In 2000, DownBeat gave me the opportunity to write a feature piece on Bennie Wallace, a tenor saxophonist with a singular tonality whose tonal abandon and harmonic/melodic control began to impress me in the late ’70s, when he released a series of trio and quartet albums for Enja with New York’s finest pianists, bassists and drummers of the day. Today’s his 67th birthday, and I’m posting the “director’s cut” of the piece, incorporating much more biographical information than appeared in the print version, which was 1000 words shorter. It reads decently, and hopefully will be of interest. I’ve also posted the proceedings of a WKCR Musician Show from Feb. 2000, a portion of an interview at WKCR from 1998 (Bennie came to the studio with guitarist Anthony Wilson, with whom he was closely associated at the time), and a formal interview conducted for the piece.
Bennie Wallace (Downbeat):
On a clear late winter morning, not one man-made object impedes the treetop-skimming southern view of the Long Island Sound from Bennie Wallace’s thickly carpeted second-floor home studio in suburban Connecticut. The walls are blanketed with albums, CDs (including two Ellington-filled shelves), books on music and a sofa on which Wallace is perched; spread on a long table abutting the window are a Mac computer and mixing equipment. Wallace is a slender, stoop-shouldered 53-year-old with an iron grip. He speaks with courtly diction in precisely modulated tones that give away his southern roots. Clad in a burgundy-mocha crewneck, white shirt, beige corduroys and black soft leather loafers, the tenor saxophone veteran is every inch the country gentleman, with the manner of a tenured professor at, say, the University of Tennessee, where he graduated thirty years ago as a clarinet major, or, perhaps, a Tennessee Valley Authority lawyer in Chattanooga, his home-town.
You wouldn’t recognize the bearded, bluejeaned firebrand whose idiosyncratic style — surging, torrentially arpeggiated lines marked by jagged intervals that limn the instrument’s extremes, articulated in a fat tone marked by a turbulent, almost Gothic timbral sensibility, all at the service of an architectural command of harmony and innate narrative authority — impressed devotees of hardcore jazz on a yearly succession of albums for Enja between 1978 and 1984 with the likes of Tommy Flanagan, Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez, Dave Holland, Eddie Moore, Dannie Richmond and Elvin Jones that still hold up for their individuality and passion. Seasoned by moderate late ‘80s commercial success and a bittersweet tenure in Los Angeles as a film composer/music director, Wallace in 1998 cut a pair of lyric, songbook-oriented quartet albums with A-list rhythm sections — “Someone To Watch Over Me” [Enja] and “Bennie Wallace” [AudioQuest] — that bring into deep relief his elemental connection to the Coleman Hawkins branch of the tenor tree.
“Sonny Rollins was my first influence,” Wallace recalls. “My teacher gave me a recording of ‘Sumphin,’ a medium-tempo F-blues Sonny did with Dizzy Gillespie, and told me, ‘Look, this guy really plays the blues great. Now, don’t listen to his tone, because he sounds like a duck; you should listen to Stan Getz for tone.’ I’ve been trying to sound like a duck ever since. To this day it’s the best blues tenor solo I’ve ever heard. There was something about the notes and the rhythms and the pitches between the beats and between the notes that produced art that you couldn’t put on paper, and it really got me.”
As an early ‘60s high school student, Wallace dual-tracked, playing classical music on clarinet in the school orchestra well enough to win a state championship, while moonlighting in jam sessions from 11 to 4 in the morning at after-hour chitlin’ circuit joints in Chattanooga’s black section, “with people going crazy, playing the blues and bebop tunes with good players who traveled to small clubs around the country.” He continues: “I guess I was a total curiosity to all those people; a white kid who looked 12 years old up there playing with everybody — I told my parents I was working in a hillbilly club. The owner took me under his wing and started giving me work. Before I was out of high school, I did a summer there as bandleader. I did the same thing in college, in Knoxville. Jazz became inevitable.”
Which predestined a move to New York, where Wallace arrived in 1971 with $275 in his pocket following an inglorious stint with a poppish big band in Chicago, a year of private studies with Boston reed master Joe Viola, and a few months gigging around San Francisco. “I rented a studio in Harlem for $5 a week, and began practicing there,” Wallace recalls. “Monty Alexander, who was stuck for a tenor player for a gig at the Riverboat, heard me, knocked on my door and asked if I wanted a gig — which was an easy answer. I didn’t know who Monty was at that time. He took me across the street to a rehearsal, and here were Frank Strozier, Eugene Wright, Cecil Bridgewater and Roland Prince. All of a sudden I was in the band; they got me in the union and I played with them all summer, six nights a week for dancers.”
Wallace workshopped in New York’s active early ‘70s loft scene with people like singers Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan, and bassists Glen Moore, Wilbur Ware and Gomez. “Bennie had — and has — a unique sound and approach, and a very definite and clear vision of where he wanted to go with what he was doing,” states Gomez, a bold presence on numerous Wallace sessions from then to now. “Some of our repertoire was Thelonious Monk’s music, some was original; mostly the point was to push the envelope in the improvisation. His compositions were angular, with difficult melodies; it seemed like pure musical thought and not conceived out of any European tradition on the instrument. He always had a fat, mature sound which was steeped in the tradition, but the content was light years ahead. In recent years, he’s self-edited, so the explosions aren’t quite as thunderous. But they’re just as potent.”
A devotee of the Eddie Lockjaw Davis-Red Prysock school of sax dynamics, Wallace’s attitude diverged from much of his early Baby Boom saxophone peer group, who were obsessed with perfecting the language of John Coltrane. “In my way, I was as much into Coltrane as those guys were, but the idea of playing like Coltrane was totally antithetical to Coltrane’s set of aesthetics,” he states. “The message I got from Coltrane was his diligence in making his playing better, his dedication to the instrument, and the fact that he kept exploring and changing — and that he didn’t sound like anybody else. Art is about self-expression, and past the learning stages it’s not about emulation. The craft is about emulation, but the art isn’t.”
Wallace honed in on Thelonious Monk, a key inspiration for his intervallic derring-do. One day while workshopping “Blue Monk” with the bassist Jack Six, a frequent rehearsal partner, “I spontaneously thought of playing that chromatic descending figure in ascending minor ninths,” he reveals. “It created the illusion of expanding the tone of the saxophone. I’d heard Sonny Rollins expand intervals, play fourths and fifths to put a different read on Bird’s language, and this was a more radical leap in that direction. My initial concept for the outside edge of my playing came in school, when I played Bartok’s ‘Contrasts for Clarinet, Piano and Violin,’ and started thinking how Bartok’s lines would fit against certain jazz chords. It opened up my mind, and led me to composers like Elliott Carter and Charles Ives, to a woodwind quintet by Karlheinz Stockhausen, to Pierre Boulez’s “Pli Selon Pli”. The trick is to create wide intervals that aren’t academic, but make melodic sense.”
Wallace signed with Blue Note in 1985, which set off an sequence of career-shifting strange twists and left turns. “They wanted to exploit the fact that I was from the South,” he notes drolly. “Which turned out to be a nice idea, because I met Dr. John, who became a great friend and associate. It gave me a chance to revisit some of the tunes that I used to play when I was a kid in the way I fantasized about doing them. It was the first time I got a serious dose of the business, which wasn’t much fun. My career became about how many records you sell instead of about music. In the midst of it all, out of the blue one day I got a call from someone in California who had heard my first Blue Note record and wanted to use some of it in the movie ‘Bull Durham,’ for which he wanted me to write something.”
In 1991, Wallace left his dark Washington Heights apartment for a rented house with an ocean view on the Pacific Palisades, his home base for the next six years. Wallace scored “Blaze,” and the uncompleted animated feature “Betty Boop,” music-directed “White Men Can’t Jump,” and composed the title track for Jeff Goldblum’s Oscar-nominated short film “Little Surprises,” among other projects, while attempting to sustain his performing career in the diffuse, “no-There-there” L.A. milieu. “I felt like a fish out of water in Los Angeles,” Wallace recounts. “I was very self-conscious that I would stagnate. One day out of the blue I called Jimmy Rowles out of the phone book and asked if I could study piano with him to learn his harmonic concept and the way he approached tunes. He told me to come on over, and he educated me, showed me outrageous stuff. After that we became great friends. He was restricted from emphysema and wasn’t working much, but I would pick his brain all the time. His memory was phenomenal and his knowledge was encyclopedic. When you’d ask him about a tune he wouldn’t just call the changes, like anybody else. He’d say, ‘On bar 3, the last beat is this, and here’s the voicing.’ Jimmy always focused on what a song means — that narrative aspect.”
Rowles’ postgraduate tutelage supplemented earlier lessons on turning notes into narrative that Wallace absorbed during the ‘70s and ‘80s from pianists like Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones and Albert Dailey at Bradley’s, the iconic Greenwich Village piano saloon. “One of the things that I admire most about great piano players is that they are great accompanists, able to tune in to what somebody else is doing and make one thing out of it,” notes Wallace, who has a sheaf of Rowles’ personal lead sheets, topped by “I Concentrate On You,” on the 1926 Steinway in his living room. “Whenever I wrote for a film, I’d think, ‘Well, what would Tommy Flanagan do?’, and translate that to whatever instruments I was writing for. What fits? What enhances it? The term ‘film composing’ is very misleading, because it’s really film accompanying when it’s done right, to my mind. Now, I threw myself into learning about the craft of writing for orchestras and the technical aspect of the mathematics to make music fit exactly with the frames-per-second. But in films sometimes I am writing for an orchestra, sometimes a string quartet, sometimes for musicians who can’t even read music. I have to be able to phrase those technical things in language people can understand so that it fits with the picture.”
Two years after resettling on the East Coast, Wallace spent much of 1999 writing and recording scores for 22 episodes of “The Hoop Life,” a Showtime series about a professional basketball team with a “behind-the-scenes” perspective distilled through the lives and dilemmas of five individuals. Operating out of Brooklyn’s Systems Two studio, Wallace recruited a who’s who of New York improvisers — including pianists Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron, Ben Aronov and Kirk Nurock, bassists Gomez, Peter Washington, Mark Helias and George Mraz, drummers Alvin Queen, Billy Drummond, Lewis Nash and Herlin Riley, percussionist Steve Kroon, vibraphonists Steve Nelson and Brian Carrott, trumpeter John D’Earth and trombonist Ray Anderson — to express their personalities in relation to the picture appearing before them on the video monitors.
“Jazz is a very personal music,” says Joe Cacaci, the show’s executive producer, explaining why he decided on hardcore jazz rather than retro pastiche or generic hip-hop as the soundtrack for the inner emotions of the characters. “It’s very versatile, so I knew it would give us the opportunity to handle the deep drama, the absurdity, the comedy, and in some cases reckless, dangerous behavior. I knew there would be ample opportunity for ‘source music,’ to get in hip-hop and rap and genres more endemic to the younger audiences, which would be a perfect combination. But for the scoring, the stuff that goes according to the story line for each character, I wanted a jazz composer. Bennie serves the material rather than the other way around. He understands what each week’s episode is about, better than a lot of people whose business it is to understand it, and he got into the characters very deeply so that he could start to identify with what everybody was doing and express their essence musically. I would talk emotionally about the characters, and not make suggestions about the music per se until we got in the studio. He’s very receptive to ideas, but at the same time has a very sharp and clear idea of what he wants to do, and takes risks. We had a great working rapport. He got off on direction instead of thinking that it was an imposition. I’d talk to him like I was talking to an actor or another writer. And he also got the most out of the musicians. He had them into the show, identifying with the characters! It was scoring from the heart.”
Cacaci sent me cassettes of episodes 5, 17 and 18, on which the music seamlessly complements and comments on the flow. There are piercing atonal string quartets at psychological flashpoints, a variety of minor trumpet blues counterpointing action-resolution, a thrilling drum chant to accompany a montage telescoping the course of a championship game. Preparing Drummond, Kroon and Don Eaton for the latter at the final recording session in January. Wallace mentioned the rubato three-feel that Elvin Jones put on “Alabama,” a clear lingua franca analogy that prompted an absolutely apropos response. Later Wallace picked up his horn, joining Anderson and d’Earth for a precisely calibrated free-for-all on the show’s concluding theme.
“The narrative is in the preparation,” Wallace reflects a few weeks later in the cozy studio. “Before I recorded “Someone To Watch Over Me” I listened intently to Frank Sinatra singing it, I listened to Gene Ammons playing it, I listened to every good recording to learn the words and the way great people interpreted it emotionally. When I actually played, I didn’t think about anything, but just let it all come out. The experience of writing for narratives in the movies is analogous to playing without thinking about it. Technique is out the window. It’s all about expressing the emotions and eliminating the extraneous. That’s one of the fortunate lessons I learned when I was in Los Angeles. Every good filmmaker is going to demand that. You’re there to give it to them. That’s all they care about.”
In his maturity, Wallace seems comfortable balancing the pragmatic dictates of business in the big leagues of entertainment with the call of pure aesthetics. “I returned East because I was missing my music being the focal point of my life rather than writing film music,” he says. “When I went to L.A., I thought it would be worth doing if I could make enough money at this to be able to pay my musicians so everybody feels good about the gig, and not worry about pleasing a record company whether my music is going to fit the concept they want. I did it for a few years, but didn’t get it to the point I wanted. Somewhere along the way I had to turn down a European tour because of a big project I got involved in, and I decided I wouldn’t take any more tours until I could afford to. Finally I reached a point where I couldn’t go on any longer without being back here and playing. I spent the last two years practicing the saxophone and taking occasional gigs in Europe — getting into ‘Hoop Life’ was a happy accident.
“I did a lot of things in California that weren’t what I would do as an artist, but they taught me a lot about the craft. It was always a learning experience. I learned a lot of positive things about show business which are very helpful now that I’m back dealing with the jazz business, and things about composition that give me a wider vocabulary on the saxophone and come out in my solos. I want to bring some of the craft I learned into my writing for albums. Many of the things we did on ‘Hoop Life’ were just as unconventional for jazz as for film music, and I met musicians on that project who I want to record with. I’ll never again turn down music for money.”
* * *
Bennie Wallace (Musician Show, 2-16-00):
[BW, "Nice Work If You Can Get It"]
TP: …that rarity among saxophonists who came up in the ’70s and ’80s, a saxophonist with a sound completely his own, yet one related to previous masters in the most organic matter. First let’s talk about this album and conceptualizing it. Why a Gershwin album? I guess it was the centennial.
WALLACE: Actually, it was a total accident. We went out to Los Angeles in ’98 and played a week at the Jazz Bakery, and the lady who owns it asked if we’d play a Gershwin set on the Saturday night because they were doing this Film Music Association Gershwin program. So we put together a set literally a few minutes before each gig earlier in the week, because we weren’t playing any Gershwin at the time except for “I Was Doing All Right.” So we put the set together and played it on Saturday night, and it was fun and it was successful, so three weeks later we recorded it. We were supposed to make an album anyway, and rather than record the repertoire that we were thinking about, we just decided to do that. And quite appropriately, it came out the year after the Gershwin centennial. Couldn’t do it the regular way.
TP: Did you choose it by tunes that fall more toward saxophonistic interpretation? How do you cull down Gershwin repertoire for a project like this?
WALLACE: That’s not easy. In the three weeks before we made the record, when I was really thinking about making it an album and adding a couple of more tunes for that purpose, culling the tunes was a very difficult process. There were a couple I really wanted to do and couldn’t do because they were too much of the same nature as the ones we were doing. But most of the tunes on there are tunes I have some sort of history with, like the one you just heard. I never really played it before, but I always loved Thelonious Monk’s solo recording of it. So the tune I always identified with Monk as much as with Gershwin. Then those ballads are some of the best ballads in the repertoire. Each tune had its own little thing that just kind of made it natural for the band. And also trying to stay away from “Summertime” and “I Got Rhythm.” To me, that’s been done, needless to say, so many times, and there are so many Gershwin tunes that have their own harmonic identity. That’s what was attractive to me. And melodic identity, too.
TP: Are you intimate with the lyrics to all these tunes? Do you make a point of learning lyrics on songbook material?
WALLACE: I try to. When I’m recording it, I’m very familiar with it. I’ve also got a very short memory. In fact, in thinking about these tunes for the gig next week, I’m surprised how many of the lyrics I can remember. But Jimmy Rowles kind of got me into that, of just lyrically seeing what the tune is about, and that kind of shapes your way of approaching it.
I knew Alvin Queen mostly in Europe. I met him in 1979, and we’ve been playing together ever since, every chance we get. He’s kind of like family. He’s one of the most frequent phone calls I get, even though I live in Geneva, Switzerland. We really love playing together. Though I must say I loved playing with Yoron on this record, too.
TP: Let’s start with some third degree. You’re from Chattanooga, Tennessee. What got you into music? What impelled you to pick up a saxophone and become devoted to it?
WALLACE: When I was in the eighth grade, we got a new teacher in our school, and he was a jazz musician, and he used to leave these jazz records around just for us to steal them. He wouldn’t loan them to us, but they’d all be sitting around. He started a jazz band, and we had a whole group of kids who became really enthusiastic about the music. We were actually terrible little snobs, but we were really into Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis and Count Basie and all that stuff. It was his inspiration that did it, and he introduced me to a couple of really wonderful tenor players who happened to be in the area who took me under their wing and taught me things. I was real lucky that way. This was in the early ’60s.
TP: This was at a time when segregation was strong…
WALLACE: Racial tension was really ugly. And I was just kind of coming of the age when I was aware of the existence of something like that. To this teacher’s credit, through the music, he made us really aware immediately of what was right and what was wrong. We were going down and playing in black clubs when I was a teenager. I remember going down to this black jazz club when I was about 14, and a couple of friends and I went in, and the owner (who I got to know later because I worked for him a lot), he was like crackin’ up and let us in, let us listen to music on the jukebox and hang out. Then we went and got our buddy, Jerry White, this guy who is now a wonderful drummer, who must have looked like he was 8 years old. When he came in, the owner just cracked and he said, “No-no, I can’t do this!”
TP: You’re pointing up something that’s such a cultural break between 1960 and today. You’re talking about Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is not a metropolis, and there’s a jazz club and there’s jazz on the jukebox and there are jazz musicians who are well grounded and a scene for you to play in.
WALLACE: Yes, it was a very small scene, but it was a scene. I got my start playing in after-hours clubs until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, and people going crazy, and playing the blues and bebop tunes and stuff like this. It was a great experience. And it was a great learning experience as a person It’s like I was exposed to twice as much of the world as a lot of kids I went to school with.
TP: I’d say three times as much!
WALLACE: That was a little conservative.
TP: So you’re a 16-year-old white kid in Chattanooga playing til 3-4 in the morning at after-hours clubs in the Black part of town, a normal high school upbringing. Who were the early influences? Were you thinking of it that way?
WALLACE: Sonny Rollins was my first influence. That’s because my teacher gave me this solo in the band, and there was a medium-tempo F-blues that I was supposed to play on, and he had a medium-tempo F-blues of Sonny playing with Dizzy Gillespie… I’ll never forget it. He gave me the record and he said, “Look, this guy really plays the blues great. Now, don’t listen to this tone, because he sounds like a duck. You should sound like Stan Getz for a tone.” And I’ve been trying to sound like a duck ever since. I fell in love with that solo on that record. I was also listening to Eddie Lockjaw Davis, John Coltrane, Red Prysock, Stanley Turrentine — a lot of great guys.
TP: Did you know at that time that you were going to be a musician?
WALLACE: Yeah. I didn’t know if I was going to be a clarinet player or a saxophone player, because I was also playing the clarinet at that time in the orchestra and stuff like that.
TP: So you weren’t just playing jazz and blues. You were learning the fundamentals…
WALLACE: I wasn’t studying the saxophone in school, but I was studying the clarinet.
TP: So what happened then?
WALLACE: Well, the Vietnam War came along and put everybody in college, and I went to Knoxville, to the university there, and around a similar clique of localized jazz musicians. It was a real local scene. I often wish I’d grown up somewhere like New York, where I could hear some of the great musicians…
TP: You probably wouldn’t have had the same opportunities.
WALLACE: That’s right. Exactly. Because I sounded awful! But there were great opportunities. I learned a lot.
TP: A few words on the dynamics of Eddie Lockjaw Davis’ style. Another tenor player mentioned seeing a video of Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin playing two tenors in tandem, and the same notes were coming out of the horn but the fingers weren’t in the same place.
WALLACE: Right. Well, Johnny Griffin told me that Jaws had his own… Well, I knew that Jaws had his own fingering system. Because I remember in 1964 they let Count Basie’s band play for about 15 minutes on the “Tonight Show” one night when Jerry Lewis was running it, and they had some closeups of Jaws. Of course, I knew my saxophone, and his fingers were going where they didn’t belong. Ever since then, I always wanted to like find out what that was he was into. I remember going to a club to hear him play, then I couldn’t get close, then we almost made a record together before he died, and he got too sick and couldn’t do it. But I always wanted to know what he was doing. I’ve tried to figure out some of it with my ear and my imagination. But he was quite magical. In fact, Johnny Griffin was telling me that he even had some of the keys corked down. I’ve been thinking about that, like, which ones could you cork down that would make a difference but you could still play the saxophone. But he was totally unique! I think Jaws could get more colors out of the saxophone than any saxophone player in the history of the tenor. Ben had that big, beautiful ballad sound, but Ben couldn’t scream like Jaws. Listen to Jaws play “Flight Of the Foo Bird” on that Basie Atomic record — he just comes roaring. Ben was no effeminate tenor player, you know. But you know what I’m saying? Jaws just had this palette of color that was just outrageous.
[MUSIC: Jaws, "Trane Whistle" & "Flight of The Foo Birds", Ben, "Time After Time"]
TP: The set reflected some of Bennie’s early experiences as a gigging teenage saxophonist in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and subsequently at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. So you get out of school, it’s the late ’60s, it’s the middle of counterculture — most of your peers are soaking up John Coltrane.
WALLACE: Oh, I was too!
TP: Talk about the things that interested you in those years.
WALLACE: At that point I was listening to everybody, and I think I was also just about as crazy as everybody at that time. I don’t think kids today can realize what a confusing place the world was at that time for a teenager. I think jazz, in a sense, helped me and my friends keep our heads on straight, because there was some semblance of order there and some semblance of a level of craftsmanship to aspire toward and keep us from going completely bonkers. It’s a very difficult question you just asked, because I was growing up in East Tennessee, and looking back on my life and all the times I’ve been to Europe and Japan and in a sense earned my livelihood abroad… In those days I never even thought of there being anything beyond New York City. That was just the mecca. There’s nothing after that. I never thought about leaving the country or playing or anything. It was just New York.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw it, in 1966. It was just like the overused thing, like a kid in a toy shop. It was amazing. I came two or three times and visited again I moved here in ’72. The first time I came, I went to the old Half Note, and it was a double bill. Sonny Stitt was just playing tenor at the time with the McCoy Tyner Trio, and Roy Eldridge and Richie Kamuca were playing opposite, and I think Anita O’Day might have been singing with them, and Major Holley was playing bass. I must have been 16-17 years old, and I looked like I was 12. There was a great waiter down there who was famous for being able to light anybody’s cigarette from anywhere in the room before they could get their lighter out. He was a real character. It was a novelty to him that anybody who looked that young was in there. He introduced me to Sonny Stitt, and Sonny came over to the table during the break and talked to me…
TP: How many keys are on the saxophone?
WALLACE: Actually, there was none of that, which he was famous for. I kind of got spared because I looked so young. He was basically telling me tricks about how to practice and just being very sweet, to tell you the truth. I don’t want to destroy Sonny’s reputation! I enjoyed hearing Richie Kamuca, too, and Major Holley. It was an incredible experience.
TP: When you moved to New York, did you come knowing people, with any connections?
WALLACE: I knew a few people and met musicians to play with. Actually, I was very lucky. I came with $275 in my pocket and no place to stay, and I fell into this very nice man who was a sculptor down on the Bowery, who let me stay at his place, but he said I couldn’t practice there. So I went up to… Charles Cullen was renting these studios for $5 a week, and so I was practicing up there, and Monty Alexander heard me practicing and was stuck for a tenor player for this gig that he had, so he knocked on my door and asked me if I wanted a gig — and of course, that was an easy answer. I didn’t know who Monty was at that time. He took me across the street where they were having a rehearsal, and here was Eugene Wright and Frank Strozier and all these fantastic players. All of a sudden, I was in the band, and they got me in the union, and I played with them all summer. When Strozier couldn’t make it, he’d send George Coleman to sub, and Senator would send Bob Cranshaw. So man, I was in heaven. “This is my town!” That was at the Riverboat, and we were playing six nights a week for half the summer for dancers.
TP: Was your style similar then? Did you have that intervallic concept and the kind of coloration you put on the horn?
WALLACE: I think my style was pretty similar. I think the idea of stretching the intervals out came maybe a year or two later, when I was listening to this woodwind piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen and trying to practice the parts. Also I was going to the Vanguard and listening to Monk and hearing how he would stretch intervals out. I remember I started doing that by first taking “Blue Monk” and instead of playing it in half-steps, playing it in minor 9ths. I was fascinated with the fact that it would make the saxophone sound so big. So that came just a little after. But I think my basic concept was there. I wasn’t playing like Stan Getz or imitating anybody.
TP: So when it came down to soloing, you had your own ideas about how to approach improvising, and you could perform the section function as well.
WALLACE: Well, some people might argue that. But see, when I was in school I played the clarinet, and I played in orchestras and wind ensembles and stuff like that where I had to do a lot of reading. I used to tease my wife and tell her that while I was in high school I was the state champ on the clarinet, because we had these contests, you know, with all the high school kids. I was a real reader in those years. I could read.
TP: And you were the state champ?
WALLACE: I was the state champ. I think I played the Stravinsky “Three Pieces.” They put your through all these regimented kinds of things, like sight-reading and all this stuff.
TP: When did you put down the clarinet? Or did you.
WALLACE: When I got out of college. I basically quit practicing it… Off and on over the years, if they had a job that needed the clarinet, I would play it. But in those days, the mouthpieces and the equipment on the instrument weren’t near as good as they are today, or I didn’t know about any of the good stuff. And with the mouthpieces I was playing, the clarinet would really chew up your lip and make you bite. And I wanted to get my sound real loose on the tenor, so I just got as far away from that clarinet as I could when I got out of school.
[MUSIC: BW, "I Loves You, Porgy"]
TP: In the ’70s, apart from that initial gig, did you go around, meet a lot of people, make yourself busy on the scene?
WALLACE: Yes. I was a little bit timid. I was a little bit overwhelmed with the scene. I used to play duets with Wilbur Ware, who was another really great friend. Wilbur had a dubious reputation, but I didn’t see that. He was really nice to me, and I used to go over to his house and practice with him. I remember he invited me to come up to Harlem to play with him and Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones. I can’t remember where, but I was afraid. I wasn’t afraid to go to Harlem. I was afraid to go play with those guys. When I look at it now, I think, my God, if you couldn’t play with those guys… That’s one of the stupidest things I ever did! But I played around, and met a lot of musicians, and just kind of worked on my music and did a lot of practicing. I worked a bit with Sheila Jordan, and that was a lot of fun. The loft scene started up and I was a bit on the periphery of that.
TP: I was curious about your relation to that. You’re a musician with obvious solid grounding in blues and vernacular music and bebop, and yet you’re being influenced by Stockhausen in the way you approach your style intervallically, which is an interesting mix of influences.
WALLACE: Well, when I was in college, I was hanging out a lot with a composer named Doug Davis, who turned me on to a lot of that kind of music and taught me a lot about how 20th Century music is put together. I had this wild ambition to be able to improvise atonally, and so I practiced a lot of that. I would learn 12-tone kind of melodies, but I’d always relate them to chords because that was my background. When I came to town, I guess I was playing farther out than I’ve ever played on records. A year or two after I’d been here, I had a radio and I started listening to Ed Beach, and Ed Beach would play Ben Webster and he would play Coleman Hawkins, and I remember he played this beautiful record of Zoot Sims playing “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me,” and just all of these amazing recordings. I used to tape them. He did a Gene Ammons show… I’m so sorry I didn’t keep the parts where he was talking, because his voice was so incredible. But then I heard that, and then I started really hearing Duke Ellington in detail for the first time, and really getting it, listening to Ed Beach. That’s when I decided to go back and really like build the foundation of my roots and learn the music… I remember I heard him playing Don Byas doing “Sweet Lorraine.” He just had a way of picking the best stuff, to where you’d just never forget it. That was kind of a conversion, like a born-again experience for me. Since then my music has always been based on that, but that other thing I studied in school is a part of my vocabulary, or makes me think a bit differently, I think.
TP: I interrupted you when you spoke of being on the periphery of the loft scene, such as it was. Did you have a particular clique of musicians that you were around, or…
WALLACE: Well, I kind of knew the guys who ran the lofts. I knew Joe Lee Wilson, who was a great guy, and I knew the guy that ran Environ and a couple of other places. I knew Sam Rivers a little bit. And those guys would give me gigs from time to time. In fact, one of the first lofts I played in was Ornette Coleman’s loft down on Prince Street. We didn’t have any gigs, and that was just like a place to play. Eddie Gomez and I played together in the lofts, and I played with Glen Moore, I played with Sheila Jordan, with Jay Clayton, a lot of different… There was a little bit of a clique, I guess you’d say — a little community. People would just call me up. Sometimes I’d play my own duet and trio concerts. For a while I had a gig in a restaurant with just bass and tenor, which was pretty hilarious.
TP: So you were living the life of a New York musician trying to get by week to week and do what came up.
WALLACE: Just running blind. [LAUGHS]
TP: We’ll hear Thelonious Monk, a track along with Stockhausen that you mentioned as two kind of poles…
WALLACE: Well, Stockhausen just kind of came out of my head. I was listening to a lot of 20th Century music, Elliott Carter and Charles Ives and a lot of different stuff. But I just remember there was a Stockhausen woodwind piece, and I had the music to it. But I used to go hear Monk at the Vanguard, which got me to kind of thinking… My ambition was always to be in his band. Everybody else wanted to be in Miles Davis’ band, but my fantasy was to play with Monk. When you listen to this tune, listen to what he does toward the end of the bridge with the harmony. That inspired me in terms of ways to harmonize tunes.
[Monk, "These Foolish Things" (1953); BW, "Skippy"]
TP: When you made Bennie Wallace Plays Monk in 1981, you’d been here almost a decade.
WALLACE: Yeah, about 9 years.
TP: That was about your fourth recording for Enja, so by this time…
WALLACE: Rocket to stardom, as Lenny Bruce used to say.
TP: But in some ways your position changes. Whether it’s a rocket to stardom or a slow boat to China, you still become a fact in the world of jazz with records under your belt.
WALLACE: I was really lucky. In the late ’70s I got hooked up with Enja Records, and basically without any kind of contract or anything I was making a record every year, and they were helping me get work in Europe, and so I was touring over there. It was some great opportunities. I made a record with Tommy Flanagan the year before I made this one. My feeling was, well, if I don’t have the opportunity to be in those great bands of the past as a sideman, I’ll create sideman things of my own. So I chose to make a record with Tommy and then this record of Monk tunes, because I was always really into Monk. It was wonderful, because Enja didn’t give me any kind of economic restrictions. I mean, they did in terms of how much money I could spend making a record. But it wasn’t about selling so many units, as they say today, and it wasn’t about how many records you sell and where you are on the charts or anything like that. That was really lucky. Because all we were thinking about was trying to make the best records we could make.
TP: You worked with some of the most eminent lights in jazz… [ETC.] Were these part of the circle of musicians in your New York experience?
WALLACE: I’d never met Tommy before I recorded with him. He came to a rehearsal. I’d been down and sat in with Elvin once, so I kind of knew Elvin a little bit. And I knew Dave because we were neighbors and we used to shed together. And Eddie Gomez and I were good friends and played together a lot. Chick Corea heard us playing in Paris and said, “Let’s do something sometime,” so I took him up on it and asked him to play on that record. But I knew some of the people…
TP: In talking to Bennie Wallace about the music for this program, Coleman Hawkins seemed to be the top.
WALLACE: Yes. I’ve always loved Coleman Hawkins, and the more I hear him, the more I appreciate him. I’m stumbling over my words. He’s known for certain things that he’s incredible at, and then there’s other things that are just… The more I get into his playing, the more subtleties I find. But the tune I asked you to play here is a recording of “Sophisticated Lady” from 1949, which I think rivals his “Body and Soul.” I just think it’s stunning. I remember transcribing it, like writing it out and taking it apart and seeing how it was put together. It’s a stunning work. And that tone is just unbelievable!
TP: Is Coleman Hawkins someone you can describe in three-four words to someone who doesn’t know who he is?
WALLACE: I don’t think so. I heard an announcer say one time that he invented the tenor saxophone. That doesn’t do justice to what he did. Like, 1929, he kind of defined the ballad style for me on the saxophone; he kind of invented that. I remember once Sonny Rollins mentioned admiring Coleman Hawkins’ harmonic sophistication. I didn’t get that for a while, and then when I got farther into Coleman Hawkins I knew what Sonny was talking about. It’s incredibly harmonically sophisticated and refined. I mean, Coleman Hawkins was a big opera fan. I knew a guy who worked at Sam Goody’s, and Coleman Hawkins was one of his customers, and he said to Coleman Hawkins one day, “Why don’t you look at our jazz records?” and he said, “Oh, I make those.” But he was always checking out the opera records. The band that he had with Tommy Flanagan with Major Holley and Eddie Locke to me is one of the all-time classic jazz quartets. It doesn’t get nearly the recognition and appreciation that some other bands at the time did, but that was one helluva band.
[Coleman Hawkins, "Sophisticated Lady," "Strange Music," "Buh-de-Dah"; BW, "The Man I Love," Ellington-Hodges, "Prelude To A Kiss," "Jack The Bear"]
TP: The ’80s was a real heyday for piano emporia…
WALLACE: Yes, the ’70s and early ’80s. After I made the record with Tommy I got to know him, and I used to go down to Bradley’s and listen to Tommy, and Red Mitchell would come over from Sweden and play for a few weeks, and I remember he’d always play two weeks with Tommy, two weeks with Hank Jones, and two-week shots with Albert Dailey. Man, you could just go in there and get incredible music lessons every night. In those days you could walk in Bradley’s for free and buy a drink, and it was usually so crowded you didn’t have to buy a drink because nobody would notice you. It was just a great scene. In fact, Tommy and Diana introduced me to Jimmy Rowles down there, though I didn’t get to know Jimmy well until I moved to California. But that was an amazing time.
TP: Let’s talk about the arc of your career during the 1980′s. It took some strange twists and left turns. You signed a contract with Blue Note in the mid-’80s.
WALLACE: At that time I had a manager, Christine Martin, who had a hookup with Blue Note records, and they basically gave me a deal, but they wanted to exploit the fact that I was from the South. Which turned out to be a nice idea, because it gave me a chance to go back and do some of the tunes that I used to play when I was a kid, and do them in the way you would kind of fantasize about doing them. That’s when I met Mac Rebennack, or Dr. John, and he became a really great friend and associate. It gave me good exposure, because I got to go to Japan and I got to play more in the States than I’d played before, and I played at the Town Hall and Blue Note Nights and things like that. Also, I did two records for Denon. Christine made this happen. She did a deal with Denon where they were going to have musicians produce albums. So Christine called one day and said, “Make a couple of suggestions,” so I said, “Okay, a Lockjaw Davis record and Teddy Wilson with a singer.” So they came back and said yes to both of them. Unfortunately, neither one got made. I talked to Jaws and he was into it, and we had a couple of nice phone conversations about it, but that was right toward the end when he was really ill, and he didn’t get to do it. Then subsequently I think Teddy Wilson died shortly after that, too. But I did make a couple of records for Denon, who were very nice people.
So that was a time when I got into some diverse directions. It’s also the first time I really got a dose of the business, which wasn’t much fun. I remember in the ’70s Ray Anderson and I used to have a running joke with each other, we hoped that some day we would become exploited. And it basically ain’t all it’s cracked up to be! [LAUGHS] That’s when my career became about how many records you sell. You’re really getting into the commercial world, whether they want to admit it or not. It becomes about that instead of about music, unfortunately. I started getting in with some of the agents and people like that who you always hear all these horror stories about. They’re true! In the midst of it all, out of the blue one day I got this call from some guy in California who had heard my first Blue Note record and wanted to use some of it in a movie and wanted me to write something for his movie. Like, all of a sudden I’m writing movie music, again by just a total accident.
TP: You did music for Bull Durham.
WALLACE: That one was Bull Durham, then I did Blaze and White Men Can’t Jump, and then some smaller films. I did a short that Jeff Goldblum directed, and the music was kind of a tribute to Thelonious Monk, which was fun. I did another short that was an animated piece with a jazz score. Both scores were Oscar-nominated; they didn’t make any money, but they got a little bit of attention that way. I did quite a number of different things.
TP: You have a number of original compositions on those Enja records, but in that period I think of you as an improviser, a spontaneous composer on the instrument. But you’re working in sparse groups, they’re very open-ended. Was composing always part of your interests/
WALLACE: I always liked the idea. And in the early days I used to write a lot of tunes based on standard forms to give me a different perspective about learning more about those tunes. I used to do that kind of to educate myself. Then when I was with Enja, they always wanted me to write original music because they had publishing. And I made a little money off the publishing, too. But they always encouraged me to write a lot of originals, which stimulated me to do it. Composing is a lot of fun, because it’s different from playing… It’s not as much fun as playing, but it’s a neat experience to see something formulate in your mind and take a shape and then kind of get edited down to what you’re really getting at. I like that. But I never trained myself to write for movies, or never really… I always wanted to play music for movies, but I always was thinking more the way Sonny Rollins did it on Alfie or the way Miles Davis did it on a few of those films he was in, where it’s more about playing and not so much about orchestrating. It’s ironic that after several years of being out there doing that, and writing for orchestras and kind of learning the craft, I came back here to get away from it all three years ago, and then accidentally came into this TV series, where it really is about playing and watching the picture go by, and really playing jazz as a score. That’s The Hoop Life. I kind of got off into that because it’s a full circle thing that happened.
TP: When did you move to L.A.?
WALLACE: About 1990. Came back in 1996.
[MUSIC: Flanagan, "Bird Song"; BW/TF, "Beyond The Bluebird"]
TP: Solo piano by Jimmy Rowles, who was a fixture at various NYC piano emporia when he was here…
WALLACE: He was a fixture wherever he was! [LAUGHS] I met him here, but I didn’t really know him. It was just an introduction at Bradley’s late one night. But I met him for real when I was in L.A. Because I really felt like a fish out of water in Los Angeles. I was very self-conscious that I was just going to stagnate. So I called Jimmy one day out of the blue, just out of the phone book, and said, “Look, I’m a saxophone player, not a piano player, but I’d like to study piano with you to learn your harmonic concept and the way you approach tunes.” So he said, “Come on over,” and he showed me this outrageous stuff. I went with a list of tunes, and Jimmy talked about “Body and Soul” and “In A Sentimental Mood,” which are the two tunes I thought I knew as well as I can know a tune, and he just like educated me. Then after that we became really great friends, and any time I got a movie date I’d figure out some way to get him on it. Not that he wasn’t a tremendous asset, but just any excuse to be there working with him, and hearing him play and hearing him sing. He and I are both tennis fans, so we had a telephone friendship almost daily. Like, he would talk about music or tennis. He was one of those rare human beings. I loved him dearly, and I was very fortunate to be able to hang out with him and learn from him. When I knew Jimmy, he was pretty much restricted from his emphysema, so he wasn’t working much. I used to pick his brain all the time, and it was a chance to talk to a master almost on a daily basis and just pick a tune and start… You’d call him up and ask about a tune, and he wouldn’t just tell the changes, like anybody else. He would talk about, “Well, bar 3 the last beat is this, and here’s the voicing.” This guy had a memory that was just phenomenal to go along with that encyclopedic knowledge of tunes that he had.
[MUSIC: Rowles, "Body and Soul"; Hank Jones, "Satin Doll"; Ella Fitzgerald, "Midnight Sun"]
TP: We discussed the second segment of Bennie Wallace’s career scoring films [1989 it started].
WALLACE: This thing you’ve got up now is written for string quartet, and it’s not jazz at all. It was written for a cartoon called “The Indescribable Nth.” This was done by a fellow named Steve Moore in Los Angeles who I met when I was out there, and we met on a film and became friends and have done several projects together. We recorded it in Brooklyn by a wonderful string quartet in New York. It’s Todd Reynolds on violin; Victor Schultz, second violin; Ralph Ferris, viola; and Dorothy Lawson, cello. I met them in September when I hired them for this date on a recommendation, and since then we’ve done a couple of other things together. We did a segment of The Hoop Life with them.
TP: Is there a narrative component?
WALLACE: It’s really a children’s cartoon. It’s a story about a guy who sells snow domes, and he has a little boy, and it’s about the little boy and getting his heart broken and all that. What I like about the story and everything is it’s almost like the kind of thing that we would have seen when we were kids. It has a timeless quality to it. These are a few of the cues.
[MUSIC: BW, String Quartet, "The Indescribable Nth", BW/Dr. John, "St. Expedito"]
WALLACE: I think Hoop Life was like a who’s-who of New York musicians. The piano players were Mulgrew, Kenny Barron, Ben Aronov and Kirk Nurock (I know I’m leaving somebody else out). The bass players were either Eddie Gomez or George Mraz or Mark Helias or Peter Washington, Rodney Whitaker did one. Herlin Riley did a couple of them, and Alvin Queen. A lot of my great friends. Steve Nelson, a wonderful vibes player, played a couple, and Brian Carrott is another really great vibes player. I met a lot of guys I didn’t know doing this. It was a lot of fun.
TP: How would it differ from a normal score you’d do?
WALLACE: They’d differ from week to week. One week we had a string quartet with a couple of jazz musicians, but quite often it would be a group like you just heard, and we would literally be watching the picture and playing. My job was to outline the thematic material and time the scenes and set the tempo and where events are going to happen in the picture. In cases like that, people would just play. Then there were other things that were through-composed, and there was very little improvising. I enjoyed this job as much as any film work I ever did.
TP: Is it the first time you were able to do that?
WALLACE: With that kind of freedom, yes.
TP: You said this was your aspiration when you started scoring films.
WALLACE: Well, long before I scored films, I always wanted to PLAY with the film, play jazz and react to the picture. This is the first time I’ve ever really had an opportunity to do that. A little bit out there, but never with such consistently great musicians. It was also quite a treat to hear really wonderful jazz musicians come in and react to a picture. Some of them I think were doing it for the first time. I can’t think of one experience that was anything less than really a lot of fun.
TP: Why is this the type of show that’s amenable to an improvised, as it were, score?
WALLACE: Well, it’s a show about a professional basketball team. But the reason it’s amenable is that the producer, Joe Cicachi, has a real creative head, and is… When he called me up he said, “I want some real cutting-edge kind of stuff.” He knew my records probably more than my film work. Well, I don’t know; he’d have to say that. Quite often in film work you’ve got to cater to tastes for people who aren’t very sensitive to music at all, and quite often they’re just paranoid about whether or not their film is going to make any money. But this guy was really very creative to work with, and let us loose.
TP: How does the music get edited within the final cut?
WALLACE: Oh, they never change the music. What we do goes to the picture because it’s composed or played to the picture and for the picture. I don’t recall them ever taking anything out. For a few weeks we were having trouble because the people in Los Angeles who were mixing the show down at the network were dialing the music way down, and we had this great editor up in Toronto, where the show is done, and he just kept pumping the music louder and louder, and finally they gave up. So finally, after episode 5, you could hear everything okay.
TP: How has the film writing and the music affected your relationship to the instrument?
WALLACE: The unfortunate thing is that when I’m really in the act of doing it, it takes me away from my horn. The real frustrating thing about something like this is I would have all these wonderful players in the studio, and then I’d be blowing the dust off my horn and trying to remember how to finger it as we started recording, rather than being in shape as I’d like to be. But on the other hand, again it’s taken me to some areas of music that I wouldn’t have gone to otherwise and taught me some things I wouldn’t have learned. When we were talking earlier in the show about some of the 20th century music I’ve listened… It made me listen a lot more to Ravel and Stravinsky, and I’ve been listening a lot to Olivier Messaien, and learning different kinds of coloristic techniques, and then those start finding their way onto my horn. So I like that.
[MUSIC: "It Ain't Necessarily So"]
* * *
Bennie Wallace (3-3-00):
TP: Are you from a musical family?
WALLACE: No. I had a great-uncle who was a fiddler, but that was it. When I was 12 years old, they came in and said if you take up a musical instrument you get out of school for an hour a day, and so I went. I wanted a trombone, but my arms were too short, so they gave me a clarinet, and that evolved into the saxophone. I was just playing for fun.
TP: But you took to it. You had a sort of innate musicality, I guess.
WALLACE: Yeah, I took to it. But about a year or two later, Chet Hedgecoth, this incredible musician, became our teacher, and he really built a fire under everybody. He came in with Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie records, and John Coltrane records and stuff like that, which is stuff we had never even dreamed of, and just introduced us all to a whole new world. It was funny, because we were out there in this real kind of reactionary community, and all of a sudden there’s this pocket of young kids who are just like fanatic jazz fans! I remember we were listening to Charles Mingus…
TP: Chattanooga, 1962.
WALLACE: Yeah. And we were right there in the middle of it!
TP: What kind of town is Chattanooga?
WALLACE: As one of the locals once told me, “the only thing you can do in Chattanooga is work.” There is a pocket of some of the wealthiest people in the country down there, and they kept Chattanooga for their own little private place. It could have been Atlanta. It was the first choice to be the big city in the South, and these rich people just totally vetoed it because they didn’t want it growing up and getting out of their control. So the middle class and the lower class there just… There was really very little to do. I remember when I was playing in those after-hours joints, the legal clubs could only sell beer, and they had to close at 11 at night — and we started playing at 11 at night.
TP: Were you a middle-class family?
WALLACE: Yeah. My Dad worked for the phone company. We were just a typical middle-class family.
TP: Were you a rebellious kid?
WALLACE: Of course.
TP: I just want to talk about this whole after-hours thing.
WALLACE: Well, I just totally lied to them. It was funny, because I used to tell my mother…
TP: What was the name the place you played?
WALLACE: There was two of them. One was called the Am-Vets Club, and it wasn’t an Am-Vets Club, but it had that name. Then there was another one called the Malibu Club. For a brief time I worked at a third place called the Stardust Lounge. That was the only one that was rough. That was kind of where you could go for jazz and heroin. But the other two places were basically like older…you know, a middle-aged crowd of people who… One of the regulars there was a guy who went to high school with Jimmy Blanton. [who'd get drunk and tell him every time.] Actually, when I look back on it, it was more sophisticated than the crowds in any of the White joints down there, even the very wealthy country clubs. And it was totally safe. The only problem… Sometimes White people would come down there and make trouble because we were integrating. But as far as the clientele, it was as harmless as you could imagine in a nightclub.
TP: Was the clientele all Black?
TP: So White people didn’t patronize the club. It was just your group of kids from the White school would go down…
WALLACE: Well, see, what happened is a group of us kids went down one time. Well, I think I was about 14, and we went in just to see the place. The owner saw how young we looked and he was kind of humoring us. But after that, my teacher started taking me down there, and I would jam with the musicians. There was like an underground circuit of jazz musicians who would travel around the country, but not the big-name clubs, but little small clubs. So that was going on, and so my teacher would take me down there to jam with musicians who would come in — really good Bebop players. Remember a guy named Fred Jackson? I played with him when I was in high school when he was down there. I guess I was a total curiosity to all those people, because here’s this White kid who looked like he’s 12 up there playing with everybody. Anyway, the owner kind of took me under his wing and started giving me work. And by the time I was out of high school, I had a summer down there that I was the bandleader.
TP: Was it a Black band?
WALLACE: Mostly. Actually it was funny, because the first night we played down there it was an all-White band, guys I’d played in school with. Then it wound up being that the guitar player was White and the bass player and the drummer were Black, so two and two. And we had singers came in, and… There was a great singer down there who sang kind of like Joe Williams style. Actually that summer, Lou Rawls had that big hit on “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and so we played “Shadow of Your Smile” all summer. But that was a great experience. Then when I was in college in Knoxville, we had the same kind of thing, because we had after-hours joints up there that weren’t so safe. Some of the joints were totally cool and some of them weren’t cool. But they let us play whatever we wanted to play.
TP: Did you have to keep the shuffle rhythm, or whatever you wanted to play?
WALLACE: No, we would play everything. Our version of commercial music at that time was Cannonball Adderley tunes, “Work Song” or “Sack of Woe,” or Horace Silver tunes… That was as commercial as it got. But we were playing Bebop tunes, and…
TP: You were a tenor player from the getgo as far as being a performer.
TP: But there’s a dual track for you which runs through your life, where you’re dealing with reading and…
WALLACE: I’ve tried to eliminate that other stuff, but it always keeps coming back up on me. I was only studying the clarinet and classical music in school, because they didn’t teach jazz down there then, and only performing on the saxophone. Basically, I was in school to stay out of the Vietnam War, otherwise I would have been gone…
TP: But you were state high school champion, a good sight-reader.
WALLACE: I was a very good sight-reader.
TP: I know you’re downplaying this stuff, but it sounds like you had a pretty immaculate technical training.
WALLACE: Oh, the best. I had a wonderful clarinet teacher, actually two wonderful clarinet teachers. And I was very serious about it at the time. When I was in high school I was really into both of them, because I had such wonderful teachers who were such great role models on both instruments. So I was torn about it. But when I got to college, I think… Being able to play jazz in college was frustrating, and that’s where my energy went. The classical music was right there in front of me, and I started getting bored with it. Had it been better classical music, I might not have gotten bored with it. But jazz just becoming more and more important. It was always inevitable, though.
TP: Was it a different sides of your personality type thing? I know you listened to Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, but it sounds like you started off as pretty much a gutbucket tenor player, or is that not true?
WALLACE: Well, I think it’s somewhere in the middle. Like I told you the other day, when I heard Sonny Rollins, that’s the first time I experienced Art, like really got into something that really touched me. The first time I heard Coltrane, it was the same kind of thing, but it wasn’t quite as deep for me. It’s like there was something about that Sonny Rollins solo that was something more than just the notes. Not to say that Coltrane wasn’t. But I mean, the first Coltrane I heard was “Giant Steps,” and when I hear it to this day… I was watching TV the other day, and they were interviewing Cornell West, and at the end he played “Spiral” from that album. I hadn’t heard it in years, and it took me back to my childhood. So it was a very strong impression. But there was something about the Sonny Rollins solo that was the notes and the pitches and the rhythms and the pitches between the beats and between the notes that produced art that was something that you couldn’t put on paper. That really got me. It was an F-major blues, and they called “Sumphin’”. That’s just an incredibly classic performance. I mean, to this day that’s the best blues tenor solo I ever heard in my life. And Dizzy plays great, Ray Bryant plays great on it. It’s a magical performance. Then there’s a fast blues right before that called “Wheatleigh Hall,” and I also really liked that one. I’ve rarely ever listened to the other side of the record. I’ve still got the jacket around here somewhere. I stole my teacher’s copy of it when I was in high school. He never gave us records; he always left the around for us to steal them.
TP: What was he like?
WALLACE: He was a wonderful jazz drummer. His favorite… Well, he actually went back in the history of the music a bit. He was into Davey Tough and Don Lamond, but he was mostly into Philly Joe Jones, and he also was a big fan of the Count Basie band with Sonny Payne. And Max Roach. He was really into the down-the-middle great players.
TP: He swung.
WALLACE: Oh yeah!
TP: so when you were learning, you had a good swinging drummer behind you.
WALLACE: Well, he didn’t play with us so much, but he really taught actually three really wonderful drummers just at our high school, then he taught a couple of others who went to other schools. Then one time I’ll never forget, he brought a bass player, one of his buddies that he grew up with, and we were playing our F-blues with the band, and I’ll never forget the first time I played with a great bass player. Who was actually… Did you ever hear of Edgar Meyer? It was Edgar Meyer’s father, Ed Meyer. Her came and played with us one day, and boy, what a thrill that was. And he could walk!
TP: What lie did you tell your parents to get to…
WALLACE: I told them I was playing in a hillbilly club. And the hillbilly club I told them I was playing in was a really rough joint, but they didn’t know it. Then inevitably at some point, somebody at my Dad’s job went to that club and I wasn’t there, and… [LAUGHS]
TP: Did you graduate from U-Tennessee?
WALLACE: Yeah, in 1968. [degree in music]
TP: But by then you knew you were going to go on and be a professional. But there’s a practical side to you. One half of you is this sort of go-for-broke wild guy and another part that seems very pragmatic.
WALLACE: Well, that didn’t come into play until I got married.
TP: But you graduated.
WALLACE: I graduated because of the Vietnam War.
TP: Maybe that made you pragmatic.
WALLACE: That made my whole generation pragmatic. It not only made us pragmatic, it made us innovative. Everybody had to figure out their own way to get out of the Army, and everybody had to come up with something different, because those guys get onto it if everybody comes in with the same affliction.
TP: The impression I got was that you spent a couple of years as a wandering musician. You didn’t go right to New York.
WALLACE: Right out of college, I got a job playing in a big band in Chicago. It wasn’t a jazz band, it was like a pops orchestra. It was a job that I was totally ill-suited for. I was playing lead alto and flute and piccolo and alto flute and clarinet and all this stuff. I did that off and on for the first year, and then I went to Boston and took some private saxophone lessons from Joe Viola there. I wasn’t in school. And I was working with a composer friend of mine who played piano there. Then I went to San Francisco for three or four months, and then a friend introduced me to Gary Burton. This was an older friend who was kind of worried about me because I was so crazy and seemingly without direction. So he played Gary some of my music and introduced me to Gary, and Gary said, “Well, the way you play, you should move to New York. You don’t belong anywhere else.” Actually, Gary was quite nice to me. So he made sure that I knew some people to play with. And my friend gave me $275 to go to New York, and I did — and I’m still here!
TP: So you got here in ’72.
WALLACE: Yes. That’s when I just accidentally met Monty Alexander and got that gig.
TP: I have that story, and the story of being scared to play with Wilbur Ware, Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland.
WALLACE: I was scared to, because I figured, “I’m not ready to play with those guys.” And like I said the other night, in retrospect, how much more easy could it be than THAT? And those kind of guys were always so encouraging to young musicians. That’s one thing I’ve been very lucky with through my whole career, is great musicians have always given me a chance and been encouraging. I think it’s because great musicians, that’s just part of their nature, to hear what’s good about your playing, and I think near-great players or not-quite-great players, their inclination is to find what’s wrong with you. I think that’s been pretty consistent through all my life. Some of the most intimidating people in the business… I mean, Charles Mingus heard a tape of me playing and invited down to play with him, just without meeting me or anything. That’s when Ricky Ford was in the band, and Jack Walrath, and Dannie and Walter Norris. Practically all the really-truly great musicians I’ve met have been like that. Great musicians have no time for jive, no time for guys who don’t do their homework and don’t play. But I’ve always found them to be very encouraging.
TP: One other thing that seems to mark you is, no matter how crazy you were, it always seems linked up with work. The work ethic seems to be part of your thing from the very beginning.
WALLACE: It was. Literally from the very beginning. I remember when I was in high school I’d get up at 6 in the morning to practice an hour before my parents got up. I always practiced, even at the height of the ’60s. [LAUGHS] That’s always been there. It’s a part of my life. At the beginning I think it’s a discipline that great teachers instill in you, but then after a while it becomes a way of life. I don’t time the number of hours I practice a day or anything, but when I’m conscious I’m thinking about music and I’m attracted to it, and I’m either playing my saxophone or playing the saxophone or listening to music. It becomes a way of life.
TP: Let me ask you a bit about the Rollins-Coltrane polarity. I know you have other influences. But in your generation, most people, even if they loved Sonny Rollins, were going in the Coltrane direction. When I’m talking about your generation, who was in New York in ’72, Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, Steve Grossman…
WALLACE: Those guys are my age. But…
TP: You sounded so different. You just sounded very fresh.
WALLACE: When I was a kid, like I told you, Lockjaw Davis was a big influence on me, and still is. And all the guys who played with Count Basie. Budd Johnson was a big influence on me. I don’t know if I told you, but I actually got to play with Budd before he died. Frank Foster, Frank Wess, all those guys who played there… I listened to everything on all those Count Basie records. And when you’re a kid, there’s a certain thing of what’s in fashion, and to us that was in fashion.
TP: But to most people your age, that’s what was out of fashion.
WALLACE: But see, I’m talking about 1960 in Chattanooga. At that point we didn’t know about the band with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams. To us the Miles Davis band was Coltrane and Red Garland, and we’d heard that it had broken up, but… And we were very much into Count Basie and Woody Herman’s band, Sal Nistico… I listened to Sal a lot, and actually met him in those days when he came through town. The point I was getting at is it was right after that, when I went to college, that I discovered Prez and Bird. My teachers in high school kind of started introducing me to Charlie Parker’s movie, which I liked, but there was something that was a real hero-mentor thing about Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and also Jaws… There was something about it being the tenor. But then in college I got into Prez and all the Prez kind of players. I remember my teacher was a huge Stan Getz fan, and I listened to Stan Getz a lot when I was in college.
TP: He told you to go to Sonny Rollins for playing the blues, but he sounds like a duck, go to Stan Getz for tone…
WALLACE: That was my high school teacher. I’m talking about my saxophone teacher, who to his death tried to play like Stan Getz. But that was just kind of a detour for me, because I was really into these other players.
But to get back to what you’re saying about when I came to New York: In my way, I was just as much into Coltrane as those guys were, but I wasn’t into imitating him. The thing that I always imitated about Coltrane was his diligence to making his playing better and better, his dedication to the instrument, and also the fact that he kept exploring and changing — and that he didn’t sound like anybody else. That was the message of Coltrane to me.
TP: So the idea with you was the ethos you find with a lot of Black musicians in the ’40s and ’50s and before — finding your own sound.
WALLACE: Exactly. To me, the idea of playing like Coltrane was totally antithetical to Coltrane’s set of aesthetics. And maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong, but for me, that’s the way I feel as an artist. To me, Art is about self-expression, and past the learning stages it’s not about emulation. The craft is about emulation, but the art isn’t.
TP: Another thing, you seem more comfortable navigating racial tensions than a lot of your white peer group in terms of the musicians you were able to play with. Just talking about hooking up with Monty Alexander and fitting right into that band… Do you attribute that in some way to being from the South…
WALLACE: Well, I grew up playing with Black musicians, playing in Black clubs. But in those days… You’ve got to remember, things were politically a lot different. In those days, when I was a kid, crossing racial barriers was making a very strong and sometimes dangerous political statement. Between the black and white musicians — and not only the musicians, but the people in the clubs — there was a real sense of fraternity. Which I think goes all the way back through the history of jazz, when you look at it, up until the more recent times when the politics has gotten really, I think, stupid. But in the days I was growing up, the sociological message with jazz was that all that separation was such bullshit. Read anything about the history of jazz, and it’s about brotherhood and it’s about the human experience. That’s the overbearing social evil that’s always stood in the way of jazz, and that jazz has always stood up to. Look at Norman Granz. And the great… This whole thing about…
TP: That accepted, but I’m trying to get to something about your aesthetic. Which seems to me very fundamentally different than your peer group at that time. I think a lot of those guys were so obsessed with Coltrane, it was hard for them to get their individuality at an early age.
WALLACE: Well, the same thing happened the generation before that of alto players who were obsessed with Bird. But those guys seemed to find more of their own personality. To me, Frank Strozier sounds nothing like Bird, Cannonball doesn’t sound like Bird to me — although they are heavily influenced by Bird. I think the thing is that Coltrane’s playing was so technical that by the time those guys figured it out, they had lost the chance to find themselves. And that’s very sad. Except I think another thing about our whole generation is that I think there’s the potential for guys to find themselves later in life. In the business, Jazz is a young man’s business, but as an art it’s not as much a young man’s art as it was in the earlier days, because in the earlier days the actual elements of the music were a lot more basic and there was more of an open, fertile field for new things. Now I think the music has evolved to where there’s so much history and so many demands, I think there’s the potential for people finding themselves when they get older. I hope!
TP: I think that’s really a rule of thumb. People in this generation start to sound good when they’re 40.
WALLACE: I was playing with Ray Anderson — who I’ve known for thirty years and always loved his playing — on the television show a few weeks ago, and I hadn’t heard him for a few years. Ray just keeps getting better and better and better. That’s the other thing that I really loved about doing that TV show, is I got up close to a lot of my favorite musicians and got updated with them, and everybody is just getting better and better. Look at Mulgrew. Mulgrew’s growing by leaps and bounds, and I think he’s really going to be the next great master piano player.
TP: The other thing about the ’70s is the Avant Garde, free jazz, the AACM oriented thing where people were blending contemporary classical music and jazz. You made a comment that when you got to New York, you were playing about as wild as you ever did, then listening to Ed Beach’s shows and hearing the absolute classic, purest examples of consonant jazz affected you in a profound way.
WALLACE: Yeah, it really sobered me up and made me realize where I was coming from, and that I didn’t have enough of the foundation of that. Since then it’s been a matter of trying to refine both polarities of… Like, the sound of my music that I really feel and hear is jazz. It’s like that tradition. But a lot of the notes that I play to get to that are out of the tradition of European composed music, 20th Century music. And to varying degrees, that can be said of all the great jazz musicians. There’s connections of Duke Ellington to European music, obviously. Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Parker. Coltrane’s got it all over his playing.
TP: Mingus had it, too.
WALLACE: Right. In a sense, that’s one thing that distinguishes jazz players from blues players. Cornell West was talking about Jazz coming out of the Blues. Well, some Jazz does come out of the Blues, but Coleman Hawkins doesn’t come out of the Blues. There’s a lot of great jazz that comes out of that renaissance of music that was happening in the first half of the century. Anyway, my music kind of comes from all those things. As I get older… My perception of music, and I think most artists’ perception of music is constantly in a state of change. I think a guy like Teddy Wilson who stayed the same for all of his career is really an exception. That’s not a criticism, because I love Teddy Wilson. But I just keep hearing it in a different perspective. The Classical elements and the Jazz elements and the Blues elements, all those things, seem to constantly have a shifting degree of importance to me. But most of those sides have always been there, and I keep trying to learn more about those.
TP: What are some of your extra-musical interests in the ’70s? Were you a reader? A film goer?
WALLACE: No, I was more of a reader. I think I read just about all of the Faulkner novels, which is mostly because he was so great, but partly because I’m from the South, and living out of the South, you see that experience from a different point of view. I remember reading Celine’s novels… Mose Allison turned me on to Celine. I read a lot of different stuff. I’ve always been very fond of the poet John Berryman. And I always like reading about writers. I used to get those “Paris Review” where they’d interview writers about their work habits. I’ve always been very interested in how artists in all fields approach their craft.
TP: Are you very analytical about your playing?
WALLACE: When I’m practicing I really take it apart. I have trouble listening to myself, like, after I’ve done something. I fight it. I’ve got a bunch of tapes and CDs and stuff of things that I’ve done that I’ve never listened to.
TP: What’s your favorite record you’ve done? Always the last one?
WALLACE: [LAUGHS] It seems I’m stealing Duke’s cliche. But these last two I’m very happy with.
TP: I’d like you to analyze yourself, how you’d say your playing has changed from when you were first recording? Then you had a sort of torrential style. Stuff was kind of pouring out of you. Now it’s become almost classic in form, you take a few choruses, say what you have to say, almost like a short story. That was just one set; it might have been totally different in another.
WALLACE: Well, I hope it would. In fact, the night before you were there we played three sets, and I really liked that night, and the thing I liked about it was each set was totally different. That’s the thing… I won’t say I try to do it, but when I’m happiest with my playing is when each set or each night has a totally different feel to it, and that it’s as musical and spontaneous as possible. That’s really what I try to get at.
As far as how it’s changed over the years, I think my playing has mellowed out a bit over the years… I’m really not the right person to ask that, because I don’t analyze myself. I don’t go back and listen to those old records.
TP: I just wanted an impressionistic answer. “Mellowed out” is fine. You also were saying in the interview that you were interested in composing, but you started doing it for publishing purposes.
WALLACE: Well, I actually started writing a bit in college…
TP: You had a friend, Doug Davis, who introduced you to 20th Century theory…
WALLACE: Right. And he taught me a different way of writing tunes. Then before I met Enja Records… That first record for Enja I produced myself and sold to them. I think there were five originals on there, and those are all tunes I just wrote because I wanted to write them. It wasn’t because of any pressure or any ulterior motive or anything. Then when Matthias Wincklemann heard them and we started talking about subsequent albums, he said, “Look, you’ve got to write a lot of originals, because that’s where you’ll make your money.” Also I like the idea of writing. It’s a different challenge. It’s a pressure when I’ve got a record date and I need to come up with them. But at this point in my career, I only write tunes when I feel the inspiration, or as an outgrowth of a film project I get an idea. Now I think I can say with complete integrity that I only write… I mean, I always wrote tunes from my heart, but right now I only do it when inspiration just hits me. I really love playing standard tunes, and I have reasons for liking to play standard tunes, and there are so many of them that I want to record and play that I never can get to. For that reason, I have no ambition to write any more, though writing just kind of seems to happen.
TP: I’m always trying to find some sort of metaphor for the abstraction of music in some way. As someone who’s involved in writing a lot of programmatic music, I wonder if you see the process of taking a solo or a composition as a narrative unto itself.
WALLACE: I think I can explain that from my point of view real simply. When I practice and when I compose, it’s a very self-conscious process, and it’s really… Particularly when I practice. It’s like if you were doing something consciously to expand your vocabulary, to learn more about the English language to write. Like, I’m learning more about the musical language to play. And when I play, I don’t think about anything. If I’m thinking about something when I’m playing, something is wrong. And I just let those things… I try to provide the environment to let those things come out as naturally and as unconsciously as possible. It’s a matter of what inspiration I get from the other musicians I’m playing with, and what happens in that moment. So in that sense playing is very different from practicing, from any kind of preparation. When I play a solo, I try to really think about the emotion of the tune that I’m playing if I’m thinking about anything. All right, let’s try to really get inside of it. It’s hard to express it verbally. It’s a communion, is what it is. It’s a little bit of a lofty term. It’s a communion with myself, it’s a communion among the musicians, and it’s a communion by the musicians with the audience. At the expense of being quite pretentious, it’s really like a spiritual or religious experience when it’s right.
TP: There’s four people or five people in real time from whatever diverse backgrounds, dealing in the same language and saying something within it.
WALLACE: That’s right. And saying something together. Saturday night during the last set, we played this blues I wrote for an earlier album which is called “At Lulu White’s.” It’s a medium-tempo blues and it’s real simple. There’s this little phrase in there that kind or reminds of something that Jaws and Johnny Griffin might have played together. Two bars of melody that’s got my stamp on it, then there’s this answer. Saturday night, Mulgrew and Peter and Alvin started playing that with me, and something happened. And with those notes that were written out that were played… It’s not like an improvised experience; it was something about just playing the head. To me it was the highlight of the weekend. I don’t know what those guys were doing with that, but they took it to another place. And that’s what I’m talking about.
[END OF SIDE A]
TP: Let’s talk a little more career now. We went into not that much detail on what you did in the ’70s. But between gigging with Monty Alexander at the Riverboat and your first Enja record in ’78, talk a bit about the network of friendships and relationships… The first record was with Eddie Gomez and Eddie Moore. How did you meet them, let’s say?
WALLACE: Okay. I met Eddie Gomez when I was playing with Jay Clayton. She had a little group with her husband and Larry Karrush(?); it was a trio, and they would have guest artists for these loft concerts. Sometimes I was the guest artist and sometimes Eddie was the guest artist, and even one concert he played one half and I played the other half — but they didn’t let us play together. Then one day we played a concert and we all played together. And that’s another memory I’ll never forget, is the first note that Eddie Gomez played when I was playing with him. It was just like “My God!” Because I’d always heard him with Bill Evans, and didn’t realize he had this other side to his playing. It was such a big, deep, down-the-middle of the pitch sound. Eddie and I decided that we wanted to do some things together, and he and Elliott Zigmund and I played a couple of concerts together.
Then my girlfriend at the time, who I was living with, who later became my first wife, she was a painter, and a really brilliant artist… But anyway, I was always listening to Sonny Rollins, and she didn’t like Sonny Rollins. She just hadn’t got it yet. Because she was usually very astute about musicians. One night Sonny was playing at the Gate, and I was playing with Eddie Gomez I think at Rashied Ali’s place, and I said, “You go hear Sonny Rollins and see what you think.” I said, “I think you’ll get it.” She went and she heard Sonny Rollins, and I said, “If you get a chance to go backstage, tell him I said hello, say hello for me, tell him I’m sorry I didn’t come tonight,” or something like that. So she came back home and her eyes were just lit up, and she says, “First of all, he’s incredible. Now I get it. I was totally wrong.” And she says, “But there’s something else. I found you a drummer.” And she had met Eddie Moore. Now, I had never heard of Eddie Moore. So she hooked me up with Eddie.
Then there was a guy named Gus Statiras, who was making these low-budget jazz records, and he heard me playing in Chuck Israels’ band, and Jimmy Maxwell recommended that he record me. So Gus said, “Put together any band that you want, any rhythm section you want, and just tell me when you’re ready to record, and we’ll make a record.” So I called Eddie Gomez and I called Eddie Moore, and we rehearsed a bit, and we played a couple of loft concerts or gallery concert kind of things, and played a couple of gallery concert kind of things, and I called the guy and I said, “I’m ready.” He says, “Well, the money will be here in two weeks; let’s go on and record.” I said, “No, when the money gets here, let’s record. But I don’t want Eddie Gomez and Eddie Moore looking for me.” So this went on for six months, and Glen Moore introduced me to David Baker, and David called Gus Statiras, and called me back and he said, “This isn’t going to happen,” then David put it together and made the first recording happen. Then he sold it to Enja records. So I owe David a great bit for getting me started. Because I had no direction about a career. I was just trying to naively learn how to play the saxophone.
TP: Did the record sort of give you a direction? You started doing about one a year.
WALLACE: Well, it gave me I guess you’d say not a musical direction, but an opportunity, a palette to create from, and that was really wonderful, because there were absolutely no commercial restraints on it. I just could make my own agenda. The second one was “Live At The Public Theater” with Eddie and Danny Richmond. So the next album that I made which was really a conscious decision was the first album I made with Tommy Flanagan. I decided that I wanted to create… That’s when I made my first career choice. I never thought about it until right now. But I decided that I wanted to create a track record for myself of playing music that really had substance and credentials to it. And Tommy Flanagan I just admired incredibly, so I wrote a series of original tunes based on very common standard song forms from bebop for that recording. Then I made a record of Thelonious Monk tunes. Thelonious Monk was always the guy I really wanted to play with. I used to go hear him at the Vanguard . He was still living at the time…
TP: It’s right before he retired, really.
WALLACE: Right. I used to hear Monk when he had… It wasn’t T.S. It might have been Ben Riley, and it was Charlie Rouse playing tenor. I heard him once with T.S. and Larry Ridley and Paul Jeffreys.
TP: You said that listening to him kind of got you into your style.
WALLACE: That’s right. I used to hear him playing all these angular kind of things which I never really articulated enough or never really analyzed enough to say it’s this or it’s that. But one day I was playing duets with this bassist Jack Six, who I’ve worked out a lot with, and we had been listening a lot to various 20th Century music. I was thinking in terms of wider intervals for various reasons, and we were playing “Blue Monk” one day, and I just had this spontaneous idea of playing that chromatic descending figure in ascending minor ninths. When I did it… I’ve got a tape somewhere of that rehearsal. It was like, “Wait a minute; this makes the thing sound like something totally different.” We just worked it out right there on the spot. It created the illusion that the tone of the saxophone was actually bigger than it was. I’d heard Sonny Rollins expand intervals a little bit in his solos. Like, where other guys would play thirds, he might play thirds and fourths or fifths or something, and put a little bit different read on Bird’s language. So this was kind of like leaping off in that direction, but a lot more radically.
But I think the thing that inspired me to that was the composers I’d been listening to — Elliott Carter, Charles Ives and a woodwind quintet piece that Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote that had a lot of stuff like that in it. Pierre Boulez wrote a piece called “Plies a lan Plie(?)” that’s got these incredible intervallic things in the soprano, and I used to listen to this recording a lot, and listened to this lady who was singing these incredibly wide intervals but making the m very melodic. Also, my composer friend Doug Davis wrote with a lot of expanded kind of melodies, and he also did it and does it in a very melodic way, which makes me realize that that can really be lyrical. To me, to this day, the trick to that is to make it melodic, to make it where it’s not just an academic wide interval but to make it where it makes melodic sense.
TP: Do you find yourself going in and out of that style? Does that style ever become any sort of mannerist trap?
WALLACE: Yeah, it does. And I’ve…with probably meager results, I try to not let that happen. It’s kind of become a part of my language, and it can be to its detriment, yes.
TP: I want to ask you about Bradley’s. It seems like you’ve drawn a lot of your inspiration from piano players. It’s like the first part of your life you were drawing it from tenor saxophonists; in the second part, a lot of it has come from pianists.
TP: To that end, it seems Bradley’s was seminal, apart from the hanging.
WALLACE: Well, I wasn’t really that much in the hanging because I wasn’t that much in the clique. I was a little bit shy, to be quite honest about it. But I used to go in there a lot. The obstacle at Bradley’s was to be able to get close enough to the piano to where you could hear it over the crowd. Although if somebody like Tommy Flanagan or Hank Jones was in there, it got a lot quieter! But there was this one place at the bar that I would always gravitate toward that was kind of close to the piano.
TP: Front corner.
WALLACE: You got it. And I always used to lie for the times when Red Mitchell would be around. He would usually come in and he would play, it seems like it was two weeks at a time, with Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones and Albert Dailey. Those were my three favorites. When those guys were playing, that was school. And another guy who wasn’t a piano player who influenced me listening in those kind of situations — not at Bradley’s but in other joints — was Jim Hall. Jim was playing a lot of duet gigs with bass players at the time, and I would go listen to him. He played the tunes so clearly that that’s where I learned a lot of my repertoire, was listening to Jim. Because the way he played the changes was so tasteful and so clear. But I learned a lot from those guys.
I remember Albert Dailey would play, and one night he was playing “There Is No Greater Love,” which was one of those tunes everybody played at jam sessions, like “Oh great, here we’re going to play those changes again.” A digression. But an interesting thing, everybody played that tune in B-flat, but Sonny Rollins played it in E-flat, which was the same key that Billie Holiday sang it in. If you listen to Sonny’s recording of it, maybe the only time he recorded it in the studio, and listen to Billie’s recording… I don’t know, but I’ll bet he was listening to it. But anyway, I heard Albert… Everybody used to play it in jam sessions in the key of B-flat, and it became another one of those cliche tunes. Then I heard Albert play it, and he did these harmonic substitutions on it. I remember going out of there, and I was so excited, and got home, got my horn out and played through his changes to it. Boy, all of a sudden, the tune made sense. To this day I enjoy playing that tune because of that. Albert also used to play these incredible cadenzas on the piano. He was also an incredible rhythm section player. He used to have a jam session thing in Folk City, and I went in and played with him, and it was this young bass player and drummer who I knew who didn’t have their sense of swing totally together yet, and he had those guys sounding like a major league rhythm section.
TP: So we’re getting into the mid-’80s, about ’85, and you’re 37 years old or so, and you sign with Blue Note…
WALLACE: Eddie Gomez introduced me to a manager, Christine Martin, who took me on. She was hooked up with Blue Note, and she talked them into signing me.
TP: Why did they want you to do southern themes? Because you’re from the South?
WALLACE: Well, record companies, for better or for worse, they need an angle. And maybe they know what they’re doing. That’s the subject of a whole interview. I was working in Hollywood many years later with Bones Howe, who is a wonderful producer, and Bones said, “Let’s make a record together. You tell me what you want to do, and then I’ll turn it into a concept to tell these people about it so they’ll give us the money to do it.” He said, “That’s my job, is to make it one of these packages.” Well, the southern thing is what got me in the door. Actually, I kind of liked the idea at the time, because I’d been working with some gospel singers from Nashville on my last Enja record, and I was really kind of into that aspect of the roots at that moment.
TP: Do you come from that type of church background in your family?
WALLACE: Oh, no. When I had to go, I went to this white church and the music was dreadful. That was some pretty gruesome stuff. But anyway, I found the idea of making a record…of going back and looking at the music that I played when I was a kid and all those… We were talking about the Black after-hours clubs, but I also played at a lot of dances, and I played a few times in roadhouses, and just to look at all of the spectrum of Southern music and then do it from a jazz musician’s point of view was a very attractive thing to me. I enjoyed that. Joel Dorn introduced me to Mac Rebennack. I didn’t know Dr. John’s music at all, but he and I became fast friends, and I learned a lot of that music from him, from his world of music.
TP: How did that add to your concept? Did it give you a sense, say, of cutting to the chase and maybe sacrificing complexity for greater emotional impact and meaning? Did that help you get towards film composing in some way?
WALLACE: Well, in a very blatant way it did, because a film producer heard that album and basically dragged me into the business.
TP: But in the pure world of aesthetics.
WALLACE: In the pure world of aesthetics? I don’t know if… It’s like if my next album had been an album of standards, the same thing would have probably happened in that world. I think the real place that album took me was just really looking in more detail at the various aspects of the way that Blues approaches the music. Because of the music on that record has some relationship to Blues, whether it… I think there’s a couple of Blues on there, but even things that aren’t Blues. And putting me around musicians who are really great Blues players, like Bernard Purdie and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bob Cranshaw, who I’d never recorded with although I’d played a couple of gigs with him — and particularly Mac. When you’re playing with those guys, really in a non-verbal way it teaches you a lot about the thing that they’re really great at. So I think that’s the thing I came away from it with.
TP: Would you consider yourself a good blues player at that point? You said Coleman Hawkins wasn’t coming out of the Blues particularly. But were you coming out of that?
WALLACE: Boy, somebody could read this and tear me apart for it. But I think I come out of the Blues more than Coleman Hawkins does. But as far as calling myself a great Blues player… Sonny Rollins and Lockjaw are great Blues players, Red Prysock is a great Blues player… I think the best way to put it is that my past experiences throughout my life have included quite a bit of Blues playing. But up until that point that we’re talking about, I’d been doing less of it… When I got long-winded earlier and came down to one word and it was what you wanted… Over the course of these albums I’d been making, I’d been playing a lot of very challenging music. This gave me the opportunity to play music that wasn’t so challenging as far as being difficult sets of chord changes and forms. The only two tunes that were difficult on that album were “It’s True What They Say About Dixie” and “Tennessee Waltz,” where I really totally knew complex harmonies through those really mundane tunes. But everything else is just two chords of the Blues on Twilight Time, but there was nothing really difficult in there.
TP: What are the challenges of that?
WALLACE: Of playing those simpler forms? Is making music out of it. But I think the thing that’s unique about it is, there’s not that much of a challenge to it. You just relax and play.
TP: So within four years, you’re writing the music for Bull Durham, which came out in ’89.
WALLACE: I think it was ’88 that we did it.
TP: So it’s a big change in a lot of ways. Your lifestyle changes, because you get access to more money…
WALLACE: Actually at that time, I didn’t get access to more money. We got ripped really good. It’s not uncommon. But Mac and I went out and recorded the music that we did for Bull Durham, and we both fortunately just happened to be out that way. We did it, then I came back home and resumed my career. But that led to more work, so I wound up doing more movies.
TP: I’d like to get some sort of precis of your film career, not so much a filmography as your concept of writing for films and how it evolved.
WALLACE: As you were saying about piano players influencing my music, one of the things that I admire the most about great piano players is that in addition to being great soloists, they are also great accompanists. Tommy Flanagan is the first name that comes to mind. But Keith Jarrett is a great accompanist. Herbie Hancock is a great accompanist. There’s this thing of being able to tune in to what somebody else is doing and make one thing out of it. I really admire that. Whenever I would be writing for a film, I would think, “Well, what would Tommy Flanagan do?” If you were going to translate that to whatever instruments I was writing for… Basically, it’s like what fits? What enhances it? The term “film composing” is very misleading, because it’s really film accompanying when it’s done right, to my mind. Like, I threw myself into learning about the craft of writing, about writing for orchestras. Also a big part of film composing is just the technical aspect of making it fit exactly with the picture, and that’s a whole craft which I had to learn. It’s really about mathematics and numbers and timings.
TP: Did you learn by yourself, by trial and error?
WALLACE: Yeah, pretty much. It was on-the-job training. There was kind of an old pre-computer way of doing it, with… There’s this old book of numbers that the old-timers used to use, and somebody gave me one of those books, and I just got in there and started… It’s a lot of work, but it’s not higher math or anything. But you have to translate it from frames-per-second into music, and into something that the musicians you’re working with understand. One of the things that’s a part of what I have done for films is, sometimes I am writing for an orchestra, sometimes I am writing for a string quartet, and sometimes I am writing for musicians who can’t even read music. And I have to be able to put those technical things in a language that those people can understand so that it fits with the picture.
TP: I remember one thing you said during the episode 22. You wanted Billy and Steve Kroon and the other percussion player to get a rubato Elvin Jones feel, and you mentioned one particular recording of Elvin’s. At any rate you used a verbal analogy that was absolutely clear. It became a lingua franca between you and them. That’s a fairly unorthodox process in film writing…
WALLACE: Well, I’m a fairly unorthodox film writer. I think that’s it right there. The first real score that I did, where I was writing the whole film score, was Blaze. I had Dr. John, Leo Nocentelli from the Meters, and one of the Dr. John’s drummers, and I had Elvis Presley’s guitar player, and a fiddler who played with Bill Monroe, and Greg Leisz, who at that time was playing dobro and steel guitar with k.d. Lang. Most of those people, the bluegrass players particularly, don’t read any music. I would go out to Byron Beuerlein’s(?) garage and teach these guys the song by rote, and then figure out a way to make it fit the picture, and then figure out a way to tell them how to make it fit the picture. Another example is when we were doing Hoop Life. I was bringing in these jazz musicians, and sometimes the music was note-for-note right there on the paper, and sometimes it would just be an emotional direction with some way of communicating how to make it fit the picture. It’s a lot like being a jazz bandleader, and there the great role model is Duke Ellington. I try to bring real personal musicians into my scores and find a way to let them express that in relation to the picture, and then I come out looking good.
TP: I noticed in the things I saw that you use atonal string quartet things for the more psychologically dramatic points, action gets minor trumpet blues… It’s interesting in this period to hear this blues type thing. You get so inured to hip–hop beats, particularly dealing with something like basketball. Do different musical situations, idiomatic vernacular conventions have certain resonances for you that have evolved over the years?
WALLACE: I think so. You’re talking about the trumpet. John d’Earth was just an invaluable guy on that. I’ve known John since he was 19 years old, and he was fabulous then. John has an incredible dramatic sense in his playing. See, that’s another thing, is finding musicians who have that talent of being able to understand the relationship with narrative pictures and music. Again, you were talking about what’s the job about. It’s about distilling the music into the appropriate emotion — and when you’re writing music for movies or when you’re playing music for the movies. John is really brilliant at that. Just about everybody I used was. I’m proud of the musicians that I chose, but I’m also very proud of how they were able to rise to the occasion. Because everybody can’t do it. There’s guys who are great virtuoso jazz musicians who just don’t get that. It’s just not part of their way of thinking.
TP: That’s what I was getting at as well when I was asking if you have a sense of the narrative in your playing, in your musical discourse, as it were.
WALLACE: When I’m playing jazz? Like I say, I try not…
TP: So those are two different entities for you.
WALLACE: No, not really. Because when you’re preparing, all that stuff is there. When I’m learning the tunes, I’m learning the words, I’m listening to the way that great people have interpreted it emotionally, and that’s all part of exactly what you’re talking about. But when I actually do it, I don’t think about that. It’s the Zoot Sims school of playing. I try not to think of anything.
TP: So the narrative is in the form. It’s almost like you’re a channel for it.
WALLACE: The narrative is in the preparation. Like “Someone To Watch Over Me.” I know what that tune is about. Before I recorded it and before I played it, I listened intently to Frank Sinatra singing it, I listened to Gene Ammons playing it, I listened to every recording that I could find and every good one that I could find, and what emotional thing and what narrative thing that tells me about it. But then when I play it, I just let that come out. But when I’m writing for movies, it’s… I think the experience of writing for narratives in the movies carries over to when I play without thinking about it. It has to. Because when you’re playing music for movies, technique doesn’t mean anything. The number of chords that you use, like anything that is part of the aesthetic of jazz, is out the window. It’s all about expressing the emotions. And that was one of the very fortunate lessons that I learned a lot about when I was out there.
TP: Was Dr. John helpful with that, too?
WALLACE: Absolutely. That’s a lot of what he’s about. I learned that mostly about him when he was producing my records, what he would… Sometimes the thing that I would think was the best part of what we were doing, he would say, “No, that’s extraneous.” And not to say, you know, who’s right and who’s wrong, but to look at here’s a totally different point of view that’s incredibly valid.
Jimmy Rowles taught me a lot about that, because Jimmy’s a lot about what the song means. He taught me a lot, when we would be playing a tune or working on a tune, about what that tune means — that narrative aspect. And every good filmmaker is going to demand that. They shouldn’t have to demand it. But that’s what you’re there for, is to give them that… That’s all they care about.
TP: So you were in L.A. really from only ’91 to ’96.
WALLACE: Right. Six or seven years.
TP: A lot of people think you were off the scene for longer than that. If you can give me a paragraph about the L.A. experience.
WALLACE: I think what we just said is basically the L.A. experience. It was about getting thrown into a craft that I had never done before, and giving myself a crash course in the rudiments of actually the craft, and learning on the job and trying to bring what I do to it, with what I do that’s different from what everyone else does. The way I got my first real scoring job, for Blaze, was because there was nobody out there that really understood southern music. I grew up around it. I mean, I actually played in bluegrass bands for a short period of time when I was down South. I played with some GOOD guys. So I knew what that was about.
TP: You were right in the middle of bluegrass country, southeastern Tennessee.
WALLACE: Yeah. And of course, I had those Blues experiences… I grew up in the South, and I actually grew up in the South almost in the period of the movie. Then what I had learned from making those two records with Dr. John gave me a preparation for doing that music that the usual suspects out there didn’t have. Otherwise, I would never have got the job. They would have hired one of those guys to do it.
TP: White Men Can’t Jump, what was that score like?
WALLACE: That was a very frustrating job, because it started out with a really great idea, and a bunch of bureaucrats pretty much stepped on it, and by the time it was over, it was nothing like what it started out to be. But with that said, it gave me the opportunity to work with Jon Hendricks, Bill Henderson and Sonny Craver, three wonderful singers, and that made me start focusing on what singers bring to music, which I carry to my music.
TP: Is that the last major film you did?
WALLACE: I worked on several more. The “Betty Boop” film was the biggest film I ever did, and we never finished it because of some sort of executive squabble that really had nothing to do with the project. The rest of them were more minor… Well, I wouldn’t say more minor, because some were among the best things I was involved with. Working with the animator Steve Moore was probably as gratifying an experience as I had out there, and working on Hoop Life was incredibly gratifying.
TP: You started on Hoop Life May ’99.
WALLACE: They called me up and wanted me to write the music, and I met with them in early May. We had an incredibly fast deadline. We had to do the first three hours of film in just a very few weeks. All of a sudden I was just in the middle of it. The first five or six weeks I think is the hardest I ever worked in my life. I’ve never been so tired. But they were filming very fast and we were working very fast, and I was also trying to get things organized, because this was the first score I’d recorded back here on the East Coast, so I had to get hooked up with a staff, with a studio, musicians, contractors, and all the people who go into doing this — setting up shop here to do that. So it was fast and furious there for a few weeks. Also, I didn’t know exactly what they were going to want or how happy they were going to be with my music until we got in the studio. Then once we got in there and saw that we were really in tune with each other, from that point it was a lot of fun and it was more relaxed, and it… I never enjoyed a job more than that one, once we got through the first part.
TP: Apart from the notion of bringing in personalities and the notion of improvising, was there any particular overriding musical themes that span the episodes? Did you know the arc of the narrative of that whole series at the time you started…
WALLACE: It was more about the characters. Since I didn’t know what was coming up and where it was going to go, I wrote music that was about the characters. The character of Marvin was the central character. Marvin is an older basketball player, so he was more about the Blues than he was about Hip-Hop — like me! Also, we had some problems with executives in Showtime who wanted a commercial Hip-Hop kind of product, so that drained a lot of energy right at the beginning. But then we got that cooled out. I actually found a happy result of that, because I have a good friend in Holland, the tenor player Hans Dulfer, who has had a lot of success with what I call a heavy metal kind of rhythm section. What he does, he plays like Red Prysock over one of those kind of rhythm sections, and he does it beautifully, and he’s had huge hits in Japan and in Europe. We’re buddies, and whenever I go over there we’re hanging out, and he’d given me some of his records. So I started applying some of his stuff to those situations, which is a lot of fun. I always tell him I’m America’s foremost Hans Dulfer imitator. And I found this fellow named Stephen Callow(?) who is really brilliant at those kind of things. So we would make tracks with Stephen, then we’d bring him in and have the jazz musicians play with him. We did a little bit of that, and it was kind of fun, because we kind of did something different with it.
But the real body of the score was about these characters, and it was really about personal stories. There was a romance with Marvin and Paula, so I had a romantic theme for that. And Craig, the white player who was a womanizer, I had a thematic thing that I wrote for him. That was an interesting challenge because we had an episode where the film had that pay-for-cable soft-porn kind of feeling to it, and I wanted to give it some music that didn’t sound like what you would expect, that had some class to it. I had Steve Nelson and Mulgrew Miller play this theme that I wrote, and my model in mind for it was Milt Jackson and John Lewis. I remember giving the music to Steve and saying, “Think Milt Jackson when you do this.” I started walking across the studio, and by the time I got to the other side, he and Mulgrew were playing “The Night We Called It A Day,” and they had it nailed so beautifully and so convincingly that it was just chilling. Then when we played my thing, they let that influence their own personality. So that thematic part of it had a lot of harmonic sophistication to it. Then there were things that more blues-like. t
There were things where I would use the kind of intense, almost free kind of playing we were doing back in the ’70s, like, to play anchor and play kind of intense emotions.
[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE 2]
TP: Before the albums in ’98, you did two in ’93, for AudioQuest and Enja. You mentioned, as do many, that L.A. is a frustrating place to be because of the lack of a center, the lack of a scene, there’s a lot of great musicians there but not much to do.
WALLACE: Not active.
TP: Was that the main source of frustration for you? That’s why you left?
WALLACE: Yeah. Because I was missing my music being the focal point of my life rather than writing film music.
TP: Remuneratively that would be a risky decision. Or not?
WALLACE: Being a jazz musician! How much more risky can you be than that?
TP: Well, that’s what I mean. You were doing film music and probably making more money in those three-four years than you’d made in your whole career as a musician, I would think…
TP: You had a house on the Palisades and playing tennis and this and that. So something in you doesn’t want to get too comfortable, obviously.
WALLACE: Well, it’s like my purpose in my life!
TP: Of course, here I am in this house looking out over this illusion of unspoiled territory in rural Connecticut.
WALLACE: Well, that’s just the luck of Nature. We could as easily be doing this in the apartment I had in Washington Heights in the ’80s. But when I made the conscious decision to… When I found myself living there… I didn’t even quite move there; just all of a sudden I was there. I decided to pursue that because I was really disgusted with the business of jazz. Not with the music, but with the business. My role model I think I told you the other day was Charlie Barnet. I thought if I can make enough money out here doing this to where I can pay my musicians to where everybody feels good about the gig, and we can go out and not worry about any of that other stuff, and me not worrying about whether a record company likes me or whether my music is going to fit the concept that they want, and not worrying about pleasing any of those people, then it’s worth doing. I did it for a few years, and I didn’t get it to the point that I wanted it. Somewhere along the way I had to turn down a European tour because of a very big project that I got involved in, and I felt, well, that’s not fair to the promoters, it’s not fair to anybody, and so I’m not going to take any more tours until I can afford not to. Then I reached a point about three years ago where just as a person I couldn’t go on any longer and not be back here and be playing. I had met Anthony Wilson and Willie Jones and Danton Boller, and we’ve started playing. I’ve finally met some young musicians who are really good and really serious about playing, and that took me over the edge of what already had been stewing inside of me for a long time. We started playing at a club in Long Beach, and I was really feeling alive. Then I found out that two of those guys were moving back here, and it was time for me to do it. We came back, and then getting into Hoop Life was just a happy accident.
TP: Well, you’d been here for two-three years. What were you doing during those two years before Hoop Life?
WALLACE: Practicing the saxophone, and I would occasionally go to Europe and play some gigs.
TP: Any film or TV projects?
WALLACE: No, I didn’t do any… I turned down a film that came along right before I made the record with Tommy Flanagan and the Gershwin album. It was, “Okay, you can make this film and make some money or you can make your albums,” and it was an easy choice. It was also during that period that I played on Anthony’s record. That was exactly what I said I was going to do when I came back, is I’m not going to turn down music for money.
TP: You expressed your distaste for the realities of the jazz business as such. But you were navigating with a certain aplomb something that makes the jazz business look like a Mom-and-Pop candy store. You do seem to have a very pragmatic side.
WALLACE: See, that’s something that I really learned from those people out there. In the entertainment business, that’s the big league. We’re not talking about Art… In the world of Art that’s the big league. But in terms of the entertainment BUSINESS, jazz is… You could take the money that I wasted making White Men Can’t Jump and I could make ten great albums. But I learned a lot, for lack of a better term, about show business out there. A lot of positive things. Now that I’m back concentrating on… Well, it seems like I’m doing both. But now that I’m back dealing with the business of jazz and trying to perform on a regular basis and work with great musicians, the things that I learned out there are very helpful to me. My disgust with the business at the end of the ’80s was not all “their fault.” Part of it was because of things that I didn’t know about business and realities, whether I liked them or not, that I wasn’t really dealing with in the right way. I think I could deal with them much better now. Not to say that there wasn’t some stereotypical business stuff going on then. But I think I know a lot more about dealing with it now, and I’m older.
TP: That said, you’re older now. Do you foresee yourself when you’re 60, that this is the track you want to be on?
WALLACE: When I’m 70 I want to be playing! What I want to do is, I want to make my music as good as it can be, whether I’m playing or whether I’m writing or whether what I’m doing is a combination of the two. I did a lot of things when I was in California that were not what I would do as an artist, but they taught me a lot about the craft. It was always a learning experience. I could spend a lifetime out there learning the craft, but what I want to do now is take what I know about and make as good a music as I can make, whether that shows up on a movie screen or whether it shows up in an album or in a concert.
TP: Do you think that you might start using some of the musical forms that you’re using in the films that are not vernacular jazz, as your recordings are… Do you think that might start seeing its way into…
WALLACE: I think in a very subtle way, it already has. But in a more concrete way, absolutely. Just as we were saying earlier that my music is a part of those two worlds right from the very beginning, I think that what I… My experiences out there are going to enable me to take that to another level. I mean, there are things that I learned about composition when I was out there that come out in my solos, that since I learned them, it’s, “oh, you can do that when you play the saxophone,” and all of a sudden it gives me a wider vocabulary. But now I want to expand that into writing for albums in such a way that I’m taking some of the craft that I learned out there and bringing it to that. Really the fact that it hasn’t happened yet is just a matter of circumstance. I really wanted to make a couple of piano quartet albums before I did anything else, because that’s a very important part of the direction that I want to pursue. Because I played with chordless instruments quite a bit up til the middle ’80s, and in the second half of the ’80s I was playing with guitar players a lot because of the nature of that music. I really love the classic piano-bass-drums-and-saxophone quartet, and I’ve had an opportunity to record with a couple of the masters. But had it not been for that, those album could have just as easily been things involving more writing, more an outgrowth of what I did out there.
See, I wrote for two films. One was Betty Boop, which the film company didn’t finish, and I wrote four tunes for that which I really want to record. They even have lyrics. Then I wrote a score for another film, for this little film company, and they… How do I say this without getting myself in legal trouble. They proved to be less than worthy of business people. And I pulled my music out of the film, and I still own that music, and I want to record that. Those two projects were written for a little bit larger jazz group. Also, playing with… Many of the things we did on Hoop Life gave me ideas for albums that I would love to do, and a lot of it is very unconventional. It’s as unconventional for jazz just as it is for film music. I met musicians on that project who I want to record with. So I’ve got several ideas of things I want to do.
TP: Bennie Wallace, you were in Los Angeles for how long?
WALLACE: Six or seven years I was out there.
TP: You were doing a lot of film music.
WALLACE: Right. That’s the sole reason that I went out there. Actually, my wife and I went out with a suitcase, and before we knew it, we had leased a house. It just kind of happened. It wasn’t a plan or anything. God help us if it had of been. I moved back to New York in June.
TP: What’s your assessment of the scene in Los Angeles? Cosigning Mr. Wilson here?
WALLACE: Well, let me put it this way. There’s a couple of places that are struggling to bring in really good music. There’s a little place down in Long Beach and there’s two places in L.A. But L.A. is just not set up for Jazz. It’s really not set up for human habitation. It’s just not a Jazz town. I remember the second time I played there. About five years ago I did a tour with my band of Europe, then we went and played a week in L.A. and a week in San Diego, and the week in L.A. was just awful. The owner of the club was really nice, and they were trying to do something there. But you felt like you were trying to play jazz in a Pentecostal church or something. You just didn’t feel like you belonged there.
TP: It’s a paradox that because of the studios so many talented musicians gravitate to L.A., and it’s the base for many others, but so few places for it to be expressed.
WALLACE: The only positive thing I heard about L.A.: I heard a wonderful interview on the radio one time with Red Callender. They said, “Why do so many musicians move to L.A.?” He said, “There’s two reasons. You don’t starve to death and you don’t freeze to death, but I can’t think of another one.”
Bennie Wallace on WKCR, circa 1998:
TP: I’ll bring Bennie Wallace into the conversation. How did you encounter Anthony Wilson and this group of dynamic young musicians in Los Angeles?
WALLACE: I first met Anthony on that gig I was telling you about where it felt so strange. He came up and introduced himself, and we traded numbers and kind of became friends in Los Angeles. Then just a couple of days before he did this recording session, he called me up and said he had a tune he wanted me to play on. So he came over to the house and showed it to me, and I went in and recorded it with the band. We set it up that we’d record my tune right after a break so we’d save time for the band, and I’d do a microphone check while they were taking a lunch break. So during that time we played a tune with the rhythm section. Actually I’d had my eye on Brad Mehldau, because I knew how brilliant he is. So we played this tune to get the mike balanced, and I’m listening to Brad first, and I’m trying to give him these left turns to see if he’s listening, and he’s right behind me everywhere I went. Then I started checking out the way these guys were playing.
I’d just scored a short movie for Jeff Goldblum, the first thing he directed. Jeff calls me up about a week later after this date, and said, “I need a drummer for my gig on Thursday night” — he’s an amateur jazz piano player. I said, “Call Willie Jones, because he’s really good; you’ll like him.” He calls me up the next day and says the bass player can’t make it. I said, “Well, call Danton Boller; they play well together.” He calls me the next day and says, “I got Danton; I need a guitar player.” So I told him Anthony. So sure enough, he called two days later, and said, “My tenor player can’t make the first set.” “All right, Jeff, I’ll come down and do it.” So I went down and played, we played a two-hour set, and just had a ball.
That’s when I decided to book some gigs with the rhythm section. So I called this club in Long Beach where I knew the owner, and he gave us some gigs. So we played down there some. Danton, Anthony and I did a lot of shedding together right before I left L.A. Since then Danton and Willie have moved here, and if Anthony would come to his senses he would move here.
TP: I’d like to give you a little bit of a third degree if you’re amenable to it. You mentioned you’re from Chattanooga, Tennessee.
TP: How did Jazz come into your consciousness within your background?
WALLACE: When I was about 14 years old, a fellow named Chet Hedgecoth came to my school as the band teacher. He was a jazz musician and a big jazz fan, and he wanted to have a jazz band with the kids. He started this band, and he used to leave his record collection around. He wouldn’t loan us the records, but he’d let us steal them. So we’s steal his records and trade them around. That’s where I heard Sonny Rollins, and I said, “Wait a minute.” It was my first real artistic experience, when I heard him play this Blues solo. That’s when I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.
So I started playing in some of these after-hours joints that were going around in Chattanooga.
TP: Was Chattanooga that kind of a town?
WALLACE: What’s not known is that a lot of those towns had an after-hours scene. It would be in the Black clubs, and it was totally illegal. We would start at about the time the White clubs had to close, and we would play for most of the night. I would worry my mother to death.
TP: Were there some good musicians in Chattanooga?
WALLACE: There were a few. There was an excellent tenor player down there named Ed Lehman, and there was a piano player named Jimmy Hamilton who moved away and went to Detroit — and he taught Bobby Watson and Prince at his high school. Then there was a very good bass player and piano player named Otis Hayes who went to L.A. and is still playing around. Occasionally a good player would come through. I remember I got into a jam session when I was still in high school with this tenor player named Hurricane Jackson. I can’t remember his real name [Fred Jackson], but he had a couple of Blue Note records, and he was one of those walk-the-bar blues players. Then I met a bass player down there named Stan Conover who had played and recorded with Ike Quebec and Eddie Davis, and grew up with Gene Ammons and Wilbur Ware in Chicago. He and I became pretty tight, and I got to play with him a lot. He played a lot like Wilbur Ware, and it was a great experience working with him.
TP: So it sounds like you were playing a lot of Blues, or that sort of Blues-Bop crossover within that situation.
WALLACE: Yeah. I was really into Bebop and the more sophisticated end of the music, but you had to play… I love playing Blues, too; don’t get me wrong. But I remember we had to play so many Blues things per set, so many Cannonball tunes or Jimmy Smith tunes, or the people would just go… They just didn’t want to hear it.
TP: It sounds like you were already at a certain level in high school. Were you playing music for a while before encountering this band teacher?
WALLACE: Yeah, I was a clarinet player. He knew that a clarinet was similar to a saxophone, and so he gave me a saxophone to play in this band. But basically, I just fell in love with the music. This guy Ed Lehman gave me a couple of Coltrane records, and between that and the Sonny Rollins record, that’s the first Jazz I really knew. That’s pretty overwhelming.
TP: But it seems to me that apart from being involved in the sophisticated harmonic end of Bebop, you got very involved in sound.
WALLACE: Oh yeah.
TP: Your sound really marks you. And you’re one of the few players in today’s scene… You know the old cliche, hear a couple or three notes and you know it’s him. You hear a couple of notes of Bennie Wallace, and you know it’s Bennie Wallace. Who were some of the tenor players whose sounds really struck you.
WALLACE: At that point in my life, when I first got into it, the guys whose sound really killed me was Sonny Rollins on the album with Dizzy Gillespie, Lockjaw (I listened to everything I could get by him), and Red Prysock. I liked Stanley Turrentine, too. But Red with Tiny Bradshaw and Jaws with Basie (or Jaws with anything) and Sonny, that was what started it. From there I got into Hawk and Ben and Prez and all that stuff.
TP: So blending the older players with the more contemporary or progressive or modernist styles has always been part of the way you’ve approached the saxophone.
WALLACE: Well, see, I’ve always loved more traditional jazz. There’s contemporary things that I like, but the thing I’ve always really loved is the tradition of the music. Where I got kind of the outside edge of what I do with my playing, I was studying the clarinet when I was in school, and I started studying Bartok’s music. I played this piece called the Contrasts for Clarinet and Piano and Violin. My composer friend tells me I’m the only one in the world who relates this stuff to chord changes. But I started looking at the way Bartok would write these lines, and thinking of how they’d fit against certain jazz chords, and it kind of opened up my mind, and from there I went to other composers. But that’s what got me going in that direction.
TP: What circumstances led you to being a professional jazz musician? From Tennessee what were your next moves?
WALLACE: Well, I went to college in Tennessee. It was Vietnam time, so all good Americans went to college. Then I convinced them that I was unfit for military duty, and headed for New York.
TP: And then?
WALLACE: Well, I got real lucky when I got here. I came to New York with $275 and no place to stay. I lucked into a loft. A very nice artist named Bill Barrett gave me a place to stay. But I couldn’t practice there, so I went up to Charles Cullen’s(?) and rented a studio for 10 bucks a week, which I paid from time to time. After three weeks, Monty Alexander came in there one day, and I didn’t know him from Adam. He says, “Do you want a gig?” He got me in the union and got me this gig six nights a week, and the band had like Gene Wright and Frank Strozier and Cecil Bridgewater and Roland Prince, all these great players, and I kind of met people and made friends and kind of got on the scene a little bit.
TP: That was about 1970?
WALLACE: That was probably 1971.
TP: Bennie Wallace, I haven’t heard (not consciously anyway) the film scores you’ve done. Is your writing related to your blowing type thing, or is it a different entity?
WALLACE: Not a whole lot. The first film I worked on was Bull Durham. The guy heard one of the Blue Note records and had me write a thing, and Dr. John wrote some lyrics for it, and we recorded it together for an in title for that tune. They used a couple of other things in that movie. Then I did Blaze, and Mac played a lot on that, too, and it was a Southern kind of movie so it kind of drew on stuff I knew when I was a kid. But with Hollywood movies, you get a problem, and you just try to figure out something in there you can do that will make it interesting. Like, when I did White Men Can’t Jump I got Jon Hendricks and Bill Henderson and Sonny Craver, and we put together this street band of singers, which to me was the most fascinating thing about the movie. They were supposed to give us a couple of weeks to record it, and they turned us loose for a couple of weeks. So I’ve got all these tapes of this group, which they didn’t use, because some commercially minded idiot decided that they should make it a big Hip-Hop hit, which it wasn’t, and it went right down the tubes because they snubbed Black radio — like real brilliant minds up there.
You’ve just got to do guerilla warfare with those things most of the time. But occasionally you get to do something that’s a lot of fun. With Jeff Goldblum’s project, he wanted a Monk-oriented thing, so we did kind of a little homage to Monk for his thing. Then I did a cartoon for Disney last summer for Steve Moore, a brilliant animator out there, and we did a Jazz score which Disney wasn’t used to at all. Once they got used to it and realized they were stuck with it, I think they liked it. I hope so.
TP: Are you continuing this on the East Coast? Has that curtailed these activities?
WALLACE: Well, I really want to concentrate on the music that I’ve spent my life working on. I have a wonderful lady in Los Angeles who is my agent, and she’s out there looking for work for me, but I don’t intend to live there again. I’ve learned a lot from it. I don’t mean to sound like I’m real negative about it. I want to be honest. But at the same time I learned a lot about orchestra writing and a lot about music in general just from the things I was exposed to, that I wouldn’t have been. But I really want to write and play real music, music for music’s sake, that kind of non-popular music that I’ve always spent my life on.
TP: Bennie Wallace, the tenor saxophone is the most vocal of instrument, some way — maybe people who play other instruments think differently. Is that an active component of the way you think about playing and conceive your sound on the saxophone?
WALLACE: Sure. There’s something about the saxophone, particularly the tenor saxophone, that’s just in and of itself. I’ve heard the expression “vocal quality” many times. But Henry Threadgill and I were talking off the mike a few minutes ago — Lockjaw Davis epitomizes it. There are so beautiful colors that can come out of that instrument, and he got most of them. I heard that when I was a kid, and there’s just a fascination with it. You can tell so many different kinds of stories with that. Like, you can express so many different kinds of emotions, like the warmest kind of thoughts in the world and the most angry kind of thoughts.
To me, all art is about emotional expression, and when I get inspired by something that someone in another art form has done, it’s the emotion that comes from it. Anthony and I were listening to music yesterday, and I’ll confess, we listened to George Jones and Olivier Messiaen. Now, that pretty much covers the spectrum. But the thing that’s common to all great artists, to me, is that emotional expression, whether there’s any intellect to it at all or a lot of intellect. That’s a mouthful, too!