For Roswell Rudd’s 80th birthday, An Interview from 2005 and an uncut Blindfold Test From 2001

Master trombonist, musical conceptualist and  free spirit Roswell Rudd turns 80 on November 17th. In anticipation of the occasion, I’m running an uncut interview that was boiled down for a brief piece in Jazziz in 2005, and an uncut Blindfold Test for DownBeat from 2001.


Roswell Rudd Blindfold Test (8-9-01):

1. Bill Harris, “Bijou” (from Woody Herman, Blowin’ Up A Storm: The Columbia Years, 1945-47, Columbia 1945/2001) [Ralph Burns, composer] (5 stars)

That was “Bijou” with the Woody Herman Orchestra, featuring Bill Harris, the great trombonist, one of my favorite singers on the horn. Arrangement by Ralph Burns; it’s really a gem. A Latin flavor. I don’t know if at the time… I think this is late ’40s. I don’t really know how many American swing bands were doing Latin-influenced music. This may be one of the first things like this. Ellington had one called “Flaming Sword,” which was a Juan Tizol vehicle. In terms of the ’40s, there were Latin bands, but non-Latin bands getting into African-influenced rhythms, Caribbean rhythms, Latin American rhythms… This is a wonderful early example of that.

Bill Harris, when I was about 11 years old or so and started hearing this stuff on records… The quality Harris had of attacking certain notes and making them swell, like Flamenco singers… I was over in Portugal and I heard a couple of good Fado singers, and they do this with these longer notes that they sing; they start soft and then they fill out. There’s a crescendo. It’s uplifting. It just grabs you, takes you out of your seat. Then when they go into a string of embellishments after that and bring the line down, they’re with it all the way. But that swell into the first note is the launching pad to a lot of the phrasing in that music, and I’m sure it’s in a lot of other places, too.

I can’t say enough about Bill Harris and the great Woody Herman bands at that time. I’m not sure who the other people were in the band, for instance, if it might have been Dave Tough on drums, who was a very innovative man in this day, or Chubby Jackson, another innovative guy. I think it was Woody Herman playing the alto sax obbligato there. A wonderful thing. A real gem. It makes you thankful that there are ratings. 5 stars.

2. George Lewis-Bertram Turetzky, “The Ecumenical Blues” (from Conversations, Incus, 1997) (5 stars)

To me, this was a wonderful example of two people listening closely to each other and making music through the process of their interaction in the moment, a wonderful sort of crossing-over by the trombonist into the realm of bowed string colors, how he could complement those on his instrument. I loved that great nasal sound the trombonist had at the beginning, kind of matching the sound of the bowed contrabass. A little later on, if he had a mute in there for that…he took the mute out and got a different color at one point, and carried that through to the end. It was a nice changeup in his color, and it also was a way of complementing the bass. I use this technique myself with a single mute, which is a Harmon mute that I’ve loosened up with a screwdriver, so that if I turn the outer part of the mute a certain way, it’s very loose and it sounds like a giant kazoo, and if I turn it another way it tightens up and it sounds more like a bad Harmon mute. But this business of imitating each other’s sounds, like a cross-gender kind of playing, is a wonderful way of developing textures in music.

I also want to say that aside from these two performers being so beautifully attuned to each other, as far as dealing with sound, getting into the sound and letting the sound tell them what to do, the content of the trombonist’s playing was beautiful, too. There’s some good blues in there, a kind of lament. It was a bit like Bill Harris at the beginning; the kind of tone production that the trombonist was getting could relate very strongly to that. Very vocal. Somebody singing, somebody talking. It’s beautiful, very beautiful. 5 stars. But I can’t tell who it is.

3. Jimmy Knepper, “Invisible Lady” (from Charles Mingus, Tonight At Noon, Label M, 1961/2000) (5 stars)

That was a quintet — bass, piano, drums, baritone sax used very judiciously — and it just has to be Jimmy Knepper on the trombone. Because nobody else can do what he can do, the way he does it. It’s masterful continuity that I love, and the way he sequences his lines, where you have the sudden doubling up of tempo in the middle of a phrase… It’s the tempo acceleration thing that was so prevalent in Charlie Parker’s playing. I think Jimmy was one of the first people to pick up on what the Bird was doing. It was really a heroic musical achievement to take this concept of Charlie Parker’s saxophone dexterity and apply it to the trombone. Jimmy was one of the people that really freed up the instrument and at an early time. I don’t know when this is done. But it’s the 22nd Century as far as I’m concerned! So expressive and so… Again, pushing the instrument to places where it’s never been before and keeping the emotional musical content wherever he goes with his dynamics through phases of tempo modulation. He’s just a master. Absolutely 5 stars.

The portimento is the word that should be in here. It means that the line is unbroken even though it’s going through these incredible transformations. It’s the mastery of the breathing.

4. Conrad Herwig, “Africa” (from The Latin Side of John Coltrane, Astor Place, 1996) [Eddie Palmieri, piano]. (5 stars)

Nice African rhythm section. It’s a theme that I associate with Coltrane. I like the way that the trombonist built his chorus. He opened up with this long lip trill that gradually crescendoed, then there was some linear improvisation, some shouts, and he reached a point where there was a nice kind of drumming on two notes a minor third apart, very effective, and some more shouting, and playing on either side harmonically of the drone. I think it was a great effort.

Just sticking to the piece the way it is, and without saying I wish there could have been more or less of this or more of that…checking it out the way that it stands, it holds up. Somehow…it may be the result… If it was a live recording perhaps, the profile of the trombone gets lost in there sometimes. But he’s there, he’s staying with it, and he brings it up front again. I’ll give it 5 stars, because I know what kind of energy and ears and knowledge it takes to do this kind of thing.

Who it might be? I can’t say. Steve Turre maybe? Barry Rogers? Fine, fine playing. The clarity of the recording somehow bothered me, because he was doing interesting things but they got kind of masked out. This is just the way things go sometimes. But if I listened to again or maybe a third time, I would try to go further and further inside the sound of the recording and then be able to get behind the mask a little bit in those places. But this was a tour de force.

5. Julian Priester-Sam Rivers, “Heads of The People” (from Hints On Light and Shadow, Postcards, 1996) – (5 stars)

What I notice so far between all these examples we’ve listened to is the infinite possibilities of trombone. Because every player brings a different thing to the instrument, and most of these players are composers, too, so it’s not just bringing a new voice, a new personality infused into the instrument, but also beyond that, into the other components in the performance. Here we have a beautiful tension built up between maybe a prerecorded tape and… Really nice. It sounds like an African sound system. You get some terrible sound systems over there, as you do in other places in the world; but in Africa the sound system becomes a part of the music. As beautiful as the balafon and the great stringed instruments and the tuned drums sound acoustically, it all goes into this sound system and comes out sounding another way totally! What’s going into the system is so good to begin with, that when it comes out, it still comes out good; even though the system has got it completely screwed up,. it still has a beautiful structure to it, but the original timbre has completely disappeared. I got that effect from the taped part of this.

There was a nice tension built up, because the trombonist stayed in the same mode throughout. He was just playing the blues in one place and keeping it there, changing the register from time to time, and he had his timing so that the prerecorded part shone through all the time and maintained that tension between a kind of moving, weird jumble, street-sounding, sound-effects-sounding wall that was going on behind the trombone, and he never attempted to imitate any of that. He never attempted to go across and into the taped part, for instance, the way that George Lewis did with the bassist, where they really reversed their roles and exchanged roles as far as the sounds of their instruments go. On this, the trombonist created a tension between himself (or herself) and this background that was kind of in flux all the time. It was very interesting for me.

It’s uneven, in a way, but that’s part of its beauty. The main thing is that it works, that it has moments which are unachievable any other way. It’s real, and if they performed it again it would be different. But the concept of creating a tension was fundamental to the success of the music here — the music being interesting, the music having impact. Beautiful. Beautiful execution. Again, putting yourself in a corner and coming home with the goods. I’ll give this 5 stars, too. I was going to say maybe not 5 because it was uneven in places. But I realized at the time I really need to have those other places in order to have moments of impact. So it was a fluctuating thing, with this very static quality in there, too… I think there was good interplay between those two elements. Yeah, I’m going to give it 5. I was going to take it down a notch, but I’m going to give it 5.

It might be Julian Priester, because he used to do stuff with tape — just some sound, something to create another component — and let it run and just work with that.. It reminds me of what Johnny Dyani used to do. He used to turn the water on in the sink in the bathroom just to hear the sound of the water running, and off the harmonics of that he would practice his bass and play along with it. Again, it wasn’t exactly the same as this… I’m just talking about the nature of the components here. Because Johnny would play inside and outside the sound of the water, but he wouldn’t play as if he was in a different room than the water, which is more the effect that we have here of these two different things going on simultaneously and the tension that’s created between them. But hearing this brought that situation with Johnny to my mind.

Oh, it was Julian? 5 stars for the adventure, my man. It was beautiful.

6. Ray Anderson, “Green Eyes, Fireflies” (from Bonemeal, Raybone, 2000) [Mark Helias, bass; Matt Wilson, drums] – (4 stars)

Quartet — guitar, bass, drums and trombone. I think it might be Ray Anderson; it sounds like plunger things I’ve heard him do in the past. I don’t think this is as successful as other things I’ve heard by him. But he’s a great humorist, and he has so much heart in his playing, he can bring it off. I would have loved to hear this melody played a little straighter. It was kind of a Strayhorn-influenced thing, and I was frustrated, in a way, that I couldn’t hear the actual pitches. There was so much siding off the preconceived melody, if there was one, and I missed knowing specifically what that might be. That in a way is the reverse magic of the thing, like: Damn, I wonder if he was going to score this, what the actual notes were. So the sliding around effect had a way of making you wonder what was the real melody. I enjoyed that kind of inversion. It was pretty successful, because he was consistent with his inconsistencies. But it frustrated me because I know there was a beautiful melody there, and I wish I could have heard that, too. But maybe it’s up to me to take this and factor it down to what I might conceive of as the real melody, because there’s so much playing around something there. My trip would be to see if I can average it out to something that I could just pick out on the piano as a beautiful melody. I don’t know if I’m making myself clear, but let’s leave it at that.

I would say 4 stars in relation to other things by Ray that I think were just clearer to me. But I’d say 4 stars for not coming up to other things that he’s done, but 5 stars for the attempt at this kind of inverse humor — if that’s okay for a rating.

7. Steve Turre-James Carter, “Eric The Great” (#6) (from TNT, Telarc, 2001) – (5 stars)

That was a beautifully conceived track. I love the very minimal horn playing with the sax and the trombone, and featuring the bass at the slow tempo, and then the change of tempo. It sounded to me even though it was measured, that it was free harmonically. And I enjoyed the continuity of the trombonist. He went to a lot of different places, but he remembered where he was. The saxophonist made just a great entrance that marked a special place in the performance, and he, as the trombonist, went to different places, but kept a continuity. The recapitulation back to the first section after the fast tempo was very effective. Was it Steve Turre? I want to give it 5 stars for the concept and something… I don’t know, some ingredient was missing there in the playing. But the experience of hearing these different trombonists…. I realize how great they are and what a great instrument it is. All these voices are so distinctive, and it’s the same old B-flat trombone. It’s amazing. But something was missing, some kind of heart-sincerity thing. It was kind of stiff. It may have been the intention of the players, but I felt it kind of stiff at times, kind of dry. I didn’t get the personality, the warmth part of it. But they were executing the concept, and I have to give them full credit for that.

8. J.J. Johnson, “How Deep Is the Ocean” (from Vivian, Concord, 1992) – (5 stars)

Hearing this melody played, “How Deep is The Ocean,” I’m trying to put my finger on the composer. He’s one of America’s greatest songwriters and he lived to be 100 years old. I can never remember his name…Irving Berlin…even though I can play 50 of his songs or whatever. And to hear it played so statuesquely on the bone made me realize what a great legacy we have in American melody. Sometimes I thought it was J.J. Johnson, sometimes I thought it was Bennie Green. I wasn’t quite sure. It was maybe somebody right in between those two people. But the phrasing was fine. It had the kind of clarity that J.J. brought to his performances. He’s so sorely missed. And Bennie Green’s kind of intonations, and the way that he would alter the density of his sound from time to time, and his phrases. It’s probably neither one of these guys, but well-done.

It’s J.J.? Was it recent? It’s a little flawed in places. But there’s only a couple of people who can really play this way. A lot of people who try to play like this, but there’s really only a few who really do it — who innovated it actually. That’s the important thing. We’re talking about somebody innovating this style which is something we think was brought about collectively, the work of many hands. But when you think about people like J.J. and Monk and Louis Armstrong and so forth, they innovated this stuff. We just take for granted that it came from many, many people. Maybe it did, but it all came through one person. This approach to performance on the instrument was the creation, was the invention of one person. 5 stars.

9. Carla Cook-Craig Harris, “Dem Bones” (from Dem Bones, MaxJazz, 2000) (Fred Wesley, composer) – (5 stars)

It seems to me that Joseph Bowie does something like this. Maybe it’s him, and he could be overdubbing himself. I love the concept (I do a couple of these things myself) of songs about the trombone, and featuring the trombone. The one that I do, “Slide, Mr. Trombone.” Dinah Washington used to do one. It’s great. It’s like a novelty thing. The singer was into it. I think the novelty part of it was achieved, and the humor was great, especially when the trombone was in the foreground toward the end with the mutes and the gutbucketing and the hooting and heavy breathing… I love it. So I think it achieved its intended effect. I felt that as far as the blues part of it went, there wasn’t too much depth to that. When you’re ripping and you’re playing modal phrases, it’s difficult for me to separate the content of this kind of melodizing from…to strip the content out of it and just play the notes, kind of. I felt that it was just kind of playing the notes sometimes here, without the feeling going into it. So I missed that. You could knock off a star for that. But then, you have to say that on the whole it achieved its effect as a novelty and just getting people up off of their seats and getting them to dance and getting them to move. It had a nice invitational thing going on that way. I found it attractive that way. Even though taking the soulful phrases and just playing the notes without having the feeling in there put me off a little bit. But you can do this in music. You can lift notes off of the feelings, and you can play them dispassionately and create a certain effect that way. Put them in another context. This is all going on. It always has. It’s part of the continuity of musical progress in the human race, the way it fuses and defuses and disconnects and reconnects. It’s all part of the process. I think the recording achieved its purpose, and I’m fine with that. So I’ll give it 5 stars for achieving its purpose as I hear it.

10. Wycliffe Gordon, “Ba-Lue Bolivar Blues” (from The Search, Nagel-Heyer, 1999) – (4 stars)

“Ba-lues Bolivar Ba-lues Are,” a Thelonius Monk masterpiece. Good execution and good interplay between the sax and the trombone. I like the way they break it up with each other. I like the different voices that they change into on their instruments the different colors that they get from time to time. It makes you think there are different people who just walked in to play 8 bars and disappeared again. It’s a great effect. I had a problem because I heard the composer play this a number of times, and there are some things happening in the structure of this particular blues that I think it’s helpful to deal with when you improvise on it. Working with Monk’s variables is often very helpful as far as building a good foundation in your own playing. So not to take advantage of them, it seems to me that you miss the opportunity here to really… There are many ways to improvise. But one way that really interests me is if you know the structure that you’re coming from, and you deal with the ingredients of that structure, you get a certain kind of continuity that you don’t get any other way. .. And having done this with Monk’s compositions for some time, it’s hard for me to approach them in any other way. I would give this 4 stars, because I think it achieves the humor that they found in the piece. I just wish they had dealt with the musical variables of it a little more. But they were great players. Could that have been Bill Watrous? Curtis Fowlkes? It might be somebody I just don’t know. Wycliffe Gordon? I’ve never heard anything by him. He’s new to me and I have to check him out.

11. Quentin “Butter” Jackson, “To You” (from Duke Ellington Meets Count Basie, Columbia, 1961/1999) – (5 stars)

Thad Jones-Mel Lewis? Is it Thad’s arrangement? I don’t know who the trombonist was. Let’s see, who could do this? Booty Wood? Or Britt Woodman, who recently passed. Oh, he had people who could do this. It wasn’t Lawrence Brown or Tricky Sam or any of those guys. It was I think a younger guy. [AFTER] That was Quentin Jackson? Wow, I missed that. I feel bad about that. 5 stars.

12. Vic Dickenson, “Squeeze Me” (from Art Hodes Blue Note Jazzmen, Hot Jazz On Blue Note, 1944/1996) – (5 stars) [Edmond Hall, clarinet;

[INSTANTLY] Vic Dickenson. You know it right away from the sound. Every note that he plays. He’s got so much personality. This is something you find in the older players, that every note they play is imbued with their own character. I guess it breaks down to where nowadays it’s hard to separate people by the particular personality that they have in their sound. But back in the days when there were fewer people doing this, there was more identifiable individuality. But now so many more people are doing this that it becomes harder and harder to identify the individuals. But they’re still there! I’m telling you. And especially on this instrument, which is all about imbuing the sound with your own personality so that you can be identified just from the sound of a few notes that you play. Edmond Hall on the clarinet, who I played with at one time. He’s the same way. You know who he is right away. I don’t know whether it’s because I was there or I grew up on it. But these sounds are so distinctive, these voices. Vic Dickenson liberated the trombone into linear improvisation the same way Jack Teagarden did, and this was a heroic thing. There’s some of Vic’s humor. The name of the tune is “Squeeze Me,” written by Fats Waller. This is great free counterpoint. We’ve heard some good free counterpoint today. I think this is something that trombonists know how to do. It’s in our blood. We love collective improvisation. We know how to find the part. We know how to share with other people. We know how to complement. We know how to play behind. We know how to accompany. We know how to go out front and solo. 5 stars.



Roswell Rudd (Feb. 15, 2005) – (Jazziz):
TP: When I was assigned this piece, the editor initially wanted me to talk to you for their Traditions issue, but this now will be in the World Music issue. But it seems to me that both would work, because it seems that over your 45-50 years playing professionally, everything you do is informed deeply by transmuting traditions into the present tense, whether those are the traditions of American jazz, or ethnomusicology… What I’d like to do now is start with some concrete facts and figures about your current projects, and extrapolate out. We should probably start with Malicool. How did it begin? I gather you went there in 2000?

RUDD: I would go back a little farther and say that I started collecting African recordings back when I was in college. I was fascinated with what I could understand about the sounds of these recordings. Folkways and labels in Europe, notably France, where they did a lot of recording of West Africa, and the Hugh Tracey records. Whatever I could get my hands on. Then I went to work as an archivist for Alan Lomax, and I did that on and off from 1964 until shortly before his death. I would work occasionally for him, and I got quite a bit of exposure that way to what was available in the way recordings from all over the world. But I didn’t start really playing with musicians in Africa until 2000. I want to say that the inspiration for doing it… It’s been a dream to travel there and play with some of the musicians. Toumani Diabaté is someone Verna turned me on to, and I thought it would be out of this world to try to do some stuff with him. So we went over in 2000, and jammed a little bit, and did a concert of… I mean, it was basically a spontaneous concert. The chemistry was so good that we decided we’d come back a year later and try to do a recording. That’s the Malicool recording. It was first out on Universal, and a couple of years later came out on Sunnyside here.

TP: Before going there, had this been building up in you for years? Did you have a sense of what you wanted to do when the opportunity arrived?

RUDD: Yes, that was the point I was trying to make. My curiosity was really piqued by this time, so that the opportunity to travel, which I really hadn’t been able to do, came along at just this time. We were able to go over there in 2000 and spend some time informally, and then go back in 2001 and take into the studio in Bamako, and record with the musicians there. We’ve been back… I took the Shout band over there to play on the desert last year. This year I just spent a couple of weeks in Benin with some brass players, with a brass band…

TP: A local band, from Benin.

RUDD: Yes. They’re all from Cortino(?). I just don’t have words for it. The young lions in Africa on these horns. Forget it. And the drumming is just… I can’t believe how young the people are who are playing this stuff. The old masters are there, and they’re touring a lot. They’ll come through the States and they’ll be in Europe and Japan and so forth. But these kids, these African kids, are playing so much great stuff.

TP: It’s an interesting phenomenon to be at the stage of life and intellectual development that you’d achieved by 2000, when you were 64-65 years old, had taught ethnomusicology, had been listening to African music for about 45 years (if you started doing it in college), and you have a certain point of view on what African music is. But you haven’t been there. And now you go there. What surprised you?

RUDD: What’s missing with recordings, wherever they’re from, is the context. I’m talking about the cultural context —the smell of the place, the feel of the place, the vibe from the people. 99% is missing. This gave me a chance to go to one of the older places in Africa where there’s still a homogeneity to the sound of the place. It’s not so barraged by Western media that there’s just a morass of all kinds of music in the air. No, it’s basically Malian music that’s in the air. I mean, traditional music. There’s a tonal system to this music which you can hear wherever you go in Mali. You can relate to it right away. You know that it’s from there. I’d never been in a situation like this before, where thousands of people are in this system, and there’s very little disrupting it. That’s the first thing that got to me. Then the more I got inside of that sound, which was in the environment all the time anyway and with the people I was playing with. Then I started to feel that way and hear that way, and I was really trying my hand at expressing myself in that system.

It’s something that is a great challenge for improvisers. Basically that’s what I am. I don’t consider myself a jazz… I only consider myself a jazz musician in the sense that I am an improviser—basically an improviser. The challenge in America always was to be able to play with different people, to be able to fit in—into the old music, into the swing music, into the now music, into the future music. The thing was just to be able to go from the sound, play from the sound of what’s happening, and develop that, make a performance out of it. Basically that’s what I’m doing when I go to Africa.

TP: But it was never quite so spontaneous as that. If you’re going to sit in one of those situations, you seem pretty prepared. You’ve had one famously documented master-apprentice relationship with Herbie Nichols, and I’m not sure what other master-apprentice relationships you’ve had… Have you had anything like that with the African musicians?

RUDD: Well, see, there we go. Context. This is one context. New York City, the boroughs. That’s kind of one context, and it’s a myriad of styles. Herbie Nichols, he had this thing going. One guy with a universe. Then the more I explored around here, I realized that there were many musical universes walking around.

TP: You got into Monk’s universe in a similar manner.

RUDD: Yes, I followed him around. That’s another universe. So it’s all in the boroughs here. But believe me, there is to me a tremendous difference between Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk. It’s almost the same difference as playing in Bamako with Toumani Diabeté and playing with a Dixieland band here. Worlds of difference. That’s always been the most satisfying thing to me, is to go into these different musical worlds and try to find myself in them.

TP: What do you do to ground yourself so you can function.
RUDD: [POINTS WITH BOTH FINGERS] Ears. And the acoustical experiences that are built up inside of you. That has everything to do with your ears.

TP: Do ears come before systems, or scales, or…

RUDD: It’s hard to say. It’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument. But I think a lot of what your vocabulary is musically… [PAUSE]

TP: We’re talking about grounding yourself within the improvisational context.

RUDD: It all collects inside of you, all of your experiences with different players and different bands. It can be in your locale, where you were raised, and it can be in other other cultures, in other continents. The way that you adapt, I think, has to do with your collective experience. It’s not easy to adapt. Playing with a Mongolian band, which I’ve done recently…

TP: There will be a record out in the Fall, right?

RUDD: Yes. There will be a recording coming out of some things that we’ve collaborated on. Even though that was happening here. They came here. I was able to work with them here and record with them here. This was really an extreme adaptation for me, because this is basically a five-tone system. Africa allows for a little bit more than that. So coming out of the Malian system, that was a new parameter for me. But you see, every time that you are in a different system, you could call it the limitations of that system, but it brings out certain kinds of unlimitedness in yourself that you haven’t explored before. That’s what I love about this. So it meant that with the Pentatonics… We call ourselves the Pentatonics, because we’re basically working with a five-note system. We get the effect or the richness of a larger tonal system through the kind of embellishment we do, and the kind of bending, sliding, all of that very-very musical stuff that goes with just exploring with sound, playing with sound. Those kinds of things. The nuances. You discover nuances. It brings out your ability to nuance, the more that you limit yourself away from chromaticism and…

I can’t wait to get to India. That’s the next thing I’ve got to do. I’ve got to get to India. I’ve got to get to China. Because these people really know how to embellish. If they only had two notes to work with, they would be able to… They could keep you happy for hours exploring the sound of just two pitches, and with all that rhythm and sense of color and dynamics… Oh, man! This is what I live for. This is what improvisers dream of. Going into situations like this and just having to find in yourself the resources to blend with what’s going on. I love this. That’s basically what I’ve been doing here for 45 years, from the time that I was playing along with Spike Jones and Duke Ellington, up until now.

TP: What initially sparked your interest in African music when you were at Yale? By the way, what was your major?

RUDD: I was liberal arts. I wanted to major in music composition. But my professor in freshman year, my theory professor did me a favor. He didn’t know it, but he did me a favor. I was prevented from majoring in composition. So I put together a curriculum for myself out of what was being offered in the way of theory and history courses at Yale, which was very European. There was very little about traditional music in the curriculum. Yale was all very European. They didn’t get into the European folk music at all. It was just European composed music from the earliest notations up through the present, up through Webern and Stockhausen, the big maestros of the 20th century.

TP: So what spurred you to start listening to African music and other things?

RUDD: Curiosity. Because I knew that a lot of American music came from other places, and I was curious about these places, these other cultures. Sifting through the record bins in stores where I would go, occasionally I would find these things.

But the real breakthrough for me was working as an ethnomusicologist with Alan Lomax at a time when he was putting together an archive of field recordings. He had contacts with people who were doing their theses out in the bush somewhere, and they would be sending back very bad recordings of what was going on around them in these communities. It was my job to analyze a lot of this stuff, according to this cantametric(?) system that Victor Grauer put together for Lomax. I was just learning a great deal about what I wish I had learned in college. I was finally getting an education in traditional music, which I think is really important for people now.

It’s time. We had a lot of American music that never got into the educational system until recently. Now I think it’s important to expand from there and maybe get more of the world into the educational system. Because for a long time, if you wanted to study traditional music, you had to take anthropology, and that way you would get into comparative musicology. You would be able to get maybe an inkling of the vastness of musical tradition that was going on in the planet. Otherwise you would just be doing your Mozart and your Brahms and your Stockhausen. You would not be getting down into the roots of this stuff, where all this stuff is coming from for millions of years. I mean, hey! I used to get really bummed at these professors who’d say, “Ro-co-co” your ass off. But where are these guys getting their stuff? It’s got to be coming from a lot further around than their associates and their little tradition that they’re building up here. There’s a hugeness to this thing that we’re not looking at, that goes beyond this stuff that you’ve picked out.

TP: Now, I’d assume a traditional musician like Toumani Diabaté has some knowledge of jazz and other forms by dint of living in Paris, where so many worlds are converging.

RUDD: Toumani’s been out of Mali. He’s been over here, he’s been in Europe a lot.

TP: But how does that interaction impact the different traditional musics? Do you focus on that dynamic when you play with these musicians? Or are you trying to get to some essence within the root or pristine condition of… Do you see this music existing in some pristine way, or do you see them as evolving musics?

RUDD: I see the music in terms of the carriers of the music. That’s something that I was turned on to with American music when people were categorizing our classical music here, or when they were saying there was this era and that era, and now here comes the New Wave and the Avant Garde and so forth. I was saying, “No, really, it’s just about Charlie Mingus. It’s about him. It’s about his music. It’s about Ornette Coleman’s music. It’s about Ornette Coleman, this thing coming out of himself, and orchestrating other people into that to make the music.” It’s really about the carriers.

So going to work with Toumani Diabaté, it’s about him. It’s about what’s inside of him. Not everybody is a great improviser. It’s not only true here. It’s true anywhere in the world. But there are improvisers out there everywhere you go, to some degree or another. Toumani Diabaté, in his culture, is a great improviser. And there are not that many people in Africa who can improvise on his level, believe it or not. With all that incredible drumming and singing, the Djeli improvising new lyrics every day for what they’re doing, extemporizing their asses off… There are really supreme improvisers and there are improvisers just on a simpler level, people who are just making a few variations from day to day. But somebody like Toumani Diabaté is a formidable improviser. I can give him a theme or a form, and he’ll work with it, take it apart, and put it back together again until he’s got it inside of himself. Then he’ll really be able to speak, not only himself, but in terms of this form, in terms of himself. It’s both things.

But when we started talking about this, it’s not so much about… I think these categorizations of traditions and trying to corner them and put a label on them… I think that maybe is a way to start; it may be a way to start learning from a distance. But what it always come down to is the players. The play is the thing, the players are the thing. The guys that have the music in them. The living repositories. That’s where I think…

TP: When you were in a position of having to set up a curriculum and a pedagogy yourself for six years, what did you do? What were your first principles? Apart from faculty politics and everything else. Just in terms of trying to communicate information to six new classes of students, who were sort of blank slates, what were your first principles?

RUDD: As I said, from a distance you have to work with whatever information you have—the books, the recordings. You try to bring some players in, some living examples of it. But you’re at a disadvantage. You’re thousands of miles from the actual people who are part of the tradition or living in a different culture musically. I did enough. I think I inspired people enough, opened them up enough by bringing in American improvisers. And they got into the spirit of what it is to do something spontaneously, wherever you are, in whatever culture you are. Again, it’s a combination of what you’ve been taught, what’s in your environment all of your life, and what you can pull out of yourself. It’s a combination of those things—what’s been put in and what’s in there, what’s churning around in there. I don’t know what the process is, really, that’s going on inside of me, but I keep coming up with stuff. That’s just my thing. That’s what I was put here to do.

TP: I was at a concert you did last fall at Merkin Hall on Ornette Coleman’s music, where Wynton Marsalis played the second set. Very interesting concert, in the contrast between the first and second half. You were mentioning Mingus-Ornette-Diabaté as the carriers, and there’s something very fundamental and universe-unto-himself about Coleman’s music. I’d like to ask you two things. What was your response to Ornette’s music when you first heard it, and second, what was your approach to addressing and interpreting it.

RUDD: That’s a good question. Yeah, he opened up at the Five Spot on my birthday in 1961, so I was there. I guess I played a couple of his songs, took them off the recordings… But I’ve listened to a lot of his music, and I could sing parts of his music through all these intervening years. Then this opportunity came to do a concert of his music, and I found out that really this was the first time that I seriously went into 10 or 12 of his songs, and had to learn them from the inside. But you know something? It really helped to have been singing those things to myself, what I knew about them, just in my blood from those days. It was like a ticket. It was like a ticket into the inside of the music. It made it so much easier at that time last fall to inhale so many details that you have to do when you are really performing somebody else’s music, especially music that is as individual and as original as Ornette’s. You’ve got to learn a lot of detail. But just having a sense of his music and having heard it for so long, and just enjoying it that way as a listener, made it much easier, I think, to apprehend a lot of detail, enough to do that concert.

TP: What spoke to me most was the way you and Marsalis draw out the folkloric elements, these deep southern roots—the stomps, the deep blues tropes. Drawing out the folk forms, and extrapolating them into the narrative you were expounding.

RUDD: That’s beautiful, what you said about the tropes. Because the tropes are the things that I knew from the music. That’s what you remember as a listener. When you spend an evening listening to somebody’s music, you go out troping, you go out on the riffs that you remember. These are the things about Ornette that were kind of in my blood. I knew these stylistic features of his, the feeling of them. It was just a beautiful opportunity. I have to say that there never would have been this concert if… Greg Cohen, the bass player, knew that I was desperate to get together with somebody before this thing, and to work out some of these songs, work out some parts, make it more than a jam session. Sick as he was, he came over here the night before that thing, and we ran down a dozen songs from the inside. That is what enabled that concert to happen to the extent that it did.

TP: Did Marsalis have charts? It looked like he did.

RUDD: No. The only music we used was stuff I had taken off his recordings. I had spent a little time transcribing parts of these things. But I was desperate to get together with somebody else before this, and not have to just go on total recall to do these things. So I have to say that Greg Cohen is my hero.

TP: Herlin Riley’s uncle was Melvin Lastie, who was Ornette’s friend, and his grandfather, who raised him, grew up in the foundling home with Pops. So he comes from a very specific, deep New Orleans tradition, and Ornette is kind of family to him. And Wynton’s father was very close to Ornette and to Blackwell. What was the interaction like?

RUDD: Herlin Riley is exceptional. This guy has precognitive hearing. This is what you look for in improvisers, people who are waiting for you in an unknown situation. They’re there. They know the space. They know it ahead of time, and they’re there. I was getting a sense of that from him. That was great.

Wynton Marsalis plays the most perfect eighth notes I’ve ever heard. You just can’t carve out better eighth notes. So it was a unique experience for me to play some counterpoint with him. Because my eighth notes are… I’ve got different kinds of eighth notes. But Wynton Marsalis, boy, he’s got the eighth note to the Nth degree. I have to say, he really astounded me from that point of view. Something about his mechanical perfection as a player was very meaningful to me. And he’s a very broad musician. But when you get into a free counterpoint situation with somebody, it’s about their rhythmic orientation and how you express this. It’s the temporal thing that you’re going from. And to have a great drummer and a great bassist at the same time… Whoa! We were getting into it.

TP: During your hiatus, when you were off the scene, doing the shows in the Catskills, teaching, etc., was that to your benefit as an instrumentalist? Did you firm things? Were there certain things you could work on and get together that were to your benefit when you began to perform again on a more regular basis?

RUDD: Let me say this in regard to that. I’m one of these people since I was a kid, really, where I had to play every day. It didn’t matter what I was doing with the rest of my life. I pretty much managed to find a way to take time out every day, and blow a horn, or sing, play some piano, dance around, scat—find a way to express this thing inside me. So that regardless of whether I was teaching, or playing commercial music, or driving a truck, or working in a store, or working in a hospital… I’ve done a lot of different things. But the thing that’s been a constant line through all of this, and where I think the effect of a lot of this living experience has gone is into this… What would you call it? It’s like a musical lifeline of just playing every day. I said to someone that the reason is that it’s my therapy. He said, “No, you’re wrong. It’s your practice. It’s not your therapy. It’s your practice. So you’ve been practicing since you were a kid every day.” A lot of it has just been pure improvisation, coming home from a day’s work, and just letting the feeling that’s accumulated from the day come out in some kind of acoustic expression.

So I’m telling you that all the musical experiences I have had informed me. This is true of the Catskills show band. There was a lot of great Dixieland and sight-reading, working with comedians and fire-eaters, puppeteers and dancers… Life is about learning, and learning is essential for growth. Man, there’s nothing like growth.

TP: A lot of the older musicians with whom you played when you were a young guy came up in tent shows, where they had similar experiences. A lot of them played circuses and were on the trains and did that sort of stuff. The territory days.

RUDD: That’s true. The vaudeville, the standup… This is a great tradition. This is the old travelling carnivale outfit.

TP: We’re talking about context again.

RUDD: There’s a context here, and this is definitely a part of it. Any way that you can inform yourself about this is helpful. But I think this was missing in my experience, that vaudeville thing. I got a little bit of it through the Dixieland. But in the mountains, the whole show was there. You’ve got the tummler, the standup guy or standup lady, whoever it is. You’ve got this person sort of playing the audience, playing the musicians, and getting the whole thing into this wonderful complementary uproar. So pretty soon, the whole place is improvising. This is the great thing about that tradition, that it really is… Or there was. I don’t know much of it is left. But there was, at the heart of it, a great spontaneous and improvisational essence. The success of the show largely was dependent upon that kind of energy. Unknown things happening, coming out of the wall, coming out of people, and somebody who knew how to play off that and make that develop.

TP: Did you have anything analogous to that in the ‘60s and ‘70s in your quotidian life as a musician?

RUDD: Oh my goodness. I would have to say that the musical associations that developed from the earliest time that I came down here to live in the late ‘50s… These were improvisational hangs. The thing that I developed with Herbie Nichols was really, in large part, an improvisational thing. He would throw his compositions into it, and that would just be more fuel for me, because I would have to bring my creative thrust into his kind of format. You need those two things to create a compound, to get more. The thing with Steve Lacy… We started off with a lot of different music, and we ended up just pursuing Thelonious Monk’s compositions because they were the right… It was the right music for this instrumentation. The soprano sax and the trombone resonated with Monk’s tunes more than any other music. These were just the right tunes for the soprano saxophone and trombone. So there was a whole unknown thing flowering out of that.

Particularly with Lewis Worrell, John Tchicai and Milford Graves, that was all improvisation for quite a while, until songs, little tunes kind of congealed from all the improvising. But that was just getting together. Even if all of us couldn’t make it, we did it, 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, in different configurations, and just kept a spontaneous conversation going on. We were never able to work that much, but what we were able to do…

TP: Was Milford still playing a snare drum then? [END OF SIDE A]

RUDD: …but rather than a snare drum… Although I think that was there from time to time, the snare drum effect. But he could have been inventing that. But it seems to me that the tuning of the drums was very important, the tuning of the whole set. Well, Milford Graves, we could talk for a few hours on that…

TP: What’s occurring to me is that all of the different musics you approach, whether musical carriers or systems of music, you seem to approach in some sense from an ethnological perspective. I don’t mean that in a dry sense.

RUDD: What does that mean, “ethnomusicological.”

TP: I’m simultaneously writing a piece on Nguyen Le. His parents emigrated to Paris from Hanoi in the ‘50s. He started off playing jazz, playing Hendrix, played in an African fusion band, and then in the early ‘90s, when he was in his early thirties, he hooked up with a traditional Vietnamese singer and began to bring those influences into his composing, and then he started bringing North African, particularly Gnawan influences into his music. So now, within one personality, you have Gnawan music, traditional West African music (possibly some of the Malians you know), Vietnamese music, jazz musicians like Art Lande and Paul McCandless, and he just did a record on Hendrix’s compositions with Terri Lyne Carrington. He spoke of approaching Hendrix, and all his records from an ethnomusicological point of view. But it isn’t schematic…

RUDD: Each of these people carry a certain amount of their cultural context with them, but they carry their individuality, too. But the culture rubs off.

TP: What was your cultural context that made you so open to the different musics you encountered when you arrived in New York?

RUDD: The thing I tried to tell you before is that the improvisation was the thing that was there in Spike Jones and in this old jazz that I grew up with. There was a mystery. There was an unknown variable drifting through this music that somehow flourished and kept it alive for the 3-minute 78 experience, and going beyond that, and hearing these people performing live, doing concerts and playing in clubs and stuff… It’s the energy, the spontaneous expression, the individuality, the thing that’s inside people having a chance to come out. Their individuality. That’s what you hear in that old music. You hear the individual voice. That somehow affects everything else that you hear. I was disappointed because I couldn’t find that in a lot of music. It kind of narrowed down what my alternatives were as far as enjoyment goes, because from an early age, that’s what I was listening for in the music—the voices and the individuality. I know at the same time that everything I’ve experienced ,acoustically and otherwise, in America since the time I grew up… I also know that if I jumped into another country somewhere, they would probably say, “Oh yeah, he’s American; you can tell by this or that.” But I can’t, man.

That’s why I asked what you meant by ethnomusicological. I think I can perceive it better if I go to another world than I can in my own. Although New York is a great place, because the whole world, in a sense, is here. So people do stand out. Believe me! Herbie Nichols really stood out. Spending a day with him was like going into another galaxy. So you don’t have to go that far to find individuality or other musical universes. But ethnographically, I would have to say Herbie Nichols is New York. That’s what he represented to me. All of the West Indian, European, Hispanic…the mix of all of this place… There’s so much. It’s just hard to sort it out and say, “This is that…”

TP: It’s all coming at you at one time here.

RUDD: Yeah. Your culture is you, kind of. It’s what’s been pouring into you from the time you come out into the world. Your family and then beyond the family into the culture at large. Maybe that’s been defined by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I don’t know.

TP: Your father was an amateur drummer, so you heard music. Your grandmother was a choir director, I think. She liked the spirit of jubilation, you said.

RUDD: Yeah. When I was a teenager, and having kids come to my house to jam… And believe me, it was raw. It was horrible. But she was there. And to her, that was like religion. It was the same thing that she went to church for, was like the joyful noise, the exaltation, just people pouring themselves out in a very naive and joyful way with the sounds. Yeah, she really encouraged me. My parents kind of hated to see me… After going to college and everything, they were really concerned about my future when I decided on music. But not my grandmother. Man, she said, “wow, if you can just do this, it’s enough.” I think the clincher was being at one of Armstrong’s performances at the Paramount Theater when I was a kid. That really clinched it for me. I couldn’t think of anything else for months after that. That made such an impression on me.

TP: It sounds like you had a sense of music as a ritual from the very beginning, in the same way that Diabaté’s music emanates from ritual, and in the way a lot of the musicians you were performing with in the ‘60s were trying to achieve with their music. The notion of music being a spontaneous conversation, a lot of it comes from trying to reimagine the ritual that some of the black musicians got in the church when they were young. Sounds like you had that, too, in your own way.

RUDD: Ritual. Yeah, let’s just talk about ritual. Because it is. Daily ritual. That’s great. Can we leave it right there. I’d like to leave it with ritual. That just summed up our whole conversation, man. Thank you. Thank you for ritual. Is improvisation a ritual? Because if it is, that’s my ritual. That could be a very basic ritual, improvisation. That can be a personal ritual, improvisation.

TP: But of course, we’re speaking of music that emanates from social ritual. Black church. Village functions.

RUDD: But Ted! The individuals that comprise the black church. The individuals. My grandmother, God rest her soul, she was the highest voice in the church. That was her thing. Descant. Back in the day, and even in the black church, you’ve got to have somebody that can get up over everybody else and be the voice in the sky that just puts the top layer on it, that clinches it. That was her thing. This is the Protestant church, a New England kind of energy. Compared to a black church, it was pretty toned down. But that was her function in the church. This is the musical ritual that she carried in herself. Then there were a couple of other good singers there, and a good organist and so forth. But to me, if you can look at the individuals down in the heart of these great traditions that were built by the work of many hands, so to speak… If you can get down into the individuals, then I think that’s where you’ll find, like, the improvisational spirit and the people who are really carrying this thing, really shouldering this load.

Cecil Taylor! Whew! This guy can comp for 15 musicians, and lift the whole room.

TP: Do you see yourself in any way embodying these New England traditions? They are kind of at the core of a certain level of American identity. Emerson, Thoreau…

RUDD: Oh, the Transcendentalists?

TP: Is that encoded in you on any level?

RUDD: Yeah. I get a good feeling about Transcendentalism, what I pick up about these people and what I’ve read by them. Yeah, there definitely is an effort about perception Beyond. Trying to get closer to the unknown. Trying to get closer to the mystery. Trying to have a more open perception of the energy, of what’s coming, of what’s around us. Yeah, I definitely get that. So those guys have always been a lift for me. Yeah, I think that’s one of the positive things in what you could call that New England culture.

But there’s another side to that, and that is a lot of repression. That comes from… I think we’d better stop before I get into historical precedents in the roots of New England life. But there was the other side to it, thankfully, that I was exposed to through my father and my grandmother. Once people instill that in you, once they let you know that there’s another world besides this, that sets you on your way. You’re on your way. You’re a seeker. You’re a seeker from that point on. That’s always what I’ve been. I’ve just been investigating the hell out of it. As far back as I can remember, when my father got on those drums, he changed. His expression changed. He was a different person. In fact, I liked him better when he was doing that. So I knew that he went somewhere else, and it seemed like a good place to go.

Louis Armstrong lived there. Louis Armstrong had a foot very solidly in both worlds. But you see, my father had to kind of suggest it to me, and then other people made it plainer and plainer, that that was the reality.
Ritual! Ritual, man. Ritual on the one hand, and ethnology and this other stuff… Ethnology. Study of ethnos. I’m down on the individual ritual. I’m more down on the individual ritual than I am in the big stylistic contours of continents and all that stuff. Lomax did some great studies, I’d have to say. After all that analysis of all these little performances, he was able to actually make a statement about big prehistoric cultural traditions, like the great American Indian tradition. Incredible. When you think about all the individual contributions inside of that big-big-big tradition that goes all the way around the planet. Millions of individual carriers making it possible for him to make this big general statement about it. So I think the general statement may be where you have to start, from a distance, when you’re looking at this. But when you get down in the forest and into the individual trees, that’s more where I am. That’s where I’ve been.

TP: Except that there’s an element of your personality that comes out in your writing and your discourse on music that’s intensely analytic. You break everything down into its constituent components. Your improvising is not coming from nowhere.

RUDD: This is what improvisers do. This is how you get in there. This is what I do. This is my ritual.


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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Jazziz, Roswell Rudd, Trombone

For Eddie Henderson’s 75th Birthday, An Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test From 2006 and a Liner Note from 2000

A day after the 75th birthday of the master trumpeter Dr. Eddie Henderson, I’m posting the uncut proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that we did in 2006, and a long liner note that I had the opportunity to write for his 2000 recording Reemergence.


Eddie Henderson Blindfold Test:

1. Jimmy Owens, “Birdsong” (from ONE MORE: MUSIC OF THAD JONES, THE SUMMARY, IPO, 2006) (Owens, trumpet; Frank Wess, flute; James Moody, tenor saxophone; hank Jones piano; Thad Jones, composer; Mike Patterson, arranger)

First of all, I enjoyed the tune on this first cut. I have no idea who it is. My first impression is that some younger musicians who have studied and listened to records from the past. I heard the trumpet during his solo, he tried to…he was influenced… He heard Dizzy Gillespie—some of the runs he heard. Fats Navarro. Probably Howard McGhee. The flute player and the saxophone player, well-schooled. I don’t know who they are. The rhythm section, I have no idea. I didn’t hear any particular personalities. One thing that struck me musically is I didn’t hear any dynamics through the solos. It just sounded like a monotone, like everybody was playing the changes. They played them well. But from the place where I came up in the older days, everybody had a signature with their sound, the way they phrased. These musicians on this cut, they studied well, but it takes time to get your own character together. 3 stars. Jimmy Owens? That makes sense. Because he was influenced by Dizzy and Fat Girl. I haven’t heard him that much lately. Frank Wess? Wow. Moody? Wow. How long ago was that recorded? Last year? I’m shocked. Very competent musicians, all of them. It was a rhythm changes form; I recognized that. Obviously, everybody on the date is well versed with that idiom, and they come from that generation. No wonder they play it so well. I’ll give it 4 stars for the people on it. But musically, I would have wanted to hear more dynamics. They played the heads well, and I can tell they rehearsed it. It wasn’t just some put-together thing. A

2. Nicholas Payton, “Teru” (from MYSTERIOUS SHORTER, Chesky, 2006) (Payton, trumpet; Sam Yahel, organ; John Hart, guitar; Billy Drummond, drums)

I have a couple of impressions. First I was going to say, “Damn, when did I make that?” A lot of the things on trumpet sound like me, things harmonically like I hear. The trumpet player was excellent harmonically, and I like the trumpet player. Sounds like Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ as my first impression, Peter Bernstein on guitar, and I’ll say the trumpet player—since I know this person plays with Dr. Lonnie Smith and harmonically sounds like that—is Ingrid Jenson. No? Joe Magnarelli? No? Then I’m dead in the water. The performance was great. I liked the composition. It sounded Tom Harrelish harmonically, though it wasn’t Tom Harrell. Beautiful ballad, interpreted well. 4 stars. Nicholas. How long ago was this done? Last year? I met Nicholas when he was 15 years old and I played with him a couple of times. He’s evolved so quickly, I don’t know where he’s at, and I’m not THAT familiar with his playing. Of course, he’s a master at harmony; he plays the piano so well, and the bass. He knows what he’s doing. His sound is impeccable, his virtuosity on the trumpet, his ideas I love, but I’m not that familiar with his personality. Sam Yahel! My first impression was Dr. Lonnie Smith because of the dynamics and the inner sanctum he puts in the chords that makes it real mysterious. Sam can do that, too, but I’m more familiar with Dr. Lonnie Smith.

3. Dizzy Reece “Plantation Bag” (from Andrew Hill, PASSING SHIPS, Blue Note, 1969/2006) (Hill, piano, composer; Reece (solo), Woody Shaw, trumpets; Joe Farrell, tenor saxophone solo)

This cut was obviously influenced by Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.” I get recollections and reflections of that, when Miles did it. The one thing that jarred me during all the solos was the background horns when they came in. It tended to make things a little stiff. It felt like it was arbitrary, rather than coming at a time when the solos reached a peak. I don’t know anybody on the date. The saxophonist was an excellent player, very creative ideas, but when the backgrounds came in, it took away from his solo. The trumpet player was obviously influenced by Woody Shaw. I should know him; he’s an excellent trumpet player. [It’s an older record. 1969] The rhythm section sounds like a jazz rhythm section trying to play funk. You wouldn’t get Sam Jones, Billy Higgins and Cedar Walton to play one of James Brown’s tunes. It sounds like a jazz rhythm trying to play funky. It was done in 1969. Maybe that might help. It sounds Woody Shaw-ish. Maybe Randy Brecker? I have no idea. 3½ stars. Dizzy Reece? I’ve only heard him play once in my life. I’m not familiar with him. Ron Carter, Lenny White and ANDREW HILL playing funk!?? The rhythm section just didn’t lock. It sounded like everybody was well versed in bebop or almost approaching the avant-garde genre. But there was so much happening, it didn’t really lock. A lot of information. Too much. I remember Miles Davis told me one time, “Whatever tune you’re playing, play it within the context of the tune.” I heard a lot of different directions going on all at once.

4. Tomasz Stanko, “Kattorna” (from LONTANO, ECM, 2006) (Stanko, trumpet; Martin Wacilewski, piano; Slawomir Kurkiewicz, bass; Michal Miskiewicz, drums)

First of all, I liked the composition very much because it had surprises, it was mysterious, it really took you on a trip. My guess for the trumpet player would be Jeremy Pelt? It’s not Jeremy? I know he composes like that. Well, whoever it was, I’m glad they play the trumpet. I liked it very much because of the way he takes his time in his solos, and he’s so relaxed, and he never forces anything. The trumpet player was very expressive. Before I find out who it was, I’d like to say that the composition is the kind of thing I like. It’s not so nailed down in terms of structure. It’s open-ended, and if the chemistry is right in the band, which it was in this particular band, the music can jump off the music paper and things take place. I could tell everybody’s intuitive and listening to each other, so it leaves the possibility for things to happen. I enjoyed everybody in the band. The piano player was obviously influenced by Herbie. I don’t know who he was. Excellent comping behind the soloist, and a very nice feeling. He’s listening and he never forced anything preconceived. The bass player was excellent. He fulfilled his job. He never got in the way, he wasn’t playing too much. Everybody was on the same trip together. The chemistry of the band was excellent. The drummer was very supportive and interesting. It sounded like a band, rather than a bunch of guys put together. 4½ stars. I’ve heard of him, but I’ve never heard him play. He’s excellent. I just got back from Poland and I heard about him so much. I heard he was great, and he is.

5. Brian Lynch, “Jazz Impromptu” (from SIMPÁTICO, Artist Share, 2006) (Lynch, trumpet, composer; Phil Woods, alto saxophone; Eddie Palmieri, piano; Boris Kozlov, bass; Robby Ameen, drums; Pedro Martinez, congas)

I liked that tune very much. It was reminiscent of Horace Silver’s sound, like “Silver’s Serenade”-ish. The band had a nice feel on the melodies. On the in-melody, for some reason I didn’t hear it, but on the out-melody I heard it… I liked the dynamics going out. The band came down at the middle part. Maybe there’s some reason; I’m not familiar with the tune. But the band played very well together. The trumpet player is a good one, well-schooled and very soulful; I liked him very much. I can’t place who it is. The alto player and trumpet player play together very well—a nice blend. The alto player is excellent, well-versed in the Charlie Parker tradition. I liked the bass player because he never got in the way. He fulfilled his function in the rhythm section. Played the bottom. Didn’t get in the way. Whenever I like a bass player, I don’t notice him! The conga player sometimes was a little obtrusive. He stuck out in terms of the genre of the swing. I’m not used to hearing that kind of beat. He’s a good player, but it didn’t seem appropriate for this kind of tune. Maybe for the last part of the tune, when it went into a Latinish thing. But when it went into swing, it seemed a little inappropriate to me. The piano player was good. 4 stars.

6. Randy Sandke, “Monk’s Mood” (from TRUMPET AFTER DARK: JAZZ IN A MEDITATIVE MOOD, Evening Star, 2005) (Sandke, trumpet; Bill Charlap, piano)

Very nice. I forgot the name, but it’s a Monk tune. It sounded like Kenny Barron to me, but the touch wasn’t as soft as Kenny’s. I know Kenny likes Monk very much, and on the piano player’s solo I heard that kind of stride thing—but something was different. The trumpet player: Good intonation, good sound, very interpretive on the melody. Who was it? Just a duo. A Monk tune. I know I’m probably wrong. Jimmy Owens or Terrell Stafford. I didn’t think so. For the composition, for the way they interpreted it… I can’t say anything wrong about it. 5 stars. You know, I never heard Bill Charlap in person, but I hear he’s an excellent player. I just met him in Uruguay, and he knows a lot of music. I came to find out his father wrote “I Got A Crow” from Peter Pan, and ironically, I used to figure skate, and I skated to that. He was shocked that I knew the words and everything. That’s a pleasant surprise. It was excellent. I enjoyed it.

7. Sean Jones, “In Her Honor” (from GEMINI, Mack Avenue, 2006) (Jones, trumpet, composer; Tia Fuller, alto saxophone; Mulgew Miller, piano; Kenny Davis, bass; E.J. Strickland, drums)

I liked that tune very much. It was a very contemporary sound. It had nice elements in the melody and also in the form of the tune. It had swing elements and it had Latin elements. A nice fusion of the two, the way they blended together and went from one section to another. I really like the way the alto and the trumpet played the melodies together. The drummer was very fiery and appropriate. He listened and responded well to the soloists. The bass player was very good. It sounded like a band, that they play together a lot. The piano player was exciting. The trumpet player was good. In terms of who he was, I’m going to take an educated guess, and say Jeremy Pelt, because I heard his group at Cleopatra’s Needle when he had an alto player, Julius Tolentino. Oh, it’s neither/nor or any. [Is the trumpet player younger or older?] Not that young any more, if I’m thinking of the right person. In his thirties, I’d say. Roy? Then I don’t know. 4 stars. Oh, Sean! See, I’ve only heard him play once in the Gerald Wilson Big Band. I was standing next to him. He’s a great trumpet player! I said Jeremy, but I knew the sound was different. Sean’s composition.

8. Dave Douglas, “Hollywood” (from KEYSTONE, (Greenleaf, 2005) (Douglas, composer, trumpet; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone; Jamie Saft, Wurlitzer; Gene Lake, drums; Brad Jones, bass; DJ Olive, turntables)

I liked that. The composition itself had an Eastern sound or a Bitches Brew-influenced sound from Miles or Zawinul. Nice harmonies. I liked it because it was very sparse and all the synthesizer work. It sounded like Wayne Shorterish writing. The saxophone player was very mature and obviously Wayne-inspired. I like the synthesizer work. The trumpet player is influenced by Miles Davis. I never heard the trumpet player I’m thinking about—Wallace Roney— play in this genre before. But I don’t think it’s Wallace. Other than that, I don’t know any of the personnel. But I like the context of the tune, the feeling was nice—it took you on a trip. It was definitely inspired by that generation of music. 4 stars. Dave is an excellent trumpet player. I’ve only heard him once in person, at the Vanguard. It’s hard when you write a tune in the Bitches Brew genre not to sound like Miles Davis, because that sound is so stylized. That’s why I said Wallace, because I heard a couple of Miles Davis characteristic runs on the trumpet that are identifiable. I knew it wasn’t Miles Davis, and it didn’t sound like Wallace, to tell you the truth. I’m not that familiar with Dave. But it was excellent.

9. Terrell Stafford, “Tenderly” (from Matt Wilson, SCENIC ROUTE, Palmetto, 2006) (Stafford, trumpet; Gary Versace, organ; Dennis Irwin, bass; Wilson, drums)

If nothing else, I will get the name of this tune correct because that was the first song I ever learned in my life! You won’t believe who taught it to me. Satchmo. He was my first teacher. My mother had been in the Cotton Club… You know the story. I like the trumpet player because the way he interpreted the melody had Satchmo influences. That struck a bell with me right away. The organ player during the trumpet solo was a little overbearing for my taste. He wouldn’t let the trumpet player relax to express himself. Since it was just the organ and trumpet, it could have been a little more sensitive, for my taste, especially playing a ballad like that. 3 stars. I would never have guessed Terrell in a million years.

10. Charles Tolliver, “Rejoicin’” (from WITH LOVE, Blue Note, 2006) (Tolliver, trumpet, composer, arranger; Todd Bashore, alto saxophone; Robert Glasper, piano; Cecil McBee, bass; Victor Lewis, drums)

I loved the big band. It was an excellent big band. It was a nice melody. However, there was so much movement going on and too much up in your face all the time. There was so much melodic movement going on, I didn’t feel dynamics in the composition, when there could have been. I didn’t write it, so it’s really not for me to say. But to me, it was too much in your face and it needed more dynamics. It was a very difficult tune. It sounded like Charles Tolliver’s big band. Bingo! Just from the trumpet solo, I recognized… Charles writes some of the most difficult music. I remember seeing Charles Tolliver way back in 1964, when he’d always take gigs that Freddie Hubbard couldn’t take. I recognized his sound and his ideas. He has a phenomenal mind. Was the alto player James Spaulding? At first I thought the pianist might have been John Hicks, but it sounded more like Stanley Cowell, with his virtuosity. Neither of them? Robert Glasper? I’ve never heard him. He’s a young player? No kidding. I thought it was somebody much more mature, with his virtuosity…but these days… But for the composition and the venturesomeness of doing something like that, 4½ stars.

11: Wynton Marsalis, “J Mood” (from Branford Marsalis, ROMARE BEARDEN REVEALED, Marsalis Music, 2003) (Branford Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Joey Calderazzo, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff Watts, drums)

This last tune was absolutely lovely. I enjoyed the trumpet player because he took his time and told a story during a solo. It reminds me of when I was with Art Blakey when I was much younger, and Art Blakey always made the young musicians who came through tell a story when you play a solo. This trumpet player was very soulful, an excellent trumpet player. I especially liked the rhythm section because the time was wonderful, so supportive. The main thing I noticed about the drummer and bass player was their hookup. The ride cymbal and the pulse of the bass was the life support system of the whole group. They never sped up and started rushing, they never slowed down. Even when the saxophone player was playing a lot of notes, they held their ground and kept it steady, which is the mark of true artistry on a tune like this. I don’t know who the saxophone player is, but great ideas, great musician. The trumpet player played so superb. I don’t know anybody who plays the trumpet so well like that and, as I said, tells a story; you don’t learn that in books and school, you have to have on-the-job training. I’ll have to say Wynton Marsalis. 5 stars. That’s Branford’s date. 2003? It sounds like from a while ago. Wynton sounds very, very mature. Branford sounds great—great ideas, great musician—but didn’t sound to me as mature in the context of the tune that they were playing. He was trying to exhibit a lot of notes, and this tune doesn’t call for that. But I’ll give it 5 stars. I enjoyed it.


Eddie Henderson Quintet (Reemergence):
Discussing “Dreams,” an original composition recorded by artists as diverse as Kenny Barron, Norman Connors and Billy Hart, Eddie Henderson remarks: “It sounds different every time you play, depending on the personnel, or even if it’s the same personnel. It’s just like a dream; it’s not the same every time. It lends itself to interpretation. That’s the way I like to play.”

Henderson sings the ethereal refrain. “I wrote it in London in 1973, while I was with Art Blakey, just after I left Herbie Hancock,” he recalls. “I was practicing, came up with this, and decided to try to put it together as a sketch. That’s how Miles Davis wrote. Let the band members finish it, and make it a collective portrait rather than just my self-portrait. That’s how I tend to write, more as a sketch of things, and let the musicians fill in the interpretive aspects. Like a collective painting. The collective effort far supersedes any individual effort.”

That’s a pretty good description of what happens on Reemergence, but it doesn’t quite do justice to Henderson’s achievement. Yes, the top-shelf quintet — a working unit for five years that sounds like it — is in glistening form throughout, imparting a breathe-as-one quality. But the 58-year-old trumpeter is in peak form, addressing the bottom, middle and top of the horn with equal resonance, able to execute any idea that comes to mind and resolve it into an organic, cliche-free line. Every solo is a living entity, drenched in emotion, personality and flair. No trumpet player on the scene is saying more.

Henderson says, “I think this album is a conglomeration of where I came from, where I’m at now, and hopefully where I want to go. In the last few years I’ve been able to put in quite a bit of time on the trumpet every day, which I hadn’t done since I was with Herbie Hancock. I think I’m just coming into my own and trying to find my own sound and my own voice.” Henderson stamps his musical signature on the above-cited original, a pair of big-room ’60s tunes from Wayne Shorter and Woody Shaw, an original by Joe Locke, and four Gershwin classics that are fundamental to the jazz canon.

Which is Henderson’s by birthright. His blood father, Edward Jackson, sang with Billy Williams and the Charioteers, a popular Black singing group of the 1940’s; his mother, Vivian, was a dancer with the Cotton Club Girls, whose alumni included her friends Lucille Armstrong and Lorraine Gillespie. “I started playing trumpet in the fifth grade, in 1949,” Henderson recalls, “and after I’d been playing about six months, my mother took me to the Apollo Theater to hear Louis Armstrong. I was sitting in the loge seats with my mother on one side and Sarah Vaughan on the other. I remember Louis Armstrong warming up behind the curtain while Lucky Thompson’s big band was playing, and how his sound projected over and above the whole big band. Then my mother took me backstage to meet Satchmo, I played a couple of notes on his horn, and he laughed and gave me some pointers.

“I began taking private lessons with an excellent teacher who taught in a music studio near where I lived in the Bronx, and nine months later my mother took me back to see Satchmo. He said, ‘Well, little Eddie, you’re still playing? Let me see your horn.’ I played ‘Flight Of the Bumblebee.’ He fell out laughing, backwards, and fell off the chair — I’ll never forget this. He grabbed me and said, ‘That’s some of the baddest shit I’ve ever heard in my life!’ He gave me a book of ten of his solos transcribed, and wrote at the top of it, ‘To Little Eddie: You sound beautiful. Keep playing. This is to warm your chops up by. Love, Satchmo.'”

Henderson followed Armstrong’s admonition; he never stopped playing, continuing private studies at the San Francisco Convervatory with symphonic trumpeter Edward Haug after his mother remarried and moved west. His stepfather, Dr. Herbert Henderson, “was a doctor to all the musicians who came through.” One was Miles Davis, who was the Hendersons’ house guest during a residence at the Blackhawk in 1958. Miles drove 18-year-old Eddie, full of beans, to the gig. “On the way home,” Henderson continues, “I said, ‘You know, my parents told me you play trumpet, but you don’t play correct.’ All of a sudden the car stopped and he said, ‘Well, by the way, what do you play?’ I said, ‘I play trumpet.’ There was about a 9-second delay. When I looked back at him, he looked at me deadpan straight in my eye, and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll bet you play the trumpet!’

“He came back about nine months later, and in the interim I found out who he was, and so I practiced with Sketches of Spain. When he came in the door again, I said, ‘Man, you’ve got to hear this.’ He sat down very patiently, because he was in my parents’ house. I put the record on, played with the record, didn’t miss a note! I said, ‘Well, how do you like that, Miles?’ He looked at me with a grin on his face and said, ‘You sound good. But that’s ME.’ It was like a baseball bat hitting me in my head, a revelation — Aha, you can emulate but don’t copy.

“Miles was my first big influence. From the time Louis Armstrong gave me that book and subsequently in the Conservatory, it was more or less mechanical to me, with no emotional or spiritual impact. But after hearing Miles, I realized that I wanted to play jazz music. I listened to all his records, learned all his solos ‘verbatim’ by ear, though I didn’t know what I was doing. I took a hiatus while I was in the Air Force, and when I came back in 1961 I’d go to hear all the bands that came through. After the gigs, people like Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan would sit in at after-hours sessions at Bop City. I enrolled at UC-Berkeley as a pre-med student, and began gigging locally around the city while I was going to college. My first professional gig of any stature was with John Handy’s Nonet in 1962 or ’63.”

“Between 1964 and 1968 I attended Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C. I played in the big band at the Howard Theater behind all the Motown groups. The medical school was about 10 blocks away. The movie for the first show was at 2, it was over at 3:15, then they did the stage show. I’d play the stage show, run back to school for the next lecture, then run back and do the stage show until 11 or 12 at night. While the movie was going, I’d study. I was always busy. I had no time to get bored.

“During ’67 and ’68, my last two years in D.C., I had the house band at the Bohemian Caverns, where all the national bands came through. I came up to New York every weekend to study. I’d be at Freddie Hubbard’s house on Saturday morning, and at Lee Morgan’s house on Sunday morning. Freddie showed me little motifs, little licks, little exercise techniques that would facilitate my playing in the long run, if I worked it out in every key. But he left the burden on my shoulders to work it out or not. Once he said to me, ‘Just like Gabriel in the Bible, he played trumpet; you get this one together, that’s the baddest of all.’ The Messenger of Truth, and that’s what Gabriel played.

“Lee would pull out the duet book and we’d play duets together, actually touching shoulders. I realized that Lee Morgan was going out of his way to blend with me! It was thrilling. He stopped and we laughed and he said, ‘You understand how to do that? Always go out of your way to make music, so it sounds like one voice.'”

Henderson returned to California to fulfull his internship and residency requirements, but joined Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band in 1970, several months before finishing. “I knew Herbie when he was with Miles, and I’d been listening to him all along; I knew all the tunes. Johnny Coles, his regular trumpet player at that time, was on consignment with Ray Charles when Herbie came through San Francisco, and he called me to fill in. After we hit the first night, he said, ‘If you want to join the band, you’ve got it.’ That’s all I wanted to hear. It changed my life forever. That sextet changed my framework of improvising. It became like one big, grand composition, a collective portrait. There were solos, but everyone was free to do anything they wanted. Sometimes we’d play one tune for a whole night, from 9:30 to 2. The best bandleaders, I think, allow that freedom. That’s how the music evolves.”

Art Blakey gave him a quick lesson in bandstand concision. “The first tune, my first hit with Art Blakey, I played for about 20 minutes,” Henderson laughs. “I thought I was cutting it short. He jumped up and ran off the stage after me in the middle of the set and started choking me by the throat! So I kind of got the message: When you’re in Rome, do as Caesar says. At first I resisted. I said, ‘Man, if you don’t feel like playing, stay home.’ But then I learned. He said, ‘Eddie, if you start up there, screaming and honking, you have nowhere to go but down. Tell a story. It’s like opening a book. There’s a beginning, then you climax, then the end — get out of there.'”

Henderson pursues that inside-outside paradigm on Wayne Shorter’s set-opening “This is For Albert,” originally performed by the Messengers. “I dedicated it to a gentleman who passed last year, a music-lover, a friend of all musicians who used to go to Bradley’s and the Vanguard,” he reveals. “It’s a traditional AABA, but open-ended, not like a bebop kind of tune. I think my forte is really those open sky type of things, which leave a lot of latitude for self-expression.” Henderson grabs every bit of it on his darting solo.

“Sweet Love Of Mine” is a direct tip to Woody Shaw, who wrote it. Of his friend and rehearsal partner whom he met in 1964, Henderson says: “Woody was very precocious in terms of his maturity, and he had his own definite sound. He liked long jumps of intervals, which on the trumpet is mucho difficult, but was just the natural way he played — his soul. I used to play with Woody on the bandstand when he lived in San Francisco in the early ’70s, and was working with Bobby Hutcherson.”

Actually, Henderson and front-line partner Joe Locke evoke the distinctive edgy-romantic cut Shaw and Hutcherson achieved in the ’70s. “The timbre of the vibes and trumpet is very close, and Joe and I come from the same musical roots and influences,” Henderson comments. “We phrase like each other, and it’s a pleasure to actually touch somebody’s soul through the medium of sound.” Locke contributes the movie-themish “Saturn’s Child” — “You don’t even have to solo, the melody is such a mood.” And their trumpephone blend is crucial to the impact of the leader’s concluding vignette, “Natsuko-San,” dedicated to his wife — “It was a statement I wanted to make; no solos, just a beautiful statement which reflected her.”

The band’s collective flights on Gershwin raise Reemergence to timeless status. After Henderson’s almost rubato reading of the melody to “The Man I Love,” followed by pithy, harmonically rich solos by Locke and pianist Hays, there’s a trumpet solo that’s all rhapsodic, yearning sound. Joe Locke suggested the 6/8 treatment of “Summertime”; Henderson’s restless solo over Billy Drummond’s authoritative funk beat evokes the mood of ’60s long, hot summers. Hays wrote out the phrasing of the subtly building “It Ain’t Necessarily So”; his two architectural solos are the essence of brevity, morphing into flowing comp that spurs Henderson and Locke to heights of melodic invention over Howard’s grounded bass lines and Drummond’s crisp brushwork.

“In jazz,” Henderson concludes, “it’s about personal expression, identity. The mark of a true artist is when you can play one note and it’s identifiable — everyone around the world says ‘That’s so-and-so’ from that one note. Once many years ago I was at a jam session trying to play changes, and Miles came and heard me. He said, ‘Eddie, why don’t you stop trying to play the trumpet and play music?’ Bingo. He was trying to register something very important. Don’t play the instrument. The instrument is only there as a vehicle through which you can convey your soul.”

Which Henderson does throughout. His reemergence during the ’90s to the top of the trumpet tree isn’t exactly a well-kept secret, but this is the clearest picture yet of how far he’s come.

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R.I.P., Mark Murphy, March 14, 1932-Oct. 21, 2015

Singer Mark Murphy passed away in his sleep last night. I only knew him professionally — we met about 15 years ago when he joined me for a 90-minute interview on WKCR, then had opportunities to write a liner note for his terrific 2003 recording Memories of You, one of several he did for High Note, and to interview  him in 2007 for a Jazziz piece framed around the release of Love Is What Stays (Verve) and the documentary The Evolution Of An Artist. I’m including the liner note, the interview for the liner note, and the interview for the “Jazziz” piece in the link below.


Mark Murphy (Jazziz Interview, Oct. 2, 2007):
TP: In light of the new record, let’s talk a bit about the repertoire you chose for Love Is What Stays, which mixes older and newer material, a lot of different contexts, and of course you make each your own. Do you make any distinctions between the older songs, the songs you came on, and the newer repertoire, whether in a formal or structural sense? Or is that not particularly an issue for you.

MURPHY: Well, it’s not an issue, because you work that out in the musical analysis. For instance, the Johnny Cash song is really like singing blues, and the other one we had to be a little more careful with, so people who knew… Mind you, jazz people don’t know those… What’s the name of the group that sang “What If?”

TP: I don’t remember.

MURPHY: Well, they don’t know them. So it was just a matter of taking out or lowering some of the kind of poppish feel sung by the whole group, and making it more something that I could just sort of live in, so it would sound maybe like an improvisation for me. Yeah, that’s mainly it, to make it sound like I was just freewheeling there.

TP: So the trick is to work on something enough to make it sound like you’re freewheeling.


TP: There’s orchestral accompaniment on some of these, you’re performing in several configurations, and I’m wondering if those configurations pose different challenges for you.


TP: Do you have preferred configurations as well?

MURPHY: I wasn’t there when the orchestra was put on. In the old days, everything you heard on the LPs was done right there, including the strings. I don’t know whether I prefer it or not. Well, see, with Nan Schwartz, she has a sixth sense about how I sing, and so I have no worries there. My God, what she does with the four French horns sends chills up my spine today. My main concern with her work is that she helped us make the record a great work of art, and Jazz Art singing. That’s really what I do. You had a difficult path there to make sure that your fans are satisfied, but that you might say hello to a few new people.

TP: You’ve already given me about a third of my piece!


TP: I’ve been asked to ask you this, and I apologize beforehand if it’s a boring question. But my editor wants to know your feelings about some of the newer generation of jazz singers.

MURPHY:   I was just out in Oakland. Have you heard Kenny Washington? He’s a very, very short black singer who sings around Oakland, and he is one of our rays of hope. Of course, J.D. Walter on this coast. He is a motherfucker! He’s something else. It’s wonderful what he does, and did. He’s exciting to hear live, and he’s building up… Look, it’s always slower. It’s an incredibly slow build in jazz, because it’s an art form, and people have to come to it in strange ways. I was almost a little depressed after the record was all finished, because I said, “This is too good; this is too much above most jazz fans.”

TP: Your new record, you’re taking about.

MURPHY: Yes. Well, I was kind of nervous about that. As I see now, it’s a record that makes very slow, turtle-like progress towards any kind of recognition. However, that’s always the way it is in this kind of singing and production. It’s just something you have to get used to.

TP: You were mentioning what hard work it is to make every piece sound freewheeling and improvised. About how long did it take to prepare the repertoire for this recording?

MURPHY: Well, I had to get used to some of the songs, and I finally did, and we eliminated some of the other ones. I understood what Till [Bronner] was doing. In records that I did years ago, I learned some harsh lessons in that sort of thing, Jazz fans don’t like some sorts of songs that I do.

TP: Which type of songs that you like, don’t they like?

MURPHY: Years ago, at Capitol, we took top-40 hits and just indiscriminately jazzed them up. That record was a huge bomb. So we’ve got to be careful… I don’t know how to describe a jazz fan, what his taste is. But it comes from a different place, and it’s got to be… They’re a little rigid in their expectations of what you sing. So I’ve learned to walk…well, maybe a strange line there.

TP: Tell me a bit about your attitude in this phase of your life and career towards scat singing and vocalese, which played so much a role in what you were doing a number of years ago, and which many people think of as synonymous with your tonal personality.

MURPHY: I know. Well, I usually wait until the performance part of it comes up to start my improv lines, because I don’t sort of actually sing very much vocalese any more, because not much of it is being written. Jon is the last one to be alive of the great writers who did that. So you’re kind of hemmed in to pick something from that genre. So it’s harder and harder to please yourself and to please the people who listen to you. I got into hot water when I did that group with the group in Seattle called Song For the Geese. I got so mad at the guy who ran my…well, it really was an English fan club, that I had to tell him I don’t want to work with him any more. He was really out of bounds with what his… Not to have the attitude. But you don’t work for someone and write about them as an editor without first saying, “I am the editor, but this may not be my favorite of Mark’s records,” but you don’t come out and slam it, you don’t bring it to… He was in the audience at Birdland, going around the room, spitting his opinion all over people. I was pissed off! It took me about a year to compose what I was going to say to him, and I never said, “Stop the magazine,” all I said was, “Take my name off it.” He couldn’t understand that. Well, he and I don’t comisserate any more. Like I say, you’re getting some people who can be very rigid and unmoving in their opinions and what they say about them.

TP: Since you were talking about records, what aside from your latest are your favorite over the years?

MURPHY: I’d have to include this one as one of my favorites. Going back through them, I’d have to include Song of the Geese. I’d have to include two very early ones—Rah in its original form, and then Midnight Mood made in Germany with the Clarke-Boland Band. I heard these years later and said, ‘Whoo, I was good that day!” Or I’d say, “Oh my God, what did I do that for?” Then in between there, we accomplished some rather remarkable things with Bop for Kerouac and the second Kerouac record. I was really responsible, I think, for bringing the Kerouac name back into the fore, because two years after my record came out, I noticed that the records started putting out Beat Generation stuff. Hmm! I was never given any credit for it, but anyway, that was my thought on it. Well, I loved the record I did called Brazil Song, where I took some Brazilian material and did it with a Brazilian band from San Francisco so it was as close to being in Brazil as possible. I didn’t want it to be another bossa nova record. I wanted it to attempt to get right into Brazil. All those titles are some of my favorites. I loved a ballad album I did for Fantasy called September Ballads, which includes that “Goodbye” song to Bill Evans and some beautiful pieces by writers of the ‘70s, which I’m very surprised that people who sing my type of songs don’t pick up on. So there you are.

TP: I was also asked to ask you about influences, who could be singers or instrumentalists.

MURPHY: I really was knocked out by what happened to Miles Davis when he met Gil Evans, the effect it had on his playing, and I, sort of in my head, said, “That’s the way I want to sing.” If I take any students these days (and I don’t), I say, “If you want to learn how to sing a ballad, listen to Miles and listen to his ballads, and learn the courage it takes to use space in your work. I get nervous with too many notes. That’s why I’m off saxophones and onto trumpets. Not that trumpet players don’t use a lot of notes, but I just… It’s probably because the trumpet and my range of voice is sort of like a tenor sax and trumpet, which was so popular with the groups, say, in the ‘70s and ‘80s to start their band repertoires. You can analyze it further into… Oh, I adored Arthur Prysock. Nobody knows him any more, but I think he’s probably still alive and singing somewhere. Johnny Hartman was a sweetheart. I liked Dick Haymes very much. Nobody knows them any more, hardly. I am kind of the last on the list of several generations of I guess baritone jazz crooners. But see, the reason, when I was coming up in Syracuse, is that the bop musicians liked my sense of rhythm, which is pure Celtic—Irish. They asked me up to sing because I swung! Well, I still do. But you use it maybe in a slightly different way. It comes right out on that track on this new record called “The Interview.” It is just simply the joy of riding on rhythm. It’s kind of like a jazz skateboard thing! I never could do it physically, but I do it vocally.

TP: I suppose when you hit your seventies, being on the skateboard isn’t necessarily such a wise thing to do.

MURPHY: Well, Katherine Hepburn got it after she got into it in her seventies. But I don’t think I want to try it! But I would also say that it’s rather like basketball players dribbling down the court, only your dribble comes out of your mouth. If it’s connected to the drummer, you’re cool. If it’s not, don’t do it.

TP: Speaking of risk-taking and being in your seventies, you seem to be taking as many risks with your voice as ever, if not more so, and I wonder if you can talk about your secret about keeping your voice…

MURPHY: I don’t have a secret. It could be because I gave up teaching suddenly. Because that is very draining. All of a sudden, my voice is doing everything I ask of it. I don’t do anything differently practicing-wise, but it will just almost do anything that I ask of it—and I ask a lot of it. Now, that would be impossible for some older singers. I actually don’t know why I’ve lasted so long vocally. I never was a smoker. Now Till Bronner has got me smoking cigars—once in a while. I like a taste now and then. But for God’s sakes, don’t buy me two martinis. Or it could be that just from teaching so much vocal technique that it honed my own working of the chops, the singing in the head and bouncing it off your diaphragm and all that sort of thing. In other words, to save the larynx area wear and tear.

TP: One last question that I’ve been asked to ask you is: What are you listening to now? Do you have an iPod?

MURPHY: No, I don’t have an iPod. I don’t listen, because my head is full of music all the time. I’m sitting, as I say, in an airport lounge, my foot’s going all the time, and I can’t stop it. Sometimes I have to go to certain extremes just to turn it off, so I can relax. It’s a machine that don’t want to stop. It’s like my father, whose voice I inherited, is up there in the singer’s heaven, saying, “Come on, Mark, don’t stop; you can go on a few more years.” The poor cat died when he was 57. I don’t know, it’s all of those things.

TP: The favor I’m going to ask is if you could give me some reflections on Eddie Jefferson.

MURPHY: Eddie was an unsung hero and a genius who.. Actually, I don’t know whether he or Jon was first out there doing that. I know that Jon got lucky with a couple of pop hits, but I know that Eddie had to go work in the post office for a while. Several jazz musicians I know, do, just to get the pension. There are some very nice people in the post office! See, I have a great vote of thanks to give him and Richie Cole. They brought vocal jazz back in the ‘70s. It had been wallowing in the underground darkness ever since them there Beatles started what they did, and then turned over the whole pop music business. Then they got working I think it was in a club in Washington, D.C., and got a great following there, and then it was possible for me to get what we call a jazz hit with “Stolen Moments” and those things I did in the late ‘70s, of course, on to Bop for Kerouac.

He was not an easy person to get close to, so I never sort of wanted to say, “Hey, let’s go out and have a drink” or something, or that sort of thing. He would come in once in a while to hear me with Richie or with other people, and it wasn’t sort of a close personal thing with us. See, since he was a dancer… This is fantastic, because it turns out that my other favorite singer, who had a three-song repertoire, Gregory Hines, was also one of the world’s great dancers. And I believe Ella started out as a tap dancer. When I sing, especially when I’m bopping, it’s like I close my eyes and I’ve got Eleanor Powell next to me doing those fantastic things she did with her feet, and I do it with my voice. It’s all of those things, and I would say that Eddie must have been one helluva dancer.

TP: Anything more to say about him?

MURPHY: I’d have to say I don’t know anything more about him. He was an extremely private person.

TP: Were the early records important to you when they came out?

MURPHY: Well, people would come and say, “Why don’t we try this.” I don’t remember. It’s a long time. It’s fifty years ago. I don’t actually remember. It’s just that on the odd jazz radio show when I’m going through towns or whatever, I would hear something, and that’s usually when my ear caught it. Like, my ear caught the other day Jill Scott, who is very new to me. She’s not who I would say….like John Legend who, although a great singer, is not a jazz singer. But my goodness, they’re doing something wonderful.

Eddie didn’t invite closeness. Jon Hendricks is a different kind of person. He’s more extroverted. That’s just how people are.


Mark Murphy for “Memories of You” – (6-6-03):

MURPHY: It’s a nice title.

TP: You said in the last liner notes by James Isaacs that you make concept records and make records that are just songs. Where would this one fall?

MURPHY: Well, this would be a concept of remembering…well, exactly what it said — “Remembering Joe.” I have asked a few people, who… I sometimes forget how old I am, and I said, “You remember Joe Williams, don’t you?” And these kids say “no.” And I can’t believe it! Even with kids who are supposed to know something about jazz. But there you go.

TP: When did you first hear Joe Williams?

MURPHY: It was very lucky that Milt Gabler heard me just before Joe broke, because what I do is not blues, but… I’m wondering sometimes if he would have used me then.

TP: On this record, you go into the full depth of Joe Williams, that he was a singer and then sang other things, and was always influenced by a blues mentality, but wasn’t necessarily per se a blues singer.

MURPHY: Well, we call it urban blues, that he was a Midwestern, big-city… No, you’d have to call him a blues singer. But he did love ballad singers, too. He loved to sing ballads. But he, of course, never got to do that until he got on his own gigs with Norman, because the Basie stuff or the big band is what the audience came to hear.

TP: I interrupted you when you were going to tell me about your early experiences with Joe Williams.

MURPHY: Well, there weren’t many. Well, he was always gracious to me and outwardly friendly, and not… There wasn’t a bitchy streak in him. And he had to go through some long waiting periods — and those waiting periods do strange things to people — before he got… I would say he was about 40 when he got hot with Basie. But he had NOT a trace of bitterness, and that’s very hard to escape in this business.

TP: Are you sort of saying you come out of a not so dissimilar set of aesthetic experiences? That you have a kind of natural affinity for his sound or for his musical personality?

MURPHY: Well, see, the thing is that I really…and he…probably were the last developed singers who came really out of the Swing Era. Because I grew up on Errol Garner and Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, who were, say, the last sort of big band developments of that era, before the goddamn guitar took over. And I’d say he probably was another of that ilk. So it wasn’t difficult for me to like his whole concept and enjoy… Because I swing. You see, it’s my Celtic roots that give me that ability. Like, Annie Ross was the timekeeper of Lambert-Hendricks-Ross. Have you ever seen a Scottish marching band? Well, they get out there, these plain-looking people, and they get a hypnotic… It’s intense! There’s very deep Celtic roots in the formings of jazz, too.

TP: But that’s a real root for you.

MURPHY: Yeah. Sure.

TP: You were raised in Syracuse?

MURPHY: 26 miles north of there, in a little town called Fulton near the lakeshore, near Oswego. For us, in those days, Syracuse was the big city.

TP: Was there a big band there, or a jazz scene?

MURPHY: There was more like a small bop scene. We had our own little beatnik scene there. Not recognized at that time. Because at that time, about five years later, out came On The Road, which was reminiscences of Jack ten years ago, say, from ’60 back to ’50 and ’45 to ’50, of his reminiscences of those days. As did I and Joe, he bridged the swing into bop into modern jazz eras. Then they get fuzzy in there; you can’t tell the lines any more. But in there was a powerful swing. Nobody was ashamed of it. The moment Birth of the Cool came out, boom, everything just cooled down. I show that sometimes, in my stage performances, how the dancing changed, so that nobody even dared to smile. Because Miles didn’t smile. And he couldn’t understand why Louis Armstrong smiled so much. [LAUGHS]

TP: No more Lindyhoppers after Birth of the Cool.

MURPHY: That’s it! It wasn’t cool to show your aerobic side.

TP: Although they do say that when Charlie Parker played a dance, it was something else. The Audubon Ballroom or something. But this is a different type of band than on the last few records for High Note.

MURPHY: Yeah, I wanted to go with… The first thing I fear is that people will say, “Oh, we love it, but boy, you sure miss that Basie band.” So we tried, with a very small budget, to… It worked, especially on the introduction to “The Comeback.” That’s why I started out with that, because it really grinds in like the clappers. Jesus, I was one of the last people to dance to Count Basie with Freddie Greene and him there at some Grammy party…it must have been in the ’70s in L.A., and… You couldn’t not dance to it.

TP: There are some singers who are going to do what they do regardless of what the rhythm section is doing, but you don’t seem to be one of those.

MURPHY: I just enjoyed being able to relax and let the swing part of come right out. It’s right back to my roots, too. It was a very mellow recording experience for me, I must say. Grady Tate is something else. Not everybody can ride a cymbal like that.

TP:  Were all the tunes chosen by you? How did you go about selecting repertoire?

MURPHY: Norman Simmons faxed me a few lists, and I went over it and picked songs I liked. But I wanted a lot of blues in there, because I like to sing it, although I’m not considered a blues singer — but I do love to sing it. I suppose they’ll say, “How come you didn’t do, ‘All Right, Okay, You Win.'” I don’t know. It just didn’t seem to fall in there.

TP: You certainly inhabit them all with your own personality. It’s a great homage because it’s all you dealing with these great tunes. On some of these records, you’ve gone into detail on your responses to each song. “The Comeback.”

MURPHY: Well, see, I also was a Peggy Lee freak.

TP: She liked you, too, right?

MURPHY: [LAUGHS] I don’t know whether she did or not. She was a strange broad. But she took “The Comeback” and did it [sings striptease beat] much slower. Which worked for her, and the record is powerful! It was in those Decca days after “Lover” when she really started shouting out. That HAD to be in there. So I said we’ve got to do that and “In The Evening,” which is a lovely blues, and “Every Day.” Those had to be in there, I think. And “All Right, Okay,” somehow didn’t settle in. So I didn’t force anything in there.

TP: “Every Day” is an interesting arrangement. It starts with a James Brown funk line and then goes into K.C. swing.

MURPHY: That’s all Norman’s idea. I just let him go.

TP: So basically, he presented you these arrangements and you came in and flowed with them.


TP: Did you just go into the studio and hit, or…

MURPHY: We had at least session with me and him to make sure the keys were okay. I’m a stickler for tempo, so sometimes… Until I find my groove, I don’t want to see it yet. So we had to fool around with some tempo changes sometimes. But that’s all. One reason I felt smiling about it is that it did fall into place very easily — for me. Bill Easley and Paul Bollenbeck were…oh, it was just natural to everybody. Did you listen to the blues chorus that Norman plays just before I start to sing on “In The Evenin’?” That’s such a far-out harmonic conception, but it is blues. Stuff like that was thrilling to me.

TP: What was your association with “In The Evenin'”?

MURPHY: I always loved the way that Quincy and Ray Charles did “I’m Gonna Move Way Up On The Outskirts Of Town.” I wanted to get something like that in that particular blues.

TP: Where would you mostly be gigging at the time you came to New York? What sort of rooms were you playing in then?

MURPHY: In some of those things I was playing piano for myself, and I don’t play well, never did, but I could get a few gigs. [LAUGHS] Most of the time I got paid. One time the guy said, “Come here a minute,” and he gave me some money and said, “I’m going to take you to the railroad station.” [LAUGHS] I was sitting there in a tuxedo, and he just left me there, and I had to wait all night for a train. So once in a while that would happen. But New York was a pretty brutal town in those days. You know the movie Sweet Smell of Success? It was those days. Nobody had tried to pretty up New York, like Giuliani did with plants and flowers and trees. Now it’s a stunning city. It was then, too, but it was hard-ass. It was…

TP: Everything was mobbed-up then.

MURPHY: Well, okay. There was in Vegas, too. And that was good for us because they liked jazz. The first guy that spoiled all that was Howard Hughes. Then he sold it all to Trump, and that fucked everything up. No more jazz. No more swing.

TP: But in your twenties in New York, when you would play jazz gigs, would they be in the Village? Would they be Midtown? Did you play uptown?

MURPHY: I used to play at a joint called the Toast, which was over on First Avenue a little bit up from the Living Room, one of those rooms where you could sit in easy chairs. Those were big then, with piano-singers and piano trios. Out on the West Coast, people like Paige Cavanaugh were doing that. Matt Dennis and Bobby Troup came out of that sort of era, although Bobby Troup was a little more previous to that.

TP: Were you ever singing gigs where you’d be needing to access the blues side of your personality? Or was that something that’s always there?

MURPHY: Probably that would have come out more in the latest ’50s and ’60s, when for the first time I got to having sort of a regular band, out of Cincinnati, which I would take wherever I could. That wasn’t very many places. But I did get them into New York once or twice. In that era, I did some blues stuff. Because out of that era came my hanging at the Showplace in the Village, where Roger Kellaway was appearing, and I got him his first record date, and that was that This Side Of The Blues album. So I always had that connection, and there were one or two or three absolute blues lyrics in that record. Most of them were what we call blues songs, like “Blues In The Nights.” I’m fascinating with introducing my kids now to Harold Arlen, because all of his songs are blues, but they’re songs. Jesus, “Blues In The Night” is a fantastic piece of material! Or “The Man That Got Away.” If you get the right blues groove from the band, the singer, if she or he has got it, can really dig into that. But it’s hard sometimes for them to hear that.

TP: Well, for “Memories Of You,” you put on the verse. An extended rubato verse.

MURPHY: Well, I always liked to do that, the verse.

TP: Well, I never heard anyone do the verse for “Memories of You,” though my experience isn’t comprehensive.

MURPHY: Well, it has a line to and from periods of my life when… I found out Gregory Hines was collecting my records, and he came upon the stage in Vegas with his purple tap shoes, and tapped with us on a blues. I think it was a Wardell Gray…the one about the girl… “Farmer’s Market.” That’s all blues. But then, one night, I was driving around San Francisco, and KJAZ, god bless the memory, played this tune called “My Old Friend,” and this singer I had never heard before. It was like, “Jesus Christ, this guy is doing everything I want my kids to do.” And I pulled over, and if it wasn’t fuckin’ Gregory Hines! He did three tracks on a record of a drummer…he was on my blues album… Anyway, that’s how I discovered that he was really now my favorite singer. But his rendition of this song, “My Old Friend” (I don’t know who wrote it), was about Eubie Blake. Evidently, they were real close family chums in his evolution up from the Hines, Hines & Dad. But my God, can he sing! I don’t have any contact with him now. But I’m literally on my knees begging him to get into the studio again. I think he got stung by that session he did with Luther Vandross which was supposed to be a Pop thing, and it didn’t happen.

TP: How many of these songs were part of your repertoire before you made this album?

MURPHY: I do “Close Enough For Love” quite a bit. It’s a ballad just for piano, a haunting song — I’ve always dug it. Most of the others were not in the repertoire I’ve been doing, say, for the past thirty years. Outside of the closeness of some of the blues in the Kerouac stuff. It was, I would say, slightly more sophisticated.

TP: So you had to assimilate lyrics for ten new songs, basically.

MURPHY: Well, I purposely chose things… I have a horrible absence now of memory for words. The music is not the problem, but man, do I help with the words, just to remember them. So I didn’t want to be struggling on a date with a lot of things that weren’t part of me.

TP: What are saying about you approached the material and the date? Because it all sounds like it’s part of you. There’s barely a note that doesn’t sound like it.

MURPHY: I wanted everything to be really copasetic and organic with me, like stuff I grew up with or… That for me was a departure. For the last few years I’ve been bringing in stuff that was new to me, because I liked it or because I had written it and so on.

TP: Specifically on the records for High Note?

MURPHY: Yes, because I had a New York band that I loved and could do that sort of thing.

TP: Lee Musiker is a very accomplished arranger type of pianist.

MURPHY: Yes, but he is also for me a very emotionally harmonic one. It’s strange when… Yeah, it’s something singers go through. Peggy kept Jimmy Rowles for so long that they began not to get on well together, because they were too familiar with one another. But she finally found that Lou Levy, “the great white fox,” could approximate what Jimmy played. She said, “What band are you going to use?” and I told her Jimmy Rowles, Joe Mondragon and Shelley Manne. “Oh, she said. “Sounds like I should have been there.”

TP: How about “Squeeze Me”?

MURPHY: I haven’t done it for years, but it is a gorgeous piece. Right out of Ellingtonia. As is, to my ears, the playing of Bill Easley. It was so Ellingtonia. Well, I used to love Basie, too. But Duke would bring the whole Harlem Renaissance with him wherever he went. He had dancers and Kay Davis was leaning against the edge of the stage with no microphone and one of these revealing gowns and singing these vocalese things. He was a fascinator, that Duke Ellington.

TP: You saw him a lot.

MURPHY: As much as possible.

TP: Was Louis Armstrong someone whose singing you paid a lot of attention to as a young singer?

MURPHY: No. It took me a long time to get used to what Billie Holiday was doing, because it seemed almost wrong — until I heard her sing that series of stuff she did with Oscar Peterson. Then I understood that she was naturally back-phrasing, and then I got fascinated with how she almost fucked up but didn’t because her style was what it was. You were hearing a style that nobody else could do. Lee Wiley was that way, too. Never sang a bad note, never sang a bad song, never had a bad track on a record, every record she made was better than the last one. But few people remember her today.

TP: But Louis Armstrong wasn’t a strong influence.

MURPHY: No. Well, the giant of jazz he was…

TP: But in the ’50s a lot of people didn’t like him.

MURPHY: No, because Miles really had made Louis look a little corny. Whether he wanted to or not, I don’t know. But you can say that Bobby McFerrin did the same thing in the ’80s, quite purposefully, I think sometimes, too… He made a lot of singers look corny. Because he could do the acrobatics of his kind of vocalese in his new way. He sort of intellectualized what… I do his solo on “Freddie Freeloader,” the Miles Davis solo is done on the record by…. He made a record of “Take Five,” a big hit… He’s a tall, skinny guy…

TP: Sorry, I’m no help.

MURPHY: Anyway, a lot of people my age could not sort of easily take Louis Armstrong.

TP: Interesting, because the timbral liberties you take remind me of him in some strange way. Maybe it’s because you’re singing repertoire like “Memories of You” and “Squeeze Me.”

MURPHY: See, that’s a problem in style, too, for some people. He was doing things that no other singer had ever done, say, technically — like starting scat singing (with Bing Crosby, by the way) — and, covered up by this sound style which a lot of people found unattractive to listen to, were these innovations. So by the end, you sort of just took Louis. He was the guy that came out with the wet handkerchief and did those cute little trumpet solos. But he had, in his day, innovated trumpet playing into something it had never been before, like Miles did in his day.

TP: Speaking of Miles, “If I Were A Bell” seems very much in Miles’ style.

MURPHY: Well, he’s sort of more my basic sound anyway, out of the Birth of The Cool. And then, my God, those… I call him the Picasso of Jazz, because he never stopped reinventing himself. I was able to do that myself until the last album called Song Of The Geese, which we couldn’t sell in the United States, because the business had changed so much in the ’90s. By the time I’d conceived the album, by the time I had it done, the whole business had done another flip-flop. Some day I’ll tell the whole story of that. It ended up in a warehouse in Jersey, and the freaks have got all the copies, and there aren’t any left. But it is an exquisite expression of what I wanted to do.

TP: So “If I Were a Bell” was Norman Simmons’ arrangement, and you just hit the groove and followed along.

MURPHY: Yeah. “Close Enough For Love” was all Norman, too. That was a new concept for me behind it. Because I like to do it just very slow and very understated.

TP: I never heard Joe Williams do “Love You Madly.” On “I Got It Bad” you do the verse again.

MURPHY: Yeah. I LOVE that verse! And nobody does it. Then you get into…there’s several verses in that tune. And the trickiness. I forget the writer’s name right now, but the trickiness of the melody…it can trip you up so easily. It’s a very difficult song to sing correctly. But I really wanted to do that one with the verse for this record.

Norman said that Joe did “S’posin'” nearly every night, that he loved the tune and the swing of it — just the joy part.

TP: “A Man Ain’t Supposed To Cry” is a great urban ballad.

MURPHY: Yeah. We did that in one take. It was really like a little black-and-white movie there.

TP: So you’ve done homages to Nat Cole and now Joe Williams. Any other male singers you’ve done that with?

MURPHY: No. Nat and Joe were the greatest to me. Nat, my God, he would sing so effortlessly and just fracture you with what swing was and what syncopation is. I scream at my kids, “For God’s sake, learn the time step” or “bring in some brushes.” Then I put them right up with the drummer and make them watch his hands, and try to make them sing with their voice what he plays with his hands and feet. And it works. Once in a while, it works!

TP: Most singers, when they scat, it sounds artificial, but it’s very organic with you. Are you very self-analytical about your singing, about your records?

MURPHY: No. I hardly ever listen to my records. Once in a while I hear them now on the radio, and this is the time I can, “Oh, Jesus, I was good that day.” Because you’re so close to it and you’re so… I don’t want to be hyper-analytical. I want to do it, let it out and then go on to the next one. So that I don’t become hung up with self-criticism. That can really fuck your head up.

TP: It can really hang you up the most, right? But I wonder, do you think of yourself as being stylistically unique as a singer?

MURPHY: Well, see, I never considered myself a stylist. I was always a creative singer. If you say there’s a singer still singing now who is a stylist, and everything comes out stamped like the last one… In a sense, the Sinatra records were the genius of Stylism. Because he did what the crowd wanted, because that was what he did, so he did it.

Then there was also this question of me… It’s amazing that I made what little impact I did make when I was at Capitol, because they had… First of all, they were making all that money with the Kingston Trio, and that’s a problem in itself! They made more money for them I think than Sinatra sales. Peggy’s sales were sometimes large, and George Shearing was there, and Dean Martin, and then Murphy was down somewhere… I was just trying to do something that nobody had ever done before, in a sense. Now, some singers don’t have to try to do that, because they are stylists. But I had to invent ways of doing things differently. Because every time I would start over again, I’d find that all the bases were loaded, so I had to go out somewhere where they couldn’t go, and so I had to go, say, far out on the edge of jazz. People say I’m a risk-taker, I’m on the edge. But I had to be there, because that was the only place that wasn’t overcrowded.

TP: So whatever style evolved, or whatever sound people recognize Mark Murphy by, evolved from your running away from being a stylist. Because you have a sound anyone who appreciates singing would recognize.

MURPHY: It’s a discussion that can go on forever. It’s very, how do you say, quixotic; you’re on quicksand there.

TP: But was the zeitgeist when you were coming up the notion of having your own sound and distinguishing yourself with a sound?

MURPHY: I guess the thought was they’ve taken me because I do something different. See, I was just at the edge of the last… Joe Williams was the last of singers like me, who were before… Because as we were beginning and making our first successes, undermining all that was “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and then the guitars took over, and then the ’60s happened, and the shit hit the fan. Anybody could get up and sing a song for the children. [Herman’s Hermits style] “Oh, my, I’m walking down the street, I look a little…” Anything could go. [LAUGHS] I had to put my jazz book away for ten years, the ’60s and ’70s.

TP: You were acting, too, right?

MURPHY: Well, yeah. I was living in England mostly in the ’60s. The economy got so bad there, like it’s getting here, and I had to go out… A girlfriend of mine was an actress, and she said, “Why don’t you go see Margaret.” So I went to see this lady, and I bluffed my way into a couple of roles. Then even that got scarce. Cleo Laine started making a success in New York, and I was surprised by that. So I said, “Maybe something is happening here.” So I went back and poked around, and found that there was a slight resurgence.

TP: In the way you treat a lyric or treat the arc of a lyric, is there an analogy at all to acting?

MURPHY: Sure. It is my love of words and emotional-motivational… It’s like if I say to you the “emotional-motivational fuck,” will you understand what I mean? That you get the words and you shove them in and you bring them out again. You do all sorts of things with them. That’s my fascination with this music, that you can do it that way, and it will be accepted.

TP: With this set of repertoire, do you feel you were able to do that? Or is there a function that overrides some of your autonomy?

MURPHY: You say function. I would get probably a bit funkier actually in my own… If I’m doing these songs, some of them I probably would take at slightly slower tempos, so I can get where I want, where I can do that… Like, if you come see me at Birdland or Joe’s Pub some time, you’ll see I take it further. It’s a joy to me that I am able to do this. Some days I wonder if the audience is receiving this, but most of the time they are. Because they know that I do this, and that’s what they come for — to see if I ever really will fall off the edge.

TP: It does seem a very generational approach, the way Shirley Horn does it, or even Freddy Cole…

MURPHY: Yeah! Like Jackie & Roy’s audience towards the end would fill up in San Francisco with all people with white hair, who were the hippest of the hip fifty years ago.


MURPHY: Would you remember a place called the San Remo? Kerouac used to hang out there. That’s the first time I ever heard a girl rush over the bar and say, “It’s J.F.K., baby!” — because he’d just been elected. Sawdust on the floor. I stood outside two years ago, when he was filming it, and read some Kerouac, and then we moved to some other places. So that thing… Well, look, it’s all a tourist trap now, but that thing then was real, and at least I got inon the end of real. [LAUGHS]

TP: You could make a song out of that one.

MURPHY: Right. [SINGS] “At least I got in at the end of real.”


MURPHY: When I was a kid up in Fulton, the little kids, some of the musicians or jazz lovers…there were three or four of us in Fulton at the time… I don’t think Symphony Sid, WJZ from Birdland… I don’t think that they had FM then. So sometimes at night the sounds would drift up to us, starting at about midnight. We’d listen as long as we could, and then fall asleep, and whoever fell asleep last would wake up the other one — “Well, I stayed up til 4 a.m.!” So it was kind of an exciting time in that kiddie sense.

TP: Developing your hanging chops at an early age.

MURPHY: Well, I used to be a great hanger, but that diminishes with time!


Mark Murphy (“Memories Of You: Remembering Joe Williams“):

“I’ll never forget a concert at Kent State University. I looked up and backstage, and there grinning in the wings Joe Williams stood, big as life. Ever since then his blues picked me up more times than I can remember. I was — as all were — so TOUCHED by his attempt to leave that Vegas hospital and die at home — poor baby didn’t get there — but his spirit is up there! Maybe he’ll give his blues crown to the great Ernie Andrews now…” — Mark Murphy.

“I sometimes forget how old I am,” says Mark Murphy, “and I ask my students, ‘You remember Joe Williams, don’t you?’ But these kids mostly say ‘no.’ And I can’t believe it! They’re supposed to know something about jazz. So the concept of this album would be exactly what it says — remembering Joe.”

In case you’ve forgotten, Williams made his name singing the blues in front of the “New Testament” Count Basie Orchestra, solidifying his fame in later solo years with repertoire that mixed his blues, ballads and jazz songbook classics, delivered with a trademark velvety, fluent baritone, peerless diction, and deep soul. He was also a famously classy guy.

“Joe Williams was always gracious to me,” says Murphy, who moved to New York in 1954, a year before Williams hit the jackpot with “Every Day I Have The Blues.” “There wasn’t a bitchy streak in him. He had to go through some long waiting periods — and those waiting periods do strange things to people — before he got hot with Basie. But he had NOT a trace of bitterness, and that’s very hard to escape in this business.”

A “singer’s singer” for half a century, Murphy’s c.v. cites close to 40 albums and seven Grammy nominations. He boasts a staunch international fan base that includes quality peer-groupers — Kurt Elling built a career off his style, and Shirley Horn and Gregory Hines are avid admirers — and enough critical plaudits to fill a few scrapbooks. Still, he knows a thing or two about long waiting periods, and shares with Williams that sense of perspective he describes. Like Williams, Murphy hears time like a drummer, his diction is immaculate, and he cuts to the emotional essence of a lyric. Also like Williams, he’s aged gracefully. No one would ever use the adjective “velvety” to describe Murphy’s instrument, but it remains resonant, flexible and magnificently textured, with a gravelly ache, at the service of its master’s restlessly improvisational imagination.

“I’m one of the last developed singers who came really out of the Swing Era,” Murphy remarks. “I grew up on Erroll Garner and Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, who were, let’s say, the last sort of big band developments of that era, before the goddamn guitar took over. Joe probably was another of that ilk. So it wasn’t difficult for me to like his whole concept, that Midwestern, big-city, urban blues feeling. Because I swing.”

“I never considered myself a stylist,” he continues. “I was always a creative singer, trying to do something nobody had done before. Some singers don’t have to try to do that, because they are stylists. In a sense, the Sinatra records were the genius of Stylism; he did what the crowd wanted, because that was what he did, so he did it. But I had to invent ways to do things differently. Every time I started over, I’d find that all the bases were loaded, so I had to go out somewhere they couldn’t go, far out on the edge of jazz. People say I’m a risk-taker, that I’m on the edge. I had to be there, because that was the only place that wasn’t overcrowded.

“It took me a long time to get used to what Billie Holiday was doing, because it seemed almost wrong — until I heard her sing that series with Oscar Peterson. Then I understood that she was naturally back-phrasing, and then I got fascinated with how she almost screwed up but didn’t because her style was what it was. You were hearing a style that nobody else could do. Lee Wiley was that way, too. Never sang a bad note, never sang a bad song, never had a bad track on a record, every record she made was better than the last one. But few people remember her today.”

Other jazz singers take extreme liberties with a lyric, but Murphy is sui generis in his ability to approach singing like a character actor, conveying the arc of a song by isolating words and syllables with precisely calibrated accents, inflections and melismas. “I love words, and I love to put them through an emotional-motivational fuck,” he says. “You get the words and shove them in and bring them out again. You do all sorts of things with them. That’s my fascination with jazz, that you can do it that way, and it will be accepted.”

That Murphy weaves his seductive web on a set of 11 main-stem classics from Williams’ repertoire without distorting or detracting from their blues identity testifies to his gifts. Out of Fulton, New York, a small town near the shore of Lake Ontario about 25 miles north of Syracuse, Murphy evokes the days when he and a small group of fellow teen musicians and jazz lovers would stay up late to listen to Symphony Sid Torin broadcasting live from Birdland. “We had our own little beatnik scene there and in Syracuse; not recognized at that time,” says Murphy, whose most famous album is a musical adaptation of the writings of Beat King Jack Kerouac.

“Like Joe and I, Kerouac bridged the swing into bop into modern jazz eras,” Murphy says. “Then the lines get fuzzy; you can’t discern them any more. But a powerful swing was in there. Nobody was ashamed of it. The moment Birth of the Cool came out, boom, everything cooled down. I show that sometimes, in my stage performances, how the dancing changed. It wasn’t cool to show your aerobic side. Nobody even dared to smile. Miles didn’t smile. And he couldn’t understand why Louis Armstrong smiled so much. Miles actually made Louis look a little corny. Whether he wanted to or not, I don’t know. A lot of people my age could not sort of easily take Louis Armstrong, even though he was doing things that no other singer had ever done technically, like starting scat singing, and — covered up by this sound style which a lot of people found unattractive to listen to — were these innovations. You can say that Al Jarreau did the same thing in the ‘70s by re-Africanizing scat, and Bobby McFerrin did it in the ’80s, quite purposefully, I sometimes think, because of the way he intellectualized the acrobatics of his new kind of vocalese.”

Known for launching into his own brand of extravagant vocalese at the drop of a hat, Murphy sings barely a wordless syllable through the course of the recital. Helping him to swing the blues right is a killer rhythm section, comprising pianist Norman Simmons, who doubles as the date’s arranger, Monk Competition bass winner Daryl Hall, and drum giant Grady Tate.

“I’m not considered a blues singer,” he says. “But I do love to sing the blues. On this I wanted everything to be copasetic and organic, like the stuff I grew up with. That’s a departure. For the last few years I’ve been bringing in stuff that was new to me, because I liked it or had written it and so on.”

“Norman and I had a session to make sure the keys and tempos were okay,” Murphy says. “I’m a stickler for tempo — until I find my groove, I don’t want to see it yet. But that’s all. It fell into place very easily, and I enjoyed being able to relax and let the swing part of me come right out. It’s right back to my roots. A very mellow recording experience, I must say. Did you listen to the blues chorus that Norman plays just before I start to sing on ‘In The Evenin’?’ That’s such a far-out harmonic conception, but it is blues. Stuff like that thrilled me.”

Murphy’s testimony on “In The Evening” is a classic example of his art. Early in the verse, over a perfectly executed slow groove, he contracts and expands “eee-ve-ne-in” like he has a rubber band in his larynx, then reaches for the stars on “if I could HOLLER like a mountainjack, if-I-could-hol-ler-like-a-moun-tain-jack” — without ever making the flourishes seem excessive, rococo or precious, and never losing the thread of the narrative. On “The Comeback,” he floats like a butterfly over Grady Tate’s coal-digging shuffle, while on “Every Day” he sings the opening over a wicked Clyde Stubblefield-style funk backbeat, before the tune transitions to swing-like-a-gate Basie four/four. After this opening trilogy, you might be inclined forevermore to utter the blues and Murphy’s name in the same breath.

The Andy Razaf-Eubie Blake title track and Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad” are classics of the genre that Murphy describes as “blues songs.” Hearkening to his long ’50s apprenticeship in New York (“it was a brutal, hard-ass town in those days”), where the aesthetics of Broadway and cabaret were essential at certain venues, he articulates the full verse. He delves further into Ellingtonia with “Squeeze Me” and “Love You Madly,” on which Ella Fitzgerald, another Murphy advocate, put her indelible stamp in the ’60s.

“I saw Ellington as often as possible,” Murphy recalls. “Duke would bring the whole Harlem Renaissance with him wherever he went. He had dancers and Kay Davis was leaning against the edge of the stage with no microphone in one of these revealing gowns and singing these vocalese things. He was a fascinater.”

Murphy offers two homages to Miles Davis — “he’s my basic sound, out of Birth of the Cool.” Also by Razaf is “S’posin'” (“Norman said that Joe did ‘S’posin” nearly every night, he loved the swing of it — just the joy part”), which Miles recorded with John Coltrane in 1955, while the Murphy-Simmons treatment of “If I Were A Bell” hews to the way Miles did it with his quintets from 1956 to about 1962.

Bill Easley’s keening soprano intro and apropos obbligatos highlight Simmons’ arrangement of “Close Enough For Love,” one of the few tunes on this program that is part of Murphy’s regular book. “I like to do it very slow and understated, so this was a new concept for me,” Murphy says.

Simmons offers another vivid piano intro to the album-closer, “A Man Ain’t Supposed To Cry,” a great urban ballad that was a Williams staple of the ’60s and ’70s. “It was like a little black-and-white movie,” Murphy remarks.

The different phases and cycles of Murphy’s nomadic life might inspire a filmmaker of a certain sensibility to shoot a black-and-white film noir, but he is sanguine.

“It’s a joy to me that I am able to do this,” he says. “Some days I wonder if the audience receives it, but most of the time they do. They know that I do this, and that’s what they come for — to see if I ever really will fall off the edge.”

“Would you remember a place called the San Remo?” he asks, referring to an Italian restaurant on the northwest corner of Bleecker and MacDougal Streets in Greenwich Village that was a favored hang for Kerouac and various other Village artistic types, Bohemians and political folk. “Sawdust on the floor. That’s the first time I ever heard a girl rush to the bar and say, ‘It’s J.F.K., baby!’ — because he’d just been elected. Two years ago someone was filming a documentary, and I stood outside the site and read some Kerouac before we moved to some other places. Look, it’s all a tourist trap now, but that thing then was real. At least I got in on the end of real!”

Ted Panken_


Filed under Interview, Liner Notes, Singers

For Wynton Marsalis’ 55th birthday, an Essay-Interview Written on the Occasion of the Premiere of Blood on the Fields

For Wynton Marsalis’ 54th birthday, I’ll reclaim a piece that’s been on the internet since 2001 via the Jazz Journalist Association website. I put it together in 2005 at the instigation of  Steve Cannon and Gathering of Tribes on the occasion of the premiere performance of Blood On The Fields. It contains an essay-review, followed by a long composite interview.


The Reigning Genius of Jazz to his admirers, the Emperor With No Clothes to his debunkers, Wynton Marsalis has attracted public attention and provoked ferociously divergent responses like few musicians in the music’s history. Since his emergence in the early 1980’s as a trumpet virtuoso and composer-bandleader, the result of Marsalis’ choice and treatment of material and his penchant for salty public statements is a public persona akin to a massive lightning rod or magnet that absorbs and repels the roiling opinions and attitudes informing the contemporary Jazz zeitgeist.

A visionary revisionist, Marsalis has worked tirelessly over the last decade to build a bully pulpit from which he speaks as advocate, spokesman, teacher and musical implementor of the aesthetic notions of continuity and inclusiveness intoned by Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. Committed to Jazz, perceiving it lacking a functional basis in contemporary Pop culture, he preaches the necessity of a fully idiomatic assimilation and refinement of the music’s lineage all the way back to its polyphonic roots in New Orleans as the road to a rooted personal voice. Perhaps his most important achievement has been to influence many of the most talented musicians of the generation after his (Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton are a few) to follow in his path.

What kept me from jumping on the Marsalis bandwagon during the 1980’s was that the volume of his bark was often disproportionate to the bite of the music that he was producing. Marsalis was forced to experience the growing pains of apprenticeship before an ever-expanding and largely uncritical audience for whom a Wynton Marsalis record was often more a status symbol than an object of serious reflection.

Marsalis’ strengths were substantial. He was capable of spinning out solos of a logic and lyrical force reminiscent of Fats Navarro’s greatest efforts. His compositions were based on the language of the 1960’s. He blended the scintillating turnarounds and swinging odd meters concocted by James Black in the isolation of New Orleans with the Ellis Marsalis Quartet, the harmonic and structural parameters of the Miles Davis Quintet, and the modal, almost Pentecostal feeling of John Coltrane’s Quartet. But as one might expect of a prodigiously gifted young musician in the process of feeling his oats, adding and discarding, his performances too often struck me as brilliant simulacra that did not comment on their sources. When I listened to Marsalis play his music, it was frustrating that he seemed to be almost willfully holding back, restraining the passion of his individual voice, a voice which burst out in full splendor on occasions when one heard him sit in with, say, Frank Morgan at the Village Vanguard, or at a memorable engagement at the Public Theatre with his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and Edward Blackwell.

Since Marsalis became the focal point of Jazz programming at Lincoln Center in 1988, he has taken advantage of the opportunity to play the music of the keystone composer-improvisers of Jazz in variously idiomatic settings, from the inside-out so to speak, to develop a relationship to their vocabularies that is both functional and poetic. As his ideas have matured and consolidated, he has found a way to conjure his omnivorous musical interests into a highly personal, detailed compositional sensibility. Recent recordings such as the 1990 soundtrack for Tune In Tomorrow and the 1991 dance score City Griot revealed an ambitious composer who already had imprinted his cosignature to Ellington’s expansive timbral palette, Jelly Roll Morton’s organizational techniques, Monk’s percussive harmonic dissonance.

Furthermore, Marsalis has dramatically increased his range as a soloist. The sometimes mechanistic harmonically and rhythmically complex solo lines spun by the Freddie Hubbard admirer of earlier years have coalesced into clear, direct shapes. Marsalis is now capable of bringing to life a spectrum of stylistic approaches — the to-the-point heavyweight tales laid down by Louis Armstrong and Clifford Brown, the smooth modulations of Joe Smith and Joe Wilder, the sonic extremities of Ellington trumpets Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams, the allusive modernist progressions of Booker Little and Woody Shaw.

The two March 1994 performances at Alice Tully Hall of Marsalis’ lengthy commissioned composition for large jazz orchestra, Blood On The Fields [scheduled for an early 1996 release on Columbia-Sony] upped the ante. It is the first self-contained extended piece from Marsalis that I have heard in which form and function blend seamlessly. It tells a story whose internal dynamics are about dialoguing voices, stories and songs. It is also a conversation with the history of Jazz on its highest level. No imitation of its antecedents, Blood On The Fields demonstrates Marsalis’ sophisticated reading and revision of his sources, does justice to his oft-stated, oft-derided mission of reaffirming and reclaiming the optimistic narrative thrust of African-American culture.

What most impressed me about the performances of Blood On The Fields was the rich language of its complexly metered, starkly intervalled vernacular libretto, sung with elegant fluency and finesse by Cassandra Wilson, Miles Griffith and Jon Hendricks. Ellingtonally, Marsalis gave each musician in the orchestra a voice, and the orchestra itself a meta-voice. Call-and-response, New Orleans polyphony, shuffles, Ellingbop, dirges, parade march press-rolls, second-line struts, intricately detailed ensemble dialogues, impossible unison brass lines, idiomatic solos — even a Greek chorus! — signified and counterstated the songs. And they swung hard all night!

About a year ago I had the opportunity to meet with Marsalis twice for discussions about his music. During a week’s engagement of the Wynton Marsalis Septet at the Village Vanguard in December 1993 Marsalis visited my “Out To Lunch” program on WKCR-FM in New York and spoke on a variety of topics. The interview began with Marsalis’ brief description of each of his band members (Wessel Anderson and Victor Goines, reeds and woodwinds; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Eric Reed, piano; Reginald Veal, bass; Herlin Riley, drums), three of whom are from New Orleans (Veal has since left the band).

TP: Why is the New Orleans connection so important to you in terms of the musicians you perform with? It sounds like sort of a naive question, but I just would like to hear how you see it.

WM: Well, you know, it just has worked out that way. I didn’t plan it that way, really. It’s not like I went to New Orleans to find musicians, because I’ve been in New York for twelve years. But Herlin Riley and Reginald Veal with the drums and the bass, are from New Orleans, and they give us the ability to really play some New Orleans music. When you don’t have New Orleans musicians in those two positions, it’s difficult to get the authentic sound of the music. But you can always distill that sound, like the way that Duke played. He got that type of sound out of Jimmy Woode and Sam Woodyard. It’s just that it was transformed. It didn’t sound like the New Orleans beat.

TP: Of course Ellington got that sound out of Wellman Braud in the 1920’s.

WM: Well, he’s from New Orleans. As a matter of fact, Wellman Braud is in my family. You expect that New Orleans musicians will play like that. In Duke’s early bands, he had Sidney Bechet, he had Wellman Braud, he had Barney Bigard — he had access to New Orleans musicians. He had Bubber Miley, who even though he wasn’t from New Orleans, he was the closest thing you could find to King Oliver outside of Louis Armstrong.

TP: What type of repertoire does the band play in performance? You’ve accumulated such a diverse body of work in your recent recordings. Do you play the whole spectrum of material?

WM: We play all of it. Even the stuff we used to play, like “Black Codes From The Underground” or “Knozz-Mo-King.” We play Duke’s music, Monk, Wayne Shorter — anything really. We haven’t played that much of Wayne’s music recently, but we’ll really play pretty much anything… Some cats will play ballads. Or we try to play some of Trane’s music…

TP: Two of your band members, Wessel Anderson and Reginald Veal, studied with Alvin Batiste, who has been associated with your father for over forty years, playing contemporary and very strong music.

WM: Right.

TP: And Edward Blackwell was part of their circle, too, over forty years ago.

WM: That’s right.

TP: Did your father’s work with [drummer] James Black in the early 1960’s have an impact on some of the early things that you were doing with your group?

WM: Definitely. You know, for me, it was more that I just absorbed the music, because I was always around it. I didn’t like it when I was growing up. We were really Country. We lived in Little Fork, Louisiana, in Browbridge, in Kendall, Louisiana — and nobody I knew liked that kind of music. My Daddy and them always were kind of like outcasts. They were trying to play Modern Jazz in New Orleans at that time. But I always loved them because of their hipness. They had the combination of the intelligence and the soul. So as a kid, that manifested itself in things like, if we were in the barber shop, my Daddy would win the argument.

TP: With anybody, huh?

WM: Yeah. Well, he just knew a wider range of things. He was a Jazz musician. He had a more sophisticated understanding of American culture.

James Black was the same way, even though he had a volatile personality. But out of the cats in my father’s band (Nat Perillat, James Black, my father), I liked James the most. He wrote a lot of tunes, like “The Magnolia Triangle.” He had the talent. But he had a volatile personality. He was always getting into some kind of trouble, and he was always ready to fight at the drop of a hat. You never knew what he was going to do; he was unpredictable. But as a boy of like, seven, six, eight, there was always something about him I liked. He also was a trumpet player. I was influenced by his music. I liked his songs, like “A Love Song,” and things that the people wouldn’t know…

They played in a club called Lu and Charlie’s that was on Ramparts Street in New Orleans, and when I got to be, like, eleven, I would hang out in the club. I would go to the club just to see the men and the women and hear what they would be talking about, not to really check the music out so much — but the ambiance had a profound effect on my understanding of how the world works. Because you’re liable to see anything in that type of club. And also in New Orleans, down in the French Quarter there’s a wide range of things going on.

TP: Human activities.

WM: Yes, human…

TP: The full range…

WM: Yes.

TP: The depth…

WM: …and levels of human intercourse taking place. As men they had a profound effect on me more than as musicians.

TP: Had you picked up the trumpet by that time? Did you know music was going to be…

WM: No.

TP: …what you were going to do then?

WM: Well, I had a trumpet. I played in Danny Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church band when I was eight. Herlin Riley actually played trumpet in that same band, but before I was in it. I was only in the band for like six months or so, actually longer, maybe a year. We would play parades, things like “Over In The Glory Land,” “The Second Line,” “Little Liza Jane,” “Didn’t He Ramble.” Now, I had a trumpet, but I didn’t want to be a trumpet player. I wanted to be some type of athlete or in some type of scholarly activity, be a chemist or something — I had my little chemistry set, and I liked playing with it.

But the thing I always try to convey is just the feeling of that time. Because my father and them were all men struggling, they had their families, they weren’t making any money, they were trying to play Modern Jazz in New Orleans. An album like The Monkey Puzzle, I might have heard that a million times; it’s like a New Orleans underground classic. They had a belief and an optimism, a belief in the music, a feeling that they had as men, that’s the thing that I really could relate to. Because during that time, that music really wasn’t that important.

We had a little league football team, and we used to lose almost every game. This was during real segregation, so they had like three Black teams and seven or eight White teams. The Black teams always had like the saddest equipment from the city, and our fields didn’t have hashmarks or anything. We were glad just to be playing. Because before our age, they never had Black teams. But we would lose every game. Our coach was a cat named Gus, and he had a black-and-tan car we used to call the Judge, a GTO, and he used to sit on his GTO… We’d go to the games, and we’d always lose. One game Gus didn’t show up, and my father coached. He packed all of us into this little Buick Skylark; he had like eleven of us in a Buick Skylark, man…

TP: In uniform and pads?

WM: Oh yeah, in full dress. I don’t know how we got in there. We were laying all on top of each other! And we went to the game — and that’s the only game we almost won.

TP: Why did you decide to get serious about the trumpet? What was it that inspired you?

WM: Well, then I went through puberty, and I wanted to have something that would distinguish me so that I could be able to rap to the ladies and they would have some respect for what I was saying…

TP: A lot of musicians say that about it!

WM: Oh, man, that’s a motivating factor, now. And also just the competition of being in high school; a lot of people could play. And then I actually started listening to music. I started listening to Coltrane’s music first, and then later on Clifford Brown and Miles Davis…

TP: Who turned you on to that?

WM: Well, my father always had the records sitting around. I just had never taken the time to listen to any of them. Mainly before that I was just listening to like James Brown or the Isley Brothers, whatever was popular — Earth Wind and Fire then was becoming popular. We’d go to those little house parties that they have. Once again, it was still in the country. We weren’t living in New Orleans yet.

In the summer that I was twelve, I was working, cleaning up a school. That’s when I started listening to Trane. I would come home from doing that, and then I would listen to “Giant Steps”, and then I’d listen to Clifford Brown and Max Roach On Basin Street, and then Clifford Brown With Strings, and then a Miles Davis album entitled Someday My Prince Will Come, and then a Freddie Hubbard record entitled Red Clay. That got me into Jazz.

TP: How about Jazz education? Your father, Ellis, along with Alvin Batiste, was one of the major educators in Jazz really in the country in the 1970’s.

WM: [CHUCKLES] Well, I always hear that, and it makes me laugh. At most, my father never had more than five students in a class. We had the raggediest room in the school…

TP: Look who came out of it!

WM: Well, none of us knew we were going to make it playing Jazz. We really didn’t even want to play Jazz, with the exception of me and Donald Harrison; we were really the only two who wanted to play Jazz. When my father would try to explain something to us, by the time he would leave the blackboard to come back to the piano, we’d be playing a Funk tune. Alvin Batiste was the same way. He and my father, they’re like brothers almost. You know, I would always see them struggling, trying to have workshops in the community that no one would attend, always doing stuff — never for any payment, of course. Nobody was that interested in Art.

So now my father has this big reputation of being a teacher. And he is a great teacher. You have to be around him and really get the feeling of the music from him, because that’s what he carries with him, the seriousness and the joy and the love that’s in Jazz. He teaches his students through that method. But when we were growing up and in his classroom, it was only me, Donald Harrison, Branford, Terence Blanchard — we were the only five or six in the class. He would be just experimenting with us, walking the bass lines.

TP: You must have become extremely passionate about the trumpet to have worked that hard at it throughout your teenage years.

WM: Well, I always believed in working hard. You know, I used to cut lawns. And in New Orleans it’s hot. And in Kendall they have them big…them country lawns, so you have to really cut a lawn. And my attitude toward cutting a lawn was that my lawn was gonna be even. And this is when I was ten or eleven. So however long it would take to get the job done… That’s something that my father and my great-uncle would always tell me. My great-uncle was a stone-cutter for the cemetery, and he was in his nineties. He would always say, “Learn how to work a job. Your job is your identity. You don’t work a job for somebody else. You work your job for yourself.”

So when I got to be serious about music, I started practicing, and trying to look for teachers. I was very fortunate, of course, to have my father and Alvin Batiste, even Kidd Jordan. We would go over to SUNO, Southern University in New Orleans, and play what they call Avant-Garde music. We would all just get in a big room and just play as loud and as wild as we could. Even though after a while I got tired of doing it, in a way it was hip, because it allowed us to just express whatever we felt like expressing — which wasn’t that much. But we would all laugh about it. We would play some of Alvin’s tunes, one tune called “Naningwa.”

TP: He’s written some wild tunes.

WM: Yeah. So we grew up in that type of environment. My first teacher was a guy named John Longo. He also was at Southern University in New Orleans. He had grown up in New Orleans, and attended St. Augustine High School. John Longo studied with George Janson, who was my second teacher. George Janson had studied with William Vaggiano, who became my teacher at Juilliard. George Janson was from New York, and he had moved to New Orleans, and he was one of the few teachers who would teach the Black musicians in the 1950’s.

But in New Orleans it’s not like Jazz is a form of scholarship. They were Jazz musicians, my father and them, they were struggling with the world and trying to raise their families and deal with the social situations and all of that. And we were growing up in that, and we were just a part of it. The relationships in the New Orleans musical community were a certain way. And of course, always hearing the tradition of music, even though I didn’t gravitate toward it at that time, because I always equated it with Uncle Tommin’… We were from like that other generation, with the Afros and Malcolm; all of that was popular in my age group. But still I was around the people like Teddy Riley and Ford, and earlier Danny Barker. It was a community, a very small community, and everybody knew each other. And if you were in that community, you participated in what was in it.

TP: The other aspect of music in New Orleans in the Sixties and Seventies was the vernacular music that was embedded in the cultural fabric of the city — the Neville Brothers, the Meters, all of these great bands. Was that something that you were aware of and involved with at that time as well?

WM: Well, we played Funk music at our gigs, and we knew about the Meters and the Neville Brothers, of course. Everybody in New Orleans knows about them; they have hits. But the type of music that most of the people in my age group listened to was Parliament or Earth, Wind and Fire, just like in New Orleans today most people listen to Rap music or whatever is on the radio. They don’t really listen… Most of the teenagers, the kids in our age group, they don’t really have a sense of the New Orleans tradition. At the end of every Funk gig we would play the Second Line. In New Orleans you can play a second-line any time. That’s the New Orleans classic from the traditional music. But in terms of the Meters’ songs and covering their hits or the songs they used to play, any type of historical perspective — we didn’t really possess any of that. Let alone to deal with Fats Domino or Dave Bartholomew or any of the 1950’s musicians. We were mainly just trying to be popular and current. So when a new record would come out, that’s what we would play.

[The conversation turned to clarinettist Dr. Michael White’s presentations of early jazz at Lincoln Center.]

WM: We don’t do Repertory Jazz. When you hear Sonny Rollins play “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise,” that’s not a piece of repertory music. If you had heard John Coltrane, when he was alive, play “I Want To Talk About You,” you wouldn’t say that was a piece of repertory music. There’s this belief that what we’re doing is transcribing things off of albums and playing them like the way that they were played a long time ago. We don’t do that, and we aren’t trying to do that. These styles are always alive, because Jazz has a ritualistic component. Its history won’t be just like Classical music. It’s just that those who write about the music don’t understand that yet, that part of the music is a continuum, and that the earliest New Orleans style is still the most Modern style of Jazz because it allows for the most freedom for more people participating. You have that polyphonic horn style, which is very difficult to play.

When Michael White comes to New York, when he comes to Lincoln Center and we present New Orleans nights, we do that because he is the foremost authority on that style of music. He breathes life into that music. A lot of times we don’t even have arrangements. I’ve played on a lot of those concerts, and all we have is like a sheet with written instructions — “One Chorus, Clarinet,” “Two Choruses, Head,” “Ensemble Improvisation.” What we are trying to do is play that style of music the way that we know how to play it. We aren’t really trying to necessarily recreate the sound of a given band, because you can’t do it.

All of the musicians, everybody who plays, learns from that type of music. If you’re a trumpet player, it teaches you how to play melodies and how to play quarter notes. If you play clarinet or if you play the trombone or the saxophone, it teaches you how to play with other musicians on horns, how to play longer-note values, when to play riffs, how to respond to something while still playing, how to address the dynamics of a group of horns playing at one time. If you play bass, it teaches you how to play that two-groove and how to stick to a basic beat feel, how to provide a good foundation. If you play piano, you learn different ways of comping, like the quarter-note comp, and it teaches you how to play with the left and the right hand, the stride style.

Now, after you learn that, you can do whatever you want with it. You can always do what Marcus Roberts does, which is something that you would never hear any of the older pianists do, play in two and three different times at once, all kind of real sophisticated syncopations and different harmonic conceptions. It’s just a matter of addressing the fundamentals so that you know the building blocks. Then you have the tools at your disposal to do whatever you wish to do with them. When we play the New Orleans music, that’s what we’re trying to do.

TP: When you came into the studio, before we went on the air, you were talking about how difficult it is to train people to play like that. Do you want to elaborate on that a little?

WM: Well, it’s just that there’s not much impetus in the culture for group improvisation. Everybody wants to solo all night. It destroys the architecture of the music. Also, we have gotten used to this form of just playing a head, and then soloing for two thousand choruses, and then playing the head out. Whereas in that New Orleans music, they played marches and waltzes. They actually played quadrilles. They played music with a wide range of forms. The forms are much more sophisticated. So you might only play eight bars, or you might only play a solo for eight bars, but you’re playing all the time. It’s very hard to get the younger musicians to understand the value of that type of expression. Also, they used Blues expression, whereas it’s very hard for today’s young musicians to learn that, not because they lack the talent or the ability or that they don’t have that aspect of their lives or that they don’t have the soul, but because the sound is not prevalent in the culture.

It’s very difficult to teach that. That’s the advantage, I think, of studying with someone like my father. He doesn’t teach you technically, but he teaches how to transmit that feeling. Now, I don’t really know what that feeling is. That’s how Art Blakey was also. There was something in his feeling that could teach you what the meaning of Jazz was. It’s that combination of intellect and soul, and a seriousness toward the music, and a desire to groove and to continue to groove, and to develop material. And to pass that on to younger musicians is really difficult.

TP: New Orleans, of course, is a port city on the Gulf of Mexico and deeply connected to the whole Caribbean region in complex ways. I’d like to ask you about the aspect of New Orleans music that Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish Tinge.” Have you been influenced in any way by the Cuban trumpet tradition, particularly in terms of the sonic aspects of it, the timbre and so forth?

WM: Well, not from that aspect. But I always liked Rafael Mendez, who was Mexican. It has always been my feeling that next to Louis Armstrong, he was the greatest trumpet player I have ever heard. Just the soul that comes through his sound. [SINGS A PHRASE] I like that kind of real bravura sound. And I think that the Cuban trumpet players I’ve heard have that. Sandoval has that, and musicians like Chocolate [Armenteros], they have that kind of thing, and even guys who are not well-known in that way, somebody like Victor Paz, who I had the opportunity to play with, he has that type of feeling in his sound. Of the younger generation of musicians, I think a guy like Charlie Sepulveda has that in his sound.

When they say the Spanish Tinge of New Orleans, it’s that BOOMP-BUM-BUM, BOOMP-BUM-BUM — the accent comes on four. And that’s how the New Orleans beat, BOOMP-BOOMP-DABOOMP-BOOM, BOOMP-BUM-BUM… So when they sing like the New Orleans music, [SINGS THAT BEAT AND CLAPS IT] — it’s that same rhythm. [SINGS THE RHYTHM] So in that way we have a lot in common with the South American and the Caribbean sounds. But of course, in the Caribbean they have a much more sophisticated version of it. In Cuban music, they have so many grooves and it’s very, very sophisticated. We don’t have that level of sophistication.

TP: I’d like to take up your previous comments on the misunderstanding about the ritualistic aspect of Jazz amongst many observers of the music. Do the words “classic” or “classicism” have a different meaning when applied to the Jazz aesthetic as opposed to, say, European Music?

WM: Well, you know, I never really know what they’re talking about. Some people say “Classic Jazz,” and they mean the 1930’s. Some say New Orleans music. Some call Coltrane’s group the classic quartet.

TP: What do you mean by it, though?

WM: Well, personally, a term like “Classic Jazz” really has never meant anything to me. You know, that’s the title that was used for the Lincoln Center series that we do in the summertime. Jazz in Lincoln Center is what I believe in.

My feeling is to call it “Real Jazz.” Because Real Jazz means that you are trying to swing. And when I say “swing,” that means that you are dealing with the rhythmic environment that allows for the thematic development, consistent thematic development, in the context of a Jazz groove. Which means that you don’t have to be going TING-TINKADING-TINKADING-TINKADING… A Jazz musician will take this same groove, DOOMP-DUM-DUM, DOOMP-DUM-DUM… That will be repeated, but all of the instruments will be improvising and the soloists will be constructing solos that develop thematically.

So it’s a matter of development, whenever you want to distinguish whether something is Jazz or not, and the range that is played on the groove. A Jazz drummer like Elvin Jones will take a groove like that, and he’ll play many different things on it. Whereas people who are not playing in the style of Jazz might take that same groove, and they will still be improvising, but what they will be playing will be more proscribed. They can improvise, too, but it will be off of the clav? or off of a certain thing that’s set, whereas a Jazz drummer also includes that into his vocabulary. Which is not to say that Jazz is more sophisticated. It’s just different. Because the other way is very, very sophisticated.

But when the horn players play and the soloists play, we deal with interaction. The key to Jazz music is the interaction of the voices. And the way you can tell whether a piece of Jazz is being played is if it’s being rendered with some Blues feeling, Blues melodies, rhythms and harmonies, in the context of some type of form. That means that you’re always addressing syncopation, some rhythms are being set up and they’re being resolved. If it has the Blues in it and also if it’s swinging, then it has that sound that we identify with Jazz.

It also becomes then a matter of percentage. For instance, if I would take a gallon of water and squeeze one lemon in it, technically you could say it’s lemonade. But it’s not. It would be like some water with some lemon in it. And we’re always concerned with the range and the precision and the degree of control of the idiomatic nuances. That really determines whether something is Jazz or not.

Jazz music has always been burdened with a tradition of writers who hang onto it, they’re paternalistic, and they always feel as though they know more than the musician knows. This is the thing that I’ve always been trying to say in public, and why a lot of times they’ve said I’m outspoken and all of this. I’m not outspoken. It’s just that these people who are supposed to be conduits between the musicians and the public don’t function in that fashion. They feel that they are above the musician or that they are above the music, and they aren’t.

These people like James Lincoln Collier, who writes these ignorant books. See, a lot of times all you can find in libraries of colleges will be James Lincoln Collier and one other book. James Lincoln Collier makes statements like, “The question is not whether Duke Ellington was a great composer, but was he a composer at all?” He’ll say Louis Armstrong, actually must have been born earlier to attempt to diminish the genius of Louis Armstrong — when in actuality Louis Armstrong was born later.

There’s always this confusion between sociology and music. When you try to teach students, you can’t teach them sociology. You have to teach them something about music. I can’t stand in front of a class and say, “Well, man, I want you to go home and stand on a corner with a chicken wing, and then come back and put some barbecue sauce on it, and come back next week, and then you will be able to play some Blues.” You have to come with something specific, which is not necessarily technical.

Like what I was saying about my father. He wouldn’t necessarily teach you technically, but he would transmit to you the feeling of Jazz, which is the combination of soul and intellect and the engagement with the consciousness, with American consciousness and with American culture. But we are burdened with a lot of the guys who write for our music because they lack the humility to really successfully communicate the feeling of the music to the public.

TP: Another aspect of learning to play the Blues or the idiomatic nuances of Jazz is just functional, practical experience. Where do young musicians get that these days?

WM: It’s very difficult. Young musicians from around the country call me all the time saying, “Man, there’s no place to play.” Nicholas Payton is one of the finest young musicians in the country. He lives in New Orleans, and a lot of times he calls me and says, “You know, I’m not playing; I don’t have anywhere to play.” So we have a lot of problems in terms of training younger musicians to play. But it’s much better than it was when I was coming up.

TP: How so? Can you elaborate on that?

WM: When I was coming up, we didn’t even know what Jazz was. I could tell what it was from being around my father and them. But what we considered Jazz, like in my band and stuff, that was like some Funk tune with somebody putting a solo on top of it. The thought of trying to learn how to play Blues, the thought of interacting with each other… Now, we would play a Blues every night and we’d play the Second Line every night, but we’d play like kind of Funk licks on top of it. We weren’t trying to get to any real profound adult level of emotion on it, like what you have to try to do when you play the Blues. We were trying to do what we heard on the radio basically.

TP: But you got to play, let’s say, with Art Blakey for a year-and-a-half, Herbie Hancock for a while, different bands around New York. Before you started your career as a leader, you still had those two or three years of functional experience with other people’s bands.

WM: But you don’t have those kind of bands up here now. Who are you going to play with?

TP: Really I’m just trying to get your reflections on the state of things as they are now. Optimistic? Pessimistic?

WM: No, I’m very optimistic. Because there are more and more people who want to play. When I was, like 17, there was me and Wallace Roney, and then Terence Blanchard was kind of coming up. But before I met Wallace Roney, I had never met another trumpet player who really wanted to play real Jazz. Wallace really wanted to play. I would hear about him, “Yeah, there’s this kid in Washington named Wallace Roney, and he knows about the tradition and swinging.” But when I would meet Clark Terry or when I would meet Sweets Edison or the guys when I was 15 or 16, they would be telling me, “Man, there’s almost nobody who wants to play.” I sat in with Sonny Stitt once when I was 15, and he was telling me, “Man, you could be great in this music, but you have to practice and be serious. And I can see that you’re going to be serious. But you have to play this music. Because I’m traveling around the country, and I don’t see any youngsters who even want to play it.”

Whereas now, when I go around the country, I see hundreds of kids who want to play. Now we have to put the systems in place to enable them to learn and prosper and develop. The kids are ready. But the systems just are not in place to support them.

For example, there are people in the Jazz community who will complain because some twenty-year-old kids have a contract. Well, to me, this is a reflection of deep ignorance. The people who have their contracts are not the young Jazz musicians, it’s all the people in Rap music or in Pop music or in all these other forms of music where the contracts are awarded — 15 and 20 contracts a day are given out. Instead of complaining against the five or ten young Jazz musicians who are at least trying to play, complain against all these other people who aren’t even trying to play music, who just want to get a hairstyle and make some money.

But what is the response of the Jazz community? It’s to cut the younger musicians down, to hold them to a standard that’s far above what their upbringing would allow them to be on. Somebody like Roy Hargrove might have been the only person in Dallas who wanted to play and really seriously swing at his age. So he can’t be compared to Miles Davis when he was 15. I mean, Clark Terry, Hot Lips Page, Dizzy Gillespie, all these great people were practicing.

TP: Well, they had the music all around them. It was the culture.

WM: This is what I’m saying. A guy like Roy Hargrove has got to be celebrated by the Jazz community. Instead of saying, “Well, he sounds too much like Lee Morgan” or “he needs to do this and he needs to do that.” Maybe all of that is true, or maybe it’s not true. But the fact is, he is trying to play. I’m not saying you shouldn’t criticize a man’s style. But you have to be cognizant of… Are you the Jazz community or are you not the Jazz community? You don’t shoot the only warriors you have. You don’t say, “Well, you’all are not going to be able to fight like the people fought fifty years ago, so instead of us engaging in battle, let’s just kill all of them.”

What happens in the Jazz world defies logic. It’s absurd almost. I never can really figure out if the intellectual community and the writers who surround the Jazz community are interested in the music. Like, they will say something is a new version of Jazz if a musician says he’s not playing Jazz. The latest example would be this so-called Jazz-Rap trend, where it’s just somebody rapping and somebody plays solos like we used to play in the Seventies on top of it. Then all of the people who are supposed to be dealing with Jazz jump on the bandwagon, and they’re talking about, “This is the new form of Jazz, and finally people are overcoming the conservativeness of…” This is just crazy! It’s ludicrous.

TP: Well, a lot of it is also marketing, and a lot of marketing is inherently ludicrous anyway.

WM: Well, from the record companies’ standpoint. But I think in terms of the Jazz writers, it’s a lack of intellectual integrity, how they will attempt to apply political terminology… Like they will call one group “Neoconservative” (I guess that’s what they’ve tried to put on me), when, in actuality, the true conservative position is held by them. Because they are the Establishment. So they want to assign somebody else the term “conservative,” and I guess they are avant-garde or something, and that means they’re in the front of something. Well, that’s not true. Because they’re not in the forefront of thought on Jazz. Because no kids or people who want to learn how to play are learning practicing their philosophy. And they are so stubborn and they lack humility, that they end up being detrimental…

They are an albatross. They sit on top of our music and they push it down instead of raising it up. That’s why I’m always forced to come to the public and plead with the public, “Well, look, you can’t trust these people who are supposed to be a conduit.” You have to go to the schools and try to convince the kids of the value of learning how to play.

TP: On your last few recordings, some of the ensemble pieces have utilized Ellingtonian voicings and tactics in a very creative and I think personal way. I can really hear some things coming out that were touched on and echoed in past years.

WM: Well, just trying to be a part of the tradition. This is a steady growth process for me. I try to educate myself as I go along. And I’m coming from the 1970’s, where I would never listen to a Duke Ellington album.

TP: When did you first hear Duke Ellington?

WM: I was 18 or 19. Stanley Crouch played some Duke for me. He said, “Check this Duke out.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, just some old ballroom music for people. I mean, I was so steeped in the philosophy of my generation that… Then gradually I would start to listen to it, and hear all kinds of different forms, and people playing in different times, and the harmonic sophistication coming out of the Blues. Then I got in touch with Jelly Roll Morton through the concert we did at Lincoln Center, the Jelly Roll Morton concert, and that gave me an understanding of how to construct these forms.

I mean, there’s nothing really you can say about Duke. His genius speaks for itself. I went to the Smithsonian to see his scores, and there’s walls full of large cabinets packed with Ellington’s music written in his own hand. Anybody who is ever in Washington, it’s really a great education to go in there and look at some of the volumes of music that this man wrote. The thing that’s most amazing about Ellington’s music is that when he wrote it down the first time, he really didn’t change it that much, apart from structural changes he would make. You will see pieces of music with people’s phone numbers on it, and it will be “The Harlem Suite,” and the whole suite will be written out. His conception is very, very clear, and his penmanship is very neat. He writes the notes very small. It doesn’t mean that much, but for someone who wrote that much music it’s very neat.

TP: A final question. When people write about you, one of the things that’s most often noted is your virtuosity as a trumpet player, both in the Jazz area and in European Classical music. Would you discuss the place of virtuosity in Jazz and in improvising?

WM: Well, I think that virtuosity is the first sign of morality in a musician. It means that you’re serious enough to practice. And there are many different aspects of virtuosity. Many times, when we think of virtuosity, we think only of velocity. But there is also tone, flexibility, and then the virtuosity of nuance or ability to project different types of feeling through a sound. Then there’s all the growls and smears and stuff that Sidney Bechet said that he practiced on, which is called effects.

But you find in the history of Jazz that the musicians have always been virtuosos. That’s what distinguished Louis Armstrong from other trumpeters; he could play higher, with a bigger sound, with more harmonic accuracy, would bend the notes better and with more… Art Tatum, of course. Thelonious Monk. Charlie Parker, Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins — the list is endless of people who were serious practicers. Coleman Hawkins. Paul Chambers. Mingus. All of these men were virtuosos, and all these men believed in technical competence.

That’s very, very important to being a musician in general. It’s like Paul Hindemith in the beginning of his book, The Craft Of Composition. He said he always hears about people talking about their feeling, “but must not this feeling or impulse be tiny if it can manifest itself in such little knowledge?” That’s just how I feel about technique.

After this interview aired, the editor of this magazine contacted me about printing the interview in conjunction with a brief review of Blood On The Fields. He suggested I speak again with Marsalis to flesh things out. In June 1994, three months after the concert, I visited Marsalis’ apartment for a more specific discussion of the development of his aesthetic and procedures, and of the genesis of Blood On The Fields. I began with a question about his relationship with Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray, Marsalis’ intellectual mentors.

WM: I met Stanley Crouch at Mikell’s when I was 18 –I had just turned 18. He came down to the club. My father had told me earlier in the summer about having read an interview with Stanley and Imiri Baraka, where he had said that he thought that Stanley was making much more cogent points. This is when I didn’t know really who Stanley Crouch was, or even Imiri Baraka, for that matter. I had just come from New Orleans. And Crouch invited me to his house. Then I would be having to cook for myself and stuff, and I didn’t know how to cook, so I was glad to be invited to anybody’s house to eat, because that ensured that I would get a good meal.

So I went down to Stanley’s house. Stanley was living in this small apartment, but he had thousands of books and records. He reminded me of a history professor that I had in high school. His name was Diego Gonzalez, and he lived three blocks from my house on Hickory Street in New Orleans, so I would stop by his apartment sometimes on my way back home. He was a Classical Music fanatic, so he had thousands of Classical albums, and he also was the coach of the chess team.

So when I went to Crouch’s house, first just looking at the albums and the books kind of blew my mind. Because I mean, my father is a musician; he’s not a scholar. I hadn’t been in that many people’s homes which were like libraries. And Crouch, he was a writer, so it wasn’t organized; it was all over the place. So I immediately liked him because he was soulful, and he was extremely, extremely intelligent, but he also wasn’t above putting his foot in somebody’s booty if he had to do that. So I really could relate to that.

He started playing all of these albums for me, and asking me what I thought about it. Well, I had never heard any of that. He asked me what I thought about Ornette Coleman, and I said, “Well, Ornette Coleman, yeah, that’s out.” I just would say whatever I had read. I had never really listened to it. Then he put on a record and said, “What do you think about this?” And I would be saying stuff like, “Man, I didn’t know Charlie Parker played like that.” And he said, “No, man, that’s Ornette Coleman.” The first time I really listened to Duke Ellington, Crouch brought this big Duke Ellington collection over to me. He says, “Man, check this out. This is Duke Ellington.”

So just in general, he imparted a knowledge and a history of the music — and I didn’t have any of that. I mean, I had been around the music my whole life, but I had never looked at it artistically in that way. I had never studied it. I didn’t feel that it was something you had to study that way. I felt like you could play it or you couldn’t. That’s what we all thought, basically. I was so used to being the only person I knew that really was into Jazz, that to meet somebody like Crouch blew my mind really! And he had all of these books… Most of the stuff he would be talking about wouldn’t even be music! It would be stuff that I had never heard of before. It was just fascinating to me.

Then we started talking. I would call Crouch, and he would just tell me about all of these books and things to read… Still. Still today it’s that same way. I still learn a lot from him. He and I talked last night. We haven’t been talking as much recently, in the last month or two. But there was a time when me and Crouch would talk almost every day. And we never have, like, lightweight conversations. It’s always something… I’ve learned so much from him, not just about music.

TP: What were some of the books he turned you on to that were important to you?

WM: Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers. Well, actually, that came from Al Murray. Al Murray told Crouch to read it, and Crouch had read it. He was telling me about the whole big lesson of a blessing being a curse, how you might get all this publicity and all this, but you also have to deal with the weight of this other thing. That goes all through Thomas Mann.

Proust. William Faulkner. I would read something, and then I could discuss it with Crouch. I would say, “What do you think about this?” He would say, well, he thought this. Then sometimes when we were talking, he would say, “Well, let’s go see Al and rap with him about this,” and then we would talk about it. Something like The Invisible Man, Crouch knows that inside and out, or Herman Melville, Moby Dick… But a lot of the homework and stuff he was giving me, I still haven’t done. The real, true level of discussion we could have about a lot of literature, we haven’t had that, because I haven’t really read all of the material like I should… I just need more time.

But there’s even more stuff. I’m leaving out a lot. All kinds of stuff on music, man. Books on music like Early Jazz by Gunther Schuller. Of course, Al’s book, Stompin’ The Blues really helped to uncover a lot. That was the first book I had ever read that addressed the expression of Jazz the way I knew it to be. It’s like I had known it to be that, but I had never really been educated in it, so I didn’t really know it. Because there was such a big breakdown… My generation was really only into Pop expression, and Pop music, and Pop thought. So even though I didn’t really want to be associated with that, you can only rise so far above everybody else that you’re around. Most of the seriousness I experienced when I was growing up really only came from me. It wasn’t like I had a group of friends who were all so serious. I was always trying to make them become more serious! And things about Afro-American culture that I maybe knew intuitively, like New Orleans music — I liked it, but I didn’t really like it. I associated it too much with Tomming, which didn’t have anything to do with the music. That was like a social thing. And I would always be confusing social science with music.

Stompin’ The Blues really helped to clarify the whole question of playing with Blues expression. We grew up playing Funk music, which has very little Blues in it. Our generation of musicians, the Funk musicians, so little of the Blues was left in that, that it’s very hard to produce a Jazz musician out of that style. When you’re playing on Funk, most of the time you’re playing with a lot of accents, and you’re only playing pentatonic scales. I mean, that’s the kind of stuff we grew up playing. Our style of music wasn’t really based on creating the melody in the context of an improvising rhythm section. Because we were playing Funk [SINGS FUNK LINE A LA KOOL AND THE GANG], so the rhythm section was going to be playing that the whole time you played, [SINGS LINE], whatever the vamp was, or whatever they were playing.

The Blues music is more continuous. You have to come up with ideas, and you develop them through the form. Whereas on Funk music, you mainly are playing on a vamp, and you’re just trying to excite the audience. You don’t really have aesthetic objectives. If you can trill a note up high and circular-breathe on it, you do that, you know…

TP: Albert Murray writes about Blues as a cultural style. How does that translate into this period?

WM: Well, what Albert Murray is writing about mainly only existed in the Church tradition. Now, in New Orleans, we had the Jazz parade and all that, but the parades we played in…well, first, everybody would be playing loud, and we wouldn’t really be playing with that type of expression he’s talking about. He’s talking about the real adult expression and also the optimism. Most of that wasn’t in the music that we played. Our music was mainly party music. The music was a background, really. It wasn’t the center or the focus of anything. Like, most of the shouts and the call-and-response that’s essential to the Blues between the musician and the audience, even in Funk gigs, you never really experience that. People would shout for you if you played something that was flashy. But you never really got that type of cosignature that goes on in a church when the preacher is… First the music would be so loud that if you said “Okay” or something, nobody in the audience would hear you. The whole dialogue in the society was different.

So when I read Stompin’ The Blues, I noticed first how Albert Murray differentiates between the Blues as such and the Blues as music. In our generation, we would say, “That’s only a Blues,” like, the Blues wasn’t really nothin’… We felt, man, “Giant Steps, that’s what’s hard to play; the Blues, anybody can play that — that’s just three chords.” We didn’t really think of the Blues as nothin’ important to learn. We would play a Blues every night on our Funk gig, because we would play the New Orleans Second Line. But we didn’t really see the Blues as being central to Afro-American expression. To us, the Funk was what was central. BOOM-BAP-DE-BOM-BAP, the backbeat, that’s what we really…

Now, when I was in high school, I kind of knew that it wasn’t the backbeat, but I didn’t know what it was. You know what I’m saying? It’s like when something is wrong with you and you know something is wrong but you really don’t know what it is. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was.

TP: Another essential aspect of Albert Murray’s conception of the Blues is that the Blues is a narrative tradition, and a tradition that connects generations and spans place and time as well. That seems to be something you’ve tried to elaborate with the Lincoln Center hookup and a lot of your activity in the last decade.

WM: There are certain things that Albert Murray strongly believes are at the root of the real Afro-American and also the American experience. He doesn’t believe in the generation gap. Now, I always felt this, but I didn’t know that I felt it. Like, I never looked at the people my age as being that different from my father. Of course, my father was a Jazz musician. So I didn’t know anybody as hip as him. I never was a part of any movement when I was 15 or 16 that I felt was hipper than what my father was doing. We had our Afros and our dashikis and platform shoes, and whatever the trend of the day was, and we played Funk music. But I never had the feeling that what we were doing was as hip as what my father could do, or that we knew anything more than what he knew — or my grandfather, or my great-uncle.

Albert Murray believes in that, in the continuum. The whole question of affirming something, having a dialogue with something; counterstating it or else affirming aspects of it.

The true central proposition that I really learned from Al is optimism. Because in that way, the Afro-American expression is fundamentally different from European Art expression. A lot of European Art, especially in the Twentieth Century, is pessimistic, is tragic, has a tragic vision of what stuff is, whereas the Blues expression recognizes the tragedy but is optimistic.

When I wrote Blood on The Fields, I wanted to make it tragic the whole way through, with no redemption, just go “Okay, this is just a messed-up situation, and it’s still messed-up.” I talked with Al extensively about that, and he told me if I wanted to do it, fine. He sat down with me, and we went through all the different forms of tragedy, going all the way back to Greek tragedies, to Oedipus, The Libation Bearers and Agamemnon, how you set the tragedy up, the modes of tragedy, the complaint and plaint — we analyzed all of these things. But he said, “The thing you’ve got to understand is that if you’re going to make it all tragic, the expression that you will be coming from will not really be Afro-American, because that’s not in our expression.” It’s only in the last twenty or thirty years that that way of looking at the world has taken over our culture, and it is not our real attitude.

I started to really contemplate what he was saying, and I came to an agreement with what he was saying. At first I was against it, but then I had to say, yeah, that is the transcendent value of the Blues and of swinging, and that is what makes Duke Ellington’s music so great in relation to something like Bartok or Stravinsky. You listen to Stravinsky’s music, and you will like it, and it will be some great music. But Duke Ellington was swinging. So you have the complexity, and you still have that optimism, where it’s saying, “Man, this is a tragic situation, but it’s gonna be cool.” And that’s a very important part of that expression, of the Jazz expression.

TP: It seems to me that you’ve effectively used the opportunities of the different presentations of Jazz at Lincoln Center to engage in a dialogue with the different genres of music in performance situations, and that you’ve assimilated the vocabularies in a very personal way.

WM: Well, that was always what I wanted to do. But that was my intention from the beginning of playing music, from my first album. Even though I didn’t know a range of music, I still would try to use Charleston rhythms, I would try to change times, use stuff with modes on it, play standards. Whatever information I knew about, I was always trying to include it. Play stuff that had, like, a New Orleans call-and-response, play standard forms like “Rhythm” changes, and try to transform them.

My thing is to not cut myself off from my own tradition. That tradition can be anything from John Philip Sousa marches to Beethoven’s symphonies, to the Blues, to whatever. Because I grew up playing all of that different type of music. I didn’t understand it, but that is what I grew up doing. I played in a waltz orchestra. I played in the marching band. I played in a Funk band. I played in a Jazz band. I played in a circus band. Played on a Broadway show. Played Salsa music. All of these musics are part of my experience as a musician. So I don’t feel that I should cut myself off from the traditions I come out of to create a narrow style that’s easily identifiable.

TP: To the contrary, I think it’s very expansive. But I think the point I was making is that it seems to me that you have assimilated everything you’ve been working on from the inside-out more or less, and that it’s coming out in your writing in a very natural way.

WM: Well, it is very natural to me. First, I only went to school for a year — to Juilliard. I went for one year. And there really was no Jazz class. I remember the first band we had, my brother had gone to Berklee, so he knew more about Jazz music, because they have all these exercises and stuff that they had done. So I would always be saying, “Man, what is this and what is that?”

A lot of what I have learned about Jazz music, I have learned from the musicians. I learned stuff from Art Blakey. I had the opportunity to play and talk with Elvin Jones, and I learned a lot from him. Sweets Edison. Clark Terry. Whenever I’m around the musicians, I’m always really checking out what they’re playing, and listening very carefully to what they are saying. Roy Eldridge taught me how to growl on the trumpet, then I started trying to learn how to do that. How to use the plunger. Joe Wilder gave me lessons on how to play with the hat. I mean, these things I just learned. To me they are all techniques that are important to know, because the expression of Jazz music is something that you have to just be familiar with.

I’m from New Orleans. My Daddy’s a Jazz musician. So even though I didn’t really necessarily understand the music, my whole life has been nothing but being around musicians and around Jazz music. I remember being around Blue Mitchell or Sonny Stitt. When they’d come to New Orleans, my father would say, “Man, go check out Blue”… Even more than being around them, I know the life of the musician from birth. Something like a New Orleans parade; I played in parades when I was eight years old. It’s just what it is. My real true feeling and affinity is for Jazz music and for swinging, and it’s always been that. Now, because the environment that I grew up in was so poor in terms of what my generation was playing, my playing suffered. But in terms of my understanding of the Jazz lifestyle and of Jazz music and the musicians, that’s never really been anything I had to study.

TP: In Blood On The Fields there are some impossible-sounding ensemble passages for horns that were executed flawlessy and totally flowed. It’s surprising that you only had one year of formal schooling to develop the technique to express the sounds you seem to be hearing in your head.

WM: Well, I just learn slowly. I get these scores of Duke Ellington, and I study them. I talk with Dave Berger. He helped me, just some basic things about the voices and about the instruments. Even in my year in school I was studying Classical trumpet; we sure didn’t study Jazz music. And even that year that I was in school, after a half-a-year I started playing with Art Blakey, so I didn’t really take that year that seriously. I really wanted to play with Art Blakey, or to play Jazz music.

It’s just a matter of slow study. Like, when Crouch brought me those Duke Ellington albums, it was twelve years ago. I remember listening to it, I said, “Man, this music is so complex; it’s impossible to even figure this out.” And I remember Crouch telling me, “Man, look. You never know what you’ll be doing in ten years.” And that was like twelve years ago.

So it’s just a matter of consistently studying and working and trying to think, to figure out how to make these colors work… As far as the ensemble passages go, or the different rhythms, mainly what I do is, I write out what I would play on the trumpet. I play a style that has a lot of multiple rhythms in it and a strange kind of chromatic way of playing through the harmony. So when I write it out for the ensemble, it sounds very strange. I turn the beat around. But I have been playing that way for ten years.

TP: The lyrics to Blood On The FIelds are extremely expressive and were sung with great elegance and interpretative nuance by Cassandra Wilson. Considering the sonic extremities and metrical complexity of the music, it was some of the most formidable singing I’ve heard.

WM: Well, Cassandra did a great job. She wanted to sing it. That’s the basic thing. She worked real, real hard on it, and it was very, very difficult to get it together. Really, she just worked on it and hooked it up. Miles Griffith also worked very hard on his parts.

Part of the story comes from a Stephen Vincent Benet story called Freedom Is A Hard-Bought Thing, which deals with the knowledge it takes to get free. There are a lot of little side stories, too, in Blood On The Fields, about a woman losing her mind, and she’s on this ship. There were a lot of different things I was trying to investigate.

Most of the words are generated from today. I used the situation of the people today, but I made them speak like they were slaves. But it’s not really about them being slaves; it’s about how people are today.

TP: So the language illustrates a broader time continuum.

WM: Yeah. The crux of it is the point where Miles sings, “Oh! Anybody, hear this plaintive song.” He’s speaking to the whole world. That’s like the position of the people, especially the position of the Afro-American people. Anybody in the world, hear this plaintive song. When you see the kind of stuff that’s going on out here today, this is the cry for help. Like the whole Rap expression and the violence and the ignorance that’s just taken to be a part of the Afro-American culture, and it’s not. It’s like a cry… When somebody does something that’s absurd, you say, “Man, they must need some assistance.” It’s anybody, hear this plaintive song.

Then it gets specific. “Who wants to help their brother dance this dance?” We need help. Who wants to help their brother? And then it’s not even so much about Afro-American people; it’s just about life in general. First you address the whole world: Anybody hear me, I’m trying to exist out here. Who out of all these people will help me dance this dance? That’s life. Just to hold the dance… You dance your way through the world, through life. Dance is the first art. So it gets more specific, like a community of people. Who wants to help me dance this dance?

And then this is what I’m doing for my part. “Oh, I sing with soul to heal this wounded land.” That’s about the United States of America. That’s what the whole question of soul is in America. It’s a healing agent. That’s what soulfulness is about. A great tragedy has occurred, but that’s all right. It has forgiveness in it. It’s beautiful. It has a beauty to it. This is the thing that has been devalued. And this is why we have such a tremendous tragedy on our hands today dealing with our society, and with our culture, because we’ve lost the real meaning of soul, which is that whole redemptive thing that it has in it. It’s been confused with, like, some fried chicken or some hipness or something that has…I don’t know, with some slang or something, man. I don’t know. But the whole lyric comes down to that one thing. Who wants to help their brother dance this dance? “I sing with soul to heal this wounded land.”

TP: How did the song forms start to come out?

WM: Well, each one comes out of the experience. The first one [“Move Over”] is supposed to be on the ship, so it’s like a wave. It just goes up and down, up and down…

TP: And you had the different sections going against each other on that one.

WM: Had the sections going against each other. Like, a minor section, I’ll go into a groove. [SINGS] And the harmony goes that way. I have a whole dialogue where she’s losing her mind. She plays, and the band is like the waves pounding against the ship; it just keeps coming in. Then the harmony goes inside. She goes, “My head is spinning round and round,” [SINGS MELODY] I’m trying to use things out of the experience she’s singing about to give it that feeling.

And Cassandra heard it. She adapted to the form so quickly. Because I felt that the form would be difficult for her to grasp, but she understood it immediately. She just gravitated toward it and sang it. And when the man comes in and sings [“You Don’t Hear No Drums”], he’s singing the Blues, with the same refrain. Because he’s on the ship, but he’s not really rocking up and down too much. He’s so mad, he’s not really cognizant of any of that. He’s addressing her, saying his rage is something that he’s… So it’s like real harsh, at the top of his range; he’s screaming it out.

When they do the coffle march, she sings like a dirge. [DOM-DOM, DOM-DOM] Then he sings a march, “I’ll never be a slave.” [“I’ll never slave for any man.”] So when he comes in, the snare drum comes in. It’s like some Country people. Every song, like that chant he sings, “I sing with soul to heal,” this three-part chant; it’s a Blues, but the changes are all switched around. It’s done like in the style of the Spiritual.

So I used forms that came out of the experience of whatever that thing is.

TP: Are all the lines initiated in songs, or songs that you’re hearing? How are they generated in your mind?

WM: Well, it depends on where they are. I try to have the whole piece be integrated. I’ll just keep bringing themes back, harmonies back, progressions, lines. Something that was the harmony will become the melody of another thing, or some theme will be turned around. I have big central progressions going through the thing. The form is very difficult for me to explain, because it’s very complex. I’m trying to just connect things.

TP: You seem to have assimilated several decades of Ellington’s development in terms of the tonal palette of the ensemble, but the harmonic language sounds like very much your own.

WM: Yeah, some of it. Sometimes I use verbatim stuff I heard Duke do, or Jelly Roll — whoever I know of. I don’t really suffer from an identity crisis. so anybody’s music I’ll use. I’ll steal from anybody.

TP: Well, they say the mediocre person borrows and the top cats will steal.

WM: Yeah, I’ll steal, and I’ll admit it freely.

TP: Is this part of a connected series on African-American life or some other connected theme? That’s how I’ve heard it described.

WM: Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it yet. First I’m going to finish this one. It’s still not finished. I didn’t really initially plan it to have a plot that was that literal, but since it ended up being like that, the end of it is kind of messed up. It doesn’t follow clearly all the way through. So I’m going to rework that and record it in September.

I really want to do something on the Civil War. I’m thinking I’m going to wait and learn how to write for strings, and then just write one big integrated piece, like an opera or something, on the Civil War, make it long, like 20 hours or something. [Marsalis’ commisssioned composition for the March Jazz at Lincoln Center will be performed with the Center Chamber Orchestra.]

TP: The piece also used the Chorus of Greek Tragedy as a connective device.

WM: Well, I got the idea for that from Al. Well, not to use it for Blood On The Fields, but just the whole concept. As I said, we were talking about tragedy, reading Oedipus, and I got Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, and Agamemnon — I was reading that. And the whole thing of the chorus coming in, singing, and setting the stage helps you go from thing to thing, too. But I liked that, the fellows in the band sitting up there, commenting on the stuff and then playing it! It was sort of cantorial, like a call-and-response.

TP: It was very funny.

WM: It had to be funny. But I conceived of it as being funny — ironic. Like, these guys are sitting up there saying something like that, and then they play some music.

TP: In Blood On The Fields and in recent recordings, the sounds that have been coming out of your trumpet have been really extreme, evoking the “Avant-Garde” of Jazz. What is your sense of the Avant-Garde in Jazz, however you would define it?

WM: Well, I believe that the challenge of Jazz is to create coherent solos through a harmonic form, to swing at different tempos, to play with some Blues authority, and to deal with contrast. Now, there’s many different styles that they call the Avant Garde. Like, Ornette Coleman is totally different from Cecil Taylor, but they will both be lumped into the same thing.

My feeling, since I played a lot of Classical music, is that the styles are not addressing swinging, most of them, that just deal with like sounds… Like, you hear somebody playing something like… [HE PICKS UP THE TRUMPET AND PLAYS A PHRASE THAT SOUNDS LIKE A PARODY OF BILL DIXON]. I mean, that’s not Jazz to me. Rhythmically, it sounds like Classical music. People say, “Man, this is real modern.” It’s not even Modern. There are people who have been doing that for forty or fifty years.

Because you have a certain hairstyle or you talk about being from the community or whatever, all that social jargon, that doesn’t mean anything to me. Because I’m from the South, man. Railroad track South. So there’s a lot of social commentary that’s passing itself off as a badge of authenticity and all this, man…

The thing I like about some Avant-garde music is that they deal with a wide range of styles. But the thing about what they’re doing is that a lot of times the level of musicianship just is not that high, in terms of their actual ability to address harmony, really truly swinging, and playing in the time at different tempos consistently… The hard thing about swinging is not to do it for twenty measures; it’s to do it all night. Swing is a certain thing. It’s continuous. Now, when I say “swing,” I don’t mean that same groove, TING-TING-TA-TING-TA-TING-TING, but I mean a sensibility that does come out of the shuffle rhythm, and something that requires that you are continuously coordinating your ideas with the rhythm section and with other people that are playing — at different tempos. That means you’re trying to swing fast, slow, medium-tempo.

And what’s being called Avant-Garde… I think that they play in an expressive fashion, now. I will say that, in terms of the best of the Avant-Garde, like David Murray, Olu Dara. I feel that when you hear them play, they play very expressively. Archie Shepp. They play the melodies, they have the vibrato and the thing that they play with. But for me, what a lot of times was lacking was the real true degree of sophistication that’s necessary to play Jazz, just to play Jazz music, let alone to be on the forefront of Jazz.

TP: Is Jazz avant-garde in its essence?

WM: The whole of Jazz is avant-garde. Like, the conception of a group playing with no music and improvising on a form, playing all these different rhythms, playing polyphonically, and it sounding good — that’s an avant-garde conception. It’s never existed. That’s the conception we should be trying to develop. I think one of the problems in Jazz education has been too much focusing on harmony, in terms of harmony being the only way of recognizing innovation, like, “Well, they played this on this chord or that…” Most of the analyzation is harmonic analyzation. Rhythm is very important and also the dialogue is very important.

I feel that the New Orleans Jazz is still avant-garde, because you have three horn players who stand up and play and make up their own parts, and it’s coherent. Almost nobody in the world can really play that style. Maybe there are three or four people. But you will never hear three horns playing together and they sound good. This is a part of the concept of Jazz that’s very important, that we have just let go. The whole conception of arrangements, ensemble parts, key changes — all of these things are an important part of our music. And it’s all in the context of a dialogue and a desire to converse musically with other people, while still swinging. Very seldom do you hear people who want to really, truly swing hard all night.

We’re in a position now where we have to reassert what our values are going to be. Jazz musicians make a big mistake when they use the same philosophies and conceptions that helped to destroy the audience for Classical music. This whole self-absorbed concept of innovation. What if that concept is impoverished? There are certain things that are just taken to be true that have to be questioned. The whole Oedipal strain in Western thought, where everybody thinks the next person has got to devour what came before it. You don’t have to do that. I was reading a book on Picasso where the guy keeps saying that Picasso emasculated his father, because he was such a great painter. His father gave him the paint brush and said, “Well, you paint now; I’m never going to paint again.” This whole thing that runs through so much of criticism.

The continuous thing of ritual is actually important in Jazz, which is what Albert Murray always says. And that means that whole Oedipal strain of, well, you have to destroy your father and you have to create a new thing, that might just be one part of what the greatest people do. There might be another whole branch of people who play the same thing and sound great. I always think of a musician like Sonny Stitt. He represented the highest level of musicianship. Now, he wasn’t Charlie Parker in terms of that type of innovative genius and brilliance. But he represents something that is not to be disrespected on any level. And Charlie Parker respected him. We need more musicians like that.

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For Freddy Cole’s 84th Birthday, A Downbeat Feature From 2009

For grandmaster singer-pianist Freddy Cole’s 84th birthday, here’s a DownBeat feature I had an opportunity to write about him in 2009.


After breakfast on the second Sunday morning of this summer’s Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, the 78-year-old singer-pianist Freddy Cole, only a few hours removed from Saturday’s midnight show, considered a question about retirement.

“No,” Cole said. “No-no. No-NO.” He laughed, ha-Ha-HA, like a descending triplet. “A lot of people ask that. My golfing buddies say, ‘Man, when you going to stop?’ For what? To stay home and be miserable like you? Music keeps you alive.”

It was the final day of Cole’s 12-set, no-nights-off run at Hotel Brufani, a palatial hilltop villa that hosts Perugia’s high-profile acts, among them Wynton Marsalis, Roy Haynes, Cecil Taylor, and George Benson, the latter on tour with his “Unforgettable Tribute to Nat ‘King’ Cole” project, which incorporated a septet and a 27-piece string orchestra. All of them dropped into the Sala Raffaello, a rectangular banquet room filled with white-tableclothed round tables, to hear the maestro sing and play the Fazioli piano with his trio.

“Damn near all of Wynton’s band was there,” Cole said. “I played with them the day before Obama’s Inauguration at Kennedy Center. The kids came grabbing me, called me the old man.”

“Cecil told me he hadn’t seen me play since Bradley’s,” Cole continued, referencing the prestigious Greenwich Village piano saloon where he played nine separate week-long engagements between 1988 and 1991, and a week apiece in 1994 and 1995. “Carmen McRae, who was a very good friend, used to come there all the time. She loved one of my tunes called ‘Brandy’—she’d say, ‘Do my song.’ I’d generally do it.”

At Perugia, Cole spent consequential time performing material—Benny Carter’s rueful ballad “I Was Wrong”; the Ella Fitzgerald-Ink Spots World War Two hit “I’m Making Believe”; Cole Porter’s insouciant “You’re Sensational”; O.C. Smith’s soulful flagwaver “On The South Side of Chicago”—from his new release, The Dreamer In Me [High Note]. But no set was the same, and Cole treated the flow in a conversational, free-associative manner, imparting the impression that even the most knowledgeable connoisseur of the Great American Songbook would be hard-pressed to call a tune that he doesn’t know. His brain seemed analogous to a generously stocked i-Pod on continuous shuffle, with each sound file comprising a well-wrought arrangement complete with harmonized piano-guitar voicings, sectional call-and-response, and shout choruses, each song rendered with such authority as to give the illusion that Cole had sung it every day for the previous year.

“Once I start to play, things happen,” he said. “Unless you stop me right then and there, I don’t know what I’m thinking about. Once I see from the body language that people are into what we’re doing, I’m home free. I can call whatever I want .”

As an example, Cole noted that on the previous evening, “for the first time in quite a while,” he had performed “I’ll Never Say Never Again,” a 1935 chestnut that Nat Cole had covered in 1950. The rendition was one component of a lengthy interlude, spontaneously triggered by a medley built upon “Tenderly,” during which he conjured a suite of his big brother’s good old good ones, segueing seamlessly from one to the next, evoking the elder Cole both in the timbre of his gravelly, septugenarian voice and his exemplary diction, never stiff or exaggerated. Cole imprinted each tune with the stamp of his own personality. A master of the art of compression and release, he swung unfailingly, didn’t scat, and avoided extremes of tempo and register. Perched sideways on the piano bench, he wore an ambiguous smile, simultaneously eyeballing his sidemen and the audience. He accompanied his declamations with unfailingly supportive, hip progressions; counterstated them with precise, pithy, bop-tinged solos that blended vocabulary drawn from the lexicon of, among others, John Lewis, Red Garland, and Erroll Garner; and phrased them with a bathos-free subtlety and unpredictable voice-as-instrument suppleness more akin to Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, and Shirley Horn, than to his brother. The delivery, though, contained a panache and directness imbibed from such master male balladeers as Billy Eckstine and Joe Williams, both friends and mentors during his adolescence and young adulthood in Chicago. As the week progressed, the years dripped off his baritone, which grew more resonant and open.

“Their voices are exactly the same, but that’s genetic,” said singer Allan Harris, in Perugia to perform Nat Cole repertoire daily on an outdoor stage in the gardens that face the Brufani’s entrance. “That’s the way they were raised. Back in the day, the number one thing that a black entertainer needed to cross over into the white record-buying thing was that you could understand what the brother was saying. You had to speak the Queen’s language to perfection, even to the point of exacerbating it on stage. Not only does Freddy do that, but he puts his own little soulful twist on it, more than his brother did. There’s times where I prefer Freddy over Nat in that respect, because Freddy keeps the soul about him continuously through his performance.”

“With me, every song is a new song,” Cole said. “I don’t do them like everybody else does them. When I do seminars, I tell students about learning a song the right way—the way the composer wrote it. Then you do what you want.

“You’re not going to hear me scat either. A lot of people who do that are good singers, but my way of thinking is that they have great musicians with them—let THEM play. To me, BABA-BABA-DABA-DOP don’t mean nothin’. We had two great scatters, and that’s Miss Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. After that, you could say Jon Hendricks and maybe Eddie Jefferson. They did it with taste and style. But now you have these younger singers who think that scatting makes them a jazz singer. Well, actually, what is a jazz singer? I have no idea. I would say Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz singer. Sarah Vaughan could sing anything, so they put the ‘jazz singer’ title on her. Carmen McRae was a great singer. But Carmen was a stylist, like Billie Holiday, and my brother, and Billy Eckstine. Lurleen Hunter, from Chicago. Johnny Hartman, who was a dear friend. You get a label put on you, like I say.”

It has been both Cole’s blessing and curse to be labeled “Nat Cole’s younger brother,”a descriptive to which, some decades ago, he penned the riposte “I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me,” which he sang ebulliently to transition into the final portion of his Saturday set. Indeed, as Harris pointed out, although Cole has drawn extensively on the Nat Cole songbook over the years on recordings, concerts, and special projects (he duetted with Benson on “I’m Biding My Time” on Perugia’s main stage), such an extended homage is indeed a rare thing.

Harris pinpointed an occasion in 1977 at a club in Atlanta—Cole’s residence since 1970—when Cole responded to his “mistake of asking for a Nat Cole song” with precisely the same musical answer. “Freddy did that song strongly, and with verve, and he did it demonstratively,” Harris recalled. “Not like he does it now—happy and so on. He didn’t really say he wasn’t about to do any Nat King Cole tunes, but after he finished it was put to rest that you didn’t ask Freddy for any of his brother’s songs.”

“Before I started to play at Bradley’s, I was really ‘Nat Cole’s brother,’” Cole remarked. “That’s about as blunt as I can put it. Or I was a ‘cocktail piano player,’ whatever that is. You get tied into one of these corners, and that’s all you’ll ever be. It’s been a long, hard, worthwhile, fruitful struggle—what’s the use of crying about it now? My brother was quite a man. I always say I’d rather be 10 percent of the man that he was than an entertainer. If he or my father said something, or gave you their word, that was it. I try to be that way. With all the years I’ve been out here, nobody can say that I didn’t pay anybody, that I ran out on a hotel bill. The old one of the ten commandments—do unto others as you’d have them do unto you—is a simple way to live.”


The Dreamer In Me is Cole’s fifth recording for High Note in the past five years, and his eleventh collaboration with producer Todd Barkan, who first recorded Cole in 1993 on his breakout release, Circle of Love. His emergence over the past two decades from “Nat Cole’s younger brother” to the international stature of his golden years is one of the great second acts in the annals of show business.

“Besides Tony Bennett, Freddy is one of the last vestiges of that era where front men told a story with the song through the voice,” Harris stated. “He’s an older gentleman now, and his voice may not be as clear as it was 25 years ago, but his delivery is far beyond anyone younger than him. Freddy takes you on a magical journey. You forget about vocal styling. You forget about smoothness. He’s a master at what he does, and he doesn’t have to impress anyone. Most vocalists, including myself, take a whole song to get our point across. Freddy does it in one phrase. From all the years he spent in clubs, touring the world, and studying the American songbook, he completely understands where the composer is coming from, and stays true to it.”

Cole offers insight into the formation of his aesthetic in rendering O.C. Smith’s paean to the time “when jazz was king on the South Side of Chicago” with “all those little honky tonk joints, filled with people glowing while the cats was blowing.” Early on, when the family lived at 57th and Michigan, he met the Chicago’s prime movers and shakers through his brothers—not only Nat, but also Eddie Cole, a bassist and successful bandleader who had played in Europe with Noble Sissle, and singer-pianist Ike Cole (“he could flat-out play”), whose career comprised primarily long-haul hotel gigs. He began to play with the local luminaries towards the end of the ‘40s, after graduating from Waukegan High School where his promising football career—he was an all-state halfback as a junior—abruptly ended after a tackler stepped on his hand, causing a bone infection that led to an 21-month hospital stay.

“The medical term for it was tuberculosis arthritis,” Cole said. “My brother brought in a specialist from California. I had three operations in the same hospital, but instead of stitching it all up, they drained the bone. It had to heal. Every day for so many hours, I’d sit with this concoction that they put me in. Playing piano was therapeutic—it kept the flexibility in the wrist.”

Cole entered the trenches at 17, when trumpeter King Kolax, whose bands were a rite of passage for several generations of Chicago musicians, hired him for the piano chair. “I was struggling to keep up with the other musicians,” he said. “I was young and dumb. We thought we were hip. We thought we were playing bebop.”

After a four-year apprenticeship around Chicago while attending Roosevelt College, Cole moved to New York in 1953 for a semester at Juilliard, spent 1955 and 1956 at New England Conservatory, and moved back to New York in 1957. “I was playing jazz music before I got to school, and it was difficult to try to fit into this other mold,” he said. “If somebody come through with a gig, I’m out of there! Then I’ve got to go back and catch up. But I’m competitive. I’m a fighter. I will give out before I give up. Looking back, I wish I’d applied myself more. But I did what I had to do, and got my degree.”

He remained in New York for thirteen years, moving to Atlanta in 1970. Over the years, he worked the East Side supper clubs and steakhouses, “joints with the crooked-nose guys,” corner taverns and bars in the outer boroughs. “That’s when I was learning how to do everything,” Cole stated. “I got great advice from a lot of great people.” He referenced an early gig with ex-Ellington drummer Sonny Greer. “He would hold court every day at Beefsteak Charlie’s, where you’d see all the old-timers. Sonny told me, ‘Little Cole, you’ve got to learn how to be a storyteller. You’ve got to tell this story about this song.’ When you’re a little kid listening to the teacher read, Sonny said, she’d have you believing that story if she was really good. It took a while to get to what Sonny was trying to tell me. It really hit home when I was in Brazil in 1978—Brazilian singers sing as if they’re singing directly to you.”

There were other lessons. “Without saying it, most of those clubs were run by ‘the fellas,’” Cole said with a chuckle. “Some would be set up for a late night thing when they would all meet later in the evening, so you had to learn the ‘Set ‘Em Up, Joe’ type songs. Unrequited love. You’d see the girlfriend sitting there, etc. Also, there were the barmitzvahs, and other functions. Then you played clubs where it’s nothing but swinging, and some clubs where it was dancing. It was a total learning experience about how to play, what to play, and when to play it. The people that came into those clubs at that time knew what was happening. You weren’t fooling anybody. If you were messing around, you wouldn’t have the gig long. They knew the songs, and would ask about them, so if you didn’t know it tonight, you’d better know it tomorrow. There’s the expression, ‘Yesterday made me what I am today.’ That’s really true for me.”

It was evident from Cole’s forthcoming itinerary that he is as old-school in his “make the gig at all costs” attitude to road life as in song interpretation. Perugia was the last stop of a European sojourn, which began with engagements in Switzerland and Slovenia. He would resume his travels five days hence across the pond with a rapid-fire succession of East Coast bookings, before resuming his “rolling stone gathers no moss” lifestyle with various autumn travels.

“Freddy is invincible,” said Randy Napoleon, his guitarist. “The schedule in this band is more difficult than anything else I’ve done. We’ve done tours where we were out for weeks, traveling every day, getting up at 4:30 in the morning, driving two hours to the airport, catching a flight, maybe transferring and catching another flight—and then hitting. Or you drive nine hours in a van, and then get up and work that night. Freddy loves it. His famous quote is, ‘Let’s go.’ I’m a young man, I’m in good shape, but I’ll be bleary-eyed. Four-five hours of sleep, Freddy’s gone.”

“I’m like an old penny,” Cole said. “I turn up anywhere. That’s what I’ve done throughout my years in the business. I don’t look at myself as a so-called star. I’m just plain Freddy. That’s all you can be.”

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For Pharaoh Sanders’ 75th Birthday, An Interview with Him and Kenny Garrett From 2004

Pharaoh Sanders turned 75 yesterday, and for the occasion I’m posting a slightly edited interview that I conducted with him and Kenny Garrett (they were then beginning the collaboration that produced the fine recordings Beyond The Wall and Sketches of MD: (Live at the Iridium) for a DownBeat cover story.


Kenny Garrett-Pharaoh Sanders (12-2-04):
TP: How did the collaboration begin? Who made the first overtures? How long have you known Kenny and how long has Kenny known you?

PHARAOH: I haven’t known Kenny personally really that long. I always liked the sound of his music, his concept. Kenny loves to play all the time, and one night when I was working at Iridium he brought his horn and asked me could he sit in. I said, ‘Kenny Garrett? Yeah.’ From that point on, whenever I’d come in town, he’d come by to sit in if he had some time. Sometimes he wouldn’t bring his horn, and I’d tell him, “Man, bring your horn next time.” The agent saw what was happening, and started putting things together.

TP: Why did you think it would work?

PHARAOH: Not so much his style of playing, but his concept of the music. Also, he’s very comfortable around me, and that made me feel comfortable around him. When he sat in, I saw what he’d do the band, and I really liked it. He opened up a lot of things in my head. So the idea of us working together was right on time. I’ll put it that way.

TP: What sorts of things did Kenny bring out of you, or is bringing out of you now?

PHARAOH: We talked about systems of multiphonics, how to get more than one note at one time. He’s into different fingerings and harmonics, and does that very well, and he knew that I was doing similar stuff, things that must horn players would never get into. He brought me a book that I’m still trying to get into. I’ve done my own concept, my own way that fits me, and we each have things we like to do. So we’d listen to each other and try to figure out what it was.

TP: I guess you figured those things out for yourself in the ‘60s.

PHARAOH: Yeah, from playing. I got into it back in Oakland, California, from a music instructor named Professor Penn. I heard how Ornette Coleman could do two notes at one time, and I asked him about it. He educated me a little bit—not that much—about overtones and the harmonics. From that point on, I just went for myself, what I heard.

TP: Parenthetically, overtones and multiphonics became part of musical parlance during the days of jump bands and rhythm-and-blues bands and blues bands, in which saxophonists were what used to be called colloquially “honkers and squealers.” Was that part of your early experience in Little Rock or when you went to California?

PHARAOH: Part of my experience when I moved from from Little Rock to Oakland. At the time, although I liked what I heard, I don’t think I was ready to perfect overtones and multiphonics, because I was still into trying to study the other elements. I hadn’t learned chord progressions, or how to create arpeggios, or all my scales. Then I learned a bit how to play on the piano. Before I came to New York, I was playing in clubs around in Oakland and Frisco, playing a lot of ballads and Charlie Parker music.

TP: One commonality I see between you and Kenny is that you’re both interested in extending the technique of your instruments as far as you can, but it always seems to be towards purposes of melody and communication, so that it isn’t done for its own sake, but towards a purpose.

PHARAOH: I don’t even think of the tenor when I’m playing. I’m not so much into saxophone technique as another person might think. I look at all of it—drums, harps. I don’t know what my concept might be at the time. It really depends on what tune we’re playing, and that’s what I try to convey through my horn, whatever instrument I hear, or whatever sound I hear.

TP: I’ve seen raucous houses go silent on one decrescendoing note as you wind down a set. Sound seems so important to your tonal personality.

PHARAOH: Well, it is. It just seems like there’s no end to my trying to perfect what I’m trying to do. That’s the way I look at it. And Kenny reminds me of myself a lot. He don’t seem to be satisfied just on what he does. It sounds so great to me, but it always seems like he can make it better.

TP: Another common thread is that neither of you is afraid to be populist. After you played with Coltrane, you attracted a wide audience with Creator Has A Master Plan with Leon Thomas, and in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s you did things like Journey To The One and Rejoice, with choruses and African percussion. And Kenny incorporates the music of his youth, Funk and R&B.

PHARAOH: Kenny does what he does very well. I don’t even call it funky. It’s just Kenny to me. There’s so many different ways to express yourself. And if a person wants to call it funk… I’m not into categories.

TP: My point is more that both of you are so focused on technique and extracting everything you can from of your instrument, and yet the ultimate purpose is to communicate, you never lose sight of melody, and you appeal to a wide audience.

PHARAOH: I always try to figure out, every night, when there’s people in a place, how to play what they want to hear, but NOT play what they want to hear! [LAUGHS] I got tired of trying to program a first tune, second tune and so on. I just start playing, and whatever happens at that moment is what’s existing at the time. But I always feel like I’m the audience and the player. If I don’t like what I’m doing, then I don’t need nothing else.

TP: Do you see the saxophone as an extension of your voice?

PHARAOH: That’s what I work on. I’m still trying to learn how to play a straight sound, play the pitch straight. When I’m playing, I worry whether every note is close to being in tune, about the way I attack the notes, the concept of how I feel—I mean, the whole spirit of the thing. If I’ve got a bad reed, I can’t be what I want to be. Some reeds give you a resistance where you can play, but when you find a reed that’s going to curl up, just dead, and then your sound will be like that. I don’t like to play until I find a good one.

TP: Was that also an issue for you back in the ’60s when you were playing with John Coltrane?

PHARAOH: Yes, that was a problem then. I didn’t know John had that problem, too. I used to wonder if it was just me. But I saw John throw reeds right on the floor if it wasn’t happening. I used to wonder sometimes: Why did I have to play saxophone? I could have played trumpet, and not have to worry about a reed every night.

TP: What got you started on saxophone? School band?

PHARAOH: I played bass clarinet in the school band. They didn’t want no saxophone. And when I played clarinet, I always wanted more of a soft, mellow flute sound rather than a squeaky sound. I used to tune the whole band up when we played festivals and concerts. When I heard a James Moody tune called “Hard To Get,” I started tipping off on the alto saxophone, but I was still thinking clarinet.

TP: Was that on your own, or in bands?

PHARAOH: That was on my own. Well, I was playing on blues jobs in Arkansas. I started playing tenor because there were lots of alto players in my town, and I felt like tenor was more my instrument.

TP: Were there any stylists you were focusing on then?

PHARAOH: I liked Charlie Parker, but no one had his music. So all I could listen to at that time was James Moody, who I always loved, and also Count Basie, “April In Paris” and tunes like that. That was about it until I left.

TP: Then you went to Oakland, and there was that very active Bay Area scene. I remember reading that you’d head out at 9 at night and come back at noon the next day, and hit all the different spots.

PHARAOH: I was staying with my aunt. I think they thought I was a bit crazy, kind of out, because I didn’t want to work on a day job. “He doesn’t want to work.” I wanted to work, but it seemed like the music was first with me. Every time I’d go to the employment office and try to find work, I would sit there for a minute, and leave. I just wasn’t into it.


KENNY: I’d like to say first that it’s an honor and blessing to be able to stand on the same bandstand with Pharaoh. I mean, Pharaoh sat on the same bandstand with John Coltrane. I try to stand as close to my understanding of the truth as possible, and Pharaoh is that to me. I just wanted to put that on the record, since Pharaoh is sitting here, and I never told him that. I think he knows anyway.

Every time Pharaoh played in New York, I tried to come down. A lot of younger musicians sleep on people like Pharaoh and George Coleman, who set the pathway. I’ve always tried to hear the guys I admire, no matter where I am in my career, because I feel it’s very important to stay in contact with that. Now, I’ve always incorporated hip-hop, funk and jazz in my music, and that’s still there when I play with Pharaoh. But the tenor has a fatter sound than the alto, and being on the bandstand with Pharaoh makes me think of other sonic possibilities. Pharaoh also shows me that I can do things differently—make that note a little bigger or sing it a little more. He brings me closer to what it is I’m trying to get to.

PHARAOH: As I said before, it seems like Kenny’s the performer and he’s the audience. That’s what comes out in his music, and people react to it. I start dancing myself! I love connecting with the audience, because you can do what you want. If they’re open. It depends on what night.

TP: This is a difficult business. And Kenny, you’re a road warrior. You’re out a lot.

KENNY: Yeah, I try to stay out. My generation doesn’t get the opportunity to play at the Five Spot for six months or a year, so I think it’s important for me to play as much as possible. When I think about Monk or Trane or Miles, guys who played all the time, they were better able to cultivate their talent or concepts.

TP: How are you approaching this quintet’s presentation?

KENNY: We’re just playing, still trying to figure out how to set it up. We both have an idea of what we want to play, and then collectively we try to find tunes we’re comfortable with. Sometimes, on my own set, after we’ve played all the high-energy music, I like to play a ballad or something that takes your mind off that a little bit. There are some people who are hearing jazz for the first time, and a little groove never hurt. I try to picture myself as a listener. I like to hear cats play all night, but I also want to have something that I can nod my head to. I’m interested in a variety of things, and I try to challenge myself. So I play with people like Q-Tip, Guru, and Jazzmatazz, or play Adagio for Strings with the New Jersey Symphony, or play Charlie Parker’s music with Roy Haynes. Then you learn things about yourself and about that music, and you can present that in the next situation.

TP: Pharaoh said that you talk a lot about multiphonics, and that you presented him with a book on the subject, while his approach is homegrown. Did Pharaoh influence you in this area?

KENNY: Definitely. Actually, it’s something that Pharaoh plays that goes BAHT-BAH-DAH—BAHHHH! I was trying to figure out how he did it, and I went home and figured out a system for myself. So I got into it the same way Pharaoh did—searching. Then an Italian saxophone player showed me a book on it, and I dropped the book on him.

TP: All sorts of interesting dynamics occur in any improvising situation. Pharaoh started off as an alto and clarinet player before coming to tenor. Last night, you were so far down on the horn that if my eyes were closed, I might have thought you were playing tenor saxophone.

KENNY: Someone else said that last night. I do play a little farther down in the horn because I like the sound, but maybe it’s more obvious alongside the tenor that I’m playing that style. Plus, I’ve been playing my C-melody, which is a combination of a tenor and an alto, so that’s a little confusing, too.

TP: When Kenny walked in, Pharaoh was discussing his influences, and he mentioned that he got to Charlie Parker through James Moody’s Octet, which toured the South a lot when he was a teenager.

PHARAOH: I started playing the alto at that time. I wasn’t hearing as much as I should have, because in Little Rock there wasn’t much to hear except blues on the radio. Also, I wasn’t able to practice at home that much, so I had to go somewhere else. Whatever I learned came from my teacher, Jimmy Cannon, who was a trumpet player. He brought records to the school, and as he played them I’d ask who it was. That’s how I started listening to Miles and Lucky Thompson, who was a great tenor saxophonist, and Trane, Rollins, and Harold Land. He liked Clifford Brown and talked about him a lot, so later on I bought Clifford Brown’s record with strings, and tried to figure it out. One thing led to another.

KENNY: My earliest influences were Hank Crawford and Grover Washington, and Cannonball Adderley’s commercial recordings, like “Mercy, Mercy, Me.” As I checked out Cannonball more, I found that he actually played straight-ahead. I couldn’t believe it was the same guy. I’m from Detroit, and everybody was checking out Charlie Parker, but all the tenor players were playing like Dexter and all the alto players were playing like Jackie McLean. to play more like Bird, trying to understand… [END OF SIDE A]

…and he used to play along in the lower part of the register—he used to love that. So I heard that, and as I got older, I used to go back and listen to that record to see he what was so impressive about that. I actually got a chance to play with Joe Henderson before he passed away on Black Hope and on a Mulgrew Miller record called Hand In Hand. I also listened to a lot of trumpet players because I loved the strength of the sound. I had an opportunity to play with Cootie Williams in Mercer Ellington’s band, and Marcus Belgrave was my teacher and mentor. I also played with Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd, Woody Shaw, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, and Tom Harrell. Freddie particularly inspired me a lot; I always wanted to try to match his feel and his energy.

I felt the same thing when I first heard Coltrane. In fact, there’s a story that I should tell. When I was in high school, I used to play John Coltrane’s soprano, although I never KNEW it was his soprano! Because I went to school with his nephew, who used say, “My uncle is John Coltrane.” I never believed him.” Then one day Ravi called me and said, “My cousin Daryl is here with me.” I didn’t say anything. I just thought about that soprano. I wish I’d known. I would have tried to keep that horn. Maybe those vibrations would have rubbed off!

TP: Another thing you have in common is that you both started working early. Kenny could have gone to college, like a lot of your contemporaries, but you didn’t. When Pharaoh was coming up, college was less common. To use a cliche, you learned on the university of the streets.

PHARAOH: I started playing drums first. Man, I should have kept on playing drums. But I wanted me a horn, so I bought a clarinet from a guy that went to church. He wanted $17 for it. So I gave him 20 cents every other Sunday until I could buy this clarinet. I thought that was the world, for me to get this clarinet. But it was a metal clarinet. But at the time it was okay for me. The older musicians used to tell me, “You got to get your sound. You got to get the right mouthpiece. The right horn.” I was always trying to figure out how could I get a Selmer tenor. In my time, a Selmer was about $500, and that was like saying a million dollars to me. I never even had a hundred dollars in my life! I had some friends at home who let me use a King alto and a Buescher tenor, but I wasn’t comfortable because I had to take care of the instrument—don’t mess it up. I still had my clarinet, though I didn’t want to play it. My father looked at me and at that horn, and said, “That’s not nothin’. Get you a job.” I had to go to a friend’s house to get in an hour or two practice, or there’d be some conflict. practice in. Still, I was always wanted my school to have a good band, and for the guys to play right and read stuff right.

TP: Kenny, you could have gone to college, but you joined Mercer Ellington right out of high school. Was this altogether a good thing? Were there pros and cons?

KENNY: It was all pros to me. Basically, the harmony that I learned, I discovered by myself. I use different nomenclature. If I sat down with a professor, they might say, “Well, that’s what we call this,” and I’ll say, “Well, this is what I call this.” I remember talking to Herbie Hancock, and he said, “Well, everybody calls the different chords different names.”

To me, if I had gone to Berklee, I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to play with Cootie Williams, who came out of retirement. Or to sit with Harold Minerve, who was a lead alto player who was a protégé of Johnny Hodges. I was able to catch the last part of the big band era, and play in organ trios. So I look on all of it as a blessing, because it makes me who I am now.

TP: Did the older musicians talk to you the same way as Pharaoh experienced, that you have to have a sound of your own?

KENNY: Actually, my father told me that. I remember one day we were at the Dairy Queen on Mack and Michigan, and he said, “Who is this on the radio?” I didn’t know. He said, “Well, everybody has a sound.” It was Stanley Turrentine. After that, I think I subconsciously started thinking about a sound. I didn’t realize I had a sound, though, until I was about 18 when I heard a tape and recognized myself. Once I realized that my sound was a bit different, then I started trying to cultivate it.

TP: Is the sound that you now project the sound that you had in your mind’s ear when you were just starting out? Or did it develop on its own?

KENNY: I think for me it was a combination of both. I definitely was conscious about the sound I wanted—and am still searching for! Every day I think about that perfect sound, if there is a perfect sound. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I might not find the PERFECT sound, but I have something that’s uniquely mine. So I just accept that as a gift from the Creator. Of course, I’m always searching. I have different mouthpieces, and I’ll say, “okay, that has this element in it, but not this other element I’m looking for.”When you get the right combination, you know it, and you can play whatever you want to play. All the ideas just flow out.

PHARAOH: I know what Kenny’s saying. He reminds me so much of John Coltrane. John would ask me after a night working, “How did that mouthpiece sound?” “It sounds great, John. It sounds like it’s been sounding.” One time I was working on a mouthpiece, and I knew John would like it. He tried it out at Birdland, and afterwards he said, “Man, I’ve got to have this.” I thought that maybe I should work on all of them like that. Later on, he called and told me, “I’m not getting the same sound all over my horn, so it doesn’t seem like it’s going to work for me.” The bottom was cool, but the upper register was sort of thin. I’d filed five of those mouthpieces. So stopped working on mouthpieces, because I was messing up.

There’s no end to looking for the best sound or tone you can get. I don’t even know what I’m looking for! Once Big Nick Nicholas told me, “I told Rollins and them cats to open up the keys so you can get some sound.” So I started raising up my keys. But that put a defect on the technique. My fingers would get stuck between the keys; they were just too high. I decided to have the keys on one horn raised up high, but not the others. that. The horn I’m playing on right now is raised up high. Because I use a very small layer mouthpiece, that kind of helps me to center the sound, so I can play louder. But if I used the same mouthpiece on an instrument where the keys are normal height, I wouldn’t get that much sound out of it.

TP: Kenny, is there anything you’d personally like to ask Pharaoh for purposes of this conversation?

KENNY: I’ve always wondered what it felt like to stand on the bandstand with John Coltrane and hear that beautiful sound. What went through your mind? Because when I’m standing next to Pharaoh, what’s going through my mind is, “Oh, he has such a beautiful sound.”

PHARAOH: I always felt that what I was doing wasn’t happening at all. I’ve heard a lot of saxophone players play in person. And I played clarinet, and always felt I had a pretty good sound. But playing with John on the bandstand, it seemed he’d been through that and was just a little bit ahead of us, in a way. I tried to figure out what is it he does to the combination of the mouthpiece and the reed to get that gutty kind of sound. But I heard him play on all kinds of mouthpieces, and it still comes out. On the bandstand, it seemed like his sound wasn’t so much like a saxophone sound. Whatever he did was coming from inside. It was more like a personal voice or something on every note. It seemed like the sound had more meat, more of everything that I’m looking for. I didn’t want to SOUND like that, but I was trying to figure out how was he able to go beyond. I know I’m fingering the same note. But I’m not getting nearly what he gets out of it.

That made me start to search for different ways to finger certain notes. I play, say, middle-C so many different ways, with so many different fingerings, and I still don’t know which ones to use. When I’m playing on a ballad, I use a certain fingering to make it more like a quality sound. Then it goes on and on. I’ve tried many mouthpieces, and I’m still not happy about the sound. I have to keep working on it. Sometimes Kenny comes to me and says, “Oh, that’s a good sound.” When he leaves the room, I want to know what he’s hearing! To me, I’m trying to be the listener, to figure out what the good sound is. Is it because the sound is more resonant? It’s cutting through? I go up and down, up and down. I’m still not satisfied.

KENNY: Miles used to talk about when he was playing with Charlie Parker, that he thought he wasn’t ready and so on. But usually the leader hears something. I would like Pharaoh to tell me what he thinks John Coltrane heard in him, what he was looking for.

PHARAOH: I don’t know! [LAUGHS] It seemed like he’d challenge the horn, trying to get all he could get out it. One time he asked me, “Can you do a low A?” I think Earl Bostic could do that just with his lips. And he used to talk about the lower B-flat on the horn. I guess he was looking to go another step down, to get whatever he could out of the instrument for his expression. But I haven’t yet got to the point yet of trying to find out what he found in me. I used to do a lot of things on my horn that I know he wasn’t doing, and he would ask me how was I fingering this or that. I couldn’t even tell him. I’d have to do it just right on the spot. A lot of my stuff comes from the inside. Especially for the lower notes, I try to get a raw, like, riled sound by humming into the horn, or harmonize it some kind of way, to just change the textures. Not all the time. Just sometimes. Or maybe make another harmonic so you say, “What’s he doing?” It wasn’t any kind of fingering.

TP: It sounds like your character must have appealed to Coltrane, just as Kenny’s appeals to you. Your perpetual dissatisfaction with the status quo and always trying to advance and find something new—perhaps that was part of it.

PHARAOH: I know Kenny tries to find all kinds of way to develop his sound. That reminds me of John. John was a different than any other musician I know. I’m trying to figure out what he was hearing, and it’s hard to say. I do know he heard something.

TP: Is this collaboration going to continue?

PHARAOH: It will, but not now.

KENNY: I hope it does continue. There are only a few people who I want to sit down on the bandstand with, and Pharaoh is definitely one of them. Also, it’s a learning thing for me, too. It’s not only about being a leader. And as I learn, I hope that I’m also giving, that I’m saying, “Okay, this is another approach.” When I hear him, I think, “Oh, wow, that’s exactly what I was feeling.” I just can’t do that at this point! It’s a lot of fun to play with him, because there’s mutual respect. I know Pharaoh is going to play, and I’m going to play; we come to play music and have a good time.


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For Sonny Rollins’ 85th Birthday, Three Downbeat Articles from 2000, 2007 and 2009 and a Jazziz Article from 2005

Sonny Rollins, who turns 85 today, hasn’t played in public for several years, and it’s unclear—though much wished for by his international cohort of admirers—that he will  be able to do so again. I’ve had the extraordinary opportunity to write about him on a number of occasions since 2000. I’ve posted four of these pieces below. The first, for DownBeat, was a long overview, framed around the 2000 studio recording This is What I Do (this is a “directors’ cut”). In the second, done in 2005 for Jazziz, Rollins spoke about the death of his wife, Lucille, his up-close encounter with the events of 9/11/2001, and his decision to begin to release the first of the Road Shows series, documenting his personal creme de la creme choices from concerts on his own label. The third reports on his 2007 Carnegie Hall concert with Christian McBride and Roy Haynes.  The fourth is a piece for DownBeat‘s 75th anniversary issue in 2009, in which he responded to his quotes in DB articles about him from 1956 until 2005.


Sonny Rollins (Downbeat-2000):

It’s Saturday night, and Sonny Rollins is about to emerge for his second set at B.B. King’s Blues Club on 42nd Street. The joint is jumping. A rainbow coalition of hardcore fans, package-deal customers off the tour bus, critics in various states of rapture, and renowned saxmen looking to pick up a little inspiration pack the capacious theater basement, which offers good sightlines, a competent sound system, bordello-red wallpaper, a bar as long as a city block, and an admixture of straight tables and strategically placed semi-circular banquettes. Like the theme-park-like facades that line the sidewalk above, B.B. King’s oozes the unsettling aura of virtual reality; it’s a fresh-scrubbed replica of the inner city lounges around the country where the licensor and the evening’s featured act paid their dues as aspirants in the years following World War II.

A hip filmmaker might want to dress the customers in period attire and transform B.B. King’s into Club Baron, a spot on 135th Street where gangsters and glitterati mixed during the Harlem Renaissance, but whose glory days were long behind it in 1948, when Rollins — a teenage devotee of Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Lester Young and Charlie Parker — led a trio there opposite Thelonious Monk. “Monk heard me then,” recalls Rollins, “and saw something in me that he liked. Then he sort of took me under his wing. I began to go to his house and rehearse with his various bands. Guys would say, ‘Man, it’s impossible to make these jumps on the trumpet’ and all this stuff, and then we’d end up playing it.”

Executing the impossible — shaping cogent, poetic musical architecture on the tenor saxophone while navigating the high wire night after night — is the operative trope of Rollins’ astonishing career, and although he recently turned 70, his audience expects nothing less. Some already are familiar with his latest album, This Is What I Do [Milestone], a mellow, reflective recital on which the maestro places his singular voice — gruff, burnished, passionate — at the forefront throughout, soloing with transparent vigor on three new originals and three tunes from the ’30s Songbook. He seems to have reached the grail of being able to transmute the most abstract ideas of rhythm and harmony and form into a stream of pure melody, as if you had given Louis Armstrong a saxophone and extrapolated onto his consciousness the last fifty years of jazz vocabulary.

None of these effusions mean much to Rollins, who cites Armstrong as his idol, and is acutely conscious of his reputation. “If I am to believe my press, I am supposed to be a legend, right?” he had asked rhetorically over the phone from his Tribeca pied-a-terre several weeks before. “Or an icon, which is even worse. When I come out on the stage, it can’t be, ‘well, okay, he’s an icon, folks,’ and that’s it, good-night. I mean, I’ve got to do something in between being an icon and them leaving the hall. I don’t like to take money when I don’t earn it, and I don’t like people to be disappointed when they come to see me. In fact, people being disappointed coming to see me is why I ended up going on the bridge in 1959.”

The reference is to the Williamsburg Bridge, a nondescript symbol of urban decay which connects Delancey Street in lower Manhattan to what presently is a wildly gentrified area of Brooklyn. Then a 29-year-old Loisida resident at the top of his game (several bootlegs of March 1959 performances in Europe affirm the assertion), Rollins appropriated a secret alcove there which for two-and-a-half years he used as a private rehearsal studio “to shore up some fundamental technical things on the saxophone.”

His sabbatical generated extraordinary consternation and speculation within the jazz community. Rollins already was a stylistic role model; had he never again picked up his horn, he would remain a major figure in jazz history. By his 25th birthday, the Harlem native had recorded and gigged as a peer with Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and J.J. Johnson, composed still-enduring jazz originals like “Oleo,” “Airegin” and “Doxy,” and fought down a serious heroin addiction whose consequences led to incarcerations in 1950 and in 1952. In December 1955, Rollins left Chicago — where he worked as a factory janitor and lived in a room at the YMCA at 35th and Wabash while getting himself together — with the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet. He proceeded to record a succession of enduring masterpieces — including the aptly titled “Saxophone Colossus” — which showcased an immense, speechlike tone, elastic time sense, an unfailing penchant for melodic invention that revealed a romantic sensibility completely devoid of bathos, a sense of humor that some called sardonic, and a seemingly intuitive grasp of spontaneous composition.

“A lot of people couldn’t comprehend why I would stop playing,” says Rollins, whose imposing frame, larger-than-life appearance and relentless style belie the notion that demons of doubt could ever have gnawed at his innards. “But I know I learned something. I felt it was a necessary thing for me to do to have the kind of confidence I need in playing music like this. It was very good to be able to show that kind of resolve, because it was against the grain of public opinion. So outside of the musical benefits, it was also good for my soul.”

Between 1962 and 1964 Rollins released six divergent albums for RCA-Victor, which presented him with a $90,000 advance and unlimited studio access; in 1965-66 he cut three intermittently brilliant albums on Impulse. Picking up on procedures he’d implied on his pioneering trio recordings of the late ’50s (see Way Out West, Live At the Village Vanguard, The Freedom Suite), he documented his exhaustive investigations of the instrument’s sonic possibilities, and moved inexorably towards the principle of improvising from a tabula rasa. In listening to his flights of fancy from this period, it’s interesting to consider that Rollins, who like fellow saxophone visionary Wayne Shorter, was a gifted cartoonist and watercolorist in his youth, noted in a mid-’50s interview that he had only recently definitively decided that music would indeed be what did.

“I liked painting a lot,” he muses, “but of course there was no money in it. I was getting out of school, and in music I was able to play jobs and make some money; there was the promise that this might be a career. Then, of course, as my idols began showing interest in me, I said, ‘Gee, I must be okay.'” Perhaps his roots in shaping imagery and design explain why — as guitarist Jim Hall, his 1961-62 quartet partner, once noted — Rollins began to deploy a sort of synesthetic mojo during the post-Bridge years, exploring motifs from every conceivable angle like a cubist painter, imparting to his phrases vivid splashes of timbre with balladic nuance at the fastest tempos.

Rollins built his far-flung abstractions upon formidable bedrock. I convey to him alto saxophonist Gary Bartz’s description a few years back of hearing Rollins at the Village Vanguard during the mid-’60s. “What impressed and helped me,” Bartz recalled, “is that one night Sonny would play like Lester Young all night; he’d play songs like ‘Three Little Words’ that were associated with Prez, and play Prez’s solos sometimes note-for-note with Prez’ sound before going off into his own solo. The next night, he might do the same thing with Coleman Hawkins. Then the next night he would be Sonny. So I used to go every night, as you see!”

Rollins emits a hearty guffaw, and responds bemusedly: “I didn’t approach it that analytically. We were young and didn’t always get an opportunity to see our heroes in person, so we learned a lot by listening to the records and copying the solos. Well, I’d get as close to what they did as I could. I could never copy a guy note for note, because for one thing it’s very difficult to do. In trying to get the style of Prez or Coleman Hawkins, I would try to inhabit their soul, feel what they felt, interpret music the way they did.”

As band-members Stephen Scott and Bob Cranshaw note, Rollins continues to pay private homages to his idols during soundchecks, which certain obsessives in the crowd at B.B. King’s might prefer hearing him do to having sex; they might even sacrifice their left nut to hear him return to his interactive, anything-goes-at-any-time ’50s-’60s style. But although Rollins is the most Proustian of improvisers, able to download at Pentium speed deeply embedded fragments of musical memory which morph into stunning spur of the moment theme-and-variation disquisitions, reenacting times past has never been on his agenda.

“Sometimes I think I would help myself if I listened to some of my old playing,” Rollins muses. “Every now and then, when I listen to something of my own, I hear things I used to do that I forgot about, and think, ‘Wow, I should do that again.’ But I shudder when I hear myself; I’m always saying, ‘Gee, I should have done that’ or ‘I don’t like my tone right there.’ I don’t deny that it would be instructive and constructive to listen to myself objectively, and it probably would help me play better. But I haven’t been able to climb over that particular hill. Certain things I don’t want to analyze too closely. I’d rather they just happen.”

That’s the procedure Rollins followed after emerging from a second lengthy hiatus during which he spent long stretches in Japan and India, explored Buddhist precepts and learned to meditate. Following the lead of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, he turned his attention to contemporary music, adopted a more pronounced vibrato, electrified his band sound and layered it with rhythmic texture, added to his arsenal tunes that featured heavy electric bass vamps and funk beats, addressed a repertoire that comprised more melodic, dance-driven content mixed with exquisite balladry. After releasing the majestic “Horn Culture” [1973] with teen chum Walter Davis, Jr. on piano and the powerful live document “The Cutting Edge” [1974], Rollins issued a frustratingly inconsistent succession of albums, proffering attenuated, self-conscious solos on attractive tunes whose authoritatively played heads barely hinted at the life force he imparted to them when performing before an audience.

“I’m often criticized about the ’70s and ’80s because I used a backbeat and guitars and all, but I don’t understand a lot of it,” Rollins says crisply. “Jazz has to be alive. This gets back to what I said about playing like somebody. If you can appreciate what someone is doing and try to get their essence, then it’s alive. If you copy them to a tee, it probably wouldn’t sound alive. In the ’70s I was trying to find different ways to make my music relevant. I’ve never thought of myself as being on some pinnacle where I can’t play a calypso or a backbeat. I’m surely very honored that a lot of my fans think that one period puts me up there with great people and all that, but to me it’s always been trying to get to It, and It is a thing which is alive and is fluid. This is the way I play. The music I am trying to get to is probably like my politics. It’s anti-industrial. But what It is, I don’t know. Every now and then, I’ll get a glimpse, but I can’t get to It as often as I would like. Until I feel satisfied, you’re not going to hear me play exactly alike any time.”

Whatever one thinks aesthetically of Rollins’ populist, vernacular-oriented path between the mid-’70s and “Falling In Love With Jazz,” the 1989 album that marked his recorded return to hardcore jazz values, it’s of a continuum with his earliest experiences. “I like dancing and I like playing for dancers,” says Rollins, who remembers going to Calypso affairs as a small boy with his Virgin Islands-born mother. “In our teens we did a solitary dance called the Applejack where you’d just do moves to the music. It’s what Monk did when he’d get up from the piano to dance. I remember going to see Dizzy’s band a long time ago at the Savoy Ballroom; Dizzy thought of himself as a good dancer, and I guess he was. He would dance the Lindyhop with a chick, and they would really be going to town, with the people crowding around them in a circle.

“When I was coming up with Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and Kenny Drew, playing for the people and playing whatever I was playing was one and the same thing. Mostly we played either a club with a dance floor or what we called a function, where everyone was dancing. Sometimes in Harlem we had to play Caribbean-type tunes for dancing only, but a certain musical element was foremost — that’s why I still play those Caribbean tunes. I always did my own variations, tried to change things around a bit. I play a style of calypso which is different from the authentic stuff I hear when I go to the Caribbean, and it may be that Caribbean people who hear me play think that I’m not really playing calypso. I never broke rhythms down in a methodical way. Anything that I wanted came to me intuitively. I’d say, ‘I can use that’ or ‘that sounds right to me,’ and I just did it. What I do is completely natural, basically off the top of my head; I’ve never had the skill of being able to play the same thing from night to night. Not that I’d want to. I respect the skill of people who can do that, but I think I prefer to be who I am.”

Playing Harlem dances with the likes of Max Roach and Art Blakey, or sessions in late ’40s Chicago with drum legend Ike Day, undoubtedly honed Rollins’ preternatural rhythmic facility, which is one aspect of his magic that even he doesn’t soft-pedal. “I could give Elvin Jones a run for his money, right?” he jokes. Getting serious, he continues, “I remember playing with Art Blakey once at Birdland, and the rhythm got off some kind of way; after he came off the stand he said, ‘Boy, Sonny, you didn’t let that mess you up; you were really right on it, didn’t bother you.’ That gave me more confidence.

“Sonny likes to have the time solid, so that he can juxtapose playing across or under or through it,” says Jack DeJohnette, who first recorded with Rollins in 1972 on “Next Album.” “He is complete; he hears the drums, bass and piano in him, and he plays by himself.” That’s why Rollins has employed bassist Bob Cranshaw off and on since 1959, and why the R&B influenced drummer Perry Wilson has lasted with him for three years. “Bob is a steady player, and as abstract as I often like to get, I’ve always liked to contrast abstraction against something steady,” Rollins states.” “I play a lot of different stuff — Caribbean things, straight-ahead, a little backbeat — and I need a drummer who has a little bit of range, who isn’t locked into one style of playing. A lot of jazz drummers are great at straight-ahead, but if you want to go into something else the feeling is not quite as genuine. Perry has the range that’s needed to play with Sonny Rollins. I demand that the basic pulse and the chord structure be present throughout; I always have the song in mind regardless of what I do.”

In the manner of his role model Coleman Hawkins — and slightly lesser hero Gene Ammons, with whom he jousted on various visits to Chicago — Rollins is peerless at the operatic, heart-on-the-sleeve approach to balladry. “I love ballads,” he says. “Growing up, I loved a lot of people singing, Of course, I like Nat Cole, the way he phrases and seems sincere and gets it over. Even when he did some things in his later years that were thought to be overly commercial, they didn’t turn me off because it was him. I liked the Ink Spots and I liked Bing Crosby, who I saw in a lot of movies, which might have reinforced my admiration for him as a performer. We had a windup victrola on which I heard some of those old RCA Victor Carusos. I remember as a kid going to the City Center in New York and hearing operettas; when I was really young, maybe 2 years old, I saw a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates Of Penzance” in Harlem, and later on in junior high school we had to go through “H.M.S Pinafore” and all this stuff. I was the youngest child, my oldest brother was a good violin player, and I’d hear him studying and playing all the time, and my sister played piano in church — so I imbibed a lot of music from them also.”

I ask Rollins to elaborate on his church background. He responds: “I was brought up in a sect called the Moravian church, where I went to Sunday School and got confirmed and so on. It was very straight-laced, with an organ playing hymns and Bach Cantatas. But my grandmother used to take me to a church run by a woman named Mother Horn right there on Lenox Avenue. It was one of these real sanctified churches that had band instruments playing, and it made a big impression — I remember hearing a trumpet player who was really swinging.

“I went to Chicago for the first time in 1949 with a friend who played trumpet in a gospel group; he and his sister were in a sanctified church, and I used to go there every week, which I enjoyed because the music was so animated. Chicago was very exciting. It was earthier and more blues-oriented than New York, and they had clubs where people would play 24 hours a day. I spent a lot of time there, and met and played with a lot of musicians. It was a very formative period in my life. When I lived there in 1955, trying to get straight and get my life together, an interesting thing happened. I got up early one morning to catch the bus at 35th and State Street to get to work, and I saw in the window of a little record store on the corner a record I had made with Monk, ‘Just The Way You Look Tonight,’ and I was on the cover. An interesting pull.”

“We’re here in the year 2000, so let’s forget the good old days,” says an avuncular Rollins, elegant in a black ensemble, horn-rimmed shades, and liberally salted beard, midway through the second set at B.B. King’s, reacting to exhortations from the happy throng after he executes a dramatic downward swoop with his horn to state the final note of his passionate cadenza to “Moon Of Manakora,” an Academy Award winner in 1937 written for the Dorothy Lamour movie “Hurricane” that is the final track on “This Is What I Do.” Then he kicks into “St. Thomas,” his variation on a melody that he first heard at one of the Calypso dances that he attended with his mother which has been a staple of his repertoire since he waxed it in 1956 on “Saxophone Colossus.” He then croons the theme of Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful,” from “Sonny Rollins + 3 (1996), before hurtling into a lengthy abstraction on which he plays endless games with the time over the surging rhythm section until there’s nothing left to say.

Rollins concludes with “Don’t Stop The Carnival” (“What’s New,” 1962), a Calypso-Highlife hybrid that he uses as a frequent concert-closer. He roars like a lion through a succession of choruses, fingers popping in a St. Vitus dance over the saxophone keys, firing out cascades of notes from the bottom of the horn. Occasionally, for emphasis, he splits the reed to jackhammer precisely calibrated low overtones that seem ready to blast through building’s substructure and onto the tracks of the subway line that runs below 42nd Street. On the final chorus, as his parting shot, Rollins quotes Denzil Best’s “Move” — parrying pianist Stephen Scott’s witty reference to the bop staple in the kickoff solo to “This Is My Lucky Day” 90 minutes before — before a final cadenza on which he states “There’s No Place Like Home.”

“Hardcore Jazz is political,” Rollins had said during our initial conversation. “It’s real art, and it’s got a lot to say about things that are really happening. Unfortunately, a lot of forces out here want to divert people, don’t want us to think about anything; everything is all right, don’t think about the environment, don’t think about any kind of social problems — just go along and consume and make money. That’s what Hardcore Jazz is up against.”

Rollins seems primed for the battle. This Is What I Do caps a decade-long succession of magnificent albums on which the aging titan has confronted his past head-on with a sound that subsumes his entire history — the oceanic linearity of the ’50s, the expressionist timbre of the ’60s, and the groove-oriented populism of the ’70s and ’80s. Rollins lived what’s now called the tradition; he grew up immersed in it, he played no small part in creating it, his memories of it provide the narrative subtext for the vivid declamations he continues to spin. Significantly, he dedicates two originals — “Have You Seen Harold Vick?” and “Charles M” — to colleagues passed on.

“It’s good to honor and recognize fellow musicians,” Rollins declares. “Somebody needs to chronicle the guys that contributed to the whole nation’s musical history and never got heard of, who made life good for a lot of people but never get talked about. Harold Vick was a good player and was beloved by his colleagues. Why not talk about these guys? Why just let life rush on, rush on, rush on as if these things don’t matter?”

He proceeds to reminisce.

“Mingus and I were kindred spirits. We had a lot of problems dealing with the acceptance of the music and the way minorities are treated — the usual crap that people go through every day. He always wanted me to do some things with him, but they never panned out. I did play with him a couple of times. He would come by the RCA studios on 24th Street to play piano with me. And I remember when Eric Dolphy was giving him some kind of trouble, so he brought me down to the Five Spot on Eighth Street to play with Eric; in Mingus’ mind it was something like, ‘Man, I’ve got Sonny here, so you’d better be cool.’ I never got around to recording any of his tunes, though I wanted to record one that Miles did called “Smooch,” which was reminiscent of a ballad called ‘Time’ that Richie Powell wrote when I was with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.

“My relationship with Miles continued forever; we were always tight. Once Miles was playing with the group he had with Wayne Shorter at a place in Brooklyn called the Blue Coronet. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I went by and came in the club, and he didn’t see me. The guys said, ‘Sonny’s here, and Miles almost jumped out of his skin! It touched me, because I realized how much he thought of me. I was surprised, because Miles is one of our idols. I wasn’t putting myself on his plane; I would never do that. But he thought a lot of me.

“When I was growing up, we went to high school with a fine trumpet player whose name was Lowell Lewis, who played with Jackie McLean and all of us. When Charlie Parker came out with “Now Is The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce” in 1945, he heard it and he liked the way Miles played. I liked him, too, actually; he took such a poetic solo on one of those tunes. When Miles played with Bird, he took a different tack. Of course, Bird was my idol and my hero and everything, and at that point we began thinking of Miles in that rarefied atmosphere. He was a god. But he was only four years older than I, which is why I think my relationship with him was more like one of a peer. Dizzy was much older. Monk was older, but Monk was different, because Monk kind of took me under his wing. Of course, we know Bird was into his own thing. It was really hard to catch the Bird. Chasin’ the Bird…heh-heh. But he was very generous to us and very avuncular and everything.”

Rollins hasn’t stopped working since 1972; as he enters his eighth decade, a Buddhist practice as homegrown as his music helps him maintain focus. “I retain elements of different kinds of Buddhism,” he notes. “Trying to draw specific lines to it I’ve found doesn’t work for me. I’ve studied some Zen and I’ve studied Yoga. What I’ve got out of it is that my music is my yoga. That’s the way I practice. That’s the way I meditate. That’s the way I seek enlightenment during this lifetime, like the Buddha. And I’ve found out that to play my instrument, to concentrate and get inside of that, which is getting inside of myself, is my way of doing all of these spiritual things. I’m trying to get some understanding of life and how people interact with each other, to get beyond jealousies and hatreds and envies, all of these little things in life which are so stupid and inconsequential. This is my great work, as far as I’m concerned. I’m so happy that I have the instrument which is giving me sort of a path to travel with.”

“You have to stay on it, you know,” he adds, referring to a clarion Tadd Dameron line that Dizzy Gillespie recorded with his big band in 1947. “Dizzy played a beautiful solo. It was very informative, and it taught me a lot about playing. Everything about it was very logical, and I like logical playing. It had all the other elements of great jazz playing, and it made a lot of sense, the way he played with the band, on top of the band, the way he came in and the way he left space. It was just perfect.”

Which is what a good portion of the crowd must think of Rollins as they bask in the afterglow of the performance. Reality beckons as they file up the stairs and into a wee hours drizzle on 42nd Street, a mere ten blocks from the legendary 52nd Street clubs Rollins played when breaking in, and two stops on the A-train from 125th Street and the Apollo Theater, where a post-adolescent Rollins would go with “an astute bunch of young guys on my block who knew all about Ben Webster and the Ellington band.” He emphasizes, “We were all into jazz as opposed to guys that, say, were into rhythm-and-blues at that time. I mean, rhythm-and-blues was okay, but we knew the real stuff. I thought of Jazz as something which was extremely special. Yeah, that’s the word. It was special. Everything about it was great. There’s nothing bad about jazz. This is what I picked up then as a kid, and this is the way it is. It’s still so true today.”



Sonny Rollins (Jazziz, 2005):
Last December, not long after the death of Lucille Rollins, his companion since 1959, his wife since 1965, and his business manager since 1971, Sonny Rollins decided to conclude his current contract with Fantasy Records by releasing Without A Song (The 9/11 Concert). It documents a Rollins concert at Boston’s Berklee Performing Arts Center in Boston on September 15, 2001, four days after Rollins, whose highrise Tribeca pied a terre was a few blocks due north of the World Trade Center, found himself in the middle of a disaster.

Rollins remembers that he was in no mood to do the job. “My legs were wobbly and I was mentally disjointed,” he says over the phone from his upstate New York home. “I told my wife, ‘Let’s cancel.’ But she convinced me that we should do it. Lucille was a very straight, Middle American-values person, and she hated to renege on a contract in any form. That might have been part of why she insisted. I’m sure there were more noble reasons. Some people suggested that my playing would help other people, which I don’t know if she thought of or not.”

Perhaps no one in the house benefitted more than Rollins, who, on the fateful morning of Tuesday, September 11th, was preparing to run some errands when he heard Flight 11 pass directly above his roof. “Then I heard a big POW!!!!” he recalls. His apartment looked north, up the Hudson River, and he thought a small plane had crashed along the waterfront. He turned on his black-and-white TV, just in time to see Flight 175 slam into the South Tower.

“Then I went downstairs,” he says. “The streets were bedlam, women running around screaming. When the South Tower came down, we started to run, because we thought it would take everybody if it fell over. Since it imploded on itself, that didn’t happen, but a tremendous amount of toxic dust filled the air.”

Downtown Manhattan was already sealed off, and, for lack of a better alternative, Rollins decided to take the elevator back up to his apartment. The phones were still working and he called his wife. Then he started practicing.

“I was definitely in shock,” he says. “Even when I heard the North Tower come down over my radio, it didn’t seem so bad, but even if it was, I was going to practice anyway. I didn’t think it was anything the government couldn’t handle in some manner or form.”

By now, the power was off, and Rollins, who had just turned 71, was marooned. The next morning, a National Guardsman climbed to the 39th floor, found Rollins and three other residents, and ordered them to evacuate. Rollins gathered what he could carry, not neglecting his tenor saxophone and a flashlight, and negotiated all the steps down the dark, narrow stairwell to the street.

“It was like a scene from a World War 2 movie about the London Blitzkrieg, where the place has been bombed, everybody’s out, and the sirens are going off,” Rollins recalls. “There were so many ambulances, firefighters going into Stuyvesant High School for oxygen and new guys coming out. Everybody had to put on masks, because the air was acrid with toxicity.” A CNN cameraman caught Rollins, gear in hand, walking to a bus, which took him to Washington Irving High School, near Union Square Park. There Rollins called his driver, who came in from the Bronx, picked up his charge, and took him home.

The Boston concert was imminent. Rollins arrived there on Friday afternoon, and convened his band at soundcheck the next day. “Everyone seemed more contemplative and thoughtful than usual,” he says of his band’s comportment. “I suppose they were shaken, and the fact everybody knew I was in the middle of it might have contributed. It seemed everything was much more serious and purposeful. Although I hate to think that any other time we play is not purposeful.”

In truth, nothing much happens on Without A Song until the 25th minute, during the final third of “Global Warming,” when Rollins responds to the beats of hand drummer Kimati Dinizulu, his regular percussionist since this engagement, and channels the gods on a 6½ minute statement, transforming the lower depths of his instrument into—for lack of a better analogy—a swinging, melodic drum. He spins a three-minute classic on A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, developing and resolving several themes simultaneously, breaking the bar lines, accelerating and decelerating the tempo, veritably speaking through the instrument. He uncorks another amusing, cubist, high-velocity declamation on Why Was I Born, interpolating Stephen Foster quotes into the line. Similar pyrotechnics stamp his opening inventions on “Where or When,” before Rollins begins to lose his embouchure and concludes the proceedings.

Such transcendent moments are not uncommon in Rollins’ concert performances since 1972, the year he returned from a three-year hiatus spent primarily in India and Japan, and began to record for Milestone. But on studio recitals, as observers often remark, the saxophone colossus has resembled Atlas chained more than Prometheus unbound, projecting nowhere close to the creativity and life force he emanates in live performance.

“I think there’s a lot of credence to that,” Rollins comments on the concert-studio issue. “Something about the interaction of human being to human being creates a tension, and I get more involved, which probably changes what I’m doing. I’m not conscious of it. But once I’m out there, those forces obtain.”

Rollins channeled those forces admirably on a succession of masterpieces that established his legend between 1955 and 1966, and began to reestablish studio consistency on Sonny Rollins + 3, a well-wrought 1996 combo date with old pal Tommy Flanagan, and on This Is What I Do, a melody-drenched recital from 2000 that finds the maestro in poetic voice.

“For a long period, the studio was a big inhibiting factor,” he acknowledges. “But I’ve begun to bring that thing from live performance into a studio a little more easily. During my early career, I didn’t feel so inhibited playing on the records with Miles and Max and Monk. So I think it’s just a phase. I don’t know what brought it about. Perhaps it’s because I realized that technology had reached the point where you could overdub and change things, and it was easier to reach for a more ‘perfect’ solo and all this crap.”

That being said, nowhere on the aforementioned sessions does Rollins scale the Olympian heights he accesses on Without A Song, which is one of several hundred privately recorded Rollins concerts, primarily from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, that capture Rollins navigating the high wire. Carl Smith, a Maine-based archivist of this material, has given them to Rollins in hopes that he will approve their public release and thus clarify the scope of his achievement during the second half of his astonishing career.

“Lucille would have killed this guy,” Rollins says with a chuckle. “I am not quite as adamant as she was on that issue. I would have to listen to them, which is hard for me to do, but perhaps that’s another phase I can overcome, as I think I have about recording in the studio. I don’t want to compete with myself, but I’m not averse to releasing some of those in a judicious manner if I hear something really good.

“In fact, I’ve been taping my own performances. This was a point of contention between Lucille and myself. We were at loggerheads. I did it, but she didn’t want me to. Someone else was recording it anyway. I tried to explain that someone like Pat Metheny records all his performances, but we still couldn’t quite agree. I don’t understand exactly why she felt that way. That’s one of the things that she left me here to ponder alone.”

With his wife making the decisions, Rollins was allowed “to play my horn and read my books, and sort of live the leisurely life of a baron.” He pauses for several seconds, and sighs. “It’s all over now.”

Nearing 75, Rollins, in his words, is “just getting into the business aspect,” a tricky proposition for a man who doesn’t operate his fax machine, doesn’t use email, and doesn’t have a cell phone. He gets help from his nephew, trombonist and band-member Clifton Anderson. Still, Rollins says, “I’m doing a lot of things I had never had to deal with before. I’m in a whirlwind right now. There are so many disparate things that I am obligated to do, and I’m trying to get them all done. It fills up 24 hours a day.”

Asked if there’s a therapeutic aspect to immersing himself in mundane details, he responds: “It may be a good thing that I’m able to interact on some things. I grieved for a long time. I’m still grieving, because it hasn’t been that long. After she left me here, I couldn’t play for a long time, man. I took my horn out and tried to play a little bit, a few minutes at a time. Gradually, as I began to accept engagements again, I got back to practicing a little more.”

The words burst forth. “I want to go through the rest of my travails on earth,” he says. “We lived together a long time. I’m laying on the bed my wife died in, and she was right next to me, and I was trying to do things for her, and I’m still here. I don’t need to leave that. Going out and playing is enough contact with people. I feel I’ve had a successful life, and I don’t need to get involved in any other phase of life.

“As long as I am able to play, I’ll be playing. I still have my challenges to surmount. I’m still practicing, I’m still studying, and I want to synthesize what I’ve learned in a way that might affect my playing. I still have the same attitude to music.”

Rollins has chronic dental problems, and whether he will be able to actualize that attitude to his satisfaction is an open question. “Physically, you need your teeth to play,” he explains. “It’s frustrating to want to do certain technical things, to have the physical strength, but not be able to. It’s an extra impediment on top of everything else. But look, man, life is frustration.”

This summer Rollins will undergo “procedures that my dentist assures me will enable me to practice when I want.” If the dentist is wrong, Rollins is well aware that he will face another crossroads in this time of tribulation and transition.

“I never want to get to the point where I’m doing nothing,” he says. “I’m trying my best to do something which I know I should be doing better. If I feel, ‘Gee, this is five concerts in a row where I sound like shit’—no. Then I would probably forget it and stay at home and practice in my studio, and just play for myself. Things have to end. Yeah, there’s nothing like getting to some musical point where you feel satisfied—reasonably satisfied—and having people appreciate it. Although you can’t go by that. People will smile in your face and say, ‘Oh, you sounded great,’ which I know is a lot of crap, because I know how I really sound.

“Probably nothing will fulfill me as much as trying to create music on the stage, with all that entails. But should I have to stop, I can’t be, ‘Oh, my life is over.’ I would go on and do whatever else there is to do. I don’t believe in suicide. I believe we’re put here for a reason, and the reason is to go through all these things we go through. You can’t cut it off by your own choice. So whatever happens, I’ll go through it like everybody else.”




Downbeat Readers Poll Feature, 2007:

“Let’s put Roy in the middle,” said Sonny Rollins, evoking his leader’s prerogative, as he, Roy Haynes and Christian McBride convened for a photo shoot near a piano, not in use during their afternoon rehearsal at Avatar Studios for a Carnegie Hall concert on the next evening.

“Why?” Haynes responded. “Because I’m the littlest one?”

“Little in the middle,” Rollins said, and Haynes acquiesced. “That looks better!” Rollins said.

“Damn,” said McBride. “The mob!”

“Sugar Hill, man,” Haynes chimed in, referring to the Harlem enclave where Rollins, 77, spent his formative years in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and where Haynes, now 82, settled when he moved to New York sixty years ago. “Me and Sonny Rollins, from Sugar Hill. Shit.”

“The Hill!” said Rollins. “You dig?”

“I’m not from there,” said McBride, 36, a Philadelphia native. “But I lived there for a minute. That can count, right? I lived on Edgecombe.”

“Is that right?” asked Rollins, who as a youngster lived on Edgecombe Avenue, down the block from the old Polo Grounds.

“Sonnymoon for Three,” Haynes quipped.

Photographer John Abbott machine-gunned the camera for a minute or so.

“You got the gig, John,” McBride said.

“That’s what Prez told me, man, after I played two tunes with him at the Savoy Ballroom,” Haynes recalled. “He said, ‘You got the gig. But I won’t tell you the words, because they may put it in print.’”

“Are you going to sing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’?” McBride inquired, referring to the ballad on the trio’s program.

“‘You got your slave,’ right,” Rollins replied, reciting the lyric.

“‘If you got eyes, that slave is yours,’” Haynes shot back. “You can only say that if you know what you’re saying, though.”

“Mmm-hmm,” Rollins agreed.

Rollins planned to sandwich “Some Enchanted Evening,” a song from South Pacific that he had never recorded, with two long-standing hits: Kurt Weill’s “Moritat,” known popularly as “Mack The Knife,” from his 1956 breakthrough record, “Saxophone Colossus,” and “Sonnymoon For Two,” a discursive Rollins blues signifying on his first marriage that he most famously recorded on a November 1957 gig with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones that produced Live at the Village Vanguard. Several weeks after that 1957 date, Rollins played those tunes at a Carnegie Hall benefit concert—his first appearance on the hallowed stage—with bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Kenny Dennis, sharing the bill with Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie with Austin Cromer on vocals, Ray Charles, and the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane. Carnegie Hall recorded the proceedings, and the Library of Congress unearthed them in 2004, yielding the Blue Note’s big-seller, Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. That release coincided with the death of Rollins’ wife and manager, Lucille, and briefly preceded Concord’s purchase of Fantasy Records, the corporate owner of Milestone, his label since 1972. Concurrently, Rollins launched his own label, Doxy, under the imprimatur of Oleo Productions, both entities named after original compositions that Rollins recorded with Miles Davis in 1954. Now an entrepreneur, Rollins decided to throw a concert commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the event, and to release both the 1957 and 2007 performances on a single CD, following Sonny, Please, his first Doxy title.

At the time of the 1957 concert, Rollins was already a stylistic role model—Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Horace Silver had named him the “Greatest Ever” tenor saxophonist in a poll conducted the previous year by Leonard Feather. But although his immense, voice-like tone, elastic time sense,.penchant for melodic invention, seemingly intuitive sense of structure, and relentless swing thrilled his devotees, Rollins was looking for a [context]. Increasingly, he was finding it by eschewing the support of a chordal instrument.

“Trio playing has been a big part of my musical life for a long, long time,” Rollins had related a few days before the rehearsal  during an extended interview on WKCR. “As a matter of fact, in the late ‘40s, Miles Davis heard me playing with a trio to open for a group of all-stars at the 845 Club in the Bronx, and asked me to join his band. I always can get into myself just playing solo, and when I was a kid, just starting, I’d practice in my room for hours and hours, and I’d be in my paradise. ‘Sonny, come on, time to eat.’ I’d be in my reverie. So the idea that I needed other people to fulfill my musical ambitions came reluctantly. So playing by myself or with as few musicians as possible—with trio—was a normal and natural thing.”

Such tunnel vision perhaps explains why, over the next dozen years, Rollins played so much extraordinary music with trios and two-horn quartets (in addition to the aforementioned, personnels on albums and bootlegs during the period included Ray Brown and Shelley Manne; Max Roach with Oscar Pettiford or Jymie Merritt; Paul Chambers and Haynes; Henry Grimes and Pete LaRoca, Kenny Clarke, Joe Harris, or Billy Higgins; Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones; Gilbert Rovere and Arthur Taylor; even Ruud Jacobs and Han Bennink on a confrontational 1967 performance). Freed from chordal constraints, he explored motifs from every conceivable angle like a cubist painter, coloring phrases with vivid splashes of timbre even at the hottest tempos. It may also explain why it was complex for [Rollins] to retain personnel.

“I’m not like that any more,” he said on WKCR, responding to an observation that he has been famously particular about drummers, to the point of firing individuals, themselves no slouches, a day or two into a week-long gig. Indeed, Rollins now is sufficiently solicitous that, before committing to play publicly with McBride and Haynes, he asked the permission of his working band.

“Whether people appreciate it or not, I am deeply involved with my own group and in trying to get a certain thing happening,” Rollins said. “That is my primary focus.”

Rollins has worked hard to realize this aspiration since he began taking a more populist direction in 1972, after a long hiatus during which he explored Buddhist precepts and learned to meditate. When they’re available, he works consistently with guitarist Bobby Broom, bassist Bob Cranshaw, the versatile trapsetter Steve Jordan, hand drummer Kimati Dinizulu, and— returning to the tenor-trombone front-line format he experienced frequently during his early career with J.J. Johnson and Bennie Green—trombonist Clifton Anderson, his nephew, who works closely with his uncle on business matters.

“Clifton’s role has evolved,” Rollins said. “He’s got a big, beautiful sound, and he knows what to play and where to play it, which I never told him how to do. He just knew how to support me, and what notes to play that would complement my saxophone lines.”

“There are times when I can hear a piano, and other times when I can relate better to a guitar, which is a little less invasive,” he continued. “Bobby is an excellent accompanist for me, because he plays together with the rhythm section and I don’t hear it. If I did hear it, he’d be doing something which would be jarring to me. When I’m soloing, I don’t want to hear anybody. I just want to hear the beat, the groove, the pocket, or whatever way they describe it these days. That’s why I’ve always used Bob Cranshaw on bass, because of his strong foundational beat. With that steady pulse, I’m free to manipulate the time or do abstract improvisations, or anything else I want to do.”


“Playing with Sonny today, I can’t describe the feeling,” Haynes said at Avatar. “We’re talking to each other musically, and I’m feeling this, feeling that, and he’s listening, I’m sure. The idea that we were together earlier in our lives, and we can do that now is precious.”

“There’s very few people from our era who know what that whole thing is about,” Rollins chimed in. “I’ve played with Roy from the beginning of my career. We speak the same language. We understand each other.”

“Mmm,” Haynes agreed. “That is really something. We’re talking, man, and even when it’s silent, there is some shit going on.”

“Oh, yeah,” Rollins said emphatically. “I’m listening CLOSELY.”

“I could feel that,” Haynes said, placing his hand over his heart. “It’s something spiritual that comes from here.”

The veterans first played together in 1948, on a Capitol recording by bop vocalist Babs Gonzalez; the following year with Bud Powell and Fats Navarro on the Blue Note date that produced “Dance of the Infidels,” “Wail” and “Bouncing With Bud”; and on a 1951 Prestige session led by Miles Davis, with John Lewis and Percy Heath.

“I was hearing a lot about Sonny Rollins up on the Hill,” Haynes said. “I didn’t realize that this was the guy who had come by my house with another friend of ours.”

“Lenny Martinez,” Rollins interjected.

“During that period I was either with Luis Russell or Lester Young,” Haynes said.

“You were with Prez when I was coming by your house,” Rollins said. “I saw Roy play at the Apollo with Luis Russell’s band. I asked him a lot about the singer.”

“Lee Richardson,” Haynes states.

“I’ll always remember he made a tremendous impression on me, because he really had a good voice, good pipes.”

“I didn’t know that Sonny was playing an instrument until one night shortly after that visit, when I saw him with an alto at a restaurant on St. Nicholas Avenue where we used to eat after gigs on Saturday night,” Haynes said. “I said, ‘You play saxophone?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I have a little gig.’ There was another guy who played tenor, who walked slew-foot, bandylegs, and didn’t make it. All the time when people said ‘Sonny Rollins,’ I thought this other guy was him.”

“Will the real Sonny Rollins stand up?” joked Rollins. “Right.”

“Right! You stood. I do remember one gig in the late ‘40s where I hired Sonny. It was the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X got finished. They used to have Sunday afternoon gigs there, two o’clock high and all that stuff.”

“People could dance in the back.”

“That’s what was so great about those days.”

“People would be doing the Applejack in there,” said Rollins, referring to the steps that Thelonious Monk, his early mentor, used to do after his own solos.

“Oh, that’s right,” Haynes said. “Especially at Minton’s sometimes, they’d come up when anybody was soloing, and sometimes when a drummer was playing a solo, people could dance to it. Today, man, they’d be crying the blues, complaining.”

Asked if he’d seen Haynes play with Monk, Rollins responded, “I don’t think so.”

“We played together with Monk for a minute at the Five Spot,” Haynes corrected. “I remember one night Monk said to me, ‘Roy Haynes. You play better when you wear that suit. You agreed with him, too. I had a black suit with stripes on.”

Rollins guffawed. “Well, that sounds like Monk. One of Monk’s pronouncements. Monk got the best people he could. But it wasn’t just getting the best. There were only a few people that could cut the gig. Just like today, there’s only a few musicians that can really do the music as it should be done, so these people are at a premium. I mean, there’s only one Roy Haynes.”

He pointed at McBride, seated quietly at the piano, taking in every word. “This gentleman here is a young chap, I’ve just met him, but he’s on his way to becoming a legend and a ‘one-of’ guy. This is the way it is. It’s not like the old days, man, when Roy and I would get on a gig at the 845 Club, and it would be Lucky Thompson and Bud Powell and Fats Navarro and Bennie Green and J.J. Johnson. Things began changing. In a sense, for the better.”


Until September 11, 2001, when he had to give up his pied a terre four blocks from Ground Zero, and decided to live full time in the house in Columbia County in upstate New York that he purchased in the early ‘70s to ensure that he would not have to climb a bridge or enter a park to practice at his leisure, Rollins rehearsed his bands incessantly.

“The type of music that I play, guys need to be able to complement where I’m going, and I do best with that kind of intimacy,” he said. “Now, I’m not Count Basie’s orchestra, who would be making precise hits and like that. We try to get inside the music in a much less industrial way. Everybody has a beat center, and I want to hear where that is for Christian and Roy.”

Towards that end, Rollins had called McBride to work through the tunes 48 hours earlier at a Chelsea rehearsal studio, and the bassist was still on cloud nine.

“I’m sure I’ll create a lot of enemies, people knowing I got to play a whole day of duets with Sonny Rollins,” McBride joked before the photo session. “He was practicing on some sheet music when I walked into the studio, and when I asked what it was, he said, ‘These are just some little patterns and scales that I worked out.’ This is the greatest living improviser, and it’s amazing that he’s never rested on his improvisational genius, that he’s practicing with the same fervor that he did forty and fifty years ago. With any giant or icon, if you jump on the end of the train, you can miss the path that got the person to that level of greatness. For example Sonny does these rhythmic things that are far beyond what seems to be happening with the bass or the drums. There’s playing free, and then there’s playing without any sense of the rhythm or the feel of the tune. A lot of tenor players do THAT. Whereas when Sonny Rollins does that, it comes from a place that’s so grounded and rooted. He sounds way different than he did on Way Out West and Live at the Village Vanguard or East Broadway Rundown. Imagine all those years of growth on top of that, and practicing at this still mega-level of intensity.”

As for Rollins, practice time is less a burden than a lifestyle. “I can’t practice maybe 16 hours, like I used to, but I do whatever I can,” he said. “It’s fun. If I don’t practice for more than three or four days, I begin to get physically ill. I think, ‘Gee, what’s wrong?’ If I practice, bang, I’m back in the stream. It’s my form of meditation, my form of prayer—it’s the whole thing. But playing is something else. You can learn more in two minutes on the stage than from practicing maybe five weeks; in a subliminal way, all these things happen, and you really learn.”

He was also learning that entering the brave new world of self-production carries extra-musical challenges. “I’ve played with Roy from day one, Christian has played with Roy, and we got together easily because we’re trying to do the same thing,” he said. “The challenges have been taking care of the business aspects—worrying about tickets and logistics, and also doing a lot of media. I’ll try to change that if something like this happens again, because it occupies a lot of space in your mind, and takes away from the music part.

“But I’m expecting it to be very exhilarating and rewarding. These people are of a high caliber, and I’m looking forward to hearing some things that I haven’t heard before, and being in the middle of the jazz experience, which is what it’s all about. This is the instant creation. It’s like food to me. This is why jazz is the music of today, tomorrow, and forever, because things are happening right then.”


A rainbow coalition comprising hordes of hardcore fans and more eminent musicians than you could count as the paying customers—as well as an assortment of freeloading critics—turned out for the rare opportunity to hear Rollins return to his interactive, anything-goes-at-any-time style of the ’50s and ’60s. They got exactly what they came for.

From the very beginning of “Sonnymoon For Two,” Rollins developed and resolved several themes simultaneously, breaking the grid, accelerating and decelerating the tempo with sleek lines as long as a rambling freight train, punctuating them with multiphonic honks and long held notes, downloading deeply embedded fragments of musical memory at Pentium speed and interpolating them into the flow. Playing the room magnificently, Haynes tap danced complementary rhythms with his sticks. Facing Haynes directly, with McBride centering the action with impeccable taste and requisite force, Rollins engaged him in a series of exchanges that further developed the themes they had both stated, and provoked more dialogue for another ten minutes or so, until he concluded the journey with one last harmonic abstraction.

With Haynes now wielding mallets, Rollins addressed “Some Enchanted Spring” in the key of A, and bellowed the gorgeous melody like a tenor singer in an operetta, floating gruffly over Haynes’ [richly textured], not quite rubato beats. Upon conclusion, they launched directly into “Moritat,” immediately embarked on improvised dialogue, and sustained the postulations and responses at the highest level for 15 minutes or so; it seemed like they could have gone on all night, but Rollins, aware that [he had another set to play with his band], arbitrarily halted this exemplary demonstration of what an equilateral triangle might sound like in musical form.

That set was another story. While giving his men much rope, Rollins generated sparks on the melody statement of the set-opener, “Sonny, Please,” but blew only perfunctorily on the remaining tunes, “Nu-Nile,” “Biji,” and even “Don’t Stop The Carnival,” on which a mighty dialogue by Steve Jordan and Kimati Dinizulu could not generate further heroics from the leader. Carnegie Hall’s notoriously indifferent jazzcoustics sound didn’t help It was a disappointing, anticlimactic conclusion.

“I was trying, in the back of my mind, to keep track of the time, but had there been no time constrictions I would like to have gone on a little bit with Christian and Roy,” Rollins said a week later, after playing concerts in Portland and Monterrey. “That wouldn’t have happened in a nightclub, which is why people prefer nightclubs to concerts. In the concert we played at Monterrey, I myself played more. We closed out with one of these festive numbers, and the people went crazy, with the girls standing up twirling their torsos around. At Carnegie Hall, with the time factor, I wanted to make sure everybody had a chance to play.”

Rollins’ commitment to his group might discourage him from booking further explorations with the extraordinary trio. But he’s certainly thinking about it.

“I might have to go in a different direction, which would open up some interesting musical vistas, shall we say,” he said. “Things happen with musicians of that caliber. With the drum and the bass, the primacy of the beat didn’t play as big a part. Velocity and volume level is different, and this dictates that the music go in other directions. I have a different role to play.

“When Christian and I played together on the first rehearsal without Roy. I said, ‘Wow, we should do something with just you and I,’ because we were interacting in another way. That is also a possibility sometime in the future, because I heard something with just him and I playing together where we began feeding off of each other. It was very interesting, and portended things to come.”

A fortnight before this conversation, towards the end of his three hours at WKCR, Rollins, who had earlier asked that the monitors be turned down while his music was going over the airwaves, smiled and swayed his shoulders as he and Max Roach threw melodies and rhythms at each other on “Someday I’ll Find You, a Noel Coward song that appears on the B-Side of his classic album, The Freedom Suite, recorded within five weeks of the 1957 Carnegie Hall concert.

“I liked that!” he exclaimed, before realizing he was on mike. He recovered quickly. “This is supposed to be secret. I’m not supposed to enjoy myself, and I usually don’t. I don’t want to give the false impression that I enjoy my own work. The guys that I played with are like redwood trees. I have a high standard to keep up with the people that I’ve been associated with. So I hear my shortcomings when I listen back to myself. Hopefully, too many other people don’t hear them! But I hear them. It’s okay, though. I’m still playing, so there’s still a chance for me to [reach] perfection. As long as I’m still practicing, I have a chance to get closer to my own nirvana, so that’s cool.”


Sonny Rollins DownBeat 75th Anniversary Article (#1):

Several hours into retrospecting on a half-century of Downbeat’s copious coverage of his career, Sonny Rollins paused. “I hope you understand that it’s emotionally jarring to go over your life,” he said.

That qualifier aside, Rollins treated the process with customary thoughtfulness and good-humor, offering blunt self-assessments and keen observations on the changing scene described within the seven articles in question. His comportment brought to mind Joe Goldberg’s remark (“The Further Adventures of Sonny Rollins,” August 26, 1965): “It is almost impossible to talk superficially to Rollins. He examines whatever is under discussion in much the way he examines a short phrase in one of his solos: over and over, inside out and upside down, until he has explored all possibilities.”

Rollins will observe his 79th birthday in September. Even in his Old Master years, a life stage when artists of parallel stature—filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman come to mind—pare down to essences, he continues his efflorescent ways, applying his singular mojo towards imperatives of (as I wrote in Downbeat in 2000) “shaping cogent, poetic musical architecture on the tenor saxophone while navigating the high wire night after night.” In his maturity, as documented on his most recent studio CD, Sonny, Please [Doxy] and the 2006 concert performance documented on the DVD Vienne [Doxy], it seems, as I wrote in 2000, that Rollins has “reached the grail of being able to transmute the most abstract ideas of rhythm and harmony and form into a stream of pure melody, as if you had given Louis Armstrong a saxophone and extrapolated onto his consciousness the last fifty years of jazz vocabulary.”

“It’s like Lionel Hampton,” Rollins joked over the phone. “You’d bring him in the wheelchair, help him up on the bandstand, and BANG, he’s a 20-year-old kid again,. To some degree, it’s like that. Once I start playing, I lose track of the time.”

Over the years, Rollins’ larger-than-life appearance and relentless style belied the notion that self-doubt could ever impede his forward motion. But much of the Downbeat narrative describes a character around whom Bergman might have framed a film—a gifted artist less than fully confident that his abundant talent suffices to satisfy his aspirations, engaging in a continual process of introspection and self-criticism, and, furthermore, possessing the courage to act upon his convictions by removing himself from the public eye during three extended sabbaticals. In short, as Downbeat’s reportage makes clear, the progression of Rollins’ musical production is inseparable from the development of his spiritual life.

How consistently Rollins hewed to his path is clear from a comment that Nat Hentoff places at the end of his 1956 cover story, “Sonny Rollins,” which appeared a mere 11 months after Rollins, already dubbed “saxophone colossus” at 26, had left Chicago, his home during his first self-imposed hiatus. “I was thrown into records without the kind of background I should have had,” he told Hentoff, expressing a concern that his career was developing too fast.. “I’m not satisfied with anything about my playing. I know what I want. I can hear it. But it will take time and study to do it.”

This theme would recur in different variations over the next quarter century, as would several others expressed in Dom Cerulli’s 1958 followup. By then Rollins had already investigated the possibilities of the pianoless tenor trio on Way Out West, Live at the Village Vanguard, and The Freedom Suite, each an enduring classic. He explained this direction as a response to his difficulty in finding band personnel who could fulfill his vision, noting a particular ambivalence about playing with pianists who were not Bud Powell. He also elaborated on the pros and cons of nightclub performance vis-a-vis the concert stage, expressing concern about “setting aside enough time to keep up to his horn” and his “hang-up” with “finding time to rehearse,”

Certainly, Rollins circa 2009 connected to concerns expressed a half-century ago. “Everything here seems like I could write it today.” he stated. Not least is his remark to me in 2000 that “there’s nothing bad about jazz. This is what I picked up then as a kid, and this is the way it is. It’s still so true today.”

Nat Hentoff, Sonny Rollins – Nov. 28, 1956

“Next year I may take some time off, go back to school, and stay away from the scene until I’m completely finished. I’ve continued studying off and on by myself and with teachers. I’ve just started. I’ve just scratched the surface. That’s an honest appraisal of myself, so I don’t dig this being an influence. I’m not trying to put myself down or anything…”
Dom Cerulli, Theodore Walter Rollins: Sonny Believes he Can Accomplish Much More Than He Has To Date – July 10, 1958

“Right now, I feel like I want to get away for a while… I need time to study and finish some things that I started long ago. I never seem to have time to work, practice, and write. Everything becomes secondary to going to work every night.”


“I’m vindicated. I always claimed that my motive for going on the bridge was as I stated, but people said, no, Sonny’s just going on the bridge because of the ferment in the music world, the competition from new people coming to the front, like Ornette and Coltrane. Everything I said in 1956 and 1958, I still speak about. I still practice every day. I still have a vision which I haven’t yet achieved in my improvisations. I mentioned that I always wanted formal music training, which my brother and sister had. I didn’t. I was always trying to catch up on my education.

“This shows my conscience about the clubs, as well. They were great, and I played in them until I was able to realize my ambition. But they were problematical because of the lifestyle—and also I thought that doing concerts would elevate the public perception of jazz.”

BILL COSS, The Return of Sonny Rollins – January 4, 1962:

“A few weeks ago, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins returned to the public jazz world from which he had voluntarily retired two years ago. On his opening night at New York’s Jazz Gallery, the large audience had an unabashed air of expectancy more familiar to a football stadium than a night club… When he…moves toward the bandstand, there is a ripple of sound and movement preceding him, shouted hellos and exhortations. It is reminiscent of a championship fight, as Sonny is reminiscent of a championship fighter… Nowadays he even sounds like ex-heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, advocating clean living, study, lots of exercise. ‘I’ve stopped smoking,’ he says, ‘and cut down on the drinking, and I lift barbells every day.’ Then he begins to play, and he wins every round.”

“In order not to disturb others, he looked long and hard for a deserted enough place to practice while he was retired. ‘Then I discovered the Williamsburg Bridge,’ he said. ‘It’s right near where I live. It’s amazing. Very few people walk along it. Probably most people don’t even know there’s a sidewalk on it. But the ones who did walk there paid very little attention to me. You’re just suspended out there. You feel as if you’re on top of everything, and you can see so far and so much, and so much of it is beautiful. I can blow as hard as I want there and be impressed. It gave me a kind of perspective about music, people, everything, really, that I never had before. Everything began to jell afer that. When I quit, I suppose I had the intention of changing myself drastically, my whole approach to the horn. I realized after awhile that that wasn’t what was needed or what was bothering me. So instead, I began to study what I had been doing, and explored all the possibilities of that. I knew I was beginning to control my horn.”


“In 1956, I moved to 400 Grand Street, between Clinton and Norfolk, a block below Delancey Street. I was walking on Delancey Street (do you remember the film Crossing Delancey?), shopping in that area, and I looked up and saw the steps leading up to the bridge, and sort of thought about it, ‘Gee, where does that go?’ I walked up there and said, ‘Wow, that’s it.’ There was my place to practice.”

“I didn’t do any performances during those years, although I did go out a couple of times to clubs. I went to see Coltrane at the Jazz Gallery. Steve Lacy had a loft on the Bowery, and I might have gone there. I heard Ornette at the Five Spot when they first came to town. I met Ornette and Don Cherry and Billy Higgins when I went to California for the first time, in March 1957, at the time I did Way Out West. I hadn’t known them before. They all came out, and we got tight and practiced together. After I began to want to change the Bridge group, I remembered their playing and called Don and Billy.”

“Opening night was rough. There was so much hoopla, so much press buildup that I was doomed to fail. But I had to do it. Like Bill wrote, I was fighting like I always do—trying to get something happening.”

Joe Goldberg: The Further Adventures of Sonny Rollins –August 26, 1965

“Rollins showed up to take me to his home. He was wearing blue jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap, was smoking a cigar and driving an Impala. He negotiated the heavy traffic with the ease of the cabdriver he once was. He lives in a Brooklyn apartment near Pratt Institute with his wife, Lucille, and two German shepherds named Major and Minor. The decor consists of paintings by the Detroit painter known as Prophet and souvenirs from overseas trips. The music on the phonograph ranged from old Basie records with Lester Young through Indian and Japanese music to operatic arias.”

“‘The average Joe,’ he said, ‘knows just as much as I do—he knows more than I do. I’m the average Joe, and I think people recognize that.”


“I never actually drove a cab. That might have been a little exaggeration. A job was offered to me, but I never did consummate the act, if I can put it that way.

“I really had it together. My wife Lucille, and two German Shepherds named Major and Minor. A Chevy Impala. Nice paintings on the wall. It was a nice, big apartment. I didn’t look like I was suffering any.”

“ I think ‘average Joe’ is an exalted term. To me, it’s really Everyman. What I meant is that the audience is pretty savvy and not to be downplayed. They know what’s happening. The audience pays their money, and it’s up to me to give them what they paid for. If I have a night when I am more or less satisfied with my work at any particular concert performance, the audience is satisfied. Now, there are some nights when I am not satisfied, but the audience may still be satisfied to some degree. That’s ok, because I am always my worst critic.


“Rollins said he never particularly wanted to be a leader, that he would have been content to remain a sideman with none of the non-musical worries and responsibilities that go along with leading and stardom. ‘You’d be surprised how many very famous people told me not to become a leader, you’d be surprised if I called their names.’”


“I’d give a yes and no to that remark. In the kind of music we play, where everybody is extemporizing and has their platform, you have an advantage over the leader. A sideman can play great or not so great, without responsibility. A leader has to play great all the time. On the other hand, everybody has enough ego to want their name in lights. Furthermore, the fact that you devote your life to creating this music and want acceptance for creating something personal is also a big ego trip—hopefully in a less negative sense. I believe some of my religious teachings that we have to be very careful about the ego, so I try to be careful of THAT. See, I don’t want to be just be playing for vanity. That would be a worthless life. I’m trying to get to somewhere musically, and create some music that I think I hear every now and then. I’m trying to get to that place.”
IRA GITLER, Sonny Rollins: Music is an Open Sky – May 29, 1969

“Rollins had played a very short set, and then emphatically gestured that the curtains be closed. The audience, stunned for a moment, instigated a concerted clamor, and after a few minutes Rollins reappeared, saxophone in hand. His fans, eager to showcase affection on him and listen to more of his music, began calling out their favorite selections. Sonny, at odds with himself and his adulators, responded with halting words of explanation and then played snatches of various standards and an abortive calypso. It must be said that he made an effort, but a lot of disgruntled people left Town Hall that night.”

“…after the concert…at the Village Vanguard, he exhibited that staggering brand of gigantic tenor that makes you feel as if you are the instrument being played. The music does more than surround you with grandeur; it gets into your circulatory system and courses through your body.”

Rollins’ response:

“This is what makes Sonny Rollins’ career so…well, interesting or so different. Once I got a name, everything I did wasn’t a success. I had a lot of unsuccessful concerts, like this one, which was a big venue, Town Hall. I had to regroup and come back. Most people, once they’ve made it, then it’s all staying on that level, or going uphill. But Sonny Rollins was, ‘Oh yeah, Sonny Rollins, terrible concert; gee, how can he recover?’ Then ‘oh yeah, good concert.’ I can create a scenario of what happened on the concerts that were not successful. Technical matters probably played a big part—preparation time, interaction with certain other members. But in exceptional times, I can overcome a lot of things.”


“Constant shifts in personnel has become the expected pattern within Rollins’ groups. Players come and go like guests in a hotel for transients… ‘There are a lot of guys I can work with, and who can work with me,’ he said, ‘but until I get a steady itinerary and offer steady work…’ Why doesn’t a major figure like Rollins work more frequently? In the past, he has chosen to take sabbaticals of varying length, for reasons ranging from dissatisfaction with himself to disenchantment with the jazz scene. One factor these days is salary. Rollins has spent many years to reach his high plateau of artistry, and feels that this entitles him to a certain basic compensation…”

“The saxophonist began studying yoga on a formal basis when he went to Japan in 1963. During the next five years he maintained contact with his teacher, Master Oki, and with the Yoga Institute of Japan. When he returned at the beginning of 1968, he visited temples and shrines and spent time at his teacher’s school in Mishima, near Mt. Fuji. ‘The atmosphere creates an attitude for meditation,’ Rollins said. ‘There is a feeling of peace. Some of the students were jazz fans.’ The Japanese experience led him to India and an ashram—“a religious colony of Hindu monks and women, yoginis”—on Powaii Lake, about an hour’s travel from Bombay… He meditated and took courses in Vedanta philosophy.”

Rollins’ response:

“Business problems certainly would be part of my Sonny Rollins story. I felt always that jazz musicians not only should be appreciated more, they should be paid better. I certainly expressed that, and maybe Ira was right that I was pricing myself out—he might have been close to some of these club-owners, so they may have confided that to him. I consider myself an open sky, and I am open to all kinds of stuff; I’m not a moldy fig, so I felt a fairly substantial amount of interest in everything that was going on, especially Miles—I’d played with Miles. The business was fracturing around that time. A lot of other influences were coming in, and mainstream jazz (if I can put myself in that category) was not getting accepted. Well, it was never accepted, which meant things were even worse for jazz musicians. Everybody knows how the music business is.

“When I first came out on my own, I worked for Joe Glaser, from Associated Booking, and he had an agent handling me who had also worked for boxers in the fight game. He told me, ‘Sonny, I’ve been an agent in the fight game, I’ve been an agent in the music game. The music business is worse.’ So those were the conditions that we had to work under, and I was getting disillusioned with it. Somebody else might feel, ‘This is just the way jazz is.’ Well, I might take it a little more seriously than other people, and want to fight back. I felt that my name would give me the wherewithal to do something. Also, I was getting more and more deeply into my spiritual quests. So that was a perfect time for me to get to India. I’d been there already, because I had been studying a lot of yoga books, and I wanted to see if I could get involved with the schools of some the people I was reading about. Paramhansa Yogananda’s wonderful book, Autobiography of a Yogi, really touched me (I still have an original copy in my library), but he had passed on. But there were other people. Spirituality and music are very close together, and it’s sort of looking for more of a meaning out of life.

Gordon Kopulos: Needed Now: Sonny Rollins – June 24, 1971

“With just two or three other living tenor players, Rollins shares the distinction of having an original tone. It is deep, strong and full-throated, even in the upper register. In the lower ranges, it is reminiscent of Coleman Hawkins, and occasionally in the middle octave he calls Ben Webster to mind. His tone is certainly not without its influences, but the way he twists or bends about every third note sets him apart from everyone else in the known universe. His tone is breathy at times, too, particularly on ballads… Though the full tone isn’t exactly popular, traces of the Rollins approach are discernible in some contemporary saxophonists: Archie Shepp, for instance. Pharaoh Sanders, too, has recently displayed a tone much fuller than the one he was using with Coltrane… [Rollins’] contribution consists of much more than just this, though. Rhythmic innovators in jazz can be counted on two hands with fingers to spare. Rollins is one of those who must be counted… His use of space is possibly the greatest imaginable object-lesson in how to make the absence of sound create rhythmic and melodic tension… Even if Rollins decided to hereafter play only straight melody, he would still be a creative jazz musician. Because by the time a melody has undergone his singular treatment of singing tone and organismic rhythm, it is infused with a vitality that renders it a new thing… Rollins’ experiments in harmony helped to clear the trees for the present harmonic daring of the avant-garde.”
Rollins’ response:

“So far, I like this one the best. Some of the things he’s saying in there are not conventional wisdom. I think he’s very prescient and right-on.

“My sense of time is probably unique to me. The things he says about my tone could have been written any time; I’ve been working on my sound all the time. I really got into harmonics through studying Sigurd Raschèr’s book, Top Tones For Saxophone. He’d demonstrate with a saxophone that had no keys, and would play all these notes to demonstrate the way the harmonics fell in. I wasn’t working so much with multiphonics, which is a term used more by guys who created fingerings that allow them to play two tones at one time. That was a worthy technique, except you couldn’t really control the volume. But I was working on breathing and embouchure to play the natural harmonics, playing two notes at once, to increase the vocabulary of the instrument, and enhance my own expressiveness.

“There is something avant-gardish about my playing, even though people might think of me in terms of Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins, or more conventional playing terms like bop, hardbop, and so on. Ornette put out a record on tenor, and everyone said, ‘Gee, that sounds like Sonny Rollins.’ People look back and say, ‘Well, he played like this in 1948, and then he played like this in 1953, and he played like this in 1965.’ Well, I have to accept the fact of my history in music. It’s on record…if you’ll excuse the pun. Somebody might hear me today, and say, ‘Oh, Sonny’s gone back and he’s playing tunes again.’ Which is ok. Yes, I was playing tunes at that time. But I’m not going to play the way I did in 1948 or 1965. I don’t like to be caged. I might feel like playing tunes, but then at another moment I might not.. There’s a lot of things on my mind. I need to learn and increase my arsenal of things to do. Performance is when you get a chance to go through the attic, and I can’t perform as much as I’d require to really stretch out and do all the different things I want to do.”
Tam Fiofori, “Reentry: The New Orbit of Sonny Rollins,” October 24, 1971

Q: What were the influences responsible for your playing tunes like St. Thomas and Brownskin Girl?

SR: My mother is from the Virgin Islands, and when I was fairly small I remember going to dances with her and listening to some of this type of music—Brownskin Girl, St. Thomas and calypso things. Of course, when I got into playing jazz they were not thought of as being jazz music, and a lot of people would even try to make a big separation, and I did, too. I didn’t actually begin my jazz career playing those types of songs. I just began to really incorporate that at a later stage. But the fact that I had heard a lot of them as a child made it so that I was able to play them particularly well. Then I felt that it was good if I could play them and people liked them, and it was something I could do in a natural way and it proved to be a sort of a trademark. Then again I’ve heard some African music which is I think somewhat similar to calypso in a way…some of the music they call Highlife… I think a lot of [calypso] and [Bossa Nova] and [rock] rhythms are being used a great deal more, which is good.

Rollins’ response:

“I would say that it’s unfortunate for Sonny Rollins that I made such a searing impression when I came out on the scene, like that was me. Because that’s not me. I’m a very eclectic player. I’m open to a lot of things. Music is an open sky—back to that again. My first guy that I liked when I started playing was Louis Jordan, a real rhythm-and-blues man. I’m a little like Dizzy. I’m serious, but my music is… Dizzy did a lot of things like, “Who Stole My Wife, You Horse-Thief” and so on. I tend to go that way sometimes, and I don’t feel that it diminishes anything else I did, just like it didn’t diminish when Dizzy was playing ‘Groovin’ High.’ So in the period after that article, I might have gone that way, but that was part of me. I didn’t decide to do anything that was antithetical to what I believed in. I’m not a good enough musician to do that. My playing is too natural. If I play some kind of way, it’s got to be that I have a deep feeling about it.

“In the ‘50s and ‘60s I was talking about needing to get away from music for different reasons. Well, during the ‘70s I moved out of the city. I got the place where I live now, where I could practice more or less whenever I wanted to, away from the madding crowd. So I was able to stay ‘active’ and still have the chance to meditate and do the things that I needed to do, but couldn’t do in the ‘60s because I was right in the middle of everything, and had a lot of pressures and so forth. Lucille and I made it so that we didn’t overwork. The booking agency used to call my wife ‘Mrs. No.’ We wouldn’t work that much. We’d only take things that we thought were really good in many respects. That’s probably why I haven’t felt the need to take sabbaticals away from the music scene.


Q: Do you think that the music has by now severed most of its ties with Western music other than environmental ones?

SR: “There’s nothing Western about the way I play in the least. The only Western thing is that I play some Western songs.”

Rollins’ response:

“Of course today these guys can probably write down what I do. But the point is well-taken. I’d say the same thing now.

“I think I’m like a diamond in the rough. That’s what George Avakian used to call me. I’m a very rough player. I’m not a polished player, although I’m trying to be—but I’m not. That’s why Fiofori probably had an affinity to what I was doing, because he’s from a Third World African country, and he heard something in my playing, besides some of these calypsos, which probably was reminiscent of that way of playing.”

Bob Blumenthal, Sonny Rollins Interview – May 1982

BB: I hear you’re producing your next album.

SR: I have been thinking about producing for a long time. I was listening to Roberta Flack talk one night, and what she described was similar to me. She was actually producing her own albums; she was selecting the material, picking the people. What I haven’t been doing is talk to the people on the date about money and various arrangements. The rest is something I think I should be doing—it just means more control over what you do. It’s a logical conclusion to end up producing your own things. It’s more responsibility that I should be handling myself.

Rollins’ Response:

“I began to trust my wife’s judgment, which helped me move more or less seamlessly into that side of the business. I was able to listen to her a little bit, and, ‘ok, I won’t get angry if you pick out what you think is the best of what you’ve heard.’ I’d listen at the end, and if it wasn’t intolerable, we’d let it go.”


BB: It has become a cliche that Rollins albums don’t capture the spark of Rollins in live performance. Does this mean anything to you as a player-producer?

SR: I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve got to concentrate more on making a studio date have a certain pizzazz, a zing to it that performances would have by virtue of the people and I interacting. That’s something I’ll deal with this time. It’s also a psychological thing on my part, about going into a studio and playing as much like I usually play as possible.

Rollins’ Response:

“I’ve thought about this a lot. When I first started recording in the ‘40s, I’d go into the studio, say, with J.J. Johnson and do two takes. There wasn’t any chance to do it over. As time progressed and the possibility of overdubbing arose, I began to think, ‘Gee, maybe it can come out better.’ That had a big influence on why it became more difficult as the years went on. I’ve gotten past that self-doubt; I don’t feel I have to overdub everything. I’m more confident that what I play is the best that I can do at that time, and I won’t feel the need to do one take after another. Of course, live, you don’t have to worry about doing take after take; hence, my live stuff always gets more acclaim.”
Bob Belden, Sonny Rollins: The Man – August 1997

“…when I found out about Coleman Hawkins, I was attracted, I think, to his sound, and then it just seemed like he knew so much music. Just his mental thing and intellectual approach really got to me. Coleman had harmony down to a high art… Hawkins is the one that gave me the sense that this is something beyond even the feel-goodness of music. Not that there’s anything wrong with the feeling-good aspect of music.”

Rollins’ Response

“Music is so fluid. I practiced today, and things came to me that didn’t come to me yesterday. But I am deeply embedded in my roots. Coleman Hawkins, Louis Jordan, Lester Young, all these people that I’ve heard. People I’ve played with. Coltrane. Bird, of course. So yeah, I think I’m close to those people. Sometimes, in soundchecks, I’ll play like Don Byas. This is rudimentary for me to get my chops up. Everything I do is involved in what I’m doing now, and I’m not trying to play like Coleman Hawkins. I don’t consciously think too much about these people unless I’m listening to something by them. But I’m sure the fact that I knew Coleman Hawkins and have tried to play like him, is involved in everything I do. I did a seminar with Gary Giddins last year, and a young guy asked me what I think about the jazz of today. I remarked that…which I thought about later; it wasn’t a complete enough answer…but it may have been… I said that as long as whoever is playing this music thinks about Lester Young in what they’re doing, I would give it my seal of approval.”

John McDonough, September 2005

“Sonny Rollins finds himself on yet another bridge these days. On September 7th he turns 75, and within the last year his wife, Lucille, died. The two had been married for about 40 years.”

“‘I’ve been suffering from an overload,” Rollins says in a husky, hoarse voice, apologizing for being late for this interview. “I lost my wife, and she did most of these things. I’ve been completely swamped with interviews, appointments, taxes. I don’t like to operate like that. When a time is set, it’s not my usual method of operation to be late.”

Rollins’ Response:

“I’ve always been a guy who’s stood out, who’s pretty much been my own man. At this age, it’s better for me to keep everything more compartmentalized, and reduce the things that I have to do so I can just concentrate on my music. I can only practice about two hours a day now. I have a group of people that I feel fairly comfortable working with; it’s somewhat of a loose family, and it makes life a little bit easier. But I still have to oversee everything. I can’t not be involved, like I was when my wife was with me and I could live like a baron and just go out to the studio and play all day.

“You never want to get too accustomed to any other person. We’re born alone and we have to leave the planet alone. So it’s a matter of adjusting to life’s different knocks. I’m able to deal with things a lot easier now than four years ago. I never feel that the burden is too heavy. Obviously, I’m in a very privileged position. I don’t live like a baron now. But I’m making my own statements and doing what I want to do.”


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