Monthly Archives: October 2011

For Jimmy Heath’s 85th Birthday: A 2001 DownBeat Article, and WKCR Interviews from 1993 and 1995

To observe the 85th birthday of Jimmy Heath, a long-standing master of the tenor saxophone and the art of composition, and a keen student of human nature, I’m posting a feature that I wrote for DownBeat on the occasion of a 75th birthday concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the complete transcribed proceedings two programs on WKCR—a 1995 “Jazz Profiles” retrospective of his music, and a 1993 Musician Show with Mr. Heath and his younger brother, the master drummer, Albert “Tootie” Heath.

Jimmy Heath (DB, #1):

Over the course of 58 years as a professional jazz musician, Jimmy Heath has played with, befriended, or witnessed virtually every consequential figure in his field.  So from his perspective, the only possible title for his 75th birthday concert could be, “He Walked With Giants.” Throughout the invigorating proceedings, Heath played the tenor and soprano saxophones with authoritative command, spontaneously composing, conjuring long, lyric lines that he articulated with mellow warmth.  He demonstrated that he breathes the same rarefied air as the legends to whom he paid homage.

Benny Golson, Heath’s friend for most of those 58 years, attended the concert, and was happy to elaborate.  “What’s amazed me about Jimmy since I’ve known him is how he is able to move through chords, not scientifically, but melodically,” says Golson. “He’s got a true tenor sound, and everything that goes with it — the articulation, concept, punctuation and pacing. He doesn’t give you an endless slew of notes. He plays ideas.  It’s like a conversation, but musical, not linguistic. He has a story to tell, and it’s right in tune with those chords.”

Heath is equally adept telling stories with the pen; his oft-covered compositions, which number over 130, plumb essences with a minimum of fuss.  Many appear on a long string of classy recordings with small groups and mid-sized ensembles that balance meticulous orchestrations and soulful, lucid improvising in equal measure. He offered six during the first half of the concert, joined by an array of family (brothers Percy on bass and Albert on drums) and friends (Slide Hampton, trombone; Antonio Hart, alto saxophone; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet) in configurations ranging from trio to nonet.  After intermission, Heath — who cut his teeth in the big band era — was in his element, conducting the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra through a commissioned homage from Wynton Marsalis, his own arrangement of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite,” and four more originals.

The composer found new contexts for each one.  On “Gingerbread Boy,” which Miles Davis famously reimagined two years after its first appearance (On The Trail [Riverside]), he reharmonized the line, then set up an invigorating tenor triologue with LCJOers Victor Goines and Walter Blandings.  He set up cogent polyphony between the sections on the rich harmonies of “Gemini,” which debuted on a 1962 sextet [Triple Threat] with Freddie Hubbard and french hornist Julius Watkins, but received its most famous — and lucrative — reading on a six-digit-selling Cannonball Adderley album.  There were other highlights.  The LCJO sax section executed a luscious soli section on “The Voice Of The Saxophone,” a dedication to Coleman Hawkins excerpted from “The African-American Suite of Evolution.  And Antonio Hart — a prize Heath student during the ’90s at Queens College — took a virtuoso turn on “Like A Son,” Heath’s tribute to their exceptionally close relationship.

“Jimmy’s tunes are not complicated, but they’re not dumb either,” Golson says. “They are logical and go someplace.  His music has arms and legs.” Heath deployed those appendages effectively throughout the evening, directing the band with a dance-oriented conducting style, replete with well-timed hand swoops, shoulder dips, elbow shimmmies and leg kicks. “Jimmy reminded me of Dizzy Gillespie in front of a band,” Golson states.  “Dizzy would act like he was throwing baseballs at Yankee Stadium…all kinds of things.”
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The concluding track on Heath’s only big band recording, Little Man, Big Band [Verve, 1992, now deleted], is a brassy tour de force with an Afro-Cuban feel. He called it “Without You, No Me,” the “you” referring to Gillespie, who commissioned the piece, and is first among equals in Heath’s pantheon of giants.

“Dizzy Gillespie is my Duke Ellington,” Heath says. “He is the master musician who was my mentor and was accessible to me throughout my life.  From the time I first met him, I asked questions, and he’d give me something I could use musically. He would demonstrate chord voicings on the piano and phrasing on his trumpet.  He’d tap out rhythms and sing ideas.  He showed me how to write in 3 or 5 or 7, and still syncopate in a way that’s jazz as opposed to straight classical writing.  With his whole being he was music, and I always wanted to be just like him.”

Gillespie came of age musically in Philadelphia in the mid-’30s, while Heath and his brother Percy were growing up in a household whose soundtrack spotlighted Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins and Louis Jordan. Sometimes they heard them at the Earle Theater, Philly’s TOBA outlet.  Heath fell under the spell of Carter and Johnny Hodges, and at 14 received an alto saxophone, which his father (an auto mechanic who played clarinet in an Elks band) purchased for $90 on the installment plan.  He quickly became proficient, learning to play in the marching band at Williston High School in Wilmington, N.C., where his grandparents owned a grocery store, and through private lessons back home on summer vacations. After graduation in 1943 (the “separate but equal” school stopped at 11th grade), he played with local big bands before joining a well-regarded territory unit out of Omaha led by Nat Towles, whose alumni included Buddy Tate and Sir Charles Thompson.

Heath discovered bebop while on the road with Towles. His first epiphany came at a dance hall in Savannah, Georgia, where the band was setting up for a one-nighter. Curious about Jay McShann’s “Hootie Blues” and “Swingmatism,” he put a nickel in the jukebox and heard Charlie Parker for the first time. “I called all the other guys in the saxophone section and said, ‘Man, check THIS guy out.’” he recalls. “We all began to put the money in.”  Later with Towles, he heard the Parker-Gillespie Guild sides (“Shaw Nuff,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Hot House”).

“I didn’t realize it was the same guy I heard on the McShann records until after I quit and came back to Philly,” Heath says.  “Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter were beginning to move into a quicker-paced way of improvising.  But I liked Charlie Parker’s lines, his phrasing, use of alternate notes and undertones in the chords. I always refer to Charlie Parker as a volcano. His playing bubbles for a while before it flows into some wonderful phrase that you can’t expect. He builds in the bottom of his horn, creating this intensity, and then pops out with something that knocks you to your knees. Charlie Parker played what you wished you’d thought of first, the perfect lick and the perfect idea in the perfect place. He was a genius!  And I don’t use that word as much as some people.”

Back in Philly, Heath and his big brother spent intensive time in the woodshed, augmented by long practice sessions with fellow altoist John Coltrane, fresh from a tour of duty in the Navy. The Hodges-Carter devotee began to zoom in on Parker’s style, becoming so adept that musicians outside of Philadelphia began referring to him as “Little Bird.”  The appellation was so evidently welcome that Heath recalls trumpeter Freddie Webster saying, “You come when they call you that, don’t you?”

The time with Towles “sold me on the idea that I was going to have a big band and write some music for it,” Heath states. He began to recruit “everybody in the city of Philly who I thought was interested in playing the music I was trying to write,” eventually assembling a tight, 17-piece bebop outfit that stayed together for two years. Personnel included such budding flowers as Golson (on fourth tenor), Coltrane, trumpeter Johnny Coles, pianist Ray Bryant, bassist Nelson Boyd and drummer Specs Wright; they rehearsed the sections in Heath’s living room, where they ate food prepared by Heath’s mother, Alethia, and performed cabaret and dance functions for black audiences in West and South Philadelphia.  Heath commissioned inexpensive charts from local arrangers John Acea and Leroy Lovett, transcribed Tadd Dameron and Dizzy Gillespie recordings, and contributed his own nascent efforts.

Notorious for its blue laws, late ’40s Philadelphia nonetheless featured a vibrant nightlife, and was a frequent destination for New York musicians.  The brothers met most of them, often inviting them to 1927 Federal Street for home-cooking courtesy of Alethia Heath.

“Fats Navarro and Coleman Hawkins came to my house when they played the 421, and so did Bird, Miles, Dizzy — all of them,” Heath relates. “My mother would invite anyone to dinner who we invited; my parents treated them like their children or friends.  When Fats came, he took out his trumpet and played a bit.  My Mom liked Fats Navarro’s tone better than Dizzy and Miles, and I know for a fact that Clifford Brown was enamored with Fats Navarro, and played something like that until he found his own style. He passed that along to Lee Morgan, who played like Clifford.

“I heard Fats in Tadd Dameron’s octet in the Royal Roost opposite Dizzy when Dizzy had just come back from a successful West Coast tour with Chano Pozo. Fats Navarro was SCREAMING on Dizzy in there.  I mean, they both were powerful; Dizzy was the source of where Fats Navarro came from.  But Fats could play very high, with clear, warm sound. Tadd liked to have Fats play all his first trumpet parts, because he loved the way Fats could sing his melodies.”

But Heath’s heart belonged to Gillespie.  Their lifelong friendship began in late 1946, when the orchestra came to Philadelphia to play a dance, and 55″Percy and I went to the ballroom where Dizzy was playing, and invited the band for dinner,” he recounts. “John Lewis came in a full-length fur coat (my sister called him ‘Fur Coat’ for the rest of her life), and that’s when I met Kenny Clarke and James Moody. Dizzy’s band extended what Charlie Parker had done, incorporating the hip bebop lines that the soloists played into the ensemble. It was more involved technically, with more notes and harmonic extensions of chords and polychords. Percy and I followed the band around with our berets and artist ties, the same as Dizzy and them were wearing. We became known as the Heath Brothers from Philly, and we’d follow the band and stand in front of it wherever they played — in Delaware, the Savoy, or 52nd Street.”

In the autumn of 1949, after a couple of years on the road with Howard McGhee, and a brief stint with Gillespie’s erstwhile collaborator Gil Fuller, Heath got the gig.  During his 18 months with Gillespie, he received a veritable post-graduate course in improvisational tactics and approaches to writing for jazz orchestra.

“When John Coltrane and I played altos in his band, we were amazed at how Dizzy improvised in a big band context,” Heath recalls. “A big band can inhibit a soloist.  Dizzy knew how to draw on the power of a big band and still get all his stuff in.  We’d listen to Dizzy play the two-bar break after the introduction on ‘I Can’t Get Started.’  Everybody has pet cliches and ideas that they rely on.  But as long as I was there, he never played the same thing; he’d make a variation or add or delete something. He was a true improviser.

“Gil Fuller helped me. He insisted on putting excitement in your music, making your introduction command attention — the introduction to ‘Things To Come’ makes everybody look around!  He said that Tadd Dameron’s songs were window-dressing, that they weren’t exciting. They were rivals, of course. I liked them both. Tadd’s music emphasized romance and beauty and feeling and soul; he was very lyrical, like a Billy Strayhorn. George Russell wrote some very abstract things for Dizzy, and I listened to Gerald Wilson also. I also began thinking about small-group writing by hearing J.J. Johnson.  Between knowing them and listening at home to people like Duke Ellington, Sy Oliver and Benny Carter, I went through a trial-and-error period, until I came up with what I had.

Gillespie broke up the big band in 1950 for financial reasons; Heath remained with the pared-down sextet, and finally left in early 1951.  He moved back to Philadelphia and — like Coltrane — became a tenor saxophonist. “When Jimmy switched to tenor, his interpretation of music changed,” Golson states.  “The tenor demanded something else, and he came up to that.  It wasn’t like an alto player was playing the tenor saxophone.”  Heath says that part of his motivation was economic.  “After the clubs hired the rhythm section, the tenor was their instrument of choice,” he notes. “Also, it was impossible to play the alto without playing Charlie Parker licks!  I thought maybe I could find a little bit of Jimmy Heath in there.

“I had begun to like what I heard on the tenor from Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt. Sonny Stitt had the execution of Charlie Parker, he was very clean and precise.  But Dexter had a big warm sound that was compelling.  Coltrane was playing like Dexter at that time, too.  We got records like ‘The Chase’ and all the songs Dexter put his name on — ‘Dexter’s Deck,’ ‘Dexter’s Minor Mad,’ ‘Dexterity.’ Dexter was in love with Dexter, but he was a charmer. And he could PLAY.”

Heath moved to New York in 1952, and spent six months working on day jobs before the union recognized his change of residence. Unfettered, he immmediately cemented his credentials as an improviser-composer-arranger with the Symphony Sid All-Stars, a group comprised of Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke, whose repertoire is documented on a Davis-led 1953 Blue Note sextet that includes Heath’s “C.T.A.,” a bop classic.  During that year Heath also recorded with Kenny Dorham for Debut and with J.J. Johnson for Blue Note, the latter date marking Clifford Brown’s first recording.  He seemed poised to claim his place as the next major voice from his generation on his instrument.  Then he was arrested on a heroin charge, and went to prison for four-and-a-half years.

“I was scheduled to go with Max Roach when he started his group,” he recalls.  “I was scheduled to go with Tadd Dameron when Benny Golson got the gig.  But due to illness, I couldn’t make either one of those.  It happened to me as a result of being on the rebound of a love affair, a temptation to do something to get out of the doldrums.  Then it took on a life of its own.  It deterred my recognition as a jazz soloist; it was the time when small group jazz took hold, and I was not on the scene.  I mean, I was with Miles before Coltrane.  Being off the scene stifled my career, but it saved my life.  Most of those who were out there with me are gone.”

Heath did not squander his lost years; assigned to clerk duty, he had ample time to write and rehearse the prison band.  Upon his release, he moved home to Philadelphia, and signed — at the instigation of Cannonball Adderley and Philly Joe Jones — with Riverside Records, for which he functioned as a de facto staff arranger and led six strong, still vivid albums that reflect an increasingly personal, confident vision.  He moved back to New York in 1964, just as the label folded, and slogged through the late ’60s hardcore jazz recession, reflecting a marketplace that no longer welcomed bebop.

Eight years passed before Heath’s next recording, “The Gap Sealer,” a “variety package” on which he expanded his palette of tones and colors, incorporating soprano saxophone and flute, electric keyboards, African melodies, and funk beats.  In the interim, he took steps to move beyond the “mother wit and intuition” upon which he’d previously depended, studying with Schillinger teacher Rudolph Schramm, whose pupils included Eubie Blake, Mercer Ellington and Jimmy Jones, studying orchestration, string and vocal writing, and extended form composition. These interests began to cohere when, taking advantage of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “retirement,” he joined forces with Percy and Albert — who had played in tandem on four of his Riverside recordings — as the Heath Brothers.  Signed to Columbia in 1978, they released four strong-selling albums, including the Grammy-nominated Live At the Public Theater, supervised by Heath’s percussionist-producer son Mtume.  And in 1987, Heath took a tenured position teaching arrangement and composition on the faculty of Queens College, creating a highly regarded Jazz Studies program with such luminaries as Roland Hanna and Donald Byrd.

In an effort to provide new material for his students every semester, Heath rejuvenated his big band juices.  “My interest hasn’t waned at all,” says Heath, who recently retired, leaving him time to pursue a performing schedule that might tax a man half his age. “I have three new arrangements — on ‘The Thumper,’ on ‘New Keep,’ which I wrote for Orrin Keepnews, and one that Ray Charles did when Johnny Coles and Blue Mitchell were in the band called ‘Togetherness’ — that I’m trying to get to the copyist now.  If people have heard them before, it was as sextet music.  Whenever you return to your music and rewrite it, you add and change things, and it evolves into something quite different.”

Perhaps Heath played with more energy and stronger attack in his earlier years, but the force of his tonal personality is undiminished. “I try to sing on my instrument,” he says.  “I think all the alto players in my day aspired to leading a saxophone section, and the lead alto players then had to sustain the melodies, play them with a certain tenderness and dynamic range, which you don’t get if you just play in a small group.  If you heard Marshall Royal play lead alto with the Basie band, you know how to sing.  If you hear Benny Carter, you know how to sing a melody.  On a couple of records I did for Riverside, Cannonball Adderley played lead alto — he knew how to sing.  Johnny Hodges was the greatest singer of all time.  He could out-sing a vocalist with words!  Lester Young and Ben Webster could play a ballad with the tenderness of a singer.  Miles Davis gives me the same tingle on a ballad that a good singer does.

“You can’t just be a machine gun and play fast. The school teaches everybody to do the techniques. But there is a certain thing about a saxophone. To me, it should sound similar to a viola. That’s what Ben Webster sounds like on ‘Danny Boy.’ When I write my arrangements on my computer for the saxophone section, I use the violin sound for the altos, violas for the tenors, and the cello sound for the baritone. I love that sustaining quality.”

Heath elaborates on an aesthetic developed from section playing.  “I can get just as much reward from being in an ensemble and liking how they play something I’ve written as from having everybody clap when I play a solo,” he says.  He means it; only one album in his oeuvre, the classic Picture Of Heath [Xanadu, 1975] features him alone with a rhythm section.  “Soloing is great.  But I always wrote stuff for other people to be on the record, too.”

All well and good.  But Heath’s relaxed dance continues to compel.  “Musically, this man is Dorian Gray,” Golson concludes.  “What he does on his tenor belies 75 years.  This man has vision and he’s always moving ahead, which is good.  He makes his musical life an adventure; he goes to the same forest every day, but he doesn’t touch the same trees.  Like anything else — architecture, clothing, medicine — jazz, too, should move ahead.  Jimmy Heath is one of the forces that helps move it ahead. Jimmy Heath is an icon, and he is truly a master.”

[-30-]

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Jimmy Heath Profile (WKCR), 3-22-95):

[MUSIC:  "Picture Of Heath" (1975); "Basic Birks" (1991); "Without You, No Me" (1992); w/Lee Morgan "Bruh Slim" (1962)]

TP:    You’ve brought along a number of recordings, including that last date with fellow Philadelphian Lee Morgan at Birdland in 1962, which you wanted to speak about.

JH:    Well, Spanky DeBrest and Albert Heath are also Philadelphians, so there are four Philadelphians on the record, along with Barry Harris.  The other thing is that it wasn’t recorded to our knowledge,  This is a bootleg record that somebody taped off the radio and eventually put it out.  So we weren’t paid for the record at all.  Then the man asked me to do the liner notes on it, and I did those, and he paid me for that.  But I’ve never been paid for the recording.

TP:    Let’s talk about the Philadelphia days, which we’ve done on past shows, but I think we can do it again.  Music in your family, your coming-up as a musician and your beginnings in music.  How did you come to playing the reeds?  Was music in the home?  Was it there for you?

JH:    Oh, yes.  Our parents, Percy, Senior, and Alethia(?), were dedicated to our music, and had recordings in the house of all the top Black artists of that time — and White.  But they had Duke Ellington, Erskine Hawkins, Basie, Benny Carter, and other people who I heard.  They offered each one of us boys…and my sister; they offered her to play an instrument, and she took piano for a while, then stopped.  Percy took violin, and played it in the junior high school orchestra.  When they asked me what I wanted to my play (my father was a clarinet player, and my mother sang in church choir), I said I wanted to play the alto saxophone, after hearing Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter.  My father bought me an alto saxophone for ninety-some bucks; it took him a year or more to pay for it…

TP:    That was during the Depression.

JH:    Yes, it was!  It was around 1939 or ’40, somewhere like that.

TP:    So you started on the cusp of being a teenager.

JH:    Yes, I was 14 when I got it.

TP:    But you’d been absorbed in music, I guess, all your life through hearing it in the home and so forth.

JH:    Yes.  My father and mother had a friend who had a record shop.  And anything new that came out, we were informed of it by our friend who ran the record shop.  One of my favorites was always Erskine Hawkins and Louis Jordan and people like that.  We had those records in the house, and we heard that all the time, so that’s the music I was raised hearing besides, you know, church, Gospel Music.

TP:    Were you taken to the theaters in Philadelphia to hear the bands coming through when you were young, or did that start later for you?

JH:    No, my father used to take us to hear the bands at a theater on South Street.  I can’t remember the name of it, I was so young.  Percy probably remembers better than I about this occasion, but Duke Ellington was there, and he took us to meet Duke Ellington.

TP:    Do you have any memory of the occasion?

JH:    Well, the only thing I remember is that he touched me on my head and said, “Hi, sonny.”

TP:    Did your father play professionally at all, or was it an avocation for him?

JH:    It was an avocation.  He didn’t play professionally.  He was an auto mechanic, and got his clarinet out of the pawn shop on weekends and played with the Elks marching band.  He had a few little jazz licks he used to play around the house, you know, but he wasn’t a professional.

TP:    I’d like to talk about your education on the instrument as well.  Who were the first people who gave you tuition on the saxophone?

JH:    Well, I was going to school in Wilmington, North Carolina, and I started when my father gave me that saxophone.  That’s where I began to play, and I began there in high school and played in the marching band, playing for all of the football games and what have you.  I used to go back to Philly in the summer and take private lessons from a couple of different people.  One man was named Terry, Mr. Terry, who was into the Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter sound.  Then I studied with another man, Paul Amati(?), who was connected in some way with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  I don’t know what he played, and I don’t remember what instrument he played, but he taught me alto saxophone.

TP:    Was there a particularly good band-master at the high school you attended?  Which, by the way, was what high school?

JH:    Williston High School in Wilmington, North Carolina.  The band-master liked Jazz a lot, and he started a Jazz band along with the marching band.  So that was my first introduction to playing in a Jazz band, in high school.

TP:    The lessons must have stuck, because you obviously became intensely attached to music and involved with it, and by the time you were 19 or 20 you were involved in a big band of some note in the Philadelphia area.  I’d like to discuss these years of development, what you listened to, and your progress in music let’s say between 1940 and 1945.

JH:    Well, it was the big band era when I got out of high school and graduated in 1943.  I played with the big bands around Philly.  Then I got a gig with a band in Omaha, Nebraska, led by Nat Towles.  Nat Towles’ band was a territorial dance band in the Midwest, and he had arrangements by Wild Bill Davis, the organist, he had some by Sir Charles Thompson.  These people had already been in the band before me, and they left a few examples of their writings with the band.  We played a lot of stock arrangements, of course.  That’s where I met my friend who I visited yesterday, Billy Mitchell.  We were in that band together in 1945.

Leaving that band, I came back to Philadelphia, and then decided to start my own big band.

TP:    Describe the scene in Philadelphia during your last couple of years of high school, before you went out on your own as a professional musician.  Were there a number of good local big bands?

JH:    Well, there were several big bands.  The Frankie Fairfax Big Band, the one that Dizzy had played with when he was in Philly.  Jimmy Gorum(?) and Mel Melvin, there were several bands…

TP:    Talk about these people a little bit.

JH:    Well, that’s a little before my time.  I was in school when Dizzy was there.  Dizzy always said, “Do you remember?” and no, I don’t remember when he was there.  I was in school.  When I came out of school, Frankie Fairfax’s band wasn’t the leading band around town.  It was Jimmy Gorem(?).  The first band I played with after coming out of school was led by Calvin Todd, a trumpeter who played like Roy Eldridge and wanted to be like Dizzy eventually — he was a strong trumpeter.  After leaving that band, I played with Mel Melvin’s band, and then went with Nat Towles in Omaha, Nebraska.

TP:    Were there any saxophonists around town who you particularly admired?

JH:    Sure.  There were people around Philly who could play very well.  One of them is still there, and that’s Jimmy Oliver.  We called him the Satin Doll because of his beautiful black complexion.  Satin Doll is still there.  He’s a wonderful player.  Trane, Benny Golson and all of us used to go listen to him.

TP:    You, John Coltrane and Benny Golson were all born around the same time, although there are a few years in between, and the relationship remained close for many years.  Talk about the beginnings of that triangular friendship.

JH:    Well, Benny is just a little younger.  Trane and I are actually the same age.  Trane was born on September 23, 1926, and I was born on October 25, 1926, one month later.  So Benny was younger.

I came into contact with Coltrane when he came out of the Navy, and I had this band, and I asked him did he want to play in my band.  He said, “Yeah.”  We both were playing altos at that time.  Benny came in the band a little later playing tenor.  But Trane and I were hanging out and transcribing as much Charlie Parker and Dexter and the cats that we could hear.  The beboppers had come out.  After leaving Nat Towles, the Bebop Era was in full bloom.  So that’s what we were about.  That’s what my big band was about.

TP:    Had you been onto the records from the very beginning when they came out in 1945?

JH:    Yes.  When I was with Nat Towles on the road I first heard “Swingmatism” and “Hootie Blues” by Jay McShann, and then later, when I heard “Shaw Nuff” and “Hot House” and that stuff, I didn’t make the connection that it was the same person until later.  But I do know that the altoist just knocked me to my knees — and that was Charlie Parker, of course.

TP:    Were you sort of waiting to hear Charlie Parker at that time?

JH:    Well, no.  Because I was satisfied with Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter!  But he was so overwhelming until he just took me and everybody along with him to follow his tradition in music.  Dizzy always said that he was a person who had it all made when he met him — he had the style.

TP:    He took you by storm.

JH:    Yes, he did.

TP:    Well, I’d like to talk about your arranging, because we have cued up the earliest recorded arrangement of yours, from 1949; your first recording was with Howard McGhee in 1948, where you played some alto and baritone.  Talk about the big band you set up in Philadelphia after leaving Nat Towles.

JH:    I used to go to Earle Theater and hear big bands all the time.  I used to go hear everybody’s band.  I liked the big band sound.  I was trying to learn how to write when I was with Nat Towles, but I never wrote anything for that band, so when I got home I was sold on the idea that I was going to have a big band and write some music for it.  This particular arrangement that you’re going to play is one that I had written for my band in Philadelphia, but we never recorded.  So Gil Fuller, who was one of my teachers and helped me to edit this arrangement and get it together, put it on a record that he made.  It’s very comical.  The vocal is by Gil Fuller, because the vocalist didn’t show up at the record date, and he decided he was going to sing it.  It’s a standard called “Mean To Me.”

TP:    Before we play it, though, I want you to talk a little more about your early writing and efforts at composing.  For instance, what is the earliest composition of yours that became part of what we know as the Jimmy Heath composition book?  Can you put your finger on that?

JH:    Well, I think the first composition that would give me any recognition was probably “C.T.A.”  Before that I had written one for Howard McGhee.  It was a Blues, and I thought I had written it, but actually it was a Charlie Parker lick ended by a Fats Navarro lick on the end — so I didn’t really compose anything!

TP:    In the big band that you led in Philadelphia, were you writing your original compositions or were you doing arrangements of other material, or playing other arrangers’ material?

JH:    I was playing other arrangers’ material, plus we were all trying to transcribe Dizzy’s stuff from the big band records he put out.  I had a guy named Leroy Lovett, who was a great writer, and Johnny Acea, who played with Dizzy’s band.  He played trumpet, tenor and piano.  He was a Philadelphian who was very versatile, and an arranger.  So I was last on the totem pole as far as writing for my band!

TP:    But you were going through all this material, organizing it and getting inside of it, a very good practical education for an aspiring arranger of music.

JH:    Well, all of my arranging skills were very practical in that sense, that I learned from my peers, until later when I started to study and take lessons.

TP:    Well, let’s begin this next set of music going back about forty-five years to July 11, 1949, the Gil Fuller Big Band, with Gil Fuller singing “Mean To Me.”

JH:    Wshew!

[MUSIC:  G. Fuller/J. Heath, "Mean To Me" (1949); Miles/J. Heath, "C.T.A." (1952); J.J./J. Heath, "Capri" (1953)]

TP:    You said that shortly after “Mean To Me” was recorded, you joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, embarking on a very intense four or five years in the center of the New York Jazz scene.

JH:    Yes.  There was some controversy between Gil Fuller and Dizzy at the time, after having written all the stuff he had written, all the things like “Things To Come”… At least he orchestrated those things with Dizzy’s ideas on a lot of occasions.  But he was a great orchestrator.  So when he and Dizzy kind of came to a parting of the ways, he started a band in competition with Dizzy’s band, and that band is the band that you heard.  He also had Moody in one of those bands after he left Dizzy.  We had a battle of music, actually, with Dizzy’s band at the Audubon Ballroom.  After that competition, or battle of the bands, or whatever you may call it, Dizzy became more interested in me, and I joined his band after that.  He knew I’d had the band in Philly, and that we were playing his arrangements and all that.  Then, when we had the competition… Trane and I both eventually got with Dizzy about a month apart in 1949, in the Fall.  I think we made that record in August.

TP:    During the years you were running the big band, 1947-48-49, so many talented young musicians were active in Philadelphia, like Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland.  Talk about some of the musicians who were working around Philadelphia during that time.

JH:    Well, Red and Philly Joe were around Philadelphia playing with Jimmy Oliver, “Satin Doll,” on gigs, and with others.  So they were doing more small group things around town.  Red Rodney was there.  Johnny Coles played in my band.  Ray Bryant played piano in my band.  Nelson Boyd was my bassist.  Percy, who had just gotten out of the Service, hadn’t really become familiar enough with the bass to play in the big band, to read the charts and everything.  He had been a violinist, and then went away into the Service.  So used Nelson Boyd, who became Miles’ bass player.  So the band was full of budding flowers.

TP:    Beautifully put.  In what venues were the flowers allowed to bloom somewhat in Philadelphia?  Did the band have a fair amount of work in those couple of years?

JH:    Well, we had cabaret parties and dances to play.  That’s what presented a problem, because we were playing Bebop, and people didn’t dance so readily to that.  That’s how I met my drummer, Specs Wright, who eventually played so well that people did start to dance to my band.  See, I didn’t have Philly Joe.  I had Specs Wright playing drums.  Specs Wright was an excellent reader, and he could play… He taught Philly eventually, and he played with Cannon, and Dizzy… I got him the gig with Dizzy, too, when I got with the band.

TP:    What were the main clubs in Philadelphia where the top stars would come through town?

JH:    Well, there was the 421 Club, the Showboat, Ridge Point.  This was a little before the Blue Note and Pep’s.  There were some other clubs that are not as famous.  Pep’s and the Showboat became famous Jazz clubs, where the national artists would pass through.

TP:    So Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young would all work at the Showboat or the 421 Club.

JH:    Eventually.  But there was one in Philly that black entrepreneurs owned, called the Zanzibar.  I heard Lester there with his quartet.  I heard Coleman Hawkins and Fats Navarro together there with a quintet.  Philly Joe and Percy, when he started playing, worked at a place called the Ridge Point.  Trane played up there with them on a gig; he was switching to tenor at that time.  The tenor was the instrument of choice with a small group, not the alto.  The tenor always was the fourth voice hired after the trio.

Then there was the Down Beat Club, which was a very important club.  That’s where I heard Charlie Parker and Miles, and Duke Jordan and Max and Tommy Potter.  That was the occasion when I loaned Charlie Parker my saxophone, because his was in pawn.  He would come to Philly in the afternoon, or in time for the gig, and I would meet him at the gig and take my horn to the Down Beat Club, and let him play it all night, and then I would take it back home, because he would commute back to New York and come back the next night.  I did that for six days.  Charlie Parker playing my horn, I was like a kid in the candy store — it was a dream come true.  I would take the horn into the cellar at my family’s home in the day-time, and he would leave his Brillheart white mouthpiece on the horn and everything, and just split at night.  I would take out the horn, and try to see if some of those beautiful lines were left in the saxophone — which I found out they were not!

That went on for a week.  Then on the weekend, I had a gig with the big band, and Charlie Parker came and played with the big band — and Max.  They sat in with my band on this occasion.  It was a benefit concert for a tragedy that had happened to a kid, a streetcar accident or something, and Charlie Parker played my horn in front of my band.  This photograph is legendary, and it’s around, where Trane has a cigarette in his hand, he’s looking at Charlie Parker, and he’s about to burn his hand and his mouth is wide open.  That’s one of the main photos I show all my students, to show them that the saxophone did not start with Coltrane!  There’s somebody before him.  It’s a continuum.  That was one of the memorable occasions of my life, to have Charlie Parker play my horn for a week, and then come by and sit in with my band.

TP:    It seems to me, as inspiring as Bird was to you and Coltrane, he was also, paradoxically, a primary reason why you gave up your emphasis on the alto saxophone and switched to the tenor.

JH:    Yeah, Charlie Parker was too rough to try to follow on alto.  So we all assumed the idea that if we changed to tenor and played Bebop, it would be different.  Not realizing that if you’re playing tenor, playing Bebop, you’re playing like Sonny Stitt and Dexter — because they’re playing Charlie Parker on tenor!  So it’s still Charlie Parker all the way.

TP:    It sounds like you and Trane paid almost as much attention to Dexter Gordon at that time as you did to Bird.

JH:    Well, Dexter was the tenor saxophonist who really incorporated the Bebop style.  He and Sonny Stitt were the most prominent.  But Dexter had a little holdover of Lester, and Sonny Stitt was all Bird.  Dexter had something that we liked that was more tenor-oriented.  Sonny sounded like an alto player playing tenor, which was very good.  He was very good and smooth.  But Dexter still had some of that Lester, which was uniquely a tenor quality.

TP:    Now, at that age, 23 or 24, were you still interested in new things, let’s say, that Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young were coming out with?  Or did you sort of put them aside for a while in your concentration on the new music?

JH:    Well, I was very interested in that.  Now, Trane and I had gotten some transcriptions made by Howard Johnson, the lead alto player with Dizzy, of Charlie Parker’s solo on “Don’t Blame Me” and other things.  There were people who were transcribing Charlie Parker and investigating his lines and how he got to where he was.  We all had that.  We were like second-string beboppers in Philadelphia.  We were close to the Bebop scene in its infancy, and we were able to follow through on that same music.  When Dizzy and Charlie Parker started the game, they passed the ball down to us.

TP:    You were part of the sort of second phase of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band between 1949 and 1951, and having performed some of his arrangements with your big band, you were family with his book when you entered.  What was Dizzy’s manner as a bandleader and in rehearsals?

JH:    Well, Dizzy was a wide-open, gregarious kind of person.  He was a dynamic conductor, and one of the best that I had ever seen with a big band.  He sang things the way he wanted them to be phrased.  We also had the music of Tadd Dameron, who wrote on the music if he wanted us to play eighth notes in a certain fashion.  He would write, “OO-DA, OO-DA, OO-DA, OO-DA-U-DA-DO, BAM”  Dizzy and all his disciples and colleagues had crystallized the way they wanted the Bebop music to sound.  So we tried to imitate that.

The only problem I had, Melba Liston was in the band and Gerald Wilson, and Dizzy would get a little upset about attendance or something sometimes, and try to pull out music that he thought we couldn’t handle.  In one instance, we were in Little Rock, Arkansas, to play a dance; Trane and I and Paul Gonsalves I think was in the reed section also.  We hadn’t played “Things To Come” until that time.  We could have won a fight against the audience.  We outnumbered the audience with the band!  So the people would come in and say, “Well, we don’t want to hear no Bebop; why don’t you send Buddy Johnson or Count Basie down here?” — and Dizzy was upset.  So after the gig, just before we closed the gig, “Play ‘Things To Come’!”  And he pulls out this music.  Of course, Trane and I had transcribed some of that stuff, and we knew it, so we made it through.  He was quite surprised that we were able to play the arrangement the first time we ever saw it.

TP:    Personally, was this the beginning of your friendship with Dizzy?  Had you met him a few years before in Philadelphia?

JH:    Yeah, I had met him with his big band.  I had seen him on the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Philadelphia, I think it was in 1946 or ’45 when they came there, Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Al Haig, Max, and either Curly Russell or Tommy Potter.  But when he got the big band, we followed the big band everywhere on the East Coast that they would go.  Percy and I would put on our berets and artist ties like the band had on, and stand in front of the band, and Dizzy would recognize us: “There’s the Heath Brothers from Philadelphia.”  Tootie was too young to follow around with us then.  But Percy and I would imitate the dress and everything.  And we got next to Dizzy, and I eventually got the gig with the band, and I got Percy a gig with the band also, after!

TP:    I guess that’s around the time when your friendship with Milt Jackson began, too.

JH:    Definitely, and James Moody also — because Moody was in the band that we followed.  And Ray Brown also, who was another 1926 guy from my year.

TP:    What a year.

JH:    Yeah, that was a great year.

TP:    Fine vintage.

JH:    Miles.  There’s a lot of good guys from that year.

So Ray and Bags and Joe Harris, the drummer, were good friends.  Joe Harris is also from the same time, and is still in Pittsburgh.  They were hanging out together.  You know, we just struck a friendship with Dizzy on kind of a platonic basis, I mean, just association, no real serious…

TP:    Interplay.

JH:    No.  Percy had met him before I did, I think while I was with Nat Towles.  Percy was just out of the Service with his Lieutenant’s clothes on.  When I came home from Nat Towles, we chanced upon Dizzy coming in town, and Dizzy said, “Hey, Lieutenant!”  He called Percy “Lieutenant” because he was a fighter pilot and a Lieutenant, and he respected that.  I said, “Man, I thought you knew Dizzy.”  I got the gig with Dizzy first, and got Percy the gig.  I thought Percy knew him, but Dizzy knew him as being one of the early fighter pilots from World War Two.

TP:    That’s when you and the other young lions of the time would gather and play sessions and small group dates around New York and other places.

JH:    Well, the sessions were a big thing, the jam sessions during that time.  Everybody, all of my peers, were trying to learn how to play Bebop.  We would go either to Johnny Coles’ house or the Heaths’ house, and gather and try to learn all the songs we heard on the records.  Ray Bryant would be there, or Dolo Coker on piano, or once in a while Red Garland would come in.  But Philly or Specs Wright and Golson, Trane, we would all go and meet together and have these tremendous jam sessions.  Our mothers were very nice people.  Johnny Coles’ mother would fix Kool-Aid and sandwiches, and my mother would do the same.  So we had like a Jazz family in Philadelphia.

TP:    But after coming to New York and joining Dizzy Gillespie, you did various small group things in New York and the surrounding area with Milt Jackson or Miles, so forth and so on.  When did that start?

JH:    Well, I wasn’t privy to the jam sessions in New York as much.  When I got to New York, I was working with a band, so I wasn’t attending so many jam sessions.  Before I got with Dizzy, I remember coming to New York to go to Minton’s, and that was an occasion.  Well, my first gig in New York was actually with Howard McGhee at the Three Deuces.  That was an occasion where Hank Jones played the piano.  Hank Jones took me to his house and played “Cherokee” through the keys after the gig, and I was floored by that, that this what we had to do to be around New York to perform.  You had to learn everything in all the keys, because the guys who could really play would clear you off the bandstand by changing keys, or playing tunes that you couldn’t play.  But since Minton’s was one of the spots where the jam sessions were going, I went up there with Leo Parker.  Max was there, and Al Lucas — I stayed at his house that night.  Monk was there, and Lockjaw.  People like that were playing in the sessions at Minton’s.

TP:    The tracks we heard in the last set of music featured people like Clifford Brown, who came from Wilmington, not far from Philadelphia, so I’m sure you knew him, or of him, and J.J. Johnson and Miles, who were all part… In 1951 there was a Birdland All-Stars tour, and you were put together in a band… Yes, no?   Tell me.

JH:    After.  We’ll talk about that after…

TP:    After a set of music?  Okay, let’s talk about that then. [ETC.] The music we’ll hear comes from Jimmy Heath’s first recording date as a leader for the Riverside label in September 1959, a sextet with Nat Adderley, cornet; Curtis Fuller, trombone; Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums.  There are five originals by Jimmy Heath on this date, some of which have been played up to this day.  Did you write this material for the date, or were these part of a backlog of compositions that you had beforehand?

JH:    I think these were written for this date.  This was my first record date, and I wrote the material.

[MUSIC: J. Heath, "For Minors Only" (1959); Jimmy Heath Tentet, "Big P" (1960); "Two Tees" (1960); w/ Nat Adderley "Chordnation" (1960); w/ Sam Jones Tentet, "Four" (1961)]

TP:    One thing that performance of “Four” brought to mind for both of us was your friendship with Miles.  You said it was an arrangement that he liked very much, and commented on to you.

JH:    Oh, yeah.  He said, [MILES] “Hey, James, that’s one of the best arrangements I ever heard on ‘Four’.”  So he liked that one.

But before these five, you played a couple of things that I wanted to comment on from the Blue Note series.  One was the Miles Davis record, and the other was the J.J. Johnson with Clifford Brown.  The Miles Davis and the J.J. Johnson date came as an offshoot of the Symphony Sid All-Stars, the touring group that we had that consisted of Kenny Clarke, Percy, Milt Jackson, J.J. Johnson and Miles and myself.  It was called the Symphony Sid All-Stars, and the deejay Symphony Sid took us on the road, and was the announcer.  Out of that, Miles had a contract with Blue Note, and he used most of the people on his date.  Then J.J. did a date, and he added Clifford Brown.

When we made that date with Clifford Brown, the thing about that one in particular that sticks out in my mind is that we played the thing called “Turnpike” that has the circle of fourths in the solo structure.  J.J. had something set.  It being his date and he being a very precise person, he had some licks set that he wanted to get in, and he would fluff sometimes, and we’d have to make another take.  Every time we made a new take, Clifford Brown would come up with some incredible sequences.  At that moment, Frank Wolff, the photographer, and Al Lion, came out of the booth after the cut, each cut, saying [GERMAN ACCENT] “That Brownie, that Brownie!”  And the next thing I knew, they had Clifford in the corner, signing a contract with him.  So that was the beginning of Clifford’s career recording-wise, as a result of the J.J. Johnson record.

TP:    What were the circumstances of the Miles Davis date?

JH:    Well, the circumstances were coming out of the Symphony Sid All Stars.  He used Art Blakey on the drums on that particular date.  But it was all during that same time.  Out of that Symphony Sid All-Stars, there was Percy, Kenny Clarke and Milt.  Then right after that, or during that time, the MJQ started, too.  So a lot of things happened in that period that were kind of related, because Kenny Clarke and Milt teamed with John Lewis and Ray Brown, then eventually Percy, to form the MJQ around that same time.

TP:    Jumping ahead almost a decade, I’d like to discuss the Riverside recordings we heard.  It seems like Orrin Keepnews was using you both for recording dates under your leadership, and also as kind of a house arranger for dates by Blue Mitchell and Sam Jones and Nat Adderley and so forth.  It must have been a very active and creative period for you, because so many of your famous compositions seem to emanate from the years 1959 to about 1964.

JH:    Well, I guess I was considered like the staff arranger of a sort.  Benny Golson did some things, too, during that time, but maybe not for other people’s dates as much as his own.  I think it stemmed from the fact that after a long illness, when I came back on the scene, Cannonball was one of my chief endorsers.  I had never met the man, and he endorsed me with Orrin Keepnews, he and Philly Joe.  I had an opportunity to go with Blue Note or Riverside, and I chose Riverside.  Once I got on the label, I was considered one of the arrangers; all the cats on the label wanted me to write something for their dates, and I did some on different people’s dates at that time.  When I look back in retrospect, there’s quite a few.

TP:    I wanted to ask you about your studies in composition and arranging.  I gather that after your earlier efforts and hearing things first-hand from Dizzy Gillespie and Gil Fuller and so forth, you actually wound studying formally.

JH:    Well, Gil helped me a lot.  He always insisted that you get some excitement in your music.  He said Tadd Dameron’s music was background.  Heh-heh.  They were rivals, of course.  But Tadd Dameron’s music had a lot of heart in it, and a lot of feeling and soul, whereas Gil’s were like “Things To Come,” they were exciting.  But I liked both of them.  Also, George Russell was writing for Dizzy’s band; he was very abstract, a different kind of orchestrator.  So was Gerald Wilson.  Gerald Wilson was writing some of the things for the Dizzy Gillespie band that were very good.  Melba hadn’t started, but she was there.

So listening at home to Duke Ellington and people like that, and arrangers like Benny Carter and people like that, I just went through a trial-and-error period, where I tried things.  Then when the small groups came about, like you heard there mostly, I had already begun thinking how to write for sextet by hearing J.J. and other people who had sextets.

So then I went along with that, with mother-wit or intuition for many years, until I started to study with a man named Rudolf Schramm, who taught the Schillinger System, and taught it at Carnegie Hall, where he had a studio upstairs.  I learned quite a bit from him, how to organize what I had already experienced, and how to edit and put things together.  He also helped me in orchestrating for strings and choir and things like that, and encouraged me to write for larger ensembles and, like, suites that I have written.  A lot of them haven’t been recorded, because it costs a lot of money to record them, and they are not hit material, so the record companies are reluctant to record them.  You know, “The Afro-American Suite of Evolution” or the thing I wrote for a five-piece Jazz group and a symphony orchestra called “Three Ears”, or the “Upper-Neighbor Suite” I wrote for a Canadian 10 or 12 piece ensemble.  Some string things I’ve written.  The Kronos String Quartet recorded my version of “Naima”, and the Uptown String Quartet recorded “Naima” for Muse Records.

But I’ve been writing for all kinds of ensembles. To get back to the big-band writing, that started when I took a position at Queens College as a professor, and I teach composing and arranging there.  So I started to write for the big band, new material for every semester.  That keeps my big band music flowing.

Right here I would like to say that my entire career as a composer has been one of dedications to people that I like, my peers and family members.  Just about everything I wrote is dedicated to a human being that I find exceptional in one way or another.  “Big P” is for Percy, “Two Tees” for Albert Heath, “Mona’s Mood” is for my wife — different people.  Most recently I wrote one for Antonio Hart called “Like A Son,” because he was one of my students and he’s very close to me.  “Without You, No Me” to Dizzy.  “Trane Connections” was for Coltrane, “Forever Sonny” for Sonny Rollins.  I don’t think there’s another composer in the history of the music who has dedicated as many songs and compositions to their peers.  I have no problem with competition or ego that I can’t respect another person’s ability.

TP:    Well, one of your main sources, as you cited before, was Tadd Dameron, and the next track we’ll hear comes from a 1982 release dedicated to Tadd Dameron, featuring the group Continuum, featuring Jimmy Heath and Slide Hampton, another one of this generation’s most distinguished composers and orchestrators, Kenny Barron on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and the late Arthur Taylor on drums, who passed last week, and was a close friend of yours and is missed by everyone in the Jazz community.  We’ll hear “Nearness.”  Any comments on it, Jimmy?

JH:    Well, it’s really now a dedication to A.T., because he really liked this song, and he asked me to give him a chart on it so he could do it with his Wailers.

[MUSIC:  Continuum, "Nearness" (1982); J. Heath/KD/AT, "Nobody Else But Me" (1961); "J. Heath/Freddie/J. Watkins, "The Quota" (1962); J. Heath/Blue Mitchell Orch., "Blue On Blue" (1962)]

TP:    We’ll move out of chronology now, and concentrate on recordings made by the Heath Brothers, Jimmy, Percy and Albert, the three great musicians who came out of the Heath family in Philadelphia.  The first selection will come from a 1975 recording for Strata-East, the first by the Heath Brothers as such.

JH:    I had worked with Percy and Albert on The Quota and on Really Big, a couple of my Riverside dates, so that was the Heath Brothers before the Heath Brothers formal title was adopted by the record companies.  Percy was always with the MJQ, for years, so that left Albert and I, and we worked together quite a bit, and Percy would work with us once in a while when he wasn’t busy with the Modern Jazz Quartet.  But I could use my brothers on recordings, and that’s what I did on those Riverside records.  Then when Percy took a hiatus from the MJQ for a few years, we started a group called the Heath Brothers.  The first record we made was made in Norway.  We were on tour over there in Oslo, and Stanley Cowell was our pianist, and he wanted to document this group on the Strata-East label.  That’s what we did.  We made this record and it was released on Strata East.

TP:    Talk about the qualities that your two brothers bring to their instruments, and their place in the music pantheon.  First your older brother, Percy.

JH:    Well, Percy can walk the bass.  He’s got an uncanny sense of time.  He was the bassist of choice around New York for a lot of recordings.  He’s been on more than I have, I’m sure — and I’ve been I guess getting close to being a hundred records, I’m sure.  But he’s been on many more.  Albert was a person that came along, nine years after myself in age, and he soon became one of the favorites in the Riverside catalogue, and he made quite a few Blue Note records, and he recorded with Trane and Sonny Rollins and everybody, too.

So I don’t know, it must be in our genes.  Our father and mother were wonderful people, and they let us pursue what we loved — music.  We weren’t forced to do anything else.  If you have an environment like that at home, where you are encouraged to play, and you have any talent, then you’re going to play.

TP:    Well, you mentioned after World War Two, when Percy came back, that the two of you spent a lot of time workshopping together, transcribing, listening, performing.

JH:    Yeah.  Well, Percy and I…that’s before Tootie came out of high school.  We even played with Howard McGhee together when I first went to Paris in 1948 in…oh, I think it was April or May in 1948.  We were both with Howard McGhee at that time.  Howard McGhee was the first person to really take us out into the big time, so-called.  He also was the person who took my big band from Philly and took it on the road, and we went to the Apollo and the Paradise in Detroit and some of the theaters.  We played a gig in Chicago, and my whole book, my repertoire got lost in the Inglewood Station in Chicago, so I never saw my big band music again!

TP:    Oh, no!

JH:    Yeah, that was unfortunate.  But we continued to work with Howard in the small-group situation anyway, and record.  He was the first person I recorded with.  And Howard was a wonderful person to be around, a nice man, and he could play real well, and he really liked me.  So that was the essence of the beginnings and being-together of the brothers, Percy and I first, and then eventually the three of us.

TP:    Now, Tootie has a very personal way of swinging as well, and gets a very distinctive sound out of the kit.  He’s very recognizable on your Riverside releases.

JH:    Well, I think he has some of his teacher’s style, and that’s Specs Wright.  All of the drummers liked Klook and Max, but Tootie was close to Specs.  Specs was a very crisp and swinging drummer also, who had excellent hands.  I think he taught Tootie to practice very slow, because Specs was so methodical.  I roomed with him with Dizzy’s band, and he would drive you nuts, because he would practice so slow all day, I mean, sit there with a practice pad and say, BOP… BOP…BOP, and then when he gets on the gig it was like WRRHOWOWO.  It was incredible.  But he knew a system of how to practice.  I think Tootie got that from him.  Also, Everybody liked what Max was doing, and he incorporated some of Max, and Philly Joe was around, and he listened…

We all learned from our predecessors, and that’s the way it should be.  I mean, you learn from the people who came before you, and then you expand into your own style.

TP:    One more question about your writing.  You said you often write people in mind as far as dedicating the compositions.  As far as the musical content, do you write for people you know will be performing it, or does it come out of more your own ideas that are percolating around at a given time?

JH:    It’s not necessarily for the people who are going to perform it, because a lot of times I was the only one to perform some of them!  The song I wrote for Sarah Vaughan, “Sassy’s Samba,” the Heath Brothers recorded it, and eventually the New York Voices recorded it.  They put their own words to it.  But it was dedicated to Sarah Vaughn.  Just like “Blue On Blue” we just heard was to Blue Mitchell.  And the thing we’re about to play, “Smilin’ Billy”, is for Billy Higgins.

So I think about the person’s personality.  You know, Ted, I write down nicknames and expressions of all my friends.  I’ve got a whole list that would be very interesting to literary people, I think, who are interested in Jazz.  Because I think about the person.  Thad’s thickness or Slide’s slickness.  Expressions that depict the person.  I mean, Slide Hampton is a very slick player and arranger.  Thad’s music was so dense, so Thad’s thickness… I’ve got a whole list of maybe about fifty or sixty people that I have coined phrases on what I visualize them or how I perceive them.

TP:    Then that triggers off some sort of musical lines and connections and progressions.

JH:    It’s all connected.

TP:    Let’s start off with part one of “The Smilin’ Billy Suite” — we don’t have time to hear the others — to lead off a set by the Heath Brothers.  In the 1970′s Jimmy had expanded his sound palette, as had everybody in the orchestra, sort of in touch with the times, and on this date you play flute, tenor and soprano saxophone; Tootie plays a double-reed on Part of the Suite, which we won’t hear, but primarily drums; Percy had begun playing the baby bass by that time; and Stanley Cowell plays piano and also Mbira on other sides here.

[MUSIC: "Smilin' Billy Suite, Pt. 1" (1975); "A New Blue" (1978); In Motion, Brass Choir/HB, "Project S" (1979)]

TP:    It does seem that the Heath Brothers enabled you to expand your exploration of tones and colors that began working on in a series of albums for Muse and Cobblestone Records in the early 1970′s.

JH:    Well, I fell in love with the French horn when Julius Watkins started to play the way he did, and I started adding the French horn to quite a few of my albums.  Until today I still like to use the French horn.

TP:    We heard it on The Quota and Triple Threat, those early Riverside dates.

JH:    And on Swamp Seed, the one that you’re going to play with Herbie.  But even the later ones, the Landmark things, I used the French horns and tubas and those instruments.

TP:    Most recently on Old Flames, which you arranged for Sonny Rollins, there’s that brass choir situation, although you don’t appear on that.

JH:    Ah!

TP:    [ETC.] We’ll move back to the 1960′s now, and focus on Jimmy Heath’s final two dates for Riverside, and also a few collaborations with Milt Jackson, with whom you recorded a number of times between 1962 and 1967, and continue to up to recent days.

JH:    Yes.

TP:    In our conversations earlier about the Dizzy Gillespie band, you talked about first meeting Milt Jackson, and I guess you’ve recorded with him since your very first one, in 1948.  I think he was playing piano on those Howard McGhee dates.

JH:    Well, he was on some things.  He was also in that big band thing in 1949 that I did.  He was playing piano and vibes on the “Mean To Me” that we heard earlier.

TP:    Talk about your relationship with him.  It’s been of such long duration and so creatively fruitful.

JH:    Well, yeah.  Even last week Milt recorded one of my songs on his album with the young lions he’s using, Jesse Davis and Joshua Redman and Christian McBride and Benny Green.  So he asked me to write a tune for that album, and I wrote one called “Bop Again.”  I think Cedar wrote one for that date.  So Bags and I, our relationship goes…oh, man, since the late Forties, since he was with… I met him when he was with Dizzy’s band, I would imagine.  So that’s ’46-’47, something like that, until today.  There were times when the MJQ would go on the road, and I wouldn’t know they were back in town if I had depended on my brother Percy, because he would be gone fishing — and Milt would say, “oh, we got back yesterday!”  So Milt and I are like brothers.

TP:    Well, he’s a musician with as identifiable a sound as any that ever played this music.

JH:    We just played a gig with Paul West at the Henry Street Settlement with the Symphony Orchestra down there, doing Dizzy’s music.  Milt and I were on that together.  So Milt and I are very close.

TP:    We’ll hear a few tracks featuring Jimmy Heath with Milt Jackson a little later,  But coming up now is “Wall To Wall,” recorded in 1963 for Riverside on the album Swamp Seed.  This is redolent of brass, with Donald Byrd on trumpet, Julius Watkins and Jim Buffington on French horns, Don Butterfield on tuba.  Herbie Hancock plays piano on this track.

JH:    “Wall To Wall” is from ear to ear.  We all had beards, and I said “We have wall-to-wall rugs.”  And I see you have one, Ted, so you’re right in there.

[MUSIC:  "Wall To Wall" (1963); "Gingerbread Boy" (1964); J. Heath/Bags "Dew 'n Mud" (1965); J. Heath/A. Farmer, "One For Juan" (1967)]

TP:    In our next set, we’ll move to selections from a series of recordings that Jimmy Heath did in the mid-Seventies for the Cobblestone, Muse and Xanadu labels, where the common thread I guess is producer Don Schlitten, who produced all of these dates.  And back to what we said about the Heath Brothers groups, during this time you were really expanding your sonic palette compositionally.  You feature yourself on flute and soprano sax, you bring in a lot of popular rhythms, African melodies and so forth.  Talk a little about your state of mind at this time, and the dynamics that went into making these recordings.

JH:    Well, the Sixties was a turbulent time, and the music depicts what’s going on.  What we were wearing, and what we espoused as Afro-Americans was coming out in the music.  I wrote things like “Heritage Hum”, and along with my son Mtume, we were doing things like “Alkebulan,” which is called “The Land Of The Blacks.”  We were just expressing our views musically with the times, as things were happening.  You know, I came up when… I went to high school in Wilmington, North Carolina, from Philadelphia, and I’d have to get in the Colored coach and all that stuff.  When we got to Washington, D.C., you’d get out of the coach you were in on the train, and get in the Colored coach, and they had Colored water and all of that stuff.  I’m still trying to figure out what Colored water is.  But it was a time when we weren’t getting any respect as human beings, and we needed that.  I think the Bebop Era, Dizzy and Charlie Parker spoke to that in their music in a revolutionary sense, and I was following through on what was happening in the country and with us as human beings on the planet.

TP:    Well, to a lot of people in the 1960′s, your old friend John Coltrane in a certain way symbolized some of the highest aspirations of African-Americans.  I asked you off-mike if you continued to see Coltrane during the 1960′s, and you said that when you were still living in Philadelphia, where you were until 1964, he would still come by your house, and practice and eat between sets at the Showboat.

JH:    Yeah.  Well, he was playing at the Showboat, and he would play these extended sets, playing “My Favorite Things” for 15 or 20 minutes, sometimes a half-hour on one song, then they would take a break, and they would have to go back that evening to perform again.  So Trane, he would practice on all the breaks between the sets.  So the long break between… He was supposed to end at six, and he goes back at nine or something.  Well, he ended up seven or something, played overtime.  Well, my mother’s house was closer than his mother’s house in West Philly.  He had moved by that time.  He would always come down to the house.  I said, “Look, Trane, you could down to Mom; I’ll get Mom to fix something.”  And my mother would fix him something.

The last occasion he did that, he came down to the house, and we talked for a while.  My mother said, “Well, the food isn’t ready, John, because Jimmy just called me.”  He said, “Well, look, Jim, can I go upstairs and practice until she gets…”  I said, “Yeah, go ahead!” and he went upstairs and practiced until the food was ready, ate the food, went back to the club, and played some more for the rest of the evening.  Trane was like that.  He practiced all the time.  Juanita, who was named Naima later, his first wife, said he was 90 percent saxophone.  So that gives you an idea of John Coltrane’s life.

TP:    In our conversation off-mike you told me also that you moved back to New York City in 1964.  I’m sure that must have expanded your possibilities in many ways.

JH:    Well…

TP:    Or not.

JH:    Yeah, well, it did.  I was basically doing things with my own group during that time.  I went back with Miles for a little after Trane left, and I didn’t stay long.  Well, then I was free-lancing around New York until later.  I was still recording for Muse and Xanadu around that time…

TP:    Around 1970 or so.

JH:    1970.  In retrospect, the late Sixties were kind of slim pickings for Jazz.  The other music had just moved in so strongly, and everybody went, the audiences, until they were… Sarah Vaughan told me she didn’t have a recording contract for quite a while during that…

TP:    Yeah, it was a tenuous time and a transitional time, and a lot of the music in the Seventies I guess reflected wanting to get into the mainstream and make some money in terms of the type of music that was being presented.

JH:    I think so.

[MUSIC:  The Gap Sealer, "Heritage Hum" (1972); Love And Understanding, "Gemini" (1973); "The Time And The Place" (1974)]

JH:    [RE: Picture of Heath.] I didn’t write a lot of arrangements for the ensemble, you know, so it was a loose kind of a session.  Plus when the tenor is out front it’s a different ego trip.

TP:    Now, you call it an ego trip.  Why?  I assume you’re talking about being able to stretch out and play at length and take some liberties.

JH:    Well, to me sometimes it’s boring as a musician, as a listener to hear one instrument, and that instrument alone. I’ve fallen in love with orchestration and composition, and I like to hear a lot of different textures and a different sound.  Consequently there are very few records that I really stretched out on.  On the live dates I would stretch out a little more.  Perhaps that’s one of the problems I’ve had with recognition, is that I’ve been prone to let somebody else play instead of me taking the whole show.

TP:    I’d like to talk to you a little bit about your sound and style as a tenor saxophone player.  We talked earlier about your sources in the music, and coming out of Charlie Parker, and then listening to Dexter Gordon and transcribing solos.  I’m not sure how to frame this.  At a certain point, musicians begin to transcend their sources.  Listening back, when do you think your individual sound, your individual voice began to become clear on the tenor saxophone?

JH:    Well, I think simultaneously, with the more knowledge you get about the music and the more time you put in on an instrument, that’s when you begin to find yourself.  Earlier you are always trying to see what has been done before, and you are investigating earlier performers and listening a lot.  There were times in my career, and there are times when I don’t listen to Jazz records, because I don’t want to be influenced by everybody else and their playing.  So I think that’s a way to become your own person.  Also your individual sound has a lot to do with it.  The tone quality that you get that’s identifiable.  You know, you can hear Sonny Rollins, and you know Sonny; you hear Joe Henderson, and you know Joe.  And people who really listen, they say, “Oh, that’s Jimmy Heath” — they can identify me.  And I take pride in that fact.  But there were some times when my friend Dexter Gordon, when I would go hear his group, when I got bored as a listener because Dexter would use the same format.  He would play first on every song, and then he would let the piano player play, and then he would take fours with the drummer or the bass player.  Then the next song, Dexter first, Dexter first.  I guess that’s the way people want you to be, and I’m not in that mode.  So I let some of the other guys play first, I play second, I may… It’s an image problem…

TP:    I’d like to talk a little more about sound, and your sound.  Is there a sound that you were hearing, let’s say, in your mind’s ear around 1953 or 1960 or so, and then you worked to get to that sound, and arrived there?  Is that how it worked for you?

JH:    Yeah, I worked on the sound.  I was listening to Dexter and Lester and Bird, and I think that I kind of incorporated some of their inflections in my playing.  But tone quality, you’ve just got to practice…sound, practice tone.  Whole notes, which is boring.  And you’ve got to do that in order to get a good sound.  Once you get a sound, though, the rest of the delivery is easy!

TP:    Well, one of the hallmarks of individuality for a tenor player within this tradition is “Body and Soul,” and I know on records produced by Don Schlitten, he liked to have the artists work out on this tune.  You can hear versions on his records by almost every great saxophonist of the time.  So let’s hear Jimmy Heath’s version of “Body and Soul” on tenor and soprano from Picture Of Heath, 1975, with Barry Harris, Sam Jones and Billy Higgins.

[MUSIC:  "Body and Soul" (1975); w/ Joe Henderson, "Steeplechase" (1988)]

TP:    We’ll move now to material from a pair of recordings by Jimmy Heath for Landmark in 1985 and 1987, respectively.  From the first, we’ll hear the title track, “New Picture.”  New Picture continues your tradition of a four-brass section.

JH:    I used the tuba and two French horns on this one, and a trombone in this particular grouping.

TP:    Do you approach each album as a project unto itself?  Is there some sort of picture you’re trying to paint with every date that you do?  Is it a function of what you’re working on at that time, and things sort of come together?  How do you go about it?

JH:    Well, I go about it in trying to do something a little different, if I can.  That’s why I have different-sized ensembles on most of the records, and not just the quartet alone.  I have sextets and various different color combinations, with the strings, the cello on some things, flute on some things.  So I just like music.  I love music, and I love all the sounds of the different instruments.  If I could really afford it, or the record companies could afford, I would like to do something with the larger ensembles, too, the symphony, that size ensemble, 40 or 50 pieces.  I just want to explore all of the sound qualities that I can find in my knowledge and concept.

TP:    So it transcends notes.  It’s really ultimately about sound.

JH:    Yeah, and the voice.  I’ve done several things using choirs, and I’m really interested in doing that at this point in my life.  I would like to do something with a group like Take Six or something like that!

[MUSIC: "New Picture" (1985); w/ Purrone, "I Waited For You." (1987)]

TP:    There are certain musicians who can make five hours go by like an hour-and-a-half.  Jimmy Heath is one of them, and he’s been sharing the time with me and with you, the radio audience, in the studios of WKCR, giving a first-person account in this retrospective of Jimmy Heath’s 46 years of recorded music.

JH:    Pshew!

TP:    One more set to go.  But I wanted to talk a little bit about your educational activities.  Because for a number of years you have been Professor Jimmy Heath, and you’ve put together a very strong Jazz program at Queens College, part of the City University of New York.  How long has this particular gig been part of your career, and how long did you work towards that in terms of academic credentialing?

JH:    Well, I’ve been teaching privately for many years, back with Ted Curson, Jimmy Garrison, Sam Reed(?) and other people around Philadelphia.  Then coming to New York at the Jazzmobile organization, and the Housatonic College in Bridgeport, and the City College of New York on Convent Avenue with Ron Carter.  Then in ’87, after an illness, I took a position at Queens College, which is very close to my home, where I have been since 1964.  I have been working at that for many years privately.  The people there saw that I was the person that they wanted to begin the Jazz faculty as tenured people… At least I am now tenured.  When I started in 1987, I was the first one hired full time at Queens College in teaching Jazz music.  I basically got that on my reputation over the years as a performer and composer and traveling person, sort of known personality.

TP:    One thing that’s come out a lot in this past decade-and-a-half is the idea that Jazz can be taught if it’s really done right.  Your generation often had to pick up things by themselves, though not in all cases, because there were a number of formally trained musicians.  Talk about that concept and applying it to young, raw students, and what the students are like these days.

JH:    Well, at that time, like you said, the performers of the music taught at some institutions weren’t allowed to teach in those institutions probably because of lack of degrees, and this is what academia demands and expects from a person.  But somewhere along the line, they realized that some people didn’t have that opportunity, and they still are doctors of their music.  So then the institutions started hiring more people, like Kenny Barron and Rufus Reid.  Some of them have Bachelor Degrees and some of them have more.  But usually it was based on their reputation.  It’s hard to get a position in an institution on just your reputation without the formal credentials.  And I think by the performers getting in as teachers, whether credentialed or not, it has brought a new awareness into the university systems so that the people who are teaching Afro-American, Jazz music in these institutions are the people who have done it.

So the students are very fortunate that they have somebody that is performing all the time that can really pull their coats to a lot of other things that an academic cannot.  They have just studied how this chord goes and this and that, but they haven’t been performing.  They don’t know what the audience responds to… It’s the insider approach.  The students I’ve had have been…they feel honored to be there.  They come there… Donald Byrd was at my school also, and now Sir Roland Hanna is there, and Cecil Bridgewater.  So we have a faculty staff, small as it may be, of performers.  And they have degrees, too, Cecil and Roland.

But it’s just the fact that it’s a different approach to the music.  It’s a personal approach, not from a book.  This is why we have students that are finishing under our direction that are right in the music world, going right out there and performing.

TP:    Maybe fifteen years ago a lot of older musicians were somewhat pessimistic about the future of the music, and I think these fears have been put to rest as many talented and creative young musicians have emerged.

JH:    Yeah.  Well, the one icon that’s caused a lot of change in our music, to me, is Wynton Marsalis.  The image that he has presented and his dogmatic attitude of what he really thinks of our music, Afro-Americans’ music, has caused a lot of young people to follow in his direction.  They want to dress well on the stage.  They play good.  They are clean-cut guys; they don’t deal with no vices.  And a lot of them come out of school.  People like Alvin Batiste are turning out musicians, Nathan Davis in Pittsburgh, and all of this network of people who are in the institutions and qualified performers has come together.

When we were judges on a panel, Dizzy and I, on a Budd Johnson award, we saw so many good young players.  Incidentally, on this particular one, Vincent Herring was the winner.  But Dizzy looked at me and said, “The music is in good hands.”  When we heard all these young people playing the way they are… In my case, at my school, Antonio Hart.  Or I was the chairman of the judges’ panel for the Thelonious Monk Institute when we chose Joshua Redman the number-one saxophone player — and the rest is history.  So there is a coming together of youth and the old vets out there that’s very healthy in attittude, and the music is stronger than ever.

[MUSIC: J. Heath/Mulgrew/Lundy/Nash, "Ellington's Stray Horn" (1994)]

[-30-]

* * *

Jimmy and Albert (“Tootie”) Heath (7-21-93) — Musician Show:

Q:    Jimmy Heath and I have done several shows in recent years, and we’ve talked a fair amount about your activities in Philadelphia as a young musician.  But I don’t think we’ve really spoken too much with Albert Heath about your younger years.  So I’d like to begin speaking with you, if I might.  First, you’re from such a musical family, it’s almost an inane question to ask how you got started playing the drums.  But was that your first instrument?  Was that your first interest?  And with whom did you start playing, when you did start playing?

AH:    Well, the musical influence came from my brother Jimmy, who was always sitting at the piano and studying and learning something about harmony, and he would exchange ideas with other musicians, like some names that I won’t drop right now because I want to stay on the track here… So my brother Jimmy was my main influence, and then Percy started to play much later; he came along later.  But Jimmy was the first and strongest influence in music, in terms of what was called Bebop at the time.

My father was also a major influence, as well as my mother, because she sang in the choir, and my father played clarinet in a marching band.

So I had a lot of music all the time.  There was recordings of people like Fletcher Henderson and Basie and Duke Ellington, of course, and all those big bands that we used to listen to.  My parents used to play the music of Bessie Smith and Mahalia Jackson.  So I got a real good foundation in the music of our culture.

Q:    Now, Jimmy Heath has talked about avidly going to hear the big bands in the theatres.  Were you able to do the same as a youngster?  I know you were younger.

AH:    Yeah.  Fortunately, I was able to see a few bands.  But it meant that I had to kind of skip school to do it.  My parents didn’t know that I was doing that, but… I saw the Ellington Orchestra, and I saw…

Q:    Who was the drummer with the Ellington Orchestra?

AH:    It was Sonny Greer at the time.  And I mean, I was overwhelmed by his appearance and all of the instruments that he was playing at that time.  You know, he had chimes and congas and tympany and bells and all kinds of instruments he had back there in the back of the orchestra.  And he was well in control of everything back there — and I was just like totally impressed by him.  And he had on white tails; I’ll never forget it.  He was, like, immaculate.  And I never forgot that.

Also, I saw Dizzy Gillespie’s band with a friend of my brother Jimmy… For some reason or other… Teddy Stewart was the drummer, and he couldn’t show up for some reason, and my brother had his friend, who was just out of the Service, the military, whose name was Specs Wright, and Specs Wright came in and played Dizzy’s book as if he had sat there all the time and played it for years.  And I was like… You know, I couldn’t believe that, what I was seeing.  So I was fortunate enough to see the Gillespie band.  I saw the Basie band, and that’s about it…

Q:    Was that Shadow Wilson at that time?

AH:    No, I didn’t see Shadow Wilson at that time, but I saw Shadow Wilson at the Five Spot with Thelonious.  So I did see Shadow.

Q:    Well, it’s very important for young musicians to see the older, master musicians so that they get a correlation of motion to sound or action to sound.  And I know that’s something that at that time, with the big bands, musicians really were able to do, maybe more so than today.  You teach.  Do you…

AH:    Yes.  I’m on faculty at California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia, California.  But I think it’s true today also that the younger players… Like, for instance, last night I saw the son of a friend of mine who came down to see us, and he’s a very young person — and I’m sure I’ll see some more young musicians coming down to see us.  And I think the tradition is being passed on to these young people through us.  We’re the old guys now.

Q:    Let’s get back to your younger days in the music.  What was your first gigging experience around Philadelphia?  Who were some of the people you paired off with as a young drummer, and what types of situations were you playing in?

AH:    Well, my first professional performance was done at a place called the Lincoln Post, across the street from where we used to live, which was a marching band — the American Legion is what it was.  And they had a marching band over there.  And somehow, myself and a trumpet player by the name of Ted Curson and a saxophone player by the name of Sam Reed, who were my… We were school mates.  And Sam played an alto saxophone, which he still does today, and Ted Curson played the trumpet, which he still plays today, and is functioning out in the world, playing all over the world — both of them are.  And we had an opportunity to play at this place at night — which was rare, you know, because we were all about 15 or 16 apiece, or something like that.  And some people gave us a chance to play because they’d heard us rehearsing or something.  I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but we did get a chance to play in this place.  And they liked it.  And at the end of the night, we got seven dollars to split up among ourselves.  So that was my first professional job!  And I’ll never forget that.  And the music was horrible.

Q:    What kinds of things were you trying to play?

AH:    We were trying to play what we heard Dizzy playing, and…who else were the guys at the time…?  I think it was basically Dizzy and Charlie Parker, were the Bebop people who were our idols.

Q:    Who were you patterning yourself after?

AH:    I was trying to be Max Roach as hard as I could.  And I couldn’t even keep time.  So you know, it was like terrible.  This was probably the worst music… I don’t see how we got paid for it, I really don’t.  You know, when I reflect back on it, it had to be just awful.

Q:    But what did you think at the time?

AH:    At the time, oh… Well, we got paid.  I thought it was… Oh man, I thought we were doing something!

Q:    Then what were the steps?  Philadelphia was a thriving scene.  There were many musicians who later really made their mark in the world of music.  And I’m assuming that you took your place among them, as all young, up-and-coming musicians?  Was this the case?

AH:    I had an opportunity to play with some wonderful musicians around Philadelphia because of my brothers.  Again, they kind of laid the way for me, and they made friends, and people would come to our parents’ home, or our  home, and I would meet these people, and my brother Jimmy would say, “My brother’s studying drums” and blah-blah-blah.  And that kind of got around.  And sooner or later, after I had got serious about trying to learn something about the drums, I started to be able to play with people like a guy named Louis(?) Judge, and Jimmy Garrison was around there and Spanky DeBrest and Lee Morgan.  And you know, I was really big-time when I got to play with Coltrane, who was not famous at the time, but just one of the best players around at that time even.  I was going to say Benny Golson but Benny came later, I didn’t see… Benny was away at college, I think, when I came up.  But there were people like that.  I may be leaving some names out here, and I hope I don’t offend anybody by leaving them out, but I can’t think of any other names…

Q:    Are the years we’re talking about now, say, 1950, ’51, ’52… Jimmy made a piano thing…

AH:    Oh, a piano thing?  Oh, Ray Bryant.  He did play with Ray… Not around Philadelphia.

JH:    [OFF-MIKE] Bobby(?).

AH:    Oh, Bobby TImmons!  Oh, my God.  Yeah, Bobby Timmons was…oh, man…

JH:    How about McCoy?

AH:    McCoy, we… Yeah, McCoy…

JH:    How about Kenny?  Kenny Barron?

AH:    Kenny?  No.  Kenny was off practicing and getting to be one of the greatest piano players of our time, but he wasn’t around.  He was a little younger than us.  But McCoy, I remember going up to McCoy’s mother’s beauty parlor, and there was a piano in the back.  And we used to have what we’d call jam sessions up there at McCoy’s house — which was way out of my territory, out of my neighborhood, and it was real dangerous to go up there because…

Q:    What was your neighborhood and what was that neighborhood?

AH:    I was South Philadelphia and he was North Philadelphia, and you just don’t go up there fooling around unless you know how to do it.

So anyhow, Lee Morgan was also up there in North Philadelphia, and so were some good drummers like Eddie Campbell and Lex Humphries, and Odean Pope was around, and Donald Bailey… Oh, man, some good musicians.

Q:    So it was a real testing ground, and obviously you have to be dealing, otherwise you’re not going to be able to stick around.

AH:    Well, you fake it real good until you watch enough guys doing it and you learn how to do it, you know.  And if you just surround yourself with people who are better than you, I think you learn like that.

Q:    Did you ever have any specifically drum teachers?

AH:    Oh yeah.  I had a lot of drum teachers, yeah.  The first one that really had a strong influence on me was Specs Wright.  Now, I had teachers before Specs Wright, but it wasn’t a long-term thing.  But with Specs, it was a long-term thing.  Like, as long as I can remember, I could always call him up and go by.  We didn’t have a schedule, but I could go to his mother’s house on some Saturdays and catch him there, and then sometimes he would come down to see my brother Jimmy, and then he’d go off for 15 or 20 minutes with me and help me with what it is that I wanted to learn.  And he showed me a lot of things.  I learned a lot about playing with, you know, groups, and a lot about dynamics and technique and all of that stuff from him.

And I had some other teachers, too.  One in particular that Mickey Roker always jokes…we always have this joke about this teacher, because Mickey always says, “Hey, man, we both studied with the same guy.  But what happened to you?” — as if something’s wrong with what I do, and he’s okay!  But this guy’s name was Ellis Tolin.  And he was around in Philadelphia.  He had a place called Music City, a drum store, and in the back he would give lessons.  This guy had incredible technique.  He loved Buddy Rich, and he used to have Buddy Rich up there, and we could go up there and see Buddy Rich play all the drums you’d want to see.  Then Philly Joe used to come up there also and show off, you know, because he could play better than anybody up there, and he would come up there and just wipe everybody out.

Q:    So his position in Philadelphia was sort of as the King of…

AH:    Yeah, he wasn’t a king, but I mean, he had… Like, some of the better drummers went up there.  Now, everybody didn’t go there.  There were some other places, too, around Philly that people studied, like Granoff School of Music.  There’s a lot of guys that went there who I can’t think of right now… But the guys from South Philadelphia that I knew, like Mickey and Ronald Tucker and Specs and a few other people used to go up to Ellis Tolin’s.  That was kind of the in thing to do.  You just wanted to go through there.  Because they had sessions on Mondays or something like that, and you never knew… Whoever was playing in Philly, the drummer from the group would come up to Ellis’ place and do a little clinic.  But they weren’t called clinics at the time; they called them jam sessions.  And they would come up there and play.  And it was always something special.

Q:    You mentioned that in your youngest years you were always exposed to musicians, because Jimmy Heath was always having musicians over.  Was that involved with the big band that Jimmy had in the late 1940′s?

AH:    Yeah, Jimmy used to have… Our living room at my mother’s house was a little too small for the whole band most of the time.  So he would have like section rehearsals, and he’d have a reed section rehearsal one day, and I would come home from school and here’s these guys with all of these saxophones out, and the music all over the dining room table.  My mother would be busy in the kitchen doing whatever she’s doing.  And they would have, like, a section rehearsal.  So I got a chance to hear the music in sections.  And this is really a wonderful way to learn an arrangement.  And I had my ear cocked on all of this stuff.  At that age, you know, you could absorb and remember a lot of things.  So a lot of that stuff sticks with me right now.  I mean, it’s a part of my upbringing, is that I heard the section rehearsals.  Then I would hear the trumpets rehearse.  Then sometimes it would be the whole band, even, in the house — on some occasions.  Then I would see people like Coltrane and Benny Golson, and Johnnie Splawn and Johnny Coles…

Q:    All in your family living room.

AH:    All of these guys, yeah, would be at my mother’s house, at our mother’s house, with rehearsals by Jimmy.  So I got a chance to meet and be around all of these people, and be influenced.

Q:    Let me turn the mike over to Jimmy Heath now and ask how you got this band together, and what was the impetus for it.  It had a major impact on every musician who came through it in Philadelphia at that time.

JH:    Well, I had come out of a big band in Nebraska called Nat Towles, and I wanted to have a band myself.  So when I came back to Philadelphia…

Q:    Can I stop you for a minute?

JH:    Yes.

Q:    Nat Towles’ band was one of the famous territory bands.  How did you come to join that?  And just say a few words about Nat Towles.

JH:    Well, Nat Towles was out of Omaha, Nebraska.  And there was a trombonist from Philly, who we had been playing together with earlier bands when I first got out of high school, named Felix Leach.  And Felix Leach told the people in Nat Towles Orchestra that when a chair was vacant, or alto chair, that I would like to join the band.  So I went to Omaha, Nebraska.  Billy Mitchell was the straw boss of the band, and he had an apartment with a very small room.  Of the two people that tried out for the band… I couldn’t read as good as the other guy, but Billy Mitchell took a liking to me and said, “Keep the little guy.”  And we talk about that now, Billy Mitchell having later played with Basie and Dizzy.

But when I got back to Philadelphia after leaving that band… Before we leave that portion of it, that band had Buddy Tate before me, and Sir Charles Thompson and others.

But after I got to Philly and I wanted to start my own band… Dizzy had a band then, and I really was in love with the Bebop…the big band of Dizzy.  So I tried to pattern my band and transcribe some of Dizzy’s arrangements, and play that music.  And you know, Trane came out of the Navy, and he was around Philly, and Bill Massey and Cal Massey, who were trumpeters, and they joined my band.  Because I was trying to play Bebop with a big band, as Dizzy had laid the pattern down.

Q:    Were you transcribing off the records, basically?  Or did you get the music and do your own orchestrations?  How did it work for you?

JH:    Well, I was trying to transcribe.  And I had a couple of guys who were pros, who had been with Dizzy.  Johnny Acea had written stuff for Dizzy.  This is a guy from Philly who could play the saxophone, trumpet and piano, and he was an arranger.  So he transcribed a couple of things for me, and  a man named Leroy Lovett also transcribed a lot of the things — and I did the others.  And I was trying to write things in the Bebop style also.

Q:    Now, was the band primarily a workshop situation?  Or were you trying to make a go of it and turn it into a performing big band?  I’m assuming that you would have.  But how did it function?

JH:    Yeah.  Well, it was not just a workshop.  We were trying to gig, and we did gig.  I’ve got a poster at home that says when we played at a place called the O.V. Carter(?) Elks in Philly, Jimmy Heath and his 17-Piece Orchestra with Jimmy Thomas on vocals and John Coltrane on saxophone, and Specs Wright and all — and it cost 75 cents to get in the dance!

Q:    At this time you were primarily an alto player, yes?

JH:    Right!   Trane and I were playing alto.  He wasn’t playing tenor at that point.

Q:    And you were both disciples of Charlie Parker.  Who came before Bird for you, and how did you first get struck with Bird?

JH:    Well, before Bird one of my idols was Mister Benny Carter, and Johnny Hodges, and Tab Smith.  They were the three alto players who I found the most interesting to me.  Then Charlie Parker came along and changed the rhythm and the lines of music that I found really fascinating, and I began to try to play like that.

Q:    Can you describe what the impact was on you when you first heard it, and why — again if that’s not too inane a question.

JH:    When I was with Nat Towles’ Orchestra, we went to Savannah, Georgia.  And I remember it as if it was yesterday, that when we got to the dance hall… We were going to play a dance that evening.  And we got there in the afternoon to set up the band and check the hall out.  And they had a jukebox that you put five cents in; you’d put a nickel in the jukebox to hear records.  And I put a nickel in, and I played a record by Jay McShann called “Hootie Blues.”  And right away, the alto solo struck me, and I called all the other guys in the saxophone section and said, “Man, check this guy out.”  And we all begun to put the money in for this Jay McShann, “Hootie Blues” and “Swingmatism” by Charlie Parker as soloist with McShann.  That was the beginning.

Then later in my stay with Nat Towles, I heard “Shaw Nuff” and “Salt Peanuts” and that stuff, and I didn’t realize it was the same guy at that moment until after I quit and came to Philly — I said, “Oh, that’s the same guy I heard on those records with McShann.”

Q:    You described a few months ago with me hearing Bird in Philadelphia in a club.  The first time you heard him you said might have been 1948 or so?  Or am I wrong on that?

JH:    The first time I heard him was in the Academy of Music,  when they came there for the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert.  There was Al Haig and Max and Curly Russell, I think, and Dizzy and Charlie Parker.  And then came that in ’48, with the band with Miles Davis, Max Roach, Duke Jordan and Tommy Potter.  And at that point, when he played in the Downbeat Club, is when I loaned him my saxophone every night.  And knowing his reputation, I would stay up there the whole night and hear Bird play, and then take my horn with his mouthpiece on it, and bring it back home, and take back to him the next night.  And he would leave the mouthpiece on it, and split and come back to New York to do his business.  I would take the horn in the cellar in my pad and see if I could find some of that Bebop he’d left in there, which it was hard to get it because it went through  there!

Q:    What kind of mouthpiece did he have?

JH:    He had a white Brillheart mouthpiece that he used to leave on there.  It was amazing, because as a kid you’d say, “Wow, I heard Charlie Parker play this horn.  He played all that stuff last night.  I know some of it’s left in here.”   But my stuff would still sound the same.  Band!

Q:    It couldn’t have been that bad, because you had a bit of a reputation around Philadelphia, and broader than that by 1950 or ’51.  Anyway, we’re talking with Jimmy and Albert “Tootie” Heath, and they’re talking about the 1940′s in Philadelphia, and coming up. You mentioned Dizzy Gillespie, who had a Philadelphia connection, of course, because he lived there for a number of years, and he always drew on Philadelphia musicians, it seems, over the years.  You’ve cited Dizzy as really your main inspiration in terms of writing and musical focus.  Over the last couple of years you had a chance to work with Dizzy during that final gig at the Blue Note a year ago, and then Slide Hampton’s group earlier this year.

JH:    Mmm-hmm.

Q:    Just say a few words about Dizzy, and then we’re going to hear a tribute composition you did for him and some of the early Musicraft sides that you were listening to back then.

JH:    Well, Dizzy Gillespie is my Duke Ellington.  He is the master musician that was accessible to me throughout my whole life.  He was always good to me, and I could ask him questions.  He would show me things.  And believe me, he knew so much to show you.  Any time you are with any musician that has been around Dizzy, he says it’s like being in a workshop when you’re around him, because he’s going to give you something every time you’re with him that you can use in your musical life from then on.

Q:    How would he show you?  Would it be different ways each time?  Would it be demonstrating?  A word?

JH:    He would demonstrate on piano chord voicings.  He would demonstrate on his trumpet.  He would demonstrate tapping out rhythms to you.  He would sing ideas to you.  I mean, with his whole being he was music, and that’s what I always wanted to be — just like him.

Q:    Well, you have a composition on your last release, Little Man, Big Band, with the large ensemble for Verve, called “Without You, No Me.”  So this is Jimmy Heath’s tribute to Dizzy Gillespie…

[MUSIC]

We heard quite a set of music, that all is meaningful to Jimmy and Tootie Heath in that last set.  The last piece was Jimmy Heath’s first composition to be recorded.  That’s “C.T.A.,” recorded by the Miles Davis Sextet on April 20, 1953 for Blue Note.  Miles on trumpet, J.J. Johnson on trombone, Jimmy Heath on tenor sax, Gil Coggins on piano, Percy Heath on bass, and Art Blakey on drums.  Preceding that we heard a 1963 session featuring a man that Jimmy Heath and John Coltrane and Benny Golson were all listening to as young musicians in the 1940′s, Dexter Gordon. That’s from Our Man In Paris, Dexter Gordon reunited with Bud Powell on piano and Pierre Michelot on bass, on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night In Tunisia.”  Before that we heard “Lady Bird,” a 1948 for Blue, Tadd Dameron Septet, composition and arrangement by Tadd Dameron, with Fats Navarro, trumpet, the tenors of Wardell Gray and Allan Eager, Curly Russell, bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums, Chino Pozo, bongos, and of course Tadd Dameron on piano.  Preceding that we heard two recordings by Dizzy Gillespie, the orchestra and a smaller group.  We heard “Things To Come” from 1946, and “That’s Earl, Brother” also from ’46.  “That’s Earl, Brother” was a small group that featured a litany of the greats in Jazz.  Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt, Ray Brown, Al Haig and, again, Kenny Clarke.  And we began the set way back with Jimmy Heath’s tribute to Dizzy Gillespie, “Without You, No Me.”  That’s on Jimmy Heath’s most recent release, Little Man, Big Band, on Verve. [ETC.]

That whole set of music inspired lots of conversation while we were off-mike, and many comments,  You were saying, Jimmy, how Kenny Clarke would sustain a real excitement and fire at a medium tempo, and then Tootie interjected that Buhaina, Art Blakey, did it, too — the drummers that we heard on the last selections.  So maybe we can start from there.

JH:    Well, Kenny Clarke… I played with Kenny Clarke in the Symphony Sid All-Stars, and that was Miles Davis, J.J., Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and myself, and Symphony Sid, the D.J., took us on the road, and we did several gigs, including the Apollo, and one in Cleveland, one in Atlantic City.  We didn’t have a pianist.  The groove was always there, because Klook, as he was known, was a fiery drummer at all tempos, and in particular in a walking Swing groove he could keep the fire going.  And Percy and Klook was a love affair from the first time.

Percy still considers Kenny Clarke to be the world’s great drummer ever.  They got together again… I was on a thing in Africa, in Dakar, when it was the twentieth anniversary of the independence of that country.  And I was on a thing with Dizzy and Clifford Jordan and Jimmy Owens and Sonny Fortune, I think, and Kenny Clarke came from Paris, and Percy.  And it was a love affair started all over again.  That was maybe twenty-five years after we had played with him earlier.

Another thing about Kenny Clarke is, in his book that his wife sent me recently, he said that his favorite band… I forgot… He said Sonny Stitt on alto and Jimmy Heath on tenor was his favorite band.  So that’s another reason I have always loved Kenny Clarke, because he appreciated my playing also.

Q:    Tootie Heath, a few words about both Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey.

AH:    Well, my brother has a little advantage here, because he had the pleasure of playing with these people, and I am only going by recordings and live performances.  So I can be objective, but I was never really in it, so I don’t really know the feeling.  But from my perspective, you know, as a drummer and just listening to the rhythm, or the sustenance of the rhythm is the main thing in playing drums as far as I’m concerned — and I learned that from Kenny Clarke and from Art Blakey.  It was always a smooth cushion, and then there were other little exciting things going on, very subtle, with both of those drummers, Art Blakey as well as Kenny Clarke.  But Art Blakey had a little more… His dynamic range was a little wider than Kenny.  But Kenny Clarke would play with a big band as well as with a small group, and be very dynamic also.  I don’t mean that he didn’t have the dynamics.  He definitely had dynamics.  But Art Blakey had a special group experience, I think, that Kenny Clarke didn’t have, because Art Blakey played in his own band most of the time and with his own musicians.

Q:    And he shaped all the compositions as well…

AH:    Absolutely.

Q:    …which I don’t know if you could say that about Kenny Clarke so explicitly.

AH:    Kenny had less time to deal with the material.  Usually it was on a recording session like Dexter’s, he would fly in or come in from wherever… In this instance, he was in Paris, so he would just come in and do the recording.  They didn’t have any preparation time most of the time.  And the results were amazing, I mean, for the time that they put in, with the time he put in with the music, in terms of… Well, other drummers like Max Roach had his own people that he played with for long periods of time also.  But see, Kenny Clarke didn’t have that advantage.  He was always free-lancing, other than with the Modern Jazz Quartet…

JH:    Francy Boland.

AH:    Yeah, he did that for a while.  He sure did.  That was kind of a long-term affair, with that band, and it was basically the same personnel.  And it was about eight or nine years that band stayed together.

Q:    The band Jimmy referred to is the Francy Boland-Kenny Clarke Big Band, with many of the greatest musicians in Europe through the Sixties and early Seventies.

AH:    That’s right.  But that was in a big band context, so that was a little different from the Art Blakey comparison.

Q:    Two more musicians.  We heard “C.T.A.” at the end of the set, and that was recorded as part of a Miles Davis session in 1953.  And I know that Jimmy Heath had a very close relationship with Miles Davis, who recorded a number of your pieces.  One of them, twelve years later, was “Gingerbread Boy.”  Say a few words about your relationship with Miles and your initial hook-up.

JH:    Well, I met Miles when he was with Charlie Parker, in the quintet, in 1948.  And we became friends, and we talked about harmony, and we discussed chords and sequences, and we hung out together socially.  Miles was the same age, and we had a lot in common in that respect.  But he was always a very bright musician who was very changeable.  He’s a Gemini person, and he would change.  He liked to change his music and try to come up with something new, which he would… Throughout his career he did start new trends.  He started the modal playing.  He gave that its birth.  If he didn’t start it, he is the one who gets credit for that.  And there are other phases of the music that Miles went through in his later years with the electronic support and Funk beat.  You know, Miles was always ahead.  Like the record says, “Miles Ahead.”

Q:    And he employed your son, Mtume, in some of those bands as well.

JH:    Well, I think Miles had everybody in our family to play with him at once… Tootie, didn’t you play with Miles?

AH:    Yes.

JH:    And Percy and myself — and my son.

Q:    Then before that, we heard Dexter Gordon playing “A Night In Tunisia.”  While that was playing… Jimmy Heath hadn’t heard that record before, but you were pointing out during a couple of passages in Dexter Gordon’s solo, you said, “Hear that?  Hear where Trane’s sound is coming from?”  And you said indeed that you and Benny Golson and Coltrane were all very enamored with his playing in the 1940′s — as were many other tenor players around the country.

JH:    Oh yeah.  Around the world.  You know, Dexter had that crying sound in the top register of his horn also.  He influenced Coltrane.  In the earlier Coltrane performances and back home in Philly, I knew… Trane, we all were listening to Dexter.  Because Dexter was swinging hard.  He was a Bebop player who swung hard.  He was a connection between Lester and Charlie Parker, and out of that era he found a way to play the Bebop language on the tenor that was unique — and we all wanted to be like that.  Like everybody wants to be like Mike; we wanted to be like Dexter.

Q:    Tootie, you worked sometimes in Europe with Dexter, and there’s a wonderful recording called The Apartment in particular that I can think of on Steeplechase, where you and Kenny Drew and Niels-Henning Orsted-Pederson are backing him.  What was he like to play with for you as a drummer?

AH:    Well, you know, I entered in Dexter’s career at a time when his health had started to be a factor.  And it took him a while to get started, and we kind of had to compensate for Dexter’s…what do you call it…?  It was like a little delay.  So the Dexter Gordon that my brother is talking about is a different Dexter Gordon.  But it was a wonderful experience.  I mean, whenever he got started and got going, it was a wonderful experience.  But at the time, you know, his health was really playing a major role in his performance.  And unfortunately, this happened with Lester Young, too, who is another person that I had the chance to catch…

Q:    When was that, and how did that happen?

AH:    With Lester?  Well, I was locally playing around Philadelphia, and a friend of mine that was a bass player (he doesn’t play any more; his name is Jimmy Bond), he had what was called the house trio at this club called the Showboat.  And the Showboat would employ Lester Young, Max Roach, and people like that, and Dakota Staton and so forth.  And Lester would appear there maybe three times a year.  And  Jimmy Bond called me one time, and said, “Do you want to be in the house trio and play to support Lester Young?”  I said, “Man, that would be a treat.”  So I did it, and that’s how I got to be the drummer for Lester… Whenever he came to Philly and played at that club, I would be the drummer.  And I got a chance to know him, and I got a chance to learn a lot about playing time and things like that.

Q:    Did he say anything explicitly to you?  There are a number of little pearls of Lester Young quotes.  Jimmy is laughing here.

AH:    Yeah, he used to say… He said a lot of things!  A lot of things I can’t repeat, because you know, Lester had a unique way of speaking.  And I can’t say some of the things because you’re on the air, and they have some regulations about that.

Q:    One or two.

AH:    One or two, yeah.  So I’d better not say the things.  I’d have to try to rephrase things, and then they lose…

Q:    The pungency.

AH:    Yeah.  They lose the whole thing. [JH LAUGHING]  But I learned a lot from him as a man as well as a musician.  Just his way of being in the world, and seeing other people and other musicians and so forth.

Q:    While the music was playing, I think Jimmy had a quote from Prez to John Coltrane that I think is repeatable over the air.

AH:    Oh, he said he heard Lady Coltrane playing all of those snakes.  Yeah, he referred to everybody as Lady.  And I think that came from Billie Holiday being Lady Day.  And anybody that meant anything to him special, he would always refer to them as “Lady” — which was a very respectable term.  I mean, when he called you “Lady,” I mean, that was very special.  The same as they called Fats Navarro “Fat Girl”  It wasn’t a derogatory thing.  It was just something very special.  He called George Wein “Lady Moon Beams” because he had a bald head, you know…

Q:    Speaking of ladies and speaking of “Fat Girl,” we heard “Lady Bird” by Tadd Dameron performed by the Tadd Dameron Septet, featuring Fats Navarro.  Fats Navarro was one of the major figures in his brief life, and certainly affected Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, who came out of the Philly area, and Jimmy Heath was certainly very explicitly affected by Tadd Dameron’s conception of writing.

JH:    Yeah, Fats Navarro came to my house, as many of the musicians did, including Miles, Dizzy and all of them… My mother would invite anyone to dinner who we invited.  She would treat them as if they were their children or their friends.

Q:    What would she make for them?

JH:    Oh, she would make anything that she was cooking, whatever — fried chicken or whatever.  And we had everybody down to my house, Coleman Hawkins and Bird and everybody.  In this particular case, she would be preparing things for anybody that would be there.  Fats Navarro came there and took out his trumpet, and started to play a little bit.  And my Mom always said that she liked Fats Navarro’s tone better than Dizzy and Miles.  She could hear something in his sound that she liked.  And I know for a fact that when Clifford Brown came around Philly from Wilmington, Delaware, he was enamored with Fats Navarro, that’s who his love was — and he began to play something like that until he found his own style.  And the generation passing down passed on to Lee Morgan, who played like Clifford, and the people who came  along… So it was a continuum of the music.

But Fats Navarro was one of the strong voices of Bebop that didn’t last long in his life.   He just died young.  But he was a powerhouse of a trumpet player.  I heard him with the Tadd Dameron…I think it was something like an octet in the Royal Roost, and Dizzy had his big band in there at the same time.  He had just come back from a successful West Coast tour with Chano Pozo and all that.  And Fats Navarro was screaming on Dizzy in there.  I mean, they both were powerful.  But Fats was beginning to gain a lot of recognition, and while Dizzy was out…they both were… But they were different.  Dizzy was the source of where Fats Navarro came from.  But Fats was a very… He could play very high and clear, and with a very clear sound.  He had a warm trumpet sound.

And they all were wonderful musicians.  But Fats was really a talent at that time.  And Tadd Dameron used to like to use Fats to play all his first trumpet parts, because he could play the trumpet parts like he liked to hear them.  Because Tadd was a person whose delicacy musically…you would take him to be effeminate or something.  Because he would sing everything, LA-DEDADA…you know… And he loved the way Fats could sing his melodies.  He was a person who was very lyrical, like a Billy Strayhorn.

Q:    Tadd Dameron.

JH:    Yeah, Tadd Dameron.

Q:    Really all of his compositions were informed by that lyrical sensibility.  Did you know Tadd Dameron?  Were you ever able to sit down with him and go through things?

JH:    Oh yeah.  I knew Tadd very well.  I was supposed to be in one of the bands, but I had had…I got sick at the time and couldn’t make it — and Benny Golson made it.  That was the Dameronia band.  I was supposed to be in that band.  There were a lot of occasions where I was supposed to be in bands, and I got sick.  I had a problem during that time.  Max Roach’s first band, before Harold Land got in, I was the tenor player who Max wanted at that time.  I stayed ill for a few years, maybe four years, five years.

Q:    We’re speaking with Jimmy Heath and Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath, and it’s been an education over the last 45 minutes.  We wanted to play a couple of selections that feature different drummers who again had a big impact on Tootie.  But by the way, I’d like to ask you (I guess it’s sort of obvious), where did the nickname ‘Tootie’ come from?

AH:    Well, you have one.  Your name is Ted, right?

Q:    Well, yes, but…

AH:    Are you named Theodore?

Q:    Yes, I am.

AH:    There you go.  I got mine just like you got yours.

Q:    Albert…

JH:    [LAUGHING]

AH:    Well, it’s just a different name.  My grandfather gave it to me.  And where he came from with it, maybe my brother Jimmy could answer that.  Because I never got a chance to ask him before he died…

Q:    It just got put on you, this name?

AH:    Well, we all had nicknames, the whole family.  But I chose to keep mine, or… I don’t know if I chose to keep it or if it just stuck.  But I still have it, and I like it, and it suits me.  I look like Tootie now.  I don’t look like Albert.  I look like Tootie.

Q:    What was Jimmy’s nickname?

AH:    I’m not going to tell you.  I’ll let him tell you that.

JH:    [LAUGHS]  Percy’s was Percolator.  And mine was Skookum.  I don’t know where that came from, so I’ll let that one go.

Q:    The next selection we’ll hear comes from a 1953 session for Prestige under Miles Davis’ leadership.  This is a very famous session.  Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker both appear here on tenor saxophones, and Walter Bishop on piano, Percy’s on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.  Now, Jimmy has a comment.

JH:    Yeah, I’ve got a definite comment.  I had that song written, the line that they call “Serpent’s Tooth,” and I was supposed to make that record, but Bob Weinstock or whoever was in charge of Prestige said, “Look, I don’t know any Jimmy Heath.  Let’s get Charlie Parker.  He wants to make a date on tenor, so let’s get him to make the date on tenor.”  So I gave this line to Miles, an untitled line, and said, “Well, Miles, I can’t make the date; would you record my piece?”  And he did, but he put his name on it, “Serpent’s Tooth,” and his name as the composer.  So that’s the way that goes.  And Sonny and Percy are the ones who are left that will tell you that is my song.  And Clark Terry knows about it because he had a big band arrangement from Phil Woods, and Phil Woods knows that that was my song.  But Miles got credit for it.

Q:    Before we play “Serpent’s Tooth,” I’d like to get a couple of comments on Philly Joe Jones by Tootie Heath, who had to come up under him in Philadelphia during those years.

AH:    Well, about Philly Joe.  He was probably one of the most amazing players that you’d ever want to…well, I’ll say musicians — because he played music on the drums.  Philly Joe was… Oh yeah, and my brother’s making the piano sign over here.  He played some serious piano, too.  Philly Joe was probably a major influence on me, as well as many others, and he made a tremendous impact on this music when he finally came to New York and started to record.  Because he was playing… The way that he was playing when he recorded with Miles, he was playing like that around Philadelphia.  If you were lucky, you could catch him playing in a group with some guys like Jimmy Oliver and Shuggie(?) Rhodes(?) and Red Garland, and… I guess that would be the basic quartet, bass, drums and piano.  And like I said, if you were lucky, you could catch him playing with these people.  And when he moved to New York finally, then the world got a chance to hear him, because he joined the Miles Davis group, and then we all know what happened after that.  They made some of the most powerful recordings together that have come about in this particular music, in this genre that we’re talking about since I can remember.   Now, this is only my personal opinion, of course, but I…

Q:    Well, that’s what the Musician Show is all about.

AH:    Well, recordings like Round Midnight, that album, and the Gil Evans series that Philly Joe did with Miles Davis and some others that I can’t think of right now.  But I heard one the other day which was Coltrane’s date, and he used Miles on trumpet, but Coltrane was the leader.  But it was the Miles Davis group… Now, the guy on the radio said this.  Now, I don’t remember whose date it was.  But they were playing some music like I had never heard, something  regular like “I Got Rhythm” or something like that.  I forgot what it was.  Are you familiar with that record?

Q:    No, I’m not.  The one that I can think of is Cannonball and Miles…

AH:    No.

Q:    …but that’s a different date.

AH:    It could have been the Miles Davis group mistakenly… You know, the DJ could have made a mistake and said it was Coltrane.  But they said Coltrane was the leader of this.  But Miles Davis played trumpet on it.  And man, Philly Joe was immaculate on it, like he was most times you’d ever catch him.  He was always…

Q:    He played with a real elegance all the time.

AH:    Man, he had a snap and a sound and a feeling that… You know, it was just big and broad.

Q:    Well, let’s hear “The Serpent’s Tooth,” and then we’ll hear a final wrap-up with Jimmy and Tootie Heath, who are appearing at the Village Vanguard this week… [ETC.]

[MUSIC]

“Daahoud” by Clifford Brown.  That’s from a 1954 session by the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet with Harold Land, George Morrow and Richie Powell. [ETC.]

I’d like to thank the Heaths for their generous comments and just for really a quick cram course on some of the essentials of the legacy of the music today.  Jimmy Heath, thank you very much.

JH:    Well, Ted, it’s always a pleasure to speak with you.  You’re so knowledgeable of the music, and I respect your knowledge and I’m glad to have been here.

Q:    Well, thank you.  And it’s a pleasure to meet you, Albert Heath.

AH:    Well, it was a real pleasure to do a real interview in New York City and be able to talk to all of these people… And Art Taylor, I know I left you out, but please don’t be angry.  And Elvin Jones, if you’re listening, I know I stole your stuff, too.  And all you guys that I left out, please don’t be angry with me.  Just come down to the Vanguard and we can make up.

[ETC.]

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It’s Dizzy Gillespie’s 94th Birthday Anniversary: Slide Hampton, James Moody, Jimmy Heath, John Lee and Claudio Roditi on the Master in 2006

To observe the 94th birthday anniversary of Dizzy Gillespie, I’m posting the uncut transcript of a conversation with five of his distinguished acolytes — James Moody, Jimmy Heath, Slide Hampton, John Lee, and Claudio Roditi, all playing with the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Band at the Blue Note five years ago — that ran in edited form in DownBeat.

Dizzy Gillespie Forum (Slide Hampton, Jimmy Heath, John Lee, James Moody, Claudio Roditi) – (Blue Note, June 20, 2006):

TP:   My first question for Slide and for Jimmy Heath is: What are the dynamics of Dizzy Gillespie’s music that make it possible for a band like this to function in 2006. What makes the music so fresh and such a vehicle for your creativity?

SLIDE:   I think that Dizzy’s music when he was writing it was so far in advance that today it sounds like something that might have been written today. It was a big inspiration, because a lot of people don’t know that Dizzy was a great arranger and orchestrator, and he inspired a lot of the guys that were orchestrating and arranging at that time. That was their thing that they did mainly, was to arrange, and Dizzy wrote some wonderful arrangements, and we’re going to play some of them tonight. The approach to the arrangements that he made is the thing that inspired us to write. Actually, when we hear his stuff, it makes us feel like he’s the teacher and we’re the students.

TP:   Just to get technical about it, what are some of the things he innovated that are very present in the vocabulary of modern jazz?

HEATH:   I think Dizzy instituted the rhythm aspect of the music. He really concentrated on that as well as the harmonic. Between the two, the marrying of the two the way he did, it brought about a different sound because of the Afro influence and the European harmony with this Afro groove. That’s what made it so special. The combination is a marriage like bread and butter.

TP:   Was that modernity always there from when he and Gil Fuller did the first charts for the big band in 1946?

MOODY:   I think it was always there. Now, I can’t speak from the standpoint of Slide or Jimmy because I don’t write, and I’m not as knowledgeable as they are, and I wasn’t then, but I’m trying to come to grips with what WAS happening then. It was so deep, because when I joined the band, Thelonious Monk was the piano player, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, Cecil Payne – like that.

TP:   Jimmy just made a genuflecting gesture.

MOODY:   What happens is, I look back and… Jimmy wrote a composition called “Without You, No Me,” which meant that if there had never been a Dizzy Gillespie, there wouldn’t be a Jimmy Heath. I feel the same way myself, even though I have to say what Jimmy said – but what he said first was true. People always ask me, “Well, what was it like being there in 1946?

TP:   In the Spotlite Club on 52nd Street, right?

MOODY:   Yeah, in the Spotlite. Man, all I know is, I was there, I was 21, and it felt good and nice, but man, what was happening around me, I didn’t know.

TP:   Do you have any recollection of how the audience responded?

MOODY:   Well, they were wonderful. But let me get to this point. Gerald Wilson brought an arrangement… No, it wasn’t Gerald Wilson. I guess it was Gil Fuller who did it. He kept doing it… I said, “This note is wrong here, just this note.” “No, it’s okay. Cool.” I said, “Diz, this note is…” He said, “No-no.” I said, “Diz…” “Moody, shut up!” It was a flat five. I mean, if you don’t know, you don’t know. But the point is that… What I’m saying is, like, you don’t have to tell somebody you don’t know. People know when you don’t know. And I didn’t know for the longest time. Now I’m trying to come to grips with what it was…not what it was, but what it is. Because I’m telling you. It will take a lifetime. Nicholas Slonimsky said in his book on the source of  melodic patterns that in order to exhaust the possibilities of a chromatic scale, you’d have to live 2000 years. But what’s coming out of Diz and Monk, I mean, you have to live 2000 years to be able to do it. Unfortunately, a lot of us are only going to make it to 100.

HEATH:   There’s one thing that I want to say, and that is: What WAS good, IS good.

MOODY:   You hear that?

HEATH:   What was good, IS good.

MOODY:   You hear that?

HEATH:   So Dizzy’s music was good during that time. It still is good. If you say Bach and Beethoven, if that was good, it’s still good. Stuff don’t just disappear and change and be bad over a period of time – if it’s good! But if it’s sad, it’s sad. And it’s going to stay sad. But if it’s good, it’s going to stay good.

TP:   Jimmy Heath and Moody, when did you first become aware of Dizzy Gillespie.

MOODY:   I met Dizzy when I was 18 years old, and I was in the Air Force at Greensboro, North Carolina. Dizzy came down and played at the place where we had our entertainment. It was a segregated base. One quarter was Negro; the other three quarters was Caucasian. He came and played for us at a place called the Big Top, and it was the Big Tent. That’s where I met him. That’s where I met him with Dave Burns and Joe Gales. So what happened was, Dizzy said… We were going to be discharged in about 3 or 4 months, and Dizzy said, “Come and try out for the band in New York.” So after we were discharged, that’s what I did. I went with Dave and we tried out for the band, and Dave made it. I didn’t, because Walter Fuller said, “You don’t play loud enough!” So I went home, man. I was doing a gig, making $7 a night, man, a lot of money, at Lloyd’s Manor. About three months later I got a telegram from David Burns saying, “you start with us tonight.” So I went and joined the band at the Spotlite, and David Burns told me, “The only thing you got to watch out for is this thing,” [SINGS LINE OF “Things To Come”] He showed me the line on that thing. So the other part, I read… So I had it down!

TP:   Didn’t Percy meet Dizzy before you did?

HEATH:   Percy was a Tuskegee airman, and I was on the road with Nat Towles’ Orchestra in Omaha, Nebraska. Percy told me, “Jimmy, you should quite and come back home if you like this new music, bebop, so much, because I met Dizzy Gillespie.” When I quit the band, which I was going to quit anyway, I came back to Philly. And I found out that Dizzy didn’t even know Percy’s name. He just called him “Lieutenant.” Because it was an honor to have a black pilot and a Lieutenant. So as it happened, I got in the band before Percy did. What we did as the Heath Brothers, me and Percy, we put on our berets and our artist ties, like Dizzy’s band had, and followed him. If they played in Wilmington, Delaware, we would be right in front of the band. If they played at the Savoy, we’d be right there. If they played the Apollo, we’d be right there. Dizzy said, “There’s the Heath Brothers!” – until we got a gig!

MOODY:   Jimmy told me, “We followed the band until he gave us a gig.”

TP:   What did the music sound like to you when you first heard it? Was it shocking to you?

HEATH:   Extremely.

SLIDE:   It was a shock. We had been hearing about “Things to Come.” I was in my house once, and coming from another part of the house I heard this music start. My brother had found the CD, and I didn’t know it. When he started playing, I said, “That’s ‘Things To Come.’” – and I had never heard it before. But when I heard this new music, I knew what it was. It was really a wonderful, wonderful shock. The first thing I heard was “Our Delight,” and I was sitting in an outdoor place having a sandwich, and they started playing this introduction – and I almost fell off the stool that I was on because the way they were moving the harmony, which was not usual.

But the thing that I’ve got to say is that I do realize when I hear the great arrangements of Gil Fuller and Dizzy and Tadd Dameron, that the music that came before, the arrangements of Jimmy Mundy and those guys had a big influence on those orchestrations. Because those guys wrote the ensemble so that it sounded really full, and when Gil and them came along with the new music, their ensembles sounded really full, too. It wasn’t a weakness because it was a new harmony. They still had that fullness that actually came from the period of guys like Jimmy Mundy, Ernie Wilkins and all of these guys…

HEATH: And Sy Oliver.

SLIDE:   Sy Oliver and Benny Carter.

HEATH:   But I had heard “Bebop.” I had heard the records because my mother and father had a friend who had a record store in Philadelphia. So whenever anything new would come out, boom, they’d get it. “Hey, we got a new Dizzy Gillespie, come on by,” and we’d go get it. That’s how it happened. And when I heard “Things To Come,” I was very excited by it. But I heard “Bebop” with Billy Eckstine’s band. They used to do that in 1944.

TP:   The tune “Bebop” or bebop the style?

HEATH:   The tune. They used that for a signoff to take intermission. [SINGS IT] “Now we’re going to take a break.” That’s what Billy Eckstine would say. They were playing that in that band. Because Dizzy was the musical director of Eckstine’s band. So the bebop sound came before Dizzy got his band.  It was from Earl Hines into Billy Eckstine into Dizzy’s COMPLETE bebop band.

TP:   Did either Jimmy Heath or Moody hear Charlie Parker in Earl Hines’ band?

MOODY:   No. I heard records…

TP:   Well, they didn’t record with Earl Hines.

MOODY:   I heard the record Dizzy did with Cab Calloway, where he took that solo. [SINGS SOLO ON “Pickin’ the Cabbage.”]

TP:    Did this music immediately become a banner for you to follow as a stylistic improviser?

MOODY:   I’ll tell you. Everywhere the band played, everywhere, even on the stage, there would be people, because the place would be sold out, and everyone would have on a beret and horn-rimmed glasses and bow-tie. Everyone would have it. Then it got so hip that if you came to the place and you wanted to get in free, all you had to do was look exactly like that and you got in.

HEATH:   The music fascinated us in Philadelphia so much, Coltrane and myself eventually getting in the band in 1949… But what had happened, we had tried to learn all of those things before we got in the band. We went to Little Rock, Arkansas, to play a gig – before Faubus – and the people sent out scouts and said, “We don’t need no bebops. Why don’t you’all go back and send Buddy Johnson down here?” Or Count Basie. They wanted to dance! See, we was playing a dance. So we could have beat the audience up in a fight, there were so few people in there. So Dizzy right away, he gets mad, and he pulls out “Things To Come,” like he’s going to shock us, like we couldn’t play it. But we had already shedded on that back home! We learned that, and some of the things he had recorded. Like “Cubana Be, Cubana Bop,” all that stuff in different meters and all that. John Lewis’ music, and George Russell, and Tadd. Tadd’s music always had a mellow quality. He was a romantic style orchestrator, whereas Gil Fuller was a cat with fire. And Gil was arrogant to the point where he said, “Tadd’s music, that’s background for my stuff.” [SINGS REFRAIN FOR “Our Delight” – SLIDE LAUGHS] He said, “That’s a background.” Because he was coming up with [SINGS “Things To Come” WITH FLOURISH] But that’s Dizzy’s intros. Those ideas are not Gil Fuller’s; in some cases they are Dizzy telling him what to write. He orchestrated Dizzy’s idea. So Dizzy is the master.

SLIDE:   But isn’t it amazing, though, that he could orchestrate those ideas so well?

HEATH:   Sure it is!

SLIDE:   With that new music, to be able to orchestrate it so well.

JOHN:   No one had orchestrated like that before. Right?

SLIDE:   No.

HEATH:   Dizzy had orchestrated some of them. He could do it. So he was the one responsible for Gil writing like that. But Gil Schillinger, and he knew how to put stuff together real quick. So that was a marriage. What Gil was doing was writing Dizzy’s stuff the way Dizzy wanted it to sound. And bebop was the strongest thing that I had heard to date.

TP:   Claudio, as a young trumpet player, I assume you heard all these records, or subsequently heard them and absorbed them.

CLAUDIO RODITI: You have to understand that growing up in another country than the United States, the music would get there later. But things would take a few years.

TP:   But you did hear the records.

RODITI:   I heard. But in 1959, when I was 12 years, I had a very pleasant experience. You’ll understand why. People kept telling me, “You’ve got to buy an album by Chet Baker; this is the latest thing you’re going to hear in modern trumpet.” So I went into a record shop and asked for a Chet Baker record, and they said, “We don’t have any Chet Baker right now, but we have this other record here.” They handed me an album. It was Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge, with Oscar Peterson playing organ. I said, “I’ll take it.”

MOODY:   Oscar Peterson playing what?

RODITI:   Organ.

MOODY:   Damn!

RODITI:   Yeah. I still remember this album.  So I took this album home and I said, “Wait a minute. What is all of this?” It was something completely new. Because I had heard a little bit of jazz, but via albums that you could find – Louis Armstrong and things like that. But nothing that modern until them for me, especially being a 12-year-old kid. I had already started with the trumpet. But I was in for a shock.

TP:   Did you try ever to emulate Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet style?

RODITI:   No.

TP:   It seems to me that a lot of trumpet players have not. Jon Faddis, obviously. But remarkably few for how influential Dizzy Gillespie is on the history of the music. Now, Jimmy Heath is laughing, and I know the answer to the question is obvious…

HEATH:   They couldn’t do it.
TP:   Why couldn’t they do it?

RODITI:   First of all, technically. He had a range that very few people have to play it. Now, Fats Navarro came close, and Fats Navarro had something different. When I started copying and transcribing some solos, I started with Fats Navarro.

SLIDE:   That’s Jimmy’s man, too.

RODITI:   Moody mentioned a name that I just got hip to now, because I heard something on the radio the other day. Dave Burns. Now, that was a master trumpet player. Totally forgotten.

SLIDE:   Now, you know that Miles said he personally wanted to play like Dizzy himself, but he couldn’t.

HEATH:   He said the only reason he didn’t play like Dizzy is because he couldn’t. A lot of people tried. But Fats Navarro told me he was trying to play more like Bird instead of Dizzy, which is close, but it’s not exactly the same.

MOODY:   When Dizzy would play things like… There was something about the fingering and his jaws that did something that just other trumpet players couldn’t do.

SLIDE:   Yes, the fingering that made it possible to play those phrases in certain registers probably would be difficult, especially if you were going against the grain with the fingering going out that way… He had a way that the fingering seemed to be coming this way, and he could play in those registers and play the lines.

TP:   You were moving your fingers backwards when you said “against the grain” and moving them forward when you said “that way.”

SLIDE:   Yes, it’s like if you’re playing something and the line is going up, and you have to go down the fingering, then of course, you’re going against the grain. But if you play the same thing coming up the fingering, that means you might start in a place where it would be a fifth position on trombone and then come up. If you’re going to play a line, it’s easier to go that way than it is to go out this way in certain ranges, and Dizzy had that all worked out some way.

RODITI:   What we call alternate fingerings on the trumpet. I remember when he was teaching me “Birks Works,” there was one simple thing where he used an alternate fingering, that if you tried to do it an alternate way, it doesn’t sound the same.

MOODY:  The only one that I know who came close to Dizzy and loved Dizzy was Lonnie Hillyer. He was trying to play like him. But Jon Faddis got him.

HEATH:  But also Dave Burns… When Dizzy had a hair in his lip in the Apollo… Were you with the group at the Apollo when David was taking all the solos because Dizzy had this hair?

MOODY:   Oh, I was there. He had a hole in his lip as big as a lollipop. I don’t know if he got it when we were playing baseball on the road or something.

HEATH:   Dave Burns was playing all the solos. And Dave Burns played like Dizzy, too. In a way. The best he could.

MOODY:   The best he could, right. Lonnie Hillyer from Detroit…

HEATH:   You thought so? Closer?

MOODY:   Yeah. He was closer.

TP:   In previous conversations, each of you have referred to Dizzy Gillespie as a tremendous mentor. Can you discuss his characteristics as a bandleader?

MOODY:   If anybody was nervous or if they was funky, as soon as Dizzy walked in, the whole atmosphere changed. Everything was cool. Everything was nice. Dizzy could calm the most ferocious storm. He’d cool it right out.

TP:   How would he do it?

MOODY:   Just his presence.

JOHN LEE:   His personality.

MOODY:   Just Dizzy.

JOHN LEE:   I was there almost ten years, and you had multi-relationships with Dizzy. There was Dizzy who was your bandleader, then he was like a brother on some things if you needed help, and then he was just like a… That’s like a brother-father kind of thing – right, Moody? [Yeah.] Then just purely as a friend at some point. Being in his room late at night, some of the stories he told. He could be tough and kick your ass, but he was also very sensitive. I went through a lot of marital problems when I was with Dizzy, and he was very sensitive to that. He even altered his schedule at sometimes wanting to know how I was doing. You just came to love him so much beyond the music thing because he cared so much.

MOODY:   And didn’t take any shit. Excuse me for putting that way.

TP:   That’s something I was about to ask. There are stories about him and Billy Eckstine touring the South and not taking any stuff from people when that was a very radical thing to do.

MOODY:   Wait a minute. They knew when to act and when not to act. Because if you’re someplace and you’re outnumbered, like, a billion to one, don’t be a fool. Because I remember seeing Dizzy down South, the bus flying down the highway, and he got Eppie, the bus driver, by the collar, telling him he was going to kick his butt, and we’re saying, “Dizzy, no-no, wait til we get to Washington.” Because Eppie had said something to Lorraine, and it touched Dizzy the wrong way. And Diz had him by the throat. So-and-so and so-and-so. “Dizzy, that’s okay,” and Dizzy cooled it.

But we had a lot of instances like that down South. Man, they had what’s his name out there, the trombone player who just died in San Francisco. He was mugged and he said he had played with Dizzy, and then, when I saw him, he was the same one that we were sitting on the bus while this sheriff with his big hat was sitting there at this whitewashed barn, hammering a door, that the sheriff had said that he broke the door. He didn’t break the door, but he had to do that. Then we were there another time when Ella Fitzgerald… We were late for the gig, and when we got there everybody had gone except this guy, and he asked Ella Fitzgerald to get off the bus and sing to his wife, because “she loves the way you sing.” “Miss Fitzgerald, come on there and sing for my wife, now, because she loves your singing.” Ella was saying, “Yeah, but the band, and I odn’t know…” – and she was in her bandanna.

SLIDE:   Did she go sing?

MOODY:   No.  But it took a long time.

JOHN LEE:   Dizzy defended her?

MOODY:   Yeah.

HEATH:   But you know, the thing about it… What’s really interesting about Dizzy the teacher… Dizzy, every day that I was in his company, he was always conscious of something musical, and he would show you things every time. If it wasn’t something, he’d be tapping out some rhythm, “and this is how you play in five, and this is how you play in seven – it’s all the same. You’ve just got to syncopate it differently.” He would be doing either rhythmic patterns, or he’d get on the piano and show you some harmonic sequences. He was always teaching. He was a master teacher. As far as that is concerned, that’s one of his assets.

The other thing is being a nice guy, too. He was very proud of me because I had messed up in his band and went to jail, and when I came back and had straightened out my life, man, he just… He was almost like my father. “I’m so glad that you’re back.” It was like taking me back in prodigal son returns.

SLIDE:   You can’t imagine him being in jail, can you?  You know the thing that was amazing about Dizzy. When we had the rhythm section that was… We had a Cuban, a Puerto Rican, a Brazilian, a guy from Panama, two Americans. And Dizzy could stand on the front of the stage, way away from that rhythm section, and never get lost. And they were playing the most complicated rhythms. I was sitting there and I was lost ALL the time. But he would never get lost on those fast things like that. “Tanga.”

JOHN LEE:   We had Giovanni Hidalgo, Airto and Ignacio, a Puerto Rican, a Brazilian and a Cuban, and all at the top of their game. Giovanni’s the Charlie Parker of the congas, and Airto probably the greatest multi-percussionist of his time – or ever. And you’re right. Dizzy knew every rhythm they were doing. He’s like the father of it all.

HEATH:   There was a statement someone made that Dizzy could be playing in a hall, and the band would be playing: he could go outside one door, and come back in the other door playing right in meter and right in the song, like he’d been standing on the stage. He never would get lost in meter or anything. He’d come back right in place.

SLIDE:   He would try to keep the rhythm section close to the source. Because the longer the distance, the more difficult it is to communicate. But he could be a long distance from the rhythm section and be playing something that most people might get lost on anyway, and stay right in time. And playing very complicated. Very complicated!

MOODY:   No matter where we went, no matter where we were, it could be the quintet or the big band, whatever, as soon as we got to the place, the first thing Diz would do was go over to the piano and sit down. Because a lot of these compositions that I hear now, I heard at the beginning on the piano, different places. I used to hear [SINGS FIRST FEW BARS OF “Con Alma]…  All the different compositions. I heard them in concert halls or dance halls way before Dizzy finished them. I’d hear him sitting there playing.

JOHN LEE:   One thing we all had is you just wanted to be around him. It’s hard to explain how much he gave to you – in everything, not even just music. He always had fun, too. I noticed that when I’ve worked with people who have internal struggles or are so wrapped up in themselves. Dizzy had fun every night. We could travel 18 hours and he might be a little cranky, but when we got to the gig, he was going to have fun and enjoy it.

MOODY:   but you know what? The difference is… Jimmy Heath and Slide Hampton are writers and orchestrators, so they were hearing everything different from me. I was just sitting there, and I didn’t know anything about the harmonies and things. I have to be truthful with that. I got into Dizzy’s band; if a C-VII would have jumped in my face, I wouldn’t have known it.

HEATH:   What ears!

MOODY:   so what I did, I was just in the band, but I was there, and all I know is it made me feel good and I liked being there and I liked what I heard. But if you had asked me to explain it to you, what it was, I wouldn’t know. All I knew is it just sounded good, man, and I liked it. Like, at the beginning I liked Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet and those people, and it was okay, but when I heard Dizzy and Charlie Parker, I said, “Unh-oh, that’s it.” I liked Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. I liked Lester Young better than Hawk, because Hawk knew the changes better than Lester Young, but I didn’t like [SINGS HAWK LINE] that lope thing that he had; I liked [SINGS PREZ LINE] like that. You know what I mean. But then when I heard Dizzy and Charlie Parker, I said, “Oh, man!” So now, I thought, well, Dizzy and Slide, they’ll tell you now, boy – I’ll be asking. I said, “slide, show me this section,” “Jimmy, show me, man.” I’m beginning to see some things now. A good thing now is, I’m beginning to see SOME of the light.

RODITI:   The one thing I noticed in the five years I was with the United Nations Orchestra… You were talking about Dizzy being fun, and he was. He was also funny to the band. Sometimes, when he conducted the band, he made some faces that the audiences couldn’t see, but they were absolutely unbelievable. But I always noticed that at the same time, when Dizzy… I said this before, but I would like to say this one more time. When he put the trumpet to his face, he was serious. There was no fooling around, no dancing around, no clowning; it was just absolutely pure music.

TP:   As an instrumentalist, was Dizzy a constant improviser? Did he repeat solos?

MOODY:   Hell, no.

TP:   Did he always play things fresh?

SLIDE:   Never repeated.

HEATH:   Everybody has cliches. But they wouldn’t be in the same place. Everybody got cliches. But Dizzy was a true improviser. They would be in different places. It wouldn’t be the same solo.

SLIDE:   He started in a different place in the phrase, started in a different key in the chord…

HEATH:   A true improviser.

MOODY:   Yes. You’re right. He’d make you say, “Damn.”

HEATH:   I’ll give you an example. Me and Coltrane was in the section together, and we were playing alto and Paul Gonsalves was playing tenor. We would look at each other every night to see what kind of break Dizzy was going to take on “I Can’t Get Started,” which is a ballad. When the band said [SINGS PHRASE TO THE BREAK] and he’d make a pickup, it would be different every night. Trane said, “Jimmy, you hear that?” I said, “Yeah, I heard.” Next night it would be different. That’s on a ballad!

TP:   For a career as long his, he had a lot of different phases. Several different big bands, the quintet with Moody, which covered all his bases up to the time, from bop to Brazilian. Do any of you have favorite phases? Or is the whole thing your favorite?

MOODY:   You mean a favorite group? I like the band with you and Coltrane and Benny Golson. That was the band, man.

HEATH:   That’s what Dizzy said in the book, but I said the one with YOU. I listened to you and Howard Johnson and Cecil Payne, John Brown – that reed section. That was the one I like!

TP:   Still?

HEATH:   Yeah. That was great. The one in the ‘50s I didn’t hear enough of. But I heard it on record. ‘56. That’s the one with the guy who used to play with Tadd playing lead alto and Phil Woods playing second.

SLIDE:   Jimmy Powell?

HEATH:   Jimmy Powell, yes.

SLIDE:   I was fortunate enough to play in that.

TP:   That’s when you first joined Dizzy, right?

SLIDE: I played with that band, although I was out of place in it. It was a fantastic band. They were playing music by Quincy Jones and by Benny Golson and by Dizzy and by Melba Liston, and the arrangements were just shocking, man, for a young arranger.

HEATH:   Were you there with that singer?

SLIDE:   I was there with Austin Cromer.

HEATH:   That’s the one I’m talking about.

MOODY:   “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” Unbelievable.

SLIDE:   He outsang Billy Eckstine and everybody. “Wonder Why.”

HEATH:   I’ve got that on my I-Pod.

MOODY:   Austin Cromer, man, from Detroit. He was bad!

HEATH:   The problem with critics is they believe that music can only be coming from one person at a time. What’s the matter with these people! Ain’t no one person got all the music.

MOODY:   You’re damn right.

HEATH:   Everybody got some!

MOODY:   That’s right.

HEATH:   I love Coltrane. I love Miles. But come on! You know what I’m saying? What about the other guys? The critics get on something, and he’s this and he’s this, Miles and Miles and Miles. Fats Navarro kicked Miles’ ass in a band I saw with Dexter and Lucky Thompson, Miles and Fats Navarro, Bud Powell, Percy I think, and Kenny Clarke. And man, Lucky Thompson was eating Dexter up on fast tunes and Dexter was kickin’ his ass on medium swing. But Fats was kicking Miles’ ass on both! Miles was a great musician, man. He ain’t the only one that got…

MOODY:   They never gave Diz the credit he was due. Did you ever notice that? It’s always Miles-Miles-Miles. But they don’t give it to Diz, man. He doesn’t get the credit that he deserves.

TP:   Why do you think that is?

HEATH:   Miles got on Columbia Records. Dizzy said to me in Palm Beach, down in Florida, when I told him that the Heath Brothers were on Columbia, he said, “You’re on Columbia Records?!” Because he never got that kind of a contract. Miles stayed on there so long, that’s what made Miles popular. He was on a major label for a long time – him and Johnny Mathis! So they got famous.

MOODY:   Do you know what Diz did? He looked at me and said, “Moody, you had a hit, but I never had one.” I said, “Yeah, but I’d rather be you.” You hear what I’m saying? I’d rather be Dizzy, boy.

TP:   Is there any sound from Dizzy’s different periods that’s the template for this band? Does it go back to the ‘56 band that Slide was in?

SLIDE:   This band has some of all those different periods in it.

JOHN LEE: All the periods. We have “Round Midnight,” “Lover Come Back To Me,” “Things To Come.”

SLIDE:   “Two Bass Hit.”

HEATH: Yeah, and “Emanon” and all those…

JOHN LEE:   Moody had a famous solo on “Emanon.”

TP:   That was your first recorded solo with Dizzy, wasn’t it?

MOODY:   Yeah, and it wasn’t supposed to be mine. It was supposed to be Billy Frazier’s solo – the baritone player. He didn’t show up for the session, so Diz said, “Blow, Moody.” And that was me. But other than that…

JOHN LEE:   One important thing about this band, which Slide started… We’re not going to sit still with… First of all, a lot of those arrangements are still lost. We’ve been trying to rewrite them. Now, Jimmy and Slide and Dennis Mackrell are writing new stuff. The new album is going to have new expressions on a lot of these tunes. We don’t want to just sit still with that.

TP:   Has the band been primarily Dizzy’s charts or transcriptions of his tunes…

JOHN LEE:   Remember, Dizzy commissioned a lot of charts. Benny Golson, Quincy Jones, Tadd Dameron…

HEATH: Ernie Wilkins.

MOODY:   “Without You, No Me.”

JOHN LEE:   Ernie Wilkins. Slide.

MOODY:  Let Jimmy tell you what happened.

HEATH:   First, you asked the question about this band. This band has got more great soloists than the band I was with with Dizzy. This band has more great soloists than any band that Dizzy had, in terms of number of great soloists. In all the bands, they had a few great soloists and the rest of the guys was playing parts. In this band, you can point to any one of them guys. They stand up and it happens every time. That’s the difference. As an almost-80-year-old, I feel like this is a university. This is the Dizzy Gillespie University in action.

MOODY:   Now, about the song “Without You, No Me,” I’ll let Section… We call each other  Section, because we’re the saxophone section. I’ll let Jimmy Heath tell you. Dizzy called him and commissioned him to write this for him. You finish the section.

HEATH:   Well, Dizzy called me and he said, “I’ve got Slide, Benny Golson, Thad Jones, Frank Foster; I’m starting another band, and I’d like you to write a piece for me.” I felt so honored to be in that group of great arrangers and composers. So he put it on tape, because I wasn’t home, and it was on the tape machine. I kept that tape. I don’t know where it is now, but I had the tape. So when he told me that, I said, “Well, yeah, I’ll write an arrangement,” and I wrote that arrangement. This was a commission when he’d call you up and tell you to write something for the band. When I got finished with it, certain things he told me to change because he didn’t like the nomenclature or the name-calling that I was using, the Lochrian mode or something. He said, “No, just minor with the VI in the bass.” He called it a minor with the VI in the bass, and I changed it to that. He took it and went on the road and played it, and they taped it somewhere, and I have a copy. But he never mentioned any money. So he just never paid me for it. But the thing is, I never asked him for any money. All the money that Dizzy gave me, I would be stupid to ask him for money! If he’d asked me to pay for every lesson he gave me, I’d be in his debt.

TP:   I want to ask Claudio something about this. Getting back to the first thing Jimmy Heath said, that Dizzy Gillespie combined harmonic and rhythmic innovations… I don’t want to put you in a position of being representative of all Latin American musicians who play jazz, but can you discuss his… He was influential on a world scale and addressed the different vocabularies on their terms.

RODITI:   The only thing I can tell you about this is from my experience of being Brazilian, and knowing that Dizzy went there before some other folks that we know who made a lot of success with the new music called Bossa Nova at the time.

JOHN LEE:   That’s the biggest one, too. Because Stan Getz gets all that credit, but Dizzy…

RODITI:   Yes, and Dizzy was there before. He went there, and he heard the new music, and he brought some of it. But he did not have the success that he deserved with that music. We always felt in Brazil… I never told any of you this. But I can speak for a lot of musicians, and say that when we heard the recordings of Joao Gilberto and Astrid Gilberto with Stan Getz, we didn’t particularly like what we heard in Brazil. We liked the music. But we had heard that music before, done only by Brazilians. Had Dizzy had the opportunity to really develop with the Brazilian music, it would have been something very, very special. Now, I must also add that there was another guy that went there and he incorporated that music for the rest of his life – Herbie Mann. Herbie went to Brazil in the early ‘60s and also heard the new music, and was very touched and very influenced by it. He had a very nice feeling. But when we Brazilians heard Stan Getz playing, we felt that something was wrong. What was wrong was that the pulse, the way Stan Getz was playing the music was wrong. He was feeling the music in 4/4 when the music was in 2/4. It was half of that.

HEATH:   Kenny Dorham went down there, too.

RODITI:   But that was later. That I remember, because that was about 1963. Dizzy was there in the late ‘50s.

MOODY:   When I joined the Quintet, Dizzy gave me the little book and he wrote this stuff out, and I said, “Diz, you’ve got 2/4 here; why didn’t you just write it in 4/4, so I could…” He looked at me and he said, [SINGS PHRASE] I said, “Oh, okay. That’s it.” The feeling is altogether different in 2/4 than 4/4.

TP:   Cuban musicians also felt that Dizzy had an idiomatic command of those rhythms, too, through Mario Bauza and Chano Pozo, and this influenced a lot of young musicians who themselves are influencing the way jazz is heard today.

MOODY:   Did you know that Chano Pozo had three bullets in his body that they couldn’t remove. Because we roomed together, and just before we’d go to bed or something, Chano would say, “Moody,” and he’d have me feel the different bullets, where they were. Now, the reason the bullets were there was because Chano… I don’t know what the song was. I don’t know if it was “Babalu” or what it was. But he wrote this composition, and the guy at the publishing company hadn’t given him the money in Cuba. The guy said, “Come back at 1 o’clock.” And Chano, who was very menacing, you know… Chano had a thing on his shoulder! So when Chano got there at 1 o’clock, there was a guy waiting, and he shot him and tried to kill him. But Chano lived, so that’s what it was.

JOHN LEE: Do you know what’s very important to mention about all this stuff we’re talking about. Moody, you tell me if it’s right. But what I noticed, we’re talking about Getz’ success and different people’s success, but Dizzy never seemed bitter in all of that. He just kept moving on to something else. I never heard him say anything like, “Oh, Stan Getz did this or that.”

MOODY:   He liked Getz.

JOHN LEE:   He liked Getz a lot. They were friends. But there was no bitterness about…

HEATH:   He liked Miles, too.

JOHN LEE:   With Miles’ success and everybody, Dizzy just kept creating and being about music and having fun.

MOODY:   But Dizzy, somehow or other he knows that the proof is in the pudding. When you hear things, your ear should tell you, “well, that’s what it was and that’s where it was.” So anything you hear by Dizzy, you’ve got to say, “wow.” No matter what it is. Wow. And the people who are supposed to be so great, you hear them and you say, “Oh, okay.” But you don’t say “wow.”

TP:   Can anyone illuminate who were some of the people Dizzy was listening to as a young guy?

MOODY:   Art Tatum.  Art Tatum was the man.

HEATH:   Roy Eldridge.

MOODY:   And Louis Armstrong.

TP:   How about composers?

SLIDE:  He told me when he was playing in the bands, before he really started composing himself, Jimmy Mundy and all of these guys. He said he learned to arrange just sitting there listening to those arrangers. At night in his dreams he’d be hearing the brass section playing these things.

HEATH:   That could be!

TP:   Was that in Earl Hines’ band, when Jimmy Mundy was arranging for Earl Hines?

SLIDE:   Yeah, in Earl Hines’ band.

HEATH:   Budd Johnson, too.

SLIDE:   He said he learned it from all those guys who were writing in that band. He had such an ear. That’s the thing a lot of people don’t understand, that the key to learning is having a good memory and a good ear. If you’ve got those two, you learn fast. Because you just hear stuff, you know what it is, and you remember it. Because even if you see a score and you see what something is and you don’t remember it, then you haven’t learned it. For people who have good memories, learning is easy, and Dizzy had a helluva memory and he had an incredible understanding of music – because he loved music so much and he was so dedicated. That’s another thing that’s very important. A musician can be a talented musician, but he doesn’t have to be dedicated. That’s a choice. If you really respect music, you’ll dedicate yourself to it. So you can give something back to it and not just be taking from it. Dizzy was giving more to music than he was getting from it.

TP:   Jimmy and Moody both were saying that Dizzy Gillespie, on a certain level, didn’t get his due. What are some of the things people don’t understand about the magnitude of his accomplishment?

MOODY:   First of all, I want to get to Coltrane and say this. When Coltrane played, the critics said, “there is somebody who is really full of crap, because he’s not playing anything but a bunch of notes and a bunch of noise.” Then later on, as time went by, people began to see, “Wow, wait a minute,” what he played made a lot of sense and it’s cool. Now you have people that are saying that people who are playing a lot of these other notes are great, when in essence, they know their butt from a hole in the ground what they’re playing. Now, when it comes to Dizzy: America is a land of mediocrity when it comes to anything with art. If it’s something dumb, oh, give me some more of that. But what Dizzy was playing, the people… See, if you love somebody, you give them what you know is good. Now, if you don’t know if it’s good, find out whether it’s good or not, and give it to them. America, they don’t do that. What they do is: Give me something that’s dumb and the people will like that, and I’ll give them that – and I’ll make more money.” So in essence, what Dizzy did was… If people had known what Dizzy was doing and if they knew now what he’s doing, people would be healthier, there would be less crime, and there would be more love. You know where I’m coming from? Mainly because of what he played. And his music was knowledgeable. All the music you hear today, there’s no intelligence to it. It’s a bunch of crap. But what Dizzy played, you had to use your brain a little bit to understand it, but later on, when you did, you could feel it emotionally, too. It was wonderful.

TP:   He was also a great entertainer.

MOODY:   Yeah, he was a great entertainer. But he did that mainly because he said, “Well, the people are sitting there looking at me like I’m nuts, so I’ll just do something to make them…” But that’s fine.

SLIDE:   But before him, there was a lot of entertainment going on. Bandleaders all were entertainers. Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway. He played with all those guys. So when he became a bandleader, it kind of seemed to be the right thing to also add some entertainment. Which is a good idea, because it kind of brings the people in, gives them a chance to hear some…

RODITI:   If I may just interject on the same thing. You notice the way Paquito D’Rivera leads a band has a lot of Dizzy’s influence in that particular thing of entertainment also.

MOODY:   Look at me. Look at me when I’m on stage. I mean, hey, man… That’s Dizzy, man!

HEATH:   When I conduct my band, I’ve got a little of that in me, too!  That’s where we came from.

JOHN LEE:   People want to be entertained. They really do.
SLIDE:   Yeah. It helps bring them into something that calls for a very sophisticated outlook, a sophisticated listener. Just that alone, most people wouldn’t be able to hang with it that long. But if you give them a few other things as a reason why they’re out there paying their money, then they start to listen to some music that’s on a very high level of sophistication, and they start to get it emotionally. Because that’s what the final result of the music is about, is about the emotional effect that it has on… But some people, if you give them something like this without something that brings them into it, then they’re never going to get to the place that they can really listen to it. And getting people to listen to the music is the first thing you have to do to see whether they’re going to like it or not.

TP:   I’d like to get back to the question of what, concretely, is not properly understood about Dizzy Gillespie.

SLIDE:   That he was a very intelligent guy. The reason they didn’t understand him is because he was able to deal with people on all different levels of intelligence. He could deal with the guy in the street that spoke bad English. He could deal with a person who had a very extensive vocabulary. You see, he was a very intelligent person, but not where he looked down on other people who didn’t have the same intelligence development that he had.

HEATH:   He was a people person. Dizzy liked all people, and they liked him for that reason.

SLIDE:   He liked to talk to the janitors and the…

JOHN LEE:   The man had an amazing understanding of logic. Dizzy would do shit, and you’d go… The best story I always tell that a lot of people don’t know about is when him and Sarah Vaughan took Earl Hines to the White House just as a guest. When they played during dinner, Nixon snuck up behind Dizzy and said, “Diz, uh, you think Earl would play for us even though he’s not here to play?” Dizzy dropped his fork and said, “You’re the President; you ask him.” He asked Dizzy to ask him. Just think about that. “You’re the President. You ask him. I’m not the President.”

MOODY:   Dizzy was a helluva speller. Dizzy could spell damn near anything. You know how he got his name? They said he was dizzy because he did little funny things. But that saying goes, “Dizzy was dizzy like a fox.”

TP:   So he was a very precise person. He could spell out all the rhythms, he could spell out all the chords, and he did that for four generations of musicians.

SLIDE:  Yes. He loved grammar, he told me.

TP:   Grammar musical and verbal.

SLIDE:  Yes.

HEATH:   Dizzy was a born genius, man.

JOHN LEE:   that’s it. That’s the bottom line.

HEATH:   He was a born genius. When he went to school he was throwing spitballs around at the other kids, because he already knew what the teacher was saying anyway. He was bored.

TP:   Dizzy was married fifty years to a very strong woman. What effect do you think she had on his success in the music business?

MOODY:   If it wasn’t for Lorraine, Dizzy… For everything that Dizzy did that was wonderful and brilliant and like a genius, he squandered. He’d spend. No matter what it is, if he saw it, he had to have it. He’d buy it. He could get it, but Lorraine kind of put a rein on him, like, “Cool it; you don’t have to do this, you don’t have to do this…” She slowed him down. Because Dizzy was going 90,000 miles an hour, boy.

JOHN LEE:   He recognized that she was his anchor, would bring him down to earth all the time.

MOODY:   Yes.

JOHN LEE:   She had amazing common sense and amazing discipline. Lorraine had amazing discipline. She was a very devout Catholic.

MOODY:   You know what cracked me up? She said, “I damn near burned the house down trying to save his black ass.” Because you burn candles in the Catholic religion. She said, “I damn near burned the house down trying to save his black ass.”

JOHN LEE:   There’s a famous story about Lorraine when someone was coming through… Do you all know this story about when someone was coming through the kitchen?

HEATH:   No.

JOHN LEE:   Dizzy had bought Lorraine a shotgun. Someone knocked the screen out the window, and he got up, he got his arms in… Lorraine is around the corner with the shotgun, standing there. Got his arms in, and the guy had… God saved him. They say he got halfway through and he stopped, and he said, “no,” and he backed up and left. She would have blown his head off. She was going to shoot him when he got through that window.

SLIDE:   She wouldn’t shoot     him halfway through.

JOHN LEE:   No-no. She said, “Okay, if he comes all the way in here, he’s dead.” But he thought about it. This guy got kissed by an angel, went “wait, no,” and backed out.

SLIDE:   A guy who goes into people’s houses to rob should be shot.

JOHN LEE:   The gun was cocked. She was right around the corner. She was watching him.

RODITI:  I feel if it wasn’t for bebop, the music would have made no sense in my life. Bebop created everything that I am now. All the pleasure. The pleasure of playing, the pleasure of composing, the pleasure of composing in a Brazilian vein even is influenced by bebop as well.

JOHN LEE:   The challenge of it.

SLIDE:   I’m with Claudio on that. Bebop brought something to music that was so important for music to have, to make music become all that it can be. There’s one thing that was missing. Because we had the European harmony, we had the African rhythms, we had influences from a lot of people. But we didn’t really have the importance of making the most music out of whatever you do, more so than all of the rules and all of the customs. Bebop is the thing that made musicians develop the whole respect for what they make in music. Made musicians respect music and respect what you have to put into music to get whatever you want out of it. Bebop was very important in that way. If you hear a musician who doesn’t have bebop in their playing, and you’re a good musician, you will know it.

HEATH:   Bebop took the Afro-American classical music to a higher level.

JOHN LEE:   And it’s a lifelong challenge, isn’t it. Still practicing and learning stuff.

HEATH:   As musicians we get as much fun out of… I enjoy finding things. Like the piece I’m writing now called “The Endless Search.” That’s what we’re all involved in. The endless search.

TP:   Does playing Dizzy’s music now, after 50-60 years of knowing it and playing it, hold the same sort of excitement… Obviously, it would be on a different level. But does it hold the same sort of excitement now as it did then?

HEATH:   To us. And the audiences we’ve been playing for.

SLIDE:   It has the important energy of guidance to it, and giving you something to judge, whatever you play. No matter what style you play, if you have a real firm understanding of the tradition of bebop, then you have a way of looking at whatever you play and telling whether it has any real value or not. You can play a completely different style, but you have something to judge what you’re playing, what music is there really in what I’m doing. Because you can easily get into a style that’s very exciting and very impressive. It doesn’t have to be musical.

HEATH:   Because bebop is, like I say, the endless search. That means if we are trying to learn something and striving to get better all the time, we are not thinking about getting to the level where we want to make a whole lot of money. We’re not thinking about that. And watering things down so the general public will like it. We’re not catering to that. In bettering the music, we are bettering ourselves as human beings. That should make everybody want to be better.

TP:   And Dizzy Gillespie was an exemplar and an avatar of that attitude.

MOODY:   That’s what I was saying. People ask me what I do… When I play, I play for myself. And the reason I play for myself is because my goal in life is to play better tomorrow than I did today for myself. What I’m saying is that I am going to give you the best that I can give you. I can’t do any better than that. That’s what bebop is. When people are giving you something that is great… I mean, you can’t get anything better than that. Because Dizzy didn’t say [SINGS THEME OF “Bebop”] He didn’t do that so people could say, “Wow!” But if you want to make somebody’s mind grow, [SINGS “Bebop”...] That’s spiritual and mindblowing. And that’s why bebop I think is more valid than any kind of music that you have. Even classical music. Because in classical music, nobody plays bebop through the keys. Beethoven’s minor or whatever symphony, just one thing. If they want to say classical music is better than jazz, play all those things through different keys, and then I’ll go along with them.

JOHN LEE:   The best explanation I’ve ever heard is that classical music is the expression of one man, the composer; everyone else is an interpreter. In jazz, everyone… Listen, I do want to say one thing, Ted. It’s the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band. Slide Hampton is our Musical Director. The small group is the Alumni All Stars, because we recorded like that. And the record is coming out in September.

TP:   I have one final question for each of you, counter-clockwise, starting with James Moody.  It’s perhaps a little more complicated for James Moody, because you played with him for so long. But let’s say three favorite recordings or performances by Dizzy Gillespie.

MOODY:   I couldn’t answer that. When you hear music, it’s like eating. Today you might want some beef, you might want some fish. If you listen to a recording, it might be the greatest thing you’ve ever heard at that time, and then later on it won’t be, then next month… I can’t say.

TP:   Fair enough. Slide Hampton, can you say?

HAMPTON:   I can. “Things To Come,” “I Can’t Get Started,” and “That’s Earl, Brother.” The first piece I ever heard in this style of music was “That’s Earl, Brother.” That was Sonny Stitt and Dizzy, a wonderful composition written by Ray Brown, and the solos… The great thing about Dizzy’s solos is that they sound like a part of the composition, a part of the arrangement. I heard the recording of “I Can’t Get Started” and also in person, and it always makes me feel great to hear it. “Things To Come” was just one of the most exciting things… This was one of the biggest changes that came in music, and also the thing that made people realize that music has to change, like everything else – and it has to get better. All of a sudden, people have taken music to a very low level of quality. It’s the wrong thing to do. It’s wrong to do this. Dizzy and them were the exact contrary of that. They were putting their whole lives into music to make it better, so people’s minds would be more stimulated by music, not only in music, but in their lives in general.

TP:   Jimmy Heath?

HEATH:   I think the first one would be “Shaw Nuff,” with Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Sid Catlett. That’s the first thing I heard, and that just blew my mind. There are so many by the big band that I love. “Things To Come” is one. Also some of the later ones. Dizzy’s arrangement of “Lover Come Back to Me” is one that I think was exceptional, and I’d say some of the things he did with… That’s very difficult. Some of the things… “Con Alma.” I think “Con Alma” is one of the greatest compositions ever written. When I hear it, it touches my heart and soul deeply, and I think about Dizzy and it makes me want to tear up and cry. When I hear it, it just puts me in a solemn mood of understanding that such a beautiful composition is just like Dizzy was – a beautiful man.

RODITI:   Of course, I would have to say that first recording of Dizzy with Roy Eldridge stays in my heart as one of my favorites. I also am very fond of the 1949 Metronome All-Stars, “Overtime,” with Dizzy, Fats Navarro and Miles Davis in the trumpet section. To me, they elevated the trumpet to such a height that this remains with me, very much so. But there are so many recordings. I should say also “The Eternal Triangle,” Dizzy with Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins is another. There are so many. But these come to my mind at this moment.

JOHN LEE:   I’m the youngest in the room. My father brought home Dizzy On The Riviera and played “Desafinado” over and over and over again, so that made a big impression on me. Then “Night In Tunisia.” Are we talking about an album or a tune.

TP:   Either way.

JOHN LEE: It’s hard to pick. I was going to say “Things To Come,” but that song was licensed on so many albums. Sonny Side Up for me, and then Dizzy On The Riviera, and then Dizzy Live at Newport with “Dizzy’s Blues,” with the great Al Grey solo and Wynton Kelly on it – an amazing record. But I’m a lot younger, so I wasn’t exposed to “Shaw Nuff” and all that stuff.  That’s what I was exposed to first through my whole childhood – Dizzy at Newport, Dizzy On The Riviera and “Things to Come.” But I can’t really tell you what album my father had of it. My father loved Dizzy, though.

MOODY:   You see what I’m talking about? Everything that everybody said, I dug. Each thing. “Things To Come.” “Con Alma.” But I can’t tell you what, because when I hear all of it, each one is “Ah, boy, yeah,” “Ah, boy, yeah.”

JOHN LEE:    The one thing I’m going to miss tonight is that we’re not going to play [sings  refrain of “I Can’t Get Started.”] Slide, can you take that off the album. It’s about time. We’ve got to have that.

SLIDE:   We have to play that, man. That’s everything. That’s all of life, man! If we play that, that’s going to make everything on the planet better.

JOHN LEE:   These arrangements got lost. We could play it in the small group. But the big band arrangement Slide is talking about is only a 4-minute arrangement.

SLIDE:   See, that was a piece that was recorded by a lot of trumpet players. And to imagine a guy who plays so modern to be able to make another recording of it that would stand up against the recording that came before is incredible.

JOHN LEE:   We’ve got the two best ballad trumpet players alive in the band.

HEATH:   You can send me home after that.

TP: Everyone’s been laughing about Jimmy’s reactions to a photograph of Dizzy in the Roy DeCarava book doing… What would you say he’s doing?

SLIDE:   That’s a pirouette.

MOODY:   Dizzy got all that dancing stuff from Lorraine. She was a chorus girl, you know.

JOHN LEE: We pack them in everywhere. Tanglewood, Kennedy Center.

MOODY:   If we could make a movie with Jimmy and his brother following Dizzy’s band around with the ties and berets. We could get Spike Lee to play the part of Jimmy! It would be a great movie.

TP:   Who could play Percy?

HEATH:   I don’t know. That stuff with Fats and Miles, man, that ain’t necessary. That’s bush. All them guys had something. They were wonderful.

SLIDE:   Well, Miles was wonderful, man.

HEATH:   we know that.  I got him in my car, all the ballads.

SLIDE:   Miles showed a way that a person who didn’t have all the technique, all of the impressive technique that Dizzy had, and still make a lot of music. And Miles made a lot of music with his simple way of playing.

HEATH:   He sure did. A voice.

SLIDE:   He took all these great musicians and helped them become more popular. They came through his band; when they left his band, they could have their own band.

HEATH:   I don’t need no Miles Davis fans coming to holler at me for what I said about Fats. Fats was an incredible trumpet player. Miles wasn’t at that time. The thing is, at the time… Fats didn’t live long enough to be recognized by the world like Miles.

SLIDE:   Miles became more popular than Dizzy or any of the guys. Because he played the songs. If you want to become popular, there was a time when you could play songs. Not now, but there was a time. Now, actually, some of the guys are starting to go back and sing the songs again.

Let’s start with “Whisper Not.” You can’t go wrong with that. Then let’s do “One Bass Hit,” then come on up into the new stuff.

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Filed under Dizzy Gillespie, DownBeat, Interview

A 2006 DownBeat Feature On Wynton Marsalis, Who Turned 50 Yesterday

I couldn’t attend Wynton Marsalis’s four 50th birthday concerts in which he presented repertoire from his 30+ years in the music business. All accounts state — no doubt accurately — that to witness them was an extraordinary experience.

I’ve admired Wynton Marsalis since 1981, when I heard him playing with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams at the Chicago Jazz Festival. The feeling was reinforced not long thereafter, an extraordinary concert at New York’s Public Theater with Alvin Batiste, Ed Blackwell, his father, Ellis Marsalis, his brother Branford, and bassist Mark Helias. A decade before, I’d conducted two extended interviews with Wynton, resulting in this article, which has been on the Internet for a while.

In 2005, DownBeat gave me an opportunity to write an extended feature on Wynton. Unfortunately, for space reasons, they had to cut my final draft — here’s the “directors’ cut,” so to speak.

* * *

That Wynton Marsalis does not think small was evident last November 14th, when Jazz at Lincoln Center threw a thousand-dollar-a-ticket fundraiser to celebrate its Artistic Director’s quarter century in the spotlight.

When the Rose Theater’s lights dimmed, television journalist Ed Bradley, the evening’s host, brought Marsalis on stage to a standing ovation from a crowd  primarily of donors from New York’s finance, real estate and media industries, intelligentsia, and eminent entertainers, all attired in black ties, cummerbunds, and designer gowns. Themselves tuxedoed, Bradley and Marsalis turned to a projection of 1979 high school yearbook photo of an Afroed, grinning Marsalis, trumpet in hand. “Pet peeve: Sucking valves,” read the salutation. “Biggest weakness: Bach Stradivarius trumpets.”

Another slide popped up. “Always saying: ‘Be cool, white boy,’” read the top inscription. The crowd laughed uneasily. Marsalis shook his head with a rueful smile, and Bradley joked about youthful indiscretion. The line below stated: “Ambition: ‘Transcend the f****g music being played today.’”

Interrupted by testimonials from various JALC dignitaries,  Marsalis spent the next 90 minutes demonstrating how assiduously he had applied himself to the latter aspiration. He played standards with flair—a burnished, elegant “Embraceable You” in duo with Hank Jones; signifying with the mute behind Diana Krall on “East Of The Sun”; stretching out with old piano partner Marcus Roberts on “Cherokee”—but he also prepared a tasting menu of ambitious compositions from the ’90s that reflect his omnivorous interests. The material was decidedly not about conceptualism, nor juxtaposing materials, nor conveying philosophical notions at the expense of human feeling. Rather, Marsalis pursued an aesthetic propagated by his intellectual mentor, Albert Murray, and actualized by painter-collagist Romare Bearden, who expressed a modernist sensibility through deploying an iconography of American vernacular archetypes.

For example, on “Many Gone,” a spiritual from At The Octoroon Balls, the Kronos Quartet conveyed Stravinsky-like harmonies with timbre and attack drawn from American fiddle music. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra displayed its mastery of Ellingtonian erotica behind two Alvin Ailey dancers on “Home: Beyond This Rage,” a vignette from Sweet Release. Gospel diva Kim Burrell raised the roof on “Oh, What A Friend We Have In Jesus/God Don’t Like Ugly,” from Blood On The Fields, Marsalis’ 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz oratorio.

With Joe Lovano standing in for Branford Marsalis and Jason Marsalis for Jeff Watts, Marsalis played “Hesitation” from his eponymous 1982 debut, engaging Lovano in extended, abstract counterpoint. Herlin Riley displayed his assimilation of New Orleans drum vocabulary on “Uptown Ruler,” a Coltrane-esque blues in 5/4 from the late-’80s Soul Gestures In Southern Blue series that marked Marsalis’ embrace of an across-the-timeline aesthetic. To conclude the evening, LCJO played “The Caboose,” the kaleidoscopic end car of Marsalis’ complex, Ellington-inspired 1998 suite, Big Train, replete with intricate ensemble dialogues, highwire brass unisons, instrumental onomatopoeia, a shouted question from Wycliffe Gordon (“somebody, somebody, somebody, please tell me; I want to know just how the big train goes”), and an inclusive choral response from the band in a hymnal subtone (“big train from the east, big train from the west”).

The lyric is emblematic of the scope of Marsalis’ ambition and accomplishment. At 44, he’s perhaps the most visible jazz artist on the planet—he’s filled clubs and concert halls since he formed his first band at 20, and became a bona fide mainstream celebrity at 23, when he won his first Classical Grammy. But he feels, with some justification, that the impact of his corpus on the sound of jazz today is less than it might be.

“I know people haven’t listened to the music, because they tell me so,” Marsalis said on the first press day of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 2005-06 season. “Musicians who come into the band always say, ‘I didn’t realize it was that hard,’ or ‘I never heard it.’”

“I think his major contribution was on the political side, raising the visibility of jazz, but I don’t hear anything within his music that I see as a big contribution to the SOUND of today,” says trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, voicing a sentiment expressed off the record by a cross-generational sampling of musicians. “Now, he has influenced a ton of trumpet players, though not really me. He’s very akin to Clark Terry in his phrasing, the way he ghosts the notes. I saw Wynton on a PBS special with Kathleen Battle when I was starting out. I was very classical music oriented then, and it excited me, partly because it was a black person playing the shit out of the trumpet. So I decided to check out The Majesty of the Blues. I returned it right away. With his band, it feels like he wants to educate you. That’s great, but after a while, you feel like you’re  in a seminar or clinic.”

But what a clinic!  “To be to able to hear things the way he hears them is pretty amazing,” said pianist Eric Reed in 1997, after six years in Marsalis’ employ. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, dude, what’s going on in your head?’  To be able to commit that to paper is even more amazing, and getting a group of individuals to play that compounds the amazement. Wynton has unlimited resources, and he’s able to commit to a musical vision, which is unique in the jazz world.”

“Wynton developed in a fishbowl,” says David Berger. “He’s a big risk-taker, and any mistakes he’s made, the whole world watched, whereas most of us did that] while we were in school.”

“You haven’t heard me talk about other people’s music since I became a man,” Marsalis says, referring to the famously irascible statements of his youth, but he remains anything but shy in conveying strongly held ideas about what jazz is and is not, and hews to this pedagogy in selecting repertoire. In response, disaffected jazzfolk have attacked his motives with almost prosecutorial suspicion, disparaged his talent, critiqued his taste, and caricatured him as a musical analog to Reagan-Bush Republicanism. More often than not, the nay-saying has a tabloidish and assumptive connotation, eschewing concrete musical issues and presenting personal tastes and resentments as objective declarations of fact.  Now it’s hard to find an article about JALC in the mainstream press that does not include the C-word.

“It’s our house,” Marsalis likes to say about Jazz at Lincoln Center, showing thick skin in public. But he hears the catcalls.

The trope that the musical community is more attuned to the external trappings that frame Marsalis’ career than to the actual particulars of his production dates to his early years in the spotlight. “The unfortunate circumstance of Wynton being Wynton prevented any real acceptance of the importance of what they were doing,” said trombone playing brother Delfeayo Marsalis on the response of his mid-’80s peer group at Berklee School of Music to Wynton’s first quintet. “They were paying attention to Branford and Wynton—moreso Wynton—as a commodity.”

“I agree with that,” Wynton said. “Because so much of the response was anti, it cheated a lot of musicians out of the chance to figure out how to get to the next step in their evolution. They ended up just imitating stuff from the ’60s or ’50s, erroneously thinking that’s what we were doing. But that’s not what we do.

“My conception is holistic. Instead of being relegated to our time period, we can be in time. We had Afros in the ‘70s. Everybody used suss chords then. Now we can use suss chords and triads and New Orleans grooves, and do the 1960 jazz imitation of what the avant-garde musicians played in Germany in 1912—the chaos element. All the music that’s in one consciousness is the same. We are free to utilize all that we know, because we don’t have to appeal to a tradition, and we can create a truly modern music that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard, but is also traditional. It’s revolutionary in its implications. All of it exists at one time.”

[BREAK]

Two days before Christmas, Marsalis spoke about  ‘All Rise,’ his 90-minute, 12-movement, millennial opus for symphony orchestra, big band and vocal choir, in which he weaves together the various genres, styles and forms that he explored during the ‘90s and incorporates a global array of rhythms, melodies and scales.  “I thought about it way back in high school,” he said at his Upper West Side highrise. “I was always dreaming, and I thought, ‘What if you could put all of the music together and everybody played at one time, but they were all playing stuff that was hard for them to play?’”

An edition of Yeats’ poems lay open on the table in front of his living room couch, and a floor compartment beneath it contained a washboard, the recent Fagels translation of The Iliad, W.C. Sebold’s Austerlitz, Walter van de Leur’s biography of Billy Strayhorn, and Runaway Slave Advertisements.. On a coffee table across the room stood side-by-side sculpted chess sets with matches in progress. Occupying the southwest corner is a piano, piled with books (the Joyce Carol Yates-edited “Best American Essays of the Century,” Eileen Southern’s “History of Afro-American Artists”), scores (among them a folio of Bartok’s String Quartets), and tools of the composer’s trade, such as tuning forks and a slide rule with chords.

Marsalis wrote “All Rise” on commission from ’90s New York Philharmonic head Kurt Masur, and premiered it in 1999. “He brought the idea of using a lot of different traditions and of it being a full evening, which was a risk for him,” Delfeayo said. “He wanted to continue that strain in Gershwin and Bernstein of dealing with Afro-American music and music from the European tradition.”

During a well-received October 2005 U.K. tour of “All Rise” that received reviews with such words as “herculean” and “brilliant,” Masur told a journalist that Marsalis’ understanding of his “basic idea—to reflect how jazz began,” was “absolutely philosophical.”

“In classical music that’s a plus,” Marsalis responded to Masur’s comment. “In jazz, it’s a minus, like something is wrong with you. People who are intellectuals in this music, like John Lewis or Dizzy or Duke Ellington, their music is not dealt with for what it is. People kept crying for Ellington’s music between 1938 and 1942, that it was his best period. All of his music has such depth and complexity. From a philosophic standpoint, what he actually put together begs to be treated on a serious level.”

If he wrote a book about Ellington, what points would he emphasize?

“First would be what in his philosophy allowed him to have such an unbelievably long, sustained development,” Marsalis said. “In the ‘New Orleans Suite’ from 1970 and ‘Black And Tan Fantasy,’ which he wrote in the ’20s, he deals with the same thing—blues, call-and-response, the antiphonal relationship between brass and woodwinds, mood pieces, shuffles. What does his development teach us in terms of his sustained seriousness of his art?

“I could pull out hundreds of  technical things that he invented. How he uses the blues inside of voicings and in the progressions he wrote, how he used the sound of the blues to modulate, how he used metric modulations in ‘Harlem.’ Why he liked that real straight vocal music. How he appropriated New Orleans counterpoint. What he looked for in vernacular music to put in his style. More than the technical things, why did he want to do that? The majority of his songs were not what his audience wanted. Nobody was clamoring to hear ‘Such Sweet Thunder.’”

What drove Ellington to do it?

“He wanted to be great,” Marsalis exclaimed with a long, it-ought-to-be-obvious laugh. “That’s why he searched around to figure out what in all this experience would lead him to the deepest regions of his musicianship and help him to develop his greatness.”

It’s impossible to interpret Marsalis’ assessment of Ellington as anything but a self-descriptive aesthetic manifesto. “Wynton does not want to equal anybody,” said multireedist Victor Goines, who first met Marsalis in kindergarten. Hanging out with Marsalis when both were 14, Goines heard him play Coltrane’s “Countdown” solo and decided that jazz was what he wanted to do. He joined the Marsalis Septet in 1993, allowing Marsalis to add the clarinet to his tonal palette.

“He has to surpass,” Goines said. “The only yardstick that is an accurate length for him is Duke Ellington.”

Stanley Crouch and Murray introduced Marsalis to Ellington during the ’80s. Gunther Schuller and then David Berger schooled him on Ellington’s scores. By 1985, when Branford and Kenny Kirkland jumped ship to join Sting on the cusp of the release of Black Codes From The Underground, the groundwork was set for Marsalis to realign.

“I heard that Albert Murray told him something along the lines of, ‘You will be more able to achieve your goals and vision whenever you start to do more things with musicians who are not your peers, and will more readily focus on what you’re trying to do,’” Watts recalled.

“The first band broke up too soon,” Marsalis acknowledges. “We had some impact, but it could have been greater if we’d stayed together longer. It seemed like everybody picked up on Black Codes From The Underground and liked it. It was high-energy playing. Tain’s combination of fusion and jazz; Kenny Kirkland’s rhythmic propulsion and sophistication; my interplay with Branford on ‘Hesitation,’ which comes from the New Orleans way of playing and the vocabulary of modern jazz. We put a New Orleans Two-Way-Pocky-Way groove and extended rhythms—stuff I’d heard from James Black and my father, using six-bar phrases or 3/4 bars—in the middle of Black Codes. Modulating into different keys within a song, like on ‘Delfeayo’s Dilemma,’ where I play in one key, Branford in another, and Kenny Kirkland in another key. On ‘Twilight,’ we improvised counterpoint at the same time. We phrased our melodies with a funky New Orleans flavor, but still in modern jazz.”

“The early band will have to go down historically as one of the more important small ensembles, but the way things have developed, you almost have to pretend that period didn’t exist, because you can’t find the individuals to re-create it,” Delfeayo Marsalis said. “These guys were going for a high level of intellectual expression. The compositional structure was well-conceived and different, but also it was a great improvising band. Those guys came together, and that hardcore jazz was the right thing for the right time. It was fortunate and unfortunate that it broke up. The level of intellectual challenge that he personally has received after early 1987 is limited. But he will always figure out a way to work the situation, and he became a great sculptor of greater works of music.”

“That’s the type of commentary you always get from people who don’t know what they’re talking about,” Marsalis says. “I think that at a certain moment Delfeayo liked that particular band.”

In Marsalis’ view, the period to which his younger brother refers was a time of philosophical solidification. “First I had to put the history of jazz together in my mind,” he says. “When Albert Murray’s book, Good Morning Blues came out, I played at a party at the Village Gate with Rudy Rutherford, Freddie Green, Buck Clayton, and other older cats who’d played with Basie. I’d played with the bebop musicians, like Max Roach and Art Blakey and Philly Joe, and I knew Miles and Dizzy and Art Farmer. I’d played with Herbie and Tony and Ron Carter. I’d played with Lester Bowie. But I’d never played with musicians from that generation. That was my missing link.

“To sit with all of them and check out their way of playing, the life in their music—it’s like what I knew my whole life. I could fit in easily with the essence of what they were playing. I thought I was going to play modern music—some scales, D over G, all the chords, playing in 5/4. That wasn’t something they could play on. They started just playing riffs. I’m from New Orleans, and grew up hearing riffs. Now, they weren’t men who were going to patronize you. They were like, ‘Damn, that’s a hip-ass riff. Shit, youngster, you might be for real.’ That night I went home and said, ‘Now I understand something.’

“In 1985 Sweets Edison told me something that had a profound effect. He said, ‘Don’t wait for nobody to validate you. You’re from New Orleans. You grew up a certain way. I knew you when you was a boy. You ain’t all this shit that they’re sayin’. You’re not from the North. You’re already yourself. All you got to do is be what you are.’”

Edison’s reference was to Marsalis’ upbringing in the hothouse musical culture of ‘70s New Orleans, where, as Marsalis put it, “musicians work—the gigs don’t pay that much, but you play. I always had a job. I would come home at 1 or 2 in the morning and go to school at 7. I played as much as I could possibly play.”

From 13 to 16, Wynton and Branford earned up to $100 a night with a funk band called the Creators, playing covers of ‘70s R&B hits at outdoor dances, receptions, weddings and the like, subverting the surroundings, Branford recalls, with segues from, say, a Parliament line into a tune by Deodato. Wynton played show tunes with a community band comprised of band directors, marched on parades, played classical music with his high school peer group in the New Orleans Youth Orchestra, with adult amateurs in the New Orleans Civic Orchestra, with symphony brass quartets and quintets. Himself no churchgoer, he played the black church circuit with pianist Kermit Campbell, internalizing the ritual of the service. He played Chick Corea tunes and “‘70s things on the cusp of fusion” with an adult band at Tyler’s Beer Gardens in the French Quarter. And he practiced four or five hours a day, an hour before school, an hour at lunch, an hour before dinner, an hour after the evening’s gig.

“In jazz, the thought always was you play whatever you feel,” Marsalis said. “But to achieve something and be successful in classical music, it was a given that you had to know the history.” Branford Marsalis recalls Wynton coming home from his trumpet lesson “with this big-assed book on Austria. He said, ‘Mr. Janson said that I will never be able to play Mozart unless I understand the people and the times that created him.’” Towards that end, Wynton bought natural trumpets, and systematically taught himself the instrument’s history and literature. Afternoons from 1 to 5, he attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where his father had established the jazz curriculum. There he learned theory from “my great teacher” Bert Braud, whose theme-and-variation class subsumed Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Bach.

Perhaps most importantly, Marsalis rejected the generation gap. “They were so much hipper than us,” he laughs, referring to Ellis Marsalis and such family friends as Clark Terry, Blue Mitchell and Sweets Edison. “We had our lifestyle. But compared to Blue Mitchell? Shit! Jazz musicians don’t get dated. You’re not going to rebel against them. My Dad’s vibe was always, ‘If you really want to rebel against me, come up with something that I don’t understand. Don’t come to me with some bullshit.’ Or ‘the greatest rebellion is self-financed; you’re not really serious about rebelling.” He was serious when he told you that. He was ready for you to be gone! ‘Man, I don’t need you to tell me what to do. Leave! Get your own crib. It’s hard out here with all these kids. I don’t have time to be up babysitting you while you’re trying to live out the American Dream with no money.’”

Stories of prodigies who didn’t fulfill their promise are commonplace in the arts. But Marsalis—who was getting local press by 15 and enjoying the attention of women who found intriguing the sight of the studious, bespectacled young trumpeter doing his homework between sets while “everyone was getting drunk or high”  (“The older ones would say, ‘Are you doin’ your homework, baby?’ ‘Yeah, can you help me with this?’)—did not allow approbation from neighborhood down-homes or local gentry to turn his head.

“I wasn’t impressionable,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to fit in with anyone. My Daddy’s friends were too much older, and I wasn’t trying to fit in with guys in my neighborhood. There’s a certain allure of being in the street and ignorant, but once I determined I wasn’t going to act like them, I didn’t care what they thought. I could play ball, and I would fight. Even to this day, I don’t like to be fucked with. If you want to find out, we can go ahead and do that. I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about it, though. Even when I had to kind of integrate a school and deal with being just one black person being picked on, I always said, ‘If you call me a nigger, we’re gonna fight.’”

[BREAK]

Three years after that party with the Basieites at the Village Gate, Marsalis—with New Orleanians Reginald Veal and Herlin Riley in the bass and drum chairs—began to change his sound. “Wynton is good at adjusting direction based on the talent of the individuals he has around him,” said Marcus Roberts, who replaced Kenny Kirkland in 1985. “It became more of a blues-based, groove-oriented way of playing. He explored different colors, and his concept of blues on the trumpet evolved. He matured in his ability to merge older trumpet styles into a more modern abstract vocabulary that he himself was codifying.”

Goines adds that the effect of a stable personnel is that “Wynton started to write for the individual personalities, like Duke did, as opposed to the saxophone chair.” The primary personalities were Wess Anderson, Wycliffe Gordon, Eric Reed and Goines, and Marsalis used the first iteration of Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra—including such ex-Ellingtonians as Jimmy Hamilton, Norris Turney, Britt Woodman, Willie Cook, and Joe Temperley—as a template for incorporating their sounds as he built the repertoire for the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the next edition of LCJO.

“I always tell this story,” Marsalis said of his stylistic volte face. “A girl came to a concert we gave with the quintet at Blues Alley, and in five minutes she gave me the best critique of what we played that I ever got. She said, ‘I came to hear you all play, and I don’t like jazz, but I took my boyfriend, because I read an article on you all in Ebony and I wanted to see what it was. The first song, you all played together, and then everybody played individually. I thought that’s a great way to introduce the band, but you all played that way on every song.’ So at first it was a critique of the basic form of playing. Then she said, ‘Everybody plays for a very long time; you can follow it, but why do you all play so long?’ So the solos are too long. Then she told us that we played so loud she couldn’t hear all that was going on, and then she said, ‘I liked when you played the slow song, but then you started to play fast, and you played fast longer than you played slow.’ I followed what she said almost to the letter.”

It is interesting to compare Marsalis’ evolution to that experienced by his ‘70s outcat and funkster targets, who shaped their own predispositions in an age when the idiomatic tradition was in the air. His focus on self-determination through institution-building, educational outreach, and constructing an idiosyncratic body of work from a panoply of styles, is not so different from the tenets propounded in ‘60s Chicago by the AACM, comprised of musicians who are generational contemporaries of his father and such other independent-minded ‘70s New Orleans modernist improviser-educators as Alvin Batiste and Kidd Jordan.

“The word ‘conserve’ means to keep what’s good of what we have, like conserving trees,” says Berger. “But we also want to grow new trees. In some ways Duke Ellington was conservative, but he was also avant-garde. That’s what Wynton is. He throws down the gauntlet and says you’ve got to master the past before you can move into the future with any kind of success. How can you say that ‘Blood on the Fields’ is a retro piece? Yes, he uses a lot of Ellington’s conventions, but there’s so much modern stuff that was never heard before, and concepts from all over.”

“I think Wynton decided that whatever was going on in jazz was wrong, and he was going to go back and do it the way it had been done 55 or 60 years ago,” said Branford Marsalis. “I don’t necessarily disagree. Today’s musicians are far more versatile in the things they can do but have light, small, compact sounds and massive limitations in terms of swing. The emphasis of the songs becomes harmony and odd-meter forms. It’s more of a race toward scholarship. Wynton’s band was the absolute antithesis of that. He decided not to use monitors on the stage, not to have a bunch of musicians playing with their bells attached to the microphones or using pickups, which changes the nature of how a band sounds. Neither the song forms nor the meters were complex, but based on either the 6/8 Spanish tinge or straight 4/4 swing. It sounds simple until you get your ass on the stage and try to do it.

“On the standard jazz song, everyone is in the same key when the song starts and plays over the same set of themes. Wynton would have a guy solo on a blues in one key, then have an interlude which leads the next player to solo in a completely different key. It forces the musicians out of their comfort zone. It’s what Duke Ellington used to do. It’s what Jelly Roll Morton used to do. There was an easier and more difficult way of playing back then, and we gave it up for a more difficult, easier way of playing now.”

“You have to be as complete as possible in your knowledge of the history of the music,” says Ali Jackson, 29, who assumed the LCJO drum chair in fall 2005. “To be able to fit the styles of Jelly Roll Morton or Wayne Shorter. To play like Big Sid Catlett or Baby Dodds, or then like Buddy Rich, or Elvin Jones, or Tony Williams, but do it by playing what you know. Wynton is interested in musicians have a vested interest in all of the music. I believe in a style of jazz that runs all the way up to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and we’re similar conceptually.  His perspective is to encompass it all and find the divine paradox, that strain that runs through everything, that ties it all together.”

Jackson adds that because Marsalis writes what he hears, irrespective of instrumental limitation, that perspective also involves a high degree of difficulty.

“The demands of his book on the clarinet are extraordinary,” says Victor Goines. “But Wynton has a certain vision to be able to anticipate someone’s learning curve. I used to make a point of saying, ‘Look, my learning curve has not peaked yet. Whatever you want to write, you should write it. Don’t pigeonhole me.’”

“I like for the music to be hard,” Marsalis said. “As a trumpet player, why do I want to play the Brandenberg Concerto? Because it’s hard. I want to play the pieces that challenge me the most. I don’t just mean velocity. Some music is emotionally complex, too. But a degree of complexity, balanced with a certain spiritual substance and emotional weight, ensures that your music will remain.”

[BREAK]

My first conversation with Marsalis occurred two days after Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the turf he had traveled as a youngster. His parents and brother Mbaya were safe in Baton Rouge, and their house suffered minor damage in comparison to some. Still, friends of Marsalis reported that the trumpeter, whose life and career reflect a fundamental, inexorable optimism, was shaken, suffused with the sense that everything could end.

“It’s not going to end,” Marsalis countered the day after New Year’s, concluding our final conversation. “We’re still going to be out here.” He did not elaborate. Two weeks later, the Cultural Committee of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, which Marsalis co-chairs, requested $600 million in Federal funds to build a jazz museum, expand the city’s arts distract, and implement a jobs program for artists. A week after that, President Bush reneged on his earlier promise to provide sufficient funds to rebuild the Crescent City.

Perhaps such concerns diminished whatever pleasure Marsalis took in celebrating his astonishing quarter century. “It doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “It seems like a short time, in any case. I have a good friend who says, ‘I forgive everybody; we’re only out here for 80 years.’”

It’s a good bet that Marsalis will sustain his pace for much of that timeframe. In January, he completed the score for Ken Burns’ forthcoming opus on World War Two, and in April he’ll film a piece on Congo Square that will include African percussionist Yakob Addy. Also forthcoming is a small group piece with singing called “From The Plantation To the Penitentiary,” while on the grand scale he’s preparing an opera on the Civil War and, at Masur’s instigation, a mass.

It might take Marsalis 180 years to absolve his antagonists, though. “They call me conservative and all this bullshit, because I’m not of the Rock ethos,” he said heatedly. “Nothing in my experience as a musician would make me look up to that. Jazz was revealed to me from too young an age. In this era we have 50 Cent and these rappers playing over a machine, playing a beat, talking about ‘nigger,’ and ‘I don’t care what my parents like,’ and the use of all these equations to construct something philosophically. But I’m not using a philosophical equation. I’m using what I know, which is music.”

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A 1996 WKCR Interview with Ray Brown, Born 85 Years Ago Today

For bass king Ray Brown’s 85th birthday anniversary, here’s a piece that ran on the http://www.jazz.com website a couple of years, incorporating the proceedings of a 1996 WKCR encounter on which he joined me in the studio with Christian McBride. The introduction draws deeply on the obituary I wrote for DownBeat when Brown passed on July 2, 2002. After reading the WKCR interview, feel free to read the transcripts of my conversations with McBride, Geoff Keezer, Ron Carter, Monty Alexander, Herb Ellis, John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton, Benny Green, Quincy Jones, and Ed Thigpen, all of whom generously agreed to speak with me for the DownBeat piece.

* * *

Ray Brown’s supple sound, elemental beat, harmonic wizardry, and ability to create striking melodic lines at any tempo made him the definitive bassist of modern jazz. During his 58 years as a professional musician, he played with virtually every consequential figure on the scene. In the first stage of his career, he played on the first Gillespie-Parker combo recordings (“Shaw Nuff”), later making such influential sides as “One Bass Hit,” “Two Bass Hit” and “Ray’s Idea” with Gillespie’s seminal big band in 1946.  He joined fellow Gillespians John Lewis, Milt Jackson and Kenny Clarke in the first iteration of the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1951, at which point he had been touring regularly since 1948 with singer Ella Fitzgerald, his first wife, and with Jazz at the Philharmonic. Indeed, Brown’s relationship with Norman Granz led to numerous sideman appearances for Verve and Pablo until the latter 1980′s.  A short list includes recordings with Louis Armstrong, Gillespie, Parker, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, Phineas Newborn, Jimmy Rowles, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.

Many of those recordings found Brown in a rhythm section with pianist Oscar Peterson, whom he met on Peterson’s first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Montreal in 1949, and whose trio—first with guitarists Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis, and subsequently with drummer Ed Thigpen—he famously anchored from 1952 to 1966. In 1966, Brown came off the road, and settled in Los Angeles, functioning simulaneously as a musician and businessman. Over the next two decades he managed such artists as Quincy Jones and the Modern Jazz Quartet, contracted for the studios, co-founded the L.A. Four, co-owned a nightclub called Club Loa, and continued to freelance extensively.

In the mid-’80s, Brown returned to the road with pianist Gene Harris and drummer Jeff Hamilton.  The trio recorded a series of albums for Concord and Paddle-Wheel, evolving an ensemble sound that blended harmonic sophistication with grits-and-gravy blues imperatives.  Under contract to Telarc during the ’90s, Brown continued to challenge himself, sustaining trio excellence with such hand-picked young talent as pianists Benny Green and Geoff Keezer and drummers Greg Hutchinson and Kareem Riggins, and organizing Super Bass in 1996.

“When Ray laid the rhythm down, it was like a Mack Truck with a Rolls-Royce engine,” Monty Alexander told me in a tribute piece that Downbeat ran after his death. “He was the greatest support player, yet he wasn’t about to be a nameless character in the background, just doing the pedestrian work.”

“Ray gave me confidence,” Peterson remarked. “I never had to wonder and worry about where things were going harmonically or rhythmically. He listened to each performance that everyone gave, and adjusted his playing to you on different nights, which not a lot of bassists do. He would walk different lines behind me, change the harmonic pattern, just to see what I would do.”

“If you isolated Ray’s basslines and superimposed them over the chords in, say, a higher register, you’d find he was creating beautiful contrapuntal melodies all the time,” Keezer said. “I felt I had complete freedom to go whatever direction I wanted — and I took it pretty far out.”

“Ray’s approach to teaching wasn’t ‘Try this scale on this chord,’ Clayton stated. “Instead he would say, ‘Check out what Oscar Pettiford did on this record, or what Israel Crosby did with this bassline from Ahmad Jamal.’ He turned me on to Eddie Gomez, Richard Davis and Scott LaFaro. People forget that Ray Brown played Bebop, and when it hit, people thought it came from outer space; more jazz lovers could not relate to it than could. And Ray continued to search and stretch and experiment. His later arrangements involved more unpredictable voicings, chord changes and melodic movement than things he did five and ten years before.”

“He saw at an early age with Norman Granz in JATP how to run a business and take care of the musicians,” Jeff Hamilton noted. “He related that Norman once pulled the entire tour off of an airplane because, even though he’d bought a ticket for it, they wouldn’t allow his bass on board. Ray’s pride and sense of self-worth influenced his business techniques. ‘Well, if you don’t want me for this amount, you must not want me very much.’ They would inevitably call back. Ray said, ‘No, that was the amount you offered two weeks ago; now the amount is this.’ That kind of self-confidence came through every part of Ray Brown’s personality, musically and doing business off the bandstand.”

“After he moved to Los Angeles, we started working a lot together,” said Quincy Jones. “We got closer and closer. After a while, Ray started to take care of booking gigs and travel. He was an astute businessman. Old school played everything. We all played chitlin’ circuits. And you didn’t sit around whining about what you had to play, man. You played it, and tried to make it all sound good.  That’s what I loved about Ray. That’s where I think our chord struck, in being very curious about what the business side of it was and not wanting to be a victim. We wanted to be more in charge of our own destinies.

“A man never plays more or less than they are as a human being, and Ray was a very confident, take-charge person. He played bass like that and lived like that. He ate 17 different dishes like that. Wherever we were, whatever was good, Ray knew what it was. He’d probably eat a 249-pound catfish if he tried!  To me, he was the absolute symbol that if you empty your cup every time and learn to make it a habit, it always comes back twice as full. Give it up every time, man. Don’t save nothin’. I learned more and more about that from him all the time. In everything.”

On the final night of Super Bass’ debut gig at the Blue Note in 1996, Brown and McBride joined me on New York’s WKCR for a discussion about his life and times. An edited version appears below.

[MUSIC: Ray Brown/Basie/Roker, "One" (1975); Ray Brown Trio, “Con Alma” (1993); Ray Brown with Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, “One Bass Hit” (1946)]

I’d like to get things started by giving Ray Brown a bit of the third degree on his early years in music.  Hearing Count Basie and Ray Brown together puts you in touch with two-thirds of your deepest musical roots, because when you were 11 years old or so, you got to hear the Basie band on a fairly regular basis, didn’t you.

Oh yeah.  I went down there every day…

This was at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh. You sat under the piano, right near Walter Page.

Right, in Pittsburgh.

How did you find out that this was happening, and what was the cause of your interest at this time?

Oh, I knew everything about music.  We had a lot of music in Pittsburgh.  We had two theaters that had live shows 52 weeks a year.  We had jam sessions at the union every night of the week, and the guys from the theaters came down there and jammed with the local guysThere was a big band in each theater, and a big band played a concert once a week in Pittsburgh.  There was a ton of music.

What was the source of your being inclined to it?  Was music in your family?  Were your parents musicians?

No, they weren’t musicians, but they loved music.  When I was a little kid my father wanted me to be a piano player, and he loved Fats Waller.  We used to sit up and listen to Fats Waller, and he’d say, “Listen to that left hand; listen to that guy play.”  Of course, Fats Waller was fantastic, one of the best of all time.  Then he came in with another record and he said, “Yeah, I got another guy I like; you’d better listen to this guy.”  Then he put this record on, and it was Art Tatum.  So you get pointed in the right direction.

Did you have private teachers?

Yeah, I had piano teachers.  The first one was kind of uppity.  She would pass me in the street… I’d be playing marbles, and she’d stop the car and pick me up and say, “All right, let’s go.”  I had to go home and wash up and come in there.  She’d inspect my nails.  She was a very proper… I told my mother I didn’t like that piano teacher.  So my mother said, “Well, what do you want to do?”  I said, “Well, there’s a couple of ladies… There’s a lady named Ruby Young I want to study with.”  Ruby Young had her own band.  There were two bands in Pittsburgh at that time led by women.  One was Gertrude Long and her Nighthawks, and this was Ruby Young and her band.  So Ruby was teaching lessons.

How old were you when you started playing?

Oh, God.  Young.  10, 11, somewhere around there.  But anyway, I took my first lesson with Ruby Young, and after the lesson I said, “Can you play some jazz for me?”—and she struck out then!  I told my mother, “Now, that’s it.”  She just sat up and played some stride and everything, and then I was very happy.  This is what I wanted to do and this is what I wanted to hear.

I gather you lived next door to a trombone player who played with Gertrude Long’s Nighthawks.

Right.  I used to go over and sit on the floor while they were rehearsed. I was around music all the time.  And my father liked Fats Waller so much that when my folks gave parties, he hired a guy who looked like Fats Waller, who played very little piano, he sang a little bit, but he wore tails and a top hat just like Fats Waller, and my father would tell all the guests, “After you get a few drinks, he sounds real good.” [LAUGHS] This guy would imitate Fats Waller, singing “Your Feet’s Too Big,” sang all those songs, and he played the piano.  My father couldn’t get Fats Waller, but that was the best thing he could do.  So there was music all the time in my house.

So come 1937 with the Basie band sort of on their workshop month preparing for their sojourn in the north, you were there regularly.

That’s right.  He had Sweets and Buck Clayton and Dickie Wells.  All those guys were in the band.  Jo Jones, Walter Page, Freddie Green.  So I met all these guys when I was a kid.

Do you remember the interaction, things you asked them, what they said to you?

No.  I just remember sitting there listening.  So that record has two people who were very-very influential to me, Dizzy Gillespie (who we don’t even have to talk about) and Count Basie.

But you weren’t playing the bass at all in 1937 when you saw Walter Page.

No, I wasn’t playing the bass at all.

That happened when you heard Jimmy Blanton, I gather.

Well, it didn’t happen right away, but I was aware of Jimmy Blanton, and then when I started messing around with the bass it became very prominent.

How did it come about that you made the transition from being a piano player to a bass player?

Well, it was very simple.  I went to junior high school, and I signed up for orchestra, and they had about, I don’t know, 28 piano players and they had 3 basses and only 2 bass players.  So every day, there was a bass laying on the floor, doing nothing.  And I’m sitting over there waiting for my 15 minutes a week to sit down to the piano.  It’s difficult for teenagers to sit around all day and not do anything and stay out of trouble.  So I asked the teacher, “Hey, if I was playing that bass, I could play every day.”  He said, “That’s right.  We’re looking for another bass player.”  I said, “Okay, you’ve got one.”  And that was it.

Was there a good teacher there?

No-no.  I just played it.  Just figured it out.  The schoolteacher showed me what… He had to show everybody every instrument.  He tuned up everybody’s instrument and he showed you, gave you five minutes maybe, and then you were on your own.  But I was bringing these things home; I was practicing with the records.  And I luckily played a lot with Duke Ellington, because the guy who was on that record sounded best to me.  So I played with that record all the time.  Any Duke Ellington record.

So Jimmy Blanton was the guy you played along with.

Daily.

When did you start gigging on the bass?

When I got to high school, a guy who I used to deliver papers to named Henry Foster was looking for some guys, and I said, “Hey, I play the bass and my friend plays the piano” — a guy named Walt Harper.  He hired both of us, and we started working with them on Friday and Saturday and Sunday, making $3 a night.  That was a lot of money then.  There were no taxes either.

What type of places would you play, and who was coming to hear you?

Just local people.  I don’t know… A lot of that stuff is dim now in terms of me giving you accuracy about the people showing up.  All I can remember is playing and learning the tunes.

Was it piano-bass-and-drums…

Piano, bass and drums and saxophone.

Do you remember what kind of repertoire you were playing at the time?  Did you ever have room for features for yourself?

Not really, no.  But we played just the tunes of the day.  “Tea For Two” and “Satchmouth Baby” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”

And all this time you’re still going to the theaters to hear the big bands…

Oh yeah.  Well, when I got to high school we started playing hookey to hear… We were listening to Lester Young, Bud Powell with Cootie Williams, Oscar Pettiford with Charlie Barnet, way before he ever joined Duke Ellington.

In Pittsburgh what was the top level of bass playing you could hear when you were coming up?

I guess the top bass players were a guy named Bass McMahon, who wound up playing with Eckstine’s band.  Then a guy who wound up here in New York, who they called Crusher, named Carl Pruitt, and he was with Roy Eldridge’s band.  They were the top guys in Pittsburgh.

Hearing Roy Eldridge’s name, and he being from the Pittsburgh area, makes me want to ask you which of the many famous musicians who emerged from Pittsburgh were you in contact with, were your peers when you were coming up.

There’s more famous people out of Pittsburgh, I think, than any place in the world, which is just ahead of maybe Philadelphia and Detroit.  You go back to Earl Hines and Roy Eldridge and Maxine Sullivan and Billy Strayhorn and Billy Eckstine, and come up to Art Blakey and Erroll Garner and Stanley Turrentine and Tommy Turrentine, Mary Lou Williams, George Benson… It’s a long list.  Dakota Staton.  Henry Mancini.  Pittsburgh had zillions of bad dudes come out of there!  A lot of people came out of Pittsburgh. So there was a lot of music in Pittsburgh.  I think in towns (Philadelphia was like that, Detroit was like that) where there’s a lot of music going on, I think it inspires young people to get into it.

<Now, the only guy I ever had any contact with (I didn’t know Roy or Eckstine or any of those people) was Erroll Garner, who was a few years older than us, but we used to play hookey, go over to his house and listen to him play the piano.  He used to come by, this little band that we worked with… He lived around the corner, and on Sunday night we played this North Side Elks; he’d slip in there around 11:30 and come in there and jam with us.  It was a lot of fun when he showed up.

Was he playing the same then as later…

Well, he swung the same way.  But he was playing more like Fats Waller then.

Did you get to see Jimmy Blanton play in person?  Do you remember that experience?

I saw him at the theater, yes.  The problems with the bass back in 1940-41, which is when Blanton was very prominent (or any other bass player), there were no amplifiers. There was a microphone in front of the band, and the saxophone player came up and played solos off it, the singers sang, and the leader would make announcements on it.  I mean, there was just one microphone up there.  Until Duke Ellington showed up and had a special mike on Jimmy Blanton standing in front of the band, you never heard the bass that well.  I mean, you heard the guy playing, but you couldn’t do anything fast on bass because nobody would be able to hear it.  So Blanton was an oddity in the first place, and a lot of people didn’t understand it.  They said, “Why does Duke Ellington have this guy up there playing all them bass solos?”  “Hah!  Yeah, sure.”

From you, a quick evaluation how Jimmy Blanton changed the face of the bass.

Oh, he just changed it.  From black to white.  That big a change.  Just picking it up, he was different.  I mean, he had the best sound you ever heard.  He played the best lines.  He played the best solos.  He did everything!  And everybody was into Jimmy Blanton.  I mean, I delivered newspapers to Carl Pruitt’s house, and I don’t care when I went by his house; he was playing those records and practicing with the records just like everybody else.  This must have been done around the world.  Everybody said, “What?”  They heard a guy play a bass like that… PSHEW!

Let’s take you from Pittsburgh in a capsulized way to 1944 to New York and hearing Dizzy Gillespie.  What were the circumstances of leaving Pittsburgh?

I would have left Pittsburgh before I finished high school, but my mother said if I did she was going to have me picked up by the police.  So I had to finish high school.  Schenley High School.  What happened, really, Cootie Williams’ band was at a big theater downtown with Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots and some dance team, Cook & Brown or something like that.  It was a big show.  They had Benson & Hedges’ hot record, “Put Me In Your Brass Bed,” or whatever the name is… Anyway, that show was hot.  The bass player in that show got picked up by the Army because he didn’t pick up his draft notice.  They came and got him from backstage, put him in a truck and drove him off to the Army base.  So now they’re looking for a bass player, and they got Crusher, Carl Pruitt, and he finished out the week.  But somebody told them about me, and I went down there, and they tried the jacket on me — and Carl Pruitt was too big, the jacket fit me, and they offered me the job. [LAUGHS] So I ran home and told my folks.  I said, “I got a job with Cootie Williams’ band.”  They said, “You have no job.”  You’re going to school.  And I cried and rolled over and died a few times.  But my mother said, “You’re going to finish school.”

So you had to stay in Pittsburgh a little while more.

Absolutely.  If you knew my folks, you would have stayed, too.

So after high school, then what?

As soon as I finished high school, I went on the road.  I went to Buffalo with a guy named Jimmy Hinsley in ‘44.

Wasn’t Hank Jones in Buffalo at that time?

Yes, that’s where we met.

I’ve read about you meeting after the show, drinking milkshakes and then going to hear Art Tatum after you were done.

Yes.  What happened was, I got a room at the YMCA, and a couple of days after I’d gotten there I was coming down going to someplace I was going.  I used to take the stairs down, and you passed a door that was the door to the cafeteria.  They had a piano, for some reason, in the cafeteria.  And I heard what I thought was this record we had at home of “Begin The Beguine” by Art Tatum, which I knew very well.  I played it many times.  I knew it practically by heart.  And I heard this record playing, and I stood outside the door and I said, “Wow, there’s that Tatum record,” and I sat and listened to it and it played — but when it got to the end there was some more playing!  I said, “Whoa!”

I went through the door, and there’s a guy sitting up there playing the piano.  I walked over to him and said, “Hey, man, that was that Art Tatum record, ‘Begin The Beguine.’”  He said, “Yeah.”  I said, “Oh yeah!”  That was Hank Jones.  That’s how we met.  So after that, every day I would bring my bass home, and we would go down to the cafeteria and play — every day.  We were on different jobs, but we just played together every afternoon.

What sort of things would you play?

Anything he wanted to play, and I followed him.

You were part of the first group of musicians where the general level of knowledge required seemed to be more.  How much do you think your piano background helped you in dealing with the music you had to play later on?

Well, the piano has always helped me in music.  The bass helps you hear the chord, but the piano then spells it out for you, in case you don’t know what the other notes are.  The piano plays all the notes.  So between the bass and the piano you have everything.

Let’s get you back on course to New York City.  You’re in Buffalo with Jimmy Hinsley, you meet Hank Jones, you’re playing in the cafeteria.  The story I hear is that you were on the road with the Snookum Russell band, then you left that band and went to New York City.  Snookum Russell was one of those band that had major figures before they became major figures.

Well, everybody in those days… There were a ton of big bands, and when you left school and went on the road, you normally went, in those days, with a big band, and you would play with the big band and then you would get better and you would move up to a better big band.  Eventually, you would wind up with one of the major big bands, as you became better.  Two guys who were in Snookum Russell’s band just before I joined it were was Fats Navarro and J.J. Johnson.  Those are not too bad names!

What kind of music was he playing?

I guess you could call it almost a commercial jazz band.  He covered the hits of the day.  If Lucky Millinder had a hit with Bull Moose Jackson, “Who Threw The Whiskey In the Well,” we would be doing that.  What happened was, I joined Snookum, and then he found out that I knew all of this stuff that Jimmy Blanton and Duke Ellington had done, so he started doing it between the two of us — because he of course loved Duke Ellington.  So he started featuring me doing the Blanton stuff.  There was a saxophone player in that band named Charles Carman(?) out of Sandusky, Ohio, and this guy was a Lester Young freak.  He knew everything Lester Young ever made—every note!  When I met him, and we were talking (after he’d been in the band for a little while), he said, “Do you know anything about Prez?”  I said, “Sure.”  He said, “What do you know about him?”  I said, “Well, what do you want to know?”  He said, “Do you know any of his solos?”  I said, “Call one.”

What you need to know is when I was going to high school we had a club of musicians, and every record that came out, as soon as it came out, you’d buy it (and it cost like 29 cents, a ‘78), you had two days to learn any of the major solos on there, and if you didn’t learn it in two days then nobody would let you in the house, because you had to sing it before you could get in the guy’s house.  So you had to learn every solo off of every record.

So I said, “Which one do you want to hear?”  He said so-and-so and so-and-so, and then I started singing it to him.  I couldn’t get rid of him after that.  Now, Lester Young and Slam Stewart had these records with Johnny Guarnieri and Sid Catlett, and we started doing those things—““Sometimes I’m Happy,” all that stuff.  So we were covering everything.

So Snookum Russell was a stimulating experience.

Oh yeah.

But you left.  It’s a funny story I’ve heard, there were four or five of you, they were going to leave the band, and they backed out…

Well, we all said we were going to go to New York and try our luck.  We had been with Snookum about eight months, and we’re reading Downbeat magazine and reading about Coleman Hawkins and 52nd Street and all these things.  We said, “We’ve got to go to New York.”  Because you had to go to New York to make it then. You couldn’t make it anyplace else.  You had to come to New York.  I said, “Well, then, let’s go to New York.”  So five of us decided we were going to go to New York.  And the night before we were supposed to leave, I started packing, I looked around, and everybody was sitting around.  I said, “What’s going on?”  One by one, they said, “Naw…”  The other four guys backed out.  So I started to back out, and then I said, “No, I’m going.”  I had talked to an aunt in New York and she said I could stay with her.  So I said, “I’m going.”

How did you travel?

On the train.  Took two days.

What happened when you got here?

I went to my aunt’s, washed up, she gave me some dinner, and I asked her son, who was my age, “Where is 52nd Street?”  He said, “Well, you’ve got to get the subway to get down there.”  I said, “Well, as soon as we eat, let’s go down there.  I want to see it.”  And he took me.

And who was on the Street?

Oh God, I can’t remember every band, but it was frightening.  I know the Downbeat, the second club on the right, had Art Tatum and Billie Holiday.  Stuff Smith was across the street (I can’t remember the other band).  Benny Harris and Don Byas.  There was one band that I went to see every night for a month (I didn’t miss a set), which was a trio with Erroll Garner, J.C. Heard and Oscar Pettiford.  Never missed a set.  Never did miss a set.  It was ridiculous.  You would have died if you could heard that group, man.  Obnoxious.  But anyway, the third place there had Coleman Hawkins featured, and Billy Daniels was singing intermissions, and he was being accompanied by a piano player, and it said, “Hank Jones.”  So I ran in there, and I asked if Hank Jones was around.  They said, “Yeah, he’s back there,” and I went back there, and we sat down and started to talk.  While we were talking, “Oh, there’s Dizzy Gillespie coming through the door.”  I said, “Oh yeah?  Introduce me.  I want to meet him.”  Because I had heard all his records and stuff.  So he called Dizzy, and Dizzy came over, and Hank said, “This is a good friend of mine; he’s a good bass player; he just got in town.”  Dizzy looked at me and said, “Can you play?”  I said, “Well…” I mean, what are you going to say?  Hank said, “Yeah, he can play.”  So he said, “You want a job?”  And I said, “Yeah!”  And he gave me a card and said, “Be at my house tomorrow night 7 o’clock for a rehearsal.”  I got up there, and there was four guys in there—Bud Powell, Max Roach, Dizzy and Charlie Parker.  Can’t beat that.  If you won the lottery tomorrow, it wouldn’t be as good as that.

What happened then?

Well, I had a heart attack first, and then we started to play some music.

What did the music sound like to you?  Was it along lines you were thinking about?

Like nothing I’ve ever heard before. They played tempos and keys and songs that I had never heard of, and you’re just standing there watching and trying to keep up.  Dizzy and Charlie Parker played so good, it was a frightening experience.

Dizzy Gillespie was famous for showing musicians how to play the music that he developed.  Did he do that with you at all?

He did that with all of us.  He used to show Max a lot of stuff.  They were very meticulous about what they wanted from the drums, especially Dizzy.  But if you’d ask him, then he would show you.  I know after I had been with him for about three or four weeks, I said, “How am I doing?”  He said, “Well, you’re doing pretty good, but you don’t play the right notes.” [LAUGHS] So I said, “What do you mean?”  He took me over to the piano and showed me.  He said, “Now, this note is right.”  Then he played the chord and showed me.  He said, “You play this note.  It’s right.  But that’s not the note I want.”  They were using a lot of substitutions.  So I would be playing a D, but he would want me to play a B.  I didn’t hear that at first, and then after he showed me I started finding out.

A few words about your relationship with and impressions of Charlie Parker.

Charlie Parker was unique.  I don’t have to tell anybody in their right mind how well this man played his instrument.  But what you don’t realize is, he’s the only guy I ever heard who could cover <b>everything</b>.  If you wanted to play “Cherokee” as fast as you could play it, he would eat it alive.  If you wanted to play some swing, like “Now’s The Time” or something like that, he would kill that.  If you wanted to play a ballad like Bird with Strings, he would eat that up.  And then,  he was the best blues player you ever heard!  He just covered everything.  There was nothing he couldn’t do.When you ask me for a few words about Charlie Parker, in a capsule that’s covering it pretty well.

Did he always play fairly short solos?  Was the way he plays on records or the various broadcasts with four or five choruses the rule, or did he extend…

He stretched out a few times.  But I’ll never forget what he told me.  One night somewhere we were playing, and after one of the sets I walked up to him and I said, “Bird, it feels so good when you play, why don’t you play more?”  And he looked at me and he said, “Raymond, if I played any more, I’d be practicing.  I do my practicing at home.”

A few words about Dizzy Gillespie.

Wow, that’s difficult.  I don’t know where to begin.  He was responsible for a lot of things that happened to me.  And he taught me a lot of things.  This is something that we as musicians don’t talk a lot about to people, but we learn many things from our mentors or people who we work for or who we admire or who are in front of us.  You don’t even realize how much you’ve learned from them.  You carry it with you all your life, and then you pass it along.  I just learned a tremendous amount of things from Dizzy Gillespie. Needless to say, he was a magnificent trumpet player, and he was a prolific songwriter, and he was a prolific arranger.  But I just keep going back to his knowledge of music.  Because in that band, which was a fantastic band that I just talked about… In fact, they picked up Milt Jackson a couple of weeks later.  Dizzy organized all the music.  He laid all the music down.  What can I say?  It’s history!

Were you in there at the very beginning of the big band?

He had a big band before, but it didn’t go, and he had to give it up.  I joined him when he had given up the big band and was getting ready to start another small band.  That’s when I showed up.  Then when we came back from California, he told Milt Jackson and I, “Listen, I’m thinking of getting another big band, and if you guys want to stay with me, you let me know.”  So we both said, “Absolutely!”  Then we opened up on 52nd Street.

What were the early rehearsals like?  Is it true that Monk was involved…

Monk was the piano player in that big band before John Lewis.

Was that a similar experience to hearing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in 1944 on coming to New York?  Did it sound like anything you’d ever heard?

No, not like any big band I’d ever heard.  Very exciting.  The music, the writing, the approach was all different.  The harmonies.  The only guy who experimented with harmonies to that extent was Duke Ellington, and he was always ahead of his time.

How did your first and still famous features for the band come to be?

Well, most leaders look at a band and they see who they have there to exploit, who has some talent that they can feature.  When he looked at this band, I guess it was Jackson and I, and James Moody who enjoyed a lot of the solo space along with Dizzy.  Other guys got solos, but we got a lot of space.

It was a great opportunity to really develop your conception in a variety of ways.

Yeah, but all these things are designated by the leader.  It’s like Jimmy Blanton joins Duke Ellington, and six months later he’s standing in front of the band playing solos all night. So Duke Ellington saw something and he was right.  He was absolutely right!  Here’s a guy who had under his thumb at any given time, Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster and Harry Carney and Ray Nance and Cootie Williams—all those guys!  But this was a diamond he had just discovered, and he did something with it.

In talking about Blanton before you were mentioning the difficulties bassists had in big bands because of the lack of amplification.  Now, you had to play very fast with Dizzy Gillespie.  Did you have amplification by that time?  How did you deal with…

Well, I didn’t play fast solos.  We were just playing fast tempos.

CHRISTIAN McBRIDE:  “Things To Come”! [LAUGHS]

When I was talking about playing fast I was talking about the way Christian McBride plays now.  20-30-40 years ago you wouldn’t have heard all those notes he’s playing.  Now you can hear every one of them.

But then, from what I gather, people heard you pretty clearly, and those are some tempos that haven’t been caught up with yet!

We’re not discussing tempos, now.  We’re discussing solo lines.  That’s a big difference.  Nobody dared play anything that fast because you couldn’t hear it.  Oscar Pettiford played some magnificent solos, and you didn’t really get to hear him until he joined Duke Ellington.

I’d like to talk you about Coleman Hawkins and your impressions of him.  I read a story that you and Hank Jones were trying to work out ways to trick him…

[LOUD LAUGH]

…on “Body and Soul” or something, and he just threw them right back at you.

That’s what I was talking about with all of the great saxophone players, how they differed.  For instance, let’s take Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.  We were on Jazz at the Philharmonic, and Coleman Hawkins was playing “Body and Soul,” which he had to play whenever he took his saxophone out.  Hank Jones and I rehearsed in the daytime, we devised about 15 different sets of changes on “Body and Soul.”  And it didn’t make any difference.  Whatever we played, he just ate it up!  He just turned around, looked at us and said, “Hmm, THBBF,” and would go right through it.  We just broke up.  But it was good.  This guy had a magnificent ear!  On the other hand, Lester Young, you could play what you want back there.  Doesn’t matter.  He’s playing little stories.  He makes up melodies of his own, so he’s not interested in the changes.  He didn’t miss the change, but then he had his own interpretation of how to do it.

McBRIDE:   What about that story you told me about Ben Webster, when you were doing one of those Jazz at the Philharmonics.  That one wasn’t as smooth, huh?

Well, but that’s how you learn, though.  That’s why I can play songs in all the keys now.  He’s kind of responsible for that.  They had a ballad medley on Jazz at the Philharmonic, and each guy would walk up… They had ten horns.  Each guy would walk up two bars before the other guy finished and tell the rhythm section what he was going to play in what key.  So Coleman Hawkins would say, “‘Body and Soul’ in D-flat,” then he’d go out and play.  Roy Eldridge would come by and say, “‘The Man I Love,’ E-flat.”  It was just like that.  Until you get to Ben Webster, and Webster would come up and say, “‘My One And Only Love,’ B-natural.”  And we’d be back there scrambling for those changes!  So after the show was over, I would be in the back, packing up my bass, and somebody walked up behind me and hit me on my head.  I turned around and it was Ben Webster.  He said, “You messed up the chords tonight.”  I said, “Man, you were playing in B-natural.”  He said, “Don’t you have a B on that bass?”  Enough said.  Christian likes that story!

McBRIDE:  I’m sure we’ve all been through that a couple of times!

But it’s good for somebody to bring that to your attention.  All it does is, it improves you as a musician.

All those saxophonists had very different sounds and different approaches to projecting sound.  Ben Webster, for instance.

Oh yeah.  That may be the best saxophone sound I ever heard in my life, just the sound he made coming out of that horn.

You once described it, I think, as he and Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges had the most mature sounds that you had heard.

Well, Charlie Parker used to call Johnny Hodges the Lily Pons of the saxophone.  Now, Lily Pons was a famous opera singer; what a beautiful voice.  That’s what Bird called Rabbit, the Lily Pons of the saxophone.

Staying on various personalities, Hank Jones was obviously very important to you at that time.

We call him “Mr. Piano.”  There’s just not a lot of people around who are that prolific on that instrument as he is.  He plays everything well.  I mean, he’s sort of like I said about Charlie Parker; this guy just does it all.  Magnificent player.  Wouldn’t you say so, Christian?

McBRIDE:  Oh, definitely.  I’d like to ask Ray about the short movie clip of Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band, Jivin’ in Bebop?  You were saying how Duke used to put Jimmy Blanton in front of the band, and Dizzy does that to you on the video where you guys play “One Bass Hit.”

Oh yeah.  Well, they didn’t have to put me up front, but I guess if you’re featured on a tune, doing this movie the tendency was to bring the soloist up front.  It was unusual for the time, but they did it even with a bass player.

McBRIDE:  Every note you played came through crystal-clear.

Such as it was.

I’d like to talk to you about some of the drummers you’ve played with, since bass and drums are so interlocked.  First of all, Kenny Clarke, a fellow Pittsburgher.

That’s right.  I didn’t name him, but I left out a lot of people.  Kenny Clarke was a special drummer.  I never will forget, I would come to work on 52nd Street… Because he was in that first rhythm section, Monk, myself and Kenny Clarke.  He said, “Now, I want you to stand behind the bass drum, because I want your bass notes to go through the bass drum so it doesn’t come out BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.  It will sound almost like a bass coming out of there.  And he would come down early and have a damp cloth and wipe down his bass drum and tune it, and then tell me exactly where he wanted me to stand, because he said that makes the rhythm section sound better.  Most guys aren’t that meticulous about music.  He was special.  And he could swing.  That’s another thing about those Pittsburgh drummers.  Art Blakey, PSHEW!  Boy, those guys had some beat.  They had a beat, man.

<But we were talking about Hank Jones.  We did a session, and I challenged him on this… I said, “Do you ever remember a song that Fats Waller used to sing called ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’?”  He said, “Hell, yeah, I knew that tune.  I grew up with that.”  I said, “Well, let’s play it.”  And we played it on this record date.  So this is just for Hank Jones.  I hope he’s listening, because he’ll fall out.

[MUSIC: RB/HJ, “Your Feet’s Too Big” (1976); RB/HJ/Bags, “Nancy” (1964); OP/RB/Ella, “Street of Dreams”]

That was Ray Brown’s selection of music with your first wife, Ella Fitzgerald.

Well, there’s been so much since she passed away.  They’ve done so much.  I’ve heard it on the radios everywhere we’ve gone, Europe and the United States.  We’ve just lost one of the best ones.  A magnificent woman and a magnificent singer.  One of the best who ever did it.  I have great memories just for the fact that… The first trumpet player, and one of the best of all time, Mr. Louis Armstrong, he and Ella did a lot of stuff together, and I was fortunate to be on a lot of that stuff.  But I’ve been overly blessed to play with all the way back to Louis Armstrong and all the way up to guys like Christian McBride now.  And I’m just elated to still be able to go up on the bandstand and play.  It’s a great feeling!  And to have gone through all of those people I’ve played with.  All of those saxophone players, Prez and Hawk and Ben and Sonny Rollins, Johnny Hodges and Bird and Cannonball.  Sweets and Roy and Fats and Dizzy…Clark Terry.  I can’t name everybody.  All the piano players I’ve played with, all the guitar players, and all the drummers.  Just I’ve worked with almost everybody in this business, and that’s a blessing.  can’t describe it.  It’s just too overwhelming.

Just a few words on how This One’s For Blanton came to be.

Well, I made maybe half-a-dozen sessions with Ellington, whom I had always wanted to play with ever since I was knee-high to a duck.  But Norman Granz said to me, “You and Duke ought to do some things like he and Blanton did.”  I said, “Oh, I don’t know about that!”  But I said, “Well, let’s talk about it.”  He tried for years to get us together.  We were just in different places all the time.  Duke was busy and he was someplace, and I was busy someplace.  Of course, this was the last record he made before he passed, and I was fortunate enough to get in the studio with him.  The second session we did, he was pretty sick.  He had a fever. But he came in and played magnificently.

REMARKS ABOUT RAY BROWN:
Christian McBride

TP:    Talk about Ray Brown’s legacy in the music, in a synoptic way.

CHRISTIAN McBRIDE:  If I can make this as simple and poignant as possible, I would have to say that Ray Brown was to the bass what Charlie Parker was to the saxophone.  He revolutionized the instrument.  He took what Jimmy Blanton started to an entirely new level.

Ray Brown was arguably the very first bass player to revolutionize note lengths.  Most bass players before Ray Brown played very short, choppy notes, and Ray Brown revolutionized the sound of the bass in that his notes were very long.  Every note got its full value.  A quarter note was actually a quarter note.  A half note was actually a half note.  A whole note was actually a whole note.  How Ray Brown came across playing that way during a time when nobody did, it will always be beyond me, but I guess being in the company of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, and the man who I’m with now, Roy Haynes, I’m sure greatness and innovative ideas would run rampant.

TP:    When did he build his technique?  Did you ever get that from him?

McBRIDE:  Well, he always had that technique.  But I never really got a chance to talk much to him about any of his teachers or his early studies.  But Ray always talked about Jimmy Blanton.  That was his main man. That’s what made him want to play bass.  And it’s quite amazing that Ray Brown… When Jimmy Blanton hit the scene, that was really only seven years before Ray Brown hit the scene.  So there really wasn’t that large of a gap in age difference between the two of them.  That just proves how much of a sponge Ray was, to be able to pick up what Jimmy Blanton did.  And not to slight all the other bass players who were around then, like Milt Hinton, of course, or his fellow beboppers, like Al McKibbon and Nelson Boyd and Tommy Potter and Curley Russell.  But Ray, in most people’s eyes, was head and shoulders above the rest.

And his intonation was impeccable.  That was another one of his calling cards throughout his entire career.  Every note was always perfectly in tune.

TP:    I guess there was a hand-in-glove type of thing going on between he and Oscar Pettiford.

McBRIDE:  Absolutely.  Ray talked a lot about Oscar, too.  But even talking to a lot of guys who were there, like Roy Haynes or Hank Jones… Needless to say, Oscar Pettiford was a revolutionary in his own right, not just bass playing, but playing the cello and being able to play all those wonderfully melodic lines that Charlie Parker and Dizzy were playing, and incorporate that into the bass.  But his sound, the way he played his notes, still came from an older style.  Oscar Pettiford’s notes were still kind of on the short side, and Ray Brown elongated them. The bass had much more of a forward motion with the notes ringing out that much.  They almost ran into each other, his notes were so resonant.

TP:    How did his sound evolve over the years?  This is someone, it seems quite evident, who kept his curiosity, and particularly in the last ten years nurtured young musicians.

McBRIDE:  I think the fact that Ray Brown never stopped playing… I mean, even after he left Oscar Peterson’s company and moved to Los Angeles in the ’60s and started working on a lot of television and film, the “Merv Griffin Show” and whatnot, he never got away from the groove and the swing.  He played that style every day all of his life, and of course, when you do something like that every day, you can only get better and develop.  He never lost focus of his strength.  All during the time when people would think that being in Los Angeles and working on film scores and doing a lot of things that weren’t very jazz friendly, he might lose his chops.  But he never did.  I think the fact that he was able to stay so active during his time in L.A., when he really wasn’t traveling a lot, going on the road with other bands… When he decided to start a trio again and go back on the road, people realized, “Oh my gosh, he sounds better than ever.”

TP:    I’m looking my file of the interview, and he told the story that in junior high school he signed up for orchestra, and there were 28 piano players and 2 bass players, and there was a bass lying on the floor, so he asked the teacher if he could play it, and the teacher said he could.  He said he just figured it out himself without a teacher.

McBRIDE:  I totally believe it.  I never heard him mention having a private teacher. That’s testament to the man’s genius.

TP:    Talk about your personal relationship.  Of all the young musicians, you and John Clayton might have been the closest to him.

McBRIDE:  I can only say that a lot of musicians tend to call older guys “Dad” in a very loose manner.  But Ray Brown was not only a father figure to me, but I know he was to John as well as Benny Green and Diana Krall, or even people like Dee Dee Bridgewater.

One thing I loved about Ray more than anything else was that he took a very simplistic view toward life. Ray was not into over-conceptualizing.  He was always able to get right to the crux of the matter without doing a lot of dancing around any type of subject.  That’s the way he approached his music.  You watch a lot of musicians, and sometimes we have a tendency to do that, to over-think, to always want to try to get to that next level by thinking it out and a lot of trial-and-error.  Meanwhile, Ray had this ability to see it and go for it.  I’ll give you a perfect example.  Ray and I were talking about playing with the bow one time, and of course, traditionally there’s a way you hold the French bow and a way you hold the German bow.  I was talking to Ray about that one time, and Ray said, “I don’t see what the big deal is; it’s nothing but hair.”  He said, “If you hold it with your fist, you’re still going to do an up bow and a down bow, and it’s still going to sound okay.”  I said, “wow, I’ve never heard anybody quite put it like that, Ray.”

TP:    He wasn’t joking, though.

McBRIDE:  He wasn’t joking.  He was dead-serious.

TP:    So it was a totally pragmatic thing for him.

McBRIDE:  Totally.  And he lived his life like that.  He was always able to get right to the crux of the matter, and not being evil or being indignant; that’s just how he felt.  He was able to get right to the core of the matter.

TP:    He was a very standup guy also, I gather.  Someone you didn’t want to cross in any manner.

McBRIDE:  Absolutely not.  He was a very astute businessman, too.  He had that jazz club in L.A. for a long time, the Loa, and of course, he managed the MJQ for a while, and he also managed Quincy Jones for a while, when Quincy was really starting to heat up in Los Angeles, writing for Sanford and Son and Ironside and all those shows.  So this man had it together on both sides of the fence.

TP:    Would you describe for the 8-millionth time how you met?

McBRIDE:  I met Ray Brown at the Knickerbocker.  He was in town playing at the Blue Note with his trio, which at the time was Gene Harris and Jeff Hamilton.  Mary Ann Topper, who was manager to Benny Green and I at the time… I was playing in Benny’s trio at the time.  Mary Ann said, “Listen, Ray has got to hear you guys.  There’s no way in the world he wouldn’t dig you guys.”  So Benny and I were playing at the Knickerbocker, and Mary Ann got Ray to come over.  Needless to say, Benny Green and I were scared out of our wits.  I think a lot of times… I know some guys are different, but a lot of musicians, the last thing they want to do if they’ve been playing all night is go hear somebody else play.  They just kind of want to chill out, have a drink, and be cool and just vibe with the cats.  So Ray comes over, and we could tell he was tired, but he sat down and listened to us, and gave us some really nice words of wisdom, not anything too over the top, but he said, “You guys sound great; keep it up; you guys have really got it together; come see me play tomorrow night.”  So Benny and I went and saw Ray; it was his last night, a Sunday night.  Much to our surprise, he acknowledged us from the stage.  He said, “Last night I went to this club around the corner, the Knickerbocker, and I heard these two young men, and they were swingin’ like dawgs.”  I’ll never forget, those were his exact words, “swingin’ like dawgs.”  He asked us to stand up in the audience.  And about eight months later, Benny became Ray’s pianist, took Gene Harris’ place, and about four months after that, almost a year after we met, he started the new version of Super-Bass with John Clayton and myself.

TP:    What was it like playing with him?

McBRIDE:  All I can say is, I always wanted to know what a drummer felt like, playing with a really, really great bass player.  I always used to hear Billy Higgins say that when he played with Sam Jones, the drums played themselves.  He was like, “I don’t have to do anything; I can just put my stick right up on the cymbal, and it sounds good, because Sam is just laying it down.”  When I got to stand next to Ray Brown and hear him walk…I mean, feel him walk… I mean, physically the stage moved.  “Man, I’ve never felt perpetual motion like this!”  I was supposed to solo on top while he was walking, but I just couldn’t do it, because I was so amazed at the energy and force his bass lines created.  I was stuck for a minute.

TP:    What do you think Ray Brown’s legacy is going to be in the music?

McBRIDE:  That he was able to make the most simple musical statements with such ease… Like I said before, his music was like his whole outlook on life.  It was very direct and to the point, and it felt really good ,and I don’t think there will ever be another bass player that will be able to physically move a band quite like Ray Brown did.

TP:    Why is that?

McBRIDE:  I don’t know.  To kind of follow on Ray’s simplistic viewpoint, I really believe there are some guys who are just born with it and some guys who aren’t.

TP:    Are you talking about a specific quality or his essence?

McBRIDE:  I’m talking about a specific quality.  Because you would think that, the way Ray Brown plays, there would be a lot of other guys who would kind of… Because it’s a very simple style to figure out.  But nobody has really quite done it like Ray Brown.  You listen to somebody like Miles Davis.  Miles Davis has a very singular style that’s very easy to figure out, and you can analyze it for days and years and decades, but nobody will ever be able to quite do it like that.  It’s the same thing with Ray Brown.

Geoffrey Keezer

GEOFFREY KEEZER:  You’re never prepared for something like this, since he wasn’t ill, really.  It kind of took us all by surprise.

TP:    He had a sort of indestructible vibe to him, didn’t he.

KEEZER:  That’s a good way of putting it.  I think it was the quality of his generation.  Art Blakey was like that, too.

One thing that I could say that seems to be consistent from that era, whether it be Art Blakey or Ray Brown or Roy Haynes or Art Taylor or…not so much Hank Jones… Generally, they really hit hard!  Every single time they play, it’s as if it could be the last time they ever play music.  I always felt that these musicians always gave 150% every single time.  That’s a quality which I think doesn’t always migrate to younger players.  I think there’s something in the way these older people lived, there’s something that they survived early in their life that gave them this kind of warrior quality.  I think things are just generally easier.  It’s easier to live now.  We’re not dealing with the same things that they were dealing with.  We don’t have segregation, among other things…

TP:    Not so many gangsters now either.

KEEZER:  Yeah.  I remember one conversation, I don’t remember where, but I was in a dressing room with three generations of bass players.  It was Milt Hinton, Ray and Christian McBride.  The conversation went something like this.  McBride was complaining about the hotel or something that we were staying in, and then Ray said something to the effect that when he was young they stayed in real fleabag hotels, with bugs in the bed, just really bad conditions.  Then Milt Hinton jumped in and said, “Yeah, at least you had a hotel.  When we were young, we stayed in a hole!”

TP:    They’d go to town and black families would board them because there was no hotel.

KEEZER:  Yeah.  Not having lived it myself, I can only speculate.  But I think perhaps life was harder, and I think the music took on this sort of warrior quality.  From being with Ray for three years, besides all the musical things I got, I also was able to observe him on a daily basis, just how he handled the business side of things.  In contrast to someone like Art Blakey, who was a little bit more chaotic, Ray was really meticulous about business.  He would be up at 6 o’clock every morning on the phone; he would call Europe early in the morning; then he would go play golf; then he would be on the phone more in the afternoon. He never had an agent or a manager; he always did everything himself.

TP:    Well, he was a manager himself.  He managed Quincy Jones and the MJQ, plus he functioned as a contractor for the studios.  And did that carry over to the way he organized the band, his approach to setting up sets or repertoire?

KEEZER:  There was definitely a quality of attention that he brought to whatever he did.  In terms of what he did on stage, Ray was aware of the show-biz side of things, and he was definitely an entertainer as well as a great artist.  I think actually some young musicians take the whole thing way too seriously!  Of course, you have to take your practice seriously and take the music seriously, but I’ve always felt that it’s also entertainment, and he really understood that side of it.

TP:    I think that might be another characteristic of the generation.  They played shows.  They’d go on a show, and there’d be a dance act, a chorus line, some comedians.

KEEZER:  So he was always sensitive to the kind of audience we were playing for, and he would adjust accordingly.  If we were playing for an older, gray-haired kind of crowd, he would usually play more kinds of old standards, favorites, swing-oriented things, and if we were playing for a younger crowd he would throw in more Funk.  Especially in my last year in the band, we had a lot of guest stars.  We would have guest vocalists, somebody like Marlena Shaw or Diana Krall or Kevin Mahogany, or sometimes Stanley Turrentine would play with us.  So he was aware of the value of presenting interesting packages.

TP:    That’s evident on the “Some of My Best Friends” series.

KEEZER:  He was just as adept as a businessman as he was as a musician.  Which I think is a good quality to have.  And for him, I think it was in balance.  For some musicians, they’re all about business, and the playing suffers.  The reverse is also true.

TP:    Let’s talk about him as a bassist.  Talk about the quality of playing with him on a nightly basis, how he played and created basslines under you.  The dynamics of operating in a high-level trio with Ray Brown.

KEEZER:  I’m so glad that I had a chance to tell him this the last time I saw him, which was at Catalina’s in L.A. about a month ago.  With some distance and really being able to hear his trio from the audience as opposed to being in the middle of it, because sometimes when you’re in the middle of it, it’s harder to hear everything that’s going on, because you’re so sort of involved in what you’re doing at the moment… But hearing his new trio and how much Larry Fuller had improved in the couple of years he was with Ray… He went from being a good pianist when he started to being a really exceptional pianist.  I had a chance to tell Ray how much I appreciated playing with him every night for three years, and how I thought it was really the best thing I ever did for my piano playing.

TP:    Why was that?

KEEZER:  Number one, just because we’re playing every night.  Number two, because what Ray brought was such a wonderful kind of support.  For me, Ray embodied every quality that I like in a bass player.  He did everything really perfectly, and he did all the things that you can’t really say to a bass player, but all the things that you just wish they would do! It’s almost like with another bassist, you want to say, “Why can’t you do what Ray does?” but you don’t want to say that.  I’m trying to think if I can explain a little bit more clearly.

First of all, his beat was so huge, and he swung really, really hard.  Also harmonically speaking, he was so completely aware in every moment of what I was doing, and I felt that he was truly accompanying me. Even though he was the leader and it was his band, I felt like I had complete freedom to go whatever direction I wanted.  If you heard some of the records we made, you know I took it further out than any other pianist.  I only remember one time when he sort of said something about what I was playing. I started playing the Darth Vader theme in the middle of something, and he leaned over and said, “Jazz, please!” But other than that, I got to do as much as I possibly could, and he was right there with me.

TP:    [READS RAY'S QUOTE ON KEEZER]

KEEZER:  What I appreciated is that he let it happen.  There’s another thing about his bass playing which I always talk about in workshops.  That’s his understanding of how to play a walking bassline.  Very few people really understand this.  What he was doing at all times was playing melodies.  And a lot of younger bass players play four notes to the bar, and the notes they choose usually relate to the chords in some way, but the actual notes don’t connect up to any kind of melody.  And with Ray, if you isolated just the bassline and superimposed it over the chords, let’s say in a higher register, you’d have a beautiful melody all the time.  This is similar to what Bach does.  But what that means is that not only was he aware of the chords and being a rhythmic instrument, but he was also creating these melodies all the time underneath everything that I was doing — contrapuntal, in a way.  It’s really an advanced level of bass playing.  There’s only a couple of guys I can think of off the top of my head who can do that — Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Ray Drummond, and a handful of younger players.  It’s a very subtle aspect of playing bass, which hasn’t really migrated well to the younger generation. TP:    Can you talk about how your relationship began and evolved?

John Clayton

JOHN CLAYTON:  When I was 16 years old, I was getting serious about the bass, and started my first Classical lessons.  Also around that time, I heard my first Ray Brown record, with the Oscar Peterson Trio, and my mind was blown.  So I mentioned the name to my Classical teacher, and asked, “Have you ever heard of him?”  He said, “Sure, I know him; he’s a friend of mine.”  My eyes got wide.  Then he took out a letter from Ray Brown that said, “Dear Mr. Segal, would you please tell your students about a class I’ll be teaching at UCLA called ‘Workshop in Jazz Bass’?”  That was my last Classical lesson with that guy.  I paid $65, and I enrolled in the extension course at UCLA.

TP:    What was Ray Brown like as a teacher?

CLAYTON:  Phenomenal, because he knew the importance of correctly learning the instrument.  In the beginning, Ray Brown was self-taught, as are most of us.  But then at some point, Ray Brown, while on the road with Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson and those kinds of people, started to hook up with principal bass players in major orchestras, and he had lessons in between his gigs on the road.

TP:    So he set up a network of teachers for himself, taking advantage of his travels?

CLAYTON:  Yes.  And he did that really, frankly, in terms of studying and practicing…he did that until he died. He practiced.  Ray used to tell me, “A lot of people say, ‘Boy, you’re just so talented and so good,” and he’d say… He’d usually use an expletive and say, “They don’t understand I PRACTICED to get together what I have together.  I’m not as talented as most people think.  I had to WORK on it.”  That was very enlightening.

The course at UCLA then led to me following him around to gigs and studio sessions and all of that sort of thing, basically doing whatever he told me to do.

TP:    Once getting past fundamentals, did he teach principles of improvising or playing basslines in a functional situation, that sort of thing?

CLAYTON:  He only led me to other people, not himself; how other people would do it.  He never talked about, “Try this scale on this chord” or that sort of thing.  He never had that approach.  Instead he would say, “Check out what Oscar Pettiford did on this record or what Israel Crosby did with this bassline from Ahmad Jamal.”  He’s the guy who turned me on to Eddie Davis, Richard Davis and Scott LaFaro.

TP:    It seems he kept his ears open to everything happening in the music.

CLAYTON:  As long as you were serious about the music and you were doing something that had something, Ray… People forget that Ray Brown played music that people thought came from outer space — Bebop.  And when bebop hit, there were more people who could not relate to it — I mean, jazz lovers who could not relate to it — than people who could.  So it was a very inside music.  That hasn’t changed.  That was a part of Ray Brown that was in him all the time.  If anyone ever does a thesis on Ray Brown and his music, they’ll see that he continued to search and stretch and experiment.  His later arrangements involved a lot more unpredictable chord voicings and chord changes and melodic movement than things he did five and ten years ago.

TP:    As a friend and someone who deeply analyzed his playing, what were the essential elements that made Ray Brown be Ray Brown?

CLAYTON:  Sound.  His bass sound was absolutely separate and distinguishable from every other bass player on earth.  Sound, his bass lines and his melodic bass solos.  And of course, oops, his drive.  Those things to me really set him apart from everybody else.

TP:    As you’ve implied, he befriended musicians from many walks of the music and many different generations.  But it seems like after the band with Gene Harris and Jeff Hamilton broke up, he made a real choice to go with younger musicians and use them in his touring bands.  Maybe that was in part a practical decision, but what’s your take on why he did that?

CLAYTON:  Because he wanted to keep the youth in his music.  The only practical part of it might be that some of the older musicians that he would ask were busy with their own groups. But also, like you pointed out earlier, he had his ear to the ground, so he was really digging what a lot of these younger musicians were doing.  So it sort of also evolved on its own.  It goes from Benny Green joining the group, and when Jeff Hamilton finally leaves, then Benny can recommend another one of his friends that plays swinging drums, and next thing you know, you’ve got Greg Hutchinson.  All of those guys helped keep Ray up on what was happening in the younger jazz world.

TP:    So they stimulated him.  He needed that constant stimulation.

CLAYTON:  Well, they did stimulate him.  I think all artists need that.

TP:    It sounds like he got some of that as well from Super Bass.

CLAYTON:  That was sure stimulating for me.  Ray and I had actually done a Super Bass record together before he put the group together with Christian.  It’s on Capri Records.  That, of course, kind of set the idea going in our heads.  And when Christian McBride came along, then at some point Ray asked what I thought about putting together a Super Bass group with Christian.  I said, “Are you kidding?  When can we start?”  Of course, we all got along so well together, it really became a family trio.

TP:    Were there any particular stories or incidents that you can think of that get to his essence?

CLAYTON:  There’s one which I told at his funeral, in my eulogy, which really sums up Ray Brown from my perspective.  This is in regard to his concern for musicians.  When I was following him around to the studios, I got star eyes.  I just loved what he did in studios, and was enamored by this whole life of the studio musician, working with all these stars, and I’d see his name stencilled on his equipment, and it all looked so impressive.  So I asked him if he could help me become a studio musician when I got out of college, and he hit the ceiling!  He cursed and screamed, and told me I didn’t even know how to play the effing bass, and the first thing I needed to do was learn how to play it from top to bottom, and then get on the road and play some music, and then if I want to come back and play this garbage in the studios, it will be here waiting for me.  He and I laughed about that a lot in later years, because he was really pissed at the idea that I might get sucked into something that was not helping me to develop as a musician.

TP:    He was also a very practical man, wasn’t he?  A good businessman, a manager, an entrepreneur.

CLAYTON:  I know that for the last twenty years of his life, he did not have a manager.  He handled all of his business, he booked all of his concerts; if it was Carnegie Hall or a funky dive someplace, he booked it.

TP:    And he handled all the details.

CLAYTON:  He did.

TP:    I gather his routine was to get up at 6-6:30 every morning, do business, play golf, come back, do more business, practice, take his nap, and if there was a gig, go to the gig.

CLAYTON:  That pretty much was it.

TP:    A very disciplined man, then.

CLAYTON:  He was.  It wasn’t always 6, but it was early in the morning.  You’re right.

Ron Carter

TP:    When did you first hear him, and what impact did it make on you when you did hear him?

RON CARTER:  The first time I saw him was with the Oscar Peterson Trio with Herb Ellis at the Village Vanguard, right I came to New York in August 1959. Oscar brought his piano in, of course, and that was quite impressive to know a guy could get a gig and bring his own piano.  Up to that point, I hadn’t known piano players to have the command to do that.

What I hope his legacy is, Ted, is that bass players remember that the bass player also plays time.  I think most of us kind of got away from that part of the process of playing bass with a group.  One of his legacies to the bass community is how great his time was and how he always commanded attention by the way he played great time.

But what impressed me at the Vanguard, THEN, was his professional approach to the instrument.  I’d seen Wyatt Ruether, Bull Ruether, one of the early bass players who was with Chico Hamilton when I joined the band.  He played the bass without a lot of skill level, and while he had the interest, it just didn’t seem to have the command of the instrument that Ray had.  Later on, I saw George Duvivier play in New York with Lena Horne and Chico Hamilton, and again, I was impressed by their professional approach to the instrument.  I mean, they were playing it like a bass, not like a baseball bat.  They used a different combination of notes and great intonation.  Those things impressed me with Ray when I first heard him.

TP:    Did you become friends with him?

CARTER:  Much later.  I’m fortunate to say that I saw him when he was last in New York at Birdland with the flute-led quartet.  He and I and Sandy Jackson had a great talk.  I hadn’t seen him for a while.  The last time I’d seen him was at the Blue Note, and he was just thinking about undergoing some knee surgery or hip surgery.  He looked in great shape.  We had a nice conversation.

TP:    But did you ever at any point analyze his playing, or wasn’t it like that.

CARTER:  No.  When you kind of have your own track in your head, the most you can do is just appreciate people who have found their own track.  He was clearly out of the Jimmy Blanton school, but he had his own sense of where to play the time.  There was no question he thought that the time belonged right here.  He wasn’t afraid to play where he thought the beat was, and he would play it until everyone agreed with it.  He just kind of towered over the rhythm section.

TP:    And it seemed he got stronger and stronger up to the end of his life.

CARTER:  Yeah.  I was as stunned as anyone else to know that he passed away, whatever the circumstances, because he seemed so vital and he sounded great that night I heard him at Birdland.

One doesn’t know when their last chance to play the bass is going to be.  I’ve been telling my students for a very long time that you’ve got to play the bass like this is your last change to get it right.  And he always brought that kind of energy to the instrument.  He never fooled around, never spun the bass, he never told jokes.  He just played the bass like it was his last chance to do it, and he was going to appreciate the Creator’s intent for him and he was going to do it.  That’s that whole mindset that’s escaped some of the bass players, I think, who see the bass as a tool for something other than creating a good level of music within a group.  That wasn’t his mentality.

TP:    So your main point would be that his impact on the way bass players play grooves and play in time.

CARTER:  Absolutely.  He made it that way.  There’s a record, “For Musicians Only” with Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Herb Ellis, Ray and Stan Levey.  It’s a fabulous record of how to play time.  This was 1956 or something like that.  He just nails it in place, man!  What a perfect example of how a bass player who wants to really oversee the rhythm section, making things Stan plays… Perfect example, man.

Herb Ellis’ Written Statement and Remarks

“Ray never met a stranger.  He was the friendliest and warmest-hearted man I ever knew, always willing to help any musician, giving lessons and tips for playing not just the bass, but he was able to help anyone become a better player.

His sense of humor is almost as well known as his unbelievable talent.  That he was one of the greatest bassists and innovative leaders is a given, changing the role of the bass into more than just a rhythm instrument.  His love of music, life, friends — and, of course, golf — are legendary.

I feel so blessed that he was my friend for over fifty years, and that I got to play with him for so many years.

He is missed now, and will always be missed for all who knew and loved him, and will always be in our hearts.

TP:    Do you recollect when you first met?

HERB ELLIS:  I first met Ray in Boston when I was playing with a group called the Soft Winds.

TP:    Did that coincide with your hearing him for the first time in person?

ELLIS:  Yes, it did.

TP:    What was your impression?

ELLIS:  I was just blown away.  I couldn’t believe his talent.  And fortunately, I got to play with him much of my musical life.

TP:    In the Oscar Peterson group, within that trio format, do you recall his role in putting together the voicings and arrangements in the group?

ELLIS:  I’ll say that he was the very best.  You could take the bass notes he gave you and take them anywhere in the world.  He was the epitome of bass players.

TP:    John Clayton mentioned to me that when he was on the road, either with Oscar Peterson or the JATP, in different cities he would take lessons with symphonic bass players.  Do you remember that?

ELLIS:  Yes, I do.  And Ray was always willing to give lessons, which was …(?)… to work at being a better bass player.

TP:    Do you feel that he evolved very much as a musician during his career as he got older?

ELLIS:  Yes, he did.  He became better and better.  He was getting better right up to the very end of his life.  He always was trying to be a better bass player.  Not that he needed to, but that’s what he strove for.

Monty Alexander

TP:    When did your association with Ray Brown begin?

MONTY ALEXANDER:  It began around 1966 or 1967.  I saw him on several occasions, and he saw me as a tiny kid who just wanted to get to know him better.  He didn’t hear me play music or anything; I just phoned him and started hanging out with him, and he welcomed me into his social life, and he came to New York, and I remember we met, and I took him to a club with mutual friends of ours, and I was talking about Wynton Kelly and Sam Jones, and I took him to see them play at a little bar.  I saw the camaraderie between them, and we hung out and had a lot of laughs. Then I took him to see Coleman Hawkins down at the Half Note, and he saw his old friends… So he liked it, and I ended up being in his company.

Then I saw him in Los Angeles a few months later, when he was doing the “Joey Bishop Show,” which became later the “Merv Griffin Show.”  I went to say hello, and he invited me to hang out with him again.

But the real association happened one evening when I went to where he was playing.  They were on an intermission, and when the time came to play a tune, just to sign off for the night… Because they weren’t really listening to the music; it was a sort of Hollywood club.  The pianist had one drink too many (I won’t call his name), and I said, “Can I sit in?”  Ray said, “Yeah.”  We started playing.  And in a few bars, I could hear his joyful sound, and mine too.  It was the beginning of knowing Ray Brown in music.  We just played some blues.  Then I got off the bandstand, and he asked me if I could join him in (?) that summer, just like that.  This was 1968.

TP:    When was the last time you played with him?

ALEXANDER:  We made what probably was his last recording.  He and I and Russell Malone have a release coming in October on Telarc.  We were all very happy to be together.  We had toured Europe last year, then we made this album, just the trio, and had all these dates in October and November, and next year we were going to tour Europe.  We were just happy to be together, and everybody loved the band — and we loved the band.

TP:    And you played with him with varying degrees of frequency and consistency between 1969 and early this year, then, on various gigs and recordings.

ALEXANDER:  With varying degrees of consistency is a great way to put it.  Because for a while, there was a lot of activity, and then I just went off doing what I do, and he started touring more and playing with Gene Harris and a trio.  He would have a trio.  Before that, Herb Ellis and I and Ray played in a group that everybody called The Triple Threat.  We made about five CDs for Concord.  We were playing and having a good thing.

TP:    Over the 34 years of knowing him well, did you hear him evolve as a musician?  Did Ray Brown in 1968 sound different than Ray Brown in 2002?  I assume the answer would be yes, but I wonder what the quality of his evolution would be.

ALEXANDER:  Ray Brown was like Art Tatum.  I’ll tell you why.  The first time you hear Art Tatum play, it was so incredible… I mean, his first recordings, whatever he did, to many us that heard it, it was as incredible in his latter days as in the beginning.  So it was already beyond words.  And Ray Brown was that.  Ray Brown was a continuous circle of beyond normal.  There was nothing on the planet… And I’m not just saying it out of emotion and sentiment.  In my opinion, what he stood for, just when he laid that rhythm down, it was like… I used to conjure up terms to try to explain how it was, and it was a Mack Truck with a Rolls-Royce engine.  That’s what it was.  I mean, that’s just my little parlance.

To me, the last times I played with him, every time from the beginning there was that sense of excitement that I would get, that I’m playing with this guy who is like a royal duke.  He’s a king.  He’s not a normal level of bass player.  He had something in him that was brilliant, just brilliant.

TP:    It seems he would play exactly in the right manner for any situation, and always make his personality shine, and yet never make himself outshine the situation.

ALEXANDER:  He was the greatest support player, and yet he was so strong with what he did, and you knew it was him.  He wasn’t about to be just a nameless character in the background, just doing the pedestrian work.  He was definitely so unique, that sound he got just from those fingers on the strings and what he heard.  A musician plays what he hears, and Ray heard this thing.  It was just a fat, beautiful tone.  I think as the years went by, it wasn’t so much an evolution; it was just a matter of, as you age, you don’t want to pull the strings as hard — so maybe he lowered the strings a little on the fingerboard.  Maybe.  But I couldn’t prove it.  I was always astounded.

TP:    Why do you think he went to younger bands in the last 10-12 years of his life?

ALEXANDER:  Well, the old guys were fading away also.  Whether or not he used young guys is not the point.  The point is that there weren’t that many older men that he would lock in with that would have the enthusiasm or spirit or the spirit of swinging that he was all about.

TP:    So it was because of his own exceptional energy that he wanted someone to match that and sustain it.

ALEXANDER:  Exactly.  And you have a better shot when you get a young, growing, fine musician who is also so desirous of matching his strength.  Which, by the way, was still leaps and bounds in terms of endurance.  Because whenever I saw him playing with anybody, it was like they were trying to keep up with him.

TP:    As someone who started off as a student and evolved into a peer, what would you say were the greatest lessons he imparted to you that impacted what you do as a musician?

ALEXANDER:  Well, I was never a student.  When I got on the bandstand with him, I felt like I was right there shoulder to shoulder.  That was my attitude in music from the beginning.  I was just so stubborn and ignorant!  I would say in many ways his mentoring to me was more about life and attitude than how you play.  Because he sensed in me from the beginning that I understood why and what he was, and I would play… When I played with him…  And I think Benny and Jeff would say the same thing.  We didn’t play with him; we played for him.  It was like we played together.  At least, that’s what I saw and heard.

TP:    So his lessons to you were life lessons.

ALEXANDER:  Yes.

TP:    Comportment and sustaining yourself within this big sharkpit.

ALEXANDER:  You said it well.  It was about fortitude and straight-ahead, and no matter what, don’t stop.  It’s like the way he played.  In other words, if the stuff is falling apart, keep on rockin’!  That’s what he did.  You hear that bass, from the first time you heard it, you knew it was this exceptional thing.  He told me, “Man, I got tired of playing out behind all them horn players at Jazz at the Philharmonic.”  The horn players would take 50 choruses apiece, no matter who they were.  Enough was enough.  And as he got older, he didn’t want to do that any more.

TP:    I’m sure that kind of pretty formulaic for him after a while.  But it would seem like no matter how formulaic the situation, he would never sound…

ALEXANDER:  The point is, no matter what he had to put up with, if he had to put up with it, it would never sound like there was any kind of backing-up.  He never backed up a thing.

To me, whatever note Ray played was like the first and the last note of his life.  He played like his life depended on that note.

I can’t get over the fact that man isn’t alive.  Because he was larger than life.  Most of us couldn’t consider the fact that the day could come he wouldn’t be alive!  This is emotional and personal.  He was almost like an uncle, a father, a big brother.  But he was so larger-than-life that it’s like… He was a survivor, and he… With all the new technology… Ray didn’t have a cell phone.  I mean, he finally got one, but he didn’t use it.  He didn’t do email, he didn’t do all this stuff.  But yet, he was so busy.  Larger than life, man.

Benny Green

BENNY GREEN:  If it’s all right with you, since you edit things down, I’m going to err on the side of giving you too much information.

The first time I heard Ray in person was 1978. It was also my first time hearing Oscar Peterson in person.  The band was a trio of Oscar, Ray Brown and Louis Bellson at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, California. It was 15 or 16, and it was the first time as a child, basically, that I had been moved to laugh out loud and cry tears all in one sitting through the music itself, through the depth of emotion that was being conveyed. That was a lot for me as a kid to be feeling, and that was the level that these gentleman were communicating on.  I was overwhelmed with this sense of heritage, which also was a big concept for a young person to be able to understand.  But that’s again how clearly and powerfully they conveyed their lives through the music. Ray had his bass turned up quite audibly, and you could just feel the vibrations from Ray’s bass throughout the seating area of this amphitheater.  It just resonated.  He was speaking the truth, his truth, playing the music he had devoted his life to.

TP:    So you fell in love with his sound right then.

GREEN:  His sound and his feel.  His time was like…I know of no better way to describe it than to say it was akin to a heartbeat, something that organically resonates within the listener as a human being.  Oscar was playing all that piano, and yet Ray was just at the bottom of everything, holding everything together and directing traffic, and doing so with such consummate grace.  It was really apparent to me as a young person that I was witnessing mastery and just the greatness of the music.  Now that Ray has passed, I understand more clearly that that beat and sound I felt and heard is, in fact, a direct connection to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and all of the real pillars of the music who he actually played great music with.  Not just made casual record dates with, but he was obviously personally involved with these people, the way I can say I was involved with him and Art Blakey.  He had countless just geniuses in his life who were very proud to get to play with him.  They weren’t doing him any favors.  He is the music.  He isn’t just someone who plays it well.  He is the real thing.  Anyway, I was able to feel that as a kid who hadn’t really lived too much, and that’s how effective the music was.

Moving a few years forward: The first time I got to speak with Ray Brown, I’m pretty sure the year was 1984.  I was working with Betty Carter.  I must have been 20-21.  We were playing a festival in Canada — Edmonton, Alberta.  We finished our concert that evening with Betty, and I went to another venue at the festival where Ray had the quartet — I suppose it was co-led — with Milt Jackson, Cedar Walton and Mickey Roker.  They played this version of “Misty,” and it was so beautiful.  Again, it was the same thing I experienced, where Ray’s bass notes were at the bottom of everything, just affirming this sort of truthfulness, this authenticity to the song.  He was really portraying the essence of Erroll Garner’s song.

I was so moved that I finally got up the nerve, as shy I was, to actually speak to Ray, and after they finished their set, I went up to this icon, who even physically was like towering over me, I was so small a guy in those days.  I mustered up all my courage, introduced myself, and I asked him if it would be all right to put a musical query to him.  He said, “Sure.”  I asked him, “What were the changes you were playing in the fifth and sixth bar of the bridge of ‘Misty?’” Ray leaned down, got right up in my face, like almost nose to nose (man, I was petrified), and he stared me down and he said, “The right changes.”  I said, “Okay, thank you,” and sort of backed away.  Thereafter, I would go see Ray in the next few years with Gene Harris and Mickey Roker, but I was terrified to speak to him.  He really dropped something on me when he said those three words, because he completely demystified his whole image to me by saying that. It wasn’t like some magical secret that he held.  He was saying to me, “If you want to know what changes I’m playing, go pick up one of a hundred albums where I’ve recorded that song, and learn it!” — just like he did with Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford and Slam Stewart.  “Just learn the music.  It’s there for you.”  He gave me that message with those three words.  It’s not about trying to read his mind or figure out this mystic, intangible thing.  It’s like the information is there on the records.

TP:    He himself had started off as a pianist, and was a huge fan of Tatum.  Wynton told me that he sent him the Tatum complete solos, and told Wynton to study the harmonic language.  Wynton said, “I did.”

GREEN:  He knew Tatum and he told me a few stories about Tatum that I can tell you if you have time.

TP:    I remember not long after you joined him, we were on the radio, and you made a comment I thought was very telling.  You were very much into Gene Harris and the Three Sounds, and your trio with Christian was very much influenced by that.  So here you are replacing Gene Harris, and then I think you said it that Ray Brown was hearing you be a little too respectful, maybe, to the Gene Harris sound, and said, “I didn’t hire you to play like that; I hired you to play like yourself.”

GREEN:  True.  Which is the exact same thing Betty Carter told me about John Hicks.  These great bandleaders have some things in common. As well as having their own unique facets, these people are really about the music, and it’s clearer than ever when they pass on and you look at their legacy.  You say, “This is what they were devoted to.”  Once the smoke clears and you have a little hindsight, you realize they did everything within their powers to perpetuate their music and pass it on to the next generation, and recruit anyone who ever heard them play to become lovers of this African-American art form.  That’s what their life was devoted to.  And part of that whole legacy is finding that natural, honest balance between embracing the heritage and all your influences and bringing something to the plate that’s your own at the same time.  Otherwise, you’re not really contributing to the music.

TP:    Perhaps you could tell the story I related back to you in your own words.

GREEN:  The thing is, Ray and Oscar Peterson have a musical language, and they’re like brothers.  Oscar’s whole approach to the piano is so largely inspired by Art Tatum and Nat Cole and Hank Jones in particular, and he would say the same… In fact, Oscar told me that every time he sits down to play, he endeavors to pay homage to those three, if at all possible.  Ray Brown clearly comes out of Jimmy Blanton, Slam Stewart and Oscar Pettiford, and these people are proud to embrace their influence every time they play, and yet, when you hear Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson play, you know it’s Ray Brown and you know it’s Oscar Peterson.  Nothing about it feels derivative.  It’s not one or the other.  It’s both.  You hear the influence, and yet they are just clearly their own men.  That’s where it’s at.  They’re teaching by example when they play.

So in getting back to what Ray stressed to me:  The influence from Gene Harris was an honest one.  His music felt good to me.  That’s why I’d been soaking up those Three Sounds records and attempting to absorb what he was doing with Ray’s trio.  That sort of aligned me with the privileged position of actually getting to play with Ray, because I was honestly pursuing this path that Ray was about.  Ray had a certain approach to music and to his trio, where pianists like Hank Jones, Oscar Peterson, Monty Alexander and Gene Harris were just part of a language, a palette that he heard when he put together a trio arrangement.  These were musical personalities that became part of the fabric of Ray’s trio sound.  So it was natural for me to be pursuing this music, which was infectious to me, which felt good to me, and it also put me in a musical position where, when Ray heard me, he understood beyond any words that I was a young person who was eager to be a part of that heritage.  I wasn’t listening to Gene Harris so I could cop the gig.  I was doing it because I loved the music.  Thankfully, that resonated with Ray.  So he heard Christian and I play…

TP:    The story Christian told me is he was at the Blue Note that week, you guys were at the Knickerbocker, Mary Ann Topper said, “You’ve got to come hear them,” and maybe on the Saturday night he came over and heard you, invited you to the Blue Note the next night, and then called your name from the bandstand.

GREEN:  That’s exactly right.  Shortly thereafter, Christian and I were playing with a group that opened up for Ray’s trio in Japan.  As soon as we finished our set, Ray grabbed me backstage to say, “Would you be available to record?”  Obviously, without batting an eye, I said, “I would love to, Mr. Brown.”  So he said, “Give  me your information, and I’ll be in touch.”  So I wrote down my number, and he called shortly thereafter and invited me to fly to L.A. to record a record date with James Morrison, himself and Jeff Hamilton.  That was my first opportunity to play with Ray.

The first thing I remember noticing about the feeling, once I connected with Ray musically, was, one, how easy and buoyant he made the music feel.  To me that’s always a measure of musical maturity.  Because anyone can be difficult to play with.  An absolute beginner can be hard to play with.  But to really manifest the attitude of “What can I do to make you feel more comfortable; how can I lead you down this garden path?”, that takes not only experience and seasoning, but also just a certain attitude, a certain willingness to help and support.  The other thing I noticed was that this man takes a lot of chances when he plays, and he always lands on his feet.  He always lands on one, on the perfect note to ground what’s happening in the ensemble.  But he wasn’t just playing some sort of stock bassline. He was all over that bass, and filling and doing all sorts of rhythmic and melodic things, and would always land, BAM, right on ground one to support everything else that was going on.

TP:    So he was fearless.

GREEN:  Oh, most definitely!  He really, really went for it.  He went for the jugular every time.  He played with such passion.  There was more than just testosterone behind his confidence.  It was the fact that he knew, through this life devoted to music, that the music was his.  It wasn’t something he was trying to get towards.  He owned the legacy that had been given to him by all his forefathers, and he wasn’t afraid to stand tall and say that “Jimmy Blanton and Slam Stewart and Oscar Pettiford have left us, and I’ll never be quite like they were.”  He was like, “Okay, I am the bass now.”

TP:    So it was a fresh experience every night, being on the road with him, no matter how similar the repertoire.

GREEN:  Oh, in so many ways.  When we finished that record date, he told me the trio was going to be going to Australia soon for a lengthy tour, and that Gene Harris wasn’t going to be able to make the first two or three weeks, and asked me if I’d be interested in playing.  I said, “Are you kidding?  There’s nothing I’d be more grateful to do.”  He said, “Okay, what I’d like you to do, then, is pick up some of our CDs, and why don’t you learn about 10 or 12 of our tunes.  I’m not even going to tell you which ones to learn.  Just learn the ones you’re most comfortable with, and that will give us something to play.” At that point, I wanted to show Ray more than tell him how much I wanted to play with him.  I already owned all the CDs, but for the next few months before that tour came up, all I did was woodshed that music, just sleep with it, practice to it… [END OF SIDE]

When we got together to rehearse in Australia for the first gig of that tour, I told Ray that I knew all the tunes in his book, and we could rehearse and play anything he wanted.  So he proceeded to call tunes, and I knew them all.  He didn’t say a word, but just kept going through tune after tune after tune.  He said, “Okay, we can take a break now,” and he stepped outside to get some air.  Later on that day, Jeff Hamilton told me that while they had stepped outside, Ray turned to Jeff and said, “I can’t believe he learned all of that music.”  But to me, he didn’t say a word.  He was just scoping me out.

When we finished that tour, I said to Ray, “Listen, I know that you have a band right now, but if you ever are at a point where there’s going to be personnel changes, I want you to know that I would be so grateful to get a chance to play with you again.”  “All right, I’ll be in touch.” And thankfully, he called me a few weeks later from Australia, to say that Gene was going to be leaving the band soon, and asked me if I wanted to join the trio.  I was so excited.  So I began playing with him in the early spring of ’92.

One of the first things I noticed about Ray as a professional is that he was always punctual.  When there was a lobby call, he would always be downstairs, clean, a few minutes before the time we were actually expected to meet.  And to be honest with you, at that point I had a habit of being 10 to 15 minutes late all the time, and thought that was okay.  I didn’t understand at that time that when you do that, you’re not even being part of the band.  You’re just being a single agent.  It’s incredibly selfish, and it ultimately does enter the whole vibe on the bandstand when you do that.  Eventually, after the few gigs, I noticed that every time I came downstairs, even if I was only 5 minutes late, instead of 10 or 15, Ray was always down there.  So one day I said to him, “I see you’re not of the mindset that the bandleader can afford to be the last one downstairs.”  He didn’t even look up.  He said, “Nope.”  I then realized that it was unprofessional and disrespectful for me to be…that the young kid in the band is having Ray Brown waiting on me.  So I got it together.  I was never late again.  And to this day, I have Ray Brown to thank for that.  I know that however long it takes me to get ready, if it takes two or three hours, to allow that much time, and not start getting dressed five minutes before the lobby call.

TP:    He was an immaculate businessman, wasn’t he.

GREEN:  Completely.  But the interesting thing is that he told me there was actually a defining moment in his life when he got that all together.  There was a time prior to that defining moment when he was more like the old stereotypical image of a musician who didn’t care, who didn’t take responsibility for business.  He hadn’t been paying his taxes for a few years.  He was with Jazz At The Philharmonic, and they’d been sending him notices, which he just disregarded, and one day they played a concert with Jazz at the Philharmonic somewhere in the Midwest, and the evening after the show, the curtain went down, and the Feds were there to physically haul him off to jail.  Norman Granz, as you know, had a lot of money, and he bailed Ray out right then and there on the spot, so they never took him.  He just coughed up the cash and had a talk with Ray.  He said he was a changed man from that moment forward.

But obviously, the Ray Brown that you and I knew was so incredibly balanced with the left and right brain.  He could be so creative and so plugged into the music all the time, constantly honing the band’s arrangements, staying at the very top of his game and continuing to challenge himself as an instrumentalist.  No matter what time we were in, he woke up at the crack of dawn, getting on that phone and fax machine, doing business, booking gigs one or two years down the road.  That’s very rare for someone… There are obviously musicians who are great businessmen, and oftentimes, on some level, the music suffers.  Sometimes the people have so much talent that they’re able to carry it off, and you don t realize what you could be hearing were they totally putting all their eggs in the basket.  But with Ray, God, you could never say, as much as a sharp-shooter he was as his own booking agent and manager, that anything ever, ever suffered in the musical arena.

TP:    Do you think that part of that constant imperative to develop as an instrumentalist from the high level he had attained was one reason why, in the last decade of his life, starting with you really, he started using young musicians on a regular basis?

GREEN:  With Ray and Art Blakey and Betty Carter, something… Art was doing that from early in his career.  But in the case of Betty and Art, there was a period where initially the bandleader was more playing with their peers, and then at some point they really got this bug to have like new young blood in the band, and they really found personal gratification in helping the young musicians, and, with whatever surface idiosyncracies people could observe them as having, their pure love for the music clearly showed.  They were passing it on, really kicking their young players in the behind, challenging them, making them reach beyond a superficial comfort zone, and really pull the depth of their untapped reserves of talent out of that.  In fact, they instilled that kind of fire in their sidemen, hopefully so that these younger players could go out there and perpetuate the music.

TP:    But do you think there was reciprocal benefit he garnered from using young talent? He said that using you or Keezer or Larry Fuller forced him to practice so he could play the way he used to.

GREEN:  I can’t say for Geoff or Larry, but I can tell you first hand that Russell Malone and I played a private party for Ray in St. Paul a little over a month ago, and, man, he kicked our tails in the most positive way.  This guy is 75 years old, and when he gets on the bandstand, the whole level of musicality is so profoundly elevated.  You really get this deep sense that you’re on the bandstand with the same lifeline as Duke Ellington.  You feel it.  It can’t even be put into words.  But you can feel it in your body, you can almost taste it…

TP:    Oh, I understand that.  What I’m saying is, he thought of his trio as the Ray Brown Trio, not Ray Brown Plus Two.  So he’s incorporating the musicality and musical personalities of the people he has in his band.

GREEN:  Oh, definitely.  When I joined the band and was trying to play like Gene, he said, “Okay, for these first few weeks, we’ll continue playing these arrangements that I wrote specifically for Gene, but the more we play, I’m going to scope out what you do and I’ll start writing new arrangement that embrace your sound and feeling so we can help you develop.  He took pleasure in that.  Obviously, nobody can play something in a slow bluesy groove like Gene Harris.  Nobody can do that.  And that certainly includes Benny Green.  I would try to, but I wasn’t raised in the Black Baptist church, I didn’t have Gene Harris’ life, and I wasn’t physically built like Gene Harris.  Ray knew that.  It’s almost not honest to try to force yourself to play like someone you love.  That love can come through naturally once you accept it’s there and live in the moment as yourself.  So Ray was encouraging me to do my own thing, and he started to write arrangements that incorporated more swift tempos, more linear kind of things that he felt were more suited to what he heard as something that was a more natural part of what I inherently did.

TP:    It seems he revisited and reinterpreted a lot of areas from his earlier career with you and Geoff, a lot of bebop tunes that I don’t think were too much of the repertoire with Gene Harris.

GREEN:  That makes sense.  And I’m sure once Keezer joined the band, he probably opened up that much more harmonically because of what Geoff can do.  Not to get anything real specific and narrow anyone’s approach down, but he prided himself on doing that.

Once early on in the band, we did a show, and I ended a couple of tunes with an Ahmad Jamal ending that Ray hadn’t written, just the patented two-note ending that Ahmad plays on most of his trio arrangements in the trio with Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier.  Ray didn’t say anything on the bandstand.  He came to the dressing room afterwards, and he was livid.  He said, “That is not my sound, that is not what we do in this band.  Don’t play that any more.”  And I didn’t.  He was very clear about it.  At the time, I felt, “Wow, it’s just two notes; why is it such a big deal.”  With the passage of time, I came to see it was a very big deal, because he wasn’t just playing the music, however it might come across.  He had a very specific language, something I couldn’t possibly understand as someone who wasn’t even born when Ray was already a past master.  So I just respected that this man knew what he wanted.  Betty Carter and Art Blakey both were the same way.  Certain things weren’t appropriate.  They didn’t want their approach to the music to just become sort of homogenous.  There was a certain sound and feeling, and when we hear it, there’s things they do and things they don’t do that give us a specific feeling as a listener.  So it’s very much a language.  A younger person, no matter how talented or intelligent or soulful they may be, is not really going to get that in the way that someone who has lived it all their life who is a veteran of the music knows down deep.

TP:    You played with Ray Brown what years?

GREEN:  From the early spring of ’92 to the fall of ’96, 4-1/2 years.

Two things I’d like to say I think are very pertinent.  One (and I’m sure every other musician who worked with Ray will tell you the same thing) is that I never once asked him a question about music that was uncool to ask.  I never asked him a question and got a non-verbal communication that it was something he didn’t want to discuss.  Every time I asked Ray a musical question, he would sit with me, look me in the eye, and talk for however long it took.  Everything else going on would stop.  And he wouldn’t stop talking until he felt that I really understood what it was he had to say.  It was never about telling me how to play.  It was just about being a better musician, and just bringing this feeling, imparting life experience through the music — never about how to play or a style.

The other thing which I’ve really been feeling strongly about Ray since he passed is how much of an ambassador he was, like Louis and Duke and Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, among others.  Sometimes we would play venues, concerts or festivals where the bulk of the audience were real jazz aficionados, and they loved the music, they knew who he was, and they appreciated him.  But other times, we would play some places where the crowd would be quite stiff, maybe a money crowd, and they weren’t really passionate about jazz.  And I can tell you first-hand that any time we played for that latter type of an audience, by the end of the performance he would have made absolute converts for life out of every single person in the house, where they left loving the music, wholly disarmed, coming up to us and talking, showing their emotions, and showing by example, by doing that, that that’s the level we need to aspire to when we bring the music… That we can’t just be satisfied with playing to impress one another, but any time we have an opportunity to play this music for someone who has never heard it before, whatever our individual approach to the music is, we really need to bring something of an emotional substance that any human being can relate to.  I interpreted it that this was his ultimate homage to those great masters that he played with.  Because we know that Louis Armstrong did that and we know that Duke did that.  You couldn’t help but love this music, no matter what you’d heard about it or what you’d been told or what you’d heard that you didn’t like.  When you heard them, you knew this was like something really great and about some love and some life.

TP:    You played with him just a couple of weeks before he died.

GREEN:  Yes.  It was perfect.  Lord knows, I didn’t know it was going to be our last time.  But everything from the time he entered the room was a lesson, and I remember it vividly.  First of all, at the soundcheck, he did what he’d always done.  He was showing me a tune that I had heard from Nat Cole’s repertoire but never played, “I Just Can’t See For Looking.”  He was ready to leave the bandstand before we played and get comfortable, but I still wasn’t quite secure with the melody, and I asked him to stay and help me out, and he did just that.  Whatever it was he wanted to do off the bandstand was on hold, and he stayed up there on stage with me, made sure I had it together, and after he was done he said, “Do you have it now?”  I said, “Yeah.”  He said, “All right,” and then he walked off the bandstand.  That’s how he always was, no matter how physically fatigued he might have been.  Nothing came before the music.

After the gig, he said one of the most beautiful affirmations to me.  He said, “Benny, you don’t have to worry about anything; you just keep playing the piano.”  That meant so much to me coming from Ray Brown.  Then he sat up with me for about two hours.  We didn’t leave the venue.  He just sat with me and talked about the music, and talked about the great pianists.  He was teaching me.  I think back on what he was saying and how he tied his conversation about different pianists all together with the message he was trying to give me about me and the piano.  Then I left him for a moment again, not knowing this was the last time I was going to see him, and I went to the piano on stage and started to play, and then he walked over to the stage and just stood there and listened to me play, and talked about the songs I was playing.  God, as long as there was music going on, he never wanted to go to bed. I’m so thankful that before we said goodnight I gave Ray a big kiss, and I thanked him for charging my battery, and I told him that no matter how much I might not have understood things he’d said to me in the past at the moment he said them, that they were all inside, and that so many gems he’s given me continue to come up as I play music, and that I’m thankful for what he’s given me.  That’s how I left him, and I’m so thankful we had that beautiful closure, because no one was ready for this.

It’s a blessing he was taken so peacefully, so mercifully, doing what he loves. We’ll always remember Ray being strong and vital and taking no prisoners.  He never faded.

Jeff Hamilton

JEFF HAMILTON:  I met Ray in 1976 at the Lighthouse in Los Angeles.  He was booking Milt Jackson, and had booked Milt with the Monty Alexander Trio, and came into the club to see how we were doing.  That’s the first time I met him.  I asked him that night if I could meet with him and ask him some advice on what I should do with my career.  I was all of 22 years old.  He said, “Sure, we can meet — if you buy lunch.”  So that was the beginning of our long friendship.  Based on what he heard that night, he kept me in mind, and hired me for the L.A. Four when Shelley Manne left.

TP:    I haven’t spoken with a drummer yet about the experience of playing with him.  Can you talk about the qualities of his playing that made him distinctly and identifiably Ray Brown, from your perspective behind the kit?

HAMILTON:  My first awareness of him was listening to him on an Oscar Peterson Trio record with Ed Thigpen, and wanting immediately to pick up a stick and hit a cymbal with that trio, play along with that groove that the three of them had together.  And the more that I listened to it, I kept keying in on Ray more and more, and thinking that I really wanted to play with his quartet notes.  The older I got, I realized that it was the intensity in his playing, in his beat and his time and his sound, that was so big and full that it just raised the band and urged them to get into that same groove that he was playing, and invite them into his sound.  That’s what I felt as a drummer, that I needed to crawl into that big sound of his and match the sound with the intensity of the drums.  It also has a big full sound, and the trio would come out sounding like a big band.

TP:    That means in some ways you would match the length of his notes through the way you articulate beats?

HAMILTON:  Not so much the length.  Just the urgency of how important every note is.  The first night that I played with him, I thought, “Well, this is a lot more intense than I thought it was going to be from listening to the records.”  When I was able to adjust to that and make that happen, then I thought, “Okay, now I can play with Ray Brown.”  Then the first time I played with Ray and Oscar, it was that next level of intensity.  I thought, “Man, I’ve got to step this up.”  Not so much in nervousness or frantically trying to keep up with them.  I don’t mean that.  I just mean bringing your intensity to the time and to the music, like you’re in a conversation with two other people and they’re really going after it, and you’re kind of sitting there going, “Uh-huh, uh-huh.”  It doesn’t work.  So you’ve got to jump in and join the conversation with them.

TP:    You did many tours with him where you shared a bandstand night after night for a month or six weeks for a good chunk of the year.

HAMILTON:  For 18 years!

TP:    Was he a very creative player from night to night?

HAMILTON:  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from night to night.  First of all, his stamina from night to night was something that I had never witnessed before.  I have played with musicians who wanted to be great every night and were trying to do it, and had that in mind.  But I’ve never seen anybody like Ray, be able to get on the bandstand and play like it might be his last night.  I don’t know where that came from, but it was such an intensity… I keep going back to that word, because that’s Ray Brown. In every walk of his life, he was very intense.  And the need to get up there and really stretch out and try to push us was I think maybe instilled by the days with Dizzy, and playing with Bird, and having that need to play some new music and try to push the arrangement into something else.  I think that’s evidenced by looking at the evolution of his own trio.  When I go hear those arrangements we did with Gene Harris, and they’ve changed with every trio.  They’ve gotten a little more modern, and Ray is at the bottom, changing things around.

TP:    That raises another question, which is the level to which playing with you or playing with younger musicians like Benny Green or Geoff Keezer affected his conception.  Benny described it that when he first went out with the trio (I guess you were the drummer), he was very much influenced by Gene Harris, Ray knew it, and Benny said that the trio would play those arrangements, he’d scope Benny out, and would try to write new arrangements that suited him.  You could hear it, because he played more bebop, modernist material.  I’m wondering how you evaluate the presence of younger musicians within his orbit having impacted what he did, if at all.

HAMILTON:  Well, he was smart.  One of the great things I learned from him was how to make everybody in the band sound as good as they possibly can.  So he would go to their strong points, and he’d play music that fit everybody in the band.  That was his thought with every personnel change, “how can this person’s influence change this musically, and yet we can all still vibrate together.”  So he would arrange things. I think that was probably influenced by Duke Ellington’s writing for personnel in his band.

TP:    I’d like to get back to the nature of your relationship, personal or musical.  He befriended you when you were 22 and he was 50. Benny described him as being an unfailing mentor.  Any time he had a musical question, he would be there to answer and would take as long as necessary.  Does that jibe with your earlier relationship?

HAMILTON:  When Benny came in, he really took Benny under his wing.  When I came in, he looked more to me as “you need to be an equal with me,” and I think he kind of classified me in his generation. There isn’t thirty years between us.  And I’ve always kind of been old for my age anyway, and I think he picked up on that.  I’ve been pretty mature for my age — and musically.

TP:    When you were 20, you were playing with Hampton…

HAMILTON:  I’d already played with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with Murray McEachern, and with Lionel Hampton, Monty Alexander and Woody Herman.

TP:    So you’d had a full complement of experience by the time you joined him.

HAMILTON:  Right.  I had some touring under my belt.  So he knew he wasn’t getting a kid, and that I’d listened to his music and grown up with his music when those records came out.  I didn’t have to wait and get them on CD twenty years later.  I talked to him about that.  I had a different relationship with Ray, and I think he tried to make me an equal because of the L.A. Four situation.  He hired me, and everybody was a leader in that group.  Shelley Manne had been an equal part of the L.A. Four, and that’s what he needed.  They weren’t trying to make a kid grow into the seat; they needed someone who could come in and do it.

TP:    Another common thread everyone has mentioned is that he played always as if it was the last time he was ever going to play.  They also mention how deftly he was able to balance his creative life with the practicalities of business.  It seems he was incredibly disciplined.

HAMILTON:  I think that goes back to him being smart, and being in the right situation with Norman Granz in Jazz at the Philharmonic, and seeing how business could be run in jazz, and what jazz musicians deserve, and having somebody go to bat for them to get what they deserve.  That was instilled at an early age.  I think he kept that pride factor for what he thought his self-worth was, and for other musicians, and that entered into his business techniques. “Well, if you don’t want me for this amount, you must not want me very much.”  And they would inevitably call back.  Ray said, “No, that was the amount you offered two weeks ago; now the amount is this.”  He kind of played hardball with some of these guys just to get his point across, that you can’t just take advantage of a jazz musician and offer him $50 to come and play for you.  So I think there was a combination of the pride and the smarts, and being smart enough to learn from those early days with Jazz at the Philharmonic.  He always referred to Norman as taking care of the musicians.  He once told a story about Norman Granz pulling the entire tour off of an airplane because they wouldn’t them bring his bass on board — and he had bought a ticket for it.  So Norman announced that everybody had to get off the plane, if the bass wasn’t going to go on.  The plane took off about 15 minutes later.  It’s that kind of thinking of, “Listen, this is what I think my self-worth is, and this is the self-confidence I have in myself,” and that came through every part of Ray Brown’s personality, musically and off the bandstand, in doing business.

TP:    John Clayton said that he was constantly practicing all the time, right up to the end.  Would you practice together?  Oscar Peterson describes him and Ed Thigpen sitting in the room rehearsing harmonic and rhythmic patterns so they could be prepared for anything.  Did you do that?

HAMILTON:  Not so much.  Our arrangements weren’t Oscar-like, so that we had to sit down and digest things together.  The other thing is that Ray and I really didn’t have to think too much about what we did.  It was a pretty natural hookup.  So we’d just look at each other.  In fact, I was reminded of this on the 75th birthday tour last July, where there was a guest artist, and Ray just turned, gave me a look, and I knew what he meant.  We went into this introduction, and the person said, “How do you guys know to do that?  Nobody said anything.”  But that’s just sort of what Ray and I had together, and we grew into being able to raise an eyebrow and know that meant an “and-a-4″ or some kind of beat we’d played before. Or he’d just say a word, and it would trigger something.  I think because of that, we didn’t have to rehearse a lot.  He would go to Hawaii for a month every January with his wife, Cecilia, and he would write new arrangements for the trio.  He was so excited about coming back and starting about three days of rehearsal in February, before we’d go on the road.  But that’s about all we rehearsed.  It wasn’t really knock-down, drag-out rehearsals.  But he did talk about those Oscar Peterson rehearsals.  In fact, he and Herb Ellis roomed together, and start playing those arrangements that sounded so tricky!

TP:    Oscar Peterson also described that they’d play the London House, and after the room closed at 4:30, they’d stay til 7 working other things out.  So they did the other end of the hang, too, I guess.  When you met him, he was still in the middle of his period of being extremely busy in the studios.  I’m an East Coaster and a bit younger than you, so I’m not sure how much the L.A. Four was working.  Did that mark the beginning of his move back out of the studios towards more hardcore performing?

HAMILTON:  That was part of it, I think, but that group was more in the studio, actually, with Laurindo Almeida and Bud Shank, and Carl Jefferson of Concord Records, which was pretty new at that time.  I think that’s how that group got off the ground.  But I think the actual idea happened in a recording session with Laurindo and Bud.  That was partially responsible, but I think, too, he’d been working with Milt Jackson at that time, and kept sneaking out of the studio to do these records at Shelly’s Manne-Hole, and still was playing jazz, still was doing tours during all that Merv Griffin stint.  I think that after a while, real jazz players really can’t take the studio that much any more, and are looking to get out when they can.  That was a period where his not getting out of the studio was one of the things, but it also made him think about, “I’ve got to get my own trio.”  So he would do things with Monty Alexander and Gene Harris and Mickey Roker and with Jackson, and so that got him… All those things got him back in the loop.

TP:    So it was a gradual process of weaning himself out of what he’d gotten into.  Do you have any particular favorite anecdotes that might get to the essence of who he was to you? Someone told me you would have some golfing stories.  Was there an analogue between his his approach to golf and his approach to music?

HAMILTON:  Again, intensity! [LAUGHS] Intensity on the golf course.  He wanted to play really well, and he wanted everyone else to play as well as they could when he was playing with them, so he would offer comments to help you.

TP:    Would they help?

HAMILTON:  Of course not!  Just like on the bandstand, in the heat of the battle somebody turns to you and says, “Hey, do this now!  Try this!”  You go, “Uhh…okay, but I’m trying to do everything else at the same time.”  But it was all meant well, and we used to laugh about it.  He said, “Anybody who opens their mouth on the golf course will get an automatic penalty stroke.”

TP:    What was his handicap?

HAMILTON:  For a while, he said he was around an 11.  Somebody told me he was an 8 at one time.  I think when he was in Toronto, with the Oscar Peterson-Thigpen school up there, they were playing every day, and I think he was probably down to an 8 then.  But in later years he was around 11.  After he had the knee surgery, he started to get his game back, and he was playing an awful lot.  I never beat Ray on the golf course.

TP:    Was that psychology or talent?

HAMILTON:  I think mostly talent, because I didn’t start playing… I was a tennis player for thirty years, and I had elbow surgery from tennis.  He was so mad at me, because I had to take time off from the trio to get the surgery!  He said, “Why don’t you play golf?  You’re not going to blow your ligament off the elbow playing golf.”  So I finally did, and then he gave me a set of clubs that he had won at a tournament.

TP:    What a practical man!

HAMILTON:  Yes! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Was he also a practical joker?

HAMILTON:  Are you kidding?  The funniest one to me is the Oscar Peterson anecdote at Jazz at the Philharmonic, when Oscar went to Norman Granz and asked Ray to be introduced last out of the group.  Just to keep peace among the group was the way Oscar presented it to Norman.  Norman said, “Oh, really?  Because I’ve been announcing you last.”  “No-no.”  So Oscar goes out first, and sits down at the bench, and Ray’s bass was laying on the floor next to the piano bench.  While Norman is announcing Herb Ellis, either Jo Jones or Buddy Rich, Oscar leans down and detunes Ray’s bass.  Then “Ladies and gentlemen, Ray Brown!” and Ray Brown came out and picked up the bass.  They had already started the introduction to the tune.  Ray started to play, and of course he sounded like he was underwater.  “And Ella Fitzgerald!”  So Ella came out, turned around, and said, “What is going on back there?” Ray just kept tuning up with his left hand and plucking with the right, and said, “Just keep singing; I’ll be there.”

The next time that he got Oscar Peterson… He told him, “I’ll get you.”  They were in Japan. Do you know about Pachenko?  It’s a game with little round silver balls, like a vertical pinball machine.  Ray hit the jackpot, and all these balls drop into a metal tray and make a lot of noise, then you cash them in.  Instead of cashing them in, he put the balls in his pocket (he had about 20-25 balls, I guess), and walked right over to the concert hall, and lined the balls up in the piano strings of the piano.  And that night, Oscar Peterson was the last musician introduced, and he came out, they’d already started playing, and Oscar played like two chords, and all these balls started bouncing out of the piano.  I guess Oscar’s feet came off the floor about two feet!

TP:    Did he ever get you on a good one?

HAMILTON:  Oh, boy.  There are so many funny little jokes.  There was one night at the Blue Note… I have a pretty loose grip, and sometimes my sticks will fly out.  He used to kid me about it.  This night the stick hit him in the chest, and rolled down on the other side of his bass, and off of his bass onto my hi-hat, and rolled onto the snare drum and over to the mounted tom, and then back to the snare drum, and I picked it up and continued playing.  He said… Well, I can’t tell you what he said!  He said, “How the hell did you do that?!”  And I didn’t do anything.  Just the stick happened to land where I could pick it up and play.  A lot of funny things like that on the bandstand. TP:    You met Ray Brown in ’48, and when was the last time you played with him?

Oscar Peterson

OSCAR PETERSON:  I guess the last time I played with Ray was when I did a couple of dates in New York with he and Milt Jackson.

TP:    That were documented on the Telarc record, “The Very Tall Band”?

PETERSON:  Yes, that’s right.

TP:    So 50 years of making music with him.  He was already an extremely experienced musician when you met him for the first concert, and when your partnership began.  Was there any way in which he help show you the ropes or helped you get grounded?  The broader question is what impact he had on you as an instrumentalist and musician?

PETERSON:  He gave me one thing, and that was confidence.  That’s probably the most important thing that a bass player can give anyone that he or she is playing for.  When I played with Ray, he gave me confidence, because I never had to wonder and worry about where it was going either harmonically or rhythmically.  And if you can reach that plateau with any bass player, you’re in the right place at the right time.

TP:    So he never threw you any curve balls.

PETERSON:  No, he never did.

TP:    And if he gave you a 95-mile-an-hour fastball it was something you could hit.

PETERSON:  [LAUGHS] I more than likely would see it coming!

TP:    You roomed together.  You probably saw more of each other than any other person.  What does that level of proximity do for musical communication?

PETERSON:  I’ll tell you one thing.  It gives you a better insight into the inner weaknesses and strengths of your roommate.  I mean that professionally.  You can tell just from conversations with them… I knew right away the people that Ray admired musically, and including bass players.  I don’t want to mention names, but I knew who he admired and who got to him and who reached him, and I knew the bass players he didn’t care for.  So you get to know the innards of a person a lot better.  And he knew the pianists that I admired and revered and he also knew the pianists that I did not like.  With this kind of information, we had a better insight into what and how to play with each other.

TP:    Did you tend to share the same likes and dislikes?

PETERSON:  I have to say yes to that.

TP:    He was a reasonably proficient pianist.

PETERSON:  Ray was what I call a compositional pianist! [LAUGHS] Ray would sit at the piano and would harmonically play what he wanted to play, and would sing the melodic things that he wanted to go over, because he didn’t have that kind of dexterity on the piano.  He was a bass player.  That wasn’t his instrument.  But you could tell that he knew where he was going.  In fact, one of my gifts to him one year was to give him a keyboard he could travel with, so he could write tunes on the road.

TP:    John Clayton said that at a certain point — and you would know this better than anyone — he started forming a network of symphony bassists in the different cities you would visit, either with the trio or JATP, and would then take private lessons going from city to city.  The larger point being that everyone says he practiced and strove to improve incessantly, without letup.

PETERSON:  He did.  He really worked at it.  People think that it was just raw talent, which it is, but it was not the complete talent.  But Ray, to be very honest with you, had great respect for what the classical bassists could do with music, because he knew that it was a very difficult instrument to in play in certain aspects as far as being in tune and certainly in time.  He was always working to try to perfect these fine points of the instrument.

TP:    But it’s correct that he did this rather systematic study with different people in various places.

PETERSON:  He did that, and he also did it the other way around.  He would do that with classical bassists, because they wanted to get an insight into his playing.  So quite frankly, it worked both ways.  But he also would hold his own little clinics in his room with different local bassists, as he went from city to city.

TP:    In hearing him for fifty years, looking back, what would you say were the qualities of his playing that evolved most noticeably?

PETERSON:  First of all, I have to say his concept of time.  That’s the essence of all of jazz, I think.  Secondly, his harmonic sense from an accompaniment standpoint when he was playing with someone.  He knew what to play, where, when he was playing for and with someone.

TP:    So he refined those skills, and made them better like fine wine, as it were.

PETERSON:  That’s right.  Certain things that he would play behind me, or certain things that I played… And it could be the same tune.  But certain nights, he could sense… He was a great listener.  There’s one of the things.  He listened to each performance that everyone gave.  But certain nights he’d play a certain way for you.  He played differently because you were playing differently!  That’s something a lot of bassists do not do.

TP:    So along with you, he helped make the trio a creative entity every night, even when you’re in the middle of four sets a night, six nights a week.

PETERSON:  Oh, yeah.  It was a challenge.  He would walk different lines behind me different nights, just to see what would happen.  He would go a different way.  He didn’t have a set routine harmonically for me.  He would change the pattern different nights, just to see what I would do with it.

TP:    Did he always have his keen penchant for business?  His business skills after moving to Los Angeles are somewhat legendary.  Did he always possess this acumen?

PETERSON:  I think so.  Norman Granz used to tell him, “Why don’t you just be a booking agent and get it over with?”  He said, “Pick one or the other.  Either be the world’s best player or the world’s best booking agent.  Take your choice.

TP:    I guess the exceptional thing is that he was the world’s best player and a pretty darn good booking agent.

PETERSON:  I’m not going to dispute anything you say or anything Norman said.  I think it was Ray’s choice, and he lived his life the way he wanted to.

TP:    It sounds like you’ve been able to do the same.

PETERSON:  I’m trying.

Quincy Jones

TP:    I know he was managing you and working with you.

QUINCY JONES:  He was.

TP:    Before we speak about that, may I ask when you first became acquainted?

JONES:  Ray Brown?  On records, when I was about 13 years old.  We used to listen to 78 records at Sherman & Clay, a record store in Seattle.  We couldn’t afford to buy them. I’d just discovered music two years before.  They had glass booths where you could play the 78s, and didn’t have to buy it.  I’d listen all day long — Dial Records, and Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Miles and Slam Stewart.  We were working in nightclubs at that age… Because Ray Charles got up there a year later.  When I was 14, Ray Charles was working up there, too.  He was 16.  During the war.  Seattle was jumping during the war.  It was really jumping.  Because it was the last stop before Japan, what they called the Pacific Theater.  So we were absolute junkies with all the bands.  Everybody.  Dizzy’s band…

We were at the Washington Social Club one night, and I saw this guy come in with just a little stingy brim hat, an Italian suit on, and real cool kicks (what we used to call shoes), and he had a trenchcoat on.  They said, “That’s Ray Brown, man.”  Since we were kids, we were trying to determine who the hell we were.  Because in the ’40s, man, music… There were no TV shows.  Radio, forget it.  And the books, too.  So the definition of who you were, you had to just try to figure it out through the people who came through, sailors and so forth… I know I’m making this a long answer here, but this is what happened.

Then I started to see the bands come through, like Basie and Duke and Erskine Hawkins and Louis Armstrong, and then Dizzy’s band came through.  I’d sit there, and I knew then I was hooked on 5 saxophones, 3 or 4 trombones, and 4 trumpets and a rhythm section the rest of my life.  I’d sit there just mesmerized all night long.  How do they play all at once and not play the same note?  Not only that, but these brothers are dignified, they are unified, they’ve got wit, they have fun, they’re talented, and they’re doing what they want to do.  They had everything.  I said, “That’s the kind of man I want to be.”

TP:    They were clean, too.

JONES:  Oh, clean as a chitlin’!  Please, man.  And all the girls… They had everything, man!  The sailors, they were pretty cool.  We used to dress like sailors for a while, when we were 11.  But man, when the musicians… I said, “No, that’s it, man, please.”  Because they had the music going.  And the sounds… It just took over my soul.  When I saw Ray Brown… I can’t even express it because it was just so powerful.  We didn’t have any connection with anything.  There was no MTV or anything else.  You’d hear everything on the grapevine, with the guys coming through, like blues bands, they’d say, “Charlie Parker just put some dexedrine in Peg-Leg Bates or Rubberlegs Williams’ coffee or something…”  And all the tunes, “Little Willie Leaps” and all the things… Personally, I learned how to write music then.  I’d write all the stuff down.  We were just like totally obsessed.

TP:    You’d take the stuff off the records?

JONES:  Yeah.  And people would give you copies of it.  It would travel around like the Dead Sea Scrolls or something.

TP:    It was a true oral tradition then.

JONES:  It was!  And they were like griots, you know.  All the bands.  We’d go backstage in our little bebop bags, and try to play grownup and sneak in, because we couldn’t afford to see the bands, and everything was cool when it was Duke and Basie, but then the first time they said, “Where are you going, man?” I said “We’re in the band.”  It was Les Brown!  “No, you’re not.” [LAUGHS] Or Skinny Ennis or somebody with Gil Evans’ arrangements.

TP:    So Ray Brown was one of the people who formed your conception of what music and the life was.

JONES:  Yes.  See, a skilled writer can say that in one word.  It takes me a half-hour.  Basie was, too, and Clark Terry was.  Those three guys were very important.  Ray Charles, Clark Terry, Basie, they were something.

TP:    So before you were a professional musician, these are the three people who really affected you…

JONES:  We were professional then!  We were playing clubs!

TP:    But before you got out in the broader world.  And you wound up playing and becoming involved with all of them.

JONES:  Exactly.  But that was the first bite.  And just what the lifestyle was about, the intelligence and wit — everything.  It just was so addictive.  Then I didn’t see Ray for another few years…

TP:    You didn’t see him for a number of years.

JONES:  Right.  But I kept up with him.  The grapevine was very strong then about what was happening in New York.  Because we had never seen New York; through our imagination was the only thing on 52nd Street and all that stuff.  Then finally, I got a scholarship to Boston at the Berklee School in the fall of 1950, which was the Schillinger House then, and Oscar Pettiford played across the street at the Hi-hat.  It was just love at first sight.  I’d go to the nightclub every night.  [b.1933]

TP:    So Ray Brown is only seven years older than you, but nonetheless…

JONES:  Right!  But he was 21 then, and that’s a huge difference.  He was big-time.  Ray Charles was two-three years older.  Anyway, Oscar Pettiford took me to New York while I was in school there, and said, “Would you like to write two arrangements for my record date?”  He saw some of the tunes I wrote while I was in school at the Hi-Hat.  I lived across the street.  Then he said, “I would like you to come down and do a session with me.”  Mercer Records.  Leonard Feather was the A&R man.  That was my first New York minute, and I was like Dracula at the blood bank.

That was the first time I saw New York.  I met Mingus… It’s ironic, because you’re talking about    bass player, and Oscar introduced me to Mingus and Art Tatum, and then I kind of followed Ray around on 52nd Street.  We still hadn’t hooked up, though, you know.  Then to make a long story short, in the ’50s, when I was working out in L.A. to do some arrangements for somebody, I went to see Sidney P…Poitier (because we started together almost at the same time, in New York, starving to death together) at the Knickerbocker Hotel, and Ray was… I was going to Sidney’s room (this must have been in ’55 or ’56 or ’57), and Ray was playing golf in the hall. [LAUGHS] He was putting down the hall.  That time we hooked up, and it was forever.

One thing led to another, then he did a record date with me in 1959 on my Birth of The Band album, and I was just… They had to put cold water on me just to cool me off.  The idea to even have Ray Brown play on your music, it just blew my mind.

TP:    Did you follow the Oscar Peterson Trio during those years?

JONES:  Oh yeah.  I was a Jazz at the Philharmonic junkie.

TP:    Talk a little about Ray Brown’s role in JATP and the trio.

JONES:  That was equivalent to the Rolling Stones today, or whoever you want to say…about Voodoo or whatever… It was the same thing.  They had the crowd screaming, man, and Ella and Oscar Peterson, Nat Cole, Bird, Flip Phillips — everybody.  It was incredible.  That was our Rock-and-Roll.

TP:    I understand.  But I’m asking about Ray Brown’s function within that situation.  Because I think it was quite a special one.

JONES:  Well, at that time he was married to Ella Fitzgerald.  That’s a pretty big function, playing all that bass and Ella Fitzgerald’s husband, too.  At that time, everything was bigger than life to us.  That was probably the most influential thing — that and the big bands — for a whole life.  It was not just the music; it was the lifestyle, too.  And bebop, with all this freedom and this exploration, of breaking out of the entertainer role for black musicians.  I guess that was one of the key things, too.  It wasn’t so much about entertainment. It was serious, serious musicians.  And we heard the word about Oscar Peterson, and then Ray and he hooked up… I don’t know, just the grapevine was so strong… I know I’m not on a straight line here.  I don’t know how to do it.

TP:    You’re saying it was no more about entertainers, but it seems Ray Brown was very much an ambassador, as was Oscar Peterson, through their comportment and level of commitment to being on every minute…

JONES:  Everybody was like that, Ted.  Oscar Peterson.  Nat Cole was like that.  Earl Hines.  Everybody was like that then.  That was the tenor of the times.

TP:    It was like a different way of being an entertainer.

JONES:  They were on another planet. I remember when the Big Band school went into Bebop, and there was a little friction there at first.  You know, Pops wasn’t crazy about that.  Louis talked about Dizzy playing all that weird stuff.  I loved both of them, big bands and bebop.  But bebop was my heart.  And Ray was the personification of bebop.

TP:    But then at JATP, he’d be playing with Prez and Illinois Jacquet, swing guys…

JONES:  The best in the world. And that was probably the metamorphosis of swing into bebop.  Because Dizzy came out of Cab’s band and Bird came out Jay McShann, and then they converged with Earl Hines, and then Billy Eckstine took ALL of them over then.  The whole bebop workshop was going on over there, you know, with Sassy and Art Blakey and J.J. [sic] and Dizzy, Fats, Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, everybody.  That was the real melting pot, Billy Eckstine’s band.  That was a pure bebop band.

That’s how I learned how to write, when I was really getting into writing.  I remember I asked Ray Charles, “How do they play all this stuff and not play the same notes?” I was 13 or 14.  And Ray hit a B-flat-7 chord and a C7 on top of it; it was like a B-flat-13 with an augmented fourth.  BANG!  Why, it just opened up a whole passageway.

TP:    So you were heavy into the Jerry Valentine charts.

JONES:  All of them.  Gil Fuller.  Everybody.  Everything he played, man.  The Cuban stuff.  Cuba was BIG then.  “Cubana Be, Cubana Bop” and “Manteca.”

TP:    They were all playing on top of each other on 52nd Street.

JONES:  Chano Pozo.  Mario Bauza, man.  I worked with him as recently as eight years ago.

TP:    Oh, right before he passed you worked with him.

JONES:  Yes, indeed.  We were at the Montreux together.  There was a big band in Montreux.

TP:    So ’59 is the first time Ray Brown plays with you, and you meet him around ’55-’56-’57 in the hotel and make that connection.  So you like each other…

JONES:  Yes.  As people we hooked up together, and then musically we hooked up in ’59, and it just never stopped.

TP:    Talk about what he was like at a session.  Most of these situations would have been sessions rather than live performances or tours.

JONES:  Right.  But for arrangers it didn’t make any difference.  You had to put all the stuff down on paper before you got there, and know who your soloists are and let them stretch.  I always loved that, to keep a big band mentality but have a little band sensibility about the solo stuff.

TP:    What I specifically want to get at with this question is his manner in his studio.

JONES:  A man never plays more or less than they are as a human being.  Ray was a very confident person, a take-charge person.  He played bass like that and lived like that.  He ate 17 different dishes like that.  That’s the eatingest sucker… At the eulogy, everybody had their own little focus.  Mine was on the eating.  Ray could EAT, man.  Whoo!  We ate everywhere on the planet, man.  France, you name it.

TP:    What was his favorite meal?

JONES:  Oh, whatever was good.  Kobe beef and Shabu-Shabu in Japan; and Peking Duck in Hong Kong; foie gras at Lafont; or ham hocks or whatever at Sylvia’s.  Wherever we were, what was good, Ray knew what it was.

TP:    From downhome haute cuisine to haute haute cuisine.

JONES:  That’s right.  I started that way and still am.  If they’ve got fresh produce and they know what they’re doing, I’m your man.  And Ray was, too.  But Ray… [LAUGHS] I’ve never seen… We were in Japan once with Mr. Nakashima… He was my manager by then.  We took the big band over there in the ’70s or ’80s, and we stayed over after the gig.  He took us all to great restaurants… Nakashima was a great promoter over there and a great friend.  He said after three days, “I think you guys have eaten up all the kobe beef in Japan.”  Ray said, “Man, you’ve been so nice, I think we’re going to stay over three more days.”  He said, “Oh, no-no.”  He drove us to the airport.

TP:    How did you begin the relationship of manager-artist?

JONES:  Well, all of these things just sort of evolved.  We started doing dates together, and then he came to me… A lot of record dates.  Movies.  I mean, TONS of movies.  Like, remember In Cold Blood?  Well, that was Andy Simpkins and Ray played the two killers, Bobby Blake and Scott Wilson.  They were the metaphors in the score for the two killers.  Richard Brooks… It was amazing, on the way to Ray’s funeral, Richard told me about Rod Steiger leaving us, too.  But we did dozens of movies together.  We did record dates, we did TV shows, we did the Cosby Show, and we got closer and closer together.  After a while, Ray would just say, “Man, I’ll take care of this,” and “I’ll take care of this…”  We’d do tours in Japan, he’d get with the promoter and stuff, and we’d just do it.  We did a tour with Roberta Flack, one of the best concerts I ever did in my life.  All of us… We had 37 musicians at the Greek with Roberta Flack.

TP:    I heard a story that Norman Granz once said to Ray Brown, “Why don’t you just become a booking agent and be done with it?”

JONES:  He did!  Ray had the ability to do that.

TP:    What does it take for a musician to be such a creative… I don’t think word “genius” would be misused with Ray Brown.  So he’s a creative genius and an extremely gifted businessman…

JONES:  An astute businessman.  It takes using all of your brain. [LAUGHS] It’s all in there.  You just have to use it.

TP:    The left side and the right side is there with him.

JONES:  That’s right, the left-right brain thinking.  There’s a great book out called Six Thinking Hats, and Ray’s was… That’s what it’s about, is using all of your brain.  The stuff he uses for booking gigs and travel and all that stuff is using a part that you don’t use when you’re playing the bass.

TP:    Did his management activity with you begin after 1966, when he moved to Los Angeles, or had he started to do this before?

JONES:  It started around that time, yes.  Because I didn’t get out there permanently until ’64 or ’65.  I came out to do Cary Grant’s last movie, is when I started to stay — Walk, Don’t Run.  I was in a house, and I was like all New Yorkers, talking loud about California, about the palm trees and all this stuff. [LAUGHS] Nobody said anything.  And then you have to eat your words, because that Christmas I was out in my backyard, picking some oranges off of a tree at the place I had leased, and I said, “Man, I don’t need three other seasons.  This is it.”

TP:    Basically you did so much work together, it would be hard for you to pinpoint anything.

JONES:  God, it’s just so much, Ted!  I think of the things… The Ellington special.  One of my passions was to do a special with Duke Ellington on a network.  They resisted it so much in the beginning, but finally, a guy named Phil Capece(?) said, “Let’s do it.”  Clarence Avon, a friend of mine, helped me get that connection together.  We were trying to find out who to go to.  Ray was involved.  I think from that spot on, we started to work together.  We did the album of “Walk In Space,” all those things… Then Grady Tate… A thing that stands out when he and Grady Tate first met each other. Man, it was a match made in heaven.  Amazing.

TP:    Did he ever indicate frustration with you at any of the limitations of studio playing?  Eventually, he did get out of it and went back to touring.

JONES:  Frustration?  No!  Ray did the shit out of whatever he was doing.  We didn’t get into that.  Because, you know, old school comes from… Also Clark Terry, who was my teacher when I was 14.  They come from Silas Green’s Circus, man.  They played everything.  He’s older than Ray.  But they’ve been around.  They’ve played chitlin’ circuit… We all played chitlin’ circuits.  And you didn’t sit around whining about what you had to play, man.  You played what you had to play, and tried to make all of it sound good.  That’s what I loved about Ray. That’s where I think our chord struck, in being very curious about what the business side of it was and tired of always a victim — not wanting to be a victim.  That’s the same thing in Ray, and he saw it in me.  We wanted to be a little bit more in charge of our own destinies.  Then I had the good fortune in 1957 to live in France, and live next door to Picasso.  Man, Picasso was totally in charge of his life. Lithograph plants.  He didn’t have to take any shit from anybody.  And I LOVED that idea.  Because I heard all the victims… Black musicians were HUGE victims in the ’50s.  And I watched it.  I watched my idols… Like the Duke, the man who’s like the god of American music. We were producing a show once, and saw him in Vegas, and it just tore my heart out.  He was 75, man, and he was playing in a lounge in Vegas.  It just killed me!  Because the man I used to watch in the white suit with Al Hibbler when I was 12, 13 or 14, and he’s playing in a lounge, and Paul Gonsalves was walking around the tables, man, like a violinist.  It hurt me.  It hurt me for him.  It really hurt me.  Basie and I used to talk about that all the time.  Basie was like my father, you know.  From 13 years old on, he took care of me.  Brother, father, manager, everything.  He’d get gigs for my band — everything.

TP:    He was a true survivor, wasn’t he.

JONES:  Oh, what a beautiful man.  I feel so blessed to have come up from that school, with Dizzy and Basie and Ray Brown and Ray Charles.

TP:    You’re a modernist with old-school values.

JONES:  Yeah.  I came up in the middle of the best damn thing, in the ’40s, after the war.  I was a kid.  Then I was with Lionel Hampton for three years, ’51 to ’53, and Dizzy’s band, and writing for Basie.  So jazz and big band was just equal ambidexterity.

I’d like to add one thing.  I never saw him do it… Going back to the eating thing.  As a bass player, he’s the King of Humididing and Spangalang, please!  And he could probably eat a 249-pound catfish if he tried!  Ray could eat that.  We used to have so much fun.  I guess it’s that campfire thing.  After you do all your other stuff, it’s always sit at the table around the campfire.

TP:    Well, another aspect of people from your day is that they all knew how to have a good time.

JONES:  Absolutely, man.  Ben Webster taught us how to drink.  It was great.

I’d like to say one more thing about the man I love here.  Ray to me was the absolute symbol of if you empty your cup every time and learn to make it a habit, it always comes back twice as full.  What I’m saying is give it up every time, man.  Don’t save nothin’.  That we definitely shared, and I learned more and more about that from him all the time.  In everything.  In relationships.  Everything.  Give it up. TP:    You said you first met Ray Brown at a JATP concert in Tokyo in 1953.  Was that your first experience listening to him?  I’m sure you’d heard the records before hearing him live.

Ed Thigpen

ED THIGPEN:  That was in 1953.  When I went into the Army, I was with Cootie Williams, and I hadn’t really been exposed to… Well, I had JATP.  But when did Oscar go down there?

TP:    He started going out in ’49, but would do more of a feature, and I think in ’50 he started going out as a duo act with Major Holley, and then he linked u with Ray Brown in ’52, around the time when his relationship with Ella Fitzgerald was dissolving.

THIGPEN:  Okay.  That puts things in perspective, because Ella was on that concert in ’53 in Japan as well.  Prior to that, I had heard JATP, but I wasn’t really into… I got out of high school when they started out, and I’d been working with territorial bands… I got to New York in ’51, but I was working with Cootie Williams.  I was on the road with Dinah and rhythm-and-blues bands.  I’m a little more than four years younger than Ray.  Whatever.  But anyway, it was ’53.

TP:    But you knew the records with Dizzy.

THIGPEN:  Oh yeah, I’d heard that in high school.

TP:    So you knew who Ray Brown was from when you were very young, and a formative musician.

THIGPEN:  Yes, but you know and KNOW who he was.  I didn’t have a record player when I was in high school.  I didn’t get a record player until I was a grown man.  But I heard a lot of live music growing up in L.A.  Anyway, that’s another story.

TP:    All of this is a roundabout way of asking what was your impression of his sound and his aura as a musician.

THIGPEN:  To be honest with you, the group was just so overwhelming with Herb, as I told you in the letter.  That pretty much summarizes what I thought. What impressed me was his kindness.  He was a nice guy.  Everybody played… I was looking at Ben and Benny Carter and J.C. Heard.  But mainly, when I met him, he was a nice person.

TP:    Good enough. Then I’m going to jump ahead to 1959, when you join the band, and the orientation of the trio changes from piano-bass-guitar, very orchestrative, to you kind of driving the band from the drums.  The way Oscar Peterson put it, they would change their articulation to suit the type of fills you would do, and this became more part of the structure of things.  First, how were you recruited to the band?  Through Ray Brown?

THIGPEN:  Well, I guess so.  As you said, Oscar said he recommended me.  I remember that in 1958 I was working at the Hickory House in New York, and Oscar came in.  He didn’t say anything to me.  He just came in at dinner, like Duke Ellington used to do at the Hickory House…

TP:    A steakhouse.

THIGPEN:  A steakhouse, right, on 52nd just off Broadway.  Earlier I was working there with Billy Taylor, Jutta Hipp, Toshiko and different people.  I was working with Billy during 1957-58.  But he came in, and that summer I got a call from Norman Granz saying that he wanted me to join Oscar Peterson.  There was a little discrepancy in the money… Anyway, I didn’t go with him right away.  Which I was very shocked by it.  I said, “What have I done?!”  Anyway, six months later, it was just at Christmas break, he called me again and said, “Okay, we’ll give you that.”  Boy, I said, “Thank you, Lord.”

TP:    So you’d never played with Ray Brown up until…

THIGPEN:  Oh, yes.  We had done a record with Blossom Dearie prior to that.  I’d started getting on the scene because I was in New York, working with Billy.  critics started liking my work, and I was getting recognition.  I’d go see Ray, and somehow we hooked up, and we did this date.

TP:    But that was just in the studio.  So your first bandstand experience with him was the rehearsals and then going on stage with the Oscar Peterson Trio.  Tell me about the experience of playing drums with Ray Brown.  What were the qualities that made Ray Brown, Ray Brown?

THIGPEN:  Well, his sound and his time, his attack. And it wasn’t just playing fast, it was the whole approach, the musical approach for me. In other words, taking your instrument and making it an orchestra.  How do we play together?  How do we blend together?  It was much of the tradition that I’d heard from Kenny Clarke and Jo Jones and my dad about how a rhythm section functions.  It was very dominant.  But they had an edge, playing on top of the beat, laying in the middle of it, laying behind it, shifting gears… But sound.  How our sound blended.  So on my own… He didn’t tell me what to play, but it was like how he played.  And I loved it so much — same with Oscar — that I developed techniques of my own that I thought would be compatible with what you were doing.

TP:    You played with him night after night for 6-1/2 years, maybe 200 nights a year…

THIGPEN:  We worked ten months a year.

TP:    That’s 300 days a year.  Was he an extremely consistent player?

THIGPEN:  Extremely.

TP:    And was he an extremely creative player from night to night?

THIGPEN:  Extremely musical, creative… It was…

TP:    That’s hard to do.  On the road for ten months a year?

THIGPEN:  It isn’t as hard to do when people are compatible.  It’s hard not to do because it’s not acceptable not to do that.  You don’t lay on… It was never coasting.  Oscar and Ray were at another level altogether, and their penchant for excellence was dominant.  But Ray was never forceful with me.  Just you wanted to be the best it was at what you were doing.  So you were giving your all every evening.  And once you get used to that, it’s unacceptable to come below that level.

TP:    Did you rehearse a great deal with Ray?

THIGPEN:  Oh-ho!  Well, we lived together.  He shared a room with me.  He was like a big brother, taking care of me, guiding me — just a lot of things in general.  We would practice every day.  After two weeks, I said, “I guess we got it.”  He said, “not yet.”  And two years later, we’re still practicing how to play time together, and dynamics, and me play his part, sing his parts and play mine, and vice-versa.  What was Oscar doing?  Then when we’d do things with the orchestras, when it was augmented, how to shift… How to work a rhythm section, how to really make it work.  We worked at that every day.

TP:    So he never rested on his laurels.

THIGPEN:  Oh, no!

TP:    By 1963, he’s Ray Brown, the heir to Jimmy Blanton, but he’s continuing to work on himself and perfect what he does.

THIGPEN:  I wrote (and I took some time to word this correctly in the email) at the end that Ray Brown was a worker at everything he did.

TP:    You said he “was a natural leader, dominant but not forceful, he was consistent, a very persistent, patient hard worker. Brownsk was in the trenches with you leading by example.”

THIGPEN:  That’s it.

TP:    It’s wonderfully put, and I’m talking to you for elaboration and examples, which you’re giving me.

THIGPEN:  That was Ray.  Everything he did.  He came home, he studied all the time, he practiced all the time, trying to improve all the time.  I think all great artists are like that, but the ones I’ve had the pleasure of working with are really exception.  Like, he would get together with symphonic players; he wanted to improve the bowing, he wanted to do this, and they would come down to see what he was doing.  He was always open.  But there were some things that were definite that they had stylistically that worked, and those things they were very adamant about, because they worked.  I’m speaking of Ray and people of that caliber.  We’re talking about the very top of the heap, now.  Whether it was Buddy Rich or Oscar Peterson or Ray Brown… Ray Brown, after he heard his father play Oscar Pettiford, he came off the road, and went back and learned everything Oscar Pettiford was doing before he’d go back out there again.  Oscar Peterson didn’t feel he was ready to come down when Norman asked him, and when he felt ready he came down, and jumped right to the top of the line.  So those guys are going to be the best possible, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to lay on it.  Because that instrument is challenging and the music is like that.  The instrument tells you.  There’s always somebody coming along, like a new fast gun.

TP:    I interviewed him in 1999, and he said he had to practice all the time so he could execute all the stuff he used to play.  I think that’s one reason why he had young musicians in his trio.

THIGPEN:  That’s right.  He told me, “When you go out…”  Because I’d been off, I was raising my kids and blah-blah-blah.  But he said, “You get you some young boys, because they’re gonna be on top of it.”  So that’s what you do.  You’ve got to get where the energy is.

TP:    So your friendship lasted the duration, after leaving Oscar Peterson.

THIGPEN:  Oh yes.  My spiritual brother, Donald, and every… Oh, Ray was more than just a friend on the bandstand.  Ray spiritually was like a big brother.  He didn’t press you for anything, but if I needed to know something or whatever…encouragement… Ray was always there.

TP:    Was his business acumen always extremely evident?

THIGPEN:  Well, let me put it this way.  I knew he was a fast study.  I certainly couldn’t keep up with him.  But he would try to pull my coat about certain things which I just couldn’t grasp until later years.

TP:    You mean business things.

THIGPEN:  Business-wise.  But he’s one of these guys who could read the “Herald-Tribune” in 15 minutes, and you ask him a topic and just give him the page number and the subtitle, he’d tell you everything in the paper.

TP:    So to use the word “genius” wouldn’t be overstating the case with him.

THIGPEN:  No, I don’t think.  “Genius,” dictionary-wise, says a person of exceptional talent, unusual creativity and talent, and how to use it.  That’s the dictionary form of the word.  I think he fit the category.  You have nuances.

TP:    Well, everyone has their idiosyncracies.

THIGPEN:  But as far as these extra-special gifts that he had, and how you use them is what’s important…

TP:    Can you think of any one or two anecdotes that really get to his essence?

THIGPEN:  Yeah, my last little paragraph.  I thought this out; it wasn’t just random.

TP:    What I mean is that over the forty years of friendship, any thing you remember happening that brings into relief his qualities and his character.

THIGPEN:  What I mentioned is that he was consistent, and as I said before, he’s a very caring and thoughtful person.  This is very personal.  He became a very integral part of my life, as I said, as a spiritual brother and by example as a human being, thinking of me as a person… Unlike a lot of people, they talk to you and they don’t really listen to what you have to say from your perspective. He was one of the most fantastic listeners.  He knew how to listen to people for what they had to say.  Not for what he was perceiving them to say, but what they HAD to say.

TP:    That exactly correlates with what he did on the bandstand, too.

THIGPEN:  That’s right.

TP:    As you know, Oscar Peterson has an incredible feel for people’s voices.  How they speak, how they phrase things… It’s uncanny, and it really adds to the book.  He said he was doing his job, because he had to listen to them, because he had to play with them…

THIGPEN:  That’s right.  I mean, I always felt like that. My father had told me that, and that’s a deep-rooted scene.  And you learn that as an accompanist.  He was the perfect accompanist.  That’s an art.  You’re not afraid of losing your identity by being subservient or serving up something good to enhance another person’s performance. That was him.  When I said he was a caring and thoughtful human being, he was a caring and thoughtful musician in everything that he did, and it was like, “‘How do you make it better?”  And that was the thing that… That put it on for me.  And living with a person like that, when you’re able to practice it every day on the bandstand, then that’s something else.

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Filed under Bass, DownBeat, Interview, Jazz.com, Ray Brown, WKCR

A 2001 DownBeat Profile of Lee Konitz, Who Turns 84 Today.

Back in June, while Lee Konitz was playing Manhattan’s Blue Note, I posted an uncut Blindfold Test that he did with me in 2004. A few years before, DownBeat gave me the opportunity to write a feature piece on the maestro, who turns 84 today.

* * *

Behold Lee Konitz, 74, the patriarch of “cool jazz,” perched atop a barstool center-stage at Manhattan’s Blue Note. Trim, bespectacled, with a mossy white beard, Konitz is resplendent in a custom-tailored blue pinstripe with wide lapels and burgundy shirt open at the neck. Ears cocked, eyes darting, he’s ready to embark on a round of spontaneous composition with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Marc Johnson, each capable, as Bley puts it, “of playing the gig solo if the others didn’t arrive on time.”

Konitz bends, envelops the alto saxophone mouthpiece in a brief, graceful motion, and blows a stream of notes, gradually forming a melody, articulating the flow with his signature wood-grained sound, smooth and round at the edges, with a touch more vibrato than he used to deploy. Finally he unveils the refrain of Frank Loesser’s “I’ve Never Been In Love Before.”  Bley, the mischievous Katzenjammer Kid, sets up sudden detours; Konitz, unfazed, cool as his rep, falls silent for one rest, another, intuits the note, and plunges into a new set of variations. The trio sustains the speculative mood for an hour, improvising continuously through the melodies of “I’ll Remember April” and “Stella By Starlight” with the attitude of adventurers working through virgin terrain.

“I start every day playing into a song that I know,” Konitz had said six months before, a few days after “being paid exorbitantly” for three nights of improvised duliloquy with drummer Paul Motian at the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center. We sat in the living room of the well-appointed Upper West Side apartment that now serves as his New York pied a terre, the novels of Proust and Dostoevsky holding pride of place with a healthy collection of classical and jazz CDs. “I hear so many talented people who are obliged to learn many different kinds of musics to function as professionals. Which I was never really obliged to do. Don’t bug me! I just want to play ‘All The Things You Are’ in all the keys. I’ve been through the keys!”

At that moment, Konitz was pondering weighty matters. Having survived post-operative complications from a May 2000 angioplasty and subsequent open-heart surgery, his doctors had informed him that another angioplasty would be required, forcing him to cancel at least a month of engagements. He reflected analytically on the impact of the aging process on his sound.

“My breath control is a little shorter, and I tend to play shorter phrases,” Konitz commented. “But I’ve worked at it every day; all these little adjustments have been systematic in some way, and I’ve accepted them. Whatever change in my sound or in the way I play a line, I’m told that people can recognize me still from the first note I play. Which I consider a great compliment, since I’ve made a real effort not to keep doing the same solo over and over again, so to speak. Whether I played better in 1951 than I do now is a matter of taste, but now I am doing what I think is closer to my real musicality. I’ve studied over the years to try to eliminate the so-called intellectual imbalance in the playing — to play real notes. It’s been a process of editing, finding how to listen better, play in time better, relax better, and to stay inventive. I feel much stronger rhythmically. I hear much clearer and relate much more definitely to what I hear, and all of those coordinating factors are slowly developing. Being 74 doesn’t necessarily stop that process. It seems to be stimulating it in some way, because I know I don’t have that much time. And I have the good fortune of being able to play in public and get money! That completes the cycle.”

The doctors had given Konitz a false alarm, and he resumed his 60-year career with scarcely a glitch. From his Rhenish base in Cologne, where he lives with his wife of several years, Konitz executes the lone-wolf saxman function at festivals, concert halls and clubs throughout Europe, working with whichever musicians cross his path. A week before the Blue Note engagement, for example, he and Bley had performed three nights of duos in Culley, Switzerland, preceded by a Genoa encounter with the excellent Italian tenorist Pietro Tonolo. That followed a Paris recital on which Konitz improvised to four-horn arrangements of his tunes by the Canadian arranger Francois Tabersch, and a recording session for Owl on which he earned his one thousand dollar fee (“Not Euros, bucks!”) with five minutes of variations on “My Funny Valentine” as accompaniment to a reading by French essayist Alain Gilbert on Chet Baker.

Since 1996, Konitz has recorded some of the strongest albums of his distinguished corpus. He blends his sound with a string quartet, improvising on 10 songs by French Impressionist composers over Ohad Talmor arrangements; interprets 12 ballads associated with Billie Holiday over Daniel Schnyder arrangements for string sextet and drums [Enja]; and channels Johnny Hodges on a luscious recital with the 40-piece Metropole Orchestra of Holland [Koch], making “the vibrato really schmaltzy.” There are two volumes of impromptu triologues with bassist Charlie Haden and pianist Brad Mehldau [Blue Note], and one apiece with Motian and bassist Steve Swallow [Enja], with bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron [DIW], and with pianist Don Friedman and the late guitarist Attila Zoller [Hat Art]. For the Danish label Steeplechase, which has documented Konitz since the ’70s, there are several excellent sax-bass-drums trios and a contrapuntal flight of fancy with tenor saxophonist Ted Brown, a friend since 1948. He meets Brown and guitarist John Abercrombie on the RCA album SOUNDS OF SURPRISE, and dialogues with rising tenor star Mark Turner for PARALLELS, on Chesky.

“Beginning before I met Lennie Tristano, and learned more about this music, I thought I would be a professional journeyman musician doing whatever gigs were offered to me,” Konitz reflected in March, a few days after arriving in New York for the first time since his October troubles. “So I am very happy to be able to be a creative journeyman. The sideman mentality, I think, is part of that. Last night I went to the Vanguard and heard Mark Turner’s band, which is a real band; they played nice tunes, nice arrangements, nice solos. Bravo. I don’t seem to need that in my life. For some strange reason, I like to just go in and play with different guys.”

Consider how Konitz approached his 1998 encounter with Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins in Perugia.  “We rehearsed three days at his studio at 125th Street,” Konitz relates. As introspective in conversation as he is in music, Konitz analyzes the emotions that bedrock his improvisations with the same intensity he imparts to the practice by which he prepares to create them.

“On the first day, Ornette brought about 13 tunes, including a ballad for me. I saw quickly that the tunes were 8 or 12 bars long. Then I discovered that the pitches were correct, but he wasn’t playing them that way. Very typically bright Ornette themes. He gave me a tape after the first rehearsal, and I transcribed his playing so that I could it play it rhythmically more correct. I told Ornette I didn’t feel comfortable, and asked him to let me play the first solo after the theme, though I asked myself, ‘How could that possibly work?’ But it seemed to help a bit, and although I told Ornette I didn’t really fit, he and Charlie and Billy told me I was doing fine. So I accepted the good feelings they gave me and had my doubts about fitting in. After the set in Perugia, Ornette said backstage, ‘Do you want to play ‘All The Things You Are’?’  I said, ‘Yeah!’ We went out…and you never heard a version of ‘All The Things You Are’ like that!”

“I remember going with Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh to hear him at the Five Spot one night, and not really knowing what to make of it. Ornette came up and asked me if I wanted to sit in. I said, ‘What do we play?’ or something like that, and somehow I guess I didn’t sound like I really wanted to sit in, so he didn’t pursue it. Sorry I didn’t. At that time, like a lot of people, I was resenting somehow this fact that he was eliminating everything that I’d spent my years trying to hone. But I gradually got over resenting it. Ornette’s concept is extraordinarily inventive and original, and of course had a great influence on a lot of the music’s development. He tried to explain some of the harmolodic theory on an airplane flight when we were sitting together. I said, ‘Wait til we get down on the ground, please.’ I really said that, because it’s so subjective that I didn’t want to face it up in the air. I never really learned his tunes. I’m too busy playing ‘All the Things You Are.’ By Jerome Kern. That guy must be turning over!”

Konitz is Coleman’s senior by three years, and by the fall of 1959, the date of their first encounter, he was a minor legend. An avatar in improvising without a preconceived harmonic, melodic or rhythmic framework, he was the only alto saxophonist of his generation to develop a tonal personality that addressed the innovations of Charlie Parker without mimicking his style.

Both accomplishments trace to Konitz’ intense two-decade disciple-master relationship with Tristano. The lessons began in Chicago around 1944, not long after Konitz — who grew up in Rogers Park — had begun to play professionally as a lead alto saxophonist in several white dance bands and in a black orchestra led by Harold Fox (the tailor for Jimmie Lunceford and Earl Hines, who performed under the pseudonym Jimmy Dale), who assigned the pimply neophyte to sing the blues before curious audiences at the South Side’s Pershing Ballroom. Tristano had Konitz — then an acolyte of swing era alto heroes Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges — duplicate solos by Lester Young (Konitz cites “Dickie’s Dream” and “Pound Cake” as two of many favorites) and Charlie Parker (“Don’t Blame Me”), laying the groundwork for the twisty legato patterns and behind the beat phrasing that remains his trademark.

In 1948, a month shy of his 21st birthday, Konitz arrived in New York for a fortnight’s residence at the Pennsylvania Hotel with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. He never left. “52nd Street was the first place I went after I checked in,” Konitz says. “I heard Charlie Parker, I heard Art Tatum, I heard Roy Eldridge — one after another. Incredible. This was the big time, and I was totally impressed with the funky clubs, with the whole scene.”

Konitz quickly made his mark. Whitney Balliett’s 1982 essay, “Ten Levels” contains the best account of the manner in which he did it. There Konitz discusses how Gil Evans, an arranger with Thornhill, led him to the rehearsal nonet that became Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool band; his pioneering “free jazz” recordings on Capitol and Prestige with Tristano’s sextet, and the bizarre course of their relationship; and his 16-month tenure with Stan Kenton’s brass-heavy aggregation. Konitz left Kenton in 1954, and embarked on the nomadic free-lance life he continues to lead, hewing to on-the-highwire imperatives through the tides of Hardbop, Soul Jazz, Coltrane, Avant Garde, Fusion and Neoclassicism.

“I had the model in Tristano and Warne Marsh especially, and before that with Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and I rejected a lot of what I heard around me on that basis,” Konitz says. “Which is kind of a traditional trap we can get into; there I was, in the ’60s, out of step with what’s hip, with what almost all of the younger people were studying.

“To this day I feel that Warne Marsh was one of the most real players in jazz. When he played, it was all substance and no attitude to speak of. I heard attitude in Charlie Parker, except that he was a genius so he could compensate for that — or cover it. ‘Attitude’ meaning that there was something extra-musical involved in this. Over-dramatic emotionality. Okay?  Coming from the ‘cool’ system, you can take that with a grain of salt. I love passionate expression as well as the next man, but sometimes it felt that all the emphasis was on trying to emote on the sleeve, so to speak. What really gets to me is hearing a really straight reading with great notes. great sound and great rhythm feeling. Warne was capable of doing that more than anybody I know.”

During the latter ’50s, as Konitz came to grips with Parker’s rhythmic language, he began to prove, as Paul Bley notes, “that he could be a muscular time player. Time was an Achilles heel of Lennie’s groups, and Lee went past that to incorporate a swinging approach, plus the intellectual. That’s the whole thing to match off — to be creative harmonically and melodically and at the same time have a mastery of rhythm sections.”

“Lee has a jarring rhythmic sense,” Mark Turner says. “Phrases are never in groups of 2 or 4 or 8 beats or notes, but in 7′s or 9′s or 5′s or 6′s. His lines are also very involved, long, connected, extremely lyrical. Until the ’70s, his playing was pretty complex, always lyrical and logical, always a strong rhythmic sense, with a unique sense of swing. Over the last five years, it’s a much simpler, more pared-down version of what was going on then. He’s very open minded and so free — and rooted as well.”

“I think what Lee needs from a drummer is strong, confident, concentrated time,” says Joey Baron, Konitz’ drummer of choice in recent years. “He plays on the REAL back side of the beat, and it’s important not to try to match where he’s placing the time. I think he expects some fire, some expression without impeding his aesthetic of music. It’s not about energy and texture. It’s more about his mastery of melody and continuity. He really appreciates when you listen, and he starts from scratch with whomever he’s playing with, which is unbelievable.”

Whatever distaste Konitz professes for proselytizing, his search for musical truth has the feeling of a monastic pursuit. “I came into a situation with Tristano that was a number of steps beyond what I was prepared to absorb,” Konitz says. “That meant weeding out things that I felt were extraneous and trying to play what I really felt and heard.” To exist so self-consciously must take a psychic toll, and Konitz, who “was never part of a religious group too much and left the Jewish thing early on,” found himself looking to outside sources for inspiration.

One crutch was marijuana, which Konitz used heavily during the ’50s and ’60s. “That had its effect one way and another,” Konitz says. “As Louis Armstrong said, ‘Where do you get your ideas from if you’re not smoking?’ I can see that sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t all come together yet. I still think about it, because those were very special moments. Now I can get a different kind of satisfaction, but very complete, without having to do anything, and that has been a big lesson for me. I didn’t like the feeling of having a door open on something and then having it close up the next morning.”

Konitz began to wean himself from marijuana during a lengthy association with Scientology, which he became involved with around 1973. “It seemed to me that I would have a chance, step-by-step, to look at my life and things around me, and try to make some sense out of it,” Konitz says. “It provided me with the opportunity to continue studying, a discipline that I had stopped when I left high school. I left the Jewish thing early on, and had never been part of a religious group — or any group — too much. Besides the business part, which I objected to very strongly, it was clean, in a way. And whatever was hokey about it, I just accepted the part that felt it was to our benefit, to somehow clean up our acts.”

Free and clear of marijuana, Tristano and L. Ron Hubbard since 1990, Konitz relies on his ears and intuition “to communicate with the people I’m playing with, not just somehow register what they’re doing and continue to do what I do.”

“I understood early on that you’re supposed to study and then go off and think and make your own sense of it,” Konitz continues. “I think that’s what I was able to do. I wasn’t trying to be ‘original’ at any point. I’m quoting Ned Rorem, who said one of the most original things that I did was not to try to be original. That rings a bell for me. I was just trying to absorb what was hip at the time as best I could, and when I got alone, try and reinterpret it or interpret it the way I heard it.”

“Lee is a master,” Bley says. “The master is not looking for anything. The master already has found everything. It’s just a question of revealing it to you. It’s the same on the bandstand. The master passing wind through the horn, without a note, is already art. The master is the art.”

Konitz the patriarch will have none of this. He continues to work through his process, moving around the world as a gigging troubadour. He offers some parting speculations. “I think all jazz comes from the Baroque music, basically. Bach is always swinging, and it’s got the long line, the great counterpoint and all the ingredients. Someone even said Bach had the progression of ‘All The Things You Are’ in one of his pieces!  But I haven’t come across that one yet.”

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Filed under Alto Saxophone, Article, DownBeat, Lee Konitz

A Drummers Memorial Roundtable on Billy Higgins on WKCR, May 7, 2001

For this writer, any gig that included drum master Billy Higgins was a must-see. I can’t think of another musician who consistently embodied the principle of playing with an in-the-moment, creative attitude while always attending to the function at hand. Although Higgins joined me on several occasions at WKCR, we never did an in-depth interview, so I can’t post a face-to-face conversation, But four days after his death, I had an opportunity to host a memorial broadcast at which a cohort of his peers and acolytes — Ralph Peterson, Jeff Watts, Leroy Williams, Andrew Cyrille, Lewis Nash — came to the studio to talk about the master, their remarks juxtaposed to taped interviews with Billy Hart, Louis Hayes, and Winard Harper. I incorporated some of their remarks in an obituary that ran in DownBeat.

In recognition of Higgins’ 75th birthday, I’ve posted that obit below, followed by the uncut transcript of the conversation.

“Seeking Light Through Sound”:

Billy Higgins, whose consistent brilliance at the trapset and unfailing humanity made him one of the most beloved figures in jazz, died on May 3rd at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood, California, of complications resulting from liver and kidney failure. He was 64.

Perhaps the most recorded hardcore jazz drummer of his generation, Higgins made consequential albums with — among many others — Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, James Clay, Paul Horn, Harold Land, Teddy Edwards, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Sonny Clark, Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd, Cecil Taylor, Dexter Gordon, Eddie Harris, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, Art Farmer, Jimmy Heath, Sonny Simmons, Clifford Jordan, George Coleman, Joe Henderson, Pharaoh Sanders, Hank Jones, Pat Metheny, Joshua Redman and Charles Lloyd.  And from 1975 until not long before his death he toured and recorded extensively with the Cedar Walton Trio alongside bassists Sam Jones, Ron Carter and David Williams.

Higgins was born in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1936. He received early master classes in rudiments and aesthetics from Johnny Kirkwood, who had played drums with Louis Jordan and Dinah Washington, and he kept those lessons in mind as he analyzed contemporary recordings of Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones. In high school in the early ’50s, he workshopped with Cherry and alto saxophonist George Newman; in 1955, they joined forces with saxophonist James Clay, a recent arrival from Texas, in a working band called the Jazz Messiahs. Clay knew Ornette Coleman from Texas, and introduced his young cohorts to him; during this time Higgins became close to Ed Blackwell, and when Blackwell returned to New Orleans in 1957, Higgins began to work with Coleman.

Higgins joined Coleman for his epochal Fall 1959 New York debut at the Five Spot, and appeared on Coleman’s seminal early recordings Something Else!, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Change of the Century and — alongside Blackwell – Free Jazz (later he played on Science Fiction [1971] and In All Languages [1987]; he continued to perform with Coleman until the summer of 2000). He was soon one of New York’s most in-demand drummen, impressing all camps for the relentless swing, supreme taste, and creative ethos he brought to every performance. In 1960 he made the first of dozens of Blue Note sessions, stamping his distinctive feel — an organic homebrew of second-line rhythms, fly-like-the-wind swing propulsion, primal church backbeats and African talking drums — on a sampler’s feast of boogaloo classics like Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” and Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.”

Andrew Cyrille described the Higgins effect during a drummer’s roundtable conducted on WKCR during a 33-hour memorial broadcast: “There was his touch, the way he tuned the drums, and his great showmanship, but what I loved most of all was Billy’s beat. It seemed able to fit any person’s style. His ride beat, regardless of the tempo, was like a clothesline, and it had all different sizes and weights. It was so elastic and relaxed from the inside, and it would give and take and expand. I can understand why so many horn players and piano players and bass players loved playing with him.

“He was a very educated drummer, who knew how to think within the contexts of the musics he would play. His polyrhythms were amazing. Higgins was a risk-taker. The element of surprise is the essence of jazz, and he was one of its great exponents.”

Higgins had cat-like reflexes, and he knew the art of dialogue. To witness him with his vonce working — smiling broadly, eyes aglimmer, dancing with the drumset, navigating the flow with perfect touch, finding the apropos tone for every beat — was a magnetic, seductive experience. As Ralph Peterson put it, “This man was in his bliss every moment that he played the drums, and that sense of enjoyment and humor came through in the way he played.”

As Lewis Nash remarked: “Often we think of greatness in music in terms of someone’s technical proficiency. But the greatness that we attribute to Billy, in addition to his mastery of the drums, comes from his warmth and enveloping spirit and spirituality.” Higgins focused incessantly on spiritual matters after 1977, when he became a Muslim; he found in Islamic tenets sufficient structure and discipline to overcome a long-standing heroin habit. He spent the remainder of his life giving back. After moving back to Los Angeles, Higgins founded the World Stage, a community center on Deegan Boulevard in Crenshaw, near Leimart Park, devoted to the study and performance of jazz. The club’s logo: “Seeking light through sound.”

–Ted Panken

Billy Higgins Memorial Broadcast (WKCR, 5-7-01) – (Ralph Peterson, Jeff Watts, Leroy Williams, Andrew Cyrille, Lewis Nash Live in the Studio; Taped interviews with Billy Hart, Lewis Hayes, and Winard Harper):

One thing we can note about Billy Higgins is the tremendous consistency of innovation and creativity and imagination and commitment with which he approached every musical situation.  I can never remember hearing him off.  Ralph Peterson, who is the first of our numerous Billy Higgins drum brethren of various generations…

PETERSON:  Disciple.  He was truly the teacher and I am still the student.  He continues to be the teacher through the legacy he’s left.  Consistency is one of the things that amazed me about him, his ability to maintain himself regardless of the musical context he was playing in.  It was just incredible.

What was your first exposure to Billy Higgins’ music and when did you first have an opportunity to see him perform?  Because seeing him was a very special thing.

PETERSON:  Well, I first discovered Billy Higgins’ music through my educational experience at Rutgers University.  I was not a jazz baby when I got there.  So I first heard Billy Higgins on a Lee Morgan record called The Procrastinator.”  The relaxed feel; it amazed me how he could generate so much energy and forward motion, but still stay relaxed.  And then when I met him, we were at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival.  I had seen him play a couple of times in New York, and one of my favorite stories is… I enjoyed Billy most at Bradley’s, when there was no drums in the club and Billy would pull out a pair of brushes and snatch the phone book from behind the bar, and swing the duo — now a trio — under the table with just a pair of brushes and a New York telephone book.  To possess that much musicianship and invention and brush facility, to be able to play a full night of music… Because once he started playing, no one wanted him to stop.  So it was like a master class every time yu were near him.  And he was very warm, he was very friendly, he had a very loving spirit.

Then when I saw him play the set, again I was reminded of the importance of enjoying what you do.  Because his moniker, “Smiling Billy” Higgins… I mean, this man actually truly enjoyed every moment that he played the drums.  Deepak Chopra talks about finding your bliss.  He was always in his bliss when he was playing the instrument.  And that sense of enjoyment and humor came through in the way he played.   I can remember him in Sweet Basil playing a 5- or 10-minute solo with just the found of the brush waving in the air.  You could hear…

You could hear a pin drop.

PETERSON:  You could hear a pin drop.  I wanted to use the Art Blakey saying, but this is radio, so I can’t.  You could hear a pin drop on cotton!  You know what I mean?  And it was amazing, the sound, the invention that he was generating.

An interesting story… He didn’t know me very well.  I was in Japan with OTB, and my daughter was maybe 3 months old.  And she, in her inventiveness, rolled out of the loft bed one afternoon while I was away.  Being the concerned father, without giving it much thought, I’m ready to pack my bags and go back home.  And it was Billy who reminded me how soft the bones of a child are.  He said, “Don’t worry about it.  If your lady says she’s okay, she’s okay.  She probably hit the floor and bounced.  And then we laughed, and  that was okay.  Him and Lou Rawls did  a lot to settle me down.  Because it was my first trip out.  I had met so many people at that festival, and Billy was one of the most accessible of the mindboggling superstars who were at the first couple of Mount Fuji festivals.

I miss him.  We didn’t have an ongoing communication and relationship.  But whenever I saw him, he was always concerned and pleasant with me, and I always tried to hear him when I was in New York.

Could you talk a bit about what Billy Higgins contributed to the vocabulary of the drumset?  What will he be remembered for in terms of his approach to drumming and how he helped to advance the vocabulary?

PETERSON:  He advanced the vocabulary by representing the highest examples of the combination of drive, swing and relaxation and dynamics — appropriate dynamics.

It was like he was beyond style.

PETERSON:  Well, in a sense, he had become a style.  To me, he was an icon.  He was a pillar.  I was taught you can only go as far forward as you’ve been back, and you heard him talking about meeting Buhaina and Philly Joe… When I listen to Higgins and Roy Haynes, what I hear is the marriage of the drive of Buhaina with the delicate dance of Roy Haynes, and combined and synthesized through Billy Higgins’ own experiences that made it unique.  He also played with a really deep snare drum, which I love the sound of.

And also assimilating the totality of second line rhythms through associating with Edward Blackwell and blending it into the jazz mainstream in a singular way.  Maybe that’s what helped him be Billy Higgins with Ornette Coleman and Cedar Walton and any situation he came into.

PETERSON:  Well, his flexibility.  His flexibility was testament to the depth  of his musicianship.  He could play second line, he could play the boogaloo feel, because he understood that the boogaloo feel came from second line.  And with that understanding, you can do more with the rhythm than just sit there and play backbeats.  There’s a deeper understanding about what goes on.

[MUSIC: w/Lee Morgan, "Stopstart" (1967), then a taped interview with Billy Hart follows]

You’re about four years younger than Billy Higgins, and your professional career started about a year after he came to New York with Ornette Coleman, so I’m wondering when you first recall hearing him and what  impression he made on you.

HART:  The first time I heard him was on the Ornette Coleman record.  It took me a long time to hear him in person, but I was already moved by the Ornette Coleman record.  Then after that I heard a Donald Byrd record which is the first record I ever heard Herbie Hancock on, and I’m still to this moment influenced by that record.  There were certain patterns he played that were uniquely his own.  I mean, anybody could have played it, but it’s the combination of how he put it together that made me think that he had an extraordinary mind.  Well, it was genius as far as I was concerned, like Elvin or Max.  It was something that was simple, but nobody else would have thought to do it, and it worked perfectly for that kind of musical situation, which was to become more important in the years to come, with the Coltrane band and the way we play today.

What do you mean by that kind of musical situation?

HART:  I don’t want to be too academic about it.  But there are certain kinds of chord progressions, let’s call them vamps, that are used as a bridge between musical thoughts.  That’s not like the common bridge.  In other words, a lot of times you’ll have an area, a motif or a vamp, and the common thing is to play some Latin thing over it.

So he found ways of making those sorts of progressions flow and swing.

HART:  Oh yeah, but in a totally unique way that swung, that musical significance that we refer to as swinging, which has a musical significance that causes euphoria.  Depending on how you want to relate to it, you can go into  some deep meditative thought pattern or you might just jump up and start dancing.

He could make you focus on him just because what he did was so vivid.

HART:  That’s right.  He was like any other kind of prophet.  He used words that you understood, but the message was so clear and so profound that it was awe-inspiring.

When did you finally get to see him play?

HART:  I guess after I moved to New York in 1968.  That’s when he was playing a lot with Art Farmer and Jimmy Heath, not so much with Walton in those days… Well, he was beginning to play with Walton, because Walton was in those bands.  Like, Jimmy Heath and Art Farmer together had a band, then they had one separate, then… Just those kinds of things.  And Lee Morgan.  I  moved there just as he was finishing up with Morgan.  When there was a lot of things happening in Brooklyn with Freddie and Lee…

How did hearing him play in those situations correlate with what you’d heard on records?

HART:  I heard everything that I’d heard before, and I moved more to hear it in person.  But to see his body motion and actually hear it live, you could see that the textures he used, the way he actually touched the instrument was with the grace of a great dancer, like a great tap dancer like Bojangles, or a great ballet dancer like Baryshnikov.   He just had this amazing touch on the instrument.  If he hadn’t played with any of the wisdom I mentioned before, you would still be moved just by the sound he would get out of the cymbals or the snare drum or the bass drum or the tom-tom.  His knowledge was beyond his age.  It was like he had been here before or something.  It was like if somebody lived in 3000 and came back to this time and played.  He seemed to have total knowledge of what this thing is.

And having observed in the flesh and on recordings over the subsequent three decades, in what ways did his concept and playing grow and evolve?  In a palpable way, as opposed to what happens to people as they get older and wiser.

HART:  That’s an interesting thing.  There’s guys like Miles, who you didn’t realize how far ahead he was until you realized, when he was with his third rhythm section, the one with Tony and Herbie, that he was actually playing that same way when he was with Red and Philly Joe.  You just didn’t realize how advanced it was.  And the same thing with Higgins.  I’m sure Higgins progressed, but as the rest of the world began to catch up with him, you began to realize how advanced he had always been.  I was a younger guy, so I was basically ready to jump from Max to Elvin to Tony.  But now I realize that the bridge between Elvin and Tony for me is Higgins.  There’s an understanding of what the drums do and the purpose for having the drums in the first place, for what the drums do, not only for the music but for people, just for humankind, that goes back even before the invention of the drumset… Higgins seems to have been very much aware of that.  I don’t know how subconscious it was, but in his playing he seemed to be very much aware of that, and he was a very important process in the evolution of the instrument.  I’m trying to think about how I can say it in another way.  As we move more towards a world view of music and of drumming, as we are more and more interested in the South American rhythms as an evolution from Africa through South America  to here, as we get more advanced or more progressive or whatever, we realize we are really going back and studying all those musics from before.  And Higgins’ contribution seems to be some kind of innate awareness of that in advance.

To paraphrase, you’re saying that he’s  united many different strands of rhythm, or maybe he got in some sense to the primal or universal rhythm in his playing.  And his playing did seem universally applicable to any situation.

HART:  Yeah, that’s why.

From Ornette Coleman to very straight-ahead, tradition situations. Anything that involved some swing.

HART:  Well, you call it swing, but what I’m saying is it’s a rhythmic sophistication that causes a euphoric reaction, and on a folk level that reaction can go anywhere from sensual feelings, to partying, to dancing, to actual meditation… That positive feeling can actually cause healing.  I sincerely believe that’s one of the main purposes for rhythm, if not for music period, to cause that kind of healing effect.  Higgins seemed to be very much aware of it.  The thing is so profound, that a bunch of us talk about it.  It might have been something that he inherited from his parents or his grandparents.  I think he talked about his mother and his grandmother in certain messages that he got in relationship to that kind of thing.

Could you give some personal reminiscences?  You became friends.

HART:  I would like to think so.  I certainly adored him.  But if I was his friend, then there were so many other people because he was so friendly.  I would say, “Well, Higgins, can I help you, man?  What can I do?”  He’d say, “Just your friendship is sufficient.”  Basically, he just showed me things.  He talked to me about things.  He talked to me about things about the drums and about music that if you came in late in the conversation you’d think he was talking about religious and spiritual kinds of things.  He was moving.  He was like a prophet, like Coltrane.  He actually said things that will stay with me for not only how I play the drums, but how I live my life for the rest of my life.

One thing we can imply is that there’s a griotic quality in the way Billy Higgins passed on knowledge.

HART:  He seemed to know the whole history of the function and the purpose of rhythm.  He seemed to have that in his head…or in his body.  Because I never heard anything he played that didn’t mean anything.  It seemed like everything was in perfect place, like he had already pre-composed it, although we know that it was totally extemporaneous.  It was like he could quote profound historical reasons for a positive way of living with every beat.

You also mentioned his connection to second line rhythms, and of course, he learned a great deal from Ed Blackwell when he was young and later was friends with Vernell Fournier.

HART:  I didn’t know about Vernell so much.  But he seemed to have embodied the New Orleans wisdom or knowledge or legacy without having grown up there or having been born there.  It seems as much part of him as if he’d lived there.

[BY NOW, JEFF WATTS AND LEROY WILLIAMS WERE IN THE STUDIO]

Jeff Watts, you’re about 40, came up in the ’70s and ’80s, when your jazz consciousness was formed.  When did you first become aware of Billy Higgins music via record and when did you first see him play?

WATTS:  I first began to collect jazz records around 1978 and 1979, just obvious things like Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach.  By a certain point I was able to identify people like that and Roy Haynes, but every once in a while I would get fooled, because I would hear a drummer who would have a certain sound in his cymbal beat that had like a street thing in it, and it was kind of reminiscent of Art Blakey but something was different about it. [END OF SIDE] I kind of became able to identify his style just through a process of elimination, just through seeing the range of things he was able to do.  I think a lot of the things that are going to be said about him are going t be a bit redundant, as far as unique touch and his spiritual quality and the way he could conjure up things that are African and play beats that… Like many of the great jazz drummers, they would tend to put a personal stamp on things from the Caribbean and Latin America, find their own ways of playing Latin music that would in turn influence the Latin drummers.  Things like that, and the boogaloo beat he played that’s unsurpassed that I think people will be sampling twenty years from now — if they’re still doing that stuff.

But I didn’t see him much until I came to New York, and seeing him is a whole nother trip, because you see how he goes about doing his thing.  The ease and the economy of motion he had… Probably the closest thing for me to seeing someone like Papa Jo Jones, someone that I  never got to see in person — that ease with the instrument.

Whenever you’re trying to learn about this music, at least the way my mind works, I’ll try to put things together and get a combination of this and that.  But after seeing the breadth of his wisdom and his career, I’ve started to recognize someone who had a very organic relationship with life and with music.  Even though he had a lot of specific information under his hands and in his mind, at the moment when he interacted with the music it was like an environmental thing.  Whatever he was in the middle of, he would just find something really special for that music, something that you couldn’t just figure out.  A lot of is experience, but a lot of it is just having a very natural relationship with life and with people.  You’d see how he interacts and talks with people that I’m sure he never met before, but he would just be like a regular brother and very-very cool.

Leroy Williams, you came to New York in the late ’60s, after coming up in Chicago, and you and Billy Higgins moved in similar circles.  What was your first exposure to his music, and what do recall about the regard in which he was held amongst New York drummers and musicians at the time you arrived?

WILLIAMS:  I heard Billy on records when I was living in Chicago.  It had to be in the ’50s.  When I came to New York, I was introduced to Billy through Wilbur Ware, who was an old friend.  Billy was living in Brooklyn at this time.  We used to go out there and play.  Chris Anderson was staying out there at the time, and Wilbur and Billy, so we used to go out there and play, and talk about music to a smaller degree.  Billy and I never did really talk about music.  Billy had a way of just saying little things, “Did you hear that?”  “Did you get that?”  “See what I mean?” But we didn’t really go into the music, about any paradiddles, any bam-bam, drum stuff.  It was just being around Billy.  We had a nice rapport.

I remember one of the first times I met Billy we were talking about Chicago, and Wilbur was telling Billy, “Now, Leroy’s a church boy, you know.”  Billy said, “I know.  I can tell by the way he plays, he is.”  Billy said, “I am, too.”  So we always got along fine.  Most of the time me and Billy talked, it was about spiritual things.  Not so much about the drums.  We knew that.  But it was another level we used to talk.  Every time we’d talk at length,, it would be in that area.

And knowing him over the years… One point Billy Hart made and what is well known about Billy Higgins is the way in which he incorporated second line rhythms.  Did he ever talk about his assimilation of Ed Blackwell or Vernell Fournier into what he did.

WILLIAMS:  Like I said, we never did talk too much drum talk.  Billy was one of those guys who absorbed things, and he’d grab stuff out of the air like most of the great people.  Some people just can do that, and he was one..  So we never really talked about comparing drummers.

From your perspective over 30 years, did you notice an evolution in his sound?  His growth as a musician.  Billy Hart’s impression is that he almost came out fully formed in a certain way, and played with such tremendous consistency over his forty years.

WILLIAMS:  I’m sure he grew.  Everyone grows. I’m sure he grew.

PETERSON:  One of the marks of a true master, like Leroy Williams, is the ability to teach without teaching and to teach by example.  Thinking back through my relationships with other master drummers, they were also master teachers, because there was never this technical drummistic discussion about how to play the instrument.  You just kind of shut your mouth and watched them, and your questions were answered before you could even form them.

The other thing is, the notion that he arrived wholly perfect in his approach:  Well, the depth of his mastery comes in the span of time and music that he covered, and the consistency, where the music around him seemed to be changing radically, but all these musicians kept coming to him for this consistency which had to be changing with the music.  But it wasn’t anything stark or radical or abrupt.  His ability to subtly adjust and conform to a change in musical direction is not something every drummer can do.  It’s not easy.  And to do it and maintain continuity of self…

WILLIAMS:  To me, Billy played the same way.  But you grow within what you play.  But the same… I don’t care who he played with, whether it ws Ornette, Monk, Dexter — he played the same way.  The beauty in that is he was so whole and strong in his thing.  It was cool.  Like Ralph said, people just came to him because he had that good beat, swing and taste.  And that can cover all of it.  Billy had that all the time.  But he grew as a musician and he grew as a person.

WATTS:  I can’t add much to that.  We’re all saying basically the same thing.  But it sounds like he had found the keys for getting inside of music.  If there was some kind of equation, he had like a universal equation for getting inside of some music — period.  Just like they’re talking about him teaching without getting into specifics, teaching by example… One example I have of that which is profound, without getting into specifics… He was working somewhere, probably Sweet Basil… I was kind of checking out his drums a little bit after he played, and I started to touch upon the tuning of his tunes.  I wasn’t really trying to get specific.  But the thing that he said was really deep.  He said, “Well, when you tune your drums, just make them sound like a family.”  How deep is that?  You can’t get no heavier than that, especially with something like the drumset, which is all these different instruments that are put together to make one sound, and then sometimes it’s like a choir, sometimes it’s like a melodic line, sometimes you’re trying to sound like a bunch of people playing.  But just to take all these different instruments and make them sound like they go together and that they belong together, without getting into specifics, “Oh, this is a minor third” and this is like that and “I loosen the bottom head.”  Just as long as they go together.

[BH, "Mirror, Mirror", HIGGINS-CEDAR INTERVIEW, then "Alias Buster Henry"]

[ANDREW CYRILLE and WINARD HARPER ARRIVED AT THE STUDIO]

Andrew, did you go to see Ornette Coleman during his initial engagement at the Five Spot?

CYRILLE:  No.  Actually I played at the Five Spot with Walt Dickerson and Austin Crowe and I think Eustis Guillemet opposite Ornette, but the drummer was Ed Blackwell, and I think Jimmy Garrison played bass.

But it was ’61 when Jimmy Garrison was with Ornette.

CYRILLE:  That’s right, and [Charles] Moffett was playing drums.  I think I had gone down there when he first came to New York, and the place was abuzz with musicians talking about the pros and cons of what they were hearing.  That’s when Ornette had his plastic saxophone.  I didn’t speak with him then.  I just listened to the music.  I met him personally some time after that, at Cedar Walton’s house.

When did you become aware of him as a significant tonal personality in the music?

HARPER:  That happened over the years.  When you first hear somebody, you hear them for the first time, because there was a certain magic going on with that music, and he was an integral part of what was happening.  But as I heard him over the years, I understood the breadth and depth of his musicianship.  It was just fantastic.

To me, very often, drummers keep bands together.  You can tell a great band through listening its drummers.  Great drummers make a great band sound perhaps even greater.  And he was somebody who really infused what he knew about music and about drumming into the music of Ornette Coleman.  I was impressed.  I was impressed with the whole thing, and him being a part of it.  I had never heard anything quite like that.  So just observing him and listening to him, it took me someplace else.

I’d like you to describe his stature among New York drummers in the ’60s and ’70s.

CYRILLE:  Well, since I was part of that history with Cecil and Rashied Ali and Sunny Murray and Beaver Harris and cats like that… Billy was one of us as far as the avant-garde was concerned.  He could swing, too; that was the other part of it.  That piece “Buster Henry” shows how he could play freely and just follow the sound.  You heard that in the rubato passages, and then when the signal was given, when he played those four-bar introductions and went back into the metrical melody… He was gifted in that respect.  So as far as the New York drummers were concerned, he was just one of the cats who was doing what we were doing at that time.

Both schools of the New York drummers.

CYRILLE:  Both schools.  Exactly.  I’d see Billy all over the world in different places, and he was always very respectful.  He’d come and listen to me, he liked music, etc., and he’d comment on some of the things I’d do.  I remember him sitting in on stage when I was doing a duet with Louis Moholo, the South African drummer, in England one year.  I remember another time I went over with Henry Threadgill and Fred Hopkins, and he and Cedar came into the club to listen to us play.  Very respectful.

I remember him most for something that was done not too long ago for Dennis Charles, when a group of us drummers assembled to play in tribute to Dennis, and Billy was the conductor of the choir.  We drummers don’t get an opportunity to play with each other too much; I wish there could be more of that… [END OF SIDE] …Warren Smith and Jimmy Hopps came by, and I played with the group.  He conducted the band.  We decided what we were going to do before we went up to play, and he said, “Okay, we’ll do this-this-that, when one drummer stops we’ll do another thing, when another stops, we’ll do this — you go first-second-third.”  It was very organized.  And it was just beautiful to be able to play with him, not only just listen to him.  That was  a treat.

If you were to describe to somebody the dynamics of his approach to the drums, what would you emphasize?

CYRILLE:  Probably a lot of the things that were said already, because there’s probably a common denominator among us who play drums who understand some of the things that go into the science and the art of playing.  Number one, to me, that I loved about him was his beat.  He had that beat that seemed to be able to fit any person’s style, and he would listen, of course.  To me, sometimes drumming is like a person being a tailor.  You fit somebody to the max with some clothes.  You make them look better than they are… [EVERYONE LAUGHS] You just take them someplace else.  He was just one of those kind of people.  That’s the way he played.  His touch, the way he tuned the drums.  Plus he was a great showman also.  He could get up there and do some stepping.  Not only would he attract you with the music, if you closed your eyes he was still magnetic, but if you opened your eyes, that was  something else again.

As a civilian, I can attest to numerous situations where without him doing anything overt to call attention to himself, I’d find myself watching him play time.  Just isolate on that and you could be fine for an hour!

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  His time was just about impeccable.  His independent coordination.  His ride beat, regardless of the tempo, was like a clothesline that you could hang clothes up on, and it would have all different sizes and weights. It was right there.  So I can understand why so many horn players and piano players and bass players loved playing with him.  He would just give and take and expand.  It was so elastic and so relaxed from the inside.  It was like sleeping on a mattress that was heavenly!

[BH, "Hocus Pocus" & "Molly"]

[I PLAYED A TAPED INTERVIEW WITH LOUIS HAYES]

You and Billy Higgins were practically the same age, and your careers started at about the same time.  You were in New York before him.  I’m wondering when you first became aware of him as a drummer and the impression he made upon you when you did.

HAYES:  Well, we’re about a year apart.  I first became aware of Billy Higgins when he was appearing with Ornette Coleman, and they were appearing at the original Five Spot.  I went down several times.   And Billy Higgins impressed me.  The music he was playing was something I wasn’t too familiar with at the time.  Ornette is such a unique person, and Billy was swinging right through it and with that good feeling that he had when he first came to New York with the group.  I was very impressed with him.  So we became friends, and we stayed friends from that time ever since.

What would you say was distinct about his playing vis-a-vis the general vocabulary of drumming in 1959-60?

HAYES:  I would say his ability to use the facilities that he had so well.  He had a certain sound that’s so important, a distinctive sound that was his own.  He was very creative, and he really loved to play.  You could always tell that was Billy Higgins playing drums when you listened to him in person and when you heard him on recordings.

You’re talking about his touch.

HAYES:  His touch and the way he used the facilities that he had.

How would you describe the set of influences that he incorporated into his own singular sound?

HAYES:  I don’t know who influenced him exactly.  But we had opportunities to practice together several times, when we both lived in Brooklyn.  This was in ’59-’60-’61, something like that.  Billy had his way of doing things, and we enjoyed each other’s playing a lot.  A period of time went by, and then when he was appearing with Lee Morgan and I was appearing with Freddie Hubbard, we had some battles of the band in Harlem at Count Basie that were very interesting.  A lot of people came and were aware of it; that was a lot of fun.

How would you describe the evolution of his sound as he got older?   People say he always had a wise-beyond-his-years quality, extreme maturity musically even at a very young age.

HAYES:  He did.  And to me, Billy never changed that much.  The way he sounded when I first heard him with Ornette and the way he sounded with Cedar Walton… And him and Cedar played together for many years, and David  Williams on bass.  He sounded pretty much the same.  He had so much creativity that he made everyone that was in his presence hear his drum style and what he projected.  He put smiles on everyone’s face.  When Billy was smiling, he made the audience smile and naturally the guys in the group were smiling.

I would just like to say that Billy will always be here, because of that sound he left, so he always will be appearing on records, and we never will  forget Mr. Billy Higgins.  I’m glad that I had an opportunity to know him and be his friend while he was on this side.  Like Cedar Walton said to me one time, if Billy couldn’t play, he’d rather be in another place anyway.  So I’m glad that Billy was here and we all had an opportunity to experience his personal feeling that he brought to this art form.

[RESUME LIVE WITH LEWIS NASH]

Lewis, as a younger musician, when did you first hear Billy Higgins and what was your first opportunity to see him play?  What were your impressions at the time?

NASH:  I think the first time I heard Billy on a record was on the Eddie Harris recording that had “Freedom Jazz Dance.”  [The In Sound] That was the first time I heard him to my knowledge.  After that, the first time I heard him in person was when I was working with Betty Carter and was on my first tour of Europe, and we had gone to a festival in Stockholm, Sweden.  Billy was there with some type of all-star group.  That was the first time I had a chance to meet and talk to him.  The way it happened was interesting, because I didn’t know he was there, and we had gotten to the hotel and checked in.  I walked around town a little bit, then I came  back to the hotel and I was walking  back to my room, and I was passing by this other room next door to mine, and was practicing on a practice pad.  I knew chances would be that it was someone I might know or would like to know, so I got my courage up and went in and knocked on the door, and lo and behold, Billy Higgins opens the door.  He said, “Come on in!  Come on in, young brother.”  Then I went in, and he had his practice pad and everything, and I introduced myself and told him I was working with Betty Carter.  He immediately made me feel like I was in the presence of someone I had known my whole life.  I think that’s the feeling everyone has given on this broadcast, and what I heard on the radio on my way here, is how welcoming and warm Billy was.

I’d just like to say that the greatness that we attribute to him is something which comes from the feeling he gave.  Oftentimes we think of greatness in music in terms of someone’s technical proficiency or how they play n instrument or whatever.  But with Billy, in addition to his proficiency on the instrument, it’s his warmth and enveloping spirit and spirituality which makes  people call him great.  I think that is really a wonderful tribute to him.

If you were to step back and look at him analytically, as a scholar of the drums, how would assess his contribution to drum vocabulary?

NASH:  That question has so many facets to it.  He’s definitely a link to roots for me.  I guess that’s one way of looking at it.  But at the same time, very modern, very fresh and very in the present moment.  When I think about how I personally hear Billy, or how I heard him when I first started listening to him, I would hear a ride cymbal beat that I could only describe as wide.  I know the drummers know what I mean when I say that.  And although I never got a chance to meet Kenny Clarke personally, his ride cymbal beat reminded me of Klook’s ride cymbal beat, and it had that same kind of dancing and forward momentum and all that.

He had that connection to that root, and then the way that he would play the Latin-influenced things or the boogaloos was very…the only word I can think of is organic, primal… Very rooted.  And when you are rooted, you don’t have to be afraid of trying new things, because you know you’re rooted.  I think Billy probably had that feeling, and he was able to go in so many directions because of the rootedness of his playing.

WILLIAMS:  I agree totally.  Billy had that.  And that’s what all the great people have.  Once you have the foundation, then you can do anything.  You can play anything, because everything is “okay, bring it on, bring anything on.”

In the phone interview with Billy Hart, he commented that he saw Billy Higgins as a link between Elvin Jones and Tony Williams.  What’s interesting is that there are certain people who young drummers cite as the influences on whom the building blocks of vocabulary are built — Max Roach, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Tony Williams.  They all love Billy Higgins, but they might not necessarily cite him as in that list of people.  Yet his influence seems to have been just as great.  Which perhaps goes back to your comment about the feeling he projected.

NASH:  It’s hard for us to find the words for us to really describe that part.  One way I could say it is, we talk about Smiling Billy, but for me, even before I met him, in listening to records, not seeing him smile, I had the same feeling.  It’s not that the smile itself is making this happen.  It’s what he’s doing, and he is infused with the spirit of joy and everything so he has to smile.  But you feel that without knowing that he’s smiling while he’s actually doing it, or you don’t have to see him smile to feel the joy that his playing gives you.

WILLIAMS:  Well, the feeling is the most important element in the music, and Billy had that.  Not everyone has it.  A lot of drummers, piano players, bass players…everyone doesn’t have feeling in the music.  That’s what made Billy Higgins great.  Aside from all the other things, he had the right feeling.  He had beat, swing, taste, all of those things.  Those are a lot of things to have in one person.  Some might have this, that or the other, but it’s rare when you can find someone who has all those components.  And he loved to play.  He loved music.  And that’s the other ingredient.  He loved to play.

CYRILLE:  I would say he was a very educated drummer also, because he knew how to think within the contexts of the musics he would play.  He knew what to play on the drum to give the music a certain kind of shape, a certain kind of feeling, a certain kind of weight, a certain kind of lightness sometimes.  I could tell, too, from listening to him that a lot of his technique and a lot of things he played came from Max and also came from Philly Joe Jones in terms of his phrasing — and then there was Billy Higgins also.  I think Ralph Peterson spoke about Art Blakey.  All of us studied all of the masters, and sometimes you can hear direct quotes.  And sometimes I would hear quotes from Philly from people like Joe and Max, but of course they would be with how he would deliver.

I like these analogies with sports, etcetera, how a cat might use a baseball bat to get a hit.  You might use somebody else’s technique in order to hit the ball to left field or do a bunt or whatever, or you might do all of that.  So that meant he had to study and he had to experiment with that kind of stuff in order to get it down so that he could do it.  It seems to me that there was hardly anything that he couldn’t do, because he was cognizant of the instrument, the science of drumming as well as the art.

Did Billy Higgins ever talk to any of you about the impact Edward Blackwell had on him in the ’50s?

NASH:  I never had a talk with him about that.  But with what Andrew just mentioned about Billy having to study and dissect what had happened before him drumistically speaking, there is a similarity.  I remember talking to Blackwell, and he did mention, along the same lines Andrew is talking about, how he loved Max Roach.  It’s obvious.  You can hear it.  But he really made it a study and a science.  Probably, since they were both playing with Ornette during a certain time and they heard each other, they might have talked, but I can’t say if there’s anything specific that Blackwell influenced Billy to do.

Jeff, you said before that your early impression of Billy Higgins was that he brought out a certain Africanness in his feeling.  Could you extrapolate more thoughts on that quality in Billy Higgins’ playing?

WATTS:  A lot of the things  that come out in drumming are byproducts of what the music requires.  So I think a lot of the way that the drumset has been changing and maturing over the years is kind of like American drummers and drummers around the world also, but just trying to get back to various aspects of West Africa and things like that.  So when you’re trying to get a comparison between his attitude about the drums and Ed Blackwell’s thing about the drums, the parallels that they may have with regard to that specific style are demands that were created by the instrumentation and the music of Ornette Coleman, just to be able to converse on another level harmoniically from the drums, implying from rhythm harmony and direction and things that are components of African music.

There’s a wide variety of things he was able to do.  I’m just going to be redundant.  A lot of it is force of will, having the strong spirit he had.  I doon’t know how to break it down…

CYRILLE:  Keeping with what Jeff said, the polyrhythms he would play were just amazing.  Blackwell played a lot of polyrhythms also.  But Higgins was a risk-taker.  He wasn’t afraid to go after something.  So you go after it, you make it; sometimes you don’t; but you keep on trying.  To me, his creativity was in the fact that he did take these risks and he would come up with these things.  I’d go watch him play, and he’d start playing something on the rim of the drum, and breathe-in, breathe-out, etc.  He’d go for it.  Just do some stuff that you wouldn’t expect.  Just the element of surprise.  That’s really what was so great about him, and all the great drummers also.  That’s in a sense what the essence of jazz is all about — the element of surprise.  What is this guy going to do next?  And he was one of the great exponents of that.

NASH:  The beauty of it is that you know you’re witnessing something happening in the moment, that he’s not preconceiving it, he hasn’t worked it out.  He sometimes wouldn’t know where it would be going, and he’d just be going.  So you’re following him as he’s finding out where it’s going to go.  That’s exactly right on the money about that.

CYRILLE:  That’s where the fun comes in.

WATTS:  The intention is… Especially when you know him a little bit and watching him play, you know that the intention of the whole thing is very-very  pure and very-very sincere for creation and for beauty and things like that.

NASH:  I thought he had great reflexes, in responding to what was going on at the moment.  He would do just the right thing to enhance or really put something over well.  He knew exactly what to do.  It might be a cymbal crash really loud at just one spot, or it may completely drop out.  He just knew what to do.  His timing was incredible..

He always seemed to read the soloist’s mind; before they got where they were going, he’s be there.

WILLIAMS:  Billy could hear, and that’s very important in music, especially drumming but in all music — to listen.  Billy had that.  You listen before you act.  All the great people are great at that.

CYRILLE:  But in addition to that, it’s what you see in your mind as you are listening and how you fill those spaces up.  A lot of times, we as drummers fill in the spaces.  Cats play a line, then they stop for a minute, and you give them something to keep moving, give them a little push.  And those little pieces of music that he would put in, moving from one phrase to another, were also very magical and wonderful.

WILLIAMS:  Like they say, it’s not how much you play; it’s what you play.

CYRILLE:  It’s what you play.  And a lot of time cats say, “Man, I’m gonna cop that, I like that…”

WILLIAMS:  But they would play it in the wrong spot!

WATTS:  And then that touch becomes important again.  So that he would be able to hear across the band and hear what’s happening.  He was one of those special people, like a lot of the great ones, capable of getting that maximum intensity, but at a low volume or at the volume he chose so that everything he was effective.

[MUSIC: E. Harris, "Love For Sale"; "Molly"]

WATTS:  I’m going to tell a very brief version of a story.  I was at a music festival in Vancouver, Canada, and he was playing with Cedar Walton and Charlie Haden in a trio in an old theater.  I think they were playing some standard at a tempo about that fast, and Charlie Haden toook a very long solo over the standard.  Billy was just playing time with the brushes very softly behind him, for a long time, with a very big smile.  This is something that from another musician would almost come across as a gimmick, but just knowing how my man was about music… He played the brushes very-very soft, then eventually the audience took their attention away from, and  he’s sitting there with this smile, and you can hear the brushes SH-SH-SH… Eventually people started to really check him out, and after a while he wasn’t even playing.  He was sitting there smiling, making that noise through his clenched teeth.  It was like theater, and it was so hip.  It was also swinging very-very hard, too.  Just that he could project that.  And I was sitting in the balcony, in the rear of at least a 900-seat hall.  It’s just something about who he is.

But I’m very honored to pay any kind of tribute I can to him.  His music will liveon.  He was a beautiful man, a beautiful person, and I’m proud to have known him, and God rest his soul.

NASH:  There’s not much I can add, except to say that I’m also very happy to have had a chance to be around him, to talk to him, to learn from him, to sit under him while he was playing at Bradley’s, the Vanguard, Sweet Basil or wherever it might be, and to be able to take whatever I got from him and continue to grow, to use that as part of my food, so to speak, and nourishment in the music.  I will continue to pray for his development.  I believe sincerely that we continue to develop as souls once we leave this plane, and I hope that he’s reaching even newer heights, wherever he is now.

WILLIAMS:  I’m glad you called me to come on.  At the benefit they had for Billy a couple of weeks ago, I bought a t-shirt with Billy’s picture on it,  and on it they had a bag with Billy’s logo for his club in California.  I’d never seen the logo and I’d never been to the club.  But on the logo it says “Seeking light through sound.”  I thought that was Billy all the way.  “Seeking light through sound.”  So I want to leave that for Billy.

CYRILLE:  I always used to see him, and I would always say “Hug the Hig.”  I’m just so happy that I had so many opportunities to meet him and to hug him.  He was a great, great drummer, and I used to call him the Swing-Master.  That’s one of the things that I’ll always remember him for, in terms of his ability to swing.  He enhanced my life just by being the person that he was and  from the music that he gave me.  I listened and I’m still learning from some f the things he’s done.  I could perhaps try to incorporate some of those things into the music that I play.  Because it’s rich.  Jewels.  So all I have to say is, “I’m glad Billy Higgins was is here among us to give us so much, and he will always be with us.  Even after we’re gone, he’ll still be here.

[TAPED INTERVIEW WITH WINARD HARPER]

You became quite close to Billy Higgins and he was somewhat of a mentor to you.  What was your first knowledge of his playing and musicianship before that time?

HARPER:  Actually, I came into contact with Billy’s playing at an early age.  Both my brothers play trumpet, and some of the first drummers I heard were Max Roach, Art Blakey and Billy Higgins –  all that work Billy did with Lee Morgan.  So his playing was already in my head early on.

What seemed to you distinctive and special about his playing?

HARPER:  The main thing that always stuck out to me about Higgins was his spirit.  As a person, you always look for things or find things that are kind of in yourself to latch onto.  His spirit was something that struck me as the something that I also saw in myself.

That feeling came through the records, through every beat he played.

HARPER:  Right.  Well, that was the biggest thing about him.  Everybody will talk about him and assess the things he’s done, what made Higgins what he was, was his spirit.

Let’s continue with the circumstances of you meeting him and becoming friends.

HARPER:  By the time I left Atlanta and came to D.C., and started playing a lot of the jam sessions and things around town… I had never really seen him play at that point (I was 18 or 19), and a lot of the people around D.C. who I had the opportunity to work with said “Your playing reminds us of Billy Higgins.”  I said, “Oh yeah?”  I knew I’d listened to him a lot from the Lee Morgan records my brothers had.  Then finally, a few months later, he came to town and played the One Step Down, and the proprietors at the club wanted me to meet him and introduce us and tell him what they thought about me.  And at the same time, Higgins needed some drums to play.  So I got the opportunity to loan him my drums, and he played the drums there at the One Step, and that’s how we met.

Talk about the evolution of your friendship.  Was he a mentor to you?  Would he give you hands-on information?  Was it more philosophical and spiritual?

HARPER:  I think our relationship was more on the spiritual side than anything.  Like I said, that’s the biggest thing about him, was his spirit.  In meeting him, i saw some things that was similar to myself.  Then by the time I got to New York and I was working with Betty Carter, sometimes we would be on the road and we’d be in the same city, he’d be working with Cedar or somebody, and Billy would come by and pick me up and take me to prayer service.  At the time I wasn’t really interested in anything.  I was studying different things.  I had also done some studying of Islam, but I didn’t know that much about it.  And Higgins was the biggest introduction for me, because I felt like he embodied everything that would be a good example for someone.  So he’d take me to prayer service and we’d talk about it.  Maybe a couple of years later I ended up taking jihad and becoming a Muslim, and that was the biggest thing.  Then we would get together and make prayer together, the prayer service.  That was a big part of his life.

Did he relate the rhythms and phrases and vocabulary he played to tangible aspects of his spirituality, within Islam?

HARPER:  Yeah, kind of a little of everything.  Because he was the kind of person who would see things within everything he did.  A lot of his spirit in his playing also came out of his family background.  From talking with him, his mother was a very spiritual and religious person.  She told me sometimes they would have gatherings at the house, and she played something as well.  So that rhythm, too, was something he grew up with and it came out in his playing.

Can you talk more about the way your relationship evolved over those years?

HARPER:  As I said, when I was on the road, he’d come get me, him, Carl Burnett, whoever else we’d be hanging out with… We’d be hanging out and we’d all end up going to prayer service.  Then I guess out of my interest in the spiritual things we just kept at it.  We got to the point  where he would come over and have dinner with my family, play with my kids, talk to my family about Islam, and we stayed close from that.  Then we’d get together sometimes and play the drums and trade ideas.  He’d show me stuff and say, “I thought about this, I’m thinking about this.”  It just evolved.  We became good friends t the point where whenever I got to L.A., as soon as I got off the plane, that was usually my first move, was to call Higgins and go over to his place that they have over in Leimart Park, World Stage.  That place over there, if nobody has ever been, that’s a nice community.  I wish we had a Leimart Park everywhere.  It’s a place that when they first took me over, when you rolled up the street,  You could hear African drums over in the park.  There would be some brothers playing the djembe drums..  There’s like a dance troupe and African drummers.  It’s like a little plaza.  And across the street from his place was a place where they have African dance and African drummers.  It’s almost like an arts community.  And when it’s not happening over there, it’s happening over at Higgins’ place, the World Stage.  He’d have everybody in there playing some sort of instrument.  Drums… I went by one night, man, and kids were in there, their parents, their grandparents, and everybody was playing something, and taking turns and just having a ball.  It was a very community kind of thing which would take you back to the African roots, and made you think about the villages and everybody participating and everybody being there dancing and singing and playing.

So he had a very functional approach to music.

HARPER:  Right.

Did he ever talk to you about his influences, the people who inspired him and whose vocabulary he built on?

HARPER:  A little bit.  Out of questions that I would ask him, I knew that he had a relationship with Ed Blackwell.  Billy was around the music very early evidently.  I remember from doing some rehearsals with Dexter Gordon — and from Billy confirming it — that Dexter dated Billy’s sister at one time.  He used to be there on the porch I guess wooing Billy’s sister, when Billy was a little kid, maybe 4 or 5 years old.

So he was born into the music.

HARPER:  He was definitely always around it, from what I understand.

I thought an account of your last conversation with him might be a good way to conclude this conversation.

HARPER:  Like I said, Higgins’ spirit was just so strong.  I think that’s what really stands out about him, is that he was full of love.  Everything he did was full of love, and he made you feel comfortable.  I remember the first time he needed a transplant, I had my band out working in L.A., and I would go by the hospital everyday.  When you went into the hospital room, he almost made you feel like you were the patient.  Because you’d come in there to see him, to cheer him up, and it ends up being the other way around.  And I remember calling him up for one of the last conversations we had..  I said, “Look, is there anything I can do for you?  You need anything?”  “Best thing you can do,” he said, “is play the drums.”

[MUSIC: Cedar Walton, "Ironclad"]

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Filed under Billy Higgins, DownBeat, WKCR

A Pair of Interviews with Bassist Fred Hopkins (R.I.P.) on his 64th Birth Anniversary

Few bassists ever played with the energy, drive, and virtuosic derring-do projected by Fred Hopkins (b: October 10, 1947; d: January 7, 1999), who made his mark playing Henry Threadgill’s compositions in the collective trio Air and in Threadgill’s Sextet, as well as various ensembles led by David Murray, Don Pullen, and a host of other creative music luminaries of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Born in Chicago and seasoned in the AACM, Hopkins moved to New York in 1975. Posted below are two interviews that I had a chance to conduct with him on WKCR, one from 1985, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary celebration of the AACM, and the other from a six-hour profile of his music in the summer of 1987. The latter interview has been on the web for many years on the http://www.jazzhouse.org site.

Fred Hopkins (December 3, 1985):

Fred, did you ever play with the AACM Big Band after graduating from high school and during your further studies in music in 1967 and 1968?

Well, I started playing with the Experimental Band, which was comprised of AACM members and also non-AACM members at this time.  But this was later.  This would be like the early Seventies when I first played with them.  Of course, prior to that, like the founding members… We’re talking about Muhal, Steve McCall, Phil Cohran and Jodie Christian as the founding members.  The AACM band was different from the Experimental Band, because it was all AACM members.  Which was very interesting.  At first I didn’t understand what the difference was.  And the only difference was that it was actually the members.  And it’s just like being a Democrat or a Republican; you could still participate in people’s projects, but unless you’re a member, then you’re not considered that.

The thing that happened to me was, as I stated earlier, I had been listening to the cats, and… I don’t know how people’s names come up and all these things that happen to bring people together.  For some reason — and a fortunate reason for me — I remember my first rehearsal with Muhal. This was with the Experimental Band, not the AACM band.  In fact, we were rehearsing down at Muhal’s at his space on the South Side of Chicago… And I had such a great time.  It’s one of those things.  You know, it’s very difficult to express sometimes verbally things that happened, aesthetic things like that. It was all about performing music, and performing music with others, which really didn’t leave too much room for the normal (abnormal, really) ego situations that a lot of the music has today, whereas you have the leader or the best musicians in the band and all these things, which really are irrelevant, and have nothing to do with the music.  And I have always considered myself as being a team player.  I don’t really like to solo….. Well, I do.  I do like to solo!  But it’s not necessary.  I’d rather have a good performance.

So this organization, the AACM, afforded me the opportunity to really dig into a lot of music.  And one of the things also that happens is that a lot of people think, when they consider Creative Music… Because I won’t call it Experimental, because you know, how long does it take to experiment on things?  We’ve been playing this music all these years.  Come on, it’s no more experimentation; we know what we’re doing.  To be creative with the music requires, you know, all the form styles, old and new… I mean, you have to have all these things under your grasp, because all the different composers in this organization might write anything suggestive of a particular era of music, or a song, or something totally modern, and you had to be able to fit into this and also be creative with that from composition to composition.

And many different people were composing for the big band, four-five-six people whose work you were playing, or was it just Muhal’s work?

From my recollections, it was mostly Muhal’s music.  Because the way it started, the AACM band, when it finally started to become an actual reality, was based off of Muhal’s energies and insight to go in this direction.  So at the time, he was writing most of the music, because of the guys at that time weren’t that adept at doing that.  But the band, or the Association’s idea has always been centered around people developing themselves, so as time progressed, there were more composers contributing music for the bands.  And of course, for the small groups it goes without saying.

So you as a young musician were fortunate enough to be in highly structured situations that yet allowed you a certain amount of freedom — with Walter Dyett at DuSable High School and with the two big bands.

Oh, yes.  Which were vast differences, but very close at the same time.  Because my experience with Walter Dyett was very demanding and very exacting.  I mean, I was supposed to play certain things, and I did — I mean, mostly I did.  And the same with the Creative Music; the same thing — very exacting things.  To be called upon to play a Blues, you had to play a Blues.  It might written… The horn line might be very different from the standard or popular Blues songs at the time, but the feeling had to be there.  And that’s what I was required to do.  It’s very tricky.  You’re looking at some music, and you’re reading the music, but you know it’s suggesting that you play this, so… This is where the interpretation part comes in that I had to get involved with.

Also there were many splinter groups out of the Big Band for small units.  Many formed in the Sixties.  Joseph Jarman formed a group, Roscoe Mitchell formed a group, Kalaparusha formed a group.  You first recorded on a Kalaparusha date called Forces and Feelings.  Can you tell us some of the other small groups that you were playing with in the early 1970s?

First of all, rather than considering these to be splinter groups, as you said… It’s not so much the terminology that the idea was that people were supposed to perform their music.  So that always the original idea.  It’s always been that way.  And as people developed, then they wrote more material that was being performed.  And quite naturally, the whole thing was for each individual to develop themselves musically.

And I came in with Kalaparusha, which I’ll tell you, was the most different thing I ever did musically.  Coming from where I was coming from… I mean, I was stone Art Blakey at the time.  I mean, I was really into grooving.  And I met Kalaparusha (I don’t know who introduced me to him), and he said, “Hey, man, you play?”  I said, “Yes.”  He said, “Come on down to this rehearsal.”  So I came down to this rehearsal with Sarnie Garrett on guitar, Wesley Tyus on percussion, and Kalaparusha and myself.  And it just happened.

In fact, all the groups I perform with now, it’s the same thing.  I afford myself the luxury of playing with… Since I couldn’t make my first million dollars when I was thirty, the next thing I wanted was to play with the best musicians and composers.  So that I’ve been working very diligently to try to bring that about.  And I’ve been fortunate to be with these cats.  But all these bands that I work with have had this spark, this special thing, this undefinable thing that always get stuck with trying to express this part.

But Kalaparusha for me was a very enlightening experience.  It was like letting the lion out the cage.  Because until then, I had really thought about a very structured type way of playing the bass, and he said, “No.  Play what you hear that should go with this song.”

It’s my impression that you were studying the Classical bass at this time, after high school.

Yes.  Well, because Walter Dyett’s standards were so high, we were all required to go as far as we could go with our instruments.  And of course, playing concert band music, sometimes we would play some of the orchestral pieces.  So what happened was that… And I was scared to death.  He told me to go down and audition for this orchestra, which was the Civic Orchestra, the training orchestra for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Chicago.  He said, “Look, man, go down and audition.”  And I’ll tell you, I was scared.   I said, “Oh, man, I don’t know if I’m good enough” and all these things… One of the AACM members, in fact Charles Clark, had just recently died, and they had a special scholarship that the Chicago Symphony set up in his honor.  Brian Smith was in the orchestra at the time.

And I remember going down there and I played this stuff… I was a pretty good reader.  So I got through my prepared pieces, and I did a sight-reading piece, which was okay — I got through it.  So then the teacher gave me a look, he said, “Look, why don’t you play something you want to play?”  So I said, “Okay.”  So I played this piece, “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and he said, “Oh, okay.”  And what he was telling me (I mean, after all these years have passed and I look back at it), he could hear the potential of someone playing an instrument as opposed to being an orchestral bass player or a Jazz bass player; rather than those type of labels, he heard that.  And basically, that’s what I wanted to do.  I wanted to study my instrument, and also… I mean, I love all kinds of music.  So to play orchestral music, Beethoven and Strauss and Bach, that was just another icing on the cake for me.  But that was a great….that was a very incredible… So if you can imagine playing orchestral music and the AACM music at the same time…

Then you met Henry Threadgill and Steve McCall, and Air was born.

Right.  Boy, I love it.

[MUSIC: Air, "G.vE," "RB"]

When Air hooked up, it was for the production of a play called Hotel in Chicago.

Actually, I guess the best terminology would be magic.  Because it’s something that you want to happen, of course; in all the things that we do, we want the best things to happen.  And always, as I stated earlier, I definitely wanted to play with the best musicians.  And the thing is, you never know when you meet these people, until you meet them.

So what was happening, actually, Henry and I were living actually right next door to each other.  Henry lived at 48th and Drexel in Chicago, on the South Side.  So we would see each other.  And I had heard him… In fact, this was during the time when I was meeting and listening to the AACM musicians.  And I would see Henry, and we would speak and say hello and stuff, and I would hear him practicing over in his apartment, and I would be over in my apartment practicing.

So finally, what happened, Henry got commissioned to write the music and perform for this play, The Hotel: 99 Rooms, with Don Saunders, the director.  In fact, not that long ago we performed one of his pieces at the Public Theatre.  So we got together and we performed this music.  And what happened was this special thing… After we performed for about… God, I forgot how long we worked at that time — but several months.  And after the play was over, we said, “Wow, we can’t just drop this now,” because we had gotten so close musically — and as friends also.  So we decided to get together and form a band.

An interesting note is that at that time, I really wasn’t even thinking about where we was going to go with this in terms of making all these records and making money and traveling, but of course, in the back of my mind, these were things I wanted to do.  And the main emphasis was on the fact of the way the music came out.  We were saying, “Wow, this is really some good music.”  So we continued working on the music, and we did some other things.

In fact, our first name was…we used our last names.  The name of the band was (I forgot who was first) McCall-Threadgill-Hopkins, and then the other name was… Oh God, what was this other name we had?  I can’t remember the second name of the band.  But anyway, then finally it evolved into Air.  We found out that we were all Air signs, two Libras and an Aquarian, and so we used the letters from our names, and came up with this.  And it all came out pretty good.

[MUSIC: "Sir Simpleton," "Just The Facts And Pass The Bucket," "Cremation"]

That’s very indicative of Henry’s writing.  He has such a spectrum… Henry is one of those guys who doesn’t sit still about the things that he’s done already.  He has a continuous waterfall, it’s a waterfall of just… Because he’s working on new things now, and always pressing forward.  So it’s been a great experience for me to work with him.

We were talking a little bit about what  playing creative music of this sort does for a musician. Maybe we could paraphrase for the listeners.

Well, one thing it does for me, it solidifies…. Not  to get too philosophical, it solidifies a purpose in terms of… Why study all these notes and why appreciate all the different kinds of music, from Beethoven to Duke to Abrams to Coltrane — all this stuff.  Unfortunately, because of the way the music industry is structured now, we don’t have these gatherings of great artists, as I would imagine had happened before, and if it didn’t, it should, and probably it will happen in the future…

What happens is that you get a chance to actually utilize your information, for lack of a better word, in an unstructured atmosphere.  With those particular groups, I had very structured things to do, but at the same time, I had all the freedom that was required to bring the composition off.  And as far as I’m concerned, there’s really not that many people writing like that, you know, where you have that kind of freedom and is that demanding, too.  So what it does, it allows you, to coin a phrase, express yourself within the confines of someone else.

Fred Hopkins Profile (August 2, 1987) – (WKCR):

[MUSIC: Threadgill, "To Be Announced"; Air, "Children's Song," "Roll 'Em"; Kalaparusha, "Ananda," "USO Dance"]

“USO Dance” was performed at Studio Rivbea before Air had recorded any LPs, in 1975 — back in the so-called good old days.

[LAUGHS] I was a young kid and all that stuff.

This was when a lot of musicians had moved to New York from the Midwest and the West Coast, and were really making an impact and changing the New York scene around.  The Wildflowers series was a springboard in introducing these musicians to a broader audience.

It certainly was.

You were doing quite well in Chicago at the time you came to New York.  Maybe we could go into your background as a bassist in the Chicago area and how you came here.

Well, part of my experiences there were my early training, which started… I guess I have to start with my family first, of course, because there were seven musicians in my family.  I had two brothers.  One brother played all the woodwinds, flute, saxophone, clarinet, and he even played bassoon.  Another brother played drums.  I was in  the band together with my younger brother, Dennis Hopkins.  My older brother, Joel Hopkins…

This was in high school?

In high school.  This was at DuSable High School with the famous, incredible teacher, we called him Captain, but his name was Walter Dyett.  And also I had a sister, Patricia, who is now deceased, and she played clarinet — she was in the band with me at the same time, too.  Those were my formative years.

Also, one other important influence at that time, which  was the deciding factor for the instrument that I chose… When I originally started off,  I wanted to play cello.  So I went to school, and Captain Dyett said, “What do you want to play?”  I said, “I want to play cello.”  He said, “We don’t have cello.  You’re a bass player.”  He actually told me I was a bass player.  And he also intimidated me.  He was one of those old-style teachers who tells you what’s happening, and you learn later.  And I liked that; I like it now, I didn’t like it then.

But anyway, one of the other early influences was, I’ll never forget this Sunday afternoon watching one of the public broadcasting stations, Channel 11 in Chicago, and it was a performance by Pablo Casals.  He was in this old Gothic mansion in this large room by himself, and he was playing this music, this solo cello.  And I heard the sound and I said, “That’s what I want to do.”  Before that time I was listening to all these instruments, and I didn’t know which one I wanted to play, but as soon as I heard the cello, I said, “Okay, I know I want to play cello.”  But as I mentioned, there was no cello, so I ended up playing bass.

Walter Dyett had many generations of Chicago musicians, as many people know, but some don’t.  Talk about his legacy at DuSable.

Well, some of his students included people like Nat “King” Cole, Johnny Griffin, Von Freeman, George Freeman, and people closer to my generation like Oscar Brashear, who lives out on the West Coast now, who is doing very well as a recording musician and also is doing a lot of contracting work… God, some other guys…

You could list a hundred performing professional musicians who are graduates of the DuSable program over a thirty-year period.

Right.  And not to mention all the people who were in the band who went to other professions in terms of being lawyers, doctors, bus drivers and all this.  The thing about Captain Dyett is that the information that he gave us, you could apply to anything.  After I left high school, several years later that’s when it started to sink in that this information, whether I became a musician didn’t really have nothing to do with it.  He was just a positive thinking type person, and those were the things that he put on us.

I believe Dyett had been a violinist in his younger years?  Did you find he had any particular gift for teaching strings, or was he adept at every instrument?

Yes.  Because like I said, his philosophy, since it included using your brain… He actually made you think, is what it was.  So you can apply it to any instrument.  But he was a violinist.  In fact, any of the listeners who might know more factual things about this, please call.  From what I understood was that he was in the Army; that’s where his thing was.

After World War I he was in one of the Illinois regimental bands which he organized, and I think he also had aspirations to be a doctor, which he gave up on because of the racial situation…,

Right, in America at that time, and maybe at this time, too.

…and so went into education.

Anyway, what happened was, a fact…a small fact… My mother was at DuSable first went there to teach.  So then, generations later, here come her kids and the same teacher is still there, which I think is quite incredible.

Anyway, what happened with Captain Dyett, as I understand it, is that once he started teaching there, and especially at this time we’re talking about the Forties, Fifties, and when I was there in the Sixties, the teaching level was a little bit higher than now in the Black areas of major cities.  They said he could have been teaching at some of the higher universities, and he had a lot of offers to do things like that, but he said, “No, I won’t leave, because if I leave, who’s going to teach you little…” — I can’t tell you what he called us.

But an incredible man.  He put his stamp on me, and I think I was really fortunate to be one of his students.

You were in DuSable around 1961 or ’62?

Yes, I went to DuSable in ’62.

So what kind of things would the band play?   Which band were you in?  He had several.

I was in the concert band.  They had the concert band, they also had a choir, and also there was a dance band, which we called the Jazz band at that time, because we’d get a chance to groove, you know.  First I started off in the concert band, and we played only concert band music.  And  an interesting fact for all the bass players is that for the first year that I studied bass, he did not let me use the pizzicato at all.   I did nothing but bow — and on threat of death.  No pizzicato.  Only arco work.  Because his idea was that you start from the foundation of anything, and then once you get that correct you can go on and do whatever else you want to do with it.  Again, later on I discovered that was some invaluable information for me.

What kind of material would the Jazz band be playing?

They did a lot of the stock big band songs, things like “Cute,” some of the Ellington classics, and some other people that I didn’t know — probably if I saw the book again, I could remember a lot of things.

How about music in the community?  Were you hearing music apart from school in the neighborhood?

Yeah.  Well, at that time, every little tavern, every little bar… This was during the period of live music, and every place had some kind of combo.  I lived on 45th Street and State in Chicago, and actually there was a tavern across the street from my mother’s house.. In fact, I always remember hearing this bass going, just boom-boom-boom.  As a little kid, I used to sit on my porch late at night, and I’d see all  this commotion over there, and people talking, and all the things that go on in taverns — but I always remember hearing a band.  So my influence in that sense was everything… And also walking through the neighborhood, I could hear Gospel music, Blues, Jazz, the Rhythm-and-Blues of that day, and Classical music.  In other words, I was exposed to all kinds of music as a kid, and it affected me subconsciously, I would imagine.

Were you listening to Jazz records at that time also?

Not really.  You know, I really didn’t listen to Jazz until actually when I started playing music, and then I could appreciate what was happening with it more.  I was listening more to Classical music at that time, my personal choice.  And my brothers and sisters played all kinds of different music.  So like I said, I was exposed to a lot of  things.  But I didn’t really actually have a preference when I was a kid.  Not really.

The question was really leading toward the hackneyed old influences question.

Well, in fact, I was looking for this list that I made for this interview, and I’m sure I left out several people, but it included about fifty people.  Most of them were musicians, of course, but all kinds of people — even my accounting teacher in high school.

How about bass players?

Even though I may not sound like it all the time, I’m really kind of old-fashioned in that I like an old, fat bass sound, and people like Jimmy Garrison and Paul Chambers — those were my real early influences.

Let’s get the course of events that led you out of high school to the Chicago Civic Orchestra and into the AACM.

Oh, yeah.  I think they thought I had a little talent!  But anyway, what happened was that after I left high school, I was… Actually, I was just working.  And once I left high school, in fact, because of Captain Dyett’s method, which is the more talent you have, the harder he is on you, and he gives you some encouragement, but not really, so that you won’t get a big head and you won’t have any ego problems.  So when I left school, I didn’t know I even had talent, because he was so hard on me.  So for about two or three years, I was working at A&P!  I was playing a gig like every month or two months or something like that.

Then I met a couple of other friends of mine, like Hobie James, who was a trumpeter (he’s a pianist now), who at the time was working on his Masters Degree in Music Education.  I became his roommate, and I got re-interested in it, and really wanted to perform.  So I started practicing again…

Anyway, in fact, on Captain Dyett’s recommendation, even after high school…. He stayed in touch with everybody, or we stayed in touch with him also.  He suggested I go and…

[END OF SIDE 1]

…and a sight-reading piece, which you didn’t know what that was going to be, and then you can do one thing that you liked that you thought you did the best.  So on the Beethoven piece I did pretty good, because I liked Beethoven, and the Bach piece I was okay, and the sight reading I did okay.  But still I almost didn’t get in, because there were people who had really actually studied orchestral music a little bit more than I had.  So my auditioner said, “Look, why don’t you just play something you want to play.”  So I said, “Okay, I know what I’ll do.”  So I did this improvisation on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” — arco.   And he said, “Oh, okay.”

So anyway, that’s how I got into the orchestra.  And I  studied with Joseph Gustafeste, who was the principal bassist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  It was another very valuable period for me, because it was like… Instead of teaching me orchestral bass playing, he actually (on my request, by the way) taught me about the instrument.  And once you know about your instrument, you can perform any kind of music.  And that’s what I was really after.  I didn’t know all this at the time, by the way.  But those were the things that were happening.

I stayed with the orchestra for about three years.  In fact, most of the world-renowned conductors of the day, in all of the major orchestras, had conducted our orchestra, because all the guest conductors conducted the Civic Orchestra also.  So all these guys like Muti, and in fact even Georg Solti conducted the orchestra one time.  It’s amazing, the power… It’s just like an instrument.  I mean, the power that a conductor has over an orchestra is amazing.

How broad was the repertoire of the orchestra?

Well, we played all the repertoire of the Chicago Symphony.  In fact, we used their same music.  And let me say that some of the music was very difficult music, and also very enjoyable.

So I stayed with them for three years, and then it was time, of course… As things happened, it was time to change and do something else.
We’ll get into what something else was after we hear some music, with two of Fred’s frequent collaborators over the last decade, Hamiett Bluiett and Don Pullen… [ETC.]

[MUSIC: Bluiett, "Mahalia"; Pullen "In the Beginning"]

When we went into the music, we were talking about Fred’s time in the Chicago Civic Orchestra, and what he did afterwards.

I kept working, that’s all.  It’s just a logical progression.  But as we were saying, fortunately, I had good teachers, and the whole thing was to… Everything is like a step towards something else.  It’s never a final… You don’t finally become a good bass player, you don’t finally become a good electrician; it’s always about learning more and opening yourself up for more stuff.

Where you achieved renown as an improvising bassist was  in the AACM in Chicago in the early 1970′s.  So let’s recapitulate the events that brought you into the AACM.

Well, that was actually a very exciting period for me, because up until that time… You asked me earlier if I had listened to Jazz music, which I didn’t when I was a kid — not knowingly, I should say.  And the same thing with the improvisation in music of the AACM in the Sixties.  In fact, at that time I was still in the Civic Orchestra, and I was doing like piano duo gigs in the Rush Street area of downtown Chicago, and more traditional type of gigs like that.

Then I just remember hearing about the AACM; this was in the early Sixties.  That’s actually when a lot of the guys started going to Europe, and people like Muhal Richard Abrams and Kalaparusha, Henry Threadgill was part of it at that time, too, the musicians of the Art Ensemble, John Stubblefield, Braxton… So anyway, I started hearing about these guys, but I had no idea what their music was about.

So one day I went to a concert they were having in Hyde Park, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of this music, but it felt good… And also, by the way, chronologically, Coltrane and Albert Ayler and these people were playing at the same time, too, so there was a lot of excitement about doing some different type of things with music at that time that I was becoming exposed to.
Anyway, I went to this concert, and I heard… I can’t remember what band it was.  It might have been a collaboration of all these different people in the AACM at the time.  And I said, “What are they doing?’  But it felt good.  But I couldn’t figure out technically what was happening, and all this freedom and things, and all these different arrangements.  Some bands had no bass player, some had two drummers and a violin, people like Leroy Jenkins… And I said, “What are they doing?!”

Anyway, I didn’t get back to that music, because like I say, I continued my studies and these different things.  But then I met Kalaparusha, and he asked me did I want to play with him.  I said, “Well, sure.  I’ve never done this kind of music before, but I’ll do my best.”  And it was like someone took the shackles off of me.  They said, “Okay, Fred, you can do anything you want to do” — as long as it’s musical, by the way.  And I said, “Wow!”  I really enjoyed that.  In fact, my first band in this particular type of music was with Kalaparusha.  Kalaparusha, Wesley Tyus, Rita Worford, and Sarnie Garrett on guitar.

I guess being my first band and my first experience to the music, it really opened me up.  And I was amazed at myself (and it’s not just an egotistical thing I’m talking about) that I was able to do as many things as I could, simply because we had at that time… Very little music was written down for me personally in the bands that I played with, and so I was able to get into this whole improvisational aspect.

So anyway, that led to meeting other musicians and playing with other bands, and also letting me listen more.  Then I think one of the really deciding factors, when I really decided, I said, “This is what I’m going to do”… I heard an album of John Coltrane’s, the first album he did after he left Miles Davis and these people, Coltrane Sound, and it really changed my whole outlook on music.  I knew then that I could do anything I wanted to do — and once again, as long as it’s musical.  And from that point on, I just got more involved, and started meeting more people over the years.

Were you playing with the AACM Big Band?

At that time I actually wasn’t a member of the AACM. I became a member of the AACM when I moved to New York.  A lot of people didn’t know that was happening.  But I was fortunate enough to perform with most of the members of the AACM at that time.  And so I became associated with the AACM, and consequently, a lot of people thought I was a member, and I was treated as a member by the musicians and also the listening public.  But I was actually playing in Mr. Abrams’ Big Band, is what it was.  Because the AACM had a big band, and then also Mr. Abrams had a big band.  So like I said, I got more involved in this music.  But I joined the AACM when I moved to New York, which is kind of weird.  I was on a trial basis up to that point!  Because we had people like Malachi Favors, so they didn’t need me, because he’s such a great bass player himself.

But among other groups, you were playing with Muhal Richard Abrams’ Sextet of the time, I think…

Yes, around 1974, with Steve McCall, Henry Threadgill, Kalaparusha, and Wallace MacMillan.  Up until this time, by the way (for the other musicians), I was holding back.  I really don’t like amplifiers.  Hate ‘em, by the way.  And at this time I was still playing acoustically, and they would put a microphone on the bass or something like that.  So I was able to actually develop a sound.  Because then you’re not playing through the amplifier.  You’re actually through the instrument.  I mean, you really have to play the instrument to project over drums and saxophones and all these things, you know.  In fact, that sextet with Muhal was really an incredible experience for me.  In fact, after I left Kalaparusha, that’s whose band I went to.

Then soon after that, we went to Air, and Steve McCall, Henry Threadgill and myself.

That was only a brief formulation at the start.  It was set up for the score of a play called Hotel, I believe, in 1971.

Yeah.  In fact, it was like your normal thing, a musician calling on a musician to perform with him on a gig.  And what happened, I’ll never forget, we were doing this play, and we actually had a chance to listen to ourselves while we were performing.  And we all said, “Wow!  Hey, this sounds pretty good.”   So we decided to stay together.  And of course… Well, for the people who know the band, we’ve been together for what, twelve years now…

Well, if it was 1971, it’s sixteen years.

It was ’71.  It’s about that now, that’s right.  And that has been a very rewarding musical experience, being a part of that band, a co-leader or whatever.

In 1975, Fred Hopkins moved to New York City, along with many musicians from California, the Midwest, and all over the country, spilling into New York and really changing things around, and he began a whole new set of affiliations.  We’ll start talking about that a little bit after we hear another set of music.  We’ll hear a bass solo by Fred Hopkins as part of the David Murray Trio in 1976, live at Studio Rivbea on Bond Street.

[MUSIC:  "Dedication to Jimmy Garrison"; "In Your Style"]

Around the time you moved, you formed  a lot of alliances that have lasted to the present really, with remarkable continuity — Arthur Blythe, Oliver Lake, David Murray, and Don Pullen, as well as Air, Henry Threadgill…

Actually, when I look at my professional alliances and associations now, I’m basically playing with the same people I started playing with when I first moved to New York.  It’s the same group of people.  And of course, there are some new musicians that I am performing with now.  But when I look at my book (you know, you look back at your book every year), I see all the same names in there from ten years ago.  “Call Oliver,” “Call David,” recording session such-and-such day with Oliver, or Henry Threadgill.  And it’s interesting that it developed that way for me personally, with these musicians in this particular area of music that we’re performing in.

Because it wasn’t a plan or nothing.  This thing just kind of happened.  I didn’t really want to exclude myself from… I didn’t think I could do any orchestral playing, but I felt I might be able to perform maybe with some chamber groups and things like this.  But it seems the nature of an artist in New York is that you get pegged as something, and that’s who you are and that’s who you remain. In fact, I was warned of that before I moved to New York.  The guy said, (and I’ll never forget this), “If you start off playing Avant-Garde, you’re going to end up being an Avant-Garde bass player.”

And it’s a double-edged sword.  First of all, I enjoy doing exactly what I want to do, which is I enjoy having the freedom to interpret music, and most of the people, in fact all the guys I work with give me free rein to interpret their music… I have to read it, too, by the way, but I still have a lot of space there.  But I do miss, by the way, playing a lot of other musical situations.  But like I say, once again, I really enjoy doing exactly what I do right now.

Well, one place that was a center was a club called the Tin Palace, which is now a place where they have singing waiters and is a so-called crab house…

Crab food…

It doesn’t have quite the same ambiance as it did seven or eight years, when they booked Jazz full-time, and it was a core location for jazz life in New York. It could be said that you were almost house bassist there. Of course, there were others, and remarkable bands played there. But you could hear Fred at the Tin Palace at least one week out of every month, I’d say, and that might be understating it. You played there a lot with Arthur Blythe’s In The Tradition group with John Hicks often.

Right.  Ahmed Abdullah, of course, Henry Threadgill, Olu Dara… God!  And you know, the thing about that period, by the way, the “loft jazz” period, what was happening… We’re talking about…

’75, ’76, ’77, ’78.

What was happening was that most of the club owners in New York were hiring only Bebop musicians.  And that’s not a  putdown, by the way; that’s just one of the classifications they give us.  So anything like in the vein that we were dealing with was considered Avant-Garde, and they’d say, “Well, you can’t draw a crowd” and all this mess that they used!  Or even if they did let you in, they gave you like a Tuesday night, one night, and they’d expect you to fill the house — all these things.
So what happened is that there was… For me, the spirit of the Loft Jazz from the musicians’ point of view was that the musicians took it upon themselves to find their own venue.  And it just so happened that the Tin Palace was open for something of that nature… They didn’t even know they were getting into this, by the way.  I think they started off with…

Sunday afternoons or Saturday afternoons.

Yeah, right.  Then Stanley Crouch took over the booking for them, and Stanley Crouch being a very knowledgeable person about the music and about the musicians, he started hiring all these different cats.  And at that time, a lot of the guys were pretty new in town.  Several of us, like Blythe and different people, had been here a couple of years before, and Olu Dara had been here some time before, but I was told they weren’t really working here that much at that time.

What happened was that, like I say, it developed on its own.  And the bottom line is that people go to hear music.  Club owners do not listen to the music — I men, so to speak.  They do listen; that’s not what I’m saying.  But there’s only one club owner in each club, but it’s hundreds and thousands of people who go to hear the music.  So what happened was that the people got a chance to hear all these different bands.  And I must say, the music was very exciting at that period.  Because it was like everyone was unleashed.  You could do anything you wanted.  You had all your own compositions, you didn’t have to play anybody else’s music — or you could play someone else’s music.  There was some nostalgic music being performed, there were new pieces being performed.  I remember one particular night someone called me, and they said, “Well, look, the bass player can’t make it; come on down” — and we didn’t have any music!  Man, we just started playing, and we played for four hours, and we had a good time.

But getting back to my point, the musicians took it upon themselves, some of us maybe unknowingly, to create their own work space.  And the other thing about it is that we became known internationally first from that club.  I will never forget some of the people from the Japanese media first started doing the reviews and different things on us, and then the American and New York people started writing about it.

The first LPs are on European labels.  The group with Arthur Blythe, John Hicks, yourself and Steve McCall was one of the most remarkable groups to emerge at that time…

Yeah!

Because everybody was so out and in at the same time, or something like that — and especially on that wonderful piano at the Tin Palace!

Oh, ask the piano players about that one!  In fact, they finally had to have one leg propped up or something.

When they finally got a good piano, then the place closed down.

Of course.  But one of the things which was remarkable, too, was that the pianists who played on it were able to make it sound good, which is I think something that all musicians should think about — that the sound actually comes from the musician, not the instrument.  It’s good to have good instruments, by the way.  But it starts from yourself out.

[MUSIC:  Arthur Blythe, "Christmas Song," "Naima," "As Of Yet"]

I haven’t worked that much with Arthur in the last year or so.  But that was a real fun period for me, man.  That quartet…heh-heh… In fact, I want to try it again.  Where is Arthur at?  But with Steve McCall and John Hicks being consummate pianists, and Arthur Blythe, of course… Now, as we were saying while we were playing the music, we had some other performances that were never recorded when we performed at the Vanguard with that particular quartet, and was able to get a little looser because the time allowances were different; you know, you can play a song as long as you want, and things like that. The bottom line is being able to play together.  Because I mean, personally, I was taught to do  music from an ensemble approach, which to me might be a problem today I think.  There’s too many people interested in being soloists these days.  I don’t know if it’s because maybe that’s the way that they get into music first, or what it is… And also, I know the industry pushes that, too, by the way.  Everybody has to be a bandleader, you’ve got to be a star, and all this stuff.  But I really enjoy… In fact, when the ensemble is playing, I don’t really want a solo.  I don’t need a solo.  Because I feel so fulfilled when the song is over that, you know, I didn’t really feel like I needed one.  Not to say that when I take a solo, the music’s not going well, by the way.

But that period was really a very good period, because I think that up until time, I was doing… I mean, the music we were playing at that time, we were doing less traditional things at that time.  So when I started playing with Arthur at this period, the music you just heard, it was fun, you know, to be doing some groove stuff and some up-tempo walking — you know, the old traditional bass stuff.  It was a very exciting period for me.

[MUSIC: (Private tape, arco solo), Hopkins, K. Bell, R. Ameen, Muneer, Betsch, J. Santos [TITLE UNKNOWN]; O. Lake, “C Piece,” Air, “G.vE”]

We’ve heard a wide variety of music, music in-tempo or up-tempo, slow music, textural music, giving you some idea of Fred’s versatility and scope.

Well, as we were saying earlier, it’s about playing music.  And fortunately, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of these different musicians who make these type of demands on my playing abilities.

That other song, which was a more rhythmic thing, “G.vE,” which was for a very good friend of mine, Ghisela Van Eichen, was a more rhythmic thing, because… You know, my first instrument actually was conga drums.  I never performed on them, by the way.  But I started off studying them.  And I found out that my hands couldn’t take that kind of pain; I’m sorry, I’m just not into that!  And fortunately, like I said, then the high school days came, so I was able just to switch to a less painful instrument — so I thought…

The bass is a less painful instrument?

Yes.  So I thought!  So my fingers still hurt, but I seem to be a little bit more into this instrument than congas!

But that was another period.  Now, we played some Air stuff there, and also Oliver Lake.  Of course, as I mentioned before, Air was my first band that I stayed with for a long period of time.  We did about nine albums before Steve left.  That’s indicative of ensemble playing, from Henry’s compositions to the approach to the music to the actual tuning of the drums — because the system we used was tuning the drums to the bass, so we could get more resonance and a more harmonious sound, so to speak, from the two of us, since we didn’t use piano or nothing like that, right.  But that band, like I say, is indicative of people trying to perform on one composition together.  A lot of times you would you think, like, with a traditional setting, that the horn player would be the leader in terms of the way that sound comes off.  And we always attempted to…(and maybe even sometimes did it!)…attempted to blend and use the sound of the drums as part of the harmonic as well as rhythmic structure, and also the bass, vice-versa.

And Steve McCall was uniquely adapted to that function in an ensemble.

Oh yeah.  Steve McCall, I mean, I can never speak enough about his style of playing drums.  One thing, I could have fun with Steve!  We could take a lot of chances.  And that’s another part of the music.  Sometimes… I mean, I’ll look at some music, and I will just try to do something different.  Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t.  And it’s good to be with people who, if they see you falling, they will catch you.  And also, you might even discover some new things that way.  But Steve… That was a very rewarding association for me.

Coming up we’ll hear a tape of the John Hicks Trio featuring Fred and Idris Muhammad, from an NPR broadcast from New Year’s Day, 1985 at Charlie’s Tap in Boston.

[MUSIC: Hicks Trio, "Miles Mode," Bluiett, "Ebu"]

Coming up now are some collaborations by a newly-formed group featuring Fred with cellist Deirdre Murray…

Well, it’s a real pleasure, and it’s a challenge to play with her. Also we have a lot of fun.  We have a friendly challenge amongst ourselves, so that we tease each other about who’s going to play the best tonight and all these things.  But she’s such a fine cellist.  And anyway, it’s a similar type of occurrence in my life that I had with Air, where you meet someone musically, and it just gels right away, there’s no problem, you don’t have to explain nothin’ to anybody — you just play well together.

So Deirdre and I, we decided, we said, “Let’s do something on our own.”  So anyway, we prepared this music you hear now with Rod Williams on piano and Andrei Strobert on drums.  One thing to remember, though, so that the listeners won’t misunderstand, when you say we’re presenting this in order to get some work on a commercial level… Meaning two things.  One thing is that, first of all, we are a performing band.  I consider myself a performing artist who records, as opposed to a recording artist who performs.  So we would like to perform.  So we actually have submitted this tape to record companies and to club owners and things.  But it seems like maybe our work will probably start in Europe first, and we are planning on doing this thing starting next year — hopefully you’ll see us around.

[MUSIC: Hopkins/Murray, "#2," Threadgill Sextet, "A Man Called Trinity Deliverance," Hopkins/Murray, "Junko San"]

Actually, it’s interesting working with two drummers in a band [in the Henry Threadgill Sextet].  I would imagine probably some of the older bands, like in the Forties and Fifties, the type of bands they had then used a lot of the same type of….

Some of them had two bassists, like the Ellington band of the Thirties, but I can’t really recollect two drummers playing.

Yeah, in the same set.  But I would imagine if we looked at the history, we probably could find a band or two who did it.  But in a weird kind of way, instead of locking me in, it actually frees me up more.  Because although I’m still responsible for my parts in the music, and like the bass is responsible for rhythmic and harmonic structures, at the same time, if I don’t want to play it, I don’t have to, because one of the drummers is going to hit it, so I don’t have to worry so much.

Well, it seems like a lot of the music has to deal with you and Deirdre working in interaction rather than you being a traditional bass player…

Well, more than composition, Henry’s orchestration… He utilizes the personalities as well as the instruments.  So since Deirdre and I work together so well… I don’t know if that’s the reason why he did it, by the way.  But especially in some of the later pieces, he’s been writing some things for us.  And I might add, some of the pieces are very difficult to play!  But we manage to get through them.

But right now, that’s one of my fun bands.  Because of the different choices of material that Henry has, I can be very subtle in some instances, and then actually, for lack of a better word, just go crazy with the music. We really get a chance to do, for lack of a better word, some difficult pieces, and also there’s an element of fun involved with it.  It’s a real show band.

What is it that makes the pieces difficult?

Difficult only means that they’re very well written, and you’re expected to play the whole range of your  instrument and all the techniques involved.  I mean, some things that I play are Classical in nature, some are bluesy in nature, there are some island-type rhythms we do — different things.  And he constantly adds new pieces to the book, all the time.  So it’s not really that it makes it difficult, but you really have to be on your toes.

It’s a real plus to work with someone who you have a musical relationship with, and you understand his systems, methods and approaches to music.  So I can get into the conceptual part of his music quite well these days.

I’ve walked in the footsteps of some great bassists, and  I’m with bands that give me pretty much free rein, so I’ve been able to work out a lot of things over the years.  And a lot of things I’ve kept.  I particularly like the old style of bass, which is the sound itself, where you’re actually playing the instrument as opposed to playing the instrument through a pick-up, which is a different sound altogether.

What kind of amp do you use?

I use PV(?).  I happen to like it.  It has the power and the strength that I like.  And it’s a pretty large-sized amp.  But because I like to be on the bottom of the music, I usually can’t use like smaller amps.  I don’t quite get the sound that I like.  But I use that, and I’ve been using a Fishman pickup, which really has been the most successful with me for my style of playing, where I can use arco and pizzicato and still get a decent sound.

Do you double at all?  Any electric bass?

No, I don’t.  I don’t play any of those instruments.  And by the way, those are quite different instruments.  Many people think that the electric bass and the acoustic bass are the same.  But even though the notes are in the same place, the techniques are totally different.  I have a lot of respect for cats who can double on those instruments.

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Filed under AACM, Bass, Fred Hopkins, WKCR

A WKCR Interview with Lester Bowie (R.I.P.) and Don Moye (and Lester and Malachi Favors) on Lester’s 70th Birthday

Although my late mother wasn’t aware of it, she shared a birthday with several of my jazz heroes — drummers Art Blakey and Billy Higgins, the AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie and the AACM bassist Fred Hopkins.  During my years on WKCR I never had an opportunity to interview Buhaina, and although Billy Higgins came up several times, we never had a discussion comprehensive enough to merit an archival posts.

However, Fred and Lester joined me many times in the studio. To my regret, I still haven’t transcribed the proceedings of the wide-ranging Musician Show that I did with Lester in the mid-’90s (it’s on my to-do list, along with several other radio encounters). But I have transcribed what happened when Lester joined me with two of compatriots in the Art Ensemble of Chicago — drummer Don Moye and bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut — and am posting both interviews below. These, and a mid-’80s interview with Fred Hopkins coming directly after this one, have been on the web for a number of years at http://www.jazzhouse.org, home base for the Jazz Journalists Association.

Then I’ll post a drummers panel that I conducted on a memorial show for Billy Higgins on WKCR after he passed in 2001.

Lester Bowie & Don Moye (WKCR, 1995):

[MUSIC: Brass Fantasy, "Remember the Time" (1992)]

Welcome back, Lester Bowie, for the first time in about a year.

BOWIE:  Yeah, thank you, Ted.  Glad to be back.  Always glad to be back at good old WKCR.

You’re involved in so many activities.  What’s been going on with you in the last year?  Has Brass Fantasy been very active?  Are your newer projects getting off the ground, being realized?  What’s going on?

BOWIE:  Well, I’ve done quite a bit in the last year. We’ve done an Art Ensemble tour.  We’ve done a Brass Fantasy tour.  I have a group called Brassy Voices, which I used at the ’94 Winter Olympics.  We toured that this summer as part of my organ group, along with a Norwegian brass section and a large Norwegian choir.  We did that this summer, and also immediately following that we toured with Brass Fantasy, and immediately following that I toured with my organ group…

You live in Brooklyn.  How many days have you been home in ’95?

BOWIE:  Well, I’ve been home enough. [LAUGHS] I’ve been home enough!

Keeping busy, though.

BOWIE:  Trying to keep busy. I get involved in a lot of projects.  There are a lot of musicians like myself who don’t have record company backing or managerial sort of things.  We have to hustle really hard to get things happening.  But fortunately, because of the people that are really supporting this music, I’ve been able to do quite a few projects.

Well, you’ve been a real proponent of self-reliance and do-it-yourself for most of your career as a musician.  I guess it goes back to your Army days when you were an MP Sergeant, I believe?

BOWIE:  I was a policeman.  I never made Sergeant.  I was an Airman Third Class for a while, until I got busted.  Then I was nothing! [LAUGHS] But I’ve been able to do quite a few things.  And we’ve always had to be self-reliant, because you can’t wait for someone to do something for you.  You have to go out and do it yourself.  We felt so strongly about the music, and the only way to get that happening was to actually try to produce it ourselves.

I think in a certain way you’re referring to the years when the Art Ensemble began to stretch into a global reach, and your experiences traveling across the country in 1969 and 1970.  Talk about that a bit.

BOWIE:  Well, we had to go to Europe because we weren’t getting enough support to sustain ourselves in the States.  We moved to Europe in the beginning of 1969.  Now, prior to that, we had been working about four times a year.  We’d work four gigs a year, we’d have about three hundred rehearsals — but we were only working about four days out of a year.  But when we got to Europe, after we were in Europe about three days, we were working six nights a week.

Now, in Chicago, and before leaving, what sort of gigs were you doing to sustain yourself?  I know you were a musician who kept quite busy.

BOWIE:  I’m also a musician who has a lot of children.  I have six children and six grandchildren.  So I had to stay busy.  It wasn’t just about wanting to stay busy; I had to stay busy.  I mean, that is the crux of everything we’ve been doing.  The music is so vital to us, and our families are also vital to us, that we have to rely upon only ourselves to get it out there.

But tell me about the type of musical situations you were playing in during those years, and before meeting the AACM around ’65 and ’66.

BOWIE:  Well, up until then I had been doing a lot of R&B gigs.  I did carnival gigs, circus gigs — I did any kind of gig I could get.  I auditioned for James Brown three times.  I just saw him on a plane last month.  I told him, “Man, I tried to audition for your band three times.”  I never got the gig.  But I really enjoyed his music anyway.  But I would do that.  When we first started with the Art Ensemble one night, and Jackie Wilson the next night, then back to the Art Ensemble and an AACM concert, and then off on the road with Jerry Butler or Joe Tex or Rufus Thomas.  I worked with just about all of the R&B people during that period.

How was it different or similar from the way that music functions today?  That may seem like an obvious question, but you have a first-hand perspective on it.

BOWIE:  Well, at that time, all of the artists carried big bands.  I mean, they all had big bands.  They did big shows.  So it let us get a lot of big band experience in the R&B idiom.  To show you the caliber of people, when I first came to New York to work at the Apollo (Reuben Phillips was the bandleader then), I was in a trumpet section where John Hunt was the lead player (who has died), but the other players were Kenny Dorham, Blue Mitchell, Johnny Coles, Marcus Belgrave and me — and I’m sitting on the end, scared to death.

Were you in there for a week?

BOWIE:  Well, we used to come to the Apollo all the time.  We’d come in for a week or two at the time.  At that time we would do the Apollo one week, and then there was a theater in Brooklyn that we would follow up the next week in Brooklyn.  I was on the last part of the chitlin circuit.  We used to work all of the theaters.  The Royal Theater in Baltimore, the Howard in D.C., and the Regal in Chicago, the Riviera in Detroit.  I came along right at the end of that area.

These bands obviously were inflected with a very heavy jazz aesthetic and were very much connected to the jazz music of that time.

BOWIE:  Right.  Well, all of the musicians that were in the band were jazz musicians.  To work then, you had to work in that sort of situation.  All the guys that were doing the guys’ arrangements were jazz arrangers.  So it was very close.  At one time, it was very close to the music.  It wasn’t so separated as it is now.

Was playing, say, straight Blues gigs part of your experience as well, or was it more the R&B things?  I know a few people were house musicians for Chess Records in the Sixties.

BOWIE:  Mmm-hmm.  Well, when I first met Earth, Wind and Fire, all those guys were studio musicians at Chess.  But all of the musicians, like I said at that time, worked in various contexts, in an R&B context.  And it wasn’t just so much the gig; it was hanging out.  Like, I was hanging out with Marcus Belgrave and Johnny Coles; they took me under their wing.  That experience also; not just the musical experience.  We have to think of the music not just as an academic experience, but as a very spiritual thing.  Just hanging out with these guys, seeing how these guys looked or how they had fun.  All these sorts of things were very important to me.

I’m not just giving you the biographical third degree for the fun of it, but to show a little bit of the connection between what you’re doing now with Brass Fantasy and these early experiences with large horn sections, and I’m sure with brass bands back in your teen years in high school and part of your early trumpet schooling.

BOWIE:  Yeah.  Well, everything in jazz is connected to your life experience, and you try to relate what you’re doing to your life experience.  I worked in that sort of situation, I enjoyed working in that situation, and I still learn from that situation and still enjoy playing in all sorts of situations.  So all this is very, very important.

Don Moye has just entered. The two of you have been performing together about twenty-five years now.

MOYE:  That’s right.

You two first met in Paris, or in France?

MOYE:  I met him in Detroit.

What were the circumstances?  What was your first impression of Lester Bowie and what were the circumstances under which you met him?

MOYE:  I met him at a concert at Wayne State University.  It was Lester and Roscoe [Mitchell] and Malachi and Philip [Wilson].

At that time, a lot of the Chicago musicians were going to Detroit rather frequently for concerts and hooking up with the like-minded Detroit musicians.

MOYE: , Yes, we had a connection there.  We did our own festivals with the Strata people in Detroit and with the B.A.G. organization in St. Louis that we would produce ourselves.  There was a lot of exchanging of everything in those days.

Don Moye, what did the music sound like to you?  Were you performing in open-ended situations at that time as well?

MOYE:  Yeah, I was going to school at Wayne State towards a sort of in-between period of my life, deciding what I wanted to do about the music.  Because I knew that the school situation wasn’t happening.  So I was spending a lot of time at a place called the Artists’ Workshop, and the people around there, Charles Moore, a trumpet player, Danny Spencer, a drummer, John Sinclair, a writer and critic, was around at that time.  So it was a whole scene, with a lot of people, you know, academics, creative types, and then some other people coming around.  So they had concerts all the time.  They brought people in like Marion Brown, and Roscoe would come in, Lester and people like that.  That was the general climate.

What gigs were you doing then for survival, rent and so forth?

MOYE:  Oh, I was playing with a couple of African… At that time there wasn’t the whole emphasis on world music and ethnic music.  It was just an African Folk Tradition ensemble.  There were some people in it from Uganda, and some people from Nigeria.  It was like kind of a Foreign Students Association band, and we used to study rhythms and everybody would get together.  Then that evolved sort of into a performing dance troupe type situation.  Then I was still studying drums.  I wasn’t really playing drums professionally at that time, more congas and percussion.

What was your path from America to Europe that led you to meet the Art Ensemble?

MOYE:  Well, I went to Europe from Detroit, with a band called Detroit Free Jazz.  The only one of that band that’s still around working is a guy named Ron Miller, a bass player — he’s in New York now.  So we went to Europe.  We just paid our way and went to Luxembourg, then we went on to Copenhagen and Morocco and all around in Europe.  Then I left that band when I was in Rome, and started working at the Radio Italian… I was doing house percussionist at the Radio-TV in Rome, and then playing with people — Gato Barbieri and Steve Lacy, people like that.  So I ended up going to Paris with Steve Lacy and his band, and that was the time when I ran into the Art Ensemble again.

As I’ve heard that story, they were sort of working with different drummers and trying to find someone who would fit the group, after Philip Wilson had originally been in there and went off on a gig with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  Lester, what was your first impression of Moye on hearing him?

MOYE:  Oh, my first impression was good immediately, because I could immediately tell that he was a well-rounded musician that was capable of performing in many different types of music.  And our music consists of a lot of different mixtures of genre, and we needed someone that not only could play one way.  I mean, we needed someone that knew how to keep the tempo, but at the same time knew what to do when there wasn’t a tempo — and that’s kind of hard to find.

Now, in Brass Fantasy today the drummer is Vinnie Johnson, who seems to need no help in keeping the tempo, but Don Moye functions as a real sort of colorist and commentator and punctuator of the music with a whole array of percussion.  Talk about the different functions that you serve in Brass Fantasy vis-a-vis dealing with the trap drums.

MOYE:  Well, you said it pretty much, the colorization of different parts.  Because Vinnie is a complete drummer in the context of he never loses the beat.  I mean, he is a consummate professional.  So in my experience of playing with drummers that don’t really work with percussionist that much, working with him is good, because he always leaves space for anything else that might happen.  So that’s where I can do my thing.  Because a lot of drummers, they don’t leave any space for any more colorization; they color everything, and then the colors might end up being the same.  But with Vinnie, with the breadth of his experience, and just the way he plays, that’s the perfect hook-up for us.  Then that pretty much says it.
[MUSIC: Brass Fantasy: "My Way" (1990)]

Having heard the band Brass Fantasy last night, there was an energy and tightness like they’d been on the road for a couple of months or so.  But Lester, you say Brass Fantasy has been performing a fair amount, but this is the first time in a little while.

BOWIE:  Well, we just finished my family reunion, which was in Frederick, Maryland.  We produced a concert as a gift to the area and to the town and to the country.  We had a free concert, featuring my brother’s band, Joe Bowie’s Defunkt, and my other brother, Byron Bowie, did the intermission (he has a one-man band), and Brass Fantasy.  It was a very successful concert, 1200 people there.

That’s where originally your father’s side of the family is from.

BOWIE:  That’s where I was born and that’s where our family home is in Maryland.

I don’t think everybody is aware that the Bowie family has a very long and distinguished musical history, and that Lester’s father was responsible for the education of a number of musicians in St. Louis.  So say a few years about your father, who is now 90 years and thriving.

BOWIE:  He’s 90 years old, and going to exercise class three days a week.  He won second place in the marathon for men over 70.  So he’s doing very well.  He and all of his brothers were musicians, and his father also was a trombonist, back in the last part of the Nineteenth Century.

Did he play with brass bands in Maryland?

BOWIE:  We had a brass band called the Bartonsville Cornet Band, which was founded in 1911.  The group was formed by my father’s father, my grandfather.  There’s a picture of that band on the All The Magic album [a double-LP on ECM].  At that time, my father’s oldest brother was the bandleader, Uncle Walter.  But all of my uncles played music, all of the sisters married musicians — it goes back.  My great-grandfather was a musician who played the organ in church.  So we went back all the way to the time before the Emancipation.

Now, you say your father had aspirations to play European Classical Music which were frustrated by Jim Crow.

BOWIE:  Right.  Well, you had many musicians during that time… My father was educated during the Thirties.  He got his degrees then.

From where, by the way?

BOWIE:  He got his first degree from Hampton Institute in Virginia, and then he studied after that for his Masters at the University of Wyoming.  But at that time you had a lot of players, which much to our good fortune, these guys weren’t really allowed to get into these symphony bands.  I mean, they had aspirations to be in symphony bands.  People like Captain Dyett.  I had a great brass teacher named Marshall Penn, who must have been one of the greatest trombonists of the era.  But there was no possibility for them to get Classical positions, so they ended up teaching high school bands.  Like I say, it was very good for us, because we got a top-flight musical education for free, in high school.

There’s also a rich brass tradition in St. Louis.  A lot of Germans settled there and in Cincinnati and brought in their brass tradition.  It also goes back to the riverboats and Charlie Creath and Dewey Jackson and Clark Terry and Miles…

BOWIE:  Clark Terry and Miles and all those guys, yeah.

How aware were you of that tradition coming up?  Was that something you felt very connected to?

BOWIE:  Oh, yes.  We were very connected to the tradition of the trumpet players having their own voice in St. Louis.  Miles Davis was a favorite, and there were a lot of guys that were coming through.  Webster Young, and Clark was around… It was a very inspiring period.  And we were very conscious of the St. Louis approach to music.

How would you define that?  What’s the St. Louis approach to the music?

BOWIE:  Originality.  You had to really be original.  You could play well in St. Louis, you could play just like Miles, and everyone would say, “Oh, you sound very good.  You sound just like Miles.  But come back when you get a few notes of your own.”  So there was a very conscious effort to try to remain original and to play something meaningful that was your own.

Don Moye, do you come from a musical family as well?

MOYE:  Yes.

Take us back a little bit into your family tree.

MOYE:  Well, I’m from Rochester, New York.  My father wasn’t a professional drummer, but he played at the Elks Club in Rochester.  They had a lot of active bands.  They had a drum and bugle corps and they had a marching band, and then they had different smaller ensembles that used to play at the club, a place called Pithout(?) and Elks Hall.  So my father and a couple of my uncles were pretty active in that.  Then I had four uncles who were part of a territorial band in the late Thirties and Forties in upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, like that.  It was called Al Hartzog’s(?) Jungle Rhythm Band.  That was my cousin’s father.  Four

Was that a band that played stocks for dances and so forth?

MOYE:  Yes.  And my grandmother, she was active.  She even booked a Duke Ellington concert one time.  He came to Rochester in 1935, and the Elks Women’s Auxiliary, they hired him to come in and everything.  So not necessarily a professional background, but my family members were involved pretty much with the music.

So presumably as a kid, you heard all the current music of the day and the big bands…

MOYE:  Right.

When did it become apparent to you that you were going to be a drummer?

MOYE:  Well, actually, what happened was, my grandmother, she used to cook… She was like in charge of the kitchen and she cooked, and sometimes ran a place called the Pithout(?) Club, which was right next door to the Elks Club.  I used stay upstairs with her all the time, and come downstairs at night.  The people at that time were Grant Green and Johnny Lytell and all the organ greats; you know, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff and Jimmy Smith.

That’s who would come through.

MOYE:  Yeah, mostly.  Organ trios and an occasional saxophone, Gene Ammons and people like that.  So that was exposure.  Actually, drums were around all the time, because in Rochester in the post-War period and going into the early Fifties, a lot of the people who came back were involved in these drum-and-bugle corps to keep people active in the V.F.W. and the American Legion and everything.  So in that part of the country, on the East Coast especially, there were a lot of drum-and-bugle corps and different types of things like that.  So that was an active type of activity in my area.  So I was always around these drum-and-bugle corps, and that’s how I really took my first lessons, for studying rudiments and stuff like that.

When did you first become aware that there was such a thing as different styles of playing jazz drums, and individual personalities who were playing, and who were some of the people who appealed to you as a kid?

MOYE:  Well, that didn’t happen until I really got more into school, like going into high school, in the late years of grammar school.

So it would have been around 1960, 1958, ’59…

MOYE:  Yeah, around there.  Some of my early influences really were like Jo Jones (I heard him a lot) and Kenny Clarke.  But I didn’t ever get a chance to see them play.  I didn’t really get a chance to see anybody that much until I moved to Detroit, and that was like going into ’65, around in there.  And I had been up to New York a few times, but most of my early experience was just whoever came through Rochester pretty much.

So your first real hands-on experience at watching top-flight jazz drummers was in Detroit.

MOYE:  Right.

Roy Brooks was there, I know.

MOYE:  Right.  Well, he was touring most of the time then.

Who was around Detroit?

MOYE:  Bert Myrick.  Ronnie Johnson.  He was like a 17-year-old phenom from Detroit.  He stopped playing for a while.  I think he’s playing again now, but he was really… Those were the people that I saw more than anybody else.  And Bobby Battle was around in those days.  Then a lot of the Motown people, because they had those clubs there and everything, and we would go to the clubs and see some of those people.  Then Elvin… Whoever came through.  That was at the period of the decline of Jazz clubs in Detroit, but there were still enough places around where in any given week you could see two or three different top-flight bands.

BOWIE:  I’d like to mention one thing here, when we talk about these territorial bands and what R&B bands were doing back then.  You know, the R&B bands, for instance, B.B. King or someone like that, they would come to towns like Amarillo, Texas, where I was in the Service, and they satisfied everybody’s passion for the music.  I mean, they didn’t only just play Blues or R&B.  The first hour they would play all band originals.  I mean, they had great musicians in the band and they had some great arrangements.  So that when you went to see a concert, you didn’t go to see Blues or Jazz specifically.  You went to see this music.  And in that concert, it satisfied everyone’s… Whatever they wanted to hear, they heard it in that concert.  And I mean some heavyweight Jazz.  You got guys like Marcus Belgrave playing trumpet in these bands; you can imagine what kind of things were going on.

MOYE:  Also there wasn’t the concern about labeling and everything.  The only thing, when people would come out, it would just be a concert of music.  It wasn’t like there’s going to be a Jazz concert or an R&B concert.  A band was going to come in and play.  And inside that band’s repertoire, like Lester was saying, it would cover a whole lot of different musical styles, plus their own originals.  But there was never a concern about having a Jazz or Blues name featured or highlighted in the programming or the promotion of the event.  It was a concert, and everybody that wanted to come out and hear a good night of music would be out there, and then they would dance with the music and everything.

You were speaking of the arrangers in these bands.  Brass Fantasy is really, in a certain way, an arranger’s band, a band where contemporary arrangers put their personality on a wide range of music interpreted by some extremely personal and original improvisers.  How arranged is the Art Ensemble when you’re playing?  Is it a spontaneous thing every night?  Do you start with a kernel and then develop it from there through your mutual intuition…?

BOWIE:  No, it just depends on what we want to do.  If we say, “Okay, let’s start with the kernel tonight…”  As a matter of fact, we’ve got an expression called “stoop and hit.”  But on the other side of that, there’s quite a lot of arranging done, too.  As a matter of fact, a lot of the things that people think aren’t arranged are very meticulously notated.  It depends every night, like I say.  We don’t have a set formula that we say we’re going to do 30 percent written material and 70 percent improvisation.  It can be 70 percent written and 30 improvised, or it can be all improvised.  It just depends.

MOYE:  And then, because of the nature of the type of projects we’ve been doing lately, with symphony orchestras, and then we had a Blues project, we’ve been doing a lot of different things which require arrangements for all of these people to be able to play the music.  So all of our compositions can be adapted for larger ensembles, just through… It’s a matter of picking arrangers that can really handle what we want to have done.

One of the showpieces of Brass Fantasy is a very stark arrangement by Earl McIntyre of “Strange Fruit,” the Billie Holiday-Lewis Allen composition.  You played it last night, and an arrangement appears on The Fire This Time, the latest release by Brass Fantasy.

BOWIE:  I’d like to say one thing about Earl McIntyre and the host of other arrangers.  There are so many talented musicians here in New York and throughout the country that don’t get a chance to express themselves.  Somehow we’ve gotten into the bag of musicians only playing their own songs… You know, we used to play each other’s songs.  We used to play each other’s music.  This is what gives you an input into other styles, into other personalities.  And Earl McIntyre (I just wanted to mention) is one of the great arrangers of our time…

You and the Village Vanguard band, among others.

BOWIE:  Oh, he does quite a few arrangements for a lot of people.  But there is not a great outlet for people like this any more.  There is nowhere for him to get someone else to play his music.  Nowadays, you write a song and you play it yourself, and no one else plays your song because they want to play their song, instead of sharing and playing each other’s music and making the whole music grow.  Earl is a key part of that.

Two other very strong arrangers are trumpeter E.J. Allen and Steve Turre, who have contributed numerous arrangements to the Brass Fantasy book.

BOWIE:  Yes, great arrangers.

[MUSIC: Brass Fantasy, "Strange Fruit" (1992); "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" (1990)]

Lester Bowie & Malachi Favors (WKCR, 11-22-94):

The Art Ensemble of Chicago is in New York this week at the new Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard Street, their first New York appearance in a number of years.  I’d like to welcome Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors from the Art Ensemble to the WKCR studios.  How long has been exactly since the Art Ensemble has worked in New York City, Lester?  Do you recollect?

BOWIE:  It’s been quite a few years.  At least three, no?

FAVORS:  Oh, no.  It could be four or five.

It’s probably been about that.  I think the last time maybe you were at Town Hall or something.

BOWIE:  Town Hall, right.

Has the Art Ensemble been very active, slightly active, moderately active in the last few years?

BOWIE:  You could say we’re moderately active.  We’re not overwhelmed with work.  But we’ve been working enough to survive.  That’s about the story of our lives.

Of course, everyone in the Art Ensemble has taken on individual tasks and preoccupations outside the Art Ensemble.  Malachi, you live in Chicago, and people in New York don’t get to hear you nearly enough?  What’s going on in Chicago right now?  Last July when I was there it seemed there was a pretty active scene.

FAVORS:  Oh, yeah.  There’s quite a bit going on in Chicago with the AACM.  We’re coming up on our thirtieth anniversary, so we’re preparing for that, and in the meantime we’re doing concerts around the city.  Maybe in July when you were there, you were just there at an inopportune time.

Well, I just missed a jam session on the night of July 4th at 66th and King Drive which I thought wouldn’t be happening that night, because it was July 4th, but indeed it did happen, and I was disappointed in myself.

FAVORS:  Yes.  And I was there.

Yes, I had heard!  Lester and Malachi just arrived, and we’ll get into the interview portion a bit later, after we s hear some very recent music which hasn’t been heard publicly.  It’s the Art Ensemble of Chicago with a symphonic orchestra.

BOWIE:  Well, it’s a project we did last year that ended up being a documentary on German TV.  It was a collaboration with the Civic Orchestra of Bremen, Germany, which was just forming.  They were just moving from Frankfurt to Bremen.  They’re called the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonik.  They were just moving to Bremen, and this was their first project as the official civic symphony.

Were the arrangements done with the Art Ensemble?

BOWIE:  The program consisted of six pieces.  Four of the pieces were Art Ensemble greatest hits, so to speak, and the one piece from a German composer, I forget his name, Wilfred Donner maybe, and the other piece was by two Austrian composers.The arrangements for the Art Ensemble and the orchestra were by Earl McIntyre, who is a very great arranger living here in New York.

[MUSIC: Art Ensemble with Orch.: "Charlie M" (1994)]

Let’s discuss the origins of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It’s been twenty-eight years since Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound came out, featuring Lester and Malachi.  Malachi, when did you first meet Roscoe Mitchell?  You’re really the first two of the five members of the Art Ensemble who hooked up.

FAVORS:  1963.

What were the circumstances?  Were you at Wilson Junior College at that time?

FAVORS:  Yes, I was at Wilson, and Roscoe was also at Wilson.  I don’t remember… I think it was a musician that I knew named Teddy, he got married, and Muhal Richard Abrams was at the wedding, and Roscoe came in and they played some, and I asked Muhal who was the man playing the sax, and he told me it was Roscoe Mitchell, and he introduced us.  So I came into contact with him at Wilson Junior College.

You mentioned a couple of things that make me want to ask some more questions.  Now, you knew Muhal Richard Abrams at that time.  You were a working musician around Chicago by the early 1960′s, weren’t you.

FAVORS:  Right.

Talk a bit about your background.  I think you’d been active through the 1950′s in the clubs and venues of Chicago.

FAVORS:  Well…

Somewhat?  A little bit?

FAVORS:  Somewhat.  During that time there was a lot of entertainment going on in Chicago, a lot of clubs on the South Side, and they needed bassists, pianists, and… I was on call.  I was just beginning.  And when they couldn’t get this bass player or that bass player, I would get a job on the weekend.  There were so many clubs.

That’s how a lot of musicians got started.

FAVORS:  Yes.

Milt Hinton wrote that he played a couple of years getting the call on the weekend, and then it gradually built up.

FAVORS:  Yes, that’s the way it happened.

There’s a recording with Andrew Hill in the late 1950′s.

FAVORS:  Yes.

Were you two involved in a trio as a working, regular situation?

FAVORS:  Yes.  I don’t remember how Andrew and I met, but I hooked up with Andrew, and we stayed together until Andrew left suddenly and came here to New York.

What type of places would you be playing in?  What were the clubs like?

FAVORS:  At the time, smaller clubs would have maybe three or four pieces, and a singer who could sing the Blues and Pop, and maybe a shake dancer (we don’t see those any more).  That’s what the clubs were like.  It would take me some time to collect my thoughts on it; it’s so long ago.

I know that one of your major influences on the bass was Wilbur Ware.

FAVORS:  Wilbur Ware, Oscar Pettiford…

But Wilbur Ware was in Chicago.  So I gather he had a very direct impact.

FAVORS:  Mmm-hmm.  Israel Crosby.

Talk about them a little.  In a previous conversation you mentioned having gone to him and studied with him a little bit.

FAVORS:  Well, I studied with him as far as I could.  You know, Wilbur Ware didn’t read.  He generally played by ear.  So you just had to pick up from him by listening to him.  He was just a born musician.  He had the talent… It’s just unexplainable.  He didn’t read.  He could tap-dance, play drums, and that was it.  And when I heard him, he just blew me away.

How about Israel Crosby?

FAVORS:  Israel Crosby was another bassist… Well, there are so many bassists that I like.  Oscar Pettiford… I saw Oscar Pettiford before I ever knew Wilbur Ware.  We had a theater like the Apollo here in New York — the Regal.

On 47th Street.

FAVORS:  Mmm-hmm.  All the big bands used to come there, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl Hines, Satchmo, and Cab Calloway, who just recently died — and I would go in… Duke always would have these great bassists with him, and I just liked the bass.  But when I saw Oscar Pettiford with Duke, that just blew me away.  From then on, you know, I got  a bass and tried to learn, and that’s when I ran into Wilbur Ware.

So seeing Oscar Pettiford made you want to be a bass player.

FAVORS:  That’s right.

Were you playing music at that time?

FAVORS:  No.  No, I wasn’t playing music at that time.  I was in a little quartet, you know…

A vocal quartet?

FAVORS:  A vocal quartet.

There were a lot of those around, too.

FAVORS:  Right.

Talk a little about your early musical education.  Was it in high school?  Was it private lessons?  Was it being self-taught on gigs or just picking things up?

FAVORS:  Well, picking things up, and you know, from different musicians like Jodie Christian and Wilbur Ware.  I’d go around buying books.  And I was told I had to learn the chord changes, so that’s what I did.  I used to carry the scales around with me and that sort of stuff.  The only schooling I had was when I went to Wilson Junior College for about a year.

And then you were in your twenties already, I take it.

FAVORS:  Mmm-hmm.

You also worked with the King Fleming Trio.  He was an important figure in Chicago.

FAVORS:  Right.  After Andrew Hill I worked in the King Fleming Trio.

He had a big band, he played trios.  Talk a little bit about his style and approach to music.

FAVORS:  Well, I didn’t know him when he had a big band.  I only knew him, I worked him maybe a couple of years.  Two or three years I worked with him.  After working with him came Roscoe.  No, I worked at O’Hare a couple of years, and then I met Roscoe.  It’s hard to piece all of this together.

What was Roscoe Mitchell into when you met him?  What was he sounding like?  What sort of things was he exploring?

FAVORS:  He sounded like Bird to me.

Elaborate on that a bit.

FAVORS:  Well, he’s quite different now in that he’s found himself.  But I was quite impressed because I heard a Bird sound coming out of him.

When did you start hooking up with him for concerts or performances or rehearsals?

FAVORS:  It was between ’63 and ’64.  I think we had our first concert in 1964.  It was with Alvin Fielder and Fred Berry, trumpet, Roscoe and myself.

Was playing with Roscoe your first experience with extended structures and new music and so forth, or had you been working in those areas before?

I played a couple of gigs with Sun Ra.  And I saw this African ballet group, and that turned me on to the Africanism in music.  I kind of got into it with Andrew Hill.  But in meeting Roscoe in the so-called “free” music, I just opened up.  That’s what was happening.

You knew Muhal Richard Abrams at this time, too.

FAVORS:  Oh, yes.

Had you played with him, or were you working in extended situations with him?

FAVORS:  No.  I knew Muhal, but we never really had worked together.

Then I guess the Roscoe Mitchell group kept playing and developing the music for several years.  Did you join the AACM when it first was chartered in 1965?

FAVORS:  Yes, I am an original member.  I’m not a founder, but I’m an original member of the AACM.

Were you also going to the Experimental Band rehearsals and concerts before the AACM was officially chartered?

FAVORS:  No.  I went to a couple of their rehearsals, but I didn’t stick.  Because at that time I was married, and trying to go to Wilson Junior College…

And work and make a living and the whole thing.

FAVORS:  Yes.

So it was hard to do that.

FAVORS:  Right.

But your impression of the type of music that they were doing struck you as the way you wanted to go.

FAVORS:  That’s right.

I believe it was 1966 when Lester Bowie came to Chicago from St. Louis, and I guess off the road as well.  Talk about the circumstances that brought you to Chicago and your first encounters with the AACM.

BOWIE:  Well, ’65 I believe was the year I came to Chicago.  We recorded in ’66, but we were playing together before that.  I was in Chicago quite a while before I knew any members of the AACM.

What were you doing?  Arranging, working in blues groups?

BOWIE:  Well, my wife had gotten a hit record.  Fontella Bass was my first wife, and one of her records was starting to hit.  I don’t think it was “Rescue Me.”  It was… [END OF SIDE A] … companies like Brunswick Records.  I just did a lot of sessions.  And of course, playing around with bands like…George Hunter was one big band I played with.

He’d had a big band for about twenty years ongoing in Chicago.

BOWIE:  Yeah, he had a band for quite a while.

How did you find the scene in Chicago when you got to Chicago there?  Was it satisfactory?  Not satisfactory?  Were you looking for something different?

BOWIE:  Well, when first got to Chicago, like I said, I was on the Rhythm-and-Blues scene and on the studio scene, and I was getting bored actually.  There was nothing really happening.  I mean, I always had wanted to be a Jazz musician, but I had been doing a lot of R&B, and you know, I did a lot of things to survive.  So one of the fellows who was with George Hunter whose name was Delbert Hill, he played baritone, he knew I was getting bored, and he said he knew a band that rehearsed that I may find a bit more interesting — and it was the Richard Abrams Experimental Band.  I went over there for a rehearsal one day and that was it.

You’ve been quoted several times as saying you ran into a bunch of people who were as out as you were!

BOWIE:  Yeah, I saw all these maniacs in the same room.  It was quite unsettling there for a while.  But it was like I was at home.  I mean, you’ve got so many of these complete, like, eccentric individuals, but playing together and really doing some different kind of music.  I found it quite exciting.

Now, had you been exposed to this type of music at that point in playing it or listening to it?  I mean, were you listening to John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman?

BOWIE:  Oh, yeah.  No, we’d been into that sort of thing, into Ornette and that whole scene in St. Louis, playing it for years before, playing it with different types of groups.  Because you know, we never could find enough guys to play, so we’d be out in the park with two saxophones and a bass and a drum and a trombone and a trumpet.  So we were used to playing in that sort of thing long before I came to Chicago.

Malachi, were you were checking out John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and the whole…?

FAVORS:  Oh, yeah.

Did you go see them when they played in Chicago?

FAVORS:  Yes.

And it impressed you the same way that, let’s say, hearing Roscoe impressed you?

FAVORS:  Oh, yes.  Most definitely.

When did you first encounter John Coltrane musically?

FAVORS:  Well, when he was with Miles.

And he caught your ear then, coming through Chicago?

FAVORS:  Yeah, right.

How about Ornette Coleman?

FAVORS:  I just heard him on recordings, and he caught my ear.  At first I listened and I said, “Mmm, this guy is doing something here,” and then finally he just warmed me, you know.

I think he came through Chicago in ’62 or something at the Sutherland.

FAVORS:  I think I saw him.  I think so, if my memory serves me right.

Can either one of you describe what a rehearsal session of the Experimental Band or later the AACM Rehearsal Band would be like?  Would someone be assigned to bring a composition in from the previous week, and then everyone would play it?  How was it set up?

BOWIE:  Well, I don’t remember it being that… It wasn’t that formal.  It was just the guys brought in music, and we just played it.  I mean, it was like just a normal rehearsal, like any other band, except the music was a bit different.  But we just all came and met, and they passed out the charts, and then we would run through… Let’s say in a particular evening there were five or six charts we would run through, from Braxton or from Muhal or whoever.

Would Muhal’s charts let’s say from 1965 be similar to let’s say charts from the early 1980′s or the present?  Allowing, of course, for his development and growth.

BOWIE:  Well, we’re talking about the early Sixties now, the early and mid-Sixties, and of course, they were quite different then.  I mean, it was interesting music.  Muhal is one of the great composers and arrangers.  It was really exciting.  And the thing that’s really so nice about the AACM is you had all these individuals.  I mean, you had Threadgill’s music, you had Braxton’s music, Roscoe’s, Joseph’s.  I mean, it was just unbelievable, the difference in the approaches.  So they were all really very fresh.  We weren’t really everyone coming out of the same thing.

I think in Chicago it’s always been one of the precepts for jazz musicians that you have to have a different sound, something to really distinguish you from everybody else.  If somebody’s doing this, then you have to do something else.  Is that true…

BOWIE:  Well, that’s true not only in Chicago and St. Louis.  That used to be true in the music.  I remember reading something Max Roach said that Jo Jones told him [SIC: LESTER YOUNG], and that was that you can’t join the throng until you sing your own song.  And that’s not something that was unique to Chicago; that was a basic tenet of the music.

So what were you looking for in 1965?  In other words, Lester, you were a trumpeter influenced by Kenny Dorham and Miles and Don Cherry and so forth.  Had you found a direction as an improviser, or was that something that encountering the AACM helped you to grapple with?

BOWIE:  Well, the AACM… I mean, I had found my way as far as I had found an approach that I was taking.  But the AACM just opened up… It was the first group outside of my buddies in St. Louis where I could really play like that.

Who were those buddies in St. Louis?

BOWIE:  [Julius] Hemphill and Philip Wilson and [Oliver] Lake.  We would be playing like that.  Outside of St. Louis, I couldn’t play like that anywhere else.  But that’s why I was so excited about meeting the AACM, is because I could really expand, I could really open up.  With Roscoe’s band, I could just really open up and be myself, which was kind of a multi-faceted sort of approach.

So did Roscoe immediately ask you to start working with the group?

BOWIE:  Oh, yeah.  By the time I got home, what happened is that Muhal… You know, I sat in, and Muhal put the music down, and so I had to take a solo, and then after I took the solo everybody wanted my number, and by the time I got home from the rehearsal, Roscoe was calling: “Come on, man, let’s get a band!”  And we started rehearsing.  We were like rehearsing the next day!

Malachi, what was your first impression when you met him?

FAVORS:  I didn’t even notice him! [LAUGHS] No, I was really impressed.  I had no idea that he was going to stick around.  I just didn’t think he was going to stick around until Roscoe came to me and said, “Did you hear the trumpet player?”  I said, “Yeah, I heard him.  Yeah, he’s great, man.”  He said, “What about him coming with us?”  I asked Roscoe, “Did you ask him already?”  He said, “Yeah, and he said ‘Okay.’”  So I was elated.  I still didn’t believe that he was going to join, because I’d also learned that his wife was Fontella Bass, and she was hot.

BOWIE:  And I had a Bentley, so they couldn’t believe I was joining the AACM.  I would pull up to the AACM meetings in this like really hip Bentley!

FAVORS:  Yeah, he had this Bentley and stuff.  But he came on in and stuck.

Wilson Junior College was a place where many people who became very prominent in the AACM attended.  Apart from Malachi and Roscoe, Joseph Jarman and Henry Threadgill went there.  What was the music curriculum like?  Did it have a big impact on you, or was it…?

FAVORS:  No, it was just basic music.  In fact, Mr. Wang, one of our professors, he’s still around, and he’s always in a sense bowing to us for turning him on.

That must be a very interesting thing for a teacher to have all these young musicians start turning world music around.

FAVORS:  Yeah, well…

What sort of gigs did Roscoe Mitchell have in Chicago in the mid-1960′s?  Were the established clubs in town accepting of the music?  Were you having to set up your own gigs?  How did that work?

FAVORS:  No, the established clubs were not accepting our music.  We just had faith, rehearsed every day.  I had a Volkswagen Rabbit at that time, and we started with the little instruments, and all the little instruments would be in my Volkswagen Rabbit…

BOWIE:  The Beetle.

FAVORS:  The Beetle, right-right.  We went down on Rush Street, and got a job; it was Lester, Roscoe and myself.

Just the trio.

FAVORS:  Yes, it was just the trio at this time.  And we got fired the first night!  However, a fellow came up to me a week or so later, and he said, “Man, I heard you all down there on Rush Street.  What was that music you’re playing?”  He said, “Man, it got to me.”  And that built me up.  All wasn’t lost.  Here was somebody who heard the music and really liked it.

BOWIE:  Remember the time…?  There was one time we were getting gigs, and we were gigging around Chicago with this same trio.  And we got about five or six gigs all over Chicago in different places, and we were getting fired after each one of those gigs.  We got fired!  Each time we got fired.  But the music would be smoking, and we couldn’t understand why they were firing us.  I mean, we were playing like “No Business Like Show Business.”  I mean, we would put these hip suites together which would have some standards in it, but some would be out; but really a club set that we thought should have been acceptable because it was a… But I guess because we turned it into a suite or something, I don’t know, but we would get fired every night.  But we always got paid.  So when we figured it out, we’d just like get five gigs a week, we’d get fired every one, but at least we’d have work those five nights!

FAVORS:  [LAUGHS]

When did the little instruments start getting incorporated into the arsenal of the Art Ensemble?

FAVORS:  Well, I think I started from an African influence.  As I told you, I saw this African ballet, and I just felt that this music belonged in Jazz, in so-called Jazz.  I remember once I came… We were going to have a concert or a rehearsal or something, and I came with these little instruments, and Roscoe asked me, “What are you going to do with that, man?”  I said, “I’m going to play them in the concert!”  And from then on, after that, we just started elaborating on little instruments.  Pretty soon Roscoe and Joseph and Moye, they were little instrument kings!

Was there an African music community in Chicago of any consequence, in terms of learning the qualities of the instruments, or again was it a process of self-exploration for you?

FAVORS:  Self-exploration.  At that time, I didn’t know of any.

BOWIE:  I’m sure there were some Africans there, but there was no African community like there is a Haitian community here or something like that.  The only Africans were us.

Well, let’s hear what the band sounded like.  Because in 1966, 1967 and 1968, the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet and Lester Bowie and Joseph Jarman, with Malachi Favors (who did not record under his own name) were heavily documented, or at any rate adequately documented… Or maybe not.

BOWIE:  [LAUGHS]

At any rate, the first recording is on Delmark, the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, entitled Sound, featuring the following musicians.  Four horns, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Lester Lashley, the trombonist and cellist, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre on tenor sax, Malachi Favors, bass, and Alvin Fielder who is still active in the music around Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he’s a pharmacist, on percussion.

Let me point out an additional sidelight.  That day, August 10th, was also the date that my first daughter was born.  So I mean, there were a lot of things happening on that day!  I think I got arrested or something that day.  It was really a weird day!

[MUSIC: Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, "The Little Suite" (1966); excerpt from "Congliptious" (1968)]

We were speaking before about the years in Chicago and the development of the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble.  I guess the next significant milestone for the group was your incorporating Joseph Jarman, who had been going in his own direction and was working with his own ensemble into the group I guess around 1968.

BOWIE:  Yes.  Two of the guys in Joseph’s group died.  It was a pretty traumatic period for Joseph, and for all of us actually; these two guys died rather suddenly.  And Joseph got together with us after that.

Malachi, had you hooked up with Joseph prior to his joining the group?  Or was it primarily with Roscoe?

FAVORS:  No, I hadn’t hooked up with Joseph until he came into the Art Ensemble.

What do you remember about Charles Clark, the bassist who worked with Joseph Jarman?  A brilliant bassist by all accounts and by his recordings.

FAVORS:  Oh yeah, he was a great young bassist. He had everything happening for him.  I noticed that sometimes we’d jam together, and he would pick stuff up like that.  He was great.

BOWIE:  It was really a shock when he died, because Charles was really like the epitome of health.  He rode a bike and ate vegetables and did the whole scene.  When he dropped it was really a shock, because he just dropped dead at a subway stop.

Christopher Gaddy, the pianist, had heart trouble.

BOWIE:  Well, Christopher had been sick.  He had been in ill health for a while.  He had been sick, so we knew he was sick.  But Charles, just like all of a sudden somebody calls me up and says, “Charles is dead.”  It was unbelievable.

How did the group start to change its focus after Joseph Jarman came into it?  What qualities did he bring in that hadn’t been there?

BOWIE:  Well, we had done quite a few concerts together anyway, before he formally joined the group.  We had been working together.  As a matter of fact, we had done big things with his group and our group.  We used to have some quite interesting programs in the AACM.  You wouldn’t believe some of the combinations of individuals and instruments that we had.  But anyway, getting back to Joseph…

Some examples, Lester!

BOWIE:  I mean, we would have concerts that would just… It’s hard to describe.  We’d have Joseph in Roscoe’s band and in Braxton’s band, and just so much excitement, so different.  I remember the first festival we did.  We hooked up with the guys from St. Louis who formed an organization similar to the AACM, from our example — they started a group called B.A.G, Black Artists’ Group, in St. Louis.  There was another group in Detroit.  So we started having exchange concerts and having our own mini-festivals.  I remember the first time that the St. Louis guys came up, and the Chicago guys were kind of chesty, “Hey, we got this down” — we were kind of chesty.  Hey, Lake and LeFlore and Scrooge, they came up, and they was like walking all over us.  Hemphill… They were walking all over the AACM cats!  It was so exciting, just the music… To hear so many people within this so-called…

That’s why Malachi says “So-called free.”  People, when they think of Free Music, they just have one thing in their mind, [SINGS INCOHERENT LINE], and that’s all that happens.  But there’s so much more expression and emotional depth in that sort of music.  And when they came up, it just kind of shocked everyone just to realize just how great musicians are wherever they happen to be from.  They don’t have to be from New York or Chicago, or you don’t have to have ever heard of them — and they are just outstanding.

I think one thing that impressed a lot of people who were impressed by the new music in the Midwest was the level of structure and layering on of structure into the music.

BOWIE:  Well, what we did, we felt free to express ourselves in anyway that we thought of.  If anyone had an idea, we’d try it.  It wasn’t like, “Oh, man, we can’t do that; that’s not Jazz” or something similar to that sort of thought. “Oh, man, we can’t play that; there’s a tempo there” or “we can’t play that; there’s no tempo there.”  We were just kind of open to every possibility, every idea someone had.

Did Jarman help in terms of bringing in the theatrical aspect of the Art Ensemble?

BOWIE:  Yeah, he was part of that.  And also his spoken words… Joseph is also quite a poet, and he brought that sort of approach…

He’d already recorded “Non-Cognitive Aspects Of The City” and things like this.

BOWIE:  Yes, and he brought that thing into play.  I mean, he brought his personality.  I think the easiest way to say that is that he added another dimension because he was another person, and he put his personality into what he was doing.

And a very strong personality…

BOWIE:  Definitely.

…that could stand up to people like Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors and Roscoe Mitchell.

BOWIE:  [LAUGHS]

In 1969, the Art Ensemble packed its bags and laid down some roots in Europe, in France, and traveled around Europe.  I’d like you to talk about that decision to leave Chicago and go to Europe, and the circumstances by which you carried that out.

FAVORS:  Well, at the time, Lester again was becoming quite restless, and he came to us and said he was going to get a trailer and take his family, and move them to a trailer, and just travel up and down the road.  So I listened, and we didn’t know what was going to happen.  The AACM got a letter from Europe, from a person by the name of Claude Delcloo, a drummer, a French drummer.  He wanted the music to be brought to France.  However, he didn’t have any money to bring us there or anything.  So at one of the AACM meetings Lester got wind of this and came up with the idea that he would finance the trip to France for the Art Ensemble.  And that was the beginning of it.

Did you foresee, Lester, how you would then start making your way through France?  Did you know people there, for instance?

BOWIE:  No, we didn’t know anyone.

Except [Claude] Delcloo.

BOWIE:  Except Delcloo, who was the… But we had come to an impasse.  We were working in the States maybe four times a year, which is about what we’re still doing thirty years later!  But we were working about four times a year, but we were rehearsing every day, and we had really come upon something that we felt we could dedicate our lives to.  I mean, I couldn’t dedicate my life to being an R&B trumpeter, Malachi didn’t want to just work at the Holiday Inn for the rest of his life.  And we had a group that we knew had a unique sound, a language of our own, and we knew we had something to contribute to the music, and we wanted to do that exclusively instead of, you know, I’d do a gig with the Art Ensemble one day and the next day Jackie Wilson.  I wanted to all Art Ensemble.  That was impossible for us in the States, for us to be able to sustain ourselves and our families off of what was happening in the States.  So we said, “Let’s go to Europe.  We’d read in the magazines all the reports of how Europe was more accepting of the music.  And immediately… I think we were in Europe three days, and we were working six nights a week.  And within a year, we had done two hundred concerts.

Well, there are at least a dozen records that came out of the two years in Europe.  There was a very large community of American musicians living in France when you got there, and different members of the Art Ensemble participated in recordings by different members of that community in all sorts of configurations.

BOWIE:  There was Archie Shepp and…

FAVORS:  Philly Joe Jones.

BOWIE:  …Philly Joe Jones there, Hank Mobley, guys I had dreamed about — we were all there playing together.  Kenny Clarke, Art Taylor.  It was a quite exciting period.

FAVORS:  Yeah, they accepted us.

BOWIE:  And they accepted us, no problem.

Everybody was open to what you were doing?

BOWIE:  Yeah, no problem.

FAVORS:  Frank Wright, the great Frank Wright.

Arthur Jones and Jacques Coursil and all…

BOWIE:  Yeah.

One thing that seems to have been important in the way the Art Ensemble has developed over the years is… This may seem like it’s coming a little off the wall.  But the military background of several of the members, Jarman, Bowie, Roscoe, and were you as well, Malachi?

FAVORS:  Yes.

Would you talk about that?  Is there something to that, that it helped you in terms of your self-sufficiency or ability to really make your own way through the wilds of the business.

BOWIE:  Oh, definitely.  I mean, if we weren’t veterans all used to soldiering, I don’t think we would have survived all this time.  I mean, all that we learned in the military… There’s a lot that you have to learn when you’re fighting this battle of music, which we are still fighting.  So we’re soldiers, and that training really helped us.

FAVORS:  We got the discipline.  It helped discipline you to problems and hardship.  When I go back to the Army, getting up every morning at 5 o’clock, soldiering — it was so hard.  Sometimes I’d cry because it was such a routine.  But at the same time, it was building me up, building my discipline up and my manhood.  And it enabled me to go through quite a few things that we went through out there on the road, just going up and down the road, traveling to California, no gigs, just packing up, going…

That was before you went to Europe, right?  Around ’67?

FAVORS:  Yes.

BOWIE:  I mean, we’ve lived in tents, we’ve lived in barns…,

FAVORS:  Right.

BOWIE:  …we’ve lived in the trucks… I mean, we’ve had all the camping equipment.  All that bivouacking we did in the military helped us go through all of these things we had to do to keep this band alive.

Specifically, Malachi, the years you were in the Army were like out of high school or something, like ’55, ’56, ’57?

FAVORS:  Yes, you hit it on the head.

Did you play music in the Army?

FAVORS:  I had a cello that I took with me, and I tuned it like a bass.  All the time I was training, after I’d come back off of the field, I would go get my cello.

But you weren’t in a band.

FAVORS:  I was a soldier all the way.

Did you play off-base at all?

FAVORS:  Yes, I got to play some gigs with a piano player, Don Green.

Where were you stationed?

FAVORS:  Camp Adderberry, Indiana.  We played at the PX, the orderly room or whatever they called it.

Europe is also where you encountered the fifth member of the Art Ensemble, Don Moye…

FAVORS:  Yes.  But just before you go over there, I’d like to mention a couple of members in the Art Ensemble, what their service job was in the Army.  Lester Bowie was a military police… [LAUGHS]

BOWIE:  That’s right, the po-lice.

FAVORS:  Joseph Jarman was a paratrooper.

How about Roscoe?

FAVORS:  Uh, I don’t know…

BOWIE:  Roscoe was in the band.

FAVORS:  He was in a band?

BOWIE:  Roscoe was in the band, yeah.

FAVORS:  He was the only one who functioned as a musician in the Armed Forces.

Back to Don Moye, now.  He met up with you in 1970, I guess, in Paris?

FAVORS:  Yes.

Were you working in a drummerless situation all the way through there, or were you picking up a drummer here, working four pieces there…?

BOWIE:  Well, we basically worked without a drummer, and every now and then we would sort of audition a guy, and take them out to maybe a gig or two to see if they could fit in.

What would it take for a drummer to fit in with you?

BOWIE:  Well, it wasn’t about what it took.  They would either just come and fit in or they didn’t.  It wasn’t about that we had a list, “Okay, man, did he do this?” or “How was he…”  It was just an automatic sort of spiritual thing.  I think the spiritual part of the music has really been neglected.  And the Art Ensemble, aside from all the military training and this and that, is a very spiritual sort of group, and we do a lot of things that the spirit tells us to do.  And the spirit just says who’s right and who’s not right.  They just come in… Moye came in, and it’s twenty-five years and he’s still here.

He brought a lot of business type attributes to the ensemble as well.

BOWIE:  Yes, he does quite a bit of business.  That’s one of his talents.  Languages is another one of his talents.  Also with playing… First it was the music.  First people fit in musically, and then after… Because at first he didn’t do any business.  But at first it’s just about the feeling and the spirit of the music, and whether or not you fit in musically — and whether the dogs like you or not! [LAUGHS]

Well, I think the Art Ensemble has always embodied a combination of the spiritual aspect and a very pragmatic side in terms of organizing the music and preserving yourselves as an entity.  Because there are very few groups in music that have been together as long as the Art Ensemble.  During the time that you were really active as a group, which is about a twenty-year period, there are very few precedents for that.

Let’s hear some recordings that represent the Art Ensemble in their European period.  There are so many to choose from and so little time to do it.  We’ll hear “A Jackson In Your House” from 1969.  Lester, you believe that’s the first recording you did in Europe.

BOWIE:  This is the first recording that we did in Europe, yes.

[MUSIC: AEC, "Jackson In Your House" (1969); "Proverbes" (1970); AEC with Symphony, "Zero" (1994)]

“Proverbes 1,” is from Les Stances A Sophie, a movie soundtrack by the Art Ensemble, a film I have yet to see, on Nessa, recorded in Boulogne on July 22, 1970, and the first recording featuring Don Moye with the AEC.  [ETC.] It seems like you did about four records that week.

BOWIE:  We were really quite active.  You can imagine, coming from the States where we were completely inactive, and then to go to Europe and get so much work was overwhelming.

The Art Ensemble came back to the States in ’71, and basically things hadn’t changed much; maybe they’d gotten a little worse.

BOWIE:  I read something from someone who was interviewed.  They asked him, “What about Europe?”  He says when he goes to Europe he’s an American idol, but when he comes home he’s just another idle American.  It’s really a shame.  The States is missing so much music, it’s unbelievable.  It’s just unbelievable how much music we are missing that we are creating!  But we are missing all the artistic and cultural benefits; we’re just throwing it out the window.

Also, the members of the Art Ensemble started to pursue their own interests.  Lester spent time in Africa and in the Caribbean, and everyone explored different areas.  Yet the identity and artistic weight of the Art Ensemble just grew and grew and grew, as is evident on a slew of recordings made between 1972 and the mid-1980′s, which we don’t have time to go into now.  Then in the mid-Eighties you embarked on a recording contract wherein you got production rights and total control over a whole series of recordings via DIW Records.  That’s the next material we’ll be hearing.  We would need a good 24-hour bivouac to give the Art Ensemble the justice it deserves.  But a few words about this series of projects and how it came together.

BOWIE:  First of all, we have had ideas for the last thirty years that we have not been able to really deal with.  There are a million projects we wish we could get into that we haven’t really had the opportunity to develop, like for instance, the thing we just heard with the symphony orchestra.  In the 1980′s, the Japanese gave us a contract to produce whatever we wanted to.  It kind of gave us an opportunity to just touch some of the things that we really wanted to do.

And one of the things that we wanted to do was a collaboration (and I must emphasize, a collaboration) with some South African musicians.  We contacted this choir called Amabutho, which lived in London and South Africa, and we got together, and we just had an artist’s collaboration. I want to point that out, because it’s not just us playing and some South Africans playing.  I mean, we actually worked this together.  We brought the guys here to the States, we rented a big house, and we just rehearsed and had great dinners for the next two months, and we put this music together.  So it was really quite enjoyable for all concerned.

Other projects included a collaboration with Cecil Taylor, a recording matching Brass Fantasy with the Art Ensemble; a beautifully recorded, rigorous session called Naked from 1986; Ancient to the Future, you went through a series of covers of very meaningful tunes from Popular music, reflecting your experiences.

BOWIE:  That’s right.

In that regard, I’d like to bring back the point that you all continued to function as musicians outside of the Art Ensemble.  Or was there a time when it was exclusively the Art Ensemble?

BOWIE:  No, that was part of the plan.  See, we decided, when we began, that we would be together thirty-forty-fifty years later. We knew that we had to… We didn’t want to limit anyone’s growth.  We didn’t say, “Well, you have to play with the Art Ensemble,” because you can’t grow that way.  We encouraged everyone to go out.  We used to call the Art Ensemble OCS, which in the military means Officers Candidate School, where you train officers.  We trained bandleaders, so that each one of us were able to know all the functions of carrying a group around, and to take that experience to other groups of musicians.  In turn, you learn from that experience.  I mean, we take our experiences with the Art Ensemble to our individual groups; we in turn get this experience back, and we bring it back to the Art Ensemble, which enables us to keep growing in all ways.

Now, the Art Ensemble has incorporated world music always in its programs.  Malachi was talking about the beginnings of that, seeing the African ballet troupe.  I think that was really able to come to fruition in this series of recordings in the 1980′s.

BOWIE:  Well, the whole world music concept… I mean, we were always into world music.  I mean, the AACM was into world music long before anyone was really talking about it.   I think we really started the emphasis on that sort of thing.

Well, Malachi brought the African music in, Jarman has always been interested in the musics of various Asian cultures.  It’s an amazing blend.

FAVORS:  Also, Don Moye had a hand in bringing in the tradition and the technique of African music.  My thing was just the spirit African.  Seeing that I am African-American, I just came from the spirit form of the music.  But Moye knows the technical form of African music, and has been to Africa.

He was up here in 1987, and brought many tapes featuring him performing with different ensembles in Africa.  We’ll hear a selection from Art Ensemble of Soweto, which joins the Art Ensemble of Chicago with the Amabutho Male Chorus.  [ETC.]

BOWIE:  All these guys are really great musicians, and really great guys.  I keep going back to the spirit involved in this music.  It’s the person.  We really had a great time collaborating with these guys, because we lived together and we had fun together.  You can hear all of that in the music.

Lester, there’s a nice anecdote of how you hooked up with Fela in the 1970′s.

BOWIE:  I had wanted to go to Africa for years; you know, Roots and you want to go to Africa… The Art Ensemble had been trying to go to Africa.  We were working with the French Ministry of Culture, and they would send us everywhere but Africa.  We knew they had a ministry in Senegal, they had ministries in Martinique and Guadaloupe, but they would never send us there.  And we tried many years to go.

So finally, I just decided, “I’m going to Africa,” and after one of our tours, I just went.  I didn’t know anyone in Africa.  Now, I think Randy Weston gave me Fela’s name.  He said, “Well, if you ever get there, check out Fela.”  So I went to Nigeria on a one-way ticket.  I didn’t have a way to get back.  I had a hundred dollars.  And it cost me fifty dollars to take the cab to get to the hotel.  I had forty bucks left.  I had enough money for the room and a meal, and I didn’t have any more money.  I had just arrived about 10 o’clock at night, and I had to leave by check-out time.  I didn’t know anyone.

So I went to the restaurant, and the kitchen was closing, and I got to talking with the waiters.  They said, “Well, you’re a musician…”  They couldn’t believe that I was like… “Here’s this American, and you’re just showing up?  You don’t have any money or nothing?  You’re out here with this trumpet?  I don’t believe it.”  So anyway, they said, “Well, you’d better go see Fela.”  So I went to see Fela.  The next day I got up and I said, “Well, where does he live?”  They said, “Well, just get in the cab and just tell the cab driver to take you to Fela.”  So I got in the cab and said, “Well, take me to Fela.”

Fela at that time had just been kicked out of his house.  His house had been burned down by the soldiers; this was right after (?).  So he had taken over this hotel.  We pull up to the courtyard of his hotel.  This little guy comes up to me as I get out with my horn.  He says, “Hey, what’s that?”  I said, “It’s a trumpet.”  He said, “Where you from?”  I said, “New York.”  He said, “You play jazz?”  I said, “Yeah, I play jazz.”  He said, “Well, you must be heavy then.”  I said, “Well, a little bit.”  He said, “Well, you’ve come to the right place.”  I said, “Why is that?”  He said, “Because we’re the baddest band in Africa.”

So from that moment on, he took me to Fela, and Fela… [LAUGHS] It was funny.  They had to wake Fela up.  They woke him up, and Fela came in, and he said, “Oh, who is this guy?”  He motioned for a guy to bring his record player, and he had some of those Jamie Aebersol type records, then he motioned for another guy to bring in his saxophone.  So he put on this Blues, a Blues in B-flat, which is my specialty, right?  So I played this Blues, man!  One way ticket, you know I was blowin’, baby.  After I played a couple of choruses he said, “Stop.  Somebody go get this guy’s bags.  He’s moving in with me.”  So from that moment on, I was Fela’s guest of honor.  I made three records with him, and it was quite an experience.

[MUSIC: AEC, "African Woman" (1989-90)]

“African Woman” is a composition by Elliot Ngubane of the Amabutho Male Chorus with arrangement by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, from a 1989-1990 recording session for the DIW label produced by the Art Ensemble of Chicago.  For this date they were the Art Ensemble of Soweto, Chicago crossed out.  [ETC.]

We have probably one more piece to play for you from an event in 1993, recorded for German television, a version of one of the Art Ensemble’s favorite compositions, Roscoe Mitchell’s “People in Sorrow,” which was recorded in 1969 in France and originally issued on Nessa Records.  Malachi Favors, what’s special about this composition to the Art Ensemble.  It keeps taking on new identities and permutations over the years, and I’ve often heard you play it.

FAVORS:  When music is spiritual, when music is heavily spiritual, you just can’t explain it.  I don’t have the words.  Maybe Lester can explain it.

BOWIE:  “People in Sorrow” is sort of a statement of our condition, and how we feel about people that are oppressed.  I think it’s kind of a song for the oppressed which kind of tells about our sorrow, but also gives hope for the future.  But it really shows just how sad the situation is in the Third World and in many African and Hispanic and different communities.  It’s not a happy situation.  And “People in Sorrow” is about that.  It’s about people in sorrow.

Now, you’ve been saying that the Art Ensemble of Chicago came together with the idea of being together for thirty-forty-fifty years, and now indeed it’s 24 years with the current configuration, Malachi and Roscoe have hooked up for thirty years, and Lester’s  thirtieth year will be next year. Do you see another decade?  Is the level of commitment still there?

BOWIE:  Oh, yeah, as long as we live.  I mean, I don’t know how many more decades we’re going to be alive.

Well, in an ideal situation.

BOWIE:  Well, in an ideal situation, yeah, we’d be together fifty more years — ideally.  But that’s not the case.  But we’ll be together as long as one of us is still alive to carry on the word until the last of us bites the dust.

Let’s say you’re playing a program of three nights in a  club, say two sets a night, how is the material picked for suites?  Everybody has a few dozen compositions, you have a huge backlog of performance material and history to draw on.  Is it set up beforehand?  Are you rehearsing a set body of material before you’re going out and performing?  How does the Art Ensemble select its material in performance?

BOWIE:  About ten or twenty minutes before we go on the stage, we say, “What do you feel like playing?” and then we just play whatever we feel like playing at that particular time.

Does it just take its own shape?  Is it improvised out there?

BOWIE:  Well, we put a basic sketch in our minds of what we may want to do, what tunes we may want to cover, but at the same time we don’t limit ourselves.  We will play a song that we haven’t said that we were going to play, and we’ve conditioned ourselves, if something comes up, to go with it.  You go with the flow.  You don’t say, “Hey, man, we’re not supposed to play that this set.”  You just kind of go with the flow.  So we kind of put a sketch, but we leave that sketch open to change.

Are there set instrumental combinations, say, Roscoe and Jarman are going to do a solo, Malachi is going to play the balafon, Moye is going to do… Or does it just come up on the spur of the moment?

BOWIE:  No, we do that sometimes.  Yeah, of course.  We get situations where we say we’re going to do this, or we’re going to start with this instrumentation.  I mean, we write songs for all of those instrumentations.  For every little bell, we’ve got the note of that bell, and every little stick and everything — we’ve got these things.  So we set up situations.

How about the ritualistic aspects of the Art Ensemble?  In other words, the aspects of ritual that you elaborate in a live performance.  That visual component is one thing that’s really missing from your recordings.

BOWIE:  Oh, yeah.  Well, it is a ritual.  I mean, we try to prepare ourselves mentally to perform.  I mean, this is the epitome of what we do.  When we go on the stage to perform, we are there for that moment only, and we try to spiritually condition ourselves to be open to receive whatever conflicts may happen, and shoot our way that particular evening.

Well, I guess after thirty years you can pretty much read each other’s minds.

BOWIE:  Well, it’s not so much about reading.  It’s about kind of going.  You don’t so much read the mind, but you’re willing to accept.  Malachi can play one note of something, and if it’s working, it just flows.  I don’t know how to describe it.  But everything isn’t planned out.  I mean, sometimes we go on the stage with no idea.  We have what we call stoop and hit, which means just hit.  We ask, “Hey, what do you feel like playing?”  Nobody says anything.  “Well, let’s just stoop and hit.”  And we go on out there with no idea what we’re going to play.

Malachi, you looked like you wanted to say something about thirty seconds ago.

FAVORS:  Well, Lester said what I wanted to say.  We just open ourselves to the spirit of the music and play.  We received something to give to the audience.

BOWIE:  We’re not always successful, now.  We don’t want you to think that, oh, everything we play and everything the Art Ensemble plays is gospel — because it isn’t.  But we are experimenting and we’re trying things.  Some things work, some things don’t.  That’s life.

So after thirty years, you’re still experimenting and still looking for new ways.

BOWIE:  Oh, yes, definitely.

FAVORS:  Just like life.

[MUSIC: AEC & Kammerphilharmonik, "People In Sorrow" (1993)]

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Filed under AACM, Don Moye, Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, WKCR

Chucho Valdés Is 71 Today: A 2004 Downbeat Feature

For the 71st birthday of the magisterial Cuban Jesus “Chucho” Valdés — and the 93rd for his father, Bebo Valdés — here’s an feature piece I wrote about him for DownBeat in 2004.

The end of the piece is inaccurate — as it turned out, Valdés did not miss his U.S. gigs because of a hernia condition, but because of certain business and personal conflicts which I won’t elaborate upon.

* * *

Thirty years ago, Jesus “Chucho” Valdés relates, his biggest dream was to see Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner perform. Now, on the final Monday of 2003, Valdés was about to embark on a week when and he and the piano giants would simultaneously play major club engagements in New York City.

Over the past few years, the enigmatic Cuban pianist had barely played a note in New York. Booked to play the Village Vanguard in 2002 and early 2003, visa-processing delays by the Homeland Security Administration forced him to miss these dates, as well as other gigs in the States. Cuba is on a list of countries considered a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the United States—to receive a visa, its citizens need to get a special security clearance from the State Department—so stories like Valdes’ are more the rule than the exception.

This time, art prevailed, and Valdés, with his visa secured and upgraded, arrived in New York from Havana for a week at the Vanguard without bureaucratic holdup. His long absence in and of itself imparted extra significance to this residence. But to raise expectations even higher, he was scheduled to perform with a completely new band.

When Valdés descended into the Vanguard to meet his New York band for the week to come, awaiting him downstairs were Puerto Rican-raised bassist John Benitez, Cuban-raised drummer Dafnis Prieto and veteran Nuyorican conguero Ray Mantilla. After warm greetings and salutations, the musicians—never in a room together until that moment—took the bandstand and launched into “Besame Mucho” as a flowing son, locking in from the first measures with the intuition of old friends conversing over a post-dinner apertif. In that mode, they rehearsed until nightfall.

“Generally, Cuban groups like Irakere are very formed,” Valdés said over lunch at the Manhattan restaurant Patria prior to his first rehearsal with the new group. “You can do complicated things, and you have all the time in the world to rehearse. Things take time when they’re hard. This is another story, because it’s imagination, adventure. The other is an adventure, too, but planned. Everything depends on how we connect, musically and in the idea. I have done other things; now is the moment to do this. This for me is something new, and I like it.”

Valdés agreed to take on this project at the suggestion of his close friend Lorraine Gordon, the Vanguard’s proprietor. He first played the venerable basement in September 1996 as a member of Roy Hargrove’s Big Band, and subsequently in 1997 with Hargrove’s Crisol, the New York–Cuba ensemble in which Valdés showcased his jazz skills to an American audience that knew him only as the keyboardist and musical director of Irakere. In 1999, he recorded a live album on the premises for Blue Note with his quartet of Cuban musicians, Live At The Village Vanguard.

At 62, Valdés is a national icon in Cuba. As the creative force behind Irakere, he spent the ’70s and ’80s finding ways to place jazz harmonies over the songo beat, a rhythm of his own invention that blends Cuban street beats—rumba, guaguanco and yumba—with American funk.

Since the mid ’90s he’s used his international prestige to draw world-class artists to the Havana Jazz Festival. But Valdés had never done anything quite like this week at the Vanguard, where he allowed himself to complete a circle, to connect wholeheartedly with his earliest musical aspirations in a way that he has been unwilling or unable to do for many years.

“Mistakenly, some people thought jazz was imperialist music,” Valdés says, describing the ideological attitude of Cuba’s cultural commissars in the early ’60s. “A great error. I have struggled all my life. But I maintained my connections in the difficult period, and today I have the best jazz festival in all of the Southern Americas. Easier said than done, but we did it.”

BREAK

Before sold-out crowds at the Vanguard each night, Valdés allowed himself to eschew the firm control with which he customarily directs the musicians in his ensembles. He opted for improvisation, interaction, and open exchange of ideas with his world-class partners, subordinating pyrotechnics and virtuosic flourishes to collective ends. In short, Valdés displayed a fully bilingual tonal personality—not a pianist who layers jazz elements onto a Cuban sensibility, but a Cuban musician fully at home with the idiomatic particulars of jazz vocabulary.

He revealed a staggering breadth of reference. He might begin a set with a chromatic workout on the luscious atonal melody of “Son Parabea,” composed that very week, and then follow it with a quote-filled tour through “Besamé Mucho” (the final night saw stops at “Work Song,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Nature Boy,” “Love Me Or Leave Me” and “Bolivia”), addressed as a soulful bolero-blues. He transformed Miles Davis’ “Solar” into a Cubop tour de force, juxtaposing different metric signatures with each hand and articulating the dynamics and velocities with total control. He played the balladic danzons “La Comparsa” or “Tres Palabras,” or perhaps his own classic, “Claudia,” deploying the harmonic language of Ravel and Debussy and Villa-Lobos in his statements. He paid homage to Bill Evans (“Waltz For Debby”) and Duke Ellington (“In A Sentimental Mood”).

Valdés is a long-standing devotee of Gershwin, with interpretations of “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Embraceable You” and “But Not For Me” on his extraordinary string of albums for Blue Note since 1998. At the Vanguard he played “Liza”—traveling the timeline from idiomatic Fats Waller stride to baroque Art Tatum romanticism to intense Bud Powell bebop—and a catchy “I Got Rhythm” variant, songo-style, on which each night he found new ways to interpolate snippets from “Birks Works,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Manteca,” “Dizzy Atmosphere” and other refrains from Dizzy Gillespie, as well as “Cheek To Cheek” and “Blue Rondo A La Turk.”

“We were exploring for the whole week,” Prieto said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, and it stayed fresh. I was impressed by the way he conducts. He would raise his hand, and you wouldn’t have to pay attention twice to see what he meant. It made things very tight, and he made decisions at the right time and with the right conception. He’s very clear. He surprised me in the way he directed the band, in his piano playing, and in his interaction. After that week, I think differently about him.”

BREAK

At our luncheon at Patria, Valdés squeezed his six-and-a-half foot frame and not inconsiderable bulk into a booth with his wife of four years, Ileana, and translator Ned Sublette, the proprietor of the Cuba-centric Qbadisc label and author of a forthcoming history of Cuban music. Valdés ate ceviche and a chicken cutlet sandwich, drank wine, and held forth on a variety of subjects, constantly referencing the culture in which he developed his core aesthetic values.

“There was everything in Havana,” Valdés said of his formative years, which coincided with the regime of strongman Fulgencio Batista and the height of American Mafia influence in the Cuban tourist trade. “Most of the big hotels had cabarets with shows, and they brought in big names. Johnny Mathis, for example. I remember when Sarah Vaughan was in the Sans Souci at the same time Nat King Cole was at the Tropicana, and when the two shows finished, everybody went to the Sans Souci to have a jam session with Sarah. There were a lot of jam sessions after the cabarets closed, and there were always North American musicians appearing. Zoot Sims. Mundell Lowe. Jimmy Knepper.
“Stan Getz showed up, borrowed a tenor, and sight-read the hotel show like he’d been playing the book for a hundred years,” he continued. “Nobody knew that they were in Cuba. The movie theaters would have a show after the movie; I saw Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball once, and artists from Spain and France. During the ‘50s, Josephine Baker was at the Tropicana. I was the pianist on the last record she made, in 1966, in Havana.”

Valdés attended conservatory for classical music and was home-schooled in jazz and the many varieties of Cuban music by his father, pianist Bebo Valdés, himself a virtuoso jazz stylist who in 1952 transplanted the bata drum from the rituals of Santeria into mainstream Cuban dance. He first played professionally at a lounge in the Tropicana around 1957–’58. “It was a bebop trio, and I played pure American style,” he recalls. “I was trying to reproduce all the things I listened to. Wynton Kelly, Horace Silver, Red Garland—the Miles Davis pianists. Bud Powell. Many things of Oscar Peterson. I followed the line of my father, because of his experience. I admire him a lot. He’s one of the greatest pianists I’ve listened to in Cuba. He told me, ‘Study pure Classical, and you’ve got to study jazz by periods.’ We started with Jelly Roll Morton, and I learned ragtime, boogie, swing, bebop, and modal by epoch. Learn each thing correctly in its specialty, and don’t jump around from era to era, so you know what you’re doing and why things happened. He taught me to be an individual musician.

“On my solos, within my limitations, I played a little like Art Tatum at the beginning. Then I started to follow my own fantasy, looking for something that would identify me. How can I put in a bata drum? How can I change the bass around to make it more Latin? How can I use more jazz harmony, because it’s richer? And how can I put Yoruba cantos over the jazz harmony? Little by little, I searched for those answers. I was much criticized for this by Cuban musicians, because they said this isn’t pure. But within my conception, I put it together. I understood already that this was fusion. My father had his fusion, but I was looking for my own. When I made my first record, they wanted to call me Bebo Valdés Jr. I said, ‘My name is Chucho.’ They said, ‘No, it will sell better.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to record, then.’ I was proud of my father’s name, but I wanted to be myself.”

“In the beginning, Chucho played exactly like Oscar Peterson,” says Paquito D’Rivera, confirming Valdés’ self-description. D’Rivera writes vividly about these years in his autobiography, Mi Vida Saxual [My Saxual Life]. He recalls having first heard Valdés play in 1961 at a club called Havana 1900, and made his recording debut in Cuba on a pair of early-’60s LPs called Jesus Valdés Y Sus Combo that contained “primarily boleros and descargas.” In 1964–’65, Valdés and D’Rivera would play jazz with Irakere predecessors El Teatro Musical del Havana and the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna.

“As the ’60s went on, he got more into Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett had a big impact on him,” D’Rivera continues. “But at first he sounded like a continuation of his father’s work. Nobody called him Chucho. They said, ‘This is Bebo’s son.’ Mainly because of Bebo, he was very well respected by the Cuban musicians. Nobody criticized him. Everybody admired him as a musician.”

Bebo Valdés opposed Castro, and left Cuba in 1963 for a new life in Europe. His son remained on the island to pursue his musical studies and raise his own family, unable to communicate with his father and facing severe pressure to renounce his jazz roots.

“Terror can work miracles,” D’Rivera says. “For 17 years, Chucho did not return Bebo’s letters. Bebo told me that he did not blame Chucho. His words were, ‘Chucho was so scared that I understand why he did this.’ But I am glad that now Chucho says he feels like a jazz person, because he was denying this for many years. In the ‘70s, jazz was a four-letter word, and Chucho didn’t want to participate in the Havana Festival. He didn’t say, ‘No, I am not going to participate,’ but he never participated.”

Now a pillar of Cuba’s cultural establishment, Valdés visits his father’s house in Sweden, speaks with him once a week and receives Bebo’s youngest son—his stepbrother—on a regular basis at his house in Cuba. He’s so entrenched in the system that he signed a public letter last April defending Fidel Castro’s imposition of 20-year prison terms on such dissident figures as the poet-writer-journalist Raul Rivera and economists Martha Beatriz Roque and Oscar Espinosa Chepe. He would appear to hold the position of Cuba’s musical chairman of the board. While other groups have been sanctioned for performing in venues that the government considers off-limits or for conveying proscribed lyrics or genres, Irakere has operated in a relatively uncircumscribed manner. Valdés knows the boundaries, and doesn’t cross them.

“I had a lot of friends within the culture—and the state,” he laughs. “That helps. It’s not as bad as is said. It’s important to break the psychological barriers that impede the interchange, without saying names of what it’s about. When Dizzy got together with the Cubans, something different happened. Cuba and the United States have a musical root with a point of departure in Africa. New Orleans was once in Spanish territory, and the connection between the habanera and ragtime is very interesting. They are almost the same thing. The famous ‘Spanish Tinge’ that Jelly Roll Morton said he felt in ragtime wasn’t Latin. It’s the ‘African Tinge,’ the same thing that’s in the habanera.

“The same Africans came to New Orleans and to Cuba. For that reason, it’s very important that the relation between the cultures is not broken. If there is a political problem, it’s a mistake, because it’s holding back development. And at the end, it’s not the product of a country, it’s a universal product. I base what I do in that idea. I hope nothing impedes the communication between North American and Cuban musicians. This is above politics. It’s more interesting than politics.”

“Being apolitical is already a political position,” D’Rivera responds. “I think Chucho doesn’t agree with the Cuban government. But he’s a representative of the Cuban government, even if he’s doing it against his will. He wants to do his music and he doesn’t want to leave, and he has to follow the rules. That’s why I left. I didn’t want to follow those rules.”

“Chucho’s major source of inspiration is in Cuba—the daily life, the smells, the atmosphere,” says Ileana Valdés. “He could never leave that place.”

That being said, Valdés seemed thrilled to have an opportunity to soak up the New York state of mind in an unmediated fashion.

“Last night, I received a lesson listening to Cedar Walton,” he said. “It was fantastic. Jazz is a language. It’s a form of expression. And it’s an idiom at the same time. Cedar did it pure at the maximum level. I also heard that with Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. Listening, you learn. One has a seal, a way of identifying oneself that one does not lose. But also, I see change. I’ve got a lot to learn here yet.

“When I play, I’m thinking about rhythm and movement. I can also be very introspective. I admire Bill Evans. But I do something else. I never wanted to be a cabaret pianist. The harmony is the road; you can’t choose another path. It governs improvisation. You can move the harmony around, but the harmony always guides you. You can improvise freely over it, but you can’t forget it. I live studying this. And buying books and music. That’s my life. Nothing else interests me.”

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In February, Valdés had just completed an engagement at the Blue Note in Milan with his Cuban quartet and was scheduled to fly into New York to rehearse for a Bronx concert with the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra that would include several duets with the singer Graciela, the sister of Mario Bauza. Plans were afoot to keep the New York Quartet busy during the spring and summer.

However, none of these events transpired. Lifting a suitcase while in tour in Italy, Valdés aggravated a long-standing hernia condition. He returned to Cuba and, advised not to travel for four months, postponed all off-island engagements until the summer, including the Bronx event (D’Rivera filled in) and a series of concerts in Spain with his father.

Valdés didn’t sit still. Within the first month of his recuperation, he recorded an album for the Cuban market with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, performed with nuevo flamenco singer El Cigalla, and played the opening week of a new club in Havana’s Jazz Plaza  at which the Cuban government plans to present performances.

But it’s hard to say when he’ll return to the United States. And as of this writing, no one is sure when—or if—the New York Quartet will work again.

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For Dave Holland’s 65th Birthday, a Jazziz feature from 2004

In honor of the 65th birthday of Dave Holland, the master bassist and composer, I’m posting a pair of features—one for Jazziz, from 2004; the other for DownBeat from 2005 in recognition of his victory in the DB Critics Poll.

Jazziz Feature:

“Nine times out of 10 when bass players subbed for Ron Carter in Miles’ band,” Herbie Hancock recalls, “Tony Williams would play really loud to cover them up, so they wouldn’t interfere with what the band was doing. And we would know in the first bars whether they should be covered up or not! But we didn’t cover up Dave Holland. His instincts were adequate and it sounded cool. ‘OK, he’s cool.’ That’s what it was.”

It was the end of the long, hot summer of 1968, and the Miles Davis Quintet was beginning a three-week engagement opposite Max Roach at Count Basie’s in Harlem. Holland, a 21-year-old Englishman with blond hair that fell over his shoulders, had flown to New York from London the previous afternoon, brought his bags to Jack DeJohnette’s apartment, and visited Herbie Hancock to review a few tunes. “I turned up at the club the next night and started,” he recalls. “I didn’t talk to anybody; I was just waiting to see what would happen. The next thing I know, Tony Williams is sitting behind the drums, so I get up and take my bass, and still nobody said anything. And Miles goes up to the mike and starts playing the first tune. It was ‘Agitation,’ which I’d heard on record — really just a trumpet line. And then the band comes in with a fast tempo, and we’re gone.”

Thus, the master bassist launched the still ongoing American phase of one of the most distinguished careers in late-20th-century jazz — one marked by inspired musicianship across a 360-degree range of styles. A high-visibility form-buster at the cusp of the ’70s with Miles’ late-acoustic and early-electric bands, Holland bolted when Miles started moving from abstraction to funk. During the remainder of the decade, he navigated uncharted terrain with fluid structuralists Chick Corea and Anthony Braxton and improvised from the tabula rasa with Sam Rivers. He developed a singular language for solo bass and cello. In Gateway, an open-ended trio with John Abercrombie and DeJohnette, he dissected rock, funk, and world-music grooves. And he demonstrated his bona fides in the jazz tradition as a valued sideman in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and in groups led by such iconic tonal personalities as Stan Getz, Betty Carter, and Thelonious Monk.

Along the way, Holland created the lyric masterpiece, Conference of the Birds (ECM, 1972), conjuring a set of tunes so strong that even the ferocious gusts of Braxton and Rivers couldn’t fracture their melodic essence. Still, Holland eschewed leader ambitions until 1980, when he fell seriously ill with endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves. He recovered, took stock, and decided never again to neglect inner imperatives. Within a few years, he’d joined forces with M-BASE rhythmetricians Steve Coleman, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and Robin Eubanks, and with them made a series of records containing some of most compelling speculative music of the ’80s. By 1994, Holland — influenced by a decade of metric exploration and extensive “inside” playing with Hank Jones and Herbie Hancock’s trio — was beginning to look for, in his words, “a harmonic context” within which to frame his personal vision of music. As he told me that year in his precise, meticulous manner, “I’m increasingly involved in creating closed-form music with an open-form sound, creating rhythmic disciplines, writing structures which create possibilities that you wouldn’t necessarily stumble across in open-form playing.”

By 1998, Holland’s quintet comprised Eubanks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, saxophonist Chris Potter, and drummer Billy Kilson — each a virtuoso improviser of formidable skill. All contributed pieces to Prime Directive (ECM, 1999) and Not For Nothin’ (ECM, 2001), albums that document a unit supremely in balance. Never sublimating their voices, they play with an attitude of openness and ensemble community. These albums are filled with episodic themes, memorable melodies, elegant harmonic progressions, loads of polyphony, call-and-response, background riffs, and a global array of interlocking rhythmic cycles. Propelled and knit together by the leader’s relentless grooves, singing sound, and harmonic acuity, they stand as meaningful signposts of what contemporary jazz can be.

“I combine simple and complex elements,” Holland says. “The music has inner layers that make it interesting to play repeatedly over a period of time. I try to integrate the soloist and rhythm section. I write the counterpoint into the compositions, but it continues on seamlessly when we move into ensemble improvisation.

“The tonal density of keyboard often is not what I’m looking for when I structure music. I’m trying to structure it with air. When I write a large chord with a big span, I want there to be space inside it so that it resonates in an open, transparent way. In the early days I didn’t want to use a chordal instrument; I was writing for open form along the Ornette Coleman model of having a very distinctive melodic line, sometimes with accompanying harmonies, which would launch the piece into a certain sound. But as the ’80s progressed, I started to write increasingly in a way that I needed that chordal presence. Guitar with Kevin Eubanks worked really well for me; the instrument has six strings, and you have to play it with a certain sparseness. Vibraphone is the same way; four mallets is the maximum you can expect to play with, so you’re limited to four-note chords.”

Holland extrapolated those quintet concepts for 13-piece orchestra on his most recent album, What Goes Around [ECM], a 2002 poll-sweeper and Grammy nominee. “The idea was to enhance the improvisational aspects of the music with a broader palette of composition and colors, and a larger cast of characters to write for,” he says. “I was particularly influenced by the way Thad Jones wrote so beautifully for all the instruments, so that each part is interesting unto itself, has its own logic and function, and feels like a melody line. I see the written material as functioning like a pianist or vibraphonist might work. The band comes in and provokes or pushes the soloist in certain ways, but they don’t pull the attention away.”

The content meets the hype. Lyric, contemporary, and constantly stimulating, What Goes Around contains some of the most consequential large-ensemble music in recent memory. “At first, I was intimidated,” Holland says matter-of-factly about his decision to take on the project. “I never trained as an orchestral writer; I got my guidelines through listening to records and reading books. But I felt it was time to take on the creative challenge of enlarging the vocabulary I was working on. My wife, Clare, has always encouraged me to rely more on gut feeling — that first reaction to something. It’s helped put me in touch with how I feel about music. I’ve tried to focus in on that musical language in recent years, and not be afraid of romanticism or lyricism. During the ’70s, I was around a lot of ground-breaking music, and I admired people like Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers so much that I felt my pretty little songs were maybe a little too mundane. I’ve stopped worrying about that. Let me just put it out there and, as the Sufis say, ‘plant your banner firmly in the desert sand’ and let people see where you are.”

BREAK

Observed in retrospect, the 40 years of career-shaping twists and turns that comprise Holland’s oeuvre have the appearance of an inexorable conquering march. He began his journey 57 years ago in the inauspicious environs of Wolverhampton, England, a Midlands steel city that in 1951 held some 160,000 souls.

“There’s no music in my family at all,” Holland relates. “My father, who left us when I was about a year old, apparently was an amateur saxophone player in the Army during the war, but I didn’t know him or his family. We lived with my grandparents. My grandfather and uncle worked in factories, and my mother was a secretary. It was a happy house, and I was always encouraged to play music. They’d get me to play my ukulele at family get-togethers and things like that. My mother remarried. It was not a successful marriage, and we had some problems in the family. So I left school when I was 15 to help her out.

“I’d started playing bass guitar in garage bands when I was 13, but it hadn’t occurred to me to treat music as anything but a hobby. I realized that I was making a few pounds a night playing dances and so on, and decided to do it professionally. Then I thought I should hear some other bass players. I found Ray Brown’s name in a DownBeat poll, bought Affinity and Night Train by the Oscar Peterson Trio, and said, ‘I want to sound like that!’ A week later I had an acoustic bass. I memorized Ray’s walking-bass lines, the same as I’d learn the melody of a song, and incorporated the ideas on gigs, reassembling them in my manner. By that process, I learned how to construct the shape of the line, how to lead the harmony, how to support and launch the soloists.

“Jazz connected with me emotionally but also intellectually for the incredible precision and level of playing and for the dialogue that goes on. The idea of conversation has remained a key element for me all the way through. No other music in the Western world is like it because it’s an in-the-moment narrative and it’s different every time. But I had no ambitions to be a ‘jazz musician.’ I just wanted to be a musician and play jazz as one of the things I could do.”

In the summer of 1963, Holland took his first job as a professional acoustic bassist, playing music by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Glenn Miller with a 15-piece dance band at resorts in northern England. At season’s end, a tenor player in the band offered him a gig at a Greek restaurant in London. Holland seized the opportunity. The ambitious teenager began to create a new context for his life.

The period is not well-documented, but Holland’s London years contained the seeds of everything he would subsequently do. He dual tracked, sitting in at clubs in the hopes of networking into London’s fractious, rambunctious jazz scene, and took lessons from James E. Merritt, the principal bassist in the London Philharmonic. Merritt encouraged the prodigy to enroll at Guildhall Music School in 1965.

“I played all the time,” Holland says. “I was principal bassist in the school orchestra after the first year. So, apart from preparing for my bass lesson, I had to prepare the bass section for the orchestral repertoire. I played ‘Rites of Spring’ or the music of Bartok with rehearsal orchestras, and did contemporary chamber music by Xenakis, Penderecki, and Stockhausen. There was a big New Orleans revival in England in the ’60s, and initially I played a lot of Louis Armstrong Hot Five and King Oliver arrangements in pubs. It made a lasting impression. I loved the layers of sound when the clarinet, trumpet, and trombone were improvising together. That’s one reason why I loved Ellington and Mingus. My bands have never been about solo after solo, but about collective dialogue.”

Holland also began to absorb music from non-Western cultures, taking advantage of London’s large Indian community to hear concerts by Vilad Khan and Pannalal Ghosh before informed and enthusiastic audiences. “The incredible development of rhythm in Indian music, the discipline of learning these very involved cycles, and how to subdivide them, was very influential,” he notes. “Evan Parker introduced me to the UNESCO series of world-music records, and I listened to music from Tibet, Afghanistan, and Central Africa. The rhythmic complexity and polyphonic aspect of Pygmy music was incredible. I’d never heard anything like the way two voices would integrate the rhythms and tones so they bounced off each other and created a third, completely different element.[“]

By 1967, Holland was one of London’s busiest session bassists. “I was starting to get a reputation as a good reader, and by this point, they knew that I played a lot of jazz,” he says. He received a call to sub on a recording by the John Dankworth Orchestra of Kenny Wheeler’s Windmill Tilter, a narrative composition of nine movements based loosely around the Don Quixote story. “I got to the studio and played this incredible suite of music,” he recalls. “It was complex, and once I listened to the record and heard the detail of the writing, it blew me away. That was my earliest creative big-band playing. I also played with the Chris McGregor Brotherhood of Breath, which had musicians like Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo, Mongezi Feza, and Johnny Dyani. The collective spirit of the music had a big effect on me. Chris was influenced a lot by Ellington, by South African traditional music, and by the contemporary music of Cecil Taylor. He mixed free playing with powerful rhythmic counterpoint melodies that he’d write for the band. And the band played them with an incredible freewheeling spirit. It was like no other band I’d ever played with, and the most interesting big-band work that I did in England.”

Holland’s flawless musicianship and utter disregard for dogma enabled him to bridge London’s various cliques. He played with such Eurocentric free improvisers as Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, John Stevens, and Trevor Watts, as well as with post-boppers like John Surman, Tony Coe, and John Taylor. After 1966, he participated in high-level encounters after-hours at premises formerly occupied by tenor saxophonist/club owner Ronnie Scott. Sometimes he arrived directly from gigs with the likes of Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, or Joe Henderson at Scott’s new venue, where pianist Pat Smythe had recruited him for the house rhythm section, with drummers Tony Oxley and John Marshall.

“To me it’s always been important to play for the music you’re playing,” Holland remarks. “In 1968, I was finishing a month-long engagement at Ronnie Scott’s with Pat Smythe behind a singer named Elaine Delmar, opposite Bill Evans, who had Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette. It was high-level playing — standards, nice arrangements, and so on. Miles came into the club fairly early one night and stayed. I presumed he was there to hear Bill and didn’t think twice that he’d even be listening to us. So it didn’t faze me very much, and I kept playing as I wanted for that context. As I was going up to the stand for my last set, Philly Joe Jones — who lived in London at the time — came up and said, ‘Dave, Miles told me to tell you that he wants you to join his band.’ I think had I done anything else than enhance the situation to the best of my abilities, Miles would never have offered me the gig.”

With Miles, Holland learned to be at once anchored and abstract — how to set up a bottom and also fly. And he developed his skills as a soloist. “One thing Dave got from Miles is the ability to project the intention and sound of his ideas on the instrument,” says Jack DeJohnette, a close friend who first met Holland at Ronnie Scott’s in 1966. “Dave can do a solo and grab people like a horn player. He can get an audience standing on their feet. He learned from Miles how to be consistent and focused, like a ray from a laser beam.”

He also found his instrumental voice. “In London, I would put on different masks, depending on the musical situation,” he says. “I’d listen to Ron alter the bass notes and reharmonize the chords. I’d listen to Ray and try to get that walking feeling and interaction. I listened to Scott LaFaro for the freer dialogue and to Gary Peacock with Albert Ayler for more open-form situations. I listened to Jymie Merritt, who is an unsung hero, but brilliant in the original way he broke up time with Max Roach. I was still in that phase when I joined Miles. Then one night, when Tony Williams was still in the band, we were playing a place called the Black Bottom in Montreal, and I remember suddenly feeling that I was no longer any of those people. Something happened, where I felt a connection with myself. I also started realizing that I wasn’t going to succeed in sounding like anyone else. I came back to New York, and my practicing changed. I forced myself to start from scratch. What’s a major scale about? What do these intervals mean? How are they put together? How many ways can I see to reorganize this idea? How can I break down my rhythmic ideas into a system that will allow me to expand on things I’m already doing? I started getting back much more to the building blocks of the music and brought out the elements I wanted to develop.”

Most importantly, Holland learned to shape narrative from musical flow. “I see theater and music as related in some ways,” he says. “In the theater a cast of characters and scenes and events unfold, one leads to another. Sometimes time is compressed and you suddenly find yourself jumping a couple of years. There are moments of drama and contemplation, and emotional climaxes and then lulls. Miles was a master of this whole element of pace. Each night, on any tune, I experienced a different take on how that development could happen. Every performance is a new investigation into the possibility of assembling a sequence of events that takes the listener through an emotional and intellectual journey. What’s important is how you craft that journey and make it work for the listener. In other words, how you portray the music without compromising its elements and language. Ellington’s great suites — like “Harlem Air Shaft” — take you on a trip, a journey through life, a feeling about something. When music works at its best for me, that’s what it’s doing — taking me on a trip.”

BREAK

That three-week engagement at Count Basie’s happened to be Herbie Hancock’s last with Miles. He and Holland would not make music again until 1990, when they toured with DeJohnette and Pat Metheny on DeJohnette’s Parallel Realities project.

“Following that, I expressed to him how much I’d enjoyed it, and he asked if I’d like to do some more things,” Holland relates. “He started calling me for the trio. We played extensively together, and it influenced me deeply. Herbie puts the creative demand on himself to play something fresh every night, even on compositions he’s been playing since the ’60s. That level of improvisation is extraordinary, and so is the dialogue he gets into with the other musicians. He’s taking in everything and throwing it right back out. The joy that he puts into his music somehow released something in me. I was taking music very seriously, maybe too seriously. I don’t mean to belittle seriousness, but seriousness has to be tempered with joy. Herbie brought me in touch with the joy of playing music in a special way.”

Hancock returns the compliment. “I put Dave in the category of Ron Carter,” he says flatly. “That’s the top. He carves out his own territory, which is just as valid as what Ron does. He has a sound I happen to like – very rich. And I like his time, where he places the notes when playing walking bass. But he doesn’t depend on walking. He plays different rhythmic and melodic things — even accompanying the piano — and knows when to move from one to the other. He knows all the stuff harmonically, and he’s very intelligent and open, and responds quickly. Adventurous, too; not afraid to venture into unknown waters. Maybe the key word is balance. He’s an extremely well-balanced bass player, top to bottom — it’s just the way he is. If a bass player is too egotistical or has problems with his own self-assurance or identity, it will affect his playing and, therefore, will affect the rest of the band. Dave is his own man. He’s comfortable with himself, and he’s eager to listen and learn — giving and receiving at the same time. I admire him greatly as a human being. His solid, formidable character, all that love and graciousness and respect for humanity exudes through his playing.”

In spite of all this, Holland, who in 1990 was a household name to anyone with a serious interest in jazz, was still continuing to find it difficult, as he puts it, “to step into the limelight and assert myself in terms of what I wanted to do.”

“As a young man I was quite shy,” he continues. “I would often take a long time to voice my opinion until I saw it was safe to do so. I don’t want to get into psychoanalysis of my childhood, but a lot of things happened then that formulated my approach to dealing with life. Like anyone else, I carried a lot of baggage. Sometimes my democratic and sharing approach would weaken my ability to realize an idea — ‘OK, this is only my idea; maybe I should just let whatever is going to happen, happen.’ Actually, around that time I had a long conversation with Betty Carter. She was like Miles in that she could center in on what was important, and she told me some things that were essential in giving me courage to voice my opinions and be more decisive in following through on ideas. ‘It’s your band,’ she said. ‘Your name is on the music.’”

BREAK

Recorded at the beginning of 2000, What Goes Around is Holland’s inaugural salvo on the big-band front — but probably not the last. “The quintet will remain my full-time project as long as it stays together,” he says. “But I see the big band extending way out into the future as an ongoing challenge.” Last fall, in support of the record, he embarked on a month-long tour of the United States and Europe that served as a platform to develop older compositions and some newer work, including pieces by Robin Eubanks and his old friend Kenny Wheeler. At the tour’s conclusion, he went into the studio with his road-tested unit to make an album scheduled for 2004 release.

“When I started the quintet in ’97 and recorded the first selection of music for the group, I only knew the starting point I wanted,” Holland notes. “I would never have presumed it would lead to Not For Nothin’. In all good bands, the music develops out of the people involved as a group. As the quintet played together, relationships started to appear, and I and the other musicians who are writing have been able to take advantage of the personalities that emerged. That’s now happening with the big band from performing the music every night, which we hadn’t done. Certainly how we use dynamics has developed. Everybody is learning how their own written parts fit in with everything else in the band, which creates a strong, more unified sound.”

That process played out exquisitely during the last set of an exhilarating four-night, mid-tour residence at Birdland. Smiling broadly, his bass firmly planted onstage, Holland struck the downbeat signaling baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan to blow the elemental melody of “Triple Dance.” The trumpets entered with counterlines, then the trombones with another counterline, and the joyful romp — orchestrated by Holland’s endlessly driving grooves and Billy Kilson’s fluent, surging beats — was on. There were no slack moments. The compositions seemed tailored to such distinctive youngsters as Antonio Hart, Mark Turner, Mark Gross, Josh Roseman, and Alex Sipiagin, whose responses propelled the creative momentum. Their deep connection with the music was palpable.

“Miles worked simultaneously at creating a focus for the band but also drawing on the energy and creative power of his younger players,” Holland says. “I’m not prejudiced against older players or younger players; I’m mostly interested in good players. But the player who’s developing and searching and striving gives the music an edge.

“For me, players find each other. You gravitate towards the things that you need to do. And I’ve been fortunate to be in situations where I heard certain players, they heard me, and were interested in working together. Out of that we’ve made some very good music.”

Downbeat Article, 2005:

“I just want dialogue,” says bassist Dave Holland, encapsulating his musical first principles. “The quality of community in ensemble is central to everything I’ve done. Jazz is an in-the-moment narrative, and it’s different every time. No other music in the Western world is like that.”

Musical conversation and endless polyphony permeate Holland’s elegant arrangements on Overtime [Dare2], his second recording with a 13-piece big band and first release on his own imprint.

The title resonates on several levels.

For one thing, Down Beat’s 58-year-old 2005 Critics Poll trifecta winner–Best Jazz Artist, Best Big Band, and Best Bassist–evolved his aesthetics over a long timespan. In the early ’60s he internalized three-horn polyphony performing King Oliver and Louis Armstrong Hot Five arrangements on New Orleans revival pub gigs. He spent 1968 to 1980 on the world stage, improvising extemporaneously on abstract structures and tabula rasa canvases with Miles Davis, Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers. He applied the freedom principle to multiple-meter structures in collectively oriented ’80s units with Kenny Wheeler, Julian Priester, Steve Coleman, Kevin Eubanks, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith. During the past decade, he’s committed wholeheartedly to chordal environments with a quintet featuring vibraphonist Steve Nelson, trombonist Robin Eubanks, saxophonists Steve Wilson, Chris Potter and Antonio Hart, and drummers Billy Kilson and Nate Smith.

For another, Holland commands a slew of time signatures and metrically modulates them into flow, incorporating four-four swing, triplet structures, and enspiriting beats extrapolated from the ritual musics of pygmy society, India, North Africa, and Indonesia.

“Every performance is a new investigation into the possibility of how to assemble a sequence of events that takes the listener through a journey,” Holland says. Renowned as a conjuror of beautiful melodies since his 1972 masterpiece Conference of the Birds,  he facilitates the voyage by molding complex rhythms and harmonies to communicate his tales, conveying maximum meaning with a minimum of notes.

To use Holland’s phrase, Overtime is “closed-form music with an open-form sound.” In the manner of Ellington, Thad Jones, and Kenny Wheeler, all consequential role models, Holland presents customized parts, themselves attractive counter-melodies, to his hand-picked virtuosos—augmenting the quintet are saxophonists Mark Gross, Antonio Hart, and Gary Smulyan; trumpeters Duane Eubanks, Taylor Haskins, and Alex Sipiagin, and trombonists Jonathan Arons and Josh Roseman. He propels their solo inventions with surging, interactive basslines, and responds to them with his own intense variations.

“I’m looking first for a strong individual character to their playing, and secondly, an ability to function within a group context,” Holland says of his personnel. “I prefer not to explain a lot. The musicians need freedom to offer their own ideas and concepts, and not be restricted within the frame of reference you give them. Now, having a structure to work from means you can create tension and resolutions against the structure, which would not be there without the structure. But the written music is a starting point. I’ll hear somebody do something I would never have dreamed of; what I hear happening around me directly affects the ideas I play and develop.”

Urbane and articulate, Holland speaks in complete sentences and paragraphs, and stays resolutely on message. He seems loath to acknowledge that he is the gravitational center of his creative orchestra. But his band members note that they take cues, musical and otherwise, from the leader.

“Freedom isn’t something you always know what to do with,” says Potter. “Dave gives parameters–maybe a completely open vamp section on a rhythmic pattern he’s working on–in which you have freedom that feels more free than Free.”

“Dave takes  risks,” says Smith, Holland’s latest drummer. “He plays loose, over the bar, under the time, and wants to see how far we can stretch. It’s hard to mess up, because everyone is searching for something new and exciting to do. Even the mistakes are golden. He’ll sing me some skeletal pattern that launches the music, usually a clave, in 7 or 9 or 11 or 13. I’ll play it, and maybe add something. He’ll say, ‘Keep that,’ or ‘No matter what you do, I want you to hit this.’ But I’m always thinking about that clave.”

Holland never allows experimental imperatives to interfere with projecting a communicative groove. “Dave is able to transform odd meters and have you nod your head even though it’s not on 2 and 4,” says Duane Eubanks.

“I never played much odd-meter music before this band,” says Smulyan, a veteran of the Vanguard Orchestra, in which Holland played in the early ’70s. “On our first gigs, everyone was counting like crazy. After a few years, I said to Dave, ‘I’m getting a little worried. I’m starting to feel it.’ He just laughed. Now we don’t count. It’s a particular language all its own, and you decode it.

“He’s an amazing bass player. He and I play a lot of bass-baritone figures together, and he’s incredible to hook up with—his pulse, his drive, his sense of rhythm, his groove are all so strong.”

Holland is adamant that freedom entails responsibility. “People’s personal lives are nothing to do with me,”  he says. “My interest is that the gig happens the way it’s supposed to, that the band is ready to play, and that the conditions of our contractual agreements are kept.”

“It doesn’t get much better than this aesthetically, so cats won’t act out of line,” says Eubanks. “Dave’s not cocky. He’s very aware who he is, and he’s satisfied with it. Now, if things deviate, he’ll step in. He’s a stickler for punctuality. He’s at least 10 minutes early every time. Usually 15. Once I missed a flight, though I made the gig. He pulled me over, like, ‘Man, take advantage of the situation.’ Even when he’s mad at you, it’s like he’s not mad at you.”

“Dave’s humility grabbed me first,” says Gross. “He eliminates the distance between bandleader and band-member. For instance, everyone knows I love coffee. Backstage at a gig once, just joking, I said, ‘What is this? No coffee back here?’ Dave went to the promoter and said, ‘Mark wants some coffee. What can we do about that?’ I was really embarrassed! Later he asked, ‘Did you get your coffee, Mark?’ I thanked him. ‘Oh, no problem.’ Of course, once you get on stage, he IS the bandleader, but he commands that through the music, not so much through words.

“He won’t tolerate unprofessionalism or disrespect. Once at a festival, the promoters brought out a vibraphone for Steve Nelson that was like a high school toy set.. Dave said, ‘This is not what he plays on; he needs the professional set of vibes that we stipulated in the rider.’ ‘We can’t get them, Mr. Holland.’ ‘Well, I’m not playing.’ Now, this is a huge festival, lots of money involved. He told the band, ‘Stay at the hotel. This gig might be cancelled. Don’t worry; you all WILL be paid.’”

“A few days after 9/11, we flew to Monterrey,” Hart relates. “That’s a testament to how we feel about Dave, because we were scared; nobody wanted to get on the plane. Before we played, he talked to the people about being strong and turning this tragedy around. It wasn’t a spiritual spiel, but I thought his words were needed, to help us understand we need to push forward, do our job and try to bring beauty into the world.”

With the orchestra booked in Europe for the entire month of July, Holland intends to let the market determine his next step.

“We’ve been able to work consistently throughout the year, but I don’t want to overwork the band or put it on the road when conditions aren’t correct,” he says. “I want everyone to feel good about the situation–that we’re paid properly, and play nice venues.”

Asked how he envisions his sixties, Holland responds, “I tend to do things as they come up.” He cites a forthcoming project with Indian percussion master Trilok Gurtu as an example. “I did a solo concert in Sardinia 18 months ago when Trilok was there with his band, and I invited him to join me at the end for a few pieces. We had a great time, and I wanted to continue. We just spent three days working on new music, and our conversation about some Indian traditions of learning the rhythmic discipline in Indian music gave me many new ideas to think about. If you’d asked about my future plans the week before that concert, Trilok was not in them, but now it’s a reality.

“It’s an ongoing journey that hasn’t reached its end. At least for the near future, the quintet and big band will continue, and this thing with Trilok is the next step. Special projects, like my tour last summer with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Brian Blade, come up periodically. I’ll take it a step at a time, and we’ll see. I’ll let you know when I get there.”

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