful! So I asked the bartender who it was. I had no idea who Sting was. So I went out and bought the record, and to my surprise, I liked the entire record, but that particular piece, I really fell in love with.

TP:    In 1996, not too many people were working with computers to create the sounds you got on Swamp Sally. And we’ve heard a very diverse selection of music, many colors and scales and cultural reference. But almost all have been done for the same label and the same two producers—earlier for Jean-Philippe Allard, and more recently Daniel Richard, who produces you for French Universal, no longer issued in the States by Verve, but currently by Sunnyside. It seems to me that there might be some connection between having a steady, familiar relationship with a receptive producer and the venturesomeness of your output.

KENNY: Fortunately, they are two producers who I really appreciate. They’ve allowed me the maximum amount of freedom in terms of what I wanted to do. “Go ahead!” Interestingly enough, the CD with Roy Haynes and Charlie  Haden, Wanton Spirit, was actually a suggestion of Jean-Philipppe Allard. Because I never would have thought of it. He said, “What do you think about recording with Charlie Haden and Roy Haynes?” I said, “Wow, that could be… Yeah.” So that’s how that one came about.

TP:    Charlie Haden has a similar relationship with him, as does Randy Weston and Abbey Lincoln and Hank Jones and others. The ‘90s was a prolific, fertile for all of them in terms of albums. But a lot of musicians in your position, after more than forty years in the music business, an established bandleader for at least thirty of those years, and with a pedigree that includes Dizzy Gillespie, Ron Carter, Stan Getz during the ‘80s… For all of that, you seem very willing to make music with almost anything good that comes your way. It’s a very egoless type of… Of course, you have your ego. And I don’t want to throw around paeans to you here.  But there’s a sort of openness to new experience that seems to inform what you do.

KENNY: Oh, I do like to try new things, yes. They may not be NEW new, but they’ll be new for me. So in that sense there’s certainly a sense of adventure about it for me.

TP:    What underlies that?  Is it as simple as just trying to keep yourself fresh so as not to repeat?

KENNY: No, I think it really is curiosity. I’m not really concerned about becoming stale or anything like that. Now, I should be! But it’s really curiosity. I get inspired by a lot of different things. I’ll go out and hear one of the cats or one of the young women playing today, and I’ll get inspired. I’ll say, ”Wow, that was incredible.” So inspiration comes from a lot of different places, and it inspires you to try a lot of different things on your own.

TP:    Having seen you on nights-off or after a set going out to hear people, I know for a fact that you do check out a lot of music. In your quintet, everyone is under 35, and most of them are under 30.

KENNY: The two young ladies, Kim and Anne, are 23. Stefon Harris is just 30. Kiyoshi is older than you’d think. I was surprised when I found out how old he was.  But still, he’s younger than me.

TP:    What is the benefit to playing with so many people? Because your sound is very identifiable always within whatever context you’re in. I’m not really going to give you to someone on a Blindfold Test, let’s say.

KENNY: Well, what I get playing with all these different people is that they make me play differently. Playing with some straight-ahead, which I love to do, that makes me play one way. Playing with a good singer makes you play another way. Playing with young people who are really energetic, that energizes me. Playing with someone whose music is a little more esoteric puts me in another thing. I like to think of myself as a team player, so I’m less interested in myself sounding good as much as the group I’m with, whether it be as a leader or as a sideperson. Sounding good is more of my concern.

TP:    So if the group sounds good, you’re sounding good.

KENNY: Essentially, yes. That’s very true.

TP:    Is that innate? Did you learn it from someone?  A little bit of both?

KENNY: Maybe a little bit of both.  It’s a team effort.

TP:    Stepping back forty years ago, you were part of Dizzy Gillespie’s group, from 18 to 22. What’s the most important lesson you learned from that, apart from learning all those great tunes from the inside-out and hearing him every night, and the stage presentation and so on.

KENNY:   Well, those are among the things. I can’t say there’s any one thing that was more important than any other.  But it’s how to save yourself, by which I mean that you don’t give up everything all at once every night. You save some stuff.  Keep some stuff in reserve. One of the things I learned is not to play everything you know. That’s it. You don’t play everything you know all the time.

TP:    Why not?

KENNY: What for?

TP:    You played a lot with Ron Carter in the ‘70s. The group was popular, lots of recordings and bookings.

KENNY: That was a really great band, with two bass players; Ron played piccolo bass and Buster Williams the full-sized bass. Ben Riley was on drums. Ron is a really good bandleader, because he knows what he wants, and he knows how to TELL you what he wants and how to get it. One thing I learned from playing with Ron is dynamics, how to use dynamics. He’s very used to not playing at one level all the time—hills and valleys in music.

TP:    How about Stan Getz? Since he passed, some amazing recordings have come out of your collaboration.

KENNY: I guess the thing Stan and I had in common was a love for lyricism. I think we fed each other in that way.  I certainly learned a lot from hearing him. He was one person who could play a ballad and really make you cry.

TP:    Is there anyone during the time we could call your apprenticeship, which was a long one… You played steadily as a sideman for thirty years, though for a chunk of that time you were a leader. Is there anyone you wish you could have played with that you didn’t get to?

KENNY: Yes, a few people. Pre electronic days, I always wanted to play with Miles.  And Sonny Rollins is someone I always wanted to play with.

TP:    With Sonny, that could still happen.

KENNY: One never knows!

TP:    After you leave here, you have a rehearsal for next week. So will this be the first rehearsal for this band for this program?

KENNY: Yes.  And unfortunately, I don’t think everybody is going to be there.  People are still out of town. So we’ll muddle through.

TP:    You mentioned that you have three new pieces. Are you a stickler for rehearsal? Your bands always have a sound of elegance and casualness that makes me think that you might be working them really hard.

KENNY: No. I rehearse because it’s necessary.  But I don’t LIKE to rehearse.

TP:    The trios with Ben Riley and Ray Drummond, I’ll bet you didn’t rehearse.

KENNY: Oh, no, we rarely rehearsed.  And many of the arrangements are really just head arrangements. They evolved over the course of playing them over a period of time.

TP:    You said that your music is very simple, but it’s very distinct. What do you think is the hardest aspect of playing your compositions correctly?  Is it the phrasing?  Is there a certain attitude?

KENNY: I don’t know. Again, I don’t think it’s difficult, but if there’s anything, it’s playing with the right attitude. I certainly don’t think the music is terribly difficult. If it’s anything, I think it’s playing with the right attitude and the right feeling.

TP:    Another one of your tunes that’s gotten some broader play is New York Attitude. So maybe it’s the New York attitude. Not everyone has it.

KENNY: Could be.

* * *

Kenny Barron Musician Show (WKCR, 2-13-91);

[MUSIC: K. Barron, "New York Attitude"]
Q:    [ETC.] Kenny is from Philadelphia.  I think that’s probably the first thing anybody should know.
KB:  Right.  From North Philadelphia.
Q:    Neighborhoods are pretty important in Philly.
KB:  Yeah.  Well, there’s North Philly, South Philly, West Philly.  They’re all different, too.
Q:    You’re from quite a musical family as well.
KB:  Yeah.  Well, Bill was the oldest.  There were five of us altogether.  Bill and myself are the only ones who became professional musicians, but everyone else played the piano, two sisters and another brother.  They all played the piano.
Q:    There was one in the house?
KB:  Yes.  There was always a piano there.  My mother played also, so she was kind of the one who inspired everybody to do that.
Q:    What kind of music was played in the house?
KB:  It was usually Jazz, Rhythm-and-Blues — primarily.  And Gospel Music on Sunday.
Q:    What were your folks into?  The big bands?
KB:  It was strange, because my folks…my parents didn’t really listen to the radio, or they didn’t seem to listen to music that often, other than my mother, who as I said, listened to Gospel Music on Sunday.  But my brothers and sisters listened to lots of different kinds of music.  At the time, they had some really great radio shows, Jazz radio shows in Philly.  As I got a little older, by junior high school I was also listening to, like, Doo-Wop groups and things like that.  So I listened to all kinds of music.
Q:    You were also studying European Classical Music.
KB:  Yes, I was studying Classical piano.  I did that from the age of 6 until I was 16.
Q:    Now, what was your first exposure to the world of Jazz in Philadelphia?  Did you sneak out when you were younger and go hear groups in the neighborhood, or was it through your brother?
KB:  Actually it was through my brother.  He had a fantastic collection of old 78’s, Charlie Parker and Fats Navarro, Dizzy, people like that.  So I used to hear those things all the time.  I can remember being very affected by one tune in particular; I’m talking about when I was maybe ten years old.  That was a piece called “Sippin’ At Bells.”  I always tried to find that piece and that record, and I couldn’t remember the record label.  Somehow or other, it really got to me.
Q:    Bud Powell was on that, yes?
KB:  I believe so.
Q:    Of course, I’m sure your brother must have been practicing around the house.
KB:  Oh yeah.
Q:    It must have always been there.
KB:  Yes, there was always music.  His friends would come by.  I’m sure you’ve heard of the pianist Hassan from Philly.  Well, he and Bill were very close, so he used to come by the house quite often, and they would spend hours playing and just talking together about music.  So I would be there listening and checking them out.
Q:    Do you have any particular reminiscences about Hassan? He didn’t have a lot of visibility outside of Philadelphia, and recorded only once, albeit with Max Roach.
KB:  One record, right.  That’s right.  He was unique as a pianist.  Eccentric.   He just had a very unique style.  Kind of Monkish.  Of course, at that time, when I was 9 or 10 years old, I knew nothing about Monk.  But he had, like I said, a very unique style.  Later on, I found out that one of his biggest influences was Elmo Hope, and not Thelonious Monk.
Q:    One of the compositions on that record, actually is dedicated to Elmo Hope, too.
KB:  That’s right.  Actually, I plagiarized a bass line from one of his compositions from The Incredible Hassan on one of my records.  I see you’re taken aback!  It’s funny, because only a few people knew it, and they were all people from Philadelphia!
Q:    I’ll bet.  Who were some of the other people on the Philadelphia scene who were important in the 1950’s, and particularly when you were beginning to emerge and find your way?
KB:  Well, there were people… There was a saxophonist, for instance, named Jimmy Oliver, who was very influential on the Philadelphia scene at the time.  Jimmy Heath.  I had a chance to work with Jimmy while I was still in high school.  Oh, and just the guys that I came up with; there are people who probably aren’t that well known outside of Philadelphia.  A bass player named Arthur Harper…
Q:    He played with J.J. Johnson…
KB:  Exactly.
Q:    I think he’s playing with Shirley Scott now.
KB:  Yeah, exactly.   He is playing in Philadelphia.  He moved back to Philadelphia, and he’s working there.  But he was one of the guys that I came up with who had a very big influence on me.  He was a fantastic bassist.  We used to play together a lot, and talk about music.
Sonny Fortune, we came up together.  So a lot of people were around during that time.
Q:    I guess you were a little young to remember Jimmy Heath’s big band…
KB:  Yes, that was a little before my time.  But I often heard of it, because Bill played in that big band, and I often heard him talk about it.  And there were some great people in it.  I think John Coltrane…
Q:    And Benny Golson…
KB:  Benny Golson, right.
Q:    [ETC.] Now, you’re on record as saying that the first record that really grabbed you was a Miles Davis session from 1956 with Sonny Rollins and Tommy Flanagan and…
KB:  Yeah.  Max. [sic: Art Taylor]
Q:    …you were really into Miles Davis at that time.  So we have a set of Miles from that period lined up for you…
KB:  [LAUGHS]
Q:    …by the miracle of radio.  Was this one of your brother’s records, or did you hear it on the radio?
KB:  No, actually what happened, I was in junior high school, and we had an art class, and the teacher used to encourage the students to bring in music to paint by, so to speak.  So a friend of mine, a drummer, who is now an English teacher actually, he brought in this record, Collectors Items.  The tune that they were playing that got me was ” In Your Own Sweet Way.”  I stopped painting, I was listening, and I was “Who is this?  Who is that?”  Because it was just so clear, so crystal clear, and the touch was so light,  delicate.  And I just fell in love with Tommy’s playing right then and there.
Q:    Well, we’re going to hear that in this set.  But we’re going to start with “All Of You” performed by the Miles Davis Quintet, with two other Philly legends, Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones, on the famous recording, Round About Midnight.
[MUSIC: Miles, "All of You," "In Your Own Sweet Way."]
KB:  When that record came out, it had such an impact on the Jazz scene that I was coming up with… One of the things that we could do, for instance… I mean, I knew everybody’s solo on every tune.
Q:    From the Round About Midnight record.
KB:  Yes, from that record.  I mean, I could do that as you were playing it then!  I mean, that didn’t make me unique, because everybody did that then.  I mean, that was one of the ways in which you learned about improvising, was just through trying to imitate and learn solos, and find out how they did it, what they did.  It was a great… It’s still a great learning tool, just to listen.
Q:    At about the age of 14 and 15, who were the people you were following?  Obviously Red Garland.
KB:  Yeah, Red Garland.  I also was listening to Horace Silver.  I think I may have been a little younger than that when he came out with Six Pieces of Silver.   For some reason, I remember at that particular time we didn’t have a record player in the house.  There was a luncheonette about five or six blocks from the house, and they had on their jukebox “Señor Blues” and “Enchantment.”  And I went up to this luncheonette every day to play that, play those two songs.  Then when I found out that the drummer, Louis Hayes, was 18, I mean, that really gave me a lot of inspiration.
Q:    There’s hope for me yet.
KB:  Yes. [LAUGHS]
Q:    You were also listening to Ahmad Jamal at this time.
KB:  Right.  The Live At the Pershing album came out at this time.  Well, maybe a little bit later.  But that was also very influential.  I remember I was laying in bed, getting ready to go to sleep, and I had the Jazz station on, and the tune they were playing was “Music, Music, Music.”  And again, it was “Who is that?”  It was just so hip.
Q:    Just encapsulate your impressions of Ahmad Jamal and Horace Silver, their contributions in retrospect, now that  you can look back at it.  They’re still doing it, actually.
KB:  Well, that’s right.  Still!  I heard Ahmad a couple of summers ago, and he’s still unbelievable.   Actually, I appreciate him even more now, now that I really know what he’s doing; not really know, but now that I kind of understand what he’s doing.
I think Ahmad is like the consummate trio player.  There’s just so much space and so many ideas and he’s so creative in a trio setting.  And his technique is…I mean, it’s unbelievable technique.  His touch… So he has it all happening for him.
Horace was also a very big influence on my playing.  He’s completely different from Ahmad.  Horace is a much more percussive player, and you know, a little more out of the  Bebop thing, but a great pianist and an unbelievable composer.  So just about every Horace Silver record that came out, I would go and buy it, or find somebody who had it so I could listen to it.   Because I was as fascinated by his compositions as I was by his playing.
Q:    As are many musicians still.
KB:  Yes.
Q:    I think he’s one of the most popular fake-book…
KB:  Yeah, that’s true.
Q:    Were you engaged in teenage combos at this time?  Were you working at all?
KB:  Not working as such.  But yeah, I did.  I had a little trio.  We used to perform in school functions and things like that.  It was fun, and it was, again, a great learning device.  While I was in high school I met Arthur Harper.  We  happened to be… I was studying bass at the time, and we happened to be studying with the same teacher.
Q:    Who was?
KB:  I don’t even remember his name.  He was a Classical teacher.  Mr. Eaney(?).  That was his name.  Wow.  He played with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  And I had my lesson at 10 o’clock, and Harper had his lesson at 11, so I would see him, you know, when… I never knew how good a bass player he was, and I guess he never knew that I played piano.  Until one day I happened to go to a jam session in West Philly.  I was playing bass, you know.  So one of the guys, we later became great friends (his name was Jimmy Vass, an alto player) but I had just met him this particular day.  He called “Cherokee.”  And obviously, I couldn’t make it!  [LAUGHS]
Q:    It wouldn’t seem obvious to us now.
KB:  I’m talking about on the bass, now.  I was playing bass.  Then I spotted Arthur Harper!  And I had a pleading look in my eyes.  He came up and rescued me, and I sat down and listened to him, and all I could say was “Wow!”  I mean, he was such a good bass player.  His time… He was incredible.
[MUSIC:  A. Jamal, "Music, Music, Music," "No Greater Love," H. Silver, "Señor Blues"]
Q:    Did you discover Bud Powell around the time you first heard Ahmad Jamal and Horace Silver?
KB:  Actually I discovered Bud later.
Q:    Later.
KB:  Yes.
Q:    Monk, too.
KB:  Monk, too — later.  I guess I was so taken with Ahmad and also with Tommy Flanagan that I kind of neglected to go to the source, so to speak, which was Bud Powell.  It’s hard not to come through him for almost any pianist.  It’s very difficult for any pianist who is playing today not to have come through him, to have been influenced by him, either directly or indirectly, one way or another.
[MUSIC: Bud Powell, "Glass Enclosure (1953)," "Hallucinations" (1950]
Q:    We’ll move now to music emanating from Philadelphia in the late 1950’s that Kenny was involved with in one way or another as a young musician.
KB:  Well, I met Jimmy Heath: I was still in high school when I met him.  He had done this first album for Riverside [The Thumper and Really Big], for kind of a small big band, and he organized a group in Philadelphia, kind of scaled it down.  So I had a chance to play with him, and play a lot of the music from that album — and it was really a lot of fun.  A couple of times he even used the big band.
Q:    I take it he heard about you through your brother.
KB:  Through Bill, right.  And also through another saxophonist in town by the name of Sam Reed, who I think had mentioned me to Jimmy.  He was very helpful, in terms of my career, even though he may not know it.  I remember one time Yusef Lateef came to Philly, had a matinee at the Showboat, Monday, 4 o’clock, and his pianist missed the flight.  So Jimmy gave him my number, and he called me, and I went and played the matinee — and that was it.  He paid me.  Then about three months later, just after I graduated from high school, I got a call from him to come to Detroit and work ten days in a place in Detroit called the Minor Key.  It was a great experience.  First time on an airplane, first time on the road.  It was a great experience.
Q:    And Detroit was quite a scene at that time.
KB:  Yes, it was.  Yes, it was.
Q:    Did you meet most of the people then residing in Detroit?
KB:  I met some, yeah.  I met some people.  The drummer was from Philadelphia, though: his name was Ronald Tucker.  The bassist was from Detroit, I think he lives here now, or he may be back in Detroit now: he was Ray McKinney, who comes from a very musical family.  That was a great ten days.  And the music that Yusef was doing at the time was really unusual.  So it was my first time experiencing that.
Q:    Of course he later became a big part of your career, some fifteen years later, which we’ll be hearing later on in the course of the Musicians Show.  The other material we’ll hear on this set is a Philly Joe Jones date from 1960 called Philly Joe’s Beat, which is your brother’s debut on record, more or less, a wonderful recording.
KB:  Yeah, it is.  It is.
Q:    It features a lot of the Miles Davis arrangements, and other things, done Philly Joe style.  Now, did you know Philly Joe Jones at this time, or was he too much out of town…?
KB:  Well, he wasn’t in Philadelphia that often except to work.  But again, I got a chance to work with him when he came through Philadelphia.  It was the same sort of situation.  He came through Philadelphia, and his pianist wasn’t able to make it.  So I got a chance to do I think four nights with him, along with Arthur Harper, my brother Bill was there, and trumpet player Michael Downs.  We did four nights at the Showboat in Philly.  Again, it was pretty much the same music that’s on this album, Philly Joe’s Beat.
[MUSIC: Jimmy Heath 10, "Big P" (1960); Philly Joe, "Salt Peanuts" (1960); J. Heath 10, "Nails" (1960)]
Q:    Kenny participated in all of this music in one way or another around the time that the material was recorded.
KB:  That’s true.  That’s very true.  I had a chance, again, to work with Philly Joe, where we played pretty much the same music, and I had a chance to work with Jimmy Heath during that time, and played a lot of the music that was on that Really Big album.
Q:    I’d say we’ve thoroughly covered the Philadelphia period.  Now we’re in 1962, and you’ve been to Detroit with Yusef Lateef for ten days, and done some other things.  But now you join Dizzy Gillespie, and that lasts four years and really brings your name out into the wider world of Jazz.
KB:  Yes.
Q:    How did Dizzy find out about you?
KB:  Again through a recommendation.  When I first moved to New York, I…
Q:    When was that?  When did you make the move?
KB:    I moved to New York in 1961.
Q:    Right out of high school?
KB:  Well, I graduated in ’60.  So I spent about a year around Philadelphia, and then I moved over here.
Q:    What induced you to come up?
KB:  Well, just the same thing that induces everybody.  Just to be around all these musicians and to be around all this music — and to learn, you know.
But anyway, when I first moved here, I moved next door to my brother on East Sixth Street, so I used to walk to the Five Spot a lot.  James Moody happened to be working there, and I sat in — and he hired me!  We did some gigs in Brooklyn, at the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn, and again at the Five Spot.
Anyway, about a year later, I ran into Moody on Broadway.  Moody had gone with Dizzy, and I ran into him on Broadway.  He said they were appearing at Birdland, and he said, “You know, Lalo Schifrin is leaving Dizzy; would you be interested?”  And I had just gotten married, and I needed a gig! [LAUGHS] You know?  Plus, I mean, that’s such an honor.  So I said of course I’d be interested.  So he said, “Well, come by Birdland.”  And I went by Birdland, and just talked to Dizzy.  You know, Dizzy had never heard me play, and he hired me.
Q:    Without hearing you play.
KB:  Without hearing me play.  Just on Moody’s recommendation.
Q:    Well, they have some history together.
KB:  Yes, they do! [LAUGHS]
Q:    Did you just go in cold?  You must have had a rehearsal or two.
KB:  No, actually we didn’t.  Right after Birdland, the first gig was in Cincinnati — and there was no time for rehearsal.  So I remember after checking into the hotel and going to the gig in a cab, Dizzy was running down these things to me, talking certain tunes down.  Then Chris White, who was the bassist at the time, and Rudy Collins, the drummer, they were also very helpful in pulling my coat to what was happening with each tune and… The gig wasn’t a whole week, I don’t think, maybe just a few days.  So we managed to get through it.  And by that time I felt a lot more comfortable, after playing it a few times.  So it worked out. [LAUGHS]
Q:    Apparently it did, because you did four years with Dizzy Gillespie.
KB:  Right.
Q:    A few words about Dizzy, and evaluating the experience.
KB:  Well, I mean, what can you say?  I think Dizzy’s a national treasure.  I mean, as a musician, as a human being, and his sense of humor — I mean, that’s real; that’s not just on stage.  I mean, that’s real.  He’s just a great human being, a great musician.  And I learned a lot musically, just being around him, how to save yourself… You know, one thing you do when you’re young is, you play everything; you try to play everything you know.  But that’s one of the things, listening to Dizzy, that you learn; you don’t have to do that all the time.  Save yourself for those difficult moments when you really have to do that.  And you don’t have to play everything you know at every moment.
Q:    Dynamics.
KB:  Exactly.  I think that’s one of the biggest things I learned from him.
Q:    You made several records with Dizzy, but we’re going to go back to a recording by the great big band of the 1940’s, and listen to a version of “Manteca”.
KB:  Well, this is actually one of the first things I heard.  I can remember hearing this on the radio, this big-band version of “Manteca.”  And again, I was…whoo, I loved it.  And I’ve never really liked big bands that much, but there were a couple of things that really got me, and this was one of them.
[MUSIC: Dizzy Big Band "Manteca" (1948); Monk (solo) "Blue Monk," "Ruby My Dear" (1971); Dizzy Big Band, "Round About Midnight" (1948)]
Q:    Dizzy Gillespie and Monk are two musicians Kenny has been associated with, although in very different ways.  The public associates you very much with Monk, I imagine, through your work with Sphere, and also from recording a lot of Monk’s tunes on your albums.  But you didn’t really get into Monk, you said, until rather late.
KB:  Yes, not until much later.  Towards the end of high school I really started listening a lot to Monk, and really began to appreciate his writing and his playing.  They are almost inseparable; they are so similar.  I mean, it’s very hard to imitate him, he’s such a strong stylist and so unique.
Q:    So what do you do?
KB:  Well, you play yourself playing Monk.  That’s the best you can do.  I mean, you can do it tongue-in-cheek…
Q:    I never got that impression from you, though, that you were ever doing Monk tongue-in-cheek.
KB:  Well, there are certain things you can allude to, you know, about his playing.  The humor in his playing, the use of dissonance, his touch, the percussive touch that he had.  So you can allude to those things just for flavor, but I don’t think that it would make sense to really imitate Monk.
Q:    Well, he really developed his own fingerings and his own personal language.
KB:  Yes, as you say, his technique was very personal.  I got to see him live only a few times, and just to watch him would amaze me, looking at his fingering, how he would execute. I mean, I’d think, “Is he actually going to pull this off?”  Of course, he always would.
Q:    Walking the tightrope.
KB:  Yeah, exactly.  It was just so unorthodox.  But I think his approach and the way he did things is part of the uniqueness of his music, what makes it all sound so special.
Q:    I guess “Round Midnight” was in Dizzy’s book when you were performing with him, because I know you recorded that with him on one of the Mercury albums.
KB:  Yes, it was.
Q:    [ETC.] Now we’ll take an interlude, and listen to some musical offerings by our host this evening, Kenny Barron, in quintet and trio format… [ETC.]  I wonder if you’d elaborate on your speculative title “What If?.”
KB:    Well, it’s like always looking ahead and trying to find problems, when there aren’t any.  “What if this  happens, and what if that happens?” rather than just go with what is happening.
[MUSIC: KB Quintet, "What If?", KB Trio, "The Courtship"]
Q:    Now we’ll get back to influences, and we’ll hear something by McCoy Tyner, who had a major impact on you.
KB:  Yes, he has.  Well, on almost all players younger than him.  I met McCoy when he was still living in Philly, and his playing was quite different then.  After he joined Trane, it just really changed, and just grew and grew and grew, so that he became a major influence himself.  But his playing when he was still in Philly was a little more beboppish, a little more bebop influenced.
Q:    He’s not really that much older than you.  There’s about a five years difference.
KB:  Yeah, something like that, five or six years.
Q:    Which means a lot then, but…
KB:  Well, at that time, at that time, at that stage, yeah, it can mean a lot.
Q:    Who was he working with in Philly?
KB:  Well, he used to work with people like Odean Pope, and also he used to work with, like, Lee Morgan and people like that.  Whenever someone would come in from New York… I remember one time Kenny Dorham came in, Kenny Dorham and Jimmy Heath, and the rhythm section was McCoy and Lex Humphries, and I can’t remember who the bassist was…it might have been Jimmy Garrison, I’m not sure.  This was at a little small club that didn’t last too long in Philadelphia, so whenever someone came through Philly, McCoy would always be the pianist.
Q:    Those are some high standards on the Philadelphia scene that you had to come up under.
KB:  Oh, yes.  That’s right.
Q:    You couldn’t be messing around in Philadelphia.
KB:  No.  And there were some other good pianists there that no one ever heard of, who still live there.
Q:    Well, now they’ll hear of them.
KB:  There was a guy there named John Ellis, another pianist named Omar Duncan.  Hen Gates, who some musicians may know, is from Philadelphia.  Some others…the names escape me right now.  But there are a lot of good musicians.
[MUSIC: McCoy, "Inception" (1962)-DEFECTIVE]
Q:    Coming up will be music by Freddie Hubbard and Yusef Lateef, and in each instance we’ll hear one of Kenny Barron’s compositions.  You joined Freddie Hubbard immediately after leaving Diz, or…?
KB:  No, it wasn’t immediately after, but maybe a year after I left Dizzy.  Freddie lived in the same neighborhood… Actually, at the time he lived around the corner from me in Brooklyn, and I started working with him.  It was a great experience, because it was totally different from working with Dizzy.  Things were very, very structured with Dizzy, but with Freddie it was a lot looser, and I was able to take a lot more chances, to be a little more adventurous.  It’s all part of the growing experience.
Q:    Which was very much in keeping with the times as well.
KB:  Exactly.  Exactly, because it was during the Sixties.  I went through several different bands with Freddie.  One was a sextet, with James Spaulding and Bennie Maupin, the late Frederick Waits, and a bassist who is now back in California, Herbie Lewis.  That was a really good band.  It was the kind of band that could shift gears.  It could play inside, outside.  Then we had another band called The Jazz Communicators, which never recorded, which was with Joe Henderson, Freddie, Louis Hayes, Herbie Lewis and myself.
Q:    Never recorded.
KB:  Never recorded.  So I’ve been through several different situations working with Freddie, and they were all great.
Q:    I can’t recollect whether you’re playing electric piano or piano on the track, but you did quite a bit of work on the electric piano over about a 10 or 12 year period.
KB:  Yeah, during that time I did quite a bit on the electric piano.
Q:    Why were people concentrating so much on the electric piano then?  Was it because clubs didn’t have pianos?  For experimentation?
KB:  No, that was primarily for recording.  I think what you have there was the very, very beginning of the fusion thing.  So a lot of record companies, when you recorded, wanted you to use electric piano to add other colors.  Because the fusion thing could go in several different directions.  It could be used kind of for more avant-garde kind of music…
Q:    Color, texture…
KB:  Yeah, texture and things like that.
Q:    Freeing things up.
KB:  Yeah.  And also it could be used percussively for more R&B kinds of things.  So a lot of companies wanted the pianists to use the electric pianos during that time.  I think one year I won a New Star Award or something from Downbeat, and I never had an electric piano.  I won the award on the electric piano, I mean; and I never owned one.  But I was using it a lot on recordings.  Not at my request, but the company’s request.
[MUSIC: Freddie, "The Black Angel" (1968); Yusef, "A Flower" (1976?)]
Q:    Now, Yusef Lateef was the first musician with whom you went out on the road, in 1960 or so, and you did five years with Yusef in the 1970’s.  How much was the group working then?
KB:  He was teaching himself at the time.  So we worked primarily during the summer.  We would either go to Europe or out West, a California tour, work our way out to California and back.  So for about four or five years that’s all we did.   And again, it was mostly during the summer, because he was teaching.  And during that time, everyone in the band also decided to go back to school, so everyone else was in school as well, studying.
Q:    That whole experience was very positive.
KB:  Yeah, he had a very positive influence.  Like I said, he influenced everyone to go back to school.  Well, he’s an amazing person.  He just has a very positive effect.  I was in one of his classes, actually, a harmony class.  I remember one of the projects, everyone had to write a large piece of music, so I wrote a string quartet.  He said, “Well, it’s nice that you wrote all this music.  How can we get to hear it?”  So everyone in the class put money together, and we hired musicians, and actually gave a concert to perform these pieces of music that we had written for our term projects.  And it really came out great.  But that’s the kind of person he was, who inspired you to do things like that.
Q:    Coming up we’ll hear the last issued record by Kenny Barron’s late brother, Bill Barron.  There’s one that’s ready for issue in the near future.  Your brother was the head of the Jazz Department at Wesleyan University at that time.
KB:  Yes..
Q:    You recorded with him on just about every record under his leadership, I think.
KB:  I believe so.  Just about every one.
Q:    You’ve mentioned, of course, your brother’s influence.  Just a few words about your older brother, Bill Barron.
KB:  Well, he was an incredible musician.  I don’t want to use the word “underrated,” but there it is, you know.  In terms of the public, I think he was.  I think musicians knew and respected his work, you know, as often I’ve heard… Especially people that he came up with.  People like Jimmy always spoke very well of Bill.   And he was a really good person, and very dedicated.  He was very dedicated to music.  I think he spent most of his waking hours involved with music one way or another, writing music, talking about music.  He was also a very good composer.  He had some unique ideas about composition, very different ideas, and it came through when he wrote.  He was just a great player and a great person.
[MUSIC: B. Barron, "This One's For Monk" (1990)]
Q:    A few words about the quintet working at the Village Vanguard this week.
KB:  Well, I could speak volumes about them.
Q;    Then we’ll do short stories.
KB:  On trumpet is Eddie Henderson, who I think is one of the finest trumpet players around today.  He’s obviously a very intelligent person; he’s a doctor…and a funny guy, too!
I guess what I love about everyone in the band is that when it’s time to work, they really hit very hard.
John Stubblefield is, you know, from Arkansas, so he’s got a certain kind of grittiness in his sound.  At the same time, he has that certain other kind of thing that maybe Wayne Shorter…
Q;    From that AACM background, there’s another…
KB:  Yeah, exactly.  And David’s background is West Indian, but he’s been here for a very long time, and he’s worked with almost everybody.  He’s a current mainstay with Cedar Walton’s European trio, the trio that he takes to Europe quite often, sometimes with the Timeless All-Stars.  He works a lot.  He’s dependable… I’m talking about in terms of music.  I can count on him to be there, and to be imaginative, good sound, good intonation, good time.
Now, I don’t know exactly what I can say about Victor Lewis.  I mean, Victor can function in practically in any kind of circumstance.  Whatever kind of music you want to play, he can do it for you, and do it well — and enjoy doing it.
Q:    And different every time.
KB:  Yeah, different every time.  One of the things about having this band, I don’t tell them what to play; I just let them bring whatever they have, their own thing to it, and it works out better that way for me.
Q:    [ETC., THEN MUSIC]
[MUSIC: Moody/KB, "Anthropology" (1972); KB Trio, "The Only One" (1990)]
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Mulgrew Miller, R.I.P. (1955-2013) — A Downbeat Article and Several Interviews

I am deeply saddened at the death of Mulgrew Miller, who succumbed yesterday to his second severe stroke in several years. He cannot be replaced, but his impact will linger. It’s hard to think of a pianist of his generation more deeply respected by his peers. He found ways to refract various strands of post World War Two vocabulary — Oscar Peterson and Bud Powell, Monk and McCoy, Chick Corea and Woody Shaw  — into a singular soulful, swinging conception.  I heard him live dozens of times, whether in duos and trios at Bradley’s or Zinno’s, or with his magnificent, underrated, and influential group Wingspan at the Vanguard and other venues, with his working trios, and on dozens of sideman dates with the likes of Joe Lovano, Von Freeman, and a host of others. I can’t claim to have known Mulgrew well, but nonetheless had many opportunities to speak with him, casually between sets at a gig, and more formally at several sitdowns on WKCR and, once over dinner for an article — I didn’t have quite as much space as I hoped to get — that appeared in DownBeat in 2005. I am appending the article, the transcript of that conversation,of a conversation a month before that on WKCR, and an amalgam transcript of separate WKCR encounters in 1988 and 1994, one of them a Musician’s Show. We did a very far-ranging WKCR interview in 2007, as yet un-transcribed.

* * *

Mulgrew Miller: No Apologies

Ted Panken

Down Beat

Ironies abound in the world of Mulgrew Miller.

On the one hand, the 49-year-old pianist is, as Eric Reed points out, “the most imitated pianist of the last 25 years.” On the other, he finds it difficult to translate his exalted status into full-blown acceptance from the jazz business.

“It’s a funny thing about my career,” Miller says. “Promoters won’t hire my band, but they’ll book me as a sideman and make that the selling point of the gig. That boggles my mind.”

“Mulgrew is underrated,” says Kenny Garrett, who roomed with Miller in the early ‘80s when both played with Woody Shaw. “He’s influenced a lot of people. I’ll hear someone and go, ‘Man, is that Mulgrew or someone who’s playing like him?’ When they started talking about the ‘young lions,’ he got misplaced, and didn’t get his just due.”

Miller would seem to possess unsurpassed bona fides for leadership. As the 2004 trio release Live At Yoshi’s [MaxJazz] makes evident, no pianist of Miller’s generation brings such a wide stylistic palette to the table. A resolute modernist with an old-school attitude, he’s assimilated the pentagonal contemporary canon of Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett, as well as Shaw’s harmonic innovations, and created a fluid personal argot. His concept draws on such piano-as-orchestra signposts as Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal and Erroll Garner, the “blowing piano” of Bud Powell, the disjunctive syncopations and voicings of Thelonious Monk, and the melodic ingenuity of gurus like Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton. With technique to burn, he finds ways to conjure beauty from pentatonics and odd intervals, infusing his lines with church and blues strains and propelling them with a joyous, incessant beat.

“I played with some of the greatest swinging people who ever played jazz, and I want to get the quality of feeling I heard with them,” Miller says. “For me it’s a sublime way to play music, and the most creative way to express myself. You can be both as intellectual and as soulful as you want, and the swing beat is powerful but subtle. I think you have to devote yourself to it exclusively to do it at that level.”

Consequential apprenticeships with the Mercer Ellington Orchestra, Betty Carter, Johnny Griffin and Shaw launched Miller’s career. A 1983-86 stint with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers put his name on the map, and he cemented his reputation during a long association with Tony Williams’ great cusp of the ‘90s band, a sink-or-swim environment in which Miller thrived, playing, as pianist Anthony Wonsey recalls, “with fire but also the maturity of not rushing.” By the mid-‘80s he was a fixture on New York’s saloon scene. Later, he sidemanned extensively with Bobby Hutcherson, Benny Golson, James Moody, and Joe Lovano, and from 1987 to 1996 he recorded nine well-received trio and ensemble albums for Landmark and RCA-Novus.

Not long after his fortieth birthday, Miller resolved to eschew club dates and one-offs, and to focus on his own original music. There followed a six-year recording hiatus, as companies snapped up Generation-X’ers with tenuous ties to the legacy of hardcore jazz.

“I won’t call any names,” Miller says. “But a lot of people do what a friend of mine calls ‘interview music.’ You do something that’s obviously different, and you get the interviews and a certain amount of attention. I maintain that jazz is part progressive art and part folk art, and I’ve observed it to be heavily critiqued by people who attribute progressivity to music that lacks a folk element. When Charlie Parker developed his great conception, the folk element was the same as Lester Young and the blues shouters before him. Even when Ornette Coleman and Coltrane played their conceptions, the folk element was intact. But now, people almost get applauded if they don’t include that in their expression. If I reflected a heavy involvement in Schoenberg or some other ultra-modern composers, then I would be viewed differently than I am. Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé.

“A lot of today’s musicians learn the rudiments of playing straight-ahead, think they’ve got it covered, become bored, and decide ‘let me try something else.’ They develop a vision of expanding through different areas—reggae here, hip-hop there, blues here, soul there, classical music over here—and being able to function at a certain level within all those styles. Rather than try to do a lot of things pretty good, I have a vision more of spiraling down to a core understanding of the essence of what music is.”

This being said, Miller—who once wrote a lovely tune called “Farewell To Dogma”—continues to adhere to the principle that “there is no one way to play jazz piano and no one way that jazz supposed to sound.” He is not to be confused with the jazz police. His drummer, Kareem Riggins, has a second career as a hip-hop producer, and has at his fingertips a lexicon of up-to-the-second beats. When the urge strikes, bassist Derrick Hodge might deviate from a walking bass line to slap the bass Larry Graham style. It’s an approach familiar to Miller, who grew up in Greenwood, Mississippi, playing the music of James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Al Green in various Upper Delta cover bands.

“It still hits me where I live,” he says. “It’s black music. That’s my roots. When I go home, they all know me as the church organist from years ago, so it’s nothing for me walk up to the organ and fit right in. I once discussed my early involvement in music with Abdullah Ibrahim, and he described what I went through as a community-based experience. Before I became or wanted to become a jazz player, I played in church, in school plays, for dances and for cocktail parties. I was already improvising, and always on some level it was emotional or soul or whatever you want to call it. I was finding out how to connect with people through music.

“By now, I have played jazz twice as long as I played popular music, and although that style of playing is part of my basic musical being, I don’t particularly feel that I need to express myself through it. To me, it’s all blues. The folk element of the music doesn’t really change. The blues in 1995 and in 1925 is the same thing. The technology is different. But the chords are the same, the phrasing is the same, the language is the same—exact same. I grew up on that. It’s a folk music. Folk music is not concerned with evolving.”

For all his devotion to roots, Miller is adamant that expansion and evolution are key imperatives that drive his tonal personality. “I left my hometown to grow, and early on I intended to embrace as many styles and conceptions as I could,” he states. “When I came to New York, I had my favorites, but there was a less celebrated, also brilliant tier of pianists who played the duo rooms, and I tried to hear all of those guys and learn from them. The sound of my bands changes as the musicians expand in their own right. I’m very open, and all things are open to interpretation. I trust my musicians—their musicianship and insights and judgments and taste—and they tend to bring things off in whatever direction they want to go. In the best groups I played with, spontaneity certainly was a strong element.”

Quiet and laid-back, determined to follow his muse, Miller may never attain mass consumption. But he remains sanguine.

“I have moments, but I don’t allow myself to stay discouraged for long,” he concludes. “I worked hard to maintain a certain mental and emotional equilibrium. It’s mostly due to my faith in the Creator. I don’t put all my eggs in that basket of being a rich and famous jazz guy. That allows me a certain amount of freedom, because I don’t have to play music for money. I play music because I love it. I play the kind of music I love with people I want to play with. I have a long career behind me. I don’t have to apologize to anybody for any decisions I make.”
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* * *

Mulgrew Miller (11-22-04) – (Villa Mosconi):

TP:   I’m going to ask you a broad question. It might be embarrassing or hard to answer. For a lot of pianists, a lot of people your age and younger, and some who are older than you, too, you’re regarded as the heir to the throne. You know this. Tommy Flanagan was quoted a few times. A lot of pianists in their mid-40s think of you as the guy who brings the tradition into the present in a way that they admire. I don’t mean this as a way for you to brag on yourself. But what is the position that you think you occupy within the piano lineage at this point?  What is it you think you represent? What is it you think you’ve been able to accomplish?

MILLER: Whoo! Well, first of all, I consider myself an eternal student of the music. Perhaps I have been able to bring a fairly wide palette of ideas and a range of stylistic things that I have amalgamated into a sound. That sound that I have probably lends itself to a lot of different ways of playing. Because one can be a student of sort of a narrow range of styles. For instance, one can be a student of maybe the ‘60s piano players, and be good at that; or one can be a student of that as well as some of the earlier styles; and so on. My initial influences were people like Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal and Phineas Newborn and Art Tatum and those kind of people, and sometimes you don’t find that in a guy my age and younger. A lot of times, their biggest influences are maybe Oscar, but usually it’s… [CAESAR SALAD ARRIVES] Usually, a guy might start off liking one of Miles’ many piano players, which I do love, too.

TP:   In the Musician Shows that we did, Wynton Kelly was in there, Bill Evans was in there…

MILLER: Yes.  But my foundation in jazz comes from an earlier basis, the old Art Tatum thing and Erroll Garner and Oscar.

TP:   Did you get to that early?

MILLER: In my mid-teens. When I started playing jazz, those were the players that I heard first. A little while later, I heard McCoy Tyner and Herbie and Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett.

TP:   There are quite a few players who have become adept at playing a fairly broad timeline, but you seem to have been there a little earlier than some of them. But maybe it’s just because you’re older.

MILLER: Yeah! [LAUGHS]

TP:   Perhaps you came first in that generation by dint of playing with Mercer Ellington and Woody Shaw and Art Blakey. But sensibility-wise, is that something you’re predisposed to? Are you very open-minded? Did you come from an open-minded background? Because it’s not like you’re from one of the big cities. You’re from a fairly small town in Mississippi. You played in the church, you played rhythm-and-blues. I’m sure there was some talent, but maybe a parochial world-view or maybe not—I don’t know. But tell me something about what you see giving you the curiosity and wherewithal to explore all this.

MILLER: Expansion and evolution is part of my motto. The reason I left my hometown was to expand and grow, and if I was going to do that, I had the notion early on to embrace all these different things, especially in terms of piano styles and ranges of conception and so on. If I heard a great piano player, I liked him. When I came to New York, I made it a point to hear every good pianist who was playing, not just my favorites, so that I could learn something from everybody who was playing.

TP:   Give me a few examples.

MILLER: My favorites would be Cedar Walton or McCoy Tyner or Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal—or among my favorites. But of course, in New York playing the duo rooms there was another less celebrated tier of pianists you heard, but brilliant all the same. I tried to hear all of those guys and learn from them.

TP:   Let’s talk about the Memphis approach to piano playing. You and James and Donald Brown coming up behind Mabern and Phineas Newborn…there’s a distinctive approach. It seems like gravitating to New York was a natural. You all fit into what the New York thing was or was becoming. Can you talk about some of the stylistic things you brought to the table when you arrived?

MILLER: I’m glad you brought that up, because I have never ascribed to a Memphis school of piano. Even though there are similarities in our styles, but most of the people who influenced either one of the pianists that you are naming from Memphis, are not from Memphis. If you talk to the late James Williams and Donald Brown and myself, you’d find that, yes, we were all inspired and influenced by Phineas Newborn and Harold Mabern and Charles Thomas. That’s the soil in which we were rooted. But you would also find that we’re all influenced by Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner and Hank Jones and OP and all these people who were not from Memphis, and in various ways and various degrees. So I don’t ascribe to a city as a way of identifying a certain sound.

TP:   Is it more some of the influences that were available Memphis, or a way of filtering that information? Or does it have to do with all of you playing R&B and church music?

MILLER: Well, yeah. But what I’m saying is that a person living in Texas, having the experience, if he didn’t announce where he was from, you might not know if he was from Memphis or not.

TP:   I’ll take your point.

MILLER: Or Alabama, let’s say, Do you think a guy from Birmingham…

TP:   Are you thinking specific?

MILLER: No, I’m not.

TP:   Because in the Jazz Messengers, for ten years, it was James, Donald and you coming out of that nexus. So it’s not as though I’m trying to put capital letters…

MILLER: One of the things I think we have in common is that we all studied a certain breed of piano players, which critics call the mainstream. We’re all students of that breed of piano player. But we’re not the only ones. And my point is, I don’t think we all sound alike.

TP:   That wasn’t my implication at all.

MLLER: Right.  So a guy from Hot Springs, Arkansas, might sound more like me than a guy from Memphis.

TP:   But I suppose I’m trying to trace the continuity from when you started forming your ideas about how music should take shape up to this point. And music being such a social art and having such an oral component… I’m just thinking that this was the early ‘70s, the type of jazz you play wasn’t particularly popular or in the air, you were playing a lot of different music, and you each have a personal way of bringing the lineage into the future.

MILLER: I was discussing my early involvement in music with Abdullah Ibrahim one time, and he had an excellent term for describing that experience. He called it a community-based experience. Which I had early on. One of the interesting things about jazz is that players come from all kinds of backgrounds and experiences. But before I became a jazz player or wanted to become a jazz player, I had varying experiences playing in the community. I played in church. I played in school plays. I played proms. I played for dances in an R&B band. I played for cocktail parties. So there’s what I’d like to call a social connection there that I think maybe was nurtured early on in my playing, a kind of connection to people. The point I’m trying to make is that before I became a jazz player, I was already improvising, and I was always on some level emotional or soul or whatever you want to call it. I was already in the process of finding out how to connect with people through music.

TP:   Is that still how you see what you do?

MILLER: Yes.

TP:   It’s still consistent.

MILLER: It maybe isn’t as consistent as I’d like it to be. But you hear different players, and some people communicate… It’s something about what they do that reaches people on a certain level more than some other players. I’m not sure where I fit into that whole thing. But I began trying to make that connection real early in my development.

TP:   What’s more important on some level, communication or the aesthetic?

MILLER: As I think I understood you, for me, one is not different from the other. Communicating in the moment is what… I’m a very moment kind of guy. I’m not an over-organized musical mind by any means. My intention, my agenda when I sit down at the piano is to connect with people. I think that comes first.

TP:   You’re talking about coming up in this community-based experience. The scene has changed so much.

MILLER: It has.

TP:   And the social nature of music-making has changed a great deal. I was just noticing in the recording session, these guys who are half our age, how they’re behaving and what they’re thinking about. The drummer, who is extremely talented, is relaxing between takes by scratching on Doug E. Fresh. The trumpet player’s twin is doing a video verité of the whole thing. Everyone is, on one level, extremely sophisticated about technology and art and ideas, and on the other hand, there’s a sort of naiveté that’s kind of charming as well. Not that I went to so many sessions 20 years ago, but that scene would seem unimaginable twenty years ago. You relate and employ in your band very young musicians, people who will commit to you.

MILLER: Well, they are products of their own time, as I am a product of my own time. However, as you stated, the scene is different now. I think one of the things is that musicians don’t find the scene now as enticing as it was when I came on the scene.  There aren’t as many bands, there’s not as many clubs to play in across the country.  Sometimes they look in other directions for a way to express themselves and for other career options. Let’s face it.  The scene as it is now is not terribly encouraging to a young artist, and they come on the scene and see another little fellow in another arena making hundreds of thousands of dollars just rapping, rhyming. They’ve grown up with that. So in their minds, this beats sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.

TP:   Well, Kareem Riggins, your present drummer, is a successful hip-hop producer. So you’re experiencing all that first-hand.

MILLER: Yes. And my bassist is involved in pop music as well.

TP:   When you were coming up… I know Donald Brown was a house musician at Stax/Volt. Did you ever do anything like that?

MILLER: At Stax?  No. I came in a little town where there was nothing like Stax…
TP:   I meant once you got to Memphis.

MILLER: No.  That scene was just about on its last legs.

TP:   But do you think that then… It seems the young players today maybe compartmentalize a little more. It’s like hip-hop is hip-hop… It’s like Lampkin was saying to Duck when Duck was doing that rap, and saying, “No one my age raps,” and he said, “Jazz musicians!” So here’s a young guy who obviously has a lot of respect for what being a jazz drummer means, but he also has respect for what the other thing is. He’s not trying to conflate one with the other. I think at that time, a lot of jazz musicians were trying to mix the two, sometimes with success and sometimes not so successfully.

MILLER: True. For one thing, jazz musicians playing in R&B bands go way back!  Benny Golson and Coltrane played in R&B as it was known then. Which at the time, though… what we called R&B then sounded a lot more like jazz than it does now.

TP:   Tadd Dameron was arranging for one of those bands.

MILLER: Yeah!  And through the decades, people like Idris Muhammad, who was playing with Sam Cooke and so forth…

TP:   He invented the Meters beat. Not to mention Blackwell.

MILLER: Yeah, exactly. So all these people… McCoy played with Ike and Tina Turner at one point! So this thing about straddling the fence, so to speak, is really old. As I said, I grew up playing the music of James Brown and Aretha Franklin and Al Green and all that kind of stuff.

TP:   Does that music still mean a lot to you?

MILLER: I still enjoy it. Because it’s soul music. It’s black music. And that’s my roots. It still hits me where I live.

TP:   But there some musicians among your contemporaries who present that music and arrange it and work with it on records. You haven’t done that so much on your records. There may be implications of that vibe on one tune or another. But it isn’t an explicit reference in what you do. Is that deliberate?

MILLER: Well, you see, by now, I have played jazz twice as long as I played pop music. By now. Although that is a part of my basic musical being, I don’t feel particularly that I need to express myself through that style of playing. However, I am not against paying homage to my roots, as it were. It’s nothing for me to go into a Baptist church… Like, when I go home, it’s nothing for me to go to church and walk right up to the organ and fit right in. I do it. I did it this August.

TP:   Do you do it in Pennsylvania?

MILLER: No. I don’t have time to be involved in a church.  But if I go home and visit a church in my community, they all know me there as the church organist from years ago. So they all assume that that’s what I’ve come to do.

TP:   There are different ways that artists construct their persona as they grow and develop. Some people want to be completely autobiographical and encompass everything. For instance, such as Cassandra Wilson did in the last few years. You played with her on one of the best straight-ahead singing records of the period. But now she’s bringing in everything. But it doesn’t seem that to do this gnaws at your insides.

MILLER: No, it does not. Well, my experience is that I played with some of the greatest swinging people that played jazz—Art Blakey and Tony Williams and Johnny Griffin and Woody Shaw. I’ve been so captivated by that whole experience that I want to deepen that. Not necessarily to isolate myself from everything else. But that’s my focus because I see how that is so special. The way THEY did it was so special! Not everybody who’s playing swing music (let’s call it that for now…swing-based music) swings with that same quality. In today’s world, it’s possible to be expansive, to do a little bit of this and a little of that. But somehow, when I hear some of those groups, I don’t hear the quality of the feeling of swing that I heard when I played with those guys. So my focus… Rather than to dilute that by trying to do a whole lot of things pretty good, I want to do that really well.

TP:   Let’s talk about what it is that makes that approach to music so special. There are a number of people, your peers included, who love bebop and swing music, and it’s about the only thing they love. Or at least, publicly that’s what they say…

MILLER: Well, it’s not the only thing I love.  But what makes it so special for me is that, of all the different areas of music that I might delve into, that is, I’ve found, the most creative way of expressing myself. You can express power and beauty all at the same time, and yet express intellect. And the swing beat is powerful but yet subtle. So I am just enthralled with all of that. When I played with guys like Art Blakey and Tony Williams, and when I heard Elvin Jones, and when I play with Ron Carter, and all of the great swingers that I’ve played with, I see how that music affects people. For me, it’s a sublime way of playing music. So I think you have to be devoted to that in a singular way almost to do it at that level.

TP:   When did you begin to be that devoted to it?

MILLER: When I heard Oscar Peterson. I knew that I wanted to play this music with that kind of quality of feeling, and with that kind of integrity.

TP:   Let’s talk about why this music, against all odds, and with this culture the way it is, still survives. There may not be a big market, but there sure as heck are a lot of young musicians who can play.  And most of them are willing to learn. Obviously, there’s jazz education. But if it were just jazz education, then the music would be an artifact.  And it’s not. Perhaps you can address through some of the young musicians who play with you.

MILLER: I think young musicians are hearing and feeling the same thing I felt when I first heard the music. When they first hear this music, they see an opportunity to express themselves at a level that they had not been able to do previously in whatever other musical pursuits they were pursuing. I think this music that we call jazz is the only form of music that offers that opportunity, to have an integration of sophisticated harmony and sophisticated melody and sophisticated rhythm all at the same level, and be creative and improvise within that. I mean, you have sophistication in classical music in terms of harmony and melody, but the creative level is not there. I’ve played all of these musics on some level—R&B, and I’ve studied classical. But Jazz is the most enthralling music because you can express all of that. You can be as intellectual as you want to and yet be as soulful as you want to at the same time.  So to me, that’s what captivates the young musician.

TP:   For instance, John Lampkin knows all the hip-hop and drum-bass stuff. His beats are up to the second. I’m sure Karriem is the same way.

MILLER: Yes, he is.

TP:   Though with you he plays the function.  But are you paying attention to all these things? Are you incorporating what’s happened since Art Blakey and Tony Williams died, and the music of your sidemen into your own conception?

MILLER: Only what they bring themselves. At this stage of the game, I’m not trying to delve into that area with them. But they bring their own sensibilities from that. And things might happen on the bandstand that might not have happened with an older group of musicians. And I mean, just slightly older. For instance, Derrick might slap the bass a la Larry Graham.

TP:   Whereas Peter Washington wouldn’t.

MILLER: Yeah. Peter Washington wouldn’t do that.

TP:   Lewis Nash probably wouldn’t be playing those beats that Lampkin…

MILLER: Yes.  However… [LAUGHS] That wouldn’t be called for with me. But something like that might happen.

TP:   So you think all this is healthy. People incorporating this inclusive… For instance, Donald seems to want to do rap as well as rappers, and do smooth jazz as well as anyone doing smooth jazz. That’s sort of his stated purpose, and he doesn’t do a bad job, and doing these things doesn’t dilute what he’s able to do. I don’t know what the total effect is, but…

MILLER: I don’t see it as unhealthy. Let me put it that way. However, I don’t see how being good at rapping will help your understanding of what melody is, or deepen your knowledge of what harmony is. Most jazz musicians today have a pretty good knowledge of melody and harmony.  But even with the vast knowledge that’s out there, many of us are not even close to the core of what that is all about.

TP:   Who is?

MILLER: Who is? Well, I can tell you who was.

TP:   We also have to be careful not to search for the unreachable Holy Grail. Those cats may not have thought they had it either.

MILLER: Well, for instance, Bobby Hutcherson is a person who is creative on a deep level, and his involvement with harmony and melody and rhythm is very deep.

TP:   Mr. Nelson seems like he contemporary embodiment of that.

MILLER: Without a doubt. Kenny Garrett is a person who is involved with music on a very deep level. There are others. But I find that a lot of musicians have learned the rudiments of playing straight-ahead and become bored with it. [LAUGHS] But they think that they’ve got that covered, so “let me try something else.”

TP:   Why do you think they get bored with it?

MILLER: Well, in a lot of cases it’s because they haven’t had a chance to explore that with one of the great ones. Because if you’ve just come through four years at Berklee School of Music, or you’ve copied X amount of saxophone solos, and haven’t had a chance to do the thing I’m talking about, to see how that works in communicating and connecting with people, then you might be able to think that you’ve attained a certain amount of mastery, but in fact, all you might have is rudiments.  And a lot of that will not be effective if you get on the bandstand with Art Blakey or Elvin Jones or Roy Haynes or Ron Carter or Sonny Rollins or Johnny Griffin.

TP:   What’s it been like playing with Ron Carter lately? You’ve been doing the trio thing for a year or so now.  Is it your first sustained playing with him?

MILLER: Yes. Let me tell you this. When I was listening to Four and More and all those records in college, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would have two different relationships with people on that record—Tony and Ron. For me to have an ongoing relationship with Ron just blows my mind.

Ron is such a deep bass player. He’s unique in a lot of ways, but particularly he’s unique in the sense that he’s found a way to… Well, let’s say that he epitomizes the long, sustained note and the bouncing beat. Sometimes it’s hard to find those two together. A lot of times you find guys with the long sustained note, but no beat. Sometimes you find a guy with a big beat and he gets a thump out of the instrument. But Ron epitomizes that thing about the sustained note and the bouncing beat.  His walking conception is second to none. It’s very advanced, Ron’s walking conception.

TP:   It seems to me he’s the master of a certain type of counterpoint that’s singular to jazz, both rhythmic and melodic, with a call-and-response feel. Is the record The Golden Striker emblematic of how the trio sounds?

MILLER: Pretty much. We’ve stretched out a bit more since we did that record. Ron is a big fan of the MJQ with John Lewis, and this trio reflects his conception. That’s the kind of effect he wants to get over.

TP:   Are there any other situations in which you’re playing with someone’s band as steadily as that?

MILLER: No. My priority now is my band.

TP:   So with Ron, it’s because there’s still something you can learn and garner.

MILLER: Well, yes. Ron is one of the few people that I would do sideman work with now.  But even in that case, it takes a back seat to my own stuff as a leader.

TP:   He understands that, no doubt. He’s an eminently practical man. So you’re not talking about recording sessions or coming in for hire.

MILLER: No, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about appearing on club dates.

TP:   I have seen you as a sideman on some club dates. What are the criteria? Does it have to be musically satisfying? Someone you have a long-standing relationship with?

MILLER: Basically, it has to in some way serve my career (let’s be honest about it), and it has to be musically edifying. It has to be challenging. It just has to be on a certain level. Playing with Ron and Bobby Hutcherson. Those are two people that I’ve singled out who I’d play club dates with as a sideman. That being said, over the years I’ve worked a lot with Benny Golson, James Moody, and Joe Lovano.  But I’ve scaled back from just doing sideman appearances. This thing with Ron is kind of an ongoing project. It’s not just dropping in on a club to be a sideman. It’s a conception and an idea… And where else would I play with a bass player like Ron Carter?

TP:   And the piano plays a very prominent role…

[PAUSE]
TP:   Is it important for you to have a trio as such… It might tempt you to do your next record with Ron Carter and Lewis Nash, let’s say. But I get the feeling you’d think twice about it because you see the trio as an extension of your vision more than just what you play.

MILLER: Exactly. That’s very well said. And with an organized, more or less, trio…

TP:   Well, the thing is, it doesn’t seem that organized. You don’t seem to approach it that way.

MILLER: Well, it’s not, in that sense. But it is in the sense that there’s a continuation of musical thought from gig to gig, and if you have a set group of musicians, it evolves over time. That’s the main reason why one would do that.

TP:   Is there also a sense of following through on your own experience of having played with elders and passing down information? Do you feel some broader sense of responsibility beyond your career?

MILLER: I do.

[END OF SIDE A]

TP:   Kenny does it, Terence does it. Wynton does it even.

MILLER: Some musicians have a vision of themselves as expanding through different areas of music—reggae here, hip-hop there, blues here and soul there, and classical music over here—and being able to function at a certain level within all those styles. I have a vision more of spiralling down to a core, to a core understanding of the essence of what music is. What playing melody really is beyond the language that we have come to know as the vocabulary…

TP:   You’re trying to get to something that’ s beyond vocabulary?

MILLER: Yes.  For instance, a young musician might have transcribed many solos and be armed with an expansive amount of vocabulary, but may still not understand what creative melodic expression is. Not to mention harmonic expression. Or a drummer might study the styles of several different drummers, but still not have insight. To me, knowledge and insight are two different things. Knowledge has to do with intellectual facts about something. Insight has more to do with a sort of understanding of what the essence of something is, beyond what the facts might be.

TP:   You made a comment on the radio in 1994 that people make a mistake about McCoy Tyner. They talk about him as a phase of music or a style of music that is something to get beyond, and you said they’re missing a fundamental point, that he and Coltrane created a sound, that the sound had profound implications and was almost a metaphor for something beyond itself, and that it fundamentally changed the sound of jazz. Which also implies the notion of the music as something broader than itself, as actual narrative, having a similar force. Is that something that you are striving to communicate on some level?

MILLER: Yes.  Embracing all that spirituality, so to speak, in the music. I don’t think that’s a sound that’s going to go away. What they did was embrace more universal aspects of the music than had been discovered in the West at that time. They broadened their scope, so to speak. It was a new thing, but those things that we’re discovering about music… These were old things from the older part of the world. So it enlightened Western music, especially in terms of jazz, about what that was. So I think that they were musical prophets in that sense.

TP:   Do you ever get discouraged? Do you get the feeling that you’re fighting an uphill battle and you’re holding onto this noble aesthetic that the world no longer is prepared to support? How do you sustain your fortitude in the midst of all this stuff. I’m your age. I get tired. Obviously, you can make a good living at this, but also it’s obviously not all you would like it to be.

MILLER: Absolutely. I don’t allow myself to get discouraged. I have moments, but I don’t allow myself to get discouraged for long.  This culture and this society doesn’t do a lot for the morale of jazz musicians. It’s a wonder that all of us are not seeing psychiatrists! As Dizzy Gillespie once said, this culture and this country doesn’t deserve jazz. It has disowned it. I mean, largely. Especially when you consider that every year you have a show called the American Music Awards, and the word “jazz” is not even mentioned. How could that be?  So one would tend to get discouraged…

TP:   How do you do it? Is it religious faith?

MILLER: Well, it’s faith. Yes. It’s faith in the music. It’s faith based on experience, though. It’s faith based on the fact that I knew that guys before me went through the same thing.  In the ‘70s, I heard that Art Blakey was pared down to three people and a singer! Yet in the face of all of that, he just kept on going.

TP:   Well, what else was he going to do?

MILLER: The thing is, we all feel like that. What else am I going to do? I could do other things. But I feel like what else am I going to do? I play this music because I feel I have to play it. It’s like a calling to me.

TP:   Do you think that’s true for most people who play it?

MILLER: I can’t speak to that. But I’m sure it’s true for many of them. I don’t feel it’s true for all the people who are playing music.  A lot of  people (I’m not calling any particular names) are responding to the pressure that’s created by the industry to do something different. Because they see that they get writeups when they do something that’s really obviously different. A friend of mine calls it “interview music.” You play a certain way and you get the interviews and a certain amount of attention for playing that way. Now, what we have to do is address why is that. From what I’ve observed, it’s that the music is heavily critiqued at this point in time (maybe it always was, but I do notice that it is now) by people who have a heavy Eurocentric perspective on the music. They view the music as something that’s totally progressive. I think that the music is a progressive art form. But it’s also a folk art form.

TP:   It’s still a folk art form.

MILLER: It’s still a folk art form.

TP:   You’re going against the grain in saying that. What do you mean?

MILLER: I’m talking about the folk roots of this music, which we know is the blues.

TP:   The church, too?

MILLER: Perhaps. To me, it’s all blues. Whenever writers and critics hear people… I don’t know what it is, especially African-American players. When they hear them refer to that, it becomes blase in their ears.

TP:   Or corny. One or the other. Like some atavistic…

MILLER: Right.  But here’s my point. The folk element of the music is something that doesn’t really change. If you hear the blues in 1995 and you hear the blues in 1925, it’s the same thing. The technology is different. One is electric guitar and one is folk. The chords are the same, the phrasing is the same, the language is the same—exact same. I grew up on that.  The guitar that Robert Johnson was playing was the same kind of guitar that Little Milton plays. Basically. So that basic sound is there. It’s a folk music. Folk music is not concerned with evolving.

TP:   But jazz is an art music.

MILLER: Partially.  Well, yes.

TP:   It is concerned with evolving.  Ellington was concerned. Bud Powell, Charlie Parker… The genius of it is… Ellington came from a very different background. But Charlie Parker took these rather humble materials and was able to create a universe out of them. Ellington was able to take these vernaculars contemporary to him and create what you call this universe of sound and color.

MILLER: Yes.  But let’s revisit the word “art.” There are people who would debate that almost any kind of expression is art.  So blues is art. Any kind of musical form is art.

TP:   We’re speaking of the progressive conception.

MILLER: That’s something different.

TP:   People will say, “Coltrane and Charlie Parker weren’t trying to play the music ten years before…”

MILLER: Yes, that’s true. I’m happy to address that. Because in their progression of the music… When Charlie Parker came up with this great conception, the conception was different, but the folk element was the same as Lester Young and the blues shouters before him. Even when Ornette Coleman and Coltrane played their conceptions, the folk element was still intact, especially in the case of Coltrane.  But now we have a situation where the establishment doesn’t care if that element is there or not. If it’s not there, that’s fine. If a guy can walk on stage and not pay homage to that or have that as part of his expression, then they almost get applauded for it. Let me tell you, if you’ve ever seen B.B. King on a jazz festival, then you’ll know that the blues connects with people more than any other… That in this music is what connects to people. I can tell you from experience, you can bring your conception to the stage and play a thousand notes a minute, but after about 45 seconds of that, people don’t want to hear it any more if it’s not connecting with them on that other level that I’m speaking of.

TP:   On some level, it’s almost as though the folk expression these days for young kids isn’t hip-hop, but popular music. Because when you were growing up, B.B. King and Little Milton was probably a lot of what you heard on the radio. Nobody’s hearing that on over-the-air radio now. Or, on a more sophisticated level, some of the brother and sister musicians from Latin America who are bringing in folkloric music and vernacular music of their cultures and integrating it on some level. Now, a guy like Ed Simon can say something on the blues as well as his own, and others do it less successfully. But it seems not to be phony, but something that’s real and also progressive. There are all these hybrids going on in jazz. But you’re not dealing with any hybrids, though you probably could.

MILLER: Well, it depends on how you look at it. Jazz was a fusion music from the beginning. Fusion of European elements… So in a sense, I am! [LAUGHS] But I still maintain that this music is part progressive art and part folk art, and there are forces out there now that don’t really care about the folk art. What they attribute progressivity to is something that lacks that folk element.  And I say that that view is essentially a Eurocentric view, and most of the writers and critics, whether they be African-American or non-African-American, have a certain amount of that view. Most, not all.

TP:   I don’t think it’s as much Eurocentricity as Corporatecentricity. I know a lot of African-Americans who could give a goddamn about the folk element… It’s the fact that a large audience isn’t coming in, or if it’s six figures or not… But I do understand what you mean.

MILLER: If I can get up on the piano and reflect a heavy involvement in Schoenberg or one of those ultra-modern composers, then I would be viewed differently than I am now. Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé.

TP:   How does that make you feel?

MILLER: Terrible!  Because I know the depth of the musicians that do what I do. I’m not even talking about me. I’m talking about guys like Steve Nelson or Peter Washington or Billy Pierce. I know how, when those guys get together and play together… See, this is an interesting thing, how the PEOPLE enjoy them. The people can have a great time listening to those people play, and the writers will say, “Well, nothing new happened; it was just passé.”

TP:   The Europeans wouldn’t book certain bands unless you could be on it, I think.

MILLER: He did some gigs. See, this is a whole nother thing. It’s a kind of funny thing about my career. They won’t book me as a leader, but they’ll book me as a sideman and make that a selling point of the gig.

TP:   You’re an iconic guy for that kind of sound.

MILLER: Yeah. If you want the gig, bring Mulgrew in. But I won’t hire Mulgrew’s band. That just boggles my mind. I have seen times when a guy with absolutely no name… He’s a good player, but a guy with no name could get a gig based on the strength of my name being on the bill at a particular club. But yet, it took me years to get in that club.

TP:   So on the one hand, it’s “wow!” and on the other…

MILLER: But you asked how I maintain.

TP:   It’s like Thelonious Monk said, “I’m famous! Ain’t that a bitch!”

MILLER: [LAUGHS] I have worked hard to maintain a certain sort of mental and emotional equilibrium. It’s mostly due to my faith in the Creator. It’s more that than anything else. I don’t put all of my eggs in that basket of being a rich and famous jazz guy.  So that allows me a certain amount of freedom, because I don’t have to play music for money. I play music because I love it, and I play the kind of music I love. At this stage of the game, I can play who I want to play with and I have a long career behind me. I don’t have to apologize to anybody for any decisions I make.

TP:   You can sleep at night.

MILLER: Yes.

[-30-]
* * *

Mulgrew Miller (WKCR, 10-28-04):

TP:   We were speaking about some of your early bands, and a musician from the next generation called and said, “Make sure you talk about the Buhaina days.” Now, we’ve spoken about those days before, but there are people out there, like Derrick Hodge, who probably wasn’t even born when you were out with Woody Shaw…

MULGREW: He was just being born.

TP:   So maybe it’s not such a bad idea to go back and give folks a sense of what times were like at the time you came up. You came out of Greenwood, Mississippi. You once told me that you heard Oscar Peterson on The Joey Bishop Show when you were a kid, and it inspired you, gave you an aspiration that piano could be a mode of expression and not just something you were learning how to do.

MULGREW: Very much so.

TP:   It got you into jazz. You moved to Memphis for college, to Memphis State University, where you met people like James Williams and Donald Brown and Bill Easley. Then you get out of there and embark on your professional career. What were the steps between Memphis State and your going out into the great wide world.

MULGREW:   Mercer Ellington came through Memphis shortly after the death of Duke Ellington, and picked up the multi-reed player, Bill Easley, and Bill left Memphis on the road with Mercer. A few months after that, Mercer needed a sub on the weekend for the then-pianist Lloyd Mayers, and Bill Easley recommended me to Mercer. I went out with the orchestra for a weekend, and later on for another weekend, and a year-and-a-half later I actually joined them. I was on the road with the Ellington orchestra for about three years. During that time, I was making connections in New York. I met Cedar Walton and other musicians…

TP:   Did you move to New York when you joined Mercer Ellington?

MULGREW: Kind of. We were on the road so much, we actually lived on the Greyhound bus. But when we were in town for a few weeks off or days off, we would be at the Edison Hotel on 47th Street, which is where all the big bands stayed going back through the decades.  Basie, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, and all the bands stayed at the Edison. So that was my New York address during the time I was in the Ellington Orchestra. When we were there, I’d go hang out in the Village and hear all my favorite bands and piano players. I guess word was starting to spread that there was this young pianist from the country who was playing with the Ellington Band who wanted to come to New York.

TP:   Memphis is the country?

MULGREW: Well, Greenwood, Mississippi is the country!  Eventually, Betty Carter called me, because my name came up with her from several different sources, including James Williams, who was then with Art Blakey, and then Cedar Walton and a few others. She asked to come in to do an audition, which I did, and she hired me.

TP:   Over that three-year period, 1976 to the beginning of ‘80, something is happening to your playing, from leaving Memphis and getting into the mix, both playing the Ellington book, but also soaking up the New York piano, which was at a certain peak at the time with Bradley’s and the other piano bars… What do you think were the most important lessons you learned during this time?

MULGREW:   Well, it was like a double-gauged evolution. First of all, there’s the personal evolution. I was becoming an adult while I was on the band… I think I turned 21 during the time I was on the band. So I was learning a lot about life, being around so many of the elder gentlemen in the band. I have to tell you that being on the road with 18 different personalities is quite a learning experience.

TP:   And Ellington was famous for having eccentrics in the band. I don’t know if that carried over into the Mercer Ellington edition…

MULGREW: Well, there were a few! Some would come and some would leave. But most of them were very interesting personalities.  We spent a lot of time on the bus and a lot of time in the same area of space, so to speak. So you really had to learn how to get along with people. I like to say that I became a man on that bus. There was also the opportunity to learn to play the music of Ellington and to sit in the piano chair, and hear all of those extended works and soak in all of that sound. So it was constantly opening my mind up to a whole world of sound…

TP:   Parenthetically, let me take you on a bit of a tangent. Ellington himself had one of the most distinctive sounds and presences on piano of anyone who ever played it, and a lot of what he did in real time would influence the direction of the band. So there are a lot of dynamics to that piano chair. Now, I know you’re very into Monk. Did you ever try to emulate Ellington? Did his approach soak in for you?

MULGREW: Not really, especially during that time. Obviously, there were certain signature things that you had to do, like the introduction to Satin Doll and Take The A Train and Things Ain’t What they Used To Be. You had to learn all those classic intros. I did take note of how Ellington played with the band as an accompanist, but I didn’t really try to emulate his style a lot at that time. I was listening a lot to Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner and many of the modern…

TP:   Soaking up the modern vocabulary.

MULGREW:   Pretty much. Because my agenda was eventually to get to New York and play with all the small groups. So I was listening to all the small group players.

TP:   Then Betty Carter called.

MULGREW: Then Betty Carter called. We were on our way to Japan, and I told her, “Well, you have to wait two weeks until I come back from Japan.” Then she did, and John Hicks was getting ready to leave the piano chair in Betty’s band. She called me, and I went to an audition. At the time, she had Curtis Lundy on bass and Kenny Washington on drums. She used to call Kenny Washington “the kid,” because he was very young at the time. I made the audition, and I stayed with Betty about eight months.

TP:   That would be a different type of seasoning.

MULGREW: Yes. Because now I’m in a trio, and I have to realize my capacity in a trio format. I had to really develop as an orchestrator and a soloist. So compared to the big band, there’s more focus on the piano chair.

TP:   In that group, you’re rather exposed.

MULGREW:   Yes, and Betty puts the heat on.

TP:   There were a lot of hits in that band. Very precise.

MULGREW: Yes, everything was very arranged and crisp. So it was a great experience, even though it’s one that I never fathomed I would get to. I knew who Betty Carter was, but I wasn’t that familiar with her work. So I had to do a crash course.

TP:   After eight months, what did you think?

MULGREW: I’ll tell you what. During my time with her, I came to realize how great she was and who she was, and the music and so on. But my whole big thing was to come to New York and play with Woody Shaw. I had heard Woody’s records—as well as everybody else’s—before I left Memphis, then I met Woody Shaw at a summer jazz camp, one of those Aebersol jazz camps for students. Woody was there with Joe Henderson, and man, they lit the camp on fire. He had just emerged out of one of his heavy woodshedding periods, a lot of practices, and so he was just on fire. He and Joe Henderson played and they lit the camp up. I have never forgotten that feeling, that fire and creativity they had when they played on the faculty concerts.

They had a piano class, and Woody came and sat in on one of the classes. Whoever the teacher was at the time had each pianist play a chorus of blues, and I played my chorus or two, and then he went on to the next student. At the end of the class, I went up to Woody Shaw just to introduce myself, and he says, “Hey, man, I’m going to see you in New York in two years.”

TP:   Sounds like a big moment.

MULGREW:   Yes.  And wouldn’t you know that it was about two years to that week, or to the day almost, after I had joined Mercer Ellington, that I went down to the Vanguard to hear Woody Shaw’s band, and on the intermission I went back to the kitchen, which at the Vanguard is also the dressing room and the hangout and the office and so forth. I went to say hello. Now, mind you, at this point, Woody was legally blind, suffering from retinitis pigmentosa. I said, “Hey, Woody, how you doin’?” Or maybe I said, “Hello, Mr. Shaw.” Whatever it was. At the time I guess he was seeing well enough to see who I was. He says, “I remember you. You’re that piano player with the funny name. I told you I’d see you in two years in New York, didn’t I.” And it was two years almost to the week from when he’d said that earlier.

I continued to follow his groups. Whenever he played in town, I would go to see Woody’s group, or Dexter’s group, or Johnny Griffin’s group, Cedar Walton’s group with Billy Higgins and Sam Jones. These were all my favorite groups to hear. Woody kind of kept track of me through Betty Carter’s group and so on. When Larry Willis left the band, Woody called me, after I’d been with Betty Carter for about eight months.

TP:   For a lot of musicians of your generation, his harmonic ideas, his ways of moving from point A to point B were significant and consequential. A lot of people see his music as one of the last big vocabulary jumps. Can you articulate what he did that had such an impact on musicians?

MULGREW: Woody had a conception that he had gleaned from listening to a lot of John Coltrane, and playing with McCoy Tyner and playing with Eric Dolphy and playing with Larry Young. All of these people were on the cutting edge of jazz development at the time, and Woody came right in the wake of that. So he had evolved a conception of using a vocabulary that was a departure, in many respects, from the many trumpet players before him, who used a more diatonic approach in improvising in the vocabulary they used. A lot of bebop oriented lines which go straight up and down the scale, and so forth. But Woody developed this concept of playing the pentatonics and other intervallic ideas, very similar to what McCoy was doing and many of the modern players were evolving. So in that respect, he was really the cutting-edge trumpet player.

TP: He certainly figured out how to transmute those ideas into memorable melodies. That’s what gave him such cache. Everything was so flowing and consonant.

MULGREW: Absolutely. Well, what we remember about a lot of those players from that time, including John Coltrane, is the beauty that they were able to bring out through the experimenting with all of those things. As you said, all of the great melody and all of the beauty in the harmony… The great thing about Woody Shaw is he could play all of that stuff, and it would be beautiful. It wasn’t just intervals. It wasn’t just pentatonics. All those things were lyrically and melodically beautiful—and harmonically beautiful. There are times when I hear his signature sound in the playing of the trumpet players or in the writing of other writers.

TP:   Is his sound imprinted in you, would you say? I’m not talking about a copycat way, but there are moments when it resonates in your own compositions.

MULGREW: I’d like to think so. I’d have to be a blockhead to be with him for three years and now absorb some of that stuff.

TP:   You go into the Messengers in ‘83.

MULGREW: Yes.  In most of those bands I spent three years. Just happened to be that way.

TP: Our caller wanted you to talk about those days, so here’s your chance. Just to put it in context for your bass player, who was only 2 or 3 at the time: When James Williams and Bobby Watson joined Art Blakey, there began an upswing after several years of treading water. Then in 1980, when Wynton and Branford and Wallace Roney come to town, and later Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison, his becomes the band the hot young players were landing in. And the piano chair took a Memphis signature, from James to Donald Brown to you. So it was a very fresh period for Art Blakey, and his band became a workshop, in which ideas were batted around and coalesced.

MULGREW: It was really kind of a renaissance period on the scene.  Of course, Art Blakey’s band had been an institution for decades. Art Blakey’s band was a career-maker. If you played in the band, chances are you had a great chance at establishing yourself as a name in the business. Or moreso than with other bands. You really had high visibility, and you really got recognition if you played with Art Blakey. So I always say that, well, that period and that experience put me on the map as a name.

TP:   I’d imagine one thing it gave you was a taste for declarative drummers.

MULGREW:   You got that right. That experience defined, pretty much, for me what I wanted to hear in other drummers. I thought I knew up until that point, but I really got to know and experience and feel what a swinging drummer feels like.

TP:   Did it change your approach to piano?

MULGREW: I think it was an overall projection thing. Art played so powerfully rhythmically and sonically. He had such a big sound and the beat was so wide. If it affected my playing in any way, it was probably in terms of how I felt and heard the beat. Because Art had such a wide, strong beat. But it also affected me in terms of my projection on the instrument. The piano doesn’t naturally have that kind of clarity that the trumpet or saxophone has.  There’s something about the trumpet that says, “Hey, listen to me.” There’s something about the vocal quality of the saxophone that says, “Hey, check me out.” But the piano has a tendency to be kind of understated and dynamically less obvious than some of the other instruments. So to play with a drummer like Blakey, you really had to learn how to project a certain kind of dynamic beyond the lights of the bandstand, as Art used to call it. He said, “You’ve got to make it go beyond the lights of the bandstand.”

Let me also state Art Blakey showed us how to be bandleaders. As Benny Golson said, he was very didactic in his own way. Art wasn’t one to always tell you “Do this” or “Don’t do that.” You just observed him, and he led you by the sheer force of his personality—and his musical personality. He shaped your musical experience just by sitting behind the drums and swinging so hard. He allowed us to compose and arrange.  The whole experience was basically about the presentation of music, how to present music, and not get on the bandstand and not sound like you’re in a jam session. It was an organized presentation. So you learned a lot about professionalism, and how to call a set, how to arrange the repertoire from one song to the next, and varied the song… All those kinds of things are important. So we learned a lot just observing him observing us.

TP:   Then you and Wallace Roney and Bill Pierce, and Charnett Moffett was one of the bassists with Tony Williams… It was an extraordinary band. I don’t think the contributions of that band are sufficiently recognized right now.

MULGREW:   Tony Williams, in my eyes, was the same breed of musician as Woody Shaw, in that their involvement with music was so intense and so serious and so deep. Tony, in my estimation, was a true genius of the drums—of jazz music. I’m not saying this because he’s no longer with us; I used to say this when he was here. As an instrumentalist and musician, I always put him on the same pedestal with Charlie Parker and Art Tatum and John Coltrane. If Tony hadn’t played another beat after he was 19 or 20 years old, he would have changed history.  Maybe even if he was 18 or 17.

TP:   But he played a lot of beats afterward.

MULGREW:   Yes, thank God! But he came to the scene with a ripe imagination and a fertile mind for the music. I think when Tony came on the scene at 17, he was already a visionary, and that vision was firmly in place about how he wanted to play music and how he thought music was supposed to go.

TP:   Projecting with him must have been a challenge as well. He was playing LOUD during those years.

MULGREW: Well, I think loud was a natural component of what he was doing. He wasn’t only loud. He was powerful dynamically. Tony’s playing had that real urge in it.  But quiet as it’s kept, Art Blakey was a pretty loud drummer. He wasn’t quite as loud as Tony, but Art was a very powerful and dynamically and sonically loud drummer. Tony Williams was even more so, and maybe for a lot of reasons, having gone through the whole rock-and-roll experience… Tony played some big, heavy drums, big drums, big cymbals, big sticks. I think Tony’s vision of music was that it should sound really BIG. I think he genuinely felt that way about the music. I don’t think he was just playing loud because he couldn’t play soft.

TP:   You did a trio record towards the end of his life that amply demonstrates what he could do with dynamics when the occasion called.

MULGREW: That proved to be his last recording.  But I played a few trio gigs with Tony, and on most of those trio gigs he played as loud as he played at other times.

TP:   Back to you: All of this 16 years or so of playing in these high-level situations, during which time you were starting to emerge as a trio pianist and with Wingspan on records that come out in ‘87-‘88-‘89… Having self-assurance and a sense of who you are as a musician is a must. You can’t really coexist with them on the bandstand without that.
MULGREW:   Exactly. I spent all those years developing self-assurance and confidence. When I came to New York, the last thing on my mind was having a record date of my own.  Having my own record, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just thinking can I get a chance to play with this person or that person, and grow and develop.  I think it’s a little different now. A lot of the youngsters want a record date when they get off the plane.

TP:   Well, that attitude began in the late ‘80s during the Art Blakey renaissance when the “Young Lions” came up. Looking back, what do you think of the way the music evolved during that period? The overall sound. Did it change?

MULGREW: I think a certain area of the music changed. The younger players sort of had a sound and the older players had a sound. But because there wasn’t enough attention devoted to the older players, the younger sounds and developments and bands and music were perpetuated. I think the music suffered in a lot of ways because of that. Even though you had some really outstanding musicians then who were young and developing, many of them—or many of us—were exposed prematurely and with fragmented development and so on, and the major record companies weren’t pushing the veteran musicians enough. While the teenage piano players were getting record contracts and television appearance, Cedar Walton went around without a record contract. And how you gonna do that?! How you gonna do that to the music? In spite of that, Cedar Walton, for example, is one of the finest pianists playing today, and has been for the last 40-50 years. So I think that the Establishment, the jazz industry did a lot of disservice to the music by hyping so many musicians and ignoring the veterans, and so on.

James was a very dear, close friend for 31 years. We met at Memphis State, and he was one of my prime mentors. I loved him so and respected him so much, as everybody did. And he touched so many people.

TP:   Wingspan goes back close to twenty years. Wasn’t the first Wingspan album [Landmark] in 1987?

MULGREW: 1987.

TP:   At the time, you’d just joined Tony Williams after several years with Woody Shaw and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, which would be two good apprenticeships, if you want to call them that, for setting up a group with horns and expressing your own compositional vision. Would that be accurate?

MULGREW:   It would be indeed. I’d like to add that before the Art Blakey and Woody Shaw experiences, I was with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and with Betty Carter.

TP:   You’ve continued to put in dues over the years because of the way the marketplace has treated the lifeblood music. You mentioned you did a Japanese tour and a West Coast tour with the group. The personnel’s been fairly stable over the last few years, no?

MULGREW: Well, it’s changed somewhat. The only original member is Steve Nelson. Steve Wilson has been with us for ten years or so, and Kareem Riggins has been with us off and on for about ten years. Our new bassist, Derrick Hodge, also plays in the trio; he’s been with us about 2½ years now. And we added trumpet a year ago with Duane Eubanks,

TP:   Does this configuration inspire much writing?

MULGREW: I haven’t done much fresh, brand-new writing. But this project in 2002, all the writing was new.

TP:   That’s pretty new.

MULGREW:   It’s new to me!

TP:   I guess it must take a while to wrap your mind around a tune and have it evolve. But there also will be tunes you’ve been doing since the late ‘80s. Some of your things are close to modern standards.

MULGREW: We’re also doing some songs I wrote from a recording I did for RCA called Hand In Hand in the late ‘90s. Plus, we do standards and cover tunes by such composers as Hank Mobley and so on.

TP:   Now, with all respect to your writing, when people think of Mulgrew Miller, they think of your piano playing. And most pianists, when they’re presenting their music, will do so in the trio format. What are the satisfactions of a larger ensemble?

MULGREW: You get to take advantage of the different voices and colors, and get a larger palette of colors and sounds to deal with in playing the compositions. We have vibes and trumpet and alto saxophone. Steve Wilson plays also soprano saxophone and flute—his flute playing is a well-kept secret, but Steve is a marvelous flute player. We have the option of all these sounds, and it adds another dimension to the trio.

TP:   Do you see it as the trio-plus?

MULGREW:   I don’t really think of that, although personnel-wise, it really is that. For instance, in some cases, the repertoires are different. We play songs in the larger group that we don’t play in the trio, and vice-versa. So I don’t necessarily think of it as a trio plus horns either.

TP:   You went for six years without being signed to a label, once RCA released, but you’ve found a home for now with MaxJazz.

MULGREW: They’re wonderful. Richard McDonnell and his sons are musicians, and they understand the art and they understand the artist vision. I’m really privileged to be able to work with such understanding businessmen who run this company, and we get a lot of support from them.

TP:   Your most recent date, Live At Yoshi’s, is a trio record. How does a live performance differ from the studio? How will the experience of seeing Wingspan in person differ from a studio recording?

MULGREW: Well, the repertoire is pretty set. The thing about Wingspan is that the group is constantly evolving as the musicians evolve. The way we’re playing now sounds a lot different than how we played four-five years ago. It’s a matter of individuals in the bands expanding in their own right. For instance, I’ve seen a lot of growth in our drummer. Just in the last year, he’s playing at a whole different level than he was a year ago. Our bassist, Derrick Hodge, brings a lot to the table. By the rhythm section being different and evolving, that affects and stimulates what happens on the front line.

TP:   How proactive are you as to tempos and beats? Are you open to feedback?

MULGREW:   I’m very open. We might talk about a basic feel to a tune, a basic idea or something, but all things are open to interpretation. These are all remarkable musicians, and I trust them very much, and I trust their musicianship and insights and judgments and taste, and they tend to bring things off in whatever direction they want to go. If Kareem wants to take a Latin tune in a swing direction or in a 3/4 direction, then we go there.

TP:    Were these liberties granted to you at an equivalent stage of your career?

MULGREW: More or less.  I’ve always been open to the idea of flexibility and spontaneity. In the best groups I played with, that was certainly a strong element in various ways. Spontaneity is important.

* * *

Mulgrew Miller Musician Show, WKCR, 5-4-88 (Ted Panken):

[Art Tatum: "Caravan," "Sophisticated Lady" (1954?)]

TP:    I’ll turn the reins over to Mulgrew and let him say a few words about Art Tatum.

MM:    Oh!  What can I say?  Well, as we hear, it’s pure genius.  It’s divinity on the keyboard. [LAUGHS]

TP:    At what point in your musical life did you hear Art Tatum?

MM:    Well, it was pretty early actually.  I had been a great Oscar Peterson fan in my early teens, and just through research… You know, I like to find out where the guys come from or who they’re influenced by.  And when I learned that Oscar was influenced by Art Tatum, I thought I’d better go back and check this guy out.  And lo and behold, I heard something that was unbelievable.

TP:    Messed you up, huh?

MM:    Yeah.  I think Art is definitely the greatest of all time.

TP:    You came up in the state of Mississippi.  Tell us about your early years in the music, your early training and so forth.

MM:    Well, I started playing the piano, like a lot of kids do, very naturally.  You know, you go to the piano and you pick out these little tunes that you’ve heard around… My father eventually got a teacher for me, and I studied through high school, and then I attended Memphis State University.  In Mississippi I played rhythm-and-blues as a teenager, and I played in church, Gospel, you know, spiritual music.  I played a lot of cocktail parties.  I had a little teenage trio, and we tried to emulate Oscar Peterson and Ramsey Lewis, heh-heh..

TP:    You were born in 1955.  That would make this 1970, 1971 when you were making your first strides…

MM:    Yes, about ’71, ’72.

TP:    This is all a matter of record, but we might as well get it down.  Who were some of the people that you listened to?  These are some people whose music we’ll be hearing during this course of this evening.

MM:    Actually, while I was playing R&B, my really first piano influence was Ramsey Lewis.  My older brother was into Jazz, and he kept telling me about this guy named Oscar Peterson.  And I said, “Hmm-hmm-hmm, Oscar Peterson could never play…”

TP:    Like Ramsey Lewis.

MM:    You know, nobody can touch that.  So I finally heard that Oscar was going to appear on the Joey Bishop Show one night, and I said, “Well, let me sit and take a listen to this cat, and see what’s happening.”  And I was turned around forever, for good!   And the record that I think  we’re going to play next is very dear to me, because it was the first Jazz record that I had.  This was the record that I started listening to, and it featured Oscar in his classic trio situation playing tunes like “Girl Talk” and…

TP:    “Moon River.”

MM:    “Moon River,” yes.

TP:    “I’m In The Mood For Love” and so forth.

MM:    “On A Clear Day.”  He did some excellent block chord work.  And it’s just so tasty, everything on the record is just exquisite.  Well, this was the record that I was trying to emulate when I was 14 or 15.  I had no idea of what was going on!

TP:    But this sort of opened the door a little bit.

MM:    Right.

[MUSIC: Oscar Peterson, "Girl Talk" (1970), Phineas Newborn/Jones/Hayes, "Way Out West" (1961)]

TP:    Phineas Newborn was in Memphis at the time when Mulgrew was attending Memphis State in the music education program.  Tell me about the program, the areas that you were covering as a student.

MM:    Well, as a student, I was a Music Education major.  I only attended for two years.  But the Jazz program at Memphis State was probably one of the best in that part of the South at that time.  Unfortunately, they didn’t really have a program where you could focus on small group playing and improvising.  It was basically a typical college big-band situation.  And they had four bands at different levels, and so forth and so on.  So that was the extent of the Jazz program at Memphis State.

TP:    Did you enter competitions?

MM:    Yes, we did.

TP:    What kind of material did you play?

MM:    Oh, we played a variety of composers and arrangers, some of the things from the Kenton band, and some of my favorite charts that we did were Thad Jones’ material, and there would be arrangements from the students within the band, and so forth and so on.

TP:    Is Memphis State where you had your first efforts at arranging and writing?

MM:    Well, you might say my first efforts.  It was not much more than an effort at that time.  I really was more into composing than arranging.  But I guess you might say that my first compositions I wrote at Memphis State.

TP:    [ETC.] Mulgrew will be appearing with the American Jazz Orchestra as part of a Jimmie Lunceford tribute — arrangements and recreations of the music of Jimmie Lunceford.  You’ve been rehearsing that music this week.  What’s it like?

MM:    Well, it’s a very educational.  I had had some big band experience playing with the Ellington band on the road for three years, so in a way it was sort of comfortable to me.  It’s a situation where I have to exhibit my discipline, and lay back, and play the things that the music requires.  John Lewis, of course, is directing the orchestra, and there are some very talented musicians in the orchestra as soloists — we’re really trying to recreate the style of the music.

TP:    [ETC.: APPEARANCE BY WINGSPAN] We’ll next hear some music by Bud Powell.

MM:    Bud Powell also was an artist who I discovered around the time I was in Memphis.  I had known all along of his importance in the music, and his innovations, and his contributions.  I first heard a record called The Amazing Bud Powell.  I really listened carefully, and tried to understand what his contribution was.  Of course, he was  to influence a whole generation of piano players to play the same type of lines that Charlie Parker was playing, harmonically and rhythmically and melodically.

[MUSIC: Bud Powell, "Celia," "Cherokee" (1949)]

TP:    Mulgrew, someone asked me to ask you how you came up with the name Wingspan for your group.

MM:    Actually, Wingspan is sort of a dedication to the legacy of Charlie Parker — Bird, you know.  The tune “Wingspan” on the record is a composition sort of written i that sort of Bebop mode — with a few curves here and there!  But it’s basically a Bebop oriented tune.  Once again, the title derives from thinking about the legacy of Charlie Parker.

TP:    When we last spoke with Mulgrew about his earlier years, we were around 1973, Mulgrew has left Memphis State.  Pick it up.

MM:    Well, after leaving Memphis State I had heard about a piano teacher in Boston who was sort of well-known among certain circles.  She had taught years ago at Boston University, I believe.  She was the mother of the great baritone saxophonist, Serge Chaloff, who was one of the original Four Brothers with Woody Herman’s band.  She was known as Madame Chaloff.  I wanted to study with her, because I heard that she really had this great concept for piano technique, and a lot of guys that had studied with her were the guys that I admired — Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, quite a few guys, Hal Galper had studied with her, and a lot of lesser-known pianists.  She was sort of like this mystical piano guru hiding out in Boston.  So I went to have a few lessons with her, and I’d like to think that I really benefitted from studying with this lady.

TP:    What were some of her unique approaches?

MM:    Well, her concept was sort of mystical and metaphysical, in a way.  It involved things like breathing, a lot of things in principle that are similar to Yoga.  It involves breathing and likeness of the arm and muscle-power…I mean, finger-power rather than arm power, you know.  It was a whole philosophy behind the concept that sort of reminded me of some sort of Eastern philosophy or something.

TP:    Again, in Boston were you able to supplement your studies with gigs?

MM:    Yeah.  Well, actually I was doing more working than I was studying!  There in Boston I met some very fine musicians — Ricky Ford, Billy Pierce, Chris Albert, and some of the guys that are still around Boston.  Some of them have since come to New York, like Boots Maleson, who plays bass in the Ron Carter Quartet.  And I played with all of these guys around Boston, and this was back in 1975.

TP:    Was it was around that time that you joined Mercer Ellington, or was there a hiatus?

MM:    There’s about a year between that and the time I joined Mercer Ellington.

TP:    That’s when Ricky Ford joined Mercer.

MM:    Ricky joined Mercer about that time.  Now, I was in  Boston during the winter, and you know, coming from the South, I had never been that cold in my life! [LAUGHS] So it got a bit cold for me.  I couldn’t stand it.  Snow, covered cars for a month at a time.  So I had a friend that I had gone to high school with who was living in L.A., and he kept saying, “Come out to L.A., man.  You could make it out here.”  And I had always heard that L.A. was like paradise, you know, since I was a kid.  So I went to L.A., and I stayed out there for a year.

That was a very interesting period in my life.  I met a wonderful tenor saxophone player.  He’s really a marvelous, magnificent player.  His name is Rudolph Johnson, and he’s not a well-known saxophonist, but he is one of the best-known saxophone players I’ve heard.

TP:    Is he originally from Kansas City?

MM:    No, he’s from Columbus, Ohio.  But he’s been with Ray Charles for the last eight or nine years.  But this guy is one of the most incredible tenor saxophonists I’ve heard.

TP:    Did he record for Black Jazz?

MM:    Yes, he did.

TP:    Okay, I know which Rudolph Johnson you’re talking about.  What else was happening in L.A.?

MM:    I was working, I was doing all sorts of things in L.A. — musical things!  I was working at some of the smaller jazz clubs down on the beach, and I was also playing in a church at that time, which I had been doing since I was a kid.  So I sort of played in church from the time I was 8 years old until literally up until the time I joined Mercer Ellington.

TP:    Some thoughts on the relationship of the church music to the secular music.

MM:    Well, yeah, especially in the direction of Jazz and Blues.  Certain areas of Gospel music and inspirational music, the tonality and the colors are very closely related with the feeling of the Blues.  Actually, that’s what it is, the dominant seventh sounds and that sort of thing, and the rhythms.

TP:    How did you come to hook up Mercer Ellington, then?

MM:    Well, that’s sort of a long story, but I’ll try to make it short.  I first studied with Mercer Ellington in my sophomore year at Memphis State.  He had been touring some part of the South.  Lloyd Mayers had been the piano player since Duke’s death, and I think Lloyd had to miss a weekend or something.  A friend of mine who was working with the band named Bill Easley, who plays clarinet and saxophone, recommended me to Mercer to work one weekend as a substitute for Lloyd Mayers.  I just did that weekend, and it was almost a year when I ran into Mercer in Los Angeles.  I learned that he had been looking for me.  He didn’t know where to find me because i had moved to L.A.  I think it was coming up to New Year’s Day, 1977, and he needed me to play a New Year’s Eve gig.  He said, “What are you doing for the next three weeks?”  I said, “Well, nothing.  I can make the gigs.”  So he took me for three weeks, and actually, what was supposed to be three weeks turned out to be three years.

TP:    Did you come in cold, or were you pretty familiar with the Ellington repertoire?

MM:    Well, I was familiar with some of the most popular of Ellington’s music.  But there was a great volume of stuff that I’d never heard.  But I was familiar with Duke’s personality, because I had seen him on TV and I’d heard a lot of his music as a kid.  So I didn’t feel like I was totally cold, but I was very green.

TP:    That’s a heavy chair to fill.

MM:    Well, I never related to that idea of filling Duke’s chair or his shoes, because my position in the band was that of a sideman.  Mercer was the leader.  So sort of all the pressure was on him.

TP:    What were your features with the band?

MM:    I had one feature I would play.  That was a song I think Duke sort of spontaneously composed called “Reflections In D,” which is a beautiful piece for piano.  It had an orchestrated background.  So I did that, and sometimes Mercer would feature me on solo piano playing “Lush Life.”

[MUSIC: Wingspan, "Dreams of Brazil," "Wingspan"]

TP:    Your stint with Mercer Ellington spread your name around to the wider Jazz audience, I would think.

MM:    Actually, as far as spreading my name around, my name didn’t really get around that much, especially in the circle of musicians, because Mercer didn’t travel that circuit that much.  I mean, Mercer kind of… We played a lot of college dates, a lot of country club dances.  So as far as getting my name around among the circle of musicians and critics and so forth and so on, I guess it was a very limited amount of exposure.

But, far more important than that is the fact that I got a chance to hear the very colorful music of Duke Ellington every night, still being played by a lot of the people that played with him, and it really opened my ears up to the world of musical color.  And since that time, I’ve been really affected by that.

TP:    Did it spur you to go back into the recorded work of Duke Ellington?

MM:    Yeah, a bit.  Yeah.  Actually, yeah.

TP:    After leaving Mercer, your next major gig was with Betty Carter…

MM:    Actually, before we address Betty, I probably should add that a lot of people are familiar with Duke’s famous pop tunes, “Satin Doll” and “Sophisticated Lady” and so forth and so on.  But not a lot of people are familiar with his more extended works, his suites, the “Liberian Suite” and the “Afro-Eurasian Suite.”  I mean, that is some of the greatest music that’s ever been composed in this century.  And I thought that is deserving of mention on this show.

TP:    His work was so comprehensive, it seems impossible that one man put it down.  I guess that can happen if you have your band as your instrument for forty-five years.

MM:    That’s right.  But I think he was exceptionally prolific.

Anyway, as we were saying, I left Mercer in January of 1980 after receiving a call from Betty Carter, and I was on the road with Betty for about eight months.

TP:    Did you replace John Hicks?

MM:    I replaced John Hicks, that’s right.

TP:    Now, being with Betty Carter places a whole different set of demands on the piano player.  You’re almost the second voice in the band, in a lot of ways.

MM:    Yeah, in a lot of ways.  But still, there was a common thread there underlying the experience, because I was still an accompanist, and that was my basic role — being an accompanist.  I really learned to be sympathetic to that role and to whoever was up front, the soloist or the leading voice or whatever.

TP:    Was this the time when you settled in the New York area?

MM:    Yes.  As a matter of fact, upon being employed by Betty, I found residency in the New York area — in Brooklyn, as a matter of fact.

TP:    [ETC. on MUSIC]  Your feelings about McCoy Tyner’s music.

MM:    Actually, I have to say that there are a lot of piano players that had a great effect on me.  As with most musicians, there are people who affect them more than others.  In my case, I think my first great inspiration was Oscar Peterson, and after that time I was really affected by a lot of people, some of the people we’ve played.  But when I heard McCoy Tyner play live at the time he had the band with Azar Lawrence and Junie Booth, I felt that my soul was being ravished. [LAUGHS] It really took hold of me.  I went back to Memphis State, and I was determined that I was going to practice as hard as ever, because I was really set on fire by what I had heard from McCoy Tyner at this period.

[MUSIC: McCoy Tyner, "Theme for Ernie" (1962); Freddie Hubbard/Wayne/McCoy/Elvin, "Birdlike" (1961)]

TP:    That was killing, wasn’t it.

MM:    Yes, indeed!  That was one of the most famous Freddie Hubbard solos, I believe.

TP:    You seem to have memorized everybody’s solo on “Birdlike,” gauging from your response while it was on.

MM:    [LAUGHS] Oh yeah.  Well, that was a record I really listened to a lot.  McCoy’s playing on that is just immaculate, and Freddie’s playing and Wayne’s playing — just the whole group.  That is really a 10,000-star record.

TP:    You wanted to say some things about the pianist’s relation to the horns.

MM:    Well, part of the conception of playing Jazz and improvising is playing lines.  This particular innovation was carried forward moreso probably by horn players than piano players — maybe.  Of course, in Modern Jazz, most of us have been influenced by the innovations of Charlie Parker and through Bud Powell, and a lot of the horn players that came afterwards, like Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown and Miles Davis, and of course, John Coltrane, and so forth and so on.

TP:    We’ll now hear Thelonious Monk’s “Work,” which Monk recorded in 1954 with Mulgrew’s former employer, Art Blakey, and the title track of your second release for Landmark.

MM:    My first exposure to Monk I think was the “At the Five Spot”…

TP:    With Johnny Griffin, another former employer.

MM:    Right.  I remember one of the first so-called Hard-Bop songs I learned was “Blue Monk” and “Straight No Chaser.”  I remember driving to high school, when I would drive to school in the morning, and a friend of mine and I would sing the melodies to these songs.  But I readily related to Thelonious Monk’s music, because in a way, it was so simple.  You know, in its complexity it was so simple.

TP:    Monk really developed his conception performing up and down the Eastern Seaboard with various church bands in the 1930’s.

MM:    Yes, and that’s easy to hear.  When I listen to his composition, “Crepuscule With Nellie,” that sounds a hymn to me.

[MUSIC: Monk/Heath/Blakey, "Work" (1954); Monk/Roach, "Bemsha Swing" (1953)]

TP:    We’ll continue with a selection featuring another of Mulgrew’s favorite pianists, Wynton Kelly.

MM:    Wynton Kelly was a supreme accompanist and a very wonderful soloist.  One of the great things about Wynton was his pulse and his time, and the way he made you feel when he played.  He had what we call a lope.  He played with a kind of a lope that was really deep in the time, and it kind of made you pat your foot or your feet or snap your finger.  That’s one of the great traits in his playing that a lot of piano players have tried to pick up on.  Just the way he phrased and the way he placed his notes.

TP:    And he was a master of almost any type of music he had to play, whether Bop or Soul type pieces, ballads…

MM:    Oh, definitely, right.  I think Wynton Kelly was almost everybody’s favorite sideman.

TP:    He also played a great deal in the churches in Brooklyn during his too-short life.

MM:    Well, he certainly had that feeling, you know. [LAUGHS]

[Miles/Stitt/Kelly/Chambers/Cobb, "Walkin'" (1960); Bill Evans/Israels/Bunker, "Round Midnight" (1965)]

MM:    We all know the contributions of Bill Evans, with its harmonic colors and the spring-like, airy lines that he played, and his renditions of the songs.  I think he made a timely contribution to the art of playing Jazz piano.  I’ve certainly learned a lot from listening to Bill Evans.

TP:    As has many a pianist.

MM:    Yes, as many a pianist and horn players.

TP:    The next set will focus on Ahmad Jamal, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.  There’s another Miles Davis connection.  Miles got a lot of ideas from listening to Ahmad Jamal in the Fifties in Chicago, and of course, Herbie Hancock and Chick both worked with Miles.

MM:    That’s true.  Miles had so many wonderful piano players.

TP:    Ahmad Jamal was one of your earliest and primary influences.

MM:    Ahmad Jamal is a very unique player.  He’s sort of in a class by himself, because he was of no particular school, but yet all of the areas and eras of the music are represented in his playing, all of the Modern approaches and…you know, the whole history of the piano is there.  Yet, he’s so individual and his style and his approach and his conception is so unique.   He is so deserving of the highest merit in the tradition and history of jazz pianists.

TP:    And his music has been evolving as well for really some thirty-five years, in a continuous evolution.  He’s never stood on his laurels.

MM:    That’s right.  He keeps encompassing all of the innovations that come along.  That’s why he’s such a remarkable artist.

[MUSIC: Ahmad Jamal, "Dolphin Dance (1970); Herbie Hancock, "One Finger Snap" (1964)]

MM:    Herbie, you know, what can I say?  Herbie is like the supreme conceptualist.  He is the ideal for me, without ever wanting to become a Herbie “clone.”   Herbie is such an expansive pianist, musician, his compositions, and he has incorporated so many conceptions and devices into his playing.  To me, Herbie’s playing at best is what Jazz is all about.

TP:    Herbie performed on “One Finger Snap” with your current employer, Tony Williams, on the drums.

MM:    Yes, let’s mention Tony, because Tony is one of the most incredible musicians that I have ever had the experience of witnessing on any instrument.

TP:    For the last five or six years you’ve been working with Art Blakey and Tony Williams night after night after night.

MM:    It’s an incredible experience.  I think I’ve become addicted to those loud drummers.  These are some of the greatest drummers of all time.  Back in the summer, I had the experience of playing with three of the greatest drummers alive in one night!  I played with Tony Williams at the Blue Note Festival, then I went down to Sweet Basil and I sat in with Art, and then as I was sitting in with Art, Elvin Jones sat in on the same  set.  It was just incredible.

TP:    [ETC.]  Any concluding comments?

MM:    Unfortunately, we didn’t have four or five hours to play some of the artists who have affected me since I’ve been in New York.  I’ve learned so much from a lot of the players in New York that we haven’t had a chance to talk about, players like Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton, one of my very-very favorites, who I think is one of the most underrated piano players in the world, Kirk Lightsey, Kenny Barron and Harold Mabern — the list goes on.  Of the younger players, there’s Kenny Kirkland and Renee Rosnes and Benny Green, and there are a lot more that are coming up behind us.  So it’s really a healthy environment.

TP:    [ETC.]

[MUSIC: Chick Corea, "Tones For Joan's Bones" (1966)]

[-30-] Mulgrew Miller (Musician Show, 6-29-94);

[MUSIC: Tatum, "Elegy," P. Newborn, "Lush Life" (1961), Bud Powell, "Parisian Thoroughfare" (1953)]

TP:    In selecting the music, Mulgrew was very definite about particular musicians and tracks.  “Lush Life” was by Phineas Newborn, who bestrides the talented group of pianists who emerged from Memphis.  Was your first exposure to him when you attended school there?

MM:    Yes.  I had heard of Phineas Newborn prior to my arrival in Memphis, but I didn’t know much about him.  And I met him in a club one night, and subsequent to that I heard him playing live, and I was blown away — needless to say.

TP:    In what kind of venue?

MM:    Oh, it was very small, what we would call down there a hole-in-the-wall joint.  A small club with an upright piano where it seemed like half the keys didn’t work, and he played them like it was a Steinway grand.

TP:    Who did you meet when you got to Memphis?

MM:    Well, the first pianist I met in Memphis actually was Donald Brown.  We were both students at Memphis State at the time.  A few days later I met James Williams, and we became very good friends, and James became a very important mentor to me.  Actually James was a mentor to both Donald Brown and myself at the time.  There was a very fantastic pianist who has made some impact in New York in the last year or so named Charles Thomas.  And Phineas, or “Fine-as” Newborn was there also.

TP:    Which is it anyway?

MM:    I don’t know.

TP:    How should I say it?

MM:    I would say that it’s officially Phineas.  But everybody down in Memphis called him Fine-as.  Some even called him Pheenus.

TP:    Pheenus.

MM:    Yeah.

TP:    I remember the first time I had to pronounce his name on the radio, I had four phone calls, literally, telling me one was right, and they were divided between the two pronunciations.

What was the extent of your background in the literature of the music when you arrived in Memphis?

MM:    Well, I came to Memphis State right out of high school.  Up until that time, I had really been into the more traditional stylists, like Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, and to a great extent Ahmad Jamal and Art Tatum.  Those were my favorite players at the time.  When I got to Memphis, there was a great student environment, a lot of students learning about the music.  At that time, I was able to absorb the more modern players (that’s a comparative, relative term), people like Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner.  Although I had heard some records by Bud Powell records McCoy Tyner records, and records by all of the contemporary players back down home, I didn’t really get into listening to them until I got into Memphis State.  I would say I think of some of them more as conceptual players than actual stylists.  In other words, you can sit and analyze what they do, and find certain formulas for things, and create your own language from that.

TP:    I’m sure that being able to play in such a stimulating setting helped begin to hone the process of forming a vocabulary.

MM:    Yeah.  Because when I met James, I didn’t know very much theoretically or analytically about what I was doing.  I was just sort of going for a sound.  And there are a lot of limitations to that approach.  James had been a student at Memphis State  for several years, and he was actually in his last semester there, and I was in my first semester.  So James knew all the stuff that I was trying to learn, like chord voicings and certain scales, certain records to listen to, who to listen to, what songs you need to learn, and he was very generous about directing me along those lines.

TP:    You came up in Greenville, Mississippi.

MM:    Greenwood.

TP:    Excuse me.  How much was Jazz listened to in the community when you were coming up?  Were you an exception as a youngster playing Jazz on piano, or…?

MM:    Oh, definitely, yeah.  Well, actually there was an older guy who still lives there, who played a style that was kind of out of Erroll Garner, Nat Cole, Teddy Wilson.  He had been a mentor.  You know, I kind of looked up to him and tried to copy, emulate the way he played.  But he wouldn’t explain things academically.  You just had to sit and listen and wonder, “Wow, what was that?”  Or he’d show you a lick or something like that.  But to learn to look at the music analytically so that you could put it together yourself, I didn’t get to that until I got to Memphis.

So to answer your question:  Yes, in my generation, in high school, I was practically alone in learning to play Jazz.

TP:    Were you dealing with other types of music, that your peers were into, which I’m assuming was rhythm-and-blues and Blues…

MM:    Yes.

TP:    And of course, church music.

MM:    Yes.  Well, that was really what I was doing.  I was playing on the weekends, playing in the rhythm-and-blues bands, and on Sundays, sometimes two or three hours from the gig, I was in Sunday School class!

TP:    So the secular and the sacred were right on top of each other.

MM:    Oh, yes.  Yes, indeed.

TP:    What were some of the models for the music you were doing with the rhythm-and-blues bands?  What sort of bands were you listening to?

MM:    We were doing kind of a wide range of things, from the really bluesy things like Little Milton, Albert King, B.B. King to the more popular hits of the day.  James Brown was big at the time, and Aretha Franklin, and Al Green, and Marvin Gaye — all of those kind of things.  Around 1966, when I was sixth grade, I started trying to emulate Ramsey Lewis, because he got two or three hits at the time, real big hits.  He was probably my very first idol.

TP:    You wanted to be in with the In Crowd.

MM:    Yeah.  But actually this was a little after that.  This was the “Wade In The Water” period.

TP:    Our discussion of Phineas Newborn brought us back to Mulgrew’s younger days in Greenwood, Mississippi.   After Phineas Newborn’s arrangement of “Lush Life,” we heard Art Tatum’s arrangement of Massenet’s “Elegy.”  You mentioned hearing Tatum in high school, I guess, and then probably delving into him in more depth subsequently.  We also heard Bud Powell performing his original composition “Parisian Thoroughfare” in 1951.  What were your first impressions of Bud Powell?

MM:    Actually, I’m afraid the first record that I heard by Bud Powell didn’t really impress me at all, because it was a recording that was made in Europe, and I don’t think it was from his most fruitful period.  He was playing some ballads, and they were very slow and very stark-sounding voicings that were… I was used to the big, fat, pretty voicings of Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum and so forth, and a certain kind of mood that would be set in a ballad, and most of these things that I was hearing from Bud Powell at first were very slow, very stark-sounding ballads.  So I’m afraid I wasn’t very impressed at first.

But I think the first record by Bud that impressed me was The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume 1, I think, the one with Fats Navarro and Sonny Rollins.  Because I have always been impressed by long lines, long right-hand single-note lines; that always got me.  And I was really impressed when I heard Bud’s conception of that.

TP:    Mulgrew’s next selection (Charlie Parker and Strings, “Just Friends”) leads me ask whether primarily pianists, or also other instrumentalists have affected your conception of how to play the piano?

MM:    Well, I would say primarily pianists, but certainly not only.  I have learned a lot from listening to John Coltrane, from Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins…

TP:    Is it about attack?  About different types of…

MM:    Generally about the language.  Just learning language from them.

[MUSIC: Bird and Strings, "Just Friends" (1950), Miles Davis/Mobley/Kelly/PC/Cobb, "Bye-Bye Blackbird" (1961)]

TP:    …”Bye-Bye Blackbird” featured the subtle swing and strong solo by Wynton Kelly, about whom I know Mulgrew has some words.

MM:    Oh yeah.  Well, it’s interesting to me that you referring to it as “subtle swing.”  I think of it as very pronounced swing!

TP:    Very pronounced, but I guess I was referring to the little modulation he did at the beginning of his solo.  I should have been more precise.

MM:    Oh, yes.  Well, he had that kind of finger-popping, foot-tapping way with the way he played time.  It’s very, very unique.  I’ve heard many players, younger players trying to emulate that, including yours truly.  It’s interesting to see how that happens in a person’s playing.

TP:    Well, maybe I should have used the word “sophisticated.”  Because it is everything you say, and yet, it’s always done in such an elegant way somehow.  I mean, these are subjective words for dealing with music.

MM:    Yeah, and words are always inadequate to describe something that’s so natural and so beautiful.  But Wynton is still, I think, a very strong influence in the Jazz piano world.  First of all, Wynton was a great accompanist.  I think anybody who wants to be a contemporary accompanist would have to check Wynton out, because as Miles Davis said, he knew how to feed the fire.  And that’s important, how to contribute to the time mechanism of the group, how to help the rhythm section and get deeply into that pocket.  And that feeling we were just talking about, I think most of us would want that if we could have it! [LAUGHS]  But you can’t teach that kind of thing, you can’t analyze it so that somebody else could really get to it.  That’s one of those mysteries that happens in this music, when a person’s personality, his own ways and idiosyncracies (or however you want to refer to it, call it whatever you want to call it), when that takes a big part and comes to play into the music.

TP:    I guess Wynton Kelly was the product of a number of influences, from Brooklyn and a West Indian background, and Classical music and church and all of that went into that incredible style, the singular distillation of which we heard on “Bye Bye Blackbird.”  In terms of Charlie Parker’s music, have you as a pianist dealt first-hand with Charlie Parker in formulating your aesthetic?

MM:    Well, probably not first-hand.  I mean, I guess first-hand I would have to be here to play with him.  But I understand what you mean.

Yeah. there was a phase in my development where I really listened to a lot of Charlie Parker and a lot of Bud Powell.  And I still listen to them.  But I always thought that Charlie Parker had the ultimate phrasing.  If I were to pick someone to model how I would like to phrase my lines on the piano, it would be Charlie Parker.

TP:    Well, enough said.

MM:    [LAUGHS]

TP:    [ETC.]  Next up is Lee Morgan’s “The Delightful Deggie” from Delightful-Lee on Blue Note.

MM:    Well, this is one of my very favorite albums.  I think if I could probably take 10 or 20 records on the road or to  the moon with me, this would be one of them.  It’s great because it features both Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, and it shows the contrasts and similarities in their participation in the Jazz scene at that time — and it’s a very interesting study in contrasts.  It also features McCoy Tyner, who I have always thought of as a very, very gifted melody-maker as a soloist and improviser.

[MUSIC: L. Morgan, "The Delightful Deggie" (1966); McCoy Tyner, "Surrey With tHe Fringe On Top' (1968)]

TP:    “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” is a trio performance within a quartet concert at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1968.  As liner-note-writer Ed Williams who said, the trio hijacked “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and took it into some different territory!

MM:    Oh my! [LAUGHS]

TP:    [ETC.] You were mentioning McCoy Tyner’s melodicism before the set, and I guess nobody needs to be told about how that piece swung.

MM:    Absolutely not.  But yeah, I think that McCoy has had, and still has a very unique gift of melody.  Because I realized what the challenge would be of getting into an area of pentatonics and fourths and other kinds of unconventional intervals for the time, and to sort of get melody out of it takes a rare gift.  McCoy has that gift, and you can hear it in his very earliest recordings.  He has a very, very great gift of melody.

What I’d like to say here is that I think writers and critics have probably not understood the great significance, the cultural significance of McCoy’s influence in American music — Trane, along with McCoy, or vice-versa.  But I often see reviews where they will critique a younger player, such as myself or some of the younger players, and sort of write off, “Oh, he’s another McCoy Tyner influenced piano player.”  But I think that influence is not going anywhere very soon.  I think it has great cultural significance.

TP:    Elaborate.

MM:    Well, there’s a sound there.  There’s a sound in McCoy’s playing, in the music that Trane brought forth, brought into fruition, that very much influenced American society and American culture.  So I think McCoy’s playing will affect American music for a long time.  Not only Jazz, but I hear it, you know, in keyboard players in particular in all sorts of genres of music.  I think some of the writers and critics sort of treat McCoy’s style as if it’s, you know, another passing phase — “Well, it’s time to get on to something else,” and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.  But I see McCoy as sort of a prophet of musical truth, and that’s going to be around a long time.

TP:    Of course, McCoy Tyner recently has recorded some amazing solo releases for Blue Note that show his expansive grasp of the whole piano continuum, and always with his own distinctive sound.  It’s always there.

MM:    Right.

TP:    You mentioned before that Oscar Peterson was one of your primary early influences coming up in high school.  I think he’s also been misunderstood by the critical community, and I think Phineas Newborn ran into that problem with people who were writing about the music.

MM:    Well, I guess it’s sort of the nature of the beast when you have this whole thing that we call art criticism.  You know, you have to say something!  And it’s always a matter of opinion.  There are no absolute truths in those criticisms.  It’s always opinion.  I think many, many great musicians, especially John Coltrane, suffered from the lashings of the critics.

Oscar Peterson, there’s no doubt about it, is one of the great pianists of all time.  But Oscar is primarily a stylist.  I don’t see Oscar as a conceptualist as I do, say, Bud Powell or McCoy Tyner or Herbie Hancock.  He brought forth a style that was pleasing, and it’s the cause of his popularity maintaining itself through the decades.

TP:    Well, he’s one of the virtuosos of his time…

MM:    Absolutely.  Undeniably! [LAUGHS]

TP:    …and a pinnacle that almost any jazz pianist has to deal with.  You were very specific about wanting this particular trio side from the mid-1960’s with Sam Jones and Bobby Durham as opposed to one of the sides with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen.

MM:    Well, I think when people think of the “classic” Oscar Peterson Trio, they think of the Ray Brown-Ed Thigpen trio.  And I think that’s probably true.  But without trying to compare anybody with Ray Brown or anybody with Ed Thigpen, I think as a unit this particular trio with Sam Jones and Bobby Durham (and at one phase of it was Louis Hayes) brought out another side of Oscar, a kind of less cocktailish side, if you will… I’m taking a bold step in saying that, because I never thought of Oscar Peterson as being a Cocktail Piano Player.  But those are relative terms.  You know, I’ve heard people refer to Ahmad Jamal or Red Garland even as sort of a Cocktail style.

TP:    Some cocktails have more of an impact than others.

MM:    Yes.  As a matter of fact, I’ve heard some so-called cocktail piano players that I’d rather hear than some Jazz players!  But that’s all relative.

But anyway, this particular trio brought a little edge to Oscar’s sound, I think, and to his playing, if you will.  This particular record was my first record.  Oscar was the first real Jazz piano player that I heard that really just knocked me out, that made me… When I heard Oscar Peterson, I knew I wanted to be a Jazz player.  And this was the first record that I had.

TP:    It’s a moment you remember vividly, I take it.

MM:    Very vividly.

TP:    How old were you?  Where were you?

MM:    I was about 14 years old, sitting up one night watching The Joey Bishop Show.  And they announced that Oscar Peterson was coming on.  And I had been hearing about Oscar Peterson through my older brother, who was always trying to point me in that direction — because I wanted to play like Ramsay Lewis and whatever.  But when I heard Oscar Peterson, I just flipped.  Because I could relate to it on a number of levels.  Here is Black music being played at a very high level of sophistication.  That sort of motivated me.  I could study Classical Music and all of that, but I was never motivated to do that.  But when I saw Oscar Peterson, I was motivated to master the piano.

[MUSIC: OP Trio (Jones/Durham), "Girl Talk" (1972); A. Jamal, "Poinciana" (1971)]

MM:    As one can tell from that performance, the one great thing about Ahmad Jamal is, for me, he affirms once more that there’s no one way to play Jazz.  There’s no one way to play Jazz piano.  There’s no one way that Jazz is supposed to sound.  I was very captivated about the way he went about that performance with reckless abandon.  There’s something about that approach that’s really captivating for me, very interesting.  He did some very daring and unusual things in that performance.  Ahmad has always been one of my very favorite pianists, one of my initial inspirations.

TP:    Well, Herbie Hancock, who we’ll hear next, undoubtedly heard a lot of Ahmad Jamal when he was coming up in Chicago…

MM:    I’m sure of it.

TP:    …and Miles Davis, of course, used Ahmad’s orchestrational approach to the trio as the model for the dynamics of his rhythm section.

MM:    Yes.

TP:    And I’m sure Herbie Hancock applied these lessons to very good use during his time with Miles. [ETC.] Next is “Head Start,” from a recording by the Bobby Hutcherson Quartet featuring Herbie Hancock in February 1966, one of several collaborations between the two, although not all were issued contemporaneously.

MM:    Well, I’d like to say, everybody knows how great Herbie  Hancock is, and there’s no doubt about it — I mean, Herbie is so amazing.  You hear that because so many young pianists today are emulating Herbie, and he’s had a mammoth amount of influence on the piano scene for the last thirty years.

TP:    If you had to crystallize it, what would you say it is about his sound and his conception?

MM:    The great thing about Herbie is that it’s no one thing, it’s a lot of things.  There’s the touch, there’s the sophistication, the taste, the intuitiveness, and the versatility.  So it’s all of those things that make Herbie so great.  He’s just such a phenomenal musician.  Probably if “genius” applies to anyone these days, it’s him!

I’d also like to say that Bobby Hutcherson, who is playing on this next recording, is one of my very favorite musicians alive.  He’s just such a great improviser.  I’ve personally been influenced by the way Bobby plays.

TP:    How does that translate?

MM:    Well, Bobby has a very advanced harmonic approach in the way that he plays his lines.  He plays his lines between the cracks, I think.  I mean, Herbie has that same quality, and that’s why they were such a great match for this record.  I played with Bobby back when I was with Woody Shaw in the early Eighties; Bobby was a great friend of Woody’s, and they played a lot of music together.  Bobby did some recordings and concerts and tours with us, and I was just knocked out by him, not only as a musician, but as a person also.  So he’s one of my very favorite improvisers.

TP:    I guess you must have had an extended taste of Woody Shaw’s unique harmonic sensibility.

MM:    Oh, yeah.  Well, another one of those great affirmations that there’s no one way to play Jazz.  Woody was always searching, you know, for that certain sound that would open up vast new musical horizons and territories.

[MUSIC: Hutcherson/Hancock, "Head Start" (1966); Bu/Golson, "Along Came Betty" (1958)]

TP:    [ETC.] Both Benny Golson and Art Blakey have played an important role in Mulgrew’s life. You were a Jazz Messenger for several years in the mid-1980’s, and you’re on several of Benny Golson’s recent recordings.

MM:    Right.  I have actually worked quite a bit with Benny over the last five or six years or so.  Benny is one of the greatest saxophone players alive.  I think he’s very much underrated today.  I think it’s kind of sad that we don’t take those giants and embrace them and treat them the way they should be treated.  Benny plays a whole lot of saxophone these days.  His style has changed somewhat from the days we just heard.  He still has some remnants of that sound, but also conceptually, he’s taken on some of the Coltranish mannerisms in his playing.  And you know, quiet as it’s kept, it might have been that they influenced each other.  They were friends, very close friends…

TP:    Jimmy Heath was a third leg of that relationship, too.

MM:    That’s right, that Philadelphia kind of connection there.  Benny has always had that almost kind of sheet-of-sound concept, as you can hear in this solo, running up and down the saxophone.  He was doing that way back then, playing the chords and things like that.

TP:    Without knowing it for sure, it would seem to me that Benny Golson has folloswed that Coleman Hawkins-Hershel Evans-Don Byas-Lucky Thompson line of saxophone playing, and Trane maybe got more into the post-Lester Young end of that spectrum…

MM:    Yeah, Dexter Gordon and that kind of thing… Yeah, absolutely.  There are points of departure, but there are also points where they have things in common.  You can hear, especially when Trane first started to get into running the scales up and down the saxophone… There’s a lot of similarities in the approach to that anyway.  The stylistic sound of the horn is different.  But probably they influenced each other.

TP:    When Benny Golson joined the Jazz Messengers, as he tells the story, Art Blakey was looking for a way to establish a definable group identity.  Not that it was floundering, but when Benny Golson came in he seems to have codified what became the Messenger sound, and begun the continuity of Jazz Messenger units that lasted over the next thirty years.

MM:    What I’ve noticed from playing with many bands, it’s usually two major factors that sort define the sound of the band.  Not necessarily in this order, composition is one of the main factors that defines the sound of a band, and number two is the drummer.  The drummer has a great influence on the sound, how the band plays, how it swings, he influences the freedom and the type of vocabulary that a soloist can use.  Coltrane might have been quite different in his development if he had had some other drummer than Elvin Jones.

TP:    Well, referring to our next set, speaking of drummers, and speaking of Art Blakey, he and Thelonious Monk were just about best friends, birthday-mates, and so forth.  Of Clark Terry there’s not much we can say except that there is no greater trumpet player.  And there’s a session Mulgrew was very specific about including called In Orbit, from 1958, Clark Terry with Thelonious Monk as a sideman, Philly Joe Jones on drums and Sam Jones on bass.  You’ve recorded a number of Monk’s compositions.

MM:    Yes.  I first heard Thelonious Monk’s records when I was in high school, and it was probably some of the first real Bebop (as it were) records that I heard.  I found it so easy to relate to Monk, as opposed to how I first heard Bud, for some reason.  Monk I could easily relate to.  It was that childlike kind of simplicity in his playing.

TP:    Did you first hear his solos or his group things?  A lot of people seem to have first heard his solos.

MM:    Well, I first heard the group things, the Five Spot records with Johnny Griffin and all of that.  And I first heard tunes like “Straight, No Chaser,” you know, the melody and the rhythms — the syncopation in the melody really intrigued me.  I was talking to Bill Easley last night, and he was telling a story about how he first heard me, first met me in Memphis, when I walked into a jam session and played “Blue Monk” just like I’d heard it on the record, or as close as I could get it.  It was probably one of the first Bebop tunes I knew, if you want to call it Bebop.

TP:    James Williams tells that same story.

MM:    Oh, does he?  [LAUGHS]

TP:    The same session.  He thought, “Wow, there’s a sensibility at work here.”  Let’s listen to the only Monk composition on In Orbit, “Let’s Cool One.”

[MUSIC: CT/Monk, "Let's Cool One" (1958); Keith Jarrett, "Rainbow" (Bye-A-Blue)]

I was just saying to Mulgrew Miller that every pianist who comes up to do a Musician Show has their one favorite Keith Jarrett solo, to which Mulgrew said, “And this is mine.”

MM:    Yes.  Well, I think Keith Jarrett is a melody-maker of the highest order.  Not only is he a great melodist, he’s also a very lyrical player, and there’s so much poetry in his lines and his improvising.  “Rainbow” is just one of the finest recorded examples of that, for my ears anyway.  I just love that piano solo.

TP:    This will take us into the world of Duke Ellington, and the “Liberian Suite, Dance #1.”  Mulgrew, I guess the gig that got you out into the broader world of touring, professional big bands and Ellingtonia was two or three years with the Mercer Ellington Orchestra, from about 1977, was it?

MM:    Right.  Three years.

TP:    I guess that experience would give you a full, idiomatic range of piano techniques and melodies and the great Ellington book, not to mention the opportunity to play in an accomplished big band.

MM:    Well, that was a great experience on a number of levels, not only musically, but personally, too.  I always like to say that I grew up in that band.  I turned 21, I think, the year before I joined the band.  It was quite an experience on a personal level, because I had to learn to live with 18 other people on a bus, [LAUGHS], and get along with them, all types of personalities, and so forth and so on.

But on a musical level, it was a great experience because I learned in that band that music is about sound and color and feelings.  It’s not about exercises and formulas all the time, you know.  Duke Ellington was a sculptor of sound, a painter of sound, if you will.  And that has left a lasting impression upon me.

TP:    Were you able to check out the scores, for instance, in the band?

MM:    There were piano scores.  But a lot of the extended works we were doing were transcriptions, and basically my experience was hearing the performances live.

TP:    As the pianist in the Mercer Ellington Band, you’re of course inheriting the mantle, so to speak, of one of the most individual-sounding pianists that ever played the instrument.  Were you at any point trying to actually get the type of sonorities and dynamics, or was it a question of playing live?

MM:    No.  Of course, there was a certain role as accompanist to the band and a certain thing about… I mean, I had to deal with the style to a certain degree.  There are certain intros, like the classic intro to “Satin Doll” or to “A-Train” that I had to do.  But basically, I mean, my whole musical makeup is totally different from Duke Ellington’s, you know, and I wasn’t expected to come there and sit in the band and be Duke Ellington.

TP:    And thank God for that.

MM:    Yes, and thank God for that.  I would never have been able to fulfill that kind of demand.

TP:    So of course, the band then took on a very different personality than the Duke Ellington band.

MM:    Yeah, because there were a lot of younger guys in the band as well, and the younger guys are influenced by a lot of different things than, say, Cootie Williams and some of the older guys who were the Ellington luminaries.  So yeah, you’re right.  It took on a different feeling and a different sound, with a different personality.

TP:    And yet, an invaluable experience.

MM:    Definitely.  Most definitely.

[MUSIC: Ellington,"Liberian Suite, Dance #1" (1947); Milt Jackson/Cedar/Higgins, "Bullet Bag" (1993]l

MM:    Well, what can I say about Milt Jackson?  He’s probably one of the greatest musicians of all time.  I only played with Milt Jackson for the first time about a year ago.  When I first came to New York, I had a list of guys that I really wanted to play with, and he was on that list.  Up until last year, last June I believe it was, I had played with just about everybody I wanted to really play with really badly.  When I played with him, I told him, “I can go and quit” or lay down and die in peace or whatever!  But it really sort of put the lid on all of my greatest desires as far as playing with people.

TP:    What impresses me most in listening to him is that he seems like an endless fount of melodic invention.  I can recollect a concert a few years ago, just kind of a pickup band.  He played 14 or 15 pieces.  And he started hitting his stride maybe around the fifth piece, and everyone that followed he did something to out-do what he’d done on the previous piece, when it didn’t seem he could possibly come up with anything new to say.

MM:    Yeah, he’s amazing.  Milt Jackson is amazing.  And how he can weave everything around the Blues, no matter what kind of song it is… I heard him play what we would call a modal tune, I think “So What” or “Impressions,” one of those tunes that he plays sometimes, and how much blues he can play in that is amazing!

TP:    Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins is a rhythm team that goes back thirty years.

MM:    Well, when I first came to New York, Cedar and Sam Jones and Billy used to play together.  And I think to this day it’s probably the finest rhythm section that I’ve heard in New York.  That was just a team that was unbelievable.  Cedar is another one of those great, great melody-makers.  I love Cedar’s playing because he’s so great with melody and orchestration.  He’s such a great trio player because he’s a great orchestrator.

TP:    A role he filled with the Jazz Messengers, one of your predecessors.

MM:    Certainly.  And I’ll say this about Billy Higgins.  A few years ago I got to play with Billy Higgins for the first time on a record with Bobby Hutcherson, and I mean, I was high for a month!

In closing I’d like to talk about Art Blakey.  I would like to talk about Art because we miss him, and I miss him, and it was great experience — and the scene misses Art Blakey.  There is now such a void for that kind of energy on the scene.  I think if anybody deserves credit for the so-called revitalization of Jazz vis-a-vis the young lions and all of that, it’s Art Blakey.  Because throughout the decades, he kept marching right on, in spite of whatever the conditions were.  I think the Messengers at one time had sort of come down to three pieces and a singer.  But he kept on!  So when it came time again for an interest in Jazz, he was there already, with a whole army of new and young talent.  So I think Art Blakey deserves a lot of credit for revitalizing, if you will, Jazz.

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Filed under DownBeat, Interview, Mulgrew Miller, Obituary, Piano, WKCR

An Uncut Blindfold Test With Paul Bley, Around 2002

I’m not sure exactly what year Paul Bley agreed to sit with me for the DownBeat Blindfold Test, but given the track datings, it was probably 2002. He was playing the Blue Note, staying in an apartment on W. 9th Street with a questionable sound system. We’d become acquainted not long before, when he and Gary Peacock joined me together for a few hours on WKCR, which is a show I have retrieve and transcribe some day. Anyway, it was fun to do, and hopefully the transcript will be both entertaining and illuminating.

* * * *

I have something to say as a little preamble.  Mike Zwerin, a number of years ago, invited me to review records, thinking since I was so poor at the time that I might be able to make a little pocket money.  He was living in New York in New York at the time, so you know how long ago that was.  He handed me a giant stack of LPs, maybe 20 LPs, and I said, “Wow, this is going to be fun; I’m looking forward to it.”  So I got home, put on LP-1, listened to it, and by about 10 LPs… He was sitting with me actually.  I had nothing to say.  He said, “You’ve heard all these LPs and you haven’t said anything.”  I said, “there was nothing worth talking about.”  That was the end of my disk jockey career.  I think I gave him one paragraph.  By that time he was playing the organ trios, the Prestiges… [LAUGHS] How am I going to talk if you bring records that don’t require any talk?  So I hope this is not going to be the same situation.

1.    Ornette Coleman “Mob Job” (from SOUND MUSEUM: HIDDEN MAN, Verve/Harmolodic, 1996) (Coleman, as; Geri Allen, p; Charnett Moffett, b; Denardo Coleman, d) – (5 stars)

Well, I’m not a fan of tempo medleys.  It started at one tempo and proceeded to another.  There was no reason not to have the written material be in the same tempo as the track was going to be in. [ALTO SAX ENTERS] Definitely Ornette Coleman, of course.  Well, it’s a waste of time with the pianist.  There’s a good reason he doesn’t use piano.  See, the horn player can make the transitions to wherever he wants to go at any time, but the piano player actually has to change their mindset to get rid of the key center. [Any idea who the pianist might have been?] I don’t care. [Did you think the pianist worked as successfully as possible under the circumstances?] I’m not really concerned about the pianist. [How many stars?] Stars! [LAUGHS] Anything with Coleman deserves 6 stars. [When do you think it was from?] It sounded like a home recording.

That was fun!  I had my own label.  But I couldn’t afford myself.

2.    Ahmad Jamal, “Aftermath” (from OLYMPIA 2000, Dreyfus, 2001) (Jamal, piano; James Cammack, b; Idris Muhammad, d) – (5 stars)

Wonderful trio, very exciting, they played really well together.  My comments are not really about this trio.  Let’s go all the way back to the beginning of what we’re talking about.  Music is language.  It’s conversation.  If it’s language and conversation, it should not be repetitive..repetitive..repetitive..repetitive.  You got it the first time I said that word.  The next three times I said it was adding to a level of redundancy…redundancy… Now, we’re not talking about profundity.  We’re talking about language, and aspiring to be ideas.  Not profundity.  We haven’t gotten anywhere near that.  That’s not even on the table.  So if it’s language, let’s remove all repetition, because it’s insulting to the listener…insulting to the listener.  You get my drift?  Anything you play twice is once too much. I loved it.  I loved the drummer.  I loved the bass player.  I loved everything.  It was on a very high level. 5 stars. Ahmad Jamal would be my guess.  He’s come a long way.  He’s a good friend, by the way, but I don’t really know his recent work.  But we’re very close, because we have been in hotel rooms all night in Bologna, Italy, etcetera, etc.

I’ll tell you a funny story, which may or may not be included.  It was 5 in the morning in a hotel in Bologna, and Ahmad had just got off the phone.  I said, “Ahmad, you’ve been on the phone a very long time.”  He said, “Yeah, I just blew the amount of money I earned tonight on the phone.” I said, “Well, Ahmad, doesn’t that indicate it might be time to go home to Chicago and do it in person instead of on the phone?”

3.    Tommy Flanagan, “How Deep Is The Ocean” (from SEA CHANGES,  Evidence, 1997) (Flanagan, p; Peter Washington, b; Lewis Nash, d) (no rating)

May I have this dance?  The last time I asked somebody to dance was the opening night of Ornette at the Five Spot, playing opposite Benny Golson and Art Farmer.  They sounded really good, and they played the first set, and it’s a wonderful band and way out there.  And then Ornette went in and did his first New York set ever.  And I thought, “Wow, everybody’s completely blown away.”  But then Art Farmer and Benny Golson went back on the stage and did the second set, and I asked the bartender to dance. Today is the second time I’ve ever asked anyone to dance.  Ornette had turned Benny Golson into the orchestra at the roof of the Taft Hotel on 7th Avenue and 51st Street overnight.  A single set. [Unlike most of the people in the room, you knew what you were in for.]

4.    Keith Jarrett, “Prelude To A Kiss” (from WHISPER NOT, ECM, 2000) (Jarrett, p; Gary Peacock, b; Jack DeJohnette, d) (5 stars)

What is the real meaning of the initials NEC?  I’ve had a lot of fun with that at the school. Oh, what’s the real meaning of ECM?  Do you know that?  Easily Castrated Musicians.  We can do this all day, Ted. [You're good at it.] Thank you. I collect them.  Poor Duke. [You're tough.  Unlike most musicians, you are not imprisoned by tact.] Poor Duke. [LAUGHS] [Do you play Ellington's tunes?] I know all of Ellington’s tunes.  I knew them all when I was in short pants.  But when a musician dies, it’s time to give other guys a chance. [But you still play older things from the songbook.] Oh, if you pay me, I will play… [So if I paid you whatever your fee was, you would do an Ellington...] Absolutely.  Of course.  We aim to please, as they say in the bathroom urinals.

The problem with the recording of bass  is it’s the least accessible instrument to listen to.  God forbid somebody in the audience coughs, or there goes the solo.  You ask yourself why is the bass so possible in that standard format, that trio format.  The trio format is flawed.  If you’re going to put three musicians, it should be because they’re three musicians, and the fact that one plays the trombone and the other plays whatever is not the point.  You’re hiring individuals.  Any format is already dead.  Big band, string quartet, piano trio.  The fact that it already preexists the occasion means that everything is uphill.  Because it’s not an original format.  So you talk about lack of originality. [Doesn't the logic of that lead that you eventually run out of formats, and nothing will be original?] There are no formats.  There’s only great players. [It's only the individual.] A collection of great players.  We’re in a new century now.  It’s time to give all the old ideas a rest.  They’re no longer valid just because the century changed.  Your time is up.  It’s expired.

You know, if a 7-year-old played only white notes, they could sound this good.  It’s called modal.  The Aeolian mode, in particular.  Ah, a modulation.  It’s very nice, and she will go to bed with you.  Whoever you’re listening to this with. [Is it recent?  Older?  Older musician?  Younger musician?] First of all, all eighth notes are not created equal.  It’s a little too simplistic rhythmically.  He’s doing a very good job.  He’s a very fine pianist, and it’s a very nice track and so forth. But it’s not worth discussing.  I’m looking to be offended. [It seems the things that offend you are things like this.] No-no, I mean offended in a good way. [LAUGHS] I think it was very well done.  I’d give it 5 stars.  For what was attempted, it was a big success. [No idea who it was?]  No. It could have been anybody working on 8th Street. [It was Keith Jarrett.] Oh.  Well, I’m sorry to hear that. [It's his post-illness record.] Well, he certainly has bounced back recently, kicking ass with the trio.  Boy!  He has my 1964 date, “Turning Point” on Improvising Artists, the one with Gary and Gilmore… He’s got that down pat with Gary!  He took over that.  That’s a big step for him.  He went out of standards all the way to 1964.  And who knows, we’re looking forward to 1974.

5.    Kenny Barron, “Beneath It All” (from SWAMP SALLY, Verve, 1995) (Barron, p., keyboards; Minu Cinelu, percussion) – (5 stars)

I love this recording.  This is the first new information you’ve brought me today.  The town crier in the old days used to stand in the town square, and say, “Hear ye!  Hear ye!  I’ve come to inform you.”  And if he had nothing to say or said something that the town already knew, they would get upset, because he summoned them into the town square and told them something they already knew.  It’s wonderful!  The piano player did not need the rest of the band.  But they were great, the way they went into what I call a second CD’s worth of music.  We’re really talking about two separate issues.  The piano player did not need help.  It engaged everybody in their curiosity minimally, and there was no way to predict where he was going to go.  And the fact that we happen to have this wonderful band hit and do great things was just a wonderful plus.  But I personally could have stood a lot… I could have heard a CD worth of the piano player, and I probably wouldn’t have interrupted it with this conversation.  I loved it, and I loved the second part.  It just goes to show that you’re going to have to go to a foreign country to get some fresh input in jazz.  You need foreigners.  You need people who speak a second language to be added to the stream of music.  It’s such a wonderful situation now, where the world has sent everybody… Airline tickets are so cheap, that you can hire a band where every player comes from a different continent, a different city, and they can play together at the drop of a hat — and they all live in Brooklyn Heights.  It’s just a wonderful situation!  When anyone talks about jazz not in a great period, it’s just that they’re not widely enough informed. [So you thought that the piano player was not American?] Well, certainly the band didn’t play this good off of being a bebop band.  So I assume that he comes from the same country as the rest of the players.  So I cannot guess who this is. [Well, it was only two musicians.] Ah.  [It was Kenny Barron and Mino Cinelu.] Wow! [And Kenny was playing piano and synth.] [LAUGHS] Wrong!  Wrong like a mother!  No wonder Kenny is as loved as he is.  A monster!  Kenny’s a monster!  Six stars. [LAUGHS] Fuck you, Kenny Barron! I hate him.  I’m going to tell him that next time I see him, too.

6.    Hampton Hawes, “Soul Sign Eight” (from HAMPTON HAWES AT THE PIANO, Contemporary, 1976) (Hawes, p; Ray Brown, b; Shelley Manne, d) (5 stars)

There’s no need to go any more.  It’s beautifully done, well-played, etcetera, etc., but it’s nothing that harmonically and rhythmically wasn’t done in the ’50s.  If you’re going to redo something, redo a style where your triads are quite simple, you’re staying within a key, you’re not adding anything to the literature of the music… I mean, the purpose of making a record is not to redo your own stuff or somebody else’s stuff.  The purpose of making a record is to add to the literature of the music, which means you’re bringing in some elements that are not widely available, and you’re indicating to other musicians that following along the suggestions that you’re making with this recording of yours might be of some interest and it might be of some utility to somebody who is playing.  If the record is already in existence… My rule is that if it’s already for sale at Tower Records, buy it.  Don’t make it up. [And you have no idea from the sound or the touch or the style who this might be.] First level players.  It could be one of a number of people.  And I was very happy for them.  It’s nicely recorded.  But, my first record on Wing Records in 1953, contained this information.  I outgrew it, and I hope this pianist does the same. [AFTER] [One reason I played this is because it was a person who developed his own sound and was doing it in the '50s, and so the sound, therefore, from my impression, would be unto him.] For Hampton Hawes, it’s a big accomplishment.  This is a big accomplishment.  It’s the best Hampton Hawes I’ve ever heard — by far.  Still containing no new information, but well-played.  5 stars.  It a big accomplishment.  I love Shelley Manne in rhythm sections.  The rhythm section was nice, man.  “Way Out West,” Shelley Manne?  Wow.  What an imaginative drummer.  I worked with him.  We played the Antibes Festival in France.  But I’d rather let that track rest.

7.    Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “Oren” (from SUPERNOVA, Blue Note, 2001) (Rubalcaba, piano, keyboards; Carlos Henriquez, b; Ignacio Berroa, d)

You know, it’s a similar situation here to when someone wants to tell you a joke.  You start before they start the joke with an open mind and a positive frame of mind, willing to accept the premise of the story and looking for the punchline at the end, and so forth.  But as the story keeps going on like the beginning, just continuously, time is the enemy of the joke.  Because you’re waiting for the punchline.  It’s called the suspension of disbelief.  I’m sure you know the term in poetry.  It was suspended.  I enjoyed the high production values.  The pianist had a very nice touch.  The fact that it had only one chord in it was a little abrasive, and that that method was going to run out of time even faster than it would normally.  Because one chord is one chord is one chord, etcetera.  As the country-western musician said, “Three chords and the truth is the definition of country music.”  I thought that was nicely coined.  But this one only had one chord!  And it wasn’t even Country-and-Western.  I prefer to wait for the movie. [Any guesses?] I’ll have to see the film and be reinterviewed.  It certainly wasn’t worth listening to without a film accompanying it.  Well played.  No disrespect to the musicians.  And a pretty melody, by the way. An original melody.  It’s like the organ trios.  The only question is why. [Pleasing the people.] [LAUGHS] Oh, by the way, pleasing the people is the exact wrong premise for young musicians… [I've heard you say this.] Thank you.  You know all my rants. [I think you have your contradictions.  Would you care to bestow stars?] Stars.  As I said, when I see the film and listen to this film score, I’ll be happy to rate it at that time.  [Well, I need to play it a little more, because I can't print anything you've said if you won't give it stars.] [LAUGHS] You may not have brought enough records.  If you had brought a real package of records, we could have done this and been out of here in 40 minutes.  I could have said, “Forget it, keep it…” [Can't you just please me and give some stars here?  You can even give it a pro forma five stars.] No-no, five I can’t give.  You need a star system that says “I have nothing to say.” [Then you can say "for the way it was played, such-and-such stars."] But how about unrated?  They do that in porn movies.  Unrated it. [This isn't a porn movie.] Well, it gives you a license to make an escape without… [Not according to my editor.] Oh, he wants stars, huh? [He wants stars.] Have we run out of alternatives.  Is that the problem?  It’s not possible for me to deal with this level of… I’m very loathe to give somebody a very low rating.  Which is why you need to be able to interviewee a pass.

8.    Vijay Iyer, “Atlantean Tropes” (from PANOPTIC MODES, Red Giant, 2001) (Iyer, p; Stephan Crump, b; Derrek Phelps, d) – (5 stars)

I’ll give it 5 stars. The plusses far outweigh the minuses. The plusses are of no use to the musicians.  When somebody comes up to you at the end of the set and says, “That was great,” there’s no new information.  We know that was great.  That’s why we played it.  Let’s talk about the minuses.  I always prefer to couch profundity in humor.  Someone was interviewing Albert Einstein, and they were trying to impress Einstein with their insights.  Einstein, who was a violinist, turned and said, “that’s very profound, but not very funny.”  So you need to be more than profound.

Now, this is definitely one of the top things you played today, and there’s nothing I can say negative.  I just have a small facetious aside to make.  And I admonish musicians with these facetious asides.  This one is: If you use up all your eighth notes in your youth, you won’t have any left to play in your old age.  Doesn’t matter what the instrument.  I’m not supposed to know what you’re doing.  If I know what you do, I don’t like it.  So you’re constantly supposed to elude me.  It was incredibly well-composed, well-played, the horn player was great, there was unity through the whole track, exercise of the imagination, beautiful use of chords — the list goes on.  It’s almost a masterpiece.  I might say it was a masterpiece.  Today it was definitely a masterpiece, based on what else I’ve heard! [LAUGHS] But remember, we’re in the post-Albert Ayler-Paul Motian-Sunny Murray period.  You can’t get away with meter any more, certainly as an entry level artist and a new artist.  You can’t get away with meter.  I gave my metronome away when I was at Juilliard. I broke mine.  They need to be smashed.  Because breathing is not metronome.  Breathing is circular.  Up and down phrases, rushing through… [What about the heartbeat?] The heartbeat is also not metrical.  It’s PAH-BOOM, PAH-BOOM.  And you can’t measure it exactly right.  If you’re walking around the room, it’s definitely not metrical.  And remember, you’re in a new century.  It’s such an exciting time.  This is the perfect time to wipe the blackboard clean and start with a fresh page.

9.    Brad Mehldau, “Quit” (from TRIO PROGRESSION, Warner Brothers, 2001) (Mehldau, p; Larry Grenadier, b; Jorge Rossy, d) – (5 stars)

Are you going to continue to play Keith Jarrett for me all day today?  It’s no small accomplishment to play Keith Jarrett.  The problem is, he was there first.  It’s who you avoid that’s more important than who you support.  It’s not hard to draw up a roadmap of who to avoid.  Just check the “Downbeat” Readers’ Poll.  If it’s already been recorded, it’s not a good idea to try to improve on it. It’s a magical track, by the way.  These players are all great players, and a masterful track, and very worthwhile doing it — and if I owned the label, I would support the production.  But I fear for the pianist. [Why do you fear for the pianist?] Because when you are born into a world of giants, you have to be an iconoclast.  There’s no way to treat them on their own terms, because you lean to their sensibility.  You’re at risk.  So you can’t work through them.  You have to destroy the icon. [So you're postulating the Oedipal theory of music history.] Well, I don’t know if I’d put it exactly in that slant.  But what I’m saying is that it’s who you hate that’s more important than who you love.  And if you hate somebody, then I won’t recognize who you hate. But if you love somebody, it’s going to defeat the whole purpose, see, because you always get hurt by the one you love.  That’s a nice turn of phrase. [I've heard it.] Thank you.  Unfortunately I’ve heard it before! [Was that an older or younger player?] It was a masterful player, whatever age.  Way on top of it.  Certainly I much prefer somebody who is that developed than somebody who had less to offer.  There was certainly a lot to listen to.

You know, the trouble with being a bass player is that if the piano player can play faster than you, you should go home. Why would you want to play with somebody who can’t move through the music, move notes at least as fast as a pianist, which would be the reason to not ever play with a pianist.  See, if I play with you, without any other value judgments, we want to be equals.  We want to play equally. So the way the trio in this case solves that problem is either the other players play down, play less than they can, to be polite and accommodate the less facile musician.  Just as at a dinner conversation, if you’re the young person at the table who can’t keep up with the conversation, it’s the responsibility of the other people to speak slower and leave a lot of silences, and invite the other person to air their side of the conversation.  Playing in a trio, for the piano player to be running at the mouth and… If you have Gary Peacock on the bandstand, that’s not a problem.  But if you’re going to play with a player who is really a time player, you have to really… The whole date would be about making this person equal to the other players.  That’s the whole premise of the date.  You can’t go past somebody.  You have to take them with.  The audience judges the band by its weakest player. Not by the accomplishment of the best player, but by the difficulties. [AFTER] It’s too late for him.  If there was no Keith Jarrett, there would be room for a Brad Mehldau.

10.    Sonny Clark, “Tadd’s Delight” (from SONNY CLARK TRIO, Blue Note, 1957/2001) (Clark, p; Paul Chambers, b; Philly Joe Jones. d) – (5 stars)

Hey, Tadd Dameron!  Beautiful.  A very nice sentimental tune, very well played, very enjoyable, well written.  I did know the composer, I think — Tadd Dameron.  It was perfect of its generation.  It was beautifully played.  The piano player sounded good.  Somebody like Hank Jones would be perfect playing this material. I was amazed how good he sounded, Hank Jones, and this pianist equally well.  So who is it? [Do you think it was of the time?] Oh, very much so.  The way the recording sounded, too. Six stars. [AFTER] I don’t know his work.  I know of him, of course.  I was in California for two-plus years, and worked every night for two-plus years.  We had one night off.  So Sonny must have come by the Hillcrest Club and maybe said hello or something. But I was too busy to socialize.

11.    Wayne Shorter, “Atlantis” (from FOOTPRINTS LIVE, Verve, 2002) (Shorter, ts; Danilo Perez, p; John Patitucci, b; Brian Blade, d) – (5 stars)

I love it.  It’s really beautiful.  But please, don’t bring a concert audience into my bedroom.  The fact that the concert audience liked it was reason enough to discourage me.  It’s not a commercial.  So don’t tell me somebody else liked it.  I’m the person who’s supposed to like it.  By the same token, don’t grunt and groan on the bandstand.  Let the audience do it.  In a live performance they’re supposed to do the grunting and groaning as a result of your playing, and enjoying themselves.  The problem is that when you write a tune, you’ve pretty much told the players that you’re going to be at this place on the map at this hour, playing this hour, playing this harmony, and then when the bars continue at this place in time you’re going to be at this place harmonically, and that’s called ornamentation.  Ornamentation is not improvising.  Ornamentation is a pre-set set of changes in which you play those changes as prescribed.  Now, to try and create melodies with all this information that’s fixed and given is almost impossible.

So they did a beautiful job.  But once again, I mention it’s 2002 now.  It’s too late to tell the players what notes come where.  It has some beautiful augmented harmonies in it.  The joke about augmented is that the player had an diminished sensibility and an augmented ego.  That’s the joke.  You’re not supposed to tell me that it’s all augmented chords.  I’m not supposed to guess that.  You’re supposed to keep it from me.  The same with electronic jazz.  If I can tell what the setting is on a synth player, then I don’t like it.  The idea is to design something that tricks me and fools me, and I have to go find the guy and say, “What was it?  It’s wonderful!”

So it was very well played, and beautifully done, and for what it was, it was a great accomplishment.  Now, once again, you may have brought the Latin world into it; it’s 5/4 and all that. I think there’s a Spanish name here with the piano player.  I could say…not Rubalcaba… There’s two guys; they both work for my agent. It wasn’t the one who played simplistic track… Danilo Perez.  Danilo is a good friend. [I know that a lot of the Spanish players have listened to you a lot.] Which is strange, because the album that I really wanted to make, the Spanish album that I wanted to make, having spent some time in Florida with some of my best friends in that part of the world, I have really only been able to suggest in my earlier playing the possibilities of what that leads to. [Any idea who the tenor player was?] No.  But very nice use of space.  Great use of space.  Very sensitive.  I’m impressed with your tracks.  It’s been illuminating, the things you’ve played for me today.  As a matter of fact, when you come up to me on a tour and you show me a really good photograph you’ve taken of the band, I take the photograph! I say, “You make yourself another copy.  I’m taking this!”  There’s definitely three keepers so far.  You’re going to have a lot of trouble leaving the room with it under your arm. [AFTER] Wow. Amazingly sparse playing for Wayne.  Wow. Wonderful.  Very good.  It really turned me on.  Five stars.

12.    Cecil Taylor, “Looking, Second Part” (from LOOKING (Berlin Version), THE FEEL TRIO, FMP, 1990) (Taylor, p.; William Parker, b; Tony Oxley, d) – (5 stars)

I can’t listen to any more of this, because it’s too influenced by Cecil. [But it is Cecil.] Of course.  If you play trumpet and sound exactly like Louis Armstrong, you’d better be Louis Armstrong.  But what more is there to say?  It’s Louis Armstrong.  Cecil is to be avoided like the plague if you’re a pianist.  If you’re a drummer, it’s not a problem. [Why do you have to avoid him if you're a pianist?] Because he did it before you were out of knickers. [But not before you were out of knickers.]  I’m very fond of Cecil, which is why I’m trying to protect him from his imitators.  At one point, we thought that we’d do… We’ve played on the same bill, at the same festivals and all that, and at one point I thought that he would do the ballads and I would do the fast, frantic stuff.  But then, brilliant as he is, he went on and did the ballads himself!  Cecil is wonderful.  He’s one of these wonderful, wonderful musicians who are much more than just musicians or instrumentalists.  Their personalities color life itself.  It’s been a blessing to be in his presence.  End of story.

I remember in the ’50s he played with Steve Lacy.  He was a wonderful combination with Steve, like hot knives with butter.  A perfect antidote.  That was one of the great combinations, like Roswell Rudd with John Tchicai.  The Jazz Composers Guild had these wonderful ensembles that were perfectly framed, and Cecil, of course, belonged to that period.  Whenever you’re in the presence of giants, be very… If you’re a professional musician who is responsible for the life of that instrument that you play, when you’re in the presence of giants… You would think that would be a good thing, like you paid a lot of money, great expectations — most probably you’re going to be even more than satisfied.  So everything seems positive.  But if you are a good musician, you have a lot of problems, unless it happens to be the Count Basie Orchestra with Joe Williams or something and it’s not about anything except having a good time… If you like it too much, you’re at risk.

It’s not a recent recording.  It doesn’t sound like it was done in the last year or the year before.  1990?  That’s old Cecil.  Six stars.

13.    Matthew Shipp, “Paradox X” (from NEW ORBIT, Thirsty Ear, 2001) (Shipp, prepared piano; Gerald Cleaver, d) – (5 stars)

With your permission, I’d just like to make a one-line joke.  I wasn’t prepared to hear this.  That’s the funniest thing I can come up with.  5 stars. I loved it.  It’s very nice.  It was a drummer’s tune.  It was set up for the mallet player, who did a beautiful job.  It’s amazing how it engaged you.  I liked it.  But I prefer my joke. [AFTER] I’ve met Matthew in airports.

14.    Art Tatum, “Cherokee” (from THE COMPLETE ART TATUM SOLO MASTERPIECES, Pablo, 1954/1991) (Tatum, piano) – (5 stars)

Saved the best for last! [LAUGHS] Well, I think the interview is over.  The art of playing piano.  Wonderful!  I’ve been having a problem with the tunes that are very popular — looping them.  The very fact that the tunes are 32 bars, repeated over and over and over again, somehow that lingers beyond the performance, and I might be playing “Cherokee” for three days and nights.  That’s a serious problem with looping. Because if you do anything twice, you may have set me in motion to an infinite repeat. [Are you saying that hearing something like that might trigger something in you...] No, it’s not a need.  It might actually loop… The 32 bars may continue repeating even after the gig is over or the CD is off.  The tune may go on ad infinitem for hours or even days.  So I prefer to only listen to unfamiliar things that I can’t identify, which is good.  It’s not possible to loop.  I call it looping.

When Tatum died, the rest of the world said “thank goodness he’s gone!” You couldn’t be a pianist and be on the same planet with Tatum.  And it’s amazing, because the content was almost nil.  I mean, it’s how he played it.  It’s the fact that he could play everything so well that was great.  It wasn’t what he played.  I mean, there are guitar players, like Tiny Bradshaw, who played an equivalent intellectually.  But this is a perfect case of ornamentation to the Nth degree.  Which means you can do a bad thing great… A bad thing done in a great way is better than a great thing done in a bad way!  You can play with that sentence and look for meaning.  But all the rules can be broken by somebody like Art Tatum.  Because if you’re looking for linear creativity in terms of improvisation in this period, that’s a minor accomplishment compared to the fact that he can make that instrument sound like no one has ever played it before.  When this guy was on the planet, he threatened every living pianist, Classical or Jazz.  When you’ve got a giant roaming the planet, you know, with the trees rumbling and the dinosaurs hiding in the bushes and so forth, well, that’s a very bad time for an aspiring musician.  You have to wait until this guy passes before there’s even room to THINK about what you want to do.  Jazz history is full of giants on particular instruments that have… I mean, if you were an aspiring tenor saxophone player that didn’t wear a hat, Lester Young defeated your purpose.  Each instrument has its nemesis.  That’s the word I’m looking for, is “nemesis.”  You’re supposed to be the first one to recognize that there is a nemesis, and it can affect you greatly and threaten your existence if not your livelihood.  So it’s serious business, attempting to be the 11th person to play this instrument or the fortieth person to play this genre or the hundredth person, and so forth… A serious business.  You can’t go in there without a thought in your head, looking for an “inspiration.”  It’s not going to happen.  Six stars.

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