Monthly Archives: July 2011

Karl Berger and Ingrid Berger: Interviews

Until April 18, Monday nights were usually dark at The Stone, John Zorn’s exemplary and invaluable performance venue at Avenue C and 2nd Street. That changed when Zorn invited Karl Berger, the founder of the Creative Music Studio, who has lately been overseeing a 12-CD subscription release culled from  approximately 400 hours of tapes documenting the musical production that transpired at C.M.S. during its dozen-year run, to run a weekly CMS Workshop Big Band.  I haven’t attended yet, but last night’s listed performers [(Ingrid Sertso (vocals, poetry) Art Bailey (accordion) Skye Steele, Frederika Krier, Eloisa Manera (violin) Sylvain Leroux (flutes) Miguel Malla (clarinet) Jorge Sylvester, David Schnug (alto sax) Stephen Gauci, Yoni Kretzmer (tenor sax) Catherine Sikora (soprano sax) Thomas Heberer, Herb Robertson, Brian Groder (trumpet) Steve Swell (trombone) Bill Wright, Adam Caine, Harvey Valdes (guitar) Dominic Lash, David Perrott, Adam Lane (bass) Lou Grassi, Harris Eisenstadt (drums) Philip Foster (odds and ends)] denotes the high caliber of musicianship being brought to bear on Berger’s concepts. The project is scheduled to run through the remainder of 2011.

I had an opportunity to speak with Berger and Sertso (his wife) at some length in late 2008, when they received a $25,000 grant from a German university that enabled Berger and engineer Ted Orr to digitize and remaster the first hundred reel-to-reel tapes, cherrypicked both for artistic quality and condition, and produced several  benefit concerts at Manhattan’s Symphony Space towards the realization of this goal.  The first conversation transpired at WKCR on October 24, 2008, towards the end of my run at the station; the second, for a DownBeat article that was originally intended to be a comprehensive feature on the history of CMS and the Bergers, took place in a diner opposite Symphony Space on December 12, 2008.  As it turned out, the piece never got off the ground, and in 2010 DB ran a shorter “News” piece on the CMS digitization project for which the great preponderance of the raw transcript could not be used. The two interviews appear below in their entirety.

* * * *

Karl Berger (WKCR, Oct. 24, 2008):

[After playing march piece from Anthony Braxton’s Creative Orchestra Music recording from 1976 on Arista]

KB:   This work was basically developed at the Creative Music Studio. Braxton had the opportunity at the Creative Music Studio to always have a large group with which to rehearse pieces, so a lot of the concepts of his orchestra music developed right at CMS.

TP:   I have several questions to ask about that. But before, let’s paint the picture. Tomorrow, Friday, at Symphony Space, at 7:30, there will be a concert featuring Karl Berger, Ingrid Sertso, Anthony Braxton, and Steven Bernstein’s Millennium Territory Orchestra. The proceeds will go towards the digitization and release of your capacious archive of tapes of concerts given on Saturday nights at Creative Music Studio between 1972 and 1984, featuring many of the seminal figures of jazz progression and creative music progression during that time. We’ll hear some selections from the 16 CDs they’ve done so far.

KB:   We just started, basically. It’s a three-year project.

TP:   How did the project begin? Did you get funding?

KB:   Yes. We apply for funding in various places, for grants, and we received one grant from a German foundation and we received membership contributions towards it. So we are about one-fourth into the $120,000 we need. That gives us the first 9 months to work with right now.

TP:   Was documentation always an intention?

KB:   No. I never thought of that actually. We did tape everything, but we weren’t really into history. We were into Now at the time very much. The reason why I think these tapes need to be heard, or at least digitized and preserved, is that in the ‘70s, as you all know, the record industry started to shift gears and started to produce records from the producers’ point of view rather than from the artists’ point of view, and a lot of stuff that started being…except maybe for Anthony’s and a few other fortunate ones… The artists didn’t get an opportunity to record their music the way they felt it should be. CMS was all about that. Like, people would come up and work on their newest works, and they would have the opportunity to work with larger groups and to develop ideas that they could not develop in recording situations. Therefore, what you’re hearing there has a lot of stuff that you don’t even know existed in the ‘70s and ‘80s…

TP:   Unless you were on the scene in New York or had an opportunity to hear…

KB:   True. But also, we were in Woodstock, not in New York where the scenes were quite separate. Up there, people started to blend more. People would get together. Let’s say Lee Konitz would meet Leroy Jenkins, or David Izenson would play with Harvey Sollberger—stuff that would never happen in New York, because the scenes were much more separate. People were more relaxed up there. They didn’t think in terms of the PR quality or the career situation or whatever it was.

TP:   So through this archive we can find different angles or approaches or nooks and crannies of the musical production of even artists with substantial discographies which might not otherwise be visible.

KB:   Yes, exactly. For example, Cecil Taylor could develop orchestra music. He never did that before. He spent ten days working with a 20-piece group and recording two evenings with that. This sort of stuff that just wouldn’t have happened.

TP:  Before we talk about some specifics of CMS, what do you recall about the gestation of Braxton’s Creative Orchestra Music project? You were there. You played glockenspiel and vibraphone on it.

KB:   There’s a funny story, which is typical for Anthony and his way of teaching. I looked at the part, and some of the notes were not on the vibraphone. So I said to Anthony, “How do you want me, “How do you want me to play that?” He said, “Play as written.” So what do you do with that? “Play as written.” Ok, so I played as written. Some of these notes were outside of the instrument.

Or Fred Rzewski playing the bass drum. What other record do you know where… [LAUGHS] So a couple of things like that were going on. Actually, I was already a little bit familiar with that music, because it had been happening among the participants at CMS before. But he was using professional musicians at the time of the recording.

TP:   Perhaps I can use your performance on glockenspiel on Braxton’s piece as a door for some remarks on your own personal history. Did you play in marching bands as a…

KB:   No. I never played glockenspiel before this recording.

TP:   I’m no expert on glockenspiel, but it sounded fairly accomplished… But you came to the States in 1966, was it…

KB:   Yes.

TP:   You’d met Don Cherry in Europe and came here as part of his working group.

KB:   Yes. We had a working group, a quintet for two years prior to that in Europe, and we played pretty much every day except Mondays. It was a real tight group. Then we got the invitation to record Symphony for Improvisers and to do a Five Spot series, and to play at Town Hall, which Ornette had organized. So we came on that premise. So we came in August 1966 for the first time.

TP:   I realize that you’ve related these events publicly on many occasions, but would you talk a bit about the path that brought you to Don Cherry?

KB:   It’s quite a simple story. In the late ‘50s or beginning ‘60s, I was a member of the Hans Koller Quartet in Germany. Hans Koller was a top European saxophonist who was one of the few Europeans who played on international festivals. So we opened for Miles, or we opened for Mingus, and we would play in Antibes, and so on. We sort of got around internationally a little bit. I started to listen to Ornette’s quartet albums, This is Our Music and The Shape of Jazz to Come, and these things. It really hit me that this is the kind of music I want to play. The free music was so slowly developing, but it wasn’t rhythmical, and this had the powerful rhythm and it was free. It really hit me, like, this the music I want to play.

Then the opportunity arose in ‘65, in March… We used to play in Paris a lot at the Chat Qui Peche with people like Chet Baker and Steve Lacy and other people, and in March 1965 Don Cherry came to Paris, and I met him at the Buttercup Club, which Bud Powell’s wife ran. I saw him sitting there, and I just walked up to him and said, “I want to play with you.” Don was a very intuitive cat. He looked at me and said, “Come to the rehearsal tomorrow at 4.” Then the same night, after the rehearsal, I played with the band, and from there on, the next three years, I played with that band. So this is how simple it was.

TP:   Now, you had also an academic background in philosophy. So you were dual-tracking as a student and a musician in post-war Germany.

KB:   Yes, exactly.

TP:   In any way, did the philosophical teachings, your studies…how did it intersect with your musical production?

KB:   I think studying particularly in the area of philosophy and aesthetics…when you study there and you go through the history of everything that’s been going on, it opens your mind to new concepts. It really does. It’s not so easy to get stuck in patterns. It’s a mind-opening experience. That’s the only relationship that I can see.

TP:   So in other words, it allowed you to accept what was happening perhaps on its own terms.

KB:   Yes, exactly. Particularly studying people like Schopenhauer or aesthetics by Kierkegaard or things like that, it gives you a real powerful intro into the philosophy of music and art.

TP:   How did vibraphone become your instrument of choice?

KB:   That’s also very accidental. I am a classical piano player, and as I was playing in a little club in Heidelberg called the Car-54, which was frequented by a lot of American players from the Air Force and Army bases around there… That’s where I met Carlos Ward, Cedar Walton, Lex Humphries, Don Ellis, and all these people. The piano was always in bad shape and out of tune, and there was a vibraphone player who came in sometimes, but then he left his instrument there. So I basically started playing it because the piano was so bad! The other reason was I could get up and move around. Because music makes me think of dancing always—and there I could do that, I could move around. But purposely, I never took a lesson on the vibraphone. So it’s my toy. Like, I played a vibraphone probably, because of that, like nobody else, just because I never learned how to play it classically.

So piano is really the instrument I know everything about. Vibraphone I only use for my own compositional and improvisational purpose.

TP:   Was there a real separation for you between… Had you given up classical music during those years, and was there perhaps some desire to bring forth those ideas?

KB:   When I played with Don’s band, often there wasn’t even a piano, or, if there was a piano, it was so bad that I would just play the vibes. Like, at Chat Qui Peche, the piano was terrible. Also, purposely, I didn’t play piano for two years during that period in order to get away from the licks, the classical licks, the way you learn to play classically. I wanted to re-translate back the vibraphone to the piano, which I now do. Now I understand the piano a lot more as a percussion instrument, which is what it is, and really go note-for-note.

TP:   So you arrive in the States in ‘66, straight into the fray at the Five Spot. Not the same location where history had been made years before…

KB:   The one on 8th Street.

TP:   Can you describe your first impressions of New York?

KB:   The first impression was that I wanted to go back home. It was a shock, in many ways. The living situations that I saw…all these famous musicians that I knew from records, how they lived and what they did and how they operated. It was horrible. I thought, “My God, these people should be respected more.” It was a hard one.

I would say that the man that got me to stay was Ornette Coleman. I started to have almost weekly conversations with Ornette. Ingrid and I went to Ornette’s loft all the time, and we discussed matters. He was the only one who made sense to me in terms of how he talked about music. But he also insisted that we should say. He said, “You’ve got something to say. New York is like a radio station for the world. You’ve got to do it.” So we did, and we sort of got used to it, slowly but surely.

TP:   Did you intersect during those years, 1966 to 1972, with other artistic communities in New York? With filmmakers, with writers, with visual artists?

KB:   Tthere were a bunch of scenes that we oscillated between. We were always in Brooklyn, Williamsburg, where there was a scene… There was a loft building with musicians like Rashied Ali and Roger Blank and Archie Shepp, and everybody living in there, and there were sessions every day. Rashied must have a host of tapes, because he recorded everything. There was like 12 lofts, all musicians. Then a bunch of musicians who came there all the time. I was a lot in that scene. I went there all the time to play. Then, I was around Roswell Rudd’s scene.  He had a band with Robin Kenyatta and Beaver Harris, so I played with that. Then with Marion Brown. Then there was another scene around Dave Liebman, who started out at that time. Dave Holland and Dave Liebman lived in the same loft building in the Photo District. While Dave was playing with Miles, he started playing with our quartet, with Carlos Ward and Eddie Blackwell. That was an ongoing project, and we recorded that a few times—and then trio music also.

So there were these different, disconnected scenes that were not overlapping. As a matter of fact, I asked many questions about that, and I never got the right answers.

TP:   What would the right answers have been?

KB:   The right answer would have been, “Oh, gee, why not?” In Williamsburg, for example, one day, after like 6 weeks of going there and playing there all the time, I said to everybody in a break, “So what do you guys all think? I am the only white man here.” It was all black guys playing. They said to me, “You’re not white; you’re European.” So that was a distinction. Stuff like that was going on.

TP:   Such ideas were also part of the zeitgeist (forgive my throwing a German philosophical term at you) in the late ‘60s. So those were musical scenes. Were you also intersecting with people in different disciplines?

KB:   That happened actually later. What happened was, we were there in ‘66, ‘67, and then in ‘68, I went back with my own group, with Alan Blairman. We went to Europe and toured there; for about a year-and-a-half we stayed over there. We only came back then in ‘72, to Woodstock directly. I was here in ‘70 and ‘71, in order to start the Creative Music Foundation. I had discussions with Ornette. He introduced me to John Cage, Gil Evans, Gunther Schuller, a few other people, and we started an advisory board for the Creative Music Studio. I started to talk with Carla Bley and Mike Mantler, who had office space on Broadway with the Jazz Composers Orchestra. So we started to form the process of setting up the Creative Music Foundation. Then I went back to Europe, and a year later I moved to Woodstock.

TP:   Why at the turn of the ‘70s did it seem important to set up the Creative Music Foundation?

KB:   I had very egotistical reasons. I wanted to know what I was doing. We were all playing, playing, playing every night, and my academic training told me I needed to know something more about this. Everything was fine and perfect, and it sounded great, but I didn’t know what it was. I wanted to find out what it would be. So I wanted to meet more people. I wanted to get groups of artists together, have them talk about their music. If you have to teach it, then you have to know what you’re saying, so to speak. Also, what are methods I could use in order to tell the next generation how to loosen up their conceptual ideas. That was all in the back of my mind, to do that.

TP:   For how long before doing this had you felt this way? I’m curious about how your academic background and cultural background as a German led to some of the pedagogical concepts at CMS.

KB:   What really got me going on this, I started teaching at the New School. John Cage had a course there, and he left, and I applied, and funny enough, I got the job, and I started an improvisation class there. I realized everybody had timing problems, so I started to get into time, beat-for-beat attention and all that. One of our mainstays at that time was a job with Young Audiences. There was a group led by the drummer Horacee Arnold, and there was Reggie Workman, Sam Rivers, myself, and Mike Lawrence was the trumpet player—and we would go to all the schools, playing for sixth-graders. This was all about what is improvisation; sing us a song, we’ll play over your song; we’ll just experiment with your music—and the kids got involved. That’s when I realized that people are not compartmentalized like we see them all the time, like somebody just likes this and the other one likes that. They liked everything. They were open. So I realized that the capacity of every person is really to be open, and to really get involved in all kinds of concepts and ideas. That really helped me to say, “you know, we can probably create a situation where we can help people to develop their own music.”

TP:   When you arrived in the States in ‘66, it was maybe a year or so after the incorporation of the AACM in Chicago. That, of course, was on its own parallel track during the years you’re speaking of, and musicians from there started moving to New York right around the time you started CMS. Were you aware of the AACM in those years? Or did you encounter some of them when you returned to Europe? I think 1969-1970 coincides with the time those musicians were staying in Europe.

KB:   Well, first I heard about it from Anthony, of course. Anthony lived in Woodstock… A lot of people moved to Woodstock during that time—Anthony, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Carla was already there. More and more people were following. So first I heard of it through Anthony. Then we started to bring AACM musicians in to teach at CMS. When CMS got bigger and it became a year-round institution, then we did whole summer sessions, whole so-called “New Year’s intensives” with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, or with Roscoe Mitchell and so on.

TP:   But in the ‘60s, you weren’t so aware.

KB:   No, I wasn’t aware at all. No. I’m not the type of person who is always keeping themself informed. I’m more focused on the stuff I need to do.

The music to follow was a project of mine that was realized in ‘95 in Germany at the Donaueschingen festival. It has a mixture of American and European musicians on it. I wanted to start the session by introducing my own work, and then go to CMS. I’m not just an administrator. I want to show what I do. Here I’ll play piano. One of the reasons I’m playing this is that I like people to start off understanding that I’m a piano player.

[MUSIC: “No Man Is An Island: Movement 2”; “Remembrance”]

TP:   “Remembrance” is a tune you played with Don Cherry during the ‘60s, with a working group. That’s from a radio broadcast, with Karl Berger on piano, Carlos Ward, alto sax, Peter Apfelbaum, tenor saxophone, Graham Haynes, cornet; Ingrid Berger, vocals; Bob Stewart, tuba; Mark Helias, bass; Tani Tabbal, drums…

    How many of these concerts did you record?

KB:   We recorded approximately 400 over the 12 year period, and the digitization process generates about 10 per month.

TP:   During a given year, did CMS run on a semester system, or a trimester…

KB:   In its heyday, it was year-round—two 8-week semesters in the fall and spring, and two 5-week semesters in the summer. Then there were intensives, a New Year’s intensive and another intensive around Easter-time.

TP:   So about 30 weeks a year.

KB:   Yeah. It was pretty intense. It was just ongoing. From 1976 to 1984, we had a campus that was a former motel with five buildings, so about 50 people could stay there all the time. There was also a soccer field where you could have festivals and so on. So it was a pretty ideal setup.

TP:   So using infrastructure from the former Borscht Belt… Woodstock and the Catskills has a preexisting infrastructure that could easily be used for this sort of thing.

KB:   Exactly.

TP:   What was your first facility? You come directly to Woodstock after a year-and-a-half in Europe. So presumably the gears were previously set in motion.

KB:   We rented a big barn, and the upstairs of the barn was set up so we could live upstairs, and downstairs was one big room with a fireplace, and that’s where the workshop started. This is where we started. Then a couple of years later, we sort of grew out of that, and it was not big enough. We rented a Lutheran camp, where now is a Zen mountain center, all the way out in Mount Trempa, which was a big space. The only drawback was that the camp was on in the summer, so we could only use it in the fall and spring. That’s when we started looking for this motel, and we found that in ‘75, and so from ‘76 on we had a year-round program.

TP:   Who was the faculty at first? You…

KB:   At first, all the people who lived up there, which was Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, myself, and Ingrid. That’s how it started.

TP:   How did you organize the curriculum and the pedagogy? Was it that Braxton wanted to teach in such-and-such a way, and Dave Holland would teach in a different, and Jack DeJohnette the same, or was there some organizing principle?

KB:   It was pretty loosely organized. In other words, we gave the guiding artists the afternoons for as long as they wanted. Most people started at 2 and went til 6 or 7 or so, and just worked with all the people that were there.

TP:   Was it on technique, on workshopping their music…

KB:   No. It was always about composition and improvisation. It was not about the instruments. We actually everybody that wanted to come, “You are not going to have training in your instrument.” It’s all about concepts. It was a conceptual situation. So in the morning I would do what I call “basic practice,” which was a rigorous rhythmic training, then a training in overtone awareness, like getting really into sound, so that you would get away from the idea of a tone and get into harmonics. Then the rhythmic training would be about beat-for-beat dynamics, so dynamics was a big issue. And I would do all of these non-stylistic, I’ll call them, exercises in the morning. There would be also body practice, body awareness before, at 9 o’clock. Some people wouldn’t make that! Then the afternoon was open to the guiding artists until dinner-time, and they could structure that any which way they wanted, whether they wanted to have a small group and people, or they wanted to have the whole group, or whatever they wanted to do. Then after-hours, the room was there for the students to develop their own works.

TP:   What was the age range of the students early on?

KB:   Early on, the first people that came, like Donnie Davis and these guys, they were probably around 21, 22…

TP:   Just graduated from college or having attended college.

KB:   Exactly, yes. Usually, we wanted to make sure people knew how to play their instrument well enough not to worry about that. So that was sort of our prerequisite. They had to send a tape or some kind of way of auditioning.

[The next selection was a 1979 duo by Berger and  Nana Vasconcelos]

TP:   You spoke before about the rhythmic exercises that you gave to students, and you told me off-mike were saying that the information you garnered and transmitted to students you learned during your years from Don Cherry, who himself was distilling these lessons—through his own prism, I guess—from Ornette Coleman.

KB:   Yes, in a way you could say that. I received through Don Cherry invaluable impressions and information about music. He used to walk around with a shortwave radio on his head 24 hours a day—probably even in his sleep! I saw him sitting in the movies having this on. Anyway, we would not only play every evening in these clubs, because at that time you could play for months in one club (it’s not like today), but you’d also have a rehearsal every afternoon. In these afternoon rehearsals he would come and play on the piano the most recent stuff that he had heard on the shortwave radio. He had this amazing what Ornette calls “elephant memory,” where he could remember every note. He would bring in pieces and play them. He wouldn’t even know where they were from, whether they were from India or Egypt or wherever. We used some of those melodies in the concerts, and he would just like use them, not thinking about any stylistic considerations or anything. So that was startling for me. It was new for me that you can just go and take any music coming from anywhere, and look at it as if it was all the same.

TP:   I guess he was beginning to incorporate these principles right around the time you started playing with him, around 1965-66.

KB:   Exactly.

TP:   Then he really developed them at much greater length in the ‘60s, culminating with pieces like Relativity Suite and other…

KB:   Exactly.

TP:   You were associated with him all through this time, or sporadically…

KB:   Off and on. I recorded the Art Deco album with him, and a few other places. But I wasn’t playing consistently with Don Cherry any more after ‘68. I started doing my own projects. But we kept in touch all the time. He was one of the major people at CMS. He was there every term, in each semester.

TP:   Now, you were just mentioning that he would grab themes from everywhere that he heard on the shortwave radio, without knowing where they were from, in a decontextualized way, out of the function in which the music was created. How important did it then become to recontextualize this within the framework of CMS… In other words, to do full justice to the actual music. Was it a kind of balancing act?

KB:   I basically didn’t go there. What I did is, I used some of this information, particularly all the additive rhythmic stuff that comes from Turkey, Egypt…the Middle East…from India… All this additive rhythmic stuff intrigued to a point to create a practice system called the “gamala taki.” Those two words came from Don Cherry, but he wasn’t thinking of them it a rhythmic system. He just had heard them on the shortwave radio. They are part of the tabla language in Pakistan, for example. So I would take it out of that context altogether, and just create an additive rhythmic training. Because you go into that kind of place where you’re no longer thinking bars or forms of that kind, but you are just adding odd and even, and you use language as a tool rather than counting, you’re going into a new world of…you create a sense of freedom for yourself, for beat-for-beat attention, as I call it. That led me also to the fact that we not only could study something for the reason of learning new material, but also to train our mind. Like, to train our mind to listen for each beat

TP:   But on the other hand, for instance, on the prior track with Nana Vasconcelos, or the piece we’re about to hear with Trilok Gurtu, these are musicians who are deeply trained within the folkloric music of their own cultures. How did they respond to moving outside the notion of idiom? Of course, Nana Vasconcelos was involved in many transcultural projects with Don Cherry and other people.

KB:   Trilok and particularly Nana and others that came there, these percussionists were there because they wanted to go beyond their traditional culture. They wanted to move beyond that. So therefore, we had people who were eager to absorb information like that. I just met Nana at a festival in Sardinia that we were playing on about a month ago, Sant’anna Arresi, which was dedicated all to Don Cherry. Nana sang all these gamela taki practices to me. He still has them in his head, and this is still fascinating material for him, because that’s not what you do in Brazil—additive rhythm of that nature. So he actually enjoyed that to a point, because it sort of opened him up in his playing. Trilok is the same way.

TP:   So you found one system that would enable musicians to look for that universal language that seems so appealing to musicians, because it’s a language of notes and tones.

KB:   Exactly. There you go. So that you go there, and then from there you can go back to any style in which you play, and you will be a lot more open around it. You can go back and play tones and play forms of any kind, but you will have another beat-for-beat attention in your mind, and also a sense of harmonics about every note you play. Don Cherry would tell me things like, “there’s no such thing as A. There’s A in the context of whatever harmonics there are.” Once you go there and practice that, you open up a whole territory of precision in your tuning. For example, like, a trumpet player who plays a G, he can basically, with that one note, determine whether it’s in C or in G or in A or E-minor

TP:   Now we’re hearing the Ornette Coleman root.

KB:   There you go!

TP:   Next is a CD of Trilok Gurtu, a sextet with Nana Vasconcelos, Ismet Siral, Steve Gorn, Ted Orr and Karl Berger, from 1980.

KB:   That was a Turkish folk melody called [tk], and Ismet Siral is a saxophonist from Istanbul who is very revered over there, and came to CMS to teach a week of Turkish music, and ended up staying for two years. He was just insistent. He just didn’t want to leave. I realized very quickly that particularly Turkish music is ideal for studying additive odd meter. It is such simple structured, melodic work that is actually perfectly structured in the gamela taki fashion. So these are all actually exercise pieces for students to learn Turkish music pieces, and it was an eye-opener for everybody and a real practice. He just kept one house, put a fire in front of his house, and taught in the evening after hours when everybody else was finished. He would just stay and continue to teach.  Then something tragic happened. He went back to Turkey, and he was so influenced by the American way of life and the style of playing that his Turkish colleagues would not accept him any more, and he actually committed suicide. But the Turkish energy is such a fervent energy. I don’t know how to describe it. But there is now a group in Turkey, if you go to a site that’s called IS-CMS, that’s Ismet Siral Creative Music Studio—there is actually a page on the Internet. They created a summer session two years ago, and brought Trilok, myself, Steve Gorn, all these people there to do a summer… They want to continue in the honor and memory of Ismet Siral.

TP:   In 1972, I guess the notion of field recordings had been undertaken since the ‘30s and ‘40s, and more systematically in the ‘50s and ‘60s with the UNESCO series and so forth, but in American jazz, these influences were considered somewhat exotic. Of course, Dizzy Gillespie incorporated Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and Max Roach as well. But it seems that beginning in the ‘70s, and perhaps in some part through developments in CMS, and perhaps other reasons, the assimilation of rhythms, melodies, and scales from around the world began to be incorporated more into the mainstream vocabulary of jazz and creative music. Do you have any observations about these developments?

KB:   Strangely enough, we were not really in the middle of that. We were less concerned with how materially jazz as a style was developing, for example. I was more interested for people to open their minds for their own music, so there would be influences but not material influences in the sense of stylistic influence, but more to get more flexible, to be more attuned to differentiations that you might bring into your music, and not being hesitant about expressing yourself just because you’re not sounding like everybody else. As you know, when we hear our own voice for the first time, we think the tape recording is wrong. This is how different we are in terms of sound and rhythm, in terms of timing and all that. To get there, to go there, and to do that by way of studying all these different things, not so much by taking in Turkish music or taking in Indian music and incorporating it into your art… I wasn’t really that interested in that. It happened, of course, automatically, and a lot of that is going on now, and has been since then. But that was never really our focus. Our focus was to see the music as one, and to begin to learn to get more specific about your own music. What is it that you like?

TP:   It’s been 24 years since CMS dissolved. In your own musical production now are you following pretty much the same path? Is it more a process of consolidation? Talk about the impact of CMS on you, Karl Berger?

KB:   Oh, of course, I’m the lucky one. I was there all the time, and I got to meet all these musicians and to play with all of them, and it opened up my way of playing like never before. Actually, I took myself out of the scene, so to speak. I didn’t record as much as most of my colleagues. I am actually happy about that, because now I know every note to play. So when I go into my studio, now things are beautiful. I am not worried about anything any more. It’s not almost. It’s not any of that. So that’s the great thing about it. We’re even playing some of these pieces. “Zenibim(?),” this piece that you just heard, we’re still playing that today. I’m using that with the orchestra. I have the Creative Music Studio Orchestra, of which a lot of the members used to be at CMS, some of whom still live in Woodstock, too. The orchestra is about 15 players,  and we’re playing a lot of these materials. We’re playing Don Cherry’s pieces. We’re playing Ismet’s pieces. We’re playing Ismet’s pieces. We’re playing Nana’s pieces. But in our own way, of course.

Karl Berger & Ingrid Berger (Dec. 12, 2008):

TP:   I want to discuss a few things. I’ve previously spoken to Karl about his personal history before you came here, but not to Ingrid about hers. I’m interested in the way your ideas gestated, how you evolved into the notion of an institution like the Creative Music Studio, and the sort of music you were playing in the ‘60s. I also have some things to ask, more philosophical than specifically about the CMS, more large-picture than micro. Also about the digitization project, what you’ve both been doing since 1984, and also how you see the legacy of CMS in a broader sense. That’s a rough picture…

KB:   It’s a whole book.

TP:  It’s an article. You’re both improvisers. Ingrid, let me ask what you were doing at the time you met Karl.

IB:   Singing in Heidelberg. I worked with different groups. I’m coming kind of out of an artist family. My older brother was a fantastic painter, and he brought me to music. He took me to the first jazz concerts in Germany. So for me, it was clear. I always wanted to be a dancer, but it didn’t work out. My mother didn’t get the money together. I had three brothers, and they had to study…

TP:   Was it a family where the boys went to college, and you had to…

IB:   Wait for the beautiful man, a millionaire, aristocrat… So for me, it was clear, singing always. So I started very early, when I was 17…

TP:   You were born in Munich, your family were artists and they made it through the war.

IB:   Yeah, they did. I left them, and then I started working with different groups—a Dutch group, an English group. When I met Karl, I was working with a group that needed a piano player. We met in a Special Service bus where they brought the musicians to the clubs to play, and Karl backed me up.

TP:   what year was that?

IB:   I can’t remember. What year was that?

KB:   ‘59 maybe. Yeah, it could be.

TP:   You were singing the standards, the American Songbook in English?

IB:   Oh, yes. I had English in school. In Europe, we don’t have a choice.

TP:   Were you listening to American singers? Were you under stylistic influences?

IB:   My first singer was June Christy; she was the singer for Stan Kenton. My second singer was Louis Armstrong. Then the last one was Billie Holiday, of course. But then I immediately stopped listening to singers, and listened more to music, because I felt I learned much more from it, and I didn’t want to copy styles from singers.

TP:   Were you formally trained in music?

IB:   The piano. My mother was a classical pianist. She played concerts, but then she had family, so she couldn’t keep up.

TP:   Did she teach you piano?

IB:   No, I studied with somebody else.

TP:   So it’s around 1959, and you’re singing in these combos. Were you the leader?

IB:   No, never. I went with a jazz quartet to the Frankfurt Festival. That was before I met Karl. Then we met, and then we formed this friendship and partnership, and we wanted to stay together, and we started playing regularly together.

TP:   What was your first impression of Karl?

IB:   Hey! [LAUGHS] My first impression of Karl? Well, that he was a fantastic musician, and very kind of mysterious, because he was always very quiet.

TP:   Karl, you were born in Heidelberg during the ‘30s, and you studied classical piano, and studied philosophy in the university. Did you get a doctorate in philosophy?

KB:   Yes.

TP:   So you were a student until your mid or late twenties.

KB:   At the time, studying in universities in Europe was a bit different from what you think about now. You could basically be part of a program, but you didn’t necessarily have to be there all the time. So the only exam I ever took was the actual Ph.D. You didn’t have to go through…you know, and write a book… You had to be inscribed in this program for a minimum of five years. I was just in and out of the school in Heidelberg and in Berlin.

TP:   Heidelberg was a famous university.

KB:   Yes. But I really finished in Berlin, at…Berlin West, the university there. But I was already playing during that time professionally, traveling and all that. So it was kind of strange. We lived in Paris, and I had a real small hotel room, and my books would be in the car that I needed to write my dissertation.

TP:   So you moved to Paris after you got married, and became…

IB:   I have to tell you this. We worked together, we didn’t work together, we worked together—whatever jobs came up. One day Karl came… We lived together. We got married. Karl came and said, “You’ve never heard this music; you’ve got to listen to this music.” I said, “What is it?” “Ornette Coleman.” It was This is Our Music. He put it on, and we both almost fainted. We decided we want to be where these musicians live.

TP:   That was the eureka moment.

IB:   That was the first time that the wish came up. Then we moved to Paris, and the second week we were there, we went to Buttercup Club. Buttercup was the wife of Bud Powell. We were sitting there, and then Karl says, “Look over there—this is the trumpet player that is on the record This is Our Music.”

TP:  They made that record in 1959, so it was some years later.

IB:   So this was later. We moved to Paris in 1965. Karl walked over, and Karl immediately invited him.

TP:   Looking back, what was it about your backgrounds in music and your development that made you respond to that music? Was it a gradual thing? An immediate thing?

IB:   For me, it was immediate.

TP:   Well, you were singing in a closed-form, harmonic medium. That was your orientation.

IB:   It was unusual. It was different. It was very expressive. It was very emotional. The tunes were so beautiful in terms of being artistic. It was something else. It was not the usual.  Incredible.  A very high artistic level to me.

TP:   How about for you, Karl? What you said on the radio…I asked if there was any connection between your training in philosophy and your musical orientation, and you said the only connection you could discern might have to do with being open to different things, not accepting received wisdom, as it were.

KB:   One area that… I specialized in ideology critique. I was working with Theodor Adorno and those people.

TP:   You studied with Adorno?

KB:   Yes. I actually worked with him.

TP: One of the great jazz lovers!

KB:   Yeah. I worked with him later, and he basically told me he didn’t understand anything about jazz, and I said to him, “Why are you writing about it?”

TP:   How did he respond to that?

KB:   He said, “Why don’t you write about it?” But he said, “Just don’t ever call it ‘art.’”

IB:   That’s amazing.

KB:   I said, “Listen, I don’t have any problem with that. The ‘art’ definition that you have in mind is obviously a strictly European one, and we don’t need it—we don’t need to use it. So we’ll just leave that outside.” Then he sort of said, ‘ok.’

TP:   Do you remember when you had that conversation?

KB:   Yeah. That was probably around 1964.

TP:   By then you were almost 30 years old and working a lot.

KB:  Right.  I basically started a project under his guidance, because I still wasn’t sure whether I wanted to just do music or wanted to also be dealing with philosophy, particularly with this field. But that soon faded, as soon as I met Don Cherry, because then there was strictly no more time.

TP:  So you did meet Cherry in 1965, five-six years after it came out. Another broad question, which I feel I can ask you because of your academic background. I’m no authority on German cultural history, but I’ve studied it a bit. Do you see yourself as the heir to any particular streams in German cultural thinking?

KB:   No.

TP:  Not at all? You don’t see yourself positioned… I’m not even talking about consciously. Just retrospecting on your own cultural production, do you see it as related in any way to that legacy?

KB:   Well, of course, I knew and met all the people who developed free jazz in Europe, and particularly in Germany. But they took a radical approach towards everything. I liked the freedom that Ornette started by opening up the form, but really deal strongly with rhythm. That’s what I was interested in. In that, I was pretty much… I didn’t have a lot of peers. In France, yes. In Germany, no.

TP:   So you’re referring to people like Brotzmann and Peter Kowald and the Wuppertal crowd…

KB: Yes. We worked with all these people. But it was not satisfactory to me, because I didn’t feel… I needed to feel grounded in the beat. I needed to feel connected to…yeah, a groove.

TP: It’s interesting you married someone who was going to be a dancer. But in asking that question, I wasn’t thinking so much of your contemporaries. I was thinking of German history. I was thinking of streams of German thought and aesthetic philosophy. I was wondering if you see yourself as heir to any of those traditions or streams?

KB:   Not really, no.

TP:   Not even unconsciously.

KB:   Well, I would have to think about that.

TP:   Would you mind doing that? I think it’s important, because it seems to me that Creative Music Studio is as much the result of your personal philosophy, and this doesn’t emerge from a vacuum, but out of the context of a life lived.

KB:   Well, ideology critique… I don’t know if this expression exists in English. That’s what it’s called in German—“Ideologiekritik,” which was my main area. It really has a lot to do with crossing borders, getting borders out of the way. Because ideologies create boundaries and borders, and CMS was really about going past that, but not by going through the borders, but going behind it, by seeing what is the common element of the different kinds of music. Ideologiekritik works exactly the same way. You go behind the ideologies, and see what is the common ground of all these.

TP:   It’s interesting, because German academics invented anthropology and ethnography in the 19th century in many ways, so perhaps there’s some trail…

KB:   Yes, you could probably trace that.

TP:   I’m not equipped to do that, but it’s an interesting notion. Ingrid, can I ask you a similar question? Do you see yourself as heir to any particular streams of German culture in the way you think about music or art?

IB:   Yes. For classical music, absolutely. Bach, Beethoven, Handel… Absolutely. I listen more to classical music, to those people, than to jazz actually. I never felt completely German, because my family is kind of from everywhere. Moroccan forefathers. Moorish. Then there’s French people in the family. Most of my family lives in Italy now. But I’m very fond… I love the German language. Not the one that got distorted by Nazi movies, but a real beautiful, soft-spoken…

TP:   Southern Germany. The soft accent…

IB:   Yes. And I love the European classical music. The Italian music. Absolutely.

TP:   When you heard jazz, did you see a relation?

IB:   Yes. Ornette said that to me. Ornette and Abdullah Ibrahim. The first thing Ornette said to me was, “You’re coming from Germany; you’re coming from a country with fantastic musicians”—classical musicians. Ornette used…what’s his last record called… Sound Grammar. He uses a Stravinsky thing. Well, Stravinsky is from Russia. But he’s an admirer. Marilyn Crispell, a friend of ours, said she heard him weave some Bach things into his music in concerts in Europe. So that definitely I am very fond of.

TP: You were speaking about your earlier singing influences. Before Ornette, who were the instrumentalists you admired?

IB:   Charlie Parker. I didn’t know too much about him, but Thelonious Monk. It was mainly Charlie Parker, because I could relate to the way I feel with my voice.

TP:   You liked the intervals they use…

IB:   Yes.

TP:   Karl, you were originally a pianist and studied classical piano. When you started playing jazz, were there any pianists whose influence you were under?

KB:   I always was intrigued by Monk’s playing. I always liked that a lot. Actually, I found myself pretty alone in that. In Europe, the traditionalists didn’t understand what Monk was all about.

IB:   They didn’t understand what Monk was about either.

KB:   Right.  So Monk was really one from the beginning; I was interested in his stuff. But then I went, of course, through trying to copy Bud Powell and all the people from there. Also, Cedar Walton was a guy who came to Heidelberg a lot, so I met him. I was just trying to play like these guys. Actually, I taped some of it. When you listen to these tapes now, you can tell from the mistakes I’m making, that I’m not quite hitting what they were doing, that’s the beginning of my music. I can hear my phrases in my mistakes.

TP:   A common jazz nostrum, to develop vocabulary from your mistakes. During the early ‘60s, you’re together… There’s a five-year span between when you meet and when you meet Don Cherry. You’re both professional musicians, and Karl is getting your Ph.D. What was your Ph.D?

KB:   My thesis was “Definition of the Function of Music in the Soviet System Between Stalin and Khruschev.” That period. Through the example of Shostakovich.

TP:   Would it be a mistake to say that you’re not a particularly political person. I’m thinking of Brotzmann and Kowald—a lot of their musical choices emerged from their politics. I get the sense that your politics were a little different…

KB:   No. I was pretty radical at the time.

TP:   Still are.

KB: [LAUGHS] We were very arrogant in a lot of ways.  I was working in an institute in Berlin that specialized in studies about the East. There was a lot of politics there. I basically brought the musicologists and the sociologists together so that I could write in this area. It was interesting, because at the time, at least, in the Russian system, the Soviet system, ideology was, of course, prescribed. It was talked about, it was written about, and it was formulated in all these magazines, which all got translated into East German magazines. So I needed to learn enough Russians to know which titles are which…and get the literature from East Berlin. There was no wall yet at the time. I could go to East Berlin and get those materials. So it was all on the example of Shostakovich, who was one of my favorite composers—even now.

TP:   So you meet Don Cherry at the club and you tell him you want to play with him, and he tells you to go to a rehearsal. What was that first rehearsal like?

IB:   Big love. No problems. Big love. I didn’t… The work was done. Of course, not nearly as much as Karl did, because his gigs were just for instruments. But the few times I sang with him… I sang a lot with him when he came up to Woodstock, and I sang with him in Paris for two nights, and I did the Multikulti record with him, A&M Records—I did all the voice parts. Big love. Sensitive, intelligent, spirited person with lots of humor and an incredible musician.

TP:   In the book by Robert (?), there’s some very good descriptions of him, and there’s a great picture of him with your daughters and another kid. So Karl, you played the next night with Don Cherry and became a member of the group. I’ve heard a number of things by the band. Speak about the musical ideas Don Cherry was working with, and how they related to your aspirations at the time, and retrospectively how they foreshadowed your future production. I know that’s a book, too, but…

KB:   Don used a real eclectic mix of materials. From the very beginning when we played there, he would play pieces by Ornette, he would play pieces of his own, but then he would all of a sudden start a bossa nova, or he would start something he had just heard on the radio, or he would play some Asian or Indian scales. He would just come up with anything. He was Mr. Surprise. You basically had to stay on your toes to keep up. He had what Ornette called an “elephant memory,’ and he probably, unconsciously or not, expected the same from us, that we hear a melody once and we can play. Of course, we couldn’t, but we tried our bes

TP:   The band was Gato Barbieri, Aldo Romano, and Jenny Clark.

KB:   Yes.  Gato was very quick. He was very good at picking up stuff. The great thing about that band was that it actually played every time. We had 5 hours of playing time every day except Monday. Then we had a couple of hours of rehearsal every day also. So it was 7 hours of playing every day. And there was no talking, because we didn’t talk. We didn’t have the same language. Gato only spoke Spanish, Aldo only French and Italian, Cherry only English, and I only German and English, and Jenny Clark only French and English—so there was no common language. So it was just, ‘Ok, yes, let’s go.’ That’s what was said, and everything else was Cherry pounding out the melodies on the piano in the rehearsals, and we would perform.

TP:   Was that a deliberate aesthetic decision by Cherry, to incorporate all this material, or was it his nature to be a spontaneous improviser and bring forth what he was hearing? You were talking about the shortwave radio…

KB:   He just was impressed by all kinds of music. Not only was he impressed; he wanted to use it. That was his decision. He was very naive, in the best sense of the word, about it. He would use any material that he heard, and start using it. Suddenly in the middle of the thing, you’d hear him play Charlie Parker’s solo and make a song out of that. I mean, anything could happen. It was amazing. So I think that was his nature. He was probably the first guy who completely disregarded all boundaries of music.

TP:   Had you been thinking about that approach before, when you were leading groups?

KB:   No.

TP:   had I heard you leading a group in 1965, what would the tone of it have been?

KB:   Well, there’s one from 1966 that you probably know—an ESP album.

IB:   The world approach that Don had, including world music, it had something that’s in us, or in me, and it just needed Don to …(?—30:18)… It’s nothing… I believe that everybody is a singer and everybody is very musical. People just cover it up, and for some people it’s too late to dig it out, or too much work to dig it out. But everybody has it. That’s what the Creative Music Studio was about, to wake up the talents that are in people. Not to teach them something, but to wake up, to get it out. With Don, that was one of the first impressions about the music.

TP:   So meeting him brought forth the overriding CMS concept.

IB:   That we are a huge family—musical family.

TP:   So for you, it was through his personality, and for Karl, more the different musical information…

IB:   For me, both—music and personality.

TP:   I guess your kids were born during these years, so I guess you were being a mom, but were you also working musically?

IB:   Yes. While I was pregnant, I tried to do a gig with Steve Lacy, but that didn’t work out that night because of some circumstances with Steve Lacy. I don’t want to get into it, because I don’t want to put Steve down. It had to do with drugs. So, no, I just really…

KB:   But to answer your question, my approach to music was more abstract. I wouldn’t think of styles, or I wouldn’t think of using raw materials from another culture or whatever, but I was interested in the phraseology of it all, and just use a tiny segment, and create tones that are very short and pregnant with ideas. So you wouldn’t need more than 4 bars or 5 bars to get going. So my first recordings were like that. There is one on Milestone. [SINGS OPENING THEME] That’s it, that’s the whole thing. That was enough for me to work for an hour. My idea was to have a concentrated focus on certain elements. I wasn’t thinking so much in terms of listening to other cultures or other ideas. But I’m sure that all came out of the experience of playing for 2 or 3 years like that.

TP:   You impress as being a combination of an extreme idealist-utopian, but also very pragmatic about getting things done. I used to see a lot of German cinema, and I used to see a lot of Werner Herzog films, though I don’t think you approach his level of insanity—though I don’t know what you were like 40 years ago. But there’s the sense that you like to place yourself in extreme situations and make them work.

KB:   Well, that’s true.

TP:   I don’t know if there’s anything there for you to respond to. But I’m thinking of the way you described your activity once you moved to New York—going to the various lofts, getting involved with the most intensely political black musicians… Were you like that in Europe as well? Is that a component of your personality?

KB:   I don’t know.

TP:   I’ll ask your wife.

IB:   I don’t understand the question. These craziness issues, is that part of his personality?

TP:   No, that’s not the question. He came here fresh from Europe, and people seemed to immediately see him as an organizer, began to see his qualities. So he came and involved himself deeply in the radical New York scene, and then came back and set up Creative Music Studio. These things are not easy logistically to do, not easy psychologically to do, and it takes a certain sort of personality and certain venturesomeness…

IB:   Right.

TP:   I’m wondering if those qualities had manifested in Europe.

IB:   Yes. It’s part of Karl’s character, too.

KB:   It’s actually fairly simple. I want to know… I like to play and I teach people to play with a more or less what I call music mind, which is basically not a fully conscious state of mind. It’s more like getting into the feel of things, and not having your mind interfere with that. But then at the same time, I like to know what it is that we’re doing. So the Creative Music Studio was a lot about that. One part of it was, we played all this music in the ‘60s, and then I was sitting back and said, “So what is it that we’re doing?” Now, the only way to find out what you’re doing is if you teach it to somebody else. If you have to explain what you’re doing to somebody else, then it will come out—or it won’t, of course. So that was a big part of it, that I wanted to really do some practical research in formal workshops.

TP:   How are you different as teachers? It seems like the CMS is a…

IB:   I don’t know how to answer that. Maybe Karl can. You didn’t ask me yet how I felt when I came over here.

TP:   I was going to, but I got distracted. How did you feel when you came over here?

IB:   Awful. It was the shock of my life. I looked so forward to get into the musicians here,. The shock of my life. I hated the food. I loved the people here. We met the most beautiful people here. But I hated the food, and I found out that coming from Europe, the musicians that you adore in Europe are superstars, but when you come here… The first person I approached on the Lower East Side was a famous saxophone player, whose name I don’t want to mention, who asked us for some money to buy a mouthpiece. The other one was Anita O’Day, who was the only white singer I really loved. She sang at Copacabana, and I looked forward to it, and I walked in, and she cried… She was sitting at the bar. I said to the waiter, “is she not singing more?” “She’s fired. She came late.” So I felt this disrespect, which is probably here not a disrespect, but for a European coming from over there it was a shock. Then we met Ornette right away…when it got really hard for us to stay, he talked us into staying. He said, “You’ll play some music that should be heard; don’t leave.”

TP:   So you stayed for a couple of years, before you went back…

IB: Yes, because of pregnancy I went back there. Then we came back.

TP:   At the time you returned the first time, did you feel at peace with being here?

IB:   No. Only then, when we came the second time and we settled in Woodstock—because I didn’t want to be with the kids in New York. I think that was part of Karl’s idea—so his family is away from the city. So one little part of the journey is the studio in Woodstock…not the Creative Music Studio, but the studio in Woodstock so we could be in the countryside.

TP:   Please ruin down for me again the gestation of CMS. Did you have the idea before you came to the States of something like that?

KB:   What happened was, when I came here in ‘66, I started a gig with Reggie Workman and Horacee Arnold and Sam Rivers. We played in schools for young audiences. The experience with those kids really gave me the idea that people (it was sixth graders at the time; today it would probably be fourth-graders) are completely open, just like Don Cherry.

TP: You had small children then yourself.

KB: Well, they were only 2 years old, or 3… We’d just started to have kids. The way they were dealing with music, coming up with melodies or recognizing melodies, or the kinds of answers they gave us, it really showed me that there is this amazing potential in everybody to just go anywhere with music or other things—whatever it is. Then later, it gets closed off in these stylistic patterns, which are socialization, some other processes that are going on.

So one part was that I was curious about doing some research before I kept being on the road. It would have been easier for us to go back to Europe and just stay on the road. But over here, there was no road. So we created our own road by having the Creative Music Studio.

TP:   By that do you mean that through CMS you were able to bring to yourselves the diversity of experience that you would have through being on the road in Europe?

KB:   Exactly. But actually better.

TP:   Very practical again.

IB:   Yes.

KB:   Better, because some of the best people in the world would come to us, come right to our house. Also, all these musicians who lived in the Woodstock area at the time, like Anthony and Dave Holland, Jack, Stu Martin, or Carla, all these people, they all were actually looking to do some work at home that was creative, and not have to be on the road all the time.

TP:   Had you met Carla in Europe in the ‘60s?

KB:   No, we met her here. She was the first one to move to the Woodstock area. The Creative Music Foundation, the actual founding of the foundation in 1971, happened actually at the Jazz Composers Orchestra office at 500 Broadway. We had a little room in the back there, and that’s where we started the foundation. Mike Mantler and Carla… They helped us write the first grants and to get things rolling. They told me all about the non-profit thing. The non-profit thing is something that’s European, in a way. There’s a lot more non-profit activity there than there is here. People don’t think like that here.

TP:   Well, it started to be more au courant in the ‘70s.

KB:   Then finally, I got very interested in the question of how can we play all this kind of music at the same time. Don’s way must be based on something that’s common to all music. So rather than emphasizing what’s different about different kinds of music is to emphasize what’s common to all the music. So what kinds of studies could we do dealing with the common ways of music. So dealing with basic ideas of time and basic ideas of space. We just started there. Then every day there would be exercises in these areas that did not deal with any style of music. That’s what really opened up all the people to find sort of their own ways of interpreting different styles of music. I didn’t expect everybody to just go and play a completely new music, but they needed to find out how they could open up within given styles.

TP:   When I had Stephen and Peter on the air, one or the other of them said that gamalataki comes from a pattern in Pakistani tabla music…

KB:   It doesn’t matter where it comes from.

TP:  But one thing I asked you on the radio which I’d like to explore a bit more: In a certain sense, you set up a system for people to use the rhythms and scales and melodies of the world towards further elaborating their own ideas…

KB:   Yes. First of all, we use the system of odd and even, regardless of any musical ideas. It’s just odd and it’s even. One melody is odd, the other one is even. We use language rhythm, so instead of “gamela” you could say something else. It doesn’t have to be those syllables… As a matter of fact, there was some old age home where some students were doing that, and people said, “Oh, we don’t want to do gamela taki, so they came up with some comic names. It doesn’t matter. The point is, what I’ve discovered was that in any music, you look at three levels of rhythm that are going on—in any piece. That’s pulse, that’s language rhythm, and that’s form. Any form. It’s rhythmically also. Form has repetitions and so on. Larger forms and so on. Language rhythm is always asymmetrical. Pulse is non-descriptive. You don’t count actually. It’s just 1-1-1-1-1. So basically, just out of that alone, we could study, first of all, openness of meter. Any kind of meter could come from there. Any additive rhythms could be realized that way. So you really did world musical studies in the broader sense of the world, because you coudl then go to a Turkish piece and say, “Oh, yes, this has this-and-this gamela taki element, and also on that…” But then also, I realized that, doing that, we could also not only go wider, but we could also go deeper—which means watch your mind of what you’re doing, beat-for-beat attention.  So you’re really going into focus training—what I call music mind training now. So you did like both of those things at the same time. And if you do it every morning, it really changes people’s habits around their music after a few weeks.

TP:   I have two questions. Did you specifically ever immerse yourself in any area of music from whatever part of Africa, or South Africa, or Turkey? Have you studied any of those musics systematically?

KB:   No.

IB:   I studied Indian music for two years. I studied with Pranath, the North Indian singer who died. [here] Then I took some lessons with …(?—50:47)…., who rented our house up at Woodstock. I had gone to the conservatory in Europe to study voice, and they wanted to turn me into an opera singer—and I love opera, but that’s not what I wanted to do. Then I took acting classes in France and in Germany, and I worked with voice much better because actors don’t work with microphones, so they have to project right, they have to breathe right. Then, finally, I found the Indian training, and I really liked that. Because I worked with the natural voice. I just worked with the voice the way it is, but make it clean and make it stronger.

TP:   So like an instrument.

IB:   Like an instrument.

TP: Superficially, when you read about it, it sounds like chanting, or perhaps a religious ritual sort of thing.

IB:   Yes, it’s kind of chanting. But you’re singing the ragas and you’re singing… it can get very complex. It’s always about the purity, the cleanness, the tuning. The way you tune is the most important thing in Indian music. Your tuning, the wayyou hit the note and you stay with it, and then around this tuning you form your vibrato and the originality of your voice. It’s a very beautiful tuning.

TP:   Were you teaching this way before CMS, or did you begin once…

IB:   No. I never liked teaching. I wanted to sing, but I never liked teaching it. I always felt like rnette. Do I know enough to teach? We asked Ornette, “Come up and teach; it will be so fantastic,” and he said, “I can’t do that; if I go up there, then they think I know something.” But that’s Ornette, because he knows a lot more than I do. He’s kind of a guru for me, so I admire him a lot.

TP:   So Ornette and Don are gurus for you.

IB:   Yes.

TP: Maybe Karl, too. But once you marry him, not…

IB: No, he wasn’t before either. We were pretty compatible. I’m doing music longer than Karl.

TP:   So you returned to Europe, came here to set up the foundation, went back to Europe, came back here, and you had a barn, and you set up the barn…

IB:   Yes. That’s where we started the workshop. Anthony Braxton was the first teacher.

TP:   What was his methodology?

IB:   [MERRY LAUGH] Everything was good about it! [LAUGHS] Fantastic. His musical level is very high. The energy… You should not put that in the article, but I’ve not been at his workshop ever. I tried to get everything together. So I was very busy. I wish I could have gone. Braxton now…we met him in Switzerland. He came to our concert with the octet…

TP:   I also saw him perform with the two of you.

IB:   Yes. He came up and he said, “Ingrid, we’ve got to do something together. Where’s Karl?” That’s where we organized this. He felt like he never had time when he came to CMS to even hang out with us. So he really wanted…

TP:   That concert was magnificent.

IB:   We recorded together at the studio before the concert. That’s going to be a CD. He demanded that. He said, “We have to do a CD, then the concert.” After the concert, people walked up to me and said, “Where’s Braxton?” I said, “He’s leaving; he has four hours to go home.” they said, “No, get him back. We want you three to do this all night, what you just did.”

TP:   So was the teaching more a thing that came out of you?

IB:   Yeah, that’s because of Karl. His father was a teacher; my father was a teacher. He was a professor of Latin and English, but mainly Latin.

TP:   so he comes from a family of professors.

IB:   Yes. So he turned me on. The concept of the Creative Music Studio was unbelievable. It’s not like you go to a music school or conservatory and then you find these nasty, cranky teachers that have a job until they retire, but they don’t want to do it every day. CMS was the opposite. It was about performing musicians, that when they had time came up, and passed on the music to the students, but not only their music to the students but also their lifestyle. They showed the students, we are out there, we’re performing, we’re doing concerts. It was incredible.

TP:   I know what the ‘70s were like, and I know what Woodstock was like, and I know how wild people were—it was a wild time.

IB:   A very wild time.

TP:   Very wild, in a lot of ways. It sounds like you may have been the person who centered it.

IB:   I hope we did a little bit. We loved them.

TP:   Talk a bit about establishing social order at CMS? Were there house rules? Were there things that were verboten?

IB:   You mean not drinking, no smoking?

TP:  That and going to classes. Keep a protocol so that people would…

IB:   Oh, yeah. We had a regular schedule. In the morning we would always do the gamela taki sessions. That’s for everybody, non-musicians or musicians.  Karl would do the gamela-taki, the rhythmical thing with them, and I would form melodies over all these numbers—sing a melody over 5, sing a melody over 7, over 9. Actually, I started out doing phrasing exercises with them. Since I have some dancing experience, I did some exercises with them. Then we did some holding notes and singing, and then Karl came, and then we combined that. Then there was lunch, and then in the afternoon it started again sometimes at 2. Then at 5 o’clock we had a Buddhist teacher come in, and there was a half-hour meditation. Nobody had to do Buddhism, but there was no talking, and people were just supposed to be quiet.

TP:   Are you Buddhist?

IB:   We came to Buddhism in America.  Don Cherry took a refuge with Trungpa Rempeche. Don Cherry was deeply devoted to Buddhism.

TP:   Are you sill practicing?

IB:   Yes, we have a big monastery in… Because it relates totally to music. It’s about emptying out, taking in again, and being creative.

TP:   I can see exactly how it works. Do you think CMS would have happened had you not started studying and practicing Buddhism?

IB:   No. We started the studio, and pretty much at the same time it happened.

TP:   So it’s part of your practice, in a sense.

IB:   Yes. It happened in a funny way, because my father died. My mother said, “Don’t come back to Europe; by the time you come, he’s dead—save the airplane ticket.” I picked up a book, because I suffered so much and I loved my parents, and the book helped me get over this suffering, and it was by Trungpa Rempeche who had the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Naively, we did the Peace Church album with Dave Holland, Bobby Moses, all these people, and I used texts by Chögyam Trungpa Rempeche. I could have gotten in a lot of trouble. I had no idea who he was. I just loved his texts. You can get into a lot of trouble if the author is still living and you don’t ask permission. But the office of Naropa Institute called us and said, “We love the record (it had just come out then), and we’ll invite you out.” We did concerts out there (Dave Holland went with us) and workshops at Naropa Institute.

But the Studio was first. Then pretty soon after one year, two years, we got introduced to Buddhism.

TP:   In a broad retrospective sense, I see the CMS has taking in and crystallizing a lot of streams  of artistic thought, so I see a sort of prehistory of the politics…and I was wondering if you had gone into the personal…

IB:   Yes, absolutely.

TP:   You know, the transmutation of the collective attitude of political radicalism into self-actualization that happened a lot in the ‘70s.

IB:   Oh, absolutely. I remember the first concert I did with Don in Paris. He laid down before, and he just meditated. He was actually the first one that introduced me to it, but I didn’t take it more serious for myself until we came to the States. He had the same teacher like we did, Chögyam Trungpa Rempeche, and we had other teachers.

TP:   Jumping to the present: what do you see as the impact of CMS? I don’t know how much you’re able to stay current with what’s going on in creative music and jazz, among musicians who are 40, 35…

IB:   Well, it happens once you’ve chosen a music you love, you don’t listen so much to other things.

TP:   How do you see the nature of the impact of CMS on the course of music since 1984, when you closed? Some things that were core principles of the pedagogy have come to pass. Rhythms of the world are part of the jazz mainstream now. For example, Dafnis Prieto is playing on the concert tonight…

IB:   first of all, the musicians who taught at the Creative Music Studio, most of them that we spoke to loved it and really wanted us to do it again. One was Don and Nana Vasconelos, of course. Many students stayed in Woodstock, and went on going in this direction of opening up to this world music thing, taking in from everywhere. But that’s a question for Karl.


TP:   The impact of the pedagogy of CMS on the sound of today’s music, the way creative music has evolved in the 24 years since it closed.

KB:   Every comment that we get from students…we’re getting some every week actually, still. They’re really talking about something like it really changed their attitude towards music. A lot of them will not be able to explain to you what happened. But really what that process did, not just our basic practice, music mind training, but having to deal with 5-6-8 different artists of completely different directions, and it really sort of blew their minds in a lot of ways. Which means that the mindset that they came with was not the mindset with which they left. That’s really all I can say. How do you want to define it? It’s basically a sense of openness, that you understand that it’s not about the notes, it’s not about the material. We kept explaining to them something that Don Cherry and Ornette explained to me at first, which is there’s no such thing as notes. There’s no such thing as a C. There’s no such thing as an A. You have to put it all in context. Everything is in a context. In a harmonic context, for example, or in a rhythmic context. Once you see that it’s all interrelated, then all of a sudden you begin to see the uniqueness of each note. There is no note that you can’t even repeat, really. There is no repetition, really. So once you start to get into the freshness of the sound, the experience of the sound, then something happens to your music, regardless what you do, whether you end up being a rock-and-roll player or anything. You’ll just be different.

TP:   Would it be a mistake, then, to say that there is a school that comes out of CMS, or schools that come out of it, or streams of musical thinking that come from the people who experienced it?

IB:   I would say that there is.

TP:   Can you describe what that school is?

IB:   No.

TP:   Can you try?

IB:   No, I think Karl is better at it.

TP: I think you’re pretty good.

IB:   Well, the main philosophy is really an open mind. Openness. Openness to the world. But study music. Doing your training and doing your music, but open. Well, if you have that approach, then I would say the same thing that Ornette says. It saves you a psychiatrist. Because you express yourself. Ornette said once to me, and I agreed totally with him, because I always felt like that. He said to me, “You would understand what I say, because you sing.” He said it’s a self-expression, and if you combine that with the family of the world and with an open mind, you will find… Through opening up to the world, you find your own style.

TP:   It’s more about process than vocabulary.

IB   Kind of.

KB: Your question aims at how could something like that be defined on a material plane.

TP:   I’m not sure. That’s why I’m asking the question.

KB:   Exactly. The whole point was that all music education is hampered by the fact that it has to do deal with musical material, and it has to evaluate that, and in the process of evaluation in schools, where you get a certain amount of points and all that, keeps you from considering what’s really important in music, aside from the material. The material is very important. But once you get stuck there, and your whole evaluation process goes around the material, then you cannot have that kind of thinking. So I’ve been in the traditional school situation, the university system, for almost ten years. I was chair of the U-Mass-Dartmouth; I was Dean of the Music Department in jazz in Frankfurt Conservatory. I was like ten years in the system. And I could see how little I could do to incorporate the music-mind thinking in their curriculum.

TP: What years were you in the system?

KB:   From ‘90 to 2000.

TP:   Did you feel that the aspirations of the students you were encountering during those years were different than when you were that age, or of young musicians of the ‘60s? If so, what was the nature of that difference?

KB:   The difference was that the kids of the ‘90s particularly were very goal-oriented in the sense of having a profession, being music teachers, getting a diploma so that they could teach, that they would have a job. so there was a lot of thinking of that nature. Then you found a bunch of people in there that I couldn’t reach with any of the ideas that I would have to teach them. I would introduce… In all these situations, I introduced a new…one loop out of the curriculum, which was voluntary, and I called it “conceptual studies.” That could mean anything from them wanting to play with me in duets, or bringing compositions, or bringing arrangements, or bringing their own trio, or playing some solo, or asking theoretical questions, or anything. Somebody would come in and sit down and want to be served. I would say, “so what do you want to know?” If they said, “I don’t know,” then I’d say, “So come back next week.” I would give them the initiative. They were not used to that. There is very little initiative among the students in the universities, because the universities are set up to run you through a mill, and yo sort of reluctantly do it. So it’s not set up for you to raise questions. So there is a real problem there. I thought when we ended CMS in ‘84…or ‘86 actually…I thought there is now 600-700 people who came through here who will go into the schools and they will be taking care of that information. But it didn’t happen.

TP:   Well, some did.  Braxton did. Leo Smith did…

KB:   No, I  mean the students. I mean, Leo Smith is a very good example, because he really did something inside the schools. But he did it by way of political power. He just pushed politically until he had his own free space. Very few people can do something like that.

TP:   It’s very interesting how so many people from the AACM have developed these institutional positions. A question on the digitization project. You’ve now listened back to most of these concerts.

KB:   A lot of them.

TP: You’ve probably listened to 300 or so concerts from the ‘70s. Now, I’ve noticed that you have a systematic mind. You established a teaching curriculum, you studied philosophy in a German university, your father was a teacher of Latin—there’s a component of this in your personality. So could you describe your overall, macro impression of that body of music, where it’s positioned in regard to the music of its time, to the music it evolved from, to the music it foreshadows.

KB:   Well, when you listen to it, a lot of it, there’s very different things going on. First of all, the audience were in an exuberant state by having these orchestras and working with them. So there’s a lot of overflowing energy in these tapes, something you hardly hear on recordings from then or now. So this is going to be very new for a lot of listeners to hear. Also, soloists playing together who usually wouldn’t play together, and also playing in a way that they would not play otherwise. It’s mindboggling to hear all of that.

IB:   Plus material that wasn’t made anywhere else. Like Cecil Taylor. He put the band together up there, and did music he did nowhere else at that time.

KB:   Then in the later part, you have all these world musical concerts that start out with Brazilian or Turkish ideas, or Indian, whatever, and then all this improvising takes place. It’s very interesting, what happened with all of that. But it’s very raw, and there’s a lot of…

IB:   Yes, very raw.

TP:  Does that come through in a non-three-dimensional context, just listening to it without the visual?

KB:   Oh, absolutely. We have a great engineer. He really brings out the stuff. We really didn’t have the greatest of equipment at the time.

IB:   That has to do with the concept of the studio, was the openness that people all of a sudden… I wouldn’t say spontaneous, but they opened up. So it was a very open approach to freedom, a kind of freedom of what they wanted to do.

TP:   It’s interesting how diverse the streams of musical thinking were that were representing. You had the Art Ensemble of Chicago guys and Braxton, and people like Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette who were mainstream stars, and older experimentalists like Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre…

IB:   Yes. David Holland did a beautiful workshop over there.

TP:   Then Blackwell, of course, and all the drummers. It seemed drummers just gravitated to this place.

IB:   We had the people from Africa. We had Amadou, who is Neneh Cherry’s father… Neneh Cherry is the adopted daughter of Don Cherry. Then Foday Musa, who worked with Mandingos and Adam Rudolph. We had people from India… Karl probably talked about Ismet, the guy from Turkey.




Filed under Creative Music Studio, DownBeat, Ingrid Sertso, Interview, Karl Berger

Lou Donaldson: Blindfold Test, 2006, Uncut

In a thread that arose last week in response to a  Facebook recounting by Russell Malone of hearing Lou Donaldson play the alto saxophone at Birdland  (I didn’t get to go, but, by several accounts, he was in magisterial form), several folks cited choice “insult humor” bon mots of the type that Donaldson is famous for  — “Jazz is not recommended for fusion and confusion musicians!”  “If you want to play outside, then play outside the club.” And so on.

Donaldson displayed a certain restraint in his remarks on the 12 selections I played for him in a Blindfold  Test in 2006, not long before his 80th birthday.  But he pulled no punches. What follows is the verbatim, uncut transcript of an interesting session.

* * *

1.  Thelonious Monk-John Coltrane, “Sweet and Lovely” (from Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, Blue Note, 1957/2005) (Monk, piano; Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Ahmed Abdul-Malik, bass; Shadow Wilson, drums)

That sounded like John Coltrane. It’s a concert somewhere. Piano player really didn’t sound like Monk, but I guess he was copying Monk. If it was Monk, he was in good shape that night. Heh-heh-heh. The drums and bass, I couldn’t tell you anything about that. Probably Frankie Dunlop or somebody. The performance was great. That’s a great rendition of “Sweet and Lovely.” Really top-shelf. This type of music was kind of advanced at that period of time, and they had been working together a long time at the Five Spot, so they had whatever they were playing really together. It sounded like an organized group; it didn’t sound like a session or anything like that. [When you recorded with Monk, had you been playing with him for any amount of time?] No, I never played with him. I just did the record. I worked a couple of weeks with him at the Famous Door in the late ‘50s. That was a great band. Max Roach, Kenny Dorham , and Oscar Pettiford was supposed to be the bass player, but he broke his leg and they brought Mingus in. Monk didn’t like to play with Mingus too well, and he didn’t really play that well that week. I met him at Blue Note, at the company. It was kind of interesting to play with him, because he never wrote anything out. He would sketch a little stuff out now and then, but you were kind of on your own for playing. It was pretty interesting. Kenny Dorham was a good friend of mine, so we had a good time. And Max. Wilbur Ware came and sat in. He played much better with Wilbur, because he liked Wilbur. [Anything to say about Monk’s playing or Coltrane’s playing?] Well, at that period of time, Coltrane was just beginning to start playing the way he eventually ended up playing. He’d been playing more swing-type saxophone up until then. But once he got with Monk, that was a different thing altogether. He would go down and rehearse during the break. You’d hear him in the basement rehearsing, getting stuff together. Because actually, the stuff with Monk was kind of hard to play. Unless you’re used to playing that way, it’s kind of difficult to play that kind of music. I was a young guy, and it was very interesting to me. I liked it. That’s a great record there. I’d give it 4 stars at least. Great record. Great performance. [AFTER] Even now it’s very interesting. At first I thought the drummer was Frankie Dunlop, but it was Shadow Wilson. Shadow was actually the most reliable drummer during that time period. I’m not going to tell you why other guys weren’t too reliable. But guys play and live like they want to live. It’s not my business; it’s their business. But he was the most reliable drummer and the steadiest drummer, especially for a guy like Monk. Or even Trane. He was great.

2.  Vincent Herring, “You Leave Me Breathless” (from Mr. Wizard, High Note, 2004) (Herring, alto saxophone; Danny Grissett, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Greg Hutchinson, drums)

I don’t think you got me on that one. That’s Vincent Herring. He’s great. He did his homework. He’s got his stuff together. Tremendous. That’s a nice song, too – “You Leave Me Breathless.” Bass player I’m not familiar with. Is that a recent record? He sounds a lot like Cannonball. We’ve got a lot of young saxophonists playing real good. But it seems that the only people getting recognition are Kenny G and Najee, people like that. 4 stars. That’s nice. Vincent’s a great player. I hope he continues on. Actually, somebody has to continue this type of music, or otherwise we’re in trouble, because it’s a concerted effort by the media and a lot of other people to sneak that other kind of music in. It’s what they call cool jazz. It’s all right. It’s good music, too, but it’s not what we would say authentic jazz music. Whereas this music is more like a jazz musician would play it. He’s improvising. But he’s got a lot of stuff together, too. You can add and take away, add and take away. That’s what makes the music so viable. It lasts so long, because you can add and take away. Sometimes you’ll catch a cat, he’s not playing exactly that way. Still playing the same song. He’s upholding the tradition, especially for the alto saxophone.

3.  Donald Harrison, “Third Plane” (from New York Cool: Live At the Blue Note, Half Note, 2005) (Harrison, alto sax; Ron Carter, bass, composer; Billy Cobham, drums)

That’s one of the younger players. I’m trying to listen to it and digest and see who it might be. It’s one of the younger guys who I haven’t heard that much. Maybe Donald Harrison or Kenny Garrett, somebody like that. They’re playing progressive but they’re playing with a bluesy type feeling. You know how that goes. You want to play up-to-date contemporary, but you still want to retain the essence of the jazz soul. You can play interesting and play a lot of stuff, but you still want to maintain that. It could be somebody else. But the younger players I haven’t heard that much. The older guys I would know a little better. The performance is good. Nice groove. It’s at a concert, so I guess the guys have got into a nice groove. It’s a little adventurous for public consumption. They didn’t have a defining melody, something that would actually stick to the people, make the people be humming and singing it. But it’s creative jazz. What can I tell you? The drummer sounds interesting. Pretty good concert there. 3 stars. It’s a groove tune. A tricky little melody there. [AFTER] Ron Carter’s tune? I don’t know it. Billy Cobham? Oh, that’s an old record, then. It was Donald? Good, I guessed that! I told you anybody that I’ve ever heard over a period of time, I’ll know. Some of the newer guys I don’t know. You couldn’t trick me if you played somebody old. I research all the saxophone players. That’s my business. I have to understand what they’re playing so I know what to play. You stay a little bit ahead of them! That’s a nice groove to that record, but it’s not 100% like the type of stuff we play. All the musicians play a little different style.

4.  David Sanborn, “Tin Tin Deo” (from Closer, Verve, 2005) (Sanborn, alto saxophone; Gil Goldstein, piano; Russell Malone, guitar; Mike Mainieri, vibraphone; Christian McBride, bass; Steve Gadd, drums; Luis Quintero, percussion)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s David Sanborn. I can tell by his sound. I’ve researched all of the older guys. Even the funk guys, I can tell some of them. Some of them sound the same. But this guy has got a wonderful feeling. Jazz, I don’t know about that, but he’s got the feeling, and he knows how to make records. There’s a trick to making records. I mean, records that will sell. A lot of people can play a lot of stuff, but when you try to make records to sell, it’s a different situation. It’s a good treatment of the song. But see, the way they have it set up, they have a good presence in the studio where they played. They sound beautiful. What they do that other more up to date jazz cats don’t do… They don’t have this kind of rhythm. They don’t play against a background like this. There’s more going on. But actually, I know why they do it this way – because they’re trying to sell the record. Which makes a lot of sense. You don’t play for nothing. You can play the greatest solo in the world, but if you don’t sell it, you’re just wasting time. The background is perfect for what he’s playing. He’s a very interesting guy. You can tell at one time he must have tried to play a lot of jazz music. He told me himself that he always liked Hank Crawford. In fact, he came to see me one time, and we talked a long time. I didn’t know he was from St. Louis, but he’s from St. Louis, Missouri, and I was working out there and he came by. It’s hard to make stars for a commercial record that you’re trying to sell it. But give them 3 stars.

5.  Lee Konitz-Ted Brown, (“317 E. 32nd”) (from Dig-It, Steeplechase, 1999) (Konitz, alto saxophone; Brown, tenor saxophone; Ron McClure, bass; Jeff Williams, drums)

Lee Konitz, without a doubt. Sounds like two saxophones on there. Has he got an echo chamber? Lee kind of lays back on the rhythm when he plays. He made a good record called Relaxin’ With Lee. That’s not it, but that’s the way he plays – relaxing while he plays. A lot of guys force the rhythm. They’re right on the rhythm and they force it. But he doesn’t do that. I don’t know exactly who the tenor player is, but I’d say Warne Marsh? No? I know Lee and Warne used to play a lot. Oh, it’s a late record? It’s not my cup of tea. But they did some different stuff with the kind of style that originally was played during the ‘50s. Lennie Tristano and all of them had a little bit different approach. That’s what makes jazz creative, is a little different approach to what is being played. Actually, I wouldn’t play that way. I always have to have a piano to begin with. When I think of playing without a piano, it’s suspect. Piano always plays a certain sequence of chords and changes, and if you don’t play on those changes, you’re doing something else. BS’ing. Most of the time. Not this, though. This is actually the way he conceives what he wants to play. But I’ve heard many records where we have one sequence going on with the piano, but the horns are not playing the same thing. They’re not following that sequence. It doesn’t make any sense, because if you’re not going to follow the sequence, there’s no need to have a piano or bass or whatever you’ve got underneath. What we call background. But he’s got his own identity, I’m telling you. You strive for that the whole time you play music, for that I.D., because that’s what determines that people know what it is and who it is. Actually now, the way they have these jazz schools and colleges, a lot of musicians come out playing just about the same way. It’s hard to determine who’s who. When I was coming up, everybody had an I.D. Two or three notes, I could tell you exactly who it is. You can’t do that today, because a lot of musicians are trained in just about the same way. It seems like they’ve got the same instructors. See, in the old days, when you came from California, you sounded a different way; if you came from Texas or came from Chicago… You could tell from the way guys played what section of the country they were from. Can’t do that any more. That’s gone. That’s “Out of Nowhere.” I can hear it. That’s what I’m saying, there’s a certain chord pattern you can hear most of the time. Lee’s got a lot of stuff he does on weird songs. But that’s his concept; that’s how he plays. We’ll give it 3 stars.

6.  Phil Woods, “I’m So Scared of Girls When They’re Good-Looking” (from The Rev and I, Blue Note, 1998) (Woods, alto saxophone; Cedar Walton, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

That must be a new record. Sounds like Phil Woods to me. I haven’t heard this record, but it sounds like Phil. A very consistent player and always a good performer. He’s got it together, what can I tell you? It’s a nice arrangement, too, whatever that is. It’s hard to maintain that consistency over a long period of time. He’s got pulmonary problems. I’m getting it now. It’s just a matter of time before I’ll probably have to stop playing a lot. I never smoked or did anything, but just working in clubs… I’m asthmatic, so it’s a little different. I was always careful. I didn’t get myself exposed to a lot of stuff, which he did. He had some other things going for a while. But it didn’t really slow him down. Bird was impossible. I’ve been asthmatic all my life, but I avoid certain things. I never thought I’d be able to play a saxophone as long as I have. [Did you start to play saxophone as a way of dealing with asthma?] That’s right. The clarinet. I started using the clarinet, and the diaphragm breathing helped me a lot. But now it’s catching up with me. It took a long time. I’m almost 80. In few months, I’ll be 80. Music is a funny thing, man. It will keep you alive. Because while you’re doing that, you don’t think about anything else, so you ignore a lot of other problems. It’s hard to tell who the rhythm section because they’re just playing background. Playing well, though. I’ll give that a 4, man. That’s nice.

7.  Charles McPherson, “Blue and Boogie” (from Manhattan Nocturne, Arabesque, 1998) (McPherson, alto sax; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Victor Lewis, drums)

I’ll make a guess on this one. It sounds like Charles McPherson, but I’m not sure. [Good guess.] The rhythm section, I couldn’t tell you. Piano player sounds a bit like Mulgrew. Oh, I guessed that, too? [LAUGHS]     The drummer I wouldn’t know, nor the bass player, but they’re really cooking. I’ve got to give a 5 for this one. See, I’m a bebop player myself, and that’s what this is. I like this kind of groove and I like this kind of tempo. I like Charles, too, but I couldn’t recognize him then. His phrasing made me guess it was him, though. His resolutions keep going in and out, in and out, and he’s a bebop player, and that’s the way we play. If you listen to Charles or Sonny Stitt or Cannonball, they play that way. They play right on the beat, right on the meter, don’t lay back – right on it. It’s a great record. Carrying on the tradition. Great.

8.  Kenny Garrett, “I Only Have Eyes For You” (from Bobby Hutcherson, Skyline, Verve, 2001) (Hutcherson, vibraphone; Garrett, alto saxophone; Geri Allen, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Al Foster, drums)

It sounds like Kenny Garrett. But he hasn’t played anything yet. I have to wait until he plays something. He kind of lays back on it when he plays. A lot of the younger guys I haven’t heard that much, but I’ve heard a little bit of them. I’ll listen to see who it is. Yeah, that’s him. I got it. The vibes I don’t know. I never saw him playing with no vibes. Bass and drums I couldn’t tell you; they’re probably some younger guys who I don’t know. The performance is interesting. He’s doing a little searching, but it’s interesting. See, the younger musicians have a tendency to do that. I guess they’re taught that they have to go a little outside when they improvise. But actually, you don’t have to do it. You can stay right in the chord structure and still improvise a lot. But a lot of the younger guys like to try to go out a little, play a little what we call different kind of changes. Not exactly the original. Substitute is all right if it’s compatible with the way the sequence is going. But the only problem with the substitute, if you don’t substitute something that’s compatible with the sequence, you’re not really playing the song any more. You’re playing something else. Which is possible to do, because you can practice and study a lot of stuff, and play almost opposite to where the chord changes are going. The vibraphonist sounds like Milt. But I don’t know. You’ve got me there. See, it went way outside there! It’s coming in the door backwards. But most of the young players have a tendency to do that. I guess when they teach them, they tell them they have to play that way – they’ll be creating something. But you don’t necessarily have to do that. 3 stars. Nice little arrangement.

9.  Ornette Coleman, “Latin Genetics” (from In All Languages, Verve/Harmolodic, 1987) (Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Don Cherry, pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums)

You can take that off right away. [LAUGHS] That’s not jazz, that’s Yazz!! [LAUGHS] Any similarity between that and jazz music is purely accidental. [Why is that?] That’s not what jazz is all about. You’ve got to play with a blues feeling on a groove, and a melodic line – none of that is there. It’s music. It’s probably great music. But it’s not jazz music. [Any idea who the drummer is?] Is this a recent record? I don’t know. It would be hard for me to tell you. Billy Higgins was the original drummer with that group. I used to see the group every night at the Five Spot. [What was that like?] It was interesting. But I have to go along with Redd Foxx. Redd Foxx came down and when he came out they asked him “What about that music?” He said, “They tell me that’s the music of tomorrow. That’s what I hear tomorrow. Tonight I want to hear some music of today!” [LAUGHS] No, it’s interesting music. I’m just joking around with you. It’s interesting music, but it’s not what we’d call real jazz music. [What anything it is interesting to you?] Well, it’s different. What can I tell you? It’s different. Everything that’s different interests me. I listen to it, to see what it is. A lot of those little things he plays, I like! But I wouldn’t consider that jazz music. See, you got to realize, I came up listening to Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, Earl Bostic, Tab Smith, people like that. There’s a certain way a saxophone is a supposed to sound. If it doesn’t sound that way, then I… [Ornette Coleman came up playing in those type of bands…] No, he never did. I went to his home in Fort Worth, and they told me they never let him play around because he was always too weird. Of course, that’s his prerogative. If he wants to play that way, good! [David Fathead Newman said that when they were teenager, Ornette played the Charlie Parker tunes, and then he veered off into other areas. As teenagers they’d learn the tunes, play them in their own sessions, and then he went in his own direction.] I don’t  want to disagree with Fathead, who’s a good friend of mine, but I talked with a lot of guys who were down there who said that wasn’t the case. They said he never could play the bebop stuff. I asked a lot of people. But that’s neither here nor there. That’s the way he plays and that’s the way he wants to play. Good for him. Stars? [LAUGHS] Stars fell on Alabama. Look, you can’t beat around the bush with music. You either play it or you don’t. You try to do too much sometimes, it ends up doing nothing. It’s like everything else. You got to be careful of what you do. Jazz had a certain tempo or certain groove that was there, and that’s what made it sound different from other music. Now, offhand, listening to that, if you want me to categorize it, I would say it’s Folk music. Which is good, too. That’s good music, too. But jazz? Unh-uh. Nada. I like Ornette. Ornette’s a good friend of mine. He’s a nice guy. But that’s the way he wants to play. So be it.

10.  Jim Snidero, “Prisoner Of Love” (from Close-Up, Milestone, 2004) (Snidero, alto saxophone; David Hazeltine, piano; Paul Gill, bass; Billy Drummond, drums)

Nice. Very beautiful. Beautiful tone and everything, but I don’t know who it is. “Prisoner of Love.” At first I thought it was Vincent Herring, but you already played him for me. You’re trying to trick me, see? But you couldn’t do it, could you. [LAUGHS] That sounds like him, but what can I tell you. The only person I know who even plays that way is George Coleman. He plays sort of like that. But whoever it is is somebody I don’t know. I like it, but I don’t know who that is. 4 stars. See, that’s the way I play ballads. I can’t say it’s me, because it’s not. [Did this person listen to you?] Of course. If he’s not as old as I am, he had to: That’s the way I play them.

11.  Gary Bartz-Sphere, “Hornin’ In” (from Sphere, Verve, 1998) (Bartz, alto saxophone; Kenny Barron, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

You might think I’m crazy, but that sounds like Clifford Jordan. I used to play this tune with Monk, but I didn’t record it with him. See, that’s a Chicago-type player. Charles Davis… Who would play that way? [He’s not from Chicago and he’s not from Philadelphia?] He’s from New York? [Wasn’t born in New York, but been here a long time.] That sounds like an old record. Late ‘90s? That’s a good Monk tune. It’s a recreation of a good Monk tune. What can I tell you? They played it well, whoever it was. The saxophonist sounded all right. What can I tell you? Sounded like they were reading music to me. 2 stars. [AFTER] It didn’t sound like them at all. I heard that group many times. Sorry about that, Gary.

12.   Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie, “Salt Peanuts” (from Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945, Uptown, 2005) (Parker, alto saxophone; Gillespie, trumpet, composer; Al Haig, piano; Curley Russell, bass; Max Roach, drums)

Syphilis Sid. That’s Joe Harris on drums. Well, let me listen a little more. Sounds like Al Haig on piano. I can tell you that. That kind of stuff you won’t hear any more. That’s gone. It’s amazing music. For that time period, that was amazing music. It’s still amazing, but that time period it was earthshaking! [Do you know this recording?] No, I don’t know it. It sounds like it was recorded at probably Carnegie Hall. Town Hall? The recording sounds very good. That’s a great record there. That’s a 5 there. No doubt about it.

The best records that Dizzy and Charlie Parker made, Sidney Catlett played the drums. The best records they ever made. Sidney Catlett, Slam Stewart on bass, and the piano player was… Oh God, I’m getting senile. But that’s the best record they ever made. This piano player, I never heard him on another record, but he played on that one. Great record. Sid Catlett was a great drummer, because he never got in the way. A lot of drummers can get in the way and disrupt what’s being played. But he never did. Listen to him. You don’t know a drum is being played; all you do is feel the rhythm. And they loved him, too. When I first came, I was all about all these musicians, and I used to study them. Everywhere they played, I would go. I would be right there. I came to New York in 1948,  but I came to stay in 1950. I used to go everywhere. I’d go down to 52nd Street, all the places, and check them out. I made a study of them, and made a study of all the guys who were kind of inhibited by some substance, and I found out that a lot of them, if they didn’t have great musical talent, it didn’t help the performance. You know what I’m saying? Actually, what happened to me, I went to see Dizzy one night… I can’t remember the club. But anyway, Charlie Parker didn’t come, so they used Don Byas. I kept going for three nights because I wanted to see Charlie Parker, and actually, when Charlie Parker came back, the band sounded better to me with Don Byas. Don Byas was a tremendous saxophonist. He never really got the credit he deserved. Same with Lucky Thompson. But as history goes, they write about who they want to write and they build up who they want to build up. Don Byas did leave early, but he came back a couple of times on special occasions. But music is a funny thing.

Like I said, that music has got the feeling, the rhythm and everything right in it, whereas in later forms of that same music, musicians kind of overdid it. They learned what they were doing, then they tried to supplement it and put other stuff in there, and kind of overdid it. Consequently, they ran a lot of people away from the music, because they were trying to overdo it a little bit. [Were you able to play bebop on gigs in New York?] Yeah. I played anything I wanted to play, because I always played something that I knew the people would understand and like at the beginning of the set. Then the last tune, if I played “Cherokee” or something, they wouldn’t mind. They’re satisfied. But a lot of cats make a bad mistake by trying to play too intricate at the beginning of the set. See, back then, people had a tendency to want to dance to the music, too, so you had to be careful, especially if you were working on a steady job. [You were working a lot uptown, not so much midtown or downtown in the early ‘50s, right?] No, wasn’t nothing in Midtown but Birdland. When I came they had other clubs, but they were closed.

It’s been a pleasure. And I’d like to thank all my fans for many years of support, and I hope I haven’t offended anybody with this interview!


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Filed under Alto Saxophone, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Lou Donaldson

Joe Zawinul’s 79th Birthday Anniversary

Joe Zawinul (b.July 7, 1932-d. September 11, 2007) was one-world oriented long before digitization and Internet.  In the spring of 2002, I had two chances to speak with him by phone, once while he was on the road with Zawinul Syndicate, his working band, and later during some down time at his Malibu home, as he geared up for the summer European festival circuit and a fall tour backing a new album called Faces and Places [ESC]. It was the latest in a string of deeply personal dates on which Zawinul refined and elaborated the signature sonic blend — memorable melodies, mighty grooves, trippy textures and virtuosic instrumentalism — that he first established during the ’70s  with Wayne Shorter in Weather Report. Famously  unwilling to dwell on his past, Zawinul lately had retrospected at length on his crossroads years, prompted by Sony Legacy’s spring 2002 single CD reissues of Mysterious Traveler [1974], Tale Spinning [1975] and Black Market [1976], and by the fall 2002 appearance of Live and Unreleased, a long-awaited collection of 18 bristling selections culled by Zawinul from six concerts by different editions of the band between 1975 and 1983. A native of Vienna by way of the Carpathian Forest, Zawinul at 70 retained the indefatigable, aggressive persona that helped him make his bones in the jazz business from almost the moment he arrived in New York from Austria in 1959.

The piece, which appeared in Jazziz, was a fairly brief Q&A that distilled these two lengthy conversations, which I now present in their entirety. Please forgive some of the repetition between the April 22 and June 7 texts.

Joe Zawinul (4-22-02):

Your history is one of looking forward, thinking to the next project, not looking back.  But you seem very involved with this series of Weather Report reissues and the double CD of live, unreleased material that will be released in the fall. Why?

The only thing I would like to say is that it’s a couple of generations since we played, a lot of young people never heard of us, and because of that it is really important.  The music sounds fresh and new, to me newer than what I’ve been hearing these days. It can be almost a second career for a band like we were.

During the life of Weather Report you became a master of using the studio in constructing an album.  Can you address the contrast between live Weather Report and studio Weather Report?

One thing was very important, and Wayne and I were in total agreement with this: We did not want to go on the road and play the concerts, and have the records beat us.  We always were concerned that we make music in the studio which was playable on stage, without any help other than what we had.  And I think we were very successful doing this.  People were often shocked that the live performance not only sounded better in terms of the instrumentation, but had also this added fire which you very often don’t really get in the studio.

Can you talk about the impact of the increasing sophistication of technology in the ’70s and ’80s on your composition and performance?

Well, I am an improviser, and I improvise off sounds.  My normal procedure is, I find a sound which I enjoy to play with, and I will have some music.  There is no question.  There are thousands and thousands of different instruments and thousands of sounds.  It depends on what your taste is.  I use them as tools and nothing else.  For me it is like a hammer and a nail.  For me an instrument is meaningless until somebody plays it.

But that being said, one reason why Weather Report had the impact it did was the newness of the sounds.

Those were the sounds I chose.  I used hardly any factory programmed sounds, because I couldn’t do much with these. I tried to modify everything there was for my taste. As a matter of fact, for my own satisfaction, I could not let myself have always the same sounds.  I just knew very well how to dial stuff up and get myself a nice timbre I could feel good with.

So you did a great deal of research and investigation into the properties of the instruments you were using.

I was very fortunate.  I had a great company for many years — the Korg company — which supported me.  Here again, I hardly ever used any factory sounds; they always had something missing for my taste.  That doesn’t mean that they might not be good for other people.  But I learned how to modify things, so it would come to that point where I say, “Hey, this is me.”

Weather Report started off as more or less an acoustic band in the first couple of records…

That is not entirely correct, because we actually were never an total acoustic band.  I already had played electric piano with Cannonball Adderley a few years before Weather Report started, and from the very beginning I had with Weather Report an electric piano with a couple of attachments.  I had a ring modulator, for instance.  I had a wah-wah pedal.  I used to prepare the acoustic piano; I had tapes in it or sometimes put tambourines in it, all kinds of little things to make the acoustic piano sound different than it sounded.  This is my trip.  I’ve enjoyed fooling around with music since I was a very little guy, and I’m still enjoying it.

You mentioned in one of the interviews that you met Wayne Shorter right after you arrived in New York.

I met Wayne when I was just starting with Maynard Ferguson’s band — we played together for five or six weeks, before Art Blakey hired him.  I immediately knew this guy is somebody special.  We were talking at a bar right next to Birdland, which was called the Green Lantern, and Wayne sang for me an opera he had written when he was 17 years old — at that time he was 26.  So I said, “Damn!  This guy is really special.” Then I heard him play. I always thought Wayne Shorter was just on another planet.  Wayne was very familiar with the Classical masters, from Bela Bartok and Shostakovich to Brahms and Beethoven.  He’s a very educated musician, and he had also the street smarts.  From that time, we discussed that one day we would have a band.  Then I met Wayne again in the studio when I wrote that song for Miles, “In A Silent Way.”  We had met off and during the interim also, while I was with Cannonball and he was with Miles.  But at that particular time, Wayne was not in Miles’ traveling band any longer, and he told me he had tried out a band that didn’t work out.  All of a sudden, we decided to make our own band. By that time, I had spent 9-1/2 years with Cannonball, and I had written a lot of music, and I was kind of ready.  I wanted to interpret my music as I wanted.

I guess you both were ready to do your own music and stop being sideman.

That was not the issue, the sideman thing.  I think neither Wayne or myself were on a particular ego thing.  It was just a matter of when you have a lot of your own music, there comes a time when you want to interpret it exactly how you feel it.  In all the things I wrote for Cannon (and very often, it was a really good interpretation of that music), it was never exactly like I would have done it if I would have done it totally as I wanted.

Within the various iterations of Weather Report, how much of what you were writing was tailored to the personalities of the band?

Pretty much everything.  Because I had Wayne’s tone in mind.  In the beginning, I used the tone and the facility of Miroslav Vitous, who was an excellent contrabass player. Later on, we had even more personalities, like Jaco Pastorius, who had such a tremendous individual sound. It was very easy to write for people like that.

The three album reissues — Mysterious Traveller, Tale Spinning, and Black Market — represent the period when you switch from Miroslav Vitous to Alphonso Johnson, and therefore, the switch from acoustic to electric bass.

Miroslav played also well electric bass.  But we thought when we heard Alphonso that he would be the right guy for this band.  I told Wayne: That direction we were going was fine, but now we want to do something else.  We want to go ahead.  I wrote songs like “Boogie Woogie Waltz” and “125th Street Congress,” on which we played for the first time a beat that a lot of hip-hop artists have.  I have about 50 recordings of that beat being sampled.

Do you play the drums yourself?

Yeah.  I’ve played drums all my life.  I’m not a drummer, but I play the drums.

So in constructing rhythms, which is so integral to your compositions, you have a very specific notion of exactly how you want that drummer to be.

Oh, there’s no question about it. We were a rhythmic band. We had our grooves which took us over, which brought us to where we were.  Nice grooves with a lot of space, and of course with phenomenal players.

Were you teaching the drummers the grooves?

Oh yes.

In other words, how much personality would the drummers be bringing into interpreting your pieces?

Pretty much.  A lot.  We never liked yes-guys, you know, who agree with everything, and who wouldn’t be able to offer something on their own.

You’ve commented in a few instances that jazz drummers per se, for instance Tony Williams, wouldn’t necessarily have been the best drummer for Weather Report.

No, he wouldn’t have.

What’s the difference between what a jazz drummer would do and what a Weather Report drummer would be?

That’s very difficult to say.  Our first drummer, Alphonse Mouzon, for instance, was an excellent drummer.  He could groove in a jazz way, he had played R&B, and he was an extremely good reader who had played on Broadway shows. The next guy, Eric Gravatt, he was my favorite, because he could do many, many things.  But someone like Tony was too much of an individual, with too much of a heavy ego.  Nothing wrong with that, believe me.  But if I have serious good ideas for rhythms, and if somebody who doesn’t want to do that, you don’t have that music any more.  I think Tony was a genius, but he wouldn’t have been the guy for us.

What percentage of Weather Report music was composed and pre-thought-out, and what percentage of it was improvised?

In the beginning, everybody brought a few lines in, and we just improvised over that.  Then I wanted to get a little more system in it.  We were either magic or we were not happening, and that bothered me.  I thought we should have both, where we have that magic but can always fall back on a solid structure of music.  Wayne and I, of course, agreed.  I must tell you that in the 15 years of working together, we never had an argument about either money or business decisions or the music.  It was a great relationship.  Anyway, we started to create…bring more structure into the music with Mysterious Traveller — and for this, you need different people.  Slowly, we developed into a serious band.

But one thing I must add is that all of my compositions are improvised. All the compositions are improvisations.  One talent I do have is that I am a form improviser.  I can improvise for long stretches, and there is a form to it.

Have you always been a form improviser, from your conservatory days in Vienna?

Yes.  I didn’t even think about this.  When I started improvising symphonic pieces, then I realized things are happening like they were really thought out.  But when you improvise, there is no thought.

I’m assuming you have perfect pitch.


Is playing Classical music, say the music of Brahms, similar to improvising for you?

No, not at all.  It’s the opposite.  When you play a composer’s music, it is set.  It can be interpreted different.  But there will never be a change of any kind of note in this composition.  It’s not that I can play paraphrases on these composers.  That music had to be played as it was composed.  So you cannot compare it to that thing when you sit down and you improvise.  But I do enjoy and I did enjoy playing Brahms quite a bit.  He lived in Austria all his life, and he was a similar guy, like I am, in loving nature and going hiking and looking for mushrooms in the forest, and drinking a lot.  He was cool, man.  For some kind of reason, I didn’t know that when I had to study music in those days.  I didn’t like to play Mozart.  I didn’t like to play Bach.  They didn’t really do nothin’ for me.

Why not Mozart?  He was also Austrian.

Yeah.  I love Mozart.  I cannot tell you why.  It’s just a feel.  For me, it really did nothing for me playing it.  For some reason, when I play those Rhapsodies of Brahms… Later on, I played with Friedrich Gulda the Haydn Variations on a world-class setting, and that was really some wonderful, wonderful times, man, to play Johannes Brahms on two pianos with a fellow who is one of the great ones of all time.

When you practice, Mr. Zawinul, do you do it on the electronic instruments or on the acoustic piano?

On the acoustic piano.  I play music every day, but I play a lot of acoustic piano.

What is your attitude to practice?

My attitude to practice is that practice is a lot of physical stuff.  I like to sit down, especially… On Wednesday I’m going on tour.  I’ll do a lot of stretch exercises.  There was one teacher I played for.  His name was Dr. Paul Weingarten.  He had to leave because of the Nazis, and I still had one lesson with him.  He was then the Director of the Vienna Conservatory.  He was a Liszt pupil, the last pupil of Franz Liszt.  He taught me some exercises, and I am doing them still.  They are stretch exercises.  It’s like an athlete, man.  You have to have your fingers really together.  And then I just play.  I do play Bach sometimes.  I enjoy playing “The Well-Tempered Piano,” some pieces.  It’s a good thought exercises, and there’s a lot of clarity in this music.  And I play exercises by Pischne, and they are just exercises where you hold four fingers down and one plays, and then you hold other fingers down and the other plays.  They are rather difficult, but they are very good for you.  I’ve been playing all my life, they are not difficult to play, but if you don’t play for a while, these things… I always find them challenging.

You have to keep your muscle memory.

You’ve got to have the muscle memory.  It is great.  Then I just…how do you say…an attack… You have to attack it in a different way.  That I do miss on some… I wish there would be more synthesizer players out there who play synthesizers as what they are.  Synthesizers.  Not pianos.

So for you, a synthesizer is a synthesizer and a piano is a piano.

Exactly.  And a lot of the guys out there (and they may be great musicians) I feel are playing too much piano on the synthesizers, and it doesn’t sound good.  Each sound needs another technique, another way of attacking it, a different way of playing legato, playing staccato.  So it’s a matter of dealing with sounds.  I love to deal with sounds, and all of my sounds are played differently.

Within your composition, are you thinking of rhythm first, or harmony first…

I think of nothing.  I just sit down, and I turn my tape recorder on, and I’m gone.  And that’s it.

Is that with the acoustic piano or the synth?

It doesn’t matter.  The instrument doesn’t matter to me.

When do you first recall becoming aware of the Moog or the Fender Rhodes?

Well, electronic pianos I started playing rather early.  I did my first tour I think in ’49, in a hillbilly band, and we played in this hotel (in Austria, this was), and it was an American officers hotel, and in the basement of this hotel was a chapel for the American officers, and they had a Hammond B-3 down there, and they allowed me to go and practice there every day.  So that was my first experience with organs.  But even before that, I was very early in my life an accordion player, and as you know, accordions have those different…we call it registers, where you have different stops, each stop represents a different sound.  So even in those days when I was a kid, I was fooling around with these different timbres.  As a matter of fact, one time I stole a little piece of a billiard table cover, that green felt, and glued it into the sound-board of the bass side (is it the left side) and on the right hand side in the sound board.  And the sound I got out of it was very similar to the sound I had when I played “Black Market.”  So it started with playing in American clubs in the camps after World War Two, in 1949, ’50 and ’51.  There were a lot of Wurlitzer pianos, and that’s where I started playing the Wurlitzer which I later on used on “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”

In almost every interview people talk to you about Cannonball Adderley, and you usually don’t even address him musically.  It was such an amazingly diverse band.  It was so conceptually rich.  Looking back, it’s astonishing how much music was accomplished in that decade.  What sort of bandleader was he for you?

You know what?  When you talk about Cannonball to me, you’re talking to me about my brother.  This guy was such an incredible human being.  He was a phenomenal musician.  Cannonball Adderley was the most underrated great musician ever.

Why do you think so?

I don’t know.  Maybe because some of the music we played was maybe too much geared for… We had fine music, believe me, in this band.  But sometimes the band relied too much on playing the hits.  About this we had quite a few arguments during those years, especially with Nat.  I used to say, “Hey, man, we are the hit, not the hits.”  The band was such a good band. We had so much to offer, we didn’t have to play “‘Dis Here” and “Dat Dere” and ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” all the time.  You know what I mean?  When there was so much other good things.  There were times during the last two or three years I was in the band when they often told me to put the set together, especially when we played the big concert somewhere, at a convention or something, and we only had 30 or 35 minutes to play.  I always put the set together.  That’s I think when we really opened up.  Cannon played a little bit of those hits and showed what the band could do, and it was very nice.

Was he a bandleader who encouraged your personality to come out at all times?

We never talked about this kind of stuff.

It just was.

It was, yes.  But I had the great fortune… We used to travel in those days still a lot with cars, and I was always with Cannonball in the car.  We had the contrabass in the station wagon, and the other guys were in the other station wagon.  To talk to Cannon all those hours on the road, it was amazing.  He was very educated.

He was a schoolteacher, a professor.

He was a professor.  He was brilliant.  He taught me about Austria and old history and stuff like that, about the Vienna Congress, and Metternich, the great political figures in those days.

He was a student of history.

Yes.  You could talk about everything with Cannon.  He was not only one of the great, great musicians I’ve ever had the honor and pleasure to play with, but also an intellectual actually, with the street wisdom.

A highly educated man.

Highly.  But loose, you know.  Down to earth.

And somewhat Rabelaisian in his habits.  I’ve heard stories about his chowing down.

He was chowing down, all right.

You have a piece on World Tour, on the double album, called “When There Was Royalty.”


I guess it’s one of your improvisations that got recorded.  And I can hear how much you listened to Art Tatum.


Can you talk about some of the great jazz pianists you admired?

Oh, man.  We’re going to have to sit here for another 3 hours.

Well, I could sit here for 15 minutes anyway.

I’ll tell you.  For me, Art Tatum is about as great a musician as ever lived.  For me, Duke Ellington was a great piano player.  Because of his greatness as a composer and as a bandleader, it was such that many people forgot, or didn’t recognize what a great piano player this guy was.  But for me, Art Tatum was a guy…it was unbelievable.  I don’t think there has ever been one who could play the piano… Yeah, technically there are people who can play the piano.  But what he did with it, it was just unbelievable, and you hear it today and you heard it yesterday and you’ll hear it in a hundred years. It’s going to be always the major force in jazz piano playing.

I hear bebop in that piece as well.  I hear certain Bud Powell things as well.  Were you very involved assimilating him and Bebop?

I was involved in everybody, man.  I started with George Shearing, and I still admire George Shearing and love his music, and his touch.  And Erroll Garner was one of my big, big favorites.  Bud Powell.  Art Tatum, of course.  Unreachable.  I fooled around with this stuff.  Ben Webster shared an apartment with me at one time, and we used to practice a lot, and he played with Tatum, and he knew how to play the piano, and he showed me a few things.

He was a good stride pianist, right?

He was a HELLUVA good stride piano player.  He knew all that little inner stuff.  You know, I can hear pretty much everything anyhow.  But he showed me how he did it, and it was very interesting.  But anyhow, to come back to this “When There Was Royalty,” on the very day I picked this tune, at home I just brought my Walkman up and played.  Because I read this “Downbeat” interview Ben had done in 1963 or sometime, and he was talking about, “Yeah, today’s piano players, they ain’t having no fun.  In the older days, like Fats Waller, they used to smoke and they used to drink (Art Tatum was a big drinker), and talk to the people and played the shit out of the piano.”  And I thought to myself, “‘You know, I am this kind of guy, actually.” I can talk to people while I’m playing.  I do some overdubs sometimes, and have a conversation.  “But let me just do that, man.”  I turned the tape recorder on and I played this, and that’s what I left on the record.  It was one of those real instinctive kind of, “Come on, man, I can do a little something.”

You used to live on East 12th Street, right?

Yeah, lately.

Did you ever go to Bradley’s?

Yeah!  A lot.

That was a place where piano players had a good time and drank and so on.

Oh yeah!

Back to Weather Report.  Did you break with your past in a very deliberate way, or do you see that as of a continuum with what you were doing up to the age…

I think everything in life is for everybody.  It’s not just me.  You cannot step out of your own shadow.  I just felt like I was a musician who was always able to grow.  And I am a much better musician, if I may say that, than I was when I was with Weather Report, when I was co-leading this band.

But it’s all a continuum.


But in summing up with Weather Report, you said towards the beginning of this conversation, that you thought the music sounds new, almost newer than what people are doing now.

There is no question.


This I don’t know.  Because for some kind of reason, with the return to bebop, it has stopped being played… The music has not developed in any kind of way.  Because record companies put this in front of the people so much, this return of Bebop, that it almost was bad if you played anything electronic or something like that.  You know what I mean?  And not being played on the radio, I think what it did is a lot of people don’t have any idea what this music was all about.  Now, I think, in all sincerity, that the last serious movement in jazz was Weather Report.  The last one really where you can say, hey, this was something different and something which has lasting power and longevity.

You’re calling it “the last movement,” though.  What was it a movement of?  We can look at this historically.  We can look back on it as something that was a generation ago.  What did the movement represent?

It represented what we were doing.  We played jazz.  That was also misinterpreted.  We actually come from jazz and we continued to play jazz, with different tones, with different timbres and a different form.  We definitely went away from the AABA form, from the general American Song form, and we went all the way from Bebop.  But in all of our playing (and you can check it all out), we even covered some of the old tunes.  We covered on one record Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ In Rhythm.”  Many things we did, whatever we played, when we didn’t listen to jazz music, it was just different… And what happened afterwards, it was nothing new.  Nothing single new…I don’t think anyhow.  And it doesn’t really matter.  I’ll tell you the truth.  It does not matter.  But I think to imitate a music, regardless how great you’re doing it, it’s never going to be as good as an original.

Wayne Shorter these days is reinvestigating his older material, retrospecting on 35 years of compositions with a younger band.  Have you heard them?

I heard the band only for about 15 minutes last year when I was on tour, and just before I left the hotel, it was around midnight, I turn on the TV and there was Wayne Shorter from Montreal.  It blew me away.  He played here yesterday in Los Angeles, and I couldn’t go.  But hey, whatever Wayne is doing is always going to be good.

It’s less a matter of comparison as to note that he and Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, to name three people in recent years, have been going back and revisiting their past, kind of picking up loose ends in recent years…

God bless ’em, man!  God bless ’em.

But not for you.


 Zawinul Syndicate.  First of all, is the new record, Faces and Places, coming out soon?

It’s coming out in September.  It was very bad timing to put it out.  I just built a great studio here in my house, and it took longer than expected.  You know, when you start from scratch, you build everything, a house and everything.  But in fact, today we’re mixing the last tune, and the record will be mastering in two days in New York.  Then the record will be out in September.  It would have been a bad time to come out anyhow, in May, because it’s summertime, and the economy is a little funny, and the soccer World Cup in Europe is very important, and people don’t go out so much… But anyhow, it will come out in September.  And I can tell you: Get ready, man!  It’s a good one.

Is it all new material?


So this is all new material, written in the last three or four years?

It’s totally new material.

Is it entirely a studio recording?

Not entirely.  There are three little introductions we did live, one in Australia, one in Paris, and a little tag on another tune also from a Paris concert.  But the whole thing is very nice.  I have Paco Seery.  He is back in the live band, by the way.  Etienne Mbappe, who’s from Cameroon, a wonderful bass player.  I also have Richard Bona in the band… It’s the rhythm section I had on the Salif Keita record, Amen.  It’s a good one.  We’ll see.  I think it’s my best record.

Who’s on the tour?

Paco Seery on drums.  Etienne Mbappe singing and supreme bass player.  Amir Chatterjee, guitar player from India, who is one of the foremost singers in the world, I believe.  And Manolo Badrena, man!

Are you going to be playing in New York?

Not in a while.  I want to wait until the record comes out and everything is real settled and so on.  I really don’t have time this year.  I’ll be 70 in July, and in Europe is a lot of action about this, so I’m doing a lot of traveling and running around…and doing things!

70, and you seem to have the energy of someone much less.  How do you keep yourself involved?  How do you keep yourself active, going from day to day?

Number one, I box three times a week.  I’m in really phenomenal shape.  I’m feeling good, man.  Thank God, I’m healthy, I have a great family, a good wife.  What is there in life, you know?  That’s it, man!  I play music and make a good living with what I like to do.  That’s a blessing, so I’m very, very grateful.  And I hope to be around for a long time, because I have good ideas, man.

When you talk about the people who comprise Syndicate, they’re from every corner of the world, from Africa, the islands, India.  Your AOL handle is Mulattozi.  I don’t know if there’s any particular question I have…

Why, you mean.  My kids are mulatto.  So that’s what it is.

It’s 30 years since Weather Report was formed, and the world has become much smaller.  In jazz right now, in New York anyway, you have people from all over the world playing jazz.  They know jazz idiomatically and they have what they bring from their own culture.  A wonderful hybrid is being created.

Oh yeah.

It’s an amazing time in this music because of that.

Well, the great black jazz masters have done it.  They started it, coming from Africa.  And I’ll tell you something.  Look at Africa.  Africa is happening.  I’m going this month, I’m going to Senegal and to the Ivory Coast.  I always love to play in Africa.  It’s a wonderful thing.  The people have so much energy.  They’re very sophisticated.  That’s what’s so great.  That will make the music again what it used to be.  I don’t mean in terms of the actual music.  I’m talking about the power.  Because this music that the great jazz masters created, that was the true world music.  It covered the whole world.  There is no music anywhere where you don’t hear something of that in there.

So Louis Armstrong, Ellington, Charlie Parker…

All of that.  All that!  Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis.  All of these great masters, what they put in there in the earlier part of the 20th century.  It was the greatest art form of the 20th century.  And slowly, becoming such a global thing, and that’s going to add to it.  Nobody gonna take away nothing from nobody.  It’s going to be very interesting, the future.

Where do you see yourself in that continuum?

I am me, man.  I am an individual.  I have a wonderful future, because I am doing what I am doing. And actually, nobody is doing what I am doing.  Which is okay.  There are many people playing synthesizer, but nobody plays the way I play.  I’m not saying greater.  But nobody plays like I play.

I don’t think anybody brings together all the elements you bring together in the way you do it.

Because it’s still mine.  I’m not copying nobody.  I’m not playing African music.  It’s my music.  But I have a global sense.  Because I’ve been traveling all of my life, I know so many great people all over the planet.  And I am not a music listener, but I am an observer.  I am observing things.  I’m inspired, man. That’s all.

* * * *

Joe Zawinul, #2 (6-7-02):

How was the tour you just did?

The tour was tremendous.  We rehearsed three days in Leverkusen, Germany. Then we started the tour in Amsterdam, in Mountquake, which is the best club in Amsterdam. It’s huge.  It’s like a showcase kind of place.  We have played there several times, and there were 200 or 300 people out there who couldn’t get in. It’s a big place. So that was tremendous, and it started there.  Then we went to Germany, and we had about 11 or 12 shows in a row, without a day off, in Germany — Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, the major cities.

Then we went to Western Africa for five days, to Senegal. We played at the Biennale in Dakar.  This is a big three week presentation, with film and the visual arts, concerts, exhibitions, all different things, a tremendous cultural event.

Like what they do in Venice every couple of years with art, but from an African perspective.

Yes.  This time they did it in Dakar, in West Africa.  We played in Dakar, a wonderful show, and then we went to St. Louis, which is about three hours north of Dakar, and we played a tremendous show there for the second time.  We played there in 1997, and our concert then was an historical one.  People said… The promoter had a press conference when we went to Dakar, and he said that they had celebrated the tenth year of their festival, and that was the best concert they have ever had.  I haven’t been there, so I don’t know.  I’m just saying what he said.  But we played very well, and it was a huge success.

Then we went back and played at Parc Florale, which is an outdoor place in Paris, an afternoon concert.  The people don’t pay to get in there.  We had about 15,000 people — a tremendous concert.  Then we went to Vicenza in Italy the next day, also a big town; they have a beautiful festival there.  Then we did an actual Norway tour, which is very interesting.  Normally we play in Oslo, and perhaps we play a festival in Molde.  But this time we played six or seven towns in Norway, and that was tremendous.  We ended up in Tomse(?), which is way up there where the midnight sun is not just a myth, it’s for real.  It’s way more north, the Arctic Circle.  We had great shows.

After that, I went and played a quick concert in New York with Wolfgang Muthspiel for the Austrian Cultural Forum.  This is a new building.  Now I’m home for a few days and getting things together, then I’m leaving for a few weeks and going on a six-week tour for all the festivals, and then we’re going on and starting my publicity tour in September.

So this is going to be another one of these years where you’re working 200 days of the year.

Yeah, minimum.  Minimum.  Because we made this record… Have you had a chance to hear it?

Yes, it came yesterday, and I’ve heard it about four times.  On this last tour have you been playing music from the record?


How has the music evolved?

What do you mean?

Well, I presume that when you take a band out and play a bunch of music, because you use such strong-minded musicians, the music takes on a life of its own.

Yes, it’s very different.  But it is… I cannot say it’s better.  It is different.  The record is very organized… And live, it’s phenomenal.

You made a comment when I spoke with you the first time that you never wanted to make a record that you couldn’t match or exceed live.  Obviously, with the LIVE AND UNRELEASED material, it’s a very different perspective.  How has the difference between a record and a concert performance changed for you over the last 30 years?

One thing is, a concert you play, and that is it.  You play a song and you have to live with it.  When you make a record… What I tried on FACES AND PLACES is to have a studio record, but with the strength of live performance.  I think we have done very well on that.  It is still a studio record with all the qualities of sound, but it has a lot of good things on it.

How did you go about doing that?

Number one, I never changed my improvisations.  Most of what I play, what you hear on the record, is the original improvisation before anything else was on there.

So before drums, before bass…

Before anything was on there.  Those are my original… I had a little drum sequencer put together, and then I just improvised.  And on a click track, I improvised on my laptop.  All this was done while I was on the road a couple of years ago.  I did all this in the hotel rooms, etc., and improvised.  One thing I wanted to do, in order to keep it fresh, like I have in life, I did not change anything of mine, and just add things.  Then I found… Back in my band is the great Paco Sery, and he plays phenomenal on the record.

But for you in your improvising, in the core moments of any particular piece you do, is that… You don’t need any other instruments to help get you going.


Rhythmically, bass-wise, orchestrationally…

Well, that’s what I do.  I play bass also.  I have a click track perhaps; that’s the least I have.  Or sometimes I just put down for myself a nice little pattern.  But not a pattern… I have good drum sounds, and I can play them on the keyboard.  So I improvise a drum track for 7-8 minutes.  Just improvise a drum track.  That’s it.  It’s stored, I go to the next one.  Then I play bass, and already a melody with this.  So it’s really coordinated.  On the tunes where I play bass, that’s already happened.  Like on that song, “The Rooftops of Vienna,” I play keyboard bass, and the right hand decides what I play on the right.  It’s already like it was originally improvised.  So that gave me the advantage.  That’s what I did with Weather Report things, too, to keep my improvisations, and then we’d play it.  But I never changed my original ideas.  All that stuff was improvised originally.

Do you create strict scores off the improvisations, or do you present orally and let the musicians work things out according to your instructions?

Well, I cannot tell them what to do.  And they are so good in doing that.  Paco, of all them, is the most incredible, because he puts so much time in it, and he really works hard to learn the core of the music.  For instance, when I went to Germany with the tapes to overdub Paco, I had beautiful little things for him to be inspired, and then I just let him play, and that was it.  He heard the concept, what I wanted the drums to play, and BOOM, he got it.  And I’ll tell you something.  He played sometimes four or five different tracks on the whole drumset. When we more or less analyzed the whole thing and put it together, my son Ivan and me… Ivan is the co-producer and engineer on the record.

He has been doing this  for a while.

Yes.  And when we did that, there was not one mistake Paco made.  There was not one beat which was not correct.  We just had to add a few things.  Because there were a lot of tracks, and we had that, and then we made a choice of what would be the best for the particular parts of the songs.  But in general, this guy was flawless, man!

Then already at home I had Richard Bona, when he was out here in Los Angeles, come by.  Everything worked very magically, in a way, because all those guys are overdubbed here in my studio.  They were just at the particular time when I needed them in Los Angeles.  Like Zakir Hussein plays beautiful on “The Tower of Silence.”

Where did you make that tune?

I improvised it.

Where were you?

Oh, I don’t know, man.  I was on the road, and after the concert I had my laptop already set up in my hotel room, and I just sat down and then I played an hour or two.

It was beautiful.  I kept thinking of the Tower of Babel and then the Tower of Silence.

Well, let me tell you something, man.  What really happened is that the Tower of Silence is an actual tower in Bombay.  Now, listen to this coincidence.  When I had Zakir Hussein, who lives in Bombay, overdub on this tune, and I told him this is the story of the Sutras, which is a caste that’s one higher than the Untouchables — a very low caste in India.  However, they are allowed to be teachers and they are some of the best musicians.  But what’s significant and what actually fascinated me about these people is believing (they have their own beliefs) that nothing in the world should be squandered and wasted.  So when someone dies, they call the family together, they say goodbye with a beautiful hookup, and they put them on the top of the tower, and they lower him down, and the bell rings, and the wall just comes down… It just dismantle that whole thing (you know what I mean?) and eats that flesh out. Then after about 45 minutes, it’s done, and then 15 minutes later they put the body back up, and then they burn it with flowers, etc.  That is their concept.  That’s about this tune.

Now, when I told this story… I didn’t have to tell this story to Zakir Hussein about the Sutras, because he knows that.  But he said when he opened his window in the morning, in Bombay, there is the Tower of Silence.  It is a funny coincidence.  That introduction is fantastic, with Amir and me doing that duet introduction.

Another tune I kept going back to was “Borges, Buenos Aires,” both parts.  I’m interested in what you read and your…

I don’t read any more.  I don’t read any more and I don’t listen to music any more.  But what I do is… I am apart.  I am not telling anybody to turn things off, like on the bus, for instance, when people want to listen to music.  So I get a little sense of that.  Or my son or my kids, when they are home for Christmas, and they want to play some music, I never say, “No, turn this off” or anything.  But for me, alone, I don’t listen to music.  And I stopped reading a long time ago.

But I did read a lot.  I read a lot of philosophical essays and books of great, great minds.  That I did.  And one of them was Borges, Jorge Luis Borges.  I read this book, “Labyrinths,” and I don’t understand it until today.

You finally understand it or don’t understand it?

I don’t understand a thing of it.  Except for I made this tune up because I love Buenos Aires, and I improvised this tune, and I think it’s a nice story about this complex, very sophisticated, but down to earth place, and with the greatest literary mind in the history of this country.  Borges was a serious genius, like Bertrand Russell, Spinoza, those kind of people.

Who are some other writers, thinkers that influenced you?

In terms of literature, you mean?  I like Krishnamurti, an Indian philosopher. I like the Realists.  I read Schopenhauer and Spinoza, Descartes, many… Karl Marx.  I read a bunch of stuff.

Were you influenced by Viennese thinkers, Austrian thinkers?


Schnitzler, Karl Kraus, people like this?

Not so much.  But I know about them.  I’ve got to tell you, I’m a street kid, and I got late to this.  I was a grownup and had a family when I really started reading a lot.  In those days, when I was in Cannonball’s band, there was not that much to do, except for playing.  So I spent a lot of time just buying books, and reading… Bertrand Russell was one of my favorites.  I like Nietzsche, I like Schopenhauer…

You read them in the German, of course.

In English or German.  It doesn’t matter.

But I guess in Cannonball’s band, given his personality, reading was a natural thing to do.  You’ve described him as such a polymath, so well read and informed.

Oh, yeah.  He was something else.  See, we used to drive together in the car, in the station wagon, because we had the contrabass in there, and so it was usually Cannon and me in the car.  So we had long, long, long hours.  In the old days we drove from New York to L.A.  So we had a lotta-lotta hours to talk.  I was always amazed by his overall knowledge.  He was a worldly man.  One day he taught me about Austrian history.  He talked about Metternich and the Vienna Congress.

And you didn’t know about this before.

No, man.  I come from a working class family, mostly on the streets, you know.  I studied music, I was not an idiot, but those things didn’t interest me.  I had no idea about it.  One time I went with a friend to see Thomas Mann live.  Even as inexperienced and as uneducated, may I say, as I was, that did something to me, and I got into reading certain little things about philosophy and so on.

I read the biography that came out.  Have you seen it?  Have you read it?

Which one?

“In A Silent Way.”

Not really.  Because I never authorized that.  I don’t like that guy, and I didn’t authorize it.

Well, it seems like you spoke a lot to him.

Well, I did years ago.  Every time I came to London, we had an interview.  And I liked him at the time.  He’s a bright kid, and his brother is one of my good friends.  But he did one thing I didn’t like, and when that happened, then I cut it off.  I don’t like it.  I didn’t want to do the book.  He did it against my will.  But that’s okay; he can write a book. I read a little through it.  I think it is very readable.

Well, he’s certainly thorough.  He interviewed a lot of people.

Right.  I’ve got to give him the respect for that, and that’s due.  I think he wrote a good book.

I think what that book would indicate is the stature you have in many kinds of music.  You’ve influenced several generations of musicians by this point.  This may be a corny question, but I’ll go with it anyway.  Did you foresee the course of your life before you came here in the 1950’s.

Not foresee.

Did you feel that the sort of thing you accomplished would be possible?


What gave you that confidence?

I thought it was possible.  I thought it was possible, but it was rather improbable.  I didn’t know a single person in America; not one single person.  So it was something to come here, have $800 in your pocket, you go to a country with one suitcase and a bass trumpet — and that was it.  I went to Berklee on my four-month scholarship, and things just developed very well.  I always say I’m just really grateful to be here, man.

Apart from your talent, what do you think it was that people initially saw in you?  What do you think it was that Dinah Washington saw in you?

Well, she used to say that I had Ray Charles’ soul with a touch of George Shearing.  That was her explanation.  She used to say that about me in front of the audiences, “Yeah, here is a guy from Vienna with the blind man’s soul,” she said. [LAUGHS] The soul of Ray Charles, the touch of George Shearing.  Something like that.  So maybe that’s what she heard.  I don’t know.

But you said in the book and many other times that your first attraction to black culture was the film “Stormy Weather,” that you snuck in to see the movie many times…


What was that response?  Can you pinpoint it?  Because chasing it down seems fundamental to what you did in the 1950’s.

Yes.  I’ll tell you something.  It was for me so different, the whole atmosphere of these people.  Number one, I fell in love with Lena Horne, with her singing and her beauty.  I wanted to say, “I’m going to go to America and marry this woman.”  I was really very much impressed by the whole thing — the music, the way the people moved. The sense of humor touched me, too.  Because it’s very close to the humor street people in Vienna have.  It was without a question for me the greatest influence of all I wanted to do.  I was then deciding, “This is what I am going to do and I will play with these people.”  Because I was a big fan — and actually still am — of Glenn Miller and all the great dance bands, and Harry James and Tommy Dorsey.  You know what I mean?  However, when I heard then Duke Ellington and Basie and Jimmie Lunceford, that had another kind of quality.  Then I heard later on…

You must remember that at that particular time, in the Nazi period, jazz was not allowed.  Afterwards, it was very expensive.  We couldn’t get any records.  We were an occupied country by the Allies, the Four Nations.  There was nothing we could do.  We barely survived.  There was no food, there was no water, no gas.  It was a totally bombed-out city.  And everything was kind of hard.  But I was lucky because my piano was probably destroyed, I couldn’t practice on it, but across the street from me was a guy I knew for quite a while who was a little older, and he had a piano.  So I went to his house to practice, and he had jazz records.  That’s where I got into it.  Later on, they had a program that was called “Strictly Solid.” It was every day at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, just when I came home from school, and I never missed it.  There was one hour where they played all the good stuff, Jazz at the Philharmonic, and I started hearing Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Oscar Peterson…

So you assimilated the sound of swing that way, and you were adept and gifted enough that you could internalize it just through hearing it.

Oh yeah.  And I was a big fan in the early days of Erroll Garner and George Shearing.  I used to copy them.  It was kind of fun.  I’d go to a club, and I’d play a piece… I learned it totally from the record, and I’d really play it like that.  I’d play it fairly good.  I did little Art Tatum things.  I was a student, as I am today.  I am a student of the game.

It’s interesting. In a sense, you became very much an insider in black culture.

Oh, yes.

You played with Dinah Washington and you played with Cannonball Adderley for ten years.

I played also with Harry Edison and Joe Williams’ band.

And Ben Webster.  But then, simultaneously, you’re still a Viennese, and you’re looking at it from an outsider’s perspective, but it resonates so deeply with you.

I don’t understand that.

You come from Vienna, and you’re looking at it all through the filter of your experiences.

Of course.

And especially as you grow older, your connection to your Viennese heritage becomes more and more palpable.  It’s interesting that you were able to retain your own identity, that fundamental core of your formative years.

Well, but then it was not.  That takes time.  I was a total copyist.  I copied everybody.  I was so heavy into Lennie Tristano’s music, we had a whole band based on Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh’s band.  Then we had something else.  Then Horace Silver came along, and Horace Silver was a big influence on me.  It’s one of those things.  Step by step, man.  When I came to America, I still didn’t have a style. I just copied everybody.  But there was something in it, maybe.

When did you start to have your style?


With Cannonball.

Yes, in the later part of Cannonball.  Because then, they also wanted… I had to play roles.  One piece had to be a little bit like Bobby Timmons, and another piece had to be a little bit like Victor Feldman, etc.  So I was communicating in a way that… I think the music I wrote was good.  But the playing was still… I would call it tentative.  Because I really didn’t have my place yet.  You see?  But after a while, the confidence grew, and I started hearing other things.  Sometimes it was part of something, because where I wanted to go, the band was not.  It was a great band, there is no question about it, but either we played standards or we played some of those songs which are more in the gutbucket style, rhythm-and-blues-influenced.  Which was great!  I learned, and I was paid for learning, and I’m very happy about that.  But on the other hand, when I started to develop my own thing, it was a little bit of a hold-back, but I didn’t allow it to be.  I just said, “Okay, I’m hanging in there, I’m doing everything, and slowly, I’m going to move this whole thing a little bit around.”  Especially after 1965, I started writing a lot for Cannon.  And a lot of good tunes, different forms.  Like “74 Miles Away,” if you’ve ever checked this out, is a helluva tune in 7/4.  And the “Hipdelphia” and things like that.  I had 55 tunes Cannonball recorded.

That many!  I didn’t know that.  Have you ever reworked any of those tunes for…

No, never.

So you let those lie where they are.

Let it be.  That’s okay.  But it was a great, great experience, working with a great musician like Cannonball, and I learned so many things.  They also made mistakes, and I learned from them, too.  I think it’s all a work in progress.

Do you see what you do now as in any way a continuum from what you did before Weather Report, before “In A Silent Way”?

Ah, I cannot tell you.

Do you feel connected to that still?

No, not really.

In your tunes I hear things like shout choruses and other things you abstracted from the conventions of the time, like a James Brown horn section or…

Well, really, I’ve been doing this for a long time.  But I’ll tell you another thing.  There’s a song on FACES AND PLACES called “The Spirit of Julian C. Adderley,” and that kind of reflects that time.  I wanted to do this on this particular CD.

Another tune that’s lovely is “Cafe Andalusia.”  Did you write that recently?

Yes, that’s one of those improvisations I talked to you about.  Also, Cannonball is a recent thing. But I wanted to have… Because he always liked that church thing, Cannon did, and I wanted to have something with a Gospel type of… I did it with the Perry Sisters; they are very beautiful singers.  It was a very complex tune for them to sing.  But it came out okay.

When did the Caribbean tinge begin to enter the way you heard music, and that way of hearing rhythm and phrasing that became so distinctive to you?

That was early.  In 1952, I played with a great saxophone player from Vienna, and I played with him in Munich.  His name is Hans Koller.  He is still alive.  He’s really a giant in my country.  He played with Dizzy’s band sometimes, and with Benny Goodman and all this.

Attila Zoller did things with him.

Attila Zoller did a lot of things with Hans Koller.  I did a few things with Attila, too, in Vienna.  He was a great guy.  God bless him.  I was a teenager, I still went to school when I met him.  He was our hero.  He was a cool guy.  Unfortunately, he’s gone.  But he’s still here.

So what happened in this club I played in Munich, which was called the Bongo Bar, there was a band from Trinidad, and I got early exposure to this music — the West Indian music, for instance, Calypso and stuff like that.  So that is an old thing with the Caribbean.  I was never much of a listener to… I’ll tell you, before I did the Salif Keita record [AMEN], I never listened to African music.

Is that so?  It’s hard to imagine that that’s true, because…

Well, it is true.  Whatever I tell you is true.

I’m sure it is.  I wasn’t suggesting that you were lying.  It just sounded like such a meeting of the minds.

It was.  Because it is natural for me.  This music was so natural for me.  When they sent me this, I just said, “I’ll do that.”  It was just right up my line.  I told Salif, “I’ll tell you something.  I will not touch the tradition of your music; I want this to keep intact.  On the other hand, I want to keep what I do also intact.  And then we’ll make another music out of these two.”  What I later found out is that when they were kids or teenagers, they listened a lot to Weather Report.  So when people ask me today, “How is it all of a sudden you have those African influences?”… It is true.  I have influences from Africa and African music.  But they have, at minimum, as much from what we’ve done with Weather Report.  When they first heard “Black Market” and “Mysterious Traveller,” they almost died over there.  The bass player in my band now, Etienne Mbappe, who is a wonderful bass player and singer, as you can hear, he told me that when he first heard “Black Market” and he heard Jaco play, they all… They had cassettes in Africa.  Those LPs were copied down to just some cassettes, and they just sold for a dollar or something in the villages and so on.

Richard Bona told me that he dug Weather Report a lot also.

Exactly.  So they know all that music, man.  They grew up with that stuff.  And Mbappe just last week told me, “You know, when I first heard that and I heard Jaco play, I said, ‘Wow!'” He was blown away.  He thought it must be an African bass player.  They said to me that when they saw the name Zawinul, they thought it was a Zulu name.  So it was weird, man, the way they grew up with our stuff.  They say that they used to get together… Youssou N’Dour and those guys, Habib, a bass player in Youssou’s band…all those guys used to sit together and listen for hours to Weather Report.

I can see a kind of African organization in the Weather Report music, a lot of things going on in parallel.

But at that point we never listened.  Neither Wayne or me, we never listened to it.  I swear to you, man, I never listened to an African band.  It wasn’t even available.  But I was not really that into it.

So you never heard Fela at that time, or those…


Now, Miles was interested in African music…

I never recognized that.  I don’t know if he was or not.

In the autobiography he talked about Fela.

Then it is true.  But the only people I knew… I worked with an African lady, with Letta Mbulu, from South Africa, and with her husband.  They were part of Cannonball’s band at times.  He brought them in when there was an interest for that, because we didn’t have a female singer around.  That was kind of nice, to play some of that music.  I found this to be interesting.  But in general, I never heard anything about it.  So when Island Records called me at that time to do the Salif Keita thing, I’d never heard about this band.  And it was fun to do.

So the people who play Zawinul Syndicate now are primarily very influenced by your identity of 20 and 30 years ago, and in many cases probably conceptualized their approach to their instruments through hearing that music.

Well, you know exactly what you’re talking about.

Now, how do they affect you?  Hearing them react to your ideas from that time and now, how does it affect the way you write?  Are you writing for your band in certain ways?

Not really. I don’t think about those things.  I am improvising, and the moment you improvise, you don’t think anyhow.  The moment inspiration starts, rational thinking stops.  Now, you can put this down and write it in stone, because that’s what it is.

I’d like to ask about your relationship with Wayne Shorter. You said you met him at a place near Birdland called the Green Lantern, having a drink, and he sang you something from an opera he wrote when he was at NYU, which I believe was “Nellie Bly,” and I think that cemented…

No, it was another one he sang — “Emmanuelle.”  “I wonder where Emmanuelle…” When he sang this to me, it sounded like Alban Berg’s work or something like this. I said, “Damn, man!” I was only about a month maybe in America when I met Wayne.  I met Wayne actually at Ham and Eggs, where him and Booker Little and me had breakfast late at night. I had met him through some other…Lee Morgan or whatever… Bobby Timmons, I think it was!  Then we went to the breakfast place, and then we went to the Green Lantern, which was right next to Birdland.

You know, last week, when I was in New York, I went by Birdland. [LAUGHS] I walked down 52nd Street.  My kids were born on 52nd Street!  But I wanted just to experience it.  Because the concert I played at the Austrian Cultural Forum is at 11 East 52nd Street.  So I wanted to just walk by — I had that day off — and experience New York again and 52nd Street.  I spent so much time there.  Everything is different.  I walked by, and on 52nd Street the exit, the back exit of Birdland, stinks just the same as it did then!  With the garbage and everything in New York.

That doesn’t change in New York.

That doesn’t change.  Everything else changed in front, but the door and the steps still go down there.

But you had breakfast with Wayne and Booker Little.

Yes, at the Green Lantern, and that’s where he sang for me his opera he wrote when he was 17 years old.  And he wrote the libretto and all that stuff, so I was really impressed.  Plus, I heard him play.  I think that was one of the Monday night sessions at Birdland, and he played, and everybody was talking about there’s a new tiger in town.  He’s really great people.

That’s when he’d just gotten out of the Army, and he was doing sessions at the Turbo Lounge in Brooklyn with Freddie Hubbard and all this stuff.


Then you were together in Maynard Ferguson’s band for about a month.


Which began the friendship, I guess.

No, that was always.  Right from the beginning we had a great understanding.  Because he knew a lot about… Wayne is a very educated man, and he knew a lot about the music of Stravinsky and Alban Berg and Bela Bartok.  We used to hum the stuff like that.  We had a good time.  Then we were talking about one day maybe we’d make a little band together. It was funny.

So you crossed paths occasionally during the ’60s, and then you get together right around the time of “In A Silent Way,” and that happens.  Then you have a 15-year partnership.

Well, it never ended.  We’re still partners.  Now there is coming practically a new record.  The first new record in practically 20 years comes out with LIVE AND UNRELEASED.

But I’d assume he was the fundamental tone you had in mind in setting up the pieces and orchestrating for the band.

For me, that was always the most important thing, is the tone of a person.  I listened yesterday to this double-CD, and Alfonso Johnson was a giant.  He was phenomenal, man!

There are still going to be some changes on LIVE AND UNRELEASED.  It’s a little long, and I’m going to cut out a couple of parts.  Otherwise it’s fine.

I have 18 tracks, 8 on Volume 1 and 10 on Volume 2.

That’s probably correct.

It doesn’t always happen that energy projected on a concert stage gets projected through a recorded document, but in this case it does every step of the way.

I think so, too. When I listened to it yesterday, I wanted to take my time to do that… I said to myself, “Damn, man, this is really-really good stuff.”  Now I do understand what people must have heard.  Because this was all live.  When we did, for instance, “Where The Moon Goes,” when you think that a quintet can do all that we did, with singing and at the same time playing some very complex line against the singing… In this particular tune, that little duet that Omar and me are doing, that little solo exchange… Anyhow, I can tell you that the whole thing is going to have an impact again.  Because it is good.  It’s very good.

How did the selection process break down?  Did you select all the material or was it divided between you and Bob Belden?

Well, Wayne in general didn’t write as many tunes as I did, so we had to juggle around to have enough of Wayne on there.  But I think we got that now.

One thing that’s for sure here is that you get a lot of Wayne’s saxophone playing stretching out in an improvisational context.  In the day, his fans wanted to hear him improvise more, and anybody who wants to hear that…

They’re going to have PLENTY, man!

Did listening to it give you any further insights on how your sound evolved?

Well, another thing we did, which I am so happy about, is that we never… We were not all that bothered about talking about music and all of this.  We just said one thing. “Let’s not do tomorrow what we did yesterday.”  That is very important for me to do.  Do something different. We have a band which is a work in progress, and that’s what we should keep.  And that’s what I still do. I am little freer now, because all of the arrangements I am playing now, especially on stage, I can change every night because I don’t have any other melody player.  So I have a little bit more of a conversation with myself, because there is no counter guy like Wayne.  That’s okay.  I have to live with that.  I have a very great rhythm section.  I have a great guitar player.  And Manolo is in the new band, as then.  He’s back in the band for six years now, I guess. He’s not that much on the record.  But he is very prominently featured on the live things.  The double CD is a really nice example of what happened 25 years ago, because it sounds awfully fresh, man.

A lot of the practices you established with Weather Report seem to be things you’re refining and finding new contexts for with Zawinul Syndicate.

I hope so.  I put a lot of time into Weather Report, and I still do.  I did this in Cannonball’s band.  That’s what I want to teach the guys in my band — not to be sidemen.  I don’t need yes-guys around.  I need people who have a personality, who say sometimes, “Yeah, maybe we want to do this a little different” or something.

So you need people who feel you, not who learn you.

Exactly.  People who understand that feeling.

You’ve said before, and I think it was borne out on this recent Weather Report tribute record on Telarc, how difficult it is for other people to play your music.  What does someone else have to do to make Joe Zawinul’s music sound idiomatic and Zawinulesque?

To be.

To be Joe Zawinul.


So is your music going to be able to become part of the repertoire of the future?

Oh, that I cannot tell you. I really don’t care about that.  Because it’s never been possible.  It’s never been possible for Charlie Parker that anybody plays his stuff.  When the music becomes complex… Like, all music that’s kind of complex, people don’t really feel it.  What you were talking about is this Jason Miles stuff?


It was a catastrophe!  It was one of the great catastrophes.  And do you know that we had the right, Wayne and me, to say no to that.  But then we said, “But okay, let’s do that.”  They have some of the best musicians today in America on this record. And it really shows, and it will show now when LIVE AND UNRELEASED comes out, the difference between this stuff.  In a way, it’s what I’ve always said, that our music is not playable by other people… It’s really true, man!

You said that you don’t listen to music by yourself, but pick it up from being on the bus with your band or your kids, and no doubt when you’re out on the road you hear things by proximity.  Do you hear anything out there these days that impresses you?

I haven’t heard much, I’ll tell you that. There is one group I heard, and I don’t know who they are… I saw a video of a group from Maghreb. This is the Algerian areas.  This is a group of five female singers and four hand drummers who play the same beat, and a solo viola player who plays the viola on his knees.  That is some of the music…it’s very close to my music, in a way…  He plays with the bow.  And there’s another guy with similar music who plays a type of oud that’s called a ghembre.  This music is very close.  But I’ll tell you, I’ve never heard this before, and somehow it is very close to my music.

In jazz right now there are people… I think you foreshadowed something, though it’s hard to say you had a direct influence on this. There are musicians all over the globe who can transcend their locality and interact with musicians from everywhere else just doing what they do.  And there are musicians all over the globe who know jazz, and they bring their own culture to it.  There’s a circular feedback loop where American musicians pick up on what they do, they’re picking up on what these musicians do, and things happen.

I think this will happen more.  If America can start to understand that there are other people in the world who can play music, too, that’s important.  When we grew up, we grew up with American music.  Everything else didn’t matter in the world.  And there was a certain ignorance in us which was handicapping us, but we only found this out later.  But when we were in Vienna, my friends and me were total racists in terms of a reverse racism.  The only thing we liked was black musicians.  There was a time when we were terrible, man, with that stuff, and it was unfair and it… It was not only unfair. It was stupid.  Because there’s a lot of people in the world who can play music.  You’ve got to be open and check out what this is.

But what I’ve learned most from is from marketplaces. I travel a lot, of course, and I go and just check out the people, how they interact and how they react.  Like, this “Day In Tunisia,” it’s called, we’re talking about “Cafe Andalusia.” I was there, and this is pretty much the feeling I got out of there.  So I’m trying to tell my story through my feeling, not with any kind of analytical sense or copying anything.  I don’t want to copy nothing.  I’ve got plenty… I’ve got a resourceful soul. You know what I mean?  Because I’m into this for a long time.

But what I’m really happy about is that finally younger musicians in America start opening up their heads also to other things, and that is great, I think. You never should forget your tradition.  For me, the great black American musicians in the first part of the last century created the greatest art form in the world — for me.  The greatest cultural form ever.  I mean, for the 20th century, the music of Duke Ellington and Armstrong and the great Art Tatum, and Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles… They created a music which was the greatest art form for me.

And what’s happening today, it’s because (I don’t know why) people are being…maybe from the record companies, being almost forced to play this kind of music.  And it’s really bad, because number one, they don’t play it as good, not even nearly, and it handicaps them from going on their own and starting to think for themselves.

I think a lot of them went that direction… I’ve talked to a number of people from that group.  And I think they feel that when they were coming up, that music was being taken away from them and they have to reclaim it.  So it becomes a matter of reclaiming their tradition, from their perspective.

Well, that’s a point.  But I think if you have tradition, it doesn’t mean that everybody should play the same way.  And I don’t think anything was taken away from anybody. I mean, everybody in the world within a couple of years knows where this music came from and who were the ones who played it better than anybody.  I mean, nothing has ever been taken away.  This is maybe a little paranoia.

Well, stuff was unavailable at the time, or was being buried, people might say.

I don’t really think that’s the case.  I think the recording companies wanted to do… There was nothing new happening, and so they will rehash bebop.  Which is okay.  It gives a lot of good and great musicians an opportunity to make money.  Because to me, one of the great musics in the world ever is bebop. I love bebop.  But I also love to grow in life, and not being stuck in the mud.

Well, there’s the wonderful solo piano piece, “When There Was Royalty,” that you put on the WORLD TOUR album that amply shows your feelings about bebop and Tatum.

Well, it’s not so much bebop.  It’s just piano fooling.  Piano fooling is a good word.  Because that’s what the old masters could do so well.  People were talking to people while they were playing, and fooling around.  The piano was just a toy.  And that’s what I wanted to do on this particular piece, not to… It was a short improvisation, and I enjoy doing those kinds of things sometimes.

Can you tell me where the poem “Success” comes from, which directly follows the solo piano piece on Disk 2 of WORLD TOUR?

That is a poem by Erich Fried.

Is it about the war?

No, it is not about the war.  It is about a life, which I, in a way (I must tell you this) related to myself.  Because the way I grew up, two years later there was a revolution, then there was nothing but wars until 1956.  We were actually occupied.  So the first 20 years of my life, practically speaking, were handcuffed.  And there was no being a real child.  It was another kind of world. It was a tough life.  Poverty and revolutions, war and danger always; bomb attacks two years in a row, every day, every night.  It was a tough life. So when I heard this poem, it directly… I mean, I’m not so egotistical to put it on me.  But when I heard it, it affected me.  When it said “I was born when I was 10 years old and I died when I was 20,” and then it goes on, “And when I was 80, I spoke about life and when I was 90, I spoke about the future”… I like that.

Do you think we can trace your feeling of never wanting to look back and retrace what you’ve done to the conditions of your formative years?

But that doesn’t mean I am trying to separate myself from the past in that kind of way.  The past is for me very, very here.  But it’s not for me in mutable terms to talk over and over.  But man, I had a very happy childhood, I must tell you.  Very happy when I was a kid.  We didn’t know anything better.  That’s what it was.  We had what we had.  We shared.  I had a wonderful father and a great mama.

You said you were self-providers, and so you were self-sufficient and able to take care of yourself.

Well, no.  My grandfather.  My grandfather had 16 kids, and they had a very small farm, and they were in the category in those days that was called “self-providers.”  But you know what that means when you have a lot of mouths to feed.  You have 15 chickens, you have 2-3 geese, and we had one cow and one sow, and we had to work.  My grandfather was a poor man.  He had more or less one little acre where he can grow corn and potatoes.  So when I spent time out there… I was sharing the time between the big city and the country.  There we were self-providers.  But I didn’t have a vacation in those years, in my formative years.  In the summer I went out there into the woods, and worked every day, man, from morning til evening, to bring wood home, to bring the leaves home for the cow and for the animals, and cutting grass and weeds and whatever.

So you’ve been working all your life.

All my life, man.  I love to work.  This is my motor.

You were talking about fooling around at the piano, and in our first conversation you told me that you went to Bradley’s a fair amount when you were living on East 12th Street.  Did you ever play at Bradley’s or do the after-hours?

I think we played one evening, Miroslav and me, in the ’70s, just bass and piano.

Why did you move back to California after the time in New York?

We have grandchildren, my son Ivan’s kids, and when we saw the way they grow, and they were kind of locked up… Also, we had this beautiful loft; it was great, we had our studio there.  But after a few years, my wife and me decided we missed it… We used to live in Malibu before.  I missed it to get out in the morning, man, and don’t have to put a lot of clothes on to get the newspaper and the milk or whatever.  And slowly, it developed to almost like, “Hey, why don’t we go back.”

It’s like Paradise out there.

It is.  By the way, there is a book coming out now that is an authorized biography written by Gunther Baumann. It’s a great book, I think.  There’s a lot of pictures.  It’s coming out at the end of the month; the presentation is on the 23rd of June.  Then it will be translated. It’s a good one.

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Filed under Interview, Jazziz, Joe Zawinul, Weather Report

Dr. Lonnie Smith is 69

As reviews of Dr. Lonnie Smith’s recent engagement at Ronnie Scott’s in London make clear, the Hammond B3 master, who turned 69 today, remains an American original, as cliche-free in his attire as when expressing himself through notes and tones. After listening to him for years, I had the opportunity to learn this first-hand when I profiled Smith for DownBeat four or five years ago. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to experience his magic for many years to come.

* * * * *

“I don’t do soundchecks,” Doctor Lonnie Smith noted as he entered Manhattan’s Jazz Standard ninety minutes before hit-time on night one of his pre-Christmas week. It was cocktail hour, and stragglers from a private party ambled leisurely from the room with doggie bags filled with barbecued ribs and chicken. Smith, however, was ready to attend to business. So were his bandmates, an as-yet unrehearsed quintet billed as Crescent Boogaloo for the presence of New Orleanians Donald Harrison and Nicholas Payton, along with Peter Bernstein, a Manhattan native, and Bill Stewart, a son of Iowa.

Smith’s white hair was tied back in a bun. His white beard was combed out. His black rasta hat sat at a precise angle over his forehead. With the help of his trademark conjure cane, he picked his way to the bandstand to gauge the idiosyncracies of the house-owned Hammond B3. As the staff moved tables and chairs into position, Smith proceeded to poke and prod as Harrison and Payton, both in town just that afternoon, warmed up with licks and long tones. Bernstein tweaked his amp, Stewart tuned his drums and adjusted his cymbals. Smith set forth the chords for Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait,” Stewart went four-to-the-floor, and Smith, already grooving, eyes darting, played an intense solo, harmonizing his line in a fervent grunt. Harrison blew a half chorus. So did Payton.  Satisfied, Smith smiled, halted the proceedings, chatted briefly with the house engineer, and left the room.

Forty-five minutes later, barbecue-munching, spirits-sipping patrons packed the house. Smith reemerged, now topped with his trademark black turban. Again, he kicked off “Good Bait,” embellishing the melody with a funky bassline not unlike the one he’d laid down forty years before on “Alligator Boogaloo,” the still-popular Lou Donaldson jukebox hit on which Smith generated the grooves with George Benson and Idris Muhammad. As Harrison uncorked a darting solo, Smith shifted the drawbars with his right hand without allowing the bass to flag, then segued into a characteristically dramatic solo that built to climax and decrescendo. Without a word, he launched the theme of Frank Foster’s “Simone,” simultaneously floating the melody and articulating another inexorably raunchy bassline over Stewart’s staunch 5/4. As his solo transpired, he tilted his head almost at a right angle to the Leslie speaker behind him, extracting signifying squawks and fuzz. Over Stewart’s declarative swamp beat on the Beatles’ “Come Together,” Smith continued to jab-and-weave atop another ferocious bass figure, juxtaposing long runs with short bursts, then gave way to Harrison’s intense wailing-the-blues alto solo and Payton’s low-register effusion, nodding like a pendulum as he comped, growling scat syllables to conclude.

It was time to cool down the inflamed congregants, and Smith ratcheted down with an abstract, rubato fanfare at a subtone murmur, gradually transitioning to an exposition of the elegiac theme of “Chelsea Bridge.” Supporting nuanced solos by Payton and Harrison, Smith turned the organ into a virtual choir, which, on his own concluding statement, blasted off the firmament and into ether. On the intro to “Willow Weep For Me,” he continued to orchestrate, interpolating fragments of “Parisian Thoroughfare” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” and splattering synth-like Sun Ra platters of color, sustaining a slow drone to complement Bernstein’s melody statement and Payton’s brief melodic variations. On his own solo, he postulated a long, swaying bassline, picking each note with care. Gradually, he raised the tempo, harmonizing the line and locking in, eyes closed, before unwinding with a slow blues over a shuffle. On the brisk set-closer, “Oleo,” Smith spun out crisply articulated bop lines, prodding an informed succession of solos with stabbing, Bud Powell-like comp.

The house began to clear for the second, sold-out show. Smith—who seemed barely to have broken a sweat while spontaneously conjuring a perfect set from, as it were, a blank canvas—exchanged a pleasantry or two with fans and friends, and retreated to the bar for dinner.


At 65, Smith occupies a singular niche in 21st century improvisation. Along with less visible B3’ers such as Gene Ludwig and Gloria Coleman, he’s one of the last survivors to have lived and breathed his instrument’s down-home, good-time function that provided a foot-patting  soundtrack at blue-collar inner city lounges and grilles across urban Afro-America until the era of Ronald Reagan. Deejays and producers still sample the famously funky grooves of such early career albums as Alligator Boogaloo, Mama Wailer, a Kudu session from 1974, or Afro-Desia, a 1975 Groove Merchant date on which Joe Lovano debuted as a sideman. Smith himself never stopped sidemanning with Donaldson, and spent much of the ‘90s offering omnidirectional testimony in bracing contrast to the leader’s straight-down-the-middle declamations. These days he performs mostly as a leader, still building full-bodied basslines from the bottom up. He also continues to deploy the presentational style that he developed early on, projecting earthy roots while developing ever more sophisticated ways to satisfy a hunger to embrace a universe of sound, an imperative that also drove the jazz fusion avatars of his generation, psychedelic mother-shippers like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, or, for that matter, Sun Ra.

“He’s the king of nuance,” said Harrison between sets. “Lonnie can switch so quickly from one feeling to another; he’s figured out how to do it.”

“He uses a lot more harmony than he used to,” said Joey DeFrancesco, whose father, a Niagara Falls native, crossed paths with Smith on the early ‘60s Buffalo scene, where both soaked up local hero Joe Madison. “But no matter what he does, his bass always grooves, so it’s swinging, and he comes up with a lot of different sounds. He’s got the whole thing going.”

Few musicians have played more frequently with Smith than Bernstein, his bandmate with Donaldson since the early ‘90s, who often plays guitar in Smith’s trios. “Lonnie trusts his instincts like nobody else that I play with,” Bernstein said. “He’s totally unafraid to stop on a dime, change the direction of the music, and see what happens. He sings, and on one level, that’s his approach to playing the instrument. On the other level, he is the orchestra accompanying the singer, accompanying himself. He gets inside the tune, melts it down, then brings it into a form. He’ll try anything”

Organist Sam Yahel experienced Smith’s experimental proclivities first-hand during the early ‘90s when he loaned Smith his Korg CX-3 portable organ for a gig at Augie’s, then a hardcore jazz haven on the Upper West Side and now the premises of Smoke.

“I’d been gigging all over the city with it, and thought I had it figured out,” Yahel said. “But after I set it up for Lonnie, I was blown away by the sounds he got out of this thing. He’s one of the first guys I heard who expanded the sonic palette. From “Alligator Boogaloo,” I perceived him as this amazing player in the tradition of Jimmy Smith, which he is. But when I heard him live, I understood that he was bringing something else to the table—a capacity for abstraction. He pulled out sounds that we didn’t realize were there. When I heard him on the real organ, I was even more blown away by his ability to come from an abstract place, and then reach that place of soulfulness. Unlike Larry Young, who freed up the harmony and lyricism of the right hand by freeing up the left hand so that the bass didn’t always have to nail the groove, but could float, come behind or a little ahead, Lonnie never sacrificed the idea that the bass is ALWAYS incredibly grooving. Indirectly or directly, he influenced my generation. When you hear him play an introduction, you feel that anything could happen. Your creative juices can’t help but flow when you walk away.”

“Lonnie approaches his solos thematically, and is a very thoughtful improviser,” said Larry Goldings, who witnessed the aforementioned night at Augie’s. “Now, he has a bunch of very personalized sounds—organ effects—that I still can’t figure out and copy. But more important is the way he builds the solo, with a lot of space and tremendous drama. In a way, that’s mostly what he’s about. He wants to tell a story, and he knows how to get the audience on the edge of their seat. By the end you really feel like you’ve been through something.”


“The first night was very hard,” Smith reported a week later. “But I had faith because they were great players. What made it hard is that you have to make sure all the equipment is working right, and their organ was a little rough for me. But once you start playing, it’s okay—you figure out what to do with it.”

“Figuring out what to do with it” has been Smith’s modus operandi from the jump, and the dictum served him well around 1961, when he returned to Buffalo from an undistinguished Air Force stint in Texas as an electronics specialist (“I didn’t want to take orders from anybody, so they discharged me”), and started singing with his brothers on local jobs.

“I always sang,” he recalled. “My family sang spiritual music at home, and before I went into the service, I’d sung in churches. Then, we had a four-part harmony singing group called the Supremes, which we changed to the Teen Kings. A disk jockey named Lucky Pierre managed us, and we made a record. But also, I always loved to play musical instruments. The first time I touched a piano, I’d just graduated to third grade, and I went to visit my aunt. No one was watching me, and I got up to the piano and figured out how to play ‘Crying in the Chapel.’ I still remember the key—F-sharp.

“I never had a piano, but I learned a little about the keyboard by fooling around. I knew some boogie-woogie, and natural things like that. My mother and I used to scat to instrumental songs, and I played trumpet and tuba in high school, but I’d play piano in the school auditorium, or at someone’s house, like Grover Washington, who I grew up with. I’d play songs by Fats Domino or Little Richard—what they played had a lot of feeling, and wasn’t so complex that you couldn’t understand what they were doing; once you listened to the record, you said, ‘Oh, okay,’ and you’d have it. A friend played me Jimmy Smith’s ‘Midnight Special’ record, and I heard Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett and Milt Buckner, too. My brothers played bass, guitar and drums, and on the jobs, I’d sing a few songs, then sit on the side while they kept playing. I wanted to get up there so bad! It looked like were having too much fun. I borrowed a Wurlitzer. I’d play a couple of songs, and I’d be happy.”

Obsessed with the keyboard, Smith began spending most of his down time at a downtown music store owned by a generous soul named Art Kubera. “He asked me why, and I said, ‘Sir, if I had an instrument, I could work, I could make a living,’” Smith recounted. “It must have stuck. One day, I came in, and he closed up, took me in the back, where he stayed, and showed me a new Hammond he’d had to take back. They were in the thousands then. He said, ‘If you can move it, it’s yours.’ I got a pickup truck, and moved it.”

While learning the complex sequence of stops and presets that generates the Hammond sound, Smith played the house keyboard at a local boite called the Little Paris. One night, Jack McDuff, in town for an engagement at Buffalo’s top jazz venue, the Pine Grill, came by when the place was packed. “McDuff told me he was standing on one side of the room, and the people were jumping so much that the vibrations from the floor moved him to the other side,” Smith said. “He’d heard I had an organ, and wanted to rent it—a friend of his was coming to town. I wasn’t sure, but he said, ‘One day maybe I’ll be able to help you.’ Guess who the friend was. Lou Donaldson.”

In 1964, McDuff fulfilled this karmic promise, allowing Smith—now booked out of Ohio, he had gainful employment backing acts like Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, the Coasters, and the Impressions, Etta James, and Jimmy Reed—to sit in with his popular George Benson-Red Holloway-Joe Dukes quartet on a Buffalo gig. About to branch off on his own, Benson liked Smith’s groove. He took his number, but didn’t call.

“I’d been playing in New York City at Smalls, and Grant Green was trying to get me to record with him,” Smith stated. “But I’d heard Grant Green on records, I’d just started playing, and I knew I wasn’t ready.” Green’s manager, Jimmy Boyd, was also working with Benson, and had Smith’s number. “They were playing in Pittsburgh, and needed another organist, and Jimmy said, ‘I know just who to get.’ George said, ‘That’s who I was looking for.’ I gave my group two-week notice, and my last gig was in Buffalo. George came to get me that night, and we went to his mom’s house in Pittsburgh, learned two songs in his basement, and took off for New York.”

First, they entered the 845 Club in the Bronx. The owner then booked them to follow Grant Green at his Harlem club, the Palm Café, on 125th Street, down the block from the Apollo. An extended run at Minton’s Playhouse followed.

“The Palm Café had go-go dancers, and George and I would sing duets,” Smith recalled. “James Brown was at the Apollo, and he came down every night, jumped up on the organ and said, ‘don’t you move; you stay right there.’ Esther Phillips would play a bit of organ, too; I’d stay there and they’d tickle the top. James Brown wanted us to go with him, but we just kept on our route, which was the correct thing to do. John Hammond heard about us, and he came by and signed us to Columbia Records. The rest was history.”


“I was a rebel when I was younger,” Smith said. “I never liked the business of music. When I didn’t want to be bothered, I’d go somewhere and hide.”

A Harlem resident since the ‘60s, Smith sold ample units for Columbia, Blue Note and CTI, and he made it his business to reach out to his fan base, criss-crossing the highways with his Hammond in tow. Sometimes he made long pit stops—six months in Milwaukee in the late ‘70s, and several extended ‘80s residences around Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Still a road warrior at 65, he remarks that although he would prefer to work several months a year, and as little as possible in the winter, it would be very difficult to scale back and retain the lifestyle to which he is accustomed.

Smith’s rebellious proclivities extended to the aesthetic realm of repertoire and interpretation. “Before I started playing with George, I was into the kind of music John Coltrane and Miles Davis were playing, and I was crazy about McCoy Tyner and Ahmad Jamal, Thelonious Monk and Erroll Garner,” he said. “I love classical music and the different sounds of the instruments. I wrote a song called “I Be Blue” that I recorded with Lou Donaldson. I wrote it thinking of Lady Day, this beautiful melody with this ugly sound grinding up underneath the chords, like seeing yourself threading through thick water. I was doing this years ago, but it was too early.

“When I left George, I went through a period of playing completely free-form music, which was too out for the people. I didn’t care at that time. I had a hit record, and I’d play something they hadn’t heard. As the years passed, I started tuning in on the people more. Those are the people who are with you. The young people buy my music today because I stopped and listened.”

The young people also respond to Smith’s expressive face, his headgear, his honorific—in short, his showmanship. The term, by the way, makes him bristle. Nor does he care to comment on “Doctor” and the turban.

“When I get up there, you might see showmanship,” Smith remarked. “I’m not even thinking about it because I’m really shy. But when I play, a lot of those things come out because I want people to feel loose and enjoy themselves. If you don’t draw anybody, you’re not coming back. See, we used to have dancers and comedians—a show. Young people don’t know what we did to keep this music going. Do you think I make faces to be making faces? No! I can’t stand it; they’re always taking pictures of me making faces.

“I have so much passion. I had an algebra teacher who got real involved, and would shout, ‘Yeah, that’s it!’ and start writing out the answer. That’s how I feel when I’m playing, so enthused and so happy. I’m pleasing myself first, and you’re next. The Hammond has such a warm sound—the feel of the earth, the sun, the moon, the water—and it matches so well with the Leslie. The horn that goes around inside the Leslie moves slow and fast—when you close the switch on it, it’s like a nasal type sound; when you open the switch, it’s like the earth opened, or someone who’d been stopped up with a cold and everything opens up, or when you let caged birds go free and they fly everywhere. Later, I’m out of breath, I don’t want to talk, I don’t want to do nothin’, I just want to go home and relax. It’s so pleasant—unless somebody really pisses you off on the stage. Sure, sometimes people you play with don’t match too good. But 99% of the time I’m having a ball.”

Pressed on the issue, Smith mentioned that he started turbaning-up during his teens, and that “‘doctor’ was given to me because I was doctoring up my music.” He paused. “I know you were trying to get to it. You got it.

“If you remember, Sun Ra had a miner’s cap, and Sonny Rollins had the Mohawk hairdo. But I’m a doctor of music, I’ve been playing long enough to operate on it, and I do have a degree, and I will operate on you. I’m a neurosurgeon. If you need something done to you, I can do it. But when I go up on that stand, the only thing I’m thinking of is music. And I’m thinking to touch you with that music. I don’t think about the turban, I don’t think about the doctor—I just think about I’m going to touch you.”

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Hammond B3

Vernell Fournier on Ahmad Jamal, WKCR, 1990

Yesterday’s Ahmad Jamal birthday posting included a conversation with New Orleans drum master Herlin Riley, Jamal’s drummer of choice during the ’80s. Today I’m sharing an interview that I conducted in 1990 on WKCR with Riley’s famous New Orleans antecedent, Vernell Fournier. I can’t precisely recall the circumstances, but as best as I can reconstruct it, I was presenting a six-hour Sunday Jazz Profiles on Jamal. Given Vernell’s massive contribution to the sound of the Ahmad Jamal Trio—among his many accomplishments, he refracted the Two-Way-Pocky-Way vernacular rhythmic signature of the Crescent City into the “Poinciana Beat”—it seemed a good idea to invite him up, which  I had a chance to do when I ran into him one night at Bradley’s.

One of my big regrets is the disappearance of my cassette copy of a Musicians Show that I did with Vernell around this time on which he spoke about his life and times in great detail—never had a chance to transcribe it. In any event, I’m glad I was able to document this encounter—this marks the first airing of the transcript.

The proceedings began with “Extensions,” a 14-minute track from 1965 that makes full use of Fournier’s extraordinary skills.

* * * *

How much input did you have into the way an involved piece like “Extensions” developed, or more generally, into the way the arrangements were set up through the course of the trio’s life?

Well, as things would progress, you’d have more input.  But in the beginning it was generally Ahmad’s format.  Ahmad laid down the format, then you tried to fit something into that you that you thought would be worth it.

When did you first play with Ahmad?

The beginning was I think in ’56, ’57, somewhere up in there.

How did it happen?

Walter Perkins was his drummer at the time.   Walter was involved with the MJT Plus Two, who were a very popular group during that time.  I think that’s the story… But anyway, I got the call, and at that time I was available to join Ahmad.  Because there was a lot of work in Chicago then, you know, a lot of good groups.  My first gig with him was at the London House, I think.

In 1956.

Yeah.  He was playing off nights there.

Had you been listening to Jamal in the years before that?

Well, of course, his first record, “The Volta,” yeah.  It was very popular around Chicago.  But no, I hadn’t listened to him… Because in the beginning, Ahmad had a string… It was a coop group, with guitar, Ray Crawford, violin,

Eddie Calhoun, I believe.

No, this bassist, he and his wife were Islamic followers.  In fact, I remember him so well because of his wife, because she made beautiful flowers just by hand; she used to sell hand-made flowers.  Anyway, he was the first bass player.  I can’t think of his name.  But it was just strings.  And they were generally working main stage at a place like the Kitty Kat and a few other clubs, but they worked downtown quite a bit, too, in the off-nights.  They stayed busy, in other words.  But that was his first group.

Was that primarily a supper club type of scene?

Half-and-half.  No one in the Jazz world stayed on the supper club scene, because it wasn’t as demanding as the club scene.  You know, when you’re young you’ve got a lot of energy you want to exert.  But of course, the supper club scene was cool also, because you could reach a high level and still be appreciated.   You didn’t have to subjugate yourself to a lower level type of music.  Just softer music and more confining.

What did Jamal ask of you as a drummer?   Rhythm has always been so important to his trio conception, it would seem that the drummer doing the right thing is absolutely essential.

Well, yes.  Well, you see, he hadn’t had but one drummer.  And Ahmad is a master at knowing to draw the ultimate from a musician.  He can fit his entire thing, I guess something like Duke was, to bring out the ultimate, to make you sound really a hundred times better than you would normally sound.  He has that gift.

As a musician, he didn’t ask anything… Actually, when we were playing at London House… I think I remember this; I’m not sure, but it’s in my mind, so it must have happened.  I had just finished setting up my drums, and I hadn’t sat down yet, and he struck out on the tune.  I think it was “Poinciana”; I’m not sure.  And I’m scuffling to get to the drums.  I’m there, but I mean, I’m not quite…you know… Well, from then on, very seldom would he have any input.  But if there was something in particular he wanted, he would repeat it with the piano many, many times until you understood what he was saying, or he might tell you — but very seldom would he speak to you about your playing.  I don’t think he ever told any drummer that was with him to do this or do that, or do anything.

And he used one of the great bassists, Israel Crosby, for many, many years.  Tell us about Israel Crosby and his function in the group.

Well, I say Israel was the rock of the group.  Because Ahmad either adjusted his changes to Israel if Israel came up with some finer changes, or Israel always would adjust himself to Ahmad, because Ahmad always had fine changes.  As far as I was concerned, he was a rock as far as the time was concerned, and he was so pleasant to hear — his choice of notes, his big fat sound.  I think he was the real catalyst, one of the major… I know he affected my life immensely.

He had also played earlier with Teddy Wilson in trio format, and was very experienced.


Who, by the way, would you say are some of the influences on Jamal in terms of his concept of the trio sound? — if you feel you can say that.

VF:    Well, yeah, I think I can, because most trios came from the sound of Nat King Cole.  The unity and the way he used dynamics brought about a new phase of playing.  Ahmad just had more difficult dynamics, and so many of them.  That was the thing.  I mean, there were five or six ways he could play one tune.  He might insert something from another tune into the tune you’re playing, and would want that accent with it when he did it.  You had to consciously be aware that he was playing the piano.

[MUSIC: “Night Mist Blues,” “This Terrible Planet”]

Ahmad Jamal is a rhythmic innovator in the music.

Yes.  He never did sort of, for the trend of the time, the straight-ahead Jazz thing.  He always intermixed, I guess for lack of a better word, exotic times, or exotic feelings into Jazz.  Rumbas, tangos, believe me, you were able to do all these kind of things and still make it sound like Jazz.  Generally what he did, while I was with him, he’d get the melody, say, for “This Terrible Planet” that was written for him by Bob Williams, he’d get the tune, it was sent to him and he liked it… I remember one day he called a rehearsal.  I think we were getting ready to have a record date, or he was thinking of a record date, I don’t know.   Anyway, we called a rehearsal, and he laid down the line and he laid down the bass line — on “Terrible Planet,” the bassist was Jamil Nasser.  And he and Jamil formulated the sound that Ahmad wanted.  And naturally… Nobody writes for drums.  It’s funny, but nobody writes… They always try to get some kind of an input from you.  And from the rhythmic pattern that was set with the total melody, then the drum pattern was developed.  Not to talk about the drum pattern on this thing, but for the drummers out there, it’s interesting… If you can understand, it was a 6/8 time, but 1, 3 and 5 was on the bass drum, and 2, 4 and 6 was on the snare drum, so it was like a 4/4 fighting the 6/8, which seems almost impossible, but your right foot will always fall out on 1 — so it starts the sequence over and over again.  And once you get used to that, then the rest of it is easy.  And the tambourine was used on the side.  I didn’t know what to do with that tune, and I played the tambourine, and I guess Ahmad smiled, and so I kept it there.  That’s what you look for really — what pleases the guy that you’re working for.

He has to smile.

Yes.  Smile or something.  Smile is good enough.  The tom-tom thing came in with the left hand; that was for something else.  But anyway, Ahmad would set a pattern.  And  actually, the whole rhythmic pattern derived from the melodic pattern that he set with the bass line and himself, and once he set that then you just joined in with the… Until you did something that pleased whoever you’re working with.  If they set up a pattern, then you try to do something… You keep looking for something until you think that that’s what they want.

Jamal also would set up a lot of his lines against the drum pattern and create that type of dialogue.

Oh, yes.  He’s a phenomenal rhythm… I can’t find the word I want to use.  But as I told you earlier, I happened to do a thing with him in Perugia about 1987 or ’88, and it was really one of the high points of my life again to know that I could still play with him — or still try to play with him.  Anyway, now he’s into all kinds of rhythmic pattern things, 7/4, 5/4.  Very seldom does he play straight any more.  It’s always 6/8 or… And it’s very exciting.  He’s gone into another bag altogether.

Another aspect of his playing is just his phenomenal technique.  Harold Mabern refers to his “masterly chromatic runs.”

Well, I’m sure… He never talked much about himself in all those years.  But I’m sure that he had… He did mention his teacher in Pittsburgh, who all the cats from Pittsburgh during that time knew of or came under him.  I think Erroll Garner… Well, all the cats.  Ahmad had a lot of Classical piano.  I have always said, especially now, that he wanted to ever go into another bag, like the concert bag…


I’ll tell you, I think Ahmad is really just developing.  Because he always had this.  But you know, you get to a certain age… By that I mean, Ted, you get to a certain age where you figure, “What more can happen?  Let me go on and try a two-bar thing.”  You know what I mean?  And I think he’s at that stage now.  So there’s no telling what direction he’ll… Well, like Miles, the same thing.  Miles takes another thing, but when you listen to it you still know it’s Miles.  One of those things.

We’ll next hear some tracks from Live At The Black Hawk in San Francisco.  What were some of the circumstances surrounding that date?

VF:    Well, the Black Hawk in San Francisco was the last recording date, but immediately after that the trio was disbanded supposedly temporarily.  Well, we didn’t really know whether it was temporary or permanent, but it was disbanded.  Also that was one of Israel’s last recordings. I think he made a couple after that, but that was his last  recording with Ahmad.

Another thing, Ahmad was getting away from the softer sound, and getting more into the stick sound.  I was playing sticks more than brushes, and at one time I didn’t pick up a stick, except for “Poinciana.”  But then he started getting more into that.  He started expressing himself in a more volume-ous [sic] way; I guess that’s the word.  With more… I don’t want to say “loud,” but he became more…

More intensity.

Well, more progressive, more progressive on the piano, and showing what he really could do.  Because you know, for many years they called him a “cocktail piano player,” which was really a drag.  Like the group was a cocktail group, you know.  But I guess he proved to many dissenters (I guess that’s the right word) that his talent wasn’t limited.  And it was a very happy feeling, surprisingly.  You know, right before death…not death, but the demise of the group, this happy feeling was immediately before that.

[ETC.] We’ll begin with “April In Paris.”

VF:    That was a direct take from Basie.

[MUSIC:  “April In Paris,” “Two Different Worlds,” “I’ll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine,” “The Best Thing For You”]

We’ll move next to more live material recorded in 1961 at Ahmad Jamal’s own club, the Alhambra, in Chicago.  Where was the club located and what was it like?

It was located on Michigan Avenue, either between 13th and 14th or 14th and 15th.  But it was right above what they call the Loop, a couple of blocks from the Loop.

The South Loop, right below the Roosevelt Avenue…

Right.  Or above, either one of them.  If you’re talking about the South Side, you’re talking about above.  Originally it was a three- or four-story office building, and Ahmad purchased the building.  He had his offices on one floor, and he had two rented out, and the bottom he took and made a restaurant out of — the Alhambra Restaurant.  It was a magnificent place.  The decor and the food and the comfort was well-accepted by the public.  And it was a non-alcoholic place, so that made it able to stay open 24 hours a day.  During the prom season, you would be surprised at the amount of youngsters that would come there at 12, 1, 2, 3 o’clock in the morning, and still hanging, but come in and hear the music and have their dinner or whatever.  It was a wonderful place.

Was the band pretty much playing there constantly, week after week?

Well, the general idea behind the whole situation was that we would spend maybe six months of the year, so we could be with our families, and six months for travel — go out for two weeks, come home for two weeks, that type of thing.  And I think he had plans of booking people like Miles and these kind of people into the place, eventually.  We were there for a couple of months to try to get it off the ground, which we did.

Then it was one of those stories after that.  You hear a million stories.  I’ve heard a couple of versions.  But the club could have been successful, would have been successful, but the only way it could succeed was with Ahmad.  Ahmad had to take  up the slack in the lean days to build it, to make it flourish.  You know how Jazz is.  You have to establish it where someone knows at any of the day, the night, seven nights a week, they can go somewhere and have good music, good food — and that takes a while to do.  But I think he had succeeded in doing that.

People say that at around this time in Chicago, the club scene was in a kind of a downswing.

I don’t know, Ted.  Because there was always X amount of work on the South Side.  The phenomenal thing about Ahmad, this didn’t take five or six years to do.  He did this in less than two years, from working the places on the South Side, which paid well, but from hundreds of dollars, you’re talking about thousands of dollars now — and it’s a matter of a year-and-a-half.  And there was still an abundance of work on the South Side.  The South Side didn’t really start to deteriorate until I guess the rest of the United States started deteriorating, after the death of Martin Luther King.  Then the clubs and everything…

But there was always an abundance of work all over town, not just the South Side.  You had the North Side, the near North Side, you had the Gold Coast, you had the far North Side, you had Oak Lawn.  There was many, many places.  Calumet City!, ha-ha, which is close to Chicago.  But the club was very successful.  Very successful.  But it couldn’t make it without Ahmad.

[MUSIC: From Live at the Blackhawk: “All Of You,” “Love For Sale,” “Time On my Hands,” “Sweet and Lovely”]

We’ll next move to the date that brought Ahmad Jamal to  wider public recognition, his dates at the Pershing Ballroom on 64th and Cottage Grove.

Yes.  In the Pershing Hotel, right on the corner.

There were several venues in the hotel, weren’t there?

Yes.  There was the Pershing Lounge upstairs.  And downstairs, I forget the name of the place, but that’s where Sun Ra got his thing together, the first big band together, was downstairs at the Pershing.

Was it El Grotto?

It was called El Grotto…

That’s when Earl Hines had the place.

That was before my time, see.  That was all over with when I got to Chicago.  But there was also a dance hall above that, believe it or not, Charlie Parker used to play for dancers, and Charlie Ventura and Lester Young — they used to play upstairs there.  Would you believe that?  It was great!  The joint would be packed.  Anyway, there was a lot of activity at the Pershing in the late Forties and early Fifties that I saw.

Apart from just the sheer talent of Jamal, can think of  why this particular recording have broken the band out as spectacularly as it did?

I don’t know.  I don’t think we ever figured that one out.  I guess it was just time.  It was just time.  For that recording, I think we did three nights in the Pershing, two or three nights recording us at that time.  It could have been the live thing, with the people clapping.  That could have done it.  But it was accepted all over immediately.  Immediately.

Jamal has always had great acclaim with the public and quite a bit with musicians, but the critical community has always seemed to have a little trouble.  So I guess the public spoke in this case.

Well, like I said, when the Judgment Day comes, I would hate to be some critics!  That’s wrong, I know, to say.  That’s quite a statement to make over public…

I don’t think you’re alone in that sentiment among the musical community…

VF:    Well, generally the critics… Well, it was just like Charlie Parker.  You know, when Charlie Parker first hit the scene, everybody, almost everybody except the youth was against it, was anti-Charlie Parker.  But the youth were definitely there.  And that was Ahmad’s crowd also.  But then he reached not only the youth; he played something for the elderly also, the people that were used to the other kind of music — but with a new feeling.  The same music, but the new feeling.  That’s what Bird did.

As you mentioned before, a lot of what Jamal did comes out of the tradition of the Nat Cole Trio, and there’s Art Tatum sound, and the Erroll Garner sound as well.

Well, to me Erroll is… I hate to say it, Ahmad, but Erroll is my favorite pianist.  And the reason for that is Erroll is the only guy I know who can play by himself and swing an entire audience — by himself.  He’s a one-man band. Ahmad loved Erroll.  A lot of times, he played it.  He could play like Erroll.  Which is very, very difficult.  It takes a lot of stamina and a lot of good timing.  Erroll had excellent timing.

But what made the trio successful, I don’t think either one of the three of us knew.  All of a sudden, there it was.  Because we left home, went out on the road… In fact, our first trip from home with the trio, after the record had hit, was Des Moines, Iowa.  And it was a complete disaster.  Well, that’s a long story.  But it was a complete disaster, because it was held under certain auspices that weren’t sanctioned at that time.  But we didn’t come back disgruntled.  We knew we felt good when we played.  And the next engagement we had, we left and went to Washington, and then boom, that did it — Washington, D.C.

So you’d go to each town and the record would break in  each town as…

Well, no.  The record broke immediately.  I mean, as we were traveling from town to town, the record was breaking way before we got there.  In other words, before we got to California, which maybe was three or four months after we left to travel on the road, the record had become phenomenally big then.  One of those kind of things.  It was an immediate response.  I’m sure of it.

We’ll begin a set of several compositions recorded at the Pershing with a special request from Vernell, “Poor Butterfly.”

When I was looking at the album, it reminded me of Israel Crosby’s wife.  She loved that tune.  So she must have been in the audience that night.  And that’s how spontaneous Ahmad is.  He had certain things that he could  make an arrangement immediately.  We knew exactly what he was going to do.  But Hazel was her name.  In fact, she’s the godmother of one of my older children.  So naturally, when I see the title of this tune, I think of both.  And it came from a famous opera.

[MUSIC:  “Poor Butterfly,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Cherokee,” “But Not For Me”]

As you said before, Ahmad Jamal didn’t make Bebop his whole thing…

No. But of course, he had the technique to do anything that he wanted to do.  And naturally, during that time, all of the younger musicians could really play Bebop.  You know what I mean?  That was the thing to do.  If you wanted to really play music, you had to play Bebop, because that’s the one that called for all your expertise.  So a lot of times if you listen to him, I think you could realize that he was very capable of playing Bebop.  I know it wouldn’t have been any kind of problem for the straight-ahead thing.

Now, Chicago was a real jam session city in the 1950’s.

Yes, it was.

Did Jamal go around and play at sessions?

No, he didn’t.  He was basically a very quiet family man.  But a working family man.  He worked all the time.  I think we talked earlier about his conception.  He was trying to get his conception of what he thought he should do with the piano into the forefront.  But no, he didn’t really hang out.  There was a special restaurant we used to go to, and drummers used to get together, and bass players… Anyway, it was a home for the musicians after we got off from work.  We’d hang til four or five in the morning.  But very seldom did Ahmad hang.

Which place was that?

That was called the Home Restaurant on 63rd and Cottage.  We sort of took over the restaurant from like 2 to 5 or 6.

Was Jamal very popular among the young pianists in Chicago?

Oh, yes.  And amongst the musicians.  In Chicago at that time, they had such a variety of music going on.  The music wasn’t limited whatsoever.  There was Bebop and all the rest of the things happening in Chicago.  So there was a lot of education to be had, a lot of knowledge to be gained.  Because you figured Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, people like Sonny Stitt, these were staple men in Chicago, they were always around in Chicago.  And drummers and bassists… Well, a lot of your best bass players during that time came out of Chicago.  The musicianship was very high quality.  I think I told you before, the last time we talked, that if a band was leaving New York City going to Chicago minus a man, they didn’t worry too much, because they knew they could pick up someone in Chicago that could fill that spot until whoever they really wanted would come forth and be part of the organization.  But Chicago was a very thriving musical town.

But no, Ahmad didn’t hang that much.  But everyone knew him.  Everyone would go see him, you know.

Another aspect is his great orchestrational abilities within the trio format.  I think Ellington must have been an influence on him there.  And he recorded Ellington compositions and Ellingtonia throughout his career…

Well, I think Ahmad always paid homage to the great musicians.   I don’t care who they were.  Naturally, he paid homage to a lot of composers.  But also what we call cliche licks that different musicians used to make, he’d also pay homage to them on those.  Tatum and Garner… Like I said, he could do the thing just like Garner if he wanted to.

Anyway, whatever the situation demanded, he had the power to come forth and take care of the business.

[MUSIC: “Raincheck,” “Squatty Roo”]

This last segment will focus on the drummerless trio that Jamal first recorded, three or four recordings, one for the Okeh label and one for Argo-Cadet.  Do you recollect hearing this particular trio in person?

Yes.  Is Eddie Calhoun on bass on that one?

Actually, it’s Israel Crosby and Ray Crawford.   The LP is Chamber Music Of The New Jazz.

I remember hearing Ahmad many, many times.  Whenever he’d play the South Side, there was a particular place that loved him and the people loved him there.  It was called the Kitty Kat, at 63rd Street.  It was a very small place, but it stayed packed for Ahmad.

Was it a good piano?

A very good piano, yes.  Of course, there weren’t as many grands around as there are now, but most places had well-tuned pianos.  I’ll put it like that.  Sometimes a grand piano would have taken up too much room, some of the joints were so small.

No Bosendorfers in these places.

Oh, no.  I didn’t hear of Bosendorfer until… I  think George Shearing played one when I played with him.   But sitting next to a grand could be very detrimental to a drummer during that time, because if a guy really plays that grand, when he digs into those bass notes, it really can affect your ears — in a pleasant way, but it can affect them.

Another thing about this time, a number of these tunes, some six or seven that we won’t be able to get to, were recorded by Miles Davis around this time with the great quintet.  He collaborated with Gil Evans on “New Rhumba.” “All Of You,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Surrey With the Fringe On Top.” “Ahmad’s Blues” and  “Billy Boy” were features for Red Garland.  “Autumn Leaves” and “Squeeze Me,”  too [ETC.] Ray Crawford had a very percussive technique on guitar.

Yes.  He started… Now, I don’t know if he originated it, but he was one of the first, I think, to record the bongo beat on the guitar.  It gave it an extra body, it gave it an extra sound, instead of just strumming all the time.

But to get back to Red,  you know, Ahmad recorded “Billy Boy” and those things much longer before Red Garland recorded those things.  But that’s when the group really started expanding, when he got into the trio thing.  I think Joe Kennedy and whoever else was there left and went back to Pittsburgh, and then he stayed with the trio at all times.  It wasn’t augmented whatsoever.  What was the question…

It wasn’t a question, but more of a comment.   What you’re responding to has to do with Ray Crawford’s guitar and had you seen the drummerless trio.

Yes.  And in fact, at this particular club, the Kitty-Kat that I was talking about before, they’d work on a Monday night when most of the groups were off on Mondays.  And Monday was a big day in Chicago.

They had the breakfast…

The breakfast show was Monday morning, and then you went to the jam sessions afterwards, then there was an evening jam session, then you’d go to the clubs that night.  So it was a 24-hour situation, or a 36-hour situation.

Chicago was  wide-open.

That’s right.  So we’d all head over to see Ahmad, pay him a visit, listen.  But then there were other things that you wanted to hear, too, so it wasn’t a constant thing.  But we always knew he was there.  We’d get full of his sounds, and we’d leave and come back and get replenished with them later on, like guys do today.

[MUSIC: “New Rhumba,” “Billy Boy”]

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Filed under Ahmad Jamal, Chicago, Drummer, Interview, WKCR

It’s Ahmad Jamal’s 81st Birthday

A few weeks ago, the unfortunate news went semi-viral that the U.S. government had blocked Ahmad Jamal, who turns 81 today, from receiving a $10,000 fee for a forthcoming  performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, citing the bank transfer as “a donation to terrorism.” Apparently, he was being confused with Jamel al-Bedawi, a Yemeni wanted in connection with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. It’s unclear whether the State Department or Department of Homeland Security has resolved the confusion

Jamal is, of course, a universal influence on the sound of hardcore mainstem jazz by dint of Miles Davis’ application of his strategies to his own rhythm section during the middle ’50s (Miles  recorded much of the repertoire of Jamal’s early ’50s Three Strings trio with guitarist Ray Crawford and bassist Israel Crosby, and assigned pianists Red Garland and Bill Evans to head to his steady gig with Crosby and drummer Vernell Fournier at Chicago’s Pershing Ballroom on 64th and Cottage Grove for first-hand observations of what he wanted them to do), and the subsequent assimilation of his syntax by the likes of McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Mulgrew Miller, Marcus Roberts, Eric Reed, and Bill Charlap, all of whom cite him as a seminal early influence. He’s of course evolved with age, broadening his concept, extending the forms, playing with an imaginative oomph and unfettered imagination.

As Jim Macnie put it in a cover story that ran in DownBeat last March, “All the signature Jamal elements are in place: the exquisite touch, the profound grace, the mercurial improv choices. Though they’ve been there for decades—certainly since he made his first big career splash with At The Pershing: But Not For Me, the 1958 powerhouse that rode the charts for more than two years—these days everything about his playing is a bit sharper, a touch more vivid, a smidge more fanciful.”

I had a chance to write my own Jamal profile for DownBeat  in 2003, when Dreyfuss released the wonderful trio date  In Search Of…Momentum. The piece incorporated a contemporaneous interview, but also drew heavily on Jamal’s remarks during a five-hour WKCR program in 1995 on which he presented his music and spoke about his life. I’ve posted the transcript of that encounter below, as well as interviews about Jamal with Harold Mabern, Herlin Riley, and Richard Davis

* * *

Ahmad Jamal Profile (WKCR, 2-5-95):

[MUSIC: “Poinciana” (1958); “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me,” “Chelsea Bridge” (1994); “Acorn” (1992); “Foolish Ways” (1989); “Divertimento” (1989); “Blue Gardenia” (1992); “Never Let Me Go” (1994); “Rossiter Road” (1985); “Haitian Marketplace” (1964); “Night Mist Blues” (1961); “Music, Music, Music” (1961); “Too Late Now” (1961); “You Don’t Know What Love Is”; “Patterns,” “Dolphin Dance” (1970)]

I’d like to speak with you about your early years in music and your years coming up in Pittsburgh as a young pianist.  I gather you began playing piano very early, and had a facility for it that was quite immediately evident.

AJ:    Well, Pittsburgh is a very interesting town, Ted.  You have a lot of players that are still there that are just as astonishing as the ones that have left.  We had Billy Strayhorn there, and I sold papers to his family when I was a kid, which was an experience in itself.  Erroll Garner, Dodo Marmarosa, who is long forgotten — we all went to the same high school.  Mary Lou Williams, same high school.

Which high school was that?

AJ:    Westinghouse.

Was there a great band teacher at Westinghouse High School?

AJ:    There was.  His name was Mr. Carl McVicker.  I think he lived to be 96 or 97.  I think he’s passed on now.  But to use the over-used word that Sue Clark comments on quite often, the legendary McVicker.  Yes, he was quite popular around there.

What was his manner like?

AJ:    Well, it was his approach.  He was quite innovative.  He had four ensembles, the Beginners Orchestra, the Junior Orchestra and the Senior Orchestra, and then he started the K-Dets(?).  It was unique, because this was the all-American Classical/Jazz band, and it was quite unusual for it to be in a high school at that time on such an organized basis.  He started the K-Dets(?) maybe around 1946, which is quite early on.  Now, of course, we have Berklee and all these institutions of higher learning that incorporate this music in their curriculum to say the least.  But I think it was very innovative, very unique on his part to start a Jazz clinical society in 1946.

I interrupted you when you were listing the musicians out of Pittsburgh.

Well, it’s so many.  You have Loren Maazel, you have Earl Wild, the exponent of Liszt, and Erroll Garner, as I mentioned before, Mary Lou Williams, Dodo Marmarosa, Kenny Clarke, Ray Brown, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Phyllis Hyman, Dakota Staton, Roy Eldridge, Art Blakey — and it goes on and on.

I’ve read that you first were put at a keyboard at the age of 3 or 4, and your ability became quickly apparent.

Yeah, I took a long time to decide.  I started playing at 3.  Earl started playing at 3, too.  It happens.  It’s very rare, but it happens.  I began with Mary Caldwell Dawson, one of the great teachers, when I was 7; I started studying with her at 7.

Were your parents musical?  Did they play?   Was there always music in the household?

Later on, much to my astonishment, I found out that my mother had approached the piano before we started coming — that was astonishing, because she never mentioned that to me.  But the whole family has the ability to play the instrument, and some of us do.  I have a first cousin who was down at the Blue Note the other night.  She plays very well.  She doesn’t play any more, but she plays very well.  So there’s music throughout the entire family.  And if they don’t play, they have a very thorough knowledge and insight into what music should be all about.

What sort of music would you be listening to in the family?  Were you listening to a wide range of music as a young guy?

Well, I was a collector as a youngster. Ted.  I used to send away for… You had to send away for records then.   So I have a lot of collectors’ items.  I have big band records that Erroll Garner was on that very few people know about.  Guild was the label.  He did some things with Boyd Raeburn and Georgie Auld.  We had to send away for things like “Salt Peanuts” when Dizzy and Bird first came out on those.  I was quite a collector, and so was my brother.  We collected everything, the big bands, particularly the sounds of Jimmie Lunceford and Basie, all the bands who used to come to the Savoy.  We had the Savoy Ballroom.  That’s when I first saw Diz, when Hen Gates was his pianist.  I don’t know if you remember the name Hen Gates.  Joe Harris, who’s another Pittsburgher, was playing drums — he’s a marvelous drummer.  So all those bands we went to see at the Savoy as well as the Stanley Theater, where I first saw Duke Ellington and Sonny Greer.  Which was a picture in itself, because Sonny was behind many, many percussion instruments.  “Ring Dem Bells” was one of the things Duke wrote for Sonny, I believe.

Many people have commented that the sight of the big bands as a spectacle was almost as inspiring as the sounds that emanated from them.

Well, that’s where I first heard Bud Powell, too.  Bud was playing with Cootie Williams at the Stanley Theater.

Speaking about Bud Powell, which pianists caught your ear early on?

Well, some were fairly formidable, to say the least.  I mean, there are some great players in the so-called Boogie-Woogie idiom, too.  James P. Johnson and Albert Ammons, forget about it; they were just incredible.  But the ones that I think I began to follow most widely were Art Tatum and Nat Cole, and of course, Erroll Garner was my biggest influence.

How did you go about assimilating these influences?

Well, you’re going to emulate.  You have to emulate different people until you develop your own path or your own pattern.  So you’re going to emulate all those great players, and see what they’re doing, analyze what they were doing.  Then you go to your sessions… We had these historical sessions in Pittsburgh, which unfortunately are  absent now for a lot of the younger players.  So you take these things off a record, and you apply them in the jam sessions, and eventually, if you’re lucky, if you’re blessed, you’ll find your own approach to these things — which is not easily come by.

Who were some of the players your age that participated in these sessions in Pittsburgh?

A great trumpeter who is Stanley Turrentine’s brother, Tommy Turrentine.  Tommy taught me my first flatted fifth chord.  He’s a great musician, Tommy.  In fact, I got Tommy a job with George Hudson’s band shortly thereafter, after I joined the band.  Joe Kennedy, the great violinist, was one of the prominent figures in the jam sessions.  There was the great guitarist Ray Crawford, who started out playing saxophone; he was one of the great saxophonists.  Joe Harris.  Ray Brown would come back, when he wasn’t on the road; he would come back and play, too.  Leroy Brown, the famous Leroy Brown in Pittsburgh.  Osie Taylor, a phenomenal saxophone player.  Sam Johnson, the great Sam Johnson, a pianist.  Cecil Brooks, who now has a son, Cecil Brooks, III.  Cecil was one of the great figures around 471, where the sessions took place.

Were these private sessions, or would people come from around the community and offer their input?

Well, it was a private club of musicians.  You had to be a member to get in.  But we also let the general public in if they said and spoke the right words!

Was this club affiliated with the union?

Yes, it was our 471 local.

Apart from that, were you out doing little or not so little gigs in the community for money as a teenager?

Yes, I was working in just about every setting possible.  I was working sometimes with Eddie Jefferson, who was a tap dancer then.  He wasn’t singing at the time.  I used to play for Eddie Jefferson on rare occasions.  In fact, Eddie used to come down to the club and participate in jam sessions, too.  And I was with all the big bands.  I did a lot of big band work in Pittsburgh.

Local big bands?

Will Hitchcock, Joe Westray, Jerry Elliott.

What type of chart would they be playing?  Were local arrangers doing it, or were they working with stocks, or the popular charts of the day?

50-50, Ted.  We had some great writers within Pittsburgh, so we had some stock charts, but we also had our own writer that would write as well.

I guess Billy Strayhorn had left a little before that time?

[LAUGHING] Yes.  We didn’t have Billy’s things!  Duke had those.  We had the stock arrangements of Billy’s by that time, I would suppose.

Then I had some very unusual settings where we would go.  Carl Otter, who was a great musician around Pittsburgh, his father was a great pianist, and Carl was one of the  saxophonists… We used to play jobs in Uniontown, just piano and tenor, no drums, no bass.  Can you imagine that, just piano and tenor.

Earl Hines in his autobiography mentions Wylie Avenue as the strip where he really picked up his information in the 1910’s and early Twenties.  What was the Pittsburgh Jazz scene like when you were in there as far as the older musicians, and what part of town was it located in?  Give us a sense of the ambiance in Pittsburgh.

Wylie has been replaced with the new sports center, the coliseum, the sports dome, whatever they call it.  It’s been replaced, and Wylie Avenue is no more, unfortunately.  They should never have torn down Local 471.  They should have kept the building (it’s a historical landmark), and moved it at least.  But that was lost, which was a tremendous loss.

Wylie Avenue was the place where we all gathered, the places that were around there were the Washington Club, where I first met Art Tatum.  I was 14 when Art came and played for us.

What was that experience like?

Well, it’s very difficult to describe an experience like that, [LAUGHS] a 14-year-old kid sitting and playing along with Art Tatum.  Of course, he played last!

Did he have any comments for you at that time?

I don’t know.  I was too in-awe to even get into that.  His quotes were mentioned later on in some of my press releases.  Someone found some quotes of his as a result of that, and put them in some subsequent press releases.

Then we had the Bamboolah Club, and we had Crawford’s Grill, which I’d imagine you’ve heard of.  Crawford’s Grill was the definitive place for players.  I, interesting enough, never worked Crawford’s Grill.  Then, of course, the capital, the dome of the capital, the Musicians Club.  To me that was the dome of the capital as far as music was concerned.

So you came up in some very tough company in Pittsburgh, very high standards.  How old were you when you began working regularly and taking home some money.

Too young.  I was 11 years old.  That’s too young.  I’d do algebra during intermission, between sets.  That’s too young.  I don’t recommend that.

Can you give us some descriptive sense of what you sounded like at the age of 11 or 12, in 1941 or 1942?

I sounded well enough… See, in my case, I had an aunt from North Carolina.  That was when publishing was publishing, and she used to send me sheets and sheets and sheets of music that was written before I was born.  So I sounded well enough during those years as a result of having all this great body of work that I drew from this sheet music, that I was working with guys 60 or 65 years old, and they were astounded because I knew all of these sounds.  That’s how I got so much work, or enough work to start buying my clothes instead of relying on my Mom and Pop to do it.

Were you improvising at that time?  Were you functioning as an improvising Jazz pianist?

Well, when I first started playing, I just played everything I heard, so I was improvising just like anyone else does who sits down, whether it’s Bach or Beethoven.  They’re all improvisers, too.  Improvisation is not confined to American Classical Jazz.  Anybody who sits down and starts doing innovative things is an improviser.  So I was doing it all my life.  I started doing that at 7, started writing charts at 10, and was quite at home with, as I said before, guys 60 or 65 who had been doing it for a long time — because I had this great body of work that I was drawing from.

You mentioned that you left Pittsburgh with the George Hudson Band.

George made me leave my happy home.  That’s where it started. George is also from Pittsburgh, but he transplanted to St. Louis, stayed in St. Louis, and is still there, if he’s still living.  Out of that band came Clark Terry, a great number of musicians.  Myself.  Ernie Wilkins, a great writer who used to write charts on the bus.  I can see Ernie right now writing charts on the bus.  He was a phenomenal writer.  He came out of that band, too.  Bill Atkins, one of the great, unheralded first saxophonists, possibly the top first man in the world.  Marshall Royal was another one, with Basie for many, many years, but Marshall was known — Bill wasn’t.  So George produced a lot of great musicians.

So you went out with him and wound up in Chicago, is how it went?

George sent for me.  He came through and heard me, I guess, at one of those historic jam sessions at the 471, and I got a call to come to Atlantic City.  I was 17 then.  I had my eighteenth birthday in Atlantic City.  So I stayed in Atlantic City all summer, and there I met Johnny Hartman — because Johnny had just started.  We worked for Billy Daniels, who was one of the so-called superstars at that time.  Butterbeans and Susie.  Ziggy Johnson had the chorus line; that’s another historic figure.  We had Jimmy Smith, the xylophone player who used to tap-dance on the xylophone — incredible.  He passed away in Chicago at the Pershing Hotel from tuberculosis.  Oh, it’s a line of people that were there.

We stayed for an entire season in Atlantic City, at the Club Harlem, which is now no more.  We would start at 8 o’clock at night, get out when the sun was coming up.  Louis Armstrong came through one time, and that’s where I met the famous Sid Catlett.  It was one of the thrills of my life, playing with Sid Catlett.  We had great times there.  Great times.

It seems like by the time you’re 18 or 19 and getting to Chicago, you’d had as much experience as some people get in sixty years!

Well, there are a few of us that have, I call it, embraced three eras of music.  A few of us have done that.  George Coleman, Thad Jones, Jamil Nasser, the late Phineas Newborn, Harold Mabern, and Miles Davis, as well as Gil Evans — because Gil was writing back then for Claude Thornhill.  Musicians who have embraced three eras are very fortunate, and their whole approach is different, because we were youngsters when the big bands were in vogue, we were still young when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker came along, and we’re still around in the so-called Electronic Age.  So when you’re drawing from this great body of work, your approach is quite different.

[MUSIC:  “Raincheck” (1960); “Prelude To A Kiss” (1976); “Squatty Roo” (1958); “Don’t You Know I Care?” (1994)]

We were taking you from Pittsburgh to Chicago in our last conversational segment, and you were spending a season in Atlantic City with the George Hudson band.  From then to Chicago, what happened?

I left the band to go back to exploit with Joe Kennedy the possibilities of getting the Four Strings in gear and getting some work for the group that we had at the time.  The group was Joe Kennedy, Ray Kennedy, myself and Edgar Willis at that time (Peepers) was playing bass, one of Mary Lou Williams’ favorite bassists.  He passed away some time ago, two years ago.  He was the bassist with Ray Charles for a while, after he went to California.  So I left the band to go back to Pittsburgh, then we went back to Chicago with that group in 1948, called the Four Strings.

Did you have a gig?  Was it set up through a booking office or something?

We couldn’t get any work.  We had one job that came out of an office in Chicago, and that job was not in Chicago — it was in Dayton, Ohio or somewhere.  So that group broke up because we couldn’t get work.  Joe went back to teaching in Pittsburgh.  Out of that group came the Three Strings, because what was left was the guitarist, bass and piano.

Did that begin your concept of the orchestrational piano trio?

Well, you know, before the formation of the trio, I worked with Israel Crosby for a while.  He had a trio.  I worked with him at Jack’s Back Door at 59th and State.  I was doing maintenance work at Carson Pirie and Scott downtown for $32 a week, and I would work at Jack’s Back Door with Israel and Johnny Thompson.  I’m the only living member of that group.  That was another interesting combination, saxophone, piano and bass — no drums.

Von Freeman cites Johnny Thompson as having been an influence in the 1930’s.

Johnny was one of the great players.  In Chicago, you know, that was the age of saxophone.  Tom Archia went there, that’s where everyone went… That’s where Vernell was working.  You couldn’t get Vernell, because Vernell was sought after all over the place.  It took me a long time to get Vernell in the group.  So I was working odd jobs.  I couldn’t work every night anyway, because I hadn’t joined the union.  I hadn’t put my transfer in, or some crazy rule.  I worked with Von Freeman a bit.  I worked with another saxophonist called Claude McLin, that people don’t know about.  He was a great player, too.  Gene Ammons was around; he was the big boss.  And Tom Archia where Vernell was working.

So finally, I went into this steady job over the weekend with Israel — Israel Crosby, Johnny Thompson and myself.

Then I played solo at the Palm Tavern.  Once in a while, Ike Day would come in and play for me.  People don’t know Ike Day, except for a few like the late Buddy Rich and Papa Jo Jones, and people who are in that really essence of the core elite.  Well, Ike Day was one of the great drummers who never left Chicago for very long.  He used to help me in my single engagement at Jack’s Palm, the Palm Tavern.  Unfortunately, he passed away in untimely fashion.

So I worked single, and I worked trio with Israel, then I formed my own group in 1951.  That was quite some time after the Four Strings had disbanded, though.  In the interim, I had gone out with a group called the Caldwells, and Ray Bryant and I were the graduates of that particular college, working for those three singers, the Caldwells.  Ray and I were the pianists of record with the Caldwells.  Then I went back to Chicago and formed my trio in ’51 after working around for three years.

By this time the union had straightened out…

Not really.  A friend of mine, who was one of the great saxophone players, Eddie Johnson, heard me play, and he went to Harold Gray and said, “Look, I want him on my job,” and he’s got to get in the union.  That’s how I got in the union.  Harry Gray was the head of the union at that time.  A very tough man.  Very tough.

I gather when you met Von Freeman, was working weekends at the Pershing Hotel, which you became identified with in the 1950’s.  Describe the ambiance around the Pershing Ballroom a little bit, and also what was going on around the South Side’s booming Jazz community.

Well, Von was at the Circle Lounge.  He wasn’t at the Pershing when I met him.  I worked with Von at the Circle Lounge at 63rd and Cottage Grove.  The Pershing was at 64th and Cottage Grove.  It was one of the more sophisticated places on the South Side, along with Harry’s Show Lounge, which was the last time I saw Nat King Cole.  Nat came in and saw me there when I had a trio working in the front room.  We had graduated from the back room up to the front room at Harry’s.

Then we had the Hi-Hat Club, where Lester used to come, and Vernell and Israel were the musicians of record; they accompanied everyone that came through there.  That was quite a place, too, the Hi-Hat; I think it was on 63rd Street.

I went into the Pershing early-on, in 1951.  I asked for a job in there and didn’t get it; they didn’t hire me.  So I went somewhere else, and I came back in the Pershing later on, in 1958.  But the whole atmosphere there, Eddie Harris and I would be walking down the street, and there were great things happening there.  As I said before, Tom Archia, Willie Jones, and Willie Dixon.

Leonard Chess had just started his label.  He started it with five artists.  He started it with a little guy named Chuck Berry, some old masters by James Moody, some old masters by me, and Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley.  He had about five artists.  So the whole thing was one of great historical interest.  In fact, the place where he started is now a historical landmark in Chicago.  He owned the Macombo, where Tom Archia held court every night with Vernell and Willie Jones.  Leonard Chess owned that place.  So the atmosphere was really something when it came to saxophone at that time.  And of course, there were a great deal of venues to work, too, which are missing now.

Chris Anderson, of course, was playing with Von Freeman then, and he’s cited by many people who heard him at that time as having a very advanced concept for that time, and he seems to have had an impact on a number of

Chris has always been one of our favorites, along with Billy Wallace, who is a pianist that all the insiders know.  Billy is now playing a single up in Seattle.  But Chris had, and has always had a great harmonic concept, absolutely amazing, astounding.  And I have to get out and steal a few chords from you, Chris, as I mentioned before.  I haven’t seen Chris in a long time.

Of course, there was a bunch of greats around.  Chris. Bill Lee (the bassist, Spike Lee’s father).  Billy Wallace, who used to hold court quite often in Chicago.

The tracks we have cued up were recorded in 1951 and early 1952 for the Okeh label, with the trio of you, Ray Crawford, and Eddie Calhoun.  About three or four years after you cut these, Miles Davis then recorded most of these sides in his own way.  He always was very outspoken about his debt to your concept.  He had family in Chicago.  Did you know him at that time.  Do you recollect first meeting Miles Davis?

I knew Vernon quite well, Vernon Davis.  I met Vernon before I met Miles.  Vernon probably is still in Chicago.

But everybody came to the Pershing.  Billie Holiday came there with her chihuahua dog, Art Tatum used to come through there, Lena Horne — everyone came to the Pershing.  Sammy Davis was there the night before he lost his eye.  And I guess that’s where Miles first heard me.  What happened, there’s a man named Cadillac Bob who built the place downstairs, beneath the lounge, and he used to bring artists such as Miles there.  That’s where I first saw a teenager named Paul Chambers, and I was astounded that he was on the bandstand at his age.  And Miles I think was introduced as a result of him working downstairs and coming  up to the Pershing.

Eddie Harris, in a show we did last year, said he used to play on your off-nights at the Pershing, and he’d double on piano, and Charles Stepney, who played vibes, would take over on piano and he would play saxophone.  He also said that for a while Billie Holiday took a financial interest in a club that was based in one of the rooms at the Pershing that was called Budland.

Yeah, Budland.  That’s correct.  That’s downstairs, that’s right.  That’s the one that Cadillac Bob built.  Later McKie Fitzhugh had a place down the street where John Coltrane used to work, and McCoy used to work on the spinet pianos there!  I remember that, too!  Terrible pianos.

Describe the layout of the Pershing a little bit.  I believe there were three venues located in that hotel, the dance hall, the upstairs lounge and the basement.  Is that right?

Well, they had the Pershing Ballroom, the ballroom where they had the dances.  Those I never attended because I was busy working downstairs, but they did have fairly big names come in there.  But I never went upstairs.  C.B. Atkins was around.  He was one of the husbands of Sarah Vaughn.  C.B. used to come in and out of there, upstairs I guess in the ballroom, and he would tell me what was going on upstairs.  But I never attended.

The Pershing was one big, massive, circular bar.  The bar was the entire room.  It was a big room.  The stage was adequate.  It was high.  It was the place, at that time when we went in there, where everyone came.  That was the place where everyone came.  Downstairs was Budland, as you just reminded me, was the other venue.  So there were three.  There was Budland downstairs, and the Pershing Lounge, and upstairs the ballroom.

I guess a few years before you came to Chicago, Earl Hines, whose geographic path you followed, owned a spot down there called El Grotto, and Joe Louis I believe had an interest in that place as well.

Yes, I knew the El Grotto.  Again, I didn’t go to the El Grotto much.  But I do remember the El Grotto.

Was Earl Hines someone who had an impact on you coming up?  Were you very aware of him as a young pianist in Pittsburgh, his legacy and his presence in Pittsburgh?

Oh, sure.  Earl was a great, great player, and a great band, and great records.  So you had to listen to Earl Hines.  I was a collector of Earl Hines’ records.

The big band that had played at the Grand Terrace.


We’ll give Ahmad Jamal another break and hear these seminal sides from the early 1950’s on Okeh.  I don’t know how many exactly we’ll hear, but we’ll begin with “Ahmad’s Blues,” one of Ahmad’s many famous compositions, recorded May 5, 1952 — Ray Crawford, on guitar, Eddie Calhoun on bass.

[MUSIC:  Jamal/Crawford/Calhoun, “Ahmad’s Blues”, “Surrey With the Fringe On Top”, “Billy Boy” (1951-1952); Jamal/Crawford/Crosby, “Autumn Leaves”; “New Rhumba” (1955)]

I’d like to speak with you about bass players, because the bass plays such an essential role in your conception of the trio, and you’ve worked with such superb bass players.  Eddie Calhoun, Richard Davis had one of his early gigs with you in Chicago, Israel Crosby, Jamil Nasser, and onward and forward.  Would you discuss your ideas on what a bassist needs to do performing in your group?

Well, the bass essentially, Ted, has to be an extension of your left hand, as Al McKibbon was in the case of George Shearing, and as Israel was and as Jamil was when he was working with me.  So that’s what the role of a great bassist is as he or she relates to the pianist.  And I’ve also sought those bassists who had sensitive ears, who had the ability to hear.  Because I myself am drawing from a great body of work (having explained before that my aunt sent me sheets and sheets of music), so you have to have a man who has the ability to have this perception of what  you’re doing when it comes to pulling these compositions of years and years ago, as well as the present things that we do.

How much input do you have into the lines that the bass player comes up with, apart of course from being the pianist and the main soloist?

AJ:    Most of the bass lines I myself have done.  The rare exception was the bass line that Israel played on “Autumn Leaves.”  That was his bass line, which has been widely used.  So most of the bass lines I have developed myself, because I have a thing for that.  I love bass lines.  So most of the things, 99 percent of the things, I write.

You’ve mentioned that you worked with Israel Crosby before you even recorded, and then subsequently he joined your band…the year I have in my mind is 1954.  I’d like you to say a few words about Israel Crosby for the audience, what made him so distinctive as a bass player, and your own personal relationship.

AJ:    Well, as I said before, I worked with Israel before he worked with me.  I joined his trio with the late Johnny Thompson, and worked at Jack’s Back Door for maybe a year.   It was a very interesting job.  We played everything, all kinds of tunes.  It was great.

It was a while before I could get Israel, because Israel was working a lot with Benny Goodman and Buster Bennett around Chicago, and it was difficult for me to get Vernell as well as Israel.  So finally I got Israel into the group, and we stayed together for around eight years, Vernell, Israel and myself. First of all, the incredible thing about Israel is that he used a K-bass.  He didn’t have a Tyrolean bass (I think that’s what James Cammack is using now; he just bought one) or a German bass or some of these fabulous instruments that you see various bassists with.  He just had a K-bass.  It was phenomenal how Israel could get this kind of action, this kind of sound, this kind of penetration out of a K-bass.  But he did.

And of course, the remarkable thing about Israel is that he was a master of intonation.  His intonation was flawless, just absolutely flawless.  And a tremendous ear.  Again, here’s a man that knew many, many, many compositions.  He knew all the tunes.  You couldn’t play a tune he didn’t know.  He was just a phenomenal bassist in the fullest sense of the word.

And I guess a very ingenious musician as well, because performing with you, the other musicians have to fill in a lot of space and come up with counterpoint and dialogue.  In a show we did a few years ago, Junior Mance was commenting that Israel Crosby always came up with ingenious ideas that blended with the most perfect taste.

Well, the classic line that Israel created (and Todd Coolman, who is another great bassist, and I often talk about it with him, has written these things down that Israel did) is his line on “But Not For Me.”  That’s a classic Israel Crosby line, as well as the things he was doing on “Poinciana.”

You mentioned how difficult it was to get Vernell Fournier into the group because he was so busy.  I’d like again for you to say a few words about his very special qualities as your drummer for eight years, and then for a little bit after in the mid-Sixties.

Here again, I’ve had three great drummers from New Orleans.  The New Orleans atmosphere down there produces this type of talent.  I had Vernell Fournier, and Herlin Riley, who left my group and went with Wynton Marsalis, and now Idris Muhammad.  They all have that great New Orleans background, that great magic that only can come from New Orleans.  They all have that approach to music.  And when you visit New Orleans and you are down there, and you explore these beginnings and whence it comes, you realize what they have that many other drummers don’t have.

That’s a tantalizing comment.  Can we explore that a little bit?  What is it about the New Orleans beat that’s so special to you?

AJ:    Well, historically I don’t know it as well as Idris does or Vernell does.  But when you talk about New Orleans, you talk about the funerals that are conducted and the way they are conducted, where the drummers participate to a large extent, to say the least, and the French Quarter — and it goes on and on and on.

Vernell is one of the great brush players of all time.  Tremendous approach to drums tonally, and one of the great innovators.  What he’s done on “Poinciana,” if he could have copywritten that, he could build a bank.  Many of the things you hear that drummers do, whether it’s Maurice White or whether it’s in some Rock groups, some of that stuff came from Mister Vernell Fournier.  But it’s very difficult to keep from being plagiarized when you’re playing in the context that he played in.  The thing that he did on “Poinciana,” for example, one of the most widely imitated rhythms in the world.

In fact, it’s called the ‘Poinciana Beat,’ isn’t it, by drummers?

Of course!

Which brings up another aspect of your playing, which is the extensive use, and often within the same piece, of different time signatures and different rhythmic approaches to music.

That’s the Pittsburgh influence.  We have a little influence in Pittsburgh, too.  We have some things that happened there as well.  As I said before, I’m drawing from three eras of music.  I have had more influences than pianists.  Ben Webster was a big influence upon me.  The big bands were a big influence upon me.  So I think orchestrally.  I’ve always thought orchestrally.  That’s the way I approach my group, whether it’s a duo, a trio, a quintet or whatever it is — it’s my orchestra.  And with an orchestra, you have to have, or at least I like to have a variety of things going, rhythmically and melodically and harmonically.  It’s part of my training.

Let me bring you back to the Ben Webster influence.  He’s the only non-pianist you’ve mentioned so far…

Well, Roy Eldridge influenced me, too, on trumpet.  I play some of Roy’s things!  Lucky Thompson influenced me.  Don Byas was one of my biggest influences.  It goes on and on and on.  These things you incorporate, and they stay in the inner recesses of your mind, and they become a part of your conscious playing.

Well, the trio became immensely popular at the time of the release of the album Live At The Pershing, although of course, you had established yourself prominently in Chicago by that time.  Let’s talk about the events leading up to the immense popularity of your trio and of your concept, and the tremendous exposure the band now had.  Of course, you were well-known to the musicians’ community, but now the broader public and international public came to know your work.

Well, first of all, it’s almost impossible for an instrumentalist to have a breakthrough.  It was no meteoric rise in our case.  I had been recording for seven years, and the group I had was far too subtle to continue working in the various venues, because guitar and bass sometimes are lost in the bigger venues — so I went to drums as a result.  It wasn’t an overnight thing.  I mean, I had worked long and hard to try and get a group together, and I went in as artist-in-residence in Chicago.  After working here in New York, I decided to go and stay at home.  Home then was Chicago.  So the thing that happened in Chicago was very, very rare.  There’s only a few of us that have that kind of breakthrough who are instrumentalists.  The singers get the hit records.  We instrumentalists don’t.  It doesn’t happen very often.  Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Miles, Dave Brubeck, and then you begin to think who else.  But there haven’t been too many hit records instrumentally.  Ours stayed on the charts for eight weeks, which is very, very unusual.

[MUSIC: Jamal/Crosby/Fournier, “I’ll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine” (1961); (w/J. Nasser) “This Terrible Planet” (1965); “April In Paris” (1961); “Love For Sale” (1958), “All Of You” (1958); “Cherokee” (1958)]

Tell me about your nightclub, the Alhambra.  You said you had 43 employees.  It was a very ambitious venture.

43 too many.  Yeah, it was quite a venture, and one I got away from.  Interesting club.  I had Jackie Cain and Roy Kral there as well.

You had a non-alcohol policy, I gather.

Yes.  I had one of the great oud players (and one of the great bassists, too) while I was working for George Wein up in Hyannisport, at the other Birdland up there.  I had Abdul-Malik.  The late Abdul-Malik played an engagement there for me as well.

We’ve covered a short space of time in your musical career.  What have I not mentioned that you would like to express for the radio audience?

Well, there are so many things to mention, Ted.  But wWe didn’t mention the concert with Duke at Carnegie Hall, the 25th Anniversary of Charlie Parker with Strings.  I think I’m the only one around from that concert that we did with Duke.  Of course, I worked with Duke on a number of occasions, and shared the bill with him at Basin Street West also.

Your new [1995] release is dedicated primarily to Ellington and Strayhorn.  It’s called I Remember Duke, Hoagy and Strayhorn, and there are versions of “I’ve Got It Bad” and “In A Sentimental Mood,” “Don’t You Know I Care”, “do Nothing Til You Hear From Me”, “Chelsea Bridge”, and also “Prelude To A Kiss.”  You mentioned earlier seeing the Ellington band at the Stanley Theater and seeing Sonny Greer for the first time. Do you remember your favorite recordings by the  Ellington band of that era?

“Cottontail” was one of my favorites.  That’s a classic recording of Ben Webster’s.

Did you get to see the band that had Jimmy Blanton in it in person?

No, I never saw that band.

When did you first start going out, by the way?

My sister took me to the theaters when I was around 7.

What are your early memories of seeing big bands?

Quite impressed, you know.  That’s when I first heard Cootie Williams.  As I said, he had Bud Powell in the band then.  And seeing Count Basie come into the Savoy, and seeing Diz.  Very, very good for a young musician, to say the least.

But we have to also talk about some of the great bassists I’ve had.  That’s one thing I didn’t expand upon.  I’ve had some tremendous bassists.  At the beginning with Tommy Sewell out of Pittsburgh, and then Eddie Calhoun, who passed away.  After that, Israel.  Jamil Nasser was with me for many, many years.  He’s one of the bassists, coming here with one of the great players of all time, Phineas Newborn.  Jamil came to New York with Phineas, so Jamil had a tremendous association with a great pianist.  So he was with me for a number of years.

Not to speak about… I’ve had some great drummers.  I had Wyatt Ruether.  Papa Jo Jones also worked with me.

I had Richard Davis after he left Cozy Eccleston.  That was the second job he had when he joined me.  I had both the Pates, Johnny Pate and his son Donald Pate.  It goes on and on.  A great bassist, Mike Taylor, out of Pittsburgh.  But I’ve had some tremendous players.  But we’ll have to talk about that when I have time.

One more question: On the relation between technique and improvising.

AJ:    Technique is extremely important.  I’m amazed at some of the young players out here now.  They have tremendous techniques.  They are power technicians, and they’re doing tremendous things.  But technique without the ability to tell the story is meaningless.  You have to tell a story.  Art Tatum had tremendous technique, incomparable technique. There are very few parallels to Art Tatum, or to a Phineas Newborn.  But they also told a story.

Technique is something that is invaluable for any musician, and I respect it tremendously.  But I also respect the ability to tell a story.

[MUSIC:  Jamal/Coolman/Gordon Lane, “Dreamy” (1980); w/ Strings, “Bellows” (1989); “Tranquility” (1968); “Manhattan Reflections” (1968); “I Remember Hoagy” (1994); “Skylark” (1994); “Round Midnight” (1985)]


On various WKCR Musician Shows over the years, the following pianists presented these tracks by Ahmad Jamal:

Mulgrew Miller : “Dolphin Dance,” “Poinciana” (1971)

K. Barron: “Music, Music, Music,” “There is No Greater Love” [“Live At the Pershing was very influential.  I remember I was laying in bed, getting ready to go to sleep, and I had the Jazz station on, and the tune they were playing was ‘Music, Music, Music.’  And again, it was ‘Who is that?’  It was just so hip. I think Ahmad is like the consummate trio player.  There’s just so much space and so many ideas and he’s so creative in a trio setting.  And his technique is…I mean, it’s unbelievable technique.  His touch… So he has it all happening for him.”

Cedar Walton: “Haitian Marketplace”

James Williams: “Patterns”, (“Night Mist Blues”)

Cyrus Chestnut: “You Don’t Know What Love Is”

John Hicks: “Rossiter Road,” “Too Late Now,” “I’ll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine”

Junior Mance: “Raincheck,” “Poinciana

In a 2008 piece for the now dormant webzine, pianist Eric Reed selected a dozen Jamal favorites.

Here are  interview excerpts in which several of Jamal’s contemporaries, bandmates, and fellow pianists remark upon his qualities.

Richard Davis:

RD:   But the first time I got a job which was more than local, in a sense, was a guy who lived in Chicago at the time, who had come from Pittsburgh — that was Ahmad Jamal.   This must have been 1952.

Q:    So it was in the early group before he started using a drummer?  Was that in the guitar-bass phase of the group?

RD:    Yeah.  He had Eddie Calhoun…

Q:    He had Ray Crawford on guitar?

RD:    Yeah.  Ray Crawford on guitar, and then there was another guy on the guitar — I can’t remember his name now either!  Then there was Ahmad, and I was playing bass, of course.  Ahmad had a tune which required me to play maraccas while I was playing the bass; I had to learn to do that with him, so he’d get this effect.  And then Ray Crawford would thump on the strings and make it sound like a conga drum.  It was a fantastic thing.  And Ahmad had a sound and a concept that was just unbelievable.  And of course, he attracted all of the guys coming in traveling to the club to hear him play, and it was always jam-packed.  It was the first time I was with what you might call a consistent professional successful group.

Q:    Was he working steadily with, like, several-week engagements at a time?  And what clubs was he playing in Chicago?

RD:    He would work at the Pershing Lounge, which was in the Pershing Hotel, oh, six weeks at a time, or more even.

Q:    There were several levels to that club, weren’t there?  There were like two or three different venues within that hotel…

RD:    Well, the ballroom.  See, the ballroom is where all the great traveling artists would come through.  Like Lester Young; I remember seeing Lester Young.  And several people would come.  Charlie Parker… They’d all work in the ballroom.  And the lounge was the place…I think that’s when first heard Eddie South, the violinist.  I can’t remember all the groups that worked there, but I remember being there with Ahmad.  And it was a classy kind of a  joint.  You know, there was a nice stage presentation, a lot of room on the stage, storage of the instruments — you know, it was very pleasant.

Q:    Good piano.

RD:    Good piano, yeah. It was a good thing for me to be with Ahmad.  The one thing I’ll never forget him telling me at a rehearsal, he said, “Who is your favorite piano player?”  And I said, “Oscar Peterson.”  You know, who else?   And he said, “You want to know who my favorite bass player is?”  I said, “Tell me.”  I thought he was going to say Ray Brown or somebody.  He said, “You are.”  I said, “Me?”  He said, “Yeah, because you’re here with me.”  I said, “God, what a lesson!”  I was the number-one bass player for him because he was confronted me being with him.  That was a real booster.

Herlin Riley:

TP:    You went out on the road with him in ’82?

HERLIN RILEY:  From ’82 to ’87.

TP:    Go over how he heard about you.

HERLIN RILEY:  Ahmad Jamal happened to be in New Orleans at a place called The Blue Room, which is the Fairmont Hotel.  There was a trumpet player in the house band there named Omar Sharif — Emory Thompson was his Christian name — who Ahmad knew.  Ahmad needed a drummer, because the guy who’d been playing drums with him left him in New Orleans, and he’d hired some guys in New Orleans who didn’t work out.  Ahmad was going to Phoenix, and he asked Omar if he knew somebody who could do his gig, and Omar recommended me, and called me to tell me.  Then I got a call from Ahmad about 7:30 in the morning. “May I speak to Herlin Riley?” “This is he.” “This is Ahmad Jamal.  I understand you’re an excellent drummer, and I need someone to work with me in Phoenix. Can you do it?”  Of course, I accepted, and I got some other guys to do my gigs around town.  We went to Phoenix, we did a soundcheck, and we hit.  We hit the same night.  I was familiar with his music, but I hadn’t met him.  So we played, and after the set he offered me the gig.  I happily accepted.

TP:    When we spoke for the liner note, you said the soundcheck was the rehearsal, and it was very easy to work with him.  He sat down at the piano, started playing, and continued to play.  He pointed to the bass player, who came in; he pointed to the conga player, who came in; he played the cycle of the song around and around 3-4-5 times, then pointed to you and brought you in.  He didn’t tell you what to play; you just heard them, and found your pocket.  Let’s talk about the dynamics of playing drums with him.

HERLIN RILEY:  The things I said are still true.  Playing with him was an enriching experience.  Ahmad’s music is organic, and the fact that he can arrange it on the spot… Because everything is cued.  The music has a structure it has a form, but he gives you hand signal to direct you inside of the form with the music.  It tells you if you’re playing the top of the head section, the A-section or whatever, then he’ll give you another cue for the bridge, then he’ll give you another cue for the interlude.  So if he wants you to repeat any of those three cycles, he can just give you the same cue to repeat it over and over. Then when he gives you the next cue to go to the next part of the tune, you go there.  So the music is constantly being shaped and arranged on the spot, which makes it very organic and very rich.

Also, Ahmad Jamal can be very percussive in his playing, so we often had a lot of rhythmic and percussive interaction.  We would play off of each other.  He always does that. I’ve found myself very much at home playing with him.  If I was to play with him now, it would be the same.

TP:    He obviously has an affinity for New Orleans drummers.

HERLIN RILEY:  I think one thing about New Orleans drummers is the fact that most of us grew up within the street band and parade band traditions, and the bass drum is very prevalent inside of that.  It’s just like the music of the early ’20s.  It comes from the bottom-up.  New Orleans drummers play the drums from the bottom up, from the bass drum up, as opposed to a lot of other guys who perhaps play from the cymbals down.  I think Ahmad is one that likes the groove.  And when you hear most music that has a solid groove on it, it comes from the bottom up.  He really likes playing grooves [vamps].  I think he just has an affinity for the nuances that New Orleans drummers bring him; that is, incorporating the bass drum inside of the grooves.

TP:    So you think he just hears that sound as part of the orchestra in his head.

HERLIN RILEY:  That’s what I think. He didn’t talk to me about it, but I just know from working with him that he likes the groove!  When he stands up, he’ll watch you play, and kind of clap his hands and get inside the groove.  It’s kind of unexplainable, but it’s something I’ve found I’ve been able to identify from working with him over the years.

TP:    You said that in working with him, you dealt with rhythms you’d never faced or dealt with before.  Can you be specific about the rhythmic signatures he likes to work with and the ways he works with them that are unique?

HERLIN RILEY:  For instance, he would play sometimes a tune in 6/8, and we’d get into the 6/8 feeling, and inside that 6/8 feel he would impose a regular 4/4 meter over the top of that, so you’re playing two different meters at the same time.  I had never experienced anybody who had that kind of rhythmic control, to really be able to go back and forth seamlessly between the two.  Because it’s two different ways of thinking.  But I could hear him doing that. It would be two different rhythms going on at the same time, and I had never experienced that.  Also, I remembering playing a tune with him that Jack DeJohnette wrote called “Ebony,” and inside of the cycle of the tune there was a 3/8 bar.  So you go 1 2 3 4, 1-2-3 1-2-3-4… It wasn’t music that was counted out to me like that.  It was something that he played, and later on I came to understand what it was.  But he just played it, and then I had to just kind of figure it out and play inside of it.  Later, as I started working with him and he started introducing those kind of 3/8s and 7/8s and 5/8 kind of rhythms inside of the music, then I could see it from an academic standpoint.  But when I first started working with Ahmad, it’s stuff that was just played, and you had to react and find your place inside of that.  As opposed to actually knowing what it was, you had to instinctively know what it was and go with your instincts.

TP:    And your instincts were sufficiently honed by playing in the range New Orleans contexts to be prepared.

HERLIN RILEY:  Yes, being in New Orleans, I was prepared.  I had a lot of experience I could call on.  New Orleans is a small community, but there were a lot of things going on musically in the late ’70s and the early ’80s, a lot of styles of music.  I got a chance to play in Latin bands, bands that were playing a lot of free jazz, and even got a chance to play in vaudeville, burlesque… I played for strippers, then later I played in “One Mo Time.”

TP:    From what you say, it seems Ahmad Jamal has had a big influence on the rhythmic content of contemporary jazz.  Whether it’s direct or indirect, a lot of things he’s done have filtered into the contemporary mainstream.

HERLIN RILEY:  I would think so.  But a lot of that stuff is unspoken, because Ahmad Jamal is not one of the most in-your-face jazz figures who is out here.  He hasn’t had the same kind of recognition as people like Miles Davis or Dizzy or even Monk at this point. Most jazz musicians know who he is, but the general public, when you mention his name, they’re like, “Who?”

TP:    Do you think he’s a little taken for granted by the jazz public?

HERLIN RILEY:  I think the Jazz Establishment has shied away from him, especially early on in his career, especially the fact that he changed his name, became a Muslim at a time when it was very unfashionable.  My personal feeling is that he’s had to endure some backlash from that.

TP:    True, but he was quite successful in the ’50s… And he doesn’t want to take any stuff from anybody business-wise.  But he was never the type of bandleader who would instruct you how to play your parts.  It would be a general feel, and whoever you are becomes the interpretation of it.

HERLIN RILEY:  Yes.  I think that’s one of Ahmad’s great assets.  He understands and he can hear musicians, and hear that musician’s voice for what it is.  Either it’s something that he can work with or it’s something he can’t work with.  If it’s something that he can work with, then he’ll let you really be yourself and let you speak your musical voice as it may be.  Now, sometimes he gives you subtle directions in the music.  He used to tell me, “Don’t fill in every time the phrase comes around; you don’t have to play a fill.”  He’s always directing the volume and dynamics inside of the music. But really, he’s just shaping whatever is already there; whatever talent you already have, he knows how to shape it, but just let it grow and be better.  But he doesn’t disturb it in trying to have you change your direction or change who you are musically speaking.

Harold Mabern:

TP:    You seem so well positioned to put Ahmad Jamal in perspective.  You’ve heard play since when?

HAROLD MABERN:  1954 in Chicago.  Frank Strozier and I graduated from high school together in 1954, and moved to Chicago.  Booker Little graduated in ’55, and he followed us there.  George Coleman came in ’55 or ’56.  I hung out a lot with Booker and Frank, because they went to the conservatory, and we used to practice together at the YMCA.  Booker Little was the one who turned us on to Ahmad Jamal.  He’d gone out one night to hang out, and we asked him, “Where did you go last night?”  He said he went to see Ahmad Jamal.  We didn’t know who Ahmad was, but Booker knew, and he said that he’d heard one of the greatest pianists in his lifetime.  Booker played a little piano, too; not solo, but he knew a lot about it, having been around Phineas Newborn.  After that, the Pershing became our hangout night after night.  But we also heard Ahmad at the Kit-Kat Club with Ray Crawford and Israel.

TP:    You probably heard him with Ray Crawford and Israel Crosby first.  Because I think Ray Crawford left in ’55, and the Pershing began in late ’55.  Was what he was playing when you first heard him similar to what’s on the earlier recordings?

HAROLD MABERN:  The way he sounds on records is the same as it sounded in person. There was no difference.  It was all great.

TP:    But usually, before an audience, people will stretch out, or it’s more experimental, or chance comes into the equation…

HAROLD MABERN:  I see what you mean.  Well, he stretched out then, but naturally not as much as he does now.  Because he is constantly evolving.  It’s that way with all of us; you get to the point where you take more chances, you don’t play it safe.  But he did stretch out, but it was more of a format situation.  Now he’s really stretching out.  But at the time I’d heard him, I’d never heard that kind of approach before.

TP:    Describe what was unique about his approach.

HAROLD MABERN:  Well, I have to put Bill Lee into it, because he also told me about Ahmad.  The fascinating thing to me — after being around Phineas, with the technical aspect; which was great, and is still great, with the touch and the sound — was the sound that Ahmad was getting then.  After being around Bill Lee, I became attracted to his chords; I’d never heard chords played that way.  That’s when Bill Lee told me about Chris Anderson, Billy Wallace and Ahmad Jamal.  So then when I heard ahmad, it was the sound and the chordal approach.  I couldn’t believe it.  I said, “Wow, how can that piano sound that way?”  That’s the only I can exlpain it, is his overall sound.  We’ve had a lot of great pianists, with great sounds and touches.  But there’s something about his approach…the sound he got that was unbelievable.

TP:    Did you see it as an extension of the great piano trios of the ’40s and early ’50s, like Nat Cole and George Shearing…

HAROLD MABERN:  Well, Nat Cole especially was one of his main influences, with the guitar and bass.  But one of his main influences, as I’m sure he spoke about, was Errol Garner.  They grew up together.  If you match up any record by Erroll Garner and any record by Ahmad, from an orchestral standpoint, you say, “Wow, there it is right there.”  But it was a lot like Nat Cole in the touch, the sensitivity of what he played, the chord voicings…

TP:    And probably a more progressive conception of harmony.


TP:    So he was incorporating bebop, Bud Powell’s language onto the trio as a logical extension.

HAROLD MABERN:  Right, with Art Tatum touch… I call it Franz Liszt touch.  I tell my students that it’s the touch that produces the sound.  A lot of pianists might have equal technique, but it’s the touch and the sound they get out of it — like a Chopin touch or a Liszt touch.  That’s the way Ahmad and Art Tatum are.

TP:    Well, he played Liszt when he was 11.

HAROLD MABERN:  That’s exactly right.  So all that produces the sound.  I would say the format of Nat Cole and Erroll Garner formulated his overall concept.  Then he just got beyond that and took it further, to the point where his stuff is so awesome… But it’s undescribable.  You have to hear it, and then all you say is “Wow, gee-whiz…”

TP:    Well, he has that amazing control.

HAROLD MABERN:  Total control.

TP:    In the ’50s, would he do things like work with different time signatures in one piece?

HAROLD MABERN:  I didn’t see him do that myself until he got to New York City. Which was another thing I thought was hip.  I said, “Wow, why didn’t I think of something like that?”  But that made me think of something he said once, that everybody needs to be directed or have a director, even if you play by yourself — because you have to direct or conduct yourself.  But that time thing, that thing with the hand signs, I’m pretty sure I saw him do that when he came to New York City.  And naturally, his buddy, Monty Alexander, has taken that… See, he has a special relationship with all of his piano friend, and I consider him to be a friend as well as my mentor.

TP:    He seems to have very warm relationships.  As he puts it, he’s been grown-up since he was a kid, and he takes his responsibilities very seriously.

HAROLD MABERN:  To show that that’s true, I have a picture on my wall where Ahmad was playing one of these Elk type clubs, a junior lodge in Pittsburgh, and he was like a little kid sitting with all the older kids.  So I can see that he’s been a responsible human being for a long time.  People always said he used a lot of space; he’d rather call it discipline.  To have that kind of discipline and patience… He has really done his homework

But again, the overall thing about him, besides his touch and control… I’ve always said that if Ahmad Jamal’s time was the brakes on a car, you would never have an accident.  His time is impeccable.  He will play a run and stop on a dime.  And the way he is able to play in those different time signatures like 5/4 and 7/4… He is a master at that.  It’s really unbelievable.  He is not playing cliches.  He is playing music.  Mulgrew Miller said, “man, I have a hard time playing in 5/4.”  But Ahmad can play with no problem in any of those weird time signatures.  He’s what you call a super-duper genius in every sense of the word.

TP:    So you actually were able to see the trio live from the beginning.

HAROLD MABERN:  As I said, I saw him with Ray Crawford and Israel at the Kit Kat Club, which was a real small club on 63rd Street.  It was real small, and man, the people were packed in there like sardines.  Then when they moved to the Pershing, naturally, that being a larger club, we were able to stretch out.  We also started working there on Monday mornings with the MJT+3, and Israel Crosby would come to sit in with us on Mondays.  That became our home away from home.  Ahmad would work the night, we would the breakfast party on Monday mornings.

TP:    That would be ’57-’58-’59, but you’d been seeing him since ’55. I guess his first drummer was Walter Perkins, and then Vernell.  Was the trio extremely popular in Chicago?

HAROLD MABERN:  All the piano players in Chicago, including Ahmad and Herbie, had their own individual sounds.  But there were three groups in Chicago that had hit records — the Ahmad Jamal Trio, the Ramsey Lewis Trio and the MJT+3.  We all had our different audiences…

TP:    Herbie Hancock said that one thing that marked the Chicago pianists was that they were interested in reharmonization, parallel to and before Bill evans, and that Chris Anderson was responsible for a lot of it, and that Ahmad had his fingerprint on all of it.  Did Chris have an impact on Ahmad?

HAROLD MABERN:  I’m sure they did on each other.  To tell the truth, I really can’t say for sure.  They both have great love and respect for each other.  Chris went to Wendell Phillips High School, because Nat Cole went there.  Chris wanted to go there to be around Nat Cole. But I’m sure Ahmad had an effect on him, too.  I always tell the story that Billy Wallace said, “I got this piano player, and I got this piano player; I almost got Ahmad.”  When I tell that to Ahmad, he laughs.  To this day, he said, “I almost got Ahmad.”  In other words, he lets it be known that Ahmad is still the king.

TP:    And you feel he started to stretch out once he left Chicago and moved to New York.

HAROLD MABERN:  When he left Chicago and moved to New York, that’s when he started to really stretch out.  He had all these little basslines [SINGS REFRAIN].  You hear them and say, “Well, that reminds me of something McCoy Tyner…” Well, he influenced McCoy Tyner.  We know how he influenced Miles and the whole group, to the point where Miles told all the piano players to say, “Play like Ahmad.” Which was fine with me.  In fact, Miles used to make them… It was mandatory that when Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly left their gig, they all had to come to the Pershing.  Ahmad was almost like an assignment.  That’s where we met Miles and Cannonball.  So when Ahmad got to New York, that’s when he really started opening up, and his stuff grew in all sorts of ways. Compositions so modern… I was talking to James Cammack, who played with us Monday night at Smoke, and we were talking about the different compositions and how many tunes Ahmad has in his book, and we were talking about “Bellows” and what a hip tune that is!  That tune sounds like it was written a few minutes ago.  I’d say he probably wrote it in the late ’70s or early ’80s when he was with 20th Century.  That’s when he recorded Diana Ross’ “Touch Me In The Morning.”  We both love pop music.  Most pianists don’t fool with that. But Ahmad and I have never had a problem with putting music in a category.  If it’s good… I always say that we bump heads, because he’ll record a tune that’s kind of off the beaten track, and it’s a tune I’ve been thinking of recording.

TP:    Let’s touch on some of the dynamics of what happened when he started to stretch out.  You talked about the extended basslines.

HAROLD MABERN:  Right.  The extended basslines, and then he did… Well, he could go from the basic II-V-I sound in his right hand to the modal sound, the things you hear McCoy doing.  He just explores the whole piano.  And in doing all that, he never loses his originality.  Again, it’s because of what he plays, the way he plays it, and his touch.  He can play a modal type line, but you always know it’s Ahmad, and it’s mainly because of the touch.

TP:    Why do you think he has such an affinity for New Orleans drummers?

HAROLD MABERN:  If I had to sum it up:  The beat.  When you think about that beat Vernell put on “Poinciana,” David Lee and Ed Blackwell played it… It tends to come from the marching band things. [street beats]

TP:    But he’s from Pittsburgh, where Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey and Joe Harris are from, which is a different way of approaching time.

HAROLD MABERN:  True.  But I think it’s that the New Orleans beat comes from the street and it swings.  And once he heard what Vernell played on “Poinciana,” that opened the trio up to do other things that advanced his musical goals.  It’s hard to explain it beyond that.  You’ll know it when you hear it, and say, “Wow, what is that?”

TP:    He did very radical things on albums like Extensions and Naked City Theme, with “Haitian Marketplace.”  Let’s talk about his last 10-15 years, which seems a particularly fruitful period, primarily acoustic, a lot of recording, a lot of new compositions, framing his sound in many contexts — playing Ellington-Strayhorn repertoire, doing septets, live recordings, bringing in George Coleman and Donald Byrd and Stanley Turrentine, bringing in percussionists like Manolo Badrena, extracting a maximum of color.  But how do you observe is progression since the latter ’80s?

HAROLD MABERN:  Not to be redundant or repetitive, but the way I see it is that he’s constantly evolving.  He has never disappointed me.  Never is a big word, but he has never disappointed me.  Every time I go to hear him, I am always learning something.  When I leave, I’m totally inspired.  Todd Barkan told me that Cedar said that Ahmad Jamal gets his complete attention.  When I go to hear Ahmad, I don’t want to go…even if it’s another musician… If you’re going to talk, go to another table.  Because Ahmad is the kind of musician who, when they say, “Ladies and gentlemen, Ahmad Jamal,” before he even sits down, he’s hit three-chords that’s a masterpiece.  Before he even sits on the stool, he’s played a three-chord masterpiece, then he throws up his hands to give a signal, and from that point on it’s… I don’t know anybody like him.  It’s very hard to explain.

He’s really too deep for some people.  A lot of musicians can’t handle it. As George Coleman said, a lot of piano players don’t come around because it’s too much piano to handle.  They can’t handle it by themselves.  But I’ve always been one to understand and appreciate genius.

TP:    So he’s a total original.

HAROLD MABERN:  Totally original.  I can think of three other pianists who are original like that.  One is Erroll Garner, one is Phineas Newborn, one is Thelonious Monk.  Then there’s Ahmad Jamal.  I’ve listened to them all, but what Ahmad has done and continues to do… The main thing is just his sound!  I mean, it’s the sound, his knowledge of chords, his compositions, his touch, the way he orchestrates from the bottom of the piano to the top.  Or the way he’ll play a ballad, where he keeps going back to the bridge and each time it’s totally different.  He’s just a very special and blessed human being.

Tommy Flanagan:

Ahmad Jamal’s concept is orchestral.  He has a wide knowledge of the keyboard, and he uses all of the keyboard all of the time.  He’s very rhythmic and very dynamic; that’s his trademark.  But he has a well-defined trio style, as did Erroll Garner.  Tatum had another kind of style.  I guess he used his rhythm section just, hmm, to give pause between his notes.  He had so much to play, he never could stop himself.  But there is another style of playing, and Nat Cole certainly had a beautiful soft side to his trio playing.  Bud Powell brought another dynamic into trio style playing.  There are really a lot of models out there to listen to.

Mulgrew Miller:

Ahmad Jamal is a very unique player.  He’s sort of in a class by himself, because he was of no particular school, but yet all of the areas and eras of the music are represented in his playing, all of the Modern approaches and…you know, the whole history of the piano is there.  Yet, he’s so individual and his style and his approach and his conception is so unique.   He is so deserving of the highest merit in the tradition and history of jazz pianists. He keeps encompassing all of the innovations that come along.  That’s why he’s such a remarkable artist.

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