For the 79th Birth Anniversary of Lester Bowie, Transcripts of Two Musician Show Shows on WKCR in 1994 and 1998

During my 23 years as a host on WKCR, I had the honor of hosting trumpeter Lester Bowie on several occasions, including separate in-studio interviews with him and Art Ensemble of Chicago bandmates Malachi Favors and Lester Bowie, which I first posted in 2011. (https://tedpanken.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/a-wkcr-interview-with-lester-bowie-r-i-p-and-don-moye-and-lester-and-malachi-favors-on-lesters-70th-birthday/)

Here for the first time I’m posting the proceedings of WKCR Musician Shows that I did with Lester in 1994 and 1998, respectively.

Lester Bowie – Musician Show, WKCR, May 18, 1994:

[MUSIC: Lester Bowie, “Rope A Dope”-1975; Brass Fantasy, “Da Butt”; Brass Fantasy, “For Louis (by Philip Wilson)]”; Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Charlie M”]

TP: With me in the studio after an arduous… It seems to be a tough day for interborough traffic. How are you doing.

LB: Doing pretty good.

TP: When we were discussing the show, you gave me a long list. We’ll start with a pairing that seems as unexpected as you might hear at a Brass Fantasy concert — Bullmoose Jackson and Kenny Dorham. Bullmoose Jackson “Sneaky Pete” with Lucky Millinder, 1947.

LB: Bullmoose Jackson was kind of the music I listened to as I was growing up. I listened to a lot of R&B. Kenny Dorham represents the record that really turned me into jazz. That one, the record you’ll hear after “Sneaky Pete,” is the one record that really made me want to be a jazz musician. “Sneaky Pete” is sort of my background. This is what I came up hearing in the house.

TP: You said your mother liked this.

LB: My mother liked “Sneaky Pete.” She liked Bullmoose Jackson.

TP: You had a lot of rhythm-and-blues 78s in the house.

LB: A lot of 78s in the house. A lot of all kinds. We had Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Earl Bostic, a lot of that…

TP: Your father was a band director. Did he know the musicians? Did you get to meet them as a kid when they’d come through St. Louis?

LB: No. Actually my father wasn’t a jazz musician. He was a classical musician. He was a guy who would have been with one of the symphonies, had there been Blacks being hired or had there been some Black symphonies.

TP: What was his instrument?

LB: His instrument was trumpet, and he taught high school bands. He was a high school band director for 30 years in St. Louis.

TP: Was he your teacher on the trumpet?

LB: He was my first teacher, of course.

TP: How old were you?

LB: You know, the first time somebody asked me that, the first time I did an interview, I didn’t know. So I had to call my Daddy! I had to call back home, “Hey, when did I start playing?” Because I don’t remember. So he said he was giving me the mouthpiece in the crib. So we just the official age at 5, because he said I’ve been playing longer… I have no knowledge. I don’t even remember picking up the trumpet.

TP: So you don’t remember a time when you weren’t playing trumpet?

LB: No, I don’t remember any time when I wasn’t playing trumpet.

[MUSIC: Bullmoose Jackson, “Sneaky Pete”-1947; KD & Jazz Messengers, “Soft Winds”-1955]

TP: That Kenny Dorham solo on “Soft Winds” inspired Lester Bowie.

LB: That was a great period. We wanted to look like Art Blakey. We used to go around trying to look like the Jazz Messengers and everything. It was a great period.

TP: By “we” you’re talking about you and some like-minded teenagers in St. Louis in the 1950s, I take it.

LB: Yes. John Hicks and Oliver Lake and Philip Wilson and I were all in high school together, along with guys like Dick Gregory and Grace Bumphrey. We were really into that sort of sound in the 50s. We were all teenagers in the 50s. So that was the thing that was really hip.

TP: What did that sound mean to you at the time?

LB: It just meant something hip. Art Blakey and them were HIP. You dig? They had their thing, and it was just hip…and that means whatever that means. That was happening. They were hip. The people who were into that sort of thing were hip. Everything involved with that whole Art Blakey bag was hip.

TP: At this point were you trying to play this music? Did you have teenage bands? Were you working this stuff out?

LB: Actually, that’s why I chose this next selection. We always wanted to be jazz musicians. But at the time, in the 50s, I didn’t think it was possible. Everything was against me trying to be a musician. We weren’t encouraged to be professional musicians. Even though I had been a professional since 1955, I didn’t believe that I was going to be one for the rest of my life. So Art Blakey was sort of a dream. We wanted to be like that. That dream continued for many years afterwards. We wanted to play jazz, but the reality was that if we wanted to be around later to play jazz, we had to learn how to become professional musicians, and in doing that… The reality of the life of the music is what’s coming up next. This is Little Milton’s band. I think it was me playing, either me or Paul Serrano. I’ve played this solo so many times, I do believe it’s me.

TP: Was this from the 1960s?

LB: Yes, it must be early 60s, 1963 maybe, or 1962?

TP: When did you start going between St. Louis and Chicago? What were some of your early gigs as a trumpeter, “within the reality of the life in music,” as you say?

LB: I used to go down to Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Texas, with Little Milton.

TP: How did he hook up with you?

LB: Well, Little Milton was in St. Louis. St. Louis had a quite active blues scene. Albert King was there. Oliver Sain was the other… These were the three big bands, and there were other smaller bands. Ike Turner was there. So there were a lot of gigs, Ike and Tina and… Just a lot of gigs around town for musicians. And all the jazz cats worked with these bands. Albert King, you should have heard his band before Albert came out. Man, Albert King’s band was smoking. “Cooking at the Continental.” All of this Art Blakey wannabe song thing we were doing as blues musicians. But we were doing blues gigs.

TP: I guess that was the case for a lot of R&B bands in the 50s. Ray Charles had David Fathead Newman, Marcus Belgrave, Ed Blackwell…

LB: Well, you had to learn that first. When students ask me, “How do you become a jazz musician?” I say, “The first thing you’ve got to become is a pro and learn how to feed yourself with the instrument,” and then in doing that I was doing a lot of blues.

TP: So, “We’re Going To Make It” featuring Lester Bowie’s first recorded solo?

LB: I don’t know if it’s the first. But it’s an early one, believe me.

[Little Milton, “We’re Going To Make It”]

TP: Lester now thinks it may have been another tune by Little Milton that he took that solo on.

LB: It was something on that album, but I forget which one. We used to play it all the time. It’s representative. There used to be fights actually every night. We would do that tune last. By then everyone was drunk, and they’d say, “Well, we ain’t got a cent to pay the rent, but we gonna make it,” and the shooting would start. It would start with that one.

TP: A provocation.

LB: Yes, it was very emotional.

TP: Was Little Milton working a lot? One night stands or week-long gigs?

LB: no, we only did one night stands. We played in the South. Most of the winter we played Mississippi and Tennessee and Alabama and Georgia, Florida, and during the summer months we’d do more Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, northern Arkansas, places like that.

TP: was Little Milton the only band, or were you hooked up with Oliver Sain as well?

LB: Actually I was with Little Milton for a while. Oliver Sain was with Little Milton. Then Oliver Sain and Fontella, who was my first wife… I met her with Little Milton initially. They developed a band, the Oliver Sain Revue, and I went with them. Albert King was another band I was playing off and on with a lot.

TP: All the top St. Louis blues bands. What would you say your experiences in those bands meant to you in your later development as an improviser on the trumpet?

LB: I learned how to vamp my ass off! Boy, I know a lot of vamps. But actually, I learned a lot about show business, mostly about show business, and a lot about trumpet technically as far as playing for a long period of time. Like I said, those vamps, sometimes…like the end of that one we just played, “We’re Gonna Make It,” that might go on for 20 minutes. 20 minutes of doing that. So I really learned a lot about pacing, and I learned a lot about show business, both in the blues circuit and on the carnival, circus type thing.

TP: Did Little Milton was play the carnival circuit?

LB: We didn’t play those gigs. That was another circuit. There used to be some Negro revues. There was the Silas Green revue…

TP: That goes back a long ways, to the 1920s and early 1930s…

LB: Yes. I was with Leon Claxton. Leon Claxton had a Harlem and Havana Revue.

TP: What was the nature of that type of gig? What you’re talking about is a shared experience that a lot of black musicians went through before you in their formative years.

LB: I was really lucky. I came in at the tail end of a lot. The cats were really very nice to each other. We had a lot of communication between musicians. When I first came to New York, I was hanging out with Kenny Dorham and Blue Mitchell, Johnny Coles. The tail end of that whole chitlin’ circuit. I was very fortunate to come along at the very end of segregation. You see, in 1955 I was almost 15 years old. So I was right at the end of segregation and the whole chitlin’ circuit. I got to play the Apollo and the Royal Theater… It was a great time.

TP: The black hotels.

LB: All the hotels. All that sort of thing, yes. The circus, like I said, was a traveling road-show. We traveled all over the Midwest, the upper Midwest, and up into Canada.

TP: Was that one of your earlier gigs out of high school?

LB: When I was in high school I had a band, and we played a lot of parties and dances and radio shows and things like that when I was in high school. After I got out of high school, I went into the military, and in the military I started playing with blues bands a lot. Then after I got out of the military of course I continued…

TP: In the military, did you also do Army marching bands and stuff?

LB: no-no. I was a policeman.

TP: You were a policeman. Amiable cop.

LB: I’ll tell you what happened. When I got in the Service, the guy said there were no openings in the band. He said I could be in the bugle corps. But I had come up… I guess I’d been in concert bands, and I didn’t think bugle corps were that hip, so I didn’t want to be in the bugle corps. So I had the choice of being in the bugle corps, a radio operator, or a policeman. So I went for the one that carried the gun. That was the policeman. Sounded like fun to me?

TP: Did you ever have to use it?

LB: No, I never had to use it. Well, actually I was on a pistol team for two years. I was a pretty good shot. But I never got to shoot anyone.

TP: St. Louis, of course, is a city with a rich trumpet tradition, a tradition of brass instruments and teachers of brass instruments, and the trumpet players who came out of there are legion, from Dewey Jackson and Charlie Creath to Clark Terry and Miles Davis (from East St. Louis). Were you very aware of this tradition coming up in St. Louis?

LB: Well, you knew there were a lot of bad cats around that played, some really excellent musicians. You really had to have kind of an individual style. You had to be able to play a common language of tunes, but you had to have an individual style after that. You had to have your own sound to really be respected in St. Louis. There was a very diverse trumpet style. So we were very aware of that. We were aware of guys like Clark Terry who just come in and kill everybody. There were so many stories about Clark and about Miles as we were coming up that were just fantastic.

TP: Since we just spoke about Miles Davis, let’s play his “Bye, Bye Blackbird” from the 50s.

LB: Miles probably made more impact on me than anyone. I not only had a lot of respect for Miles’ playing, but just his whole ATTITUDE, the way he looked. I remember I saw this ad with My Funny Valentine, that polka-dot tie he had on… I went out and bought me a tie. As soon as I saw the album, I got me a tie just like that to wear to the gig that night. I was really into Miles.

I always say Kenny Dorham is what really turned me out into jazz, and his influence really turned me out to be a jazz musician, but Miles’ influence really made me an original. The things that I learned from him and through his music really made me want to become my own voice and really showed me how to become my own voice.


[Miles Davis Quintet, “Bye Bye Blackbird”-1956; Clifford Brown-Max, “Donna Lee”-1956]

TP: That’s Clifford Brown on what might have been his last public performance…

LB: Oh, it’s that one. Oh.

TP: That’s from Philadelphia, the night before they drove to Chicago and crashed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. From The Beginning and the End, Columbia Records. [ETC.]


LB: Clifford’s articulation and his sense of time and his sense of melody… I guess his everything was just fantastic. If he had lived, there’s no telling what might have happened.

TP: We’ll now hear something from a forthcoming release by one of the many groups Lester works with. One thing I admire very much about Lester Bowie is your ability to keep 4-5 projects going almost simultaneously, which a professional — as you implied — has to do in contemporary music. We have the Leaders, Brass Fantasy, the Organ ensemble, various improvisational projects, the Art Ensemble of Chicago of course. Say a bit about the Leaders.

LB: The Leaders is a group that’s basically an extension of the bag that we’re playing just now. This is our impression of the Miles Davis and the Clifford Brown and the John Coltrane. This is our interpretation. Of course, we can’t do it like they did it. We don’t try to. What we try to do is to add how we relate to this idiom and update it.

TP: One thing that’s interesting about the band is that all the musicians, as befits the name “Leaders,” have worked in many different areas. How does the material get selected? Is there a musical director? Is it a collaborative situation?

LB: No, we don’t have a director. We just bring in music. Guys bring in music, we play it, we like it, and we just play it. Because the Leaders is the kind of group that you can trust damn near anything anyone does. If Kirk Lightsey brings in a song, it’s going to be a good song, and it’s going to be played well because we’ve got the people to play it well. So we don’t have too much of a problem selecting music. It’s just about getting some gigs!

This is a piece by Cecil McBee, who is one of the great unsung composers of our time. There are so many musicians who have so much talent that just isn’t heard, and Cecil is one musician who’s one hell of a writer. This tune is called “Slipping and Sliding.” It’s a real slow blues.

[The Leaders-“Slipping and Sliding”;

TP: Some material that anyone outside your inner circle hasn’t heard befor.

LB: They haven’t heard it. That was at the Winter Olympics this last year in Norway, and that was a concert that featured my quartet, which consisted of Amina Claudine Myers, Famoudou Don Moye and David Peaston, the vocalist you just heard; the Brass Brothers, which is a Norwegian brass band; and also a 65-piece choir. Singing is in David’s blood. He’s my first wife’s youngest brother. He’s Fontella Bass’ youngest brother. He’s the son of Martha Bass. So he’s been a great singer since he was a kid. I’ve been knowing him since he was 5 or 6 years old, and he was always a great singer.

TP: The Leaders hasn’t done a New York gig now for two years now, something like that.

LB: No one has asked us. We always play when we’re asked, but we’re not often asked to play.

TP: Speaking of the Leaders and the group we just heard, Lester became famous throughout the world as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, whose way of living, whose way of carrying themselves musically really served as an inspiration for several generations of musicians. In this next section, we’ll explore the antecedents of the Art Ensemble. We’ll hear music by Albert Ayler and Don Cherry, and the music of the “avant-garde” of the early 1960s. What was your exposure to that? When did you first hear Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Ayler, and so on?

LB: I started hearing about Ornette when I went to North Texas State, which was in 1961 or 1962. This was after the Army. That record he made in 1959 I started to hear in the early 60s. Just to say a word about Don Cherry: He is another one of the unsung heroes of the trumpet. Don has probably got more music in his big toe than most people have throughout their entire careers. He’s a consummate musician. He is music. He is a very musical person. And his style opened up not only myself but a whole generation of other players. He was the cat after Miles, the guy who came up with something different to say after Miles had said what he had to say.

TP: You responded to him right away? It immediately hit with you?

LB: At first, no. “What is this? This cat can’t play.” But then again, I said the same thing about Miles when I first heard Miles. “Oh, man, what is this? What kind of tone is that?” Then upon closer examination, and me maturing myself, I realized what happened. Same thing with Don. I think I first heard Don when I saw him. He came to St. Louis with Sonny Rollins. Then when I saw him, I got a good appreciation for him. Then I went back and listened some more, and it really opened me up. It just opened up all the possibilities of what could happen.

TP: You came to Chicago in 1965-66.

LB: I came to Chicago in 1965, after the Watts Riots.

TP: But apart from the AACM, there was a community of like-minded musicians in St. Louis. Were you linking up with them? Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake…

LB: As I said, I was in high school with Oliver. A lot of us were hanging around…we were the St. Louis bunch. Floyd LeFlore, Philip Wilson, John Hicks, Jerome Harris, Leonard Smith…a lot of musicians who were together. These musicians were later to become B.A.G., the Black Artists Group, just as in Chicago the Muhal Richard Abrams Experimental Band, which started in 1961, was later to become the AACM. Well, B.A.G., upon seeing what we were doing in Chicago, formed an organization which was very similar.

TP: Were these musicians inspired by the same… Were you pushing the envelope?

LB: We’d been pushing the envelope for a long time, even before that. We’d been pushing the envelope really all the time we were playing. What you play as to what you work is one thing, but what you did for fun… Hemphill and I and Oliver, we used to go out in the park and just play. This is long before I came to Chicago. We would go out and play. I first met Hemphill at Lincoln University in Missouri. We were playing some pretty advanced things then. We were always trying to play these sort of things, because we were pretty up to date, because the tradition that we grew up with was that you had to be up to date. You had to be able to say something different. It wasn’t enough just to be able to say something, even if you said it nearly as well as someone else did; you had to really be saying different to get some real respect. So we were always looking for other things. And once we found what they were doing in Chicago, it kind of confirmed the feelings we’d had all the time — Oh yeah, we’re not the only ones.

TP: When did you first find out about that?

LB: When I found out about the guys in Chicago… I moved to Chicago in 1965, and I did mostly studio work — jingles and blues sessions and a lot of bootleg R&B sessions. But I was getting kind of bored. I played with big bands, dance band type things and situations. A guy named Delbert Hill took me by Muhal’s rehearsal. And when I walked in that room and saw, like, about 25 of the weirdest cats you can imagine in one room, I thought, “This must be home.” Muhal told me to take a solo, and I took a solo, and everybody took my number. By the time I got back home, the phone was ringing. It was Roscoe. “Do you want to start a band?”

TP: What was your first experience with Roscoe Mitchell like?

LB: It was great. The first time we played this tune, “Afternoon In Paris.” I just remember how well Roscoe played this tune, but it was different! He played it really differently but really hip, but in a completely different way. He had all the changes and everything, but just a different way. So immediately I got a lot of respect for what they were trying to do. Because all these guys were really good musicians. They all had some different things happening.

TP: Let’s talk about the AACM from, say, 1966 to 1969, when the Art Ensemble packed up, went to Europe, and established itself. Were you playing primarily with Roscoe Mitchell? A lot of people in the AACM?

LB: I was playing with Roscoe. That was the base group. But I was also playing with the Experimental Band, and we were playing in a lot of different combinations. At one time, the AACM…we were putting on concerts every night, 6 nights a week. We were also doing festivals where we had other groups come in. We were doing festivals that would last 2 or 3 days — really like long festivals. We had one that was 72 hours long; I mean continuously 72 hours. So we were doing a lot of advanced musical concepts in a lot of different combinations. I played with Braxton, with Kalaparusha, with Muhal, in just about every combination possible. Because we wanted to play, so we got us a place and we presented ourselves 6 nights a week. There was so much music that was lost, it was unbelievable.

TP: It was an incredibly fertile. One of the principles was that everybody had to bring in new music, original music, creative music.

LB: Right. That was part of the requirements of being in the AACM, is to be a creative musician. That’s what it was about. It was an association for the advancement of creative musicians.

TP: But most of the musicians were doing other things professionally, as you were in the studio, or Ajaramu with Gene Ammons, or Muhal with Eddie Harris…

LB: Yes. But you had your dream of what you want to do, and then you have the reality of who you are and what you are doing presently — and if you want to continue to play music, you need a gig. I would be with the Art Ensemble one day and be with Jackie Wilson the next.

TP: This question may be too broad to answer. But what do you think it was about Chicago that enabled something like the AACM to exist? Other cites like St. Louis had strong organizations, but none of them lasted and held together the way the AACM did.

LB: Chicago is hip. I’ll tell you, even today, I think our most advanced audience, the place I think I’m best appreciated is Chicago. It’s the one place I can really relax and play damn near anything that comes to my mind, and it will be listened to. Chicago is a very advanced audience. I don’t know if it’s that they were trained that way. But we always had that kind of support, of some people who were very interested. Not necessarily by the thousands. There weren’t a lot of them. But the people who had a very deep interest in what we were doing, and we had an interest in having it happen.

TP: Was it having an audience and not having to play in a vacuum? Did it have anything to do with the way people accumulated musical information in Chicago?

LB: you have these circumstances which are provided by fate. You just have a certain amount of guys, certain type of personalities were brought together by Jesus, I guess you could say. And the music was strong enough in that it could survive. Because you don’t survive unless there is some strength in what you’re doing. Your music isn’t around, you aren’t around as a musician if you don’t have something to say. You just aren’t around in this business 20-30-40 years as a fluke. It takes a lot of concentration, and the music has to be able to withstand the test of time.

TP: Originally the Art Ensemble was you, Malachi Favors and Alvin Favors…

LB: Yes, and Kalaparusha. Roscoe had a sextet when I met him. He had a band already. But after I met him, the pressure got to be a little bit more. We started traveling. We started rehearsing every day. So the guys who couldn’t rehearse every day started to kind of drop by the wayside. Guys who had other jobs couldn’t really hang with us, because we got busy. We would take off and go to California, stay 2 and 3 months, and just rehearse 12-14 hours a day. So the personnel pared down. We went down to 3 guys. That’s when some of my boys from St. Louis started coming up. Leonard Smith came up, Philip came up, and then they got with us. That’s how it began.

TP: Joseph Jarman joined the group after Christopher Gaddy and Charles Clark, his very close friends and collaborators, died within 6 months or a year of each other.

LB: Yes, they both died and Joseph joined us. Joseph also had a very nice group with Christopher and Billy Brimfield, Fred Anderson. He was the other group. So we were sort of rivals, Joseph’s group and Roscoe’s group.

TP: Did you all hit it off immediately with Joseph Jarman?

LB: Oh yeah. You see, the AACM, everything just fit like a puzzle. We had guys from different persuasions, guys who played different things, guys who’d been with Gene Ammons to Jarman who’d done things with John Cage. We had all of this. But we all respected each other’s expertise in their field. You have to understand that all you can do in music is be you. You can only do your thing. You can’t really do anyone else’s thing. As much as I love Miles, I can never be a Miles Davis, or a Kenny Dorham — or anyone. I can’t be anyone! I can’t even be a Wynton Marsalis. I can’t be that. I can only be myself. And the only way that people can understand that is through listening to these aspects of the musicians’ personality.

TP: Let’s hear some music that relates to the Art Ensemble and some material that most people haven’t heard from the Art Ensemble. We’ll hear Don Cherry through his association with Albert Ayler, from the 1964 recording in Copenhagan, Vibrations, for Freedom Records initially. They recorded two versions of “Ghosts” on that session — we’ll hear one of them. Gary Peacock on bass and Sunny Murray on drums. Lester subsequently recorded “Ghosts” with a very different beat on another record.

LB: Yes.

[MUSIC: Albert Ayler-Don Cherry, “Ghosts”-1964; AEC-1968, “Carefree” and “Tatos-Matos”; John Coltrane-Wilbur Hardin; AEC and Deutsche Kammerphilharmonik in Bremen, 1993 – Charlie M]

TP: That symphonic collaboration is one of a number of monumental projects AEC has done with large ensemble…

LB: My latest project is Lester Bowie’s Hiphop Feelharmonic…

TP: Lester said that his playing during the 1967-68 period documented in the Nessa box was impacted by Wilbur Hardin.

LB: Every time I picked up the flugelhorn, I would feel this Wilbur Hardin thing. I always liked Wilbur Hardin. Actually, when we were playing “Carefree,” it reminded me of that. That’s when we decided to play the Wilbur Hardin piece. But Wilbur Hardin and Johnnie Splawn, who was another Philadelphia trumpet player…I really liked the way they played.

TP: In the 1970s, Lester spent time in Jamaica and in Nigeria, and broadened his musical palette.

LB: It not only broadened my sense of music; it broadened my whole sense of life. I went to Jamaica. When I got there and was in my hotel room, I had five dollars to my name and I didn’t know anyone in town. But I stayed two years, so it was a great experience. The Skatalites, a band I got to play some with in Jamaica… By the way, I’m going to make a record with them next week. So this whole concept of going around the world and playing with other musicians always was very appealing to me. Finally I decided just to one day go. No one was ever inviting me. You know, I never get invited anywhere. I never get invited… They have the kings of the trumpet, it had every trumpet player in town but me. They don’t invite me to festivals. I’m not invited to anything. So a lot of things, I just decided that if I really want to do them, I go myself. I went to Europe myself, I went to the Caribbean myself, I went to Africa myself — with little or no money.

TP: And a trumpet.

LB: And a trumpet. It helped. Because if I hadn’t had that trumpet, I’d have been long dead by now, I’ll tell you.

TP: Did you go to Jamaica for the express purpose of checking out the music and becoming involved in it?

LB: Naturally, when I go places, I always try to get involved with the musicians who are there. That is the entire reason for going. But there’s always a voice in my head. This voice kept saying, “Jamaica, Jamaica, go to the Jamaica.” I wanted to go to Jamaica. I didn’t see just being a starving jazz musician on the Lower East Side. I said, “If I’m going to starve, I just want to be on the beach.”

TP: How about your experience in Nigeria, and particularly with Fela?

LB: I also went there with no money. The Art Ensemble had just finished doing a European tour, and I took my money and bought a one-way ticket to Lagos. I had about $100 when I got there, enough money for one day in the hotel. I didn’t know anyone. A waiter in the restaurant suggested that I go to see Fela. I said, “How do you get there?” He said, “Just get in the cab; he’ll take you to Fela’s.” So I got in the cab. He took me to Fela’s. I pulled up in the courtyard of this hotel which he had taken over, because the authorities had burned his house down. A little guy runs up to me as I got out the cab. He says, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m Lester Bowie.” “Where are you from?” I said, “New York.” He saw the horn in my hand. He said, “Are you a musician?” I said, “Yes. I’m from New York.” “You play jazz?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, you must be heavy, then.” I said, “Well, you know, a little bit.” “Well, you’ve come to the right place.” “Why is that?” He said, “Because we’re the baddest band in Africa.” From then on I was just home. I went in and met Fela, and Fela said, “This guy is moving in with me.” So I was with Fela as his honored guest for the next 6 months.”

Fela was a very political musician. He has very strong political beliefs. He taught me what it would be like to be an African musician. It’s like being a chief. Fela had 8 wives when I was with him, and he eventually went up to 27 wives, and there were a lot of people… It was really quite an experience! I’d never experienced anything like it before. I came back and married one woman. That was it for me. Before, I always thought, “Yeah, I’m an African man; I’m gonna get me 2-3 wives, keep one on the road, one at home.” I went to Africa, stayed with Fela, saw all the problems he had with those women. I came back, I got married to one woman — I’ve been married to her ever since.

TP: That was the main lesson.

LB: Yes, the main experience!

TP: Any insights into the African way of music-making that are applicable to what you do?

LB: Well, the African way of music-making is the same way we make music. You just get together and you start playing. You start making up music. Basically, that’s it. You just get together and start playing and making stuff up. If somebody comes in and says, “Play this,” you play that. When I was there, I got to play with Fela, and I got to play with King Sunny Ade — I played with a lot of the Nigerian bands. It was a matter of “Just play.” It wasn’t a big thing, “ok, man, we’re going to get this part here, we’re going to do this…” It was just, like: Ok, you got your horn with you, man? Ok, try this, play this. That’s the way it is.

Same way with the art Ensemble or anyone else. People ask me about the Art Ensemble, “How do you rehearse?’ I say, “Like everybody else; we just go over and over until we get it right.” It’s the same as everyone uses.

TP: Let’s hear the Skatalites. This is “Dick Tracy”.

LB: Yeah, “Dick Tracy.” This is Tommy McCook and all the Jamaican guys. There are some killing Jamaican musicians. You had the indigenous Jamaican music, but you had this big hotel industry that had a lot of great musicians. Dizzy Reece is a great trumpet player who lives here in New York who’s Jamaican. Sonny Gray is another great trumpet player who was Jamaican. So I really learned a lot when I was in Jamaica.

[Skatalites, “Dick Tracy”; Lester Bowie Feelharmonic]

LB: That’s the first time on radio. It’s just for you, Ted. You and WKCR who have done so much fine work over the many years. You guys have hung in there, and we appreciate it.

TP: Well, you and your partners in the Art Ensemble of Chicago and so many musicians have been hanging in there for a lifetime, and we’re hearing the distillation of a lifetime of experience on the Musician’s Show, particularly with someone who encompasses as many musical idioms and ways pathways of self-expression of Lester Bowie, with a consummate sense of practical reality. I guess we have to answer a question from several listeners… When can people next hear you in New York?

LB: Actually, no one has asked to hear me again in New York. I don’t really know. As soon as someone asks, I’ll be glad to play in New York. I just finished at Sweet Basil’s, and they usually ask me every two years. So it possibly could be another 2 or 3 years before…

TP: It looked like they had a good week, though.

LB: They had a great week. They always do have great weeks. We always have great crowds. It’s not about that, because we draw well all over the world.

TP: Let’s enumerate your bands. How many entities is Lester Bowie part of at this point?

LB: We’ve got the Art Ensemble, Brass Fantasy, the New York Organ Ensemble, From the Root To the Source (which we still work occasionally). We work Brass Fantasy along with Root To The Source, which is the gospel singers with Brass Fantasy. The Leaders. The latest is the Hip-Hip Feel Harmonic. Next will be 500-piece orchestra. After that, 2,000. After that, 10, then 20, and then 100,000 musicians. At least.

TP: Will this be done in conjunction with an Anthony Braxton solar system piece?

LB: I think it will be done in conjunction with my retirement.

TP: Finally, and I can’t resist this. Mr. Bowie, is jazz as we know it… Never mind.

LB: Well, it all depends…if we know anything.

TP: How about the Art Ensemble and Brass Fantasy productions on DIW. Are those ongoing? Will a stream of recordings be flowing to your public?

LB: No. We did 9 of those records. They were mostly released in Japan. Whether or not they will get over here, I don’t know. The guy who was our connection with DIW is no longer with the company, and neither are we.

[Brass Fantasy, “The Great Pretender” – 1992]

[END OF PROGRAM]

*****************************

Lester Bowie (Musicians Show, WKCR, Feb. 25, 1998) – Sides 1-2:

[AEC, “Imaginary Situations”- 1989, DIW; Roscoe Mitchell Quartet, “Old”-1967; AEC, “Galactic Landscape” from Naked-1987; “Illistrum”–Fanfare-1973]

TP: Lester, you’ve been involved with Roscoe Mitchell musically since 1966. We’ve done shows on various topics, but never specifically on the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

LB: Almost 33 years.

TP: There’s a oft-told story by you of first encountering the AACM at a re hearsal of the AACM Big Band, and seeing 30 people in the same as “crazy” as you were, is how you’ve put it. Is that when you first met Roscoe Mitchell and Malachi Favors?

LB: That’s when I met all the members of the AACM. I’d been living in Chicago since late 1964, and I’d been doing gigs with Gene Chandler, Jerry Butler, and doing commercials and studio gigs — and I was pretty bored. There was this guy, Delbert Hill, who said, “Well, if you’re bored, let me take you over to Richard Abrams’ rehearsal. You won’t be bored there.” And I wasn’t. I went there and to meet so many… When you’re a musician, like myself, there’s usually a small group of you that always run together, that travel around and barnstorm the country and hang out and all of these things — 4 or 5 guys. But when I went in the Richard Abrams rehearsal, there was 30 guys, and all these guys are like berserk! These are like bizarre, eccentric personalities. But at the same time, they were working collectively for the collectively good.

TP: At the time, you were let’s say 25 years old, and already had a lot of experience. You’d been in the Army, you’d been on the road with various rhythm-and-blues bands, circus bands. You came up in St. Louis where your father was a distinguished music educator. You were immersed in jazz and different trumpet styles. What aspects of your backgrounded prepared you for the music you heard when you entered that room? Had you been hearing Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry?

LB: I’d been listening to everything, especially Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Trane, Miles… When I came up in the music, we always assumed that we had to learn everything that had existed, and at the same time create something else, something of our own. I think I read once that Jo Jones used to say that you couldn’t belong to the throng unless you sing your own song.

TP: I’ve heard that attributed to Prez.

LB: Prez? Someone said that. And that idea is what we kind of came up with. That’s why we came up with what we did. We had to come up with something different than Miles and Trane, and something different from Ornette and Cecil. So we came up with the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

TP: How would you describe what it was you did that was different?

LB: Technically, I think we infused different forms. Our freedom was not so much in the freedom of what people think of as free jazz. When we thought of free jazz, it meant we were free to play anything we felt like playing. So therefore, we were able to mix tempos, to mix timbre, to mix everything. To be able to associate or to relate to any form of music. To play one form behind another form, and to mix them both, to play them both at the same time, to play one backwards and to play one forwards. I mean, we were just into experimenting with everything that was laid before us. We were experimenting with all the music of Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, but at the same time we were infusing the music of Africa and India.

There’s my wife. She brought me here!

TP: the early records with Roscoe Mitchell…were you composing at the time, or was it mostly you fitting into his ideas about the shape of a performance?

LB: As far as composing, any improviser is a composer – so I’d been composing for years before that. Matter of fact, some of the tunes that I got famous with the Art Ensemble, some of the famous Art Ensemble tunes that I recorded were tunes that I composed when I was playing with Little Milton. You take tunes like “Zero”; it’s one I did when I was with Little Milton. It was an Art Blakey type takeoff, that sort of thing.

But at the same time, when I met Roscoe, I was playing everything I could. I just did everything I could. I was playing jingles. I was playing theater. I was going on the road. I was doing record sessions. I was doing blues gigs — and at the same time, doing AACM gigs. I’d be with the Art Ensemble one night and Jackie Wilson the next night. So I was just at that time playing as much music as I could, just to get as much experience and put as much in the memory banks as possible.

TP: When did you start to make that turn towards having the Art Ensemble approach to music being what you were going to do?

LB: Well, we already had that approach to music…

TP: What I mean to say is, as opposed to doing the gig with Jackie Wilson and doing all that eclectic activity, to make THAT be your commitment.

LB: I always wanted to be a jazz musician. Always. From the time I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a jazz musician. I never wanted to work Broadway or do commercials. I always wanted to be a jazz musician. But I understood at a very young age, that you had to be a professional musician first, and then if you’re lucky you can specialize. So I was being a professional musician. I was doing every gig I could. Man, I auditioned for James Brown three times. You know, I saw James on the plane. He came and shook my hand. I told him, “Man, I auditioned for your band three times.”

But I did every kind of gig I could. At the time with the AACM… You know, Hemphill and Oliver Lake and I had been hanging out for years before that in St. Louis, and as far as that concept or that way of playing, we had been doing that all the time. The way we play I believe is a natural outgrowth of the way you play after everything else has been played and you’re looking for something else.

TP: But there came a point when you and Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman and Malachi Favors, packed up, left Chicago, went to Paris, and laid down roots to function as the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I’m interested in the path from that apprenticeship process you’re talking about to a commitment to that entity.

LB: Once I met Roscoe and Malachi, that was it. We knew that that was it, I mean immediately, from the first time. The first time I met the Experimental Band… After I left that rehearsal, my phone was ringing by the time I got home, and Roscoe was on the phone. He said, “Ok, man, let’s get a band and let’s start rehearsing tomorrow.” I was in there rehearsing. That was the whole thing. We just rehearsed every day. We didn’t need a gig. We didn’t need a contract. We just rehearsed every day because we needed the music. And once we met each other and then saw what kind of music we had together, and saw that we had a unique form, we saw that this was the opportunity to fully devote ourselves to it. So you could say that when we left to go to Europe was when we fully devoted ourselves to playing the music of the Art Ensemble and nothing else. Before that, guys were working in hotels or whatever they could to make ends meet. But from that moment we went there, that was it.

TP: We’ll hear music from a forthcoming album by the AEC on Atlantic-Warner.

LB: This will be out in a few months, by the Fall. It’s a record we recorded in Jamaica. We had the recording project. We just had to spend this winter in Jamaica. That winter you had the big snow here in New York…well, we were in Jamaica making this record. It’s a rough job but somebody had to do it.

[MUSIC: AEC, “Via Tiamo,” “Grape Escape,” “Jamaica Farewell”]

TP: When we spoke before that set of music, we brought the Art Ensemble to France, where you joined a very dynamic cultural community, and you stayed there for almost two years, and things exploded for you. You must have made a dozen recordings.

LB: Yeah, we worked a lot. We were working 4 times a year in the States before we left, and we left for France, and when we arrived in France, after we were there 3 days we were working 6 nights a week. We had an entire theater at our disposal, called the Lucinaire, in Paris. That was our base, and from there we worked all over France and all over the rest of Europe.

TP: Do you recall the proprietor?

LB: I don’t remember. But the Lucinaire was a small theater that was just getting started also, and they were very much into creative music. When they heard us, they gave us the gig, 6 nights a week. We’d developed some sort of reputation before we got to Europe. It wasn’t like we just went to Europe and no one had heard of us. Joseph had made several records, I had made a record. Roscoe had made records — 5 or 6 records had been released before we got there. When we got there, we immediately were offered this job at the Lucinaire, and in three days we were working every night.

TP: Were you playing just as the Art Ensemble, or were you performing in conjunction with dancers, theater, and so forth?

LB: Eventually we did do things. We did a lot of projects with dancers, drummers, a lot of different people. But this was all the Art Ensemble. This was the Art Ensemble 6 nights a week.

TP: Talk in some detail about the larger picture in Paris at the time. There were so many musicians there at that particular moment, as documented on the BYG label, on America Records and so on…

LB: Paris was jumping, man. Paris was on fire – in more ways than one. I remember one time I was at this sidewalk café with my wife and a couple of kids, and this whole big van of police just exploded, and it went up in this ball of flames. I threw the kids in the truck, and we had to tear up two cars in the parking space getting out of the parking space, so we got away from there. But there was a lot happening. A lot of happening with students revolting, and a lot happening with the music. There was music all over Paris, and there were guys in Paris who had never been together before in the States. I mean, I never got the chance to hang out with Philly Joe Jones and Hank Mobley! These were my heroes. You’ve got guys like Philly Joe Jones and Sunny Murray, and you’ve got Cecil Taylor and Dave Burrell, and you’ve got Kenny Clarke, and you’ve got Memphis Slim. And you’ve got Max and Archie. There were just a lot of musicians over there, and we were doing a lot of projects together. It was really a very exciting time.

TP: The last few times you were up here, you came up once with Malachi Favors and once with Don Moye, and when you were here with Favors, the subject of your common military background… Except Moye, everyone in the Art Ensemble, had served a certain amount of time in the Army, and you treated the process of performing as a band with that kind of focus and discipline.

LB: Because of our military experience is the only reason we’ve even survived all these years, because we really know how to survive in the wild. We lived in sleeping bags and in tents for an entire summer in Europe. We had been thrown out of France, and we roamed Europe in tents, like gypsies, for four months or so.

But because of our military training, we were able to… We all had a common way of achieving an objective. The military teaches you, you want to move something, you put a man on each end of whatever it is you’re moving, and 1-2-3-lift, and you move it. You get things done. It really gives you a direct method of dealing with things. That’s what kind of fortitude and discipline it takes to really survive in this music, especially if you’re in the creative area of the music.

TP: What do you mean by the “creative area of the music”?

LB: Well, nobody likes you! It’s hard to find gigs. Everybody says you can’t play or you’re crazy or something, and what you’re playing… People don’t really have an understanding of what you’re doing, so you’re always in a kind of fight. It’s almost a military campaign just to survive. You pool your resources and you get these collective objectives, and you try to do these things. If we hadn’t had this sort of training, and we weren’t able to live the way we’ve lived… I don’t know many musicians who would even be able to survive in the conditions that we have survived in. I mean, we’ve lived in barns, man. We’ve lived in parked cars. We’ve lived in buses. I mean, LIVED there.

TP: You’ve gone years with no gigs.

LB: YEARS with no gigs.

TP: You said you got kicked out of France. I never heard that story before.

LB: Oh, you never heard that one. Well, we weren’t actually kicked out. The ultimatum was actually we should leave or we would be escorted to the frontier

TP: By the gendarmes?

LB: By the gendarmes. We had been in France about a year, and then this Radio Luxembourg did a program about us. We were not there. It was just a program about this. They said “These guys are revolutionaries, and these are the Black Panthers of the music, and they’re out to rape your daughters and take over your government.” They did this whole thing about the Art Ensemble being these big revolutionaries. The next day, we heard the dogs barking. The police were at the gate. What happened is, at the end of the show they say, “Yes…and by the way, these guys live in Saint-Leu- la – Forêt, which is this little town outside of Paris. So whoever the prince or duke of that particular fiefdom…when he heard we were living in…

TP: The Intendant as they said…

LB: “You mean they’re living here in Saint-Leu- la – Forêt? Get them out of here!” So the police were at the gates the next day. Our dogs had them, though. They could only get to the gates. And we’ve got military training. They only got the gates. They didn’t get to the house.

So we heard the dogs barking. They were at the gate. Then they came in and they explained that we had to leave, and if we didn’t leave they would escort us to the frontier. We said, “Well, we just happen to be leaving anyway,” which we had happen, because we knew the heat was on and we were ready to pull out. So we left in the next couple of days.

TP: I gather you had a bus, and that became your base…

LB: Well, we were the first mobile musicians in Europe – the mobile jazz guys, let’s say. We were totally independent of any of the jazz musicians. The rest of the jazz musicians, you had to have interpreters leading them by the hand, and taking them here, putting them on trains and putting them in planes. But we could speak the languages, and we had 4 trucks. We could travel anywhere we wanted to. If things didn’t suit us one place, we’d go someplace else. We were the Great Black Music Army.

TP: One challenge of doing a 3-hour on the Art Ensemble Show is that a favorite track might be 23 minutes or 14 minutes, and we don’t have time.

LB: Right.

[MUSIC: AEC, “Jackson in Your House”-1969; “The Key–Theme de Celine”; “Variations On A Theme of Monteverdi, First Variation”]

TP: That was the merest, sketchiest of representations of their actual output while in Paris. We’ll now move back in time a bit, and hear a track from an album that turned a lot of heads when it came out — Sound by the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet. It’s hard for me to think about this kind of music being made on the East Coast at this time. Maybe I’m projecting backwards, but it seems to me that a certain Midwest sensibility is involved. Can you shed any light on what that might be, or how you different, if at all, from what the people on the East Coast were doing then?

LB: Well, the East Coast, New York, is a marketplace. Not so much music is created here. Most of the musicians who have become famous came from somewhere else.

TP: It must be said that with Bird, Miles and Monk, a lot of that music was created here, uptown.

LB: You could say that. But usually, when music is perceived by critics to have been created in a certain place, it’s usually been created years before by these individuals. I’m sure Charlie Parker didn’t start playing like that when he came to New York. Same way with Miles Davis. We have to realize, music is created in a lot of places simultaneously. The whole story about the music moving up the river from New Orleans to Memphis to Chicago is mostly a fairy-tale. Music was being played in Spokane, Washington. It was being played in South Dakota. It was being played in Springfield, Missouri. Joplin, Missouri. Memphis, Tennessee. Kentucky. It was being played in Iowa. It was being played in Arizona.

One time the Leaders were doing a tour through Missouri, and we saw this old restaurant that looked like it might have been a country restaurant, so we figured we’d get some nice biscuits or something over there. So we went over there to get it, and this old farmer came up to us and he said, “You boys play jazz?” We said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, hell. You all know Duke Ellington?” We said, “Yeah, we know Duke Ellington.” He said, “He used to come through here all the time.”

So the music used to be in a lot of places. It was just sold in certain places. There were certain centers, publishing centers, recording centers, where it was sold. For instance, even in our particular instance, Hemphill and I were playing that music before AACM and BAG.

TP: When did you start playing with Hemphill?

LB: Hemphill and I went to school together. We were in Lincoln University together. I just went to Lincoln for a year. Hemphill had been going there for 8 or 9 years. He was one of those cats who was going to school for a long time. But we started hanging the. The next year, after I left Lincoln (Hemphill’s from Fort Worth), I went to North Texas State. Hemphill and another guy named Tom Reese were good friends of mine in Fort Worth. This was a long time ago.This was 1961, 1962, long before I went to Chicago.

TP: How does your analysis of New York being a marketplace, and other places not, apply to the music we hear on Sound, which sounds so distinctive and different from anything else that was happening then.

LB: Well, see, we in the Midwest, we really BELIEVED in the music. We were attracted to the music because of some sort of spiritual belief. I mean, we really believed in it. We believed in the POWER of the music. We didn’t care if we didn’t get paid. We didn’t care if we didn’t get any gigs. New York, you come and you’ve got to work. The rent is high. You’ve got to work. You can live in Chicago. You can live in St. Louis. You can live in Cleveland. And you can create music. You can find other people that really believe in it and that really do it. I think that’s the real difference. You have an economic pressure here in New York that you don’t have in other places. You don’t have the recording companies or the TV stations or the radio stations in Kansas City or in Springfield or Peoria. So you don’t have that sort of pressure. You’re kind of free to just create music.

When the Art Ensemble first started, we just went down in the basement and we rehearsed every day. Every day it would be 8 hours of rehearsal. No gigs in sight. But we rehearsed every day. It was just because of the belief that we had in the music.

[MUSIC: Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, “Little Suite”

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For Von Freeman’s 97th birth anniversary, a 1987 Musician Show on WKCR, a 1991 Interview with Von and Pianist “Young” John Young; and a 1994 Interview on WKCR

For the 91st birth anniversary of the master tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, one of the most singular individual stylists ever to play his instrument, here’s the proceedings of a Musician’s show that he did with me on WKCR in 1987. It was the first of what I believe were 4, maybe 5 encounters that I was fortunate to be able to put together with the maestro during my years at the station. Three years ago, when his NEA Jazz Mastership was announced, I posted this 1994 interview. A transcript of a 1991 encounter with Mr. Freeman and John Young has been posted on the Jazz Journalist Association website for more than a decade; maybe next year, I’ll post it here.

How did you get into music?

Well, actually I began very, very early by taking my father’s Victrola . . . See, that’s a little bit before your time. A Victrola had an arm shaped like a saxophone that the needle was in that played the record. And I had been banging on the piano. They had bought me a piano when I was about one year old, and I’d been banging on that thing all my life. So finally, I took up the saxophone at about five, primarily through my dad’s Victrola. I actually took it off, man, and carved holes in it and made a mouthpiece. He thought I was crazy, of course, because that’s what he played his sounds — his Wallers and his Rudy Vallees and his Louis Armstrongs (those were three of his favorites), his Earl Hines and things — on. He said, “Boy, you’re not serious, are you?” Of course, I was running around; I was making noise with this thing. So he bought me a C-melody saxophone, and I’ll never forget it.

How old were you?

Oh, I was about 7 at that time. The guy sold it to us for a tenor. Well, it is a tenor, but it’s a C-tenor, a tenor in C. And of course, I was running around playing that thing. Gradually I grew and I grew and I grew and I grew. Finally I ended up in DuSable High School, where I was tutored by Captain Walter Dyett, like so many Chicagoans were.

Were you in the first class of DuSable High School?

Well, see, DuSable actually began in Wendell Phillips. That was another high school in Chicago, and Captain Walter Dyett was teaching there, where he taught such guys as Nat “King” Cole and that line, who were a little bit older than I was.

Ray Nance, Milt Hinton, a whole line of people.

Oh, there’s quite a few.

The band program at Wendell Phillips was initially established by Major Clark Smith.VF:Right.Q:By the way, did you ever come in contact with him?

No, I never did, but I heard a lot of things about him! I heard Captain Walter Dyett mention Major Smith, but I was so young at the time. And I was so taken up with him, because he was such a great, great disciplinarian, as I would call him — besides being a great teacher and whatnot. He put that discipline in you from the time you walked into his class. And it has been with me the rest of my life, actually.

You were in high school with a lot of people who eventually became eminent musicians. Let’s mention a few of them.

Well, of course, everyone knows about the late and great Gene Ammons, and of course Bennie Green was there, Johnny Griffin . . .

Griff was after you, though.

Well, I’m just naming them, because there were so many of them . . .

But in your class were Dorothy Donegan . . .

Dorothy Donegan, right.

 . . John Young, Bennie Green and people like that.

Augustus Chapell, who was a great trombonist. Listen, there’s so many guys that we could spend the program just naming them.

Tell me about how Captain Dyett organized the music situation at DuSable. He had several different types of bands for different functions, did he not?

Yes, he did. Well, it was standard during that era, actually. He had a concert band, he had a swing band, and he had a marching band, and then he had a choral band. Like, you played all types of music there, and he made you play every one of them well. No scamming. And he had his ruler, he had his baton, and he didn’t mind bopping you. See, that was his thing to get you interested. Like, you could fool around until you came to the music class, which usually would be where you would fool around — but not with him.

Then they had a chorus teacher there who taught voice, and her name was Mrs. Mildred Bryant-Jones. She was very important. I haven’t heard her name mentioned too much, but I studied with her also. She taught harmony and vocalizing.

Actually, I never saw Captain Walter Dyett play an instrument, but I heard he was a very good violinist and pianist. I never saw him play saxophone or trumpet or anything, but he knew the fingering to everything, and he saw that you played it correctly — which of course I thought was very, very great. And he stood for no tomfoolery.

He provided a situation that was sort of a bridge from school into the professional world, didn’t he?

Well, that was later on. In fact, that was just about when I was about to graduate in ’41. He formed what he called the DuSableites. It was a jazz band. Originally Gene Ammons and quite a few of us were in that band. He had a great trumpet player who was living at that time named Jesse Miller, and he was one of the leading trumpet players in Chicago at that time. But Dorothy Donegan was in that band, playing the piano. A very good band. And we would play little jobs. He made us all join the union . . . That band lasted until ’46. I had come out of the service. I was in that band when it folded, actually, and that’s when I began playing professionally in, shall we say, sextets and quintets and things like that.

What kind of repertoire would those bands have?

Oh, it was standard. It was waltzes and jazz. He would buy the charts from the big bands, all the standard big band charts.

Were you playing for dancers?

Dancers and celebrations and bar mitzvahs, the standard thing.

While you were in high school did you go out to hear music? Did you hear Earl Hines?

Yes. Well, you see, Earl Hines, I’m privileged to say, was a personal friend of my dad’s. There’s three I remember that came by the house, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.

Was your dad a musician?

No, but he loved musicians. My father was a policeman. But he loved music and he loved musicians. And he would always have on the radio playing, and he played the whole gamut. That’s another thing that helped me. He liked waltzes. He liked Guy Lombardo’s orchestra. And he always had the jazz orchestras on. At that time, of course, the jazz orchestras did a whole lot of remotes, you know, from different clubs. Like, Earl Hines was coming from the Grand Terrace, and Earl was coming on sometimes nightly. Of course, he had a great band. And Earl would come by the house maybe once a year or so, and I’d see him talking with my dad, and I formed a friendship with him. Great man. And Fats Waller even played my piano!

Amazing you even touched it.

Oh, yes, he was a beautiful man. And of course, Louis Armstrong was . . . I don’t know, he was just like you’ve always seen him — he was Pops. Those three men I just fell in love with.

He was Pops off the stage, huh?

Well, he was Pops on and off. Everybody was Pops. He called me Pops. I think I was about five or six years old. “Hi, Pops!”

Who were some of the other bands around Chicago that you heard? Or some of the other players, for that matter?

Well, listen, there were so many great bands. In fact, when Earl Hines left the Grand Terrace, King Kolax replaced that band. And let me tell you something I think is interesting. When I was in the last year, I think I was in the senior year at DuSable, he approached both Gene Ammons and I, and tried to get us to go on the road with him. Jug went, and of course Jug never looked back. I stayed in school. But Jug went with that band until it folded, and then he joined Billy Eckstine — and of course, the rest is history with Jug. He cut “Red Top” in 1947, and he never looked back.Q:I’ve heard mention from you of a tenor player named Johnny Thompson who you said would have been one of the best had he lived.VF:Oh, listen, man, he was a beautiful cat, and he played almost identically to Prez without copying Prez. He held his horn like Prez, his head like Prez, and very soft-spoken, and then he was tall like Prez. Johnny came to an unseemly end, unfortunately.

Well, Prez had that effect on a lot of people, I would imagine. You, too, I think.

Oh, I was running around there trying to play everything that Prez played. See, Prez was like this. Everybody loved Coleman Hawkins, but he was so advanced harmonically you could hardly sing anything he played. But Prez had that thing where we could sing all of his solos. We’d go to the Regal Theatre and stand out front and (now I know) heckle Prez. Because he’d come out and play, we’d be singing his solos — and Prez never played the same solo, you know! He’d look at us as if to say “I wish those dummies would hush.” We’d be down in the front row, “Hold that horn up there, Prez! Do it, baby!” So all those little nuts were running around trying to hold those tenors at that 45-degree thing like him. Needless to say, Prez must have had the strongest wrists in the world, because today I can’t hold a tenor up in the air, not longer than for four or five seconds. And he had that horn, boy, up in the air, and could execute with it like that. Simply amazing.

Prez with the Basie band, huh?

Oh, yes.

Where did they play in Chicago?

Well, the Regal Theatre mostly. Most of the big bands played the Regal. Then they had another place called the White City out at South 63rd Street, and a lot of bands played there, too.

Let’s review the geography of the South Side venues, so we can establish where people were playing, and in what types of situations.

Well, the Regal Theatre was, of course, at 47th and South Parkway, which is now King Drive. Now, the Grand Terrace was down at 39th Street, and Club DeLisa was over at 55th Street. But the center where all the big bands really came was at the Regal Theatre. See, Earl Hines was at the old Grand Terrace, and Red Saunders, who had a great local band, was at the Club De Lisa.

They had the Monday morning jam session there, too.

Oh yes. It was famous throughout the world.

The famous show band there . . .

Yeah, Red Saunders. He was known as the World’s Greatest Show Drummer. That’s the way that they billed him.

How did you first come into contact with Coleman Hawkins?

Well, Coleman Hawkins used to play at a club called the Golden Lily, right down at 55th Street, next door to the El. Of course, we would go down there until the police ran us away from in front of the place, and listen to Hawk blowing. You could hear that big, beautiful sound; you could hear him for half-a-block. And he played at another club called the Rhumboogie quite frequently. I got to talk with him a few times, and he was always . . . He was just like Prez. He was gracious and beautiful.

Well, you’ve been quoted as saying that your style is really a composite of Hawk and Prez, with your own embouchure.

Yes. Well, at that time I didn’t really understand, but they used two entirely different embouchures — for people who are into embouchures, you know. I was fooling around trying to play like both of them, and I was using the same embouchure. Hawk had more of a classical embouchure, and Prez had more of what I would call a jazz embouchure, an embouchure that enabled him to get his feeling out the way he wanted it. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other; it’s just that they both had two different embouchures. Of course, when I came along, I didn’t really know what I was doing; I was just trying to sound like both of them at the same time.

But of course, I liked all of the saxophone players. I had a few local saxophone players I was crazy about. There was a fellow named Roy Grant, one named Dave Young, another named James Scales.

James Scales played with Sun Ra at one point.

Yes. Yes, he did! Very good. And he’s still around. He’s a very good saxophonist. He never left Chicago. None of those three did.

[Music: Charlie Parker, “Scrapple From The Apple,” “Anthropology,” “These Foolish Things,” “Moose The Mooche,” “Confirmation”]

When did you first hear Charlie Parker in the flesh, Von?

Well, actually, it was at different clubs around Chicago. The Beehive was one, and he worked numerous little clubs.Q:Do you remember the first time?VF:Well, at the Pershing. That was back in the ’40s.

What were the circumstances? You were in the house band.

Yes. Now, a lot of people don’t know whether it was Claude McLin on “These Foolish Things” or myself. There were several tenor players that were on these different jobs, and they were mostly using my rhythm section. And I really can’t tell whether it’s myself either, because almost all of us were trying to play like Lester Young at the time, because that was the thing to do if you were able at all. You were either playing like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, so you took your pick. And I was trying to play like a combination, of course, of both of them. That made me a sound a little bit different. But we were all in either a Hawk bag or a Prez bag, or between the two somewhere. Of course, I admired both of them equally. And along with Don Byas and Ben Webster . . . Well, you name all the great saxophone players, I loved them all.

Well, obviously, you had listened to a lot of records, and had heard everybody.

Oh, yes. I still do.

You and your two brothers were the house band at the Pershing for several years. How did that happen?

Just a blessing. Just a blessing. There was a great producer around town, or promoter you could call him, named McKie Fitzhugh, and he took a liking to us. He thought we had a nice sound and were capable of playing with these men. We had the great Chris Anderson at the piano, who could play anything, anywhere, and my brother Bruz was an up-and-coming new drummer with plenty of fire, and either Leroy Jackson or another fellow named Alfred White on bass. We were using several men then who were top local men around Chicago, and they were all young and able to play. Bird played very fast, and boy, you had to have men that were capable of keeping up with him. See, he would play these records at one tempo, but when he played in person, oh, you know, Bird could articulate those tunes. Diz and Fat Girl [Fats Navarro] and Howard McGhee and all the cats, they played very, very fast, and you had to keep up with them, see.

So it was more a blessing than anything else. There were many musicians around Chicago that could have done the same thing, but we were called. And we answered the call.

You were in a Navy band for four years before that, stationed in Hawaii.

Oh, yes.

Let’s talk about those very important years.

Oh, that was a blessing. That’s where I got my first real training. See, I was with the Horace Henderson band just for a while. Of course, when I went in that band, I thought I was a hot shot, you know.

That was your first professional job?

Yes. And when I went in that big band, boy, I found out just how much I didn’t know. And he had all of the star cats in the band, and of course . . .

Who was in the band?

Well, Johnny Boyd was seated right next to me, and a fellow named Lipman(?) was playing trumpet, Gail Brockman was in that band . . . Listen, some of the guys I can’t name now, because this was back in ’39, and I was like about 16 or something. So I was the new hot-shot in town in this big band. I could read. That’s about it! And they took me in hand . . . Because I was very humble. See, during that era, the young guys looked up to the older guys, and well that they should have. A lot of the older guys would pass a lot of their information and knowledge down to you if you were humble. And of course, I was. Still try to be.

Were you playing exclusively tenor sax?

Well, during school we all played a zillion instruments, probably most of them badly. But I was playing trumpet and trombone, drums, bass. If there was anything that you could get your hands on, Walter Dyett wanted you to learn it. But I ended up mostly playing tenor.

After working with Horace Henderson, you enlisted in the Navy and joined the band.

Oh, that’s where I really learned, boy. That’s where I ran into all the great musicians from around the world. Willie Smith and Clark Terry . . .

You were in a band with them?

Oh, no-no. See, Great Lakes had three bands, an A band, a B band, and a C band. I was in the C band. But all the big stars were mostly in the A band, and then the lesser players were in the C band.

Great Lakes is a Naval base north of Chicago near Lake Michigan, right?

Yes. So Clark Terry and I used to jam, and that cat, man, he could blow the horn to death, even back at that time, and this is like 1941 or ’42. Then of course, the bands were all split up, and I was shipped overseas. Now, a lot of people say that I have an original sound, but that’s not true at all. Where I got that sound and that conception of playing was from a saxophone player named Dave Young.

From Chicago.

Yes. Dave Young used to play with Roy Eldridge and quite a few other guys. To me he was one of the greatest saxophone players I’d ever heard, bar none. He took me under his wing when I was in the Navy, when we were stationed in Hawaii. I said, “Man, how are you getting that tone you get? You have so much projection.” And I started using his mouthpiece and his reeds, and he corrected my embouchure a lot. In fact, I would say that most of my formative training on a saxophone was from Dave Young. I had been trying my best to play like Prez and Hawk and whatnot, and his style was what I’d say I was looking for between those two great saxophone players, Prez and Hawk, but it was his own thing and his own way of executing it, and I tried to copy it. I don’t think Dave Young plays any more. I think he’s still around Chicago, but I don’t think he plays any more. He was a few years older than I am. So the sound that I am getting I think is primarily the sound that he was getting. Maybe I’ve refined it a little bit more in all these years I’ve been doing it. But the idea for getting that sound came from Dave Young. Great saxophone player.

And he was with the band you were in when you were stationed in Hawaii called the Navy Hellcats?

Right.

You were in the Navy until 1946?

Yes, from ’42 until ’46.

What type of engagements did you play in the Navy? For the enlisted men, social functions and so forth?

Yes, and the officers. And we traveled all over the island. I was about the only one who had never been in a big band, other than Horace Henderson. All these men came out of Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway’s band, Count Basie’s band and what have you. That’s where I learned how to arrange; they taught me a lot about arranging. Because I used to take my little arrangements in, and everybody said, “Man, you got to get hip, baby. You got to tighten up some.” And they would show me different things.

The next music we’ll hear is by Gene Ammons, who was pretty much the main man in Chicago during this time.

Oh, Gene was echelons above the rest of us. He had already established himself, he had cut hit records, and of course, the rest of us were more or less using him as a guide post. At the time, Gene was working a lot with Tom Archia. Tom was like a vagabond type of musician; he was in and out of everything. He was a great player. And Gene mostly played with his bands.

What we’re going to hear now is Jug with drummer Ike Day. What did he sound like, as best as you can describe it?

Well, he had a very smooth sound; he was very, very smooth. He was ambidextrous, so he could do like four rhythms at once, and make it fit jazz — and a great soloist. But he was also a great listener. Like, he and I used to go out and jam, drums and saxophone, you know, and you didn’t miss anything. His time was very, very even, but he could do anything he wanted to do. Truly, I think, one of the few geniuses I’ve really heard.

Who were his influences? We were mentioning Baby Dodds before . . .

Oh, I would imagine those type. Sid Catlett and those type of fellows.

Was he originally from the Chicago area? Is that where he was raised?

You know, when I first saw him, he was around Chicago. I really never asked him where he was from. I know he loved the great Max Roach, he loved Klook [Kenny Clarke] — he loved all the fellows from New York, of course. And I would like to think that they dug his playing.

We’ll hear a Gene Ammons date with Christine Chapman on piano, Leo Blevins on guitar, Lowell Pointer on bass, and Ike Day on drums.

[Music: Gene Ammons, “Stuffy,” “Close Your Eyes” (1960)”; Ammons and Sonny Stitt, “Red Sails In The Sunset” (1961),” Stitt, “Cherokee” (1950)]

I’d like to go a little more into what the musical life in Chicago was like in the late ’40s and early ’50s. There was so much happening.

Man, it was one of the greatest eras of my life. You could go from one club to another, and you could catch Dexter in one club, you could catch the great Sonny Rollins in another club, you could catch Coltrane down the street, you could catch the great Johnny Griffin down the street, you could catch [Eddie] Lockjaw [Davis] when he’d come in town — all these cats were some of the greatest saxophone players ever heard of. Lucky Thompson, Don Byas.

Ben Webster, man, I used to hang out with! It was beautiful. I used to ask him, I said, “Mister Ben, how do you get that great sound, baby? Tell me, please!” He said, “Listen. Just blow with a stiff reed.” So I was running around buying fives, man! I wasn’t getting anything but air, you know, but it was cool, because Ben said, “Blow a five,” you know.

But all of the great saxophone players . . . Wardell Gray would come to the Beehive. If you name a great saxophone player or a trumpeter or pianist (well, a great musician), they were around 63rd Street during the late ’40s and early ’50s. And you could go from the Cotton Club, which was a great club there, the Crown Propeller, Harry’s — there were so many clubs there.

And all the clubs would be full. The community was into it.

Oh, listen! And people were patting their feet and their booties were shaking and clapping hands. When you walk into a club and see that, man, you know people are into that thing, see, because they can’t be still. You had drummers at that time, man, like Blakey and the cats would come in town; these cats were rhythm masters. When they played a solo on the drums even, you could keep time with it. Max would come in there and you could hear the song; you know, when Roach would play, you could still hear the song.

So it was just a singing, swinging era. And of course, I was running around there trying to get all of it I could get, get it together and try to piece it together. The cats who actually lived in Chicago didn’t have too much of a name at the time, but we were mixing with all of the stars from around the world. And it helped us. See, it helped us greatly. At that time you could do a lot of jamming, unlike today. Of course, it just helped you to get up and rub shoulders. You could talk with the cats. It was beautiful.

Were you able to make a living playing just jazz, or did you also deal with blues and other types of music?

Well, see, at that time, in my opinion, it was almost all the same. Like, they had this rhythm-and-blues, but it was very similar to Jazz. Now, you had the down-and-out blues cats, you know, who were playing just strictly three changes. But you had a bunch of the rhythm-and-blues cats who were actually playing jazz. And it swung. Maybe it was a shuffle beat, but you’ve got to remember, some of Duke’s greatest tunes, if you listen, the drummer is playing the backbeat or the shuffle, or stop time, or something — and that’s in some of his greatest tunes. Like, if you hear Buhaina play a shuffle or something, man, it swings, because he’s hip and he knows how to do it so it’s still jazz. It’s just a matter of having that taste and knowing where to put those beats. See? Because jazz musicians are always very hip, always very hip dudes, because they spend their life learning these things and practicing these things, see. And a lot of the jazz cats are in it to further the music. Of course, they want money, they need money like everybody else. But their primary thing is to further this music — I like to think.

Von Freeman is certainly one who has contributed to the cause.

Oh, well, don’t look at it like that, Ted! No, it’s just that if I’m not famous and make a lot of money, I can blame nobody but Von Freeman. Because I stayed right there in Chicago, see. And no one is going to stay in Chicago or anywhere else, unless it’s New York, and get a big name, because there are not recording outlets. Well, I know all of this. And I’m not sacrificing anything! Hey, I’m happy where I am. It’s just happenstance I’m in Chicago.

Well, I wasn’t thinking of it like that; I was thinking of it in terms of your advancing the cause. But you’re painting a picture of Chicago that was veritable beehive of musical activity.

Oh, it was. Everybody was coming there. And the whole town was swinging. Like I said, you could go from club to club and find a star — and he might not even be working; he just might be in there jamming. You know, that type of thing. Because the music had such a beautiful aura to it at that time. I like to think that it’s coming right back to that now. I can see it happening again.

In Chicago now.

Oh, yes, Chicago is really opening up.

It was pretty dry in Chicago for a while.

Oh, for a while we went through a dry spell that was mean. At one time I was on 75th Street, and I was the only guy playing Jazz on 75th Street, as famous as that street is! And I was jamming mostly, and all the cats would come by and help me by jamming. Like my brother George, with Gene Ammons, and Gene Ammons would come by when they were here — “Jug is down the street, man, with Vonski!” They’d all run down there, you know, and my brother George would bring Jug along with him. And of course, Jug had this big name and this big, beautiful sound, and he would take out his horn . . . In fact, he would blow my horn, and just knock everybody out. I loved Jug.

[Music: Johnny Griffin, “Chicago Calling” (1956)” Wardell Gray, “Easy Living” & “South Side” (1949), Dexter Gordon, “Strollin’” (1974)]

During the break we had a call from somebody who noted that we had been playing Sonny Stitt before, and noted Sonny Stitt’s propensity to try to take over jam sessions, cutting contests, so to speak, which certainly is popularly identified with Chicago tenor playing. He wondered if you had anything to say about that renowned institution in Chicago life, the cutting contest.

Well, now, Sonny Stitt was one of my running partners, boy. But nobody, nobody fooled with Sonny Stitt when it came to jamming. Sonny was extra mean. Because Sonny could play so fast, see. And Sonny would bring both his horns. See, we would all be jamming, and of course, Sonny would tell his story on, say, alto. It’s very hard to even follow that. And then after everyone had got through struggling behind Sonny, then Sonny would pick up the tenor. So the best thing to do with Sonny Stitt was make friends with him. [Laughs] That was the best thing. Because I loved him.

See, I have a lot of Sonny Stitt in my style. I used to kid him all the time. I used to tell him that he was one of the world’s greatest saxophone players. He’d say, “Aw, shucks, do you really mean it?” But I really meant it. Sonny used to come to Chicago . . .

In fact, you know, when you think about Chicago (this is my opinion, of course), and you think of the saxophone players . . . Man, I don’t know. But I can run down a list and the styles . . . Now, for instance, you had that style of Willis Jackson, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, and you had Fathead Newman, and of course, Ike Quebec (everybody called him Q), and Joe Thomas, Dick Wilson, and of course, the cat who is still the man, Stanley Turrentine. Now, that’s just one style of tenor that’s hard to master, because all these cats played hard, man, and they hit a lot of high notes, and they played a very exciting instrument.

Then, on the other hand, you had cats around Chicago like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Allen Eager would come through. Now they were playing . . .

That serious Prez bag.

Yeah, that serious Prez bag, which is that softer thing. Then you had cats like Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, and Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons bootin’ — that other type of tenor. And of course, don’t leave out Jaws, and the fellow that you just played used to hang around Chicago and wiped everybody out, Dexter Gordon, Long-Long Tall — he and Wardell.

Now, there’s three definite different schools of tenor, and when you pick up a tenor, unlike most instruments, you’ve got to master all three of those styles. And I can tell when a cat has missed one of them. I don’t care which one of these styles it is. I can tell when I listen to him a set which one of these styles he missed.

I think that’s what made Coltrane so great, was Coltrane was a composition of all these styles. Because see, when Trane first came to town, man, he was playing alto with Earl Bostic, and Earl Bostic, we considered not rock-and- roll, but rhythm-and-blues. Of course, Earl started on high-F and went beyond; that was his style; and then he growled on the tenor. And Trane was there with him. So Trane was getting all this stuff together.

And of course, nowadays . . . That’s one reason why I admire Chico Freeman so much. Because he has, and he’s trying to get Sonny Rollins and Trane, and then all the cats I named into his bag. Which is what you’ve got to do today. See, you can’t just have one style and say, “Hey, I’m going with that.” Like all these cats started with Trane in his later years, which is a beautiful thing, but they don’t know what Trane came through. And of course, it’s hard for them to get that feeling, because he had the whole thing. And nowadays, you have to try to get all that there, because all of these saxophone players are great saxophone players. Some of them are still living, see.

So to me, that’s what makes the tenor the mystery instrument. And I remember, like, in the ’50s, we were all trying to get Gene Ammons, because he was cutting all the hit records and he had this big beautiful sound. Then Johnny Griffin came along with all that speed; he’s another genius. So then everybody shifted over to his bag. Sonny Rollins used to come to town, into the DJ Lounge, and of course, Sonny had it all, everybody was trying to get between Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins — everybody was trying to get that thing together. Then before they could get that thing together, here comes Trane. And of course, Trane just kind of drowned everybody, because he had all of that stuff together, and he left a lot of wounded soldiers along the way. See, cats are still trying to recover from that Trane explosion. And of course, they shouldn’t look at it that way. I think they should look at it that Trane assimilated everything; they’ve got to assimilate everything up to Trane and then move on.

Of course, that’s hard. You see, it’s pretty easy, maybe much easier to take one of those styles and then go for it. But the tenor is such that when you play now, you’ve got to be exciting, you’ve got to be melodic, you’ve got to be soulful, cheerful, you know, and all these other adjectives. So the tenor, when they see you with a tenor in your hand, you’ve got all these styles. Like Willis Jackson again. Man, I went on a trip with that cat. Man, if you are not together, he’ll blow you off that bandstand, because he’s got such a big, robust style, and he can play forty different ways. And he’s just one of the cats.

So you have to try to get your discography together, and you have to listen. And of course, a lot of these fellows are gone, but their records are still here. So I challenge every saxophone player that . . . And I’m just speaking now of tenor players. Now, don’t let me get into the alto players.

Oh, you could get into a couple of altos.

Well, I really don’t like to get into them, because you know, Bird and Johnny Hodges and all those cats, man . . . There’s a bunch of them. If you get into them, a saxophone player says, “Aw shucks, I’ll play the piano, ha- ha, or the trumpet.”

Well, then you’ve got to deal with some other people if you do that.

Yes. See, there’s so many ways to deal with things. But I think everybody is so blessed nowadays that they have the records here, and they can listen and listen, and try to get these different styles into their head. And of course, they don’t have to worry about sounding like anybody else, because once you get all that stuff together, you’re going to sound like yourself — unless you just go and play somebody else just note for note and try to get their tone. And I don’t see much sense in that! I think eventually you’re going to find your own thing. I think that’s what it’s all about.

We’ll start the next set with a piece by bassist Wilbur Ware, a bassist who has to be classed in a niche by himself. And Von knew Wilbur Ware quite well.

Oh, he used to work with me. Well, Wilbur Ware, when I first met him, he was a street-corner musician. Man, he was playing a tub with a 2-by-4 and a string on it when I first heard him. I said, “Man, do you have a real bass?” He said, “Well . . . ” I said, “Do you play acoustic bass?” He said, “I’ve got a baby bass.” I didn’t know what he meant, but he had a bass that was about a quarter-size bass. It was a real bass, but it was very small. I said, “Well, man, come and work with me.” He said, “Well, where?” I said, “Well, I’m playing a duo on the weekends. I’ve got two gigs, man.” I felt great to have these two gigs. And we were playing in a place up on the second floor in the Elks Hall. He said, “With two pieces?” I said, “Yeah, man, that’s all the man can afford to hire.”

So this cat made this gig with me, man, and honest to goodness, just bass and tenor. And this cat was playing . . . See, Wilbur’s conception was that he played the bass like maybe he’s playing two basses, like he’s walking and he’s playing another line. That’s just his natural style! And the cat at the time didn’t read, he didn’t know F from G, he didn’t know nothin’. But he had this great ear. You know, formally! But he was great, man.

So he said, “Well, listen, man, how many more gigs you got?” I said, “Well, I’ve got a few more little old gigs” — because then if you had ten gigs a year, you were lucky. So I was telling him, “Man, I got a couple of other little gigs, but you’ve got to read some arrangements.” He said, “Do you think I could learn to read?” I said, “Sure, man!” So he started coming by my house, and I started showing him a few things about counting. And the cat picked it up so quickly! He was just a natural genius on bass. And he always played down in the bass fiddle. And I used to try to get him to smile, and I’d say, “Wilbur, smile some, baby. Come on, get with me!” Because I was I was doing the five-step and everything else, trying to feed this family and all. So he got to the point where he could just read anything you put in front of him. And I said, “Man, how in the world can you learn to read that quickly?” He said, “You know, I feel like I always could read.” But that’s when I found out that some people don’t really need to read, man. It’s great if you can. But that man could hear anything you . . . He was a natural musician.

As he proved with Monk when he went out with him.

Yeah, really. And a great cat. And he used to be so cool and so suave, until one night I heard him play the drums. He got on a cat’s drums, and he goes crazy. So I found out, now, that’s where his personality was. Because he kept great time on the drums. But he went nuts. He would start giggling and laughing! I said, “Man, get up off those drums and get back on the bass” — and he was very cool again! Wilbur Ware, man, he’s a great cat.

Do you think different instruments have different personalities?

Oh yeah. Because I’m pretty cool playing the tenor, but man, get me on a piano and I start jumping up and down. I think that’s where my natural personality is! I play something like . . . I’ll tell you who my style is like. It’s something like a mixture between Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. Really, just naturally.

[Music: Wilbur Ware, “Mama, Daddy” (1957), Cliff Jordan, “Quasimodo” (1978), F. Strozier, C. Anderson, “The Man Who Got Away” (1960)]

Von, you and Chris Anderson were associates for quite some time.

Oh, man, he was with me a long time. He was the cat who hipped me to harmony, man. I thought I knew a little something about harmony, boy, but when I went around to Chris Anderson, that little genius was in this . . . Now, you’ve got to understand, this was back in the ’40s. Man, that cat could play some things; he and Bill Lee, a bass player that’s around. Man, those cats had such an advanced knowledge of harmony! Chris used to take me aside, and I’d sit there and listen to him just play, and the different variations that he could and would play, man — I’m still astounded. And I heard that record; he’s still doing it.

In the segment we’ll hear the “avants,” as Von said, another generation of musicians who were taking the music in a different direction. And one of the key figures in that is Sun Ra.

Oh, man, yeah!

Tell us about your experiences with Sun Ra.

See, Sun Ra and I were more than just musicians. We were like friends. I have a few stories I could tell about Sun Ra, but really not on air at this time. But Sun Ra was and is an amazing man.

But before I get into Sun Ra, I would like to mention Frank Strozier. I met Frank when he first came to town with Harold Mabern and George Coleman, and of course, these cats are three of the greatest ever. You know, I didn’t mention alto players, but Frank Strozier and cats like McPherson, and Lou Donaldson (who is appearing at the Apartment in Chicago this weekend while I’m playing here — because you know, I love Lou), and of course, the great Phil Woods, and Jackie McLean! See, when you get into the alto players, then man, we could talk all day long about them, too — because that’s another bag.

See, I have often said that there are alto players, and there are tenor players, and there are a few baritone players — and a few soprano players. I think that Sonny Stitt was a rarity, he and Ira Sullivan, that they doubled. But I think more saxophone players either hear B-flat or E-flat, or hear that high horn, which is soprano, or hear that low horn, which is baritone. Of course, we could get into the baritone players, too! We could be here until tomorrow!

But I love all of them, because I know the problems that face a saxophone player.

But speaking about Sun Ra, Sun Ra was a man who I think had envisioned a lot of things that are happening today, with the synthesizers and whatnot. Sun Ra was really actually doing that back in the ’40s. And he was living a dual life, man!

How so?

Well, this cat was writing a straight show at a big club called the Club De Lisa; I mean, dah-da-duh-da-da-data–boom. And then he was writing all these other things for his band. His music encompassed so many different varieties of things, until I think Sun Ra is finally getting his due. Whether you like him or whether you don’t like him, you have to understand that the man was a seer of the future. Because people are doing now what Sun Ra did 40 years ago. And John Gilmore was playing outside way back then. I mean, what they call outside now. John was playing like that then, he and Pat Patrick both.

John Gilmore has said he met Sun Ra in 1953; I know you were working with people even before that. Was he working at all?

Well, he was doing his thing . . .

Apart from the De Lisa gig?

Yeah. And he was playing then . . . He was so strong . . . He’d play a dance. If three people came, he’d thank them and keep right on writing and keep right on playing. The man is a strong man, physically and mentally and spiritually and psychologically. That’s why he was able to last. Because people used to say, “Aw, he’s spacey, he’s out there” — but now everybody’s doing it.

What did you think of the out-there music then?

Oh, I dug it. I love it. I love it right today. Listen, let’s get out! Let’s get out there!

But a lot of the cats you were coming up with playing bebop didn’t really share that feeling about it.

Well, I think what a lot of the people thought, and the musicians, because I talked with a lot of them, I came up with them . . . Well, nobody wants to hear anybody go out if he hasn’t learned in. You see, if you haven’t learned your basics and you didn’t come up through all these saxophone players and trumpet players and piano players and drummers, the people who were fundamental in creating this music, if you didn’t pay your dues in that, well, nobody wants to hear you play outside, because you don’t know in.

And I have often said that you should learn in. Not that you have to learn in, because some people are just geniuses. But I would say the majority of us have to learn in. Now, if a person comes along who is playing what he should play and he’s outside, well, I would just say he’s a genius — because a lot of people thought Bird was out. But Bird wasn’t really out. He was just advanced. But he wasn’t out.

So I think that a lot of people have to catch up with different artists. But I think as a rule, the average person should learn in, then go out. And if he goes out with taste, he’s not going to stay out there too long. What’s he’s doing that people can relate to, and he’s still using his dynamics correctly . . . And when you go outside and it’s still done with taste, you still have patterns, you have different things that you’re doing that people can relate to. That’s my opinion.

In this next set we’ll also hear something by John Gilmore with Andrew Hill, who came up in Chicago as a child virtuoso in the 1940’s, and made his recorded debut with Von in 1952, I think, with Pat Patrick and a very young Malachi Favors. And I wonder if you might say something about your relationship with Andrew Hill and Malachi Favors.

Well, when I first heard Andrew, Andrew was playing in a Bud Powell vein. This was after Chris and I had parted, and Andrew more or less took his place. He was a great player, but he was playing straight-ahead. Anyway, he eventually went on, and he crossed over into playing his own thing, which some people call avant-garde. I just say he just moved on.

Of course, Malachi Favors then was playing straight-ahead bass, which was great, and he was a good player and had a good tone, and then he went with the Art Ensemble and started his own thing — or their things.

But 1952, of course, was well before that. Does that record exist? Is there a copy of it?

[Laughs] It’s on a label called Ping, and the person who put this out passed, and so I imagine the record . . . well, I know the record is out of print.

But listen, you know one thing? Andrew was playing organ on that record. And no one back in Chicago at that time knew how to record organ. So if you’re listening to the record, you can hardly hear him. But he was an excellent organ player. And on that recording, that’s what he’s playing.

[Music: Sun Ra/Gilmore, “State Street,” “Sometimes I’m Happy”; A. Hill/Gilmore, “Duplicity”]

Now we’ll get into a short set on Muhal Richard Abrams, one of the guiding lights of the music in Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s, and someone Von has known for a long time. Let’s talk about Muhal. And you have other things to say, too, I know.

Oh, listen, you just about said it all. The man is a great orchestrator and a great father to a whole lot of the cats, and he taught them all very, very well. Listen. I guess a man that was less than he would have sapped himself, because he’s really given of himself, and he’s helped the music so much. He’s something like Walter Dyett. He taught a lot of these guys discipline through just watching him. And Richard is a very dedicated man. And hey, man, what can I say about him? He’s a great musician, and I love him — plus, he taught my son. I got to love him! Taught him well, too.

You know, speaking of Muhal, another man here who has done so much for the young cats (and I know this personally) is the great Sam Rivers. You know, with his loft sessions he helped many a man pay his rent. And he’s another disciplinarian, you know. Sam doesn’t take any stuff. And of course, his great lady, that lady Bea, she’s a great patron of the arts. I couldn’t say too much about Sam and Bea Rivers.

You were talking before about how Sam Rivers had really developed a style of his own, and that’s something you appreciate.

That’s right, he has a style of his own. And I know how difficult it is in this music to arrive at that.

You were also talking about the difficulties of doubling, and Sam Rivers has developed a personal style on tenor, soprano, flute — and piano for that matter.

That’s the truth. He’s a master musician.

[Music: Muhal-Favors, “W.W.”]

Von, did you have any relationship with the AACM in the 1960’s?

Well, see, what happened, when they first formed, Muhal had come to me and wanted me to be one of the charter members. But I’m more or less a loner, and he understands that. I have my way with the fellows that come around me. I’m more of a guy that teaches by example, I guess, if I’m teaching at all. Osmosis, let’s just put it that way. Muhal was into the fact that he was tired of the jukeboxes dominating the scene. And this is what was really going on. If you had a job and you didn’t really play what was on the jukebox, or something similar to it, the proprietors did not hire you. So he went to a club, which was Transitions East, with a fellow who is gone now named Luba Rashik, who used to help him manage, and they were able to play just what they wanted to play, and they had a built-in crowd. So that’s where it began.

They also played at the Abraham Lincoln Center.

At the Lincoln Center. He did the same thing. And they were able to play their own music. And they had a crowd for it, a built-in audience for it. And of course, when he came to New York, he continued the same thing. And he’s done that all over the world. A very brave, strong, fearless man.

I never did mention that there were some more cats that influenced me heavily, man, like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Pharaoh, David Murray and the World Sax Quartet, all of those dudes are some of the baddest cats in the world. And Sam Rivers, of course. You know, I had asked earlier if you’d ever heard of Marion Brown, because Marion Brown is a beautiful player, man. And he plays avant-garde to a certain extent. But these are just some of the cats, man, that . . . Of course, when you do something like this, you should say “and a whole lot of others.” Because you really can’t name everybody. But these are some of the persons that come to mind by the way that some folks call avant-garde or whatever they want to call them. I just call them excellent players.

And playing the music of the times.

Really. I would include Chico Freeman in there. He tries to move on.

[Music: Von Freeman: “Catnap,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Tribute To Our Fathers”]

********************

Von Freeman and John Young
November 20, 1991

copyright © 1991, 1999, Ted Panken


Q: Von Freeman and John Young were both born in 1922, and both went to DuSable High School. When did the two of you first meet?

VF: Well, I remember John from a long time ago. Let’s just put it that way. For a long time.

Q: Was it in school?

VF: Oh, I don’t know. I . . .

Q: Was it in a musical situation?

VF: Well, I knew about him long before I really knew him. I always admired his playing, way-way-way back.

JY: I remember, Von, when we first played together, when was it, 1971, at . . . What was the name of that place?

VF: The New Apartment Lounge?

JY: At the New Apartment Lounge, yes. The other piano player, Jodie Christian, couldn’t make it. So Von called me to work with him, and we’ve been working with each other on and off ever since that time.

Q: But you had known each other back in high school undoubtedly.

JY: Well, I knew him, but our paths didn’t cross. He had his family band, his brother on drums and another brother playing guitar, and he played tenor saxophone, and I think he had Chris [Anderson?] . . . Anyway, he was using other piano players at the time. I was working with a dude named Dick Davis.

Q: So this was in the 1940’s, after the War.

VF: After the War, uh-huh.

JY: Or the 1950’s, I think it was.

Q: Both of you studied under Walter Dyett, and I believe John Young was in one of the first classes at DuSable High School as well. Didn’t it open around that year?

JY: Well, I was in the second year. What happened was, in ’34 they attempted to extend the old Wendell Phillips High School. It was called the new Wendell Phillips High School. But then they decided not to tear down old Wendell Phillips; they decided to keep it, and changed the name to DuSable. So it started off in 1934 as the new Wendell Phillips High School. They had to go into that stone and change the name to DuSable.

Q: There were a number of very talented young piano players in your class at that time.

JY: Well, I was in there with Dorothy Donegan and a fellow named Dempsey Travis, who wrote that book (he was playing the piano then, at that time), and Marbetha Davis. Nat Cole had just graduated not too long before that. Nat Cole and somebody else, I can’t think of him. Those were the piano players. We used to do what they called the Hi-Jinx at DuSable High School.

Q: The Hi-Jinx was a show band type . . .

JY: Yeah, it was a show to raise money. It was a fundraiser. And I was in the Hi-Jinx with these dudes, as a matter of fact, Redd Foxx was in one of those Hi-Jinx, a tramp band. But that was one of our fundraisers.

Q: So there was really tremendous musical talent all concentrated in this one high school, and there continued to be for many, many years.

JY: That’s right. Captain Dyett was at the root of it all. He’d cuss us out and make us do better than we did the previous time. He’d throw us out of the band, and if we came back the next day and didn’t make that same mistake, he’d pretend like he didn’t notice that we came back. He’d let us stay. [Von laughs]

Q: John Young, how long had you been playing piano at the time you entered high school? Had you already developed your musicality?

JY: Yes. I had my first lesson when I was about eight, I think it was. I had a private teacher for about ten years. Two, because I had one lady for five and then a gentleman for the other five. The lady didn’t want me to play jazz; she said, “That old devil jazz.” She wanted me to be a classical artiste. But I’d been listening to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Basie, and I said, “Well, that’s me.”

Q: You could be an artiste of another sort. But this was all music that was really part of the Chicago scene when you were a youngster coming up.

JY: Yes, that’s right.

Q: I don’t know how much first-hand exposure you were able to get as a teen and pre-teen. But give us a little flavor of what things were like in Chicago when your consciousness about music was starting to emerge.

JY: Well, if you want to know what things were like in Chicago, I’d better let Von . . .

Q: Von Freeman, I’ve been neglecting you.

VF: No, it’s fine. John is doing fine. [John laughs] But I really don’t remember.

Q: You don’t remember?

VF: No, man. Listen . . .

JY: It’s just like “Stardust,” huh?

VF: Yeah, listen.

JY: “Oh, but that was long ago . . . “

VF: See, because things were so groovy then that you had a tendency not to even realize how good it was. For instance, John was talking about Art Tatum before; of course, anybody with any musical sense at all loved that man’s piano playing. And I was lucky to have the fellow who first told me about him playing in a group of mine. His name was Prentice McCarey. Prentice was just like John. He loved him. He was a great piano player himself. Every time Coleman Hawkins would come through town . . . And this was way back, before I went to the War, so it was in the ’30s. See, I lived over Prentice McCarey. I used to listen to him practice on the piano. He was playing a place called the Golden Lily on 55th Street with one of my idols, which of course was Coleman Hawkins. And later on, I happened to have acquired a job at this same club on 55th Street on the south side of Chicago, upstairs. And it was funny . . . We were playing there, and Prentice said to me, “Man, guess who I’m gonna bring by your club tonight?” Well, I couldn’t guess. I thought he meant Prez, because he knew I loved Lester — Lester Young. But it was Art Tatum.

I’ll never forget that night, because when we got through playing, he went somewhere and picked up Art, and brought Art back. Let’s see, we got off at about one; it must have been about 2 o’clock in the morning. And Art played for about four or five hours just on the piano. And the piano wasn’t that great; a couple of keys were broken. He just missed them all night long. And that’s one of the high evenings of my lifetime. I had just gotten married, I think I was 23 years old or something like that. I didn’t realize how great that was.

The reason why I brought that up is that’s the way Chicago was. It was so good and there were so many big people in town . . . Like 63rd Street was full of musicians, full of clubs. 64th Street, the great Pershing Lounge up there. They would bring everybody in . . .

Q: But in the ’30s, when you were a teenager . . .

VF: Oh, that’s when it started. That’s when all that got started, and it really lasted until just about to the end of the ’40s . It started really dying out around 1950.

Q: For instance, as teenagers, were you able to go, say, to the Grand Terrace and hear Earl Hines, or was that off-limits to you?

VF: No, I never went. I was too young for that.

JY: Well, they broadcast from there, so we . . .

VF: But we heard that, though.

JY: We heard it on the radio.

Q: And was this what you were trying to come in under? Was Earl Hines the band that you admired? Von, when you were a young saxophonist, who were some of your models?

VF: Well, one of the persons is still living. What’s his name, John? He plays at Andy’s a lot now. On Mondays. He plays clarinet and tenor . . . Sort of a red looking fellow. He was on there with Budd Johnson. Oh, his name is Franz Jackson.

But see, during that era, Earl was just one of the many bands. Like, Count Basie was out here and all those big bands. Because that was the big band era. And of course, Earl had one of the better bands, and it just happened that he was based in Chicago. But then when Earl left, King Kolax brought a band in (do you remember that, John?) for a while.

JY: Yeah.

VF: He was a great trumpet player around town. And of course, he had Bennie Green with him, Gene Ammons . . . In fact, Billy Eckstine took some guys out of his band. Gene Ammons was in the Kolax band.

It was so good, and there were so many different personalities coming in from around the country. Now when you look back, when there’s nobody coming in on the south side, hardly, you think about how good it really was. That’s the reason why it’s hard to remember, because you should have been writing down all that stuff, really, but you didn’t. You had a tendency to think to think it was going to last forever, and of course it didn’t.

[MUSIC: Von and Chico Freeman, “Mercy, Mercy Me”; Gene Ammons, “My Way”]

Q: John Young joined Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy as a pianist in the early 1940’s.

JY: That’s right.

Q: What was your progression from high school to the point where Andy Kirk was calling you to join his band?

JY: Andy Kirk was on the road and needed a piano player, so he called the Harry Gray, the President of the Musicians Union, to send him a piano player, and he recommended me for the gig. Harry Gray was the type of fellow that has a big voice and talks loud; he was one of those kind of guys that believes in talking loud on the phone to get his point over. He calls me up on the telephone, and he says: “Mister Young!” He scared me half to death because I was young; I was only 19 or 20 years old. “Young! We have a job for you. It’s with Andy Kirk. Can you make it?” Hey-hey! I didn’t know what to say, you know what I mean. I said, “Uh-unh-uh-unh . . . ” He said, “Well, I’ll call you back.” So he called me back . . . I had to talk about it with my mother because I wasn’t 21 years old yet, see. So I had to tell my mother about it, and beg her to let me go. So anyway, he called me back, and I said, “Yes, sir, Mr. Gray. I’ll make it.” So he said, “Yes, well, okay then, I’ll call Andy.” So that’s how I got with Andy Kirk.

Q: Were you familiar with the band from records before that?

JY: No. All this was completely new. Mary Lou Williams had left the band, and the piano player who replaced her had just recorded “The Boogie-Woogie Cocktail.” “The Boogie-Woogie Cocktail” was getting over. So I had to take the record home and learn it off the record. [sings theme] So I took it home and laid my ear on it, and got back and played it as close as I could to the way the record sounded.

Q: Were you working in Chicago after high school?

JY: Yes!

Q: What were you doing in the interim? Tell us a little about your activities, John Young.

JY: Well, after I left high school, a fellow called me up and he took me to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I worked with him. I forget his name. But my earliest recollection of working in Chicago was some striptease joints. So I enjoyed that.

VF: [laughs] Look out, John!

Q: Was it solo piano?

JY: No-no . . .

Q: Did they have a little band?

JY: No, no, they had a group. It was a striptease joint downtown on . . . I think it’s called Clark Street — at a striptease joint down there. And then I worked in a place called Calumet City. What they would do . . .

Q: The notorious Calumet City. [Von: loud laugh]

JY: They would hang some drapes, some see-through drapes in front of the band, because they didn’t want the customers to think that the musicians were too familiar with the striptease artists, you know what I mean? So we played . . . Some of these striptease artists had some very difficult music while they was out there taking clothes off. And you’d be mad, because they got you there, and you’re back there sweating, and all they’re doing is just walking, traipsing around and taking a piece off here and there. And you’re back there sweating, trying to play the “Rhapsody In Blue” while they’d be walking around. But that’s what they liked. That’s what the striptease person wanted. And they’d want you to play that music. So I did . . . [sings ‘Rhapsody In Blue’] . . . and they’d just walk around, taking a little piece off here and there.

So that was my first gig before I really made a living. You know, you always make gigs here and there. But the first gigs that I remember where I really made a living was them striptease joints.

Q: Were you playing a lot of blues then, too?

JY: Oh, yeah. Well, you had to play that.

Q: Just talk about the piano styles in Chicago that you’d have to be going through.

JY: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. You had to play a little boogie here and there, and a little . . . Anyway, you had to know a little bit about most styles. Play a little of what they called stride, and you had to play a little boogie, and you had to play a little oom-pah, oom-chunk, oom-chunk-chunk — “boom-chink,” you would call it. You had to do a little bit of everything in order to try to make a living at it — which is the same thing I’m doing now. In order to make a living, you’ve got know a little bit about all of this.

Q: Well, subsequently (and we’ll talk about this later), you played with quite a few singers.

JY: Yes.

Q: Von, what were your earliest gigs after high school? Or were you also working during high school, outside?

VF: Well, you know, it was just about the same.

Q: You worked in the same strip joints.

VF: Oh, yes! [John laughs] And in fact, one of the first groups that I worked with, I can’t quite remember this man’s name now, but he was the drummer. The only thing I can really remember about him was he sat so low. He sat like in a regular chair, and it made him look real low down on the drums. I said, “I wonder why this guy sits so low.” You could hardly see him behind his cymbals. And we were playing a taxi dance. Now, you’re probably too young to know what those were.

Q: Well, I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.

VF: Oh! Well, see, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody.

Q: No more, no less!

VF: And the melody. And man, when I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody. And I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old.

Q: Were you playing tenor then?

VF: Oh, C-melody.

Q: C-melody was your first instrument.

VF: Yeah, my first one. And that really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there! Like John said, you played a lot of hard music, and you essentially played the melody out there. You had to learn the melody to tunes.

And so right today, I try never to forget the melody. Because I’ve found out that the people don’t forget the melody. So no matter how carried away I get, I try to remember the melody. All this stuff that you learned early in your career, you come to find out most of the things . . . Like, I wasn’t that crazy about Walter Dyett’s teaching. He was . . .

Q: Too authoritarian?

VF: . . . a disciplinarian and whatnot. But see, as you go along, and especially when you start getting in those 60s and closer to 70, see, you learn . . . One lesson is that most of the people who patted you on the back all the time and said, “Blow!” didn’t really mean it. The folks that you really think about are the ones that said, “Hey, man, that doesn’t sound good” or “Hey, that’s wrong.” They don’t really mean that it’s wrong. It’s incorrect; let’s put it that way. But you learn and you look back, you say, “Hey, they were trying to help me.”

Q: Von, let me get back to your career. When did you graduate from C-melody to the tenor?

VF: Well, I was playing dances. See, there was a famous lady named Sadie Bruce, and she gave me my first job. I must have been about . . . My first local job on the south side of Chicago was in her dance room. Because see, I used to tap dance.

JY: Yeah?

VF: Yes. So she asked me one day, “Somebody told me that you play an instrument.” I said, “Well, yes, Mrs. Bruce, I do.” She said, “Well, have you got a little old band? Because I’m planning to start some socials in my basement.” I said, “Well, I don’t know whether we’re good enough to play for that.” She said, “Well, I heard you on one of these back porches; you sound pretty good to me.” We used to do a lot of back porch clowning and playing.

But the interesting thing about that was that I had James Craig with me. Now, you may have never heard of James Craig, but he’s the piano player on Gene Ammons’ “Red Top” that did that little thing that’s kind of got . . . When you play “Red Top,” you have to play that little thing that he put in that song. He was a very good pianist. I had a vibe player named Norris from out of DuSable, and then I had Marvin Cates on drums. And that was my little group. I guess I was about 15. And it was the first job I played on the south side of Chicago, although I had been working in Gary and working downtown in the strip places.

So you know, my history is similar to John’s and almost everybody around Chicago. Because most of the jobbing was done in strip places in Calumet City and Hammond . . .

Q: Did those gigs get set up through the union?

VF: No-no-no. In fact, the union didn’t know anything about it.

Q: So those were things to avoid . . .

VF: Well, you worked eight hours for ten dollars. The union would have had a fit.

JY: Yeah, they were strict about that.

VF: It was like . . . the mines, we used to call them. But you could earn a living.

JY: That’s right.

Q: And learn a lot of music.

VF: Oh, listen! Now, when I look back, what you learned was invaluable. Because you learned discipline. You’d sit there playing the melody of the songs all night long . . .

Q: And I guess ten dollars went a long way in 1937.

VF: Oh, man, you dig? And it helped my lung power a whole lot, too.

Q: Smoke-filled rooms and all.

VF: Listen, you learned how to put that air in that horn there. Piano players learned how to really get a touch.

Q: I know that later Captain Dyett would form bands of his students and join them in the union, and they’d play gigs around that town? Was he doing that when you were there?

VF: Well, that was the one band that he called . . . See, we were all out of school, our high school called DuSable, and he called his band the DuSableites. He kept it for a while. He started it about two years before I went into the service, and then I came out of the service, then went back into it and stayed until about ’46 — about two more years. So he had that group from about 1941 until maybe ’47 or ’48.

Q: The years after World War II, from 1945 and ’46, were thriving years musically in Chicago. Von Freeman, you and your brothers — George, the great guitar player, and Eldridge “Bruz” Freeman, a drummer — had the house band at one of the most prestigious rooms in Chicago, the Pershing Ballroom. What were the circumstances behind that? And talk a bit about the geography of the Jazz scene in Chicago in that particular time and around that area.

VF: Oh, man, that’s when it was buzzing. From 31st Street all the way on up to let’s say 64th Street — well, 66th — Chicago was the place to be. John Young was at the Q Lounge, Dick Davis — everybody was in town and had a gig. It was right after the War, and the town was booming . . . They had a great promoter around town named McKie Fitzhugh. This guy came out of DuSable, and he was promoting. And he called me one day and he said, “Would you be interested in maybe getting your two brothers . . . ” See, because my brother George was very popular around that time.

Q: Had he been in Chicago during the war?

VF: Yes. You see, he didn’t go to the war; he was too young. He stayed around Chicago, man, and his name was buzzing. So he said, “Hey, why don’t you get together with your two brothers and get a piano player and a bass player? I’ve got an idea; I want to book a lot of names into the Pershing.”

Q: He likes to pick with a silver dollar, your brother.

VF: Right. That’s what he does now, yeah. So I said, “Okay, that will be fine.” So there was a fellow named Chris Anderson, a little blind pianist, and I had Leroy Jackson on bass (Leroy has since passed), and Alfred . . . What was Alfred’s last name, John? Do you remember Alfred?

JY: White.

VF: Alfred White. I was using two bassists at the time, concurrently, you know. So we went in, man, and that’s where I met Diz and Bird, Billie Holiday — everybody came down there.

Q: What sort of room was that? That was part of a complex of clubs . . .

VF: Oh, that was the ballroom itself. See, but the Pershing Lounge was beautiful, too. I played that later on. But at that time I was playing the ballroom.

Q: How was it set up? The national musicians would come in, and there would be dances?

VF: Yeah, dances. Dances Fridays and Saturdays.

Q: So people would be dancing to Bird, dancing to Diz . . .

VF: That’s right.

Q: Dancing to the people who would come in with you.

VF: Well, around that time things had changed a lot. They would stand around the bandstand, and there wasn’t that much dancing going on any more. And we used to play, man. I used to have a ball just playing with the stars, listening to them or whatever. I’m very lucky to have gotten chosen for that particular job.

Q: So who came through? We’re talking about the major stars in music at that time?

VF: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge — you name them. He brought everybody to Chicago, man. And he was paying so nice for those times. What he’d do is, he’d bring them in, and they would come in with no music, no nothing, and you were expected to know the tunes. And I had this little genius at the piano who knew everybody’s tunes. So we were very fortunate. We were able to play behind them.

Q: You’re referring to Chris Anderson.

VF: Yes.

Q: Von said that you, John Young, were working at the Q Lounge during this time.

JY: The Quality Lounge.

Q: The Quality Lounge. A high-quality joint, was it?

JY: Ah-ha-ha . . .

Q: I see.

JY: I was only in two shootings.

VF: At least! [laughs]

Q: Where was it? Which street was it on?

JY: The Quality Lounge was on 43rd Street. So if you know anything about 43rd Street, you know it wasn’t on the uppity-uppity-uppity-up. The Quality Lounge, I was in there with a fellow named Dick Davis who played tenor saxophone. I was the piano player, the drummer’s name was Buddy Smith, Eddie Calhoun was on bass. And I was singing . . .

Q: Singing, too.

JY: But at that time I had laryngitis. When (?) asked me to sing, I suddenly developed a case of laryngitis. All three of them called it “lyingitis” — because it was a gitis that never left. But the Q was cool . . . Like I say, it was a relaxed joint. You could come in there with tennis shoes on if you wanted to. It wasn’t nothin’ uppity, you know. And it was on 43rd Street. We had a good time in there for a number of years, the Quality Lounge on 43rd Street. I lost my point . . .

Q: Oh, I was talking to you about working in Chicago in the late 1940’s and late ’50s. When did you start working with a lot of singers?

JY: Well, a piano player always has a hundred singers around, you know.

Q: But you later became an accompanist for some major singers.

JY: Well, I was with Nancy Wilson for a hot minute in the ’60s. See, John Levy, the booking agent, he was a bass player around Chicago, so he just about knew everybody that he thought would fit with this or that person. So he thought that I would be a perfect fit for Nancy Wilson. He didn’t know that I was really into jazz, and that I wanted to be a jazz piano player. I wanted to be out front. You know what I mean? I won’t say out front, but I wanted to receive some of the same recognition that soloists receive rather than accompanists. But anyway, he hooked me up with Nancy Wilson, and I stayed with Nancy for a short spell.

And I had to write him a letter to explain to him why I didn’t stay. He thought that I should have stayed with her, because he gone to the trouble of booking me with Nancy Wilson, he felt that we were a perfect match, some kind of match anyway — and Nancy had struggled with me to try to get me to play here things like she liked them. So he thought I was going to be with Nancy Wilson for life. And I explained to him that, no, that ain’t what I had in mind.

When the piano player is a singer’s right arm, as they say, there are certain limitations to what he can do and what he . . . I’ve seen piano players be accompanists for life with certain singers or performers, and they stay in a rut for a long time. There’s only so much you can do as an accompanist. When you get thrown out there where you have to play the melody or have to carry the load, you’re lost.

Q: Well, we can get back to that in a minute. But I’d like to return to someone Von was talking about: Chris Anderson, who had a great impact really on the piano players in Chicago.

VF: Oh, man, he’s unsung. When I first met him, I met him in a big arena that we used to play on the south side, on 63rd Street and King Drive. I forget who I had on piano this time, but whoever he was, wasn’t making it. Chris happened to be sitting there, and he walked up and whispered in my ear, “I think I could play that.” I kind of looked at him, because I’d had people at different times to do that, say things like “Hey, man, I think I can do it a little better than what so-and-so is doing; I think I’ll feed you a little more” and blah-blah-blah. I generally don’t even listen. But for some reason or another, I said, “Oh, really?” Because this cat didn’t know the tune. I had asked him if he knew it, and he said, “Yeah,” and then when I got to playing the tune, he didn’t really know the tune.

So meanwhile, I guess the piano player heard Chris, and he said, “Hey, man, if you can play it, play it.” So he played it. And I said, “Hey, man, what’s your name?” And I noticed he was a little short fellow, you know . . . I said, “Hey, man, you stay there. I’ll pay both of you.” I told the other guy, “I’ll pay you, man, not to play.” So that’s how we began.

Chris heard a lot of things, just naturally, that I was trying to hear. And he was a very nice person about his knowledge. So I’d ask him, “Chris, where did you go there?” And he’d say so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so. So I learned a lot from him. At the time, I had been using Ahmad Jamal. And then Ahmad . . . He had a guitar player, I forget where this fellow was from, I think from Pittsburgh, where Ahmad was from. [Ray Crawford] So Ahmad had told me that he was giving me a two-week notice, that he was going to form his own trio. He’d stayed with me, I think, about two years, and then he formed his own trio. And then he started hanging with Chris, too. And I really noticed a big difference in his playing after he had been around Chris. Almost anybody who had been around him, it kind of opened them up a little bit — because he was very advanced for those times. In fact, I still think he is.

Q: So do a lot of other musicians around New York.

VF: Mmm-hmm.

Q: But his influence seems to go through a couple of generations in Chicago.

VF: Yeah, well, I think . . .

Q: Was Andrew Hill checking out Chris? Herbie Hancock?

VF: Well, Andrew worked with me a long time, too, you know. But Andrew was more or less into bebop at that time. But Chris to me wasn’t a bebop player, he wasn’t a swing player, he didn’t play like Art Tatum. To me, he was . . .

JY: He had his own thing.

VF: Yeah, he had his own thing. He was a conglomeration of all of that. And he didn’t flaunt his knowledge or anything. Maybe being blind helped him a lot, I don’t know. But he could hear a lot of things that I had always heard, and that I think everybody eventually wanted to hear. He was advanced for that time. See, now I’m speaking about 40 years ago.

Q: I’d like to ask you about a couple of the other great musicians who were working around Chicago a lot at that time? I’d like to ask you both about Ike Day, and if you both came into contact with him, played with him?

VF: Well, we used to go around playing tenor and drum ensembles together. He was a great drummer. And he was one of the first guys I had heard with all that polyrhythm type of playing; you know, sock cymbal doing one thing, bass drum another, snare drum another. He was very even-handed. Like the things Elvin does a lot of? Well, Ike did those way back in the ’40s and the late ’30s.

Q: Did you know Ike well enough for him to tell you about the drummers he was paying attention to as a young drummer?

VF: I know he liked Chick Webb. He never really mentioned anyone to me other than Chick Webb. And he liked Bird’s drummer . . . .

Q: Oh, Max Roach.

VF: Yeah.

Q: And I know Max Roach liked Ike Day, because he’s said so publicly on a number of occasions.

VF: Right.

Q: He was also a very versatile drummer, is what I gather. He would play big- band, piano trio combos. He was a totally versatile drummer, with great ears, a great listening drummer and so forth. Does that jibe with your recollection?

VF: I never heard him play with a big band. But I know he played in the combos. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer.

Ike to me was well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time.

Q: It’s very valuable to know this, because there is only one recording of Ike Day I think that exists at all, and the drums are almost buried . . .

VF: Oh, with Gene Ammons?

Q: With Gene Ammons, a Chess date.

VF: Oh yeah, that’s the same band.

Q: John Young, what are your memories of Ike Day? Did you play with Ike Day? Did you work with him?

JY: I might have played one or two tunes with Ike, but I don’t remember playing very much with Ike. I liked his work.

Q: Who were the drummers you mostly used on your gigs in Chicago at that time?

JY: Well, a fellow named Phil Thomas. I used him more than I did anybody else. And I started off with a drummer named Larry Jackson. Larry Jackson, Phil Thomas, Vernell Fournier. Phil is the one I used most. Strong drummer. Oh, I’m sorry! I’m about to forget the one that I’m using now, and that’s George Hughes. George has worked around New York and a number of places with Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy Gillespie uses him. George Hughes is his name. He’s the last drummer that I’ve used to any extent, more than once. Some drummers you use on certain gigs, just for that one time — there’s a number of those. But the ones that I’ve used over a period of time have to be George Hughes, Phil Thomas, and somebody else and somebody else . . .

Q: Von, I’d like to ask you about Gene Ammons, who I know you were friends with. He came several years after you at DuSable High School.

VF: Oh, well, Jug, man . . . Of course, I called him Ams. But it’s really interesting. His mother taught me my first chorus. He had a beautiful mother. And she was like a classical pianist. There’s very few people who know that. And I used to go to Jug’s house, and we’d practice together, and things like that. He was always one of my favorites. In fact, my brother was in the band that . . . See, George played with Jug. Probably the last nine years of his life Jug formed a group, and George was in the group. One of Jug’s last hits was called “The Black Cat,” which my brother George wrote.

So Jug and I had . . . We were very close. During my formative years, when I came out of the service, Jug used to hire me in his place, because he was getting so popular. So when he’d work a club, and he’d have to go out of town, he’d always get me to take his place. And a lot of people say I play like Jug. Which I wish I did! But I don’t know, he’s just one of my favorites.

[MUSIC: “Lost In A Fog” and “No. 7”; John Young departs]

Q: On the last segment, Von, I was asking you about some of the great figures who were active in Chicago in the post-World War II era. I know you used to work with Sun Ra’s rehearsal bands and had some contact with Sun Ra in the late 1940s and 1950s.

VF: Oh yes!

Q: What was he into at that point? What was his music sounding like and what was he doing around Chicago at that time?

VF: Oh, his music was sounding beautiful. But you know, one of the things that’s really different about him, he had two different concepts altogether. See, he was playing all this new-sounding music and different-sounding music with his own group — and of course I was a part of that. And then, he was over at a famous club on the south side of Chicago, the Club De Lisa, and he was writing show music for that band, which was Red Saunders’ band.

Q: Tell us a little about that band, too. It was a major band at a major venue.

VF: Oh, yeah. Well, that’s the band that Sonny Cohn came out of. And of course, for those who don’t know Sonny Cohn, he was with Count Basie for years and years and years. A trumpeter, a great young trumpeter. And of course, Red Saunders was a premier drummer around Chicago for show bands, all . . .

Q: And he had that band for about 17-18 years.

VF: Well, actually I think it was about 27. And he was right there at the Club DeLisa. And all the younger drummers used to go around to see Red to learn how to play shows. Because that’s another art of drumming. You know, show drumming: how to catch the performers and catch the singers. Every time they move, the drummer does something. And he did it so tastefully.

Q: Of course, there’s a tradition of that in Chicago that really goes back to the silent movie days in the 1920s.

VF: It certainly does.

Q: The great black orchestras that performed at the different big movie theatres.

VF: That’s right.

Q: There was Erskine Tate and Doc Cooke and a couple of others.

VF: That’s right.

Q: A lot of great musicians got their real polish in those show bands.

VF: That’s very, very true.

Q: Do you remember hearing those bands as a little boy?

VF: Oh, surely. And then I ended up playing at the Regal Theatre in the pit for different things.

Q: Oh, when was that?

VF: Oh, that was way back. I was in high school.

Q: The Regal was perhaps the equivalent in Chicago to the Apollo in some ways. Is that accurate?

VF: Yes, it was. Of course, no place would be like the Apollo, naturally. But the Regal was Chicago’s Apollo, let’s put it that way.

Q: We’re juggling a number of different things at once. So let’s get back to what Sun Ra was doing.

VF: Well, Sun Ra . . .

Q: He was writing show music for Red Saunders at the Club De Lisa.

VF: And I found it very interesting that he could write this show music, which was essentially this do, du, do-du, do-du-do, and then his thing, where he had all these different voices going and his music was very complicated at the time. But it swung — in Sun Ra’s unique way. Because he had two great saxophone players with him. He had, of course, Pat Patrick, who is sort of ill these days around Chicago. And of course, he had John Gilmore. He kept great players in his group. And of course, I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot by being in his band.

Q: Now, when exactly were you in his band?

VF: I was in his band during let’s say ’48, ’49 . . .

Q: Was that a working band or a rehearsal band?

VF: Oh, yeah. He played.

Q: What type of gigs would he do?

VF: He played dances. He really did, yeah. And he had like his own ballroom. I can’t think of the name of the ballroom. It was on the east side of 63rd Street, and we played at this ballroom. And Sun Ra was never into whether there was anybody in the ballroom or not. He simply tried to play what he felt.

Q: Would that music be recognizable to people who know Sun Ra today? Did it . . . ?

VF: Yeah, I think so. I think so. Now, he went back in recent years, and was playing some of Fletcher Henderson’s type of music and whatnot. But he’s still playing with that unique Sun Ra thing.

Q: Well, he covers the whole spectrum, really.

VF: Yes, he does.

Q: He plays different things for different occasions.

VF: Yes, he does.

Q: Didn’t Red Holloway also work briefly with Sun Ra? Is that true or not?

VF: I know that Red took a band into the Club De Lisa for six months when Red Saunders took off. Because I was in that band, playing alto, and I know that Sun Ra was writing the show music at the time. But whether or not he ever played in one of Sun Ra’s original bands, I do not know. You’d have to ask Red.

Q: Who were some of the other people in that Sun Ra band from the late 1940’s?

VF: Well, Julian Priester for one.

Q: That early, in the late 1940’s?

VF: No, Julian came along later. But in the ’40s . . . I’m trying to think. Oh, man . . . See, he had different people, and I really can’t remember who was in those bands..

Q: Tell us a little bit about the Club De Lisa. They were famous for their breakfast dances . . .

VF: Yes.

Q: We played a selection before by your son dedicated to Andrew Hill, who was 15 years old when he made his first record with you.

VF: Oh, yes, Andrew is a beautiful pianist. Of course, his style has evolved. At that time he was more or less playing bebop, and as he got younger he went on into free-form and whatnot. But he did it honestly. He feels it. And I like what he’s doing.

Q: Von, we’re going to hear now something from a Groove Holmes’ 1967-’68 record The Groover, featuring your brother George on his composition, “The Walrus,” some variations on “Sweet Georgia Brown” . . .

VF: Well, I think that’s what that is. I’ll have to hear it. But that sounds right to me.

Q: We’ll make no commitments.

VF: Well, back during that era we all used to take standard tunes and then write little originals and whatnot.

[MUSIC: “The Walrus,” “How Deep Is The Ocean” (Von solo)]

Q: Von, you had said to me that “How Deep Is The Ocean” is one you particularly wanted to have presented on this show, that you were very proud of it.

VF: Oh, man, to me that’s one of my greatest moments. In fact, that is the greatest moment I have enjoyed recording. It just happened. The lady who has the label said, “Hey, why don’t you play something slow?” I said, “Oh, I don’t feel like.” But she’s so beautiful, she asked again, and she said, “Well, please play something.” So how can you refuse a lady? So just off the top of my head, she said, “We’re rolling,” and I didn’t even have any idea what I wanted to play — I just went into that tune. And that’s the way it happened. And to me it’s the greatest thing I have ever done on record. I really felt that I did the tune justice; you know, for the way I was feeling. As a rule, I don’t care much for my recordings.

Q: Do you do that during your performances, Von? Are you going to be doing any a cappella this week at Condon’s?

VF: Oh, you know, last night I played several tunes. Of course, I didn’t do it like I did on the album, but I have a tendency . . .

Q: You always do long cadenzas . . .

VF: Yeah. And I have a tendency sometimes just to cut the band and play for a chorus or two. I’ve always done that, though.

Q: Von, you’ve stated in print that Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young were really your two primary influences in terms of how to approach the saxophone, and you see your style as a melding of the two.

VF: That’s true.

Q: You mentioned hearing Coleman Hawkins in the 1930’s in Chicago. Did you study his records in the 1930’s? Did you study Prez’s records?

VF: Well, actually, yes. See, Hawk was a good friend of my father’s.

Q: How was that? Your father was a musician?

VF: No, not really. Actually he was a Chicago policeman. But he loved music, and he loved to hang around the guys, you know. So my Dad, he always kept a record collection from as far back as I can remember. So naturally, I had an affinity for music from right him, actually.

But Lester Young, see, used to come to the Regal Theatre all the time with Count Basie’s band, and all us little guys loved Lester, and we used to go and sit down in the front, you know, and try to play his solos. I had some of his earliest records, like “Every Tub” and all those, and I used to practice those. In fact, I got so I could play those note for note. And I could play Hawk’s “Body and Soul” note for note. So those two . . . Well, just like probably all the rest of the Chicago saxophone players. We were a conglomeration of Hawk and Prez.

Q: Gene Ammons, certainly.

VF: Oh yeah. Well, of course. And Dex and me — almost all of them.

Q: What was your first reaction to Charlie Parker when you heard his music the first time?

VF: Now, that takes me back. Because my Dad gave me the first music I ever heard of Charlie Parker. He gave me “The Hootie Blues.” He brought it, and he said, “Hi, hot-shot, you think you’re so hot because you got Lester Young down.” He says, “Try out this guy.” I said, “Oh, what’s this, Pop. Who did you bring . . . ?” Man, he put that thing on, and it knocked me out. Because see, to me Bird was playing Prez on alto — to me. And it was just more advanced. It’s like when I first heard Trane; I heard Prez and Bird. And I guess whoever follows, whoever the next saxophone player will be, it will be, you know, Prez and Bird and Trane and Getz and Zoot. All the good saxophone players have a tendency to be on the same line. Like just some of them followed; they play more Hawkins than Prez. But I hear lately most people are getting the two together. Because that makes what you’d almost call the perfect saxophone player. Because Hawk had so many things . . . He had all that power and drive, and Prez could float and just sail along. I would say Hawk just played straight up and down, and Prez played sideways. So if you get them, you’ve got the whole thing together.

And I think it didn’t take saxophone players too long to learn this, especially tenor saxophone players. I think I was with you on the program a few years back, and I was telling you about that tenor. That tenor presents a different type of problem for the simple reason that the ladies like the sound of the saxophone. And ladies are very dominant in your crowd. So you’ve got to learn how to play sweet, and for the men you got to learn how to holler — you can’t just sit up and play ballads all night. So there’s so much to get together on that tenor. And I like to always think of a trombone . . .

Q: In your playing?

VF: Yeah, man. Because a trombone sounds . . . Like, I call great trombone players like tenor saxophone players. You’ve got two of them here. Curtis Fuller, who did all those records with the Jazz Messengers, he just sounded like one of the real good tenor players. And the other cat who’s the Indian, what’s his name, who plays shells . . . ?

Q: You’re talking about Steve Turre.

VF: Yeah, Turre! Man, to me, man, those two cats when I hear them, I say, “Oh, man, if I could get a sound like that!” Because see, the tenor and the trombone, with Dickie Wells, remember him . . . ? All these cats had that haunting quality that saxophone players get. And as strange as it may sound, to me Miles sounds something like a tenor player. Although I always think that the trumpet is the dominant instrument, because who can do it better than a great trumpet player? Because you’ve got everything coming right out of the bell of that horn. When I hear Wynton play I think of a saxophone player. Now, that’s coming at it from a saxophone player’s view, of course.

[MUSIC: Coleman Hawkins: “The Man I Love,” “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”; Lester Young, “These Foolish Things,” “I Got Rhythm”]

Q: “I Got Rhythm” is one of the basic bedrock tunes in all of Jazz.

VF: Man, listen. I can play a job playing “I Got Rhythm”! I’m telling you. Give me a few blues tunes and “I Got Rhythm” and I can make the gig. I’m telling you. Beautiful, man.

Q: “These Foolish Things” I can remember from my time living in Chicago as the most popular ballad in that town.

VF: Right.

Q: That may or may not be true . . .

VF: It still is!

Q: People in Chicago have long memories about the music.

VF: Well, see, just about all the tenor players made their name around there. You know, whether they were from Chicago or not, during the late ’30s and the ’40s and the early ’50s, all the great saxophonists were around Chicago playing. So you’d sort of feel like they’re from Chicago, although of course they’re not.

I talk on shows, dropping names here, dropping names there, but I’d just like to go on the record saying how much I’ve gotten from some of the current cats, cats who are still living. Like Benny Golson, man. Benny Golson wouldn’t even remember me. I was working at the Pershing Ballroom, or actually I’d moved up to the lounge, and Benny came by and jammed with me all morning, all morning at the Pershing Lounge — and I just fell in love with Benny Golson. Now, this is back in ’53 or ’54.

Q: He would have been on the road with one of the rhythm-and-nlues bands.

VF: I forget when he came to town, but it was just shortly before. . . Bird passed in ’55. It was about ’53 or ’54 or something like that.

Well, Benny Golson, and I remember the first time I heard Wayne Shorter. And then [John] Stubblefield used to be around Chicago; he used to come around to me a lot. And of course, Joe Lovano, I’ve been listening to him lately. Of course, Junior Cook wouldn’t remember the first time I played with him, down in Miami. I was traveling with the Al Smith Band, and ran into Junior Cook down in Miami, and he knocked me out. And of course Jimmy Heath I’ve always loved. Because Jimmy, man . . . Who plays more horn than Jimmy Heath? He’s beautiful. And Clifford Jordan has been around with me at different times. In fact, I came up here once and worked a gig with Clifford Jordan . . .

Q: That was at the Irving Plaza on 15th Street, with Chris Anderson and Victor Sproles on that date.

VF: Right! Surely! Yeah! And then of course, Sonny Rollins. I’ve always loved Sonny. And I ran into him once, I had a group I think in Holland or something, and he was on the concert, and they gave him a birthday party — and we hung out and talked for hours. Of course, Dewey Redman. I’ve always loved Dewey Redman, because he’s a beautiful cat. And young Branford Marsalis. I remember when we first cut this concept album, he was beautiful. And of course, Mike Brecker. I ran into him once at the Montreux Festival over in Europe, in Switzerland. And of course, Illinois Jacquet, I saw him recently at I think it was . . . Well, he had this big band at this thing in Holland.

So man, it’s . . . Of course, when you name names you always leave out some names. But these are some of the cats I’ve always probably copied a lot of things that they’ve done. And I’m glad to see that all these cats are still living.

Q: Von, one thing that has always impressed me and many people who have heard you is your proclivity for going inside and outside, but always remaining within the framework of the piece — the freedom of your playing in some ways.

VF: Well, it comes from my hobby, I guess. See, my hobby is music, and of course, I sit up all day and all night long sometimes, studying progressions. It’s just something that I like to do. I’m not trying to prove anything by it. I don’t even know whether it helps my playing or hurts it. But it gives me an outlet to experiment with things that I like, that I’m hearing inside. And I practice so much, even today I practice a couple of hours, three to four hours a day . . . In fact, I run my Mom, who I fortunately still have with me, I run her nuts sometimes. She says, “Man, put that horn down.” And I’m just trying to hear things. It’s just an inside thing, which I’m trying to hear things that please me.

And of course sometimes I do get carried away. I admit that. Sometimes I say, “Hey, come back!” Because I’m running sometimes progressions that I’ve been practicing and hearing, and sometimes I lose track of where the melody is and everything because I’m so extended out there. So it works both ways. And sometimes I’m rather pleased with what I do. But as a rule, I say, “Ah, let me discard that.”

So it’s just something to keep me interested in what I’m doing. And it’s more or less a personal thing.

[MUSIC: Von Freeman-Sam Jones, “Sweet and Lovely,” Von, “I Remember You.”]

Q: I know Sonny Stitt is someone you were close to and had tremendous respect for, along with Gene Ammons.

VF: Oh, I loved him, yeah. We played a lot together.

Q: One of the amazing saxophonists, maybe a little under-appreciated in New York more so than in the Midwest and the South.

VF: Well, I’ll tell you what had to happen with Sonny Stitt, man. You had to get on the bandstand and play with him to really appreciate him. See, Sonny Stitt was mean, man. Sonny Stitt could play so many different things. And he was just as mean on tenor as he was on alto. In fact, he had another style altogether on tenor. And he played baritone! He played it proficiently. The man was a great saxophone player.

Q: And a much more creative player than I think people commonly gave him credit for.

VF: Oh, man. The man could just play anything he wanted to play. Sonny to me was amazing. I loved him. And we used to play a lot around in Gary and Evanston and things like that when he’d come in town. Because he loved to battle, you know, and he loved to get you up on that stage and wear you out. And if you wasn’t together, brother, he would wear you out! But he was a beautiful cat.

Q: Well, Chicago is famous for the tenor battles . . .

VF: Oh, man! You got to have plenty of wind back in those days, I’m telling you.

Q: Your son started out as a trumpet player.

VF: Yes. Well, see, I played trumpet for about 25 years.

Q: You played it on gigs, too?

VF: Yeah. But I had retired the trumpet, and Chico went down to the basement and found it when he was very young. And I thought he was going to be a trumpet player. Well, I had an alto that I had retired down in the basement, too. See, in the era I came up, you played everything you could get your hands on, whether it was the harmonica, I don’t care what it was — you tried to play it. And I had a number of these strange instruments down in the basement. And they went down there and found them. Chico was about 10 and my other son, Markm about 9. And one day I heard all this noise coming out of the basement, and I said, “What is that?” And they were down there playing. Out of the two, I really felt Mark would be the one who could play. But Chico has got one thing that is very important. He has durability! — and stick-to- itiveness. So he stuck with it.

But he actually began playing trumpet, and went to school playing trumpet. In fact, he went to Northwestern playing trumpet. But he ended up on saxophone. And every time I hear him, he’s trying to grow.

Q: We’ll hear “Lord Riff and Me.”

VF: Well, that’s the moniker I was given back in high school . . .

Q: By Captain Dyett.

VF: Yes.

Q: It sounds like a compliment.

VF: Well, actually, see, the way my career began, I used to riff all the time. [sings a riff] I could play any riff you ever heard on a horn. I was good at riffing, see. I didn’t know too much about progressions or harmonics, but I could riff. And that’s where that came from.

You know, Chico did some real strange . . . Like, I’ve always played at the piano. And at the end of one of those albums he has me playing the piano.

Q: Would you like us to end with that?

VF: Yes. Because a lot of people don’t know that actually I play the piano. I like to say play at the piano.

*******************

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For Von Freeman’s 97th Birth Anniversary, a 1991 WKCR Interview with Von and pianist John

Von Freeman and John Young
November 20, 1991, WKCR

copyright © 1991, 1999, Ted Panken


Q: Von Freeman and John Young were both born in 1922, and both went to DuSable High School. When did the two of you first meet?

VF: Well, I remember John from a long time ago. Let’s just put it that way. For a long time.

Q: Was it in school?

VF: Oh, I don’t know. I . . .

Q: Was it in a musical situation?

VF: Well, I knew about him long before I really knew him. I always admired his playing, way-way-way back.

JY: I remember, Von, when we first played together, when was it, 1971, at . . . What was the name of that place?

VF: The New Apartment Lounge?

JY: At the New Apartment Lounge, yes. The other piano player, Jodie Christian, couldn’t make it. So Von called me to work with him, and we’ve been working with each other on and off ever since that time.

Q: But you had known each other back in high school undoubtedly.

JY: Well, I knew him, but our paths didn’t cross. He had his family band, his brother on drums and another brother playing guitar, and he played tenor saxophone, and I think he had Chris [Anderson?] . . . Anyway, he was using other piano players at the time. I was working with a dude named Dick Davis.

Q: So this was in the 1940’s, after the War.

VF: After the War, uh-huh.

JY: Or the 1950’s, I think it was.

Q: Both of you studied under Walter Dyett, and I believe John Young was in one of the first classes at DuSable High School as well. Didn’t it open around that year?

JY: Well, I was in the second year. What happened was, in ’34 they attempted to extend the old Wendell Phillips High School. It was called the new Wendell Phillips High School. But then they decided not to tear down old Wendell Phillips; they decided to keep it, and changed the name to DuSable. So it started off in 1934 as the new Wendell Phillips High School. They had to go into that stone and change the name to DuSable.

Q: There were a number of very talented young piano players in your class at that time.

JY: Well, I was in there with Dorothy Donegan and a fellow named Dempsey Travis, who wrote that book (he was playing the piano then, at that time), and Marbetha Davis. Nat Cole had just graduated not too long before that. Nat Cole and somebody else, I can’t think of him. Those were the piano players. We used to do what they called the Hi-Jinx at DuSable High School.

Q: The Hi-Jinx was a show band type . . .

JY: Yeah, it was a show to raise money. It was a fundraiser. And I was in the Hi-Jinx with these dudes, as a matter of fact, Redd Foxx was in one of those Hi-Jinx, a tramp band. But that was one of our fundraisers.

Q: So there was really tremendous musical talent all concentrated in this one high school, and there continued to be for many, many years.

JY: That’s right. Captain Dyett was at the root of it all. He’d cuss us out and make us do better than we did the previous time. He’d throw us out of the band, and if we came back the next day and didn’t make that same mistake, he’d pretend like he didn’t notice that we came back. He’d let us stay. [Von laughs]

Q: John Young, how long had you been playing piano at the time you entered high school? Had you already developed your musicality?

JY: Yes. I had my first lesson when I was about eight, I think it was. I had a private teacher for about ten years. Two, because I had one lady for five and then a gentleman for the other five. The lady didn’t want me to play jazz; she said, “That old devil jazz.” She wanted me to be a classical artiste. But I’d been listening to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Basie, and I said, “Well, that’s me.”

Q: You could be an artiste of another sort. But this was all music that was really part of the Chicago scene when you were a youngster coming up.

JY: Yes, that’s right.

Q: I don’t know how much first-hand exposure you were able to get as a teen and pre-teen. But give us a little flavor of what things were like in Chicago when your consciousness about music was starting to emerge.

JY: Well, if you want to know what things were like in Chicago, I’d better let Von . . .

Q: Von Freeman, I’ve been neglecting you.

VF: No, it’s fine. John is doing fine. [John laughs] But I really don’t remember.

Q: You don’t remember?

VF: No, man. Listen . . .

JY: It’s just like “Stardust,” huh?

VF: Yeah, listen.

JY: “Oh, but that was long ago . . . “

VF: See, because things were so groovy then that you had a tendency not to even realize how good it was. For instance, John was talking about Art Tatum before; of course, anybody with any musical sense at all loved that man’s piano playing. And I was lucky to have the fellow who first told me about him playing in a group of mine. His name was Prentice McCarey. Prentice was just like John. He loved him. He was a great piano player himself. Every time Coleman Hawkins would come through town . . . And this was way back, before I went to the War, so it was in the ’30s. See, I lived over Prentice McCarey. I used to listen to him practice on the piano. He was playing a place called the Golden Lily on 55th Street with one of my idols, which of course was Coleman Hawkins. And later on, I happened to have acquired a job at this same club on 55th Street on the south side of Chicago, upstairs. And it was funny . . . We were playing there, and Prentice said to me, “Man, guess who I’m gonna bring by your club tonight?” Well, I couldn’t guess. I thought he meant Prez, because he knew I loved Lester — Lester Young. But it was Art Tatum.

I’ll never forget that night, because when we got through playing, he went somewhere and picked up Art, and brought Art back. Let’s see, we got off at about one; it must have been about 2 o’clock in the morning. And Art played for about four or five hours just on the piano. And the piano wasn’t that great; a couple of keys were broken. He just missed them all night long. And that’s one of the high evenings of my lifetime. I had just gotten married, I think I was 23 years old or something like that. I didn’t realize how great that was.

The reason why I brought that up is that’s the way Chicago was. It was so good and there were so many big people in town . . . Like 63rd Street was full of musicians, full of clubs. 64th Street, the great Pershing Lounge up there. They would bring everybody in . . .

Q: But in the ’30s, when you were a teenager . . .

VF: Oh, that’s when it started. That’s when all that got started, and it really lasted until just about to the end of the ’40s . It started really dying out around 1950.

Q: For instance, as teenagers, were you able to go, say, to the Grand Terrace and hear Earl Hines, or was that off-limits to you?

VF: No, I never went. I was too young for that.

JY: Well, they broadcast from there, so we . . .

VF: But we heard that, though.

JY: We heard it on the radio.

Q: And was this what you were trying to come in under? Was Earl Hines the band that you admired? Von, when you were a young saxophonist, who were some of your models?

VF: Well, one of the persons is still living. What’s his name, John? He plays at Andy’s a lot now. On Mondays. He plays clarinet and tenor . . . Sort of a red looking fellow. He was on there with Budd Johnson. Oh, his name is Franz Jackson.

But see, during that era, Earl was just one of the many bands. Like, Count Basie was out here and all those big bands. Because that was the big band era. And of course, Earl had one of the better bands, and it just happened that he was based in Chicago. But then when Earl left, King Kolax brought a band in (do you remember that, John?) for a while.

JY: Yeah.

VF: He was a great trumpet player around town. And of course, he had Bennie Green with him, Gene Ammons . . . In fact, Billy Eckstine took some guys out of his band. Gene Ammons was in the Kolax band.

It was so good, and there were so many different personalities coming in from around the country. Now when you look back, when there’s nobody coming in on the south side, hardly, you think about how good it really was. That’s the reason why it’s hard to remember, because you should have been writing down all that stuff, really, but you didn’t. You had a tendency to think to think it was going to last forever, and of course it didn’t.

[MUSIC: Von and Chico Freeman, “Mercy, Mercy Me”; Gene Ammons, “My Way”]

Q: John Young joined Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy as a pianist in the early 1940’s.

JY: That’s right.

Q: What was your progression from high school to the point where Andy Kirk was calling you to join his band?

JY: Andy Kirk was on the road and needed a piano player, so he called the Harry Gray, the President of the Musicians Union, to send him a piano player, and he recommended me for the gig. Harry Gray was the type of fellow that has a big voice and talks loud; he was one of those kind of guys that believes in talking loud on the phone to get his point over. He calls me up on the telephone, and he says: “Mister Young!” He scared me half to death because I was young; I was only 19 or 20 years old. “Young! We have a job for you. It’s with Andy Kirk. Can you make it?” Hey-hey! I didn’t know what to say, you know what I mean. I said, “Uh-unh-uh-unh . . . ” He said, “Well, I’ll call you back.” So he called me back . . . I had to talk about it with my mother because I wasn’t 21 years old yet, see. So I had to tell my mother about it, and beg her to let me go. So anyway, he called me back, and I said, “Yes, sir, Mr. Gray. I’ll make it.” So he said, “Yes, well, okay then, I’ll call Andy.” So that’s how I got with Andy Kirk.

Q: Were you familiar with the band from records before that?

JY: No. All this was completely new. Mary Lou Williams had left the band, and the piano player who replaced her had just recorded “The Boogie-Woogie Cocktail.” “The Boogie-Woogie Cocktail” was getting over. So I had to take the record home and learn it off the record. [sings theme] So I took it home and laid my ear on it, and got back and played it as close as I could to the way the record sounded.

Q: Were you working in Chicago after high school?

JY: Yes!

Q: What were you doing in the interim? Tell us a little about your activities, John Young.

JY: Well, after I left high school, a fellow called me up and he took me to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I worked with him. I forget his name. But my earliest recollection of working in Chicago was some striptease joints. So I enjoyed that.

VF: [laughs] Look out, John!

Q: Was it solo piano?

JY: No-no . . .

Q: Did they have a little band?

JY: No, no, they had a group. It was a striptease joint downtown on . . . I think it’s called Clark Street — at a striptease joint down there. And then I worked in a place called Calumet City. What they would do . . .

Q: The notorious Calumet City. [Von: loud laugh]

JY: They would hang some drapes, some see-through drapes in front of the band, because they didn’t want the customers to think that the musicians were too familiar with the striptease artists, you know what I mean? So we played . . . Some of these striptease artists had some very difficult music while they was out there taking clothes off. And you’d be mad, because they got you there, and you’re back there sweating, and all they’re doing is just walking, traipsing around and taking a piece off here and there. And you’re back there sweating, trying to play the “Rhapsody In Blue” while they’d be walking around. But that’s what they liked. That’s what the striptease person wanted. And they’d want you to play that music. So I did . . . [sings ‘Rhapsody In Blue’] . . . and they’d just walk around, taking a little piece off here and there.

So that was my first gig before I really made a living. You know, you always make gigs here and there. But the first gigs that I remember where I really made a living was them striptease joints.

Q: Were you playing a lot of blues then, too?

JY: Oh, yeah. Well, you had to play that.

Q: Just talk about the piano styles in Chicago that you’d have to be going through.

JY: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. You had to play a little boogie here and there, and a little . . . Anyway, you had to know a little bit about most styles. Play a little of what they called stride, and you had to play a little boogie, and you had to play a little oom-pah, oom-chunk, oom-chunk-chunk — “boom-chink,” you would call it. You had to do a little bit of everything in order to try to make a living at it — which is the same thing I’m doing now. In order to make a living, you’ve got know a little bit about all of this.

Q: Well, subsequently (and we’ll talk about this later), you played with quite a few singers.

JY: Yes.

Q: Von, what were your earliest gigs after high school? Or were you also working during high school, outside?

VF: Well, you know, it was just about the same.

Q: You worked in the same strip joints.

VF: Oh, yes! [John laughs] And in fact, one of the first groups that I worked with, I can’t quite remember this man’s name now, but he was the drummer. The only thing I can really remember about him was he sat so low. He sat like in a regular chair, and it made him look real low down on the drums. I said, “I wonder why this guy sits so low.” You could hardly see him behind his cymbals. And we were playing a taxi dance. Now, you’re probably too young to know what those were.

Q: Well, I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.

VF: Oh! Well, see, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody.

Q: No more, no less!

VF: And the melody. And man, when I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody. And I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old.

Q: Were you playing tenor then?

VF: Oh, C-melody.

Q: C-melody was your first instrument.

VF: Yeah, my first one. And that really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there! Like John said, you played a lot of hard music, and you essentially played the melody out there. You had to learn the melody to tunes.

And so right today, I try never to forget the melody. Because I’ve found out that the people don’t forget the melody. So no matter how carried away I get, I try to remember the melody. All this stuff that you learned early in your career, you come to find out most of the things . . . Like, I wasn’t that crazy about Walter Dyett’s teaching. He was . . .

Q: Too authoritarian?

VF: . . . a disciplinarian and whatnot. But see, as you go along, and especially when you start getting in those 60s and closer to 70, see, you learn . . . One lesson is that most of the people who patted you on the back all the time and said, “Blow!” didn’t really mean it. The folks that you really think about are the ones that said, “Hey, man, that doesn’t sound good” or “Hey, that’s wrong.” They don’t really mean that it’s wrong. It’s incorrect; let’s put it that way. But you learn and you look back, you say, “Hey, they were trying to help me.”

Q: Von, let me get back to your career. When did you graduate from C-melody to the tenor?

VF: Well, I was playing dances. See, there was a famous lady named Sadie Bruce, and she gave me my first job. I must have been about . . . My first local job on the south side of Chicago was in her dance room. Because see, I used to tap dance.

JY: Yeah?

VF: Yes. So she asked me one day, “Somebody told me that you play an instrument.” I said, “Well, yes, Mrs. Bruce, I do.” She said, “Well, have you got a little old band? Because I’m planning to start some socials in my basement.” I said, “Well, I don’t know whether we’re good enough to play for that.” She said, “Well, I heard you on one of these back porches; you sound pretty good to me.” We used to do a lot of back porch clowning and playing.

But the interesting thing about that was that I had James Craig with me. Now, you may have never heard of James Craig, but he’s the piano player on Gene Ammons’ “Red Top” that did that little thing that’s kind of got . . . When you play “Red Top,” you have to play that little thing that he put in that song. He was a very good pianist. I had a vibe player named Norris from out of DuSable, and then I had Marvin Cates on drums. And that was my little group. I guess I was about 15. And it was the first job I played on the south side of Chicago, although I had been working in Gary and working downtown in the strip places.

So you know, my history is similar to John’s and almost everybody around Chicago. Because most of the jobbing was done in strip places in Calumet City and Hammond . . .

Q: Did those gigs get set up through the union?

VF: No-no-no. In fact, the union didn’t know anything about it.

Q: So those were things to avoid . . .

VF: Well, you worked eight hours for ten dollars. The union would have had a fit.

JY: Yeah, they were strict about that.

VF: It was like . . . the mines, we used to call them. But you could earn a living.

JY: That’s right.

Q: And learn a lot of music.

VF: Oh, listen! Now, when I look back, what you learned was invaluable. Because you learned discipline. You’d sit there playing the melody of the songs all night long . . .

Q: And I guess ten dollars went a long way in 1937.

VF: Oh, man, you dig? And it helped my lung power a whole lot, too.

Q: Smoke-filled rooms and all.

VF: Listen, you learned how to put that air in that horn there. Piano players learned how to really get a touch.

Q: I know that later Captain Dyett would form bands of his students and join them in the union, and they’d play gigs around that town? Was he doing that when you were there?

VF: Well, that was the one band that he called . . . See, we were all out of school, our high school called DuSable, and he called his band the DuSableites. He kept it for a while. He started it about two years before I went into the service, and then I came out of the service, then went back into it and stayed until about ’46 — about two more years. So he had that group from about 1941 until maybe ’47 or ’48.

Q: The years after World War II, from 1945 and ’46, were thriving years musically in Chicago. Von Freeman, you and your brothers — George, the great guitar player, and Eldridge “Bruz” Freeman, a drummer — had the house band at one of the most prestigious rooms in Chicago, the Pershing Ballroom. What were the circumstances behind that? And talk a bit about the geography of the Jazz scene in Chicago in that particular time and around that area.

VF: Oh, man, that’s when it was buzzing. From 31st Street all the way on up to let’s say 64th Street — well, 66th — Chicago was the place to be. John Young was at the Q Lounge, Dick Davis — everybody was in town and had a gig. It was right after the War, and the town was booming . . . They had a great promoter around town named McKie Fitzhugh. This guy came out of DuSable, and he was promoting. And he called me one day and he said, “Would you be interested in maybe getting your two brothers . . . ” See, because my brother George was very popular around that time.

Q: Had he been in Chicago during the war?

VF: Yes. You see, he didn’t go to the war; he was too young. He stayed around Chicago, man, and his name was buzzing. So he said, “Hey, why don’t you get together with your two brothers and get a piano player and a bass player? I’ve got an idea; I want to book a lot of names into the Pershing.”

Q: He likes to pick with a silver dollar, your brother.

VF: Right. That’s what he does now, yeah. So I said, “Okay, that will be fine.” So there was a fellow named Chris Anderson, a little blind pianist, and I had Leroy Jackson on bass (Leroy has since passed), and Alfred . . . What was Alfred’s last name, John? Do you remember Alfred?

JY: White.

VF: Alfred White. I was using two bassists at the time, concurrently, you know. So we went in, man, and that’s where I met Diz and Bird, Billie Holiday — everybody came down there.

Q: What sort of room was that? That was part of a complex of clubs . . .

VF: Oh, that was the ballroom itself. See, but the Pershing Lounge was beautiful, too. I played that later on. But at that time I was playing the ballroom.

Q: How was it set up? The national musicians would come in, and there would be dances?

VF: Yeah, dances. Dances Fridays and Saturdays.

Q: So people would be dancing to Bird, dancing to Diz . . .

VF: That’s right.

Q: Dancing to the people who would come in with you.

VF: Well, around that time things had changed a lot. They would stand around the bandstand, and there wasn’t that much dancing going on any more. And we used to play, man. I used to have a ball just playing with the stars, listening to them or whatever. I’m very lucky to have gotten chosen for that particular job.

Q: So who came through? We’re talking about the major stars in music at that time?

VF: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge — you name them. He brought everybody to Chicago, man. And he was paying so nice for those times. What he’d do is, he’d bring them in, and they would come in with no music, no nothing, and you were expected to know the tunes. And I had this little genius at the piano who knew everybody’s tunes. So we were very fortunate. We were able to play behind them.

Q: You’re referring to Chris Anderson.

VF: Yes.

Q: Von said that you, John Young, were working at the Q Lounge during this time.

JY: The Quality Lounge.

Q: The Quality Lounge. A high-quality joint, was it?

JY: Ah-ha-ha . . .

Q: I see.

JY: I was only in two shootings.

VF: At least! [laughs]

Q: Where was it? Which street was it on?

JY: The Quality Lounge was on 43rd Street. So if you know anything about 43rd Street, you know it wasn’t on the uppity-uppity-uppity-up. The Quality Lounge, I was in there with a fellow named Dick Davis who played tenor saxophone. I was the piano player, the drummer’s name was Buddy Smith, Eddie Calhoun was on bass. And I was singing . . .

Q: Singing, too.

JY: But at that time I had laryngitis. When (?) asked me to sing, I suddenly developed a case of laryngitis. All three of them called it “lyingitis” — because it was a gitis that never left. But the Q was cool . . . Like I say, it was a relaxed joint. You could come in there with tennis shoes on if you wanted to. It wasn’t nothin’ uppity, you know. And it was on 43rd Street. We had a good time in there for a number of years, the Quality Lounge on 43rd Street. I lost my point . . .

Q: Oh, I was talking to you about working in Chicago in the late 1940’s and late ’50s. When did you start working with a lot of singers?

JY: Well, a piano player always has a hundred singers around, you know.

Q: But you later became an accompanist for some major singers.

JY: Well, I was with Nancy Wilson for a hot minute in the ’60s. See, John Levy, the booking agent, he was a bass player around Chicago, so he just about knew everybody that he thought would fit with this or that person. So he thought that I would be a perfect fit for Nancy Wilson. He didn’t know that I was really into jazz, and that I wanted to be a jazz piano player. I wanted to be out front. You know what I mean? I won’t say out front, but I wanted to receive some of the same recognition that soloists receive rather than accompanists. But anyway, he hooked me up with Nancy Wilson, and I stayed with Nancy for a short spell.

And I had to write him a letter to explain to him why I didn’t stay. He thought that I should have stayed with her, because he gone to the trouble of booking me with Nancy Wilson, he felt that we were a perfect match, some kind of match anyway — and Nancy had struggled with me to try to get me to play here things like she liked them. So he thought I was going to be with Nancy Wilson for life. And I explained to him that, no, that ain’t what I had in mind.

When the piano player is a singer’s right arm, as they say, there are certain limitations to what he can do and what he . . . I’ve seen piano players be accompanists for life with certain singers or performers, and they stay in a rut for a long time. There’s only so much you can do as an accompanist. When you get thrown out there where you have to play the melody or have to carry the load, you’re lost.

Q: Well, we can get back to that in a minute. But I’d like to return to someone Von was talking about: Chris Anderson, who had a great impact really on the piano players in Chicago.

VF: Oh, man, he’s unsung. When I first met him, I met him in a big arena that we used to play on the south side, on 63rd Street and King Drive. I forget who I had on piano this time, but whoever he was, wasn’t making it. Chris happened to be sitting there, and he walked up and whispered in my ear, “I think I could play that.” I kind of looked at him, because I’d had people at different times to do that, say things like “Hey, man, I think I can do it a little better than what so-and-so is doing; I think I’ll feed you a little more” and blah-blah-blah. I generally don’t even listen. But for some reason or another, I said, “Oh, really?” Because this cat didn’t know the tune. I had asked him if he knew it, and he said, “Yeah,” and then when I got to playing the tune, he didn’t really know the tune.

So meanwhile, I guess the piano player heard Chris, and he said, “Hey, man, if you can play it, play it.” So he played it. And I said, “Hey, man, what’s your name?” And I noticed he was a little short fellow, you know . . . I said, “Hey, man, you stay there. I’ll pay both of you.” I told the other guy, “I’ll pay you, man, not to play.” So that’s how we began.

Chris heard a lot of things, just naturally, that I was trying to hear. And he was a very nice person about his knowledge. So I’d ask him, “Chris, where did you go there?” And he’d say so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so. So I learned a lot from him. At the time, I had been using Ahmad Jamal. And then Ahmad . . . He had a guitar player, I forget where this fellow was from, I think from Pittsburgh, where Ahmad was from. [Ray Crawford] So Ahmad had told me that he was giving me a two-week notice, that he was going to form his own trio. He’d stayed with me, I think, about two years, and then he formed his own trio. And then he started hanging with Chris, too. And I really noticed a big difference in his playing after he had been around Chris. Almost anybody who had been around him, it kind of opened them up a little bit — because he was very advanced for those times. In fact, I still think he is.

Q: So do a lot of other musicians around New York.

VF: Mmm-hmm.

Q: But his influence seems to go through a couple of generations in Chicago.

VF: Yeah, well, I think . . .

Q: Was Andrew Hill checking out Chris? Herbie Hancock?

VF: Well, Andrew worked with me a long time, too, you know. But Andrew was more or less into bebop at that time. But Chris to me wasn’t a bebop player, he wasn’t a swing player, he didn’t play like Art Tatum. To me, he was . . .

JY: He had his own thing.

VF: Yeah, he had his own thing. He was a conglomeration of all of that. And he didn’t flaunt his knowledge or anything. Maybe being blind helped him a lot, I don’t know. But he could hear a lot of things that I had always heard, and that I think everybody eventually wanted to hear. He was advanced for that time. See, now I’m speaking about 40 years ago.

Q: I’d like to ask you about a couple of the other great musicians who were working around Chicago a lot at that time? I’d like to ask you both about Ike Day, and if you both came into contact with him, played with him?

VF: Well, we used to go around playing tenor and drum ensembles together. He was a great drummer. And he was one of the first guys I had heard with all that polyrhythm type of playing; you know, sock cymbal doing one thing, bass drum another, snare drum another. He was very even-handed. Like the things Elvin does a lot of? Well, Ike did those way back in the ’40s and the late ’30s.

Q: Did you know Ike well enough for him to tell you about the drummers he was paying attention to as a young drummer?

VF: I know he liked Chick Webb. He never really mentioned anyone to me other than Chick Webb. And he liked Bird’s drummer . . . .

Q: Oh, Max Roach.

VF: Yeah.

Q: And I know Max Roach liked Ike Day, because he’s said so publicly on a number of occasions.

VF: Right.

Q: He was also a very versatile drummer, is what I gather. He would play big- band, piano trio combos. He was a totally versatile drummer, with great ears, a great listening drummer and so forth. Does that jibe with your recollection?

VF: I never heard him play with a big band. But I know he played in the combos. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer.

Ike to me was well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time.

Q: It’s very valuable to know this, because there is only one recording of Ike Day I think that exists at all, and the drums are almost buried . . .

VF: Oh, with Gene Ammons?

Q: With Gene Ammons, a Chess date.

VF: Oh yeah, that’s the same band.

Q: John Young, what are your memories of Ike Day? Did you play with Ike Day? Did you work with him?

JY: I might have played one or two tunes with Ike, but I don’t remember playing very much with Ike. I liked his work.

Q: Who were the drummers you mostly used on your gigs in Chicago at that time?

JY: Well, a fellow named Phil Thomas. I used him more than I did anybody else. And I started off with a drummer named Larry Jackson. Larry Jackson, Phil Thomas, Vernell Fournier. Phil is the one I used most. Strong drummer. Oh, I’m sorry! I’m about to forget the one that I’m using now, and that’s George Hughes. George has worked around New York and a number of places with Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy Gillespie uses him. George Hughes is his name. He’s the last drummer that I’ve used to any extent, more than once. Some drummers you use on certain gigs, just for that one time — there’s a number of those. But the ones that I’ve used over a period of time have to be George Hughes, Phil Thomas, and somebody else and somebody else . . .

Q: Von, I’d like to ask you about Gene Ammons, who I know you were friends with. He came several years after you at DuSable High School.

VF: Oh, well, Jug, man . . . Of course, I called him Ams. But it’s really interesting. His mother taught me my first chorus. He had a beautiful mother. And she was like a classical pianist. There’s very few people who know that. And I used to go to Jug’s house, and we’d practice together, and things like that. He was always one of my favorites. In fact, my brother was in the band that . . . See, George played with Jug. Probably the last nine years of his life Jug formed a group, and George was in the group. One of Jug’s last hits was called “The Black Cat,” which my brother George wrote.

So Jug and I had . . . We were very close. During my formative years, when I came out of the service, Jug used to hire me in his place, because he was getting so popular. So when he’d work a club, and he’d have to go out of town, he’d always get me to take his place. And a lot of people say I play like Jug. Which I wish I did! But I don’t know, he’s just one of my favorites.

[MUSIC: “Lost In A Fog” and “No. 7”; John Young departs]

Q: On the last segment, Von, I was asking you about some of the great figures who were active in Chicago in the post-World War II era. I know you used to work with Sun Ra’s rehearsal bands and had some contact with Sun Ra in the late 1940s and 1950s.

VF: Oh yes!

Q: What was he into at that point? What was his music sounding like and what was he doing around Chicago at that time?

VF: Oh, his music was sounding beautiful. But you know, one of the things that’s really different about him, he had two different concepts altogether. See, he was playing all this new-sounding music and different-sounding music with his own group — and of course I was a part of that. And then, he was over at a famous club on the south side of Chicago, the Club De Lisa, and he was writing show music for that band, which was Red Saunders’ band.

Q: Tell us a little about that band, too. It was a major band at a major venue.

VF: Oh, yeah. Well, that’s the band that Sonny Cohn came out of. And of course, for those who don’t know Sonny Cohn, he was with Count Basie for years and years and years. A trumpeter, a great young trumpeter. And of course, Red Saunders was a premier drummer around Chicago for show bands, all . . .

Q: And he had that band for about 17-18 years.

VF: Well, actually I think it was about 27. And he was right there at the Club DeLisa. And all the younger drummers used to go around to see Red to learn how to play shows. Because that’s another art of drumming. You know, show drumming: how to catch the performers and catch the singers. Every time they move, the drummer does something. And he did it so tastefully.

Q: Of course, there’s a tradition of that in Chicago that really goes back to the silent movie days in the 1920s.

VF: It certainly does.

Q: The great black orchestras that performed at the different big movie theatres.

VF: That’s right.

Q: There was Erskine Tate and Doc Cooke and a couple of others.

VF: That’s right.

Q: A lot of great musicians got their real polish in those show bands.

VF: That’s very, very true.

Q: Do you remember hearing those bands as a little boy?

VF: Oh, surely. And then I ended up playing at the Regal Theatre in the pit for different things.

Q: Oh, when was that?

VF: Oh, that was way back. I was in high school.

Q: The Regal was perhaps the equivalent in Chicago to the Apollo in some ways. Is that accurate?

VF: Yes, it was. Of course, no place would be like the Apollo, naturally. But the Regal was Chicago’s Apollo, let’s put it that way.

Q: We’re juggling a number of different things at once. So let’s get back to what Sun Ra was doing.

VF: Well, Sun Ra . . .

Q: He was writing show music for Red Saunders at the Club De Lisa.

VF: And I found it very interesting that he could write this show music, which was essentially this do, du, do-du, do-du-do, and then his thing, where he had all these different voices going and his music was very complicated at the time. But it swung — in Sun Ra’s unique way. Because he had two great saxophone players with him. He had, of course, Pat Patrick, who is sort of ill these days around Chicago. And of course, he had John Gilmore. He kept great players in his group. And of course, I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot by being in his band.

Q: Now, when exactly were you in his band?

VF: I was in his band during let’s say ’48, ’49 . . .

Q: Was that a working band or a rehearsal band?

VF: Oh, yeah. He played.

Q: What type of gigs would he do?

VF: He played dances. He really did, yeah. And he had like his own ballroom. I can’t think of the name of the ballroom. It was on the east side of 63rd Street, and we played at this ballroom. And Sun Ra was never into whether there was anybody in the ballroom or not. He simply tried to play what he felt.

Q: Would that music be recognizable to people who know Sun Ra today? Did it . . . ?

VF: Yeah, I think so. I think so. Now, he went back in recent years, and was playing some of Fletcher Henderson’s type of music and whatnot. But he’s still playing with that unique Sun Ra thing.

Q: Well, he covers the whole spectrum, really.

VF: Yes, he does.

Q: He plays different things for different occasions.

VF: Yes, he does.

Q: Didn’t Red Holloway also work briefly with Sun Ra? Is that true or not?

VF: I know that Red took a band into the Club De Lisa for six months when Red Saunders took off. Because I was in that band, playing alto, and I know that Sun Ra was writing the show music at the time. But whether or not he ever played in one of Sun Ra’s original bands, I do not know. You’d have to ask Red.

Q: Who were some of the other people in that Sun Ra band from the late 1940’s?

VF: Well, Julian Priester for one.

Q: That early, in the late 1940’s?

VF: No, Julian came along later. But in the ’40s . . . I’m trying to think. Oh, man . . . See, he had different people, and I really can’t remember who was in those bands..

Q: Tell us a little bit about the Club De Lisa. They were famous for their breakfast dances . . .

VF: Yes.

Q: We played a selection before by your son dedicated to Andrew Hill, who was 15 years old when he made his first record with you.

VF: Oh, yes, Andrew is a beautiful pianist. Of course, his style has evolved. At that time he was more or less playing bebop, and as he got younger he went on into free-form and whatnot. But he did it honestly. He feels it. And I like what he’s doing.

Q: Von, we’re going to hear now something from a Groove Holmes’ 1967-’68 record The Groover, featuring your brother George on his composition, “The Walrus,” some variations on “Sweet Georgia Brown” . . .

VF: Well, I think that’s what that is. I’ll have to hear it. But that sounds right to me.

Q: We’ll make no commitments.

VF: Well, back during that era we all used to take standard tunes and then write little originals and whatnot.

[MUSIC: “The Walrus,” “How Deep Is The Ocean” (Von solo)]

Q: Von, you had said to me that “How Deep Is The Ocean” is one you particularly wanted to have presented on this show, that you were very proud of it.

VF: Oh, man, to me that’s one of my greatest moments. In fact, that is the greatest moment I have enjoyed recording. It just happened. The lady who has the label said, “Hey, why don’t you play something slow?” I said, “Oh, I don’t feel like.” But she’s so beautiful, she asked again, and she said, “Well, please play something.” So how can you refuse a lady? So just off the top of my head, she said, “We’re rolling,” and I didn’t even have any idea what I wanted to play — I just went into that tune. And that’s the way it happened. And to me it’s the greatest thing I have ever done on record. I really felt that I did the tune justice; you know, for the way I was feeling. As a rule, I don’t care much for my recordings.

Q: Do you do that during your performances, Von? Are you going to be doing any a cappella this week at Condon’s?

VF: Oh, you know, last night I played several tunes. Of course, I didn’t do it like I did on the album, but I have a tendency . . .

Q: You always do long cadenzas . . .

VF: Yeah. And I have a tendency sometimes just to cut the band and play for a chorus or two. I’ve always done that, though.

Q: Von, you’ve stated in print that Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young were really your two primary influences in terms of how to approach the saxophone, and you see your style as a melding of the two.

VF: That’s true.

Q: You mentioned hearing Coleman Hawkins in the 1930’s in Chicago. Did you study his records in the 1930’s? Did you study Prez’s records?

VF: Well, actually, yes. See, Hawk was a good friend of my father’s.

Q: How was that? Your father was a musician?

VF: No, not really. Actually he was a Chicago policeman. But he loved music, and he loved to hang around the guys, you know. So my Dad, he always kept a record collection from as far back as I can remember. So naturally, I had an affinity for music from right him, actually.

But Lester Young, see, used to come to the Regal Theatre all the time with Count Basie’s band, and all us little guys loved Lester, and we used to go and sit down in the front, you know, and try to play his solos. I had some of his earliest records, like “Every Tub” and all those, and I used to practice those. In fact, I got so I could play those note for note. And I could play Hawk’s “Body and Soul” note for note. So those two . . . Well, just like probably all the rest of the Chicago saxophone players. We were a conglomeration of Hawk and Prez.

Q: Gene Ammons, certainly.

VF: Oh yeah. Well, of course. And Dex and me — almost all of them.

Q: What was your first reaction to Charlie Parker when you heard his music the first time?

VF: Now, that takes me back. Because my Dad gave me the first music I ever heard of Charlie Parker. He gave me “The Hootie Blues.” He brought it, and he said, “Hi, hot-shot, you think you’re so hot because you got Lester Young down.” He says, “Try out this guy.” I said, “Oh, what’s this, Pop. Who did you bring . . . ?” Man, he put that thing on, and it knocked me out. Because see, to me Bird was playing Prez on alto — to me. And it was just more advanced. It’s like when I first heard Trane; I heard Prez and Bird. And I guess whoever follows, whoever the next saxophone player will be, it will be, you know, Prez and Bird and Trane and Getz and Zoot. All the good saxophone players have a tendency to be on the same line. Like just some of them followed; they play more Hawkins than Prez. But I hear lately most people are getting the two together. Because that makes what you’d almost call the perfect saxophone player. Because Hawk had so many things . . . He had all that power and drive, and Prez could float and just sail along. I would say Hawk just played straight up and down, and Prez played sideways. So if you get them, you’ve got the whole thing together.

And I think it didn’t take saxophone players too long to learn this, especially tenor saxophone players. I think I was with you on the program a few years back, and I was telling you about that tenor. That tenor presents a different type of problem for the simple reason that the ladies like the sound of the saxophone. And ladies are very dominant in your crowd. So you’ve got to learn how to play sweet, and for the men you got to learn how to holler — you can’t just sit up and play ballads all night. So there’s so much to get together on that tenor. And I like to always think of a trombone . . .

Q: In your playing?

VF: Yeah, man. Because a trombone sounds . . . Like, I call great trombone players like tenor saxophone players. You’ve got two of them here. Curtis Fuller, who did all those records with the Jazz Messengers, he just sounded like one of the real good tenor players. And the other cat who’s the Indian, what’s his name, who plays shells . . . ?

Q: You’re talking about Steve Turre.

VF: Yeah, Turre! Man, to me, man, those two cats when I hear them, I say, “Oh, man, if I could get a sound like that!” Because see, the tenor and the trombone, with Dickie Wells, remember him . . . ? All these cats had that haunting quality that saxophone players get. And as strange as it may sound, to me Miles sounds something like a tenor player. Although I always think that the trumpet is the dominant instrument, because who can do it better than a great trumpet player? Because you’ve got everything coming right out of the bell of that horn. When I hear Wynton play I think of a saxophone player. Now, that’s coming at it from a saxophone player’s view, of course.

[MUSIC: Coleman Hawkins: “The Man I Love,” “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”; Lester Young, “These Foolish Things,” “I Got Rhythm”]

Q: “I Got Rhythm” is one of the basic bedrock tunes in all of Jazz.

VF: Man, listen. I can play a job playing “I Got Rhythm”! I’m telling you. Give me a few blues tunes and “I Got Rhythm” and I can make the gig. I’m telling you. Beautiful, man.

Q: “These Foolish Things” I can remember from my time living in Chicago as the most popular ballad in that town.

VF: Right.

Q: That may or may not be true . . .

VF: It still is!

Q: People in Chicago have long memories about the music.

VF: Well, see, just about all the tenor players made their name around there. You know, whether they were from Chicago or not, during the late ’30s and the ’40s and the early ’50s, all the great saxophonists were around Chicago playing. So you’d sort of feel like they’re from Chicago, although of course they’re not.

I talk on shows, dropping names here, dropping names there, but I’d just like to go on the record saying how much I’ve gotten from some of the current cats, cats who are still living. Like Benny Golson, man. Benny Golson wouldn’t even remember me. I was working at the Pershing Ballroom, or actually I’d moved up to the lounge, and Benny came by and jammed with me all morning, all morning at the Pershing Lounge — and I just fell in love with Benny Golson. Now, this is back in ’53 or ’54.

Q: He would have been on the road with one of the rhythm-and-nlues bands.

VF: I forget when he came to town, but it was just shortly before. . . Bird passed in ’55. It was about ’53 or ’54 or something like that.

Well, Benny Golson, and I remember the first time I heard Wayne Shorter. And then [John] Stubblefield used to be around Chicago; he used to come around to me a lot. And of course, Joe Lovano, I’ve been listening to him lately. Of course, Junior Cook wouldn’t remember the first time I played with him, down in Miami. I was traveling with the Al Smith Band, and ran into Junior Cook down in Miami, and he knocked me out. And of course Jimmy Heath I’ve always loved. Because Jimmy, man . . . Who plays more horn than Jimmy Heath? He’s beautiful. And Clifford Jordan has been around with me at different times. In fact, I came up here once and worked a gig with Clifford Jordan . . .

Q: That was at the Irving Plaza on 15th Street, with Chris Anderson and Victor Sproles on that date.

VF: Right! Surely! Yeah! And then of course, Sonny Rollins. I’ve always loved Sonny. And I ran into him once, I had a group I think in Holland or something, and he was on the concert, and they gave him a birthday party — and we hung out and talked for hours. Of course, Dewey Redman. I’ve always loved Dewey Redman, because he’s a beautiful cat. And young Branford Marsalis. I remember when we first cut this concept album, he was beautiful. And of course, Mike Brecker. I ran into him once at the Montreux Festival over in Europe, in Switzerland. And of course, Illinois Jacquet, I saw him recently at I think it was . . . Well, he had this big band at this thing in Holland.

So man, it’s . . . Of course, when you name names you always leave out some names. But these are some of the cats I’ve always probably copied a lot of things that they’ve done. And I’m glad to see that all these cats are still living.

Q: Von, one thing that has always impressed me and many people who have heard you is your proclivity for going inside and outside, but always remaining within the framework of the piece — the freedom of your playing in some ways.

VF: Well, it comes from my hobby, I guess. See, my hobby is music, and of course, I sit up all day and all night long sometimes, studying progressions. It’s just something that I like to do. I’m not trying to prove anything by it. I don’t even know whether it helps my playing or hurts it. But it gives me an outlet to experiment with things that I like, that I’m hearing inside. And I practice so much, even today I practice a couple of hours, three to four hours a day . . . In fact, I run my Mom, who I fortunately still have with me, I run her nuts sometimes. She says, “Man, put that horn down.” And I’m just trying to hear things. It’s just an inside thing, which I’m trying to hear things that please me.

And of course sometimes I do get carried away. I admit that. Sometimes I say, “Hey, come back!” Because I’m running sometimes progressions that I’ve been practicing and hearing, and sometimes I lose track of where the melody is and everything because I’m so extended out there. So it works both ways. And sometimes I’m rather pleased with what I do. But as a rule, I say, “Ah, let me discard that.”

So it’s just something to keep me interested in what I’m doing. And it’s more or less a personal thing.

[MUSIC: Von Freeman-Sam Jones, “Sweet and Lovely,” Von, “I Remember You.”]

Q: I know Sonny Stitt is someone you were close to and had tremendous respect for, along with Gene Ammons.

VF: Oh, I loved him, yeah. We played a lot together.

Q: One of the amazing saxophonists, maybe a little under-appreciated in New York more so than in the Midwest and the South.

VF: Well, I’ll tell you what had to happen with Sonny Stitt, man. You had to get on the bandstand and play with him to really appreciate him. See, Sonny Stitt was mean, man. Sonny Stitt could play so many different things. And he was just as mean on tenor as he was on alto. In fact, he had another style altogether on tenor. And he played baritone! He played it proficiently. The man was a great saxophone player.

Q: And a much more creative player than I think people commonly gave him credit for.

VF: Oh, man. The man could just play anything he wanted to play. Sonny to me was amazing. I loved him. And we used to play a lot around in Gary and Evanston and things like that when he’d come in town. Because he loved to battle, you know, and he loved to get you up on that stage and wear you out. And if you wasn’t together, brother, he would wear you out! But he was a beautiful cat.

Q: Well, Chicago is famous for the tenor battles . . .

VF: Oh, man! You got to have plenty of wind back in those days, I’m telling you.

Q: Your son started out as a trumpet player.

VF: Yes. Well, see, I played trumpet for about 25 years.

Q: You played it on gigs, too?

VF: Yeah. But I had retired the trumpet, and Chico went down to the basement and found it when he was very young. And I thought he was going to be a trumpet player. Well, I had an alto that I had retired down in the basement, too. See, in the era I came up, you played everything you could get your hands on, whether it was the harmonica, I don’t care what it was — you tried to play it. And I had a number of these strange instruments down in the basement. And they went down there and found them. Chico was about 10 and my other son, Markm about 9. And one day I heard all this noise coming out of the basement, and I said, “What is that?” And they were down there playing. Out of the two, I really felt Mark would be the one who could play. But Chico has got one thing that is very important. He has durability! — and stick-to- itiveness. So he stuck with it.

But he actually began playing trumpet, and went to school playing trumpet. In fact, he went to Northwestern playing trumpet. But he ended up on saxophone. And every time I hear him, he’s trying to grow.

Q: We’ll hear “Lord Riff and Me.”

VF: Well, that’s the moniker I was given back in high school . . .

Q: By Captain Dyett.

VF: Yes.

Q: It sounds like a compliment.

VF: Well, actually, see, the way my career began, I used to riff all the time. [sings a riff] I could play any riff you ever heard on a horn. I was good at riffing, see. I didn’t know too much about progressions or harmonics, but I could riff. And that’s where that came from.

You know, Chico did some real strange . . . Like, I’ve always played at the piano. And at the end of one of those albums he has me playing the piano.

Q: Would you like us to end with that?

VF: Yes. Because a lot of people don’t know that actually I play the piano. I like to say play at the piano.

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Pete “LaRoca” Sims (1938-2012): A WKCR Musician Show from 1993 and a WKCR Out To Lunch Encounter From 1998

As part of my ongoing pandemic project to digitize and transcribe as many of my previously un-transcribed WKCR shows as possible during my tenure there from 1985 through 2008, here are the transcripts of two encounters with the great drummer Pete “LaRoca” Sims, who between 1957 and 1967, appeared on some of the most consequential recordings of the time, before a long hiatus — he earned a law degree and became a practicing lawyer — that ended during the early 1990s.

 

Pete LaRoca Sims (Musician Show, Nov. 2, 1993) (Side 1 &2); OTL (June 11, 1998):

[MUSIC: Sonny Rollins-Wilbur Ware-Pete LaRoca, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”-Live At The Village Vanguard-1957]

TP: Pete LaRoca Sims has been playing every Sunday night at Yardbird Suite with various musicians comprising a sextet. Most of the best-known selections from that date, with the exception of “Night in Tunisia” from the original album, featured Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones. Did Sonny spontaneously set up the other configuration?

PLR: I was called in, and did my part, and Elvin was there. It seemed to be that it had been preconceived. I didn’t get the impression that it was impromptu, but it may well have been.

TP: You said that this was your first gig out of the neighborhood.

PLR: That’s true. The first major jazz artist who I’d gotten a chance to work with. Previously, I had worked with my contemporaries. We had a dance band that did a good bit of work in and around the city, Harlem, the Bronx, etc. By something of a fluke, having sat in at a place in Brooklyn called Turbo Village, where Max Roach was working during the week… I sat in on a Monday night and I broke quite a few of his drumheads, and I called him up to apologize and offered to pay. He said, “That’s ok. Don’t worry about it. You might be interested to know that Sonny Rollins is looking for a drummer.” So needless to say, I called Sonny Rollins and was fortunate enough to get that job from which that record resulted.

TP: That led to a several-year relationship, on and off, with Sonny. You toured with him in Europe in 1959, which has been documented on a bootleg on the Dragon label.

PLR: There were just a few concerts actually. I don’t think there was another week’s work or anything of that sort anywhere, except that we did go to Europe for three weeks. All of it was quite enjoyable. There could have been more, for my money.

TP: On the Musician Show we create a virtual biography of the musician through the music they’ve listened to and the people they’ve played with. Since that was your first major gig, let’s talk about the events that led you to being on the bandstand – your history as a drummer and some of the experiences you had. How did drums enter your life? Banging on pots and pans as a kid?

PLR: Not quite pots and pans. But various parts of pieces of furniture around the house and things of that sort. I came from a very musical household, with a stepfather who played trumpet and an uncle who was something of an investor in jazz at the time and had a fine record collection that I pretty well exhausted, I think.

My first actual playing was in the New York school system, beginning in junior high school. It was a primarily symphonic orchestra that actually toured a little bit and went to I guess a couple of other junior high schools to play concerts. That continued through Music and Art here in New York, and City College, where I was in the orchestra, and a brief period at Manhattan School of Music, though I didn’t complete that.

TP: Any particular teachers you’d mention helping you a great deal, or was it from watching drummers on gigs?

PLR: Well, it was mainly from being around the music just about all the time, at least with regard to jazz. But since you mentioned teachers, there was one gentleman, David Greitzer, who was instrumental just in the way he spread his great joy in music and his love for the music in such a way as to enthuse the entire orchestra that he was teaching at junior high school. We all got kind of fired up. He had previously taught at Music & Art, as a matter of fact, and prepped us for the entrance exam there, and I think at least half our junior high school orchestra then went on to Music & Art, as a body just about.

Not too many other teachers. There was a Fred Albright who I was assigned briefly at Manhattan – a grand old man of drums he was when I came to him. Just working with him for a semester, doing exercises and things like that, was indeed quite memorable. But that’s the only part of formal training that I think leads to anything like the jazz work that I’ve been doing since.

TP: I take it you start working professionally, or least for money on local gigs, as a teenager? Or when did that start, and what was that like, and who were some of the people that you played with? And where?

PLR: We worked primarily dances, Friday and Saturday nights. One guy who might be known from that band…there are a couple… George Braith, who is a saxophonist, was in that band at one time…

TP: He plays together and he also plays that welded-together…

PLR: He designed his own horn. Braithophone I think he calls it. Barry Rogers, who became very well known as a trombonist in the Latin bands, was also in that band. Some other guys who I know still work in music, like Arthur Jenkins, a pianist; John Mayer, a pianist who I saw last week when he came into Sweet Basil. I don’t know remember all the guys. Phil Newsome… If you’re into Latin music and you were around during that period, you’d probably remember that period, you’d probably remember him. We all called him Cowbell Phil because he did that so well.

We were about 15-16-17 was about the time that… I guess it went on through the time that I went to Sonny. If that was 1957, then I was about 19 at that time. So I guess it continued until then. It was sort of broken up into two pieces. Hugo Dickens actually originated or established the band, and I came along and emphasized the Latin side, and we had a sort of dual situation going on where he was responsible for the swing side and I was responsible for the Latin. This was a time when I was primarily a timbale player. I didn’t play a set of drums at all. It was primarily standards. We did transcriptions from records, and got sheet music on for the Latin music, etc. We got a lot of work. It was a good band.

TP: You were also hanging out, I’d think, and checking out various drummers of the upper echelon…?

PLR: I think it was mostly records at that time. First off, I was playing a lot, so I wasn’t going around to listen a lot. Those were school years, and homework and things took over much of the rest of the time. I didn’t get really that close to traps until I think I was 17, and there was a band that was going to work in the Catskills to do a show. I said, “That’s great, but I don’t happen to have a set of traps.” They said, “We’ll get some for you.” I think the virtue that they found in me was that I could read music, and therefore I could probably cut the show – and indeed, that’s what actually happened. It was from that time I got familiar with a set of traps and then got some other work playing jazz type music, etc. But there really wasn’t a lot of it. I’m sure I played for 6 or 7 years before I ever seriously sat down to play a set of traps.

TP: The first track you’ve selected is an amazing solo album by Baby Dodds on Folkways. I take it you’d heard him through your stepfather’s collection…

PLR: my uncle’s collection, yes. At that time, it was a 10″ 78 that was just drums on both sides. In my experience, that was quite an anomaly. I haven’t come across that before or since. And I loved it. I loved his whole collection, but that was one thing that really struck me in particular. That was before I even played drums at all. That was before even junior high school.

TP: I believe you said that it sounded like a tap dancer.

PLR: I brought a tape of Baby Dodds playing a version of “Tea For Two,” with just him and a piano player who I can’t identify, unfortunately. But in that, it’s mainly drum solo, and what he plays in there is…you can hear – it sounds like a tap dancer dancing.

TP: Also, you’ve mentioned Tito Puente as your main influence on timbales. Were you going out to dances and hearing Tito Puente and so forth…

PLR: Yes, and Tito Rodriguez at that time was around and had a great band. I was mainly interested in timbales at the time, and that’s what I was doing. Puente was a great influence primarily in the way that he strung ideas together. The next idea that he would play would be built upon the last idea that he had played, and he constantly strung it out that way. Which was something that didn’t happen a lot in drums. Drums being a non-pitched instrument, we do different things. There are many familiar rhythms that are in the vernacular, both the Latin vernacular and the jazz vernacular. But that particular way of stringing ideas together was really unique with Puente, and I glommed onto it and have been using it ever since, without a doubt.

[MUSIC: Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums”; Baby Dodds-Bechet, “Save It Pretty Mama”; Dodds-pianist, “Tea For Two”; Tito Puente, “El Rey Del Timbal”]

TP: Within the course of 15 minutes, we’ve outlined some of the sources of Pete La Roca Sims’ aesthetic on drums and timbales. You mentioned that Baby Dodds eschewed the sock cymbal, didn’t use it on these recordings. On timbales, that would also be the case. In both cases, we have drummers creating a broad dynamic range within a limited palette, so to speak.

PLR: Somewhat. Although I think the color…the metallic sound of the timbales actually adds color, so that you’ve got that to play with even though you don’t have something like the sock cymbal. And, as I was mentioning to you when we were off the air, Baby Dodds uses the press roll as a sort of…I don’t know whether he intended it as a substitute for the sock cymbal, but it does pretty much the same job of emphasizing the second and fourth beats, etc. – which I think is interesting.

TP: How much of an adjustment was it for you to operate on the trap drums? Did you pick it up quickly? Was it complicated?

PLR: As I said, the first thing I got a chance to do was a job in the Catskills, and it was an entire summer cutting a show. That will get you in shape. You’re playing for dancing and then you’re playing for dancers, including strippers, and you’re doing rim-shots and ka-boom-chas, as they said today, for comedians, etc. It’s a bit of everything, and quite a bit of experience.

TP: How long did you that?

PLR: Just the summer. It was the better part of 3 months.

TP: Pete Sims is leading a group Sunday nights at Yardbird Suite on Cooper Square. Also, in the last few years, we’ve had a chance to hear you with Mal Waldron’s group. It’s been exciting to see you developing a stronger presence on the jazz scene.

The first source you mentioned as far as jazz drums was Kenny Clarke.

PLR: It’s the question of time and how time is kept, etc. Kenny also I think de-emphasized the sock cymbal to some extent and instead put the emphasis on the ride cymbal. I think he was one of the first to truly do that. If you listen to Baby Dodds, the beat-by-beat emphasis is in the bass drum. Then, of course, there’s the press roll on the snare drum, emphasizing the off-beats. Klook, by putting it in the ride hand on the ride cymbal, I think sort of smoothed it out. Prior to that time, drummers and rhythm sections were playing pretty much like the Basie rhythm section wit the rhythm guitar and CHUNK-CHUNK, CHUNK-CHUNK, beat-by-beat. By putting it in the cymbal it just got smoother because of the bit of continuity of sound that a cymbal gives you. I loved it and adopted that immediately, and never did anything else.

TP: Did you ever see him in person?

PLR: I only saw him in person, as a matter of fact, the job with Sonny Rollins in Europe.

TP: There’s another bootleg recording from that period in which Kenny Clarke plays with Sonny, in a cathedral in Aix.

PLR: I haven’t heard it but I’d love to.

TP: We’ll hear a set of recordings featuring Kenny Clarke in the early 1950s. This one is from Kenny Clarke’s 2nd MJQ date from April 1952…

[MUSIC: MJQ, “True Blues”; Miles-Bags-Monk, “The Man I Love”-Take 2, 1954]

TP: I think that was my first Miles Davis album, and you mentioned it’s one that you listened to many times.

PLR: That and Miles Ahead were the two first Miles Davis albums that I had.

TP: You mentioned off-mike that your stepfather had played in bands with Monk before bebop, perhaps in the late 1930s, or around there.

PLR: Somewhere around there. I was mentioning that he was a difficult person to keep employed, because he wasn’t yet Thelonious Monk, bebop hadn’t yet quite happened, and the kind of shenanigans that he was into at the time were not appreciated by leaders of the dance bands that they were working in. The reason why you mentioned that particular take as having a little bit of hilarity to it is because of the lapse, the dropout in Monk’s solo, where Miles plays him a fanfare to get him going again.

TP: He plays “You’ve Got To Wake Up In The Morning.”

PLR: Right! [LAUGHS] There were a number of scenes like that, as I understand it, just from having listened to my stepfather talk about it

TP: You had a chance to play with many of the greats of the period, but you never had a chance to play with Monk.

PLR: Never had Monk and never Miles. I missed the opportunities. I had a lot of opportunities, so I can’t complain, but I sure would have liked to have had those guys, too.

TP: Among the trumpeters you’ve been using at Yardbird Suite are Jimmy Owens and Claudio Roditi; you’ve had Dave Liebman and David Sanchez; George Cables and Joanne Brackeen; other people as well…

PLR: Other people of like caliber.

TP: Next in the chronology will be Max Roach. You mentioned that the thing that most impressed you about Max apart from your overall appreciation was his working outside of 4/4 time, particularly the material in 3/4 that he explored in 1956. He did a recording for EmArcy that was all in that time signature.

PLR: Right. Plus, the main thing for me with Max is that he established so much of the bebop drum vernacular. He made it quite a bit looser, taking it away from just the timekeeping function that drums had pretty much before that, and dropping – as were called – “bombs,” which really has to do with punctuating what else is happening in the band, etc. And the way that it was done… First off, the front line, people like Bird and Diz and Miles, were playing new ideas that called for I think something new from the rhythm section, and Max was very much up to the job and did things that I think every drummer has borrowed a big portion of, if you play jazz.

TP: Were you able to check him out, observe him in the flesh early on? How important is it to see musicians in the flesh?

PLR: It makes a difference. I got to get good jobs working opposite some of these guys early on, so that I wasn’t so much going out and hanging out in the clubs just for the purpose of hanging out. If I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to work opposite them, I’m sure I would have been hanging out in the clubs. But as it happened, I was there. Yes, it’s important to see them in the sense that especially if you know the musician and there’s something that you really do want to borrow, a device you think you can use… Sometimes you have to see how it’s done; you can’t really tell it all by just listening. But I think the bulk of it was really from records. Jazz music was at that time the popular music… The dance music of that time was derived from jazz. The swing era was still going on. There were still big dance bands going around. So major stations here in New York, like certainly WNEW and I think maybe WOR, were having jazz just about 24 hours a day. There was a show on Sunday afternoon that had Frank Sinatra, for instance, for 4 to 6 hours or something like that. So to get to hear the music at that time was very easy. Today you have to seek it out a little bit and guys don’t play as often as you might like, so you have to get them when they’re there. But then it was really all over the place.

TP: The selection we’ll play to represent Max Roach is “Valse Hot,” from March 1956.

[MUSIC: Rollins-Brown-Roach, “Valse Hot”-1956]

TP: On the next session we’ll hear some sessions that Pete Sims played on as “Au Privave.”

[MUSIC: George Russell, “Au Privave”; Pete LaRoca, “Lazy Afternoon”-Basra; Sonny Trio-Grimes-LaRoca, “I’ve Told Every Little Star”-1959]

TP: I’d think the surname quandary of “LaRoca” and “Sims” is a constant source of confusion.

PLR: I’m afraid so. But I answer to both. It just doesn’t matter.

TP: In these next couple of sets, we’ll hear two drummers who meant a great deal to you when you started to be a professional jazz drummer, Philly Joe Jones and Arthur Taylor. A few words about what Philly Joe Jones meant to you, and his special niche on the drums.

PLR: Swing. Summed up quite neatly, it’s just plain swing. For my taste, no one ever swung like that before or since. It’s full-bodied, it’s full-out. No messin’ around. All of his cuts are crisp, and he knew quite a few of them. He obviously did some big band drumming, and he brings that over to Miles’ band, especially on “Two Bass Hit,” where along with Red Garland, who was also a big band piano player, it just makes for a dynamite rhythm section. I think that every drummer around was very much impressed by Philly when things were being made.

TP: Did you get to know Philly, watch him check him out in person?

PLR: Some. We were friends. Drummers never work in the same band, and I was working a lot. I didn’t work opposite Philly that I can remember. He was one guy that I had to go hang out in clubs in order to get to hear him. Of course, since I was working, that wasn’t a big deal because you sort of had entree to most of the clubs. But I had to go catch him. They were working at places like Café Bohemia, Birdland, etc. It was mainly just the propulsion, the non-stop, strong as it could possibly be form of swing that apparently Miles at the time was just lapping up, because song after song after song called for it, and the rhythm section that he had at the time – which of course included Paul Chambers – was giving it to him.

[MUSIC: Miles-Philly Joe, “Two Bass Hit,” – [END OF SIDE 2]“Gone, Gone, Gone”]Pete Sims, Out To Lunch, June 11, 1998:

[MUSIC: Pete LaRoca Sims, “Amanda’s Song”]

TP: That was Chick Corea’s “Amanda’s Song,” from Swing Time, featuring Dave Liebman and Lance Bryant on soprano saxophones, Ricky Ford on tenor sax, Jimmy Owens, trumpet, George cables, piano, Santi DeBriano, bass.

Many of you know Pete LaRoca Sims from his middle name – he appeared on many recordings of the late 1950s and into the 1960s as Pete LaRoca. His two leader CDs from then are both in print – Basra on Blue Note and Turkish Woman At the Bath, for Douglas, reissued by 32Jazz. There’s a 30-year hiatus between recordings, and Swing Time comes next. The band is part of a rotating group of top-shelf New York musicians who’ve been recording with Pete since 1993, and the current version is appearing this week at Sweet Basil – Joe Ford on soprano sax, Don Braden on tenor; Jimmy Owens on trumpet; Steve Kuhn on piano; Santi DiBriano, bass. There’s a variety of arrangements, all sparked by Pete’s unique and original and unpredictable drumming.

Let’s talk about the origin of this group. You were one of the most active and respected drummers in jazz. The business became a bit too much for you to deal with in some ways. You became a lawyer. And you began playing actively again – although I gather you never stopped – in the early 90s with this band.

PLR: I got a few too many strong requests to do Fusion, which I was not interested in doing, and it was happening that many of the main jazz stars were going that way. It seemed to be the trend at the time. At the same time I was trying to get work for the band that did Basra, and without very much success. The missing link that people usually overlook when they tell that story is that between the time when I was getting a lot of work as a jazz sideman and the time I went back to school, I drove a cab for five years. It was after five years of cab driving that I figured out, “Hey, something has got to change here,” and then went back to academics. Then in 1993, as you say, I got the good fortune to collect a bunch of guys, all great players, mainly resident in New York or just across the river in New Jersey. We did months of Sunday nights and Monday nights at various clubs, and sort of teased the book into good shape. Working one night a week you can’t keep a steady group, so that’s where the rotating roster of musicians came in. Fortunately for me, a lot of great musicians around New York know my book. So usually, if I’ve got to get a band together, it turns out to be a pretty good one, like now.

TP: Let’s talk about this band, and a few words about each of the players. Maybe the overriding theme can be what it take to play in a band led by Pete Sims?

PLR: I’ve been told by the guys that the book is difficult. That’s number one. There have been occasions when guys have come aboard and stumbled there at having to read. If you’re not familiar with the book, you’re going to have to read, and that has been a stumbling block for a few fellas. So the main thing is that they wish to and can play freely when we finally get to solos, and they can content with the monster book, is what it’s called.

With regard to these guys: Jimmy Owens and I are actually both Music & Art, though not at the same time, and he has a lot of orchestral experience, which is what you do at places like Music & Art. He brings a lot of lore. He didn’t have the 30 years off, so he’s been in a lot of great bands and he brings a lot of lore and experience with him, and it’s a pleasure to have him.

Santi DiBriano has been in the group off and on since 1993. He comes from a Latin background. Along the way, before I ever played drums, I was a timbale player. So there’s a certain relationship there with regard to things that happen in time.

Steve Kuhn is playing piano this time around. He and I go back. We were together in the first Coltrane group. We subsequently worked together with Art Farmer and Stan Getz. So we have a history. He also has symphonic training, orchestral training, and he brings that lore.

Joe Ford is the guy you get when you’ve absolutely got to swing. There’s got to be one guy who you know you’ll give it to him and he’s going to swing with it. Don Braden is a new fellow; this is his first time in the group. He’s doing famously, brings a different color, a different style, so to speak, as most good jazz players do, and fills it out for us. A great ensemble sound he brings also.

TP: The record has three originals by you, Dave Liebman has one, there’s the Chick Corea tune and some standards. Who arranged the “Four In One” that you played last night?

PLR: That’s Hall Overton’s, from the big band album with Monk. It’s a wild thing to do, with that 2-chorus ensemble of Monk’s piano solo orchestrated out. That’s why guys say it’s a hard book!

TP: You have a sheaf of Chick Corea compositions, which I know are manna for drummers.

PLR: They are – Chick himself being a drummer. And he was good enough, at a time that we were talking about material to arrange, he said, “I’ll send you some stuff,” and about a week later I got a 2″ thick package of tunes he hadn’t recorded, snippets he hadn’t finished working on… It’s just a gold mine, and the first thing that’s come out of it is “Amanda Song,” which is for a singer.

TP: You’re writing. On “Basra,” from 1965, there are three of your pieces. The next track we’ll play is an updated version of a song that appears on Basra. How far back does writing and band-leading go for you?

PLR: Well, in my mid-teens there was a fellow up in Harlem named Hugo Dickinson, who had a group. I was then at Music & Art, and I had heard about him. Somebody said he was looking for a drummer. He and I met, and it developed into a situation where we had a sort of dual leadership. Latin music, the Mambo and Cha-Cha-Cha were quite popular then, and sort of at the beginning of their popularity – this is that far back. So he was doing the jazz side, and I, then, being a timbale player, was doing the Latin side. That’s when I started bringing in arrangements for the band. Some were simply sheet music that you could buy in places like the Music Exchange. Others were transcriptions. We heard a nice arrangement and we liked it, so I’d take it off the record. And some were original compositions that I wrote for the band. It was a big band, a 13-piece band or something.

We got a lot of dance work. It was really a dance band. We got a lot of work, mainly in Harlem, but some places in the Bronx or Brooklyn – wherever the gig was. Hugo was quite good at getting jobs. It was enough to keep the band together. A lot of great musicians came out of that band. Barry Rogers, for instance, who went over to the Latin world later, started out… That was one of his first big hits. George Braith. John Mayer, who is now on the West Coast, a piano player. A lot of guys came out of that band.

TP: Talk about the transition from timbales to trap drums.

PLR: Actually I started as a kettle drummer at Music & Art, and actually earlier at Stitt Junior High School. The transition from that to timbales was not that great, in the sense that the technique is the same. They both use what drummers call matched-grip, meaning that each hand holds the stick in the same way, as opposed to military style where you have that rotating motion in the left hand. So that wasn’t a big hump at all.

But then I sort of shied away from playing jazz. Jazz ran through my house all my childhood. My Uncle, Kenneth Bright, was involved in Circle Records, which originally recorded the Jelly Roll Morton… They were six 12″-78 albums where he is a raconteur and tells stories and plays bits to exemplify what he’s talking about. That was first released by Circle, which is the company my uncle was involved in. He was enough involved in the jazz scene that he would throw a party, and Fats Waller would come by the house and play piano. I’m sure that Fats would go anywhere and play piano, but our house was one of the places that he went.

I loved it so much, and it looked quite complicated and quite different from matched grip, playing kettle drums and timbales, that I shied away from it for a very long. Finally… I remember it was my 17th summer, because I couldn’t drink legally, and some guys I didn’t know, but who knew my name and knew I could read, had a summer-long job in the Catskills – a show band. They wanted me to play the drums. I said, “Hey, I’d love to do it, but I don’t even happen to have drums. I play timbales.” They said, “We’ll get you some drums,” which they did. I had something like 10 weeks at a place called the Kentucky Club up in the Catskills, cutting shows and playing for dancers, etc. That was my first real experience playing traps. It wasn’t even really a jazz band.

TP: Sounds like a trial and error thing for you?

PLR: I knew about it.

TP: What were the biggest demands about going from clave to swing?

PLR: The first big problem is coordination. Because you’ve got all 4 limbs going. You’ll see a lot of young drummers sort of staring into the middle distance as they try to figure out, “Now, which comes next?” Ultimately, when you really start playing, when you know you’re playing reasonably well, is when that stuff becomes second nature and you stop thinking about it.

TP: Was there a drum sound in your mind’s ear when you start playing jazz on trapset? Were there drummers you’d absorbed and wanted to sound like in some way or other?

PLR: Plenty of drummers. Not a drum sound as such. But plenty of drummers. Baby Dodds was a first major influence. In my uncle’s huge jazz record collection, there was a 78 (and again, this is back there) of Baby Dodds, just Baby Dodds, playing solo drums on both sides.

TP: Incredible record.

PLR: Absolutely incredible! One of those that I wore out. A major influence. I find that he’s an influence still, having listened to that. It’s not straight bebop. Certainly it predates bebop. It was a guy really playing impressionistically in a very early style on a set of drums – a BIG set of drums with temple blocks and all kinds of things like that.

Other major influences? Max was a major influence, and what he did at the inception of bebop with Bird and Dizzy – that’s fundamental jazz vernacular for drums.

TP: You were up on all of this?

PLR: I had heard it all. My stepfather was a trumpeter, and he played jazz. Jazz was always going on in the house. And it was a time at which jazz was extremely popular. It was the foundation for the swing bands, the dance bands. That hadn’t quite died yet, although I think it really did take a turn to a different direction with Bird, because he with his wonderful contribution sort of turned the music into ear candy, ear music, and not so much dancing music. That’s when we started having not dance halls, but cabarets, nightclubs without even a dance floor, where people just came and listened to the music. Once again, when the people stopped dancing to jazz, we lost a lot of public. Because really and truly, people want to be the show. They don’t want to go and sit and watch somebody else – be a spectator. But nevertheless, with regard to the music, loving jazz as much as I do, I’m glad Bird did what he did!

Kenny Clarke was a major influence because of the way that he smoothed out, to my perception, the beat. Guys were putting a lot of emphasis in their hands on the second and fourth beat, along with the sock cymbal playing on the second and fourth beat. He kind of had the sock cymbal going but smoothed out that right hand. To me, that was a revelation, and I play like that today.

Philly Joe Jones for the musicality. He played bebop and he played it hard, but he always played something appropriate for what was happening in the band.

These are the guys. You learn from them. You learn things to do. I still find quite a bit of Philly in my own playing, because some of the things he did are just the best way and the easiest way to get from one place to another.

TP: Were you a kid who went out to hear these drummers? Were you listening on records?

PLR: Pretty much. It really started with my going out to hear Latin bands. As I was sort of coming of age and allowed to go out at night by myself, that’s the stage at which I was playing timbales. But when it switched over, actually I was playing quite a bit. So once I started playing jazz, which was the job at the Village Vanguard with Sonny Rollins when I was 19…once that happened, I was in clubs where there were usually two bands then. So I would be in one band I’d really hear these guys in the other band, which in many ways is the best way to hear them – it was really intense.

TP: So at the time of Night at the Village Vanguard you hadn’t had that much listening to jazz experience?

PLR: I hadn’t had that much playing jazz experience. I’d only played with my contemporaries in the neighborhood, the guys in Hugo’s band, when we were… After the summer in the Catskills. That gives me about two years of playing traps.

TP: Who were some of the hand drummers or Latin drummers you found particularly stimulating, who might enter the way you sound today?

PLR: Tito Puente as a great timbale player, and from whom I stole a concept that I still use today. I haven’t found a better one. The drums not having the advantage of harmony and melody, one way to sort of make your solo playing coherent is to take the last part of one musical idea, one rhythmic idea, and make it the first part of the next rhythmic idea. That comes from Tito Puente. And it works.

TP: Worked then. Works now. Anyone else?

PLR: Direct lifts? Not so much.

TP: I don’t mean direct lifts, but just general influences.

PLR: Everybody is an influence. Sure. You listen to everybody. In the rare case you listen to some guys for what not to do. But everybody is an influence. You let it all filter through.

TP: But when we cite the people you’ve played with, it’s a roster of pivotal figures in the development of jazz – Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, on and on. Let’s hear some music and talk about some of those people when we get back.

“Candu” was first recorded on Basra, Pete’s 1965 Blue Note recording. This version is on Swingtime…

[MUSIC: Pete LaRoca, “Candu”; Sonny Rollins-Pete, “Oleo”-Stockholm-1959]

TP: Let me read a list of some of the highlights of your c.v. between 1957 and 1964-65. Sonny Rollins. Tony Scott. The Slide Hampton Octet and I imagine other configurations – a significant band not so well known these days. John Coltrane’s first attempt to organize a quartet, which he eventually settled on later with results we know. Art Farmer. You played with Joe Henderson in your own band and other situations. Chick Corea became part of your working band for a while. An incredible roster, on the cutting edge of the time.

You referred to “missing link” in regard to someone before. Some people think of you as a kind of missing link because of your absence over 3 decades in the development of modern jazz drumming. A number of drummers have said this to me.

In any event, let’s talk about your experience with Sonny Rollins, who’s been known to be tough on drummers, though maybe not on you.

PLR: I didn’t find him to be tough on drummers and such. At the time, it seemed to me that he was not so much band-oriented. I’m coming out of symphonic background, and my first real work playing traps was in a show band, where you’re really expected to do certain things. Sonny really wanted to, at that time, follow his own nose, meaning he might change key in mid tune, he might change a tune in mid-tune. He would change the tempo in mid-tune. And he really just expected whoever was in the band to follow him, wherever he happened to go. If that’s what you mean… I didn’t think of it as being rough on drummers. He’s a very strong player, and when he set out to go from one place to another, it was kind of obvious what he was doing and not that difficult to follow along.

TP: Did this 1959 engagement end your association? He entered his hiatus following that.

PLR: There was really only the Vanguard, which was a one-week job, and I think the tour with him in Europe that included the Stockholm recording was 10 days-2 weeks, something like that. Other than that, there were really just a few concerts here and there. I think I might have had a half-dozen other nights playing with him at most over that whole two-year period.

TP: I’m sure the Vanguard gig opened eyes around New York. Did it open up work opportunities playing jazz for you?

PLR: I’m certain that it did. I think the next good job I got was for a longer period of time, with Tony Scott, who had a quartet at the time, a very nice quartet for a good period of that time, with Bill Evans and Jimmy Garrison. We worked for about 2 months solid at a place called the Showplace in Greenwich Village, which is no longer there. He had other people as well. It wasn’t all that.. It was just that two months with those two particular musicians. But it included a concert with Langston Hughes at Carnegie Hall for instance.

There was work. I was getting lots of work. Given the Sonny Rollins recording, which was Blue note, and the Jackie McLean recording…

TP: New Soil.

PLR: Yes, which was also Blue Note. I kind of fell into favor, as it were, with Alfred Lion of Blue Note, and he would often recommend me for records and the musicians would accept me. The same was true with Max Gordon at the Village Vanguard. He’d very often bring just a horn player to town and pick up a local rhythm section… Well, a local rhythm section in New York City, you’re not doing too bad. Max would often recommend me for some of those jobs. So I got to work a lot, and I think that’s how I got to play with so many fine musicians.

TP: Your experience playing with John Coltrane in 1959 and 1960.

PLR: Obviously a great experience. It was a great job in the sense that it started with 10 weeks on the same bandstand at the Jazz Gallery. Now, that’s unheard of today, but that’s… If you want to start a band, that’s a great way to go at it. We did 10 weeks, two weeks each opposite Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Chico Hamilton, Count Basie (the big band…it was really a great job) and Max Roach also. It was kind of fierce.

I think what had happened is that he had always intended, I think, to have the band that he ultimately ended up with. But all the guys he wanted weren’t available at the time that he got his opportunity to start. So I just had really the good fortune to get those first…it was probably 4 or 5 months, because we did those 10 weeks and then a tour around the Eastern Seaboard.

TP: What were the dynamics, the special demands of playing with John Coltrane.

PLR: A lot of energy. [LAUGHS] It’s kind of contrary, in a way, to my sort of natural bent. I’m not exactly a soft drummer. But I do like…or what I’ve developed into liking over time is to have my peaks of energy and then to come back down. Hopefully that allows a horn player to get his breath and think about it again; you don’t keep him at the top of his lungs constantly. But with John, that’s the way John played. He was always not so much necessarily at the top of his lungs, but certainly at the top of his energy. He never let that part come down. So it really was not natural, in a way, for me – but it sure was fun to do.

[END OF SIDE 1]

TP: …the material he recorded for Atlantic around that time, or was he looking for other things?

PLR: It started with the material from Atlantic, “Giant Steps,” etc. I think there might have been some earlier recordings for another label. “Equinox” I think preceded some of that music, the Atlantic period. “Mr. Syms,” I think, which people thought was me, but actually it was a barber of his in Philadelphia. During the period that I was there, he branched out into “My Favorite Things,” “Chasin’ The Trane”…

TP: He was playing “Chasin’ The Trane” in 1960, then.

PLR: He was playing the tune, yeah. And “Impressions,” that he did the long extended solo on. And “Inchworm.”

TP: So he was playing extended solos when you were playing with him.

PLR: Yes. Not so much a whole 20 minutes worth necessarily. But they were getting there. They were on their way to that. And he was getting to modal, as opposed to “Giant Steps.” In fact, we had a conversation about that. I really didn’t like the “Giant Steps” type stuff very much at all. Certainly for me, and I think for most drummers, our main device is harmonic rhythm. Meaning we go for the places where there are harmonic changes, where the chords sit down. In something like “Giant Steps,” the chords are just about note-for-note. So almost every drummer is going to play that the same way. BOOM TIT-TI-BOOM TIT-TI-BOOM TIT-TI-BOOM TI-BASH, BANG BANG. It’s going to happen every time.

TP: If they can.

PLR: Right. Well, ok, but it’s just a natural. And I’m not too partial to things where I sound like any other drummer! I just don’t like to do things that way. So the things where the harmonic rhythm was more disparate, more interesting, were the things that I preferred. I loved “Equinox.” I loved “Body and Soul,” his great arrangement of “Body and Soul” that I have since orchestrated to put into my own group, etc.

TP: Perfect segue. That arrangement of “Body and Soul” appears on Swingtime, and let’s get to it.

[MUSIC: Pete, “Body and Soul”; w/Chick-Gilmore-Booker, “Bliss”]

TP: I’m one of many people who initially thought it was either Chick Corea’s or John Gilmore’s recording, as I’ve seen both incarnations.

PLR: Interesting.

TP: Actually your entire output as a leader is currently in print – Basra for Blue Note, Turkish Women At The Baths, and most recently, Swingtime, which is the name of his current ensemble, which is performing this week at Sweet Basil.

When we were speaking before that set of music, Pete, you made a comment that you don’t like to do things the way other people do – it’s not your policy. Has that been an ongoing character trait – the principle of individualism.

PLR: I don’t know that it was a guiding light, but it turned out to be the turn that I took on a number of different occasions. I was asked recently by an interviewer, “What was the first influence that caused you to go out, outside?” I said, “Nobody ever asked me that before,” and it took me a few minutes to think. The one person who I came up with was Moondog, who is called a street drummer. He’s a very unusual character who I used to see around on the street both in Midtown and in Harlem. He’d be standing on the street wearing Army blankets, sandals, and carrying a long staff. And he happened to be a drummer, and wrote music – and I think he played the flute also.

TP: He has a record out recently.

PLR: It’s a reissue. He also did a concert at the YMHA that I went to, and he had a beautiful triangular drum, about 6 feet long, sat on the floor, and he straddled it. There was a head on one end and the other end open, and he played on the head with a maraca and on the wooden side with a clave – and played the most marvelous things. I think that kind of led my ear to know that things can be done differently and still be quite musical. Drums being what they are, a very repetitive instrument. We hold the beat down. We end up with the backbeat, which I’ve avoided like the plague because it’s just so repetitive and boring – though people love it. People are comfortable with it. It’s obvious. You can feel it. But I just tended toward those things that were more like Moondog, and you know, the great drummers who played things that were interesting, that you’d never heard before, and that made it exciting.

TP: I guess stretching out over 10 weeks with John Coltrane would have given you food for thought.

PLR: It really developed into following the lead from whoever was up front. That started with Sonny, though of course it was pertinent to Coltrane as well. I still do that. It’s not so much that I have a pattern in mind. That goes back to the issue of having to maintain coordination. If you’re really working at it, then there are certain things, licks that you would play that you’re going to be comfortable with and you know how to do. My approach I hope is different in the sense that I prefer to listen to what the soloist mainly is doing and do something that complements whatever it is that he’s into. How should I play the time behind a soloist who is playing that particular kind of phrase up front. That leads you. Because they’re always playing something different, so that leaves me to always be playing something different, and I always liked that combination.

TP: You also became involved in studying Indian music during the 60s, according to the liner notes.

PLR: Yes. Though it was more a general period of Eastern studies. I was also investigating yoga and Zen, etc., as many people were at the time – and Indian music, which was a big part of it.

TP: Did the rhythmic structures of Indian music have an effect on your concept of drumming?

PLR: Not very much. It came across as intensely beautiful but also intensely complex, and I couldn’t find a way to carry it along. Actually I’ve had a similar experience recently with Native American music. Many of the tunes that I’ve written are drawn from other folk musics, not necessarily jazz. I was looking for something that would be from the Native American vernacular. Once again, I love what I hear, but I haven’t found anything that I can take to make it swing. It’s been done. Jim Pepper did “Witchi-tai-to,” which was great. So I know there’s probably something out there, but I haven’t found it yet. It’s very difficult. They don’t use time in so regular a fashion. Some of the time, meter signs – if there were one – seem to be irregular. They’re not circular like a 3/4 or 4/4 even or 5/4. They seem to change, to my ear, in large part, based upon their language. In other words, they’re singing a phrase, and whatever music or rhythm they’re going to do takes the shape of that phrase, as if it were spoken. That’s the rhythm of the music. It doesn’t have to be circular. Nobody is going to improvise. It doesn’t need to be a recognizable pattern. I’ve found that in many folk musics. I may be mistaken, but I think in Greek folk music I’ve also heard that, where they use wild meter signs. But it seems to follow the spoken phrase, not necessarily conducive to something that you want to swing.

TP: You started off in Latin music, and much of the roots therein are Yoruba-Cuban music. Have you continued exploring those feels and does it inflect the way you play?

PLR: Not much directly. I would go a little further back than Yoruba-Cuban to just plain African. When I was a kid, I lived in Harlem, and I was going to Music & Art, which was then at 135th Street, and the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library was at 136th and Lenox Avenue. So these things were close by, and I spent a lot of time at the Schomburg Collection, listening to their records. That’s where I picked up the African elements of my playing. Then I got a chance to use them, of course, was I was playing timbales.

TP: When we break down Pete LaRoca’s influences, it sounds very complex, which it is, but there’s nothing daunting when you hear Pete LaRoca play. It’s endless swing, as the band’s apropos title, Swingtime, would indicate.

PLR: I wrote this for my daughter when she was 4 or 5, which is 25 or more years ago.

[MUSIC: Pete Sims, “Susan’s Waltz”]
[MUSIC: Miles, “Two Bass Hit”; Miles, “Gone”; Miles-PC-PJJ, “Billy Boy”]

TP: Next we’ll focus on Arthur Taylor, who you saw quite frequently during the late 50s.

PLR: Yes, late 50s-early 60s, and picked up a tip from him, actually, regarding the sock cymbal, which previously I had only seen played in only a rock-the-foot-heel-to-toe-and-back fashion. A.T. did it with just his toe, which bounced up and down, so to speak, on beat, and the heel never touched the pedal. That for me was a true find. It allowed a lot of flexibility as to how to use the sock cymbal. Or, perhaps what I should say is, it avoided the sort of locked-in motion of heel-to-toe, which is one of those things you can see drummers concentrating on getting it coordinated, and as long as you’re concentrating on getting it coordinated you’re not going to play anything that’s very loose. So it was a freeing-up device to learn from A.T. that, they, you can do it with just the toe, and there are then different things that involve balance and you get loose – for which I am forever grateful to A.T. It would be a pleasure to hear him play something.

[MUSIC: A.T.’s Delight, “Syeeda’s Song Flute”-1960]

TP: On the next segment we’ll hear a number of tracks from dates on which Pete LaRoca appeared. Alfred Lion called you fairly frequently. You played on several Joe Henderson records, including Page One, which debuted “Blue Bossa.” There are several Jackie McLean sides, Walter Davis, Jr., Sonny Clark…

PLR: Kenny Dorham.

TP: How did the relationship with Blue Note begin?

PLR: It was the Sonny Rollins date, which of course was the first thing I did. The next thing was Jackie’s New Soil, with “Minor Apprehension.” I guess Alfred was happy with the results, and I got into quite a few dates, including my date Basra.

[MUSIC: Art Farmer-PLR, “Tears”–Sing Me Softly Of the Blues; Jackie McLean, “Minor Apprehension”-1959; Joe Henderson-Andrew Hill, “Our Thing”-1963]

PLR: …when I was asked my name, and I said, “Peter,” I’d get a lot of “Ha,” etc., and I finally started making what I thought was a clever connection at the time – Peter meaning “rock” and LaRoca meaning “rock.” I sort of allowed myself to get stuck with it, and that’s how that name came about.

TP: It’s a catchy, recognizable name. You say “Pete LaRoca,” and it sticks in your mind.

PLR: The name has done its work well. People do not forget the name! If I had to choose, I did well with that one. Sims is my given name, and I’m just trying to be known as who I am without the 13-year-old cleverness…

TP: Sometimes the best inspirations…

PLR: Are when you’re 13 years old?

TP: This gentleman’s second question was: Where has he been since Night of the Cookers?

PLR: Right here, dealing with the vagaries of the jazz music business and the impossibility of getting the opportunity to work and be heard by people like your interested caller. I drove a cab for a while in order to survive. I’ve become a lawyer in order both to survive and to keep myself interested in life, etc. And now, at this particular juncture, I have this marvelous opportunity to have a band working and to indulge in music in a number of different ways again.

TP: Now we’ll get back to some other drummers, both from recordings with Thelonious. Roy Haynes is one of the masters in the pantheon; and also Frankie Dunlop.

PLR: Again, drummers don’t get to play with each other, so it’s only as a listener. With regard to Roy Haynes, I’ve always been fascinated by most particularly his left-hand technique, the very intricate and sometimes delicate things that he does on snare drum with his left hand, that I think are among the drumming marvels in jazz. The devices that he uses have a sort of military sound, which I think may be how he got his nickname “Sarge.”

Frankie Dunlap is a drummer I only heard in one context, and that was with Monk. I heard a number of other drummers with Monk, but there was something about Frankie Dunlap that has caused me to always think that he was just the ideal drummer for Monk. Monk was a little angular in his compositions and in his playing, and Frankie was a little angular in his drumming, and they seemed to go together quite well.

TP: It seems to me that your sense of the essential of being a drummer are boiled down into one word, which begins with an “s” and ends with a “g” – swing.

PLR: Yes.

TP: Talk about what comprises swing with a drummer. There are so many ways to do it. What’s that fine line? Is it something definable?

PLR: I personally would go back to Baby Dodds. I call it today CHANK-A-DANG. He wouldn’t have done that, I don’t think. But if you listen to his playing, that sense of TAK-A-TAK-A-TAK-A-TAK-A is there. CHANK-A-DANG is the same thing on a cymbal that has an extended sound, so it’s smoothed out a bit, as I’ve been talking about smoothing things out. To me, that’s the essence. I think that’s what Duke Ellington was talking about when he said “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” We didn’t have all the other versions and varieties and extensions of swing when he said that. So to me, CHANK-A-DANG is the heart of it. And there are then many questions as to on what part of the drums it’s actually done; one’s touch in doing it. The drums being such a forceful instrument, discretion in playing drums is always significant, and being able to play, for instance, soft and still keep the drive going. All of these things are the things that really, to me, comprise swing, and that’s what swing is about.

People have done other things, and other things are interesting. They are logically sound, or they may be commercially viable, or whatever the case may be. But they are not necessarily swing. A person can say that the absence of something is a form of that thing. That may be a nice, logical argument, like “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” But it doesn’t come down to making that other thing, or that non-thing the thing itself, in my estimation, at least not when we’re talking about swing. There’s one thing. It’s CHANK-A-DANG. It goes right up the middle, and all the trimmings that you can add to it are great. But it never changes its own identity.

TP: During your younger days you played a lot for dancers on those Latin gigs, and I’m sure that imparted a whole sense of what sort of feeling to have on the drums, though that was on timbales at the time.

PLR: Yes. And I think everything I’ve done since that time has been in an effort to stay away from music for dancers because, though it may swing…

TP: It sounds a little contradictory, on the face of it, to say that.

PLR: It may. But a drummer has a function. In addition to the aesthetics of it, and the music of it, and the expression, a drummer has the function of setting down the time. And the closer you get to dancers, the more firmly you are locked into that function and the less you do anything else, to today where most of today’s popular dance music also derived from jazz is based on the hand-clap, or, as a drummer would call it, the backbeat. Well, you don’t need a drummer to clap hands. There’s a contradiction in terms there. Basically, that’s what it comes down to. It’s swing, and I don’t think there’s that much doubt about it, though people raise many questions as to what it is.

[MUSIC: Monk-Roy Haynes-Griffin, “In Walked Bud”-1958; Monk-Rouse-Dunlap, “Rhythm-A-Ning”]

TP: [re “Bliss”]

PLR: That album began with a cover. I was given the painting, Turkish Women At the Bath, by Ingres, and asked to write some music for it. I thought it was a little outrageous, but one doesn’t say no when somebody offers you a record date. So I did, and this set of songs resulted, and “Bliss” is one of those.

[Pete LaRoca,” “Bliss” and “Basra”]

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Filed under Drummer, Pete LaRoca, WKCR

Hamiet Bluiett (1940-2018): Two WKCR Interviews — Out to Lunch in 1993; a Musician Show in 1994

Here are the transcripts of a pair of WKCR interviews that it was my honor to conduct with the master baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett in 1993 and 1994 — the 1994 encounter was a Musician Show, where Bluiett played and talked about the music that influenced him. The July 21, 1993 show was intended to publicize a club appearance by the World Saxophone Quartet, which was about to welcome James Spaulding into the mix. Bluiett was with me from noon to 1:30; Spaulding came up for the second half, the transcript of which appears in a recent post.

 

Hamiet Bluiett, Out To Lunch, WKCR, July 21, 1993:

[MUSIC: WSQ, “Masai Warriors Dance” (by Bluiett), Metamorphosis, 1993]

TP: I’m pleased to welcome to WKCR the great baritone saxophonist, Hamiet Bluiett, who also plays various clarinets and other woodwinds, who is appearing with the World Saxophone Quartet and African Drums this week at Sweet Basil. Welcome.

HB: Ok, thank you.

TP: Three members of the World Saxophone Quartet have been working together now for 17 years. After Julius Hemphill left, Arthur Blythe held that chair for a few years; it’s now held by James Spaulding, who will join us later on. How does the presence of a new member affect what the band does, and the approach. How do you work someone in? And how was he chosen?

HB: So far, the band has been very fortunate in that…by having Julius… Then, when it was time for Julius to leave, we were able to get Arthur. Then Spaulding. Each one was a person that we had in mind for doing the particular chair. Because Arthur brought in a needed ingredient that was needed at the time, and James brings in another needed ingredient that’s needed at this time. The basis and the nucleus of it, we have it. So we’ve used quite a few people, and we have some more people in mind who we’re going to get to. In terms of the group now, Sam Rivers, Branford marsalis, John Stubblefield, John Purcell, Kidd Jordan, and I’m missing somebody… Julius, Spaulding, Arthur, and there’s two other saxophone players that I’m missing who have been… Henry Threadgill and Sam Rivers. These are people who at one time or another within our 17 year existence — besides myself, David Murray, and Oliver Lake — have appeared with the group in one kind of way or other. John Purcell is the only one who has covered everyone’s chair, including mine. He’s played all of the parts.

It’s a lot of people. But we have… Spaulding, because of the homespun blues and the other sort of ingredients, and the effervescence, brought another kind of thing, which is good.

TP: He also has a broad range on the flute, which I think fits in very well with African percussion and African melodies.

HB: It’s all of that. Everything. The whole bean. We don’t try to replace a person. We learned that from Duke. The music has to fit around whoever it is that you’re dealing with. So we’re constantly doing new things. At the club now, instead of having Mor Thiam and Mar Gue, with Chief Bey, we have Chief Bey, Okeryema Asante from Ghana, and Kahil el-Zabar from Chicago. So the configuration with the African drums now is something totally different from what it was before, but like I said, we don’t try to get another Mor Thiam because that won’t happen no way. It’s that singular.

TP: You’ve been associated with Okeryema Asante in a number of situations over the years, particularly on your most recent release on Tutu Records, If You Have To Ask – and isn’t he on your old Chiaroscuro recording?

HB: No, he’s not on that. Chief Bey has been with me all the time. He’s on Nali Kola with me. But on the Chiaroscuro, it’s Chief Bey, Ladji Kamara and Michael Carvin. That’s a little bit different setup.

TP: What was the impetus for World Saxophone Quartet to start bringing drums and the African drum ensemble into its orbit? You were solely a saxophone quartet for many years.

HB: Well, after Julius, who was basically a composer, then it was time for us to do something else. I had really grown tired of just a saxophone quartet configuration. Because… You can just reinvent some kind of way. For me, after so many years, it was time to do something else, and African drum was a good way to still bring out the saxophones, and in my mind, moving ahead to the next level of rhythm section, if you want to call it that. So we decided to go forward or go backwards, both at the same time.

TP: And the group does do both at the same time. There are numbers on which the four saxophones play together in ensemble or different solos, and pieces on which the rhythm comes in. Everyone in the WSQ has their own thriving solo career, and everyone is internationally known as a leader. How often does the group work in a given year?

HB: Well, it constantly changes every year. So far this year, we’ve gone on a European tour that last 28 days. We played in Atlanta, Georgia, with the drums. We’ve hit in Boston. We’re on our way to do a record date in Milano at the first of September with Spaulding. I can’t think of everything. It’s not a whole lot, but it does wind up being enough. After being together for so many years, being creative, you have to do a lot of other things just to come up with some different ideas. We have an LP in the can coming out now that will feature Fontella Bass and some totally different kind of stuff.

So the group is growing in other ways. The quartet is not just a quartet. The quartet is a whole…how can I put it…lifestyle, identity, base, umbrella. You understand? We’re planning to get to some things where we use piano, maybe piano…not necessarily piano choirs, but different configurations to go along with us to show the saxophone in a sort of different light as the nucleus of music, as opposed to being somebody else as the base.

TP: The members of the WSQ are all based in the New York area, but everybody is originally from the Midwest or the West Coast. Is there any way in which where you’re from affects the type of music that you play or the musical approach you’re talking about?

HB: Of course. Let me put it one kind of way. You’ve got the Mississippi River joining up with the Missouri River, and everybody that’s in the path of the river is going through that kind of trouble. People that live in Colorado are not bothered with that, or if you live in upstate New York. So the land that you’re in has a lot to do… For instance, me, I have a certain sort of accent when I talk that is Midwestern as opposed to Southern. So there’s a regional dialect that goes along with what you do. In the Midwest, the music a lot wilder, but not necessarily free, because there’s a lot of wide-open spaces. Whereas here, in New York, in the city, things are much more… Like, you’ve got [(?)208th Street(?)]. [(?)208th Street(?)] for me is a cornfield. If you take the same distance and go somewhere from my house, you… I’m in the middle of wide-open spaces. So the way of looking at a lot of things because of that… I’m trying to take everything to be verbal, and experience…

David Murray is from California. People are a lot cooler, a lot more laid-back. There’s a whole lot of other stuff. Now they’re going through some other kind of things, but… And plus, from Texas. Oliver is from St. Louis, from Mississippi. Stuff like that.

I know for me, I’m heavily blues-based. Spaulding is from Indianapolis, Naptown, heavy blues-based — so it’s a different kind of thing. As opposed to being East Coast. But then again, you’re all in one piece of land, so it’s all similar, too.

TP: Did you come up playing a lot of those type of blues gigs as a young musician?

HB: No.

TP: What were you doing as a young musician?

HB: Trying to learn how to play music.

TP: What instrument did you start on, and about how old were you?

HB: I started on piano when I was about 4, and learned how to basically read music and what I was looking at. I’m still being basic now. When the hands started going two different ways, I said, “No, this is not the instrument for me.” I tried to do trumpet. That didn’t happen. Then finally I wound up on clarinet in maybe about the fourth grade or something like that. I’ve been playing it ever since. But I wanted a saxophone. But the saxophone I wanted, that I saw, that made me excited, was a baritone saxophone.

TP: Why was that?

HB: I don’t know. I just looked at it and liked it.

TP: Were you big enough to play it?

HB: No. It was about my size at the time. But it was just that kind of excitement. Now, why? I don’t even care why, because I wound up with it. You understand? So that was just the instrument for me, regardless of what anybody say. So I saw it at that age. I don’t even remember the age now. I didn’t necessarily like the way the guys who played it, played it, because I thought the horn was too big to have such a small sound. I always thought the sound should be…it’s a bigger horn… I’m from marching band country, and I’m used to hearing sousaphone players hit as hard as any trumpet player on the planet, with enormous, fat…you know, fat-man sound, not no little sound — and big. And trombone players. The horns with the sounds getting bigger, according to the size of the instrument. With saxophones, the thing kind of went the other way. So I said, “There’s a problem here.” So that’s been one of the problems of trying to deal with it. Until I ran into Harry Carney. Then I said, “Oh! Ok. I was right.” But I said, “Oh, I got a lot of work.”

TP: Did you run into Harry Carney on a record or did you hear the Ellington band…

HB: I’m talking about in person.

TP: Where did you hear him? Do you remember when?

HB: 20-something. 25, maybe something like that. It was outside of Boston. I was in the Navy at the time, stationed in Boston at South Annex. So we’re talking about maybe 1965, 1964. I had heard the band before that. But what I mean by heard the band… I have a way of talking where words mean whatever I want them to mean. But what I meant, I HEARD the band, meaning it really got to me, I was in a club, and I was about as far from him as I am from here to you. For those who don’t know, we’re talking about 5 or 6 feet. But then the band was angled in another way, but I was right up on top of him. I was the first person that you got to. The band hit. And I sat there, petrified. It was a music thing, though, because I loved it, but I said “Whoa!” because it put so much distance in between what was going on and what wasn’t going on, that I said, “Whoa!” I said, “Damn, Duke’s got two bands; he’s got a big band and Harry Carney.” That’s what it sounded like. It sounded like his band and Harry Carney, who sounded like a whole band by himself. Everybody in the band had these tremendous sounds, but he was like…

Then I said, “Whoa, it’s the horn.” I mean, it’s him, but… So I started really thinking about the instrument. Instead of wondering, then I knew. So I said, “Ok, let me get to work on coming from another perspective. It’s a completely different instrument. Most people play it like it’s a tenor. They’re still running over it. And it can run, but it also goes through stuff. So it’s an altogether different instrument.

TP: When you got out Navy, is that when you started on music as your profession, your avocation?

HB: Chronologically, it was like ’66, January. I was supposed to come out four years earlier, but I got extended for the Vietnam draft. So instead of me coming out in September, everybody after a certain date had to… Which was cool, because I bought a car and the same instrument I’ve got now. Things were real cheap. I was a musician in Service. Actually, that’s why I went. Because I got tired of not playing.

TP: A fair number of musicians did that.

HB: Yeah, some of them. You had to volunteer to be in the Navy anyway, and I didn’t want to get drafted. Because that was coming at the time. It was one of those times when to keep from going into the draft, you could go your own way – but you still had to do some kind of service. And I was not in school or anything. So I said, well, rather than be in the foxhole… So I took an audition, and they said I was good enough to be in the band. As long as you get through basic service, then you’re a musician. So I was already set up to go that way, so I made it on through. Which worked out real good, since I had to do some kind of service at the time.

TP: What other music were you listening to at the time you were entering the service and coming out of it that was pleasing to your ear and that you wanted to be getting with?

HB: Well, I always was listening to what you call jazz. So if we’re talking about that time in the 60s, I was listening to John Coltrane and a lot of other people — at that particular time. I remember listening to a lot of those things when he was heavily criticized, and Miles was criticized for having him, and a lot of people that jump up and down now, praising his name, talked about him like a dog. I always heard something in his playing that satisfied me. Not necessarily technically, because I’m not into that sort of mindset. Something has to satisfy me inside of my body some kind of way. I heard Miles say that. It’s really kind of true.

TP: You’re both from the same part of the country.

HB: Yeah, we’re from the same part of the world. So we’ve got another kind of way of feeling it. My way of looking at music is sort of like spiritual decadence. It’s spiritual, but I can’t get away from whatever is going on. So they both seem to coexist without me being in control, since I don’t run the world, no way.

TP: But maybe you do run the baritone saxophone. Let’s hear a few examples from recent recordings by Hamiet Bluiett, and then we’ll be back for further conversation.

HB: This is called “Children At Play.” I wrote it for Mama Geri at a child development center at City College. My grand-daughter was going to this child development center, which you would call like a daycare…what they call them. But the concept was Afrocentric, and it was children from everywhere, but the sort of freedom that they had in being able to do what they did always inspired me. Because I watched the way they would play, and they don’t play military, like everybody got to step. They go! It all works out! Everybody is GO! But they weren’t destructive. They just took off and did what they had to do. So I looked at it a lot, and I said, “let me write a tune,” and I wrote a little tune for it.

TP: This features Fred Hopkins on bass and Michael Carvin on drums, with percussionist Okeryema Asante, who is appearing with WSQ this week. The CD is You Don’t Need To Know If You Have To Ask, and it’s on Tutu.

[MUSIC: Bluiett, “Children at Play”; “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”-You don’t Need To Know…]

TP: I think when the general public first became aware of Hamiet Bluiett was via stints with Charles Mingus during the early 1970s. Where did Mingus hear you? What circumstances led you to Mingus?

HB: It was between Paul Jeffreys and Roy Brooks. Because Mingus’ love of Ellington… He had a big band at the time, and he needed a baritone saxophonist. He was having a problem finding anybody with a sound, and he was starting to even write some tunes. So fortunately, I had been playing with Sam Rivers, Olatunji and some other people… I got here in 1969. I hooked up with Mingus I think in 1972. By then, most of the musicians knew me and I knew most of them.

So I started in with the big band. Jon Faddis was in it; he was real young. A lot of guys. Real good band. Then later on, I came back and played with him… I might have been in the big band in 1971, but I came and started really working with him in 1972. That’s what it was. Yeah, something like that.

Mingus was like, for me… At the time I came in with Mingus, he was always being talked about real bad, being crazy and all that other stuff. So I had to go through all that, which was a problem, because it’s hard to work with somebody when everybody else has a paranoia or fear about him. Even though you may not feel that way, after you get through fighting it for a while, then it succumbs to you. I’ve seen people walk to him and do some horrible things, like put their finger in his mouth. Just a whole bunch of crazy, stupid type stuff. He would tell musicians things that he wanted to do, and they wouldn’t understand what he was saying. I think because they didn’t want to hear it. To me, he was ahead of where the cats were talking about. But whatever kind of problems he had with them before I got there, I can’t even speak about. You know what I mean?

And I had been sort of weaned on Mingus’ music, because my cousin turned me on to him years ago, and I went to “Better Get It In Your Soul” and a whole lot of stuff. I listened to his tone poems. I was one of them kind of musicians, coming up as a kid, that went to the music store and would browse and get all the stuff they was about to throw away and give away and whatever, and take them home and play it — and I found a lot of interesting music that way. Mingus’ music, as far as I’m concerned…or his direction of music… More guys are writing off of it now by opening things up, and things of that nature, the way he dealt with the paper and all that kind of stuff, than probably any musician. Which is why, after he’s dead, he’s getting all these accolades. Because that’s really true. A lot of cats are off of Miles, and everybody has their regimen. But Mingus has a whole lot, especially in the avant-garde type feeling things of this nature, and people who do a multi-media and all those kinds of things. Mingus’ music is extremely powerful as a progenitor, and one of the people who set up that whole idiom.

Now, therefore, saying all that, that means you’re working with somebody who got a lot of problems because they’re trying to do things that people don’t know what you’re trying to tell them and they can’t hear it no way. And you kind of hear, though, what they’re talking about, where he would take 2 or 3 melodies and play it at the same time. He would take two tunes and play them at the same time. So now, when we decide to run one line against another line, it makes much more sense because he’s already done that. A lot of people have. But it’s just the timing of it.

So it was like a blessing, in a way, and a curse. Because I needed someone to helpme get out and be known other than someone playing… See, with the baritone sax it’s an enormous problem, because all people want you to do is be in a supporting role – like the grandfather. “Go get your old Chevrolet and I’ll have a sports car.” Stuff like that. Or “Oh, Daddy, go back home; you don’t need to be out now.” So the baritone saxophone sort of is relegated to that role. It’s not a Billy Dee Williams, if you want to put a type of instrument… The women are looking for something different. Everybody’s listening for something different. So I beg to differ with all that. I know better. So the horn needed to be put out, and I wanted it put out in another way, and I didn’t see any sense in trying to go over the past music. It’s already been done.

The thing that I learned about… I’ve put all the musicians together at one time that I felt greatly, which was a lot of them! And one thing I’ve come out with is that they all did what they want to do and they all were original. So I said, “I need to do what I want to do, and be original.” So I want to emulate them, instead of imitating their notes and trying to steal their styles. I took it in that direction.

TP: a lot of musicians with that type of mindset were coming to New York in the mid 1970s, and you hooked up with three of them, and it became the World Saxophone Quartet. Can you tell me a bit about…

HB: How that got started?

TP: How that got started, and your early encounters with Oliver Lake, David Murray…

HB: Well, see, I knew Oliver Lake from St. Louis. I also knew Julius Hemphill. Because we started a group called the Black Artists Group. At the time period when I came out of the Service, everybody was playing piano, basses and drums and organs and all this. Being a baritone, again, I wanted to play every day. So we got hooked up in St. Louis, and this is going into… After I came out of the Service in 1966. So from 1966 into 1969, I’m talking about two-and-a-half years. I said, “I want to play.” So we got hooked up with this organization, and we started playing every day, regardless to who showed up. So that means you might not have nobody but one saxophone, two saxophones, three people, four people, and most of them were like instruments and drums. Bobo was part of it and all that. We did that a lot. Then if the drummer didn’t show up, we started playing by ourself.

This brought about another kind of music. I didn’t have a bass to adhere to, nor did I have a piano. Mingus and the cats…Gerry Mulligan and all them, had already broke the group down (Max and everybody) to drums and bass. We stripped away the bass, and just had drums alone. People would do this… Max had done his solos with Clifford Brown. But it’s not for an album. It’s just for part of a texture. We’re talking about this is the whole unit. So now we’ve got a different kind of configuration. We started doing that, and I found out that for the way I was hearing, I heard more. Because something of the old fashion of playing with a piano…I had never been… I can do it but it’s not my expertise. I don’t call it that way. That’s not where I really thrive. Then, if the drummer didn’t show up, we would play anyway. So we worked up… It’s a different kind of thing. Some people try to act like it isn’t. But it is. It’s totally different. Every situation has a different…it opens up to different mysteries and different beauties.

Then, later, when I came to New York… I was the first one out of the bunch to come. I came in 1969. The Art Ensemble went to France earlier, and I said “later – let me go to New York.” I said, “If I go to Europe, I’ve got to come back anyway. If I go to Chicago, I’ve got to go to New York.” So I kept looking at the equation. I still had to come back Dexter came back. Everybody comes back. I said, “Let me just go to New York.” So that’s what I did. I talked to Oliver Nelson. I asked him. He said, “What do you want to do?” He said, “Wait a minute. Before you answer. If you want to make money, get all your doubles and triples, bassoon, oboe, all the saxophones, all the flutes, all the clarinets, get all your horns together and go to California.” I said, “I want to play.” He said, “Ok, go to New York.” That was basically it. I went here.

TP: You knew Oliver Nelson also from St. Louis?

HB: Yes, he was from St. Louis also. So I asked him for some advice on what to do, to give me some sort of perspective. He gave me a perspective of what was happening on the two coasts. New York is about playing. I said, “Ok, good.” It’s more like a creative mecca. It really is.

TP: What was your impression of the scene when you got here?

HB: It was horrible, I felt. It had highs and lows. Uptown, the Club Barron was still here, going down bad. Count Basie’s, going down. Minton’s, going down. They were still in existence, but just a shadow of their grandeur, you understand, if you take it back to the players. I had come to New York to visit in the 60s, and just a shadow of THAT. Yeah, it was kind of bad, man.

Downtown, the only thing…. The Five Spot was going down. The Vanguard made it on through everything. Boomer’s was up and down. The scene was bad. Dexter and all the cats were going to Europe, Johnny Griffin, everybody. So I came in on a downward arc…

TP: But during this time, new musicians were coming, revitalizing the scene, finding new places to play.

HB: They were coming all along. But the thing about it, we started to come in and do some music in a different kind of way at the same time. Because there was this big split here between the so-called “straight-ahead” and the so-called “avant-garde.” It was real out at the time I got here. Which actually made it better, because it was wide-open spaces. I told you — 203rd Street for me is a cornfield. It was wide-open, so it made it much better for us.

After I played with Mingus and got out of the band, I sat around for a year and didn’t do nothin’. Then I said, “No, I want to start playing every day again.” Some of the cats were coming around, like Bobo and all of them; I think the Art Ensemble had come back from Europe. So we’re getting to about 1975 now. They worked at the Five Spot, which had revived itself and was on the Lower East Side. I said, “Ok, it’s time to go back.” That blended in to David Murray coming to town. Then the so-called “Loft scene,” which they gave a name to, hit. Because we were playing in lofts a lot, and that built a whole nother venue.

Now, the beauty, to me, of that music was it was a… I used to call it like trench warfare or front-line. Sometimes we would have rehearsals and concerts on the same day. Henry Threadgill, a lot of cats would do some massive and sometimes very intricate stuff right on the spot, and have to do it one time and one time only. That to me was very thrilling and very exciting. So people started coming from out of nowhere and everywhere to see this creativity happening in front of their face, because it’s very exciting. It’s very exciting when you see music go down like that. You’re watching it and it’s going down as you’re watching. You know it’s only for you, and that’s your flower. You can take it with you forever, because it won’t happen no more.

So this was going on a lot. Rashied Ali had his place, which I think now is what, Greene Street?

TP: 77 Greene Street.

HB: There was a lot of activity. Sam Rivers opened up a place, Joe Lee Wilson, the Tin Palace. So the whole scene was being revived…

TP: And it was all within 6-10 blocks of each other.

HB: George Coleman was coming out, finally getting a chance to get some work and get his recognition. So things were happening from a lot of different directions at one time. Eddie Jefferson was around a lot. There was a lot of stuff. Of course, Art Blakey and people like that never quit. They kept coming right on through.

TP: So within this ferment of activity, how does this lead to the saxophone quartet idea.

HB: Ok. During that time when these loft things were jumping off, Julius was here, I was here, Oliver was here, and David Murray. Ed Kidd Jordan came up from New Orleans on a sabbatical because he wanted to hit! He came in the middle of it, the summer of 1976, and it was the bicentennial summer. We were hittin’! We were going all the way through the summer, all the way through August. August had been a down month with nothing happening in the music. So now, quite naturally… You have all these festivals now; that’s totally changed.

[END OF SIDE 1]

…which the Dirty Dozen came out of. After they heard us, they formed their group. They wanted to do something different in the music. So they wanted for him to either come and get Sun Ra or Ornette. Luckiiy for us, neither one of them was formulated. So after coming and playing with us, he said, “Why don’t the four of you guys come down to New Orleans and hit with me?” So we went down, and we started this group that we called the New York Saxophone Quartet and played with a rhythm section. The place was packed, including Wynton and Branford, Donald Harrison, all these guys was like little kids. All of them were there, and old people up to 80 years. Mainly a 90% black audience, but with a lot of children, babies, old people all at one time. We started playing, and the kids started running through the audience like a wagon train. You know how they circle? So they had an aisle on both sides, and in the front and in the back, and the kids just started running. It was the coolest thing ever, because none of the parents acted like a fool and told them to stop. And none of the kids got hurt. And they ran and ran, and the people just sat there and dug the concert, liked what was happening, let us know that it was really going on, and the kids were energized, which is the way that they do — music makes them run.

So I said, “Whoa, look at this.” I went away and I said, “Look, we got something like this; we ought to keep this together.” I really can’t take credit for putting it together. But it was born that way.

TP: You have to grab the idea when it comes to you.

HB: Well, it worked so well, and we had been doing it anyway. So then we went and played in a club called Lu and Charlie’s on the same weekend, still in New Orleans. The first concert we did was with a bass and a drum — London Branch on bass and Alvin Fielder on drums. Then we went and played in a club. Then we got to New York, and someone approached us about playing in the Tin Palace, and so we did that. We called ourselves by this time the Real New York Saxophone Quartet, because we heard about a group… We didn’t even know there was a New York Saxophone Quartet, to be truthful. So we changed it to… Wait, the letter for that came later, after the writeup when we played at the Tin Palace. But the reaction to that was still real good. So we’re seeing how these people are frozen in their seat, and watching and looking and liking what we do. We never tried to get a job; all the jobs kept coming to us.

Then we were at Oliver Lake’s house one day, doing something. We were rehearsing, getting ready to go to the Tin Palace, and they called from Moers, Germany. Some group decided not to show up, and they needed a group. We were in the house rehearsing. They say, “Yo, what about the World Saxophone Quartet?” They say, “Ok, good, we’ll take them.” So we worked for them and we did a slight tour. It just kept growing and growing and growing. The four of us got together. It’s almost as if the spirits are saying “Stay together.” So it kind of worked like that.

TP: We’ll hear some of Bluiett’s music from another very recent release, recorded last October on Soul Note, titled Sankofa, Rear Guard, which I’ll bet refers to your remarks about the position of the baritone player in the band.

HB: Yes, it’s got something to do with it. It’s got to do with a lot of things, really. The avant-garde is the one that’s supposed to be in front, and my position is like to be actually behind, so as to push everything. Also sankofa is a way of looking back. So I am constantly going ahead, but I am also now collecting from what I’ve done. So I want to enjoy some of the things I’ve done as opposed to run away and not keep them. That means melodies in music, harmonies, time… There’s a lot of things I’m talking about anything.

TP: Ted Dunbar is on guitar, Clint Houston on bass, and Ben Riley on drums. Why this particular group; how did it hook up?

HB: I wanted to play with a guitar for a while, and I wanted a guitar player that was very knowledgeable and steeped in the blues — and Ted’s from Texas, so that’s no problem. Whenever you just quit thinking, he’s already into the blues. Clint Houston is a virtuoso on bass. So he and Ted can chase each other with these chord changes and things. Ben Riley because Ben never ceases to swing. That’s the thing, and the music should do that. Right? So it was time for me to get a rhythm section that when I say “let’s go,” they go. So it was that kind of idea. Then that’s the kind of support that I thought the instrument needed, because all these guys are such great musicians that they would be able to do whatever needs to be done. You get a lot when you get people of that caliber.

[MUSIC: Bluiett, “Nuttin’ Special”;
[MUSIC: WSQ, “The Holy Men” by Bluiett, from Metamorphosis; James Spaulding, “Song of Courage”]

********

Hamiet Bluiett, Musician Show, WKCR, Feb. 9, 1994:

[WSQ: “Nuttin’ Special”-1992, Sankofa: Rear Guard]

TP: What were your thoughts in organizing the music we’ll hear this evening.

HB: Let’s go back to the beginning. You talked to me some months ago about doing this show, and I think I spoke about, “What about baritone saxophone?” Then in the last couple of weeks,we’ve narrowed it down to about 100…

TP: We have about a 48-hour show. We can hole up with potato chips and coffee.

HB: [LAUGHS[ Yes, we have a 48-hour show. Hopefully tonight, what will happen is, you’ll get a chance to see the baritone saxophone from my perspective, with Harry Carney being the boss of the horn for me – chronologically as well as everything. But not everything. Then these other people, some that are main influences. During the time, when I was coming up trying to listen to the baritone sax, there was not much available. So I had to hunt. You could find a lot of tenor, trumpet, things of that nature.

TP: What sort of things were you listening to then anyway?

HB: Anything I could get my hands hold of. There was a lot of stuff with Gerry Mulligan during that time period for me, because of Columbia records, and I was living in the Midwest, in a small town outside of St. Louis, Missouri. So I’d have to go look for Gene Ammons or other… I mean, they could be found; I’m not saying that. But not as readily as I could do the Columbia Record Club or whatever.

TP: How about the jukeboxes?

HB: The jukeboxes were nice. They had things… “Tempus Fugit” was on the jukebox. Miles on that Cannonball recording, Something Else — that whole thing was on the jukebox. A lot of things with Gene Ammons, with Nat Adderley and people like that. Eddie Harris had a hit…

TP: “Exodus”?

HB: Right. Or something like that… “Exodus,” right, he had a hit with that – you’re right. Art Blakey’s “Moanin’” and Bobby Timmons’ songs. A lot of those things were jukebox hits. So I had a chance to hear a lot of music, now that I’m thinking about it.

TP: There were a lot of instrumentals in Rhythm-and-Blues at the time a specific saxophone sound.

HB: That’s true. There’s always been specific sounds to certain eras; whatever is most prominent, everybody jumps on it, shows them where they’ve got to go.

TP: When you started playing, what sort of gigs were you doing? Who were some of the first people you aligned yourself with, or the type of music you started playing?

HB: When I first tried to play in terms of being on a bandstand or whatever, I was playing what you would call rhythm-and-blues, and doing a horrible job at it on the clarinet, and was glad that the people didn’t shoot me within the 9 months or so when I was working on this instrument. So I started out playing rhythm and blues on clarinet, believe it or not, and playing with what we called hillbilly bands at the time, or different, when I went to the baritone… So it was on one end of the block, which was about a half-a-mile block – that was just a rhythm-and-blues band. On the other end was this hillbilly band. I played with both of them, with the baritone sax, which I wanted to play since I was 10 years old.

TP: What made you want to play it?

HB: I just looked at the horn and liked it. It was as simple as that.

TP: Because of the heft of it?

HB: Everything. I just looked at one and that was it. No other horn affected me like that. I left the trumpet and all that stuff, and got kind of excited. But when I saw a baritone, I almost went, you know, OUT. I said, “Whoa!” It put an indelible impression. I never forgot the instrument. It was years later before I saw another or become close to it, other than seeing one from a distance, in the movies or something.

TP: When did you seriously begin to start playing jazz, improvising? In your teens, a local situation, or after you’d moved on to other things?

HB: Well, it’s kind of what you call, what you call… I’ve been trying to do improvising all along. But I guess maybe by the time I was 18, 17 – sort of late on the track, if you look at it in terms of how things can be done now. But it was hard for me to get any of that kind of knowledge, or even be steered in that direction. So it took me a while trying to do things the so-called correct way, but fighting these internal feelings while doing it.

TP: How so? What were you fighting?

HB: I could play things, but emotionally I would be off. Something’s supposed to be cool, and here I am getting ready to jump and run. So emotionally, I’m in the wrong spot. I’ll give you an example. I took an exam to get…it’s like an audition to get a scholarship on clarinet. I played some classical composition, I don’t remember right now. Anyway, when I played it, I got all carried away and I felt real good, and I was just, you know what I mean, BURNING, I thought. When I got through the guy said, “That was sort of rambunctious of you.” So I had gone the wrong direction in terms of the whole temperament of the music. I said, “Wait a minute – but I felt it; so therefore, if I felt it, I’m not going to let it be wrong.” But I was wrong. So I said: “Wait a minute; that’s the end of that.”

So it taught me a lesson in terms of… I had the wrong temperament. So I waited all those years to try… Even trying to play jazz, it’s the same sort of problem – for me – to be put in the same sort of structure. The horn doesn’t let me do that. It doesn’t let me flow the same as a violin or a piano. I’ve got more sonic blast and going through stuff… It’s a different picture, you understand, in my head or how I see the instrument or feel it coming through my body. So… For a long time. Let’s put it that way.

TP: You stated that Harry Carney is the king of the baritone sax for you, and it begins really, in a lot of ways, with Harry Carney. When did you discover him, and when did you first hear him (a) on record and (b) in the flesh?

HB: Well, I’d been hearing him all my life. My mother was a Duke Ellington fan, a big fan, and my father was a Count Basie big fan. So all my life I’ve been hearing all this music. It’s not a thing… I don’t even remember. I can sort of remember a first time for Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman and some other people, but for him I really don’t. Because chronologically the age…like Louis Armstrong, I don’t remember not…

TP: Not hearing him. Part 2: You’ve mentioned there’s a big difference between listening to recorded music and hearing music in person. You said it was so striking, you even stopped listening to records for a long time.

HB: Well, music has a thing where it does something to the wavelengths of even what’s in the air, the room you’re in. So a lot of stuff is changed up. So it’s another kind of feeling. It can be eerie, you can like it, not like it – but it puts a whole nother thing on you. I found that to be missing. Also what I found to be missing… Maybe that’s it. The feeling of the person to really be missing in what I was listening for at the time. I found that the volumes would be… Some guys will have a large tone; the record made them seem smaller. Etcetera. Or singers or whoever.

TP: I believe you also mentioned hearing the Ellington band in the flesh and the impression that it made on you.

HB: Oh yeah. When I heard it in the flesh, then that was a different matter. I’d heard it before, but it was from a distance. This time I was in a small club outside of…in the Cape area, outside of Boston. I was sitting as far from Harry Carney like from me to you, so we’re talking 4-5 feet, 6 at the moment, but on the side of the band. Duke was on the other side of the band. So it was Duke on one side, Harry on the other, and everybody else was in the middle. The band sounded like two bands – it was a big band and Harry Carney. His sound was equal to the sound of the whole band, including the drums, Duke and everybody else. That froze me in place. In one way it was terrifying, but not as a musician. I don’t mean the term like the icepick murder is coming after you. I mean, it’s like WHOA – overwhelming. Maybe that was the word. Everybody had been soloing all night. Paul Gonsalves and the rest of the people. The band was superlative. I mean, it was BAD. So I’m sitting there, and the guys are playing their instruments, and this guy came out toward the end of the night, took a solo, played ONE NOTE – the whole place stopped. Nobody moved. The waiter. Everybody. BRRMMM… He went down, hit that bottom note, pop, and held that, and that was the end of it. Everybody started back to doing what they were doing. That was very impressive to me. Not only was it the note, it was just that it froze everybody.

I had that same experience happen, and they were all with Duke Ellington people. The next time it happened was with Jimmy Hamilton… No, the third time. The next time was Cat Anderson. Cat Anderson playing with Mingus. We did a tour in Europe. It was Mingus with Joe Gardner playing trumpet, I was on baritone, Roy Brooks on drums, and John Foster on piano. Cat Anderson. He did it. He played a note that was so soft and you could still hear it. It froze the place.

Jimmy Hamilton. We were in the Northsea, on a rooftop, playing with the Clarinet Summit and John Carter, and I was taking David Murray’s place on bass clarinet. He took a solo and did the same thing. Now, here’s people doing three different things, but both of them where everybody stopped at one time. Nobody moved. No waiters or nothing. And when they stopped playing and ended the solo, we were back to reality.

TP: One quality about Harry Carney that I think is applicable to your work is his role in the Ellington saxophone section in terms of defining the sound of the section. You’ve of course been the anchor of the World Saxophone Quartet since its inception almost 20 years ago. The first selection showcases the Ellington sax section. It comes from a 1946 recording on Musicraft. The saxophone-woodwinds section is Jimmy Hamilton, Russell Procope. Johnny Hodges, Al Sears and Harry Carney. This one is “Jam-a-Ditty”.

[MUSIC: Ellington-“Jam-A-Ditty”-1946; Ellington, “Sophisticated Lady”-1957; Ellington, “Work Song”-1944, Carnegie Hall]

TP: Harry Carney was featured towards the beginning of “Work Song,” but that really was a showcase for the trombone of Joe Nanton.

HB: I know, but it still shows an important function of how the instrument was used, and I wanted that to be highlighted as well. Harry Carney did more section work than he did soloing. That’s the other thing about up to when it came in to see how well the horn was incorporated in the harmonies. Because a lot of times, to me, it seems as if it was more melody than harmony in terms of the placement of the parts.

TP: He also played a fair amount of bass clarinet and also clarinet in the Ellington band.

HB: But the reason I’m focusing on baritone is because he seemed… I think maybe he started playing in 1919, so he’s one of the first people to even play it consistently. So that automatically gave him first place, for doing it longer than anybody. It kind of set the definitive tone of that particular idiom of dealing with the instrument – because they’re all idioms of their own.

TP: In the middle was one of probably thousands of versions of “Sophisticated Lady” featuring Harry Carney, one night in Carrolltown, PA., in June 1957. He showcased his circular breathing technique in particular.

The next baritone player in the pantheon is Basie’s baritonist of the 30s, Jack Washington.

HB: I didn’t learn about Jack until later, at least I was grown – 20-something. Then when I started going back and doing a lot of investigation and having to get my hands… Maybe I wasn’t quite that old. But it was somewhere in there, when I was in school or something. I got a chance to start investigating older Basie things that I’d heard but I didn’t realize who was on them. I’d heard a lot of Basie from a child, but didn’t know who was doing what at the time.

TP: What qualities make Jack Washington a special player for you?

HB: Sound. Execution. Another sort of pre-bop, if you want to call it, in terms of the years, sort of… Another way of getting around the instrument. He was just an excellent musician. It’s kind of hard for me to do the labeling, even though I did it a little bit.

TP: He recorded very few solos on Basie’s commercial recordings, but a number of airchecks feature his very strong soloing, and we’ll hear two such from 1938 — “Yeah, Man” from the Fletcher Henderson book, from Oct. 1938, with first solo by JackWashington, followed by Buck Clayton and Lester Young; then “Indiana” from September 1938, with solo order of Buck Clayton, Jack Washington, Dickie Wells, Basie, and Lester Young plays a clarinet solo.

[MUSIC: Basie, “Yeah, Man”-Oct. 1938; “Indiana”-Sept. 1938]

TP: We’ll now hear music by Gerry Mulligan.

HB: Like I told you, I heard a lot of Mulligan. It was easier for me to get. I heard Harry Carney, Charlie Fowlkes, and now we’ll get to Mulligan. Then Pepper Adams, who was on a lot of things by Gene Ammons and a lot of things that were available to me.

[END OF SIDE 1]

HB: …I liked it. I had a very strong attraction. I didn’t start playing it until I was about 19. And I never heard anyone play it that I liked until I got to Harry Carney. It was something about the sound that never satisfied me. Because I come from drum-and-bugle corps country, where trumpets had big sounds, trombones had bigger sounds, and sousaphones had bigger sounds than that. So it didn’t make sense to me why this biggest saxophone had a smaller sound than the smaller ones. I couldn’t understand it. It was kind of weird. And everybody I heard until Harry Carney sort of was like that. If it wasn’t real small, they were playing it like a tenor, so the sound was trimmed down to be more sleek. That’s just the particular instrument that I heard doing everything that I needed to hear it do. I hear more than just saxophone in terms of playing. I also think graphically and a lot of other stuff. Like the kind of sounds you get in electronics and whale noises and all that. I hear all those kind of things, and I see those possibilities in the instrument.

I’ve taken a little bit from everybody. The thing I noticed about Mulligan is that he plays the baritone saxophone very akin to the way Lester Young played tenor. It’s in that sort of vein. That’s still playing the baritone like a tenor.

TP: How is that so? As opposed to playing it with emphasis on the properties of the baritone?

HB: Well, who are you imitating? If you’re imitating Lester Young, who played tenor, then you’re playing the horn like a tenor, whether you’re playing trumpet or whatever it is. Because he got another thing out of the instrument. It’s sort of that approach, but it’s a different instrument. It’s like once-removed from there. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, because that within itself is great. You’ve got to be a genius to be able to do that. I don’t hear it that way. So that always kind of disturbed me. It took me up until maybe a few years ago to realize what it was that I personally didn’t care for, to be able to put a name to it and say this is basically what it is. And the way that the instrument is treated most of the time being a support. Maybe the closest thing we can get to would be a Clydesdale.

TP: Although these days, I have to say, there are some people that size who can move.

HB: I’m talking about even a way of movement. See, that’s what I mean. You have to move like a big person as opposed to try to be a big person moving like a small one. There is a difference. You can just see people. One comes along who is 6’5″ or whatever and big, as opposed to somebody walking down the street who’s 5’0″. They move totally different. They don’t move the same way. That just doesn’t work. So I’ll see the instruments that way, too. I don’t try to move like a tenor. That’s very rapid.

TP: How about when you play clarinet? How do you try to move then?

HB: That’s why I don’t play clarinet no more! I had to quit playing clarinet unless I play the low instruments. I found out… It took me a long time to find out that what was happening with me was my concept of pitch was lowering. So I really hear bass clef. I’m talking about personal notes that are inside of me, come from the bass clef and go up. But they have to be there. So when I was playing instruments that didn’t give me that, I had problems with it.

TP: The Gerry Mulligan session comes from a pianoless session from 1957, with Mulligan and Paul Desmond on the front line, with bassist Joe Benjamin and drummer Dave Bailey.

[MUSIC: Mulligan-Desmond, “Line For Lyons”-1957; Mulligan-Bob Brookmeyer, “That Old Feeling”-1956 (Crow-Bailey)]

[MUSIC: Bluiett, “Diane” – Sankofa-Rear Guard]

TP: A few words about your experiences with Mingus.

HB: I first joined the big band in 1972. He’d always been looking for a baritone player with a sound, so I was able to fill that void for him. It was an incredible experience, because there was no other vehicle for me to be like that anyway. No one else was using the horn. If they were using it, they were using it only in big ensembles. So I started out with the big band, then worked down to the sextet, then wound up with a quintet. I was in and out a couple of times.

TP: How did he find out about you?

HB: I’m not sure if it was Paul Jeffrey or Roy Brooks. At the time I was playing with Roy Brooks’ Artistic Truth as well as dealing with Paul Jeffrey, and both of them were with Mingus. I’m not sure which one. Plus I was playing with Sam Rivers’ Big Band, so along with me came Bob Stewart, Joe Gardner…that I can remember. And some more people. We’ve all… There wasn’t that much to do doing that time period, basically. There was a lot happening, but not many things; just a lot going on among a few.

TP: Did Mingus express strong preferences in how he wanted his solos shaped?

HB: no, the only thing he ever said to anybody was “The solo belongs to you, but the melody and all that stuff belongs to me.” So he wanted you to play whatever you had on the paper, exactly like he said he wanted it, and do whatever it had to be, then when it came time to solo that was your problem. The only thing he expressed maybe in the time we were together was try to get used to the New York long solos.

TP: What do you mean by “New York long solos”?

HB: Well, the horn players in New York, by the time they get to New York, by the time they get to New York, they’re not playing… They want to PLAY, really play. So guys take what I call long solos. They’re long for me. I don’t say necessarily for them. But maybe that’s the nature of the instrument I’m playing. Which makes me like beg away and do something else, and cool it for a second or something. But that’s why I just said New York long solos. You hear more of that here than any other place. It’s not bad. I’m not saying that. Except for me. It makes me put out more effort.

TP: The next baritone player is Leo Parker, who you greatly appreciate.

HB: Yeah, because Leo did some other things on the instrument. I thought he made the horn romp and really jump. He had an effervescent quality in his playing. He swung real hard, so that endeared him to me. But I didn’t really get to him until later, actually. I’d already been with Mulligan, Pepper Adams and maybe a lot of other people, whoever they are, in different bands, or Stan Kenton or Maynard Ferguson, Basie, whoever was around at the time. But it took me a while. And I was shocked when I saw this material and how good he was. But it did a lot in terms of saying, “Yeah, ok, I need all of it” – that this was part of it, too.

TP: This piece is Leo Parker in a sextet situation circa 1961 called Let me Tell You About It. Bill Swindell on tenor saxophone, John Burks, trumpet, Yusef Salim, piano, Stan Conover, bass and Purnell Rice on drums along with Leo Parker on baritone sax.

[MUSIC: Leo Parker, “Blue Leo”; “Goin’ To Minton’s”-Leo Parker-Fats Navarro, Jan. 1947]

TP: That leaping solo by Leo Parker really illustrated your remark about his making the horn jump and dance.

HB: Yeah, make it dance, that’s right. That was Pepper. We’re trying to run through this thing now. I’m basically trying to go through the people who were most influential in those formative years of listening to and being…

TP: one of the strongest and most respected baritone players from the beginning of his recorded career in the mid-1950s was Pepper Adams, who I know had a big effect on you.

HB: Oh yeah, I used to listen to Pepper over and over and over and OVER, on whatever recording I could, and I heard things that Gene Ammons had done that he was on also. So you know, he was rough company and taking care of business, so I had a lot of respect for his prowess on the instrument. Hard core.

TP: This one comes from a 1969 release on Prestige called Encounter, where Pepper Adams and Zoot Sims share the front line on baritone and tenor, with a Detroit-based rhythm section of Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones, playing Thad Jones’ “Elusive.”

[MUSIC: Pepper Adams, “Elusive”; “I’ve Just Seen Her”-Encounter-1969]

TP: the next baritone player to step up will be Serge Chaloff.

HB: I don’t remember when I heard these, but I guess I was in my teenage years…maybe. I only got a chance to hear one record; maybe later on I heard another one. I was very impressed when I heard it. To me, he had sort of taken the so-called bop style; he played it more like an alto as opposed to a baritone, the way I heard it, because of his fleetness and the way that he ran over the instrument. Plus with a great sound from what I can remember. That was very impressive to me also at the time. I was thirsty for hearing anything. It was hard. I was going on this baritone sax search, I guess you would call it, without even calling it that at the time. By the time I heard it, he’d already passed.

[MUSIC: Serge Chaloff, “I’ve got The World On A String”-March 1956, Sonny Clark, Leroy Vinnegar and Philly Joe Jones; Basie-Charlie Fowlkes, “Counterblock”-1959]

TP: You mentioned that you listened a lot to Basie recordings with Charlie Fowlkes…

HB: I also got a chance to hear the band in person to hear how crackerjack he was on precision on playing parts, and had the sort of sound to do what it did to the ensemble. This was a great lesson for me, too, because that’s the definitive big band I guess you would call it kind of playing… That’s the definitive way of doing it. That’s the reason for bringing it in, because I didn’t want to omit the people who have played this instrument so many years, whether they’ve been featured as soloists or not. Because some of them have taken support role type jobs, and this is a master of that particular discipline.

TP: It’s hard to find a solo by Charlie Fowlkes in the Basie discography. Folks who know the discography better than I do call us at the station for Charlie Fowlkes solo flights.

We’ll take you to the hour with a track featuring baritone saxophonist Charles Davis, who is also well known for his tenor playing and alto playing, out of Chicago, who played with Sun Ra and did some two-baritone features with Pat Patrick on some of mid-50s recordings. Bluiett’s choice is from a Kenny Dorham recording for Time from 1960 with Steve Kuhn, Jimmy Garrison and Buddy Enlow.

HB: Charles I know personally. I met him after I moved to New York, and had only heard a few things up until that time. But when I talked to him, he spoke highly and most favorably of Leo Parker. That seemed to be his biggest influence, I guess, from being around New York and seeing him play a lot. I didn’t get that opportunity. But listening to Leo Parker, I can hear the extension of the influence that is in his playing. But he seemed to have given up baritone and moved on to tenor. But I think his lines and things seem to be better suited for that particular instrument anyway, the particular voice that he comes up with. But I like some of the things that I’ve heard in the past, and this is the record I used to listen to quite a bit because of the tenderness and character, which is something special, to me, to listen to.

[K.D.-Charles Davis, “Monk’s Mood”]

TP: Up to 1958-1959, Charles Davis had played extensively with Sun Ra in Chicago, and was paired off not infrequently with Pat Patrick. Were you aware of those two-baritone Sun Ra recordings when they were happening, or did you discover them later?

HB: I think I discovered them later. Because Sun Ra’s stuff is so extensive, I just heard what I heard. By the time I met Charles, I think he was in New York. This was what era?

TP: 1956. A lot of the Saturn LPs didn’t include personnel, but now the Evidence label has released 15 CDs thus far in an ongoing reissue project of the Saturn with complete discographies. The piece we’ll hear is “Reflections in Blue” from Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth.

[Sun Ra, “Reflections in Blue”-1956, Art Hoyle-Charles Davis-Pat Patrick, John Gilmore; “Pleasure”-Pat Patrick]

HB: Let’s make a comment on the telephone call we got. Tell them what it was.

TP: One caller, who said he’s a pianist who had played and jammed with Gerry Mulligan and Serge Chaloff suggested I convey to Hamiet his suggestion that he listen to Ernie Caceres, whom he favored for his dark, woody tone on the baritone because he has a unique sound.

HB: I’m glad his name is mentioned, because his name was overlooked, as will be many other people in a 3-hour segment. We have enough material to do a whole spotlight, like the 40-some hour showcase…

TP: Apart from that, the purpose of this show is for the musician to present a personal statement about things they’ve heard and been influenced by. We’ll hear now the baritone sound of another extraordinary multi-reed player, Nick Brignola, who on the release we’ll hear I think plays 10 different instrument — soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, clarinet, alto clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, alto flute and piccolo. This is from Time, a drummerless date with Kenny Barron on piano and Dave Holland on bass.

HB: I think everything you said was true, so let’s just go and listen t o it.

[MUSIC: Nick Brignola-Barron-Holland, “Speak Low”; Cecil Payne, “Slide Hampton”-1972; Sahib Shihab, “”-Jazz Sahib-1957]

HB: I left quite a few people out, but ones I like: Danny Bank for the hundreds of records I listened to him on in different configurations, like a lot of things with Oliver Nelson. Tony Scott, who is known more for clarinet, but I heard him…he used to play baritone for a while – it was real wild. That affected me, too. I was trying to get to “Cuber Libre,” which I couldn’t, and stuff I heard do Jay Cameron do with Slide Hampton when Slide had his octet.

TP: “Cuber Libre” is a Ronnie Cuber release from the mid 70s.

HB: Yes. Howard Johnson. Gary Smulyan is one of the newer, younger… John Surman. So there’s quite a few other people. The horn seems to have taken on another kind of significance that it didn’t have in the past. There’s more people soloing on it now maybe than was in the past, and not just playing support roles.

TP: I think Hamiet Bluiett is one person who’s raised a lot of people’s consciousness about the baritone sax with his own recordings over the last 20 years and with the WSQ.

Coming up, something by Charles Tyler, who played baritone and alto with great proficiency.

HB: He was a formidable baritone saxophonist. I thought he was more original on that instrument than he was on alto. Original in his style and the way he approached the horn, and the things that he did. Immense sound. Sound for days. That’s the thing I remember, and the amount of power, and what he brought to the instrument. I was sad to hear of his passing and stuff of that nature. But I’m glad that these few things are left.

TP: You recorded a solo baritone album around the time this one was done for India Navigation. This recital by Charles Tyler was recorded at WBAI, and issued by the Adelphi Jazz Line.

[MUSIC: Charles Tyler, “From St. Louis To Kansas City By Way of Chicago”-60 Minute Man]

TP: We’ll conclude a track featuring the musicians Bluiett will be performing with at the Village Vanguard next week, who are Ted Dunbar, guitar; Clint Houston, bass; and Ben Riley on drums. They play on a 1992 Soul Note recording, titled Sankofa: Rear Guard.

When we were discussing the show, you said it wasn’t just baritone players who influenced you. You mentioned Gene Ammons, Eddie Lockjaw Davis and John Coltrane as great influences on the way you play and why you play the way the way you play. A few words about those non-baritone players in your conception of the horn.

HB: I was influenced by a lot of different people. Count Basie for the way he drove the band. Duke Ellington for the kind of colors that he used. Some vocalists. I listen more to the musicians than anything else. Lockjaw because of the uncanny way in which he played saxophone. No one outplayed him, I thought. No one. He had a band with Johnny Griffin, and it was just awesome. He just kept raising the ante, every tune. And Griffin… It was just awesome. It was unbelievable.

John Coltrane for the sort of spirituality in the way he played. I could dig into the music and stay into it like an hour or so at a time. It really would be focused all that length. It was overwhelming to see to see the band take the whole audience and everybody with them at the same time. And his harmonic sensibility. Just everything about him. It was amazing.

I’ve always liked people with big sounds, big wind and big-throated. Not that I didn’t like the others, but I just favored those in comparison.

Gene Ammons for the kind of knockout punch that he had. His first note, that was it. After that, everything was gravy, but the first note would always just kill. Everybody else that even existed before he got there for his first note, that was like ho-hum.

I was always amazed at the abilities of these people to just command — demand and command so much with an instrument.

Like I said, for Carney, Harry Carney… I heard a lot of these people at different times. I’m going back more to listening to them in person. Because the records provided one thing, but the in-person feeling of what I heard was more important to me. The Basie band – the whole band. And hear the band with Ella and hear her sing, it would be just as powerful or more powerful than a whole big band, when they would do the things where she was scatting and the band would come in with the riffs. It’s just unbelievable. A lot of gospel music, listening to that kind of thing. The blues. Quite a bit. The more I think about it, the more I start digging up.

This first piece is called “John.” It’s dedicated to John Coltrane. It has a simple melody. And it was going through the era of Coltrane…it’s sort of a modal period. It conjures him up in my brain.

[MUSIC: Hamiet Bluiett 4, “John”]

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Filed under Baritone Saxophone, Hamiet Bluiett, WKCR

A WKCR Interview with Bobby Hutcherson from 1999

Here’s another of my newly-digitized interviews from my WKCR years — with vibraphone immortal Bobby Hutcherson (January 27, 1941 – August 15, 2016), who was playing at Iridium that week with an all-star band of thirty-somethings. It’s a remarkably candid interview — no filter.

 

Bobby Hutcherson, Out To Lunch, WKCR, Feb. 25, 1999:

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “Pomponio”]

TP: “Pomponio” is from Skyline, Bobby Hutcherson’s new release on Verve. It features Kenny Garrett, Geri Allen, Christian McBride and Al Foster, a band that six months ago or so did a week at Birdland in preparation for this date. This week Bobby is in residence at Iridium through Sunday with a quintet. He’s playing this music with Kenny Garrett, Renee Rosnes, Peter Washington and Billy Drummond.

Skyline is your first release on Verve, though you’ve done some guest appearance on Verve albums in recent years. There are strong liner notes by Stanley Crouch that position you firmly in the vibraphone pantheon and explain why you hold the status that you do. But probably because of space considerations, he didn’t go into some of your biographical particulars. So if you don’t mind…

BH: Sure.

TP: One point he makes is that the vibraphone is an instrument whose vocabulary was very much invented in jazz, and in the jazz lineage. It wasn’t that common when you were coming up. Why was it the vibraphone for you? What circumstances led you to it, and what qualities attracted you?

BH: As I was growing up, first… My mom was bedridden for the first four years of my life, so I was always… As a toddler, instead of going out and playing, I was always inside the house, listening to a lot of stuff. I had an older brother who passed away, but he was a schoolmate with Dexter Gordon. They went to Jefferson High School.

TP: They had the famous bandmaster, Samuel Browne?

BH: Yes. Dexter was in the marching band and my brother was a cheerleader at the school. After school they’d come over to the house and they would play records. I’m a young toddler… I have an older sister, and my sister started singing, and she used to sing… This is before I even started playing. She was singing in her trio, and in her trio was Sonny Clark. One time she gave a concert, I remember, in Pasadena, where I grew up, at John Muir High School, and playing bass was Oscar Pettiford. I remember Oscar Pettiford walking up to me before I was playing and saying, “don’t you want my autograph?” — and I said, “Yes, I do.” I didn’t even know who it was! I was still young. Then later on, my sister started dating Eric Dolphy, and Eric Dolphy was a good friend of the family’s — again, before I started playing. Then later, she started going out with Billy Mitchell, who was playing tenor saxophone in Count Basie’s Orchestra.

TP: Jazz is a family experience for you.

BH: It was a family experience. There was always a piano in the house, and I used to sit around and play piano for my own enjoyment. Then one day when I guess I was 13 years old, I was walking down the street in Pasadena. It was summertime. I walked past a record store. This is when they used to play the music, so that when you walked by outside, on the speakers you could hear what record was being played. It was the Giants of Jazz with Miles and Milt and Monk, Kenny Clarke and Percy Heath — and “Bemsha Swing” was on. I just turned right around, and walked right in, got the record, and went home and wore it out. I said, “this is how I’m walking; this DAY.” I said, “This is what I want to do.”

Well, I had grown up with Herbie Lewis. We were in the same grade, going to Washington Junior High School. All the schools that Jackie Robinson went to. As kids, you either tried to be in sports and do what Jackie Robinson was doing, because when you walked in the gym, here was all his records; or you tried to get into music. Herbie said, “If you get some vibes, you can play in my trio, and we can play school dances.” I said, “Oh, great.”

I worked for my dad, who was a bricklayer, and saved my money that summer, and I bought a set of vibes. At the end of the summer, I got the set of vibes. I went and showed Herbie, “Hey, I got a set of vibes.” Herbie says, “Great – because we’ve got a concert in two weeks.” I said, “Wait a minute. I don’t know anything about the keyboard.” He said, “don’t worry; we’ll play around three songs.” I said, “Three songs? How can I do this?” We’re playing a concert. Bobby Troup was the emcee.

We took a black felt pencil. He said, “Here’s what we’ll do. Since you don’t know what the bars are, we’ll take a number for the next bar that you hit.” Well, if we’re doing three songs, it got like 318, 319, starting from #1, and it had all these numbers all over the vibes. But we practiced so much, I got pretty good, looking for which note to hit next, looking for the number on the bars. Well, came the night of this concert, the first time I’m going to play, and the stage manager and he says to us, “Ok, kids, it’s time for you to go on. Oh, by the way, Bobby, I saw some marks all over your bars, so I took a nice wet towel and I wiped everything off — I know you’re glad I did that.” He says, “Now, you kids go out there and have a great time.” I said, “Oh, no. You didn’t.” He said, “Yes, I did.”

So we went out, and all my family, my mom and dad, they’re sitting out there, ready to be all proud for me, and the kids going to school… I hit about the first three notes, and then after that they started throwing rotten fruit at me. At that point, I realized, “You’re going to have to study; you’re going to have to know what you’re doing.”

TP: It’s not paint by the numbers.

BH: no, you can’t play the numbers. But I still keep the numbers… No. [LAUGHS] But that’s how it all started.

TP: Well, you obviously weren’t discouraged.

BH: No. We used to have these jam sessions at my house as I was growing up, with Herbie, myself… And there was a young man named Terry Trotter who used to come over all the time. Terry became Margaret Whiting’s pianist. Charles Lloyd used to come over all the time. H.B. Barnum, who did all the arranging for Aretha Franklin, he used to come over and he would play tenor saxophone, alto, trumpet, he would play a little vibes, he would play some drums. Everybody in Pasadena would come and park their cars in front of the garage, and we’d open up the doors and we’d play all afternoon. It became like a school. After school, go over to Bobby’s house and listen to the music. There would be all these musicians… Walter Benton used to come over. An awful lot of musicians would come over and play. That happened until…oh gosh, until someone set my garage on fire, and all the instruments burned up.

TP: That happened during high school?

BH: Yeah. I think somebody really didn’t like…

TP: Resorted to drastic measures.

BH: Somebody burnt my garage down. You know what was the thing? All the instruments were in there, the vibes, the bass, drums and piano. I remember… I looked out the door the evening when the fire started, and I remember seeing the fire and trying to call the Fire Department, and the telephone line is burning down. I remember running out to the garage and thinking, “Maybe I can pull my vibraphone out.” And the door was too small! I got the small end out, and I got the big end into the door and I’m trying to get it out the door, and this big wall of flames just came and said, “Get out the way; you can’t do it.” The vibes, the drums, Herbie’s bass, the piano – everything burned up in the fire.

TP: Then what happened?

BH: Whoo, how about me telling my father that the garage burned down? He was at a party that night. He came back, he and my mom, and I said, “Dad, the garage has burned down.” He says, “don’t worry. Did you lose everything?” I said, “Yeah.” He just held me. I thought he was going to be really upset and be mad, but he just held me. He says, “That’s ok. I have insurance. So we’ll go through the things in the fire and find every nut and bolt that’s in there, and we’ll claim it. We’ll get you another set of vibes, we’ll get Herbie another bass…”

TP: Several things are coming out here. One is that you were in an incredibly supportive environment, both in the community (except for the people who burned down the garage) with your parents and fellow musicians, and that music was in the air, almost as though you couldn’t help but absorb the essence.

BH: Yes. I think that fire instigated us to play all the more. As I think back… I haven’t talked about that fire too much. Sometimes I push that back in my mind, because it was real traumatic. Some of the kids were really… I always felt it was some of the kids at school who had done it. I felt that because of what we were doing… Everybody was coming over and listening to the music, and it was like…

TP: It was a positive thing, some people felt excluded…

BH: Yeah.

TP: It seems that Los Angeles… Should I play some more music, and then we resume a little later.

BH: Sure.

TP: We’ll hear “Tres Palabras” from Skyline, on which you play marimba.

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “Tres Palabras”; Bobby-Abbey Lincoln-Marc Cary, “Another World”]

TP: We were speaking about your early years. One quality about Bobby Hutcherson’s improvising that grabs me every time is the total honesty, spontaneity and transparency. People often hold back on the radio, but Bobby was discussing a very traumatic event of his youth – the fire that burned down his garage and destroyed his instrument. We’ll put the fire behind us…

BH: Put the fire behind us.

TP: Let’s talk about your path towards becoming a professional musician, getting on the road, and coming to New York City, where you participated in so much history on numerous dates for Blue Note.

BH: What happened was, going back to my sister going out with Billy Mitchell… Billy Mitchell and Al Gray had just left the Count Basie Orchestra and formed their own sextet. After I’d started playing, Billy asked could I join the group, and play 4 mallets, and comp and solo, and take the place of Gene Keys, and go up to San Francisco and work opposite Charlie Mingus. I had never played 4 mallets before, but I said, “Of course I can – yes.” In the group was Doug Watkins, and Doug took me under his wing and showed me things to do. He was wonderful. I really loved Doug Watkins.

Anyway, we played two weeks at the Jazz Workshop, and then came back to Los Angeles. Billy came back here to New York, and Al and Doug stayed in Los Angeles. A couple of days later I got a call from Billy Mitchell, and Billy said, “How would you like to come to New York and open at Birdland? We will play opposite Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.” I was also in college at the time. I asked my mom. She said, “I want you to graduate from college; it’s very important.” I said, “Mom, I’ve got a chance to go to New York and play at Birdland.” She said, “Oh! Well, forget college. Go on to New York.” She said, “I have this dream that you’re going to go to New York – go ahead.”

So we drove here in Doug Watkins’ car, the car he was killed in when he went back out to California – in his black Peugeot. We drove here. We started out with a steak dinner, and by the time we got to the Lincoln Tunnel we didn’t have enough money to pay to get through. We were eating potato chips when we came through…

TP: Sounds like the old days of travel…

BH: I remember in part of the trip, Doug’s windshield wipers stopped working, and we were in a snowstorm in New Mexico. He had to reach around, put his arm around and work the windshield wipers to keep the snow off as he was driving. It was bitter cold! Oh, gosh…

TP: The vibraphone, the bass, everything is in the car.

BH: Yeah. We come to New York, and we open at Birdland. First thing is, that afternoon I’m setting up, and Pee Wee Marquette was… I’d heard him on records, but I didn’t know he was a midget. Pee Wee Marquette saw me setting up, I was just by myself. So he walks up to me and blows a big puff of smoke in my face, and he says, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m Bobby Hutcherson.” “What are you doing here?” “I’m going to play vibes with Al Gray and Billy Mitchell.” He says, “We don’t need you. Pack up your vibes and go.” I said, “Oh, Lord, is this what I heard about what New York is?” He said, “You heard me. Go.” I just waited for him to walk back out the door, and I kept setting up.

That night… In those days you heard that Pee Wee could make or break you. So it went like this. “Ladies and gentlemen, from the Jazz Corner of the World, Birdland, the Al Gray-Billy Mitchell Sextet, blah-blah, and with Bubba Hutchkins on vibes.” I said, “Oh, no!” Every night he would do this. But we had two weeks there. So on pay night, everybody would go over to the Alvin Hotel, which was across the street (it’s a parking lot now, I think). I’m in Al Gray’s room, and there’s a knock on the door, and I open the door, and a big puff of cigar smoke arrives. There’s Pee Wee. He says, “Say, Papa, you got something for me?” I said, “I don’t have anything for you, the way you’ve been announcing my name all week.” Al Gray says, “give him five dollars.” I said, “I’m not giving him a thing.” Al goes, “Give him five dollars.” So I gave him five dollars.

So the next week goes like this. “Ladies and gentlemen, from the Jazz Corner of the World, Birdland, 52nd and Broadway, the Al Gray-Billy Mitchell Sextet with Billy Mitchell, Al Gray, and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes” – because I gave him that five dollars. So everything started to change right there.

We went on from there and worked the Apollo Theater. Besides playing the regular show, we played the talent night where they had to drop this cheese-cloth, and they’d throw all the rotten fruit at the entertainers who would come out. I had heard about that. That was unbelievable! I’d never seen people get fruit thrown at them. This was unbelievable. And the people were screaming, going crazy.

I think the next gig, we went on to Chicago, the Sutherland Lounge, and we worked opposite Redd Foxx. They would not let me in the club while Redd Foxx performed, because I would go crazy. It got to the point where I didn’t have to hear the joke. All I had to do was hear the sound of his voice, and I would be on the floor.

Anyway, after about a year-and-a-half, the group disbanded. I didn’t really know that many musicians. So I started driving a taxi.

TP: So they worked steadily, around the country, touring for 18 months, and then you move to New York.

BH: Yes.

TP: Quick question before we resume the narrative. There aren’t that many stylistic antecedents for a vibraphone player, but a few great ones. You heard Milt Jackson first, there’s Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, some others. Who were your models? All vibraphonists, or other instrumentalists as well?

BH: I’m going to tell you…I think I’ve told Tommy this. I really started listening to Tommy Flanagan. I think Tommy Flanagan… Tommy, if you’re listening, I love you. I just want you to know that I started listening to you to try to find another avenue, another way to come through the instrument.

TP: If you can, is it possible to describe the sound you were trying to achieve…

BH: I wasn’t really sure. I was just trying different things. I was just trying to be a part of. It was a situation, as I said, where I’m driving a cab. Herbie Lewis had moved to New York and he’s playing bass with the Jazztet. Grachan Moncur was in the Jazztet. So I started going over to their house and playing jam sessions as I was driving a cab. Now Grachan says to me, “I want Jackie McLean to hear you.” Jackie comes and says, “Oh, I like this.” He says, “I just met a new drummer in Boston; his name is Tony Williams. I’m going to bring him down, and we’re going to play at this club, the Coronet.” It was Grachan, Tony, Jackie, and Eddie Khan. We came in there. Everybody had heard about all these young kids playing at the Coronet Club in Brooklyn with Jackie. Alfred Lion, the owner of Blue Note Records, came in and says, “I want to record this; Jackie, I’ve got to record this.” After being at the studio, at Rudy’s studio, Alfred Lion came up to me after the first song that we recorded, and he walked up to me and said, “Bobby, how would you like to sign a record contract?” I said, “Whoa! Am I in the right place and the right time.”

[END OF SIDE 1]

TP: Jackie McLean was incorporating the sounds and ideas that you and Grachan Moncur were working with to get into what he calls “the big room” area of improvising.

BH: Yes.

TP: Had you been workshopping a lot of new ideas, experimental ideas in Los Angeles?

BH: You know how you can have your own personality, but if you get with someone else, another personality seems to come out of you and someone else… Well, that’s what started to happen. It got all of us together… We would be so silly — and be serious at the same time. But silly. I mean, we used to have comic books in our back pockets as we would come to rehearsals. So it would be really serious, but at the same time we’d be looking real serious, we’d be like, “this is the most ridiculous…”

What happened, besides doing those records then with Jackie, Grachan did a record with the same group – Evolution. In fact, this next cut you’re going to play, “The Coaster,” Grachan replaced Jackie with Lee Morgan, and Lee Morgan really played different on the original recording of Evolution and on “The Coaster.” I guess that’s really why when I did this last record with Verve, I wanted to remember those days.

[Bobby Hutcherson, “The Coaster” – from Skyline; “Little B’s Poem”-Components]

BH: Not a bad group.

TP: That recording featured four pieces by you and four by Joe Chambers; another album, Dialogue, comprised entirely compositions by Joe Chambers and Andrew Hill. It’s interesting that these Blue Note recordings became a forum for the ideas of other composers.

BH: The Dialogue album was my first album for Blue Note, and it was at a point where I wasn’t writing. All I was doing was working with other people. I was just trying to complete the circle. I didn’t really understand the situation, that in order to complete the circle (or complete the sphere), playing, and playing with other people, practicing, working on soloing…theories and stuff like that… You really start to complete the circle of music, or the sphere of music, by writing. Because then you’re really writing in your diary. This is what happened to me; this is how I feel today; this is the recipe for what happened today; this is the recipe for how this day went for me. Along with the routines that I went through to try to enrich my life.

TP: Did the recordings you did for Blue Note during the period when you were living in New York… Because then you moved back to California and formed a working quintet with Harold Land which was amply documented. Does it reflect the work that you were doing in New York as well? The performance situations, the gigs. Or do the albums more reflect a for-the-studio situation?

BH: I think it really reflected what was going on in New York. When I first came to New York, I’ll say a lot of my writing on the first album had to do with my still ties with Pasadena. This greenery, the relaxation type situations. Joe Chambers coming, as we met each other and started doing things together, it became a situation of looking into the sculpture of new things developing along with the renaissance that was going on, and the new people going on, and along with the fight for the Black people in the country. It was very common for me in those days to get in a cab and I’d be going to a rehearsal, and I’d be coming from 165th Street and Woodcrest, where I was living in the Bronx, and come past 125th Street and come past the Lenox Hotel, and Malcolm X would be on the steps in front giving a speech, and thousands of people would be standing there. The cab would stop at the red light, and even though I only had another 15-20 minutes to get where I was going, I’d tell the cab driver, I have to get out here; I’ve got to go listen to Malcolm X for a moment. I’d go over and listen and then get back in another cab, and then go on to rehearsal. It was a situation of that cabaret card, that police card that you had to have, which stopped an awful lot of musicians from working in nightclubs, and all the people playing in lofts in those days where you could hear all this writing. Everybody was writing music.

TP: So the recordings you did with Sam Rivers or Andrew Hill or Freddie Hubbard also reflected gigs that were happening at the time.

BH: Yes, a lot of it. Then, at the same time, I renewed acquaintances with Eric Dolphy, who was back here at the time, and we started rehearsing and doing things. I started doing gigs, playing here, at Brooklyn College, or we would go to Pittsburgh…Crawford’s Grill, on the Hill in Pittsburgh and play…

TP: Playing the type of music that was on Iron Man and Out To Lunch?

BH: Exactly. Going to Washington, D.C., and playing the Bohemian Caverns.

TP: Then you returned to the West Coast and formed a well-regarded group with Harold Land, who I guess you knew from your younger days in Los Angeles.

BH: Yes.

TP: Can you speak a bit about that band and your musical production during the 70s? I hear it as you blending the experimentation of the 60s with a look back to the fundamentals you’d come up with.

BH: When I went back to the West Coast… I got busted for some grass here. They took my hack license, my taxi license away; they took my cabaret card away – and scared me half to death. I decided to go back to the West Coast for a second and just regroup. So I went back and started working with Harold Land, and then I started getting calls: “Bobby, are you going to come back?” I said, “Yeah, I’m going to come back again and play.” The Slugs thing was starting to happen…no, it wasn’t starting; it had BEEN happening – but I wanted to come back. I always loved playing in Slugs. So I told Harold… There were some things happening over in Europe. I said, “Let’s form a group, come back to New York; I’ll call Joe Chambers and we’ll get a group together and we’ll start playing some music.”

At that time, it seems to me as though we stopped playing linear type things, and started playing a lot of intervals of 4ths and 5ths and 2nds, and tunes that went into that category. That was a change. That caused… Different combinations cause different things to happen. So that was a change in the sound, because of…solo-wise… A lot of the solos were constructed in 2nds and 5ths and 4ths and neighboring tones. I don’t want to get too technical. But that’s what started happening, and started the sound to change.

TP: With Woody Shaw there’s another evolution…

BH: Woody, yeah. Woody was playing different intervals. Woody was playing a lot of 6-intervals. Woody was playing more pentatonic scales. Our group was using pentatonic scales, but using different intervals, and Woody was using more of the pentatonic scales with a lot of the major VI in his. I didn’t use too much of the major VI.

TP: That was a very fruitful partnership, and you did a lot of records, though not all of them are around these days.

BH: Yeah. I used to go over to Woody’s house all the time, and we would start talking about what we were working on. Woody was always talking about the pentatonic scale that he was working on. It’s funny how all of a sudden there’s a style of playing that starts blossoming out of that.

TP: You’ve been at the center of several transitions. Then around 1980 or so, it seems you begin to go out as a solo voice with groups that elaborate your conception, and the co-led groups fade away. It seems for the last 15-20 years, it’s been Bobby Hutcherson’s sound. Is that more or less accurate?

BH: I went through another transition of the theories that I was working on. For a while, I started working on a lot of piling chords together, right next to each other, so it would be like a cluster, and it would become really hard to figure out what was the scale. I used to think a lot of times when I used to work with Eric Dolphy… He would say: “Now, Bobby, on this tune, this scale in this tune doesn’t end until it runs for 2 octaves, and every note is different.” I said, “Oh my goodness, what…” It was really different.

TP: You seem to have incorporated everything you learned, but also stepping back into the tradition in a personally meaningful way.

BH: Yes. It’s like taking some things, throwing them away, bringing them back. It’s just like sitting there and making something. I might say, “Ok, I want to make an old-fashioned apple pie. Do I get these new modern ingredients?” No. You have to use just some plain old apples and some sugar…

TP: Food is always the best metaphor.

BH: [LAUGHS] If that’s what you want, that’s what you’re going to have to put in there. It’s a great reservoir, if you can look and say, “Ok, on this I have to do this; and on this one, I’m going to try this.” To reach back and say, “Ok, this time…” Situations like not only that, but to say, “On this one, I have to play behind the beat; on this one I have to play on top of the beat.” If you want this situation to happen, you have to go from playing on top of the beat and slide into playing behind the beat, to get this feeling. And to think about those things as you’re playing is… It’s tough!

TP: Are you thinking about that consciously now, or is it a more organic thing?

BH: Exactly. You want it to be like it’s just a natural thing to happen, instead of it being a technical, mechanical situation. You want it to be just part of breathing. It’s almost a situation of there is no tempo. There is only feeling. There is only action and reaction. There is only You.

TP: On that note, let’s Bobby Hutcherson play “I Only Have Eyes For You” from his new Verve release, Skyline.

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “I Only Have Eyes For You”]

TP: This Verve recording is one of the first in some time where you’ve had a decent budget and preparation time. A few ideas about your intents and purposes in putting it together.

BH: A lot of thought about each person. A lot of thought about music is not the image; it’s the reflection – and the images are the people involved and the love and friendship for them.

TP: We’ll conclude with a track from 30 years ago that you spoke off mic. You talked about trying to transcribe it some years later, and being in a totally different head space. This is it. It’s called “Visions,” originally from the 1968 date Spiral, which came out about ten years later, with Harold Land, Stanley Cowell, Reggie Johnson, Joe Chambers.

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “Visions”]

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Filed under Bobby Hutcherson, Vibraphone, WKCR

A WKCR Interview with Han Bennink From 2000

A few weeks ago, I began a project of converting as many of the interviews I did during my 1985-2008 tenure on WKCR from cassettes to digital format, adding to the 100 or so I’d transcribed over the years. This 2-1/2 hour interview with Han Bennink came from a week where the Dutch master was playing in quartet with Dave Douglas at Iridium — a lot of information contained therein.

 

Han Bennink (Out To Lunch, WKCR, Sept. 23, 2000):

[MUSIC: Bennink-Dave Douglas, “Cherokee”-Serpentine-1996]

TP: Dave Douglas was the trumpeter, and Han Bennink on trapset and…

HB: No. I only played snare drum and clogs. No hi-hat, no bass. Only snare drum, brushes and clogs.

TP: Han Bennink and I are here for hopefully 3 hours. We have a wide array of music that brings us from 1964 to the present. Han Bennink is performing at Iridium with the Dave Douglas Quartet this week, with Misha Mengelberg on piano and Brad Jones on bass.

You were just describing to me your first visit to New York, which was 40 years ago.

HB: It was in 1960. I worked on a ship called the Maasdom(?—6:01) to play commercial or dance music for the passengers. Then we were about 5 days in Hoboken. At that time, I went to the Village Gate. I saw the John Coltrane Quartet. He was totally obsessed with “My Favorite Things.” The second set was Aretha Franklin playing an upright piano and a microphone in between her legs – and a drummer. It was just fantastic. Opposite the street was a joint called Caffe Ruffio, and I saw Steve Lacy there for the first time live. We’re now very good friends.

TP: You’ve recorded with him on a number of occasions.

HB: Yes, but he lives in Paris, as you probably know, and I see him often… Well, I actually saw him and his wife in Chicago on the 3rd of September.

TP: How does New York now impress you vis-a-vis 40 years ago?

HB: I am not a big city guy. I live very sort of lonely, like a monk, in a stable in Holland, like this sort of ivory tower. Here, somebody gave me a flat to live in, and it’s very nice for me. It’s opposite Central Park, so I can go bird-watching. After this enormous rain, the park was so fresh; it was really beautiful to be there. But for the rest, I am not a big fan of big cities. But most of my concerts are in big cities, and I’ve been traveling now for 3 weeks. I actually do 24 gigs in 27 gigs. I am so proud of that. But I have to travel for that a lot. And the last week is just fine; now I can go walking to Iridium. It’s only 45 blocks. That’s nothing for me. I like to walk. And back also in the night. So that’s cool.

TP: Forty years when you came here, you were playing on a ship, dance music. That’s how you started professionally as a drummer, isn’t it, playing swing music, dance music.

HB: Yes, my father was a studio drummer. Rein Bennink. He also played clarinet in Benny Goodman’s style, and very good tenor in sort of Coleman Hawkins’ style. So the first drummer I ever heard was Gene Krupa, playing with Benny Goodman, “sing, Sing, Sing.” My father also had a band where he played for the Army. I refused to go in the Army (but that’s another thing), but I still played for them when I was like 17 years old. So I started doing these gigs with my father. But besides the band, we had singers, acrobats, and sometimes a nude show or whatever. So I’ve been doing all that sort of shit, really.

TP: Who were the drummers you patterned yourself after? By the 1950s, Kenny Clarke had moved to Europe…

HB: Kenny is my absolutely favorite. I saw him a couple of times in Holland, because he was working with Pim Jacobs Trio with a female singer, Rita Reys. Rita Reys was sort of well known. She recorded in New York with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I think it must have been around 1957. Then I was sort of teaching at the conservatory later, and I invited Kenny to do a master class. So I really did know him and his wife, who came from Rotterdam – she was Dutch. They lived in Montreuil, in Paris. Kenny set…it’s a black premier(?—10:42) still on the music school there. He was an amazing drummer.

TP: Say some more about his qualities and his place in the pantheon.

HB: The first time I saw him was in the Concertgebouw. The Phineas Newborn Trio was playing there, and Kenny was playing, Oscar Pettiford was playing there. Lee Konitz was playing there. The Concertgebouw is actually built for classical music, so it’s very boomy. When I saw Kenny playing for the first time, it was a shock for me. I was listening to a very tiny little radio at 12 o’clock under my blankets. We had Willis Conover from Luxembourg, and he had a jazz program. So I listened to music always fearing to control the button… But when you see the guys playing live, that’s another thing. It just sounded so amazing. And his brushes playing! I loved his brushes playing. And the feeling for the rhythm. It’s so light. It’s so up. It’s always dancing. It’s never draggy. It’s amazing.

TP: Who were other jazz drummers you paid attention to during your formative period?

HB: I’ve seen Philly [Joe Jones] a couple of times. Beautiful.

TP: Did he come over with Miles Davis and you heard him then?

HB: Yeah, and I saw him later with the group Dameronia that he was leading. An amazing drummer.

TP: But that was later.

HB: Yes.

TP: You were already a professional.

HB: Oh, yeah, professional. I am never a…

TP: Well, you certainly are. Over 40 years…

HB: Yeah, yeah, but it’s just such a heavy word.

TP: Anyway, describe his impact on you.

HB: It is hard to say. Enormous control. I was sort of aping the American drummers. But I come from Europe. It’s a completely different cultural background also. But part of the background, of course, is this jazz music. When we were young, we were listening either to Little Richard, Bill Haley, or jazz music – and that was about it. But now it’s hip-hop or rap or whatever.

But it’s very hard to say what it actually meant to me. For example, seeing Elvin live… And later on when I was playing in the Gato Barbieri band in Europe, we were traveling all over Europe, and it was the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, the Gato Barbieri group (I was in that group with Lonnie Liston Smith and Mtume and me on drums), and the other group was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. So I met them all.

TP: You’ve been playing drums, I’d guess, since you could pick up a pair of drumsticks, given your father’s profession.

HB: yes, more or less.

TP: So I’d guess that seeing these great drummers and the different ways they got sound from the instrument, you’d be a quick mimic – see what they did and get that feeling.

HB: Yes, trying to get that feeling.

TP: You had a reputation among American musicians.

HB: Well, in 1962, it went like very quick with me. I started playing with Rene Thomas, but later on with Johnny Griffin, of course, and Don Byas, and Ben Webster lived in Amsterdam, and Dexter of course, and Wes Montgomery and Clark Terry and all those cats.

TP: They’d come through, you’d be the drummer, and they liked you because you could swing.

HB: Yeah, that’s right.

TP: When did you and Misha Mengelberg meet?

HB: I know Misha since 1960.

TP: What were the circumstances?

HB: Misha had a trio, and he was very much into material by Thelonious Monk to play. It was sort of strange in Holland; they were more interested in a fluid style like, say, Oscar Peterson or that thing. If you did Monk, that was really outrageous. At that time, I was at the Academy of Art in Amsterdam, and I brought all those records to our lessons, like “Misterioso” and all those pieces. So it happened to be that Misha was looking for a drummer, and it was in Utrecht in a jazz club called Persepolis. I played with him, and since we’ve been playing all the time. It’s an incredibly long…

TP: 40 years.

HB: Yes. Amazing. So strange. I think the only people who could say that in the music were Duke Ellington and Harry Carney.

TP: Maybe John Lewis and Connie Kay… There are a few people, but not many.

HB: Yes, it’s amazing. And in daily life, I practically NEVER see Misha. Maybe I’ve been at his place a couple of times, but not for food.

TP: So you don’t socialize. You just play.

HB: Not so much.

TP: I’ve read in press clippings his describing a famously love-hate relationship.

HB: Yes, but Misha is a big liar also.

TP: He’s a big liar?

HB: Yeah-yeah-yeah.

TP: What does he lie about?

HB: About everything. But on a very high level.

TP: Perhaps we can hear how that manifests at Iridium this week as the Dave Douglas Quartet performs.

HB: It’s a brilliant quartet. It sounds very good. I am very happy to play. Especially with Brad. It’s for me the first time to work with him… Because we’ve been playing with Dave in a trio and I’ve played a couple of duo gigs with him. I played last year in Italia, in the Dolomites 1,800 meters high. So I know Dave. But to be with Brad is really nice.

TP: We have cued up a duo between Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink from ICP 031, I think.

HB: It’s old, maybe 9 years or something like that.

TP: It’s an improvised duo?

HB: Of course.

TP: We’ll probably have to cut out, because it lasts 33 minutes and 42 seconds…

HB: It’s beautiful, but it goes much too long.

TP: I’ll fade out when Han Bennink tells me to.

HB: Cool.

[MUSIC: Han-Misha Excerpt-1991; Dexter Gordon 4 with Han, “Scrapple From the Apple”-Feb. 5, 1969-Amsterdam Club Paradiso]

TP: You couldn’t have a better aural illustration of Han Bennink’s scope and the history that he encompasses in his tonal personality. I’d like to speak a bit about your experiences during the 60s with some of the American jazz musicians you mentioned – Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster. How long did you play with Dexter Gordon?

HB: I played a couple of years with him. Not years… he lived in Copenhagen and he came on and off to Holland for tours, like for 14 days. I used to do gigs with him, and I loved playing with him. He was also a very, very good singer. But at a certain time, he was working for an amount of money and I was working also for a certain amount of money, but my money was so less that I asked the promoter if he could pay me a little bit more. That was not possible at that particular time, so I left actually. It had also to do with the fact that at that time I was playing with Willem Breuker and Misha and Peter Brotzmann and Evan Parker. So I was still doing time gigs, time playing, and trying to swing as hard as I can, but also the other improvisation stuff that doesn’t have to be time. It can be but it doesn’t have to. So my real interest at that particular time was already on the other side.

TP: I’d like to talk more with you about that evolution. But you also played with Ben Webster, you played with Sonny Rollins…

HB: Sonny Rollins – fantastic! He’s my still living big example. What a guy. Amazing. I talked about Pim Jacobs already. He actually died. But he had a television jazz program, what was called Jazz Scene. Because he had the money and the power to invite people to come from America. Like, Donald Byrd played there, and Wes Montgomery, and Johnny Griffin – but also there was one thing with Sonny. Pim was not playing at all. It was his brother, Ruud Jacobs, who was playing the bass. So it was actually my favorite setup, like Sonny Rollins live at the Village Vanguard with Elvin and Wilbur Ware, or Pete LaRoca. So we did play maybe for a week or so. It was just amazing. Amazing. I recently received a letter from him while he was performing in Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I tried to keep in touch with him, but he was too busy and all that. I was very emotional, like, hearing him… But two days later, there was a big letter from him on my doormat. I am very proud of it. My big wish is to play once with him again, really.

TP: As you said, you were playing time gigs, swinging gigs, and also with the nascent…

HB: But now I am doing exactly the same with the Dave Douglas Quartet. We have let’s call it places in the rough, like with golf, but we have also straight gigs, or time – but that has to swing. There was a time with the so-called “new music” or “free music”… “Free” is such an incredibly weird title. “Free music.” Does it mean that you have to pay for it? Or what is free? Anyway, if a drummer is playing more a pulse than a meter… After a while, I found it to be boring. Because when I like to hear something interesting, you can also put your drumkit in a hailstorm and you can hear all sorts of sounds. But when it comes to tempo, I like to play rhythms as a drummer. I think that’s actually what a drum is made for – to play rhythm and to swing the band, rather than this plink-ploink stuff. I do that, too, but not all the time. I have a short counterpoint for that. Not too long. I also like a meter. And when it is a meter, it should swing – or at least trying to swing, like Kenny or Philly Joe or Roy Haynes.

TP: So Kenny Clarke and Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes are in the back of your mind regardless of what the situation is.

HB: That’s all history. Right? Or Baby Dodds, or Zutty Singleton, or Ray Bauduc. All those people. Fantastic.

TP: When did the notion start to form of playing in different, or playing just with sounds if you wanted to just play with sounds?

HB: When I was just coming from the art school I started to listen to Albert Ayler. I saw the Albert Ayler Quartet in Hilversum with Sunny Murray. I borrowed my drumkit to Sunny Murray. Gary Peacock and Don…

TP: You loaned Sunny Murray your drumkit for that record with Albert Ayler.

HB: Yes. I saw Don there, and sometimes I played with Don with the Peter Brotzmann Trio. But that was like a shock, to see that in 1964. It was amazing.

TP: You were oriented to swing and bebop. How did it strike you when you first heard that music?

HB: Of course, I wanted to do that, too, and I started listening to the New York Art Quartet with Milford Graves and Roswell and John. So I got very much into that, and by the time I recorded with Willem Breuker for our own label, the New Acoustic Swing Duo, I was playing and was interested in playing tablas, mringdam, balafons and gongs. I had a whole van full of that shit. Really! Bells from everywhere. It was like a little museum. I needed so much space on the stage that it was a bit odd for Misha. Misha was sitting all the time in the corner and I was banging around. Now I am reducing myself tremendously. I just like to go like Marcel Duchamp, only use a couple of sticks, or a matchbox with two matches, and still play the shit out of it.

TP: Do you see analogies between Duchamp’s approach and the way you approach music?

HB: Actually, I am an artist and a painter, and I come from the art school. So I am still looking and looking. I don’t have much time to paint or to do art, because my heart and my desire is in playing music and I have to travel so much for that, so by the time I’m home I really have to rest before I start to do another drawing, I like to practice very, very long. There is less time. I have my diary and I make even the new record sleeves, something like that…or CD sleeve – sorry.

[MUSIC: Misha Mengelberg solo, “Ik Hab Een Turqoise…I have a Turquoise Cap”-Buzz Records; Misha-Han duo-1992; ICP Orch, 1997, from Jubilee Varia]

TP: That duo entered more orchestral sections. The ICP Orchestra has been existence in one form or another for over 30 years, as is the label ICP – Instant Composers Pool.

We’ve heard Han Bennink with Dexter Gordon, in duos with Misha Mengelberg and Dave Douglas over the first hour. The next segment will present music by the Clusone Trio, a group which I guess gave you in your late forties or early fifties…gave Americans their first consequential exposure to Han Bennink, who had been highly visible to an international audiences for many decades. Clusone emanates from ICP Orchestra. I’d like to step back to the 1960s, and discuss the gathering-together of like-minded musicians looking for new ways to express themselves, to shape form, to find their own voices within a European context.

HB: Well, you had in Germany Peter Brotzmann. He started his own label, actually a half-year before ICP started. ICP was at that time Willem Breuker, Misha Mengelberg and myself. In England, people like Evan were very busy, and Paul Rutherford, and Derek Bailey of course, and Steve Beresford…

TP: In the 60s, Steve Beresford…

HB: Yeah, yeah…

TP: John Stevens was doing it then.

HB: Yeah, of course. John was playing, and Trevor Watts.

TP: How did you find each other?

HB: It comes by playing on a festival or whatever. You just meet somehow. There’s no special reason for it. For example, I am not the type at all who comes out of his house or say, “Now I go to London to see what’s happening there.” No-no…

TP: You’re a working musician, and in the course of your work you encounter people and make associations.

HB: Yeah, that’s right. Peter Brotzmann had a bit more facilities in Germany – because Germany is simply bigger than Holland is. He invited Evan Parker and Derek and Paul Rutherford, and then it started working.

TP: I think my earliest document of ICP is a record John Tchicai did with you around 1970.

HB: Yes, that’s ICP 004. It’s called Fragment. It was Derek Bailey, John Tchicai, Misha and myself.

TP: I should have brought the LP>

HB: Wow. Well, you brought so many already.

TP: All CDs. But let’s talk about ideas evolved. It seems people from each country developed different ways of organizing sound, and developed distinctive personalities that merge when the individual musicians come together.

HB: Mmm. We always were sort of compared to the other European countries a bit tasteless. We were doing everything… Like, for example, in England in improvised music at that particular time it was absolutely forbidden to go into a blues or a march or whatever. We were absolutely tasteless in that sense. We took everything. That has a lot to do with Willem, of course, as a composer, and of course Misha. They were both writing for bigger groups. We were doing theater pieces, musical theater — still in 1974. Then Willem Breuker went his own direction and Misha stayed like ICP.

TP: How would you describe the difference?

HB: Still I love to play with Willem as an improviser, but I don’t like to play like a fixed program, in a way. It was a bit too static, in a way, probably for me. But nevertheless, I admire Willem tremendously, and all our work, all our CDs are coming via BVHaast, and distribution is done, and we have the same fantastic manager in ICP and Willem Breuker in the sense of Susanna von Canon, who has been doing this wonderful work for us. So it’s nothing like enemies at all.

TP: I was trying to get to the aesthetic direction more.

HB: Willem liked to have a band and travel with a band, and the feeling of those… ICP, for example, our band now is Mary Oliver on viola, Tristan Honsinger on cello, Ernst Glerum on bass, and we have Ab Baars for reeds, Michael Moore for reeds, Wolter Wierbos for trombone, Thomas Heberer on trumpet, Misha and me. All of those people personally can fulfill a one-hour solo program. So in the end, they are all solo players. But somehow, the chemistry in this band is so well. They like to work for each other, and that is amazing. So the setting is already different, compared to Willem. We have, of course, a lot of material, but Misha just makes a program like, say, 5 minutes before the show, and then we’re waiting, looking for the sheets… I can’t read notes, so for me it’s very easy. I have it all in the head. Sometimes it happens that I am the only one who knows about all tunes by Misha — I can sing them. “How was that going?”

TP: Are some of the things ICP plays now thing Misha wrote in the 60s?

HB: For example, in the group with Dave for this week we play many old compositions from Misha. But also Herbie Nichols material, which is of course very nice, and some Monk pieces.

TP: Even Ellington. I think you were playing “Happy Go Lucky Local” to conclude a set at Tonic recently.

HB: Yes, with the ICP Band. But I am very quick moving from the Quartet to ICP.

TP: Sorry. You were talking about Dave Douglas; I was talking about ICP. Talk about what in the broader cultural milieu of Holland in the 60s influenced you towards incorporating theater and absurdism in your presentation. Misha Mengelberg has talked about being influenced by the Fluxus movement.

HB: Yes, absolutely.

TP: John Cage, Nam June Paik – those kind of people.

HB: Misha is, of course, older than I am, and he was doing some Fluxus movements. For me, I was very interested and reading about it, but I was in the art school… I met later on Wolf Vostell via Brotzmann, because Brotzmann was also a Fluxus member, and then we had a very good friend and Fluxus member, Thomas Schmidt, in Berlin. I met Josef Beuys and I played at his opening. So it’s not so much to say. It just happened.

TP: It was part of the milieu in which you existed and functioned.

HB: Absolutely, too, when we played in 1969 in Berlin, we played for the heavy left-wing student movement – Rudi Dutschke and all those cats. Peter was very much into that. I am not interested in politics at all. I can play for all parties, but I don’t like to play for fascists and rednecks. But for the rest I am very flexible.

TP: Was Misha political in the 60s?

HB: You should ask him. Yeah, I think he was, but not so heavy than all the other…

TP: Less so than in England or Germany with many of the musicians. Let’s talk about the affinities by which Clusone Trio was established out of the ICP Orchestra.

HB: The Clusone Trio…actually we had an invitation to play in Clusone. Clusone is in the north of Italia, near Bergamo. At the time we were invited to play, it was a quartet. There was no name for it. The quartet was Michael Moore, Ernst Reijsiger, the cello player, Guus Janssen, and me. Those are all fantastic players. But somehow it was set-up…actually thesame set-up that I work in this week… It was a jazz set-up. But Ernst was dealing with the cello, so there was no bass. But it was a real jazz quartet. I like actually a bit more space. I love to play with Guus Janssen duet. He’s most of the time playing with his own brother. But I love to play with him. He’s a very good composer and a very skilled piano player.

So Guus went out and we carried on as a trio, the Clusone Trio, and it became very, very successful. We traveled to Australia. We were playing in Vietnam. We were playing in China. We were playing in Burkina-Faso. We were playing in Mali, and all over Europe. It was really very nice. I know Ernst since he was 12 years old, and then he came to me already. So I had a relationship with him. Ernst was sort of responsible for getting Michael to Europe, so that was cool. And Michael’s interest in pieces and…

TP: He comes from a background not so dissimilar to yours, with a father who is a music teacher…

HB: Yes, his father is Jerry and he’s a very high-rated teacher in Eureka, California.

TP: So I guess it was a superb chemistry.

HB: Yes.

TP: And I guess the group disbanded maybe two years ago.

HB: Something like that.

[MUSIC: Clusone 3, Irving Berlin repertoire]

TP: We were speaking of the ICP Orchestra as it developed during the 80s, when it, as one of the clippings I read from Misha Mengelberg put it, it began exploring repertory, and specifically repertory by the composers who were his great influences in the 1950s, Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. Had did this transition happen, from the raucous, more open-ended, theatre-composition from before.

HB: I think Misha actually is more interested to write his own material, but somehow I think he had an invitation for the radio to do a whole Herbie Nichols set-up. Because we always have to a little bit force him in the direction to put up or to come or play this older material. I think it was an invitation from a radio station, and it was the ICP Orchestra plus George Lewis and Steve Lacy.

TP: George Lewis was exploring electronic music and AI in Amsterdam at the time.

HB: Right. He was busy with his improvising robot. But of course, with us he played the trombone, thank goodness.

TP: The track we’ll hear features another trombonist, also appearing in town this week with Archie Shepp, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille, and Grachan Moncur at the Jazz Standard. It’s Roswell Rudd, from a record titled Regeneration from 1982 on the Soul Note label, with Steve Lacy – both were involved with the music of Herbie Nichols and Monk during their formative years in New York. Also Misha Mengelberg on piano, Kent Carter on bass, and Han Bennink. What do you recollect about the album?

HB: This record was also an idea by our friend Filipo Bianchi, and of course, we knew that Roswell played with Nichols and there are more compositions of Herbie Nichols also, so we brought it together.

TP: On Herbie Nichols’ original recordings, the drummers were Max Roach and Art Blakey – also Dannie Richmond. Did you hear those recordings when they were out?

HB: Of course. I have them all. I particularly like them with Art Blakey. I have two 10″ he actually made for Blue Note, and a bigger one, a normal one with Max. But I prefer the ones with Art Blakey. Maybe it’s with the type of his piano playing… Personal taste.

TP: Herbie Nichols in his writing orchestrated for the drums.

HB: Yes.

TP: The feeling of the drums, and sometimes the parts were specific. In your interpretations, do you hew to that?

HB: Of course I hew to that. On one album for Blue Note, he wrote these fantastic liner notes. Of course, Misha, who brought me the whole idea of Herbie Nichols… When you play that stuff, I think you have to stay as close to what’s actually meant with the particular music at that time. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense to me.

TP: For you it’s all an aural process? Do you have the sort of memory where you hear something and it imprints itself… Do you hear like that?

HB: Oh, no-no. I can’t tell you nothing what I am doing. I cannot do that, because it’s music and it’s no words. When it was music, if it was language, so I could write a book and you could go from page to page what I am actually doing. But it is not. So I have to do it tonight again, and hopefully tomorrow again, and after tomorrow. But there are no words for that to me. I cannot declare my music.

TP: I wasn’t trying to break down your technique. I was thinking of the way music enters your mind and comes out.

HB: Yeah, but it’s completely abstract how that works. I can tell you nothing about it.

TP: So it’s as organic as language.

HB: Yes, I guess.

TP: I guess you’ve been doing it since you start learning language, so it’s organic as language.

HB: Yes. Well, you dive in the middle of a swimming pool and you try to reach the sides, and there’s nothing more to tell. I throw myself into a musical situation, and I have to…

TP: If you’ll use the analogy of being thrown in the swimming pool, then hopefully you’ve learned how to swim.

HB: Absolutely.

TP: You’re not diving in without a thorough background.

[MUSIC: Rudd-Lacy-Mengelberg-Carter-Bennink, “Blue Chopsticks”; ICP Orchestra, “Spinning Song”]

HB: Dutch Masters was made in an awful little studio in Milano, really, with a terrible drumkit, and I had to sit in a drum booth that was horrible. Horrible circumstances.

TP: Sometimes beautiful pearls emerge from the ugliest surroundings.

HB: Oh, yes. For example, listen to Bird at St. Nick’s. It’s one of my favorite albums, and the circumstances there must have been horrible – so much noise.

[MUSIC: Rudd-Lacy-Bennink, “Hornin’ In”; ICP Orchestra, “Bospaadje Konijnehol”; “Mooche Mix”]

HB: Many people are not playing in our band any more. Our band has been changing all the time. I think now we have the best band there ever was.

TP: Why is that?

HB: It’s so well balanced. I’ve been learning a lot, so… I have a name that I can play sort of loud. But in the ICP Orchestra I have to behave, because now I cannot play louder than, for example, Mary Oliver who is playing violin, and in pieces where the sections are playing things, has to be heard. So I am reduced to lots of brushes work. That makes you a good brushes player.

TP: You said “reduced.”

HB: Yeah, sure. My English is sometimes a bit short.

TP: Now the ICP Orchestra has been performing the repertoire it has for 20 years; it’s an established fact, and a few generations of musicians have come up hearing it, some of whom are playing in the band. How does that affect their approach to the music once they’re in the band?

HB: It’s not easy to play in that band. Well, it’s Misha’s band. Misha is writing for it. But I am also responsible to bring in new people. Because I play with a big variety of people, so I actually brought everybody in except Thomas Heberer, the German trumpet player – he came via Misha. But for the rest, I brought in all. There’s nothing more to say about it; it just functions fantastic. We all love to play in that band. We do a lot music-wise. It’s not an ego thing at all. We just go for it in a positive sense.

TP: I’ll raise a question that we were discussing when the music was on? Does ICP play much in Holland?

HB: We never play in Holland. We play, say, 5 or 6 times a year in Holland. We’d love to play more. But it’s expensive to have 9 people on the road, and then the possibilities in Holland… Everybody from abroad thinks, “Wow, Holland is a mecca of improvised music.” It probably is, but the possibilities for us to play are very small. Also, we live in a very small country. In that country’s network, say like 15 clubs where you can perform, and maybe we can perform in 7 of those clubs. When you do that round once or twice a year, you’re done. You have to go to Germany or france or England or America. But then you must have a name that people like to have you as well.

TP: And you have to establish a tonal personality that people recognize and want to hear.

HB: Absolutely.

TP: Which Han Bennink has been doing all his life.

HB: I do my best.

TP: you travel around the world, more than ever.

HB: More than ever.

TP: You know musicians everywhere, and you cover every area of music. A lot of older musicians now, from different ends of the spectrum, James Moody to Andrew Hill, say that the quality of musicianship among young players now is the highest it’s ever been. They’ve never seen it quite like this in terms of what they can do and their openness to many times of music. What’s your sense of that.

HB: If you think in the sense of instrumentalists, a skilled player, there are many, many skilled players, and not only in our music but also in classical music. When I was performing in the Lincoln Center, I was passing by Juilliard School of Music, and I was surprised at how many people from Asia were carrying a violin and coming out of that school. So I think there’s a hell of a lot of competition in certain musics, and probably also in ours. I train myself a lot, more than ever. But I think exactly what Kenny Clarke said to me. “Well, you must have enough technique to explore yourself so you can make yourself…” Like, having lots of technique like a Buddy Rich, or other technique like, I don’t know, Roy Haynes or someone like that – those people have their personal touch and personal tuning for drums, and personal sounds. So it comes to a person rather than to an overall technique. But they are very skilled. Nowadays people can play… And standing on their head, for example. Well, I’ve seen it once. Don Byas standing on his head, playing saxophone, “Body and Soul”, upside-down, also backwards.

TP: He played the tune backwards and was standing on his head.

HB: Yes, and standing on his head. In a bathroom of the Hilton Hotel. It was a party. The Dizzy Gillespie band was there, and Don came from Amsterdam (because he was based in Amsterdam) to see that. He did all those sort of tricks. He was an amazing player.

TP: There’s a certain component to what you do that’s lost on a CD. You have a visual aspect. You’ll play the telephone…

HB: That might be true, but you don’t miss it in the music.

TP: I sometimes have to close my eyes when I see you play, so that I can focus on the musicality of what’s going on. The visual stuff can be distracting.

HB: Yes, but it is still based on the music and the musical possibilities – what’s going on at that particular moment in the band. When there’s nothing happening, there is for me no reason to leave the drum chair and play in the hall, because it means nothing. But when there’s a musical tension between Misha and me on stage, then I can leave him alone and I can leave him PERFECTLY alone, because he can take care of himself probably better than I do in music live. So then it is a reason for me to do something else. But when the music is not happening, I can’t do it. It’s sort of static. For example, when I have to play in a club like where we play tonight, that is more like a jazz club set-up – when you’re behind the drums, you are behind the drums. You can hardly move because of the little space. I like actually for myself halls not too big, but a space on stage where you can move a bit. Because for me, playing on the floor, on a wooden floor, or not even on a wood floor, is exactly the same for me as playing on a drumkit. Some drummers stay…or they want a 50″ bass drum rather than that high. I don’t have belongings in that at all. I am just pleased with two sticks, and that’s it. I like to make the best and the weirdest music out of that. That is my goal.

TP: Doesn’t matter what the drumkit is.

HB: Doesn’t matter. I’ve been playing on pizza boxes, carton boxes, pieces of wood, drumkits falling apart, broken drumheads, broken drumsticks – all sorts of stuff.

TP: You do that in your sculpture as well, no?

HB: Yes.

TP: A lot of it is with found objects.

HB: Yes, objets trouvees.

TP: We have two more duos before you leave. This is the most recent of many duo collaborations you’ve done with Derek Bailey over the years. I guess it goes back to about 1968 or so. On Incus?

HB: No. I did the first thing with Derek on ICP. It’s ICP 004. I think it must be 1969.

TP: Again, Derek Bailey’s vocabulary is now an established fact of the music, over 30 years. Back then…I don’t know, perhaps it wasn’t totally new; there’s nothing totally new. But in some sense it was, because of its electronic nature. Again, how does that familiarity with your partner’s vocabulary change the nature of the interaction? And this is not a live encounter. Here, you’d tape something, send it to the other…

HB: Yes.

TP: …tape a response, send it back, a response gets taped, and so forth and so on.

HB: Right.

TP: Just to use the word “free’ in the commonly accepted sense of free improvising, these people are all shaping utterly personal vocabularies that no one else is using. How does that familiarity then shape the responses?

HB: I don’t like it for myself when it’s static or fixed. And I know exactly what you mean. I was playing in Tonic not long ago, and Derek was staying there for a whole month, and I saw a concert he did with Blood Ulmer. I have to say, when you hear the guitar sound you recognize Derek immediately. I think that’s an incredible pro. You recognize Miles. You recognize Thelonious Monk. All great players. Also Derek. But in a way, it’s already done… “Oh, that’s Derek then.” But I’ve been recording now with a Punk guitar player from the Ex, Terrie Ex. His real name is Terrie Hessels. He is not into certain technique or overtones or this thing at all. He just starts moving. He’s more like an action painting, in a way. The sounds that’s coming from this sounded to me different from Derek in a way… Well, you can’t say from Derek that it’s not fresh, because he plays always fresh. But you know that sound now. So for me, it was fresh to hear the other approach from Terrie coming to it. Because when you play with Derek, you never know what he is playing, but you know that particular sound. But the other… That’s different with Terrie. So in a sense, when you play longer and longer, you have to run, otherwise the time is eating you. You know? And there’s not much time. The grave is yawning, as we say in Holland. So you have to keep running. That’s why I’d like to leave the studio and walk it off.

[MUSIC: Bennink-Bailey- “Duo#3”–Fragile (Incus 34); Bennink-Eskelin, “Let’s Cool One” from Dissonant Characters]

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For Master Bassist-Composer Ben Wolfe’s 58th Birthday, a 2001 Downbeat Players Profile, 2 Interviews Conducted for the Profile, and an Uncut 2015 Blindfold Test

Best of birthdays to bassist-composer Ben Wolfe, one of the strongest individualists in jazz 30+ years. In 2001, Downbeat gave me an opportunity to write a “Profile-Players” article about him; he sat with me for a couple of interviews, most of which couldn’t be used. They appear below the article.

 

Ben Wolfe (Downbeat “Players”Article) – 2001:

In the latter 1980’s, Ben Wolfe, recently arrived in New York from his native Portland, Oregon, was squatting in a funky apartment on Utica and Montgomery in the East New York section of Brooklyn. To take a bath he routed the water down a board from the sink; electricity came from a jerryrigged outside line. He was earning $20 a night, six nights a week, as bassist in the house rhythm section for a well-attended 1-4 a.m. jam session at Manhattan’s Blue Note.

“I quickly was on the scene,” Wolfe recalls, “but it seemed like I was the last one to get a real gig or a big gig. It drove me crazy, because I felt like I was ready. But I never was one to give up. A lot of people come to New York and get frustrated and leave. I always stayed.”

Persistence paid off for the moon-faced bassist; now 39, he boasts an enviable c.v. He cites lucrative, high profile ’90s gigs with the likes of Harry Connick and Wynton Marsalis, and is currently in the second year of his second go-round with Diana Krall. Each appreciates his professionalism, definitive harmonic ear, impeccable time, and — not least — the huge, unamplified sound his fingers elicit from gut strings. “I think it’s very ironic,” Wolfe states at his comfortable pad on a block of warehouses near the waterfront in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. “I never followed the crowd. But it makes sense. I never got a gig through an audition. I’m always hired for what I do, not for somebody who needs a bass player.

“I prefer the sound of every one of my favorite bass players — Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford – without the amp. I want to experience the problems that my heroes experienced — the strings breaking, intonation trouble, a drummer playing too loud. If someone is too loud and it’s out of balance, that’s the sound of the music. It shouldn’t be corrected manually.”

Wolfe most recently elaborated these purist principles on the suite-like Murray’s Steps [Amasoya], which follows a pair of well-received late ’90s disks [13 Sketches and Baghdad Theater (Mons)]. On each he hews to the aesthetic of group interplay and the rhythms of bebop, and displays a well-honed sense of sonic narrative.

“I’m definitely from the bebop well,” Wolfe avers, citing Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Bill Evans — as well as Ellington and Strayhorn — as primary influences. “I feel a connection to Mingus’ ’50s music, the way he combined playing hard and writing beautiful music.

“My music is definitely not bass oriented; most of my tunes are solo piano pieces that I arrange for the band. I like arranging, putting stuff together, finding different harmonic movements and sounds. I think of what I do as chamber music in a jazz context, as ensemble music, versus having somebody blow on top of a rhythm section.”

How does he reconcile quotidian sideman work with creative imperatives? “I think of myself as a composer who plays bass,” he says. “With Diana, I’m there as a bass player, playing tunes, trying to swing and make people feel good every night. We’re not trying to change the world. With Wynton, whose vision is so strong, I was playing original extended compositions; I learned a lot about ensemble writing from him. With both Wynton and Diana, it’s about trying to realize their vision and keeping your ego in check. When I do my music, it’s a completely different head space. I write and arrange all the music, do everything I’m capable of doing. I have much more control because I’m trying to realize my vision and conception.”

Not that Wolfe plans any radical career shifts in the near future. “Playing with Diana enables me to spend all my down time writing,” he concludes. “I like the idea of doing both things at the same time. If I had it my way, I would only play with my band, but that’s not a reality now. I think I have something tangible to offer as a leader. I feel patient. I’m always working on my music, and eventually I’ll get to do it.”

**************

Ben Wolfe (Downbeat Int.):

TP: I just said that you have to avoid cliches, and Ben said, “Well, that fits the modern jazz era,” then he said, “Unh-oh.”

[PAUSE]

TP: After talking about all those cliches, let’s talk about you started learning those cliches when you were young. You’re from Portland.

WOLFE: I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, but I grew up in Portland, Oregon. I moved here in 1985.

TP: Let’s get to some nuts and bolts. Are your parents musical?

WOLFE: My father played violin with the San Antonio Symphony for one season, and then he quit. He felt he was always fighting the instrument. He claimed he wasn’t that great. He actually got in without an audition, which is unusual in a symphony. He’s now a photographer. My mother is a therapist, a gestalt therapist, and she also owns some restaurants — she’s remarried. She loves the arts, but she’s not a musician; but she goes out to hear string quartets and loves jazz…

TP: So you came from a cultured Jewish family.

WOLFE: A cultured family. [ETC.] My great grandparents did not come from here. But my parents divorced when I was young. I grew up with my Dad. But I also came out of that whole Hippie thing, for better or worse, on my Mom’s side. Don’t put it in there, because it implies something… So my family was just me and my Dad, so instead of a traditional Jewish family, it was more like two guys who didn’t really know what they’re doing. Basically, he’d work all day and I’d be in school, and I’d come home and it would just be me watching TV and trying to be I guess an athlete, as all young kids try to be. When I started playing music in 7th grade it was like I found something that I could do, that was easy to do, that I was good at, or thought I… It was easy for me to do. I started playing the tuba in 7th grade, and that just consumed my life immediately.

TP: Was that through a school program?

WOLFE: Yeah. It was pretty good for what it was. Then in high school, they had me doing all kinds of different instruments. I was a tuba player, but they decided I should be a bass player also, so I was playing electric bass and a little acoustic bass. That’s when I discovered that some people in the band weren’t planning on being professional musicians. I wasn’t aware that there was a choice. I just thought that’s what you do. I didn’t think there was a choice. I started playing music, and it was so natural, so comfortable, it never even occurred to me it was something you do on the side. It just seemed like, “Okay, this is what you do.” I was very naive about it. I thought everyone was like that. I remember someone in the high school band said they were going to go to school and be a doctor, whatever it was, and I went, “Huh.” I didn’t understand. Then it finally occurred to me that maybe some people were just in the band for fun or whatever. So I never saw it that way.

I was playing a lot of electric bass. I started really enjoying electric bass, playing like in funk bands and stuff like that, and being…

TP: so you got your reading and so on together in the school band?

WOLFE: Well, I was a Classical tuba player, but I started really enjoying playing in the stage band, playing jazz and playing electric bass, which also was easy for me to do at first. And they also had me play acoustic bass in the orchestra, which I wasn’t into at all. But my father told me I would be. He really said that, and it’s funny; we laugh about it now. In high school, when I’m playing different instruments and stuff, this is ’77…

TP: so this is the height of Fusion and…

WOLFE: Fusion and the Disco era.

TP: Sort of the other end of the plateau of creative fusion and into the disco era.

WOLFE: I got immediately into Return to Forever and Weather Report. Stanley Clarke was my first bass hero when I was a musician and a bass player. And the first time I heard his record, I didn’t recognize the bass line. I thought it was guitar, so I didn’t know what it was. But at the time, everything was so new. My taste wasn’t… I didn’t really have good taste in music. I just enjoyed playing. I wasn’t listening… I was more into just, “wow, check out how so-and-so plays.” I wasn’t even really into the music, looking back. I believe in a musical adolescence, which I think a lot of people never leave, which is a part of the problem today — which is a whole nother subject.

Then through high school I started doing all these different things. I was going to camps in the summer, stage band camps, concert band camps… I wasn’t playing the acoustic bass at all. I wanted to be a funk bass player, a studio player. That’s what I was going to do. I was going to be like tuba in the symphony, I was going to be a studio player during the day and bass trombone with Basie or whatever big band. I started playing bass trombone, and I really got into that.

TP: Those Nelson Riddle charts..

WOLFE: I wasn’t really listening to anything. I was just playing all the time. It’s funny. I was playing music all the time, but I wasn’t like studying it, the way Wynton did in high school — he had a regimented practice thing that he did every day. I wasn’t like that. I was just a regular… I was out smoking weed, doing what everyone else was doing. But I was playing tuba and the bass. And eventually, my junior or senior year, I joined some dance band, so I was playing in bands. I finally formed my own little group, and we had this great singer, so we started playing high school dances. I enjoyed that very much. I was also going to two schools my senior year, a magnet program at another school that had a great music program. Me and this drummer would go over there in the afternoon, and I met more musicians over there. I started making friends who were other musicians around town and we formed little groups.

Let me back up a little bit, back to acoustic bass. In the stage band, I was forced to play the acoustic bass on a Count Basie tune. We didn’t have pickups or amps. So in a stage band contest, I played the acoustic bass with no mike and no amplifier, and the judges were really into it. “Wow, man, that sounds great. That’s cool. That’s like they used to do.” Which is what I do now. It was just an interesting coincidence.

TP: It’s interesting when musicians come up who are studied but are also ear players, in the way they approach music.

WOLFE: I wish I could say I was a total ear player. But that’s one of the biggest things I don’t have together actually, compared to people I see. I wish I was just a complete ear player. It seems like the most honest way of playing . I call myself a schooled street player in between. I was going to school, taking classes and studying, but at the same time all I wanted to do was play at jam sessions.

TP: When did the notion of jazz as such start to enter… When did you start identifying yourself as a jazz musician?

WOLFE: Not til later. My senior year we had a band called Swing Shift playing jazz where I was playing electric bass, and another band playing funk.

TP: Was it always just playing the function, or were you listening to role models?

WOLFE: I was always listening to Paul Chambers. Well I shouldn’t say always. My father would play me a lot of records of all kinds of music. Looking back, it seemed like he had it from me. He had a whole collection of records that were R&B, he had James Brown and whomever. Then he had rock records with the Stones and the Beatles, which I loved — the Who. He had all these jazz records, Charlie Parker and Mingus and Prez and Coleman Hawkins, and he always pointed these guys out to me. “Listen to this; this is Thelonious Monk.” I remember I identified Monk immediately. I remember hearing his left hand and really digging how he was playing. He played me this record, Paul Chambers-John Coltrane, with “Dexterity” on it. That’s the first one; it knocked me out. That became my THANG. I was a Paul Chambers freak. I mean, from then on. He’s my favorite bass player. I’m not saying he was the greatest…

TP: Well, he might be.

WOLFE: He might be. But then I have to put my Oscar Pettiford, some Jimmy Blanton… I had a definite connection with him. You know how the musicians you love, you almost feel like you know them personally, and all you ever hear is a recorded mike on their instrument. It’s amazing to me; you feel like you know them. But every other bass player says the same thing about Paul Chambers; it’s huge, the way he reaches people. At that point I loved it, but I was still into this other thing. I was just playing electric bass. Then I started playing in top-40 bands.

TP: That senior year of high school.

WOLFE: This was the senior year of high school. Then I’m in college, this Mount Hood Community College that has a great music program. I played bass trombone in their stage band and played electric bass in the practice room with people in these little combos during the day, and I’m going on the road with these top-40 bands. So I haven’t really found my home, so to speak. I’m doing all these things. I’m working. I’m playing electric bass. I’m playing trombone, playing tuba. Then I started playing so much jazz on electric bass. I’d go to the school, and all I would do was go in this practice room and set up and play. And I had a great theory teacher who also was an acoustic bass teacher, and I was playing Jazz jazz — and now I’m identifying myself as a jazz musician. I play jazz electric bass. That’s my thing.

TP: So you’re Ben Wolfe, you’re 19-20, it’s ’82…

WOLFE: I’m playing jazz electric bass in Portland.

TP: What’s the scene like in Portland?

WOLFE: Well, I’m still not quite part of the scene. I’m getting calls to sub every now and then. I’m still an electric bass player but people are starting to think I’m talented and wanting me to come hang out, and now I’m meeting people. But now I’m deep into jazz, I think. I’m still playing electric bass, but I’m deep into jazz in my mind, playing non-stop. That’s all I’d do, was play.

TP: Acoustic at all?

WOLFE: Every now and then I’d say, “Hey, I’m gonna check that out,” and I’d play it.

TP: So you had a certain facility.

WOLFE: Well, I was playing electric every day. But I didn’t think in those terms of facility. I just loved music. I picked it up and I could play it. I fooled around on it all the time. Then all of a sudden it occurred to me, “Wait a minute; if I’m going to play jazz, I’ve got to…” I borrowed this guy’s bass for a jam session — Louis Ledbetter. I was like, “This is what I’ve got to do.” It was like BAM, I found my home. So I asked a teacher if I could study with him. I told my father, “Look, I think this is it, acoustic bass. You were right. That’s what I’ve got to do. I want to play with top-40 band; I want to play jazz.” I must have really seemed serious, because he sold his violin and actually put up some money for me to get an acoustic bass — which was heavy. He hadn’t been playing the violin. And this guy, the bass teacher at the school said, “You know, you really shouldn’t do this.” He said, “Who knows if he’s really going to do this or not? He hasn’t even started yet.” And I was really into it.

TP: Put up or shut up.

WOLFE: But I was so into it that all of a sudden it’s like “Oh, this is it.” So I got this bass and I started taking lessons, and I started doing little gigs around town. Every night, my blisters… It was terrible. I was in pain. Then they had this little function in Portland. Some musician who was on the scene before me had passed away, so they had one of these things where everyone in town played, all these different bands played for this guy whom I didn’t know. And at this thing I was supposed to play with this one musician, and none of the bass players could make it, so I ended playing with everybody. Then all of a sudden I started working all the time. I started getting all these gigs in Portland, so now I’m on the scene.

I started playing with this guy Sonny King. He hired me for his band. Do you know who Nancy King is, the singer? He used to be married to her. He’s passed away. He was probably in New York in the ’70s, playing with Jimmy Garrison and these guys, a free jazz sort of alto player. And Lawrence Williams, who plays drums with Marcus Belgrave. Me, him, and this other piano player, Eddie Wheats(?), an older guy in Portland. He formed a band playing some original Coltranesque music. So now I’m in this band with these guys who have been around for a long time, and I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m playing with this great drummer, who to me was just amazing, especially at the time — this Elvin Jones-like drummer who writes ballets and long-form compositions and he called me “Partner.” So I was like, “wow!” I felt like I was playing with Miles or something. It was incredible.

So I’m in this band, and I’m practicing a lot. I’m playing literally non-stop. There are stories in Portland. “Oh, I hear you worked at the Fine Arts Building every night, all night long, practicing.” It wasn’t like that. But I made friends who were serious, and we would get together and play literally all night some nights at different places. It was non-stop. And I started working all the time, and I started making friendships. That’s always been important to me, having friends who also viewed things similar to me. Because most people I don’t agree with on anything. So even to this day, that’s real important to me.

TP: As a jazz musician, do you feel somewhat marginalized? [PAUSE, BATHROOM] first you were talking about cliches, that they permeate…

WOLFE: Just the whole thing. I’ll put it this way. It seems now, whenever I hear a new record or… Let’s see how I can put this…

TP: Jazz is a subculture. As far as being a sideman goes, you’ve got some of the highest profile gigs of anyone out there. Yet even you in the larger scheme of the music business are small potatoes, with 2% of the sales…

WOLFE: Oh, definitely.

TP: So jazz has to do with a point of view, a way of looking at the world.

WOLFE: No question.

TP: So one thing I always ask people is why jazz becomes the thing they feel they have to do.

WOLFE: Versus what? Versus playing with a Pop band?

TP: Or versus being some sort of creative Pop musician.

WOLFE: I think it all comes down to what one’s intentions are and what one’s goals are. A lot of people I see out here, I think they should do that. Because it seems that’s really what they’d rather do. I get the impression a lot of people would rather be in Funk bands and want to be Pop stars. I’m not saying that’s bad…

TP: Well, not everybody can be one.

WOLFE: Not everyone can be one, but a lot of times under the jazz name they can get a little further. But that’s all career. If you look at it from the art perspective, everything seems a lot different. The amount of people diminish greatly. Most of the people I know don’t seem so much coming from that perspective, where I really consider them artists versus instrumentalists. These days, it seems like a lot of jazz seems like an expression of the instrument versus something out of the mind. A lot of people are just demonstrating how well they play their instrument. I see that all the time. “Wow, check out how so-and-so plays! wow. Amazing! He’s all over the instrument. It’s always about the individual’s technical feats, it seems like, which is…

TP: Let’s continue on technique. You’re obviously developing a fairly substantial technique as a young guy.

WOLFE: I suppose.

TP: You’re listening to Paul Chambers, so you have a sense of the real elemental swing and how it’s supposed to sound…

WOLFE: Well, when I hear Paul Chambers, I don’t hear technique. I hear a character, an actual…

TP: But the technique is awesome.

WOLFE: The technique is awesome, but the technique is also completely unimpressive, in a way. Because anybody can learn the technique. The technique is not what makes Paul Chambers great. There are many bass players who have more “technique” who I suppose can play faster. There are guys now who can play much faster or… Well, it depends what you mean by “technique.” If you mean technique as far as producing a gorgeous around a/nd playing from the brain and really listening and all that kind of stuff, that’s fine. But when I hear Paul Chambers, the band always sounds good. And I hear a character in him.

TP: Who taught you how to look for making the band sound good? Is it innate? Did you know it intuitively?

WOLFE: Musical conception was always something that came easily to me. A lot of people have perfect pitch and can hear… Everyone seems to have certain things that come easy for them. That’s something I seem to understand easily. I’ve always thought that way, and I’m also always getting frustrated on the bandstand because of that, because I hear things that are little that drive me crazy. Playing fast doesn’t impress me at all.

TP: So in other words, technique reaches a point where it’s not an issue any more.

WOLFE: It’s never an issue. I don’t think technique is ever an issue.

TP: It is if you can’t play.

WOLFE: Well, it’s obviously necessary. I mean, the carpenter has to know how to hammer a nail.

TP: I can’t write an article if I use passive verbs.

WOLFE: No, you definitely have to have the technique. But the art being an expression of the technique. The technique is something you use to express whatever it is you’re trying to express. I think more and more, it’s become an expression of the technique.

TP: Technique becomes more a function of the craft, and the art is a whole different thing.

WOLFE: Right. The art is what counts. The only thing that really counts is the final product to me. That’s what counts. Of course, the more technique… I mean, obviously, Charlie Parker had amazing technique and facility on his instrument. But that’s not why you get chills… That’s not why when Bill Evans plays a ballad you might have a tear in your eye. It’s not because he understood…. That’s not what it is. It’s because he had a vision, and he needed the technique to produce his vision, and the whole struggle… That’s where it’s at.

TP: So is that part of the experience you had playing with Sonny King?

WOLFE: Well, at that time I wasn’t thinking this way. When you first start playing music, just the joy of playing the instrument is enough. The quality of the music for me wasn’t as important. It’s just I was so happy to be playing an instrument and to be able to do it what I thought was well for that point or whatever. But playing with Sonny King was just… At that time, everything was new. New experiences. Playing with a drummer, learning tunes, playing harmony… Everything was all new. At that time, I played with Woody Shaw for a weekend. He came through town. I was so not-ready to play with him, but at the same time it was incredible. I was so excited. I remember playing with Woody Shaw and I went and bought every Woody Shaw I didn’t have. Didn’t learn any of the tunes, but I bought the records and looked at them. I was just so thrilled and excited, and I went to this gig, and he called “If I Were A Bell,” I didn’t know the tune… I did a pretty good job. But I was so excited and proud. I remember afterwards he said he was going to Europe, and I was thinking, “Man, take me to Europe and get me…” In my mind I’m playing with Woody Shaw now. I said, “Yeah, who’s in the band?” He goes “Red Mitchell…” I’m staying here in Portland! But back then, everything was just about learning.

TP: Was Woody Shaw the first national guy you played with, or are you sitting in by this point?

WOLFE: By that point I might have played one gig with Bud Shank or something. But I think he might have been one of the first people I played with.

TP: You come to New York in ’85, you’re 22-23. You’d reached the point you couldn’t get any more in Portland?

WOLFE: I reached the point where I felt I needed to keep going. I was frustrated. I was playing with the same people in the circle. Not that I wasn’t learning, but it was time for me to move on. A friend of mine, a drummer named Alan Jones, who is actually back there now, had a place and needed a roommate. So I came out here. I got my car, put all my stuff in the car, and drove out here. Slept in the rest stops on the way. I had like $1000. I was so green. I had my travellers checks, and I was so afraid of everything. I was SO green. I came out here, and we lived in this funky apartment that was probably once really nice, and we paid rent for one month and they never charged us again. This guy Alan Jones is a guy who makes his own drums, his own machines, can fix anything, so he had electricity hooked up from outside illegally. Everything started breaking in his apartment. I remember to run a bath we had a take a board from the sink and let the water run down. But at the same time, it didn’t bother me. And I got a steady gig, sort of, because this drummer in Portland, Ron Steen(?), called Ted Curson, who he used to work with, and Ted hired me for the Blue Note. So I was playing six nights a week at this after-hours session, making $20, but meeting all kinds of people.

TP: That’s ’85. It was a very interesting time in New York. People were pouring in here and forming their sound.

WOLFE: Yeah, it was. I remember the guys who would come down there. Dave Kikoski was just in town. Benny Green had been here for a few years. Tyler Mitchell was down here doing the gig also. Art Blakey had the band with Jean Toussaint and those guys. They were down there. He ended up running the session. The Harper Brothers, Philip and Winard, were on the scene. Jeff Watts would come in sometimes. Grossman would come through… It was actually not bad. At the time we thought it was terrible, but of course it wasn’t bad. I did that for a couple of years under different leadership. Manny Duran ran it and Jean Toussaint. At that point I was spending a lot of time… I was living with or near Rudy Petschauer, the drummer, and Renee Rosnes. We were the rhythm section at the late night session.

TP: that was from ’85 to ’87?

WOLFE: Something in that vicinity.

TP: So six nights a week at the Blue Note. You must have learned a ton of tunes.

WOLFE: Learned a million tunes. Ted knew a lot of tunes. I was also forming my friendship with Ned Goold, this tenor player, who’s like a partner, a musical partner. That was important. We were learning a lot of tunes, and to this day we play each other’s tunes all the time. I’m on his CDs, he’s on mine. We were playing each other’s music during the day all the time. That was the most important thing happening back then.

TP: Shortly thereafter you hook up with Harry Connick.

WOLFE: That was in ’88.

TP: You’re in New York, you establish yourself as someone who’s reliable, can do gigs, your learning curve is expanding greatly, and you’re meeting your peer group.

WOLFE: Yeah, but I wouldn’t say I quickly established myself. I mean, I quickly was on the scene. But it seemed like I was the last one to get a real gig or a big gig. Everyone else seemed to have all these gigs. A years ago Ira Coleman told me, “Yeah, I remember it seemed like you were the last one to get the gig.” Everyone else I saw working, and it used to drive me crazy.

TP: Do you think it was politics?

WOLFE: I don’t know what it was. I think it just wasn’t time yet. I always believe everyone gets their chance. But at one point I started to feel like, all right, I’m just going to be this guy who never gets a gig. It was frustrating, because I felt like I was ready. But I never was one to give up. I always stayed. A lot of people come to New York and get frustrated and leave.

TP: Well, not everybody gets to work six nights a week at a place like the Blue Note. It kept you busy.

WOLFE: Well, everybody could come play at the session. I mean, it was just $20. It was a good thing. But I ended up meeting a lot of people. I ended up playing a lot of restaurants with this piano player, Rob Bargad. We played duo gigs all the time together. I started making associations. I met Harry Connick at the Blue Note. He was playing at the Knickerbocker, and I came by there and sat in or something. That started in ’88. That’s when everything changed, right at that point. We started doing duo gigs, the two of us. That’s when I met Wynton, because he came down and heard me play. I used to call him all the time on the phone; he was never home. I still call him all the time. Every now and then you get like a 5-minute conversation. It’s great, though. I love talking to him. [Don’t print that; it sounds…]

So now I’m touring with Harry Connick, making some good money, more than I had before, and doing television, and I started to make records, the When Harry Met Sally thing and all that…

TP: You were there when his star was rising.

WOLFE: That’s right. I was there doing all of that. And it was all new to me, the whole thing. Which I actually got caught up into, the stardom… It’s a very seductive world, and I won’t lie and say I wasn’t sucked into it. At one point, when the big band was happening, I wasn’t really practicing. I was into this world.

TP: You were profiling.

WOLFE: Yeah, the whole thing. all of a sudden I had money. I’d never had money before. That TV [32″ Sony] is part of it. When I bought that, I felt like I had bought a Mercedes. It was like, “wow!” It was all new to me, all those things. So I got really into it. I spent all the money I made. But I’m glad. It’s kind of like if you’re in a bad relationship with a woman, you look back and you’re glad you went through it so you don’t make the mistakes again. I’m not trying to say that experience was like a bad relationship. Because parts of it were great. I learned a lot of music. But I saw in that whole Harry Connick thing… You’ve got to be careful how you print this. But I saw a whole lot about the music business and how everything works. I saw the whole business side. It’s about selling records, filling houses. Which makes sense. The money has to come from somewhere. But I never thought about it that way before.

TP: That relationship has endured for several years.

WOLFE: Well, we didn’t talk for a long period. We would go through different things.

TP: What interests me is how that experience and playing with Wynton inflected your sense of music. Because if you’re playing as much as you were with people like Harry Connick and Wynton, with the visibility it gave you, there has to be an impact. It’s part of who you are, and continues to be.

WOLFE: Oh, no question. That makes sense. Well, playing with Harry Connick is when I was able to be out there playing the way I play, with the gut strings and no amplifier, which certainly isn’t something I started, but at the time there were only a few guys doing it. So now I’m doing this on a national stage, and I’m learning how to record in the studio, I’m learning how to play in different-sized rooms, I’m learning what it’s like to be on the road, I’m experiencing all these new things — which was great. Harry is an extremely talented musician, so now I’m playing with someone who’s scrutinizing everything I play. He hears everything.

TP: He’s a perfectionist.

WOLFE: Yeah. But he hears that way. He hears every note you play at all times. It was good that way. That was a great experience, playing in all different situation. First it was the two of us, then we had a trio, then we had a quartet with Russell Malone for a short time. We did all these records, touring a lot. Seeing the world was interesting. I’m going to movie sets when he’s making his films and meeting all these actors. It was whole nother world for me from squatting in East New York, out at Utica and Montgomery… 88 Montgomery. So it was Utica and Eastern Parkway.

TP: You’re hard core, man.

WOLFE: It wasn’t that. It sounds hard core. It sounds real romantic and hard-core. I had a car, so I could leave. But Harry Connick was a great experience. I learned a lot and I became a professional musician, in the sense that I was in a lot of situations where I had to deliver and learn to deliver.

TP: Yeah, before 15,000 people.

WOLFE: Learn how to play with a singer, and learn how to play with a band, learn how to play with a bandleader who’s a perfectionist, and he’s a star — learn how to be around a star type, whatever that means. Played with Branford for the first time. It’s funny. All of a sudden you’re on a gig now, and people talk to you in a different way, which is absurd — but that’s just how it is. When you’re just one of the many early-twenties bass players in New York, maybe you play okay, maybe you don’t… But there are hundreds of them. You’re fighting to be heard. All of a sudden, now I’m being heard.

TP: What was it about you that appealed to him?

WOLFE: I think the way I approached the bass was unique at the time, the fact that I was playing acoustically. I think the sound I produced was…

TP: Why was that the way you approach the bass? I’ll bet it scared a lot of people off, too. Maybe that’s one reason it was hard to get the gigs. You’re not following the crowd doing that…

WOLFE: I never followed the crowd. But the thing is, it makes sense.

TP: you don’t follow the crowd, but you get these high profile…

WOLFE: I think that’s very ironic. But the thing is, remember, I’m always hired for what I do, not for somebody needs a bass player. If I audition, I probably won’t get the gig. I never got a gig through an audition, ever. Someone hired me to do what I do.

TP: How did that attitude develop? It’s also not the easiest way to get a sound out of the acoustic bass?

WOLFE: Well, that’s the way that every one of my favorite bass players plays. Paul Chambers. Ray Brown at the time. Ron Carter in the ’60s. Oscar Pettiford. You can name any bass player. Not one of them do I like the way they sound with the amp better than without the amp. That’s just not how it happened. Someone will say, “Well, what if you can’t be heard?” — all these different problems. I wanted to experience those problems that my heroes also experienced. I wanted to experience the strings breaking. I wanted to experience the intonation problems; I certainly still experience them. I wanted to experience a drummer playing too loud and not being able to turn up. I wanted to go through all those things that they went through. That’s partly how it started.

TP: You seriously felt that way.

WOLFE: Oh yeah. I was saying at the time, “You know what? I want to go through those problems also.” With the gut string… I played Dennis Irwin’s bass, and I also played it on a guy’s bass in Oregon, and I said, “Yeah, that sounds like jazz bass ought to sound.” It sounded like the same instrument that’s on the record. Before that I was into Buster Williams and trying to get that kind of sound. That to me is a different thing. But when I put the gut strings on and didn’t have an amplifier, it sounded like the jazz from the records. Not the way I played, but the tone. It’s like hearing a fender Rhodes versus hearing an acoustic piano. If you’re into Bud Powell, the acoustic piano is going to make more sense to you than the Rhodes. The Rhodes is easier. You can turn it up, you can play faster and you can sort of control the sound based on electronics. That’s the same thing with the bass with the amplifier. You can turn it up if the drummer is too loud.

But I think that’s bullshit anyway. Dave Holland once said at a clinic… I remember this. This is going to sound weird, but at his clinic that he gave at Bass Shop, it moved me more than anything I heard him play before or since, hearing him play in his bands. Not that he don’t sound good, but hearing him talk about the bass and how he learned to play and his philosophies was amazing to me. It seems simple now, but like with Tony and Ron, if Tony played too loud and you couldn’t hear the bass, that’s the sound of the music. I totally believe in that philosophy. If the drummer is too loud or someone is too loud and it’s out of balance, it should sound of balance. It shouldn’t be corrected manually that way. So another thing with the amplifiers, they’re just not for me. I don’t think it sounds good. I don’t think it makes the band sound good. And that’s how all my heroes have played.

It also seems to me hat a lot of the bass players who didn’t play with the amps and then switched to the amps, sometimes it seems as if they think that the guys who aren’t doing that are making a mistake, when a lot of times they’re just doing the same thing they did. So if the amp if the answer, then I’m going to find out the same way they found out, going through the same pattern. But I don’t think it is.

I used to always have this conversation with people. I no longer talk about it, because it doesn’t matter. The final product is what counts. To me with amps it doesn’t sound as good. It makes the ride cymbal not sound good. But that’s all part of how to get the final sound.

But Harry Connick liked the fact that I did that. I think he liked the sound I got and the approach.

TP: It probably reminded him of the sound he was hearing from his models.

WOLFE: Maybe so. He was using Reginald Veal before me. It’s funny. We always end up in the same place. Our careers are different, but have been somewhat parallel. We always seem to be in the same places at different times.

TP: That brings us to Wynton, then.

WOLFE: Before Harry hired me, he wanted Wynton to hear me play at first. So I met him that way, and I’d talk to him on the phone every now and then. Eventually, Veal had some dental work done or something, so I subbed for him for like a month, and that’s when the Harry Connick thing, let’s say, dissolved.

TP: The first separation.

WOLFE: [LAUGHS] Yeah, there you go. Then I subbed and I prepared myself… They were real surprised I learned the music. “Wow, you played ‘Citi Movement’ without a rehearsal!” Well, that’s just professional. If one didn’t do that, it’s more like, “Why didn’t you do that?” instead of being celebrated for doing what you’re supposed to do. I mean, I always liked that they were impressed by that, but I didn’t think… I just learned the music. I was just excited to play.

TP: I’m sure with Wynton, if you take care of business, that’s the first principle.

WOLFE: That’s the only thing he cared about, the music. That was a great, great experience, playing with those guys. I loved it. I loved learning the music. And that’s when I was subbing, so it was really…

TP: Now, Harry Connick has a specific piano style and I guess he’s an ear piano player to the Nth degree so the stuff can go anywhere, but there’s a certain level with him that’s about presentation and showmanship. But Wynton is someone who has a very sophisticated and evolved compositional aesthetic. So it’s really two very different experiences.

WOLFE: Oh yeah. Harry at that time was a big band and it was a show. And with Wynton it was playing these ballets he’d written. So it was a whole other thing. It was no show, really. It was just the music. That’s what I loved about it. It was really interesting, playing with those guys. Then when Veal left the band, I took his place for basically two years. I should say one year.

TP: It was a very good year, though. Because when you hear this Vanguard record you can hear how his concept honed itself in in ’93, to the last stuff with Veal and the stuff you’re on in ’94.

WOLFE: I didn’t know it would sound that good when I heard it. Really I love it. I thought we sounded okay. I had no idea we sounded as good as we do on that CD. It was a good band.

In that band we did this tour of In This House, On This Morning, which was wild for me. Long-form composition, custom-made for Reginald Veal. I was always trying to play the music correctly and not be Veal at the same time. But looking back, I was still going through trying to find out where I was at musically. I was still going through this struggle with myself at that time with Wynton, and still learning a lot, and wasn’t as formed in what I wanted to do. I was still taking in a lot of information from him. In that band… What was the question?

TP: It seems that band was the first time you were involved in a very sophisticated, high aspiration, compositional entity. And these records are all about composition, really, or at least finding compositions where the personalities of your cohorts, Magnarelli and Gould can be expressed. So I’m curious how the experience with Wynton inflected your compositional attitudes in let’s say 13 Sketches.

WOLFE: Well, all this time we’re talking, I’m writing music. So the whole time, my career is one thing and what I’m trying to do is another thing. That’s been going on the whole time. I’ve always been writing music. Ned Goold and I are always playing together, original music, every day, since I got to New York. That’s always been happening and is still happening. That’s what I do. That’s the reality of who I really am as far as what I’m trying to do, and then the career is something else. That’s like half of it. It’s the half everyone sees.

TP: It’s also part of who you are. It’s all going in there.

WOLFE: Oh, definitely. But with Wynton, I was in a band now… When I was actually in the band, when I wasn’t subbing any more, I thought I was part of something important. It was great. It was like a real family, this band. It still feels that way when I go back and see them. It feels like family. I love that about that group. I always felt that’s what a band should be like. I really felt like I was part of something and I felt welcomed.

TP: Also, you were the first white guy who was ever part of the circle…

WOLFE: That’s not really true. I was the first white guy permanently hired in the Septet. Lincoln Center had white guys, and some piano players… I think Peter Martin played some gigs with Wynton. But that was NEVER an issue! Never an issue except for the issue around it. But the funny thing was, with all this stuff of Wynton being a racist or whatever you read, when I was in his band, no one ever asked me about it. No one in the press, no one in interviews, not one time ever suggested, “Well, he’s got Ben Wolfe in the band; he’s white.” It never came up. It was bizarre. It never came out of the band, except for people making idiotic statements after the gigs. It was never really an issue, other than like private jokes among the band out of love. Both ways. But that was never an issue. That was the most get-along band I’ve ever been with. There were more issues with things in the Harry Connick band. It was great, just like being part of a little family. We got along for the most part. We played music all the time. I never felt like an outsider. I mean, it’s like you see a basketball team. If there’s a white guy, they’re going not to be thought of as different. They’re like a team. It was never a problem, or an issue… It didn’t even really come up, other than… It really was never a thing.

TP: Did being with Wynton affect your compositional sense, your sense of maybe orchestration or…

WOLFE: Wynton had a huge influence on me.

TP: You’re also in LCJO at this point.

WOLFE: Before and after.

TP: It seems to me that one thing that’s really valuable at LCJO for Wynton is that he got to really get into the building blocks of jazz from the inside-out, because he had the scores and had to play the music in an idiomatic manner. So he’s playing Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Armstrong, Monk, the whole nine from the inside out in a way that most of your contemporaries, really starting from your generation, didn’t have a chance to do.

WOLFE: True enough. I see that. To me, I always like it best when Wynton plays Wynton Marsalis. I’d rather hear Lincoln Center play his music any time.

TP: But his music is very informed by those…

WOLFE: yeah, but it doesn’t sound like that. I don’t think his music sounds anything like Duke Ellington’s music. That’s the one common thing through all his records that I recognize, and I… Always, if I’m attracted to anything, it’s his composition. People always debate his playing…

TP: I think he has his own language, but… For instance, Blood on the Fields, those soli passages by the trumpets, are his own language, but the building blocks seem very much a 21st Century type of concept.

WOLFE: That’s what people say. I don’t hear it like that. He’s influenced by some Beethoven also. I don’t hear people say “Beethoven!” Obviously, he’s deeply into Duke Ellington, obviously, and it influenced him, clearly, but I… Going back to what we were talking about not being impressed by technique, I’m more interested in hearing the part… I tend to hear what’s him in the music.

TP: What was your attitude to playing that music?

WOLFE: I love playing Wynton’s music. You mean Duke Ellington’s music?

TP: Well, playing Wynton’s music and the J@LC experience of playing… Well, he doesn’t like it to be called repertory, and I don’t really think of it like that, but playing… Look, you’re out there sitting in the shoes of Jimmy Blanton.

WOLFE: It was great to play it at first. But I’m at the point now where I don’t want to play other people’s music.

TP: But put yourself in your shoes back then to how it’s inflected you now.

WOLFE: Okay, that makes sense. I think playing his music affected me more than playing Duke Ellington’s music. Because I’ve always heard Duke Ellington’s music, and I used to listen to Duke Ellington all the time, and I love Duke Ellington. You know, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly it influenced me, especially Wynton’s music. Because the way I write is different. He writes a lot thicker than I do. He writes real thick sometimes, and I don’t do it the same way. The thing I liked that Wynton used to do, which maybe influenced me but is something I’ve probably always been into anyway, is he would assign emotions to music sometimes. He would say things like, “This is about so-and-so.” He would express what’s happening in a non-musical way, what the music represents. That’s something I’m very much into, completely into. A lot of his conceptual things I learned, from being around him so much — the way he would talk to the band, the way he would say like the rests… Little things he would say influenced me a lot. The way he thought of music. The way he approached everything the same. Whether he was soloing or playing the written part, it was all jazz to him. And the whole ensemble concept influenced me, and that’s something I’m very much into also, the way of an ensemble still sounding like jazz, even if it’s not… Even if it’s written, if parts are written. His whole work ethic also. But it’s hard to pinpoint how playing the Ellington music influenced me. I mean, hearing it…

TP: Or Jelly Roll Morton or Monk…

WOLFE: I mean, I’ve always loved Monk. I’ve been into Monk since I’ve played music. That’s something I’ve always connected to, just the rhythm of Monk’s band, the way they play rhythms.

TP: But here you’re actually doing. You’re going on the road with this music and playing it a lot. It has to affect you. Or not.

WOLFE: I’m not sure exactly how playing all the Duke Ellington music affected me. Because at that point, I’ve already been on the road a lot playing a lot of different music. So I’m not sure how that affected me. Playing Wynton’s music affected me because it was a challenge to play it well, and try to find my own way of playing and also play it correctly. I think I gained more from playing Wynton’s music than Duke Ellington’s music. I think if I were in Duke Ellington’s band, I would get more from playing Duke Ellington’s music than playing… Like, if you’re in Duke Ellington’s band, you’re going to gain more playing Duke’s music than playing someone else’s music. You know what I mean? Not that I didn’t gain from it. It was great to play all those parts, all the Jimmy Blanton parts, all the Oscar Pettiford parts you’ve heard on records.

TP: But you’re inside-out with the architecture of the music.

WOLFE: In a way. But I’ve heard it. I’ve heard a lot of the music before. It was just getting a chance to play it. I’m not sure how much… It would be kind of like playing Charlie Parker’s music. I mean, listening to it I might gain more than playing his tunes. Maybe.

TP: More accurately, though, might be Dizzy Gillespie and being inside of the band.

WOLFE: That I wish we would do, play more of those tunes. Well, it’s hard to say. I’m sure it affected me. But I didn’t like break it down and go inside and study the scores. I just played the music.

TP: Is that not the way you approach music, like breaking it down into minutiae?

WOLFE: Not always. Not as much as others, I should say.

TP: When do you leave Wynton?

WOLFE: I finished in Wynton at the end of ’95; the septet breaks up and I do another year with Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. I’m also playing with Benny Green at that time and Eric Reed, and doing other little things in and out at this point. And I went back with Harry before I went back with Wynton. When I subbed for Wynton, and then joined his band, in between I played with Benny Green and Harry Connick — and Marcus Roberts, a little bit. Little pockets of things I was doing.

TP: A few words about Benny Green and Marcus Roberts, who are two of the most visible pianists of the era.

WOLFE: Well, I met Benny… Our high school band did a concert together when we were seniors in high school. We didn’t meet then but we saw each other. Craig Handy was in that band also. But we’ve played together in different situations, and we’re good friends. We played in the trio with Kareem Riggins playing free jazz! He was breaking out of the Oscar Peterson mold. He’s something else. I love Benny Green. I love his musicianship. I think he’s a great musician. We played over here at the house, myself, Ned Goold, Benny Green and Rodney Green, this young drummer. He’s my favorite drummer in New York. I love his drumming! We played over here, and it felt so good that I would loved to just give up all career and just do that. I would have actually done that! I’d have said “just do this.” Everyone was like, “Wow, this really feels good.” [ETC.] Benny and I talked yesterday on the phone. We have long, real conversations actually.

I played with Marcus for a very short time. We went on the road and rehearsed. I think Marcus is a really funny guy. He makes me laugh. I dig Marcus, and I really respect the fact that he’s trying to do something. He’s an artist. He’s not just trying to get over and sell records. Because he could easily associate himself with Wynton completely and just be that. And I don’t know what he did, but it seemed like he consciously removed himself to try to stand on his own two feet or whatever, which I respect and like.

TP: He makes some outlandish claims for himself, but then you get past it.

WOLFE: But he’s trying to do something. All his records, he seems to be trying… Which is more than most people do.

TP: You’ve played a lot with Eric Reed.

WOLFE: He’s one of these super-talented guys. He just can play anything. Yeah, we played a lot together, with different drummers… In fact, me and Eric Reed and Greg Hutchinson, I thought we had a great trio. I really liked that combination.

TP: Were you on that first record he did?

WOLFE: I’m on two records. The first Impulse record I’m on half and Ron Carter is on the other half, and the record before that me and Rodney split.

TP: So you leave Rodney in ’95 and you do your first record in ’96..

WOLFE: Yeah, I’m playing with Eric Reed at that time. I did my first record then. I’m doing a lot of gigs at Smalls with little… And I’m doing little gigs at the Village Gate. All through this time I’m doing little gigs. I’m writing a lot of music.

TP: So no matter how up on the feeding chain you get, you’re not losing your connection to the lifeblood.

WOLFE: I’m doing more. Every gig I’ve been doing feeds into that one way or another, whether it’s financially or learning things. With Wynton I learned a lot about writing. I don’t know what I learned. I can’t tell you what it was. But I learned a lot being around him. But I’m writing a lot of music during all this time. I spent a lot of time at the piano writing a lot of music, writing a lot of ballads.

TP: Was your first record a collection of things you’d been writing over the years or did you write stuff for the project?

WOLFE: Both. I had so much music, I just tried to record as much as I could.

TP: A bit about Magnarelli and about Ned Goold.

WOLFE: Joe Magnarelli was my neighbor when I lived on Thompson Street. He always seemed like he wanted to be there in my group. Like, the first time I hired him… I was at the Village Gate, I hired him for the weekend, and he came in on the Wednesday to sit in and had everything memorized. He’s real diligent, hard-working. I’ve known him for years, and he has improved so much as a trumpet player. Tardo Hammer once said to me, “Man, the first time I heard Joe Magnarelli, he sounded terrible, he was awful, and now he’s my favorite trumpet player.” He made this HUGE…like bang. But he works hard.

TP: Joe has a specific timbre to his sound, and it’s coming out of K.D. and Tommy Turrentine, but it’s his thing. Is that a sound you relate to a lot? Is it imprinted on you from early listening?

WOLFE: I don’t know. When Joe is playing good, there’s something about it… It just sounds good. He plays much different than I play. He seems to think a lot differently. I still don’t think Joe has really become what he’s going to be yet. I still think he’s fighting. Something is in his way. I really believe that. I’m not sure what it is. There’s a certain view he has seen yet into how to make music, and he’s still trying to figure out the instrument even though he can already do that. I think that’s his thing that he struggles with. But you can’t put that in there, but it would sound like I’m putting down my man. But I think that’s something with Joe, that he’s still not…which is somewhat frustrating.

TP: How about for you?

WOLFE: For me?

TP: Yeah, these two records… How do you see this new…

WOLFE: Well, on the first record, the bass playing is terrible. I didn’t play any bass on it. I wasn’t thinking about the bass on it. I wasn’t thinking about the bass. I was thinking about the record and about the music, and I didn’t play the bass well on that record at all. I didn’t like the way it sounded. I mean, except for a couple of tunes. But overall, I forgot to play the bass on the record. And the second record, I practiced a lot and I think I played the bass better. I didn’t solo very well, but I played the bass better. I think if you were to combine both the records, take a few tunes from each record, you’d have one record that I could live with forever. Each record has a few tunes that I’ll never wish were different. I can say that for both records. The second record I think was far superior to the first record. But it’s still not successful all the way, just like the first one.

TP: What would make it successful all the way?

WOLFE: Well, the first tunes of both records are successful. They sound good. I don’t wish something was different. They sound like music. I stay in the music. A lot of tunes didn’t come out conceptually the way I would have liked them to. Which is not… That’s normal, I suppose. Both records were done in one day, very quickly. A lot of tunes. The sound of the second record is better. I got a great sound in the studio on the second one, I felt. I really liked the bass sound for the most part on the second record.

TP: Again, was that first record something you wrote for the date, or had you been collecting tunes over the years?

WOLFE: In the two or three years before that record came out, I was writing differently. I was writing as if I was a composer as much as a bass player, versus being a bass player who wrote music and loved to write music. I was writing as a composer, a lot of music. So that record is kind of a product of a lot of that music, and it’s finding some kind of voice as a writer. The second record is a much more refined version of the first record. Each record I learned something. The first record I had trombone; the second record I had the baritone saxophone. They’re similar actually, but the second record is a little more realized, I guess.

TP: Talk about some of your compositional influences.

WOLFE: Billy Strayhorn is a huge compositional influence on me. Mingus, the way he wrote ballads. Yusef Lateef, from the Paul Chambers record First Bassman. Duke Ellington influenced me as a writer. Charlie Parker influenced me as a writer.

TP: On first blush, they sound like Bebop records, which isn’t like a lot of guys in your generation.

WOLFE: I’m definitely from that well. I don’t want to play Charlie Parker’s music every night, because he did that. I don’t want to play my influences’ music every night. But he’s a huge influence on me. And the rhythm of Bebop, the rhymes of it are definitely a big part of my writing.

TP: You also do some very hip substitutions. One of the tunes on 13 Sketches is “Little Willie Leaps,” very cleverly disguised.

WOLFE: Yeah, “All God’s Children Got Rhythm,” “Blind Seven.” That’s written for Sherman Irby. We used to play some card game, Blind Seven. Another tune on that record is based loosely on “Dewey Square”. Every tune on that 13 Sketches is a description of something, of a person or a situation. M Mostly people. Every single tune. The second record is pretty much descriptions of situations or people. The second record is more like a soundtrack for a movie without a movie, which is something I really want to do — and I just did something actually for this guy’s student film, with a 17-piece band, with strings and clarinets. I love that. That’s what I want to do. I want to write, compose and play the music.

TP: There’s some very specific technique involved with that, making the stuff fit the frames-per-second.

WOLFE: Well, this wasn’t that kind of thing. I don’t really care so much about that. I just want to write.

TP: When did you start with Diana Krall?

WOLFE: I played with Diana Krall for two years, and that ended a year ago, and I played with Harry Connick for the summer, and with Ned Goold as the opening act. We did that also, which was tremendous. A live record should be coming out. And I’m back with Diana now, as of a month ago.

TP: Again, it’s one of the highest visibility gigs…

WOLFE: It’s a good band. Right now it’s Dan Fanley, a guitar player from Oregon, and Shannon Powell, who used to play drums with Harry back when I played with him years ago. It’s nice. We just play tunes and try to swing. We’re not trying to change the world. But in a way, I like that it’s not trying to change the world. Because I have my own vision and that’s what I want to pursue. So every time I do a gig with someone, I’m like helping someone pursue their vision, so to speak. This is easier, in a way. I don’t mean this to sound bad. I play with Wynton, as much as I love playing with him, it’s a reminder of so much what I want to do and what I’m not doing. I’m seeing him do it, which is great. And in a way, Harry Connick, too, because he writes a new song every day and has his own band to play it. So it’s like, okay, why am I the guy in the band? I don’t want to be the guy in the band. I don’t feel like I should be, but who does? But I really believe in the music I write, as much as I believe in my bass playing — equally. With Diana, it’s we’re playing standards and just trying to make people feel good every night, so it’s a good gig to have for me, especially as far as keeping my frustrations intact. I get very frustrated on the bandstand sometimes. You should ask Benny Green; he’ll tell you.

TP: With other people’s imperfections?

WOLFE: With everything. I just see things more and more so clearly how I think they should be, or how I’d like them to be, and I’m still learning how as a sideman to realize I’m not either… Play the gig or don’t play the gig, but don’t make it your band, because it’s not my band. But I feel these things so strongly, and sometimes they’re really… To some people they would seem so small. Like the way a drummer holds his stick in his left hand. If he’s playing (?), it drives me crazy. I can’t play with it. It drives me nuts. It’s little things that most people don’t even notice. so I’m still trying to figure it out. That’s why I need to be a bandleader.

TP: One thing about being a sideman, there’s a level where music is also narrative, and if you’re playing with a singer you’re evoking these very palpable stories. you seem to think of it that way in terms of your tunes…

WOLFE: I think of it that way sonically, not so much verbally. But that’s true also. I don’t really know a lot of lyrics to tunes, though I should. When Diana’s playing the song I know them, but I probably couldn’t tell you the lyrics to the tunes afterwards. But when they’re being sung, I hear them go by, and I’m aware of them. But when the song is over, I don’t remember what they are.

TP: Does being around lyrics all the time for two years have anything to do with putting images for…

WOLFE: No. Reading books about Picasso… I read a book called Picasso on Art, talking about his views and people saying things that he had said — and that influenced me greatly. It’s hard for me to describe. I’m certainly not a painter, and I don’t want to sound presumptuous. I don’t know enough about… Well, you can look at his paintings different ways and see different things. I love the whole concept of duality; is it a tree, is it a woman… I love that kind of stuff? And I write that way. There’s a tune on the first record called “Ursula’s Dance” where it has two melodies. The melody could be a melody, it could be a counter-melody — it can be heard either way. It’s not important how one hears it, but it could be viewed differently. But that way of having things have dual meanings. I put a lot of stuff in my tunes just for me, that no one would ever in a million years notice, where I quote myself, or I’ll put a certain melody or chord or rhythm I used in other tunes, almost like as a marker for myself, so I know… I have a lot of things like that. My titles will have other meanings that are never… My mother once said to me, “You know, your titles are great if you know what they mean.” But no one could ever know what they mean. In the book, one thing that struck me was Picasso… Some students were talking about trying to draw the perfect circle, they’d spend hours trying to get a perfect circle. He said, “No, just draw the circle, and your personality will be in that circle every time.” I love that way of thinking, sort of little, witty, clever conceptual ideas.

I think music is of the brain, not of the instrument, and that’s what drives me crazy today, is people don’t play that way. Jazz just isn’t happening any more. It just isn’t, at least… I’m not saying I am either. But it seems to me that a very small percentage of jazz musicians have a jazz sound.

TP: What is a jazz sound?

WOLFE: I knew you were going to ask me that. It’s hard for me to explain. Maybe it’s some sort of consciousness of the sound between the sounds, the space between the notes, a way of hearing… I don’t know how to hear it.

TP: Bennie Wallace was saying that about a Sonny Rollins solo, the space between the beats, the pitches between…

WOLFE: The in between. There’s like air, and it’s relaxed and it’s swinging. I don’t know really how to describe it, but I know that it doesn’t seem to exist as much now. It seems like these days, for the most part, you have people expressing some sort of ability on their instruments, which I think is sometimes very suspect in what they think of as ability, and different versions or imitations of the ’60s, and calling that modern. The ’60s is a lot closer to the ’40s than it is to here. Or you have people picking their eras and imitating them, and ignoring the others, and it’s like all about which era one is… How they’re imitating which era in what way. Which is bullshit, really. I mean, it’s a way to learn, but the people they’re imitating weren’t doing that. Monk certainly wasn’t doing that. You can find his influences, but he sounded very fresh. Bird wasn’t doing that. I mean, he wasn’t trying to imitate Prez’ bag. Prez wasn’t doing that. Duke wasn’t doing that. They all had a vision, they were trying to find… Ornette. All of them. Coltrane’s band in the ’60s… How many bands now, how musicians do you hear trying to sound like Coltrane’s band in the ’60s? I mean, if you look at it… A lot of drummers are trying to sound like Elvin. Right? When I first came to New York, everyone was Tony, Ron and Herbie, and everywhere you’d go, every piano player was Herbie Hancock. It’s like why?

TP: But then a lot of guys got past that. A lot of guys who did that 12 years ago sort of found their own take on it. You don’t think so.

WOLFE: I don’t. I hear so many Herbie Hancocks, man, out there. That’s nothing against Herbie, but that’s not what Herbie was doing. That’s not the lesson with your heros. The lesson isn’t how to sound like Paul Chambers. The lesson is how to sound like yourself. How did Paul Chambers sound like Paul Chambers? He didn’t sound like everyone else. You hear him, “Oh, that’s Paul Chambers,” “Oh, that’s Bud Powell,” “Oh, that’s Sidney Bechet,” “Oh, that’s Bird.” Why are they such beacons?

TP: So you’re saying you can’t listen to that many people and identify them as them.

WOLFE: Well, everyone says the same thing. Everyone says the same thing, everyone plays the same way, everyone talks the same way. Everyone’s trying to be this “jazz musician,” and no one is trying to be an artist. And I hate that. I mean, I could care less about that. I don’t care, man. Being a jazz musician and playing jazz seem to be two different things. We can go out and be cool and talk hip and shake hands and dress nice and talk about so-and-so-‘s killin’ and not really mean it, and say, “Hey, yeah, let’s get together” and not really mean it… All that stuff is all bullshit. It means nothing. It might be fun t go to the Vanguard and be cool and have Lorraine fuck with you, all those things, the whole jazz world… All that is nothing, man! It means nothing. I mean, it’s fun and it’s a lifestyle, but it means nothing — absolutely nothing. What means something is what one is actually producing and I think most people aren’t even trying to produce much. Not really. You certainly can’t compare the records now with the records of the past. They don’t hold up well in any way, in playing, in sound, in creativity. They just don’t. My records included, believe me. I’m much more attracted to people trying to do something.

TP: Who do you like?

WOLFE: I like Ned Goold. That’s who I respect the most. Him and Wynton are the two people I respect the most, by far.

TP: Who else do you like?

WOLFE: Who else do I like? It’s dangerous, because when I say who I like I have to preface each time… I don’t like a lot of people the way I like Monk or the way I like whoever. I like the way Veal plays the bass. If I had to pick one bass player I like, I would pick him, because when I hear him play, he sounds like a character. I hear his personality. I don’t hear him just trying to be somebody or just trying to be professional. I would pick him over all the rest of them, if I had to pick one person. Of all the bass players you could name, I could tell you things I like about them and things I don’t like about them. Everyone one of them I could say what I like and don’t like.

Another thing is, I hear a lot of arrogance in music, that I hate. I can only describe it, it sounds arrogant… The sound of conceit, I hate. If that makes any sense. When I hear Monk, I don’t hear that. I guess Freddie Hubbard or Lee Morgan are very bravado. But when I hear like Bird… To me, what I hear. I’m not saying how they are as people. But I don’t hear it as arrogance in the music. It sounds like it’s a humble artistic gesture to take it, and do what you want — you like it or you don’t or whatever. It is what it is, like a poem or something. A lot of times now everything seems real arrogant, and I find that offensive in music. I probably sound arrogant right now talking this way, and it could be construed like I’m talking down…

TP: Well, it sounds a bit like flailing against the wind. There’s a reality and you’re in this reality…

WOLFE: I don’t feel part of the reality. I feel like it’s my job to do these gigs. But I don’t feel connected with the jazz scene that way. I don’t feel like they’re my peers in certain ways. Not really.

TP: Do you feel you have a peer group?

WOLFE: Ned. No, not really. I don’t look at it that way. I’m just trying to find a way to get to do my thing, and hopefully develop it and hopefully have a chance of being great. I want to have a chance to be great. I’m definitely not anywhere near that. The whole music business… See, now I’m getting dark, man. But I really believe these things. And I don’t dislike people. But I don’t go out and buy a lot of jazz records, because they don’t appeal to me. I put the jazz radio on a lot, and every now and then I hear something I like. It’s funny, when I hear something I like I’m afraid to give it a second listen, because I’m afraid I won’t like it the second time. Like, I heard something a few years ago and I thought, “Wow, this is interesting; I like this.” It was John Zorn live with that Masada group. I’d never heard anything from him other than that one tune, and I was almost afraid to hear anything more because I was so satisfied by it. I haven’t forgotten it since. I like Wynton. I like a lot of what it stands for.

TP: It sounds like some of what you’re looking for is in avant-garde music you haven’t gone to in your career stuff. I hear a lot of individuality there.

WOLFE: Oh, what I’m doing in my career is nothing at all what I would do if I was doing my own thing. It’s just that’s what I do for a living. And I enjoy doing it. You’ve never heard my band probably.

TP: No, just these records.

WOLFE: That’s a small part of it. I write all the time. That’s what I want too do. Whether it’s avant-garde… The music I want to play is based on principles of how one thinks on the bandstand. Like, the intention of the music is as important as music itself. It’s funny. I was talking to somebody, and it was a common argument about opinions. “Well, if someone like it, then it’s good. If it makes someone feel good, then it must be good.” I said, “Yeah, but you can lie and make someone feel good. You can tell someone they’re beautiful, you can tell them you love them, you can tell them they’re this and they’re that — and be lying to them and make them feel good. But the intention was not good.” And I think that’s important. In music I think you can lie and you can impress, and I don’t like that. I kind of have a… When I make my records, for better or worse, I try not to think at all business-like. The first record someone said, “Maybe you should put a couple of standards on there.” I don’t care if it sells one record. I’m not going to put something on there in order to make it sell. I refuse to do that. I do enough of that as a sideman. I’m a hired gun, so to speak. But when I’m doing my own thing, I refuse to do it for that reason. What people hear is going to be honest.

TP: There’s a notion of genre that goes to Hollywood studio directors who made great art within those forms. There’s an element of that in jazz as well. I mean, just playing the function, if you do it with your personality, then that becomes a statement in and of itself.

WOLFE: True enough. That’s true. I agree. But I need more control than just being put in it. For my best work, I need to be more than just a bass player. Mingus was like that. I’m not comparing myself to that. But he wasn’t just a bass player.

TP: It’s an interesting dichotomy, because you’re so successful as a sideman.

WOLFE: Successful in one regard. Paul Chambers, I’m not like him.

TP: I’m not talking about the aesthetics. As far as your career, 99.5% of the bass players out there would kill to have the gigs you have.

WOLFE: No, and I’m glad I have them, because I need to make money and I need to be out there, and I need to pursue what I’m trying to do. Because no one is going to pay for my 17-piece record. Which is fine.

TP: So that’s sort of a Connick attitude, in a certain way, which I believe Connick is telling half the truth when he says that half of what he does is so he can put the band out there so he can write his music.

WOLFE: I think that’s true, but he’s a complicated figure. It’s hard, because you have to learn… By playing these gigs that I’m doing, it makes it easier to not be disgusted by who is chosen to do their own thing. When I see who is getting to write their music, and I see people who are being celebrated for whatever reason they say they’re celebrating them, when I know that’s not really what’s happening… You can become so frustrated that you don’t want to be part of anything, and that’s not the way to get what you want to do. You have to accept that that’s the world, that’s Corporate America. But at the same time, I always got to things from a different route. I can’t do what everyone else does. That way doesn’t work for me. And I don’t want to be part of that anyway.

[PAUSE]

No piano. Well, the music I write is definitely not bass-oriented. It’s all written on the piano. Most all of my tunes are solo piano pieces that I’ve written on the piano, arranged for the band. When I have a piano it’s so… Well, I’ll probably have more piano in the future. But it’s so definitely what I ask from a piano player as far as the voicings, that it’s almost… I’ve decided for a while to have the piano…to try to arrange it for the band. But I do love having piano. But I want a piano player to be a third rhythm section, not run the show… It just hasn’t happened yet. It’s not like I don’t want piano. It just hasn’t happened.

TP: Is that analogy to Mingus’ mid-’50s music accurate? Did you listen to it a lot?

WOLFE: I haven’t studied it, but I’ve heard it and I feel a connection to it, especially “Self Portrait in Three Colors,” the ballad. That influenced me a lot, just that ballad, the use of the trombone in it. In fact, the way Mingus kind of played hard. He played hard, with a lot of ass, for lack of a better word, and wrote music that was really beautiful and pretty. That combination I could kind of relate to in a sense. People think of Mingus as being rough, but his music is really beautiful. I can relate to that in a certain way.

[-30-]Wolfe-Panken (8-8-01):

TP: First, since we last talked, which was about 18 months ago, what’s new? Then you were just leaving Connick and starting to go out with Krall.

WOLFE: I started working with Diana again, and we started touring like crazy, and I started planning this new CD of mine. That’s pretty much been my life since then. That CD originally was going to be doing something real quick, and it turned into the biggest project I’ve ever done. I wrote a lot of music and recorded it in a real unique way, and I’m real happy with it actually. That’s what I’ve been doing, trying to do my work for that. It’s out now, and…

TP: Have been with Krall this whole time?

WOLFE: I’ve been with her a little less than two years. This young drummer, Rodney Green has been playing. We’ve become a real team. It’s nice to play with a drummer like that. He’s unique in the fact that he gets a great sound on the drums. At that age you don’t hear that so often. A real developed tone quality, which personally I love, being a big fan of the drums.

TP: So more or less, it’s been either you’re touring with Krall or putting together this new music on your downtime.

WOLFE: Yes. I want to write for some films. That’s one of the things I want to do. But I spend a lot of time writing… I’m already planning my next record, writing music for it, for whenever that does come around. I’ve been writing actually for full orchestra.

TP: Will the tunes be more filled-out? It seems with each record, you’re treating the tunes more and more minimally and more through-composed. Some of the tunes here seem a bit sketchy, but maybe that’s the imaginary film aspect.

WOLFE: Here’s the way I think of it. I write all my music on the piano. Almost like little solo piano pieces. Then I arrange them for different combinations of instruments based on the instrument and the person playing. I try to arrange them and write them for a different sound. I think of the instruments almost like characters. The way I describe my writing these days is chamber music within a jazz context. Like, I might use cello… I’m writing a piece now, an half-hour five-movement extended work, for a concert in Oregon that I’m producing, and I have the sextet I use, which will be bass-drums-piano-trumpet-tenor saxophone-baritone sax/flute. For this long piece I’m adding three classical musicians, an opera singer soprano, a cello player, and a tubist. So it will be 9 musicians.

TP: You described Murray’s Steps as an imaginary film. Can you describe that film?

WOLFE: Well, it’s not so much that I pick a story. I just put it together as if it was for a film. The way the CD is set up, it starts off with this particular tune, the same tune it ends with, almost I imagine like the credits rolling, or on the way out I imagine people leaving a theater from a play. It’s that whole experience. The first tune is a short little introduction, almost like an overture, coming into the experience. The second tune is a little interlude that introduces the characters, so to speak, and some of the sounds I’m using throughout the record. And then the third tune is almost like the first tune of the record. I’m trying to write it like an experience, like a journey, so to speak. I tried to put it together almost like a suite, in how the tunes go together. I spent a lot time figuring out how much stuff between the tunes.

TP: Who would you say are some of your compositional influences? You’re obviously mixing a lot of information, a lot of perspectives, or interpreting or reformualtion… There’s a lot of information being distilled here.

WOLFE: When I write, I don’t really write in terms of trying to write like anybody, so to speak. The influences I think you hear would be Billy Strayhorn, Duke Elllington, Monk, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker. It’s definitely jazz music. I like arranging. I like putting stuff together and finding different types of harmonic movements and arranging to find different sounds that sound good to me. Basically, when I write, I just find what sounds good to me. I like thinking of it as jazz ensemble music versus somebody who’s blowing on top of a rhythm section. I’ve never been real attracted to that, unless it’s done in its finest sense, the way I like it, when it always sounds like a group — it doesn’t sound like someone getting off on top of a rhythm section.

TP: Well, you had a lot of good experience with ensemble playing in your couple of years with Wynton.

WOLFE: I learned a lot from Wynton, because he was writing a lot of ensemble type music, with solos in it, of course. But it’s more about the whole thing versus the soloists. I like the thought of jazz music being ensemble music, whereas… That’s what it really is to me. Unless it’s that one person playing, to me what makes it beautiful is the connection of the musicians and how they play together, not so much what they’re playing by themselves, but how they play together.

TP: So what you’re describing must be part of the satisfaction of playing with Diana Krall — apart from it being a great gig.

WOLFE: My sideman work is something to me that’s totally separate than what I’m doing on my own — or trying to do. It’s like a whole different thing. It’s a different perspective from the bass, from everything. When I’m hired as a sideman with Diana or whomever… It depends who it is, of course. But to me, when I’m playing with Diana, it’s about her vision, it’s about her conception, and it’s about what she’s trying to do. I’m there to help realize her musical vision, so to speak.

TP: How would you describe her musical vision and how you fit into it?

WOLFE: She doesn’t do much original music, but mostly we do standards, beautiful lsongs she likes to sing. My job is to play good supportive bass, to play good notes and hopefully keep it swinging. Just to pretty much play good rhythm section bass.

TP: If people notice what you’re doing, you’re probably doing something wrong.

WOLFE: Maybe. For me, on a gig like that, the challenge is that you have to put your ego in check. You can’t go on there and just try to get off and play all your stuff. For me, any gig where you’re working for somebody, especially a singer, you’ve got to figure out what your role is and your little area in the music, and find a way to be supportive and give the leader what they want, what they’re looking for, and at the same time keep your integrity intact and try to find ways of being expressive and creative within the context of what the the leader is doing.

TP: You’re referring to your area of music within the ensemble.

WOLFE: Within the ensemble, exactly. If she’s singing, I need to play good notes that will make her comfortable when she’s singing, or make the rhythm feel good so that she’s comfortable. I mean, it would be the same just playing for a soloist, if the soloist was a leader. But whereas I’m playing bass in my group, or my music, I’m kind of driving from the bass. If this is my vision, I hate to say I have more freedom, but I have a little more…

TP: You have a more control.

WOLFE: I have much more control because I’m trying to realize my vision of how I view music and my conception of how I would like it to be.

TP: You’ve cited Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford and Ron Carter as your favorite bassists…

WOLFE: P.C. is my all-time favorite. Also Jimmy Blanton.

TP: Except for Blanton, all of of them at least led records if not groups. Do you think of yourself as a composer who plays bass or as a bassist who’s a composer?

WOLFE: I think of myself… The closest bass player to what I do would probably be Mingus.

TP: In that Mingus wrote this programmatic music.

WOLFE: That’s what I try to. I think of myself as a bass player and as a composer equally. They’re both as important and they’re both needed for each other for my doing what I really want to do. Now when I’m playing with Diana Krall, I’m not there as a composer. I’m there as a bass player. I’m doing my job as her bass player. When I’m doing my own thing, I do everything. It might sound like a control freak kind of thing. But I write all the music, I arrange all the music, I do everything that I can do. As much as is capable for me to do, I will do.

TP: But you’re working all the time, by present-day standards. With Wynton you worked a lot, with Connick you were on the road a lot, with Diana Krall you’re on the road a lot. A lot of your quotidian, a lot of your daily life is involved in playing that music . I’m wondering how much your activity as a sideman impacts your ideas compositionally. Is it a totally separate thing?

WOLFE: I think it all goes together. Obviously, when I was playing with Wynton, I was watching… His vision is so strong and he was doing… I did tours with him playing these long pieces, In This House and Citi Movement. These are long original compositions where he was doing his thing. It wasn’t just playing tunes. It was definite large compositions, which was different than playing with Diana where we’re doing these songs with arrangements. They’re just songs. Great songs. But obviously playing tunes from the Nat Cole songbook in a quartet or a trio is much different than playing a ballet that Wynton wrote.

TP: But all of it becomes part of your experience.

WOLFE: It all becomes part of my experience. But even playing with Wynton, it’s still I’m the bass player playing his…

TP: But all I’m saying is that the information, the actual things that you’re playing, coming from your fingers, the sound of it, the ambiance of it…I’m wondering how that inflects… Does it become part and parcel of your identity as a composer or is that identity something very separate?

WOLFE: I think it’s something very separate. Two completely separate things. But I do think all musical experiences influence each other. But when I’m playing with Diana it’s a whole different head space than when I’m playing with my own band.

TP: That said, how much are you able to play with your own band?

WOLFE: On December 28th I am producing a concert of my music in Portland, Oregon, in a place there called the Old Church, which is literally an old church, 200 or 300 seats. It’s a beautiful place, and they do a lot of chamber music concerts there. I’m premiering this five-movement piece there. Now, this is one night in December, and it’s already a big part of my life now. That’s something I get completely wrapped-up in. I’m completely into it. It’s a whole nother head space for me. Because it’s an opportunity to really do what I do. For me, when I’m playing with my own group or making a record or writing, I feel like that’s really what I do, that that’s my for-real musical personality. When I’m working with someone else, it’s what I do and who I am, but it’s not as complete a thing.

TP: Do you find this frustrating? It seems like if you become a bandleader, it’s going to be a while before you’re able either to afford to do it, put in the time to make that a truth in the marketplace, in the real world economics you live by, or get the recognition to have some demand for it.

WOLFE: I don’t want to stop playing as a sideman right now. I can’t afford to do that right now. But by playing with Diana, it enables me not to have to worry about trying to find little gigs when we’re off. I can spend all my time writing. But I like the idea of doing both at the same time. Of course, if I had it my way, I would only play with my band. That would be what I do. But that’s not a reality right now, at this point in time. I do think I have something tangible to offer, though, as a leader. It’s just a matter of getting the opportunity to do it. But I feel patient, and I really believe in what I’m doing. It’s not like I’m, “Boy, I sure would like to be a bandleader.” I really believe in what I’m trying to do, and it’s the most important thing in the world to me. I’m patient about it because I’m always working on it. I’m always writing. I have three CDs out now. So there’s evidence of the work I’ve been doing. So it’s not frustrating at this point. I think that if I never get to do it,, that would be very frustrating. But I believe I will get to.

TP: Why are you doing so much of this work in Portland. I know it’s where you’re from. But is it a certain rapport you have with those musicians? Is it harder to get musicians in New York to pay attention?

WOLFE: No, it’s not that. What happened was, when I make my records, I’ll usually record them around the holiday time. Because I know that Ned Goold, who I need to have on the record, will be off with Harry usually. People are usually off and more available at that time. The reason I did the last record in Portland was I knew I was going to be there and there was a place to record there. That’s done in a guy’s living room, but he gets an amazing sound there. It’s the best bass sound I’ve got on a record. I do have a relationship with the musicians there, but it’s not so much I prefer recording there. It just kind of worked out that way. It started out as being a little experiment.

I believe in the music sounding the way it sounds. In other words, if somebody is too loud, say the drummer is too loud and you can’t hear the bass, if that’s what’s going on, that’s what you should hear. I’m not a real fan of the modrn style of recording, of fixing missed notes and so forth, and having it be manipulated and going for “perfection.” I’m a real firm believer in the band playing… If the band is swinging, if the band is playing and that’s a good balance, then that’s what you hear. That’s the way I like to play jazz, with an honest sound. I think that the way it’s done a lot today, you have the musicians in separate rooms and trying to get everything perfect, I think you take away a lot of chance for magic by doing that. I’m not saying it’s wrong or you can’t get a good recording that way. But I think there’s something… I prefer a more organic approach.

TP: When did you start with Diana?

WOLFE: This second stint started approximately March 2000. I’m really trying to establish the fact that I’m not just Diana’s bass player.

TP: Well, the sideman work is part of your persona as a musician. From my perspective, the qualities that made that happen have to be mentioned.

WOLFE: To me, when somebody asks me what I do as a musician, I’m a composer and I play bass. To me, that’s what I do. Even though people see the other thing, but to me, when I think of myself as a musician, I think of myself as a composer who plays bass. That’s really what I do. Of course, what people see is the other thing, which is more like what I do for a living. But I write music and I have a vision and a conception that I have to realize.

 

*************

Ben Wolfe Blindfold Test (Raw):

1. John Clayton, “Isfahan” (Parlor Series, with Gerald Clayton, ArtistShare, 2013) (John Clayton, bass; Gerald Clayton, piano)

“Isfahan” by Billy Strayhorn. Beautiful song. I will say this. The minute the pianist started the introduction I thought of Billy Strayhorn, but once they got into the tune, I was thinking about how, for me, they weren’t playing “Isfahan”; they were playing the chord progressions of “Isfahan” and playing a certain way…kind of fast… For me, that song loses something. It tends to sound like a chord progression to solo on it or play on it, which is ok. But “Isfahan” is like a piece of poetry to me. It’s something I’ve spent time with, and I find extremely beautiful, kind of like Mozart—melody-driven music. That’s not necessarily putting them down. It’s just out of a personal connection to his music, and I don’t hear it that way. I’m not sure who it was. The pianist reminded me of Bill Charlap. I don’t think it was Bill Charlap, but it reminded me of him. It reminded me of people I know, but I didn’t think it was any of them. The pianist had obviously an Oscar Peterson influence in his playing. The bass player clearly had checked out Ray Brown. But it wasn’t Christian. It wasn’t someone coming out of Ray Brown who I think it’s recognize immediately. A lot of notes. The bass player to me sounded like someone who usually uses an amplifier, but didn’t for this session, maybe because it’s a duet.

There were things about it I like. I like the fact they were playing duo, which can be really difficult to keep the lean, the groove moving forward. Sometimes it tends is to slow down and get boring. I think they did a good job that way. But I didn’t get a real sense of connection between the musicians on this recording. I felt like they were taking turns playing…which is fine. They sound like very accomplished musicians. I was going back and forth. Is this older musicians who play great on a more modern recording, or is it a young cat? I couldn’t tell. I could go either way. But I would just be guessing who it is, and I don’t want to guess, because I’m not sure. Are they my contemporaries or are they my heroes? I could go either way. But I can say this. I probably wouldn’t want to hear that again. “Isfahan” to me a delicate song that I prefer hearing delicate. I know Joe Henderson played it fast, and people do that. It’s just music, so one should do what they do. 4 stars, because they’re good musicians, and it’s their choice how they play. Since it’s the first thing we’re listening to, I’m erring on giving extra stars. So I’m protecting myself in case it’s a friend. [AFTER] It’s funny you say that. John Clayton was the next name I would have mentioned. Great musician. I love the father-son thing. As a father, I think it’s beautiful. Again, great musicians. I wouldn’t approach the song that way. So I got the Ray Brown influence correct. Gerald is an interesting musician. I like the fact that he doesn’t just play the one might expect John Clayton’s son to play. But I heard those things. I thought, “Ok, comes out of Oscar, but not Oscar; coming out of Monty, but not Monty.” I heard those influences, but I heard it wasn’t those people. I should trust my instincts and just say John Clayton next time.

2. Eberhard Weber, “Seven Movements” (Stages Of a Long Journey, ECM, 2007) (Weber, bass; Jan Garbarek, soprano saxophone)

This is so far from what I do. It reminds me of something Jan Garbarek and Eberhard Weber might play together. I’ll keep listening and see if anything comes to mind. Is that two bass players? [One bass player.] So he’s doing it at the same time, I guess. Or maybe doubled… It sounds like two—the low note, the A-pedaling, and the notes on top. There’s so much effects on this that it’s hard to hear what his actual sound is. The way the bass is recorded, it sounds like electric bass to me; it sounds like an electric bass exercise or something. Which I know it’s not, but that’s what… I’m not even sure how to listen to this, or certainly how to rate it. It certainly had clarity. But it’s so far from where I’m at with music, that it’s hard to… I’m not even sure what to say about it. I really don’t know who that is. Again, accomplished musicians… [You guessed it.] I haven’t listened to those musicians a lot, but the fact that I recognize a sound that I attribute to them immediately is worth noting, I think. It immediately reminded me of two musicians who I know their sound but don’t listen to a lot, and that’s who it turned out to be. There’s something to be said for that. Whereas the previous recording, I know both musicians very well and I wasn’t sure who it was. I’m not sure what that means, but I think there’s something to that. I found the piece uninteresting. But it had a sound. They have a way they play, and it’s got a certain sound to it. But it seemed very… It sounded composed, which is ok, but I wasn’t hearing a lot of melody. It wasn’t pretty to me. It has a feeling to it that I recognize, but it doesn’t necessarily resonate with me. But I’m not a believer in what one likes is any judgment on the quality. I separate quality and like-or-dislike as two separate things. 3 stars. I would like to hear him play the bass acoustically, to hear what it sounds like.

3. Mark Dresser, “Not Withstanding” (Nourishments, Clean Feed, 2013) (Dresser, bass; Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Denman Maroney, hyperpiano; Tom Rainey, drums)

That’s wild. It almost reminds me of something Steve Coleman and Dave Holland might do with Smitty, but it’s got a different quality. The way the pianist is playing. Obviously, musicians who know how to play. They have a way they play together. A little bit hard to hear the bass, a lot of drums. But I like the sound. Trombone kind of reminds me of Ray Anderson; I don’t know if it’s him or not. Prepared piano, sounds like. Eric Revis sometimes on his records does stuff that reminds me of this. For a second, I wondered if it was Revis, but I know it’s not. I love the way he plays stuff like this. I’m not sure who it is. Again, it’s probably someone I know. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t hold me. The lack of melody; it doesn’t hold on to me. It’s kind of sloppy in a good way. I like that. It’s not overly clean. It’s loose. I like the vibe to it. It does sound like like-minded musicians. I get the sense they play together or they know each other. It doesn’t sound like they’re thrown together for a record date. [AFTER] It reminded me of Steve Coleman, but there’s a certain lack of clarity—again, I don’t mean that in a negative sense. I like the looseness of it. They seemed to be playing in a common way; like, they had the same goal. It wasn’t just everyone for themself. But it had that real loose feeling, which I like. I didn’t really notice the bass player except for the solo. The way it was recorded, the bass wasn’t clear. The drums were kind of covering the bass in a way. I like bass player records where it’s not all just about the bass. But I do like to hear the bass. I found the solo interesting. I found the bass player interesting. He seemed like he was part of the group. Everyone seemed part of the group. It didn’t sound like it was his record, though. It sounded like it was the saxophone player’s record or the drummer’s record. Even the pianist’s. It didn’t sound like the bass player’s record, which, in a way, if it is the bass player’s record, that would be a compliment. Just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean the music should… The bass is still the bass. 4 stars. Mark Dresser? That makes sense. I know about Mark, but I don’t know his sound enough to recognize it. But I figured it was one of those guys…that sounds weird… Sort of freeish… It reminded me of Braxton and Dave Holland, but it had a rougher edge to it than that, which I liked. I liked the fact that it wasn’t pristine. The alto player wasn’t Braxton. It wasn’t Steve Coleman. It wasn’t Greg Osby? It wasn’t Tim Berne? I don’t know Rudresh Mahanthappa’s playing. I’m not familiar enough with any of their playing, but I get the sense they play together a lot.

4. Stanley Clarke Trio, “Three Wrong Notes” (Jazz In The Garden, Heads Up, 2009) (Clarke, bass; Hiromi Uemara, piano; Lenny White, drums)

It sounds like they’re not playing together because they’re not playing together. They’re clearly in separate rooms. So it’s musicians playing at the same time. But for me it’s so distracting… The drummer sounds… Something about the drummer I like a lot. He might be the senior member of the band who’s played with somebody or done something. But they record it… Like, the tom-toms sound separate from the rest of the set. The bass player sounds like he’s listened to a lot of Eddie Gomez. Plays in that style when he solos. But the bass solo sounds like he’s more interested in playing than when he was playing the bass lines. For me, I find that distracting. “Oh, the bass player is coming to life now that there’s a bass solo.” He plays the instrument very well, clearly knows the music. I’m assuming it’s his tune—changes to “Confirmation” with the bass melody written over it. It’s something Sam Jones would do, that kind of bass melody, but the way he did it, it had a certain humor to it for some reason. This had more of an exercise thing to it, like, “Let’s take ‘Confirmation’ and write a little bass melody to it.’” It wasn’t Eddie Gomez, but that vibrato, that sort of whining vibrato, it reminds me of Eddie Gomez. Stanley Clarke used to play that way as well, that Eddie Gomez influence. It wasn’t Stanley Clarke, it wasn’t Eddie Gomez, it wasn’t George Mraz… There are a lot of guys who can play that way and do play that way. The most interesting thing I found about that recording is the snare drum. The snare drum had history in it. That was some bad shit, the snare drum. The rest of it sounded like the same old thing. The piano was the same old thing. Great players can play that way, and not so great players play that way. Again, it’s probably people I know, or know of. But the way it was recorded… The only thing that stuck out to me was the groove. The way it was leaning had a sort of uniqueness to it. But it wasn’t a uniqueness I recognized, that I could attribute to anybody. The bass player played the bass well. He played up high a lot when he soloed. It had that big vibrato, that Eddie Gomez vibrato, that sort of singing quality. But I don’t know who it is. It wasn’t John Patitucci. It wasn’t Eddie Gomez. It wasn’t George Mraz. Lynn Seaton? Rufus Reid? I don’t know. Those names all come to my head. None of them seem like the right ones. You’re going to tell me who it is, and I’ll say, “Oh yes.” 4 stars because of the snare drum. It’s cool, but it doesn’t grab me. The way the snare drum was played, the way the drummer didn’t force the beat. That’s what struck me. Without that, I would have been waiting for it to end. [AFTER] It was Stanley Clarke. That makes sense. I love how Lenny White sounded on there. I’d rather hear Stanley play Stanley Clarke stuff. Not that he can’t play jazz. But jazz isn’t a part-time art. That’s not what he does. It’s where he came from and what he can do, obviously. That’s a more recent record. When Stanley was playing jazz more, that’s how he played. I think when musicians take decades off from something, when they resume they’re in the same place. You played Stanley my record on his Blindfold Test. He said he appreciated the string writing; that’s all right. Stanley Clarke was one of my first bass heroes when I was a kid, but to me, that’s not the best Stanley Clarke. That way of recording doesn’t make sense. It comes from pop music, the one-amp separation so they can control it. It’s just the common way. But it doesn’t sound as good, not to me. It leaves less in the hands of the musicians—or the ears of the musicians, I should say.

5. Matt Brewer, “Abiquiú” (Mythology, Criss Cross, 2014) (Brewer, bass; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Steve Lehman, alto saxophone; Lage Lund, guitar; David Virelles, piano; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

That was interesting. Compositionally there was some stuff I liked about it. Again, I’m not sure who that was either. It sounded like maybe some young cats. The bass player played well. He or she was pretty in-tune, and seemed to have control of what he or she was playing. Kind of like one of the other tracks. The bass seemed more present when soloing than when playing basslines. It got a little bit lost for me with the drums. It’s a similar thing with the recording, the way the drums were tuned. The snare drum low. Just the sound of it… I lost the bass in the drums, but not in the way that, like, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin were, where Jimmy Garrison became like a tom-tom. It was different than that. It sounded like there was an alto and a tenor, but just an alto solo. The alto player had a sound like a lot of alto players have now, sort of a Kenny Garrett-Steve Wilson kind of sound, but with a Steve Coleman-esque thing to it. I don’t know it was. [THIS PLAYER IS VERY INFLUENCED BY JACKIE MCLEAN] It didn’t sound like Jackie McLean-influenced players are influenced by… I’m not saying this person, but I find this often. A lot of the Jackie McLean-influenced musicians are influenced by him and the way he was and what he believed in, but the Bird part of his playing I don’t hear in a lot of their playing. Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just something I’ve always noticed. Sometimes I think maybe the person’s philosophies are more important than their musical influences. I liked the piece, but when the soloing started I wasn’t hearing the song any more. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Matt was one of my students at Manhattan School of Music. That’s ironic. If I’d said what I was thinking during the recording, it would have been really accurate, because I was going to mention Larry Grenadier, who I know has not recorded as a leader. The playing was like Larry, and that’s one of Matt’s biggest influence. I knew it wasn’t Larry, but he plays in that way. If Larry had a record out, just from the bass playing along, that’s who I would have thought it was.

6. Dave Holland, “The Empty Chair (For Clare) (Prism, Dare2, 2008) (Holland, bass, composer; Kevin Eubanks, guitar; Craig Taborn, piano; Eric Harland, drums)

We’re getting to kind of the Soul Jazz-Pop area now. Which is ok. I already know a whole lot of who it isn’t. When you grow up in an era of pop music where it’s everywhere, it’s always interesting how it affects jazz musicians and how it comes out in their playing. I would say it’s virtually impossible for it not to come out in your playing, especially if you grew up with it. This is an example of that. I’m going to keep listening. I always notice the drums. The tom-toms are recorded in a way that I find distracting. They’re too loud. But these are musicians who have a good groove, a good pocket for this kind of pocket. It doesn’t always mean they can swing, but maybe they can. It’s a different thing. But they should have tuned the tom-toms different, in my opinion. It’s taking away from the subtlety of the groove, the way the guitar and bass are playing. This is someone who probably likes D’Angelo a lot, like I do. It could be some of these young bass players whose records I haven’t heard, like Ben Williams. It doesn’t remind me, but at the same time it could be, because he likes to record sort of poppish tunes on his recordings. There’s another young guy, Alan Hampton, but I don’t really know his records. There’s a certain way Ben plays on a certain area of the bass that this reminds me of. But I’m not sure. It’s interesting, now that they’re playing louder, it’s mixed softer. The drummer is playing harder now, but the tom-toms are softer, like more compressed. This is very studio-ish. This reminds me of a pop record, and it’s cool. The bass player sounds good. He sounds like he had a lot of ideas behind this, but I’m not really hearing his personality in it. I’m hearing a lot of guitar and drums. The keyboard player playing his part. Even in the solo, I didn’t hear a lot of his personality. That’s why I don’t necessarily think it was Ben, because he plays with a lot of personality that I hear. This bass player, I didn’t hear a lot of personality. I didn’t hear who they were. The only thing it is, it sounds like that D’Angelo influence, but I’m not hearing the kind of beat that usually goes with the cats who play that way. It doesn’t have that behind, Quest-love thing going on, which makes me wonder if it’s a different group of cats playing on here, again coming from more of a pop influence. This is not the Robert Glasper cats, it doesn’t sound like to me. It might be, but something in the way they’re playing… I’d be curious to know who it is. I’m not sure how to rate this. Do I rate it as an R&B tune with a jazz influence? Would I rate this as jazz musicians playing on kind of a funk groove? I’ll give it 3½ stars. [AFTER] That’s always how I feel about Dave Holland. Of course, you played me Dave Holland and I said about the personality. Dave Holland clearly is a great bass player, and anyone who loves his playing, I understand why, but I just don’t… When I hear him… That’s how art should be; you react how you react. But I don’t feel him in his sound. I hear him in his great ability. That’s why I knew it wasn’t Ben Williams, because I didn’t hear an overwhelming personality in their sound, which I don’t hear in Dave. I hear it in his rhythms. But I don’t hear it… That’s me. I know that can sound like an insult to Dave, but it’s not. It’s just an honest reaction. So when I heard this, the rhythm was good, but I just didn’t hear a lot in the sound of the bass. But I heard his Mingus influence hidden in there, in the way the chords were. But that D’Angelo sound… Craig knows those records, I’m sure. Eric Harland does. But Dave Holland is coming from a different point of view. The thing about that group of musicians, they have a way they play, and whether one likes it or not, or to avoid that whole what-is-jazz conversation, I’m a fan of community in music, and they have that, and I didn’t hear that sound in this recording. But Kevin Eubanks…he can do anything on the guitar. But the tom-tom thing threw me off. The last time I heard Dave Holland was a long time ago, in Spain. I remember marveling at how comfortable Steve Nelson was playing on those hard-ass tunes. It was an amazing display of rhythm and great musicianship. Steve Nelson was so soulful over it. It was amazing. Again, Dave Holland is a great bassist. There’s just something I don’t hear in his playing. Who cares if I hear it or not? It doesn’t mean anything. But it’s the truth.

7. The Bad Plus, “You Will Lose All Fear” (Inevitable Western, OKeh, 2014) (Reid Anderson, bass; composer; Ethan Iverson, piano; Dave King, drums)

This is very odd-sounding. You have some tambourine in there. The bass is a little bit buried. Ah, there it is. I’m waiting for the tune to start. I guess it’s kind of rolling, landing on these chords. I think they’re about to land. It sounded like two tunes. You had the beginning part, obviously, that went on; I had no idea where it was going to go. Then we had this ending, this vamp, with some interesting melodic notes. I’m not sure how they’re connected other than the contrast. Perhaps the idea was we’re going through this area to get to this other area. For me, I’m synesthesia, so I see sound, so that was two striking views of sound. One like a lot of scribbling on the page, a lot of information, and then very clear. It was hard to tell who the bass player was, because on the first part it was covered by the piano and the drums; in the second part, he was just playing the part, which I appreciate hearing bass players just playing the bass part. In the second part, it was more a pop sensibility. I figured it’s the bassist’s composition, but the pianist was running the show. I don’t know who it was. I didn’t hear the connection between the two sections. I liked the bass playing at the end when he was just playing the part. I find that interesting, bass players just playing good notes with good rhythm. But it was a composed bass part. 3½ stars. [AFTER] I like the Bad Plus. It’s interesting. A lot of the groups I hear… Well, that’s a good example of a group that it’s pop-influenced acoustic music, in a way. Again, not that it’s a bad thing. But they weren’t playing jazz grooves there, which is ok. For me, I have mixed feelings about that, but that doesn’t change how it sounds, and they play well together, and they have a sound. There’s a certain clarity with how they play… Although at the beginning part there was so much going on, but that was the idea. But yeah, it was interesting. It’s interesting melodies. To me, jazz is dance music, it’s groove music, so when you take that element out of it, it changes so drastically that it’s like another music, so for me it’s like a different criteria for how to listen to it. I remember hearing a group once (it doesn’t matter who) at the Vanguard, and I said, “let me check these cats out; I’ve never really heard them.” I remember in the first half of the set I was like, “Wow, I can’t get with this; I don’t understand it; it’s frustrating me.” Then I listened to the second half of the set from the point of view as if it were just a funk band playing, and I loved it. So I had to adjust my sensibilities. This is kind of in between. It’s like pop-based jazz, but not R&B pop. It’s like the love of Radiohead shows up, which to me is a strange thing. I’m still waiting for Radiohead to play some of our tunes. I grew up in Portland. I moved here in 1985. The bass player in the Decemberists went to high school with my sister. I went to hear them play because I knew the guy, and I didn’t nokw they were rock stars. But good for them!

8. Alexis Cuadrado, “Asesinato (Dos Voces De Madrugada En Riverside Drive)” (A Lorca Soundscape, Sunnyside, 2013) (Cuadrado, bass; cajon, palmas; Claudia Acuna, vocals; Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone; Dan Tepfer, piano; Mark Ferber, drums; Gilmar Gomes, congas)

The thing about steel strings, not that they’re bad, but it makes so many bass players sound the same, whereas with the gut strings you hear so much more the personality, or the differences in the sound of the bass players. I’m hearing this, and it’s the same sound that’s coming out of Stanley Clarke. It’s the same sound that Charnett Moffett might get. It’s the same kind of sound Eberhard Weber might get without the effects. It makes it tricky. Because in solo bass of this style, there’s certain devices that seem to always be used—fifths and tenths. That’s a nice groove there. The alto player sounds like he’s an alto player into Branford; it’s a nice feeling. I thought of Claudia Acuna, but she… It is Claudia. It reminded me immediately of what she and Avishai Cohen played together, but it didn’t sound like Avishai Cohen. His playing changed after he played with Chick Corea. I always thought Claudia had such a beautiful sound. I think I know the saxophone player, but for some reason I’m drawing a blank on his name. Was that Myron Walden? It reminded me of Myron for some reason. I know Avishai played used to play with her a lot. Omer played with her; it doesn’t sound like Omer. I know on piano Jason Lindner played with her; it didn’t sound like Jason either. So it sounds like maybe she got people for this record. [It’s not Claudia’s record; it’s the bass player’s record.] Ah, that would explain that. I’m not sure who the bass player is. That was nice. It had a nice groove. Again, I couldn’t hear the personality in the bass sound. The gut strings, which I play… It doesn’t make one better or worse. But the gut strings tend to make the sound less uniform. It doesn’t even it out so much. You hear the imperfections in the instrument. You hear different qualities. Paul Chambers had certain kind of buzzes in his sound that for me are beautiful. But the steel strings evens everything out, particularly when guys use an amplifier. But even without the amplifier it evens it out. That’s why the John Clayton piece threw me off. I said, “It’s not a guy who uses an amp usually.” He never uses an amp. But the steel strings make it so uniform. So that’s one of the reasons why prefer gut strings. 3½ stars. I don’t know Alexis. I like the groove they’ve got going. I like Miguel Zenon.

9. Christian McBride, “Cherokee” (Out Here, Mack Avenue, 2013) (McBride, bass; Christian Sands, piano; Ulysses Owens, drums)

Wow. A walking bass line. A rarity in jazz today. A very bizarre recording. It’s got that several-room thing where the bass and drums are separated. They’re doing the Ahmad Jamal half-time 3/4 bridge on “Cherokee.” Another Ron Carter influenced bass player. Wow. I like the Ahmad Jamal half-time 3/4 bridge on “Cherokee.” This could be so many people. This is the kind of jazz that frustrates me. I hope this isn’t people I know or are friends. But so far it feels like they’re just playing. They’re not really playing together. They’re playing the same song at the same time, and it’s fast, it can be tricky… The piano player is just playing. There’s no breath. I feel like the bass and drums are just trying to hold on, just trying to stay with the piano player. I don’t feel like they’re moving and turning corners together. They’re going for the excitement. Hard tempo. [BASS SOLO] It sounds like Christian there. The way he plays the bass…it’s amazing; no one can really play like that. But it didn’t sound like him at the beginning, to me, for some reason. I’m not sure what it was. But obviously it’s him. With Christian, obviously he can play fast and with clarity, and he can do all these amazingly impressive things. But I just heard him with his big band last week at Dizzy’s, and that’s some of my favorite Christian I’ve ever heard. It was like he played much less. But he just plays the bass parts…I love the way he does that. For me, that’s a more interesting thing. But he can do anything on the bass. There’s a handful of guys with that type of immense natural gift for music, and it’s always fascinating how they use those tools. I imagine it would be a challenge where, if you could play anything you wanted or like anyone you wanted, it would be very seductive to play like your heroes. I think that’s a unique dilemma that these immensely talented musicians sometimes have to deal with. That wasn’t Carl Allen, was it? I could tell Christian on the solo; it didn’t sound like him on the bassline, for some reason. I remember the first time I heard him, I was amazed by his clarity. The next day, Stanley Crouch called me and said, “Have you heard this kid, Christian McBride? He has a clarity.” I said, “Yeah, it’s amazing.” He’s a special musician with enormous talent on the bass. But I’m impressed by the other side of his playing than the obvious, impressive side. I’m giving it 3 stars, but I’ll give Christian 4 stars. It’s not my favorite I’ve heard from him. I like him on this record called Watts, by Jeff Watts. I wouldn’t have thought it was Ulysses. I play a lot with him, and something about that didn’t work for me. I love them. Sorry, guys.

10. Barry Guy-Agustí Fernández, “Annalisa” (Some Other Place, Maya, 2009) (Guy, bass, composer; Fernández, piano)

That sounds like that pianist, Pilc, and his bass player, the way they play together. But they usually don’t play this out. It reminds me of them, but more free. When they went into that melody together, it was so accurate. It’s interesting to hear cats play this out, and then play that accurate in the middle of it. It makes me think of some younger musicians, recorded in the last ten years or something. The bass player is strangely accurate in his playing. I was trying to think who can play major VII chords on the bass like that. That’s something Oscar Pettiford used to do, though obviously this is a whole nother thing. But it’s interesting that he played that same exact thing on the bass on “Stardust” at one point, but there’s such a different context, and this sounds completely different. It’s amazing how the same combination of notes can sound so different with a different recording and a different context and different rhythm. The concept of playing a three-note chord on the bass can be hard to make sound. You have to be at the right time, the right place. I’m not sure who that was. They’re playing real wild and free. The thing about playing that way is, the principles of art still apply. You still have to listen. You still have to hear what’s going on. You don’t have to play constant. You can leave space. It’s got to breathe. I think they had their moments there. There was something oddly familiar about the bass player to me. But I don’t want to be guessing. I don’t know who they were, this duet. What threw me was the way, when they came together and played the composed section, it was so accurate. That’s what threw me off. It caught my ear. If you’re playing that free that way all the time, you’re not playing a lot of composed sections. [It’s a composition, though.] Even so, just the fact that that section was so accurate. 3½ stars. [AFTER] I don’t know Barry Guy. I can’t tell from that whether they can swing or no.

11. The Cookers, “Dance of the Invisible Nymph” (Time and Time Again, Motéma, 2014) (Cecil McBee, bass, composer; David Weiss, trumpet, arranger; Eddie Henderson, trumpet; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Billy Harper, tenor saxophone; George Cables, piano; Billy Hart, drums)

that’s the intro, but when the melody came in, I was not imagining it having that kind of sound at all. The horns come in almost with a Blue Note kind of vibe in that groove. I was not expecting that. Let’s see what reveals itself. Sometimes I think it’s turning into an art how to not play the jazz groove any more. There are so many different ways of not just swinging. Sometimes those ways work and sometimes they don’t. But it’s amazing how often we don’t hear the swing groove any more in jazz music. Interesting sound on the trumpet. In 8 measures I’ve heard influences of Freddie, of Wynton, of Kenny Wheeler. Is that Ambrose Akinmusire? I don’t really know Ambrose’s playing that much, but I know he has the wide influences, so I thought I was hearing that in his playing. That cat clearly is a young cat who has checked out a lot of different styles. Well, I shouldn’t say ‘clearly.’ That’s my thought on that short solo. Maybe it’s David Douglas. When I first met David Douglas, he was into Woody Shaw. It reminded me of that type of musician. But some things are hard to tell, because they’re soloing over a groove, so there’s no conversational element to the solos. They’re just soloing over something. The way they’re playing doesn’t require listening in any kind of conversational way. They can just play over. But I’m all for a good groove. That’s a nice melody on top. But more often than not, the lack of listening is what makes very good individual musicians not have a sound together. You don’t listen, it makes it impossible for the magic to occur as a group. I wish there was more to this than just a string of soloists over a groove. I think there could be more connection between the melody part and the rhythm section. I’m hearing more just they’re playing on top of it. I don’t remember the melody; I’m trying to remember it. Here it comes. I like this melody, but I didn’t hear that sound at all in the solos, which makes me question why have this melody, or why have the solos? Is it just a device to improvise on? I like the melody as always present. You hear that in Monk’s music. The melody is always present, so that there are interactions with each other and with the melody. At the same time, I write a lot of music where the melody just sets up another section for soloing, so I understand it. Sometimes I like on these types of compositions, where you have a melody, then you play on something, not to go back to the melody, to go somewhere else, to move forward. But this is nice. I like the blend of the horn players; I like the balance, the blend they have together. I find the band as an ensemble more interesting during the melody section than I did during the solo sections. There was something that could have been more in there for me. The melody was interesting. The rhythm section, the parts were happening, but then in the solo sections they just went to a groove. Again, I didn’t hear a reason for it, a connection between the two. It’s like they were too separate for me. But well-played. But like I said, the melody was more interesting to me than the solos, not the individual, but the way the ensemble moved I found more interesting on the melody. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Eddie Henderson? That’s funny. That explains when I said the sound they have together… That comes from the music they play…being part of it, that thing. When I said that “young trumpeter” and looked at you, I knew I was wrong. I love Eddie. He’s one of those musicians who it’s very special to play with him. He makes it exciting. Eddie sounded different to me on that, the way he used the upper register.

12. Scott Colley, “Speculation” (Empire, Camjazz, 2010) (Colley, bass, composer; Brian Blade, drums; Craig Taborn, piano)

That reminds me of Dave Holland there. Again, these solo bass things, everyone uses the same devices on the instrument. So it’s hard to tell. It’s almost like the bass is amplified on this, even though it’s just solo bass. He can play fast and clean. It’s a good tone, but it’s the same old tone. It’s like a common sound done well by someone who plays the instrument very well, clearly. It’s like the era of the original sound on the bass… You hear Wilbur Ware, you hear one note, it’s clearly Wilbur Ware. That type of sound, where it’s so different from player to player, has gotten lost, so the sounds blur together now. It’s like different versions of the same tone. It used to be… Not that things need to stay the same. I’m not saying this in the spirit of it should be how it was back in the day or anything like that. I’m all for art moving. But it used to be every bass player in jazz had their own way of playing quarter notes. This is cool, but again, it could be anyone. It could be great players I love. It could be players I’ve never heard of. It could be players I dislike. The way they’re playing… I’m not sure if I like it. I’m going to keep listening. I’m listening for the clarity. All the sounds and notes are for a reason. The drummer is interesting. It sounds like he likes Jack DeJohnette. It’s got a delicate quality that I like. It’s not being forced, and it sounds sincere. I’m not hearing a whole lot of melody, though, again. It just seems it’s in a place. Perhaps it’s a Dave Holland-influenced player. I don’t know. Scott Colley? I’m not sure. It could be a lot of people. All right, it is Scott! I got one. He always struck me as Dave Holland-influenced with Charlie Haden in there. That’s an interesting combination, a guy who is influenced by Charlie and Dave Holland, because they played with a lot of the same people but play completely different, almost like opposites in many ways. Charlie is a master of one note; Dave Holland can play things on the bass that… He doesn’t play like Christian, but he’s like Christian in the sense that he owns what he does. He does things that are amazing and difficult. So the combination of an influence of Dave Holland and Charlie Haden… I’ve known Scott for a long time. He plays with a lot of clarity, and it’s clear, but the kind of sound…it’s like a good version of that sound. I’m not sure how to describe HIS sound. An example of someone who has an extreme sound. I mentioned Wilbur Ware. Charlie Haden is like that. If you think of Charlie Haden, you can think of his sound with one note. To me, that’s something that I love in great musicians. But not everyone cares about that. There are so many different things you can think about or try to achieve. Scott Colley plays the bass really well, and he’s clear in his ideas, so it comes down to what he wants to do. But I prefer a more clear personality in the sound. But that’s me. Again, not negative. He’s had a lot of experience and has played with a lot of players, and clearly knows music—and he’s a really nice dude, too.

13. Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio, “A Feeling” (Kenny Barron, Gerry Gibbs, Ron Carter, 2013, Whaling City Sound) (Ron Carter, bass, composer; Kenny Barron, piano; Gibbs, drums)

Another Ron Carter influenced bass player, but he plays something that Ron never would have played. I was hoping you were going to play me Ron so I could talk about Ron, but it’s all right. I’m trying to figure out the drummer. Interesting ride cymbal sound. That sounds like Ron there, but it’s not, because he wouldn’t have played that up-high note…I don’t think. A lot of that stuff is right out of the Ron Carter Handbook, but Ron wouldn’t have a drummer play that much over him and that loud unless it was mixed that way afterwards. There’s something in that ride cymbal I like. Strangely recorded. Again, I don’t feel the tom-toms sounding like that. This is a trick, because this is going to be real obvious when I know who it is afterwards. So much of this reminds me of Ron Carter. Even the harmonic movement on this reminds me of him. But something about it tells me about him. I’m not sure who the piano player is. I liked it. There was so much going on. So much drums, so much tom-toms covering everything up. They could be so many people; I’m not sure who it is. The bass player threw me because he was playing so much of Ron’s stuff, but he played one high notes, went to it in a way that I can’t imagine Ron doing, but it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t. Plus the way it was mixed. But then again… Ah! Aha! Was that Gerry Gibbs? [It was.] It was the Thrasher Trio. That’s what threw me. It was Kenny Barron. It’s Ron’s tune? That makes sense. It sounded like Ron’s tune. But the way it recorded, Ron usually is more present in the mix, especially with this kind of sound. When Ron is playing with his amplified sound, his modern sound… I prefer Ron’s sound when he played acoustic. One of the most beautiful bass sounds in the history of jazz. He created a new sound with the pickup. The new sound is a cushion that the drums would reside under. So the bass moves like an escalator, and the drums are on it, in a sense. This was reversed, so it took away some of the sound. I had more issue with the recording, the mix of it, than the playing. It was Ron Carter walking, so 4 stars.

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Filed under Bass, Ben Wolfe, Blindfold Test, Wynton Marsalis

A Group of Pieces on Robert Glasper: A Jazziz Feature From 2013; a Jazz.Com Interview from 2009; A Downbeat Blindfold Test, circa 2008; A Short Downbeat Piece in 2005; and the Liner Note for His First Record in 2002

 

Robert Glaser Jazziz Feature, Nov. 2013

In late September, Robert Glasper, his appetite restored after coming home from China the week before with stomach flu, tucked into a plate of South African-style wings at Madiba, a restaurant in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene.

“I met T-Pain last week at a party,” Glasper remarked offhandedly after making inroads into his plate. He excused himself to look at drawings of angry monsters by his 4-year-old son, Riley, sitting beside him. “You draw so good, Boogie!” Glasper said, punctuating his praise with a kiss and fist bump. Resuming, he pinpointed his encounter with the twice-Grammy-awarded rapper in Shanghai, where — after an eight-day run in Japan that concluded at the Tokyo Blue Note — the Robert Glasper Experiment had performed on a program with singer-emcee Mos Def, for whom, during the past decade, Glasper has frequently served as music director.

“Mos Def told him, ‘I’m about to do an album with my man, Robert; it has a lot of hip-hop and jazz influence,’” Glasper said. “T-Pain was like, ‘I would love to be part of that. Please take me out of this R&B-hip-hop game.’”

Whether that proposed collaboration will happen is unclear. But if it does, T-Pain will join a cohort of high-profile performers looking for a piece of the sui generis sound that the Experiment revealed on Black Radio, which, upon its February 2012 release, debuted at No. 4 on Billboard’s “Hip-Hop and R&B” chart, No. 1 on its “Jazz” chart and No. 10 on its “Overall Albums” chart. The disc went on to earn a 2013 Grammy for Best R&B album, and has sold, to date, 200,000 units. As the flow unfolds over the course of a leisurely hour, ranging from hip-hop to pop to R&B to straight-up soul, the Experiment — pianist and keyboarist Glasper; singer (through a vocoder) and alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin, electric bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris Dave — complements hit-makers Erykah Badu, Mint Condition vocalist Stokley Williams, Lupe Fiasco and Musiq Soulchild, along with “underground soul heroes” (Glasper’s phrase) like Mos Def, Ledesi, Lalah Hathaway, Meshell Ndegeocello and Bilal Oliver. RGE’s idiomatic backgrounds and creative interjections impart the feeling of a cohesive body of work rather than a cobbled-together collection of tracks.

“I expected Black Radio to be an underground sensation, without getting much mainstream attention,” Glasper said. “But from the beginning, it did things I wasn’t expecting. We self-promoted big-time, doing Twitter and Facebook while we were making it, and people got excited. I think it’s another cycle for R&B, the epitome of crossing over hip-hop and jazz. Since you can only pick one slot for the Grammy, I put everything in R&B; I felt the R&B community understood it better than a lot of the jazz people.

“Remember when the neo-soul movement got big around ’99 or 2000, when D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and Bilal came out, and everybody was like, ‘Whoa, what’s happening?’ This is like a second coming of that wave — maybe a little different. That wave signified an opening to do music that didn’t sound factory-made or cookie-cutterish. In that era, being a real musician was cool and good, and you got a lot of work. The music felt good, and you could talk about more than one or two subjects. Since we won the Grammy, I think it’s opened the doors for many artists.”

Riley’s stomach hurt, and Glasper persuaded him to rest his head on Papa’s shoulder. As he dozed, Glasper discussed the recently released Black Radio 2 (Blue Note), whose participants include Brandy, Anthony Hamilton, Norah Jones, Jill Scott, Faith Evans, Common and Snoop Dogg. “My goal was to not make the same album twice, especially when everyone was wondering how I’d beat the first Black Radio,” he said. “So I decided to do just an R&B-soul album, less jazz-infused, not as loose. On the first record, I didn’t think at all. We just played and did it, and it became what it was. Here I did more thinking and processing and figuring things out.”

Although the feel on Black Radio 2 is less freewheeling, the playing is vivid and alive. Glasper wrote songs for each vocalist, sometimes collaborating with professional songwriters, sometimes eliciting lyrics from the singers. “I wanted either to put them in a place they’ve never been, or bring them back to their early stuff that everyone loves,” he said. The latter imperative was operative on the insouciant “Calls,” on which Glasper created for Jill Scott — whose forthcoming album he produced — “her sound when she first came out.” As examples of the former, the leader offers “Let It Ride,” on which label mate Norah Jones renders the lyric with an intense, growly purr before murmuring wordlessly over Glasper’s whirling piano figures, and “What Are We Doing,” which frames Brandy with stripped-down Rhodes-bass-drums instrumentation that Glasper describes as “a progressive, D’Angelo Voodoo vibe.”

Closer to the informality of Black Radio is “I Stand Alone,” which begins with original verses by Common — a Glasper employer and collaborator since the late ’90s — and ends with a paean to individualism delivered by sociologist Michael Eric Dyson. A few hours before recording that track, a guest-free RGE cut a version of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” vocoder-crooned by Benjamin. A friend of Withers who was present connected the songwriter and Glasper on his cell phone for a brief conversation.

“When Common arrived, we played him ‘I Stand Alone,’” Glasper recalled. “He walked around, rhyming from scratch, but midway through the second verse he got writer’s block. We were chillin’ in the kitchen, and Bill Withers walked in. He talked to us for about three hours. We recorded everything. Common used some of his lines to finish his rhyme.”

At this point, Riley declared he was feeling better. “I’m going to draw,” he said, asking for a piece of paper. “Now we’re talking,” Glasper answered, delivering another kiss and fist bump before offering a back story for “Persevere,” with Snoop Dogg, Lupe Fiasco and Luke James. His friend Terrace Martin, the rapper-producer, “called to say Snoop loved Black Radio and wanted to talk to me,” Glasper said. “When I went to L.A., Terrace took me to a rehearsal, and Snoop and I talked about jazz for an hour. So I hit him up to be on Black Radio 2.

“Terrace got Snoop involved in a record Quincy Jones is doing with Clark Terry. They got in a private jet and went to Clark’s house in Arkansas. They hook up this equipment by Clark’s bedside, and Clark and Snoop Dogg are scatting, trading on the blues. I’ve seen the footage with my own eyes.”

[BREAK]

Toward the end of the Experiment’s set at the Detroit Jazz Festival on Labor Day, Wallace Roney — who had hired Glasper for a 2005 tour, soon after he’d signed with Blue Note — sat in on “All Matter,” a Bilal Oliver song that, says Glasper, “is just F-minor; you don’t have to know to play it.” Propelled by Derrick Hodge’s surging bass lines and Mark Colenburg’s inflamed refractions of Tony Williams, Roney, standing stage right, assumed an implacably take-no-prisoners persona, posing a series of “let’s see what you’ve got” challenges to Benjamin, who rose to the occasion, delivering his responses with a dark, glowering tone that displayed his assimilation of alto saxophone vocabulary from Charlie Parker to Kenny Garrett.

Two months before, at a midnight concert before a full house of cheering, arm-waving 20-somethings at Perugia’s Morlacchi Theater, Glasper drew upon his own considerable command of modern jazz piano language on an extended preface to Benjamin’s vocodered reading of Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box.” After a Coltrane-ish alto solo, on which Benjamin modified the pitch with foot pedals, Hodge segued to a Spanish-tinged statement on “No Church In the Wild,” the Kanye West-Jay Z hit. While delivering the lyric of Sade’s “Cherish the Day,” Benjamin manipulated his voice with sound effects triggered in real-time on a keyboard synth, then counterstated with an intense saxophone declamation on which he built tension with fresh, electronically modified shapes and swoops. Colenburg embellished and subdivided the pulse like a human robot, coordinating into the grooves slaps and claps generated by his drum pad on covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Get Lucky” and “Time After Time.”

Throughout both concerts — and a dozen-plus performances posted on YouTube — the Experiment’s telepathic ability to reach emotional agreement was palpable. One factor influencing their mutual intuition is long acquaintance (Glasper, Benjamin and Colenburg have played together since they attended Manhattan’s New School during the late ’90s, while Hodge joined a year after the Experiment’s formative sessions at the Knitting Factory in 2005). The band has also spent a lot of time on the road together — eight months in 2013 — since Black Radio’s release. Furthermore, everyone has experience performing and conducting in the upper echelons of pop and hardcore jazz. Glasper, Hodge and Colenburg all cut their teeth as church musicians, learning to follow the arc of a sermon, to play for different guests, to illuminate different stages of the service and to address the unpredictable elements that differentiate one Sunday from the next.

“Coming up in church, you learn by ear,” Colenburg says. “There are no boundaries, no formulas telling you something has to be done a certain way. That helps with creativity. But knowing jazz means that you learn your instrument more thoroughly than in any other genre, so you understand how to have a voice in different genres.”

“Jazz is the spine of what we do,” says Benjamin, a native of Jamaica, Queens, whose c.v. includes work with Stefon Harris and Buster Williams. “Even on the biggest pop stage, we try to find some way of sticking in the jazz message.” As vocal influences, Benjamin cites Betty Carter for her “patience” on a ballad, Ron Isley for his phrasing and Withers for “his presentation, where it seems he’s just talking to you with the melody.” He credits Herbie Hancock’s phrasing and timbre on the 1978 LP Sunlight as the primary inspiration for his vocoder concept and Pat Metheny’s guitar-synth-playing on “Are You Going To Go with Me” for kindling the notion to electronically process his saxophone.

“You’d think Casey is the leader, because he’s singing the songs,” Glasper says. “I’ve never felt comfortable playing in the middle, unless it’s late-night TV, when the world has to know who I am pretty fast. Other than the songs we’re playing, everything is literally made up on the spot, but we come together so quickly that it seems things are arranged. There are no real roles. Everyone has the baton and can make something shift.

“Each of these cats can out-chop most people on their instrument, but they don’t let that override what needs to happen at a given time. I respect that so much. It’s harder to express yourself fully but honestly, and not feel you have to do certain things to please. They’re my favorite musicians in the world.”

However collective RGE’s orientation is when performing, the members acknowledge that Glasper sets the tone. “Black Radio was designed to mimic how the Experiment works,” Hodge says. “It’s a testament to Rob for being confident enough not to clench up in the studio. We came in laughing, cracking jokes, and then, ‘Oh, shoot, we’ve got to record something.’ Then we’d record it and before you know it, the album is done.”

“This baby was built because of my 11-12 years in the game,” Glasper says flatly. “Blue Note signed me. Also, I’ve taken my falls. Sometimes your band members make more than you, because you have to make things happen for your career. You have to be seen at a certain festival, no matter what it pays. I used to pay for the hotels and travel, and I wouldn’t make money, but the guys had to be paid. If you don’t have my liability, if you’re not losing what I would lose, then you can’t gain what I gain.

Black Radio 2 is for me to have longevity in this mainstream R&B game,” he continues. “I want to establish myself, like George Duke and Quincy Jones. I’m a jazz cat at heart, but I want an R&B bank account. I have a son. Living in Brooklyn ain’t cheap. I honestly don’t see myself doing the same jazz festival 50 times, and having to do them to make money to keep afloat.”

Financial considerations aside, Glasper has no intention of eliminating hardcore jazz expression from his musical production. “I love playing acoustic jazz, and I think my jazz lovers are missing it, even though I’ve only been gone for one album,” he says, referring to the Blue Note trio albums — Canvas, In My Element and the first half of Double Booked — that established his bona fides. “When I go back to jazz, I’ll do trio for sure, maybe live. I need to do a Village Vanguard album.”

Another possibility is a Black Radio gospel project. “It would bring everything back to the beginning,” Glasper says. “Most of the people I work with grew up in church, so there could also be people from the secular world — R&B or even jazz — as well as gospel.”

He recalls an end-of-April conversation with Herbie Hancock and the late George Duke at the United Nations International Jazz Day festivities in Turkey. “I asked Herbie’s advice, and he said, ‘Don’t stop anything you do. Do them all at the same time.’ I like where I am, because I feel I’m serving a bigger purpose than I could with just straight-up jazz stuff. Jazz trio is my favorite group to play in, but I don’t feel like I’m changing anything — though my version brings in a newer audience. But in the larger scheme, I can only go so far with it. To be able to live in both worlds, to understand both worlds, to be sought after in both worlds — that’s my whole thing. That I love.”

[–30–]

****************

Robert Glasper (Aug. 28, 2009) — http://www.jazz.com:

“I’m dramatic,” Robert Glasper told me in 2005 for a Downbeat story. “I feel like an actor and a painter—all the arts in one. When I play, I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.”

On his 2009 release, Double Booked [Blue Note], Glasper actualizes this aspiration more completely than on any of his previous recordings. He devotes the first half to his soulful, expansive, highly individualized conception of the acoustic piano trio, drawing harmonic references from a timeline spanning Bud Powell to Mulgrew Miller. His lines flow organically through a succession of odd-metered and swing grooves and unfailingly melodic beats. He stretches out, but he’s also not afraid to milk his melodies and develop them slowly, using techniques of tension and release more commonly heard in functional situations than art music contexts. For part two, Glasper transitions to a plugged-in mise en scene, deploying spoken word and rhymes from such luminaries as Mos Def and Bilal. The latter both employ the Houston native on both recorded and performance projects, as have the likes of Q-Tip (The Renaissance), Kanye West (Late Registration), MeShell Ndegeocello (The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams), Erykah Badu, J Dilla, Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Common, and, most recently, Maxwell, who kept Glasper on the road for consequential chunks of 2009.

Out of Houston, Texas, where he attended Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts, Glasper developed his ability to spin tales in music from emulation of his mother, the late Kim Yvette Glasper, a professional jazz, blues and church singer, and from early experience playing the service in three different churches, one Baptist, one Seventh Day Adventist, and one Catholic.

“The music in the church is built on feeling, period,” he told me. “It’s not ‘Giant Steps.’ People give praise or cry, and you have to control all those things. You put a little something behind the pastor. Depending on the type of song, church music has jazz elements and pop elements, too. Hip-Hop is natural for me, because church music has a lot of the same grooves. I just fall in—take from here, take from there, but don’t take too much from one thing.”

In late August, I caught up with Glasper, now married and a father, at the offices of EMI-Blue Note for a conversation.

Describe your last few months of work. How much has it been divided between the acoustic trio, being on the road with Maxwell and your other sideman things, and to the Experimental Project? To what degree they’re separate and to what degree related would be a good way to launch the conversation.

Actually, this year I haven’t been doing much, because I just had a baby, January 22nd, and I pretty much stayed home until April to be with the baby and my lady. I did a few trio gigs at the end of March, and then I went to Africa and did the Capetown Jazz Festival with the Experiment. So we did one night with the Experiment there, and the very next night we did the Experiment with Mos’ Def. Then right from there, which is funny, I flew home for one day, on my birthday, April 6th. The plane was delayed for six hours. So I got to stay home literally, like, 8 hours, got on the plane, flew to Japan to do the Cotton Club with the Trio for a week. Did the Cotton Club with the Trio for a week. Right from Japan, I flew straight to Oakland to do a week with Mos’ Def with my Experiment band, at both of the Yoshi’s—went back and forth from the San Francisco Yoshi’s to the Oakland Yoshi’s. We did that for a week. Then I came home, and basically started the Maxwell rehearsals. Then I went on tour with Maxwell for two months. Got back maybe a week-and-a-half ago. Now I’m starting back out with Max next week, and we’re going to be gone until the middle of November. Then I go out with my trio when I get back, to do a few dates in Europe. Then I go to Japan with the Experiment in December, with Bilal as my special guest. Now we’re actually booking more dates around that time. I’m going to be home for like two months. So we’re trying to do it like that.

But you’re not double-booked for any of those.

I’m not double-booked for any of those, no-no-no. But day to day, I’m doing one or the other.

So it’s a pretty even split.

It’s a pretty even split. Right now, it’s working out, and I can really say I’m working. That’s a good thing.

Double Booked has some structural similarities to the other records. However, where the other records presented one sound, this one presents two. That said, particularly on your Blue Note records, you use the producer’s strategy of splitting the record in half. In My Element began with originals, and then the flavor changed.

Exactly.

Can you speak to how your thinking about making recordings has evolved since your first one, Mood [Fresh Sound], which I wrote the liner notes for. On that one, you said you were trying to do in with an open attitude, like it was a gig. Three years later, when I spoke with you for a Downbeat when you released Canvas, you said the opposite.

For most of Mood, it was just trio, and it was on a small label, so I wasn’t shaking or scared, really. I was, “Ok, I’ll do a record on Fresh Sounds. No one’s going to hear it.” [LAUGHS] For me, it was “everybody does a record for Fresh Sounds; whatever.” So there was no pressure. So I tried to approach it like a gig. But it didn’t really come off the way I wanted to, because we recorded at 10 in the morning—you don’t do gigs at 10 in the morning! Canvas was my first Blue Note…

But it obviously got some attention.

Yes, it definitely got more attention than I was expecting, so that was great as well. When I did Canvas, though, obviously that’s another level. It’s Blue Note now. It’s going to be a debut thing. So I wasn’t so comfortable. I didn’t really approach this one as a gig. This was more like, “let me think this out, because the world is going to hear this.” I had Mark Turner on that record, had Bilal on that record. It was more a compositional record, I think, for me. It wasn’t so much about the trio. It was more about what my sound is and the vibe of my compositions.

For In My Element, I was way more comfortable. It was just about the trio. We had just got off tour, so we knew the songs. I’m not one of those artists that spring up new songs on the day of the hit. I like to know what we’re going to do as far as the songs we’re going to play. I’m not really about, “Ok, I’m going to take two choruses here, and you do this.” I don’t like to structure it, because I do want it to have the feeling and vibe of a live gig. I’d like to keep that as much as possible.

For this record, I started recording a little bit later, so I could have the vibe of, “ok, I’m playing at night now.” I had a few drinks at the studio. I wanted to keep it loose and have the vibe correct. It’s really cold in the studio, and the walls are white, and you have the headphones on—it can really kill the vibe. So if you don’t feel jazz, it’s hard to play comfortable. So I tried to keep that feeling as much as possible. For In My Element, we’d been on tour with it, so it was comfortable—almost every song except for one or two, were first takes, and we only did one take, of “In My Element.” Same thing with Double Booked. Every song on the trio side were first takes and only takes, except I did one extra take on “59 South,” just to do it, because it was the last song we recorded. Incidentally, we never played that one before. That was really new, and I brought it to the studio, and we did it the first time, and it worked out—then I did a second take.

For the Experiment side of Double Booked, same thing. We recorded them in different places, different times. But my Experiment Band is different, too. I love them because we’ve only had one real rehearsal. Everything else we kind of vibe on stage and come up with. Even when we play songs, we might learn a song, say, at a soundcheck, or say, “Hey, learn this song separately, and let’s come together and see what happens.” I love that surprise aspect of it, the way it sounds organic when we do it like that. That’s what happened in the studio. Every song was a first take. We recorded at night, once again had some drinks there, chilled out and made it really loose. So every song on the Experiment side was a first and only take, except two or three takes of the Bilal song, “All Matter,” because that was our first time ever playing the song.

My main thing is trying to translate to CD the live, organic, comfortable performance you would see if you went to the Village Vanguard or another club. That’s hard to do, but I try to get as close to it as possible.

Is there a different intention with the Experiment than the acoustic trio?

Not really different intentions. What makes my trio different, I think, is that we tap into the hip-hop side, and most piano trios don’t do that, and do it back and forth. But with the Experiment, it’s, “Ok, let’s go all the way in and go for it.” It’s not even like Experiment is a hip-hop band. If you listen to the record, all of the songs aren’t hip-hop. It’s not like that at all. We’re a worldly music thing, I guess you could say, in a way. It’s more a hiphop-fusion-jazz-soul vibe, if you will.

Not everything you do as a sideman is hiphop either. Maxwell isn’t hiphop.

Exactly. It’s a mixture. When people refer to Experiment, they say hiphop, but for the most part it’s a different side of me that I can’t really portray in a trio setting. I get to play as a sideman when I play with the Experiment. I get to comp behind Casey Benjamin, and come from a whole different angle musically. I bring in the Rhodes and electric bass, and sonically it’s a different sound, too. So it’s a band that can take you more places than an acoustic piano trio can take you. You can only go so far with acoustic piano and acoustic bass.

The transitions are delineated by a pair of phone messages. This isn’t the first time you’ve used your answering machine as part of the record—you included a message from Dilla on In My Element. At the beginning of the CD is a message from Terence Blanchard—“Are you double booked? Give me a call.” Halfway through, there’s a different sort of message from Quest Love. In any event, were you double booked?

[LAUGHS] That’s the story of the record. I’ve actually been double-booked before. Not with Terence in that instance. But I wanted to find a way to make this album make sense, because when you’re listening it could well seem very random. “Huh? Where did that come from?” I wanted to make a story line. Most jazz records don’t go that deep into their record to do that. That’s more of a hiphop thing, a pop thing, to have interludes and storylines and messages and things. It’s interesting, and I think jazz needs to be more interesting.

We tend to be snobs at times. The whole genre tends toward musical snobbery, in a way. You go to a jazz concert, it could be like going to a golf tournament or something. SHHH. They have that whole vibe. I’m of this generation, and we do things like that. We make the music fun. I try to make it more than just your average record. So I try to throw in those little musical snacks, interludes, and phone messages from people in my other worlds, and make it somewhat different than the normal jazz record—here it is, here’s the tunes.

Are you thinking about it before, or is it all post-production?

For this record, definitely before. I had to figure out the way I wanted to make the record make sense and make a story out of it. Like I say, I didn’t want it to be random.

There are a number of components to your style, which you’ve spoken of. There’s hiphop and jazz. There’s certainly gospel. There’s a blues feeling, too. You also have a pretty distinctive time feel, as has often been noted. I’d like to talk about these elements discretely, perhaps beginning with gospel—and blues as well. As you described to me, early on you played some drums in church, and your mother, who was a singer, brought you with her to clubs, because she wouldn’t entrust you to baby-sitters.

Right.

You said: “I have a certain feel, a certain way of thinking and imagining and hearing harmony, and it all descends from coming up in and playing music in the church.”

I guess that’s where I developed my sound. Growing up in church gave me my way of hearing harmony; I would take church and gospel harmonies and mix them with the jazz harmonies I know. That’s not too normal in jazz. Pretty much, the jazz realm, especially when you look at standards and so on, is very II-V-I oriented in the chord changes and AABA in the form. The form and the chord changes tend to repeat a lot—though of course, nowadays, people are branching out and doing all kinds of things. I would write gospel tunes all the time, and people would say about my gospel tunes, “They sound a little jazzy.” But then, when I played jazz, they say, “I hear gospel.” I try not to ignore any part of my background or what I hear. I become a vessel for the music that I hear, and just let it come out how it comes out.

Your sound and harmonic imagination come through pretty fully-formed on <i>Mood</i>, the first record. I think the evolution has come in other way—narrative focus, broader frames of reference, more clarity. But there’s a pretty recognizable line from when you were 21-22. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, I would. I’m glad of that. I didn’t think so at the time, I didn’t know at the time, until I did the record and started hearing that. “Wait. Maybe I do have a certain sound.” That’s the greatest compliment anybody can tell someone—“You have your own sound.” It’s different than, “You’re a good jazz musician” or “boy, you can really play.” There’s a million people who can really play, but that don’t have a sound. It’s totally different. I know people who aren’t really great players, but they have a sound, and they can write, and they also have a sound compositionally. I’ll take that over just being a good player, because those come a dime a dozen.

Another component of gospel is not the sound that imprinted itself on your consciousness, but that you started working as a professional musician at a very early age in the church.

Exactly. Especially for African Americans, too. That’s the only place where at 8 years old you can get a paycheck playing music. People don’t come up with money, so if you’re a musician, it’s a way you can help out with the family. I know people literally 7 years old that play drums in church who make a check. There’s no other way you can do that musically at 7 right around the corner from your house.

No more Jackson 5.

No more Jackson 5, that kind of stuff. Church is very accessible for African-American people to come up and play in. Then from church, that’s when you develop being spiritual in music, being able to touch someone with a song. When you play in church, the audience, the congregation, the choir, are all reacting to you as well. Everything you play, the singers are reacting to you, the audience is reacting to that, and it’s all very spiritual. I think that’s another part of music that I take from church as well—not playing for the sake of playing but for the spiritual aspect, the emotion, the realness of it, the organic honesty of the whole thing.

By the age of 16, you were orchestrating 10,000 congregants in a service at the Brentwood Church in Houston, where Joe Samuel Ratliff was the pastor. That’s quite a responsibility. And not just there, but at the Catholic church nearby, and another service, too…

Then I played another service on Saturdays with my mom at a Seventh Day Adventist church. So I was rolling in the dough in high school!

Talk about your learning curve. How quickly did you develop facility at the piano? And what do you think allowed you to have that kind of perspective and detachment at that age?

I don’t know. Honestly, I think I was born with that thing. I just discovered it late. Then I think I always had the talent to play the piano, but kind of refused it—I kind of tapped in and just left it alone. I thought I was going to be a track star, but it didn’t work out for me. I ran the mile. I was pretty fast. Up until four years ago, the record for my elementary school for the mile run was still up. No one had beat it. I don’t even know if it’s been beaten yet. But four years ago, my old coach found me, emailed me, “good to hear what you’ve been doing; by the way, your record for the mile run has still not been beaten.” Oh yeah! Look out. Bolt, look out!

I think Bolt is safe for a while.

He’s amazing. Bolt is a very inspirational cat to me right now. But I think I got the musical gene from my mom. Well, my whole family is pretty musical. My grand-dad’s a singer, my aunt is a singer. So when you go to our family reunion, it’s like a musical. Everybody’s singing and doing things. So just my sensibility to music, and even to my facility on the piano… I can’t explain it, because I never had formal lessons. I’ve just been able to play. That came natural. Along the way, I learned certain things, definitely, but it all pretty much came natural. And then, holding down a church service by yourself on a piano does require some facility as well. Certain things you’ve just got to be able to do. That helped as well.

You couldn’t have been entirely self-taught, though, because you did go to Houston High School of Performing Arts, a magnet school, where there must have been some formal training.

Yes. But there wasn’t piano training there. All the school had there was a jazz combo and a jazz band. Jazz big band and jazz combo. Basically, they’d give you charts, and you’d just learn tunes and stuff like that. We had a harmony class, so you would learn things about harmony, ear training, and so on, that, but never an actual piano teacher who would sit down with you at the piano and show you things. To this day, I’ve still never had a real piano teacher. I just picked up things here and there where I could, off the streets. A lot of comrade church musicians, we would sit down and shed together. I got a lot from Alan Mosley, a piano player in Houston who played with my mom all the time. He’s the reason why I even play jazz. He’d come over to the house and rehearse with my mom, and I’d sit there by the piano the whole rehearsal and watch him play, and afterwards he’d show me things. I think the first jazz tune I learned to play was “Spiderman,” the actual cartoon Spiderman—he taught me a jazz way to do it, like a minor blues. Then he showed me how to play “Cherokee,” how to play “Giant Steps,” things of that nature. So he’d be it as far as a jazz teacher or piano teacher goes.

A very pragmatic education. Put your fingers here, you get this sound.

Yes.

I’d like to talk about pianistic influences. You have a Herbie Hancock tune on every one of your records. I know you’ve said that this is by accident, but it can’t really be one.

The first two albums it was completely, “Dang. Really? I did it again.” Kind of accidental, not really thinking about it, just kind of happened. Then In My Element, I actually further Radioheadalized “Maiden Voyage,” which I’d done on Mood, but hid the Radiohead more, so it wasn’t so obvious. But there I wanted to make it obvious, so I redid it for that purpose. Then on Double Booked, we did “Butterfly.” Now a part of my repertoire is Herbie songs. We feel comfortable playing them, and he’s an amazing composer.

Actually, I thought for the life of me that “Silly Rabbit” was referencing “Jackrabbit” from Inventions and Dimensions.

Not one bit. But it’s certainly in that vibe. Herbie’s impact on me is his ability to go between any genre of music and fit right in. Herbie could easily go from a Bonnie Raitt gig to a Stevie Wonder gig to a Miles Davis gig to a Mos’ Def gig, to any gig he wants to go to, and just slip right in, and sound amazing, and still sound like Herbie—but fit what’s happening. He’s like water. He fits the shape of whatever is needed without losing his self, his consistency, his own thing. Now, he’s one of my favorite acoustic piano players, but he’s also my favorite on Rhodes. No one gets a sound out of the Rhodes like Herbie. It’s amazing. What’s he’s done in terms of branching off from his acoustic jazz career, and doing the Headhunters and the Mwandishi stuff, and getting into the hiphop side, and getting the recognition he’s got from the world. Everyone knows “Rockit.” It’s hard for a jazz person to get that recognition. Most people know “Watermelon Man,” believe it or not. Stuff like that. And he hasn’t lost any respect from anyone by any means. He’s still playing to this day. I respect him on the piano, and also off the piano, just business-wise and his imagination. Then there’s how open he is to this day. He’s not a musical snob. Not one bit. It maybe an “us Aries” thing. He’s very open, and he sounds open. When he’s playing, he sounds like he’s having fun, and I love that, too. Some people take what they do way too seriously, so it comes across. But you can hear he’s having fun, reaching for things. I love his spirit as well.

7-8 years ago, you mentioned Keith Jarrett less as a stylistic influence than as a template for your trio playing. Does that still hold true?

Yes, that totally still holds true. With Keith, it’s so organic, and he translates that very well from live to record. Everybody in the trio has a voice, and it makes the music more interesting. When you go to Keith’s concert, you don’t know where everything is going to come from. You can tell everybody has a place, and also trades places.

Monk. You do “Think of One” on this. I like the version, because you played the tune idiomatically but also sounded like yourself. When did you get involved in Monk’s music? In high school or later?

No, that came after. Even when I first got to college, I wasn’t a big Monk fan. I liked his tunes. That became a thing, especially in college. Everybody tries to learn the most obscure Monk tunes, have a competition who knows the most obscure Monk tunes—but I was never really so into it. Around mid-college, 1999-2000, I became more intrigued by him.

Was it being in New York for a while?

That, but then also, when everywhere you go, everybody’s trying to play a Monk tune. You think, “Let me check this out and see what it is.”

What hadn’t appealed to you, and when then did appeal to you?

Now I’m more into the composition and his comping. And Monk’s attitude. He had a certain attitude when he played, a fun, free attitude like what I hear when I hear Herbie or Chick. Have fun. It so comes across. Monk’s that way. When you watch him, you can tell. But in college, checking out his compositions really did it for me. When I decided to do a Monk tune, I didn’t want to do it the regular way. Everyone does Monk tunes all the time, to the point where, after a while, it gets annoying, because “ok, now you’all just doing it to do it.” You’re not doing it any justice. So when I did do one, I wanted to do it in a way that was fresh and new, and at the same time you never lose the tune. Some people will redo something, and it’s like, “where is the song?” They’ll even change the melody to fit some chord or something. Huh? So I try to respect the song, and at the same time put my own thing on it, and at the same time make it as modern as possible. That’s what I did when I mixed it with Dilla. I came up with that idea.

Speaking of Dilla, let’s talk about your time feel. A few years ago, you told me that Damion Reed, who played drums with you then, called the way you feel time “the circle.” You continued: “We don’t think straight-ahead like 1-2-3-4. We feel where the measures end, do whatever we have to do between 1 and 4 to get back to the 1, and then come in together.” Does that description still obtain for the way you think about time?

Yes, but not so much as then, because I play a little bit different with Chris Dave. Damion was more open and free-flowing, to the point where sometimes the time would get lost—you don’t know where it is. It’s still there, but it’s more mysterious where the time is. Chris is a master at knowing where the time is, and doing so many different things with it, but you still feel where it is. So I still feel the pulse. With Damien, you would lose the pulse sometimes—in a good way. “Oh, shit, where’d it go, where’d it go? Ah, there it is.” BAM. So it made me play a certain way within measures. That still has its place now, too, at times, but not so much as it did.

You obviously use many beats from hiphop, particularly ideas that were in play during the ‘90s, in your formative years and when you first became involved. Can you speak to your perception of how hiphop affected jazz time? Also, once in New York, did you personally incorporate other rhythmic influences? You arrived here at a time when various hybrids were taking shape. Dafnis Prieto came to town in 1999, along with other Cuban and Afro-Caribbean musicians. Brad Mehldau’s ideas were well-established.

A lot of those things are true, but probably I didn’t realize it, just being in it. Sometimes it just seeps in, and you don’t know. Just going from club to club and playing with different people in school and outside of school, a lot of things affect you, and you don’t even know. It’s like catching a cold. You never really know where exactly you got the cold; just you get home and don’t feel too well. You don’t know if you got it on the subway, when you were outside, when you were at McDonald’s. So a lot of the rhythmic things are just being in New York and getting all of it at different times.

But also, playing in a soul and hiphop setting often, as well as playing jazz often, I would intermingle the two without really trying, I think. I’m used to playing this way time-wise. When I play hiphop and soul, especially with the people I was playing with, behind the beat is kind of the thing to do. It has a certain feel. So I took that over to the jazz realm, and it became my style, in a way, to have that kind of vibe with the jazz style. The jazz style tends to be on top of the beat more, versus laid-back. I think I get that from especially hiphop in the area of Dilla, who I got into around 2000-2001. His stuff is about things like sampling pianos, or any instrument, putting it way back behind the drums, and the bass is way behind, but the snare on the drums is a little bit ahead, and there’s nothing landing you anywhere—you’re just wobbling around in the middle, nodding your head, like “Oh my God. I feel the time; I can’t really nail it, but it’s there.” It’s kind of mysterious. I call it “drunk funk. Anyway, I took that, and cats like Pete Rock have the same thing, and some Tribe Called Quest things (which Dilla was part of for the first part of his career) have the same thing. DJ Premier, too.

What’s the appeal of that time feel?

It just feels so good. It doesn’t feel jagged or in a rush. It feels like you’re taking your time, like you’re just chillin’. You’re not taking anything too…almost too seriously. I feel like I’m hanging out for a while! Or something. You feel more in control, too. Because when everything is jagged, and you’re on top and they’re on top, it feels like rush hour. Imagine being in rush hour, but you’re going slow as hell, but you’re still with everybody, so everybody else is looking at you like you’re in slow motion—there’s no traffic for you but it’s rush hour. It’s an interesting feeling.

Would the rush hour feeling have anything to do with a northern way of thinking vis-a-vis a southern way of thinking?

Not really. Honestly, I think it’s a mixture of the two. Culturally, African-American people tend to lay back behind the beat. Other cultures tend to be more on top of the beat. [DEMONSTRATES ON HIS CHEST] That lazy, fucked-up rhythm from Africa. It’s passed down. It’s more natural. We’re more rhythmic people, if you will. I think that’s probably what it is.

In high school, before you came to New York, what hiphop were you listening to?</b>

Mostly just Tribe Called Quest and some Busta Rhymes stuff. I wasn’t as big into hiphop in high school as I became once I moved to New York.

Was this because of the church influence?

Church influence. For the most part, my life was pretty much church and jazz. I was working in church on the weekends, and during the week choir rehearsals and stuff like that, and then, when I’d go to school, it was jazz. Once I moved to New York, which is the home of hiphop, is when I really got knocked in the head with a bunch of hiphop. I started to work with Bilal, then started meeting all these emcees and doing little things, shows with him and shows with different hiphop artists. That’s how I got into it more. I’m still not the biggest hiphop head. But I like what I like.

You described for me a couple of years ago how your jazz career evolved from the New School. You came here from Houston, Dr. Ratliff from Brentwood Church knew the pastor at the Canaan Church in Harlem, so you got a job playing that service early on, which probably kept you in funds.

Yes.

Then you started going to sessions. You mentioned a place in Fort Greene called Pork Knockers, Cleopatra’s and Small’s in Manhattan. Anthony Wonsey linked you to Russell Malone, and things happened. But could you go into some detail on your progress in..well, let’s not call it “hiphop,” because it seems insufficient. Let’s call it Urban music.

The very first day I got to the New School, they had all the new students play. They call your name up and put a little group together on the spot, and you play together. I can’t remember if Bilal and I were on the stage together or if we were separate, but by the end of that day, we were boys, we were friends. We started hanging out. One of the teachers from the New School said, “I have a friend who lives right around the corner who used to drum for the Spin Doctors, Aaron Comess, if you want to do some recording over there.” We were like, “cool.” Bilal wanted to do a demo, and we went over there and did some recording. Soon after that, Bilal got signed, and once he got signed, before his record came out, we started doing gigs around the city, and that’s where I started meeting people in the Soul genre, in the Hiphop genre. Bilal had Common and Mos Def on his record. So at one point, we went on tour with Common, and then Common opened up for Erykah Badu, so the tour was with Erykah, Common, and Bilal. Then I met Mos Def. I was playing with Bilal, but on the tour, you get to know all the cats in their bands, and you get to know the them, too. I’ve done some playing with Common, and done some things with Erykah, not in her band, but situations where we’re together. From that, I met the Roots—Bilal’s from Philly, the Roots are from Philly—and I started playing gigs with the Roots on and off. Throughout the years, that aspect of it has continued to grow. From there, I started playing with Q-Tip. I’ve done some things with Talib Kwali.

It seems like the two most consequential relationships now are with Bilal and Mos Def.

Yeah, Bilal, Mos Def, and Tip.

Talk about each of them.

Bilal is my favorite singer, period, of all time. He’s extremely organic. He doesn’t do anything unless he means it. He’s an amazing vocalist, period. People don’t even know, but he was like all-state opera in high school. He has an extremely trained voice without sounding trained. But he can sing any genre. He’s probably the only male jazz vocalist I know that actually sings jazz for real. Most people that sing jazz get on my nerves, because there’s a specific jazz voice people have when they sing jazz that’s annoying. It’s like, “I’m singing JAZZ now.” It sounds like their eyebrow is up. It’s really annoying. But he gets it, and he’s actually a jazz musician at heart. He knows how to interpret songs. He can do that in any genre of music, and he knows how to change his voice to fit certain things. Musically, he’s an amazing cat.

<p>Mos Def is a great person overall. Funny cat. Very down to earth. I don’t think there’s an asshole bone in his body. He doesn’t come off like one of them cats, like, “Oh, I’m a superstar, leave me alone”—that kind of vibe. He’s very open, and musically very honest, and has an eclectic library of music in his head. When we do shows with him, we’ll go from an Eric Dolphy tune to a Neal Young song in a minute, to a Radiohead song, to a James Brown. To whatever. He loves music. He’s a vessel for music. He understands the live band aspect, because he plays a little piano, plays a little drums; he respects it and is always searching for more knowledge. Also what’s great about working with him is he lets me be me. We have a good working thing, because he listens to me, I listen to him, and we work things out. It’s a very give-and-take relationship.

Tip is the same way. Mentally, his musical library is ridiculously huge, and so is his physical library at his house. He has so much music. He’s one of them cats that I would call if I was on Millionaire and there was a question about music. He’s a deejay at heart, too. Records, years of records… And he has perfect pitch. An emcee with perfect pitch? A lot of the songs that we start, songs that he sings, he can start them off the top and be in the right key all the time. He’s another emcee, like most, who knows how to play a little piano. He’ll be rhyming, and then, “Yo, stop real quick. When we get to that A-flat-minor chord, play this.” That’s crazy. For an emcee to be that musical is different than a singer, because most emcees much just rhyme their tracks, so they’re not really doing it with a live band aspect. Again, Tip has a big respect for the live band aspect. He’s one of the people trying to bring it back and move it forward, and look to the future and do some cool things.

That segues well into my next question, which is how hiphop/urban music has evolved during your own maturity, since you arrived in New York in 1997. At the time, there was a confluence of many streams, which have since branched out, until today hiphop itself is in a different place, and the hot performers from then have matured and gone in different directions.

In 1997, when I first got here, the Neo-Soul movement was big, which brought back the live bands and the importance of the live band sound. There was a big blast of, “Let’s bring live bands back.” Hiphop artists were using bands. Then something happened in Neo-Soul, and it got strange. I think once D’Angelo was out of the picture, it started dying down a little bit, then Hiphop in itself got real strange, and now you have all these kind of dumb songs, and they’re not really Hiphop. I call it “Hip-Pop.”

Is Hiphop something else now?

No, Hiphop is still Hiphop. But the stuff that people say is Hiphop isn’t even hiphop to me. That’s like people calling Smooth Jazz, “jazz,” to me. When people say “jazz,” I think what I think, but somebody might call it listening to jazz—which they can, but for me it’s not that. I don’t even get mad. There’s a lot of bullshit out right now getting fed to the public, and they’re eating it, and they’re thinking that’s where real music is. That’s the area we’re in now. We’re trying to fight back and bring back the live band and the good music, and even the stuff that people are talking about is… You’re still talking about money and fat asses? Really? Can we move on? That type of thing.

Now I think there’s more of an uprising of actual cause for good music. For a while there was no cause. A lot of good music is lost. Back in the day, there was great music, because there was a cause behind the music. Something political was happening…

What do you mean by “back in the day”?

‘70s and below. There was always a cause. Your “What’s Going On” era with Marvin Gaye. All that shit. There was always a cause and a passion for real music, a PASSIONfor it, and now it’s just like some dumb shit. But I think it’s coming back. Politically, there are things happening. You have Barrack Obama. Michael Jackson just passed, so now people are revisiting those records and getting influenced again. Sometimes you don’t really think about shit until it’s gone. I think Michael’s passing is really making people reflect and look back and see what’s real now, and it’s changing their aspect on things…

How so? For you, for instance?

My lady and I were talking about this the other day. I think Michael’s influence for most people is different than anybody else’s, because he was such a big influence on the world when he was 7. I don’t know anybody else who can say that—like, on his level. He was a major superstar for 43 years. On top of the world type stuff. That’s unheard-of. So you kind of watched him grow up. You feel like you knew him when he was a child, when you see these videos. He was always an influence for me. I used to get in trouble for moonwalking in second grade. I had the glove and everything. I actually went to a Jackson Five concert, and the whole nine. When you listen back, people forget that he could really, really sing. Michael Jackson was a brand, so you get caught up in his whole thing, with the dancing, and just him being weird, and the Jackson Five and all this stuff. But if you sat Michael down in a chair next to a piano and start playing, just to hear him sing…he was ridiculous! I think people skip over it. You think he can sing, but when you listen back to the music you’re like, “Wow, he can really sing!” He was so ahead of his time! When he was with the Jackson Five, when they were small, doing the Destiny album, with some of those changes on there, and he’s singing all through them changes, eating them up… It’s like, “Yo, you’re 7; why are you sounding like you’re 30 and you’ve been hurt already?” That’s what Smokey Robinson was saying after he recorded “Who’s Loving You,” and Berry had Michael Jackson sing it after he signed Michael Jackson. Berry called Smokey, like, “You sung this song, but listen to this,” and Smokey heard him and it was like, “Oh my God. This boy sounds like he’s been through it all, and he’s like 9.” So Michael Jackson was an angel that God put here specifically for a reason. He did inspire me and most people musically.

Before your digression on Michael Jackson, you spoke of the ways in which the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s reflected the times in which it was created, and said you say you feel similar winds in the air today. Can you reflect on any connections between the way you’re approaching jazz and the way the culture has developed during your maturity?

I’m trying to involve things and people in the music that have something to do with today, and pushing the envelope in music and politics and everything in general. I had a song on the record that I didn’t release because we couldn’t get it cleared. I was playing a one-motif thing, and over it was the news about the Sean Bell hearing, and it had Martin Luther King’s “We Shall Overcome” speech….

Sean Bell was the man who was killed by 50 shots from several policeman after leaving his bachelor party in Jamaica, Queens.

Yeah. More than 50 shots. They all got off. It also had my friend, Jessie, who was a Katrina victim, speaking about his experience with that, and there was a Barrack Obama thing at the end of it. It addresses the time period we’re in. Certain albums you can look back on and you know the time period it was in just by listening to it. I think being able to capture the times musically within a record is kind of a lost art as well. Then, the people I’m using on the record, like Quest and Terence and Mos, are visionary people who I look up to, who are doing things. The time period we’re in is making me be more aware of my surroundings. That kind of thing.

I do want to ask you about one tune on Double Booked, “Festival,” with Casey Benjamin, which in the beginning, the way Casey is playing and the way you’re comping, makes me think of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Now, whether or not I’m accurate on this, could you discuss some of other bands you’ve been paying attention to over the last 8-9 years?

It’s very possible that what you say is true. I love Wayne. He’s my favorite jazz composer. I love his composing, period. I also love Art Blakey and the Messengers. I love the Miles Davis Quintet. I love Herbie’s stuff on his own. I love the John Coltrane Quartet. I love Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band. I love the Bandwagon—Jason Moran. Terence Blanchard’s band. He’s had a few different bands through the years, and I love what he does.

A few words about the contemporary bands you spoke of—Bandwagon, Fellowship, Blanchard.

First of all, Brian Blade is one of my favorite drummers of all time, because he gives you a feeling like he’s playing keys. He brings so much color to the music that normally a drummer wouldn’t bring. His textures and the passion that he has when he plays, you can feel it and you can hear it. It’s all there. He’s just a very emotional drummer. I’ve cried listening to Blade. Drummers don’t generally make people cry. I also love the compositions that Fellowship plays and the way they portray them. Brian Blade Fellowship put on probably my top favorite concert I’ve ever seen, at the Vanguard a few years ago. You can get a lot of great musicians, put them together, but they don’t sound good as a band. But Fellowship is a great band, in their collective honesty and how they play with each other. Ego can get in the way of allowing honest things to happen, but with Fellowship there’s no ego on that stage.

I think that’s what it is with Jason, and also Terence. It’s Terence’s band, but he doesn’t have an ego about it. He lets everybody write, lets everybody be themselves, and kind of goes where the music goes. He’s not trying to dictate everything because he’s the leader and “this is what it is.” You can feel that from the spirit. What makes me like people is the spirit, the intention, and that really comes across in Terence’s band. Especially Terence’s current band, because Kendrick Scott is on drums. He’s another one of my favorite drummers. He’s like a Blade, too—I think he’s also made me cry. I’ve been playing with Kendrick since high school, and Kendrick was playing with me at Dr. Ratliff’s church. I’ve known him for years. He’s definitely a very egoless drummer. Really about the music and what’s happening, and lets the spirit move him. I love that about him.

You made a remark in 2005 about liking to play with Derrick Hodge, who plays on the Experimental half of Double Booked, because he can go in and out of jazz and hiphop feels seamlessly, as can you. Can you speak to the qualities that are distinctive to rendering jazz and rendering hiphop, and the complexities that pertain to a jazz-oriented musician addressing hiphop and to a hiphop artist addressing jazz?

As far as jazz and then going into hiphop, I think it’s the disconnect between urban music and jazz musicians. Because nowadays, let’s face it, there are less African-Americans playing this music than there were before. I sat down not too long ago and tried to name five pianists that are my age or younger who are known on the scene.

Who are African-American?

Yeah. I couldn’t name five—I was really trying—who are really known, who are my age and younger who are actually on the scene. In other words, is somebody in Chicago going to know this person? Since we live in New York, we have a false reality. If I live in Kansas, am I going to know Eric Lewis? Love him to death. He’s one of my favorite pianists. He’s ridiculous. Amazing. I mean, I can name some people I know who are in New York that are bubbling. But I’m just saying cats that are getting some kind of broader recognition. You do this for a living, so you’re going to know these cats. But I doubt someone who’s going to a college in Houston or in Kansas is going to know who all those cats are. I’m not saying they’re not here, but they’re new, bubbling kind of cats that are not getting the recognition they probably should.

But as a whole, there’s not a large amount of African-Americans playing this music, as was the case before. Let’s flip it around. In the ‘60s, there were more black people playing jazz than white people.

Whether or not that’s true, black musicians formed the preponderance of those crucial to the development of the idiom.

Yes, of course. I did a survey of my own. If you look at the life of jazz, and take out anybody who wasn’t black, would it really change? Probably not so much. I don’t think it would have been a big change if you take out anybody who wasn’t black. Nowadays, if you flip it around, if you remove people who are black, the scene wouldn’t change very much. Look at all the magazines, look at everything—there’s not many black people in there. Most of your vocalists under 30 that you’re hearing about and seeing are white. Now, I’m just speaking about 30 years and younger. This generation. I’m talking about the difference between my generation and another generation. This generation has more European and more Asian than Black. I think it’s at an all-time high now. With black people, what happens is, when they’re young like me, they get sucked into playing in church. It’s easier. They make money. Not everybody has a jazz mentor. Like I say, we live in New York, so we have a false reality. If you’re from wherever, Cincinnati, and you’re an up-and-coming piano player, there’s probably one jazz club, maybe, and there’s probably no jazz station, and if there is a jazz station they’re probably playing Charlie Parker. Let’s be honest. Jazz stations suck nowadays. There aren’t many good jazz stations.

Well, I’d hope they were playing Charlie Parker. But hopefully they’re playing something of today as well.

Right. Music moves on in every other genre. If you turn on Hot-97, they’re playing Usher. When you turn it on, 9 times out of 10 you’re probably going to hear Chris Brown because he’s up to date. Any other genre of music is like that, except jazz. Jazz is very history-oriented, and it pretty much stays there for most people. Versus any other music. It’s very history-oriented, and it’s to the point where, “Do you care about the future?” Hello! Some people aren’t about the future. You’re about the future. But you have the same respect for the past.

You have to balance it.

You have to balance it. But most people, when it comes to jazz, there’s no balance. They won’t talk about Marcus Strickland. Jazz is hidden. Where would you find him? If you don’t live here, how would you know him? 99 times out of 100, the jazz stations aren’t going to be playing him. If you turn on the TV, you’re not going to see him. You have to dig pretty hard. Other genres of music, the new shit that’s out, it’s put in your face. I have to know Chris Brown right now. Without trying, you’re going to know him. You’re going to see him in the magazines, you’re going to see him on TV, you put on the radio and he’s going to be there. That’s how it is. They force-feed new artists down your throat.

I’ve wavered way off the point. But I’m saying that this is the disconnect of it. Because now, this music has changed from being more of a music that I guess black people have been playing to more of a music that other people are playing, so therefore the aspect of the groove, that urban groove, is lost. The Europeans and Asians aren’t driven by urban rhythm. They’re more driven by melody, notes, and other kinds of things. So it’s very hard for a jazz musician nowadays to be able to play a hip-hop groove, because that’s not really where they’re from with it. So it’s changed. Because back in the day, in the ‘60s, if you told somebody a jazz musician was on the gig, it was like, “Oh, great! Yes!” They did a lot of the Motown recordings. It was like a marriage back then. After the jazz clubs, they’d go right to the studio. If you look on many albums, you’ll see Ron Carter on the record, Herbie on the albums…

There was a studio scene.

Exactly. There was more of a mingle, too, between the studio musicians and the jazz cats. Now, to be a studio musician, you live in L.A. and you play real jazz here. It’s really separated.

This began when I asked you the impact of hiphop on jazz. Now let’s talk about the impact that jazz is having on hiphop.

Well, jazz has always had an influence on hiphop. Jazz is one of the reasons why hiphop is what it is. Jazz musicians have been sampled for years now. That’s what made me start listening to hiphop, from when I was listening to Tribe Called Quest in high school. I grew up in the suburbs in Houston, so a lot of the rap I would hear, I wouldn’t be able to identify with it, because a lot of people talked about guns or the ghetto or these girls, and I wasn’t about that, so it would go over my head. Until I heard A Tribe Called Quest, and I was like, “Wait—there’s chords. Wow, there’s melody. Wait, that’s ‘Red Clay.’  I know that tune!” It kind of grasped my ear. It’s like, “yo, they’re melodic.” So then I started listening to them. That’s what grasped me, the chord changes and things of that nature. To this day, I’m catching more and more songs, like songs I used to love, and I’m like, “Oh, I know what that song is; they sampled that tune.” So jazz always had an influence.

I think nowadays, it’s now about having the actual musicians mingle together. That hasn’t happened in a very long time. Granted, hiphop is new, so Trane couldn’t mingle with a hiphop artist now—he’s gone. Bill Evans, the same thing. But those cats have been sampled. Ron Carter’s done it. He’s done it for Tribe. So there certain cats now actually are bridging that gap, and have bridged that gap. I’m trying to bridge that gap, and do it while I’m actually doing my thing as well at the same time.

You remarked to a British paper a few years ago that you play “intelligent hiphop.” Can you elaborate a bit?

I can’t stand the hiphop that’s all about the jewelry and the girls and the money and the guns. I like more conscious hiphop, like talking about the empowerment of black people. Your empowerment of yourself as a person, whatever color you are. Treating women right. Every other song is dissing a woman and calling them a bitch or whatever. I’m more into other hiphop that’s more positive, talking about something else, something that’s not degrading. Moreso than ever, those songs are the ones that I like the music for, because those people are more conscious, and mostly conscious people listen to better music than people who aren’t conscious. Tribe Called Quest is very conscious. Common is very conscious. Mos Def is very conscious. They all have great, great music. So I guess that’s what brings the two together for me.

You were talking about all the obstacles that militate against a young black kid actually playing jazz. You could get trapped in the economics of being a church musician, you won’t get to hear it on the radio, and so on. But quite a number of remarkably mature, well-formed jazz musicians emerged from Houston, like you and Kendrick Scott, Jason Moran, Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Mike Moreno, Walter Smith…

Jamire Williams.

There we go. Was that solely because of the high school? 

Having that high school helped. That’s a big boost. I’m pretty sure that in a lot of other states, there are musicians just as talented, but probably never had the chance to… When colleges come to Houston, they go right to my high school before they go anywhere else. If you’re a music college, you’re going right to my high school. If I went to a regular high school, they would come right there. I probably wouldn’t have been so diligent and worked so hard. When you’re in high school with a bunch of talented people, it makes you work harder. It’s a competition type thing—you want to get better because this person is better. All your friends have the same agenda. They all love what you love. I went to a regular high school my first year, and I couldn’t talk to nobody about jazz! Nobody knew nothing about jazz. If you’re around a lot of people who don’t have the same dream as you and all that kind of stuff, it could wear you down, and you become not so serious about it, and then if you go to a high school that doesn’t have any kind of hoopla about it, you’re probably not going to get the attention from colleges that you want. So for some people, it gets heavier and heavier and heavier on them, and they don’t get that kind of chance. They were talented, but they didn’t hone their craft enough or get the opportunity to do this, and have comrades to do this with. So they just stay in church and do what they do, and it’s that.

But in Houston, I think a lot of it was that from the door the cats are just naturally talented, but then being in a school where there’s other talented cats that have the same interests as you really helps. You’re learning from your friends. I learned a pile of stuff from my comrades that I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t go to that school. Mike Moreno or Walter or Kendrick would bring tapes to school, like, ‘Yo, check out this new stuff.” They were really into what was happening in New York and in the jazz scene, and so on.

You made a remark, “I feel like I’m an actor and a painter. It’s all the arts in one. So when I’m playing the piano, I don’t just think of it as, ‘Oh, I’m playing piano.’ I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.” You said, “it’s a mood thing. On each song I go into a place in my mind, and I’m in my moment right there.” Does that attitude perhaps hearken back to your church background, and orchestrating the function?

Exactly. Everything has its place. I’m not one of the people who play for the sake of playing. Some people say I don’t play enough. “I loved that tune, but you didn’t play enough of that tune.” But at the same time, a person will come to me and say, “the way you played on that song…” Space says just as much for me as playing something, and I think once you realize that space and silence is sound, that it has as much of a place as something you’re playing, it takes cats a long way. You really jeopardize the meaning and the mood and the focus of what’s going on when you just play to play. I think you reach people when it’s just honest. “Shit, I don’t feel like playing on this part.” It doesn’t come to me like that. “I just want to lay on these chords.” Then you’ll hear the inflections, say, that the drums are doing more. Then maybe the drums take over. He’s not even really soloing. It’s just the vibe, and you start thinking. It gives you a chance to think. A lot of times, if you go to a concert, people are doing so much on stage, it doesn’t allow your mind to be free to think of something and go somewhere. I like to be a soundtrack sometimes, so I might just play something, and it repeats. It might be a vamp. I might not be soloing, but I may be sparking some thoughts. It’s almost like giving you a soundtrack to whatever you’re thinking right now. Then you might start, “Oh, man!” It makes you feel a certain way. All that plays a part. So I think I’m just in tune with that.

Were things that happened in the early ‘90s…Was MBASE an influence on you?

No.

Was, say, Buckshot LaFunke, Branford Marsalis’ stuff, an influence on you?

I knew about Branford in high school, but I didn’t know about Buckshot LaFunke until I got to college. None of those things really…

Once you got to New York, did MBASE…

No. It still doesn’t.

That approach to music-making still isn’t so meaningful to you.

No. Not to say it can’t be later. But now, no.

You made a remark to the Boston Globe that you couldn’t bring the Experiment out too soon. “I had to establish myself first as a jazz pianist, and get that respect, otherwise very fast you’ll get pegged as a hiphop pianist.” What do you mean by that?

I still get it to this day—a little bit, not so much. But timing plays a part in everything. You can bring something out too early or bring out something too late. It’s just timing—of that record, of your band. I’m an up-and-coming pianist, I’m new, and I’m black; a black piano player having his own trio out in the world working right now is a whole different thing. I’d like to capitalize on that and keep doing that. I didn’t want to move quickly, for the second album on Blue Note, to “Ok, now I’ll do hiphop” or “now I’m playing Rhodes and I got a vocoder and so on,” because then it’s like, “that’s what you really wanted to do, isn’t it?” No. Playing jazz trio is my true love. So I wanted to do a few records with that first, and establish that, so people will respect me for that and understand it, and then I can turn around and do the Experiment stuff.

Is playing the sideman things and playing the Experiment equally as gratifying to you as the acoustic jazz trio?

Yes, definitely. I have A.D.D., I think, so I have to be doing something different all the time. I have to keep moving, and keep it moving. Which is one of the reasons why I love my trio, because it’s never the same shit all the time. Vicente is not going to play the same thing, Chris is not going to play the same thing. It’s always going to be something different. I don’t feel like I’m going to a job and clocking in. At the same time, I love the fact that I do all these different kinds of gigs. They all call for something different, that demands a certain amount of professionalism and a certain amount of musical maturity. You have to know, “Hey, in this situation I can’t do this; I have to do this. In that situation, I have to do something else.” So it teaches you patience and teaches you to be mature and to respect other kinds of music, while at the same time being able to put yourself into it, which is whole nother type of thing to be able to do. That’s not very easy for a lot of people.

Ted Panken spoke to Robert Glasper on August 28, 2009

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Robert Glasper (Blindfold Test) – 2008 – Raw:

1. Joe Sample, “Shreveport Stomp” (from SOUL SHADOWS, Verve, 2004) (Sample, piano; Jelly Roll Morton, composer)

That’s some ragtime stuff going on here. Some strange moments. This is some Scott Joplin type. He doesn’t sound very comfortable doing it. He sounds cool, okay doing it, but it doesn’t sound like he’s very comfortable with the ragtime thing. But I guess the whole… I guess he’s not trying to push the envelope. The point is to play like within that time period, the Scott Joplin type style. It’s the kind of thing Marcus Roberts would do, but Marcus Roberts is a lot more comfortable with it. He makes you believe like he lived in that time period or something. I’ll give it 2 stars. He still needs to work some things out. Kudos to him, though. I can’t play ragtime!

It sounds like he’s trying to play a transcription; he hasn’t like digested the whole thing yet for real. Marcus does digest it. When he plays it, I believe that he lived then. But this cat, it seems like he’s not too comfortable with this time period yet. Some of the timing is strange, a little bit, and you can hear in the ragtime stuff that his left hand is not as comfortable, and the stuff he’s doing with his right hand is very worked out. You can tell it’s hard. I don’t know the tune, but it was in that whole Jelly Roll-Scott Joplin type joint.

2. Jason Lindner, “Monserrate” (from AB AETERNO, Fresh Sound World Jazz, 2006) (Lindner, piano, composer; Omer Avital, bass; Luisito Quintero, cajon, percussion)

I like the concept of the tune. It’s nice. His touch is a little bit strange, I think. I don’t really feel the compassion that it should have or that I want it to have from his playing. I like the percussion. Yeah, it sounds a little forced. It’s almost like forced passion, ha-ha, or something. I think I’ll give this 2½ stars. More the conception of the band… I’ll give it 2½ stars. No, take that back. 2 stars. I think I really just like the percussion. The percussion is nice. But it doesn’t really sound like a band. There’s an uneasiness to it. It sounds like it should be relaxed and it should be more free-flowing, but it sounds kind of jagged and forced—but the point is to be free-flowing.

It sounds like someone under 30…of a European descent. [Do you mean Caucasian descent, or European?] Perhaps. Either-or. Rhythmically it just wasn’t there. It didn’t sound like a cohesive band. I appreciate the concept, like the percussion and the way they started. But I don’t know. It sounded like it should have been more free-flowing, the kind of tune where it was effortless and free-flowing and beautiful, but it sounded like they were trying to force that idea.

3. Ethan Iverson, “Mint” (from The Bad Plus, PROG, Heads Up, 2007) (Iverson, piano, composer; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums)

Definitely of a Latin descent. Sounds like some tune Gonzalo would do. Many sections. Get lost in the sections. You probably can’t hum the melody of the tune when it’s over. But good ensemble. Cohesive trio. It definitely has the touch and the sound and the chops and the writing conception of Latin descent. But I’m thinking Gonzalo—or maybe I’m wrong. Good band, though. They’re definitely together…in their randomness, they’re together. Organized randomness. He’s definitely checked out Jason Moran. The right hand gives me Jason Moran, but I don’t know. Because the group also has that sort of together-random but composition vibe that Jason’s group has, that no one else really has. That’s what makes Jason’s group so different. Once he gets to the solo section, I think it’s Moran. No, it’s not Jason! I thought it was. It’s definitely somebody influenced by Jason; Jason’s writing, definitely.

I don’t know this cat’s playing very well, but is it Vijay Iyer? No? I was saying it has a randomess. Like, in the writing it’s a cohesive randomness. There’s really many parts, and it’s kind of random, you don’t know where it’s going to go, but the group is together, so it’s definitely organized randomness, like Moran’s trio will do or kind of like Gonzalo writes, but it’s really tight… It gives you that vibe. At first I figured it was Gonzalo because of the way his attack and stuff was, and how it was at the beginning of the composition, a lot of shit going on but it was together. But then, once they started soloing, they sounded like Jason, right hand. And the composition sounded like Moran would write. I wouldn’t come home and put it on. 3 stars. Bad Plus? Gotcha. They’ve definitely been influenced by Bandwagon.

4. Kálmán Oláh, “Polymodal Blues” (from ALWAYS, Dot, 2004) (Oláh, piano, composer; Ron McClure, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums)

I’ve heard these songs before. It kind of sounds like a high school band. [LAUGHS] I mean, as far as the cohesiveness of the group goes. I’m not really digging the ensemble at all, or the composition, or the cohesiveness of the ensemble. It’s just something that I’ve heard before, and it’s not really a good version of that. The drummer definitely checks out Jack DeJohnette. But it sounds like they all have different agenda or something; I don’t know.

I mentioned that the drummer definitely checked out DeJohnette. I don’t want to say it’s DeJohnette, but DeJohnette on not a good day. It sounds like that whole trio sat down and listened to some Keith Jarrett; it was like “Let’s try to do that.” But obviously, they’re all influenced by that trio. But I don’t dig what happened there. I don’t dig the tune. I don’t like the pianist, really. I mean, he can play the piano. He can play. But I don’t really like what he’s doing. It’s nothing I would get out of bed to go see…if they’re playing next door. 2 stars.

On “Hungarian Sketches”: They sound better doing this vibe. They’re more comfortable with this, it seems like. The swing tune sounded real pretentious, real not-comfortable. Whoever the piano player it, I can tell he’s one of them cats that would write something for a grant or something, like a really through-composed kind of cat. It kind of seems like it. They sound better doing this vibe. That’s a much better representation of the ensemble. So much better. The other one really gave me high school. But this one sounds good. I still don’t know what the melody was, even though I listened to it for three minutes. That’s kind of a new thing, I guess. Some cats just kind of write for the sake of writing, and there’s no real emotional purpose, or it’s just kind of writing to write, see what kind of bad shit I can write. But I like that vibe they had going on. 3 3 stars. The ensemble sounded great. The drummer was cool, and the bass…even the sound sounded better on this. When he was walking, he sounded like cats fighting in the alley. I don’t dig that style personally.

5. James Hurt, “Eleven Dreams” (from DARK GROOVES-MYSTICAL RHYTHMS, Blue Note, 1999) (Hurt, piano, composer; Francois Moutin, bass)

I like the pianist’s touch; the pianist has a really nice touch. I’m not buying the bluesiness of it, though. He sounds more into the composition, like that’s definitely his vibe. But once he starts swinging, trying to get the blues thing, he’s definitely out of his element. Sounds pretentious. But everything else sounds great. I’m not sure of the point of the solo, what’s going on with it. I’m not sure how he’s putting it together. It sounds like he’s warming up. Heh-heh. He should take a few breaths also.

He’s definitely European. Sounds European. Maybe not definitely, but he sounds European. Everything was cool until he started playing bluesy, then it was AGGHH… Strange. When he started soloing, it got strange. But as far as the composition, it sounded beautiful. But once it got to the solo, it was strange. I couldn’t tell you who it is. Because I don’t listen to that… 3 stars.

6. Eric Reed, “I.C.H.N.” (from HERE, MaxJazz, 2006) (Reed, piano, composer; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Willie Jones, drums)

This feels great. They all feel comfortable in what they’re doing. The pianist has a real nice touch, real laid-back with it. Like, he knows he’s swinging. He ain’t gotta try. He sounds like he has a cigarette in his mouth, hanging out the side, and a glass of ‘nac on the top of the piano. The bass and the drums have a really good hookup. Feels really good.

The band felt great. I forgot to critique. I was just listening, feeling it. The bass and drums had a great hookup. It’s great to hear something when it swings doesn’t sound pretentious. Some of it gives me a Jaki Byard vibe. Also, there’s a little jerk in the melody. I like the pianist’s touch. Had a really nice touch. Really laid back. You can tell he listened to a lot of old cats. He really dwells in it, but at the same time he sees the light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t know who it is. 4 stars.

7 Jean-Michel Pilc, “Spiritual” (from LIVE AT IRIDIUM, NEW YORK, Dreyfus, 2005) (Pilc, piano; Thomas Bramerie, bass; Mark Mondesir, drums; John Coltrane, composer)

Nice touch The pianist has a really nice touch. Very warm. Not forcing anything.

I don’t know who it is, but I really like the pianist’s touch. It sounds really warm. It doesn’t really sound like he’s forcing anything. They sound natural and comfortable in what they’re doing as a trio. I kind of know the song. It’s a remake. It almost sounds like… I’ll give it 3½ stars. I used to see him play with Ari Hoenig’s trio. I actually subbed Ari’s gig like twice.

8. Esbjorn Svensson, “Goldwrap” (from e.s.t., TUESDAY WONDERLAND, EmArcy, 2006) (Svensson, piano; Dan Berglund, bass; Magnus Ostrand, drums)

I like the composition. It’s pretty. I can hum the melody, but at the same time it has a lot of things going on, but the amount of things going on don’t really overshadow the melody too much. I like that. Nice group. They sound good together. I’m not crazy about the pianist’s soloing, but…

I liked the composition. It’s pretty. There’s a lot of things going on, but at the same time, it’s not overbearing, and I could hum the melody. There’s a good mixture of complexity and something you can grasp onto. He doesn’t sound like he’s writing for other writers. A lot of people have that whole thing where the average person wouldn’t buy their record. They write for other musicians, to be like, “Wow, they can really write”—or other writers. Then they wonder why there’s like five people at the show—and all musicians. I don’t know who it is. I’ll give it 3 stars.

9. Stanley Cowell, “A Whole New World” (from DANCERS IN LOVE, Venus, 1999) (Cowell, piano; Tarus Mateen bass; Nasheet Waits, drums; Alan Menken, composer)

I feel like I know this song, or maybe just a piece of that melody I can recognize. It reminded me of “Green Rainbow,” a piece of it. “Things to know. Ways to go.” The band sounds cool as a trio. I’m not too crazy about the solo the pianist is taking. Sounds like Nasheet on drums.

It’s definitely Nasheet. But it’s not Jason Moran and it’s not Tarus. It almost sounded like it could be Tarus, but at the same time it could be Charnett Moffett. It was Tarus? Okay. But the pianist, I don’t know… Judging from that, it’s probably…I don’t know… I liked it until he got to the solo section. It was cool. I could take it until they got to the solo section, then they got strange. The pianist’s feel wasn’t…it didn’t feel right to me. He could play. But it didn’t feel right to me, and his timing and… His sound got a little hokey for my taste. I hate to keep saying this; he sounded European. The composition is always cool, but then once you get into the solo section it always gets strange. That’s where you can tell that, okay, obviously there’s no blues clubs in Europe, they don’t have church, they don’t have things that… It just sounds like that to me. But hey, I could be fuckin’ wrong. 3 stars.

10. Antonello Salis, “La Dolce Vita” (from PIANO SOLO, CamJazz, 2006) (Salis, piano; Nino Rota, composer)

Beautiful touch. Nice chops. Very clean. Very sincere. Whoever it is checked out some early Keith Jarrett stuff, and probably some Latin type stuff.

He had a beautiful touch, and chops were off the chart—a lot of chops. At the same time, he’s really sincere. I could hear sincerity in his playing. He’s creative. He made my eyebrows raise once. That was good. Surprise! I mentioned that you could tell that he checked out some early Keith Jarrett type shit. I don’t know who it is, though. At first listening, I wanted to say Gonzalo, but going on, I don’t really know. 4 stars.

11. Matthew Shipp, “Invisible Light” (from HARMONY AND ABYSS, Thirsty Ears, 2004) (Shipp, piano, composer; William Parker, bass; Gerald Cleaver, drums; Chris Flam, programming [drum & synths])

Very interesting. I like it so far. The intro is really cool. The way they’re playing is really cool. They’re like sparse and random kind of free, but together at the same time.
I liked that! I liked that interlude, whatever you want to call it. That tune was cool. They were like playing free, separately, but at the same time it was together, even though there obviously was nothing written. It just sounded like raindrops. They were all acting like raindrops, but everything fit. Like a typewriter typing really fast, where everything fits together. 4 stars. I can appreciate that type of playing. You probably will never catch me checking it out at the crib, listening to it. Do I ever work with an avant-garde type vibe? Not so much avant-garde. Solo piano wise, I’ll do some stuff that’s kind of like that, on a Cecil Taylor type vibe. But even his shit is organized noise. It’s not free at all. People think it is, but no. That’s the tune! I checked the shit out with video. It’s just the tune. That’s fuckin’ crazy.

12. Cedar Walton, “Daydream” (from ONE FLIGHT DOWN, High Note, 2007) (Walton, piano; David Williams, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Billy Strayhorn, composer)

The band sounds like a BAND. It sounds like a band in the sound. The pianist is losing the groove, to me. He’s playing all over in the solo section, kind of just losing the groove. I don’t know. Definitely sounds like an older rhythm section. It definitely has an Ahmad Jamal Trio vibe. But I don’t know. I like the drummer’s hi-hats!

I liked the feeling of it. The feeling felt good. I feel like I’ve heard the drummer before, definitely. The drummer and the bass player had a good thing happened. It sounded like they were older cats. Part of me wanted to say the pianist was Cyrus Chestnut, because some of it gave me some Cyrus vibe. But then half of it was strange. I was like, “I don’t know.” I haven’t heard a Cyrus record in a while, though. 3 stars.

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Robert Glasper , Downbeat Players Piece – 2005:

Accustomed to navigating complex, cerebral soundscapes, today’s twenty-something jazzfolk don’t always leave space to tell a story.

Not pianist Robert Glasper, who blends abundant technique with oceanic emotional content on Canvas, his Blue Note debut.

“I’m dramatic,” says Glasper, 26. “I feel like an actor and a painter — all the arts in one. When I play, I won’t sacrifice the vibe for some chops.”

Glasper is a 2001 New School graduate who apprenticed with hardcore jazzfolk like Russell Malone and Christian McBride, and built profile as pianist of choice for prominent hip-hop and R&B singers like Bilal, Q-Tip and Mos Def. Through the first six tracks of Canvas, he articulates an expansive, soulful interpretation of the piano trio. Using all ten fingers liberally, he draws harmonic references from a timeline spanning Bud Powell to Mulgrew Miller, and his lines flow organically through a succession of odd-metered and swing grooves and unfailingly melodic beats. He stretches out, but he’s also not afraid to milk his melodies and develop them slowly, using techniques of tension and release more commonly heard in functional situations than art music contexts.

“I’m not a singer, but I like to play things I can sing,” Glasper says. “If you constantly sing while you’re playing, then you probably won’t play bullshit!”

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Glasper inherited this aesthetic from his mother, Kim Yvette Glasper, a professional jazz, blues and church singer, who was murdered last spring at the age of 45. Her spirit hovers over the proceedings, and her recorded voice — she’s singing a raunchy blues — opens the elegiac final track, “I Remember.”

“I wanted to make sure she was on my first record,” Glasper says. “I’m the spitting image of my Mom, totally like her in every aspect. My confidence level. Everything. She was a diva. Yes, sir. A diva.”

When Robert was 12, Kim Yvette Glasper taught him to play piano in the small Baptist church at which she sang. By 14, he was playing the service.

“Once I got better, I told myself I needed to make real money doing this,” Glasper relates. “I started playing at Brentwood, the biggest church in Houston, 10,000 people. During 11th and 12th grades, I played there every other Sunday at 11 o’clock, and I played in the Catholic church around the corner at 9. Saturdays I played the Seventh Day Adventist Church. My pastor in Houston knew the pastor at Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem, and I played there for two years once I got to New York.

“The music in the church is built on feeling, period. It’s not Giant Steps. People give praise or cry, and you have to control all those things. You put a little something behind the pastor. Depending on the type of song, church music has jazz elements and pop elements, too. Hip-Hop is natural for me, because church music has a lot of the same grooves. I just fall in—take from here, take from there, but don’t take too much from one thing.”

On the last four tracks of Canvas, Glasper deploys his populist influences. He entextures “Chant,” another elegiac refrain, with Bilal’s moans and his own organ and kalimba, while on Herbie Hancock’s “Riot,” the date’s only cover, he signifies on Mark Turner’s fleet solo with capacious keyboard color on the Fender Rhodes, before uncorking his own fleet, percussive statement.

Glasper plans to support Canvas with trio tours this fall and winter, filling down time on jobs with the singers – he performs on Q-Tip’s Fall release, joining guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and bassist Derrick Hodge – as well as hardcore jazz work.

“You’ve got to have a balance,” he says. “Church can be a bad habit; everything you play can sound like a church chord if you don’t know how to get out of it. It’s part of my thing, so I put it in there, but I play a little Bud Powell so you go ‘Oh.’ I haven’t played in church for seven years. There’s some black churches up the street from my block, so sometimes I’ll check out the choir or musicians. I get more from them than I do from a lot of preachers. Everything is so damn corrupt, you can’t trust anybody. Only thing you can trust is the music.”

**********

Robert Glasper (Liner Notes for Mood – Fresh Sound – 2002):

“You can’t join the throng til you sing your own song,” Lester Young once quipped, his singular argot underscoring an eternal jazz truth that all aspirants, however learned or technically accomplished, must come to grips with.

The Prezidential imperative of individualism and self-expression is one that pianist Robert Glasper, 23, fully understands. Like much of his peer group, Glasper has the vocabulary of piano modernism — Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Kenny Kirkland, and Oscar Peterson are among his reference points — at his fingertips. Unlike much of his peer group, he has no compunctions about using that language as a springboard from which to leap into his song of the moment. Or, as Glasper puts it, “I take small bits of information of from everyone and make up my own paragraphs.

Fortified by impeccable chops and uninhibited imagination, Glasper spins compelling tales throughout his conversational debut release. His core unit comprises young drummer Damion Reid and veteran bassist Robert Hurst, the latter until recently a long-time member of the “Tonight Show” orchestra after a decade playing hardcore jazz next to piano icon Kenny Kirkland in the high-visibility bands of Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Augmenting on various tracks are tenor saxophonists John Ellis and Marcus Strickland (respectively, runner-up and third-place awardees at the 2002 Thelonious Monk Competition), guitarist Mike Moreno, and popular Hip-Hop/Soul artist Bilal Oliver. All but Hurst were Glasper’s fellow students in the Jazz and Contemporary Music program at Manhattan’s New School, where the pianist matriculated in 1997 on full scholarship.

“The quality I like most about Robert is that he’s an improviser in the truest sense,” says Hurst, who in the spring released his own freewheeling earlier recording of the same trio [UNREHURST (Bebob Records)]. “He’s not afraid to fall flat on his face! He realizes something might or might not work, but he’ll try it, because he wants to do it differently than he did it last night. He listens and he doesn’t play licks. I feel that the music can go anywhere, which keeps me thinking on my feet.”

“I have to improvise,” Glasper agrees. “At my classical recital in high school, I was supposed to play three tunes. I played one, and then broke out and started ‘Giant Steps.’ Otherwise, I feel like I’m regurgitating what somebody else wrote.

“For instance, I love Keith Jarrett, but I can’t transcribe anything he plays. He just speaks. He doesn’t play anything he doesn’t mean. I can hear Keith Jarrett over and over again, and always get something different. The way his trio works together is amazing. They’re real musical. They’re patient. They don’t mind vamping. They let the music breathe. Wherever it goes, they go. They don’t put a cap on it. Some cats have told me to make my tunes four minutes long, then take it out. But that’s not where the magic is. That’s not why people love Trane and Miles. They actually stretched out, tried to take the music someplace else, and when it’s over, then it’s over.”

Testifying through music comes naturally to Glasper. From toddler years he witnessed his mother — who was not inclined to entrust the care of her child to any third party — singing jazz, gospel, R&B and the blues at various Houston venues and home rehearsals. At 12, pianist Alan Mosley, newly recruited to his mother’s band, sparked the youngster’s jazz flames. Soon, Glasper enrolled at Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts, where such current luminaries as pianist Jason Moran and drummer Eric Harland had studied. By 14, Glasper was playing the church service; by 16, he was earning steady money playing jazz and pop gigs around the Houston area.

Glasper kept working after he got to New York, attending jam sessions and taking obscure gigs around the city. One such was a weekly hit on “a broken-ass keyboard” at a Brooklyn bar called Pork Knockers not far from the apartment of pianist Anthony Wonsey, who happened by on a night when he was playing. Impressed, Wonsey asked Glasper to sub for him with Russell Malone, who became a frequent employer between 1999-2001. During those years he also worked with Christian McBride, Mark Whitfield, Nicholas Payton, and Kenny Garrett. He’s played steadily with Bilal since the singer signed his record deal midway through their second year of school, and appears on Bilal’s recent record First Born, Second.

Such activity left little room for formal studies; Glasper notes, “I blew through school a little bit, and didn’t really take lessons, but the teachers were cool about it.” Meanwhile, he did develop instant simpatico with classmates Marcus Strickland, E.J. Strickland and Brandon Owens who share his aesthetic of not stopping until the piece is done (they’re documented on Marcus Strickland’s excellent quartet album, AT LAST, [FS-101]) and with drummer Damion Reid, a Los Angeles native who came to the New School after a couple of years at the Thelonious Monk School and the New England Conservatory.

“I play trio a lot different than I play with a group,” says Glasper, whose first instrument was drumset. “Damion and I call the way we feel time the circle. We don’t think straight-ahead, like 1-2-3-4. We feel where the measures end, do whatever we have to do between 1 and 4 to get back to the 1, and come in together. Damion is really free, but in time. If your time isn’t strong within yourself, you can’t even play with a drummer like him, because it’s going to sound horrible.”

Hurst elaborates. “These guys were raised on Hip-Hop, and it influences what they play, even in the jazz tradition. In the same way, my generation grew up on P-Funk and Motown and Prince, and we weren’t afraid to let it affect our music. Some people rejected that, and I think the consequence is that they sound stiff and they sound old. Not that you have to put a funk beat on everything. But in my opinion, you have to embrace everything that’s around you, or it’s going to be stale.”

There is nothing stale or old-school about Bilal Oliver’s treatment of “Maiden Voyage.” Treating Herbie Hancock’s classic melody as a kind of ritual invocation, he puts some multi-tracked throatsong-to-falsetto vocalese on top of an affecting reharmonized vamp and a funk-with-a-limp straight-eighth beat.

The trio embarks on their own voyage with Glasper’s “Lil’ Tipsy,” using compression-expansion techniques to explore in painstaking detail a disjunctive dance of inebriation. Glasper uses the concluding vamp as a spur-of-the-moment opportunity to segue directly into “Alone Together.” There ensues an avid triologue, Hurst holding down the bottom as Glasper and Reid, with nonchalant confidence, weave through an obstacle course of rhythmic signatures.

On “Mood,” a quintet track, Moreno and Ellis offer beautiful contrapuntal section playing and pungent solos, capturing the composer’s intent to resolve from a melancholy opening to an impassioned feelgood vamp. Bilal ratchets the intensity on “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” a bluesy jazz ballad to which Glasper wrote the melody and the lyric. Glasper says: “I have a certain feel, a certain way of thinking and imagining and hearing harmony, and it all descends from coming up in and playing music in the church.”

Glasper returns to ebullience on a creative and virtuosic treatment of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” “There was a detergent commercial that used it during my first year in school,” he relates, “and I was singing it all the time. Then someone told me it was a jazz tune. I arranged it for a concert at school. A year later, I came up with this arrangement.

“‘Interlude’ happened because we kept playing after I faded out from the drum solo, and when I listened to the tape I thought the hip-hop part was hot. Hip-hop is a part of me, too, and I wanted to have that influence on the album.”

“In Passing” began as an elegy for Glasper’s Houston friend, Scooby, who died in 1999. “I never could finish the tune, but I started working on it again when Aliyah died,” Glasper says. “Not too long after that, 9/11 happened. That made me finish the song. It’s about how your time on earth is passing.”

Glasper ends the program with the incendiary “L N K Blues,” setting up a John Ellis-Marcus Strickland tenor battle that implicitly affirms his connection to and extensions of the idiom that defined the sound of jazz in Houston from the ’40s through the ’60s. “My Mom sang in a lot of blues clubs,” he says. “And the church. Blues and church kind of go hand-in-hand. Instead of ‘I love you, baby,’ it’s ‘I love you, God.'”

Perhaps that foundation bedrocks Glasper’s heady blend of spirited play and formal discipline, and allows him to avoid the strut-all-your-stuff trap that so many ambitious young artists fall prey to on first releases.

“This album is not about ego or soloing on every tune,” he concludes. “A lot of jazz purists might not like it because of the way it starts off, with ‘Maiden Voyage’. But the product I’m giving you is based on my experiences with different music and with life. That’s true in the compositions and how I arrange them. That’s what it is.”

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For the 83rd Birthday of Maestro Saxophonist-Flutist James Spaulding, Two WKCR Interviews from 1995 and 1993

I’ve been digitizing and transcribing interviews from a number of radio shows that I did on WKCR during the 80s, 90s and early 00s. Here are the proceedings of a pair of shows with the singular alto saxophonist and flutist James Spaulding, an Indianapolis native who was a fixture on some of the more venturesome Blue Note recordings of the 1960s and on several of Sun Ra’s late 50s Saturns, who made a terrific series of CDs for Muse records between 1988 and 1994. At the top is a Musician Show from August 1995; it’s followed by a briefer appearance on Out to Lunch in July 1993.

James Spaulding, Musician Show, August 9, 1995 and Out To Lunch, July 21, 1993:

[MUSIC: Spaulding, “Song of Courage,” “Public Eye”]

TP: Before we move back in time, let’s talk about the present. There are a few engagements coming up in the next few weeks.

JS: This will be the Jazz Legacy group, Larry Ridley’s organization of musicians – Charles Davis, Virgil Jones, Frank Gant on drums, and myself. That’s the 21st of August at Jazzmobile on 122nd Street here in Harlem. Also, on the 27th of August a tribute to Bird at Tompkins Square Park – Lester Young’s birthday. Also, I’ll have my own quartet at Visiones on the 18th and 19th, plus a few Mondays with the David Murray Big Band.

TP: Anyone who’s ever heard James Spaulding play would conclude that you listened seriously and with much intensity to Charlie Parker as a kid, and on our first segment we’ll focus on some compositions of Bird. But first, let’s take it back. You were born in 1937 in Indianapolis. So you were coming of age at the time when bebop hit. Tell me about your intro to music. Your father was a guitar player.

JS: My father was a professional guitarist. He actually started the Original Brown Buddies orchestra in the 1920s, the late 20s, and he formed a small group that traveled around playing college concerts, dances mostly. Later on, Bob Womack, his friend, a drummer…they put the two groups together and later called the group Bob and the Bobcats. This carried on through the 30s, and I was born in 1937, so I came through the Swing Era.

TP: It was mainly a regional band around Indianapolis.

JS: Yes, just a regional band, and the first integrated band actually that began to have white musicians and black musicians play together – to start doing that at that time. 1937, on to the 40s and the 50s, and my father stopped playing quite early, because more children were coming on the scene… I was the third of seven. Large family, and economics weren’t that good, so he had to stop playing and take something steady.

TP: What was his name?

JS: James Spaulding. The 2nd actually. I’m the 3rd.

TP: Was he an improviser?

JS: Yes, he improvised and sang also. He did a little singing, and he booked the gigs. He did a lot of the business things that were happening for the band. Did a little traveling upstate. I think he told me he went to Troy, NY with the band when they traveled around. He never did come to New York. He always wanted to come here.

TP: is he the one who gave you the early musical training?

JS: He’s the one who brought the records home. He said, “Listen.” He brought home the Charlie Parker records. “Shaw Nuff” was one of the early ones. ‘Mohawk” with Dizzy and Bird. I was 10 years old when I heard Cab Calloway. I told you about that one. Then Charlie Parker came on the scene when I was 10 years old – listening to those recordings. Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. Man, the big bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

TP: These inspired you to play?

JS: Yes, the Charlie Parker record, “Shaw Nuff,” really inspired me to play.

TP: When were you able to start hearing music live?

JS: Well, he used to take me around to bands that would come over in our neighborhood and set up right out there in the park and play. He would take us to concerts where guys were playing at the Indiana Theater. I saw Billie Holiday at this theater, and Lester Young. George Shearing was there. I believe it was called the Indiana Roof. I don’t think it’s open any more. He exposed me to music. He also wanted me to be a prize-fighter. He used to take me to the gym to work out. Which I didn’t have eyes for having my chops get mashed in. But he was a fight fan. He loved boxing.

TP: When did you start doing the little gigs? I take it alto was the instrument.

JS: Alto was the one. I got some gigs. I learned how to read in high school. I was able to develop my eyes so I could get through some of those charts, and I was reading quite… Actually I was reading before I got into high school, in grade school. I taught myself how to read through the charts. He would take me over to some of the older musicians around town and let me sit in and read some of the arrangements. I remember I got hired for a gig, and my father went with me to kind of chaperone me – because I was 10, 11 or 12, something like that.

TP: Indianapolis had a thriving musical community. A lot of great musicians from there. J.J. Johnson, the Montgomerys, Slide Hampton.

JS: Man, it was something.

TP: You were a little younger than them, though.

JS: Right. Leroy Vinnegar. Carl Perkins.

TP: Were they around?

JS: No. As you say, I was quite younger. Slide, Wes, all the brothers. Freddie and I had a chance to sit in with that group when they were working at a club called the Turf Club in Indianapolis.

TP: That’s Freddie Hubbard, who’s a year younger than you, and who you worked quite a bit with over the years.

JS: Yes. Freddie and I started off learning Charlie Parker tunes. I’d go over to his house, and he would come out to where I was stationed in the Army, out at Fort Harrison Army Base out there when I was in the band, and he’d come out and sit in with the band. He was playing then! He was up on his instrument. He was an executionist. At that age, at 17, which is how old he was when I first met him at a jam session.

TP: So you hooked up after high school.

JS: Yes. I was in the Army and Freddie was still going to high school. He was about ready to graduate from Arsenal Technical High School there in Indianapolis. He graduated, and came on out with us when Larry Ridley formed a group called the Jazz Contemporaries. We worked around Indianapolis at George’s Bar and the Cotton Club… Larry booked a lot of these gigs. He had that business sense about him to take care of these things, while we just enjoyed the music.

Yeah, Indianapolis was happening, man. Clubs all up and down Indiana Avenue. You could just walk in one club and out into another club. Just take your instrument. If the guys knew you, they would ask you to come up and play something with them.

TP: Who were some of the older musicians who were in Indianapolis? Slide Hampton talks about a piano player named Earl Grandy.

JS: Earl Grandy! Yes, he was fantastic. He just passed not too long ago, I heard. He was blind, and he was an inspiration to a lot of the musicians. He would show them changes and different things on the instrument. He played right up to his passing. It’s a great loss.

Jimmy Coe is still there, and there’s Pookie Johnson, a tenor player. There are a few more musicians there. But it’s no work there now. Nothing is happening there at all practically. I think they have one club, and it’s called the Jazz Kitchen. Wallace Roney and his brother performed there not too long ago. They said they had standing room in there. Two shows, two sets, and it was packed. I’m working on going down there with a group perhaps.

TP: Slide also talked about a ballroom run by the Ferguson Brothers, who booked a lot of big bands, so that bands would start their tour in Indianapolis. Was that still happening when you were coming of age?

JS: These brothers had real estate, they had a little money, so they were able to set up these places and get musicians come in through Indianapolis. Charlie Parker came through there once, I remember. I was too young to go see him. I remember seeing the posters on the lightposts, “Charlie Parker’s in town.” He was down at the Sunset Lounge, Sunset Café at the time. You could go down and try to listen through the door in the back, but it was very hard to hear. Yeah, I remember when he came into Indianapolis, man. It was quite a day.

TP: I guess it was whenever Bird came to whichever town it was.

JS: Wherever anybody flocked, man. Everybody loved him so much. He was such an inspiration to so many musicians.

TP: Bird was really your first inspiration, then? You hadn’t been checking out, say, Johnny Hodges or Benny Carter, and then changed. You heard Bird and it just hit you.

JS: Yeah, it just hit me. I listened to the rest, but with Bird playing, it was just…I never quite recovered.

[MUSIC: Bird, “KoKo”; “Mohawk”; JATP (Bird-Prez-Roy) w/Ella, “How High The Moon”-1949]

TP: You remember hearing that “How High The Moon” record when you were 13 or so.

JS: Yes, I was about 13.

TP: Before “KoKo” had records like “Red Cross” and the Jay McShann records come to Indianapolis? Were they popular?

JS: They were, yes. “Red Cross” and “Buzzy” and “Donna Lee.”

TP: I take it you checked out everything as it came along.

JS: Yes, as much as I could. My father would bring those records. I’m so glad he did, man. I would have missed them.

On “Mohawk,” I just love that melody. I just asked Dad, “Play that over again.” That and “Shaw Nuff” were my favorites to listen to.

TP: Charlie Parker wasn’t the only saxophonist you were paying attention to. As a musician in school bands, you weren’t going to be able to play Charlie Parker’s language. Was there any tension between the requirement of playing “legitimate” or needing rudiments, and then the flights of fancy that would come to mind from hearing Bird?

JS: I was very fortunate to have a music teacher at Crispus Attucks High School, where I attended – my first year of high school. He was into jazz, and he would ask musicians if they would want to stay after school. He would stay there with us and work with us to learn to read these syncopated bebop tunes, like “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” Count Basie’s things they had these stock arrangements on. We formed a little group called the Monarch Combo with Melvin Rhyne. I think Virgil Jones was in the band. There was Curly Hampton, a cousin of Slide Hampton. We just learned how to phrase and how to play that music the way it was coming over on the record. We tried not to copy, but tried to stylize our playing as much as possible with that. And Mr. Brown (Russell Brown), he would stay there with us and work with us. I don’t if any other high school teacher was like that.

TP: So Russell Brown was the bandmaster at Crispus Attucks H.S.?

JS: Right. He was the bandmaster. And like I said, I had taught myself how to read good enough to get into the freshman band and the senior band, and then I got into the orchestra my first year of high school with Mr. Newsome, and I played the flute. I taught myself how to play the flute well enough to get into the string orchestra at school. That got me into the woodwind quintet. I played flute with that group, and we played concerts and…

TP: Is that the classical repertoire you were playing?

JS: Yes, we played classical repertoire, European pieces. We had played the dances around Indianapolis with this Monarch Combo group, which we would rehearse after school, and Mr. Brown would be our guide and our teacher. We sort of developed out of that, and we stayed around Indianapolis doing a lot of background playing for singers that would come into town, like Bull Moose Jackson (you remember him?), the tenor saxophone.

TP: Playing the blues behind Bull Moose Jackson.

JS: Yeah! He was something else, man.

TP: So you’re playing wind quintets on the flute, the blues behind Bull Moose Jackson, playing Charlie Parker tunes in the woodshed, doing all this…

JS: Yeah, all this music. All this happening. You start growing more and more, until I went into the Army in 1954. I got out in 1957, and went to Chicago.

TP: You mentioned that Tab Smith’s “Because Of You,” recorded in 1951, was the first solo you memorized.

JS: The first solo I ever memorized was “Because Of You.”

TP: He projected a different tone or timbral quality than Bird. Talk a bit about your sound on the alto, and developing it.

JS: I just tried to… I kept hearing Bird all the time, and I wanted to try to get as close to that sound as possible. Then I heard Tab Smith with his sound; he had a sweet, nice alto sound. And Johnny Hodges also…I listened to him a little bit, too, and was inspired by his playing. But Tab was right there and the music was right there, so I just said, “Let me just learn how to play this piece.” That was the first piece I ever played without reading the music.

TP: That became your feature…

JS: That became my little feature piece.

I first heard Illinois Jacquet at JATP, doing “Flying Home,” that exciting piece. Louis Jordan, “Open The Door, Richard” was one… Oh, he played so many pieces. He used to have me knocked out, man. It was so beautiful to hear this music played. And it still is. It’s still fresh to me every time I hear it. It’s a stone gift.

TP: Tab Smith, “Because of You,” with a Chicago-based band – Sonny Cohn on trumpet, Leon Washington (formerly with Earl Hines) on tenor sax, Lavern Dillon or Teddy Brannon, piano; Wilfred Middlebroks, bass; Walter Johnson, drums.

[MUSIC: Tab Smith, “Because of You”-1951; Louis Jordan, “Buzz Me”-1945; Illinois Jacquet, “Jet Propulsion”-1947]

TP In this first hour, we’ve taken James through learning the alto saxophone and flute and your experience at Crispus Attucks High School with Russell Brown, and playing a wide range of music during those years. You were also influenced by big bands, which, as we mentioned before, came through Indianapolis with some frequency.

JS: Oh yeah. There would be big bands that came through a lot, that would come in our neighborhoods and play right out there in our playground – set up a community thing. Like the earlier Jazzmobile. They got fed and the whole thing…

TP: Were there local big bands?

JS: Yes, we had the local big bands, they also…and bands that would come through and work at a major club there, and then come over and donate the music to the community.

TP: Where did the bands stay when they came through Indianapolis? It was a pretty segregated city, I take it.

JS: Yes, it was. They would stay at the Y. And a lot of the musicians would stay with musicians who were in Indianapolis – they would spend the night or whatever, stay there with the families. In fact, Teddy Wilson would come by my house and jam with my father and some more musicians who would come to town.

TP: So you met Teddy Wilson, had dinner with him and so forth?

JS: Yes, he would sit there, and the guys would be jamming and we’d sit there and listen to them. It was quite exciting.

TP: You mentioned that your father brought home a lot of records – Ellington’s records, Cb Calloway. So you were hearing big band music from an early age, both live and on records.

JS: Yes.

TP: Did you know how to pick out the different soloists? As a kid, did you identify the sounds of Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney…

JS: Yes. I’d get to learn their sounds, to identify their sounds as well in the context. But those records, man, that was it. I’m so glad. My mother, too. She was very supportive, a very spiritual, church-going person. In fact, she just turned 84 this past June, and she’s going strong. She would always encourage me to keep playing and practice. She was very encouraging.

TP: Did she play music herself?

JS: No. She just sang in the church. A very spiritual lady.

TP: Let’s hear a short set of big band music, then we’ll review James Spaulding’s experience during the latter 50s as a working musician in the Chicago area. Unless there’s something else you’d like to say about Indianapolis.

JS: There was the Camp Atterbury, an Army base there, and the guys from the base would come in and support the music, and go from club to club at that time. That was one of many things that were going on up and down Indiana Avenue, as they called it. That was a strip. Like 52nd Street compared to that…but not quite… We had quite a bit of turnover; there was quite a bit of action going on during that period. There was a place called the Cotton Club, and there was a Savoy, and I told you the Sunset Café where Bird played. There was the temple, where John Coltrane played one of his last concerts, I believe.

So from 1954… I was in the Army band, and I did a lot of big band stuff there and combos. I was in Special Services actually at the time, so I got a chance to just play in the marching band, the dance band, they had a jazz band and had a little jazz combo. We’d play on campus and I would go off-campus… That’s how I met Freddie Hubbard, at this jam session at the Cotton Club.

[MUSIC: Ellington, “Take the A-Train”; “Sophisticated Lady”-1957; Calloway, “Minnie The Moocher”; Basie, “L’il Darlin”]

TP: After your got out of the Army, you went to Chicago, but first talk about your Army experiences.

JS: I was in Special Services. I had that set up before I even went in. My father had it arranged. I had to take these tests; I had to pass the exams. As I said, it was a good thing that I’d learned how to read. It was so vital. You had to sight-read some parts. So I got the gig in the Army! From there, after I finished basic training… Six weeks, I was in Fort Linwood, Missouri, then they shipped me to Fort Ord, California, and I continued band training out there. This was 1954, 8 weeks out there, then I came to Indianapolis to Fort Harrison, which is a few miles outside of Indianapolis. I was able to commute back and forth.

TP: What sort of functions did you do in the Army band?

JS: There was the Army Finance Center, which was not too far away from where we were stationed, where we had our housing. We would do our regular thing of marching…what do you call that thing before closing down… Anyway, we’d play over at the Army Finance Center, work there during the day with the jazz band. Then at night, sometimes we would go to the NCO club and play music for the non-commissioned officers there. We had some good musicians in that band, and we would jam and play charts and play arrangements. Going back to my being able to read, that also really helped me to continue to play.

TP: A lot of musicians found the Army a great finishing school, because you’d play all the time.

JS: Oh yeah. It was a great help to a lot of guys. A lot of them just in there 20 more years, and got a retirement thing. I wanted to get out. I wanted to go to Chicago and go to New York. I wanted to venture out some more.

TP: You mentioned meeting Freddie Hubbard when you were stationed outside Indianapolis.

JS: Yes. I went to one of these jam sessions that they’d have every Saturday afternoon, I think it was, and there I met. We just got together and started rehearsing tunes. I went out to his house and met his mom. Man, she could cook. Oh God, could she cook! He’d come by my house. And we’d go out to the Army base and play with the Army band members. Slide Hampton would come out there, too, bring his arrangements and test them with some of the guys out there.

TP: At that time, he’d just joined Buddy Johnson (55-56), and then on his way to the Lionel Hampton band. He was here last week, so I’m up on Slide’s career.

JS: He’s such a tremendous musician. He’d bring his arrangements out there for us to play, and that was always a treat every time. We’d go over to the Army Finance Center and play, and we’d give him a few dollars to come out there.

TP: What was Freddie Hubbard playing like at 17-18 years old?

JS: He was definitely influenced by…he was listening to Clifford Brown and Miles mostly. Those were the two trumpet players he’d really taken to. We’d work out learning Charlie Parker tunes, so we could go out and play together. Especially with Wes Montgomery and Buddy and all those guys, you had to be up on some tunes!

TP: Were the Montgomerys still around Indianapolis at this time?

JS: Yes. They were playing regularly at a club called the Turf Club. They’d have jam sessions every Saturday afternoon also. We’d run out there and jam with them. Then we’d run back into town to the Cotton Club and jam at George’s Bar; that would last from 5 until about 9, when the regular band would come on. We did a lot of playing.

TP: Was Wes Montgomery’s style fully formed by the mid 1950s?

JS: Oh, definitely. He went on to record with Cannonball. Was it Cannonball who brought him in…

TP: His first recordings were for Pacific Jazz.

JS: Pacific Jazz. I recorded with them. I did one of my first recordings on an album with Larry Rice.

TP: Let’s bring you to Chicago, which was a big center for jazz during the 50s, with a lot of great musicians – a self-contained scene unto itself.

JS: Definitely.

TP: Talk about what drew you to Chicago.

JS: What drew me to Chicago was Johnny Griffin – his records. When I first hear his record, I was in the Army, and I said, “I’ve got to meet this guy.” I had to go to Chicago and hear this man. His speed and his dexterity. God! He played the tenor like you play the alto. He did play the alto at one time.

TP: But made it sound like a tenor.

JS: Yes. I went to Chicago and I finally met him. I met his mother. I was working a day job there that my cousin had gotten me. And I met his mother there. She told me where he’d be, and I went to see him at this club called the Flame. I saw Lester Young there, too. It was off 63rd and Cottage Grove.

TP: There was a strip of clubs there.

JS: Yes. McKie’s Lounge, and the Cotton Club right across the street, and around the corner, down the street (I think it was Cottage Grove), there was the Flame. Later it burned down.

TP: Went up in flames.

JS: Yeah, it was strange. But I saw Lester Young! Johnny Griffin was there first. I went down to see him, I met him, and told him I’d like to come by and just talk to him. He said, “Ok,” and gave me his phone number. So I got a chance to hang with him for a few times.

TP: In Chicago, you affiliated with Sun Ra, and the records you’re on by him are much prized. How did that come about?

JS: It was a jam session at the Pershing Lounge, at a place where you’d play until 10 o’clock in the morning. You’d go down there and just jam. I was jamming, and I met Pat Patrick and John Gilmore, and Pat approached me and asked if I would like to make a rehearsal, that Sun Ra liked the way I played. I said, “Ok.” That’s how it started. I went to this rehearsal, and Sun Ra wrote out a piece right in front of me – wrote out my part and gave it to me.

TP: What did the part seem like to you? Was it congruent with your style?

JS: I was able to read it enough to get the gig. But it was so different from everything else I had been trying to play or learning to play. Especially the improvisational aspect of it. He asked me to play. I didn’t see any chord changes. That’s what made me see there was something else happening beyond what’s on the paper. Pat would say, “Don’t worry about that; just play.” That started some other wheels spinning. I stayed with him off and on for a while, and we went on some… We went to Indianapolis, as a matter, with the band! We went on a couple of concert tours around Chicago and different places. But we mainly stayed there at Pershing Lounge. That was like a home base for most of the musicians.

TP: The Pershing Lounge had a long pedigree in Chicago, as a place where Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins played in the 40s and early 50s in the ballroom. Ahmad Jamal played downstairs…

JS: Downstairs, in the basement. So we were down in the basement, kinda like, with this breakfast jam, they called it, and we’d go down there and stay until 10 the next morning. Guys would straggle out. We’d go and have breakfast and talk. There was a lot happening.

TP: The next track features Sonny Stitt, who was very popular in Chicago as well.

JS: Oh, yes. He and Gene Ammons used to get together and lock horns. I saw them together in Chicago once. It was very exciting. It was like a shootout corral. The guys would come in the door, and look at each other, stop and pull out their instruments. The crowd was already there, waiting, so it was like a big drama thing. So when they got on the stage, Sonny had his fans and Gene Ammons had his fans on one side, and it was like back and forth, and they would solo and do the fours… It was tremendous, man.

[MUSIC: Sonny Stitt, “My Melancholy Baby” (Hank-Freddie Green-w. Marshall-Shadow Wilson-1956; Johnny Griffin, “Chicago Calling”; Gene Ammons, “Canadian Sunset”; Coltrane, “Dexterity”; Sun Ra, “Hours After”-from Jazz In Silhouette]

TP: We’ll now move into some of James Spaulding’s more far-reaching recordings of the 1960s, when he became a favorite of New York’s hip audience, some of whom are calling and sharing their memories. You returned to Indianapolis from Chicago for a bit, and moved to New York in 1962. Anything else to say about Chicago apart from your experiences with Sun Ra?

JS: I forgot to mention Jerry Butler, the Iceman, that was one of the first recordings I did before Sun Ra. I played a flute solo on one of his pieces, called “Lost.” I just remember that. That was back in the 60s.

But Chicago was…everybody was going to New York, I guess, before the end of 1959.

TP: George Coleman and Booker Little had left, Frank Strozier…

JS: Everyone was moving on to New York. But Chicago was very helpful, very inspiring, to go there and… I’m glad I went to Chicago instead of going to New York. Everybody said I should have come to New York first, but I think I made a better choice.

TP: Because it was more relaxed, you could get certain things together?

JS: Yeah, I could relax. Plus I could use my G.I. Bill to go to the school there, the Cosmopolitan School of Music on Wabash Avenue. It was down the street from Roosevelt University, upstairs there. Frank Strozier graduated from there. Bobby Bryant, the trumpet player, he graduated from there. I studied with Bobby Bryant. He helped me out a lot with the chord changes and stuff. He’s out in California now.

TP: Then your path to New York.

JS: Well, I went home and charged my batteries. Michael Ridley, Larry’s brother…we both came to New York together with 50 cents between us, in his car. We landed here, and I called up Freddie, and he called his brother Larry, and I’ve been here since.

TP: What were your first affiliations in New York?

JS: Actually, I just stayed with Freddie. I was trying to find some work, trying to find a place to live – that whole thing. Making these little gigs. Worked in the Time-Life Building as a messenger. Until Freddie called me for this Hub-Tones date. In 1963 I got married. Then things started opening up for me. I have two grown daughters now.

But Freddie called me in 1963. He was working with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and they were traveling. In fact, when I was up in Canada, when I met Cab Calloway, I was telling you…

TP: That happened a little later.

JS: We worked in this huge place, right across from the Notre Dame, in that area. Cab was up there singing “Hi-de hi-de ho,” and I went backstage to meet him and talk to him about his experiences. That was about a week. My wife and I had a little honeymoon there. That was the first experience with him. I told him how I’d listened to his records when I was 5 years old. He was laughing; he enjoyed that.

TP: you’re on quite a few of these Blue Note recordings, some of the most venturesome of the 1960s, like The All Seeing Eye, Wayne Shorter; Bobby Hutcherson’s Components

JS: Yeah, right after Hub-Tones, which was the first date I did. Right after that, I was getting calls to come in and record with everybody. Duke Pearson was the A&R man during that time.

TP: Right. You’re on Sweet Honey Bee.

JS: Yeah, he was the A&R man, bringing in a lot of cats.

TP: If you’re working on a Blue Note record by Freddie Hubbard or Wayne Shorter or Bobby Hutcherson, did that mean you were also gigging with them? Were these working groups or set up for the studio?

JS: Freddie’s was the group that I began to work with after he left Art Blakey, and we started working with Joe Chambers, Ronnie Matthews and Eddie Khan on bass – a quintet. It was Freddie’s first working band. We did a few gigs around… We never did go out of the country. We kind of stayed around the area. We did a few things in Philadelphia, went up to Boston and did a couple of things. It wasn’t working that much, but at least we had a chance to tighten up before we did that Breaking Point album.

TP: We’ve been listening to jump bands, bebop, Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin playing very straight ahead. But we listened to John Coltrane’s “Dexterity,” which you said had a big impact on you, as did Coltrane’s music in general.

JS: When I first heard Trane, it was in Chicago on that recording. It was a different label. But that “Dexterity” inspired me a lot when I first heard it, when I heard John Coltrane. I’d never heard of him before. I heard Johnny Griffin. But when I heard John Coltrane, that took me into a whole nother thing. His structure, his whole phraseology, his whole approach to the music was so unique and so HIM. You could identify him so well – his individuality. It stood out so profound.

TP: Had you heard Coltrane by the time you were Sun Ra?

JS: No, not yet. It was before I left, right around the end, around 1958 or 59, I heard that record. Then I had to hear him again. I came to New York and he was at the old Five Spot. It was so crowded that night, I was standing on my toes trying to see him. Freddie Hubbard brought me down there that night. And Birdland. That’s when I saw Dexter Gordon on one of those Monday night jam sessions they had. Lee Morgan was conducting the jam sessions, with Dexter up there cooking and Curtis Fuller. Freddie took me to that session also. I was a little nervous about coming to New York anyway. Freddie had to kind of pull me. “Come on, man, get your horn out and play some.” I said, “No, not yet.” He’d encourage me. “Come on, play, man.” He was a great inspiration to me. He still is. Everything looked like… All the clubs were closing down at that period. From 1963 on down to 67 or 68, clubs were closing, everything was changing. The scene was changing quite a bit.

TP: The music was changing, too.

JS: Yes, it was. Quite a bit. It was maintaining… It’s still here. Everything is still here. We listen to all these old cuts; all this music, when I hear it now, it still sounds fresh. There’s just so much that we can get from it. When you listen to it and you understand where it’s coming from, I think you appreciate it more. Know its origins, and reaching back and doing some research on it, and I’ve been studying and reading more books about the music and about the different artists who made those contributions, and those who weren’t as well known as others that made contributions but never got the recognition or the financial thing. It’s all out there. It’s all here with us, and I’m just happy to be part of it. I’m very proud to be part of this music. I look forward to doing some more writing for the big band with David Murray; I’m writing some stuff now for his band, and I’m hoping to rehearse it down there on Monday nights at the Knitting Factory.

It’s all connected. The name of my group is Linkage.

TP: One thing we can say about the music of the 60s is that the protagonists were all rooted in the sort of music we’ve been hearing on this evening’s show. Coming up are a few highlights from James Spaulding’s recordings for Blue Note during the 60s.

[MUSIC: Spaulding-Freddie, “Hub Tones”; Freddie-Spaulding-Mobley, “Outer Forces”; Wayne-Spaulding, “Chaos”; Bobby Hutcherson-Spaulding, “Little B’s Poem”]

[MUSIC: Spaulding, “Bold Steps”-1988]

TP: Any memories from any of the Blue Note dates we heard? How about The All Seeing Eye? Any memories, or is it vague to you?

JS: It’s sort of vague. I just remember the music, Wayne’s writing on that date, and the excitement of having this material, beginning to get into our own and be able to express ourselves in the way we were doing in that time, in the 60s, when so much stuff was happening, so much energy was circulating. Going to the studio, we just couldn’t wait. Everybody couldn’t wait to get there and set up and do what we had to do. It was a wonderful time.

TP: One question someone asked you over the phone, and which I was asked to ask you by a guest earlier today: With all the recordings that you contributed to as a sideman, were you ever offered to record by Alfred Lion?

JS: Yes, he asked me to record. He wanted me to get into a commercial vein of the music. With all respects to Lou Donaldson, who I love and enjoy his playing… He wanted me to do some stuff that Lou was doing, the Alligator Boogaloo kind of thing… He wanted me to put some stuff out there on the jukebox that would push records, and I didn’t have any material like that. I wanted to play some bebop. I wanted to play some straight-ahead music at the time. I was working with Freddie and time went by, and we never did come to any agreement on that.

TP: You spoke of the impact Coltrane had on you during the 60s…

JS: All the saxophone players are influenced by Trane, I’m sure – they still are at this time. Every time you hear him it’s always something new. If you play it once, you have to play it twice, and then you have to play it again. Because each time you’ll hear something fresh and new. His own personal approach is what made it stand out so much.

TP: Did you know Coltrane at all?

JS: I saw Trane in Chicago at McKie’s Lounge. Elvin was on the gig. Jack deJohnette was also on that gig. I walked up to him, just met him and talked and said hello. He was waiting for Elvin to come in and start the set. The place was packed. The second time I saw him was in New York at the Vanguard. I talked to him after the gig, and got his phone number, and he invited me out to his house. We were going to get together. I wanted him to show me some things. He was such a nice cat. Such a beautiful individual.

TP: It’s a common story among musicians that you could approach John Coltrane and he’d invite you to his hotel room or to his house, and spend time with you.

JS: He was just a regular person and very approachable, and you could ask him questions and he’s talk to you and make you feel comfortable.

TP: Did you have any aspirations to play the tenor sax?

JS: I played the tenor sax in Chicago for a while, and I played tenor sax in the Army for a while. I had some gigs, but carrying the alto…I had the alto and the flute… You know how Sonny Stitt would carry all his instruments. I tried to do that, but it got a little heavy.

TP: Being a triple threat was a little too threatening.

JS: Playing one instrument is a job!

TP: We’ll hear “Hipsippy Blues,” something you requested by Hank Mobley, who was another associate of yours. You were on Slice Of The Top with him, and he was on Freddie Hubbard’s Blue Spirit date.

JS: Hank was a beautiful cat. I can’t say enough about his musicianship. He was an incredible musician. He gave you all he had. He really was involved and committed, and you could hear it in his instrument, in his writing. He wrote so MUCH stuff. I want to do a tribute to him on one of my next record sessions. I was trying to get Joe Fields and Don Sickler to set something up for that, pick out some of his unknown cuts to record. He had such a tremendous contribution to this music and to the alto saxohone.

[MUSIC: Spaulding, “Hipsippy Blues” and “Down With It”]

 

James Spaulding on Out To Lunch, July 21, 1993:

TP: How did you come to be the latest member of World Saxophone Quartet? You’ve been working with David Murray’s Octet for a number of years now.

JS: Yes, it was David Murray who told me about the possibilities of becoming a member of WSQ, and Hamiet Bluiett was instrumental in calling me for an engagement out in Albuquerque, NM, with Jayne Cortez and Bill Cole. After that, they called me about a gig in Boston. It was December 11, up in Boston, the first day after we had that horrible rainstorm. That was my first engagement with the African drums also.

TP: Your experience on flute I’d think would fit in very well with the African drums. Last night you were playing wooden flute as well as regular flute.

JS: Yeah, we were definitely going back to the ancients in terms of sound and instrumentation, reaching back to the ancestral connections with roots, and basically being inspired by the great music that’s still coming through from the great continent of Africa, and different parts of it, from the time when great civilizations were born, jumped out – so instruments and music also followed. Here we are today, extended from that.

TP: In your early career, you recorded with Sun Ra, who was so involved in bringing out that kind of material, including one of his most famous albums, Jazz In Silhouette. How did it come about? You were originally from Indianapolis.

JS: Right. I got out of the Army… I had three years in the Armed Services, with the Army bands, doing marches and concerts. I got out in 1957, and I decided to go to Chicago and go to school on the G.I. Bill – Cosmopolitan School of Music. It was a great school. They introduced jazz and different studies outside of the normal curriculum. One day I was going out jamming. Jam sessions were happening all over Chicago. I met John Gilmore and Pat Patrick, and at the jam session they heard me play, and they said, “Listen, man, how would you like to make a rehearsal with Sun Ra?” I said, “Sun Ra. Sure. I’ll be there.

TP: Did you know who Sun Ra was?

JS: No, not really. I just heard his name mentioned a couple of times. So I made it to this rehearsal, and there was Sun Ra, sitting at the keyboard, writing out arrangements, giving parts out. That’s the first thing that amazed me. I said, “Wow, this is terrific.” So we ran down the parts, and he told me to play. I said, “Play? Play what?” I didn’t see any chord changes or anything. He said “Just play! Don’t worry about it.” So I played, and Sun Ra said, “Ok.” He liked what I was doing. I was quite nervous, of course. He started calling me for gigs in the Pershing Hotel. At the time we were playing in the basement for what were called breakfast shows. We’d stay there until 7-10 in the morning, playing. People would come down from their jobs, gigs and have breakfast, and musicians would come in and sit in. Sun Ra would have this tremendous book of music. Oh, God, all kinds of music, from dance music to concert stuff. He was complete. I’ve never seen a musician with so much energy and so much imagination.

TP: Were you rehearsing 6-10 hours a day, every day, as a number of the musicians have said?

JS: Yes, we’d rehearse quite a bit. He was serious. It could get hot. It could get quite hot in there sometimes.

TP: That was a very talented group of young musicians who’d been well-school through high school and/or the Army, like yourself, which I think is a characteristic of your generation. Very well-schooled either through the education system or the Armed Services or whatever, but with a real hunger for new horizons, new dimensions in music.

JS: Man, this was a whole new experience for me to play in this band. It opened up my sense of direction in terms of playing free, getting rid of the barlines, and the structural, scientific parts of it. I said, “Yeah, that’s it” later on. It took me a long time to digest this. Here, I’m coming out of Charlie Parker and thinking swing, and the structure things that were already mapped out. Being with this band, it just opened up another area. “Oh yeah, this works.” So as I developed with that band, I started incorporating that information with my information, and I started expanding that knowledge. I was starting to see where a lot of the free playing of this music was coming from. Improvisation! The raw improvisation that was coming, and it was the most natural! I said, “Yeah, this works.” So Sun Ra was very instrumental for inspiring me, and there’s nothing but good things I can say about this man and his inspiration to all of us.

TP: Could you say a few words about your upbringing in Indianapolis, where the scene was thriving at the time you were coming up? Was saxophone or clarinet your first instrument? And when did you start playing?

JS: Actually, the trumpet was – the bugle. My father bought me a little bugle, and I was around the house blowing with that. Then I picked up a little trumpet in grade school, and I was messing with that for a while. Then my father would bring home all these records. He was a musician himself; he was a professional. Guitar. He was manager of the Original Brown Buddies of the 1920s to 1940s. Another organization took over. But he formulated that band actually. He would bring home all these records – King Cole, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, everybody. I was only 5, and I would listen to this music, and it just got into my system right away.

The wonderful part about it is that my father was able to let me listen and make up my own mind about the music. He didn’t force it on me. He didn’t make me practice. He saw that I was going to get into the saxophone. Now, when I heard Charlie Parker, I said, “Yeah, Dad, I want a saxophone; I want an alto. Charlie Parker. I got to do this. This is the greatest thing I ever heard in the world.”

TP: Do you remember the first Charlie Parker record?

JS: It was “Mohawk” with Diz. Now, “Shaw Nuff” was the one I really liked the most on this 78. Later I listened to more and more, and I said, “Yeah, this is great.” At the time I was with a band, a young group of musicians in Indianapolis who called ourselves the Monarch Combo. We’d play all the teenage dances around Indianapolis. Bull Moose Jackson would come to town; we’d play behind him. Johnny Ace – we played behind him. We played for all the dances. Man, a lot of things were happening in Indianapolis. Clubs. We’d go and sit in. We’d go out and sit in with Wes Montgomery and his brothers out at another club. Freddie Hubbard and I got together at a jam session. That’s how I met Freddie, at a place called the Cotton Club in Indianapolis, at a jam session. I was in the Army at the same time, see. I was stationed at Fort Harrison in Indiana at the time. It was like a job. I had a car; I was driving back and forth from the base back to Indianapolis. So I used to bring Freddie with me out to the Army base, and he would sit in with the Army band. We’d do concerts at the Army Finance Center. It was a lot of music and activity. It was incredible.

TP: The 50s is called a conservative time in histories of jazz, but on the grass roots level it was one of the most open times ever, because musicians were able to glean experience in almost every area they’d need to access to make their way later on as independent-thinking musicians.

JS: Yeah, and you could take instruments home. Now you can’t take the instruments home, I heard, I found out. I asked this little kid next door, “Where’s your instrument? You said you play the trumpet – where is it?” “It’s in school.” I said, “School is closed. You don’t have an instrument?” He said, “No.” I always brought my instrument home. I’d go in the band room, sign out a flute. I taught myself the flute by signing out the instrument. I could bring it home and practice it. I brought it back in good shape. The instruments weren’t that good. I had an old raggedy, beat-up clarinet that I learned the clarinet on. We had those kind of opportunities. We had places to go. We could go to the Y; we could go swimming, play ping-pong, all kinds of activity at one time. All this is gone now! Today in Indianapolis there’s no place for youngsters to go where they can be supervised by people who are paid to do these jobs. So we see all these kids now standing on corners. There’s nothing to do. There’s no space. No places to go. So the music is being deliberately cut off.

TP: Did you enter the Army as a musician?

JS: Yes. I went to Special Services. My father made sure of that. This was 1954, right after the Korean War conflict. I went out to California… First I went to Fort Linwood, Missouri, for basic training for 8 weeks, and then went out to California, Fort Ord, for band training, and I was out there with the band. You had to prove yourself to be able to read. If you weren’t able to read they would put you in clerk-typist school or some other occupation. I had to bone up and get ready, because these guys, everybody could read – marches and the concert pieces you had to do. Learn how to march in formation and a lot of other stuff.

TP: That’s another rather common experience of musicians from your time, that experience in the Army bands and really getting their music together in that environment.

JS: Yes, it was very important to have that knowledge. The discipline, first of all, to be able to read. I had that discipline, fortunately, from my father, who was very gung-ho on all of us. I came from a family of 7. There were 7 of us. We had to be on our toes. My fathe was very strict, and my mother was very… She was in our corner. She’s a very spiritual woman, who was into the church. She kept us aware of our integrity, our values, kept us closely together. And we’re still together, except for one brother who was killed in an automobile accident in California. He was only 40. That shook everything up for a minute. I lost my father in 1975, when he was 70. Everything continues. Everything keeps moving on, and you keep learning, you keep growing.

TP: You have a series of records for Muse, all very different programmatically in terms of personnel. Let’s now hear a selection of songs from these first two. The first is a dedication to Thelonious Monk, titled Brilliant Corners, with a mix of young and veteran musicians — Wallace Roney, Mulgrew Miller, Ron Carter and Kenny Washington.

JS: On the first record I did a tribute to Duke Ellington. I had the same idea for Monk. The musicians took care of business on the dates. I was very pleased with it. Monk? What can I say?

TP: Did you hear Monk on records in the 50s?

JS: I heard Monk on records, right, in Indianapolis. Then I came to New York and met all these people, Max Roach and all these people. It was a whole beginning for me. The inspiration was unlimited.

[MUSIC: Spaulding, “I Mean You”; “Caravan

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