Monthly Archives: September 2011

Matt Wilson’s Uncut Blindfold Test From Ten Years Ago

A day late for Matt Wilson’s birthday, but hopefully not a dollar short, here are the complete proceedings of a Blindfold Test that I conducted with Matt in 2001, at the offices of Palmetto Records.



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1.    Marcus Roberts, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” (from COLE AT MIDNIGHT, Columbia, 2001) (Roberts, piano; Jason Marsalis, drums; Thaddeus Expose, bass) – (4 stars)

This is great.  I really like it.  I don’t hear any hi-hat, so I think it might be Leon Parker.  But that’s not the only reason it might be Leon.  Just sort of the feeling.  But I heard this recording of this trio from San Francisco, and Jaz Sawyer was playing, but I don’t think it’s Jaz.  Oh, this is swinging.  It’s “What Is This Thing Called Love.”  That’s obvious!  The bass sound is great.  Is it Jacky?  The answer is no!  I like this, though.  I’m trying to feel…just by the sound of the piano player.  I like the environment.  They set up this nice environment, and they keep this nice vibe.  Also, there’s sort of this backwards Ahmad feel.  I don’t like to describe music usually in terms of somebody else, but it has that kind of left turn there.  I dig it. Great selection. It’s a newer recording. I know that.  I have to say it was Leon Parker.  No?  [Because there wasn’t the hi-hat?] Yes, but also just some feel things I heard that reminds me of Leon.  But just the great upbeat vibe.  Leon to me has that great sound on the upbeat, plus it has a great 1 and 3.  There’s this great feeling of the upbeat and downbeat.  It’s like nice balance. 4 stars. To me, the great thing about playing a standard is that it’s a barometer in a certain way.  That’s the great thing about playing them.  That’s why I love playing them.  It’s this way of seeing what someone can do with common material.  It’s like someone who wants to go see someone else play a role in an Arthur Miller play, for example, who wants to see Brian Dennehy’s interpretation or somebody like that. I think that’s really great, especially somebody knows the tune and can do something with it, and again, maintain a vibe.  It wasn’t like they were playing “What Is This Thing Called Love” to play over the changes of it.  They were really trying to play a thought, a shape of a composition. [AFTER] Wow.  I heard this trio live about three or four years ago at a festival, and the vibe wasn’t anything like this on the tunes that they were playing that night.  But I totally dig Jason’s playing.  When I heard him before in other instance and in this case… He’s got that great feel, obviously, but also it has a lot of depth.  I also like Jason’s playing on Los Hombres Calientes.  In fact, once, when we were playing the same festival at Lawrence University, Jason peeked his head in at my band, the wild band, and we were in the middle of some kind of freakout kind of tune, and he appeared to really dig it.  I know he’s into a lot of different things.

2.    Charles Earland, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (from SLAMMIN’ & JAMMIN’, Savant, 1997) – (Charles Earland, organ; Bernard Purdie, drums; Carlos Garnett, ts; Melvin Sparks, g) – (3 stars)

This is a great old jazz tune!  I know there’s versions of this.  I’m trying to go by the sound.  I know the vibe of the drummer.  I can’t quite place him.  It’s definitely an older player because of the cymbal sound.  Also it has more of a 2 and 4 oriented vibe to it.  Nice.  Sort of a Grady Tate-esque vibe, in a certain way, but a little… [DRUM SOLO] This part is great.  Yeah!  I can almost always tell how generations are.  I know this is a different generation by how they’re playing swing.  Swing is changing.  But I can’t quite pinpoint who it is.  Could it be Louis Hayes?  It has that crispness and that nice sort of surge to it when he goes to swing, and his snare drum ability… I wouldn’t even venture to guess on the guitar player. Because people have done this one before (Jimmy did it, etc.), it seems to me like there’s other tunes that you could do this same… It seems a little recreative rather than creative.  But that’s cool.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  In this instance, the organ trio doing that tune with that vibe seems to me… I’ll give it 3 stars just because the feel was cool, especially from the drum end.  Whoever was playing there has a lot of depth.  Especially with the second-line, the march feel.  It made me wonder who it was, because they switched cymbals at certain spots, in the middle of the form. [AFTER] Wow!  The other thing that made me think it might be someone with more of a funkish… I knew it was not Idris.  I know Idris’ playing pretty well.  But in this case, Bernard, the cymbal sound was smaller.  I know he uses a smaller ride.  The swing in Bernard’s case has definitely… Jason has a great 1-and-3, and Bernard’s feeling is similar, but during the swing part it was a pretty heavy 2-and-4.  It’s a good connection with him and Charles.  “Deacon Blues” to me is one of the greatest drumbeats ever!  Anything he plays on with Steely Dan.  And I heard him play by himself once at this workshop, and just play that upbeat shuffle feel.  It was amazing.  I would like to have heard another cut of this record where he was playing a shuffle.  You can tell that his feeling comes less from the ride cymbal than from the bottom.  His ride cymbal was sort of less defined.  I knew it was an older drummer by the sound of the cymbal, but by the feeling of it, it was hard to tell.  But man, it was great.  Bernard rocks, man!

3.    Dafnis Prieto, “B. Smooth” (from John Benitez, DESCARGA IN NEW YORK, Khaon, 2001) (Prieto, d., composer; Luis Perdomo, el.p.; John Benitez, b) – (3 stars)

This kind of playing and this kind of music is something I really respect.  But years ago, out of survival, I realized I was never going to be able to play like this.  I just didn’t have this ability.  Sometimes I think you just have to realize things you can do and can’t do, and this kind of music or this style of approach with kicks in this sound is something I realized I was never going to be able to do!  I respect it, though.  It’s really great, and I dig it.  But I don’t hear this sound either for myself. I’m trying to figure out who it might be.  Is it my man Mark Walker? [It’s the drummer’s composition.] I had a feeling it might be.  I mean, it’s very Chick Corea influenced, especially the Electrik Band period, which when I was settling into hearing great acoustic drummers, Blackwell and Higgins — that’s when I was studying that stuff.  The tune has some very hip rhythmic concepts.  I hear stuff more from a melody concept always.  Even rhythms I hear as melodies, so sometimes the stuff becomes a little busy for me.  The sound is dry also. [AFTER] All those beats in there that I didn’t know existed!  I have respect for all people’s efforts, and again, like I said, there was a point in my life when I realized that this is something I didn’t have the capability of doing, or even feel I could even get close to.  So I went in a completely different direction, when my friends were sort of into this vibe in college.  But it’s funny how — fortunately and unfortunately, I guess — there are any number of people that this could be.  Because there’s people who have played in the Michel Camilo school of playing.  There’s Dave Weckl and there’s Joel Rosenblatt and people like that.  They’re all brilliant players. [You think it might be somebody in that area?] Yeah.  Am I totally wrong?  [First you have to give it stars.] 3 stars, just because the musicianship is so great. It’s hard for me to be a critic.  But if nothing stood out to be that unique to me in this vein.  I mean, if I heard the opening and then all of a sudden I heard it go in the middle to a completely different departure, then I would go, “Wow, this is a really…” It’s kind of like playing a standard again.  But this is the kind of thing where to me they sort of stay in that vein, and it’s hard to discern from other things I hear in this style of music.  Again, it’s more of a personal affinity.  I don’t really hear that sound perception.  But I’m curious to see who it is. [AFTER] Wow!  He’s a bad… If I heard him live, it might be a different vibe.  The recording, to me… I’ve been hearing a lot of great things about him, and unfortunately he came to town around the time that my boys were born, so I haven’t been able to get out.  I know he’s got so much together.  It’s nothing against the playing on the record per se.  Who else is playing?  Oh.  Again, I have to attribute it to my personal ignorance.  I’ve played with Luis, and I love Luis Perdomo.  I’ve called him to do my Arts and Crafts band.  Again, if I heard an acoustic version… Again, it’s my own prejudice.  It puts me into that feeling, and it’s hard for me to discern, because… Again, the playing was great and the composition was great, but nothing really… Probably if I heard the spectrum of the record, I’d understand it more.  I had a feeling for a second it might have been Luis, because it shifted differently than most people who play electric keyboards.  I want to hear Dafnis again.  Also, Benitez is someone I’ve always been fascinated by and have always wanted to play with.  I hope some day I can, because I would like to be part of that sound.

4.    Hank Jones, “Allen’s Alley” (from Ray Drummond, THE ESSENCE, DMP, 1990) (Jones, p.; Drummond, b; Billy Higgins, d) – (3-1/2 stars)

The cats are going for it!  Wow. [LAUGHS] Well, I like it when people improvise, drum-wise, over changes like that.  He or she plays over the bass, and that’s something I’m really into.  I like accompaniment, and I like hearing people play over that architecture with accompaniment. It got strange in a spot, but still it had a lot of feeling, and then when the person blew by themselves… But nothing stuck out to me, nothing overall that made me really get up from the seat.  It was a nice version of “Allen’s Alley,” but I’m not sure who it is.  Sound-wise, it’s hard for me to tell.  From the recording, it’s hard for me to tell who the drummer might be.  There were parts that felt amazing, and other parts didn’t feel so great to me.  3-1/2 stars.  The feeling I get is that this probably was one take, and they just did it and it felt great to them, which is what’s important. I get the overall feeling, and I’m not a very good analyzer.  Again, I’m curious to see who it is. [AFTER] You totally got me there!  I would never have thought it was Billy.  I’m not saying I’m an authority on any of these guys.  I felt I’ve checked out enough Billy Higgins… I didn’t know it was Ray, but I had a feeling it might be Hank.  Again, it might be more of just the recorded sound for me, from where I’m used to hearing Billy’s sound be.  But man, I’m such a Billy Higgins fan… I screwed up!!! But it was a real stumper.  Sound-wise, the way the hi-hat didn’t sound as much to me as Billy does usually.  It wasn’t a good representation of his sound. He’s one of my true heros.  But again, the overall feeling of the piece is what they were going for, so they probably heard it back and thought, “Man, that’s cool.”  That’s what I listen for in records, is that feeling of, hey, man, it’s a version, and it’s a great version at that time.  To me, Hank Jones is one of the reigning kings of the music still living.

In hindsight, you think you know something, then you’re not sure.  To me that’s also a great compliment, that I didn’t know somebody that I had checked out so much.  But I didn’t even hear the things I would identify… It’s great that I had heard something I didn’t know was him, and that makes me even more excited I think than if I got it.

5.    Donny McCaslin, “Mick Gee” (from SEEN FROM ABOVE, Arabesque, 2000) (McCaslin, ts; Jim Black, drums; Ben Monder, gtr; Scott Colley, bass) – (4-1/2 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Jim Black. I’m not sure which band this is.  But I’m sure I’ll figure it out. [LAUGHS] This is great.  My man can shift on a dime!  I’ll probably be wrong!  It won’t be Jim.  No, it has to be.  If it’s not, I’m going to leave!  I’ve known Jim for so long, and he has a very identifiable concept.  To me, sound is the king in music.  When you can identify someone’s sound, like you hear Mel Lewis or you hear Elvin Jones. Also, turning on a dime, making these shifts, and he does it with such artistry.  That’s acoustic bass.  It sounded like it could be Chris Speed on tenor saxophone.  I like this piece a lot.  I like changes that grab your attention, not necessarily always for… This had a lot of episodes in it.  I call this episodic composition.  I sort of compose this way, too, where I think more about episodes.  And when you have great players like this who can make great transitions, or they all of a sudden… From the drum standpoint, that’s a real key to this kind of playing, that Jim does so well, and other guys like John Hollenbeck, Mike Sarin and Tom Rainey.  They’re able to negotiate the transitions so it can have that fluidity between sections that are really disjointed.  Or not.  That’s the other thing, that they made these shift sometimes, and they did it so it was a real surprise, almost as if it was edited.  Overall, I can tell that these dudes have checked out and are open to a lot of different kinds of music, and they’re trying to figure out ways to integrate this all into one sound.  They made a good sound together.  That’s what I was digging.  I heard it more really as one, which I thought was nice. The music was really meeting in the middle.  I liked it.  4-1/2 stars, because it was exciting.  Again, it had these mood shifts.  I don’t know how it falls in the rest of the record, but hearing that composition would intrigue me to see what they could do to border around that or what other kind of textures they could explore, and whatever kind of… But again, his identifiable sound is amazing. [AFTER] I was going to say Ben Monder, but I wasn’t sure about Scott’s thing.  That’s the record Donny did for Arabesque.  I’ve wanted to get it, but haven’t checked it out.  It’s fantastic. I know Donny’s sound quite a bit from playing with him and from past things, and this is totally different.  His vibe is so amazing.  All these guys have such a great, positive vibe.

6.    Edmond Hall, “Royal Garden Blues” (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, Blue Note, 1944/1998) (Sid Catlett, d.; James P. Johnson, p; Ben Webster, ts; Sidney deParis, tp; Vic Dickenson, tb; Jimmy Shirley, g; John Simmons. b) – (4-1/2 stars)

[SINGS ALONG] Well, I know it’s “Royal Garden Blues.”  And I know it’s somebody who made the transition from traditional music to swing on the cymbal.  To me, that’s one of the most interesting things about jazz drumming that not a lot of people talk about, the people who were able to go from where it wasn’t much ride cymbal to where the ride cymbal is.  Because in the beginning he plays ride cymbal.  I love this music!  When I hear this stuff now, the collectiveness… It didn’t feel so separated.  It was really togetherness music, where they were there, creating that sound together.  To me, this is what really great improvisers do, is make that team feel.  I hear some hi-hat in there, too. [AFTER] The person I’ve been checking out lately in this vein is Zutty Singleton, but it’s not my man Zutty.  Zutty had this vibe… I was expecting the China cymbal.  But also the up feel…it had a more Chicago feel to it.  And the little breaks… Was it Gene Krupa?  The way those snare feels…those upbeats… [You’re on the right track.] Was it Davey Tough?  No.  It has a Chicago feeling to me because it was less Charleston oriented and more upbeat oriented.  4-1/2 stars.  I love collective improvising.  To me, the whole buzz of this music is the playing and hearing of it, and the feeling of people doing it together, more than, “Oh, this guy was great, the way he plays over this.  The feeling of a band.  This music in some ways can lend itself to that automatically.  But this was different to me.  These guys were really throwing it out there to each other.  You could tell their connectedness.  Again, one of the things that I think is interesting in the development that is not addressed as much are those guys that went from earlier jazz styles, even as far back as Papa Jo, that era of guys who went to the bigger cymbal.  When the cymbals got bigger and they went to that ride cymbal feel, that had to be a pretty radical change for all those guys.  And they did it so amazingly.  That’s what Dizzy Gillespie said about Davey Tough… He had one of the greatest time feels ever.  One of the things he thought might have gotten Davey sort of depressed is that he was not able to get that top cymbal feel the way the other guys did.  He had the ability to swing a band with a smaller cymbal, but the bigger cymbal vibe he didn’t get. [AFTER] There was a little something that didn’t make me want to say it was Sid, but I was pretty damn close!  The feeling from these guys is just the liquid sound.  It oozes out at you.  It doesn’t come at you in any sharp sort of way.  Music is making sound with somebody else. These guys made that sound together, and it sounds like this beautiful wave coming at you.  The thing I got from Sid is a big sound perspective. He was a big guy and he got a big sound, but it wasn’t loud.  I couldn’t tell; I didn’t hear him live.  But again, making a big sound with somebody to me is what master musicians do.  They make a great sound with somebody, and their sound will still be true…they make a great sound with whomever, they’re playing with.

7.    Steve Berrios-Joe Ford, “Bemsha Swing,” (from AND THEN SOME, Milestone, 1996) (Berrios, drumset, timpani; Joe Ford, ss) – (4-1/2 stars)

The timpani player is making those changes. It’s great.  Max plays timpani on the Riverside recording of “Bemsha Swing.” Whoa! Go, baby! [AFTER] That’s 4-1/2 stars.  Again, it’s a different perspective.  I’m trying to figure out who the soprano player was.  But whoever left that big space of sound there, man, that to me just made it.  That’s also something that Dewey does so great, and I think sometimes players… This is just a reference to the soprano player.  If you don’t feel something playing it, don’t play til you feel something.  And this person did that.  They waited.  At first I thought maybe it was a strange thing, but then I realized, wow, these people are really playing for that moment.  And whoever is playing drums (because I don’t know), I loved it because it’s pretty open over the bar line in a lot of ways.  I know it’s not, but it has this rough-and-tumble Paul Motianesque kind of vibe where it’s so playful.  The whole thing was very playful.  That’s what I really liked about it.  It wasn’t belabored, it wasn’t long, it was nice, precise… Not “precise,” because that’s a terrible word to use in music.  It said what it was going to say and they played this tune wonderfully.  Wow, that’s wonderfully. [And you have no idea who it is?] I don’t know why I shouldn’t… I was a percussion major in college.  I can play timpani! [Was it the same person playing timpani and drums?] I have a feeling it might be, because it sort of sounded like the drums and the soprano played first.  I don’t know how it was recorded. [AFTER] That’s amazing.  This is the kind of thing that I’m pretty intrigued by lately, is hearing people like Berrios and Benitez, because I feel sort of ignorant of their conceptions of playing. I’ve heard Steve so much, and the colors he can create… And his beat really swings.  You can tell he hears the drums as melody; he hears melody in rhythm.  That’s one reason why I was really drawn to this.  It has a warm feeling.  And he played it kind of wild.  It was pretty loose.  But the beat was still swinging.  The reason I compared it to Paul, which is a great compliment, is it had that sort of rooted…it had a lot of depth, but at the same time anything could happen.

8.    Misha Mengelberg, “Kneebus” (from FOUR IN ONE, Songlines, 2001) (Mengelberg, p; Dave Douglas, tp; Brad Jones, b; Han Bennink, drums) – (4-1/2 stars)

It’s Dave.  Is this the new record with Han and Dave and Brad Jones and Misha?  I had to get one in there!!  I love music that is moving together, but also if you sit and listen, you hear little worlds in it.  Misha has a great world… We did a triple bill last year at Cooper Union with Dave’s quartet and my band and Misha playing solo.  And he creates a zone.  All these guys — Misha, Dave, Han (especially Han) and Brad — have an ability to create worlds, to dialogue within what’s going on.  Sometimes, how music comes together in that way is that the dialogues just cross over. They just got through this masterfully.  One of the great things about Dave, other than just the obvious, is his ability… The roles are less defined.  He’s always just in the music, playing… Han sometimes can be a little over the top…which is cool, man.  The hell with it.  He’s living life.  What the hell! But he swings his ass off.  I think Brad is a good pairing with them. [MISHA SOLO] Whoa!  This feeling of music could only happen with everybody… Which is the true case of any of it.  But it’s carefree.  I don’t think they’re really worried about playing a 5-star record.  They’re just here to play this music.  It’s so for that moment.  It’s almost as if my daughter, who is 4, made music with three other 4-year-olds who all had the ability to make really great sounds on their instruments, they would make music that sounded like this.  To me, that’s the ultimate compliment, where it’s playful, it’s adventurous, but it has a lot of depth.  It’s not cute.  People might think that.  But it’s not.  It’s for real.  Definitely 4-1/2 stars, with an extra half-star for Brad.  You don’t hear bass playing with Han that much, and he’s really playing parallel with him.  It’s amazing.  Dave is one of the reasons I moved to New York.  He’s a real inspiration.  He’s always present, which is one of the main things I appreciate about him.  You can hear in Han within a little bit of time Sid Catlett and all these influences emerging from him.  Things are emerging from him all the time.  I like this. It’s quite not so… I love those Clusone records that they did.  That’s some of my favorite Han stuff.

9.    Steve Coleman, “3 Against 2” (from TRANSMIGRATION, DIW-Columbia, 1991) (Steve Coleman, as; Greg Osby, as; Marvin “Smitty” Smith, d; David Gilmore, g; Kenny Davis, b) – (4 stars)

Wow, I like that.  A twist!  Is it Reggie Washington on bass?  I love Reggie Washington.  It’s surprising rhythmically and texturally.  For a while, I was kind of feeling it would be cool if they went to a different section, but the more they do this cycle, the more I’m digging it!  Just keep cycling this thing and see where it can open up to.  Whoa!! Again, this is something that I knew I couldn’t do a long time ago.  But I totally dig it.  Man, this guy can play over a vamp!  Is it Gene Lake?  I know it’s Steve Coleman.  The percussion setup made me think it was maybe Smitty.  Is this one of those JMT re-releases?  I love to hear Smitty in this kind of vibe!  I listened to those M-BASE records in college, the ones that are being reissued on JMT, some with Smitty but some with Mark Johnson. 4 stars.  Again, it had surprises to it that made me… It’s almost like seeing a movie where you go, “Okay, when is it going to move on?” and then you realize that part of it is the cycle coming back again and coming back again… After a while, you go, “Oh, wow!”  For a while, I thought it would be cool not to go back to that break every time.  I wouldn’t even know how to analyze what that was, with that metric modulation stuff.  But then when Smitty played over the vamp… Again, it’s a departure from the sound concept that… The percussion stuff gave it away.  I kind of knew it was Smitty from the percussion setup.  He was a big influence on me from those records like “Seeds of Time,” where he used percussion stuff.  I think in Jim Black’s case, too, or Mike Sarin, that era of guys started to involve using percussion along with the drums, or different colors with the drumset per se… He was a big influence to all of us on that.  Wow, Smitty! “Tonight Show,” baby.

10.    Bill Carrothers-Bill Stewart, “Off Minor” (from DUETS WITH BILL STEWART, Dreyfus, 2001) – (Carrothers, p; Stewart, d) – (4 stars)

That’s Bill Stewart.  I can tell by the hi-hat lick at the end of the bridge.  Is this him with Carrothers?  I’m doing better!  Bill has a very identifiable sound.  Even though recording doesn’t… I hear a little bit different sound with Bill.  But I can tell by things he does, the way he negotiates sections of a tune, that it was him.  One of the things I really love about Bill Stewart is that he’s totally committed.  Whatever he plays, he’s totally committed.  He just goes for it!  Not that everybody else doesn’t.  But his sound is… He’s a good Midwesterner.  Yeah, this is great.  4-1/2 stars.  It doesn’t sound like a duo.  It doesn’t sound like they’re just playing duo to play duo.  They both have that sense of adventure, that sense of orchestration.  Again, the roles are less defined.  They’re just both playing… It’s almost like an orchestra.  It’s great.  All these guys we’ve been listening to, it’s borderless.  It’s just music.  I don’t think anybody would care if they played “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry” or a Monk tune or whatever.  They’re going to allow great music to happen with whatever is thrown out there. To me, that’s the sign.  I love that.  It’s warm.  This is a really warm-feeling recording.  He also has a great sense of drama that I love. It’s grounded, but it feels carefree.  It has fringes. I like that. It’s like the Western coats with the fringe on them.  That’s how I feel music should be.  The fringes can fly off the side along with being centered.

11.    Fred Anderson, “Hamid’s on Fire” (from ON THE RUN, Delmark, 2000) (Fred Anderson, ts; Hamid Drake, d; Tatsu Aoki, b) – (4 stars)

For a second, I thought it was Pheeroan Aklaff, but there are parts that make me think it’s not.  The feeling is great; I love the tenor player’s sound.  I feel I should cop this one, but I can’t throw a name out for some reason.  I’m dumb!  It’s powerful.  I like it. Whoever was playing drums definitely has that ability to sort of percolate freedom at the same time of maintaining this pretty deep groove.  Like, dance over the top of the stuff without it being… Like, swing is such a big picture, and they’ve obviously checked out… It’s also music that is seriously committed to that moment.  But you’ve got me.  4 stars. I’m trying to figure the tenor player; his sound is so familiar.  He sounds older to me.  I think they’re all older players. [AFTER] I’ve heard Hamid live and I’ve heard a few recordings, but he’s someone I’d like to check out more.  I said Pheeroan at first, but it seemed a little too melded-together.  I hear Pheeroan as a little cleaner, in a certain way.  I’m not real big on citing who someone has checked out, but in hindsight I can say Blackwell and Andrew Cyrille and that feeling.  Also you can tell he comes from a hand drumming feeling.  Also, there’s a Dennis Charles vibe in there, a little more over the top.  But I knew it wasn’t those guys by the sound of the drum itself.  The sound was looser.  Man, Hamid is great.

12.    Cyrus Chestnut, “Minor Funk” (from SOUL FOOD, Atlantic, 2001) (Cyrus Chestnut, p; Christian McBride, b.; Lewis Nash, d) – (4 stars)

Wow, that’s great!  Again, this is the kind of music that makes me take notice. The piano player is great.  Is it Nasheet Waits?  I love Nasheet, but from the bass drum sound, I didn’t think it was him.  The bass drum sound seems a little dead.  That’s why it’s a little hard for me to get.  Is it Lewis Nash?  Whoo!  I’ve checked him out a lot, and there’s a few things he did… He does a really cool thing.  His playing has a great horizontal feeling and a great vertical feeling. That’s one of my favorite things about him.  Also, he can negotiate these breaks so creatively.  I can also tell by his tom-tom sound a bit.  4 stars. When people play hits together, it can be a little laborious — it feels heavy.  They did it in such a way that it was warm-sounding.  It didn’t sound frantic.  Then, of course, when it opened up, it was great.  I’m trying to think who the piano player might be. [AFTER] Wow, that was really hip.  Both Lewis and Christian have the ability to hug a tune.  When you get hugged, you feel everything, but you also feel those arms around you.  You feel the whole picture.  That’s what Christian can do so well in music, again, that is both horizontal and vertical.  The head was about these hits.  I would never have gotten that this was Cyrus, but I love the sound he gets from the piano.

13.    Herlin Riley, “Blood Groove”  (from WATCH WHAT YOU’RE DOING, Criss Cross, 1999) – (Riley, drums; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Wycliffe Gordon, tb; Victor Goines, ss) – (4-1/2 stars)

The soprano player is great!  It’s moving all over the place.  I love that.  The drummer has a great sound.  He’s dancing, man.  This guy playing soprano is a great improviser.  It’s really expressive.  Talk about rhythmic feel, too.  Wow.  Everybody has a great sound.  I hate to speak like these are all in the same range, but they all give me that same sort of feeling of joy.  When this piece went to the second section, it lost that joyous feeling a bit.  The opening section, with the bass solo was amazing, and the trombone melody with the soprano fills was great.  The bridge sounded compositionally like, “well, we should do something.”  But to me, that didn’t really take away.  Because when it goes back to that vamp vibe, it’s so strong.  And the bass player is giving it that horizontal and vertical motion, that ability to sort of percolate ahead. It’s great.  4-1/2 stars. I’m trying to get it by the sound of the drums and percussion together, which makes it a little hard for me to know who it might be. Is it Adam Cruz? [AFTER] Wow!  I’ve played with Wycliffe a lot lately, but I haven’t heard him in this… And Victor Goines!!  That was really great.  We document this stuff for recording to capture a moment of expressiveness, and in this case, the groove not only is happening, Everyone’s sound and how it worked… I love the dialogue between Wycliffe and Victor.  I’ve never heard Victor live, but I’ve heard him with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on television, and he blew me away.  I love playing with Wycliffe live; I’ve been playing with him a lot with Ted Nash.

It’s interesting that regions still produce a sound.  I’m from the Midwest, and I feel that in some ways Bill Stewart and I have a similar sound.  And Jason and Herlin, being from New Orleans, have a groove underneath that is different from everybody else. To me, the uniqueness of this music is still what makes it really interesting.  Hamid’s feel, when you know that he’s also a hand drummer and you can tell that feel.  Smitty’s feel of being able to play really swinging but also really happening funk; he has a roundness to his funk that straight funk players don’t have because he has that swing feel.  That’s one of the most interesting things to me, are those regional characteristics and the surprises.  Han Bennink’s feel from Europe, a totally different perspective than Lewis’s feeling with Cyrus.  Or Dafnis, from Cuba. It’s intriguing to hear someone like Steve Berrios or Bernard play in these different feels.  They’re still themselves.

I’d like to hear all of these again, not to recreate comments… Not that I have to know who they were, but just to get it out of the way so I can relax and check it out.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat

For Bud Powell’s 87th Birthday, A 2004 Bud Powell Homage in Jazziz

In 2004, Jazziz gave me an opportunity to write an homage to Bud Powell, who is my “first among equals” favorite, my main man of all the jazzfolk on the timeline. For Bud’s 87th birth anniversary, here it is.

[For further info on Bud, keep your eyes out for Wail, a soon-to-be-released ebook biography  by Peter Pullman — a link to Pullman’s blog here and for the book here].

[And spend some time with Ethan Iverson’s exhaustive, four-part post on Bud on his essential blog, Do The Math.]

* * * *

Early in August of 1964, Earl “Bud” Powell, accompanied by his friend and caretaker, Francis Paudras, flew to New York City from Paris, Powell’s residence since 1959, for a 10-week billing at Birdland, Powell’s primary venue during the previous decade, when bebop was in vogue.

Eager to soak up the master, New York’s musicians flocked to the club for opening night. In the liner notes of Return To Birdland, ‘64 [Mythic Sound], Paudras described the scene as he and the pianist arrived.

“There were two rows of men, face to face, on each side of the door. I recognized immediately many familiar faces. To the right in the front line, his face shining with joy, there was Bobby Timmons; next to him, Wynton Kelly, then Barry Harris, Kenny Dorham, Walter Davis, Walter Bishop, McCoy Tyner, Charles McPherson, Erroll Garner, Sam Jones, John Hicks, Billy Higgins, Lonnie Hillyer…there were others, but my memory fails me. Bud stopped short, and at that moment, we could hear discreet applause. Then he started walking toward the stairway, and at that precise instant, Bobby Timmons took his hand and kissed it discreetly. He was at once imitated by his neighbor and all the others with a kind of frenzied devotion… We went down the stairs escorted by this wonderful guard.”

A spontaneous 17-minute standing ovation ensued as Powell approached the bandstand, and the engagement began its roller-coaster path.  As the week progressed, Powell, ensconced in a hotel around the corner, touched base with such old friends and colleagues as Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey and Babs Gonzalez. He also met a more recent arrival who had changed the scene in his absence.

“One morning we were about to go out for breakfast when the doorbell rang,” Paudras wrote in Dance Of The Infidels [DaCapo], which documents the ups and downs of his five-year relationship with Powell. “I opened it to find a young man standing there. His face looked familiar but I couldn’t place him at that moment. ‘Is Mr. Powell in, please?’ ‘Yes, of course. Your name?’  ‘Ornette Coleman.’ I called Bud and Ornette introduced himself. ‘Good morning, Mr. Powell. My name is Ornette Coleman. I’m a saxophonist and all my music is based on the intervals and changes of the sevenths in your left hand.’”

Perhaps the anecdote is apocryphal or mistranslated; Coleman was not available to confirm its authenticity. But the encomium illuminates the breadth of Powell’s impact on the sound of modern jazz. As is well documented in the history books, Powell extrapolated the innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to the piano and interpreted them with his own singular stamp, incorporating the rhythmic self-sufficiency and harmonic ambition of stride maestros like Willie The Lion Smith and James P. Johnson; the fluent linearity of Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, and Billy Kyle; and the aesthetic of virtuosity embodied by Art Tatum. Such next-generation stylistic signifiers as Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Cedar Walton used Powell’s “blowing piano” style, a staccato attack that evoked the dynamism of a horn, as the primary building block for their own approaches.

If a musician’s music bespeaks a personal narrative, Powell’s biography tells volumes about his art.  In early 1945, either a Georgia cracker, a Philadelphia cop or—citing Miles Davis’ autobiography—a Savoy Ballroom bouncer smashed the high-spirited youngster in the head, triggering the massive headaches and a pattern of impulsively aggressive and self-abusive behavior that found  him confined more often than not in mental hospitals. Heavy use of alcohol and narcotics destabilized Powell’s personality;  repeated electroshock treatments dulled his reflexes and acuity. Yet, between 1946 and 1953,  he played magnificently and made his greatest recordings, for Roost, Blue Note, and Norgran, including original compositions with titles like “Glass Enclosure,” “Un Poco Loco,” “Hallucinations,” “Oblivion,” “The Fruit” and “Dance of the Infidels.”

As the titles suggest, a turbulent, sometimes demonic lucidity permeates Powell’s music. It grabs you by the throat, connecting you to the processes by which various polarities of the human condition—wretchedness and grace, madness and genius, the profane and the sacred—can play out in real time. Sometimes Powell projects the oceanic emotions of 19th century Romanticism through a prism molded by the hard-boiled, warp-speed ambiance of New York City after World War Two. Sometimes the template is not unlike the the piercing novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Chester Himes and Hubert Selby, all fellow masters at conjuring vivid, unsparing chronicles of the lacerating consequences of mortal foible.

Born in 1924, Powell honed his jazz sensibility as a teenager,  jamming on bandstands around Brooklyn, Greenwich Village, and, most consequentially, in Harlem, his home turf. At Minton’s Playhouse, he met Thelonious Monk, the house pianist, who was working out the chords and intervals that became the foundation of the music known as bebop. Monk took the youngster under his wing, and, according to drummer Kenny Clarke, his Minton’s partner, he wrote many of his now iconic tunes with Powell in mind, on the notion that he was the only pianist who could play them. You can hear Monk’s influence on several of the 18 sides Powell recorded with Ellington veteran Cootie Williams in 1944, specifically in a tumbling solo on “Honeysuckle Rose” and his jagged comping on “My Old Flame.” Pianist Barry Harris, 15 at the time, remarks on Powell’s finesse, how deftly he “double-timed and ran the most beautiful minor arpeggios” underneath Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s vocal on “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” But Powell’s two fleet, elegant choruses on “Blue Garden Blues” show he’d been listening to someone else as well.

“When I met Bud, he was playing pretty much what you would call prebop,” says Billy Taylor, who moved to New York in 1944. “I used to see him uptown a lot, and we hung out. He was light-hearted then, didn’t take himself all that seriously, and was fun to be around. He liked Fats Waller and some other things I liked, and we’d jam together, just playing stride. I have enjoyable memories. We used to argue a lot, because I was very much into Art Tatum, while Bud said, ‘I want to make the piano sound as much like Charlie Parker as I can.’ I said, ‘That’s cool, but that doesn’t use all of the piano. Tatum has some pianistic things that any pianist should try to get into. Check it out.’ He said, ‘I have checked it out, and I know what Tatum plays. But that’s not where I’m going. You work your way and I’ll work my way.’ By 1950, he was making the piano sound just like Charlie Parker. Those lines that he played were long and complicated and very well played. He dominated that instrument. He had all the nuances pianistically under control as he played.”

“All of Bud’s vocabulary—extensive use of arpeggios and arpeggios with chord tone alterations, and playing altered dominant chords in such a way that they resolve to the next chord—comes straight out of Bird,” says David Hazeltine. “But the way he adapted it to the piano was very interesting. Piano is a difficult instrument, and it presents problems for playing linearly that the saxophone or trumpet do not. On saxophone, all the fingers stay on the same keys all the time; it’s a matter of coordinating different combinations of keys, like octave leaps and different positions. On piano, the distance is represented on the keyboard and you need to execute physically exactly what you’re playing—cross over and cross under and so on. Bud’s arpeggios are effortless; he  made his language very playable. It’s bebop and melodic playing without a bunch of acrobatic pianistic tricks.”

A child prodigy, Powell developed his technique through intense study of the European tradition. “Bud was very heavily influenced by Johann Sebastian Bach, and also by the Romantics—Debussy and Chopin,” says Eric Reed, whose information on the subject comes from Bertha Hope, the widow of pianist Elmo Hope, Powell’s childhood friend and himself a musician of brilliance. “He and Elmo Hope practiced the inventions when they were kids. When Bud’s mother would leave for church, they’d start getting into some jazz stuff, and when she came back, they’d be practicing Bach, because they didn’t want to get in trouble. You can hear a connection to Baroque music in the contour and construction of Bud Powell’s improvised lines—the way it moves, the succession of notes, in the complexity of the lines. Bach’s music has a similar rhythmic propulsion, a continuity that’s very similar to bebop.”

Perhaps the most astonishing component of Powell’s tonal personality is how he deployed his technique to conjure fresh, viscerally primal stories at volcanic emotional heat. “Bud never played the same thing twice,” Powell’s long-time drummer Arthur Taylor told me in 1992. “He’d play the same song every night, but it was like another song.” He always elaborated a point of view. As Bill Charlap notes, “Bud dealt with thought and idea and structure and architecture, using the piano to tell you what he thought about music.”

“Bud wasn’t just throwing licks around,” agrees Vijay Iyer, a pianist born almost a decade after Powell’s death in 1966. “You hear him make decisions in real time and act on them. There’s a thought process made audible. That’s what that music was about.   There’s so much at stake in that moment when you’re creating in real time, and to be able to come up with something in spite of all the obstacles and constraints he faced is an inspiring story.”

There are naysayers. A number of musicians, most vociferously Oscar Peterson, consider Powell an incompletely pianistic pianist. “Granted, he could swing,” Peterson wrote in his autobiography, A Jazz Odyssey. “But I never regarded him as a member of the central dynasty of piano defined by such great players as Tatum, [Teddy] Wilson and Hank Jones. Bud was a linear group player, who could comp like mad for bebop horns and could certainly produce cooking lines that had tremendous articulation, but for my taste there was too much that he didn’t do with the instrument. He lacked Hank’s broad, spacious touch on ballads, and he failed to finish his ideas too often for comfort and satisfaction. Despite his strength of linear invention, in fact, he had a technique problem: although other musicians and I could intuit where those unfinished lines were going, an unschooled audience was left to play a guessing game, having to make do with grunts of tension in place of delivered ideas. It took a long time for players like Hank Jones, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and me to get pupils to realize that the linear approach is not enough on its own. Bud may have symbolized an era, but not true piano mastery.”

Billy Taylor indirectly references this criticism with the following anecdote. “Mary Lou Williams came to Monk and Bud and said, ‘You guys are too good not to have the kind of piano sound you should.’ She brought them to her house, fed them and hung out with them for a while, and literally changed their sound at the piano. I don’t recall the exact date, but each was recording for Blue Note at the time. If you listen to some things from maybe two years later, you’ll hear the difference.”

Today’s jazz people learn touch and everything else in a less homegrown manner, and perhaps the evolution of jazz vocabulary has led younger aspirants to consign Powell to the outer branches of the piano tree. “Bud Powell exemplifies the language of bebop, and he’s the starting point for contemporary jazz piano, so you have to check him out,” says Edward Simon. That being said, Simon sees Powell’s position on the timeline as specialized. “Bud’s harmonic concept was modern at the time,” he says. “But most people today draw on later pianists for harmony. I think his contribution was more in the way he breathed his lines, and connected the notes smoothly, in a legato style, which isn’t easy to do on a piano.”

“They’re the more developed pianists,” says Hazeltine of Hancock, Tyner and Chick Corea. “It’s more impressive at a first listening. Bud’s music isn’t as polished and smooth and slick as, say, the classically schooled Herbie Hancock. I know Bud played Bach and referred to classical music, but that’s not where he’s coming from.”

Hancock is on record that “every jazz pianist since Bud either came through him or is deliberately attempting to get away from him,” a point which Eric Reed elaborates. “Bebop is useful under certain circumstances, but if that’s where you stop, you’ll be limited,” he says. “I think many piano players, great as they think Bud Powell is, try to use that vocabulary in their own way. Listen to Herbie’s solo on ‘Seven Steps To Heaven’ with Miles Davis. It’s in the bebop style in his phrasing and the way he runs the lines, although the notes and harmonies are very different.”

“Bud Powell is definitely in the top ten of the greatest jazz pianists that ever lived,” Reed continues, and numerous pianists, young and old, still regard Powell as the sine qua non. “Most of the younger pianists that I’ve heard, even Chick and Herbie, don’t attempt to get Bud’s rhythmic power,” Billy Taylor says. “Younger pianists play very well, and technically much cleaner in some respects. But I don’t hear that physical will to make the piano do certain things—Willie The Lion used to call it making the piano roar. I don’t think they have the point of reference. Most of them don’t want to spend that much time to get Bud when they don’t think the end result is what they’re looking for.”

Still, Charlap notes, 21st century pianists have much to learn from Powell. “His solos have no loose or wasted notes, and every note clearly relates to the bassline and underlining harmonies,” he begins. “But he also was so free with the rhythm, and created such rhythmic nuance within the line, like playing drums on the piano. It’s not like playing a perfectly even Mozartian scale.  But you have to be able to play those notes very evenly to be able to make the choice of how to make the rhythms pop the way that he did. A Bud Powell solo will deal with all manner of rhythmic devices; he had them at his disposal all the time and would rest on any place of the beat. His solos aren’t just the notes, but the attitude and the way the notes speak—like trying to get wind behind the notes. Bud made that all come through at the piano. I can see how someone who is approaching the piano from Chopin through Liszt may be more dismissive of using the piano to do vocal or drum-oriented things. But before they’re dismissive of it, I’d like to hear them sit down and do it.  It’s a different way of approaching the instrument.  I tell students, ‘It looks the same, but as a jazz musician this isn’t the same instrument that you play Chopin on.’”

“I tend to think of him as a tragic genius, which is found in all the arts,” Moran says. Tormented and impoverished, Powell died in Brooklyn, not long after his 42nd birthday. But his search for truth and beauty at all costs will resonate as long as musicians seek apotheosis in the act of musical creation. Barry Harris recalls a revelatory conversation with a New York pianist of his acquaintance. “He said him and some cats went by Bud’s house early one morning,” Harris relates. “He was playing ‘Embraceable You.’ They said, ‘Come on, let’s go and have a ball.’ Bud said, ‘No.’ So they left and did whatever they were going to do, messed around all day, and when they returned that night, and knocked on Bud’s door and went inside, he was still playing ‘Embraceable You.’”

As Harris puts it, Powell practiced playing, and he wasn’t doing it for a school assignment. It was the most serious thing in life.  “A lot of us take this for granted, but they were actually CREATING bebop on such a high level,” Moran says. “It was like a science, and they put a lot of time and experimentation into their process. That’s what makes this music so revered, and everybody HAS to refer to it. Some people can’t stop referring to it.”



Filed under Article, Bud Powell, Jazziz, New York, Piano

It’s Gary Bartz’s 71st Birthday: Three WKCR Interviews From the ’90s

Below are the proceedings of several interviews I conducted with alto saxophonist Gary Bartz — who turns 71 today — on WKCR on different occasions during the ’90s.  The first, from February 1997, captures his remarks during a 5-hour restrospective of his musical production; following it is a composite interview drawn from encounters in 1990  and 1995 (one of them—can’t remember which—was a Musician’s Show). There’s some repetition of anecdotes and analyses, but they’re different enough that it seems worth it to offer both.

Gary Bartz Profile (2-9-97):

[MUSIC: “Tico-Tico” (1994), “Impressions”]

The conjunction of hearing you perform music by Charlie Parker and the ever-present influence of John Coltrane in your sound gives me a good starting point for the interview — to talk about your initial exposure to their music, the impact of that music on you. I know you had contact with Coltrane.  Did you ever see Charlie Parker in the flesh as a youngster?

Actually, one of his last performances in ’55, he came to a club in Baltimore called the Club Tijuana, which happened to be right around the corner from where I grew up.  Unfortunately, I was around 14 years old and couldn’t get in there, and nobody could take me, so I sneaked out of the house every night — even though I was going to school — and went around, and tried to wait outside, hoping he would come out.  I met a lot of the musicians when they came out on a break.  I met Johnny Hodges, I met Lockjaw Davis, I met a lot of people like that.  I could hear him because there was a french fry place right next door attached to the club which had swinging doors whenever the waitress would come in, but the bandstand was situated so I couldn’t see him.  So I never really saw him, but I heard him live.

Well, you’d assimilated a lot of his recordings and studied them as an aspiring saxophonist.  Do you remember your first consciousness of his music and where you were in your development?

The first time I heard Bird I was 6 years old, and I didn’t even know what a saxophone was.  I didn’t know that’s what he was doing.  If someone had told me, “That’s a piano,” I would have thought that’s what it was.  But I knew right then that I wanted to do that.  Whatever it was he was doing, it just caught me.  So it was at an early age, at 6.  I didn’t get a saxophone until I was 11.  But in retrospect, I realize that I listened through those five years before I got the horn.  So I was actually studying the music before I got the instrument.  Which is why I always say a lot of people who say, “Well, I used to play” or “I don’t play an instrument”…a lot of people are musicians who just don’t play an instrument.  I mean, their ears are just as keen as a musician’s, and sometimes even better than a lot of musicians’ ears.  They just never worked on learning an instrument.  So when you’re playing music for a lot of people, especially the more knowledgeable fans, I consider them as musicians also.

Your having the opportunity to hear the Charlie Parker record so young implies that your parents were aware of him and playing the music around the house, and I gather your mother was a pianist as well.

Well, she played in church.  But actually, yes, they did have a lot of the music around the house.  We had almost everything Nat King Cole did, and a lot of things like that. My uncle, who was my father’s youngest brother, he was the real Bebop fan.  He had the Charlie Parker records and the Dizzy Gillespie records.  He used to come to New York and shop for clothes.  He had a nickname.  He was so sharp, they called him Sharp Bartz, because he would always come back from New York with the slickest stuff, the latest records and stories about musicians.

Baltimore was part of what was known as the around-the-world circuit on the Eastern Seaboard for Black performers.  It would be Boston-Washington-Baltimore-New York.  Would you go to hear a lot of the acts that came through?

Yes.  The first time I can remember really seeing live music was at the Royal Theater.  To this day, that for me is where music should be presented, is in a theater.  Nightclubs are close to the public, but you don’t really have people’s undivided attention.  There are other things that are really more important when you’re working in a nightclub.

You were coming up at sort of the tail end of the big band period.  What’s a sampling of who you’d see?

Louis Jordan.  I was a big Louis Jordan fan.  I actually think I may have heard Louis Jordan before I heard Charlie Parker.  His humor attracted me, and the alto  playing and the swing attracted me also.  So I remember definitely seeing Louis Jordan.  He had a revue.  He had a chorus of beautiful women dancing — a big show.  I saw Duke Ellington there.  The house was also a good band.  That’s the first time I ever saw Albert Dailey.  He was in that band.  I remember sitting there watching a show, and I saw this young kid come in and ease the older guy off of the piano bench, and he took over.  I said, “Wow.  My hero.” [LAUGHS] Then I met Albert and we struck up a great friendship, musically and otherwise.

Does this imply that as a teenager, let’s say, when I’m assuming this happened, you started playing with various like-minded peers, or even for small-change type of gigs around Baltimore?

Yeah.  Actually, my first solo was in church.  I played “I Believe.”  That was actually the real beginning.  Then I played a few solos in school, the same “I Believe.”  That became my signature tune, so to speak.  Then we formed a dance band from the high school band I was in (City College High School), and from that dance band there were various factions who would play dances and parties and different functions.  So that’s how it started.  Then I started meeting other people.  I started going out to the clubs.  My father used to take me out to the jam sessions.  That’s how I met John Coltrane and Benny Golson.  I met them both together.  They were in town with Earl Bostic, and I met them at a jam session.  Benny said he and John went back to New York saying, “Man, there’s this young kid in Baltimore” — unbeknownst to me, because I didn’t think I was doing anything.  But I started meeting musicians by going out to clubs like that.

You were able to sit in, even, at a certain point?

My father, he was pushy… One time we went down to see Sonny Stitt, of all people (because I love Sonny Stitt), so my father went back and spoke to him and that I played and that my horn was out in the trunk.  So of course, Sonny Stitt made me get up… I really didn’t want to get up there, but he made me get up and play a Blues.  I’m just about 14 years old.  He took me through all the keys on a Blues.  Fortunately, I didn’t know one chord from the other, they were all the same to me, so I was just going strictly by ear — so I played all of the keys. [LAUGHS] He liked that.  So we struck up a friendship which lasted also.

Any other sitting-in experiences that come to mind as memorable?

Well, that’s actually how I met Max.  I went down and sat in with Max.  Again, my father — “Yeah, he’s good.”  So Max said, “I want to hear this kid.”  They’re trying to show you’re not that good.  So I went up and Max played “Cherokee”.

A classic strategy to defeat a neophyte.

Yeah.  But Bird was my man, and I knew “Cherokee.”  That’s when I met Clifford Jordan, who became a lifelong friend.  I think Julian Priester was in that band.  And Max also said when and if I came to New York to look him up, gave me his number, and when I came about three years later I did look him up, and he and Abbey looked after me and helped to raise me, really, in my formative years in New York, and finally asked me to join the band.  That was the first professional band I was ever in.

You came up in a time when the boundaries were less strictly defined or stratified between the Art aspect of Jazz and the popular function of jazz.  It seems to me that’s had a big impact on the way you’ve approached music through your career as a musician.

I don’t know if you mean during the early years, when things were more segregated.  And Baltimore was a segregated city right straight down the line.  We had Black high schools, we had White high schools.  In the public park we had a Black swimming pool, we had a White swimming pool.  Everything was totally divided.  My mother couldn’t try on clothes in the department store.  I didn’t realize what this was a kid; that’s just the way things are, you know.  But I know I used to wonder, “I wonder why she’s not trying that on.”  Later I found that out.

But when I started coming out into the club scene, it seemed like it was the end of an era where… The theater brought people together.  You would have on the same bill a jazz group, an R&B group, a comedian, a dancer, a singer –you would have a complete thing.

And at a pretty high level.

For sure.  Consequently, they had to travel together going from town to town.  They’d spend six months out of the year together traveling sometimes.  So there was a community, is what I’m trying to say.  There was a definite community.  Because it was segregated, we couldn’t stay in certain hotels.  You had to always stay in the Black hotels.  When you went to Chicago you stayed in the Hotel Evans, at the Dunbar when you went to Washington, uptown at the Theresa in New York, in Philly.  So there was a good sense of community.  That has eroded.  We don’t even know each other now.  The actors don’t know the dancers; they don’t know the musicians.  The rappers don’t know the singers.

It’s very segmented.

Very segmented.  And I think that’s to our detriment, to everyone’s detriment.

In asking the question (and I think your answer was very thought-provoking) I was also thinking more in terms of the pure aesthetics of the music.  The jukeboxes would mix let’s say Nat Cole and Louis Jordan and Charlie Parker and Wayne Shorter’s “Wrinkles” or something like this.  Styles were more mixed.  Can you address it from that end?

Well, I think that still goes on, the deeper you get into the Black community.  That still happens.  There are certain clubs in different cities that I go into, and you’ll have Billy Eckstine with maybe Babyface.  You’ll have a Charlie Parker, you’ll have a Dinah Washington, you’ll have Aretha Franklin, you’ll have Michael Jackson.  See, we don’t think like that, as segmented…to segment things out.  I’m sure a lot of people are like that.  But if you look through my record collection, you’ll see everything.  I don’t know whether I’m a good example.  But if you look through a lot of people’s record collection or CD collection, I think it’s varied.  They might not tell you that they listen to some of that stuff! [LAUGHS]

Your record album, The Blues Chronicles on Atlantic, brings to mind a lot of the work you did in the 1970’s with the NTU Troop and the various recordings that many of your fans are quite familiar with, and which they’re probably waiting to hear us play.  Part of what I was leading to with that question was your interest in narratives and using music to present a broader picture than just a purely musical experience in a very conscious way.

Early on also, in studying musicians and composers, I ran across something about Beethoven, who happened to be one of my heroes.  Talking about his symphonies, he said he would write a light symphony and then he would write a heavy symphony.  He would mix it up.  He wouldn’t do everything heavy-heavy-heavy or everything light-light-light.  He would write the Eroica and follow that with the Pastorale.  I thought that was a good way to go.  So I’ve tried to do that with my recording career.  I started out with Libra, which was to introduce me to the record-buying public.  Then my second album was very heavy (for me anyway), called Another Earth, about Life — Life everywhere to Infinity.  If it’s about Life, it’s about Death, so it’s about everything.  Then I followed that with a lighter album, then a heavy album, then back and forth, back and forth.

What has happened, though, even the light albums now are more or less concept albums.  Because when I think of an album, I no longer think of just putting some songs together.  There has to be a reason to do that.  So the songs have to connect in some kind of a way.  So I guess every album that I do lately has been a concept album.

[Bartz, “The Five Dollar Theory” (1996); “Rise” (1969); “Parted”; “Celestial Blues”]

There are so many questions raised listening to the music in a set like that.  I’d like to get more into biography, talk to you about your coming to New York, the connections you made here, and your emergence as a professional musician in the jazz community.  I gather you came to New York to go to school.

Yes.  I came to New York in 1958, and went to Juilliard for about two years, and met a lot of musicians — Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard.

You didn’t meet them at Juilliard, I take it.  Or did you?

No, I didn’t meet Freddie.  I met Lee at Juilliard, though.  Addison Farmer, Andrew Cyrille, Grachan Moncur, Bobby Thomas, Roland Hanna — all were going to Juilliard at the time.

What was the curriculum like at that time?

I was actually an extension student, so I wasn’t going full time.  But full-time, they were taking English classes, History, all that.  All I wanted to work on was music, so that’s what I opted for.  But it was a full curriculum.  They also had the dance wing.  It was extensive.

What was climate like, say, in 1958 in an institution like Juilliard for someone who was interested in playing Jazz?

[LAUGHS] Jazz was like… We talked about in the corners.  You didn’t talk about it in class.  But that’s really where I learned chords, harmony and theory, was from the musicians.  Grachan Moncur in particular kind of guided me as far as that’s concerned.  Then we’d go out and night and play.  There were a lot of jam sessions going on.  Count Basie’s.  You could go up to Branker’s up where the 155th Street Bridge is.  Babs Gonzales had a room over top of Branker’s in Harlem called Babs’ Insane Asylum, which lasted for a few years, and we worked up there and had jam sessions.  The Bronx.  You could go to Brooklyn, the Blue Coronet, the Baby Grand.  There were so many places to go.  So whatever neighborhood you lived in, there was someplace to go.  You had the Continental in Brooklyn, and the Turbo Village.

Speaking of sitting in, things that come to mind:  One night at Turbo Village, I noticed this man… We were sitting, waiting for the next set to go up and play, to jam, and I noticed this man was staring at me, this very intense stare.  I got up and moved, and I realized he was still staring at the same spot; he wasn’t really staring at me.  But when we went up to perform, I realized that was Bud Powell.  So I actually played two songs with Bud Powell in my life [LAUGHS], which was something — I’m telling you.  I still remember it.  I know we played “Bud’s Bubble” and I can’t remember what the other song was, probably a blues.  But that was a unique experience.

It sounds like an incredibly exciting time to be a young musician in New York City.

Yeah, I think it was.  It was the end of an era, the tail end of the Bebop Era.  Bird had passed three years previous, and things were just beginning to change.  Rock-and-Roll was beginning to take over a lot of venues.  But still there were many more clubs open and many more places to play.  Being the end of the era, it was still happening.  So I feel fortunate that I did come at that time.

Some of the things that happened around then were the emergence of Ornette Coleman during his Five Spot gig, John Coltrane recorded “Giant Steps” and those discoveries, Max Roach was doing things like the Freedom Now Suite and Percussion Bitter Sweet, Mingus was really extending his music.  Were you apprised of all these developments and the new things that were happening in Jazz at that time?

Oh, yes.  Actually, I met Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk performing with Charlie Mingus down at the Village Gate.  He had this big band jazz workshop, an improvised big band, so we’d go down.  The sax section was being led by Eric, but Rahsaan… I don’t remember who else was in the band, but I remember that.  This was ’58 or ’59.  Charles would just come over to each section leader and hum what he wanted you to play, and then cue you, and then we’d play it.  It was a totally improvised big band setting, and that was exciting.

I remember when Ornette came to town.  That was the talk of the town.  I mean, everybody… I think I was in there almost every night, whether I was in there or outside.  Miles came in one night, Dizzy came and sat in with him, Philly Joe sat in one night.  Just everybody was coming down and wanted to see, “What is this new music?”  So that was just a very exciting period.

Then you could go up to Count Basie’s and jam up there.  Anybody might come up there.  I remember many a night coming home on the subway with Freddie Hubbard and Andrew.  They lived in Brooklyn.  I lived uptown, in Washington Heights, but I would spend a lot of time in Brooklyn.  So I eventually moved to Brooklyn. [LAUGHS] All my friends were in Brooklyn.  Just everywhere you went.

How about as far as beginning to work with other people’s bands or starting to formulate your own sound and aesthetic?  You’ve mentioned some of your earlier associations.  How does that start coalescing into a career?

I remember my first gigs in New York were out at Far Rockaway with just an R&B band.  That’s a long ride on the subway.  I’d go out to Far Rockaway, and we’d do these gigs every weekend.  So that was really my first gigs.  Then a few gigs here and there, and things happened.  Turbo Village, I did that one week, with Andrew Cyrille and Grachan Moncur.  Then Max called me in 1964, and that was my first really being in a professional band.

So you’re 23 years old, and joining Max Roach.  Since your experience at 15 or 16 playing at presumably some supersonic tempo by Max Roach, you had kept in touch with him, you mentioned before.

Right.  We never lost touch from that time period.

On the next segment, we’ll hear earlier recordings, beginning with Gary Bartz with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers — an uncredited composition, nor is Gary credited on the back of the jacket.

That was actually my first recording.

How did you come to join the Messengers?

Oh, that’s a good story.  Actually, they were working at my father’s club in Baltimore.  My mother and father had a nightclub for about five years, from 1960 to 1965, called the North End Lounge, primarily so that I’d have a place to play.  I mean, that was a big sacrifice, even though my father liked doing that.

So were you commuting back and forth from New York to Baltimore?

Yes, I’d do the reverse commute from New York to Baltimore on the weekends, and come back to New York during the week.  John Hicks was in the band, and Charles Tolliver, who was not in the band…Lee Morgan was actually in the band, but Lee wouldn’t show up a lot of nights.  So Charles would follow the band around sometimes, and in case Lee wouldn’t show up then Charles would make the gig.  They knew John Gilmore was about to leave, so we all being friends, Charles and John and I (and we had groups together around that period), they encouraged Art, “Call this guy, Gary Bartz.”  My father said, “Yeah, you’ve got to…”  There he goes again!  My agent.  He would have been a good agent.  So my father called me and said, “Well, look, Art is going to need a saxophone player, so why don’t you come down here and sit in with the band, let him hear you” — which I did.  As John says, Lee cosigned it, because Art would have never hired someone without Lee’s okay.  But they liked what they heard, and I joined the band right there in my father’s club.

The track we’ll hear is “Freedom Monday” which is credited to Art Blakey, but it’s Gary’s composition!  This is from Soulfinger on Limelight…

It has Freddie and Lee.  Like I say, Lee might not show up, so Art, to cover all bases, asked Freddie to come down just in case Lee didn’t show up.  Lee showed up, so we have Lee and Freddie both on this record.

[MUSIC: GB w/Blakey, “Freedom Monday” (1964); GB w/Max, “Libra” (1965); GB w/McCoy, “Smitty’s Place” (1969); Bartz, “Disjunction” (1968)]


…Jack de Johnette, who was on drums, that wasn’t electric.  Miles was electric, Keith was electric.  Dave Holland was playing bass when I joined the band, and he was playing acoustic and electric both, at different points.  It was so loud sometimes that I’d get so frustrated.  I would feel like “nobody can hear me, what am I doing here?”  I had never really been in a group with that much electricity associated with it.  The speakers would sometimes be 12 feet tall!  They’d put two 6-foot speakers on each side of the stage.  It was loud.

You were playing arenas and even stadiums occasionally.

Sure.  Most of the time we were playing big, big venues.  So like I said, I didn’t think I would last too long.  But I guess he liked what he heard.  So finally I said, “Miles, I can’t hear.  It’s too loud.”  He said, “Well, tell the sound man!” [LAUGHS] So I told the sound man, and I never had a problem.  He made sure I could hear myself.  So I began to learn how to deal with sound and being loud or being heard, or how to play, or how to deal with different contexts.  If I’m playing in a loud group, you can’t play the same way as you would play in a more acoustic group.  So you begin to learn how to play in different settings.  That was very helpful to me.

What had been your interaction with Miles Davis before joining the band?

Well, I used to see him all the time.  I used to see him at Birdland.  We would speak, say hello, just from seeing each other so much.  And I guess he knew who I was, because he would go out a lot to listen to music.  In the early days he would never hire a musician unless he had heard him in different circumstances, and unless that musician had served apprenticeships in other groups.  You were well-seasoned by the time you got to Miles.

But one memorable occasion was the Count Basie engagement, which was the famous… I was working with Max.  We did ten days at Count Basie’s in Harlem.  The bill was Max Roach and Miles Davis.  You couldn’t get near the place.  I mean, literally, you could not get near that place.  Cars, people crowded right on that corner.  So that was the first time that I really knew that Miles knew who I was.  One night he came in to see me with McCoy, and that next week he called me to join the band.  I don’t think he came in to see me with McCoy, but he came to see somebody with McCoy.  I won’t mention who it was, but he was thinking about using them in the band.  He came in and heard me in the band, and he ended up calling me.  When he called me, I didn’t think it was really him.  Because friends tease each other, so we would call each other up and, [MILES WHISPER] “how you doin’?  This is Miles.”  “No, this isn’t Miles; I know who this is.”  So when it really happened, I thought it was a friend just teasing me.  And it took a couple of minutes to realize, “Unh-oh, this is the real thing.”

Joining the band did you just come in cold?  Did you go in and hit and had to find your way as you went along?  Was there any orientation?

Well, there was a little orientation.  We rehearsed.  Miles rehearsed the band.

What was the band when you came in?

Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea both.  Chick hadn’t left the band when I first joined.  So when I joined it was Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Airto Moreira, and Dave Holland.

Now, you were a very well-seasoned player by this time and had covered a lot of different types of music, but as far as I know you hadn’t played in any situation quite like this before.


What did you have to do to function in that ensemble?

Actually, just solo was the main thing.  If I remember, the first few concerts we hadn’t really rehearsed.  We just went in and Miles would tell me when to play, and I would play.  Later we rehearsed, especially when he was hiring Michael Henderson, because Michael needed to learn the music — he knew nothing about that music.  So we had a lot of rehearsing around that time.  But other than that, all I had to do was just play solos, play the Blues. [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC:  GB w/Miles, “Sanctuary” (1970-Vienna); GB, “Black Maybe”; GB/Miles, “What I Say?” (1971)]

We’ll move now to more NTU Troop material from the early ’70. These bands had quite a contemporaneous, but haven’t been in print for many years.  Talk a bit about how you conceptualized NTU Troop after leaving Miles Davis.

As you probably heard on the “Black Maybe” cut, I was using a wah-wah pedal on the saxophone, which was a direct result of having worked with Miles Davis and watched him use that wah-wah pedal.  But it’s funny, because the whole time I was with Miles I never used any electronic equipment, other than the microphones.  But after I left the band, I started experimenting on my own time and everything, and I used the wah-wah pedal for about five years in various settings.  Originally, the idea of NTU Troop was to synthesize all of the musics from Africa, whether it be R&B, Rock-and-Roll, whether it be Jazz, whether it be Blues, Latin, Afro-Cuban…

The continuum of Transafrican music, as it were.

Yes.  Most people seemed to either…it was a Bebop band, it was a swing band, it was this kind of band.  I loved all of the musics, and still do love all types of music, and don’t want to be pigeonholed into playing one certain thing.  Because this is what I hear.  And when you listen to a jazz musician, you should be hearing the music from that man’s or that woman’s mind.  I don’t really consider a true Jazz musician who only performs or records what a producer hears for him.  That’s not Jazz.  That’s Pop.  That’s what the record industry wants.  But Jazz has never… You would never go to Duke Ellington and say, “I don’t want to record the Sacred Concert, but why don’t you just do some Gospel tunes?”  I mean, you can’t do that to a Jazz musician!  But I’ve been seeing it more and more in these days, which is unfortunate.  But a true jazz musician has to go his or her own way, and whether it be bad or whether it be good, you have to follow that path and see where it leads.

One of the things that distinguished NTU Troop was your use of spoken word and poetry, blending black narratives with black music.

I’ve always loved poetry.  Poetry and songs are the same for me.  Poetry might not have the music setting, even though you can hear it.  So I started adapting a lot of poems of some of my favorite poets.  “I’ve Known Rivers” is an adaption of “A Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which Langston Hughes wrote.  I did a Countee Cullen poem called “Incident.”  Paul Lawrence Dunbar.  I still read a lot of poetry, and have ideas to adapt different writers.  So that was one thing, the poetry.

Then also, I realized that music without words is the purest form of language.  But it can be misunderstood by a lot of people who are maybe not following it or don’t understand music so well.  So I felt a need to use more words to explain some things and directions that we were going in.

This is a time when jazz clubs were disappearing in Black communities around the country, much fewer than a decade before.  I’d imagine the idea of wanting to reach people with this music was very much on your mind at this point.

Yes, that played a part, for sure.

[MUSIC: GB, “I’ve Known Rivers” (1973); GB/JMac, “Ode To Super” (1974)]

We’ll stay in the ’70s with music by the Norman Connors group with whom you recorded numerous times.

Eight or nine albums we did.  That was a very good relationship.  One of Norman’s good qualities is that he knows how to put a band together and knows how to put musicians together.  He’s a good producer.  Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke, all good people.  I don’t think he ever had a bad record.  So it was always a good occasion.  We didn’t have a copy of that You Are My Starship album, which actually was a gold album, but that’s when I met Phyllis Hyman.  That was Phyllis’ debut on records, and she went on to be big in the industry, and of course we all miss her.  Norman brought out a lot of people.

The date with Jackie McLean brings me back into personal anecdote and recollection.  I gather he was one of the musicians who you admired for many years going back to teenage years.

Oh, sure.  I had met Jackie early on, when I first moved to New York.  At least by 1960 I know I had met Jackie, and had loved him always before I even moved from Baltimore, before I came to New York, had all of his records, listened to him, followed him.  While I was going to Juilliard, Grachan Moncur started working with Jackie and started doing recordings, so I used to go hang out with him and sat in with Jackie a few times.  We became friends and have maintained that friendship.

He’s a musician who shares your interest in narratives and adding to the purely instrumental context words and dramatic situations.  Some words about other saxophonists who were influential on you.  You’ve made no bones about your allegiance to Sonny Rollins, the great tenor player.

Yes, indeed.  That’s one of my favorite musicians of all time, and one of my favorite people.  A lot of people say, “Oh, you look like Sonny,” and I started wearing a goatee and trying to look like Sonny for a while.  This was when I was a teenager, of course.  But I go back with Sonny from the beginning.

You mentioned once in an interview that you used to go hear him, and one thing you liked was that from night to night you never knew what sound you were going to hear.

You never knew which Sonny.  I know when he was at the Vanguard I was down there every night, and he was there for like two weeks.  One night you might hear him play all Lester Young songs all night, “Three Little Words,” “Tickletoe,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” all songs associated with Prez, and he would actually a lot of times play note-for-note Prez’ solos, which was very impressive to me, because I realized that he knew all of these solos.  I  didn’t know a lot of those solos, but after hearing him play them it made me really want to go listen to Prez even more.  Another night he would play all songs associated with Coleman Hawkins — “Stuffy,” “Cottontail,” “Body and Soul.”  He would again play Coleman’s solos note-for-note before he would play his solo.  I mean, he would play maybe a chorus or two of the recorded solos that they made famous.  Then another night he’d be Sonny.  Another night he’d be in a Calypso bag.  So I’m paying attention to everything.  He wasn’t limited.  You don’t come in and play the same thing every night, or even play in the same way every night.

So that impressed me, and when I formed a group… Actually, the first band… This is even going back further.  But the first band I ever led was in 1958.  I’ve been a bandleader since 1958!  Grachan Moncur and I took a band on the road.  We took a band to Pittsburgh, to Crawford’s Grill.  So that was my initiation.  Jeff Jefferson was on bass.  Arthur Stanley Trotman, a young drum whiz who would have been one of the great drummers had he lived, he died at a very early age, very tragic.  He OD’ed in a doorway in Brooklyn.  They found him.  He was no more than 17 or 18 at the time.  We had become real good friends, and he’d stayed at my house in Baltimore.  But we went on the road, and he was in that band. Grachan, Arthur, Jeff Jefferson, the bass player from Baltimore, and the pianist was a friend of Grachan’s from Newark, New Jersey, and I can’t remember his full name, but his nickname was Hip (we called him Hip) — so Hip played piano.  Hip was like a Monkish-Randy Weston-Herbie Nichols kind of player.  He was really hip.  The stuff he did for musicians was hip.  The layman might not have thought he was too hip because they might not have understood what he was doing.  I don’t know whatever happened to him.

You mentioned meeting John Coltrane around 1954, but I gather you knew him and stayed in touch with him throughout your time in New York City.

Sure.  If he was somewhere close by, I was there.  I never really got too close to John because I was in such awe of him.  It was like whenever I was around him, I felt stupid. [LAUGHS] Some people affect you like that.  Two people in my life have affected me like that, Malcolm X and John Coltrane.  There was nothing I could say that could make me sound like I was really saying something to them.  So I didn’t say anything much.

When would you be in proximity to Malcolm X?

I used to see Malcolm every day because I used to eat in the Shabazz Restaurant off of 116th and Lenox, and he would come in every day about that time from the Muhammad Speaks office where he would work doing the newspaper.  He would come in and have dinner and shoot the breeze.  Sometimes I’d follow him.  He would walk through the neighborhoods and talk to the brothers and sisters.  He would see the prostitutes and see the drug addicts, and he wouldn’t reprimand them; he would just give a warm greeting and say, “Brother, you know that’s not the way; you could do better,” or tell the sisters, “You can do better than that; don’t let this happen to you.”  And they loved him.  So that was good.  I would also see him in Louis Michaux’s bookstore across from the Theresa Hotel near that diamond store there (I forget what that store was).  He would be in the back sometimes, debating or discussing things with Mr. Michaux, Black history or politics or something.  And where we weren’t privy to go back in the back unless we were invited, we could still hear the conversation, so we would stand around and listen.  Sometimes we were even invited back there and he’d say, “What do you think about this?”  He wanted to know the young person’s opinion.  Also in Michaux’s bookstore, whenever you went in there, you didn’t have to buy anything, which is my idea of a real bookstore.  He would have certain books open each day or each week, and things highlighted and things for you to read and just see.  It was a very interesting bookstore.  If I ever had a bookstore, that’s the way I’d run it.

Those are all part of the dynamics of what made the music of that time what it was in many ways as well.

I think so.

The quality of hearing Sonny Rollins over a week in a club playing in a different way all the time, is that… How do you approach a week in a club?  How do you set yourself up to play something dynamic and fresh and different every night, when you might be playing the same material for the four thousandth time or whatever?

Well, there’s lots of ways.  For instance, when I worked with Miles, for two years we played the same show every night, without too much variation — changing a song here, maybe “Sanctuary” a little earlier.  But basically it was that same order every night.  And most bands end up doing that, because you go with what is working.  If it worked the first few nights, it’s going to work most nights.  It would get to the point I’d say, “Oh, man, I hope we do something different tonight,” and we never would.  But what would happen every so often, Miles would play the songs differently, and take them into an altogether different area or different direction which opened it up for everybody else, which  made me realize, “Okay, we’re playing the same thing every night, but I don’t have to play the same thing. I’m a soloist.  I can take it in any direction I want to.”  So that freed me as far as playing the same music.

Also in acting and comedy, which are two of my pet loves.  I like to do comedy, and I like people like Redd Foxx and Henny Youngman and Bob Hope and people like that, who come out and tell jokes, and they tell them the same way every night.  That is not me.  I’m an improviser.  Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, people like that, Eddie Murphy even (who comes from Bruce and Richard) showed me how to deal with that.  And in acting, where you have to say the same lines every night is parallel to playing the same songs every night.  But I’ve done a few plays.  I even played a lead in one play.  I found out that if you read the lines different, you get different reactions.  So there are different ways of reading the same lines which will give a whole new meaning.

So there is no end to… You should never get bored doing the same thing, because it’s not the same thing.  First of all, it’s a different audience.  Secondly, you’re different each night.  I might be in a different kind of mood, so I’m not going to play the same way I did the night before.  And listening to Sonny and listening to the different musicians, listening to Trane… Now, Trane approached it in another way.  Trane worked hard.  Every night… He had practiced all day long during the day, so when he came to work each night he had something new and fresh to play.  Even if it was the same song, he could take in a whole new direction on something that he had worked on earlier that day.

So I try to use all of these things.

To me, when I hear Gary Bartz play in 1997, or the last decade, you seem to have arrived at a style (I’m going to speak in gross layman terms) that kind of blends the language of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane in a very distinctive way.  I wonder if you have any comments about the way of improvising you’ve arrived at.  It’s been many years now, and you’re playing in different situations than you did 20-25 years ago.

To me, it’s just a synthesis of everything that has led up to this particular time.  I’ve been influenced by many people outside of music, which if you know those people you could hear me play the influence that they had given me, even though they never thought about being a musician or whatever.  It might be a little phrase that someone says that catches me, and I incorporate it into the music.  Just like a writer or just like any artist, you’re influenced by life, not just music and not just by musicians.  Life is the big influence.

[MUSIC: GB w/N. Connors, “Butterfly Dreams”; GB, “Music Is My Sanctuary”; GB, “Singerella”]

We’ll hear music from The Blues Chronicles, which dovetails quite well… I think the last three hours of programming is a good introduction to anyone who wants to hear what life and career experiences of Gary Bartz buttress The Blues Chronicles.

Actually it just grew.  It was not originally going to be such a big project.  It was going to be an album — you know?  As I started formulating it I thought, “I’m going to do a blues album,” and as I started putting the songs together for the Blues album I thought, “Do I really want to do an album like a Blues player?  If you want to hear that, you can go listen to B.B. King or Albert King or Bobby Blue Bland or any of the great Blues singers.”  I said, “I think I want to give my interpretation of what I think the Blues are.”  And I do hear the Blues in many places that a lot of people might not hear them.  For instance, some people thought it was a stretch for me to include “Miss Otis Regrets,” which is a Cole Porter tune and not a 12-bar blues by any stretch of the imagination.  But the sentiments involved are Blues, where the woman, who happens to be a rich lady, so this can go to all social strata…

That’s what the Blues is supposed to do.

That’s what it’s supposed to do.  And she finds out that her boyfriend, her lover is messing around, and she goes down and shoots him.  They put her in jail.  The line keeps going when her friend comes to see her…she has a tea appointment, a lunch appointment; the butler opens the door and says, “Sorry, Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today; see, she shot her husband.”  To me, you can’t get any more bluesy than that.  Blues is not, as most people think, just a 12-bar form.  There’s a 5-bar blues on the album, “Makes Me Want To Moan,” there’s a 20-bar Blues; they’re in all different contexts.  A lot of people don’t realize also that the original blues singers and players, you probably never really heard them, because they never felt a need to conform to a 12-bar form.  They might do a 12½-bar form one chorus, the next chorus maybe 14 bars.  And because that began to be a problem… If you were going to have a band, you have to have some kind of criteria.  So if you’re doing a 12-bar blues form, each time it’s going to be 12 bars, so everybody will know where they are.  But the early guys, they might do an 8-bar chorus one time, in the same song the next chorus might be 11 bars or 14½.  In researching a lot of Blues players and listening to them, I realized that a 12-bar blues form is just the most popular form.  So I was trying to show the different areas.  And also the Bob Marley; that to me is Blues.  Flamenco music in Spain is very Blues oriented. Ceseria Evora from St. Verde Islands, that’s Blues to me.  I hear it everywhere.  I hear the Blues in Ravi Shankar.  I heard it in a recording of some Pygmies from deep in the bush.  They had never been out of the bush, out of their forest.  They sang a line which I have heard B.B. King, I have heard Blind Lemon Jefferson, I have heard many musicians over the years do the same phrase that I heard these pygmies do.  Therefore, you know where it comes from.  But I’m sure B.B. never heard those pygmies.  Well, I don’t know; he may have heard them.  But a lot of people who have never heard those recordings of the pygmies or Africans singing in the bush still do it because it’s part of you.  So that’s basically what the album is about.

[MUSIC: GB: “Hustler’s Holler 1-3”; “Passage: Song of The Street””]

Those were the segues that hold the album together.  “Hustler’s Holler” was basically from my childhood in Baltimore.  We had a tradition called Arabbing, where people, young men usually (or older men, too; I’ve seen them in all ages), rent or buy or own a wagon, and they rent or buy or own a horse, and they attach the horse to the wagon, and they’d go around the streets of Baltimore selling products — vegetables, fish, whatever they can get and sell.  They each had a cry, and you could hear them from blocks away coming down the street so you’d know which person it was.  If it was the one that you’d bought from, then you’d go out and buy the goods.  So that’s kind of where that came from.

In thinking about it, everybody’s got a hustle.  Everybody is hustling something, whether it be church, you’re hustling souls, you’re trying to get people to go to church, or whether you’re selling records! [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC: GB, “Song Of Loving Kindness”]

My band has    been together for about two years, so it’s a real band.  Greg Bandy and I go back to the ’70s when he first came to New York, and he worked with Roy Ayres, with Pharaoh Sanders, with Betty Carter, Arthur Prysock and many other people.  We’ve always been friends and band-mates through the years.

George Colligan is a young pianist who is going to make a big name for himself, I think.  Every time I’d go to Baltimore and I’d need a rhythm section and would hire George, every time I’d hear him I’d see so much growth… That’s one thing that really impresses musicians, when you can actually hear and see the growth from one gig to the next.  So I when I had a chance to form a band, I definitely had him in mind.  So he’s been with me for a couple of years.  The same thing applies to James King, who is originally from Houston, Texas, but resides now in Maryland.  Like I say, we’ve been together for quite a while.  We’ve traveled all over the world, and hope to continue to be a band.

[MUSIC: GB w/R. Drummond, “Poor Butterfly”]

* * * *

Gary Bartz (WKCR, 10-24-90/1-18-95):

[MUSIC: “Uncle Bubba”] [With George Cables and Ira Coleman at Bradley’s.]

You’ve been thoroughly grounded in Jazz from the beginning.

My mother played piano, and my parents had a lot of records, but my uncle, my father’s youngest brother, the youngest one of all, actually had the records that really got my ear.  They called my uncle Sharp Bartz, because he liked to dress.  He would come up to New York and buy the slickest clothes, and come back, so he’d really be slick in Baltimore — because Baltimore was kind of country, you know.  But he was into the music.  My uncle had the Louis Jordan records; he had the Charlie Parker records.  The first time I heard Louis Jordan, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and you name it, was at my uncle’s.  My uncle was friends with Dizzy Gillespie, and he was very good friends with Dinah Washington and a lot of the musicians.  So I would hear him telling stories, and I would always ask.  So it was in my background, I guess.  I used to go by my grandmother’s house, and that was the one thing I looked forward to.  Not even the food or the company.  I wanted to hear the records!  And that’s what got me started.

Were you listening to a lot of radio, too, as a child?

Oh, yes.  I’m a product of radio, really, because TV’s were not in households when I was small.  I can remember our first TV was… I mean, it stood on the floor, and the speaker part was, like, probably up to your waist, and then there was the cabinet with the screen, but the screen was like 12 inches or 10 inches!   It was this big box and this little TV screen.  Now it’s the other way around.  You have big TV screens… Well, big boxes, too, but it’s all the screen.  But yeah, I listened to a lot of radio.

Now, you came up in Baltimore?

Baltimore, Maryland, yes.

Now, your parents actually were in the Jazz business, as club owners?

Well, they got into it.  They weren’t into it until the Sixties.  My father more or less bought the club for me to have some way to work, which is unbelievable! It lasted for about five years, and it was called the North End Lounge.  A lot of people worked there.  Max Roach.  I worked there with Max.  I joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers from there.  They were working at my father’s club.

Were there musicians in your family?

No.  Not that I know of.

So listening to this music inspired you to pick up the  horn, or were you doing it…

No.  When I was 6 years old I heard Charlie Parker, and I didn’t know what this was.  I didn’t know what instrument, I didn’t know anything.  At six years old you can’t know that much.  It could have been an organ for all I knew.  But I liked the sound of it, and I knew that I wanted to do that.  Whatever this was, I said “I have got to do that,” which is weird, because at six… That just shows you how open a mind is at that age, and if the mind is subjected to something as positive as that, there’s no telling what might happen.

Well, did they put you on the alto saxophone right away?

No. It took me five years to really convince them that I really wanted to do this. [LAUGHS] So I didn’t really get a horn until I was 11.

Was it an alto?

It was an alto, yes.

So you’ve been playing the alto sax for a very long time.

Quite a while.  Are you trying to get my age?

No, that’s a matter of public record.

It sure is!

Anyway, we’re about to start off the music segment of the show with Lester Young’s “Tickletoe.”  I’d like to know when you first became aware of Prez.

Actually, I had always been aware of Prez.  But when I was younger, because I was into Bird so much, you know, Prez was kind of old-time to me.  As I studied Bird more and more, I heard Bird loved Prez and that’s where Bird came through, so I said, “Well, as much as I love Bird, I’ve got to go back and see where he came from.”  And that’s when I really got into Prez.  It really wasn’t until after he had died, too, which was a shame — because I never saw Prez play live.

Early on I heard a story that Prez, whenever he played a song, before he’d count it off, or rather than count it off, he’d hum the whole first chorus, or sing the whole first chorus, you know — and then you went into the song.  Art Blakey knew the lyrics to all the songs.  Miles, Dizzy, they all knew the lyrics.  Sonny, Coleman Hawkins.  So I realized that’s important.  I started learning the lyrics to the songs, and by learning the lyrics, then I could sing the song.  Because that’s actually what we are.  We are singers in the purest sense of the word, because we don’t even use a language.  We use the language of music — pitch.   So it’s very important.

[MUSIC: Lester Young, “Tickletoe” (1939); “Let’s Fall In Love” (1951); “All Of Me” (1956); “Sometimes I’m Happy” (1943)]

Next up are some songs by Louis Jordan.

Every Sunday, like I said, when I went by my grandmother’s, I had to hear “Saturday Night Fish Fry.”  I know it by heart.  And I’m not alone.  A lot of my contemporaries know that, and also “Beware.”  I used to go to the Royal Theater in Baltimore, which was part of the circuit (you know, with the Apollo and the Howard in Washington), and hear him sing these songs.

Was the Royal Theater the place where all of the big bands would go through?

Yes. I heard everybody from Louis Jordan to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers — because I saw them…they were there, too.  Because I was so young, my father would take me, and that’s the first place I ever saw live music, was in a theater.  To this day I think it’s best presented in a theater.

You probably don’t have quite as much opportunity as you’d like…

No.  But more so in Europe.  There are nice theaters over there.

[MUSIC: Louis Jordan, “Saturday Night Fish Fry”, “Beware”]

“Saturday Night Fish Fry” contains philosophical lessons that I’m sure you’ve put to good use.

Oh yes.  I mean, what did he say?   He said, “You don’t have to pay the usual admission if you is a cook, a waiter, or a good musician.”  I liked Louis Jordan because he was funny.  As a kid, like, 5-6 years, I’d hear “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” and I liked because it was such a funny thing.  It was almost Rap, what he was doing.  I’m highly influenced by Louis Jordan, too, because I love comedy.

We’ve been listening to Lester Young and Louis Jordan.  Now it’s time for Bird.

I had the 78’s of “In The Still of The Night” and “Old Folks.”  Every time Bird came out with a record, I was the first one at the store, or among the first anyway.  This particular record was a 78 of “In The Still Of The Night” backed with “Old Folks” — and I wore several of them out.   Then, “Repetition” and “Just Friends” with the strings.  I love to hear Bird play with strings in the big band situations.  I mean, I loved all the situations, but these were more off of the norm, so they kind of stuck out.

[MUSIC:  Bird, “In The Still Of The Night”, “Old Folks”, “Just Friends,” “Repetition,”]

This material, and indeed just about everything we’ve heard in this first hour of tonight’s program is material that was on the jukeboxes throughout black communities at the time it was released. It was the popular music of the time.

Of the day, yes.  It sure was.  It got to a point at my folks’ club, that they were beginning to phase those records out when Pop Music was beginning to come in, and it got harder and harder to find the Jazz records to put on the jukebox.  So that’s a part of Americana that’s disappeared.

While were playing “In The Still of The Night,” you mentioned you had the 78 of it, and you could see a spot on  it, where you practicing the phrase, that you had worn it out.  I take it that as a young saxophonist, you were avidly studying Charlie Parker and trying to play all his… Is that how it went?

Yes.  I tried to play him note for note…if possible.

Did you have any teachers in this regard, who were giving you tips, instruction…?

No, not at that time.  It was mostly the records.  I learned from the records, until I got into senior high school, in ninth, tenth through the twelfth grade.  Then I had teachers.  I started taking private lessons, which did help.  My first teacher was a man by the name of Mr. Albert Holloway.  I credit him with starting me in the right direction as far as technique is concerned.  He concentrated on solely technique and reading.  From him I learned that you don’t learn everything from any one person.  You have to have many teachers along the way.  And each one, if they can give you something, then they’ve done their job.

What kinds of things did he start you off with?  Was it always an alto?

It was always alto, yes.  Well, he taught me how to read, first of all, which was important.  Then he would jot down songs.  I would say, “Well, write this out for me,” when I would hear a song that I wanted to learn, and he would write it out, and I would learn it and phrase it, and we would go over it.  Nothing involving chords, because I don’t even know whether he was into that.  But as far as learning how to read and playing, getting over the entire board of the horn, he taught me that.

When did actual playing come into your world, playing with little combos, playing jazz or whatever with other musicians?

Probably when I was about 13 or 14. I would say about ’52 or ’53.  See, I had been listening to the music since I was  5 or 6, so it was in my head.  I knew the chords, I knew what I wanted to do from listening for so long, so that when I got the horn, as soon as I could make sounds, I would start to… Like, I would play along with Charlie Parker.  I would play along with Earl Bostic.  I would play along with Tiny Bradshaw, because Red Prysock was  in the Tiny Bradshaw band.  They had a lot of hits.  One I remember is “Heavy Juice.”  It was an instrumental, but it was hot, man.  So I learned the whole thing, Red Prysock’s solo, and tried to sound like him.  So I was initially trying to sound like a tenor.  I always heard tenor, even though I loved Bird.

Does the tenor concept lay naturally on the alto sound?

For me, because the alto is a very funny instrument.  I think it’s the hardest of all the saxophones.

Why is that?

Because of the sound.  It’s such an individual sound; the alto is more of an individual sound.  Most people can pick up a tenor and immediately have a decent sound.  But you can’t do that with the alto.  You can do it with a soprano, if you can get a sound — it’s a decent sound.  But on the alto, it just takes many years to get a sound, and it’s more of an individual type thing, you know.  So that’s why I think it’s the hardest.  I’m sure that’s debatable, but that’s how…

I’ve heard other alto players say that as well!

Well, I’ve heard tenor players say it, too.  And there are a lot of tenor players who started out on alto, and I guess were not satisfied with their sound, and the sound they got playing tenor was more pleasing to them.  But it just takes so long to get a sound on the alto, many years.  And it’s always developing.

When you were 12, 13, 14, were you seeing musicians who came through Baltimore from out of town?

GB:    Oh yeah. Because I was into the music, me and my partner in high school… There were two of us who were into Jazz in elementary school, he was an artist (he’s a painter)…and myself.  So we would go downtown, buy the records and buy the albums, and buy the concerts.  And my father would take me to the major concerts and to the clubs, you know, whenever they came to New York — which they came to New York a lot.  I used to go down to Birdland…

Oh, by this time you’d moved to New York?

No, I hadn’t moved… I didn’t move to New York until 1958.  But they would come up periodically, especially in  the summertime, and take me to Birdland, because that’s the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else, is come to  Birdland.

And they had a balcony where kids…

The Peanut Gallery, they called it, where they had no drinking.  They should have that in every club.  If they can have a non-smoking section… They need to have that, too, but that’s another story.

But I was just around the music.  I saw Art Tatum in Baltimore.  I saw Sonny Rollins, who was one of my idols, and went up there and got his autograph, petrified… Just a little kid!  I stood outside of a club around the corner from where I grew up, waiting for Charlie Parker every night, because he was in there.  I heard him, you know, but I was too young to go in.  Most of the musicians would come outside the club for a smoke, or to get some fresh air — and he never came out.  But I peeped in there every night.  That was a few months before he passed.

You also mentioned that in your teens, musicians sometimes would invite you to come on the bandstand.

Oh yeah.

You mentioned one such experience with Sonny Stitt.

[LAUGHS] Well, again, my father was always taking me around, because I couldn’t get in the clubs by myself, being so young.  When I was 14, I went to see Sonny Stitt at a club in Baltimore called the Comedy Club.  I happened to have my saxophone with me.  I must have been somewhere else, you know, because I used to go to the jam sessions, too, and sometimes they’d let me play!  But this particular time, my father goes up to Sonny Stitt and says, “Yes, my son plays,” and so on.  And if you know Stitt, that’s like, “We’ve got to get him up here.”  He got me up, dragged me up on the stage, and had the nerve, at 14, to take me through the keys on the Blues!  At that age, I knew nothing about chords, but I could hear.  It didn’t make no difference.  C-Sharp was the same as C to me, because I didn’t know what it was.  I didn’t know it was supposed to be hard.  So I did it.  And I’ve known him ever since; we were friends ever since then.

By the way, a man named Mickey Fields, who lived in Baltimore, was one of my heroes.  He was just a natural musician.  He could play whatever he heard.  And that influenced me, because I started out, as most musicians do, or as most musicians did, as an ear musician.  I don’t know whether they still do, because they have schools nowadays.  But we had to start out by ear, as ear musicians.  I think that is a thing that a lot of musicians have lost, or lose as they get older.  The more that you know, the less you begin to rely on your ear.  You stop trusting your ear because you trust the notes.  You know, if the chords are written and you’ve memorized them, then you know they are right.  If you’re going by your ear, maybe you might hear something that might not be there — but that’s okay.  So I stress that: Don’t lose your ears.

Is that something you have to constantly remind yourself of?

No, I always work on that.  But there was a time when I had gotten away from it a little bit, and yeah, then I had to remind myself.

In a conversation we had off-mike you said to me that you’re writing a lot of music now so that you can work on things that give you difficulty, that you don’t know so well.

Yes.  Well, actually that’s what Trane was doing when  he wrote a lot of his songs.  If he was having trouble with something, he’d write a song, and that enabled him to work on it.   So that gave me the idea, and I’ve been doing that on a lot of things that I have done.  I mean, why play things that you know?  I mean, that’s for me.  Some people, that’s okay, you know, if that’s what you want to do.  But for me, I need to push myself.  I like to work on things.  I’m always working on something.  So that’s the way my compositions are going nowadays.

How so?  Which way is that?

Towards there should be a reason, you know, for it.  Even if I write a Blues, I’m looking for a key that I don’t play it in often, so then I can work on that key.  But I mean, I’ve played in B-Flat so many times that… It’s so comfortable, you know, sometimes you could get lazy.  I’m not saying that you do, but it’s a possibility.  But if you play a Blues in B, you don’t have time to be lazy.

Back to your teenage days in Baltimore, I take it that the Jazz scene was strong enough that everybody would come through at one time or another.


So you must have had a taste of everything that was going on in the 1950’s.

Yeah, I saw everybody.  Oscar Pettiford.  I saw Art Tatum.  I saw Miles with Trane, Philly Joe, Red Garland and Paul Chambers, saw that band.  Max Roach.  I didn’t see Clifford [Brown], but I understand he was around Baltimore a lot. But you know, I wasn’t out on the scene so much.  You know, I could only go out like once every so often.  Bird spent time in Baltimore.  A lot of people.  It was really a  fertile music town..

We’ve been talking about how Jazz could be heard readily on jukeboxes when you were coming up, and the next track is a particular favorite of yours.

GB:    This track was Part 1 and Part 2.  I hope it’s the full version. I think it was Wayne Shorter’s second record date, but I think it was the first one that came out.  The album is called Kelly Great; it’s Wynton Kelly’s album.  This was a big hit in the Black neighborhoods.  It’s called “Wrinkles,” and if you know what wrinkles are… They’re chitlins.  That’s the slang word for chitlins, “wrinkles.”

[MUSIC: W. Kelly/L. Morgan/Shorter, “Wrinkles” (1960)]

The great Lee Morgan on trumpet.  Lee Morgan was only 21 when he did this record! And did you hear that?

It seems like you could make a great four-hour show on the things Lee Morgan did before the age of 22.

Right?!   You know?  I mean, it’s unbelievable.  This is around the time that I met Lee.  He was working with Dizzy Gillespie when I met him.  Of course, he was a hero, because he was about my age; I think Lee was about two years older than I was.  I was like 18, 19, you know, and here he was, like, the same age and doing, you know, what I wanted to do.  So I followed him around.  That’s how I met Wayne, too, because he took me to New Jersey one night and said, “I want you to hear a saxophone player.”  And I’ve been a Wayne Shorter fan ever since, too.

That track also was with, of course, Wynton Kelly (it’s Wynton Kelly’s album), Philly Joe Jones, who is another one of my heroes, and Paul Chambers, who is the same thing, another hero.

[MUSIC: Miles Davis, “Tadd’s Delight” (1958); Messengers with Bartz, “Soulfinger” (1964)]

That was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers doing a composition called “Soulfinger.”  That happened to be my recording debut.  It featured, of course,  Art Blakey, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard, Victor Sproles, John Hicks and myself.  This was a collaboration of everybody, because we needed one more song to finish out the record — so we came up with this.  And Lee was a big James Bond fan…

Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.

No?  [LAUGHS] So he was a big James Bond fan.  So Goldfinger the movie was out, so we called this “Soulfinger.”  I remember around this time we were in San Francisco, and he took me to a… He said, “Come on, Bartz, I want to show you something.”  We walked downtown somewhere, and we go in this store, and he’s looking around, and he says, “There it is, there it is!”  It’s a case of guns.  I said, “What?”  He said, “That’s the P.K. Walter.  That’s the gun that James Bond uses.”  That’s how I got into James Bond.

You also mentioned that you have a fascination with soundtrack music.

Yeah, I do.  I love soundtracks.  That’s why I moved to Los Angeles.  I was going to break into the movie industry!  But little did I know!

Anyway, this Jazz Messengers session was your first recording date.  How did you come to join the Jazz Messengers?  What was the process?

Well, as I said earlier, Art was working in my father’s club, the Jazz Messengers, and John Gilmore was in the band, but John Gilmore was leaving.  John Hicks and I had been friends for, you know, years, and Charles Tolliver was also on the gig, because he was taking Lee’s place whenever Lee didn’t show up.  So they called me.  They said, “Gary, come on down.”  I was living in New York at the time, because I’d moved to New York in ’58 — but this was in ’65.  So they said, “Come on down, because Art’s going to need a horn player, a saxophone player.”  So I came down and played, and I joined the band from there.

Actually, the next gig was with John Gilmore and myself.  We came up and did the Half-Note.  And Lee Morgan.  Lee rejoined the band.

John Hicks was then the piano player?


Was he the music director?  Or was there one at that time?

It was between Lee and John.  Lee wasn’t on all the gigs, because he wasn’t showing up a lot…you know, sometimes… So whoever was there.  But it was between those two.

Just briefly, your comments on your experience with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

Oh, that’s a university there.  That’s really a university.  Go get your Masters.  When you leave Art, you really know how to build a solo.  I mean, Art builds the solo for you.  He shows you how to contour a solo.  That’s how I learned dynamics.  Art teaches you dynamics.  He teaches you so many things.  I learned how to speak on a microphone working with Art.  One night he just gave me the mike, and said, “Now make the announcements.”  I couldn’t even think of anybody’s name!  I couldn’t think of Art Blakey.  It’s endless, the things I learned with Art.

How long was your tenure with the Messengers?

GB:    Well, the first time was a year, and then I went back and was in other bands of his, of the Messengers.

You mentioned in another conversation, “Once a Messenger, always a Messenger.”

Always a Messenger.  That’s right.  I think I was talking to one of the younger Messengers about this, telling them how Hicks and I found out we’d lost the gig one time.  We heard them advertising on the radio, “Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on the Jazzmobile today.”  So we called each other and I said, “Have you heard from Art?”  He said, “No.”  He said, “We’re working tonight, right?”  He said, “Yeah.”  I said, “Well, let’s go together.”  So we went uptown to the gig, and there was a whole new group on the stage!  That’s how we lost the gig.  But later on he called us back, and we came back and did other stints with the band.  So it just dawned on me, you know?  I was always a Messenger.

[MUSIC: Messengers, “A La Mode”, Mobley/Blakey, “Remember”]

Soul Station is my favorite Hank Mobley album.  He once gave me an ultimate compliment, because he wrote a song for me — which I never heard.

We’ll move now to another of your favorites, who you met after moving to New York in 1958.  That must have been a big step for you musically and I guess in many other ways.

Well, I think that’s why musicians and other artists come to New York.  I think in the last century, Vienna was where you had to go, if you were a musician, to learn and to prove yourself.  In this century, you come to New York.  So I couldn’t wait to come out of high school so I could come to New York and learn.

And in ’58, September, to be exact, of ’58, I moved to New York.  I met a lot of people.  Freddie Hubbard had moved to New York in August of ’58.  So there was a lot of people around.  I met Andrew Cyrille, I met Grachan Moncur at Juilliard.  Lee Morgan was in and out of there.  Addison Farmer, Art Farmer’s twin brother.  Roland Hanna was going there.  Bobby Thomas.  A lot of people were going there.  A lot of great dancers who went on to Broadway fame and to win Tony’s and stuff, they were going to Juilliard.  Juilliard was up on 120th and Claremont then, where Manhattan School of Music is now.  They were just in the talking stages of moving down to Lincoln Center then.  So that’s where I was.

So you were combining the academic experience, I assume, with the fairly vigorous nightlife available in New York…

I think you’ve got it backwards.  The academic part was the nightlife.

Actually, I went there with the intention… I said, “Well, I’m going to learn my chords.”  Because I was playing totally by ear.  They didn’t know what I was talking about when I asked them to explain chords to me.  So I ended up learning chords from the musicians that I met there, and from hanging out at night.  That was my real learning experience.

Later on, I was better able to use the things that I learned at school.  But at the time, I was not into Mozart and Beethoven and people like that.  I was into Bird and Diz and Miles!  And Juilliard was a strictly Classical-oriented school.  So I had a bit of a problem adjusting to it.

Well, talk about the academics of the nightlife, then, and some of your professors, as it were.   What were some of the spots you would go to?

Count Basie’s.  I know we used to jam at Count Basie’s with Freddie Hubbard and Andrew Cyrille.  I used to go to a place called the Speakeasy down on Bleecker Street.  That’s where I met Pharaoh Sanders, and we started hanging out.  They had a lot of people down there.  Trane used to come in there all the time.

We used to go to George Braith’s place, his loft, which was over on Spring Street down in the basement.  He had the most beautiful loft.  You’d go down there, and instead of… There was no alcohol, you know; it was whatever you’d bring.  And he had chairs hanging from the ceiling, beautiful hard-wood floors, sofas… I mean, the most comfortable chairs!   And what would happen, people would come down there, listen to the music and fall asleep, heh-heh; they’d wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning.  And it was cool.  We’d still be playing.

We used to go to Kiane Zawadi’s loft and play, you know, for days on end.  We’d go up there and buy food, chip in and buy food, sleep there, and play whenever we got up, and just have marathon sessions… It was always a learning experience.  I remember one time Grachan Moncur found all of these lead sheets of Monk’s music, all of his music.  So we went down to Kiane’s loft down on Allen Street, and we stayed there for about three or four days until we’d played every song he found — every Monk song.  Different rhythm sections would come in, and spell each other.  That was fun.

Self-generated education.  Talk about the vibration in New York 30-35 years ago vis-a-vis today. Can a young musician replicate that kind of experience now?

Oh, I think so.  Yeah.  I mean, I think that the need to learn and the urge to learn does that.  I mean, we wanted to learn this music so bad, we would do anything to learn it.  Actors are the same way.  Artists are like that, painters, and writers — if you want to learn something, you will find a way.  And we found it however we could, and we just worked hard, and then we took what we learned from each other home, and worked on that.

I’d also like to talk about the spiritual dimension of  music at this time.  This was a period when just cataclysmic upheavals were happening in society, and they were certainly reflected in the way the music presented itself.


You came to New York as, I’m assuming, a young guy really into Bird, within ten years you were involved with the Ntu Troop projects, extended structures and so forth… Talk a little bit about how your attitudes towards music changed in that time, if they did change.

I don’t think they have changed.  What happened was, you know, you start meeting other people, and exchanging philosophies, exchanging outlooks on life, and talking… For instance, I used to go up to Micheaux’s Bookstore on Seventh Avenue and 125th Street, and I used to see this tall guy, red-headed guy in there; he would be in the back sometimes talking to Mr. Micheaux, and they would be debating about Black history.  It turned out that was Malcolm X.  So I was around him a lot, and listening to what he said, and listening to Micheaux talk about African-American history, and buying the books.  Because when you went in his store, he would have books open to certain pages every day and things underlined that were important, and you’d come in and you’d read them, you know.  So I took that back to Baltimore with me when I would go back, and exchange ideas… It was just a growing thing.  I would talk about things with people that I would meet from everywhere here in New York.  Then I started working with Max Roach, who was very socially conscious and was a friend of Malcolm’s.  And I met Adam Clayton Powell, and a lot of people like that.

So that had a lot to do with me starting the Ntu Troop, because the Ntu Troop was a social commentary group.  I mean, we could have fun, we could party, too; like, “People Dance,” that was a party song.  But also we did things like “Uhuru Sasa,” you know.  So it was just like everything… It’s the whole gamut, and it goes the whole way.

The next set of music features another one of my buddies.  This is Jackie McLean.  When I met Jackie, Grachan Moncur was working with him, Grachan introduced me to Jackie, and we have been friends ever since.  Now, I’d loved Jackie’s playing for years, ever since “Dig.”  So that’s back to the beginning. Thjis one is called “Bluesnik.”

[MUSIC: JayMac, “Bluesnik” (1961); Sonny Rollins, “Blues For Philly Joe:” (1958), with Max, “Gertrude’s Bounce” (1956)]

Sonny Rollins I know has been a major person for you throughout your musical career.

Yes, he has.  I had a chance to meet him… Like I said, my father had a club, and he also used to promote concerts.  He promoted a concert with Sonny at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore, and I was the opening act, so that’s when I met Sonny.  So I have known Sonny since the early Sixties.

Did he use a local band for that?

No, he brought his own band, but I don’t remember who was in the band.

Did you?

Did I use a local band?  Yeah, I did.  It might have been John Hicks, Mickey Bass, Joe Chambers. That’s who was working at the club with me down there.  Joe Chambers….

Are there any existing documents of what you were doing at that time?  Tapes?

Probably some tapes somewhere.  I don’t know where they are, though.

At any rate, you were familiar with Sonny’s records, as you said before, going back to “Dig.”

Oh yeah. I can’t remember the first time I heard Sonny.  I think it was… It probably was the Dig album.  And I fell in love with him, and I used to see him all the time here in New York.  What impressed me and helped me was, if he was working at the Vanguard, say, I would see him one night, and that night would be like Prez night; Sonny would play like Prez all night, and would play Prez’s songs, “Three Little Words” and things that were associated with Prez, and play Prez’s solos sometimes note-for-note before he would go off into his solo.  The next night, maybe Coleman Hawkins, and he would do the same thing.  Then the next night would be Sonny.  So I used to go every night, as you see!

We have cued up music by John Coltrane.

I met John and Benny Golson together when I was about 14 years old, at a session in Baltimore. They were actually working with an R&B band with Bull Moose Jackson.  Some of you might be familiar them.  “Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well?” which was his big hit.  I met them, and so I had been following both of them, Benny and John, through the years.

But you know, the first time I heard Trane on record, I didn’t care too much for him.  The first record I heard was the one on the Transition label, out of Detroit, wasn’t it…?  And he was a little different.  I mean, I’ve since, of course, made up for that, because I have everything he ever did, and would be up under him as much as I could.

John Coltrane was known to be very encouraging and supportive to young musicians…

Oh, he was.

…and would have people come up sometimes to play.

Yes.  I could have, but I wouldn’t dare.  I was learning enough just listening.  After he finished, what was I going to do?  I wasn’t a masochist.  John was so intense.  I mean, his need to learn and his will to get the music out impressed me.  And for me, that’s the way I wanted to be, was to  be such a hard worker like that.  Because really, this music is a lonely thing.  You see us out in the clubs, you know, and that’s like party time when we’re playing, when we’re performing — or you know, at concerts.  But our work is really done at home, and no one sees that.  You know the legends of how hard John worked.  He would practice sometimes 23 hours a day, you know.  So that impressed me.

In researching things, you find out that Bird did the same thing… There’s no other way.  You just don’t play this music or do anything at that level without putting the time in.  And it might have looked like Bird didn’t work that hard, but believe me, he worked just as hard.  He might had other things that made it easier for him, like photographic memory.  I mean, that’s a big help!  Perfect pitch.  Those things are big helps if you’re a musician, or if you’re an actor or something.

So you just have to put in the time, and that’s what John showed me.

[MUSIC: Coltrane/Pharaoh, “The Father, The Son and the Holy Ghost (1966),” “Nancy With The Laughing Face” (1963)]

By the time Meditations came out, Gary, you had already begun recording.  You had worked with Max Roach, and about a year after Meditations you did your first record for Milestone. You recorded several records for Milestone up to around 1970.  Then you began working with Miles Davis, and the music started to change.  The choices many musicians were making began to differ around that time, and there were many reasons for it.

Yes.  I remember when I joined Miles, I was really not into electronic music at that time, and I was the only one in the band who was not electrified.  And I had many problems, you know, those first gigs, because everything was so loud! — and here I am with just a saxophone.  They had amps and speakers and pedals and fuzz-boxes and everything, and I’m just trying to deal with it.  But I did grow to understand electronics.  I mean, a microphone is really the beginning of electronics!  I mean, if you’re using the mike, you’re already electrified.  So I guess there wasn’t a big step.

I think Jimi Hendrix probably was a transitional figure for a lot of musicians.  I guess Jimi was really a Jazz musician playing Rock.  I know Miles loved Jimi, and that made me listen to him — because I was not listening to him before that.  I always loved, as you heard earlier, the R&B with Louis Jordan, and I loved James Brown, I love…

When you asked me who did I see at the Royal, I was thinking more of Jazz, but who I really saw more were people like James Brown, Little Richard many times, I saw Clyde McPhatter, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino — you can name them in that idiom.  I saw everybody.  And I always loved that music, because it’s the same music!  I mean, it’s the same experience.  Had they been the same age and in the same city at the same time, John Coltrane could have gone to school and graduated with James Brown, but yet they both would have played the same thing, knowing each other, being friends, but yet one playing one kind of music, or what we think is one kind of music… It’s really all the same music to me.  Like Duke Ellington said, “There’s only two kinds of music, good and bad,” and that’s the way I… That’s my philosophy.

So making the jump…it wasn’t really making a jump.  It was making a jump to people in the business or maybe critics or people like that, but it wasn’t making a jump to me.

Now I just love this song.  I think this is a funky song.  And it is.  And it i-yiz.  This is Bootsy, and this is a song they called “Hollywood Squares.”

[MUSIC: Bootsy, “Hollywood Squares,” Parliament, “P-Funk Wants To Get Funked Up”]

Well, all right!  Ha-ha, make my… Okay.  That was George Clinton doing “P-Funk Wants To Get Funked Up.”  I just saw, that was Tiki Fulwood on drums, who has passed away.  He worked with Miles for about a month; we worked together.  That’s how I ended up meeting all of the Merry Funksters.  Before that you heard “Hollywood Squares” by Bootsy Collins, and that was also produced by George Clinton. What an innovator he is  I mean, he started a lot of things.  Actually these were all the same bands, but they were different record labels and different names and different monies.  But it was the same band.  You know, he started that.  Prince is a big fan of George Clinton.

George, if you go to see his concerts, you’re going to really hear some music.  And you won’t hear tapes… When  I say you’ll really hear some music, you’ll really hear musicians playing.   Which is kind of rare nowadays, because most of the Pop artists bring tapes, because they can’t emulate what they do on the records.

They’re so produced also, those records.

Yeah, it’s so produced, but even the ones that are not produced, they can’t… I mean, it takes them a long time.  They do, like, take after take until they get it right.   That’s one thing about Jazz which makes the initial investment kind of low, because we can go in and give it to them in one or two takes.  These guys go in, and they’ll work on a song for like a month.  One song! But George can go do it in one take, too.  I mean, they sound better… A lot of times in person it sounds better than the records.

Well, turning to your recordings, Gary, you always seem to approach sessions as kind of an extended drama or narrative within the music.


The music sort of bears codes within it that tell a larger story.

To me, albums are a musician’s version of books.  They are books for musicians.  So just like you have mystery novels, you have fiction, you have biographical novels, autobiographical, comedy… It runs the gamut.  From probably my first album, I have been into concept albums.  Why am I doing the album?  What’s the purpose of the album?  Is it just to do some originals?  Is it to show what your arrangements are on standards.  Or it goes deeper than that, like Another Earth, which was an album dedicated to Life, you know, and the Universe.  So it goes everywhere.

I read something where Beethoven, when he would write his symphonies or when he would write music, each one… He went from a light symphony, like Pastorale, to a heavy symphony like Eroica.  So he would go back and forth, from light to heavy, light to heavy.   So I’ve kind of kept that in mind, and tried to do that sometimes.

This sort of raises a question of extra-musical influence, as it were, the other phenomena of life that impact upon your concept of music-making.  Your albums are full of references.  Have movies, books, inspired your ideas about music from your beginnings as a musician?

Oh, sure.  Artists, I think, are inspired by everything and everyone they come in contact with.  Just like you may have a certain inflection on a little thing that you do that I may interpret into the music.  So that means you influenced me.  So I can be influenced by… I walk down the street and see somebody, and I say, “I like that,” and I may end up interpreting…you know, putting that in the music.

Well, you’ve been in the music really from…

GB:    Day One!  [LAUGHS] Seems like it.

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Recent Pieces For The Morton Report

For the last few months, I’ve been contributing pieces to a general interest zine called The Morton Report, which is starting to make its presence felt in the more mass market regions of the Internet. If anyone’s interested, I’m offering links to an interview with guitarist Stanley Jordan in conjunction with his new recording, an interview with graphic designer Cey Adams on the branding of Def Jam, a review of Columbia/Legacy’s recent official issue of five Miles Davis concerts in Northern Europe in the fall of 1967, a review of the new Manfred Eicher documentary, Sounds and Silence, and an email interview with Pat Metheny about his recent Nonesuch release, What It’s All About.

Also, if you haven’t seen it, the current issue of DownBeat is running a feature article of mine on Steve Coleman.

I’ll return to the archives next week

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Randy Brecker’s Uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test

Went to the Blue Note last note to hear Randy Brecker and the “Brecker Brothers Reunion Band,” for a DownBeat caught piece. I won’t give away the goods on what transpired, except to say that no one is playing more trumpet than the elder Brecker brother, who unfailingly cuts to the chase with a fluent virtuosity that has the feel of Freddie Hubbard circa, say, 1972.

Seems like a good time to run the uncut version of the Blindfold Test we did in 2008.

Randy Brecker Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Marcus Printup, “Hot House” (from PEACE IN THE ABSTRACT, Steeplechase, 2006) (Printup, trumpet; Greg Tardy, tenor saxophone; Kengo Nakamura, bass; Shinnosuke Takahashi, drums; Tadd Dameron, composer)

Obviously, “Hot House,” which is no easy task to perform. No piano. Sounds like a contemporary take on it, which is interesting. Maybe something Russell Gunn might do. It’s a good solo, good feel. Russell would probably be my first guess. My second guess would be Roy, but it’s not quite Roy’s sound. Not Russell? Well, I like pianoless quartets. There’s a lot of open space in this, and they have a very nice feel. If it’s not Russell, it’s somebody who has what I call a really good jazz trumpet sound, and he’s listened to the tradition of the instrument. The tenor player sounds like somebody I know, but I can’t quite place it. Let’s see if I get it on the fours. No, you got me. The tenor had a little Lovano in there, but it’s not him, and I can’t quite place the trumpet player. But both were excellent soloists, both could utilize the full range of their instruments and play great within the bebop tradition with a hint of modernity with the arrangement, which is completely contemporary. For execution and musicality, 4 stars. There wasn’t anything I suppose amazingly original, but it was really well-done and swinging. I have no idea who the bass player or drummer was. It could have been Tain maybe.

2.   Enrico Rava, “Felipe” (from THE THIRD MAN, ECM, 2007) (Rava, trumpet; Stefano Bollani, piano; Moacir Santos, composer)

Nice trumpet sound. Maybe a little too much reverb on the trumpet, on the recording. It might be one of those audiophile recordings with one microphone in the church. The pianist has a very nice, light touch, which I like. Also a nice in-and-out harmonic sense. The trumpet player has a really nice, open trumpet sound, probably some classical training. But I’m finding it hard to nail down who it is or what the tune is either. Boy, you got me on that one, but once again, it was a very nice performance, for me kind of a strange recording, probably a really large, open room, or maybe they added a little too much reverb, but it was a really good performance and, whatever the tune is, very well-written—maybe it’s an original. Moacir Santos? Ah. I’d say 4 stars. I enjoyed both the solos, and the trumpet player’s tone. He constantly came up with ideas. Enrico? That’s interesting. I played with Enrico in the ‘60s, but I still know him more as a less harmonic, free player. We were both at the time heavily influenced by Don Cherry, and that’s how I remember him. I know his playing has changed a lot in the ensuing years, and he practices more. I remember hearing an interview where he… You can tell that he spends a lot of time on the instrument. His tone is completely different than it used to be. A very, very nice tone. ECM? For me, there’s still a little too much reverb on that one.

3.  Tom Harrell, “Va” (from LIGHT ON, High Note, 2007) (Harrell, trumpet, composer; Wayne Escoffery, tenor saxophone; Danny Grissett, piano; Ugonna Okegwo, bass; Jonathan Blake, drums)

Sounds like an original composition with difficult changes. The trumpet player is doing a good job of negotiating the changes, so maybe it’s his tune. Man, this tune just keeps going and going! I’m waiting for the changes to stop for a second. But they’re doing a good job with it. Conversely, recording-wise, for my taste, this is a little too dry-sounding. The trumpet player has a nice, light touch, really relaxed. I have no idea who it is yet. I’d probably like to hear this tune open up somewhere in the tune. It’s a lot of chords. All in all, I like the tune, the melody, but again, I feel harmonically there should have been some kind of open section, especially with the three solos. The solos were all good. The trumpet player was kind of influenced by Miles. It was a little too locked in for me to kind of tell who anybody was. 3½ stars. Tom Harrell? So that’s Wayne Escoffery. That’s pretty good. Once again, it didn’t sound like my conception of Tom. That was Tom’s tune, obviously. Good tune, but I wouldn’t want to play on it.

4.   Avishai Cohen, “Gigi et Amelie” (from Third World Love, NEW BLUES, Anzic, 2007) (Cohen, trumpet, composer; Yonathan Avishai, piano; Omer Avital, bass; Daniel Freedman, drums)

Nice tune. I wonder who this is. Maybe composed by somebody in the band. Doesn’t sound like American guys. Maybe South American. Charming comes to mind, the way they’re playing the tune. This is a charming rendition, heartfelt. Once again, it’s a nice, open trumpet sound. It’s hard to hear the sound with the Harmon mute before. I don’t think it’s him, but it has somewhat of a Kenny Wheeler vibe, though I don’t think it’s him. Another Italian guy? For some reason, I don’t even know why I say this, but I was thinking Argentina. Anyway, it was a really pretty tune and they played it well. 4 stars. Avishai? I was a little off geographically. I just heard Avishai at the Blue Note a couple of nights ago and he sounded really good. But it’s hard to make the connection. So far, everyone’s sound is very nice, but it’s hard to pick out individuals in general—but that’s a sign of the times. Now, I just heard the same group a couple of nights ago at the late night set at the Blue Note, and they sounded very good, so maybe I should have recognized it. Plus, they have the same name, so if they married each other it would be good.

5.  Graham Haynes, “Oshogbo” (from Adam Rudolph, DREAM GARDEN, Justin Time, 2008) (Rudolph, percussion; Haynes, cornet; Ned Rothenberg, alto saxophone; Hamid Drake, drumset, percussion; Kenny Wessel, electric guitar; Steve Gorn, bansuri bamboo flute; Shantir Blumenkrantz, acoustic bass; Adam Rudolph, hand drumset)

Interesting voicings, first of all. It’s an adventurous tune, adventurous voicings and conception. It’s very modern in conception in comparison to the other things I’ve heard. A trumpet player I’ve played with, whose name is Amir El-Saffar, has a group that might be similar in conception. But I need to hear it. It didn’t quite sound like him; he has a little more traditional trumpet technique. But I have no idea who it is. Conceptually it’s very interesting, taking it out on a limb. It was for the most part in 7, but it was broken up quite originally. Now it’s going to another place. It might be some guys who aren’t American again—not that it matters. Interesting writing. I liked it. 4 stars for the originality. It didn’t ever quite get to the next level for me, but it was quite interesting. It was nice to hear something different.

6.   Jim Rotondi, “Mamacita” (from THE PLEASURE DOME, SharpNine, 2004) (Rotondi, trumpet; David Hazeltine, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums)

I think that’s a flugelhorn. Somebody influenced by Freddie. Is this a Kenny Dorham tune? Oh, it’s a Joe Henderson-Kenny Dorham record, but I can’t think of the name. Ah, yes, “Mamacita.” They’re getting a good groove. My wild guess would be Jeremy Pelt playing flugelhorn. Not Jeremy? Somebody like that. A lot of chops, a lot of good ideas. That’s a nice reharmonization of the tune. Like I said earlier, they had a nice groove; the drummer has a nice sound, kind of Tony-ish. Well, somebody in there… It’s not Eddie Henderson. But somebody who listens to a lot of the same people I do. 4 stars. [AFTER] Those guys are all really consistent players, and they know how to lay it down. It threw me for a loop because I’m used to hearing Rotondi play trumpet with more of a Freddie sound. Strangely enough, for a second, on one phrase, I thought of Arturo Sandoval. I knew it wasn’t him. But Jim is an excellent and really consistent player. I always enjoy listening to him.

7.  Bill Dixon-Tony Oxley, “Sine Qua Non” (from PAPYRUS, VOL.1, Soul Note, 1999) (Bill Dixon, trumpet, composer; Tony Oxley, drums & percussion)

I’m not sure who this is. It’s an interesting piece. Trumpet and drums. It doesn’t quite sound like they’re listening to each other. The drummer has a lot of chops, but just kind of streamrolling over what the trumpet player’s doing. For me, this might make a nice intro, but for a whole piece it’s wearing a little thin. Wild guess. Bill Dixon. He’s another guy I came upon and played with a couple of times when I first came to New York. As I said, this might make a nice introduction, but it’s leaving me kind of cold. Ah, that’s a Bill Dixon there right there. It’s getting more intense. We’ll see how intense it gets. Slow build. The drummer’s arms must be getting tired by now? Who is it? Tony Oxley? Dixon also pioneered in the electronic sounds that he’s doing now. Now it sounds like they’re listening to each other. But maybe that was the point, that they not listen to each other. I might give it 2½ by the end. It just took too long to get into something for me, but that’s just my opinion. If I was playing, it might be a different story. It’s a whole other perspective when you’re actually playing like that. You actually lose time.

8.  Mike Rodriguez, “Guayaquil” (The Rodriguez Brothers, CONVERSATIONS, Savant, 2007) (Mike Rodriguez, trumpet; Robert Rodriguez, piano; Ricardo Rodriguez, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums)

Nice tune. It’s nice how they’re using the piano almost as a second horn, and the right hand of the piano blended nicely with the trumpet melody. Nice harmony. The trumpet player is doing a really good job of negotiating the changes. Hard tune. Nice warm trumpet sound. It’s obviously contemporary guys. I like the chord progression. I like the tune. The performance is very good. I’ll just throw out George Cables for piano? I don’t know. I’m not sure who the trumpet player is yet. It’s coming out of that period we all grew up in. Got me again. I could hazard a few wild guesses. It sounds like somebody I should know, too. Something in the vibrato and the tone struck me, but I can’t place it, and I can’t tell if it’s a younger guy or maybe a slightly older guy, but I think it might be a slightly older guy. Something about the conception makes me think that—at least the piano player. But I can’t place it. I liked it. It didn’t really jump out at me. But 3½ stars. It was really well-done. Everybody had a lot of chops and performed it really well. If I had to make a wild guess, Nicholas Payton, a younger guy. But somebody of that ilk. [AFTER] I’ve heard a lot about Mike Rodriguez. I haven’t heard him yet. Antonio is a wonderful drummer and he was right in the pocket on that one. You’re getting me on all these guys, but everything I’ve heard I’ve enjoyed so far. It’s amazing, the amount of musicianship that goes into all these records. Trumpet is not an easy instrument, and everybody sounds great.

9.   Corey Wilkes, “Quintet Nine” (from Roscoe Mitchell, TURN, RogueArt, 2005) (Wilkes, trumpet; Mitchell, flute, percussion; Craig Taborn, piano; Jaribu Shahid, bass, percussion; Tani Tabbal, drums)

I’m trying to figure out what instrument that is—a high slide whistle or a piccolo. This is the second tune in 7, so that’s a real popular time signature these days. It’s an interesting, moody, kind of evocative arrangement, an evocative piece. Maybe somebody like Jack Walrath, but it’s probably not him. They were all coasting along together. It meandered a bit, I think. I like things happening quicker. This section is nice. I still can’t figure out if that’s a piccolo or a high slide whistle. It’s an interesting tune, though. There’s a little Eric Dolphy influence in general, but Jack Walrath is the only one who came to mind—it’s not him, I can tell. The composition is interesting. 3 stars. I’m not familiar with Corey Wilkes’ work, but it’s an interesting piece.

10.   Dave Ballou, “Tenderly” (from REGARDS, Steeplechase, 2004) (Ballou, trumpet; Frank Kimbrough, piano; John Hebert, bass; Randy Peterson, drums)

A nice, pure, unfettered trumpet sound. I like that. No vibrato. Nailing it. Except it’s probably a flugelhorn. Nice, floaty time, too, with regards to the rhythm section; nice and open, a lot of room for interpretation. This is interesting in the way they’re playing time but not playing time. An interesting conception. I like this in the respect that they’re all really listening to each other, and both harmonically and rhythmically it’s floating along. Really interesting. Kind of a Paul Bley influence on the piano, just the overall picture. There’s a record of Paul’s I used to love called Closer. It’s still interesting, because it doesn’t sound like they want to play the time. I hope there’s not supposed to be time during this section, but it’s still interesting. It’s really open. This is the way Paul Bley used to play with his trio when they first came to New York with Barry Altschul and Mark Levinson on bass—this kind of implied time. A really nice reinterpretation of the melody by the flugelhorn player. Really sensitive all around. Everybody really listened to each other. But I don’t have any idea who anyone is. He ended on a high-E, I think, on flugel—that’s no easy trick. Somebody I probably know, but probably not. 4 stars. It was a really original reading of the tune, and I’m impressed when people are that sensitive and really come up with something new on a standard that’s been played a million times. [AFTER] I played with Dave Ballou years ago on a Kenny Werner project, and I’ve always been impressed with his playing.

11.   Nicholas Payton, “Fela II” (from SONIC TRANCE, Warner, 2003) (Payton, trumpet; Kevin Hays, keyboards; Vicente Archer, bass; Adonis Rose, drums; Daniel Sadownick, percussion)

This has a nice, polyrhythmic quality to it, just from the getgo. Once again, a nice warm trumpet sound. Some of these guys I’m not familiar with, and it’s somewhat hard to differentiate one from the other, but everyone’s technique has been admirable today. The trumpet player has really good range and facility, good ideas. Generally, this piece reminds of Miles’ band, the Bitches Brew days, especially the sounds coming out of the keyboard. It’s a little more metrically modulated than were tunes in those days. But everyone’s listening and responding to each other really well. Really good facility on the trumpet. Clark exercises. But once again, I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to who it was. I don’t know if it’s someone I know, but he had a lot of facility on the instrument. Good sound. Interesting piece. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Oh, that’s from Sonic Trance. I should have guessed it. Nick is one of my favorite players. He has so much facility on the instrument. This was a radical shift from what he was doing before. I remember when he did it. I actually heard this live. Was Kevin Hays playing? Yes, he was there. I heard him in New Orleans at Snug Harbor. So I should have guessed.

12.   Ryan Kisor, “Deception” (from THE DREAM, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Kisor, trumpet; Peter Zak, piano; John Webber, bass; Willie Jones, III, drums)

Whoever it is has amazing technique. That’s a hard head. The changes to “Cherokee.” Amazing facility. Wow, that was very, very good. I’ll hazard a guess. Ryan Kisor maybe? Whoa! He’s too good. That was exceptional facility. I’ve also heard Wynton play this tune, like, 50 choruses, which is very impressive, so I figured if it wasn’t Wynton it might very well be Ryan. He’s an exceptional player in all realms—great lead player, great soloist, knows all the styles. He’s one of my favorites. I’ve played with him a lot in Mingus Big Band. Wow, that was great. 4½ stars. Well, 5 stars just on Ryan’s virtuosity, but maybe take a half-star away because I’ve heard the tune a million times, but never quite like that. He’s an incredible all-around player.

All these records were very good. It’s a reality these days that it is harder to tell guys apart trumpetistically, because we all study out of the same books, and there’s a certain trumpetistic artistry that’s prevalent these days. So it’s harder to pick people apart, but that’s overshadowed by the musicianship on all these records, which was really excellent. That’s always my answer to the problem these days, when guys say, “Ah, too many guys sound alike.” I say the musicianship is so high it doesn’t matter.

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In Honor of Joseph Jarman’s 74th Birthday, a WKCR Interview from 1987

These days, Joseph Jarman is as widely known for his activities as the founder of the Brooklyn Buddhist Association and head sensei of its affiliated aikido dojo as for his distinguished career as a creative musician. The latter activity was the focus in 1987, when I had the privilege of bringing Jarman to WKCR to present a five-hour retrospective of his musical production with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which he joined in 1969, as a composer-lead of his own ensembles, and as a solo performer. In reading the transcript of the proceedings, please remember that this was a live radio broadcast, not an oral history.

Joseph Jarman Profile (2-15-87) – (WKCR):

[MUSIC: AEC, “Prayer Of Jimbo Kwesi” (1980); “The Bulls,” “Little Fox Run,” “Noncognitive Aspects of the City” (1967)]
“The Bulls” and “Little Fox Run” were written by Fred Anderson, who taught me a great deal about music and about saxophone playing in this very wonderful early period.  It was performed by Fred Anderson, myself, Billy Brimfield, Charles Clark and Thurman Barker.

[ETC.] I’d like to discuss some of the events that precede the music you just heard.  This group came out of the activities of the AACM.  Although the story of the AACM is familiar to many listeners, perhaps you could speak about your introduction to and initial involvement in the AACM and what led up to it.

The AACM itself, if I’m not mistaken, was realized in 1965.  Prior to that realization, Muhal Richard Abrams had this wonderful group called the Experimental Band.  I think at that time it wasn’t called anything, it was just a band, and he was good enough to let people come over there.  You didn’t have to prove anything; you proved it by sitting down in the chair and playing the music.  But the music was all fresh, and he encouraged everyone to write for this group.  One of the things he told me that was always important was, “Write it.  One of the days, you can hear it.”  I still use that dictum today.

There weren’t any outlets in Chicago?

No.  There were no outlets for musicians practicing these forms of music.  And this band would meet once a week.  As a result of the band meeting and playing, the idea was realized that maybe we should form this organization and do something for ourselves, become responsible for our own destinies.  There was Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Lester Lashley, Thurman Barker, Charles Clark, Christopher Gaddy… We’re not going to get into the forgetting bit.  Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Fred Anderson, Joel Brandon, a wonderful flute player who is an award-winning whistler now, Sherri Scott.  There was also Kalaparusha, Fred Berry, who is out on the West Coast now, Ajaramuu who is still in Chicago, John Stubblefield, Leo Smith, Raphael Garrett used to come through there quite often, Jack De Johnnette, Leroy Jenkins was a kind of a staple (he always played my violin parts), Jodie Christian, piano, and Amina did a lot of singing with us and a lot of piano playing as well, and during those days she was playing a lot of organ.  So there was all of this great diversity.  There were many other musicians who did things other than music.  I mean, they were not so much interested in becoming “professional musicians” as they were just madly in love with the music.  So this was a place where they could practice music as well.

How had you heard about the band?

Well, I was a student at Wilson Junior College.  We used to have sessions during some of the break periods.  One day, Roscoe said, “I know where you have to go,” and he took me to this place and introduced me to Muhal.  Then Muhal invited me, I could come to his home and practice with him, where he would teach me, ha-ha, all of the wonderful things that I would have to know.

What were you into at the time that you met Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell?

Well, I was a student and trying to learn the basics of music.  Basically, that was it.  On the one hand, I was trying to learn the basics of academic music, and then through Roscoe, who was in the same situation with me at the time (also Malachi Favors was there), I met Muhal, who sort of turned me on to some of the other elements that I had to deal with, which were not so much academic, but academic in another way — sort of inside academic.  I mean, nothing mysterious or secret or anything, but nothing that anyone could teach you in a school as such.

Although you were born in Arkansas, you were raised in Chicago and attended the Chicago public schools.


Tell me about the musical education you received in the Chicago public schools.

I went to DuSable High School.  That was my first exposure to music.  Captain Walter Dyett was there, and I got in his band practicing snare drum. [LAUGHS]

Were you in a parade band?  He had several different bands…

No, I didn’t quite make it to his bands!  I was a little bit disorganized and misdirected.  But he did sort of straighten me out on that level.  And I only was able to perform in the concert band, which was the large big ensemble.  I did attend Hijinks and hear the bands, and many of the famous Jazz players came out of his Hijinks bands — Johnny Griffin, John Gilmore, John Young…

How about when you were there?

I don’t think there’s anyone from my period who… Fred Hopkins was over there, but he’s a little younger.  He was over there after me.  Well, you have to realize I’m going to be fifty years old in September.  So if I lose some of these things, it’s because I haven’t been there for a while.

You spent some time in the Armed Forces in the latter part of the Fifties.


I know for a lot of musicians that was a time when they could really concentrate on music and get it together.  Were you in any Army bands?
Yes, fortunately I did manage to work my way into an Army band, and it was there that I actually began to play the alto saxophone and clarinet.

Can you say anything about that?  Was there any particular individual who worked with you, or any particular place where that was happening?

That was happening in Germany for me.  It was a wonderful experience.  I met a lot of musicians there who put me in the right direction.  And it was there that I began to hear the recordings of… I was very impressed with Jackie McLean at that time, and I still am.  He just stood out in my mind even more so than Charlie Parker.  It was after I got out of the Army that I became conscious of the wonderful music of Charlie Parker.  But Jackie McLean, and then there was a wonderful young tenor saxophonist by the name of John Coltrane that I was able to hear.  And there were also a lot of fine musicians in the Army band who were professionals, I mean, that’s what they wanted to do, but they would play in the clubs off-duty.

I know there were a lot of clubs that built up around the Army bands, and I know Roscoe Mitchell talks about hearing Albert Ayler there for the first time and so on.

Mmm-hmm. I didn’t hear Albert Ayler there for the first time, but I heard Cannonball Adderley in that situation, and I heard Cedar Walton, Eddie Harris, and there were some European musicians — Albert Mangelsdorff is probably the one we know most of now.  Leo Wright.  There were lots of people…

I’m just trying to give people some sense of what the environment was like.

Well, prior to being in the band, I had been in a line unit; that’s what it was called.  It was an Airborne Line Unit.  And something happened where my consciousness changed, and I had some friends who were working in the Headquarters Company, and I got transferred to the band, heh-heh, and out of the line!

Tell us about the scene in Chicago when you were coming up as a youngster, as an adolescent and in high school.  I know you were very much into the music at that time.  You once told me about pressing your nose to the window at the Beehive, on 55th Street in Hyde Park.

Yeah, right, I heard Charlie Parker there.  A friend of mine, James Johnson, who is a bassoonist now, living in Wisconsin, we pressed our noses to the Beehive… But there was music all over the street in those days.  If you walked two blocks, you would hear music.  I mean, it was on loudspeakers.  And you could walk by the clubs on 63rd Street, down Cottage Grove, and Gene Ammons would be in there playing, Johnny Griffin would be in there playing, Sun Ra would be in there playing — it was like that.  One thing I remember is that Sonny Rollins stood on the corner of 63rd and Cottage Grove in a wonderful yellow dinner jacket with his hair cut in this Mohican style, and played his tenor saxophone right on the corner — and I thought, “Oh, this is it.”  And that, in fact, was the essence of theatre in street music.  I mean, he had walked out of the club, McKie’s Lounge, and just played for a bit on the street, and then went on back in there.

Sonny once wrote a piece called “At McKie’s.”

“At McKie’s,” that’s it.  Also Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane played in that place.

That was after the Army.

That was after the Army, yes.

I know you dug Eric Dolphy a lot also, and I was going to ask you about your first exposure to hearing Eric Dolphy.  Was it at that engagement with Coltrane…?

No, it was on recordings first.  Henry Threadgill and Roscoe and I, and several other musicians, Louis Hall on piano… Every Saturday we would get together, and we would spend about ten minutes on our school-work, and then we would spend the next ten hours playing music, like arrangements from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.  We would take a break during these periods, and listen to music.  And Drasir(?), who was a drummer at that time, brought these recordings.  One was called The Shape of Jazz To Come, the other was called The Prophet, and the other was called Coltrane, where he plays “The Inchworm” and those things.  And this was all new music to us, and it was like incredible.  And it was all different.  It was three different, brand-new ideas presented to us in our little rehearsal space at once.  But I remember after that break that everybody’s music had changed.  I do recall that, because it was an important event.  And no one played the same any more after that date.

What was the curriculum like at Wilson Junior College?  Were they teaching you any Jazz, or was it a formal, Euro-centered type of situation?

It was a formal Euro-centered… But actually, Richard Wang, who was the instructor there, and who is still very diligently working for the music, in his spare time had a little band.  He would also teach us how to analyze and approach the elements of the music that we wanted to deal with.

So between that and the AACM and Muhal’s band, it was really quite a fertile environment.

An excellent foundation.  Excellent foundation.

And you were able to play a great deal.

Yes.  That was the whole thing, playing all the time.

And you were exposed to the music of many other like-minded individuals.

Right.  And that was the most important thing, that there were many like-minded individuals, both in the educational system, in the schools, and out of the schools as well.  But more importantly, the music was available.  The music was everywhere.  It was available.  You could go in a one-mile radius, and you could hear ten different bands.  Every little place had a band in it.  And there were people, I mean, not sitting down in a formal concert situation, but dancing.  Even if there was new music, they would be dancing!  And it was available.  Now that’s all changed.

As I recall, you were involved in a very eclectic range of activities as well.  You were once involved in a collaboration with John Cage in 1965 at the Hyde Park Theatre, I think…


You were involved in a number of theatrical events… I don’t know if I have anything specific to ask you about it, but if you could make some general comments on things that were happening.

Well, as a student, when we were all students, and if we are students now, we have hopefully this real open mind so that the cup can have lots of things put in it, so it doesn’t run over.  So I was exposed to all of these kinds of forms, and interested in all of these kinds of things.  There was someone from an experimental music foundation that introduced us to John Cage, and we talked, and concluded that we should play this music together.  Roscoe with a group played on the other part of that same concert.

So it was that all areas were open.  That’s one of the things that a lot of people don’t realize, during those days just as now, that all areas of music were open.  It wasn’t that you could only play or be interested in one form of music.  You can play or be interested in any form of music.  And you can express the art through any form of music.  And this became one of the roots for the work that followed.

The next composition is from the Delmark LP, As If It Were The Seasons.

We made two recordings in this early period for Delmark, and this was the second.  The composition we’re going to hear is “Song For Christopher.”  Christopher Gaddy, who had been the pianist with the quartet (which was Thurman Barker, Christopher Gaddy, Charles Clark and I) had started to compose this composition, and he died, and I felt responsible to sort of finish it.  And that’s what we did here; we finished the composition.  This is with Lester Lashley, trombone, John Jackson, trumpet, John Stubblefield and Fred Anderson, tenor sax, Joel Brandon, flute, Richard Muhal Abrams, piano and oboe, Sherri Scott, voice, Thurman Barker, all kinds of drums, Charles Clark, bass, cello and koto, Joseph Jarman, alto sax, bassoon, fife, recorder, soprano sax.

[MUSIC: Joseph Jarman, “Song For Christopher”]

This was recorded in ’68, and it was after this recording that we lost Charles Clark.  I was shattered emotionally.  And it was at this time of being emotionally shattered that Roscoe and Lester and Malachi invited me to play music with them.  Shortly after that, in 1969, we went to Europe, to Paris, where we stayed for a couple of years.  And the next music will come from that period.

What motivated the four of you to make that jump?

Well, the music was very exciting.  After I started to play with them, it was very exciting for me even more.  And there were just no opportunities to perform.  I mean, really; literally none.  Outside of the AACM there were very, very few other situations, because the musical ideas were fresh, they were very challenging to many listeners, and moreso to promoters, club-owners, business people, like that — because it was a kind of aesthetic that they had not quite caught up with.  So it occurred to us that if we went to Europe, we would have more opportunity.  The motivation was really just to play, and be able to play music.  Because you have to do it for people, you know; you can’t just play  forever in your own little room.

You were also working some in Detroit, I believe.

Yes.  During that period there was the Detroit Artists Workshop.  John Sinclair and those people up there had a music program.  Charles Moore, a cornetist living on the West Coast now, was instrumental in organizing and inviting people up there.  And people from Chicago would go up there and perform.   It was like a little cultural exchange program, heh-heh!

And you took one trip to the West Coast, I believe.

No, I didn’t take the trip to the West Coast.  Lester, Malachi and Roscoe, and maybe Philip one time; they took a couple of trips to the West Coast.  This was prior to all of these events.

You weren’t the only ones in the AACM to go to Paris either.

No.  Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton were the others.

And there lots of other American musicians in Paris at that time.

There were people from St. Louis, Oliver Lake and Joe Bowie… Wow, this is another mind-boggling… There were a lot of musicians from New York there as well.  Archie Shepp, Dave Burrell, Frank Wright, Muhammed Ali, Alan Silva, Bobby Few… Oh yeah, it was a hot scene over there.

And everyone who knows the BYG label knows of these cross-currents blending together in some pretty amazing situations.

Yeah, it was very wonderful.  It was a hot scene.  It was like going from one wonderful scene to another.  We were very fortunate in that respect, that the move to Europe just placed us in another creative environment.  And all of these musicians from the East Coast or wherever who were living in Paris at the time had different ideas, which sort of revitalized us, and I’m sure that we excited them to some extent.

We’ll talk some more about this period after we hear “Ericka,” composed by Joseph, recorded June 23, 1969.

[MUSIC: AEC, “Ericka,” “Theme Amour Universal,” “Lori Song,” Braxton-Jarman, “Concluding Circles”]

After that there was a bit more moving around, and now we’re going to return to the wonderful United States after the Paris period.  So that concludes the first and the second period.  Now we move into the third.

So the Paris period was a period of ferment and growth for everyone in the Art Ensemble. There were many, many activities, and I guess procedures you’re still dealing with to this day that started at that point.

Yes.  In Paris, there was not only a wide development in the music, but more exposure to Theatre and Dance and all of these kinds of forms, and we began to incorporate many of these elements into our work.  Also in Paris we were exposed to you may say World Music Culture, more so than we had been in Chicago, meeting African musicians, meeting musicians from the Far East, meeting musicians from everywhere, and associating with them, and discovering the wonderfulness of the forms they had to offer.

And people became exposed to you.

Yes, and people became exposed to us as well, right.  So then we returned to the United States, and for the first two years we didn’t work very much, but we were rehearsing nearly every day — because we were still living all  together at that time, or pretty close together.  And we did return to Chicago.

Can we just go a little bit into the concept of the Art Ensemble spending this amount of time together as a unit, the degree of commitment that was required for that.

Well, during those days we were having every experience together possible, in order to get on a deeper level of what the music is about.  Because there is a feeling that the music is more than what’s on the page, or even more than words.  It’s an experience.  It’s a living process, this music is.  In fact, at one of our recent performances, we played some music, and it was almost like telepathy.  Everybody knew exactly, but fresh, where everyone was going. And it’s from this kind of knowing that we were able, even in those days, in the beginning, to reach areas of music that had not been reached before, as far as we had known.  Because we were trying to go deep-deep, deep-deep, deep-deep within, and find the elements there, and try to pull them out in a collective way.  A lot of individuals have been able to do this, but for a commitment to be made for a collective expression broadens the musical scope.  And this is what we were after.  Because the music is limitless.  It is without boundary.  Every individual experience, if the individual will allow it, can be expressed through a communal effort.  And this is what we were trying to achieve.

Also in Paris you found your drummer.

Yes, we found Famoudou Don Moye in Paris.  We were playing at a place called the American Center, and Moye appeared and said, “I’m playing with you.”  We said, “Oh yeah?”  And since then, in fact, he has been playing with us.

Some very positive things ensued from being without a drummer.  You’d had Philip Wilson, who left the band to go off into some other things, and although you used various different drummers, for the most part you were a four-piece group where everybody was forced to take on the rhythmic role.  I don’t know if there’s a specific question, but if there are any comments you’d care to make on that aspect of the music.

Well, see, it’s because you know so much about the Art Ensemble, since you’ve known us for fifteen years or so…!

Well, yeah, we did have to discover.  It also gave us all a different sense and perspective of what rhythm and drumming and all this business is actually about.  Because we discovered we had to do it ourselves, not because we even necessarily wanted to, but because the music required these kind of timbres, and that there must be a way, and where are they.  And we took it upon ourselves to investigate them.  It wasn’t just “Okay, I want to play this,” but it’s in order to find the sound and making the commitment to find the sound.

And this is another thing that was perhaps a bit different from many of our predecessors, the idea of looking for a sound, rather than playing a musical instrument and getting all of the sound out of that.  Because each instrument is a different universe, and each instrument does contain of its own-ness a wonderful thing.  One of the things that we were after was to find the sound.  It was coincidental where that sound came from.  The responsibility was not so much for me to play the saxophone as to play the sound that I heard.  And sometimes that came in the form of a bell, and it took years to find the bell to hear that sound.  Because all of this music, this kind of breath, cosmic breath, is flowing, and some people it touches.  And if we’re practicing music and we’re open enough and it touches us then we have to respond.  If we restrain ourselves, then we discover that we are not being true to our own selves.  Which might put a lot of stress and pressure on a single individual practicing music, but someone has to have the courage to make that investigation and endeavor.

And then you returned to the United States.

Yes.  Back to the United States.  We didn’t work for a couple of years, but we were rehearsing nearly every day.  Frank Lowe invited me to come up here to perform in New York, and as a result of that there was this recording that we’re going to hear.

[MUSIC: “Thulani,” Black Beings, 1973]

We’ll hear now music by the Art Ensemble from Fanfare For The Warriors recorded in 1973 — “Illistrum” and “What’s To Say?”  This is your second release for Atlantic.  How did your association with the label come about?

It just happened. [LAUGHS] “Illistrum” has a poem on it, which will be self-evident, and “What’s To Say?” is a little brighter, I would say.

[MUSIC: “Illistrum,” “What’s To Say?”]

We’ll now hear some material from a solo concert by Joseph Jarman in 1976 at the University of Chicago.

We’ll hear two excerpts.  One is called “The Spirit of Eric,” and this is a kind of homage to Eric Dolphy.  And the other is called “The Spirit of Trane,” and this is a kind of homage to Master John Coltrane.

I’d like to ask you a question about solo work.  I know some of it has to do with economics and putting together a set by yourself, but also in the AACM it was expected musicians would give solo concerts and develop that type of work.

Well, during the pre-Paris period and the post-Paris period as well, the AACM was having concerts at one time nightly, every night, seven nights.  There were like requirements that you would have to do, and one of the requirements was that you would have to perform solo.  So in the AACM, the solo performance tradition, solo recital, had been going on quite a while prior to practicing solo recordings.

When was your first solo concert?

I have no idea.  But it was during the AACM period, for the AACM at the Hull House on 57th Street and someplace in Chicago.  But each performance situation has its own unique identity.  In solo performance, because you have no other sounds, the instrumentalist must be very careful and go directly to where the source is.  So this is what I think everyone is trying to do who is performing in the solo context.  It’s certainly much more challenging, because you have to stay right on line.  It’s difficult to try to explain.  But when you’re playing music alone, as opposed to playing with one or more other beings, then somehow you must be in tune with another kind of aspect of yourself that’s not always available.

At this point, in 1976, you have somewhat more options for self-expression just in terms of the number of instruments you’re playing.


In the late Sixties recordings we get to hear you on alto sax, soprano, bassoon, and a few other instruments, but here you’re featuring bass clarinet, tenor sax, sopranino saxophone.  Talk about how your multi-instrumentalism developed up to this point.

Well, it was about the idea of the sound and trying to get to the actual sound.  When we got to Paris, there were many more sources available.  For example, many of these bells and gongs and vibraphones and instruments were readily available during those days, whereas prior to that they weren’t.  We discovered in our investigations that these sounds came from these instruments that were already there.  In other situations that we found ourselves in, some of the sounds didn’t have any source, so we had to create the source.  So Malachi built his little desk, Roscoe built his rack, Moye built his rack, Jarman built his rack, you know, to get these sounds that we wanted but that weren’t available.

So this is probably the reason that so many instruments are being played, not so much because someone wants to play them, because it’s very difficult to play all of these instruments and practice them, and that commitment — but the sound.  And so the commitment is to the sound and wherever the source is.  This, incidentally, is not a new idea.  It was just a new idea for us, and we felt that we had the right to make this investigation and we had the right to make this expression.

[MUSIC: “Spirit of Eric,” “Spirit of Trane”, Sundown, AECO (Chicago, 12-4-76)]

[ETC.] We’ll hear “Lonely Child,” a poem by Joseph Jarman, performed by the Magic Triangle group with Don Pullen and Don Moye.

I had the good fortune to meet Don Pullen, and as a result, he and Moye and I were able to document a couple of our experiences together.  One experience that we had a tape for, but unfortunately we can’t play, I just wanted to mention because it was a great time.  Moye and I were doing a duo tour out on the West Coast, and Pullen and Charlie Haden were doing a duo tour out on the West Coast, and we wound up in the old Keystone Corner together.  And somehow we played together.  I mean, musicians do that; they come together.  We said, “Oh yeah, we’re saying hello, but why don’t we really say hello and play some music.”  So we played some wonderful music, but unfortunately we can’t  share that at this time.

Incidentally, a lot of these musics have poetry with them because we feel that they somehow go together.  And that’s not a new idea either.  But words have meaning, and  the sounds have meaning — and in many instances, they have the same meaning.  But a lot of people don’t realize that.  I mean, they may hear words in their head while they are listening to music, and then sometimes while they are listening to words they may hear music in their heads.  So we were just sort of putting these things together.

This is around the time when the members of the Art Ensemble began again to devote time to their own projects, to stay together as the Art Ensemble and operate more as individuals, which is happening to this day, and I know that this has to happen.

That is wonderful, because when that started getting more revitalized, I think, and when we came back together as the Art Ensemble, it was always a fresh, new adventure for us.  I just don’t know, except that the input has become greater as a result of these various experiences, because the different members of the Art Ensemble have been going out into the world, and whereas before we were pretty much confined to our own individual resources and discovering things just from each other, now we are discovering things from lots of other kinds of ways of what music is about, and bringing this back again to the Ensemble and crystallizing it, is really what I have felt recently, in the past couple of years.  I have really been enjoying playing with the Art Ensemble because the music is becoming crystallized.  Some people say it’s becoming, what do you call it, predictable, and some people are saying it’s becoming…


Classic, yeah…I don’t know… All these kinds of things.  But for us, it’s a different kind of freshness.  It’s becoming crystal, it’s becoming… Sometimes we used to take chances, and if any one of the voices was maybe a little nervous about the chance, we couldn’t quite go there.  But now we’ll take a chance, and everybody will go there, because everyone knows that it’s okay to breathe and it’s okay to stretch.  So that’s very good.

[MUSIC: Magic Triangle, “Lonely Child”]

We’ll hear a tape from Joseph’s files of a composition performed with the AACM Big Band at the Underground Festival in the summer of 1981.

[MUSIC: AACM Large Ensemble, “Foresight”]

That was the AACM Large Ensemble.  It featured Ed Wilkerson, Douglas Ewart, Reggie Nicholson, Mchaka Uba, Mwata Bowden, Ernest Dawkins and a few others.

We’ve discussed before various situations for writing that occurred in the AACM, and this is the first example we’ve heard of your writing for large ensemble, etcetera.  This is to point out that many of the individuals familiar to New York audiences represent only a small slice of the many artists out of Chicago and St. Louis to New York City.

If I can say, the Chicago School has had some excellent examples up here.  Henry Threadgill’s writing can be looked at as probably the jewel of Chicago, and of course, Muhal Richard Abrams, we’ve had an opportunity to hear some of his large ensemble work.  So that the school’s concept is available, and that concept is that each composer look into his own resources, and do what he’s doing.

The next recording is “Black Paladins.”  This is a poem by Henry Dumas, a poet, and Jarman did the music for this.  We’ll go from there into “Mama Marimba,” which was written by the bassist Johnny Dyani, who we had the opportunity to work with. Henry Dumas was a wonderful poet who was mistaken, unfortunately, in New York for some kind of criminal, and was mistakenly killed in the subway of New York some years ago, 1968, May 23rd.  He was born in Sweet Home, Arkansas.  When I discovered Dumas’ writing, it became very important for me, because he was carrying on a kind of tradition that I had only found in Black African writers.  But here was an Afro-American telling stories about things that I knew about, because although I grew up in Chicago, I was born in Arkansas, and somehow my consciousness still remembers some of that Arkansas wonderfulness.  Dumas’ poetry and his stories were very close, are very close to me, and became I guess a principal inspiration for me.  Not only did this “Black Paladins” become a kind of manifesto for me, but it also generated a whole theatre piece that I had the opportunity to perform, but don’t have any music, tape or recording of it at this time.  So with that, we can go into “Black Paladins.”

[MUSIC: “Black Paladins,” “Mama Marimba”]

“Mama Marimba” was written by Johnny Dyani, who was a wonderful bass player who lived in Northern Europe and who was born in South Africa, and who, again, brought his culture to the Ensemble.  Moye introduced me to him.  Moye has a knack for finding all these wonderful musicians!  We toured a couple of times in Europe.  We tried to have opportunities to perform with him in the United States, but unfortunately, that never worked out.  But we did tour Europe on two, possibly three occasions, and it was always a very, very nice musical experience.  So that’s why really I wanted to play that composition of his.  And you can see the kind of melodic thing that was happening in that rhythm.


The remainder of the program comprised almost entirely tapes from Joseph Jarman’s collection.

1. “Dipple Hexokey Coterminus” as recorded at the Chicago Underground Festival in November 1983 by the AACM Large Ensemble and Ari Brown on tenor saxophone.

2. “Fanfare for the Newest-Born,” New York City, with Longineau Parsons on trumpet and fluegelhorn, Fred Hopkins on bass, Famoudou Don Moye on percussion, and Joseph Jarman.

3. From the album Inheritance, “Unicorn in Shadows,” “Love Song For A Rainy Monday”

4.   “Desert Song,” Brussels, early ’80s, with Craig Harris, Essiet Okun Essiet, Famoudou Don Moye and Jarman.

5.  “Scene 14”, NY.

6.  “Eyes of the Charm-Giver,” performed by The Musical Elements, with Thurman Barker on marimba

7.  “Poem Song,” with Jarman, Edward Wilkerson, Geri Allen, Fred Hopkins, Thurman Barker, Chicago Jazz Festival, 1985.

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Filed under AACM, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Interview, WKCR

“The Bradley’s Hang” (DownBeat 2006): For the 86th Birthday Anniversary of Bradley Cunningham

In observation of the 86th birthday anniversary of Bradley Cunningham, the founder and animating spirit of Bradley’s, New York’s premier piano saloon from 1969, when he launched it, until October 20, 1996, when his widow, Wendy Cunningham, closed its doors, I’m posting a piece I wrote about the room—where I spent many memorable late-nights, including the one cited in the first paragraph—in 2006 for DownBeat.

The Bradley’s Hang
By Ted Panken

On a sleety Wednesday in February 1992, there wasn’t a large turnout for the 2 a.m. set at Bradley’s. The room’s soft amber lighting revealed perhaps 20 patrons on the barstools and in the armchairs surrounding the tables in the dining area at the rear. Halfway down the rectangular room, a Baldwin grand piano stood in an alcove along the wood-paneled south wall, positioned directly underneath a photo-realist painting of Charles Mingus and a caricature by pianist Jimmy Rowles of a devilish Bradley Cunningham, the room’s late proprietor.

Pianist Stephen Scott, then 22, could not have asked for more seasoned partners to help him navigate his first Bradley’s leader week than bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Ben Riley. Nor could he have hoped for more discerning—or demanding—listeners, who on this evening numbered fellow pianists Tommy Flanagan, Kirk Lightsey, Ronnie Matthews, Don Pullen and Cecil Taylor.

Fourteen years later, Scott “vaguely” recalls the evening. “Maybe I blanked it out of my memory,” he said. “In 1992 it would have been overwhelming to have all those wonderful people in the audience. But it wasn’t unusual for the older masters to come out and show support. There’s a fundamental understanding of jazz and its history that comes from being in the trenches, and having to come up with the music at 2 a.m. because Tommy Flanagan and Kirk Lightsey are sitting in front of you and want to hear some music.”

For week after week from the early 1970s, when Cunningham, with Cedar Walton as his consultant, purchased the room’s first acoustic piano, a Baldwin spinet, until October 1996, when Cunningham’s widow, Wendy, faced with insurmountable debt, closed Bradley’s for good, “the world’s most elite and classic piano players,” in Larry Willis’ phrase, fulfilled Scott’s prescription. One of them was Lightsey, a regular since 1977, who, joined by trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and bassist Cecil McBee, had propelled the festivities during the Monday-to-Saturday previous to Scott’s engagement. Following him on Sunday night was a trio led by John Hicks—who first worked Bradley’s in 1976 in duo with bassist Walter Booker—with Booker and tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, then fresh on the scene.

“When you played at Bradley’s, you had to come up to a brilliance or they’d make so much noise you couldn’t be heard,” said Lightsey, whose 2004 release, Nights Of Bradley’s (Sunnyside), culled from three January 1985 duo nights with Rufus Reid, captures the room’s ambiance. “But when you were on, they were on your every note, sound and emotion. It was always a real charge to know that you were accepted by the people who might have been ahead of you in the pecking order of pianists in New York.”

Like all the pianists in the regular Bradley’s rotation, Lightsey thrived on the bacchanalian atmosphere of the 2 a.m. show, when basses were parked in all the corners and anybody—Tony Bennett, Placido Domingo, Joni Mitchell, Phil Spector, Arthur Herzog, Alec Wilder—might come in for a snack and a sip before going home. Writers and media types had Elaine’s, artists had the Odeon, punkers had CBGB, and the pop and fashion bourgeoisie had Studio 54 and Nell’s. For jazzfolk and hipsters, there was Bradley’s.

“Everybody would leave the Vanguard or the Blue Note and gather at Bradley’s,” Lightsey said. “If you’d been out of town, you’d go just to check in, and tell everybody you’re there. This was the meeting place, and somebody might be looking for you for a record date or a rehearsal.”

“It was like business and pleasure at the same time,” said Riley, who sees Bradley’s as a cross between such gray flannel suit East Side supper clubs of the 1950s and ‘60s as the Embers and the Composers, the creative attitude of the Village Vanguard, and such back-in-the-day Harlem musician haunts as Connie’s, the 125 Club, the Hotel Theresa Lounge and Minton’s Playhouse.

“It was an office,” saxophonist Gary Bartz affirmed. “When I first moved to New York, the hang was Beefsteak Charlie’s on 50th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue—although it was more a daytime hang. Everybody came there—I saw Billy Strayhorn. Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Tadd Dameron—and bands would gather there to go on the road. You’d meet there to get paid. Bradley’s became that sort of place night-wise. I’d do a gig somewhere else, and if the money hadn’t come through, I’d say, ‘Just drop it off at Bradley’s; I’ll pick it up one night.’”

Other sorts of business took place as well. “You could buy a house in the men’s room,” Lightsey said, whimsically.

“We took a lot of substances back in those days,” recalled Roger Kellaway, who played Bradley’s on a yearly basis between 1984 and 1992, and hung out there during its early years. “I remember playing with Red Mitchell in 1986, when I was no longer doing drugs, and I called the midnight set the neosenephrin set, because I could feel the vibe. People I knew would come in who I thought were coming to hear me, and they’d walk right by the piano to the back, be there for 10 or 15 minutes, and leave.”

Mostly people came to listen and socialize, and as spirits took effect, animated conversations ensued. “At Bradley’s, everybody drank, sometimes people sat in, sometimes people argued, sometimes people had interesting debates on the right chord change [of] a tune,” said Fred Hersch, a fixture between 1978 and 1989. “It was democratic—you were mixing it up as a young kid with the legends of the business, some of them not on their best behavior, but all of them with something to say.”

Despite an official “quiet policy,” the resulting cacophony challenged performers, as Mulgrew Miller put it, “to test your powers to bring an audience in.”

“The louder they talked, the softer I played,” said Larry Willis. “I learned that from Hank Jones. I would not let the crowd frustrate me. Pretty soon, I’d get everybody’s attention, and the room would get quiet.”

To keep it quiet, pianists played music with which everyone could identify, and tunesmithing was de rigueur. “You wouldn’t play ‘Out To Lunch,’” said George Cables. “You could play originals, but basically it was bebop songs and show tunes—chestnuts, standards, some obscure songs. Repertoire that maybe Art Tatum played, songs you could hear Ella or Sarah sing.”

Veterans were not shy about offering advice on how to address such material. “Sometimes they would give you directions as you played,” Danilo Pérez said. “‘Yeah, go, Danilo. Go there. That’s the way. Right there. No-no, not that chord, the other one.’ On a ballad, ‘Keep it there, keep it there.’ You would come out all bruised, but there was something special about having the older guys tutor you. They did it sometimes directly, sometimes not very nice, but it didn’t matter—you were in a class, but you were not in a classroom. I started picking up unusual standards like ‘I’ll Be Around’ and ‘Time On My Hands.’ Sometimes I didn’t learn the bridge correctly, or played one note that wasn’t part of the melody. Then somebody like Ronnie Matthews would say, ‘That was good, but on the bridge, the melody goes like this.’ On my first gig there, I was 10 minutes late. Kenny Barron was sitting at the table right next to me at the piano. He touched my back and said, ‘Look, man, you were late. You don’t leave the cats waiting here.’”

Young horn players would frequently receive impromptu bandstand tutorials. “Once I played ‘Delilah’ with Junior Cook, and after I played the melody I forgot the bridge, so I started improvising over the chords,” said Roy Hargrove, who played his first New York gigs at Bradley’s in 1989, closed it in 1996 and convened some of his veteran mentors there to play on the 1995 CD Family (Verve). “That’s where the tenor plays the melody, so I was stepping into Junior’s spot. He went off on me: ‘If you don’t know it, then don’t play!’ I usually felt challenged when I played Bradley’s, because I was aware of who was listening. There’s Freddie Hubbard at the bar. ‘OK, what am I going to play?’”

Even seasoned pros might receive admonishment, as Lightsey did from Flanagan for his treatment of Thad Jones’ “A Child Is Born. ” “It keeps progressing until you get to the turnaround at the end,” said Lightsey of the form, “which to me stops the song’s forward motion. I’m sure Thad had a reason for doing that, but I had my reason for taking out two bars. Tommy Flanagan came in when I was playing it, and he focused and he listened. When we finished the set, he rushed over to me. I called him ‘Father,’ so he called me ‘Son.’ He said, ‘Son, you owe me two bars.’ I don’t think he ever collected the two bars.”

The late set also encouraged the time-honored function of sitting in. “When Hank Jones played, all the pianists came out, and he’d have everybody come up,” Walton recalled. “It would go past 4 a.m. because 10 or 12 people were sitting in.”

Such occasions could turn competitive. Several witnesses describe an evening when George Coleman, at the end of a Cables gig, asked Cables to play “Body And Soul.” “I told him sure,” Cables recalled.“We usually do it in D-flat, but at the last minute George said, ‘In D-major, Trane changes.’ I said, ‘I’m game.’ But I’d never played it in that key, and I was tripping over these chords and notes, trying to work it out, especially in the bridge. I was ticked off, because it was my set and I’d let him embarrass me, and I was mouthing off.”

A physical altercation ensued.

The spirit of the cutting contest was also rampant on an evening when Dorothy Donegan, in her 70s, came in with an entourage near the end of Miller’s final set. “Out of respect, I called her up,” Miller recalled. “Man, she played the whole history of the piano. She wowed the audience so much that they didn’t want her to get up—on my gig. Finally she went back to her table, and I heard her say to her friends, ‘Did I get him?’”

On other nights, batons were passed, as on Pérez’s first Bradley’s performance. “Barry Harris was playing with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, and someone introduced me to Barry,” Pérez remembered. “He said, ‘Tonight we have in the house supposedly a young talent.’ He played ‘Cherokee,’ burned it, and then called me to perform. I was so nervous. Everybody at Bradley’s was like, ‘Da-nilo! Da-nilo!’ But I got up, and guess what he did? He played a tune I didn’t know, a tune of his. I followed. After a while he followed, and said, ‘Yeah, you got some great ears, man; I like that.’ I played a little, then he’d play, and we hung out all night.”

“Bradley’s was like home,” said Barron, whose exalted status in the piano rotation is the point of Live At Bradley’s and The Perfect Set (Sunnyside), which document three nights with Drummond and Riley in April 1996. “If I was working in Boston or Philadelphia, soon as I finished the gig at midnight, I got in the car and I wanted to get to Bradley’s for the last set. I’d only hear maybe a couple of tunes, but I was still there to hang.”

The Bradley’s hang became an institution that outlasted the lifespan of its founder, whose outsized personality and Rabelasian habits matched his 6-foot-5-inch, 220-pound frame. Raised in California, as a Marine Cunningham worked in combat intelligence and became sufficiently conversant in Japanese to convince remnant troops on Saipan Island to emerge from their caves at the conclusion of World War II. In the early ’60s he bought the 55 Bar on Christopher Street, and he opened Bradley’s in June 1969. He launched a music policy five months later with an electric Wurlitzer that had belonged to singer Roy Kral.

During his first two years on University Place, Cunningham primarily hired pianist Bobby Timmons and guitarist Joe Beck, interpolating one-shots to such fusionists as Larry Coryell, Jan Hammer, Joe Zawinul, Hermeto Pascoal and Don Preston. The writer Frank Conroy (Stop-Time) played Monday nights. By the middle of 1973, with the Baldwin spinet in place, the booking esthetic moved toward mainstream duos. Walton and Sam Jones, known familiarly as Homes, appeared at regular intervals, Al Haig played Sunday nights, and Flanagan made his Bradley’s debut that Thanksgiving week with bassist Wilbur Little. Two weeks into 1974 Jaki Byard became the regular Sunday pianist. That June, the Los Angeles-based pianist Rowles, who had begun hanging out at Bradley’s while in residence for two months at Barney’s Josephson’s Cookery, moved up the block for a three-week run. A month later he embarked on a four-month residency and inaugurated Bradley’s golden era.

“I came to town in November ’77, and my first job was playing duo for a week with Jimmy Rowles,” Drummond recalled. “Sam Jones called me, and said, ‘I want you to go in.’ ‘Who are you sending me in to work with?’ I had seen Bradley and been introduced, but that was it. He always would give me this scowl; this perpetual scowl that Bradley had. On the first night, I’m unpacking the bass, and Bradley wandered around, looking at me, like, ‘What is this about?’ Didn’t say a word. Then Rowles comes in, and we play. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m playing with Jimmy Rowles.’ He knows all 10 million tunes in the world, tunes that were cut out of previews of shows. He was kind to me; everything he played, I knew.

“It was obvious that Homes hadn’t told Bradley that I was going to sub for him one night, let alone the whole week—but he figured it out. At the end of the second set, he walked by me. He looked me dead in the eye without changing the facial expression. He said, ‘You know, kid? You’re all right.’ Then he walked away. That was my initiation.”

Drummond adds, “Of course, after coming to New York, you determined quickly that Bradley’s was where you want to go, because everyone playing is a guy you want to hear.”

By the end of 1977, “everyone” included pianists Barry Harris (then nearing the end of a two-year run as Sunday night house pianist), Walton, Barron, Walter Bishop, Walter Norris, Roland Hanna, Dave McKenna, Dick Wellstood, Bob Dorough, Cables, Hersch, guitarist Jimmy Raney, and bassists Jones, George Mraz, Michael Moore, Major Holley and Buster Williams. There were several appearances by Hank Jones, who had retired from his New York studio sinecure in 1975, and frequent ones by Flanagan. All were playing on a Baldwin grand piano bequeathed to Bradley by Paul Desmond, who died May 30, 1977.

“It should be on Bradley’s tombstone, ‘He tuned his piano every day of the year,’” says Wendy Cunningham. “The piano tuner would have fits about the condition of the piano he’d seen just 24 hours before. So he who broke too many strings wasn’t usually encouraged to come back. It wasn’t just a piano. It came from his best friend.”

“Bradley didn’t like people who pounded the piano, which is why his two favorite musicians were Jimmy Rowles and Tommy Flanagan.” said Stanley Crouch, a newbie at the Village Voice, whose offices were across the street from Bradley at 11th and University, when older colleague Jack Newfield, the political journalist, brought him there for lunch in 1975. “I saw Mingus’ picture on the wall and all of that, and that was the beginning. Bradley’s was a place where one could be guaranteed to get the feeling that people like in jazz. Not a style, but a certain feeling. Bradley appreciated people who had a wide repertoire of tunes with different harmonic and rhythmic identities.”

“It was extraordinary to meet all those guys, to be playing late at night with whoever was playing a horn, relaxed, sitting on a chair, nothing to prove,” Hersch said. “I remember a Sunday night when Jimmy was playing duo with Bob Cranshaw. He started to play a ballad, and when he got to the end, he segued to the melody of another ballad, then got to the end of the second one and he segued to the melody of a third. I was 21 or whatever, sitting at the front table, and Jimmy could tell that I was waiting for the jazz. He leaned over the table, because I was within earshot, and he said, in that gravel voice, ‘Sometimes I just like to play melodies.’ It was an eye-opener for a young guy that sometimes it’s enough to play a song, and not do anything with it.”

Hersch recalls an after the morning moment, perhaps in 1979, when he, Mraz and Cunningham, relaxing after a gig, heard a knock on the door from Flanagan and Rowles. “They decided that they were going to play Stump the Piano Player with each other,” Hersch said. “For the next hour-and–a-half, maybe two, they called and played these obscure tunes. Jimmy and Tommy had played with every singer known to man and could play them in any key. I can’t remember who stumped who. I wish I’d written down the titles on a napkin.”

Indeed, Bradley Cunningham liked to play “Stump the Pianist” himself. A self-described “sandlot pianist,” he locked the doors after 4 a.m., moved the patrons off the bar, sat at the piano bench and traded songs and conversation while imbibing until daylight and beyond with fellow night-owls like Mingus, who then lived around the corner on West 10th Street.

“Charles and Bradley were two potentially volatile people, and when one volcano is sitting across from another, it tends to keep the other one from erupting, because you know your match is waiting,” Wendy Cunningham said. “Mingus was generous about helping Bradley with his piano playing. I sat with him once when Bradley was playing, and I said, ‘Charles, this is the fourth tune he’s done, and they all sound alike.’ He said, ‘I know, but let’s encourage him.’”

Crouch recalled another after-hours occasion with Flanagan when Cunningham demonstrated that he was no musical dilettante. “Bradley came through with a tall one in one hand, smoking a cigarette,” Crouch recalled. “He looked like one of those comic figures that W.C. Fields played who went out to play golf, with all the alcohol in the golf cart. Flanagan was there, and Bradley sat down and said, ‘Tommy, I always thought that Thelonious Monk could have been an architect whose slogan would have been “we build better bridges.”’ Then he sat down and he started playing a number of Monk’s tunes, and played the bridges on each one.”

Cunningham was also not averse to displaying his inner Paul Bunyon when dealing with obstreperous patrons. Late one night in the early ’70s, Wendy Cunningham, walking towards the club, saw her husband “tussling with somebody” under the club’s canopy. “Suddenly, this figure goes flying across the sidewalk and lands on the hood of a car like a sack of potatoes, and Bradley was wiping his hands as if to say, ‘Well, that dirty work is done,” she said. “He had thrown out Miles Davis. Miles could be serious bad news in those years, and he also felt that he could come in and order anything for himself and his friends and that he should not be obligated to pay for any of it. He fast learned he wasn’t going to do that again.”

On another evening, Elvin Jones,“seriously 86ed” for two to three years for volatile behavior, showed up on the Sept. 9 birthday he shared with Bradley. “Bradley got up, and met him midway at the bar,” Cunningham recounted. “When he wanted to look impressive, somehow he could swell up. Elvin was determined to get past him and Bradley was determined that he wasn’t going to, and it was coming to physical and loud verbal stuff. One of the bartenders got scared, because he knew these two had a history, and he called the cops. Three cops dragged Bradley out. Elvin’s still turning the place over, Bradley’s pleading, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy,’ and meanwhile the cops are trying to put the cuffs on Bradley out on the sidewalk. That took a minute to get straightened out.”

After three stints in rehab for alcohol and substance abuse, Cunningham was diagnosed with cancer in May 1988. He died five months later, on Thanksgiving weekend, at the age of 63, leaving his wife and teenage son with a mountain of business and personal debt.

“His brains were starting to go scrambled, and I was spending way too much time on Tuesday correcting what he’d messed up on Monday,” Wendy Cunningham said. “He would double-book, and then there would be a week blank—starting tomorrow. Even before he died, my lawyer and accountant both told me that I probably was going to have no choice but to sell the place. Bradley never looked at a book; he lost the 55 Bar due to sales tax, and still owed money on it. It was the same at Bradley’s. The interest and penalties compounded hourly, and it became monumental. And it took me until 1993 to finish paying his medical bills. I wanted to keep the place going, but that seemed like a fantasy, so my focus was to be able to stay open, build up the business and take care of the debt to the point where I could sell it and not have to hand all of it over to Uncle Sam or the bank.”

If Bradley’s finances were a shambles, the roster was as strong and diverse as ever when he died. As the ’80s progressed Hank Jones and Flanagan appeared frequently, often with bassist Mitchell. Hicks, Willis, Ray Bryant, Joanne Brackeen, James Williams, Harold Mabern, Richie Beirach, Hilton Ruiz, Walter Davis Jr., Stanley Cowell, Bill Mays and Jack Wilson augmented the roster. In 1987, so did tenor saxophonist George Coleman, who, after three Sunday trios that spring with either Ruiz, Hicks or Willis and Ray Drummond, played the first-ever trio week at Bradley’s on Labor Day, and returned for another three such engagements and several Sunday nights before Bradley’s death. Over that 12-month span, he booked another dozen drummerless horn-led trios.

It was possible for Cunningham to try these experiments because, in 1986, New York’s Musicians Union won a suit intended to strike down the city’s Cabaret Laws, passed in 1926 to clamp down on social dancing in Harlem’s interracial cabarets. These statutes made it illegal for an unlicensed venue serving food and drink to present music by more than three persons—who could not be horn players or drummers—in an area not zoned for that activity, and was amended in 1978 to stipulate the presence of sprinklers and other provisions as a precondition for that license.

Cunningham was eager to take advantage of the new playing field and to bring in horns and drums. “Bradley was a piano-and-bass guy, and he was fearful that the Cabaret Laws might go out the window, and he might be forced to have to deal with trios,” she said. “I wanted to broaden the format. I intended to keep the tradition of quality, and to continue to bring in a lot of musicians who had played there before, but it was unfair for people to assume that things would be the same.”

In truth, things were pretty much the same during 1989. But during the month of June, Cunningham presented the New York debuts of 19-year-old trumpeter Hargrove, on the back end of a week by Hicks and Booker, and 18-year-old Geoffrey Keezer, helming a trio with Booker and Jimmy Cobb. The press paid attention, and over the next few years Cunningham wove Keezer and Hargrove into the regular mix, along with such young talent as Mark Whitfield, Pérez, Jacky Terrasson and Cyrus Chestnut and veterans like Bartz, Donald Brown, Belgrave, Chris Anderson, Andy Bey and Eddie Henderson. She booked a series of piano duos, brought in drummers like Riley, Billy Higgins, Idris Muhammad, Lewis Nash and Billy Drummond on a regular basis and encouraged experimentation beyond the “$50 tunes” favored by her husband.

Reaction was mixed. For one thing, many missed the duo focus. “The drums and horns took the room to a whole other space—not necessarily a bad space, but different,” Miller said. “Bradley’s was a piano duo room where I heard most of the pianists at their best. Something about the duo experience afforded you the opportunity to do all the pianistic things you might not do in another group setting.”

“The introduction of horns and drums changed the character of the performances and the dynamic between the musicians and audience in a subtle way,” said Ray Drummond, whose counsel Cunningham cites as key in helping her through the transition. “We had differences of opinion about it, not artist-specific, but conceptual. I thought young pianists and bassists were missing a certain apprenticeship experience; when they played duo, the drummer was in their mind—but that’s precisely what you didn’t hear back in the day. There’s an understanding about the time and the beat, not just where it is, but the deep groove that doesn’t need a drummer.”

With a woman at the helm, it was inevitable that sexism would rear its ugly head. “Bradley’s tight friends seemed not to like ‘the widow,’ as they called her,” Lightsey said. “When Bradley died and they saw that she was going to run the place, they didn’t help her. They stopped coming. But the musicians owed it to Bradley to help her try to run this place properly, because it was our home. We told her about people who were available, or who could be with other people, and advised her on certain policies. She was amenable, but she learned good, she had her own idea about things, and she was the owner of the place.”

The differences seemed picayune as Bradley’s moved inexorably to insolvency, its fate sealed after a kitchen grease fire forced a four-month closure in the middle of 1995. “I was starting to see my way to sunlight,” Cunningham recalls. “But the building was built in the 1880s, and now it had to accommodate 1995 building codes. There was a domino effect. The reconstruction costs were enormous, I had no cash flow for four months and I had creditors. All I could do was try to get the place in shape to be able to sell it. More than 50 percent of the mortgage payment came from Bradley’s, so we were unable to make mortgage payments when we were closed. But instead of trying to help us find a way out and stick with us, the bank just foreclosed on the property, and I had to find a buyer immediately. I was unable to sell Bradley’s. I had to close it.”

It can be painful for former Bradley’s habitues to walk past 70 University Place, where a pool table sits in the spot of Paul Desmond’s Baldwin, now housed at the Jazz Gallery, and several televisions show sports. Conspiracy theories abound as to why Cunningham did not sell to various purported sugar daddies—a Japanese mega-millionaire recruited by a cocaine dealer; a Swiss tycoon pulled in by James Williams—who would have preserved the room’s character.

“I was talking seriously with two men from England, who were legitimate, which nobody is aware of,” Cunningham said. “The rest is rumor. The truth is not known, and it ain’t nobody’s business but mine. This was my mess.”

Still, a decade after its closing fortnight—which began with an epic week by Chucho Valdés, and ended with a penultimate three-night Hargrove-led extravaganza, and a final tasty quartet evening with Scott, Joe Locke, Ed Howard and Victor Lewis—people not normally prone to sentiment or nostalgia feel a pang when it’s time to leave the Vanguard at half past midnight. The deaths in 2006 of Hicks and Booker compound the feeling that there is no place to go for that last set, that nothing has come along to take the place of Bradley’s.

Which is why under-40 pianists like Scott, Pérez and Keezer all count their blessings for having sat up-close-and-personal with the lineage.

“How can you play jazz piano and not acknowledge Hank Jones and his touch?” Scott says. “How can you play jazz and not acknowledge the subtle fire that Tommy Flanagan played with?”

“Learning first-hand through a teacher-student relationship has incredible value,” Pérez says. “Nothing compares to being in an environment where the people who are listening to you are the masters, who have lived the music, and are passing along that experience first-hand. To learn to listen, not to think that I have the answers to things, to learn to play with humility, because anybody can come and kick your ass on rhythm changes. What a challenge it was to play there. You heard Tommy Flanagan last week playing all these incredible things, and now you’re sitting in that chair. I miss it.”

So does everyone else. Last May, Hicks expressed his sentiments in a poem composed for Cunningham on the occasion of a surprise 60th birthday party that she was not able to attend. Three days later, he was dead.


THERE WAS A PLACE … University
Just Enough Space with … Diversity
THO’ ne’er intended, That song has Ended
FROM HEARTS Through Fingers
The Melody, still Lingers.

In Love


Filed under Article, Bradley's, DownBeat, Piano

It’s Sonny Rollins’ 81st Birthday: Two Interviews From 2000

In November of 2000, I had the privilege of being assigned to write a lengthy cover feature for DownBeat about Sonny Rollins, whose new recording at the time was This Is What I Do, which happens to be one of my favorite studio recordings by the maestro. Next week, Rollins — who turns 81 today — will issue volume two of his Road Shows series,  this one documenting, among other things, four tracks from his 2010 Beacon Theater concert that included encounters with Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall, and Roy Hargrove. Rollins will launch his next series of concerts in a fortnight, beginning with three engagements in California between September 18th and September 25th; he’ll resume on October 25th, launching an 8-concert European tour that lasts until just before Thanksgiving. Below, I’ve posted the verbatim interviews that comprised the DownBeat piece.

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Sonny Rollins (11-2-00):

When did you first start writing music?  You have “Mambo Bounce” on your first record.  Did you start writing then, or before that?

Let’s see… I started writing when I started getting better at playing.  I started writing pretty early on.  I would write melodies that I would use in my playing in little band we had and all of that.  So I’ve been writing for quite a while.  When I was really a kid, before I got known playing professionally, I was always writing actually.

So when you were 14-15-16, getting proficiency.


Did any of that material surface in your early recordings?

Let’s see… Probably not the early stuff.  Not the early stuff I was doing.  I think my proficiency, such as it was, grew along with my playing proficiency, so that they sort of coalesced and came together.  But I did a lot of what I guess I would call amateur things that I never used again when I got into playing more on a professional basis.

Did you start playing professionally right after high school, or was it during high school?

Actually, I remember the first job that I ever had where I got paid… We were living on Edgecombe Avenue and 155th Street, and there’s a viaduct that goes across into the Bronx.  There used to be a shuttle train there.  Anyway, I played on Jerome Avenue in a dance hall.  This was my first job, and I remember playing, after I came back, and my mother was waiting for me way up at the other end of 155th Street, on the Manhattan side sort of.  They were both in Manhattan, but it was sort of almost halfway, closer to the McCombs Dam Bridge going over to Yankee Stadium… Anyway, I remember that because my mother was sort of waiting…I saw her waiting, this solitary figure, waiting on the other side of the bridge for me to come back.  But that was my first job.  Now, that must have been… I was fairly young then, to have her waiting for me like that.  So I don’t remember the age, but I must have been fairly young.

So you must have been playing for two or three years at that time?

I actually started playing when I was 7 or 8.

For some reason, I had the impression you were playing piano, and then the saxophone when you were 10 or so.

I started piano around 6 or so, but it didn’t stick, and then I started the saxophone fairly early.  I started saxophone around 7 or 8.

I think I read you say you had an uncle with a saxophone, and you saw it, and you loved the look of it, and then BANG.

Right, I liked the look of the horn.  And then I had an older cousin who played alto who I sort of looked up to.  simultaneously I had been exposed to a lot of Louis Jordan records, and then Louis Jordan was performing in a nightclub that was directly across from my elementary school, and when I used to come out of school in the afternoon I saw his picture there with the tails, the tuxedo and all this stuff.  So these things sort of all coalesced.

Was the saxophone always a vehicle for you to improvise? Did it always have that connotation?

Yeah, sure.  Because I had always heard a lot of music around my house as a kid growing up.  My older brother played, my older sister played.  There was a lot of music.  One of the very first songs I remember fondly was “I’m Going to Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” by Fats Waller. There was that and a lot of other music around the house.  I loved Fats Waller.  Then when I began to listen to Louis Jordan, of course, and listened to big bands on the radio and everything… We always used to listen to Amateur Night in Harlem from the Apollo Theater, and they would always have a band.  So I got to recognize the sound of the saxophone and all of that.  So I guess the whole idea of improvising and playing on the saxophone all sort of came together.

Do you see your writing generally as a continuum of your playing, or setting up things to blow on?

I’d say that’s true.  Sure.  Everything is really about setting things up for me to improvise on.

So for you it’s not about any sort of system, as let’s say Coltrane was developing forty years when he was working out his ideas very systematically, and it’s not so much about arranging within the sound of the total band; it’s about finding a vehicle for you to improvise.

I’m not sure exactly what Coltrane was doing in the approach he used for writing.  But in my case, I would say it was about soloing, but I loved melody, so I always had melodies in my mind, even though a lot of things that I didn’t compose… I always loved melodies of all sorts of songs that I would hear, and Gilbert & Sullivan, the whole thing.  Things I heard in school and things I heard on the radio.  So I always loved melodies.  Now, when I composed, I guess I still had a strong bent toward trying to have something melodic as the song.  I’d try to have a melodic song.  I was big on melodies, and I still am, I guess.

It seems you’ve gone more and more and more towards melody in your improvising.  Sometimes when I hear you play, it sounds like one continuous stream of melody.


When I heard you in Damrosch Park this last year it really hit me.  You were playing this endless stream of beautiful melody!

That’s great.  I’ve never heard that expressed before.

It reminded me almost of Louis Armstrong, but if you took all the vocabulary that was developed after Louis Armstrong, and it all seemed to be coming out through you.  I truly believe this, and I feel this current record exemplifies that.  But anyway, in your body of work, it would seem to me that that session with Miles Davis where you put out “Airegin,” “Oleo” and “Doxy” are the first compositions that lasted.  Am I right about that?

Probably so.  Yes.

Were those things that were done for that date?

No, they weren’t done for that date.  They were just songs I had composed.  Around that time I was performing and I was also composing.  So those were just some songs that I had composed.  At the time of the date, Miles needed some songs and I pulled those out.  He said, yeah, he liked them, and he recorded them.  But as I said, I have been composing all along really.  So yeah, my compositions culminate in a saxophone solo and that may be where I’m going, but also I’m always composing simultaneously.

How much formal studying were you doing as a kid?  Did you have theory lessons?  Was it all sort of homegrown, picking up something here, picking up something there?  In a certain way, it must have been natural to pick up the harmonic innovations of Dizzy Gillespie, and you knew Monk and Bud Powell in high school, so it was first-hand.  It must have been very natural for you.

Actually, I had music in high school.  In those days one of your classes was music.  I remember the name of my teacher, Mrs. Singer.  I remember some of the songs… It was very elementary stuff.  It’s hard for me to even remember what we did in that class, but I think she may have taught us songs.  She played the piano, and I think we might have just sang songs or learned songs.  I’m not sure if there was musical notation or anything of that sort.

Where I’m leading with the question is: Is it usually emanating from melodies that are coming up in your practice, or are there more theoretical ideas that come into play when you’re documenting your music?

You’re asking did I have a lot of training.  No, I didn’t really have a lot of training.  So when I write, it was basically completely things that I heard, that I hear, that I put together, stuff like that.  I never really had the training to write really in a theoretical way.  I’d write something, and other people would then take it apart and theorize on what I did here, but a lot of times I didn’t really have that kind of training.  When I went to high school, i remember that I started to play then, but I was in the high school band, and I remember that I did study counterpoint and theory in high school.  But I had a very intimidating teacher who didn’t really like me.  She was a woman who looked just like George Washington.

I had a sixth grade teacher who was the spitting image of George Washington!

Her name wasn’t Mrs. Redman, was it?

It was Mrs. Marlowe.  She looked just like George Washington.

Isn’t that something.  So she didn’t like me.  I remember we had elementary harmony, and things like never write parallel fifths and all these things.  She had a very detrimental effect on me, because she really made a lot of things that should have been easy for me seem difficult.  Now, there was another teacher I had in school whose name I can’t think of now, but she was very nice, and with her I learned a little more.  But Mrs. Redman was the main counterpoint teacher, and she made things very difficult for me to understand.  That was about my formal training in high school.  Now, when I got out of high school, of course, I studied with various teachers and all of this stuff, and probably towards the latter part of high school also I started studying with private teachers and getting more real information.  But in school I really didn’t learn much.

Wasn’t that also around the time when you started knowing Monk and Bud Powell and people like this?  You were 15-16? Right. How did they teach you?  Was it very hands-on?  Was it just a come along for the ride type thing?  Would they take things apart?

With Monk it was really an experience.  Because with Monk, I’d be invited over to his house where we would rehearse some of this music.  I remember different people being over there like the trumpet player Idris Suleiman, or maybe Kenny Dorham, and another saxophonist you’d see over there, a fellow from Brooklyn, Coleman Hoppen, and some other people who I can’t recall…

You were 16 or 17 then?  This is around when he did his first Blue Note recordings.

Yes.  But at that time it was… I had met Monk actually… I worked at a place called Club Barron’s in Harlem, and somehow I was working in there with a trio, and Monk was working opposite me with his group.  Monk heard me at that time, and he saw something in me that he liked, so then he sort of took me under his wing.  Then I began to go over to his house and rehearse in his various bands.  This was around ’48, though.

So after the first Blue Note recordings, and you were 17-18.

I was probably 17 or 18 when I started to go over there.

Did his music seem very natural to you?

Well, I had heard Monk on the record with my idol, Coleman Hawkins, “Flyin’ Hawk,” and one of the other sides is “Drifting On A Reed.”  I mean, I was a real Coleman Hawkins man by that time.  When I heard that, I really liked Monk’s work.  So I was ready for him.  When I heard him, I mean, I was into him.

There’s something about the way you phrase, your cadences, when you talk about Monk, his effect on you sounds almost inevitable.


Would he take things apart?  Would he make comments?

No, Monk never… Monk or Miles Davis or any of those giant guys that I started playing with, they never dissected or tried to lead me into any kind of soloing that I can remember.  They accepted what I was doing, and it was never about that.  The only thing was… For instance, at Monk’s house, I remember it was guys playing Monk’s music…always guys would say, “Oh, man, it’s impossible to make these jumps on the trumpet” and all this stuff,” and then we’d end up playing it.  But no, I can’t recall Monk or Miles, who were the early guys I played with, and Bud Powell…they never… I mean, as far as my playing was concerned, it certainly wasn’t on their level in my mind, but whatever it was, they accepted what it was.

You could keep up.  I talked a lot to Andrew Hill for a Downbeat piece. He said he and a friend would listen to all of Monk’s records in 1948 and ’49 and ’50, and would have a competition to see who could get his tunes most quickly off the records as they came out.  He said that the music at that time was a folk music, as he put it, and it was everywhere.  People could pick up extremely sophisticated concepts because they were in the air, they were part of the culture, part of the zeitgeist.  Then later it changed.  Is that a fair assessment of the way it was for you at a similar time?  Or course, New York was very different.

Well, at that time jazz was a much more insular music.  Guys were doing it for the love of it, and there wasn’t a big thing about what people were doing and all this stuff.  The critical aspect of it wasn’t as prominent.  People just played with each other.  But as to his point that it was sort of in the air, I guess you could say that.  That was definitely a dominant music at that time and it was certainly out there.  And if he wants to call it a folk music, I could even go along with that certainly.

I guess about a year after those first recordings I think is when you first went to Chicago?

I went to Chicago in ’48, if I’m not mistaken.

Right after high school?

Yeah, around that time.  That gets fuzzy.  I know I was there in the ’40s.

Once I read 1950 and ’54-’55.

I was also there then.  But I first went there in the late ’40s.

I ask because Jackie McLean once made the point that spending a summer or a longer amount of time in one of the Carolinas (I can’t remember whether it was North or South) after growing up in New York, had a great effect on his aesthetic, because it was an exposure to a deep blues aesthetic, and the culture was a bit different in New York.  I’m wondering if going to Chicago did something similar for you.

Oh, yeah.  Definitely.  Chicago was a more earthy place, and a more blues-oriented place, of course.  Also, the music aesthetic in Chicago… They had clubs where people would play 24 hours a day, and it was a really exciting place.  So yes, I would say that I found a lot of that in Chicago, as opposed to being in New York.  So I really enjoyed Chicago.  I loved Chicago.  I still call Chicago my second home.  I spent a lot of time there, and the time that I spent there I met a lot of musicians and played with a lot of musicians, and so on and so forth.  So it was really a very formative period, I think, in my life.  So I would agree with Jackie on that.  I think there was something going into the interior of the country.

I remember asking you when I interviewed you about 12 years ago about [drummer] Ike Day.  You played a lot with him.  Could you provide a few recollections of him and of Gene Ammons and some of the other musicians you met there?

Well, Gene Ammons I had known in New York.  Gene Ammons was sort of an idol of mine from New York.  He was sort of out there doing it when I was still in school.  So I really looked up to him.  He was one of the older guys that I looked up to and respected a great deal?  When I got to Chicago I had the opportunity of playing several times with Gene, and got to know him more as a colleague.  But I looked up to him in New York more as one of my idols.  Ike Day was a very great drummer that I had the opportunity of playing with.  It was great playing with Ike.  He was a guy who really knew his way around the drums, and once you heard him hit the drum, you knew that he was something special.  He really covered the drums.  It was a great learning experience for me, playing with him.  Now, of course, these guys liked me also. [LAUGHS] But coming from my way to him, I really looked up to him.  Of course, he liked what I was doing, too, but it was a learning experience.

By the way, did you ever play drums yourself?

No, I didn’t.  I wish I did.  I love drums.

Because you’re so rhythmic.  It sounds like you never get lost in the time, ever-ever-ever.

Right.  I could give Elvin Jones a run for his money, right?

I guess you give Jack DeJohnette a run for his money, too, at this point!  And I guess dynamic drummers are what you’re about from the beginning.  Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Max Roach…

Right.  Well, I remember playing with Art Blakey one time when we in Birdland, and the rhythm got off some kind of way, so after he came off the stand Art was saying, “Boy, Sonny, you didn’t let that mess you up; you were really right on it; it didn’t bother you.”  That was great. That really gave me a bit more confidence in myself.

Was confidence an issue with you for a long time?

[SIGHS] Well…

It’s hard to imagine.  Because looking at you from the outside, you’re an imposing figure.  You’re a big guy, you have a very imposing kind of look…


…and then you play with this sort of gruff authority. I’s hard for an outsider to imagine that confidence would be an issue for you, but we can’t be inside your head.

The thing is this, Ted.  When you’re really young… For instance, there was a period in my life when I was actually cocky.  You see?  I mean, I look back at it now, but I actually was cocky, and I thought I was so good…

You probably had some reason to think that, because you were getting praise from everybody.  People were into you when you were 24-25 years old.  You were a stylistic role model.

Yes, and getting a lot of praise and everything.  But I should have been wiser than that.  But at any rate, I look back at it and I’m ashamed of myself for being that way.  So I went through periods like that, but at the same time, I don’t think it really lasted long, because certain musicians that I came in contact with, Clifford Brown and people like that, really showed me the way, that this is something that is not that easy to do, and it’s something you have to work on!  So that period of cockiness didn’t last a long time, I’m glad to say.  But my style of playing probably wouldn’t sound like I was in any way unsure of myself.  I think that’s just sort of the style of playing I have that you mentioned, rhythmic and all this stuff, so there’s not too much room in there to betray any kind of unsureness, just in the actual style.

When you said “cocky,” for a second I thought you said “copy,” but then I knew you didn’t say it.  I know when you were much younger you would memorize Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, just like later people would memorize you.  Gary Bartz once described going to hear you every set in the ’60s at the Vanguard, and he said one night you would be Coleman Hawkins all night… [HEARTY LAUGH] Then the next night you would be Lester Young all night. [HEARTY LAUGH] Then the next night you would be Sonny Rollins!


I guess his observation  was accurate. I think I’ve heard Joe Henderson say that he’d do that as a challenge, to keep himself interested for the evening or something like that.

Well, I didn’t approach it that analytically.  I just really love and respect all those musicians.  Say, somebody like Don Byas, he was a big influence of mine, so…

That’s right.  You said you got the single of “Ko-Ko” for the other side, which was his version of “How High the Moon.”

“How High The Moon” with Bennie Harris on trumpet.  I didn’t even know about “Ko-Ko.”  I was following Don Byas, so I got that, and there happens to be this record on the other side by this guy named Charlie Parker, an alto player.  I wasn’t interested in that.  I was interested in Don Byas.  So these guys taught me how to play, listening to their records.  So I made some… When he says I played Coleman Hawkins all night, it sounds a little…

It’s a bit of an exaggeration.

Right.  But I was doing it out of complete… I was immersed in what I… I wasn’t doing it to show, “Hey, man, listen to me, I’m playing like Coleman Hawkins.”  And it was something difficult really to pull off.  So it was all part of my musical…it was all part of me, really.

It’s all different components of your personality and the things that went into making you Sonny Rollins.

I think so.  I hope so.

So the idea being that you internalized what they did, and their ideas and their manner so thoroughly, that it really just became you.

Right.  Well, that’s wonderful.  To me, that’s a supreme compliment, to be able to actually get into the great music those guys were playing.  And a lot of that stuff we took from the records, in those days especially.  Jackie might even tell you the same thing.  We listened to a lot of records and copied the solos.  That’s really how we learned a lot of that stuff.  It was really wonderful.  We were pretty young, and we didn’t always get an opportunity to see these guys in person.  But the records… And it’s hard to copy, even… When I say “copy,” in my case anyway, I’d get as close to it as I could get.  I could never copy a guy note for note, because for one thing it’s very difficult to do. Guys who can copy people, that’s a different type of musician.  There are people who can do that, and that’s a skill that I admire certainly.  But I could never copy a guy.  I would just sort of try to get inside what he was thinking in that sense, and some of the exterior things on the outside.  But basically, it was his real soul that I was trying to inhabit.

You were trying to inhabit the soul of Coleman Hawkins?

Yeah!  Or Lester Young.  I mean, I was trying to feel what they felt, and interpret music the way they did.

That was a conscious thing for you.  You’d say “what were they thinking of here?”

Well, not consciously say that.  But in trying to get his style, these things would all be happening.  In trying to copy his style, interpret his style.  I’m just saying I would get inside of his soul, I know, but that sounds a little…

When you came back from your second hiatus in 1972, you haven’t had another one since.  You’ve been playing pretty much through for the last 28 years.

I would say so, yes.

In the ’60s, I guess you went through a lot of different things, from the abstractions when you were using the people who played with Ornette, to these very pithy, diamond-like recordings with Herbie Hancock on “The Standard Sonny Rollins” type thing, to these incredibly complex, baroque improvisations like “Three Little Words,” and there’s a very famous bootleg that you probably know where you play “Four” for forty minutes.

No, I don’t know about it. I try not to.

Nonetheless it’s a legendary one, where you play for forty minutes and don’t repeat a phrase, you keep building and developing and your tone conveys the nuances of a ballad at incredible velocity, and things like that.  So it’s impossible to categorize your playing.  But it seems that this orientation of really focusing on melody begins after this hiatus.  Now, I’m a fan and it’s my interpretation, and I can create whatever fantasy I want in my mind.  But putting it in print is a different sort of responsibility.  Is there any accuracy to that?  Is that a conscious goal, or is it something that’s just happened, or am I off-base?

Well, no, the thing is that… Like, when you just said, “Gee, you sound like you’re playing total melody.”  This is something I’ve never heard before, really…

Maybe I’m wrong.

Well, people have told me that I play melody, of course.  But I mean, your interpretation that it all sounds like a continual melody, even through the different songs and everything like that… Well, this is great.  I’ve never heard that.  It sounds great to me to be able to do anything like that. I’m flabbergasted by hearing that.  This is great if I do that.  But I’m not sure when I got into that.  Because to me it’s continuum of trying to amass different things.  It’s just like I tried to find out what Don Byas was playing, the way he approached his music and approached the horn and so on.  So I am going through different phases to try to get to the point where I can really express myself.  I’m not sure that that began when I came back in the ’70s; it very well may have.  This is for you to really analyze.

For one thing, in the ’70s you started getting more deliberately into vernacular music and aspects of popular music, put more of a dance feel into your music.

Well, I think that in the ’70s I certainly wanted to be… As I always have.  I always wanted to be relevant to music.  I’ve gotten a lot of…a lot of people talk to me about the ’70s and all that. I’m often criticized about that because I used a backbeat and I used guitars and all.  But I don’t understand a lot of it.  Because all of this is just part of my own quest to try to… I mean, jazz is sort of a music which has to be alive.  If it’s not alive, if it’s stale… For instance, I couldn’t copy a guy to a T and then expect it to really sound alive.  Which gets back to what we were saying about playing like somebody.  Now, you can play like somebody and appreciate what they’re doing, and try to get the essence of them, and it’s alive.  If you just copy, it’s not alive.  It probably wouldn’t sound alive. So in the ’70s I guess I was trying to keep finding different ways to make my music relevant and make my own playing… I’ve never thought of myself as being on some pinnacle where, you know, I have to be there and I can’t play a calypso or I can’t do this, or I can’t play a backbeat.  I mean, I’ve never thought of myself like that.  And I’m surely very honored that a lot of my fans think that one period puts me up there with great people and all that, but to me it’s always been trying to get to It, and It is a thing which is alive and is fluid.  This is the way I play.  I am always trying to sound like that.  Until I feel I’m satisfied, you’re not going to hear me play exactly alike any time.  So that’s probably what I was doing then.  It’s just something I was trying to stay alive with, you know.

You mentioned in our interview 12 years ago that your mother would take you to all the calypso dances, and it’s something that’s in you from very early.


Are you a good dancer?

Well, I think I’m a pretty good dancer actually! [LAUGHS] Yeah.  There used to be a dance we used to do when we were in our teens.  It was called the Applejack.  It was a dance that you did… In fact, if you ever used to go to see Monk, Monk would get up and dance by himself.  Monk used to get up from the piano and dance.  So it was this solitary dance, and you’d just do moves to the music.

Is he dancing the Applejack?That was the Applejack.  So yeah, I did the Applejack, and I consider myself a fairly good dancer.  I remember going to see Dizzy a long time ago at the Savoy Ballroom when his band was up there, and Dizzy thought of himself as a good dancer, and I guess he was. [LAUGHS] He would dance with a chick, you know, and they would really be going at it, doing the Lindyhop, and the people would be crowding around, making a circle around him, and they would really be going to town.  So yeah, I like dancing and I  think I tried to dance.  Plus, I like playing for dance music.

Did you play a lot of dances when you were younger?

Yes.  I think a lot of dances we played at, basically, when we were coming up… I mean, the time I was with Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and all these guys.  We played dances.  There were very few places we played where there wasn’t dance floors there.  It either was a club with a dance floor or it was just what we would call a function, which was all people dancing.  So I played a lot of dance music, and I think it’s an integral part of what we’re doing.

Another thing that was going on so much in New York when you were coming up was Latin music.  Were you into that?  Was that a big part of your world?

Well, I liked a lot of Latin music, because as you may know, I like all kinds of music.  I heard a lot of guys.  I heard Tito Puente, and I remember when he came out with the Mambo, which was a sort of… In fact, the last time I saw Tito, I mentioned a song, one of the first sides which I had heard from him, “Donde Esta (?)Bas Two(?).”  I mentioned that to him.  In fact, I saw him at Moody’s party some years ago.  We were talking, and I said, “I remember this,” and he said, “wow, that goes back!”  But I heard not a lot of Latin music but I heard some Latin music.  There were some guys that I heard…

I can only think of one record where you went into using a bunch of hand drums and so on, with “Don’t Stop the Carnival” and “Jungoso.”  I wondered because of the connectedness of rhythms in the Caribbean if that was a big part of your formative thing.

ROLLINS:  Right.  Well, actually, there’s a little… When I go to the Caribbean on vacation… We go down sometimes on vacation.  We used to go every year.  But anyway, when I hear some of what you would call the authentic calypso, it’s different from the Latin-American stuff a little bit.  It’s a little different.  But there is some similarity.  Now, that brings me to saying this.  I play a style of calypso which is actually different from the authentic stuff I hear when I go to the Caribbean, so in a way, it may be that Caribbean people who hear me play  think, “Well, gee, this guy is not really playing calypso.” I mean, it’s possible.  Because the stuff I play, I hear a little bit differently.  It doesn’t sound like the stuff I hear there, but it’s similar. But to get more to your point, there is a difference between the Latin thing and the Calypso thing, although they are related.  Well, if you keep digging deep, they are all related, as Dizzy proved when he did his stuff, and Bird did “Mango Mangue” with Machito.  I mean, it’s all very related.  But you could really put it in a pot together, and it works.  But I didn’t hear a lot of Latin music.  I heard some.  And when my mother would take me places, I heard more calypso than Latin as a small child.

So a piece like “Salvador” on this record is more implying the spirit of Salvador through your filter, rather than dealing in an idiomatic way with rhythms of Bahia.

I would say so, yes.

Did you ever, in your investigations… You were in India for a while.  Were you breaking down those rhythms in an analytic way, or breaking down aspects of clave or African rhythms, or is it always that you sort of take things in and then experiment with them…


It’s all intuitive.

Yeah, really.  I hear a lot of stuff… When I was in India, I went to a couple of those LONG concerts that they would have with those guys, and they really have long concerts… I mean, concerts would be 5 or 6 hours.  I heard people playing in the hills, where it was… I’d hear… But no, I never broke things down in a methodical way.  Anything that I wanted, I mean, it came to me in an intuitive way, and I’d say, “I can use that” or “that sounds right to me” or something that I can relate to, and I just did it.

So on “Salvador,” you sort of found this melody and you developed it…

Yeah.  “Salvador” is a melody I developed.  Certain parts of the melody reminded me of Brazil a little bit, and then I sort of… Somebody was asking me what.. They said, “Oh, it’s a Calypso.”  I said, “Well, it’s sort of a Calypso-Samba.”  They said, “Oh, that’s a new genre.” [LAUGHS]

And Jack De Johnette is the drummer on that one.  Did you give him any input into how you wanted it?  Or did you just run down the tune and he comes up with what he does?

Well, both.  We didn’t rehearse that until the day we made the date.  He heard some material, but he didn’t get a chance to look at it, to listen to it, you know.

You’d played some of the tunes with the band on the road, but Jack didn’t rehearse it.

Right.  So then when Jack came, it was a completely different thing.  Because the drummer really sets the mood and the time of the piece, which changes everything, really.  So it took us a lot of takes to get the feeling I felt comfortable with, and then I could sort of explain to Jack SORT OF what I wanted.  But see, I never want to explain things, especially to a drummer of Jack’s caliber, because they have something to contribute that I don’t want to inhibit their contribution.  So I always kind of want to leave as much…to let them do what they feel.  You see what I mean?  But it took us a while to let us get to a mutual agreeable interpretation of it.  It wasn’t done in one take.  We did quite a few, because we were rehearsing it and recording it at the same time actually.  So I wanted it to be free so that I could really get the benefit of his knowledge, really.

Is practice still for you kind of the same thing as performing?  You said 12 years ago there wasn’t a difference.

That’s basically still true.  I mean, outside of the fact that I might go over some musical passages that are difficult, or I might go over some scales, or… But basically, what I’m doing is practicing playing.  I’m practicing performing.  It’s really playing.  It’s really a miniature performance when I’m practicing.

Barry Harris made the comment about Monk that Monk might sit down and play “My Ideal” for a hundred choruses, keeping the tempo or something… And someone else said they went to see Bud Powell in the morning, he was practicing something, then they went out, they came back, it was five-six hours later, and he was still playing the same thing.


It sounds like that’s a methodology that you internalized or became very natural to you.

Well, it’s very apropos that you should say that.  Because yesterday I was practicing a ballad for I think it must have been an hour, the same ballad over and over again, the same thing — not the same way, of course.  So I guess I practice the same way, yeah.  You try to find things which complement the melody.  In the case that you might be playing a ballad, “My Little Brown Book” or whatever it might be… But by playing it over and over you’ll find different ways to really illuminate the song.  So I was doing that yesterday, playing not that song, but another song.  I thought for a minute, “Gee, I wonder if anybody is…”  Well, somebody was hearing me, I know.  There’s a musician who plays on my floor.  He must have thought, “Gee, this guy is playing the same thing over and over and over again.”

The Mingus piece.  Since you never recorded with Mingus, I didn’t think of the two of you as being very close, but I suppose you were.  Was that a friendship of long standing?

Well, I was very close to Mingus.  He always wanted me to do some things with him.  They just never panned out.  I would go by and play with him when he was at the new Five Spot on 8th Street, I think.  I remember when Eric Dolphy was giving him some kind of trouble, so he brought me down to sort of, you know, play with Eric, sort of to, in his mind, “Well, here, man, look, I’ve got Sonny here, so you’d better be cool,” something like that.  So I played with him a couple of times.  But we were also friends.

So after your first comeback.

Yes.  That would have been…

Were you playing things with Mingus like “Meditations” or one of those extended pieces?  Actually there’s a phrase in the second section that resonates directly to it, though I can’t catch it exactly now.

Well, I’m not exactly sure.  It was reminiscent of it.  But I didn’t write it trying to recall.  It was something subliminal. This was after I had signed with RCA, which was in ’61.  Mingus used to come by to the… You know, one of the things which I put in my contract with RCA was the fact that I could have free access to the recording studios on 24th Street, so I could go by there 24 hours a day, and practice and use the facilities…

So you could get off the bridge, huh?

Right, exactly.  So Mingus used to come by there a lot, and he’d play piano, you know, and I’d play and so on.  It was in the ’60s.

So you’d workshop in this very informal way together.


Did you ever tape any of those?

No, I didn’t.

Did that piece start off being for Mingus, or did it become for Mingus once you realized what you were doing with it?

It became for Mingus after I had it done.  I just put it together some time…I don’t know how soon I did it, but I put it together.  And after I sort of had it together and it was a completed melody, then it dawned on me, “Hey, man, this sounds like Mingus.”  The Mingus that I knew.  To me.  It may not sound like Mingus to anybody else, but it sounded like the Mingus that I knew and was very reminiscent of him in my mind.

Did you ever record any of his tunes on your records?

No.  But I wanted to record one of his tunes.  There was a tune that he did that Miles did.  It was a ballad.  It’s reminiscent of a ballad that Richie Powell wrote when I was with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.  I think he called it “Time.”  It was something similar to that.  Miles did it with a quartet, I think.  It was really beautiful.  And I always had wanted to do that, and never got around to it.

Did your relationship continue through the ’60s?

My relationship with Miles Davis continued forever.  We were always tight.  Miles and I had a close relationship.  In fact, I remember one time… This is just a little story.  At one time, Miles was playing with his group; I think he had Wayne Shorter with him, that group.  They were playing in a place in Brooklyn called the Blue Coronet.  Anyway, I hadn’t seen Miles in a while, so I went by, came in the club, and he was standing at the… He didn’t see me.  So I sort of was behind him.  So the guys said, “Sonny’s here,” and Miles almost jumped out of his skin!  He was just glad to see me.  I mean, it really touched me, because I realized how much this guy thought of me.  The way he jumped, you know.  So Miles and I were very close.  I was surprised, because Miles is one of our idols.  I wasn’t putting myself on his plane; I would never do that.  But he thought a lot of me.  So we had a tight relationship.

A naive question.  Why was Miles one of your idols?

I’ll tell you why.  When I was growing up (and Jackie would remember this also), there was a trumpet player who we liked a lot whose name was Lowell Lewis.  In fact, we went to high school together.  He was one of the guys who Mrs. Redman (George Washington) liked; she didn’t like me.  But anyway, Lowell was really a fine trumpet player, and he played with Jackie, played with us all.  And he liked Miles.  When Charlie Parker came out with “Now Is The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce,” which could have ’44, or maybe earlier, I’m not sure…

It was done at the same session as “Ko-Ko,” in 1945.

Okay.  But Miles was on “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s The Time.”  And Lowell really liked him.  Of course, prior to that, Dizzy Gillespie was really the man, and he was still was, but Lowell really liked Miles.  He said, “Wow, man, I really dig the way this cat plays.”  I liked him, too, actually.  And it was very interesting, the way that Miles would play with Bird.  He took a different tack.  One of the solos that he played on one of those records, I don’t know whether it was “Billie’s Bounce” or “Now’s the Time,” but it was really such a poetic solo.  A blues solo; it was really great.  So when I say why he was my idol?  Of course, Bird was my idol and my hero and everything.  So at that point we began thinking of Miles in that rarefied atmosphere.  He was just up there with Dizzy and… I liked his playing, and also the fact that he was working with Bird.  He was a god.  That’s why I said that he was an idol.

He was only four years older than you.

He was only four years than I, and I think that’s sort of why we kind of got more friendly.  Dizzy was much older.  Of course, Monk was older, but Monk was different, because Monk kind of took me under his wing.  But my relationship with Miles was more one of peer.  But nevertheless, I held him in the utmost esteem.  I mean, he was really one of the guys.

So Charlie Parker, even though he was friendly to you and extremely solicitous of you in many ways, was somewhat inaccessible.

Yes, in many ways.  I mean, Bird was just too… Of course, we know he was into his own thing.  It was really hard to catch the Bird.  Chasin’ the Bird…heh-heh.  But he was very generous to us and very avuncular and everything.  When I first met Miles and he wanted me to play with him, we got much tighter.

In our conversation thing 12 years ago, you related a comment that Monk made to you, “You know, Sonny, without music, this would be a sad world.”  That really resonated with you.

Oh, it resonated completely.

Does it still resonate?

Well, of course.  I mean, I’ve lived so many more years since he said that, and I’ve really just internalized it!  I don’t even think about it any more.  But it really struck a chord, because this is exactly how I felt, but I didn’t know how to express it.  But that was it.  When he said that I said, “Well, wow, yeah, that’s what it’s about.  Of course.  Right.  Music is it.  It’s the reason why we’re here.”

You said it’s the only thing that makes you believe in God.

Well, by this stage, there are other things that make me believe.  But certainly that’s one of, I would say, God’s gifts to us.  But by now, I’ve studied and learned a lot about different spiritual pursuits and all of that.  But no, there’s nothing untrue about that at all, of my saying that.

I can’t imagine you as being from anywhere else but New York City. That’s one reason why I think I relate to your playing the way I do.  I’m from Manhattan, grew up on Bleecker Street, and something about when you play… It sounds like home.

That’s wonderful.  I’m happy to hear that.

But I’ll end it on this sort of corny note.  What is it about being from New York?

Well, I know that a lot of the musicians wanted to come to New York.  Like we were saying earlier, guys would go to Chicago, and Jackie said he went to North Carolina and got a different slant and this sort of stuff.  One time I was kidding about Monk, and I said, “Oh, man…”  And he really took umbrage, because Monk really wanted to be a New Yorker.  I mean, he really felt to be the quintessential New Yorker.  There’s something about the… I guess there’s so much happening here, good and bad, that if you can sort of be of New York, I guess you have a lot of things covered.  You have sort of everything covered.

* * * *

Sonny Rollins #2 – (11-14-00):

Stephen Scott  told me that you’re quite a good pianist, that you sound something like Tadd Dameron.  Can you talk about how your experience playing piano intersects with your approach to the saxophone and the way you think about music?

Could you be specific?  Kind of center it in a little more?

I can try.  When you spoke about playing the piano, you said you started playing when you were 7 or 8, you took lessons, and then it kind of dropped by the wayside.  Did it totally drop, or have you continued to play piano all these years?

What I meant is that my parents started me with going to a teacher,  in the wake of my sister and older brother, who had both started out that way, and had more or less training.  I didn’t do as well, because my mother indulged me, and I wanted to go out and play ball, so I would say… Being the youngest son, I would say, “Let me do that.”  I had a mother who really was in my corner a hundred percent, and she really indulged me or loved me, whichever way you want to put it… Anyway, I didn’t have to go and practice for the teacher and play scales and all that stuff.  So my piano playing is very…you know, the things I do are very elementary.  But I didn’t really retain any of that, how I started off as a kid… When I got into the more serious career of being a musician, I didn’t really retain very much of that at all.

I think what he meant by Tadd Dameron is that you do very full, beautiful voicings, and he said you play a bit of stride.

Well, that’s very generous of him. [LAUGHS]

I think he meant it quite sincerely.

No, he’s a serious person.  He wouldn’t joke around.  He doesn’t joke around too much.  Well, let’s say that I would love to play that way.  I love the stride style.  So he might have heard me sometimes messing around, playing added, as they used to say.  But I certainly wouldn’t… It’s very, very elementary attempts at trying to play it.  But I love it, so probably, yes, maybe that’s what he hears coming through, my love of the style.  Then I’m able to get a few notes in here and there that may be reminiscent of the real thing.

You compose on the piano.

I do compose on the piano, yes. Well, where I live, I don’t have a piano.  I have a couple of keyboards.  So I don’t have a regular upright piano.  I’ve been thinking about getting one.  But I have a couple of keyboards, and I play on those, and they seem to be sufficient for me for what composing or what voicings and stuff I have to do for my composing.

I guess what I was getting at when I was asking you about how it intersects with the way you play saxophone is… Jack DeJohnette mentioned that when you play the piano, you have a global perspective of everything that’s going on at one time.  It’s like having the orchestra at your fingertips.  And it’s always been noted about the way you play that you’re kind of hearing everything at one time.  So I wondered if you had any speculations on whether your piano experience had been beneficial to you.

I think piano experience has been beneficial to me, in the fact that I use it to compose sometimes, and figure out chords and like that.  But I don’t think it has anything to do with my… I mean, I can’t, now that I think about it… But you were saying that I play in the way that I hear all of the instruments.

I’ve heard musicians say that.  I can’t claim that as an original observation.

Right.  No, I’ve heard that, too.  But I don’t think the piano is in any way basically related to that particular aspect of my playing.  As far as my best guess about that, I would say it’s probably not.  I think that just comes from more of a general appreciation of all of the different instruments and sounds, but not so much piano… Although everything is related, so it’s hard to say that it hasn’t.  But I think in my saxophone playing, I do try to… When I’m playing unaccompanied, I do think sometimes about some piano players, like trying to play like Art Tatum and things like that on a saxophone — in other words, playing all the parts.  But generally, I think people mean that not so much in my unaccompanied playing.  I think that some people have said that about my playing in general, that I seem to have a rhythmic… Basically I’ve heard that more.  I think that’s what they mean, that I can play the rhythm by myself, that you can feel the rhythmic accompaniment to the saxophone lines and so on.  So I think that’s the basic part of that comment that people make about me, rather than the sort of pianistic approximation on the saxophone.  I think that’s what they mean.

Was there ever in your…early on, from rehearsing with Monk, playing with Bud Powell early, trying to incorporate things like their phrasing in any conscious way?  Do you think that filtered into you in any palpable way?

I would say probably more Bud Powell than Monk.  Monk was too unique and his style didn’t lend itself to horns really.  But I certainly listened a lot to Bud Powell, and he had that left hand-right hand style which is more closely related to horn players playing lines.  So I am sure I got something from Bud along those lines.  As far as Monk, no, I don’t think I tried to.  I might have gotten… People have told me that I have assimilated other things from him, but I don’t think so much his piano sound.  I never thought of trying to do that, and I never consciously attempted to approximate his sound on the saxophone.  It was something that I just didn’t feel was possible or really would do me any good.

You spoke about Monk hearing you the first time when you had a trio at Club Barron, and Monk was playing the other end of the show, and he heard you.  Not to go into excruciating detail, but when you had these teenage bands, were you playing Bebop?  Were you playing the new music or were you doing things that were maybe more for the people?  Was that one and the same thing?

Well, that was one and the same thing.  Playing for the people and playing whatever I was playing was really one and the same thing.  The only thing that I would say would deviate somewhat from that is when we would play a lot of dances in Harlem, and sometimes we would have to play some Caribbean type tunes, like that.  So that would be playing something for dancing only.  Although even in that, there was a certain musical element which was foremost.  That’s why I still play those Caribbean tunes.  But those tunes, in those days, we played them for dancing.  So in that sense, we did.  But other than that…

You played the straight tunes or you would do your own variations on them?

Well, I would always do my own variations.  I was having a conversation recently with somebody, and we were talking about commercial players, and commercial…how some very successful commercial artists.  And I really feel that I respect those people a great deal, and I envy them, to be able to have the kind of skill to really do things that are really crowd-pleasing and do them to such an extent, that they can really do it.  I can’t do that.  I could never do that.  I’m not that good a musician, in a way of speaking, to be able to do that.  What I do is completely natural and off the top of my head basically, and I can’t really always play from night to night something which is… That requires a certain amount of skill.  I mean, as much as people might feel it’s banal, it requires a certain skill to do that.  And I’ve never had that kind of skill.  Not that I’d want to.  I think I prefer to be who I am.  But I still respect the skill of other people.  So whatever I do, even when we’d play for dances, I was still trying to change things around a little bit and so on.  But the basic imperative was to play for people dancing.

When you had those bands, was that, say, Arthur Taylor and Kenny Drew, and you were 16-17 years old, and those were the first bands you led, and they were sometimes for dancers and sometimes for listening?

There were always people that liked to listen to music.  I remember when I first began getting into the “big time” when I was playing places like the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, and I was playing with Miles Davis and other people, I remember that a lot of those functions were called “dances.”  In fact, I went to some before I got good enough to play in them.  But they were called dances, and the people would dance, but there would always be a group of people standing up near the stage, and they would just be listening.  But they were still dances, and that was the name of the function.  Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Max Roach.  So maybe it was around the time when the two elements were sort of reaching a point of separating.  But there were always people who were up in the front, right by the bandstand, and they were observing and appreciating what the musicians were doing on their instruments.

Moving it back to today, that dance element has been so pronounced in the last twenty-five years in your bands.  I’ve now read Nisenson’s book, and you said in there and have said in other venues that that’s the music that was vivid and living, and the people you admired were going in that direction in the ’70s.  But for these purposes, was there some decision on your part that you needed to get that sense of dance back in your music?  I mean, the ’60s weren’t really about that so much, at least in the recordings we hear.

Probably the ’60s weren’t.  But I have always been a person who has… That’s maybe more of an element of my music than it is of other people, maybe people who are identified more with the ’60s than I might be, I’m sure, which I’m sure is a lot of people.  But I’ve always had a strong element of dance appreciation of it.  I always laugh when a lot of these jazz writers and critics…when Monk used to get up and do his dance on the stage while his group was playing, and nobody knew quite what to make of that.  Because after all, here is the High Priest of Bebop, and he is not sitting down there, solemnly playing.  He is getting up and dancing on the stage.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Monk.

I’ve seen a video.  But you said he was doing the Applejack.

He was doing the Applejack. [LAUGHS] Now, to me that was normal.  That’s the dance we did.  And I think that dance feeling was prominent in Monk’s playing, or at least in his consciousness, so that he felt impelled to do that.  I would say that probably I am a player who has that sort of rhythmic thing perhaps more prominent in my playing.  I don’t know.  I’ll have to leave that to people to discern why it feels like you hear that so much in my music.

In our last conversation, you were talking rather vividly about how rhythm was always a strong point.  Was ballads part of your 16 and 17 year old self?  Did you have to play a lot of ballads?  Does “My Ideal” go back to that time?

I love ballads, of course.  Because one of my… I mean, I love music, so that I loved a lot of people singing.  I mean, I loved the Ink Spots; they sang some beautiful songs.  As you know, I love all kinds of music.  So I loved those kinds of things as a really small boy, growing up.  But even when I began playing the saxophone, I had my model, Coleman Hawkins, who as you know made a great practice of playing these ballads, American Standard ballads.  It was his forte.  He made some beautiful ones, “How Deep is The Ocean,” of course “Body and Soul,” “Talk Of The town,” “Just One More Chance.”  All these are beautiful vehicles for his saxophone playing.  So naturally, he was one of my prime idols.  So ballad playing was something that I strove to do.

It was maybe more imprinted in the culture in the ’40s than for, say, a 17-year-old today trying to get to that emotion.  You were saying you love all sorts of music.  Do you listen to a lot now?  Do you buy CDs?  Do you stay on top of what’s going on in different genres?

I’m afraid that I don’t have the…what’s the correct word… I don’t have the time right now.  I love listening to music, but I have so much to do right now with music as it is… I just listen to music in snatches when I’m listening to the radio.  Like, I just heard a program on the radio where they were playing some Ravel and Faure, the impressionist period.  So I love all kids of music.  But no, I don’t buy music.  Of course, I’ve got a collection of music, but in the last years I haven’t had a chance to sit down and enjoy listening to music.  It’s something which, because of my avocation, it’s just too close.  Creating the music and then sitting down and be able to enjoy listening to music, right at this point in my life I can’t manage both things.  They seem to be at odds with each other.

When were you last in a music-listening mode?

Well, maybe 25 years ago.  Well, all through my life up to the ’60s I was listening to… I had a lot of music that I would purchase and listened to a lot of music.  Maybe in the ’70s I was listening to some things.  But around that time, there were too many things I was trying to think about, and I couldn’t reconcile listening and… Then I couldn’t just relax and listen to music like I would like to.  So that’s one of the things I had to give up.

Do you listen back to yourself at all?  Do you tape yourself practicing, or do you strictly not listen back to what you do?

No, I don’t tape myself.  I am one of these people that shudders when I hear myself, because I’m always saying, “Gee, I should have done that” or “Gee, I don’t like my tone right there.”  It’s too hard to really… But I don’t deny that it would be instructive and constructive to do that, if you were able t do that as a performer, if you could listen to yourself and objectively say, “Oh, yeah, I’ll change that…”  It would be great, and I know I would learn something from it, and it probably would help me play better.  But it’s a little bit too… It’s one of those things I haven’t been able to climb over that particular hill.  It’s a barrier where it’s just too difficult listening to myself back.  So the only time I listen to myself is when I’m doing a new recording and I have to choose the particular takes that we want to play.

Is that torturous for you?

It’s excruciating, yes.  You see what I go through to play for people?

I can imagine.  I can kind of sense what you’re going through to talk to me right now.  It doesn’t seem like a great time.  But I’ll try not to…

No-no-no, that’s okay.

This particular band seems so stable, and I’d like to speak with you about the personnel, how you recruited and how you see their roles within it.  Perhaps we can start with Clifton Anderson, which is a close, long-standing relationship.

Right.  You know he’s my nephew, right?

Is that the sister who played classical piano?

Yes, exactly.

Is she a talented pianist?

Yes, she’s very talented and she has a very good voice and everything.  She is a very good musician, actually.  She never played professionally, but she’s talented and she knows about music, has good taste and everything.  Anyway, I got…I believe I am speaking correctly… I got Clifton a trombone… I think he liked the trombone when he was a little boy.  So I believe I got him his first trombone.  I may be wrong about that, but I think I did.  Anyway, it doesn’t matter.  Anyway, he liked music.  His father also played organ in the church, so he came from a musical background.  His father played organ, and so he had a lot of music around the house.  At any rate, when he began… He went to Music & Art High School in New York, a very good music school, and Manhattan School of Music, things I never had a chance to do, so I was happy he got a chance to go that route.  At any rate, when he got old enough and he wanted to play jazz, we would get together… So when I figured that he was good enough to really play professionally in the group, why, it was a good opportunity to have him.  I like the trombone.   It’s always been one of my favorite instruments.  I have a background playing with J.J. Johnson, who had me…one of my first records was with J.J.  In the ’60s I would use Grachan Moncur.  I’m saying that to say that I like the sound of the instruments together, so that when I had an opportunity to use Clifton, and he was advancing and coming along, why, I took it.  He’s a very good musician.

Before he came in, you often were using two guitars?  Did he change up your options, give you a chance to do certain types of arrangements or certain backdrops off which to springboard?

Yes.  I think with the guitars I was thinking a little bit differently, so it was a little strange to go back to horns.  On this last record I did, there are a couple of tunes I was thinking about using guitar on.  I’m not saying that playing with guitars is over. I’m just saying it had reached a point of rest in that phase of what I was doing at that time.  So it was good to play with another horn.  It was another set of experience.

Stephen Scott came in around ’93, was it?

I found out about Stephen through Clifton.  Since I don’t get out too much to the clubs and everything, I sort of said, “Clifton, what’s happening?” — because he goes around.  He recommended several people, and all of these guys were busy with other people, of course.  I had Kevin Hays for a while and different people.  Anyway, Stephen became… I liked his work, but he was doing a lot of other stuff.  So finally, I was able to lock him up a little more.

What is it about him that suits you so well?

I’m not sure.  I can do without piano players, really.  Sometimes I don’t want to hear a piano player.  You can tell that from my career, right?

Well, as I said to Stephen, “What’s it like playing with someone who sort of developed the notion of discarding the pianist?”

Well, I don’tknow whether I want to hear his answer.  Anyway, Stephen relates to me, especially soloing.  So when I play with Stephen and the band, it’s a way of having a continuity and having a band which sort of is on the same page.  I think he empathizes with the way I play.  So it makes the band… It’s not like one guy playing one way, and then here comes the piano player and he’s playing a completely different way, and then you have the trombone player and he’s playing different… It gives us a little more unity . Yet, of course, it’s in a completely free context, as you know.

Maybe it’s because he’s so cognizant of Monk and Bud Powell in a way that a lot of people his age probably aren’t.

Yes, I think that’s possible.  I know he does like both of them.

Bob Cranshaw, that’s a 40-year relationship.   He mentioned that you first heard him at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago when you asked Walter Perkins to get a bass player, he did it, you liked him, you corresponded with him for the next few years, and when you came back from your hiatus you called him.  What is it about Cranshaw that made him so pleasing — and lastingly so — to you?

Well, he was a competent bass player, and when I think we came in… We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse.  We just rehearsed one day, and we had to perform that night.  And I did something that night… In the midst of a song that we were playing, I made a modulation.  Now, it was a perfect place for a modulation, I would say, after the bridge of this song going into the last portion of the song, which would be a natural place to modulate.  And I modulated there, and he made the modulation with me, which impressed me a lot.  I said, “Well, this guy is sort of on my wavelength.”  He’s always been a steady player, and I’ve always liked a steady… I’ve always liked to have a contrast between the steady player, so then you can have something abstract against something steady, rather than having a whole band of everything abstract.  So that Bob’s playing was steady; the bass was steady, the rhythm was steady, and then I can be abstract if I wanted to be, which I often do.  So this is sort of why I like Bob, because he provides that role of the bass fiddle, the heartbeat of the band.  I have had that concept for a long time, of playing one thing against another.

You can bob-and-weave, and go in and out of the time, and go anywhere you want, and you have a cushion, and he keeps you on the mark, so that if you’re going off somewhere you have something to come back to.

Exactly.  He’s always there, and keeping… If we’re playing songs, which I do play a lot of songs in my repertoire, why, the songs can be accurate and people can say, “Wow, all of that thing, and they’re still playing the song,” which as you know, is the way I play.  I always have the song in my mind regardless of what I do.  So this seemed to me a good marriage, to have a steady beat and being able to then have an abstract thing against it, and they would be together.

Is that how you want the drums to be as well?

Well, yes.  I think the drums as well have to be steady.  Now, we are playing time music, so if we’re playing time music, why, the drums and the bass have to be steady.  Now, the drummer, of course, has an opportunity to also play more offbeats.  But he still has to have his basic beat there.  I’d say more than most bass players, he can be a little bit more abstract, but as abstract as it gets, I demand that the basic pulse and the chord structure be present throughout what I’m usually calling on them to do. The thing that’s so hard about playing with me for a drummer is that I play a lot of different stuff.  I don’t just play straight-ahead.  A lot of jazz drummers are great at straight-ahead, but if you want to go into something else the feeling is not quite as genuine.  So in other words, I need a drummer who has a little bit of range.  I don’t want a guy who is just locked in to one style of playing. You need a certain range  to play with Sonnyi Rollins. I want to play Caribbean things, I want to play straight-ahead, I want to play part backbeat… I don’t want to be locked in… I want to have enough leeway so that the band doesn’t sound the same way all the time.  I don’t care how good the guys are playing.  You have to have some variation.  So that’s something that I’ve always liked, to play in as any different styles as possible.

How large a book of material do you draw upon in any particular concert?  Is that defined?  Does it change from month to month or year to year?

I’ve got a lot of material that we use.  But I try to… It’s tricky, because you want to play something which people are familiar with, just because the guys like to be comfortable when they go out in front of an audience.  A large audience is going to be critical and really expecting a lot.  So sometimes I don’t want to go out and sort of play something that we haven’t been playing, because the guys don’t feel as comfortable, and it’s not going to come off as good.  So I try to restrain my adventurous side.

That is tricky for you, because it goes against your entire grain.  No?

Very much so.  So I have to sort of find ways to temper that and find ways to work in little things.  But I get… Just the last few concerts we’ve had, I’ve started playing something I haven’t been playing for a long time… After we play a song for a while, too, I want to change.  There’s so much music out there. So I try to change up.  Of course, I’ve got a new record out, so I’ve got those things to draw on, and it’s good to try to let people hear some of the things we did on the record.  [LAUGHS] Although it’s not going to sound the same as they did on the record!  But that aside, it’s good to maybe present it and say, “Oh yes, I’ve got a new CD out” and so on and so forth.

You were talking about coming out and people expecting a lot.  What is it you think they expect?  I know what I think I’m going to get when I come to hear you.  What do you think people are expecting from you? [LAUGHS] I’ve heard you discuss the pressure of public expectation on a number of occasions.  What to you is the nature of that expectation?

When people come to see me, I imagine they know… I mean, if I am to believe my press, I am supposed to be a legend, right?

Well, you’re still around, so you’re not a legend.

A legend in his own mind, anyway, as the saying goes.

Well, we can call you an icon.

Icon.  Okay.

I prefer that.

Well, that’s even worse.  But when I do that, it means…

I can’t be totally objective.

[LAUGHS] Okay.  So if people… You may think of me that way, but they may also think of me as an icon.  So therefore, here I come out on the stage, here’s this icon… I can’t, you know, “well, okay, he’s an icon, folks,” and that’s it, good-night.  I mean, I’ve got to do something in between being an icon and them leaving the hall.

You’re only as good as your last two concerts, let’s say.

Sure!  So I feel I’ve got to always be sharp and on top of the music, and the band has to be gelling, and the whole thing.  I mean, it’s not going to happen every night.  This is the nature of the music.  It’s not going to happen all the time.  But I’ve got to do something that makes them feel… I don’t like people to be disappointed in coming to see me.  I’m one of these people… In fact, people being disappointed coming to see me is why I ended up going on the bridge in 1959.

Please elaborate.

I was playing with a group, I think I had Elvin and some people with me… This was sometime in the’ 50s.  I was getting a pretty big name.  I remember playing in Baltimore, and I had a big name, you know, for jazz…

Was it one of Gary Bartz’s father’s productions?

I remember I played for him one time.  No, this wasn’t for him… Well, it could have been.  I did play for his father, though.  I knew his father very well.  He was a very nice guy.  At any rate, I was playing there at a club which was quite crowded, everybody, “Yeah, Sonny Rollins,” but I felt I disappointed the audience that night.  I know I did.  The music just didn’t… It was really a drag.  I mean, I felt that I didn’t want to do.  In other words, I don’t want to take money from somebody if I don’t earn it.

In Nisenson’s book, you said you basically went on the bridge so you could get your fundamentals together in a certain sense…

Yeah, there were some fundamental things I wanted to work on.  There were some technical things, definitely, that I wanted to work on.  But I wouldn’t go too far beyond that.  Because the whole thing has been inspiration, so I never wanted to get away from that.  I just wanted to get some more skills.

Simultaneous to the thing I’m writing about you, I’m also writing a piece about James Moody, and we’ve had several conversations.  He said that when he made his famous recordings, “Moody’s Mood,” “Pennies From Heaven,” he was playing totally by ear, and he felt like he was just winging it.  He said he was flying blind.  And he said that caused him tremendous insecurity, and he attributed to some extent his drinking to that, and so on.  I guess around ’59 or so, when Tom McIntosh came in his band, he got Tom McIntosh to teach him theory, the chord changes, in a very elementary way, and it transformed him.  Was it an analogous experience for you, or was it a different entity?

No, not really analogous.  I wasn’t winging it.  I wasn’t just playing.  I think I know what Moody was talking about.  He felt he didn’t really know a lot of changes and all this stuff, so he was just playing it by winging it.  No, that wasn’t exactly the case with me.  I knew changes and I had been playing with Monk and all these guys, so I had to kind of get into that part.  So it wasn’t quite that.  But it was other technical things that I wanted to shore up on, things that had to do with the saxophone.  I actually took some harmony…piano…harmony and keyboard.  Also I wanted to learn a little more about arranging—I wanted to be able to write arrangements and orchestrate arrangements and all of that.  As I said, I didn’t really have all that formal schooling like my older brother and sister, so these were things I always wanted to do.  Besides doing the things on my instrument and trying experimental things, I also studied harmony and sort of orchestration with a fellow.  But I understand Moody.  I think I know what Moody was doing.  Moody wanted to play more chord changes and things like that.

It seems to me in those years after the Bridge, you were doing an exhaustive investigation of the timbral possibilities of the saxophone.  Everything seemed to be about sound.  Now it seems you’ve retained all that timbral extravagance within this real groove that you do.  It sounds like it was a tremendously beneficial period for you.

Well, thank you.  I hope it was.  There’s a lot of people… I remember when I first came back from the bridge, a lot of guys would say, “Geez, Sonny, why did you go to the Bridge?  You sound the same as you did when you went.”  This guy said that, and I said, “Well, I had to go, man, because it was something I wanted to do.”  Well, a lot of people didn’t know why I went, couldn’t understand why I would stop playing.  They couldn’t really comprehend it.  But at any rate, yeah, I’m sure I learned something.  I know I learned something.  Also, one of the big things about doing that is that it was something that I wanted to do, something against the grain of public opinion, something that I said, “Well, I’m going to do this for myself; I don’t care what other people think about it,” etcetera, etc.  So it was very good to be able to show that kind of resolve.  I think a lot of people want to get away from their jobs and spend a year on a hiatus, or you know, get their life together and then come… A lot of people want to do that, but for certain reasons they can’t.  I’m not criticizing people.  But I know it’s something that people would like to do.  So outside of what musical benefits I got out of it (which I agree with you, I got a lot; I know I did), it was also good for my soul, because I did something which I had figured out had to be done, and I wanted to do it, and I felt it was necessary for me to have the kind of confidence I needed in playing music to do this.

Maybe I’m wrong about this.  There’s an interview you did around ’55 or ’56, and you said that you had just recently decided that you were going to be a musician for life, that you had been conflicted between that and painting or drawing, which was an equal love of yours.  I think this is a two-part question.  One, in your process of playing, is there a sort of synesthesia going on?  It is sort of like a painting-through-sound type thing?  Secondly, were you involved at all in the art world either of the ’50s or ’60s?  I know culturally there was a lot of interconnection between the artists and the jazz musicians.

Right.  Well, the last one first.  No, I was never really involved around… Although I knew some artists.  I knew some people, like the artist Bob Thompson.  I knew Bob.  In fact, I was discussing him not too long ago with several people that know him.  I knew some other artists.  I knew this fellow called Paul Boussing(?), who used to hang out with Charlie Parker on 52nd Street.  He moved to Jamaica, I think he was actually from Jamaica, an Indian who came from Jamaica — he was an artist and I met him.  But I never really got too much into the art world. But, you know, I did this when I was really a child.  When I was growing up, I used to make cartoons and staple them together, and had my little cartoon books, and I had my little superhero characters and all this stuff.

Wayne Shorter was like that, too.

I know! [LAUGHS] I’ve heard! [LAUGHS]

Interesting, you and Wayne Shorter being two visionaries of the instrument.

[HEARTY LAUGH] And then I liked watercolors a lot.  I think I’m talented at it.  There’s a guy, a photographer who came to my house in the country some years ago.  I had done some watercolors, not really… I did watercoloring on some blank windows on my front door and the porch door.  Anyway, he saw the and he liked them a lot.  So it set a spark, “gee, I can do that.”  I am good at it or I’m talented at it.

So it continues to be an outlet for you.

Yeah, but I don’t do it any more.  That’s the only thing.  I think I could always do it.  Maybe, if time or circumstances allow, I’m sure I would like to get back to it.  But I haven’t done it in years and years and years.  I just did those for really another reason.  I didn’t do it as a painting; I did it for another reason.  At any rate, I liked that a lot, but of course, there was no money in painting, and I was getting out of school, and I had to find a job and all of that.  So music was there, I was able to get working in music and at least make some money.

Well, you were making money from I guess 15 or 16.  Even earlier.

Yeah, sure.  I was getting to play jobs.  I mean, it wasn’t much money, but at least it was the promise that this might be a career, whereas Art was something which was completely… I mean, there was no future that I could see.

So there was a practical, pragmatic aspect to playing music.

I think so.  Between music and art, music just came to be the one where I was able to begin working more.  Then, of course, as my idols began showing interest in me, then I said, “Well, gee, I must be okay.”

They are so different.  There’s a social aspect to music, and painting and drawing is such a solitary activity.

That’s true.

You seem to be a very well-read person.  I’m wondering what books have inspired you, and continue to.  Is reading something you spend a good amount of time doing?

Yes, I like to read.  I’ve got a lot of books, and every time I hear about a new book coming out, I get it.  And I try…I don’t get through all of them, but at least I read some of each book that I have.

Fiction?  Non-fiction?

I’m not too much into fiction.  I don’t care for fiction unless it would be something really fantastic, based on real life.  But I don’t really read fiction.  I am more interested in political books, inspirational books; books that might have to do with health, diet, vitamins, things that might have to do with taking care of your body; political books.  These kind of things I’m really interested in. I’m reading several books right now.  The book I’m reading at the moment and that I’m taking with me on the road (I had it with me last week, and I’m glad I did) is called Taking Back Our Lives In The Age Of Corporate Dominance by Ellen Schwartz and Suzanne Stoddard.  It’s excellent.  It’s in paperback. It sounds very relevant to you. Yeah, I really love it.  They’ve got some excellent things.  One of the people who gave it a nice blurb was this fellow David Horton, and I read one of his books recently and liked it a lot, When Corporations Rule The World.  Another one is Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia by Stephen F. Cohen.  This book is really an eye-opener to what’s been going on.  It’s shocking to think of the things that happen that people don’t know about.  There’s another one… You got me started; I’m going to give you one more.  It’s a very informative book, which I have had for a while, and I keep it with me, which is Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen.  It’s an excellent book; it speaks for itself.  And one more, When Harlem Was In Vogue by David Levering Lewis.

In our first interview I asked what you meant by “hardcore jazz,” and you were saying that you thought it’s very political, it’s much less easily manipulated for commercial formats, which are some reasons why it’s not so viable in today’s economic world.  Then I mentioned that there’s an honesty in it, a truth-telling, and you said “it’s real art, and has a lot to say about things that are happening,” and a lot of forces out here want to divert people, have them not think about things and so forth.  Without getting into your explicit politics, do you see what you do as being political as well as artistic, as well as aesthetic?

Yes, of course I do.

It’s an implicitly political act, almost, what you do.

Yes.  Now, what do you mean by that?

I think when you talk about taking back your life from corporate dominance, your aesthetic is to get as deeply into whatever it is that you have to say at any given time through the horn, within the ritual of performance, and I guess there is nothing that can mediate that except you.  By “mediate” I mean that there is nothing really between you and what you’re expressing at that moment.

Of course.  And it’s something that’s coming from inside.  Corporations want you to get outside of yourself.  They don’t want you to think inside.  They don’t want you to contemplate.  They don’t want you to think about what’s really happening or ways to really change your self.  They want you to always feel you have to look outside of yourself to find satisfaction.  So yes, definitely, I think that music is political, and jazz music especially.  It’s very political.  I think you have to realize that and think about that when you play.  Which is one reason why I don’t like Smooth Jazz.  Although going back to what we were saying earlier tonight, I admire the skill of people playing that music… I have a reluctance to criticize, because I also am a Buddhist, and… Well, I retain elements of different kinds of Buddhism.  I shouldn’t call myself a Buddhist.  But I believe in a lot of the practices.  And I don’t believe in criticizing other people because I have my own life to straighten out.

Do you use any elements of the rituals of Buddhism to bring out your music, to bring yourself out in performance or prepare yourself mentally?

Well, not really.  I’ve studied some Zen and I’ve studied things.  But what I’ve gotten out of my study of Yoga and a lot of these disciplines… What I’ve got out of it is that my music is my yoga.  See, that’s the way I practice.  That’s the way I meditate, that’s the way I seek perfection like the Buddha…and enlightenment, rather.  So that’s what it is.  Trying to draw specific lines to it I’ve found doesn’t work for me.  And I’ve found out that my playing my instrument, and concentrating and getting inside of that, which is getting inside of myself, is my way of doing all of these spiritual things.  So it makes it easy for me in that sense.

You made a comment at the very end of Nisenson’s book, you said it two years ago, “there is something I’m trying to get to, it is clear at some times and not as clear at others, and it’s difficult to embrace the whole thing.”  After a few other sentences, you said, “Basically, what I am trying to do is play a more primitive kind of music.  By primitive, I mean less industrialized, more basic.  Maybe one note instead of ten.  There are more basic tones that convey a deep meaning which was just as important as far back as man can recall.  Sounds closer to Nature.”  Is that ongoing for you?  Is that really where you are now in your aspiration, and kind of the eternal quest?

It’s very difficult to describe music, as we know — to talk about music.  That’s why music is what it is, I guess.  I mean, it’s something different than the spoken word.  But yes, as far as I can put… I think he was asking me about what I was trying… Yeah, the music I am trying to get to is probably like my politics.  It’s anti-industrial.  But what it is, I don’t know.  Every now and then, when I play and I get close to it, like say I get a glimpse of something that has signs in that way, I say, “Okay, wow, that’s it.”  But I can’t get to it as often as I would like too.

Let me ask you a saxophone question.  How particular are you about the type of saxophone that you play?  How long did it take to find it?   Are you satisfied with the horn that you have now?

Let me see how I can put this.  In my career, and in my professional career, I have played several makes of saxophone.  They each have certain qualities which are unique to that particular instrument and to that make.  You find yourself in a position where one saxophone will give you one thing which you desire, and then it might not give you something else which another saxophone will give you.  Now, the other saxophone, the other make or brand, which gives you something else, but not what this first one gave you.  Then you might try another saxophone and say, “Gee, maybe I can get them both, everything I want in one saxophone.”  Then you may get another saxophone, and so on and so on, down the quest.  So after all these years, I would say it’s very difficult to get a saxophone which is going to give you everything that you feel you want to get out of yourself.  Also, you have to remember that you have a mouthpiece, you’ve got all these things that go with the instrument which affect the way it sounds also.  But the saxophone itself, the sound and the way it responds to what you want it to do is different each time; with each horn it’s a little different. And this is another thing that kind of makes music more like an art rather than a science you see.  Although, of course, we know music is a science.  We know that.  So it’s hard to really get it right there, BANG, I know, I’ll pick this up and WHAM, I can do everything with that.  So you have to compromise, in a way, and say, “Okay, I’ll do this because I’ll play this, and at least I can do this, I can’t do that, but this may be a little more essential for me to do this thing better than do that thing.”   So this is what it is.  You have to make choices.  And to complicate matters, especially as you age, the choices are based on your own physical body.  Playing one of these instruments is a very physical thing.  So to complicate matters, then it’s not just the instrument; it’s your own physical condition, health-wise and things like that.  You might say, “Well, gee, I can play this instrument much easier; it helps me to play it.”  It doesn’t sound as good, but it’s easier to play because… Say, for instance, I can’t lift this instrument, it’s really heavy, whereas this other instrument is lighter, I can lift it.  But I like the sound of this heavy one, but gee, at the same time, wow, I can’t lift it, so I have to… So there are all of these little things which always are at play.  I mean, it makes it interesting. [LAUGHS] It’s certainly not a cut-and-dried thing.

How long have you had the same saxophone you’re using now?  I’m sure it’s customized for you.

Well, yeah, it’s been customized, sort of.  But this particular instrument I’ve had for some time.  I’ve been playing it, I should say, for some time.  But again, a lot of it, as I said, has to do with other factors.  There have been some other instruments, and mouthpieces and things which I thought about playing.  But you have to sort of find the things that work the best for you overall.  I will say that I am very-very fortunate to have this instrument.  I love my horn madly, like Duke Ellington would say.  I don’t want this to be interpreted by my horn, who I think is listening to everything we’re saying, as in any way meaning that I would play another horn.  I don’t think I would.  I think I would always come back to this horn.  Because I have had it for a while now, and we have gotten to know each other.  It’s like a ventriloquist and his dummy.  I could say that, really, except maybe I’m the dummy and the horn is the ventriloquist.

You talked about music being the practice.  Do you see yourself (and I don’t mean this in a grandiose sense at all) as a messenger, as having a higher purpose, as being subject to forces stronger than yourself in what it is that you do?

I wish that could be true.  I wish that I could be performing some really service to mankind. If I am, that’s wonderful.  Because I definitely feel that life is about giving.  That’s what it’s about, and it’s really the only joy in life is giving, so you have to give.  Now, I enjoy playing and I love to play, but if I was just playing and I was getting more out of it, then it wouldn’t be right… Whether I have that grandiose…

I didn’t mean it as you seeing yourself in grandiose terms.  I wonder whether that aspiration is part of your personal imperatives.

Well, it probably is part of the fabric of it.  But Ted, I’m trying to be like the Buddha.  In other words, I’m trying to achieve Enlightenment during this lifetime.  Now, we all have to make our attempts and see how far we can go.  But this is what I want to do.  This is what I’m trying to really accomplish, getting some understanding of life and how people interact with each other, and jealousies and hatreds and envies, and all of these little things in life which are really so stupid and inconsequential.  If we can get above them… So this is what I’m really trying to do.  This is my great work, as far as I’m concerned.  I’m so happy that I have the instrument which is giving me sort of a path to travel with.

So you’re looking for that kind of ultimate detachment, in a certain sense, from the concerns that you’re talking about.

Yeah.  Really.  Actually.  That’s the only way you can really deal with it.  Well, it’s just like when you say, “Oh, Sonny, you sounded…”  Well, I want to be detached from that.  I don’t want people to praise me, “Oh, Sonny, you sounded…”  Yeah, okay, great.  I’m happy that I do, in a way.  But that’s not what…  I do want to be detached, in a way, from having to depend upon things like adulation and all of this kind of stuff.  So this is my higher aim, my higher goal.  I’ve got a long, long way to go, but at least I think… I know this is what I want to do.  But it’s just a matter of not getting…feeling that you can’t do it.  You have to stay on it, you know.  As Dizzy Gillespie said in that song a long time ago, “Stay on it.”  Which is a great song.  And that said, you’ve got to stay with it. That was Tadd Dameron’s tune. Yeah,  “Stay On It,” with Dizzy’s big band, and Dizzy played a beautiful solo.  It was really a very informative solo, which taught me a lot about playing actually.  Everything about it was logical.  It was a very logical solo.  It had all of the proper things to it, but it also was logical.  It wasn’t just, you know… I mean, I like logical playing.  I think everybody does who likes anything.  You want something that makes sense.  So it made a lot of sense, and it had all the other elements of great jazz playing.  It made a lot of sense, the way he played with the band, on top of the band, and the way he came in and the way he left space.  It was just perfect.

Did you have a church background when you were young?

Yeah, we had to go to church and Sunday school and all of that.  I mean, my parents took me to church.  I was brought up in church, and I had to go to Sunday School and got confirmed in church and all this sort of stuff.

Was it African Methodist or Baptist…

Actually, we went to a church that was a church of a sect that came out of Europe.  I think they’re prevalent around different parts of the United States.  They were called the Moravian Church.  They are a Christian church, but they’re very…not…it wasn’t gospelly or anything.  It was very straight hymns and Bach Cantatas and all this kind of stuff.  It was later in life, in my teens, when… Well, I shouldn’t say that.  My grandmother used to take me to a church.  There was a woman named Mother Horn.  I’ll never forget that.  She used to take me to church right there on Lenox Avenue, and it was one of these real sanctified churches that had band instruments playing, which was… The Moravian church never had that.  The Moravian church was very straight-laced with the organ and this type of thing.  But she took me to Mother Horn’s church several times, and that made a big impression on me.   I remember hearing a trumpet player playing with Mother Horn’s church who was really swinging. But then later I went to… I think we were talking last week, that I went out to Chicago.  I knew a girl that was in the sanctified church. A friend of mine had played trumpet out there, and I got involved with his sister, who… They had a gospel group.  Anyway, they were in a Sanctified church and I used to go there every week and everything. She was a really nice musician.  She’d compose a lot of stuff.  But I enjoyed going to the church, too, because I enjoyed the animated music.  The music was very animated, and I liked that.

You said in Nisenson’s book that you were there in ’49 and again after you left the Lexington facility in 1955.

Right.  I was there before I went to Lexington and then after I got out of Lexington.  So I was there probably in ’54.

Bob Cranshaw said that people would say, “Oh, I heard Sonny play this or that today,” and people would go outside the Y where you were living and listen to you rehearse, and then bring back reports.

Well, that was after I came back from Lexington and I was trying to get my life together and get straight.  I had a day job, not much money, so I had a nice little room at the Y… In fact, I used to rehearse at the Y with the great trumpeter Booker Little.  I don’t know if you remember him.

He made a comment about how incredible it was to rub shoulders with you as someone who had rubbed shoulders with Charlie Parker and Monk, that he wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise.

Yeah, that’s great.  He was really a nice player.  Anyway, I was staying at the Y, I had a day job, and in the evening and during the weekends, I would be able to practice in the room.  Booker used to come by and play, and a couple of guys.  But that was a very nice experience.  That was down on 35th and Wabash.  One of the interesting things that happened was one time when I was working, and getting up and going to work on State Street, catching the trolley, and there was a little record store on State Street right by the bus stop and I came out there one morning early to get on the bus, and there I saw in the window my record.  It was a record I had made with Monk, “Just The Way You Look Tonight.”  There was this record with me on the cover.  It was very interesting, because there I was on the cover of this album in the window of the record store, and I was on my way going down to work as a janitor in a factory.  Interesting pull, you know.

You said that you did manual labor deliberately at that point, and I guess you described as a way of getting healthier.  Was that moment a sort of inspiration to keep focused on music?

Well, I was doing manual labor basically I wanted to… Well, let’s put it bluntly.  It was the only thing that I was able to make a living at.  And so I really had to work.  But in doing it I found a certain…there was something good about, working with your hands.  I mean, remember what Gandhi said.  There’s a certain wonderful release.  There’s a spiritual feeling when you really  work and do something.  So I was working and doing something. [LAUGHS] Plus I was trying to get away from the nightclub drug scene until I was strong enough to go back.  So it was good.

Is that sense of the beneficialness of labor part of what remains attractive about living in the country?

I still think labor is wonderful.  In the country, I don’t do too much of it.  We have a small farm but we don’t really work it.  So it’s really not that.  Living in the country for me is just a place where I can blow my horn and not disturb the neighbors, and get some fresh air, like that.  But the sense of work, I think, is a beautiful thing, and it’s something which is lost.  People go to work now because they have to.  But you have to love what you’re doing.  You have to find a way to love what you work at, and then it’s worth something to work.  You don’t just work and you come home and you’re mad, and somebody is abusing you all day at work and you come home and sit down and turn on the TV, and that drains you, drains more energy and life out of you… This is an incorrect way.  Anybody can see that.  Everybody can see it, but we have to kind of take that first step to change it, you see.

At the beginning of this conversation, you were not in the best mood.  Do you love what you do?

Do you mean the music?

I mean the whole thing.


Being a musician is your life, your career, your occupation; not just the pure music, but all the ramifications of being a musician.

Sure.  Not only do I love it, I’m extremely grateful about it.  But look, this is what we’re here for.  We’re here to suffer, in a way of speaking.  This is what life is, I mean, and you have to… So yeah, there are sometimes… Today they have to… I’ll run this down to you.  Just to give you an idea why I might have sounded a little bit put out of sorts. They had to change the pipes up in the roof of my building.  I happen to live on the top floor.  So the whole ceiling is torn out, and the wall is all torn out and exposed, and there’s hammering and everything.  Then we were away, we played in Philly last weekend, and I came back and went in the bathroom, and one of the workmen had made a mistake and tore through the wall into my bathroom tile.  Which was… I mean, this is an example, by the way, of maybe somebody doing something they don’t like to do when they go to work.

Good to draw lessons from that experience in the good Buddhist manner.

[LAUGHS] So anyway, I had to deal with that, and then the guys coming in and going through my wall…

So no practicing today.

Well, actually I did.  Here’s what happened.  I had a headache today, too, so I was really upset with all this stuff.  Plus, to add to that, down on my street they’re excavating.  The whole sidewalk is completely…all these back hoes and trucks and (?) and everything.  Some guys got the idea they wanted to gentrify Greenwich Street.  They make to make it beautiful, so-called.  Anyway, so that’s a mess down there.  You can hardly walk in the door.  But anyway, this, coming upstairs… But did I get any practice?  Yeah.  There was something I wanted to try.  I always like to play, because it’s very important, even if it’s a few minutes.  The time was short after they got through, because I only practice certain circumscribed hours over here.  So the time was short but I still was able to take out my horn, and for a few minutes, maybe 15 minutes or so, I was able to go with something that was in my mind.  So I actually did get in a little playing today.

I think I’ve taken enough of your time.

I’ve told you the story of my life there, almost…


Filed under Article, DownBeat, Interview, Sonny Rollins, Tenor Saxophone