Category Archives: Tenor Saxophone

For The 86th Birthday Anniversary Of Johnny Griffin, a 1990 Interview on WKCR

Today’s the 86th birthday anniversary of Johnny Griffin (1928-2008), the magnificent tenor saxophonist from Chicago known as “the Little Giant” for projecting behemoth sound and lightning velocity from his jockey-like frame. I had an opportunity to interview the maestro on WKCR while he was in residence at the Village Vanguard in 1990, and I’m appending the complete transcript, which initially appeared on the web on www.jazz.com shortly after Griffin passed away.

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In conversation with johnny griffin

By Ted Panken

Can you recall your impressions when you arrived in New York for the first time in 1945 with Lionel Hampton?

I remember coming out of the subway on St. Nicholas and 125th Street with Lamar Wright, Junior, and looking at Harlem, and saying, “Is this New York?” Being from Chicago, there was always this competition—so the Chicagoans would have you believe—between New York and Chicago. Actually I was not impressed; I hadn’t been in mid-Manhattan where all the tall buildings were. That was like my first day of riding the train forever, and I was tired, and all I wanted to do was go to bed.

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Do you recall where the gig was?

I think we came in and played a ballroom. Not the Savoy; this was a one-nighter. Not the Amsterdam Ballroom. Oh my God, I forgot where. Anyway, I remember going to this ballroom to play, and George Hart, who was later Hamp’s road manager, was on the door and wouldn’t let me in.

He said, “Kid, where you goin’ with that horn?” I had this old Conn in this raggedy tenor case. They wouldn’t let me in until some of the trombone players came in. They said, “Johnny, what are you doing standing out here?” I said, “Well, these people don’t believe I’m in the band.” I was 17 years old, about 4-feet-10, and weighed about 75 pounds. I guess they thought I was just trying to hustle my way into this dance. Finally the trombone player said, “No, George, he’s with the band.”

Was this just after you’d joined Lionel Hampton?

Yes. This must have been in July, 1945.

And you joined Hampton right after graduating DuSable High School.

Right.

There’s a funny story about your first gig. You had thought that you were hired to play alto saxophone, and were quickly disabused of that notion.

Right. Well, I was playing alto like a tenor anyway, you know. What happened was, I had graduated on a Thursday, and Hamp started that week at the Regal Theater in Chicago on that Friday. The late Jay Peters, the tenor saxophonist who had been hired to play in the band a few months earlier, had to go into the military service. Then Hamp remembered me because he had come by my high school, and had a jam session in the school assembly or something—so he asked for me. They found me on Sunday, and I went down and played a few tunes with the band with my alto. On the following Friday they went to the RKO Theatre in Toledo, Ohio.

No one said anything to me about I was going to replace a tenor saxophone player, because Maurice Simon or one of his brothers was playing saxophone in the band then. I had no idea what was to transpire, until I was walking on stage in Toledo, and Gladys Hampton stopped me. She used to call me Junior. She said, “Junior, where you going with that alto?” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, you’re playing tenor in this band.” “What?” So I immediately caught a train back to Chicago. It was hard to come by a saxophone in those days, as the war was still going on, and they were making bullets and guns instead of musical instruments with the metal. I found an old saxophone and rejoined the band two days later.

When did you first get a chance to hang out a little bit in New York City?

Oh, I started hanging out as soon as I woke up that evening. At that time, New York was awash with after-hour joints. The hotel I stayed in was the Braddock Hotel, and in that hotel was the Billy Eckstine Big Band, the Count Basie Band, Lionel Hampton’s Band, and other musicians. The Braddock was right on the corner of 126th Street and 8th Avenue, and backstage of the Apollo Theatre was right up the street between 8th and 7th. The Braddock bar was downstairs, and all the famous musicians of the day would come and hang out and drink. Just standing around that corner you could pick up two or three big bands any time.

Do you remember hearing any music that night?

I have no idea where I went. In those days I was drinking, at my young age. It could have been the Baby Grand around the corner, or… I really don’t know where I went that particular night.

Do you remember when you first went to 52nd Street?

It could have been that night. I was in a rush to get down to 52nd Street, because I knew Dizzy was down there.

Now, I take it you were up on the latest trends in the music at that time.

Well, the latest trends being Charlie Parker. Yeah, as much as possible. I had seen the Billy Eckstine Big Band come through Chicago in ’44, and that was most fantastic thing I had ever witnessed. Of course, I was in love with Duke Ellington’s band and Count Basie’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band. But at the time, I thought that the Billy Eckstine band was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.

When you were slightly younger, did you have a chance to see the edition of the Earl Hines Orchestra that had Bird and Diz in it?

I don’t think I saw that band.

I know they played in Chicago.

I went down there, but I wasn’t aware that they were… I don’t think I went down there. Now, they worked in the Beige Room in the El Grotto at that time. You see, when I was a kid, 15 years old, I played with T-Bone Walker, the famous blues guitarist. His brother had a big band, and I would play off-nights at the Club DeLisa, the Rhumboogie, and the El Grotto, which later on turned into the Beige Room, which was in the Pershing Hotel.

On Cottage Grove and 64th, was that?

Exactly. It was where Ahmad Jamal later on, fifteen years later, made his records. But he did his band upstairs, in the lounge. I really didn’t know about Bird and Diz in the Earl Hines band at that time. Now, I had gone down into that room, even underage. Billie Holiday sang in that room, and I never saw her down there either.

So your first memory of hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker was around 1944 with the Billy Eckstine Big Band.

Right. I heard Bird on some Jay McShann records before that, and I had heard Dizzy on some records with Coleman Hawkins, when they did “Woody ‘n You,” which they called “Algo Bueno.” Now, Billy Eckstine was very popular, of course, as a singer, as a balladeer. But to witness that big band in full flight, playing the new music like that, was quite a shock and very refreshing.

Were you trying to implement these ideas in your own playing at the age of 16 and 17 in high school?

Oh yes. Well, as soon as I heard Bird, that turned me around. Well, I was following in the footsteps of Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges (I still have some of that in me anyway), and then, of course, the late, great Lester Young. But Ben Webster was actually my first influence, although it was hearing Gene Ammons play tenor saxophone that caused me to want to play tenor saxophone.

What did your teacher, the famous Captain Walter Dyett, think of the new thing that Charlie Parker was doing? Do you ever recollect him saying anything about it?

I never heard him say one way or another. But he was the type of bandmaster that, any good music that came out, he would transcribe it off records, and he would have the band at school—the dance orchestra or stage band, whatever you called it—play whatever is there. But at that time, we certainly didn’t have any Billy Eckstine arrangements. [At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Bud Powell, "Tempus Fugit," Elmo Hope, "Happy Hour," Monk, "Ask Me Now," Elmo Hope, "Carvin' the Rock."]

Let’s jump forward a few years. Under what circumstances did you first encounter Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell?

It was actually through Elmo Hope. Joe Morris and I had formed a band after leaving Lionel Hampton’s band in 1947—I think May or June. First we organized a sextet with musicians from Chicago. Joe Morris played trumpet, of course, and George Freeman, who is the uncle of Chico Freeman, and Von Freeman’s brother, played guitar. That group lasted from ’47 to ’48. Then we reorganized. We were walking around Harlem one day, and we ran into Benny Harris, the trumpeter, and we were saying that we needed a pianist. He said, “Well, I’ve got just the pianist for you.” It turned out to be Elmo Hope, who was of small stature, but a very brilliant if erratic-at-times pianist. It was through Elmo that I met Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. They were like a trio, inseparable, always together. Somehow or another, they adopted me. When I say “adopted,” I was around them, from piano to piano, from house to house, daily, from ’48 to ’50.

This was sort of a postgraduate education for you.

That’s exactly what it was. It was a very important part of my life. They still are important. They seemed to enjoy me, for some reason. I have no idea why, other than the fact that I had a little knowledge of the piano, so I could see what they were doing, and if I didn’t understand what was happening, I wouldn’t be afraid to ask, “What is that?” The three of them were masters in their own right. I heard Elmo and Bud Powell play piano duets, playing Preludes and fugues of Bach. They put on a program of Christmas music one year in the Bronx, at a club (oh Jesus, it’s so long ago, I can’t remember the name of this club—possibly the 845), for two pianos, and it was fabulous! It was really a trio, although during those days I didn’t hear Monk play that much. Elmo and Bud were always playing when you’d go to different homes—they didn’t seem to have a piano, of course. Other cats would play. Walter Bishop, Jr., would be around sometimes, too.

But I got a chance to hear Monk play mainly at his home, where he would be rehearsing Ernie Henry and other musicians in his band—I can’t remember the rest of them—for certain gigs in Brooklyn..

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you playing with Monk at all then?

No, I didn’t play with him at all during that time. I did play with Bud at somebody’s house party. Of course, Elmo was working with the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band at that time.

Did you start to learn Thelonious Monk’s compositions at that time, and Bud Powell’s compositions?

Bud Powell’s, but not Thelonious’. I didn’t start learning Thelonious’ compositions until after I came out of the Army at the end of 1953. Monk came to Chicago. I wasn’t working then, and was at home, looking at television or something, when either Wilbur Ware or Wilbur Campbell called and said, “Johnny, come on over to the Beehive. Thelonious is in town, and we need a saxophone player.”  So I immediately put on some clothes and ran over there, and jumped right into Monk’s music. No rehearsals.

That must have been exciting.

Very, if you know Monk’s music. Very exciting. I admire Thelonious more than any other musician that I have been around, in a way, really in my life. He always walked around looking like Jomo Kenyatta and people were afraid of him. But behind that facade was a real humorist, as if you listen to his music you can hear. Monk wasn’t a person to speak very much. He could be quiet for a half-an-hour or twenty minutes at a stretch, and all the other musicians yakkety-yak and running off at the mouth, and Monk would enter the conversation and say about four words, and destroy everything that had been going on for the past hour—totally. He would total everyone with three or four words. That’s the type of person he was. He used space as he did in his playing and his composition.

Later on, whilst playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1957, I was staying in Art Blakey’s home. In fact, I helped him move from the Bronx down to Manhattan. Now, Monk and Art Blakey were very, very close friends. Monk would come around the band, and Art Blakey was trying to get Monk to play piano in his band. This was at the same time Monk was working in the Five Spot with Coltrane and Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware. We even had a date on Atlantic with Monk playing piano.

Then the following year I played with Thelonious; he was trying to get Art Blakey to play in his band, although he had Roy Haynes playing drums and Ahmad-Abdul Malik playing bass.

But after these gigs were over at night, we’d go hang out at either my pad or Art Blakey’s pad, or Thelonious’… Well, not so much at Thelonious’, because he had a very small place, and we wouldn’t wake Nellie up. But Buhaina had a large place, and I lived alone, so it could end up anywhere. And the conversations would be torrid—about many different subjects, of course.

Can you say a few words about your relationship with Bud Powell?

Well, you see, Bud was a sick man. He had been injured by being in hospitals, and he had been beaten and had these electric shock treatments. So he was erratic, until he sat down to the piano to play, and then it all left, and he was the burner. I can still feel it. You will always feel it as long as you have recordings of him playing his music. Bud Powell was the Nth degree of a burning pianist. When I say “burning,” I mean the emotional content of fire. Volcanic, the way he played it. I consider him as a thumper. His touch on the piano was more of a thump than a touch, because he was very percussive, and you could feel the emotion in his lines and his solos, or even in his compositions. Very percussive. He was very strong, spontaneous, always fresh with so much strength. Yet still he could play a ballad, you know, completely on the other side of the coin, which would leave you breathless.

Elmo Hope had less recognition than Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. But you knew him very well.

Yeah, it’s funny. They were like twins. I remember once I was at Elmo’s house, and Bud’s mother called up Elmo’s mother to tell Elmo that Bud had just gotten out of the hospital, and “Please, Mrs. Hope, would you tell Elmo to let Bud get himself back together?” Elmo was like the ringleader, being a semi-devil’s advocate of whatever was happening on the scene in those days. But before she even got off the telephone, Bud was about to break the door down at Elmo’s house, screaming, “Elmo, it’s Bud! Let me in. It’s Bud. I’m back.” So there was no separating these two musicians.

[At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Ben Webster, "Chelsea Bridge"; Johnny Hodges, "Passion Flower"; Lester Young, "D.B. Blues"; Bird, "Ko-Ko"]

Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, two of the pillars of the Ellington band, were two of your great influences.

Very much. “Chelsea Bridge” doesn’t have the tempo Ben Webster put on, say, “Cottontail,” which was made famous with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, when Ben was playing rough—this was a very tender ballad, of course. But if you notice the closeness of Ben Webster’s style of expression vis-a-vis Johnny Hodges. Their styles were so similar, except one was playing tenor and one was playing alto. Johnny Hodges was from the Boston area and Ben Webster was from Kansas City.

Which is funny, because after Johnny Hodges had died, I was with Ben Webster, and I took him to the Selmer Instrument Company in Paris. I thought he wanted to have something done to his tenor saxophone, but he wanted to buy an alto saxophone. Actually, he wanted them to give him an alto saxophone, which they did. When I was taking him back to his hotel, I said, “I know why you got that alto saxophone.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You got it because you want to sound just like Rabbit.” That’s what they called Johnny Hodges, because he looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he’s playing all this beautiful music. Of course, Ben Webster looked at me and said, “Why you little-bitty…” deleted expletive. . . . I can’t say the dirty words that he used to call me—fondly, of course.

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you emulating Johnny Hodges as a young alto saxophonist?

Yes, I was. Playing ballads. But if I played something in tempo, I’d be more like a rough Ben Webster, growling with the alto, not unlike an Earl Bostic sound, but trying to sound more like Ben Webster. I was really playing alto very hard. Seeing Gene Ammons play when I was about 12 years old made me decide right then that I wanted to play tenor saxophone. It was a graduation party for my grammar school, and Jug was playing with the King Kolax Band at the Parkway Ballroom. That started my voyage.

How old were you when you started going out to hear music regularly in Chicago?

When was I going out to hear it? As soon as they would let me go into any place, so that I could sneak in. I was playing with people, working when I was 14 or 15 years old, as soon as I could get in the Musicians Union. I lied about my birthdate.

You were at DuSable High School then, where the famous Walter Dyett was bandmaster. Did he facilitate that?

No, he had nothing to do with it. A group of us youngsters at DuSable had put together a band called the Baby Band, which played dances for the kids in school—not in the school, but in the ballrooms where the big bands that came to Chicago would play. So this promoter had the brilliant idea of putting up a big poster of me—I mean three times life-size—on the school store, which was right across the street from the band-room. You’d look out of the third-floor band-room window and see this poster. I was playing clarinet… No, I think I was playing oboe in the concert band.

I happened to come to school, and the Captain had seen the sign down there. Now, he had his own professional band, also with a few students, called the DuSableites, and sometimes his bands would be in competition for gigs. Well, not really. But anyway, when he saw this photo, this huge publicity sign on me. . . . Well, when I came to school he told all the students—there were like 115 pieces—to go to the window and look out at the star, the musical star that’s gracing the walls of the school store—this picture of me. He invited them all to sit down, and then he invited me to play my part on something, I don’t know; it was probably Ravel’s “Bolero” or something—that’s why I was playing oboe anyway. I hadn’t practiced right, and I was embarrassed. He completely undressed me in front of the band, to give me some humility and to make me practice and, you know. . . . But Captain Dyett was a wonderful man. As he was to all the kids. . . . Well, he taught Nat Cole, Gene Ammons, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Von Freeman, Bennie Green, the trombonist, Charles Davis, the saxophonist, Clifford Jordan. . . .

We could spend an hour listing the musicians.

Yeah, really. Chicago was a saxophone town. I mean, there were a lot of blues guitarists there, of course—T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters. But for jazz, it was really a saxophone town. Later it was an organ town, too. Most of the saxophonists tried to emulate the late Lester Young. Everybody knew Prez’s solos by heart. That was the main direction. We Chicago musicians played the music not of New Orleans, but the music that was emanating from Kansas City. That was the style. The Basie band.

Did you hear that on records? Was Basie coming through town?

The Basie band all the time, because they were traversing all of the states—as was Duke’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band and other bands. But a lot of territory bands would also come, like Alex Larkin’s band. Some would come from Texas, other bands from Oklahoma or Nebraska, and they would go no further east than Chicago. Chicago was the hub, as it still is, with the railroad system, and as O’Hare is as an airline hub. Some bands came to Chicago from the East, though not that many, and that’s as far West as they would go. But it was mainly the bands coming from Texas, musicians coming up from New Orleans and Memphis, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and out west from Denver, from Omaha and Kansas City.

Kansas City was like the center of that Basie-type music, Walter Brown singing the blues with Jay McShann, the Jimmy Rushing-Joe Turner blues singing type. So the young saxophonists, most of whom were tenor saxophone players, opted after Prez’s music—the swing! To show you the difference in this music coming from Kansas City. . .. You’d associate Ben Webster’s sound with the Duke Ellington Orchestra more than you would, say, with Count Basie’s band. Which is funny, because Ben told me at my house one day (I had him in my house for about a week) how as a young man he studied music under Prez’s father. Lester Young (when I say Prez, I mean Lester Young) used to take Ben Webster on his gigs as a pianist, because he liked the way Ben Webster comped. Ben could play stride on the piano. He liked that sound.

To me, Lester Young was the trunk of the swing tree. By that, I mean (it might be a bit strong) no Prez, no Bird. Basie’s band was originally more or less built around Lester Young and Herschel Evans, who was the other tenor saxophonist in that band. Prez and Herschel were very good friends, but the styles were completely different. Prez had a fleet, light filmy type sound, while Herschel Evans had a great big sound. I’d associate Herschel Evans’ style of playing with the way Arnett Cobb played, even Illinois Jacquet—although I think Jacquet had a touch of Don Byas in him also. But it was not like Ben Webster. It was completely different. Another approach. You would have to hear these records one by one to really tell the difference.

To me, Don Byas was the world’s greatest tenor saxophone player. I call him the Art Tatum of the tenor saxophone, because he used some of the harmonic progressions that Tatum used when improvising. Don Byas had a big, warm sound, and enough technique to do whatever he wanted to do. He could play beautiful ballads, and he could play as fast as you want. He was not a bebop tenor saxophonist, but he could play with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He played in a style between Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, like Paul Gonsalves, very smooth, but strong.

The first time I heard Charlie Parker was on a Jay McShann record that my cousin had bought, not to hear Charlie Parker but to hear Walter Brown sing the blues—the “Hootie Blues.” I was a kid, maybe 13 years old, and I loved the way Walter Brown sang the blues. Joe Turner also, and Jimmy Rushing. I loved the Kansas City blues. This alto saxophone player started to play, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I rushed over to the machine, and started the whole thing all over. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy, because I’m interrupting the dancing. But I had to hear this over, because I couldn’t figure out who that was playing alto saxophone. First I thought it was Prez, and then I realized it’s an alto and Prez doesn’t phrase that way—although there was something there, that type swing, that I had gotten from Prez. It was Charlie Parker. His record, “Ko-Ko,” was my music lesson for years.

You recorded “Cherokee” twice in the 1950′s.

That tune was like the standard bearer for the jam session. When Sonny Stitt would come in town to challenge all of the saxophone players, he was. . . Now, Sonny Stitt was the devil. I don’t mean literally that he was the devil—he was, like, the heckler. He lived in Michigan—Saginaw, I think—and he’d come to Chicago to disturb the saxophone players there. Even later on in New York, he would come in my room and say, “Johnny, play me something.” So I would play something on my horn. He’d say, “Okay, now give me the horn.” Of course, Sonny Stitt was the master of his horn. He could play every modern cliché ever invented by Bird or Dizzy or whomever, and I would just pull my hair out by the roots to be able to do what he was doing. He would have made a helluva professor of music.

They say he would challenge musicians with how many pads there were on the saxophones. . . .

Oh, yeah! He would get very academic on you; you know, how many keys on a saxophone. And who in the hell would take time to count the keys? It’s enough to play them without counting them! But he was like that. Or what’s the notes in this scale or that scale. But he made me practice more than anyone else. Because it was my desire to be able to invite him on the bandstand to play with me, without being humiliated by his talent and the genius of what he was doing.

These type of sessions were very common in Chicago in the 1950′s.

Oh, it was. Sonny Rollins used to come into Chicago to woodshed, especially to come in and woodshed with Wilbur Ware and Ike Day.

Ike Day was a little, thin, almost purple guy, he must have been about 5-feet-7-or-8, very thin and wiry. I mean, he was so bad on the drums that he set up two drums in this club in Chicago called the Macombo, and then any other drummer could come and sit in. Buddy Rich came in and saw this, and he couldn’t believe it. He took him out of this joint on the South Side of Chicago to play in his big band at the College Inn in the Loop, which was a hotel where they didn’t even want black people. That’s how bad he was.

I think Ike came to New York around 1947 or ’48, with Slim Gaillard, and immediately went to Minton’s and tore the joint out.

Can you describe his sound was like?

From what I can recollect, his sound would be more like a Philly Joe Jones type, which in the beginning I found was like a cross between Max Roach and Art Blakey. I mean, that’s not completely true, because there’s a lot of Cozy Cole in Philly’s playing, too. But Ike could do anything. He was a showman, but everything was really swinging at all times without turning into a visual circus. It was amazing the way he could play.

And you must have been backed by him on any number of occasions.

Yes. Well, what happened was, at one point, when the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band was in Ohio, Philly Joe Jones quit, and we needed a bass player and a drummer. I called Chicago, and Ike and Wilbur came and joined the band for a while. That was my first experience to actually get to know them. However, I had sat in with them at a jam session in Chicago, at the end of 1946 or early ’47, in between the two times I played with Hamp’s band. They were working with Gene Ammons at a club called the Congo, along with Gail Brockman, the trumpetist.

Your association with Wilbur Ware continued many years.

Many, many years. Now, Wilbur could play drums, too. I heard that he and Ike used to play on the street corners of Chicago. Ike would set up his pots and pans and stuff, and Wilbur had a 2-by-4 with him, a washtub with a clothesline bass—they’d get out there and make money on the street-corner.

He was also a tap dancer, wasn’t he?

Exactly. Wilbur was very percussive. As you can hear in his bass playing.

Chicago had clubs just all over the place in the 1950′s. From what I hear, you could just go anywhere and play, and there was a very supportive situation for young musicians.

Yes, there were many clubs there. Of course, at the time I came up, a lot of musicians were in the Armed Services, because World War Two was going on. So there were opportunities for younger musicians. Like I said, I was playing with T-Bone Walker’s brother’s big band on the off-nights in these Chicago nightclubs. Chicago was wide open. As I said, many musicians were always in Chicago, coming from all over America. When the big bands would come to town, there were jam sessions; Ben Webster and other musicians would go out and blow after-hours. Well, it really didn’t have to be after-hours, because Chicago was a 24-hour town anyway. But there were many clubs in New York also at this time. There were many clubs in Detroit. Many clubs in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia used to be like my second home. If I wasn’t doing anything in New York during that period, sometimes Elmo and I would go there with Jackie Paris’ brother, an Italian singer, who had a little old car. He would drive us, and we would stay in Philly Joe Jones’ house to go and jam with Coltrane. Trane was then an alto saxophone player. Jimmy Heath was playing baritone. Philadelphia was wide-open, except on Sundays—because they had that Blue Law. But the rest of the week, Philly was wailin’! It reminded me so much of Chicago, the way the residential areas were set up. It’s so close to New York, only an hour and change away by train, so driving there was nothing.

I was with The Joe Morris band was playing a club in Philadelphia called the Zanzibar with our Chicago sextet with George Freeman the first time I heard Philly Joe. Our drummer at the time was Embra Daylie, who had been in World War Two, and had been injured in the war in the Pacific, so he had a respiratory problem. During intermission, I had gone out, and when I came back, I was informed that they had taken him to the hospital because of respiratory problems. “Don’t worry,” they said. “We have this drummer who is going to sit in.” We started playing, and I thought this guy was awful. I said, “Now, listen, wait a minute. We’ve got to get somebody else.”

Philly was so conscientious. I used to watch Philly Joe and Joe Harris, the drummer who played with Dizzy’s big band, practice all day long, really go through all the drum books of the day and practice getting control. They wouldn’t practice on the regular, hard rubber drum pads like you find most drummers do. They would practice on soft pillow cushions on the bed, so that they would have to bring the stick back up with their wrists, which gave them that ultimate in control—which really did them well.

To me, Philly Joe was the greatest, most exciting drummer that I have ever been around in my life. Now, I played with Art Blakey, who was one of the most explosive. . . . like you’re riding on a train with him. Buhaina when he’s really bearing down is really something else. I played with Max Roach—the sheer tenacity and knowledge that Max could put into intricate drumming. Roy Haynes also. The swing of Arthur Taylor. Now, there’s a drummer. I don’t know any drummer that could swing any more than Arthur Taylor. I mean, Arthur Taylor to me is like a cross between Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, in a way, with some Max Roach thrown in there.

But Philly Joe was the ultimate, like Ali Baba in the Forty Thieves or “Open, oh, sesame. . . .” We used to play these Monday nights in Birdland, and had, like, Charlie Persip, who is a helluva drummer, known mostly for playing with big bands, but he had a small group then, and Max Roach and all these cats would play some drum solos that were outlandish. But Joe was a magician. I’d look at him and think, “Now, what is he going to do?” But just when I thought I knew everything he could do, he’d find something else to do. I’d see him during the day walking around in his sneakers and stuff (I don’t know what he was into), looking almost like Pete the Tramp. But then in the evening, when I opened up in Birdland, if I was playing with another group, when I’d walk on the stage there he’d be sitting right at the first table dressed up, looking like he’d stepped out of Esquire magazine—up tight, baby, too sharp! Over-charming. Unbelievable. Philly Joe Jones.

[At this point, Griffin played the following recordings: Philly Joe Jones, "Blues For Dracula"; Gene Ammons, "Nature Boy"; Dexter Gordon-Wardell Gray, "Move"]

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Filed under Chicago, Johnny Griffin, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

For Bennie Wallace’s 67th Birthday, a DownBeat Article From 2000 and Three Interviews

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.”

[-30-]

* * *

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"]

[-30-]

* * *

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?

WALLACE:  Yes.

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.

WALLACE:  yes.

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.

WALLACE:  Absolutely.

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…

WALLACE:  Probably.

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.

[-30-]
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.”

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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.

WALLACE:  Right.

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.
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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.

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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!

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Filed under Bennie Wallace, DownBeat, Tenor Saxophone, Tommy Flanagan, WKCR

Interviews with Charles Lloyd on WKCR 1994 and 1995

ECM’s recent release  of Charles Lloyd’s first five recordings for the label, made between 1989 and 1996, made me remember a vivid encounter I had with Lloyd at WKCR in May 1994, while he was in residence during at the Blue Note supporting his then new-release (and 3rd  for ECM), titled The Call. I’m posting the full transcript of that session and a much more restrained and less discursive encounter a year later, when he was in NYC to support ECM date #4, titled All My Relations.

Charles Lloyd (Out-To-Lunch, May 11, 1994):

[MUSIC: “Brother On The Rooftop”]

TP:    Billy Hart was the drummer, on top of just about every move Charles Lloyd makes on The Call [ECM] and probably every note you’ll be playing this week, I’d say.  Yes, Charles Lloyd?

CL:    All over me like a wet blanket.

TP:    How long have you and Jabali been hooked up in this particular…

CL:    In this incarnation, what happened was that he heard that I was leaving Cannonball, and I was putting my first group together… This is Jabali telling me.  He said he that he was in Washington, D.C., playing with Shirley Horn, I think, and he said, “Oh, I want to be in that group.”  And somehow, Jack De Johnette called me at 3 in the morning and said, “I want to play with you, man.”  So somehow, Jack’s bodaciousness and… People said, “Well, don’t get Jack because he’s too loud” and stuff, but he turned out to be one of the most tasteful ever.  Jabali said that he was supposed to be in the group, and I didn’t understand the rhetoric until he and I started playing together recently in the last year or so.  It’s like they used to talk about love and stuff like that, you know…

TP:    How about the other guys in the band, Bobo Stenson and Anders Jormin?  Your hook-up with them, a few words about their musical qualities.

CL:    That’s a little strange in the sense that in the early Sixties, late Sixties, I had to go to Europe… You know, America, the beer tavern thing, and I couldn’t get the music to fit right and stuff like that, and when I was trying to play, oftentimes they thought I was too much of a cadet or something.  And I went to Europe, and the people testified, and they liked the music.  And there were these little kids in the audience in Stockholm, you know, youngsters, but they just loved the music so much.  And I didn’t realize that that was the group with Keith Jarrett and Jack De Johnette and Cecil McBee.  We played in Stockholm, like, non-stop, and you’d have to claw your way to get out of the place and stuff like that.  People…they were just so hungry for the music, you know.  And these little boys, years later they came around, and… We were playing at the Seed, and essentially what happened was that… You know, the Vikings came over here way before Chris Columbus, and they took their butts back home.  You know, they didn’t try to claim some stuff that people was already living on.  Those guys heard the music, and they were fearless, and they loved it, and I couldn’t… You know, I couldn’t deny the universal living room.  Bobo is for me one of the best pianists on the planet, and Anders is right there also, always selflessly serving the music.

And I always have to have an orchestra, you know, like people who are just dedicated to the full service of the music.  Because I grew up loving Mingus and Duke and Monk, you know, Lady Day and Trane, just all this beautiful music, the Five Spot, and I was out in California with Ornette and stuff, I was in Memphis with Booker Little… Phineas Newborn saw me at an amateur hour show and said, “Boy, you need lessons bad.”  So all that kind of stuff…

TP:    Well, let’s organize a bit, and…

CL:    I can’t organize!

TP:    Well, I’ll try to do it.

CL:    Oh, okay.

TP:    Maybe we can hook up.  You were talking about Memphis, and you came up in Memphis at a time when there were many special musicians all around the same age performing.  Talk about those days and those experiences a little bit.

CL:    It was very powerful, because we knew at a very young age that nobody could touch our stuff.  I don’t know what it was, but there was something in the water or something, maybe the Mississippi flowing through, and Mister Armstrong south of there, coming from there and stuff.  My father went to school with Jimmie Lunceford.  You know, Jimmie Lunceford taught at our high school before…

TP:    Which high school was that?

CL:    Manassas.  Manassas is where all the bad cats went.  Now, there was Booker Washington, where Phineas went, but that was an earlier age.  Phineas was older than us, you know.  But Manassas, man, there was… Just check.  During my time period, there was Frank Strozier, Harold Mabern, George Coleman had gone to school there, Hank Crawford had gone to school there.  There were a lot of musicians you’ve never heard of.  There was another pianist in Memphis named Charles…oh, man, why can’t I think of Charles’ name?

TP:    Charles Thomas.

CL:    Charles Thomas.  Thank you!  Anyway, he played like Bud Powell in those days.  And I keep asking Harold and James Williams about him.

TP:    He played at Bradley’s here in New York about a year ago.  James Williams set that up.

CL:    Did you hear that?

TP:    I did.

CL:    Well, man, I would like to hear him play.  Because he was beautiful, and he was tall and elegant, and he had this kind of refinement and this aggressiveness on the stuff.  He was always dropping half-steps on cats, you know, and if he didn’t like the way a cat played, he would just half-step him to death and just get him off the stage.

So we came up… George was kind of like a Santini.  Do you remember that film?

TP:    The Great Santini?

CL:    Yeah.  George was kind of like that task-master, you know.

TP:    Elaborate a little bit.

CL:    Well, George, you know, he just was like that with all of us.  There was a trombone player, I can’t remember his name, but I remember we had to learn “Cherokee” in B-flat, and then we called it and George played it in A the next time, and he’d call it in E, and you just… You’d say, “Man, just learn ‘Cherokee.’”  He’d say, “Fine, let’s play it in E right here.”  And George would play it real fast…

TP:    I think he’s still doing that to people.

CL:    Right, I know.  But quiet as it’s kept, I think that was an interesting university that he ran.  But when I go really back, earlier, I have to look at Phineas, because there I was, like, ten years old, playing on an amateur show.  Phineas Newborn comes backstage and says, “You need lessons bad,” takes me around the corner on Beale Street, sits me down at the feet of Irving Reason(?), who is a beautiful alto player, who is here in the city somewhere, or was.  They played in Bill Harvey’s orchestra, sometimes society…

I just love Mandela now.  How many of us can do 27, you know what I’m talking about, and come out with that kind of graciousness and bigness, and just say “Freedom for everyone.”  I’m still dreaming of an ideal.

But back… Phineas…playing with him as a kid… So after I took these lessons, later on Phineas had me in his father’s band.  You know, played over in West Memphis, Arkansas, at the Plantation Inn, Mister Morris Berger’s place, okay, and we’d play for dancing and stuff like that.  But amidst all of that we’d be putting stuff in.  And then there were gigs with people like B.B. King.  Bobby Blue Bland was one of the first gigs I ever had.  He was a singer.  He was not featured.  It was Roscoe Gordon’s band.  You ever heard of Roscoe Gordon?

TP:    Mmm-hmm.

CL:    Mmm-hmm.  Well, anyway, Roscoe Gordon played good, and he had some hits around there.  So you’d come hearing all this blues stuff.  My grandfather had lots of property down there.  There was a man named Mister Poon, you know, and he used to play the guitar, and my cousin and I used to hear him play a blues, the Robert Johnson kind of stuff, and we’d jump up and scream and do somersaults and stuff like that.  So I knew real early I was supposed to be a musician.

But getting back to George, he was interesting in the sense that… First of all, Phineas was very big and tolerant.  He gave us lots of love and encouragement.  George did the Santini, a hatchet-chop.  If you didn’t have the stuff together, you know… The trombone player I was about to tell you about, Harper, he was playing, and he turned around and George was putting the evil eye on him, you know, the ray.  So he turned around and looked at… He said, “What was that change right there?”  George said, “What about all those other changes you just missed?  Don’t be asking about that change.”  So George was right there, you know.

And Booker Little was my best friend, and he and I would meet at Thunderbird Pass every morning, and we’d go to school, and Booker… We’d get up at 6 o’clock and practice until about 8:30 or 9, then we’d get a permit to come to school late, and… Like that.  We just were on it.  We just loved the music.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to go on so much about Memphis.  Do you have a specific question?

TP:    Well, I think you answered it.  Why don’t you talk a little bit more about your relationship with Booker Little.

CL:    Man, could I.  See, Booker was the incarnation of… Pardon my lyrics, but he was a wise man.  He died… I think we buried him, he was 22 or 23.  I can’t think about that, it hurts so much…

See, here’s what happened.  Booker was a saint and a sage.  I mean, in the full sense of the word.  He was a holy man.  Okay?  Now, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t like the barbecue sauce, and the ladies were all over Booker.  But he had a way of… Booker just had a graciousness, and everybody wanted some of Booker.  I remember one… Anyway, I could tell you about that, but it’s not for radio play, so… I like radio, though.  It’s confessional.  And I love the city, I love the energy… Anyway.

So Booker and I were in Memphis, okay, and we were playing, you know, we heard Bird and Diz, and Dewey when he was Dewey, before he put a dress on—and we loved that music.  It just turned us on so much.  Later, Booker came to… He went to Chicago, you know, with Frank… He followed Frank and those guys to the Chicago Conservatory.  And I either was going to go to Juilliard or the University of Southern California.  I chose Southern California, because I loved Bartok’s music, for some strange reason, and they had a professor there, Halsey Stephens, who Bartok was his specialty.  And I don’t know, somehow I… A kid gets a weird kind of notion on this stuff.  So I went to school there.

But later Booker came through with Max Roach, and that was really inspiring.  In those days I was playing with Bobby Hutcherson, Ornette, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, Scott LaFaro… Now, this is interesting.  In Memphis I was in the right place at the right time.  It was always pregnant with elixir and all these bad cats were just playing their buns off.  Forget Albert(?).  He’d be standing around the corner, peeping, wishing he could be a fly on some of that!  Jamil Nasser.  Jamil said that we remember him as an iceman… I was a swimmer, I used to win prizes and stuff like that, and I quit swimming because I wanted to learn to play the saxophone.  I love the saxophone!

So anyway, when I got… Then I got to California, and I wanted to learn all there is about music.  They only wanted to show me about three hundred years of Europe.  That’s cool, but what about, you know, all this other stuff?  And they didn’t have no elixir ration for that.  So I found out my tribe, you know, in these people I just mentioned.  There was the Coal Man, Ornette, and stuff like that.  He had the Studebaker that went backwards and he ran over his saxophone, and that’s why he later got the plastic one because it ran over the other one.  Sorry.

TP:    I never heard that one.

CL:    After a jam session one day, you know, he backed up… Do you remember those Studebakers?  You couldn’t tell the front from the back.  I don’t remember the years.  But some car aficionados could call in.  So pardon me, I’ll be brief here; I’m sorry about this verbal diarrhea.

What I’m trying to say is that I love the music, I’ve always loved it, I still love it.

So there in California I had all these great people I told you about.  I also played in Gerald Wilson’s Big Band.  There are a lot of people I don’t mention.  For example, I forgot to tell you about Willie Mitchell in Memphis.  I played in his band.  Do you remember Willie Mitchell?  He produced Al Green, man, and all that stuff.  I played with Rufus Thomas and all these people, too.

TP:    So you had a whole range of experience.

CL:    I had a whole range of experience.

TP:    You were playing in almost every genre of the music, with a full cultural experience.

CL:    Yes.  And in the high school band, you’ve got to come in contact with Bach and Brahms and stuff like that…

TP:    Who was your high school band teacher?

CL:    Matthew Garrett.  Matthew Garrett!  I hear this girl Dee Dee Bridgewater, that he’s her father.  Now, I can’t research all this because I’ve been in hiatus for years.  I’m not in hiatus, obviously, now.  You can check.  I’m just zooming, because you know, pshew, I’m home.  So happy to be home.  I like the woods, you know, for a minute, but I stayed too long in the woods.  You know what I’m talking about?  Like, remember that t-shirt, “heading out for the woods.”  So I had to check that out.  But that’s the way I am.  When I go into something, I just go knee deep.  Sorry.  I get drowned.

TP:    Who were you listening to in formulating your sound as a young musician?

CL:    Well, I’d stay up all night listening to Yardbird Parker, you know, Mister Parker.  I knew that he flew through the air with the greatest of ease any time he wanted to, and he lived in luxurious penthouses in Manhattan and had people driving him all over the place, you know, and anything Mister Bird wanted to do, everything was cool, you know.  So Bird was my main hero, because think about the… I mean, this stuff came up later about Superman, flying… Bird was my hero when I was a little kid.  And of course, I loved Fats Navarro.  I mean, I heard all this stuff.  And Mister Hawkins and Prez and Lady Day.  Coming up, all that just moved me so much.  I sat at the feet of Mister Hawkins here in New York.  He wasn’t so much into talking; it was just like the saint would impart something to you with just the ray, you know, just looking at me.  I’ve got a photo to this day (I’ll send you a copy of it) backstage at the Vanguard, and I’m sitting at his feet, and he’s just looking at me, and like he’s just elixiphizing me with all this stuff.

So I’m just blessed to be a part of process, you know what I’m saying?  I’m not at all any good.  I want you to know that.  I’m not the dust of the dust of their shoes.  But I love this music.  And I’ll tell you, sometimes the little stuff gets out of the way, and the music comes through, man, and I’m home.

TP:    We’re speaking with Charles Lloyd, who is laying a lot of information on us…

CL:    But let me tell you just quickly about Booker.  Then when I got to New York… Because we found in California that a pineapple hits you on the head, and another day goes by.  Well, what is that?  And you’ve got to drive about nineteen years to get to the gig or something like that, and then the gig was tired.  I played a wedding with Billy Higgins, Don Cherry, a pianist named Terry Trotter, maybe Scott LaFaro was on bass.  Anyway, we get to the gig, and we couldn’t wait to play, you know, because that’s what we loved doing.  And we said, “LA-DA-DU-DO, BALEEDLE, DA-DUT,”  [ETC.] You know what that is, “Doctor Jackyll.”  So we don’t get that far at that wedding.  The father said, “Please, please, please stop.  I’ll pay you.  Here’s the money.  Don’t play any more.  Please stop.”  You know, that’s the type of stuff we had to come up against.  So we knew we had to get to New York.  Fortunately, Ornette came to New York and was playing at the Five Spot non-stop, and that was an encouragement for all of us.  So slowly, slowly… Eric Dolphy left Chico Hamilton and joined Mingus’ group, and Eric recommended me to Chico.  I joined Chico.  I was playing with Bobby Hutcherson then.  I had a bad group with Bobby Hutcherson and Scott La Faro, and I’m trying to think of who was playing drums with us at that time.  There was a lot of great drummers in California.  Lawrence Marable.  There was…

TP:    Frank Butler maybe?

CL:    Frank Butler!  Yeah, oh, man!  Frank Butler told the judge… The judge said, “Frank, you got to do five years.”  Frank said, “I can’t do that much time, your honor.”  He said, “Just do the best you can, Frank.”  I’m sorry.  We laughed as kids.  That’s not laughable now.  But his real message was, you know, if you don’t make five, Jack…

But I don’t like a society or a system where… I want everybody to be able to rise to their full potential.  I mean, on the for-real side.  I don’t like impediments.  So we’ve got to find some way to make this thing a level playing field, where everybody… The big fault of the whole thing… See, this music is the music of freedom, okay.  It’s the music of enlightenment.  It’s the music of transformation.  It’s a music of wonder.  I don’t know what this media thing is all mis-used for.  I come to town, man… You invite me to your show, and I see nobody else wants to talk to me.  That’s cool.  I don’t want to talk to nobody anyway.  All I want to do is do the music.

However, I am a servant.  Okay?  I am a part of this process.  I sat at the feet of Mister Hawkins, the father of the modern tenor saxophone.  And they tell me, “Well, Mister Gumball and them cats don’t want to say nothin’ to your stuff because, you know, it’s not presentable,” or maybe it’s not… Well, quiet as it’s kept, man, it’s their tradition, and not only that, it’s all of our traditions.  And this music is a music of full-on uplift played by great creators.  It does something to you and for you that gets you up in the morning with the right attitude of just, “Yes, how are you,” and you be kind to each other, and you learn to love yourself and the higher principles and eternal verities — and quiet as it’s kept, change your character if you get deep off into it.  So I don’t know what this pablum is all about and all this useless information and stuff like that.  You’ve got the computer and the chip and all that stuff, and it moves faster than the speed and stuff… Well, this music has always moved faster than the speed of light.

When I got to New York, Booker was here, and I came down the first night, man, and Booker was playing with Eric and Roy Haynes and stuff at Birdland.  I went downstairs, man, and it was just… I was just home.  I knew I was home.  And Booker took me to his pad.  He was living up on East 92nd Street then, across from the Y; you know the Y up there.  Booker sat me down and he said, “Man, it’s different now.  We’ve kind of gone into different camps.  But the thing is that you’ve got to be living about truth, and you’ve got to be sincere, and you’ve got to be straight with yourself and people.  And this music, we all loved it, we’ve always loved it, but here we are.  Just keep working on your character.  Your music is great.”  And man, I was dipping and diving.  Booker was on his way out then.  His health thing was in decline.  But he was imparting this wisdom.

Well, man, I got just hit with all of that, and I am a part of that.  Please pardon my lyrics, and I’ll be quiet, because it’s about playing the music.  But I do want to say that there is something behind this music, and I live in adoration of that, because we are spirit, and this material thing… Nobody gets out of here alive, and we ought to find a way where we can all dance here.

I blew a fuse as a young man.  That’s why I went away into hiatus, because I blew a fuse.  Because I just thought… I wanted to change the world with music.  I realized I’d failed at that.  So I said, “Hey, I’d better change my character, as Booker said, straight up.”  And Mom’s love at home is real important.  That really helps kids, you know.  So I’m really for education and for the uplift of the thing.  But music, man, in our lives, we really need it, and we aren’t getting enough of it.  What you do here and what’s happening in some other places gets to us, but it’s just too little, brother, and it may be too little, too late, unfortunately.  But God bless you for what you’re doing.

TP:    Well, everybody’s got to put down only what they can put down, I think.  And I think what we should do is listen to some recent music by Charles Lloyd, then we’ll return for more conversation.

[MUSIC: “Monk In Paris”; “Imke”; “Figure In Blue (Memories of Duke)”]

TP:    Talk about your experiences in New York in the 1960′s.  How has it changed for you coming back here?

LB:    Well, I moved here in 1960 (as I said, I replaced Eric Dolphy with Chico Hamilton), and I first stayed with Booker Little, then later I stayed with Frank Strozier.  Because when you’re a young musician, you know, and haven’t heard Bird, and Bird living in the penthouse, it took a while… I didn’t have the penthouse together, so they let me sleep on their sofas, you know, for a while.  Then later… Fortunately, I was a composer, so I had some kind of publishing thing where I got an apartment at 1 Sheridan Square in the Village.  So that was good for me.  So I lived there.

And my experiences were incredible, because all my old friends from California were here.  Ornette, Eric was here, all of Ornette’s group.  Scott La Faro was here, who was my best buddy.  You know, he used to drive a car like Steve McQueen.  Looked like him, too.  Same thing, he would drive through anything.  It’s unfortunate he went out in a car accident, too.

But my experience here was very… There was just music everywhere.  Bill Lee had this Citroen, you know; we’d all pile up in that, and we’d go from Birdland down to the Jazz Gallery to hear Monk, and then we would go to the Five Spot to hear Saint Newk, and then we’d go over to the Half Note, and then we’d come back up to the Vanguard, and then we’d go back uptown.  It was kind of like that.  Harold Mabern and stuff… We’d just stay up all night and laugh, and we’d go to movies during the day, and we’d practice and we’d play.  It was just living for the music, the Holy Grail romantic notion of that.  That’s what it was like.

It was a simpler time, in a way, and I think there was also… Everybody was deep off into the study and the pursuit of the music.  There wasn’t commerce or anything like that.  It was just purely for the love.  Of course, it was a simpler world and a simpler time.

TP:    Was there a political or ideological component to what was happening in the music, or was that laid onto it by observers from the outside, would you say?

CL:    I think this music has always been (how do you say?) dealing on such a level that it encompasses everything.  So I would be remiss if I would say it was only just… The purity of the pursuit was one that made your scholastic or your scholarship thing… You had to know everything about it.  And New York does teach you that there is something indestructible in the spirit, and you’d better get to that fast.  So the question of was there a political aspect or was that laid on it… Of course, we knew that…

Shirley Horn said, “Ten cents a dance.  That’s what they pay me.  Gosh, how they hurt my toes, fat guys and sailors” — you know.  So we were kind of… I love Shirley Horn down there.  I wanted to sing my little trumpet solo with her, you know, but I just… I mean, my sax solo.  I remember Dewey used to play down there, and she would sing that “Ten Cents a Dance.”  Oh, man, it used to just make me cry in tears and stuff.

We were all optimists.  We hoped for a better world.  And for some reason… To answer your question, frankly, at a certain point, I just blew a fuse and had to go away and try to heal, you know, and to change my character to be able to… I had the indestructibility sutra down where I could live in my lifetime with that; I knew what that was about.  But I still believe that there was a way that I could transcend the madness, liberation amidst the chaos.  And with the music, I wanted to bring something of inspiration and consolation to sisters and brothers and sisterettes and brotherettes around the world.

So for me, I think that on the level that you’re speaking, when you talk about the political arena, I would say that we’d better deal with the spirit.  Because it’s a spiritual quest.  That’s what we really are here, and he who is stepping on who, or who is first and who is last, I mean, all that is misplaced thinking.  I think if we have a world… I mean, obviously… You know, I wanted to marry Lady Day when I was ten years old, and protect her and look after her.  So what can I tell you about any of this, you know?

TP:    Let me ask you about three musicians who you’ve mentioned in the course of our discussion, and who you came into contact with.  In California, you hooked up with Ornette Coleman, and knew him and heard him, and Eric Dolphy as well.  And many people, of course, saw a certain analogy between your approach and John Coltrane, who you’ve also talked about.  And indeed, you also mentioned, when we were off-mike, spending a week at the feet of the Ellington band in Antibes.  So I’d like some reflections from you on each of those musical entities.

CL:    We’re very fortunate that Ornette is still alive today.  I love him very much.  He for me was someone who was very great in my life.  I was an alto player, and when I moved to California to go to college, I was very intense…and there were lots of jam sessions around Los Angeles those days.  Incidentally, I didn’t mention Ellis Marsalis.  He was out there in the Service at El Toro Marine Base, and he would come up, and we’d jam a lot.  He had the Santini School approach to life also, as you can see from his siblings [sic]. Essentially that’s a great school to come from, because in a way…it prepares you for half-steps, you know.

Getting back to these folks you asked about.  Ornette was… I can’t put words to him, because… We used to argue a lot, because my approach and his approach… I used to say, “Ornette, you can’t read and you can’t do this,” and he said, “You know, you can play the saxophone, but that don’t have a whole lot do with music.”  So we would have approaches like that.  I was a kid, you know… One day, Ornette and I stopped arguing.  Because he walked from his house over on Jefferson over to my house over on 36th Street at S.C., and he brought his horn.  He was going to follow all of the… He actually solved the universe for me that day.  He came over… It was a very enlightening experience.  I have to tell you about Thelonious, who also gave me… Thelonious is the one who sent me away into hiatus.  Remind me if I go too far on that…

But Ornette came over to my house one day, took his alto out, didn’t say a word.  He played the lowest note on there, a low B-flat, his B-flat, which is concert D-flat or something.  (I’m not here trying to be pedantic.)  He played the lowest note on the horn, then he played the highest note.  You follow this?  Low note, the highest note.  Then he came up a half-step to the next to the lowest note, then he played the next to the highest note.  You following this?  He did this on the whole saxophone!  He compressed the instrument (you understand?) from the lowest to the highest, and he kept bringing each of them up.  But what he did was, he alternately played each.  He played the low B-flat and he played the high F, and then he played the C, and then he played the E, and he kept compressing it.  But what he did was, he did it in a nanosecond.  He said, WWHHOOMMPP!

And so, we never argued about music any more.  I just said, “Okay,” and I prostrated, and from then on we didn’t have to deal with that.  And he opened me up to something, which was the organicness of the music.  Because I had come from that school where…the Santini school from George Coleman and Ellis and stuff, about not going across the line, you know, and Ornette had blurred the line.  And it turned out that I was very entrancillated [sic] with all that.   (Pardon my lyrics.  I have to make up words.  Because I don’t think that it’s adequate for musicians, especially.)

And Eric also… Now, there’s someone who Eric comes from that’s very important who is still also alive.  That’s Buddy Collette.  I don’t know if you know him.  This is very beautiful, and I’m very touched.  I lived at this place, 1 Sheridan Square, and I’m with Chico.  Remember when Mingus had the concert at Town Hall with the big band, way back then.  Well, Buddy came to town because Buddy was his Gil Evans.  Buddy was orchestrating and doing all the stuff.  Because Mingus had that Corvette, you know, with the Confederate flag and his bass sticking out of the green Corvette, riding around the Village, and Mingus would park his Corvette anywhere, and nobody would mess with his space.  Believe me.  Nobody.  Even the dudes today, they may… I can’t speak… I can only speak in our lifetime, okay.  You can’t say what it would be, because now some other son may cut your foot off or something, or your left (?).

But anyway, Eric was very beautiful and very scholarly.  He came through Buddy, though.  Buddy is a very sweet, compassionate man.

Then when you ask about Trane, I don’t know what to tell you about him.  I loved him also so much.  He for me embodied so much.  You know, like, Bird discovered the atom train, smashed it, you know, and it was kind of like… So much beauty of tone, lyricism, swing.  I mean, you talk about it.  Trane embodied it all!  When I think about the saxophone, I start thinking about Prez and Coleman Hawkins and Big Ben and Don Byas, you know, all of that.  And I’ve just come up, and there’s so many great tenor players, Newk… But you know, Trane for me…you know, it was something very special.  Again, it was that sage, that saintly quality, you see.  Because I always hooked that up with these musicians.  For me, they were guiding us and leading us, and they were talking about it all.  I just had great adoration for him.

And when people say, well, that I sound like him or something… Man, I wish I did!  What I’m saying is I loved him so much, and I take that as a compliment.  However, time has borne out that… I think I have grown to have a sound and an approach that certainly comes from all those great masters…

But again, getting back to Trane, he profoundly affected me, as did the others.  Ornette also.

TP:    Do you remember first hearing him?  And Ornette.

CL:    Dig this.  Do you know where I first heard Trane?  This is very interesting.  I first heard him in 1955 with Dewey, and they were playing at Jazz City in Hollywood.  I had gone to California to interview for the University of Southern California.  This is interesting, because he played in starts and stops.  He would play a little bit… Then Dewey also was doing the Santini thing of sending him off the stage!  He was being hard.  You know how Lady Day…I mean, Dewey could be a nice bunch of guys… So he was sending him off the stage, and all kinds of nonsense like that.

But I just kept following him.  Then I remember they made that record, remember “Stablemates” and all that stuff, and I was listening to that, and it was like…it was so… It was so fulfilling.  You know?  It was so rich.  It was so much quality and so much beauty, and his search and his aspiration.  All I can say is that I always had that in me.  When I wasn’t good as a little kid, I still had the great search.  And that thing we definitely had in common, a great spiritual quest.  And he definitely… As I said earlier, I’m not the dust of his shoes.  But sometimes all these great masters come through and they bless me with this special benediction, and I feel really uplifted.

TP:    You asked me to remind you to say a few words about Monk, and also Ellington if we have time.

CL:    Oh, I’ll be real quick.  Okay.  The thing about Monk was, I was playing opposite him at the Village Gate, and he would kind of dance around the walls and stuff.  You know that beautiful dance he used to do?  And Nica, the Baroness, you know… By this time I was a precocious kid, you know, like youngsters can be.  I thought I knew everything.  I’m in my late twenties, I had the group with Keith Jarrett and Jack De Johnette and Cecil McBee.  So we were playing at the Village Gate.  So I had a special thing in my rider that I had to have fresh orange juice, no more than six hours off the tree, and that kind of nonsense, you know.  I was trying to be a brutarian or something like that.  So Monk would come in, he’d be checkin’ Junior out…

Incidentally, one other thing I have to tell you quickly is, before I joined Cannonball I had an invitation from Monk’s manager to come and play with Monk.  He called me on the phone and said, “Why don’t you go to Monk’s house and play with him.”  I said, “I’d love to.”  He said, “Well, Monk wants you to play with him.”  I said, “Well, great.  Have him give me a call.”  I didn’t understand intermediaries in those days.  So somehow I didn’t get to do that.

But anyway, we were backstage at the Village Gate between sets.  So I told Nica, “Nica, when Monk comes here, please tell him not to drink the orange juice because it’s tainted tonight.”  So Monk comes in and she said, “Thelonious, Thelonious, Thelonious, Charles said don’t drink the orange juice, it’s tainted, it’s tainted!”  And he didn’t pay any attention to anybody, he’s just dancing.  So finally he gets over by the pitcher of orange juice, he picks it up, and he kind of dances over by me, and he just goes [GLUG-GLUG-GLUG...”] — he gobbled the whole thing down.  And he looked straight into my eyes and he said, “Tainted, huh.”  I was reading a book at that book called Milarepa, a hundred thousand songs from this Tibetan saint.  He would take poison and turn into soma or elixir.  So I said, “I’m not ready.”  It was getting to be time for me to leave.

The thing about Duke, I was in Antibes, and Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges, they just took me to their feet, and they took me to Sidney Bechet’s gravesite over there, and they gave me an initiation that remains with me to this day.  And Duke told me that if I keep stirring the soup that one day I’d have something.  They just gave me love and conviviality, you know, and again, they transformed something.

TP:    Made you feel very connected also.

CL:    Oh, man!  And Mister Carney was…both of them were so beautiful.

* * * *

Charles Lloyd  – (5-31-95):

TP:    Last year you came up for an Out To Lunch, and we spent a long time talking about your early years in Memphis.  It was a fascinating show.  It seems to me that the title of this release and the liner notes all refer to Memphis…

CL:    That’s only because of your show. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You tell some of the similar stories.  A few words about what’s behind this record and how you conceived it.  And why would you say it was because of that particular show that you’d start thinking about Memphis?

CL:    I was humoring you.

TP:    Oh, thank you.

CL:    No, Memphis, it’s in Egypt, and it was someplace that formed me and informed me.  I heard Bird, you know.  That’s so great, man.  I have to get up so early in the morning, like 8:20 in the morning, to check Bird out on the air.  That’s wonderful, to be on the airwaves.  No other city does that!

TP:    Where did you hear Bird in Memphis?

CL:    Uh…

TP:    Oh, did you say you heard Bird in Memphis, or you were hearing him this morning?

CL:    I hear him every morning.  I get up.  Even when I play at the Blue Note I’ll still get up to hear the music.  And when I was a little kid, I’d go to bed, and Bird wouldn’t come on the radio until midnight, because this kind of music wasn’t played during the daylight hours on the radios at that time.  So I’d have to stay up all night and fool my mother that I was nuts, that I was asleep, and I’d wait for Bird to come on, and I’d soar.  So it’s always been like that.

TP:    Well, you were around the music from the beginning, because I gather your mother had a rooming house…

CL:    No, she didn’t have a rooming house.  It was just one of her girlfriends, you know, worked at the theaters and knew that these musicians, these great artists, needed accommodations on a very (?) level.  So my Mom had a nice home.  So Lionel Hampton and a few people stayed there.

TP:    Well, you have vivid memories, expressed in the notes, about seeing the musicians in Lionel Hampton’s band as a youngster, and being very impressed.

CL:    Oh yeah.

TP:    And hanging out with Quincy Jones, approximately a peer of yours.

CL:    Well, he’s got a little more mileage on the chassis than me.  But we were precocious little kids, you know.

TP:    Has this been a busy year for you?  Have you been doing a lot of writing, thinking, performing?  You said you just got back from 20 concerts in Europe.

CL:    Yes, I just played 20 concerts in about a month in Europe.  So I would probably normally be a basket case.  But there’s something strange about this music.  You kind of get energized or something.  Something happens where it goes beyond the physical situation.  Because that travel and all that stuff can be quite arduous, but when you get to play the music and get people to be so touched by it, it’s always been very beautiful for me.

TP:    It’s a different band this week.

CL:    This is true.

TP:    You have Billy Childs and Santi DiBriano.  A few words about the members of the band.

CL:    Well, the tour was with a group that I’ve been recording with, with Bobo and Anders and Billy — with Jabali there.  Coming back home, there were problems in bringing the guys over this time, because two of the guys live in Sweden, and Billy lives in New York — and I’m not quite sure where my home is.

Billy Childs is someone that I’ve been observing over the years, and he makes recordings and such that I can’t quite… I think he has large talent that’s something… and in the wildness of my music I can bring something out in him.  I’m taking on a challenge here.  Santi, of course, comes from Jabali’s world, and Jabali recommended him very highly, as did Billy Childs.  But Billy I think has a very large talent.  And I like pianists, as you probably know; of course, drummers I love.  So I have always tried to develop something, some rapport there.  Billy’s instrument is normally too clean, but I think playing with me it will get a little more ragged, you know.

TP:    Well, let’s hear some more music from All My Relations.  You said that today you want to speak in more or less sound bite chunks…

CL:    Well, no.  I just thought last time I kind of probably OD’ed the airwaves with this verbiage, and I really love music, and so I thought, “Gee, Ted will probably…”  And the listeners, they want to hear music.  I got this kind of monotone on the Memphis thing…

TP:    Well, dynamics are everything, and we’ll be contrasting here.  So let’s hear a little piece from All My Relations…

CL:    You mean I’m not being rambunctious today or something?

TP:    You’re fine just the way you are.

CL:    I don’t want to control this, Ted!  You know?

TP:    Let’s hear “Little Peace,” a flute piece…

CL:    Little Peace.  That’s my dear friend, Booker Little, you know.  Booker Little Peace.

TP:    You knew him from Memphis.  A few words about him before we play it.

CL:    Great sage, great saint, beautiful soul, died at 23, or at least left the body at 23.  In Memphis we played together in various bands.  Phineas Newborn was a real focus for us, or was our big mentor, and all the other string of tradition that you already know about.  Booker had something very special.  When I first arrived in New York in ’60, I joined Chico Hamilton; Eric Dolphy had left and gone with Mingus.  I checked into Prez’ old hotel, because I have some fascination with Prez and Lady Day, as you well know.  Booker said, “no, you can’t stay there,” and he took me home up on East 92nd Street with him, and he talked to me long into the night about the eternal verities and about character building and all kinds of things that we never really talked about in Memphis.  It was like he was a wise man then and ready to… He had made his peace.  And to this day I’m still moved by my relationship with Booker Little.  Very profoundly so.  He was a real… I still hear that saintliness and that sage thing in all of this music, because obviously, you know, this mad hassle, gymnasium world that we all live in, you realize that these music-makers have brought so much great beauty into the world.  So that’s what happened for me.  And then Booker put the other thing on top of it.  He brought the spiritual value home, and was really… I also think that when he died, he was the most advanced on his instrument for me.  I loved him very much.  And it’s kind of strange that Max lost Clifford and Booker.

You know, when Booker left Memphis, he went to Chicago and he stayed at the Y, and he met Sonny Rollins there at the Y, who was doing a kind of sabbatical in Chicago at that period in time, and also he met Clifford and Max and all.  He loved Clifford so much.  And when Clifford died, Booker, who was very young then, a teenager, he said, “Why couldn’t it have been me?”  I mean, how many of us have that kind of compassion or such a big soul?

So I was touched by someone who was extremely profound.  If people sometimes ask… I remember once Freddie Hubbard asked someone, “Where is Charles Lloyd?”  He said, “Oh, don’t tell me.  I know he’s out there in the woods, meditating or something.”  But the point is, Booker and a lot of these sages, like Monk and Milarepa and all of them, sent me packing.  And I try to bring something back now.

[MUSIC: "Little Peace", "Thelonious Theoniyus"]

TP:    I assume from the title of this album that these compositions have many layered meanings to you, and many references.  So a few words about “Thelonious Theonyus.”

CL:    But they have many layers.  I would spoil it by coming in there, putting meringue and stuff on it.

TP:    That’s true.

CL:    I like my mangos.  I still like barbecue sauce, but I put it on corn and stuff like that.  Corn on the cob, you put some barbecue sauce on it.

TP:    When was the last time you had that?

CL:    From my garden, you know, when the season is right.  I have stuff in season.  I have a nice garden.  Have you ever had really fresh mulberries off the tree?

TP:    No, never.

CL:    They’re so sweet, man, but you’ve got to get them really true.  I just love mulberries.  And you wouldn’t think of that, you know, when you think of Mulberry Street.  You wouldn’t get all extaterated, you know…

TP:    While we were on microphone, you were talking about hearing Booker Little with Eric Dolphy and Blackwell at the Five Spot.  You succeeded Eric Dolphy in Chico Hamilton’s group in the 1960′s?  Were you friends in Los Angeles?
CL:    Yes, we were.  We played in Gerald Wilson’s Big Band together.

TP:    [SILENT]

CL:    Oh!  Yeah, I’m sorry, man.  Monk was very important to me.  He had something extremely special, and I’m glad that his music lives on in the airwaves of all of our hearts.  He taught me a lot.  We used to play opposite each other at the Village Gate, and I told you about the orange juice story ages ago.

TP:    I guess you did.

CL:    And Milarepa.  But you know, he’s just so deep and so pregnantly powerful with his silent night stuff, that I just loved him very much.

What were you asking me about?

TP:    Dolphy.

CL:    Now, Dolphy… See, there’s a guy behind all of that.  Buddy Collette was, like, Dolphy’s teacher.  Now, Buddy Collette is a very special cat.  Now, Buddy Collette also was Mingus’ teacher.  Buddy Collette is a very strange individual in that he has not only persevered, but he has sort of…how do you say… He has made peace with himself in the world.  He even went and did studio work out there for years.  But what I’m trying to say is… I’m now looking at this thing that we stand on all the shoulders of all these greats.  Like Lao Tzu was hiking one day, and the guy with plague was happening, and he had all this stuff on his back, and he said to Lao Tzu, “Old man, is this all you got away with?” — and Lao Tzu was walking with his walking cane at about 80, you know.  So he said, “Yes, precisely.”  It’s like a larger nation can always… But it doesn’t work that way in politics.

You asked me about politics last time.  I thought that was such a wrinkle.  Who is not touched in their lifetime by the adversity and the strangeness of the whole mechanics of greed and all that…you know, racism’s grandmother and stuff.  So enough said on that.  I’ve dealt with it, see.

Becoming an elder, the kid in me is still… We’re all ecstatics at birth.  We have that possibility.  So what I’m trying to say is that somehow this music is always… I remember I always had this tricycle.  Like, I was maybe 3, and I’d be riding it around really hard, and I remember my Mom would yell outside, “Charles, Junior, what are you doing on the tricycle?”  I’m trying to get rid of the third wheel.  Because I wanted to leave Memphis, you know.  But I had to meet Phineas and all that kind of stuff.

But anyway, what I’m trying to say is that the ecstatic in us… There’s something about this music.  It’s a music of wonder, played by these great creators.  It’s just… I think we live in a world where people don’t get to hear… The music, it’s sort of… It’s like what happened to me when I was a kid.  I’d have to wait until midnight to hear it.  Now there’s so many layers of Pop stands and Coca-Cola refreshment places or something, that you can’t get to the real Matuki.  You know what I’m saying.

TP:    In the liner notes, you referred to a teacher named Irvin Reason.

CL:    Irving Reason.  I talked to you about him last time.  He and Don Cherry, I’d say, were together.  They met each other in the Tombs and talked about those days in Memphis.

TP:    You played a lot of blues when you were in Memphis also.

CL:    I still play the blues.

TP:    Again, I’m referring to the very informative liner notes.  If you buy All My Relations you get to hear a kind of compressed version of our show last year.

CL:    Yeah, you inspired it.  Then they said to me, “You’ve got to write a book now.”  Then this publisher ran up to me in Italy recently, and he read the liner notes, and he said, “Oh God, these are incredible.  I must have the rights in Italy.  I must have the rights.”  They over there doing programs on the indigenous people who lived over here way before these people, Columbus and these cats, came over here claiming to be discovering stuff.

Where are we, brother?

TP:    “I’m always playing the blues,” you said.  You and a lot of the musicians you came up with in Memphis really cut your teeth on those type of gigs.

CL:    Well, those were the gigs, but that wasn’t what we were really aspiring to.  You understand?  It’s sort of like a guy has to do a day job to do his thing.  I mean, nothing against the Blues, but the Blues was so… I wanted to play up in Mitchell’s Hotel with Bill Harvey’s band, with Irvin and all the cats, Louis Smith, Booker Little’s older cousin.  I did play in Phineas’ father’s band when Phineas and Calvin were in the band.  I played in all those groups.  Willie Mitchell had a big band that played like Dizzy’s big band, you know, and that was a precursor to Gerald Wilson.  Now, Gerald is from down there, around Memphis also.  So there’s something that happens.

But you see, although I am from down there, the Modern thing in New York, it filters through my song, because I came here… I always knew I had to get here.  But I had to take the detour, the pineapple hit me on the head en route to go to California, and then we all finally got here.  But that was quite wonderful when we got here… See, giants roamed the earth then.  It was a simpler time in some ways, simpler in the sense that the neighborhood and the community and the musicians, there was some real simpatico.  Ornette and Eric and I had been together in California.  Billy Higgins and I played together, and we used to love to play… You know, Billy Higgins and I still play together sometimes, man.  It’s come back after all those years, and it just makes me so thrilled.

TP:    You said you were going to be performing with him this summer, with Dave Holland on bass.

CL:    Billy Higgins and Dave Holland and myself, we’re going to play some music together.  That should be interesting.

[ETC.]

Working with you is like another chance to tell the truth, you know?

TP:    What was the Chico Hamilton experience like for you?

CL:    Why do you go there?  Why don’t you talk about my dreams?  My dreams are actually bigger than my memories, quiet as it’s kept.  If you think I’m just a memory lane cat…

TP:    No, not a bit.  I’d feel a little awkward saying “What are your dreams?”

CL:    No, I’m not going to talk about those.  But the time thing that you bring up, you see, there is no time, if you look at it from a pull-back… You know, if you pull back and look at it from a macro level, the time thing gets squashed.  The music happens, there is no time.  It’s the eternal verities and all that stuff, getting back to Booker and that.

What was it like playing with Chico?  I was a young man, and I wrote all this music, you know, and I had a place that I could play it!

TP:    A good workshop.

CL:    A good place to play it!  I got cats to play it with me and stuff like that, and Chico was very open to it, because… Like that, you know?  Then one time we were playing in Canada, and Miles came onstage in Montreal, and he said, “Here’s the cat who stole your band!” [LAUGHS] I hadn’t stolen his band!  We were having a good time.  Chico is very brilliant.  Look who he had in his group.  He had Buddy Collette, he had Eric, he had different cats in the group all the.

TP:    Gabor Szabo, Arthur Blythe.

CL:    Gabor Szabo.  People don’t understand.  Gabor had a little twang.  I liked that.  He heard the gypsies over there in Hungary when he was a kid.

Oh, man, time is ticking away, Ted.  Don’t do this to me, man!  Play some of the music.  Look, here’s what you do.  Play “Piercing The Veil,” “Hymn To The Mother,” and then you play “Evenstide.”

TP:    Well, we have to be off at 3.  So I can only do one.

CL:    Well, this is a university, so you do have your freedom.  And universities are places where you can put ideas in the air.  We all need education, we need love, we need this home thing happening, and it’s important to hear the music in spite of all those filters that go on that keep the music away from the people.

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Filed under Charles Lloyd, Interview, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

On the 63rd Birth Anniversary Of Michael Brecker, A 2000 DownBeat Article

In 2000 I had the honor of writing a long cover story for DownBeat about the extraordinary tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker on the occasion of his then-current CD, Time Is Of The Essence. He’d joined me several years before on WKCR, and, as the ’00s progressed, I was asked to write publicity bios for several of his recordings. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone for five years—today would be his 63rd birthday.

* * *

Michael Brecker (Downbeat Article):

At fifty, Michael Brecker is perhaps the most copied living saxophonist, During his thirty years as a professional improviser, he’s made his mark on every conceivable musical circumstance, from hard core jazz to hard core pop. Brecker no longer needs to prove anything to anyone, but a few holes remained in his resume at the beginning of 1999.

For one thing, the tenor saxophonist had never explored the capacious sonic field of the organ-guitar rhythm section, a mainstay for any young saxman coming up, as Brecker did, in an organ town like ‘60s Philadelphia.  Nor had Brecker, whose debt on every level to the John Coltrane Quartet is no secret, ever locked horns in a studio with drum innovator Elvin Jones, a lifelong hero.

Brecker rectifies both gaps on Time Is Of The Essence [Verve], his third consecutive release devoted to full-bore improvising.  Hammond futurist Larry Goldings and guitar icon Pat Metheny frame the leader’s urgent declamations, while elder statesman Jones and two descendants — Jeff Watts and Bill Stewart, cutting-edge tradition piggybackers with their own trapset dialects — sculpt the rhythm flow on three selections apiece. Goldings, a proactive comper and imaginative soloist, trumps the leader’s ideas and tosses out intriguing postulations; Metheny, an infrequent visitor to the organ function, plays with bluesy feel and spare discretion.  With a tone whose muscularity is less buff and more fluid than some years back, Brecker plays with characteristic blue-flame-to-white-heat clarity, a hungry master searching for — and often reaching — the next level.

For Brecker — who came of age when seminal language-makers like Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk were alive and creative, when today’s “classic” Blue Note albums were hot off the presses — the search seems to involve reaching out to younger musicians like Watts and Goldings whose aesthetic embraces investigating and revitalizing the tradition, not exploding it.

“That’s an interesting point,” Brecker responds when I propose this idea to him.  He’s tall, fit, bald with a trim salt-and-pepper goatee, stylishly spectacled.  He speaks in measured tones belying the sturm und drang that characterizes his tenor saxophone voice.  “The dynamics of the musical scene were quite different when I first arrived in New York, and we were coming from a different place.  The advent of the newer generation of musicians allows me to play in the jazz tradition in a way that doesn’t feel retro.  It feels fresh.  ‘Time Is Of The Essence’ involves a certain amount of looking back.”

Brecker’s comfort level with the organ dates to childhood; his father, Robert, a lawyer and semiprofessional jazz pianist, even brought a Hammond B3 for the household.  “My father and I played it a bit,” Brecker recalls, “and my brother Randy got pretty good on it.  I listened to organ records by Jimmy Smith and Shirley Scott with Stanley Turrentine, plus my Dad took me to hear Jimmy Smith in Philly, where organ trios played all over the city.  Every day as a teenager after school I played drums along with Larry Young’s Unity, which Elvin is on, and both saxophone and drums along with Coltrane records like A Love Supreme.  I played a lot with Eric Gravatt, an incredible drummer who was living in Philadelphia then, who later played with McCoy Tyner and Weather Report,  He exposed me to a lot of things I hadn’t heard, and different ways of playing.  We did a lot of duet playing, just drums and saxophone.  He used to set an alarm clock for an hour, and we’d improvise straight through — killin’!”

We’re sitting in the cluttered conference room of his management suite high above Times Square.  The closed windows cannot mute the blare of traffic and rattle of nearby construction.  Distracted by the cacophony from the street, Brecker lifts his lanky frame from the chair, strides to the window and peers up and down to ascertain that it indeed is closed.  A row of meteorites, from the private stock of manager Darryl Pitt, who sells them, lies on a shelf against the wall.  Brecker looks for one, picks it up, ponders it, has me feel its dense heft and smooth metallic bottom.  We marvel at the wonders of the universe, then return to the table to continue the third degree.

“Why this record now?  I can honestly say I don’t know!” he laughs.  I didn’t think of it in terms of, ‘Oh, now it’s the millennium and it’s time for an organ record.  I just knew that I wanted to record with Larry Goldings.  His sensibility reminds me of Larry Young.  I love everything about Larry’s playing — his sound and sense of time.  He’s funky as hell, and has a comprehensive harmonic palette that’s unusual for an organist — possibly because he’s also a superb pianist.  I thought it would be fabulous to couple him with Pat, which turned out to be a natural.  Pat plays compositionally, melodically, intensely; he he has his own sound which blends with mine in a way that pleases my ear.  I love Pat’s thinking process, quick and very decisive.  My last three records have all been jazz, where you have only a few days to resolve problems, unlike more produced records with electronics where the mixes are more convoluted and complex.  When I’m sitting on the fence Pat will express very firm opinions and force me to make a decision.”

Brecker credits a five-week European tour two decades ago with Metheny, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Jack deJohnette, Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden, documented on ‘80/’81 (ECM), as a pivotal transition in a career during which he’d played with Horace Silver, Billy Cobham, the Brecker Brothers, and on several hundred studio dates as the most in-demand session saxophonist in the world.

“I’d moved to New York in ‘69,” he notes, “and became involved in a loosely organized association of about 25 creative players who had been playing in each other’s lofts that was basically led by Dave Liebman with the assistance of Richie Beirach,” he relates.  “It was called Free Life Communication, and we put on our own concerts, playing a lot of very free music.  It was a special time to be in New York.  That’s when the so-called boundaries between what was then Pop music and Jazz were becoming very blurry, and those of us who experimented with combining R&B rhythms with jazz harmony began to develop a music that was a fusion, if you’ll excuse the word, of various elements.  The music was fresh, exciting, powerful and exhilarating.  We really had no word for it; at the time it was loosely referred to as Jazz-Rock.  The culmination of that for me was the group initially referred to as Dreams, which recorded for Columbia.  Our milieu dispersed because we started getting gigs, and we all left that loft scene and branched out.

“During the tour with Pat, Charlie and Jack I experienced freedom differently than in the early New York days.  It was such an open environment; the way they interacted, the way the music was conceptualized made me feel a tremendous sense of freedom, like I could play anything.  There was a type of communication in present time on stage that I hadn’t experienced before.  Something about it caused a directional shift in my approach to playing.”

In a subsequent telephone conversation, Metheny clarifies the point. “I’ve heard Mike and some of his friends say he came back from that tour a changed person, which makes me feel really good!  “I wrote that music for the way I imagined he sounded.  His first Impulse record had basically the same band as 80/’81, and we took up where that record left off.  Mike has evolved into a great composer, which you could see coming with the Brecker Brothers.  Regardless of what anyone thinks of them stylistically, the writing is really advanced.  Very little three-horn writing in any sphere today approaches the sophistication of the three-horn writing on the first Brecker Brothers record 25 years ago.  I go to Smalls all the time and hear guys play; I don’t hear anyone writing three-horn charts that hip.

“Michael’s music is so dense, the hardest music I could imagine playing.  That’s true on all three of his records I’ve been on, and it’s incredibly flattering that he asked me to play on them.  He finds ways to play straight lines through really complicated sets of changes.  I look up to Brecker the way I do to Herbie Hancock.  They remind me of each other in that both are so advanced harmonically that it just isn’t an issue.  I would aspire to that level of harmonic wisdom.  Tales From the Hudson is the date I point to as the most satisfying I’ve done as a sideman in the past few years, or maybe really ever.  To me, that kind of playing, those kinds of tunes, the way the record felt as a whole, is what Modern Jazz is in the ‘90s.  The new one is a continuation, and compositionally it’s the best of them all.”

Brecker’s dance to the vivid beats of the different drummers on Time Is Of The Essence takes the session beyond being just another well played all-star date.  “In the last few years I’ve played a lot with Jeff Watts, which is enormous fun,” he remarks.  “He plays conversationally, constantly feeds me ideas and responds to ideas in present time, gets rhythmic layers going without sacrificing the swing.  Bill Stewart has taken the drum scene by storm.  He’s come in with his own language, a sensibility on the instrument that I’ve never heard.  He has a dry sense of humor, great warmth, tremendous dynamics.  He’s a groove-master, also a conversational player but in a different way than Tain.  It’s interesting that both Bill and Tain are tremendous composers, and I think that carries over into their playing.”

During a Brecker-Metheny brainstorming session, the guitarist, recalling Unity, suggested including Elvin Jones.  “I thought it was a great idea,” Brecker relates.  “I’d sat in with Elvin one night at Slugs in 1970 or ‘71 when Frank Foster and Joe Farrell were playing with him, and later I met him over dinner at a friend’s house, but we hadn’t really played.  I was thrilled to have him, because he’s one of my idols, and such a consummate artist in every way.  The beat even felt wider than I expected, like an open field.  It feels like utter freedom playing with him.”

Reciprocating, Jones asked Brecker to join a first-class edition of the Jazz Machine for his 72nd birthday week at Manhattan’s Blue Note in October, allotting his guest a ballad feature per set, which included “Body and Soul” and “Round Midnight.”  “I had a lot of fun, and learned a few things, too,” Brecker remarks.  “By the end of the week I was using a less notey rhythmic approach, leaving more space, generally playing less, which seemed to allow the music more room to breathe.”

Not that Brecker’s present sound is anywhere near serene or spare.  Yet a quality of intuitive reflection — perhaps the term is mature wisdom — inflects his locutions on recent recordings and guest shots.  The latter occur with increasingly less frequency than the years when he accumulated most of the 525 sideman appearances cited in the February 1998 discography from http://www.michaelbrecker.com, which reads like a history of ‘70s-‘80s Pop and Fusion — Paul Simon, James Taylor, Frank Zappa, George Clinton, Chaka Khan, Lou Reed and dozens more.

Why did Brecker’s sound become an iconic signifier of the period?  “My roots were a combination of jazz and R&B,” Brecker reflects matter-of-factly. “I grew up in Philadelphia listening to Miles and Trane, Clifford Brown, Cannonball Adderley, George Coleman (I could go on and on), as well as R&B and Rock.  I genuinely loved them both, and happened to have a sensibility that let me go in many directions.  It was never my plan to end up in the studios — not that I had a plan.  It really started through the horn section in Dreams.  Randy is so great in so many different contexts, and he already was established in New York.  Dreams made a couple of records for Columbia, became known as a section after a few more records, and a there was a chain reaction.”

But there’s more to Brecker’s aura than felicitous timing, superhero chops, and enviable ability to size up a situation instantly and conjure an apropos, often poetic response.  It’s called respect, manifested in study and preparation.  Consider his duo with Richard Bona on the young Cameroonian bassist-guitarist-vocalist-drummer’s recently issued Scenes From My Life.

“If Michael was in my country, people would call him a wizard!” Bona exclaims.  “This piece, ‘Konda Djanea,’ is a 6/8 rhythm from the Oualla people on the west coast of Cameroon.  There is a certain way to phrase it.  You cannot just blow anything; it’s going right to the heart.  I didn’t send him tapes before we went in the studio, because I didn’t want him to get familiar with it.  I wanted him just to bring his own thing.  I knew he could blow on that, and it happened exactly how I heard it!  Michael has listened to this music for years, has learned it and understands it.  And not just music from Cameroon, but a lot of different music.  He’s a very serious, open-minded musician with a high level of understanding.”

Pat Metheny agrees with Bona’s assessment.  “Sometimes I hear people put him down — ‘Oh, it’s technical and all flash,’” he says.  “I’d like to see any of them follow him anywhere.  Following a Mike Brecker solo is like nothing else that I have ever experienced, and very few musicians on any instrument can do it.  It’s because he’s deep!  Man, by the time he gets done with an audience, people are standing on their chairs screaming.  He gets to people under their skin, and that’s what makes him heavy.  He can just keep going, the way Herbie Hancock can.  And it doesn’t have anything to do with any of that technical stuff.”

Bassist John Patitucci, a friend and collaborator for close to twenty years who has employed Brecker on 6 albums, is well-positioned to analyze the saxophonist’s mystique.  “Michael is a darn good drummer in an Elvin kind of style, and he can swing,” he observes.  “From a rhythm section standpoint, time is the communication link, the mode of speech; his time is flexible and incredibly strong, which is very appealing.  He’s got the history of the horn in his playing, yet he was able to forge a personal sound and statement, which is very hard to find among post-Coltrane guys.  His sound was always very fat and warm; maybe it’s a little darker now than before.  I’m sure any composer who has ever worked with him is impressed with his ability to assimilate a melody emotionally and lyrically, and deliver it with power and vulnerability at the same time — there’s a personality attached to it.  He’s an influence in all styles, which is also rare; not many real jazz musicians are able to internalize the stylistic nuances of other musics.  Michael is very self-effacing and self-critical, but a brilliant human being, yet very approachable, which is rare for someone that brilliant.  For instance, he’s coached me extensively in African music — what records to get and so forth.”

Brecker’s coach was Barry Rogers, the pioneering trombonist with Eddie Palmieri, and a member of the Dreams horn section.  “Barry was my first close friend in New York,” Brecker recalls.  “I miss him.  He was older than me, and he took me under his wing, helped me feel comfortable living in New York.  He was the first to play me African music (out of Guinea, to be exact), and I was smitten by it.  He was the first to play me Cajun music and Latin music.  Barry could take music apart and analyze it very well, and he experienced it on a very deep level, spiritually and emotionally, with tremendous excitement — a very basic instinct that I was attracted to.  We have certain similarities.  I definitely don’t have his ability to communicate excitement, but we were excited by the same things — a certain rhythmic and harmonic tension and release that gets my skin going, that reaches me, as it reached Barry, in a deep emotional-spiritual place.”

In middle age, does Brecker now find he can access the spiritual fount of invention more readily?  “I can’t comment, even off the record,” he says.  “There’s so much going on in that area.  Isn’t that weird?”  Is he doing non-musical things in preparation?  “Yes.”  His regimen?  He utters some nonsense syllables.  Exercise?  “Absolutely.”  Meditation?   “A bit.”  Anything else?  He folds his lower teeth over his upper lip in a mock grimace. “It’s personal stuff.”

Moving from metaphysics to the tangible, Brecker still spends plenty of time in the practice room.  “When I’m on the road, it’s difficult to practice,” he says.  “I try go to soundchecks a little early, and practice before the gig, at the gig.  I don’t like to play in hotel rooms because I’m self-conscious about bothering other people.  When I’m home and have the time and some ideas, I enjoy practicing.  I enjoy the experience of learning new things, then watching it come out in the playing.  I never really work on technique per se.  Sometimes I practice simple things, filling in holes in my knowledge.  I always write down a list of new ideas, like interesting note relationships, and I work on them at home.  Eventually it comes out in my playing.  It comes out better when I don’t try to force it, but just try and learn things and then let it take its course.”

Brecker’s immersion in African music reached another level during Paul Simon’s 1991 Graceland tour, when he met the bassist Armand Sabal-Lecco, and the Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini.  “Having the opportunity to be around them was like a door swinging open, because they were a direct source I could ask questions to,” he says.  “If we were listening to something, I’d first ask where one was, what the words meant.  I’d ask about the structure, the meaning of the rhythm, whether they were hearing it in 6 or in 12 or in 3 or in 4 or in 9.  Armand would tap the rhythm on my arm as he heard it, which often was very different from where I was hearing it.”

Does he see himself blending African tropes with his recent more vernacular-oriented style? “I’m actually looking at it fairly closely right now, though it’s difficult for me for me to articulate it just yet.  But it does play a big part of my music in the future.  Jazz has its origins in Africa, so the aesthetic is built into the music automatically.  At the same time there’s been constant back-and-forth cross pollination; you hear the influence of jazz in African music today and vice-versa.  Even saying ‘African music’ is misleading because it’s so wildly diverse, with so many varieties coming off the continent.  In conceptualizing a future project, I’m thinking more in terms of musicians that I would play with.”

That open-ended intersection of personalities is what we hear throughout Time Is Of The Essence.  “Compared to other instruments, the saxophone is relatively easy,” the four-time Grammy winner and father of two muses.  “Because it’s possible to play so much on it, what’s difficult is learning to edit.  Certainly my playing is more relaxed than it’s ever been,  Maybe some of that is just through age, growing up a bit.”

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Michael Brecker, Tenor Saxophone

A Downbeat Profile On Benny Golson and Several Interviews, On His 83rd Birthday

To  honor Benny Golson’s 83rd birthday, I’ve posted a DownBeat feature piece that I had the opportunity to write in 2000, and the proceedings of two mid-’90s encounters on WKCR — two 6-hour Sunday afternoon Jazz Profiles show from 1995, on which Mr. Golson was present and chose the selections, and a Musician Show from the following year, on which he played recordings by his heroes and contemporaries, and spoke about them in his inimitable manner.

Benny Golson (Downbeat):

The first question to decide in an account of Benny Golson is the proper sequence of his job title.  To wit: Is he a tenor saxophonist-composer or a composer-tenor saxophonist?

Either description works; Golson, now 71, is an icon in both arenas.  Several dozen of his tunes — he holds full copyright on most — are essential signposts of modern jazz.  During the ’70s he broached the mainstream, writing scores for shows like “M.A.S.H.”, “Room 222,” “The Partridge Family” and “The Mod Squad,” for numerous made-for-TV movies, and for a host of national advertising spots.  Instrumentally, Golson’s sound — an immense tone, by turns airy and burly, informed by a harmonic knowledge wide as the heavens that grounds stories replete with lyric detail and operatic flourish — is singular on the tenor tree.

Golson is an avuncular, erudite conversationalist, whose narrative deploys polysyllabic words in correct context.  He continues to carry himself with the seemingly unflappable aplomb and no-nonsense professionalism that allowed him to flourish and keep focus through a half-century of music business encounters high and low.  He’s seen chitlin’ circuit juke joints, tobacco warehouses, TOBA theaters and inner city lounges that defined “funky” before the word became a musical category; moved comfortably in sophisticated nightclubs and posh concert halls in the capitals of the world; performed his famous requiem “I’ll Remember Clifford” on an enormous organ in the aerie of Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, where Johann Sebastian Bach served as kapellmeister 300 years ago.  But even Golson’s cool was challenged when Howard University, where he matriculated from 1947 to 1950, called a few years back to inform him that they were instituting a scholarship in his name.

“This was unreal,” Golson exclaimed during a late-December conversation in the living room of his well-appointed Upper West Side highrise.  “I almost cried.  During my third year at Howard, I became a rebel, and took to doing my assignments the way I felt that I could.  I didn’t want to follow the rules.   Why can’t I have octaves?  Why can’t I have fifths if I want?  Why must the dominant always go to the tonic?  Why can’t I come from the leaning tonic?  I started asking things like that, and they looked at me like I was crazy.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back came one day in class when the teacher played our composition assignments on the piano.  When she got to mine, after the first chord resolved to the second, that red pencil made a big X, then she made another red X at the next resolution.  She looked like Zorro with the whip.  She didn’t get to the end.  She looked at me, almost disgusted, and said, ‘Oh, Mr. Golson, what have you done?’  I tried to think of all kinds of ways that I could show my contempt.  I stood up with my hands in my pocket, and rolled from side to side, the way Thelonious Monk used to, put my head back looking halfway up the ceiling, and said, ‘That’s the way I heard it.’  I don’t remember what she said, but it didn’t go over too big.  The next day, I put my things in my little broken-down car, and drove off into the sunset.”

As we speak, Golson is conceptualizing separate commissions for March festschrifts in Switzerland and at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and a symphonic piece commissioned by the Guggenheim Foundation.  He’s just finished mixing his fifth album for Arkadia Records, “One Day Forever,” which is distinct in his oeuvre, tempering the longueurs of nostalgic retrospection with the spiritual imperative of relentless inquiry.  It includes a lively 1996 session with the front line of the Jazztet (Golson’s musical soulmate Art Farmer, who died in 1999, and trombonist Curtis Fuller), the well-wrought band that established Golson as a leader at the cusp of the ’60s, and relaunched his performing career in the ’80s.  Shirley Horn oozes sophisticated weltschmerz on Golson’s world-weary lyrics to the title track and “Sad To Say.”  The date ends with a crystalline performance by the classical pianist Lara Downes of Golson’s “On Gossamer Wings,” a melodically redolent opus that evokes the ambiance of Chopin and the 19th Century masters who fueled Golson’s imagination as a pre-teen piano aspirant in Depression-era Philadelphia.

No matter how mean times got, Golson’s mother — a “country girl” from Mobile, Alabama who came to Philadelphia in her teens — kept an upright piano in the house; two of his uncles played it with regularity, and the youngster became fascinated with it as he emerged from toddler years.  Eventually she hired a piano teacher, one Jay Walker Freeman, for the then-substantial fee of 75 cents a week.

“After a few years I fancied that I wanted to be a concert pianist,” Golson recalls.  “Of course, that was aberrational in my neighborhood.  All you heard there was the Blues!  Yet I proceeded to try to follow that idea, and got very good at it.  My mother used to buy records by Lil Green and Big Bill Broonzy. I’d say, ‘How can she listen to that horrible music?’  I was somewhere else with the European music.

“I changed after I heard Lionel Hampton’s band at the Earle Theater.  The curtain swung open, the lights came up, the bandstand rolled dramatically forward toward the audience, everybody was dressed alike, the lights played on the instruments, and the sound of the music live came forth.  The icing on the cake came when Arnett Cobb stepped to the microphone and played that solo on ‘Flying Home.’  From that moment, the piano began to pale.  My mother let me off the hook, the saxophone took over.”

Golson’s mother supported his new obsession with alacrity, buying him a saxophone as a birthday present when the family was “two years off welfare.”  She even took a singing job (“I’ll Get By,” “Evil Gal Blues”) with him and childhood friends Ray and Tommy Bryant.  Golson listened to records by Tex Beneke with Glenn Miller (“one of my favorite bands in the war years, with the clarinet on top”), by Bud Freeman and Eddie Miller; he memorized Coleman Hawkins’ solo on “Body and Soul,” Ben Webster’s solo on “Raincheck” and Lester Young’s solo on “D.B. Blues.”

Then, Golson relates, “Don Byas walked into my heart, and occupied a large part of the space there.  I couldn’t believe the velocity with which he moved over that horn, and his huge sound was overwhelming — so natural, not strained or manufactured.  Don’s articulation was amazing.  He played wide intervals, jumping over the notes like skipping up or down a pair of steps.”

One day Golson speculated ten cents (“I figured I couldn’t lose anything”) on a fresh-from-the-jukebox Savoy disk with Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce.”  “It was the strangest music,” he recalls.  “Had I wasted my dime?  But the more I played it, the more I began to like it.”  Soon after, Golson went with his friends John Coltrane and Ray Bryant to a concert at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music by a sextet featuring Byas, Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Haig on piano, Slam Stewart on bass, and Sid Catlett on drums.

“My life’s first beginning was when I was born of my mother and father; the second was after that concert,” Golson declares.  “Charlie Parker was wearing a double-breasted pinstriped suit with all the buttons buttoned, and it looked too small for him, like he was going to explode!  When he bent over to make that 4-bar break in ‘A Night In Tunisia,’ John and I were grabbing at each other; we almost fell out of the balcony!  He was playing alto then like Johnny Hodges and I was trying to play like Arnett Cobb.  This wasn’t just a good performance.  We heard music that we had never heard before!  What was it all about?  How could we get close to it?  When the concert was over we went backstage and got all the autographs.

“Then we followed Charlie Parker out of the theater and onto Broad Street.  He was walking to the Downbeat to play with a local rhythm section — Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland and Nelson Boyd on bass.  John carried his horn for the four blocks, and I asked him what kind of horn he played, his reed and mouthpiece — all these dumb questions.  But he was nice to us.  We were too young to go inside, so we stood outside the club all night, dreaming; when they finished, we walked all the way home to North Philadelphia.”

By the time Golson entered Howard, he was, as he puts it, “trying for all I was worth to play bebop.”  He gigged on the vibrant D.C. scene, violating the school’s curfew (“I had a agreement with the door monitor to let me back in; when the door was locked, I jumped over the wall, which wasn’t too high”), and frequently made the three-hour drive to Philadelphia for weekend jobs.

After his dramatic departure from school, Golson returned to Philadelphia, and some months later, on Ray Bryant’s recommendation, landed a gig with the guitarist Tiny Grimes and his Swinging Highlanders in Atlantic City.  “It wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I had no other offer,” Golson says.  “So I took the cup of tea.  We wore Scottish kilts and the little tam with the tassel on it.  On the first night I put on my kilts, and I had to walk the bar.  All the ladies were pulling up my kilt.  Well, I had my underwear on, but nobody told me I had to wear a bathing suit until after the fact.”

It wasn’t all fun-and-games; Grimes, who had been Art Tatum’s guitarist for the first part of the ’40s, took from that experience a penchant for playing any tune, without warning, in any key, keeping everyone on their toes.  And although Golson spent the first half of the fifties playing a succession of similarly functional jobs, he gleaned consequential information from each of them.

“I saw John Coltrane stepping over drinks on the bar,” he relates.  “We all did it.  But none of it was a waste of time.  It gave you a feeling straight across the board what jazz was all about, where it came from.  You function according to the situation; if the situation changes, then you change to meet the situation.  No sesquipedalian words in the Rhythm-and-Blues!”

Golson dates his interest in composition to the realization that his home-grown symbology for transcribing solos was insufficient.  “I became pretty good at writing down what they were playing, and realized that if I could do this, then maybe I could write music other people could play,” he says.  Duke Ellington was an early hero; so was Tadd Dameron, whose arrangements Golson played as a teenage member of a well-drilled 17-piece orchestra in Philadelphia led by the young Jimmy Heath.  Later, during 21 months on the road with the popular R&B singer Bull Moose Jackson, Golson became close to Dameron, the band’s pianist; soon he was allowed to recruit serious Philly brethren like trumpeter Johnny Coles, bassist Jymie Merritt and drummer Philly Joe Jones.

“We started to play some of Tadd’s things in between Bullmoose Jackson’s hits,” Golson relates.  “Moose enjoyed playing these pieces more than the things he was making his money at, although we never recorded any of them.

“Tadd showed me everything he knew.  Once he was doing an arrangement for Duke Ellington, and let me copy it, which I did for nothing, because I was able to eviscerate what he did, lay it bare, and look at its component parts.  He taught me to be a dearth writer.  He didn’t make two horns simulate a large band, but it didn’t sound abbreviated either.  With two or three horns, you draw upon each instrument’s outstanding characteristics.  The trapset has the bass drum, the snare drum, the cymbal, the ride cymbal, the hi-hat cymbal; the piano is really three instruments — the high end, the mid-range and the low.  You have to be selective about notes, and pick the two outstanding ones.”

In June 1953, Dameron hired Golson for an extended summer engagement in Atlantic City with his Dameronia nonet.  Then Golson briefly worked with a Lionel Hampton unit that included Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Quincy Jones, Gigi Gryce, and Jimmy Cleveland.  He toured with Johnny Hodges (Coltrane and Richie Powell were in the band), then joined alto saxophone virtuoso Earl Bostic (“the technician of all technicians”) from August 1954 until June 1956.  Bostic afforded Golson many opportunities to write, including a kaleidoscopic modernist arrangement of “All The Things You Are” that the leader so enjoyed digging into that he doubled Golson’s fee.  During this time Golson penned tunes like “Out Of The Past” and “Whisper Not,” distributing lead sheets “all over the country” to general indifference.  Then he moved to New York.

“I hadn’t recorded anything, but I was no stranger,” Golson states.  “When I was in high school, one of my uncles was a bartender at Minton’s Playhouse, and I visited him a lot!  Teddy Hill would let me in because I was his nephew.  And the various Rhythm-and-Blues groups I played with always came through New York, whether to play the Apollo or meet for rehearsals.  I’d stay over, see the bands, get to know musicians.  But New York is a strange place.  You can’t go back and forth.  Either you’re here or you’re not.  When I moved, things started to pick up.”

Specifically, John Coltrane presented Miles Davis with “Stablemates,” Davis recorded it, and, as Golson puts it, “people retrieved my tunes from under the rug or out of the trash, and started recording my stuff.”  Meanwhile, Golson, who was “getting restless” with the tedium of Bostic’s repertoire, took to detuning the leader’s electric guitar on Delta and Panhandle gigs, escalating the mischief until one night in Seattle, during a Bostic clarinet solo, he raced to the front of the stage, tenor in hand, and pretended to hurl it into the crowd.  A week after Bostic let him go, Dizzy Gillespie hired him to replace the departing saxophonist-arranger Ernie Wilkins, another Golson influence.

“People associate Dizzy Gillespie with the high notes and fast velocities, the force and the power — but he was a compassionate trumpet player,” Golson emphasizes.  “He and Art Farmer were unique in being able to play unexpected notes that were so beautiful and fit so well that your heart intuitively would say, ‘Yes, yes!’  It’s always good to know for whom you’re writing; the rewards are so much better if you write for personalities, as Duke Ellington did or Count Basie’s arrangers.  You know they’re going to do your music justice, and often enhance what you’ve written, which is one of the real rewards.”

In 1958-59, Golson worked with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, where he found a perfect template on which to stamp his sensibility.  He recruited Philly heroes Lee Morgan (from Dizzy Gillespie’s band), Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merrit, and incorporated Blakey’s extraordinary four-limb independence and command of drumkit sonics in new compositions like “Blues March,” “Along Came Betty” and “Are You Real?”  He established the orchestrational sound that defined every subsequent iteration of the Messengers.

Conversely, playing with Blakey irrevocably altered Golson’s attitude towards his instrument.  “One thing that Art taught me to do — painfully — was to project,” Golson notes.  “During my early gigs with him, he might play one of those drum rolls he was famous for four bars before the end of the chorus.  They had a way of getting louder as they went along, so loud that it drowned me out, and I would stand there pantomiming, for all intents and purposes.  One night he added a few downbeats on the bass drum and a few strokes with the cymbal to underscore what he had done, and then, to make doubly sure I got it, he screamed across the bandstand to me, ‘Get up out of that hole!’  Then it all sort of came together, and I started trying to play more forcefully.

“One night during my first week with Art at the Cafe Bohemia, Thelonious Monk came in.  When I came off the bandstand, he said to me, ‘You play too perfect.’  I knew it wasn’t a compliment.  Art Blakey was standing on the side, snickering like that little dog in the cartoon.  Monk let me stew for 15 or 20 seconds, looking at me all the time through his sunglasses with the bamboo temples on them, and he said, ‘You’ve got to make mistakes to discover the new stuff.’  I thought about that.  The next night I came in, and played like a man taking leave of his senses, trying to get away from the well-worn patterns I’d fashioned for myself, like mathematics — and music is anything but that.  I was jumping off cliffs and bridges, standing in front of trains!  That started to move me out of where I was before — ‘mellifluous,’ ‘sweet.’  ‘charming’ are words people used.  I wanted more fire and articulation.  I had a lazy tongue; that old style, where your tongue doesn’t touch the reed much, and your fingers do all the work.  But the tongue also has to work, to define, to separate notes and ideas.  That’s what I worked on.  I guess I’m still working on it.”

In 1959, Golson decided it was time to venture on his own, and formed the Jazztet with Art Farmer, a companion on numerous ’50s projects.  “What attracted me to Benny was the warmth of his ensemble writing,” Farmer recalled in a 1994 interview on WKCR.  “He writes melodies that sing and stay in your head once you hear them, and constructs a harmonic framework that the improviser feels very comfortable with — not that it’s always easy — to construct their own melodies during their improvisation.  I don’t know where I would be without his tunes.”

Piggybacking off a high-visibility debut at Manhattan’s Five Spot opposite Ornette Coleman’s quartet in its first New York appearance, the Jazztet had a successful four-year run, playing numerous engagements and making six records before it disbanded in 1962.  With a young family to raise, Golson became more involved in New York’s commercial scene; in 1967, at the urging of Oliver Nelson and Quincy Jones, he moved to Hollywood, shed “tenor saxophonist” from his c.v., and after a humbling initial rough patch became a profitably busy studio freelancer.

“For seven or eight years I didn’t play my horn at all,” he says.  “I could have used it as an ornament or put dirt in it and planted flowers.  I did not like my sound or my style, what I was playing wasn’t reaching my heart, and I didn’t know what to do about it.  I was studying composition privately, I wanted to do some things I hadn’t done before in composition; once I moved I put all my energy into that, and the playing fell aside.  But the thinking process was working the whole time, and when I finally picked up the horn again in the late ’70s, I sounded different, although it took about ten years before I felt comfortable again.  I had to get my imagination oiled up.”

Golson emerged from improvisational hibernation in 1980 fully committed to hardcore jazz.  “I take more chances now,” he says.  “I don’t know if I can jump over the hurdle, but I’ll feel compelled to try.  To move ahead you have to take chances, otherwise, you’ll level off, and time, in its indefatigable forward course, will relegate you to history.  “

Golson and Farmer hewed to the freedom principle when they reconstituted the Jazztet in 1983, and that spirit underlies every Golson album and performance from then until “One Day Forever.”  “We used less written music the second time around,” Golson says.  “Let’s allow the personalities to express their inner thoughts rather than see how they can play as an ensemble what I’ve written.  Jazz is all about improvisation.  Nobody comes to hear the melody chorus after chorus.”

Speaking of melody, Golson has tickets for a Metropolitan Opera performance of “Il Trovatore,” and our conversation is winding down.  Before we part, he offers a few final words of wisdom.

“Schools teach the rules, and we should know them,” he offers.  “But I concern myself with ‘Why?’  And ‘Why not?’  ‘You can’t because the rule says you can’t.’  ‘Why not?!’  I do what I do because I want to do it.  And at this late date, I want to get better at what I do.  I’m not a young man any more.  But why should I be satisfied with what I’m doing?  I’ll never be satisfied.

“I often use young players.  Many of them are innovative, and are ascendant when they join me.  Hearing them keeps my mind sharp; I don’t get jaded with the music that surrounds me.  That helps me retain the spirit of adventure that all jazz musicians should have — walking two steps into the darkness of the unknown, waiting for things to jump out at you, to free things from the confines of your imagination, things sometimes you didn’t even know are there.  After I left Howard, I drove a furniture truck.  Jazz is so much better!”

[-30-]

Benny Golson Profile (10-15-95):

[MUSIC:  Messengers, "Are You Real" (1958-Olympia)]

TP:    I’d like to start with the third degree right away and take you back to Philadelphia and your early days in music.  You were born in Philadelphia in 1929.  Was music always part of your background?  Was your family musical?  Was it something you took to right away?

GOLSON:  No, I didn’t take to it right away.  I had two uncles who played piano, and at that time I fancied that they were absolutely extraordinary.  But as time went on, I realized that they weren’t very good at all.  What used to amaze me… It seemed like we always had an upright piano wherever we were, and before school, pre-school age (I guess  I was 3 or 4 or something like that), I used to hear them play this piano, and when they would finish I would go over and look at the keys and wonder how did they get those keys to say all of the things that they were saying musically.  As I got older, I decided that I would try to see what I could do.  I think I was even worse than they were.  But I kept at it; it fascinated me.  Finally, my mother asked me, “Would you like to take piano lessons?”  Well, I’d never thought of that.  And I said, “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”  Well, that was quite an investment during those days.  I mean, the piano teacher would come to the house, like they did during those times, 75 cents a week for the lesson.  Which was quite an investment.  I mean, at that time things were a little mean.

I really got into the piano, so much so that after a few years I fancied that I wanted to be a concert pianist.  Of course, that was quite an aberration in the area I lived.  All you heard was the Blues there!  Yet I proceeded to try to follow that idea…

TP:    So your reading skills were well developed as a child, I’d take it, if you were going in a Classical direction.

GOLSON:  Oh, yes.  I’ll tell you about that in a minute.  My teacher used to give piano recitals.  This was the time to show off all the students and let the parents know that they’re not wasting their money.  I was scared to death every time these things came up, once a year.  But I got very good at it…until I heard Lionel Hampton’s band, live at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia, and a fellow named Arnett Cobb came out to the microphone and played that solo on “Flying Home.”  And from that moment on, the piano began to pale.  My mother let me off the hook, because she wanted me to learn to play the piano and play the organ in church, and I had agreed to all this because it sounded okay at the time.  But she let me off the hook.  The piano just sort of fell by the wayside, and the saxophone took over.

TP:    I guess the hormones were starting to rise, and the saxophone was a more charismatic instrument.

GOLSON:  Oh yeah, I was into it by then.

TP:    Had you had any experience with wind instruments prior to hearing Arnett Cobb?

GOLSON:  Absolutely not.  That was all foreign to me.  It was all piano as far as I was concerned.

TP:    The name of your piano teacher.

GOLSON:  Jay Walker Freeman.  Nobody ever asks me that.  He left me after about five years, I guess, and he went to teach at a university.  By the time I got to college, though, I didn’t really want to pursue the piano.  I wanted to pursue the saxophone, but piano was mandatory for the first two years — so I’d had a little head start.

TP:    As a kid, what sort of repertoire did he have you playing?  I take it you were at a point where you were able to play certain pieces in the repertoire.  What interested you and what were you performing?

GOLSON:  I remember, I guess at the height of my brief career as a pianist, on one of the recitals that I’d rehearsed quite… Everything we had to commit to memory for the recitals.  There was a piece called “The Bumblebee.”  Not “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” but it was certainly reminiscent of it, and it moved along quite swiftly.  The night of the concert… Sometimes when you hear your name called, it strikes fear in your heart.  “And now, Benny Golson.”  And at that moment, I forgot everything.  I couldn’t even remember how it started!  And as I was walking up to the stage, I was thinking, “So this is how it ends.”  I couldn’t even remember what note it started with.  It was incredible!  But as soon as I got to the piano, I put my hands over the piano, and it was sort of automatic.  I was so scared that I played that piece faster than I have ever played it.  And my teacher marvelled at it.  That was my high point.  Then after that I took a dive.

TP:    Concurrently, playing Classical piano, were you listening to Jazz and vernacular music on the radio or records or whatever?  Was that part of your experience?

GOLSON:  I used to hear the Blues.  My mother used to buy these records by Lil Green and Big Bill Broonzy and things like that, and I used to say, “How can she listen to that horrible music?”  No, I wasn’t there.  I was somewhere else with the European music.  I changed later.

TP:    After hearing Arnett Cobb, I guess, or around that time.

GOLSON:  Yes.

TP:    What brought you to the Earle Theater to hear Lionel Hampton if you were so exclusively interested in Classical music?

GOLSON:  Young curiosity.  That was it.  I mean, Earl Bostic was in that band at that time, the technician of all technicians.  He came out and he played, as we said, snakes.  He played everything playable on that darn alto saxophone.  And I just sat there and listened.  But when Arnett Cobb came out… See, I wasn’t prepared for any of this.  The whole thing got me.  Watching the curtain swing open, the lights come up, the bandstand roll dramatically forward toward the audience, everybody dressed alike, the lights playing on the instruments, and the sound of the music coming live… I’d never seen anything like this.  I was overwhelmed by it.  And the icing on the cake was Arnett Cobb coming out playing that solo.  I became a groupie.

TP:    On Arnett Cobb, huh?

GOLSON:  Sort of, yeah. [LAUGHS]

TP:    So did that then start taking you into studying other tenor saxophonists, the major stylists of the time?

GOLSON:  Oh yeah.

TP:    Let’s talk about the process of your development as a tenor saxophonist.

GOLSON:  Arnett Cobb was my first influence.  He was the one responsible for my going in that direction.  Quite naturally, being an aspiring saxophone player, you start buying saxophone records.  Believe it or not, I listened to Tex Beneke with Glenn Miller, and that was one of my favorite bands at that time, and Bud Freeman and Eddie Miller, and Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.  But somehow, Don Byas walked into my heart, and occupied a large part of the space there.

TP:    Which of his performances did you hear that affected you?  Perhaps you could go into detail, taking yourself out of being an aspiring 14-15-year-old saxophone player, and talk about Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas and what they were doing in the 1940′s.

GOLSON:  Well, I heard Coleman Hawkins before I heard Don Byas, his classic solo on “Body and Soul.”  It was so popular that it was on all the jukeboxes in our neighborhood — and it was a Black neighborhood.  You could walk down the street any day and hear Coleman Hawkins playing “Body and Soul,” which is quite unusual today, to go to neighborhoods and hear anything like that.  But eventually, I heard Don Byas play on a recording with Dizzy Gillespie, “52nd Street Theme.”  I couldn’t believe it, the way he got over that horn.  He became my idol at that moment.  Of course, I continued to like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, but Don Byas to me had something a little special.  His sound and the velocity that he had when he moved over the horn.  It didn’t sound strained or manufactured.  It sounded quite natural, the way he did it, and I was straining like I don’t know what to try to do that.  I was a neophyte then.

TP:    Were you going around to hear a lot of bands at that time?  When the big bands would come along with a tenor player, would you try to catch them in person?

GOLSON:  I was a little too young to go to the clubs.

TP:    But at the Earle Theater you’d go to hear bands?

GOLSON:  Oh, yeah, whenever I could.

TP:    So did you get to see Don Byas with Count Basie, let’s say, coming through?

GOLSON:  No.  By the time I got to see him live, I got to know him as a friend… No, during that time I didn’t, unfortunately.

TP:    I heard a story from Jackie McLean where Charlie Parker had come back from Europe, Jackie McLean was maybe 19, he said, “How was it there?” and Bird said, “I had a wonderful saxophone lesson over there.”  Jackie McLean thought it might be Marcel Mule, the great Classical saxophonist, but Charlie Parker said, “No, it was Don Byas.”

GOLSON:  Absolutely.

TP:    Did this interest you very much then in Bebop and the new music coming up in the 1940′s?

GOLSON:  Oh, definitely.  It changed my life.  Dizzy Gillespie changed my life.  My life had two beginnings, Ted.  When I was born of my mother and father and when I heard Dizzy Gillespie.

TP:    When was that?

GOLSON:  1945.

TP:    Earle Theater?

GOLSON:  No, it was Academy of Music, a concert.  Elliot Lawrence’s band was there, featuring a young new trumpet player at that same concert, 17 years old, named Red Rodney.  Don Byas was there with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Slam Stewart on bass, Al Haig, I’m not sure who the drummer was.  But the rhythm section hadn’t really caught up to what Charlie Parker and Diz were doing.  John Coltrane and I and Ray Bryant were there, and when we heard them play this music we just couldn’t believe it.  John was playing alto like Johnny Hodges and I was trying to sound like Arnett Cobb, which is completely different.  Ray Bryant was sounding somewhat like Eddie Heywood and other piano players of the time, I guess.  When we heard them play, for example, a song that was so strange, it was quite aberrational to us then, John looked at me and said, “It sounds like snake charmer’s music.”  I looked at him and agreed, “Yes, it does!”  It was “A Night In Tunisia.”  We’d never heard any Jazz like that.  It was foreign!  They played an interlude, and Charlie Parker made the 4-bar break where he doubles up.  We almost fell out of the balcony!  We’d never heard anything like that.  It wasn’t just a good performance.  We heard music that we had never heard before!  I mean, our blood must have been boiling in the veins, we were so effervescent.  We were so taken by all of this, that when the concert was over we went backstage (and of course, as kids; I think I was 16 and John was 18) and got all the autographs.

But we followed Charlie Parker out of the theater and into the street.  Now, Don Byas was my idol.  But what Charlie Parker was doing that night was so completely different than I had ever heard, I had to try to find out what it was about.  So we proceeded to walk up… He was on his way over to another club about four blocks away called the Downbeat, where the local rhythm section was going to be playing with him.  The rhythm section was Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland and Nelson Boyd on bass.

TP:    In 1945?

GOLSON:  Right.  They were just a little older than us, and they had a jump on us.  While we were walking on Broad Street, John asked him could he carry his horn, so he was carrying his horn for him, and I was asking him what kind of horn did he play, and what kind of reed, and what number reed, and what did he do — all these dumb questions.  But he was nice to us! [LAUGHS] And when we got to the club, we were too young to go up there.  The club was on the second floor.  So we just stood outside all night, until they finished, dreaming, “What if?  Suppose.”  When it was over… We were in South Philadelphia, where the club was. We never had any money.  So we walked from South Philadelphia back to North Philadelphia.

TP:    A dangerous walk sometimes.

GOLSON:  Oh, it wasn’t dangerous at that time.  We weren’t aware of anything but the music that we had been hearing that night, and we were dreaming, forecasting… We were trying to be some kind of harbingers.  We wanted to be a part of what this was.  And we didn’t know what it was, and we didn’t know how to even start.

John called me a little bit later, and he said, “Did you try any of that stuff that Mr. Parker was telling us?”  I said, “yeah,” like what kind of horn and the reed and the mouthpiece.  He said, “Did anything happen?”  I said, “No.”  He said, “Me either.”  We didn’t even realize it wasn’t those physical things; it was what the man had in his mind, his concept!

TP:    I take it you subsequently took every possible opportunity to hear Charlie Parker play, when he’d come through Philadelphia.

GOLSON:  Not only Charlie Parker.  Whoever it was.  Whoever it was, I figured it could help me, as it were, to climb another rung in the ladder, to wherever.  And we didn’t know wherever we were going, but wherever it was, we wanted to try to go anyway, and find our way along the way — searching.

TP:    What was your studying process?  Would you listen to his records, transcribe the solos, or did you have a teacher in high school?

GOLSON:  You bet.  All of the above.  I had a teacher.  We would listen to the records.  In fact, that’s how I got interested in writing.  Writing the solos out.  I had my own crude way of doing it, because I didn’t know the syncopation, so each note that they played, I just made a circle, a goose-egg.  So I had the right notes, but I was the only one who could play it.  I was the only one who knew the syncopation to it.  But I realized later that that wasn’t good enough; I had to actually learn how to write it the way they were playing.  Then I got pretty good at that, and then I realized, “My goodness, if I can do this, then maybe I can write music so other people can play it, and groups of people can play together.”  That’s when I started to become interested in arranging.

TP:    This gives me an opportunity to combine two questions, your arranging and your contemporaries and peers in Philadelphia.  You just mentioned some very heavy names, John Coltrane, Ray Bryant, Philly Joe Jones, Nelson Boyd, Red Garland I guess had come to Philadelphia after his time in the Army… Talk about your coterie, your circle of friends, the types of situations you performed in, and where you were musically at the time.  Well, you told us that you were into Bebop.

GOLSON:  I was trying to get into it, but it was quite hard for us.  It wasn’t like it is today where the musicians from my time period try to encourage the young ones coming along.  It was just the antithesis of that.  When I was coming up, the older musicians who played the other style, the other style being the style before Bebop…I hate that name, but before that style…tried to discourage us.  They would make very disparaging remarks, like:  “Where is the beat?”  “Where is the bass drum?”  “Where is the melody?”  “You guys sound like you’re playing with a mouth-full of hot rice.”  They didn’t understand.  They put us down.  And the more they put us down, the harder we tried to find out what it was all about.  Jimmy Heath, he was there; he was playing alto at the time…

TP:    He and John Coltrane were a few years older than you?

GOLSON:  John was two or three years older than me, and Jimmy about the same.  Percy Heath wasn’t even a musician then.  He was a pilot in the Air Force, I think, he came home, and he learned how to play quickly.  It was amazing how quickly he learned how to play.  Then he became a part of the scene.  Then other musicians you probably wouldn’t know about, if I mentioned.

TP:    Well, name some names.

GOLSON:  Calvin Todd was a trumpet player there who had a big band.  He was young, a teenager or in his early twenties, and he had a big band that was pretty good.  Jimmy Heath had a big band, and John and I were in that band.  Nelson Boyd ended up being the bass player, Specs Wright…

TP:    That’s the band that tried to play a lot of Dizzy Gillespie’s arrangements.

GOLSON:  You bet.

TP:    That’s very advanced for a group of teenagers.

GOLSON:  That’s right.  All the seats in that band were coveted.  I’ll tell you, everybody wanted to be in that band.  But John Coltrane and I were fortunate enough to be in it, somehow, and we were so happy about it.  And it wasn’t about the money.  We weren’t making any money.  But we were having a lot of fun, and then we were learning as we were going along.  Tadd Dameron wrote some things for the band because he liked the idea that these kids were trying to do something of value, trying to move ahead.  Another arranger named Johnny Acea wrote some things for us.  Leroy Lovett.  These were all professional arrangers.  Then Jimmy was trying to write some things, I was trying to write some things.  So they helped us.  It was like giving birth.  Every time you’d write something, you had a chance for somebody to play it, and you’d sit there hoping that the baby turned out to be normal.

And our parents encouraged us.  We’d go down to Jimmy’s house, and his parents were so sweet and loving… We would push the furniture to the side, and make enough room for 15 guys, and have a big band rehearsal.  We’d rehearse during the summertime, the windows were up, and the whole neighborhood would sit out on the steps and listen to the band.  And the same thing at my house.  Just move the furniture out, move everything into the kitchen.  We couldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been for the support of our parents.

TP:    A lot of your contemporaries playing saxophone were captivated by Lester Young, and their styles went in that direction, and you haven’t mentioned him in your list of influences.  Did you admire him at that time?

GOLSON:  I loved Lester Young and I love Lester Young.  But I can’t be two people at the same time, so I had to make a choice.  And it had to be the school that I chose — Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Ben Webster, and later Dexter Gordon.  Lester Young was fantastic, but I chose not to go in that direction.  Unfortunately, people overlook Lester Young, I guess because he was laid back the things he played.  But I heard him play things that were fast!  Incredible.  He knew what he was doing.

TP:     You entered Howard University at age 18, which would have been 1947?

GOLSON:  It was ’47.

TP:    Did you go there as a music major, with the intention of developing your musicality in the academic environment?

GOLSON:  Yes, with those things that you mentioned.  But the curriculum that I found myself in was one wherein I would wind up being a teacher.  Which was a little discouraging.  Because I stepped back and looked at it, and I said to myself, “These teachers had someone teach them what they’re teaching me.  They’re going to teach me what they have been taught, and I in turn will teach someone else what I have learned from them, and they will teach someone…”  I said, “When am I going to get a chance to use it?”  There were a lot of rules, you know.

My third year there, I became a rebel.  They would say things like “the fifth, the dominant has got to resolve to the tonic, this note has got to resolve here,” and I thought to myself, “Well, suppose it resolves somewhere else instead of there?”  “No, no, no, you can’t do that.”  That discouraged me a little bit.

So I took to doing my assignments the way I felt that I could do them.  Why do them any other way.  I remember the straw that broke the camel’s back.  I went to class one day, and she put the assignments on the piano and played them.  The classes were small, maybe 10 or 12 of us in the class, and she’d play.  “Ah, Neapolitan 6th, Mrs. Brown.”  “Oh yes, deceptive cadence here; oh, very good.”  Then she’d play the next one.  “Oh yes, I see you’ve done this.  Oh, very nice.  But you must not use fifths.  Ah, no parallel…”  Then she got to mine, and she played the first chord.  But the first chord had to resolve to the second chord, and that red pencil made a big X, then she went to the next one and she made another red X.  She looked like Zorro with the whip.  Finally, she didn’t get to the end of it.  She turned around, almost disgusted, I guess, and looked at me and said, “Oh, Mr. Golson, what have you done?”  I tried to think of all kinds of ways that I could show my contempt. So I stood up and my hands in my pocket and I sort of rolled from side to side, the way Thelonious Monk used to do, and put my head back looking halfway up the ceiling, and said, “That’s the way I heard it.”

TP:    To which she responded?

GOLSON:  I didn’t go over big at all. I don’t remember what she said, but it didn’t go over too big.  The next day, I put my things in my little broken-down car, and left — drove off into the sunset.  No, I wanted to do something else.  I didn’t want to follow the rules.  Why should you do everything always the same.  Music is an adventure.  It should be an adventure!  It’s not just something that happens when you walk down a corridor of time.  You want to find doors when you walk down that corridor.  You want to open those doors and find some surprises.

TP:    Well, before we send you off into the sunset, I want to find out what Washington was like for you, because there was a very strong musical community there.

GOLSON:  Oh, it was great.  Absolutely.

TP:    Were you gigging after classes, on the side, let’s say?

GOLSON:  Yeah, and that was a no-no.  But I had a agreement with the monitor on the door at night.  He would let me in.  And when the door was locked, the wall wasn’t too high; I’d come over the wall.  I was even going to Philly doing gigs on weekends.  I was playing at a club about six blocks from campus called Little Harlem that was frequented by a lot of people.  I came up to do a set, and there was one of the theory teachers sitting on the front table.  We’re not supposed to be doing that!  I said, “Oh, man, this is a drag.  They’re going to kick me out.”  It was over.  I had to play.  And he sat there.  He was cool.  Sterling Thomas; I’ll never forget his name.  After the set was over, he said, “Can I see you a minute?”  I said, “Yeah, this is it.”  I went over, and he said, “That was a nice set.” [LAUGHS] That was it.

TP:    What sort of music were you playing?  Was it a Bebop set?

GOLSON:  I was trying for all I was worth to play Bebop.

TP:    Who were you playing with?

GOLSON:  A trumpet who’s dead now, from Cleveland, Ohio — Carl Fields.  A piano player who later became Billie Holiday’s pianist, Carl Drinkard.  Fats Clarke was the drummer.  I can’t remember the bass player’s name.  But we were trying as hard as we could to do that.  Whatever the risk was, I had to do it.

TP:    Also in Washington at that time… Well, John Malachi had left Billy Eckstine and not gone back out…

GOLSON:  He was there during that time.  And subsequent to that he went out to play with Al Hibbler.  Leo Parker was still around, in and out of town during that time.  Charlie Rouse was there.  We looked up to him, because he had sort of “made it.”  Wesley Anderson, the trombone player, he was pretty good; he was in and out of town.  There was a tremendous saxophone player there named Carrington Visor(?).  He lives in Los Angeles now.  Oh, that guy could play.

There were a lot of good musicians there, and there were a lot of clubs.  During that same time, there were a lot of clubs in Philadelphia.  It was like they’d found a new way to life as far as Jazz was concerned.  Then unfortunately, they died.

TP:    Also in Washington and Philadelphia you had the theaters, and still throughout the ’40s the bands were coming in; in Philly, the Earle Theater and Academy of Music, and in Washington primarily the Howard Theater.

GOLSON:  Well, there was more than that in Philadelphia.  There was a theater out in West Philadelphia that was called The Fay’s, then they later changed the name to the Fans for whatever reason.  The Earle Theater was the main one; that lasted the longest.  But earlier on, there was one called the Nixon Grand, which was only three blocks from my house. Duke Ellington came there, as did Slim and Slam; those are the only two I remember seeing there.

TP:    Were you simultaneously a fan of any of the big bands that were coming through, or were you more exclusively into the Bebop combo aesthetic.  I’m talking about apart from Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band.  Did Duke Ellington thrill you as a 20-year-old, or the Basie band, or the other top bands  of the time?

GOLSON:  Ted, you have to understand.  I was young, I was aspiring and therefore I was highly eclectic.  I was trying to get it wherever I could.  Fats Waller came there with a band, and yes, I went to hear Fats Waller with Al Casey on guitar.  I never saw Duke Ellington’s band there.  He was there, but I didn’t see it; I was too young to know what it was all about, I guess.  There was a local band, Jan Savitt, who played there.  Georgie Auld came through there.  I’m trying to think of some of the other bands.  But I went to see a lot of them.  Some of the music I didn’t particularly like, but I thought I should know what it was about, so I could be broad enough what this thing called music, and Jazz in particular, was all about.  So I listened to lots of people and lots of music.  As I told you, during the war years one of my favorite bands was Glenn Miller, with the clarinet on top, and the way Tex Beneke used to sing and the way he played.  That appealed to me at that time.  I didn’t try to play like that.  But I loved it.

TP:    So in 1949-50, you’re driving off into the sunset from Washington, and where did you land?

GOLSON:  I landed back in Philadelphia, on my feet, thank goodness.  Right after that, the fellow that used to play with Art Tatum, Tiny Grimes, the guitar player, had a group.  Ray Bryant was already in that group.  Now, it wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I had no other offer.  So I took the cup of tea, and went out with Tiny Grimes and his Swinging Highlanders.  We wore Scottish kilts and the little tam with the tassel on it, the whole thing.  I remember the first night with them, we were playing Atlantic City, and I put my kilts on.  Nobody told me anything.  And I had to go step out on the bar and walk the bar.

TP:    In kilts.

GOLSON:  In kilts.  I wasn’t prepared for what happened.  And all the ladies were pulling up my skirt, this kilt.  Well, I had my underwear on.  Nobody told me.  And the guys were laughing.  I think they purposely didn’t tell me.  But then they said, “Benny, you’ve got to wear a bathing suit under it.”  I said, “Well, thanks for telling me after the fact!”  I mean, I could hardly play.  It was incredible.

TP:    Well, it sounds like you played some very entertaining venues during your formative years.

GOLSON:  Oh yes.

TP:    Any others that are particularly memorable you’d like to speak of?

GOLSON:  Well, I did some other gigs like that.  I worked with Bullmoose Jackson.  Now, you might laugh and think what a waste of time, but none of it was a waste of time.  You have no idea how those jobs helped to broaden you and help to spread your appreciation for the whole scope of what jazz was about.  I played gigs where I had to sway from side to side with funny-looking ties on, and singing “Rag Mop” and things like that.  We all did it.  I walked in one day and saw John walking on the bar and stepping over drinks.  We all did it.  We had to survive.  But it wasn’t a waste of time.  It gave you a feeling straight across the board what jazz was all about, where it came from.  Even the Gospel stuff.

TP:    In relation to what you’re saying, I gather that in the Bullmoose Jackson band, Tadd Dameron was briefly apart of that, Philly Joe Jones as well… Very strong musicians.  Was there any working out of let’s say higher musical ideas off-hours, on the road?  Talk a bit about the climate within the band, the attitudes and interactions.

GOLSON:  Okay, I’ll tell you about it.  Tadd Dameron was there, and it was a complete aberration, an anomaly.  Tadd Dameron and Bullmoose Jackson, whose name was Benjamin, were both from Cleveland, Ohio, and they knew each other as kids growing up in Cleveland.  Bullmoose ran into Tadd one day in New York and just happened to say, “Are you working?”  Tadd said, “No, I’m not working right now.”  He said, “Look, I need a piano player, and I know this is really not your kind of thing, but come down, make a few gigs and make some money with me, and when you’re ready to leave, you can leave.”  Tadd thought about it and said, “Well, okay.”  I’m so happy he did that, because when I joined the band he was the piano player.  Oh, you have no idea!  Because he was one of my idols as far as the pen is concerned.

Now, someone told Bullmoose Jackson about me, and he approached me about joining the band.  He happened to be Philadelphia with his group, and he’d been asking about tenor players in town.  I might have taken Frank Wess’ place.  I’m not sure.  Anyway, Bullmoose and the road manager, who was also the alto saxophone player, wanted me to come to their hotel room to play some music with them — they wanted to see if I could read music.  So I went down, and we did, and they liked it, and they said, “Hmm, do you happen to know of any trumpet player who might want to play who can read?” — because they had a lot of written music.  I said, “Yeah, I know one.  He’s an excellent reader.  Johnny Coles.”  They approached John, who didn’t have to take a test because they took my word for it; he could read really well.  They said, “Do you know a bass player?”  I guess he was revamping the whole band.  So I recommended Jymie Merritt.  Fine.  And they wanted a drummer.  I said, “Okay.”  “Has he got any experience playing this kind of music?”  “Yeah, he used to play with Joe Morris; he’s played a lot of rhythm-and-blues dates.” (That was before Rock-and-Roll.)  That was Philly Joe Jones.  Philly could play anything.  We used to have a gig locally, and Philly used to be the singer!  You never heard him sing, but he sang great.  And he played bass, and he played piano, and he was a comedian, too…

[END OF SIDE A]

We had some arrangements that he had written that belied the sound of the rhythm-and-blues band we were a part of.  Then Tadd had showed so many of his things to me that I began writing some things sounding like Tadd.  He would pull my leg a little bit and say, “It’s really a drag; people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, that was a great arrangement you did on such-and-such, Tadd,” — and it was an arrangement I had done.  He said, “what a drag.”  But he didn’t really mean that.

TP:    Would he sit down with you first-hand and show you how he was constructing things?

GOLSON:  Absolutely, he showed me.  This guy was great.

TP:    What were some of the devices that made Tadd Dameron specific for musicians out there that were the trademarks of his style?

GOLSON:  He taught me how to be selective about notes.  When you are a dearth writer… A dearth writer is when you are writing for a small number of instruments.  It’s much easier to write for a larger array of instruments.  Not easy, but easier.  Because you don’t have to approximate, you don’t have to simulate, you don’t have to try to sound like something — you’ve got the sound there. But when you’ve got two horns, you’re not going to sound like a 15-piece group with 15 musicians.  So you have to try to simulate, you have to try to give the impression.  Then doing that, you have to draw upon all the outstanding characteristics of all the instruments — really.  The bass drum, the snare drum, the cymbal, the ride cymbal, the hi-hat cymbal, the piano — which is really three instruments, the high part of it, the mid-range and the low.  And picking the best sounding notes.  If you’ve got two horns, you’re only going to pick two.  You’ve got to pick the two outstanding ones.

I learned those kinds of things from him, and I went on to develop my own kinds of things, too.  But he gave me a jumping-off point.  I remember while he was in the band he did an arrangement for Duke Ellington, and he let me copy it.  I copied it for nothing, because I got a chance to sort of eviscerate what he had done, and lay it bare, and look at it in its component parts there, and that was helpful.  I did that, Quincy did, we all did those things.  We would get arrangements by people we liked, and look at the score, and tear it apart, and see how did they arrive at this.  We had already heard the recording; “so this is how they got that sound — mmm-hmm,” and you file it away.

Then you come up with your own things, too.  Walking two steps into the darkness of the unknown is healthy, because in doing so you will always discover things awaiting your discovery of them.  They’re there.  You just have to find them.  And when you find some of these things, you can make them your own.  You don’t always have to be eclectic and copy other people’s things.  That’s a beginning.  But as you advance, you come up with things of your own.  And the next thing you know, people are trying to find what you’re doing.

[MUSIC: Tadd Dameron/Clifford/BG, "Theme of No Repeat" (1953); Dizzy Gillespie, "Birks Works" (1957), DG Octet, "Blues After Dark" (1958), DG/E. Wilkins, "Left Hand Corner" (1958), DG Octet, "Out of the Past" (1958), Diz BB, "Whisper Not" & "Stablemates" (1957), Diz BB at Newport, "I Remember Clifford" (1957)]

TP:    Listening to those right now, what’s your assessment of these recordings?

GOLSON:  I am reminded all over again what a genius Dizzy Gillespie was.  I mean, he plays with such compassion.  On the opening of “Stablemates” he played that melody with such compassion that one might have thought, if they didn’t know the melody, that it was another kind of song.  When people think of Dizzy Gillespie they usually think of the high notes and all the fast notes, and the force and the power — but he’s a compassionate trumpet player.  And the thing about him (Art Farmer has it, too) that’s so unique, they’re able to play what I call other notes when they play.  Some people play and they play predictable notes.  But trumpet players like Dizzy Gillespie and Art Farmer are able to play other notes, unexpected notes.  That does something to you emotionally.  The notes they play are so beautiful and they fit into the scheme of things so well that your heart is intuitively saying, “Yes, yes.”

TP:    I’d also imagine that, as a composer and arranger, it spurs you to fresh thinking when you hear such imaginative soloists interpreting your work.

GOLSON:  Absolutely.  I’ve always contended that as a writer… I don’t like to use the word “arranger,” because an arranger as such does more; he composes and all of these things.  I call them a writer.  When people write, it’s always good to know for whom you’re writing, if possible.  The rewards are so much better if you write for personality.  Duke Ellington did it for his band.  Whoever did Count Basie’s arrangements knew who the personnel was at the time.  They didn’t come and go too quickly, so you could plan things around certain people, and you know what to expect before you write it.  Otherwise, you’re writing vague and hoping that things come off.  But if you write certain things with people in mind, you know that they’re going to do your music justice, and many times even enhance what you’ve written — and that’s one of the real rewards.  Dizzy was like that.  Art Farmer is like that.  John Coltrane was like that.  They bring so much to it that it helps to elevate what you’ve already done, to make the spotlight a little brighter.

TP:    Well, it was a long road from 1953 and your Rhythm-and-Blues experiences up to joining the Dizzy Gillespie band in 1956, and in this conversational segment we’ll seek to explore some of those pathways.  Someone called shortly after we began the music in that set, and asked me to ask Benny Golson about Daisy Mae and the Hepcats, which he said John Coltrane also played with.  He wondered about your memories of that situation.

GOLSON:  Now, whoever made that call is somebody that really knows something.  They’ve got the inside track on it.  I don’t think I would have mentioned that group by name.  But yes, Daisy Mae and the Hepcats were from Philadelphia, and John Coltrane was a part of that group.  They used to wear these funny kind of clothes, the funny ties and rock from side to side and sing things, and the little cocktail drums with the foot pedal that hits up underneath of it, and the singing… It was an entertaining group; that’s what it was.  But like I said, the rent-man didn’t care about aesthetics.  All he wanted was his rent.

TP:    What were the rooms like you’d play in with those bands, the milieu and the layout?

GOLSON:  People came there to drink and to be entertained.  A group coming in there to play some fantastic jazz wouldn’t have made it.  They had to have an entertaining group.  People were buying the drinks and clicking the glasses, and not only did they want to feel good from what they were drinking; they wanted to feel good according to what they were hearing.  And I worked in places like that, too.  The same person might remember Jimmy Preston, who was an alto player, and he sang — and it was an entertaining group.  We worked every weekend in Lawnside, New Jersey, at a nice place, indirect lighting, state-of-the-art furniture — and we came there to entertain the people.  That’s exactly what we did.  Jimmy used to get off the bandstand and walk around, and while he was playing with one hand he would take the other hand and drink anybody’s drink.  They didn’t know that he was serious about that.  That really wasn’t part of the act; he liked to do that! [LAUGHS] That’s what we did. We must have stayed at that place two or three years.

I’m just driving a point here.  There were many groups strictly to entertain the people.  What’s interesting is that what entertainers do is second-guess the public.  In other words, they do what they think the people want to hear.  Now, there is nothing wrong with being an entertainer.  But the primary difference between an entertainer and an artist is that an entertainer’s first  obligation is to play what he thinks the people want to hear.  On the other hand, an artist’s first obligation is to do what he feels in his heart.  Not annoy the audience, but hoping that they like it.  But he has to answer that thing inside of himself first, and that’s the primary difference.

TP:    It’s interesting, because let’s say twenty years before that there wouldn’t have been such a distinction between entertainment and art where instrumental jazz was concerned.  No?  The big bands, the dance bands were playing very creative music, and it was the popular music of the time.

GOLSON:  That’s right.  But they pulled apart somewhere.  After Dizzy Gillespie came on the scene, the road sort of divided, and they got further and further apart.  But each music is still consequential.  There is nothing wrong with the music that’s played when people are entertained.  That’s a certain kind of music, and who is to say that kind of music shouldn’t exist.  It should.

TP:    And it does.

GOLSON:  [LAUGHS] And it does.  Absolutely.  No one should decry anybody’s efforts when it comes to creativity.  Creativity is a global phenomenon.  It doesn’t belong to any one person or people, and we all share in it on one level or another, whether it’s taking a safety pin when you lost your button and fastening something or building a rocket that goes to the moon.  We all share in creativity.

TP:    I’d like to talk about some other stops along your developmental path.  You and John Coltrane both worked with, at one time or another (and I’m not sure if it was at the same time), Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges.  Discuss the circumstances and the personalities of both those incredible alto saxophonists as leaders.

GOLSON:  I think John played with Earl Bostic first.  He was the one who told me, although I sort of intuitively knew by things I’d heard Earl do in person with Lionel Hampton… He told me what a technician Earl Bostic was.  I didn’t join right after him, but when I came in a few saxophone players later, I discovered that Earl Bostic is probably one of the best technicians I have ever heard on the alto saxophone.  There were others who are very good.  Al Galadora, Rudy Wiedoft, Marcel Mule in Paris, Dick Stabile is another one… These names are popping into my mind as I talk.  Great.  But none of them could best Earl Bostic.  This guy was incredible, like a machine.  I was in awe of his technique.  I’m not talking about style, now.  I’m talking about raw technique and ability to get over the horn and do things.  He was one of the best I’ve ever heard.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody who’s gone beyond him technically, not even John — because John used to rave about him.

TP:    Just another question about Bostic as a leader.  Was there ever room for, say, creative and modern jazz within his set, let’s say on late sets and whatnot?  Was he interested in that?  Was he up on the new music of the early 1950′s?

GOLSON:  Absolutely.  He afforded me many opportunities to write.  I remember I wrote an arrangement one time on “All The Things You Are.”  It changed keys, it did all kinds of things, and he loved it.  One night in particular he really got into it, and it was just fantastic.  He was so taken by it… I remember after it was over I knew he was taken by it, because he came to me, reached in his pocket and said, “How much did I pay you for that arrangement?”  Whatever it was, I quoted the price.  He said, “Well, here’s some more,” and he gave some more money — and I don’t remember the amount either.

Oh yeah, he liked other kinds of music.  We played Baltimore once, and we had to play a matinee.  During the course of playing a matinee, he showed up on the bandstand with his clarinet, and he played fantastic clarinet.  We played “Cherokee” or some tune like that, and we played it through the keys — and he chewed it up.  Chewed it up.  He was a fantastic musician.  I asked him, “Earl, do you have just natural talent?  What happened?  How did you come to put all this together?”  He said, “When I was Oklahoma [I think he was from Tulsa], I knew I was coming to New York, and I had to get ready.  So what I did, for years I went to work.  At 8 in the morning I started playing, I took a lunch break, and I stopped at 5.”  He said, “I did that every day.”  And he when he came to New York, believe me, he was ready.  Because people like Sweets Edison, Don Byas, they told me when he came, boy, he was awesome.  He didn’t have to apologize to anybody.

Now, you asked about Johnny Hodges and John Coltrane.  When I first met John, he was playing alto, and his idol was Johnny Hodges.  One of my high school chums, who also played alto, told me about a new person who had moved into the projects, and it was John Coltrane.  He said, “He’s fantastic.  He plays just like Johnny Hodges.”  I said, “What?!”  This was before Bird and Diz.  The music was somewhere else.  If I can meet somebody who plays like Johnny Hodges, this will be fantastic.  And he’s our age, 18… So he said, “Well, I’ll bring him by your house tomorrow.”  So he did.  The doorbell rang, and I opened the door, and there was Howard, and standing down on the sidewalk was John, sort of like a country bumpkin, biting the side of his thumb.  He came in the house, and we just sort of stood there.  Kids are so stupid.  He was standing there by the couch with his horn in his hand, and his hat and coat on — [LAUGHS] and I couldn’t think of anything to say except, “Play something!”  He was waiting for it.  He took his hat and coat off, whipped his horn out, and went into “Sunny Side of the Street.”  Well, my mother happened to be upstairs, and after he finished playing she said, “Who was that?”  I said, “It’s a new fellow I met named John Coltrane.”  After a while we started having sessions at my house, and sometime during that session she would holler down, “Is John down there yet?”  He would say, “Yes, Mrs. Golson.”  And we knew what that met.  We would have to stop and let John play “On The Sunny Side of The Street.”

TP:    A small price to pay for rehearsal space.

GOLSON:  Oh yeah.  I was a little embarrassed by it, so I said to her one day, “Mother, it’s kind of a drag.  We try to get together and do some things, learn some new things, and you holler down for these requests, mainly on ‘Sunny Side Of The Street’…” She didn’t let me finish.  She said, “This is my house; I’ll ask for what I want.”  I guess she was right.

But it turns out that John Coltrane later joined his former idol, Johnny Hodges.  He was playing tenor then.  I asked him, “Did you ever tell him that at one point he was your idol?”  He said, “No, I never said anything about it.”  It was like Charlie Parker.  He was playing somewhere, and Charlie Parker came in.  John was still playing alto at the time, and he was playing so much, Bird said to somebody, “who is this guy?”  Of course it was John Coltrane.  I heard the story, and when John came back to Philly, I said, “But did you tell him we were the two kids who were walking down Broad Street with him?”  He said, “No.”  Well, he wouldn’t have remembered anyway.

TP:    What was it like being on the road with Johnny Hodges in his own group?  Was it all a vehicle for him, or…

GOLSON:  Oh, no.  He gave other people a chance to play.  You know, as you’re coming along and you meet people, that’s one thing.  But when you meet them and then you play with them or in their group, it’s like little dreams coming true.  And here I was with Johnny Hodges.  I used to listen to him with Duke play all these great things, one of which was “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” and then I’m in his band.  But how I got there is, John was already there, and they were enlarging the band to go on a special tour with Billy Eckstine and Ruth Brown and a group called the Clovers.  So they needed to enlarge the band.  Johnny wanted another saxophone player, and he asked John, “Do you know of any saxophone players?”  He said, “Oh yeah,” and he told them to get me, and that’s what happened.  So I got there.  So I did this tour with him.

TP:    Was it mostly blues and ballads and things he was famous for?

GOLSON:  That kind of thing, yeah.  Billy Eckstine sang his ballad, and Johnny did “Castle Rock,” and he had other things he played, and we played the Clovers’ music, and we played “Mama, Treat Your Daughter Mean” with Ruth Brown, and those kind of things.  It was a show.,

TP:    So you’re in your mid-twenties, traveling around the country on the Black theater circuit primarily and in the clubs, garnering a really broad range of functional experience.  When your first recordings came out, you were not known to the broader public, but you developed a range of contacts around the United States within the jazz community basically.  Fair to say?

GOLSON:  True.

TP:    The events that led you into Dizzy Gillespie’s band.

GOLSON:  Fortuitous.  I was with Earl Bostic, and we were out in Seattle… Well, let me back up a little bit before that.  Because something was happening to me, my mental state I guess you could call it.  We were playing the same tunes every night, and for the large part they featured Earl.  We played on certain tunes, but the tapestry really was Earl Bostic.  I sort of got tired.  I wanted to do something else.  But I had a job, I was making money.  When we went down South, he would bring this electric guitar of his on the scene, and he would play things that people liked in Texas and Mississippi and Oklahoma and wherever.  I did some terrible things.  During the intermission I would tighten one string and loosen another string, and tighten another string.  Now, when he came up, he never did re-tune it.  He would just pick it up, turn around and call the number, and kick it off and start playing.  I did that one night, and he started to play, and it sounded just terrible — and it was trying to tune it while he was playing it.  I guess he didn’t know what happened.  It would have been all right if I had let it alone, but I did it again some other night.  He started to suspect something.  But he still didn’t know it was me, see.

Another night we were playing somewhere.  I was getting restless.  I guess I wanted to be fired or something.  We were playing somewhere, and boy, he really had the crowd… He really knew how to get the crowds.  Some of the people were dancing, but most of the people were standing at the foot of the stage.  He really had them going.  I remember seeing Illinois Jacquet do something with his horn, and I thought that I would do it while Earl was playing his solo.  This is what got me fired.  He was playing his solo, and he got the crowd going.  I went to the back of the stage, behind the drummer, and I took the saxophone loose from my strap, and I came running from to the front of the stage with my horn back like I was going to throw it, then I flung my horn forward like I was going to release the horn — and the whole audience ducked.  They ducked down.  It was distracting.  That bothered him.  Well, I guess he had every right to be bothered.  And after the show, he said… He called everybody Partner, “Part-noh.”  He said, “Part-noh, I think I’m gonna have to let-cha go.”  Well, that was in Seattle.  He said, “I think you’ve had your time here.”

I understood, and I guess I was kind of happy.  But it came at the right time.  Because Ernie Wilkins, who was writing for Dizzy’s band and had been playing saxophone, was leaving that same week, and somebody mentioned me, and they said, “Well, I think he’s with Earl Bostic, but give him a call anyway.”  I had come back to New York, and they called me, and I was home — and I got the gig.  I’m glad I got fired!

TP:    You said you’d moved to New York by this time.

GOLSON:  Oh yes, I’d moved to New York.

TP:    When did you come to New York?

GOLSON:  I came to New York around ’55.

TP:    Had you making regular trips to New York?

GOLSON:  Oh yeah, definitely.

TP:    Did you go to 52nd Street, let’s say?

GOLSON:  No, that was before my time.  But my uncle used to be a bartender at Minton’s Playhouse, and I would come over to visit him.  Oh, I visited him a lot. [LAUGHS] And he would take me around.  Because I was his nephew, I could go in there.  I mean, they don’t allow kids in there, but Teddy Hill would let me in.

TP:    This was in the ’40s?

GOLSON:  It was before I got out of high school.  The mid-’40s, I guess.  I was a kid.

TP:    What are your memories of Minton’s?

GOLSON:  Well, when you came in, there was a place where the bar was in the front room, like, and I can’t remember if you went up some steps to where the band was playing, or you went down or it was on the same level.  It seems to me like you walked up some steps.  But this is where the bandstand was, and it was a little more intense back there than it was out at the front bar.  This is where the musicians were, and this is where the people came to really hear the music.  The people that sat out in the front I guess were just concerned with having conversation and drinking, which is fine if they made the distinction, because otherwise they’d be going on concurrently with the other people who were interested.  So it worked out all right.

,    And I got on that bandstand once.  Eventually I did.  I can’t remember that tenor saxophone player’s name… Jackie McLean called his name a couple of years ago, and I’d forgotten it.  When he called the name, I jumped up.  I don’t think he ever recorded, but boy, this guy could play.  Anyway, I played there once.  Gildo Mahones I remember was there; Joe Guy, a trumpet player, Lockjaw… I can’t remember all the different people there.  Some of them, I didn’t know who they were as a kid.  I just knew this guy was a trumpet player, or this guy was a saxophone player; I didn’t know their name.  But later I found out how famous the place was, after the fact.

TP:    Did you continue to see Charlie Parker play, or go out of your way to do it when he was around?

GOLSON:  I didn’t know Charlie, didn’t get to know him personally, unfortunately.  But I got to know just about everybody else.  Sometimes people escape you knowing them.  Once I said to somebody who we all know (I can’t remember who it was), “Why is it that we never met?”  Just circumstances weren’t that way.  But mostly everybody else, I did.  All the pictures that I had, all the photographs I had down at the foot of my bed on the wall as a teenager growing up, all those idols… Max Roach and I laughed.  I said, “Look, you occupied a very prominent place on my wall at the foot of my bed for years!” [LAUGHS] As did Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy Gillespie.  You lay in bed, you look at their pictures and you dream.

TP:    Then you play with Dizzy Gillespie and arrange a piece for Coleman Hawkins and…

GOLSON:  Yeah, you get to know them all.  Don Byas gave me a box of reeds after I got to know him, and it said, “To my man Benny, from Don.”  I kept that box until it was falling apart because it was from him.

TP:    When you got to New York, a number of your contemporaries were living here, such as Philly Joe Jones, Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Tadd Dameron.  So I imagine it wasn’t huge adjustment for you on settling here to begin establishing yourself amongst the very elite group of New York musicians.  Or was it?

GOLSON:  Oh, no.  I was no stranger.  Because when I was playing with various Rhythm-and-Blues groups, we would always come through New York.  We would play the Apollo, we would meet here for rehearsals or whatever it was, and I’d stay over, I’d go see bands, and I got to know musicians, so I wasn’t really a stranger.  But I was a stranger at the same time to the scene, certainly to the recording scene.  I hadn’t recorded anything.  But I had to be here.  New York is a strange place.  You can’t go back and forth.  Either you’re here or you’re not.  So I decided I should move here, and I did — and things started to pick up.  When you’re here, people pick up the phone, and you’re wherever they want you in 15 minutes or whatever it is.  You don’t have to get a bus or a train.  You’re here.  And that worked to my advantage, I think.

TP:    Was this when your real heavy period of writing began?  A lot of compositions from this period, ’55-’56-’57, you’ve performed ever since in various ways?

GOLSON:  Actually, the heavy period of my writing began before anybody knew about me.  But it’s a strange thing about talent.  Talent in and of itself doesn’t mean anything unless you have opportunity.  You can be the most talented guy, but you might be stuck out in Wacannomock(?), Wisconsin, and nobody ever knows about you.  You do need the opportunity, and I didn’t have the opportunity.  When I was traveling with these bands, Earl Bostic, Bullmoose Jackson, I was passing out lead sheets like they were calling cards.  Nothing ever happened.  I think James Moody recorded one of my things, a blues, and there was a long period before anything else happened.

John Coltrane was playing so great, and Hank Mobley was leaving Miles Davis.  Philly Joe had already left, gone to join Miles, and Miles asked him, “Do you know of any tenor saxophone players?”  Philly said, “Yeah, yeah.”  Miles said, “Can he play?”  Philly probably made the understatement of his life.  He said, “Yeah, he can play.”  As though, “Well, I guess, you know…”  So Miles said, “What’s his name?”  “John Coltrane.”  “Well, see if he wants to join the band.”  We found out about it, because we’d been rehearsing and playing jobs together and playing in various bands, and we used to be together all the time, almost every day.  So we all found out that John was going to join Miles Davis, and vicariously we all took the trip with him.

I saw him about two weeks later on one of the main streets in north Philadelphia, where we lived, Columbia Avenue, and I said, “John, how is it going?”  He said, “Oh, it’s great.  But you know, Miles needs some new tunes.  Do you have any tunes?”  I thought to myself, “Do I have any tunes?!”  But if you give people too many, it becomes confusing.  The more you do a thing, the less it means.  So I didn’t send a whole lot of tunes.  I sent one tune.  And I didn’t think any more about it, because I’d been giving tunes out half my life, it seemed, and nothing happened.  I ran into him about a month later, and I said, “Well, how is it going now?”  He said, “It’s going great.  You know that tune you gave me?”  “Yeah.”  “Miles recorded it.”  I said, “What?!  He recorded my tune?”  He said, “Yeah.  Man, he dug it.”  That was “Stablemates.”

Now, a strange thing happened.  All these lead sheets I’d been passing out all over the country, people must have heard the tune, seen my name on it and said, “Wait a minute; is this the same guy that gave me such-and-such?”, and maybe they went and got it wherever it was, from under the rug or in the trash.  They started recording my stuff.  That’s what got me started.  Miles Davis and John Coltrane are responsible for getting me started as a writer.  If it hadn’t happened that way, it might have happened some other way, or maybe it wouldn’t have happened at all.  You need opportunity, Ted.

TP:    Well, Dizzy Gillespie certainly provided an opportunity to record a number of your tunes in the big band situation, like “Whisper Not” and “Stablemates” and “I Remember Clifford”, to be specific.

GOLSON:  That came later, though.

TP:    In ’57.  But I was going to try to get to…

GOLSON:  Lead in, huh? [LAUGHS]

TP:    Yeah, you know how it is.  But I wanted to talk to you about the experience of being part of the Dizzy Gillespie band and how he functioned as a bandleader with you, and some of the personalities you encountered in Dizzy Gillespie’s 1956-1957 big band?

GOLSON:  Mmm-hmm.  You want to know it now?

TP:    Right now.

GOLSON:  Yeah, I can tell you.  Dizzy gave all of his men so much room to express themselves, those who were soloists.  Of course, we didn’t express ourselves individually when we came to play.    We had to become a composite person as it were.  We were given a greater expression as a group, so we had to strive for that, of course, but when it came to soloing and things like that… Now, Lee Morgan was in the band at the time, 18 years old, young upstart, and yet Dizzy featured him.  Some of the songs that he used to play, he gave to Lee to play.  He let him play on “Night In Tunisia.”  You have to take pride, insecurity and all that stuff, and throw it aside.  Apparently, Diz wasn’t affected by those things.  He recognized talent when he saw it, when he heard it, and he gave Lee free rein.  And he never tried to tell us how to play or what to play.  We were our own person when it came to playing the solos.  And we had many opportunities.  After he broke up the big band, for example, he formed a sextet, and lo and behold he chose me.  I thought he was going to pick Billy Mitchell, because Billy had more of the solos, but he chose me and a trombone player from Atlanta named Silly Willie.  We did that for just a little bit, then that was the end of it.

He was good, and he was fair.  Now, we didn’t make a lot of money.  But I learned so much.  Diz was one of those didactic kind of people.  He was a natural teacher, especially when it came to rhythms.  Boy, he had that rhythm down!

TP:    For instance, in the arrangements we heard earlier of “Stablemates” and “Whisper Not,  were Charlie Persip’s drum patterns Dizzy’s idea or something Charlie Persip worked out?

GOLSON:  No, that was Charlie.  But other things, like “Tin Tin Deo” and “Night In Tunisia” and “Begin The Beguine”, he told them how to play it, the beats, how to do it.  Charlie admitted that.  We learned a lot from Dizzy, from the way he played, and just listening to him talk and recalling things that had happened.  You pick up a lot like that, you know.

TP:    Well, the band was also a clearing house for some very talented arrangers apart from yourself, like Ernie Wilkins, who I know you wanted to say some things about, Quincy Jones, and some others.

GOLSON:  I learned so much music from Ernie Wilkins as far as big band writing.  It’s too bad that people like Ernie don’t get the credit that they deserve.  This was one of the finest arrangers on the scene.  He happens to be ill at the moment, and he’ll probably never be himself again.  His time is probably limited now, unfortunately, his wife told me.  But when he was going, boy, this guy’s music…his voicings was like plugging in to an electric outlet.  It was electrifying, almost physical sometimes, the sound, as though you could close your eyes and reach up and touch it and grab it and hold it.  That’s the way the music was.  And it was fresh.  His concept wasn’t dated, even though he was a little older than me.  He wasn’t afraid to take chances.  He had multiple things going on sometimes.  If you looked on paper you’d say, “Hmm, that might not work,” but it worked.  I learned a lot from him.  I’m sure Quincy did, too.

TP:    He seems to be one person who can work effectively in what might at first glance seem like different genres, such as the Basie band… Well, in your mind, in the 1950′s how distinct was the Dizzy Gillespie big band concept from what Basie was doing at the time?

GOLSON:  Different, but not necessarily better.  Just different.  I wouldn’t want you or anyone else to think that just because we were having so much fun, and it was modern, and it was so hitting and forceful and electrifying that it was better than anything else.  It was just different.  It was different than Basie.  It was different than Ellington.  It was different than the late Jimmie Lunceford.  Yet each one of those names I mentioned was consequential, and they could stand side by side with one another, and exist and give pleasure to a lot of people.  Good music.

[MUSIC:  Lee Morgan, "Domingo" (1957); BG, "Whisper Not" (1958); J. Cleveland, "All This and Heaven, Too"; BG, "You're Mine, You"; BG 6, "Out Of the Past"]

TP:    The next segment will focus on the relationship that in a sense catapulted you from your initial prominence coming to New York and also catapulted Art Blakey from being a well-known drummer to the leader of the Jazz Messengers.  Benny Golson had only a year-long relationship with the Messengers, from spring 1958.  I’ve heard you tell the story many times, but like Coleman Hawkins’ solo on “Body and Soul,” it’s endlessly entertaining…

GOLSON:  Boy, I’ve told it so many times.  I had just come to New York, and I decided that I didn’t want to travel at that particular time.  This was after Earl Bostic, after Bullmoose Jackson, after Dizzy Gillespie.  I wanted to stay in town a little bit so I could establish myself.  You’re peripatetic, you’re running around, you can’t get any roots.  You’re ubiquitous.  You’re everywhere at the same time.

TP:    Parenthetically, did the “New York Scene” and the early Riverside recordings from late ’57 happen before or after you left Dizzy?

GOLSON:  After.

TP:    So you’re starting to record and get your stuff out there.

GOLSON:  Right.  But this is even prior to that.  I got a call one evening from Art Blakey himself, asking me could I come down to sub at the now-defunct Cafe Bohemia.  I said, okay, I’d come down.  I went down, and we played.  They didn’t have a lot of things that were difficult as far as arrangements; it was just a little better than a jam session.  At the end of the night he asked me could he come the next night, because he was still having problems with whomever it was, something…a police car or something.  I enjoyed the first night so much that I said, “Yeah, I’ll play the second night.”  When I played the second night, he asked me, “Do you think you could make some gigs with us?” — which meant that I would have to go out of town.  I told him, no, I was sorry, I wanted to stay in New York and be kind of settled.  He said, “Okay, but can you finish out the week?”  That was my mistake.  I said, “Yes.”

I finished out the week.  But during the week, I had the occasion to sit down with him.  I knew during that time, he wasn’t making as much money as he should have been.  I don’t know how I found that out.  I said to him, “Art, you should be world-famous.  Have you been to Europe?”  He said, “No.”  I said, “You should have been to Europe many times.  You should be making a lot of money.  Your name in the jazz annals should be a household word!”

At any rate, at the end of that week he said, “I’m playing Pittsburgh next week.  It’s just one week, just six days; can you make it there?  I won’t keep you away too long.”  Well, now, I’ve already played a week with him.  Now I’m of a different mind than I was before because I’ve got a taste of him.  So I wanted a little bit more, intuitively, I think, because I said, “Yes.”  I must have.  So I went to Pittsburgh.  And as we neared the end of the week, he said to me, “Now, next week we’re in Washington; do you think you could make that with us?”  Now I’ve had two weeks of him and now I’m really digging it.  I’m really not speaking with the same mind now, because I said, “Yes!” again.  Besides, I went to college there; it was like my second home.  And after that I  never said anything about not wanting to leave New York again.  I became a member of the Jazz Messengers.

TP:    Who was the band?

GOLSON:  Bill Hardman on trumpet, John Houston from Philadelphia on piano, Spanky deBrest and Buhaina.  So we talked some more about the band. I said, “Art, you really should be in a different place than you are musically.”  and he looked at me with those big, sad cow-eyes, and said… I never expected this, really, because nobody knew who I was.  I was a young upstart in town.  He said, “Can you help me?”  My goodness, I never expected that from Art Blakey.  And I never expected what I said in return.  I said, “Yes, if you do exactly what I tell you.” [LAUGHS] I mean, I can’t imagine… The nerve of me!

TP:    Well, you’d seen maybe a thing or two during your years on the road with these various groups.

GOLSON:  A thing or two.  Not more.  And he said, “Okay.  What do I do?”  I said, “Art, you need a new band.”  He said, “Okay, tell them they’re fired.”  I said, “You tell them.”  “No, you tell them.”  “No, you tell them.”  Anyway, I don’t know who told them, but he said, “Who are we going to get if we get rid of this band?”  I said, “Well, I know a young trumpet player.  He plays pretty good.  He was with Dizzy.  He said, “Who is he?”  “Lee Morgan.”  “Can he play?”  I said, “Yeah.’  He said, “How old is he?”  I said, “He’s 19 now, I think.”  “19!?  Well, can he really play?  Can he come up to what we’re trying…”  I said, “Believe me, we can.”  And I added that he was from Philadelphia; I don’t want to leave that out.

“Okay, who can we get on piano?”  “There was a guy who used to play with Chet Baker and various other people.  He plays nice piano.  His name is Bobby Timmons.”  “Do you think he could do this?”  I said, “Yes.”  “Where is he from?”  “He’s from Philly.”

“What about the bass player?”  “Oh, there’s a guy who played with us with Bullmoose Jackson.  He also played with B.B. King.”  “Wait a minute.  Wait a minute!  We’re not playing that kind of…”  I said, “Trust me, Art.  This guy can play.”  “What’s his name?”  “His name is Jymie Merritt.”  “Where is he from?”  “From Philly.”  He said, “Wait a minute!  What is this Philadelphia shit?!”  So I said, “No, they all just happen to be from Philly and I know them, but you won’t be disappointed.”  So I called each one of them in turn, and they said, yes, they’d like to be part of the band.  We put the band together and I wrote some things for them…

TP:    Did you have a sound for the band in mind?  The band on Moanin’ has a distinctive aesthetic, where you take advantage of his ability to do a shuffle  and put his own imprint on that, or a march, or various styles.  It had a cohesion that may not have been evident in earlier versions of the Messengers from the past couple of years.  Did you have that sound in mind when you were writing the book, or did it just come out that way?

GOLSON:  I’m going to be monosyllabic to what you just said.  No.  I didn’t have anything in mind other than the music.  It just happened to turn out like that, fortunately.  But what I did say to him was, “Art, you need something that really features you.  I’ve heard you play, and you’re just like any other drummer.  After everybody else has played and said what they have to say, they leave the trimmings for you at the end.  You need something where you start playing at the very beginning.”  Then we were sitting there, thinking.  I said, “Now, what could you do?”  Then I thought about that introduction he played on “Straight, No Chaser,” where he showed his independence, two hands, two feet doing something entirely independent.  I said, “You’ve played everything there is to play, Art,” and I started to play.  “Except the march.”  Oh, how we both started laughing.  I said, “Wait a minute.”   And he said, “No!  You’re kidding!”  I said, “No, I’ve got an idea.  I’m not talking about the military.  I’m talking about with a little funk and soul in it, like Grambling College.  You know how they play, how they jazz up things and make it funky and syncopate.”  He said, “No, man, this is a jazz band.  We can’t play a march!”  I said, “Trust me.”  Somehow I used to say that to him all the time — “trust me.”  I couldn’t even trust myself.  I said, “Let me go home tonight and see what I can come up with.”

So I went home and came up with this thing and called it “Blues March,” because it’s a blues and it’s a march.  So we got to the rehearsal, and he said, “Okay, how do we start it?”  I said, “You start it.”  He said, “What do I do?”  I said, “Play like you used to play when you were in the drum-and-bugle corps.  Just play some rudiments.”  “How long should I play?”  “Play as long as you like.”  “How are you all going to know when to come in?”  I said, “Play the roll off?”  “What do you mean?”  “JUMP-DUMP, JUMP-DUMP, DURRRRHHH-RUMP-DUMP.”  When you do that, we know we’re supposed to come in.”  He said, “Oh, man, I don’t think this is going to work.”  I said, “Let’s try it.”  So he did it and he gave us the roll-off and we came in.  The structure of the melody is a little different than just the ordinary blues.  but don’t worry about that.  After we play the melody, we’ll go to the regular blues.”  So we did.  And it kind of worked out nice, and he put kind of a shuffle feeling in it.  He said, “Yeah!  Maybe it might work.  And it did.  The rest is history.

[MUSIC: Art Blakey, "Blues March," "Just By Myself," "Drum Thunder Suite," "Along Came Betty"]

TP:    I’d like to discuss your style as a tenor saxophonist and the evolution of your style.  In the liner notes to the St. Germain CD from 1958 you say that the experience of playing that one year with Art Blakey had a huge impact on your approach to the tenor.

GOLSON:  Yes, it did.  Before I joined Art, I didn’t have much articulation.  On some of the things, it’s still not as much there as it is now.  But one of the things that he taught me to do, painfully, was to project, to play a little more forcefully.  When I went in to sub that night with him at the Cafe Bohemia, and some of the weeks that followed, he would play some of those drum rolls that he was famous for.  It might be four bars before the end of the chorus.  They had a way of getting louder as they went along.  Well, right in the middle of that drum roll, it would get so loud that it would drown me out, and I would just be standing there pantomiming, for all intents and purposes.  I guess he thought I didn’t get it.  He did that a couple of weeks, and one night he did the same thing again, but he added a few downbeats on the bass drum and a few strokes with the cymbal to underscore what he had done before that.  And to make doubly sure that I got it, he uttered some words.  He screamed across the bandstand to me, “Get up out of that hole!”  And when I heard the words, it all sort of came together and I thought to myself, “Maybe I am in somewhat of a hole.”  Because when he does those drum rolls, I just disappear, as if I’m in a hole.  So I started trying to play more forcefully.

And someone else helped me.  While we were there, when I was subbing that week at the Cafe Bohemia, Thelonious Monk came in one night, and after the set… If you knew Monk, you would appreciate this story more.  But let me try to describe it to you.  He was standing, when I came off the bandstand, with his hands behind him, and rocking from side to side slightly.  He said to me, “You play too perfect” — sort of dry like that.  When he included the word… You’ve heard people say, “You play perfect” or something similar.  But when you hear the word “too,” that means an exaggeration, a caricature, superfluous, or whatever.  I knew it wasn’t a compliment.  And while I was standing there, stewing, Art Blakey was standing on the side (he knew Monk so well, I guess he knew what he was talking about), snickering like that little dog in the cartoon.  Monk let me stew for about 15 or 20 seconds, looking at me all the time through his sunglasses with the bamboo temples on them, and he said to me, “You’ve got to make mistakes to discover the new stuff.”
I thought about that.  Mmm, bingo!  The next night I came in, Ted, I was playing like a man taking leave of his senses.  I was playing so crazy, trying to get away from that well-worn that I’d fashioned for myself, knowing that this works and that works, and I can do this here and do that there, like mathematics (and music is anything but that).  I decided to take chances.  I was jumping off of cliffs (metaphorically, of course) and jumping off bridges, standing in front of trains!  I was doing some crazy stuff.  But that started to move me out of where I was before; that was the beginning of it.  Of course, I stopped for a while.  But over the years, I’m of the conviction that you have to take chances if you want to move ahead.  Otherwise, you’ll just sort of level off.  And time, in its indefatigable course, moving always forward, has a way of relegating you to history.  You know?

TP:    I have to say that listening to things you recorded before Art Blakey, you sound like a very dynamic tenor player with a modern vocabulary, a distinctive approach for people among your generation for your assimilation of Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins.  But you in your liner notes were describing your sound as “smooth and syrupy.”  That doesn’t make sense to me.  Are you being overly self-critical, or is that an objective way of describe how you played pre-Art Blakey?

GOLSON:  That’s the way I felt.  Other adjectives.  “Mellifluous.”  “Saccharine.”  “Sweet.”  “Charming,” some people have said.  But after a while, I wasn’t satisfied with that.  I wanted a little fire into it and get more articulation.  I had a lazy tongue; that old style, your tongue doesn’t touch the reed too much, the notes just kind of flow on your fingers, and your fingers do all the work.  But the tongue has to do some work sometimes, too, to define, to separate things and separate notes and separate ideas.  That’s what I worked on.  I guess I’m still working on it.

TP:    It sounds like you had an impact on Art Blakey’s conception of himself as a drummer-bandleader.  Because it sounds like your compositions oriented him to focusing on certain sonic components of the trap drum set, and that you got him into presenting his different techniques on the drumset as part of the whole performance rather than just the straight-ahead, more unformatted playing than  before.  As evidenced particularly on “Drum Thunder Suite,” on which you said to him, as you were telling me off-mike, “don’t pick up the sticks.”

GOLSON:  Right. [LAUGHS] I wanted him to use the mallets.  I said, “You use the sticks and the brushes all the time.  Let people know what you can do.”  Let them know that you can play mallets, that you can play no your tom-toms.  Do other things.  Don’t always just do the same thing.  Of course, the mallets are not tools you’re going to use all the time.  Sticks are what you use most of the time.  But it’s good to color with other things sometimes.

You can’t do the same thing all the time.  People want to hear “Along Came Betty” and “Killer Joe” and “Blues March” and those things, and I appreciate it.  But you can’t just keep doing that.  I have a new thing I’ve written called “Lenox Avenue Soundcheck.”  When I first moved to New York, I lived one block from Lenox Avenue, on 7th Avenue.  But when I was going to take the IRT, I used to have to walk down to Lenox Avenue.  So I was down there a lot.  And being on Lenox Avenue, you’d hear certain music coming out of different places, the jukebox, and you’d hear people saying different things, some nice, some not so nice, and the police sirens… You’d just hear a multiplicity of things.

TP:    Urban sounds.

GOLSON:  There you go.  And I decided to write a tune dedicated to all of that.

TP:    Next up is a version of “Stablemates” on United Artists from Benny Golson With the Philadelphians with your old friend Philly Joe Jones, who you recorded with a number of times.  You mentioned hearing him as far back as 1945 in the clubs of Philadelphia.

[MUSIC: "Stablemates", "Blues On My Mind" (1958)]

TP:    You mentioned that after you left the Messengers it was hard for you to play with another drummer for a while.

GOLSON:  Absolutely true.

TP:    You’ve played with great ones.

GOLSON:  You can get used to playing with people, just like you can get used to wearing your favorite suit, or go to the Chinese restaurant and order the same thing all the time because you like it.  It sort of grows on you.  You’re not aware of it until it’s not there any more.  That’s what happened to me.  Art Blakey is one of those drummers, Kenny Clarke is another… In fact, both played with us at a concert in Paris.  But Art Blakey swings so…how can I put it… His sounds don’t only reach your ear.  They reach your heart as well.  His style is motivational.  What he does makes you do things that perhaps you wouldn’t normally do because of the impetus… He said, “You stand out there and play, and if you’re not doing something, I’ll give you the bass drum.”  “What does that mean?”  “Every time you hit that bass drum, you’ll grab your rear end and say, ‘Oooh!!’”  But it’s that kind of thing.

It’s more than the bass drum, of course.  It’s the whole kit that he plays, and the way that he plays it.  He’s able to reach inside of your emotions.  There’s nothing cursory about him.  There’s no wasted effort.  There’s nothing wasted about him when he plays.  It’s meaningful, it’s logical, it’s reasonable, and it sounds fantastic.  And when you get used to playing with this kind of a drummer, even though you play with other kinds of drummers, and they might have even been great drummers, his style was such that you didn’t want to hear any other style.  I’m trying to make this up as I go along, because I’ve never had to formalize it into words; it was just feelings before.  when you hear him play, that’s it.  That’s the epitome of SWINGING.  What is there?  You’re already in heaven.  Where are you going after that?  So when you play with another drummer, it’s not that that you’re hearing.  Not that the other drummers are not good, but you’re not hearing what you’re used to hearing.  And that was the problem.

I happened to mention this to Freddie Hubbard, just in passing, as an aside.  And he looked at me and said, “You too?”  He had the same problem.  I found myself turning around, looking at drummers, which is very  unprofessional, and I don’t like doing that.  But it was almost irritating.  It was almost like the drummers were tuning up, preparing to play all night.  Because I wanted to hear them go into what Art used to go to!  But of course, I got out of it. [LAUGHS] I can play with other drummers.

TP:    One thing you mentioned in a liner note is the way Art Blakey would shape your solos, and the way his accompaniment behind you would almost make your statement take a logical course of its own with him.

GOLSON:  Very logical.  You’re very observant.  Absolutely true.  That’s why I said it.  He’s motivational!

TP:    And he’d set up something different for everyone in the band.  I remember a number of years ago he was forming a new band, and he had a big band at Sweet Basil that was being pared down.  You’d hear him set up behind everybody a different solo, and as the week went on, you could hear him settling into what he was going to do behind each person.  More about Philly Joe Jones and his inimitable style, the great precision and expoobidence with which he would boot you.

GOLSON:  Highly inventive, courageous and daring.  He would do things that were unexpected.  He would do unorthodox things.  We were playing once, and he played paradiddles between the bass drum and the hi-hat cymbal, rather than play them with the hands and the sticks on the snare drum.  I mean, he did all kinds of things.  One thing I liked about Philly, he was a listener.  Some drummers will close their eyes, turn their head sideways ride that cymbal, and it’s all about how they feel about what they’re doing at the moment.  But Joe would listen.  You would play a phrase, and leave a little breathing space, take a little breath before you set up the next phrase, and he might play a drum ruff — FRPPHHH!  Just that.  It’s perfect, and it sets up the next phrase.  Or he might go, BANH-BANHH-BAM-BAMM!  Or whatever it is.  It’s so logical, so right.  And these things just carry along.  It’s like flying a plane.  You just put your seat back and relax.  You can lean on that kind of a drummer.

TP:    Take us back to the 1940s.  You may not be able to recollect this specifically because you were so young at the time.  But you recollect Philly Joe performing in 1945-46, when you were 16 and 17.  What can you tell us about his sound then.  Had he assimilated Kenny Clarke and Max Roach by then?

GOLSON:  I can’t tell you that, Ted.  It was too early in my development.  I don’t know what I was listening to.  I just know I like what he did.  I couldn’t define it and break it down into its component parts.  All I knew is that I liked it.  I didn’t have enough experience.  That came later.

TP:    The great eye for detail that marks his compositions also marks his story-telling.  He’s been writing liner notes for some young tenor players, like Dan Faulk and David Sanchez, which are worth reading for an education in aesthetics and spinning a narrative.  Let’s move now to a couple of wild card tracks, one featuring an Benny Golson with Eric Dolphy, alto sax, Gunther Schuller, french horn, Herb Pomeroy, trumpet, on John Lewis’ composition “Afternoon in Paris” from an Atlantic release entitled “The Wonderful World of Jazz,” from 1960.

[MUSIC: w/ John Lewis, "Afternoon in Paris" (1959); w/ Betty Carter, "Isle of May"]

TP:    We’ll hear some collaborations between Benny Golson and Art Farmer for United Artists between 1958 and 1959.  Your comment about him is that he plays with tremendous integrity and sound selection and intent, concentrated consciousness… It sounds as though he’s the ideal improviser for you.

GOLSON:  Quintessential.

TP:    A couple of words to describe his improvisational personality.

GOLSON:  He’s a bright person, first of all.  He’s one of the thinkers.  He cogitates.  He does the same thing when he plays.  He thinks about what he’s going to play.  But he doesn’t think so much about it that it becomes an intellectual encounter with the music.  No.  He thinks enough to give it meaning and direction, and coupled with experience, he usually comes up with a nice bill of fare musically for what he’s doing.

TP:    That sounds like a textbook recipe for what is an improvisation.  How about for yourself?  Over the years you’ve made very conscious changes in your style and approach in your sound on the tenor that you want to project for  yourself.  I was complimenting your solo on “Afternoon In Paris,” which was reminiscent of the way Coleman Hawkins played in one of my favorite periods for him, and you said, “Ted, I don’t play that way any more; that’s in the past; we must move forward.”  What is that mixture of forethought, intent, intellect… I guess bringing to bear the intellect on improvisation and the direct flow of thoughts that make a successful one?  How do you assess that balance in your own process?

GOLSON:  Well, we all have to think to a certain extent when we play.  Some players think more than others.  Some players don’t quite know how to think.  You have to know what to think about when you’re playing.

TP:    What do you think about?

GOLSON:  I think about whatever satisfies my needs.  When we think, we should think about what satisfies our needs.  What is it that we need at the moment?  Do I need something for my sound?  Do I need something for my melodic concept?  Do I need something for my rhythmic perception of things?  Or do I need them all?  And if you do, you’ve got a lot of thinking to do.  But experience makes it easier as you go along.  The more you do a thing, the easier it gets as it goes along.  Mind you, I didn’t say “easy.”  The easier it gets.  And me, I feel that I have certain needs.  I have a lot of them.  Beginning with my sound.  I am so critical about my sound.  I am going through a phase right now where I am talking with the reed manufacturer, and they are making special reeds for me, and when I go back out to the Coast in December I am going to meet with them again.  It’s getting close.  But there’s just one  element I want to get out.  That’s me.  People say, “Oh, it sounds great to me.”  And that’s fine. But I have to satisfy myself first.

TP:    You may never get satisfied.  It may be that’s what keeps you going and searching for new challenges.

GOLSON:  You know, that’s what Sonny Rollins.  He said, “No musician ever dies who is completely satisfied with himself.”  And I believe that.  If I get to like my sound, it might be something else that I’m not happy with.  That’s the way it is.

TP:    Some musicians will set themselves a challenge on a given night, like a particular tenor player will say, “I’m going to be Lester Young,” and then another night will try to be Coleman Hawkins, or taking it farther… Setting up that type of challenge to spur interest and play something different night after night.  Did that have anything to do with your approach?  Or was it purely about developing musical ideas?

GOLSON:  That was never part of me and it never will be.  I don’t set out to sound like anybody.  I’m struggling hard enough to try to sound like what I want to sound like.  Why would I waste time trying to sound like somebody else and put banners up for them?  That’s testimonial to them!  I’m not trying to set a testimonial for myself, but I am trying to play things that at least satisfy me and my needs.  I can’t waste… I use that word advisedly.  I can’t take time trying to sound like Lester or somebody else.  There’s enough of that going on now.  So many people sound like John Coltrane.  John Coltrane was John Coltrane.  That should be left where it is.  Who is going to best John Coltrane?  Maybe the next century.  But we should spend more time trying to sound what we want to sound like, expressing our own feelings and revealing our own musical personalities.  We don’t need any carpet paper around.  We should try to sound like ourselves.  And the litmus test is applying ourselves, trying to find out what it is that we want to do, and trying to optimize whatever it is we’re trying to do at whatever opportunity we have.  Rather than to walk through anything (I don’t think anybody does that nowadays), we should put forth our best effort, like our lives are on the line.

Case in point.  Tom MacIntosh had a group called the New York Jazz Sextet, trumpet, tenor, trombone and rhythm section.  At one point, Freddie Hubbard was the trumpet player.  I hadn’t thought much about it.  But every time we had a rehearsal, when it came time for Freddie to play his solo, he played like he was at Carnegie Hall at 8 p.m. on a Friday night with a full auditorium.  That’s the way he played.  Me, before that, I would just kind of walk through the changes.  This is just a rehearsal.  I used to laugh and say, “Hey, it’s only a rehearsal.”  But he played like his reputation was at stake.  He really did.  And I learned something from that.  You do the best you can whenever you get a chance to do it.  And if you do that, it can become a part of you.  But if you spend part of the time minimizing it and throwing it away, then that is time taken away from a good effort that you could be applying to yourself in the direction that you want to go.

[MUSIC: Golson-Farmer, "Fair Weather," "Like Someone In Love," "Five Spot After Dark," "I'll Walk Alone," "Minor Vamp"] [MUSIC: "Blues March" (1983)]

TP:    We have to cover about 35 years of music, so compression is of the essence.  We ended the last show with one of your most famous compositions, and one which took crossover context, “Killer Joe,” performed by the Jazztet, a group that lasted in its first iteration from 1959 to 1962.  Let’s talk about the formation of this group and the early personnel.  It got you together with Art Farmer, for one thing, on a somewhat permanent basis after several years of musical flirtation, as it were.

GOLSON:  That’s absolutely true.  Art and I met in the summer of 1953, right after Tadd Dameron’s band broke up in Atlantic City, which included Clifford Brown and Gigi Gryce.  They went on to join Lionel Hampton, and the condition that we could all leave was that I would stay  there and make sure that whoever was coming in to replace us would play the music right.  So they left and I stayed.  Then a few weeks later, I joined them in South Carolina.  In the band at that time was Art Farmer.  In fact, that’s where I met him.  Quincy Jones was in the band.  That’s where I met him.  Monk Montgomery was there, Jimmy Cleveland, and of course Gigi Gryce came along from Atlantic City, and Clifford Brown, who was also there with us.  There’s no else I can think of right now who people would readily know.

That’s when Art and I began our relationship, and when we went our separate ways from Lionel Hampton, we wound up in New York doing different things, making ends meet, and we were thrown together many times — radio commercials, TV commercials, jingles, various record dates for different people.  Although we already knew each other, we got to know each other even better because we saw each other in between socially many times.  So I guess it was inevitable that we would want to do something else, and it just so happened that we decided we wanted to do something different at the same time, without either having knowledge of the other.

So I picked up the phone one day and called him.  I said, “Art, I’m thinking about putting together a sextet.”  Not a quintet.  So many other people had quintets.  A sextet with that other horn would make it just a bit different; there are not so many sextets around today.  He started laughing.  I said, “Why are you laughing?  Is this idea that absurd?”  He said, “No.  You know, I was thinking about putting a sextet together, and I was going to call you later today.’  I said, “Well, why don’t you come by, and we could talk about it.”  And he did.  He picked two of the personnel and I picked two.  He picked his twin brother, Addison Farmer, who was alive at that time, for bass, and he picked Dave Bailey, who now heads Jazzmobile here in town, as the drummer, because they had worked together with Gerry Mulligan.  I picked Curtis Fuller.  Well, there was no disagreement there.  But when I came up with the name McCoy Tyner, he said, “I’ve never heard of him.  How is he?  Can he play?”  I said, “Oh yes, he can play.”

TP:    Before you continue, how did you know about McCoy Tyner?  Now, there’s an obvious Philadelphia connection.  Were you keeping the ties to Philadelphia?

GOLSON:  Keeping the ties had nothing to do with it.  It was the talent.  But the important thing is that I met him in Philadelphia.  I went to do one of those Sunday afternoon concerts, and the rhythm section was there, awaiting my arrival.  He played so well!  So I said, “Let me see what he can really do.”  So I played something in a strange key, and he just romped through it.  He was only 19 years old!  So I kept that in the back of my mind, not knowing if anything was going to happen or if I was going to do anything where he was involved.  But the Jazztet came up, and obviously he was the first person in mind.

TP:    Were the germs of McCoy Tyner’s mature style present when you first heard him at 19 or 20 or in the Jazztet?

GOLSON:  Oh, sure.  That’s what appealed to me.  Of course, after that he built on it.  He didn’t just stay here.  He migrated ahead to other things, which is logical for a truly creative person.  But it was interesting, so funny because when I approached him about the job on the telephone, it was like he had been awaiting my call.  “Yes!”  But then I reminded him that Philadelphia was 90 miles from New York, 180 miles round trip every day.  “McCoy, can you do this?  Are you up to it?”  He said, “Well, I really want to move to New York; I’ve been thinking about it.”  So as it turned out, to make a long story short, Art and I found an apartment for him and got it.  So he and his wife were on their way over, and a friend was bringing them over in a car, and the car broke down on the New Jersey Turnpike.  He called me.  He said, “Benny, we’ve broken down; can you come out and pick me up.”  I said, “McCoy, I don’t have a car.  Call me back in an hour and let me explore and see what I can do.”  So I found a friend who had a car, and we went out and picked him up, sure enough, and loaded him into this person’s car, and we took off.  I don’t know what happened to the person who was bringing him there.  It was terrible.  I guess we drove off and left.  I don’t quite remember what happened.  But as it turned out, the person who took me out to pick him up was John Coltrane, because he lived just a couple of blocks from me!  And about a year or so later, McCoy joined his band.  So the next time I saw John, I said to him (I knew him very well, of course), “A fine friend you turned out to be.  You stole my piano player!”

TP:    I’ve heard the story, which may or may not be apocryphal, that McCoy Tyner at an early age told John Coltrane he wanted to play with him.  And he was friends with Lee Morgan, a young colleague of yours from Philly.

GOLSON:  I don’t know if the story is apocryphal, but it’s probably not.  At 18 or whatever age that he approached John, he probably did want to play with him, and he let it be known that he did.  But I’ll tell you, in the intervening time between when he asked him that (if he did in fact ask him that) and when he joined him, he wasn’t sitting still.  He was moving forward in high gear.

TP:    I’m sure the challenging compositions and arrangements and the high degree of professionalism required within the Jazztet had a lot to do with McCoy Tyner’s development during that interim period.

GOLSON:  It might have had some.  But I think he developed more with John.  John was going in a better direction for where McCoy’s concept was.  I have to be honest about that.

TP:    I was just trying to give you a nice segue to talk about the Jazztet.  Talk about what you wanted to achieve with this group.  It immediately took on a very distinctive identity.

GOLSON:  That’s it exactly.  That’s the first word.  I figured we had to have an identity.  Otherwise, we were just another sextet thrown together to do various musical things.  To give it that identity, I tried to bring complete organization to what we were doing.  Of course, later I abandoned that, because I thought it was too much organization, and the second time we got together it was much looser.  It was just a bit too organized the first time out.  Too preconceived.  I felt we needed to be a bit looser.  And for me, and I think for Art too, it worked a lot better when it was looser.

TP:    What I gather is that your initial performance was at the Five Spot opposite the Ornette Coleman Quartet in their New York debut.  Which sounds to me like quite a scene.  So I’ll ask you to use your considerable descriptive powers to give your first-hand impression of the Ornette Coleman Quartet in 1959 at the Five Spot.

GOLSON:  I’ll never forget it.  Ornette had created quite a controversy about himself and about his music.  He had a lot of supporters, people like Leonard Bernstein and John Lewis, even Dizzy Gillespie.  Well, Dizzy Gillespie had perspicacity anyway.  He was able to look ahead, and he probably saw this music going in another direction that had some validity to it.  But not everyone really felt like that, and it was a big question mark.  So it was like someone going to a new restaurant.  Here you had two new groups, two bills of fare, so to so speak, under the same roof, and the place was jammed.

TP:    Very different approaches to music as well.  Were you familiar with his early recordings that preceded his New York appearance?

GOLSON:  Yes, I had heard some.

TP:    But you were somewhat familiar with the compositions and the group.  What did you think?

GOLSON:  I wasn’t sure.  Later, as I got to know Ornette, I called him up and sort of made an appointment, if you will, and I went down, and we talked about it.  I wanted to find out what he was doing before I had… I figured I had no right to an opinion until I actually knew what he was doing.  So I made it a point to go find out what he was doing.  Interesting.  Right after that, we started… In fact, the Jazztet played one of his songs; I can’t remember one.  We tried to interpret it the way he was interpreting it.  And it worked out okay.

Everyone has a right to speak and to have his own voice.  No one should be deprived for what they do.  Whether we choose to like it or not is up to us.  But everyone should have the privilege of speaking.  Voltaire said, “I disagree with everything you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.”  That’s how I feel.  No matter how this person or that person who even I feel about it in a negative way, they have the right to do it, and they should go ahead.  That’s the way we move ahead.  Otherwise, everything stays the same, and it becomes more predictable and more predictable.

TP:    But there you were at the Five Spot with a kind of factionalized audience, two new groups, a packed house every night…for how long?

GOLSON:  Both of us stayed there for two weeks, I think it was.  Or a month.  I can’t remember.  But it was longer than a week.  It was interesting.  We had all kinds of people coming in there.  I mean, Leonard Bernstein himself came in.  I don’t think Dizzy came.  John Lewis might have come.  And some other people would have given him support, I guess, by the nature of who they were themselves, showing up there.  And we had people come to see us, too.  It was great.

[MUSIC: Jazztet, "Park Avenue Petite," "Round Midnight," "Bean Bag"]

TP:    Coming up are more albums by Benny Golson from 1961 and 1962 while the Jazztet was still working.  The band had a fair amount of success during their couple of years.  I imagine you were booked quite a bit and did a fair amount of travel.  Talk about the course of the group.

GOLSON:  Yeah, in the beginning we did have quite a few bookings, because, honestly, we were new, and with the albums coming out at the time, people were able to hear us, and if they really liked what they heard, then they wanted to see us also.  So we were booked in quite a few places around the States.  We never did go to Europe, though.  But with any group that’s ongoing, things happen indigenously [sic], and it brings about changes sometimes from within the group.  For whatever reason.  It’s inevitable, most of the time.  And we had a change of our trombone player, we changed bass players, drummers and piano players.  The only two that didn’t change were Art Farmer and Benny Golson, I guess!  But everything else around us changed for a certain period of time.

TP:    Did the band begin to open up somewhat?  Certainly on the live album we can hear the format opening up and freeing up some?

GOLSON:  Yeah, it was a bit looser, and Art and I felt a little better.  It was just too organized the first time.  It was all right, and it made its mark, I guess, because it was organized and it was different, and hopefully, it was consequential enough that people thought we had something to say that they wanted to listen to.  But then, you know how it is.  You get used to hearing the same thing, and you feel that you have to make a change.  Everything should never creatively always be the same.

TP:    Is this a conscious thing for you?

GOLSON:  Yes!

TP:    Do you see yourself getting into a rut and say, “I’m going to do something different.”

GOLSON:  Yes.  Not just for the sake of just being different, but for the sake of fulfilling a need within me.  If you just change to change, that’s arbitrary.  But if the change comes about, it should come about in a natural, creative way, just as the substance of what you’re doing comes about in a natural way.  So the changes come about likewise, or the desire for a change comes about in the same natural way.  That’s usually what happens with creative people.  You don’t wear a blue suit one day, and then the next day it’s, “I think I’ll wear a red suit just to attract attention.”  You’ll buy a brown suit because you’re tired of the blue one all the time — that kind of a thing.

TP:    What do you remember about the circumstances of Take A Number From 1 to 10?

GOLSON:  Wondering whether or not the idea was going to come off.  It wasn’t my idea.  It was someone else’s idea.  And yet, I thought it might have possibilities, which is why I did it.  After we finished it, I thought it was consequential enough to have been recorded and to put it out for the public to hear.  It was okay.  I don’t know if I’d do it again.

TP:    Well, it seems like an ideal vehicle for someone whose interests lie so strongly in the areas of composition and arrangement, and who is so serious about your personal sound on the saxophone.

GOLSON:  You’re right.  Starting out with myself, just playing unaccompanied, the spotlight is purely on me, and eventually it lines up to the other part of me, that is, the writing.

TP:    In my brief acquaintance with Benny Golson he’s never expressed any real satisfaction with his tenor saxophone sound, and I’d like to read a comment you made to Nat Hentoff in 1961 from the liner notes.  It may sound familiar to you 35 years later in its sentiment.  You say, “We all go through stages.  There are, after all, so many roads to take.  Now I’m on the right track for myself.  I know what I want to do.  I’ve been working hard during the past year, for example, on an even bigger tone, with more roundness and warmth, even in the extreme high register.  I want to make the whole horn sound warm.  I also want to play melodically instead of just running over the horn, as I was at one time, but I’d still like to have a command of velocity at my fingertips when I need it.  I feel very much better about my playing these days.  At one time I didn’t know whether I was coming or going, but I guess it was necessary to try different ways to be sure of my own.”  It sounds like you’ve been consistent in your sentiments over time.

GOLSON:  How long ago was that?

TP:    It’s a 1961 recording.

GOLSON:  I mentioned something about being on the right road.  But you know, roads have a way of wearing thin.  Roads can become a rut.  Really.   I’ve found that out since then!  So even if you’re on the right road one day, you might want to get on another road another day.  And we have to remember, too that today’s adventure is tomorrow’s commonplace.  So things have to change.  So I said that then, but I wouldn’t say it now!

[MUSIC: From Take A Number From 1 to 10, "The Touch," "Time"]

TP:    Benny Golson expressed about as enthusiastic a comment as I’ve heard from him on “Time” — that doesn’t sound too bad.  You said you hadn’t listened to it for 25 years.  We’ll hear some quartets from 1961-62.  At this point, in addition to the Jazztet, were you doing a lot of singles, either with a working rhythm section or travelling around the country with pickups?

GOLSON:  I wasn’t doing too much.  We were primarily concentrating on the Jazztet.  But when we signed with Mercury, they signed the Jazztet, and then they signed Art and they signed me as individual artists.  I don’t remember how  many albums we did with the Jazztet, but in addition to that we each did one or two albums — I’m not sure.  One of the notable things about Turning Point is that the rhythm section with me was Miles Davis’ rhythm section at the time, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb.  I felt I was stealing just a bit!

TP:    How was it different for you to play as a solo voice than in the more arranged format?  Do you approach your improvisations differently?  Is it simply a matter of having more time to stretch out?

GOLSON:  You hit it right on the head.  If I’m playing with a quartet (not even with a trumpet, which would be a quintet), much more freedom abounds.  If I’m not playing with an arrangement of other instruments around me where I have to fit into slots here and there, if I don’t have backgrounds that have to stay out of the way of me, or I have to rise above them, then I have complete  freedom.  And in a quartet I do.  I can play a melody any way I want to.  If you play it with another instrument, then you both have to play it the same.  So you have to decide how you’re going to play it.  When I’m playing by myself, I might play it this way tonight, I might play it that way tomorrow night.  I might add a little something to it one night… Just complete freedom.  That’s one thing I enjoy about the quartet.  Within reason! [LAUGHS] Provided you’re up to it.

TP:    On Turning Point you have the sublime rhythm section of this period, which brings me to the question of what you’re looking for from the different members of the rhythm section.  In a piano player what are the ideal qualities?

GOLSON:  It’s different things, because individuals have different things to offer.  It’s a matter of what you want to hear.  Do you want to hear what this one is offering.  Do you want to hear what that one is offering?  It’s a terrible thing when you hire a person and you tell them you want them to sound like somebody else.  You hire him because you want to hear what he does.  Either it’s something that you have in mind and he meets your needs, or he has something that appeals to you that you feel you would like to have.  So when you hire them, you hire them with these kinds of things in mind — intuitively. It’s not anything you have to go home and turn off the radio and pull the windows down and think about.  Intuitively, you know these things.

First in a piano player, I am concerned about his feeling for the piano.  A piano is not one instrument.  Literally it is.  But it can function as three different instruments.  It has a distinct sound at the top.  It has a distinct sound in the middle, where most piano players are.  And it has an even more distinct sound at the bottom end.  That bottom end of the piano cannot be duplicated by any of the other instruments in the repertoire of instruments.  He’s down there.  He’s got that to himself.  Solitary air space.  Now, a good piano player knows how to use all of that according to what’s happening at the moment, and can make you feel good and can urge you on to try to best yourself — that’s the kind of piano player you want.

When he’s functioning in these different areas of the keyboard, he has something to say that’s going to not only support you, but encourage you because it sounds so good to you.  I just had that last week.  We were down at Sweet Basil.  These three guys, they had something to say.  And I’ve got to tell you, I felt like playing every night, every set.  That hasn’t happened to me in quite some time.  Because I had three guys who knew what to do.  They knew what to do as individuals.  They knew what to do as a group.  I mean, the things that they did together was as though they had gone out and rehearsed without me, and decided what they were going to do to support me.  It was so together, it was incredible what was happening up there.  And if you can get this, if you can find these kinds of qualities in individuals that you select to be your rhythm section… And the things that I said for the piano basically are the same for the bass and the drums.  It’s just different instruments.  But it’s a matter of having affinity for the instrument, having affinity for each other as a rhythm section, and having affinity for the soloist who is out front.  And if you can get all those things to spark and jibe, if you can get that kind of potential to cross paths with reality, then you’ve got something that’s really noteworthy.

We’re going back in time now.  This rhythm section to me was quintessential.  It was the best, the essence of what one would expect in a jazz rhythm section.  That’s why I chose them.  And Miles had no objection, I must say.  Very nice.  Because he knew what I was going to do!

[MUSIC: "Turning Point," "Little Karin," "I'm Afraid the Masquerade Is Over," "The Best Thing For You Is Me," "Shades of Stein"]

TP:    “Shades of Stein” refers to Gertrude Stein, and in your conversation we hear many references to philosophy and literature.  Is there any direct relationship you can discuss in terms of your reading vis-a-vis your playing?  Your liner notes are eloquent and very much to the point.

GOLSON:  I’m not an avid reader.  Actually, my wife Bobbie reads more than I do.  Anything that comes from what I read is just casual.  Gertrude Stein happened to appeal to me because of the way she took a phrase and used it over and over, “a rose is a rose…”  I tried to capture that in the melody, because you hear the melody over and over.  It got a little boring.  To make sure it didn’t get too boring, to break away from it, I made the bridge as far out as I could that time.  You could hear where it was going, like up a flight of steps, and the chords were going along with it, and it was a little difficult to play on.  But I think we needed a contrast from that Gertrude Stein influence in the beginning to sort of let it stand out by itself.  The more you do a thing, the less it means, so I broke away from it.

TP:    Is there any implied narrative or story in your compositions, or are they just musical ideas?

GOLSON:  Most of them are just musical ideas.  But what I do try to capture is a meaning in my titles.  I think the title should give one who is about to listen privy to what it is going to be about.  Now, with few exceptions, I’ve done that.  A few times I fell on my face.  I can write a song maybe in a day or two, or in a week, whatever, but I agonize over a title sometimes for two or three weeks or a month, trying to come up with the appropriate title.  When you hear a title, it should be more than a title.  You should be able to step inside, just a little bit — if not into the house, at least into the vestibule, to get out of the cold.

TP:    Improvisers seek their individual voice, and of course the common phrase is to tell your own story, and your antecedents on the tenor saxophone all had their various ways of telling their story.

GOLSON:  Playing your own ideas.  Most of us play our own ideas as best we can.  The reason I say that is because sometimes, intuitively, and depending on where we are in our development and how much we are influenced by the things that surround us… Intuitively many times we will play things that “belong to other people.”  It’s their kind of thing.  It might be a lick.  It might the way something is played, a certain inflection.  The way Sweets Edison takes a note like he’s milking a cow, the half-valve kind of thing.  That’s associated with him.  And the moaning and groaning that he does with the horn.  When I hear it, the first person I think of is Sweets Edison.  But for the most part, most people, with a few exceptions, try to play their own thing.

TP:    Another aspect of this is that for many years (I guess it’s still true, although the way information gets passed along has changed so much) is oral tradition, of listening to people you admire and trying to grapple with their ideas and coming up with your own conclusions based on that, a continuing, ongoing narrative, many voices converging.  You described your process of learning as similar, that you would take solos off records, and study and transcribe.  So I wondered if there were any analogies we could draw between the verbal and musical arts of storytelling.

GOLSON:  It’s very much like storytelling.  Sometimes the words differ, but the essence or meaning is usually the same.  Sometimes extra little words creep in so that the story begins to enlarge and unfold in a different way, so that down the road maybe it doesn’t even resemble the first or the original story.  We do that in our playing sometimes.  Sometimes we modify things that we’ve heard.  Sometimes what we come up with are mutations, if you will, of what we’ve heard.  And sometimes they are merely jumping-off points.  I wouldn’t like to think that people stay there.  The only exception I hear to that now is some tenor players.  John Coltrane has really gotten into their blood, and we don’t always hear their personal voice — we hear shades of John Coltrane.  That’s a great testimony to John Coltrane, but it doesn’t say much for their own development and for their own possible or potential voice.  I think that’s regrettable.  Because it takes away what they would be as a creative source.  We all have something to say, and we say it differently.  And it should be different.  We don’t walk the same, we don’t eat the same kinds of food.  Our habits are different.  The life is different.  So why should we try to clone or become a clone of someone else when we pick up the instrument?  And when we talk about John Coltrane at this point… My goodness, who at this point is going to best John Coltrane, who had years in which to do it?  John Coltrane was John Coltrane.  Sit back, listen to it and enjoy it.  Why try to become John Coltrane?  The time could be spent in a better way.

TP:    These quartets mark the last performances by Benny Golson as a solo saxophonist, apart from a few cameos, that we hear from about 1963 to 1980.  It was a real loss to the jazz world not to be able to hear your voice and your story through almost two decades of writing and orchestrating and establishing yourself as a very busy and commercially viable writer and arranger.  The next two tracks show more of the expansion of what you were doing then.  This is called Pop Plus Jazz Equals Swing, and it’s a sort of stereo gimmick album arranged and orchestrated and conducted by Benny Golson from about 1960.

GOLSON:  It was originally recorded on Audiofidelity, which was a label that prided itself in coming up with things that sounded authentic.  They would come up with versions of sounds of trains passing by, glasses breaking, people hammering nails, somebody tap-dancing, firecrackers, those kinds of things.  And a fellow named Tom Wilson, who had the Transition label in Boston, eventually gave it up and settled in New York, and began to produce for different companies, and at the time when we did this, he came into the fold of Audiofidelity.  Stereo had just come out then.  So he came up with a gimmick whereby the stereo could be optimized, and helped people to see really what it was.  And he decided that it would be a good thing to use jazz to do it.  So the way he figured it out, the rhythm section would always sound in the middle, which meant that it was a little each to the right and the left; on the right side it was little to the left and on the left it was a little to the right side.  So it sounded in the middle.  On the right side, I think, he would have a jazz group, and on the left side he would have what’s called a “legit” group with french horns and flutes and a few strings and things like that.  What we would do was come up with standard tunes to be played by the group with the strings and flutes on the left, and on the right side the jazz group would play the figures that had been written on it.  On the song “Whispering,” the legit group would play [SINGS ORIGINAL MELODY] but on the right side, the jazz group was playing “Groovin’ High.”

TP:    A subversive way to hip people to the mechanics of bebop as well.

GOLSON:  Exactly.  He showed what stereo was and how tunes are based on standard.  Same thing with “How High The Moon” with the legit group, and “Ornithology” on the right.  “Moten Swing” and “You’re Driving Me Crazy”.  “Out of Nowhere” and “Nostalgia.”  With “Stella By Starlight” we gave a different treatment on the left and the right, but the same song.  We did a blues with the jazz group and “St. Louis Blues” for the legit.  It worked out.  It was an adventure; it worked out.

[MUSIC: "Groovin' High"/"Whispering"; "Stockholm Serenade," "Swedish Villa," "Out of This World," "Stockholm Sojourn"]

TP:    Here we’ve come from your early arrangements with Dizzy Gillespie to these very involved, multi-layered arrangements for a 23-piece orchestra.  Would you talk about your studies in composition in the eight-year interim?  Was it all pragmatic?  Was it all empirical?  Or did you do some formal study at this time?

GOLSON:  I set out to do some formal study when I went to college, and I was all geared and revved up for it.  But when I got there, it was a little  disappointing for me, because I saw what the students who had gone before me were doing, and I was saying to myself, “Gee, that’s not really what I had in mind.”  I think I mentioned to you last week that when I get to my third year, I had become somewhat of a rebel.  Because when I was studying, we learned all the rules.  All the rules!  The dominant has to go to the tonic.  And I’m saying to myself, “Why?  Why?”  When I did “Killer Joe,” that wasn’t it.  So I started to do things that I knew were wrong.  I’d get the assignment, and I’d break all the rules and take the stuff in — and boy, they’d pull out the whip like Zorro, and just X my assignments in front of the class.  I was belligerent then.  I’d stand up and simply say, “That’s the way I heard it.”  It’s amazing how things can happen like that.  And I have to question: Why does it always have to be the same?  Why can’t it be different?  Why can’t I have octaves?  Why can’t I have fifths if I want to?  Why does the dominant always have to go to the tonic?  Why can’t I come from the leaning tonic?  I mean, I started asking things like that, and they looked at me like I was crazy.

TP:    These are the kinds of questions that could only someone who had assimilated the lessons rather well would be inclined to ask.

GOLSON:  So a lot of it was empirical.  I’ll tell you, I got absolutely nothing from there that you would hear in my writing.  It was all empirical, trial-and-error, a priori, from observation, things like that.  Now, I’ll tell you, I had some good teachers.  I listened to people like Tadd Dameron, Duke Ellington, and doing more…

TP:    How was Duke Ellington a teacher?

GOLSON:  Oh, the voicings.  Voicing those chords.  Take that baritone off the bottom and put him up at the top there, you get a different sonority.  People think of the baritone as low.  It doesn’t always have to be low.  You can do aberrational things with instruments if you’re familiar with individual sounds and familiar with blend of sounds.  You can get all kinds of things.  Then there are things that you try sometimes that might seem crazy, but you try them anyway.  All you can do is fall on your face.  I mean, no one is going to kill you.  So hopefully, you’ll have a chance to do that again.  Well, I fouled up that time, but the next time… The ballplayer loses the game.  Wait til the next time.  Every day we open our eyes as creative people.  We have to think, “I’ve got another shot at it today.”

TP:    What qualities did Tadd Dameron impart to you?  Of course, you knew him rather well from roadlife with Bullmoose Jackson.

GOLSON:  He was a great dearth writer.  He knew how to use few instruments and get the most out of them to maximize whatever it was they were doing.  With Fats Navarro and Charlie Rouse… I said, “How can he get two horns to sound so full like that?”  He got them to sound full because he maximized the instruments who were playing with them, the piano, himself, how he voiced the chords.  Making use of the full drum set.  Not just TINK, TINK-A-TING on the cymbal and the bass drum here and there, but using all of the set.  Because the drums are functional enough to accomplish many things.  The tom-toms accomplish one thing, the snare drum, the hi-hat the ride cymbal, the sticks, the brushes — all of these things make a difference.  The bass.  All these things work.  Then I finally got a chance to meet him, and this guy was an open book.  He didn’t hide anything, and he shared what he knew.  I remember he did an arrangement for Duke Ellington once, and he let me copy it.  I didn’t charge him anything.  Because I was getting a lesson!  As I was copying, I was taking information in.  Well, what did he do here with the third alto?  Or how did he use the baritone?  Well, how did he use the reed section with the brass section?  And how did he voice the trumpets with…? Hey, this was a learning process for me.  So I did a lot of listening.  I eviscerated some things.  I took them apart, laid them out, looked at the component parts.  Why do they work?

And another one that helped me a great deal (he wasn’t even aware of it) was Ernie Wilkins.  This man knew what to do with a big band.  I kid you not. The people don’t know about Ernie Wilkins.  I ran into him in Aarhus, Norway, a few years ago, when he had 12 pieces — he called it his Almost Big Band.  We were on the same bill.  We went to the hotel and we were in the corridor, and I said, “I should let him know this,” and I told him that, and he was astounded.  He said, “Really?”  I said, “Yes, indeed.”  I said, “You have no idea of the times that I took your scores, and looked at them and broke them down.”  This is how you learn.  I didn’t learn it in college.  Today it’s possible.  But during the time I was coming along, it just wasn’t possible.

TP:    Did you take apart the scores of European composers at that time?

GOLSON:  Of course.  It was nothing that would change the cosmic balance of the universe.  But they did know… Everybody talks about Verdi when you talk about opera.  But Giacomo Puccini, he was a much better orchestrator, for my money.  And besides, I found out just a couple of years ago, he used to go around to some of the jazz clubs, so you know he had to be all right!  His orchestrations had much more involved sonorities.  The concept of how he’s using the orchestra.  Background for some of the things, but strong backgrounds.  Verdi was a little flowery for me.  But Puccini sort of rolled his sleeves up and took that pencil up very seriously when he went to work.  Good orchestrations.  They’re using a lot of chords, I-III-V, VI maybe sometimes, minor VIs.  But the way they used them and the sound they got when they used them, you see… When we got to jazz, we just built on things like that.

TP:    Your fondness for opera is something you share with your stylistic mentor, Coleman Hawkins.

GOLSON:  Well, I’ll tell you, I used to hate it until I met my wife, Bobbie.  I really learned to appreciate it through her, as I did ballet and some of the other things.  It’s beautiful.  Some is more beautiful than others.

TP:    What’s becoming apparent is that the musical components that comprise the totality of what you do range from the most functional music that you played for years on the R&B circuit and with Earl Bostic to the very progressive music of the ’40s and ’50s to classical music — all in the pot.

GOLSON:  It gives you insight.  You listen to something like “La Traviata,” and they can almost make you cry, they’re so beautiful, when you hear those voices.  You go from there to rhythm-and-blues to jazz.  She taught me to appreciate Country-and-Western.  Those Country-and-Western tunes will make you get on your knees and cry!

TP:    Well, this is what makes music the magical entity it is, that it can evoke that range of emotion.

GOLSON:  Thank goodness.  Thank goodness that it’s open-ended.  It goes on and on and on.

TP:    But for all those years, you applied all those skills to very functional purposes, in Hollywood and the studio.  You didn’t bring any of the music from this time…

GOLSON:  I thought it would be too boring!  Really.  Episodic music.

TP:    But you were quite successful at it.  You wrote for most of the top Pop singers of the ’60s and ’70s.  The EOJ of the ’70s says you wrote for Nancy Wilson, Lou Rawls, Sammy Davis, Diana Ross, O.C. Smith, for M.A.S.H. and other television shows.  Is there some separation?  How do you go about writing something for these very specific, project-oriented assignments?

GOLSON:  I guess there is a line of definition there.  But sometimes, if you’re adventurous enough, you can blur the line.  You can cross over.  That can be exciting.  We were doing a show once at Universal, maybe It Takes A Thief or Run For Your Life or something.  Tom Scott was in the orchestra; the contractor had called him.  I took the melody of “Stablemates” and I just permutated it a bit, gave it another harmony and lingered on certain notes, and if you didn’t know “Stablemates,” you wouldn’t know what it was.  After the take, Tom was laughing, because he knew “Stablemates”!  You can get away with it.  Music is music.  It doesn’t always have to be the same.

TP:    What’s some of the music that emerged from that which you’re proud of?

GOLSON:   They publish the things, so you don’t come away with them.  I wrote a lot of songs when I was out there, and Universal published them or 20th Century published them.

TP:    You were on salary and they owned the rights…

GOLSON:  No, I wasn’t on salary.  I was for-hire.  I came in and I did the job.  But it was a known fact that they would publish it.  You never discussed it.  the only two people who published their own material were Earl Hagen, who did I Spy, Gomer Pyle, Andy Griffith, and Henry Mancini.  They were the only two that kept their publishing.  To this day, I don’t know how it happened.  But if I had come out there as a newcomer with my foot in the door, talking about I wanted my publishing…out of town.

TP:    What chain of events led you to Hollywood and putting the saxophone away for as long as you did?

GOLSON:  Quincy Jones.  My ex-roommate in Dizzy Gillespie’s band.  He went out there first, and he told me that Henry Mancini had been trying to make the way open for him.  Then he left.  (We used to live in the same building.)  After he got out there, eventually he called and said, “Well, this is happening, that’s happening, you ought to come out.”  His agent was Peter Faith, who was the son of Percy Faith.  I wasn’t sure.  I took a trip out there,, my wife and I went out, and looked around to see what was going on.  I think we stayed about a week or ten days.  It looked pretty good.  So I came back, and packed up myself, and went out there.  I wanted to be very sure before I pulled up roots here.  I got a little studio apartment.  And I went to work right away!

I got a call from the Goldwyn Studios.  Alex North was doing The Devil’s Brigade with William Holden, and he wanted someone to do some source music.  Alex had called my teacher who had been teaching me weekends, who was at Bennington College, and wanted him to do the source music.  He told him he couldn’t do it, but that one of his students had just moved out there.  That was me.  He wanted me to write some period music.  The source music is not the underscoring for the picture, but if somebody puts a record on, or if there’s a band playing in the place when people come into the club or the restaurant.  That’s period music, but not the underscoring for the action and emotions and drama of the film.  So there was quite a bit of period music.  I think I wrote a gavotte; for some reason, it went back that far.  I had to do a Dixieland thing.  And I did a George Shearing type thing and some other things.  This was known as source music.  And many times, depending upon the stature of the composer, he will assign the source music to other composers and just concentrate on the music for the film.  Well, I had just gotten out there.  What could I demand?  No, I don’t want source music; I want a feature film!  This was a way of getting people to know you and know your work, and so I did it.

Eventually, through Quincy, I got into Universal.  As a matter of fact, I got the same agent, Peter Faith.  He was really in at Universal, so Universal is the first studio I began to work at.  At the time I got there they had just put together a new show with Robert Wagner called It Takes A Thief.  Now, Dave Grusin was already there, and he had written the theme for the show, but he was busy doing some other things, and they needed someone to write the music for the show.  He had done the first one, which they premiered, and I started on the second show.  And it worked out all right.  They said, “Do you want another one?”  I said, “Yeah.”  So I did the third show… It went on like that.

TP:    It keeps building up.

GOLSON:  Yes.  Eventually I went out to 20th Century Fox, who had a new show starting out.  Jerry Goldsmith, who became a good friend, had written the theme for it, and they didn’t have anybody to do the show.  They asked me if I wanted to do it.  So I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”  So I did Room 222.  And Johnny Mandel had already done the theme for M.A.S.H.  Now, they had had some composers from before, but they wanted something a little different.  I was out there with Room 222, so…

TP:    So you were a new sound, which was why producers wanted your services.

GOLSON:  Maybe so.  Anyway, I went to work also on M.A.S.H.  I did Room 222 for two-three years, and M.A.S.H.  I did for three years.  That was a great show.  And I got to know the people on the show, like Alan Alda.  They’re real people.  So it was really nice working out there.  They didn’t put any pressure on me.  At Universal, the pressure was always  on.  I was beginning to feel like a humpback in the back room, working from early morning until late at night.  You’d get to the middle of the show, and they’d call you: “Do you have Reel 3 done yet?”  You’re on Reel 2, you haven’t gotten to Reel 3.  “But we need it.”  The pressure was always on.

TP:    Why did you put down the horn?  Or did you entirely put it down?

GOLSON:  Yes, I did.

TP:    you didn’t play it at all.

GOLSON:  I didn’t play it at all.  I could have used it as an ornament or put dirt in it and planted flowers.

TP:    It must have hurt you.

GOLSON:  No, it didn’t.  Because at that time I did not like the way I was sounding on it.  So it wasn’t too hard for me to put it down.  But a strange thing happened.  In those 7-8 years I didn’t play it, the thinking process was working, and strangely enough, when I did finally pick it up again, I did not sound the way I sounded when I put it down, though I had not actually been playing it.  So the thinking process does help sometimes, along with the practice of playing, of course.

TP:    What caused you to pick it up again?  We’ll hear records from 1980-81.

GOLSON:  That’s around when I picked it up again.  It was a little frustrating, though, because I picked it up and I didn’t sound the way I sounded before, but I did not know how I wanted to sound then — not entirely.

TP:    Had you been listening a lot to music in the previous decade?

GOLSON:  Constantly.

TP:    And what was your impression of the music in the ’70s?

GOLSON:  Interesting.  Interesting and moving forward.  It should always move forward.  Because we had new blood coming.  We had people who you never heard before, coming out from Wokonomac, Wisconsin, and from Iron Mountain, Michigan, places you never heard of, coming onto the scene, and they had their own voices and things to say.  And some of them represented great potential.  Since that time, many of them have gone to become big names in jazz.  This was all happening.  It was fertile.

TP:    What impressed you of the electric music, the fusion of the period?

GOLSON:  Some of the things impressed me.  But all in all, it wasn’t really my cup of tea.  But I didn’t decry it.  I didn’t put it down.  I didn’t vilify any of the players.  It just wasn’t for me.  Some of the things were interesting.  To this day, I like some of the things.  I like some of the Rock-and-Roll, some of the Rhythm-and-Blues.  Oh yeah.  Consequential things.

[MUSIC: BG-Fuller, "California Message"; w/ Bu, "City Bound," "Just By Myself," "I Remember Clifford"]

TP:    Do you remember when you first heard Clifford Brown?

GOLSON:  Yeah.  It was in a club in south Philadelphia, Broad and Lombard Street.  I remember the name of the hotel above the club — the Douglas Hotel.  I don’t remember the name of the club, but I remember one of its features.  It began with a matinee on Monday, 4 to 7.  You opened with a matinee, and then you played that night from 9 until 1, four sets.  I heard him there with an entertaining group, Chris Powell and the Blue Flames.  They sang these little songs and had their choreography, even if it was only moving from side to side and the music had a beat that kind of appealed to the people — it wasn’t a swing kind of thing.  The aberration was Clifford Brown.  He joined in, he was a part of all this, but when he started to play his solo, he stepped out there in solitary air space by himself.  High above the circle of the earth; that’s where he was.  It was so distinct and it was so good, even the people who liked the entertaining quality of the group were aware that this fellow had special ability.  And he did.

TP:    How would you reconstruct his sound of the time?

GOLSON:  Like Fats Navarro, but more Clifford Brown.  I mean, he wasn’t trying to be a carbon copy of Fats Navarro, but he was out of that school.  It was more than Fats; it was different.  He had a fat sound.  He was maybe a bit more fiery and a bit more daring because he came after Fats, so some of the things he did were based on newer things, and he was searching for things in the chords and how to put things together.  So it was very exciting to hear him play.  What eventually happened with that group, not only did people come to hear Chris Powell sing those songs and what it was that they did; they came to wait for these solos by Clifford Brown.  That’s when he started to be known, while he was with Chris Powell and the Five Blue Flames.  It was a complete anomaly, his being with that group.  That’s how he began to be known, with that group.  Of course, he soon left after that.

He lived 30 miles from Philadelphia, in Wilmington, Delaware.  So we weren’t together, oh, every day and through the week like John and I were.  But he would come to Philadelphia quite often, because compared with Wilmington, Philadelphia was the place to be.  South of Wilmington, the next place further than Philadelphia, was Baltimore and then Washington.  So Philadelphia was a lot closer, and there was actually more happening in Philadelphia.  So he was there quite often for the jam sessions and gigs and whatnot, and we got to know each other pretty well.  Later, of course, in 1953, we both joined Tadd Dameron’s band in Atlantic City, and we were together almost every day there.

TP:    Was he consistently creative player from night after night?

GOLSON:  I’m sure in his own mind he had his inconsistencies.  But as a listener, yes, he was consistent!

TP:    You’ve told the story of your friendship with John Coltrane in many places, and two weeks ago you spoke of meeting him in 1945.

GOLSON:  I was 16.  He had just gotten out of the Navy.

TP:    You spoke of hearing Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Don Byas in one of the Philly theaters in 1945, and he brought “Stablemates” to Miles Davis in 1955.  But This is For You, John is a tribute recording, and in the liner notes you relate some telling anecdotes about his practice habits, about his passion for the horn.  You recollect the first time you heard play saxophone, on a job with Eddie Vinson where the tenor player walked off…

GOLSON:  Eddie Vinson had come to town, and he was working the Eastern Seaboard — New York (and probably Chicago), Washington, Baltimore, maybe even Philadelphia.  At that time, he decided he would get a band from the East Coast.  John was one of the players playing alto saxophone.  Johnny Coles was the trumpet player.  I can’t remember who else was in that band.  But they were all from Philadelphia.  They were playing a job in Philadelphia or Delaware or someplace like that, and Louis Judge, the tenor player he’d hired, had an argument with Eddie.  He was pretty fiery.  Right after the argument, they went on intermission, the half-hour intermission.  Then it was time to come back (it was a dance type of thing), and Louis, pouting, did not come back.  He wasn’t going to come back right away; he was going to punish Eddie.  And all of the musicians left their horns laying on the chair when they went out.  They came back, John picked his alto up, and Louis was nowhere to be found.  So they began without him.  Eddie had this particular song that had a tenor solo.  Eddie played alto himself and John played alto; the only tenor player in the group was Louis.  And for some reason, he wanted the tenor solo!   The tenor solo was coming up, and still no Louis.  So Eddie looked over to John and said, “Play Louis’ horn.”  John was a little reticent about doing that.  Eddie said, “No, play his horn; I want a tenor solo.”  So John picked the horn up (this was the first time he’d ever played tenor, you know) and he began to play.  Strangely enough, he didn’t sound like an alto player.  He sounded like Dexter Gordon, or from that school.  And it sounded so good, he was playing so much stuff, wherever Louis was, he came running to the bandstand.  “Give me my horn!”  He didn’t want anybody playing like that!  He would really lose the gig!

And John liked it.  I remember he told me,  “I tried it, I liked it,” and the next thing you know, he had gone and bought a tenor saxophone.  The tenor sax was kind of a novelty to him.  He ended up working with a former member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band, from Philadelphia also, named Johnny Lynch, a trumpet player, and they were working at a skating rink every week in South Philadelphia on Broad Street.  It might have been the E-Lite(?) Ballroom.  It was a three-hour concert every Sunday afternoon.  John would bring the tenor, and he might play one number on it.  He was primarily an alto player.  Then as time went by, he was playing more numbers on it.  And after a while, he was playing tenor and lot equally.  As time went further on, he was playing more on the tenor and less on the alto.  And finally, he sold the alto.  He was a tenor  player.  He loved the sound of the tenor saxophone.  So that’s how it got started.

He went through phases, just as Picasso went through his periods of squares and cubes… He went through phases on the saxophone, trying to find out who he wanted to be, what he wanted to sound like.  So Dexter disappeared.  I ran into him when he was working with a fellow named Gay Crosse out in Cleveland, Ohio.  I was with another rhythm-and-blues band, and I went by the hotel room where he and Specs Wright were playing.  Specs was practicing on the practice pad, keeping the rhythm, and he was playing his horn.  I noticed he sounded a little different.  Each time I heard him, he was a little different.  Because he was finding himself on the tenor saxophone.  I think he was constantly doing that, right up until the end.  At the same time, he was putting all these things together, the chords and… He was a person who practiced all the time, that Spartan-like practice, like a person who had no talent — and he had an abundance of talent.  So you hook that up, a person who had an abundance of talent and who practiced all the time, you’re going to get something pretty redoubtable!  And he was.  And he became that.  As I heard him, boy, he was awesome.

One thing led to another, and eventually, Philly Joe left town to join Miles, and Hank Mobley was leaving at the time, and Miles asked Philly did he know any tenor players in Philly.  Philly told him, yes, he knew a tenor player, and Miles said, “What’s his name?”  “His name is John Coltrane.”  Of course, Miles had never heard of him, so he asked him (he wanted to be sure) “Can he play?”  And Philly probably made the understatement of his life.  He nonchalantly said, “Yeah, he can play.”  John joined the band, and… Did I tell this two weeks ago?  Anyway, he eventually brought “Stablemates” to him and Miles recorded it.

TP:    Let me take a detour here, and ask about your good friendship with Jimmy Heath in the 1940s.  He was perhaps the most advanced of you in the 1940′s, with the big band.

GOLSON:  He was, definitely.  Jimmy was only 19 years old and I was about 16, John was 18.  And this guy, Jimmy Heath, had the ability to play chords.  We were still struggling, still spelling, A, B, C… He had the ability to play chords.  Until this day, I don’t think I’ve heard Jimmy Heath play a wrong chord.  He is fantastic with those chords!  Anyway, he was into it!  And John came to town, and he heard about Jimmy, because they were both playing alto at that time.  John was sounding like Johnny Hodges.  Jimmy had heard Charlie Parker, and he was trying to sound like that.  John eventually met him, and when he came to my house again he said, “Oh, I met Jimmy Heath; boy, he’s a crazy cat” — which meant he was all right, he was really on it!  Eventually, Jimmy formed a big band, a 15-piece band.  Boy, I’ve got to tell you, those seats were coveted.  But somehow, John and I made it. [LAUGHS] Because we weren’t playing that great.  We finally made it.  I was playing fourth tenor.  A fellow named Sax Young was playing second tenor.  He had most of the solos.  I was coming along.  John was playing third alto, and a fellow named Duke Joiner was playing lead alto.  I forget who was playing baritone sax.  Then we had some other guys in the band.  Jimmy was writing some of the music, then I started trying to write and John started trying to write.  Nelson Boyd was playing bass.  Hen Gates (James Forman) was playing piano.  Specs Wright was playing drums.  It was really sounding great.  Everybody wanted to be in that band.  We were so happy because we were in the band.  To this day I call Jimmy “boss” whenever I see him, because of that band.  Whenever I call him, I say, “Hey, boss!”  We were talking about that the other day.  I called him on his birthday, as a matter of fact, about three or four days ago.

We rehearsed a lot.  We had a vocalist.  But we didn’t work too often.  Tadd Dameron wrote some things for the group.  Because these were young kids, and the band was sounding good.  Johnny Acea, who was an arranger living in New York, was from Philly, and he wrote some things, and there was another arranger from Philly named Leroy Lovett, big-time arranger, writing stuff for Nat Cole and everything, and he was writing things and giving it to us.  We were in a privileged position.  But the band never really took off.  We were trying to get a booking agent like Shaw or ABC or Glazer or somebody to take us, but it never happened.  I guess people just didn’t have faith in these kids.  Eventually the band broke up.  But it was a good experience.

TP:    Had we another hour or two past 7, I’d quiz him more about Philadelphia in the ’50s, but we don’t.  The next recording pairs him with Pharaoh Sanders.  This is the only “tenor battle” I can think of.

GOLSON:  I’ll tell you how this came about.  I knew John at the beginning.  At the very beginning, we became good friends.  Now, Pharaoh met him later along, when he became the John Coltrane.  And for me, Pharaoh is the one who comes closest to what John Coltrane was all about.  We’re not talking about the velocity and running all over the horn.  I’m talking about the sound and the way he projected and the way he could play one note, like John, and lay you out.  One note!  I thought it would be a good idea to come up with a tribute to John, play a couple of the tunes that he played, with me as one who knew him early on, and Pharaoh, who knew him later in his development.  We put the date together, and we came up with This is For You, John.

[MUSIC: BG-Pharaoh, "Times Past: This Is For You, John"]

TP:    Were you listening to John Coltrane’s music throughout the ’60s?  Did you keep up with everything he did before he died?

GOLSON:  Well, not everything.  But I listened to him, of course.  He had a lot to say.  We had to listen to him.

TP:    Did you keep in touch personally throughout?

GOLSON:  From time to time.  Not as much as we did earlier, of course, because our paths were going in different directions and our music wasn’t the same either.  But we did see each other from time to time.  We would always recall some of the things that happened earlier-on as young teenagers.  He came down to see me at the Five Spot.  We were on intermission.  I saw him coming across the street, and he had this cigar, and he’d put on a little weight.  I said, “Wow!”  He said, “Man, I’m taking Metrecal but nothing is happening.”  I didn’t think much of it.  Then finally I said, “Well, how are you taking it?”  He said, “Well, I eat my meal and then I drink a Metrecal.”  I started laughing!  No weight loss.

TP:    We’ll hear recordings from 1986 and 1988, one for a studio date with Freddie Hubbard and one with the reconfigured Jazztet.  You mentioned earlier that for the second incarnation of the Jazztet, you made the arrangements less restrictive, more freedom for the soloists.  Did this inspire new writing for you?  Was it a project you could devote new energies to?

GOLSON:  Absolutely.  I came to appreciate that less means more.  Or, to look at it from another view, the more you do a thing, the less it means.  So that’s what I did, and we felt better about it.  Writing evolves just like playing does, or any other creative thing.  My writing started to take a turn.  I did a thing on one of those sessions called “Vas Simeon,” which had no form to it at all, no form whatsoever, but yet we had to blow on it.  So for the blowing part, I constructed a little area of chords that we would blow on, and once that was over, we went back to this nondescript kind of thing as far as form was concerned.  It was so different than what I had written theretofore, that the piano player, Mickey Tucker, said to me, “What were you smoking when you wrote this?”

[MUSIC: BG-Freddie, "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing"; Jazztet, "Vas Simeon," C. Fuller 5, "Love, Your Spell Is Everywhere"]

TP:    The next recording is a special project, based on the Brandenberg Concertos.

GOLSON:  I didn’t defile Bach at all.  I have to say that.  Because the solos are not based on things he wrote; those things were added.  It’s another project that wasn’t my idea, but a very interesting one.  When they proposed it, it seemed like a challenge, which I accepted.  I had heard Bach all of my life.  But this time I had to eviscerate him.  I had to really look at what he was doing.  Because I knew I had to come up with things in addition to what he had written, and yet these things couldn’t sound arbitrary, like they were just picked up and tacked on to it.  They had to sound like part of the whole tapestry.  So it had to be in the style or concept or feeling that he had.  When I wrote these things, I remember, for the first person I played it to, it went into a section I had written, and they mentioned Bach, as though he had written it.  That let me know that I was on the right track.  I said, “No, that’s mine.”  But it had to be that way, otherwise it would be neither fish nor fowl.

Now, he had a certain number of instruments when he did the Brandenberg Concerti.  This CD represents about half of them.  I added some horns he didn’t have, and I added some female voices which he didn’t have.  So I had to write original parts for the voices that would go with his things, and I had to assign these additional instruments things to play, and it had to be in keeping with what he had done, and the transitions going into the jazz had to work, too.  So all these things represented a challenge.

[MUSIC: Brandenberg #1 w/ Mulgrew, Art Farmer, Rufus Reid, Smitty]

TP:    Here’s another selection from the private archive, dedicated to Bessie Smith.

GOLSON:  This is from last April.  NPR called me and asked me to compose a composition in tribute to Bessie Smith for her 100th birthday.  It didn’t have to be too long, and for solo piano.  I told them I thought I could do it.  After about a week I came up with this.  We hired Bill Mays, who was my pianist while we were in California, to do this.  They played it, and they sent me a copy.  The voice you hear will be Odetta, who narrated it.

TP:    You mentioned last week that you listened to a lot of blues as a kid, that it was played in the house a lot, and that some of your earliest experiences may have been listening to Bessie Smith and the classic blues.

GOLSON:  I had no choice.  And two of my uncles played piano similar to what you’re going to do here.  Not quite as well, though. [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC:  "Bessie and Me"]

TP:    Now some selections for the Benny Golson Quintet for Dreyfus, an in-studio date with new arrangements of previously recorded material.  I’d like to talk about reprising and reworking older material.

GOLSON:  “Domingo” is what we’ll hear.  I wrote it for a date for Lee Morgan, maybe his first or second.  It’s one of those tunes that was recorded and never even played again; it continued to live on the album.  Many years went by, and I never thought about the tune any more.  Many years later, Phineas Newborn recorded it.  Geoff Keezer played it for me, and I went, “Hey, how about that,” but I still didn’t think about it.  Then Mulgrew Miller knew about it and he said, “Hey, you ought to start playing this tune again.”  Then James Williams said the same thing.  I said, “Well, maybe I should!”  The style didn’t change too much.  The concept, the solos may be a bit different because time has moved on.

TP:    Is that how it is with most of your older material.  You have so many classics of the jazz lexicon, so I’d imagine just to keep yourself interested… Do you try to put little twists and turns in and update arrangements, or do you hew to the older version?

GOLSON:  No.  Even as a composer, they’re not sacrosanct.  I feel compelled to do something a little different.  I’m of the opinion that things should not always remain exactly the same.  In classical music they do, and the only difference is the quality of the performance, the conductor and the tempos.  But jazz is different.  We can express the same thing in so many different ways.  It’s a real adventure, and I’m privileged to be a part of it!

[MUSIC: "Domingo"]

TP:    A woman called as that was playing and asked me to ask you: If you were listening to yourself blind over the air, how would you know it’s your tune?  What are the distinctive characteristics by which you recognize your compositions?

GOLSON:  I don’t know if she meant if I’m playing it or if it’s just my composition?  If I’m playing it, it’s just like hearing my own voice.  I know my style.  But if it’s my composition and someone else is playing it, there are lots of parallels.  It’s like hearing your mate’s voice.  When you hear that voice, you know it’s his or hers in a crowd.  You can pick it out.  Sometimes you even know the smell of your mate.  He or she can cough in a crowd, and you can identify them by the cough.  You can see a bunch of children playing, and they’re making lots of noise, they’re rambunctious, and yet, with your back turned you can tell whether or not your kid is there if he’s joining in with his voice.  There are lots of parallels.  You can tell the way a person walks from the rear that it’s him or her, if you know them really well.

It’s the same thing with music. The structure, as you said.  Yes, you know the structure.  You know the very nature of the song.  You don’t even have to hear the melody.  Before they get back to the melody again, you know it’s yours.  It might sound complicated, but it’s extremely easy.

TP:    I think an implication of the question is, what are some of the salient aspects of the Benny Golson writing style and, perhaps also, the improvisational style, since you function as a composer-improviser?

GOLSON:  Saliently, it would be the structure, the very nature of the tune.  What chord follows what chord.  Which determines the structure or the concept of the tune.  The melody is the same thing.  You have one note, you have nothing.  You have nothing of any consequence until you get the second note.  You’ve got the beginning of a melody.  The first note doesn’t mean a thing.

TP:    So it’s how you get from Point A to Point B that makes Benny Golson Benny Golson.  Do you see your identities as composer and improviser as separate, as related, as sometimes separate and sometimes… Certainly, there’s sometimes an element of spontaneous composition in the act of improvising.

GOLSON:  Always separate for me.  When I’m playing, I don’t think about the writing.  When I’m writing, conversely, I don’t think about the playing.  The two never meet.

TP:    Do you have to clear your head, or is that just the way it is?

GOLSON:  No, it’s just natural.  I pour myself into each aspect, totally.

I got a Guggenheim fellowship last year, and under their aegis I will be writing another symphony, a second symphony.  The first was a combination of the jazz thing and this, but this will be straight-out classical.  Don’t know where I’m going.  I have my premise, I’ve done my research, and all I have to do is translate these things into music.  Haven’t written a note, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, reading a lot of books, and when I get ready to put pen to paper, hopefully things will happen.  And I’ve been commissioned to write a new ballet by a ballet company in Columbus called Ballet-Met.  I’ve been out there, I’ve talked with them, they have great facilities.  They’ve got two studios that look like airplane hangars.  It’s incredible.  Their facility takes up a whole block.  People in New York would kill for that. [ETC.]

[-30-]

Benny Golson Musician Show (2-7-96):

TP:    When we started running down the musicians on whom we wanted to focus, the first you mentioned was Lucky Thompson.  Most of this show will be devoted to tenor players from the Coleman Hawkins school – Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, Hawkins — who are the people who pulled you in when you were beginning and feeling your oats on the tenor.

GOLSON:  Lucky sort of grew out of Don Byas, that school of thought Don seemed to come up with, a former alto player.  Lucky’s approach was even smoother.  He tended to flow one thing into another.  He would come at melodies from different angles; he had a good knowledge of chords.  Though he’s still alive, I have to say “had,” because he is no longer playing.  What we’re about to play is one of the last things he recorded before he bowed out  It was so good, it’s one of the best things I ever heard from him.  I heard it a few months ago, a friend had it, and I was taken aback.

TP:    When did you first hear him play, become aware of him?

GOLSON:  It had to be ’53, or something like that.  I heard him after I heard Don Byas.  And although the styles were similar, oxymoronically, they were different at the same time.  He says some of the same things that Don used to say, but in a slightly different way.  They’re from the same musical neighborhood and concept, so to speak.

TP:    You referred to Don Byas a converted alto saxophonist.  Do you feel that his having played alto saxophone first had a significant impact on his style as a tenor saxophonist?

GOLSON:  I’m not sure, but I suspect that he did.  He sings in his melodies when he plays like a lead alto.  If you listen closely on his ballads, he sings those melodies like Charlie Parker used to sing the melodies.  Singing in the sense that he’s pouring out his heart, almost vocally, through the saxophone, through the sound of the saxophone.  That’s what we used to call “singing.”  That’s the way Don played his melodies.  Now, Lucky didn’t play his melodies quite the same.  If you played them back to back, you might be able to hear that.

TP:    Eddie Lockjaw Davis said in an interview that Don Byas was able to incorporate the ideas that Art Tatum was playing in his left hand on the saxophone, and was one of the very few who had the technique to be able to realize that.  What do you make of that?  We know he was very influenced by Tatum and had tons of Tatum records?

GOLSON:  Well, I’d have to say he was ambidextrously talented, because he not only played what he played in the left hand, he played quite a bit of what he played in the right hand, too.

TP:    Well, it’s a literal quote.  But he did have prodigious technique, and was a saxophonist from the ’30s who was really respected by the young generation who came up after World War II.

GOLSON:  Oh yes.  Let me tell you, I happened to be talking about him with Harry Sweets Edison, and Sweets said to me, “When Chu Berry was in town we used to have jam sessions, and Chu would always want to get with Don.”  I said, “What was the outcome when they’d get together?”  I can’t repeat verbatim, but he said Don did him in each time.  And Earl Bostic used to tell me about him; he would go to the sessions, and nobody could keep up with him, I guess other than Earl Bostic himself, who was really quite the technician.  Oh yeah, he could play.

TP:    And also in 1944, when Dizzy Gillespie went on 52nd Street and Charlie Parker was in Kansas City, he hired Don Byas for the front line.

GOLSON:  Oh yes.

TP:    When did you first hear Don Byas?  I believe you saw Dizzy and Bird in  person for the first time in ’45 in Philadelphia.

GOLSON:  It was ’45, yes.  We were sort of getting into that… When I say “we,” we who were aspiring professionals.  Ray Bryant was at that concert.  John Coltrane and I went together.  I think Jimmy Heath was there in the first row with some other piano player from Philly, locally.  When we heard this concert, it literally changed our lives.  We could feel something happening to us inside that we’d never felt before.  Because not only were we hearing a fantastic performance, we were hearing a kind of music that we had never, ever heard before.  You have to imagine the impact on 16- and 18-year kids.  That’s what we were.  All the way home, we were “supposing” and “if.”  We were looking into the future.  We wanted to know what that music was all about, really.  And I am still trying to find out what it’s all about.  Because music is open-ended.  You never really complete it.  You never finish it.  It’s malleable, you reshape it and you put it here and you put it over there and you add something to it, and it continues to grow.  Even the styles… How can I say it?  Today’s adventure is tomorrow’s commonplace.  That’s because Jazz in particular has such a forward motion to it, it’s always evolving out of itself and it’s moving forward, so that the styles that are great today might be a little dated tomorrow, but it doesn’t go into obscurity.  You just move it over on the shelf and make room for the newer things.

TP:    And the day after tomorrow, it may be fresh again.

GOLSON:  Well, the future is always a second away or so.  So as we move forward in the stream of time, and making time our confederate, we indefatigably move ahead with it — if we are truly creative.  And that’s what we do.  No musician that I know of is ever completely satisfied.  I mean, I’ve heard Dizzy play, and Charlie Parker, J.J. Johnson, John Coltrane.  And when you’d talk to them, you’d always hear, “I think I could do it better if I had done so-and-so.”  And you’re saying, “What?”  It’s a relative thing.  No matter where we are, what strata, what level we’re at in ability, we’re always stretching.  We’re never satisfied.  We’re always reaching.  That’s part of the adventure.

[MUSIC:  Lucky Thompson, "When Sunny Gets Blue," "Blue and Boogie" (1970)]

GOLSON:  Unfortunately, on “Blue and Boogie,” the sound was not quite right.  He must have been a little disappointed with that.  But the performance was good, what he was playing was fine, but the sound was a little constricted.  That wasn’t really his sound.  I know his sound.  It’s one of those things that’s happened to me; it’s happened to many of us from time to time.

I guess the next thing you’re going to play is “52nd Street Theme” with Dizzy and Don Byas.  When I heard this, during that time the saxophone players were playing kind of smooth and mellow and flowing.  The tongue didn’t touch the reed too often.  It was just the style.  So here comes Don, with great articulation… You notice the way he plays, especially when he goes into the bridge, and you notice that he’s playing wide intervals.  The notes are far apart.  He’s not going smoothly, like going up a pair of steps or down a pair of steps.  It’s tantamount to skipping steps, jumping down steps, jumping up steps, over the notes.  He knew his horn that well, you’ll notice, as he plays what he does.

[MUSIC: Byas-Diz, "52nd Street Theme"; Byas, "Candy," "How High The Moon"]

TP:    That reflected in many ways what was happening on 52nd Street at the time, the mixture of musicians of different sensibilities and eras, and playing a song that was the anthem of the young beboppers… Benny pointed out that he wanted to hear Don Byas’ break when he went into the bridge.

GOLSON:  That “52nd Street Theme” is notable because it epitomized what was happening musically at that time.  You’ll notice, as you listen to some of those things, the rhythm was kind of boom-changy, which was sort of a reflection from the past.  Keep in mind that when this music started…oh, whenever they started… I’m not sure exactly when it started but I heard it in 1945.  When I say “they,” I’m referring to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.  And when we first heard them in Philadelphia live, we weren’t even sure who Charlie Parker was when they first started to play.  But they had Slam Stewart on bass, I think Big Sid Catlett was on drums and Al Haig was playing piano.  We didn’t realize then that the rhythm section hadn’t caught up with what Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were doing.  On some of those early things, Bird and Diz were hitting it hard, in this new direction, but the rhythm section was lagging a little bit behind.  Later on they got with it, with Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and some of the others.

TP:    What exactly were they lacking?

GOLSON:  they were lacking the spirit of the new concept that Bird and Diz had come up with.  Of course, jazz had existed before Bird and Diz were playing what they played, so they were playing  what they knew best, what they used to play before Diz and Bird came on the scene with this epochal music.

TP:    What did they add rhythmically?

GOLSON:  Well, on that tune you hear the bass drum on every beat.  BOOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.  That doesn’t happen so much now.  The more you do a thing, the less it means.  Now when the bass drum is played, it’s played a little lightly, and when you accent certain things, then it means something.  But if you have it BOOM-BOOM’ing all the time, then you really  have to hit it hard, and it would be overwhelming.  Things like that.  The bass selection of notes, the notes then on the bass were thumps, THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP.  You played them, and they died immediately.  I call it the rubber band sound.  You hear Ron Carter, Ray Drummond, Rufus Reid, they play those notes like they don’t want to die.  They ring fully until the finger touches the string to play the next note.  They ring.  They fill up.  It gives you a different feeling when you’re playing with these kind of players, too.  And it makes the music sound different.

TP:    Now, when you were a kid, listening to this for the first time, going to the Earle Theater to hear Bird and Dizzy, what kind of records  were you listening to and assimilating?

GOLSON:  I was listening to Lionel Hampton.  Arnett Cobb, he was my hero.  He was the one that was responsible for me picking up the tenor saxophone.  That’s where we were.  If anyone knows about the Lionel Hampton groove on “Flyin’ Home,” to me, that was the epitome of saxophone playing.  That was the epitome of what a big band could do other than Duke Ellington.  I didn’t understand everything he was doing, but I knew it was something unusual, and I liked it.  But I liked Lionel Hampton better at that time.  It just had a certain spirit for me.  I was coming into it not really knowing much about jazz, and it was one of the things that first struck my fancy.

TP:    How did you pick up on the new bebop records?  Was it word-of-mouth among your peer group?  You heard it on jukeboxes?  On the radio?  How did you become aware of it?

GOLSON:  It was the strangest thing.  By accident, really, there was a place in Philadelphia that sold used records, records which had been played on the jukeboxes.  It was 78′s.  Though they were only 37 cents brand-new, you could go and buy these used records for a dime apiece!  I saw this thing, the very first one was “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s the Time.”  I’d never heard of Miles Davis.  I’d never heard of this fellow called Charlie Parker.  Only 10 cents!  I figured, after all, I couldn’t lose anything.  So I bought it.  And I took it home, and I put it on, and I listened to it — and it was the strangest music.  Had I wasted my dime?  It was quite unlike the things I had been hearing before.  But the more I played it, the more I began to like, not really understanding what it was all about.  So in the middle of all of this, I got a chance to hear Bird and Diz, not even really knowing who Bird was.  This guy dressed in a double-breasted pinstriped suit with all the buttons buttoned, and it looked too small for him — it looked like he was going to explode in it!  And when he bent over to make that 4-bar break in “A Night In Tunisia,” I almost fell out of the balcony.  John and I were grabbing at each other.  We’d never heard anybody play like that before.

TP:    Did he have a big-big sound, Charlie Parker?

GOLSON:  Yes, he had a big sound.  And the things that he played… John Coltrane was playing alto at that time.  He was into Johnny Hodges!  That’s where he was.  I was into Arnett Cobb.  And to hear Charlie Parker come out and play that 4-bar break by himself… Man, we were going crazy!  What was this all about?  How could we get close to this music?

But there was another fellow who came along.  I had been into Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas and Lucky Thompson and Ben Webster and Arnett Cobb.  He was such an aberration.  He was so different  that he drove me out of my mind, too, and it was the next recording you’re going to play by Diz — “Blue and Boogie.”  When I heard him play…I’m repeating myself.  Inside I was going crazy, my emotions.  Because it sounded so great, so good to me… it’s like meeting the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen in your life or something like that.  It got me, and it started to change my concept about the saxophone.  It helped me to move on.  I told him that once.  He laughed.  I said, “It’s true!”

TP:    Talk about the advances that Dexter Gordon brought to the tenor saxophone vocabulary.

GOLSON:  It was just his approach to it.  Actions speak louder than words… If you just put it on and let the audience hear it… Some will already remember it anyway.  But they will hear that what we’ve just played is totally different.  He’s going in another direction, and I wanted to go along with it.

[MUSIC: Diz-Dex, "Blue and Boogie"; Bird-Diz, "Dizzy Atmosphere"; Bird-Diz-Byas, "Sweet Georgia Brown"]

GOLSON:  When Dexter Gordon came along with that style… Oh, it doesn’t amaze me about him any more, so much has happened since then.  But at that time, no one had played like that before him.  So it had quite an impact, first of all on the musicians, and maybe even some of the people who listened to it.  But it affected so many musicians… Let me tell you what happened.  John was playing alto, and he had begun to play like Charlie Parker after that concert I told you about, in which he and Dizzy were playing together.  He was playing I think in Eddie Vinson’s band.  In that band, there was a tenor player.  Johnny Coles was the trumpet player, because Eddie had come to the East Coast for a string of dates up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and he used all Philadelphia musicians to do these jobs with him.  The tenor player and Eddie had a falling-out, so when the time came for intermission, he laid his horn on the chair (as all of us did for the half-hour intermission), and when it was time to come back, everybody came back except the tenor player, who I guess was pouting.  Nobody knew where he was.  Well, Eddie had to go on playing, so they played whatever this tune was, and in this tune was a tenor solo coming up, so Eddie told John to pick up Louis’ horn.  John was a little reluctant.  He said, “No, pick it up and play it!”  So John picked it up.  And when he picked it up and started to play, who do you think he sounded like?  He sounded like Dexter Gordon.  Not Charlie Parker.  He adopted a new mental attitude for the tenor saxophone.  It sounded so good… I wasn’t there, but Johnny Coles told me about it.  Wherever Louis Judge was, he came running up to the bandstand.  He felt that his career and his job was in jeopardy, and he said, “Give me my horn!”  But John had had a taste of it, and that’s what prompted him to buy a tenor saxophone.  That’s how it happened.  And he started playing tenor saxophone sort of as a novelty, and then what eventually happened, the alto began to fade into the background and he became a tenor player.  Like with lots of other alto players — Jimmy Heath, Don Byas, George Coleman; many of them were alto players.

But Charlie Parker, I have to go back to him again.  Although he was an alto player, and on that concert where I first heard him, my idol was on that concert, Don Byas… But when the concert was over, and after John and I went back and got the autographs (you know how kids are), we found ourselves following Charlie Parker up the street.  We followed him for blocks.  And John was carrying his horn on the left and I was on his right, like kids.  “Mister Parker, how do you do this?” and “What is this?” and “What is..>”  I guess we drove the man crazy, until he got where he was going; he was on his way to the Downbeat club, which was about four blocks from the concert hall, and we were too young to get into the club, so he left us there — maybe he was glad too get away from us!  “Okay, kids, keep up the good work.”  It was up on the second floor.  And we spent the rest of the night just standing outside, listening to this new music being played by Charlie Parker, who was being featured with the local rhythm section, who was Red Garland, Philly Joe and Nelson Boyd was playing bass.  We didn’t know any of them at the time.

TP:    In 1945.

GOLSON:  Yeah, we were kids.  They didn’t know us and we didn’t know them.  We wanted to know them, though.  And we stayed there all night until it was over.  Certainly Charlie Parker influenced John’s playing as an alto player.  But I think he influenced many of us.  Til this day.  Barry Harris sounds like Charlie Parker playing piano!  But he helped take us on our voyage to nowhere, because we didn’t know where we were going.  We didn’t know whether we were going to be successful or not.  But we didn’t care.  We were compelled to do what we were trying to do.  And each day we woke up, it was great to open our eyes, because we knew we had another shot at what we were trying to do.  So we used to have lots of jam sessions.  We used to get together.  And when I heard this playing here, and you could hear the bass drum playing this 1-2-3-4 heavy THUMP… Around that time, the rhythm sections hadn’t really caught up to what Bird and Diz were doing.  As I said, they did later, and it really began to smooth out, and everybody began to go in a similar direction in their development.  But this is what we were living, those of us in Philadelphia at the time.  I didn’t know anything about Chicago or New York or anyplace else, just what happened in Philadelphia.  This is where we were, and these were the kinds of things that were helping to move us forward — all of us.  Jimmy Heath, Nelson Boyd, Percy Heath, Philly Joe.  We were all trying to get into this new music, and eventually we did.  Some of us were successful enough to leave Philadelphia and come to Mecca, New York City, and go to various places around the world, and some weren’t.  I feel, as many of us do, that we were privileged to be a part of that and develop it to a point that we could go out and show our wares, as it were, to people all around the world, and they would appreciate it in varying degrees.

TP:    In the decade before you were able to come and settle in New York, you undertook a comprehensive, extended apprenticeship in many different bands and many situations, playing music for many different functions.

GOLSON:  Oh yes.  Lots of rhythm-and-blues.  We didn’t always play jazz.  None of us.  Because at that time… When we started, it was hard for us, because the older and well-established musicians would ridicule us.  They would say, “Where is the melody?  Where is the bass drum?”  Or “You play like you’ve got a mouthful of hot rice.”  It wasn’t like the musicians today who are older, who encourage the younger ones who come behind them.  I think it’s great when I see the younger ones come on the scene.  I think I and many of the others, probably all of them, try to encourage them.  We got no encouragement at all.  They were always trying to put us down.  Until so many of us came on the scene, that the scene changed!  Time marches on.  But it was a troublesome period for us.  You didn’t get called for many gigs, and we had to take some gigs that we didn’t like.  Gigs where you had to get up on the bar and walk the bar and step over drinks.  I did it.  John did it.  We all did it.  We were trying to survive.

TP:    You spent a couple of years in Washington, D.C., at Howard University, and I know you spent a fair amount of time sneaking out.  But tell me a bit about the Washington scene, which was very active, dynamic and proficient.

GOLSON:  It was during that time.  But then, so was Philadelphia.  Somewhere along the way, they both died.  But during that time they were alive.  They were vital.  It was fertile, both cities.  I thought it was going to stay like that forever.  I was so happy about it all.  Music was everywhere.  There were groups playing everywhere — trios, quartets, quintets — in Philadelphia and Washington.  I suppose, to a large extent, they were happening in other cities, too, in Chicago and Detroit, probably in Los Angeles, New Orleans, wherever.  It was a happy time for us, because more and more people were beginning not only to play the music, but to understand it.  So people were buying records.  People were plunking their money down to come and see the groups that came to appear in the clubs and in the theaters.  Because a lot of the theaters were still open then.  The Earle Theater in Philadelphia, the Apollo in New York, the Royal in Baltimore, the Regal in Chicago, the Alhambra in Los Angeles, the Roosevelt in Pittsburgh.   There were many places where groups and orchestras were still appearing live.  It was great!

TP:    That was also a time when there was a circuit of black entertainers, so it wouldn’t just be the bands coming into these theaters, but a whole show would be coming in.

GOLSON:  A whole show with some of them.  Oh yes, we had to play those shows.  Sometimes it was a drag.  But when you find yourself in a situation, rather than let the situation get you down… Charlie Parker had a way of existing, and his personality always came through, no matter where he was.  He said that everyone had something to say.  They might say it a little differently than you or him, but he had something to say, something of value.  So when we found ourselves in situations, we made the best of it.  We tried to maximize that situation.  Because we were still going through a learning process.  So when we down to the chitlin circuit, when we went through Mississippi and Georgia and we played those tobacco warehouses and so on, it helped us to get our soul together and to find out what feeling was all about.  So it wasn’t wasted time.  It was a part of our education.

TP:    What were some of the bands you played that circuit with?

GOLSON:  Bullmoose Jackson.

TP:    Describe it.  Within that band were the seeds of some of the most consequential music of the 1950′s.

GOLSON:  Bullmoose Jackson was a player who had played with Lucky Millinder.  He got the name Bullmoose because his appendages were long, he had thick fingers, big feet, a long face, his lips were very thick, his head was long.  They gave him that name.  But he had a beautiful voice, and that’s what helped to get him started in his own group.  He had a 7-piece group.  Frank Wess, I think, started out with him.  He had become successful to an extent, as far as it was possible during that time, and he had many recordings out.  When I met him, he was in the process of changing the band around.  So he asked me would I like to join the band.  I had an audition.  I had to come to the hotel room.  The manager of the group was also the alto saxophone player.  They gave me some things to read, and I played it with them.  They said, “Well, you’re not wearing glasses for nothing.  Do you know of a good trumpet player we could use?”  He wanted to change the band around completely.  So I mentioned Johnny Coles, who was an excellent reader.  Then he wanted a drummer.  As I told you, we didn’t always play jazz.  The drummer turned out to be Philly Joe Jones.  Well, he wanted a bass player.  Jymie Merritt was the bass player.  So we had a nice group.  When I got to the group, the only one that he didn’t let go was his manager, who played alto, and the piano player, who was his friend (also from Cleveland, where he was from) who happened to be Tadd Dameron, who wasn’t working that much at the time, so Moose said, “Why don’t you come out and play with me until you decide you want to do something else.”  So when I got there, Tadd was there.  So we had this plethora of new blood, new musicians, and we started to play some of Tadd’s things in between Bullmoose Jackson’s hits.  Then he got me to write things, and at the same time I was picking Tadd’s brains to find out how he arrived at certain things.  And the man was so friendly, he showed me everything he knew, which helped propel me along in the direction I wanted to go.  So I began to write things, and Moose enjoyed playing those kinds of things more than the things he was making his money at.  The group got so good and so diverse, that I remember, when we played a club in St. Louis, I can’t remember the name…

TP:    The Riviera?

GOLSON:  No, that was a large one.  This wasn’t quite that large.  But I remember the Riviera.  But it turned out we had two audiences, the people who came to hear Moose sing those songs, and people who came to know what the group was about.  Now, we never recorded any of those things, but by word of mouth, people began to talk about this band that had Tadd in it, and Philly Joe and so forth.  And we would play his hits, and then we would do our thing.  It was great.  It made it tolerable, because we had a chance to do the things that we really wanted to do in that band, and the leader loved it, too.
So it was great…until it ended.

TP:    The tenor player who as much as Bird affected the sensibilities of many young tenor aspirants performing in the aesthetic Benny Golson is talking about is Lester Young, and the music he cut after World War, after his supposed decline, were hits on jukeboxes in black neighborhoods around the country.  You were checking Prez out a lot, and the next selection is “D.B. Blues,” done right after he got out of the Army.

GOLSON:  It was so popular, that I had to learn how to play what you’re about to play note for note.  When we played locally at the dances… We didn’t play at the clubs then.  We weren’t that great.  But we used to play these local dances, and the younger people would come to the dances, and they always wanted to hear this tune.  My claim to fame was playing this next tune, “D.B. Blues.”  I had no identity of my own!

[MUSIC: Prez, "D.B. Blues"]

GOLSON:  You see what I was talking about.  The rhythm section still had not quite come up to where it is today.  I guess that’s a lot to ask, to come up to where it is today.  But they eventually caught on to what was going on, the spirit of it, and the rhythm did change.  It wasn’t so much hi-hat cymbal as it was then, you know.

But your speaking about jukeboxes in the black neighborhoods before brought things to my mind.  And Coleman Hawkins comes to my mind.  In my neighborhood (they used to call them tap rooms), there was a bar, a saloon, a block from where we lived.  I remember walking by that saloon and hearing this beautiful saxophone playing this tune.  Well, I wasn’t playing then.  I hadn’t begun to play at all then.  I was still playing piano (playing at it anyway).  I later found out that tune was “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins.  And everybody liked it!  It’s not like today, where most of the people like Rock-and-Roll or Rap or whatnot.  Everybody in the neighborhood loved “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins.  Later, when I started to play the saxophone, somebody transcribed it.  Like I said, I was so eclectic then, and we really didn’t have a voice of our own.  We used to play these things at high school and go visit other high schools.  I got this transcription of “Body and Soul” with every note that Coleman Hawkins played.  I played the notes.  Sad to say, it didn’t sound like Coleman Hawkins.  But I would do that.  And as I got older and more mature, I realized what this man was really doing in that song.  And I never played it.  I recorded that song last week with Branford Marsalis; we shared it together.  I looked back and wondered to myself why I had never recorded it.  I don’t think I ever played it.  Rarely did I play it.  I think it’s because Coleman Hawkins did so much with it.  It’s so beautiful, what else could I add to it?  It was just that way.  It was such a classic thing he did.  What else could I add to it?

[MUSIC: Hawk, "Body and Soul"]

TP:    Could you comment on the contrasting styles by the two founders of the main branches of the tenor tree, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.

GOLSON:  If you noticed, when Coleman Hawkins was playing, he was playing like many of the other tenor saxophones during the day, and that was using vibrato.  During that time they used a wide vibrato.  That was acceptable, because that’s what was happening.  Prez came on the scene, and he used no vibrato.  And they said, “What is this guy doing?  He’s not using any vibrato.”  But he set a new approach to the sound of the saxophone.  Nobody uses the wide vibrato any more.  Many of us play with no vibrato — or, when we choose to use it.  But the wide vibrato is gone.

TP:    Why?

GOLSON:  Well, it fell out of style.  It was out of date.  Style moved on to something else.  We’re not wearing spats any more.  Things progress and go forward.  Well, call it forward or backward.  But it changed.  Everything changes.  Nothing stays the same.  We didn’t look like this twenty years ago.  Did we? [LAUGHS] Yeah, time is corrosive.  Time moves on.  But I think it was for the better.  The wide vibrato was all right then.  I like it better without the vibrato.  However, I like this version of “Body and Soul.”  I am transported back in time, so in my own mind I guess I accept the vibrato because of the way he played, the feeling, the creativity that he evinced in this version of “Body and Soul.”

Prez was a minimalist.  A lot of people thought that Prez couldn’t double up and play double-time on the fast things, or he could just groove.  I was talking to someone about this the other night.  I said, “You know, Prez could double up and run all over the horn.  I heard him do it!”  But he chose to take this approach.  He liked to lay back in that groove and find a pocket.  And it worked.  He was a minimalist.  He made his notes count.  What was it Sweets said about some saxophone player who played a lot of notes? [LAUGHS] Oh, he said, referring to this person… I don’t remember who he was, but he’d play all up and down the horn constantly.  He said, “If he got paid by the note, he could retire early.”  Sweets is a minimalist.  They choose the notes well, and they make them work, and they play the notes with feeling.  When you play a lot of notes, you don’t get a chance to linger on each note and get a full feeling from each note.  It’s only when you slow down on the ballad and you slow down for an appreciable amount of time that you get a chance to emote.  You know what I’m saying?  When you start moving fast, that’s gone.

TP:    Describing phrasing a note that way makes me think of Ben Webster, who we’ll hear on a track from his younger days before he became famous for ballads done in that manner.  Hearing Ben Webster performing “Raincheck,” from 1941, brings us to another aspect of Benny Golson’s work which we haven’t yet addressed, which is the seed of writing and your career as a composer.  The impact of Ben Webster and the Ellington Orchestra.

GOLSON:  Well, writing didn’t take me over yet.  I didn’t have enough knowledge to realize what writing was about at that time.  But I remember when my mother brought the saxophone home to me.  As bad as I wanted the saxophone, when I opened it, I felt terrible, because I didn’t even know how to put it together.  So she packed the saxophone up and we both went around to the neighborhood we used to live in, about three or four blocks away, to a the house of a fellow named Tony Mitchell.  Now, he played the saxophone.  So we went in, and I wanted to know, “Well, how do I put this together?”  He took it out and showed me how to put the neck on the top of the horn, and how to put the mouthpiece off, and how to put the ligature off and put the reed on and put the ligature back on and tighten it, and put the strap around my neck.  “Oh, I didn’t know it had a strap.”  “Yeah, it hangs on the strap.”  And I put it no the strap, and he said, “Okay, now you put it in your mouth and play something.”  Well, I’m like a mule being led to slaughter.  I couldn’t play anything.  I was discouraged again.  I didn’t know what the learning process would be like.  He said, “Wait, let me show you.”  So he put his saxophone together, and he put on this next record that you’re about to play, and he played with it, the way I used to play with  “D.B. Blues” and some of the other things.  It was Ben Webster.  The tune was “Raincheck.”  This is when I first started to become of aware of where I had to go and what I had to do — not being aware of how long it was going to take either!

[MUSIC: Duke-Ben, "Raincheck," "Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin'"]

TP:    Ellington and Tadd Dameron seem to be the two primary inspirations of your formative years as a composer.

GOLSON:  Duke Ellington first, yeah.  Because this song you just played, I was just delighted with the way Ben Webster played.  But then I noticed the periphery that was going on around him, and that helped to even highlight him more.  Then I started listening to the chords and the clarinet… I’d only heard Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, then I heard how this clarinet, how he worked it in.  I’ll tell you, I haven’t heard this in a long time, but to me it’s like Dom Perignon wine.  It gets better with age.  It sounds better and better.  And music can sound like that sometimes.  Which means that you develop a deeper appreciation for it as time goes on, because there are other things that come into your life that helps to highlight the value of music like this.  It’s like on outdoor elevator.  The higher you go, the more you see.  And going higher is like developing a keen appreciation, more knowledge.  That’s what I liken it to.

TP:    One question before we move to the music of Tadd Dameron.  Ellington’s music was performed for dancers and in concerts and really beautifully produced revues…and for dances.  You, of course, played for many dances in your various journeys.  Talk about the impact of an audience on what you’re doing, and a dancing audience that’s in a particular tempo or a particular groove.

GOLSON:  Well, jazz today doesn’t lend itself to dancing per se.  It can make you pat your foot and do things like that, but it’s not as danceable, I think, as the music we heard by Duke Ellington.  Yet these things are classic things.  His music can be compared with Stravinsky or Beethoven or anybody else.  His music had a lot to say.  There’s a lot going on there compositionally.  His music is not something that you can get too easy as a writer.  He had a certain way of doing things — using the baritone saxophone, for example — that is not easy always to comprehend.  When you heard this music, you always knew it was Duke Ellington.  There was no question about it.  You didn’t confuse him with Jimmie Lunceford or Larry Clinton or anybody.  You always knew it was Duke Ellington.  So he had a certain way of writing that identified him.  It served two purposes — for people to dance by and for people to sit down and enjoy.  In a cerebral way, if you wanted to.  It was that deep.  He accomplished a lot with his music.  It was melodic, it was rhythmic, it was memorable, it was cerebral.  All of these things at the same time.

TP:    An aspect of that pertains to the dynamics of improvising, which is that Ellington comprised that sound out of the sound of the instrumentalists that he brought into his band.  I’d still like you to address the question of how playing for a dancing audience impacted you as a performer, but also bringing the individual personality into one’s own compositional conception.

GOLSON:  I don’t play for dancing audiences, but when I did, it was a different situation, so you approached it in a different way.  People were there to be entertained, and then you did what you did.  I guess a little bit of the entertainment thing came into your playing because you wanted the people to enjoy what you did, so you had to be in whatever spirit the music was in.  Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense.  If you were playing a Mississippi kind of blues, to try to play bebop on it wouldn’t work.  You know what I mean?  The people wouldn’t appreciate it.  So you had to get into the spirit of what was going on.  And once you let yourself do that, even though you were playing music that might ordinarily be an anomaly or an aberration to what you normally did, you could enjoy it, because you threw yourself into the spirit of the moment.  Oh, we used to play these things with the guitars and everything, and believe me, when I got into it so much, when we would go down South (there was no bebop on the jukeboxes), I found myself plunking nickels on “Miss Cornshucks” and B.B. King and you name it, and I was enjoying it.  Although I didn’t want to play it.  It wasn’t my kind of music.  It sort of took me over.  You can get into the music so much.

TP:    Let’s move to today, and the question of weaving the improvisational personalities of your musicians into your compositional conception.

GOLSON:  I can’t tell you how valuable that is.  That’s a luxury that isn’t always afforded us, though.  Duke did it because he had the orchestra.  When he wrote, he knew that Paul Gonsalves or Ben Webster or Ray Nance or Lawrence Brown or whoever it was…he knew they were there.  It was sort of like the couture tailors, when it’s made for the person.  That’s the way his music was.  It accommodated not necessarily the instrument (which it did), but the personality behind the instrument.  Certain people did certain things.  He used that to his advantage, and it made the music really vital.  Now, I do that when I can.  But since I don’t have a big band traveling around and musicians at my fingertips, not even a quartet at my fingertips (it changes so much), I try to do things so it makes sense for whatever setting I’m in and whatever group of musicians I happen to be using.  If I had a group with certain men in it all the time, then… Oh, I’m sorry.

There was one situation, the Jazztet, where we did have certain men.  We had a pianist, Mickey Tucker, who was so well-equipped… I mean, he ad-libbed, he played classical piano, he was a composer himself, he could read anything that I wrote — and I took advantage of that.  I wrote things for him and incorporated it into the group that I would never have written for anybody else.  I remember one night we had to get a sub.  We had a sub for Art when he had to have an operation.  We had a sub a few times for Curtis.  Clifford Jordan and subbed for me.  We had a sub on the drums, the bass.  It worked out okay.  But we got the sub for the piano, it was a catastrophe.  That music was so hard.  And the piano player took it home!  But when he came back, it wasn’t like Mickey.  You know, I would bring things in, and when I was writing I would look at it and say, “My goodness, I’m glad I don’t play piano.”  We’d go to the rehearsal, and the music would be sitting there on the piano, and we’d get ready to start, and he’d say, “Just a minute,” and he would sort of look at it, like looking at the headlines, then he’d sit back and say, “Okay.”  And that was that.  It was incredible.

Now, if you’ve got musicians like that, and we did… The musicians in the Jazztet were like that, and I was able to write things with them in mind.  Toward the end of the Jazztet, I was writing things for the bass, beginning with the bass, rather than having them at the end with some solo — start out with the bass.  And some of these things were difficult.  They were challenges, really; things we never recorded.  We broke up before we did that.  We might go back and record them one day…maybe.  I wrote one thing and took it in.  It had no form, no form at all, except when you got to the solos, when it had to have some sort of form.  When we first played that thing, I remember Mickey Tucker said to me after we started rehearsing it, “What were you smoking when you wrote this?”  It was so different.  But I’m of the mind: Why must everything always be the same?  Why must everything sound the same?  If a person is truly creative, it shouldn’t.  We don’t drive around in 1929 Fords any more.  We don’t wear spats.  Time moves on.  Music is no different.  It has to move on, too.  That’s part of the adventure, too — doing things different.  Some people might not like them, but that’s the way it is.  Those of us who choose to do it, have to do it.  I’ll put that word in quotes — “have to.”  We have no choice.  We have to do that, lest we become counterfeit to ourselves.

TP:    Some reminiscing about Tadd Dameron.  Last time you noted that he was a master of maximizing resources, of making a small band sound huge.

GOLSON:  Yes.  He was a dearth writer, dearth meaning dealing with a small number of instruments.  He was a master of it.  You have to listen to it.  He had a certain way of writing that made it sound bigger and more important than it really was.  That’s what amazed me about him.  But he used everything.  He maximized everything.  He knew what to do with the piano.  He knew how to use the bass and the drums and the two horns.  He knew what harmonies to use, and the rhythms and things like that.  You can hear it in “Our Delight,” which is one of the first things that caught my attention.

[MUSIC: Tadd Dameron, "Our Delight," "Focus"; Diz, "Night In Tunisia" (1946)]

TP:    You had a few comments about J.C. Heard’s drumming.  He played a different pattern behind each soloist on “Night In Tunisia,” and you noted how that affected the total sound of the band.

GOLSON:  I thought it was a different rhythm section, because it sounded different.  He was up on the ride cymbal.  I said, “See?  Now the rhythm section has come along; they’ve evolved.”  And you mentioned it’s the same rhythm section as “52nd Street Theme.”  I said, “That’s odd.” Then the next chorus he’s back on the hi-hat cymbal, which they did a lot then — closed.  Next chorus was the hi-hat slightly opened.  You mentioned that maybe Diz told him to play on the ride cymbal.  I thought, “Diz told the rhythm section a lot of things.”  I said, “You are probably right.”  Then I just reflected years before, it was always the hi-hat cymbal [SINGS TIME ON RIDE]; they only used the ride cymbal to crash!  And when Kenny Clarke left the hi-hat cymbal and went up on the ride cymbal to play tempos, it bugged them to death!  They thought he had lost his mind.  Just like when Prez refused to use the wide vibrato, and things began to happen.  Now, the ride cymbal is what you use when you really want to swing, not the hi-hat.  I mean, the hi-hat hasn’t lost its function.  It still has its place, and it’s great.  But when you really want to swing, you have to get on that ride cymbal.

TP:    How much do you pay attention to what the drums and bass are doing in the composition, particularly in the improvisational sections?

GOLSON:  A lot.  I have to feel comfortable.  If I am going to play, I have to feel comfortable.  And when I listen to other people, of course, they do what they want to do.  But basically, I’ll want to swing.  That’s what it’s all about.  It’s not just notes.  Notes must have spirit, lest they become merely notes, documentations of pitch — and we want to go way beyond that.  We want the music to have some feeling.  We want it to swing when it’s supposed to swing.  We want it to do other things when it’s supposed to do other things.  On a ballad when you go to the brushes, then that has a certain feeling.  If it’s got a little raunch to it, then you might play a shuffle.  Art Blakey was one of the few drummers who could make the shuffle swing.  Incredible!

TP:    The next set will focus on musicians who relate to the music we’re discussing, John Coltrane and Hank Mobley, who preceded Benny in the Jazz Messengers.

GOLSON:  John had an insatiable thirst for moving ahead.  Even as young teenagers, he was always two steps ahead of the rest of us.  I remember when he started talking about augmented chords, and we said, “What?”  Then when we came to comprehend what augmented chords were about, he was somewhere else.  It turned out that wherever we wanted to go, he had been there before we were there, and gone somewhere else.  He used to employ Spartan-like practice; especially as he got better, he practiced more, believe it or not.  As some of the rest of us got better, we practiced less.  But he practiced… We used to live two blocks apart in New York.  When you went to his house, if his wife wasn’t home, you couldn’t get in, because he wouldn’t stop playing.  He would play all day, and when he went to the gig at night, he would get on stage and play.  And during intermission, he would practice the whole intermission in the men’s room, and then come back.  McCoy said he practiced like a person who had no talent.  But we know he had so much talent.  And with that kind of practice and being as exceedingly talented as he was, we could see why he was able to soar above the circle of the earth in unoccupied air space.  And that’s where he was.

He went through phases, just like Picasso did.  The pointillism, the Cubism, the Blue period and so forth.  He went through periods on his saxophone.  I remember them.  When he first picked up the tenor, he sounded somewhat like Dexter, as I mentioned.  But then he went to a style, when we were playing together with Johnny Hodges, around ’54… I don’t know how to describe it.  Sort of a hopping-skipping style.  I don’t think he recorded when he was playing that way.  Then we weren’t so close as we were, because we went our separate ways, and I didn’t see him quite as often.  But I would hear him from time to time.  I remember he came by my apartment once in New York, and I hadn’t heard him in a long time.  I had heard one or two things Ornette Coleman was doing, and I said to him, “It sounds like maybe you’re doing some of the same things Ornette is doing.”  And he quickly said, “Oh, no.”  He didn’t want to be linked there.  And as it turned out, he wasn’t.  He was doing  something completely different.  Each time I’d hear him, he was doing something different.  And all of it was exciting.  He had an extremely large whatever, a voluminous bag that he could reach into and pull out all sorts of things.  It was bottomless.  Because until the time he died, he was always bringing new things into his life via the horn.  Not all of us can say we can do that.  We might change a little here and there.  But I’ve heard him make major changes, change directions.  And most of it was exciting.  Some of it I didn’t understand.  But not all of us understand everything that goes on.

I remember when he started to change, some of the things he was doing were raw.  When he was with Miles, I remember I went to see him once at the Blue Note in Philadelphia.  He had been talking to a trumpet player called Calvin Folks, and Calvin was trying to explain something to him.  In this guy’s mind… He was so open to everything, he wanted to absorb everything and distil it, use what he could and whatnot.  So he was playing with Miles, and right in the middle of a solo… Oh, I have to say this.  The trumpet player was sitting right at the bar, and the bandstand was in the middle of the bar.  So he was looking right down at the trumpet player.  He took his horn out while the band was swinging, and he said to him, “Do you mean like that?” [LAUGHS] I guess he nodded his head or whatever, and then he continued on playing.  But he was always learning.  And he listened constantly.  He didn’t just listen to himself.

TP:    Sounds like he made every performance situation as much a laboratory…

GOLSON:  That’s a good analogy.  You’re absolutely right.  On this, just notice.  This is not one of those complicated tunes.  Things don’t always have to be complicated to be meaningful.  Notice what he does with just a simple structured tune.

[MUSIC: Coltrane, "Good Bait"]

GOLSON:  You heard what he did with that simple tune.  He made it his own.  I mean, he had his signature all over it.  But now, one doesn’t have to play an abundance of notes for it to be meaningful.  I’ve said that about Sweets and some other people, and I think about another saxophone player.  This fellow was probably one of the most melodic saxophone players on the jazz scene.  He wasn’t known for running all over his horn, though he could.  I’m speaking about Hank Mobley.  I remember, I took some music to a recording session.  This guy was such a natural and had such a great ear.  He could read changes and things like that.  I took this tune (I don’t remember what it was) to Rudy Van Gelder’s, and they were reading the melody down, because they were unfamiliar with it.  When it came time for a solo, I said, “I guess he’s really going to scrutinize the chart now.”  He closed his eyes and reared back.  He never looked at the music.  He just heard what was going on, and played his feelings.  He was playing from the heart.  What more can you ask for?

TP:    He was also a prolific composer.  Maybe they were ditties, but they were all distinctive melodies and structures.

GOLSON:  Yes.  I don’t usually like ditties.  But Monk was a profound writer of ditties, and so was Hank.  He had a tune, “This I Dig Of You,”  Listen to what he does on it.  He doesn’t run all over the horn.  You don’t have to.  Some of the profoundest things that are said, are said with fewer notes — or fewer words, if you will.

[MUSIC: Hank Mobley, "This I Dig Of You"; Benny Golson, "Turning Point"]

TP:    In the liner notes it says you met Jimmy Cobb when you were at Howard in 1948.

GOLSON:  Yes, we played a gig with a guitar player who was later to become the guitar player with the Clovers — “One Mint Julep.”  That’s where we met, at this gig at a nightclub called the Liberty, in northwest D.C.

TP:    We’ll hear Joe Henderson, from the next generation back of Benny, who was already an accomplished professional with vast experience by the time he arrived in New York at 25 years old in 1962.

GOLSON:  You’d better believe it.  He was sounding good to me the first time I heard him.  Kenny Dorham told me about him.  He’s from Lima, Ohio.  I tease him about that, because it smells like sulfur there all the time.  But the first time I heard him, he sounded great!  He had it together.  That was a long time ago.

TP:    He and Wayne Shorter are the two saxophonists after John Coltrane who had a huge impact on subsequent generations.  Would you talk about the dynamics of his style?

GOLSON:  Like some other saxophone players, Joe is not afraid to take chances.  And he has enough facility to carry out the things that enter his mind.  He’ll be going in one direction, and all of a sudden he’ll dart and do something.  It might sound crazy, but it fits into the scheme of things, the overall tapestry of what he’s doing, and composing.  To a large extent, that’s what people who are playing solos do.  They are composing; composers of a sort.  Extemporaneously.  They don’t get a chance to go back and hone it like someone who is writing a song.  And sometimes that’s even more difficult, to come up with a concept, an overall concept of something that you’re doing that makes sense, and you don’t have time to edit it.  So sometimes things go by that have little mistakes in them, but you don’t look at the mistakes.  You stand back and look at the whole tapestry.  And Joe, it seems to me, has always been able to paint a picture, a picture that made sense from beginning to the end.  And it seemed like he always was going somewhere.  It wasn’t just a solo.  It always had direction.  It was going somewhere and building.

[MUSIC: Joe Henderson, "Invitation" (1968)]

TP:    An example of transcendent technique that never obscures the necessities of the moment, and the poetic drive of his solos.

GOLSON:  Aren’t you profound!  That’s great.

TP:    We’ll hear music by Branford Marsalis and Dan Faulk.

GOLSON:  You’ll notice the tenor players we’ve played today, as soon as you hear them, you know who they are.  They have distinctive personality.  You know the sound of their horns.  Unfortunately, today, many tenor saxophone players get caught up in one style, and it’s hard to tell  many of them when you hear them play.  They can play the heck out of the horns, but the styles aren’t as distinctive today as they were in times gone by.  That’s not a derogatory statement, because they can play the keys off the horn.  But the ones I’ve selected today really have their own personalities, as does Branford Marsalis — who is extremely broad, you know.  He can play bebop, he can play Rock-and-Roll, he can play the New Orleans thing, when he was with Sting he was doing something else.  It takes a lot of ability to do that.  And Dan, who is ascendant; he’s still coming, he has his own style, he’s consequential, he has something to say.

[MUSIC: Branford, "Just One Of Those Things"; Dan Faulk, "Barry's Tune"]

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Filed under Benny Golson, DownBeat, Interview, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

James Carter’s Uncut Blindfold Test From 2000

James Carter, the saxophone and clarinet master, celebrated his 43rd birthday on Tuesday. Here’s an uncut Blindfold Test for Downbeat from 2000.

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1.    Roscoe Mitchell, “Dragons,” (from HEY, DONALD, Delmark, 1996) (Mitchell, soprano saxophone; Malachi Favors, bass; Jodie Christian, piano; Albert Heath, drums) – (5 stars)

I’m waiting for the rest of the cats to come in, if there are such cats. right now it sounds reminiscent of Roscoe Mitchell, particularly with the way that the saxophonist is shaping the tone and… Hmm!  Sounds a lot like Roscoe.  Definitely has some Mitchellian approach to it.  Especially by the staggered entrances that the cats have.  On a previous blindfold test I was able to pick him out on tenor, so I’d be really surprised if I’m stumped! [LAUGHS] Is this the double quartet?  No? This is just Shipp and Craig?  It’s Craig?  Oh, no!  Good glivens!  But yeah, that’s definitely Sco.  That shows you how distinctive the cat is.  Hey, that’s one of THE cats.  Particularly on soprano and alto, he definitely has a personality all his own.  I’d love to hear more of his bass saxophone playing, and perhaps we might have to get back in touch with one another and see if we can make this happen somewhere down the line.  Because the last time we talked, he was just getting into the recorder real tight, and other baroque instruments as well, and he was kind of talking about acquiring Gerald Oshita’s sarrousophone and some other instruments he had in order to augment his own arsenal.  I was looking along those lines, too, to really get a sarrousophone, but thankfully I did get one, which I premiered at our tenure last year at the Blue Note with the electric  band.  I played a James Blood Ulmer composition on it.  Everybody couldn’t get over the size of the thing, first of all, not to mention what the hell was coming out of it.  I’m into anything Roscoe does because his spirit is always at the helm of it, and dealing with other things.  Five stars all the way .  That energy in particular, and the way he concentrates his energy and eggs other people on regardless of whatever the personnel is, to get the energy going as well, whether it’s fast and furious or slow and concentrated.  It has its way of oozing out methodically.  It definitely is logical and makes you think.

2.    Lucky Thompson, “Anthropology” (from LUCKY MEETS TOMMY FLANAGAN AND FRIENDS, Fresh Sound, 1965/1992) – (Tommy Flanagan, piano; Willie Ruff, bass; Oliver Jackson, drums) – (4 stars)

Sounds like Branford.  No?  Well, there’s our stumper.  I’m still going to justify that it sounded like Branford in the early part of the delivery because of the tone.  In listening to the way the solo stars as well, it definitely has some Steeptonial approaches to it and all.  But I quite sure we’ll find who this is a little later.  So it’s not Steeptone, and it’s not… I don’t know how Lacy even came into this mix.  Pardon me for even thinking that!  This is really going to help.  A piano solo!  According to the little clue, we’re looking at ’65-’66 when this was happening.  Let me scuttle on this one.  Whoever this is, I can’t really say that they are tippin’ as a rhythm section and in the solos as a whole.  I like the transition up a fourth from concert B-flat into E-flat in the solos and all, so that’s really hip, just to give it a whole other lift.  Ah, and it resolves back down to the B-flat.  Hmm!  I’m drawing a blank on mid-’60 sopranos, for some reason.  Of course, during that time, Trane’s influence was so prevalent.  I know it’s not him! 4 stars.  [AFTER] Lucky Thompson!  Man! [LAUGHS] Now, that’s somebody I’d definitely love to do an album with.  Tommy Flanagan?  I certainly wouldn’t have thought it was him.  My first reference of him playing soprano was the beginning of the ’70s.  Other than that, with things like “Tricotism” on Impulse, he’s the sort of cat I think of on tenor.  Yeah, flame on!

3.    Roland Kirk, “IX Love” (from ACES BACK TO BACK, 32 Jazz, 1969/1998) – (3-1/2 stars)

Whoo, lush strings!  Cat’s hollering in the midst of strings!  Hollering in the midst of the forest!  Yeeooow!  This sounds kind of recent, but I don’t want to say that.  The passage there with the staccato sounds kind of Newkish.  But I know it’s not Newk because he doesn’t use altissimo in that particular range.  He goes a tad higher than that.  Plus the guy’s ideas in the beginning don’t make reference to Newk. [Do you know the tune?] I have a hint of it.  It’s one that I wouldn’t mind learning.  There isn’t a whole lot that can really be done with it.  I like the string arrangement. 3-1/2 stars.  I liked it all around.  It seemed like the piano and vibes were mirroring themselves, with the vibes seeming to piggyback off the piano, and it sounds kind of heavy, especially when certain tenor statements were being made, and it seemed to get in the way.  It wasn’t a real homogenous sound, but more like here’s the piano over here and the brass over here, and the strings are situated somewhere in the center or back to give you a shiny dish over rice sort of feeling. [AFTER] Roland Kirk?  If it was Rahsaan, one of the things… Now that I think about it, that high-C he did on there would have tipped me off to him, especially when you think of “Hog-Callin’ Blues.”  This is 1969?  One thing that would have tipped me off is if he’d done the obvious two-saxophone thing where he plays octaves with himself in certain spots.  Also the use of double- and triple tonguing in certain areas. [Believe me, it was hard to find a piece by Rahsaan for you!]] You definitely did your work on this one to trip me out.  It was definitely esoteric in certain areas where I wouldn’t have thought of it as Kirk.

4.    Sam Rivers-Tony Hymas, “Twelve” (from WINTER GARDEN, NATO, 1998) – (3-1/2 stars)

Nice tenor beginning.  That’s a nice ostinato going on with the piano and bass.  Now more interactive.  Sounds like Cecil Taylor a little bit, one of his extrapolated ideas of how boogie-woogie would be dealt with in the left hand and the accents… This cat’s hittin’!  The pianist is happening.  As disjunct and dense as it is, it has a full orchestra sound to me, the way the pianist is dealing.  The saxophone is where I’m drawing some blanks!  This is getting meaty!  It isn’t Muhal either, is it.  Damn!  [What do you think about the saxophone player's sound?] The way it was miked reminded me of the way I got miked for The Real Quiet Storm on certain things.  I guess filtered is a good way to put it, as opposed to the open nasal passage sound that would normally expect when you hear it live.  It has a filtered sort of quality to it.  Stifled.  I’m stumped.  I liked the performance.  3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I always loved Sam Rivers since Winds of Manhattan and Capricorn Rising with Pullen. [Was that recognizable as him now that you know his identity?  Or was it a bad selection to give you?] It was definitely not a bad selection to give me.  Part of the reason I dig these Blindfold Tests is the way they make you think on what’s happening now as well as what’s happened in the past.  These selections make me think about what’s really being put down, what has been put down, and how one’s listening habits have changed over the years, and one’s perception as well.  And also, it helps me go out and look for some other repertoire.  Probably when I leave here, I’ll make a beeline for the Virgin Megastore over here on Broadway and see what else I can cop.  So all selections are good.

5.    Steve Coleman-Von Freeman-Greg Osby, “It’s You” (from TRANSMIGRATION, DIW-Columbia, 1991) – (4 stars) – (Coleman, alto sax; Freeman, tenor sax; Osby, alto sax; David Gilmour, guitar; Kenny Davis, bass; Marvin Smith, drums)

We’ve got some spiciness here!  “The Song Is You”.  It has a Bobby Watson fluidity to it.  This also sounds recent.  It’s not part of that M-BASE thing, is it?  Steve Coleman.  I could tell certain things.  It doesn’t sound like Osby, so this is the first logical choice.  As soon as I heard the alternate stuff that was on it.  So is it logical to say the tenor player might be Gary Thomas?  No?  Almost sounds like… I got some shades of John Stubblefield in there, but no.  Taking it up the  high area, the deliberate bending and shaking of certain notes.  So we’re stumped tenor-wise.  The second alto player is Osby, isn’t it?  I think this is too early for the tenor player to be Shim. [Does the tenor player sound like a contemporary of theirs or someone older?] In certain areas it sounds like it might be a little older.  I’ve definitely got to give mad props to the rhythm section keeping this stuff cooking at a nice intense little simmer. [on the 4's] The tenor player is trippin’ out!  There’s something about the high end that tenor player is using. Oh, aa double bass pedal!  For some reason, that definitely rules out Cindy!  I’m not saying she isn’t capable of it, but I’ve never seen it in any of our dealing.  I’m definitely stumped on the tenor player. 4 stars. It was cooking, and there were some interesting tonalities going on in the midst of a nice staple like this. [AFTER] Man!  It makes sense that it’s Von Freeman, when you think about it.  He’s always seemed ahead of the time anyway.  Definitely when you think of George Freeman and the One Night In Chicago that he did with Bird.  I definitely agree with the liner notes that spoke of him as presaging Jimi Hendrix in a lot of explorations, like the distortion in his playing and his use of space and his deliberate lower tones, like the F and E he was using in certain areas.  It was definitely ahead of the time.  Different.  So it makes a heckuva lot of sense to think of it from that standpoint.  I had a chance to play with George Freeman when I was in Julius’ group, and I think we did The Last Supper At uncle Tom’s Cabin, and went to hang out on the South Side and caught a session, and George was part of the band.  He was all the way up in the stratosphere!  I haven’t actually met Von yet.  George and Chico are the only ones I’ve played with.

6.    Coleman Hawkins-Don Byas-Harry Carney, (from “Three Little Words,”  COLEMAN HAWKINS: THE COMPLETE KEYNOTE SESSIONS, Mercury, 1944/1987) – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] This is Hawkins.  And I dare say early to mid ’40s.  I own this one.  I hear Carney in the beginning of it.  One can one say about Hawkins and his playing, particularly during this time, when he got back from the five-year stint in Europe.  Carney’s playing on baritone is indispensable.  He’s the one who wrote the book on how baritone should be played and what one could look forward to in the future out of it from all the areas he’s played in.  I was listening to something last night from 1927-28.  Mostly you would think about the baritone as an immobile instrument during this time, but here’s Carney playing it with the same fluidity and agility as an alto — or a clarinet I even venture to say. This tune was up in tempo, and he was making all the changes.  For somebody you’d think of as a “Sophisticated Lady” player, holding the one note and making the one statement and anchoring the section, this definitely shows you another side.  Just one of the different facets that’s Duke’s men come out with in any situation.  And this isn’t a Duke situation.  I know this is a Hawkins date.  Cozy Cole isn’t on drums on this, is he?  No?  Okay.  Is the alto player Tab Smith?  Another one of the technical cats who could also fly up there.  He reminds me of a variation off of Benny Carter’s playing.  The attack is more exaggerated, but it still comes out of that same school.  Nice diction.  It’s more chopped-up, but it still swings.  the pendulum’s just rocking that much harder!  Yeah, give it, Bean!  The first tenor solo was… Play it back!  He was only dealing with a couple of people at that time.  It’s either Byas or Frog [Ben Webster] But I knew Hawkins was on this . That’s Byas.  It sounds like it’s during the time he was using that radio-approved saxophone, too.  One of Hawkins’ children.  Right up under there.  Five stars.  Times two.  Exponentially.

7.    Gary Smulyan-Bob Belden, “Charleston Blue”, (from BLUE SUITE, Criss-Cross, 1999) – (3 stars)

Piano and baritone.  And drums.  And a rhythm section.  And a whole band.  A bari feature!  Hot damn.  Some tonation problems there… If it’s not Pepper Adams, it sounds like someone who’s been listening to Pepper.  I think it’s Pepper!  Then I’ll go out on a limb and say Smulyan.  He’s from the Pepper school.  Which is a great thing.  When you think about the axes, Pepper was always a Selmer cat, and to get this same sound out of a Conn, which I know is Smulyan’s instrument of choice, is a great feat.  Then again, it’s also the mouthpiece.  But in that particular era, to have the extra nuts in reserve and to have something that’s not… The tune is definitely a groover and it’s got enough changes to keep you going mobile in your thinking… Coming from a player’s standpoint, not to mention a listener’s, there’s enough harmonic material and information in there to leave you wanting more.  It has a Perry Mason sort of feel, like incidental music.  It might be the EQ’ing on this system, but he goes into the background especially when it’s time for the arrangement to come back in.  Those situations are the nuts are supposed to come in.  That was the climax.  3 stars.

8.    Fred Anderson, “To Those Who Know”, (LIVE AT THE VELVET LOUNGE, Okka Disk, 1998) – (3-1/2 stars) – (Peter Kowald, bass)

Nice little tenor in the back.  Some low percussive instrument.  Is this just a duo?  Oh I did say there was something percussive in the back.  Nice esoteric interactions.  It sounds akin to Parker and Graves, Charles Gayle running up the middle!  No, it’s too tame for Charles!  It sounds familiar.  You’re enjoying this, aren’t you!  It’s starting to heat up now!  But I’m stumped as to who it is.  Now, they’re definitely doing it up.  I can hear some other things the tenor player could be doing.  I mean, the bass player is all over the place, and the tenor player is not meeting the bass player’s energy.  It’s like he’s echoing his ideas that were in the slower part of it.  He’s still in largo; my man went off in vivace on him!  Maybe if the drummer was in at the time, that would probably help.  But then, that could be another component he’d have to meet as well.  He didn’t meet him, considering what the man is doing bowing-wise.  That’s a lot of momentum in what my man is doing bow-wise to sustain everything.  Uh-oh!  3-1/2 stars for the bass player’s energy… Well, the collective energy as a whole, but the bass player really is sticking out to me.  He’s got some  [Fred] Hopkins up in there.  He knows the overtone series.  Yeah!  Okay!  Yeah!  All right, surprise me. [AFTER] The cat from Chicago?  The old Fred Anderson?  I could have used more energy from him, considering where the bass player was going.  3-1/2.  I give props to anybody who’s that age and is dealing.

9.    Chu Berry, “Shufflin’ At The Hollywood” (from LIONEL HAMPTON SMALL GROUPS, VOL.2, Music Memory, 1939/1990) – (5 stars) – (Lionel Hampton, vibes;

Uh-oh, frying the bacon!  Chu Berry.  Lionel Hampton.  This is right before his untimely death, probably late ’40 or early ’41.  But this was done along that same time when Lionel Hampton did the version of “Sweethearts On Parade” and a couple of other tunes.  What can be said about Chu Berry?  My God.  Somebody who definitely died too young.  Don Byas’ predecessor in terms of playing in between changes.  He always had that driving, rolling, authoritative tone.  Which is why, of course, he was Hawkins’ logical successor in the Fletcher Henderson band, I feel.  In talking with older individuals such as Buddy Tate, there were some other things I got to learn about him.  He also circular-breathed, and also repaired his own instruments, which I think was a real unknown phenomenon then for musician.  I mean, he actually repaired his axe.  I don’t mean put a little
piece of foil and bring a rubber band over here sort of repair.  None of that.  He actually finessed his axe, from what Buddy Tate and a couple of cats told me.  I feel akin to him in a lot of ways.  I repair my own axes, and I like that rolling, authoritative sound, like I’m here, happy to be here.  He was really coming into his own at the time that he passed.  Lionel Hampton, Chu Berry, all them cats.  5-plus stars for all classics like that.  Thank God for them.  Thank God for Chu Berry and all the cats who paved the way.

10.    Charles Lloyd, “Heaven” (from THE WATER IS WIDE, ECM, 1999) – (4 stars) – (Brad Mehldau, piano; John Abercrombie, guitar; Brad Mehldau, piano; Billy Higgins, drums)

That’s interesting.  “Heaven.”  Is this Charles Lloyd?  I remember Forest Flower, and it had that same sort of attack.  We had a saxophonist in Detroit by thee name of Sam Sanders who had that sort of approach, where he muffles and then there are some expletives in there at the peaks.  So I’m able to align myself with that.  The rhythm-section is easy, laid-back.  The piano.  Mmm!  Yeah!  I haven’t really peeped that much of Charles Lloyd over the years, with the exception of Forest Flower and hearing other things on the radio, but without a conscious, premeditated effort, but I’ve always noticed that he’s had a very distinctive sound.  He looks distinctive in the way that I’ve seen him on albums and seen him play maybe once, while on tour.  It’s got a round, shapeable sort of tone that was almost akin to C-melody when it started out, particularly in the middle register.  And I like the meditative flow of it, so 4 stars.

11.    Hamiett Bluiett-Blood Ulmer, “The Dawn” (from IN THE NAME OF…, DIW, 1993) (5 stars)

A baritone-guitar thing, huh.  It almost sounds like Bluiett.  I’m judging by the semblance in tonal weight in what I’m hearing.  I think it would have gone somewhere else if it was, but this is still kind of early. [SOLO STARTS] It is Bluiett!  This is before 1994.  I know that..  I can judge because this is that Selmer.  He didn’t have the low-A.  This is a low-A on here.  Whooo!  That’s Bluiett.  That’s what they should have had the Velvet Lounge!  That would be interesting.  Him and that bad cat Peter Kowald.  What happened in ’94 is Bluiett sold his horn to Bob Ackerman for a Conn that he’s now playing and some money. I was so outdone when he did that, because I wanted that mug.  I mean, there’s a whole lot of history up in that horn.  This is the same horn that was at the Mingus thing, from the onset of the World Saxophone Quartet — his natural axe.  He said one of his students wound up getting it from Ackerman.  This is a bad horn!  I don’t feel bad now, because I’ve since got the one that was on all the Motown stuff.  [Do you know who Bluiett's playing with?] It sounds like Sharrock or someone like that.  Is this Blood?  And this isn’t Jamaladeen, is it?  It sounds too disjunct and too thumbish to be him.  I could see this going off into a funk groove every time that comes up, but it goes back into he free thing, and it’s like a catch-me-if-you-can sort of thing.  You want to just break that mug down, but it doesn’t go that way, and it’s like, “Oh, man, we’re back into it again.”  I like it, though.  Tonal-wise and agility-wise, Bluiett is my logical extension of what Carney did.  When you think about distinctive tones, it just stuck out in my mind even before hearing him play.  The only thing that took me off-guard was that it was a Selmer recording as opposed to listening to him in the last couple of years on this Conn, which as I mentioned before, with Smulyan’s, has a different weight to it that Selmers don’t have.  Also, a certain type of cat can transcend the characteristics of any given make of instrument and make it his own, and Bluiett is definitely indicative of that.  5 stars. [AFTER] Cornell Rochester!  We did a trio, Cornell, Jamaladeen and myself at the Groningen Festival in the Netherlands in either ’93 or ’94.  We were all over the place that year.  Then also, during that time, I was dealing with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Mingus thing, and I was in the meat of my dealings with Lester and Julius at this time as well. J.C. On The Set pretty much came out that year in Japan and was making its way back state-side the following year.

12.    Walt Weiskopf, “Anytown” (from ANYTOWN, Criss-Cross, 1998) – ( stars) – (Joe Locke, vibes; Renee Rosnes, piano; Billy Drummond, drums)

Whoever this has this Brecker-Joe Henderson thing going on.  The composition sounds like “Inner Urge” here and there.  The fluidity reminds you of a Breckerish sort of thing.  Now little splashes of Wayne going on in there, too.  I like the vibe player’s feel, too.  Stefon?  Sure it’s not, huh?  Cat’s got a nice feel.  This cat is moving!  I like this cat!  I like to hear instruments that you don’t  hear played in a conventional style, where you wind up hearing a cross pollination of influences, where you don’t think of a vibe player just playing block chords with four mallets. You actually the cat influenced by saxophone and piano players.  This isn’t Margitza, is it?  All right, that was a first stab, ladies and gents.  I like the shades of the “Inner Urge” feel it has.  Very mobile.  It’s like I can almost call off the changes just by hearing it go by.  E-flat.  F.  G-sharp.  G-flat.  Yeah!  A-minor back to B-flat.  Nice, tied-together rhythm section.  The whole thing is tight.  4 stars.

13.    David Murray-Don Pullen, “Blues For Savannah” (from SHAKILL’S WARRIOR, DIW, 1991) – (4 stars)

Ah, they’re shuffling the deck.  That organ’s another mug, man.  It almost sounds like David.  Especially when he smears at the beginning of the notes.  That’s reminiscent of what I think he got out of the Rollins bag.  Yup, that is him.  Big bruh’! [LAUGHS] One of the things with David, I noticed… Good anecdote.  When we did Kansas City, the one tune he wound up playing on, where he played Herschel Evans, which I think seemed kind of ironic, where I’m in the part of Ben Webster, and he’s looking like Ben Webster like a mug!  But when he played Coleman Hawkins’ entry line on that section there, he sounded just like Hawkins, with the embellishments and everything.  When you think of somebody who pretty much the media wants to say he doesn’t have any semblance of history… The same thing with Cecil Taylor.  I hear history in these players.  It’s what I aspire to, to always have the history at the fingertips and be able to expound upon it.  After he did the actual Hawkins passage going into the solos, and he just went from there… Of course, it was kind of far-fetched when you think of the 1934 period that we were trying to represent, and all of a sudden you have this cat going into the upper register of the horn and just playing!  It was definitely something akin to David, but at the same time he let you know within that short amount of time that “I still  know the history, but this is me nonetheless.”  I think those people who were there might have missed that.  That was an epiphany for me.  I always knew that, but it just reminded me.  The same as the first time I saw Sun Ra play.  They were space-chording for like 15 minutes or so during the first part of a 60-75 minute performance, and broke it down into “Queer Notions,” just like this.  Had three drummers playing, and John Gilmore was playing the whole Coleman Hawkins thing, note-for-note, the outgoing passage, the whole bit.  Did the same thing with “Yeah, Man.”  All the cats played all the solos.  That was a great epiphany for me.

Getting back to the meat of the matter with this, the cats are rocking.  That’s the first thing I noticed with the organ trio.  Amina?  No?  [Does it sound like someone who plays a lot of organ trio function?] Definitely, with a shuffle like that.  Oh, man!  No, that’s definitely not Amina.  I don’t know what… Sorry, Amina.  It almost sounds like a MIDI keyboard.  When you think of the Smith groove-Jack McDuff sound that has that analog, this sounds really cleaned up.  That’s what I’m really thinking.  That Leslie sort of oscillating vibe.  Sounds like a clean roller rink sound.  I’m stumped. [AFTER] I could have used a little more meat in the organ.  But they were rocking, and Cyrille was shuffling the deck as if he was one of them Jo Jones type cats.  Hmm!  He had his deck of cards with him.  And David is always the voice as far as I’m concerned.

14.    Count Basie, “Ode To Pres” (from THE GOLDEN YEARS, Pablo, 1979/1996) – (5 stars) – (Clark Terry, trumpet; Budd Johnson, bs; Harry Sweets Edison, tp; Eddie Lockjaw Davis, ts; John Heard, bass) – (5 stars)

[AFTER 8 BARS] “Ode to Pres”.  Part of the Pablo series, Basie Jam #2.  So this is probably John Heard.  Lockjaw Davis is on it.  That’s Clark Terry.  Budd Johnson, playing baritone!  It’s so hip how you can take just one idea from a great cat such as Pres.  This whole song as based on his opening line off “Jive At Five.”  Lockjaw Davis is on it, and all of a sudden turn that one phrase into a blues like this.  The Basie style, of course, just tipping, and Freddie Green behind him on guitar just tippin’.  That’s Sweets.  Okay, so it’s Clark Terry, Sweets, Budd Johnson, Lock… I know Lock’s on it.  The cats just got together!  Was Joe Pass playing?  No?  He’s on Jam #3.  That is Freddie Green.  I remember the picture.  Hit it, Lock!  Dang!  “Ode To Pres” always.  Basie… That’s just magic is always  there.  Tight.  Cats just getting their collective freak on, and just merry music-making at its best.  Ten stars.
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Blindfold Tests to me are always musical way-stations, if you will, to one’s perceptions of how he perceives other people, and also possibilities he can hear if he superimposed himself in a situation like that.  Just like when you watch a game, kind of in the sense of, “Oh, man, if I was there!”  Kind of after the fact.  It’s kind of like 360, but at the same time it isn’t, because you don’t know who it is.  But it’s always great to weigh in and see where my perceptions are and hopefully utilize them.  Definitely you can always say that there’s been some great music that’s been played and that continues to be played.  That’s what I get out of these, whether I know the individual or not.  Like, the Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry recordings has definitely inspired to take another listen to those particular albums.  Because I know I have them from the Classics series, the French issues.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, James Carter, Tenor Saxophone

An Interview with Kidd Jordan, July 2002

This interview with speculative improviser Kidd Jordan, best known internationally for his white-heat inventions on the tenor saxophone (and also the father of master musicians Kent Jordan [flute], Marlon Jordan [trumpet], and Stephanie Jordan [singer]) was taken for a short piece in DownBeat about him and drummer Alvin Fielder, his long-time friend and musical partner. Both interviews were published in their entirety in 2004 Cadence (the transcript of my conversation with Alvin will follow soon). The addendum at the bottom is the transcription of a separate conversation with Jordan for a commissioned Studio 360 piece on the nature of the avant-garde in the 21st century framed around that year’s edition of the Vision Fest.

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Kidd Jordan (7-08-02):

TP:    I’d like to get some basic facts and figures.  Were you born in New Orleans?

JORDAN:  I was born in Crowley, Louisiana.  That’s in southwest Louisiana.

TP:    In what year?

JORDAN:  1935.  I usually don’t tell people my age.  I played music in elementary school and high school, in regular school bands, marching bands, and then I went to Southern University in Baton Rouge.  I played there in the stage band and the dance band, which did all the dances in the area.  I started gigging around Baton Rouge.  A guy there named George Reed had a band, and all the cats who could play a little bit played in his band, a gig or two on Saturday night and Friday night.

TP:    What was your first instrument?

JORDAN:  C-melody saxophone, then alto saxophone.

TP:    Were you listening to records? Were you checking people out?

JORDAN:  In my early days, yeah, I checked out people. Illinois Jacquet was from Broussard, which is near my home town.  In fact, he used to come visit us riding a horse, because he was out… That was like the country, maybe 15 or 20 miles from where I was.

TP:    Can you tell me what kind of country it was where you grew up?  I gather one of your sidelines is raising thoroughbred horses.

JORDAN:  I’ve had horses since I was a kid.  My daddy used to deal with horses.  But it wasn’t thoroughbreds.  Some of them were quarterhorses, and they had little races.  But it wasn’t like what I’m doing now.

TP:    What is it like in that part of Louisiana?

JORDAN:  It’s closer to Texas than it is to New Orleans. That part of the country is where zydeco music comes from; Clifton Chenier is from that area. It’s strictly Zydeco and Blues from way around, and that’s what I came up listening to.

TP:    What did people do there for a living?

JORDAN:  During that time, it was the rice capital of the world.  They had about 15 rice fields when I was a kid.  Rice was a big thing; they’d have a big rice festival and so forth.  All that is dried up now.  But there were always musicians, with cats playing blues and also bands with cats playing horns.  When I was in high school, I was playing with some older men who had a band.  They played stock arrangements for three or four saxophones, and I would play with them at Christmas and Easter when they had some of their gigs.

TP:    If you were born in 1935, Charlie Parker was already well-established by the time you came of age.

JORDAN:  I heard Charlie Parker when I was in high school, after the fellows came back from the war — they were talking about Charlie Parker.  I was fascinated with it.  That was the new music.  I started listening to Bird and everything else I could.

TP:    In high school, did you have a band teacher who gave you enough tools to start breaking down what he was doing?

JORDAN:  No, I was playing by ear.  I could read music, but I was playing the licks I got from Bird by ear.  In the early Downbeats they would transcribe some of his solos, and I started reading some of them, and listening to the records.  I listened to Sonny Stitt also, and everybody else I could listen to.  But Illinois Jacquet is the cat who gave me the first idea of playing free when he was with Lionel Hampton.  The honking tenor players with Hamp.  That gave me an idea that music could be done another way. That was the first glimpse, the first conscious attempt I had of that.

But I played alto a long time, and then when I heard Ornette Coleman, I liked him better than anybody, so then I started sounding… Well, ordinarily by the way I was playing, I was into something else.  I was trying to sound like something else.  But when I heard Ornette, that convinced me that I wanted to go another direction.

TP:    When did you hear Ornette?

JORDAN:  I guess the first record Ornette made.

TP:    I know Ornette came through Louisiana for a quick minute.

JORDAN:  Yeah, Ornette was down here with Melvin Lastie.  But they would come through them towns in them blues bands.  Ornette used to play with Clarence Samuels, who was a blues singer, who died in May. He played with Clarence Samuels and Roy Brown and a lot of them blues singers around here, and they would be touring around here.  I wasn’t paying no attention to them.  I was just paying attention to the grooves.  I had developed by the time I heard him on record, and then I knew there was another way, and I liked that and started dealing with that.

TP:    So you were 23-24 when you heard those records.

JORDAN:  No.

TP:    Well, Ornette’s first record was in ’58.  But you’re probably talking about “The Shape of Jazz To Come” or something like that.

JORDAN:  He made a record with a piano player.

TP:    With Walter Norris.

JORDAN:  Yeah, that’s the record.

TP:    That was on Contemporary.  It was recorded in ’58.

JORDAN:  All right.  This wasn’t  “The Shape of Things To Come.”  It was another one.  He played a standard tune on there, “Out of Nowhere.”  And the way he played that was practically all he ever did with what Bird and everybody else had been doing.

TP:    So by that time you’re 23…

JORDAN:  Yeah, I had finished college.  I could wail on my instrument.  I could play my horn then.

TP:    At Southern did you major in Music Education?

JORDAN:  Yeah, Music Education.

TP:    So you got your teaching thing and your pedagogy out of your education at Southern.

JORDAN:  Right.

TP:    You’re a little younger than Alvin Batiste.

JORDAN:  Right, about three years younger.

TP:    Were you at all linked up with him and some of the New Orleans modernists?

JORDAN:  We were in college together.  He was a year ahead of me.  In fact, we finished college together, because I caught up.  They had been in before me and were older me, but I caught up with them by going to summer school all the time.

TP:    So you were in a hurry.

JORDAN:  Well, I was just trying to play my instrument. I was just dealing with it.  Alvin and I were together in college, and we’ve been together all our life since the college days.  He’s my brother-in-law.  We married two sisters.  We’ve been in the deal all along!  But he was in a lot of jazz things.  I was playing rhythm-and-blues.

TP:    Was that just because there weren’t other types of gigs you could do?  Was it a practical matter?

JORDAN:  Well, it was a money-making issue,  but also I was trying to work on something else. I was trying to separate myself from all them tunes that they was doing, to arrive at something of my own and not just play what everybody else was doing. When I understood how “Cherokee” went, when I understood how “Giant Steps” and all them tunes went, it wasn’t interesting any more. I’m not a cat that just plays tunes.  I’m trying to get at me.  And I can’t get at me doing what everybody else is doing. Not that I’m trying to reinvent the wheel, but I’m trying to play my convictions and what I think about it.

TP:    So that’s just something that was innate, part of your personality.

JORDAN:  Exactly. You hit it right on the head.  I’m one of them that can’t tolerate a whole lot of stuff.  I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.  Now, playing in them rhythm-and-blues bands, a lot of times I played baritone.  I didn’t have to learn the tunes; all I had to do was solo.  I still play baritone a lot in bands, for shows and so on.  Very seldom do I play tenor.  Every now and then I play alto.  But in the Rock-and-Roll bands they always needed a baritone player, somebody who could play the notes on the bottom.  I’d just hear what they were doing, and follow the bass player or whatever, so it went easily.  A lot of times, with everything going on and since the microphone isn’t put up to me, I could practice on my horn without being so noticeable

TP:    So you heard Ornette Coleman.  Were you ever at any point in the ’50s or early ’60s playing jazz?

JORDAN:  Well, see, when you say “jazz” around here… Yeah, we had little jazz bands out here, but they wasn’t makin’ no money.  I mean, we had bands where we’d play Charlie Parker’s music and our own music.  Every now and then we’d get a gig, but no steady gigs playing that. I learned the chart, but I was trying to solo in a different kind of way.  When I was college, they used to call me weird.  I was at a reunion the other day, and they said, “Man, in college, man, we didn’t understand what you were doing; we still don’t understand.”  I don’t have no problem with that.

TP:    As long as you understood it.

JORDAN:  I hope I understand it.  But my main thing is that I just wanted to be a good saxophone player.  And the majority of the cats who play jazz are not good saxophone players.  That’s the first thing.  I mean, technical-wise. I mean, they play jazz, but to play a saxophone the way I want to play it, I’ve got to practice and deal with it on another level.  I’ve played a lot of the classical repertoire. I’m trying to play the instrument correctly, and I’ve put a lot of time into doing that.

TP:    In other words, you can get a so-called “legitimate” sound… You can make the saxophone sound pretty much any way you want it to sound.

JORDAN:  Yeah, I’ve played solos with orchestras, with swing orchestras, and all of that.

TP:    Do you have a favorite among the saxophone family?  One you feel most at home with.

JORDAN:  Probably alto, but I don’t play it too much.  I’ve played the alto longer than I’ve played anything.  But I couldn’t express what I wanted to express on alto. I’ve played alto, soprano, sopranino… I used to practice all of them.  The whole gamut.

TP:    So given a certain set of circumstances, if you were in practice, you could express yourself on an orchestra of instruments like Roscoe Mitchell does.  Have you ever played all of your stuff on one particular set?

JORDAN:  No.

TP:    Who were some of the people you were playing jazz gigs with?  Was that always around Baton Rouge, or were you going back and forth to New Orleans in the ’50s.

JORDAN:  Oh, in Baton Rouge we’d be playing with Alvin Batiste and all the dudes that was in school.  And in New Orleans, anybody who was on the scene, like Johnny Fernandez, Alvin Batiste, and the drummer…who was that boy…Blackwell.  Blackwell used to practice with a trumpet player named Billy White. I’d go there almost every day and practice with them.  Then there was Eddie Williams, and a trumpet player named Samuel Alcorn.

TP:    He was Alvin Alcorn’s son?

JORDAN:  Yes.  Samuel died.  But he was a good trumpet player.

TP:    Did you know Nat Perrillat there?

JORDAN:  Yeah.  I used to play with Nat.  Nat used to play with us around there.

TP:    And Ellis Marsalis, too?

JORDAN:  Yes.  I mean, all the cats was on the scene.  But Alvin and Ellis and them had a regular, organized band together.  But when we’d go jam, I’d go play with everybody.  We had a band with Samuel Alcorn and Eddie Williams, a tenor player around here named James Rivers, an alto player named George Davis, who was also a fantastic guitar player.  George played in “Chorus Line” for about twenty years.

TP:    So you were going back and forth between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

JORDAN:  When I was in school. But I moved to New Orleans in 1955.

TP:    So you’ve been living in New Orleans since ’55.

JORDAN:  Since ’55, right.

TP:    When you say you did rhythm-and-blues gigs, does that mean the type of thing that became famous as New Orleans rhythm-and-blues, Dave Bartholomew and so on?

JORDAN:  I used to go out on the road with people like Guitar Slim and whoever needed somebody.  See, Ray Charles used to make bands up around here.  Big Maybelle.  Anybody who came to town. Sometimes they’d come to town by themselves, and then put a rhythm section together and get some horn players.  Big Joe Turner, anybody who needed a band.  I remember one time me and George Adams went out with somebody named Chuck Willis, who was a blues singer.  George was playing tenor and I was playing baritone.

TP:    The George Adams who played with Mingus.

JORDAN:  Yes.  George was a bad cat.  He was terrible.

There was a cat named Lloyd Lambert who had a good band. He used to back up different singers and what-have-you.  A dude named Choker Campbell out of Memphis or somewhere, would come through and need horn players.  Anybody who was on the scene and needed some horn players, some of us would go out with them and deal with them.

TP:    Were those gigs satisfying for you in any way?

JORDAN:  Yes, they were satisfying for me, because there was a feeling that you’d get from dealing with that.  I’ve played with some of the great female vocalists, from Gladys Knight to Aretha Franklin, or Big Maybelle, Little Esther, Lena Horne, and there’s an aesthetic in dealing with those people that a whole lot of people don’t get to.  And the aesthetic from the blues is a part of the thing that I want to have in my playing.  I don’t care how out it gets

TP:    Can you describe that aesthetic?

JORDAN:  You can’t describe an aesthetic.  I know when it’s there, and I can tell when a whole lot of… I’ll give you an idea. The difference between what the Rock, like what David Bowie and them were doing…what do they call those new Rockers?  Acid Rockers or whatever.  That music is devoid of that aesthetic; I mean, the aesthetic that’s supposed to go along with that music.  And if you don’t know, you don’t know.  But those who know, know.  And there’s a certain aesthetic that Trane, had, a certain aesthetic that Bird had, and it’s not what they’re doing, but the aesthetic part of it.  That’s missing in a lot of the music people do now.  So many people can’t feel the aesthetic and don’t know what it is, and when they hear it, they don’t know where it’s at.

TP:    So that aesthetic comes out of playing dance music…

JORDAN:  Not necessarily.  The aesthetic comes from listening to somebody and hearing somebody like Muddy Waters or Big Maybelle or Dinah Washington, as opposed to somebody who don’t have any feeling in what they’re talking about.  Like, when you go to a church and hear one of them Baptist preachers who really get out and say what he’s got to say.  It may not be grammatically correct, but I mean, there’s a feeling.

TP:    Was that part of your early experience, too, the church thing?

JORDAN:  Not really.  I went to all churches when I was young.  I went to Catholic church as well as Baptist church.  But there’s an aesthetic that I knew was coming from the Baptist church that wasn’t in the Catholic Church.  It’s the way Gregorian Chant sounds in relationship to somebody who is really doing one of them “Precious Lord” kinds of things.  When you hear Aretha Franklin do “Precious Lord” or Martin Luther King talking about he went to the mountaintop and saw the Promised Land, that’s the same kind of thing. I told a dude the other day who asked me about playing jazz, “go listen to Martin Luther King’s speech, and then come back and we can talk.”  If you have none of that, then there ain’t no sense in us talking about that.

TP:    So that’s the sound you’re looking to get on your saxophone or when you play yourself.

JORDAN:  To a certain extent.  But that’s the kind of aesthetic that I would like to get.  I don’t get it all the time.  Because when I’m really out, I’m trying to do it.

TP:    When did you start to try to take it out?  After you heard Ornette?

JORDAN:  Not really.  I always had that idea.  When I first heard Illinois Jacquet, that gave me the idea.  I started flirting with that.

TP:    Or Arnett Cobb later.  People like that.

JORDAN:  Yeah, all them Texas tenor players.  I mean, them honking tenors.  I could hear something in there that I could deal with on a conscious level, not just learning what they was doing. See, that’s why I couldn’t deal with solos that’s all dressed-up, like practicing solos and getting them down and what-have-you. I’ve got to come up with a feeling.  I’ve got to come at it like it’s new all the time.  I just can’t come up with something that I’m playing over and over.  If I practice like that, I might as well be practicing classical music.  I’ve played concertos and all of that, and I don’t play them no more.

TP:    What was the impact Ornette Coleman had on you when you heard those records?

JORDAN:  Well, I knew that it was somebody serious and the music was serious and it was going another way.  So that’s the main thing.  Like, right now, when I start listening to Ornette, and start feeling good and pick my alto up, sometimes… Maybe Ornette is the reason why I’m playing tenor, because I gravitate to not wanting to sound like that.  It feels good, though.  But there ain’t gonna NEVER be no more Ornettes.  You can forget that.  I hear some people playing like Ornette, but Jack, they will never play like that.

TP:    Why is that?

JORDAN:  [LAUGHS] Because he has a way of playing!  That’s another thing.  You can copy somebody note-for-note, and can be so far off as far as the phrases and aesthetics are concerned, it’s not even funny.  So deep down with him… To me, he plays like Bird.  But it’s so amazing that he can play all that Bird stuff, and when you hear him play… Ornette told me one time, that’s the difference between a player and somebody who can improvise.  Players learn whatever anybody plays.  But you can give improvisers three notes and they’ll come up with something.  And if you’re really serious about improvising, you’ll improvise on the material you get to deal with.  That’s why I don’t deal with a whole lot of tunes no more.  I just want to get out and play on what I hear. If I hear something to play, I play it.  In fact, I’m at the mercy of the rhythm section or the people I’m dealing with.  If they give me something to play on, then I can play.  And if they don’t give me nothin’ to play on, then I’ll just try to hear what the drums are doing and play off the drums — or play off anything.  Other than just playing something for the sake of playing it.

TP:    So you need a dialogue.

JORDAN:  That’s the way.  When people play bebop, they dialogue.  They play off of changes.  So when I’m dealing with somebody else, I’ve got to play off of what they’re giving me to play off of.  Then you’ve got to react to that very quick.  If they go into the different keys or timbres or whatever they do, you’ve got to react to it.

TP:    So you’re in New Orleans from ’55 and going out with these bands and making some money, but then at a certain point you start teaching.

JORDAN:  I always taught.  I’d go out on the weekends and in the summertime.  But there was a whole lot of rhythm-and-blues records, a whole lot of rock-and-roll being made, and when the first line cats who was in the studio would get tired, we’d do it at night sometimes and on the weekends.

TP:    So if Lee Allen or Red Tyler were tired, you’d go in the studio.

JORDAN:  Right.  A lot of us would make some of that stuff.  And I was with one of them little hot bands down there that they called the Hawkettes, that went into the Neville Brothers.  So we always had some good grooves.  Idris Muhammad was the drummer in that band with us, and a drummer around here named Smokey Johnson.  John Boudreaux was the drummer before Idris, and he was a helluva drummer.  We always had good drummers in the Hawkettes Band.

TP:    Where were you teaching?

JORDAN:  I was teaching in a town called Norco, about 20 miles out of New Orleans in St. Charles Parish, at Bethune High School.  And then I came to Southern University in New Orleans.  I taught out there for maybe eight or nine years, and I’ve been at Southern now for 25 or 30 years, something like that.  I don’t know how long.

TP:    I’d like to talk about the relationship you developed with Alvin Fielder. The story I think you told me once is that Billy Higgins and Clifford Jordan were in town and played with you, and Clifford told Alvin he should go down and meet you because you were just about to burst with frustration.

JORDAN:  Well, at the time I wasn’t playing with nobody.  I was playing with myself. I was dealing with a lot of students, and they hadn’t gotten to the point where we could play together.  I mean, there were people I could play with, but I was into what I was doing. I was making gigs, playing dance music, playing whatever somebody had to play, but I wasn’t playing what I play with no bands. They wasn’t playing what I was playing.  They wasn’t playing free music.

TP:    It’s the difference between doing a gig and being a creative musician.

JORDAN:  Exactly.  There was no creative outlet for me.  I was playing by myself, and I was just starting with my students, so they weren’t to the point where I could get them together to play it.

TP:    How did you keep your inner strength to keep developing on your own?

JORDAN:  I’ll tell you, I could stop and play concertos.  I played every concerto there is on the saxophone.  People think that I have to play jazz.  But sometimes I play classical music, and I can go in and play clarinet and flute and stuff.  My main thing is to play music. It doesn’t have to be jazz.  It never was like that.  I was playing a long time before I heard any jazz that I really liked.  When I was in junior high school, I wouldn’t listen to no jazz.  I heard jazz later on.  But I was trying to be a musician, and trying to be a musician is one thing, and playing jazz is another.  I’ve had a lot of difficulties with jazz musicians, because a lot of them can play jazz, but they don’t play their instrument very well. And I always would try to play my instrument as well as people in symphonies can do.  I mean, being able to do on my instrument what any of those can do. If you get that frame of mind, you can practice on fundamental stuff.  I was practicing on fundamental things today, like tonguing and scales and all of that.  In fact, I believe you’re no better than your fundamentals. Trane was practicing fundamentals when he died.

I’m one of them that don’t care one way or the other.  I don’t care if somebody likes the way I play, if they like it or don’t like it. You still be playing what you got to be playing. If somebody listens or nobody listens, I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do. A lot of cats used to say, “Man, you ain’t never gonna hear Kidd play until you go to his house,” and when I’m really screaming and really playing, they say, “Man, don’t you do that on a gig?”  Because I don’t want to.  I play in my house. A lot of times I just play in my house, and think, “Man, if I was on the stage, they would really dig this,” and a lot of times it don’t ever come on the stage.  I mean, that’s just the way it is.

TP:    That’s just you.

JORDAN:  It will always be me.  I’m going to meet it on my terms.  If it’s not on my terms, then I’m not going to deal with it.  If I would never play another note, I could go out to the barn in the morning and feel just as good with the horses, dealing with them.

TP:    But still, Billy Higgins and Cliford Jordan were telling Alvin Fielder that he’d better go down and see you because you were so frustrated.

JORDAN:  Right.  When I was playing with Billy he found out I was frustrated. He told Alvin and Clifford Jordan and all of them, and Alvin came down and found me, and immediately we hooked up and started dealing.  That’s probably one of the best things that happened to me.

TP:    Why are you and Alvin so simpatico?

JORDAN:  I don’t know.  We’ve been playing so long, it looks like we can almost read one another’s minds.  I can anticipate some things; he can anticipate what I play.  We lock in.

TP:    You both have a scientific attitude towards your instrument.  He speaks about the drums in the same manner, like compiling almost an inner rolodex of rhythms and patterns that he might access at any particular time.

JORDAN:  Mmm-hmm.  And I’ll react to the patterns.  Whatever he lays down, then I’m going to react to it. He can collect them all and then lay them down, and then I’ll play over them.

TP:    So you meet around ’73.

JORDAN:  I’m not good with dates.  I can’t remember nothing about dates.

TP:    And you were teaching all this time.  Did you develop a particular pedagogy that’s yours, that’s individual to you?

JORDAN:  Well, I’ve got some things that I run my students through. We used to have bands, big bands that were completely free, and they would be writing some stuff.  Some of my older students now, we can get on a bandstand and just start playing.  Elton Heron still plays with me.  He’s one of the bass players that I use — an electric bass player.  Every time William Parker comes down, I use Elton and William together, and they work very well together. Some of those students I can call on right now.  We can play a gig in the morning, and won’t even have to say a word.  Back then, they were all playing free, writing songs and so on.  But after the music went conservative, then we started playing big band charts.  I teach them anything they want to deal with.  I don’t tell nobody how they got to play.  If they want to play Dixieland, we can get together a Dixieland group.  Whatever they want to do. All I want to do is teach them.  But when we start playing creative music, some of them latch onto it and start writing tunes and doing all kinds of stuff. We had some things that we’d go through every day, and right now I’ve got some students going through this.

TP:    What sort of things do you go through every day?

JORDAN:  It’s the system of what we do. I mean, hearing things. If you talk about being a jazz musician, the number-one thing you need is to be able to hear.  Not playing the same tunes every day, but setting up different sounds, hearing them and playing off of them. Setting up different scales and making scales up.  Setting up different timbres and playing off of them.  Hear the sound of that.  With guitars and pianos and synthesizers, you can get all kinds of sounds.  I’m playing with the strings of a piano now; no keyboard at all, just the strings of a piano.  They just run some metal objects over it like a hawk.  I’ve got a band where we use that, and I’m crazy about that instrument. We can do fantastic things.  I’m definitely dealing with that now.

TP:    How isolated were you, exactly, in the ’60s and ’70s?  Were you in touch with other similar-minded musicians?

JORDAN:  I was in touch with everybody in the city.  I was playing with different cats with the entertaining music.  But when I did what I was dealing with, I was doing it myself.

TP:    Where that question is leading: In ’76, you put together the first World Sax Quartet concert.  I’m presuming you knew those guys.

JORDAN:  Well, I was in New York for about two months during the summer that year, which was the year of the Bicentennial. I was going to Ornette’s house every day and playing in the loft.  Ornette was getting the electric band together. They was coming in there from Philadelphia, the bass player [Jamaladeen Tacuma], and I was playing in the lofts with them, and with David Murray and Hamiet Bluiett and others where David stayed at, over the Tin Palace.  I was playing every day with them.

TP:    So at the end of the 1975-76 school year you visited Ornette, spent the summer, and then organized that concert in the Fall?

JORDAN:  Actually, it was the last day of the semester.  School was out in December.  Because that was the only thing going on in the school, and I got that together.

TP:    Were you in touch with what the AACM was doing in the ’60s and early ’70s?

JORDAN:  Yeah, I was in touch with them, but they wouldn’t let me join, because I wasn’t in Chicago.  Muhal told me I had to be in Chicago to join. [LAUGHS]

TP:    Who did you know who was involved in that in the ’60s?

JORDAN:  I knew Muhal. I knew a lot of cats around Chicago. I was trying to catch Fred Anderson and Billy Brimfield, but I could never deal with them.  I knew the drummer, the cat who was in Air — Steve McCall.  One time I was in Chicago, and Steve was trying to get Muhal to let me play, and Muhal said, “Man, anybody who comes from the country can’t play this kind of music.” [LAUGHS] He wouldn’t let me play.  I always tell him about that.  But they had so many cats on the stand, I could understand why.

TP:    You knew them from your travels in bands?

JORDAN:  Yes.  I’d go into Chicago every now and then.

TP:    So you’d go with bands that weren’t just local in the South, but traveled around the country.

JORDAN:  In the summertime or Christmastime, I’d travel with anybody.

TP:    So you’d travel the country with these bands, and that’s how you met musicians everywhere, like a lot of people have.

JORDAN:  I met a lot of them in bands.  But every now and then, I’d go to Chicago or New York or somewhere where somebody was doing something.  Very seldom on the West Coast.

TP:     Describe the evolution of your band with Alvin Fielder.

JORDAN:  We used to write tunes.  I had a lot of tunes I used to write.  We had three horns on the front line at one time.  I was playing alto, we had a guy named Alvin Thomas playing tenor, and Clyde Kerr was playing trumpet.  So we used to write tunes: we’d play a head, and then we’d play off the head.  Then after a while, Alvin said, “Man, let’s stop.  We ain’t gonna play no more tunes.  We’re just gonna go on the bandstand and start playing.”  That’s stopped me from writing tunes. Every now and then, we play some of the old tunes that we’ve produced.  But the majority of the time, we just go out and hit.  Whatever comes, comes.

TP:    Do you think there’s something in the music that you and Alvin and the people who play with you make that’s distinct from people who are playing out music in other parts of the country or the world?  Is there a distinctive sound or approach that other people aren’t doing?

JORDAN:  I don’t believe so.

TP:    When did you start going to Europe?  When did the European audience and musicians start to embrace you?

JORDAN:  Alvin Fielder would probably know better.  The first trip we did was the Moers Festival.  I don’t remember the year. It was over 20 years ago.

TP:    How is it for you playing with the European musicians?

JORDAN:  Well, I react to whatever anybody does.  You stand there and deal with it.  You don’t want to be a drag.  But that’s my thing;I adapt to what people are doing.  I just fall in line.  Their aesthetic thing isn’ t there on a lot of it, but I can do what I do and feel good about it, and don’t be bitching about it.

TP:    Is there anyone you particularly like playing with there, like Peter Kowald or…

JORDAN:  Yeah, I like to play with Peter.  I like to play with Louis Moholo on drums.  I like to play with an electric bass player there named Frank Wollen(?).  When I go to France, Sunny Murray and the piano player Bobby Few are there, and Alan Silva is around a lot. If I’m in Germany, I can always find good musicians.  There’s a piano player named Fred Van Hove who’s good, and Schlippenbach is good.  Basically, it’s just a different thing to me.  I don’t worry about it.

TP:    So there’s a community around the world of people you can function with.

JORDAN:  Exactly.

TP:    Most of those people are older musicians.  Not so many of them are younger.  Why do you think that is?

JORDAN:  Because the young cats, they started looking back.  They started playing bebop again and traditional music.

TP:    Why do you think they did that?

JORDAN:  I don’t have the slightest idea.

TP:    Well, you’re a teacher.  You know some of these musicians well.  Some of them are really good musicians, too.

JORDAN:  That’s right.  I don’t know.  My thing is that people have to play what they feel comfortable in playing.  I think they feel comfortable with that.  And probably a lot of musicians now are playing music to make a living, and you can’t make a living playing the kind of music that we play, so I guess they choose to play music that they can probably make a living from.  I’ve always been a schoolteacher, so I didn’t have to make a living playing music.  That’s why I play like I play.

TP:    Well, it seems to me that most of the people born after 1955 didn’t come up living bebop, and felt that if they didn’t learn it they were missing something.  They didn’t have Charlie Parker right there, didn’t have Illinois Jacquet right there, didn’t have the rhythm-and-blues right there.  It wasn’t part of their life, and they felt they were missing something, and they had to go back and learn it.  I think they felt they’d be incomplete musicians if they didn’t do it.

JORDAN:  I’ve got a thing in my case now where Charlie Parker is saying he wasn’t a child of the Swing Era.  They’ve got that in one of them old Downbeats.  I’ve got it in my case now.

TP:    That may be, but he learned every one of Lester Young’s solos at 16 and 17.  He took them apart and learned them all and played in those bands.

JORDAN:  Well, I’ve got my doubts about that.  People say that.

TP:    He said it.

JORDAN:  Well, he said he wasn’t a child of the Swing Era.  I’ve got that in a Downbeat right now.

TP:    I don’t think the two statements are mutually contradictory.  But everybody comes out of a time and a place. Everybody starts from a first principle.

JORDAN:  I don’t know.  Bird could have did that without going through Lester.

TP:    Maybe so.

JORDAN:  Ain’t no maybe about that.  Bird had stuff that ain’t nobody else had!  Number one, Bird could outplay everybody on the saxophone.  That’s the first thing.  Lester couldn’t play the saxophone like Bird played.  This is another thing that I firmly believe.  Technique determines how you’re going to play.  Lester played a certain way because he had a certain technique.  But Bird couldn’t play like Lester, because Bird’s technique dictated that he had to play another way.  See, once you start dealing with the instruments… This is why, when you keep on shedding, if you’ve got a concept, it’s going to have to evolve, because the more technique you get on your instrument, the more you can do, the more you’re going to stretch it to another end.  If what you’re saying about going back and learning was the case, we’d have to go back to Scott Joplin and all of them old Dixieland players.  You’d have to go learn all of that.  See, this is why I deal in principles.  Once you understand how something goes, you don’t have to worry about it.  If you want to do it, you can do it.  But if you don’t understand the principle, then you’ve got a problem.  See, once you learn “Cherokee,” “I Got Rhythm” and the Blues, you can play anything.  There ain’t nothing in none of them repertoires that’s different.  The only different thing was Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”  After that, you could play all night and all day, and just play on “I Got Rhythm” and the blues and “Cherokee.”

One of the things that turned me off with bebop is it’s so repetitive.  Cats didn’t play but three or four different phrases — after you sit down and listen to it.  Sometimes I hear people play all night and all day, and they’ve played only ten different phrases.  They keep playing the same the same thing in a different place in a different time.  I’ve got to do something else.  And if I do something repetitive, it ain’t because I’m putting it in the same spot. It’s that I’m hearing something at a certain time, and it’s coming out. It ain’t like just taking this phrase and turning it around and doing this or doing that.

A lot of people don’t sit down and analyze.  I can sit down and listen to a whole lot of people’s playing, and it sounds good to a certain extent.  But it’s just like eating red beans and rice or gumbo.  They got some GOOD gumbo down here.  But I can’t eat gumbo every day.  I’m sorry.  I can’t eat red beans and rice every day.  I’ve got to have something different.

TP:    How are the students you have now?

JORDAN:  Not too good.

TP:    In what sense?

JORDAN:  Well, they’re not really trying to be good musicians.  Some of them are dealing with Pop music, some of them are dealing with Rap music, some of them are dealing with jazz.  I mean, they’ve got little studios that they’re dealing with, hooking up electronic stuff.  And they’re basically trying to do the kind of music that’s currently popular.  I wouldn’t want to tie them down with nothin’ that I’m doing, because I mean, they’ll never make a living doing this. All I can do is give somebody the fundamentals and techniques in order that hopefully they can continue to thrive and do what they want to do.

TP:    What do you teach, by the way?

JORDAN:  I teach Band, Saxophone, Ear Training and Music Appreciation.

TP:    What’s your title?  Are you head of the department?

JORDAN:  Associate Professor of Music at Southern University in New Orleans.

TP:    Is there an educational philosophy that differentiates Southern from other institutions?

JORDAN:  We just try to give the students what we think they can do.  Well, Alvin Batiste has a Jazz Institute at his place in Baton Rouge. He’s at the main campus of Southern University and I’m at a branch in New Orleans.  I don’t have a Jazz Institute.  Mine is music education. I teach jazz bands, but at my school they don’t get credit for jazz. They just do it because they want to. They get credit in Alvin’s Institute.

TP:    So basically, you’re now able to take your horn around the world and play with different people by having stuck it out as a schoolteacher.  Otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to sustain yourself and your family.

JORDAN:  Exactly.

TP:    You have two sons, Kent and Marlon, who are strong players. Were you very proactive in their education?

JORDAN:  No.  I got them good music teachers, and they started playing.  Both of them, truthfully, could be symphonic players now as well as play jazz. My thing is to be the best instrumentalist you can, and then do whatever you want. They saw me playing classical music all my life, and jazz, and playing with concert bands, and playing solos with orchestras and bands.  I just wanted them to be musicians.  And when you’re a musician, you can play a whole lot of stuff.  I’ve played a lot of Broadway shows.  I’ve played every Broadway show that came through town.

TP:    You played all the pits.

JORDAN:   Yeah, all the pits. And I played at the Fairmont, in a band over there.  The contractor is a dude named Herb Tassin.  I’ve been playing with him for about 25 years.  He gets every big show that comes to town

TP:    You’re still doing that?

JORDAN:  We do it, but not as much as we used to.  Herb Tassin was the main contractor in New Orleans, and I’ve been playing with him for thirty years on shows and whatever.

TP:    Were you involved in NOCCA?

JORDAN:  In the early days I used to teach some kids saxophone. But I don’t have time for that now.

TP:    Is that when you instructed Donald Harrison and Branford Marsalis?

JORDAN:  When I had them, NOCCA wasn’t even started.  Ellis was out on the road with Al Hirt. I just had workshops in school, and young kids would come around and play in the band, and I’d deal with them, and then they would play with the college students. But I was giving Donald and Branford private lessons when they were young kids, in junior high school and high school.  My son Kent was in the first class at NOCCA.

TP:    In a previous conversation we had, I was expecting you to agree with me about the benefits of the street music that people can do in New Orleans, and you stated that isn’t the case.

JORDAN:  Well, you get a good groove out of doing that, but you can be doing it all your life. After a groove there’s some other things supposed to happen.  I mean, you don’t live and die with grooves.  For instance, I like the groove Max Roach plays, but shouldn’t I love Elvin Jones’ groove also?  If you can understand what I’m saying.  It’s good to get a feeling like that, but I mean, I’ve seen some kids live and die with that same thing.  Some of them are 35 years old and they’re playing like they did were when they were 15 in the street.

TP:    Do you see some kids who were on the street who went on to do something else?

JORDAN:  Some of them go on to do something else. I guess it’s a personal thing.  After you learn about a groove and see where it’s at, then maybe you’re supposed to develop it and bring it somewhere else.  There’s a groove they call “Two-Way Pockaway.”  I figure I’ve been hearing Two-Way Pockaway all my life.  There ain’t too much you can do with that.  Or that groove that Professor Longhair and them played.  I played with Fess.  I would be a damn fool to be playing that same groove now! [LAUGHS] I loved Fess, don’t get me wrong. But man.  Shit.

TP:    Well, there are a lot of young musicians who would kill just to be able to get that groove.  It’s a fact.

JORDAN:  Well, they just don’t know.  They’ve got to try to listen to what somebody else is doing.

TP:    How many horses do you have?

JORDAN:  Between me and my nephews, we have 10 or 12.  We have about 7 of them running.

TP:    Do you raise these horses?

JORDAN:  No, we buy them.  We go to Kentucky and buy some as 2-year-olds, or maybe a yearling, and then we put them in training to run them. We’ve also got some Louisiana Reds.   We don’t have them raised in here at all.  I’m thinking about raising one for my grandson.

TP:    Any horses that have done well?

JORDAN:  Oh, yeah.  They’ve won some races.  We win races all the time.

TP:    What are the names of the horses that win the races?

JORDAN:  Dirty Red is a very good horse.  That’s one of them catchalls! [LAUGHS] We’ve got so many nicknames.  We had one name, Redbone.  That’s Dirty Red’s little brother.  We’ve got one named Mississippi Sound.  Got one, a young horse, we’re going to call him Kidd Stuff.  He’s never ran.  He hasn’t been tested yet.  So he’s going out at Kidd Stuff.

TP:    Are there any parallels between training horses and being a musician?

JORDAN:  Horse racing is like improvising.  You don’t ever know what they’re going to do. I go look at a horse race and see more improvisation than when I hear somebody play. When you bring the horses out there to the racetrack, they can be prepared, they can be the best out there, and depending on how the jockey gets them out of the gate, what the jockeys do, depending on how they feel, all of those… You say they’re going to do what they did the last time, and they do something altogether different.  So that’s some serious improvisation!  [LAUGHS] You see? Because sometimes when I hear people play, they play the same shit all the time. They don’t improvise.  They’ll be playing everything they know.

TP:    They play patterns and whatnot.

JORDAN:  Exactly.  I mean, they’ve got everything down.  They’re not improvising.

TP:    Well, there are some people who play bebop who sound pretty free with it.

JORDAN:  I’m not talking about bebop.  I’m talking about music, any kind of music.  They’ve got everything down that they’re playing.  Which is good, in a way.  I don’t have no problem with that.  But I want it to be just like when I go to a race, where you don’t know what’s going to happen.  How they’re going to get out, how they’re going to get in the stretch…It’s just improvising.

TP:    What happens when you’re not feeling the spirit?  Do you have cliches?  Do you repeat yourself ever?

JORDAN:  I always feel the spirit.  Yeah, I repeat myself if something comes to me.  I mean, there are some things that you will play, sometimes consciously or sometimes subconsciously.  But you don’t try to do it.  And there are certain stimuli.  I mean, you react to certain things the same way.  But you don’t do it as a conscious thing.  It’s subconscious.  Because you’re trying to hear.

TP:    But it’s always with the intent of trying to play something new.

JORDAN:  Going for broke, that’s what I call it. Always trying to do something off the top of your head. That’s the definition of improvisation. Taking it off the top of your head and trying to do what you do, and listen to what somebody’s doing and react to it.

TP:    How long does it take a student to get to the point where they can do that and not be bullshitting?

JORDAN:  I don’t know about that.  You’ve got to develop an ear to do that.  See, the majority of the people who play have learned by some hook or crook, but they don’t have a certain ear to develop in order to deal with that.

TP:    Can anybody improvise?

JORDAN:  I think anybody can improvise, myself. It ain’t gonna sound like what you want to sound like, but you can improvise.  You know, Beethoven improvised. And I’m sure Bach was a helluva improviser.  And Mozart.  They improvised, but it was just a different way.  They didn’t have the snap in it, and it was a different kind of groove, but it was improvised.  I had a little girl in a class one time.  You know the little pre-school instruments?  Man, I turned her loose; she played some stuff that was frightening.  I never will forget that.  Donald Harrison used to play some frightening stuff when he didn’t know what he was doing.  Sometimes, when they learn what they’re doing, it gets so sophisticated, it don’t come out.  It’s another thing.  I want mine to always be like it’s on the edge! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Is there more of a local audience for you now in New Orleans?

JORDAN:  Oh yeah.  Every time I play, they got cats coming out.

TP:    When did that start happening?

JORDAN:  Over the years it started building up.

TP:    Do you have disciples in New Orleans?  Are younger players coming up under you?

JORDAN:  We’ve got a few cats around here who can play. Some of them are playing rhythm-and-blues.  There’s a saxophone player here named Gary Brown that I put a saxophone in his hand about 35 or 40 years ago.  He’s playing in a club on Bourbon Street.  He’s one of the baddest saxophone players I know.  You can catch him at a club now, probably walking the bar, but Jack, look, sit down and let him open up on you and see what happens. [LAUGHS] Fred Anderson couldn’t believe his ears when he heard Gary play!  Lord have mercy, that boy can play.  I’m serious.  He’s terrible!

[-30-]

[7:34] TP:  Let’s just cut right to the chase since that’s what you do in a musical situation. What does the word “avant-garde” mean to you, first of all?

KIDD JORDAN:  I don’t usually like that word, “avant-garde.”  I usually talk about “creative music.”  Instead of saying avant-garde, I’d rather say “creative music.”  You’re creating the music on the spot like we did tonight.  I didn’t have any idea what’s going on, but you take all your skills and listening and practicing and developing it, and then listen to what people do and play on it.  I’ve heard some avant-garde people who play music that they just make a lot of noise.  I mean, they play a lot of stuff, but it’s not like music.  This music is a continuation of playing changes. And I played changes for a long time, and used to study changes, and now we study timbres and sounds that people make from the drums to the bass.  Like, tonight I was conscious of the tones that he was playing on the bass and I was conscious of the things that William set up, and when he [Milford] started singing I was conscious of the key that he was dealing with and conscious of the mood that he was dealing with.  So you’ve got to listen sometimes a little bit more carefully in this kind of music than when you’re playing music with changes.  Because when I used to play music with changes, I knew where they were, and a lot of times I’d practice a lot of the things, and they’d fall right where they were supposed to fall.  But with this music, you don’t know what’s coming.  So you’ve got to use your ear and deal with it, so you’ve got to create instead of “avant-garde.” I’d rather think about creative music, music of the time.

TP:    What do you think the term “avant-garde” means?

[9:18] JORDAN:  Well, the term “avant garde” started out years ago.  It started as a military term, the advance party.  The people who went before and covered the beaches…or the Marines were avant-garde, so they could get everything out of the way so the other people could come.  And it developed through every… In every age somebody has been avant-garde.  Beethoven was avant-garde in the Classical period. Everybody who was doing something different, they say they were avant-garde.  Each musical period, from the Renaissance we could somebody like…one of them church composers… Palestrini was avant-garde.  Beethoven was avant-garde.  In all those periods, you had somebody who was doing something different, and they put that “avant-garde,” being advanced, being an advance party.  It was a little bit more advanced in what they were doing than the other people.

TP:    Do you think that would apply to the area of music that you purvey?

[10:14] JORDAN:  Yeah, you can say it applies to it.  But I just don’t like… The reason why I don’t like “avant-garde”… See, I’ve been around a long time.  When this music first started here in New York, people would get up and just do anything, play any kind of stuff.  “We’re avant-garde.”  And that kind of turned me around.  And I prefer to think… The term “avant-garde” is cool, but for it to apply to music… Music is so close to my heart, I don’t want to apply anything to music I think that doesn’t really fit it.

TP:    Do you think that the concept of the “avant-garde” is something that means something at this time, not just in music, but all cultural forms?

[10:56] JORDAN:  Yeah.  It means something. It just means people that’s on the cutting edge, people that’s a little more advanced.  And they apply the term to the things… Because the people in… The warmongers, they’re avant-garde.  Look at all them sophisticated missiles and things.  I read the other day where they tested a plane that made its rounds, and it can go in and do much more damage than the old planes.  I don’t know what they call them.

TP:    They call them drones.  They used them in Afghanistan already, unmanned planes.

JORDAN:  But they got something a little more sophisticated.  They made the test run last week.  They said it was more sophisticated than what they did in Afghanistan.  So still, we can use that term in any situation.

TP:    A lot of people in the ’60s identified the term “avant-garde” with a political attitude or an attitude toward the social order of the world.  Is that operative for you?

[11:52] JORDAN:  Yeah, that’s operative for me.  Because always people had to do things to open… You know, I lived in the South, and I’ve been through almost apartheid down there.  Some people don’t know, and they’re beginning to know.  But I went through a whole lot.  And if it wasn’t for the political activists, things wouldn’t have changed as soon as they’ve changed.  So it’s relative as far as society is concerned and everything else.

TP:    So do you feel that the way your expression evolved, from someone conversant with changes and the tradition and the continuum of the music to playing with no preconception at all has anything to do with that, or is it more of an organic development of the way you came to hear things.

[12:37] JORDAN:  It’s more of an organic way that I came to hear things.  I’ve always wanted to express.  And you know, by my playing all kinds of music… I’ve played rhythm-and-blues, rock-and-roll, bebop, and with all of those, I couldn’t express myself.  I was looking for an expression, and I found out that this as the best way for me to express myself.  Because when I was playing those other kinds of music, I was trying to play like other people, I was trying to play other people’s expression and trying to sound like somebody, and then I wasn’t sounding… I could sound like other people who were very famous, but I wouldn’t feel good about it.  I’d have to practice to do it.  But now I practice over my ear.  I practice things to hear, and when I get to a situation where if somebody presents something, then I’ll be able to hear it on the spot.  Like tonight, somebody talked about Albert Ayler.  I wasn’t thinking about it.  I hadn’t thought about Albert in a long time.  But I started playing that kind of expression that Albert would play.  Not trying to… I haven’t thought about Albert in a long time.  But I’ve heard the music, but I’ve been through it… But I expressed me through the way Albert sounded — for a minute.  And God knows, there will never be another Albert.  And this is why you’ve got to try to express yourself.  Because if you’re trying to express somebody else and somebody who really did it… I mean, there’s a lot of people out there that think they sound like Charlie Parker.  But I heard Charlie Parker.  And once you’ve heard somebody and you know how they sound, you know nobody else… See, Sonny Stitt didn’t sound like Charlie Parker.  So… [LAUGHS] That’s something that people have…musicians have to come to grips with.  And some people don’t ever play their expression.  They’re always playing somebody else’s expression or trying to sound like somebody.  You never will get to your soul if you;’re trying to find somebody else’s soul.

TP:    Do you think the ability of being able to express your soul through music and being able to come to that is in itself being ahead of the curve, what might be referred to as avant-garde?

[14:44] JORDAN:  Well, I’d have to agree with you on that.  But it’s a term… It’s something that you have to work on, and it’s something you have to take a lot of abuse with.  Because I’ve been abused with this music.  People say “shut up, so-and-so-and-so.”  The thing about it is that people don’t understand what you’re working for, what you’re working towards.  And they base what you do on their expression of what they’re trying to do.  And they don’t know that if you’re working on something, sooner or later you may hit it — but you may never hit it.  And when you hit it, you feel good about it, but you’re still reaching for something else.

TP:    Can someone attain that level of expression dealing with the continuum, and not something akin to what we just heard you and William Parker and Milford Graves do?

[15:33] JORDAN:  Well, it comes out of the continuum.  See, once you understand the continuum… And we were swinging, we could swing, we could do all of this, and when he started playing, I would jump on it.  The continuum is listening and playing.

TP:    So it’s dialogue.

[15:46] JORDAN:  That’s right.  It’s dialogue.  Listening and playing.  And it comes out of a development.  But, now, if you don’t practice that development, you’ve got a problem.  Like, for instance, the day before yesterday, I was waiting on some kids to come to school, and I was in the band-room just practicing, and they said, “Man, that doesn’t make sense; what’chu doin’?”  Well, people who know me said, “Man, you know,” and they was listening… Then finally, it all came together, and they said, “Oh, man, I hear where that’s coming from; I hear the scale and I hear this and I hear…” I said, “Oh, I’m glad you hear that, because this is what I’ve been setting up.”  And I was wishing I could hear that tonight.  But what they played tonight didn’t suggest that.  But one of these days, somebody will suggest what I was dealing with the other day.  Not directly, but the sound, the timbre, all of that will fall together, and it will mean something.  It’s like stored in a computer.  And you start recalling the sound.  When somebody gives something, then you jump onto it, and add something to it, and take it and take it and stretch it on out.

TP:    Are there aspects of the vernacular culture of New Orleans, which I’m presuming you played when you were young, that contain the seeds of avant-garde music within them?

[16:58] JORDAN:  No.  I have to say no.  Because the majority of the people around New Orleans are content with playing… New Orleans is a town where people come to be entertained.  And you’ve got to play entertaining music. This is one reason why I say New Orleans is good in a way and it’s bad in a way.  It’s good because the kids play a lot of music.  You hear music in the streets.  You hear music everywhere.  But now… When we were coming up… I talk for the generation of Alvin Batiste and Ellis Marsalis.  When we were coming up, we didn’t play the traditional music.  We were playing bebop.  And then rock-and-roll came on the scene.  Well, we were playing rhythm-and-blues.  Rhythm-and-blues is the basis for everything.  But in the middle of rhythm-and-blues, here comes rock-and-roll.  But we were playing bebop at the time.  You know, the learning stages.  They were more advanced than I.  I was a couple of years younger than them.  But I was following them, I was hanging, trying to learn how to play bebop.  So here comes Rock-and-Roll out of rhythm-and-blues.  Now the kids in New Orleans, they don’t play bebop.  They’ll play some fusion music or they’ll play traditional music.  And they’ve got a lot of little Dixieland bands (we call it Dixieland) playing fusion, Dixie and what-have-you, but they’re not really trying to stretch.  New Orleans hasn’t been a town that encouraged people to step out.  Because I took a lot of abuse, people would look at me and say, “Oh, man, what you doin’?  You ought to stop.”  But they didn’t have an idea of what I was working on.  And it took a time for it to develop, because for a while I was just around there playing with myself.  And Clifford Jordan came to town, he and Billy Higgins, maybe about 35 years ago, and told Alvin Fielder (Alvin was playing in Mississippi; he’d just come down from Chicago), “Go down and play with Kidd, man, because Kidd’s about to lose his mind.  Ain’t nobody down there playing with him.” [LAUGHS] They came to town, they came to give a concert at the school, and we jammed in the band room all day long! [LAUGHS] I was hungry to play.  So it isn’t a town that encourages that.  But because of people playing music to entertain people.

TP:    Well, the reason I asked is because there are some people who cite the polyphonic aspects of the older music, and the marching band music, and particularly the rhythmic aspects of second-line beats as seeds for what people then did that might be construed as avant-garde.  I wondered what your perspective was on that?

[19:37] JORDAN:  Well, the music was hipper.  The old men who did it, some of the older men had a hip conception of what they did.  But the youngsters came back, and they didn’t develop that.  They went backwards instead of coming… Because some of them things they did in them second-line things… I remember old man Paul Barbarin… I mean, nobody…none of them youngsters could do it like that.  And some of them beats they had, I mean, they REALLY were hip.  But the youngsters behind them, some of them wasn’t good musicians; they only wanted to go out on the streets and play music and go out in the Quarter and have people throw money at them and go hustle with it.  It wasn’t a real thing of them really studying the music.  They were using it as a hustle.  And the study aspect of the thing got lost in it.

[20:29] They talk about the Young Lions.  When John Fernandez, he taught at Xavier, and Alvin Batiste and myself, when we started teaching around there and really putting the stick on some of them fellas, then this is where the young lions started coming from.  The age of Wynton Marsalis and Branford, and Donald [Harrison] and [Nicholas] Payton and all of them, I mean, we put another vibe on them, you know, that they had to learn their instruments well.  I have two sons… My son, Kent, Wynton and them used to come listen to Kent practice.  He’s a little bit older than them.  Because he was playing in the clubs with Ellis Marsalis when he was 12 years old, and Wynton and them would come to listen to them.  They were playing rock-and-roll when he was playing “Giant Steps.” So it’s a matter of that whole generation.  Then they started a school that they called the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and Ellis started teaching, Alvin Batiste was teaching… So some people think it was an accident, but it wasn’t no accident.  They were studying with cats who had mastered their instruments, and would point them in a direction to play jazz.

There’s one thing about me.  All my students that I teach, I don’t tell them what to play or how to play.  I give them the tools and tell them the things they’ve got to work on, if they want to play Dixieland, if they want to play bebop, or if they want to play… Because I know that you’ve got to find your own means of expression, and if you can’t… Because I couldn’t express myself in any of those modes other than what I’m doing now.  And I feel good about it.  And I played them gigs, and I say, “Man, I’ve got to go back and practice.”  Because when I was up here, I missed some of those notes, this wasn’t the right change, and so on and so on.  Now I get on the stage and just listen.

TP:    There are people who think that these days the term avant-garde is almost an outdated term.  For one thing, so much has been played, so much development has occurred that you have a couple of generations trying to catch up with everything!  How do you see the state of the music today in general?  You get to see a wide spectrum of it as an educator, performing around the world.

[22:38] JORDAN:  Well, in America, this is the first generation that looked back.  All the other generations were looking forward.  The movement we talked about, they were looking forward.

TP:    Where do you think this generation starts?  Would you give a point of demarcation for it?

[22:53] JORDAN:  This generation?  I would say with the groups around Wynton Marsalis’ age.

TP:    So we’re talking really two generations.

JORDAN:  Yeah, two generations.  I think this is the generation that started looking back.  And not because they wanted to, but the recording companies, they found out that they could make money… Like, all those old LPs, they couldn’t sell that, they started reissuing them, and a lot of those kids hadn’t heard that music before, and they thought this was something new.  And the people who run the recording companies knew that if the young kids would develop, they could continue to sell that kind of music.  I still believe there isn’t a trumpet player here who can outplay Miles and that can express on a trumpet what Miles did, and all of them came up after Miles, and Miles kept going on… People used to bad-mouth Miles about his fusion, about whatever he was doing.  But Miles was keeping… All the old people…Trane…they kept going on. But this generation has sort of stopped, and settled for what they’ve done.  And hopefully, they’ll get out of it, but as long as they’re making money and making gigs…

[23:48] There’s not too many people going to hire a band every night to play what we play.  In the old days, Trane and them got away with it, which was good.  But I don’t think we could get away with that.  I would love to play in a club a five nights a week.  Any club that would hire me for five nights, that would be a delight in my life; you know, going and play what I do five nights a week.  That would be beautiful.  But that won’t happen on more.  So they’ve got them playing the music that people would probably… Well, I’m not going to say they didn’t enjoy this, but music that they could feel better with.

TP:    Do you think one reason why what we’re going to call for lack of a better word the avant-garde flourished in the ’60s is because people were able to work five nights a week?  Because they did, even around New York at different places.  The AACM was able to make their own work.  Do you think that had something to do with it?

JORDAN:  That’s a good point.  I think so.  And maybe the economy can’t afford it.  The people that they got, they’ve got to have some people there that’s going to ring some people into the club and make some money, and sell some liquor, I guess.  I don’t go to clubs.  I don’t know what’s happening there.  But you’re probably right.  That’s probably what’s happening.

TP:    One other question, then I’ll let you go.  In formulating your concept, not just of music but of art, you’ve presumably drawn on other areas besides just music.  Can you talk about what you’ve incorporated and how it inflects what you do?

[25:30] JORDAN:  Well, I played with some Germans over in Germany. A.R. Penck.  You ever heard of Penck.  He’s a helluva German artist.  Butch Morris played on one of those concerts together.  Ask Butch about that session, that time we did some real hip stuff in Germany with Penck.  [26:10] And Markus Lupus(?) and Frank Wahlman(?) and all that kind of stuff, really.  That has influenced some of the things that I do.  And this cat just told me tonight, a cat from Germany, he’s in the audience tonight, and he said the TTT, the triple something…he said they’re putting out a record with us that we did with me and Alan Silva and some others over there.  He said, “You know, you’re an official member of the TTT.”  Because I’ve been playing with them since Frank Wright died.

TP:    How do you think the American notion of the avant-garde differs from the European notion of the avant-garde?

[26:43] JORDAN:  Well, the Europeans have more…other kinds of things that’s dealing with avant-garde.  The visual artists and different kinds of things.  The kids come up seeing more..for lack of a better term…a more out kind of thing.  The way they dress, some of them.  I used to see those kids over there 20 years ago with the earrings and their nose and different kinds of hair and stuff, and then maybe later, maybe about five years later, I started seeing it in the United States.  But the whole environment, it gives them more of an outlook of something.  People don’t frown on some of the things that they do here.  It’s a more advanced kind of thing.  And with art, I think… I know, as far as art is concerned. they can… I’ve played in museums with Penck and some of them, and boy, some of that art that people be buying, I’d look at it and say, “Boy, I know I’m missing something; I need a course in art appreciation.”  And they would be into it.  And as it went, I started to say, “Yeah, well, I’m seeing some of the things and how some of this is put together.”  So it has an impact on my subconscious, I would say.  And conscious mind also.

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Filed under Cadence, DownBeat, Kidd Jordan, New Orleans, Tenor Saxophone

For Jimmy Heath’s 85th Birthday: A 2001 DownBeat Article, and WKCR Interviews from 1993 and 1995

To observe the 85th birthday of Jimmy Heath, a long-standing master of the tenor saxophone and the art of composition, and a keen student of human nature, I’m posting a feature that I wrote for DownBeat on the occasion of a 75th birthday concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the complete transcribed proceedings two programs on WKCR—a 1995 “Jazz Profiles” retrospective of his music, and a 1993 Musician Show with Mr. Heath and his younger brother, the master drummer, Albert “Tootie” Heath.

Jimmy Heath (DB, #1):

Over the course of 58 years as a professional jazz musician, Jimmy Heath has played with, befriended, or witnessed virtually every consequential figure in his field.  So from his perspective, the only possible title for his 75th birthday concert could be, “He Walked With Giants.” Throughout the invigorating proceedings, Heath played the tenor and soprano saxophones with authoritative command, spontaneously composing, conjuring long, lyric lines that he articulated with mellow warmth.  He demonstrated that he breathes the same rarefied air as the legends to whom he paid homage.

Benny Golson, Heath’s friend for most of those 58 years, attended the concert, and was happy to elaborate.  “What’s amazed me about Jimmy since I’ve known him is how he is able to move through chords, not scientifically, but melodically,” says Golson. “He’s got a true tenor sound, and everything that goes with it — the articulation, concept, punctuation and pacing. He doesn’t give you an endless slew of notes. He plays ideas.  It’s like a conversation, but musical, not linguistic. He has a story to tell, and it’s right in tune with those chords.”

Heath is equally adept telling stories with the pen; his oft-covered compositions, which number over 130, plumb essences with a minimum of fuss.  Many appear on a long string of classy recordings with small groups and mid-sized ensembles that balance meticulous orchestrations and soulful, lucid improvising in equal measure. He offered six during the first half of the concert, joined by an array of family (brothers Percy on bass and Albert on drums) and friends (Slide Hampton, trombone; Antonio Hart, alto saxophone; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet) in configurations ranging from trio to nonet.  After intermission, Heath — who cut his teeth in the big band era — was in his element, conducting the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra through a commissioned homage from Wynton Marsalis, his own arrangement of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite,” and four more originals.

The composer found new contexts for each one.  On “Gingerbread Boy,” which Miles Davis famously reimagined two years after its first appearance (On The Trail [Riverside]), he reharmonized the line, then set up an invigorating tenor triologue with LCJOers Victor Goines and Walter Blandings.  He set up cogent polyphony between the sections on the rich harmonies of “Gemini,” which debuted on a 1962 sextet [Triple Threat] with Freddie Hubbard and french hornist Julius Watkins, but received its most famous — and lucrative — reading on a six-digit-selling Cannonball Adderley album.  There were other highlights.  The LCJO sax section executed a luscious soli section on “The Voice Of The Saxophone,” a dedication to Coleman Hawkins excerpted from “The African-American Suite of Evolution.  And Antonio Hart — a prize Heath student during the ’90s at Queens College — took a virtuoso turn on “Like A Son,” Heath’s tribute to their exceptionally close relationship.

“Jimmy’s tunes are not complicated, but they’re not dumb either,” Golson says. “They are logical and go someplace.  His music has arms and legs.” Heath deployed those appendages effectively throughout the evening, directing the band with a dance-oriented conducting style, replete with well-timed hand swoops, shoulder dips, elbow shimmmies and leg kicks. “Jimmy reminded me of Dizzy Gillespie in front of a band,” Golson states.  “Dizzy would act like he was throwing baseballs at Yankee Stadium…all kinds of things.”
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The concluding track on Heath’s only big band recording, Little Man, Big Band [Verve, 1992, now deleted], is a brassy tour de force with an Afro-Cuban feel. He called it “Without You, No Me,” the “you” referring to Gillespie, who commissioned the piece, and is first among equals in Heath’s pantheon of giants.

“Dizzy Gillespie is my Duke Ellington,” Heath says. “He is the master musician who was my mentor and was accessible to me throughout my life.  From the time I first met him, I asked questions, and he’d give me something I could use musically. He would demonstrate chord voicings on the piano and phrasing on his trumpet.  He’d tap out rhythms and sing ideas.  He showed me how to write in 3 or 5 or 7, and still syncopate in a way that’s jazz as opposed to straight classical writing.  With his whole being he was music, and I always wanted to be just like him.”

Gillespie came of age musically in Philadelphia in the mid-’30s, while Heath and his brother Percy were growing up in a household whose soundtrack spotlighted Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins and Louis Jordan. Sometimes they heard them at the Earle Theater, Philly’s TOBA outlet.  Heath fell under the spell of Carter and Johnny Hodges, and at 14 received an alto saxophone, which his father (an auto mechanic who played clarinet in an Elks band) purchased for $90 on the installment plan.  He quickly became proficient, learning to play in the marching band at Williston High School in Wilmington, N.C., where his grandparents owned a grocery store, and through private lessons back home on summer vacations. After graduation in 1943 (the “separate but equal” school stopped at 11th grade), he played with local big bands before joining a well-regarded territory unit out of Omaha led by Nat Towles, whose alumni included Buddy Tate and Sir Charles Thompson.

Heath discovered bebop while on the road with Towles. His first epiphany came at a dance hall in Savannah, Georgia, where the band was setting up for a one-nighter. Curious about Jay McShann’s “Hootie Blues” and “Swingmatism,” he put a nickel in the jukebox and heard Charlie Parker for the first time. “I called all the other guys in the saxophone section and said, ‘Man, check THIS guy out.’” he recalls. “We all began to put the money in.”  Later with Towles, he heard the Parker-Gillespie Guild sides (“Shaw Nuff,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Hot House”).

“I didn’t realize it was the same guy I heard on the McShann records until after I quit and came back to Philly,” Heath says.  “Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter were beginning to move into a quicker-paced way of improvising.  But I liked Charlie Parker’s lines, his phrasing, use of alternate notes and undertones in the chords. I always refer to Charlie Parker as a volcano. His playing bubbles for a while before it flows into some wonderful phrase that you can’t expect. He builds in the bottom of his horn, creating this intensity, and then pops out with something that knocks you to your knees. Charlie Parker played what you wished you’d thought of first, the perfect lick and the perfect idea in the perfect place. He was a genius!  And I don’t use that word as much as some people.”

Back in Philly, Heath and his big brother spent intensive time in the woodshed, augmented by long practice sessions with fellow altoist John Coltrane, fresh from a tour of duty in the Navy. The Hodges-Carter devotee began to zoom in on Parker’s style, becoming so adept that musicians outside of Philadelphia began referring to him as “Little Bird.”  The appellation was so evidently welcome that Heath recalls trumpeter Freddie Webster saying, “You come when they call you that, don’t you?”

The time with Towles “sold me on the idea that I was going to have a big band and write some music for it,” Heath states. He began to recruit “everybody in the city of Philly who I thought was interested in playing the music I was trying to write,” eventually assembling a tight, 17-piece bebop outfit that stayed together for two years. Personnel included such budding flowers as Golson (on fourth tenor), Coltrane, trumpeter Johnny Coles, pianist Ray Bryant, bassist Nelson Boyd and drummer Specs Wright; they rehearsed the sections in Heath’s living room, where they ate food prepared by Heath’s mother, Alethia, and performed cabaret and dance functions for black audiences in West and South Philadelphia.  Heath commissioned inexpensive charts from local arrangers John Acea and Leroy Lovett, transcribed Tadd Dameron and Dizzy Gillespie recordings, and contributed his own nascent efforts.

Notorious for its blue laws, late ’40s Philadelphia nonetheless featured a vibrant nightlife, and was a frequent destination for New York musicians.  The brothers met most of them, often inviting them to 1927 Federal Street for home-cooking courtesy of Alethia Heath.

“Fats Navarro and Coleman Hawkins came to my house when they played the 421, and so did Bird, Miles, Dizzy — all of them,” Heath relates. “My mother would invite anyone to dinner who we invited; my parents treated them like their children or friends.  When Fats came, he took out his trumpet and played a bit.  My Mom liked Fats Navarro’s tone better than Dizzy and Miles, and I know for a fact that Clifford Brown was enamored with Fats Navarro, and played something like that until he found his own style. He passed that along to Lee Morgan, who played like Clifford.

“I heard Fats in Tadd Dameron’s octet in the Royal Roost opposite Dizzy when Dizzy had just come back from a successful West Coast tour with Chano Pozo. Fats Navarro was SCREAMING on Dizzy in there.  I mean, they both were powerful; Dizzy was the source of where Fats Navarro came from.  But Fats could play very high, with clear, warm sound. Tadd liked to have Fats play all his first trumpet parts, because he loved the way Fats could sing his melodies.”

But Heath’s heart belonged to Gillespie.  Their lifelong friendship began in late 1946, when the orchestra came to Philadelphia to play a dance, and 55″Percy and I went to the ballroom where Dizzy was playing, and invited the band for dinner,” he recounts. “John Lewis came in a full-length fur coat (my sister called him ‘Fur Coat’ for the rest of her life), and that’s when I met Kenny Clarke and James Moody. Dizzy’s band extended what Charlie Parker had done, incorporating the hip bebop lines that the soloists played into the ensemble. It was more involved technically, with more notes and harmonic extensions of chords and polychords. Percy and I followed the band around with our berets and artist ties, the same as Dizzy and them were wearing. We became known as the Heath Brothers from Philly, and we’d follow the band and stand in front of it wherever they played — in Delaware, the Savoy, or 52nd Street.”

In the autumn of 1949, after a couple of years on the road with Howard McGhee, and a brief stint with Gillespie’s erstwhile collaborator Gil Fuller, Heath got the gig.  During his 18 months with Gillespie, he received a veritable post-graduate course in improvisational tactics and approaches to writing for jazz orchestra.

“When John Coltrane and I played altos in his band, we were amazed at how Dizzy improvised in a big band context,” Heath recalls. “A big band can inhibit a soloist.  Dizzy knew how to draw on the power of a big band and still get all his stuff in.  We’d listen to Dizzy play the two-bar break after the introduction on ‘I Can’t Get Started.’  Everybody has pet cliches and ideas that they rely on.  But as long as I was there, he never played the same thing; he’d make a variation or add or delete something. He was a true improviser.

“Gil Fuller helped me. He insisted on putting excitement in your music, making your introduction command attention — the introduction to ‘Things To Come’ makes everybody look around!  He said that Tadd Dameron’s songs were window-dressing, that they weren’t exciting. They were rivals, of course. I liked them both. Tadd’s music emphasized romance and beauty and feeling and soul; he was very lyrical, like a Billy Strayhorn. George Russell wrote some very abstract things for Dizzy, and I listened to Gerald Wilson also. I also began thinking about small-group writing by hearing J.J. Johnson.  Between knowing them and listening at home to people like Duke Ellington, Sy Oliver and Benny Carter, I went through a trial-and-error period, until I came up with what I had.

Gillespie broke up the big band in 1950 for financial reasons; Heath remained with the pared-down sextet, and finally left in early 1951.  He moved back to Philadelphia and — like Coltrane — became a tenor saxophonist. “When Jimmy switched to tenor, his interpretation of music changed,” Golson states.  “The tenor demanded something else, and he came up to that.  It wasn’t like an alto player was playing the tenor saxophone.”  Heath says that part of his motivation was economic.  “After the clubs hired the rhythm section, the tenor was their instrument of choice,” he notes. “Also, it was impossible to play the alto without playing Charlie Parker licks!  I thought maybe I could find a little bit of Jimmy Heath in there.

“I had begun to like what I heard on the tenor from Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt. Sonny Stitt had the execution of Charlie Parker, he was very clean and precise.  But Dexter had a big warm sound that was compelling.  Coltrane was playing like Dexter at that time, too.  We got records like ‘The Chase’ and all the songs Dexter put his name on — ‘Dexter’s Deck,’ ‘Dexter’s Minor Mad,’ ‘Dexterity.’ Dexter was in love with Dexter, but he was a charmer. And he could PLAY.”

Heath moved to New York in 1952, and spent six months working on day jobs before the union recognized his change of residence. Unfettered, he immmediately cemented his credentials as an improviser-composer-arranger with the Symphony Sid All-Stars, a group comprised of Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke, whose repertoire is documented on a Davis-led 1953 Blue Note sextet that includes Heath’s “C.T.A.,” a bop classic.  During that year Heath also recorded with Kenny Dorham for Debut and with J.J. Johnson for Blue Note, the latter date marking Clifford Brown’s first recording.  He seemed poised to claim his place as the next major voice from his generation on his instrument.  Then he was arrested on a heroin charge, and went to prison for four-and-a-half years.

“I was scheduled to go with Max Roach when he started his group,” he recalls.  “I was scheduled to go with Tadd Dameron when Benny Golson got the gig.  But due to illness, I couldn’t make either one of those.  It happened to me as a result of being on the rebound of a love affair, a temptation to do something to get out of the doldrums.  Then it took on a life of its own.  It deterred my recognition as a jazz soloist; it was the time when small group jazz took hold, and I was not on the scene.  I mean, I was with Miles before Coltrane.  Being off the scene stifled my career, but it saved my life.  Most of those who were out there with me are gone.”

Heath did not squander his lost years; assigned to clerk duty, he had ample time to write and rehearse the prison band.  Upon his release, he moved home to Philadelphia, and signed — at the instigation of Cannonball Adderley and Philly Joe Jones — with Riverside Records, for which he functioned as a de facto staff arranger and led six strong, still vivid albums that reflect an increasingly personal, confident vision.  He moved back to New York in 1964, just as the label folded, and slogged through the late ’60s hardcore jazz recession, reflecting a marketplace that no longer welcomed bebop.

Eight years passed before Heath’s next recording, “The Gap Sealer,” a “variety package” on which he expanded his palette of tones and colors, incorporating soprano saxophone and flute, electric keyboards, African melodies, and funk beats.  In the interim, he took steps to move beyond the “mother wit and intuition” upon which he’d previously depended, studying with Schillinger teacher Rudolph Schramm, whose pupils included Eubie Blake, Mercer Ellington and Jimmy Jones, studying orchestration, string and vocal writing, and extended form composition. These interests began to cohere when, taking advantage of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “retirement,” he joined forces with Percy and Albert — who had played in tandem on four of his Riverside recordings — as the Heath Brothers.  Signed to Columbia in 1978, they released four strong-selling albums, including the Grammy-nominated Live At the Public Theater, supervised by Heath’s percussionist-producer son Mtume.  And in 1987, Heath took a tenured position teaching arrangement and composition on the faculty of Queens College, creating a highly regarded Jazz Studies program with such luminaries as Roland Hanna and Donald Byrd.

In an effort to provide new material for his students every semester, Heath rejuvenated his big band juices.  “My interest hasn’t waned at all,” says Heath, who recently retired, leaving him time to pursue a performing schedule that might tax a man half his age. “I have three new arrangements — on ‘The Thumper,’ on ‘New Keep,’ which I wrote for Orrin Keepnews, and one that Ray Charles did when Johnny Coles and Blue Mitchell were in the band called ‘Togetherness’ — that I’m trying to get to the copyist now.  If people have heard them before, it was as sextet music.  Whenever you return to your music and rewrite it, you add and change things, and it evolves into something quite different.”

Perhaps Heath played with more energy and stronger attack in his earlier years, but the force of his tonal personality is undiminished. “I try to sing on my instrument,” he says.  “I think all the alto players in my day aspired to leading a saxophone section, and the lead alto players then had to sustain the melodies, play them with a certain tenderness and dynamic range, which you don’t get if you just play in a small group.  If you heard Marshall Royal play lead alto with the Basie band, you know how to sing.  If you hear Benny Carter, you know how to sing a melody.  On a couple of records I did for Riverside, Cannonball Adderley played lead alto — he knew how to sing.  Johnny Hodges was the greatest singer of all time.  He could out-sing a vocalist with words!  Lester Young and Ben Webster could play a ballad with the tenderness of a singer.  Miles Davis gives me the same tingle on a ballad that a good singer does.

“You can’t just be a machine gun and play fast. The school teaches everybody to do the techniques. But there is a certain thing about a saxophone. To me, it should sound similar to a viola. That’s what Ben Webster sounds like on ‘Danny Boy.’ When I write my arrangements on my computer for the saxophone section, I use the violin sound for the altos, violas for the tenors, and the cello sound for the baritone. I love that sustaining quality.”

Heath elaborates on an aesthetic developed from section playing.  “I can get just as much reward from being in an ensemble and liking how they play something I’ve written as from having everybody clap when I play a solo,” he says.  He means it; only one album in his oeuvre, the classic Picture Of Heath [Xanadu, 1975] features him alone with a rhythm section.  “Soloing is great.  But I always wrote stuff for other people to be on the record, too.”

All well and good.  But Heath’s relaxed dance continues to compel.  “Musically, this man is Dorian Gray,” Golson concludes.  “What he does on his tenor belies 75 years.  This man has vision and he’s always moving ahead, which is good.  He makes his musical life an adventure; he goes to the same forest every day, but he doesn’t touch the same trees.  Like anything else — architecture, clothing, medicine — jazz, too, should move ahead.  Jimmy Heath is one of the forces that helps move it ahead. Jimmy Heath is an icon, and he is truly a master.”

[-30-]

* * *

Jimmy Heath Profile (WKCR), 3-22-95):

[MUSIC:  "Picture Of Heath" (1975); "Basic Birks" (1991); "Without You, No Me" (1992); w/Lee Morgan "Bruh Slim" (1962)]

TP:    You’ve brought along a number of recordings, including that last date with fellow Philadelphian Lee Morgan at Birdland in 1962, which you wanted to speak about.

JH:    Well, Spanky DeBrest and Albert Heath are also Philadelphians, so there are four Philadelphians on the record, along with Barry Harris.  The other thing is that it wasn’t recorded to our knowledge,  This is a bootleg record that somebody taped off the radio and eventually put it out.  So we weren’t paid for the record at all.  Then the man asked me to do the liner notes on it, and I did those, and he paid me for that.  But I’ve never been paid for the recording.

TP:    Let’s talk about the Philadelphia days, which we’ve done on past shows, but I think we can do it again.  Music in your family, your coming-up as a musician and your beginnings in music.  How did you come to playing the reeds?  Was music in the home?  Was it there for you?

JH:    Oh, yes.  Our parents, Percy, Senior, and Alethia(?), were dedicated to our music, and had recordings in the house of all the top Black artists of that time — and White.  But they had Duke Ellington, Erskine Hawkins, Basie, Benny Carter, and other people who I heard.  They offered each one of us boys…and my sister; they offered her to play an instrument, and she took piano for a while, then stopped.  Percy took violin, and played it in the junior high school orchestra.  When they asked me what I wanted to my play (my father was a clarinet player, and my mother sang in church choir), I said I wanted to play the alto saxophone, after hearing Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter.  My father bought me an alto saxophone for ninety-some bucks; it took him a year or more to pay for it…

TP:    That was during the Depression.

JH:    Yes, it was!  It was around 1939 or ’40, somewhere like that.

TP:    So you started on the cusp of being a teenager.

JH:    Yes, I was 14 when I got it.

TP:    But you’d been absorbed in music, I guess, all your life through hearing it in the home and so forth.

JH:    Yes.  My father and mother had a friend who had a record shop.  And anything new that came out, we were informed of it by our friend who ran the record shop.  One of my favorites was always Erskine Hawkins and Louis Jordan and people like that.  We had those records in the house, and we heard that all the time, so that’s the music I was raised hearing besides, you know, church, Gospel Music.

TP:    Were you taken to the theaters in Philadelphia to hear the bands coming through when you were young, or did that start later for you?

JH:    No, my father used to take us to hear the bands at a theater on South Street.  I can’t remember the name of it, I was so young.  Percy probably remembers better than I about this occasion, but Duke Ellington was there, and he took us to meet Duke Ellington.

TP:    Do you have any memory of the occasion?

JH:    Well, the only thing I remember is that he touched me on my head and said, “Hi, sonny.”

TP:    Did your father play professionally at all, or was it an avocation for him?

JH:    It was an avocation.  He didn’t play professionally.  He was an auto mechanic, and got his clarinet out of the pawn shop on weekends and played with the Elks marching band.  He had a few little jazz licks he used to play around the house, you know, but he wasn’t a professional.

TP:    I’d like to talk about your education on the instrument as well.  Who were the first people who gave you tuition on the saxophone?

JH:    Well, I was going to school in Wilmington, North Carolina, and I started when my father gave me that saxophone.  That’s where I began to play, and I began there in high school and played in the marching band, playing for all of the football games and what have you.  I used to go back to Philly in the summer and take private lessons from a couple of different people.  One man was named Terry, Mr. Terry, who was into the Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter sound.  Then I studied with another man, Paul Amati(?), who was connected in some way with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  I don’t know what he played, and I don’t remember what instrument he played, but he taught me alto saxophone.

TP:    Was there a particularly good band-master at the high school you attended?  Which, by the way, was what high school?

JH:    Williston High School in Wilmington, North Carolina.  The band-master liked Jazz a lot, and he started a Jazz band along with the marching band.  So that was my first introduction to playing in a Jazz band, in high school.

TP:    The lessons must have stuck, because you obviously became intensely attached to music and involved with it, and by the time you were 19 or 20 you were involved in a big band of some note in the Philadelphia area.  I’d like to discuss these years of development, what you listened to, and your progress in music let’s say between 1940 and 1945.

JH:    Well, it was the big band era when I got out of high school and graduated in 1943.  I played with the big bands around Philly.  Then I got a gig with a band in Omaha, Nebraska, led by Nat Towles.  Nat Towles’ band was a territorial dance band in the Midwest, and he had arrangements by Wild Bill Davis, the organist, he had some by Sir Charles Thompson.  These people had already been in the band before me, and they left a few examples of their writings with the band.  We played a lot of stock arrangements, of course.  That’s where I met my friend who I visited yesterday, Billy Mitchell.  We were in that band together in 1945.

Leaving that band, I came back to Philadelphia, and then decided to start my own big band.

TP:    Describe the scene in Philadelphia during your last couple of years of high school, before you went out on your own as a professional musician.  Were there a number of good local big bands?

JH:    Well, there were several big bands.  The Frankie Fairfax Big Band, the one that Dizzy had played with when he was in Philly.  Jimmy Gorum(?) and Mel Melvin, there were several bands…

TP:    Talk about these people a little bit.

JH:    Well, that’s a little before my time.  I was in school when Dizzy was there.  Dizzy always said, “Do you remember?” and no, I don’t remember when he was there.  I was in school.  When I came out of school, Frankie Fairfax’s band wasn’t the leading band around town.  It was Jimmy Gorem(?).  The first band I played with after coming out of school was led by Calvin Todd, a trumpeter who played like Roy Eldridge and wanted to be like Dizzy eventually — he was a strong trumpeter.  After leaving that band, I played with Mel Melvin’s band, and then went with Nat Towles in Omaha, Nebraska.

TP:    Were there any saxophonists around town who you particularly admired?

JH:    Sure.  There were people around Philly who could play very well.  One of them is still there, and that’s Jimmy Oliver.  We called him the Satin Doll because of his beautiful black complexion.  Satin Doll is still there.  He’s a wonderful player.  Trane, Benny Golson and all of us used to go listen to him.

TP:    You, John Coltrane and Benny Golson were all born around the same time, although there are a few years in between, and the relationship remained close for many years.  Talk about the beginnings of that triangular friendship.

JH:    Well, Benny is just a little younger.  Trane and I are actually the same age.  Trane was born on September 23, 1926, and I was born on October 25, 1926, one month later.  So Benny was younger.

I came into contact with Coltrane when he came out of the Navy, and I had this band, and I asked him did he want to play in my band.  He said, “Yeah.”  We both were playing altos at that time.  Benny came in the band a little later playing tenor.  But Trane and I were hanging out and transcribing as much Charlie Parker and Dexter and the cats that we could hear.  The beboppers had come out.  After leaving Nat Towles, the Bebop Era was in full bloom.  So that’s what we were about.  That’s what my big band was about.

TP:    Had you been onto the records from the very beginning when they came out in 1945?

JH:    Yes.  When I was with Nat Towles on the road I first heard “Swingmatism” and “Hootie Blues” by Jay McShann, and then later, when I heard “Shaw Nuff” and “Hot House” and that stuff, I didn’t make the connection that it was the same person until later.  But I do know that the altoist just knocked me to my knees — and that was Charlie Parker, of course.

TP:    Were you sort of waiting to hear Charlie Parker at that time?

JH:    Well, no.  Because I was satisfied with Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter!  But he was so overwhelming until he just took me and everybody along with him to follow his tradition in music.  Dizzy always said that he was a person who had it all made when he met him — he had the style.

TP:    He took you by storm.

JH:    Yes, he did.

TP:    Well, I’d like to talk about your arranging, because we have cued up the earliest recorded arrangement of yours, from 1949; your first recording was with Howard McGhee in 1948, where you played some alto and baritone.  Talk about the big band you set up in Philadelphia after leaving Nat Towles.

JH:    I used to go to Earle Theater and hear big bands all the time.  I used to go hear everybody’s band.  I liked the big band sound.  I was trying to learn how to write when I was with Nat Towles, but I never wrote anything for that band, so when I got home I was sold on the idea that I was going to have a big band and write some music for it.  This particular arrangement that you’re going to play is one that I had written for my band in Philadelphia, but we never recorded.  So Gil Fuller, who was one of my teachers and helped me to edit this arrangement and get it together, put it on a record that he made.  It’s very comical.  The vocal is by Gil Fuller, because the vocalist didn’t show up at the record date, and he decided he was going to sing it.  It’s a standard called “Mean To Me.”

TP:    Before we play it, though, I want you to talk a little more about your early writing and efforts at composing.  For instance, what is the earliest composition of yours that became part of what we know as the Jimmy Heath composition book?  Can you put your finger on that?

JH:    Well, I think the first composition that would give me any recognition was probably “C.T.A.”  Before that I had written one for Howard McGhee.  It was a Blues, and I thought I had written it, but actually it was a Charlie Parker lick ended by a Fats Navarro lick on the end — so I didn’t really compose anything!

TP:    In the big band that you led in Philadelphia, were you writing your original compositions or were you doing arrangements of other material, or playing other arrangers’ material?

JH:    I was playing other arrangers’ material, plus we were all trying to transcribe Dizzy’s stuff from the big band records he put out.  I had a guy named Leroy Lovett, who was a great writer, and Johnny Acea, who played with Dizzy’s band.  He played trumpet, tenor and piano.  He was a Philadelphian who was very versatile, and an arranger.  So I was last on the totem pole as far as writing for my band!

TP:    But you were going through all this material, organizing it and getting inside of it, a very good practical education for an aspiring arranger of music.

JH:    Well, all of my arranging skills were very practical in that sense, that I learned from my peers, until later when I started to study and take lessons.

TP:    Well, let’s begin this next set of music going back about forty-five years to July 11, 1949, the Gil Fuller Big Band, with Gil Fuller singing “Mean To Me.”

JH:    Wshew!

[MUSIC:  G. Fuller/J. Heath, "Mean To Me" (1949); Miles/J. Heath, "C.T.A." (1952); J.J./J. Heath, "Capri" (1953)]

TP:    You said that shortly after “Mean To Me” was recorded, you joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, embarking on a very intense four or five years in the center of the New York Jazz scene.

JH:    Yes.  There was some controversy between Gil Fuller and Dizzy at the time, after having written all the stuff he had written, all the things like “Things To Come”… At least he orchestrated those things with Dizzy’s ideas on a lot of occasions.  But he was a great orchestrator.  So when he and Dizzy kind of came to a parting of the ways, he started a band in competition with Dizzy’s band, and that band is the band that you heard.  He also had Moody in one of those bands after he left Dizzy.  We had a battle of music, actually, with Dizzy’s band at the Audubon Ballroom.  After that competition, or battle of the bands, or whatever you may call it, Dizzy became more interested in me, and I joined his band after that.  He knew I’d had the band in Philly, and that we were playing his arrangements and all that.  Then, when we had the competition… Trane and I both eventually got with Dizzy about a month apart in 1949, in the Fall.  I think we made that record in August.

TP:    During the years you were running the big band, 1947-48-49, so many talented young musicians were active in Philadelphia, like Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland.  Talk about some of the musicians who were working around Philadelphia during that time.

JH:    Well, Red and Philly Joe were around Philadelphia playing with Jimmy Oliver, “Satin Doll,” on gigs, and with others.  So they were doing more small group things around town.  Red Rodney was there.  Johnny Coles played in my band.  Ray Bryant played piano in my band.  Nelson Boyd was my bassist.  Percy, who had just gotten out of the Service, hadn’t really become familiar enough with the bass to play in the big band, to read the charts and everything.  He had been a violinist, and then went away into the Service.  So used Nelson Boyd, who became Miles’ bass player.  So the band was full of budding flowers.

TP:    Beautifully put.  In what venues were the flowers allowed to bloom somewhat in Philadelphia?  Did the band have a fair amount of work in those couple of years?

JH:    Well, we had cabaret parties and dances to play.  That’s what presented a problem, because we were playing Bebop, and people didn’t dance so readily to that.  That’s how I met my drummer, Specs Wright, who eventually played so well that people did start to dance to my band.  See, I didn’t have Philly Joe.  I had Specs Wright playing drums.  Specs Wright was an excellent reader, and he could play… He taught Philly eventually, and he played with Cannon, and Dizzy… I got him the gig with Dizzy, too, when I got with the band.

TP:    What were the main clubs in Philadelphia where the top stars would come through town?

JH:    Well, there was the 421 Club, the Showboat, Ridge Point.  This was a little before the Blue Note and Pep’s.  There were some other clubs that are not as famous.  Pep’s and the Showboat became famous Jazz clubs, where the national artists would pass through.

TP:    So Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young would all work at the Showboat or the 421 Club.

JH:    Eventually.  But there was one in Philly that black entrepreneurs owned, called the Zanzibar.  I heard Lester there with his quartet.  I heard Coleman Hawkins and Fats Navarro together there with a quintet.  Philly Joe and Percy, when he started playing, worked at a place called the Ridge Point.  Trane played up there with them on a gig; he was switching to tenor at that time.  The tenor was the instrument of choice with a small group, not the alto.  The tenor always was the fourth voice hired after the trio.

Then there was the Down Beat Club, which was a very important club.  That’s where I heard Charlie Parker and Miles, and Duke Jordan and Max and Tommy Potter.  That was the occasion when I loaned Charlie Parker my saxophone, because his was in pawn.  He would come to Philly in the afternoon, or in time for the gig, and I would meet him at the gig and take my horn to the Down Beat Club, and let him play it all night, and then I would take it back home, because he would commute back to New York and come back the next night.  I did that for six days.  Charlie Parker playing my horn, I was like a kid in the candy store — it was a dream come true.  I would take the horn into the cellar at my family’s home in the day-time, and he would leave his Brillheart white mouthpiece on the horn and everything, and just split at night.  I would take out the horn, and try to see if some of those beautiful lines were left in the saxophone — which I found out they were not!

That went on for a week.  Then on the weekend, I had a gig with the big band, and Charlie Parker came and played with the big band — and Max.  They sat in with my band on this occasion.  It was a benefit concert for a tragedy that had happened to a kid, a streetcar accident or something, and Charlie Parker played my horn in front of my band.  This photograph is legendary, and it’s around, where Trane has a cigarette in his hand, he’s looking at Charlie Parker, and he’s about to burn his hand and his mouth is wide open.  That’s one of the main photos I show all my students, to show them that the saxophone did not start with Coltrane!  There’s somebody before him.  It’s a continuum.  That was one of the memorable occasions of my life, to have Charlie Parker play my horn for a week, and then come by and sit in with my band.

TP:    It seems to me, as inspiring as Bird was to you and Coltrane, he was also, paradoxically, a primary reason why you gave up your emphasis on the alto saxophone and switched to the tenor.

JH:    Yeah, Charlie Parker was too rough to try to follow on alto.  So we all assumed the idea that if we changed to tenor and played Bebop, it would be different.  Not realizing that if you’re playing tenor, playing Bebop, you’re playing like Sonny Stitt and Dexter — because they’re playing Charlie Parker on tenor!  So it’s still Charlie Parker all the way.

TP:    It sounds like you and Trane paid almost as much attention to Dexter Gordon at that time as you did to Bird.

JH:    Well, Dexter was the tenor saxophonist who really incorporated the Bebop style.  He and Sonny Stitt were the most prominent.  But Dexter had a little holdover of Lester, and Sonny Stitt was all Bird.  Dexter had something that we liked that was more tenor-oriented.  Sonny sounded like an alto player playing tenor, which was very good.  He was very good and smooth.  But Dexter still had some of that Lester, which was uniquely a tenor quality.

TP:    Now, at that age, 23 or 24, were you still interested in new things, let’s say, that Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young were coming out with?  Or did you sort of put them aside for a while in your concentration on the new music?

JH:    Well, I was very interested in that.  Now, Trane and I had gotten some transcriptions made by Howard Johnson, the lead alto player with Dizzy, of Charlie Parker’s solo on “Don’t Blame Me” and other things.  There were people who were transcribing Charlie Parker and investigating his lines and how he got to where he was.  We all had that.  We were like second-string beboppers in Philadelphia.  We were close to the Bebop scene in its infancy, and we were able to follow through on that same music.  When Dizzy and Charlie Parker started the game, they passed the ball down to us.

TP:    You were part of the sort of second phase of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band between 1949 and 1951, and having performed some of his arrangements with your big band, you were family with his book when you entered.  What was Dizzy’s manner as a bandleader and in rehearsals?

JH:    Well, Dizzy was a wide-open, gregarious kind of person.  He was a dynamic conductor, and one of the best that I had ever seen with a big band.  He sang things the way he wanted them to be phrased.  We also had the music of Tadd Dameron, who wrote on the music if he wanted us to play eighth notes in a certain fashion.  He would write, “OO-DA, OO-DA, OO-DA, OO-DA-U-DA-DO, BAM”  Dizzy and all his disciples and colleagues had crystallized the way they wanted the Bebop music to sound.  So we tried to imitate that.

The only problem I had, Melba Liston was in the band and Gerald Wilson, and Dizzy would get a little upset about attendance or something sometimes, and try to pull out music that he thought we couldn’t handle.  In one instance, we were in Little Rock, Arkansas, to play a dance; Trane and I and Paul Gonsalves I think was in the reed section also.  We hadn’t played “Things To Come” until that time.  We could have won a fight against the audience.  We outnumbered the audience with the band!  So the people would come in and say, “Well, we don’t want to hear no Bebop; why don’t you send Buddy Johnson or Count Basie down here?” — and Dizzy was upset.  So after the gig, just before we closed the gig, “Play ‘Things To Come’!”  And he pulls out this music.  Of course, Trane and I had transcribed some of that stuff, and we knew it, so we made it through.  He was quite surprised that we were able to play the arrangement the first time we ever saw it.

TP:    Personally, was this the beginning of your friendship with Dizzy?  Had you met him a few years before in Philadelphia?

JH:    Yeah, I had met him with his big band.  I had seen him on the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Philadelphia, I think it was in 1946 or ’45 when they came there, Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Al Haig, Max, and either Curly Russell or Tommy Potter.  But when he got the big band, we followed the big band everywhere on the East Coast that they would go.  Percy and I would put on our berets and artist ties like the band had on, and stand in front of the band, and Dizzy would recognize us: “There’s the Heath Brothers from Philadelphia.”  Tootie was too young to follow around with us then.  But Percy and I would imitate the dress and everything.  And we got next to Dizzy, and I eventually got the gig with the band, and I got Percy a gig with the band also, after!

TP:    I guess that’s around the time when your friendship with Milt Jackson began, too.

JH:    Definitely, and James Moody also — because Moody was in the band that we followed.  And Ray Brown also, who was another 1926 guy from my year.

TP:    What a year.

JH:    Yeah, that was a great year.

TP:    Fine vintage.

JH:    Miles.  There’s a lot of good guys from that year.

So Ray and Bags and Joe Harris, the drummer, were good friends.  Joe Harris is also from the same time, and is still in Pittsburgh.  They were hanging out together.  You know, we just struck a friendship with Dizzy on kind of a platonic basis, I mean, just association, no real serious…

TP:    Interplay.

JH:    No.  Percy had met him before I did, I think while I was with Nat Towles.  Percy was just out of the Service with his Lieutenant’s clothes on.  When I came home from Nat Towles, we chanced upon Dizzy coming in town, and Dizzy said, “Hey, Lieutenant!”  He called Percy “Lieutenant” because he was a fighter pilot and a Lieutenant, and he respected that.  I said, “Man, I thought you knew Dizzy.”  I got the gig with Dizzy first, and got Percy the gig.  I thought Percy knew him, but Dizzy knew him as being one of the early fighter pilots from World War Two.

TP:    That’s when you and the other young lions of the time would gather and play sessions and small group dates around New York and other places.

JH:    Well, the sessions were a big thing, the jam sessions during that time.  Everybody, all of my peers, were trying to learn how to play Bebop.  We would go either to Johnny Coles’ house or the Heaths’ house, and gather and try to learn all the songs we heard on the records.  Ray Bryant would be there, or Dolo Coker on piano, or once in a while Red Garland would come in.  But Philly or Specs Wright and Golson, Trane, we would all go and meet together and have these tremendous jam sessions.  Our mothers were very nice people.  Johnny Coles’ mother would fix Kool-Aid and sandwiches, and my mother would do the same.  So we had like a Jazz family in Philadelphia.

TP:    But after coming to New York and joining Dizzy Gillespie, you did various small group things in New York and the surrounding area with Milt Jackson or Miles, so forth and so on.  When did that start?

JH:    Well, I wasn’t privy to the jam sessions in New York as much.  When I got to New York, I was working with a band, so I wasn’t attending so many jam sessions.  Before I got with Dizzy, I remember coming to New York to go to Minton’s, and that was an occasion.  Well, my first gig in New York was actually with Howard McGhee at the Three Deuces.  That was an occasion where Hank Jones played the piano.  Hank Jones took me to his house and played “Cherokee” through the keys after the gig, and I was floored by that, that this what we had to do to be around New York to perform.  You had to learn everything in all the keys, because the guys who could really play would clear you off the bandstand by changing keys, or playing tunes that you couldn’t play.  But since Minton’s was one of the spots where the jam sessions were going, I went up there with Leo Parker.  Max was there, and Al Lucas — I stayed at his house that night.  Monk was there, and Lockjaw.  People like that were playing in the sessions at Minton’s.

TP:    The tracks we heard in the last set of music featured people like Clifford Brown, who came from Wilmington, not far from Philadelphia, so I’m sure you knew him, or of him, and J.J. Johnson and Miles, who were all part… In 1951 there was a Birdland All-Stars tour, and you were put together in a band… Yes, no?   Tell me.

JH:    After.  We’ll talk about that after…

TP:    After a set of music?  Okay, let’s talk about that then. [ETC.] The music we’ll hear comes from Jimmy Heath’s first recording date as a leader for the Riverside label in September 1959, a sextet with Nat Adderley, cornet; Curtis Fuller, trombone; Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums.  There are five originals by Jimmy Heath on this date, some of which have been played up to this day.  Did you write this material for the date, or were these part of a backlog of compositions that you had beforehand?

JH:    I think these were written for this date.  This was my first record date, and I wrote the material.

[MUSIC: J. Heath, "For Minors Only" (1959); Jimmy Heath Tentet, "Big P" (1960); "Two Tees" (1960); w/ Nat Adderley "Chordnation" (1960); w/ Sam Jones Tentet, "Four" (1961)]

TP:    One thing that performance of “Four” brought to mind for both of us was your friendship with Miles.  You said it was an arrangement that he liked very much, and commented on to you.

JH:    Oh, yeah.  He said, [MILES] “Hey, James, that’s one of the best arrangements I ever heard on ‘Four’.”  So he liked that one.

But before these five, you played a couple of things that I wanted to comment on from the Blue Note series.  One was the Miles Davis record, and the other was the J.J. Johnson with Clifford Brown.  The Miles Davis and the J.J. Johnson date came as an offshoot of the Symphony Sid All-Stars, the touring group that we had that consisted of Kenny Clarke, Percy, Milt Jackson, J.J. Johnson and Miles and myself.  It was called the Symphony Sid All-Stars, and the deejay Symphony Sid took us on the road, and was the announcer.  Out of that, Miles had a contract with Blue Note, and he used most of the people on his date.  Then J.J. did a date, and he added Clifford Brown.

When we made that date with Clifford Brown, the thing about that one in particular that sticks out in my mind is that we played the thing called “Turnpike” that has the circle of fourths in the solo structure.  J.J. had something set.  It being his date and he being a very precise person, he had some licks set that he wanted to get in, and he would fluff sometimes, and we’d have to make another take.  Every time we made a new take, Clifford Brown would come up with some incredible sequences.  At that moment, Frank Wolff, the photographer, and Al Lion, came out of the booth after the cut, each cut, saying [GERMAN ACCENT] “That Brownie, that Brownie!”  And the next thing I knew, they had Clifford in the corner, signing a contract with him.  So that was the beginning of Clifford’s career recording-wise, as a result of the J.J. Johnson record.

TP:    What were the circumstances of the Miles Davis date?

JH:    Well, the circumstances were coming out of the Symphony Sid All Stars.  He used Art Blakey on the drums on that particular date.  But it was all during that same time.  Out of that Symphony Sid All-Stars, there was Percy, Kenny Clarke and Milt.  Then right after that, or during that time, the MJQ started, too.  So a lot of things happened in that period that were kind of related, because Kenny Clarke and Milt teamed with John Lewis and Ray Brown, then eventually Percy, to form the MJQ around that same time.

TP:    Jumping ahead almost a decade, I’d like to discuss the Riverside recordings we heard.  It seems like Orrin Keepnews was using you both for recording dates under your leadership, and also as kind of a house arranger for dates by Blue Mitchell and Sam Jones and Nat Adderley and so forth.  It must have been a very active and creative period for you, because so many of your famous compositions seem to emanate from the years 1959 to about 1964.

JH:    Well, I guess I was considered like the staff arranger of a sort.  Benny Golson did some things, too, during that time, but maybe not for other people’s dates as much as his own.  I think it stemmed from the fact that after a long illness, when I came back on the scene, Cannonball was one of my chief endorsers.  I had never met the man, and he endorsed me with Orrin Keepnews, he and Philly Joe.  I had an opportunity to go with Blue Note or Riverside, and I chose Riverside.  Once I got on the label, I was considered one of the arrangers; all the cats on the label wanted me to write something for their dates, and I did some on different people’s dates at that time.  When I look back in retrospect, there’s quite a few.

TP:    I wanted to ask you about your studies in composition and arranging.  I gather that after your earlier efforts and hearing things first-hand from Dizzy Gillespie and Gil Fuller and so forth, you actually wound studying formally.

JH:    Well, Gil helped me a lot.  He always insisted that you get some excitement in your music.  He said Tadd Dameron’s music was background.  Heh-heh.  They were rivals, of course.  But Tadd Dameron’s music had a lot of heart in it, and a lot of feeling and soul, whereas Gil’s were like “Things To Come,” they were exciting.  But I liked both of them.  Also, George Russell was writing for Dizzy’s band; he was very abstract, a different kind of orchestrator.  So was Gerald Wilson.  Gerald Wilson was writing some of the things for the Dizzy Gillespie band that were very good.  Melba hadn’t started, but she was there.

So listening at home to Duke Ellington and people like that, and arrangers like Benny Carter and people like that, I just went through a trial-and-error period, where I tried things.  Then when the small groups came about, like you heard there mostly, I had already begun thinking how to write for sextet by hearing J.J. and other people who had sextets.

So then I went along with that, with mother-wit or intuition for many years, until I started to study with a man named Rudolf Schramm, who taught the Schillinger System, and taught it at Carnegie Hall, where he had a studio upstairs.  I learned quite a bit from him, how to organize what I had already experienced, and how to edit and put things together.  He also helped me in orchestrating for strings and choir and things like that, and encouraged me to write for larger ensembles and, like, suites that I have written.  A lot of them haven’t been recorded, because it costs a lot of money to record them, and they are not hit material, so the record companies are reluctant to record them.  You know, “The Afro-American Suite of Evolution” or the thing I wrote for a five-piece Jazz group and a symphony orchestra called “Three Ears”, or the “Upper-Neighbor Suite” I wrote for a Canadian 10 or 12 piece ensemble.  Some string things I’ve written.  The Kronos String Quartet recorded my version of “Naima”, and the Uptown String Quartet recorded “Naima” for Muse Records.

But I’ve been writing for all kinds of ensembles. To get back to the big-band writing, that started when I took a position at Queens College as a professor, and I teach composing and arranging there.  So I started to write for the big band, new material for every semester.  That keeps my big band music flowing.

Right here I would like to say that my entire career as a composer has been one of dedications to people that I like, my peers and family members.  Just about everything I wrote is dedicated to a human being that I find exceptional in one way or another.  “Big P” is for Percy, “Two Tees” for Albert Heath, “Mona’s Mood” is for my wife — different people.  Most recently I wrote one for Antonio Hart called “Like A Son,” because he was one of my students and he’s very close to me.  “Without You, No Me” to Dizzy.  “Trane Connections” was for Coltrane, “Forever Sonny” for Sonny Rollins.  I don’t think there’s another composer in the history of the music who has dedicated as many songs and compositions to their peers.  I have no problem with competition or ego that I can’t respect another person’s ability.

TP:    Well, one of your main sources, as you cited before, was Tadd Dameron, and the next track we’ll hear comes from a 1982 release dedicated to Tadd Dameron, featuring the group Continuum, featuring Jimmy Heath and Slide Hampton, another one of this generation’s most distinguished composers and orchestrators, Kenny Barron on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and the late Arthur Taylor on drums, who passed last week, and was a close friend of yours and is missed by everyone in the Jazz community.  We’ll hear “Nearness.”  Any comments on it, Jimmy?

JH:    Well, it’s really now a dedication to A.T., because he really liked this song, and he asked me to give him a chart on it so he could do it with his Wailers.

[MUSIC:  Continuum, "Nearness" (1982); J. Heath/KD/AT, "Nobody Else But Me" (1961); "J. Heath/Freddie/J. Watkins, "The Quota" (1962); J. Heath/Blue Mitchell Orch., "Blue On Blue" (1962)]

TP:    We’ll move out of chronology now, and concentrate on recordings made by the Heath Brothers, Jimmy, Percy and Albert, the three great musicians who came out of the Heath family in Philadelphia.  The first selection will come from a 1975 recording for Strata-East, the first by the Heath Brothers as such.

JH:    I had worked with Percy and Albert on The Quota and on Really Big, a couple of my Riverside dates, so that was the Heath Brothers before the Heath Brothers formal title was adopted by the record companies.  Percy was always with the MJQ, for years, so that left Albert and I, and we worked together quite a bit, and Percy would work with us once in a while when he wasn’t busy with the Modern Jazz Quartet.  But I could use my brothers on recordings, and that’s what I did on those Riverside records.  Then when Percy took a hiatus from the MJQ for a few years, we started a group called the Heath Brothers.  The first record we made was made in Norway.  We were on tour over there in Oslo, and Stanley Cowell was our pianist, and he wanted to document this group on the Strata-East label.  That’s what we did.  We made this record and it was released on Strata East.

TP:    Talk about the qualities that your two brothers bring to their instruments, and their place in the music pantheon.  First your older brother, Percy.

JH:    Well, Percy can walk the bass.  He’s got an uncanny sense of time.  He was the bassist of choice around New York for a lot of recordings.  He’s been on more than I have, I’m sure — and I’ve been I guess getting close to being a hundred records, I’m sure.  But he’s been on many more.  Albert was a person that came along, nine years after myself in age, and he soon became one of the favorites in the Riverside catalogue, and he made quite a few Blue Note records, and he recorded with Trane and Sonny Rollins and everybody, too.

So I don’t know, it must be in our genes.  Our father and mother were wonderful people, and they let us pursue what we loved — music.  We weren’t forced to do anything else.  If you have an environment like that at home, where you are encouraged to play, and you have any talent, then you’re going to play.

TP:    Well, you mentioned after World War Two, when Percy came back, that the two of you spent a lot of time workshopping together, transcribing, listening, performing.

JH:    Yeah.  Well, Percy and I…that’s before Tootie came out of high school.  We even played with Howard McGhee together when I first went to Paris in 1948 in…oh, I think it was April or May in 1948.  We were both with Howard McGhee at that time.  Howard McGhee was the first person to really take us out into the big time, so-called.  He also was the person who took my big band from Philly and took it on the road, and we went to the Apollo and the Paradise in Detroit and some of the theaters.  We played a gig in Chicago, and my whole book, my repertoire got lost in the Inglewood Station in Chicago, so I never saw my big band music again!

TP:    Oh, no!

JH:    Yeah, that was unfortunate.  But we continued to work with Howard in the small-group situation anyway, and record.  He was the first person I recorded with.  And Howard was a wonderful person to be around, a nice man, and he could play real well, and he really liked me.  So that was the essence of the beginnings and being-together of the brothers, Percy and I first, and then eventually the three of us.

TP:    Now, Tootie has a very personal way of swinging as well, and gets a very distinctive sound out of the kit.  He’s very recognizable on your Riverside releases.

JH:    Well, I think he has some of his teacher’s style, and that’s Specs Wright.  All of the drummers liked Klook and Max, but Tootie was close to Specs.  Specs was a very crisp and swinging drummer also, who had excellent hands.  I think he taught Tootie to practice very slow, because Specs was so methodical.  I roomed with him with Dizzy’s band, and he would drive you nuts, because he would practice so slow all day, I mean, sit there with a practice pad and say, BOP… BOP…BOP, and then when he gets on the gig it was like WRRHOWOWO.  It was incredible.  But he knew a system of how to practice.  I think Tootie got that from him.  Also, Everybody liked what Max was doing, and he incorporated some of Max, and Philly Joe was around, and he listened…

We all learned from our predecessors, and that’s the way it should be.  I mean, you learn from the people who came before you, and then you expand into your own style.

TP:    One more question about your writing.  You said you often write people in mind as far as dedicating the compositions.  As far as the musical content, do you write for people you know will be performing it, or does it come out of more your own ideas that are percolating around at a given time?

JH:    It’s not necessarily for the people who are going to perform it, because a lot of times I was the only one to perform some of them!  The song I wrote for Sarah Vaughan, “Sassy’s Samba,” the Heath Brothers recorded it, and eventually the New York Voices recorded it.  They put their own words to it.  But it was dedicated to Sarah Vaughn.  Just like “Blue On Blue” we just heard was to Blue Mitchell.  And the thing we’re about to play, “Smilin’ Billy”, is for Billy Higgins.

So I think about the person’s personality.  You know, Ted, I write down nicknames and expressions of all my friends.  I’ve got a whole list that would be very interesting to literary people, I think, who are interested in Jazz.  Because I think about the person.  Thad’s thickness or Slide’s slickness.  Expressions that depict the person.  I mean, Slide Hampton is a very slick player and arranger.  Thad’s music was so dense, so Thad’s thickness… I’ve got a whole list of maybe about fifty or sixty people that I have coined phrases on what I visualize them or how I perceive them.

TP:    Then that triggers off some sort of musical lines and connections and progressions.

JH:    It’s all connected.

TP:    Let’s start off with part one of “The Smilin’ Billy Suite” — we don’t have time to hear the others — to lead off a set by the Heath Brothers.  In the 1970′s Jimmy had expanded his sound palette, as had everybody in the orchestra, sort of in touch with the times, and on this date you play flute, tenor and soprano saxophone; Tootie plays a double-reed on Part of the Suite, which we won’t hear, but primarily drums; Percy had begun playing the baby bass by that time; and Stanley Cowell plays piano and also Mbira on other sides here.

[MUSIC: "Smilin' Billy Suite, Pt. 1" (1975); "A New Blue" (1978); In Motion, Brass Choir/HB, "Project S" (1979)]

TP:    It does seem that the Heath Brothers enabled you to expand your exploration of tones and colors that began working on in a series of albums for Muse and Cobblestone Records in the early 1970′s.

JH:    Well, I fell in love with the French horn when Julius Watkins started to play the way he did, and I started adding the French horn to quite a few of my albums.  Until today I still like to use the French horn.

TP:    We heard it on The Quota and Triple Threat, those early Riverside dates.

JH:    And on Swamp Seed, the one that you’re going to play with Herbie.  But even the later ones, the Landmark things, I used the French horns and tubas and those instruments.

TP:    Most recently on Old Flames, which you arranged for Sonny Rollins, there’s that brass choir situation, although you don’t appear on that.

JH:    Ah!

TP:    [ETC.] We’ll move back to the 1960′s now, and focus on Jimmy Heath’s final two dates for Riverside, and also a few collaborations with Milt Jackson, with whom you recorded a number of times between 1962 and 1967, and continue to up to recent days.

JH:    Yes.

TP:    In our conversations earlier about the Dizzy Gillespie band, you talked about first meeting Milt Jackson, and I guess you’ve recorded with him since your very first one, in 1948.  I think he was playing piano on those Howard McGhee dates.

JH:    Well, he was on some things.  He was also in that big band thing in 1949 that I did.  He was playing piano and vibes on the “Mean To Me” that we heard earlier.

TP:    Talk about your relationship with him.  It’s been of such long duration and so creatively fruitful.

JH:    Well, yeah.  Even last week Milt recorded one of my songs on his album with the young lions he’s using, Jesse Davis and Joshua Redman and Christian McBride and Benny Green.  So he asked me to write a tune for that album, and I wrote one called “Bop Again.”  I think Cedar wrote one for that date.  So Bags and I, our relationship goes…oh, man, since the late Forties, since he was with… I met him when he was with Dizzy’s band, I would imagine.  So that’s ’46-’47, something like that, until today.  There were times when the MJQ would go on the road, and I wouldn’t know they were back in town if I had depended on my brother Percy, because he would be gone fishing — and Milt would say, “oh, we got back yesterday!”  So Milt and I are like brothers.

TP:    Well, he’s a musician with as identifiable a sound as any that ever played this music.

JH:    We just played a gig with Paul West at the Henry Street Settlement with the Symphony Orchestra down there, doing Dizzy’s music.  Milt and I were on that together.  So Milt and I are very close.

TP:    We’ll hear a few tracks featuring Jimmy Heath with Milt Jackson a little later,  But coming up now is “Wall To Wall,” recorded in 1963 for Riverside on the album Swamp Seed.  This is redolent of brass, with Donald Byrd on trumpet, Julius Watkins and Jim Buffington on French horns, Don Butterfield on tuba.  Herbie Hancock plays piano on this track.

JH:    “Wall To Wall” is from ear to ear.  We all had beards, and I said “We have wall-to-wall rugs.”  And I see you have one, Ted, so you’re right in there.

[MUSIC:  "Wall To Wall" (1963); "Gingerbread Boy" (1964); J. Heath/Bags "Dew 'n Mud" (1965); J. Heath/A. Farmer, "One For Juan" (1967)]

TP:    In our next set, we’ll move to selections from a series of recordings that Jimmy Heath did in the mid-Seventies for the Cobblestone, Muse and Xanadu labels, where the common thread I guess is producer Don Schlitten, who produced all of these dates.  And back to what we said about the Heath Brothers groups, during this time you were really expanding your sonic palette compositionally.  You feature yourself on flute and soprano sax, you bring in a lot of popular rhythms, African melodies and so forth.  Talk a little about your state of mind at this time, and the dynamics that went into making these recordings.

JH:    Well, the Sixties was a turbulent time, and the music depicts what’s going on.  What we were wearing, and what we espoused as Afro-Americans was coming out in the music.  I wrote things like “Heritage Hum”, and along with my son Mtume, we were doing things like “Alkebulan,” which is called “The Land Of The Blacks.”  We were just expressing our views musically with the times, as things were happening.  You know, I came up when… I went to high school in Wilmington, North Carolina, from Philadelphia, and I’d have to get in the Colored coach and all that stuff.  When we got to Washington, D.C., you’d get out of the coach you were in on the train, and get in the Colored coach, and they had Colored water and all of that stuff.  I’m still trying to figure out what Colored water is.  But it was a time when we weren’t getting any respect as human beings, and we needed that.  I think the Bebop Era, Dizzy and Charlie Parker spoke to that in their music in a revolutionary sense, and I was following through on what was happening in the country and with us as human beings on the planet.

TP:    Well, to a lot of people in the 1960′s, your old friend John Coltrane in a certain way symbolized some of the highest aspirations of African-Americans.  I asked you off-mike if you continued to see Coltrane during the 1960′s, and you said that when you were still living in Philadelphia, where you were until 1964, he would still come by your house, and practice and eat between sets at the Showboat.

JH:    Yeah.  Well, he was playing at the Showboat, and he would play these extended sets, playing “My Favorite Things” for 15 or 20 minutes, sometimes a half-hour on one song, then they would take a break, and they would have to go back that evening to perform again.  So Trane, he would practice on all the breaks between the sets.  So the long break between… He was supposed to end at six, and he goes back at nine or something.  Well, he ended up seven or something, played overtime.  Well, my mother’s house was closer than his mother’s house in West Philly.  He had moved by that time.  He would always come down to the house.  I said, “Look, Trane, you could down to Mom; I’ll get Mom to fix something.”  And my mother would fix him something.

The last occasion he did that, he came down to the house, and we talked for a while.  My mother said, “Well, the food isn’t ready, John, because Jimmy just called me.”  He said, “Well, look, Jim, can I go upstairs and practice until she gets…”  I said, “Yeah, go ahead!” and he went upstairs and practiced until the food was ready, ate the food, went back to the club, and played some more for the rest of the evening.  Trane was like that.  He practiced all the time.  Juanita, who was named Naima later, his first wife, said he was 90 percent saxophone.  So that gives you an idea of John Coltrane’s life.

TP:    In our conversation off-mike you told me also that you moved back to New York City in 1964.  I’m sure that must have expanded your possibilities in many ways.

JH:    Well…

TP:    Or not.

JH:    Yeah, well, it did.  I was basically doing things with my own group during that time.  I went back with Miles for a little after Trane left, and I didn’t stay long.  Well, then I was free-lancing around New York until later.  I was still recording for Muse and Xanadu around that time…

TP:    Around 1970 or so.

JH:    1970.  In retrospect, the late Sixties were kind of slim pickings for Jazz.  The other music had just moved in so strongly, and everybody went, the audiences, until they were… Sarah Vaughan told me she didn’t have a recording contract for quite a while during that…

TP:    Yeah, it was a tenuous time and a transitional time, and a lot of the music in the Seventies I guess reflected wanting to get into the mainstream and make some money in terms of the type of music that was being presented.

JH:    I think so.

[MUSIC:  The Gap Sealer, "Heritage Hum" (1972); Love And Understanding, "Gemini" (1973); "The Time And The Place" (1974)]

JH:    [RE: Picture of Heath.] I didn’t write a lot of arrangements for the ensemble, you know, so it was a loose kind of a session.  Plus when the tenor is out front it’s a different ego trip.

TP:    Now, you call it an ego trip.  Why?  I assume you’re talking about being able to stretch out and play at length and take some liberties.

JH:    Well, to me sometimes it’s boring as a musician, as a listener to hear one instrument, and that instrument alone. I’ve fallen in love with orchestration and composition, and I like to hear a lot of different textures and a different sound.  Consequently there are very few records that I really stretched out on.  On the live dates I would stretch out a little more.  Perhaps that’s one of the problems I’ve had with recognition, is that I’ve been prone to let somebody else play instead of me taking the whole show.

TP:    I’d like to talk to you a little bit about your sound and style as a tenor saxophone player.  We talked earlier about your sources in the music, and coming out of Charlie Parker, and then listening to Dexter Gordon and transcribing solos.  I’m not sure how to frame this.  At a certain point, musicians begin to transcend their sources.  Listening back, when do you think your individual sound, your individual voice began to become clear on the tenor saxophone?

JH:    Well, I think simultaneously, with the more knowledge you get about the music and the more time you put in on an instrument, that’s when you begin to find yourself.  Earlier you are always trying to see what has been done before, and you are investigating earlier performers and listening a lot.  There were times in my career, and there are times when I don’t listen to Jazz records, because I don’t want to be influenced by everybody else and their playing.  So I think that’s a way to become your own person.  Also your individual sound has a lot to do with it.  The tone quality that you get that’s identifiable.  You know, you can hear Sonny Rollins, and you know Sonny; you hear Joe Henderson, and you know Joe.  And people who really listen, they say, “Oh, that’s Jimmy Heath” — they can identify me.  And I take pride in that fact.  But there were some times when my friend Dexter Gordon, when I would go hear his group, when I got bored as a listener because Dexter would use the same format.  He would play first on every song, and then he would let the piano player play, and then he would take fours with the drummer or the bass player.  Then the next song, Dexter first, Dexter first.  I guess that’s the way people want you to be, and I’m not in that mode.  So I let some of the other guys play first, I play second, I may… It’s an image problem…

TP:    I’d like to talk a little more about sound, and your sound.  Is there a sound that you were hearing, let’s say, in your mind’s ear around 1953 or 1960 or so, and then you worked to get to that sound, and arrived there?  Is that how it worked for you?

JH:    Yeah, I worked on the sound.  I was listening to Dexter and Lester and Bird, and I think that I kind of incorporated some of their inflections in my playing.  But tone quality, you’ve just got to practice…sound, practice tone.  Whole notes, which is boring.  And you’ve got to do that in order to get a good sound.  Once you get a sound, though, the rest of the delivery is easy!

TP:    Well, one of the hallmarks of individuality for a tenor player within this tradition is “Body and Soul,” and I know on records produced by Don Schlitten, he liked to have the artists work out on this tune.  You can hear versions on his records by almost every great saxophonist of the time.  So let’s hear Jimmy Heath’s version of “Body and Soul” on tenor and soprano from Picture Of Heath, 1975, with Barry Harris, Sam Jones and Billy Higgins.

[MUSIC:  "Body and Soul" (1975); w/ Joe Henderson, "Steeplechase" (1988)]

TP:    We’ll move now to material from a pair of recordings by Jimmy Heath for Landmark in 1985 and 1987, respectively.  From the first, we’ll hear the title track, “New Picture.”  New Picture continues your tradition of a four-brass section.

JH:    I used the tuba and two French horns on this one, and a trombone in this particular grouping.

TP:    Do you approach each album as a project unto itself?  Is there some sort of picture you’re trying to paint with every date that you do?  Is it a function of what you’re working on at that time, and things sort of come together?  How do you go about it?

JH:    Well, I go about it in trying to do something a little different, if I can.  That’s why I have different-sized ensembles on most of the records, and not just the quartet alone.  I have sextets and various different color combinations, with the strings, the cello on some things, flute on some things.  So I just like music.  I love music, and I love all the sounds of the different instruments.  If I could really afford it, or the record companies could afford, I would like to do something with the larger ensembles, too, the symphony, that size ensemble, 40 or 50 pieces.  I just want to explore all of the sound qualities that I can find in my knowledge and concept.

TP:    So it transcends notes.  It’s really ultimately about sound.

JH:    Yeah, and the voice.  I’ve done several things using choirs, and I’m really interested in doing that at this point in my life.  I would like to do something with a group like Take Six or something like that!

[MUSIC: "New Picture" (1985); w/ Purrone, "I Waited For You." (1987)]

TP:    There are certain musicians who can make five hours go by like an hour-and-a-half.  Jimmy Heath is one of them, and he’s been sharing the time with me and with you, the radio audience, in the studios of WKCR, giving a first-person account in this retrospective of Jimmy Heath’s 46 years of recorded music.

JH:    Pshew!

TP:    One more set to go.  But I wanted to talk a little bit about your educational activities.  Because for a number of years you have been Professor Jimmy Heath, and you’ve put together a very strong Jazz program at Queens College, part of the City University of New York.  How long has this particular gig been part of your career, and how long did you work towards that in terms of academic credentialing?

JH:    Well, I’ve been teaching privately for many years, back with Ted Curson, Jimmy Garrison, Sam Reed(?) and other people around Philadelphia.  Then coming to New York at the Jazzmobile organization, and the Housatonic College in Bridgeport, and the City College of New York on Convent Avenue with Ron Carter.  Then in ’87, after an illness, I took a position at Queens College, which is very close to my home, where I have been since 1964.  I have been working at that for many years privately.  The people there saw that I was the person that they wanted to begin the Jazz faculty as tenured people… At least I am now tenured.  When I started in 1987, I was the first one hired full time at Queens College in teaching Jazz music.  I basically got that on my reputation over the years as a performer and composer and traveling person, sort of known personality.

TP:    One thing that’s come out a lot in this past decade-and-a-half is the idea that Jazz can be taught if it’s really done right.  Your generation often had to pick up things by themselves, though not in all cases, because there were a number of formally trained musicians.  Talk about that concept and applying it to young, raw students, and what the students are like these days.

JH:    Well, at that time, like you said, the performers of the music taught at some institutions weren’t allowed to teach in those institutions probably because of lack of degrees, and this is what academia demands and expects from a person.  But somewhere along the line, they realized that some people didn’t have that opportunity, and they still are doctors of their music.  So then the institutions started hiring more people, like Kenny Barron and Rufus Reid.  Some of them have Bachelor Degrees and some of them have more.  But usually it was based on their reputation.  It’s hard to get a position in an institution on just your reputation without the formal credentials.  And I think by the performers getting in as teachers, whether credentialed or not, it has brought a new awareness into the university systems so that the people who are teaching Afro-American, Jazz music in these institutions are the people who have done it.

So the students are very fortunate that they have somebody that is performing all the time that can really pull their coats to a lot of other things that an academic cannot.  They have just studied how this chord goes and this and that, but they haven’t been performing.  They don’t know what the audience responds to… It’s the insider approach.  The students I’ve had have been…they feel honored to be there.  They come there… Donald Byrd was at my school also, and now Sir Roland Hanna is there, and Cecil Bridgewater.  So we have a faculty staff, small as it may be, of performers.  And they have degrees, too, Cecil and Roland.

But it’s just the fact that it’s a different approach to the music.  It’s a personal approach, not from a book.  This is why we have students that are finishing under our direction that are right in the music world, going right out there and performing.

TP:    Maybe fifteen years ago a lot of older musicians were somewhat pessimistic about the future of the music, and I think these fears have been put to rest as many talented and creative young musicians have emerged.

JH:    Yeah.  Well, the one icon that’s caused a lot of change in our music, to me, is Wynton Marsalis.  The image that he has presented and his dogmatic attitude of what he really thinks of our music, Afro-Americans’ music, has caused a lot of young people to follow in his direction.  They want to dress well on the stage.  They play good.  They are clean-cut guys; they don’t deal with no vices.  And a lot of them come out of school.  People like Alvin Batiste are turning out musicians, Nathan Davis in Pittsburgh, and all of this network of people who are in the institutions and qualified performers has come together.

When we were judges on a panel, Dizzy and I, on a Budd Johnson award, we saw so many good young players.  Incidentally, on this particular one, Vincent Herring was the winner.  But Dizzy looked at me and said, “The music is in good hands.”  When we heard all these young people playing the way they are… In my case, at my school, Antonio Hart.  Or I was the chairman of the judges’ panel for the Thelonious Monk Institute when we chose Joshua Redman the number-one saxophone player — and the rest is history.  So there is a coming together of youth and the old vets out there that’s very healthy in attittude, and the music is stronger than ever.

[MUSIC: J. Heath/Mulgrew/Lundy/Nash, "Ellington's Stray Horn" (1994)]

[-30-]

* * *

Jimmy and Albert (“Tootie”) Heath (7-21-93) — Musician Show:

Q:    Jimmy Heath and I have done several shows in recent years, and we’ve talked a fair amount about your activities in Philadelphia as a young musician.  But I don’t think we’ve really spoken too much with Albert Heath about your younger years.  So I’d like to begin speaking with you, if I might.  First, you’re from such a musical family, it’s almost an inane question to ask how you got started playing the drums.  But was that your first instrument?  Was that your first interest?  And with whom did you start playing, when you did start playing?

AH:    Well, the musical influence came from my brother Jimmy, who was always sitting at the piano and studying and learning something about harmony, and he would exchange ideas with other musicians, like some names that I won’t drop right now because I want to stay on the track here… So my brother Jimmy was my main influence, and then Percy started to play much later; he came along later.  But Jimmy was the first and strongest influence in music, in terms of what was called Bebop at the time.

My father was also a major influence, as well as my mother, because she sang in the choir, and my father played clarinet in a marching band.

So I had a lot of music all the time.  There was recordings of people like Fletcher Henderson and Basie and Duke Ellington, of course, and all those big bands that we used to listen to.  My parents used to play the music of Bessie Smith and Mahalia Jackson.  So I got a real good foundation in the music of our culture.

Q:    Now, Jimmy Heath has talked about avidly going to hear the big bands in the theatres.  Were you able to do the same as a youngster?  I know you were younger.

AH:    Yeah.  Fortunately, I was able to see a few bands.  But it meant that I had to kind of skip school to do it.  My parents didn’t know that I was doing that, but… I saw the Ellington Orchestra, and I saw…

Q:    Who was the drummer with the Ellington Orchestra?

AH:    It was Sonny Greer at the time.  And I mean, I was overwhelmed by his appearance and all of the instruments that he was playing at that time.  You know, he had chimes and congas and tympany and bells and all kinds of instruments he had back there in the back of the orchestra.  And he was well in control of everything back there — and I was just like totally impressed by him.  And he had on white tails; I’ll never forget it.  He was, like, immaculate.  And I never forgot that.

Also, I saw Dizzy Gillespie’s band with a friend of my brother Jimmy… For some reason or other… Teddy Stewart was the drummer, and he couldn’t show up for some reason, and my brother had his friend, who was just out of the Service, the military, whose name was Specs Wright, and Specs Wright came in and played Dizzy’s book as if he had sat there all the time and played it for years.  And I was like… You know, I couldn’t believe that, what I was seeing.  So I was fortunate enough to see the Gillespie band.  I saw the Basie band, and that’s about it…

Q:    Was that Shadow Wilson at that time?

AH:    No, I didn’t see Shadow Wilson at that time, but I saw Shadow Wilson at the Five Spot with Thelonious.  So I did see Shadow.

Q:    Well, it’s very important for young musicians to see the older, master musicians so that they get a correlation of motion to sound or action to sound.  And I know that’s something that at that time, with the big bands, musicians really were able to do, maybe more so than today.  You teach.  Do you…

AH:    Yes.  I’m on faculty at California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia, California.  But I think it’s true today also that the younger players… Like, for instance, last night I saw the son of a friend of mine who came down to see us, and he’s a very young person — and I’m sure I’ll see some more young musicians coming down to see us.  And I think the tradition is being passed on to these young people through us.  We’re the old guys now.

Q:    Let’s get back to your younger days in the music.  What was your first gigging experience around Philadelphia?  Who were some of the people you paired off with as a young drummer, and what types of situations were you playing in?

AH:    Well, my first professional performance was done at a place called the Lincoln Post, across the street from where we used to live, which was a marching band — the American Legion is what it was.  And they had a marching band over there.  And somehow, myself and a trumpet player by the name of Ted Curson and a saxophone player by the name of Sam Reed, who were my… We were school mates.  And Sam played an alto saxophone, which he still does today, and Ted Curson played the trumpet, which he still plays today, and is functioning out in the world, playing all over the world — both of them are.  And we had an opportunity to play at this place at night — which was rare, you know, because we were all about 15 or 16 apiece, or something like that.  And some people gave us a chance to play because they’d heard us rehearsing or something.  I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but we did get a chance to play in this place.  And they liked it.  And at the end of the night, we got seven dollars to split up among ourselves.  So that was my first professional job!  And I’ll never forget that.  And the music was horrible.

Q:    What kinds of things were you trying to play?

AH:    We were trying to play what we heard Dizzy playing, and…who else were the guys at the time…?  I think it was basically Dizzy and Charlie Parker, were the Bebop people who were our idols.

Q:    Who were you patterning yourself after?

AH:    I was trying to be Max Roach as hard as I could.  And I couldn’t even keep time.  So you know, it was like terrible.  This was probably the worst music… I don’t see how we got paid for it, I really don’t.  You know, when I reflect back on it, it had to be just awful.

Q:    But what did you think at the time?

AH:    At the time, oh… Well, we got paid.  I thought it was… Oh man, I thought we were doing something!

Q:    Then what were the steps?  Philadelphia was a thriving scene.  There were many musicians who later really made their mark in the world of music.  And I’m assuming that you took your place among them, as all young, up-and-coming musicians?  Was this the case?

AH:    I had an opportunity to play with some wonderful musicians around Philadelphia because of my brothers.  Again, they kind of laid the way for me, and they made friends, and people would come to our parents’ home, or our  home, and I would meet these people, and my brother Jimmy would say, “My brother’s studying drums” and blah-blah-blah.  And that kind of got around.  And sooner or later, after I had got serious about trying to learn something about the drums, I started to be able to play with people like a guy named Louis(?) Judge, and Jimmy Garrison was around there and Spanky DeBrest and Lee Morgan.  And you know, I was really big-time when I got to play with Coltrane, who was not famous at the time, but just one of the best players around at that time even.  I was going to say Benny Golson but Benny came later, I didn’t see… Benny was away at college, I think, when I came up.  But there were people like that.  I may be leaving some names out here, and I hope I don’t offend anybody by leaving them out, but I can’t think of any other names…

Q:    Are the years we’re talking about now, say, 1950, ’51, ’52… Jimmy made a piano thing…

AH:    Oh, a piano thing?  Oh, Ray Bryant.  He did play with Ray… Not around Philadelphia.

JH:    [OFF-MIKE] Bobby(?).

AH:    Oh, Bobby TImmons!  Oh, my God.  Yeah, Bobby Timmons was…oh, man…

JH:    How about McCoy?

AH:    McCoy, we… Yeah, McCoy…

JH:    How about Kenny?  Kenny Barron?

AH:    Kenny?  No.  Kenny was off practicing and getting to be one of the greatest piano players of our time, but he wasn’t around.  He was a little younger than us.  But McCoy, I remember going up to McCoy’s mother’s beauty parlor, and there was a piano in the back.  And we used to have what we’d call jam sessions up there at McCoy’s house — which was way out of my territory, out of my neighborhood, and it was real dangerous to go up there because…

Q:    What was your neighborhood and what was that neighborhood?

AH:    I was South Philadelphia and he was North Philadelphia, and you just don’t go up there fooling around unless you know how to do it.

So anyhow, Lee Morgan was also up there in North Philadelphia, and so were some good drummers like Eddie Campbell and Lex Humphries, and Odean Pope was around, and Donald Bailey… Oh, man, some good musicians.

Q:    So it was a real testing ground, and obviously you have to be dealing, otherwise you’re not going to be able to stick around.

AH:    Well, you fake it real good until you watch enough guys doing it and you learn how to do it, you know.  And if you just surround yourself with people who are better than you, I think you learn like that.

Q:    Did you ever have any specifically drum teachers?

AH:    Oh yeah.  I had a lot of drum teachers, yeah.  The first one that really had a strong influence on me was Specs Wright.  Now, I had teachers before Specs Wright, but it wasn’t a long-term thing.  But with Specs, it was a long-term thing.  Like, as long as I can remember, I could always call him up and go by.  We didn’t have a schedule, but I could go to his mother’s house on some Saturdays and catch him there, and then sometimes he would come down to see my brother Jimmy, and then he’d go off for 15 or 20 minutes with me and help me with what it is that I wanted to learn.  And he showed me a lot of things.  I learned a lot about playing with, you know, groups, and a lot about dynamics and technique and all of that stuff from him.

And I had some other teachers, too.  One in particular that Mickey Roker always jokes…we always have this joke about this teacher, because Mickey always says, “Hey, man, we both studied with the same guy.  But what happened to you?” — as if something’s wrong with what I do, and he’s okay!  But this guy’s name was Ellis Tolin.  And he was around in Philadelphia.  He had a place called Music City, a drum store, and in the back he would give lessons.  This guy had incredible technique.  He loved Buddy Rich, and he used to have Buddy Rich up there, and we could go up there and see Buddy Rich play all the drums you’d want to see.  Then Philly Joe used to come up there also and show off, you know, because he could play better than anybody up there, and he would come up there and just wipe everybody out.

Q:    So his position in Philadelphia was sort of as the King of…

AH:    Yeah, he wasn’t a king, but I mean, he had… Like, some of the better drummers went up there.  Now, everybody didn’t go there.  There were some other places, too, around Philly that people studied, like Granoff School of Music.  There’s a lot of guys that went there who I can’t think of right now… But the guys from South Philadelphia that I knew, like Mickey and Ronald Tucker and Specs and a few other people used to go up to Ellis Tolin’s.  That was kind of the in thing to do.  You just wanted to go through there.  Because they had sessions on Mondays or something like that, and you never knew… Whoever was playing in Philly, the drummer from the group would come up to Ellis’ place and do a little clinic.  But they weren’t called clinics at the time; they called them jam sessions.  And they would come up there and play.  And it was always something special.

Q:    You mentioned that in your youngest years you were always exposed to musicians, because Jimmy Heath was always having musicians over.  Was that involved with the big band that Jimmy had in the late 1940′s?

AH:    Yeah, Jimmy used to have… Our living room at my mother’s house was a little too small for the whole band most of the time.  So he would have like section rehearsals, and he’d have a reed section rehearsal one day, and I would come home from school and here’s these guys with all of these saxophones out, and the music all over the dining room table.  My mother would be busy in the kitchen doing whatever she’s doing.  And they would have, like, a section rehearsal.  So I got a chance to hear the music in sections.  And this is really a wonderful way to learn an arrangement.  And I had my ear cocked on all of this stuff.  At that age, you know, you could absorb and remember a lot of things.  So a lot of that stuff sticks with me right now.  I mean, it’s a part of my upbringing, is that I heard the section rehearsals.  Then I would hear the trumpets rehearse.  Then sometimes it would be the whole band, even, in the house — on some occasions.  Then I would see people like Coltrane and Benny Golson, and Johnnie Splawn and Johnny Coles…

Q:    All in your family living room.

AH:    All of these guys, yeah, would be at my mother’s house, at our mother’s house, with rehearsals by Jimmy.  So I got a chance to meet and be around all of these people, and be influenced.

Q:    Let me turn the mike over to Jimmy Heath now and ask how you got this band together, and what was the impetus for it.  It had a major impact on every musician who came through it in Philadelphia at that time.

JH:    Well, I had come out of a big band in Nebraska called Nat Towles, and I wanted to have a band myself.  So when I came back to Philadelphia…

Q:    Can I stop you for a minute?

JH:    Yes.

Q:    Nat Towles’ band was one of the famous territory bands.  How did you come to join that?  And just say a few words about Nat Towles.

JH:    Well, Nat Towles was out of Omaha, Nebraska.  And there was a trombonist from Philly, who we had been playing together with earlier bands when I first got out of high school, named Felix Leach.  And Felix Leach told the people in Nat Towles Orchestra that when a chair was vacant, or alto chair, that I would like to join the band.  So I went to Omaha, Nebraska.  Billy Mitchell was the straw boss of the band, and he had an apartment with a very small room.  Of the two people that tried out for the band… I couldn’t read as good as the other guy, but Billy Mitchell took a liking to me and said, “Keep the little guy.”  And we talk about that now, Billy Mitchell having later played with Basie and Dizzy.

But when I got back to Philadelphia after leaving that band… Before we leave that portion of it, that band had Buddy Tate before me, and Sir Charles Thompson and others.

But after I got to Philly and I wanted to start my own band… Dizzy had a band then, and I really was in love with the Bebop…the big band of Dizzy.  So I tried to pattern my band and transcribe some of Dizzy’s arrangements, and play that music.  And you know, Trane came out of the Navy, and he was around Philly, and Bill Massey and Cal Massey, who were trumpeters, and they joined my band.  Because I was trying to play Bebop with a big band, as Dizzy had laid the pattern down.

Q:    Were you transcribing off the records, basically?  Or did you get the music and do your own orchestrations?  How did it work for you?

JH:    Well, I was trying to transcribe.  And I had a couple of guys who were pros, who had been with Dizzy.  Johnny Acea had written stuff for Dizzy.  This is a guy from Philly who could play the saxophone, trumpet and piano, and he was an arranger.  So he transcribed a couple of things for me, and  a man named Leroy Lovett also transcribed a lot of the things — and I did the others.  And I was trying to write things in the Bebop style also.

Q:    Now, was the band primarily a workshop situation?  Or were you trying to make a go of it and turn it into a performing big band?  I’m assuming that you would have.  But how did it function?

JH:    Yeah.  Well, it was not just a workshop.  We were trying to gig, and we did gig.  I’ve got a poster at home that says when we played at a place called the O.V. Carter(?) Elks in Philly, Jimmy Heath and his 17-Piece Orchestra with Jimmy Thomas on vocals and John Coltrane on saxophone, and Specs Wright and all — and it cost 75 cents to get in the dance!

Q:    At this time you were primarily an alto player, yes?

JH:    Right!   Trane and I were playing alto.  He wasn’t playing tenor at that point.

Q:    And you were both disciples of Charlie Parker.  Who came before Bird for you, and how did you first get struck with Bird?

JH:    Well, before Bird one of my idols was Mister Benny Carter, and Johnny Hodges, and Tab Smith.  They were the three alto players who I found the most interesting to me.  Then Charlie Parker came along and changed the rhythm and the lines of music that I found really fascinating, and I began to try to play like that.

Q:    Can you describe what the impact was on you when you first heard it, and why — again if that’s not too inane a question.

JH:    When I was with Nat Towles’ Orchestra, we went to Savannah, Georgia.  And I remember it as if it was yesterday, that when we got to the dance hall… We were going to play a dance that evening.  And we got there in the afternoon to set up the band and check the hall out.  And they had a jukebox that you put five cents in; you’d put a nickel in the jukebox to hear records.  And I put a nickel in, and I played a record by Jay McShann called “Hootie Blues.”  And right away, the alto solo struck me, and I called all the other guys in the saxophone section and said, “Man, check this guy out.”  And we all begun to put the money in for this Jay McShann, “Hootie Blues” and “Swingmatism” by Charlie Parker as soloist with McShann.  That was the beginning.

Then later in my stay with Nat Towles, I heard “Shaw Nuff” and “Salt Peanuts” and that stuff, and I didn’t realize it was the same guy at that moment until after I quit and came to Philly — I said, “Oh, that’s the same guy I heard on those records with McShann.”

Q:    You described a few months ago with me hearing Bird in Philadelphia in a club.  The first time you heard him you said might have been 1948 or so?  Or am I wrong on that?

JH:    The first time I heard him was in the Academy of Music,  when they came there for the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert.  There was Al Haig and Max and Curly Russell, I think, and Dizzy and Charlie Parker.  And then came that in ’48, with the band with Miles Davis, Max Roach, Duke Jordan and Tommy Potter.  And at that point, when he played in the Downbeat Club, is when I loaned him my saxophone every night.  And knowing his reputation, I would stay up there the whole night and hear Bird play, and then take my horn with his mouthpiece on it, and bring it back home, and take back to him the next night.  And he would leave the mouthpiece on it, and split and come back to New York to do his business.  I would take the horn in the cellar in my pad and see if I could find some of that Bebop he’d left in there, which it was hard to get it because it went through  there!

Q:    What kind of mouthpiece did he have?

JH:    He had a white Brillheart mouthpiece that he used to leave on there.  It was amazing, because as a kid you’d say, “Wow, I heard Charlie Parker play this horn.  He played all that stuff last night.  I know some of it’s left in here.”   But my stuff would still sound the same.  Band!

Q:    It couldn’t have been that bad, because you had a bit of a reputation around Philadelphia, and broader than that by 1950 or ’51.  Anyway, we’re talking with Jimmy and Albert “Tootie” Heath, and they’re talking about the 1940′s in Philadelphia, and coming up. You mentioned Dizzy Gillespie, who had a Philadelphia connection, of course, because he lived there for a number of years, and he always drew on Philadelphia musicians, it seems, over the years.  You’ve cited Dizzy as really your main inspiration in terms of writing and musical focus.  Over the last couple of years you had a chance to work with Dizzy during that final gig at the Blue Note a year ago, and then Slide Hampton’s group earlier this year.

JH:    Mmm-hmm.

Q:    Just say a few words about Dizzy, and then we’re going to hear a tribute composition you did for him and some of the early Musicraft sides that you were listening to back then.

JH:    Well, Dizzy Gillespie is my Duke Ellington.  He is the master musician that was accessible to me throughout my whole life.  He was always good to me, and I could ask him questions.  He would show me things.  And believe me, he knew so much to show you.  Any time you are with any musician that has been around Dizzy, he says it’s like being in a workshop when you’re around him, because he’s going to give you something every time you’re with him that you can use in your musical life from then on.

Q:    How would he show you?  Would it be different ways each time?  Would it be demonstrating?  A word?

JH:    He would demonstrate on piano chord voicings.  He would demonstrate on his trumpet.  He would demonstrate tapping out rhythms to you.  He would sing ideas to you.  I mean, with his whole being he was music, and that’s what I always wanted to be — just like him.

Q:    Well, you have a composition on your last release, Little Man, Big Band, with the large ensemble for Verve, called “Without You, No Me.”  So this is Jimmy Heath’s tribute to Dizzy Gillespie…

[MUSIC]

We heard quite a set of music, that all is meaningful to Jimmy and Tootie Heath in that last set.  The last piece was Jimmy Heath’s first composition to be recorded.  That’s “C.T.A.,” recorded by the Miles Davis Sextet on April 20, 1953 for Blue Note.  Miles on trumpet, J.J. Johnson on trombone, Jimmy Heath on tenor sax, Gil Coggins on piano, Percy Heath on bass, and Art Blakey on drums.  Preceding that we heard a 1963 session featuring a man that Jimmy Heath and John Coltrane and Benny Golson were all listening to as young musicians in the 1940′s, Dexter Gordon. That’s from Our Man In Paris, Dexter Gordon reunited with Bud Powell on piano and Pierre Michelot on bass, on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night In Tunisia.”  Before that we heard “Lady Bird,” a 1948 for Blue, Tadd Dameron Septet, composition and arrangement by Tadd Dameron, with Fats Navarro, trumpet, the tenors of Wardell Gray and Allan Eager, Curly Russell, bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums, Chino Pozo, bongos, and of course Tadd Dameron on piano.  Preceding that we heard two recordings by Dizzy Gillespie, the orchestra and a smaller group.  We heard “Things To Come” from 1946, and “That’s Earl, Brother” also from ’46.  “That’s Earl, Brother” was a small group that featured a litany of the greats in Jazz.  Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt, Ray Brown, Al Haig and, again, Kenny Clarke.  And we began the set way back with Jimmy Heath’s tribute to Dizzy Gillespie, “Without You, No Me.”  That’s on Jimmy Heath’s most recent release, Little Man, Big Band, on Verve. [ETC.]

That whole set of music inspired lots of conversation while we were off-mike, and many comments,  You were saying, Jimmy, how Kenny Clarke would sustain a real excitement and fire at a medium tempo, and then Tootie interjected that Buhaina, Art Blakey, did it, too — the drummers that we heard on the last selections.  So maybe we can start from there.

JH:    Well, Kenny Clarke… I played with Kenny Clarke in the Symphony Sid All-Stars, and that was Miles Davis, J.J., Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and myself, and Symphony Sid, the D.J., took us on the road, and we did several gigs, including the Apollo, and one in Cleveland, one in Atlantic City.  We didn’t have a pianist.  The groove was always there, because Klook, as he was known, was a fiery drummer at all tempos, and in particular in a walking Swing groove he could keep the fire going.  And Percy and Klook was a love affair from the first time.

Percy still considers Kenny Clarke to be the world’s great drummer ever.  They got together again… I was on a thing in Africa, in Dakar, when it was the twentieth anniversary of the independence of that country.  And I was on a thing with Dizzy and Clifford Jordan and Jimmy Owens and Sonny Fortune, I think, and Kenny Clarke came from Paris, and Percy.  And it was a love affair started all over again.  That was maybe twenty-five years after we had played with him earlier.

Another thing about Kenny Clarke is, in his book that his wife sent me recently, he said that his favorite band… I forgot… He said Sonny Stitt on alto and Jimmy Heath on tenor was his favorite band.  So that’s another reason I have always loved Kenny Clarke, because he appreciated my playing also.

Q:    Tootie Heath, a few words about both Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey.

AH:    Well, my brother has a little advantage here, because he had the pleasure of playing with these people, and I am only going by recordings and live performances.  So I can be objective, but I was never really in it, so I don’t really know the feeling.  But from my perspective, you know, as a drummer and just listening to the rhythm, or the sustenance of the rhythm is the main thing in playing drums as far as I’m concerned — and I learned that from Kenny Clarke and from Art Blakey.  It was always a smooth cushion, and then there were other little exciting things going on, very subtle, with both of those drummers, Art Blakey as well as Kenny Clarke.  But Art Blakey had a little more… His dynamic range was a little wider than Kenny.  But Kenny Clarke would play with a big band as well as with a small group, and be very dynamic also.  I don’t mean that he didn’t have the dynamics.  He definitely had dynamics.  But Art Blakey had a special group experience, I think, that Kenny Clarke didn’t have, because Art Blakey played in his own band most of the time and with his own musicians.

Q:    And he shaped all the compositions as well…

AH:    Absolutely.

Q:    …which I don’t know if you could say that about Kenny Clarke so explicitly.

AH:    Kenny had less time to deal with the material.  Usually it was on a recording session like Dexter’s, he would fly in or come in from wherever… In this instance, he was in Paris, so he would just come in and do the recording.  They didn’t have any preparation time most of the time.  And the results were amazing, I mean, for the time that they put in, with the time he put in with the music, in terms of… Well, other drummers like Max Roach had his own people that he played with for long periods of time also.  But see, Kenny Clarke didn’t have that advantage.  He was always free-lancing, other than with the Modern Jazz Quartet…

JH:    Francy Boland.

AH:    Yeah, he did that for a while.  He sure did.  That was kind of a long-term affair, with that band, and it was basically the same personnel.  And it was about eight or nine years that band stayed together.

Q:    The band Jimmy referred to is the Francy Boland-Kenny Clarke Big Band, with many of the greatest musicians in Europe through the Sixties and early Seventies.

AH:    That’s right.  But that was in a big band context, so that was a little different from the Art Blakey comparison.

Q:    Two more musicians.  We heard “C.T.A.” at the end of the set, and that was recorded as part of a Miles Davis session in 1953.  And I know that Jimmy Heath had a very close relationship with Miles Davis, who recorded a number of your pieces.  One of them, twelve years later, was “Gingerbread Boy.”  Say a few words about your relationship with Miles and your initial hook-up.

JH:    Well, I met Miles when he was with Charlie Parker, in the quintet, in 1948.  And we became friends, and we talked about harmony, and we discussed chords and sequences, and we hung out together socially.  Miles was the same age, and we had a lot in common in that respect.  But he was always a very bright musician who was very changeable.  He’s a Gemini person, and he would change.  He liked to change his music and try to come up with something new, which he would… Throughout his career he did start new trends.  He started the modal playing.  He gave that its birth.  If he didn’t start it, he is the one who gets credit for that.  And there are other phases of the music that Miles went through in his later years with the electronic support and Funk beat.  You know, Miles was always ahead.  Like the record says, “Miles Ahead.”

Q:    And he employed your son, Mtume, in some of those bands as well.

JH:    Well, I think Miles had everybody in our family to play with him at once… Tootie, didn’t you play with Miles?

AH:    Yes.

JH:    And Percy and myself — and my son.

Q:    Then before that, we heard Dexter Gordon playing “A Night In Tunisia.”  While that was playing… Jimmy Heath hadn’t heard that record before, but you were pointing out during a couple of passages in Dexter Gordon’s solo, you said, “Hear that?  Hear where Trane’s sound is coming from?”  And you said indeed that you and Benny Golson and Coltrane were all very enamored with his playing in the 1940′s — as were many other tenor players around the country.

JH:    Oh yeah.  Around the world.  You know, Dexter had that crying sound in the top register of his horn also.  He influenced Coltrane.  In the earlier Coltrane performances and back home in Philly, I knew… Trane, we all were listening to Dexter.  Because Dexter was swinging hard.  He was a Bebop player who swung hard.  He was a connection between Lester and Charlie Parker, and out of that era he found a way to play the Bebop language on the tenor that was unique — and we all wanted to be like that.  Like everybody wants to be like Mike; we wanted to be like Dexter.

Q:    Tootie, you worked sometimes in Europe with Dexter, and there’s a wonderful recording called The Apartment in particular that I can think of on Steeplechase, where you and Kenny Drew and Niels-Henning Orsted-Pederson are backing him.  What was he like to play with for you as a drummer?

AH:    Well, you know, I entered in Dexter’s career at a time when his health had started to be a factor.  And it took him a while to get started, and we kind of had to compensate for Dexter’s…what do you call it…?  It was like a little delay.  So the Dexter Gordon that my brother is talking about is a different Dexter Gordon.  But it was a wonderful experience.  I mean, whenever he got started and got going, it was a wonderful experience.  But at the time, you know, his health was really playing a major role in his performance.  And unfortunately, this happened with Lester Young, too, who is another person that I had the chance to catch…

Q:    When was that, and how did that happen?

AH:    With Lester?  Well, I was locally playing around Philadelphia, and a friend of mine that was a bass player (he doesn’t play any more; his name is Jimmy Bond), he had what was called the house trio at this club called the Showboat.  And the Showboat would employ Lester Young, Max Roach, and people like that, and Dakota Staton and so forth.  And Lester would appear there maybe three times a year.  And  Jimmy Bond called me one time, and said, “Do you want to be in the house trio and play to support Lester Young?”  I said, “Man, that would be a treat.”  So I did it, and that’s how I got to be the drummer for Lester… Whenever he came to Philly and played at that club, I would be the drummer.  And I got a chance to know him, and I got a chance to learn a lot about playing time and things like that.

Q:    Did he say anything explicitly to you?  There are a number of little pearls of Lester Young quotes.  Jimmy is laughing here.

AH:    Yeah, he used to say… He said a lot of things!  A lot of things I can’t repeat, because you know, Lester had a unique way of speaking.  And I can’t say some of the things because you’re on the air, and they have some regulations about that.

Q:    One or two.

AH:    One or two, yeah.  So I’d better not say the things.  I’d have to try to rephrase things, and then they lose…

Q:    The pungency.

AH:    Yeah.  They lose the whole thing. [JH LAUGHING]  But I learned a lot from him as a man as well as a musician.  Just his way of being in the world, and seeing other people and other musicians and so forth.

Q:    While the music was playing, I think Jimmy had a quote from Prez to John Coltrane that I think is repeatable over the air.

AH:    Oh, he said he heard Lady Coltrane playing all of those snakes.  Yeah, he referred to everybody as Lady.  And I think that came from Billie Holiday being Lady Day.  And anybody that meant anything to him special, he would always refer to them as “Lady” — which was a very respectable term.  I mean, when he called you “Lady,” I mean, that was very special.  The same as they called Fats Navarro “Fat Girl”  It wasn’t a derogatory thing.  It was just something very special.  He called George Wein “Lady Moon Beams” because he had a bald head, you know…

Q:    Speaking of ladies and speaking of “Fat Girl,” we heard “Lady Bird” by Tadd Dameron performed by the Tadd Dameron Septet, featuring Fats Navarro.  Fats Navarro was one of the major figures in his brief life, and certainly affected Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, who came out of the Philly area, and Jimmy Heath was certainly very explicitly affected by Tadd Dameron’s conception of writing.

JH:    Yeah, Fats Navarro came to my house, as many of the musicians did, including Miles, Dizzy and all of them… My mother would invite anyone to dinner who we invited.  She would treat them as if they were their children or their friends.

Q:    What would she make for them?

JH:    Oh, she would make anything that she was cooking, whatever — fried chicken or whatever.  And we had everybody down to my house, Coleman Hawkins and Bird and everybody.  In this particular case, she would be preparing things for anybody that would be there.  Fats Navarro came there and took out his trumpet, and started to play a little bit.  And my Mom always said that she liked Fats Navarro’s tone better than Dizzy and Miles.  She could hear something in his sound that she liked.  And I know for a fact that when Clifford Brown came around Philly from Wilmington, Delaware, he was enamored with Fats Navarro, that’s who his love was — and he began to play something like that until he found his own style.  And the generation passing down passed on to Lee Morgan, who played like Clifford, and the people who came  along… So it was a continuum of the music.

But Fats Navarro was one of the strong voices of Bebop that didn’t last long in his life.   He just died young.  But he was a powerhouse of a trumpet player.  I heard him with the Tadd Dameron…I think it was something like an octet in the Royal Roost, and Dizzy had his big band in there at the same time.  He had just come back from a successful West Coast tour with Chano Pozo and all that.  And Fats Navarro was screaming on Dizzy in there.  I mean, they both were powerful.  But Fats was beginning to gain a lot of recognition, and while Dizzy was out…they both were… But they were different.  Dizzy was the source of where Fats Navarro came from.  But Fats was a very… He could play very high and clear, and with a very clear sound.  He had a warm trumpet sound.

And they all were wonderful musicians.  But Fats was really a talent at that time.  And Tadd Dameron used to like to use Fats to play all his first trumpet parts, because he could play the trumpet parts like he liked to hear them.  Because Tadd was a person whose delicacy musically…you would take him to be effeminate or something.  Because he would sing everything, LA-DEDADA…you know… And he loved the way Fats could sing his melodies.  He was a person who was very lyrical, like a Billy Strayhorn.

Q:    Tadd Dameron.

JH:    Yeah, Tadd Dameron.

Q:    Really all of his compositions were informed by that lyrical sensibility.  Did you know Tadd Dameron?  Were you ever able to sit down with him and go through things?

JH:    Oh yeah.  I knew Tadd very well.  I was supposed to be in one of the bands, but I had had…I got sick at the time and couldn’t make it — and Benny Golson made it.  That was the Dameronia band.  I was supposed to be in that band.  There were a lot of occasions where I was supposed to be in bands, and I got sick.  I had a problem during that time.  Max Roach’s first band, before Harold Land got in, I was the tenor player who Max wanted at that time.  I stayed ill for a few years, maybe four years, five years.

Q:    We’re speaking with Jimmy Heath and Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath, and it’s been an education over the last 45 minutes.  We wanted to play a couple of selections that feature different drummers who again had a big impact on Tootie.  But by the way, I’d like to ask you (I guess it’s sort of obvious), where did the nickname ‘Tootie’ come from?

AH:    Well, you have one.  Your name is Ted, right?

Q:    Well, yes, but…

AH:    Are you named Theodore?

Q:    Yes, I am.

AH:    There you go.  I got mine just like you got yours.

Q:    Albert…

JH:    [LAUGHING]

AH:    Well, it’s just a different name.  My grandfather gave it to me.  And where he came from with it, maybe my brother Jimmy could answer that.  Because I never got a chance to ask him before he died…

Q:    It just got put on you, this name?

AH:    Well, we all had nicknames, the whole family.  But I chose to keep mine, or… I don’t know if I chose to keep it or if it just stuck.  But I still have it, and I like it, and it suits me.  I look like Tootie now.  I don’t look like Albert.  I look like Tootie.

Q:    What was Jimmy’s nickname?

AH:    I’m not going to tell you.  I’ll let him tell you that.

JH:    [LAUGHS]  Percy’s was Percolator.  And mine was Skookum.  I don’t know where that came from, so I’ll let that one go.

Q:    The next selection we’ll hear comes from a 1953 session for Prestige under Miles Davis’ leadership.  This is a very famous session.  Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker both appear here on tenor saxophones, and Walter Bishop on piano, Percy’s on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.  Now, Jimmy has a comment.

JH:    Yeah, I’ve got a definite comment.  I had that song written, the line that they call “Serpent’s Tooth,” and I was supposed to make that record, but Bob Weinstock or whoever was in charge of Prestige said, “Look, I don’t know any Jimmy Heath.  Let’s get Charlie Parker.  He wants to make a date on tenor, so let’s get him to make the date on tenor.”  So I gave this line to Miles, an untitled line, and said, “Well, Miles, I can’t make the date; would you record my piece?”  And he did, but he put his name on it, “Serpent’s Tooth,” and his name as the composer.  So that’s the way that goes.  And Sonny and Percy are the ones who are left that will tell you that is my song.  And Clark Terry knows about it because he had a big band arrangement from Phil Woods, and Phil Woods knows that that was my song.  But Miles got credit for it.

Q:    Before we play “Serpent’s Tooth,” I’d like to get a couple of comments on Philly Joe Jones by Tootie Heath, who had to come up under him in Philadelphia during those years.

AH:    Well, about Philly Joe.  He was probably one of the most amazing players that you’d ever want to…well, I’ll say musicians — because he played music on the drums.  Philly Joe was… Oh yeah, and my brother’s making the piano sign over here.  He played some serious piano, too.  Philly Joe was probably a major influence on me, as well as many others, and he made a tremendous impact on this music when he finally came to New York and started to record.  Because he was playing… The way that he was playing when he recorded with Miles, he was playing like that around Philadelphia.  If you were lucky, you could catch him playing in a group with some guys like Jimmy Oliver and Shuggie(?) Rhodes(?) and Red Garland, and… I guess that would be the basic quartet, bass, drums and piano.  And like I said, if you were lucky, you could catch him playing with these people.  And when he moved to New York finally, then the world got a chance to hear him, because he joined the Miles Davis group, and then we all know what happened after that.  They made some of the most powerful recordings together that have come about in this particular music, in this genre that we’re talking about since I can remember.   Now, this is only my personal opinion, of course, but I…

Q:    Well, that’s what the Musician Show is all about.

AH:    Well, recordings like Round Midnight, that album, and the Gil Evans series that Philly Joe did with Miles Davis and some others that I can’t think of right now.  But I heard one the other day which was Coltrane’s date, and he used Miles on trumpet, but Coltrane was the leader.  But it was the Miles Davis group… Now, the guy on the radio said this.  Now, I don’t remember whose date it was.  But they were playing some music like I had never heard, something  regular like “I Got Rhythm” or something like that.  I forgot what it was.  Are you familiar with that record?

Q:    No, I’m not.  The one that I can think of is Cannonball and Miles…

AH:    No.

Q:    …but that’s a different date.

AH:    It could have been the Miles Davis group mistakenly… You know, the DJ could have made a mistake and said it was Coltrane.  But they said Coltrane was the leader of this.  But Miles Davis played trumpet on it.  And man, Philly Joe was immaculate on it, like he was most times you’d ever catch him.  He was always…

Q:    He played with a real elegance all the time.

AH:    Man, he had a snap and a sound and a feeling that… You know, it was just big and broad.

Q:    Well, let’s hear “The Serpent’s Tooth,” and then we’ll hear a final wrap-up with Jimmy and Tootie Heath, who are appearing at the Village Vanguard this week… [ETC.]

[MUSIC]

“Daahoud” by Clifford Brown.  That’s from a 1954 session by the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet with Harold Land, George Morrow and Richie Powell. [ETC.]

I’d like to thank the Heaths for their generous comments and just for really a quick cram course on some of the essentials of the legacy of the music today.  Jimmy Heath, thank you very much.

JH:    Well, Ted, it’s always a pleasure to speak with you.  You’re so knowledgeable of the music, and I respect your knowledge and I’m glad to have been here.

Q:    Well, thank you.  And it’s a pleasure to meet you, Albert Heath.

AH:    Well, it was a real pleasure to do a real interview in New York City and be able to talk to all of these people… And Art Taylor, I know I left you out, but please don’t be angry.  And Elvin Jones, if you’re listening, I know I stole your stuff, too.  And all you guys that I left out, please don’t be angry with me.  Just come down to the Vanguard and we can make up.

[ETC.]

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Filed under Albert "Tootie" Heath, DownBeat, Interview, Jimmy Heath, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

It’s Sonny Rollins’ 81st Birthday: Two Interviews From 2000

In November of 2000, I had the privilege of being assigned to write a lengthy cover feature for DownBeat about Sonny Rollins, whose new recording at the time was This Is What I Do, which happens to be one of my favorite studio recordings by the maestro. Next week, Rollins — who turns 81 today — will issue volume two of his Road Shows series,  this one documenting, among other things, four tracks from his 2010 Beacon Theater concert that included encounters with Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall, and Roy Hargrove. Rollins will launch his next series of concerts in a fortnight, beginning with three engagements in California between September 18th and September 25th; he’ll resume on October 25th, launching an 8-concert European tour that lasts until just before Thanksgiving. Below, I’ve posted the verbatim interviews that comprised the DownBeat piece.

* * *

Sonny Rollins (11-2-00):

When did you first start writing music?  You have “Mambo Bounce” on your first record.  Did you start writing then, or before that?

Let’s see… I started writing when I started getting better at playing.  I started writing pretty early on.  I would write melodies that I would use in my playing in little band we had and all of that.  So I’ve been writing for quite a while.  When I was really a kid, before I got known playing professionally, I was always writing actually.

So when you were 14-15-16, getting proficiency.

Yes.

Did any of that material surface in your early recordings?

Let’s see… Probably not the early stuff.  Not the early stuff I was doing.  I think my proficiency, such as it was, grew along with my playing proficiency, so that they sort of coalesced and came together.  But I did a lot of what I guess I would call amateur things that I never used again when I got into playing more on a professional basis.

Did you start playing professionally right after high school, or was it during high school?

Actually, I remember the first job that I ever had where I got paid… We were living on Edgecombe Avenue and 155th Street, and there’s a viaduct that goes across into the Bronx.  There used to be a shuttle train there.  Anyway, I played on Jerome Avenue in a dance hall.  This was my first job, and I remember playing, after I came back, and my mother was waiting for me way up at the other end of 155th Street, on the Manhattan side sort of.  They were both in Manhattan, but it was sort of almost halfway, closer to the McCombs Dam Bridge going over to Yankee Stadium… Anyway, I remember that because my mother was sort of waiting…I saw her waiting, this solitary figure, waiting on the other side of the bridge for me to come back.  But that was my first job.  Now, that must have been… I was fairly young then, to have her waiting for me like that.  So I don’t remember the age, but I must have been fairly young.

So you must have been playing for two or three years at that time?

I actually started playing when I was 7 or 8.

For some reason, I had the impression you were playing piano, and then the saxophone when you were 10 or so.

I started piano around 6 or so, but it didn’t stick, and then I started the saxophone fairly early.  I started saxophone around 7 or 8.

I think I read you say you had an uncle with a saxophone, and you saw it, and you loved the look of it, and then BANG.

Right, I liked the look of the horn.  And then I had an older cousin who played alto who I sort of looked up to.  simultaneously I had been exposed to a lot of Louis Jordan records, and then Louis Jordan was performing in a nightclub that was directly across from my elementary school, and when I used to come out of school in the afternoon I saw his picture there with the tails, the tuxedo and all this stuff.  So these things sort of all coalesced.

Was the saxophone always a vehicle for you to improvise? Did it always have that connotation?

Yeah, sure.  Because I had always heard a lot of music around my house as a kid growing up.  My older brother played, my older sister played.  There was a lot of music.  One of the very first songs I remember fondly was “I’m Going to Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” by Fats Waller. There was that and a lot of other music around the house.  I loved Fats Waller.  Then when I began to listen to Louis Jordan, of course, and listened to big bands on the radio and everything… We always used to listen to Amateur Night in Harlem from the Apollo Theater, and they would always have a band.  So I got to recognize the sound of the saxophone and all of that.  So I guess the whole idea of improvising and playing on the saxophone all sort of came together.

Do you see your writing generally as a continuum of your playing, or setting up things to blow on?

I’d say that’s true.  Sure.  Everything is really about setting things up for me to improvise on.

So for you it’s not about any sort of system, as let’s say Coltrane was developing forty years when he was working out his ideas very systematically, and it’s not so much about arranging within the sound of the total band; it’s about finding a vehicle for you to improvise.

I’m not sure exactly what Coltrane was doing in the approach he used for writing.  But in my case, I would say it was about soloing, but I loved melody, so I always had melodies in my mind, even though a lot of things that I didn’t compose… I always loved melodies of all sorts of songs that I would hear, and Gilbert & Sullivan, the whole thing.  Things I heard in school and things I heard on the radio.  So I always loved melodies.  Now, when I composed, I guess I still had a strong bent toward trying to have something melodic as the song.  I’d try to have a melodic song.  I was big on melodies, and I still am, I guess.

It seems you’ve gone more and more and more towards melody in your improvising.  Sometimes when I hear you play, it sounds like one continuous stream of melody.

Really.

When I heard you in Damrosch Park this last year it really hit me.  You were playing this endless stream of beautiful melody!

That’s great.  I’ve never heard that expressed before.

It reminded me almost of Louis Armstrong, but if you took all the vocabulary that was developed after Louis Armstrong, and it all seemed to be coming out through you.  I truly believe this, and I feel this current record exemplifies that.  But anyway, in your body of work, it would seem to me that that session with Miles Davis where you put out “Airegin,” “Oleo” and “Doxy” are the first compositions that lasted.  Am I right about that?

Probably so.  Yes.

Were those things that were done for that date?

No, they weren’t done for that date.  They were just songs I had composed.  Around that time I was performing and I was also composing.  So those were just some songs that I had composed.  At the time of the date, Miles needed some songs and I pulled those out.  He said, yeah, he liked them, and he recorded them.  But as I said, I have been composing all along really.  So yeah, my compositions culminate in a saxophone solo and that may be where I’m going, but also I’m always composing simultaneously.

How much formal studying were you doing as a kid?  Did you have theory lessons?  Was it all sort of homegrown, picking up something here, picking up something there?  In a certain way, it must have been natural to pick up the harmonic innovations of Dizzy Gillespie, and you knew Monk and Bud Powell in high school, so it was first-hand.  It must have been very natural for you.

Actually, I had music in high school.  In those days one of your classes was music.  I remember the name of my teacher, Mrs. Singer.  I remember some of the songs… It was very elementary stuff.  It’s hard for me to even remember what we did in that class, but I think she may have taught us songs.  She played the piano, and I think we might have just sang songs or learned songs.  I’m not sure if there was musical notation or anything of that sort.

Where I’m leading with the question is: Is it usually emanating from melodies that are coming up in your practice, or are there more theoretical ideas that come into play when you’re documenting your music?

You’re asking did I have a lot of training.  No, I didn’t really have a lot of training.  So when I write, it was basically completely things that I heard, that I hear, that I put together, stuff like that.  I never really had the training to write really in a theoretical way.  I’d write something, and other people would then take it apart and theorize on what I did here, but a lot of times I didn’t really have that kind of training.  When I went to high school, i remember that I started to play then, but I was in the high school band, and I remember that I did study counterpoint and theory in high school.  But I had a very intimidating teacher who didn’t really like me.  She was a woman who looked just like George Washington.

I had a sixth grade teacher who was the spitting image of George Washington!

Her name wasn’t Mrs. Redman, was it?

It was Mrs. Marlowe.  She looked just like George Washington.

Isn’t that something.  So she didn’t like me.  I remember we had elementary harmony, and things like never write parallel fifths and all these things.  She had a very detrimental effect on me, because she really made a lot of things that should have been easy for me seem difficult.  Now, there was another teacher I had in school whose name I can’t think of now, but she was very nice, and with her I learned a little more.  But Mrs. Redman was the main counterpoint teacher, and she made things very difficult for me to understand.  That was about my formal training in high school.  Now, when I got out of high school, of course, I studied with various teachers and all of this stuff, and probably towards the latter part of high school also I started studying with private teachers and getting more real information.  But in school I really didn’t learn much.

Wasn’t that also around the time when you started knowing Monk and Bud Powell and people like this?  You were 15-16? Right. How did they teach you?  Was it very hands-on?  Was it just a come along for the ride type thing?  Would they take things apart?

With Monk it was really an experience.  Because with Monk, I’d be invited over to his house where we would rehearse some of this music.  I remember different people being over there like the trumpet player Idris Suleiman, or maybe Kenny Dorham, and another saxophonist you’d see over there, a fellow from Brooklyn, Coleman Hoppen, and some other people who I can’t recall…

You were 16 or 17 then?  This is around when he did his first Blue Note recordings.

Yes.  But at that time it was… I had met Monk actually… I worked at a place called Club Barron’s in Harlem, and somehow I was working in there with a trio, and Monk was working opposite me with his group.  Monk heard me at that time, and he saw something in me that he liked, so then he sort of took me under his wing.  Then I began to go over to his house and rehearse in his various bands.  This was around ’48, though.

So after the first Blue Note recordings, and you were 17-18.

I was probably 17 or 18 when I started to go over there.

Did his music seem very natural to you?

Well, I had heard Monk on the record with my idol, Coleman Hawkins, “Flyin’ Hawk,” and one of the other sides is “Drifting On A Reed.”  I mean, I was a real Coleman Hawkins man by that time.  When I heard that, I really liked Monk’s work.  So I was ready for him.  When I heard him, I mean, I was into him.

There’s something about the way you phrase, your cadences, when you talk about Monk, his effect on you sounds almost inevitable.

Mmm-hmm.

Would he take things apart?  Would he make comments?

No, Monk never… Monk or Miles Davis or any of those giant guys that I started playing with, they never dissected or tried to lead me into any kind of soloing that I can remember.  They accepted what I was doing, and it was never about that.  The only thing was… For instance, at Monk’s house, I remember it was guys playing Monk’s music…always guys would say, “Oh, man, it’s impossible to make these jumps on the trumpet” and all this stuff,” and then we’d end up playing it.  But no, I can’t recall Monk or Miles, who were the early guys I played with, and Bud Powell…they never… I mean, as far as my playing was concerned, it certainly wasn’t on their level in my mind, but whatever it was, they accepted what it was.

You could keep up.  I talked a lot to Andrew Hill for a Downbeat piece. He said he and a friend would listen to all of Monk’s records in 1948 and ’49 and ’50, and would have a competition to see who could get his tunes most quickly off the records as they came out.  He said that the music at that time was a folk music, as he put it, and it was everywhere.  People could pick up extremely sophisticated concepts because they were in the air, they were part of the culture, part of the zeitgeist.  Then later it changed.  Is that a fair assessment of the way it was for you at a similar time?  Or course, New York was very different.

Well, at that time jazz was a much more insular music.  Guys were doing it for the love of it, and there wasn’t a big thing about what people were doing and all this stuff.  The critical aspect of it wasn’t as prominent.  People just played with each other.  But as to his point that it was sort of in the air, I guess you could say that.  That was definitely a dominant music at that time and it was certainly out there.  And if he wants to call it a folk music, I could even go along with that certainly.

I guess about a year after those first recordings I think is when you first went to Chicago?

I went to Chicago in ’48, if I’m not mistaken.

Right after high school?

Yeah, around that time.  That gets fuzzy.  I know I was there in the ’40s.

Once I read 1950 and ’54-’55.

I was also there then.  But I first went there in the late ’40s.

I ask because Jackie McLean once made the point that spending a summer or a longer amount of time in one of the Carolinas (I can’t remember whether it was North or South) after growing up in New York, had a great effect on his aesthetic, because it was an exposure to a deep blues aesthetic, and the culture was a bit different in New York.  I’m wondering if going to Chicago did something similar for you.

Oh, yeah.  Definitely.  Chicago was a more earthy place, and a more blues-oriented place, of course.  Also, the music aesthetic in Chicago… They had clubs where people would play 24 hours a day, and it was a really exciting place.  So yes, I would say that I found a lot of that in Chicago, as opposed to being in New York.  So I really enjoyed Chicago.  I loved Chicago.  I still call Chicago my second home.  I spent a lot of time there, and the time that I spent there I met a lot of musicians and played with a lot of musicians, and so on and so forth.  So it was really a very formative period, I think, in my life.  So I would agree with Jackie on that.  I think there was something going into the interior of the country.

I remember asking you when I interviewed you about 12 years ago about [drummer] Ike Day.  You played a lot with him.  Could you provide a few recollections of him and of Gene Ammons and some of the other musicians you met there?

Well, Gene Ammons I had known in New York.  Gene Ammons was sort of an idol of mine from New York.  He was sort of out there doing it when I was still in school.  So I really looked up to him.  He was one of the older guys that I looked up to and respected a great deal?  When I got to Chicago I had the opportunity of playing several times with Gene, and got to know him more as a colleague.  But I looked up to him in New York more as one of my idols.  Ike Day was a very great drummer that I had the opportunity of playing with.  It was great playing with Ike.  He was a guy who really knew his way around the drums, and once you heard him hit the drum, you knew that he was something special.  He really covered the drums.  It was a great learning experience for me, playing with him.  Now, of course, these guys liked me also. [LAUGHS] But coming from my way to him, I really looked up to him.  Of course, he liked what I was doing, too, but it was a learning experience.

By the way, did you ever play drums yourself?

No, I didn’t.  I wish I did.  I love drums.

Because you’re so rhythmic.  It sounds like you never get lost in the time, ever-ever-ever.

Right.  I could give Elvin Jones a run for his money, right?

I guess you give Jack DeJohnette a run for his money, too, at this point!  And I guess dynamic drummers are what you’re about from the beginning.  Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Max Roach…

Right.  Well, I remember playing with Art Blakey one time when we in Birdland, and the rhythm got off some kind of way, so after he came off the stand Art was saying, “Boy, Sonny, you didn’t let that mess you up; you were really right on it; it didn’t bother you.”  That was great. That really gave me a bit more confidence in myself.

Was confidence an issue with you for a long time?

[SIGHS] Well…

It’s hard to imagine.  Because looking at you from the outside, you’re an imposing figure.  You’re a big guy, you have a very imposing kind of look…

Right.

…and then you play with this sort of gruff authority. I’s hard for an outsider to imagine that confidence would be an issue for you, but we can’t be inside your head.

The thing is this, Ted.  When you’re really young… For instance, there was a period in my life when I was actually cocky.  You see?  I mean, I look back at it now, but I actually was cocky, and I thought I was so good…

You probably had some reason to think that, because you were getting praise from everybody.  People were into you when you were 24-25 years old.  You were a stylistic role model.

Yes, and getting a lot of praise and everything.  But I should have been wiser than that.  But at any rate, I look back at it and I’m ashamed of myself for being that way.  So I went through periods like that, but at the same time, I don’t think it really lasted long, because certain musicians that I came in contact with, Clifford Brown and people like that, really showed me the way, that this is something that is not that easy to do, and it’s something you have to work on!  So that period of cockiness didn’t last a long time, I’m glad to say.  But my style of playing probably wouldn’t sound like I was in any way unsure of myself.  I think that’s just sort of the style of playing I have that you mentioned, rhythmic and all this stuff, so there’s not too much room in there to betray any kind of unsureness, just in the actual style.

When you said “cocky,” for a second I thought you said “copy,” but then I knew you didn’t say it.  I know when you were much younger you would memorize Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, just like later people would memorize you.  Gary Bartz once described going to hear you every set in the ’60s at the Vanguard, and he said one night you would be Coleman Hawkins all night… [HEARTY LAUGH] Then the next night you would be Lester Young all night. [HEARTY LAUGH] Then the next night you would be Sonny Rollins!

ROLLINS:  [HEARTY LAUGH]

I guess his observation  was accurate. I think I’ve heard Joe Henderson say that he’d do that as a challenge, to keep himself interested for the evening or something like that.

Well, I didn’t approach it that analytically.  I just really love and respect all those musicians.  Say, somebody like Don Byas, he was a big influence of mine, so…

That’s right.  You said you got the single of “Ko-Ko” for the other side, which was his version of “How High the Moon.”

“How High The Moon” with Bennie Harris on trumpet.  I didn’t even know about “Ko-Ko.”  I was following Don Byas, so I got that, and there happens to be this record on the other side by this guy named Charlie Parker, an alto player.  I wasn’t interested in that.  I was interested in Don Byas.  So these guys taught me how to play, listening to their records.  So I made some… When he says I played Coleman Hawkins all night, it sounds a little…

It’s a bit of an exaggeration.

Right.  But I was doing it out of complete… I was immersed in what I… I wasn’t doing it to show, “Hey, man, listen to me, I’m playing like Coleman Hawkins.”  And it was something difficult really to pull off.  So it was all part of my musical…it was all part of me, really.

It’s all different components of your personality and the things that went into making you Sonny Rollins.

I think so.  I hope so.

So the idea being that you internalized what they did, and their ideas and their manner so thoroughly, that it really just became you.

Right.  Well, that’s wonderful.  To me, that’s a supreme compliment, to be able to actually get into the great music those guys were playing.  And a lot of that stuff we took from the records, in those days especially.  Jackie might even tell you the same thing.  We listened to a lot of records and copied the solos.  That’s really how we learned a lot of that stuff.  It was really wonderful.  We were pretty young, and we didn’t always get an opportunity to see these guys in person.  But the records… And it’s hard to copy, even… When I say “copy,” in my case anyway, I’d get as close to it as I could get.  I could never copy a guy note for note, because for one thing it’s very difficult to do. Guys who can copy people, that’s a different type of musician.  There are people who can do that, and that’s a skill that I admire certainly.  But I could never copy a guy.  I would just sort of try to get inside what he was thinking in that sense, and some of the exterior things on the outside.  But basically, it was his real soul that I was trying to inhabit.

You were trying to inhabit the soul of Coleman Hawkins?

Yeah!  Or Lester Young.  I mean, I was trying to feel what they felt, and interpret music the way they did.

That was a conscious thing for you.  You’d say “what were they thinking of here?”

Well, not consciously say that.  But in trying to get his style, these things would all be happening.  In trying to copy his style, interpret his style.  I’m just saying I would get inside of his soul, I know, but that sounds a little…

When you came back from your second hiatus in 1972, you haven’t had another one since.  You’ve been playing pretty much through for the last 28 years.

I would say so, yes.

In the ’60s, I guess you went through a lot of different things, from the abstractions when you were using the people who played with Ornette, to these very pithy, diamond-like recordings with Herbie Hancock on “The Standard Sonny Rollins” type thing, to these incredibly complex, baroque improvisations like “Three Little Words,” and there’s a very famous bootleg that you probably know where you play “Four” for forty minutes.

No, I don’t know about it. I try not to.

Nonetheless it’s a legendary one, where you play for forty minutes and don’t repeat a phrase, you keep building and developing and your tone conveys the nuances of a ballad at incredible velocity, and things like that.  So it’s impossible to categorize your playing.  But it seems that this orientation of really focusing on melody begins after this hiatus.  Now, I’m a fan and it’s my interpretation, and I can create whatever fantasy I want in my mind.  But putting it in print is a different sort of responsibility.  Is there any accuracy to that?  Is that a conscious goal, or is it something that’s just happened, or am I off-base?

Well, no, the thing is that… Like, when you just said, “Gee, you sound like you’re playing total melody.”  This is something I’ve never heard before, really…

Maybe I’m wrong.

Well, people have told me that I play melody, of course.  But I mean, your interpretation that it all sounds like a continual melody, even through the different songs and everything like that… Well, this is great.  I’ve never heard that.  It sounds great to me to be able to do anything like that. I’m flabbergasted by hearing that.  This is great if I do that.  But I’m not sure when I got into that.  Because to me it’s continuum of trying to amass different things.  It’s just like I tried to find out what Don Byas was playing, the way he approached his music and approached the horn and so on.  So I am going through different phases to try to get to the point where I can really express myself.  I’m not sure that that began when I came back in the ’70s; it very well may have.  This is for you to really analyze.

For one thing, in the ’70s you started getting more deliberately into vernacular music and aspects of popular music, put more of a dance feel into your music.

Well, I think that in the ’70s I certainly wanted to be… As I always have.  I always wanted to be relevant to music.  I’ve gotten a lot of…a lot of people talk to me about the ’70s and all that. I’m often criticized about that because I used a backbeat and I used guitars and all.  But I don’t understand a lot of it.  Because all of this is just part of my own quest to try to… I mean, jazz is sort of a music which has to be alive.  If it’s not alive, if it’s stale… For instance, I couldn’t copy a guy to a T and then expect it to really sound alive.  Which gets back to what we were saying about playing like somebody.  Now, you can play like somebody and appreciate what they’re doing, and try to get the essence of them, and it’s alive.  If you just copy, it’s not alive.  It probably wouldn’t sound alive. So in the ’70s I guess I was trying to keep finding different ways to make my music relevant and make my own playing… I’ve never thought of myself as being on some pinnacle where, you know, I have to be there and I can’t play a calypso or I can’t do this, or I can’t play a backbeat.  I mean, I’ve never thought of myself like that.  And I’m surely very honored that a lot of my fans think that one period puts me up there with great people and all that, but to me it’s always been trying to get to It, and It is a thing which is alive and is fluid.  This is the way I play.  I am always trying to sound like that.  Until I feel I’m satisfied, you’re not going to hear me play exactly alike any time.  So that’s probably what I was doing then.  It’s just something I was trying to stay alive with, you know.

You mentioned in our interview 12 years ago that your mother would take you to all the calypso dances, and it’s something that’s in you from very early.

Right.

Are you a good dancer?

Well, I think I’m a pretty good dancer actually! [LAUGHS] Yeah.  There used to be a dance we used to do when we were in our teens.  It was called the Applejack.  It was a dance that you did… In fact, if you ever used to go to see Monk, Monk would get up and dance by himself.  Monk used to get up from the piano and dance.  So it was this solitary dance, and you’d just do moves to the music.

Is he dancing the Applejack?That was the Applejack.  So yeah, I did the Applejack, and I consider myself a fairly good dancer.  I remember going to see Dizzy a long time ago at the Savoy Ballroom when his band was up there, and Dizzy thought of himself as a good dancer, and I guess he was. [LAUGHS] He would dance with a chick, you know, and they would really be going at it, doing the Lindyhop, and the people would be crowding around, making a circle around him, and they would really be going to town.  So yeah, I like dancing and I  think I tried to dance.  Plus, I like playing for dance music.

Did you play a lot of dances when you were younger?

Yes.  I think a lot of dances we played at, basically, when we were coming up… I mean, the time I was with Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and all these guys.  We played dances.  There were very few places we played where there wasn’t dance floors there.  It either was a club with a dance floor or it was just what we would call a function, which was all people dancing.  So I played a lot of dance music, and I think it’s an integral part of what we’re doing.

Another thing that was going on so much in New York when you were coming up was Latin music.  Were you into that?  Was that a big part of your world?

Well, I liked a lot of Latin music, because as you may know, I like all kinds of music.  I heard a lot of guys.  I heard Tito Puente, and I remember when he came out with the Mambo, which was a sort of… In fact, the last time I saw Tito, I mentioned a song, one of the first sides which I had heard from him, “Donde Esta (?)Bas Two(?).”  I mentioned that to him.  In fact, I saw him at Moody’s party some years ago.  We were talking, and I said, “I remember this,” and he said, “wow, that goes back!”  But I heard not a lot of Latin music but I heard some Latin music.  There were some guys that I heard…

I can only think of one record where you went into using a bunch of hand drums and so on, with “Don’t Stop the Carnival” and “Jungoso.”  I wondered because of the connectedness of rhythms in the Caribbean if that was a big part of your formative thing.

ROLLINS:  Right.  Well, actually, there’s a little… When I go to the Caribbean on vacation… We go down sometimes on vacation.  We used to go every year.  But anyway, when I hear some of what you would call the authentic calypso, it’s different from the Latin-American stuff a little bit.  It’s a little different.  But there is some similarity.  Now, that brings me to saying this.  I play a style of calypso which is actually different from the authentic stuff I hear when I go to the Caribbean, so in a way, it may be that Caribbean people who hear me play  think, “Well, gee, this guy is not really playing calypso.” I mean, it’s possible.  Because the stuff I play, I hear a little bit differently.  It doesn’t sound like the stuff I hear there, but it’s similar. But to get more to your point, there is a difference between the Latin thing and the Calypso thing, although they are related.  Well, if you keep digging deep, they are all related, as Dizzy proved when he did his stuff, and Bird did “Mango Mangue” with Machito.  I mean, it’s all very related.  But you could really put it in a pot together, and it works.  But I didn’t hear a lot of Latin music.  I heard some.  And when my mother would take me places, I heard more calypso than Latin as a small child.

So a piece like “Salvador” on this record is more implying the spirit of Salvador through your filter, rather than dealing in an idiomatic way with rhythms of Bahia.

I would say so, yes.

Did you ever, in your investigations… You were in India for a while.  Were you breaking down those rhythms in an analytic way, or breaking down aspects of clave or African rhythms, or is it always that you sort of take things in and then experiment with them…

Intuitive.

It’s all intuitive.

Yeah, really.  I hear a lot of stuff… When I was in India, I went to a couple of those LONG concerts that they would have with those guys, and they really have long concerts… I mean, concerts would be 5 or 6 hours.  I heard people playing in the hills, where it was… I’d hear… But no, I never broke things down in a methodical way.  Anything that I wanted, I mean, it came to me in an intuitive way, and I’d say, “I can use that” or “that sounds right to me” or something that I can relate to, and I just did it.

So on “Salvador,” you sort of found this melody and you developed it…

Yeah.  “Salvador” is a melody I developed.  Certain parts of the melody reminded me of Brazil a little bit, and then I sort of… Somebody was asking me what.. They said, “Oh, it’s a Calypso.”  I said, “Well, it’s sort of a Calypso-Samba.”  They said, “Oh, that’s a new genre.” [LAUGHS]

And Jack De Johnette is the drummer on that one.  Did you give him any input into how you wanted it?  Or did you just run down the tune and he comes up with what he does?

Well, both.  We didn’t rehearse that until the day we made the date.  He heard some material, but he didn’t get a chance to look at it, to listen to it, you know.

You’d played some of the tunes with the band on the road, but Jack didn’t rehearse it.

Right.  So then when Jack came, it was a completely different thing.  Because the drummer really sets the mood and the time of the piece, which changes everything, really.  So it took us a lot of takes to get the feeling I felt comfortable with, and then I could sort of explain to Jack SORT OF what I wanted.  But see, I never want to explain things, especially to a drummer of Jack’s caliber, because they have something to contribute that I don’t want to inhibit their contribution.  So I always kind of want to leave as much…to let them do what they feel.  You see what I mean?  But it took us a while to let us get to a mutual agreeable interpretation of it.  It wasn’t done in one take.  We did quite a few, because we were rehearsing it and recording it at the same time actually.  So I wanted it to be free so that I could really get the benefit of his knowledge, really.

Is practice still for you kind of the same thing as performing?  You said 12 years ago there wasn’t a difference.

That’s basically still true.  I mean, outside of the fact that I might go over some musical passages that are difficult, or I might go over some scales, or… But basically, what I’m doing is practicing playing.  I’m practicing performing.  It’s really playing.  It’s really a miniature performance when I’m practicing.

Barry Harris made the comment about Monk that Monk might sit down and play “My Ideal” for a hundred choruses, keeping the tempo or something… And someone else said they went to see Bud Powell in the morning, he was practicing something, then they went out, they came back, it was five-six hours later, and he was still playing the same thing.

Mmm-hmm.

It sounds like that’s a methodology that you internalized or became very natural to you.

Well, it’s very apropos that you should say that.  Because yesterday I was practicing a ballad for I think it must have been an hour, the same ballad over and over again, the same thing — not the same way, of course.  So I guess I practice the same way, yeah.  You try to find things which complement the melody.  In the case that you might be playing a ballad, “My Little Brown Book” or whatever it might be… But by playing it over and over you’ll find different ways to really illuminate the song.  So I was doing that yesterday, playing not that song, but another song.  I thought for a minute, “Gee, I wonder if anybody is…”  Well, somebody was hearing me, I know.  There’s a musician who plays on my floor.  He must have thought, “Gee, this guy is playing the same thing over and over and over again.”

The Mingus piece.  Since you never recorded with Mingus, I didn’t think of the two of you as being very close, but I suppose you were.  Was that a friendship of long standing?

Well, I was very close to Mingus.  He always wanted me to do some things with him.  They just never panned out.  I would go by and play with him when he was at the new Five Spot on 8th Street, I think.  I remember when Eric Dolphy was giving him some kind of trouble, so he brought me down to sort of, you know, play with Eric, sort of to, in his mind, “Well, here, man, look, I’ve got Sonny here, so you’d better be cool,” something like that.  So I played with him a couple of times.  But we were also friends.

So after your first comeback.

Yes.  That would have been…

Were you playing things with Mingus like “Meditations” or one of those extended pieces?  Actually there’s a phrase in the second section that resonates directly to it, though I can’t catch it exactly now.

Well, I’m not exactly sure.  It was reminiscent of it.  But I didn’t write it trying to recall.  It was something subliminal. This was after I had signed with RCA, which was in ’61.  Mingus used to come by to the… You know, one of the things which I put in my contract with RCA was the fact that I could have free access to the recording studios on 24th Street, so I could go by there 24 hours a day, and practice and use the facilities…

So you could get off the bridge, huh?

Right, exactly.  So Mingus used to come by there a lot, and he’d play piano, you know, and I’d play and so on.  It was in the ’60s.

So you’d workshop in this very informal way together.

Sure.

Did you ever tape any of those?

No, I didn’t.

Did that piece start off being for Mingus, or did it become for Mingus once you realized what you were doing with it?

It became for Mingus after I had it done.  I just put it together some time…I don’t know how soon I did it, but I put it together.  And after I sort of had it together and it was a completed melody, then it dawned on me, “Hey, man, this sounds like Mingus.”  The Mingus that I knew.  To me.  It may not sound like Mingus to anybody else, but it sounded like the Mingus that I knew and was very reminiscent of him in my mind.

Did you ever record any of his tunes on your records?

No.  But I wanted to record one of his tunes.  There was a tune that he did that Miles did.  It was a ballad.  It’s reminiscent of a ballad that Richie Powell wrote when I was with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.  I think he called it “Time.”  It was something similar to that.  Miles did it with a quartet, I think.  It was really beautiful.  And I always had wanted to do that, and never got around to it.

Did your relationship continue through the ’60s?

My relationship with Miles Davis continued forever.  We were always tight.  Miles and I had a close relationship.  In fact, I remember one time… This is just a little story.  At one time, Miles was playing with his group; I think he had Wayne Shorter with him, that group.  They were playing in a place in Brooklyn called the Blue Coronet.  Anyway, I hadn’t seen Miles in a while, so I went by, came in the club, and he was standing at the… He didn’t see me.  So I sort of was behind him.  So the guys said, “Sonny’s here,” and Miles almost jumped out of his skin!  He was just glad to see me.  I mean, it really touched me, because I realized how much this guy thought of me.  The way he jumped, you know.  So Miles and I were very close.  I was surprised, because Miles is one of our idols.  I wasn’t putting myself on his plane; I would never do that.  But he thought a lot of me.  So we had a tight relationship.

A naive question.  Why was Miles one of your idols?

I’ll tell you why.  When I was growing up (and Jackie would remember this also), there was a trumpet player who we liked a lot whose name was Lowell Lewis.  In fact, we went to high school together.  He was one of the guys who Mrs. Redman (George Washington) liked; she didn’t like me.  But anyway, Lowell was really a fine trumpet player, and he played with Jackie, played with us all.  And he liked Miles.  When Charlie Parker came out with “Now Is The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce,” which could have ’44, or maybe earlier, I’m not sure…

It was done at the same session as “Ko-Ko,” in 1945.

Okay.  But Miles was on “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s The Time.”  And Lowell really liked him.  Of course, prior to that, Dizzy Gillespie was really the man, and he was still was, but Lowell really liked Miles.  He said, “Wow, man, I really dig the way this cat plays.”  I liked him, too, actually.  And it was very interesting, the way that Miles would play with Bird.  He took a different tack.  One of the solos that he played on one of those records, I don’t know whether it was “Billie’s Bounce” or “Now’s the Time,” but it was really such a poetic solo.  A blues solo; it was really great.  So when I say why he was my idol?  Of course, Bird was my idol and my hero and everything.  So at that point we began thinking of Miles in that rarefied atmosphere.  He was just up there with Dizzy and… I liked his playing, and also the fact that he was working with Bird.  He was a god.  That’s why I said that he was an idol.

He was only four years older than you.

He was only four years than I, and I think that’s sort of why we kind of got more friendly.  Dizzy was much older.  Of course, Monk was older, but Monk was different, because Monk kind of took me under his wing.  But my relationship with Miles was more one of peer.  But nevertheless, I held him in the utmost esteem.  I mean, he was really one of the guys.

So Charlie Parker, even though he was friendly to you and extremely solicitous of you in many ways, was somewhat inaccessible.

Yes, in many ways.  I mean, Bird was just too… Of course, we know he was into his own thing.  It was really hard to catch the Bird.  Chasin’ the Bird…heh-heh.  But he was very generous to us and very avuncular and everything.  When I first met Miles and he wanted me to play with him, we got much tighter.

In our conversation thing 12 years ago, you related a comment that Monk made to you, “You know, Sonny, without music, this would be a sad world.”  That really resonated with you.

Oh, it resonated completely.

Does it still resonate?

Well, of course.  I mean, I’ve lived so many more years since he said that, and I’ve really just internalized it!  I don’t even think about it any more.  But it really struck a chord, because this is exactly how I felt, but I didn’t know how to express it.  But that was it.  When he said that I said, “Well, wow, yeah, that’s what it’s about.  Of course.  Right.  Music is it.  It’s the reason why we’re here.”

You said it’s the only thing that makes you believe in God.

Well, by this stage, there are other things that make me believe.  But certainly that’s one of, I would say, God’s gifts to us.  But by now, I’ve studied and learned a lot about different spiritual pursuits and all of that.  But no, there’s nothing untrue about that at all, of my saying that.

I can’t imagine you as being from anywhere else but New York City. That’s one reason why I think I relate to your playing the way I do.  I’m from Manhattan, grew up on Bleecker Street, and something about when you play… It sounds like home.

That’s wonderful.  I’m happy to hear that.

But I’ll end it on this sort of corny note.  What is it about being from New York?

Well, I know that a lot of the musicians wanted to come to New York.  Like we were saying earlier, guys would go to Chicago, and Jackie said he went to North Carolina and got a different slant and this sort of stuff.  One time I was kidding about Monk, and I said, “Oh, man…”  And he really took umbrage, because Monk really wanted to be a New Yorker.  I mean, he really felt to be the quintessential New Yorker.  There’s something about the… I guess there’s so much happening here, good and bad, that if you can sort of be of New York, I guess you have a lot of things covered.  You have sort of everything covered.

* * * *

Sonny Rollins #2 – (11-14-00): Stephen Scott  told me that you’re quite a good pianist, that you sound something like Tadd Dameron.  Can you talk about how your experience playing piano intersects with your approach to the saxophone and the way you think about music?

Could you be specific?  Kind of center it in a little more?

I can try.  When you spoke about playing the piano, you said you started playing when you were 7 or 8, you took lessons, and then it kind of dropped by the wayside.  Did it totally drop, or have you continued to play piano all these years?

What I meant is that my parents started me with going to a teacher,  in the wake of my sister and older brother, who had both started out that way, and had more or less training.  I didn’t do as well, because my mother indulged me, and I wanted to go out and play ball, so I would say… Being the youngest son, I would say, “Let me do that.”  I had a mother who really was in my corner a hundred percent, and she really indulged me or loved me, whichever way you want to put it… Anyway, I didn’t have to go and practice for the teacher and play scales and all that stuff.  So my piano playing is very…you know, the things I do are very elementary.  But I didn’t really retain any of that, how I started off as a kid… When I got into the more serious career of being a musician, I didn’t really retain very much of that at all.

I think what he meant by Tadd Dameron is that you do very full, beautiful voicings, and he said you play a bit of stride.

Well, that’s very generous of him. [LAUGHS]

I think he meant it quite sincerely.

No, he’s a serious person.  He wouldn’t joke around.  He doesn’t joke around too much.  Well, let’s say that I would love to play that way.  I love the stride style.  So he might have heard me sometimes messing around, playing added, as they used to say.  But I certainly wouldn’t… It’s very, very elementary attempts at trying to play it.  But I love it, so probably, yes, maybe that’s what he hears coming through, my love of the style.  Then I’m able to get a few notes in here and there that may be reminiscent of the real thing.

You compose on the piano.

I do compose on the piano, yes. Well, where I live, I don’t have a piano.  I have a couple of keyboards.  So I don’t have a regular upright piano.  I’ve been thinking about getting one.  But I have a couple of keyboards, and I play on those, and they seem to be sufficient for me for what composing or what voicings and stuff I have to do for my composing.

I guess what I was getting at when I was asking you about how it intersects with the way you play saxophone is… Jack DeJohnette mentioned that when you play the piano, you have a global perspective of everything that’s going on at one time.  It’s like having the orchestra at your fingertips.  And it’s always been noted about the way you play that you’re kind of hearing everything at one time.  So I wondered if you had any speculations on whether your piano experience had been beneficial to you.

I think piano experience has been beneficial to me, in the fact that I use it to compose sometimes, and figure out chords and like that.  But I don’t think it has anything to do with my… I mean, I can’t, now that I think about it… But you were saying that I play in the way that I hear all of the instruments.

I’ve heard musicians say that.  I can’t claim that as an original observation.

Right.  No, I’ve heard that, too.  But I don’t think the piano is in any way basically related to that particular aspect of my playing.  As far as my best guess about that, I would say it’s probably not.  I think that just comes from more of a general appreciation of all of the different instruments and sounds, but not so much piano… Although everything is related, so it’s hard to say that it hasn’t.  But I think in my saxophone playing, I do try to… When I’m playing unaccompanied, I do think sometimes about some piano players, like trying to play like Art Tatum and things like that on a saxophone — in other words, playing all the parts.  But generally, I think people mean that not so much in my unaccompanied playing.  I think that some people have said that about my playing in general, that I seem to have a rhythmic… Basically I’ve heard that more.  I think that’s what they mean, that I can play the rhythm by myself, that you can feel the rhythmic accompaniment to the saxophone lines and so on.  So I think that’s the basic part of that comment that people make about me, rather than the sort of pianistic approximation on the saxophone.  I think that’s what they mean.

Was there ever in your…early on, from rehearsing with Monk, playing with Bud Powell early, trying to incorporate things like their phrasing in any conscious way?  Do you think that filtered into you in any palpable way?

I would say probably more Bud Powell than Monk.  Monk was too unique and his style didn’t lend itself to horns really.  But I certainly listened a lot to Bud Powell, and he had that left hand-right hand style which is more closely related to horn players playing lines.  So I am sure I got something from Bud along those lines.  As far as Monk, no, I don’t think I tried to.  I might have gotten… People have told me that I have assimilated other things from him, but I don’t think so much his piano sound.  I never thought of trying to do that, and I never consciously attempted to approximate his sound on the saxophone.  It was something that I just didn’t feel was possible or really would do me any good.

You spoke about Monk hearing you the first time when you had a trio at Club Barron, and Monk was playing the other end of the show, and he heard you.  Not to go into excruciating detail, but when you had these teenage bands, were you playing Bebop?  Were you playing the new music or were you doing things that were maybe more for the people?  Was that one and the same thing?

Well, that was one and the same thing.  Playing for the people and playing whatever I was playing was really one and the same thing.  The only thing that I would say would deviate somewhat from that is when we would play a lot of dances in Harlem, and sometimes we would have to play some Caribbean type tunes, like that.  So that would be playing something for dancing only.  Although even in that, there was a certain musical element which was foremost.  That’s why I still play those Caribbean tunes.  But those tunes, in those days, we played them for dancing.  So in that sense, we did.  But other than that…

You played the straight tunes or you would do your own variations on them?

Well, I would always do my own variations.  I was having a conversation recently with somebody, and we were talking about commercial players, and commercial…how some very successful commercial artists.  And I really feel that I respect those people a great deal, and I envy them, to be able to have the kind of skill to really do things that are really crowd-pleasing and do them to such an extent, that they can really do it.  I can’t do that.  I could never do that.  I’m not that good a musician, in a way of speaking, to be able to do that.  What I do is completely natural and off the top of my head basically, and I can’t really always play from night to night something which is… That requires a certain amount of skill.  I mean, as much as people might feel it’s banal, it requires a certain skill to do that.  And I’ve never had that kind of skill.  Not that I’d want to.  I think I prefer to be who I am.  But I still respect the skill of other people.  So whatever I do, even when we’d play for dances, I was still trying to change things around a little bit and so on.  But the basic imperative was to play for people dancing.

When you had those bands, was that, say, Arthur Taylor and Kenny Drew, and you were 16-17 years old, and those were the first bands you led, and they were sometimes for dancers and sometimes for listening?

There were always people that liked to listen to music.  I remember when I first began getting into the “big time” when I was playing places like the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, and I was playing with Miles Davis and other people, I remember that a lot of those functions were called “dances.”  In fact, I went to some before I got good enough to play in them.  But they were called dances, and the people would dance, but there would always be a group of people standing up near the stage, and they would just be listening.  But they were still dances, and that was the name of the function.  Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Max Roach.  So maybe it was around the time when the two elements were sort of reaching a point of separating.  But there were always people who were up in the front, right by the bandstand, and they were observing and appreciating what the musicians were doing on their instruments.

Moving it back to today, that dance element has been so pronounced in the last twenty-five years in your bands.  I’ve now read Nisenson’s book, and you said in there and have said in other venues that that’s the music that was vivid and living, and the people you admired were going in that direction in the ’70s.  But for these purposes, was there some decision on your part that you needed to get that sense of dance back in your music?  I mean, the ’60s weren’t really about that so much, at least in the recordings we hear.

Probably the ’60s weren’t.  But I have always been a person who has… That’s maybe more of an element of my music than it is of other people, maybe people who are identified more with the ’60s than I might be, I’m sure, which I’m sure is a lot of people.  But I’ve always had a strong element of dance appreciation of it.  I always laugh when a lot of these jazz writers and critics…when Monk used to get up and do his dance on the stage while his group was playing, and nobody knew quite what to make of that.  Because after all, here is the High Priest of Bebop, and he is not sitting down there, solemnly playing.  He is getting up and dancing on the stage.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Monk.

I’ve seen a video.  But you said he was doing the Applejack.

He was doing the Applejack. [LAUGHS] Now, to me that was normal.  That’s the dance we did.  And I think that dance feeling was prominent in Monk’s playing, or at least in his consciousness, so that he felt impelled to do that.  I would say that probably I am a player who has that sort of rhythmic thing perhaps more prominent in my playing.  I don’t know.  I’ll have to leave that to people to discern why it feels like you hear that so much in my music.

In our last conversation, you were talking rather vividly about how rhythm was always a strong point.  Was ballads part of your 16 and 17 year old self?  Did you have to play a lot of ballads?  Does “My Ideal” go back to that time?

I love ballads, of course.  Because one of my… I mean, I love music, so that I loved a lot of people singing.  I mean, I loved the Ink Spots; they sang some beautiful songs.  As you know, I love all kinds of music.  So I loved those kinds of things as a really small boy, growing up.  But even when I began playing the saxophone, I had my model, Coleman Hawkins, who as you know made a great practice of playing these ballads, American Standard ballads.  It was his forte.  He made some beautiful ones, “How Deep is The Ocean,” of course “Body and Soul,” “Talk Of The town,” “Just One More Chance.”  All these are beautiful vehicles for his saxophone playing.  So naturally, he was one of my prime idols.  So ballad playing was something that I strove to do.

It was maybe more imprinted in the culture in the ’40s than for, say, a 17-year-old today trying to get to that emotion.  You were saying you love all sorts of music.  Do you listen to a lot now?  Do you buy CDs?  Do you stay on top of what’s going on in different genres?

I’m afraid that I don’t have the…what’s the correct word… I don’t have the time right now.  I love listening to music, but I have so much to do right now with music as it is… I just listen to music in snatches when I’m listening to the radio.  Like, I just heard a program on the radio where they were playing some Ravel and Faure, the impressionist period.  So I love all kids of music.  But no, I don’t buy music.  Of course, I’ve got a collection of music, but in the last years I haven’t had a chance to sit down and enjoy listening to music.  It’s something which, because of my avocation, it’s just too close.  Creating the music and then sitting down and be able to enjoy listening to music, right at this point in my life I can’t manage both things.  They seem to be at odds with each other.

When were you last in a music-listening mode?

Well, maybe 25 years ago.  Well, all through my life up to the ’60s I was listening to… I had a lot of music that I would purchase and listened to a lot of music.  Maybe in the ’70s I was listening to some things.  But around that time, there were too many things I was trying to think about, and I couldn’t reconcile listening and… Then I couldn’t just relax and listen to music like I would like to.  So that’s one of the things I had to give up.

Do you listen back to yourself at all?  Do you tape yourself practicing, or do you strictly not listen back to what you do?

No, I don’t tape myself.  I am one of these people that shudders when I hear myself, because I’m always saying, “Gee, I should have done that” or “Gee, I don’t like my tone right there.”  It’s too hard to really… But I don’t deny that it would be instructive and constructive to do that, if you were able t do that as a performer, if you could listen to yourself and objectively say, “Oh, yeah, I’ll change that…”  It would be great, and I know I would learn something from it, and it probably would help me play better.  But it’s a little bit too… It’s one of those things I haven’t been able to climb over that particular hill.  It’s a barrier where it’s just too difficult listening to myself back.  So the only time I listen to myself is when I’m doing a new recording and I have to choose the particular takes that we want to play.

Is that torturous for you?

It’s excruciating, yes.  You see what I go through to play for people?

I can imagine.  I can kind of sense what you’re going through to talk to me right now.  It doesn’t seem like a great time.  But I’ll try not to…

No-no-no, that’s okay.

This particular band seems so stable, and I’d like to speak with you about the personnel, how you recruited and how you see their roles within it.  Perhaps we can start with Clifton Anderson, which is a close, long-standing relationship.

Right.  You know he’s my nephew, right?

Is that the sister who played classical piano?

Yes, exactly.

Is she a talented pianist?

Yes, she’s very talented and she has a very good voice and everything.  She is a very good musician, actually.  She never played professionally, but she’s talented and she knows about music, has good taste and everything.  Anyway, I got…I believe I am speaking correctly… I got Clifton a trombone… I think he liked the trombone when he was a little boy.  So I believe I got him his first trombone.  I may be wrong about that, but I think I did.  Anyway, it doesn’t matter.  Anyway, he liked music.  His father also played organ in the church, so he came from a musical background.  His father played organ, and so he had a lot of music around the house.  At any rate, when he began… He went to Music & Art High School in New York, a very good music school, and Manhattan School of Music, things I never had a chance to do, so I was happy he got a chance to go that route.  At any rate, when he got old enough and he wanted to play jazz, we would get together… So when I figured that he was good enough to really play professionally in the group, why, it was a good opportunity to have him.  I like the trombone.   It’s always been one of my favorite instruments.  I have a background playing with J.J. Johnson, who had me…one of my first records was with J.J.  In the ’60s I would use Grachan Moncur.  I’m saying that to say that I like the sound of the instruments together, so that when I had an opportunity to use Clifton, and he was advancing and coming along, why, I took it.  He’s a very good musician.

Before he came in, you often were using two guitars?  Did he change up your options, give you a chance to do certain types of arrangements or certain backdrops off which to springboard?

Yes.  I think with the guitars I was thinking a little bit differently, so it was a little strange to go back to horns.  On this last record I did, there are a couple of tunes I was thinking about using guitar on.  I’m not saying that playing with guitars is over. I’m just saying it had reached a point of rest in that phase of what I was doing at that time.  So it was good to play with another horn.  It was another set of experience.

Stephen Scott came in around ’93, was it?

I found out about Stephen through Clifton.  Since I don’t get out too much to the clubs and everything, I sort of said, “Clifton, what’s happening?” — because he goes around.  He recommended several people, and all of these guys were busy with other people, of course.  I had Kevin Hays for a while and different people.  Anyway, Stephen became… I liked his work, but he was doing a lot of other stuff.  So finally, I was able to lock him up a little more.

What is it about him that suits you so well?

I’m not sure.  I can do without piano players, really.  Sometimes I don’t want to hear a piano player.  You can tell that from my career, right?

Well, as I said to Stephen, “What’s it like playing with someone who sort of developed the notion of discarding the pianist?”

Well, I don’tknow whether I want to hear his answer.  Anyway, Stephen relates to me, especially soloing.  So when I play with Stephen and the band, it’s a way of having a continuity and having a band which sort of is on the same page.  I think he empathizes with the way I play.  So it makes the band… It’s not like one guy playing one way, and then here comes the piano player and he’s playing a completely different way, and then you have the trombone player and he’s playing different… It gives us a little more unity . Yet, of course, it’s in a completely free context, as you know.

Maybe it’s because he’s so cognizant of Monk and Bud Powell in a way that a lot of people his age probably aren’t.

Yes, I think that’s possible.  I know he does like both of them.

Bob Cranshaw, that’s a 40-year relationship.   He mentioned that you first heard him at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago when you asked Walter Perkins to get a bass player, he did it, you liked him, you corresponded with him for the next few years, and when you came back from your hiatus you called him.  What is it about Cranshaw that made him so pleasing — and lastingly so — to you?

Well, he was a competent bass player, and when I think we came in… We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse.  We just rehearsed one day, and we had to perform that night.  And I did something that night… In the midst of a song that we were playing, I made a modulation.  Now, it was a perfect place for a modulation, I would say, after the bridge of this song going into the last portion of the song, which would be a natural place to modulate.  And I modulated there, and he made the modulation with me, which impressed me a lot.  I said, “Well, this guy is sort of on my wavelength.”  He’s always been a steady player, and I’ve always liked a steady… I’ve always liked to have a contrast between the steady player, so then you can have something abstract against something steady, rather than having a whole band of everything abstract.  So that Bob’s playing was steady; the bass was steady, the rhythm was steady, and then I can be abstract if I wanted to be, which I often do.  So this is sort of why I like Bob, because he provides that role of the bass fiddle, the heartbeat of the band.  I have had that concept for a long time, of playing one thing against another.

You can bob-and-weave, and go in and out of the time, and go anywhere you want, and you have a cushion, and he keeps you on the mark, so that if you’re going off somewhere you have something to come back to.

Exactly.  He’s always there, and keeping… If we’re playing songs, which I do play a lot of songs in my repertoire, why, the songs can be accurate and people can say, “Wow, all of that thing, and they’re still playing the song,” which as you know, is the way I play.  I always have the song in my mind regardless of what I do.  So this seemed to me a good marriage, to have a steady beat and being able to then have an abstract thing against it, and they would be together.

Is that how you want the drums to be as well?

Well, yes.  I think the drums as well have to be steady.  Now, we are playing time music, so if we’re playing time music, why, the drums and the bass have to be steady.  Now, the drummer, of course, has an opportunity to also play more offbeats.  But he still has to have his basic beat there.  I’d say more than most bass players, he can be a little bit more abstract, but as abstract as it gets, I demand that the basic pulse and the chord structure be present throughout what I’m usually calling on them to do. The thing that’s so hard about playing with me for a drummer is that I play a lot of different stuff.  I don’t just play straight-ahead.  A lot of jazz drummers are great at straight-ahead, but if you want to go into something else the feeling is not quite as genuine.  So in other words, I need a drummer who has a little bit of range.  I don’t want a guy who is just locked in to one style of playing. You need a certain range  to play with Sonnyi Rollins. I want to play Caribbean things, I want to play straight-ahead, I want to play part backbeat… I don’t want to be locked in… I want to have enough leeway so that the band doesn’t sound the same way all the time.  I don’t care how good the guys are playing.  You have to have some variation.  So that’s something that I’ve always liked, to play in as any different styles as possible.

How large a book of material do you draw upon in any particular concert?  Is that defined?  Does it change from month to month or year to year?

I’ve got a lot of material that we use.  But I try to… It’s tricky, because you want to play something which people are familiar with, just because the guys like to be comfortable when they go out in front of an audience.  A large audience is going to be critical and really expecting a lot.  So sometimes I don’t want to go out and sort of play something that we haven’t been playing, because the guys don’t feel as comfortable, and it’s not going to come off as good.  So I try to restrain my adventurous side.

That is tricky for you, because it goes against your entire grain.  No?

Very much so.  So I have to sort of find ways to temper that and find ways to work in little things.  But I get… Just the last few concerts we’ve had, I’ve started playing something I haven’t been playing for a long time… After we play a song for a while, too, I want to change.  There’s so much music out there. So I try to change up.  Of course, I’ve got a new record out, so I’ve got those things to draw on, and it’s good to try to let people hear some of the things we did on the record.  [LAUGHS] Although it’s not going to sound the same as they did on the record!  But that aside, it’s good to maybe present it and say, “Oh yes, I’ve got a new CD out” and so on and so forth.

You were talking about coming out and people expecting a lot.  What is it you think they expect?  I know what I think I’m going to get when I come to hear you.  What do you think people are expecting from you? [LAUGHS] I’ve heard you discuss the pressure of public expectation on a number of occasions.  What to you is the nature of that expectation?

When people come to see me, I imagine they know… I mean, if I am to believe my press, I am supposed to be a legend, right?

Well, you’re still around, so you’re not a legend.

A legend in his own mind, anyway, as the saying goes.

Well, we can call you an icon.

Icon.  Okay.

I prefer that.

Well, that’s even worse.  But when I do that, it means…

I can’t be totally objective.

[LAUGHS] Okay.  So if people… You may think of me that way, but they may also think of me as an icon.  So therefore, here I come out on the stage, here’s this icon… I can’t, you know, “well, okay, he’s an icon, folks,” and that’s it, good-night.  I mean, I’ve got to do something in between being an icon and them leaving the hall.

You’re only as good as your last two concerts, let’s say.

Sure!  So I feel I’ve got to always be sharp and on top of the music, and the band has to be gelling, and the whole thing.  I mean, it’s not going to happen every night.  This is the nature of the music.  It’s not going to happen all the time.  But I’ve got to do something that makes them feel… I don’t like people to be disappointed in coming to see me.  I’m one of these people… In fact, people being disappointed coming to see me is why I ended up going on the bridge in 1959.

Please elaborate.

I was playing with a group, I think I had Elvin and some people with me… This was sometime in the’ 50s.  I was getting a pretty big name.  I remember playing in Baltimore, and I had a big name, you know, for jazz…

Was it one of Gary Bartz’s father’s productions?

I remember I played for him one time.  No, this wasn’t for him… Well, it could have been.  I did play for his father, though.  I knew his father very well.  He was a very nice guy.  At any rate, I was playing there at a club which was quite crowded, everybody, “Yeah, Sonny Rollins,” but I felt I disappointed the audience that night.  I know I did.  The music just didn’t… It was really a drag.  I mean, I felt that I didn’t want to do.  In other words, I don’t want to take money from somebody if I don’t earn it.

In Nisenson’s book, you said you basically went on the bridge so you could get your fundamentals together in a certain sense…

Yeah, there were some fundamental things I wanted to work on.  There were some technical things, definitely, that I wanted to work on.  But I wouldn’t go too far beyond that.  Because the whole thing has been inspiration, so I never wanted to get away from that.  I just wanted to get some more skills.

Simultaneous to the thing I’m writing about you, I’m also writing a piece about James Moody, and we’ve had several conversations.  He said that when he made his famous recordings, “Moody’s Mood,” “Pennies From Heaven,” he was playing totally by ear, and he felt like he was just winging it.  He said he was flying blind.  And he said that caused him tremendous insecurity, and he attributed to some extent his drinking to that, and so on.  I guess around ’59 or so, when Tom McIntosh came in his band, he got Tom McIntosh to teach him theory, the chord changes, in a very elementary way, and it transformed him.  Was it an analogous experience for you, or was it a different entity?

No, not really analogous.  I wasn’t winging it.  I wasn’t just playing.  I think I know what Moody was talking about.  He felt he didn’t really know a lot of changes and all this stuff, so he was just playing it by winging it.  No, that wasn’t exactly the case with me.  I knew changes and I had been playing with Monk and all these guys, so I had to kind of get into that part.  So it wasn’t quite that.  But it was other technical things that I wanted to shore up on, things that had to do with the saxophone.  I actually took some harmony…piano…harmony and keyboard.  Also I wanted to learn a little more about arranging—I wanted to be able to write arrangements and orchestrate arrangements and all of that.  As I said, I didn’t really have all that formal schooling like my older brother and sister, so these were things I always wanted to do.  Besides doing the things on my instrument and trying experimental things, I also studied harmony and sort of orchestration with a fellow.  But I understand Moody.  I think I know what Moody was doing.  Moody wanted to play more chord changes and things like that.

It seems to me in those years after the Bridge, you were doing an exhaustive investigation of the timbral possibilities of the saxophone.  Everything seemed to be about sound.  Now it seems you’ve retained all that timbral extravagance within this real groove that you do.  It sounds like it was a tremendously beneficial period for you.

Well, thank you.  I hope it was.  There’s a lot of people… I remember when I first came back from the bridge, a lot of guys would say, “Geez, Sonny, why did you go to the Bridge?  You sound the same as you did when you went.”  This guy said that, and I said, “Well, I had to go, man, because it was something I wanted to do.”  Well, a lot of people didn’t know why I went, couldn’t understand why I would stop playing.  They couldn’t really comprehend it.  But at any rate, yeah, I’m sure I learned something.  I know I learned something.  Also, one of the big things about doing that is that it was something that I wanted to do, something against the grain of public opinion, something that I said, “Well, I’m going to do this for myself; I don’t care what other people think about it,” etcetera, etc.  So it was very good to be able to show that kind of resolve.  I think a lot of people want to get away from their jobs and spend a year on a hiatus, or you know, get their life together and then come… A lot of people want to do that, but for certain reasons they can’t.  I’m not criticizing people.  But I know it’s something that people would like to do.  So outside of what musical benefits I got out of it (which I agree with you, I got a lot; I know I did), it was also good for my soul, because I did something which I had figured out had to be done, and I wanted to do it, and I felt it was necessary for me to have the kind of confidence I needed in playing music to do this.

Maybe I’m wrong about this.  There’s an interview you did around ’55 or ’56, and you said that you had just recently decided that you were going to be a musician for life, that you had been conflicted between that and painting or drawing, which was an equal love of yours.  I think this is a two-part question.  One, in your process of playing, is there a sort of synesthesia going on?  It is sort of like a painting-through-sound type thing?  Secondly, were you involved at all in the art world either of the ’50s or ’60s?  I know culturally there was a lot of interconnection between the artists and the jazz musicians.

Right.  Well, the last one first.  No, I was never really involved around… Although I knew some artists.  I knew some people, like the artist Bob Thompson.  I knew Bob.  In fact, I was discussing him not too long ago with several people that know him.  I knew some other artists.  I knew this fellow called Paul Boussing(?), who used to hang out with Charlie Parker on 52nd Street.  He moved to Jamaica, I think he was actually from Jamaica, an Indian who came from Jamaica — he was an artist and I met him.  But I never really got too much into the art world. But, you know, I did this when I was really a child.  When I was growing up, I used to make cartoons and staple them together, and had my little cartoon books, and I had my little superhero characters and all this stuff.

Wayne Shorter was like that, too.

I know! [LAUGHS] I’ve heard! [LAUGHS]

Interesting, you and Wayne Shorter being two visionaries of the instrument.

[HEARTY LAUGH] And then I liked watercolors a lot.  I think I’m talented at it.  There’s a guy, a photographer who came to my house in the country some years ago.  I had done some watercolors, not really… I did watercoloring on some blank windows on my front door and the porch door.  Anyway, he saw the and he liked them a lot.  So it set a spark, “gee, I can do that.”  I am good at it or I’m talented at it.

So it continues to be an outlet for you.

Yeah, but I don’t do it any more.  That’s the only thing.  I think I could always do it.  Maybe, if time or circumstances allow, I’m sure I would like to get back to it.  But I haven’t done it in years and years and years.  I just did those for really another reason.  I didn’t do it as a painting; I did it for another reason.  At any rate, I liked that a lot, but of course, there was no money in painting, and I was getting out of school, and I had to find a job and all of that.  So music was there, I was able to get working in music and at least make some money.

Well, you were making money from I guess 15 or 16.  Even earlier.

Yeah, sure.  I was getting to play jobs.  I mean, it wasn’t much money, but at least it was the promise that this might be a career, whereas Art was something which was completely… I mean, there was no future that I could see.

So there was a practical, pragmatic aspect to playing music.

I think so.  Between music and art, music just came to be the one where I was able to begin working more.  Then, of course, as my idols began showing interest in me, then I said, “Well, gee, I must be okay.”

They are so different.  There’s a social aspect to music, and painting and drawing is such a solitary activity.

That’s true.

You seem to be a very well-read person.  I’m wondering what books have inspired you, and continue to.  Is reading something you spend a good amount of time doing?

Yes, I like to read.  I’ve got a lot of books, and every time I hear about a new book coming out, I get it.  And I try…I don’t get through all of them, but at least I read some of each book that I have.

Fiction?  Non-fiction?

I’m not too much into fiction.  I don’t care for fiction unless it would be something really fantastic, based on real life.  But I don’t really read fiction.  I am more interested in political books, inspirational books; books that might have to do with health, diet, vitamins, things that might have to do with taking care of your body; political books.  These kind of things I’m really interested in. I’m reading several books right now.  The book I’m reading at the moment and that I’m taking with me on the road (I had it with me last week, and I’m glad I did) is called Taking Back Our Lives In The Age Of Corporate Dominance by Ellen Schwartz and Suzanne Stoddard.  It’s excellent.  It’s in paperback. It sounds very relevant to you. Yeah, I really love it.  They’ve got some excellent things.  One of the people who gave it a nice blurb was this fellow David Horton, and I read one of his books recently and liked it a lot, When Corporations Rule The World.  Another one is Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia by Stephen F. Cohen.  This book is really an eye-opener to what’s been going on.  It’s shocking to think of the things that happen that people don’t know about.  There’s another one… You got me started; I’m going to give you one more.  It’s a very informative book, which I have had for a while, and I keep it with me, which is Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen.  It’s an excellent book; it speaks for itself.  And one more, When Harlem Was In Vogue by David Levering Lewis.

In our first interview I asked what you meant by “hardcore jazz,” and you were saying that you thought it’s very political, it’s much less easily manipulated for commercial formats, which are some reasons why it’s not so viable in today’s economic world.  Then I mentioned that there’s an honesty in it, a truth-telling, and you said “it’s real art, and has a lot to say about things that are happening,” and a lot of forces out here want to divert people, have them not think about things and so forth.  Without getting into your explicit politics, do you see what you do as being political as well as artistic, as well as aesthetic?

Yes, of course I do.

It’s an implicitly political act, almost, what you do.

Yes.  Now, what do you mean by that?

I think when you talk about taking back your life from corporate dominance, your aesthetic is to get as deeply into whatever it is that you have to say at any given time through the horn, within the ritual of performance, and I guess there is nothing that can mediate that except you.  By “mediate” I mean that there is nothing really between you and what you’re expressing at that moment.

Of course.  And it’s something that’s coming from inside.  Corporations want you to get outside of yourself.  They don’t want you to think inside.  They don’t want you to contemplate.  They don’t want you to think about what’s really happening or ways to really change your self.  They want you to always feel you have to look outside of yourself to find satisfaction.  So yes, definitely, I think that music is political, and jazz music especially.  It’s very political.  I think you have to realize that and think about that when you play.  Which is one reason why I don’t like Smooth Jazz.  Although going back to what we were saying earlier tonight, I admire the skill of people playing that music… I have a reluctance to criticize, because I also am a Buddhist, and… Well, I retain elements of different kinds of Buddhism.  I shouldn’t call myself a Buddhist.  But I believe in a lot of the practices.  And I don’t believe in criticizing other people because I have my own life to straighten out.

Do you use any elements of the rituals of Buddhism to bring out your music, to bring yourself out in performance or prepare yourself mentally?

Well, not really.  I’ve studied some Zen and I’ve studied things.  But what I’ve gotten out of my study of Yoga and a lot of these disciplines… What I’ve got out of it is that my music is my yoga.  See, that’s the way I practice.  That’s the way I meditate, that’s the way I seek perfection like the Buddha…and enlightenment, rather.  So that’s what it is.  Trying to draw specific lines to it I’ve found doesn’t work for me.  And I’ve found out that my playing my instrument, and concentrating and getting inside of that, which is getting inside of myself, is my way of doing all of these spiritual things.  So it makes it easy for me in that sense.

You made a comment at the very end of Nisenson’s book, you said it two years ago, “there is something I’m trying to get to, it is clear at some times and not as clear at others, and it’s difficult to embrace the whole thing.”  After a few other sentences, you said, “Basically, what I am trying to do is play a more primitive kind of music.  By primitive, I mean less industrialized, more basic.  Maybe one note instead of ten.  There are more basic tones that convey a deep meaning which was just as important as far back as man can recall.  Sounds closer to Nature.”  Is that ongoing for you?  Is that really where you are now in your aspiration, and kind of the eternal quest?

It’s very difficult to describe music, as we know — to talk about music.  That’s why music is what it is, I guess.  I mean, it’s something different than the spoken word.  But yes, as far as I can put… I think he was asking me about what I was trying… Yeah, the music I am trying to get to is probably like my politics.  It’s anti-industrial.  But what it is, I don’t know.  Every now and then, when I play and I get close to it, like say I get a glimpse of something that has signs in that way, I say, “Okay, wow, that’s it.”  But I can’t get to it as often as I would like too.

Let me ask you a saxophone question.  How particular are you about the type of saxophone that you play?  How long did it take to find it?   Are you satisfied with the horn that you have now?

Let me see how I can put this.  In my career, and in my professional career, I have played several makes of saxophone.  They each have certain qualities which are unique to that particular instrument and to that make.  You find yourself in a position where one saxophone will give you one thing which you desire, and then it might not give you something else which another saxophone will give you.  Now, the other saxophone, the other make or brand, which gives you something else, but not what this first one gave you.  Then you might try another saxophone and say, “Gee, maybe I can get them both, everything I want in one saxophone.”  Then you may get another saxophone, and so on and so on, down the quest.  So after all these years, I would say it’s very difficult to get a saxophone which is going to give you everything that you feel you want to get out of yourself.  Also, you have to remember that you have a mouthpiece, you’ve got all these things that go with the instrument which affect the way it sounds also.  But the saxophone itself, the sound and the way it responds to what you want it to do is different each time; with each horn it’s a little different. And this is another thing that kind of makes music more like an art rather than a science you see.  Although, of course, we know music is a science.  We know that.  So it’s hard to really get it right there, BANG, I know, I’ll pick this up and WHAM, I can do everything with that.  So you have to compromise, in a way, and say, “Okay, I’ll do this because I’ll play this, and at least I can do this, I can’t do that, but this may be a little more essential for me to do this thing better than do that thing.”   So this is what it is.  You have to make choices.  And to complicate matters, especially as you age, the choices are based on your own physical body.  Playing one of these instruments is a very physical thing.  So to complicate matters, then it’s not just the instrument; it’s your own physical condition, health-wise and things like that.  You might say, “Well, gee, I can play this instrument much easier; it helps me to play it.”  It doesn’t sound as good, but it’s easier to play because… Say, for instance, I can’t lift this instrument, it’s really heavy, whereas this other instrument is lighter, I can lift it.  But I like the sound of this heavy one, but gee, at the same time, wow, I can’t lift it, so I have to… So there are all of these little things which always are at play.  I mean, it makes it interesting. [LAUGHS] It’s certainly not a cut-and-dried thing.

How long have you had the same saxophone you’re using now?  I’m sure it’s customized for you.

Well, yeah, it’s been customized, sort of.  But this particular instrument I’ve had for some time.  I’ve been playing it, I should say, for some time.  But again, a lot of it, as I said, has to do with other factors.  There have been some other instruments, and mouthpieces and things which I thought about playing.  But you have to sort of find the things that work the best for you overall.  I will say that I am very-very fortunate to have this instrument.  I love my horn madly, like Duke Ellington would say.  I don’t want this to be interpreted by my horn, who I think is listening to everything we’re saying, as in any way meaning that I would play another horn.  I don’t think I would.  I think I would always come back to this horn.  Because I have had it for a while now, and we have gotten to know each other.  It’s like a ventriloquist and his dummy.  I could say that, really, except maybe I’m the dummy and the horn is the ventriloquist.

You talked about music being the practice.  Do you see yourself (and I don’t mean this in a grandiose sense at all) as a messenger, as having a higher purpose, as being subject to forces stronger than yourself in what it is that you do?

I wish that could be true.  I wish that I could be performing some really service to mankind. If I am, that’s wonderful.  Because I definitely feel that life is about giving.  That’s what it’s about, and it’s really the only joy in life is giving, so you have to give.  Now, I enjoy playing and I love to play, but if I was just playing and I was getting more out of it, then it wouldn’t be right… Whether I have that grandiose…

I didn’t mean it as you seeing yourself in grandiose terms.  I wonder whether that aspiration is part of your personal imperatives.

Well, it probably is part of the fabric of it.  But Ted, I’m trying to be like the Buddha.  In other words, I’m trying to achieve Enlightenment during this lifetime.  Now, we all have to make our attempts and see how far we can go.  But this is what I want to do.  This is what I’m trying to really accomplish, getting some understanding of life and how people interact with each other, and jealousies and hatreds and envies, and all of these little things in life which are really so stupid and inconsequential.  If we can get above them… So this is what I’m really trying to do.  This is my great work, as far as I’m concerned.  I’m so happy that I have the instrument which is giving me sort of a path to travel with.

So you’re looking for that kind of ultimate detachment, in a certain sense, from the concerns that you’re talking about.

Yeah.  Really.  Actually.  That’s the only way you can really deal with it.  Well, it’s just like when you say, “Oh, Sonny, you sounded…”  Well, I want to be detached from that.  I don’t want people to praise me, “Oh, Sonny, you sounded…”  Yeah, okay, great.  I’m happy that I do, in a way.  But that’s not what…  I do want to be detached, in a way, from having to depend upon things like adulation and all of this kind of stuff.  So this is my higher aim, my higher goal.  I’ve got a long, long way to go, but at least I think… I know this is what I want to do.  But it’s just a matter of not getting…feeling that you can’t do it.  You have to stay on it, you know.  As Dizzy Gillespie said in that song a long time ago, “Stay on it.”  Which is a great song.  And that said, you’ve got to stay with it. That was Tadd Dameron’s tune. Yeah,  “Stay On It,” with Dizzy’s big band, and Dizzy played a beautiful solo.  It was really a very informative solo, which taught me a lot about playing actually.  Everything about it was logical.  It was a very logical solo.  It had all of the proper things to it, but it also was logical.  It wasn’t just, you know… I mean, I like logical playing.  I think everybody does who likes anything.  You want something that makes sense.  So it made a lot of sense, and it had all the other elements of great jazz playing.  It made a lot of sense, the way he played with the band, on top of the band, and the way he came in and the way he left space.  It was just perfect.

Did you have a church background when you were young?

Yeah, we had to go to church and Sunday school and all of that.  I mean, my parents took me to church.  I was brought up in church, and I had to go to Sunday School and got confirmed in church and all this sort of stuff.

Was it African Methodist or Baptist…

Actually, we went to a church that was a church of a sect that came out of Europe.  I think they’re prevalent around different parts of the United States.  They were called the Moravian Church.  They are a Christian church, but they’re very…not…it wasn’t gospelly or anything.  It was very straight hymns and Bach Cantatas and all this kind of stuff.  It was later in life, in my teens, when… Well, I shouldn’t say that.  My grandmother used to take me to a church.  There was a woman named Mother Horn.  I’ll never forget that.  She used to take me to church right there on Lenox Avenue, and it was one of these real sanctified churches that had band instruments playing, which was… The Moravian church never had that.  The Moravian church was very straight-laced with the organ and this type of thing.  But she took me to Mother Horn’s church several times, and that made a big impression on me.   I remember hearing a trumpet player playing with Mother Horn’s church who was really swinging. But then later I went to… I think we were talking last week, that I went out to Chicago.  I knew a girl that was in the sanctified church. A friend of mine had played trumpet out there, and I got involved with his sister, who… They had a gospel group.  Anyway, they were in a Sanctified church and I used to go there every week and everything. She was a really nice musician.  She’d compose a lot of stuff.  But I enjoyed going to the church, too, because I enjoyed the animated music.  The music was very animated, and I liked that.

You said in Nisenson’s book that you were there in ’49 and again after you left the Lexington facility in 1955.

Right.  I was there before I went to Lexington and then after I got out of Lexington.  So I was there probably in ’54.

Bob Cranshaw said that people would say, “Oh, I heard Sonny play this or that today,” and people would go outside the Y where you were living and listen to you rehearse, and then bring back reports.

Well, that was after I came back from Lexington and I was trying to get my life together and get straight.  I had a day job, not much money, so I had a nice little room at the Y… In fact, I used to rehearse at the Y with the great trumpeter Booker Little.  I don’t know if you remember him.

He made a comment about how incredible it was to rub shoulders with you as someone who had rubbed shoulders with Charlie Parker and Monk, that he wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise.

Yeah, that’s great.  He was really a nice player.  Anyway, I was staying at the Y, I had a day job, and in the evening and during the weekends, I would be able to practice in the room.  Booker used to come by and play, and a couple of guys.  But that was a very nice experience.  That was down on 35th and Wabash.  One of the interesting things that happened was one time when I was working, and getting up and going to work on State Street, catching the trolley, and there was a little record store on State Street right by the bus stop and I came out there one morning early to get on the bus, and there I saw in the window my record.  It was a record I had made with Monk, “Just The Way You Look Tonight.”  There was this record with me on the cover.  It was very interesting, because there I was on the cover of this album in the window of the record store, and I was on my way going down to work as a janitor in a factory.  Interesting pull, you know.

You said that you did manual labor deliberately at that point, and I guess you described as a way of getting healthier.  Was that moment a sort of inspiration to keep focused on music?

Well, I was doing manual labor basically I wanted to… Well, let’s put it bluntly.  It was the only thing that I was able to make a living at.  And so I really had to work.  But in doing it I found a certain…there was something good about, working with your hands.  I mean, remember what Gandhi said.  There’s a certain wonderful release.  There’s a spiritual feeling when you really  work and do something.  So I was working and doing something. [LAUGHS] Plus I was trying to get away from the nightclub drug scene until I was strong enough to go back.  So it was good.

Is that sense of the beneficialness of labor part of what remains attractive about living in the country?

I still think labor is wonderful.  In the country, I don’t do too much of it.  We have a small farm but we don’t really work it.  So it’s really not that.  Living in the country for me is just a place where I can blow my horn and not disturb the neighbors, and get some fresh air, like that.  But the sense of work, I think, is a beautiful thing, and it’s something which is lost.  People go to work now because they have to.  But you have to love what you’re doing.  You have to find a way to love what you work at, and then it’s worth something to work.  You don’t just work and you come home and you’re mad, and somebody is abusing you all day at work and you come home and sit down and turn on the TV, and that drains you, drains more energy and life out of you… This is an incorrect way.  Anybody can see that.  Everybody can see it, but we have to kind of take that first step to change it, you see.

At the beginning of this conversation, you were not in the best mood.  Do you love what you do?

Do you mean the music?

I mean the whole thing.

Yes.

Being a musician is your life, your career, your occupation; not just the pure music, but all the ramifications of being a musician.

Sure.  Not only do I love it, I’m extremely grateful about it.  But look, this is what we’re here for.  We’re here to suffer, in a way of speaking.  This is what life is, I mean, and you have to… So yeah, there are sometimes… Today they have to… I’ll run this down to you.  Just to give you an idea why I might have sounded a little bit put out of sorts. They had to change the pipes up in the roof of my building.  I happen to live on the top floor.  So the whole ceiling is torn out, and the wall is all torn out and exposed, and there’s hammering and everything.  Then we were away, we played in Philly last weekend, and I came back and went in the bathroom, and one of the workmen had made a mistake and tore through the wall into my bathroom tile.  Which was… I mean, this is an example, by the way, of maybe somebody doing something they don’t like to do when they go to work.

Good to draw lessons from that experience in the good Buddhist manner.

[LAUGHS] So anyway, I had to deal with that, and then the guys coming in and going through my wall…

So no practicing today.

Well, actually I did.  Here’s what happened.  I had a headache today, too, so I was really upset with all this stuff.  Plus, to add to that, down on my street they’re excavating.  The whole sidewalk is completely…all these back hoes and trucks and (?) and everything.  Some guys got the idea they wanted to gentrify Greenwich Street.  They make to make it beautiful, so-called.  Anyway, so that’s a mess down there.  You can hardly walk in the door.  But anyway, this, coming upstairs… But did I get any practice?  Yeah.  There was something I wanted to try.  I always like to play, because it’s very important, even if it’s a few minutes.  The time was short after they got through, because I only practice certain circumscribed hours over here.  So the time was short but I still was able to take out my horn, and for a few minutes, maybe 15 minutes or so, I was able to go with something that was in my mind.  So I actually did get in a little playing today.

I think I’ve taken enough of your time.

I’ve told you the story of my life there, almost…

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Interview, Sonny Rollins, Tenor Saxophone

NEA Jazz Masters 2012: Von Freeman

For the thirtieth and perhaps final installment of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Awards, the NEA selected  a quartet of  hardcore individualists, who have steadfastly followed their own path through the decades: Drummer Jack DeJohnette, tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, bassist Charlie Haden, and singer Sheila Jordan. Stalwart trumpeter-educator  Jimmy Owens received the 2012 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.  Heartiest congratulations to all.

Von Freeman’s designation is particularly gratifying to this this observer. Active on the Chicago scene since the end of the ’30s, when, after graduating from DuSable High School, he got his first lessons in harmony from the mother of his DuSable classmate Gene Ammons. Before enlisting in the Navy, he briefly played in a big band led by Horace Henderson (Fletcher’s brother), he marinated slowly towards his mature conception. As perhaps his most famous acolyte—and close friend—Steve Coleman put it recently: “Von looks inward a lot. He’s not a person who buys a lot of books or any of this kind of stuff. He just meditates from the inside. So it took him a lot longer to develop this thing. He told me himself that he didn’t feel like he understood harmony until he was like 50 years old, which is kind of late.”

Indeed, Freeman was 50 when he made his first leader recording, Have No Fear, produced for Atlantic by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who hired Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb to swing the proceedings along with Chicago pianist “Young” John Young.  Although he never left Chicago,  his discography—and international reputation—has multiplied, and he has remained at the top of his game.

I’d heard Von a number of times during my ’70s residence in Chicago, and was able to continue doing so once he began gigging in New York at  the cusp of the ’80s, after recording four two-tenor sides with his son, Chico Freeman on side 2 of a fine Columbia recording called Fathers and Sons (the rhythm section was Kenny Barron, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette; Side 1 featured Ellis, Branford, and Wynton Marsalis). The audiences were usually on the small side. I can recall a winter engagement at the Public Theater maybe in 1982 when about 15 people heard Von play non-stop for two hours with Albert Dailey on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums; twenty years later, after he’d turned 80, I saw him do the same thing at Smoke before a much more crowded house on an extraordinarily kinetic set during which he kept prodding pianist Mulgrew Miller with the exhortation, “Be creative!”

I  had the honor of hosting Freeman on at least three—maybe four—occasions on WKCR after 1987. I’ve posted below the proceedings of a conversation conducted on January 19, 1994,  a bitterly cold week when Von, for the first time, was headlining a quartet  at the Village Vanguard (wish I could remember  who the band was). The weather dampened the turnout, but not the heat of invention. [Note: I've interpolated a few of Von's remarks from an earlier, 1991 WKCR appearance.]

* * *

I was at the Vanguard for the first set last night, and I gather you’d had maybe a 45-minute rehearsal.

VF:    [LAUGHS]

But the group sounded like you’d been on the road for a month or so.

VF:    Well, those guys are great, man.  And they listen.  To me, that’s one of the biggest parts of it all, listening to one another and appreciating what… I know it sounds old-fashioned, but it still works — for me.

It seems to me that that’s something you encourage in your bands.  Having seen you with a number of groups and a number of young musicians, you will set up impromptu situations in the middle of a piece, like a dialogue with the drummer or dialogue with the bass player, to keep everybody on their toes.

VF:    Oh, yes.  But that’s old-fashioned, actually.  All the older cats did that.

Do you mean old-fashioned or do you mean something that’s happening as part of the natural course of improvising?

VF:    No.  What I mean is, I never really try to leave my era.  I might mess around with it a little bit, but I’m from that other thing.

When you say “that era,” what do you mean by that?

VF:    Well, I mean I’m from that Jazz thing, from Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, all the great big bands of that era.  I used to go to a lot of rehearsals, actually, and I used to notice the way that things were done.

Who were some people whose rehearsals struck you?

VF:    Oh, like Horace Henderson.

Well, you played a little bit with Horace Henderson before you went in the Navy.

VF:    That’s right.  And Horace Henderson, man, knew how to  rehearse a band!  And I was amazed.  Like, I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’ when I was in his band.  He would take me aside and say, “Now, listen.  All you got to do, young man, is listen.”  He said, “And don’t play too loud!” — because I was full of hire and full of wind.  17, you know.  I was ready to blow, baby!  He said, “Just cool, and play like you’re playing in your living room.”

And man, let me tell you something.  I was once in the one of the warm-up bands in Atlantic City, and the great Count Basie Band was playing.  Man, I was sitting in the front seat talking, and a lady was talking to me, and the band was shouting.  But it wasn’t loud.  It was weird!  It was eerie.  These cats were swingin’, and Count did not have a mike on the piano.  And you could hear every note he played.  Well, from my previous instructions I could tell what they were doing.  They were just playing like they were in their living room.  And it came out as one big, beautiful, soft, quiet-with-fire sound.

So I try to inject that.  Because I hate to hear little bands sound like big bands.  Ooh, that disturbs me.  I see four or five cats making enough noise to sound like a concert band, ooh, it gets on my nerves.

Also in that period were you able to talk to older saxophone players?

VF:    Oh, sure.

Were people willing to pass down information to you?

VF:    Oh yeah.  They were beautiful.

Who were some of the people in Chicago who served that role for you?  Because you’ve certainly served it for a couple of generations of young Chicago musicians.

VF:    Oh, yes, I’ve been lucky that way.  Well, like I told you last time, we talked about Dave Young, who just passed last year.  And…oh, listen, Tony Fambro, Goon Gardner…

Who played with Earl Hines for a few years.

VF:    Yes.  Oh, listen, just so many guys.  I couldn’t begin to name them all.  Because at that time, the information was freely given.  Everybody was trying to encourage the younger guy, because they realized that was the future.  Nobody was hiding anything, no information was classified.  Because at the end of the thing, if you don’t have the feeling, nothing’s going to happen anyway.  You can show a guy everything you know, but if he has no heart, he might as well deal shoes or something.

As you’ve discussed in probably three thousand interviews, you were a student of Walter Dyett, the famous bandmaster at DuSable High School…

VF:    Oh, yes.

…along with maybe a couple of dozen other famous tenor players.

VF:    Oh, yes, that’s the land of tenor players.  Everybody plays tenor.

But you never repeat yourself!  So what’s today’s version of your impressions of Walter Dyett?  And also, the musical talent at DuSable High School when you attended in the 1930′s?

VF:    Well, during that time, Walter Dyett was the man on the South Side of Chicago.  We’d all tell lies to go to DuSable.  Because they had these school districts.  And everybody wanted to be in his class, and get some of that baton across the head, and get cussed out by him — because he was free with the baton!

A democratic disciplinarian.

VF:    That’s right!  But he taught by osmosis more than anything.  He would encourage you to be a free spirit — with discipline.  And even today I can see how important that is, to be as free as you can, but have discipline — in all things.

You’d been playing music since you were little.

VF:    Oh yeah.  I’ve had a saxophone stuck in my mouth since I was about three.

And music was in your family.

VF:    Well, actually, my father fooled around with trombone.  Of course, my mother is still in church and almost 97; she’s always been a choir singer and tambourine player, and she’s sanctified, so that beat, baby.

So you’ve really been listening to a whole range of music since you were out of the womb.

VF:    Yes.  Because my father actually dug concert music, see.  The only thing I didn’t hear much of was Blues — Blues per se.  I heard Louis, Fats Waller and people like that play the Blues, and he had some records by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, the classic blues singers.  So I guess I ran the gamut of musical expression.

When did you start going to concerts and different events on the South Side?  There was so much music in Chicago in the Twenties and Thirties, and I imagine you grew up right in the middle of a lot of it, and you were probably playing a fair amount of it from a pretty early age.

VF:    Oh yes, I played in some things.  But you must understand, though, that during that era there was a lot on the radio.  Like B.G., Benny Goodman was on the radio, Count Basie was on the radio, Earl Hines was broadcasting right from the Grand Terrace in Chicago, Fats Waller was on the radio, Jimmie Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins (who just passed), a lot of the big bands were played on the radio.  And they were doing remotes from different parts of the country.  So that was a thing that, of course, a lot of the young guys can’t hear because you don’t have that any more.  Duke was always on the radio.  You might even go to a movie and see a Jazz band in the movie, which you hardly ever see now.

A lot of the bands would stay over in Chicago, too. Say, the Ellington band might be someplace on the South Side for two weeks, and they’d be in the community.

VF:    That’s right.  Well, we had, of course, the Regal Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom, and all the big bands came through there, and that was right on 47th Street, right in the heart of the South Side.  I’m very lucky to have been a part of that scene and play with a lot of the guys in the bands.  When I say play with them, I had a little band, they might have sat in with me or something.  And it was beautiful just to stand beside them or stand there and watch them in person.  Because there’s so much to learn from just watching the way a person performs.

Who were the people who impressed you when you were 14, 15, up to going into the Navy, let’s say, around 1942?

VF:    Actually, they were mostly trumpet players.  See, I played trumpet for about twenty-five years.  And Hot Lips Page, man.  You don’t hear much about that cat, but that cat was a beautiful cat, man, and knew how to lead and rehearse a band.  And the way he played, I guess it was out of Louis, you would say.  And Roy Eldridge; I was with him for five minutes.

He lived in Chicago for some time in the 1930′s, too.

VF:    Yes.  So those two trumpet players impressed me with their power and with their know-how about how to treat the public and how to treat a band.  All that is very important if you call yourself a bandleader.  See, there’s a whole lot of people standing in front of bands that are not really bandleaders.  I would call them front men.  But being able to have the men, not demand any… It’s a terrible thing to have to demand things out of your sidemen.  It shouldn’t be a command.  It should be a thing where they respect you so much that they want to do things to take care of business.

Well, on the tenor you’ve credited your style as being an amalgam of listening to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, who both were around Chicago a lot.

VF:    Of course.

When did you first hear Hawk and when did you first hear Prez?

VF:    Well, see, Coleman Hawkins was a personal friend of my Dad’s.  But now, Prez….

How did they know each other?

VF:    You know, I never knew.  My father loved the cats, and he’d hang around them.  You know, he was a hanger.  He’d hang out with them.  He was a policeman, but he was a different type of policeman; he never arrested anybody or gave out tickets or anything!  So he was hanging with the cats all the time.  And I’m certain that’s how he met Hawk.

Prez I met personally because I would hang out at the Regal.  Whenever Count Basie came to town, man, I was sitting down front, me and my little cats that would hang out with me.  We all knew Prez’s solos note for note.  We’d stand there, and Prez would run out.  Of course, Prez would look at us, because we were right down front making all this noise, and we… Like, they’d play “Jumping At The Woodside,” and we’d wait for Prez to come out.  Well, Prez used to say…[SINGS REFRAIN], but he’d play all kinds of ways.  We were singing his solos, hands up in the air like he’d hold his horn, and he looked at us like he wanted to kill us!

But Prez was beautiful, man.  I was crazy about him personally.  Hawk, too.  And Ben Webster was one of my favorites.  See, I would say that my style, if I have a style, is just a potpourri of all the saxophone players.  Because I have so many favorites.

One thing that’s very distinctive and makes your sound almost instantly recognizable is that you change the dynamics of a song constantly, almost like you were singing it like a Blues singer.  From one phrase to the next you’re in a different area, and you always have control.  How do you do that?  Is it a lip thing?  Do you do it with the fingering?

VF:    Well, a person last night pulled me aside and said, “Man, you’re really fooling around with that horn.”  But I just think that’s a Chicago thing.  Because I think all the cats from around Chicago play like that.  To me, we all sound something alike.  I don’t even realize what I’m doing, because what I try to do is very, very hard, and especially as I get younger.  Because I would like to be able to do like I used to see Bird do and Roy do.  Man, they’d come on a gig and didn’t say nothin’, and start playing.  Sometimes Bird wouldn’t even tell you what he was playing.  But he was so hip, he’d play some little part of it, and you’d know what the song was.  And it would sound like an arrangement.  I’d say, “How did he do that?”  Because most people have to have music written out, and rehearse people to death.  And Bird would play with us, and he’d elevate us to another level.  I’d play, man, and I wouldn’t even realize it was me playing.  I’d say, “What’s going on here?”  But it’s just that man was so powerful.  Roy Eldridge was so powerful.  Hot Lips Page, I played with him, man, and he just said, “Hey, son, come here.”  Boom, he’d start playing, and he would just take you in.  And I think that’s all it is, that you rehearse and practice, rehearse and practice, practice and rehearse, and get out there and say, “Hey, I’m going to do it.”

Well, I think at the time when you were encountering Charlie Parker, you were part of the family house band at the Pershing Ballroom and different venues in Chicago.

VF:    Oh, yes.

So you’d be up on the stage with Bird or whoever else would be coming through Chicago.  That lasted about four or five years, didn’t it?

VF:    Yes, it did.

Was it 52 weeks a year?

VF:    Well, yes, because that was the only little gig I had, really, at the time.  I was glad to have it, I’m telling you!  And it was so beautiful, because I met all of the great cats… Every one of them was just great, treated us great, and tried to help us — because we all needed plenty of help.  They’d tell us chord changes, say, “Hey, baby, that’s not really where it is; play C-9th here.”  So it was beautiful.

And I really didn’t realize how great it was until I looked around, and all the cats were like gone.  You know, man, it just breaks your heart, because some of them left so early, you know.

One thing I really remember, man, I was at the Pershing Ballroom upstairs this time (actually, this was called the Pershing Lounge), and Ben Webster used to come by, man, and he’d sit around… You know, I always loved him, and I could never get him to bring his horn, could never get him to play.  And he would say “Oh, baby, everybody’s forgotten Daddy Ben.”  I said, “Man, ain’t nobody gonna never forget you.”  And I played some of his tunes, you know, that he made famous.  And my biggest thing was I’d buy him those half-pints!  But hey, man, things like that, when you turn around and you think back, and all the cats are like gone.  And I just wish I’d have asked him a million questions.  But I never really asked him anything, except how did he get that beautiful tone, and of course, he laughed and told me, “Oh, just buy a number-five reed” — something like that, you know.  So I find myself giving cats the same thing.

Did you?

VF:    Yeah.  You know, you go get a 5-reed, and you couldn’t even get a sound out of it!  But so many things that… The great Art Blakey said something that stuck with me.  He said, “Hey, man, you have to earn it.”  It’s best to let people find it.  If they don’t find it, well, hey.

[OF THE SELECTION TO FOLLOW] You’re backed here by a top Chicago rhythm section, Jodie Christian on piano, Eddie DeHaas on bass, and Wilbur Campbell on drums, with whom you go pretty far back.

VF:    Oh, listen baby, we go back to DuSable, actually.  Well, I’m older than he is.  But it’s generally the same era.  And Jodie, well, I’ve known him since he was very young.  So it was a thing where we had… But I always like to include this, that it was just luck.  Because I didn’t take any music in there or anything.  And they said, “Hey, man, what are you going to play?”  I said, “Hey, how do I know?”  So that’s the way that was.

[MUSIC: "It Could Happen To You" (Never Let Me Go [Steeplechase], “Mercy, Mercy Me” (You’ll Know When You Get There (Black Saint]]

I’ll tell you, man, I was sitting there listening to “Mercy, Mercy Me” — I think I was in another kind of mood!  But it’s all a part of saxology.  Yeah, that tenor saxophone, man, it’s just… That instrument is just so open.

People call it an extension of the human voice, and you’re certainly a tenor player whose voice, right from the first note you know it’s Von Freeman.

Well, thank you.  But actually, what I just try to do is fitting in, try to get something… I wouldn’t even say that I have a style, really.  I just go with the flow.  That’s what I try to do.  I’ve played in so many different types of groups and bands.  See, because when you have children and you’re trying to raise them, man, you have to do a lot of things, whether you want to do them or not, to  earn a living.  So I’ve played in all types of bands, polkas, played Jewish weddings — just all kinds of things.

I’m sure each one of them was the hippest polka band, or the hippest…

VF:    Well, you know, sometimes cats would look at me and say, “What is this nut doing?”  But I always tried to find a little something where I could lean into it.  So I’m open to all types of music, all types of feeling, and try to play up to my potential, which I think is one of the secrets, is trying to express yourself.  Because that’s the only way that I play, is to try to express myself and still please people.  Not all of them, but let’s say at least 50 percent of them.

Well, I’d say you’ve probably had experience at dealing with 99.9 percent of the possible audiences that a musician can encounter.

VF:    Yes, I certainly have.  And I’ve found out as long as you’re being true to your own spirit and your own feeling, someone will dig it.  So that’s the premise that I go on right today, is just get up and try to really express myself.  And if I express myself honestly and truthfully, I find that I move somebody.

One of the first groups that I worked with, I can’t quite remember this man’s name now, but he was the drummer. The only thing I can really remember about him was he sat so low. He sat like in a regular chair, and it made him look real low down on the drums. I said, “I wonder why this guy sits so low.” You could hardly see him behind his cymbals. And we were playing a taxi dance. Now, you’re probably too young to know what those were.

I’ve seen them in the movies, but I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.

See, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody. When I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody.  I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old. I was playing C-melody then. That was my first instrument. That really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there!

That version of “Mercy, Mercy Me” put me kind of in the mood of some of Gene Ammons’ recordings, particularly “My Way,” where it just spiraled up..

VF:    Oh yes.

He was a couple of years younger than you, and you were probably in the same class at DuSable for a few years.

VF:    Oh, yes.  Oh, man, the Jug!  Jug’s one of my heroes of all time.  See, the Jug came from a musical family.  His father, of course, was the great Albert Ammons.  And his mother was a beautiful woman who played Classical music on piano.  I used to go by Jug’s house… She asked me one day, she said, “Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you” — because she had been on her son about that years earlier.  She said, “The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords.”  I said, “Really?”  And she said, “Hey, come over here,” and she sat down at the piano and started playing chords.  That actually was my first knowledge (I was about 14) about chords.  Because I always played by ear.  They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was riffing by ear, you know.  And she started me out.  And his brother, Edsel, was a pianist that played Classical music.

Oh, Jug was miles ahead of all us little guys, because he had this musical history out of his family.  Plus, the Jug was a great dude.  He used to take me aside, give me gigs.  It was funny, man.  He used to hire me to play in his place, and I’d go out and they’d say, “Where’s the Jug?”  I’d say, “Well, the Jug, he…”  “Not you again!”  But I survived it, see.  But I give the Jug a whole lot of credit, because he just sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago.  But again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.

Someone who went to DuSable also who was a little younger than you was Johnny Griffin, whose career started very young.

VF:    Oh, that’s another one of my heroes.  Well, Johnny picked up a horn one day and got famous.  He’d been playing two hours!  That’s the kind of genius he is.  Well, Johnny Griffin is… In fact, I credit Johnny for the upsurge in my career, when he invited me to play along with him at the Lincoln Center.  I had never really been critiqued by the New York critics.  A few mentions about whatever playing I was doing.  But when I played the Lincoln Center with Johnny, he had his great little group, and they put me along with two of the greats from New York, and I brought along John Young, and we played — and the critics really praised John and myself.  That really boosted my career.  Of course, Johnny had nothing to gain by putting me on the program with him, because when you have two tenors, they’re going to start comparing folks.  But I just love him for that, for having had the guts to even do that.

That’s sort of a stylized outgrowth of something that happened very naturally in Chicago, with a lot of musicians getting up on the bandstand and doing what’s called cutting contests…

VF:    Yes.

That, of course, is something that people might think of when they think about Jazz and Chicago.

VF:    Oh, surely.  Surely.  So when Johnny did that, he had nothing at all to gain by putting me on there.  But it was just beautiful.  The last time I saw him, I kissed him and I said, “Thanks, baby.”

Sonny Stitt is another one of my heroes.  He taught me so much about saxophone.  See, I toured with Sonny.  A lot of cats weren’t that hip to Sonny, because Sonny had kind of a cold attitude.  He loved perfection, and he didn’t stand for anything less.  But to me, man, he was one of the all-time greats on the saxophone.

Well, on your 1972 release for Atlantic, which has been out of print for a while, called Doin’ It Right Now, Ahmad Jamal wrote a little note about you which I’ll read.  It says: “Great musical ability is found in the Freeman family.  My introduction to this fact dates back to my first years in Chicago, beginning in 1948.  During the Forties and Fifties were the golden years for the saxophonist in Chitown, and Von Freeman was in the thick of things.  I had the pleasure of working with Von, George and Bruz, and certainly considered this family an integral part of the music history.”  What’s your memory of Ahmad Jamal coming to Chicago?

Well, you know, he was around Chicago and not really doing that much.  I happened to have a little gig at a place called the Club De Lisa, which used to be one of the main spots, but it had been burned out a couple of times and it had really gotten down to nothing.  And that’s where I first met him.  And I said, “Man, you play beautifully.  What’s your name?”  He told me.  And I said, “I’ve got a few little old gigs.  Will you make them with me?”  He said, “Yeah, man, but I’ll tell you.  I’m not much of a band player.  I’m a trio player.”  I said, “Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.”  He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then.  And man, he came with me, and he stayed about two years or so.  And I just thought he was just great.  Of course, I was proven out, because he went on to make history on the piano.  Beautiful little cat.

Another pianist from Chicago who influenced a whole generation of Chicago pianists was Chris Anderson, who was in your Pershing band in the Forties.

VF:    Oh, man, the same difference.  The same difference.  I was playing this great big old skating rink at 63rd and King Drive, and here was a little cat standing over there.  The piano player didn’t show up.  I said, “George, we ain’t got no piano player, man.”  He said, “Well, you play the piano.”  And I was getting ready to play the piano, because I jive around a little bit on piano.  And I heard a voice saying, “I’ll play the piano.”  I said, “Who is this?”  And it was this little cat.  I said, “Come on over here, man.”  Shoot, that little cat, man, he taught me things I never knew existed.  See, he’s a harmonic genius.  And he was crippled and blind, but he had all this strength and this heart, you know.  I said, “Man, what…?  So he stayed with me a long time, until he went to New York.  A great, great player.  Never got his due.  But boy, he was doing things harmonically speaking that people are just now playing.

In the last few years he’s done trios with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, and really elaborated his sound.

VF:    Yes.  And speaking of Ahmad, now, he hung around Chris for a long time, see, before he went to New York.  Before that thing he made at the Pershing that made him famous, “But Not For Me” and all that, he had been hanging with Chris.  So Chris was one of the cats.

One of the great drummers in Chicago, who only did one incredibly badly recorded record, was Ike Day, who Max Roach used to speak about with great enthusiasm. I know you worked on the bandstand with him a lot.

He and I used to hang out; we’d go around playing tenor and drum ensembles together. He was a great drummer. Hhe was one of the first guys I had heard with all that polyrhythm type of playing; you know, sock cymbal doing one thing, bass drum another, snare drum another. He was very even-handed. Like the things Elvin does a lot of? Well, Ike did those way back in the ’40s and the late ’30s.

I know he liked Chick Webb, and he  liked  Max Roach. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer. He was very well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time. He had that quiet fire thing, which I notice all great drummers have.  They can play dramatically but still not be blaring.  It’s sort of like playing the trumpet.  Playing the trumpet so it’s pleasing is hard thing to do — and still have drive and fire.  So I think of the drums the same way.  See, a lot of cats make a whole lot of noise.  They’re not trying to make noise, but they’re geared to this high sound thing.  Then other cats can play the same thing on the drums, but it’s much quieter.  And of course, it moves the ladies, because you know, the ladies love that quiet, sweet thing with a lot of force, with a lot of fire.  And of course, my darlings… I always try to please my darlings, baby!

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