Category Archives: WKCR

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 the 83rd Birthday Anniversary of the late Paul Motian (1931-2011), Some Unedited Interviews Between 1993 and 2005

Paul Motian (1931-2011) was born 83 years ago today in Providence, Rhode Island. Shortly after his death, I posted a few encounters with Paul — one link gives you a 2008 WKCR interview that I published on the www.jazz.com ‘zine and a 2001 feature article for DownBeat; another takes you to  an uncut Blindfold Test from around 2000.  I’ll use the occasion as an excuse to post several complete interviews that I had an opportunity to do with Paul over the years. . I actually can’t remember what the occasion was for the 2005 encounter — maybe a DownBeat Readers or Critics Poll article (that text is somehow mysteriously missing from my files). There follows a 2007 conversation for a lengthy obituary of Max Roach that I wrote for DownBeat. Then comes an interview from 2000 — I think this was done live on WKCR — in which many topics are addressed, not least his Electric Bebop Band. Finally, I’ve posted my first interview with Paul, from 1993 on WKCR, during one of the many weeks he did at the Village Vanguard with the trio he formed in the early ’80s with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. Finally, as a reward for plowing through all this stuff, the post concludes with a full set of  interviews that I conducted with various PM associates and musical partners (Stefan Winter, Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Brian Blade, Joey Baron) that I conducted for that 2001 DownBeat article.

 

Paul Motian (Ted Panken) – (July 30, 2005):

TP: I need to ask you about the scope of your activity right now.

PAUL: One thing I’m excited about is that the week after next I’m going to mix the last Electric Bebop Band record I did, which we did in the studio last November for ECM. On some of the tunes, there’s three guitar players—Steve Cardenas, Ben Monder, and Jacob Bro. It’s the same band that played the Vanguard last January. [Malaby-Cheek]

TP: So these days you’re playing in New York and doing special hits in Europe…

PAUL: No, I haven’t been in Europe… I haven’t traveled for almost two years. I got burnt out. I hate it.

TP: All these projects with Enrico Pieranunzi that came out on CAMI-Sunnyside were in 2002-03. One’s a duo, with a few trios with Potter; one is a quintet date on Fellini music; one is a trio with Charlie Haden and him.

PAUL: Those were done a couple of years ago in Italy at Morricone’s studio. Nice. Charlie Haden didn’t like it, but I liked it.

TP: So you’re doing this thing with Bill McHenry, you’ve got the Electric Bebop Band, and there are a few records coming out that Tina Pelikan has sent with, with Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani.

PAUL: Those are nice. I like that.

TP: Then this thing with Bobo Stenson.

PAUL: That’s nice, too. I just got a copy. I’m surprised how good that was.

TP: You went to Europe for those?

PAUL: No-no.

TP: They had to come here.

PAUL: Right.

TP: Everybody’s got to come to you now.

PAUL: Right.

TP: You only go out of New York for vacation?

PAUL: I don’t go on vacation. I go to the Vanguard. That’s my vacation! You know what I was excited about? I just played the Vanguard the first week of June with my band that’s called Trio 2000 + 1. That was great. [Poo Kikuchi, Chris Potter, Larry Grenadier; maybe another record]

TP: Are you now contracted to ECM?

PAUL: No, I’m not contracted to anybody. But I have been working with ECM lately. The last trio record with Frisell and Lovano we did for ECM, and the very first record with that trio we did for ECM.

TP: That was the end of your first go-around with them.

PAUL: Sure. It was in 1984-85.

TP: But you did your first trio records, with Izenson and Brackeen for ECM. So this is your second go-around with ECM. How is it?

PAUL: Great. Manfred Eicher is great. I trust him 2000%, especially during the mix. He’s got such great ears. Wow, he’s incredible. I love the sound of that trio record we did with Frisell and Lovano. Also the sounds of Enrico’s record and Bobo’s record. So I’m really looking forward to this Bebop band record.

TP: This thing started again when you went into the studio with Marilyn Crispell a few years ago.

PAUL: That’s kind of true, I guess.

TP: How did this happen? You had a very productive relationship going on with Stefan Winter from about 1987-88 until maybe three years ago.

PAUL: I must have done more than a dozen records with him.

TP: I think you did. And he gave you a lot of opportunity to put out all your different projects.

PAUL: Yes. In fact, there are still some records coming out now that have been re-released. A trio record with Frisell and Lovano that was recorded at the Vanguard that’s coming out now. We’re going to be playing in September at the Vanguard for two weeks.

TP: Has the trio been working?

PAUL: We played Carnegie Hall. That’s it.

TP: Were most of the pieces on this new record fairly recent?

PAUL: Yes. By not going on the fucking road, I’ve been staying and writing music. I think there are 7 or 8 new pieces I wrote for that record, and there’s I think six new pieces I wrote that will be on the bebop record.

TP: This bebop band record won’t be repertory…

PAUL: Well, there are a couple of Mingus tunes on there. It’s been so long since I’ve heard it; I’ve forgotten most of it. There’s a lot of my new tunes, and I think we did Mingus’ Pithecanthropus Erectus and Goodbye Porkpie Hat, and I think we did a Charlie Parker blues.

TP: You played with Monk that one week in Boston.

PAUL: Right. In 1960.
TP: You said you were scared to death, but you got through it.

PAUL: I was.

TP: You also said that Monk had you sing him your beat, and then he said play it this way.

PAUL: “Try it this way.”

TP: I don’t think you ever played with Bud Powell.

PAUL: No.

TP: And you didn’t play with Bird.

PAUL: I saw Bird play once.

TP: Did you play with Mingus ever?

PAUL: I sat in with him once at the Vanguard. I never really worked with him. I hardly remember it. I heard an interview with Jackie Paris once on WKCR, and he said he was with Mingus on the Vanguard, and he remembered a night when he threw everybody off the stage except Paul Motian. And I wasn’t working with him. I must have been sitting in or something. In those days at the Vanguard, there was always two bands. I might have been playing with Bill Evans opposite Mingus.

I’ll tell you, man, I forget a lot of shit. Somebody asked me, “Did you ever play with Jimmy Nottingham, the trumpet player?” I said, “No.” Then they showed me a picture of me playing with him.

TP: I’d figure that playing with Mingus would be a fairly memorable moment. And you have the gig book.

PAUL: No, it was mostly.. I did play a lot with Oscar Pettiford, though.

TP: The reason I’m asking is that at the time you put together the Bebop Band, there was almost a coming full circle quality. You came up in bebop, you expanded your vocabulary, your way of playing, your notion of time, and in your sixties, as a fully mature player…

PAUL: What’s happened with the bebop band now is that I started incorporating my own music. It started out only bebop, and then we went from that to putting in some standard songs, and then I introduced a couple of my tunes, and now I’m playing a lot of my songs. I’m just mixing the whole thing up.

TP: The way you approach the band changed. Initially, it was a head-solo-solo-solo-head kind of thing, but then you started changing up the arrangements, doing shout choruses…basically orchestrating it. I think it was the first time you used a larger ensemble as a vehicle for your music.

PAUL: Yes. It’s nice having that instrument. All those players, all those instruments…man, it’s great. Did I tell you the story of what Ornette said one time? I had just come from a rehearsal of the bebop band. This was years ago. I met Ornette in the street, around Broadway and 72nd Street. He asked me what I was doing, and I said I just came from a rehearsal with the bebop band, we were playing bebop tunes, and everybody was playing in unison. Ornette said, “all music is a unison.” I said, “Oh great.” That made me feel good!

TP: Lee Konitz told me about rehearsing with Ornette, and he was a bit nervous about there not being changes, and Charlie Haden told him and said, “don’t worry, we play changes…”

PAUL: That’s the story Dewey Redman says. They were rehearsing for a recording, and they were playing this melody that had no changes. Dewey said to Ornette, “Man, it would be great if this had changes.” So the next day Ornette came in with the same tune, and there was a change over every single note. So Dewey said he never asked him about changes again!

TP: You told me a story about Max Roach sitting in on your drums and telling you they were very hard to play, because they were so tightly tuned.

PAUL: Yes. That was at the Half Note.

TP: So the Electric Bebop Band recorded in November…

PAUL: It will probably be a year before that comes out! The record I did with Bobo Stenson is just coming out now, and I did that record when I did the trio record with Frisell and Lovano. [April 2004]. The bebop record I did around the same time I did Enrico Rava’s record.

We did the MFL record date right after I had a root canal. I had a fuckin’ toothache like… I called the dentist, and I went in, I had a root canal around 9 o’clock in the morning, and I went to the studio around 10, and we did that whole record that one afternoon.

TP: That’s very old-school, Paul.

PAUL: Well, I’m old. Anyway, we’re going to play in the Vanguard with the bebop band in January. It would be great if the record would come out at that time, but I doubt it.

TP: What is it about the way Manfred Eicher hears you…

PAUL: It’s him, but it’s also the engineer. James Farber was the engineer on just about all those records we’re talking about, and he’s got my sound down great. He’s got my sound on my drums that’s really wonderful. He’s really good at that. I’m very happy about that.

TP: In some of these conversations you’ve said contradictory things about drum-sound. On the one hand, it doesn’t really matter to you what drumset you play, you just go out and deal with it. You said you decided not to take your drum-key on a tour, and nobody had a drum-key on the whole tour, and you just dealt with it. You’d hear a sound and you’d play it. But on the other hand, you said that starting with Paul Bley, really, after you left Bill Evans, you became much more acutely conscious of the sound and timbre of the different components of the kit, and that this set off a sea change in the way you conceptualized the drums. Is that more or less how it was?

PAUL: That’s kind of true. But the thing is, when I went to Europe, I didn’t have my drums, so I had to deal with whatever I got. But I sort of managed to get through it and I was still able to play how I play. That’s what I meant. The sound was nowhere near what I really love, which are my own drums. Being in New York and playing just here and recording and always having my own drums, it’s a pleasure. I love that. But I have to deal with that stuff in Europe, playing on other drumsets. Sometimes I would manage to get my sound, but not really my sound as if I get them on my own drums.

TP: Are you still a Gretsch artist? Can you articulate what you like about the kit?

PAUL: No. [LAUGHS] It’s just the sound of the drums, the way they’re tuned. There’s kind of a bottom sound that I really love, especially with the bass drum and the tuning of the drums, the intervals between each individual drum. It’s great. It makes a lot of sense to me. It’s very musical. I played at Dizzy Gillespie’s Coca-Cola Room with Joe Lovano, Mulgrew Miller and George Mraz, and it seemed different to me. I had my own drums and my own cymbals, but it seemed like after the second or third night I changed the cymbals. That’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like that. It seemed that in that room, the cymbals I was using didn’t quite sound right. There’s a huge glass wall behind you, there’s a wooden stage, and there’s a wooden floor in the club. People in the club say the sound is great, but for me it was very different. I changed the cymbals. But after I changed my cymbals, I was satisfied. It sounded good.

TP: I guess another first for you is playing with Hank Jones on these several hits with Lovano. But you didn’t tour with Lovano, did you.

PAUL: No.

TP: You can only play with him and Hank if it’s in New York. How was it playing with Hank Jones?

PAUL: I loved playing with him. It was great.

TP: That isn’t totally a straight-ahead record, but it sort of is. I guess that never goes away, does it.

PAUL: No. Somebody sent me a CD of something I did with Andrew Hill, and I’m just playing straight-ahead 4/4 time. I don’t really do that any more. It’s a Blue Note record.

TP: I recall that Blackwell was sick in the early ‘90s, you subbed for him with Lovano.

PAUL: I don’t remember that. I remember playing with Dewey Redman when Blackwell got ill.

TP: Joe had a bunch of tunes that were kind of customized for Blackwell, and you dealt with them very much in that style. I hadn’t heard you do that before.

PAUL: Oh. Okay. [LAUGHS] There was a club on West Broadway years ago [Axis], and Dewey had the gig and he called me up. Blackwell was there, but he was so weak, he couldn’t play. I went down and played. Blackwell was really weak, and he was there trying to set up the drums. He was bent over, so weak that he couldn’t put the drumkit together.

TP: In 2001 when you were at the Vanguard, I was standing to the left of the doorway, watching you, and some musician was next to me and said, “Lovano and Frisell are playing the time; Paul isn’t playing the time.” You told me that was true. A lightbulb clicked on or a door opened, and I started hearing certain things. When did you stop hearing 4/4 time within the framework of your own music? You certainly were a helluva time player; you satisfied very demanding people. Why is it no longer part of your customary palette?

PAUL: It depends on the music. It depends on what I’m playing, who I’m playing with and what they’re doing. I’m sort of feeding off of them. The time is there. It’s already there. You don’t have to beat it to death, I don’t think. There was no one particular time when a lightbulb went off and I said, “Oh, man, I’m going to change, I’m going to do this or that.” I never thought that way at all. I never thought about doing anything special or doing anything on purpose. It just happened. It depended on who I played with. I remember the day when I first played with Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, the way Scott LaFaro was playing. I’d never played with a bass player who played like that before. I was playing with Oscar Pettiford, Tommy Potter, Curley Russell, Wilbur Ware, people who just played straight-ahead 4/4 time. Here was Scott LaFaro playing… People used to say, “He sounds like a guitar player.” All of a sudden, the time started to break up. I guess maybe during that period was when I first started to realize that the time was already there; you don’t have to play it all the time. Maybe. Now it seems that every bass player plays like that. But in those days, it seemed that nobody played like that. Maybe Gary Peacock might have, but I didn’t know Gary yet.

TP: I think he came to New York a couple of years later. So the trio is playing in September. Do you discern any difference in the way the trio sounds? Might it be just the way Lovano and Frisell have evolved? I assume you listen to these records pretty closely?

PAUL: I think I take it more or less for granted now! I don’t think Frisell or Lovano play that much better now than they did 20 years ago. They played great then. But if I told people about it, they wouldn’t…

TP: You said “they were famous then, but no one would believe me.”

PAUL: That makes sense! I guess they’ve made some progress, I would hope!

TP: Both of them have 20-year careers as leaders, but when they play with you they blend together, and it’s interesting to hear it because of who they’ve become…

PAUL: Yeah, that’s true. I was playing some of that older stuff recently, and the difference is in their sound. They’ve developed different… To listen to Frisell from the first quintet record we did to now is really different. Lovano is not that different, but still there’s some difference in their sound.

TP: Does that have to do with the instruments they use, or the way they think about projecting…

PAUL: Partly. Frisell was using a lot of electronic shit in those days, too, and sometimes now he’s not.

TP: Then he was playing with Zorn and doing a lot of wild shit…

PAUL: This was even before that. I talked to him recently. He’s up in Canada now playing with a group, and it sounds like they’re playing folk music festivals.

TP: Another thing I was wondering: As a kid of Turkish-Armenian descent, and having listened to a lot of that music then, were those complex, wild rhythms ever part of your palette?

PAUL: I don’t know about the rhythms. The melodies would be more of an influence. The melodic part, not the rhythmic part. A lot of the music I heard as a kid, if I hear now… Not only Turkish and Armenian, but some Persian music and music that comes out of Iraq and Iran—the Middle East… Some of that music is dear to me. Some of those melodies are really beautiful. I heard something the other day by the Egyptian woman singer who passed away in the ‘70s… I can’t remember her name, but she was really great. She was singing on television with a 20-piece orchestra playing behind her. It blew me away. It was beautiful.

TP: Do your current compositions draw on those early experiences?

PAUL: Oh, yeah. Sure.

TP: Do you still listen to Middle Eastern music?

PAUL: Sometimes.

TP: You said you listen to classical music as well.

PAUL: Yeah.

TP: Are you listening to much jazz at all?

PAUL: I don’t know!

TP: Are you hearing anything you like?

PAUL: I’ve been pulling stuff out and listening. I haven’t heard any new stuff that’s come out. If I listen to stuff it’s probably older… As a matter of fact, the other day I was in a restaurant and I heard something that blew me away. It was Miles Davis, and I was sure it was Kenny Clarke. It just sounded great, and I went on a research and bought a bunch of records until I found what it was, and it was the the soundtrack from the movie, Elevator To the Gallows. There’s this one track with just trio, Miles and Kenny Clarke and Pierre Michelot. Boy, it’s fuckin’ great! Kenny Clarke was one of my big, big loves.

TP: You told me you wondered how he could get so much music out of such a small drumkit. You use not such a huge drumkit yourself.

PAUL: It’s just a normal set. Bass drum, two tom-toms, floor tom-tom, two cymbals, hi-hat, snare drum.

TP: Do they customize it for you?

PAUL: No.

TP: So you don’t give Gretsch specifications?

PAUL: No. As a matter of fact, James Farber asked me when I got my drumkit, and I couldn’t remember. Then he remembered because he said it was on Bill Frisell’s first record on ECM; I had the same drumkit. That means I’ve had it for 15 years or so, and I didn’t realize that. I just went into a drum-shop and bought it.

TP: You’re so matter of fact when you talk about these areas of your career…

PAUL: Yeah! It’s not no deep fuckin’ secret! People talk about this shit like it’s some kind of…

TP: But you were involved in a lot of cataclysmic events. The Bill Evans Trio, which influenced every pianist who came after. You’re involved in the Keith Jarrett Quartet, and a ton of people are still drawing on that vocabulary. You came in on Albert Ayler and Paul Bley and a certain way of organizing that kind of thing. Frisell and Lovano, that trio set a template for everybody under 40 (who went to a conservatory anyway). So that’s at least four major shifts in the music that you’re part of.

PAUL: Well, okay.

TP: Well, you know this. It seems to be part of following your instincts, the quotidian thing of being a working musician in New York. “I like it, I go there, I play it.”

PAUL: Yeah-yeah. That’s it, man. There’s no…

TP: But wasn’t it a conceptual leap to play behind Albert Ayler after you’d been playing with Bill Evans?

PAUL: No.

TP: Maybe Scott LaFaro prepared you for that.

PAUL: Nobody prepared me for… No. No! No, man. None of that stuff is true! Somebody calls you for a gig, and you go, and you play, and you play with the people that you play with, and you play with them, and you try to make music. You try to make music with the people you’re playing with, and then play a certain way, so you might play a certain way just to make it musical or make it magic or make it something that’s worthwhile.

TP: Then it becomes part of your style, doesn’t it.

PAUL: I don’t know.

TP: You don’t let it go. It becomes part of your muscle memory or your brain memory…

PAUL: I don’t know! [LAUGHS]

TP: Has that always been your attitude towards music, from when…

PAUL: When I was first in New York playing with all these fuckin’ great giants of jazz, man, I was thrilled to be doing it and I was happy to be doing it, but when I think about it now, I think I was just lucky to have the opportunity to do that. Someone asked me, “Did you ever play with Sonny Rollins?” I did play with Sonny Rollins. One night at Birdland. It was like a Monday night in Birdland. Sonny Rollins, Tony Fruscella playing trumpet, Curley Russell playing bass, and it was the piano player’s big, Bill Triglia. Bill Triglia called me to make a Monday night at Birdland. I went in there and played, and those were the people I played with. I was kind of scared at the time, when saw it was Sonny Rollins and all these people. But I did my best, tried to play my best, tried to play with them, and learn…I don’t know, just play!

TP: What was the quality in your playing that got you entrenched on the scene? You were working 300 days a year for five-six years, and that probably started around ‘55.

PAUL: Looking at that gig book, there was a time when I played every single night.

TP: So it’s not just luck. You had skills. It can’t be just luck. What was it about you that got all these very diverse personalities to call you?

PAUL: I don’t know.

TP: What do you think?

PAUL: I don’t know, man. Even with Edgar Varese, man. I rehearsed with Edgar Varese, and he recorded it on a tape. Teo Macero still has that tape, man. I don’t even know who called me for that.

TP: Is it just because you had really good time.

PAUL: I don’t know.

TP: Do you think you had really good time?

PAUL: I don’t know. Maybe I was getting high with somebody and they liked me.

TP: But no speculations?

PAUL: Somebody would call me for a gig, and I would be really happy that they called me for the gig. For instance, that night when I played with Sonny Rollins and those cats at Birdland, Zoot Sims was in the audience, and he asked me to go to Cleveland with him. He heard me play that night there, so he must have liked what he heard, and he needed a drummer to play that gig in Cleveland, and he asked me to play that. I did it, and I ended up playing with him and Al Cohn at the Half Note quite a bit. I guess because I was on the scene, and playing so much all over town and in a lot of places, people heard me, and if somebody needed a drummer and liked what they heard from me, they called me. I don’t think it was anything any deeper than that.

TP: By the time you got to New York, you had enough skills together that you could fit into the scene.

PAUL: I don’t know. That time when I played with Monk, I didn’t know his music. I just kept my fingers crossed that I didn’t fall on my fuckin’ ass!

TP: Moving to the present with Bobo Stenson and Enrico Rava: These were set up to put them together with you, I’d think. What sort of preparation do you do? Any rehearsing beforehand?

PAUL: No. We didn’t get together beforehand. No rehearsal. I don’t do that with anybody.

TP: Why not?

PAUL: I just don’t. What for? I’ve been playing long enough. I’m old enough to know what the fuck I’m doing at this point in my life! I don’t need a rehearsal. I’d rather depend on my own skills and my own whatever to play good and play well when the time comes. I don’t want to rehearse. I think a rehearsal takes away from the beauty of the music.

TP: Is that the case with the Bebop Band also?

PAUL: No, we don’t rehearse. The time we rehearse is when we’re setting up and getting ready for a gig.

TP: The soundcheck is the rehearsal.

PAUL: Yeah. That’s what I’m going to do with Bill McHenry, too. On Tuesday I’ll go down there at 4 or 5 in the afternoon, and we’ll go over a few tunes, and that’s it. That’s what happened on the trio record with Frisell and Lovano. We didn’t rehearse. I brought the music in, I showed them the music. We might have tried a few things in the studio, but we didn’t have any specific rehearsal time.

TP: Even though you’re more involved in composition than ever, the aural quality of music is still very important to you.

PAUL: Oh, yeah. Sure. I thought this was going to be a short interview!

TP: When you were a kid learning drums, did you… I think you said you played in high school bands. Did you learn to read, to play in big bands?

PAUL: Yes.

TP: You have those skills.

PAUL: Well, I don’t…

TP: Or had.

PAUL: I did that, sure. I took drum lessons and read the drum books, went through that. I played, even in pre high school, in the band. I was 12 years old when I started, and any time there was an opportunity to play in a band in school, I did that, and as soon as I got out of school I played. I went on tours with the big band throughout New England before I went into the Service, before the Korean War. Then I played in the band during the Korean War when I was in the Navy. I was in a band!

TP: How did Bill Evans rehearse the band? Was it a bandstand process? You told me you’d go to his apartment and play?

PAUL: It wasn’t rehearsals. We would play. He had an apartment on 82nd or 84th Street.

TP: You said there were a lot more sessions then anyway, so those sessions were like de facto…

PAUL: Right. I saw Bob Dorough the other day, and we talked about that. He used to have a place in the east 70s. I used to play there a lot, up four-five flights of stairs and play. Sessions around town. I used to play all the time. That’s the way it went.

TP: that was the musical culture of the city then.
PAUL: People don’t do that now, I suppose.

TP: How did the association with Bill McHenry begin?

PAUL: He called me to record with him. I guess he knew me. I had never met him. I might have heard about him. I’m not quite sure. But he called me to record with him, and I did, and when I did the record, I really liked it. I liked his music, and I liked playing with him and the band, and the recording was really good. Then when he got a gig at the Vanguard, he called me and I said okay. I think this is the third or fourth time for us at the Vanguard. I think we’re going to record live in the coming week.

TP: Did you decide to do it after he sent you a tape of his stuff, or you just liked the way he approached you?

PAUL: I don’t think he sent me a tape.

TP: What are you looking for in the musicians you play? You seem to keep adding young musicians to your circle.

PAUL: I’m a little careful about what I’m doing. In fact, somebody called me recently from Boston, left a message on my machine, told me he was a piano player and told me his name, and told me the name of the bass player, and said they wanted to come to New York and do a record, and they wanted me to make a record with them. I didn’t return the call. I didn’t know who they were.

TP: But you knew who Bill McHenry was.

PAUL: Yeah. Somebody calls me out of the blue like that, I won’t even react to it unless I talk to the person and they tell me what they do and what the project is about, and maybe I might get interested. I don’t know. But if I don’t know them, I’m not going to get involved.

TP: Are you looking for any particular qualities?

PAUL: Good music.

TP: It seems a lot of your band members have come into your bands on recommendations. Bill D’Arango told you about Lovano, Pat Metheny told you about Frisell… Frisell told you about Kurt Rosenwinkel… But it’s the recommendations.

PAUL: Yes, that happens a lot. Matter of fact, with Malaby, Chris Potter was playing with me, and then he couldn’t anymore, and something else happened, and when I asked about other saxophone players I think he mentioned Tony Malaby…or it might have been Chris Cheek. But that’s the way it goes. Somebody would recommend someone, or I’d ask about someone… If I trust someone’s… Like, Masabumi Kikuchi has been telling me recently about Greg Osby. I don’t know Greg Osby; I don’t think I’ve heard him play. But Masabumi told me he likes him, and he recommended him, and I trust Masabumi. So if it came up that I wanted some… [END OF SIDE A]

TP: You would have no compunction about calling him, and might respond if he called you.

PAUL: Yeah.
TP: But you’ve heard of him. You know of him by reputation.

PAUL: Sure.

TP: So you’re doing this thing with Bill McHenry next week, and it’s been going on for several years. Then you’re going to mix the Bebop band record, and that’s maybe the 7th or 8th record by the Bebop band, but the first for ECM, and they’re going to play in January at the Vanguard. Then Lovano-Frisell-Motian is two weeks in September at the Vanguard. Any other new projects? We have the Enrico Rava and Bobo Stenson records…

PAUL: We’re talking about playing Dizzy’s Coca-Cola Room at the end of November with Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani. But I haven’t heard back from Todd Barkan, who books the room. I don’t know if it’s going to happen. But I would hope it happens; I’d like to do that. In fact, the sound in the room with that trio might be more to my liking since there’s no bass.

Also I think I’m going to do two nights at Birdland with Enrico Pieranunzi and Marc Johnson in March. In April, I’m playing the Vanguard again with Trio 2000 + 1. Also, the two weeks with Lovano and Frisell at the Vanguard again, too. We do it every year around August-September. I love playing at the Vanguard. It sounds great in there. The sound is beautiful in there! I just love it. Every time I play in another club, it’s never as good. It’s amazing, isn’t it, man? I think the first time I played in there, it must have been in fuckin’ 1954 or ‘55. I played in there with Lee Konitz. I think it was 1955.

TP: You have a gig book entry for New Year’s Eve, 1956. Fifty years at the Village Vanguard.

PAUL: Yeah! I’m sorry I’m not more articulate. Some people are so good at that. Keith Jarrett is great at that. Bill Evans was incredibly articulate.

TP: How’s your book project?

PAUL: I’m looking at it now. It’s on the floor. Every couple of months I pick it up and look at it, and then I correct it. A lot of the stuff I’ve told you is in there.

TP: Last time I spoke to you, you said you had an editor.

PAUL: I don’t know any more. Sort of an ex-girlfriend of mine is a writer and screenwriter and filmmaker, and she helped me a little bit and said she would be an editor. But she lives in Canada, man. I was enthusiastic at one point, but now sometimes, when I read over some it, it sounds kind of stupid. My next door neighbor works for a publishing company. He said, “come on, Paul; just let it go.” Publish it!

TP: You wouldn’t do that with your drumming.

PAUL: It’s quite different, man. I’m not that good at writing.

TP: During the’50s and ‘60s, a lot of the artists were tight with… There was a lot of back-and-forth between the different artistic communities. Did you have a lot of painter friends, writer friends during the time?

PAUL: I remember there used to be sessions at Larry Rivers’ place in the Village. I think he played. Then he had another friend who was a painter that played saxophone. I think that kind of thing was going on. But my memory isn’t that good about it.

TP: Were you part of the Five Spot scene?

PAUL: I don’t think I ever played in there. That’s when I met Charlie Haden for the first time.

TP: I guess you didn’t have time to hang so much, did you. You were always playing, always working.

PAUL: Pretty much. Now everybody wants to hang and I don’t! I don’t have the time. Charlie Haden’s called me four times already to come to the Blue Note. I’m not going down there.

I knew Alvin Ailey. He used to live in my building. Matter of fact, one time he asked me if Keith Jarrett was black, and when I said no, he said, “Oh, fuck him,” and then he used his music anyway! [LAUGHS] That was funny because Alvin wanted to use his music, and then when he found out he wasn’t black, he wasn’t going to use it. Then he used it anyway!

I knew Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. They used to be on the scene.

I was just looking through part of my book where I wrote about Pee Wee Marquette. One was about the pronunciation of my name at Birdland.

TP: If you didn’t tip him, he would pronounce it wrong.

PAUL: Right. Then finally I gave him $5 one night, and he said something like, “Paul Mo-tee-ann!” Some shit like that. It was funny! Then I saw him later on when he was in front of his Hawaiian restaurant on Broadway, sort of like a street hawker. I stopped and talked to him for a while, and that was the last time I saw him. I remember once talking to him, when after a gig at Birdland he asked me where I was playing next, and I told him I was playing at the Vanguard. He didn’t know where it was. He asked me where it was. When I told him, he told me that he’d never been below 42nd Street in his life!

TP: It’s interesting. There were no clubs in the Village presenting modern jazz until the Bohemia until 1955. There were sessions, but it was Nick’s and Eddie Condon’s and that sort of thing.

PAUL: Well, the Bohemia, we used to play sessions in there before they… The Bohemia was one of the places where you could have sessions, where I used to go to play, to have sessions. Then they opened up as a jazz club, and Charlie Parker was supposed to open it, and he died. It was just a bar to go to have sessions, just like Arthur’s Tavern. These were places where you could go and play. There was no money involved; it was just a place for jam sessions.

TP: Randy Weston told me he did his first gig at Arthur’s in 1943 with Lucky Millinder’s guitar player.

PAUL: Wow!

TP: Where was Take 3?

PAUL: I think it was on McDougal around the corner from where Visiones used to be. I think it’s the third or fourth building north of Bleecker on McDougal on the west side of the street. I think there was a basement part and another part that was upstairs. That’s where I played with Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, John Gilmore…

[—30—]

 

Gretsch Artist:

Bass drum, 20″
Snare drum, 5-1/2″ wood
TwoTom-Toms on the bass drum, one is 8″ x 12″, the other is 9″ x 13″
Floor Tom-Tom is 14″ x 16″

Two cymbals. One is A. Zildjian, 20″ w/ rivets (had it for 50 years)
Other one is Paiste 22″ Dark Ride

Hi-Hats are 14″. One is a Paiste 14″ dark cymbal. The other is old Zildjian Army cymbal that he got in a parade somewhere (over 50 years)

Gretsch Permatone Drum Heads which are the closest thing to the old calf-skin heads. “They really make the difference. A lot of drumsets now have these seethrough plastic heads, which are good for rock-and-roll, but they’re not good for me.”

* * *

Paul Motian on Max Roach (Aug. 19, 2007):
TP: I assume you first heard Max Roach on the Charlie Parker recordings from the ‘40s and other bebop records.

PAUL: Yes. I was pretty young at the time. I was up in Providence, Rhode Island, maybe still in high school… I remember listening to live broadcasts from New York, maybe from Birdland, maybe even before Birdland opened. Birdland opened in December 1949, and I guess I was out of high school by then. But I heard stuff on the radio that Max was on, and I remember sending letters and money to whatever address it was in New York, and they send me back a 78 disc of the recording that I wanted that had Max on it. I used to get that in the mail, and that was the first time I heard Max, I guess. When I heard it, I was kind of in shock. I was pretty young at the time, and I didn’t know too much. But I loved what I heard, and I thought it was interesting and really great, and I wanted to have those records and recordings, so I used to send away for it, and I got these 78 discs.

Of course, he was a very strong influence on me. What he played seemed to be so hip and so modern and so great, and different from… Kenny Clarke was one of the important people in my life who influenced me, but Max was doing something a little bit different. His solos were a little bit different, and just seemed to be really hip and fit right in with what Bird was doing, and the bebop music that was being played. It just seemed really hip and strong, and very well done, and really great.

Did you ever see that movie with Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones) that Max was in, where they play music that’s sort of from Carmen? It was made in the ‘50s. With Harry Belafonte…

Then when I came to New York in the mid ‘50s, and I saw Max play when he had the band with Clifford Brown and Harold Land, and later with Sonny Rollins… That’s when I first saw him play. There was a club called Basin Street. That might have been the first time. No, there was another time. I had just graduated from high school, and Birdland had just opened, and I drove to New York. I had an old car, and I was 16-17 years old, and I went to Birdland. I saw a band that had Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell, all these all-star great jazz bebop players, and I thought the drummer was Max. I remember telling the story to Art Blakey one time in a dressing room when I was in Japan, and Art told me, “No, that wasn’t Max; that was me.” But I still feel like it was Max. That might have been the first time. If it wasn’t, then the first time had to be one of those times when I saw him in New York in that band with Clifford Brown.

TP: For Ratliff you chose “Carolina Moon” by Monk which Max was on. That was in ‘52.

PAUL: I didn’t see that. I heard it on record.

TP: You used to live a few blocks away from him also, on CPW.

PAUL: Yeah, right near me. I used to see him here a lot. If I was walking on Central Park West… I remember bumping into him a couple of times when he was standing in the street in front of his building. We used to talk, and he’d tell some stories. I remember we were talking about Bud Powell, and he told me that when they did the recording with Bud Powell where they played “Un Poco Loco,” he started playing a pretty standard Latin beat on the drums. DING-DING-DA-DING, DING-DING-DA-DING. That’s a pretty standard beat. He said he was doing that on “Un Poco Loco,” and Bud Powell stopped the shit and said, “Max, what are you doing? You’re Max Roach. Can’t you come up with anything better than that?” That’s how Max came up with the beat he played on that recording, which is so great.

TP: I heard Max relate that as “You’re supposed to be Max Roach.”

PAUL: Could have been. Then Max said he bumped into Bud Powell in Harlem after the recording, and he said, “Bud said to me, ‘Hey, Max, you fucked up my record.” Max was telling me, “You know Bud. He was crazy.”

TP: You remarked to Ratliff that once you saw Max with a bass player, Al Cotton, and he told you to watch how Max addressed the drums.

PAUL: How he played and how he moved. Al was saying, “Check him out. Listen.” I seem to remember that there was a balcony or something. I was kind of far away and sort of looking down on the stage, and he said, “Watch how Max plays. He’s not just using his hands and wrists; he’s using his whole body. Look how he moves.” I was checking that out and saying, “Yeah, man, that’s really got something to do with it. You use your whole body. It’s not just in your hands.”

TP: You also talked to Ratliff about the precision and clarity of his arrangements, specifically “Delilah,” but that’s characteristic of the sound of the Brown-Roach band.

PAUL: That’s true. I remember saying that. I love that record, and I play it now and then. The arrangements with that band are so great—and probably all the bands Max was involved in. How meticulous it was, how great it was. There was always an arrangement. There was always an introduction… It wasn’t just always the standard way, like “this guy plays, then he plays, then you take it out.” It seemed like it had something extra in it, it was something special, and it was arranged so beautifully, man. That shit was incredible.

TP: You also spoke about how Max played the form of the song, both accompanying and leading into the solo. Anything you can say to me about that?

PAUL: Well, just that. You can use what I told Ben. Max plays a great solo on that Monk record where they play “Brilliant Corners,” a great chorus.

On the day that Max died, it’s really strange… Before I knew that he died, I was on my computer and went to iTunes, and I played “Koko” by Max with Charlie Parker. Max plays a chorus on “Koko” that’s incredible. Really great. Then later on, on ABC News, they talked about Max, that he had just died, and I had already heard that Max had died, and then they played a clip on TV that was his solo on “Koko.” Sometimes people say that magic is all in your head and it’s not really true, but I think that’s bullshit. Sometimes there’s shit in the air that just happens like that. I guess it’s by coincidence, but it’s hard not to believe that there’s magic in the air sometimes.

TP: as a kid, did you try to play that solo, get it under your hands?

PAUL: Not that particular solo…

TP: But other solos by him?

PAUL: Sure. I tried to copy what I heard. Sure. I did that with a lot of drummers.

TP: Can you talk about what he did that distinguished him from Kenny Clarke or Art Blakey or Roy Haynes?

PAUL: I wish I could. One of the things is sound. Kenny Clarke played great, Art Blakey played great, Philly Joe played great, but they all had their own sound. Big Sid Catlett. If I listen to these guys, I can hear a different… Max’s sound was different from those.

TP: Was it his drum tuning?

PAUL: Could be. That would have something to do with it. But also his technique. The technique that he had, it wasn’t just technique—it was musical. He made music out of the technique that he had. I guess they all did that, but his sound was a little bit different. It could have been in the tuning of the drums, could have been the way that he played… Boy, it’s really hard. I wish I could make it clearer. I just read an interview of Sonny Rollins from Vanity Fair, and he said some stuff in there that’s hard for me to understand. He was asked about people he admires, and he said there really wasn’t anyone. But for me, I admire people like that, who can explain stuff in words that I can’t do.

TP: Some of the younger drummers say, for one thing, Max tuned his drums higher than other people, so he was able to set up intervals to enable his melodic concept of soloing.

PAUL: That’s kind of true. But I have another story for you. I was playing with Tony Scott at the Half Note in the late ‘50s, and my drums were down there on the stage, I was all set up, but I had another gig that day, so I was late when I got to my gig at the Half Note, and when I got there Max Roach was playing in my place on my drums. I said, “Wow, isn’t that great; my man, Max, is playing on my drums. I felt great, I felt proud, I felt privileged.” Then when he came off the stage, he said to me… At that time, my drumset was made by a company called Leedy, and I used to tune my drums really tight. The heads were…I guess the word is taut. It’s not easy to play drums when they’re tuned like that. But Max came off the stage and came up to me, and he said, “Man, I just subbed for you, but your drums were really hard to play. You keep those drum heads really tight.” He found them hard to play. But he played his ass off. Of course, he played great. But when the drums are like that, you can’t fake anything. You’ve got to play the shit, and he did. But he did tell me that it was difficult.
TP: I guess that was a good compliment.

PAUL: It sure was. My drums aren’t tuned like that now, but they were then. He had a hard time with it.

TP: People have also talked about the way he incorporated Afro-Caribbean rhythms and even East Indian rhythms into his beat flow, that he was ahead of the curve.

PAUL: I don’t know about that. I don’t know if I was aware of any of that. Although there were things in the paper about different groups he had, and M’Boom, with all the drummers, and the band he had later with Odean Pope and Cecil Bridgewater… I didn’t hear that much of that. When I was really into it… The thing that killed me and knocked me out was the band with Clifford Brown and Harold Land and Richie Powell—and Sonny Rollins later—and George Morrow. Actually, that was my first experience of being involved in the jazz scene, and learning about people dying and being killed. When Clifford Brown and Richie Powell got killed in that car crash on the turnpike, that was my first experience of that, and it was really devastating. Since then, there’s been multitudes of people! But that was the first time that ever happened to me, and that fucked me up.

TP: Do you recall when you first met Max Roach to get to know him? Did he come to hear you play, or at a Monday night at Birdland?

PAUL: It could have been. But I must have known him before that Monday night when he subbed for me at the Half Note.

TP: For one thing, you were playing with Tristano all the time, so he must have…

PAUL: I was. But the other thing is, there was an interview with him in Downbeat back then, in the ‘50s, and they asked him if he heard any new young drummers on the scene in New York, and who did he hear and who did he like, and he named me and Elvin as the two drummers he heard and liked. That made me very proud, and I felt really good about that. The other thing was, I did this recording with George Russell, one of the first recordings I did, and I remember going to the Café Bohemia with George Russell, and we walked in, and there was Max sitting at the bar. That might have been the first time I met him. George Russell went up to Max and said, “Max, this is Paul Motian; he just recorded with me. I wanted to know if I could use that quote of yours that Paul and Elvin are two young drummers you heard that you liked.” Max said, “Yeah, you can use that.” That made me really feel good.

TP: Among your peer group in the ‘50s, was Max respected as the main guy?

PAUL: I suppose. I don’t know. I would hope so. I would guess so. One thing that makes me sad is that Big Sid Catlett died pretty young, and he was still alive when I was in New York…

TP: He died in 1951, I believe.

PAUL: Oh. I wasn’t in New York then. But I never saw him play. That’s too bad.
TP: You saw Papa Jo Jones play, though.

PAUL: Sure.

TP: So you continued to know Max, but it sounds like you weren’t so up on what he was doing after the early ‘60s.

PAUL: I guess maybe not.

TP: What did you think of his solo compositions? Did you check them out?

PAUL: Sure. There was another time I was in Europe, Sicily maybe, at a jazz festival, where the bands played. It was outdoors. He played a solo. I remember seeing and hearing that. It was great! He put that shit together so good!

TP: During the late ‘40s and early ‘50s he was studying composition formally, and orchestral percussion and so on. Another thing people are talking about are the components of his kit. He had a floor tom with a pedal that was set up to sound like a tympany, and he used a little tom-tom on the snare that he’d use. So there were certain tonal things that were part of his sound.

PAUL: I didn’t know any of that. One thing I remember, though, that surprised me that I didn’t know about… I didn’t know too much about his history or what he studied. But I remember being in the Vanguard one time, and I don’t know if I was playing there or not, or if I was just there, or if Max was playing there… I don’t know. But there was no one playing at the time, it might have been at the end of the night, and Max was sitting at the piano, playing the piano. Knocked me right on my ass! I didn’t know. I said, “Wow, isn’t that interesting. He knows what to do on piano. I should have known that anyway, but I didn’t. But when I saw him play piano, I was a little surprised, and thought that was really great. It made me want to study music more, and get into composition, which I wasn’t at the time. I’m not sure if I was playing with Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett; it was a while ago. But when I saw that, it sort of turned me on to want to do more… Because I didn’t get into composing and trying to study piano and all of that until I was in my mid forties. So when I saw that at that early time, it made me think about that, and wanting to be better at what I did, and getting more into learning more about music. When I first studied drums, I didn’t know that a song had 32 bars, or changes, or whatever. But seeing Max do that, and then getting into that, just turned me on.

TP: Do you think a lot of drummers were like you, not as trained, and Max inspired that?

PAUL: Yes. The joke always was, “Oh, he’s not a musician; he’s a drummer.” That made me mad! [LAUGHS]

Max was very intelligent and very articulate. He knew what he was talking about, and he made people like me understand… He wasn’t a fuckin’ dodo, man. He knew what he was talking about, he was very articulate and very sure of what he said, and very strong.

Look at all the stuff that he did. He wasn’t just a drummer who had a band and shit. He had the double quartet, the M’Boom thing, the Freedom Now Suite, all those different things. He was incredible. He was great. What about that documentary about him, where he plays with the hip-hop group. That documentary also has a clip of Kenny Clarke and a clip of Big Sid Catlett.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

* * *

Paul Motian (9-7-00):

TP: Vis-a-vis the electric bebop band, what was the motivation for going back to the repertoire that I suppose you began with?

MOTIAN: Well, that band started ten years or so even before that, but I didn’t do anything with it. I just had a rehearsal with different people. It was Mike Stern and Bill Frisell on guitar and Mark Egan on bass and myself. We had a rehearsal in my house, and I taped it, and then I kind of forgot about it. then ten years or so later, I was on tour with Charlie Haden, and Charlie’s son, Josh, who is also a bass player and has a band of his called Spain… I just mentioned it to Josh, about bebop music and what I was doing back then, and he said, “Oh, that sounds really interesting; I’d like to hear that. At that time I was playing at the Vanguard with Geri Allen and Charlie Haden, and I said, “Okay, in the afternoon let’s get together and we’ll have a little rehearsal. So we did, with Josh Haden and Kurt Rosenwinkel and another guitarist, Dave Fiuczinski. That was the late ’80s or so. Then I got interested in it again. About ’90 or ’91 or ’92, Kurt came over to my house and we talked about it, and then we put this band back together, and it was just two electric guitars, electric bass and drums. The bass player was Stomu Takeishi at the time, and Brad Schoeppach and Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar. It grew out of that.

TP: You’ve played the whole realm of improvising and been on the forward tip of it at any particular time you’ve played in, playing with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh and Oscar Pettiford in the ’50s, and getting into the true outer partials in the ’60s, actually leaving Bill Evans to do that, with Keith Jarrett’s very influential band in the ’70s, and of course the trio with Frisell and Lovano that’s influenced so many younger musicians. Why moving back to bebop?

MOTIAN: Oh, I love bebop!

TP: Does it feel fresh?

MOTIAN: Yeah!

TP: Was it something you had to not do for a while to really appreciate.

MOTIAN: Well, no, it’s not a thing about that. It’s just that that’s the music I kind of grew up with, you know, when I first came to New York in the early ’50s, and it’s the music I love, and I was involved in it… I think it’s great music. There’s a lot of great players, a lot of great players that came out of that, from Dizzy and Monk and Bud Powell to Tadd Dameron.

TP: The tunes are unbelievable. It’s like an endless well of repertoire.

MOTIAN: Oh yeah! I just keep finding more stuff, more stuff. We played and recorded a Herbie Nichols tune recently, and someone was telling me about all his great music, and someone else was talking to me about Elmo Hope and all the great music he did. So there’s no end to it, man.

TP: One thing that distinguishes you is your direct contact with masters. You sat in with Thelonious Monk, and did you say once you’d sat in with Bird…

MOTIAN: No, I never played with Bird. I saw him play once, but that was it.

TP: I guess you came to New York in ’53, and you got into the mix pretty quickly.

MOTIAN: Mmm-hmm.

TP: How does the instrumentation affect what you do with the material? Also, what you do as the leader, as the drummer, in shaping the flow. What’s your intent in working with this music?

MOTIAN: I like to play good music. I like to play great music. I don’t know about any intent outside of that. It just keeps growing. I keep finding people, and… It started out, like I said, with just two guitars, bass and drums, then I said, “Well, it doesn’t have to be just that.” Then I added a saxophone, who at the time was Joshua Redman. Then we were playing in Ronnie Scott’s Club in London, and Josh could do half the week, and I hired Chris Potter to finish the week, and one night they crossed paths and two of them played. So I heard two saxophones, I said, “wow, I really like that,” and I hired two saxophones. So it got to that.

TP: It certainly gives you a lot of options. The band sounds very full now. People are doing spontaneous orchestrating. There’s always something going on.

MOTIAN: Yes. I wanted to get away from the usual thing of melody-solos-melody-end. So I try to arrange it. I try to make everyone aware. And I make them kind of be aware of it. I make them arrange it. I’m sort of like, “Step in it, man; go ahead; see what you can do. Why don’t you trade off with this guy and do this and that.” And they’re growing inventive about that. so it’s just growing into becoming more arranged and playing a lot of piano player’s music with no piano and stuff like that.

TP: It’s also interesting that there’s such a wide pool of strong young musicians who want to explore that music, which might not have been the case 20-25 years ago.

MOTIAN: Right. And I appreciate that. These guys are willing to go with me on tour. It’s rough out there! [LAUGHS] We went to Beijing, played in Shanghai… It’s been great.

TP: You travel a lot.

MOTIAN: Yes. But it’s not going all year long. You know what I mean? Maybe four months out of the year I’m on the road.

TP: But there are a lot of players who know your sound and want to articulate a musical experience that has the Paul Motian sound, whatever that may be. The next offering is from a recent collaboration of that nature.

MOTIAN: I was contacted by two French musicians, Bruno Chevillon, a bass player, and Stephan Oliva, a pianist. They really told me that they loved my music and they wanted to play with me. They said that they had arranged my music, and would I come to France and play a concert with them — which I did. It was very successful. People liked it a lot. Then we did it again at a festival in Paris. Then they arranged a recording, so we did a recording for the French BMG label. It’s mostly all my music, and I really appreciate what they did with it. It’s really great. We did play at a club in Paris for a couple of nights, too, which was a lot of fun.

TP: Did you do it before the recording as a sort of rehearsal.

MOTIAN: No, those gigs in Paris came afterwards. Before the recording we had played two concerts. That was it.

TP: What do you do when you go into a situation cold with musicians you haven’t known before, and you sit down and it’s unmistakably your sound imprint. You just go in and hear and play?

MOTIAN: I just play from what I hear. Sure. I sit down and play, and I react to what I’m hearing and play that. That’s it.

[MUSIC: Fantasm, "Interieur Jour"; Solal-Johnson-Motian, "Night and Day," "Gang of Five"]

TP: Paul was saying that 37 years ago you performed with Martial Solal in his American debut at the Hickory House, and didn’t see him again…

MOTIAN: Right. Teddy Kotick on bass.

TP: You didn’t play together again for 35 years.

MOTIAN: Wow. [LAUGHS]

TP: Do these ironies present themselves in the moment of playing, or in retrospect?

MOTIAN: I guess so, yeah.

TP: You certainly sounded like you played together let’s say one week a year…

MOTIAN: Well, I played the Hickory House gig with Bill Evans one time, with Martial Solal another time, and with Joe Castro another time. That was a gig that went on for months. You played in this club for two or three months at a time. It was a steakhouse actually. I didn’t play with Martial for 30-odd years or more.

TP: You said he was a raconteur, very humorous. He’ll say, “Here’s the piano player” and point to the bench.

MOTIAN: Yeah, he’ll point to the bench. Actually Enrico Pieranunzi does that, too. [LAUGHS] These guys, I don’t know…

TP: It’s a European thing.

MOTIAN: Could be. He reminds me of Victor Borge, in a way.

TP: This record combines originals by you, Martial Solal, and a few rearrangements. You must have a book of a hundred or so compositions?

MOTIAN: No, not that many. About 50 or so.

TP: You’ve been composing for a long time.

MOTIAN: Not that much. But I don’t feel too bad about it Somebody told me Monk didn’t write that many songs either — 50 or 60. That’s fine with me. I was into it more… I’m not into it so much… I’m not doing so much writing now.

TP: So the ’70s and ’80s were a time when you were generating a lot of…

MOTIAN: Yes. Because I was putting together… Starting in ’76, when I put together my first trio with Charles Brackeen and David Izenson, and I started writing. I was studying piano and writing and trying to learn. Then it went to a quintet, and I had to write stuff for that. I did a lot of writing at that time.

TP: Let’s take you back to ’63 when you did those couple of months with Martial Solal at Hickory House. At that time you were still part of the Bill Evans Trio, which you left the next year. You spent the ’50s playing with Oscar Pettiford, you played with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, you played with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh and numerous gigs. Let me take you into some well-trod territory with those years. You grew up in Providence, Rhode Island.

MOTIAN: Right. Born in Philadelphia, then the family moved up to Providence; I couldn’t have been more than 2 years old.

TP: You became interested in drums around 10 years old?

MOTIAN: I started at more like 11 or 12. I took some drum lessons and whatnot, went through the usual stuff. I started playing professional gigs I guess when I was still in high school ,which is the late ’40s.

TP: By then bebop had hit. Things like “Shaw Nuff” coincided with your beginnings as a musician.

MOTIAN: I used to listen to jazz radio from New York and I’d send away for 78 records. I used to hear records by Max Roach, Bud Powell and Monk, and I’d send to New York for them and get these 78 vinyl records in the mail. I listened to a lot of big bands when I was a kid.

TP: Who were the drummers who impressed you early on?

MOTIAN: The first drum teacher I had was a drummer in the neighborhood, who really wasn’t a teacher; I heard him playing one day and got really interested in it, and asked him to show me some stuff. He gave me a couple of lessons, and then I went to another teacher. But he played me a record with Gene Krupa on it, and that impressed me right away. Then I heard Max Roach, and like I said, I was sending away for records from Max.

TP: The early Charlie Parker releases, “Koko” and that sort of thing?

MOTIAN: Right.

TP: So it just developed from there. And you said were playing professionally in high school. Were you working as a musician and going to high school simultaneously?

MOTIAN: No. Maybe a couple of gigs on a weekend. I hooked up with a neighbhorhood musician or musicians in bands, and a couple of players from high school — maybe we played a couple of weddings and stuff like that. Not really that much jazz. Playing in clubs and bars, stuff like that.

TP: When did it become apparent to you that you were going to become a musician?

MOTIAN: I guess right from the beginning. I never thought about anything else, I never did anything else, and I didn’t plan it or anything. It just happened. I just went along with the flow.

TP: That seems the operative thing. You seem to go along with the flow and surround yourself with strong personalities, and you have a strong personality, and…

MOTIAN: Well, I love music, man. [LAUGHS]

TP: You mentioned that you joined the Navy because you wanted to go to the Navy School, because it was a great way to get a higher education and get it paid for.

MOTIAN: And not have to go to Korea to a war zone. The deal at that time was, I was about to get drafted in the Army. I was the right age for that. Then I heard that there was a school of music, that if you joined the Navy you could pick what you wanted to do if you volunteered. I heard about their music school in Washington, D.C., so that’s what I did. I volunteered for the Navy and went to that music school, and then I got ill and never really spent any time there — and then they shipped me out! [Europe]

TP: Were you playing over there?

MOTIAN: Yeah, I was in the band. I was part of a band that was the Admiral’s Band, the Admiral of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean. We were his band. Where he went, we went. When he transferred from one ship to another ship to another ship, we went with him. That was the deal.

TP: That wasn’t such a bad way to spend your Service time.

MOTIAN: No, I enjoyed it. Working out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with nothing else around except the sea and sky and air. It introduced me to Europe. It was great. I was 19 years old.

TP: You’re one of the many musicians who came up at the time you did who got a good deal of education in the Armed Services. Then you were stationed in New York, you were living around the Brooklyn Navy Yard, you were released and got into the scene.

MOTIAN: I got really lucky. Because when people got transferred… You did a tour of duty on a ship. I did I think two years. That was usually what happened. Then you would get transferred, and you have no choice; where they send you, they send you. I got lucky, man. They sent me to New York! It’s called the Central Receiving Station, which was across the street from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But I had an apartment in Brooklyn. I’d go to work in the morning, there would be a band rehearsal, and then you’d go home, unless there was some dignitary coming into town who you had to play for or a parade. Otherwise, that was it. There were some nice musicians in that band, and we started playing then. Then when I came out, I just stayed in New York.

TP: You came here in ’53. Did you start hanging out right away?

MOTIAN: Oh yeah. I went everywhere. Wherever anybody played, I was there. I’d take my drums on the subway. Anything.

TP: You mentioned being at the Open Door quite a bit.

MOTIAN: Yes. There were a lot of things happening at the Open Door, a lot of sessions there. That was on Lafayette and Third Street, around that area. It’s all probably part of New York University now.

TP: Same buildings but much more expensive.

MOTIAN: [LAUGHS] I heard Charlie Parker there, man. It was incredible. And there were sessions there you’d go to. A lot of people, man. You played. It was great. There were other places. There was a place called Arthur’s Tavern in the Village that had sessions. There were sessions at a lot of places. You’d go to people’s houses. I met Bob Dorough; we used to have sessions at his house on the East Side up in the 70s. There was a pianist named Don Rothenberg who used to have sessions. I met Ira Sullivan there, and we used to play there. Every chance I got. There was a place up on 110th Street, a bar in Harlem where you lined up, man, took your turn and played.

TP: When did people start hiring you? You mentioned that Monk took you to Boston for a week around ’55 or so?

MOTIAN: No, that was ’60. January 1960. I played for a week at Storyville in Boston with Monk, Scott LaFaro and Charlie Rouse. I was scared to death!

TP: But by then, you’d already played with Oscar Pettiford, Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans. I’m just looking for how you began to form the network of associations that kick-started your career.

MOTIAN: Well, in those days, when all those sessions were happening, you were out there. You were quite visible. People heard you and people called you and people hired you. Tony Scott hired me and he hired Bill Evans. Actually, when I met Bill Evans, there was a clarinet player named Jerry Wald, who used to have a big band, then he had a small group. Through the grapevine, I heard he was auditioning people to take a band on tour. So I went to that audition. This was almost after I got out of the Service. I went to that audition and Bill Evans also went to that audition, and I heard him play and said, “Wow, who’s that piano player? He sounds great.” Someone said, “Oh, that’s Bill Evans from New Jersey; he plays really good.” So I was thinking, “Wow, I hope I gets this gig and he gets it. He sound really good.” So we both got the gig and we went on tour with Jerry Wald. We went to Puerto Rico, we went around the East Coast different places. It was a sextet with a vibraphone player and a guitar player, a singer. Then somehow, Tony Scott hired me and he hired Bill. We went on tour with Tony. That was kind of the beginning. I guess with Jerry Wald it could have been ’55. With Tony Scott, 1956-57, in there.

TP: You must have taken advantage of the opportunity of being in New York and being able to go around and study all the great drummers first-hand, who you could hear almost any time. I mean, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey and Shadow Wilson and on and on. I know all those people impressed you, but talk about how it worked. Your transition from being talented to being a working New York professional.

MOTIAN: I don’t know if I can follow that path! But at Birdland at the time, the original Birdland, which was on Broadway and 52nd Street… I heard Art Blakey in there with his band. It wasn’t called the Jazz Messengers at that time. It was with Horace Silver and Curley Russell maybe. Anyway I heard that band a lot. Max Roach with Clifford Brown and Richie Powell; I heard that band. At Cafe Bohemia, Kenny Clarke playing with Oscar Pettiford and George Wallington. I was in those places daily, nightly, all the time, man, listening to those people.

TP: The most amazing education you could get.

MOTIAN: I thought that was par for the course. Everything happened like that.

TP: We’ll hear something that wasn’t released until a few years ago, the Lee Konitz-Warne Marsh Quintet at the Half Note with Bill Evans and Jimmy Garrison. You played quite a bit with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh, and Lee Konitz has been a friend and recording colleague for years.

MOTIAN: True. There was a club downtown called the Half-Note run by the Cantarino family, and they talked Lennie Tristano into coming out and playing. Lennie hadn’t played or performed in public in a long time, and he didn’t plan to. Anyway these people called him and got him to come out and play at the Half Note, and I played there a lot with Lennie in the late ’50s-early ’60s for two or three years. One time we played at the Half Note ten weeks. Ten weeks at the Half-Note, man. And Lennie kept me and used ten different bass players during that time, everyone from Teddy Kotick to Paul Chambers to Peter Ind, Red Mitchell, Whitey Mitchell, Jimmy Garrison, Henry Grimes… It went on and on. [LAUGHS]

TP: He was very specific about wanting his drummers to keep things within a certain area.

MOTIAN: He never said anything about it, but you felt that your job was to keep time, man, and let these guys go and play. One time we were exchanging fours, and he said, “You know, Paul, your fours sound like a drunk falling down stairs.” I said, “Oh, that’s great. Thanks a lot, man.”

TP: I’ve heard that said about other drummers like Dave Bailey. Anyway, Lennie Tristano wasn’t in the house the night this was recorded.

MOTIAN: Yes, Tuesday was Lennie’s night off. He was teaching on Tuesday nights. So on Tuesday nights we would play sometimes without a piano player sometimes with. That particular Tuesday it was Bill Evans. Bill had been playing with Miles Davis, and he had just left and was about to start his own stuff. It was around that time.

[MUSIC: w/Konitz-Marsh, "April"; Konitz-Swallow-Motian, "Johnny Broken Wing"]

TP: The Electric Bebop Band plays a repertoire that mines the amazing compositions of the period when Paul Motian came musically of age, between 1945 and 1960… [ETC.] At once idiomatic and contemporary. The sound has evolved…

MOTIAN: We’re doing some of my music with this band, which is interesting. I have some very open kind of pieces where I like to have everybody playing at the same time and trying to make some music out of it. Interesting.

TP: In the next set, we’ll hear music with Paul Bley, who you’ve been playing with since the mid-’60s, and Keith Jarrett, with whom so many people heard you during the late ’60s-early ’70s. Let’s go through your bio again. You began playing with Bill Evans in Jerry Wald’s Sextet, and you’re on Bill Evans’ first trio recording in 1956 for Riverside. How did things develop? Did the trio work a fair amount up to 1959, when the next recordings are?

MOTIAN: Yes, we were playing. We were doing gigs. We didn’t go on the road. We played mostly around the New York area. Then Scott LaFaro came on the scene, the next record was with him, and then we did go on the road!

TP: In that interim, you were playing and touring with Oscar Pettiford. You were playing in one of his tentets, and he took an integrated band to Florida in ’57 or so.

MOTIAN: Yes, it was ’57. We played at the University of Florida, we played in Virginia. Went by bus from New York on quite a bus ride.

TP: You have an amusing story about Oscar Pettiford about the drumsticks.

MOTIAN: okay. We were playing at Small’s Paradise in a quintet with Ray Copeland on trumpet, Sahib Shihab on baritone saxophone, Dick Katz on piano, myself and Oscar Pettiford. At that time I had these very light, skinny drumsticks, 7-A’s, and I was playing with those. After the set, Oscar picked up one of the drumsticks, and he said, “What kind of sticks are these, man?” He sort of was bending them; they were almost like rubber in his hand. He said, “Get yourself some sticks, man.” So I went downtown to the drum shop, got some heavy sticks, came back the next day and played.

TP: He must have been a strong man.

MOTIAN: Yeah, he was great. He played great. People used to say, “Man, you’re playing with O.P. He’s death on drummers, man. How are you doing, man? What’s going on?” I said, “I guess he likes me.”

TP: Apparently so. And you were also playing a lot with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.

MOTIAN: Yes, we used to play at the Half Note quite a bit. I loved those guys; they sounded so great. It always confused me, because it seemed like everyone always talked about Zoot and not many people talked about Al, and Al had this great big sound, played so great. Well, both of them; they were incredible. I couldn’t figure out how they… They used to drink so much. I couldn’t figure out how they could play so great and drink so much alcohol.

TP: I heard a story where Zoot Sims said he practiced that way.

MOTIAN: [LAUGHS] I guess so. And someone else told me another thing about Zoot, that Zoot walked into this bar on 52nd Street called Jim & Andy’s dressed in a tuxedo, and everyone freaked out. They said, “Zoot, what are yu doing in the middle of the day in a tux; what’s going on?” He said, “I don’t know; I woke up like that.”

TP: Let me ask you a question about drums. How has the drumset changed from when you started playing up until when you were playing with Bill Evans and to today? Has it changed palpably? Has the sound of drumming changed because of changes in the way they’re made?

MOTIAN: Wow. I don’t know.

TP: Are you very particular about the size and make and composition of the cymbals?

MOTIAN: No. I’m interested in sound. I don’t care what it looks like, what size it is. It has to sound musical. It has to sound right to my ears. People say to me, “Oh, we’ve got this rider that you’ve got to have this 18-inch bass drum. I say, “Man, I don’t care. It could be a 50-inch bass drum. If it sounds good and musical, I’ll play it. That’s the way I feel about it. Also, I like musical sounds, man. I want it to be pleasing to my ears. I don’t tune the drums to specific notes or anything like that. It’s just pleasing to my ears.

TP: When you go on the road for one of these long European excursions are you taking…

MOTIAN: No. I don’t take anything any more except for some drumsticks and brushes. Last tour I didn’t even take a drum key, and that was a disaster. Because no one seemed to have a drum key everywhere we went. So I dealt with it. So I have to deal with the drums, and that’s kind of a drag, but there’s no getting around it.

TP: Apparently, if recorded evidence is worth anything, which I think it is, I think people will know it’s you on whatever set of drums. But you’ve been an informed observer of drum construction for about fifty years now, so I wondered about your perspective.

MOTIAN: I guess the first drumset I had was during World War II, and the rims were wood instead of metal. Then they came up with more stuff. They just kept coming out with more stuff. I mean, cymbal stands that do certain things, boom stands…there was none of that when I first started.

TP: Before this digression, we were discussing your early years with Bill Evans. So the records came out in ’59, and the records became popular and an incredibly influential entity.

MOTIAN: Well, that kind of happened later. A lot of gigs we did, we didn’t have full houses and people screaming and clapping when we played. I remember playing in the Village Vanguard with Bill and Scott LaFaro with only 4 people in the club, and talking to Max Gordon and saying, “Hey, man, can we go home; there’s only four people,” and he says, “Oh, no, you’ve still got a table of people and you’ve got to play another set.”

TP: And it was probably the third set.

MOTIAN: Oh, in those days, man, we used to play from 9 or 10 at night til 3 or 4 in the morning. I didn’t see the sunlight. And we went from one club to another club to another club. You never went out of town. All the gigs were in New York. You went from one club to another, from Birdland to the Vanguard to the Half Note, then back to Birdland. Like I said before, we played ten weeks at the Half Note with Lennie Tristano, nine weeks at the Vanguard with Bill Evans and Gary Peacock. Then we’d go back to Birdland for three weeks, then go back to another club, and then maybe go to Boston for a couple of gigs and then go back. It’s the way it was. In those days you spent $2 in a taxi to get to a gig, and it took you maybe half-an-hour to get there, and you played for 6 hours or more. Now it’s like 8 hours on a plane, and play one hour, and 8 hours in a plane back. [LAUGHS] It’s quite different.

TP: It must make things sound different as well. Then as far as the Bill Evans Trio, as time goes on, there’s ferment in music in New York.

MOTIAN: Yeah, there was a lot going on.

TP: And you left Bill Evans to be part of it.

MOTIAN: Yeah, I left Bill Evans in 1964. I came back to New York and was playing with Paul Bley and the Jazz Composers Orchestra at the time. There was a lot going on.

TP: And your affiliations with that scene began during your tenure with Bill Evans. That’s when you met people like Steve Swallow and Charlie Haden?

MOTIAN: Well, I met Charlie when I was playing with Bill Evans at the Vanguard, and Scott LaFaro said to me, “You know, there’s a really great bass player playing over at the Five Spot with Ornette Coleman. I want to introduce you. I want you to meet him. Come on over. So I went over and Scott introduced me to Charlie. That had to be ’59.

TP: So you heard Ornette Coleman when he hit New York?

MOTIAN: Yes, at the Five Spot.

TP: In ’59 were you open to it? Did it sound right to you?

MOTIAN: Yeah, I was. You know, it was very different, and I was interested. Sure, I thought it was great.

TP: So basically, you’re aware of everything that was going on around you and you wanted to partake of it.

MOTIAN: Yeah. I was on the scene a lot. A lot more than now.

TP: You and Paul Bley have done numerous recordings, and we’ll hear from a Soul Note date from 1990 called Memoirs.

[MUSIC: Bley-Haden-Monk, "Monk's Dream"; Keith-Peacock-Motian, "You And The Night and Music"]

TP: When did you begin playing with Keith Jarrett? ’68 or ’69?

MOTIAN: I’m not sure. When I met him was with Tony Scott. There was a club in the Village called the Dom. Tony Scott was playing there, and he called me. It was a Monday night. I was playing somewhere else, and I had the day off Monday, and Tony Scott calls and says, “I’ve got this gig for you, man,” and I said, “No, it’s my night off,” and he said, “No, come on, you’ve got to do this gig.” So I went and did the gig, and when I walked in the club Keith Jarrett was playing piano. I said, “Man, who’s that? Cat sounds great!” He said, “Oh, that’s Keith Jarrett; I discovered him.” Tony always said he discovered everybody. Bill Evans. Everybody. I think Henry Grimes was playing that night. So I met Keith then and we played. We played with Charles Lloyd together in ’68.

TP: So when Jack De Johnette left Charles Lloyd, you became the drummer with Charles Lloyd.

MOTIAN: Right. I did that for about a year. We did a very interesting tour at that time. We went to Laos and to Malaysia and Singapore, Japan, Okinawa, the Phillippines with Charles Lloyd, but Keith didn’t go because they were trying to draft him, put him in the army to go to Vietnam, so he couldn’t leave the country. A pianist named Jane Getz did that tour with us. But I had met Keith; we toured the country with Charles Lloyd then. Then when Keith wanted to put together his own trio, he called me and he called Charlie Haden, and he said the reason was that he always liked the work that I did with Bill Evans and the work that Charlie did with Ornette, and he thought that would be a good combination. That’s how that started. It had to be around ’68-’69.

TP: The sound of the music is palpably different than what you did with Bill Evans in the early ’60s, and I guess the role of the drums also becomes very different. Was it a transition for you?

MOTIAN: Yes.

TP: How did you approach that? Was it hard for you to change your mindset or did it happen very naturally?

MOTIAN: It did. Because there was a lot of stuff going on. Just little by little. When I first started playing with Scott LaFaro with Bill, I started breaking up the time and playing more open stuff, then that grew and grew and grew. Before I played with Keith, I was playing a little with Paul Bley. Then there was the Jazz Composers Orchestra where the music was getting more out and freer. Then joining Keith and seeing the way he played, that seemed perfect for me. I was really happy with that. It seemed like that was the way to go. It seemed like an improvement, it seemed like an evolution… Let’s play!

TP: At that time, did you change the drums you played?

MOTIAN: No-no.

TP: It was never about that in any way.

MOTIAN: No. It’s all inside.

TP: For you, in your learning process, were you ever someone who would internalize what other drummers were doing and try to do that as close as you could?

MOTIAN: Oh yeah. I tried to copy them! Yeah, man, until you find your own voice.

TP: Who were those drummers?

MOTIAN: Kenny Clarke mostly. Max Roach. Art Blakey.

TP: With Kenny Clarke it was the way he played time?

MOTIAN: Yeah, just the sound. And the way he played, and how he played, and how he got such music out of a little amount of equipment! Boy, when he was playing at the Bohemia, I was there every night checking that out. It was great. Then Art Blakey and Max. Listening to Max Roach on record and trying to play like that, to copy it exactly, and do the best you can that way. I remember listening to Charlie Parker and trying to play his phrasing on the drums, and stuff like that. That’s the way you learn. Then eventually, hopefully, you develop your own voice and take it out there!

TP: With Keith Jarrett it was a steady-working entity for about eight years.

MOTIAN: Oh yeah. It went on for a while.
TP: Dewey Redman joined when, in ’71 maybe?

MOTIAN: In ’72 at Slugs, the jazz club that was down at the East Village. Lee Morgan was shot on a Sunday night, they were closed Monday, and we opened Tuesday. And the vibe was very strange in that place! That’s when Dewey joined. That was ’72.

TP: Was the band very interactive? An equilateral triangle type of situation?

MOTIAN: Oh yeah. I mean it was his music. He wrote the music. We didn’t play standard tunes. Also, I had my first trip to Europe with Keith.

TP: So at the end of your tenure with Keith Jarrett you start forming your own groups.

MOTIAN: Right around ’76 is when I started doing that

TP: And I suppose your interest in composing music gestated while you were with Keith Jarrett’s band.

MOTIAN: Exactly.

TP: Was it again a gradual thing, you had to do this…

MOTIAN: Well, I never felt compelled, that I had to do anything. Like I said before, I play from what I hear and I’m listening and trying to make music, and integrate myself and my playing into the music, and go from there.

TP: I think your first record is in ’74 or so, Conception Vessel?

MOTIAN: My first record I guess was a trio with Charles Brackeen and David Izenson.

TP: I just want to take you up to the trio of twenty years standing with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell. I personally was very struck by the records with Charles Brackeen and David Izenson.

MOTIAN: There were two. There was another record with J.F. Jenny-Clark, who died recently.

TP: But that particular sound and the Brackeen-Izenson trio; I’m interested in the personnel and in the way you were hearing. Basically you made a transition to being a bandleader, doing your music.

MOTIAN: Basically, the reason that happened is I was playing with Keith Jarrett, and at that time I was starting to think about doing my own stuff, and I asked the agent who was booking Keith, “If I put a band together, would you get me some gigs?” He said, “Sure.” So I put together the trio with Brackeen and David Izenson, and he got us one gig. In Michigan. That was it. And I was stuck with being a leader. Well, there you go. Okay, Paul, you got it.

TP: And I guess you kept doing it. Well, I guess part of your activity is that and part is these freelance assignments with various associates. Let’s hear the most recent recordings by the Paul Motian Trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, from a pair of recordings documenting the band at the Vanguard in ’95, Sound Of Love and You Took The Words Right Out of My Heart.

[MUSIC: "The Sunflower" & "Misterioso"]
TP: …one of the most influential bands of the ’80s and first part of the ’90s, when they played together with great regularity. Paul informs me that “You took the words right out of my heart” comes from a Bob Hope movie with Dorothy Lamour.

MOTIAN: When I first heard it was on a Thelonious Monk record. Monk was playing it. That’s what turned me on. Then I copied it off the record and started playing it. Then I saw a film that was made in the mid-’30s, in 1934 or something like that, called The Big Broadcast of ’34 or some year, with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, and Dorothy Lamour is singing this in this film! But I heard Monk play it first.

TP: The process of hearing things backwards didn’t just start with this generation of musicians.

MOTIAN: That’s right.

TP: A few words about Lovano and Frisell, and the chemistry.

MOTIAN: It started out as a quintet. First it was Billy Drewes and Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell and Ed Schuller. Then it became Jim Pepper and Joe Lovano. We did three records for Soul Note that I like very much. I guess they’re hard to find, but I think there’s some great music there. We were playing one night somewhere in Italy, and there’s one piece of mine that just called for the bass to lay out, and for a few minutes it was only Joe and Bill and I playing. At that moment I thought I could play my music with this trio without having a quintet. Economics was involved, and I liked the idea of playing without a bass and just to give it a try. That’s how that happened.

TP: That trio became one of the more influential bands of the time. A lot of musicians speak of hearing that trio just as people like Joe Lovano or John Scofield cite the Keith Jarrett Quartet as having an impact on the way they thought about music. It gave them a sort of paradigm shift, hearing what you did with Monk’s music, or the three albums of deconstructed show tunes. Did you embark on those projects as concept records, or were they part of the imperative of what you were doing?

MOTIAN: During all the years of playing, there were a lot of songs that I felt associated with, songs that I played with Bill Evans, song that I played on commercial gigs or whatever, and I just wanted to record those songs that I felt close to and that I had experience with. So I added Charlie Haden, and we did two records also for JMT…

TP: It’s been a great producer-artist relationship.

MOTIAN: Yes. Except you can’t get those JMT records any more. They’re gone. That’s too bad. So we did three records of standard songs, called Paul Motian on Broadway. There’s a funny story that the cover designer for the first of those records walked to Broadway and took a photograph of me and threw it up in the air and took a picture of that, and put it on the album cover. Then the third one was the same band with the addition of Charlie Haden plus Lee Konitz.

TP: Did your choice of material have to do with personnel?

MOTIAN: No, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just thinking about the songs. They were songs I felt close to, and I wanted to record them. I did a lot of research. I was checking out all the composers. There was some great music there — Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter. I love that stuff.

TP: In the last five-six years, as Lovano and Frisell both have such busy careers, it’s hard for that band to get together. But obviously, when you do hit, you hit with a vengeance. Just a few sentences about Lovano’s qualities, Frisell’s qualities, the simpatico you feel. You said for one thing about Joe Lovano that he remembers everything, that you can pick up something you did eight years ago, and he’ll remember it.

MOTIAN: Yes, that’s what’s great. I don’t want to think about it if I don’t have to. I give it to Joe, man. He’s great for that.

TP: Anything salient about Frisell, how his sound meshes with you?

MOTIAN: I don’t know. I just like it. I tried to put together a band after the trio with Brackeen and David Izenson and then with J.F. Jenny-Clark. I wanted to put together the quintet. I talked to ECM at the time and they said, okay, they’d record. I heard Michael Gregory Jackson, the guitar player, play in New York one night, and for the first time I heard the guitar sound with synthesizers or whatever, and I thought, “Wow, the guitar can sound like a violin; isn’t that great.” Then I was playing with Pat Metheny, and the quintet was going to be Pat Metheny and Michael Gregory Jackson and Julius Hemphill and Charlie Haden and myself, and it was going to record for ECM. We did a quartet gig in Boston with Michaael Gregory Jackson. But then it sort of didn’t happen, and the quintet I ended up with was the continuation of that. Pat was the one who recommended Bill, and I heard Bill getting this sound I’d heard before that could do so many things, and that got my interest up. So that’s how it started.

TP: So it gave you a broader orchestral palette, as opposed to the more monochromatic spectrum of the Izenson-Brackeen trio. This is the The Paul Motian Trio Plus One, from 1998. Core trio is Chris Potter and Steve Swallow, and coming in on tracks are Poo Kikuchi and Larry Grenadier.

[MUSIC: "Three In One" and "Sunflower"]

TP: Back to 1983 for a track with the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra, which you played with throughout the ’70s into the ’80s, and maybe the only big band I can remember you playing with as such. You didn’t do very much big band playing.

MOTIAN: Not much, no. The Oscar Pettiford Big Band for a little while. The Jazz Composers Orchestra was quite a big band. Charlie Haden.

TP: What memories do you have of the Jazz Composers Orchestra?

MOTIAN: Oh, I thought it was a great experimental kind of scene. There was some great music, the music was changing, getting more free. I met some good players. It was a nice scene.

TP: In ’64-’65-’66, who are some of the people you were playing with? Did you do gigs with people from the whole sonic range?

MOTIAN: It was mostly Paul Bley during that time. I never did play with Albert. I heard him a lot, of course. Also, there was a period for me during that time when I didn’t have that many gigs. Before I joined Keith Jarrett, there weren’t that many gigs. I took a bunch of commercial gigs. For a while I was playing floor shows and stuff like that in New York.

TP: So it was like taking a day job so you could do the things you wanted to do.
MOTIAN: Well, it was hard to do what you wanted to do in those days actually. For me it was. I mean, the time after I left Bill and then before I got with Keith Jarrett. Rock-and-Roll was more and more popular, and jazz was sort of not…

TP: Passe.

MOTIAN: Kind of. So there weren’t that many gigs around. I wasn’t hooked up with anybody special at the time. I did what I could. So I took a lot of commercial gigs, and sometimes didn’t gig at all, and no money, no nothin’!

TP: That was probably the last period when you could live in New York, however meagerly, and do that.

MOTIAN: True. Rent in an apartment… You could get by with $100 a month and have a decent apartment.

[MUSIC: Charlie Haden LMO, "El Segador"; Pietro Tonolo(?), "Wig Wise"]

TP: We’ll conclude as we began, with the Electric Bebop Band, drawing on the vast wellspring of music composed between 1945 and 1960, drawing on Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and Herbie Nichols, and some original music as well…

A lot of musicians who came up in the ’50s and ’60s played a lot of Latin music as rent gigs. Was that part of your scene?

MOTIAN: No. No. Didn’t do that.

TP: The show demonstrates the interconnectedness of personalities in jazz. It seems in this music there’s only two degrees of separation! I think this afternoon is a living embodiment of that in addressing the career of Paul Motian, who since arriving in New York in 1953 has played with or shared bandstands with or been in proximity to every major improviser you can think of, from Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge and Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano and Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett and Dewey Redman and on and on, and always stamping his own sound on the music. So truly one of the legends of jazz music, and still thriving, about to go on a three week tour that will put you 20 flights in three weeks.

MOTIAN: Or so. One time we did a tour with the Broadway quintet, with Lee Konitz, Frisell, Lovano, myself, Mark Johnson. In three weeks we had 35 flights.

TP: So while 40 years ago, the life wasn’t the healthiest life, playing from, say, 9 to 4 a.m. every day, and the various hazards of the jazz culture, but now you’re going off flying every day on these extended tours.

MOTIAN: There’s always some dues to pay, man. If you don’t want to pay any dues, don’t do music. [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC: "Split Decision" & "Celia"]

* * *

 

Paul Motian (6-15-93):

Q: I’m very glad to introduce to the New York radio audience, his first WKCR appearance in 25 years, the drummer-composer Paul Motian, who is leading the Paul Motian Trio at the Village Vanguard this week, one of the most creative ensembles in the world of improvised music. Welcome back to WKCR, Paul Motian.

PM: Thanks. Nice to be here.

Q: This trio has been working together for 12 years, is it?

PM: Just about. I think so.

Q: How did you find these guys? Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano are now famous musicians, but in 1981 they weren’t.

PM: Yeah. I tried to tell people that in 1981. They wouldn’t listen to me!

Q; That they were famous?

PM: Yeah. [LAUGHS] I said, “These guys can play, man. Check ‘em out.” Anyway, it takes time. I found them through the usual thing, word of mouth, other musicians. Yeah. Pat Metheny recommended Bill Frisell to me, and I think it was bassist Marc Johnson that recommended Joe Lovano. In the beginning, before this trio happened, it was a quintet, and before that it was a quartet with Marc Johnson, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano and myself. Then Marc ended up leaving, he went with Stan Getz, and blah-blah-blah…

Q: Was there an instant empathy?

PM: Yeah, there was. I mean, there were other people involved, and then it just… When it got down to the nitty-gritty, it ended up with Bill and Joe and I. And it’s worked out great.

Q: It’s a group that takes the ethos of improvising to real heights.

PM: Yeah.

Q; Nothing is ever treated the same way on a given night.

PM: Right.

Q: That must be very stimulating to you.

PM: Yeah, hopefully. Yeah, it is. It is. Because we’re playing some of the same music we’ve been playing for years, and it’s always a little different. And especially now, since Bill and Joe also have their own bands and we don’t get together as often as we used to, it’s really taken another turn — and it’s great. I love Bill and Joe. We’ve been together now for this while, and we’ve done lots of tours together, a lot of gigs together, records, and it works out good. They are both very helpful. Joe is great, Bill… I mean, they remember tunes and arrangements, and you know, also have suggestions and things; we work things out. It’s been great.

Q: There are very few bands with that type of longevity around.

PM: Uh-huh. Well, I don’t know. What about the Modern Jazz Quartet?

Q: Well, I said very few. I didn’t say none! The band plays this mix of standards and your original music that you’ve recorded.

PM: Right.

Q: You must have a huge book by now to draw on.

PM: Yeah, there’s a lot. But I mean, sort of like it’s settled into a few favorites, as it usually does, ha-ha…

Q; Define “few”.

PM: I don’t know, about ten or twenty tunes. [LAUGHS]

Q: I believe this is the first time that this band or a band under your leadership has appeared at the Village Vanguard. Am I right?

PM: That’s true… There were other bands that were…you know, there were coop sort of bands with trios and stuff that I was part of. But this is actually the first time for my own thing, yeah.

Q: However, your history at the Village Vanguard…

PM: Goes back.

Q; …goes back maybe a year or two.

PM: Heh-heh, it goes back, yeah.

Q: You were telling me your first appearance at the Vanguard you can definitely pin down…

PM: To New Year’s Eve, 1956, with Lee Konitz. ’56, let’s see…thirty…

Q: 37 years ago.

PM: Something like that. And I think I may have played in there earlier, because I was in New York actually in ’53, even though I was in the Navy at the time, but I was living in Brooklyn… So in ’53-’54, I was in New York then already. So I could have been in the Vanguard before ’56. But I started keeping a record in ’56, so I know that for sure.

Q; [ETC.] Tell us a little bit about Motian in Tokyo. We’ll be primarily hearing your own compositions.

PM: This is a record that was done in Tokyo, in Japan, a couple of years ago, a live recording, mostly my compositions. I think there’s one Ornette Coleman tune on there, but it’s mostly my tunes. A lot of them were pretty new at the time. We were actually reading the music and stuff. But there’s some nice things on here. I’d like to hear this track called “Mumbo Jumbo” that we play pretty often.

[MUSIC]
Q: We heard three offerings by the core of the Paul Motian Trio, augmented by Lee Konitz and Charle Haden on the last two selections. That, of course, was “Tico, Tico,” preceded by “Handful of Stars.” That comes from the most recently domestically issued release by the Paul Motian group, Paul Motian on Broadway, Volume 3. [ETC.]

I’d like to talk to you about your background in music. You grew up in Providence, Rhode Island.

PM: Right.

Q: Did you start playing drums very early?

PM: I was about 12 years old when I started.

Q; Did it really start at 12? Were you doing rough-hewn, hand-made percussion, or banging on things?

PM: No, I took my first drum lesson from a neighbor who was a drummer at that time. I was around 12 then.

Q: Was there music around the house, in your family?

PM: The music around my house, in my family was sort of Middle Eastern music, Arabic music, Armenian, Turkish, that kind of music. Old 78 records, and the wind-up phonograph… That’s what I heard as a kid.

Q: Did you ever get to go out and hear music? Was music part of family functions?

PM: No, not really. They liked that music, the records that they had. They enjoyed that. But as far as I know, there were no musicians in the family or any big interest. As a matter of fact, my mother was against me playing drums. She didn’t want me to do that.

Q: It must have made a racket around the house.

PM: Yeah.

Q; So what happened? You just took to the drums…

PM: I just took to the drums. I did. I did. I loved it. And still do! [LAUGHS]

Q; So this neighbor gave you the rudiments.

PM: Yeah, he gave me one or two lessons. He really wasn’t a teacher. And then I found a more legitimate teacher, and then played in school in the bands, you know, in junior high school and high school, like that.

Q; When did you first start listening to Jazz and to Jazz drummers?

PM: I guess I heard… When I was in high school in Providence, Rhode Island, from the radio, from broadcasts from New York, from other musicians that turned me on to stuff. I remember I was in about the tenth or eleventh grade in high school, and someone took me to a record shop and played me a Charlie Parker record.

Q; So you heard Max Roach there.

PM: Yeah. Right.

Q; So what did you think about that at that time? How did that sound to you?

PM: I loved it.

Q; Yeah?

PM: Oh, I loved it. I feel for it right away. And then I started sending away for records. I used to send to New York for records, like 78 records. I’d get them in the mail.

Q: What were some of the records you were hearing then?

PM: I’m talking about Bird and Max Roach, some of those, and some big band stuff, like Count Basie and Duke Ellington and like that. But I guess it must have been radio. I was hearing stuff on the radio.

Q: Were you listening to that analytically, in terms of yourself as a drummer…

PM: No.

Q: …or just in the total sound of the music?

PM: Yeah, to the music. I wasn’t analyzing it, no.

Q: When did you start really being serious as a drummer with the idea that it would be your life?

PM: I don’t know. Probably not much longer after I got out of high school, and then went into the Service and played in the band in the Navy. I guess from then on… And then started… When I was in the Navy and I was stationed down South, I used to go to jam sessions and try to find places to play all the time. I was about 19 or 20 years old at the time. And around that time, I guess, I was getting pretty serious.

Q: Now, for a lot of musicians of your generation the Army really was a great musical training ground.

PM: Yeah.

Q: Was that how it was for you?

PM: Well, in a way. I mean, the reason I went into the Navy was… It was during the Korean War, you know, and a lot of friends of mine were getting drafted and getting killed and stuff. And then I heard that there was a music school, that the Navy had a music school, that if you joined, enlisted, you could go to this school. Which I did. But it ended up I didn’t go to the school very much because I got sick, and I was in the hospital, and then they shipped me out! [LAUGHS]

But I met a lot of great, interesting people during that period, and I’m still friendly with some of them. And one of them is a bass player, Jack Six, that plays with Dave Brubeck — a close friend.

Q: Other well-known musicians you came in touch with?

PM: No. But I mean, through that music school… I know Bill Evans went through that school, and so did Eric Dolphy.

Q: What school is that?

PM: This is called the Navy School of Music in Washington, D.C. I didn’t see them, I didn’t meet them there at that time. But they were in there sort of. We kind of, you know, passed…

Q; Well, you wound up, as you said, in New York in 1953 or so.

PM: Yeah.

Q: Was that also through the Navy?

PM: Yeah, I was stationed in Brooklyn.

Q; Were you in a band?

PM: Yup. But I was living in… I had an apartment in Brooklyn. And we used to go in at 9 o’clock for a band rehearsal, and have a rehearsal, and then go home. Unless there was some function that you had to take part in, play in a parade or something like that — you did that. And I was there for about 10 months, I guess.

Q; So you got to New York in ’53, and I take it you took full advantage of the opportunities of being in New York.

PM: Oh yeah. Yeah, sure. Then after I got discharged, I stayed — stayed here.

Q: So you hung out a lot, you heard a lot of music.

PM: Yeah.

Q: Did you go to Birdland…

PM: Yeah.

Q; …and different clubs…?

PM: Yeah! Saw Bird play at the Open Door. There was a place called the Open Door. It’s down where NYU is now, Lafayette and 4th Street or 3rd Street, something like that. I saw Bird play there one afternoon. And actually, I got to play with Thelonious Monk there once. I went there to hear Monk, and Arthur Taylor was supposed to be the drummer and he wasn’t there, so Bob Reisner, who was running concerts at that time, knew me, he’d seen me around town, and he said, “Paul, if you want to play with Monk, go home and get your drums — you can play with Monk.” I said, “Wow, great, man.” So I ran home, got the drums, and played that night with Thelonious. That was at the Open Door. And that was in 1955. Because Donald Byrd was playing at the time, and recently I ran across Donald Byrd in Europe, and he told me he’s got a picture of me playing with Monk that night — that afternoon or whenever it was… I don’t even remember if it was night. I guess it was night. That was in ’55, man.

Q: ’55? I guess that’s before…? Was Monk’s cabaret license reinstated at that time?

PM: I don’t know.

Q; I take it you were also gigging around this time.

PM: Right.

Q: You were working with a number of people.

PM: Actually, I met Bill Evans at an audition for… There was a clarinet player at that time named Jerry Wald. He was putting a band together. He was auditioning musicians for some gigs on the road, a sextet — he had a sextet. And I went to the audition, and that’s where I met Bill. I think that was in ’55. And at that time also I was playing with Tony Scott, also with Bill Evans playing piano. And doing… You know, gigging around town, doing gigs, doing commercial gigs, doing jam sessions, doing whatever.

Q: I have here a liner note to a 1957 release that you appeared on with Warne Marsh, by Nat Hentoff, and he says: “He has worked with Oscar Pettiford, Tony Scott, Don Elliott and Zoot Sims, among others.”

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Was that a one-off thing, or a semi-regular thing?

PM: Well, I was playing one night at Birdland on a Monday night, which was the off-night in Birdland; I was playing in there one night with Sonny Rollins. And Zoot Sims came in and heard me, and hired me — he took me to Cleveland with him for a gig. That was the first time I met Zoot. So that was in the mid-Fifties, probably ’55, ’56, something like that.

Q: What was it like working with Oscar Pettiford?

PM: Great. Oh, I loved him. People used to say to me, “Hey, man, how are you getting along with O.P.?” You know,, they’d say, “He’s death on drummers, man; he kills drummers.” And I said, “Man, I don’t know. He must like me!” [LAUGHS] But one day we were playing at Small’s Paradise, and after the set he grabbed my drumstick. At that time I was using these drumsticks that are called 7-A. They are very thin and very light. And he took the drumstick and he said, “What is this, man?” — and he started to bend it. He said, “This ain’t no drumstick, man.” He says, “Go get you some drumsticks.” So the next day I went down and got me some heavier sticks!

But Oscar was great, man. I learned a lot. He was a great bass player.

Q: Did other people give you… Was that type of advice-giving…?

PM: Yeah.

Q: That was a kind of frequent thing?

PM: Yeah, sure.

Q: What are some other things that people told you that you can relate to us?

PM: Monk asked me…he said, “Sing me your beat.” [HEARTY LAUGH] And I went, you know, “DING-DINGADING-DINGADING.” He said, “No, no, man. He said, “DU-DING-DING-DADING-A-DING…” [LAUGHS] I mean, stuff like that; you know, that came up.

Q: Do you think there was more collegiality among musicians then? That musicians were more open with each other in a certain way…?

PM: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I don’t know if it was more or less. But I got along pretty good! [LAUGHS]

Q: I guess where you really came to prominence in the broader world of Jazz was through your work with the Bill Evans Trio.

PM: Yeah, I guess so.

Q: You’d worked before that, you were on records, but this is where your name really became…

PM: Yeah. It’s funny, too, because I mean, at the time you didn’t really think about it. And I remember when we did the Village Vanguard and we did the Vanguard recordings, which was the last time we played together, and as we were packing up we kind of said, “Well, let’s try and play more; let’s try and do some more things and play more often” — and that it would really be nice to make a music that didn’t have a date on it. And at the time I didn’t realize… One never thought about if that would happen — and actually it somehow.

Q: I guess the first recordings by the trio were in 1956.

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: But were you working fairly steadily together from then through the first records that really made their splash?

PM: Oh, I don’t know about steady. We worked… We didn’t work 365 days a year, you know, but we put in a few months a year. But I was pretty tight with Bill. We used to hang out a lot and play at his house a lot. But it was always music, you know. I mean, we’d be involved in it one way or another. If it wasn’t actually a gig, it would be a session I’d play or go somewhere. I used to take my drums on the subways, on the ferries, on the buses all over.

Q: We’ll hear a few selections from Portrait In Jazz, Scott LaFaro’s first session with the Bill Evans Trio. These are selections you picked out amongst the…?

PM: Well, it’s all good, man. I like this record. I think this is one of my favorites, if not my favorite Bill Evans Trio record.

[MUSIC: “Turn Out the Stars (Paul Motian/Bill Evans, JMT)

“What Is This Thing Called Love,” “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” Portraits in Jazz, Bill Evans Trio.

Q: Before we continue, just a few words about Bill Evans and your sense of him as a person, a colleague, a friend.

PM: Well, I always kind of felt like he was an older brother, you know. He was a couple of years older than me. We were very friendly. We hung out together. Close friends. Great pianist. He influenced a lot of people. I had great times with him. I’m glad I have those memories, man. It will last forever. Great music.

And this thing you just played, “Turn Out The Stars,” I never played that with him, actually. I guess he wrote that after I had left. So that was a pleasure to do that. It was a pleasure to do the record.

Q: You said that in the late Seventies you were starting to really listen to the compositions…

PM: Oh yeah.

Q: …and get that together with him somewhat.

PM: Well, the thing was that when I left Bill, it was in 1964 or something like that, and then I didn’t see him, or we didn’t really hook up for many years — you know, ten years, fifteen years went by. And then, a few years before he died, I guess about four years before he died, we got together. He had a birthday party at his house, or it might have been a Thanksgiving party or something where he was living in Fort Lee, New Jersey. And I went there, and we hung out, and it was great to see him and great to hang out with him again. I took him a tape. I had a tape from an old radio broadcast that we had played together on from Birdland, and he played that. And it was nice getting back together with him again.

At that time, I was kind of getting into writing more, and… Actually, he called me. He asked me to play with him again. He called me and he said Philly Joe Jones was playing with him, and had just quit, and would I play with him again. And I had to turn him down, because at that time I had just formed my own trio with David Izenson and Charles Brackeen, and we were about to go to Europe on a tour. So I had to turn him down. And then when I was on tour in Europe, I was thinking, “Gee, it’s nice to get back with Bill and to hang out with him. I can learn so much from him, and now that I’m into writing music…” But then he died, so that was the end of that.

Q: Was that sort of the genesis way before of this project, of the Bill Evans project?

PM: No, not really. This Bill Evans project came up much later.

Q: Well, it’s one of a number of concept records, for lack of a better word…

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: …that you’ve done for JMT. There are three volumes of Motian on Broadway…

PM: Right.

Q: …with your own singular reorchestrations of…

PM: Standard songs.

Q: …standard songs, so to speak, and this, and there’s also an album of your orchestrations of Monk’s music as well, Monk in Motian.

PM: Well, the Monk In Motian idea was from the record company. They approached me. That was my first record for JMT. And Stefan Winter from JMT Records approached me about that. He asked. He thought it was a good idea if we did a Monk record with the trio. So that was kind of the beginning. And the Broadway records are songs that I just love and that I have been associated with through the years. And I think that the writers of those songs from that period, the Twenties, Thirties, Forties are some really great, great music! And I researched it and picked out the songs that I felt close to or ones that I liked, and tried to vary the different composers. Then I started reading autobiographies and biographies of George Gershwin and Cole Porter and Harold Arlen and…heh-heh, on and on. So I spent a lot of time researching that and picking out the tunes — it was a lot of fun.

Q: You also would have been playing in situations where this music was being played…

PM: Right.

Q; And I’m assuming behind vocalists as well.

PM: Sure.

Q: Who are some of the vocalists you’ve performed with over the years?

PM: [LAUGHS] Well, I did get to play with Billie Holiday once. That was great.

Q; What was that like?

PM: That was incredible. She was in the audience. I was playing with Tony Scott at a club called the Black Pearl, which was on First Avenue up in the Seventies somewhere; First Avenue, Second Avenue, somewhere on the East Side. Sam Jones was playing bass, Kenny Burrell was playing guitar, it was Tony, myself, and I think Jimmy Knepper was playing trombone. Billie Holiday was in the audience. And Tony just… Tony Scott got to the microphone and just started saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, Billie Holiday. Let’s have her sing, get her up here.” And she was shaking her head, no; she didn’t want to get up there. But Tony was insistent. So she came up. So I got to play a couple of songs with Billie Holiday, which I love! I was in Heaven playing with Billie Holiday. I also played opposite her at one time, once or maybe twice.

And other singers…I remember playing with… Well, when I was playing with Oscar Pettiford, somehow we ended up… We were playing at Birdland with Chris Conner. I remember doing a gig or two with Anita O’Day once. Like that. Not too many, though.

Q: But all the music on these project albums has a real visceral connection to you?

PM: Sure. Well, I mean, they’re songs that I feel connected to.

Q: It’s part of your life experience in a very tangible way.

PM: Sure. I would say that. Mmm-hmm.

Q: When you’re thinking about the reorchestrations… I know we’re kind of shaky territory talking about why you make the kinds of creative decisions you make…

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: The melodies are always there, but they are always twisted in a certain way. Maybe just take one of the songs, and talk a little bit about why you decided to treat it the way you did.

PM: Well, I don’t know. It wasn’t anything written out. There was just my ideas about who should play where and when and with who. I mean, that kind of thing. That was all. There was nothing really…

Q: So you’re leaving a lot of the content to your musicians, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano.

PM: Yeah. I mean, I may have an idea about, like, who should play the first solo, or who shouldn’t, or who should lay out here or lay out there, and when people should play together, you know, depending on how I hear it. And I would explain that to them or tell them about it, and try and do that. And we may have tried something that didn’t work, and I might want to change it or not, you know… It was like that. It wasn’t anything… I didn’t sit down and write stuff on paper.

Q: Another area of music that’s touched you very closely is the Bebop music of the 1940’s and early ’50s that you came up under.

PM: Sure.

Q: You’re currently leading a new band that I guess has been together maybe a year now…?

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Paul Motian and the Electric Bebop Band. [ETC.]

PM: Bebop, that’s the music I grew up with, man. I mean, that’s…. And I love it. And I just wanted to play the music, but I didn’t want to do it in the sort of standard way with trumpet-saxophone-piano-bass-drums. I wanted to do it a little different. And the idea was to have two guitars, two electric guitars, electric bass. It started out like that. Then later on I added the saxophone. The music that I grew up with, the music that I loved…

Q; How did you recruit these musicians?

PM: How did I recruit these musicians…? [LAUGHS]

Q: Josh Redman is the tenor player in the group. One of the guitarists is Brad Schoeppach…

PM: Brad Schoeppach and Kurt Rosenwinkel. You know, the same way that the trio stuff happened, and before the trio, the quintet — from word of mouth. Actually, I think Bill Frisell recommended both of those guitar players. Bill heard Kurt Rosenwinkel in Boston in a band. And when I was putting this thing together, I was… Actually, the first time I tried this was about ten years ago, and I had it with a band with Bill Frisell, Mike Stern and Mark Egan. We did a rehearsal at my house, but it really didn’t work. But at the time, we were kind of playing my music and not so much Bebop music. So that was kind of the beginning of the seed or whatever you want to call it.

And then it was kind of like word of mouth; someone would recommend someone. I had a couple of other guitar players. But the two that ended up on the record and now that did the tour with me, it’s working out real well.

[MUSIC: "Scrapple From The Apple," Paul Electric Bebop Band; "Gaia," Kikuchi-Peacock-Motian, Tethered Moon; "Monk's Dream," Bley-Haden-Motian, Memoirs; "Birth," Keith Jarrett-Redman-Haden-Motian, Birth.]

Q: That set reflects one particular musical association with Keith Jarrett, who you played with from the late 1960s until the late 1970’s.

PM: Yeah, about ten years, I think. I think there’s maybe 13-14-15 albums I did with Keith.

Q: It was a very popular group at that time.

PM: Umm… I don’t know. [LAUGHS] It was fun. I loved the music. We had fun. It was great. And we did work fairly often.

Q: Do you find that the albums reflect the true quality of the group, for the most part?

PM: Mmm…yeah.

Q: Yeah?

PM: [LAUGHS] Sure.

Q: What was your hook-up?

PM: With Keith? Actually, Tony Scott called me to play with him at a club that was down on Eighth Street. What was that called? I forgot the name of that place already. So I went down with Tony, and when we walked into the club, Keith Jarrett was playing piano with Henry Grimes on bass, and I don’t know who else, and they were playing “The Song Is You.” And I said, “Hey, Tony, who’s that guy? He sounds great” — the young piano player. He said, “Oh, that’s Keith Jarrett. And that’s when we met, and that’s when we hooked up.

And then we started playing together a little bit. Then after Jack DeJohnette left, I played with that band for about a year or so. And then we did his trio stuff, and then it became a quartet. The quartet started in 1972. I remember we played at that club down on the Lower East Side where Lee Morgan got shot… What was the name of that place?

Q: Slugs.

PM: Slugs! Right. That’s when Dewey joined the band. We played in there the day or two days after Lee got killed in there. It was a very strange vibe! It was! So that’s how it started with Keith, hearing him at that club downtown and then getting together and hooking up.

Q: And during the existence of this band is when you start putting together your own groups and recording under your name for ECM.

PM: Yeah… I was actually thinking about Keith… When Keith formed that trio with me and Charlie Haden, he said that he had always wanted to do that because he admired my work with Bill Evans and Charlie with Ornette, and he always wanted to do that.

But anyway, I wasn’t really writing then. It was after that that I got into it. I did write a couple of things when I was back with Bill Evans, but I never pursued it too seriously.

Q; Your collaboration with Charlie Haden continues, particularly on record.

PM: Right.

Q; I don’t know how much you get to perform together in concert situations.

PM: Well, not so much any more, since he’s living in California now. But I’m still part of the Liberation Music Orchestra. As a matter of fact, we’re going to be doing a European tour next summer. And this coming September, we’re doing some gigs with the Liberation Music Orchestra, at the Monterrey Festival and a couple of other things during September. But I haven’t seen him now for a while. But yeah, we’ve been involved with different groups together.

Q; And does your relationship with Paul Bley go back to the Sixties, Fifties…?

PM: Oh yeah. Sure. With Paul Bley and Gary Peacock, we did a recording back in the mid-Sixties, a little later, that came out eventually on ECM…

Q; Was that the one with John Gilmore?

PM: No, this was before that. And I remember playing with… We used to play at a club down in the Village, around the corner from where Visiones is now; I forgot what that was called. But that was with Paul Bley. We used to make a dollar, two dollars a night! And it was Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, John Gilmore, Albert Ayler and myself. It was a hell of a band.

Q: Now, in the early 1960’s, you were working with Bill Evans, but you were also involved in a wide range of…

PM: Right.

Q: It seems you’ve always been involved in things that would just totally confuse anybody…

PM: [LAUGHS HEARTILY]

Q: I mean, to think of you playing with Bill Evans and Albert Ayler at the same time…

PM: Uh-huh.

Q: Do you feel that all things are possible in music?

PM: Yeah, man. It’s all music, isn’t it? I mean, that’s the main thing. I mean, when I was playing with Bill, I was also playing with Lennie Tristano, I was playing with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, Oscar Pettiford — a lot of people. I mean, just playing with Bill, I don’t think I could have made a living actually. We didn’t work that much.

Q: You had to be flexible over the years.

PM: Yeah.

Q; You certainly seem to epitomize that. We’ll now hear a set of Paul Motian Trio recordings… [ETC.] I guess I first really became aware of you as a writer in the late 1970’s with the release of two albums on ECM when you had the superb saxophonist, Charles Brackeen, in your band, and David Izenson was the bassist early on. [ETC.]

PM: Mmm-hmm. I think it was around 1976 when the Keith Jarrett band broke up; that was the end of that. And I kind of wanted to see if I could do something on my own. I can’t remember how or why I got together with Charles Brackeen somehow… It might have been from his record. He did a record called Rhythm X…

Q; With Blackwell and Charlie Haden.

PM: Right. And David Izenson, I can’t remember the specifics.

Q: You probably had hooked up at some point…

PM: Well, I knew David from before. I mean, we had played together and we had done some projects together. And I was starting to write; you know, I was starting to write some music. And I was with ECM, and at that time ECM put together tours, European tours. So we did the record and we did a tour. And that’s how that was.
Q: The date on the record is 1977. We’ll hear “Dance,” the title track, and then a few more contemporary recordings by the Paul Motian Trio… [ETC.]

[MUSIC: “What Is This Thing Called Love” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” Motian on Broadway, Vol. 1.

PM: We still play “Dance.” It’s one of the pieces that stayed with us, stayed with me.

Q: So there’s really a process of weeding out.

PM: Yes, there is.

Q; You write prolifically, and then you decide and establish…

PM: Yeah. You know, depending on what seems to work best of the ones that I choose or we choose.

Q: [ETC.] We’ve mentioned many different projects you’re involved with. There’s the Electric Bebop Band, you perform still with Paul Bley…

PM: Occasionally, right.

Q: The Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra. What are some of the other…

PM: I just did a record with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, and the trio with Masabumi Kikuchi and Gary Peacock is ongoing. I just did another record and a tour in Europe with bassist Marc Johnson and a very nice pianist, Enrico Pieranuzzi. And there’s more… I’m afraid that now I’m going to leave out some people; they’re going to get mad at me. But I mean, I’m involved in a few things. For me it’s all music, you know. Anything that’s happening that’s musical to me or to my taste, I’m going to get into it.

Q: We’ll conclude with two dates from a 1958 recording with Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz that produced two records. You played a fair number of times with Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz…

PM: Right, with Lennie Tristano. I’d say in the late Fifties, ’57, ’58, ’59, in there, ’60…

Q: A few words about Warne Marsh.

PM: Oh, wow. Well, a great player. As I was saying before, there was one night in particular we were playing at the Half Note, where he played so great that it just shocked me. It was incredible. A really great player.

[PLAY "YARDBIRD SUITE"]

Q: You hadn’t heard that for a while…

PM: Yeah, it sounds great.

Q; You mentioned with the trio that when selecting the standards, you did a lot of research.

PM: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Do you sing? Were these songs that you were coming up with even before you were playing?

PM: No. No, I don’t sing. But when I was researching, I was also trying to get into the lyrics, too, and try to really check them out…

[ETC.]

[-30-]

* * * *

Paul Motian Colleagues (Stefan Winter, Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Brian Blade, Joey Baron):

TP: I’d like to speak with you about Paul Motian. In a sense, he’s commenting on a life and history lived in music — fifty years of experience as a professional musician. There’s a direct correlation between his association with your label and the flowering of what had been the beginning of a creative renaissance for him in mid-life. He’s been able to take projects that he was beginning to fully articulate in the ’70s and ’80s, and with you was able to realize their fullest implications. Again, what was the appeal for you? What qualities did he embody in his persona as an instrumentalist and as a composer-bandleader that made him someone you wanted for the label?

STEFAN WINTER: I discovered jazz very late, when I was around 20 years old. [43] I knew about jazz before I was 20, but there was nothing that I would say hit me. I came from Classical music, I started at that time in Classical music, and by whatever coincidence, I heard a Keith Jarrett album which I have to say is still one of my favorite albums. It was the first what I call jazz album I really heard, and I still love it. It’s the album Somewhere Before with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. It’s a live album. As far as I remember, it was released on Atlantic. This album is for me absolutely beautiful. Keith on the one side is playing some free pieces, and on the other side I think he is playing maybe a Joni Mitchell song. He is touching so many different fields, and he is reflecting on this album a lot of things, and I was totally touched by it. I also loved what Paul and Charlie were doing on that album.

A couple of years later I had the opportunity to meet Paul. I think it was Tim Berne who said to me, “Ask Paul to make a Monk album.” I thought this was a great idea, and I asked Paul, “Paul, what do you think about doing a Monk album?” and Paul immediately said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” That’s how we started our relationship.

TP: You have a knack for knowing how to market an artist in the best sense of the word, by giving them projects that allow them to strike a chord and yet be entirely themselves within a frame, which would describe the Motian Meets Broadway series and Motian Meets Bill Evans. Those records gave him a certain definite identity among the jazz audience beyond being a superb drummer.

WINTER: I am trying to think about where a musician or where a personality is coming from. I think everything you’re doing has to be connected with yourself. If you’re doing something that is connected with yourself, I think you give also the listener a certain kind of identification. Again, it’s like watching a movie, and if you can identify yourself with a certain character or with a certain time period of your life, then I think this movie will talk to you in a very specific way. If I start to work with artists, I m trying to listen to them and to hear where they are coming from, and when we are sitting together and drinking a glass of wine or whatever, just to talk about this and talk about that a little bit. The best is if then these artists start to realize that they want to do this and that project. I think it’s important that it’s not coming from me and I’m not saying to someone, “Let’s do a Broadway album.” That’s not how it happened. How Paul and I work together, we talked about it. We talked about where he’s coming from and what he loves and what he wants to do, and then this idea came out. Paul himself said, “What do you think about doing a Broadway album?” Basically, I was waiting for something like that. Then I’m just jumping on it and pushing that this was happening. Because an idea by itself doesn’t mean anything if you don’t realize it.

TP: Again, can you elaborate the qualities Paul Motian embodies that make him such a distinctive artist to you.

WINTER: I learned a lot from Paul from the way Paul works with his so-called sidemen. Paul is giving his sidemen, or the people with whom he’s working, a lot of freedom, and basically he giving them space to develop in his group their own personality. I would say Paul is for me like a godfather. I learned from him to watch people, to see what they can do, and then even support them or do something for them so that they really can develop their own language and their own style. I think that’s what he did, in a way, with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. Paul is also able, like when he’s playing together with Charlie Haden, to respect other people and to work together with them and just give his identity, to add it together with their identity, and then build together something new out of it.

TP: So it really transcends instrument and technique. It has to do with the development of tonal personalities.

WINTER: It has a lot to do with tonal personalities, and I think it has a lot to do with how you look at music, if music should be made in a certain hierarchy, like how we know it from the Classical world, like there is a conductor and he is telling the people what to do, or if we look at music that it is played by individuals and we have to respect these individuals. I think Paul is one of the key people who is respecting individuals. I think how he played together with Bill Evans (and I still love today to listen to these albums) or how he played together with Keith and then later on in his own groups, like in the Broadway groups or in his trio with Bill and now with the Electric Bebop Band, he is opening up a world for other musicians so that they can develop their creativity.

TP: Particularly with the Electric Bebop Band he’s doing what you would think of as repertoire music. I had been not so impressed with that band, but when I heard them at Sweet Basil last time they were treating the music in an utterly creative way.

WINTER: I think this is very important, what you are saying now. Because even if he is playing with young musicians bebop music, he is giving them the understanding that they have to make their own story out of this text. For me it is boring if I hear today a musician who is playing as another musicians played 40 years ago or 30 years ago. It doesn’t give me anything. But if I hear that somebody has his own style and own language, but he can also work with traditional material, this is incredibly nice. And this counts also for Classical music. If a Classical musician is able to turn the text, for example, of Schubert’s music into his own music, if he can interpret Schubert like it’s his own music and make it to his own thing, then it makes sense to listen to it again. The repertoire by itself doesn’t mean anything. I think it’s really just some written notes on the piece of paper. The question is what you do with it. If there is somebody who is turning the text into his own language, that is his own text, then the music talks to the listener. Then it’s talking to me. I think that’s what Paul is doing. Paul is like the master of everything that he is playing. If he is playing his own music, his original music, or if he is playing Monk’s music or Bud Powell’s music or Broadway songs, he is making his own music out of it.

[BREAK]

TP: Let me take you back to the ’50s and recall your early encounters with Paul and what the affinities were? You worked together quite a bit from ’56-’57 on. Earlier?

LEE KONITZ: I don’t know about “quite a bit,” but we did work together, and I always liked Paul very much. He played with Lennie’s group a few times. Once I remember at the Half Note where the record came out with Bill Evans playing instead of Lennie, Paul and Jimmy Garrison really sounded great together, and Bill was sitting back a lot, not being part of the rhythm section too much, for whatever reason. But they sounded beautiful together.

TP: Do you have any particularly vivid memories of early encounters?

KONITZ: No, not really. I didn’t know Paul that well. I just loved the way he played. He played like a man who was listening and interpreting what he was hearing immediately.

TP: That was always part of what he does.

KONITZ: Always. Yes, as far as I know. In all the contexts that I heard him with Bill and with Keith Jarrett especially, and to the later days when he played with his own different situations, he was always very much interested in what everybody else was doing.

TP: Do you remember when you first did play with him? Was it the period when he was playing with Lennie Tristano?

KONITZ: That’s what I remember most. I’ve forgotten a lot of thing, and it’s kind of embarrassing to admit to that.

TP: In our conversations he’s painted a picture of the New York scene in the ’50s where people would play month-long engagements at one place, then go into another place for a week, and let’s say the Half Note to the Vanguard…

KONITZ: I was the second band in the original Half Note for 13 weeks. I recall that. I’m wondering if I recall accurately. Mingus opened the club, he was in for a long time, then he moved on to the Vanguard or something, and recommended me. Then he wanted the gig back and tried to talk them out of having me there. That was extraordinary. Usually a week was still a good period.

TP: What are the advantages and disadvantages of playing 13 weeks straight?

KONITZ: Well, the obvious one is that you get to play a lot and get to pay the rent with a minimum of anxiety for that two months or three months. And mostly the opportunity to be out and playing.

TP: So not too many disadvantages to the situation except for fatigue or getting into a rut.

KONITZ: Yeah, you can get into a rut if you don’t stay fresh.

TP: You’ve developed a rather substantial friendship with Paul, yes?

KONITZ: I feel very close to Paul these days especially. He’s done some things recently that were very sweet, and I appreciate it very much.

TP: When do you recollect that your friendship started becoming something more than professional?

KONITZ: Well, we both lived in the same place on Central Park West for a while, and although I didn’t really see him that much, there was that kind of affinity. He asked me to do the project with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden, and that kind of endeared me a little more. Being asked into that environment was really nice. Most recently, I was playing in Vicenza, Italy, and I had a big kind of unpleasant scene with Ray Brown one night, and the next night Paul was in with Bill Frisell, and he cancelled that out immediately by extending himself in a very spontaneous way. So it’s just been increasing. Now we’re supposed to play… I asked for this Duos on the Hudson in October. I was supposed to do it with Martial Solal, but he didn’t do it, so I recommended Paul. I’m really looking forward to that.

TP: You were talking about his listening, and perhaps that’s a sufficient description. But is there anything more you can say about Paul in relation to his contemporary trapsetters of the ’50s and ’60s?

KONITZ: Well, Paul has a great sense of time, and that’s still the function of the traditional playing, and doing it with everybody else in the year means that you can do it with the right volume and get a sound. That’s still kind of a special ingredient for that instrument. There’s still a tendency to overplay the instrument. Joey Baron is another guy who can do that. There’s a lot of fine drummers who are very interested in what’s going on, and try to get a sound and a blend. But Paul was one of the first ones that really did that.

TP: Did you play with a lot of different drummers with your bands in the ’50s? On some of these ’50s Verve records, there’s Dave Bailey, Shadow Wilson on one of them, Nick Stabulas maybe. Was it difficult to find a drummer who suited you? Were there more of them around in the ’50s?

KONITZ: No, I don’t know that there were more around. I was just really trying to find out how to play with a rhythm section, and the drummer was the most problem for me usually in terms of getting a natural balance. So I always appreciated when someone like Paul was available to play with.

TP: Well, it sounds like he was pretty much an infinitely adaptable drummer. He played with Oscar Pettiford, he played with Lennie Tristano. Those are two very different concepts of what the beat should be.

KONITZ: Well, that’s to be considered in his overall ability to play. I just know him from my standpoint really, but I know that he did all these other things, and that just indicates how much he loved the music and could adapt to it.

[BREAK]

TP: But the first thing I want to ask is, at the point when you joined Paul were you pretty much aware of his persona as a drummer, and what at that point did his persona as a drummer mean to you?

BILL FRISELL: Yes, I was very much aware of it. For me, it was sort of like getting the Miles Davis phone call. I had been in New York for a couple of years, and things were getting gloomier and gloomier. It seemed like I was doing more weddings… I was getting pretty discouraged. I was getting to play a little bit of music of what I wanted to do, but I was getting kind of dark. And then, sort of out of the blue, the phone rings and it’s Paul. Oh my God, what’s this? It totally freaked me out. Because this was a chance to… I had done a few little things, mostly jam session things, or I was playing with Bob Moses a little bit, doing little things around town. But this was what I sort of think of as the first chance for me to really… He wasn’t calling me because I was a guitar player. He was calling me for…he wanted my personality, me as an individual. There’s a pretty big difference between working as a guitar player and trying to fill in some role that someone…

TP: You worked quite a bit in the ’80s as the trio, and less so in the last eight-nine years. Would you say that experience of working and rehearsing with him is something that helped open you up and helped you find your sound?

FRISELL: Yes, because it was just wide-open. It’s still like that whenever we play. That’s what’s amazing. We’ve been playing for 20 years, and every time we play, I still don’t know what’s going to happen.

TP: It seems that he takes pains to make it that way.

FRISELL: Yes. Every note he plays is like the first and last note that he’s ever… Every time he hits the drums, it’s like somehow he has this way of surprising even himself — and of course, it surprises everyone else. You know people say he plays like a little kid. He hits something and it’s like, “wow, what is that?” But at the same time, there’s this virtuosity in there, too.

I don’t know how he has managed to… Well, there’s some kind of genius in that, where he’s so deft and he has the technique and everything, but it never… The music always overshadows the instrument somehow. Ornette said something once… He did a recording, and he did two takes. He said, “the first take I played the song, and the second one I played the music.” There’s something about Paul that’s always…it’s like he doesn’t play the drums; he plays the music.

TP: But that said, is he unique amongst drummers you’ve played with? You’ve played with a strong personalities who are drummers. Would you say that the qualities you’re describing are the salient aspects of what makes him him, and not so much the actual ideas he executes on the drums?
FRISELL: Oh man, that’s a hard question. There’s nobody else on the planet like him. He’s absolutely unique. Also, there’s that history. It’s such an honor to stand next to that… I really don’t get that from anyone else, where his experience… When you play a tune with him, he played with Oscar Pettiford and Monk and Sonny Rollins, and he sat in with Coltrane and everything else that everybody else knows. These days that’s going pretty far back into the deepest recesses of the history of the music. So when we play a standard tune or a Monk tune, to get to do it with him, it just takes on a whole… That’s pretty rare these days. It’s really first-hand. He’s handing it to you straight from the source. He didn’t learn it off a record. He learned it from playing with those guys.

TP: When I saw you last August, it was the first time you’d played in the year 2000.

FRISELL: Right. And we haven’t played since until this week at the Vanguard. That’s what it’s been over the last few years. We play usually a few times a year. We haven’t rehearsed in I don’t know how long. At the beginning, when I first started playing with him, we rehearsed for like nine months before we ever did a gig, and at the beginning there was a lot of working out of arrangements… Not so much talking about stuff, but it was more worked out. We tried to figure out what we were doing. But then after a number of years, it got to be where we don’t have to talk about anything.

TP: I don’t know how you’re listening to the music as it’s going on. Do you see the not-rehearsing affecting the music in any particular way? My sense hearing you last night is that you’re talking as many if not more chances than ever, but there’s something very clear about it. That probably has to do with you and Joe continuing to grow and grow and become more defined in how you think about things.

FRISELL: I hope so. Sometimes I wish I could come outside of it and see it from the outside. When we start playing, it’s like you just enter into this thing. It’s like whatever kind of real intense sort of conversation that we’re having. I’m not really sure what’s coming out the front. It’s like I just jump into this thing and you’re in there, and when we finish playing I come out of it. So what you’re saying is encouraging. I hope it’s clear.

[BREAK]

TP: Paul said that Bill D’Arango recommended you to him? He told Paul that you and Billy Drewes played well together.

JOE LOVANO: Bill might have mentioned me to Paul. Paul knew Bill. But Marc Johnson was rehearsing with Paul and Bill Frisell as a trio, and they had some saxophone players come up. Paul was wanting to have a quartet at that time. Marc and I had played with Woody Herman together and we were playing with Mel Lewis, and Marc told me he had been telling Paul about me. Then one Monday night Marc said, “do you want to come up and play with Paul this week?” I didn’t even talk to Paul. I went up there, and we played quartet. From that moment, we started to play, and it was a quartet. Right at that time Marc got the gig with Stan Getz. Then I got Ed Schuller on the thing. Then we played as a quartet for a while. Eddie and I and Bill and Paul did one gig in Boston, and Paul wanted to have two horns, and I got Billy on the thing. It was a quintet for that first tour we did, and recorded Psalm.

TP: You played and recorded extensively with the trio for a decade. That was a rather frequent gig.

LOVANO: Yes, all of the ’80s. We went to Europe two-three times a year for a long time, most of the ’80s. We were recording for ECM at the beginning, and then Soul Note, when Jim Pepper joined the band. Then the trio emerged in 1984 really on a quintet tour with Pepper, and we recorded for ECM, It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago. Throughout the ’80s I was in heaven, man. I was playing with Paul, Mel Lewis and Elvin. In 1987 especially I toured with the three of those cats, and for the whole year I was playing in the most amazing situation.

Paul is one of the rare drummers that dares to be so creative and free from within the world of swing. He knows how to accompany in any direction. He could play for anybody in whatever style. But to play with him, how he… He plays with total feeling, and creates such an amazing texture within the form of a tune. Especially with the trio, with no bass, within the structure that we play, Paul plays with all different elements within the music. He plays like a pianist, where he’s playing the melody, he’s playing the changes, he’s playing the rhythm, and he doesn’t have to just play a repetitive beat. He leaves a lot of spaces. There’s a lot of counterpoint and things that happen. Paul is one of the most creative musicians in jazz.

TP: It often sounds in the trio like you’re the one who’s playing the time.

LOVANO: Well, we’re all implying the tempo as we move around. the tunes that we’re doing have really formal structures. Some are just a melody and are very free, but we’re approaching them and trying to create inner structures. But the implied tempos let’s say in one chorus of any given tune… A tune like “Crepuscule With Nellie,” let’s say. One time through that chorus can move at different paces throughout the chorus. Sometimes we can move through the whole form quickly. Sometimes we’ll stretch out a certain chord here or there, or a certain phrase. We’re trying to actually create the music as we’re playing. So the structure and melodies and harmonies are all there, but the freeness in the way we’re putting the time together… So there could be implied tempos on certain phrases or chord, and we’re just trying to follow each other and build it together as a group, instead of just counting a tempo off and letting the beat kind of give us the way of playing. Paul is one of the few cats you can play like that with and create that magic.

TP: When did you feel that the group came into its sound? Around maybe ’87 or ’88? Paul said that you rehearsed extensively the first few years.

LOVANO: We were playing a lot. We used to play at my pad all the time, and up at his place. Mainly we’d rehearse for recordings or for tours and stuff, and putting a lot of repertoire together. That was so great, because now we have such a deep reservoir of compositions and things we can draw from, and throughout an evening cover a lot of different music, from Monk’s music and Bill Evans’ music, standard Broadway tunes, some of Billie Holiday’s music and Paul’s originals. Both Bill and I have had the opportunity to have Paul play with us in our ensembles and record with us, too. That’s been really a great and beautiful education. Paul is on my second record for Soul Note, Village Rhythm and he’s also on a record called Worlds: Live At Amiens, that actually Bill and Paul are on. There’s some trio moments on that recording. It features Gary Valente and Tim Hagans as well.

TP: When you first met Paul, you’d first heard him playing with Keith Jarrett in the early ’70s, and you had to have known the Bill Evans stuff, and probably the stuff with Paul Bley as well…

LOVANO: His way of playing I was attracted to years before I ever met him, or even heard him live with Keith. The sensibility and the tone he played with, and the way that he was such a… He wasn’t just a drummer in the Bill Evans Trio. It was a trio experience when you listen to those recordings. I was drawn into that style and way of playing from digging the stuff that Max Roach was doing. I heard Max in Paul’s playing early on, in his sound and the way he tuned his drums. At that time he was playing more kind of traditional as a drummer, but not really. He made the Bill Evans Trio be so creative like that. Any other drummer in that group, I don’t think Scott LaFaro would emerged, and the way they played together would have never happened.

TP: He says that developed that way of playing through listening to Scott LaFaro, and it become logical that that was the way to do it. As he puts it, he follows the sound.

LOVANO: Well, there you go. You play with the people you’re playing with at the moment, and you don’t really think about it, and stuff happens.

TP: But then he’d do ten weeks… We went through his gig book from ’57 to ’60. I put it all on the tape. He’d have ten weeks with Lennie Tristano at the Half Note and with Eddie Costa the other two nights, or almost five consecutive months with Bill Evans, or Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.

LOVANO: He was playing in different ways and having fun in every situation. And you know what? A lot of the stuff I’ve been doing in the last ten years has been a lot like that, too. Playing in different groups with different… It’s your personality and your tone, but if you can execute your ideas within the different genres and feelings in the music, man, it’s so expansive. Playing with Paul and digging his career and the way he’s done that has given me a lot of confidence to put myself in different situations a lot. I’ve learned so much from him.

TP: Would you say that’s the main impact that being with him has had on you as far as your own career?

LOVANO: Well, that has been one big thing. And compositionally and also just putting ensembles together and trying to play with people and create music together with trust.

TP: Can you break down compositionally the impact and say a few words about his tunes?

LOVANO: Well, yeah. As a player, as an improviser, all the songs that you play and study, no matter what they are, teach you something about how you can put ideas together for yourself. If you wanted to. Some cats play and they never write. There’s a lot of great improvisers and players who only play other people’s music. But I’ve tried to learn from every tune I’ve studied, to try to put ideas together with their own melodic invention or harmonic structures. Experiencing Paul’s music and playing with him, from his roots, the kinds of tunes he’s written from playing with Keith or Bill Evans… When you’re actually there and experiencing the music, it gives you confidence and ideas. It’s hard to say how. But a lot of my tunes… I do a lot of writing on the road. Trio Fascination, let’s say, with Elvin Jones and Dave Holland, we were on tour with Paul and Bill prior to that recording, the year before or something, and I was preparing for that date. After gigs, after we’ve played in such a creative way, man, I’m just full of ideas. I go back to the hotel and I’m hearing all these things. Of course, it’s 2 in the morning or whatever, you can’t take your horn out, but I sit and starting writing out ideas and sketches and stuff. I put a lot of my tunes together like that on the road, being inspired from a performance or something that happened during the gig. Touring with Paul all these years has been one of the most incredible, creative parts of my life.

TP: And that said, it’s obviously harder and harder to get the trio together. If it weren’t so satisfying, it probably wouldn’t exist any more, because it seems you and Frisell have to make a real effort to get the thing to happen.

LOVANO: And Paul, too. He has several different things. In the last four or five years, of course, Bill and myself have had a lot of bands and we’ve been on the road a lot as leaders. Paul also has been doing a lot of different projects with a lot of people himself. When we come together, it’s a real special moment. Last year we played one set all year, at Carremour. Man, I was looking forward to that set for months and months and months! Even though, yeah, okay, it would be great to play a three-week tour or something. But just that one set was perfect. At this point, it’s nice to come together like that. Because most of the ’80s we were on tour quite a lot. It’s been a thrill playing with Paul. He’s one of the most creative musicians in this music.
JL: [1995] Paul is a melody player all the way. All the music that he has experienced through the years, playing with the Bill Evans Trio and the things with the Keith Jarrett Quartet with Dewey and Charlie, those were the first things that I knew from records of Paul. I loved his playing, like, immediately. He was someone that was coming from Max Roach in the early days, but yet had his own feeling, and created his own atmospheres when he played. To play with him was a real dream of mine through the years.

I remember the first time I saw him play with Keith in Boston, I think it was in ’71 or ’72, and it was the quartet with Dewey and Charlie. Man, I went every night! Oh, man, it was the most happening quartet I ever saw live. The music just took off, every note everybody played. They were into what each other was playing. And it was maybe the first time I’d watched cats play that played like that. I was used to hearing Stitt and other groups that just played tunes that they’d known and played all their life. Keith’s group, when they played all their original pieces, the way they improvised together, the tempo changes, and just how they were listening constantly to each other, and shaping the music as a group — that was the direction I wanted to go in, right from that moment.
TP: Paul Motian and I went through his gig books, and talked about a very dramatic moment when he left Bill Evans at Shelley’s Manne Hole in California to join you in New York. He says that playing with you opened him up in many ways. When did you first hear Paul, what are your early impressions of him, and what chemistry allowed the two of you to work together so felicitously in the mid-’60s?

PAUL BLEY: We’ve been playing together so long, I can’t really answer the question. I don’t remember not working with him. I do remember that he and Sonny Murray were two of maybe a dozen players that introduced free playing to drumming. The drums were the last instrument to get free. Because the bass players were free, the horn players and the pianists were free, but the drummers felt a need to keep time. And eventually, one day in 1964, somewhere around the Cecil Taylor-Albert Ayler post, the drums woke up one day and said, “You know, if these guys are going to play waves, I’m going to play waves.” Now, up until then, through the Ornette period, the audience was still with the musicians. It was difficult, but they could understand the fact that it was done against drum time, and that meant they saw the continuum. Anyway, the drums were the last to realize that there was no necessity to play time, because everybody else in the band was playing waves. Now, the public thought that that, instead of being an incremental advance, was a revolutionary advance, and after having lost a good percentage of the audience by the other musicians playing free when the drums played free, the audience just said, “Forget it, get me a Capitol record of the Beatles, I don’t want to hear about it any more,” and they made a right turn. That left the musicians high and dry with the label “avant-garde.” The mainstream was over, and now the musicians were on their own. Even though not one musician in New York had changed their style, the fact that the drummers joined them made it extremely radical, even more radical to the public than the microtonality that preceded it.

TP: I would presume that you heard Paul with Bill Evans, or with Lennie Tristano or Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and those gigs where he was playing time, which was his quotidian for most of his first decade in New York?

BLEY: Right. I heard him in all those gigs..

TP: And what about what he was doing in those gigs made it evident that he would be able to make that transition in as sensitive a way as he did?

BLEY: Well, there was nothing in those gigs which indicated that he would make the transition. Of course, I had the same situation with Barry Altschul.. He was a recording engineer assistant, which meant that he got to sweep up the recording studio after the record session. We had a chat, and we talked about the fact that there hadn’t been free Latin, there hadn’t been free Indian, there hadn’t been free any of the other genres, that “free” just meant playing as fast as possible and as loud as possible and as free as possible for as long as possible! It was a single stroke that everybody jumped on, regardless of the instrument. I thought at the time that all the history of jazz could be advanced by using those principles. Barry agreed. So we had this chat, we had dinner and so forth, and we put together a trio which in ’65-’66 was at the same point as Paul was. He and Barry and I, in terms of drummer and keyboard, were simpatico. I took a band with Barry to Europe. I didn’t take Paul to Europe. Paul had heard that band… This is not gospel. My memory is not worth quoting without checking with the other people.

TP: But what do you remember about this gig on McDougal Street with Albert Ayler, John Gilmore, Paul, Gary Peacock and you?

BLEY: I remember a lot about that. It was a snowy winter (I’m not sure which month), and I had gotten a call from Gary, who was going to be the bandleader at the Take 3, which was on Bleecker Street (not McDougal) just opposite the Village Gate on the second floor. So Gary called and said he had this gig, and we were going to do a double gig. He and I and Paul would be the rhythm section for the double gig, and on one of the gigs it would be Gilmore and on the other gig it would be Albert Ayler. So we did one set with the one and one set with the other. The drummer also changed, as I remember. Paul was on one of the gigs, and Sunny Murray was on the other. The recording that came out for that on my label was the Gilmore record with Gary and Paul. The one with Albert and Sunny Murray was not a recording. And it paid $5 a night.

I accepted the job two or three weeks in advance, and after accepting the job I got a call from the drummer who was working with Miles at the moment (this was in December-January, snowy New York City), and he said, “How would you like to come down to the Caribbean and do a month with a band…” It was an all-star band in the Caribbean. I really got pissed with him. I said, “I’m really angry about this.” He said, “Why?” I said, “I just accepted a $5 gig with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian and John Gilmore. I would have loved to go down to the Caribbean, but the reason I am going to stay on Bleecker Street is that I have the feeling that jazz is going to change on this gig.” That was my quote. And you know, I’ve been doing crystal-balling for a while.

TP: But this wasn’t the first time you played with Paul. The first time was after he left Bill Evans in California in ’64. Had you ever played together before that?

BLEY: I’m positive we had, but I don’t have the record.

TP: So basically we could say that Paul, while playing with Bill Evans and Tristano and Al and Zoot is partaking of the events that were percolating in New York in the early ’60s.

BLEY: Yes, you could say that.
TP: Let’s jump ahead in time. You play with Paul until about ’68-’69, and then you go electronic and Paul goes with Keith Jarrett? Is that pretty much how that works?

BLEY: I’m very bad with the dates and times. [ETC.] Check the book. I wrote the book so I could get the dates straight!

TP: But in the last 15-16 years, the relationship has flourished, resumed and become quite fruitful. Maybe more like the last 12-13.

BLEY: Well, it was always on… Same with Gary. There was always a strong relationship. It’s just that the philosophy with these musicians is you don’t marry your mates, you’re promiscuous.

TP: Can you break down the qualities of his playing to you, how you hear him within the lineage of drummers, or other drummers that you play with. Give me some sort of paragraph or two about his sound.

BLEY: Well, the joke about Paul Motian’s is that it sounds like he fell down the steps of the Village Vanguard with a full set of drums, and it made a great idea.

TP: Is that the soundbyte? Please be a bit more elaborate than that on how you hear drums through the medium of Mr. Motian.

BLEY: In the case of Paul, he has since that time where I quote him… There is a famous painting of a woman walking the stairs, where she’s all disjointed (“Nude Descending the Staircase” – Duchamp). Well, that’s exactly how I heard Paul in that period, in the ’60s, was random. Now, the update on Paul in the last ten years is that in terms of the soloist he’s become an idea man as opposed to a language man. So I hear one idea on the drums, and there is a silence, and then there is another idea, and it has nothing to do with accompaniment per se. It’s way beyond that. He’s playing as many ideas as the people he’s playing with, and sometimes more vividly because of the silences.

[BREAK]
KEITH JARRETT: Let me get dumb. When tape recorders go on, things are never as good as when they’re off.

TP: This is for “Downbeat” and it won’t be so verbatim.

JARRETT: Okay. Then I can say anything at all. I was only kidding.

TP: A very basic question. In your formative years, when were you first aware of Paul Motian’s identity as a drummer?

JARRETT: Oh, it must have been with Bill. Actually, I wouldn’t say that was the first I was aware of his identity. The first I really knew of his identity was when I heard him play with a free player in Boston named Lowell Davidson. I don’t really remember much about what he did. If there’s a way to say this, maybe it was somewhere between Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley or Bill Evans, but that would be a very banal way of saying it. He had a touch, so that probably presented a little more of Bill’s direction. I thought Lowell’s playing was interesting, but what struck me is that when I heard Paul on a tape, I didn’t know who it was and I didn’t know who it could be. Then at some point I ended up sitting in at the Dom, on 8th Street, with the clarinet player…

TP: Paul ran this down. Tony Scott told Paul to come down on a Monday night, that he had to hear this piano player, who was you. So that was the first time you played with Paul.

JARRETT: Right. I hadn’t met him, but I had heard him with Bill in Boston when I was coming through town with Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians when I was 15 or 16. The bass player in that organization and I both went to the Jazz Workshop, and I saw Bill there. Paul was sitting, looking really like businessman in his suit, the way some of the pictures from those early Riverside recordings suggest, and he was sitting pretty still, using brushes. Then the next I knew, I was hearing this Lowell Davidson tape with Paul, and I thought, “Who is the drummer?” I must have found that out when I heard the tape, but I can’t remember the circumstances.

TP: Did you hear him with Paul Bley as well during the ’60s?

JARRETT: No, not that I know of.

TP: Let’s get to your recruiting him for your trio when you formed it, not so much the how you did it, but the why.

JARRETT: Well, the Why was that the enormity of the difference between how he played with Bill and how he played with Lowell (and maybe there were other players he played with in a free context) made me think that he was not one of those players who would decide ahead of time what he liked and what he didn’t. It’s true. I mean, the guy worked with Arlo Guthrie while he was playing with Charles Lloyd! He doesn’t seem to have any categoristic…if that’s a word; it’s probably not…he doesn’t have a thing about categories. A lot of players maybe would say they don’t, but in their playing you’d hear that they prefer certain things. Paul is open in a way that… Paul likes music, and he was actually the first drummer I ever knew and probably the most vivid example of a drummer who liked music above his own involvement in it. Like, he would request that we play ballads in the early trio with Charlie.

TP: None in your experience had, I take it.

JARRETT: Well, not in the consistent way Paul… Paul just loved good songs. And that was one of the principles I would look for in a player, somebody who… We would be listening to Bartok together. We’d be listening to whatever was good.

TP: I’d forgotten before calling you about that year with Charles Lloyd, which Paul said was 1968. So you’d spent a good deal of time on the road with him by the time you had the trio.

JARRETT: Actually, he was in the trio first. I’m not sure about the chronology. I’m writing my own book, and I’m still not sure of the chronology. I think we started rehearsing… If my memory serves, I was rehearsing with Paul and Steve Swallow the very first time for a possible gig at the Vanguard. Whether it was for that or for a record, I don’t know, but we were allowed to use the Vanguard to rehearse, because we had no other place. And Steve was too busy with I think Gary Burton at the time, and he didn’t know if he could do both things. Then I used Charlie. That was probably ’65 or ’66, and at that time maybe I had started with Charles and Jack was in that band. Jack was in the band a couple of years more, if I’m not mistaken. Paul might have joined the band at the cusp of the end of the ’60s.

TP: [ETC. on dates] I guess it was about an eight-year steady musical relationship, until about ’76. Can you discuss how associating with Paul impacted your concept of music and composition and improvising, how the feedback went from him to you.

JARRETT: That’s not exactly an easy thing to know, not to mention answer.

TP: Speculate.

JARRETT: I don’t know. See, already I was in some way affected by the Middle East in terms of philosophy. I was involved in Sufism and Gurdjieff, and a lot of Paul’s heredity was involved there to some extent, being Armenian. He has this way of tuning his drums that isn’t a traditional jazz way. At least he did. We’d go into a studio, and they’d want to use a mute on the bass drum because it sounded too much like a real drum, and he never wanted to do that. If I was going to say how that kind of thing was working from Paul to me, it was that he was presenting that side also. Jazz drummers are generally jazzy, and Paul isn’t particularly jazzy. He sounds to me very much like who he is in terms of his background and his… His Armenian-ness comes through.

TP: He did say his parents played that music, and he has vivid memories of it from pre-school, and it had a huge impact.

JARRETT: Yes. He plays like he’s on a caravan. You know? [LAUGHS] I think what he ended up being able to contribute was this feeling of openness that wouldn’t have come if he were — I don’t know — even a hip jazz drummer. We had a group whose strangeness was both accidental and on purpose, the way we played. Everybody was an individual. And Paul was definitely not going to play like any other drummer, nor would he be able to be forced to at gunpoint. [LAUGHS] He just wouldn’t do it! Sorry! That was good for me, because I was younger than the rest of my band. I needed to know that there was this kind of openness that was deeper than just a whimsical thing. Now, if I were the same age now, I don’t know who I’d be able to have in my band. If we were talking about being the same age as Paul and Charlie. If I was told by a George Avakian type of guy “you can choose anybody you want and I’ll produce an album,” man, that wouldn’t be easy.

TP: Well, none of us would be the same person if we were a different age than what we are.

JARRETT: That’s true. That’s why “ifs” are important.

TP: I think you’ve given me a sense of that essence. I know you haven’t played together very much since the early ’80s. I do love that one record from the Deer Head Inn, which I think is very special. Can you address how you’ve heard his concept and playing evolve in the last 25 years?

JARRETT: When something evolves, it’s something… I don’t know what people think of when they hear the word “evolve.” Sometimes I think they think it’s a linear thing. You know what I mean? I don’t see that with the greatest players, and with Paul I don’t see it either. If it is evolution, which I think I would say it is, I might define it as remaining in some way yourself while being more and more inclusive of things, and Paul has certainly been able to do that. I never heard him swing as hard as he does on that Deer Head recording, and he wasn’t playing much, nor does he ever play that much as far as technical stuff is concerned. But I’ve played “Bye Bye Blackbird” with my present trio quite a few times, and that version on the Deer Head in terms of swing would stand up under all circumstances!
I think he was surprised, too. I don’t know if he had swung… That’s what makes Paul special. He probably didn’t know… It’s not like he brings his tool kit with him. He just brings himself along, and if something starts to click, he falls right in. It’s almost like he has no choice.

That whole quartet was like that. Although Charlie and Dewey had much more preference…they liked and didn’t like certain types of things. Paul would play everything, no matter what it was; he would try to find something that was appropriate to it. Otherwise, how could he play with Arlo Guthrie and enjoy it? But there is something that closes up in some players… Even though people would say they’re evolving, I might not agree if whatever that is closes on them or they close it themselves. Their playing can evolve, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the same as keeping the doors open. And that’s what Paul has done. He’s kept the doors open.

TP: Let me take this from one other angle. If you put on something representing Survivors Suite and then heard him on a record from 2000, is that instantly recognizable as the same tonal personality?

JARRETT: I don’t know, because actually it’s been so long since I’ve been listening. I’ve not been listening to anything for a while. But it’s a fair question. I have a feeling that the answer would be that I would recognize Paul right away. But it wouldn’t be because he has gimmicks. It would be because he’s always himself.

TP: There are no stylistic tropes. It’s his process of functioning in the moment all the time.

JARRETT: Yeah. It’s almost as though he’s purposely eliminated stylistic sophistication in order to stay pure. But that can really be a problem. If you get hipper and hipper, then all you’ve got left is hipness.

[BREAK]
BRIAN BLADE: I’m a big fan of Paul Motian. When you hear him… Or particularly Elvin Jones. Just one strike of the cymbal, there’s something transcendent in the sound.

Johnny Vidacovich introduced me to Bill Evans records. I sort of discovered them when I went to school, but he wanted me to listen a lot to Paul Motian, because he liked Motian a lot. He possesses this amazing looseness that is so lyrical, but also at the same time the pulse. A lot of people sometimes miss it, that Motian really moves the music and gets inside of it. It’s quite a different approach from records where you hear Art Blakey or Philly Joe Jones play the drums. But at the same time there is this swing and, like I say, this pulsation that injects the music with a good feeling.

[BREAK]
JOEY BARON: Around a certain point, I started hearing another kind of groove that was going on, and that’s the kind of interplay that wasn’t necessarily about stating 4/4 all the time. It was more like a floating kind of time, more like a circle than a straight up-and-down hard groove, like Paul Bley and Bill Evans, that kind of school — the way Paul Motian would approach playing a ballad. To hear him play a ballad was really incredible, because he made it interesting rather than just a straight boom-chick, which a lot of drummers did. He really played a ballad. That was also a really big influence, because ballads are great to play. There’s lots of time to listen to what’s going on, to think about and comment on it. That was a whole different approach that I started listening to parallel to Oscar Peterson, Red Garland and Wynton Kelly. I was kind of interested in being able to do both, because I liked them both. I didn’t bring with me this record called Ramblin’ by Paul Bley with Barry Altschul and Marc Levinson, who now makes high-end sound equipment. Hearing the way they played on that record, sometimes you couldn’t tell where the time was. Was it that important that you couldn’t tell where it was? The feeling was just incredible. It was a very forward-moving feeling. That intrigued me as well as the straight up-and-down kind of grooves that were coming from people like Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly and Red Garland.

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Filed under Bill Frisell, Drummer, Joe Lovano, Keith Jarrett, Lee Konitz, Paul Bley, Paul Motian, WKCR

For Bill Frisell’s 63rd Birthday, A DownBeat Article, An Uncut Blindfold Test, and A Few Other Pieces

Best of birthdays to guitarist Bill Frisell, who turns 63 today. Most people who would read this blog don’t need me to say much about him. But on the personal tip, I’ve admired Frisell’s unique sound and concept since the  early ’80s, when he first recorded with Joe Lovano in the Paul Motian Trio, and that decade with John Zorn’s Naked City. During my years at WKCR, I was fortunate  to have a number of opportunities to host him on-air, several times by himself, once in dialogue with Paul Motian, another time in dialogue with trumpeter Ron Miles, his old friend and fellow son of Denver.

I’ve posted below my “directors’ cut” (about 1500 words longer) of a DownBeat cover piece I wrote about Bill and his long-standing trio partners Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen, during a week in Perugia for the 2008 Umbria Summer Jazz Festival. I’ve also appended the uncut proceedings of  a Blindfold Test that he took with me around 2000 or 2001, in his extraordinarily cramped room at the former Earle Hotel on the corner of Waverly Place & MacDougal, on the northwest corner of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

Bill Frisell Trio in Perugia, Downbeat, 2008:

At midnight on the first Sunday of the 2008 Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, an impromptu party was in full swing on the cobblestoned  streets outside Teatro Pavone, a horseshoe-shaped, five-tiered acoustic marvel with with a giant sunflower chandelier hanging from the ceiling.  It opened in 1740, when Perugia was still an independent city-state, as the gathering place for the local aristocracy. In response, forty years later, a consortium of Perugia’s merchants converted an abandoned nunnery perhaps a quarter mile down the hill into the grander, showier Teatro Morlacchi, a 785-seater with ceiling frescoes.

Inside, however, about 250 listeners paid close attention as the Bill Frisell Trio, with bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, positioned themselves on stage to begin a six-night run.

Smiling, Frisell touched a pedal with his black-shoed foot. Nachtmusik birdsong plinks came forth, resonating against the old wood facades. For the next several minutes, Frisell followed the sounds, weaving an abstract web of tone color—whispery one moment, skronky the next. He inserted electronic sounds into the dialog with pedal taps and dial switches. Wollesen scraped his snare drum, hand-drummed on his hi-hat and stroked a gong on a tree of little instruments placed next to his kit. Gradually, a familiar melody emerged. Scherr inferred a walking bass line, and the tempo began to coalesce from rubato to meter. Then, on a dime, Frisell launched the melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.”

This launched a free-associative, genre-spanning suite of songs, each declarative melody transitioning into another—“Moon River,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “You Are My Sunshine,” Monk’s “Jackie-ing,” Charlie Christian’s “Benny’s Bugle,” Boubacar Traoré’s “Baba Drame” and Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee.” Seemingly able to call up guitar dialects ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Mali to Charlie Christian at a moment’s notice, Frisell went for equilateral triangle dialog, simultaneously feeding information to and drawing it from Scherr and Wollesen. The band displayed implacable patience, grabbing sounds, constructing lines and creating musical flow from the environment. If you thought about it a certain way, you might reflect on how the architects and painters who created the look of Perugia between the 12th and 18th centuries responded to the particular light of the Perugian sky and the planes of its topography when they conjured their images and structures. You might also reflect on the ingenuity and learning that went into their designs, and the amount of labor that went into actualizing the final product.

Six hours earlier on the same stage, Pat Martino had played the third concert of a parallel 10-night engagement, leading his quartet through a sparkling seven-tune set. Dressed in a crisp white-on-white shirt, black vest and pressed black pants, barely moving a muscle, he spun out a series of high-degree-of-difficulty declamations, each a little sculpture of its own, marked by flawless articulation, an unfailingly plush tone, attention to melody and an enviable sense of form. Martino tore through the swingers and created high drama on the ballads; it was hard to determine whether the solos were set pieces or spontaneous inventions. Ascending the stairs after the concert, a guitarist from another band shook his head at the futility of it all and said, “I’m going to go back to the hotel and throw away my guitar.”
Throughout the week in July, the daily juxtaposition of these two—Frisell a master of space and implication, Martino determined on every tune to display his efflorescent gifts—was a fascinating programming subplot.
“You wouldn’t know it from listening to what I do now, but I’ve listened to Pat Martino a lot, and at one time I was maybe trying to do that,” Frisell said the following day. We sat in a walled-off space in the back of the dining area of the Rosetta Hotel, situated down the block from Teatro Pavone. Frisell wore a white t-shirt, paisley shorts, white Converse high-tops, and horizontally striped socks in bright colors. As we spoke, the kitchen staff prepared a luncheon buffet as diverse as the program he had presented the previous evening.
“I was checking Pat out yesterday, trying to unravel this mysterious stuff he’s doing, and it blows my mind,” he continued. “John McLaughlin was another hero. Day-in, day-out, I tried to play like him, and I couldn’t come anywhere close. I saw a concert with Shakti in the early ‘70s, heard this incredible stuff coming out, and  it was this moment of despair. I realized that I’d never, ever be able to do that. I wanted to quit. Then the next moment it was like, ‘Oh, thank God that’s over with; now I’ll deal with what I’ve got.’”Frisell noted the spontaneous quality of the previous evening’s concert. “It wasn’t planned,” he said. “My mom died a few weeks ago, and I had to miss a bunch of gigs, so I hadn’t been playing. I was feeling, ‘Wow, here I am—now I’m back with my buddies and I really want to play, but my hands are like…I haven’t been playing my guitar very much. So I thought, ‘Okay, I just want to make a sound and see what it sounds like.’”
Perhaps more in touch with formative memories than he might otherwise be because of his mother’s recent passing, Frisell mentioned reconnecting with painter Charles Cajori, now 87, an active member of New York’s art world since the early ‘40s, and a family friend. “His father worked with my father in Denver in medical school, and when he was in Denver he’d come over for dinner,” he recalled. “He’d tell me all this New York stuff: ‘I heard this incredible drummer—I went to the Village Vanguard and I was sitting right under his cymbal.’ That was Tony Williams when he first started playing with Miles. The first Monk record I ever saw was from this guy.“Forty years go by, I’m in New York, and I thought about him. I looked him up on the Internet, and he was teaching at the Studio School on 8th Street in Manhattan. I hadn’t talked to him since I was 14. I wrote a note, and brought it to the front desk at the school, which is around the corner from my hotel. A few weeks later, I got a letter from him. He’d seen me play at the Vanguard, and knew me through Paul Motian and so on, but didn’t connect that I was that kid from way back. Now we’re friends, and he comes when I play. There’s a picture of Monk playing at the Five Spot, and right behind him is a poster that says ‘Cajori’. He was friends with Morton Feldman. He’s in his late eighties, and he said this amazing thing: ‘One thing I’m certain of is that drawing is a worthy endeavor.’ He teaches, and he sees that some of these things are slipping. To be able to draw is important. To be able to play an instrument. The fact that your fingers have to move around. Just that one little thing he said—it’s a worthy endeavor.”
[BREAK]
The first half of Frisell’s 2008 release, History, Mystery [Nonesuch], consists primarily of music that he composed for three collaborative projects with Jim Woodring, a Seattle-based cartoonist who transforms biomorphic shapes into characters in phantasmagoric narratives. He arranged it for a Fall 2006 tour by an octet propelled by Scherr and Wollesen. It’s far from Frisell’s first sounds-meet-images project. The 1995 Nonesuch CDs Go West and The High Sign/One Week document his responses to a pair of silent films by Buster Keaton, and several years ago he scored Tales From The Far Side, an animated film by Seattle cartoonist Gary Larson, a close friend. Indeed, Frisell’s wife, Carole D’Inverno, is a painter whose canvases, both figurative and abstract, reveal an economical command of line and color.
“When the music is happening, it’s not visual,” Frisell said. “But I like to look at art. I can’t draw, but if I didn’t play music I’d probably do something like that. We probably have some instinct or motivation coming from the same place. I’ve said before that when I met Jim Woodring and saw his art, I felt his drawing was a lot closer to what I’m trying to do with the music than a lot of musicians I know. It’s the place you’re trying to get to—to bring something to the surface that’s not always visible or audible, something people feel in this reality that isn’t always there.”
In a drawing dated 1997, Larsen portrays a bespectacled Frisell playing guitar. He scalps him, revealing his brain as a laboratory in which a mad scientist sits in a sort of director’s chair atop a ladder, blowing notes into a large funnel, through which they pass into a complex, Rube Goldbergesque processor, which in turn feeds them into Frisell’s guitar, which is plugged into his left temple lobe.Frisell’s father was a biochemist, and I asked whether, in any way, he references that aspect of his background in his musical production. He demurred.“I didn’t connect with that at all,” he said. “Chemistry classes and that stuff, I failed right out of all of it.”That being said, Frisell’s instantaneous use of electronics—he deploys a distortion pedal and a fuzztone device, two delays, a reverb, and several small music boxes that he attaches to his guitar pickups—within the flow to trigger random elements within a performance, and his ability to work those sounds seamlessly into the warp and woof of his improvisations is a quality that continually astounds the people who hear him most.“Bill totally embraces all this technology,” said Claudia Engelhart, Frisell’s sound engineer and road manager. She met Frisell in 1989 while touring Brazil with John Zorn’s Naked City band, after spending her early twenties mixing for Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri. “Sometimes he’s creating loops without us hearing them, and then he’ll turn them on and there they are at precisely the right moment. It’s like he’s composing, thinking ahead, when he’s playing other stuff. I don’t know how he does it. My job is to sit and listen, but I daydream a lot when while I’m mixing sound for him—he takes me on these trips.”
By his account, Frisell began using effects towards improvisational imperatives in 1975. “I heard Santana play this incredible sustain sound that sounded like a trumpet,” he said. “I was trying to play like a horn player; I wanted to sound like Miles Davis. So I got a distortion thing. Then I was listening to pianists and admired how they could hold notes down and let them ring. Back then, there was a little cheap delay that had a cassette tape in it which sort of did what my little digital delay does for me now—that piano-y sustained thing.”
He remarked that he practices neither the sonic combinations that he conjures up nor the gestures by which he puts them forth. “It doesn’t make sense to do it by myself,” he said. “It developed from playing live with other people. I like the element that I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the machines. I trigger a loop, and it goes haywire. It’s not like I have something pre-programmed on a push-up button, and, ‘okay, now I’m going to get that sound.’ Sometimes, though, I feel like I get into certain patterns—I can build things up in ways that become predictable to me, and probably eventually to the audience, too. I try to keep it so that it’s not.”
To avoid the predictability pitfall, and break things open, Frisell frames himself with numerous configurations drawn from what is now a repertory company of musicians familiar with his language. Since 1996, when his long-time trio with bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron dissolved, he’s triangulated Scherr and Viktor Krauss with drummers Wollesen, Jim Keltner, Rudy Royston, and Matt Chamberlin; used several rhythm sections to propel ensembles of varying size with violinists Jenny Scheinman and Eyvind Kang, lap steel guitarist and banjoist Greg Leisz, trumpeter Ron Miles, and reedmen-woodwindists Billy Drewes and Greg Tardy. He’s developed a corpus of string quartet music and formed a quasi-world music ensemble (the Intercontinentals). Then there are the one-off projects—a trio CD with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, a standards duo with Fred Hersch, a more recent trio date with Ron Carter and Paul Motian, the latter his employer since 1981 with the Paul Motian Trio, with which he continues to perform annually around Labor Day at the Village Vanguard. Still, as he puts it, the trio with Scherr and Wollesen—which first convened for a 1999 week at the Village Vanguard, and performs on Unspeakable, East, West, and History, Mystery—feels like “home base.”
“I’ve listened to thousands of records with Ron Carter, but when I stand there and play a chord, and he plays some note I’m not expecting, and your mind has been obliterated…,” he said animatedly, before breaking off the sentence with a laugh. “You want to stay up in that thing. I want my mind to be blown. Then along come Tony and Kenny. By this time I’d been looking at a lot of other music, songs with words, listening to Hank Williams songs, Roscoe Holcomb and Doc Boggs—things I hadn’t listened to much before. It wasn’t just about I want to play a Monk tune or a Lee Konitz tune, or I want to write my own tunes. I was also trying to remember where I come from—when thinking about a Bob Dylan song when I was a kid, playing this Lovin’ Spoonful song when I was 16. Being honest about what got me playing. I did a record in Nashville, played with a banjo player for the first time. Some people said, ‘Wow, he went to Nashville, and he’s selling out,’ and so on, but for me, it was like, ‘Whoa, this is really weird.’ I was stretching myself, playing with people I’d never met before, people who come from different places, people who didn’t think about music or learn music the same way I did. I couldn’t write out charts for them, the way I used to. It was a whole different way of playing, and I learned so much. Still am.
“Both Kenny and Tony are like my teachers. In so many areas I want to go into, it’s like they know 20,000 times more than I do. Last night, as an encore, we played this Ron Carter song, ‘Mood.’ Tony’s heard that, and he knows 20 different versions of it, and any other song I’d ask him to play. He’s an awesome guitar player and also a singer—he knows the words, too. When I discovered Roscoe Holcomb, who came out of nowhere for me. Kenny went, ‘I got that record when I was 12.’ I’ve put myself in this amazing situation where they can challenge me. But then at the same time they respect me! They just play, and they’re not intimidating. Like I said, they blow my mind.”
[BREAK]
“Bill accepts the way people play, and plays with who they are, rather than with who they’re supposed to be,” said Scherr the following morning. “He’s constantly open to anything he hears. It’s sincere. If somebody is playing an instrument, that’s music—if it’s musical. There’s no preconception of what somebody is supposed to know or not.”
The sky was clear, facilitating a spectacular view of the Tiber River Valley from the terrace outside the Hotel Brufani, the festival’s nerve center. It stands atop the remnants of Rocca Paulina, a massive fortress constructed in 1543 on the order of Pope Paul III to show the town’s staunchly anti-clerical citizens—who had battled for autonomy against Papal authority since the 11th century—who was boss. To emphasize the point, Farnese, then 75, commanded that 138 buildings belonging to the Baglione family, Perugia’s most powerful clan, be razed to the ground.
“I didn’t grow up hearing jazz,” said Scherr. Early in his teens, he played guitar in a rock band in which his older brother, Peter—now a Hong Kong-based classical contrabassist—played bass. “I heard rock-and-roll and soul and all kinds of other music. That’s when I got bitten by the bug of playing with other people—that feeling of discovery and learning how to play together. When I was 14, my brother brought home Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson, and we went backwards from there. Around then I met a guy who would take me to his house, and we’d play guitar. He showed me who Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were. We would play vamps, what people think of as a standard, a song by the Animals, then we’d turn off the lights and play free. In my mind, it all lived in the same room, because that’s the guy I was in contact with. I suppose it took me a while to recognize that ultimately I was looking for that kind of guy. I never really thought about the difference between the genres. I recognize that in common with Bill, because Bill seems to just hear a song—it doesn’t matter if George Jones or Billie Holiday sang it. He writes beautiful, classic songs, too, with melodies that go around in my head. When it comes down to it, there’s just great songs, great melodies, and people hear them, and want to interpret them and be themselves and have a language with the people they play with.”
Scherr wore a retroish short-sleeved shirt over black jeans, the way young Manhattan hipsters dressed in the ‘80s, when Scherr, now 43, went on the road with Woody Herman. In the ‘90s, he played numerous jazz gigs on bass, joined the last edition of the Lounge Lizards, played with Maria Schneider, and joined Wollesen in Stephen Bernstein’s Sex Mob Quartet.`
“Maria Schneider started asking me, ‘Have you played a lot of rock music or something?’” he related with a laugh. He spoke in a deliberate baritone perhaps an octave lower than the gravelly tenor he displays on his new release, Twist in the Wind, on which he sings 13 songs, including 10 with his own lyrics. “In Sex Mob, which is a kind of a combination of Louis Armstrong and Led Zeppelin, I realized how I actually hear the bass. We went through Seattle, and Bill came to the gig, and called me up soon after, and we started playing. I’m glad that it didn’t happen until I had some idea of what I sound like. At that point, I had been a fan of Bill’s music for quite a long time, and would check out every album, so I had some idea of who he was and what his language is about. It was very comfortable to hear this guy who had his own voice on guitar. An enormous part of what he does is very sophisticated, much more complex than I would understand—though I’ve heard him do it for years, so I might be able to hear something that goes with it. The simpler part that I do understand comes from the guitar language that I know. Bill reminds me to be more open, to wait and surrender to what actually happens, rather than thinking I know already. I used to think I knew. Now I’m sure that I don’t.”
As if on cue, a slender, elderly man in gray shorts, a sleeveless sweater and walking boots appeared before us, took a breath, and began to sing a tarentella of indistinct origin in a clear tenor. He finished, began another, halted, said, “Gusto. Musica.” Then he walked off. Scherr laughed and applauded. “I couldn’t have said better than that,” he said. “Music. Love music.”
About half-an-hour later, Wollesen and I were strolling through the narrow streets, past pasticcerias, pizzerias, gelato shops, and taverns setting up for lunch. We settled on a café not far from a wall built by Perugia’s original Etruscan settlers as a fortification against invaders. It was a touristy place, and his red wine was served cold. In the background, you could hear the Coolbone Brass Band, out of New Orleans, warming up for their daily noontime ballyhoo.
“Bill’s rhythm is killing, and he hears everything,” Wollesen said. “I think his ears are supernatural. Right now, we’re talking at this table, and I hear what you’re saying, but there’s all kinds of sound happening around us. People would think of it as background noise. I think Bill somehow hears all of it. It’s kind of uncanny.“I’ve never really talked with Bill about music. I don’t think he’s ever said one thing to me about what to play. I have to figure it out on my own. It seems strange to me, because almost all the bands I play in, somebody says something about that.”
Perhaps Wollesen  was referring to John Zorn, with whom, several weeks before, he’d played two concerts in Paris, one placing him alongside Joey Baron; or to Butch Morris, whose conduction projects he frequently participates in; or to Stephen Bernstein in Sex Mob; or to Norah Jones and Sean Lennon. “Stephen often tells me exactly what beat to play, and he conducts the band on the bandstand,” he said. “It’s a totally different aesthetic somehow. It’s also a lot louder.”Because of these associations, listeners tend to peg Wollesen as a deep groover and texture-maker rather than a swinger. But as a teenager in Santa Cruz, California, he played in a popular local hardcore jazz unit with saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a peer, and, at the Kuumba Jazz Workshop, where he worked as a janitor in order to gain free admission, observed such drum icons as Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, and Paul Motian on weekly Monday night concerts.
“I wasn’t into pop music as a kid,” he said. “It was just stuff that was on the radio. I was into Elvin Jones. All my friends were into that, and so was I. But I listened to a lot of different music—I played in klezmer bands, and I was really into Cecil Taylor and a lot of the really out stuff.”
Towards the end of the ‘80s, not long after he turned 20, Wollesen relocated to New York, moving into a funky apartment once occupied by Deborah Harry. “Purely for economic reasons, I made a conscious decision to take whatever work I could get,” he said. “Playing in so many different bands, different worlds—a rock band, a bebop band, Zorn or Butch—you realize that the fundamentals remain the same. You still have to take care of business, make the shit happen somehow. That means ultimately being in the moment when the music is happening, not projecting something that you learned or something that you already knew, or what somebody told you to play. If you’re still hooked into some other stuff, then you lost it. You’re not there.“I think about painters. They’ll spend hours and hours by themselves, but when it comes down to it, there’s the moment where they put the paint on the canvas. But they spend years getting to that place. It’s like that with music.”
[BREAK]
In November, the Bill Frisell Trio will tour Europe playing to movies—music from Frisell’s Buster Keaton and Jim Woodring projects, and also to a new film by Bill Morrison, who on a previous work used Frisell’s eponymously entitled 2001 encounter with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones as soundtrack music.“It will completely take us out of a lot of the things we’re playing now, force us to deal with a different batch of music, and push us into another zone,” Frisell said. “In some ways, it’s more restrictive, but I’ll have to figure out a way to keep it from being a show, where we do the same thing every night.”Frisell, Scherr, and Wolleson sat around the same table in the same wood-paneled adjunct of the Rosetta Hotel dining room. That night, they would play their fifth concert of the week.“I’m writing music with no parameters, which I love,” Frisell continued. “Having the film there boxes you in, in a certain way, but those limitations sometimes will push you out into someplace you’ve never been. It’s another way to get pushed into moving ahead.”They quickly turned the subject matter to qualities described in our one-on-one conversations—mutual intuition, shared language, trust.

“The time between our gigs always seems too long, but when we get back together we start almost beyond where we left off,” Scherr said. “The conversation just keeps going. I’ve always liked being in bands that really develop something together, like when my brother and I would put together a rock band. and we’d find a drummer, and play, and it would really click, and we’d learn a lot all of a sudden and be real excited about it, and you just couldn’t wait til the next time you played. When people play music together and travel, you get in close quarters, and people’s personalities come out. A thematic language—literal language—goes around the band, a couple of terms that get used for the entire trip or something, a running joke or a running topic. Then the next trip you find new ones. Sometimes it gets totally ridiculous, like that day in Peekskill when we started playing all the major tunes minor and all the minor tunes major. It was so silly, and it had everything to do with who we are. Those kinds of things emerge when you’re not worried about making mistakes, and you’re coming up with ridiculous things because it’s fun. The music becomes less precious and opens up— you feel free to demolish stuff together, and it’s totally okay.”

Scherr gave an example.

“On a lot of tunes we’ll go through the form, and although I’m not thinking about it this way while we’re doing it, it’s like playing a game,” he continued. “For instance, at a certain point on ‘Keep Your Eyes Open’ there’s a little melody, a chord, another little melody, and a downbeat. We’ve played that tune for years, and it’s almost unbelievable how many different ways we can play that chord—a snotty little swipe at it, or a broad, beautiful way of hitting it. Often it’s being open enough to just SEE how we’re going to do it, and toss it back and forth. Sometimes it’s as simple as hitting one note or one chord together on the first beat of the measure. When I first played with Bill, I paid a lot of attention to that. Now that notion has expanded to trying not to think, just to support the new thing I hear, whatever it is, and not answer the question before it needs to be answered.”

“What you play can be determined by the way things bounce around in the room,” Frisell said. “Every day is different, even in the same room—the number of people, the air, the humidity.”

“Bill will start playing a song because something is going on in life, and usually the lyric is totally relevant,” Scherr added. “To me, listening to him is the same as listening to a person I know talk, or hearing a singer.”

“In this group, I’m trying to sing the song on the guitar,” Frisell agreed. He referenced a 2003-2005 engagement as musical director of the Germany concert series, Century of Song, in which the trio joined various singers—among them Rickie Lee Jones, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Vic Chestnutt, Loudon Wainwright, and Chip Taylor—in creating new arrangements of iconic repertoire.

“I talked about trying to copy Pat Martino or John McLaughlin years ago,” he continued. “Now it’s more about I’m trying to copy Aretha Franklin or Sam Cooke or Hank Williams. We’ve played “Lovesick Blues” a couple of times  and I’m playing what I got from trying to get even these little nodal things he does with his voice, which is sort of impossible.”

“Bill’s got the meaning of the tune, too,” Scherr said. “Well, there is no one meaning for any tune. We played ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ a bunch of different ways, a bunch of times. But I always feel that tune means whatever it means that day, and that’s where it’s living. It’s got a lot of room to be played.”

Lunch was ready, so it was time to clear out, get on with the day, prepare for the evening’s concert. “None of this is secret,” Frisell said. “But it’s this weird, super-intimate thing that we don’t talk about. For me, playing is as close as you can get to another human being. I don’t think whatever we’ve tried to say will break anything, but it’s not remotely close to what’s happening as we’re doing it.”

* * * *

Bill Frisell Blindfold Test:

1.    Richard Leo Johnson, “Sweet Jane Thyme,” LANGUAGE (Blue Note, 2000) (Johnson, 12-string and pedal steel guitar) – (4 stars)

Holy moly!  Oh my God.  I have no idea who that is.  [How did it sound to you?] It was…nice.  I’m trying to…I’m baffled by… It reminded me of some things that I’ve heard, like, Leo Kottke do, and there was a tiny bit of some of the things that Daniel Lanois did with Brian Eno back a ways, like the sort of secondary…whether it was a steel guitar or the kind of echoey, shadowy guitar behind the acoustic guitar.  But I have no idea who that is. [Was it one or two players?  How many guitarists?] I don’t know if it was overdubbed.  But there were at least two, I think. [LAUGHS] There was…was it a 12-string? [There was one guy on a 12-string in real time.] It sounded like there was a 12-string and then some kind of more atmospheric electric guitar as a background, the sort of cloudy sound… [He was playing a pedal steel and a 12-string, so there were two guitars overdubbed.] But there was one person. [One person.  He has a technique to create several voices.  Did you like the song?] Yeah, it was nice.  It didn’t like knock me out.  It was really cool and pleasant to listen to.

I have to think about how I’m going to do the stars.  Because to me, anybody who has decided to play music should get five stars, I think. [That said, there are gradations and...] [LOUD LAUGH] You’re trying to get me to… [I'm not trying to get you to slam anybody.  But the Blindfold Test is what it is.  If you want to give everyone a blanket five stars...] I really don’t like… Well, there’s things I like and things I don’t like, and I think certain things suck, just like everybody else.  But I still…somehow… I don’t like the idea of competition in music.  Also, with what I just heard, it kind of…I couldn’t place what… I don’t know where it’s coming from or what it is.  I don’t know if I would think it was better or worse depending on where it was coming from.  I could almost hear in a film. [He laid down guitar tracks, then he sent the guitar tracks to various improvisers, and they each laid down their tracks on top of his guitar track.  (ETC.) His name is Richard Leo Johnson.] I’ve never heard of him. [This is his second record.  He plays different guitars, and he's a virtuoso, but he only started playing full-time four years ago.  He's 45.  And he's from Arkansas, the north Delta.  He's self-taught.]

It made me be curious to hear how that is juxtaposed to other things on the record.  That’s something I would go do on my own now.  I guess I’m going to have to give it five stars… [If you give 4 stars to something that doesn't knock you out, but you like and respect it, you're really not insulting the musician.] Okay, I’ll give it four stars. [I think if you're going to agree to do the Blindfold Test...] I did it once before, and I gave everybody 5 stars.  But also, everything was Jim Hall and Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery.  Maybe I’ll give it 4.  Maybe that rating system will assert itself as we go along.

But a lot of it is context.  I could see this being in a film or something, or seeing it up against something else where it might be very powerful…

2.    Jim Hall-Pat Metheny, “Django,” BY ARRANGEMENT (Telarc, 1995) (Hall-Metheny, acoustic guitars) (5 stars)

That’s “Django,” I can tell you that. [at 3:35] Oh, I think I finally got who this is.  [at 5 minutes] I guess I’m ready to talk.  Is there a string quartet?  From the first moments of these strings, I thought…Jim Hall was what came into my mind, something in the sound of the writing.  Then I started listening, and I hear one guitar and another guitar, and I didn’t recognize the sound.  But when the first guitarist started playing nylon string guitar, it took me longer than what I thought it should too… I heard a bit of Pat Metheny stuff going on in there, and then I figured that’s got to be Pat playing nylon string guitar.  Then I figured… They did a duet record, but this isn’t that, so this must be Jim’s record where he did these arrangements, and the song, “Django”… [Absolutely.] Thank God I got that right.  But it was kind of confusing, because sonically it was so strange.  First I thought it was an old recording… I thought Jim Hall, and I heard the strings and I thought maybe this was going to be one of those things Jim did with Gunther Schuller years ago or something like that.  But it’s interesting how, without him playing, it fired some kind of response in my brain that me think Jim Hall right away.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m expecting at some point I’m going to hear Jim Hall in a blindfold test.  So I figured out it was Pat playing nylon string, and then Jim later playing acoustic guitar, which you don’t hear that often.  Also, I’ve never heard him make that much racket, singing along, groaning… Sonically they both sounded quite a bit different than you’re used to hearing.  But that was cool.  So now I have to give it stars.  That I’ve got to give 5.  The tune and that he could figure out something else to do with that tune, and those guys… That was great.  And it was cool to be that confused by… Those guys I’d figure I could recognize in two notes anywhere.  Is that on the record “By Arrangement”?  I should have known it right away.

3.    John McLaughlin, “Only Child,” TIME REMEMBERED (Verve, 1993). (McLaughlin, acoustic guitar, The Aighetta Quartet, acoustic guitars, Yan Maresz, acoustic bass guitar) – (5 stars)

The first thing that came into my mind was I couldn’t tell how many guitars were playing, and there’s a very low-tuned guitar, and I didn’t recognize the tune.  But then as soon as the soloist started… I was thinking, “What is this?”  Does someone have a 7-string?  It almost sounded like it could have been Johnny Smith or George Van Epps, that beautiful, just lush… I couldn’t tell how many guitars were in there.  Then as soon as my man started playing, I knew it was John McLaughlin playing Bill Evans songs with a guitar quartet.  I might even have this record. [You played some of these songs with Paul Motian.] Well, I’m not sure if I played this tune.  But I thought it sounded just exquisitely beautiful.  He keeps on being one of my heroes.  He keeps holding up.  Every time I hear him…sometimes I think he gets taken for granted a little bit.  He’s just a monster.  I remember going to hear him in Seattle a couple of years ago, and it kind of hit me in the face how heavy he is!  I don’t know what to say.  It was so beautiful to hear that orchestration, lush, thick… Whoever arranged that, it was really beautiful, just listening to the kind of written part and then real kind of moving, and when he started playing it was… He always blows my brains out.  There was one moment when I went to a Shakti concert, and I almost quit playing the guitar.  I just thought, “Man, this is hopeless.”  But it was a good moment because it made me figure out that I had to figure out something else to do other than that.  I’ll never be able to… But he’s so much more… He’s known for being, you know, fast, but he’s a soulful… And rhythmically and harmonically, so…it’s some far-out stuff he’s doing.  I can’t figure out why people don’t… He’s right in there in that line of… There’s Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery and Jim and whoever all other guys, and he’s one of those main guys for me.  Five stars.

4.    Derek Bailey, “Tears of Astral Rain,” ARCANA: THE LAST WAVE (DIW, 1995) (Bill Laswell, electric bass; Tony Williams, drums) – (5 stars)

It’s hard to talk and listen.  I think it’s Derek.  The thing that’s confusing me is… I’m going to just guess.  There’s Derek who I sort of got right away.  The other is maybe a guitar, but sounds… Is it Bill Laswell?  Because it sounds like a 6-string… It’s higher than a bass.  The distorted one is sort of… And I know Bill Laswell does that 6-string bass thing, so it must be that.  Then I know that they did a thing with Tony Williams.  I kept thinking that sounds like Tony Williams’ tom-tom or something.  It sounds like Tony Williams.  But I didn’t hear him do his Tony Williams yet!  I kept listening to be sure is that Tony.  The sound of the drums, it sounds like Tony Williams, but he was playing so
minimally.  This was also really cool, the way the thing moved forward.  There was this feel, this forward rhythmic motion.  You can’t say 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.  It’s interesting how just with the sound, they have that…a person’s sound… I heard a tom-tom, and it sounded like Tony Williams.  Is there more than one… I heard some of this, and it was really edited, and it sounded like they didn’t really put… The other thing about what I just heard is it really sounded like they were playing together in the same room.  The thing that I heard sounded much more pieced-together, like Derek overdubbed or they used a Tony drum track.  Maybe this was done that way, too.  I’m not sure.  But as I was listening, I at least felt like I was in the world of being in the same room with these guys playing.  Either it was pieced together really great or they were actually playing together.  But I think I heard that they weren’t all playing together when they did this.  That’s got to be 5 stars.

5.    Jimmy Bruno-Joe Beck, “Lazy Afternoon,” POLARITY (Concord, 2000) – (Bruno, acoustic 6-string; Beck, alto guitar) – (4 stars)

I don’t know what the tune is, but I know I’ve heard it somewhere.  I’m going to make a wild guess.  I don’t really know these people.  One of the guitars has to be a 7-string or something; it sounds really low.  I heard something on the radio, and this sort of reminds me of it.  It’s not Joe Beck and Jimmy Bruno?  I might even have heard this song on the radio.  I don’t know Joe Beck’s playing… He’s one of those guys who’s been around forever, and he’s been on a lot of records in real supportive ways, since the ’60s.  His name is always around, but it’s not like I hear a sound. Recently I’ve been hearing about Jimmy Bruno.  Talk about technique, he’s probably the most monstrous… But then I had heard a little bit of Jimmy Bruno, and I was surprised that he seemed more restrained… See, I don’t know him well enough even to know… I’m sort of assuming that on this tune Joe Beck was probably playing the melodic part and Jimmy Bruno was doing a lot of quite involved bassline and… [Oh, Joe Beck was playing that on the alto guitar.] Oh, he was.  I was thinking that if Jimmy Bruno had been playing the melodic part, it would have been twice as fast.  I heard some live thing with a bass-drum trio that was just off the scale of super fast tempo which was like how could you possibly do that… So I figured out what it was.  But that’s one of those guesses, thinking I’d heard this on the radio and I’d kind of heard about this guy.  It wasn’t based on knowing their sound; it was more an intellectual piecing-together.  It was pleasant.  It didn’t kill me or anything.  It was kind of easy… It didn’t wrench my guts out, so I’ll have to go 4.  But they definitely certainly play their instruments.  I guess there’s a thing with the guitar.  I mean, who am I to say… They can play circles around me as a guitarist.  I mean, they really play their instruments.  But I would maybe have liked to hear… The tune didn’t kill me or something.  Maybe if I’d heard them playing a tune that was richer, it would have been…

6.    A.D.D. Trio, “Three Characters, A.D.D. TRIO: SIC BISQUITIS DISINTEGRAT (Enja, 2000) (Christy Doran, guitar; Robert Dick, flutes; Steve Arguelles, drums) – (5 stars)

This is a guess again.  Is it Sonny Sharrock?  Then I’m lost.  I don’t know.  I really like the feel of the drummer, but I’m pretty well lost on this.  I might be getting in trouble here?  Is it possible that that’s Kenny playing drums?  I like this piece a lot.  But I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Oh, Steve Arguelles!  I know him and I like him.  There was one moment I thought Robert Dick, but most of what I’ve heard of him is solo things or concert recitals, not in this… I like the feel.  Was the guitar generating some kind of loop?  I like the way the drums were interacting with that…the bass drum.  There was a moment where I thought about Joey Baron.  He had this super-low-tuned bass drum that’s really cool.  I like the feel of the drums.  That confused me, though Robert Dick flashed through my mind.  Then when he did these sort of slide things, something about the tone made me think about Sonny Sharrock.  But it was maybe a bit more reined-in than Sonny Sharrock.  I hate to give it less than 5 stars… I really liked that.  I’ll give it 5.

7.    Bar Kokhba, “Hazor,” ZEVULUN (DIW, 1997) (Marc Ribot, guitar; Eric Friedlander, cello; Mark Feldman, violin; Greg Cohen, bass; Joey Baron, drums; Cyro Batista, percussion, John Zorn, composer) – (5 stars)

Again, this is an intellectual piecing-together.  Is it Ribot?  So it’s the Prosthetic Cubans.  Then what is it?  The cello player… [Who do you think wrote the music?] I don’t really recognize it. [AFTER] Oh, okay!  Wow, now it all comes in there!  I haven’t listened to this stuff.  Now that you say it, I recognize the melodic…the thing with all the sort of Latin stuff, I’m thinking, “What…”  I recognize Ribot.  So that’s that!  That’s Cyro, and Eric Friedlander on cello.  I’ve heard so much about that band, and I think I have the CD at home in my pile of… I liked it a lot.  And Ribot sounded really cool.  He really got the killer tone on there.  I can hear that melody being played by the other Masada.  Aren’t some of these reorchestrations of that material? [He pools the book.] Right, but orchestrates it differently.  I should have known the melody.  But with that kind of Latiny stuff going on, I got sidetracked.  5 stars.  The guitar seemed sort of dominant, so I thought it was the guitar player’s thing.  He got a great tone on that.  There’s a couple of times I’ve heard him… He said he was going to give it to me.  I think he made a solo record of standard songs.  We were in the middle of the night driving somewhere, like to the airport somewhere, and Kenny Wolleson had this tape, and this thing came on, and it was “Body and Soul,” and I thought, “Who is this guy?”  It sounded like an old guy.  I mean, in a good way.  It sounded like some kind of old real guy that I’d never heard of before, and I couldn’t figure out who it was, and he was playing “Body and Soul.”  It turned out to be Ribot.  This had some of that real clean-enough but fat and kind of dirty, real good sound he got on there.  I really liked that. Oh my God. [Think older.] Well, the reason I thought Mark… I’m really going to stick my wiener out!  I heard bit of George Benson in there… [LAUGHS] I thought he’s had some impact on Mark.  Okay.  Wow!

8.    George Benson, “Hipping The Hop” (#6), ABSOLUTE BENSON (Verve, 2000) (Benson, guitar Joe Sample, piano, composer; Chris McBride, bass; Cindy Blackman, drums) (5/4 stars)

[GRIMACES] Man!  This is kind of a strange juxtaposition of things.  When it first came on, I thought it was going to be some smooth jazz thing, then it goes into… It’s an odd convergence of styles.  I’m going to guess Mark Whitfield.  The reason I say that is I heard maybe some of… Most of what I’ve heard of Mark has been more straight-ahead, and I knew he recently did something that I hadn’t heard, and I wondered if that could be it.  Wow!  Is this from George Benson’s new one?  Because I heard another thing on the radio, one song, I don’t know what it was, from George Benson’s new record.  Man, what a monster player!  The other thing I heard was a little more straight-ahead, and it reminded me of what a giant great player he is.  Christian can go from this funk thing to the straight-ahead thing, but it didn’t… It seemed a little on the light side.  The funk thing… It didn’t totally go to the straight-ahead thing and it didn’t go to the funk thing either.  The two things that were going on, going back and forth, sort of caused some restraint on either end.  It was really interesting, though.  Oh, boy, I can’t… So it was George Benson.  How is it that I get in a position that I’m sitting here talking about George Benson like I’m some kind of big-shot?  He’s a giant.  I guess it’s one of those things…the context is… He always sounds good.  It would be great to hear him play with Ron Carter and whomever and just play some tunes.  But who am I to say that?  5 stars for him and 4 stars for the arrangement.  Those guys are great.  Cindy plays great and Christian plays great.  Who knows what was going on in the…

9.    Duduka DaFonseca, “Por Flavio,” THE ART OF SAMBA JAZZ (self-produced ,2000) (Romero Lubambo & John Scofield, guitars; Nilson Matta, bass; Duduku Dafonseca, drums & percussion; Valtinho, percussion) – (

I’m getting confused.  I have to start guessing… I guess I’m obsessing over who… The guitars are very separated.  I really thought the one on the left was John Scofield.  It is John Scofield?  But I couldn’t quite get… Then I started thinking who is this other guy?  He’s playing a nylon string guitar.  I was kind of going off on who’s the drummer.  Then it sounded like there was  a percussionist.  I was thinking about Jack De Johnette for a second, but that didn’t seem right.  It’s getting more confusing.  Then I thought maybe it’s not Scofield.  There’s a lot of guys out there who picked up on some of his stuff.  It doesn’t seem quite like a Scofield record.  [It's not.] The kind of dialogue between the two guitarists was cool.  I like that. [AFTER] I don’t know Romero Lubambo or Nilson Matta.  I knew it was Scofield, but the context seemed so… The piece was great.  I liked the two guitars going off of each other.  5 stars.  It felt great.  Oh, that’s bad.  Did I say Jack de Johnette?  I guess I was thinking too much, “if that’s him, then this must be that.”

10.    Liberty Ellman, “Blood Count,” ORTHODOXY (Red Giant, 1997) (Vijay Ayer, piano) – (5 stars)

I’m pretty sure it’s Steve Swallow.  It’s not?  Oh, my God.  That was a guitar?  It was an awful low-pitched guitar.  But it sounded like a 6-string bass to me.  Now you’ve got me really screwed up!  I just got it fixed in my brain that it was… [So it didn't sound like any guitarist you could pinpoint.] No.  Also because it went much lower than a guitar.  I didn’t know the tune. [AFTER] I should know that tune.  I was thinking this was Steve Swallow playing his 6-string bass, just the sort of pure tone where Swallow gets this sound in between a guitar and a bass.  Now I’m really confused, because it didn’t sound like a guitar to me. [AFTER] I’ve never heard of him.  I really liked it.  I had it totally planted in my brain… I thought it was Swallow playing with Carla Bley or something.  Who was the piano player? [LAUGHS] I don’t know him either!  I heard this chord on the piano and I thought Paul Bley.  I thought Paul Bley and Steve Swallow.  Then I thought, no, that’s not Paul Bley, it’s Carla Bley.  Then I just settled into thinking that’s what it was.  I’d like to check out these guys some more.  5 stars.  Definitely his guitar was tuned…there was some super-low stuff going on there.  I’ve got to check him out.  Moments like that I really notice maybe I’ve been away from New York too much or something.  I don’t even know who any of these people are.  Not one person on this record I’ve ever heard of.  I’m old.  I’m a has-been.

11.    Kevin Breit-Cyro Baptista, “Sao Paulo Slim,” SUPERGENEROUS (Blue Note, 2000) – (4 stars)

I like it.  It’s another one of those weird juxtapositions of things.  It sounds like two kind of slide guitar guys.  Oh, it’s only one?  There’s a statement of the melody and then it sounded like another guy.  It sounded almost like another personality.  But maybe not.  Maybe it’s just the sound.  But he had sort of a… I didn’t sense it right away, but then when he played the solo I got a bit more of that country thing in there.  But then with the…I don’t know what this was.  He sounded, I thought, like somebody from down South, but then the rhythm section I couldn’t… The bass player playing all this little chordal stuff.  I think it was a bass player.  An electric bass player.  Maybe it was a rhythm guitar part that was hidden away in there.  So a kind of active… I’m just lost.  I don’t know this.  I guess I have to… Everybody sounded really great.  The tune didn’t kill me.  So I guess I’ll have to say 4.  But everybody played cool. [AFTER] Oh, shit! Oh, fuck!  Oh, no!  Oh, no!!  I asked him to send me this record.  Oh, shit!  Oh, fuck!  I love him!  I did a gig with him…we did a gig in Seattle where I had Greg Liesz… It was a thing where I had four guitarists.  I had Greg Lies, and Kevin, who has played a lot with Greg, like with k.d. Lang and… Man, I can’t believe it.  And Brandon Ross.  We sort of did a lot of my music that I had already arranged like for horns and stuff, but I had these four guitars.  And Kevin played sort of everything that anyone else wouldn’t play. Like, he had a low-tuned guitar.  So there’s a lot of overdubs on here.  Because it sounded like a band actually playing.  And he’s like a killer… Oh, he plays everything — mandolin, banjo.  I just love him, and I had such a good time playing with him.  I felt a real strong hookup playing with him.  But I never heard him play slide guitar at all, I don’t think.  It was like lap steel or whatever it was.  I don’t know how he can play all these instruments.  I’ve heard him play regular guitar, I’ve heard him play mandolin, I’ve heard him play this kind of 6-string bass guitar, and he KILLS on banjo — he really plays great banjo.  But I’ve never heard him play that slide stuff.  Wow.  Anyway, I really like him.

12.    Tim Berne-Marc Ducret-Tom Rainey, “Scrap Metal,” BIG SATAN (Winter & Winter, 1996) – (5 stars)

Well, it first came on and I thought it was Tim.  Then the guitar player started playing.  It’s interesting.  The writing is very cool, the first statement.  Is it Tim?  Thank God.  It’s weird how things… It’s cool to hear somebody after… I played with him a lot, and we’ve sort of gone on our separate ways, and I haven’t kept track of a lot of what he’s done.  This was really strong.  The writing and how the group was… This is stuff that had always been there in his music.  It’s real distinctive… It’s weird, these little electronic or whatever impulses that shoot through your brain.  Like, the first instant the thing came on, Julius went through my mind.  But then almost immediately, then, I thought, “Oh, that’s got to be Tim.”  Then I started thinking it’s really inspiring the way he… He’s stayed on his writing and…he’s stayed on this path all this time.  I felt really strong that compositionally, whatever was going… I don’t know what that was.  It’s stuff that was going on a long time ago, but you can hear how it’s…it’s just clear and it’s strange and it doesn’t sound like anything else.

There’s a lot of guitar players I’m not quite sure…I haven’t heard enough to know for sure.  Brad Schoeppach passed through my mind at one point, and then I thought Marc Ducret.  It must be Jim Black.  No?  Is it Previte?  Then I don’t know who the drummer is. [AFTER] Oh, shit!  Somehow I was thinking about Jim Black.  That’s embarrassing, because that’s another person I played with… We played a lot, like REALLY a lot, not so much gigs, but we’d get together and play for hours and hours, and I should know him.  But it’s strange, what goes on in my mind, because a lot of time has gone by, and we’re sort of off on these different… I’m over, wherever I’m playing, doing some hillbilly song, and he’s doing this.  It’s kind of…it’s weird.   5 stars.  It sounded great.  I haven’t heard Marc enough to always instantly know that’s him, but every time I’ve heard him, he’s kind of flipped me out. . I heard one time I think in Italy with this group where he just played acoustic guitar with no pickup or anything.  I’ve heard him in a lot of different contexts, and he’s just an off-the-scale great guitar player.  In this context, I thought he really sounded… There’s a kind of soulfulness in there that’s… Different people set people off in different ways.  There’s a feel Tom has that maybe makes Mark play in a certain way.  Anyway, I thought he sounded really great on that.

13.    Attila Zoller-Jimmy Raney, “Scherz 1,” JIM AND I  (Bellaphon, 1980/1995) – (4 stars)

What in the world… You’ve got me there.  I’m lost.  The recording was a little distracting to me.  The guitar in the left ear in the headphones was louder.  I mean, I’m not one to…I use a lot of reverb.  But it sounded like the reverb was kind of hitting on some stuff that was in the headphones.  Sometimes the headphones kind of amplify that stuff.  The one on the left was a lot louder.  And I kept thinking, is this overdubbed with the same guy?  Then right at the very end, the guy on the right, who was softer, came out for a moment by himself.  And I couldn’t recognize the tune.  I just felt lost, kind of.  I kept hearing little bits of something; I thought of a tune, then it sort of went off and I couldn’t follow it.  I liked the idea that there was all this dialogue going on.  It was never clear who was… I almost thought it was the same person.  Sometimes they were so on top of each other that then… Okay, tell me who it is. [AFTER] Attila crossed my mind.  Jimmy Raney was the one on the right.  I know that.  Because right at the very end he played this little phrase by himself, and it had the feel, the eighth note thing.  But the guitar player on the left, which was Attila, I don’t know his stuff that well, but… I guess it was the recording.  It was louder, and it kept sort of dominating the… I wish I could have heard it with Jimmy Raney being louder, because for me the actual rhythmic… Okay, I’ll be critical.  It was just that moment where Jimmy Raney played alone that the feel was killing.  For me, on this particular thing… Maybe it was the recording or the sound…he had also a brighter sound.  Attila seemed to dominate the whole thing.  Maybe Jimmy Raney was sort of following him.  That’s how I would critique it.  I love Jimmy Raney.  But that’s why it made sense when you said that.  4 stars.  Those guys were great, though.

14.    Brad Shepik, “Zdravo,” THE LOAN (Songlines, 1997) (Peter Epstein, alto sax; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums; Seido Salifoski, percussion).

Got me again.  When it first came on… For a moment I… I’m guessing.  It doesn’t sound old guys to me.  It sounds like young guys.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting old; it seemed kind of hyper, like “let’s play this thing in 7.”  But they play great.  It just had this kind of real energetic thing that… I guess maybe it’s this being the last thing, we’ve listened to all this music, and I’m ready to cool out and relax.  And there’s people… See, there’s all these guys who I should… There’s people who went through my mind.  I mean, there’s people I still haven’t heard enough to know for sure.  There was a moment I thought of Briggan Krauss when they were playing the melody, but then when he started soloing I didn’t think it was Briggan.  For a moment I thought Briggan, then again I thought Brad Schoeppach.  It was Brad?  But I don’t really know his… It’s more like an intellectual thing.  Then I thought about this group of guys who haven’t fully formed in my brain when I hear them, like Jim Black… [It was your rhythm section.] It was MY rhythm section.  Oh my God!  Now I’m really… If I say Jim Black… I didn’t recognize who it was, and so let’s think who would be playing with who.  But I also have to say that for a moment Kurt Rosenwinkel went through my mind.  So I hope these guys don’t get pissed at me for this.  I guess so much of the music that I play with Kenny and Tony is so different than that.  But I thought I would know those guys, because I’ve listened to other things they do.  When I say energetic, they’ve got a lot of energy, but a lot of stuff they play is slowpoke, right, or Sex Mob.  A lot of stuff is about these kind of slower feels.  Was this Brad’s stuff?  It sounded live.
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There were guitar players in everything, and a lot of the music I listen to is not guitar-based.  On the last blindfold test I did, there was something, and I said, “Well, that was Paul Chambers on bass and that was Philly Joe Jones… But I screwed that up bad on this one, too; saying that was Jack de Johnette.  I guess it’s weird to zero in just on guitars.  I guess there’s so many different ways.  No one has ever done a Blindfold Test with me and played Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis.  Those are the things that have affected me.  But this is good.  I hope I didn’t say anything bad about anybody.  As I get older, it’s frightening how much… There’s more and more music accumulating, and less and less I feel like I can hear it.  It seemed like 20 years ago I would spend thousands of hours with one album, listening to it over and over again, and now it’s like you’re sort of flitting from one thing to another fairly quickly. [The music is sort of like that, too.  A lot of people don't go into one sound so much as they delve into a lot of different ways...] But it seems like a lot of people are able to actually absorb and retain a lot of stuff.  I’m less and less able to do that, and there’s more and more stuff piling up.  I have piles of stuff at home that I think “I’ve got to listen to this or that.”

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Filed under Bill Frisell, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar, WKCR

For The 66th Birthday of Drum Master Thurman Barker, a WKCR Interview from 1985

When I started my 23-year run on WKCR in the fall of 1985, I made it my business to try to document the personal histories of many of the AACM musicians I had admired during the ’70s, when I lived in Chicago, and continued to follow after returning to New York City in 1979. One of them was drum-percussion master Thurman Barker, who turns 66 today. It’s been on the internet for 14 years on the Jazz Journalists Association website.

* * *

Thurman Barker
November 18, 1985 – WKCR-FM New York

copyright © 1985, 1999 Ted Panken

Q: Thurman is a product of Chicago, Illinois, and a founding member from a very young age of the AACM. It’s there really that the sources of his music are to be found. So I’d like to now start to talk about your early years in the music in Chicago, when you were coming up, even before you became a member of the AACM — how you picked up on the drums and began in music.

TB: Well, I first used to take tap dancing. That was my first exposure to a form of art, you know, was tap dancing. I really got into it. Of course, I’m in grade school now, and I’m taking these tap dancing lessons about three days a week. But during my eighth year in grade school, we used to have these concerts on Fridays. They called them assemblies, you know, the drama department would put on a show or something. This particular afternoon, it was a drummer, and he came up with a full drum set, and it was just him by himself. His name was Roy Robinson, and he left a very big impression on me at that point.

So when I started high school, I started taking private lessons. I studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, under James Dutton, who was head of the percussion department there. I feel I got a very good training, because for the first two years I really didn’t see a drum set. I worked out of these workbooks for harmony and learning the basic notation of music and things like this, and just working on rudiments on the snare drum. So I really didn’t see a drum set until later on.

Q: Were you also working with musicians your age, doing gigs?

TB: Well, sure. But at this time you’ve got to remember, the first couple of years I wasn’t really playing any gigs. But I was very active on the session scene in Chicago. Monday nights were the big nights for sessions. Club De Lisa, which was a very famous night-spot in Chicago, the Coral Club on the South Side, the C.C. Lounge at 66th and Cottage Grove — a lot of these places had sessions every Monday. In any other city, probably it would work the same. You would go down, you’d meet people, you’d get up and you’d play. So I was very active, and I made sure that I got there. Of course, I wasn’t thinking of working; I just wanted to play. Fortunately, the activity was there for it to happen. I got to New York in the fall of 1979. I don’t know if that kind of activity is still going on in Chicago. But at that time it was like a training ground for me.

Q: Let’s narrow down the years we’re speaking of right now.

TB: Oh, it was ’62, ’63, in that period. You had a lot of jazz clubs that were still very big at that time, which the most famous one, where Miles Davis recorded, was the Plugged Nickel . . .

Q: Which was on the North Side.

TB: Which was on the North Side. So I got very active on the session scene. Later on I started jobbing around with people. People would meet you at a session, and they would give you a Saturday night, a party to play or a wedding. One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, I started working with this saxophone player by the name of John Epps. He was a big local guy in Chicago that did a lot of parties. And that was my first steady employment, I would say, from music, was with this saxophone player. We used to work at a North Side Club in Chicago; I can’t think of the name. I was still young now. I was still in high school, you see, really my sophomore year.

Q: Who were some of the musicians in Chicago who you admired at that time?

TB: Well, Eddie Harris was a big idol of mine. Because my drum teacher used to work with Eddie Harris. His name was Harold Jones, and he was the drummer with Eddie Harris at the time. And Don Patterson, the organist, was around a lot. Of course, Von Freeman was very active. But I didn’t know Von; I knew his brother, George Freeman, who was a guitarist. So during those years I was pretty much working few jobs with George, and I didn’t get to meet Von until later on.

Anyway, so I had my first employment with John Epps, and we had this four- night gig on the North Side. I made $7 a night. And that was a big deal for me. In high school . . .

Q: This was pre-OPEC.

TB: So I had this gig, and my parents, of course, were into it, because they used to have to take me there, and go back home, and three or four hours later come back and pick me up . . . So it was a reassurance, of course, for my parents that I was getting active. Of course, for them they weren’t really concerned about the money I was making, but just the fact that I was getting active at something that they had taken some money to give me music lessons, and they were beginning to see it pay off. One thing led to the other, you know.

Q: You mentioned Eddie Harris. And in 1961, he and Muhal Richard Abrams began to form a rehearsal band that eventually became the core of the Experimental Band, and that became the core of the AACM.

TB: That’s right.

Q: This is a convoluted way of asking how you first encountered the Experimental Band and got into the AACM.

TB: At this time the Experimental Band was functioning. Of course, I didn’t know, but it was functioning. And how I got to meet Muhal was, when I was in high school, one of my best friends turned out to be Muhal’s son, and he knew that I was in the band in high school. And in high school, you know, you hang out together at lunch periods, and talk. Of course, I was a little different, and he wanted to find out what I was always doing after school. I was going home practicing, you know. And he told me that his father had a band rehearsal and was a bandleader, and for me to come down and check it out. So I said, “Wow!”

So of course, I took advantage of it. One Monday night he took me down to the rehearsal. Now, at this particular time the Experimental Band was rehearsing every Monday night at [the Abraham] Lincoln Center in Chicago. Lincoln Center is one of the cultural centers on the South Side. So they were in rehearsal. And that was my first encounter of the AACM.

Q: For people who don’t know, just describe what the Experimental Band was.

TB: The Experimental Band was a band put together of a lot of musicians on the South Side, including Eddie Harris, Phil Cohran, Roscoe Mitchell, Delbert Hill . . .

Q: And Muhal, of course.

TB: Muhal, of course! The Experimental Band was a band where musicians could come together and work on their own music. At that time there was a lot of energy among the musicians I just spoke of, Roscoe and Muhal, and they were at the point that they were doing a lot of writing. They were also jobbing around in Chicago and playing gigs and everything with big bands. Morris Ellis was one of the bandleaders around at that time that a lot of us worked with.

But this was a place, though, for everybody to come together and work on some of their original compositions that they normally wouldn’t get a chance to perform. It was run very orderly. Whoever had their composition up would direct it (of course, they would explain it first). Because we’re talking about people who had really gotten up into their music, man. In fact, they had changed the music notation. They used different music notation! At that time, you had a few people who just didn’t like the . . . Well, I’m not going to say they didn’t like it, but they just had their own symbols, you know. So they had to explain this, you see.

And of course, this was very different for me, because I’m a kid. For me, it was something really different and brand-new, you know. And I got such a big charge out of the fact that these people, not only was the music different, but they were serious about it. I mean, they could explain what they had on paper, and they had a feeling about what they were explaining and what they were doing.

Q: So you had musicians of different predispositions coming together in a rather unique situation. . .

TB: It was very unique!

Q: What do you think were some of the forces in Chicago that enabled this? Is it possible for you to say?

TB: Well, yeah. I’m sure a lot of it had to do with the fact that we were equal in terms of coming and discovering new ideas and new concepts of expressing and writing music. It’s funny how it seemed to all happen with everybody at once, you see. The period that I knew of was ’65. That was my first year of visiting the Experimental Band. So I think a lot of it had to do with, well, gee, nobody had any big record contract or nobody had 20 tours looking at him . . .

Q: It took some of the pressure off.

TB: It really did, I think. And the fact that we were all there together, and we were all equal in terms of discovering these new ideas. So there was no interference, I guess.

Q: Also there wasn’t that much work in Chicago at that time, was there?

TB: There wasn’t that much work.

Q: The urban renewal on the South Side.

TB: That’s true.

Q: The organ trios had changed.

TB: A lot of the clubs. . So it did affect the music. So right there at the Lincoln Center we were able to just start sharing these ideas, and it was like school, you know. Because I used to come down to rehearsal, and here was Henry Threadgill, Vandy Harris, Roscoe Mitchell and Delbert Hill, the first time I heard a saxophone quartet. I never even thought of it. Then I came down and hear these guys, four of them in a corner, going over these quartets, and it was just great! It was just something that I hadn’t seen.

But sure, I think a lot of the fact that it was easy for us to come together, there wasn’t a lot of work happening at that time, and it was just the opportune time for us to come together.

Q: Within the rehearsal band, there were different configurations and smaller groups that developed. I know you were playing with Joseph Jarman, and in 1967 you did your first records with Joseph Jarman and Muhal.

TB: That’s right, Joseph Jarman. Song For.

Q: Tell us how you met Joseph, and some of the connections with Joseph and with Muhal.

TB: Well, Joseph was right there in the woodwind section in the Experimental Band. Of course, he had a composition. Of course, by me going to school at the Conservatory, see, I had been introduced to playing mallets, like for tom- toms and tympany, you see. So he had a chart for mallets, you see. So we went through this chart, and he was a little amazed maybe, surprised that I had a touch for playing.

Q: You could play the charts.

TB: Yeah, I could play the charts. I could read.

Q: Your rudiments were very developed.

TB: Yeah, they were pretty developed at that point, that I could read, you see. And he had music; I mean, music for the drums. Of course, I had played all these other gigs with people, and there was no music. I would just go up and play. But here I come down to the Experimental Band, and these guys not only have music for the brass and woodwinds; they’ve got a chart for me. So that was in itself different.

But anyway, after the chart he came over and told me how much he really liked the sound, and what I was into. And I told him that, well, I would like to play some music, I’m not playing with anybody. So he asked me to come down and start rehearsing with his group. So I would get down on a Monday early. At that time in the Experimental Band there was a bassist by the name of Charles Clark. He was a very exceptional player, and he also was in the string section in the Experimental Band. Obviously, Charles had done some playing with Joseph before, because I could see that they knew each other, see. And Fred Anderson, a saxophonist in Chicago, also was in the woodwind section. So when I got to our first rehearsal, well, Fred Anderson was there, Billy Brimfield, the trumpeter who lives in Evanston, and Charles Clark and Joseph and myself.

Q: Was Christopher Gaddy on that also?

TB: And Christopher Gaddy, who was an exceptional keyboard player at the time. But we were all at this rehearsal, and that was the first time that I had got together with some people who were really playing some serious music, and I could see that it was just different. So I really wanted to be a part of that, you know.

Q: Let’s hear “Adam’s Rib” from the first LP on which you participated, Joseph Jarman’s Song For. Say something about the LP.

TB: First of all, I was going to say that after four or five months of getting really active with Joseph and playing some gigs around Chicago and the Experimental Band, the surprising thing came up one day that Joseph said, “Look, we’ve got a record date.”

Q: Had you been gigging? A few jobs here and there?

TB: We had a few gigs here and there. And it’s funny, my only experience with gigs were in clubs. All of a sudden, I look up and we’re playing in a bookstore. So immediately I knew that this music was going to take me in a different place. It was different, and it was exciting, you see. So just to make a long story short, I looked up one day, after I’d known Joseph four or five months I look up, and there I am in a studio making my very first record.

Q: Do you think that Song For is representative of the music that Joseph was doing at the time with the group?

TB: Yes, it is. Because the music that you’re about to hear is the music that we were playing during this period, and this is 1967 in Chicago.

[Music: "Adam's Rib"; example of TB'S percussion music; Muhal Richard Abrams, "The Bird Song"]

TB: This is the stuff that was going in Chicago during this period.

Q: Programmatic music of all idioms.

TB: That’s true. Of course, during this time, we were doing this in clubs! We didn’t only do concerts at Abraham Lincoln Center.

Q: There were concerts at the University of Chicago campus.

TB: That’s true. There were a lot of concerts. I can remember most Fridays there were concerts at the University of Chicago. Also, the Student Union there used to put on a lot of concerts that the AACM members participated in. So we had some people that liked this music, and supported it, and wanted it to be heard.

Q: Meanwhile, the big band was still functioning.

TB: The Big Band was functioning every Monday. And believe me, no matter what happened, we all made that Monday night available for the Experimental Band. Because hey, that was the time that somebody got their music played, and that was a real serious and big deal then.

Q: Is Levels And Degrees of Light in any way representative of what was going on in the Big Band?

TB: Yes, it is. Because in the Big Band we had people like Henry Threadgill. Well, you know Henry, he’s really into theatre, you see. So for him to use the Big Band and use some recitation and some theatre, and be able to combine it, he definitely was one who would do it — and of course, Muhal. And Joseph was doing a lot of theatrical material. A lot of stuff.

So this was all a brand-new experience for me, and I had never seen it anywhere else. Of course, by the time of this recording with Muhal Richard Abrams, Levels and Degrees Of Light, my second record, I am really involved musically and, you know, as a group. I really felt I wanted to be a part of this movement here that was happening.

Q: I neglected to ask you about some of your musical influences outside the Chicago music scene? Who were some of the tough drummers who you thought well of?

TB: Well, the first guy that stands out is Cozy Cole. Cozy Cole was a very big influence on me, because in that period Cozy Cole made a solo 45 called “Topsy.” That was the very first drum solo that I memorized, beat for beat and rhythm for rhythm. I mean, I got that down. Because it just had a lot of emotion in it. So Cozy Cole was a very big influence on me at that time.

Also Roy McCurdy, who was the drummer with Cannonball Adderley. And of course, my drum teacher, Harold Jones. During the latter part of the ’60s there was a TV show that used to come on an educational station in Chicago, WTTW, a program that used to come on once a week called “Jazz Casual.” This was my first time actually seeing the music on TV. Of course, Ed Sullivan and all them people were on TV, but the band never really got featured. But here was a TV show that featured music, you see. So I was influenced a lot by, of course, Philly Joe Jones, Roy McCurdy with Cannonball, and Elvin Jones, who was with John Coltrane’s Quartet. I saw the original quartet on this show “Jazz Casual.” The host of the show I think was Ralph Gleason. Anyway, he ran this show once a week, and I saw Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley, the John Coltrane Quartet, the pianist Bill Evans.

Now, these people were coming to Chicago, but I could not get in the clubs. There was this one club that they used to play at called McKie’s on 63rd and Cottage Grove, right there by the El. The El train is the elevated train that runs in Chicago, for those who don’t know. But I used to catch there right at 63rd and Cottage Grove, and I used to pass by this club, and I would see these names in big letters: The John Coltrane Quartet, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins. And this was the club.

Q: And cats would be jamming there.

TB: Of course they might be jamming there.

Q: Gene Ammons might be strolling by and give a lesson for out-of-towners.

TB: That’s right!

Q: Were you playing in venues outside the AACM? Were you playing classical music at this time? I know you said you studied at the Conservatory.

TB: Well, mainly it was private training and ensemble classes at that time. At this time, ’66, ’67, ’68, those three years, most of my activity was with the AACM, with Muhal and Joseph Jarman. Those three years most of my activity was that. And we got some gigs!

Q: You went to Detroit, for instance, in 1967 and ran into John Sinclair.

TB: Yeah, exactly. John Sinclair was an organizer in Detroit who used to organize concerts at Wayne State University, and one year, I think it was ’67, he got us a big gig at the Ann Arbor Jazz Festival. And you know, this is my first big out-of-town gig now. Joseph Jarman, the late Christopher Gaddy, the late Charles Clark, and myself on drums. So this music that we’re hearing on Delmark is a very good representation of the music scene in Chicago.

Q: And you’ve filled us in most thoroughly on things that were happening.

TB: I hope so.

Q: We’ll progress now and move to events that happened later. TB: Sure. As If It Were The Seasons, that was my third album at this time. This was a session that was put together by Joseph Jarman. We have Charles Clark on bass and cello, myself on all kinds of drums, a vocalist named Sherri Scott, Muhal Richard Abrams on piano and oboe, a very good flutist who really never got any attention named Joel Brandon, and Fred Anderson is on tenor sax, John Stubblefield, who has a big feature here, is also on tenor sax, and the late John Jackson on trumpet and Lester Lashley on trombone. This composition is written by Joseph Jarman, entitled “Song For Christopher.”

Q: Everything changed in Chicago after 1969, because that’s when Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Steve McCall and the Art Ensemble left for Europe.

TB: That’s right.

Q: This, of course, would have had its effect on Thurman, who was still a very young musician.

TB: Well, Joseph in ’68 had gotten involved with the Art Ensemble, and they were really into some intensive rehearsals. So boom, there I was, the late Charles Clark had died, the late Christopher Gaddy had died — and these two people were like my brothers; we did everything together. So it was a real lonely period for me, because Joseph now, you could say the quartet had broke up, and Joseph had joined forces with the Art Ensemble . . .

Q: They were lacking a drummer, however. Did the possibility of your performing with them ever come up?

TB: Yes, it did. And it came up at a bad time. And I swear, it’s one of the biggest mistakes that I regret in my life. Because the group had gone to Europe, and you know, they were pioneering some areas. They didn’t have anything really guaranteed, and they had been to Europe for a few years now. We’re talking about the years 1970-’71. So they were in Europe. But at this time, I had gotten involved with theatre, you see. In 1968 I started doing the Broadway production of Hair. Q: As a musician?

TB: As a musician. I got a call, and I was playing percussion, okay, so the Broadway show Hair was in Chicago at the Schubert Theatre — and I looked up, and there I was in theatre now.

Q: With a good union job!

TB: With a good union job! And see, that was a big deal for me. See, my father is a retired union man, so he was very pleased and very happy. So here I was working downtown at the Schubert Theatre at this time, doing Hair. That job lasted two years, from 1968 to 1970.

Q: Naturally, you didn’t want to leave that for the insecurity of roaming Europe.

TB: Well, of course. So what happened was, I get this call in the wee hours of the morning, something like two or three o’clock in the morning, and it’s from overseas — and this was Roscoe Mitchell. And Roscoe Mitchell expressed, “Well, look, T-Bird. . .” That was a nickname that came from Roscoe. He calls me T-Bird, and now it caught on, and everybody calls me that, now, you see. But he gave me that name. And he said, “Look, we’ve been over here working, and we’ve been thinking about it a lot, and we would like for you to join the Art Ensemble.” So of course, the first thing I said was, “Well, look, do you have any gigs?” And Roscoe was really honest. He said, “Well, no, we don’t have any gigs, and we don’t know where our next gig is, but we’re working on some things that we’re pioneering, some new areas.” So I said, “Well, look, I’ve got a gig; I’m doing this show” — and I never knew! Well, I had this full-time job, and I didn’t think I should leave it.

Q: It happened to a lot of musicians in Chicago, what happened to you.

TB: Yeah! So I said, look, I couldn’t make it, but I would like to join them if they got back into town. So Roscoe said, “Okay, I understand.” And the next thing I knew, months and months up the road,they came back.

Q: They came back in ’71.

TB: They came back in ’71, and they had Don Moye.

Q: That was that.

TB: That was that. I kissed that gig goodbye, and that was that.

Q: What else was happening as far as gigs in Chicago after they left for Europe? You were playing with Kalaparusha [Maurice McIntyre]?

TB: I was playing with Kalaparusha, and I was doing a few gigs with Leroy Jenkins now. He was still there, you see, after the Art Ensemble had cut out and everything. So we had these gigs at clubs on the South Side. I’m trying to think of the names of some of these places; it’s been so long. But George Freeman, Leroy Jenkins, myself, and. . .

Q: George Freeman playing the AACM type of music?

TB: Yeah, he was into it. He plays guitar, and that was the first time that I saw guitar into the music.

Q: Was Cosey doing. . .

TB: [Guitarist] Pete Cosey was doing a few things. At this time, Pete along Sherri Scott. . .

Q: Who played with Earth, Wind and Fire . . .

TB: At that time she was rehearsing with Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, and he was getting the band off the ground. They were doing a lot of rehearsing.

But mostly in this period I had really gotten involved in theatre. Not saying that the AACM was not functioning. It was still going on. It was just that we were still doing our concert series. . . You know, a lot of people had left, like the Art Ensemble, but at the same time we were recruiting new blood. Like Douglas Ewart, who came in at that time. So we were getting new blood, and the organization was still moving on along with the times.

Q: And the Big Band was still functioning.

TB: And the Big Band was still functioning. And you’ve got to remember, even though we had this concert series happening, we were very, very supported by the community which we lived in and participated in. And I think that was one of the main differences between then and now, was the fact that. . .

Q: In New York City.

TB: Yeah, but . . .

Q: But then in New York City as well. I think New York City is just not that type of town.

TB: It just isn’t that type of town. And at that time in Chicago, we were very well supported by the community. And we used to even go outside and play outside and jam. I don’t know, this was with Muhal, Muhal would bring his clarinet out, and Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors, Kalaparusha, Charles Clark — We used to take our instruments out there in Jackson Park, which is a large park on the South Side, and just sit out there and play. For me it was like a rehearsal. Maybe for people like Roscoe and maybe Muhal, maybe they were thinking of, “Well, this is a way of getting this new music out to the people.” See, for me at the time, I had a comfortable gig, and I was getting gigs, and I was playing some music, and I was active.

Q: So you were active in theatre throughout the ’70s, is that it?

TB: Most of the ’70s.

Q: What made you decide to return to performing creative music, then? And let’s talk about some of the circumstances that led you to return actively to the scene.

TB: Well, one thing was that after playing in theatre, I had learned a great deal. Number one, I learned how to play with a conductor. I learned how to play in a section. Because in theatre, not only do you have a trap drummer, but you have two or three percussion players. And a lot of my training, and a lot of music that I was studying at that time, I’m having an opportunity to really try out now. But I learned a lot in the pit orchestra. And one of the main things was being able to play in a section.

So after, say, 1975-’76, I started getting back to the AACM, into that music. Because I had gotten all of this training, you see. And for the first time, I felt like I wanted to add something to the music of Muhal and to the music of Joseph Jarman and Roscoe, or whoever was doing something. The music took on a new meaning for me at this time, because I had the years from ’71 to ’75 to really think about all the music that I had performed in the late ’60s with Muhal and everybody. Because at the time I was performing it, I really had on clear idea of this new music, you see.

Q: I can think of an analogy. In the 1950’s, and in the ’60s, for that matter, a lot of musicians after their initial apprenticeships in the Army, and got their rudiments very much together in the Army by playing all the time.

TB: That’s true.

Q: And it sounds like this theatre job performed a similar function for you.

TB: It really did. And I was just able to sort of get a clearer understanding about the music. And keep in mind, I’m still studying, I’m practicing very hard. . . So when I returned in ’75, that was really a very progressive year for the organization, because everyone had really gone out and developed their personal concepts.

Q: George Lewis had hit the scene . . .

TB: George Lewis hit the scene in that year. So it was like a revitalization of everything, you know. And I think especially the Art Ensemble, Muhal, Jenkins, they all had had a taste of getting their music performed and recorded, and gotten a taste of the business, gotten a taste of the music scene outside of Chicago. Because you’ve got to remember, before that time nobody had left Chicago.

Q: And that was a time when musicians from all over the country began converging on New York.

TB: Exactly. Now, I must get in here that during the early Seventies, like ’72 and ’73, there was a collaboration of musicians from St. Louis, like for instance, Oliver Lake. Oliver Lake had formed a new music organization I think called X-BAG . . . I think that’s it; I’m not sure. But I do remember that there was a collaboration with the St. Louis musicians.

Q: I remember Julius Hemphill was coming to Chicago in the ’70s.

TB: Exactly. Julius Hemphill. We’re talking about Oliver Lake, we’re talking about Charles Bobo Shaw, Baikida Carroll. Who else?

Q: Joseph Bowie.

TB: Joseph Bowie, of course. So the AACM members even went to St. Louis. And they produced a concert in collaboration with both groups, and also we did the same thing for X-BAG, and Oliver Lake and Baikida and everybody came from St. Louis to Chicago to participate in a concert series that we did. And that was a real strong thing that happened in ’71 and ’72, or so.

Q: Let’s get back to some music.

TB: I was going to go with some more of my percussion duet record.

[Music from Muhal Richard Abrams, LifeaBlinec, "JoDoTh"]

Q: Now we’re in 1978, and in 1978 Thurman joined Anthony Braxton’s working band.

TB: That’s right.

Q: That was a very tight band.

TB: Yeah, it was. It really began in 1977. Anthony Braxton had come to Chicago, and I guess at that time he had just broke up the quartet that he had with Barry Altschul, Dave Holland and George Lewis that was his working band, they’d made some records for Arista. There was an AACM Festival I remember at McCormack Place.

Q: I remember that. Braxton played a gig all on clarinets, with you and Malachi Favors.

TB: He played a gig all on clarinets. And part of that concert was a quartet with Leroy Jenkins on violin, Leonard Jones on bass, Anthony and myself. After that concert, Braxton asked me if I wanted to join the band, and I was just thrilled. I was ready. So that’s the beginning of how that started. We went out. That was the fall of 1977. I remember my very first gig with the quartet out of town was the Quaker Oats Jazz Festival, which was in Philadelphia, I think. And that was my first big out of town gig with the Braxton Quartet. I must say, at that same time Ray Anderson also was very new in the band.

Q: Another Chicagoan.

TB: So Ray Anderson and myself were the new members of the quartet in 1977, and Mark Helias had joined the quartet a few months prior, so he had already played a few gigs. But for Ray Anderson and myself, the Quaker Oats Jazz Festival was our first gig.

Q: How did you like playing with Braxton? What’s the relationship of his music to a drummer, in some sense?

TB: Well, it was really interesting, because Braxton had a way, first of all, of notating his music. He gave me the same part that Ray Anderson had or that Braxton had, see. That was one of the big differences, see. It wasn’t a drum part. It was a part that everybody else had. So now for the time in playing improvised music, I could not only create my own drum part, but I could follow along with all the other instruments to see what they were doing. So it was exciting, it was different. In a way, it was a lot easier for me to adapt to his music, because this was, I would say, my first feeling how jazz and classical music could mix together. This was my first introduction. Because a lot of Braxton’s music had these sounds and compositions that were very close to classical music for me. So for the first time now, with all that training that I watched the percussion players play in the orchestra pits in Chicago, and watching my percussion teacher at the Conservatory. . . For the first time now, I was able to start executing a lot of the knowledge and strokes, and the finesse and touch on my drum set playing jazz.

Q: Did Braxton produce a lot of new music during that time?

TB: He was writing a lot during this time. And I think the way the band was going. . . I know we used to travel a lot. And he would be so occupied with turning out compositions every day, just for this band . . .

Q: And he’d play them on the stand that night?

TB: He’d play them on the stand that night.

Q: Nice for Braxton, to have a band like that.

TB: It was great for Braxton! I hope he had his ASCAP and all that stuff together. But it was great for me, for everybody, because we were not only playing some new music, but we were working, we were out on the road, and we had an opportunity to perform it that night, and to see how it would go for the first time.

So for me, for the first time now, I was able to start executing a lot of the percussion concept on traps. All those years with Joseph Jarman and Muhal, I didn’t really know how to. . . I mean, this music was brand-new. I was trying to find my way, you see. One thing about Muhal and Joseph at this time, one thing they did give me, and that was a lot of support. Even though I didn’t know what the hell I was doing — I was trying. But they gave me a lot of support. But by the time ’77 came around, I had a pretty clear idea about how I wanted to perform and how I wanted to construct.

Q: You were a mature musician at this time.

TB: Yeah, of course. Now I’ve learned a lot. I’ve played a whole bunch of gigs, and I’ve learned a lot. And believe me, that’s the best training you can get, is right there on the bandstand.

Q: Just playing.

TB: That’s true.

[Music: Braxton Quartet, "W6-4N-R6-AH0"]

TB: That recording was done while the quartet was on tour, so it was a real special time for me. Even though I had recorded with Joseph Jarman and Muhal, it was a very good time for me. Because to record with Anthony Braxton who at that time had risen to be a very popular figure in new music, and number two, he had a record contract at the time, so that was a little different.

Q: And later that year you recorded with Sam Rivers.

TB: That’s right. What happened was that the AACM gave its first concert on New York territory in 1976, right here at Columbia University. We were able to perform our first jazz festival right here in New York. And in the audience, of course, was Mr. Sam Rivers. I had performed with some of the groups and with the Big Band. So Sam was in the audience — and this was in ’76.

A few years later, I get this call right out of the blue. It was Sam Rivers, and he was asking me to come to New York and to make a record. Of course I was floored! I said, “Sure, when are the rehearsals and when can we get together, because I need to learn your music.” He said, “Look, we’ll just rehearse in the studio. But can you be here by this particular date?” I said, “No problem.” So my very first contact with Sam Rivers was in the studio, and we made the record that we are about to hear called Waves on Tomato Records. Of course, I am now very familiar with Sam Rivers in terms off what he’s done, and all the Blue Note records that he appeared on with Andrew Hill and Tony Williams — the early Blue Note dates.

Q: Not to mention that he had used Braxton’s previous bass and drums.

TB: Exactly. Now here I go, I’m beginning to think that I’m in a circle here, because somehow Anthony Braxton’s rhythm section went with Sam Rivers — and we’re speaking of Barry Altschul and Dave Holland. At the time I joined Sam, Dave Holland was still there. This recording features Joe Daley on brass, Dave Holland on bass and cello, and myself on drums and percussion, and Sam Rivers. Like I say, I was really back, because this was my first contact with Dave Holland and Sam, and here I am getting ready to make a record. So it was quite a special event for me.

[Music: S. Rivers, "Surge"]

Q: Thurman, you played a gig this past weekend in Boston with Sam Rivers as guest artist.

TB: Exactly. It was my gig. I was able to get two nights at a club in Boston called Charlie’s Tap, Friday and Saturday, the Thurman Barker Trio featuring Sam Rivers. Anyway, I had an opportunity to be able to join forces with an artist who I was able to learn a lot of music from, and we played a lot of gigs. As a matter of fact, after the Waves record, we went on tour. Contrasts was also done while we were on tour. Sam did spend a lot of time in Boston, studying at the New England Conservatory, and then throughout the ’50s.

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Filed under AACM, Anthony Braxton, Drummer, Interview, Joseph Jarman, Muhal Richard Abrams, Sam Rivers, Thurman Barker, WKCR

For Andy Gonzalez’ 63rd Birthday, an Unedited Blindfold Test from 2000 and a WKCR Interview From 2006

Best of birthdays to the master bassist Andy Gonzalez, who turns 63 today. A co-founder of the Fort Apache Band with his older brother, Jerry Gonzalez, Gonzalez’ c.v. includes protracted gigs with Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie Palmieri and Manny Oquendo’s Libre. His influence is palpable on such next-generation swing-to-clave bassists as — among many others — Avishai Cohen and Hans Glawischnig. I had the opportunity to interact with and be educated by Andy at least a half-dozen times during my years on WKCR, particularly on such subjects as Cachao and Arsenio Rodriguez, upon whom he would expound with great erudition. I’ll have to transcribe those cassettes one of these days. Meanwhile, here are the proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that Andy did with me around 2000, and a WKCR interview from 2006, when the Fort Apache Band had just released their excellent CD, Rumba Buhaina.

Andy Gonzalez Blindfold Test:

1.    Ray Brown, “St. Louis Blues” (feat. Ahmad Jamal, p., Lewis Nash, d), “SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS…ARE THE PIANO PLAYERS” (Telarc, 1995) (5 stars)

Well, it’s somebody like Ray Brown or somebody that LOVES Ray Brown on bass.  I hear a lot of Ray Brownish things. [AFTER] [Why did it take you so long?] I had to hear more of him.  At first I thought it was somebody younger, but then I started listening to what he was playing and I said, “Wait a second.”  This is somebody who has some depth to his musical history just by what he played and how he played it.  It had to be somebody like Ray Brown.  I’m not sure of the piano player, though. [Any guesses?] Mmm… That’s not Benny Green, is it?  It could be Oscar. [It's the same generation.] Oh yeah?  [AFTER] I didn’t hear much of the trademark Ahmad Jamal things.  That was quite nice.  It gets 5 stars out of me.  Ray Brown is one of my heroes.  Of the bass players from his generation, like Oscar Pettiford and Mingus… I thought he’s the one that… There’s Blanton in his playing, but I think he took Blanton beyond Blanton.  Mingus I thought sort of took it the other way, and he used a lot more physical kinds of things about the bass, like imitating growls and doing wilder things, where I think maybe Ray Brown is more blues-based.  There’s a lot of blues in his playing.  Not that Mingus isn’t, but… And Pettiford was… It’s like three distinct voices to come out of the same era, and to play with a lot of the same people in the Bebop era and stuff like that.  But very distinct voices, all three of them.  But those are the same generation.

2.    Sam Jones, “O.P.” (Israel Crosby, bass; Joe Zawinul, piano; Vernell Fournier, drums), DOWN HOME (Riverside, 1962/1995) (4 stars)

I’m going to take a stab and say it was Doug Watkins playing cello.  No?  He did do a cello record. [This is someone who is a contemporary of Doug Watkins who did...] Sam Jones?  That was the second person I was going to shoot for.  Because I realized he had done a cello record way back, but I can’t remember the circumstances.  I only managed to cop a couple of Sam Jones records, especially on Riverside — those were a little harder to find.  For some reason it made me think of the Doug Watkins record.  I think Yusef Lateef is playing on it.  When I heard the flute I thought maybe it might be him. [Any idea who's playing bass and drums?] That wasn’t Jimmy Cobb?  Something made me think it was Jimmy Cobb, the way he was riding the cymbal. [AFTER] You know, Israel Crosby is credited with taking one of the first solos on bass on record, “Blues For Israel,” with Gene Krupa.  I mean, an actual bass solo.  It’s a whole thing on the bass.  This is the early ’30s.  The pianist was Zawinul?  Forget it.  I would have never guessed that.  I thought the piece was nice.  It was kind of bouncy and airy.  I thought Sam Jones was very articulate on the cello and very tasty.  As a matter of fact, I never heard him take any bass solos that sounded slick, to tell you the truth! — from what I’ve heard of Sam Jones.  That was excellent cello playing, just so far as getting across the cello.  I’m wondering whether he used the cello the way it’s supposed to be tuned, in fifths, or the way Ray Brown did and some other cello cats did was retune the instrument in fourths to make it like a bass and easier to play.  Now, that might be the case, because he seemed to get around the instrument pretty good.  Playing in fifths takes a little bit more knowledge of how to get around the strings.  So that’s an interesting question to find out.  From what I heard, it sounded like it was tuned in fourths.  Four stars, for Sam Jones especially.

3.    Brian Lynch, “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,” SPHERES OF INFLUENCE (Sharp-9, 1997) (5 stars) (John Benitez, bass; Jeff Watts, drums; Milton Cardona, congas; David Kikoski, piano; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone)

Wow!  I’ve grown accustomed to her space face.  That was a beautiful arrangement, man.  It was gorgeous.  It sounds like it was a trumpet player’s record, because he’s got the lead — and a big fat tone.  I’m trying to think of who it could be.  The drummer was on it with the Latin stuff.  He was playing the right kind of beat.  It wasn’t clave!  And the conga player was holding his own.  He’s just an adornment more than anything else.  In the seconds where there was Latin rhythm, he played well.  The bass player did okay.  Gee whiz.  Fat tone on a trumpet is what was getting to me.  I was trying to think who has a fat tone on a trumpet.  It doesn’t sound too dated.  So let me see, who has a fat tone on trumpet these days?  Terence Blanchard has a fairly fat sound.  So does Nicholas Payton.  They have kind of fat tones on the trumpet these days. [What trumpet player might think of that type of arrangement?] Now, that’s a good question, because there was a lot of depth to that arrangement.  It stretched the tune out, it stretched out the phrasing of it, and also took it in different places.  It gets five stars from me, because it was an original and unusual treatment of the song.  Because that’s not an easy song to… It’s a pretty song.  Not too many people, except for someone like maybe Sonny Rollins, have attempted to play that tune.  And then I thought it was nice having the tuba in the orchestration.  That was really pretty. [AFTER] That was Brian Lynch?  No kidding!  I didn’t even think about that.  Excellent.  I’m surprised I didn’t recognize… Well, John Benitez didn’t give anything that I could recognize him on.  Milton, well, that I could hear.  It was very nice.  I enjoyed that.

4.    George Mraz, “Star-Crossed Lovers” (Renee Rosnes, piano), DUKE’S PLACE (Milestone, 1999) (5 stars)

I sort of wish that the bass player would have bowed the melody at the end again, because he played it so beautifully at the beginning.  Good bowing technique is like studying a whole other instrument.  And he had superb control of that bow.  I mean, he really sang that melody superbly, man.  Right there that’s five stars for me, because I’m quite a fan of good bowing.  I wish I could bow that well!  But like I said, that’s a whole study in itself.  It’s one thing to pluck strings and use your hands to get tone and sound, but to use the bow and get the vibrations that the bow makes, and use your hands in that sense, it’s a whole different way of playing the instrument.  Whoever that was playing the bass, I really couldn’t tell you, but I thought that he has an excellent bowing technique. [AFTER] I figured as much.  That’s bounce, man.  He’s got beautiful, beautiful bowing technique.  It bounces!  Gorgeous bowing.

5.    Ornette Coleman, “Women Of The Veil,” THREE WOMEN (Harmolodic, 1996) (Charnett Moffett, bass; Geri Allen, piano; Denardo Coleman, drums) (3½ stars)

Oh, shades of Ornette!  I don’t think it was Ornette, but it was quite a bit of Ornettethology!  Even the trumpet player sounded like Ornette!  I don’t know who it was, but it sure sounded like an Ornetteish kind of thing.  I wasn’t that thrilled with it.  It was all right.  The bass player sure didn’t sound like no Charlie Haden, that’s for sure. [AFTER] It was Ornette?  Charnett Moffett was playing the bass?  This was recent?  Who was playing the trumpet? [Ornette.] Ah, so I was right about that.  The piano is what threw me.  I’m not used to Ornette with a piano player.  3½ stars for that.  I’ve heard Ornette play with more… I like Ornette when there’s more emotion in his playing.  Remember the Town Hall concert, “Sadness,” things like that?  That really moves me.  And the original quartet moves me a lot, with Charlie Haden, Blackwell and Don Cherry.  All that moved me quite a bit.  And Ornette over the years, man… I always dug Ornette.  I like him best in smaller situations, not with all the trappings.  I don’t like Ornette with a piano player.  I like him without piano.

6.    Ron Carter, “Samba De Orfeu,” ORFEU (Blue Note, 1999) (5 stars) (Bill Frisell, guitar; Stephen Scott, piano; Payton Crossley, drums; Steve Kroon, percussion)

It was nice to hear a bass guitar “surdo” and “casaba.”  To me I would have dug it if they had added a tambourine.  That would have really put the rhythm section a little stronger Brazilian.  But they left the space open, which is okay.  The guitar player wasn’t Brazilian; that’s for sure.  And the bass player sounded like Ron Carter to me. [AFTER] Of course!  Ron Carter, one thing, he’s got a great sense of humor.  Throughout that solo, he’s a shameless quoter, a quoter of obscure melodies!  I get a kick out of it.  I mean, that’s like… Unless you know these melodies, you just… He quoted really obscure songs, like “Popeye, The Sailor Man” and “I Want To Wash that Rain Right Out of My Hair.”  You have to know a lot of music to be able to quote these things, and he quoted quite a few different little tiny pieces of melodies from all kinds of things in his solo.  It was nice.  Five stars.  Ron Carter is one of my heroes.  I grew up listening to him, and I know him a bit, and he’s quite a nice man.  One thing I’ve got to say is that I’ve learned a lot from listening to Ron Carter over the years, especially when he was with Miles.  His perception of how to play bass in a rhythm section for that band was unique, and it really influenced me a lot.  Even playing Latin Jazz it influenced me a lot, because just the kind of thing that they had going as the quintet with Miles, this kind of ESP thing that they had going, is something that most bands strive for — that kind of empathy and mind-reading between the members of a band.  That’s something that they brought to a high art.  And Ron was very instrumental in making a lot of that happen.  I’ll always love him for that, that’s for sure.  So he gets my five stars.

7.    Dave Holland, “Jugglers Parade,” PRIME DIRECTIVE (ECM, 1999) (3½ stars)

I’m going to take a wild stab?  Is that Avishai?  He likes things that have odd meters.  Is it a bass player’s album?  Is it Santi?  I remember him writing things that sound like this.  Wow.  So far I made two guess, and both of them were wrong.  I’m not that big a fan of odd meter kind of things.  But it was put together pretty nicely, and if the bass player composed this… Most bass players make good composers, just because of the fact that they always provided the bottom of things, the bottom of the harmonies, and sometimes the bottom of just rhythm and melody.  So I am pretty happy when I hear bass players’ compositions and arrangements, because it’s like they have a different perspective on things and they hear things different.  Most bass players who I know who write, it’s usually very interesting.  And this was no exception.  It was interesting.  But like I said, I’m not a big fan of odd meter things.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s because I’ve got the clave ingrained in me to the point where it’s like… And also, I grew up in the era of real hardbop-swing kind of things, so anything that has odd meters isn’t… It’s just a preference of mine.  I’m not that particularly fond of them.  I would give it 3½ stars.  So who was it? [AFTER] That was Dave Holland?!  I would have never recognized him.  I would never have thought that it was Dave Holland.  It didn’t sound like the kind of music that he used to play before.  There’s something to be said for bass players that write.  Because like I said, they’re coming from a another perspective.

8.    Richard Bona, “Konda Djanea,” SCENES FROM MY LIFE (Columbia, 1999). (5 stars) (Michael Brecker, tenor sax)

That was very nice, man.  Richard Bona.  I met him a couple of years ago.  I think he was touring with Zawinul.  We just ran into each other on the road.  But that was lovely.  You can hear the influence of the African string instrument called the kora, which is a harp kind of instrument.  I can hear that influence in how he approaches the bass.  He’s playing it almost like a guitar, but playing it like a kora.  Just the figures that he’s playing, it sounds like if he was strumming on a kora.  It’s very pretty.  Five stars.

9.    John Patitucci, “King Kong,” IMPRINT (Concord, 1999) (4 stars) (Danilo Perez, piano; Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernandez, drums; Giovanni Hidalgo, percussion)

Well, I recognized a couple of people in there.  I think that was El Negro playing the traps, and it could have been Giovanni playing the congas.  It could have been.  Those are my cohorts, man.  I know those guys intimately.  Is this Patitucci?  I had a feeling it was him, because I heard he had done something with the Latin thing.  He was cool.  Was this his tune?  The piano player sounded a little familiar, too, but I wasn’t positive.  I was thinking that it might be Danilo.  What made me think it was Patitucci was when it got into the groove part, he was sticking to a pretty generic kind of groove thing.  Unless you’re really sure of the clave and how to mess with it, I would imagine that’s what you would do just to… Because Negro and Giovanni can get very intricate on you, and if you’re not dead-sure where you are, they can throw you off in a minute.  It’s like the clave thing with them is that they know that so intimately.  I’ve played with them so much that I know what they’re about.  Sometimes it’s better to be safe and stick to what you know you can do within that framework.  So it was cool.  The saxophone player I don’t know.  It sounded like a Michael Brecker or someone like that, but I’m not sure.  Chris Potter?  Okay.  There was something in his tone that reminded me of Michael.  But I guess that got a four out of me.

10.    Eddie Gomez, “Footprints,” DEDICATION (Evidence, 1998). (3½ stars)

Mmm, “Footprints.”  That tune, ever since it came out, it’s been a favorite of all us musicians.  Especially when you’re in school and stuff, everybody… It’s easy to play and easy to jam on.  I was just about going to high school when that came out.  I don’t really have a clue.  3½ stars.  The bass player to me sounded like somebody like Alex Blake or someone like that.  Because Alex Blake has that kind of facility; he likes to do those kind of crazy runs and stuff.  Oh, it’s not?  I figured as much.  I just thought of him because I ran into him the other day and I hadn’t seen him for a while.  [The bass player and you have the same alma mater.] Music and Art?  He must have graduated way after me, though.  Before me?  Really.  Hmm!  I know Eddie Gomez went to Music & Art? [That's him.] Really?  That doesn’t sound like the Eddie Gomez I remember.  It’s recent, huh?  I’m a lot closer to the Eddie Gomez of Bill Evans days, and he didn’t play like this.  He played different.  Eddie was an amazing, amazing musician, and he got along so well with Bill.  They were really mind-reading each other.  It’s sort of like the same thing that happened when Scott LaFaro was in the trio.  I got hip to Scott LaFaro maybe four or five years after he passed.  He passed in ’61.  I got hip to him early on because when I was 14 I was studying with Steve Swallow.  I was in junior high school.  He was the first one to turn me on to Scotty.  Then I used to go and check out Bill Evans at the Vanguard a lot, and Eddie Gomez was playing the bass there.  So I was just amazed at the facility that Eddie Gomez had at the time.  Because he didn’t quite do what Scotty was doing.  Scotty liked to mess with counterpoint and things like that a lot more.  But Eddie was all over the instrument, which was amazing to me.  I’m surprised I didn’t recognize him.  I would usually recognize Eddie Gomez, because he’s a guy I’ve been following since I was a teenager.  3½ because as many times as I’ve played “Footprints,” there’s a lot more things that you can say with it than was said there.

11.    Roy Haynes, “Trinkle Tinkle,” TE VOU! (Dreyfus, 1994) (feat. Christian McBride) (3½ stars)

It’s nice to hear pretty much the arrangement the way that Monk and the sax used to play the melody.  The only thing, after a while that three note figure at the end -DINH-DUHT-DAH gets annoying.  Other than that I liked it, but I didn’t care for too much, and to hear it through all the solos was a pain in the ass after a while.  I would have preferred leaving it out and just play it, because it doesn’t do anything.  It sounds like it was a novelty effect more than anything else.  The drummer sounded like someone like Tain.  I didn’t think it was, but it sounded like someone who can take it a little out like Tain can.  But I couldn’t tell you who the cats were. [AFTER] It was Roy Haynes’ record?  I’m surprised why he kept that figure, man.  It sounds annoying.  Is the bass player Ed Howard?  Christian?  I thought it was him while he was playing, but I just didn’t think he did anything… And it didn’t sound like Roy Haynes either to me.  Is it a new record?  Unusual.  Like I said, it was pretty much in the Monk tradition.  I would left out that BINH-BAHT-BAM.  I’ll give 3½ because it was well played.  Who was the alto player?  Donald Harrison!  He played well.  I wouldn’t have recognized Roy Haynes.  It didn’t sound like him.  I heard him the last time a couple of years ago, and he’s always been Mister Taste.  And it was tasteful…except for that.  I don’t mind if an effect really adds something to the music, but that didn’t really add anything to Monk.

12.    McCoy Tyner, “I Want To Tell You ‘Bout That,” McCOY TYNER WITH STANLEY CLARKE AND AL FOSTER (Telarc, 2000) (3½ stars)

I knew it was McCoy from the getgo, because it’s unmistakable, just his tone, his touch, and the kind of things that he plays.  Although I felt it was kind of like… It’s like when you’re trying to get like a funk kind of thing going, you know, almost making an attempt to get like some radio play.  The bass player wasn’t Avery?  I don’t know who it was. [Someone you might think on electric.] Stanley Clarke?  Yeah?  He did play a figure that did make me think it was Stanley Clarke.  But I said, “Mmm, let me see…”  Who was the drummer?  Al Foster?  I sort of came up at the same time as Stanley Clarke, and I’ve been watching and listening to him since the early days when he was with Chick.  He’s a fine bass player, man.  He’s been moving around in different worlds and playing a lot of different kinds of music, but I have deep respect for him as a bass player.  He’s a great bass player.  I don’t think this is one of McCoy’s better efforts.  Just for playing sake, I’ll give it 3½ stars.

13.  Avishai Cohen, “The Gift, DEVOTION (Stretch, 1998) (3 stars)

I don’t know if I could tell you who that is.  It wasn’t exactly a toe-tapper.  The soprano had a dark kind of sound.  That’s an unusual duo, the trombone and soprano.  It’s not something you hear often.  I’m at a loss.  3 stars. [AFTER] That was Avishai, huh?

14.    Red Garland Trio w/ Paul Chambers, “This Can’t Be Love,” IT’S A BLUE WORLD (Prestige, 1958/1999) (3 stars)

It sounded like a few people.  The first name that came to me was an odd name, Monty Alexander — which is weird.  But that’s the first name that popped into my head.  I heard flashes of Erroll Garner, I heard flashes of a lot of people in there.  I probably do know who it is.  Who was it? [AFTER] That didn’t sound like Paul Chambers?  You know what?  This must have been towards the end of his life.  That was ’58?  Paul Chambers articulates a lot better than that — for me.  I’ve heard plenty of Paul Chambers.  Maybe it was the rosin.  Because when you put a certain kind of rosin on the bow you get a certain sound, and different rosins give you a different… When you pull the bow across the string, it gives you a different… This was kind of a rough sound for Paul.  Paul usually gets a smoother attack sound on his bowing.  But I do know that it has to do with the kind of rosin that you use.  Some rosin makes the bow across the strings sound a little rough; it grabs the string a certain way so that the sound comes out rough.  There’s another rosin that the sound comes out a little smoother.  This sounded kind of rough to me.  Really.  Because Paul Chambers articulates a lot better on things I’ve heard him on before than on this particular piece.  From hearing Paul on his best records… This wasn’t his best.  It didn’t move me that much.  3 stars.

15.    Cachao, “El Son No A Muerto,” MASTER SESSIONS, VOL. 1 (Epic, 1994) (4 stars)

That was Cachao, and that was Nelson Gonzalez on the très, who learned to play the très in my house.  I brought home a très from Venezuela in 1970, and he was a frequent visitor to my house.  He was self-taught on guitar.  We started studying Arsenio Rodriguez records together, and he learned how to play the très in my house.  I’m the one who got him the gig with Cachao in the middle ’80s when he did his big concert at Hunter College.  I loaned him my bass and I was at most of the rehearsals, and I got Nelson involved in it.  Because they didn’t have a très player originally for the descarga section.  That’s my daddy, Cachao.  This particular tune was kind of subdued, there was not much happening for him.  The best way to catch Cachao sometimes is live.  I wish they would record him live.  This was part of the records that Emilio Estefan put out?  I don’t think he’s the best producer for that genre.  First of all, I didn’t like the balance of the sound.  It could have been a lot better.  I’ll give it 4 stars because I like Nelson’s playing on it.  Was that Paquito d’Rivera on clarinet and Nestor Torres on flute?  What about trumpet?  It wasn’t Chocolate.  It was?  That was a very subdued Chocolate.  It didn’t sound like him.  And his trademark notes that he likes to play aren’t there.  Something tells me there was maybe some weird chemistry going on in the studio.

* * *

Andy Gonzalez (WKCR–Feb. 23, 2006):

[MUSIC: “This Is For Albert” (Rumba Buhaina)]

AG:   We did a couple of albums where we had to find a way for Jerry to play the horn with Joe Ford, and after he’d state the line, he would take a solo and then jump on the drums. Because there was no overdubbing; this was recorded direct to two-track. That was interesting, to say the, to see him manage the jump back and forth.

TP:   It is one of the great sights in jazz to see him jump up from the conga drums after he’s been abusing his hands for 5-6 minutes, and immediately launch into an improvisation. Even more so when it’s a ballad

AG:   I don’t know how he does it. I like to play percussion instruments, too, but I will not play them because it makes my fingers stiff to play the bass. I don’t know how to he gets to manipulate his fingers that well right after playing hard congas, and pick up the phone and play.

TP:   He plays hard. You and your brother have been playing trumpet and bass and congas for close to 50 years…

AG:   A long time.  I’m 55, and I was 13 when we started to play music. A little more than 40 years.

TP: And you’ve often played in the same bands over the years. With Eddie Palmieri for several years, with Dizzy Gillespie briefly in the ‘60s, as well as the Apaches.

AG:   Jerry was also in the first band I ever recorded with, which was Monguito Santamaria, who was Mongo’s son. Rene McLean was in that band, and Jose Mangual, Jr., was in the band. Jerry was part of that band for a minute, too.

TP:   Let’s talk about the history of the Fort Apaches. Ten years ago, you were playing a lot around and New York and touring, but things changed, Jerry moved to Spain, and the opportunities to play are less than they had been.

AG:   Well, we have been playing some. Jerry would come in occasionally to do it, and there would be a tour set up, and some… The band has been working on and off. It’s maybe not as much as we could because of the distance between us. But we still get together enough. And it sounds like we’d never been apart, just because of the chemistry involved in the band.

TP:   It’s one of the innovative bands of late 20th century jazz, influential on two generations of musicians from South America, the Caribbean, Spain, who heard your ability to fuse Afro-Caribbean diasporic rhythms with jazz harmonies. It’s hard to say if anyone was the first to do anything, but recordings like Rumba Para Monk and things before that have had a tremendous influence on the way jazz sounds today. These ideas were exotic in 1988; now it’s the mainstream.

AG:   They were even more exotic in 1979.

TP:   There are a few streams to discuss. One of the history of the Fort Apache; the other is the present. Let’s stay with the present for the moment, and the new recording, Rumba Buhaina.

AG:   A lot of people don’t understand that “Buhaina” was Art Blakey’s Muslim name. In the late ‘40s, quite a few musicians in jazz were either converting to Islam or flirting with it. It’s just like jazz musicians are always the first to move to things that would probably help them get away from the American stereotype of what a musician is supposed or what a spiritual person is supposed to be like. So Art Blakey took the name “Buhaina.” I don’t know what it means, but all Art Blakey’s closest friends and associates would call him “Bu.”

TP:   I believe that the Jazz Messengers name came from that same origin. Unlike your exploration of the music of Thelonious Monk, Rumba Buhaina explores a number of composers, of tunes primarily from their classic period, say ‘58 to ‘65.

AG:   That was the music that influenced us a lot. We used to go hear Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in person, and that was one of the key groups of those years. Just to hear Art Blakey be as authoritative a drummer… He was an amazing teacher. He didn’t have to tell you anything. He showed you. You just listened to him play, and it was all there to hear. We learned a lot from listening to what he had to offer, and how a drummer is so much the accompanist, and how he sets the pattern, sets the standard for what is to happen in the music. That’s something that really stayed with most musicians who came up around that time. That’s why we always consider Art Blakey one of the true teachers of the music.

TP:   He was also a musician who distilled African musicians within a swing context on the drumkit, with cross-sticking figures and polyrhythmic patterns woven within his arrangements.

AG:   I thought Art Blakey had such a strong force, a force of nature that reminded me a lot of field recordings that I had of tribal music from different parts of Africa. You’d hear, say, a drummer who would be talking on the drum, and not only the pitch, the timbre of the instrument and the way certain instruments…you would communicate a message with that way of playing. I could feel that out of Art Blakey, too. There’s a certain force that’s coming out of that. I immediately identify with it.

TP:   During those years, were you also paying attention to the records Art Blakey was doing with drummers?

AG:   Oh, yeah.

TP:   Orgy In Rhythm, a couple of volumes, and the names are escaping me of a couple of others he did, where he played with the late Ray Barretto…

AG:   I was just going to mention Ray Barretto. He also did a tribute to Art Blakey a few years ago. In fact, I think there’s one tune on the record that we also did. His concept was a little different than ours. First of all, when Ray Barretto first started getting back… He wasn’t playing much salsa any more, and he started to develop a Latin Jazz band. I know he paid quite a bit of attention to Fort Apache and what we were doing, and I think he took part of that as a role model. Which we were quite honored that he would use us as a model for what he was doing.

TP:   But as far as putting the Fort Apache touch on this repertoire, how did the ideas evolve and come to fruition?

AG:   We had the idea years ago. We thought of it as one of the many projects that we had in mind to do. There were other projects, too, that never came about for various reasons. Like, we wanted to record an album with Jose Silva, better known as Chombo, the Cuban saxophonist who was probably like the Ben Webster of Cuban music, and a masterful musician. We were just about setting that up when he had a stroke and he was no longer able to play. We were already starting to pick out the material. When you have a band like the Fort Apache band, you, have a lot of options, and there’s things that pop into your head about what this band could do, what we’re capable of doing. Because everybody in the band is a great musician, and we’re capable of a lot of things.

TP:   But Rumba Buhaina is what we’re addressing.

AG:   Yes. Well, the idea for the Art Blakey tribute… We started thinking about it, and then all of a sudden we had a few days at Sweet Rhythm to play… Before we went into the studio we played and rehearsed for a few days. That’s pretty much the way we did the Monk album, too. We played and we rehearsed different concepts on different tunes until…

TP:   Were they tunes that seemed to lend themselves to dealing with the different rhythmic signatures that you bring to your arrangements.

AG:   We tried to think of ways of approaching the music… Everybody contributed ideas. That’s the way we get it together. It’s pretty simple. From all our experiences, individually and collectively, it was pretty easy for us to put it together.

TP:   Let’s step back to 1991, the album Moliendo Café, and Larry Willis’ tune, “To Wisdom The Prize.”

AG:   I like that album a lot, for a few reasons. One of them was that Miles Davis had just passed away, and we had… We thought about it a lot because he was such a strong influence on us also.

TP:   The album is dedicated to the percussionist Guillermo Barretto. Art Blakey had just passed.  Charlie Palmieri had just passed. Dizzy Gillespie shortly thereafter. George Adams as well. All are mentioned on the inner sleeve…

[“To Wisdom The Prize” & “Along Came Betty”]

TP:   On previous shows, Andy has brought literally a suitcase filled with recordings, primarily obscure and little known, great gems. A lot of this material is now available on CD so it’s a bit easier to track down…once you get the CD. Next week will you be playing primarily this repertoire or digging into the whole book?

AG:   I’ve got a feeling we’ll dig into the whole book, but we are going to feature some of the tunes from the new album.

TP:   Earlier I mentioned that there are two streams to talk about, one the new recording, Rumba Buhaina, but for listeners… As you get older, you come to grips with the notion that younger listeners don’t share core experiences. A lot of hardcore jazz fans may be unfamiliar with how you and Jerry developed your ideas about music, and what in your personal histories led to the formation of the Fort Apache Band.

AG:   Jerry got his first opportunity to record in 1979, and that was an album under his own name called Ya Yo Me Cure, which in English means “I have been cured”—whatever that means. The title track of that album was something that Frankie Rodriguez, who was a percussionist who passed away a few years ago, but was a very talented person and very close to us… He was part of Grupo Folklorico, and he was into culture really deep. I had a record of pygmy chants from Africa, and he heard one chant that was done by kids. It was like some children’s chant. He heard it a few times, and started singing “Ya Yo Me Cure” to it, just putting those Spanish words to the chant itself, and we made a guaguanco out of it. That was a precursor of what Fort Apache became.

TP:   But by then, you’d been professional musicians for more than a decade. Eddie Palmieri, Dizzy Gillespie…

AG:   I played with Ray Barretto while I was in high school, ‘69 to ‘71. In between that time, me and Jerry worked with Dizzy Gillespie. So we were getting arond. I was still in high school, and Jerry was coming out of college.

TP:   Were Eddie Palmieri and Dizzy Gillespie people who helped push you along conceptually?

AG:   It was kind of a mutual thing. We were well aware of Eddie Palmieri; we were big fans. But we brought something new to the table.

TP:   What was that?

AG:   Well, a different sensibility. The sensibility that Eddie Palmieri had before, when Barry Rogers was part of the band, and Barry would bring the harmonic element… When he’s taking a solo, you can feel there’s something that’s really in the jazz world, and it’s very spontaneous and very heartfelt, and there was a lot of feeling to it. That’s one of the things that we learned a lot about, and something about jazz improvisation, that nothing was thought out before time—it was just off the cuff. Whatever came to your mind that you thought was hip enough, that’s what you would play. So we had started to do those kind of things with Eddie. We took Eddie’s band into some new places where he hadn’t ventured before. We all used to hang out at my parents’ house in the basement apartment on Gildersleeve Avenue in the Bronx, and Eddie Palmieri used to come over and Barretto used to come over… If that basement could talk… Dizzy Gillespie used to come over. We used to have jam sessions there all the time. Out of all that stuff, out of a lot of experimentation, came the music we wanted to play.

TP:   Both of you had been deeply into folkloric music for many years. How did you get involved in… Was folkloric music just always there, or did people point you towards recordings and connections?

AG:   Well, there’s different types of folkloric music. There’s folkloric music for dancing, and it was more a commercial music that was provided for dancing, but it still had quite a bit of folklore to it. That was the soundtrack of my childhood. Family parties, things like that. There was always a collection of good 78s that everybody used to dance to, like Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Cortijo Y Su Combo from Puerto Rico with Ismail Rivera singing, Mon Rivera… This was primarily folklore in the Puerto Rican vein and in the Cuban vein. Sonora Matancera, which was a Cuban band. That’s the stuff we grew up with.

TP:   When did you start breaking that stuff down?

AG:   That came a little bit later, because that’s something we got used to hearing. But we didn’t start breaking it down until we became more schooled in music. Both of us went to High School of Music and Art. They give you theory. They give you how to analyze a piece of music, and what happens in these number of bars, and then this section comes, and things like that. But what happened was, when I was 13, we had already been listening to Cal Tjader records for a while… Jerry was two years older than me, and he was starting to play congas, and he was also playing trumpet, and I was playing the bass, and we put together a Latin Jazz quintet like Cal Tjader’s. We started working with it. We started playing… In that music, we were trying to emulate the Cal Tjader sound and what they were doing, which was quite spontaneous and very jazz-like. They always had good pianists, and Mongo and Willie Bobo were heroes of ours. So that was pretty much how we started and where our taste was as far as playing music.

It wasn’t until I got to play with Ray Barretto’s band that I really started studying what came before, especially Afro-Cuban music. Or Cuban music.  The term “Afro-Cuban” that’s bandied about now as THE term, because everybody wants to point towards Cuba as the birthplace of a lot of the music—but I don’t know. I think it was maybe a little more to do with the Caribbean experience. Not just Cuba. Cuba was dominant, but there was also a lot going on in Puerto Rican and a lot going on in other places, too. And New York was the magnet the drew a lot of elements to it. A lot of great musicians from different parts of the Caribbean were moving to New York and bringing their music with them.

TP:   How long did you play with Dizzy Gillespie?

AG:   Almost a year. 1970.

TP:   what sort of experience was that? Was he playing primarily Cuban-influenced repertoire…

AG:   No, he was mixing it up. We had an interesting version of his band.  At the time, when we joined the band, there was no trap drummer. There was just Jerry playing congas, and I was playing the bass, George Davis was playing guitar, and Mike Longo was playing the piano—and Dizzy. I was playing my Ampeg baby bass. Now, Dizzy insisted upon a bass player who could play Latin rhythms and some jazz comfortably. That’s how I got the gig. I was only 19, and I was thrilled. We traveled a bit. It was amazing.

Dizzy was not one to… If you would sit down with him and you wanted something explained harmonically, he’d sit down at the piano and show you. But as a bandleader, he had this great instinct about talent, and he knew when he put a group of people together that the chemistry was going to work.

TP:   Rhythmically did he have anything to show you, or did…

AG:   We had things to show him.

TP:   What sort of things did you show him?

AG:   I remember working in Harlem with him one night, and we were doing a week at the Club Barron—and we brought Nicky Marrero to sit in on timbales. We played one of his tunes (I forget which one at the moment), and after he took his solo, he went by the bar… The bandstand was near the bar. He went by the bar, and we doubled the time on his tune, and we were smoking, the rhythm section was cooking, man. Then he comes up behind me and whispers in my ear, and he goes, “Where’s one?” In other words, as much as he’d been influenced by and heard quite a bit of Latin rhythms, and he’d been surrounded by good rhythm drummers, sometimes you can know a whole lot and still, if you divert your attention for a minute and come back to it, you go, “Wait a second; my hearing just turned around or something; I’m not quite sure where it is.” So while I’m playing and we’re cooking, I just looked at him and I go, “One.” He goes, “Oh, ok.” Heh-heh. Dizzy was a sweetheart. I loved him.

TP:   So as kids, you’re soaking up the music at home. It’s part of the daily fabric of your lives. You’re listening to all the jazz records as they come out…

AG:   And we were lucky enough as kids to journey out the clubs and hear this music in person. I saw Trane play. I wanted to see the quartet play, but they had already broken up. I saw one of his last performances. I saw everybody play. I was quite a regular in all the clubs. I used to go down to the Vanguard to hear the Bill Evans Trio, and I’d go to the Vanguard on Mondays to hear the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. And Slugs was one of my favorite jazz clubs in the world. That was THE place. That had an atmosphere, and the music was exceptional. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers used to play there regularly. Lee Morgan, his band used to play there. I saw so many bands. I forgot that we got to play with Kenny Dorham for a year, before Dizzy… Actually, about the time I had started playing with Ray Barretto, I was playing with Kenny Dorham.

TP:   I think Jerry has related that when he was auditioning for New York College of Music, he encountered him…

AG:   Kenny was trying to get his degree so he could teach. New York College of Music started a jazz program, and they were givimg full scholarships to jazz musicians, and all of a sudden, a lot of musicians jumped in that school. They had a great big band. Great musicians there. So Kenny Dorham was studying there, and he was in Jerry’s trumpet class. The trumpet teacher was a classical teacher, and he failed Kenny Dorham. Failed him! I couldn’t believe that. Kenny Dorham could have taught him a few things. But we’ve been blessed, man. We were blessed that we were really accepted by a lot of people, and taught as well. Just by playing together with someone, you give a little bit of your knowledge, and you get knowledge back in return. There was quite a bit of activity going on for musicians in those days.

TP:   It also seems that the cultural politics of the ‘60s would point people in the direction of incorporating folkloric music into the fabric of their everyday activity and professional work.

AG:   Of course. I saw Olatunji. Olatunji had a group of drummers and dancers, and we got to hear that. There was a lot going on. But there wasn’t much Cuban folklore. Because of the Revolution, the radio stations wouldn’t play much of that music. But around 1969, Felipe Luciano, who was part of the Young Lords, he got a position to start a radio program on WRVR. I had met him while I was with Barretto, and I was studying Cuban folklore with Rene Lopez, who was one of the producers of Grupo Folklorico Experimental. We actually programmed the first month of shows. The first bunch of shows were midnight to six in the morning. We got calls from people saying, “what are doing playing this great music, and I’ve got to get up for work in the morning—are you guys nuts?” Then after a few months, finally, we got the ok to do our show in the afternoon. That was the beginning of… We did quite a bit of teaching by playing the music and talking about it, and opening that door that was closed to a lot of people about Cuban music. There was a lot of live performances…

TP:   Then you started doing it yourself, and Grupo Folklorico came into the picture…

AG:   Oh, yeah. Well, that was a given. When you’re exposed to all this knowledge, it becomes part of you, and you want to do it—and especially if you have the skills to do it. It’s like anything. When you’re studying music and you’re listening to records, it’s a communication, and you pick up on the message that’s being sent to you.

I heard this next tune on a videotape of a rehearsal in Matanzas, Cuba, that somebody gave me, of a folkloric group that was doing bata stuff, which is the hourglass shaped drum where there’s three different drums of different sizes, and they have chants going on with certain drum-beats. So there was one that was done in honor of the deity called Elegua. Elegua is the keeper of the crossroads, and is the one that opens and closes all your paths. So most ceremonies begin with Elegua. When you do a ceremony in that genre, you start with Elegua.

So I heard this chant, and it stayed in my head, and I started playing bass to it, and I figured out two sets of changes to the same melody. That’s what we use as our basis for improvisation. The first set of changes is a pedal tone, and it just stays in that pedal. It’s open. It’s kind of what McCoy Tyner or Trane would do. Then the second time we run the melody down, there’s another set of changes to it. So I came up with that, and then we developed it into a composition.

[“Elegua”]

AG:   The reason I played “Anabacoa” is that it’s a tune that had been done by a few Cuban bands, but the one that caught our attention, and that’s why we wanted to play it, was the recording by Arsenio Rodriguez Y Su Conjunto, and their version was slammin’! That’s where we got our inspiration, but then we took it to another place. And then we had the great Manny Oquendo playing one of his really classic timbal solos. It goes back to what we were talking about Art Blakey being the authoritative drummer. Well, Manny shows that he’s in that same league. He’s a very authoritative drummer.

TP:   The primal feel and the sophistication together.

AG:   Together, yeah.

TP:   That quality could describe Fort Apache, which has been doing it for 27 years, on and off…

AG:   Time flies.

TP:   We’ll move to 1988, and a live performance by an expanded edition of the Fort Apache Band, that was documented by Enja, in Zurich, titled Obatala. I’ve treasured this recording for some time; it’s an expanded version of the Apaches… Mad percussion.

AG:   When we started the Fort Apache Band, it had a large percussion section. But it was very difficult to work with that kind of ensemble, because booking it wasn’t easy. It was a lot of people to fly in and put up in hotels and so on. It was a financial decision and an artistic one to break it down to the bare essentials, which was a quintet and a sextet.

TP:   Who did the arrangement of “Justice.”

AG:   Jerry and I heard a riff on a Cuban record by Frank Emilio, who is a great Cuban pianist, and he had a riff on this record that was so intriguing, and we said, “Wow, this sounds like ‘Evidence’—because “Evidence” has such a quirky rhythm-melody to it. I said, “Wow, let’s see about putting these two elements together, and this is what came out.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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Filed under Andy Gonzalez, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Interview, WKCR

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  Never.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Do you play off the drummer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Piano player.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Were you playing piano that early?

HARRIS:  That early.

TP:    Who started you?

HARRIS:  My mother.

TP:    You had a piano in the house?

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

TP:    There wasn’t any television.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    What sort of place was that?

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

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

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

TP:    Were you more schooled than they were?

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

TP:    The reactive agent.

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

TP:    You’re a born teacher.

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

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

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

TP:    They’re paying tuition.

HARRIS:  That’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Not the Bluebird.

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

TP:    He worked with Tommy Flanagan at the time.

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Would you elaborate on that?

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

TP:    And everything Charlie Parker played was a melody.

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

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

HARRIS:  That’s right.

TP:    Like the chessboard.

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

TP:    A few words about Bud Powell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    By which you mean older stylistically.

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

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

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

TP:    Earl Hines.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Where is the difference?

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

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

HARRIS:  I think he did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  That’s true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    A real showman.

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

First Phone Interview with Barry Harris in 2000:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  Oh yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    What sort of music?

HARRIS:  We’d be playing songs…

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  That might have been true.

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

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

TP:    Because you weren’t of age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Did you talk to him at all?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Did Bird have a huge sound in person?

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

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

HARRIS:  A very ordinary place.

TP:    Just a bar that had a music policy.

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

TP:    That was in the early ’50s.

HARRIS:  yes.

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

HARRIS:  Maybe.

TP:    How long were you house pianist there?

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

TP:    A number of years.

HARRIS:  Nothing like that.

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

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

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

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

TP:    He was having a hard time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  Oh yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  Yes.

TP:    Can you describe the Rouge Lounge?

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

TP:    Were you playing for singers then, too?

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

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

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

TP:    I guess Tommy came here in ’56.

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

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

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

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

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

Second Phone Interview with Barry Harris in 2000:

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  Yes.

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

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

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

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

TP:    Were you living with some other musicians?

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

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

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

TP:    Did they have a piano there?

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

TP:    Did you start getting gigs right away?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    I think the listed date is ’62.

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

TP:    You recorded with Lee Morgan, too.

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

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

HARRIS:  Yes, I was able to do it.

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

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

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

TP:    “Jayhawk Talk” is in ’64.

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

TP:    For Transition maybe.

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

TP:    Well, that was June of ’56.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Well, you were a unified rhythm section.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  I had heard Art Tatum before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Makes sense.

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  Oh, I think I always did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    well, not in Chicago.

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    But you knew his records, though.

HARRIS:  Yes.

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

HARRIS:  yeah, he was that kind of cat.

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

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

TP:    Or notes.

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

TP:    Did you meet the Baroness in New York?

HARRIS:  Yeah.

TP:    Shortly after?

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

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

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

TP:    And she made all of those scenes.

HARRIS:  Oh yes.

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

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

TP:    And you and Monk became…

HARRIS:  Yes, good friends because of her.

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

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

TP:    So he couldn’t really communicate…

HARRIS:  He didn’t communicate much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Why do you think that is?

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

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

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

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

TP:    I hear he loved opera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    That represents your sound.

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

TP:    Can I get back to Tadd Dameron?

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    It’s such a lyrical record.

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

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

HARRIS:  Not really.  What year did he die?

TP:    1965.

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

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

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

TP:    You mean you kept him concentrating and focused.

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

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

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

TP:    You seemed to get his creative juices stirring.

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

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

HARRIS:  Yeah, we did about two or three.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Tell me about your own writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  That has happened.  That’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    So you’re the catalytic agent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    How are they disrespecting older musicians?

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

TP:    No exceptions.

HARRIS:  Hardly any exceptions.

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

HARRIS:  Well, I am.

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

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

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

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

TP:    but it’s a homegrown thing.

HARRIS:  Oh yeah.

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

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

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

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

TP:    It’s a science of sound.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIS:  To schools?  Quite often.

TP:    Like 15 weeks in a year?

HARRIS:  Maybe something like that.

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

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

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

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

TP:    How many people?

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

TP:    How long have you been in this location?

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

TP:    What do you personally get out of teaching?

HARRIS:  I have nothing.

TP:    I don’t mean materially.

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

* * *

Tommy Flanagan on Barry Harris:

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

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

TP:    Was that Gladys Dillard?

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

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

FLANAGAN:  Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FLANAGAN:  Oh, Ted Shieldy, yes.

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

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

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

FLANAGAN:  Mostly from my records.

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

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

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

FLANAGAN:  Yes, I did.

TP:    When was your residence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Was that after the Army?

FLANAGAN:  I think so.

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

FLANAGAN:  Not in Detroit.

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

FLANAGAN:  Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Before you did, huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Leroy Williams on Barry Harris:

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    When was that?

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

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

WILLIAMS:  I came to New York around ’67.

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

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

TP:    That’s Magnificent with Ron Carter.

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    And know where the thing is going.

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

TP:    It’s been thirty years.

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

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

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

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

WILLIAMS:  Oh, yes. [LAUGHS]

TP:    What’s the mission?

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

TP:    You have to match it.

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

TP:    He has a long-range perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Did you go to DuSable?

WILLIAMS:  Yeah, I went to DuSable High School.

TP:    Any Captain Dyett anecdotes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WILLIAMS:  Oh yeah.  Monk was a spaceman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    But those are references I make when I…

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

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

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

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

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

Don Schlitten on Barry Harris:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCHLITTEN:  Oh, they came on later.

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

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

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

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

TP:    Why do you think that was?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCHLITTEN:  Oh, he always came to play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Like The Panther.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Charles McPherson on Barry Harris:

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

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

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

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

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

McPHERSON:  Right.

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

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

TP:    Was it oriented towards Bebop playing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

McPHERSON:  Yeah.  Guys would come over and play.

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

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

TP:    And Lou Hayes was the same age about.

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

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

McPHERSON:  Yeah, that’s true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Talk about improvising with Barry comping.

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

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

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

TP:    So there’s continuity.

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

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

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

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

TP:    He knew how to push your button.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Miroslav Vitous’ 66th Birthday, Two Interviews From October 2003

Ten years ago, I had an opportunity to conduct a pair of interviews with Miroslav Vitous — one on WKCR and one over the telephone — that wound up being distilled for a DownBeat “Backstage” piece. He had just released the ECM CD Universal Syncopations.  I’m posting both (the WKCR interview first) in recognition of the bass maestro’s 66th birthday.

* * *

Miroslav Vitous (WKCR, 10-16-03):

TP:    That was “Tramp Blues,” an original composition by Miroslav Vitous, who has a new recording on ECM called Universal Syncopations. Miroslav Vitous is in town, and he’s appearing at Joe’s Pub on Monday for a 7:30 p.m. concert for solo bass and a virtual classical orchestra comprised of sound files, samples of his own creation… A sort of concerto for bass and virtual symphonic orchestra. One of the legendary figures who emerged in the ’60s, and hasn’t been in the States much in recent years.

On this album, you gather four of the iconic tonal personalities who came of age during the ’60s, all of whom achieved great eminence in the music in their various niches, and all of whom, with the exception of Jack DeJohnette, who is also a leader, are used to playing their own music, addressing their own concepts in musical activity.  It’s not very often that you hear Chick Corea or John McLaughlin or Jan Garbarek as sideman.  Talk about conceptualizing the album from the gestation and how you put it together.

VITOUS:  It’s a long conversation, so I’ll try to pick a few points here and there. In a way, this album is a continuation of Infinite Search, the first album which was released in 1969, which was also with Jack DeJohnette and John McLaughlin, Joe Henderson and Herbie Hancock, most importantly in the way that all the instruments are equal.  If you know the album, Infinite Search, basically you will remember that the bass was playing not exactly in traditional way.  I was exchanging motives and having conversations with the horn player or with the piano player or with the guitar player, almost to the point that… Well, basically that’s the direction I’ve chosen with my bass playing anyway.

On this new album, much of it is in the same way, but it’s much further down the road, so to speak.  Basically, the bass is completely free at this point.  It doesn’t have to play any more roles.  I am strongly against roles in the music, in the pure sense of music, because you always have a bass player and drummer going BUM-BUM-BUM, SPANG-A-LANG, SPANG-A-LANG, keeping the time, the piano player plays the harmony, and the saxophone player will solo on top of that.  So basically, it’s an arrangement which doesn’t leave very much room for communication between the musicians.  After playing a long time like this, I finally got fed up with it and said, “This is getting really boring, because I am just playing some things, and there are guys over here playing that, and we’re not even communicating.”  So I started playing mainly by the example of Scott LaFaro with Bill Evans.  They started this basically in an overwhelming manner in the ’60s.  I started playing like this a lot in the ’60s, and basically in the compositions.

TP:    But to say that doesn’t imply any loss of grooves.  You’re creating very strong grooves here, as does Jack DeJohnette.  So when you say that you don’t believe in roles, it’s very obvious that the bass is playing both a melodic and supportive function at the same time.  It seems more of a simultaneous thing rather than a rejection.

VITOUS:  I can tell you something about this.  It’s not the same throughout the album.  There are three or four songs where this is very strong applied, like “Miro Bop” and “Sunflower,” and there are pieces that I am basically holding the thing together and setting the direction, so I have to be playing in that kind of way.  But for the most part, I am continuing with the idea of pure conversation between the musicians.  Nobody has to play time, nobody has to play the bass, nobody has to play the harmony.  Everybody is just free to communicate on a high level or whatever level we can communicate on.

TP:    This music obviously wouldn’t have been played in a performance situation beforehand because of everyone’s scheduled.  Is that sort of consideration important in creating an album, or is it overrated?  For example, people wish they could have workshopped this music or developed or fine-tuned it for a week before going in.

VITOUS:  It would be important in some ways.  But on this particular album it was a little bit different, because I was after refining this concept of playing this way, as I was describing before.  If the whole band gets together in place for one week or something, then we would face a lot of danger of falling into the old trap.

TP:    Why is that a danger?

VITOUS:  Because that would be a danger if you want to create something new.  You would not be able to do it, because the band falls in the old tracks.  That’s very likely to happen.  So I wanted to do something which… It would be very difficult to do this, like, on the spot.  So it was done a little bit differently, so that we don’t fall back into old traps, so the new direction can be set in a way.  It would be too difficult to explain-explain-explain, to rehearse-rehearse-rehearse, dealing with all the egos involved of all the musicians, and given all the ways they are used to be playing under certain conditions, all of that…it would be nearly impossible to achieve the new directions.

TP:    You’ve known all of these musicians for close to forty years.

VITOUS:  ’67 I met Chick.  ’68 I met Jack.

TP:    What did you notice about their own evolution during those years?

VITOUS:  Well, we are going ahead to some very serious issues with this.  Because up to a certain point, I felt that we could basically remain free and remain 100% free to play what we wanted to play artistically.  Until the period, in my opinion, anyway… And I felt this on my own skin as well, so I can  basically vouch that what I am going to say is definitely what everybody had to face.  When the disco came in and when the element of trad(?) jazz was introduced, the business questions of music got very big.  Unfortunately, from that time, every musician was influenced in a big way to change their music so it could be saleable, whatever would help them make progress in their career.  We were all influenced by this.  I basically had it so much up to here that I left the country.

TP:    You did a number of albums of that kind of after leaving Weather Report, no?

VITOUS:  I did albums only for ECM with my group.  Basically, I have never given into this direction, until the pressure got so large that I said, “Well, wait a moment; I don’t want to teach for the rest of my life, and I don’t want to play this kind of music which I am being requested by the recording companies so they can sell some albums; I am either going to play 100% art, what is coming from my heart, or I am not going to play  at all.”  So this was one of the major decisions which I made, and I had to basically leave the country, because of that.  This is true.

TP:    But you did get into academe.  You taught at New England Conservatory?

VITOUS:  Yes, I was chairman of the Jazz Department there for three years.  Basically, it was a very big issue for me to go to Europe, where basically I was left to play whatever I wanted to play.

TP:    So you’ve had the artistic freedom in Europe.

VITOUS:  Absolutely.  Well, now I have the artistic freedom, period.  Because I have done some other things asides from music to find a good way to make money without selling out or doing something cheap for money.  I am never for that.  So my financial situation is not dependent on my playing. This is the greatest thing that can ever happen for a musician who wants to play 100% art.

However, coming back into this, I still find the business to be basically this way.  So even though I have 100% artistic freedom, I still have to deal with the whole setup of the music business which is not oriented in this way.

TP:    Do you think that art in the real world can ever exist outside of a marketplace?  There needs to be an audience, there needs to be a way of getting people to hear it, there needs to be a context within which you’re performing.  If you’re a professional musician, it seems almost ipso facto you’re accepting the idea of a marketplace.

VITOUS:  You can take that to the logical extreme, where the only thing that counts is how many albums you’re going to sell and how…

TP:    But beyond that.  I’m not talking about selling 100,000 copies of a jazz album.  But you’re in town, and probably Joe’s Pub will be filled with people who want to hear it.  I’m not referring to the materialist excess aspect of the marketplace as much as operating within an established framework…

VITOUS:  The publicity and all this stuff still can exist without having to be part of a one million dollar organization.  It is a tough issue, but I definitely believe that the culture has been hurt greatly on the planet by money interfering with the art.  And we need the culture, we need the pure thing for us to go ahead through life and have the right values.  We cannot live on a plastic spoon.

TP:    It’s interesting, because you were raised in post-war Czechoslovakia under a Stalinist regime, though I don’t know how much it impinged on you.  And among your contemporaries were Jan Hammer, George Mraz, Emil Viklicky… Describe the climate in Prague when you were coming up.

VITOUS:  Basically, I consider myself very lucky.  Before I basically grew up completely, I was gone out of there.  I was a professional swimmer, in terms of being an Olympic contender style of sportsman.  I was going to the Concertgebouw, playing jazz concerts.  Nobody could leave Czechoslovakia.  I was playing on the jazz festivals in the West, playing with a trio.  I was going abroad with the swimming team to swim for the country.  So for me, I didn’t feel any pressure of Communism; only through my parents and people around.  Then I started to see limitations: Oh, somebody doesn’t want you to go to the conservatory, so they will try to do everything they can so you can go the conservatory.  There was a lot of that going.  And before the Communism really got to my bones, so to speak, I was out of there.  So I was very lucky.  However, the great thing about being there at the time is that I received some of the most valuable education you can ever receive from the giants of music at the conservatory in Prague.

TP:    What was the pedagogy?

VITOUS:  Well, it was something that you’re never going to see in the United States, or probably not even in Europe.  You can see it in Europe in some parts.  Total devotion to the music.  Total dedication and absolute love for it, like you have never seen.  Respect absolute.  Together with this, because the country was under the Communist influence and they could not speak freely, basically they were passing on the values of the country and their national pride through their teaching of the music, in this serious, deep way.  So talking about regular education, there’s absolutely nothing compared to what I have gone through there — what they gave us.  It was a double thing.

TP:    At the time, did jazz seem like something very separate from classical music for you?  Were they two different personalities, or all part of the same continuum?

VITOUS:  For me, I didn’t notice.  I played the violin at 6, piano at 9, bass at 14, and as soon as I picked up the bass I played both — classical and jazz.  Another great thing about being there is that at the time there was Radio Free Europe, Willis Conover, who was playing all the albums in the ’60s.  Every album released, the historical albums, and everything.  My brother and I used to tape them, and listen and study it.  When I came to the United States, I used to ask the other musicians: “Do you know this album?” “No.” “Do you know this album?” “No.” “Do you know this album?” “No.”  So I found out that I knew much more about the jazz music and what was being released and who played what by being there, rather than here.  So it was another valuable education point.

TP:    So when you came here, you had the technical training and you had jazz in your head, so you were equipped… What was the biggest thing you had to adapt to when you came to the States?

VITOUS:  I have to say rhythm.  I’ve studied this throughout the years.  It took me many years to get together a rhythm so that I would… Most bass players can tell you when they play with a drummer, they are basically dependent on the drummer.  When the drummer stops playing, they are like, “Oh, I’m swimming; where am I?” That kind of thing.  It took many years to get to the point that when the drummer stops playing, it doesn’t matter any more, because your own rhythm is so strong.  That took a long while to develop.  I think it has something to do with the freedom of thinking and the flexibility of being free or something.  Because in Europe, being restricted and all that, a lot of people think in a box — still very much old ways.  It’s in the air, and you have to deal with that. It is actually rhythmically easier to play on this continent than it is in Europe.  I have noticed that.

TP:    Rhythmically easier on this continent.

VITOUS:  Rhythmically, yes.

TP:    Still.

VITOUS:  I am going to tell you Monday night.  I haven’t played here in a long time.

[MUSIC]

TP:    Mr. Vitous is performing a concert for solo bass and a virtual classical orchestra comprised of orchestral samples he’s created over the years.  Which I do want to ask you about. Googling you last night on the Internet, I came up with a review:

“I’d heard plenty of music produced from the samples, but had never actually heard them raw.  So when Miroslav sent me a small collection of the larger set to evaluate, the ensemble, strings and brass-woodwind ensembles were intermingled on my evaluation desk, I loaded them up in my giga-sampler rig and opened up a pre-set performance — bassoon-oboe-flute.  Nothing could have prepared me for the sound I heard as I began to play.  It felt for all the world as if my fingers were being led from one key to the next as I played.  The sounds were vibrant and airy, living and reedy — one word that comes to my mind immediately is “thick.”  It reminded me of the first time I ever heard a really great flute player live.  Suddenly the flute wasn’t the thin, airy instrument I’d heard all my life.  It was a huge, forceful sound, vibrant…”

Do you have a whole body of scored music for this context?  Do you take different samples and improvise against them?  What’s the structure for these concerts?

VITOUS:  Basically I compose some motives and phrases which belong to the song which I am playing, and then I have them recorded and mixed with the library, and then I place them on a keyboard.  So that particular file, I can push the key and it will start playing whatever it is — 2 bars or 4 bars or 8 bars or 16 bars — whenever I need.  Which is great, because that means there is still all the room in the world for the creativity.  Because I will only play when I need it, when I want it.  So that means I am free to do anything I want to do.  I used to play before this with finished sequences, but basically I was tied to the sequence.  I couldn’t do very much.  When I felt like I wanted to do something else, I couldn’t do it, because the sequence was basically unchangeable.

TP:    Are the instruments virtual instruments or real musicians?

VITOUS:  They are real musicians.

TP:    They are playing the sequences, and then you enter them…

VITOUS:  No, they are not playing the sequences.  They are playing the notes.  The library is put together from notes of each instrument, each section, each of whatever the whole orchestra is…what have you.  It was gigantic work.  It took me seven years to do this.  And I did it with the sound… I needed as much of a realistic sound as possible.  And knowing classical orchestras, I used my ears to get that.  But the main point was, I asked the musicians not to play just the notes.  I said, “Give me some music,” when we were recording.  Like, to the strings, “Play like Wagner, play like Beethoven, play like Dvorak — give me some feeling into these notes.”  Because before this, everybody was just playing dead notes. So when you get a whole bunch of notes on the keyboard, then you play a chord, you have a dead chord.  So that was the basic difference between my library and all the libraries recorded up until today.

TP:    So you have a chord sequence from Wagner, from Dvorak…

VITOUS:  No-no.  Just the feeling.  They know how it feels to play Wagner or Dvorak.

TP:    But in other words, do you have all of those difference feelings?  Do you have the same note or chord sequence with each of those different feelings?

VITOUS:  No.  It would get so complex… I made this in 1992-93.  I think at that point, there was only 8 megabytes memory for the sampler.  It would be so gigantic for that time, I don’t think it would be even possible to comprehend.

TP:    When did you finish collating all the sounds?

VITOUS:  It was completed in 1991.

TP:    This was for you to practice with?

VITOUS:  No, it was to compose with.  Then when I got into it so deeply, I found out, “Wait a moment, half-a-million dollars has disappeared; I’ve got to do something.”  So I decided to complete it and release it for the public also.  But it was made for music.  It was not made for business.

TP:    What was the response when it got into the world?

VITOUS:  It was the same response I would have said, and that was, “Thank God we have finally something which is elastic.” Because we have the technology, we have the programs, we can freeze our compositions, but we had only [NASAL VOICE] sounds up to that point.

TP:    When did you start performing with them publicly?

VITOUS:  I started performing already in the ’90s with this.

TP:     How has it changed with the technology?  Is it a more fluid process now?

VITOUS:  No, it’s basically set.  The sound is there, the attack is there, the flexibility is there, the instrument plays very fast or slow or whatever.  So the technology does not affect the central orchestra.

TP:    Are you improvising against it?

VITOUS:  I am free to play anything I want.  It’s different, always different.  It’s basically the same composition and the same motives, but they are in different places.  I stretch them out, I go somewhere else sometimes.  I am free to be as creative as possible with this.

TP:    Did you approach the structures of your virtual compositions differently than creating music for Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin to play on over you and Jack DeJohnette?

VITOUS:  Well, it is different.  I am by myself, so I am basically free to do whatever I want.  In fact, at the solo performance, I am going to play at least one from the new record with some classical files answering the bass lines.  So it’s done in a different way.

TP:    You were saying that the biggest thing you had to adapt to when you emigrated here in the ’60s was rhythm.  But fairly soon after arriving here, you were playing in a trio with Chick Corea and Roy Haynes, who was and still is one of the most creative, imaginative, free drummers there is. Great training.

VITOUS:  Right.

TP:    That trio made a record, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, that instantly became part of the building blocks of jazz piano vocabulary.  Pianists still pay attention to it.  Almost anyone under 45 I’ve talked to, cites it.

VITOUS:  It’s one of the most influential trio music albums.  I can tell you what happened when I came to the studio.  It was the first time ever I played with Roy Haynes.  With Chick I’d played before; we did some jam sessions and a few things.  So we started to play, and I played like I usually play, in the way which was that aside from playing time I was playing little motives here and there.  We got to the point all of a sudden that we had to stop in the middle of the take, because we got off somehow.  Then I realized instantly at this point, okay, I’m just going to have to play the time and let Roy do the dancing around.  As soon as I did that, as soon as I realized that this is what I had to do because if we both do it it’s not going to work, then it worked perfectly. But I had to fasten my seatbelt sort of thing… [LAUGHS] It was very…not difficult, but… Yeah, it was difficult to…

TP:    To play the function, as it were.

VITOUS:  The first time you play with Roy Haynes and Chick Corea in the studio, making an album which is going to become a celebrity, in a way.

TP:    That band sporadically has continued to play.  The most recent example on record is Rendezvous in New York, the compilation record that Chick Corea made from the end of 2001. Within that band, do you still have to play the function?  Is it difficult for you to do that now if it has to be done, given all the life you’ve lived and how hard you’ve worked to sustain artistic freedom?  Is that somehow incompatible with playing the bass function in a band like that?  Or have you all grown?

VITOUS:  It’s a question of… We have all grown, of course.  There’s no question about that.  And also, it became less difficult.  We did quite a bit of touring ten years later with Chick and Roy, and so we got very comfortable play. Trio Live in Europe is a wonderful album.  Of course, I am a bass player in a trio, so I have to play differently than I would play either with my own group or solo.

TP:    Jan Garbarek and you have done a number of recordings over the years… What I’m getting to is the process of sustaining relationships and the ways that musical personalities continue to interact and grow together.  Did you play much with Garbarek in the interim from Star to Universal Syncopations?

VITOUS:  Atmos was between them, a duo album of me and Jan.

TP:    But is it very easy to pick up the thread, as it were?

VITOUS:  Jan and I have a fantastic rapport together.  The intuition is such a great element with us, that I know what he is going to play and he knows what I am going to play before we play it.  So basically, we become the instrument of the heavens, just play what we hear and the communication.  So it is not difficult at all to pick up the thread.

TP:    You said that in Europe you have a solo, a duo, a trio, a quartet. Which musicians do you play with there?

VITOUS:  I am trying out different musicians in Italy now, and some American drummers, until I decide who is going to be the steady member of the group.  Because after this, I believe a lot of opportunities are coming, and I want to make sure the band is the best it can possibly be.

TP:    So it’s still a work in progress.

VITOUS:  Yes, a work in progress.  And I like it very much.  Because I am beginning to realize that actually having different members in the band is very beneficial, because it changes the music and… I knew this from before already, that when you are with one band for a long time, you can very easily reach a stagnating point.  It’s very good to refresh, to keep changing things.

TP:    Would you describe yourself as a very interactive bass player?  Are you someone who really takes in the information and responds?  Are you influenced by what other people are playing?

VITOUS:  Absolutely, yes.  Communicating always.  Without communication, there is no music.  Everybody just plays some notes.  That’s what I believe.

[MUSIC]

TP:    About 30 seconds ago, Miroslav said, “Hear that?  Double time, 6/4, half-time.”  And it all comes together with logic and clarity.  Almost any…not just the compositions, but the ideas that are postulated could be extrapolated on in a very dense way, particularly by musicians of this caliber.  But the record is lucid.  The ideas are very clear.  It seems you deliberately went for simplicity and clarity within this.

VITOUS:  Basically, the compositions come from classical music.  When you write a motif or something beautiful, you don’t want to spoil it by covering it with something else and putting it inside of something else.  Let it shine and be absolutely brilliant.  It has space.  We don’t have to cover it up.  That was the idea for every motif, for whatever is being said or played.  Because the motives are absolutely gorgeous.  So let them shine to their complete, true potential, also with overtones ringing out.  When you play a motif, it takes a little while before the motif actually dies out.  And you don’t want to interfere with that either.  You want to let it ring out before you come in with something new after that, because otherwise you are basically destroying the work you just did.

TP:    What qualities do you think the five of you — Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, yourself, Jack DeJohnette — in the most general sense share in common?  You’re all musicians who emerged in the ’60s in a very efflorescent period of the music.

VITOUS:  I don’t know, and I haven’t really thought about it.  One thing we have in common, all of us, that is definitely very strong is creativity.

TP:    But there was a particular environment in which your creativity was allowed to evolve in a certain direction, which let’s say had you all encountered each other ten years before, in the ’50s, or ten years later, in the ’70s, would have gone on a different path. But you met when you met, and it went in the direction and directions that it did.

VITOUS:  Well, I have to thank very much everybody involved here, because I have such a beautiful relationship with each one of those musicians, and there’s a lot of respect going back and forth, and they respected what I wanted to do.  If I gave them some motives and some music, they completely respected it and they tried to execute it in the atmosphere and in the essence which I wanted to have.  I was assisting everybody personally.  So we were able to stay within this brilliant atmosphere with nothing getting confused, nothing getting overplayed, and nothing covering something else.  I think that’s the main thing, the love for the music by each of these musicians made it possible to do this.

TP:    What are you passions outside of playing the bass and composing?  You were an Olympic caliber swimmer in your youth?  Are sports something you still do?

VITOUS:  I keep swimming.  Not training heavily, but I keep working out two-three times a week just to keep my energies going.  It’s very important.  I do a lot of meditation.  I work with gemstones, I work with meditation, I work with Tao.  But one thing I have discovered, too, is that I don’t like to be part of any organization, of religion or anything like this, because I always found out that whenever I was part of that, that someone was there trying to play some kind of a power game or run your life or whatever. So after a while, I discovered, “Well, wait a moment; I don’t have to go down the street and then to the corner and then over there to get in touch with God — he’s right up there.” So I don’t need any more detours.

TP:    Does that predisposition to individualism carry over to your musical activity as well?

VITOUS:  I would think the clarity and brilliance has definitely helped me.

TP:    I mean the individualism. Not wanting to be part of an organized group, as it were.  Does that carry over to your musical…

VITOUS:  Not in that way.  It’s just that I like to be left alone to live my own destiny and my own life.  I don’t need nobody to tell me what to do.  I already know what to do.  Or, it is going to come to me, what I am going to do, anyway.  So everything else basically doesn’t make any sense.  It is just a detour.

TP:    How do you describe your solo bass performances?

VITOUS:  I think probably a good way to describe it is acoustic bass solo with virtual classical orchestra.
TP:    How did the concert go in Philadelphia?

VITOUS:  Great.

TP:    Good crowd?

VITOUS:  Yeah.  Almost full anyway.

TP:    That’s not bad.

VITOUS:  Yeah, that’s not bad.  And we had some equipment problems because we didn’t have the right things, but we managed anyway.  At Joe’s Pub it should be more up to date. Over there in Philadelphia, they are just beginning to do some concerts. But it was great. People thought it was absolutely fantastic.

* * *

Miroslav Vitous (Oct. 2003—telephone interview):

TP:    I want to talk about Universal Syncopations and how you developed it. Tell me how the project came to be.  It seems like it was a long gestation period.

VITOUS:  Yes.  Well, I wanted to do an album, so to speak, exactly what I wanted to do.  I didn’t want no one else involved, from the very beginning.  Because I have had experiences before, on many different locations with many different people, where the influence was somewhat… I just wanted to be alone, to do my best without anyone else interfering.  So I called Jack, and invited him to come to my studio in my house in St. Martin, and we recorded quite extensively for four days. So that’s how it began.

TP:    You recorded for four days.  Did you have the pieces conceptualized then?

VITOUS:  Yes.  I had the pieces… I don’t like to write any more charts, like an exact amount of bars.  I hate that.  It keeps you completely locked up and in a box.  So I make maps for myself.  You come up with a motif or some kind of series of changes or some rhythmical arc or a melody, and you write that down.  But you don’t write down an exact number of bars, you don’t write down how long it should last — you just let the music take its course. So it’s going from statement to statement.  We did that, and Jack was following what I was doing beautifully.  That was the first part.

I was either going to make the album with a symphony orchestra and this duo or I was going to make Miroslav and Friends.  I talked to Manfred Eicher about that, and he seemed to like the idea better about the Miroslav and Friends. I actually liked that better, too.  I continued recording, I asked Manfred if he would like to involve himself at this point by paying for the sessions and the musicians, and he said that he is not sure of the outcome, so that he cannot do that.  In any event, that was not a problem for me, because I had made plenty of money at the time, so I just went ahead and financed the whole recording until I was done.  I wrote parts for Chick Corea, then I recorded at his studio in Florida.  Next on the list was the brass sections; I wrote that out and recorded it in Switzerland.  Then I wrote parts for John McLaughlin, and we recorded it in my house in Monaco.  Then last was Jan Garbarek; we recorded it in Oslo.  Then I played it for Manfred and he loved it, so basically he made a decision right there that he is going to buy it.  Then I went on and kept everything for about 14 months to put everything together exactly the way I wanted it and what it was supposed to sound like.  So that’s the story how it exactly happened.  It took from March 2000 until I finished the mixing and mastering in January-February of 2003.

TP:    How did you approach Chick Corea and Jan Garbarek and John McLaughlin in interpreting the parts?  Did you direct their improvised sections, for instance?

VITOUS:  Well, basically I told them about the essence.  I wrote statements and motives for them which were to be played, because the bass was introducing them already.  You can hear it on “Univoyage,” for example, when it comes to a particular part where the statement is written and you can hear everyone basically playing the same statement, more or less.  So basically this, and in between the statements they were improvising, and I asked them to improvise within the content of the tune, so that the atmosphere and essence of the tune stays the same. What I mean by that is you don’t play everything on one tune in the sense of mixing together, like, pork with beef.  You either play pork or you play beef, but you don’t play all that.  That’s why the tunes are so specifically in its essence and atmosphere, each one of them, because they stay within the atmosphere of each tune.  So that was great. They all did it beautifully.

TP:    The bass and drum tracks you recorded initially, did you modify them at all from the original versions?

VITOUS:  No.  In fact, I even tried to open up some things on the bass, and it was like I was in another world.  It would never fit because it was a specific thing at a specific time. Boom, that’s it.  Nothing was taken down, nothing was erased, nothing was edited.  A few beats on the cymbals and stuff like that I moved around a little bit to make sure they were in a better place — sometimes — but that was it.

TP:    Did you change anything in the playing of Chick or Jan Garbarek or McLaughlin, or did their statements stand as well?  And how long did it take for each of them to get the feeling and do what satisfied you?

VITOUS:  It’s not easy remember this.  But I know that I edited some of Chick Corea.  I edited a lot of the guitar tracks.  There were so many guitar tracks, and I had to make very careful choices, because John usually doesn’t play in a collective situation.  So I had to be very careful to make sure it was coming within the context of the group.  So that took quite a long time, to find the correct charts and statements from Mr. McLaughlin.  I hardly touched Garbarek at all. I think I shifted a few statements from one take to the other, just because of the spacing, but basically I didn’t have to do anything.  But Jan was the last one to do the recording, so he heard everything which was on the plate.  He had the best full picture of all the musicians who were recording, because he heard the complete thing basically — almost.

TP:    Was that deliberate, or was it just a scheduling thing?

VITOUS:  It was just a scheduling thing.

TP:    I think we addressed this before, but I’ll ask again in this context.  Can you describe the quality of playing in real time with musicians versus setting up something like this?

VITOUS:  It would be very different.  In fact, I don’t think we could have accomplished this in this way.  There’s all of these great musicians in one room, and there are new tunes, and we would have fallen back into the old traps, playing the way we used to play — in the rhythm section context, also the way the piano would be playing, and all that. Plus there would be probably some clashes from time to time, because there’s a lot of us in the room and there’s a lot of egos and a lot of stuff.  So I don’t think we could have created this new music on “Miro Bop” and “Sun Flower” and “Univoyage,” which are the three on which the concept is groundbreaking — to me anyway.  I don’t think we could play like this in the studio, because even I could have explained that, no one had ever played like that, so we would be kind of fishing.  It would not be as certain and definite as it is this way, on the album. I think that’s a big plus. The way it came, it was not possible to do it any other way.  But if I did it any other way, we would never have ended up with this.  We would have ended up with something else. I think we might have touched on a new concept, but it would not be as clear as it is.

TP:    On Friday I played “Miro Bop” for John Patitucci on a Blindfold Test.  He figured out who everybody was, but it sounded to him like an old recording, from the ’70s or early ’80s.  I’m wondering if there’s anything you tried to do in the overall sound or mix.

VITOUS:  No, it was just done exactly the best quality it could possibly have been recorded.  I’m surprised about this, because he should have at least recognized that this could not be a ’70s or ’80s recording, because it sounds absolutely brilliant.  The sound is today sound.  It is not the sound of analog tape. We could never have gotten a sound like this in the ’70s or even ’80s. No way. So I am surprised about that. He should have known all the way through that it was a new recording.

TP:    You’re going to be working with this music in group situations for the next period of time, while this CD is still hot off the presses.  Do you have your next project in view?

VITOUS:  Yes.  The stuff which I am doing in the solo concerts, together with the classical parts, different phrases and different statements of the classical music made with my library… I am doing this within my solo. Again, this is something completely new.  This is different from the album. It’s another kind of thing.  I tried this with the band last summer, playing with those classical phrases and statements in between our playing, and it was sensational.  It was absolutely unbelievable.  I was playing several festivals in Europe last summer.  I had Aydin Esen on the piano, Bob Malach on the saxophone, and sometimes I had an Italian drummer and sometimes a guy who’s been playing with Charles Lloyd now, a very nice drummer. So we did a couple of concerts in Europe, and it was absolutely great.  The first concert was pure magic.  We had one rehearsal, I played them the sequences, and I placed them in between exactly in the right places, so it was sometimes like coming from extremely creative jazz playing, with a lot of space into the classical sequence, and going out that way.  It was like a really perfect marriage of the two musics, not only by concept, but also with the sound.  People absolutely loved it.  I was very surprised by the response.  They freaked out, basically.  It was like shocked.  So I am going to continue with this, to bring that in more.  I would like to make another album like this, because I have still quite a bit of material left from recording.  We did some extensive recording with Jack.  So there is another half-an-album already with Jan, Jack, me, Chick and probably John also, depending on the material which I find.

TP:    So at least two good albums of material set up.  You have a lot to work with.  What qualities does a musician need to be able to work effectively with you?

VITOUS:  Well, it has to be a musician on a very high level, or as high as possible.  Of course, some beginning or mediocre musician would not be able to cut it.  It is a communication.  As they say, you can only play as good as the musicians you are playing with. I find this to be so true.  That’s why I have to be very careful about who is going to play with me, because if they are not at least on an acceptable level of mastery, then I have a big problem because I cannot pull it off.  I cannot even do it.  It has to be a great musician, let’s put it that way.

TP:    Does that mean they have to be fluent in all the idioms you’re fluent in?  Do they have to have a full knowledge of classical music and a broad vocabulary in jazz tradition?

VITOUS:  Kind of like this, with a personal extremely strong rhythm, a sense of space and of development about music so that you don’t play the changes and you’re depending upon the rhythm section as a slave.  You are open to the new music, you know about that… Basically a very advanced musician.  Yes, I think this is the better way to put it.

TP:    Do you think there are a lot of them out there?  Do you think the musician pool has changed in the forty years you’ve been a professional?

VITOUS:  I think it has.  But I cannot give you a really valid opinion because I was out of the circuit for eight years.  So now I am basically reentering, looking around, and I’ve found actually some surprisingly good musicians here and there, but there’s also a lot of musicians who just learned bebop and just play bebop and they don’t know anything else. They could be excellent with that, but they don’t know anything else.

TP:    How are musicians today different than in 1969-70, when you were embarking on your first compositional efforts and your first leader things?

VITOUS:  It’s hard to say, because I was lucky enough to meet the talented ones always.  So it’s difficult to give an overall opinion.  I was not in a position ever to see everybody and know everybody.  I was kind of just going my way.

TP:    Why were you off the scene for eight years?

VITOUS:  Because of the library.

TP:    I see.  So that took all of your time?

VITOUS:  Yes, it was a tremendous project.  You have no idea.

TP:    Well, tell me about the amount of work involved.  Was it something like 8-10 hours a day in the studio?

VITOUS:  Yes.  More like 12 or 13 hours sometimes, including weekends, for four years, non-stop.  I lost some eyesight because of staring at these goddamn monitors.  But I had to do this.  Because I learned so much.  Without doing this, I would never have been able to put together this album that I just put together, because of the sound and… Many different things.

TP:    So it made you more attuned to the cellular structures of music.

VITOUS:  Really it’s sound.  I have learned where the sound is created, so to speak, inside — almost that close.  And the sound of each instrument, the timbre where they sound the best, and spacing, the overtones, all that.  And from then on, it basically grew inside of me to another kind of education, which I cannot even tell you because I don’t know what it is. It’s like I just hear it.

TP:    All the implications are coming out and being actualized.

VITOUS:  Right.

TP:    Where were you located when you were doing this?

VITOUS:  I did this basically in Germany.  I started doing this in Germany, when I was living in a house in Germany, finished it up in Switzerland, and still worked some more in the Caribbean.  The most time-consuming part is that there are six different formats.  You’ve got Kurzweil, you’ve got Sample Cell, you’ve got Emulator, you’ve got Gigasampler, you’ve got Akai, you’ve got Roland — all these different samplers.  And I had to make a library for each one of them.  They are not compatible at all.  So I had to basically take it from scratch and build every instrument, note-by-note again, six times over.

TP:    Is it still on the market?

VITOUS:  Yes, it is.

TP:    And has it made you a profit?

VITOUS:  Yes, it has.  In fact, a very comfortable profit.

A couple of people in Europe thought it sounded like a Miles Davis band in the middle ’60s. I have something to say about that.  The music of the ’60s, of the Miles Davis band, produced some absolutely most incredible musical things. Now, just because time went on, and we’ve gone through ’75, ’85, ’95, and today, that doesn’t mean the music is getting better.  On the contrary, that was the height.  So why not play the height?  Why do you go on and go down?

TP:    So do you think that period, ’68 to ’71, was the highest period?

VITOUS:  Absolutely.

TP:    What are your speculations on why the music hasn’t evolved from there?

VITOUS:  In the ’60s, it was an absolutely incredibly creative time.  And it hung over a little bit to the beginning of the ’70s.  After that, Disco came in and killed everything.  That’s the biggest reason, I think, was the business and the disco.  All the musicians had to stop what they were doing and do something to survive.  So it was interrupted by business, yes, completely.  And I don’t think the time was right anyway.  Because if the time was right, it would have happened anyway, as you know.  So by the middle ’70s, it was finito.

TP:    So you think jazz was ahead of its time then.  Do you think now might be the time?

VITOUS:  I don’t know. I think this album is returning back to the inspiration.  Let’s put it this way.  And the paradoxical thing about it is that people think it’s old, but they don’t understand that old was better than what is today. If you’re going to go to the top, you might as well keep playing the top.  Just because time goes on, you have to change to something that is worse?  I don’t see that.  So that gets me wondering what do these people know?  Is it possible that they don’t know that was the best, and from that point it went down to worse?  They don’t know that?  Well, excuse me. It’s peculiar.

TP:    But as someone who was involved in jazz education in a serious way, you know something about the information that younger musicians are getting.  What do they need that they’re not getting?

VITOUS:  Well, I can tell you the difference between Europe and America, a little bit.  In Europe almost all of them have more knowledge of Classical music than Americans.  I have tried to play with some even great American musicians.  I can’t tell you who it was, because I don’t remember and I don’t want to talk about individual names.  But I can tell you that they would execute some incredible things in one area of music, jazz music or improvisation or other things, and the next thing they would be a complete blank.  They would have no information.  So they would be full of holes.  The complete picture of education is full of holes.  It’s not a complete musical education.  And American musicians are lacking that.  This is true.  They’re lacking that, because they basically go the jazz school and they learn jazz.  The creative force is what jazz features, and this is what is so beautiful about this music.  But the jazz itself, in the name of jazz, is basically still a roles and slave kind of thing.  Putting people in the box and playing roles.  That’s it.  I’m sorry.  Playing roles.  It’s not really music.  If you knew more about classical music and more about that, you would be much more open to stand on your own and start communicate and talk. The total education will eventually have to be that everybody knows classical and jazz both; you use the creative force to improve the classical music, and use the classical music to improve the forms and wideness of the spectrum by knowing that.  I think this is what it has to come to.  In other word, you’re going to have to be not just a jazz musician, but a complete musician.  That’s a thing of the future.  It’s got to be.

TP:    Does that also include being fluent in the styles of the different cultures of the world — Africa, India, and so on.

VITOUS:  Of course they do.  But I think this would be small influences on jazz music — textural influences and stuff like that.  I’m speaking on a little bit bigger picture.

[ETC.]

VITOUS:  I am not influenced.  If you are after something original, you don’t want to hear everybody, because you are going to get influenced whether we like it or not.

[-30-]

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Filed under Bass, DownBeat, Miroslav Vitous, Uncategorized, WKCR

R.I.P. Chico Hamilton (September 20, 1921-November 25, 2013). Two WKCR Interviews and a DownBeat Blindfold Test

Word comes through Facebook that drummer-composer Chico Hamilton, a master drummer and bandleader, and fresh thinker through more than 75 years as a professional musician, passed away last night at the age of 92. His immense c.v. and accomplishments will be abundantly available for your perusal on the web. During the ’90s I had the privilege of doing two comprehensive shows with Chico, one a Musician’s Show in 1994, the other a five-hour Sunday “Jazz Profiles” show in 1996. Later, I had an opportunity to conduct a Blindfold Test with Chico at his East Side Manhattan apartment. I’ve appended the full transcripts below.

* * *

Chico Hamilton Musician Show, WKCR, July 20, 1994:

[MUSIC: C. Hamilton, "Around The Corner" (1992)]

TP:    We’ll be creating sort of an oral autobiography.  Chico is surrounded by records, of which we won’t get to a fifth.  It covers the Los Angeles scene in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and a variety of people.  The first selection cued up is “Tickletoe,” by the Count Basie, featuring the man who drummed like the wind, Papa Jo Jones, who seems to have been the person who influenced your approach more than anyone else.

CH:    That’s absolutely correct, Ted.  As a matter of fact, Jo… Actually, the first drummer I ever saw was Sonny Greer, and I was very impressed with him.  I was a youngster, about 8 or 9 years old.  But when I started playing, which was I guess 9 or 10 or something like that, and when I was in junior high school, all of a sudden Count Basie’s orchestra came on the scene, at least on the West Coast.  We began to get his records.  Then when I heard Jo Jones… Because Jo completely turned the rhythm aspect of drumming completely around, you know, with the sock cymbal.  As a matter of fact, that last composition that you opened up with, “Around the Corner,” was sort of dedicated to Jo Jones and the Count Basie era because of the sock cymbal, you know.

TP:    Let me turn the conversation to a few things you touched on in those few sentences.  You came up in the Los Angeles area, and when you were ten years old it would have been around…

CH:    Well, I’ll tell you.  It was two weeks before baseball.  How does that grab you?

TP:    Do you care to elaborate on that one?

CH:    [LAUGHS] Well, I started playing in the late Thirties and early Forties, more or less the early Forties.  I guess when I was around 13-14 years old, we had a band, a big 15-piece band.  It was under the leadership of a guy by the name of Al Adams, and the only reason why he was the leader is because he was the oldest.  I think he was about 19 at the time.

TP:    What was the age range?

CH:    The age range was from 14 to about 19.

TP:    From all over Los Angeles or from the neighborhood?

CH:    From the neighborhood and from all over.  We had guys like Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Ernie Royal, Charlie Mingus, myself, Jack Kelso, Buddy Collette…

TP:    Now, for those who aren’t familiar with the West Coast, tell us about the neighborhood, as specifically or as generally as you want to, and the circumstances by which you met, some of the factors in your musical education and so forth.

CH:    Well, I don’t know how it was throughout the rest of the country, but in L.A., in the school system, you were required to take music, either Music Appreciation or an instrument or something.  It was in the curriculum.  You had to be involved with music.  Regardless of whether it was junior high school or high school, you had to become involved in music.  And at that time, L.A. wasn’t a very large place.  As a matter of fact, everybody just about knew everybody.  Young guys, young musicians will always be able to get together or find one another, just as they do today.  That’s how it really came about.  Also, we came out of Jefferson High School, which most of us attended.  Buddy and Mingus, of course, were from the Watts area.  But the school actually was the common denominator.

TP:    There was a very prominent teacher at Jefferson High School, I recollect.

CH:    Yes, his name was Samuel Browne, the music teacher there, who virtually, in a sense, encouraged all of us to become good musicians.  At that time also, man, it was an unbelievable amount of… All the bands would come to L.A.  As a matter of fact, they would let the kids out of school, man, when a band would come into town, which they virtually would come in on the train… They would let us go down to the train station to see Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, all the bands.

TP:    Where did they play?

CH:    Well, there were several places, big cabaret dance halls, virtually.  I guess they were called nightclubs, but they were big places.  The Casa Mañana(?), the Palladium, the average dance hall name, but…

TP:    So you’d have a band, a film, a couple of dancing acts and comedians and so forth…

CH:    Well, at that time, most of the bands carried their own show.  For instance, when I joined Count Basie’s band, Jimmy Rushing was singing, I forget the lady singer now…

TP:    Helen Humes?

CH:    Helen Humes.  And the dance team that they had was the Berry Brothers, Coles & Atkins, and Pot, Pan and Skillet.  All of these were fantastic dance acts.  And that would consist of the show, sort of a semi-vaudeville type of show, but the band would be the feature — and they played all over the country.  At the Avedon, which was a ballroom, this is where the bands that came in would play, and we all had an opportunity to hear Lunceford and Basie and Duke.

I consider myself very fortunate, Ted, because I came up during the right time.  Because to be able to hear the originals, the people who invented this particular style of music, this way of playing… You know, I was there.

TP:    I think one thing that’s misunderstood because of the nature of the recording process in the 1920’s and Thirties and early Forties is what the drums sounded like in the big bands and the actual presence of the drums.  If you hear them on records, they sound kind of tinny or in the background, but I’ll bet that’s not what it sounded like when you heard Sonny Greer with Ellington, or Jo Jones or Jimmy Crawford…

CH:    All of these guys, man…the drummer… You know that old phrase about “give the drummer some.”  All of these guys, all of these drummers, all of these great, brilliant musicians, the drummers were determining the styles of the band.  It wasn’t so much what the bandleaders were doing.  Jimmie Lunceford used to conduct with the baton.  Basie, sure, played piano; Duke played piano.  But the actual sound of the rhythm, the feeling, the whole mood that was created by the bands was created by these drummers.

Now, Sonny Greer played a particular style of drumming which was like what we might refer to…your listeners might not understand about playing on the beat, one-two-three-four, two-two-three-four.  He played DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN, DJA-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, CHOO-CHI-TU, that kind of a thing.  Now, the Ellington band swung in that groove.  Whereas with the Basie band, Jo Jones did DIT-DI-DANG, DIT-DI-DANG, DIT-DI-CHANG, DIT-DA, DIT-DA, and he swung that band with a completely different feeling than what Ellington had.

Strangely and oddly enough, even bands of today, here, what is this, 19…what year is this…?

TP:    1994.

CH:    Here in 1994, a large ensemble still plays with either one of those two grooves, as far as the Jazz aspect is concerned.

TP:    When did you start playing drums?  When you were 15 or 16?

CH:    Well…

TP:    In the 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz it says you started out playing clarinet.

CH:    I did.  I started out playing clarinet.  And the reason I started out playing clarinet is because my best friend, Jack Kelso, played clarinet.  So having my best friend play clarinet, I figured, “hey, I’d better…I want to play clarinet.”  But I soon gave it up because it became a little bit difficult, you know… Also my older brother was playing drums.  This was in grade school, so we had to be no more than 8 or 9 years old.  When he… They graduated from grade school in those days, right!  So when he graduated, I figured, well, since he was my brother and plays the drums, I’m going to play the drums.  And I just started.  I had no idea what a drummer did really, but I just said, “Hey, I’m going to do it,” and I just did it.

TP:    You did it on his pair of drums?

CH:    Well, it was the school drums.  The school had the drums.  As a matter of fact, we rented the clarinet for two dollars a week (can you believe that?) from the school.

TP:    That was a lot of money then.

CH:    Oh, tell me about it, man.  Tell me about it.  That’s virtually, in a sense, how I got started.  The more I got into playing and the more I got into the instrument, the more difficult it became, and the more difficult it became, all of a sudden, I realized, “hey, this is it; this is what I’m going to try to do.”  I started reaching out, and everyone helped me.  Everyone.  Everyone I played with.

TP:    How would they do that?  Talk about how musicians would help a young musician coming up, what the scene was like for a young musician in Los Angeles in the Thirties and early Forties.

CH:    Well, in those days, there was a camaraderie, a relationship with musicians.  You know, strangely and oddly enough, as young as I was, people like Jo Jones and Lester Young, people like that, the Charlie Parkers, they weren’t that much older than we were…

TP:    You’re a year younger than Charlie Parker.

CH:    Well, I probably was older than Charlie.  I just mentioned him… But the fact is that Bird influenced me tremendously, when I came out of the service, in California.  He and Howard McGhee virtually introduced me to what the Bebop scene was all about.

But back in the early days we were very much influenced by anyone that we heard, especially the ones with the names that came to the West Coast.  And once the guys came out to the West Coast, it was… Everybody was friendly, everybody was warm.  And we jammed a lot, man.  We jammed all day and all night long!  It was unbelievable, the amount of time we put in the jam sessions.  That’s how we learned to play.  If it wasn’t happening, somebody would pull your coat and say, “Hey, listen, why don’t you try doing this” or “why don’t you try to do that” or “Why do you want to do this?” — that kind of a thing.

TP:    This is the Musician’s Show, and you’ve been listening to Chico Hamilton tell you about coming up there in the Thirties and early Forties as a young drummer.  First on cue is “Tickletoe,” the Basie band with Papa Jo Jones.  It also said in your biography that you studied with Papa Jo while you were in the Service in the first half of the 1940’s.  Tell us about that, and then let’s get to some music.

CH:    Well, I’ll tell you how dumb the Army was. [LAUGHS]  I was already drafted, I was already stationed at Fort McCullough in Alabama, right.  I wasn’t in the band, but I was attached to the band, which means that… They had four other drummers in the band, but none of them could play.  They virtually really… I mean this.  They couldn’t play.  So whenever a show came through, they would send for me, and make… They put me in the drum-and-bugle corps.  Now, I  came into the Service carrying my drum under my arm.  This is the truth, man!  And you know, when they put me in the drum-and-bugle corps, do you know what they did?  They made me play bugle! [LAUGHS]

Anyway, to make a long story short, when Jo Jones… This is why I’m saying how dumb it was.  When Jo Jones and Prez, Lester Young, when they came through there… They were drafted, and they came through the same camp, man.  They would not let them in the band!  Man, it just broke my heart.  They made them… At one time they wouldn’t even allow them to even associate, and come to the band room and things like that.  Well, anyway…

TP:    Well, Lester Young’s bad times in the Army are very well-documented.

CH:    Well, they gave Prez a terrible time, man.  First of all, he was a beautiful human being, man.  He was a tremendously warm, sensitive human being, and so was Jo.  What their contribution to what we call Jazz today, or in the Swing or whatever era…it will never be duplicated.  Because try as you might, there’s no one that could get that sound and get that feeling Jo had or could get playing, and the same thing applied to Prez.  But in the Service, I had a chance to get with Jo quite a bit when he would come off doing the daily Army thing.  We’d get together at night, and we’d jam, we’d play, we’d practice.  We would talk drums constantly, and talk music.  It was priceless.

[Basie, "Tickletoe" (1940); Ellington, "Ring Dem Bells" (1931); Basie "Topsy: (1938); Lunceford, "Tain't What You Do" (1939); Prez/Shadow Wilson, "Indiana" (1944); Prez/Chico, "Lester Leaps In" (1946); C. Hamilton Trio, "Tickletoe" (1992)]

TP:    We covered quite a bit of ground on that last set of drummers.

CH:    Well, just about.  Music is very broad, Music is very big, Music is very long, and Music is very beautiful…

[ETC.]

TP:    The 1946 performance of “Lester Leaps In” featured Chico’s long-time partner, bassist Red Callender.

CH:    As a matter of fact, Red and I did quite a bit of playing together when I was out on the West Coast, when I was out in L.A.  I just want to establish a fact that what the people here in New York, the East Coast people, everything they consider the East Coast Sound, which was a big thing, I guess, in the Fifties or Sixties regarding the East Coast versus the West Coast… How that originated, how that came about, I think it was in the Fifties or early Sixties, there was a club here in New York, Basin Street East, and for the first time I was coming east with my original quintet with the cello, with Fred Katz, Carson Smith, Buddy Collette and Jim Hall.  We were playing opposite (are you ready?) Max Roach’s original quintet with Clifford Brown and I think it was Harold Land, and Richie Powell and George Morrow.  So in order to stir up some…to hip business up, to make it a happening, the publicist started the East Coast versus the West Coast…

TP:    Harold Land, of course, was from the West Coast.

CH:    He was from the West Coast.  But that’s how that East Coast-West Coast thing really got started.

But in the meantime, getting back to Red Callender, Gerry Wiggins, people like that on the West Coast, there was a definite… We had a very definite way of playing, a style, a West Coast style of playing.  It’s just like they had a style, all the Kansas City musicians, the musicians from the Midwest — they had a particular style, a way of playing.  They swung very heavy, right?  Guys on the East Coast, they had their own thing going.  I’m speaking before the Bebop Era came in…

TP:    How would you put into words the Southwest sound?

CH:    Well, the Southwest sound was more… The prime example is Count Basie, the Count Basie Orchestra.  There was a band by the name of Nat Towles and Snookum Russell…

TP:    Now, did those bands come to California?

CH:    No, they didn’t make it to the West Coast.  But this was a Midwest type of band.  Because during the War years, the early part of the Forties, I sort of left the Service for a quick minute [LAUGHS], and went out on the road with Snookum Russell’s band in the Midwest.

TP:    That’s the band J.J. Johnson left Indianapolis with.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    What was that band like?

CH:    It was just a swinging thing.  Just out-and-out swing.  I realize today when I use that terminology, “swing,” that a lot of young people don’t know what I’m talking about.  But unfortunately, there’s no substitute for it.  Because whether you’re playing Rock-and-Roll, whether you’re playing Pop, or whatever you’re playing, it’s got to swing.  In other words, it’s got to have a pulse to it, to make you feel like, hey, snapping your fingers or patting your foot.  That was the one thing that the Swing Bands did do, man.  You couldn’t… It was hard for anyone to keep still when you’d listen to one of those bands.

TP:    Also, in Los Angeles, a lot of the Black community came from the Southwest and the South Central parts of the United States, and subsequently settled there.  So it seems to me a lot of that sound came into the Los Angeles sound in a certain way.  True or false?

CH:    Not necessarily.  Not during those days.  I don’t know… The fact that I was born there… Well, just from my generation up is what I’m familiar with in regards to what music was all about, what Jazz was all about.  And the majority of those guys…

TP:    They were from L.A.

CH:    They were from L.A.  Before then, who knows?  We all came from…

TP:    I was thinking about people coming for jobs in the Navy yards…

CH:    Oh, no.  Well, this was before then.  That started when the War started; people would come there for gigs.  But most musicians, if they came there, man, they came there to play.  Because there was a zillion places to play at that time.

TP:    Let’s talk a bit about the scene in Los Angeles towards the end of the War and the years right after.  A lot of musicians also moved to Los Angeles who lived there for long periods of time, like Lester Young, who we heard you with, or Art Tatum…

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    …and many other people.

CH:    Well, after the Service… I think I got out of the Service around 1945.  But I came back to L.A.  Before I went into the Service, the Swing thing was the thing, the Swing beat — [DA-DANG, DAT-DA-DANG], that was it.  Right?  When I came out of the Service and came back to L.A., I heard and saw for the first time, and just was blown away completely by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Howard McGhee, Teddy Edwards, Roy Porter, people like this.  Man, this was a whole, brand-new kind of thing to me, man.  Because I was down South, and I just only knew one way of playing.  And to come back to the West Coast and start hearing Bebop, man, it was just absolutely amazing.

TP:    Were you hearing the records when you were in the Service, as they came out…

CH:    What records?

TP:    Oh, you didn’t get any of those records.  Okay.

CH:    [LAUGHS] Those records didn’t come that far down there!  No, unfortunately we didn’t have that opportunity to hear the records.  But it was really amazing.  As a matter of fact, man, I was fortunate enough to get a job, join a band by the name of Floyd Ray.  In Floyd Ray’s band, there was a piano player by the name of Hampton Hawes, there was a trumpet player by the name of Art Farmer, and his brother, Addison Farmer, played bass.  The tenor players were J.D. King, Bill Moore.  People like this.  It was a big band.  We played for… As well as playing dances and things like that, we played shows at theaters.  We were playing a show, and headlining the show was this little kid from Detroit by the name of Sugar Chile Robinson.  We used to think it was a midget; he was a piano player.  The Emcee of the show, who carried the whole show and the dance team, was the Will Mastin Trio, featuring Sammy Davis, Junior.  Man, we were playing all up and down the West Coast.

We happened to be in Oakland, and this was maybe like on a Friday night… We heard that the Billy Eckstine band was coming to town to play a dance.  And in that band was Art Blakey [PRONOUNCES "Blakeley"], Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons.  I’ll tell you, man, you talk about getting blown away!  I had never in my life heard anybody play like Art Blakey!  Right?  And I was so influenced, carried away by his playing, that the next morning, when we were doing our show, I started trying to play…dropping bombs, as we say, playing Bebop licks on the drums.  And man, I almost got fired, because Sammy Davis’ father told me…he said, “What the hell are you doing?!”

But anyway, that was my first really introduction to playing Bebop music.  Hearing Art Blakey, man, was just… He turned me completely around.  Whereas Jo had set things up in the beginning, he and Sonny Greer, Art Blakey really turned me around.

TP:    He gave you a sense of the feeling.

CH:    Oh, man, did he ever!  Art Blakey was a brilliant, brilliant master percussionist.  He was just an out-and-out hard-swinging drummer.

[D. Gordon/T. Edwards, "Blues In Teddy's Flat" (1947); Bird, "My Old Flame" (1947); Dexter/Wardell, "The Chase" (1947); Howard McGhee, "Thermodynamics" (1946); Eckstine, "Blowin' The Blues Away" (1944); Hamp/Mingus, "Mingus Fingers" (1947)]

TP:    …after “Mingus Fingers” we heard the Billy Eckstine band, the tune Chico Hamilton said was the first he ever heard the band do, “Blowin’ The Blues Away.”

CH:    Talk about blowin’ the blues away, man; it really blew me away, man!  That was the band I heard in Oakland, California, I think it must have been in 1945, 1946.  Man, can you imagine hearing a band like that?  It was unbelievable.  Unbelievable.

TP:    That was a radio broadcast, and Art Blakey’s sound really came through well on that one.

CH:    It was fantastic, especially in regards to the fact that they only used maybe a microphone for the reed section and one mike for the brass, and that was it — the rhythm section had to go for itself.  The band was swinging, man.  It was cookin’.  You know?

TP:    And I’m imagine they were playing for dancers as well, so there was a whole ambiance that doesn’t exist today.

CH:    Well, that’s something that… For instance, every band…Count Basie… Basie had that thing that he knew the right groove to make you dance, want to dance.  Jimmie Lunceford had that groove that would make you want to dance.  Jimmie Lunceford’s rhythm was basically in a two-beat kind of thing.  Basie’s was a 2/4.  Duke Ellington?  Once in a while you felt like dancing to Duke’s music.  But Duke’s music, you listened to it more, in regards to, hey, you just cooled and listened to the amazing arrangements and the brilliant playing of the players.

TP:    It seems to me that Ellington had different sets for different audiences, and he could pull out so many things.

CH:    Well, different strokes for different folks!

TP:    Before that we heard Howard McGhee on a couple of classic Bebop sides, “Thermodynamics,” featuring his virtuosic trumpet from 1947, with Jimmy Bunn on piano, who was present on a lot of these early West Coast dates.

CH:    I knew some of Jimmy’s relatives, as a matter of fact. Jimmy’s cousin was a good friend of brother’s, Bernie Hamilton, the actor.  Jimmy Bunn is still playing.  He’s still in California, and he’s still playing very-very-very good.  He perhaps was one of the most underrated players as far as recognition was concerned.  But at one time, Jimmy Bunn, nobody in L.A., you know…

TP:    He had first call, is what it sounds like.

CH:    Exactly.  If you couldn’t get Jimmy… Then when Hampton Hawes started coming on the scene, Hampton began to get all the calls.  Also in there was Dodo Marmarosa.  Dodo was originally from Pennsylvania someplace, but…

TP:    Pittsburgh, I think.

CH:    Pittsburgh, yeah.  But man, Dodo could play, too.

TP:    And he recorded with many people, including Charlie Parker.

CH:    Yes, he did.

TP:    Jimmy Rowles was active in Los Angeles at that time.

CH:    Jimmy Rowles.  My man, Jimmy Rowles!  I haven’t seen Jimmy in quite a while, but last time I heard, he and his daughter were playing together.  His daughter, Stacy, plays trumpet.

TP:    Before “Thermodynamics” we heard “The Chase,” one of the most famous sessions of that time, also for Dial, recorded in 1947, with Jimmy Bunn, Red Callender on bass, and Chuck Thompson, a very active and strong drummer.

CH:    He was a very good drummer.  Very good.  As a matter of fact, Chuck is still playing.  And you mentioned another drummer on the West Coast…

TP:    Roy Porter?

CH:    I don’t think Roy is playing any more.  But before Roy you mentioned…

TP:    On one of these tracks?

CH:    On one of the tracks.

TP:    Well, Roy Porter played with Howard McGhee.  And… Well, I don’t know who that was.

CH:    He played with the Hampton Hawes Trio.

TP:    Oh, Lawrence Marable.

CH:    Lawrence, yeah!

TP:    He was very active, and he’s now going out with Charlie Haden’s group amongst others.

CH:    Hey, Lawrence is a fantastic player.

TP:    He’s someone who had an impact on Billy Higgins when Billy Higgins was coming up in the Los Angeles area.  Before “The Chase” we heard “My Old Flame” by Charlie Parker for Dial; Bird cut many sides for Dial while in Los Angeles.  And we began the set with Dexter Gordon and Teddy Edwards, another tenor duel called “Blues In Teddy’s Flat” with Jimmy Rowles, Red Callender, and Roy Porter

Again, we have this combination of native Los Angeles musicians, and musicians who settled in Los Angeles from other places, like Teddy Edwards, who came from Jackson, Mississippi to Detroit to Los Angeles, or Howard McGhee, who was from Oklahoma, Detroit, then Southwest bands into Los Angeles.  I’d like to ask Chico for brief portraits of some of your contemporaries.  Let’s begin with Charles Mingus, because you knew Mingus when he was very young.  How old were you when you first met?  Do you remember?

CH:    Well, let me see.  I don’t know, I suppose I was about 10 or 11, something like that — 11 or 12.  As a matter of fact, Charlie Mingus and my wife went to Sunday School together, attended the same church.  Do you believe that?

TP:    Which church was that?

CH:    It was some church in L.A.  I don’t recall the name of it.  Buddy Collette and his family attended that church, and Mingus’ family, and my wife’s family attended the church.  So actually she knew Mingus before I did.  But we were unbelievably young, and unbelievable at that time as young players, as young dudes.  We thought we were… As a matter of fact, some of the joints we played, we’d have to disguise ourselves to look older because of the booze thing.  But Charlie and I came through a lot of wars together as far as playing on the bandstand.  He developed into a very uncanny kind of a musician.  I guess that’s my way of saying how brilliant he was.  It hurts me, the fact that Charlie had to die a pauper.  Because what he contributed to this thing called Jazz and this thing called Music, unfortunately, he really didn’t receive any of the benefits while he was alive.

TP:    Some of the things that he wrote… “The Chill Of Death” which he recorded in 1971, was written, I think, when he was 17 years old!  Do you remember these pieces, or seeing them?  Did you talk about music or his compositions a lot?

CH:    Well, you know, every conversation Charlie and I would have would be off the wall!  I was never surprised at anything he would say or anything he would do…

TP:    Or come up with musically.

CH:    Or come up with musically.  And I guess he might have thought about me the same way.  A funny thing, though, when I came out of the Service, all of these guys, Charlie and Buddy, John Anderson and guys like that, they had gotten re-established again out in L.A. on the famous Central Avenue, and I had to come out… Nobody knew who I was, and I had to sort of establish myself all over again.  I got pretty lucky, because I ended up being the house drummer for Billy Berg’s.

TP:    A famous club where a lot of Jazz history was made.

CH:    All the Jazz, that’s where it was.

TP:    That’s where Bird and Diz came through when Bebop first hit the West Coast.

CH:    Bird and Diz, right.  That’s when I began to play for all the singers, too, at that time.

TP:    What were the chain of events that led to that?  It couldn’t have been just luck.

CH:    Me playing at Billy Berg’s?

TP:    To be the house drummer, especially then, you had to be versatile, be able to basically play anything, read, and so forth.

CH:    Right.  Well, I’d played for him before I went into the Service.  He used to have a club called the Club Capri, before Billy Berg’s.  As a matter of fact, at the Club Capri, this is when I first… Norman Granz used to be like a go-fer for all the guys. [LAUGHS]  You know, he ends up being a zillionaire, an entrepreneur.  But anyway, to make a long story short, at the Club Capri, that’s where Lorenzo Flournoy’s band, Red Mack’s band, Lee and Lester Young… When Prez first left Basie’s band, his brother Lee Young had a small group.  These were all small groups, no bigger than five or six pieces, seven pieces at the most.  Billy Berg’s was the number-one room in Los Angeles at that time.  That was it.  If you played that room, it was fantastic.

The other room that was called the 331 or the 333, I forget…

[END OF SIDE 2]

…of my playing, of my career, I played with this guy named Myers, Old Man Myers.  He kept me on brushes.  He wouldn’t let me play sticks at all, man.  We would go out and play at least three or four nights a week.  Right?  I was lucky enough to make… He’d pay me like maybe 75 cents, I mean, really 75 cents! — we were lucky if we made a dollar.  But I would play brushes constantly.  Constantly.  Every time I’d get ready to pick up the sticks, he said, “Put those sticks down!”  So fortunately, that helped me to develop a stroke that swept me into some of the choicest gigs at that time.

TP:    This conversation evolved from word portraits of some of your associates in Los Angeles at this time.  I’d like to ask you about Dexter Gordon, who was a few years younger than you, but came up around the same time.

CH:    Well, can you imagine… When Dexter was about 10 years old, he was already twelve feet tall.  Then he shrank!  We used to call him Big Stoop, from the character in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates — if anybody remembers that.

Anyway, Dexter and I… You might not believe this, but Dexter Gordon and myself, and a trombone player by the name of James Robertson, we were the only three guys, three people period, to get an A in English in high school.  That was the toughest teacher in the whole entire system.  Her name was Mrs. Smith.  And Dexter and myself and James Robinson got an A in English, man!

As a matter of fact, Dexter started off playing clarinet, and he used to play clarinet, he used to come on the campus… Dexter was like the pied piper.  Dexter would play his horn anywhere, in the hall, in the room, it didn’t matter — all over the school.  And he loved Prez.  He just adored…

TP:    Took apart the solos and…

CH:    Everything was note-for-note.  So that’s how we learned to play, virtually, in a sense, by copying the masters, the people who invented that way of playing.  But Dexter was, again, a brilliant, fantastic, inventive kind of player.  And to be among this kind of talent, you know, you just took it for granted that, hey, he could play, I could play, Ernie Royal could play, you know…

TP:    And you went out and played.

CH:    And we went out and played.

TP:    And then things happened, people heard you, and that’s how…

CH:    Exactly.

TP:    A few words about Red Callender.

CH:    George “Red” Callender.  George was a little older than myself and Mingus and Buddy and Jack Kelso.  But we had a tremendous amount of respect for Red, because Red was the big-time already.  When we got on the L.A. scene before the war, well, Red Callender had been playing with Louis Armstrong and playing with all the big names.  And the fact that he was local, he was in L.A., and we… He was… You know, just to be in his presence was something.  It meant something to us.  We all befriended each other, and we came up this way.

As a matter of fact, at one time Red Callender, myself and a piano player by the name of Dudley Brooks, we were the only three Black musicians that were ever hired by the studios out there; actually put on staff, you know, at Paramount Studios at one time.  Because at one time it was a no-no.  But we got a job… I was playing for… It was equivalent to being the rehearsal player.  I was like the rehearsal drummer.  I used to keep time for people like Marilyn Monroe, Sherrie North, I used to work with all the dance directors out there, keeping time for them while they got their act together.  But it got boring after a while, and I split.

TP:    But the money must have been nice.

CH:    Hey, man, listen.  It was steady.  Right?  To get paid every week?  It was unbelievable, man.  But I don’t know, man, I was always pretty fortunate.  I was able to… I’ve been lucky, blessed, because I’ve been always able to have a gig.

TP:    Well, it seems you’ve been very flexible and adaptable as well, and yet very determined, and with very definite sounds in your mind’s ear.

CH:    Well, I’ve always, first of all, been very proud of my profession.  Like, I’m a professional musician, just like a doctor is a professional or a lawyer is a professional.  I’ve been very, very highly… Well, this is what I do.  In other words, this is the jokes, folks.  And I don’t fluff it off.  I never blow a gig, man.  Whether I sound good or bad or indifferent, man, I’m playing my heart out.  I’m playing the best that I can at that time.  And that’s it.  That’s the way I came up.  And I believe in music.  I believe in what I’m doing.  People are always wondering what I’m going to come up with next.  I have no idea what I’m going to come up with next.  But I know that when the time comes for me to come up with something different, or change, I will change.  I don’t like to get bored.

TP:    Well, you were the envy of hundreds of thousands of men as the drummer with Lena Horne for five or six years.  The listing is ’48 to ’54, approximately.  Is that right?

CH:    No, as a matter of fact, ’47 to ’55, I think it was.  I’ll tell you, playing for Lena was truly an experience.  I give her a tremendous amount of respect and a tremendous amount of credit in regards to her musicianship.  Most people don’t realize what a fantastic musician this woman is.  And through her, and with her, her late husband, Lennie Hayden, and Luther Henderson, I had an opportunity to really learn what music was all about, how to express what you feel and what you think.  Even to this day, man, we’re still friends.  I don’t see her that often.  But as one of the singers that I had a tremendous amount of respect for and that I kept time for, I would put her up at the top of the class.

TP:    Our next selection is by the original Chico Hamilton-Buddy Collette Sextet, recorded for Johnny Otis’ label, Tampa Records, or Dig Records, available through VSOP Replica Editions.

[MUSIC: Chico Hamilton/B. Collette, "It's You" (1956); Tony Bennett, "Lazy Afternoon" (19  ); Gerry Mulligan, "Frenesi" (1953); Billie Holiday, "Too Marvelous For Words" (1953); C. Hamilton/John Lewis, "2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West" (1958); C. Hamilton, "Where Or When" (19  )]

TP:    That was Chico Hamilton singing, from The Three Faces of Chico, the Chico Hamilton Quintet on Warner Brothers.  That’s the group that had Eric Dolphy, one of his four or five recordings with Chico, although of course not prominent on that particular track, Dennis Budimir on cello, Wyatt Ruether(?) and bass and Chico Hamilton on drums.

[ETCETERA]

Let’s begin with the Tony Bennett side and the vocal tracks we heard.

CH:    At one time I played for Tony, I kept time for him, and we became friends.  When I went out on my own, with my own group and everything, I happened to be on the East Coast, as a matter of fact, in Philadelphia, and I got a call from Tony.  He had this idea that he wanted to get all the drummers together.  He had me, Jo Jones, Art Blakey, and I forget who else was on there.  He wanted to record with all of us.  Tony has always been a rhythm man.  He’s always had a fantastic appreciation for drums, for drummers…

TP:    It had Candido, Papa Jo, Billy Exner, Sabu…

CH:    Billy Exner was playing with Tony Bennett at that time, and Candido, myself and Jo Jones, right?

Tony asked me which one of the tracks would I play on, and some kind of way, the idea of “Lazy Afternoon” came up, and I told him I really would dig playing to see what I could do with the sort of orchestral approach to the way he was singing “Lazy Afternoon.”  And it turned out gorgeous.  It really turned out dynamite.  We were more than pleased.  That’s how that came about.

TP:    That’s from The Beat Of My Heart on Columbia Records.  Now, Billie Holiday spent a lot of time in Los Angeles as well.

CH:    Yes, she did.

TP:    Were you a regular part of her group for a while, or was that just a session?

CH:    No, no, I was part of her group for a while.  I played for Lady in several different groups.  At one time, one group consisted of Hampton Hawes, Wardell Gray, myself and Curtis Counce!

TP:    Lady Day must have had a chance to rest her chops!

CH:    Man, you’re talkin’ about cookin’!  We were swinging.

TP:    Did you play bebop licks under her, or… How was she in that regard?

CH:    Lady kept good time, so all I had to do was swing.  I just played myself, you know.  As a matter of fact, all of us did.  That’s what we did.  She was a tremendous musician as well, and she dug musicians being themselves, players being themselves.  As a matter of fact, that’s how Prez named her Lady, because she was cool that way.  I met her, man, when I was about 14 years old!

TP:    What were the circumstances?

CH:    Well, I went to a jam session over… Lorenzo Fluornoy, who was a piano player at that time, who I was playing with at the time.  I was just a kid, man.  I knew Prez, man, and Prez asked me, “Do you want to meet Lady?”  I didn’t believe it was her, man.  She was at the session, right, in the house.  That’s where everybody used to put on a big pot of red beans and rice and things like that, and we would blow all day long, right?  She was sitting on the saxophone case, she and Prez were sitting on this case.  And man, when I came up through the door and I looked at her, I said, “Hey…”  I told a friend of mine, [WHISPERING] “Hey, there she is!  That’s Lady.”  And when we went inside, Prez introduced us.  From then on, from time to time I would see her then.     Then later on, I started playing for her, working for her, doing dates and everything.  At one time, the group was Bobby Tucker and myself…

TP:    He was the pianist.

CH:    He was a pianist, a fantastic pianist.  Bobby was with Eckstine.  He was with B for thirty or forty years almost.  When he left Lady he joined Billy Eckstine.

TP:    And you worked with Billy Eckstine for a minute, too.

CH:    I worked with Billy Eckstine.  Also I played for… Oh, heh-heh, I played with Billy Eckstine, I played with Sammy Davis, I did some things with Danny Kaye, Ella… Oh, yeah, I forgot about Ella Fitzgerald.  And I kept time for Sarah once in a while…

TP:    All singers with different styles, different approaches of playing off the drums.

CH:    Exactly.  Here again, remembering something about Lena Horne:  I was right on the floor behind Lena, and the band was behind me.  It was very unusual, because here’s the singer, the drummer right behind her, and then the band, the orchestra would be right behind me.  It worked.  It worked beautifully.  I really developed a way of playing for her to the extent it wasn’t offensive; I didn’t get in her way.

TP:    Was Billie Holiday a strict rehearser, or was it just get in and hit?

CH:    No, Lady was cool, man.  She was cool.  Every singer I have ever kept time for was very sincere about what they did.  And I’m saying that in a complementary way.  Whether you understand that, or reading in between the lines or whatever… It wasn’t easy playing for singers, man.  It’s not easy. I have a tremendous amount of respect for any drummer that can keep time for a singer.

TP:    Why is that?

CH:    Well, you never know what a singer is going to do.  Because some singers react differently.  They react to what people… They react to the audience.  If they feel as though they’re not getting to the audience, then they’re going to push, or they think…or either they’re going to fluff off something or whatever.  And the first one they’re going to take it out on is going to be the drummer.  “What’s the matter?  Can’t you keep time?”  That sort of thing.

TP:    So we’re talking about temperament now.

CH:    Exactly.  That’s the reason drummers are cool, man.  You know, a drummer sits up… When you start to realize that a drummer has to keep time for people, musicians, people he don’t even like, you hear somebody playing, somebody getting their oobies, they’re not making any music, but they’re just sounding like the teacher’s out of the room, that kind of thing — and you have keep time for that and you have to make it sound like something.  You know?  Because there’s only one drummer.

TP:    Well, sometimes there’s two.

CH:    No, you’ve only got one drummer, man.  One drummer’s keeping time, man.  Also, I’d just like to acknowledge the fact that people in general see conga players, timbales players, bongo players, people playing drums with their hands, and they say, “Hey, this is dynamite; that’s fantastic.”  But there’s nothing, nothing in the world like a drummer sitting down playing on a set of drums, where his left foot is doing something different from his right foot, his left hand is doing something from his right hand, and the hands are doing something different from the foot, the foot is doing something different from the hands, and he’s playing on at least a half-a-dozen drums at the same time.  This is amazing, man.  This is really something.

TP:    You were part of the Gerry Mulligan pianoless groups on the West Coast in the early 1950’s, and that was a different side of your work as well.  Talk about your hookup with him and your contributions to the music as it was developed.

CH:    Well…heh-heh…

TP:    Uh-oh, I stuck my foot in it.

CH:    No.  Well, I believe that it just happened to be four people in the right place at the right time.  That story is… I can go on and say, “Well, I did this or Gerry did that, or Chet did this, Chet did that,” that kind of thing.  No, it just happened that we happened to be in the right place at the right time, and we got together… As a matter of fact, we got together at my house for the first rehearsal that we did.  Gerry was out in L.A., and I was out in L.A. at that time.  I was still under the employment of Lena Horne, but I stayed home; I didn’t want to go to Europe that year.  In the meantime, I was playing with Charlie Barnet’s band, and Gerry used to come out and hang out with me every night at the bar. [LAUGHS]  As a matter of fact, he said to me one night, “You know, if I was Charlie Barnet and you played for me like you play for Charlie, I’d fire you!”  Because I used to do some pretty funny things with that band.  Anyway, Charlie didn’t mind.  He was a prince, man.  He was a dynamite dude.

But Gerry and I got together, and we were talking about this and that, and next thing I know, hey, he contacts Chet and Bob Whitlock, and we get together, and we just… Like I said, man, it started happening.  And it happened, from the first time we sat down to play.  I would say everyone contributed, one way or the other; everyone contributed to making the quartet the way it was.  That’s how it came off.  That’s the reason it came off.  It wasn’t just a question of Gerry Mulligan being Gerry… Well, it was a question of Gerry being Gerry, Chet being Chet, me being me, and Bob Whitlock being Bob Whitlock.

That’s putting it simple, man.  Mild.

TP:    Would you like to get complex?  At any rate, the first track we heard featured the genesis of the Chico Hamilton group, the Buddy Collette-Chico Hamilton Sextet, from Tanganyika.  You go back as far with Buddy Collette as you do with Mingus, with Dexter Gordon, and so forth.

CH:    Right.  We go back when we were young dudes, kids more or less, young guys on the scene.  As a matter of fact, the first time I heard Buddy, Buddy had his own band, and he had Mingus playing.  Mingus really started off playing cello with Buddy’s band, and Buddy made him get the bass, because he realized that the cello was a little weak, that kind of thing, trying to play cello like a full-sized bass.  I went out to hear him one night, I went all the way out there to Watts, right — I’d heard about him.  I asked him could I sit in, and I did.  One thing led to another, and the next thing I know we were all playing in all the bands around L.A.  It was interesting.

TP:    How did that band develop a repertoire?  Because eventually, both of you were working toward a really broad tonal palette particularly.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    I mean, along with swing, but it went… Talk a bit about that.

CH:    What we did, virtually, in a sense, we copied every record that we heard by Count Basie and some of the Duke Ellington things and Jimmie Lunceford, but between them, Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie are the bands that we imitated, even down to the solos, note-for-note.  We even played the same solos, that type of thing.  All the licks.  I tried to play all the drum licks that Jo Jones would play, that type of thing.  And eventually, it was very successful, because also, you must remember, we didn’t have… It wasn’t a matter of deciding whether you were going to play Rock-and-Roll, or whether you’re going to play the Blues, Rhythm-and-Blues, or whether you’re going to play Pop, or whether you’re going to play Country, or anything like that.  There was only one kind of music, man, and that was Swing.  So in a sense, it was relatively easy.  Because hey, there was only one way to play.

TP:    We forgot to play some of the sides you backed T-Bone Walker on for Imperial.

CH:    Hey!  He was amazing.

TP:    So we’re going from T-Bone Walker to Tony Bennett to Charlie Barnet’s band to the Gerry Mulligan band…

CH:    Right.

TP:    You really were covering the whole spectrum of Swing music in the Forties and Fifties.

CH:    Well, I’m fortunate.  I’ve been fortunate, man.  As a matter of fact, I’ve been blessed to be able to do that.  Because it was broad.  It was very broad.  That’s what the spectrum was in regards to what Jazz was all about.  Still, even now, what Jazz is all about.

TP:    And we’ll be hearing an aspect which Chico Hamilton is defining in his group, in many ways, the cutting edge, one branch that Jazz is in the process of becoming.

CH:    Well, I could go through a whole great big series of stories about, “Well, I decided to do this, I decided to do that.”  But I don’t know, man… Here, again, about the original quintet with Fred Katz on cello, Buddy Collette on reeds, Jim Hall on guitar and Carson Smith on bass, here again… It’s not a copout, but I feel that it just happened to be five guys in the right place at the right time for that to happen.

TP:    Things were in the air…

CH:    Things were in the air, and it happened.  Because no one knows why it happened.  But it happened, and it worked.

[ETCETERA]

This is the first record that Eric Dolphy ever made.  This is a Billy Strayhorn composition which is one of my favorites.  Most people… A majority, I would say, of Eric Dolphy’s fans and audience don’t realize, or didn’t realize what a tremendous flute player Eric Dolphy was.  And this is my presentation of Eric Dolphy, “Something To Live For”

TP:    From Strings Attached on Warner Brothers.

[MUSIC: C. Hamilton/E. Dolphy, "Something To Live For"; C. Hamilton, "Mandrake"; C. Hamilton, "Taunts of An Indian"; C. Hamilton, "Guitar Willie"]

TP:    A selection of four compositions and performances by various groups under the leadership of Chico Hamilton.  That last was “Guitar Willie,” featuring the late Eric Gale from Headhunters, on Solid State, and my guess is that it was recorded around 1970.  Do you recollect, Chico?  Of course, being a Solid State release from that time, there’s no date, but they have a zip-code.

CH:    Probably around ’68.  Eric used to do a lot of commercials with me when I was knee-deep on Madison Avenue, you know, doing commercials.  That’s music for commercials.  Here again that was sort of unusual, because just to have the bass walking and myself keeping that time, and the horns… Steve Potts was on there, and I think…

TP:    Russ Andrews on tenor.

CH:    Yes, Russ.

TP:    Ray Nance appears elsewhere on this release.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    And Jan Arnett on bass.

CH:    Jan Arnett.  It was a happening.

TP:    Before that a few selections by the current group, Chico Hamilton and Euphoria.  Before that, a very beautiful and affecting piece, “Taunts of An Indian Maiden,” a dedication to your mother.

CH:    I dedicated to it to my mother.  She was an Indian maiden, you know?

TP:    That’s from Arroyo, a 1990 release, with Eric Person, saxophone, Cary DeNegris on electric guitar, and Reggie Washington, one of the better electric bass players around, playing acoustic bass.

CH:    Well, he’s playing electric on that.  He just sounds… That’s how well he plays it.  He’s one of the few fender players that can get the sound of an upright bass.

TP:    Before that we heard “Mandrake,” the group’s arrangement of Eric Dolphy’s composition, one of seven compositions arranged by Chico Hamilton and Euphoria on My Panamanian Friend, the most recent release by the group.

CH:    It’s an interesting thing.  Jeff Caddick was the one who suggested that we do an album of Eric Dolphy’s music.  And the more we got into it, the more we started talking about it, the more I realized and he realized, as much as people talk about Eric Dolphy, nobody plays his music.

TP:    Well, Oliver Lake is one, and a few other people play his music, but not so much.

CH:    Not that many.  Hopefully this will shake them up again.

TP:    The way that you arrange and set up your songs… I think if one held to a stereotyped view of a Jazz musician, and heard you from all these sessions in the Forties and Fifties, to hear the sound of your bands would seem disjunctive.  But it’s obviously not.  You’ve always had a predilection, for one thing, for saxophone players who like to get into the extremities of the instrument, from Eric Dolphy to Charles Lloyd to Arthur Blythe to Steve Potts to your current saxophonist, Eric Person.

CH:    Well, look, to simplify it, that’s what I’m all about.  I’m into sounds, and anybody that sounds different or original (which is pretty difficult) I’m for.  I’m open, as far as all music… First of all, I understand fully that it takes all kinds of music to make music.  I also understand that I’ve been blessed to the extent that I’m able to make music at this stage of the game of my life or my career, as opposed to just playing it.  So that’s what it’s all about.  Music I believe is one of God’s will, and God’s will will be done.  Right?  That’s the name of the game.

TP:    If it’s meant to be… Well, you’re making it happen.

CH:    Hey, that’s what it’s all about.

TP:    A few words about the people in your group.  A few words about how musicians find you and you find musicians.  Eric Person, first of all.

CH:    As a matter of fact, Eric was introduced to me by Arnie Lawrence.  Arnie had heard Eric when he was in St. Louis.  I think he was at Eric’s school.  When Eric came to New York, I think he contacted Arnie, and Arnie in turn contacted me, and that was it.  Right away we hit it off.  I helped him to grow, and he’s grown, needless to say, and developed into one fantastic kind of a player.

TP:    You may not be able to hold on to him.

CH:    Well, it’s not a question of holding on.  He’s supposed to go on to bigger and better things.  That’s what I’m all about, again.  Hey, you come this way, you pass through me.

TP:    He’s currently with Dave Holland’s group and the World Saxophone Quartet as well as Chico Hamilton’s Ensemble.

CH:    Well, this is good, because this gives him an opportunity to play all kinds of ways.  I haven’t heard him with the other groups, but I imagine he plays different with them than he does with me.  Because we play a different kind of music; a different kind of rhythm, let’s put it like that.

TP:    Cary De Negris, the guitarist.

CH:    Cary met me.  Cary called me when he came from Albany, New York, I think.  His potential I heard right away, the first time I heard him play.  He has developed, needless to say, into really some other kind of guitar player.  He is perhaps one of the most fluent players that’s on the scene today, period, regardless of what style or what kind of guitar playing there is to be played.  He’s doing it.

TP:    Finally, Matthew Garrison, the group’s newest member.

CH:    Well, Matthew’s father used to play with me, Jimmy Garrison.  At one time he did dates and things with me.  He was brought to my attention by Cary De Negris, who heard him and said, “Hey, Cheeks, you’ve got to hear this bass player.”  As a matter of fact, man, he’s so prolific, he sounds like a guitar player.  He’s got chops.

TP:    Well, his father had that type of fluency in his sound also.

CH:    Exactly.  So I’m more than pleased, man.  I’m having a ball.  Because hey, we’re making music.

[MUSIC: "Song For Helen" (1992)]

[-30-]

* * *

Chico Hamilton Profile (WKCR) – (1-14-96):

[RECITAL ON “In the Beginning”, Dance To A Different Drummer:  “You know how this all started with me playing, the drums.  I guess I was around 8 years old when my mother took me to see Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles, and for the first time in my life, not only did I see an orchestra, but I saw on this pyramid, the top of the pyramid, on top of the whole band was the one and only Sonny Greer.  I had never seen anything like this in all my life.  Matter of fact, he had so many drums, he had more drums than  a drum store.  But he was really something special.  And that impressed me, the way he played, the way he had control of the band, and the sound he got.  He was also perhaps one of the first percussionists in every sense of the word; not just a drummer, but a percussionist, a man who made sounds.  Everything he touched made a sound, and it blended and it worked with what Duke Ellington had written and played.  Like all kids, it was an impression that stayed with me, and I decided that’s what I wanted to be — another Sonny Greer.”

____________________________________________________________

TP:    Chico, do you remember what year you first heard Sonny Greer?

CH:    I don’t remember what year it was I heard the band, and I wouldn’t even tell you if I did remember!  I was around 8 or 9 years old when I first heard the band.

TP:    So it was probably when Ellington first came out to the West Coast, around ’30-’31.

CH:    It probably was.  You know, one thing about being on the West Coast, all the bands came there, not only Ellington, but Basie, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Dorsey — all the bands eventually came to the West Coast.  A miraculous thing is the fact that the Board of Education system out there, it was compulsory to take music in all the schools in the system, whether you took a music appreciation course or rented an instrument to play or something like that.  Whenever the well-known bands would come to the West Coast, they used to let us out of school to go down to the train station to greet the bands as they came in.  Fundamentally, all the guys from the Royal brothers, Ernie and Marshall Royal, Dexter Gordon, Buddy Collette, myself, Jack Kelso, Charlie Mingus, all of us…

TP:    Grew up in the same area.

CH:    We grew up in the same area, with the same musical aspect in regards to… Like all kids, we had a band…

TP:    Where exactly in Los Angeles did you grow up?  Was it around Central Avenue, later the real music strip?

CH:    Yeah.  Los Angeles at that time was the East Side and the West Side, and I think Main Street divided L.A. into what was East and what was West.  I was born on the East Side of town and then grew up on the West Side of town.  Central Avenue was the street, our avenue; that was our 52nd Street.  It only consisted of two or three blocks, but within those two or three blocks, man, you had everything…

TP:    You’re talking about the 1930’s, now.

CH:    The late 1930’s and the ’40s.  They presented a big documentary about the jazz on Central Avenue not too long ago.  It’s part of the curriculum at UCLA or one of the schools.  Central Avenue… You had the Dunbar Hotel, and then inside the Dunbar Hotel was the Club Alabam, which was the equivalent to the East Coast Cotton Club — the same type of shows.

TP:    It would have been the equivalent to the Theresa Hotel in Harlem, or the Braddock or the Woodside.

CH:    Exactly.  From there, that was the number-one club or joint… That was super big-time, where all the big bands played.  Then right outside of Hollywood, in Culver City, there was a club, which I forget the name of.  They had at least half-a-dozen big, big rooms, big joints where all the bands played, which made it very lucrative for bands to come to the West Coast, from the Palladium to the Ambassador Hotel.  But Central Avenue was the avenue, man.  When I was a kid, I used to burn matches and make a moustache so that I could look old enough to go in these joints.  This is when Duke Ellington’s band with all these guys, Ben Webster, the people who invented this kind of music, who really did it, were on the scene…

TP:    When the bands would come out, the musicians would also circulate after-hours or in other situations, and you would have contact…

CH:    This is what I’m getting ready to say.  After the gigs, we all hung out at a place called Lovejoy’s which was a joint on Vernon and Central, right on the corner, upstairs.  Man, many a night I used to stay in there until 7 and 8 o’clock playing, jamming, and man, I’d have to rush home and go to school… I was in high school, and I’d do everything I could to get the cigarette smoke off of me.  But man, we had a ball; we would have a ball.  This is how I learned to play.  One thing about it, the pros helped us; they helped all the young players.  They would listen to you and you’d get a chance to play with them, and they would advise you, give you some tips on what to do and what not to do.  Unfortunately, I don’t know whether that still happens today.  It was really, really different.

When I got drafted and went to the War and came back, it was a different Central Avenue altogether — completely different.  Before I went, all the movie stars and everybody used to hang out on Central.  That was it.  It was just like hanging out on Broadway here in New York at one time.  But when I came back from the War, music had changed completely.  As opposed to the Swing thing, we were into the Bebop.  Miles, Diz, Bird, Erroll Garner — everybody was in Hollywood at that time.

TP:    You got back when?

CH:    Late ’45.

TP:    Right around when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker got into Billy Berg’s.

CH:    Exactly.

TP:    Did you come from a musical family?

CH:    No.

TP:    Where did the inspiration to play music initially come from.

CH:    That’s a very good question, man.  I don’t know.  I’ve always…music has just… First of all, I’ve never done anything else but play music, or make music, or been into music.  My closest friend at the time, who is still my best friend, Jack Kelso, had a clarinet, and I figured since he had a clarinet that I’m gonna get me one; I want to play because my best friend is playing.  We were both about 7 or 8 years old, something like that at that time, and that’s how it worked out.  To play drums just was a sheer accident, because my older brother was fooling around with the drums in the school orchestra when we were both in grade school, and when he graduated, they didn’t have a drummer, so I just said, “Hey, since he’s my brother, I might as well play.”  And I went in, sat down and started playing.  I had no idea what I was doing.  And the next thing I know, I had the gig, because nobody else wanted to play.  Other than that…

TP:    Did anybody give you lessons outside of school?

CH:    Yes.  A friend of mine… I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Oscar Bradley.  Oscar Bradley was on the West Coast; he was the drummer with Les Hite’s orchestra.  I used to hear them play.  They used to rehearse ar a playground near where I lived.  Before I went into the Service, I took some lessons from Lee Young, Prez’ brother.  That was about the size of it.

When I went into the Service, there was a drummer by the name of Billy Exner, who played with Claude Thornhill.  Billy taught me how to read music.  He’d climb over a mountain, man!  It was two camps then, and one was Black and one was White.

TP:    This was at Fort McCullough.

CH:    Fort McCullough, Alabama, man.

TP:    It’s known infamously in jazz history because of the treatment accorded Lester Young and Papa Jo Jones.

CH:    I was there, man, when that happened.  But Billy Exner taught me how to read drum music.  Actually, I was more or less self-taught.  Then when I came out of the Service I enrolled in the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music on the G.I. Bill.  That’s when I really got serious about… Well, I was serious about playing, period.  I was blessed because I always was able to hear things.  I used to depend upon my ear as far as music was concerned, for arrangements, cues and things like that.  The fact is that as a teenager, man, I was playing shows, burlesque shows, where you’ve really got to catch all the cues, all the kicks and things like that.

TP:    Tell me more about the gigs you had when you were a teenager.  When did you first play for a sum of money, and how much was it?

CH:    A sum of money?  It was 75 cents; like, a half-dollar and a quarter.  My friend Jack Kelso and I used to play in a neighborhood band led by a man named Myers, who we called Old Man Myers.  He had a family band.  One of his sons played piano, another one played trumpet, another one played trombone.  It was very common during that time for families to have family orchestras.  Most families who were musical had a band…

TP:    Such as Lester Young’s family, Louis Jordan’s family, Oscar Pettiford’s family…

CH:    Exactly.  So it was a very common thing.  Jack was playing alto saxophone by that time, and I played drums, and we joined the band.  We would rehearse and rehearse, and we’d play.  As far as the gigs were concerned, we would drive for half-a-day, it seemed like, outside of L.A. to play a lot of different roadhouses.  We had a kitty, and people would give us money to play certain tunes.  Funny thing, the name wouldn’t be up there.  They wouldn’t say “Myers’ Orchestra”.  They would say “All-Colored Orchestra.”

TP:    Did that mean that they could expect to hear a certain type of music?  Were you expected to play in a certain way.

CH:    That was the feature.  They knew that at least we wouldn’t be Country music or some down-home stuff or whatever.

TP:    What type of things did you play in that orchestra?

CH:    We played just the regular standard music, the old standard tunes like “Stardust.”  No original material.  We just played time whatever was popular on the radio at that time.  It was relatively simple.  As far as I was concerned, I just had to keep time.  He wouldn’t let me use sticks; I always had to use brushes.  I’ll tell you, man, I ended up… Every important job that I got seemingly was due to the fact that I could brush, keep time, and be smooth and cool with it.  Because I spent about 15 years or more just being an accompanist, playing for singers.  But during that time I wanted to play with sticks and he wouldn’t let me.  Every time I’d pick up the sticks he said, “Put them sticks down!”

Jack and I used to come home… Sometimes we’d make a buck-and-a-half.  Riding for about four or five hours, then playing until 2 or 3 in the morning kind of thing.  This was on the weekends, Fridays and Saturday nights.

TP:    And you were 14-15-16 when this was happening.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    At the same time, you were at Jefferson High School, which had one of the most distinguished music programs among Black high schools in the country, and one of the great music teachers, Samuel Browne…

CH:    Well, first of all, Jefferson High School wasn’t a Black high school.  It was a school in the area, on the East Side.  As a matter of fact, man, it was one of the most beautiful schools in the whole state of California.  It was the duplicate of Monticello, Jefferson…

TP:    Built along the lines of Greek Classical Architecture.

CH:    Yes.  And there was no such thing as all-Black.  There were just as many White students as Black students.

TP:    So the community wasn’t as segregated as it later became.

CH:    The community wasn’t segregated at all.  Because it was a deep mixture.  I was born that way.  I grew up that way.  So it didn’t become…well, if you want to refer to what is a ghetto, what is not a ghetto… It didn’t become a reservation, man, until after the War, when the War started.  Because as people progressed financially, they moved to different areas.  In fact, the only ghetto area in L.A. at that time was one called Ball Heights, which consisted of a lot of Yiddish, you know…

TP:    The Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles was the only real enclave based on ethnicity or race.

CH:    Exactly.  And when those people became successful, they moved to Beverly Hills.  They started up Beverly Hills.

TP:    I’d still like you to talk about Samuel    Browne.

CH:    Well, Sam Browne was a very good instructor, a very good teacher.  But I don’t think he dug me and I didn’t dig him.  I didn’t really take music in school.  As a matter of fact, he used to give me hell because I was gigging at night, getting to school sometimes on time, sometimes not on time.  I wasn’t in the school orchestra at that time, with Dexter and Jack and James Nelson and all those guys.  As a matter of fact, I was working with Lorenzo Flournoy working for Billy Berg, at his first place, called the Club Capri.

TP:    This was around ’38 or so?

CH:    ’38, ’39, something like that.  This is before Prez left Basie.  I was big-time, man.  I think we were making about $37 a week, which was a lot of dough.  I had my own car.  I was slick. I was cool.  But I was already playing… The only reason why I joined the school band was to get a sweater, which they gave you, and I could go to the games free.

TP:    That band played a rather challenging repertoire.  According to Art Farmer, who was there in 1945, they played Dizzy Gillespie charts at that early time!

CH:    Well, yeah.  See, that was after my time.

TP:    What was he doing in the late 1930’s?

CH:    They were playing Swing music.  Some Ellington things, Earl Hines kind of things, Horace and Fletcher Henderson, those kind of charts.  But here again, I never did anything with them.  But the band that came out of Jefferson was a band called Al Adams during that period.  We formed that band, which was myself, Dexter, James Nelson, Jack Kelso, Buddy Collette, Mingus, Lady Wilcor(?), my brother-in-law James Henry, who was a trombone player, Ernie Royal was in it.  We were all about 15-16-17 years old.  As a matter of fact, when Illinois Jacquet first came to L.A. he joined us, and he was about 16 at that time.  Man, this band, we raised so much hell… If a union band had a gig and it was paying $5 we’d take the gig for $4 We raised so much hell with the union, they made a deal with us, and we got into the union practically for nothin’!  They were so happy…

TP:    Get rid of the competition.

CH:    From then, we were all in union.  I think we paid something like $7 to join; it was ridiculous.  But then we started rehearsing at the union.  One fantastic thing that happened was that all the bands when they’d come in, like Jimmie Lunceford, would rehearse at the union, so we had a chance to hear them…

TP:    So you had a chance to get up close to Jimmy Crawford or Jo Jones…

CH:    Oh, man, I’m trying to tell you… And next thing we know, we were doing everything that they were doing, note-for-note, beat-for-beat.  We would imitate them.  We started playing all the school dances, and we would sound like Jimmie Lunceford, we’d sound like Basie… It was dynamite.  Because from that band, the experience I got playing with big bands, and all of us went on to different things and different areas…

I think I was around 16 years old when I got the call to Lionel Hampton’s first band, that “Flying Home” band.  Man, I lasted about two or three weeks, because I wasn’t ready.  I did get that experience, but I wasn’t quite ready.

TP:    What were you lacking, would you say?

CH:    Well, my reading was bad.  I depended upon my ear at that time, and my sight reading wasn’t… I could play, man. I could swing.  I could keep good time.  But reading the charts, following the charts down. I couldn’t do it too well.  I wasn’t quick enough.  They’d waste a lot of time going over different sections just so I could get it.  That’s the band where “Flying Home” became a famous thing.

But when I got fired out of that band, that turned my whole life around, my whole career.  I really got serious.  I’ll never forget the day that they gave me my notice… A friend of mine…well, he wasn’t a friend, but a big-time dude that knew me who was a player, said, “Listen, kid.  You’re hurt now, but don’t let it get to you.”  It turned my whole life around, man.  I really got serious about what I was doing.  From there I got drafted, and this is when I started doing my number as far as learning.

TP:    In our previous show, you mentioned that in the big bands of the 1930’s, something we can’t hear properly on records is how the drummers shaped the sound of the band, like Jimmy Crawford or Papa Jo Jones or Sonny Greer.

CH:    Exactly.

TP:    Now, when you were in the Al Adams band, emulating the sounds of those bands, were you emulating the styles of those different drummers.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    So you had reached that level of proficiency.

CH:    Yeah.  I could play, man, and I could always keep good time.  I had some funny kind of ideas as far as my solo ideas were concerned.  I wasn’t a straight up-and-down kind of a player.  I have never been interested in being fast, have chops like the Buddy Rich kind of thing.  There’s nothing wrong with that particular style of drummer, but I’ve never been interested in it.  I’m into sound.  I’m into making sounds or creating sounds or inventing sounds, then taking the sounds and creating a mood.  The supply and then the demand, that type of thing.  But at the time, I could play just like Jimmy Crawford if we were playing a Lunceford type of tune.  If we were playing a Basie type of tune, I was Jo Jones.  It was groovy.  It was cool.

It didn’t get confusing, man, until I came out of the Army.  The first dude I heard… Man, I was in Oakland, California, playing a show, in which one of the acts was the Will Mastin Trio featuring Sammy Davis, Jr.  We were doing 7 and 8 shows a day, that type of thing.  Then we heard Billy Eckstine was going to play a dance that night, a Friday night in Oakland.  Needless to say we couldn’t wait to get off after of the last show…

TP:    This was with a band called Floyd Ray.  A young Art Farmer was in it, Hampton Hawes…

CH:    Yeah, Art, Hamp.  I’ll tell you something funny as hell that happened when we were up there.  I was taking a solo, my big moment, and Mingus came out with a hammer and started hammering on the bandstand while I was playing! [LAUGHS] I got so teed off at him, man…

Anyway, to make a long story short: We heard Eckstine’s band that night.  That’s when he had Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon, “Blowing The Blues Away”, and Art Blakey was on drums.  Man, I had never heard anybody play like this before in my whole entire life!  I was just flabbergasted!  Art Blakey turned me completely around.  I had never heard anybody play the Bebop style of drumming.

TP:    How would you describe that in relation to what Jo Jones and Sonny Greer were doing in terms of your perceptions at the time?

CH:    For instance, Swing, you keep a steady beat going on the sock cymbal, which is the side cymbal, or even the top cymbal — DING, DI-DI-DING, DI-DI-DING.  You keep that going.  DING, DI-DI-DING, DI-DI-DING, and every once in a while you might do something with your left hand.  But in playing Bop the way Art Blakey played, he kept something going, DING, DI-DI-DING, but meantime, man, he’d dance between his left hand and his right foot.  DE-DUM, DE-DUM, DE-DUM, BOP!!  CHITTI-TI-TI-BUM, CHITTI-TI-TI-BUM.  Just dancing all the way through, keeping time, and the band was hitting… It worked!  I’d never had no idea of this style of playing.  I was just flabbergasted.

So the next morning, back at the theater, first show, I’m playing for Sammy Davis and his uncle and his father, and we’re playing, keeping time, then all of a sudden, I decided I was going to drop one of these bombs — BOP, BOOM!!  I did that, man, and Sammy’s father, his uncle, they stopped, turned around, and said, “What are you doing?!”

TP:    You didn’t do that any more, huh?

CH:    Oh, Ted, it was unbelievable.  After the show, he came up to me and said, “Listen, son, you’re our favorite drummer.  Don’t do that!” [LAUGHS] I’m just reminiscing.  It was funny as hell.  But I’m saying this is the first time I’d been turned around.

TP:    When you heard Art Blakey, had you been to hear Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at Billy Berg’s club?

CH:    I had just come out of the Army.

TP:    And you went right out on that job?

CH:    I went right out.

TP:    Did you get to see that band during that particular engagement in December ’45 and January ’46.

CH:    No, I didn’t.  But I played with Bird.  After that, during ’45 and ’46, everybody was out on the West Coast.  And I used to jam with Bird all the time.  There was a place on Central Avenue, the Downbeat, Billy Berg’s…

TP:    There was a place called Jack’s Nest.

CH:    Jack’s Nest.

TP:    And the Finale Club in Japan-Town where Howard McGhee had a band.

CH:    Yeah.  Maggie was…all the guys.  It was just a happening.  Roy Porter and Chuck Thompson were the popular drummers around that time in L.A. when I got out.  Roy was a Bebop drummer moreso than Chuck Thompson was.  That’s when Wardell Gray and all those guys… It was a happening.

TP:    There’s a recording from 1946 of you backing Lester Young.  What was it like as you for a drummer to play behind Charlie Parker, purely on the rhythmic level?  That must have really developed your conception of the instrument.

CH:    Charlie was really nice to me.  Well, he was nice to everybody, man.  He was a brilliant man, a brilliant human being.  Not only did he encourage you to play, but he gave everybody a shot, the rhythm people at least, to keep some time for him, just to play, to make a gig.  All I know is hey, man, he was a helluva saxophone player.  It was entirely different from me playing with Prez or playing with guys who swung in regards to this new style of playing.

Howard McGhee helped me quite a bit with getting into Bebop playing and understanding what the concept was all about, and the phrasing.  That was most important thing, how you phrased, in playing this particular style of music, leaving space in the rhythm so you can fill up the holes.  As a matter of fact, I don’t know anybody right now who can explain that.  I can’t. [LAUGHS] It’s a style of playing that the concept came about by Diz, Bird, Monk, people like that.  Strangely and oddly enough, when they left the West Coast, that particular style went East.  It didn’t linger on the West Coast.  Shorty Rogers and all those guys, people like that, they come out of the Kenton area, and Stan Kenton’s band was a Swing band… I don’t know, it just left.  Years later when I came back and started my own thing, the quintet with the cello, flute and guitar, we were the furthest thing in the world from playing Bebop, that particular style.

[MUSIC: Prez-CH, "New Lester Leaps In" (1946); C. Hamilton Trio (Duvivier-Roberts) "Street of Drums", "Nuttye" (1955); CH-5, "The Morning After" (1956); w/ Billie Holiday, "Too Marvelous For Words" (1956); CH-5, "Gone Lover" (1956)]

CH:    This was the first time in the history of recordings that a drum and a guitar and a bass had been recorded as solo instruments alone, as the featured instruments, as opposed to being in a rhythm section.  Up until that time, the rhythm section, which consisted of piano, guitar, bass, drums, was always just a section — it was never featured.  The fact that we did this… Dick Bock promised to record me because of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet things.  Part of the deal was that each one of us would have an album.  Doing this, it was really something, because nowhere before in this particular form of music, known aa Jazz, had you heard anything like this.  Guitar, bass and drums was very common in Country music and things like that, but not presented as Jazz, solo instruments.

TP:    What were some of the inspirations for the idea?  You mentioned playing in a lot of different situations as a professional drummer, including Chet Atkins, and you undoubtedly heard the Nat Cole Trio and others that used guitar and bass.

CH:    I played with Nat Cole also.  As a matter of fact, Nat played for my wedding.  I can’t BS your listeners and say I had an inspiration.  It just happened.  The fact is, I had an opportunity to make an album, and I just thought of something to be different.  Because the previous albums I’d done with the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet became unbelievably big as far as record buyers and record listeners were concerned, a different concept having a trumpet, baritone saxophone, bass and drums.  So I just more or less fell into the same pattern just by having… I was very fortunate, because George Duvivier and myself at that time were working with Lena Horne, and I knew Howard Roberts and liked the way he played, so when the opportunity arose we just did it, and it came off.  It came off beautifully, I thought.  When you stop to consider the fact that this is 1996, it still holds up today as contemporary as far as the sound and feeling are concerned.

TP:    We’ll step back and ask Chico for word portraits of some of the musicians he was associated with and friends with at different points of his career.  I’d like to ask you about Lester Young’s manner as a bandleader, and the kind of relations you had with him.

CH:    Let me tell you something about Prez.  Prez was one of the most sensitive human beings I have ever met or heard of.  He was a very sensitive man.  And he was total, total music, man.  Prez, Eric Dolphy, people like that… He was totally music.  Prez had a tremendous sense of humor for one thing.  Half the time I don’t know whether he was putting me on or putting everybody on or what.  But he was cool.  He was very cool.  Also he was very proper.

TP:    Well-mannered, you mean?

CH:    Well-mannered in regards to being respectful.  Prez was cool, man.

TP:    Did he have a nickname for you?

CH:    [LAUGHS] Yeah, he had one for me… Yeah, he was cool.  In fact, Prez introduced me to Roy Haynes, and Roy and I became friends after that.  But Prez would call everybody “Miss.”  Miss Hamilton, Miss so-and-so; everybody was “Miss” as far as Prez was concerned.  As a matter of fact, the original word “smothertucker” came from Prez, heh-heh.

TP:    He had a house as well in Los Angeles where a number of people would stay?

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Any memories of that house?  I gather it was a congregating spot.

CH:    No, no… I recall when I first met Prez, it was one of those days I played hooky from school, and we were all meeting over at Lorenzo Fluornoy’s house, because he was having a session.  We used to put the pots on.  In other words, Lorenzo would cook a great big pot of beans or something like that, and all the musicians in L.A. used to come by his pad.  This particular day I came by there, and the screen door was open, and I looked in and I saw Prez, and I saw this lady that was sitting on Prez’ saxophone case who was Lady!  I told (?), “Hey, man, that’s Lady!”  Sure enough, when I got into the house, he said, “Miss Hamilton, Miss Day.”  That’s when I first met Lady.  She was something else, man; she was really something else, too.

TP:    You mentioned Mingus on the tour up and down the West Coast with Floyd Ray, coming out and banging on the bandstand during one of your solos.  You went way back with him.

CH:    Oh, man, we were almost kids together type of thing.

TP:    You grew up near each other.

CH:    Well, no.  I was in L.A.  He was in what they called Central Gardens, which was between L.A. and Watts.  But my wife and Charlie and Buddy Collette, all went to Sunday School, all went to the same church.

TP:    Do you remember which church?

CH:    No.  I didn’t make it! [LAUGHS] Oh, man, I guess we go back to 12 or 13 years, back when we were youngsters.  People say Charles used to do crazy things, but hey, he was always like that.  He was always a mischievous kid, that kind of thing.  We got along beautifully.  As a matter of fact, I had the pleasure of spending some time with him before he passed away…

TP:    You and Mingus and Buddy Collette all knew each other, then, from back when.

CH:    Right.  Buddy had a great influence upon Charlie.  As a matter of fact, Buddy was Charlie’s mentor.  Even up until the time he had got out of Dodge, man, he would always call Buddy.  Every time he had a problem or would run into something, Buddy was his mentor… As a matter of fact, Charlie was playing cello before he played bass, and Buddy talked him into playing bass as opposed to playing a cello.  These guys out in South Los Angeles, they had a band, and we used to jam, and all of a sudden when the main hit came… We all auditioned for one job at the Orpheum Theater, I think it was, to play this show.  Buddy had his band there, and we had our band (the Al Adams Band), and we got the job.  But we needed Buddy and we needed people like that. [LAUGHS] So that’s how we all became one band.  Man, they had a helluva show.  The comedian was Mantan Marlan, and I forget who the big star singer…Ninah Mae McKinney… These were superstars at the time, and we were the pit band.  That’s how we ended up being one very good band.

TP:    In thinking of the types of influences that made the music of the Chico Hamilton Trios and Quintets have a distinctive sound, a lot of the music sounds narrative, like there’s a very specific image in mind, and it would seem influenced in many ways by your exposure to show music and those type of arrangements, film music and things like this.

CH:    I’ll tell you.  The years that I spent as Lena Horne’s accompanist, I was influenced very heavily by Lennie Hayden, her husband.  Between Lennie Hayden and Luther Henderson, my concept as far presentation began to happen, to make things dramatic, make things un-dramatic, whatever…to start creating moods.  I guess the real me started to happen.  I’ve always been a different kind of player.  It was totally impossible for me to try to play like Max Roach, you know, or Art Blakey or Gene Krupa, Jo Jones…

TP:    That was part of the ethos of the time anyway, was for players to develop an individual sound.

CH:    You took a little bit from him, you took a little bit from him, and a little bit from him, and put it all together, and all of a sudden it became you.  That’s what it amounts to.

TP:    By the way, on the liner notes to one of these old LPs, which are an invaluable source of information, you mentioned briefly playing with Jimmy Blanton while the Ellington band was in Los Angeles in 1941, I guess.

CH:    I sure did.  As a matter of fact, I had gone to the movies with my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, and we had just come home from the movie, and it was about 5 in the afternoon, and when I walked up to the porch door, her mother came out and said, “Forrest, Mr. Ellington… They’ve been calling you all day!”  And I said, “Who…?” — that kind of thing.  Sitting in the car was Herb Jeffries, and he said, “Man, we’ve been waiting on you.  Duke wants you to play.”  Sonny became ill, and they were playing the Casa Mañana out in Culver City.  Here again, man, I was about 19 years old, something like that.  And man, I went out there… We came in through the backstage (because you came in through the back), and the band is playing, and the band was swinging, so man, I just knew they had a drummer up there.  My heart stopped.  I was sort of disappointed, because I really was looking forward to it.  It turned out the band was just hitting, playing its keister off!  I went up there and climbed up, way up on the pyramid type of thing…

TP:    Well, with Jimmy Blanton, sometimes you might not need a drummer…

CH:    Well, at that time, the band set-up was… Sonny Greer was on the top of the band.  The band like a pyramid; it came down in pyramids.  And way down by Duke, by the keyboard, was Jimmy Blanton.  So they were playing, oh, something like “Don’t Get Around Much” or one of those tunes, and man, I just sat down and started playing and started sweeping, and next thing I know, Jimmy Blanton turned around and looked up [LAUGHS], and he says, “Wow!”  Anyway, I stayed on there for a couple of weeks.

TP:    Did you get drafted shortly after that?

CH:    A little later, after I got married.  I was about 21 years old.  But one thing about young players at that time, we had all the records.  Every time a record would come out, man, I had the record, and we would listen to the band.  I knew everything everybody did in the band with the solos.  I could hum or whistle the solos just note-for-note almost.  So this made it really easy in a sense, because I depended upon my ear to play with those bands, to keep the time, because I knew the arrangements.  It wasn’t a question of me reading music, because number-one, man, neither Duke nor Basie, when I joined the bands…there wasn’t one stitch of drum music.  You either knew the charts, or that was it.  So this is how I got around that.

TP:    I think one thing about a lot of the drummers of that period, Art Blakey being a great example, is that he could take a piece of music, and then just know it and transform into his thing.

CH:    Well, you develop that.  That’s something you develop.  For instance, the average arranger, he’d write something for the brass section, the reed section or whatever, and write something for the keyboard and bass, would then say to the drummer, “Hey, you know what to do; you’ve got it.”  Because it was totally impossible for an arranger to write a drum chart, to make it swing.  If it’s a march type of thing, that’s something else.  That’s something different. But to write a Jazz chart and make it swing, you don’t need a drum part.  You give the drummer the first trumpet part.  Because that’s where he’ll make the hits.  He’ll play the same kind of figures that the trumpet players would play, more or less.

TP:    Dexter Gordon is another of your contemporaries from teenage years.  And you mentioned on first hearing the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, it was Jug and Dexter.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    I think in a previous interview you described Dexter as being a kind of pied piper as a youngster, who had his horn out all the time.

CH:    We used to call him Big Stoop. [LAUGHS] Dexter.  Dexter started off playing clarinet, and he constantly had his clarinet in his mouth, all over.  That was it.  He was just clarinet, clarinet, this type of thing.  Man, no one really made the progress that Dexter did.  By the time he left L.A., man, automatically he became a giant.  He became something else, and he gained the respect of all the pros, all the heavyweight players — Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Prez, people like that.  Prez was the master.  They all tried to simulate… As a matter of fact, we even tried to walk like Prez, talk like Prez, even the porkpie hat…

TP:    Hold the horn sideways.

CH:    What a lot of people don’t know is Prez held the horn that way because he had a problem.  Most people thought he was doing that for show, but he wasn’t.  He did that in order keep the pressure off his gums.

TP:    That’s why he didn’t put the mouthpiece all the way in his mouth.

CH:    Right.  And that’s one of the reasons for the sound he got, which was a beautiful sound.  That was the bottom line to it.  It wasn’t a question of him doing that just for show.  That was the only way he could play his horn.

We came up beautifully, let’s put it like that.  As young as we were, we were all total music, too.

TP:    It seems like those musical values were instilled in you right from the beginning of playing music.  If you were going to go out and play in the community, you had to have certain things right.

CH:    Exactly.  Even today, man, you never… Music, first of all, deserves to be played well at all times, regardless of whether it’s two people in the place, or if you’re playing in the men’s room or the lady’s room.  Music deserves to be played well.  I grew up with this understanding.  I believe that music is one of God’s will, and God’s will will be done.  That’s what keeps it going forever and forever and forever.

TP:    Back to Lester Young, let’s go back to Fort McCullough, Alabama, and your recollections of that experience.

CH:    Man, that was a bad time period.  It’s part of my past that I don’t want to… It was devastating.  It was very devastating for the simple reason that I’m in the Service, I’m not in the band, but I’m attached to the band.  I’m a drummer, and in my company they made me the company clerk and made me a bugler.  The Drum Corps master knew that I was a drummer, but he made me play bugles, just to show you what was going on.  And when Prez… Now, they attached me to the band, so I wasn’t in the band, but whenever a show came through there, I had to play the show, because they had three drummers in the band and none of them could play the show.    So when Prez and Jo came through there, man, they had guys in this band that couldn’t even hold their instruments.  I mean this.  And these people wouldn’t let Jo Jones and Lester Young in that band.  It was disgraceful.  It was unbelievable.  I still can’t get over it.  But it’s part of my past.  It’s just like a lot of other things that happened down there. [LAUGHS]  I don’t want to talk about that.

TP:    It sounds like the most positive thing that happened there was meeting Billy Exner and learning how to read music.

CH:    That was the most positive thing that happened to me, along with meeting some guys who became my lifelong friends.  Jimmy Cheatham, for instance, was one of the guys who was in the band.  But other than that… Hey, that was then.  This is now.

TP:    Right.  And in our radio chronology, we’re around 1958 in Chico’s music.  The track we’ll hear features a pianist whose name is unknown to me…

CH:    Freddie Gambrell.

TP:    He, bassist Ben Tucker and Chico form the trio.

CH:    Listen, I met this kid in San Francisco.  He’s blind, and he could play his keister off, as you will hear.  This is very rare for the simple reason I haven’t recorded with piano players that much — period.  I played with Art Tatum and Nat Cole, and I did a lot of things with Nat, but it was different, a big thing where he was singing…

TP:    Studio productions.  But with Art Tatum you played as part of the trio?

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Talk a little bit about playing behind Art Tatum?  Was keeping all you had to do, or did you embellish?  What did Art Tatum want from a drummer?

CH:    Well, you’d just try to realize where he was going all the time.  It was dynamite, it was cool.  It was easy playing with Art, in a sense, because all you had to do was swing, keep good time, and that was it.  It was just an accompanying kind of thing; that was it.

TP:    You just worked with him in Los Angeles?

CH:    Just in L.A.  I think we played maybe the 333… Just joints all over L.A.  Clubs, that is.

[MUSIC: CH w/ F. Gambrell, Ben Tucker, "Lullaby Of The Leaves" (1957); Tony Bennett, "Lazy Afternoon"; CH-5 w/ B. Collette (ts), P. Horn (as), "Take The A-Train" (1958); CH-5, Dolphy-Katz, "Something To Live For" (1958)]

CH:    Beat Of My Heart with Tony Bennett was a dynamite record.  Tony and I talked about that during when I was playing for Tony, keeping time for him, the combination of keeping time and playing with my own group… Matter of fact, I was in Philly, at the Showboat when they decided to do it, and I had to come up to New York.  It came off beautifully.  Jo Jones is on there as well.  It was really something.  Now, Tony has always had a good sense of time.  His phrasing is really very unique.  Besides, I like him.  We’re friends.  We’ve been friends a long time.

TP:    The first track featured pianist Freddie Gambrell, who seems not to have been heard much from since.  That really orchestral piano style.  He’d obviously listened some to Ahmad Jamal at that time…

CH:    I don’t even know if he’d heard of Ahmad Jamal then, because I don’t think Ahmad Jamal was known on the West Coast during that period.  This was just a young kid, man.  He was blind, but he could play his keister off.  Fantastic pianist.  Matter of fact, every time I would be in Frisco, there was an after-hour joint where we used to hang out called Slim’s, and we’d go in there and jam all night long.  The night I came in and heard him, he was sounding so good, I wanted to play with him.  So we sat up and played, and I think we played until 9 or 10 o’clock the next day, he and I and I don’t recall who was playing bass at the time.  But here Dick Bock had given me an opportunity to record again, and I told him about this kid, and it all came about.

TP:    A couple of points you raised.  In talking about singers, you didn’t say “playing drums for”, but “keeping time for.”  Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine for a minute, Billie Holiday, Nat Cole.  What’s the difference between playing for a singer within an instrumental situation?  Why is it different?

CH:    Well, number one, you never know what a singer is going to do.

TP:    Does that mean that a singer who is a skilled improviser will treat the music differently, or something less complimentary than that?

CH:    Well, all respects to singers, because I learned how to play by playing for singers.  It calls upon… You have to have a magic wand and you have to be able to look into the future playing for singers.  Because singers are subject to do things on the spur of the moment.  It all depends on what their mood is all about.  If they get an idea in the middle of a phrase, if they decide they don’t want to phrase that way, it will just change automatically, as opposed to a horn player who is more or less restricted because there is just so much he can do.  In other words, there are only so many keys on the instrument, and he’s only got ten fingers on the horn — or three if it’s a trumpet.  Singers, first of all, have the perfect instrument, which is the human voice, and they do with what and do what with.  And to keep time for them… A lot of singers don’t know how to keep time.  They just sing the way that they feel, as if they were singing in the bathroom or in the shower.  So in order to make it cohesive as a drummer, you have to keep the thing going so that the other players, if it’s a piano and bass accompanying the singer, make some sense out of it, so it gives them some idea of where they are at all times.  Because a lot of times, a lot of singers don’t sing in tune.  They have no idea that they’re not in tune, as well as singing the melody or whatever the composition is or whatever the song is.

Overall, in playing for singers, you learn how to anticipate in regards to what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it.  I played for Lena Horne for eight years, and I only saw her once from the front, and that was when we were in Madison Square Garden.  All the rest of the time, the only thing I saw of her, man, was her keister.  I was right behind her.  I developed a system of watching her neck, and I could tell when she was going to reach for a note or something like that.  Playing for Lena was something else, because you never knew what Lena might decide…you never knew what tempo she was going to do something in.  She could sing, man.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for her as a vocalist and for her musicianship… We’re all musicians.  You don’t have to be a player to be a musician.  In other words, I can’t tell you how to listen.  So everybody’s a musician as far as I’m concerned.

TP:    Tell me about your brief time with Billy Eckstine.  Or how brief was it?

CH:    With B?  I did several shows with B.  That had to be in the late ’40s and then the beginning of the ’50s.  Well, number one, B was a trombone player, a musician, and Mr. Class.  He was cool!  He was one of my favorite singers, him and Johnny Hartman.  B contributed a lot, man, to the contemporary style of not only singing, but phrasing and songs, good songs.  B sang good songs.  Everything he sang became a hit, was automatically a hit… Let’s put it this way.  Everything he recorded became big.

TP:    Well, he was a style-setter.  Like you related the way people would wear Lester Young’s porkpie hat, everyone would try to dress like Billy Eckstine.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    He had a much greater impact than people realize on the generation of people who came up after World War Two.

CH:    Well, just like Sinatra influenced a lot of people, Eckstine influenced a lot of people.  He was very hip.

TP:    What was his manner like with the musicians?  He was always supposed to be totally at one with…

CH:    Oh, man, he was a sideman as far as he was concerned!  He was always one of the guys, one of the dudes.  B was cool.  I mean that in a complimentary sense.

TP:    I can’t remember if I asked you about playing with Lady Day or not.

CH:    Lady?  Playing with Lady was dynamite.

TP:    Now, she was unpredictable, but I’ll bet there was never any question about…

CH:    No, she wasn’t unpredictable as far as keeping time was concerned.  Lady swung.  Her and Ella were good swingers.  They swung.  Their phrasing was different.

TP:    Would she treat material differently from one performance to the next?

CH:    Not so much as Lena would.  Lena would treat material different.  Plus, a majority of Lena’s book, her library, her repertoire was very heavily arranged.  It was really a challenge, because it was very well arranged, and we always worked with 12-to-15 piece orchestras accompanying her, whereas with Lady it was Bobby Tucker and a bass player and myself sometimes, which was cool, which really kept a free, flowing kind of thing going.  With Ella it would be the same thing, small groups.

TP:    So the singer would be more like a horn really in a situation like that.

CH:    Well, they were.  Matter of fact, one of the hippest times I can recall playing with Lady, Wardell Gray was on tenor, Hampton Hawes was on piano, Curtis Counce was on bass, and I was on drums.  And man, we swung a hole in her head!  I’ll tell you, we had a ball.  It was a happening.

TP:    So by the mid-’50s, Chico, you were working behind a lot of singers, pretty steady work…

CH:    That’s the name of the game, man, steady work.  Go ahead.

TP:    I understand.  And you came up during the Depression, when you had to have a job.  That was the first order of business.  But I’d like to talk about the development of the Chico Hamilton group in its various configurations.  Of course you’d known Buddy Collette for a good twenty years by this time.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Fred Katz.

CH:    Fred worked with us with Lena Horne.  Lena was doing a production number called “Frankie and Johnny”, and wherever we went we had to have a string section.  We were here in New York, as a matter of fact, at the Copacabana, and it was during the “Frankie and Johnny” period, which was a huge production number, with singers and things like that.  Fred Katz was the cellist in that group.  We became friendly, playing together every night and that kind of thing.  At that time I had no idea that Fred was a pianist as well.  So to make a long story short, when I left Lena I went back to California — my mother was ill.  Just playing around town, I became very disappointed in some of my old cronies who I used to play with.  I didn’t feel as though they had progressed any.  They were still playing the same old kind of way and the same old kind of things.  I got bored.

I realized that the only way for me to play and keep it halfway interesting, I had to get my own thing started — and so I did.  Originally I was going to use the French horn.  There was a French horn player by the name of John Graas.  I had met Jim Hall, and I knew Carson from the Gerry Mulligan days.  Of course, I knew Buddy from growing up; I needed a triple-threat man to play alto, clarinet, tenor, flute.  So the first rehearsal we had, unfortunately, John Graas had a heart attack, so that was the end of that.  Out of left field I get a call from Fred Katz who said he was playing for a singer named Jana Mason, and would I help them out; they needed somebody to make a couple of things with them out at one of those Hollywood places.  So I said, “yeah,” and I went on out, and I played two nights with them.  One thing led on to another, Fred wanted to know what I was doing, and I told him about my group and about John passing.  He said, “What if I come up to the rehearsal and bring my cello.”  I said, “Yeah!”  So he came over, made the rehearsal… It happened to be five guys in the right place at the right time.  That’s the bottom line to it.

TP:    Is that a sound you had in your mind before forming that group?

CH:    No, at first I had French horn in mind (there’s no similarity, but there is a similarity), using the guitar, bass, drums and the horn.  So it developed, and then it went on and became history.

TP:    When Eric Dolphy joined the band in 1958, he came to you as a player who was well known to musicians in the Los Angeles area, a master, mature, 30-year-old musician, already proficient on flute, bass clarinet and alto sax.  When were you first in touch with Eric Dolphy, in the early part of the ’50s?

CH:    Eric followed Paul Horn.  When Paul left the band, I needed another horn player, and my brother, the actor Bernie Hamilton (he and Eric went to school together), recommended Eric.  I vaguely recalled Eric, but I had spent so much time out of L.A., back and forth, that I didn’t know… In the meantime I had called a very good friend of mine, the composer-arranger Gerald Wilson.  Eric was playing with Gerald at the time, and Gerald recommended him very highly.  So that was it.  Eric came on the band and read everything that we had, and sounded fantastic and played exceedingly well.  That was it.  I took him out and brought him east when we went out on tour.

It’s a funny thing.  Some people didn’t like him at first.

TP:    What was it about him that caused that reaction?

CH:    What caused that reaction was because they didn’t understand his style of playing.  Having heard the previous players in my band, people who had a straight-ahead kind of approach to melodies, Eric shook them up, which was dynamite as far as I was concerned.  I watched him grow.  I watched him grow.  I watched him develop into a tremendous player.  And next thing you know, he had a tremendous following going.  At that time I disbanded up that band in New York, and went back to California.

[MUSIC: CH-5 w/ Dolphy, "Gongs East (1958)," "Don's Delight," "Miss Movement" (1959), CH-5 (1992), "Mandrake"]

CH:    That set on touched on Chico Hamilton’s relationship through music with Eric Dolphy, three tracks, plus “Mandrake” from a recent dedication recording on Soul Note, My Panamanian Friend.  If I’m not mistaken, “Miss Movement” from 1959, was Dolphy’s first recorded composition, on which Chico Hamilton sings as well as swings throughout the recording.   On the liner notes to My Panamanian Friend, Jeff Caddick took down Chico’s recollections of Eric Dolphy, and as Chico mentioned before the music: “Every place we went all over the country, the first thing people would say was, ‘Get rid of him!’  Everybody wanted me to fire him.”  Of course you did not do that.  You told him that you needed the sound that Paul Horn and Buddy Collette provided before him, but on solos he was free to operate.  Has this always been the case with your groups that once the solo comes, it’s totally up to the individual…

CH:    You’re on your own.  You’re strictly on your own.  Any time you play music, well-arranged scores, compositions, etcetera, there has to be a certain amount of freedom of expression.  This is my way of letting players develop into what they want to be musically.  So I put no restrictions on anybody’s solo.  If you want to holler on your horn, it’s all right with me.  It’s cool.  Because at least you’re showing me hat you’re reaching for something.  This only way that you’re going to come into your very own as far as making music.  You have to be allowed, you have to be able to play what you hear, play what you feel.  There’s no problem playing notes that are written and arranged a certain way, a certain time meter, etcetera.  This is what Classical music is all about.  But to be able to have that freedom, that’s it.  This is one of the ways that Eric and all of us, in a sense, helped ourselves develop into what we are as players.

TP:    You mentioned again in the recollections in My Panamanian Friend that the second time this band went around the country, Eric Dolphy was accepted by most everyone who heard him, especially the musicians.  Everyone has a Sonny Stitt anecdote from the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s, and so forth, and there’s another one here involving he and Eric Dolphy, with a slightly different resolution than most of the stories you hear.

CH:    Man, let me tell you.  We were in Philadelphia, and in all the clubs in Philadelphia you had to play a 5 o’clock on Monday and Saturday as well as playing at night.  We got in town a couple of days early, and Sonny Stitt was playing.  We were following Sonny Stitt in the club.  So we went to the matinee on a Saturday afternoon.  I think we’d just gotten in that morning.  I had Eric with me.  Eric always carried his horns with me.  We were sitting at the bar, the bandstand was over the bar, and all of a sudden Sonny looks down and sees me, and we speak, we acknowledge each other, and all of a sudden on the mike he says, “Hey, Cheeks, I hear you’ve got a little bad alto player.  Tell him to come up and play something.”  I said to Eric, “Yeah, man, go up and play.”  Sonny Stitt figured he was going to blow him off the bandstand.  So Eric came up, took his horn out, the alto, went up on the bandstand, they did the ensemble, the first chorus, and Sonny Stitt starts playing, plays his thing, does half-a-dozen choruses…

TP:    Played about eight keys…

CH:    Yeah, and things like that.  Then he looked at Eric and says, “You got it.”  Right?  Man, Eric started playing.  Sonny kept looking at me, looking at me, looking at me, looking at Eric: “Where did you get this guy?  Where did you get this guy?”  Eric was something else.  He blew Sonny Stitt off the stand, really.  And that’s saying something.

TP:    In the liner notes to The Three Faces of Chico Hamilton, on which “Miss Movement” appears, there’s a nice quote where you talk about creating an individual environment for each of the tracks with the standard drum kit.  You say, “It’s difficult for a drummer to play anything different than any other average drummer, although each drummer does have his own individual styling.  I use the standard equipment I have with me whenever the quintet takes the stand — two cymbals, sock cymbal, snare drum, tom-toms, bass drums.  I don’t use tympani because I’m not a timpanist; I don’t carry them around.  I work with sticks, mallets and brushes to obtain different sound textures.”  Now, on the 1992 version of “Mandrake” you put a whole different beat and feeling on it than the original with J.C.  Moses on drums.  It was done in a more free-floating time; you use more of a funk beat and so forth.  Talk about analyzing tunes and putting your own stamp on material.

CH:    Well, the fact that Eric Dolphy had done “Mandrake” originally… Well, this album was Jeff Caddick’s idea.  He put the bug in my ear, “Hey, why don’t you do something of Eric Dolphy’s?”  The more I thought about it, I began to realize that it would be dynamite, for the simple reason that people talk about Eric Dolphy, but I haven’t heard any contemporary musician play any of his music.  I’m talking about the contemporary musicians today, the people out here today who are supposed to be reputed Jazz players.  They play Bird, they play Diz, but I haven’t heard them play any Eric Dolphy.  Anyway, to make a long story short, this is why we said, “Yeah, let’s do an album of all Eric’s music.”  Number-one, his music isn’t that easy to play.  Most guys find it problematic structurally.  So in order to put a different twist on it, I just did a different kind of rhythm approach.  As opposed to giving it a straight 4, a Bebop 4, I just put a little Funk thing underneath there, a little Rock beat or whatever you want to call it.  It makes a difference.  As a matter of fact, it was so different that Bonandrini, who owns the record label, didn’t like it at all! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Is there anything else you’d like to say about Eric Dolphy before we move on with the music?

CH:    Eric Dolphy was perhaps one of the nicest guys, nicest person, really… He was a gentleman, and he was totally dedicated to playing, to music, to his instruments, etcetera, etc., and he was a very nice person — very nice.  He did a lot of things for people that they don’t even know he did for them.  He was very kind to everyone.  I don’t think he had a vicious bone in his body, man.  I’m very proud to have spent some time with him.

TP:    The next band, the next period of Chico Hamilton’s career featured four musicians who made their mark on music.  Charles Lloyd on reeds, who was able to give the triple-threat, and also went to USC, as did Dolphy; Gabor Szabo on guitar; Albert Stinson on bass, who had he not died as young as he did, would undoubtedly have made a big mark; and George Bohannon on trombone (a two-horn front line).  A few words about creating different repertoires, different vocabularies, different environments for new groups of musicians.  Are you tailoring the music to the personalities or are the personalities fitting your music?

CH:    Well, Ted, the bottom line to that is that old colloquial expression about “do with what and do what with.”  That says it all.  Do you understand that?  Or is that too far-fetched…or too unfetched?

TP:    That’s clear, I think.

CH:    That’s what I do.  I don’t know what anyone else does.  I learned that from the one and only Edward Kennedy, Mr. Duke Ellington, because he did it better than anyone in regards to tailoring everything he did around the player.

TP:    Now, Ellington chose very carefully and selectively the people who would play with him, 95 percent of the time, I’d think.

CH:    Yeah, but 95 percent of the time he composed or arranged something, he had a particular player or a particular sound in mind.  He had the player in mind.  He knew the sound, but he had the player, because he knew no other player would play it like the player would play it.

TP:    And that’s why he got them.

CH:    Well, you dig?  That’s the bottom line.  In my case I did the same thing.  I would change up on groups.  After so many… It’s not that you get bored, but you use a sound, you do a sound as long as you can, and go with it, and as long as it keeps that thing happening, then it’s dynamite. When the thing begins to not start happening, when it becomes not music, when you find yourself imitating yourself, when you find, “Hey, I’m so busy trying to be Chico Hamilton that I can’t even play,” you know what I mean, then you change up.  It becomes time to change.  No one did that any better than Miles.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for Miles for doing things like that.  And Art constantly had new groups.  Once you find a young player and you help them develop, they’re supposed to move on.  And every time someone moves on, I don’t expect them to play like the previous group or the previous player.  Because here again, everyone’s got their own sound.  They need their own space.

[MUSIC: CH-5 w/ C. Lloyd and G. Szabo, "Witchcraft", "People"; w/ Mariano and Richardson, "Manila", "Conquistadores", "Jim-Jennie"]

CH:    Man, I’m hearing some of this music for the second time.  I never play it.

TP:    You never play your old music?

CH:    No.  As a matter of fact, people when they come to my house, I play everything else but me, and they say, “Hey, why don’t you play something… We want to hear something of yours.”  But I don’t know.  Only rarely do I play any of my music.

TP:    Getting into talk show territory here, what kind of things do you listen to in relaxing and putting music in your consciousness?

CH:    I listen to all kinds of music.  I listen to Classical music, I listen to Rock-and-Roll, I listen to Country-and-Western, I listen to bad music, I listen to good music.  To me, it takes all kinds of music to make music.  I mean that sincerely.  The hip thing is to listen to something and don’t critique.  Just listen to what it is and what it’s all about, and try to put yourself in maybe the player’s shoes or in his place, and if you can understand what he’s doing, what he’s talking about, what he’s trying to say, that’s really dynamite.

TP:    It seems like in the mid-’60s, when you did this series of recordings for Blue Note, you were listening to Spanish music, the Flamenco sound among other things.  You really start using the properties of the guitar quite a bit.

CH:    First of all, at one I time I was the only guy that used guitar.  Everyone else was using the piano and keyboards and things like that.  From the very beginning, I was the guitar player’s best friend.  I’ve always used guitar.  It’s only within the last 15 or 20 years that other people have used guitars and their usage… I’m an originator, man!

TP:    I’m talking specifically about some the devices of Spanish music…

CH:    Oh, the Latin feeling, man.  It’s part of my life.

TP:    A lot of musicians in the Southwest worked in bands dealing with Mexican music, and I asked you off-mike if that had been part of your experience.

CH:    And what did he say?

TP:    He said, “Chicano music?  I have a little of that blood in me, that’s all.”  But I didn’t say it to them.  I’d like you to be saying it.

CH:    Hey, I don’t speak English; I play conga drum, man.

TP:    Well, last time you were talking of playing trap drums as opposed to hand drums, and the distinctiveness of the trap drum set as an instrument.

CH:    Well, there’s a big difference, man; a tremendous difference.  The fact that a drummer is playing a full set of drums, meaning that he has snare drum that he plays with his hands, he has a bass drum that he plays with his feet, and he has a sock cymbal, a hi-hat cymbal that he plays with foot, with his left foot if it’s right-handed, and you have cymbals that you’re playing on, that means you’ve got all four things going as opposed to a hand drummer, who has his hands.  I have a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for hand drummers, because man, their hands are their sticks, their implements, their brushes, their mallets.  Whereas a sit-down drummer, playing a regular set, you have to control each one of these separate instruments which completes the set, and to play, to keep some time and to keep a good rhythm pattern going along with a hand drummer, is… It’s more than a notion.  Because hand-drumming, when they play those hand drums, they get set on a beat.  TOCKY-TI-BOOM, TOCKY-TI-BOOM — that’s set.  Well, in order to get in between there and help it to swing, you’ve got to come up with something entirely different.  But that’s got to correlate, it’s got to groove, it’s got to hit that same pocket.  You’ve got to find out where the main pulse is, whether it’s on one or whether it’s on the upbeat or whether it’s on the downbeat.  If it’s on the downbeat, that means that anything that goes down is down, anything that comes up is up.  It’s not easy for the two to really hit it off and to make it happen, but when it does happen it’s dynamite, when a sit-down drummer and conga player and timbales player can really mash.  It’s cool.  And it was a helluva challenge in the beginning to get this sort of groove going.  It turned out so well that Bob Thiele, who was producing these records at the time… That’s the reason we did a whole series of them, which was cool.

TP:    In the ’60s, you had been in New York, then gone back to California when your mother was ill, then you went from being in the studios backing singers on the West Coast to doing a lot of commercials and being part of the New York studio scene, which was a very different deal.  Talk about your parallel activities during the 1960’s, when those records for Blue Note were being issued.

CH:    Well, I was on the road.  I was virtually on the road at the time.  Because in the Impulse days I had the quartet with Charles Lloyd, Gabor Szabo and Albert Stinson.  That’s mainly the Impulse period.

TP:    Say a few words about each of those musicians and how you recruited them.

CH:    The day that Charles graduated from USC is the day that he joined my band.  I took him on the road.  I took him out of L.A.  He couldn’t wait to get out of L.A.  He wanted to go on the road for the first time in his life.  And Gabor?  We were in Newport when Gabor first heard the group, and he was determined to play with me, play in my group.  As it came about, when I disbanded the cello group and put the word out I was going to form a new group, in some kind of way Gabor found out about it, and next thing I know I get a phone call from him.  Charles helped me to recruit Albert Stinson.  He knew Stinson from playing in Pasadena.  When Stinson first came in the band, he was only 16 years old.  He was a young genius as far as bassists are concerned.  Here again, man, I’m very fortunate.  There happened to be four guys in the right place at the right time.

TP:    A couple of other musicians of note appear in their early years on those recordings, like saxophonist Sadao Watanabe and Arnie Lawrence.

CH:    Sadao’s a big superstar now.  He’s very big over in Japan, and I guess throughout Europe.

TP:    Was he part of your working group?

CH:    Yeah.

TP:    And ditto with Arnie Lawrence.

CH:    You know, there used to be a bar here in New York, one of the hippest bars in the whole entire world.  It was on 48th Street right off of 6th Avenue between 6th and 7th, and it was called Jim and Andy’s.  If you wanted to see or find out where everybody was, you went to Jim and Andy’s, and that’s where we hung out.  As a matter of fact, A&R Studios was right above the bar.  Well, I met Arnie Lawrence at the bar at Jim and Andy’s.  I think Clark Terry introduced us. At that time he and Clark were playing in the Tonight Show band.  One word led on to another, one drink led on to another, and we started hanging out every day.  After my sessions I would hang out there.  It just happened.  I told him, hey, I’m going to start putting something together, and he said he would be interested, and we just started rehearsing and getting it together.  I knew Larry Coryell from the West Coast, and introduced Larry and Arnie both on The Dealer, and the record was a winner.

TP:    Now, in the ’60s your personal style begins to expand vocabulary-wise, and incorporate rhythms from Rock and Funk and Soul Music and Latin Music.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Talk about the process of assimilating these different sounds in your vocabulary.

CH:    You know, if they keep moving they can’t hit you.

TP:    Is that like “sting like a butterfly, float like a bee”?

CH:    [LAUGHS] I don’t know, man… I could give you a big story, BS you about something, but in all honesty I don’t know why.

TP:    Does it have something to do with playing commercials and studio type things where you had to play a lot of different rhythms?

CH:    No.  I was very fortunate as far as my commercial career was concerned here in New York as a producer and a player, because I composed everything.  In order to be different from my competitors, the only thing different that could be would be the rhythms, not the melodic structure of a commercial.  So the fact that I would come up with different ideas, with different rhythm patterns and use them… Hey, once I played a pattern it was mine, and I just went on to use it to enhance upon it.

TP:    What are two or three patterns that were signature Chico Hamilton patterns in the ’60s?

CH:    Well, we have a thing here on a track we’re going to play called “Guitar Willie,” which I’d say would be a typical Chico Hamilton rhythm pattern type of thing.  It’s difficult for me to say how I play.

TP:    This one features Steve Potts, who was introduced with you, Russ Andrews, Eric Gale.  Ray Nance plays violin on this date, who I guess you must have first met when you hit with Ellington that time.  This one is called The Head Hunters… [ETC.]

[MUSIC: CH w/ Potts & Gale "Guitar Willie," "Theme For A Woman"; CH live, w/ Mark Cohen, Abercrombie, "Without A Song" (1971); w/ A. Lawrence, Alex Foster, M. Richmond, B. Finnerty "In View" (1973); w/ A. Blythe, "Sweet Dreams" (1972)]

TP:    A long set of music    by Chico Hamilton from the late ’60s and early ’70s, incorporating electronic and contemporary sounds into his drum style, never losing a beat and creating fresh and original sounds and rhythmic figures.

The final set will focus on recent configurations with young musicians getting seasoning with Chico — Eric Person on reeds, Cary De Nigris, guitar, sometimes Kenny Davis on bass and sometimes no bassist.  Let’s talk about the formation of this recent group, which has produced as strong and cohesive and individual a body of music as any group you’ve had.

CH:    First of all, Cary and Eric, I raised them more or less.  They joined me when they were very young, young guys.  I think both were very new to New York at the time.  We’ve been together eight or nine years maybe… So over a period of time we’ve grown to know each other, know each other’s strong points and weak points in regard to music.  They’ve come into their not only as fantastic players, but very good composers and very good professional musicians.

TP:    Considering the quality of the saxophones you’ve employed since the early ’50s with Buddy College, what are you looking for from your reed and woodwind players?

CH:    First of all, if I feel as if they have something to say and I can help them study, it’s dynamite.  Do you understand that?

TP:    If they have a voice and you can help bring that voice out.

CH:    Exactly.  Because in the beginning they’re not fully  developed.  They don’t even know themselves what they want to do, or they have an idea but they don’t know how to go about getting there.  And fortunately, I am able to help them find a direction.

TP:    What you’re saying is that the ability to get around the instrument is a given once a player is with you, i.e., sound, facility, technique, knowledge of theory and so forth.  But is that the quality you’re looking for?  Is that inner voice looking to break out of the shell, so to speak, or to mature and grow?  Is that the main thing for you?

CH:    Well, one of the important things is that they have a desire to want to grow.  They have a story that they want to tell.

TP:    How do you determine that when you first meet someone?

CH:    Well, it’s not easy, but you can tell.  I’m not impressed with somebody who can play his keister off right away, that kind of thing, who can play the instrument extremely well.  It’s how much music comes out of it, which is a big difference as far as I’m concerned.  I’d rather hear a young player try to do something, and if he doesn’t make it, it’s cool — but at least he tries.   Which means he’s going to really stretch and develop into his own person, his own sound.  That’s the only way music can be different, as long as someone plays himself.  Because you never know… Being a young player, just like being a young person, from a teenager to young adulthood, you mature.  And when you have an opportunity to play the way that we play, the way I structure my sound, my music, my arrangements and things like that, I give full opportunity for a player to be himself and play himself.  That’s why over a period of years all these guys eventually become fantastic soloists as well as good players.  They come out of my band and start their own bands, become good bandleaders with an individual sound.  I guess that’s about as close as I can come to it.  That’s close enough for Jazz anyway, right?

The first track on the next set is a soundtrack from a German movie.  The director was Rudolf Tomei(?), and it was my first association with him.  Since then we’ve done several films.  The most fantastic thing about this score and working with this director, he never forgot why he hired me.  Most directors, somewhere down the line, when you record, they become the composer.  But this man let me do what I thought and the way I felt about his film, which was dynamite.  As a matter of fact, the film opens up with a guy on a bicycle going to the park with his baby daughter.  It’s almost self-explanatory when you hear it.

[MUSIC: CH Movie soundtrack, CH, "Sorta New," "Jeffrey Andrew Caddick," "Song For Helen," "Every Time I Smile"]

TP:    Are you always writing new music?  Does this happen whether you’re working or laying off?

CH:    Always.  It goes in spurts, though.  If everything is right and I’m thinking good, and I come up with some ideas, I’ll just concentrate on writing.  Then when it’s time to play, I’ll just play.

TP:    Do you practice a lot?  Are you past practicing at this point?

CH:    No, I practice, man.  I’d better.  There’s too many young players out there, man!  No, I try to practice every day.  As a matter of fact, I get the guilts when I’m at the keyboard, because when I’m at the keyboard something says, “Hey, man, you should be playing your drums.”  And vice-versa, that type of thing.

TP:    What’s your practice regimen?

CH:    There’s a difference between practicing and rehearsing.  I rehearse with the group, but when I practice, I practice within myself and the instrument.  I try to keep my chops, my hands and my facilities very loose so that I can play, and to have the strength to play… I’m a high energy kind of a player, and if you’re not in shape, playing with these young guys who can play… Eric Person is unbelievable, Cary De Nigris is unbelievable, and we’ve got a new little bass player by the name of Kip Reed who’s for real, man.  So I get as much from them as they probably get from me.  As a matter of fact, I probably come out winners as far as the energy aspect of it and the musical thing.  But in practicing, I practice my instrument because I’m still trying to learn how to play it.

TP:    You mentioned Sonny Greer, Jo Jones and Art Blakey as the three major influences in forming your style.  I’m interested in other drummers apart from them who you’ve admired, perhaps been influenced by, perhaps not, and the reasons why.

CH:    Well, who I consider my peers, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, people like this, I marvel at what they do, the things they have to say drumnistically and the way that they play.  It’s fantastic.  For one thing, no two drummers can play alike, no two drummers can sound alike.  It’s the physical aspect; I might have long arms and they might have short arms, and vice-versa.  This is how you approach the instrument.  They each have something different that they’re saying.  Elvin is completely different from Max Roach, his playing, his style, his whole ambiance, his thunder.  It’s dynamite.  It really drives you.  Max is a classic within himself, within the realm of his ability to do the things he does on the instrument.  And Roy Haynes, here again, he’s completely different from Max.  And I’m completely different from all three of them.  Plus the fact, I like anybody, man.  Any young drummer, anybody who strives to play, because I know what it takes to play the instrument.

TP:    Any of the young drummer who’ve particularly impressed you, or don’t you want to name names.

CH:    Yeah, if I can remember them.  Pheeroan akLaff, I’m very impressed with his playing.  There are a lot of them.   It’s just a question of not remembering their names.  I don’t make the scene too much any more.

TP:    A few words about the drums and dance.  There seems to be sort of an ongoing dance between the drummer and his kit.

CH:    That’s what it’s all about.  The tap-dance.  That’s what drumming is all about, really.

TP:    Did you ever play with any tap dancers?

CH:    Did I ever play with any tap dancers!  Quite a few, as a matter of fact.  There was a tremendous dance team by the name of the Berry Brothers, there was a tremendous team named the Nicholas Brothers.  I kept time for them.  I think I played with Baby Lawrence at one time or another.  When you were in the big bands, that’s what you did.   You played for all those dancers.  Most bands when they were on the road, they were with a show.  There was a complete show.  They would have dancers and singers and things like that.  So you had to learn to play for dancers, which is an art within itself.  But laying down taps on one of my records… The last album I did, Dancing To A Different Drummer, I simulate a tap dancer dancing.  I do a brush solo, which is the same kind of thing, same kind of groove.

[ETC.]

TP:    Chico Hamilton is a drummer who has gone through almost the full history of the music, and he’s experienced just about everything that a working drummer could, from Swing music to backing singers to tap dancers to studio dates and reading, and continued to pick up on contemporary rhythms and formulating a very distinctive and individual style to them.

CH:    I appreciate it immensely.  The chance to come into a studio like this and get to hear your music played for five hours consecutively is a privilege, in fact.  It don’t happen every day!

[MUSIC: solos, "Tap Drums," "The Snare Drum"]

* * *

Chico Hamilton Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.  Charles Mingus, “Mysterious Blues” (from The Complete Candid Recordings of Charles Mingus, Mosaic, 1960/19__). Charles Mingus (bass, composer); Eric Dolphy, alto sax; Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Jimmy Knepper, trombone; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Jo Jones, drums)

I don’t know whether that was Roy or not. It wasn’t Sweets. It might have been Roy Eldridge. That’s either a bad recording of Bird or Sonny Stitt. I don’t know. Neither one of them? I don’t know who it is. The drummer could be Denzil Best. It’s hard for me to detect whoever’s sweeping, you know. As a matter of fact, I’ve never heard this before – for one thing. [There are a few people here whom you know very well.] Was the drummer Jo Jones? Okay, that’s Jo sweeping. Is that George Duvivier? [How do you like the whole thing?] For then, it was good. It’s still good now, but it’s a little… It’s nothing I would retain. It’s just some guys blowing, as far I’m concerned. Dig? Today I’m not really into solos. I don’t care what you play in your solo. I’m more interested in the ensemble sound and things like that. So just listening to somebody blow… Hey, I’ve heard them all and I’ve played with half of them, which is cool. But I don’t know who this is. Who in the hell is that? [Charles Mingus is playing bass.] It was Mingus playing bass? See, now, Mingus and I grew up together. But I’ve never really heard him play like this. I’ve heard enough of this. I’d give it 5 stars. First of all, excuse my French, but they weren’t fucking around, man. They were playing! They were playing their hearts out. As far as the performance is concerned, that’s cool. The alto player moved like Sonny Stitt, but I don’t think Sonny was on the scene during that period. [When do you think it was recorded?] Man, it had to be recorded in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. [It was Eric Dolphy.] That was Eric? I thought it was Eric, but I wasn’t sure. Honest to God.

2. Paul Motian Trio, “Dance” (from I Have The Room Above Her, ECM, 2005) (Motian, drums, composer; Bill Frisell, electric guitar; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone)

I’ve never heard this before. Is this Ornette Coleman? Not having heard this before and not knowing who it is – and you want to know what I think of it? It’s a form of an expression… As far as I’m concerned, it takes all kinds of music to make music. If this is where your head is and your heart is and your listening vibes are, then it sounds right. If it’s not, it’s just some guys – as far as I’m concerned – doing whatever they do. Not to say that they’re doing it well. It’s every player for himself. Now, if there’s some form to it, they know the form. They got the secret. But I haven’t been able to pick up the form. [Any thoughts on the performers?] Well, there again, I’m from the school of having a pulse. I don’t get no pulse of whoever this is who’s playing, regardless of his chops. I’ve had it. It just sounds like they’re exercising. It’s difficult for me to give it stars. One of my favorite phrases is “how’s your feelings?’ That’s what it’s all about, as far as I’m concerned. If that’s the way they felt, dynamite. That’s cool. Far be it from me to say, “Man, they sound like shit.” But in my opinion, I couldn’t listen to this no more than once. I don’t even know what kind of groove they were trying to say. Who were they? The Paul Motian Trio? Lovano ain’t no Mulligan and what’s-his-name ain’t no Bill Evans, so he’s out there by himself as far as I’m concerned.

3. Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums, #1″ (from Baby Dodds: Talking and Drum Solos, Folkways/Atavistic, 1946/2005) (Baby Dodds, drums)

Well, it has to be some drummer from either the ‘50s or ‘60s, because he’s just playing the straight 4/4 on his bass drum. He’s not playing any syncopation licks. Everything’s on the downbeat. A lot of guys played like that during that period. Who that is, it’s difficult to say. Basically, it’s a Gene Krupa style of playing as far as I’m concerned, from what I heard. But it’s not him. You got me. I don’t know who that is. It’s good, though. It’s a little too straight-up and down for me, but the chops were cool. But like I said, I didn’t feel any syncopation. I didn’t hear any hot licks. Everything was straight up and down. It started off as a march and it stayed a march, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll give him 5 stars. He was doing he was doing. Baby Dodds! Well, I knew it was one of those guys who went way back there. That’s cool. As a matter of fact, on my solo drum album I had 10 tracks, and every last one of them was different – rhythmically different.

4.  Jason Marsalis, “Seven Ay Pocky Way” (from Music In Motion, Basin Street, 1999) (Marsalis, drums; John Ellis, tenor saxophone; Derek Douget, alto saxophone; Jonathan Lefcoski, piano; Peter Harris, bass)

It’s played very well. Having the rhythm, having drummer playing on top like that is dynamite; he’s got his shit going. But I have no idea who it is. I’ve never heard this before. But it’s good. [Do you like to incorporate these kinds of beats in your playing?] Here again, I’ve got the feeling of that New Orleans style of drumming; in other words, you’re dancing, but you’re not swinging. Strutting. But whatever they’re doing, they’re doing the hell out of it. I’ll give it 5 stars, too, man.

5.  Charles Lloyd, “Heaven” (from The Water Is Wide, ECM, 2000) (Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Brad Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Billy Higgins, drums)

That’s Charles Lloyd. I finally got one. How do I know it’s Charles Lloyd? I raised Charles Lloyd. I gave him his first job, man, when he came out of school in L.A. He was at USC. When he graduated, I took him on the road. He was playing alto then. He eventually got to tenor. I don’t know the song. Oh, it’s by Ellington? Did Duke write it or Swee’pea wrote it? Duke wrote it? Okay. The performance? It’s par for the course. How do I mean that? His treatment for this particular composition is dynamite! He couldn’t do it any better. So that’s it. Is the drummer Billy Higgins? I thought quite a bit of his playing. Billy was a good player. He’s doing probably the same thing here that I would do – or I would do the same thing he was doing. There’s only one way to play for this kind of thing, to play on this kind of rhythm. 5 stars. It’s cool.

6.   Chick Webb, “Liza” (from Chick Webb/Ella Fitzgerald: Savoy Ambassadors, 1936-1939, JBM, 1937/1991) (Webb, drums; Bobby Stark, trumpet; Sandy Williams, trombone)

Is this Gene Krupa? No? It’s not Buddy Rich. Either Dave Tough or somebody like that? [It’s not a white drummer.] Cozy Cole. No? Shit, well, I don’t know who it is. The tune is “Liza.” Oh, it’s Chick Webb. Why do I know it’s Chick? Because of the kind of chops he had. Buddy Rich and Gene and all those guys all sort of duplicated Chick. You can’t compare him to Baby Dodds. Baby Dodds was a different kind of player. Chick swung. Baby Dodds didn’t really swing. He was a good timekeeper. But Chick’s pushing this whole band. I’ll give it 5 stars, man. I’ll give it 8 stars! Man played his ass off.

7.   Matthew Garrison, “Unity” (from Shapeshifter, GJP, 2004) (Garrison, electric bass, keyboards, programming; Arto Tuncboyacian, percussion; Jojo Mayer, drums; Jim Beard, keyboards; Sabina Sciubba, vocals; Gregoire Maret, harmonica)

I don’t know what to say about this. Everybody’s got a different groove and different moods going, as far as sounds are concerned, and everybody’s got a concept. I don’t know exactly what they have in mind. But the ensemble playing is, in a sense… There’s a lot of shit going on. I can’t really hear one particular thing. Even with the drum solo, the rhythm solo, it’s either timbales and bongos or cowbell and… It’s cool. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve had it, man. I didn’t think much of it, man. Not to say that it isn’t good, because evidently somebody must have liked it. That’s Matt Garrison? The kid? He did a couple of dates with me, man. I didn’t know that was Matt. I’m not in that bag right now. I’m not in that kind of a groove. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t know how to evaluate it.

8. Hamid Drake, “Bindu #1 for Ed Blackwell, from Bindu to Ojas” (from Bindu, Rogueart, 2005) (Drake, drums, frame drums; Daniel Carter, Greg Ward, clarinet; Sabir Mateen, bass clarinet, Ernest Dawkins, tenor saxophone)

See, with something like this, it’s hard to maybe distinguish what the drums sound like, because they all sound the same. It’s one drummer doing all that? Overdubs? Is that a soprano saxophone or a clarinet? Here again, man, you lost me. I don’t know who that is. The rhythm is a typical rhythm. I’m not excited about it. It’s not going to make me say, “Man, what’s this dude doing.” Matter of fact, it’s really just straight up and down. You hear these horns? You know what this sounds like to me? It sounds like in the music room, and the teacher walks out of the room, and all the players begin to play.

9. Gerald Wilson, “Jeri” (from In My Time, Mack Avenue, 2005) (Gerald Wilson, composer; Lewis Nash, drums)

Is that a West Coast band? It sounds like a West Coast style of arranging and orchestration. Oh, it’s a New York band playing? [Why does it sound like a West Coast band?] First of all, it’s not a Gerald Wilson West Coast sound. No, I don’t think so. But it’s got that West Coast feeling. I don’t think it’s Gerald’s writing. To me, they don’t swing as hard as East Coast ensemble playing. Oh, that’s Gerald? It really didn’t sound like Gerald’s writing to me. Oh, that’s Jon Faddis there. I don’t know who the drummer is. Maybe what I don’t really think is cool is the way the drums were recorded – miked. It’s getting too much of a rickitick type of sound. It didn’t pick up his cymbal playing with the swing of the rhythm section. It would be difficult for me to say… Well, I didn’t think it was Gerald, but once you mentioned it, I heard some things. But the rhythm section didn’t sound like an East Coast rhythm section. I like Lewis Nash’s playing very much. He’s one of the young players that I have a tremendous amount of respect for. I’ll give it 5 stars for the ensemble and all.

10.  Tony Williams, “Crystal Palace” (from Native Heart, Blue Note, 1990) (Williams, drums, composer; Wallace Roney, trumpet; Bill Pierce, tenor sax; Mulgrew Miller; Ira Coleman, bass)

When was this recorded? 1990? The drummer is playing his ass off. Rhythm-wise, the pianist is kind of like Herbie Hancock and Wynton Kelly. Is that Philly Joe Jones? It’s the way he’s dancing. Roy Haynes? I’m getting warm. It isn’t Elvin. Elvin is a little more thunderous. This dude is swinging as well as… He’s got nice licks, nice chops. [Does he sound like an original player?] It’s difficult for me to say who is original in this particular style. Because you’ve got half-a-dozen players who play this style. That isn’t Lewis Nash, is it? I don’t know who it is. Tony Williams!? I never even thought about Tony. But like I said, he’s playing his ass off, plus the fact that he’s swinging. My goodness. I dug the shit out of Tony. Matter of fact, he dug me, too. A strange thing. When Tony passed away, I was out of town, and when I came back, picking up my messages, Tony had left a message on my service. 5 stars. In fact, I’ll give Tony 12 stars. Beautiful player.

11.  Don Byron-Jason Moran-Jack DeJohnette, “I’ve Found A New Baby” (from Ivey-Divey, Blue Note, 2004) (Byron, clarinet; Moran, piano; DeJohnette, drums)

Well, for one thing, this turns me off. I just hate to hear a player play 4/4 on the bass drum like that. That means he isn’t really going to be playing any syncopation. Everything is straight up and down on the bass. I don’t know who these guys are. The clarinet player ain’t happening as far as I’m concerned. That was my first instrument. You hear that squeak? Is that “I Found A New Baby”? No stars. What makes you think I don’t like it?! Jack DeJohnette? Oh, shit. I’m surprised that it’s DeJohnette. It didn’t sound like his playing. It didn’t sound like his instrument. He can play his ass off. But it didn’t do anything for me.

12.   Roy Haynes, “The Best Thing For You” (from Love Letters, Eighty-Eights/Columbia, 2002) (Haynes, drums, Kenny Barron, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone)

I don’t know who these guys are, but I’ll tell you one thing – they’re together. The rhythm section is happening. The piano player is exceptionally good. So are the drummer and the bass player. As a rhythm section, they’re happening. But I couldn’t tell you who they were right now. I don’t know who the tenor player is, but I’d say he’s a contemporary player, a player of the day, who plays everything. 5 stars. That’s Roy? The master. Dynamite. Very good. I’ll give that 14 stars, and give Roy Haynes another car! I love Roy’s playing. As a matter of fact, Prez introduced me to Roy. We met in L.A. My man.

13.  Max Roach, “Sassy Max (Self Portrait)” (from Survivors, Soul Note, 1983) (Max Roach, drums, composer)

That sounds like some I would probably be doing. I don’t think it’s me! I work with my hands and sticks to get the clave feeling, syncopated rhythms like that. That’s all he’s doing, is working with the snare drum with the stick and his hands, and the bass drum, which is cool. [LIGHTNING PASSAGE] I do things like that. Is it Billy Higgins? I have no idea. Is that Max? Max stealing my thing? [LAUGHS] It’s good. Like I said, it sounded like something I would be doing. Hey, man, there’s only one Max. Max was the first musician I met when I came to New York City in 1947 with Lena Horne. Max Roach was the first musician I met here, and we’ve been friends ever since. I was at the Capitol Theater, and one of Max’s friends was Charlie Drayton, the bass player. He came up to see Charlie, and we were in the dressing room, and me and Max started playing on the chairs. We hit it off. Ever since, we’ve been cool. I’m sorry he’s not doing too well now. But he was original. God bless him. 15 stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Chico Hamilton, DownBeat, Drummer, Obituary, 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.”

_________________________________________________________________

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

For Andrew Cyrille’s 74th Birthday, a 2004 DownBeat Feature , and Several Verbatim Interviews

For Andrew Cyrille’s 74th birthday, I’m posting my “director’s cut” of a DownBeat feature, as well several contemporaneous interviews, an interview that appeared in the liner notes for one CD of the double set Anthony Braxton & Andrew Cyrille: Duo Palindrome 2002, and the proceedings of a WKCR interview  from 1997.  Additionally, here’s a link to a previously posted Blindfold Test from the early ’00s, and an interview i conducted with the maestro in 2001 for a piece on Cecil Taylor. (http://tedpanken.wordpress.com/tag/andrew-cyrille/)
* * *
Over a fortnight in July, Iridium, the upscale mid-Manhattan venue, presented two very different bands comprised primarily of hardcore survivors of the ‘60s “New Thing.” The common denominator was drummer Andrew Cyrille, who fed and stoked the simmering fires that, back in the day, had led the cohort to try to change the world with music.

During the first week, Cyrille participated in open-ended tabula rasa sets with Henry Grimes and Perry Robinson, who were joined for one night apiece by Dave Douglas and Gary Bartz and for the final four by Bennie Maupin. On week two, Cyrille and bassist Reggie Workman propelled outcat avatars Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd through 12 sets of their own programmatic music. Cyrille addressed each circumstance with the finesse and power of a master tennis player, instantly intuiting intentions, recalibrating dynamics and rhythmic shape, volleying back deadly accurate, complementary responses to every salvo and deploying an enormous lexicon of beats and timbres to keep his postulations fresh. In the consistency of his creativity and unfailing professionalism, Cyrille epitomized the discipline and exhilaration of speculative improvising at its highest level.

These qualities are no secret to Cyrille’s peer group. Attracted by his ability to mold a multitude of drum dialects into a continuous  stream of ideas, composer-improvisers like John Carter, Muhal Richard Abrams, Leroy Jenkins, Oliver Lake, Don Pullen, David Murray and John Lindberg employed him extensively on projects during the ‘80s and ‘90s. During the past 15 years, he’s partnered with Workman and Lake in a coop trio, and on numerous gigs and recordings with Mal Waldron, Horace Tapscott, Dave Burrell and Finnish saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen. In the ‘70s and ’80s, Cyrille expressed his compositional voice with Maono, a quartet featuring David S. Ware and trumpeter Ted Daniel, and over the past decade he’s led more consonant, groove-oriented ensembles that articulate the rhythms and melodies of the African diaspora. These followed the pioneering 1969 solo drum recital What About [BYG] and a 1972 percussion dialogue with Milford Graves entitled Dialogue of the Drums. Over the past quarter-century, Cyrille has documented a string of extemporaneous encounters with such diverse artists as Jimmy Lyons, Irene Schweizer, Richard Teitelbaum, Vladimir Tarasov, Borah Bergman, Peter Brotzman, Odo Addy, James Newton, Peter Kowald, Greg Osby and, recently, with Anthony Braxton.

In a conversation for the liner notes of Duo Palindrome: 2002, Vols. 1&2 [Intakt], documenting the Braxton-Cyrille meeting, Braxton, whose 1979 duets with Max Roach are classics of the idiom,  illuminated Cyrille’s extraordinary resourcefulness at musical conversation. “Andrew has his own special rhythmic logics and sense of time, and he hears everything in the music,” he said. “He has a very clear understanding of what constitutes an idea. He works with devices that he’s evolved to suit his own needs that give the illusion of time in a very strict way. He’s a conceptualist who is able to respond to the moment in a dynamic array of syntaxes and propositions, while at the same time, his work is very mature and he goes to the HEART of the problem.”

“Andrew is a very sharp-minded individual,” says Grimes, who recalls first breaking bread with Cyrille on a Brooklyn gig with baritone sax legend Harry Carney in 1963, and toured with him and David Murray shortly before the Iridium engagement. “We develop forms playing with each other. I think the important thing to remember is that we both learned to do that playing with Cecil Taylor. You never forget those things.”

* * *
“I didn’t know that,” Taylor laughs, upon being informed that Cyrille, his regular drummer from 1964 until 1975, was preparing at the time they first met to matriculate at St. John’s University as a chemistry major. Born in Brooklyn in 1939 to Haitian immigrants, Cyrille learned his rudiments in a junior high school drum-and-bugle corps from instructors like Lenny McBrowne, Willie Jones and Lee Abrams, all established jazz drummers of the day. They brought the aspirant to see Max Roach, himself a son of Brooklyn, rehearse at a bar called the Putnam Central  around the corner from his school, and told him about Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke and Shadow Wilson. By 16, Cyrille, who had bussed dishes at a Horn & Hardhart cafeteria and rolled carts of ready-to-wear around Manhattan’s Garment District after school, was earning pocket money on local dances and social functions with a trio that included guitarist Eric Gale. Soon, he was swinging on gigs with eminent beboppers like pianist Duke Jordan and baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne.

One afternoon, trumpeter Ted Curson heard Cyrille rehearsing, and came in from the street to listen. “When the rehearsal was over, Ted said he was going to Times Square to rehearse with this piano player,” Cyrille recalls. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come on over? You never heard anybody play piano like this in your life.’ I took my snare drum. We went to the school, and I met Cecil Taylor. Cecil let me sit in, and then we took the train uptown and played some more at a club on Amsterdam Avenue around 154th Street where I’d gone several times for sessions.”

“What I remember about Mr. Cyrille,” says Taylor, “is a session at a place on 158th Street called Branker’s. I think it might have been Mal Waldron’s gig, and he allowed me to sit in. At one point Andrew sat in with me, and played a rhythm that made me stop playing. I looked at him, and I asked him, ‘And what is that?’ He gave me that wonderful Haitian smile and said, ‘Well, you want me to try it again?’”

That year, Cyrille, daunted by the difficulty of studying chemistry by day, gigging at night, and doing both to the best of his ability, opted for music and transferred to Juilliard. There he “learned the literature and materials and theory of music,” and began to accrue the strains that comprise the sum of his mature tonal personality. “My head was into jazz, and that’s what I wanted to get together,” he says. “My teacher told me he’d prepare me to work in one of the symphony orchestras, which was not what I had in mind. So I went out and found people who would help me – like Nellie Lutcher, Mary Lou Williams, Illinois Jacquet, Hank Mobley and Kenny Dorham. The first drummer Freddie Hubbard played with when he came to New York was me, at the Turbo Village in Brooklyn. Same with John Handy; we played a gig at the Shalimar in Harlem, across the street from Sugar Ray’s by the Hotel Theresa.”

Extracurricularly, Cyrille gigged and recorded with Sudanese bassist-composer Ahmed Abdul Malik and Babatunde Olatunji’s drumcentric ensemble, and began the process of internalizing the rhythms of the African continent and extrapolating them to the drumset. He played for classes at the June Taylor School of Dance for emerging choreographers like Michael Bennett, Jamie Rogers, and Claude Thompson. “That taught me a lot about playing drums in an independent manner, and making music from the drums,” he states. “I drew on that experience in making solo percussion records. Someone would tell me, ‘Make my body move,’ and I had to play the rhythms and accent things in a way that would do that. I also learned the way Africans visualize some dance component when thinking about the music. When I began working with Cecil, he would ask me what informed my playing, and one thing I told him was that dance did.”

As Cyrille accumulated knowledge, he became restless with the musical status quo. Throughout this time, he remained in touch with Cecil Taylor. “Cecil wasn’t who he is now,” Cyrille states. “He was a guy who was practicing and wanted to get his thing together. We’d run into each other, or he’d hear me play, and say, ‘Yeah, man, sounds like you’ve been listening to Philly Joe Jones.’ I mean, Cecil had his ear to what was going down. We developed a spiritual relationship through our musical attraction until we began to work together regularly.

“I had never heard anyone play the piano that way – the speed, the alacrity, his passion for the music, the information he had, the way he notated his music, what he asked from each of the musicians who played the music in rehearsals. With Cecil I could do whatever I wanted. I think only twice during the eleven years I played with him did he ever say, ‘Play five beats of this’ or ‘give me three beats of that.’ He’d say, ‘Man, you know how to play the drums. Do what drummers do.’ So it was incumbent upon me to make sure that my integrity was as true-blue as Baby Dodds or Zutty Singleton!  I did not want to do anything against the tradition of those guys, and the people from whom I learned, like Max and Art and Philly Joe, in case people might say that it wasn’t it wasn’t blue-blood, so to speak. I got my information together on every aspect of the drumset – the independent coordination, the foot-play, the dropping of the bombs, being tasty, playing in the spaces, accompanying – and I brought my information to the table. But it was my own sense of how to do it. It wouldn’t necessarily be the same kind of rhythms my mentors they would play or the way that they would parse or organize the rhythms. But then again, it was!”

“Mr. Cyrille had a secret,” Taylor says, choosing his words with care. ”You could take him wherever you wanted, and he had the ability to distill whatever the structures were, to go with you there, and react in the most musical way in any situation. He understood—and understands—about the joy of accompanying, and feeding, and being fed. He is meticulous as well as exquisite. He is the epitome of the logical, but beyond that, he’s magical. The logical world could be painfully objective, but he is magical in the sense that he understands what the sound perimeters are, and because of his exquisite taste, he makes a transition from being logical to being a spiritual healer.”

Taylor recounts hearing Cyrille put his process to work over a week at the Blue Note several years ago with Mal Waldron and Workman. “I went three consecutive nights,” he says. “It was an experience in what mature musicians can do. On one occasion it came time for Andrew to make his drum statement, and I felt I was actually hearing the music transposed from piano to Andrew’s instrument. You could actually hear Andrew developing the material in Mal’s compositional form, and see the slices of the structure being transformed by Andrew’s playing.”

Whatever the context in which the give-and-take of improvising occurs, Cyrille attends to the kinetics of sound in motion. “I think a lot of the invention in improvising comes from the push-and-pull of people playing their own rhythms, motifs, themes in keeping with their concept of the music,” he says. “I try to think of a rhythmical shape that will allow me to make music with the voices of the drums. For example, when Cecil sits down at the piano, he’ll usually start with something pointillistic and jagged. So I’ll begin that way, then I’ll take a step, another step, two-three steps, then sit back and listen for a while, and pace, like fencing or a cat stalking a mouse.”

* * *
In one of their rare meetings since 1975, Cyrille joined Taylor’s group for a panoramic 1999 Berlin concert, documented last spring on Incarnation [FMP]

“Cecil was very sharp,” Cyrille recalls. “We had a magical dialogue. This kind of improvising is a matter of very close listening and trading of information. It’s like a game. We put forth sounds, ideas, rhythms, melodic fragments that turn into much longer statements, and we surprise each other with replies and continue to evolve within the dialogue. It can be endless. And when we decide to resolve what’s happening, it’s as though we’ve finished a conversation. We’ve grown, matured, to some degree even mellowed. It’s always a struggle to create art. But the way we put forth the effort is so much smoother and more nuanced. We’re much more confident with the language than we were.”

Cyrille manifests that confidence whether, as Workman puts it, he’s “doing what you do the way you want to do it or compromising certain things to satisfy a need.” “I believe that the more you know, the more you have to say,” he says. “For me, it’s about learning how to play music, and music is broad. It’s giving what’s being asked for. When I was in school, Willie Jones and all those cats talked about, ‘You’ve got to be a professional.’ Max Roach was a consummate professional. I’d see Gigi Gryce and Jackie McLean at a place called the Continental, and they looked professional. That means they were working and making money.”

During the ‘70s, as musicians from Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles came to New York and shook up the scene, Cyrille found new sources of inspiration. “What I got from those people is that there’s no particular formation or configuration to play this music,” he says. “I appreciated that cultural perspective. I love adventure. I love to explore. It boils down to being creative and dealing cooperatively within the concept the music presents to find exciting, new and different stuff. It’s how you reinterpret the prescription to make things happen.

“When I’m playing with Braxton, then it’s a different prescription from forty years ago. It’s different when I play with Muhal Richard Abrams, but sometimes it’s the same, because Muhal often plays blues at the end of his gig, and he’ll want a backbeat. I used to play organ gigs at those places where Don Pullen also played, like Hempstead, Long Island, on Thursday or Friday nights, when those sleep-in women who worked at the homes out there had a night off. You’d have the blue and green lights turning around, with those filters, people were dancing and men were meeting women, and a lot of times you had to play those blues so those people could get off, so they could actually feel they were having a good time. You LEARNED how to do that. That’s part of being a professional. With Cecil I did what I wanted to. But the challenge then is to keep something happening on the same level as it would happen if I was playing the blues, or if I was playing with a dancer who would say to me, ‘Okay, drummer, make my body move.’”

“Part of the excitement of playing with Andrew is the spectra of gambits thrown into the air,” says Braxton. “It’s not like we just do everything we can come up with. We define parameters and work inside them, and he presents me with very mature ideas and conceptual propositions to either accept or transform. There are rhythmic time spaces, sections that demonstrate extreme timbre states, sections which take more silence into account, and sections which are multi-directional. His vocabulary is really broad. It’s the same with Max Roach. He has enough ideas and experience to take the hi-hat, make a whole concert on it, and not bore you. Andrew has that kind of understanding. His music goes past the concept of idiomatic. He always respected the scholastic and scientific components of the music, he’s always been open, and that openness put him in a very different psychological and vibrational space from many of the New York musicians of his era.”

Closing in on 65, Cyrille is not about to close any doors. “When the element of surprise is not there, it doesn’t seem like there’s too much happening,” he concludes. “I remove as much of any barrier as I can, I aim for the heavens, and always try to have something that will surprise not only myself, but the musicians I am playing with and the audience that listens.”

* * *

Andrew Cyrille (7-22-03) — for Duo (Palindrome) 2002:

TP:    Was this your first duo interaction with Braxton?

CYRILLE:  The first duo, yes.

TP:    What’s your performing history with him?

CYRILLE:  I did a recording, it must have been back in the ’80s, with him and Jon Raskin, the bassist Cecil McBee, and a pianist named Dred Scott, on Tristano music.  That was for Hat Hut.  Years ago we did a concert in Connecticut — I think at Wesleyan, when Bill Barron was up there and Bill Lowe.  Anthony Davis, Gerry Hemingway; a lot of cats who were new music at that time, and that was one of the places where it was done.  Prior to that, I first met Braxton in Paris when I went there with Cecil in 1969.

TP:    That’s when he traveled to Europe with Leo Smith and Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  Maybe it was during that BYG Festival business, when all the musicians were in Paris, and I did those recordings with Grachan Moncur and Jimmy Lyons, and I did the solo What About album.  I met Braxton in the street, and I forget the details, but he came up and said, “Oh, my name is Anthony Braxton,” and we started talking and meeting each other, etc.  It was just guys from different parts of the country who were into the music, and in Paris, and had something in common.

After that, I’d see him in Europe and other places on occasion.  He was doing a lot of recording.  He was then almost the way David Murray was in terms of recording.  He was recording all the time.  He was the darling of a lot of those people.

TP:    That quartet was very popular for a few years.  He kept them working quite a bit.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, he did a lot of stuff.  Before that I saw him with Circle, that quartet with Chick Corea.  So I’d been checking out Braxton from time to time.  I remember this one time someone had put out the word that he didn’t want to work with drummers, or something derogatory from him about drummers, and I went up to him at the old Five Spot and asked him about it.  And he said, “Me?  No, man. How can I not love drummers?  I play with drummers all the time.  Drummers are some of my favorite people.” Blah-blah, blah-blah.  You know how he gets.

Then later on, I heard that duet recording he did with Max Roach.  And on a number of occasions, he said to me that I was one of his favorite drummers and one day he’d like to do a duet with me.  He’d done one with Max Roach and he’d like to do one with Roy Haynes.  I don’t know if he ever did one with Roy Haynes, but here I am, number two, and maybe one day he might do something with Roy.  But that’s more or less how we got in touch with each other.

TP:    What was your early sense of the dynamics of his music?  I’m presuming you didn’t listen too closely to it, but enough to form an opinion.  How would you describe his musical personality?

CYRILLE:  It was different. See, a lot of times what defines great musicians, and sometimes you have to get used to this… It’s not necessarily the melodies they play, or maybe even the harmonies they play, but it’s the rhythm.  And the way he assigned rhythm was just a little bit different.  It was a little bit pointillistic, you might call it.  Steve McCall was working with him on occasion…

TP:    Barry Altschul played in that group, so did Thurman Barker and Gerry Hemingway.  It was a pulse-oriented group.

CYRILLE:  All I’m saying is that the way he would play… I bought a couple of records.  To me, a lot of the music was pointillistic. In other words, BEEP bop, BOOP.  Buh-bu-bup.  buh-bup.  That’s kind of what I thought about it.  I knew he could play tunes, etc.  But then, when we played Lennie Tristano music, which had to do with straight-up-and-down bebop, more or less, then he came into another light.  The light had to do with, I guess, playing not in a pointillistic, but let’s say kind of a legato, where you had those melodies, like “Lennie’s Pennies,” based on “Pennies From Heaven.”  Those kinds of bebop lines. The legato kind of thing instead of staccato.

TP:    So you found that could go into various approaches depending on the context.

CYRILLE:  Exactly.  Which is the sign of a great musician, somebody who is flexible and has studied and learned the language.

TP:    What was it like to work for him that first time in organizing that Tristano date?

CYRILLE:  Well, it was a lot of work.  I can’t say that it was easy. But he knew what he wanted to do.  He had a sense of direction, and he knew more or less what he wanted from each one of us. When we play jazz, period, I don’t care what variation it is, most of the composers or people who are the leaders want you to play the material their way, so then we can come together.  I just had to find my way on the drumset with that music, and then we’d bring my department to the other departments, and join them so we could have more or less a corporation — or a cooperation.  It was pretty cool.  I enjoyed that music.  Everybody was straight-ahead, everybody wanted to make it a success, and I think it came out being that.

TP:    In a broader sense, what was your impression when you encountered the AACM guys 35 years ago?  You’re a New York musician, and that approach wasn’t necessarily agreeable to every New York musician. Maybe I’m wrong about that when you all were in Paris.  But what was your overall impression of that earlier AACM music at the time?

CYRILLE:  I have always been one who understood the regionalisms that existed and exist in the music.  First, I knew that there were regional bands, and people who came from different parts of the country and played the music a bit differently, who came in with certain ideas and feelings and things they thought were important, and at the same time made the contribution to the whole.  I felt the people from Chicago were some of the most innovative in terms of breaking with the tradition as well as being part of the tradition.  I know they were doing all sorts of things in terms of how they were composing. It wasn’t AABA form a lot, or the sonata form, so to speak.  They were playing a lot of extended forms, and doing all sorts of things rhythmically and harmonically that maybe some of the other people from other places weren’t doing.  You had musicians who came out of Detroit, you had musicians who came out of Indianapolis, even the New Orleans people…

TP:    But what I’m getting at, Andrew, is that perhaps more than any other New York musician of your period, you really embraced the aesthetic that a lot of the AACM and BAG people were dealing with when they got to New York.  You played with Muhal for years, and others.  As a New York musician at the time, with Cecil, I mean, Cecil was pretty much full-bore straight-ahead and take no prisoners type of thing in 1966 and 1969 — though I guess not all the time.  But it was a different attitude toward organizing music.  So I wonder if you can trace back to the impact that attitude of making music had on you.

CYRILLE:  Now, you’ve got to remember that we’re talking about Cecil, who of course is one of the great people in my music life.  But I’m not Cecil, see!

TP:    But you were in the band 11 years and knew him from the late ’50s.

CYRILLE:  That’s true.  But as a result of having experienced playing with Cecil and wanting to make a contribution to the history of the music, to the lexicon of the music, and especially as far as drums were concerned, AND the fact that my mind was opened… I was still and am still learning.  I love to explore different ideas with people and see what I can do with those ideas as far as those drums are concerned. I’ve done things with Japanese musicians, or the drummer Vladimir Tarasov from Russia, and the dancers, etc.  So when I met people like Muhal and Leroy Jenkins, and they asked me to part of their concepts… I even organized a tour and took Henry Threadgill and Fred Hopkins to Europe after Steve McCall quit Air.

There was another contingent of musicians from Chicago who I’d had the opportunity to work with prior to the time when people like Muhal and Jenkins and Wadada and George Lewis… I worked with George and Leroy and Richard Teitelbaum… Well, Teitelbaum isn’t from Chicago, but I met him long ago in Connecticut.  All of those people were more or less in touch with each other.

But just to get back to what I was saying about my openness, and the fact that… Look at Coleman Hawkins.  He was all over the place, doing all kinds of things with people.

But getting back to the other Chicago musicians:  I met people like Julian Priester.  Also there was John Gilmore, whom I had done some work with in the Olatunji band.  And on a couple of occasions, I did play with Sun Ra and that Arkestra — way back when.  Sun Ra used to come to my house, as a matter of fact, when I was living in Brooklyn.  He and Walt Dickerson used to show up early in the morning.  There was Clifford Jordan, who I’d played with on occasion, doing some gigs in Brooklyn.  Charles Davis was another one, who lived around the corner from me.  So it’s not that I didn’t know these guys.  So when the second wave came in, hey, here I am.  I’ve got feet in both camps, so to speak — the bebop camp and then the avant-garde camp.  But I knew this, too.  If I were going to do something that was a bit different from some of the other drummers, then I knew I had to do something that was going to be conceptually acceptable to a lot of those people from the AACM.  And that’s where their heads were.  So in a sense, my connection with Cecil, who let me know that I could do anything with anybody I want, any time I wanted to do that… So it was no problem for me dealing with the concepts of the people from Chicago.
All I know about all of this stuff is, if somebody asks me to do something with them, and if it’s different, then I have to learn about what it is, and then it’s my job to bring it to life — especially if I like it.  If I don’t like it, that’s a different story.  But for John Carter and all those people, I have to bring this stuff to life.  A lot of the stuff is written music. But it’s not the page that’s playing the music, it’s the person.  That’s the way I feel about most of that stuff.

TP:    Are there different challenges for you in dealing with, let’s say, the less pulse oriented forms of drum music that you’d be encountering?  Did you have to develop new techniques?  Did you have to develop a difficult vocabulary?

CYRILLE:  That’s an interesting question.  Most of the time, when I think about myself, I think about myself as using pieces of the language that I have learned from the traditional greats, like Jo Jones and Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones and Baby Dodds, and listening to all of those people, seeing and hearing how they would play.  Frankie Dunlop and the big bands I saw him playing with.  Rufus Jones.  Even Buddy Rich to some degree, even though he was a speed merchant.

TP:    That came in handy with Cecil!

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s right!  Number one, to be able to play the drums.  When we learn the instrument, we have to go through the schools, more or less, of some of the other drummers.  When I was working with Illinois Jacquet, he had Jo Jones in his head.  So to some degree, I had to give him some of the stuff.  I couldn’t do all of it, because I was too young and I didn’t know that much about Jo Jones.  But I had to be able to play songs like “Robbins Nest” and “Flying Home.”  Certain things would happen in those songs that would bring certain kinds of climaxes, which were almost things that were scientifically proven, you might say!  They would get to certain peaks, and then make certain descents, and go back to certain peaks… You had to know what to do in order to play that music.  So yeah, I was learning, and of course, there were a lot of things that I didn’t know, and sometimes I’d be frustrated because I couldn’t give people like Jacquet, for instance, everything he wanted all the time.  Then, again, I don’t necessarily think that I had to, because I was trying to find my own place, trying to do my own stuff, and some of the stuff he probably didn’t like either.  But he was stronger than I was at that time.  He was the leader of the band, and I was still finding my way.  But still, he hired me.

Anyway, all I’m saying is that with all of the stuff that I’ve learned, even the stuff that I did with Nellie Lutcher way back, playing in 2/2…those kinds of things I can use in some way with the things that I do today.  So for instance, if I’m doing a duet with Braxton or Greg Osby and it comes into my mind, well, I want to try something that might have a two-feeling for a part, or maybe even a whole (I never really thought about this until now), I can play like a two-feeling, and maybe stretch the meter, so to speak.  Then it’s up to THEM, then, to deal with what I’m putting down.  So what I’m saying to you is that the stuff that I play as a drummer, it’s not necessarily so much where I’m not using the techniques or not using the vocabulary that I have.  It’s just that I might be using it in a different way.  It’s the same old thing, like when people talk.  We still use words.  But sometimes, when we think about what we’re saying, we use the same words but the meanings are different.

TP:    Let’s talk about how that applies to what you and Braxton are doing here.  You mentioned at the beginning that Braxton had told you that you’re one of his favorite drummers and he wanted to do something with you some day.  So let’s jump-cut to 2002, and talk about this recording came to be.  Was it on your initiative or his?

CYRILLE:  Well, this is what happened.  Very often, it’s about being in the right place at the right time, and the sky opening up and the lightning come out, and it strikes whoever is in the vicinity and we say, “Eureka, I’ve found it!”  Anyway, I had gone to hear Anthony play a solo concert at the Ethical Culture Society.  I was there with a number of other people listening to him, and the music was gorgeous.  But at the end of the concert, I went over to congratulate him, and he said, “Oh, Andrew, it’s good to see you.  When are we going to do our project?”  So I complemented him on his playing and I said, “Look, Anthony, any time you’re ready, man.  Let’s exchange numbers and talk about it.”  He said, “Okay, I’ll call you.”  So I gave him my number, and a couple of weeks later he called me and said, “Hey, man, let’s get together and do this project.”  He told me that he had Jon Rosenberg in his employ, and Jon and he had already done some work at Wesleyan University, of Anthony recording with different people, and Rosenberg would be willing to come up and record us.  The price was right, and we got a date together, and I said, “Okay, fine,” and then it came to pass.

TP:    How much preparation did this involve?  Was there a rehearsal?  Let’s talk about the dynamics of putting together this two hours.

CYRILLE:  I sent Anthony some music I had written and prepared.  Sometimes with those concepts… Well, we talked about them a bit on the telephone, and he told me some stuff that he was going to do.  I forget whether he faxed me any music or not.  Maybe he did.  I can’t remember.  But I know we were preparing for each other.  Braxton’s solo concert was in May 2002, so from May until we came together…

TP:    What’s interesting is that his compositions here are Compositions 310 and 311, and on the solo concert he did five subsets of Composition 312.  I don’t know what that means, but I’ll try to find out from Braxton.  Because each one has a different graphic connotation.

CYRILLE:  [LAUGHS] Well, that’s what’s happening.

TP:    So it sounds like he gave you some stuff that was preoccupying him at the time of the solo concert.

CYRILLE:  Perhaps so.  But all I saw was the music.  I didn’t remember the melodies.  I played them at Wesleyan and I got into it.

TP:    well, your stuff seems more melody-oriented.  His stuff seems like more sound navigation structure stuff.

CYRILLE:  Kind of.  Well, he only gave me I think two written parts.

TP:    The other one seems more just a motif you took off on.  It doesn’t have a number, but is called “A Musical Sense Of Life.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a title like that from Braxton.

CYRILLE:  Well, those titles were to a large degree my titles.  We sat down and talked about it.  I came up with these titles and words, and explained to him, why I felt this particular piece should be that, and so on, and he agreed.

TP:    So we had this conceptual preparation before you actually came up to Wesleyan in October.

CYRILLE:  Very much so.  Conceptual and including improvisation as well as written music.  He has two credits individually, I have two individually, and then we have the rest in duo as composers.

TP:    I think your point that he brings out a more legato side when playing with drummers… On the Max Roach records, he played beautiful melodies, and here he plays similarly.  Do you approach different configurations with a different approach to the drums.  Would you play differently with Oliver and Reggie or Dresser and Marty, or if you’re playing with a Muhal Sextet… Obviously, they all have different demands.  But your overall approach to the interactive component of playing with other people… How does it differ in duo context for you?

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s a heavy one.  When you use a term like “overall”… Overall has to be the person.  It has to be Andrew Cyrille.  And then it depends upon what music I’m playing.  Then I get my information on what I have to do from what the composer dictates when he writes the composition.  If I’m playing with David Murray’s Big Band, and we’re playing Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower,” and he’s got Carmen Bradford singing, I’ve got to bring myself to that and give those people what they need so they can deliver what they deliver in the Ellington mode.  That’s the same thing that I do with everything, even though they might be different in terms of concept.

TP:    Let’s talk about the conceptual aspects of duo music, then.

CYRILLE:  Playing solo to me is the most difficult.  The reason is that you don’t have anybody to feed off of or to get some kind of information from that you can relate to, so to speak, so you’re always more or less relating to yourself.  With duet, you have fewer than three or four.  So as far as playing a duet is concerned, you have to give something to the other person that they can more or less vibe off of or feel good about, or hear or conceptualize with the desire to play.  And they have to do the same for you.  During the duet with Osby… All of them.  I’ve done duets with Osby, Oliver. Carlos Ward, who’s another one that a lot of people haven’t gotten.  I did duets with Jimmy Lyons.

TP:    A lot of pianists say they think of the piano as an orchestra.  Do you think of the drumkit as an orchestra?

CYRILLE:  You could very well say that, too. There are so many different parts of the set, and you can get so many different sounds in relationship to the combinations, or the combinations in relationship to the different pieces of sound that you can find on the set.  Then you have to be able to generate that so that somebody gets something from it, so it’s not just noise, or what some people might consider noise.  I guess it’s the attitude, too, that whomever it is playing with the drummer comes to that forum with.  If you think it’s noise, then perhaps you won’t make any music. But if you think it’s music, then it’s a different story.

But there’s one other thing, too, that you’ve got to remember about drums, especially from where the “jazz drummer” comes, and from there in terms of Western music, where a lot of the other people come from, too — the Rock and Fusion people.  That’s out of a metrical sense of time.  So when you start thinking about Africa, again, and you start thinking about a lot those rhythms that the Africans play, which is very often the basis of the feeling that jazz musicians play off of, like the shuffle beat, CHONK-A-CHOOK, CHONK-A-CHOOK, then you’ve got that and you go CHOCK-A-CHUM, CHOCK-A-CHUM, CHOCKA-CHOCKA-CHUM, CHOCK-A-CHUM, CHOCK-A-CHUM… You get a lot of that stuff that comes out of Africa.  And many jazz pieces are still being written off that rhythmical motif, what they call the quarter-note, and then you get the dotted eighth note and the sixteenth note.  BANG, DIKA, BANG, DIKA, BANG-DIKA, BANG-DIKA, BANG-DIKA, BANG.  I’d say damn near 85% of all the music written in jazz is based on that rhythmical motif.  That’s one of the problems we have with stations like WBGO moving away from that foundation to play music that perhaps doesn’t emphasize that dotted quarter-note, dotted-eighth and sixteenth beat.  See, all of that music that you hear that’s so-called mainstream or CD-101 stuff comes out of that particular motif.

TP:    As opposed to what we might call swing or…

CYRILLE:  No, it ain’t opposed to swing.  That’s what swing is. That stuff is based on Swing. So I’m saying, it kind of comes out like a shuffle, see, which is nothing but you get the quarter-note and you get the dotted sixteenth, and you just keep repeating that with the accentuation on 2 and 4.

TP:    So 35 years ago, when you’re making Akisakila with Cecil, the patterns and responses you’re making are constructed off these elemental building blocks from African music that you’re speaking of.

CYRILLE:  Precisely.  So from those building blocks you can thrust a certain kind of feeling.

TP:    Or many kinds of feeling, I guess.

CYRILLE:  Or many kinds of feelings, that’s right.  See, this goes back to me working with Mary Lou Williams and saying to her, “Gee, Mary Lou, I’d like to play the ride beat differently and still play the music.” She said, “Well, if you did that, you’d lose a lot of work; a lot of people wouldn’t hire you.”  And that’s what she was talking about.  So if you go BANG-DING-A-BANG, DING-A-BANG, and I’m playing that with Jacquet, then I say, BANG-DING-A-DANG, and let a couple of beats go and no space, or say, BANG-DING-A-BANG, BANG, DING-A-BANG, DINGABANG-DINGABANG, DANG-DANG, DINGABANG, DANG-DANG, DINGABANG, he’ll say, “What the fuck are you doing, man?!  Swing!”

So when the concepts change, and you have Cecil and the people from Chicago and now a number of other people considering how we’re going to move these rhythms, then it’s no longer a problem because they’re basing their music on what it is that either the drummer is playing or however it is that they conceive of playing that dotted-8th or 16th, and maybe they’ve even moved away from that and… See, a lot of the time, the way most of those composers got to their music (I know this to be a fact with David Murray, and you can go back to Ellington), is they’d think about what the drummer would be playing, and then they’d write their melodies over that.
TP:    Well, going back to Ellington, there was often a dance orientation to it.  I mean, the drummer used to be completely functional, back when there were chorus lines and tap dancers and so on.

CYRILLE:  Of course!  Let me tell you something.  You know that I played for dancers.  I’m talking for people out of the June Taylor School — Jamie Rogers, Michael Bennett, Claude Thompson.

TP:    You played for dance classes.

CYRILLE:  Dance classes, and I did gigs… I did something with Cleo Parker Robinson at Jazz @ Lincoln Center 2001.  I’m trying to make a point.  I had a gig one time in the projects somewhere.  It was a dance for regular people who came to a party.  They had no dance education or training, but it was what they would do socially, what they’d learn from their parents or friends.  The three musicians I was supposed to play with, probably a bassist and piano player and saxophone player, for some reason didn’t show up for a while. I was there, the first one.  The people began feeling impatient with the music.  I mean, they’ve got their schedule.  So I just started playing the drums.  I don’t know what rhythm I did, but I was playing something.  And do you know, those people got out on the floor and started dancing.  All I’m saying to you is knowing certain things to play and certain things to do that will elicit certain responses in people.  Music is also scientific in that light.  We deal with emotions, but there are certain ways that musicians can make people feel by the notes and scales that they play.  We learn this stuff in school.  It’s the same thing with the drums.  If I want you to march, I’ll play a march.  If I want you to waltz, I’ll play something in 3/4.

So with that kind of information, when I decide that… How can I put it?  I can augment it.  I can contract it.  I can do it like I’m talking to you in terms of rhythm — those ingredients.  That’s what I do.  Here you and I are having a conversation.  I’m not talking to you in 4/4 meter, one-two-three-four, here-I-go-Ted, you-can-hear-me-talking…

TP:    It’s not iambic pentameter.

CYRILLE:  Right.  So as I’m speaking to you, sometimes it’s the same way as I think in playing the music.  But I’m still using my words or the words I’ve learned.  Maybe I can learn new words, go in the dictionary and find out the meaning of so-and-so and bring another word into my vocabulary.  But it just clarifies, let’s say, more what it is that I’m trying to say.

TP:    But of course, within a musical performance, each musical conversation is organized around a certain set of themes and structures.  You’re not just going anywhere.  Within an improvisation, there are explorations of separate motifs; you’re not going all over the place on every different thing.  So there is a formal aspect to a performance.  It’s not just like a conversation.

CYRILLE:  You are precisely right.  But now, you see, here is another concept that some people don’t realize or understand or don’t know about, and I guess it has to come into realization. There are two ways of playing.  There’s one way where there’s a prescription: In other words, we say we’re going to play this tune or that tune, or we’re going to play this composition or that composition based on either some idea that the composer presents, whoever the composer is, or we’re going to play a piece that’s “open,” which means that the composition is after the fact.  So when you say “all over the place,” sometimes the music can be all over the place.  It depends on what one decides to do.  And sometimes, when it’s all over the place it can be fantastic.  For instance, the concert I did with Kidd Jordan and William Parker at the Vision Festival.  We had no rehearsal.  The first time the three of us played together was when we got up on that stage.  And from what I understand from the people who were there, they enjoyed it very much, the heavens opened up and all that sort of thing.  But as one of the participants, I can’t exactly tell you what people were receiving in the audience. I’m having a good time playing.

TP:    But what I mean is that you’re playing ideas.  You and Kidd Jordan weren’t just playing random sounds.  You’re playing ideas that you’ve developed over 50-55-60 years of playing music and thinking about music.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  Just like we’re having a conversation now.

TP:    When we did the Blindfold Test for Downbeat, I gave you a Braxton-Max Roach piece.  You said, “Most of Max’s rhythms are very clear.  They’re distinct and they’re anchored.  How he thinks of some of those original rhythms is amazing.  There’s a definite thought process that he puts in.  I know that he has to work with it.  He thinks of something, he comes up with a rhythm, and then he executes it on the drums, and that’s why it comes out with such clarity and weight.”  And motif and theme-and-variation construction, and so forth.  It seems that, more or less in this concert, you play from that perspective.

CYRILLE:  Yes, I would agree with you.  Because I am a product as much of Max Roach, in that evolutionary line, as you might say somebody like Carl Allen or Cindy Blackman or Joe Chambers.  All of us come from more or less the same funnel, that same matrix.  Max comes out of Jo Jones and Baby Dodds.  Max was telling me himself the people that he listened to.  Kenny Clarke and Sid Catlett.  When you start thinking about the person who started syncopating the rhythm with the swing, Kenny Clarke was the person who did that shit.  Kenny Clarke was older than Max, and Kenny Clarke was doing that stuff up at Minton’s.  In terms of that bebop stuff, with those licks being put on different parts of the drums, especially with the bass drum being syncopated, Kenny Clarke started that stuff.

TP:    After Max and Braxton, I gave you Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley.  And you said about Oxley, “The drummer sounded as though he was matching color textures with Cecil’s panorama of sound colors and textures and dynamics, rather than playing his own contrasting rhythm, as, say, a Max Roach would. So there wasn’t very much push-and-pull there, or give-and-take. There wasn’t a lot of the polarity, which sometimes causes electricity, which brings forth another kind of magic and generates another kind of feeling.  I think usually in improvisation, a lot of the invention comes from people playing their own rhythms and motifs in keeping with whatever their concept of the music is.”  So you were saying that there’s basically a unison and it was less interesting.  So there are two different approaches to playing in these separate duets that you elaborate upon, and it seems very much that you’re in the former camp.

CYRILLE:  Yes, I would say so.  Now, if I had to do some stuff like Tony… I’ve played with Tony, and let me tell you when I did that.  I did that with Tony and Rashied Ali, and there must be a recording of this.  I’ll get back to the point.  Don’t let me lose the point.  I played with Tony and Rashied with three saxophone players and three bass players in East Berlin right after the Wall came down.  We did a concert there for Jost Gebers and FMP.  I’ve also done things with Peter Brotzman and Peter Kowald, and there’s something in the can that was done back in the ’80s with Brotzman and Kowald.  He has a duet with Teitelbaum and another duet with John Tchicai, and he’s trying to figure out how the stuff can come out.

Anyway, on this one piece with these nine musicians, I played with Oxley.  Sometimes there would be duets between myself and Oxley… The concept of the concert was that among the nine musicians there would be certain kinds of combinations.  So maybe there would be two basses and a saxophone, or two saxophones and two drums.  Whatever the configurations came out to be was how the music was presented.  So I can’t tell you exactly when I played with Tony or with Rashied, or when all of us played together.  But with Tony… And I heard Tony and Cecil again in Den Hague a couple of years ago, when I was over there with Mal Waldron and Reggie Workman. It’s like a wash, so I can get a lot of percussion instruments… There’s a guy named Paul Blackman who plays like this skiffle band in New Orleans, but he plays these rhythms, etc. But I can get all different kinds of…

Hey, this is even better.  If I had all of that stuff, let’s say, that Chick Webb had around him, or maybe even Sonny Greer, and then I would go and just wash…

TP:    You mean washes of color.

CYRILLE:  Washes of color.  You know when you play on the piano and you from one end of the piano, and you go all the way up to the top, and you play these glisses… That’s the word.  To me, very often what Tony does is he plays these glisses of rhythms.  Which is cool.  But sometimes, too, you could take those pieces of glisses and you can make certain rhythms out of it.  So for me, instead of playing like that wash… I can’t say that’s all he does.  But the general impression that I take away from having listened to Tony is this is how he plays.  At least, this is how he was playing with Cecil.  Maybe when he was doing that stuff with Bill Evans years ago…

TP:    Well, when it was time to play time, he played time, and when it was time to play with Cecil…

CYRILLE:  But here’s what I’m saying.  When you start talking about time, time can also be pointillistic.  And he doesn’t do that.  He plays glissando time.  Here’s another term.  People use these things, and I come up with them sometimes, too.  It’s difficult to explain sound and feeling, to give people a good picture in words of what’s happening with the music. So you come up with stuff like “liquid time.”  Liquid time to me would be like water, where you would get motion, but you wouldn’t get any separation.  Think about a river or think about the ocean.  Don’t you see motion?  Don’t you see rhythm?  But is it divided?

TP:    If you were going to think of a visual arts analogy, there’s a kind of Jackson Pollock analogy to Tony’s playing.

CYRILLE:  Yes, all right.  In other words, all of us being human beings, we have to try to relate whatever we do to our bodies on this planet!  So we can’t get too far out, although sometimes we can make analogies as to what it is that we think and what it is that we feel, from whence these ideas come.

TP:    But your playing on this duet with Braxton, for the most part, is not pointillistic.  It’s much more in that Max Roach sort of theme-and-variation aesthetic.  You postulate a rhythm and you sort of set it up as a field, and then you do various iterations and modulations of that idea, and Braxton plays his melodies and does his theme-and-variations and modulations on the melodies and rhythms.  Then the next piece is another idea.  It seems like there’s a sequential sequence of ideas that you work on.  Is that accurate or inaccurate?

CYRILLE:  I can’t say it’s either one.  It’s somewhere in between!  Because there are certain pointillistic things that are done in some of those compositions.  I remember there are some things where I’m playing on the rim of the snare drum, or something, and I would call that pointillistic.  Then maybe I might go from pointillism to some kind of legato, or maybe even glissando type of effect.  Maybe not so much glissando.  But thinking about it now, I could consider that in some kind of musical way from the drumset.  But there are certain things where I play a click and a clack and a bop and a bang, and Braxton relates to it in that way — and that’s what I consider to be pointillism.

TP:    Who would set what up first, from tune to tune?  Would the rhythm be the first principle?  Would the melody be the first principle?  Would it vary from tune to tune?

CYRILLE:  It would vary from tune to tune.  Sometimes Braxton would start something… See, what he’d do, sometimes he’d go to one of his other horns, and each one of those horns have a different timbre, and then I would think to myself, “Gee, what could I do to match that timbre?”  Then with the rhythms he would play, I’d think what can I do to give some kind of contrast or unison to those rhythms.  Sometimes, when we would stop…and I’d stop it… See, that recording could have been a blast… It could have been the same kind of performance that I did with Kidd and William — just played from beginning to end.  Kidd and I stopped maybe once during that performance, and then we started again.  But sometimes, even some of the stuff I’ve done with Cecil is just from the beginning, just get up and start playing and we don’t stop until the final note is hit.  But with Anthony, we started playing, and then it got to a certain point… Like, the first piece, “Duo Palindrome,” it got to a certain point and I said, “I’m going to stop now,” and it was a complete piece.  Also conceptually, I was thinking we’d have different pieces, this was not just going to be an improvisation from Point A to Point Z.  I wanted it to be that way because I wanted different feelings and different concepts to project it.

TP:    Braxton did a live recording with Max on Hat Art after Birth and Rebirth which is totally different.  Probably because it’s a studio recording, Birth and Rebirth is segmented into tunes, but on Hat Art it’s basically an 85-minute improvisation where they flow one into the other.  What dynamics in Braxton’s playing have evolved over time?  Is he a different player than he was 15 years ago when you did the Tristano record, or when he was doing the quartets, or the duo with Max?  what do you hear as distinct to this period?

CYRILLE:  Like all of us who decide as youngsters that we want to play this music, more or less essentially we’re the same people.  I think of Picasso. Of course, he’s the grandmaster, a genius, and I could only aspire to be something like him.  But when you saw Picasso’s stuff from his twenties, there was a grand line that started from his first paintings to the time he died.  You could always tell it was Picasso.  The grand line. Regardless of whatever it was that he was conceptualizing or doing, you knew that this was Pablo Picasso.

TP:    You could say that, but if you’re familiar with Picasso you can also locate a piece by how he is deploying that grand line at any given moment.  You sound different now than you did 35 years ago or 20 years ago.  I don’t know exactly how to quantify that, but I think I can discern your periods.

CYRILLE:  That’s very interesting.  Frank Lowe said to me that he was playing for somebody some recordings I did with Coleman Hawkins, and then he turned around and played something you might consider more modern or different from “Just A Gigolo.” And the person said, “Is that the same Andrew Cyrille?”

TP:    Parenthetically, someone told me he played for Kenny Washington something you did with Bill Barron forty years ago, and he was nonplussed.

CYRILLE:  You’re talking about Hot Line.  I had a great time on that date.  But my point becomes this.  Is there a certain kind of recognition of my sound, maybe of some of the ingredients that I play from one period to another. I would like to think so.  I don’t know.

As far as Braxton is concerned, to me he is the same Anthony Braxton who has now evolved and has become set in his concepts in terms of what it is he wants to do, and feels that he is carrying some weight, and what he says means something as far as the lexicon is concerned — the evolution and history of the music.  I would more or less have to feel the same way.  Both of us are still here, we’re still making contributions, and we have a sense of history, we have a sense of present, and we also have a sense of where we would like to go in terms of what we have done.  I am always looking for new things to bring forth, but there’s no way in the world I can deny my mother and my father!  You know what I’m saying?  In that way, I think Braxton is more or less the same.  Because when we talked to one another in order to get this feeling of camaraderie and hand-in-glove, we’d talk about the same things you and I are talking about in terms of what makes us tick, and what makes us tick from then until now and what we hope will continue to make us tick, all things considered, as far as life is concerned.

TP:    When we’re talking about the theme-and-variation-on-a-design Max Roach approach to rhythm and Tony Oxley’s glissando thing, you can almost extrapolate that into cultural aesthetics about how to approach musical improvisation, the Afro-diasporic and the Modernist European, as it were.  Perhaps we could discuss this in terms of the scene of world improvisation, where these worlds have come together substantially over the last 30 years, in great part because of the AACM guys and their embrace of the forms and structures of the Euro-Modernist canon, and also the European community of free improvisers.  Do you have any reflections on the convergence of those streams and how it might be manifested in an interaction between you and Anthony Braxton?

CYRILLE:  You’re bringing in another piece of who we are.  Me being an African-American, I’m very much European, too, because this is what we learned, this is our culture, this is who we are.

TP:    But I’m talking about forms of music.  But please continue.

CYRILLE:  But there’s no way in the world for anybody who is a legitimate human being to start talking about what they do outside of where they live and how they got to be what they are.  So when I play with someone like Irene Schweizer, and I’ve done a number of things with Irene, and we’re going to do some more stuff… David Murray was part of he last thing I did with Irene.  So how in the world can Irene Schweizer, me and someone like David Murray get together and play on a stage if we don’t inherit certain things from each other’s culture?  Does it have to be so cut-and-dried?  You say Europe, you say Africa, you say America.  Well, yeah, you’d have the polarity when musicians from Africa and from Europe did not play together.  But as we have evolved… We’ve had a couple of wars in Europe, people like James Reese Europe…

TP:    But you didn’t have Stockhausen playing with Charlie Parker or Sonny Rollins, or Pierre Boulez using Hank Jones or Oscar Peterson to improvise  within a piece.  Those are very different attitudes towards what music is.  But within the AACM, or with Cecil Taylor, that convergence exists.  It is a kind of paradigm shift.  I’m speaking more of the modernist notion of European music than the broader civilizational stream.

CYRILLE:  But you see, all of these things are works in progress.  In other words, civilization is an evolution.  So in a sense, when you start talking about Stockhausen and about Boulez, how do I know that Boulez won’t call me up and say, “Come on, Andrew, play some drums” for one or another thing. This is an evolutionary process.  Some people understand it. Some people want to see what will happen when they put maybe acid and a base together to see what the effects are going to be.  Sometimes nothing will happen, sometimes you get an explosion, sometimes you get a hybrid or a mutation that’s fantastic.  People say, “Yeah, we should have thought about that all time,” but sometimes it’s just an accidental combination.

Point:  Last year Reggie Workman and I go to Finland to do a project with one of the great Finnish saxophone players, a guy named Johanni Altern(?), along with some Finnish strings.  Now, the guy who wrote the string music is a guy named Ato(?) Donner(?).  Now, Ato(?) Donner(?) has 18 strings, violins and cellos and basses, reading this music.  So he says to me, “Play what you hear within the context…” He gave me some charts that I had to read, but as I was reading the charts with the strings, I’m also improvising the same way I would do it if I’m reading Duke Ellington charts.

What I’m saying to you is that those people from Finland, coming from that cultural base, get together with me, coming from another cultural base, but at this time, in terms of the evolution of civilization and the planet, I’m influencing them and they’re influencing me.

TP:    So as the world gets smaller, these kinds of interactions become more common.  It’s no longer an exotic thing for this to happen.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  It’s not as exotic as it was before.  Maybe if I went to play with some Amazonian Indians, there might be some different stuff coming out.

TP:    That’s something Peter Kowald was interested in, taking folk musicians out of their local contexts, and creating a broad dialogue of discrete vocabularies.

CYRILLE:  Outside the concepts people have about each other… There’s only one human race, and the simple reason for that is because everybody can still cross.  We can all have an offspring with anybody on the planet.  So conceptually, in terms of culture, the same thing could be possible!  Again, when you start talking about Braxton and the guys from Chicago dealing with some European forms with which they have filtered some Africanisms, so to speak: That’s what jazz has always been anyway.  From the spirituals through the gospels… Well, maybe the gospels were a little different.  But you’d take those harmonies by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and they’re singing some of those European hymns about Jesus and God.  It’s the same thing that’s been reprocessed over and over through the generations.  It’s just that each generation has to interpret it according to the dynamics of the time in which they live.  Some times are better than others.

TP:    I think the one problem with comparing this hybrid phenomenon we’re talking about is that the role of the drums is very different…

CYRILLE:  Well, in the Fisk Jubilee Singers there were no drums.

TP:    But there were certain rhythms that they more than made up for.  If you want to really extrapolate abstractly, there’s a continuity from that up to the Cecil Taylor Trio with you!  If we look at that trio and the John Coltrane Quartet as the two extremes to which that notion of music-making went, and how much farther could it go after that?  So there is evolution. There is a difference.  And I think Braxton and the AACM people are the people who were doing all that research and development on how to elaborate that difference and find a way to continue — find their space.

CYRILLE:  In some ways, something I did that worked was a concert with Miya Masaoka, Richard Teitelbaum and Frank Lowe.  Masaoka is Japanese-American, and she comes in with the koto, etc., and we start playing these rhythms.  You hear the sound, so you’ve got to get used to the rhythm.  That’s something that’s going to be in evolution as time goes, what the Asians bring to this mix of “America” and “American music.”  I’m all for it, in a lot of ways.  I am open to it.  I want to be part of it. It feeds me, I feed them, we feed each other.  For me to say, “Well, my thing is this, and I don’t do nothin’ else,” that’s not Andrew Cyrille.  Whether it be avant-garde or whether it be Ellington stuff… Because Lord knows, I had a fantastic time playing Ellington’s music, and I’d do it tomorrow if I had to.  I loved it.  With all those great musicians up there, and Carmen Bradford singing on top of all that stuff.

But getting back to Braxton: As the arc of life moves from the time I met him, back in Paris around 1969-70… I was hanging out with Philly Joe Jones in Paris, and we started talking about Braxton. He said, “Yeah, man, I knew Braxton can play.  You know how I knew he could play?  I watched the way his fingers moved.”  And we laughed.  But that was Joe’s impression of Braxton, and Joe relayed that to me, and that made me also consider Anthony… Because he was given an endorsement by somebody whom I looked up to.

TP:    We’ve been talking a lot about concept, but we haven’t talked that much about feeling.  And obviously, the way you play in an improvisation will pertain directly to the way you feel.  You’re going to feel one way with Cecil Taylor.  You’ll feel another way with Oliver Lake and Reggie.  You’ll another way with John Carter, another way with Muhal, and another way with David Murray.  How does it feel to play with Braxton?

CYRILLE:  [LAUGHS] It feels good!  I can’t say it feels bad!

TP:    Well, it felt good to play with all those people, or you wouldn’t have stuck with it all that time.  But it felt good differently.  Let’s talk about the distinctions that make the difference, even though they all made you feel good.

CYRILLE:  [LAUGHS] You’re something else, man, with your analyses and questions.  They cause me to think, and I have to find things to carry some truth to them and also mean something.

I always have to come from the way that I get to how I feel, and then I have to understand what we’re talking about when we’re talking about feelings.  Feelings usually come from some experience that somebody has.  Right?  You feel good or you feel bad.  So in the brain it says to you, “Gee, this is going through my body” — like sound, etc., because it travels through the skin and that’s how we feel, too, physically.

In a musical sense, what I have to do, again, is find out what’s on the page.  In other words, let’s put it this way.  Braxton gives me a score, and he’s playing one line, I’m playing the other line, and then we come to a part whereby there is this…it’s not a painting, but you might call it a sketch, where he has these lines and figures, and he says, “Play this at this particular time, whatever you think or feel about this.”  So here I am now, at the moment I’m talking to you, and let’s say he had venetian blinds — because I’m looking at venetian blinds in front of me.  So let’s say it’s venetian blinds on this page, and I’m looking at them and saying, “Well, what do I feel about venetian blinds, and how can I interpret venetian blinds on the drumset?”  I can go from left-to-right and right-to-left, left-to-right to right-to-left, left-to-right to right-to-left, and I can do that, say, from snare drum to tom-tom, from snare drum to tom-tom, back-and-forth and back-and-forth and back-and-forth.  And just from that motion, a motion like a windshield wiper blade, I’ll be able to get kind of sound.  I’ll get some kind of rhythm.

Now, how does that make me feel?  Does it make me feel good?  Yeah, it could, if I’m doing it and it’s coming out and I’m not flubbing, and it’s very clear to me in terms of how I’m doing it in terms of one to another.  You gave me another idea in terms of a rhythm — OOM-BOOM, OOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM; I could do it slower or I could do it faster — looking at the Venetian blinds.

Then what Anthony does in relationship to it also makes me feel a certain way.  When he’s playing, I could say to myself, “where is he going with this?  How can I play this so that it makes him move into another area or makes him feel he wants to create with this sketch he’s given me up to a certain point, and then we move on.”  That happens on the record.  Sometimes I’ll play certain things, and then he will imitate them.  He’ll come back and play verbatim rhythmically just the piece I’m in.  It’s interesting and it’s cute, and it makes me laugh.  So in that light, it makes me feel good.

I don’t like to think… Hey, look, it’s like asking somebody is the cup half-empty or is the cup half-filled.  So I don’t want to start talking about what I don’t like, because it ain’t about that.  So the only thing I can say as far as doing the thing with Anthony is concerned and how I feel about him in relationship to John Carter has to do with what they’re asking me to eat.  In other words, what they have cooked up for me to eat and taste and digest, and what am I to do with it with my on sense of seasoning, or to put in my oven and bring out a certain way.

It’s a difficult question.  This is how I have to look at the overall thing, since you used that term…

TP:    I did.  But now I’m being very specific.

CYRILLE:  How can you get to the specific without some kind of overall?  Or how can you get to the overall without some kind of specific?  Both of them relate to each other, even though they may be on opposite sides of the pendulum.  But when you ask “how do you feel about something?” what else can I say than that I feel good.  I can say in terms of this project, I thought it was a grand recording.  There are some magical things that happen.  There are some things that come out of the tradition, where you have theme-and-variation, but I feel there are also some other things that weren’t quoted or stated in past presentations.  Now, this has to be for people who can sit down and listen with some sort of history of the music in terms of the evolution, or people who will sit down and just say, “Hey, man, this is some good stuff; where are THESE guys coming from?  I like this.”  Or some people will say, “Hey, man, turn that shit off.”  Because I’ve been in the company of so many people who just don’t even give a damn what’s being played.  They don’t want to hear that.  You’ve got to turn on 97.1 with the hip-hop, and then you get a response out of them.  But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a great project and I think it will stand the test of time.

TP:    Some of these songs I’m familiar with.  I think you did “The Loop” on one of your solo albums in the ’70s, and “The Navigator” is from that quartet you had with Sonelius Smith.  Can you discuss the dynamics of those pieces?

CYRILLE:  I have a duet tape somewhere around here of me and Butch Morris doing “The Loop.”  That was the first time I ever played the piece in public many years ago, when he and David Murray first came to New York.  “The Loop” is a piece I’ve played on occasion with people, you could say as a foil maybe, or something to give them to think about, and I’ve explained to them what I mean by “The Loop.”  The loop, to me, is like a figure-8 laying on its side, like the infinity sign.  So you go back and you go forth, you go back and forth.  It goes, DINK-duht-duht-DANK, DINK-duht-duht-DANK.  Then on top of that, I improvise a rhythm with the drumsticks on the drumset, with the basic rhythm being with the hi-hat and the bass drum, with that feeling of looping.  I explained that to Anthony, and I asked him to improvise something within this particular concept.

He wanted that one, and he also wanted…there’s another one that starts out with a basic ostinato kind of drum feeling.  He wanted those to be the first pieces, I think, of each CD, but I didn’t want that.  So we discussed that and came to an agreement.  I wanted “Duo (Palindrome)” to be the first piece, because that was more representative of how I felt our collaboration was or is at this time — even though “The Loop” is part of it.  Sometimes they say that to sell a CD, you’ve got to have a hook, and the first hook should be one of the strongest things on the CD in order to get people to buy it.  Because usually, when people pick up a recording, the first thing they do is play the first track, and if the first track is appealing, then they say, “Hey, I want to get this,” and then they listen to the rest of it.

Anyway, I thought it would be better for me and Anthony to have “Duo (Palindrome),” since that’s the idea anyway; we’re looking at each other, and 2002 is 2002 going forwards and backwards.  So conceptually, that’s what I got him to agree to.  He had another idea in terms of the water.  But I sat down and thought about it and explained it to him.
TP:    The tracks that are co-credited could be called improvisations.

CYRILLE:  Yes, I would say so.

TP:    Then we have “Water, Water, Water.”

CYRILLE:  That comes basically out of an African matrix that has a 6/8 feeling.  “Water, Water, Water” is a piece I recorded with Mor Thiam on Ode To The Living Tree, and I’ll tell you where the concept came from.  That came from me being on Gorie Island, which is one of the slave points of embarkation in Senegal, with David Murray, Oliver Lake, Fred Hopkins and Adegoke Steve Colson.  That was my first recording in Africa.  The feeling of being on that island… I was saying, “It could have been me,” as being one of those people moving through the door of no-return, getting on those ships, and being in those places of confinement.  I’ll tell you this much.  I visited Dachau, which is near Munich, and the construction of those camps and what I saw on Gorie Island is the same.  The same people could have constructed it.  It’s terrible.  And it makes me feel very sad as I’m talking about having viewed both of those places.  What people do to people, man, is terrible shit sometimes.

Anyway, I just thought about the buoyancy of being in one of those slave holds of one of those ships, and the ship moving up and down on the water.  That’s how I got that sense of composition for “Water, Water, Water.”  The beat is a 6/8 Ghanaian beat — GANK, GUGANK-GUGANKGU-GANK, GUGANK-GUGANK-GANK — and I augmented it with some other things that I do… In other words, that was the code.  The other part of it, with the sock cymbal and left hand and the bass drum, I added in terms of independent rhythms to support that code.  That was one of the pieces that I played with Anthony that projected this ostinato, which he liked very much.  I think he also wanted that to be the first piece on the second CD.  So we compromised, and I said, “Okay, Anthony, that can be the first piece of the second CD.”  I didn’t w want “The Loop” to be the first piece of the first CD.  For some reason, I didn’t want the drums to be out there like that on both CDs.  Maybe I have to analyze more in my head why I didn’t want that.

The excerpt from “The Navigator”: I wanted a rhythm that projected some kind of a march, and that was something that was the section of “The Navigator” which comes from the beginning part.  Now, all this is very interesting about me and water.  I’m not sure about what all this means, even though I’m a water sign, as they say, but I don’t necessarily believe in that kind of shit.

TP:    Did you used to go to Brighton Beach or Coney Island?  You’re from New York!

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  Riis Park was the place.  The thing about “The Navigator” is that when I asked a friend of mine to send me a picture of what he thought of the music, he sent me a picture of the coast of Panama, with these palm trees, and when I saw that, I said, “Yes, this works as the cover for ‘The Navigator,'” and then the association with water came after I’d written the composition.  I wrote the music, then I remembered this term, “the navigator.”  Noah Howard had said to me somewhere in Europe, “Yeah, you’re the navigator.”  So when I started writing this piece, I was going to call this “The Navigator.”  The navigator can be an airplane pilot, too.  Anybody can be a navigator.  But in this particular case, it came down with water and the navigator.

“Dr. Licks” is a brand-new piece, the one I most recently wrote.  “Dr. Licks” comes out of some drum licks, and I just wrote some notes to the drum licks.  I’m going to expand either with Marty and Mark or Reggie and Oliver.  It’s a sketch, so to speak.  But Anthony played it very well.  He brought some information to it in terms of how we could do it, and that was good.  We had to practice that a few times, because how it was written was relatively difficult.  I’d have to do it again myself, even though it’s my tune.  But I’d have to get in and use my brain to play the music.

TP:    You said you titled “A Musical Sense Of Life.”

CYRILLE:  Right.  I titled most of them, except for Anthony’s.  But we agreed on the titles.  I did the same thing with Richard Teitelbaum, titling most of the things on that recording, Double Clutch.  It has to do with how the music makes me feel, and what it makes me think about.  I guess all music which does not have words makes people think of something.  So whatever it is that you think of could be the title.  And if you agree with somebody that you’re in collaboration with, then fine.  Or if it’s just your piece… I said, “This is ‘Dr. Licks.'”  I didn’t say, “Tell me what you think about this title.” The other ones I said, “This reminds me of so-and-so; does it remind you of this?” And we sat down and listened to the music.  This was up at Rosenberg’s house, when we were thinking about titles.  He said, “Yeah!” or “No” or “Yeah, but you can add this word.” Like, “Duo (Palindrome),” I was going just going to say, “Palindrome,” but he said, “No, let’s make it ‘Duo (Palindrome),’ and when I explained to him what the word “Palindrome” meant in terms of 2002, he said, “Yeah, let’s call it ‘Duo (Palindrome) 2002.'”

* * *

Andrew Cyrille (WKCR, 7-30-04):

TP:    Let’s talk about the two weeks at Iridium, and then we can branch out. It was an opportunity for you to navigate a lot of the different areas you navigate. One was very open-ended improvising, and the other was more task-directed, playing tunes and interpreting them in your own way. Looking back, how do you evaluate the whole thing?

CYRILLE:  The first week, of course, was challenging in that I had to deal with different personnel in the front line, so to speak. The horns were different. It was Dave Douglas the first night, then Gary Bartz on the second, and the third through sixth nights was Bennie Maupin, and each one of them came with something else insofar as how they decided how they were going to play what was being asked for. A lot of times, when people say things are open, sometimes they are very open and sometimes they are a little less open, even though, say, the improvisation might be free insofar as what you do within those different aspects of being open.

Now, what I mean is a lot of times, Henry would say, “Okay, Andrew, you and I will go out and we’ll start something and play together, and then Perry will come in, and then Bennie would come in.” Or he might say, “I’m going to start with a solo, and then Andrew, you come in, and then Gary, you come in.” Or he’ll say, “All of us start together.” In that light, I have to decide what it is I’m going to do based on a couple of things. One would be if that I’m going to start with Henry, then I have to have something in my head that’s pretty clear in terms of what I’m going to do to thrust the music out there and give it some thrust as I am presenting what it is that’s on my mind. At the same time, it’s like a gambit, an opening gambit in a chess game. So you make a move, and if both Henry and I make a move together, it might be some kind of unison, and sometimes it might not be a unison. So from that explosion, so to speak, or that piece of genetic, or genesis-birth, we go from there.  Then we begin listening to each other.

On the other side, if he says, “Okay, Andrew, you start and I’ll come in,” then I’ll start something more or less with the same idea that we play something, then he’ll relate to it.  He’ll listen and then he’ll play what he thinks goes with that.  It’s the same thing with me.  If he starts something, then I’ll listen to it.  Then I’ll try to find some music in my head that comes out of the drumset that will go along with what he’s playing on the bass.

TP:    By the end of the week, were you doing more unisons or call-and-responses?

CYRILLE:  Well, sometimes it was a call-and-response and sometimes it wasn’t. What I like to do sometimes with bass players… Horn players, too, but especially sometimes with bass players, because it’s not often done during the song… We’ll do exchanges.  So in that light, they’re not necessarily unisons; they’re like call-and-responses. Unisons are usually played when somebody plays something definite and it’s repeated. So then if I wanted to play exactly what would do that, and that would be a unison.  Other than that, there’s always a certain amount of “counterpoint” that’s going on, whether it be rhythmical or whether it be melodic — or even sometimes harmonic, depending on what the instrumentation is.
person was playing, or vice-versa, then we
TP:    You have a lot of experience playing in that context, but how much do you get to do that these days with people who share your history? What was interesting about the two weeks is that you were playing with people who were your generational peers and whose histories intersect in various ways. It’s an interesting dynamic.

CYRILLE:  The first week, of course, with Henry and Dave and Perry… You have to understand, too, that Perry is an extraordinary musician, insofar as, yes, he’s part of what you might call the avant-garde movement, but he plays a lot of standard tunes also. When we were touring in Europe… We didn’t do too much of that at the Iridium. On occasion, we’d play a standard.  But he was playing things like “My Foolish Things.” We played “Oleo” at the Iridium.  We also played that in Europe.  And there were several other pieces, standard repertoire. Another one was “Doxy.” He likes those standard tunes Sonny Rollins played, because he had a lot of experience with Sonny.

Anyway, we would segue sometimes from things that were totally open, or freely improvised, into something that had a certain kind of form. What that does is, that gives a kind of tension-and-release not only to us, the musicians, but also to the people who listen. Very often people appreciate that. Then sometimes, with certain groups, it’s just freely improvised for the whole set. On occasion we did that at the Iridium. We didn’t play any standard material with Dave Douglas; that night it was just free improvisation for the most part, if I remember correctly. When Gary came in, you know, Gary likes to play certain things in the pocket — grooves. So at a certain point in time, he would start playing something that had an ostinato motif, and we would all pick up on that and go there. Also sometimes, coming out of a solo, let’s say… And this was something great that Henry did. Coming out of a solo that I was playing. I’d start playing some kind of a rhythmical motif in an ostinato way, or maybe not even ostinato, maybe I’d just do it a couple of times coming out of a solo, and then Henry picked up the rhythm and added some pitches to it, and that became the genesis of another piece, or something that evolved from a solo that I was doing.

He’s great that way. His ability to be flexible is fantastic. Bass players very often have to play a lot of ostinato lines, and then when those ostinato lines are played everybody, including me, the drummer, and the horn players or piano players, we can dance on those kinds of things.  It gives us a bed that we…like little kids jump up and down on and do whatever flips, jumping off the bed, jumping back on the bed, etc., landing on your behind, on your stomach — and it’s because you have that mattress there.  That’s what Henry provided.

So that week was interesting in that way. The other thing about sometimes playing free is that you have to find something, number one, that is of interest to you.  That is, I, the musician, have to find something that I feel good about, and then try to get the musicians on stage to relate to it and have them feel good about it, and then collectively we can give that to the audience, and the audience feels good about what we’re feeling good about.  So it’s not as easy sometimes as people might think it is, because we have no prescription.

TP:    Playing free doesn’t imply, then, any particular way of playing.  It doesn’t imply playing rubato or playing metrically.  It has more to do with playing the idea that suits the moment.

CYRILLE:  Right.  And that could be metrically or it could be rubato. It all depends on what you decide to do.

TP:    Would that have been the case, say, forty years ago?  Let’s say you and Perry Robin and Henry had been playing at the Judson Church in 1966, would those options have come into play, or would there have been a more rigid approach to what you could or could not do?

CYRILLE:  Well, it all depends on where our heads were at the time, and what was being put out there at that particular time.  I can’t really tell you. Forty years ago…

TP:    1964-65-66.

CYRILLE:  Well, it would depend on the people I was playing with. I remember playing rubato stuff with Walt Dickerson back in 1961-62. There weren’t very many people that I came into contact with at that time who were doing that kind of stuff.

TP:    But by ‘65-’66, you were with Cecil a few years, and Unit Structures is ’66 and Conquistador is ‘67, or vice-versa. What I’m saying is, had the three of you been together then, would you have availed yourself or so many options, or might your approach have been a bit mor