Monthly Archives: December 2011

A 1994 WKCR Interview with Ed Thigpen, (Dec. 28, 1930-Jan. 13, 2010 )

In observance of master drummer Ed Thigpen’s birthday, I’m posting the proceedings of an interview that we did on WKCR a few weeks before his 64th birthday, when he  was in NYC to play a week at Bradley’s with the late Memphis piano master Charles Thomas and bassist Ray Drummond.

(Some eight years later, he offered his memories of Ray Brown.)

Ed Thigpen (WKCR, 12-14-94):

[MUSIC: Thigpen Trio: “Gingerbread Boy,” “Denise”]

Q:    Ed Thigpen is in residence at Bradley’s this week with top-shelf trio that features pianist Charles Thomas from Memphis, Tennessee, and bassist Ray Drummond, gracing the small space with a mind-boggling variety of sounds and textures and rhythms from his drum kit. Let’s talk about your recent CD, Mister Taste, on Just In Time, which received five stars in Downbeat.  You’re joined on it by a bassist you’ve worked with frequently since moving to Europe twenty-odd years ago…

ET:    Yes, 22 years ago, as a matter of fact.  Mads Vinding, who is probably one of the finest bassists you’ll ever hear.  Denmark has a penchant for putting out good bass players, Niels-Henning, and we have another young man named Jesper Lundgard, who is also fine — but Mads is special.  And bringing Tony Purrone and Mads together, it was pure magic.

Q:    You comment in the liner notes on particularly the resonance and nuance of the sound Mads Vinding brings to the bass.

ET:  Well, for one, he’s so in tune, and quite inventive.  I am particularly pleased with the interplay between he and Tony — well, the whole group, actually.  Like I said, it was magic.  It was one of those magical dates that came together.  We had done a television show, and like many Jazz endeavors that come about, you don’t have too much time to rehearse.  I brought some tunes in, and it was just… The only thing I can say is that it was like magic, the things that happened, their response, and it was so open…

So when I heard it, I said, “I have to record it.”  So we went into the studio.  We had another one-nighter in Copenhagen, and then a day off.  So we laid down about seven tracks, and I used it as a demo.  Then Just-In-Time was interested in putting it out.  So I brought them back over again, and went into the studio another evening or two, and had a couple of rehearsals — and that’s the result of it.

Q:    Ed Thigpen’s father was one of the  prominent drummers of his period, really, in defining what’s called the Southwest Sound and that way of playing drums.

ET:    Well, a Swing drummer, yeah.  He was great.  Swing.  Swing, that was Ben Thigpen.

Q:    Ben Thigpen, who played with Andy Kirk for many years.  And your birthplace is Chicago.  Did you live there for a number of years, or…?

ET:    No.  Actually the band was on the road, and that’s where I was born.  But the band was actually stationed out of Kansas City.  So I guess when I was old enough to travel, we traveled to Kansas City, and then my mother took me to California, where I was raised from 1935.

Q:    Tell me about your musical tuition.  Was your father your first teacher, or how did it happen?

ET:    No, he wasn’t my first teacher.  Actually, I started in grade school.  You know, all the kids… We had church choir, tap dance lessons, some piano lessons, and we had rhythm groups, and a little orchestra in grade school!  Then in junior high school I did my first drum contest.  We had people like Buddy Redd, who was Elvira Redd’s brother, a young man named Jimmy O’Brien.  Then naturally, the concert band.  Then getting into high school with the swing band, which I think sort of kicked things off, because that band came out of Jefferson High School.  Art Farmer was in the band, and Addison, Chico Hamilton had come out of the band, Dexter had gone to that school as well — so it was quite rich.

Q:    And the band-master at Thomas Jefferson High School was Samuel Browne, a famous teacher.

ET:    Samuel Browne.

Q:    Describe him a little bit, his methods…

ET:    Well, complete openness as far as exposure.  All styles of music.  We had arrangements by Fletcher Henderson, by whoever was popular — Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Boyd Raeburn.  Dizzy Gillespie, they had charts from that band.

Q:    At that time.

ET:    Oh, yes.  Oh, yes.

Q:     So he was fully open-minded.

ET:    Oh, totally.  And you were allowed to go as far as you could.  It was totally open.  We had great arrangers in the band, wonderful singers.  Mister Browne was just very encouraging to all of us.  He was a very dedicated man.

Q:    Were you basically a born drummer?  I mean, is that your first instrument?  Or were you studying other instruments…

ET:    No, I’ve worked hard at it.  I still do.

Q:    I don’t mean that it was a natural talent.  I mean, was that the first instrument that you…

ET:    Gravitated towards?

Q:    Yes.

ET:    In some senses.  Actually, it was the piano at first, but the piano lessons, instead of… I think in the old days it was, like, I used to get stomach-aches because I didn’t know about this fourth finger being tied, and the concentration on being a concert pianist, and I didn’t have the facility for that.  I sort of wish… Now when I teach, I teach young people to enjoy the music.  It’s not about being Horowitz.  It’s about enjoying the music.  But now I’m studying again!

But it was piano and dance.  We took dance; we did tap dancing.  And singing in the choir and stuff like that.

Q:    You went to school with and were roughly a contemporary of a number of musicians who became very well known in the Jazz world.  Were you performing outside of school in teenage groups, ensembles?   If so, what sort of things were you playing, and what was the ambiance like?

ET:    Well, no, I wasn’t playing outside of school until I became a senior.  I just had graduated from high school.  My first professional gig was with Buddy Collette, as a matter of fact.  He hired me to do a gig.  We’d have dances, you know, at the YMCA and the YWCA.   Then the Swing band, of course, we did a lot of touring around the city.  We played all the high schools and so forth.

Q:    The Jefferson High School band.

ET:    That was Jefferson High School, but we played other high schools in concert.  We had… Well, who else had a Swing band?  I think Dorsey(?) may have had a band.  But our band was quite known, so we traveled all over the city, doing concerts and so forth.

Q:    As far as emulating a style, I guess your father would have been an obvious example to you.  But who were the drummers you were trying to model yourself after?  Was it by records?  Were you able to go to the theaters, hear big bands coming through, and hear those drummers first-hand?

ET:    As I said before, we had drummers who came through who were there.  Chico Hamilton was quite helpful to me.  As a matter of fact, he taught me how to play paradiddles.  I enjoyed his colors.  Then, like all kids at that time, Gene Krupa was a… You know, you went to the movies and watched Gene Krupa for the show business and all that stuff.  Then I started hearing records, and when I heard Dizzy, it was little subtle things that I liked very much.  “Ow!” was a big influence, that particular piece.  I found out later it wasn’t Kenny, but it was Joe Harris.  But also Max Roach, Art Blakey — all of the masters playing.  Just people who played well.

Then, later, after I had moved to St. Louis, I had the opportunity to see Jo Jones, Papa Jo, as they call him now.  Once I saw him, that was it.  He was a symphony on drums for me.

Q:    What was the event?

ET:    Well, actually I was in St. Louis, and I was going to see Buddy Rich at the Jazz at the Philharmonic, but Buddy didn’t make the show, and there was Jo Jones.  Well, I hadn’t seen him before, and I was just mesmerized.  I couldn’t believe what I saw.  Just everything that he did was so musical, and the touch and the swing — and from there on, that was it for me.  That was the one who I more or less patterned a lot of my work from.

Q:    Did you speak with him then?

ET:    Oh yes.  He and father were very close, and I obviously spoke to him, but it wasn’t about drums.  We talked about tennis, as a matter of fact.  When he came to L.A., when I first him, he didn’t even know I played drums.  I introduced myself, and he knew my Dad, of course, and we were out on the tennis court together.  But that was it.

Q:    What was his tennis game like?

ET:    Fine!  He was a good tennis player.  Yeah, he was fine.

Q:    Talk about the elements of his style that you were able to incorporate, coming from another generation and dealing with somewhat different demands that were placed on a drummer.

ET:    Well, what I liked first of all was the swing.  You know, you popped your fingers.  It was his cymbal beat, his hi-hat patterns.  Then when I saw him pick up brushes, which I hadn’t used before really… And his touch.  It was the musicality of his approach to playing.  It was the instrument… It wasn’t just drums when he played.  He used to tell me later, after I got to know him, that the hi-hat became his brass section.  He was one of the first ones I saw utilizing a certain amount of independence, subtle independence, and colors and things of that nature.  It just floored me.  So I think it was the overall musicality of the swing, the epitome of swing.

Q:    Were you working professionally right after graduating high school?

ET:    Oh, yes.  I started working with a group called the Jackson Brothers.  It was sort of a show group. It was Pee Wee Crayton, you know, Rhythm-and-Blues.  Most of us started with Rhythm-and-Blues.  Then when I moved to St. Louis, it was Peanuts Whalum.  Miles came home one time, I had a gig with him.  And then I went on the road with (we had territorial bands) a gentleman by the name of Candy Johnson.  In that band was Jack McDuff, believe it or not, and Freeman Lee and James Glover.  So you traveled around the Midwest and the South.  Then I wound up in New York, and my first job here was at the Savoy Ballroom.

Q:    Was the Candy Johnson band dealing mostly with jump band things, rhythm-and-blues, or was it a wide repertoire?

ET:    No, it was Swing.  It was a wide repertoire.  I think the closest… Candy played tenor, alto, clarinet, baritone; he played a lot of baritone at that time.  Jack was playing piano.  We weren’t playing organ; playing piano.  There was some Bebop, there was some Swing, we had a lot of stuff Charlie Ventura type with that group that he had with Bennie Green.  It was just good music, just swing.  Basie charts.  The standard things.  He was a wonderful player.

Q:    So you really had a ton of experience by the time you came to New York, working in all sorts of situations, I guess.

ET:    I would say so.  Then when I got here, you know, it started again, working with Cootie Williams.  That band was my first exposure to doing the tobacco warehouses doing what they call the Chitlin’ Circuit.  We traveled with people like the Ravens, the Dominos, the first Doo-Wop groups, the Orioles, then with Dinah Washington — it was wonderful.  That’s when I met Keeter Betts and Jimmy Cobb and Wynton Kelly.  That was the rhythm she had.  Then, when I saw Jimmy Cobb, that floored me again.

Q:    Talk about that little bit.

ET:    Well, I have to go back before Jimmy.  I mean, when I first came to New York in late 1950 or early 1951, the first person I looked up was Max Roach.  He was playing at a place called the Palm Garden, I think, down the street from the Apollo Theater.  I had heard Max on record.  He, again, was so musical.  You could just follow the melodies when he soloed.  I couldn’t believe someone like that.  And his descriptive playing, total… Again, he had a great influence in the sense… I didn’t have the technique that he did, but it was the musicality of the drums.  That was the thing that really got to me.  I met him, asked questions and so forth.

Q:    Max Roach, of course, was tremendously influenced as well by Papa Jo Jones.

ET:    I think everyone who came up had to be influenced by him.  He was a great innovator, let’s face it.
But anyway, when we were out on the road with Cootie, we were traveling with Dinah Washington, and as I said, they had Wynton Kelly and Keeter Betts and then Jimmy Cobb.  Then I was really flabbergasted, because here was a guy who was sort of like out of Max, but his solos and time, and he swung so hard… He had such great technique, too.  I just said, “Wow!”

All these guys were nice.  That’s the beauty, for me, of the business, is the camaraderie of the men who are involved in the music.  They’re all such great men, such wonderful people.  So from that, you just try to make your little niche and participate in this wonderful music.

Q:    You worked with Bud Powell and Billy Taylor, I guess, in the mid-1950’s.

ET:    Yes.  Well, I went into the Army from Cootie Williams.  When I came out of the Army, I was discharged in Chicago.

Q:    I’m sure you were in a band in the Army?

ET:    Yes.  I was at Ford Ord, California, for almost the first year.  I was the instructor in the Army band.  I really got the gig as an instructor because I could play a good Samba, and my Master Sergeant had a band outside of the regular duties, and he wanted me to play with him, so they stationed me there.
Then I went to Korea, and I was in the Sixth Army Band, Maxwell Taylor, you know, the Armed Guard Band.

Then when I came out, I got out in Chicago.  Cootie had another drummer, and the guy who was his road manager said, “I don’t think you’re going to get this gig back.”  Anyway, Keeter Betts told me that Dinah (he called her the Queen)… he had heard that the drum chair was open.  So I spoke with her.  She was coming into St. Louis two weeks after I was discharged.  I went down to the dance, played with them, and she said, “Why don’t you come and go to Kansas City?”  So the next thing I know, two weeks after the Army, I’m with Dinah.  And from Dinah, I’m back to New York, and then it’s Birdland — and you’re exposed to here.  Then my whole thing began again.

Q:    Began to blossom.

ET:    Yes.

Q:    Talk about playing with Bud Powell.

ET:    Oh!  Playing with Bud Powell.  Again, that was a thrill.

Q:    Did he have on nights, off nights?  Was he fairly consistently?

ET:    Well, some people say he wasn’t… You know, he had been ill for so long, so there would be evenings when I guess those who knew him when he was at his peak would say it was off.  But for me it was always on, because again, he played so much music.  I wasn’t real…with the sticks… Like, I said, I could swing and I was good with brushes, and he liked what I did with the brushes.  So just playing with him, just being on the stand with him was wonderful.  And all of that obviously came in.  I tried to find ways to accompany him.

Q:    Would he have pretty much set arrangements?  Did you have any input into the shape of his performances…

ET:    Oh, no-no-no.  At that point there was no actual conversation going on.  Everything conversationally was done musically.  He’d look over and smile, and he would just play.  So you know, the ears had to have it.

Q:    And then you worked for several years also with Billy Taylor’s trio, which was a popular trio.

ET:    Oh, that was a delight.  That was my introduction to… oh, to so many things.  Billy introduced me to so many things.  Number one, he’s such a fine person.  Again, he gave me total freedom.  With Billy I think prepared me to work with Oscar, in a strange way.  The appreciation of a ballad.  No one plays a ballad like that for me.  Then, I was able to experiment with him.  We used to talk about the story-line of a piece, “Titoro,” or what we wanted to get out of it.  That was also my introduction to general Jazz education.  He’s so knowledgeable.  We used to go out and do a lot of freebies, and do clinics and workshops.  I gained a great deal from Billy.  Still do, as a matter of fact!

Q:    We’re in a straight line here, and I guess that will lead us to your joining Oscar Peterson.

ET:    Oh, 1959.   Yes, January, 1959.

Q:    That was six years?

ET:    Six-and-a-half years.  ’59 to ’65.

Q:    Ed Thigpen will select a set of favorite performances over the years with Oscar Peterson, and we’ll be back with him for more conversation.  [ETC.]

[MUSIC: OP/Milt Jackson “Green Dolphin Street” (1962), “Tin Tin Deo” (1963) “Thag’s Dance” (1962)]

Q:    In the previous segment we were encapsulating Ed Thigpen’s life up to joining the Oscar Peterson Trio.  I’d now like to ask you a little bit about your years with that group, and the demands of playing with a trio of such incredible musicians, both as improvisers and in terms of their general musicality.  Talk about playing next to Ray Brown for six years.

ET:    Oh, a total delight.  Ray was a big brother to me, in many ways.  You know, we almost lived together on the road for about six years, and rehearsing every day, playing time, playing golf…just having a good time.  It was a delightful experience in most ways; it really was.

Q:    He has one of the most distinctive sounds in Jazz.  He’s one of these people, one note, you pretty much know it’s him.

ET:    Oh, yes.  Well, I used to like to have him just lay down a groove.  Nobody lays down a groove like him.

Q:    I’m going to ask you a bit about the strategies of the group.  Were the performances intricately worked out beforehand?  How much improvising went on on the bandstand in terms of shaping the arrangements, apart from within the arrangements?

ET:    Well, as you can see, they were highly arranged as far as the compositional things.  Oscar was a genius in how he wanted things to be; after he had shaped the outside parts, how he wanted… Except when it came to things where we’d just play things spontaneous, like when we did eleven albums in two weeks of that whole song-book series, with no short takes.  Well, those things are just spontaneous, you know, doing the melody, the groove, have little interludes, and you had to be quick and just make it happen.  Of course, as you know, with Jazz music, so much of it is improvisation, so the skills have to be there.

But with the group, we would have rehearsals, and we’d learn the pieces in sections.  When it came to things like West Side Story, which was probably one of the most difficult ones for me at that time, because some of the things were quite intricate, you had to put blinders on, not  sing somebody else’s part, and play yours.  It was quite intricate.

I just enjoyed listening to the trio.  I felt every night I was at a concert.  I wasn’t just participating.  I was also part of the audience, listening to them play.  But outside of that, I think one of the biggest things I got out of that whole thing was the idea about being consistent, keeping at a very high level.  That was his credo.  We were supposed to sound better than just about anybody on our worst night.  That was the whole idea, was that you never cheated.  I mean, every song was an opener and a closer, whether it’s a ballad or whatever.  You just went out and go for broke, the whole thing.

Q:    Well, it’s certainly a group which gave new meaning to the phrase “split second timing.”

ET:    Oh, yes.  It was something else.

Q:    Was the reason for leaving that six years on the road was too much, or…

ET:    No, it was time.  Oscar was hearing other things.  I began to hear other things.  I think in any type of situation like that… You know, you watch Miles’ groups, he changed.  There comes a time when that period of whatever you’re going through, has to end, and you move on to other things.

Q:    Well, he certainly put the drummer in a situation where I guess just about every possible sound you could out of a drum kit would be incorporated within at least several performances by the group.

ET:    Well, I wouldn’t say… To be honest, not every sound.  Because that’s why you move on.  You know, you’re working for and with a person who is a very strong personality, who is a stylist as well.  He has ideas about how he wants things to go, and they are absolutely right.  It would be the same if you were working with Erroll Garner as a stylist, or someone else.  There would be certain things that… When you’re working with one particular group over a long period of time, and it’s almost exclusively with that group, there are many things you don’t get a chance to play, you know, a lot of repertoire — you can’t cover everything.  There were things I would do with Billy that I didn’t do with him.  There were things I did with Tommy that you didn’t do with Billy or you didn’t do with someone else.  Over the years, you find yourself in other situations, and each individual, or each group that you work with will give you other areas of your personality… You know, you continue to grow, so you experiment.  It’s constantly evolving.  You’re not really one-dimensional.  I guess that’s the best way I could put it.

Q:    I guess the next major gig for you was several years with Ella Fitzgerald, in the late 1960’s.

ET:    Yes.  That was another thrill.

Q:    Which has a whole other set of demands for accompanying a singer, and as formidable a stylist as Ella Fitzgerald.

ET:    Well, she was a total orchestra.  You know, you have some soloists… Her voice was the instrument, let’s face it.  And she instinctively… When she sang it was orchestration.  It almost commanded that you do certain things.  You find certain soloists… Benny Carter is another person who plays that way.  When they play, it’s like an orchestration.  It leads you to something.  So it’s not really as difficult to play with them, because they know so much about what they want, and what they’re going to do without even saying it.  It comes right out.  If you react to that, then it’s almost automatic.  It’s just a big thrill to be in that situation.

Q:    Our next set of music will focus on an aspect of Ed  Thigpen’s European experience, which has been ongoing for twenty-two years.  You live in Copenhagen.  Has that been your residence since moving to Europe?

ET:    Oh, yes.  I was married and we had children, and I stayed there and raised my kids.  And Copenhagen was a nice place to be at the time.  For a period there, we had Dexter, Thad, Kenny Drew, Horace Parlan, Idrees Sulieman, Sahib Shihab, Richard Boone — it was a nice community.

[MUSIC: Ernie Wilkins Big Band “Sebastian”; Thad Jones, “Three In One” (1984)]

Q:    Ed Thigpen is working this week at Bradley’s in a trio featuring the strong Memphis-based pianist Charles Thomas, who has influenced several generations of Memphis piano players, and bassist Ray Drummond.  Is this your first time playing with Charles Thomas?

ET:    The first time.  James Williams called me, the wonderful pianist, and said, “I have someone I would really like you to play with.  He would like to play with you.”  Because Charles had been a big fan of Oscar, myself, and so forth.  He said, “You’re really going to like him.  He taught a lot of us from Memphis.”  Meanwhile, I spoke with Billy Higgins, and he raved about him too.  Charles is a wonderful pianist, a wonderful musician.  People really should come down.

Q:    You were mentioning the breadth of his repertoire.

ET:    Oh, the scope of his repertoire.  He knows… We’re playing everything from Christmas carols to the height of Bebop, so tunes that you don’t hear, some compositions I’m beginning to learn right on the bandstand.  It’s pure magic.  Again, one of those situations when you have someone who plays so well and knows the music so thoroughly, and it’s just a treat to be there with him.

Q:    He’s a very elegant and incisive soloist.  He never plays too long, and always with a little different twist to what you might expect.

ET:    Well, I like his harmonics.  He swings his head off.  We went into some Blues last night, and it was deep.  It was really something!  So I am looking forward to every night.  You know, it’s a long gig when you do 10-to-3 in the morning, but doesn’t seem long to me, because you know, Ray is playing so beautifully… When you’re playing with great guys like this, and the music is so interesting, and the treatment of the music is nice, so it’s stimulating for both the audience and for us as players.  So it’s a nice place to be.

Q:    We heard you backing Thad Jones.  You mentioned that you played with him quite frequently over about a seven-eight year period…

ET:    Well, seven years anyway.  The last seven years of his life, really, or until he went with Basie, I was doing a lot of work with Thad.   I hooked onto him when he came over.  Because this man, just coming out of a rehearsal under him made me a better father, the way he handled people and he was encouraging to everybody…

Q:    An anecdote?

ET:    Just love.  Love, love and perfection, and just creativity, a lot of it — and caring.  This was a man who cared about his musicians.  I think the thing that I gained most was that working with Thad… Other musicians attest to the same.  What he wanted was you to be the best you you could be.  It wasn’t a matter about comparing.  It was the idea about individuality and being the best you, and he would just encourage you to be the best you that you could be.

Q:    Talk a little bit about what’s distinctive about his compositions for a drummer.

ET:    Well, for me, again, we’re talking about total musicality.  Orchestrating the rhythmic aspect of his music was perfect.   Tommy used to tell me, “It’s simple.”  He would start at odd places, but once you got into it, it was just so logical; it was so logical you wouldn’t even think about it.  It’s just right.  Unique.

Q:    Talk about some of the other musicians you’ve had close associations with.  Mads Vinding, obviously, is your partner on bass.

ET:    Jesper Lundgaard.  We have a couple of pianists now in Denmark who are wonderful.  Now I have this new association with a sort of American-German-European, but sort of like more esoteric and descriptive, but wonderful.  I’m having a ball with this new group, After Storm, with John Lindberg and Albert Mangelsdorff and Eric Watson.  We all come from different backgrounds, one Classical, two of us Jazz, older and younger men, this mixture of young and old, and mixing some Classical aspects to the improvisational things that we’re doing, so some of it is like descriptive music, but you know, with a beat behind it.  Just interesting to play.  Free.

What’s happening now, you may not be playing just the Blues, but it will have the feel of it, you know.  You might not be playing just “Rhythm” changes, but it all has rhythm.  All music has rhythm.  Breathing, walking, everything has  rhythm to it.  As I said before, it’s not a matter of being in a box.  I call it descriptive.  It’s an opportunity to… Maybe you want to paint a picture.  You might depict rustling leaves, for instance.  So it can be very theatrical. It’s like theater music, in some ways.  Descriptive music is the best way I can put it.

Q:    Do you paint pictures for yourself while you’re playing, regardless of the situation?

ET:    Yes.  I try to relate to some type of story form, an idea you’re trying to communicate, a feeling, a picture, a story, whether it be the ocean, or whether it be something lyrical.  You try to be… It is a matter of communication, you know, telling a story.

[MUSIC:  Thigpen Trio, “E.T.P.” (1991), Thigpen Group, “Heritage” (1966); Thigpen/ Mangelsdorff/Lindberg/Watson, “Punchin’ aPaich Patch”]

Q:    You said that the Mangelsdorff/Lindberg/Watson group has some tours set up for next year.

ET:    Yeah, we have a couple.  We have a short one when we record again in February, and in March we have a tour.  So I’m looking forward to it.

Q:    That’s the type of group that if you were feeling a little stale or in a rut, it seems like you would never have any problem finding fresh ideas.

ET:    No.  It’s very stimulating.  I enjoy it very much.  As I said, it’s descriptive.  I enjoy descriptive music.  And they’re interesting to play with it.  I really enjoy it.

Q:    When you came to Europe one thing that was either a cliche or not is that it was hard to find good rhythm section.  So of course, if a strong drummer arrived, there would presumably be a lot of work.  Was that the case with European rhythm sections?  If so, how has that evolved over the years?

ET:    I think that’s changed now, obviously.  Jazz is a world music now.  It’s always been.  It’s encompassed it, because this country represents the world.  I think you have to be here, you have the… There’s something unique about this experience in the United States that figures in everything.  It is a United States art form made up of all the peoples and cultures in the world.

But we have some wonderful players over in Europe, really.  As far as… I used to hear about… I understand it was that way at one time about rhythm sections, because you know, the essence of the music is here.  It’s like, if you’re going to deal with Opera, you have to deal with Italy.  Everybody has to have something, right?!

Q:    Conversely, how has your European experience shaped you, and made you a more, let’s say, expansive improviser or given you a more expansive palette?

ET:    Not necessarily.  These are the things that I’ve always been interested in.  As I said, a lot of people don’t realize how diverse the United States is.  There is a very interesting article quoting Max.  Every time I think of something, he’s already said it.  He’s so observant!  And the fact that this country represents…brings in cultures.  You know, it’s a mixture of various cultures.  So most of us are exposed to all types of things here.  I mean, you turn on the radio… Well, it’s different now, in some ways.  But I was introduced to Brazilian music when I was ten years old in Los Angeles.  I play good Country-and-Western music.  So it’s all here.

Q:    You said you got in the Army band because you played a good Samba for your Sergeant.

ET:    That’s right.  If there is a difference in Europe, I don’t think the European fan is as fickle.  Everything is marketing here, and it’s like what’s new rather than necessarily what is classic.  We don’t really honor…it’s even about honor, but just even respect our own uniqueness sometimes.  Sometimes I have a problem if people don’t realize that we do have a very rich heritage.  I just wish they would support it more.

Q:    I think that the stretching boundaries and “experimentation” was represented on the middle track, which is from your first album as a leader, Ed Thigpen’s Out of the Storm from 1966, on Verve.  That one featured Clark Terry, Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and Ed Thigpen.  That track featured your pedal tom-tom.

ET:    Well, it was a pedal miazi(?), pedal tom-tom, an Italian drum.  It works somewhat similar to a tympany.  I was actually able to do melodies on that drum.
Q:    And sing.

ET:    Oh yeah, that was another thing.

Q:    The call-and-response effect you were able to get there.

ET:    Yes, between that and toms and so forth.  You know, years ago, we had one of the first what I guess you would call Avant groups with Gil Mellé, who was very advanced.  We were doing things on…like, he was very much into Bartok, you know.  But it’s just playing music, man, making you feel good and having a good time!


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Sam Rivers, (1923-2011) (r.i.p.) — A Downbeat Article From 1999 and Interviews

Just got word that Sam Rivers died on Monday, at 88. Loved his music and his sound on the tenor and soprano saxophone, was inspired by the various periods of his recorded career, from his Blue Notes all the way up to his orchestral music in Orlando, where he settled in 1991.

I had the opportunity to meet him in 1997, when he visited WKCR for an interview in conjunction with a performance by his trio, and touched base with him again in 1999, when DownBeat gave me an opportunity to write a feature piece about him. I’ve pasted the article below, followed by the two interviews, followed by comments on Sam by Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Dave Holland, Chico Freeman,  Bob Stewart, and Anthony Cole.

* * *

Sam Rivers (Downbeat):

Samuel Carthorne Rivers, Jr. creates scenes, has done everywhere he’s parked himself during a fifty-year-plus career in music devoted to embracing the unknown.  Which is one reason why in 1991, not long after concluding a satisfying four years of steady touring with Dizzy Gillespie’s Quintet and Big Band, the saxophonist-composer, still lean and rawhide-tough at 68, settled with his wife Bea in Orlando, Florida, with no intention of retiring, determined to forge a new tributary from an untapped source.

“We moved from New York because I was getting tired of the cold, and nothing else.” Rivers relates over the phone in late ’99.  “We came to Orlando for a vacation, and discovered a talented pool of musicians who work at the theme parks and studios, can’t leave because the money is so good, and have no new music to play.  To me it’s a lesson not to get trapped by a financial situation; it takes away your freedom.  I posted a sign that said, ‘Sam Rivers is forming an orchestra; be at the union at such-and-such time.’  Everyone was there before I arrived.”

Taking full advantage of the opportunity to hear his music performed at weekly Wednesday night rehearsals, Rivers began to write scores like a man possessed, completing by his estimate a composition a month for a 16-piece big band, an 11-piece wind ensemble, and a highly interactive free-to-inside trio which is the core rhythm section of the orchestra.  “I’m writing more than ever,” Rivers reflects.  “I take in a composition, and we only need one rehearsal.  When I first went to New York, we’d spend three hours on one tune.  That doesn’t happen here.  Anything I write, they can play.  I want to keep writing new material, but I can always go back to something we did, say, three years ago that we haven’t done for a while!”

No one would mistake the music on the double-CD documenting the Orlando Big Band (due for summer 2000 release on Rivbea Records, Rivers’ boutique label) as being composed by anyone but Rivers.  It follows on the heels of a pair of RCA CD’s, the 1999 Grammy-nominated “Inspiration” and the May 2000 scheduled “Culmination,” featuring an all-star New York big band comprised of four generations of musicians Rivers has touched at various stages of his career that went in the studio following a wild week workshopping the charts before packed houses at Sweet Basil in late 1998.

The music is unlikely Grammy fodder.  Written between 1968 and 1995, bristling with the essence of an avant-garde sensibility, it’s atonal, dissonant, contrapuntal, incorporating overlapping meters, enormous chords and unorthodox voicings over pulsating funk beats laid down by trapsetter Anthony Cole.  “It’s life music,” Cole comments.  “It moves!  It’s danceable if you want to dance.  It’s listenable if you want to listen.  If you want to close your eyes and slip off into a cosmos somewhere, it lets you do that.

“Playing with him has confirmed a lot for me,” continues Cole, who also plays piano and tenor saxophone in Rivers’ Orlando trio which recorded “Concept” [Rivbea, 1996].  “Sometimes out of tradition and custom, there are things you think aren’t kosher or acceptable.  Sam points out the fact that in music everything is correct.   His instruction is to do your thing.  When I was learning the inside structure of music, Free was the last thing you could get me either to listen to or play.  But once I got to that point where I knew how to do it…now, where else do we go from here?   Sam was the first horn player I’ve played drums with who would start screaming through the horn in the middle of something, which encouraged a whole different reaction than I had ever experienced.  Normally you’re used to leading people somewhere.  Sam will take you where he wants you to go.”

“I’m one of the few musicians who plays free and plays changes,” Rivers remarks.  “It takes a long time to be a traditional musician, but a few minutes to be a free one.”  In his case, the training began from birth.  Rivers’ parents, both college graduates, toured with the Silvertone Quartet, a gospel group in which his father sang and his mother was the accompanist.  The family lived in Chicago, where from age 4 he sang in choirs directed by his mother, learned piano and violin, and joined his father on South Side excursions to the Regal Theater and Savoy Ballroom to hear cream-of-the-crop big bands — Ellington to Basie to Lunceford to Earl Fatha Hines.  Some bios have it that Samuel Rivers, Sr. died in a car accident in 1937, and his widow accepted a teaching position at Shorter College in North Little Rock, Arkansas; in our interviews, Rivers says that his father had an accident which left him incapacitated, and that the family moved south around 1934.  In any event, before graduating at 15 from high school in Little Rock, he learned, in succession, trombone, soprano saxophone, baritone horn and finally the tenor saxophone, which became his instrument of choice while attending Jarvis Christian College in Texas.

Rivers’ poetic 1989 paraphrase of “Body and Soul” under the title “Devotion” on “Lazuli” [Timeless] gives a sense of his origins as an improviser.  “I had ‘Body and Soul’ down note for note,” he laughs.  “I liked Coleman Hawkins’ harmonic approach, but Lester Young was really the man because he was so melodic, floating all the time, like ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’ with Nat Cole.  I analyzed Chu Berry’s ‘Stardust,’ too.  In those days there weren’t many records, so you had to figure things out for yourself.  That’s why there were so many different sounding saxophone players then.  Everybody had their own style because there wasn’t anybody really to follow.

“Of course, after I heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy, that was the epitome.”  That happened when Rivers was a 9-to-5 Navy typist-clerk stationed in California who spent off-hours moonlighting on gigs with singer Jimmy Witherspoon and blew at various Bay Area jam sessions.  He heard Gillespie’s solo on Billy Eckstine’s “Blowing the Blues Away” on a V-disk with no identifying personnel and was intrigued; after discovering the trumpeter’s name, he bought “Blue and Boogie” [Guild, 1945] featuring the Gillespie-Parker front line.  “It was the first bebop record I ever heard,” he remembers, “and that sent me on.  The solos themselves were not important; I analyzed what they did with it in relation to the harmonic framework.  Both were coming from the Blues.  Charlie Parker was pentatonic, playing the basic blues itself, while Dizzy was layering advanced, substitute chords on top of the basic chord structure.  Bird told me later that every note is important, no matter how fast you play.  Some horn players look at certain notes as passing tones to something else, a part of a phrase.  Charlie Parker looked at every note.  No matter if it was a slur, every note in that slur had been worked out and practiced and rehearsed to make sure he could do it if it ever came into his head.”

“Sam comes out of a school of saxophone playing that I can trace back to Coleman Hawkins that I call ‘the snake school,'” comments alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, who produced the RCA recordings and played a significant role in the orchestra.  “It’s represented by players like Lucky Thompson, Benny Golson and Lockjaw Davis, who put a lot of directional shifts in their lines and intervals.  Sam makes it even more pronounced because of his attack, the way he smears the notes.  You can instantly hear it’s him.  His sound and phrasing and rhythm are very slippery, sort of like he looks, kind of long and rangy.  It goes beyond music; when he’s directing the band and doing his little dance, for me that’s like a snake dance.  Before the band plays, he sings the music exactly like it should go.  Nothing he could say would give you more information than watching him move.”

Rivers enrolled in Boston Conservatory of Music on the G.I. Bill, where he studied Composition and Theory, and linked up with a clique of conceptually ambitious jazz musicians like Jaki Byard, Nat Pierce, Charlie Mariano, Gigi Gryce, Herb Pomeroy and Alan Dawson.  The former three played in a floor show at Ort’s Grill, a joint across the street from the RKO Theater, where musicians from the touring big bands would come for dinner and the hang; Rivers, working with the intermission trio, “went through every tune in the Real Book.”  He played with Pomeroy’s forward-looking 13-piece band as well as a rehearsal big band with a bop orientation led by pianist-singer Jimmy Martin for which Byard did much of the writing.  After leaving school, he took a hiatus from Boston, working with his bass-playing brother, Martin Rivers, in Miami and touring the South with various R&B bands.  He returned to Beantown around 1957, where he supported himself writing jingles, rejoined Pomeroy from 1960-62, and formed a remarkable quartet with pianist Hal Galper, bassist Henry Grimes, and an adolescent Tony Williams.

“The music that we did with Pomeroy was shocking,” Rivers recalls.  “Jaki Byard was one of the main writers then; he wrote in a unique, very technical style that took all the musicians into consideration — he was one of my idols as a composer.  My music wasn’t quite ready to be performed, but in ’57 I decided to write a whole book for 2 trumpets, trombone and 3 saxophones, which I never had a chance to play, and in ’58 I started writing music for 13 horns.  I put some rehearsals together in Boston, but everyone who could do the music was so busy with teaching and performing responsibilities that I couldn’t put things together.  The main reason I went to New York was because I had the music and wanted to start a group.”

It happened in the Fall of 1964, shortly after Rivers completed a controversial Japan tour with Miles Davis, who at Williams’ urging called him to replace George Coleman in tenor chair.  Rivers moved into two adjoining 6-room apartments on the top floor of a building on 124th Street, signed with Blue Note, recorded the highly regarded “Fuchsia Swing Song,” on which Rivers, Byard, Ron Carter and Williams performed music from the 1959-60 Boston quartet, and the startlingly original “Contours,” with Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Carter and Joe Chambers.  Most importantly, he began workshopping his big band music at a Harlem junior high school with a group of eager aspirants, who included baritone saxman Hamiett Bluiett and tubist Bob Stewart, who appear on the RCA recordings.

After a pair of European tours in 1969 with the Cecil Taylor Unit and a six-month stint with McCoy Tyner, Rivers moved to the neighborhood known today as Noho, setting up shop on the ground floor of 24 Bond Street, a loft building where one neighbor was the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.  One of the numerous alternative venues that opened in lower Manhattan during the ’70s, Studio Rivbea served as a combined living quarters-rehearsal hall-performance space, and became a focal point for the hordes of talented improvisers with speculative sensibilities who were descending on New York, providing Rivers a platform on which to expand his orchestral conception.

Best known in his ’70s oeuvre are the singular free-form trios with which he recorded frequently; his magically intuitive 1997 duo [“Tangens”, FMP] with Danish pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, and  a 1996 timbrally evocative dialogue with trombonist Julian Priester [“Hints On Light and Shadow,” Postcards] are the most recent iterations.  “In all modesty, I think my main contribution is that I am the creator of a particular free form in jazz,” Rivers states.  “When Ornette Coleman emerged, he played thematic material which came out of the blues, and improvised on it.  Cecil Taylor is avant-garde; he played themes and improvised on them.  Dave Holland and I had no thematic material; it was spontaneous creativity, completely improvised, and every night was different.  I don’t feel I get credit for my contributions.  I would like someone to tell me who was the one who started it if I didn’t.”

After working with Miles Davis and Chick Corea’s Circle, Holland performed steadily with Rivers in duos, trios, quartets, quintets and big bands between 1972 and 1981.  “Studio Rivbea was a very personal environment for the music to happen in,” he recalls.  “It literally put on these wonderful series of concerts which gave musicians a chance to focus on their ideas without any commercial constraints.  So it was a breeding ground for a lot of interesting musical ideas which weren’t being heard in New York.  Of course, this kind of activity brought people together, and of course opportunities then came up for those groups to work in Europe and elsewhere.  It was a very important time of people coming together and organizing their music.

“Most of the small group things I did with Sam were improvised; each night we started with a blank page and then continued, creating whatever moods or compositional situations we wanted on the spot.  It was a tremendous opportunity for me to explore how to develop ideas and structure improvisation from my position as a bass player.  I was interested in playing as free as possible, and he taught me the idea of bringing all your experience into the music.  Sam’s playing and writing spans the whole tradition, which he’s lived, ranging from Blues to more traditional forms and harmonies to the more atonal elements of his original music.  His big band music is unique, often quite complex, involving a variety of rhythmic fields and overlapping rhythmic cycles — you have to be aware of how the parts interlock.”

Until the release of the RCA CD’s, the only documentation of Rivers’ orchestral music was “Crystals,” a raw 1974 session comprised of members of the early Rivbea orchestra.  “At Boston Conservatory I was looking at some Stravinsky scores which had different time signatures for every bar; I put some of the music in 4/4 to see how it would look,” he explains.  “I use different layers of rhythms superimposed over a basic 4/4.  I write contrapuntally, with two and three and four melodies going on simultaneously; the harmonies happen, but every voice is playing their own particular thematic material in different time signatures than the basic one.  The bass plays the roots, and it’s pretty much the only stabilizing force you should hear.  Without the bass there it would be completely an avant-garde, almost classical sound; which it is anyway, but without the bass it would be hard to call it jazz.

“I write from the piano for something melodic and traditional, but when I’m writing for my orchestra I don’t use the piano, because it’s limiting; you play something, hear it, and have to depend on those sounds.  I just use my intellect.  I’ve gone by the rules all the way, and so now there are no rules.  It’s like higher mathematics.  I dream all these different kinds of sounds, put them together, take it to my orchestra, they play it — and I am astounded.  I don’t try to know what I’ve done!  In a sense, whatever I do is right.  I am the creator.  I don’t understand why musicians sometimes feel inhibited.  No, I am not inhibited at all in music.  I can go anywhere I want with these 12 tones.  You set your own limits.  How do I make it accessible to the audience?  We are in a backbeat rhythm era, where everything is rhythm, so I have to include the rhythm.”

Producing “Inspiration” and “Culmination” was a labor of love for Coleman, who joined the Rivbea ensemble in the summer of 1978, shortly after arriving in New York from Chicago.  “Then the music was loose because of the players, and also because Sam is loose — loose the way Bird was, with a very high level of precision inside the looseness.  I’m very concerned with the music being precise, but not mechanical.  It has a certain spontaneity, what in Chicago we used to call ‘the professional beginner’ sound, which to me is the hardest thing to get.  It’s backed by layer upon layer of thinking and work and interpretation, written with an attention to detail that adds to its emotional impact and spiritual depth.”

“When I first played with Sam, his tuba parts were some of the most difficult I’d seen,” Stewart notes.  “It was like working on an etude book, and it expanded my technique.  On these records, it’s absolutely marvelous hearing the music with the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed.  I felt like I was playing in some kind of African big band, just for the rhythmic qualities and the way the lines move very independently of each other, which you hear a lot in African music.  While it’s contemporary, Sam has somehow reached way back and brought up spirits from old.”

At 76, Rivers seems to have found the fountain of youth in Florida.  He plays with undiminished power on “Winter Garden” [NATO] a December 1998 series of virtuosic composed and tabula rasa duos with English pianist-composer Tony Hymas, and on the earlier “Eight Day Journal” [NATO], a lusciously scored Hymas concerto for Rivers with string and woodwind players from the London Symphony.  “Every morning I get up and start writing,” Rivers says.  “I’m trying to play exciting, advanced music with a nice, primitive beat — combine the intellect with the soul.  The tunes are in the traditional mode because I want people to come back, but it isn’t like so-and-so plays the music of Duke Ellington.  If you don’t have anything of your own, you pick around and use other people’s material.  I’m fortunate not to be in a situation where I have to say, ‘Sam Rivers plays the music of someone else.’  Jazz is especially about individuality; you go out there and play somebody else’s music, you’re giving Jazz a bad name.”

* * *

Sam Rivers (WKCR, 9-25-97):

[SR-Byard-Carter-Williams, “Beatrice” (1964)]

TP:    First I’d like to ask you about the current trio, because you’re always about the future and about the next step, and I guess this trio is the next step for the foreseeable future.  So a few words about how it was formed and the musicians who are playing with you this week.

SR:    Well, it was sort of formed organically, because I had no idea that something like this was possible.  I moved to Florida around six years ago.  I had been traveling around with Dizzy Gillespie, so I’d picked out where I’d go if I wanted to leave New York.  I had a choice of New Mexico, California, Florida, Texas, whatever.  So we went down to visit some people in Florida and we liked it, so we moved down there.  In fact, the reason why we moved is because there are musicians down there who work for Disney who are sort of trapped with the good money, but they’re all good musicians.  They can’t leave, and they don’t have any music to play, fortunately…

TP:    So there you were.

SR:    There I was with all these talented musicians.  Most of them are teachers, and there are composers, and like I say they’re trapped, because you’ve got a mansion and two cars in the garage… [LAUGHS] It’s that kind of situation; you know, the good life.

TP:    A similar situation to Hollywood musicians.

SR:    Yeah, it’s the same thing.  There’s a lot of very talented Hollywood musicians.  But in Hollywood, when you’re working in the studios, you get all this money and you sort of get trapped.  I know a lot of guys like that.  They say, “I hate it, but I can’t leave it!”  So for me, that’s a lesson not to get trapped by a financial situation where you can’t leave — it takes away your freedom.

TP:    Well, you’re someone who’s created situations rather than get into them, and you’ve done that everywhere you’ve parked yourself, as it were, from Boston to New York City and Orlando, Florida!

SR:    That’s true.

TP:    A few words about Doug Matthews and Anthony Cole.

SR:    Right, I was getting to that. [LAUGHS] So I came down to Orlando, Florida, and fortunately at the same time Anthony Cole happened to move from Detroit — pretty much the same day.  He comes from Detroit and I come from New York, and we meet pretty much at a jam session probably the second or third day we got into Orlando.  Anthony Cole comes by his talents genetically, I suppose, because he’s part of the Cole dynasty, Nat King Cole and Natalie.  He’s one of the relatives.  And his mother, Linda Cole, is a singer, too, an excellent singer.  He was sort of like me.  He was born a musician, born into a family of musicians.  I was born on the road, and he was pretty much the same.  Our careers parallel.  So he accompanies his mother for vocals…

TP:    On piano or drums?

SR:    Piano and drums.  Saxophone he’s been playing for six years, and he’s really up on the saxophone.  Well, it’s easy.  If you have the stamina and the will, you can learn an instrument in six years.  I mean, a lot of guitar players are out here making thousands of dollars after six months!  But he’s a very talented musician.

And Doug Matthews is a native Floridian.  There’s not too many of those down in Florida [LAUGHS], people that got started in Florida.  I mean, some native Floridians, either they leave or they move back further into the swamps.

TP:    A lot of good bass players from Florida, like Sam Jones, Jaco Pastorius, Curtis Lundy.

SR:    Oh, sure.  I know Jaco’s family, his brothers and everything.  We’re good friends.  But Doug went to the University of Florida and Berklee, and studied at Berklee.  He’s a bassist, plays bass guitar and contrabass, and he plays bass clarinet.  Anthony plays also tenor saxophone, as I mentioned, so we have all these different combinations.  I would say it’s the most creative group that I’ve ever had the good fortune to be a part of.

TP:    That’s saying something, because you’ve been part of some very creative groups.

SR:    That’s saying something.  I would say that.  I’ve been very fortunate along the way.  Sometimes, in the right situation… I mean, we have compositions for two grand pianos and bass, because Anthony and I both play piano.  We have compositions for three reeds.

TP:    So you can express almost anything, from an orchestral context to a small group blowing kind of thing.

SR:    Yes.  We can play free, but also, we all can play traditional — play the changes, too.  And that’s really something.  If we can play together and everyone can play changes and also be able to express themselves creatively, on the free side.

TP:    How long has the group been a working unit?

SR:    Five or six years, since we went down there.  These things go organically.  We were playing the usual group, me on saxophone and Doug Matthews on bass and Anthony Cole on drums.  Most of the places we played didn’t have a piano, so we were just doing our usual trio thing.  Then Doug mentioned that he played clarinet all the way through high school, and someone gave Anthony a tenor saxophone, and he learned that.  So I said, “Well, we can put these things together.”  It’s not like you’ve got some musicians here who don’t know what they’re doing.  There are so few drummers who can read music, and here’s one that not only reads music, but plays the piano as adequately and competently as a piano player… Well, he is a pianist, too.

TP:    He’s a good pianist.

SR:    Sure.  That’s what I say as far as creativity, never getting stuck in a rut, because there’s too many different places to go.  Each combination produces its own kind of creative stimulus.  If we’re playing the traditional piano-drums and bass, that’s one thing; if we’re playing piano, saxophone and bass that’s another kind of stimulus; if we’re playing two pianos and bass, that’s another stimulus.  So it’s almost endless.

TP:    Has this group sparked an onslaught of composition for you?  Have you been doing a lot of writing for the group?

SR:    This is the nucleus of the orchestra I have in Orlando.  Doug Matthews plays bass and Anthony Cole plays drums in the orchestra, you see.  For me, I have a chance to bring in all the music.  Whatever I write, they can play.  And I’ve never been in a situation like that either.

TP:    It’s not unlike the situation in Chicago in the 1960’s with the AACM Orchestra.

SR:    Yes, it’s the same thing.  This is a situation where, like I say, I’m writing traditional, in the traditional mode on all the tunes I write, because I want to make sure everything is right.  I want to have people come back.  This isn’t like so-and-so plays the music of Duke Ellington or something like that.  I’m not sure whether Duke would be happy with people messing up his music the way that they do, but if you don’t have anything of your own, then you go and pick around and use other people’s material.  I’m fortunate not having to be in that situation, where I have to go around and say, “Sam Rivers plays the music of someone else.”  That’s not what music is about anyway.  Jazz is especially about individuality, and you go out there and play somebody else’s music, you’re giving Jazz a bad name.  You know what I mean?  [LAUGHS]

TP:    I can’t think of anyone who’s more of a rugged individualist in the music than Sam Rivers.  And by the way, today is his birthday.

SR:    Yeah, happy birthday to me!

TP:    I forgot to mention it at the top of the show.  It’s hard to believe.  You were born in 1923, and you don’t look much older than you did when I used to see you at Studio Rivbea twenty years ago!

SR:    You’re right.  It’s a mental condition, I guess.  I decided when I was like 14 that I was probably going to live until the year 2000.  I planned it.  These kind of things go on in your head.  It’s really a mental condition.  I said, “I’m going to do it,” and I looked in the mirror and said, “you’re going to make it.”  Plus, I live moderately.  I’ve done everything, but I didn’t go overboard.  You understand?  And that’s the main thing.  There are temptations out there, and a lot of people are greedy.  I haven’t been greedy, and so I’ve survived.  You don’t survive if you’re greedy.  “What’s that?  Yeah, give me that!  Oh yeah, I’ll try that!”  No-no, no-no.  Up to a point, that’s it.  I never drank, because it slows you down.  I tried playing drinking and it was embarrassing.  My fingers wouldn’t move.  So I never really got into drinking.  And the harder drugs, I never really got bogged down in them either.  So I’ve been very fortunate.

The track we’ll hear, “Sprung”, is probably the most traditional composition on this album.  I like to do that because since I’m one of the few musicians who plays free and plays changes, I like to emphasize the fact that I’m also a traditional musician.  Because if you don’t emphasize the fact, they’ll think you’re just a free musician and have no knowledge of the tradition.  Because it takes a long time to be a traditional musician, but it takes a few minutes to be a free.

TP:    Well, Dizzy Gillespie obviously knew that.

SR:    Sure!

[MUSIC: Rivers-Mathews-Cole, “Sprung”, “Figure” (1996)]

TP:    Before playing “Sprung,” which you described as the most traditional piece on the CD, involving changes, you said you wanted to make sure people understand that you are both a traditional and a free musician.

SR:    It’s very important, yes.

TP:    You said it takes more than a minute to become proficient traditional musician, so I’d like to address that in the next segment of the show.  In the biographies, the encyclopedias of jazz, your birthdate is listed as 1930, but in reality it’s in 1923, and that makes sense in terms of the accomplishments of your career.  You’re in the line of the great jazz musicians born in Oklahoma — Enid, Oklahoma.

SR:    yeah, but…

TP:    You didn’t spend much time there?

SR:    No.  Just my mother and father were on tour.  I was born on the road.  My father was a singer in the Silvertone Quartet, and my mother was the accompanist.  They were living in Chicago at the time, and I was born in Enid while they were on tour.  Touring in the South at that time was fairly easy for them, because there were always more churches there than bars.  They were both college graduates.  My father graduated from Fisk University and my mother from Howard University.

TP:    Were they both music majors?

SR:    My father was a music major.  My mother majored in Sociology, and she played piano.  My grandfather was also a musician, and his two sisters.  They transcribed songs from the slaves, and he wrote books about the composition of the music, and he did some original music of his own hymnals.  His name was the Reverend Marshall Taylor.  He was Bishop in the Methodist Church in Cincinnati or somewhere like that.  He published his own music like I’m doing decades later.  The publishing company is still in the family, but I’m not going to use it at this time until I get sort of situated.  It’s nice to say “established in 1881” or something like that.

TP:    Have you played or seen the music?

SR:    Yes, I have it.  I have some of his writings from the 1830’s or 1840’s, something like that, and they look like they could have been written by Malcolm X.  I’ll probably put some of it on the back of one of the albums someday.  He was a little before Dubois, but he had the same sort of feeling as Souls of Black Folk, that kind of situation.

TP:    What was your father’s name?

SR:    My father’s name was Samuel C. Rivers.  I am “Junior.”  My son is a doctor and he works at Harvard Medical, and he is Dr. Samuel C. Rivers, III.

TP:    Was your father born in Cincinnati?

SR:    No, he was born in Boston.  After I got out of the Service during the Forties… When I entered the Navy, I was one of the first who didn’t go in as a musician or a steward.  Robert Smalls and I went in as regular Navy men.  We had a choice of whatever field we wanted to go into, Bosuns, Mates… I chose music when I went in, but the band they wanted to put me in wasn’t good.  I’m very young and arrogant, so I said, “No, I’ll learn something else.”  So I went in as Quartermaster, correcting charts and steering the ship and all that, but I never went on board ship.  I knew I wasn’t going on board if I took something like that.  I was transferred to Vallejo, California, which was my musical experience.  It was very good I didn’t go into the band, because the band had to play in the officers quarters every night.  I wasn’t in the band, so I could take my horn and go out into the city and play.  Vallejo is near San Francisco.  That’s where I met Jimmy Witherspoon.  One of my first professional gigs was with Jimmy Witherspoon while I was in the Navy.  We were playing at this club someplace in Vallejo where he was everything.  He was the Master of Ceremonies, he was the maitre’d, he was the comedian and he was the singer, and I was part of the group.  That’s pretty much the playing I did when I was in the Navy.

TP:    When did you get out of the Navy?

SR:    I got out of the Navy in 1945.

TP:    I know the Billy Eckstine band came out there around ’44 or ’45.

SR:    I thought it was one of the most… What can I say?  Everybody was in the band!

TP:    That’s when Charlie Parker was in it.

SR:    Charlie Parker and Gene Ammons, Art Blakey was the drummer.  Oh, it was a beautiful band.  Leo Parker, Frank Wess, Miles Davis… I’m not sure whether Dizzy was in that band ever.

TP:    He was in at the beginning.

SR:    Actually, it was a takeoff from Earl Hines band.  Earl Hines was the master of that.  I used to hear Earl Hines in the Thirties, when he had a beautiful alto player with him. [Scoops Carey, probably]

TP:    Let me take you back a little bit from Vallejo, California?  Did you spend your early years, your adolescent years in Chicago?

SR:    No, I didn’t.  I was growing up in Chicago, but then my father had an accident.  He was helping somebody move some rugs or something, and he got knocked over the bannister and cracked his skull, and he wasn’t any more good after that.  He wasn’t able to really stand.  He kept his sanity, but he really couldn’t work.  So my mother took a job at Shorter College in North Little Rock, and so we moved down there when I was about 10 or 11, I think.  So I came up on the campus in North Little Rock, pretty much.  I was going to Catholic school and coming up on the campus.  I remember a lot of conversations about economics there, and the main thing they were worried about was, if the businessman ever gets control, we’re in serious trouble. [LAUGHS] That’s all I could ever hear.

TP:    So the idea of setting up your own situation took hold when you were 11-12-13 years old.

SR:    That’s right.

TP:    What were your earliest musical experiences in terms of listening to jazz?

SR:    Oh, when I was in Chicago.  They weren’t into jazz. They appreciated it, but they were real church people.  My mother was as Puritan as they come.  I can’t imagine a more puritanical woman than my mother.  She was very strict.  She made me practice.  I mean, there wasn’t any fooling around like that.   And I’m glad she did, because I wouldn’t be a musician today if she hadn’t done that.  She stood over me for maybe a year or so.  There were guys calling, “Mrs. Rivers, can Sam come out and play ball?” and she’d say, “No, he’s got to practice.”  So that went on for maybe a year or so, and then I got to the place where I liked it.  So after that the guys would say, “Come on, Sam, do you want to play?” and I’d say, “No, I want to practice,” then she was telling me, “You’d better go out and play ball!”  She started getting me away from the piano after a while.  That’s when I really got involved.  It’s been like that ever since.  I really love the music.

TP:    So the piano is the instrument you’ve been playing the longest.

SR:    Yes, and violin.  My mother played both violin and piano, so she taught me both.  She was really a pianist, and my father was a singer and she would accompany him.

TP:    The notes    to your complete Blue Note sessions on Mosaic say that you fell in love with the tenor saxophone in high school.

SR:    Yeah.

TP:    That would have been 1937-38-39.

SR:    Yes.  I was going to this Catholic school, St. Bartholomew’s in Little Rock, and they had all these instruments.  In those days, they had all these donated instruments, so if you wanted to play you could go in and choose whatever instrument you wanted to play.  You didn’t have to buy an instrument; they just had it there.  First I took trombone, then the soprano saxophone, then I worked on the baritone horn, and then finally the tenor.

TP:    They gave you a thorough training on the instruments in school.

SR:    Yes, it was like that.  I had a choice of doing it.  And the priest who conducted the band, he was really a conductor only.  The seniors were the tutors of the younger students.  He didn’t do anything but come in and raise his baton.  When some of the younger students made a mistake, he’d ask them, “Who’s your tutor?”  The tutor would be graded on how good the student is, you see.  That’s the way he ran his band.

TP:    So it wasn’t like Walter Dyett in Chicago who would throw  a baton at the student who made a mistake.

SR:    [LAUGHS] No.  It was a very hierarchical band.

TP:    Did you play jazz in that band, or was it outside of school?

SR:    No, it was a military band.  But when I got in college at Jarvis Christian College… I graduated from high school at 15 and went to Philander Smith for the summer, and then went down to Jarvis Christian College for the year.  That’s when I started playing the tenor saxophone and so on.

TP:    It says here that Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Buddy Tate and Don Byas were among the first tenor-men that made an impression on you.

SR:    Sure.

TP:    Were you listening to jazz all the way through?

SR:    Going back to Chicago when my father was well, he took us to see Cab Calloway at the Regal Theater or the Savoy.  We saw all the bands, Duke Ellington, Count Basie [sic], Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole.  Everybody there was to see, we went to see it.  But my mother didn’t really think of us as being… We were supposed to be teachers.  She was raising her two sons to be teachers like she was.

TP:    Well, she did.

SR:    [LAUGHS] I guess so.  Teaching is so demanding for me.  When I think about it, I really respect teachers.  It’s hard for me to do teaching, because you’re always going back in your memory to bring up things from the past.  When you’re teaching you don’t go into the future.  You’re always dealing with the past.  And I have a problem with that sometimes.  It’s tedious for me to keep returning to the past.  I don’t really teach that much.  My mind is completely creative.  I keep it in the future rather than having to think about the tradition.

TP:    So you heard all the big bands live in Chicago, and you’d hear the records.

SR:    I heard them live.  Jimmie Lunceford, Andy Kirk, and all the singers who were around at that time, too.  So we were very well versed.  Plus, we had symphonies.  She had Beethoven, and I practiced Bach!  Everyone studies Bach; that’s pretty much ordinary.

TP:    When you started playing the tenor, were you listening to Coleman Hawkins, “Body and Soul,” or Lester Young, “Taxi War Dance,” and copying those?

SR:    Yeah, we had it down note for note.  Note for note, “Body and Soul”! [LAUGHS] I can still remember part of it.  I liked Coleman Hawkins’ harmonic approach, but Lester was really the man because he was so melodic.  He was playing the changes, too, but it was kind of different because it really wasn’t the changes.  He was playing the changes but he really wasn’t.  He was just playing over the changes, something like that.  It’s a very different approach to music.  Of course, after I heard Charlie Parker, that was pretty much the epitome.  That was it.  That was the height of it, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.  I heard Dizzy first, on the record with Billy Eckstine, “Blowing the Blues” away, one of those big disks.  I was just listening to it, sitting there, and Billy was singing, then Dizzy came in, [SINGS DIZZY].  I said, “Wait a minute.”  I said, “Wait a minute.”  I said, “listen to this again; man, this is something.”  I went and took this record, because I knew all the musicians… I wasn’t a musician myself; I was working in the office.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to do anything, because if you could type, you were set.  Incidentally, I was the only guy who was pretty much straight in the office in the Forties.  Understand what I’m saying?  I mean, in the Forties the whole goddamn thing was…everybody in there was pretty much somewhere else.  They’re having a problem with it now, but really this has been going for fifty years.

But I took the music to the guys to listen, and they couldn’t believe it either.  They were listening to it and saying, “Wow, what is this?”  There’s no names on the disk.  We didn’t know who it was.  So I called my brother up, because my brother was in the Navy, too, but he was stationed in Boston.  He’d go back and forth to New York, so he knew the guys.  And I’m in California, and nothing out there at that time, in the Forties.  My brother had been listening to Dizzy and Bird, and I didn’t even know them.  This had been out almost a year, and nobody had even heard of them in California.  My brother told me, “Yeah, man, that guy’s name is Dizzy Gillespie who you’re talking about.”  Then I got “Blue and Boogie,” the first bebop record I ever heard, and that sent me on.

But I listened differently.  When I heard the solo, I analyzed it on how it is in relation to the chords.  Just the solo itself was not important.  The important thing was how he did what he did with it in relation to the harmonic framework.

TP:    So you were able to do that through listening to the records.

SR:    Yes.

TP:    You didn’t need someone to show you, “This is going down like this.”

SR:    No, I was figuring out changes already.  I could always play chord changes.  I was working out my II-V’s years ago.  That was pretty much it.

TP:    So after the Navy you went back to Boston.  What was the scene like?

SR:    The scene in Boston was very fertile.  When I went to Boston, there was Jaki Byard, there was Gigi Gryce, there was Quincy Jones, there was Charlie Mariano, there was Nat Pierce, there was Alan Dawson, John Neves, Herb Pomeroy…

TP:    Was Roy Haynes still there?

SR:    Roy Haynes had just left.  He had just left.

TP:    With Lester Young.

SR:    Oh, he worked with Lester before Bird?  I remember hearing him with Lester.  He was kicking, too.  Lester was right there, and he was doing those fast tempos.  It was amazing hearing Lester play fast.  He was floating all the time.  Those were really beautiful guys.  Just listening to them was really an experience.

TP:    You went to Boston and enrolled in the Boston Conservatory of Music on the G.I. Bill?  Is that how it went down?

SR:    Yes, I went there.  I was planning on going to New York right away.  There was no doubt about it.  Everything was set.  Then I went home and my mother said, “You’d better go to Boston and take care of your brother; you know how wild he is.”  That’s the only reason I went to Boston.  Otherwise I’d have gone straight to New York, because I had the connections and everything.  So I went to Boston and stayed there.  I enrolled in school on the G.I. Bill.  Also, all the musicians gravitated together.  We rented this house on 13 Rutland Square, and we lived there.

TP:    Which musicians?

SR:    Jaki Byard, Gigi Gryce, the Perry Brothers (Ray Perry, a violinist), and a lot of other musicians.  It was a 13-room house, and I lived on the top floor.  And the only girl that ever got up there was Bea! [LAUGHS] None of the other girls that came to see me got to the top floor.  It was that kind of situation, but I didn’t mind.  I was glad they didn’t get up there.  I was busy.

TP:    When did you start writing music?  Did that start when you hit Boston?

SR:    Yeah, I pretty much started writing in Boston.  I started writing because I was taking Composition and Theory at the university, and you have to write anyway because that’s part of taking composition.  It was Classical Composition because there weren’t any jazz schools around then.  Then only thing close to Jazz would be the Schillinger House, which a lot of musicians went to at that time, which changed to Berklee.  It was Schillinger House originally, and then it changed.  Jaki Byard and a lot of musicians studied there for a while, with the Schillinger system, and then transferred to the Conservatory.

TP:    Michael Cuscuna writes that you also played viola professionally.

SR:    I never really played it professionally.  I was in the school symphony orchestra, but that’s about as far as it went.

TP:    It says you worked with Serge Chaloff’s string quintet.

SR:    Oh, that’s right, I did that.  But that was the only professional thing I really did with it.  But I was in the school symphony.  I remember that, yeah, but I don’t remember the music!

TP:    Now, Boston was a place where musicians would come through on the Northeast circuit, and I assume you went to hear everybody who would come through.

SR:    Actually, the place I was working at the time in Boston was called Ort’s(?) Grill, and it was across the street from the theater where they brought out all the musicians.

TP:    Which theater was that?

SR:    RKO.  It was across the street.  So I didn’t go to see the musicians; they came to see us! [LAUGHS] Stan Kenton came in and hired Charlie Mariano out of the place, and some other musicians got hired working out of there.  Quincy was playing trumpet at the time; I’m not sure what happened to him.  Jaki Byard was there.  I was working with a pianist who… There were so many different groups that played.  It was one of those places where there was never a dull moment.  It had like eight singers and stuff like this.  So we just played the intermission.  Our trio was me, Larry Willis on piano and Larry Winters on drums.  That’s a different Larry Willis, a stride pianist who knew all the tunes, but he played by ear.  My repertoire came from listening, learning the tunes.  I bought the fake book, then I learned all the tunes.  I went through the whole book; they call it The Real Book now — it used to be the Fake Book, now it’s The Real Book.  So I went through every tune in the Real Book, and I just picked out the ones that I liked.

TP:    So you learned the American Songbook on that gig, and you’re beginning to get your own compositional sensibility together.

SR:    Right.  I was beginning to write at the time like that.  But fortunately for me, my Classical training, European Concert music was part of my tradition, too, since I came up with that — and the spirituals and the Jazz.  I’m pretty much comfortable in any of the particular idioms like that.  I performed with the Symphony Orchestra, with Sergio Ozawa.  In the past, when they needed…

BEATRICE:  A soprano.

SR:    Well, a saxophonist, an improviser, they would call me.  Because I was considered an improviser who could improvise music that sounded pretty much like it would be… I really think that the music I have done and have created should… I guess after I’m gone, I’m not really considered one of the main people, but I consider…some people do consider me one of the main people, as far as one of the leading exponents of Free Jazz.  Free Jazz, the way it’s explained to people, is you state a theme, and then you pretty much improvise on that theme irregardless of the harmonic base.  I have records out, myself and Dave Holland, and some in trio… I played for 12 years in New York just going out and playing, no theme, nothing…

TP:    A blank page.

SR:    I don’t know any other musician who has done this.  I don’t know why I’m not considered the originator of this particular free jazz style, because I’m sure I am.  Everyone else plays a theme.  When I played with Cecil, pretty much all his music was written.  I don’t know anybody other than myself.  I would like it if someone can write me and tell me who it is who really started the free jazz other than myself.

TP:    Both Dave Holland and Barry Altschul say that you would practice 8 or 9 hours a day, and on a gig you wouldn’t have any music at all until the first note was stated, it would take off from there, and that the communication was built on your practicing together so much and knowing each other’s sounds and mindset so intimately.

SR:    That’s right.  But no thematic material.  I even write that on the back of some of my things, and I still don’t see any of the critics picking up on it.  If they tell me who originated it other than myself, I’d be glad to give them the credit.  Maybe it’s one of these anonymous kind of situations, like the Blues, where nobody really wrote it.  It could be like that.

[MUSIC:  Sam Rivers, “Dance of The Tripedal” (1965); SR, “Secret Love” (1966)]

TP:    Sam Rivers and I were discussing his formative years in music, and we stopped in the early 1950’s in Boston.  I’d like to pick up with the years after Charlie Parker died, and you were an established figure on the Boston scene and encountered Tony Williams.  How did things evolve?

SR:    I had been doing concerts around Boston.  I’d been playing with different groups.

TP:    Had you started writing for big bands by that time?

SR:    I started writing for big bands, but I didn’t have one really organized.  But I was writing thematic material for it.  I was working at a club called Club 47 around Harvard Square.  I’m trying to get this pretty much in chronology.  I spent ten or fifteen years before I came to New York, and it was through Tony that I went to New York.  I really didn’t think it was necessary for me to go to New York, because I’d been traveling all around the world, I had been traveling with any kind of groups that wanted it.  I went out with T-Bone Walker for quite a long time, and I did some things with B.B. King.  But I pretty much stayed around Boston, because I was working for this publishing company, which I never really… I got a letter from some people the other day about this.  It was “Send your poems up and we will put the music to it.”  I was very adept at doing that.  I pretty much lived in Boston by writing music for lyrics, which is you send me a couple of lyrics and I’ll have the music ready in an hour.  I’d look at the lyrics and they’d suggest the music.  It’s not a big deal for me.  I ghost-wrote a lot of jingles.  Bring it up, if you want it in ten minutes I’ll give it to you.  A composer writes down his improvisations.  That’s what a composer does.  He doesn’t really sit down and try to figure out, “Look…”  He’s writing down…if he was an instrumentalist, this is what he would play.

TP:    From the brain to the pen.

SR:    Yeah, that’s it.  I don’t know about other composers, but it sounds to me like they’re writing their own improvisations.  That’s what I do.  I write down my improvisations.  I write down what I would do.  Now, with my orchestra, which is 13 horns, each instrument is a solo part, so I write it.  It’s harmony and it’s counterpoint and everything, but every part can be played by itself.

TP:    In your own performances in Boston were you functioning as a multi-instrumentalist?  When did the concept of playing tenor, flute, soprano and piano within a set of music evolve for you?

SR:    I’m not sure.  It was kind of an organic situation; I’m not sure how that happened.  I was always a pianist.  But when I was with the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra, Jaki Byard was such a fantastic piano player; I just considered myself playing chords.  The only reason why I’m not a piano player today, I’ll confess, is because I couldn’t play Bebop.  I can’t play like Bud Powell.  I couldn’t do that kind of stuff! [LAUGHS]  So I concentrated more on the tenor saxophone because I couldn’t play Bebop.  I can play any kind… I can play all the Classical music you want.  Which is good for me, because especially for Classical it’s more free-style than trying to play very traditional bebop, which is very difficult.  My hat goes off to all Bebop players, because this is a very difficult style on piano.

TP:    Why is it so difficult?

SR:    I don’t understand it.  I don’t know.  I can’t do it.  There are musicians who can do it.  All the Bebop piano players I know, they’re good.  If someone said, “Sam, recommend a Bebop piano player,” I’d look at the guy and think which personality would fit with this guy, because all the musicians I know who are playing Bebop, from Tommy Flanagan all the way up to Herbie Hancock…

TP:    They’ve got it together.

SR:    They’ve all got it together.  All bebop players are qualified.

TP:    Do different personalities or different sides of yourself emerge on each of the instruments?  If so, how would you describe it for each of them?

SR:    It’s hard to describe.  Different sounds create different stimuli.  If you listen to a certain sound, it produces a certain reaction.  All sounds produce a reaction.  If I’m playing one note, the first note produces an automatic reaction to go the second note.  And I’ve studied so much, working with the Schoenberg, writing out my own 12-tone exercises, that I hear like that now when I’m playing.  I don’t really repeat notes.  I mean, I can go on.  If I want to repeat a note… So this keeps the music atonal.   So I wrote my exercises, some very tricky and hard things to play, and worked on them myself and got it out, analyzed all the other musicians, which is very important.

But a jazz musician, I mean, to sound like someone else is giving jazz a bad name, because jazz musicians are supposed to be original people.  They’re supposed to create something.  They’re not supposed to be imitating anybody.  So this is it.  This is what I consider a jazz musician.  Don’t give jazz a bad name by listening to the… I mean, because the imitators are giving jazz a bad name.

TP:    At one point in your life you were playing Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins solos note-for-note.

SR:    Right.

TP:    When did you start getting past that?

SR:    That was at home.  I never went out in public playing anyone else’s solos.  The standards, I had, and all my originals… I had all the standards I did that weren’t standards… If a standard was recorded by somebody else, I stopped playing it, and I’d find something else to play.  I was intent on being an original.  I intended it.  It was part of my thing.  I don’t want to copy anyone, and I don’t feel that a jazz musician should be a copyist.  That is the main thing.  All the musicians that I ever respected did not copy anyone else.  They were coming from themself.

I hear so many musicians nowadays, I listen to them play and it’s like a history book.  It’s a reminiscing for me.  I say, “Oh, I remember I heard this phrase and I heard that phrase, and I heard this cliche,” and it reminds me of a certain thing.  It takes me off on different things like that.  I can only listen into a creative person that has his own style to really appreciate it, otherwise I’ll go into where I heard this before, or I heard this cliche before.  This is what I do for classes.  I put on a record of somebody that just came out, some of the young old-timers, I put it on, and I explain “This happened in 1950” and “this happened in…”  I explain what the young old-timers are doing in relation to what the original people did.

TP:    You’ve mentioned that in playing with Tony Williams you got into the seamless presentation that became your trademark by the 1970s.  You related an anecdote when we did a telephone interview right after Tony Williams died about hearing him when he was about 12 years old, his father brought him down to where you were playing, and he sounded like he had some talent, but I think the way you put it, he needed to go in the shed, he went, and he came back the next spring and played Max Roach, but his own ideas on it, he’d play what Art Blakey would play, then his own ideas…

SR:    That’s right.

TP:    That’s how it went down?

SR:    Well, yeah, sort of like that.  But we were neighbors.  He lived not too far from me.  So I’d go over.  He had his basement where he would practice all day long, and he would say, “All right, Art Blakey plays like this.”  TING, TING-A-DING, DING-DING.  “Max Roach plays like this,” then he’d play all of Max’s things.  Then he’d say, “Elvin Jones plays like this,” then he’d do Elvin’s stuff.  “And Philly Joe plays like this,” and then the out drummer, what’s his…from Philadelphia…

TP:    Sonny Murray?

SR:    Sonny Murray.  “Sonny Murray plays like this.”  So he had them all down.  But then when he played, he played his own style.  Which I did, too.  I played my own… I mean, I would analyze it to see… I would analyze Bird’s solos to see how he played.  I could hear what Coltrane was doing.  By the time Coltrane came, I could really hear exactly what he was doing.  It was very exciting for me.

TP:    Did you like what Ornette Coleman was doing when his music came out in 1958-59?  Did it speak to you?

SR:    When it first came out, I thought it was really great.  That was another situation where I took some records around to musicians so they could hear it.  I put it down for one musician, and he listened to it, and he came over and he took it, picked it up, and just destroyed it. [LAUGHS] He just cracked it up.  He couldn’t stand it!  When I came to New York it was the same thing.  The older musicians said, “Sam, what are those young guys doing?”  They couldn’t understand.  I was playing with an avant-garde Classical musician, and he needed somebody to improvise.  Tony was in the group.  We’d go to museums and we’d play the lines on the paintings, he would explain the painting, and then we’d play the music like this… The usual Dada kind of stuff.  We’d throw ink splats on the paper, and do the rise-and-fall of this.  I’ve gone through all these things, and Tony did too.  So everything was pretty much downhill as far as the techniques of the Dada movement. [LAUGHS]

TP:    It seems like maybe it was around ’59-’60 that you began to incorporate these sort of yearnings towards freedom into your presentation.

SR:    Mmm-hmm.  Well, for piano… I mean, I was practicing piano, then all of a sudden one day I sat down and started playing the piano.  I would say to musicians it’s not an incline thing; you rise by…you go up plateaus.  It’s not a gradual thing.  One morning you get up, if you’ve practiced for like six or seven months or something like this…one morning you get up and it’s all there.  It’s not a gradual… The mind is a funny thing for me.  I’ve noticed that you stay in one place for a while, and then you move.  If you are practicing, you can feel the advance that you make.  You advance in plateaus.  It’s not a gradual thing.  The mind just keeps accumulating material, and then all of a sudden it explodes to the next level.

TP:    What finally brought you to New York?

SR:    Well, Tony.  Actually, it wasn’t really Tony.  I had written all these compositions, and then to get musicians together… There weren’t that many musicians.  I moved to New York because of the musicians there.  Which is the same reason I moved to Florida.

TP:    You have that pool of good musicians just aching to play some different music.

SR:    Right.  So I never had a problem.  As far as playing for rehearsals and calling the musicians, it’s a challenge for them and they play it just when they have their nights off.  If they come in to rehearse your music for nothing, then you know you’re doing something that they appreciate.

TP:    You mentioned earlier that you’d like to speak about your experiences with Miles Davis.

SR:    Tony Williams got me with Miles.  He had these tapes that he had done with me in Boston, so he said, “Miles, I want you to hear this tape.”  Miles said, “yeah, okay, later.”  He kept doing that.  So finally, one day he trapped Miles.  “Okay, go ahead, play it!”  Tony said he heard the first track and he said, “Call him up.  Get him up here right now.”  So he called me.  I was on the road with T-Bone Walker, and he called me and said, “George quit; Miles wants you to join the band.”  I was out there on the road someplace.  So I left T-Bone Walker to join Miles Davis.

But the thing is, there’s always been this story out how much advanced I was, that Miles wasn’t happy with my style.  It wasn’t that at all.  Miles was right there with it.  He understood.  He could hear what I was doing.  It wasn’t a problem at all.  The thing was that he had already been committed to Wayne Shorter.  So the deal was that when Wayne left Art Blakey, I was supposed to go with Art Blakey,  and it was supposed to be a trade like that.  But I didn’t want to go with Art Blakey.  I went with Andrew Hill instead.  So we went on tour with Andrew Hill, and that’s the way it went down.  It wasn’t anything about me being much more advanced than Miles.  Miles was just as advanced.  In certain ways he wanted to produce his free stuff, which is what he did in Bitches Brew and everything.  All these things are pretty much free over the static rhythm, like I mentioned before.  So he wanted to make sure that I projected the music to the public, and reach a wider audience.

TP:    By the late Sixties you’d become an established figure in New York.  When did you begin to set up the workshop situations that led to something like Crystals, which is your first recording of big band music.

SR:    As soon as I came to New York.  That’s what I came to New York for, to set up the band.  I had a place, a rehearsal space downtown.  A lot of musicians.  I think I remember having the Brecker brothers in the band…

TP:    Did you go to Bond Street right away?

SR:    No, that was much later.  I moved uptown.  I had two six-room apartments on 124th Street.  I had the whole top floor, 12 rooms, so I could do a lot of things up there.  I did something for the Canadian Broadcasting System with Cecil McBee and a lot of other musicians up in my studio.  But I was rehearsing at the Marion McCloud School up there, long before… The initial reason why I got the loft downtown was because I didn’t have any place to rehearse, and I had music I wanted to rehearse, and at the school there was no beer, no drinks, no cigarettes, no nothing, so it was a very tight situation for us to rehearse in — but it was available.

But then I started looking around downtown, and then eventually I found Bond Street.  There was a very beautiful woman, Virginia Admiral, the mother of Robert De Niro, and she was very pleased that we made the whole building internationally famous.  Bond Street, incidentally, was a very happening place, by the way.  There was this woman up above us with her lady mate that was the first one who started the books on sexual harassment in the office.  I saw her on TV once.  I said, “Wow, look at her.  She’s got rouge and lipstick on; she’s trying to look like a woman.”  Then up on the next floor there was Mapplethorpe!  Robert Mapplethorpe was up on the fourth floor.

TP:    Well, I’d say we had many strands of American culture at 24 Bond Street!

SR:    24 Bond Street, that’s right.  Mapplethorpe was there.  He was a good friend of mine.  He used to come down.  He loved the music.  I mean, he did some photos of me with my clothes on. [LAUGHS] They’re around!

TP:    The next music will represent Sam Rivers in the ’70s.  We’ve already decided we have to do a Sunday profile on the  next trip to New York.  Coming up is Crystals.

SR:    This is the only big band arrangement I have.  I have 200 compositions and arrangements for big band at this point, and I haven’t been able to record any of them.  I’m still trying to get discovered out here.  I was looking at something on my way up there which says, “Sam Rivers: Often Overlooked.”  That was the first thing it said on this history, “Sam Rivers: Often Overlooked.”  Why?  Why would I be often overlooked?  I don’t understand that.  I’m sure that my place in the history of music is not really where it should be.  But I am not bitter about it, because I really don’t care.  I am going to put my stuff together, and I’m going to have it for posterity.

[MUSIC: Sam Rivers, “Tranquility” (1969); SR w/G. Lewis, “Circles” (1978)]

TP:    In our final hour, as we celebrate Sam Rivers’ 74th birthday on WKCR, we’ll hear some recent recordings.  You’ve recorded prolifically in recent years on other people’s recordings and collaborative situation.  Let’s hear the various recordings and cover the circumstances of each.  The first track is from the 1996 CD, Configuration, on NATO, a French label, with Sam Rivers on reeds; Noel Akchote, guitars; Tony Hymus on piano (who is a composer on much of this); Paul Rogers, bass; Jacques Thollot on drums.

SR:    It’s more or less an international album.  Tony Hymus is from London.  Akchote is French, and he’s also teaching in Switzerland.  The bass player is also from London.  The drummer, Thollot, is French.  This fellow decided to put this together.  But he was mainly interested in doing commemorative kind of music for Cassavetes’ movies.  This is just a preliminary thing that happened during the extra.  Also Tony Hymus is doing a concerto for me which will be performed with the London Symphony in January.  It’s all written, and I’m going over to do that.  The piece needs someone who can improvise and sound… [LAUGHS] This was part of a project the French government is doing.  He put the musicians together, I knew them all, and he asked me how it was.  Everyone on the album is a bandleader, so it’s an all-star group, and each one had to contribute some music.  So I contributed three or four compositions on it.

[MUSIC: Rivers, “Moonbeams” (1996); Rivers (solo), “Profile” (1995); Rivers-Workman, “Solace” (1995)]

TP:    I haven’t known you to do too much solo performance over the years.  I’m sure you have, but it’s not been that documented much.  Is this your first solo recording?

SR:    It is.  It’s the first one I’ve done.

TP:    I guess it’s taking that blank page concept of free improvising to its ultimate extent in a certain way.

SR:    I suppose so.  I was very comfortable in doing it, because I’ve done it in the past, but I have never recorded it.  I have done quite a few solo concerts, but they’ve never been recorded professionally like this one was done.

TP:    How does it differ for you from, say, the duo or trio format of free improvising?

SR:    I’m not really sure it’s much different.  I get added stimulus from the musicians who are playing with me, but that would be the only thing — more stimulus and more creativity.

TP:    How important is that dialogue with an ensemble for you in your improvising?  Or, for that matter, in your composing?  You said you pay heed to who the performers are sometimes when you compose.

SR:    Yes, that’s right.

TP:    Talk about the input of the other improvisers within your concept.

SR:    Improvising is sort of a real democracy kind of situation where everyone is performing in their own particular style or idiom of performing.  But since it’s musically, in a sense, correct, then it forms a unit.  But it’s a unit where everyone is doing their own thing, but it combines to become one unit, one whole like that.  I think life is pretty much like that. [LAUGHS] Even the nucleus revolving around a certain entity through the universe.  I suppose it would be random, in a sense, but physicists have put random into the equations.  So everyone is doing a particular thing, but it comes out to be a complete unit, one particular whole.  But it has to be individuals doing it.  It doesn’t have to be individuals, but it’s a much more powerful, creative situation when everyone is more or less producing their own individual concept.  Which is why producers love to have all-stars, because each person is going to be playing his own particular thing, but then it will combine to become one unit.  They usually try for that.  Sometimes it doesn’t work.  Sometimes there’s a clash.  But usually the musicians will work together.  That’s why producers like all-stars, so they can get the unit happening but everyone will have their own individual voice.  So I’m fortunate to have musicians like that in my group now.

TP:    A little bit less than a year ago, in November, you went in the studio with Julian Priester and a musician who deals with electronic sounds, Tucker Martin(?), and there’s a new record out on Postcards entitled Light and Shadow.  A few words about how that date came about, and your interaction and relationship with Julian Priester.

SR:    My relationship with Julian Priester goes back many, many, many years.  We did some things in the past, and then I played with him sometimes in Herbie’s band when Julian was there and Eddie Henderson and Billy Hart.  So I’ve known Julian over the years.  And we taught together in Seattle.  Ralph Simon is the producer of Postcards, he’s producing most of the music there, and he’s a very talented producer and saxophonist himself.

TP:    I take it this was an improvised, collaborative date. Is that how it was set up?

SR:    Yes, it was improvised.

TP:    Did you do a couple of rehearsals going over stuff and then went into the studio?

SR:    Yes, we did.

[MUSIC: Rivers-Priester-T. Martin, “Heads of the People” (1996); Rivers-Schlippenbach, Backgrounds For Improvisers, “Terrain” (1995)]

TP:    Bea Rivers, do you remember when Sam composed your tune, “Beatrice”?

BEA RIVERS:  Yes, I do.  It was one evening when Tony Williams came by to spend the evening, which he did…

SR:    Ron Carter, too, wasn’t he there?

BEA RIVERS:  Yeah, Ron Carter was there as well.  But Tony Williams would come every day and play with Sam.  One day he came in, and Sam said, “Tony, listen to this.”  Tony listened to it and he said, “Wow, what is the name of that?”  He said, “I think I’ll name it ‘Beatrice.'”  So that’s how it came about.

TP:    That was composed for the date, Fuchsia Swing Song.  It wasn’t one of your older tunes?

SR:    I had already composed it.  I hadn’t planned to put it on the album.  I had different music for the album, but it was a little too advanced for Alfred.  He said he was going to cancel the date, so I went back and got other music.  Fuchsia Swing Song was music I had done four or five years earlier.  I really hadn’t planned on recording that music.  I thought it was much too old to record.

TP:    Was that the music you had recorded in that quartet with Hal Galper, Henry Grimes and Tony Williams?

SR:    Yes, that music.

TP:    So the music performed on Fuchsia Swing Song was all music from 1959 and 1960.

SR:    Yeah, Fuchsia Swing Song was old music.  I had other music, but Alfred… As a matter of fact, all the music that Tony did with Lifetime, he had big problems with Alfred Lion because Alfred didn’t want to do it.  He really couldn’t hear it.  It seems like the music that musicians have the hardest problem getting recorded is the music that withstands the ravages of time.  It’s the ones that last the longest.  You know what I mean?  So you have the hardest problem talking to the producers, and it ends up that this  music twenty years later is still fresh-sounding.  You still have to convince the producers, because they would prefer something that they heard yesterday…

BEA RIVERS:  Over and over again.

SR:    Over and over again.  Some of the recordings that the young musicians are doing, have they considered of what value that’s going to be in another twenty years?  Of no value at all.  It’s throwaway music.  Most of the people that are recording now, it’s throwaway.  I’d rather hear Charlie Parker than hear any of them.

BEA RIVERS:  That’s right.  They’re recording what the masters have already done.

SR:    That’s not good, because they don’t have anything… In the future, how good is this?  The music that’s being done right now by the young old-timers, how good is that going to be in another twenty years?

TP:    Well, only time will tell, I guess.

SR:    [LAUGHS] I guess only time will tell, but I’m really not happy with that.

TP:    We could have a long conversation about that, but if we did, we wouldn’t get to hear the next two tunes.  So maybe we’ll hear it on the Sunday we’ll devote to your music sometime in the future.

[MUSIC:  Rivers-Matthews-Cole, “Point” (1996); Rivers-A. Anderson-Altschul, “Molde” (1973)]

* * *

Sam Rivers (DB Interview, 11-29-99):

TP:    Is there anything inaccurate or that you’d like to add to what you spoke about in the earlier interview?

RIVERS:  I just saw one thing that was misspelled — El Reno, Oklahoma.

TP:    Give me some sense of how the big bands impressed you, and who were the composers and arrangers and instrumentalists you admired in that very formative period in Chicago.

RIVERS:  Well, I was pretty young then, and I was listening more or less for educational purposes, to be used in the future.  My mother and father both understood the music, although they didn’t really care for it that much; they were more into spirituals and classical.  Then I had the records, too, to listen to later on so I could pretty much visually identify who was performing on the records.  So that did help in a sense.  But as far as influences in big band or jazz orchestra, it’s hard for me to say.  16 musicians as a group was more on my mind than anything else.

TP:    You mean the sound of the big band rather than the…

RIVERS:  Yes, the sound of the big band.  More than any particular composer or anything.  I was impressed with the instrumentation and what was to be done with it from the beginning, rather than listening to any particular style or something like that.

TP:    You were very young also in Chicago.  I forgot that you left when you were 11.

RIVERS:  Yes.  Then the bands were still coming through.  My mother was still teaching in North Little Rock, at Shorter College, and there were orchestras that came through there, too. I remember a lot of the groups at that time, just World War 2, that were travelling all over the country.  The same groups came down south.  Earl Hines, Jimmie Lunceford, Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Count Basie…

TP:    So you heard all these bands before you went in the armed services.


TP:    Would you say that somewhat defined the sound in your mind’s ear?

RIVERS:  I more or less turned out being an instrumentalist.  I would say I was interested in how the instruments, the musicians performed as individuals in the whole thing.  I had never taken any other view of it.  I know later on that Duke wrote specifically for each person in the band; not really wrote, but he gave the members of the band sketches — because Duke didn’t do very much writing as a whole for orchestra groups; it was more improvised than written down.  Count Basie’s music was all written, but not by Count Basie.  A bunch of people did Earl Hines’ music, so they more or less were hired to write arrangements and compositions for the groups.  Sy Oliver for Jimmy Lunceford, then he started writing for Tommy Dorsey.

TP:    When did saxophone start becoming a preoccupation for you?

RIVERS:  When I went to college at Jarvis Christian College in Texas, and I was in the band there.  I was playing trombone, but they didn’t have a saxophone player, and so I said, “Well, I can play it.”  It was kind of a random act, in a sense, because I started playing saxophone regularly and I really liked it.  I had always played soprano saxophone when I was in high school.  As a matter of fact, all the instruments — trumpets, all the saxophones and baritone and trombone.

TP:    So you’ve been playing wind instruments all your life.

RIVERS:  Right, since I started in high school all the way through.  I was in this high school where you had a room full of instruments, and any instrument you wanted to play, you could pick it out (it was a Catholic school), and the priest would get it repaired, so then you’d play then instrument.  Now you have to buy your instruments.  No one had to buy an instrument then.  If their parents didn’t want to buy them, and you wanted to be a musician, the instruments were donated.  The bands were put together like that.  So I had gone through all the instruments,  since I could take any one I wanted as long as I took care of it.  So I learned all the wind instruments pretty much before I got out of high school.  Then when I got in college, I was playing trombone, because that’s what I had then — I don’t know why.  I changed to saxophone then because they needed a saxophone player.

TP:    Then you started to specialize.

RIVERS:  I specialized on saxophone.

TP:    Did you play a lot outside of the school at that time?

RIVERS:  Yes, I played lots of dances outside the school.  It was a very small town, so any town gatherings…I mean, the band played for it under the direction of ..(?)..

TP:    But your playing was always under the direction of the school band.


TP:    Because I talked to Teddy Edwards, who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and he talked about going out with various local ensembles when he was 12-13-14, doing a lot of functional playing, and I wondered if that was part of your experience.

RIVERS:  No, not for jazz.  I was out performing when I was 4 years old, but it was spirituals, singing.  But not jazz.  I was born into musicians.  My mother and father and grandfather were all musicians.  I was already a musician long before I decided on jazz.

TP:    So you were singing from the age of 4.

RIVERS:  Right.  We were part of the choirs that my mother directed.

TP:    Is that one reason why you think the way you play saxophone is vocalized?

RIVERS:  I’m sure that process is sort of filtered into it, but I don’t consciously think about it.

TP:    Steve Coleman was saying that you always sing the melodies to everyone, sing everybody’s part to them.

RIVERS:  Yes, I do.  I think that’s the tradition.  It’s really the tradition.  The notes really don’t mean anything if you haven’t seen them before.  The notes only mean something after they have been interpreted.  If you look at some music, you only know how it goes because you heard something similar to that that you’re reading on the paper.  For instance, can you imagine taking a Charlie Parker solo and give it to a classical musician who sight reads who had never heard Charlie Parker?  It would sound completely alien to them.  He might not even be able to recognize it.  Music has always been like this.  In Boston when I was going to the rehearsals I did right around the corner from Symphony Hall, I’d go in, sit and watch Koussevitzky conduct.  I was friends with the people at the back door, backstage, so I could go in and listen to the symphonies.  Every place I’ve listened to musicians, they’ve always hummed the part that they wanted to go.  I always thought of it as you hum… First you write it out, and if you know they haven’t heard it before, so then trying to play it… They can figure it out for themselves, but I don’t want to put them through that!

TP:    You started writing charts when you were in Boston?

RIVERS:  Yes, I started writing when I was in Boston, and in fact that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t leave Boston.  I was pretty much one of the ghost-writers for a lot of jingles, and then I had this job with this publishing company that would send me lyrics, and we would put the music to them.  It was a pretty easy life like that.  I can still do that.  You send me some lyrics if you want… Nobody sends them any more, because I guess they don’t do this any more.  They don’t need music for lyrics any more; they just need the machines, the beat machines.  So that sort of phased out.  You just need a rapper and a [SINGS BEAT] and you’re off, and that finishes it for the music.  I haven’t heard any music that… But that’s what I did.  Send me the lyrics and I put the music to it.  It takes about an hour or so.

TP:    But as far as your original music and the way your concept of organizing music was formed, did that also start to take root in Boston?

RIVERS:  Yes.  I started long before I came to New York.  As a matter of fact, I was writing original music all through the ’50s.

TP:    Talk about the situation in which you did that.

RIVERS:  It was just I had a piano… It’s hard to say.  I bought a bunch of music paper and just started writing.

TP:    Was it for a band?

RIVERS:  Yes, it was for a band.  Because I was part of the Herb Pomeroy’s big band, which was comprised of the teachers who were teaching at Berklee, and I was part… I didn’t do any teaching.  I wanted to do more composing than teaching; I’ve done some teaching, but it’s very demanding.  If you want to be a composer, teaching is far too demanding, and all my respect for the teachers, because it’s a very unheralded business which is very unappreciated.

TP:    Do you remember what year you first affiliated with Herb Pomeroy?

RIVERS:  The relationship goes back to the late ’40s.  He was pretty much instrumental in the creation of Berklee School of Music.  Without Herb Pomeroy I doubt seriously if there would be a Berklee School of Music today.  He pretty much put it together himself, and he deserves all the credit for that, aside from his writing.  He’s an excellent composer and a true organizer.  Arif Mardin was doing some writing, there was Chris Swanson and some other great composers.  I had just started.  The music that we were doing was very shocking music.  Jaki Byard was one of the main writers at that time.  He was one of my idols as far as composing, because he did write in the kind of style I identified with, a style that took all the musicians into consideration.  It was a very technical style, too.  It was a very unique style.  I still think of Jaki as a unique, excellent composer, and it’s still unheralded.

TP:    In the interview we did before, we talk about you getting to Boston right after the war.  Did you go there right after the Navy?

RIVERS:  I went straight to school, to Boston Conservatory of Music.

TP:    So that was ’46.


TP:    You also mentioned you were in a house with a bunch of musicians.  Sounds like the first of many situations you set up where you made your living space a sort of center for musical creation and thought.

RIVERS:  Well, we were all students there at that time.  Jaki Byard was living there, and I was living there, and some other musicians… [Quincy Jones was around, though he wasn’t living there.  Charlie Mariano was living in Boston at home.]  Nat Pierce was there, and Alan Dawson was also living there.  The Perry Brothers and some other musicians were living in the house, but we were all going to school, my brother was living there, Gigi Gryce was also there… There are quite a few musicians I’m leaving out.

TP:    Then you played intermission at this place Ort’s Grille which had a floor show, then you’d play the intermission?

RIVERS:  Right.  On the floor show the musicians… They had Charlie Mariano and Nat Pierce; they were all working there, too.  Jaki Byard was playing.  We all worked there.  It was a restaurant, and pretty much it was a place where you could come and eat.  If you wanted to play a set… That’s what I did.  You’d want to have dinner and come down and play, instead of going to the movies.

TP:    Would you go hear Charlie Parker when he’d come through Boston?

RIVERS:  Yes, Charlie Parker and also Lee Konitz.  We were impressed by Charlie Parker and also Lee Konitz with Tristano.  I did anyway.  I thought his approach was very unique.  Yes, and Charlie Parker.  Dizzy Gillespie of course did far more advanced things than Bird.  Bird was pretty much playing the Blues, and Dizzy would have all these different kind of notes.  I recognized Dizzy was very advanced when I first heard him on record in 1945.  I was getting ready to get discharged from Navy when I heard these big disks.  It was just a thing with Billy Eckstine, Billy Eckstine’s “Blowing The Blues Away” with people like Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons, and it was nice, a battle of tenors, and then at the end he came in, and I said I’d never heard anything like this before.  It really knocked me out.  I still remember it.  As a matter of fact, we used to do that with the band we had in Boston in the early days.  That’s something I never have talked about.  It was Jimmy Martin’s band in Boston, which was… We had a big band in Boston, and soon I was part of that band.  I was also going to school…

TP:    Who was Jimmy Martin.

RIVERS:  Jimmy Martin was a pianist and a singer, and he organized a band of all of the so-called Boston Beboppers, as we were called.  Jaki Byard was doing the writing for us, and Hampton Reese, who did a lot of music for B.B. King and other… He was an excellent composer.  This was all in the late ’40s.  So we did concerts around, not that many, but we did a few… Joe Gordon was in the band, and Gladstone Scott… I’m trying to think of other musicians who were involved…
TP:    Was Jimmy Woode involved?

RIVERS:  Jimmy Woode was there, but he was more involved in the cocktail lounge.  He had a beautiful woman singing and doing that kind of thing.

TP:    So Boston had a very active scene.

RIVERS:  Yes, it was very busy.  There was a place called Wally’s Grill, then over on Tremont Street, on the other side of town, there were two or three clubs.

TP:    And everybody would be coming through.

RIVERS:  Yes, they were coming through.  There were jam sessions at the union.  We’d put on jam sessions when musicians would come through.  Zoot Sims and the guys would come up to the union, and we’d jam up there.

TP:    Who performed your first charts for big band?  Was it in the Herb Pomeroy band?

RIVERS:  No, my music was not ready at that time.  I was putting it together.  I gave them one composition, but it wasn’t quite finished.  The music we were playing with Herb Pomeroy was very startling music for the time.  The arrangements we were playing were very… Since I had heard everything out there on records, and I knew what was going on, I thought this band was probably the most exhilarating band on the scene at that time.  And the music is still available; that’s all I can say.

I can say that my music on this record is the most exhilarating music of the time, and in a sense it’s startling to a lot of other people.  All the music that’s around, I make sure to listen to everything, and I don’t hear… I’m just doing the music, and I have all these compositions, over 200, and I’ve just managed to get, what is it, 12 on… I’m rehearsing every week, and still putting together my…

TP:    Let me make a statement about you in the ’50s, you tell me if I’m right or wrong, and then we can move forward.  You’re in Boston from about ’46 to about ’64.


TP:    In Boston you are doing this commercial music work with the lyrics and the jingles, you are studying music intensively at a variety of institutions…

RIVERS:  I did the jingles afterwards, after I got out of school.  It’s hard to say when, somewhere in the ’50s…

TP:    Around ’54-’55?

RIVERS:  Around there.  But I stayed in Boston rather than leave.  The rest of the guys left.  Jaki Byard left, Gigi Gryce left; they all left and went to New York, but I stayed because I had work there.

TP:    And while you’re in school and doing the jingle work, you’re also a professional improviser.  So you’re working with Herb Pomeroy’s band, you work at Ort’s Grille, you go on the road with blues bands…

RIVERS:  Right.  I had weekends at a place in Harvard Square every Friday and Saturday with Tony Williams and some other musicians.

TP:    You mentioned that your inklings for freedom in music began to take shape in the band with Tony.

RIVERS:  I suppose so, but it was classical musicians, an avant-garde kind of group where we would play…

TP:    Was Hal Galper in that group?

RIVERS:  No, that was a little later, with another group with Gene D’Astasio on trombone(?), and Tony was in it…  But there was no piano in that group.

A lot of these things were going on at the same time.  It’s not like these things were happening every night.  In a month’s time a lot of these things would be happening, but it wasn’t something that was every day, so we had time to get organized and do things like that.  Hal Galper was on a job in a coffeeshop outside of Harvard Square, which I can’t remember the name of.

TP:    What I’m trying to get to is when the Sam Rivers sound that we know through the recordings from the ’60s to now began to coalesce.  You said that Fuchsia Swing Song has compositions you’d been doing with that band with Hal Galper and Tony Williams.

RIVERS:  Yes, that’s right.  I guess that band was late ’50s.  But I’d been doing music pretty much all through the ’50s.  I started writing for big band seriously in ’57 and ’58.  I have compositions from that period.

TP:    Were they being performed at that time?

RIVERS:  No.  But I was writing them.  I have some compositions from that period that I haven’t begun yet.

TP:    So your opus begins in 1957.

RIVERS:  I would say that.  Maybe ’55 even.  But in ’57 I’m serious.  I’m sure of that.  Without exaggeration, I started in ’57.  I decided to write a whole book for 7 horns — 2 trumpets, trombone and 3 saxophones.  I wrote the whole book, 30 pieces, but I never got a chance to play any of it.  I still have it.  It took a couple of years.

TP:    Now, the number of voices obviously has evolved.  On this record it’s 13 horns.

RIVERS:  I was always considering 13 horns because 13 horns is the standard size of the jazz orchestra, which became fully formed in 1923.  So I have always put this as like 13 horns with rhythm.  Not so much any style; I was always sort of creating my own style.  I listened to everyone else with appreciation, and also to make sure I don’t imitate them.  I have a two-fold reason to listen to everyone, because I want to make sure that if I hear something it sounds like I’m going to do, then it’s easy to rephrase it, then it comes out… Because the music is all about rephrasing, how you phrase the music.  I listen to a lot of concert music, symphony music so to speak, and I hear… It’s more the phrasing than the notes that makes the music.  With different phrasing it would be bebop rather that symphony music.  It’s the phrasing that makes it sound like it does because of the way it’s presented.

TP:    When did you start writing music for 13 horns?

RIVERS:  In 1958.

TP:    Did you have an ensemble in ’58 to play it, though.


TP:    So it sounds to me like that ensemble starts forming after you get to New York.

RIVERS:  No-no, I had some rehearsals in Boston.  I put some rehearsals together.  But the problem was that there weren’t any musicians available.  Everybody who could do the music was also busy, teaching and other things, so I couldn’t put things together.  I was performing with Herb Pomeroy, and I did bring some music into them.  After I heard my first arrangement, when Herb played it, it was okay, it pretty much held its own compared to the great music Herb’s band had… The repertoire Herb has is still a fantastic repertoire, and I think it should be heard more.  But the main reason I went to New York was because I had the music and I wanted to start a group.

TP:    Talk about you started getting that group together.  You had a place on 124th Street, you had two 6-room apartments, you did a lot of activity, then started gravitating downtown for rehearsal space is how I think you put it.

RIVERS:  That’s it.

TP:    When did you move into 24 Bond Street?

RIVERS:  Somewhere around 1968.

TP:    Is that when you started organizing the musicians for the big band?

RIVERS:  No, before that.  As soon as I got to New York I started.  In fact, it was organized before I left Boston.  I was pretty much a transient anyway.  Everyone thought I lived in New York for all these years anyhow, because I always had a service in New York, so very few… If you wanted me, I could come up.  New York to Boston was a 3-4 hour ride, so it wasn’t a problem to get back and forth.  But I set up rehearsals even before I moved.  There were some friends on the Lower East Side who had lofts, and I rehearsed there.  One of the musicians was Gene Perla, the bassist.  So I had set up rehearsals even before I set up rehearsals.

TP:    So Gene Perla was part of the first group of people who were playing your music in New York.

RIVERS:  Yes, and he got a lot of the guys.

TP:    What I want to talk about is Crystals and the circumstances around it.

RIVERS:  Ed Michel was the producer, I’d done some other things with him, and I told him I had this music for big band, so he said okay and we did it.

TP:    At that time you’d been workshopping the music for four-five years at Rivbea, and 8-9 years total, and you’d established a circle of musicians around New York who could play your music and were familiar with the requirements.

RIVERS:  That’s sort of it, but I guess… I had time to really put some thought in my music, because I wasn’t running around worrying about how to get something to eat.  So it was different.  I had time in Boston to put my music together and put some thought to it and fix it up, and some of it was quite complicated.  And when I did get to New York, the musicians were young and they weren’t quite ready for it, and for them it was like going to school.  The traditional musicians were pretty much busy, so I got a lot of young musicians around New York and worked with them.  They weren’t part of the tradition.  So it was trying to bring them up… It was a kind of musical education for them, or something like that.  They’ll probably say the same thing, that the music was pretty advanced for them at that time.  I understood that, too.  I wasn’t a tyrant about it.  I’ve always been laid back because I didn’t want to make anyone nervous when they’re trying to make music.

TP:    Steve said you’re extremely concerned about not hurting people’s feelings.

RIVERS:  Right.  But the musicians when they first came in… Like, Steve was able to read, but some of the other younger musicians weren’t really able to read it.  And some of the guys that were able to read didn’t get the concept for a while.  It’s a different kind of concept on some things, where you’re going to be playing free for 8 bars and then come back in which is alienating to the way a lot of musicians play, even traditional musicians.  The musicians that were the free musicians couldn’t really read the music, so I had to get musicians who were tradition and could play free.  Because getting free musicians to play traditional is out of the questions.  Traditional musicians can play free, but free musicians can’t play traditional.  I like to get traditional musicians, because traditional musicians can definitely go out.  That’s why I concentrated more or less on a certain kind of musician, who can play the blues but also keep evolving.

TP:    Was there a feedback loop type of thing for you where you’d be inspired by particular voices into new compositions when you’d hear your pieces played back, and get ideas from the way they sounded?

RIVERS:  Well, yeah, but I did that at rehearsal! [LAUGHS] I’m always astounded at some of the sounds that come from these… I go back to the scores repeatedly to look to see what it really was on the paper.  Which is possible on some of the things like that.  It’s a source of inspiration to me every time I hear the music.  And I’m fortunate enough that the musicians feel the music, and so there it is.  That’s it.  Even here with these musicians down here it’s the same.  Of course, they’ve been together down here for ten years.

TP:    First let’s talk about this record.  It seems you got a very good mix of musicians who are exactly what you’re talking about.

RIVERS:  Because they’ve all been with me, played with me before.  Most of these musicians I knew from the period when I had Rivbea.

TP:    It’s an interesting mix of players with a more open form orientation who developed their aesthetic in the ’70s, like Chico Freeman, Bluiett, Joseph Bowie, or Ray Anderson, and then people like Steve and Greg and Gary Thomas.  It makes the dynamics of the solos, the arc of each piece really fascinating.

RIVERS:  Yes, I agree.  It’s something that I really can’t explain.  Like I say, I know that these musicians all read well and they all can play changes, and so they’re all coming from a different musical perspective which is what I really like.  If you noticed, every musician there has his own individual approach to the music.  That’s important to me, because I didn’t want anyone that sounded like anyone else.  There’s a lot of people out there that sound like someone else, so I made sure these guys all had their special voice.  That’s the reason why they’re there.

TP:    A few people have talked about how distinctive your rhythmic concept is.  Dave Holland described as overlapping cycles of rhythms.  Can you describe it in a way that would make it clear to somebody like me?

RIVERS:  Years ago, when I was at the conservatory, I was looking at some Stravinsky, and it had all these different time signatures for every bar and everything like this.  I said, “Wait a minute.  Now why….” I wanted to see why.  So I just took some of the music and put it in 4/4 to see how it would look in 4/4.  In other words, what I’m saying is that all these different rhythms… I use all kinds of rhythms, but they’re superimposed over a basic 4/4.  It’s 1…2…3…4, then the others are going 1-2-3-1-2-3, and something else might be going 1-2-3-4-5… It’s different layers of rhythm.  The melodies, which… I write contrapuntally, which means that there’s two and three and four melodies going on at the same time, and they make their harmonies up, but they are really melodies going on.  The harmonies happen, but every voice is playing their own particular thematic material.  But they are also playing a different time signature than the basic one.  The bass is really playing like the roots, and he pretty much is the only stabilizing force that you should hear.  Without the bass there it would be completely an avant-garde, almost classical sound which it is anyway — but without the bass it would be hard to call it jazz.  So it’s like I said superimposed layers of different rhythms which are written as melodies in some things.

That’s one kind.  Then I write traditional.  Right now I’m writing a suite for my daughters and my granddaughters and my great granddaughters (there’s about 10 of them) – I’m just finishing the fourth song now.  This is all with melody.  I’m writing these melodic things from the piano, which is the approach I use when I’m writing something melodic.  When I’m writing for my orchestra I don’t use the piano, because the piano is exceedingly limiting.  You play something and you hear it, and it’s limiting because then you have to depend on those sounds.  Now, if you don’t use a piano, and use your intellect, just think… I don’t use the piano at all unless I’m writing very traditional.

TP:    Do you write on the saxophone?

RIVERS:  I don’t write it… No. [END OF SIDE A] …I don’t have any rules.  It’s sort of like higher mathematics.  I don’t have any rules.  I sit down and I start writing.  I’m not interested in any kind of rule.  I’m not interested in whether this sounds right or not.  I’m not interested in any of that.  I put these things together, and then I go out and listen to it, and I amaze myself.  Because I don’t know what I’ve done!  I don’t try to know what I’ve done! [LAUGHS] I know how to do things, and then I know how to do things which I wouldn’t understand.  Am I complicating it?

TP:    No, I think you’re making it very clear.  You’re embracing the unknown.

RIVERS:  Yes, that’s right.  If I don’t know how to do it, I’m going to still do it.  Then, of course, I know there’s another way I know how to do it!  Then another time I’m going to try to do things I DON’T know how to do.  In a sense, whatever I do is right.  I am the creator.  I don’t understand why musicians sometimes feel inhibited.  No, I am not inhibited at all in music.  Whatever I do is right.  I have no… I can go anywhere with these 12 tones that I want to; whatever I do is correct.  I just put these things together, I dream all these different kinds of sounds together, I put them together, and I take it in to my orchestra and they play it — and I am astounded.

TP:    Osby’s comment was that you broke just about every rule you can imagine, so much that you could have a book of Sam Rivers rules that could constitute a whole new school of thought.

RIVERS:  [LAUGHS] Like I say, you learn the rules, so you should be aware of the rules.  I’m a STRICT traditionalist in that sense.  But when you go further and then start searching… After you go past… Like the record I did of standards, which is just… I’ve gone by the rules all the way, and so now there are no rules.  It’s like higher mathematics.  There are no rules when you get to a certain level.  There’s no such thing.  You set your own limits.  So how do I make it accessible to the audience?  I have to put the rhythm there.  Because we are in a kind of backbeat rhythm era, and everything is like a rhythm thing… No matter what you do about the rhythm…

TP:    You did that with “Sizzle.”

RIVERS:  It’s also in “Inspiration.”  Everything is danceable. Most of it, not all of it.  But most of them are danceable.  And also with the next one coming out, “Culmination,” which will be out in a few weeks.

TP:    Let me take this to your time with Dizzy now.  How long did you know him?

RIVERS:  I knew Dizzy for years and years.  He came to Boston quite a few times.  The first time he came, he came to the Hi-Hat with a quintet, and I was sitting downstairs listening, and then the tenor player came in and it sounded just like Dexter Gordon.  I said, “Wow!  I didn’t know Dexter was with Dizzy.”  So I ran upstairs, and it was John Coltrane!  So that was the first I ever heard Dizzy.  Then after that, all over the world we used to run into each other.  Then I had Ed Cherry…we were getting ready to do some concerts, doing some work at Sweet Basil with the big band.  So Ed Cherry said, “I can’t make it because I’m going with Diz; we’re going to do a tour.  Dizzy’s forming a new quintet.”  I said,  “Maybe I’ll give him a call.”  He said, “Yeah, you could give him a call.”  So Christmas Day I called up Diz… I know it was Christmas Day, but I’m not sure which year it was now.  I was living in New Jersey then, not too far from him.  I said, “Merry Christmas, Diz.  If you ever need a tenor player, give me a call.”  He said, “Yeah, okay, what’s your number?”  I couldn’t believe it.  So he took my number, then sure enough a week later he called me from Canada.  We formed a group with Ed Cherry, Ignacio Berroa and John Lee.  That group was together for four or five years.

TP:    Did being with Dizzy Gillespie have any effect on you that was palpable that you can talk about?

RIVERS:  The way he presented the music was very enlightening to me, to keep it light until you started playing, and then it got heavy.  That’s great because he… The way he presented the music was good.  As a matter of fact, it was the only time in my life that I really worked that much.  I was always on the road.  For the four years it was continuous traveling.  It’s hard to say whether that’s… You don’t really get anything done.  When I look back over it, as far as composing, it wasn’t a very prolific period, because I was traveling too much.  I did write anyway on the road, of course, but… I always used to wonder why a lot of the jazz greats didn’t write more music, and the fact of it is that it’s very difficult to write when you’re travelling all the time.  Duke Ellington was the only one who was able to do it, but then most of his came down to the improvisations of the musicians in the group rather than his composing skills.  Very few musicians, if any, have come up with a whole lot of writing when traveling like 50 weeks out of the year.

TP:    Did being around Dizzy have any impact on your subsequent writing?

RIVERS:  Well, I was around Dizzy’s big band, and my style already was pretty full, and Dizzy didn’t pay… Like Mike Longo said, Dizzy didn’t pay for compositions, and I wasn’t going to offer anything to anyone else’s band if I wasn’t going to get paid for it.  Lalo Schifrin came in; I don’t know whether he paid Lalo Schifrin or not.  But I wasn’t about…

TP:    But I mean being around him didn’t have any particular impact on the way you thought about writing for orchestra or your own compositions.

RIVERS:  No, not really.  Dizzy had one composition we did a lot when touring with Dizzy’s big band, and it was the only one he wrote, which was really great — “Lover Come Back To Me.”  It was a really beautiful arrangement.  I think of that one all the time.  Then he wrote “Night In Tunisia,” which is another one.  There aren’t that many.  But then J.J. Johnson did an arrangement for symphony orchestra on “Night In Tunisia” which is really beautiful.  I played that with Dizzy in concerts.  With Dizzy we played the same tunes every night.  So for me, it was just creating different ideas every night on the same basic changes, which was not a problem, because that’s the way I started in music!  The situation was a little different, because Dizzy and all those guys were really great musicians.  But when I was younger, playing in some of these places the musicians weren’t that good, so I just would take the time to practice, and just do different things.  So I was back to pretty much that stage, where I’m playing with good musicians and I’m playing the same material every night, so I really have to… It’s just a challenge.  Not really a challenge, because I was used to it so much.  The idea of being able to improvise every night was not a big deal for me, because I remember earlier… If you look at the liner notes, if you remember earlier in my career, this trumpet player… Charlie Parker came to St. Louis with Jay McShann, and nobody knew who he was.  So the word around with the musicians was, “Hey, man, there’s a guy in Jay McShann’s band that never plays the same solo twice.”  So obviously, at that time musicians pretty much memorized their solos, and they played the same solo on everything.  On “Flying Home” with Illinois Jacquet; that’s a good example of what was happening in those days.  A solo like that, you memorized your solo.

TP:    I did a liner note for Billy Taylor, who played with Coleman Hawkins for a few years, and he said that he said he memorized the famous solo on “Body and Soul,” but Coleman Hawkins didn’t — he played it differently every night.

RIVERS:  Yes.  He was one of the few musicians… Him and Lester Young… They were the special musicians, the creators.  That was one of their things.  But Charlie Parker was the first one who really stood out as far as doing that.

TP:    That obviously animates you.  In saying you write from your intellect, is that and the free improvising that you do sort of  a seamless entity for you?  Do you access a different part of your consciousness when you’re free improvising?   Because you’ve been doing a lot of that in recent years as well.

RIVERS:  I think that my main contribution to jazz, in which I have least 10 CDs or records out… I am the creator of a particular free form in jazz.  I say this with all modesty, in a sense.  But I have to explain it.  When Ornette Coleman came out, he played thematic material, and then he improvised on the thematic material.  Cecil Taylor, avant-garde, he played themes and then he improvised on the themes.  When Dave Holland and myself went out, we had no thematic material, we didn’t do anything — it was spontaneous creativity right there.  It was all improvisation, in the sense that it came on the spot and every night was different.  I have many CDs out like this.  I don’t feel that I get credit for my contributions.  I would like someone to tell me who was the one who started it if I didn’t.

TP:    But you’ve been documented on that recently after several years hiatus as far as documentation.  Like, the FMP solo CD and the FMP duo with Alex von Schlippenbach which I haven’t got my hands on…

RIVERS:  That’s all improvised.

TP:    And some French musicians.

RIVERS:  No, but that was written music.  I’m just talking the improvised…I mean, the creative music that had nothing to do with… I mean, the thematic material was all created on the spot.  The spontaneous creativity is what I’m talking about.

TP:    Does the frame of mind in which are you are improvising with the frame of mind when you are writing?

RIVERS:  Yes.  If I am doing… Of course, they are different mindsets.  If I am playing the blues, I play the blues.  If I am playing something standard, then I play the standard.  And if I am going to do something that I want to be completely original, then I try to go in without it.  I just leave it wide-open and just start writing.  In fact, as I mentioned, I’m not trying to think of anything; it forms itself.

TP:    It’s all so internalized in you that it forms itself.

RIVERS:  It forms itself.  Some of these ideas I didn’t get from music.  Some of these ideas I got from writers, from people who write.  It’s time to start writing.  You don’t find it odd, do you, to just sit down and start writing?  Every time I start writing… I write something every day.  I do the same thing.  It’s not about sitting down and “What should I write?”

TP:    I always use thematic material.  I write about Sam Rivers, and the conversation becomes like writing for me…

RIVERS:  I get up in the morning and just start writing.  That’s what I do.  I’m not thinking about anything.  Then when I get formulated… I’m thinking about writing some music, of course… When I sit down at the typewriter, I try to use the typewriter as an instrument in the same way.  How many people do that.  I think of my typewriter as another instrument.  I’ve been typing since I was 10 years old, too.

TP:    Talk about how you settled in Orlando and formed this band.

RIVERS:  Well, I was traveling all over the world, and the few places I did miss before I started traveling with Diz, I got them when I was with Diz!  Especially in the United States.  Because the music is popular in Europe and Japan and Australia, so I traveled over there quite a bit.  But here in the United States it’s sort of meager.  But with Dizzy, Dizzy was very popular in the United States, and also in Europe and the world.  So traveling around in Europe and the States, all the different states… I had a chance to see which one was… Because I wanted to get out of New York.  The main reason I wanted to get out of New York is because I was getting tired of the cold.  That was the main reason, nothing else.  Everything was all right.  I could still take care of what I was doing, although it was more things to consume time there than here — thank goodness for that, in a way.  But I was traveling all around, to California, and I looked for a place out there, looked in Arizona and New Mexico, all the places that are nice and warm. [LAUGHS] The reason I settled here, I came here, and I was speaking to some of the musicians here, and I said, oh, it’s nice down here.  So I was thinking about it.  Then we came down here for a vacation.  We were looking for a place so we came down here, met the musicians down there saw, well, there are all these musicians at Disney, and there’s schools down here, and there’s a lot of movie studio work here…

TP:    So you have competent musicians.

RIVERS:  A lot of competent musicians.  And working at Disney is not really the most inspiring thing.

TP:    So they’re hungry for inspiration.

RIVERS:  So it’s kind of captive thing.  They can’t leave because the money is so great, so it’s… But I’m not hooked up in that scene because I don’t want to get trapped in it.  I mean, it’s a very good living.  But I do okay anyway.  I’m here by a lake, watching the people do their diving and fishing… That’s the reason why I’m here.  But the musicians said, “We’ll be there.”  I just put a sign up that said, “Sam Rivers is forming an orchestra, and be at the union, at (?),” and I went there, and there the band was.  Everyone was there before I even got there.  That was going on 9 years ago.  I moved there in 1991, and I started the band exactly the same… I came here because of that.  Because they said the musicians here… It’s the same reason I moved to New York.

TP:    you had a pool of musicians.

RIVERS:  That’s right.

TP:    And have you been writing more than you ever have since you’ve been in Orlando?

RIVERS:  I write more than I ever have because it’s a very talented pool of musicians here.  I take in a composition, and we only need one rehearsal.  So I have to continuously… Like, when I first went to New York, we had to spend three hours on one tune.  That doesn’t happen here.  We spend like 15 minutes on one composition, and whatever length… We might do it two times, and it runs a half-hour, like that.  So it’s a different set here.  I want to keep writing new material.  But then if I go sometimes without, I can always go back to something we did like three years ago that we haven’t done for a while!  I’m in that kind of situation.

TP:    So basically you’re in a wonderful position.  You have a working unit 8 years let’s say 40-45 weeks a year…

RIVERS:  Yes, and we perform, too.  I just finished a concert at Rollins College, where I performed new music for 16 musicians and new compositions for 30 musicians, and it was very successful.  We’re doing a monthly thing.  Next month, Marshall Allen will be down here with the Sun Ra Orchestra.  We are trying to create a scene down here which is very favorable for musicians.

TP:    What is the place that you play regularly?

RIVERS:  Right now I’m playing regularly at the Sapphire Club.  That’s probably the club that features all the new groups that are coming through.  Orlando is producing a lot of the young groups that are coming up, N-Seek(?) and all those people.  It has the technical facilities here to do it quite efficiently.  I have masters of a lot of the music I’ve done here, so I’m in a position to sell them or possibly produce them myself.  But they’re all ready.  There are very good studios down here.

TP:    About how much have you recorded already by yourself?  30-40 tunes?

RIVERS:  I guess.  But I’ve recorded every rehearsal for the past two years on CD, and it’s very good quality, which I can also… See, I have the scores for these things.  I’m going to publish the music and the scores for some…actually for schools, so they can see how the composition is done.  It appeals to the audiences because I’m doing this nice dance beat to it, so I’m trying to play really, really exciting, advanced music with a nice primitive beat.  Combine the intellect with the soul.  It works very good, because I have a very large audience down here, and all over the state — at Gainesville, which is the other college town, the University of Florida.  We’re trying to get some music to come this way.

TP:    I think I’m going to wrap this with one question.  You’ve played the blues a lot, T-Bone Walker and so on.  First I’d like you to tell me about those years, but in a more general way, tell me about how playing the blues and the blues aesthetic impacts your overall aesthetic.

RIVERS:  Well, it’s part of it, like the spirituals are.  It’s something that you really feel.  It’s pretty much at this point running through the cliches, in a sense.  It’s hard to say how I feel about it now.  But I still feel the same way about Gospel music when I hear it.  I’m affected more by Gospel music than I am by the Blues at this point.  When I hear these good Gospel choirs down here, that’s something.  That’s feeling!

TP:    Is it nice to be back in the South for you?

RIVERS:  It certainly is for that reason.  [AFTER BLOWING UP AT ME] I got the best music out there.  I know that this CD is the best… I’ve listened to everything.  Last year the record of the year was really unbelievably embarrassing.  It was Herbie Hancock playing Gershwin.  And the year before that it was this female out there with this really trite Gil Evans stuff.  It’s embarrassing.  What the fuck is going on!?  How does this happen when everybody knows it’s bullshit?
TP:    When I talked with Anthony Cole he said that you were going in different directions with the trio.  We didn’t talk much about the trio.  I read what you wrote about it on the album I have.  Can you talk about it’s evolving, how it’s developing?  He particularly talked about it entailing a new direction for you.

RIVERS:  Well, it is a new direction in the sense that I was fortunate to have three musicians who are multi-instrumentalists.  But that was pretty much falling in the way that I’ve done things over the years.  If a musician played one instrument, he was a virtuoso on one instrument, but he was efficient, fairly fluid on other instruments that wasn’t his main instrument, but he was also able to play parts… I thought what a waste of talent to have the possibility for these other instruments, and not use them to add color, plus give it an extra added stimulus from the different sounds that would be emoted from the different textures that the instruments produce themselves.  So I’ve always pretty much done that, but I’ve never had the good fortune of having good musicians like Anthony Cole specifically and Doug Matthews broadly, because where do you find musicians… What Anthony Cole plays is just as good on piano as he is on drums, and he’s an excellent tenor saxophone player, which he learned on his own…

TP:    He said your comment to him was “find your own scales.”

RIVERS:  I really didn’t need to give him any lessons, because his knowledge was enough.  Which is the way I learned pretty much how to play the changes and everything, was learned from knowledge of the piano.  He was one up on most musicians, because he was a pianist, too.  Pianists have less problems learning an instrument that someone who’s learning an instrument without going through the piano.

TP:    He particularly seems to have inspired you a lot.

RIVERS:  He does.  It’s hard to explain it.  But it’s the way I just emphasized.  His piano is as professional… And I am a professional pianist, so we can do two-piano duets.  We can do things like that.  Then he can also do like reed things, soprano and tenor, and since Doug Mathews plays bass clarinet we have the reed thing going.  But we can do so many things… Like, improvising on changes together, and so many different kinds of things like that in the trio format, or playing free.

TP:    So he gives you a full template of improvisation from traditional to free, almost mirroring what you can do.

RIVERS:  That’s right.  So we can do the same things together.  His knowledge of harmony and changes are just as good as mine, so we don’t have any problems.  I probably have more advanced ideas because of my writing and things like this, but he’s coming on fast, so the ideas that he… Yes, we complement each other.

TP:    And you’ve been playing together pretty much since ’91-’92?

TP:    And as a trio since then?


TP:    So Doug Matthews came into the picture at that time as well.

RIVERS:  Doug Matthews came into the picture about ’93, I think.  We were playing with another musician down here who was very good, who doubled on bass, electric bass and tuba, named Charles Silver.  With him we could use a the combination with tuba.

TP:    How frequently in ’99 has the big band played in Orlando?  Once a week?  Every other week?

RIVERS:  No, it’s been probably once a month.  But we do concerts in other cities.  We do concerts in St. Petersburg and Tampa and Jacksonville and Melbourne.  I could do more if I really wanted to, but then it would be hard on the guys because everyone got their day job!

TP:    Do you rehearse without fail once a week?

RIVERS:  Definitely.  We rehearse whether we play or not every Wednesday evening at the union in Orlando.  It’s open to the public; sometimes people come.  I can rehearse my 30 musicians whenever I… I have 30 musicians total.  I just did a concert with them last week at Rollins College.  We have an open invitation to perform all my new works at the Rollins College at this point.  I do one a month.

TP:    So the 13-horn music is expandable up to 30 pieces or more?

RIVERS:  Well, I have music for 30 musicians, but I also have music for 11 saxophones, 11 reed instruments, then I have for my regular 16 musicians.  It’s different combinations, some with 25 musicians and some music written for 30 musicians.

TP:    So you have musicians to play all the different permutations.  Like, the Winds of Manhattan record was 11 saxophones.

RIVERS:  That was 11 saxophones.  So I have 11 saxophones available.  I’m getting ready to do a concert with 11 saxophones, new music always, because I don’t really perform any old music… Well, it wouldn’t be new to me, but I mean…

TP:    Right to everybody else.

RIVERS:  Yeah.  It hasn’t been performed.  It’s been on the shelf.

TP:    Talk a bit about the way the band in New York sounds different playing your music than the band in Orlando which plays your music all the time, and internalizes it and has that comfort zone, just in a qualitative way.

RIVERS:  Quality…see, that’s it, the quality of the musicians… See, in this day and age the quality of the musicians all over the world … I would be able to find musicians with a certain kind of feeling for the music because the records have been out.  We’re not isolated any more!  I mean, the idea that one set of musicians can do it when another… They all listen to the same music!  So there are talented musicians who don’t go to New York.  New York is full of guys with big egos. [LAUGHS] That’s the way it is there.  It’s not because they’re more talented than anyone else.  It’s just that.  Not to take away from them, because I’m one of the guys that was in New York, and I went there because I knew I was great…

TP:    You had an ego.

RIVERS:  Every musician goes up there because they think they’re the greatest, and that’s it.  Not so much that they’re great, but that they had a contribution to make, and the only way you’re really going to make it is to go to New York.  You go to New York if you have a contribution to make, and everyone understands that.  Because the setup, all the organizational things are there, the press and all this.  You’re there, so you know what I mean.  But they don’t have anything to do with producing records, you see, and you don’t have anything to do with the business.  You see, they comment on the business.  It’s a different thing.  Like what you’re doing now.  You’re commenting on it.  You don’t really have anything to do with the business.  You don’t really have anything to do with the business.  I mean, the business has to be taken care of.  You’re pretty much relating what is going on, or what is getting ready to happen or what has happened.  But you don’t have any real process in doing it.  I’m the one who…we’re the ones who… We are the creators, and without the creators there really isn’t anything to comment on.  So we understand that, too.  So hence our ego.  Okay? [LAUGHS]

But anyway, I was just looking on the Net here at the, and this record is recommended as one of the top 11 CDs of recordings in jazz in 1999.  Number 2 actually.

BEA:  You’re the only one with five stars.

RIVERS:  I’m the only one with five stars.  Roscoe Mitchell has 4½ stars.  He’s #1 and I’m #2.  I’m happy about that.  I’m still here.  And it’s not a comeback.  It’s just been a steady, ongoing thing.  I’ve never left.  I’ve been here all this time.

TP:    With the New York musicians, you had a band of people who all have very individual styles.  That was a real collection of musical personalities on that record…

RIVERS:  Right, all recognized.

TP:    All stylists and people who have established real individual voices over time, younger and older.

RIVERS:  Right.

TP:    In Orlando do the musicians have that same quality?  I’m not looking to bash anyone.  Since I haven’t heard the Orlando band, I can’t tell whether it sounds different or similar, what the nature of the difference is if it’s different.

RIVERS:  Mmm…I would say that the experience of the New York musicians… I’m trying to write so that…I’m trying to write, like, I mean…like, I mean…like… I’m thinking like…I mean, like… Why would I…I mean… Would you ask Beethoven a question like that?

TP:    No.

RIVERS:  “Which symphony in the world, Mr. Beethoven, would you like to play your music?”  Here we go.  Of course, the one that was playing it would be his favorite!

TP:    Well, Beethoven wrote for certain musicians, though.  Most of the Classical musicians had musicians who inspired them, plus their own improvisations themselves.

RIVERS:  Beethoven started writing because other musicians were writing his improvisations and putting them down like their own.  I mean, a lot of musicians who have done that, some of the respected in the world.  Stephen Foster for one.  He just wrote down what he heard.  There are a lot of other musicians who do that, too, but that’s not creativity.

TP:    Which is what you do?

RIVERS:  I don’t do that.  All my ideas come from myself.  I’m saying there are other musicians who have achieved notoriety or celebrity who didn’t, who only wrote down the ideas of other people, wrote down the stuff.  That’s the main reason why Beethoven started writing down his music.  I learned this early, that the reason why Beethoven stopped improvising is because the musicians were coming into his concerts and listening to him improvise and would go back and write the music down and say they wrote it.

TP:    Stealing.

RIVERS:  No.  They said they wrote it.  He didn’t write it down.  So if you don’t write it down, how can you say it’s plagiarism.  So he had to start writing his music in order to say it was his.  So I’m doing the same thing, writing it down.  But out of all the thousands of orchestras in the world, do you think he’d have a specific orchestra that he’d think would like to play his music?  How many symphony orchestras in the United States alone?  How many jazz orchestras in the United States alone?  How many jazz orchestras in the world?

TP:    I take your point.  Of course, at the time Beethoven was writing, he couldn’t foresee what the situation would be now.  He could only focus on what was around him then.

RIVERS:  Yes.  And he had the musicians.  They were all paid by the state, by the church, so they lived a very comfortable living.  They were all taken care of by the King, who pretty much dictated the music they were allowed to write, too.  Well, maybe not Beethoven, but Bach I’m thinking of.  I’m skipping around.

TP:    I do take your point, Mr. Rivers.  I ask the question because in the pool of musicians in New York there are so many distinctive improvisers and distinctive styles, and you’ve played with so many musicians who are world-class improvisers, master improvisers…

RIVERS:  They’ve all made their own contributions.

TP:    What I’m trying to get to, and maybe am not asking…

RIVERS:  Do the sound stronger with the music?  The solos are obviously far more creative, of course… Well, I can’t even say that.  Ted, we live in an age where there are so many musicians… Like I keep saying, there are thousands… It’s hard to say.

TP:    Are you saying that the level of musicianship in the world has transcended location in a certain sense, and it’s much different than when you were younger?

RIVERS:  I’m trying to say that.  Because the records are all over the world.  Everyone hears the music.  Even back to Beethoven’s time, outside his circle he wasn’t even known.  So it’s a different thing.  All over the world, everybody in the world, every place I go, they know the music. [LAUGHS] So to say that these musicians play this music better than those musicians over there and both musicians have heard this music, and one musician decides not to go to New York and another one decides to go… I mean, we have all these different kinds of nuances there, so it’s hard for me to…

Ted, you put me in a difficult spot here trying to tell you… I really can’t answer the question.  Not in this day and age, I can’t answer it.  If you’d asked me this question in the ’40s or the ’50s, then I would say, “Listen, the musicians…I can tell…”  In the middle ’50s, when I listened to a record, I could tell whether he was black or white, I could tell how old he was, I could tell what part of the country he was from — just by listening to his record.  You can’t do that any more.

TP:    You could do that in the ’40s and ’50s.

RIVERS:  In the ’40s and ’50s you could do that.  You could tell where he was born just listening to him.  Where he was born, what state he was from, what type of music he was (?), where he lived, where he was playing, how old he was and whether he was black or white. [LAUGHS] You can’t do that any more.  Except you can tell black or white still.  But other than that, there’s very little difference.  But there’s a difference between a black saxophonist and a white saxophonist.  I don’t know what it is, but I can tell.  So it’s something that’s still there.  I don’t know what that is.  But that’s as far as it goes now.  I can tell ethnic.  I can tell a Spanish musician, I can tell a white musician, and I can tell a black musician.  That part of it is still there.  Other than that, I can’t tell what part of the country he’s from.  I can’t tell whether he’s American or German, if he’s a White musician.

TP:    Let me change the questioning a bit.  I want to ask you about a couple of individuals and to say whatever you want to about them.  In the liner notes to Culmination you wrote something about Charlie Parker that was so fascinating I keep going back to it, what he told you about notes and phrases.  I’d like you to talk about the impact of Charlie Parker on your conception of music.

RIVERS:  It’s something that really comes later on, if it’s ever achieved by some musicians… I don’t think piano players have a problem with that.

TP:    With what?

RIVERS:  That every note is important, no matter how fast you play.  Now, saxophonists and trumpet players, some of them don’t look at it that way.  They look at some notes as just passing tones to something else, a part of a phrase.  the note itself is not really important, but it’s part of a phrase itself.  Charlie Parker did not look at it that way.  He looked at every note, no matter if it was a slur; every note in that slur had been worked out and practiced and rehearsed to make sure, when he decided to use it, if it ever came into his head, he could do it.  That’s what he said, that every note is important.  Then I spoke to another musician who was just as famous as Charlie Parker who said, “Sam, you don’t have to play every change; there are phrases that fit over changes.”  So one musician was talking about phrases that fit over the changes rather than playing the changes itself, and another musician was saying playing the notes, each note is important, and the form a phrase.  Do you get the difference?

TP:    Which musician told you the latter.

RIVERS:  I don’t want to call his name. [LAUGHS]

TP:    Is he alive still?

TP:    You can call his name.

RIVERS:  That’s okay.  I don’t want to say.  I just mean there was a duality in the thoughts of how… Here I’m listening to both these opposites who thought to achieve the same purpose.  So it’s completely opposed, diametrically opposed what these people are talking about, but it works.  And they both and ultimately come to the same conclusion.

TP:    You commented to me that Dizzy Gillespie was a more advanced musician than Charlie Parker.

RIVERS:  The notes he used as part of the chord… It wasn’t a II-V… Charlie Parker was more a blues kind of…he was pentatonic.  Everything was pretty much coming directly from the blues.  Dizzy was coming from the Blues, too, but it was in a different way of finding the odd notes in the chord that wee part of the chord structure of the blues rather than the Blues itself.  So that’s where it was the difference.  I mean, Charlie Parker was playing the blues itself and Diz was pretty much playing the Blues but more or less advanced, substitute chords and everything on top of the basic chords.  So that was the difference.  He was layering other things where Bird was staying with the basic.

TP:    Next person.  Jaki Byard.  You said you met him when you got to Boston.

RIVERS:  1945.

TP:    You knew him from then, and lived with him.

RIVERS:  Yes, we had a whole house at 13 Rutland Square.

TP:    Which you described in our radio interview.  Is that where Bird came when you met him?

RIVERS:  Bird came by there, and then Bird came by most of the time when he was Boston.  Then after I got married, he came by where I lived when I was there teaching in Boston.

TP:    How long have you and Bea been married?

RIVERS:  52 years. [1947]

TP:    Did Jaki Byard have a big impact on you and you on he?  Did you mutually influence each other?

RIVERS:  I’m not sure if I had a big impact on him, but he had a big impact on me because he was much further advanced in the music than I was.  Because when I came… I’d been stationed in California, and nothing was happening in California at that time.  We were completely cut off.  It’s not like today where it’s instant news.  I didn’t even know who Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were, and I just happened to listen to something that was there.  So I didn’t know on the West Coast if… It was not like today where it’s instant news all over the world.  But Jaki Byard was up there, and he had a chance to listen to Bud Powell and all them during his days when he was in the Service.  I’m not sure if he was in the Army or the Navy, but I think he was in the Army.  But the musicians had a fairly boring life in the Service, out there on the base, because there wasn’t anything for them to do but get up in the morning and play for the flag coming up and play for parades and play in the officers quarters in the evening.  Their life was fairly dull.  They were just spending most of the time practicing like that, because they didn’t have to march or anything.  So all they did was practice.  So most musicians who were in the Service, when they came out they were really ready, because they hadn’t done anything but practice!  So Jaki Byard was one of those.  I consider him one of the more exceptional musicians I’ve met in my life anyway, and listening to his arrangements… Like myself, he’s a vastly underrated musician.  Maybe whoever has all of his arrangements… He was a prolific composer, too, and maybe someday they’ll find someone who will give him his musical due as they’re doing to the great Duke Ellington record today.

TP:    Today I was listening to Lazuli, which you did for Timeless ten years, and there was a piece on it called “Devotion” which was a paraphrase of “Body and Soul.”  I guess you did that right in the middle of your years with Dizzy.

RIVERS:  No, it was before Dizzy.

TP:    It was ’89.  You were with Dizzy after ’89.

RIVERS:  Oh, it was ’89.  Then it was right after Dizzy.

TP:    You mentioned in our radio interview that you, like just about any other person your age who played saxophone, memorized “Body and Soul.”  But then you also said that Lester Young was really the man for you.  Can you talk about your early saxophone influences and the nature of those influences?

RIVERS:  What stands out is Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul,” and every tenor player had most of that memorized.  I memorized it then.  See, I already knew it on piano, so I memorized it… In those days Jamey Aebersold wasn’t around, so you had to do all this stuff yourself.  Which is okay.  So I analyzed it to see what he was doing with his changes and all that, and then I learned ..(?).. But it was more like taking his music and analyzing it to see what he was doing.  Then there was Chu Berry’s “Stardust,” which was very nice, too, and I analyzed that one.  Then Lester Young, “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” things by Lester with Nat King Cole which were really beautiful… Nat King Cole wasn’t much of a singer, but he was one of the greatest pianists of all time.

TP:    Did you just say he wasn’t much of a singer?

TP:    I won’t quote you on that.

RIVERS:  [LAUGHS] You can if you want to.  He was a crooner.

TP:    My wife loves Nat King Cole.

RIVERS:  Where was I?

TP:    We were talking about your early saxophone influences.

RIVERS:  I heard the guy with Lucky Millinder’s band.  Jimmy Forrest and Lockjaw I think were in Andy Kirk’s band; I think I saw them.  I saw Jimmie Lunceford’s band with Joe Thomas, I think it was.  They were okay.  But it was only Lester and them.  But in those days there weren’t many records, so you had to figure things out for yourself.  That’s why there were so many different sounding saxophone players back in those days.  Everybody had their own style because there wasn’t anybody really to follow.  Every band that came in town had these different tenor saxophone players.  Some of them were good, and others came in and you’d never remember them — like Honeydripper.  All these good saxophone players and you don’t even know their names any more.  So the few that stick out were the ones who went to New York! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Some in Chicago, I guess.

RIVERS:  Yes, Chicago and in Kansas City.  But if you wanted to record, you had to go to New York and go to Minton’s and places like that.  That’s the way you’d really get discovered.  You could be traveling around the United States with a band on a train…

TP:    Did you go back and forth between Boston and New York after you go out of the Service, or did that happen later?

RIVERS:  No, that happened later.  I didn’t really go to New York.  I went to New York now and then, but I wasn’t really that interested in New York at that time.

TP:    And I think you said you moved to Arkansas in ’34.

RIVERS:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    Did you go back to Chicago during the summers, or did you pretty much stay in Arkansas?

RIVERS:  I pretty much stayed in Arkansas until I went off to college at Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas, which I graduated at 15 and went down there.
TP:    So you graduated at ’38.  So anyone you would have heard in Chicago was 1934 and before.

RIVERS:  Well, the musicians I knew about at that time were Roy Eldridge and Billy Eckstine, Andy Kirk… Well, no, Earl Hines was the one, and Duke Ellington.  Cleanhead Vinson had a band, and some of the other guys in Duke’s band.  So I remember all these guys who had bands came through San Francisco when I was stationed out there.

TP:    And you went in the Service in ’42?

RIVERS:  Yes, ’42.

TP:    Was that directly after college?

RIVERS:  I was getting ready to get drafted.  As soon as I graduated I was going to get drafted and go into the Army.  So I didn’t want to go into Army.

TP:    You mentioned playing with Jimmy Witherspoon on the West Coast.  Was that one of your first blues gigs as a saxophonist?

RIVERS:  Well, it was my first gig out there.  I was the only one who could play because I wasn’t in the band.  If I’d been in the band, I wouldn’t be able to do that, because the musicians who played in the band had to play at the officers quarters.  I had a job in the office with the headquarters, so I just typed… I could type, so I did that.  I didn’t want to go into the band anyway.  I had a 9-to-5 job.  I got my own jeep so I could go back and forth to where I was living.  I was supposed to be living off the base, and I’d get the extra subsistence pay.  So I had a chance to play out there and make money like that, working on …(?)… But it was always in my Navy uniform; I didn’t take it off.  When I was playing in the bands I had on my Navy uniform, which was okay.

TP:    Were you stationed on the West Coast for your whole time in the Navy?

RIVERS:  yes.

TP:    So you were based around San Francisco, and you were playing out there during that time.

RIVERS:  Yes, I was playing all the time.  I was in the Navy,

TP:    Who else did you play with besides Jimmy Witherspoon on the West Coast?

RIVERS:  He was the only one.  I’d do jam sessions.  I can’t remember anyone else.  There were jam sessions all the time, but I don’t remember… Richmond was another place; it was a really jumping city, but it was dirt roads and everything — it wasn’t really a city.

TP:    When you look back at Studio Rivbea, what do you make of what you wrought?  You had such an enormous influence on a generation of musicians in New York.  Looking back on it, what are your thoughts.

RIVERS:  Well, I was interested in just having a place where musicians could perform without the stresses you have to go through to perform your own music and without having the man tell you to chill it.  That’s pretty much what it was all about.  That was it.  We couldn’t do it anywhere else.  It’s like that now again in New York, where you don’t hear any music any more, other maybe than John Zorn and maybe the Knitting Factory.  But that’s probably the way it’s always been.  All the time I talk to people about this, how in this music the important people are not popular, and the popular musicians are not important.  So we have a situation going here that doesn’t really seem right.  I hardly (?) a situation like that, where you look at a record label and you know just by the label that the music that’s on it is going to be like traditional and not very creative and in some senses mediocre — I mean, just by looking at the label.  I’m not on an American label.  I’m on a French label.  You have to know that being on an American label is a very suspicious place to be.  It automatically means that nothing is really happening, because you are not allowed to do anything on an American big label.

That’s pretty much it.  Or, no one has asked the big labels to look if there’s somebody out here who’s really doing something creative, and the audiences might go for listening to it.  I’m looking on the Net here, and my record is one of the best-sellers of Jazz here.  I thank the audiences.  Because the critics at Downbeat… You have to tell them I’m still out here, and maybe some day… In the Critics Downbeat Poll, I’ve not even been mentioned!  I feel I must have insulted somebody who worked where who is in a position of power.  I really feel that.  I’ve gone 50 years without even being mentioned as a saxophone player, without even being mentioned in any of the Critics Polls. Guys come up to me, and they can’t even understand it…


* * *

Sam Rivers Colleagues (Comments):

Greg Osby

TP:    How did you respond to the music you played that week at Sweet Basil that subsequently became a record.  Perhaps you could break down for me structurally how you interpret him and what’s unique about the music.

OSBY:  Well, the rehearsals and the week at Sweet Basil, I was a bit skeptical as to how the record was going to turn out.  First of all, Sam’s music had never been captured accurately for me.  It was always slipshod and haphazardly produced.  Just upon personal inspection or dissection or whatever, I knew that Sam had a lot more to offer, and there was a lot more to it than just eclectic avant-garde icon or whatever.

TP:    Did you ever hear Crystals, by the way?

OSBY:  Yeah!  I have an old, tattered vinyl… Because there was no dynamics being exercised, it was like a blast-fest, so much so that the whole saxophone section had to have toilet paper and all kind of stuff shoved in our ears because nobody was really addressing it.  So I was questioning Sam’s choice of sidepersons and did he get the right people that would accurately and vividly interpret what he was doing.  Because the music was killing!  I mean, some of the most highly developed and some of the most advanced music that you can ever imagine, for big band, for small band, for any composer.  He had so many things happening at once, and his progressions and stuff were so non-standard.  I mean, he broke just about every rule that you can imagine, so much so that he could have a whole book of Sam Rivers rules that could constitute a whole new school of thought.

TP:    What would be some of the principles of that school of thought?

OSBY:  See, Sam uses clusters, contrapuntalism and movement as elements of…not just for transitory elements or for colorization elements, but these are like valid sections of music.  I mean, the whole section might be moving, and it’s like a vortex, as opposed to something that’s really calm, and then it goes into something that’s very involved just for the sake of getting to the next piece of music or getting into the next section of the music.  I mean, the whole piece of music might be just one thing.  And it’s something that’s a definite Sam-ism.  I mean, Sam is from that school of…I mean, the same school like Andrew and Cecil, that’s readily identifiable, with utilization of characteristics and things like… That’s more important to me than being famous or being popular or whatever.  This is a cat that is THE cat, and he is A cat.  He is somebody that when you speak of him, you’re speaking about a whole method.  You’re speaking about a whole school of thought.  You’re not talking about somebody who is just merely accomplished or virtuosic or has a couple of achievements or whatever.  This is a cat who has a whole well-rounded concept.  Although I’m not going to be so bold as to say that I know what it is or… A lot of people, their ego won’t allow them to say, “Well, I know what that is” or “this is that.”  I can’t be that definite.

TP:    But you have a sense of it.  You have an interpretation.  You have a point of view.

OSBY:  Yeah.  Because I hear it.  Upon mixing the record, you can isolate certain sectors of music.  You can isolate the brass, you can isolate the trombones, you can isolate the rhythm section or the saxophones or the trumpets or whatever.  I was listening to this stuff, and I was like, wow, man, the saxophones are doing something completely and totally and entirely different than every other section.  There’s about four or five things happening at once as a section.  Then within that section the individuals will be doing different things.  So it’s like a whole band where you break down the integers, and all the digits are doing different things.

TP:    And yet it locks together.
OSBY:  It locks together.

TP:    Which is kind of that African concept of stacking and hatcheting.

OSBY:  Right.  Because in typical big band writing, you have sections parodying other sections.  If you play a second alto saxophone, well, then you can be guaranteed that either the second trumpet player or the second trombone, they’re probably playing the same line or the same voice.  It’s really just doubling sections.  But Sam, he just annihilated that theory.  It’s almost like what Mingus was doing.  He would have every cat in the band doing something different.  But this was a lot more cacophonic.  Because it was like a big band!  But the fact that a lot of people weren’t dealing with it dynamically and playing real loud all the time, you missed a lot of it.  So the record really reflects that, because you can hear the subtlety and you can hear the movement and stuff, as opposed to live in Sweet Basil with all that brick and wood, and it was just loud.  It was just a blast-fest to me, and I was kind of discouraged, but the record…

TP:    And without going into a lot of detail on your feeling of which personnel would work and which wouldn’t, I’d assume you’d think the personnel that would work would be more you and Steve and Gary Thomas and the people associated with you, and maybe less so the people who came up under Sam’s generation.

OSBY:  Right.

TP:    It seems to me, listening to it, that there’s a nice dynamic between the very expressionist qualities that the project onto it vis-a-vis the approach of you and Steve.  It worked well.

OSBY:  Well, it is, absolutely.  You have to have balance.  And our personal preferences aside… I would love to hear Sam’s music interpreted by people who can read really well and who are great soloists and all this kind of stuff.  But then these people have something missing, because they never played with the Brass Fantasy or the Art Ensemble or with David Murray’s various groups or with Threadgill and all that kind of stuff.  So they don’t know how to use the instrument.  They know how to play the instrument, but they don’t know how to use the instrument if you know what I mean.  Therefore, we had people who had that experience, and so they balance out the virtuoso-technician-cerebral types.  That’s why it worked for me.

TP:    Talk about Sam Rivers’ place in history.

OSBY:  Sam probably will go down as one of the esoteric giants.  Kind of like Andrew.  Andrew will never be a poll-winner.  He’ll never grace the cover of Downbeat or anything like that.  And Andrew is one of those cats who is regarded in the community as one of THE cats.  It’s hard for me to interpret.  I know you know, but it’s hard to put that in words for a laypersons.  You say “one of the cats.”  “Oh, he’s not one of the cats.  One of the CATS is somebody like Trane or Bird or somebody…”

TP:    Well, I think what we mean by “one of the cats” is these are people whose lives intersect with the lifeblood of the music, and historically so, which is the case with Sam, through his Boston experience, and even before that in the Navy and on the West Coast, and Andrew being a working musician in Chicago.

OSBY:  Yeah, but see, you have the cats who are widely regarded, Bird and Trane and Diz and Miles and those kind of cats.  Then you have people who within the community, the sub-structure, they say, “Well, these are the CATS that spawned the other cats.” It’s like Sun Ra and John Gilmore and Earl Bostic; these cats begat the cats like Trane.  But you never hear people talk about those other cats.  Like, Andrew Hill begat people like Geri Allen and Jason Moran and James Hurt and people like that.  So we know who the cats are, but when we hear the talk in interviews and so on, all we hear are people like Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner, because those are the popular cats.  Now, they’re the cats, too, and they begat a whole bunch of clones and a whole bunch of disciples and students.  But for people like me, Andrew and Sam and Duke Ellington and Sun Ra, those are like REAL cats…

TP:    Well, they don’t beget clones.

OSBY:  No.  But Lennie Tristano and, you know, these underground cats.  Monk is a cat only because of the popularity of his songs and stuff like that.  See, he’s very esoteric, too.  A lot of people aren’t really tapping into the reality of what his stuff was.  They’re just dealing with the obvious elements.

TP:    Talk about Sam as a saxophone player.

OSBY:  Sam as a saxophone player is incredible.  I don’t really know who he’s coming out of.  And that for me is enough for me to like him. [LAUGHS] That’s all I need.  I don’t know who his influences are.  I have to sit down and interview him personally to find out.  But it’s very unorthodox.  Sometimes it sounds like he’s totally self-taught, and he’s playing the alternative fingerings… He’s doing other things sonically, like choking up on the mouthpiece and doing a lot of throaty things…

TP:    He said when he was a kid (remember, he was born in 1923), he memorized every Lester Young solo and Hawkins and all this, and then he sort of erased the blackboard.  But that’s his root in a very first-hand way, like Von.

OSBY:  Now that you say that, I can hear the Lester Young.  I can hear the Prez in his playing.  Less elements of Coleman Hawkins, but I can definitely hear the Lester Young.  But he totally fragmented that, so I don’t know… It’s really hard to define.

But his music, man… he’s really into some other highbrow musical systems.  He uses Schillinger or Hindemith… He’s into some 20th composition.  He’s definitely into that, because just the symmetry in some of the lines and some of the music that he does is definitely not coming from a jazz base.  It’s coming from somewhere.  I don’t even want to say it’s European or whatever.  I don’t know what it is…

TP:    I think “highbrow” is a good way.  Talk in some general way about the layering of highbrow musical ideas and concepts on top of the vernacular.

OSBY:  The problem is, when a lot of people hear that kind of stuff, they dismiss it at being third-stream or classically derived or whatever.  They say it doesn’t swing, or the intervals are too wide or too disjunct or too jagged or whatever, and it doesn’t sound consonant, it’s just dissonance for dissonance’s sake — and it doesn’t meet its mark.  But that’s the kind of stuff that appeals to me even more, because I can hear the jazz bases, I can hear the swing influences and stuff, because I dig deeper.  I dare to be patient enough to check that out.  But people who only give it a fleeting listen and say, “Well, this cat is obviously influenced by some Europeans…”  So what?  So was just about every other major icon in the music.  But you just hear a lot more of the blues elements in what they do as well.  I hear the blues in Sam’s music.

TP:    Well, he played with T-Bone Walker for a long time!

OSBY:  Yeah.  A lot of people don’t hear that.  They just hear the wildness and the rawness.  I think “raw” is the key word here.  I mean, it’s so raw and it sounds so unrefined…

TP:    And yet it is.

OSBY:  And yet it is.  But a lot of people just hear that it’s like a man on a mission who hasn’t realized his vision.  But I beg to differ.  It’s the same response as people who hear Von Freeman, or even some early Wayne Shorter.  They just think the cat is wild and everything.  Or Coltrane, all the criticism that he got, all the adverse criticism Duke Ellington got… They just don’t hear it.

TP:    And it kind of defines in an aspirational sense what jazz can be.  Kind of putting your personal vision… In other words, all the hard work and preparation you refer to in terms of your own productions, and the passion with which you can articulate that and continue to grow with it.

OSBY:  Absolutely.  It’s not a thumbing of the noses.  It’s not like, “Take that; I can do what I want, and this is my music.”  It’s really people conceptualizing and trying to present the music as they see it, using a logic that’s not popular, or that’s not only not popular, but probably even something new.  These cats get in the lab and they work out theories and stuff.  Sam said he has trunks and trunks and reams and reams of unreleased and unpublished music, and he’s trying to codify it and get it all out now.  That’s why the record is so long.  That’s why we did all those recordings and did all those songs.  It was like enough for a double CD.

Steve Coleman

TP:    Let’s first talk about your earlier contact with the music of Sam Rivers and the things that struck such a chord in you.  Was it when you first got to New York and played with him, or before that?

COLEMAN:  Yeah, when I played with him.  I started making rehearsals at Studio Rivbea.  I’d heard Sam’s name before, but I didn’t know much about his music.  Well, when I got to New York I didn’t know much about anybody’s music.  It wasn’t just Sam.  A lot of guys who were still living, I didn’t know a lot of people’s music.  I mean, I knew some of the people whose names were, well, big names… I knew Sonny Rollins.  I even knew people like Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard.  But Sam, even now isn’t as popular as those guy, so I didn’t know his music.  But I’d heard the name “Sam Rivers,” I’d heard the name “Cecil Taylor” or whatever, but anybody who I didn’t get to hear live who came through Chicago… The only place people came through was the Jazz Showcase, and they almost always hired traditional people.  Even some of the guys in Chicago, like the AACM guys who left, I heard most of them in New York.  I played with Muhal at a jam session in Chicago before I came, and I played with George Lewis at a jam session and stuff like that.  But that’s not the same as hearing his music.  It was one of those Von Freeman type things or something like that.

So I really heard Sam when I got to New York and I started trying to play with everybody I could play with.  I think it was Chico Freeman who told me about the rehearsal.  He asked me could I read or whatever, and I said yes, and he told me then to come down there.  I knew Chico because I knew Von.  So I went down there and just started sitting in on rehearsals and stuff like that.  That’s how I met Sam, that’s how I met Dave Holland, that’s how I met a lot of those guys.  I got to New York on May 20, 1978, and it was a few months after that.

TP:    Talk about the ongoing relationship.

COLEMAN:  When I first heard the music it was shocking to me because I had never heard any music like that.  But I was shocked in New York many times during that period!  The first band I heard was Air, and that was shocking; I remember hearing them at Beefsteak Charlie’s.  The second group I heard was Arthur Blythe with the cello and tuba at Sweet Basil, which was shocking.  So I was constantly being shocked in that time period.

So Sam Rivers’ thing was just another shocking experience.  I had played a lot of big band music, but never anything like his music.  It was so original, almost everything about it — rhythmically, harmonically, melodically.  It’s not that he told you what to do, but he hired certain types of people and they were doing certain types of things, so there was a certain kind of looseness that was in the music.  Sometimes it got too loose for me actually.

TP:    Was it loose because of the predispositions of the players or was it loose because of the music?

COLEMAN:  Well, it was loose because of the players, and also because of the way Sam was — because Sam is loose.  But Sam is loose but in a kind of… You know, he was loose in the way that Bird was loose.  I mean, he’s loose, but he knows what he’s doing, and there’s a precision there inside the looseness.  But some of the players were just loose.  My interpretation of the loft scene is it was very loose anyway.  It’s kind of coming off a lot of developments from the ’60s, and players just take it in different directions.  Some players really know what they’re doing and really are working on their music, and others are just sort of in there.  So it’s a mixture of that.  But then again, when you go to the period before, that was happening, too.  But generally speaking, I found that true of that particular scene.  It was very experimental music, and so a lot of times the guys… Sam even put it to me this way at one time.  A lot of times guys just got who they could get, because they didn’t always have a choice of everybody who was on the scene.  Not everybody was into that kind of music or whatever.  So if you wanted to fill out a big band or a group or whatever, a lot of times you would just take who you could get, and it wasn’t always the best cats for the particular situation.  Sam said, “Well, you do the best you can; I’ve been out here a long time.”

TP:    Well, he’d always set up situations, so it wasn’t something new for him.

COLEMAN:  Exactly.  He’s doing the same thing probably in Florida.

TP:    Break it down for me a bit how you see the different components of the music.  What is it that’s so original?

COLEMAN:  It’s hard to describe.  It’s hard to say it’s one thing, because it’s not, and it almost never is.  But rhythmically it’s very different.  Now, I don’t mean necessarily the rhythm section, but the way the melodies laid rhythmically, the rhythms that the melodies were written in.  Because Sam had this very kind of contrapuntal concept, or many lines layered against each other kind of writing.  He does things like turning around the beat and different things like that, which means there’s an odd number of beats in a phrase as opposed to an even number of beats.  Sam would have things turning around, then they would turn back around on themselves and then come back… Some players would call that odd times, but he never wrote out anything in any kind of odd time signature.

TP:    They just fell that way.

COLEMAN:  Well, it was that way.  But you can write anything any way you want to write it.  No matter how out I want to get, I can still write it out in 4/4 if I want to.  He was a master at doing that.  In other words, he deliberately wrote it a certain way so that people could read it.  He told me that, too.  And I noticed this.  I noticed that even though his things were written in 4/4, that wasn’t the way they were.  The same thing with listening to Art Tatum or Charlie Parker or whatever.  There are some things they play which are not in 4/4, but because they’re in that context, people assume that’s what it is.  I don’t know if there’s an easy way of explaining this, but it was an odd number of beats in a lot of the phrases.  [SINGS CHORUS] That’s a 7-beat phrase that keeps turning back on itself.  So every second time it comes around, it’s an even number of beats — 14 beats.  But still, the phrase itself is in 7.  When you’re playing the phrase you can feel that you’re repeating the phrase every 7 beats.  So he had a lot of things like that, which most people don’t have in that music.  It’s a simple thing, but when you have a lot of that happening on top of each other, and you have one phrase doing that in 7 and another one doing it in 5 and another doing it in 4 and another one doing it somewhere else, it has a certain character.  It’s one of the things that I actually copped from him.  It’s one of several things that I’ve borrowed, stolen, whatever you want to call it.

TP:    Any others you’d care to put on the record?

COLEMAN:  Well, there is some intervallic stuff also, intervallic meaning… In every style you can see certain intervals that are predominant and others that are not so predominant.  I mean, there’s only 12 intervals really, but certain people tend to do certain kinds of things.  And Sam’s melodies have certain types of intervals that recur in everything.  This just got in my brain after a while, so it had a heavy influence on my music.  I mean, it’s not just what Sam did, because it’s a combination of a lot of different players.  But some of what Sam did definitely got into my music.  And all these things were coming from his writing more than anything else, because that stuff was just sitting there enough that you could kind of soak it in very quickly, especially if you’re playing the music.  So it’s not so much coming from his playing; it’s coming from what he was writing.  But his writing and playing are essentially the same brain.

TP:    You’re on Colors, the Black Saint record from ’83.  How long did you play with the big band in that first go-round?  Is that around when it fell apart in New York?

COLEMAN:  I did a lot of recording with him I guess up to the time I started steadily playing with Dave Holland — there was a little overlap.  But I would say all between ’79 and ’83 I did a lot of gigs with him, most of which weren’t recorded, of course.  I remember doing gigs at the Public Theater, tons of stuff at Rivbea, gigs all over the place.

TP:    Was he writing original music for that band the whole time?

COLEMAN:  Always.  Yeah, he has tons and tons of music.  The music we’re playing now, none of it is the music we were playing back then.  I don’t remember hardly anything being repeated.  The music we played with Colors was completely different than the music we played in the big band, which was completely different than what we just did…

TP:    And completely different that what was in Crystals.

COLEMAN:  Well, to my mind.  There may have been some things he reworked, like “Beatrice.”  But for the most part, that’s what I’m talking about.  I don’t remember “Whirlwind.”  When we played it just now, I was like, “I don’t remember this.”  Now, he may have played it with somebody else, but I didn’t play it with him.

TP:    How do you see the music on these records as evolving from when you first hooked up with him 15-20 years ago?

COLEMAN:  I hear the biggest difference as the people playing on it rather than so much the music itself.

TP:    In the level of competence?

COLEMAN:  No, I can’t say that, because there were people in the past, like George Lewis and people like that, who were really competent.  Where one person may be less competent in one area, another person may come in.  Well, George is one of those people who really had it together; he reads real well and has a fast mind.  To me, George Lewis and Sam, they represent people who have chosen what they want to do.  They’re not doing what they do because they can’t do something else, if you know what I’m saying.

But I wouldn’t say necessarily it’s a level of competence.  There is a general air today that’s very different than when I first came to New York.  With the guys younger than me, there’s a certain kind of… It’s hard to say.  It could be interpreted as precision, then again it could be interpreted as sterile.  It depends on who you’re talking about and how you’re looking at it.  But in general it’s cleaner.  But that could be not good also.  It depends on how it’s done.  I mean, Bird was very clean, but in a different way.

TP:    Well, you’re very clean.

COLEMAN:  Yeah.  Well, I try to be clean in the way that…

TP:    So is Greg.  You’re precise.  You know what you’re playing, and you’re technique is together, and you’re thorough musicians.

COLEMAN:  Well, I’m very concerned with it being precise, but not mechanical.  I mean, to me Bud Powell was very precise.  At the same time, there’s this sort of spontaneity, almost like a professional raggediness that you hear in his playing, but if you try to practice it you see it’s on a very high level of precision.  But it still has that sound that we used to call in Chicago “the professional beginner” sound.  To me, some players have a high degree of that, and to me that’s the hardest thing to get.  I think Sam has that in his music.  When I was mixing the music, and I was checking out the voicings he was using on “Beatrice” and so on in detail, I mean, there’s some incredible writing happening there that you don’t hear until you really dig down and go into the deeper levels of it.  I mean, I don’t expect the regular person in the audience to hear it.  However, when that detail is there, it adds to the emotional impact of the music, in my opinion.  It adds to the impact and depth of the music, not musical depth, but emotional depth…spiritual depth, for lack of a better word.  With Coltrane’s music you get the same kind of thing, with people who have really dug, and there’s layers and layers of thinking and work and interpretation there.  It hits you a certain way, rather than when somebody is taking it casually, or when somebody has done it on a casual level.

TP:    Talk about him as an instrumentalist, specifically as a saxophonist, and the qualities that really mark his improvising style and his saxophonism.

COLEMAN:  I guess the best word is serpentine.  The first thing that strikes you about somebody is the way they do something.  Not necessarily the notes and things like that, but the way.  And the way is in the sound, the phrasing, the rhythm; those are the things that immediately strike you.  It’s very slippery.  It comes out of what I think of as a certain school of saxophone playing.  It’s not really a school in that they imitate each other or they all went to school or anything…

TP:    It’s an aesthetic.

COLEMAN:  Exactly.  When you go to the older players, there’s always… Certain players that have a lot of depth in their playing, like Coleman Hawkins, you always see a different direction that their influences went — a different way.  For a player like Coleman Hawkins, different schools came out of different sides of his playing.  You see that with players like Charlie Parker, or Coltrane, or Louis Armstrong.  So there’s a certain kind of playing that I can trace back to Coleman Hawkins that I call the “snake school,” which is my best term.  It’s represented by players like Lucky Thompson, Benny Golson, Lockjaw Davis, to give you a few examples.  Even when you get into the more adventurous music, you still have those tendencies.

To me, Sam is in that particular school.  I don’t know any other word to say it.  Because there’s really no term for this; I’m sort of making stuff up.  But he’s in that snake school, kind of in the way… This is my interpretation; it might not be his at all.  To me, Von Freeman is in that school — or he definitely can be.  It has to do with a lot of slipperiness, it has to do with a lot of shifts and directions that they make in their lines and when they’re playing, and the intervals and the rhythm… It’s mainly the rhythm and the phrasing.  Then Sam makes it even more apparent with his phrasing because he has this garbled kind of phrasing, just the way he attacks the notes and does a lot of smears and things like that.  That makes it more pronounced, in my opinion, especially the way he smears the notes.  You can hear this on almost any of his recordings.  If I’m driving along in the car, and Sam comes along on the radio, then you can instantly hear that it’s him.  It’s like right away, just from the sound and phrasing, you can instantly hear it’s him.  For me, the first thing I get is that slippery thing.  It’s sort of like he looks, kind of long and rangy and everything.  And he moves like this, too.  To me, this goes beyond music.  When he’s like directing the band and doing his little dance, for me that’s like a snake dance.  It has that same kind of thing.  And if you ever check out the way he sings the music before the band plays, he sings the shit exactly like it should go.  He’s like “Okay, here we go; one-two, [SINGS].”  He has a certain way that he sings it that really gives you, more than words, how he wants this thing to go — or how he hears it in his head; he’s all animated about it, and that gives you a lot of information.  Everything, the way he’s singing, the way he moves and so on, and then he plays like that.  That gives you an idea, okay, this is how he hears this, this is how he wants it to go.”  There’s nothing he could say to you that would…

TP:    Like the way Monk was physically.

COLEMAN:  Exactly.  There’s a lot of people like that.  And there’s nothing that he could say that would give you more information than watching him move, listening to him sing, just watching the way he is.  He’s just an embodiment of the whole thing.  That’s the best way I can put it.  That goes for his playing his writing, the way he moves, the way he talks.

TP:    Talk about how this project came to be.  Had you been in touch with Sam a lot in the intervening years?

COLEMAN:  Not a whole lot since he moved down to Florida.  But it was always in my mind from the time we did Colors which for me was a disappointment in the production.  I thought it was a great tour, I learned a lot on the tour and I thought we did some great music, but then the tour got capped off by what in my mind was a really sad recording, or representation of it.  After the record came out I was saying I don’t think there’s any good representation of Sam’s music out here.  As you know, a lot of guys who are not real popular are left recording for these real small labels, and many times they have to do the whole record in 5-6 hours, and the mix is thrown together, the record is thrown out there, and there’s nothing happening.  So I thought it would be sad if this great cat left, and there’s like no real representation of his music.  Now, he’s made a lot of small group recordings, and there’s a lot of examples of him doing improvisations with people like Dave Holland and others, but to me the thing that was missing was his writing.  He’s written thousands of things, and the representation is small.  So that was one of the things I proposed along with recording Von Freeman, which I haven’t gotten to do yet.  I always liked Von and I always liked Sam, and I always told myself if it was ever within my power, I would try to see that some of the better quality stuff got recorded from them.  I wanted to record Von with a bigger group also. [ETC.] I knew Sam could do it by himself because he writes everything, so I didn’t have anything at all to do with the music.  I just told Sam, “Well, I want to do something with you; I want to produce, have it be on a good sound quality level, but beyond that, you got it.”  I brought in a couple of people, but mainly I brought in people where he couldn’t find cats or where there were holes.  I didn’t pick the whole band.

TP:    The band is an interesting mix of younger cats who are more, as you say, precise but with an edge, and then people who are contemporaries from the loft period.

COLEMAN:  The bottom line is, it worked out like it worked out.  I wasn’t dissatisfied with the way it worked out.  Had we had more time, probably we could have done better, but I could say that about anything.  I thought it worked out great overall, the whole thing.  I really learned a lot from the experience.  But certain guys who have been playing a certain way a long time, you’re not going to change that overnight.

TP:    I thought there was a great dynamic.

COLEMAN:  I thought there was, too.  The rubbing of these different things produced different effects.  It would have been boring if it was all guys like me or all guys like Ray Anderson or whatever.  The fact that it was different people rubbing elbows made for an interesting mix.  And it’s because of Sam that that mix was there.  It’s not the kind of mix that you could concoct.  If we had concocted it, it would be probably less interesting.  Everybody has strengths.  A lot of the players who were hanging out on the loft scene have a lot of energy, and there’s a lot of raw power there…

TP:    A lot of expression in the horns.

COLEMAN:  Exactly.  So that adds a great deal to the thing.  You find that in a lot of the older music, too, in Duke Ellington’s band and so on.  To me, a lot of the younger guys don’t have that, unless it’s manufactured.  There are players who don’t like that, who say, “Well, that’s bull” or whatever.  But for me, all of that is valid — that energy.  I learned that when I played with Cecil Taylor’s big band, for example. I played with this band, and there was a lot of raw energy there, and if that energy is channeled right it can be killer.  It can get out of hand, but anything can get out of hand!

So I thought it was a really good thing.  I felt my job was to help Sam make this the best we could make, given what we’ve got, given our situation, given the budget, given how much time.   And it helped that we had a gig at Sweet Basil before, which was like rehearsal in a lot of ways, and it also helped that they had a bigger budget than normal, because little problems that came up that took time to work out, and the fact that we had a bigger budget meant we could do that, whereas if we were recording for a real small label that wouldn’t have happened.  What happens with a small situation is that when problems come up, you can’t work them out.  So the chips fall where they may.

TP:    Sam talks about how these pieces are meant to be 50 minutes.  Of course, on a record you can’t do that.

COLEMAN:  Your chops say you can’t do that.

TP:    Do you feel it’s an overly idealistic aspiration on his part?

COLEMAN:  Well, yeah.  It’s kind of like the Braxton music on different planets.  It falls within that area.  It’s an ideal.  To me, ideals are great.  They’re fantastic.  If that’s the ideal you hold in your head, if that’s what you aspire to, that’s great.  But it probably will never be that.  I mean, guys’ lips will fall off if you play 5 compositions of 50 minutes each. People just won’t make it.  However, it’s a great idea, and I see what he’s talking about.  Yeah, it could be like that.  But I also think that would be very boring.

TP:    I guess that’s part of the African thing you’re talking about, is the endless music.

COLEMAN:  Yeah.  I understood what Sam is saying there, but I don’t think that’s ever been realized or will be realized, because it’s just a situation.  Also, there’s a stamina issue.

TP:    Would you elaborate more on your comments in the liner notes about the closeness of the music to the West African concept.

COLEMAN:  Well, one thing is what you mentioned about the different levels of the musician and all that kind of thing.  You find that a lot in African music, where people are participating on the level they can participate on.  You find it a lot in community music.  There’s not the idea of everybody being a virtuoso.  Only some people are virtuosos.  Other people are doing other things, performing other functions.  When I see, for example, Duke Ellington’s band or Count Basie’s band, that’s what I see.  You don’t see a thing where everybody is a virtuoso kind of thing.

The one thing I wouldn’t have done, Sam has this super-democratic thing where everybody’s soloing, everybody gets the same amount of space and all that kind of stuff.  I wouldn’t have done it like that.  I would have let the stronger soloists solo for the most part, or get the lion’s share of the space, in order to bring the strongest characteristics out of the music.  I wouldn’t have let everybody solo and everybody get equal space and everybody have 2 seconds, which is what it comes out to be when you’re trying to get all that music done and get all that stuff in on record.  You have these really short improvisations…I mean, that are not collective.  There’s a lot of improvisation, but a lot of stuff that’s collective, which is like composition.  Everything gets mixed together, and you’re not hearing the individual voices so much.  There were people in the band who are strong soloists in all the different sections, and I would have brought them out more.  In my opinion, it would have raised the level of the music.  But Sam had a different idea.  Sam is a very compassionate guy.  He didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.  So he’d have guys solo who really shouldn’t be soloing.  That wasn’t their function.  I would have had a bit more role-playing, I guess I’m saying.  In that sense, I’m following the African thing.  I’m not going to have a kid do a master drummer’s part.  The master drummer does the master drummer part.  That doesn’t mean the other guys are less important, because that support part is very important.  A guy like Michael Jordan, he needs his support, role players — he can’t do it by himself.   That’s very important.  But in this day of stars and egos and so on, we don’t think like that – in the West.  We think the star is the most important guy.  Well, that’s not true.  It’s the whole team that’s important, and that’s part of what’s wrong with this culture.

TP:    Greg addressed a quality in the orchestrating where, say, the saxophone lines are doing something totally different than every other section, there are four or five things happening at once within the section, so it’s a whole band where you break down the integers, they’re all doing different things but it locks together.  Then my comment was that it’s not unlike the African concept of stacking rhythms, hatcheting…

COLEMAN:  Right.  But it wasn’t usually in sections like that.  In other words, Sam writes a cross-section.  In other words, a tenor and an alto might be playing with a trumpet and trombone.  Then another two trumpets might be playing with the baritone and another alto.

TP:    He described it as doubling sections.

COLEMAN:  He’s writing things where he’s making unusual groups of people.  It might even be the bass and one horn or something like that.  There’s unusual groups of people doing things, then he’ll play that off against the sound of sections, like the brass section or the trumpet section or whatever.  So sometimes he will have traditional sections playing.  Other times he’ll break those sections up, and it will be like me and the lead trumpet player and one of the lower brass or something like that, and it will be a section.  So you have to keep your ears open, because you never really know until you know the music where you’re going to be paired off and who you’re going to end up playing with, and all that kind of thing.  As a result, you have to be strong and play on your own.

TP:    That’s how the pieces become different with every performance, then, in a structural sense, that you don’t know who you’re going to be paired off with?

COLEMAN:  Well, no.  Within the same piece you’re paired off with the same double. The improvisation is what makes it different.  But from piece to piece, until you know that particular piece, it’s different.  And he has so much music that you can’t remember everything.  So from piece to piece it’s always different.  Most people when they write big band music, they’re writing saxophone section stuff out — this real Nestico type of writing where all the saxophones are playing together, all the trumpets are playing together, all the trombones are playing together.  Sam has some of that, too, but more often than not he’ll break the sections up and have different instruments playing with each other, and that gives a different sound.  It’s a really different sound when you have a saxophone, a trumpet and a trombone as a section, or a saxophone, euphonium and trumpet, or whatever.  That’s a really different sound than three saxophones playing.

TP:    One last general question.  Talk a bit about Sam Rivers’ place in the history of the music.

COLEMAN:  In my opinion, there’s two histories of the music.  There’s the history of what gets written down in the books and what’s known and all that kind of stuff, which unfortunately is what most people are going to know.  Then there’s the actual effect that you’ve had on the music and its participants, and which continues through other people you’ve touched.  In that sense, for me, Sam’s influence on the music is huge, because he’s touched people some of whom are themselves going to make a lot of marks.  I mean, there are a lot of unknown people who have this kind of effect, but Sam is more than unknown, so naturally he’s going to be better known, because he’s been on the scene a long time, he’s lived a long time, he’s played with a lot of people over the years.  So from way back in the ’50s all the way up to now he’s affected a lot of people’s lives, from Tony Williams all the way through to what’s happening today.  As a result, through his own work and through the work of these other people, he’s had a big effect.  To me, your effect on the music is cumulative.  It doesn’t just stop with some records you put out that somebody may think is important or whatever.  It’s mostly the interactions you have as you live every day, and the effect you’ve had on certain people.  I know he’s had a huge effect on my life.  I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for Sam and people like him.  And if there’s anybody out there who claims that I have a big effect on them, well, again, that’s coming from Sam…

TP:    It’s the line of descent.

COLEMAN:  Yeah.  And it plays out all the way to the public.  It’s not just something that stops with the musicians, because what we do collectively is this music.  Even if somebody like Terence Blanchard had not listened to Sam at all and he had no effect on him, and he has a big effect on me, then when I play with Terence Blanchard the effect is still there, regardless of that.  So it carries on and on and on through unusual ways.  I think he’s a very original voice, and very original voices always have a huge effect, in my opinion, even when they’re not well known.  They always have a huge effect because they’re bringing something different to the mix, to the dance.  Put it that way.  If you’re just bringing the same thing to the dance that everybody else is bringing, well, then, it’s already in the dance — it’s no big deal.  But if you’re bringing something different, everybody is like, “Oh, what, wait a minute, what’s this cat doing?”  So that’s adding something to the overall mix.  He has a much bigger effect than somebody who is just bringing the same drink to the party and then throwing it in the punch when there’s already that in there  than somebody who brings a different ingredient.  He has a much bigger effect because that ingredient wasn’t there before.  That’s the way I look at people like Sam Rivers.

TP:    Please talk about him personally, your relation to him…

COLEMAN:  When I first came to New York, he and Bea kind of took me under their wing a bit.  Not completely; I didn’t move in with them or anything like that.  But they definitely took me under their wing, and I would go over and hang out even when there was no music stuff happening.  See, I was fairly poor and didn’t have a lot happening in terms of where I was living and all that kind of stuff.  So I would just hang out a lot at Rivbea, and a lot of times I’d be hanging out with Sam or Bea or Monique.  Sam encouraged me a lot.  He would talk to me.  It wasn’t like a father-son relationship in the traditional sense, but it’s more like that than anything else, I guess.  I definitely felt they were taking me under their wing and encouraging me.  Bea told me early on… She would talk to me and tell me things that Sam wouldn’t necessarily tell me, like, “Sam thinks you have a lot of talent and you’re going to do a lot, so you just have to hang…”  She would tell me a lot of things that I guess Sam would say but wouldn’t say in front of me.  Sam isn’t a cat who throws around a lot of compliments.  That mainly came from Bea.  But you could tell that she was getting a lot of information from Sam, because some of the things she would say weren’t things you’d think she’d know just on her own.  She would just say a lot of things.  I remember when he first heard Gary Thomas, Bea said a lot of the same things about Gary which I thought really came from Sam. But Sam wasn’t the kind of guy who would say that.  He would just get down to the business of doing the music.  But I felt they took me in, in their own kind of weird way — because they’re kind of a weird lot.

TP:    They dance to the beat of their own drummer, as the saying goes.

COLEMAN:  Yes, and I’m like that, too, and I dug that, and I could relate to it.  So they just encouraged me.  When Sam did talk to me, he really encouraged me to try to stay creative and try to build my own sound.  He always said that for him, that’s what the whole thing was about, was really getting out what’s unique inside of you and getting your own sound.  I got the feeling that if he didn’t do that, he didn’t want to do anything.  I felt that way, too, so I was attracted to that part of what he was talking about.  “The really important thing is you’ve got to have your own voice, you’ve got to have your own thing to say.”  I remember a lot of guys in Chicago saying that same kind of thing.  For me, that was the big message and the important thing I get from his example.  He’s one of those cats like Cecil Taylor and Ornette who just stuck it out over the long run.  If they stumbled, they got back up and just kept going.  That’s like a really big inspiration for me, because I’d see if they can do this in what were harder times than today, then what’s my problem?

Dave Holland

TP:    First, tell me how you first touched based with Sam Rivers and came into his orbit.

HOLLAND:  I met Sam in New York in the late ’60s shortly after I’d moved there.  I remember seeing him around town at various locations.  He’d started rehearsing with Cecil Taylor, who had a place sort of downtown around 18th Street and 6th Avenue, which is in the area I was living, so I used to see Sam quite often — he’d be on his way to rehearsal.  The next time we kind of hung out a little bit was touring in the fall of ’69 when I was with Miles and he was with Cecil’s band, and we were doing some double-bill concerts in Europe.  That was sort of the extent of it until late ’71 or early ’72.  I was living in New York, and I’d just come back from the West Coast after working with Circle.  The band broke up, and I worked with Stan Getz for about a year-and-a-half, and during the time I was with Stan I met up with Sam.  How that happened, just to cut a long story short, was Barry Altschul, who was the drummer in Circle, had started going to Sam’s loft at Studio Rivbea and rehearsing with him in the afternoon, and when I got back into town, Barry suggested I come by and do some playing with him.  That’s how it started, and from then on I started working with Sam, and we played in trio and big bands in quartet and quintet format.

TP:    So you basically were involved in all his different projects.

HOLLAND:  Yes.  I’d say it was from early ’72 until early ’81.

TP:    You’re on Sizzle as well as the other…

HOLLAND:  I am, yes.

TP:    Did playing in those different situations with him involve different demands on you…

HOLLAND:  In terms of the orchestration of the groups, one interesting group that we played in was with Joe Daley on tuba, which certainly presented some new challenges for both of us in terms of how we would work together, both of us playing bass instruments.  That was a particularly interesting and challenging situation for us to work on.  But musically, the majority of performances that I did with Sam were improvised music.  We used no written music.  The only written music that we used was with the big band, and all the other performances, even the quartet-quintet performances… Abdul Wadud did some gigs with us with cello-tuba-bass-saxophone-drums.  All this music was improvised.

TP:    You started basically with a tabula rasa, a blank piece of paper, as you put it to me on the radio.

HOLLAND:  That was it.  We’d just start wherever we wanted to.  The great thing for me was that every night we could really go in whatever direction we felt like going, and it gave us a chance to explore a lot of interesting places.

TP:    Did you hear any of the new record, or any of the music?

HOLLAND:  I haven’t heard the record, and I was out of town when they did the week at Sweet Basil.

TP:    Tell me about playing the big band music.  Did it sound like anything you had been involved with before?  How would you describe the dynamics of it, the demands of playing it?

HOLLAND:  It was certainly unique, original music that Sam was writing for the big band then.  It was quite complex at times.  It involved a lot of overlapping rhythmic cycles, and everybody had to very much be aware of how their part works with everybody else’s, of course, and how they interlocked.  The music seems to span…pretty much like Sam’s playing, it spanned the whole tradition of the music.  You could hear bits of Duke Ellington in there just…in terms of references, I mean.  I’m not suggesting it was at all similar, but only that it drew on a sort of broad range of the tradition of big band writing, and it had conventional harmonic elements and more atonal elements going on.  It was a very broad mixture of things.

TP:    It seems to me that he really relies on the groove function of the bass, that the drums are more coloristic in his concept.  True?

HOLLAND:  I don’t know.  I think that very much depends on the players involved.

TP:    He’s player-oriented.

HOLLAND:  Yes.  Sam very much tried to involve the individual styles of the players into the music and integrate them.  The music would take different shapes depending on who was playing it, of course.  But I don’t know if I could say the function of the drum would be… One good example was Charlie Persip came in one time to play with the band, and that was a very interesting time when he played, because he brought his wonderful experience of playing big band music to that music, and I thought it was a great combination.

TP:    Tell me about the Studio Rivbea scene.  The big band workshopped there.  Was it on a once-a-week basis or something?

HOLLAND:  There was a rehearsal more or less once a week, and we’d run through the charts.  The rehearsals were quite loose.  I was frustrated sometimes because I would like to have had more time to develop each piece.  Sam would run through the piece and work on some sections and then move on to the next one, and I was still interested in developing the piece we just finished with.  The rehearsals moved along quite rapidly.  We didn’t spend a lot of time on each piece.

TP:    Could you give a sense of the ambiance of that time, of the ’70s, the music that was happening in lofts, the spirit of the time, the various overlapping circles in New York City, and where Sam fit into that.

HOLLAND:  I think there was a feeling amongst the community that there was a need for some alternative performance spaces, and there were some places opening up.  Ornette Coleman had a place in Soho where he started doing performances.  That was the first thing I remember in that way.  Various other people decided to do that.  Sam opened up his loft, which is actually where he and his family were living, and it became a whole family affair.  It was wonderful.  He, his wife Bea, the daughters and his son all pitched in and helped run the place, helped to make it a very personal kind of thing, a very personal environment for the music to happen in.  It literally put on these wonderful series of concerts which gave musicians a chance to really develop and focus in on their ideas musically and without any commercial constraints.  So it was sort of the breeding ground for a lot of very interesting musical ideas that were being developed during that time, and that weren’t being heard in New York.  Of course, this kind of activity brought together people, and of course opportunities then came up for those groups to work in Europe and elsewhere.  So it was a very important time of people coming together and organizing their music.

TP:    And Rivbea was a key center within that.

HOLLAND:  It was a key center.  The lofts often tended to gravitate around certain groups of musicians or certain approaches to music, let’s say.  There was a loft called Environ…

TP:    John Fischer’s place.

HOLLAND:  Exactly.  And they tended to have one policy… Well, there were overlapping things.  But each loft would have its own set of groups or people that it presented.  There was a very wide range of different things going on.  It was not only a place to perform, of course, but a place to rehearse and a place to congregate for the community of musicians, to come together and discuss what’s going on and to share ideas and so on.  These kinds of places that come along every now and then provide a very important function to the musical community.

TP:    Is there something about Sam Rivers’ personality that makes him… He’s someone who seems to organize a scene around him wherever he is.  He said he did this in Harlem when he first came to New York, and in Boston as well.  What are the dynamics of his personality that make him so charismatic and attractive to other musicians?

HOLLAND:  Well, Sam is a very dedicated musician, to his music, and he’s also dedicated to realizing it and bringing it to fruition in performances and so on.  He was probably one of the ones who was very independent-minded as a musician.  He didn’t wait for people to say, “Would you like to do this?”  He would take the initiative.  So this was why I think that Sam would often have a scene around him, because he was someone who would take the initiative, would have the vision and the drive to put things together.  Also, he is a great composer.  Although his small groups that I was involved in during the ’70s were all open form performances, without any written music, his written music is very distinctive and very personal, and shows a very individual approach to writing and to thinking about music.

TP:    If you were to describe him as a saxophonist to someone who was unfamiliar with him, how would you do it?

HOLLAND:  Sam is a very inclusive player.  He uses all his musical experience when he plays.  That’s something he taught me when I was playing with him, was the idea of just bringing it all into the music, all your experiences into the music.  So when you listen to Sam’s playing and listen to his written music, you hear that range of experience he’s had, from Blues through more traditional forms and up to the present with his own original music.  I think one of the things that’s very interesting in his playing and very individualistic is his approach to rhythm.  He had an influence, I know, on quite a few musicians who worked with him during the ’70s in terms of how he used rhythm in his written for the big band, his overlapping cycles, and the way he utilized rhythmic fields and so on in his music.

TP:    How would you assess his place in the history of the music, particularly in his time?

HOLLAND:  Sam is a player that spanned a number of developments in the music in his career and in his life, and he’s somebody who was able to keep some continuity going through those different stages and have the later things that he’s done still echo the experiences that his earlier music had.  A lot of players, particularly during the ’60s and ’70s who were playing this open form music didn’t bring that kind of experience to the playing, to the music that Sam had, and Sam brought this great foundation within the tradition of the music, but then found a way to express it in this contemporary open-form way.

Chico Freeman

TP:     When did you first hook up with Sam?

CHICO FREEMAN:  I guess it was 1976, when I came here from Chicago.

TP:    Did you know him before?

FREEMAN:  No, I didn’t know him before.  I met him here.

TP:    How did you link up?

FREEMAN:  I guess when I came around, you start come around, hanging, trying to get known and meet people, and I think I met him… I went to Rivbea because someone told me… Well, I’d heard about it before.  When I went over there I met him and Bea.  He had a big band going, and he hired me.  First he heard me (I think I sat in somewhere or something), and then he hired me.

TP:    You’d been involved in the AACM Big Band for a number of years.  Did his big band sound really distinctive?  Original music?  Was it very striking to you?

FREEMAN:  Definitely original music.  His whole style is original.  It was quite different from the AACM Big Band or Muhal’s big band.

TP:    Talk about his style, and what’s original about it.

FREEMAN:  Well, his way of writing.  He has a style he’s developed that’s linear… I mean, he juxtaposes lots of different lines together and things like that, so he’s got a linear juxtaposing approach to lines that he has.  I think it comes from the saxophone.  But he plays good piano, too.  He has I guess like polychords for the harmonies that he does, and then he sort of adapts that to the way he writes lines and things, then he juxtaposes the lines and the harmonies together in the same way.  I remember Don Pullen was in the band when I was there, too.

TP:    Dave Holland was talking about his concept of cyclic overlapping rhythms.

FREEMAN:  That’s it exactly.  I called it juxtaposition.  But cyclic overlapping or juxtaposition.

TP:    How was it different from your experience in Muhal’s band.  Talk about how he ran the band, about his personality as a bandleader, and also, extrapolating from that, about the ambiance of Rivbea and its position in the New York scene at that time as you experienced it.

FREEMAN:  He was different than Muhal in that Muhal was more… Muhal as a composer approached it more from a piano perspective, I think, and Muhal also ran the band very… It was a great band, to tell you the truth.  I really loved working in Muhal’s band.  The Duke Ellington approach was involved, even though it was newer things we were doing.  Sam’s approach was a little more loose in the sense that… In that way they maybe were similar.  There’s a lot of freedom of expression, a lot of solos and things like that.  Sam’s music being so different… And the reading was a challenge.  Reading his music is not easy.

TP:    Why.

FREEMAN:  It’s difficult. [LAUGHS]
TP:    Just because it’s so dense.

FREEMAN:  Yeah, it’s dense, and a lot of things going on, and sometimes the saxophones are playing with the trombones, and then the next you know they’re playing with the trumpet.  There’s a lot of things happening.

TP:    So you can get a sort of vertigo being in a section, like orienting yourself to where you are.

FREEMAN:  Yeah, you have to find that out.  You’d spend five rehearsals just finding out who’s playing what you’re playing, or rhythmically.

TP:    And Sam said the parts sometimes involved you playing 8 bars written and then 8 bars free, and going back and forth…

FREEMAN:  Yes, that, and there were all kinds of things he was doing.  The interesting thing about Rivbea and the ambiance is that Rivbea was kind of self-contained.  It was a rehearsal space, it was a performance space, and it was also a kind of conceptual musical…like a school.  It wasn’t a school in the typical traditional sense of a school, but it had that kind of a… Let me change, and call it a workshop.  It was a workshop kind of situation.  So at the same time Sam was running this big band, he also had his trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul during this period.  I used to get a chance to listen to them a lot.  But Sam also made it a place where not only was it for him to showcase his bands, but it was a place where other bands and other musicians had an opportunity… Sam is the reason I pretty much started my European career as a leader.

TP:    How so?

FREEMAN:  Well, Sam had this big concept… He would take the Rivbea Orchestra, which at that time was Barry Altschul, Dave Holland, myself and some other people I can’t… Byard Lancaster, different people who were playing; I can’t remember everybody.  But he had the orchestra, and we went out to do the Northsea Jazz Festival, and there he had a whole night, not just one concert.  That night there was a concert by the orchestra, then we broke down into smaller groups.  I had a small group which was with Dave and Barry, myself, and a vibes player, and I did a concert.  In this case, I was playing my own original music.  Sam allowed that, which was very interesting.  There were a few different groups that the band broke down into.  In a way, that was like my first festival to play as a leader, even though I was in the Rivbea Orchestra.  From that, my response at Northsea, which was really very positive, Sam introduced me to his agent, and his agent began to work with me, and that’s how my career started.  So that was due to him and Bea.  So I have a lot to thank him for.

TP:    Was the music that the Rivbea Orchestra was playing similar to what the orchestra at Sweet Basil played last year and that’s on the record?

FREEMAN:  Some of it was similar.  Not all of it.

TP:    How has it evolved over the years?

FREEMAN:  Well, Sam is an amazing guy.  He has a mind like a steel trap.  He remembers things.  He’s amazing.  Sam used to be in a group called Roots, which at that time was Arthur Blythe, Nathan Davis, Sam, myself, Don Pullen, I think Santi and Idris Muhammad.  I remember once, something happened to the music; it got lost, or some arrangements on a couple of charts got misplaced somehow.  And Sam remembered the whole arrangement, and he wrote the arrangement out, all the parts.  He remembered everything.  He wrote everybody’s part out.  Shocked me.  I mean, I was amazed.

And Sam knows 270 million songs. A lot of people listen to his music, but they don’t realize the standards… He knows every standard…I shouldn’t say every standard that was written… But once we had a test on the bus, man, and everybody tried their best to find a song Sam didn’t know, and no one was successful.

TP:    If you were to try to describe the way he plays saxophone to somebody and what’s distinctive about his style, how would you do that?

FREEMAN:  Well, that’s difficult. [LAUGHS] His style.  How do you describe his style.

TP:    Steve Coleman used the word “serpentine,” and compared it to the way he moves and talks and gestures.  Osby said he reminded him of your Dad.  I don’t know if he means that because they’re about the same age, or because they have similar references and came up under each other.  He’s very vocalized.  He plays like someone who played a lot of blues, which he did.

FREEMAN:  Yeah, I would agree with that.  Serpentine sounds like a good word, too.  His lines are elusive.  They angle.  He’s angular in his lines and stuff like that.  I don’t know if he reminds me of my father.  They have completely different style.  I think they’re both great musicians.  I would compare them in the sense that each has their own distinctive style.  My Dad definitely has a sound, and so does Sam.  It’s a different sound.

TP:    If you were pick a word or image to describe his sound, how would you do it?

FREEMAN:  I’ve never done that actually.  Nothing comes to mind right now, one word that would do it.  The colors that he has are… What distinguishes him more to me, and what I hear are his phrases and the way he begins and ends a phrase.  He sort of sings at the end of a phrase.  He plays a line, and when he rests that last note sings.  He sort of sings it.

TP:    He’s been singing since 4 years old in gospel choirs.  What was your general impression of the week at Sweet Basil and the way the record came out?

FREEMAN:  I thought the record came out really well.  The week at Sweet Basil was good.  I mean, we had great musicians in the band.  The saxophone section particularly was… And the trumpet section was great, too, I must say.  Then of course, having Joe Bowie and Ray Anderson, I like both; those are two of my favorite trombone players.  I really enjoyed the band, and especially the musicians who were there.  And the music was definitely a challenge, and as a result it was good to be there among that caliber of musicians and playing that, and also to take Sam’s music.  You see, with all of that cyclical juxtapositioning and those angular rhythms and things, it was interesting to bring dynamics and all of those other things to that, and make that music live.  It was a challenge.  So I found it to be very interesting.  Yet at the same time, I said it sounds quite complicated, but at the same those complications are built on a basis of simplicity.
TP:    Very advanced structures over a primitive beat.  He always puts the dance beats on it.

FREEMAN:  Yes, it was simple bass.  The bass was simple.  Harmonically it was not… For the solos, the chords were pretty simple and basic, and also the beats and rhythms, but the structures of… The melodic structures were quite complicated, rhythmically and… Again, it’s where he placed things, and he inverts things, and starts things from the middle and from the inside-out and from the outside-in, backwards-to-front and front-to-back, and all in different kinds… Cyclical and juxtapositioning by offsetting them here and there.

TP:    As he put it, it’s like higher mathematics to him; he can’t make a mistake.

FREEMAN:  I’m telling you, it’s his own system.  He’s worked it out.  He’s the master of his own thing.

TP:    Anything you’d like to address that I didn’t cover?

FREEMAN:  Nothing I can think of, except to say he’s responsible for a lot of musicians, helping a lot of musicians and being there for a lot of guys.  He’s always embraced rather than rejected, and I think that a lot of us owe him a debt.  He’s been around for a long time, and he’s definitely one of the innovators and major exponents of this music.

Bob Stewart

TP:    When did you first become aware of Sam Rivers and involved in his music?

BOB STEWART:  That was actually when I moved to New York, around 1966-67.  There was a couple of year period there when he rehearsed uptown at 134th Street, at Bethune Elementary School.  He used to do every Thursday or something like that for a couple of hours.  Carlos Ward on alto saxophone and Charles Stephens on trombone, Joe Gardner, Hamiet Bluiett, all these people were in the band when we would rehearse up there — way before Studio Rivbea.

TP:    What was that music like?

STEWART:  Stylistically, in terms of how he was writing, it was some of the most difficult tuba parts I’d ever seen to that date.  Because he was writing for the tuba, just like he was writing… A lot of composers at that point wrote the tuba part like they were writing a baritone saxophone part.  They just had me paralleling the baritone, which was pretty boring most of the time.  And he was writing for the tuba just like it was another horn.  He wrote in a linear fashion, so that everybody had their own lines, which is what created the harmony more than as… I think he wasn’t thinking so much contrapuntally as he was in lines, so that formed the harmony of the piece.  So the tuba parts were really intricate and difficult rhythmically and interval jumps and leaps that would be in the part…

TP:    Did you have rhythmic responsibilities that other horns didn’t have within that?


TP:    So as a tubist in Sam Rivers’ Big Band you’re playing long lines, and you’re just one of the horns.

STEWART:  Right.  That’s one of the reasons why a number of years later, ’81 and  ’82, I did two what I called Tuba Spectaculars at St. Peter’s Church, covering all phases of the tuba.  In ’81 Major Holley did a presentation, Ray Draper did a presentation, Howard Johnson did one, I did a duo with Arthur Blythe, a whole series of things like that.  The next year I did a presentation of the tuba through the composers Sam Rivers and Gil Evans, and it showed how they both were writing for the tuba, although very differently.  Both composers inspired me to play my horn in a very different fashion, because the stuff they wrote was very difficult to play but each one very differently difficult.

TP:    Is it difficult just because it stretches the limitations of normal technique on the tuba?

STEWART:  No, it’s within the technique of any instrument, although it’s not something that a tuba player gets to see every time, because not everybody is as creative as they are.  Alto players I’m sure see this kind of all stuff the time at that point, but it wasn’t something that a tuba player wouldn’t see all the time.

TP:    Were you ever involved in his free improv situations?  He did a lot of that with Joe Daley in the ’70s.

STEWART:  No, I never did any of that stuff with Dave Holland and Bobby Battle and Barry Altschul and Warren Smith… It was an interesting presentation during that period with tuba and the bass.  But it was right after I’d done all these rehearsals.  Then he went down to Rivbea, which is when he formed that group.  I didn’t rehearse too much with Sam once he formed Studio Rivbea.

TP:    Because you didn’t play with him downtown, you played with him uptown.

STEWART:  I played with him uptown before he went downtown, all the stuff that was formulated going downtown.  It was almost like Minton’s before it went downtown.

TP:    So that was a real serious workshop atmosphere right after he moved here.

STEWART:  Absolutely, because we weren’t getting paid for that, and he didn’t have a whole lot of gigs, so we were just going up there and rehearsing with Sam.  Like I say, it was as enlightening to me as it was to Sam, in terms of he could hear his arrangements.

TP:    That’s what he said, he had all these arrangements and nobody available in Boston to play them.

STEWART:  Exactly.  So when he brought that out, I said, “Whoa…” I still have some of that stuff at home, as a matter of fact.  I xeroxed it all.  It was so difficult it was like working on an etude book or something.  Sam’s etude book.  It was a great thing for my eyes during that time, and it expanded my technique.  This is one of the reasons, like I say, why I did those concerts.  Because Gil Evans didn’t write in such a technically difficult way, but in terms of what he’d ask you to do… He had some things that were very-very high.  He wanted the texture of a tuba to play up high on its instrument, like high around middle-C, D, F, above that, while trumpet and other instruments were playing toward the bottom of their instrument and playing right next to where I was playing, or even play in unison with me.  But there was a tension, because the sound of my instrument up high and theirs from down low…my instrument created the tension.  That’s another thing I learned from Gil, how he would do that with instruments, how he would do that with the tuba, putting it up high while bringing… At the time, Lew Soloff was playing trumpet.  Having Lew playing like in thirds with me, except I would be above him.  So it created this really interesting tension in the band while not necessarily being loud.

TP:    A number of musicians who play with him say there’s a sort of vertigo effect in orienting yourself in the music at any given time because of the overlapping rhythmic cycle concept that he uses.

STEWART:  You had to depend on people differently.  In a regular big band, you can count on somebody going BIH-DE-DAP–UNNH.  You can kind of pop off of a whole section dropping at a downbeat or a …and-a-4, or whatever it happens to be, so you can kind of know where you are.  But in Sam’s music you had to listen differently.  It wasn’t like the kind of cliche places where you can depend on what your part went like.  You had to listen very differently in terms of where the accents were.  It’s rhythmically unique.

TP:    He doesn’t sound like anybody else.

STEWART:  He doesn’t sound like anybody else at all.  Nobody else.  I mean, the closest thing that even feels like that is the way that David Murray writes, but not really.  Just in terms of the ensemble, there’s a…I don’t want to use the word “confusion”… You can’t relate it to all the regular stuff that you do in a big band, and therefore finding out where you are or who you play your part with.  Because quite often it’s very difficult to figure out who you’re playing your part with, so you have to get your cues a different kind of way.

TP:    Let me move to last year and your impressions of the week at Sweet Basil, and relate the music you were playing to what your experience had been 32 years before, and how you like the record.

STEWART:  I love the record.  I was honored to be a part of that project, because it was nice watching this music evolve to now from ’66 or ’77.  Particularly if you think of the whole evolution, if you have a definition of jazz, part of that definition is how musicians evolved and how the technique evolves.  The technique becomes more evolved, and musicians become much more agile on the instruments.  And to watch that very same thing happen in my lifetime is very interesting how a lot of these instruments and musicians hadn’t been used to looking at parts like that coming out of regular big bands.  We never really played his music well then.  But 30 years later, when a few of the same people were in the band… Hamiett Bluiett and I were the only two original members.

TP:    Then there were a bunch of people who played with him at Rivbea, and then some young guys with a different aesthetic.  An interesting mix of musicians.

STEWART:  So it was interesting.  There were three layers of musicians in that group.  Really four, because his rhythm section from Florida is brand new.  And it’s interesting hearing that music really played well, finally after all these years, and people coming back to the music as well as coming to the music fresh, and people that have been in the music for maybe the last ten years rather than 30… Hearing that music having all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed.  It was absolutely marvelous listening to it and being a part of it.  We did a thing at La Villette in France, and it was a packed concert, and people just were going wild.

TP:    There’s a primal thing.  The energy is just amazing.

STEWART:  Absolutely.

TP:    If you were going to describe it to someone who hadn’t heard it, what would you say to them?  In its advanced, current iteration.

STEWART:  It’s hard to describe.  You could tell them it’s a big band, but it’s like no big band they’ve ever heard.  You tell them it’s big band arrangements, but it’s not like any stereotype of any kind.  Either stereotype or non-stereotype.  If you think about the creative big band things that Gil Evans did for Miles, or the creative big band things that were being done by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis… Still it’s creative, but it’s creative differently.

TP:    Does it sound connected to the tradition to you?

STEWART:  Absolutely.  It’s in the tradition similar to the tradition label that was put on Duke Ellington’s music when they called it “jungle music.”  It’s similar to that tradition, in that, while being contemporary, he’s reached back some kind of way and brought up spirits from old, that… I feel like I’m playing in some kind of African big band.  Just the rhythmic qualities of it and the way the lines are moving very independently of each other, which you hear a lot in African music.  It reaches back to particularly a rhythmic sense…
TP:    The way he put it was it’s very advanced harmonies over primitive… He always puts the dance element into it, and he used the word “primitive” not in a pejorative sense, but more primal, old…

STEWART:  I think that’s what I just said!  It’s a very contemporary music, but still it calls up spirits from way back.

TP:    One more question.  Your impressions of Sam as a saxophone player, and the salient qualities of what he does.

STEWART:  I’ll just give you my experience.  Having known Sam and heard a certain way he plays from the early days, I was thinking of him as an avant-garde saxophone player.  I knew he had chops and I knew he knew what he was doing, but I never really heard him play that other way.  About 12 years ago I was in Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band, and I was so surprised to see he had hired Sam Rivers to be either first or second tenor player.  Right after that Dizzy hired him for his quintet, and Dizzy was straight-ahead compared to what Sam was doing.  I was surprised.  Then when I heard him play in that style, I was absolutely floored at the depth of this man’s knowledge.

TP:    He has a very vocalized sound, doesn’t he.  Steve Coleman used the word “serpentine.”

STEWART:  Oh yeah?  That’s the way he writes, too.  He writes very similar to the way he plays.  I mean, if you don’t hear him sing those parts… That’s one of the things he was doing over in Paris when we did that concert.  He started singing the beginning of the tunes, just to put the feeling into the band.  Before we even got a chance to play, the audience erupted.  He would do it with such energy. [SINGS]

Anthony Cole

TP:    I want to focus this conversation on the Orlando scene.  Give me some sense of Sam’s impact on Orlando and maybe the impact of Orlando on him as well.  Tell me something about the venue that the big band plays in.  I also want to talk to you about your personal interaction with him and role in the big band, more or less.

ANTHONY COLE:  It’s pretty easy for here.  I moved here from L.A. in ’91.

TP:    So you moved to Orlando the same year Sam did.

COLE:  Yes, exactly.  When I moved here I pretty much had retired from playing the drums.  I was playing piano in a jazz quartet and I was going to spend more time on the piano, more or less, than the drums.  My mother, Linda Cole, who is a fine vocalist around here, pretty big around here, was going to jazz jam sessions that they were having at what  was known as the Beecham Jazz and Blues Club at the time.  It’s now known as Sapphire Supper Club — same club.  Every Tuesday night there was a jazz jam going on, and she was pretty much begging me to come over here and go to one with her.  And I didn’t… I had a plan in mind when I moved here from L.A., and I pretty much didn’t want to get into the rigmarole and the hustle-and-bustle and all that, but I went with her, sat in and played some drums.  Sam Rivers had just moved to town, and he happened to be there, and saw me play.  He sat in and did a tune.  We didn’t play together, but after that time he was trying to track me down.  Long story short, we hooked up.

As far as the scene here at the time, there wasn’t much of a scene, other than like anywhere else where you have some local bands and a couple of places where those bands plays, there wasn’t really much of what we know to make a scene.

TP:    You do have the studio musicians.  Like a pool of hungry musicians, as he put it.

COLE:  Right.  Well, all the musicians are out at Disney, playing out at Disney.  You come here and get a job out at Disney and it’s making you good money, so you sacrifice a lot of whatever…

TP:    Creativity.

COLE:  Exactly.  To do that.  Well, I had the opportunity to do that and iced it, because I had got here once a lot of cats were already doing that, and I had got to see the results of that, and knowing that I would lose a lot of my freedom I decided to stay broke.  But anyway, the impact that Sam has had on this area is… Well, he’s pretty much brought to the forefront the reality of jazz, avant-garde jazz, free jazz — however people want to classify the music, because it’s just music, if you know what I mean.  In reverse, the impact it’s had on Sam is the response from the younger generation that he’s gotten from his music, not as much the older generation, or your older jazz crowd.  It’s been the younger crowd that he’s moved here, because his music is closer to the lifeline of what’s going on now.  It doesn’t bore you, it doesn’t just swing along, it actually moves.  I think everyone has been surprised.  I think Sam has been surprised with the response in this area, and of course everyone has been surprised with having a living jazz legend living in this area.

TP:    So in Orlando it’s a situation where Sam Rivers, who is an icon of avant garde jazz, although he’s also, as he likes to make sure you’re aware, a strong traditional musician…

COLE:  Totally.
TP:    …has a large audience, and has touched a chord amongst young people in Orlando.

COLE:  Moreso.  Moreso than the older generation.

TP:    You gave me some sense of why you think that is.  Could we hone that down a bit, get into some specifics, the inner dynamics of the music that make it so appealing.

COLE:  Well, the fact that, like I said, it’s life music.  It moves!

TP:    You mean it has a beat, it’s danceable…

COLE:  It’s danceable if you want to dance.  It’s listenable if you want to listen.  If you want to close your eyes and slip off into a cosmos somewhere, it lets you do that.  It’s life music.  I mean, we have to specify it as certain things because of specific instrumentation or whatever we know as categories or descriptions.  But the music lends itself to whatever you need it to be!  That’s more so like straight-ahead jazz… Swing music is for swing people who dress up and swing-dance, and it’s got that thing.  Contemporary jazz is for those people who love to listen to that boring kind of music.  The thing with Sam’s music, as it’s always been, is that it moves, it’s got life, it goes in and out.

TP:    Were you familiar with Sam’s work in the ’60s and ’70s at the time you met him?

COLE:  A little bit.  Not extensively.

TP:    Are you now?

COLE:  Yeah, a lot more.

TP:    I’m just thinking of the role of his drummers in the ’70s.  He worked with Barry Altschul, who coined the term “freebop” to describe what he did, and it sort of hit me when you were describing the rhythmic component.

COLE:  Exactly.  And that moreso with the dance music.  Sometimes there’s more of a backbeat, like a lot of other trios Sam had.  He’ll tell you himself there’s once again a new direction with the trio he’s gone in.

TP:    You are someone who has an equal comfort zone playing the piano and plaing the drums?

COLE:  I’ve been playing drums since I was 3 years old, and there’s always been a piano around.  My mother plays piano, my uncle Carl played piano, there’s a piano in my grandmother’s house.  Piano is just a natural.  It’s a toy that’s always been there.  It’s nothing that I ever really sat down and went, “Okay, I’m going to do my scales.”  I grew up in an entertaining family.  I come from the Cole Family.  It’s like the Jacksons or the Osmonds.  You know what I mean?  I didn’t have much of going outside and jump-roping or big-wheeling and throwing balls and shit.  I was in the house rehearsing for Christmas shows and Easter shows.  I’ve always been on stage.  So there are things that come naturally to me because it’s just always been there.  If you grow up around nothing but mechanics, you’re going to know a little something about a car.  So it’s just that… We all sing.  I come from a family of singers.  So that’s the primary instrument, is the voice.  I started playing drums when I was 3…
TP:    You sing also.

COLE:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    Is that part of your career in Orlando as well?

COLE:  yes.

TP:    So you’re not just making your career playing creative music with Sam.  You’re doing a range of activities.

COLE:  Yeah.  My life has been my career.  Whatever, if it involves something musical, then I’m there.  That’s what the career is.  For me, a career has never been anything intended or like aspired or anything.  I’ve never known anything else.

TP:    How specific is Sam in directing you in your function as a drummer with the big band?

COLE:  He just hands me the music.

TP:    Then you interpret totally.

COLE:  Mmm-hmm.  Totally.

TP:    Does he have specific parts for the drums, or does he sing it to you…

COLE:  A lot of times I get the same charts the bass player has, or I’ll get just a map-down of stuff so I know who’s blowing, who’s soloing.  It differs.  But a lot of times I pretty much just get an outline of what’s going on.  With the big band for me a lot of times it’s just all ears.  I mean, there’s things on paper that I definitely follow, where it’s to be followed, but most of the time… When Sam hired me to play in the big band, the only thing he said is, “You don’t have to play any different than you do in the trio.”  So that’s pretty much the door that he gave me.  That’s what he wanted.  But at the same time, there’s a different thing that happens to me when 15 horns are playing.  It’s like driving down your street or driving down a big boulevard, same car, same driver, you’re just in a different place.

TP:    Would you describe a bit how playing with Sam this last decade has affected your sensibility and aesthetic as a musician?

COLE:  Well, it’s confirmed a lot.  Sometimes there’s things you think out of tradition and custom, there are things you think aren’t kosher or acceptable, some things you should keep to yourself or whatever.  And Sam has really pointed out the fact musically moreso that everything is correct.  Nothing is wrong.  Music is music.  It’s all beautiful.  When Sam hired me, he hired me for the musician that I am.  He never once has said, “Well, it should go like this” or “this is what… When I started playing saxophone…well, when I got a saxophone or started messing around with it is when I first went out on the road with Sam, which is in ’92.  I asked him if he’d give me lessons.  He said, “No.”  He said, “Just make up your own scales.”  That’s all he said to me.  So his instruction is moreso, “Do your thing.”  Of course, you’re always going to have influence.  Of course, there’s always things to grab from, but there’s always a specific individual behind the instrument, and that’s really… He’ll tell you in a minute, he’s gone out of his way, especially at the time when Coltrane was happening and there were other saxophonists around…he went out of his way to not sound like someone else.

TP:    He says he listens to everything so he can not sound like them.

COLE:  Right.  Sometimes it’s a conscious effort.

TP:    Talk about the experience of the week at Sweet Basil that germinated these two records, and the experience of the recording.  It’s a very different group of musicians what I’m sure you’re in touch with in Orlando.

COLE:  Well, for me the whole time while that was going on, I was just pretty much thrilled at working with all these musicians who I’ve heard on record and seen on album covers and TV so forth all this time, and actually being in the driver’s seat for these cats.  The music, I eat and sleep it, so the music… For me it was like a haze.  I mean, I met everybody!  And anybody who I didn’t get a chance to meet, they were at the club.

TP:    Everybody got to meet you.

COLE:  Well, yeah, in that case.  But Anthony Cole is a new name.  Chico Freeman is not a new name.  Greg Osby is not a new name.  So for me it was a different pair of shades than for everybody else.  Everybody else, it’s “Holy shit, who’s this drummer you’ve got?” blah-blah-blah, and I’m going, “Oh my God, finally it’s beautiful to meet you.”  And THEN we all played music.  It was kind of like that.  It kind of went in that direction.

TP:    you were there because you belonged there.

COLE:  Yeah.  But a lot of times I don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes with a lot of things.  I’ve got so many irons in the fire now that I just take each moment full on as it is.  Kind of like switching channels.

TP:    Is this the only situation for you in which you’re playing drums in a band?

COLE:  No.

TP:    So there are other bands with which you play drums, other bands with which you play piano, other bands with which you play saxophone, and they are different functionally than Sam’s band.

COLE:  yes.

TP:    Sam talks about wanting traditional musicians because they can play free in a minute but free musicians can’t play traditional.  You’re a traditional musician within that formulation.

COLE:  In that formulation, yes, because I’ve learned the basics.  I can sit down and play “As Time Goes By,” your basic II-V-I chords, those things I learned while I was living out in L.A.  At that time, Free was the last thing you could get me either to listen to or play, because I was learning the inside structure of things.  Now, for me… It’s different for other guys.  But for me, once I got to that point where I knew how to do all that, now, where else do we go from here?  It took working with Sam to feel comfortable or okay a lot of times in the beginning about going out or playing free.  As a drummer, I’ve always been a firehouse; that’s never been a problem.  But on other instruments… It wasn’t even until I started playing saxophone that I understood that instrument being able to take everybody else somewhere else.  Because I’m a drummer, a drummer can make or break a situation, blah-blah-blah, but a lot of times a drummer can’t lead something into free.  A lot of drummers don’t know how to lead into free.  It’s always the time thing.  And when I started working with Sam… Because I’ve worked with a lot of horn players.  When I started working with Sam, he was the first horn player I worked with who would start screaming through the horn in the middle of something.  And that for the first time encouraged a whole different reaction from the drums than I had ever experienced before.  So in that case, that’s one thing he did as far as the influence of the free drumming.  Because like I said, normally you’re used to leading people somewhere.  Sam will take you where he wants you to go.

TP:    In that connection, talk about the way the band on the record interpreted the music vis-a-vis the Orlando musicians who presumably play the music every week.  Some of these guys haven’t played the music for 30 years, some of them not for 25 years, some had never played it.  Talk about the way the Orlando band sounds different.

COLE:  Well, it’s obvious.  With Sam’s music… It’s like if you’re playing something every week for the past 5-6-7 years consistently, not only are you going to have an idea of what something should sound like… A lot of these guys in New York were around when Sam’s thing was going on a long time ago, but from that time up to the record, a lot of other stuff had gone… A lot of people aren’t in contact, whatever; hadn’t played the music.  So the guys up there pretty much know Sam from that time and are familiar with him then, but not necessarily familiar with the way he’s interpreting his music with another band.

TP:    How would you say his interpretation has changed from then to now?

COLE:  I really don’t know, because I don’t know that much about the Then.  I know a lot more about the Now.  If you listen to other big band albums that Sam…

TP:    Well, Crystals is the most notable.

COLE:  Exactly.  And from Crystals to now you can just hear a difference.  I can’t speak for other people.  The only way I know… For me, the experience was cats in New York who know Sam but haven’t played the music for a long time, and cats down here who play the music all the time who haven’t hung out with Sam as much as the other guys in New York did at one time… The CD down here by the big band down here is coming out pretty soon, and you’ll be able to hear the extreme difference immediately between cats who are paying Sam’s music every week and guys who are all-stars.  Now, there’s no bash there.  An all-star is an all-star.  But the guys down here play Sam’s music all the time.

TP:    Right.  So they’ve internalized everything.  It’s second nature.

COLE:  Exactly.  They’re a lot closer to the music.

TP:    Could you tell me a bit more about the Sapphire.  What does it look like.  Break down who you think the audience is.

COLE:  Well, it’s a big supper club.  They have all kinds of music there.  I mean, it’s a supper club.  They have big concert venues there, but it’s a big supper club.  It’s got a dance floor, a big bar, a big-ceilinged place.  It’s the old Blue Note that was here; the same spot that was Valentine’s, the Blue Note, Beecham’s Jazz and Blues Club — it’s the same location.

TP:    What other acts play there?  National acts?

COLE:  Certainly.  National acts from all ranges.

TP:    Who’s been there this last month?

COLE:  I don’t go there unless I’m playing.  I’m right down the street, and play there all the time.  But they have everybody. It’s not like one specific kind of music.

TP:    It’s like a showcase type of place.

COLE:  Yeah, but it’s also like a big concert hall and BIG acts.

TP:    How many people does it hold?

COLE:  Oh, it can hold maybe up to 700-750 people, tight.

TP:    Good sound system?

COLE:  Yeah… A reasonable facsimile for probable cause!

TP:    But the audience that comes on Monday nights is specifically Sam’s audience that he’s built up since ’91.

COLE:  No.  Whoever comes on Monday night is there to see whoever’s playing on Monday night.  It differs.  Sam isn’t there every Monday.  They have different acts every night.  Sometimes they have all ages shows.  Or Punk Rock shows and there’s nothing but kids there.  So it’s a potpourri.


Filed under DownBeat, Sam Rivers, WKCR

John Abercrombie’s Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test

It’s John Abercrombie’s birthday, giving me an excuse to post the complete proceedings of a Blindfold Test I conducted with him about ten years ago.  His responses were terrific.

* * *

John Abercrombie Blindfold Test (Raw Copy):

1.    James Blood Ulmer, “Sphinx” (from MUSIC SPEAKS LOUDER THAN WORDS, DIW/Koch, 1995/1997) (James Blood Ulmer, g.; Calvin Jones, b.; Rashied Ali, d.) – (5 stars)

I love the feel of this piece.  It reminds me a little bit of something from sort of semi Sonny Sharrock, but not really.  It could be one of these Albert Ayler tunes or something like that, something in that vein.  It sounds like somebody who’s playing with their thumb a little bit, but it’s not Wes!  It doesn’t really sound like him, I didn’t know he played anything this out, but it could be… Could it be Kevin Eubanks?  It sounds too harmonically oriented to be Sonny Sharrock, but that was still my first take on it.  It still could even be somebody like that, but… James Blood?  Wow!  This is great.  I don’t know that tune.  I have to get this.  I’ve heard some other stuff by Blood and I liked it.  I have some of this stuff where he was singing that I enjoyed, but I’ll have to get this.  This definitely sounds very hip to me.  Very open.  And it’s kind of funny; that’s why I thought it was Sonny Sharrock, because of some of the similarities.  He sounds to me more harmonic.  I hear more harmonic information in his playing.  It’s cool.  And I think he does sort of play with his thumb a little bit, because it’s got a little bit of that feel.  It’s plucky.  He chokes the notes a little bit, so it… I’ll give this 5 stars.  I still like it. [AFTER] Now that you tell me it was Rashied Ali, it makes total sense, because I played with him once, and he has a great way of playing a sort of open music.  you really feel like they’re playing on a form or something.  It really has a great swing, a pulse to it.  It’s not just free.  I think that’s what makes it work.  That’s what makes everything sound so great.

2.    Gerardo Nunez, “Calima” (from CALIMA, Alula, 1998) (Nunez, guitar; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, b; Arto Tuncboyaci, d) – (4 stars)

An acoustic guitar.  Two players or it’s overdubbed.  I hear other parts.  That first part with just the guitar overdubs was just impeccable technique, whoever it is.  I mean, it’s almost perfect technically.  But I can’t tell from that who it is.  I might know, not by the content of what he’s playing, but just somebody playing the guitar that well.  This sounds like a Spanish Classical piece.  I’ll make a stab.  It’s not that guy Fareed Haque, is it?  Fareed is so technically proficient, that that’s what this kind of reminded me of.  The little bit I’ve heard him play Classical stuff, he has that kind of flawless technique.  I like it.  The beginning was beautiful, and this has a nice rhythm feel.  The approach of the guitar player… It sounds like everything’s almost kind of written, or it’s things you would include in a Classical or a Flamenco technique.  But it’s not a famous Flamenco player, I don’t think.  Now you’ve piqued my interest.  It’s not Paco, is it?  I’ve heard Paco do things that are kind of like this, with hand drums and of course that kind of technique is akin to a Flamenco player.  So it’s definitely somebody Spanish.  I can’t guess.  It’s very nice, but I can’t figure out who it is.  I’ll give it 4 stars for the really great feel.  Flawless guitar technique.  Wow.

3.    Jim Hall-Dave Holland, “End The Beguine” (from JIM HALL & BASSES, Telarc, 2001) (Hall, g; Holland, b) – (3-1/2 stars)

The bass player almost sounds like it could be Dave Holland, playing one of his little… But it’s probably not.  The only reason I mentioned Dave Holland (and I don’t think it’s Dave) is because I’ve played little pieces with Dave where it has this kind of feel.  Dave writes some of these little Indianesque-sounding, Arabian… The bass player does sound like he has some of Dave’s rhythmic concept, but I don’t know who… [Why don’t you think it’s Dave?] I don’t know.  I have to listen more.  I have to hear him solo to really know.  [Can you glean anything from the guitar player?] I’m not gleaning well right now.  It’s someone who’s Dave-like, but I don’t think it’s Dave.  The sound is not quite what I’m used to hearing; Dave has a bigger sound.  But then, he could be recorded differently.  And Dave usually sounds a little punchier.  And also Dave has certain rhythmic phrases that he does, because I’ve played with him so much, and I didn’t hear any of those.  But it does have an aura of that. It’s Dave?  Wow.  The guitar sounds like a 12-string.  I thought maybe it was Gismonti playing the 12-string, but I don’t think he and Dave ever played together. But the opening thing didn’t sound anything like something Gismonti would play.  That sounded more jazzy.  This is definitely somebody who’s a jazz player of sorts.  I know it’s not Ralph Towner, because it’s not good enough to be Ralph Towner playing 12-string. [LAUGHS] It’s good, but it’s not like what Ralph would play.  I don’t know if he started out on this instrument.  Did he change… No, there it is.  It’s all the same instrument.  I’m not going to get it. Can you give me a hint? [You’re going to feel bad if you don’t know who it is.] Oh, I think I know who it is now.  See, that’s all you had to say.  It’s Jim.  This sounds so different than what I’m used to hearing Jim play.  Harmonically and rhythmically, some of the chords… Now it does make sense that it’s Jim to me.  But at first it didn’t.  Maybe I still have Blood’s music in my head.  Because the opening, the first reading of the opening sounded a little Delta-like.  I got Dave, though.  I was pretty sure.  This is that album where Jim plays all the different duets.  I haven’t heard it.  Not that I have to, but I’ve never heard Jim play a 12-string guitar.  It’s not the instrument he normally would play.  It’s not the most interesting thing I’ve heard Jim do, but it’s still good, and I needed a hint from you to actually figure out who it was, although I was pretty good about Dave.  3-1/2 stars.  I think if I had heard him play on an electric guitar, with his more rounded tone and the tone I’m used to, playing a similar thing, I would have probably nailed it.  But like you said, it was hearing him play that instrument.

4.    Arsenio Rodriguez, “Rhapsodia del Maravilloso” (from Sabu, PALO CONGO, Blue Note, 1957/1999) (Rodriguez, guitar; “Sabu” L. Martinez, Raul Travieso, Israel Travieso, Ray Romero, congas; Ernesto Baro, bass) – (5 stars)

That’s a different instrument, too.  That’s either a 12-string or a tres.  A tres.  I got it.  That’s not Arsenio Rodriguez, is it?  I love this stuff.  The main reason I know about him, when I used to work years ago in a band called Dreams, was a trombone player who passed away named Barry Rogers, and Barry’s second instrument was the tres.  He used to play trombone and tres with a lot of the Latin bands, and he played me some Arsenio Rodriguez and said this was the cat.  This is more in the context of a rhythm section, but the bass player is very strongly prominent here, too.  This sounds not unlike the duet with Jim Hall and Dave Holland, in a strange way, because the tres is a double-stringed kind of instrument, if I’m not mistaken.  This gets 5 stars.  I’m not surprised I got it. But once I figured out what the instrument was… I know Wes didn’t record on tres!  I can make jokes.  But I know that other people didn’t, so it has to be either the heavyweight guy or somebody I didn’t know.  Beautiful music.

5.    Nels Cline-Gregg Bendian, “Mars” (from INTERSTELLAR SPACE, Atavistic, 1999) (Cline, el.g; Bendian, drums) – (3 stars)

Definitely sounds like a real free electric guitar player, but somebody with a lot of chops.  I don’t recognize… Wow.  Twisted.  I like it.  I can’t tell from the content of what he’s playing who it is. [Do you have any idea of what it is they’re playing?] I may know it.  I’ll listen a little bit more.  That part sounds like a tune!  There are a lot of guys I haven’t heard maybe that much.  Could it be Vernon Reid?  I don’t know.  It’s too jazzy to be Vernon.  Vernon would be more like Hendrix and Rock.  This has that tone, but it’s obviously somebody who’s played… [It’s a West Coast player.] Now I know who it is.  Nels Cline.  Nels is the only guy I know on the West Coast guitar-wise who would play something that might sound like this.  It sounds great.  For my ears there could be a little more dynamics, but I’m not playing it.  It maintains a real high density level at all times.  Which I enjoy playing more than I enjoy listening to, I think.  But I like it.  It’s definitely got some harmonic knowledge and some lines that he’s using… I’ll give it 3 stars. [This is “Mars” from INTERSTELLAR SPACE] Oh, I would never get that!

6.    David Fiuczynski, “Down Under” (from CHARTBUSTERS, Hip-Bop, 1995) (Fiuczynski, guitar; Dr. Lonnie Smith, organ; Lenny White, drums) – (4 stars)

Nice guitar tone.  I like the tone.  It’s over-driven, but in a nice sort of sweet way.  I like that. That part sounded like something Scofield would play.  Amazing technique.  All these lines here are pure Scofield.  Pretty pure.  But the other stuff isn’t.  He’s a funny composite of things, real blues-drenched, a great tone, some real heavy… Those lines didn’t sound… Super slinky technique.  Amazing.  Some of it sounds pretty original.  He definitely sounds like a pastiche of a lot of different players, but amazing control.  This sounds like Larry Young almost.  Dr. Lonnie.  I could tell by these sort of broken arpeggiated things he does that kind of go across the keys.  That’s beautiful.  Now I can guess on the guitar player, and it may be a wrong guess.  Is it Paul Bollenbeck?  I’ve heard Paul play things that are technically like speed of light.  This guy’s got speed-of-light technique.  Definitely 4 stars. [AFTER] Fiuczynski!  He sounds amazing.  He really does.  It’s amazing technique.  Great lines.  Some of them directly culled from the Scofield vocabulary.  Sounds great.  Like I say, he’s a pastiche of many things.  But he sure has picked some good things to put in his trick bag.

7.    Russell Malone, “Heartstrings” (from HEARTSTRINGS, Verve, 2001) (Russell Malone, g.; Kenny Barron, p.; Christian McBride, b; Jeff Watts, d.; strings; arr. Johnny Mandel) – (4-1/2 stars)

Another great guitar sound.  I like this sound.  This sounds a little more familiar to me.  I think I know who this is.  Is it Russell Malone?  I heard this actually driving in a car one time, and I was so taken with the pretty sound he got… It really is a lovely sound.  I distinctly remember it.  When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure who it was, so it was like in a blindfold test.  I was driving my car waiting for the announcer, and I was kind of going through my mind, and Russell’s name was one of the names that popped into my head.  I don’t know his playing that well.  I’ve only heard him on a couple of things, but this is the best thing I’ve heard him do with his tone.  His solo is very bluesy, more than I’m used to hearing him play.  Maybe he’s more of a bluesy player than I realize.  I haven’t checked him out that much.  Isn’t he from Georgia?  I thought the solo was really good.  The time when I did hear this record in my car, this is exactly the tune I heard, and I was struck not only by the sound, but by some really interesting parts in the solo that I wasn’t expecting.  Because the solo has kind of a very laid-back, bluesy feel, and all of a sudden there’s these oddball notes and a couple of funny phrases.  So I thought it was a very good solo, well-constructed and a beautiful tone.  I’ll give it 4-1/2.

8.    Simon Shaheen, “Blue Flame” (from BLUE FLAME, 2001, Ark-21) (Simon Shaheen, oud; Bassam Saba, nay & fl.; Billy Drewes, ss; Adam Rodgers, ag; Francois Moutin, b; Lorenzo Martinez, bongos; Steve Sheehan, caxixi, brushes, cymbals, diembe, durbakka; Jamie Haddad, hadjira drum, cymbals, hadgini) – (5 stars)

It’s an oud.  There’s a couple of oud players I’ve heard, and one is the guy who records… I’ve heard a few.  I brought back some music from Istanbul.  But I can never pronounce this guy’s name.  Isn’t this Rabih… No?  Then maybe I don’t know who this person is.  There’s a couple of guys I used to listen to.  There’s a guy who records for ECM, Anwar, but he wouldn’t play this kind of stuff. This is more rhythmic; he’s more floaty, from what I’ve heard.  Then there’s the guy that used to make the records for Enja years ago, Rabih ..(?).. This is what it reminds me of.  I like the solo a lot, maybe more than the composition.  I like the feel of the composition, but I like the sound of the solo.  I like this part.  It’s really open. It’s almost like a jazz player playing oud.  But it’s not.  It’s an oud player playing oud.  It’s got a looseness to it, though.  Makes me want to play with a pick again, hearing some of these fast lines.  The solo was absolutely beautiful with the rhythm section.  It’s so loose.  It sounds like they’re playing in 5/4.  It takes me a while to figure out sometimes what the odd time signature is, but I’m pretty sure it was 5, which is a very hard time signature to play in — at least for me.  But it was so loose and so effortless.  And the sound of the oud, it’s like one of my favorite instruments.  It almost sounds like somebody took a classical guitar and tuned it down real low so the strings are really elastic.  It’s really one of the warmest instruments.  But this guy, I’m sorry I didn’t know him.  Now I’ll have to go and listen more to him.  5 stars.  It’s totally happening.  I wish I knew him.  Now I will know.

9.    Joe Morris, “Manipulatives” (from UNDERTHRU, Omnitone, 1999) (Morris, guitar; Mat Maneri, violin; Chris Lightcap, b.; Gerald Cleaver, d) – (3 stars)

This almost reminds me of something I did years ago with Barre Phillips and John Surman and Stu Martin.  I played on a couple of tunes on Barre’s record.  The rhythm section sounded like this, kind of in time but really kind of wacky.  This is kind of how I played back then!  It’s interesting, but I wish it was a little more cohesive somehow.  The rhythm section seems to be almost overpowering the soloist a bit.  It also could be the mix.  If you heard these guys play live, maybe it would be the opposite, or maybe it’s perfectly balanced, but it sounds a little more… The thing about this kind of playing to me is… Which is what I liked more about, say, the Blood Ulmer thing.  Even though that was rambling and a little wacky, it’s clear somehow.  It has a real cohesiveness.  This doesn’t have that.  This feels scattered, kind of.  It’s not my most favorite stuff.  It’s probably me!  I have no idea who he is.  I could make an educated guess. Joe Morris.  Wow!  I’m a good educated guesser.  I like this, but for me it lacks the cohesiveness of the Blood Ulmer thing or maybe even the Nels Cline thing you played me.  It’s in that same genre.  Well, my band can no doubt at times sound like this!  It sounds more balanced during the violin solo in terms of the actual sonic density of it.  This is another kind of music that maybe I like to play a little more than actually sit down and listen to it.  But because I play this way, I can appreciate it.  It’s fun to play this way and they sound good.  My educated guess for the violin player is Maneri.  But I don’t know him.  He sounds good.  Now the music is starting to gel for me.  Even though it’s more dense, it sounds better now.  3 stars. I like what they’re trying to do, but it doesn’t sound as cohesive as some of the other stuff to me.

10.    Kurt Rosenwinkel, “A Life Unfolds” (from THE NEXT STEP, Verve, 2000) (Rosenwinkel, guitar; Mark Turner, ts; Ben Street, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums) – (5 stars)

I’ve got to know this.  It’s probably a 7-string guitar.  Very nice.  Again, sometimes I go for the tone first.  Even if I’m not trying to figure out who it, almost all the players… Actually, everybody you played me today has a good tone, in their own way.  They’re all different, too.  Every one of them had a completely different approach to the tone of the guitar.  This sounds so familiar to me.  It’s a very nice composition.  It’s beautiful.  I think I know who this is.  I think it’s Kurt Rosenwinkel.  I know this.  This is from his second CD.  This is gorgeous.  I remember when bought this CD, and I liked the whole CD, but I remember when I got to this tune, I played it three or four times.  I had to hear it that many times.  This guy has got something that’s different.  I don’t know what the tuning is.  He’s definitely got the guitar retuned on the bottom on some lower strings.  You can hear them… A very clear but warm tone.  Again, I’m attracted to the tone, but he also is a very fluid, melodic player — lyrical, let’s say.  He also sings when he plays.  When I’ve heard him, he sings these little falsetto things.  Sometimes he’ll actually sing the lines, and he’s not just playing some blues ideas.  He’s playing some complicated lines and he sings with it.  So the response to that is he actually hears what he plays!  It’s amazing.  This is a great composition.  5 stars all the way.  Playing, composition…this is great.

11.    St. Germain, “Montego Bay Spleen” (from TOURIST, Blue Note, 2000) (Ernest Ranglin, g.; Ludovic Navarre, conductor; Alexandre Destrez, keyboards; Idresse Diop, talking drum; Carneiro, percussion) – (3 stars)

Nice groove, nice atmosphere.  It’s hard for me to tell who the guitar player is.  The actual guitar playing sounds a little more mainstream than I thought it would sound hearing the rhythm.  I thought the guitar player might play further out, but this is more in playing.  Very sparse.  He’s not playing a lot.  Sure it’s not one of my records?  No… What the hell was that?  That sounded like an edit.  I couldn’t tell; it was so strange. It’s strange, because most of what he’s playing is kind of straight, and then when he played these quirky lines, it didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of what he was playing.  This is a hard one to even make an educated guess at.  The tone is like a jazz guitar tone, a sort of brighter sound.  It’s not my favorite; I like a darker sound.  Well, that’s HIS sound.  I shouldn’t comment. But it sounds like a big guitar with sort of a bright sound, like a big jazz box — or at least a medium-size jazz box.  This one completely stumps me. 3 stars. Ernest Ranglin!  Sorry.  There’s no way I could get it.  I know the name.  Is he from Jamaica?

12.    Sylvain Luc & Bireli Lagrene, “Stompin’ At The Savoy” (from DUET, Dreyfuss, 1999) (Sylvain Luc, Bireli Lagrene, guitars) – (4 stars)

Acoustic guitar duo.  Wow, he’s so astute!  I like the way they’re breaking it up. The one guy is playing almost like a percussion instrument, tapping.  The guy playing the solo sounds very blues-like.  Good blues player.  Mmm!  I like this guitar player a lot.  Whoo!  I want to steal some of his lines.  Impeccable kind of technique, but very bluesy at the same time.  I mean, he’s not like somebody who I’d all of a sudden go, “Oh, that’s Wes or Kenny or Sco or Bill Frisell or Grant Green.”  A lot of this kind of playing… I think it’s great.  I totally admire it, and think it’s fantastic.  But it doesn’t have as much of an instantly identifiable thing.  It’s like amazingly great guitar playing.  Is this the second guy playing now?  I can’t tell.  I think maybe it’s the second guy.  It almost sounds like something I’ve heard before, but I can’t put my finger on it.  I mean, it’s “Stompin’ At The Savoy.”  I know the tune, but I don’t know the… Some of the other things you played me, I might know the player but not the tune.  Here I know the tune but not the players.  Is it Bireli Lagrene?  Yeah, and there’s another guy on this.  I’ve heard this before.  I think this is the other guy playing, but I can’t remember who it is.  Sylvain Luc.  Okay.  I may even have this.  It’s amazing playing. I’ll give it 4 stars because it maybe didn’t sound as original as some of the other things, but man, I wish I had those chops.

13.    Derek Bailey-John Butcher, “High Vortex” (from VORTICES AND ANGELS, Emanem, 1992/2001) (Bailey, guitar; Butcher, ss) – (4 stars)

Sounds like my train is here!  I’d better run and get to the platform.  It’s the 5:07; it’s in early.  I’m trying to figure out if the instrument on the right is actually a guitar, whether it’s processed, or if the bass is being bowed… Derek Bailey?  It’s a horn.  Is it a horn?  I can’t tell. Soprano saxophone?  Then maybe it’s somebody like Evan Parker.  No?  Somebody whose name I probably know, but wouldn’t be able to… [He’s English] I figured he’d be a gentleman.  I’m sure when I hear his name, I’ll know it.  I may even have played with the guy, because I’ve played with some English musicians.  This is the kind of thing that unless you really listen to this music a lot, it would be hard to tell.  But it’s instantly identifiable as Derek Bailey…because he’s instantly identifiable! [LAUGHS] It’s the least guitar-like in terms of what most of the world thinks of as guitar playing, but I knew who it was pretty quickly, whereas some of the other things I wouldn’t know, especially when it’s amazing feats of technique.  I’m impressed with that.  But I know who he is when I hear him.  So that’s kind of an interesting take on it all — style or being able to recognize somebody, even if it’s just abstract, in comparison to what you played before. I’m really nice today.  I’ll give it 4 stars.  I like it.  He sustains a mood that’s kind of interesting. It’s like free playing that’s sort of… You can go on for a long time, because the density is not so dense as a couple of the other things you played for me, that are hard to listen to.  It’s very quiet, it’s almost chamber-like, so you can listen to it and get inside it.

14.    Mark Elf, “Cheek To Cheek” (from DREAM STEPPIN’, Jen-Bay, 2002) (Elf, guitar; Neal Miner, b; Lewis Nash, d.) – (3 stars)

“Cheek to Cheek.”  Again, I know the tune.  We’ll see if I know the player.  But this sounds like somebody, just from the outset, who’s a real traditionalist.  Nice-a feel, like Lawrence Welk used to say.  They’ve got a good feeling.  This could be a lot of different people.  Again, it’s not one of the major guys that I grew up listening to.  It’s not Tal or Jimmy Raney, but it has that kind of sound.  It sounds like a more modern recording.  Nice.  It’s someone who kind of bridges.. They’re a bebopper, but they’ve also got a swing kind of feel to it.  Is it somebody like Howard Alden?  It’s great playing.  I just don’t know… It could be several different people.  That’s why I mentioned Howard.  But yeah, this is maybe a little more bebop than Howard, a little more Howard.  This has a little bit of that swing feel.  He loves the eighth note, and he manages to play just about every one.  There’s a little space.  It’s not somebody like Cal Collins, is it?  There’s a lot of these guys whose playing I’m sort of familiar with, but I don’t really know them that well. [He’s not a Concord artist] Then I wouldn’t know him.  If it’s not ECM or Concord, I’m screwed.  It’s none of the guys I really know.  And I don’t think it’s someone like Bucky Pizzarelli, because he doesn’t play this many lines.  It’s not someone I know.  It’s not Jack Wilkins.  That’s a modern voicing.  Wow!  It’s got me stumped.  I don’t recognize the bass player and drummer particularly.  Everybody is good, but nothing is grabbing me.  It’s funny, he sort of ends with something a little more modern, a little harmonically different.  The other playing was pretty inside, in a way.  It’s very good, but it didn’t strike a bell with me.  3 stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar, John Abercrombie

For Barry Harris’ 82nd Birthday, a Downbeat Article From 2000

For the 82nd birthday of the great pianist-teacher Barry Harris, I’m posting a feature article that DownBeat gave me the opportunity to write in 2000. I’m appending an early draft — the print copy is a thousand words shorter, much of them from long quotes. Going for info here over style.

* * * *

The pianist Barry Harris will be 71 this year, and when he talks, musicians listen.  “You know what happens with me?” he asks rhetorically.  “I can tell you, ‘Oh, if you’re doing that, you should do this, too; if you don’t do that, you ought to do this.’  I’ve been doing that for years.  I’m not the catalyst.  People are the catalyst, and I’m the agent.  I can come up with things that we need to learn.  Don’t ask me where it comes from.  It comes through me, whatever it is.”

Harris developed his sagacious, homegrown philosophy and spot-on hip persona in the take-care-of-business atmosphere of post-Depression Detroit, where his peer group included hothouse flowers who developed into some of the most notable improvisers of the ’50s and ’60s — pianists Tommy Flanagan, Terry Pollard and Roland Hanna; trumpeters Thad Jones and Donald Byrd; saxophonists Billy Mitchell, Frank Foster, Yusef Lateef, Sonny Red and Pepper Adams; the guitarist Kenny Burrell; the harpist Dorothy Ashby; bassists Doug Watkins and Paul Chambers; and drummers Elvin Jones and Frank Gant.

“Most of us grew up playing in church, where my mother started me,” Harris reminisces.  “I studied classical with a preacher named Neptune Holloway, who quite a few of us took lessons from, and also Mrs. Lipscomb, which was in a private home.  Tommy Flanagan and I took lessons from Gladys Dillard; we were on a recital together one time.  My mother was a very gentle and beautiful person, and one day she asked me whether I wanted to play church music or jazz.  I said, ‘I’ll play jazz,’  and she was cool with that.

“We didn’t have any schools to go to like people do now. We started out taking things off records, and there were people around us who could play.  Recently I’ve become reacquainted with Berry Gordy; at Northeastern High School, the two boogie-woogie piano players were Berry Gordy and Barry Harris.  We might have got messed up when Theodore Shieldy [Sheeley] came to town from Georgia and went to the school; he not only played better boogie-woogie, but he could improvise.  So could a cat named Will Davis.  Now, I could chord when I was a teenager, maybe 13-14-15, but I didn’t solo too well.  I lived on the East Side of Detroit, and I started going over to the West Side where the cats maybe couldn’t chord as well as me, but they could solo.  When I was 17 a blind girl named Bess Bonnier who’s a very good piano player loaned me a record player that had a device that allowed you to play the record in any key you wanted all the way through.  The first thing I learned how to play was ‘Webb City’ with Fats Navarro, Bud Powell and Sonny Stitt!”

Struck by the bebop bug, Harris and his cohorts absorbed and painstakingly examined records by Bud Powell and Charlie Parker as they came out.  “We were beboppers,” he declares.  “That’s all.  Bebop was a real revelation for us, a musical revelation.  It was like a renaissance.  I was born in 1929, and I became a teenager in the ’40s.  So while someone like Jaki Byard, who became a teenager in the ’30s, learned more about the Stride, Art Tatum and Earl Hines, we heard Al Haig, Bud Powell and George Shearing, who were different than the stride piano players.  So we aren’t the best of stride piano players; there’s no kind of way!”

According to Flanagan, “Barry always had a nice dynamic attack and approach to the piano.  He was quick to get hip to Bud Powell, devoted more time to that style than anyone else on the scene then.  He took it another step.  He had a lot of confidence, too.  He was one of the few guys who would just wait for Charlie Parker to come to town and go up and sit in with him.  That’s more confidence than I had.  I just didn’t have the nerve.”

“I sat in with Bird at least three or four times,” Harris reveals.  “His band was late one time for a dance one time at the Graystone Ballroom, so we played just one song with him during the first set — a blues in C.  He was beautiful to us.  The best experience that I always tell people is a time he was playing a dance with strings at a roller rink called the Forest Club.  We stood in front, and the strings started, and when he started playing chills started at your toes, and went on through your body — orgasms, everything imaginable.  It’s really a spoiler.  I don’t like to go listen to people because I’m expecting somebody to make me feel like that.  Bud Powell is important to me; I’m more a Charlie Parker disciple, even more so now.” (Later, Harris performed with a virtual Bird on “April in Paris” and “Laura” in the Clint Eastwood film, “Bird.”)

Before attaining his majority, Harris worked high school dances and various other functions at Detroit’s numerous dance halls — the Graystone, the Mirror, the Grand.  “We played for our contemporaries.  We played for shake dancers, we played shuffle rhythm, we played rhythm-and-blues.  All of it was part of the deal.  I would go to the dance, stand in back of the piano player and steal a couple of chords, then go home and learn how to play them.  I remember Donald Byrd one day saying, ‘I don’t want to play in a bar, I don’t want to play in the dance hall; I want to play on the concert stage.’  Well, separating the music from dancing might have been the biggest drag that ever happened to us.  We knew how to dance.”

Harris worked various venues around the Motor City, including a 1953-54 run as house pianist at a corner bar adjoining an auto repair shop and a supermarket with a good soul food kitchen and a major-league music policy in the heart of Detroit’s West Side called the Bluebird Lounge. Flanagan—who vacated the post when he entered the Army—recalls the scene:  “There were a lot of musicians on the West Side, and even the laymen were very hip; when the Bluebird started having music it attracted a lot of the people who wanted to be on the scene.  People like the pianist Philip Hill, Thad Jones, Billy Mitchell, and Frank Foster had bands in there, and they started bringing in guest saxophonists like Wardell Gray or Sonny Stitt.  Fine musicians always worked in the club, including the best Detroit musicians, and people like Joe Gordon, Clifford Brown, and Miles Davis.”

Among the highlights of Harris’ Bluebird tenure were a brief 1953 stint with Davis, who was living in Detroit (“I might have been the first to play ‘Solar’,” he notes offhandedly), and an extended engagement with Yusef Lateef and Elvin Jones.  “The Bluebird was a very special place, man,” he stresses.  “You know how Marvin Gaye sang ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’?  I think there was truth to it.  The Bluebird closed as 2 o’clock.  At 1:30 Sarah Vaughan or Bird would come in, and do you know what?  You didn’t see people running to the phones, but within ten minutes that joint would be packed with people.  There were a couple of bars like that.  I played in another called the Bowlodrome, which was a bowling alley that had a bar, with Frank Rosolino — that might have been one of the first steady gigs I had.”

With the exception of a few months on the road with Max Roach after Clifford Brown died in 1956 (sideman recordings that year  with Thad Jones on Blue Note and Hank Mobley on Prestige), Harris spent the remainder of the 1950s in Detroit, working week-long gigs at area showcases like the River Lounge and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge with solo acts like Lester Young, Flip Phillips and Nancy Wilson, and building an almost mythical reputation as a piano guru that spread outside home turf.

“I might have known a little bit more than the rest,” he remarks.  “I don’t know if I was more schooled.  As far as playing Classical, I think Tommy Flanagan was more schooled than me; he and Kenny Burrell were the hippest bebop players around.  I was very quiet and kind of the shy cat.  Wasn’t no sports.  I was a piano player!  ‘Down Beat’ in 1958 had a yearbook with a picture of Paul Chambers on half a page; they’re talking about the Midwest, and they say, ‘Mostly all the musicians who come from Detroit come from Barry Harris.’  My mother had a flat where she let us play all day, and my house was like a mecca.  When piano players came to town, they’d look for me because they’d heard about me.  I don’t know what you would call me.  I’m not the catalyst.  I’m the thing that gets set off by the catalyst.”

Frequenting the Harris salon were young, information-hungry musicians like Joe Henderson, Louis Hayes, Roy Brooks, Paul Chambers, Lonnie Hillyer and Charles McPherson.  “I lived right around the corner from Barry, and I met him when I was about 15.” McPherson recollects, “Barry had heard me sitting in at the Bluebird, where the owner would let us sit in if we brought our parents over, and he told me, ‘You need to learn your scales.’  I started coming over to his house after school.  Barry’s house was a hub of activity.  He practiced and played music all day long, when anybody might come by, then at night he’d go to work.  Traveling musicians always knew to go to Barry’s house.  One time Coltrane came over when he was in town with Miles and Cannonball.

“I owe so much to him for helping me establish a firm musical  foundation, and technically in terms of harmony and theory and chord changes and scales.  But also, he instilled in me a certain kind of musical intelligence in terms of taste and musical discretion — to try always to be musically honest, to use the emotions along with analysis, that technique is wonderful but it’s just a means to facilitate your musical conception, and not the end-all and be-all.  One day he saw my report card, and noticed that it was quite average.  He said, ‘All your heroes, like Charlie Parker, are everything but average.  Charlie Parker might be kind of a bad boy in society, he’s doing a lot of things that’s not cool, but on the intellectual level the guy is brilliant.  All those cats are brilliant, man.  You can’t be an average or stupid guy playing this kind of music.’  I had never thought of it like that.  From that point on, I actually turned my life around school-wise.  I became like an honors student overnight.  I started reading books.  So Barry really instilled in me the notion of intellectual curiosity, that the hipper your intellectual thing is, the more there is to play — because you’re playing your life, your experiences.”

Harris left Detroit in 1960 to join Cannonball Adderley, who recruited him for Riverside records and brought him to New York — where, as he puts it, “a lot of cats knew about me before I knew about them” — for good.  He settled in an unheated cold-water loft on Broad Street in the Financial District, and after a shaky sort — a bout with pneumonia — hit the ground running, finding places to practice, working occasional gigs with people like Yusef Lateef, Lee Morgan, later with Wes Montgomery and Charles McPherson at the Five Spot, Minton’s and Boomer’s.  He found various duo sinecures at joints like Junior’s Bar on 52nd Street, down the block from Birdland, where big band and studio musicians would hang out to drink.

During the ’60s Harris, mentor to so many, found two of his own, forming friendships with Thelonious Monk and Coleman Hawkins, to whom he remained close until the end of their lives.  Curiously, Harris reveals, “I didn’t pay that much attention to Monk when I was getting started; Monk might have sounded very hard.  But you heard the most beautiful melodies; his songs you wanted to know, like the first recording of ‘Round Midnight’ when Bud was with Cootie Williams.  Monk showed me ‘Round Midnight’ one time, which is why I get mad when people play it — they play the changes so wrong.  Cats try to take it all out and everything, but he did it real simple — three notes sometimes.  You gradually grew into Monk if you dealt with Bud Powell; you could tell Monk had influenced him, and you would be influenced by Monk.  Monk was odder than all the rest.  He did unorthodox things, not the regular, run-of-the-mill stuff.”

The Baroness Pannonica de Konigswater, who Harris met soon after arriving in New York, was a long-standing friend to Monk and Hawkins, and helped facilitate his relationships with the avatars.  “I can remember playing at the Five Spot, and Monk coming in and walking back and forth through the joint all night with his hat and coat on,” Harris says.  “That might have been when I first met him.  Later I’d go with the Baroness by his house, and we’d pick him up and all three go someplace.  Monk was an odd fellow.  He didn’t waste any conversation.  Monk never wasted words — or notes.  That was like his music.  And that’s really true, too.  A lot of people assume that Monk didn’t have technique.  I can tell them that they’re lying on that issue, because he really did.  I saw him play a run, and I tried to play it and I couldn’t. Monk danced a lot.  He would sit behind the piano, and suddenly throw his hand out way at the top of the piano to hit a note.  That note was hit.  The way he would play a whole tone scale coming down, I don’t know if anybody ever played like that before!

“Monk was hipper than most of the jazz musicians today.  Monk didn’t practice practicing.  Monk practiced playing — sitting at the piano, play in tempo one tune by himself for 90 minutes.  I lived with Monk for ten years, and one day he said, ‘Come on, let’s play the piano.’  Monk started playing ‘My Ideal.’  I guess we played about 100 choruses apiece, where he’d play one, then he’d make me play one.  I wish it had been recorded.  He was a very special kind of cat.”

Monk probably learned “My Ideal” during his mid-’40s tenure with Coleman Hawkins on 52nd Street; Harris played with Hawkins extensively from 1965 until Hawkins died in 1969.  “I put him in the hospital when he died,” Harris recalls.  “He didn’t want to go, but I had to put him in.  I had gone to live with him on 97th Street, and he had gotten too heavy for me to move him around.  He was a recoverer.  He might overdo things a bit, and then he’d cool out and he’d recover and he’d be all right.  It just happened this time he didn’t recover.

“I can remember the first time I sat in with Coleman Hawkins;  he was playing at the Five Spot.  He called some tune that I knew the melody to, and I figured I could figure out the chords.  So we played it, and all he said was, ‘Doggone it, another goddamn Detroit piano player!’ [LAUGHS] I felt lucky to have worked with him, because he gave me a different outlook on things.  One time he called out ‘All The Things You Are,’ and after he played I just said, ‘Oh my goodness.’  He would play a phrase, laugh his butt off because he knew I was trying to get the phrase.  I wasn’t chording.  I was trying to steal his phrases!  It sort of let me know that there’s a lot more to be played than what we’ve heard.  We can’t think of anybody really as the end.  We were the bebop boys.  That was our music.  But playing with Coleman Hawkins sort of showed one that there was a lot more to play than Bebop, than what Bird and them played.  So one had to work at trying to reach this other level.

“He had a special philosophy.  For one thing he would always say he never played chords; he played movements.  I’m a firm believer that the key thing is how you go from one place to another.  One should know how to go to the relative minor, how to come back from the IV to the I, all these different little things that young cats don’t really know nowadays.  A lot of horn players, unfortunately, sit at the piano, hit one chord and then another, think it’s  hip, and decide to write a melody on it.  They’re missing the boat, because what they’ve done is learn to melodize harmonies as opposed to harmonize melodies, and most people don’t remember a thing you played.  Music is more than that.  Music is movement.  You have to play a chord that moves.  Once you know more about movement, then you can venture away from it.”

Harris still lives in De Konigswater’s home, facing the west bank of the Hudson River with a spectacular Manhattan skyline view, and he speaks of her with reverent reticence.  “She was beautiful towards musicians,” he says.  “All the musicians knew it, too.  She probably helped us all in some kind of way.  One of the greatest ways she helped us, I think, people would walk by a jazz club and see her Bentley or Rolls-Royce parked out in front, and they’d come into the club to see who was in there with this Rolls-Royce or Bentley.  Up in Harlem, they protected that car.  She could park any place up there, in front of Wells, in front of Smalls Paradise, in front of Minton’s.  She never locked the trunk or the glove compartment, and nobody ever touched it.  She was a jazz lover.  That’s no stuff.  She was one of our assets.”

Harris recorded four strong sessions for Riverside, including “Live At the Jazz Workshop,” which is a bible of trio playing for a number of younger pianists.  When the label folded in 1964, Harris began to do business on a handshake basis with A&R man Don Schlitten, for whom he recorded steadily, both as leader of a series of increasingly personal, poetic recitals and as the penultimate sideman, prodding the likes of Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Heath, Sonny Stitt, Al Cohn, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Criss, Red Rodney and McPherson to superb performances on dates for Prestige, MPS, Muse and Xanadu until the early ’80s.

“He knew all the tunes,” Schlitten comments.  “Everybody knows all the changes, but he also knew the melodies.  He had a certain way of comping and playing the changes that was inspiring to the cats who were playing this music, and he brought a certain kind of enthusiasm and joy which, as far as I’m concerned, is what makes jazz what it is, and turned the other cats on.  Therefore, he became a very integral part of whatever it is that I was trying to present in terms of preserving this particular form of music.  It seemed to work all the way down the line.”

Harris began teaching formally during the mid-’70s with Jazz Interactions, an non-profit organization run by the trumpeter Joe Newman and his wife Rigmor; his classes became so popular that Harris eventually started his own school, the Jazz Cultural Theater, on 28th Street and 8th Avenue.  Picking up where he’d left off on his Detroit home sessions, JCT became Harris’ New York platform for articulating his palpably unorthodox theories.  “I believe in scales,” he says.  “I don’t mean a whole lot of scales, like most people.  I wanted to pay attention to the pentatonic scales and so forth, but my thoughts have changed since I started.  I believe in the dominant 7th scale.  The question becomes to figure out how to apply it to everything that one runs into — and one can.  I am more of the opinion now that if you give students a little basic harmony, to go from one place to the other, and then combine that basic harmony with the scales, one will be on the right track to teach.

“I don’t know if there are too many teachers on the right track.  They have our young now learning these funny songs that don’t have movement, so young people all over the world aren’t even getting a chance to learn to play.  Everybody is writing their original stuff mostly nowadays.  The reason they’re doing that, of course, is because that’s one way for us to make some money.  Record companies aren’t the most trustworthy things in the world, so the only way for you to really make something is to have your original music.  But because people are playing their original music, we can’t have the jam session thing too much.  I could go up and play when Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins were playing, because they’re going to play something I know.  There’s a bunch of standards that everybody in the world should know, like ‘How High The Moon’ or ‘Just You, Just Me.’  Young people nowadays don’t even have a chance to go to a jam session.  That’s why when I had my place, I tried to keep a jam session going every Wednesday night, even though it never was anything.

“With a lot of the young people, I can’t understand their logic when it comes to jazz, or their understanding of jazz, their disrespect for older musicians, and why they play like they play.  Monk didn’t play that way, Art Tatum didn’t play that way, Bud Powell didn’t play that way, Al Haig didn’t play that way, Bill Evans didn’t play that way.  The pianists can’t play two-handed chords; they think that the right hand is just for single notes — and that’s bull.  Whoever taught them that and whoever came up with it is full of stuff.  This music is two-handed music.  All you got to do is listen.  And yet, these people will say that they’re listening to Monk and different people, and I know they’re full of stuff.  They aren’t listening to them.  It’s impossible to listen to them and play the way they play.”

Harris’ pessimistic prognostications belie his actions, which are those of a profoundly optimistic man.  “I’m older now, and I don’t know how much longer I have,” he says.  “Any knowledge that I have, I’m not supposed to die with it; I’m supposed to pass it on, I’m sure.  So I try to pass on my knowledge of this thing.  Hopefully, some of it will win out in the end.  See, I know some of the stuff I pass on is right.  I’ve got piano players playing stuff that no other pianist has ever played in life, because we’re thinking totally different about the piano.  We think about scales.   We have a scale for chording.  Most piano players don’t know anything about that.  99% of the chords we play come from a scale of chords.  And if you don’t know the scale, that means that you’re missing out on 7 or 8 different chords that somebody never told us were chords.  They tell us about augmented ninths, but they don’t know that augmented ninths comes from a scale.  You should be able to take that augmented ninth chord up a scale and find out what the second chord is, the third, the fourth, the fifth, and then you’ll start hearing sounds that you never heard before in your life.

“The more you find out about music, the more you believe in God, too.  This isn’t haphazardly put together.  This stuff is exact.  It’s a science, and part of the music is science.  But we think there’s something above the science part; there’s something above the logic.  There’s a freedom at both ends of the barrel, man.  There’s a freedom in anarchy, but there’s another freedom that comes from knowledge, then there’s another freedom that comes that really is the freedom we seek.  That’s what all of us want, is this freedom.  I think by knowing that the music is not chordal, but scalar, changes the whole thing.

“You learn from teaching.  I have my students trying to catch up to me, and I insist that they don’t.  It really keeps me on my toes, because I ain’t gonna let ’em catch up to me.”


Filed under Article, Barry Harris, Detroit, DownBeat

Two Conversations With Eddie Palmieri, Who Turns 75 Today

To observe the 75th birthday of maestro Eddie Palmieri, “El Rey de las Blancas y las Negras,” I’m posting a pair of interviews conducted, respectively, in 2003 and 2005. The first is the raw transcript of a conversation with Mr. Palmieri and Arturo O’Farrill for Downbeat in 2003 — trumpet master Brian Lynch dropped  by and joins the conversation towards the end. The second was conducted for the press materials for Palmieri’s 2005 album, Listen Here, on which he convened guest improvisers Michael Brecker, Christian McBride, Regina Carter, David Sanchez, John Scofield, and Nicholas Payton, as well as Lynch and Donald Harrison and Conrad Herwig from his Afro-Caribbean Octet, one of the truly underrated bands of the ’90s.

Eddie Palmieri-Arturo O’Farrill (Birdland, 9-22-03):

TP:    I wanted to start with a comment for Eddie.  I’ve been thinking a lot about you in the last couple of years and listening to a lot of your music.  And it occurs to me that you’re from the same generation as Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner.  You’re a little older, actually, than all of them, but only by a few years.  And all of them within the last decade or so have been revisiting roots, their roots in the music and the things that initially inspired them, with fresh ears.  It seems you’re doing the same thing these days, particularly with La Perfecta and with El Rumbero del Piano.  It seems this last decade has been a period of consolidation.  It’s not a specific question, but could you take it and offer some reflections on what you’ve been doing in the last decade.

PALMIERI:  Well, what happened, after the dance genre really ended, in a sense, of the music called Salsa, then I started to record Latin Jazz.  That’s when I was working with Brian Lynch, Conrad Herwig and Donald Harrison.  We did three CDs, Palmas, Arete and El Vortex.  That was the move.  We started to travel to Europe and started doing concerts, playing Latin Jazz.  What happened was that the last two CDs, which were recorded for RMM, the label company of Ralph Mercado…and we analyzed that to see if we could get back into our main genre, which was, again, the dance orchestra.  Because it’s essentially a dance orchestra.  That’s where you have El Rumbero Del Piano.  After El Rumbero Del Piano, which closed the 20th century, then to open up the 21st century Tito Puente and I did Masterpiece. But Tito passed away, and we were never able to travel or do concerts, which we naturally had planned.  Then I decided to go back… The idea came from a conversation with Conrad Herwig.  He was doing some transcription work on Frank Rosolino, the trombonist, who was his idol, and he said that we should do this for Barry Rogers, who was the co-partner with Jose Rodriguez on the trombone.  That’s where it started.  Then we started to do the work for La Perfecta.  We did the first album, La Perfecta, II. We were quite fortunate to have the flute player Eddy Zervignon, and we took that conjunto to Europe, and it was well received.  Then on the second CD for Concord, Ritmo Caliente, we brought back some of those compositions as well and recorded them again.

TP:    You wrote new music as well.  Was it inspired by the same idea, the same notion?  Did you use the older compositions as a springboard for the new work as well?

PALMIERI:  Well, the old work, as far as the compositions that had been recorded, they knew what we were going to do there.  The new work that was created was from a ballad that we had written, then a gigue    of Bach that I always had in mind, and I knew we could work it out — by adding the batas, it became quite exciting.  That’s how we were able to get some new compositions and mix it with La Perfecta on Ritmo Caliente.

TP:    You just brought up a point that I think is very pertinent for both you and Arturo as bandleaders dealing in this idiom.  This is dance-driven music.  But there aren’t so many venues, I wouldn’t think, for you to play for dancers any more.  I don’t know how many jobs either of you do in a year for dancers, but I wouldn’t think it’s too high a percentage.  Can you address the impact of the function, of the situation on the music that you play and the music you conceive?

O’FARRILL:  It’s funny, because there aren’t really that many great dance halls left.  That’s one of the problems.  In the heyday, during the ’50s and the ’60s, there were a lot of dance halls.  Also, I think this is true.  People don’t know how to dance any more! [LAUGHS] They don’t know how to dance.


O’FARRILL:  They’re not taught to dance.  The few dances that I’ve played, I look out on the floor, and there’s no style, no elegance.  So I think there’s an absence of really fine dancing, and that has a lot to do with it.  It has a lot to do with the fact that there’s also no dance clubs.  We played the Copacabana this year with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, and it was very disappointing, because we didn’t get out as many people as we would have liked, and the dancing was… I mean, it was very lovely, but I think that it’s a lost art.  I think we need to have dancing schools, so people can learn how to dance again!

TP:    When La Perfecta was formed, I’d imagine most of the songs were written and conceived for dancers — and for the greatest dancers around!

O’FARRILL:  You can’t listen to those records without moving.

PALMIERI:  Well, it certainly happened that it was the time and it was the location of the Palladium, and there were the greatest dancers.  To be able to play the Palladium, you had to have an orchestra that was… It was like a challenge between the dancer and the orchestra, who could outlast who, in a sense.  And to be able to get into the Palladium… Then once you got in, then the word of mouth… We were a dance orchestra, and how we presented that with the two trombones and flute was quite interesting and very exciting to dance to.

TP:    It’s the same process as the old big bands, the jazz dance bands, who played with chorus line dancers or played at the Savoy or the Apollo.  A lot of the music, which is an untold story, was done in response to the dancers.  What were the first principles for your compositions?  Rhythmic?  Harmonic?  A combination of both?

PALMIERI:  At the time, it was following the Cuban structures that I heard in the different orchestras that were coming out of Cuba in the ’50s and ’60s.  It never ceased to amaze me how it would excite me to listen to them.  At that time, you could record only within 2 minutes and 45 seconds.  How they were able to get you!  I dedicated all of my time and my career to listening to the structures that were coming out of there.  Once I learned them intuitively, then I learned them scientifically — why they excite.  There were reasons.  There’s a tension and resistance within the forms, and the rhythm section and how it has its own form so it can reach that climax.  That’s what made it interesting for me.

O’FARRILL:  That’s an interesting word — “tension.”  When I listen to your music, man, to me it’s always eminently listenable and eminently danceable.

TP:    And intellectually challenging.

O’FARRILL:  Intellectually challenging, and always with a heavy attention to exactly what you’re talking about — the tension.  The dancing.  The groove.  There’s very few people in the world who have ever achieved what Eddie has done, to make music really intelligently and eminently groove.  I mean, the groove is the factor, too.

PALMIERI:  Thank you.

TP:    Do you think that having intensively played timbales in your early teens… You’ve said that you copied all of Tito Puente’s solos.

PALMIERI:  Oh, yeah.  As a youngster, me and all my friends, we all wanted to be another Tito Puente, and by 13 years old I was playing the timbales with my uncle, who had a typical folkloric orchestra — a conjunto.  For two years.  Then after that, I gave him back the timbales, or sold it to him, whatever, for the next drummer who was coming in.  But that certainly helped me to be able to comprehend what I was listening to later.  In 1955, I went with Johnny Segui.  In 1956 is when I came into the orchestra with the conjunto of Vicentico Valdes, who was also Cuban.  The conjunto that he was presenting was extremely exciting, and the rhythm section was what was happening.  So I was able to capture that also.  After that, I worked with Tito Rodriguez for a couple of years.  By late 1961, then I formed La Perfecta.

TP:    So you had a long apprenticeship.  Your concepts didn’t just come out of nowhere.  You had a lot of time to think about it, and you’ve been playing since you were young.

PALMIERI:  Oh yeah.  And certainly, the different orchestras that I was able to work with and comprehend…

O’FARRILL:  I think it’s very important for all musicians to play some kind of percussion instrument, especially Latin musicians — especially Latin Jazz musicians.  You should be able to play timbal, on the conga, or whatever it is.  To get that concept, you have to play it.  I’m the kind of person who learns by doing.  I can’t learn by rote or by hearing it.  I have to do.  So playing timbales, that has to be a heavy part of your development.

TP:    What percussion instruments do you play, Arturo?

O’FARRILL:  Conga.  That’s it.

TP:    And is playing the drums important to your identity as a pianist, to your tonal personality?

O’FARRILL:  It’s difficult on my hands.  As a pianist, you don’t have to have calluses on the bottom of your fingers.

TP:    You’d better pick up some sticks.

O’FARRILL:  Well, I wish I had thought of that! [LAUGHTER] No, you want the calluses on the tips of your fingers.  But at least for the fingers to have a thorough understanding of the different patterns that come into play in a rhythm section.  A lot of people take Latin Jazz and do a generic thing.  But to really know what each instrument plays, that’s where you begin to have an understanding.  And as a player, you begin to pick up on things.  You can land in places rhythmically, because you’re aware of what the timbal is doing or the bongo.  It’s very important stuff.

TP:    Your approaches to the piano are so different, and yet come from such a similar root.  Arturo is a very florid player.  You play a lot of notes, there’s a lot of facility and elan…

O’FARRILL:  I have to say that’s true.  But when I’m playing… We did this record called… It was a Machito tribute, “Live at Hostos.”  And one of the highlights of my life was that I sounded like Eddie Palmieri! [LAUGHS] On a Papo Vasquez composition.  For a minute there, I had his groove.  It felt so good!  Florid, whatever.  But to have that kind of command of the groove, that to me is very important.

TP:    Where I wanted to take this is: Arturo, even though your father is one of the seminal composers and arrangers in the idiom, you yourself came out of a jazz head and then moved back into the structures of diasporic music and Afro-Cuban music.


TP:    And Eddie began as a rumbero type of personality, and then moved to jazz later.  You’re quoted as saying that you hated jazz at first.

PALMIERI:  Yes, I never comprehended it.  Not that I never comprehended it, but I really concentrated on the structures for dancing.  That’s where I really stood, as a dance orchestra leader.  What was I going to do with an exciting orchestra to make the people dance?  But sure enough, then we certainly had to go into the world of jazz harmonics and go into the Latin jazz, as we did on those four CDs.

O’FARRILL:  See, I came from a different background.  It was probably because I did the typical rebellious son thing.  My father was a very great Latin composer-arranger, so I rejected that.  You know how kids are.  You reject what your father does.  So my first influences were Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and that’s all I played.  It wasn’t until many years later that I started listening to Latin music and playing it.

TP:    What were the challenges you faced in adapting your style to the rhythms and structures of Latin music, coming from the orientation you had.  What are the challenges for a jazz-oriented person in adapting themselves to Afro-Cuban music?  Conversely, what are the challenges for someone who is immersed in Afro-Cuban structures to adapt themselves to jazz sensibility and expression?

O’FARRILL:  It’s very different.  There’s a tradition in Latin piano, and you have to respect it.  You have to really understand and know the great pianists, to be able to play in that style without losing your identity.  First of all, it’s a different technique.  Your hands have to move differently.  It’s not florid.  It’s not Bud Powell.  It’s a different concept.  And I think that if you play enough right-handed, heavy, florid, 16th note type stuff, you lose that percussive sense.  Also, it’s a very Cuban kind of piano style that you have to adopt.

TP:    Elaborate on that.

O’FARRILL:  Well, Rene Hernandez.  Peruchin.  That’s the kind of school you’re coming from, with the octaves, thirds… You’re playing stuff that you can’t really do with 16th notes.  You have to really play that stuff with a heavy touch.  And if you grow up playing Bud Powell, that’s not the school.  Bud Powell is the school of 16th notes in the right hand and spare comping in the left hand.  So I had to basically retrain myself to really be able to play that.  And I had to grow up.  I had to get past my teenager crap, and come to love this music.  Because it’s who I am.

PALMIERI:  And for me, like Arturo said, it was the octave playing, which came from the players… Rene Hernandez was one of the greatest arrangers that we had here, naturally, and his father, Chico.  And when we’re playing in the Latin area, the minimal harmonic changes is…we land up, more or less, on tonic and dominant, I-II-V-IV chord changes.  When you get into the jazz, that really was a whole other world for me, and I had never experienced that.  Because I listened to the jazz artists earlier, but never gave it the time and the effort that I gave the dance orchestras.  So then, it was quite difficult for me.  And still, to work out that different… How to change the style of fingering also, to play certain things.  Because when you’re playing in octaves… And that was a time when there was no mikes, so you had to play really…

TP:    You had to play loud.

PALMIERI:  That’s really the worst position, because the extensions are locked in.  So sure enough, I had to get back to some basic fundamental exercises, thirds and minor thirds and sixes, and double note techniques, so that I could be able to play in a different style.  It’s still difficult for me to go from one to the other.

TP:    Arturo, is going from one to the other complex for you as well?  Because both you record and perform in both areas of the music.

O’FARRILL:  Ideally, you want to blur that line.  You don’t want to have that big a changeover.  What I try to work towards is having the two styles be transparent, so that you can play.  As Eddie was talking, I was thinking that there’s a thing in Latin music that we call “timba.”  It’s a lot easier to fudge and fake jazz type stuff than it is to fake “timba.”  Because when you’re playing in Latin music and you’re not really grooving, people pick up on that — especially dancers!  So you can do all this fast stuff, and that’s like nonsense to me.  But when you’re playing a really heavy groove, you’re playing “timba,” that’s a lot harder to fake.  I don’t think you can make it.  I think it really has to come from your soul.  So the thing that I work with is to blur the line between Jazz and Latin, and kind of come out of this fast kind of stuff right into “timba,” right into a heavy, groove-oriented, clave-aware style.

TP:    Eddie, you’re not just a pianist, but I would think there must be an orchestra in your mind all the time when you’re playing.  Is that how it is for you when you’re soloing?

PALMIERI:  What happens, again, it’s how I’m able to go and extend, if it’s a variation, within the chordal structures that… They’re not variant.  For us to lock up…Arturo said the word “timba.”  For me, it’s always, again, holding onto a dominant, and how am I going to be able to extend on that, what was I going to do on that.  That’s where it started to extend, harmonically or whatever, I was able to perform in the sense of what I was playing.  Whole tones came in, and different kinds of tension chords within the structures that I play.  I still keep working on it and keep developing it.

O’FARRILL:  Eddie plays with a lot of texture.  Eddie plays with what I call sound waves.  He plays with the texture of the piano.  It is orchestral.

TP:    I would imagine that 98% of what you’ve recorded has been your own original music or your own arrangements on music in parallel to what you do.  Which is one reason why, when you played on Conrad Herwig’s “The Latin Side Of John Coltrane,” it was very interesting to hear you improvise on “Africa” or “Impressions.”


TP:    So I was wondering if for you playing the piano equals composing?  What’s the relation between improvising and composing for you?

PALMIERI:  To compose for me is what I’m going to be able to…what theme I’m going to work on, what am I looking for.  For me, the majority of the work in Latin was also with the vocalists.  So what theme was going to be on it, what’s the story going to be about.  And naturally, I was more interested always to write constantly more original music, and keep it that way.  That’s why I never ventured into recording with many other artists, except what I recorded on my own.  And then, in improvising, it’s based on those structures that I create within that composition, and what I do with that, and how I move it around is quite enjoyable to me! [LAUGHS] I’m very fortunate that it’s been accepted.  So between the two of them, it’s a great combination, like the composing and the improvisation.

TP:    Were you composing before you left Tito Rodriguez?

PALMIERI:  No, I started really when I formed La Perfecta.

TP:    How many compositions have you published over forty years?

PALMIERI:  I’d say we’re close to maybe 200.

TP:    And how much of that is in the book of your band at any given moment?

PALMIERI:  Well, there’s different books.  I have the enlarged orchestra, you know, with three horns, with five horns, and that’s one book.  Then we have the Latin Jazz.  Then I have the Perfecta work, which is not in its entirety. But the majority of that work, what I’ve written, is unplayed.

TP:    So now you’re revisiting a lot of things, and setting a precedent for going back.

PALMIERI:  I’m bringing some of them back.

TP:    Arturo, you lead the Chico O’Farrill Big Band, which has access to the entire body of work of your father, who was composing as far back as the early ’40s in Havana.  In Ira Gitler’s “Swing To Bop” he said that after he heard “Salt Peanuts” in 1946, he started writing charts for a band he had in a Havana club, and had it for six months.  So from 1946, he was aware of modern jazz.  And he’d arrange for his band and was also an arranger for hire.  So you have a huge repertoire at your disposal. When he formed the big band again in the mid-’90s, how did he choose older repertoire to play?  How did he make his choices?

O’FARRILL:  He chose pieces that were suggested to him.  There’s an old saying that the great composers always have four or five great themes, and they regurgitate them over the years.  Chico has rewritten a lot of music.  So something from the ’40s might show up in the ’90s as a different piece.  It’s smoking. But it has its roots there.  I think it’s a process of working out your ideas that you may not have worked out fully in 1948.  Certainly, a lot of the stuff that we play now… Some of my favorite Chico O’Farrill is from the ’50s.  Some of that stuff is classic.

TP:    The things he did for Norman Granz?

O’FARRILL:  “Almendra,” “The Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite.”  What always strikes me about his writing is that it’s very simple.  It’s not cluttered.  It’s linear.  So over the past three records that we did, people suggested to him what stuff might be brought out of the closet, and then he would rework it.

TP:    Your father did a lot of writing for hire and for studio bands, which is different from Eddie’s experience.  You were always in the Ellington position of having to sustain a performing orchestra and create music for it, and to play for dancers.  Arturo, from your perspective as a bandleader and someone who analyzes music, can you talk about the dynamics of Chico O’Farrill’s music vis-a-vis Eddie Palmieri’s.  Very different perspectives on similar roots.

O’FARRILL:  Right off the bat, you have to remember that Eddie is a monster pianist, too.  My father didn’t play anything.

TP:    He was a trumpet player.

O’FARRILL:  Believe me, as soon as he figured out that he had to practice all the time, he gave it up.  A lot of the music that Eddie writes is for Eddie, and specifically for the unbelievable performance that he gives.  Chico’s music doesn’t do that, because he didn’t create it for himself to perform.  Also, he made the decision early on in his life; he was 21 or 22 when he said, “I can’t play music; I just want to write!”  For him, it was an easier way to be a musician.  It was an easier way for him to work out his musical battles.

TP:    Arturo, you’re obviously influenced in many ways by the example your father set for you, from your teenage rebellion against Latin music to your embrace of it.  I’m sure Eddie was influenced by your uncles who played, but I’m sure the deepest influence for you would have been your older brother Charlie, because you had to follow in his footsteps in bands!

PALMIERI:  Right, Charlie.  And he was the one that would recommend me to the different orchestras.  My brother was nine years older.  We had no other brother, no other sister.  It was just Charlie and I.  So he was certainly my great inspiration as far as his form of attack on the piano.  He really went at it!  That certainly came into me.  I could never really thank him enough for showing me that road.  My brother was quite an exceptional player.  He knew Arturo’s father, Chico O’Farrell, more than I.  I believe I met your dad when he was already elderly; I didn’t know him before.  But Charlie had.  So that was an tremendous asset to me in my playing.

TP:    Arturo, within the last year, you’ve taken on the position as Director of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra at Lincoln Center, which is an institutional position, and one that involves a lot of responsibility, because you have to accumulate a lot of repertoire that’s representative of this tradition.  How does Eddie’s music, which is so personal… I mean, it’s hard to think of anybody else playing Eddie’s music, because your sound and your vibration is so fundamental to it.  Is there anything you can say about that?

O’FARRILL:  There’s a whole controversy about repertory orchestras.  People always ask me why they exist, and it’s a very good question. Because the people who created this music left an indelible stamp on it.  I just believe that musicians are organic.  They bring to the music a whole nother vibe.  There’s never going to be an Eddie Palmieri. This is the cat!  But to have Eddie’s music continue, whether Eddie’s playing or just sitting in the audience, is very important.  Machito is gone, Mario Bauza is gone; does that mean their music shouldn’t be performed?  Hell, no.

TP:    Which of Eddie’s compositions would be your choices?

O’FARRILL:  It’s a daunting task.  And I’ve got to talk to Eddie, because we’ve got to get some of your music in the book!  Eddie played on the Benefit Gala at Lincoln Center.

PALMIERI:  Yes, I remember.  We had the two orchestras, I think.

O’FARRILL:  The two orchestras side-by-side.  How do you choose?  That’s like asking me…it’s like the kid in the candy shop.  There’s just an amazing amount of music that I would play as a regular part of the canon.  Now, it’s a funny thing, because it’s a very important position…but it’s not. What it is, is just bringing this music forward, bringing it out.  That’s more important than the position or the institution.  And Eddie has been all over the world, playing this music in Finland or in Japan or in Des Moines.  That’s what it’s about.

PALMIERI:  One of the greatest dancers we’ve seen, we saw in Pori.

O’FARRILL:  We played in Pori.  They LOVE his music in Finland.

TP:    One thing about leading a band for forty years is that people come through it and go on to make original contributions of their own.  So in the early ’70s, you have Los Diabilitos, the Gonzalez brothers and Nicky Marrero and people like this, who all went on and added to the vocabulary, Conrad Herwig and Brian Lynch, Richie Flores and Giovanni Hidalgo.  I’m wondering if you can discuss how the vocabulary of Afro-Cuban music has evolved during your career.

PALMIERI:  For me, it’s on the rhythm section side.  But certainly the music that harmonically has been composed going into the Latin Jazz world has extended.  I find it very interesting what’s happening… Again, what we do with it.  How we’re going to present it, where we’re going to present, and how important it is to be presented properly.  It’s a constant challenge.

TP:    How has musicianship changed over the years?

PALMIERI:  They certainly have extended in their preparation, compared to the younger players when… When I started, for example, the elders were very well prepared.  And what I find now, coming out of Puerto Rico, for example, are incredible trumpet players and saxophone players.  Percussion has reached an incredibly high degree.  I have to say that.  Before we would have just a conga player and the bongo who were there to accompany.  But now we have incredible soloists.  You talk about a Giovanni Hidalgo or a Richie Flores, who each came through my orchestra.  I call it my Hispanic Jazz Messengers, with all the different artists who came through my different orchestras.

TP:    Arturo, one of the defining events in jazz over the last 15 years has been the influx of musicians from all over the world who are familiar with jazz and bring their own culture to the music.  How do you see this movement affecting the vocabulary of jazz as a whole?  It seems there used to be more separation between jazz and Latin music.  Now things seem to be converging more. Does that sound right to you?

O’FARRILL:  I think so.  I think you have to be very well equipped to compete in the traditional Latin Jazz world now.  You really do have a wide variety of styles.  You’re talking about Danilo Perez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and then there’s people also like Papo Vazquez, and Bomba and Plena.  That’s why the world of Latin Jazz is no longer, and actually hasn’t been for many years, just Afro-Cuban. That’s very important to me, because Cuba was very central to the formation of these styles, but now the thing has really gotten quite large.  I mean, you’ve got Chano Dominguez in Spain, and you’ve got… So the world is really opening up for Latin Jazz.  And it’s still Latin.  It still comes from our corner of the world.  But it’s very much more open, very flexible.

The thing I’m proud of is that our musicians tend to really love jazz.  I mean, the ones that come out of our tradition are really very well trained in jazz.  I haven’t quite found that parity in jazz musicians.  Jazz musicians aren’t as well trained in Latin music.  They don’t really research it as much as Latin musicians tend to learn about jazz.  I think it’s a very exciting time for Latin music and jazz to interact.

TP:    It just seems to me that things that used to be considered (and I’ll use the word in quotes) “exotic” in jazz 15 years ago — maybe Dizzy Gillespie was applying them — are now part of the mainstream. Every musician is supposed to know it, basically — at least in New York.

O’FARRILL:  Well, it’s funny, because I run into… Twenty years ago, ten years ago even, drummers…you’d talk about cascara, and they’d look at you like you’re from Mars.  Now every drummer coming out of every conservatory that has a conservatory is learning about cascara and about clave and all these things that were considered exotic 10-15 years ago.

TP:    Eddie, how do you observe this with the musicians who come into your bands?  You do have steady personnel.  How do you see the musicianship?

PALMIERI:  It’s tremendously rounded now.  As Arturo says, we have players coming from all over, and making it quite… For example, from the Afro-Cuban it went to Afro-Caribbean, with the Puerto Rican (?) in the ’60s.  Now it’s Afro-World.  And now it’s all over.  The talent just keeps pouring in.  On my end, I’ve been carrying lately a band of certain personnel.  So it’s not as varied as it was before.  I used to have different musicians coming in and out of the different orchestras.  But now I’m hanging on to certain personnel.  We have Brian Lynch, who comes in and out and performs with us.  But I see it as quite exciting, very educational with the intermixture that’s happening now.  They’re all different players, and they’re interested in the Latin music, and where we’re going to be able to present it and where we’re going to be able to take it.

TP:    In bringing a new piece of music to the band, how do you go about it?  Do you sit down with the drummers and go over their specific parts with them, and ditto with the brass, or is it something they’re expected to know and it evolves over time?

PALMIERI:  Well, with my rhythm section, when we’re doing a recording, they know what they have to do as far as the structure of what we’re playing, and the horn players have their music, and then we gel it together whenever we’re able to have a rehearsal for recordings.  I don’t have that many rehearsals constantly. But when I have new material that’s going to be recorded, certainly I need it.  The problem I’ve had, in a sense, is that in the last certain amount of years I’ve had different types of recordings, and that certainly has hampered the situation of the personnel.

TP:    Well, these days it seems like you’re accessing your whole corpus of work.  You can go to La Perfecta, you can go to the more open ended things of the ’70s, and the vocabulary you built up in the band with Brian and Donald and Conrad.  All those things are there for you, and now you’re consolidating all of them in some sense.

PALMIERI:  Right.  But lately, in the last few years it’s been just the typical La Perfecta orchestra.  When we have certain engagements, the Latin Jazz, we bring out certain other compositions.

TP:    Arturo, you’ve been in the enviable position of having the same big band for many years with very constant personnel.  Talk about how playing every week builds the growth and identity and sound of a band.

O’FARRILL:  There’s no substitute for having a regular gig.  Also, I’m very blessed in that the musicians I have are bona fide Latin players.  They understand how to phrase.  It’s very subtle, it’s very different.  You can’t walk in off the street and be a straight-ahead jazz player and play this music.  You have to be aware of clave, you have to phrase, you have to be aware… Victor Paz once said to me, “You do not wear a tuxedo to the beach.”

PALMIERI:  That was his form of identification.

O’FARRILL:  That’s a very Victor Paz thing.  But what he meant was that you get players who understand Latin music and you put them together, and it’s an invaluable thing.  I am very lucky, very blessed.  I have wonderful musicians who have been doing this for a long time.

TP:    Have either of you been able to do any amount of playing in Africa at all?  Eddie, have you brought your band to any of the African nations?

PALMIERI:  No.  I haven’t been to Africa.  As far as I’ve gotten, we went to Algiers.  Another problem is that to get into an African country, you need shots, and I always wanted to stay away from the shots — at that time.

O’FARRILL:  We went to South Africa.  I’ve been there several times.  The last time we went… They have a Northsea Jazz Festival in Capetown…

TP:    My God, that’s the real extension of imperialism.

O’FARRILL:  You better believe it!  Talk about colonial imperialism!  I was amazed.  I was there with Papo Vazquez, and they loved it.

TP:    Eddie, was listening to African music ever part of your early experience, or was it all Cuban?

PALMIERI:  It was Cuban.  But I knew that the fundamental, naturally, was African.  But it was the music that was coming out of Cuba.  That’s where I really centered my education on.

TP:    How would you describe the difference between the Afro-Cuban approach to these rhythms and the African approach to these rhythms?

PALMIERI:  I think it’s the evolution and crystallization of these rhythmical patterns.  They were certainly coming from Africa, but when the “mulattoes,” so to speak, were born in Cuba, it became a mixture of Spaniard and the African, along with the native who was there, and that combination… They took it into another direction, in my opinion, and it was really more eventually from their religious “abacua,” that was strictly African (naturally) and their religious belief to the dance orchestras that then started to come out from Ignacio Pinero earlier, and his Sexteto Habenero from the ’20s and the ’30s, then they started to use those patterns for people to dance.  That’s where I come in.

TP:    So it’s a stylization of the folkloric, or as you once put it, of the primitive.

PALMIERI:  Exactly.

TP:    Arturo, how influenced was your father by the African aspect of Cuban life?  Was he very involved in the rumbas and the folkloric rhythms, or less so?

O’FARRILL:  He grew up in a pretty rural part of Cuba.  Undoubtedly, he heard a lot of ritualistic music.  I think it influenced him greatly.  That kind of music gets in your blood.  It kind of becomes a part of you.  I remember the first time I heard Los Munequitos.  Man, I started bawling!  I was weeping, man.  Because I’d never heard that profound a sentiment, and a sentiment expressed in rhythm, as when I heard those guys.  That’s such a central feature of “Latin Jazz” — and I use that word in quotations.  It has to be folkloric.  It has to have its roots, and it has to respect its African roots.  It has to respect it in terms of its instrumentation and in terms of its textures.  You can’t just slap a conga on something and call it Latin Jazz.  Whether or not my father transcribed the crostic rhythms of the Gon people… He did not do that!

TP:    But he got Machito’s players, who could put their own stamp on anything he might give them, if he wanted that feeling.

O’FARRILL:  I don’t know how much of that stuff is an oral tradition and how much of it is actually transcribable.  Anybody can write these rhythms.  It takes somebody who really knows that stuff to play it well.

TP:    But Eddie, when you were a kid learning Tito Puente’s solos, or hanging out and soaking up Cuban music with Manny Oquendo in the ’50s, was it an oral tradition?  Were you writing it down or learning by doing?

PALMIERI:  Well, naturally, by listening.  That was the main direction.  And then, when I went on to play timbales, I listened to the older records.  Because the orchestras that were recording here were really happening!  Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente, who had conjuntos at that time.  Conjunto meant without the saxophone.  So certainly, by listening to them, that was my guide.  Then eventually, I started to do the same when I got hip to the Cuban recordings.  The main time was when I was with the orchestra of Vicentico Valdes.

TP:    Is it different for you playing for dancers vis-a-vis a seated audience?  As a kid, from the age of 13 or 14, you were playing for people who were dancing.

PALMIERI:  Well, it’s certainly a great feeling when you’re performing and you see some great dancers.  That’s something that gives you balance.  It’s absolutely wonderful.  But again, as the genre changed and the art of dancing is lost now, and mostly what we do when we’re presenting the orchestra is have concerts.  On the concerts, certainly everyone is thinking about how do you excite them, get them moving in their chairs and making them feel… When you’re playing one of the jazz rooms, it’s another kind of feeling.  But again, it’s a musical and rhythmic challenge.

O’FARRILL:  You can’t be a musician in New York without playing dances, salsa gigs and whatever. I’ve been playing for dancers since I was a kid.  To me, there’s something slightly artificial about playing for a seated audience!

TP:    And you play for them a lot.

O’FARRILL:  Oh, I do all the time.  When you’re playing this kind of music, invariably, somebody will get up and shake a little bit, and I think that’s what you want. Cabaret laws notwithstanding, I encourage people to get up and dance whenever they feel like it.  You can’t do that at Alice Tully Hall sometimes.  But that’s the real deal.  That’s what this music is about, and getting people moving is central.

TP:    But the pool of musicians now comes primarily from conservators. They’re very technical.  A lot of jazz we hear now has very complex rhythms, but it’s also a very technical thing.  So it’s an interesting challenge, I’d think, to keep that feeling in the music given the climate of the times.

O’FARRILL:  Yes.  There’s the old saying, “You can be very well trained or you can be very well trained.”  A lot of musicians are coming out of conservatories who can play, but that’s a small part of what music is.  My father always said, “Okay, so you can play an instrument.  So what?”  That’s a small part of it.

TP:    Eddie, are you still doing a lot of composing?

PALMIERI:  I haven’t been writing since the last CD.  I stopped since “Ritmo Caliente.”  But there are a few things now that are starting to work up, and I’m seeing what I can do now to prepare for another CD when the opportunity comes with Concord again.

TP:    Has your process in writing been a project-oriented thing, or is it something that’s just part of your everyday life?

PALMIERI:  Well, sometimes I’ve had a project presented to me.  I did the Ballet Hispanico work, and that music was never recorded.  I have it at home.  But usually, it’s when I get inspired by some theme that I want to present or make a statement on, and once I get that, then I start working from the bass line up, and start layering, putting the structures on to write the arrangement.

TP:    Do you make use of the new technology?

PALMIERI:  No.  I haven’t been able to comprehend that.  I leave it alone!

O’FARRILL:  I can’t make heads or tails.  I’ve had Finale for many years. I still prefer pen and pencil and paper.  I can’t cope with it at all.

TP:    And how much composing and arranging do you do?

O’FARRILL:  I do quite a bit.  And still, I can’t use sequencers or samplers or notation software.

TP:    Is it project-oriented for you?

O’FARRILL:  It’s always project-oriented.  For me, deadlines are crucial.  I have to have something presented, where I have to come up with a project or a writing assignment, because left up to my own devices I’ll just procrastinate forever.  So it always has to do with a project or a deadline that is looming.  My father was very much the same way.  Now, Chico had the unusual ability to churn out an arrangement in an hour-and-a-half, three hours — he would do it in pen!

PALMIERI:  Amazing.

O’FARRILL:  He would do it transcribed.  The instruments would be in their proper… So he was kind of a freak that way.  It’s very different for me.  But he also had to have a deadline, and he had to have a specific goal and a real articulated project for him to be able to do that.

TP:    For many years, you’d go to hear an Eddie Palmieri performance, and he’d be playing a keyboard.

PALMIERI:  The reason is that when I play you can’t amplify the acoustic… The feedback is on it.  For me, it’s the feel of the instrument.  That’s why the keyboard was put on top.  I’ll play solo piano first, and then come in with the keyboard.  I get complications with it, too, because of the volume and complaints, but it’s the only way I feel I can cut through.  It’s very seldom you can find a great engineer… We just did the Monterrey Jazz Festival, and they had two Marcus Berrys, I think, so I got the microphones they had, and the acoustic was quite wonderfully amplified.

O’FARRILL:  That’s rare.

PALMIERI:  But still, when I play with the orchestra, if I can’t be stimulated, then I have a problem to stimulate the band, in my opinion.

TP:    So it’s to hear yourself.  To hear yourself think.

O’FARRILL:  The clarity.

PALMIERI:  Yes, and to hear myself play, so I can cut through with the band.  The rhythm section is quite heavy also.  And we use three horns or five horns. So I use the keyboard on top.

TP:    Arturo, you’re basically leading two bands.  There’s the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra.  Is the repertoire expanding for it?

O’FARRILL:  The repertoire is expanding.

TP:    And where are you getting repertoire?

O’FARRILL:  Original music from the members and from myself, and we’re digging out stuff from Chico’s archive.

TP:    With Lincoln Center, I guess you’re cherrypicking from everywhere.

O’FARRILL:  Absolutely.

TP:    How are you conceiving that?  Where are you getting material from?  How big is the book now?

O’FARRILL:  Some of the stuff we’ve had to transcribe, because it’s impossible to get the actual scores from the sources.  For example, the Machito stuff I can find.  It’s irreplaceable.  The scores are gone.  So we pay a transcriber to do that stuff.  And there’s a lot of material that exists.

TP:    How has leading these bands influenced your own personal growth as a musician?  It’s a huge responsibility, and there’s so much more involved than just playing.

O’FARRILL:  It’s funny.  I’m not a happy bandleader, because I find it very difficult to deal with all the issues.  There’s the issue of playing and there’s the issue of creating music, and then there’s the difficulty of dealing with people’s schedules and people’s idiosyncracies.  I don’t have patience for that, to be honest with you.  But certainly it’s expanded me as a musician.  Being responsible for an evening’s performance and a set group of people has heightened my musicianship, my sense of… When you’re rehearsing a band, you want to make sure the trumpets blend, and you want to make sure the dynamics are honored and the people aren’t stepping on one another. That’s pure musicianship.  That takes a lot of skill.  So all that has honed my musical skills.  It’s also created a larger sense of my understanding of this music, which is invaluable.  I’ve had to listen to a lot of music.

TP:    So it’s made your musicianship richer and imparted more depth.

O’FARRILL:  Yes.  And not as a pianist.  As a musical concept.  As a mind.  As a pianist, I’ve tried to stay out of the way.


TP:    Brian Lynch is here, and I’m sure he has a few comments or questions for Eddie.

BRIAN:  How has jazz been something… What has the weave been between… You may not describe yourself as a jazz musician per se, but I think jazz has always been a counterpoint.  I always feel one of the unique things about you is the way you’ve epitomized jazz, even though a lot of times you do music that may not be termed as much.  But you seem to exemplify the jazz attitude in a lot of ways that I see it.  The spirit of improvisation, the spirit of doing things differently each time instead of staying in the same place, the rawness of a lot of your music.  I think you’ve attracted a lot of unique personalities.  The one who comes to mind, of course, is Barry Rogers, who came from being a jazz musician, but I think you and him had the same way of thinking — you came from different sides of the street, so to speak, and you met in the middle.  Has jazz always been something that’s been on your mind, no matter what you’ve been playing?

PALMIERI:  Well, jazz phrasings for sure, in the work we did with Barry.  Then that led to… Well, definitely, when I met you, we went into the Latin Jazz, starting the work of “Palmas.”  Once that came in, that was my inroad to the work I did.

BRIAN:  You’ve spoken of listening to some of the jazz greats in the early years, both in person and through the medium of records, and I remember you saying that you had to make a conscious decision about which way you wanted to go, whether to follow jazz or to follow however you want to term the music you’re playing.

PALMIERI:  Right.  What I followed was definitely the dance orchestra.  That’s where my heart was. But certainly, I developed an orientation from my early listening to records by Art Tatum, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock.  We heard the Count Basie band… Remember, the original Birdland was right next door to the Palladium, so the exchange was quite exceptional.  But it’s certainly helped me in terms of how I structure, how I think of the phrasing and the harmonic changes I want to use — it comes from the jazz idiom.

BRIAN:  Arturo, maybe I can ask you something. I feel that so much of the Cuban music I hear you could call jazz.  If you apply the same criteria that you’d call Count Basie or Benny Goodman or that style of jazz: This music is played for the dancers, it’s got improvised solos, it’s got swing — all these qualities.  Do you feel sometimes people kind of miss the point?

O’FARRILL:  I’ve always maintained that the music that came up in Cuba in the ’20s and ’30s paralleled the music that was taking place in the States in New Orleans and Kansas City.  It’s another branch of the roots.  Just like you have your Kansas City school and St. Louis school and Detroit school, you have a Havana school growing at the same time.  I think where people goof is that they don’t accord it the same kind of stature.  You’re right.  The roots of improvisation are there for both musics.  There’s a similar instrumentation style and orchestration style.

BRIAN:  I think it has to do with the appropriation of a certain word, and the appropriation is the word “American.”  That America means just the residents of the United States of America.

O’FARRILL:  That’s very narrow-minded.

BRIAN:  Well, if you talk about jazz being a music of the Americas, instead of American music… I think a lot of things get left out.  The genesis of jazz, in a lot of senses, is pan-Caribbean.

O’FARRILL:  I’m sure if you visited Congo Square in New Orleans at the turn of the century, you’d hear a lot of clave-inspired music.  Guess what?  New Orleans is the Caribbean!

BRIAN:  I was looking through a book of photos by James Van Der Zee and found a picture of Sexteto Habenero in Harlem in the late ’20s.  It looked for all the world like a picture of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five.  All these things are very much together.  So there’s a case for saying that this is all jazz.

TP:    One thing I could bring in is that musically, the styles may be different branches of the same tree, but I think the scene, in certain ways, was more stratified when Eddie was coming up.  A lot of jazz players played in Latin bands, but I think the musics were seen more as very separate.  With the notable exception, of course, of Dizzy Gillespie, who was fifty years ahead of his time.

BRIAN:  I think in 1945 or 1950, the typical jazz musician knew much more about playing Latin rhythms that he did in 1970 or 1980.

O’FARRILL:  Yes, there was a moment there when it fell out of favor.

BRIAN:  Maybe we’re just about back now to a certain… It’s still the same thing.  Back to what you were saying, “jazz musicians” don’t do their homework as much about Latin music as the other way around.  A lot of times they’re missing something in their comprehension of what the requirements for jazz is.  And this maybe gets back to what we were talking about before, about having an incomplete analysis of what jazz is and what it means.

O’FARRILL:  Well, that’s the $64,000 question.  What is jazz?

BRIAN:  What is jazz.  Or what is swing?  I know in my own experience, playing Latin music helped my straight-ahead swing immeasurably.

O’FARRILL:  Oh yeah.  I have to agree with you there.  Your whole rhythmic concept is broadened in Latin music.  Your ability to hear eighth notes and sixteenth note sequences in a flow.

BRIAN:  And also the idea of consensus and playing a groove together.  I came to town in the early ’80s, and sometimes it seemed that swinging was kind of a lost art back then.

O’FARRILL:  Yeah.  It might be a lost art today!  I would add to what Brian was saying.  I think that to look at jazz as separate from Latin is a real fallacy.  Human beings love to categorize things.  They put things in boxes and make understandable that which is not.  The idea that Latin Jazz is so popular is both a blessing and a curse these days, because it further delineates the differences that people have in their mind about the two.

TP:    What did your father think about it?

O’FARRILL:  I don’t think he gave it much thought.  I think he looked at life as a musical challenge.  The only thing that bothered him was that Latin musicians tend to get paid less, and the music is less well received and not accorded the same respect.  It’s basically an economic issue.  To this day, I think, Latin Jazz tends to pay less, just in terms of economics.  I think my father didn’t care.  He was just a consummate musician.  He just wanted to write music.  He didn’t care if it was Count Basie or Machito.  He just loved what he did.  I don’t think he saw one or the other.

BRIAN:  Jazz is an attitude and a procedure to what you’re doing.  It’s about improvisation.  It’s always about wanting to extend something.  I think a proper relationship with your material is, as Eddie was talking about, extending folkloric materials of one sort or another.

TP:    We were talking about how sophisticated everything has gotten today, and yet the folkloric element is still so fundamental.

BRIAN:  Well, you’re seeing a lot of this trickle back into straight-ahead jazz.  A lot of the polymetric kind of wizardry that’s going on and a lot of the sophisticated bands is kind of coming in through the back door through Caribbean and Afro-Cuban music.  The fact that drummers have a much more pronounced emphasis on the 12/8 in their beat I think has to do with some of that, too.

Eddie Palmieri (for bio for Listen Here) — (Feb. 24, 2005):

TP:   What I think we should do is try to give something to the press so they can see what you think about jazz, why you doing a jazz record is different than what you normally do, and what your relationship has been to jazz, as well as the songs on the record. Plus the different instrumentalists. What’s so interesting is that you have some of the most distinctive personalities out there, and they all sound within your music.  They follow the logic and they’re immediately part of your world. It’s a sort of magic.

EDDIE:   Regina Carter just fell right in.  I had met her, but I wasn’t aware that she also had played Latin music, with charanga bands. So the piece I wrote for her, In Flight, she blew it away.  Her soloing was incredible.

TP:   She played a little pizzicato, almost a tres sound, on “Nica’s Dream.”

EDDIE:   I’ve never done compositions of the jazz artists, because I don’t know the jazz repertoire. But I do know the jazz phrasings and jazz harmonies that I utilize for my own compositions. This time, we utilized some of the compositions like “In Walked Bud,” which we did with Brian Lynch, Conrad Herwig and Donald Harrison. It was going to be for Nicholas Payton, but that composition was just finished, and I gave him another composition, called “E.P. Blues,” on which he plays with the three horns, the band. Nicholas also plays on “Nica’s Dream.” Michael Brecker and Christian McBride just blew me away.

TP:   Let me ask you systematically, tune by tune. Then I can interpolate questions.

EDDIE:   I didn’t use the full rhythm section, which I always do. I missed it in some of the compositions because of the form of the writing, which I turned into more of the Latin flavor.

TP:   Explain how the rhythm you used for this, the drums and conga, is different than using timbales, bongo and congas.

EDDIE:   It wasn’t a major problem. It’s just that when I use the drums, I call that Jazz Latin.  Latin Jazz, if I may, would be when I use my full rhythm which I always had—bongo, conga, and timbal.  But in my opinion, when you put a drummer within that whole rhythm section, the drum is very heavy. He just holds the weight, and it’s very difficult in the mixing.  But usually, when we do it, I either tone down the drum, bring down the volume, or we just eliminate him in certain sections. But I wasn’t going to do that to El Negro; I wanted him to play. Between him and Giovanni, they have a rapport. They did an excellent job. So I left it like that, without the timbales. But in some of the compositions, I missed having my full rhythm section, the conga, bongo and timbales. Just a few of them. The rest were fine. If you notice, we did a duo, we did trio, we did quartet, which I haven’t done.

TP:   Also new, except for the overtures you’ve done. So “In-Flight” was for Regina, and it seemed you were playing with some familiar changes.

EDDIE:   Yes. I came up with the melody, and I figured with the violin it was going to sound real interesting, and that she’d blow it away. Not only the melody, but her soloing on “In-Flight” is extraordinary. I’d met her in Europe, but I hadn’t heard her. I certainly didn’t know she had played in Latin bands. That helped a lot when we started to play.

TP:   I think you told me that you had to change your fingering system to play jazz, that it requires you to alter your actual approach to the instrument.

EDDIE:   Right.  The way you always play in Latin is in the octave, the full octave, and that locks the hand.  The reason for playing the octaves was that there really was no amplification at that time, and hitting four C’s, for example, and lining them up that way so it had a lot of power.  But what happens is you’re not using the fingering the way you would for jazz. So when I went into Latin Jazz, then I had to do some exercises and a different approach of technique to be able to play the Latin Jazz.

TP:   Is there a process of unlearning that goes into this?  You spent so many years creating this unique sound, always with jazz in mind. But this seems to culminate a decade of moving back to a certain element of your early years.

EDDIE:   It was really to let go the form of attack. My soloing, for example. And also, comping behind the jazz players on the Latin Jazz CDs that I did—Palmas, Arete and Vortex. That was a great experience for me at the same time, and I brought it into this CD. So it worked good for me. At the same time that I let go of the other approach in my form of attack, this one helps me in another way. I use more fingering in one of the numbers with John Scofield. I solo…

TP:   “In Flight” is your composition, and there are some changes you work, probably subconscious. “Listen Here” is an Eddie Harris tune. You selected it?

EDDIE:   My son wanted me to do it. We used Michael Brecker and Christian McBride. Michael hadn’t played in a while, and when he came to play, he REALLY played. I had met Michael Brecker with Randy many years ago, from when Barry Rogers was in the orchestra, and they eventually made Dreams together. But I saw them playing once with Horace Silver. Randy had recorded with me at times, but not Michael Brecker. He came and he played incredible in that company.

TP:   Eddie Harris in the ‘60s was one of the most proficient guys at using vamps and boogaloo, which is a sort of pan-Latin-backbeat unity thing. Can you talk about you responded to that in the ‘60s when it was happening? Also, did you know Eddie Harris?

EDDIE:   No, I didn’t know Eddie Harris. But the time of the boogaloo, that was also going into the late ‘60s. There were certain vamps, and then they were singing in English, a few of the young bands coming out at that time.  But in the Eddie Harris compositions I’ve heard, he always simplifies in the harmonic structures, but they have a natural swing ride to them like Listen Here has. And between Michael Brecker and Christian McBride, they certainly had it riding. Then I was right in there in the middle with them.  It turned out great

TP:   What’s it like working with a jazz bass player like Christian McBride?

EDDIE:   He and I met in Aspen. He’s the musical director of the Festival up there. I saw him doing seminars, and he was excellent.  Then we talked about recording. He is tremendous!  His father played with Latin bands in Philly, and one of the Latin bands here… He knew Mario Rivera, people like Cortijo and so on. His Dad was involved in there. He even told me, “My Dad will be jealous that I recorded with you and not him.” But he’s an incredible bass player. You know what he does in jazz.  But he can grab a Latin tumbao and ride that, too. I know because we did a thing together for Donald Harrison, one of my compositions called “Snow Visor.” We did an intro together, and then we played the whole composition.

TP:   Did you have to give them much instruction?

EDDIE:   No instructions. They certainly knew what to do.

TP:   “Vals Con Bata.”

EDDIE:   That has John Scofield and David Sanchez, with Giovanni playing the bata drums.  That’s more or less into the Jazz Waltz, and it came out also… That one was going to be pulled, because it was giving us a lot of trouble in the recording. But we held it for last, and worked on it, and were able to put it on the CD.

TP:   Did you think of it with Scofield and David in mind?  Didn’t David come out of Puerto Rico with you?

EDDIE:   Yes.  He went to Montreux. We closed a show for Miles Davis; Miles didn’t like to close. At the end of his career, he’d rather open and then leave. Then we followed him.

TP:   I wouldn’t want to follow your band.

EDDIE:   [LAUGHS] But David left with me from Puerto Rico. After that, he’s held his own, and he’s very respected in the jazz field and a pride of Puerto Rico.

TP:   Were all the tunes composed for the date?

EDDIE:   “Vals Con Bata” was already done, and I decided to pull it out because I needed a jazz waltz. I love them. It worked fine. John Scofield plays electric guitar, and David solos excellent.

TP:   I guess the jazz waltz is another point of connection between jazz and Afro-Caribbean music because of the triplets. Is that one of the things that appealed to you when you were younger?

EDDIE:   Yes. I always dedicated myself to listening to the Cuban music, and that was really my forte. But if I was ever going to do anything in jazz, it would be in a waltz type thing. I felt very comfortable there. I love them. I’ve recorded 3/4 on certain CDs. I have one called “Bianco’s Waltz,” another is “Resemblance,” which I did with Cal Tjader.

TP:   “Tema Para Eydie” is for one of your daughters.

EDDIE:   One of my daughters who’s here tonight. That turned out to be a duo between John Benitez and I.  John was great, because he can comprehend the Latin playing, and he’s become quite a jazz bass player in his own right, and a great soloist. It was written for the CD.

TP:   Break it down for me a bit.

EDDIE:   It was going to be done like a ballad. On the last CD, I did one called “Tema Para Reneé,” my oldest daughters. This is my second oldest; I’m doing them one at a time. This one was going to be like a ballad with the whole rhythm section. But we were having some complications, not in the recording itself, but in the numbers that were being selected to be done and a few that might change from the instrumental point of view… So instead of doing this one as a ballad with the horns and rhythm section, I decided to do it as a duo. I said, “Instead of playing piano alone, I’ll play with John,” and we did it as a duo.

TP:   Has working on the different fingerings made this a more acceptable thing for you to do on record? Your fans who are into jazz like things like “Cobarde” or “House On Judge Street,” where you make these long, grand intros. But these are a bit different. And what you did with David at Le Jazz Au Bar was also different. Can we say this is something you’ve been evolving to?

EDDIE:   We’re working towards it. Eventually it will be like solo piano, which I do sometimes on sets…

TP:   I wish you’d recorded the opener on this set. And if you do a solo record, I hope it’s on a Bosendorfer. Your left hand deserves it.

EDDIE:   I love the Bosendorfer. I’m working on that. But then the duo made it comfortable for me. At one time, I would never even have attempted to do it. But because I’ve been working on a few things, I thought it should be a duo. And I was very comfortable with John Benitez.

TP:   What makes this the time for you to start working on this. Your place in history would be pretty secure if you weren’t doing this. What was going on in your mind ten years ago that made you start taking this direction.

EDDIE:   Because the dance genre had changed, and my wife said, “the writing on the wall is going toward Latin Jazz.” That’s when I decided to do the Latin Jazz CDs, and then changed my style of playing more. Once I started with the fingering, then I wrote a couple of ballads, like Bolero Dos and Tema Con Reneé, and another one that Brian Lynch put strings on for me. I started to work on other ballads, and that made it more pianistic, more pianistic in my approach to the recording, and played ballads.

TP:   So ballads is more jazz for you… Up-tempo 4/4 swing isn’t really your thing, but playing these beautiful rubato ballads…

EDDIE:   Yes, which I enjoy very much. And then the 3/4, which I use for the jazz waltzes.

TP:   “Tin Tin Deo.” Was Dizzy Gillespie very important to you in the ‘50s.

EDDIE:   [LAUGHS] Dizzy was something special with me.

TP:   Didn’t Jerry Gonzalez go from him to you?

EDDIE:   I don’t know if he went from him to us. The brothers came in around 1974, when…

TP:   Jerry’s on the Puerto Rico concert.

EDDIE:   That’s ‘71. But when we do Sentillo is when we really started to meet. Then Jerry plays congas on one of the compositions on Puerto Rico. Because there was another conga player, [tk]. In the Sing-Sing album also, the brothers were on. As a matter of fact, I wrote the compositions at Andy’s house. I came up with it right there. I said, “I have this in mind,” and then we did it before we went to play at Sing Sing. So in ‘71-‘72, we already were playing together.

TP:   But had you always been aware of Dizzy…

EDDIE:   Yeah. Dizzy went with me to Riker’s Island once. He knew the gentleman who was musical director there, named Carl Warwick. He came with his camera… He was my MC that day. Matter of fact, before he brought me out, he said, “Before I bring out my Latin soul brother, Eddie, have you ever seen such a captive audience?’ That’s how he brought me on to the stage. Then we played and blew them away.

TP:   Let’s say something about Dizzy Gillespie to give the press something. Everyone knows his connection to Afro-Cuban music and what he did with it. But was it personally important to you in the ‘50s and early ‘60s.

EDDIE:   Well, the most important thing for me with Dizzy was the importance of how he got together with Chano Pozo, that one percussionist, coming out of Cuba, was able to change the characteristics of a jazz orchestra. Then that worked, it became very important in the Latin Jazz. So credit must be given to him to the highest degree.  Plus what he did on his own with the jazz bands that he had constantly, and his form of playing. Then how he ended his career with the international band, that he brought in more Cubans. He brought in Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera, plus Giovanni and Danilo Perez. They all were in that orchestra.

TP:   So it was more his overall accomplishment than the specifics of his compositions?

EDDIE:   Yes.

TP:   That being said, how did you approach “Tin Tin Deo?”

EDDIE:   Well, I gave “Tin Tin Deo” a Latin intro, and I worked it more like a montuno type thing, the cha-cha-cha type approach to it, a Latin flavor type thing for David Sanchez. Then David took over, and brought that number home.

TP:   So David’s personality is the thing.

EDDIE:   He plays beautifully. You can hear his tone and feeling in the number. It was excellent.

TP:   That’s another jazz characteristic. Not only jazz.  But writing for personalities. You wrote for Barry Rogers… I don’t know what you did when you were writing for Tito Rodriguez. But is that an appealing thing about jazz for you?

EDDIE:   Yeah. Barry was really great, because not only did I write with him in mind and what he did, but we worked together. Working together was great, because I would bring in the composition, and then Barry would add the harmonies of the two trombones, and change them around, and then when we got into different orchestras, he also orchestrated incredibly well. On Santillo, for example, or the composition Puerto Rico. Then when we did The Sun of Latin Music, the Dia a Bonito(?) was a great collaboration between Barry Rogers and I.

TP:   Let me bring this to the ACJO. Have you been influenced by the way that Brian, Donald and Conrad play? Have they inspired your compositional direction?

EDDIE:   In the Latin Jazz, for sure. When I met Brian Lynch and he started to play, he’s the one who was the stimulus for me to write for them. I already had been using Conrad in the Latin orchestra. So between the two… I said, “Well, I’ll write a composition.”  How do I satisfy the personal desires of the jazz player and their changes, and how do I bring it then in the same composition to satisfy my rhythm section desire, which is more Latin and less chordal changes? In the three CDs, I was able to achieve that.

TP:   So really, having them, plus the practical necessity of moving to a different sound, combined to move you toward jazz.

EDDIE:   Right.

TP:   How about “In Walked Bud”? Was Monk someone you paid attention to?

EDDIE:   Sure. Thelonious Monk… In fact, Willie Bobo years ago called me the Latin Monk because of the dissonance playing that I did. But I never did any of the jazz playing, not even Thelonious Monk, until this one.  Richard Seidel sent me certain compositions, and when I was looking at “In Walked Bud,” I liked it. It was a natural to do it in an up-tempo. It came out all right. Even “Nica’s Dream” later on is in an up-tempo also.

TP:   Were you paying attention to Monk in the ‘50s?

EDDIE:   Well, Barry Rogers also made me very aware of him. We’d exchange LPs, and he brings me a Thelonious Monk LP, the one with the stamp, where he does “Tea For Two,” which is a classic. I exchanged that for a Celia Cruz-Sonora Matancera. He also brought me Kind of Blue, maybe for Chappotin or something like that.

TP:   When Fort Apache did Rumba Para Monk, did it make sense to you? Do Monk’s compositions flow easily into Afro-Caribbean rhythmic structures?

EDDIE:   Certain numbers, yes. I met Thelonious Monk once, when I was playing at the Corso, and he came up to hear the orchestra. He was brought up by a bass player named Victor Venegas, and he brought him upstairs. He blew me away.

TP:   Where was the Corso?

EDDIE:   That was a dancehall on 86th Street off Third Avenue.

TP:   What did he say?

EDDIE:   He didn’t say much. But he enjoyed the band, and that was great.

TP:   Did he dance?

EDDIE:   No. He just sat and listened.

TP:   “La Gitana” is a trio with Scofield on acoustic guitar and John Benitez.

EDDIE: He played beautifully. The instrumentation was originally for a larger band, and we rehearsed it, but it didn’t come in.

TP:   So it became a trio track by accident.

EDDIE:   Right. First it became a duo in the studio, and then a trio.

TP:   “Nica’s Dream.”

EDDIE:   Many years ago, in the ‘60s, I bumped into Horace in the street. I knew he liked Latin music, and I’ll never forget that he asked me, “Are you hip to ‘Nica’s Dream?’” I was walking on Broadway, right by Birdland. The Palladium was right next to Birdland. We were going like this, then he said hello, and I said how much I admired him. I wasn’t into jazz until later on, until I had Barry in the band. Then he brought me to Birdland on a Sunday, and I saw the original John Coltrane quartet also. Which by the way, when I started here on Tuesday, McCoy Tyner was at the soundcheck, and we had a nice talk.

TP:   So Horace Silver was another connection for you.

EDDIE:   Except that I met him. So when Richard Seidel sent me the tunes, I said, “I’d like to look at Nica’s Dream.” We did again up-tempo, a little bit more, and then we wrote a Latin thing at the… For that and “In Walked Bud” I was going to use the Latin rhythm section I like later on, but we didn’t do it, and I left it just drums and conga. But we put a mambo ensemble in there, because I changed the chord structures toward the Latin. That’s what I solo on.

“Mira Flores” is a place in Spain called “En Cortijo a la Mira Flores.” I just used the words “Mira Flores.” That’s where I heard and saw the original crushings of the olive to make the virgin olive oil. It was the historical museum, and then they turned on the machinery, because it worked, and the machinery… It gave me an idea again, and another 3/4 rhythm, which I wrote. There Christian McBride and Brecker exchange solos,  and I accompany them. Michael Brecker told me, “Eddie, it’s a beautiful composition,” and I told him, “If you play it and put it in your repertoire, I’ll be quite honored.”

TP:   So it’s a recent composition as well.

EDDIE:   Right.

TP:   “E.P.  Blues” was also for the session?

EDDIE:   I had Nicholas in mind for In Walked Bud, but he falls on this one, and he exchanges with Brian and Conrad and Donald. He was great. And he was comfortable here.

TP:   By the way, does Donald Harrison’s presence in the ACJO have an impact on you?

EDDIE:   Oh, yeah. He can play drums, and he’s a Big Chief. Now he has his own tribe, since his father passed away. Not only that. Donald can dance, he loves Latin rhythms. That’s why he wanted to come play with us. He told Brian, “I’ve got to get into the Eddie Palmieri band,” and he stuck with me for a while. We did the three CDs. I happen to love Donald Harrison very much. He’s not only a great, great player, but he’s a gentleman to the highest degree, an incredible human being.

Conrad is my compadre. I baptized his son Glen. Conrad to me is the greatest trombonist that I’ve ever met. Conrad is an incredible trombonist. He can execute the instrument, and knows about the structures of how to play it, and how to explain it to the students. Now he’s in a great position, because he’s also a professor at Rutgers.

Brian is an extraordinary talent. He’s one of the greatest trumpet players I’ve ever met. How he is able to comprehend… He’s very well known in the jazz world. But when he came into the Latin thing, I saw him make it his business to buy, like Barry did, for example, the essence of these Latin rhythms from the Latin records…to be able to get the right recordings. Brian Lynch has fulfilled that. He comprehends Latin very well, and that’s very difficult to do.

John Benitez is an incredible bass player. His roots are Latin from Puerto Rico, and he knows that, and he’s also become one of the top jazz bass players. He’s rounded.

TP:   Had Negro played with you before?

EDDIE:   He played here with me along with Richie Flores for a whole week. Negro is an extraordinary drummer. At the same time he plays his jazz, he knows his Cuban music. He gives another unique style that only a few drummers can do.

And Giovanni left with me for Europe as a young man, in 1984. His first tour to Europe.

TP:   You end “E.P. Blues” with a solo. You have the last word. Do you always have the last word on your bands?

EDDIE:   Yeah, sure.

TP:   Was it intended to be the set closer?

EDDIE:   Well, it was the most exciting number.

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Filed under Arturo O'Farrill, DownBeat, Eddie Palmieri, Interview, Piano

A Few Thoughts on “B.A.M.” and “Jazz”

I’m sure that no one who reads this blog is unfamiliar with the lively debate that’s recently transpired in social media in response to Nicholas Payton’s declaration on his blog that jazz died in 1959, and that the music that he and his peer group are playing should henceforth be described as “Black American Music.” He’s followed this salvo with a series of fascinating posts, erudite, impassioned, antagonistic, soulful, profane — just like his tonal personality. Last week, to offer a little context to anyone who’s interested, I posted an article that I wrote about NP in 2001 and the proceedings of a radio interview that we did in 1995. (By the way, some of the liveliest and most civil discussion has transpired on George Colligan’s superb blog, Jazz Truth.)

My own two cents is that, however rough the linguistic signifying, this is an extremely healthy dialogue. Whatever nomenclature you prefer  — “jazz,” “Great Black Music,” “BAM,” “Pan-American Music,” “creative music” — the music that emanates from the people of the African diaspora whatever the idiom, is about using notes and tones to tell a story, map identity, speak the truth. Why should we settle for anything less in the discourse about this abundant, vital, very-much-alive art form, one of the crown jewels of 20th and 21st culture?

As for Mr. Payton, he’s been a BMF for a very long time, latest evidence coming from that Victor Goines Quartet youtube from 1991 with Brian Blade on drums that was posted on Facebook yesterday. I’ve heard him destroy some of the best and brightest on several bandstands (though they held their own), and not one thing that he said about his abilities is incorrect. He is qualified to call his music whatever he chooses to.

In his most recent post, NP wrote, “With all due respect, until I hear Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff sit in at Smalls and rip everybody in the club to pieces, nothing they say matters.”

Now, I wouldn’t put myself in Nate and Ben’s class, and I will never destroy anyone on the stage at Smalls or Cleopatra’s or anywhere.

But for what it’s worth, I’ve listened to jazz and its offshoots very seriously for a very long time, and talked with at length in public and private and written about many of its practitioners over the years, including NP. Although I’m not crazy about the term, I intend to keep using it.  If I had my druthers, I’d call the 2011 edition “Creolized American Music With African-American, Euro and Latin and Asian Elements Animated By Trans-African Aesthetics” (CAMWAAEALAAEABTAA…that rolls trippingly off the tongue, doesn’t it…).

I also don’t think the “colonialist” trope holds up…as Jeremy Pelt and Wallace Roney stated, the context has shifted from the original usage. Not sure how “Black American Music” denotes what NP is doing when he plays the shit out of “E.S.P.” or “Con Alma” or “Prototype” with a completely distinctive voice over a swinging, interactive rhythm section , as he did as a sideman on a recent recording that I’m writing liner notes for.  Should I think of these soulful, sophisticated, virtuosic declamations, each a grandmaster exposition in the art of improvising, in the same breath with, let’s say, L’il Wayne? With “The In Crowd”? (All respects to Ramsey Lewis.) With “The Signifying Monkey” (all respects to Dave Bartholomew) or the Dirty Dozen or the Wild Tchoupitoulas?  Don’t think so, though someone else might.  For me, these  solos place NP directly in the conversation with any of his trumpet influences. Any trumpet player under 30 will have to reckon with them. If this is “jazz,” the form sounds pretty alive to me.

But then, I’ll repeat that I think that “jazz” is the crown jewel of 20th and 21st century culture on the international playing field.  It’s a big umbrella, one that for me includes this component of NP’s musical production but also many other ways of “getting there,” from Jelly Roll to Anthony Braxton and Tim Berne and Jerry Gonzalez. It doesn’t adequately describe any single one of these musics, but I can’t think of anything better…except for CAMWAAEALAAEABTAA.

NP describes Bitches as a “post-Dilla Modern New Orleans album,” and, from one-off listens to five youtube clips (I don’t have a hardcopy, and I’m in the middle of a lot of writing assignments), that sounds about right.  I like each track. The lyrics are honest and poetic and deft. The production is spot-on. He plays all the instruments — drum-beats, basslines (love the groove on “Stole Your iPhone”), keyboard harmony, trumpet — at the highest level.  He interweaves jazz elements, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not, with other Black American music forms (second-line,  post-Grover soul jazz, urban/hip-hop, soul, Caribbean), each of which he obviously knows intimately. The rhythms are intoxicating. To my ears, a couple of tunes could use a little trimming, and I’m not sure if it’s Here, My Dear, but it’s pretty damn good. Congratulations to NP for putting his money — and his heart and soul — where his mouth is.


Filed under Nicholas Payton, Opinion

A Jazziz Article on McCoy Tyner from 2003 {Plus Interviews}

To mark the 73rd birthday of piano maestro McCoy Tyner, I’m posting a feature article about that I had the opportunity to write for Jazziz in 2003. I’ve attached below the verbatim transcripts of the two interviews that I conducted for the piece.

* * *

Thirty-six years after the death of John Coltrane, with whom he famously played from 1960 until 1965, McCoy Tyner remains a jazz icon. The 64-year-old pianist reinforced that stature one night last March, during a thrilling set with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Charnett Moffett, and drummer Al Foster at Manhattan’s Iridium in the middle of a week’s stand supporting Land of Giants (Telarc), Tyner’s superb 2003 release.

“There’s a prayer that comes through as the music is being played,” Hutcherson noted during a subsequent conversation. Hutcherson, who first recorded with Tyner in the mid-’60s, when both were Blue Note artists, is perhaps Tyner’s most inspired foil. “You’re vulnerable, naked. McCoy knows how to mold the group and make it sound the way it should. We just fall in and then we’re swept away. He throws out so many suggestions and then asks what you think. If you catch it, you catch it. He implies the color or the one note throughout a sequence of chords that says, ‘Play me, play me again!’ — and with that starts the prayer. After every set I’ll turn to him and say, ‘Boy, you were really praying.’ He’ll laugh, but he understands exactly what I’m saying.”

When I paraphrased Hutcherson’s remarks to Tyner, he laughed. “Did Bobby say that? I’ve got a name for him: Rev!” As we sat on the backyard patio of his booking agent’s brownstone office on a bright, 90-degree July afternoon, the pianist looked clean as a whistle in a contoured black sports jacket, a textured, blue silk shirt, a white patterned silk tie, and white linen pants. He wore his hair marcelled into short neck-clinging braids that didn’t betray a speck of gray.

“I don’t want to sound overly poetic,” Tyner continued, on a serious note, “but you do feel cleansed when you’re done playing. I pay homage to the Creator for what he has given me and all of us. But I’m not preaching. If people hear things in my music and identify with them, that’s good! The music speaks for itself.”

I mention that Hutcherson’s description of how it feels to make music with Tyner evokes the collective catharsis that Coltrane stirred in audiences on a nightly basis during the ’60s. “It was a spiritual experience every night,” Tyner reflects. “We were giving everything we had, and you never knew what would happen. There was no time for ego.”

Tyner stands out among professional contemporaries because of his grounded persona and the relentless consistency of his career. He is no stylistic eclectic in the manner of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Chick Corea, all of whom continue to follow the example of their former employer, Miles Davis, in seeking new worlds to conquer. Rather, Tyner’s path more closely resembles the High Modernism aesthetic of Coltrane — and the likes of Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, and Keith Jarrett — who coalesced and refined diverse influences into a holistic musical conception.

Like all of the aforementioned, Tyner possesses a vocabulary of global dimension. Core sources include Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, and Coltrane. Every other year or so, he releases a new recording, invariably acoustic, on which he reframes elements of his long-influential style in different contexts. Every important jazz pianist from the mid-’60s until the present — including Hancock and Corea — has assimilated his homegrown system of navigating harmony with fourth intervals. For improvisational fodder, he deploys an exhaustive knowledge of the rhythms and scales of Africa, Cuba, Brazil, and India, as well as the chordal structures of the American Songbook. And he articulates everything with soulful cadences drawn from the Afro-American urban-church and blues cultures of his youth.

Tyner differs from his distinguished contemporaries in that he has never shrunk from expressing his tonal identity within the framework of his roots in mainstream jazz. Perhaps that predisposition — in conjunction with a pronounced lack of personal eccentricity and the middling skills of his working trio of the latter ’80s and much of the ’90s — explains why, despite the fact that Tyner commands universal admiration among musicians and retains what market researchers call a “high recognition quotient,” many “progressive” connoisseurs perceive him as a conservative figure. But no such considerations deterred several thousand New Yorkers — young and old, and with a larger African-American contingent than usually turns out for jazz events south of 96th Street — from packing a cavernous concrete space on the south edge of the Lincoln Center acropolis, called Damrosch Park, on a humid August night for a free concert by Tyner’s trio, with guest flutist Dave Valentin.

Stimulated as much by the crowd’s support as by the inventive accompaniment of bassist Charnett Moffett and drummer Al Foster, Tyner stretched out through seven originals on the trio portion. With unerring logic, impeccable touch, and an astonishingly powerful left hand, he conjured yearning, inflamed melodies from dense harmonies and complex polyrhythms, ornamenting his designs with luscious voicings and elegant figures. He executed every idea with magisterial authority while sustaining the aura of instantaneous creation. For all the baroque grandeur of the lines, he stripped every idea to essentials, imparting an air of poetic inevitability to the arc of each improvisation. With Tyner as the attentive moderator, the trio transcended notes and beats and achieved seamless musical conversation, rendered in cogent sentences and paragraphs.


Unfailingly amiable and gracious in conversation, Tyner is not one to expound on the particulars of his art. However, his colleagues are happy to fill in the gaps.

“McCoy is a consummate accompanist,” says tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, who won a Grammy for his solo on Coltrane’s “Impressions” on Tyner’s 1996 album, Infinity [Impulse!]. “He gives you a lush, wide-open cushion, and you have a feeling of complete freedom. If I hint at building a harmonic tension, he’ll be there instantly, almost like he’s reading my mind. It’s powerful to hear that quality of tension-and-release on the great Coltrane records, but to actually experience it first-hand is incredible.”

Some of Tyner’s most efflorescent playing has occurred in Afro-Cuban and Brazilian contexts, most recently on the prosaically titled McCoy Tyner and the Latin All-Stars [Telarc, 1998]. “McCoy is a master of rhythm,” says trombonist Steve Turre, a regular participant on such projects, who has also played in Tyner’s big band since 1984. “A lot of guys don’t commit to a rhythm; everything is kind of abstract. But McCoy never floats. Rhythm permeates everything he does.”

“Rhythms have languages, and even if you don’t know the language, you can sense what it is and play it,” says bassist Andy Gonzalez, recalling an occasion where the pianist performed as a guest with Libre, the unit Gonzalez co-leads with iconic timbalero Manny Oquendo. “I asked McCoy if he wanted to play Latin-jazz tunes with [chord] changes or montunos, and right away he asked for the montunos,” Gonzalez says, referring to the triplet-based vamps that counterstate the drumbeats of clave. “I had Charlie Palmieri play a real down-home, Cuban-dance-rhythm montuno at him, and it was fascinating to hear him answer it with his own chords and rhythmic feel. It was effortless. Montunos are related to the kinds of pentatonic modal scales that Coltrane was working on, and improvising in those kinds of modes is really McCoy’s forte. That’s very African, very deep-rooted, getting to the very beginnings of music.”

Gonzalez mentions a late ’60s conversation with Tyner during a set break a Slugs, an infamous club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The pianist revealed that a window opened for him after a concert at Harlem’s Apollo Theater when Coltrane, sharing the bill with Machito, borrowed the Cuban bandleader’s bassist, Bobby Rodriguez to fill in for an absent Jimmy Garrison. Tyner confirms this. He also emphasizes the impact of Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, to whom Coltrane was close, on sustaining his own awareness of African roots. But African music entered Tyner’s consciousness in the early ’50s, when a Ghanaian drummer named Saka Acquaye arrived at Philadelphia’s Temple University to study political science, and earned tuition money by teaching African rhythms to local drummers at a dance school that employed the teenage pianist as an accompanist.

“I fooled around with the drums, but the joints of my fingers started to hurt, and I had enough sense to stop,” says Tyner, who began formal piano studies about a year before the drummer came to town. “I observed Saka and learned how to connect one rhythm with another, how to operate with different layers of rhythm. I was fascinated with the drums even before I met him, and I’ve incorporated those rhythms into my style along with other things.”

Tyner acknowledges regarding the piano as a kind of extended drum. “Thelonious Monk did, too. Monk was very percussive and rhythmic. He’d do stuff that was off-rhythm or against the rhythm or tempo of the song. It was miraculous to me how he could interject so much feeling and depth into such simple ideas. It wasn’t about how many notes he played. It was the immediacy, the spontaneity of the situation. He taught me that what’s important is what you do with the idea you’re trying to portray – the will to push the envelope.”

While Tyner’s ensembles at Damrosch Park and Iridium played with a palpable attitude of freedom, critics cite numerous ’80s and ’90s recordings and performances with less resourceful partners on which his playing sounds attenuated and rudimentary, as though he felt responsible, say, for stating both the drum and piano parts. “I have a mixed personality in that respect,” Tyner admits. “I have a controlled sense of experimentation. I go outside, but there has to be something to work with. I conceived one tune on the new record as having no melody; we just used tonal centers, moved from one tone, one sound, one cluster, to another. I had that experience playing with John. But I use it when it’s appropriate for me, not as a main way to express myself. It’s a tool, and that’s all. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone, and I don’t want everything to be predetermined. It’s not artistic.”

Perhaps that sentiment explains why, last year, Tyner decided that his two-decade association with bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Aaron Scott had “served its purpose for that time period” and formed the current rotating unit with bassists Moffett and George Mraz, and with either Foster, Eric Harland, or Lewis Nash on drums. “You can’t get so attached to someone that you restrict them from doing what they ultimately have to do,” he explains. “I had my previous trio for a long time because I hadn’t heard anyone — and I knew there were guys around — who could really do what I was looking for. Then they came along. The right thing always comes around eventually.”

What precisely is Tyner looking for? “I like guys around me who are willing to take chances, explore and feel the situation at hand, as opposed to, ‘Oh, I can’t do this’ – but on a level of professionalism that stands out. It’s not good for an artist to feel that kind of fear. But it’s very personal. You’re asking a person to be honest with themselves and not be afraid. And most of us have fears and sometimes we’re not honest! We spend a lifetime, or at least we should, trying to find out who we are. It’s crazy to stick with something forever.”

The ethos of risk taking was customary during Tyner’s years with Coltrane and was a key component of his formative years in Philadelphia. A late starter, he studied classical music formally for two years before putting aside the books and finding his own solutions in functional situations. “I developed facility because I practiced all the time,” he says. “And the dancing school taught everything, so I heard a lot of music there. I studied things by Bud Powell like ‘Celia’ and ‘Parisian Thoroughfare,’ and I heard Monk’s records. Bud and Monk were my main influences — and John, of course. But I listened for the individuality, not to copy. Monk respected you if you had your own direction. A lot of things come out of so-called ‘mistakes.’ In reality, nothing is a mistake; it’s how you shape music, how you resolve it.”

Like trumpeter Lee Morgan, a childhood pal in Philly, Tyner learned to think on his feet in the crucible of live performance. He played with blues singers and R&B bands, worked fraternity dances and graduations, and, with Morgan, worked two summers in the no-holds-barred environment of Atlantic City. By his late teens, Tyner was a first-call pianist for national bands passing through town, and he spent memorable weeks with, among others, Max Roach’s quintet with Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham, and with a unit co-led by Red Rodney and Oscar Pettiford. By then, he’d been playing several years with local trumpeter-composer Calvin Massey, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Tootie Heath. Massey introduced Tyner to Coltrane in 1956 after a matinee job at a neighborhood spot called the Red Rooster.

“When guys from the older generation saw you had some talent, they’d call you for gigs and show you tunes,” he recounts. “And you learned by accompanying. Guys expected you to be supportive, and I learned a lot that way. That cocky attitude of ‘I can’t wait to get my own band’ didn’t fit in at all. The standards were very high. Appearance, presentation — you had to be on point. I came up in an era when Art Blakey would say, ‘People see you before they hear you.'”

I ask if his mother, Beatrice, a beautician who kept McCoy’s piano in her shop, was the source of his fastidiousness. “My mother had a lot to do with everything in my development,” he replies. “She was very elegant, not in terms of her clothes or attitude, but just her demeanor. She was honest, personable, and caring, and people loved her. She loved music, and she’d let me know when anything came up that she thought would interest me. We had a very close relationship. I took her to cotillions. Once she wanted me to play a concert at Mount Olivet Baptist Church – not church music, but the songs I had learned from my instructors. She wanted me to put on tails, and I did.”

I thought of that image toward the end of the trio portion at Damrosch Park. After a venturesome a cappella introduction by Moffett, Tyner — who did not remove his navy, double-breasted blazer throughout the high-energy set — launched into the thunderous theme of “Manalyuca,” carving out the melody with his left hand and comping with his right, using them interchangeably in an improvisation that built to an immense crescendo. He gave way to Al Foster, who, Max Roach-style, stated the design of the melody and transitioned into improvised variations on a march. Tyner re-entered at the peak he had reached before desisting, then, through a gradual decrescendo, reached the final melody statement. He immediately launched into a boogie-woogie figure before embarking on formidable two-handed blues variations that foreshadowed a deeply swinging, medium-tempo excursion through “Blue Monk.”

As at Iridium a few months before, he reminded the witnesses precisely why his name means what it does in the jazz timeline.

“I only did what I was supposed to,” Tyner says of his career. “I mean, people think it’s fabulous, and when I look back at my musical history, I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had, and to have risen to the occasion. I like simplicity and balance, and I’m dedicated to music, but it doesn’t consume my every minute. I don’t need to be put on a pedestal to feel good. But I don’t downplay my contribution or creativity. I’m confident, but I don’t allow myself to feel I’m in command of everything. Confidence is a tool to get where you want to go. I feel I did the best I could. And I thought it was pretty good.”

* * * *

McCoy Tyner (6-10-03):

TP:    I’ll try not to burden you with too much stuff that’s commonly known, but if I write a longer piece, I may want to ask you some other things.  Let’s talk about this group and this project.  It’s obviously not the first time you’ve joined forces with Bobby Hutcherson, but is this the first time you and he have worked together in a while, or has it been ongoing?

TYNER:  It has been ongoing over the years.  Periodically Bobby and I connect on a project.  We did a duet record, “Manhattan Moods,” just him and I for Blue Note, and several things in the past.

TP:    “Sama Layuca” and “Solo and Quartet.”

TYNER:  Right, with Herbie Lewis.  And he was on “Time For Tyner.”  So quite a few projects.  Then last year we went on tour in Europe, with this particular band.

TP:    Which generated this record.

TYNER:  Yes, it was a nice tour.  We just closed at the Iridium.  Eric wasn’t with us, because he’s been doing things with Terence Harland.  We try to set it up so everybody will be available to work with me, but we set that sort of thing up gently so that there won’t be any bad feelings.

TP:    Al Foster isn’t a bad guy to have available in a pinch.

TYNER:  Let me tell you.  Al is fantastic.  He adds so much to the music, and knows just what to do dynamically.  So it’s a pleasure having him around so we can play together.  He’s going to Italy with me tomorrow.  It will be a trio with Charles Fambrough.  I’m in transition at the moment, kind of floating a bit, and it’s real nice.  I’ve got some guys who are sailing right along with me.

TP:    You mean you’re changing personnel.

TYNER:  Yes, I’m changing personnel.

TP:    Because you were with Aaron Scott and Avery Sharpe for many years.

TYNER:  Yes.  Avery was with me over 20 years, and Aaron about 16-17 years.

TP:    Thinking of Charles Fambrough, it occurs that you have a bunch of alumni from your bands who are prepared to step in and serve as almost interchangeable parts.

TYNER:  Fambrough hasn’t worked with me for a while, but when he was with me it was a great band.  We had George Adams and quite a few people.

TP:    Right, and Joe Ford.

TYNER:  Right, Joe Ford and George Adams and Wilby Fletcher and Charles Fambrough.  I can always give them a call when I get stuck.

TP:    what are you looking for in your musicians?  Apart from the usual things, sensitivity and technical proficiency, is there a particular perspective they need to have on music, or an attitude?

TYNER:  What it is… I was looking at some of the younger guys, not just because of age but because of talent, and if I think they have potential for growth and development, and they can bring something to the table in terms of my music… A lot of them have grown up listening to some of my music, along with other artists.  Like, Eric had been with Betty Carter, and she was a consummate teacher and very strict about what she wanted, and so she got him in the right place.  Charnett’s father worked with Ornette Coleman, so he brought something else to the table.  It just so happens, I’m not the kind of guy that randomly fires people.  I try to give a guy a chance to see what he can do.  George Mraz has done some things with me, we went to Europe not too long ago.  And Al is a real professional and a great guy.  So I’ve got a bit of selection.

TP:    With Bobby and Charnett, it was interesting, because it provided you with two foils.  Because Charnett is such a strong soloist and projects such a powerful sound, he was really a match for you.

TYNER:  Yes.  He’s been quite an individual, and has been from a very young age.  His father gave him the right idea about what the music is and said “Go ahead, take a shot, go your way and see what you can do.”  With me, he’s able not only to free himself up, but he wants to learn something else about structure in the music, some traditional stuff, which I like to do.  I like to do a lot of different things.  He’s able to do that.  He follows very well, listens, and he’s got a good sound and a good concept.  I like those two guys very much.

Of course, Bobby and I go way back, and we play well together conceptually.  We’ve been like that for a long time.

TP:    It seems you have an exceptional simpatico.  It seems you follow each other’s ideas intuitively.

TYNER:  We phrase a lot alike.  His wife even commented.  She said, “Sometimes I can’t tell,” because we’re both keyboard instruments.  We have the uncanny ability to phrase a lot alike.  It’s kind of unique.  A lot of fun.

TP:    It’s great to hear the two of you together.  You had that sort of simpatico with Joe Henderson on the various records.  And I think it would be hard for people to get that with you, because your conception and execution is so formidable.

TYNER:  Joe sounded great on his records that I did, and I’m very happy with the things he did with me — “The Real McCoy” and “New York Reunion.”  I really miss him a lot.

TP:    It seems one thing you and Bobby share is a fascination with pan-diasporic music in its many varieties, rhythmically, the melodies, the scales and so on.  I wanted to ask you about the evolution of your incorporating that information in your sound.  I gather there was a certain point when you went to Senegal.

TYNER:  Well, actually it started when I was a teenager.  I was very fortunate.  I came up in a very active community musically.  The musicians that were around and the jam sessions that were going on.  We had this guy Saka Acquaye, who was from Ghana, and he came to Philadelphia and taught some of the conga players and drummers in that genre of playing.  A lot of different rhythms, and how to connect everything, how sometimes you play one rhythm and that connects with something else, and you have different layers.  He was great.  And his sister taught African dancing.  I’m writing a book and someone is helping me, and she happened to run into Saka’s name.  I don’t know the correct spelling of the name, but it’s definitely in the book.

TP:    Did you study drums ever, apart from piano?

TYNER:  I was fooling around with it.  But it started in the joints of my fingers, and I said, “I can’t mess…” A lot of these drummers wore tape around the joints of their fingers, so it wouldn’t hurt so much.  I always had a fascination with the drums…

TP:    From the time you met him?

TYNER:  Actually, a little before.

TP:    How old were you at that time?

TYNER:  I must have been about 14-15.

TP:    So it would have been 1952-53.

TYNER:  Something like that, in the early ’50s.

TP:    A lot of Africans started coming to the States after the U.N., like the dancer Asadata Dafora in New York.  Do you think of the piano in a very percussive sense?

TYNER:  That’s part of my style, I think.  I’ve incorporated those rhythms into my style.  Also other things.  But I used to play for a dancing school, and they did a production of “Viva Zapata” that was… It was a song, actually, kind of a hit song back in the ’50s.  So I played piano for them…

TP:    This was as a teenager in Philadelphia.

TYNER:  Yes. Saka was studying at Temple University, political science or something, and was teaching on the side.  I never actually got instruction from him, but I watched him teach the guys who were playing congas.  At the time, there was a lot of identification with the Africans, because during that time… Not political.  Cultural.  Everybody wants to politicize it.  But I think cultural identification is good.

TP:    Were people like Edgar Bateman checking him out?

TYNER:  I’m not really sure.  He was around during that time.

TP:    I’m just thinking of some of the progressive musicians around Philly.

TYNER:  Like Eric Gravatt.  Eric had a very keen knowledge of African rhythms.  Because he worked with me for a while.  Then he went to Minnesota and took up residence there.

TP:    Michael Brecker told me that when he was a teenager, they used to play tenor-drums duets.

TYNER:  I wouldn’t doubt it.  Michael is a fantastic musician, and being from Philly… Guys from Philly have a certain kind of feeling.

TP:    But you had an orientation toward African rhythms at the time that you met John Coltrane, and certainly when you were in the band.

TYNER:  Yes.  And when he came to New York, Babatunde Olatunji was here, and John and Olatunji were very good friends.  John would play at his place in Harlem sometimes.  So there was a keen interest in African culture.  That was good, identifying with the roots.

TP:    Do you feel that inflected your compositions, the melodies and scales, and some of the rhythmic patterns?

TYNER:  Yes.  Especially certain compositions.  I think affiliating with this dancing school, I heard a lot of different kind of music.  Because they did ballet, they did everything, so I had a chance to check out a lot of music.  Also, I studied with two teachers, one a beginning teacher and the other an Italian teacher who took me through Bach, Beethoven, and other areas of European classical music.  So I had a wide range of experience in that respect.  I tried to keep my mind open.  And I always liked Latin music.  The music world is so broad.

TP:    People of your generation I think learned the music differently than the generation today.  Kenny Barron told me that as a teenager he’d play gigs until 3 in the morning, and then go to high school the next day.

TYNER:  Yeah, we had a lot of jam sessions around Philadelphia.  A lot of jam sessions.  We’d be at my house one time, the Heath Brothers would have jam sessions at their house, one time I played up at Lee Morgan’s house.  Plus, Philadelphia is in close proximity to Atlantic City.  So I would go to Atlantic City in the summer and play… We didn’t have much money, but we managed to scrape up three meals!  I played at the Cotton Club in Atlantic City with Lee Morgan’s quartet.  It was fantastic, because we had a chance to see… I met J.J. Johnson, and Tommy Flanagan and Tootie Heath were playing with J.J.  Dinah Washington.  Atlantic City was one of the entertainment capitals of America.  That was a great thing.  We spent two or three summers down there.

TP:    That’s on a very professional level.  There were places with chorus lines and so on.

TYNER:  Yes.  You learned from… There were some fantastic guys around, older guys, the older generation.  They took you under their wing, and if they saw you had some kind of talent, that was all they needed to know.  They’d call you for gigs and show you tunes, old standards.  You would learn just by accompanying.  A lot of the things I learned were by being supportive.  It wasn’t so much like now, where a lot of people want to set up their own band.  There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to get your own band, but when I was with John I wasn’t necessarily looking, “Oh, I can’t wait to get my own band.  I just savored the experience of being with him, and I learned so much just by coming together…” You learn how to do that.  When I was growing up, that’s what the guys expected from you.  They weren’t looking for you to have that kind of cocky attitude.  That didn’t fit in at all.

TP:    I think it would be a situation with Coltrane where you could play the whole history of the music and frame it as individually as you would want.

TYNER:  Well, John was in the R&B band.  Sometimes we’d travel and these guys would show up.  He used to play with a guy named King Kolax, who would show up when we’d play the Midwest.  I played with guys who played what we called House Rockers — the cat would get up and honk his horn and the rock the house, and people would put money in the bell of the horn.  That was a great thing, because it wasn’t about a lot of articulation — it was about feeling and sound.  If you had a sound on your instrument and a good feeling, hey, that was it.  I played with those kind of guys, coming up with blues singers and all that sort of stuff.  So yeah, it was on a professional level, even if you were young.  That didn’t have anything to do with it.  The thing is, to get that experience was wonderful.

TP:    Does it make a difference in the way you play what kind of drummer you have with you?

TYNER:  Well, it doesn’t change the way I play, but I think what it does, if the drummer is playing WITH me, as opposed to just sitting there playing time, I think… That’s a very important element.  But I think if he’s responding rhythmically to what I’m doing on the piano, it’s a tremendous asset.  Because I play very rhythmic anyway, so rhythm is very important, and then I’m able to go from there to other things.  It’s a good point of departure.

TP:    I want to continue on the rhythmic aspect.  In the ’50s and ’60s were you listening to Cuban or Puerto Rican piano players, and that style of playing in clave, which is different than jazz improvising.  Because your own brand of that music is so idiomatic and yet personal to you.

TYNER:  Well, I think that has a lot to do with the African influence.  The jazz and Latin rhythms came out of the African experience.  But because we were from the Americas, it’s a little different.  But that’s the foundation of gospel music and blues, and jazz came out of that.  So those rhythms have been able to last.  But that’s basically where I had a real pleasure just… I played with a lot of Latin musicians over the years, and we feel as though there’s very little separating us, and more connecting us than anything else.

TP:    I did read that you had gone to Senegal, and that it was an important experience for you.

TYNER:  It really was.  It must have been 7-8 years ago. I flew into Dakar, and then we drove from Dakar all the way down to St. Louis.  The French government put on a festival there.  A guy who produced several of my recordings of the big band, who has some affiliation with that festival. It was beautiful.  We went through many villages on the way down.  When I got down there, there were some djembe drummers who played with me.  I went down with Jack DeJohnette, and these guys sat in.  They were a family of drummers.  What happened is that they liked us so much, the French guys and the Africans, that they asked we do a tour of France with… I think Jack did the tour, and there were two drummers from that family.  It was great, and we were able to create a nice marriage.

TP:    Was it a very organic process to start bringing this material into your music circa 1969, when you did “Expansions,” and the early ’70s?

TYNER:  Yes, I’d say it was pretty organic because of my previous experience with African rhythms and drummers, guys who played… One of the guys who played regular trap drums in my R&B band when I went into modern jazz was a conga player, Garvin Masseaux, and he studied under Saka, along with a guy named Bobby Crowder.  They played together a lot and they were good friends.  So from an early age I’d been influenced by African music.  Bobby played and did some recording with Red Garland.  Those guys were our premier conga players around Philadelphia.  Garvin played with my R&B band.

TP:    And I gather that’s the band that you started you off in writing charts and writing tunes.

TYNER:  Yes.  I wrote this chart that never ended. [LAUGHS] Well, it seemed like it never did!  Boy, it was long.  I must have been about 14 or 15.

TP:    Jimmy Heath described his early writing efforts in Philly in a similar manner, and so did Benny Golson, so you’re not alone.,

TYNER:  Yeah.  You have a lot of ideas and you try to cram them all in one song.

TP:    When did your early mature pieces come, things like “Effendi,” and so on.  Did you write them in the early ’60s, or did you bring them up then…

TYNER:  Yes, that’s after I got… John and I were the first two jazz artists on Impulse, and “Inception” was my first record.

TP:    Wayne Shorter, for instance, said that he was writing pieces from the early ’50s, and some of them got into the Art Blakey book when he joined up.  I was wondering if you had been that prolific before coming to New York and entering the public stage.

TYNER:  Yeah, I was writing some things when I met John.  But I came to New York after the Jazztet.  I worked with the Jazztet for a while, because John was committed to Miles and he couldn’t leave, and he wanted people in his own band and it took him a while, so Benny Golson asked me if I was available to go to San Francisco.  He had three weeks at the Jazz Workshop over on Broadway in San Francisco.  I said sure. Then John left Miles not too long after that.  That’s after we did the Meet the Jazztet record, where we did the first version of “Killer Joe.”  It was a great band, but completely different from the direction that was about to develop being with John.

TP:    Benny Golson said he knew it was confining for you.

TYNER:  Well, the thing is, he wrote some nice charts!  Benny’s a heck of an arranger.  And he wrote some nice tunes, “Along Came Betty,” “I Remember Clifford,” some nice songs.  I enjoyed my experience with them.  But I had a verbal commitment with John that whenever he left Miles I would join his band.  So to make that transition took a little time — not too much, because I was with the Jazztet only 7 months.  Then John left Miles, and he came to me and… It was very tough, because I grew up under Benny.  It was tough for me, too, because they were such nice guys and really very helpful, but it was something that had to be done.  I think Art and Benny realized that later on.

TP:    Are you writing for the personalities that you’re playing with?  Is there any of that in your composition?  Or do things just come out and people adapt to them?

TYNER:  What it is, you want to surround yourself with people who can interpret what you write.  With the big band I have more that type of thinking, because it’s a different type of thing — but not so different.  I’ve had the big band since the ’80s. Some of the members of the band, like John Clark and Joe Ford were in the band when I first started it, and they’re still there.  So I know their personalities, and I know generally which songs I like.  I mean, anybody can play on any songs, but with some guys it’s just tailor-made for them.  I think that’s what happens.  Duke Ellington wrote for some of the guys who were in his band.  You can’t help but do that, I think.

TP:    Also, there are a number of your songs that have been performed in many different contexts.  Are you still writing prolifically?

TYNER:  This record has some songs I’ve recorded before, but a lot of them are new, like “December,” “Serra Do Mar,” “Steppin'”.  “Manalayuca” was recorded before; the title has changed a bit.  I’ve recorded “For All We Know” before.  So there’s the mixture.

TP:    And were these written and chosen with this personnel and instrumentation in mind?

TYNER:  Well, yes, in a way.  Definitely, because I knew who was going to be on the date.  I don’t really earmark… See, Bobby and I have no problem in terms of concept, because we think alike conceptually.  But I don’t necessarily all the time… “December” was a song that I had in mind… When I wrote that, I thought it would be wonderful to hear what Bobby could do with it.  Because I know it fit his style.  And I felt like Eric and Charnett would really be able to handle “Serra Do Mar” because it goes from one rhythm to another; different segments of the song interchanged, and I thought they’d be able to interpret that well.  But often I don’t necessarily write everything to tailor-make the song to fit a person.  But I try to pick people who I think like to play my music or can interpret my music well, as opposed to, “Oh, let me write music for this guy.”  But I like to surround myself with people… Because if a guy doesn’t fit into the concept that I have, then he doesn’t need to play with me — that kind of thing.  I shouldn’t say it like that, because I have played with guys who aren’t necessarily used to playing with me, and it’s different for them.  I’ve heard people say, “You’re moving all the time.”  But that’s from playing with John.  He liked me to move around.

TP:    Just talking to you, the program seems almost autobiographical.  There’s material that addresses pan-African rhythms, and you have the blues and the standards and the Ellington and the ballads, and it’s all part and parcel of your musical biography.

TYNER:  I think that music should reflect you.  If you’re the one who’s performing or composing, it should reflect who you are.

TP:    You do concept albums, which is logical, because to keep putting out albums, you have to find ideas to tag them on and give people different angles.  But this has a very organic quality.  It doesn’t seem like there’s any imperative involved except something coming out of you and what you’re thinking about at the moment.

TYNER:  I think you nailed it.  I’m glad that came out, because that was actually the way I felt.

TP:    Seeing you at Iridium put an exclamation point on it.  They had me sitting right up by stage left so I could see you at the piano, and I’d never been that close to you before, and I noticed that you play with a minimum of motion.  For someone who gets as huge a sound as you get… For instance, Ahmad Jamal moves a lot around the piano and dances around the piano.

TYNER:  Keith Jarrett does, too.  He really gets around.  It’s whatever works for you.  For me, in how I utilize the instrument, and it has many characteristics… I approach it a certain way in terms of touch and uses of the pedal, and that gives me the power I need.  I figure it has a lot to do with the touch as well.

TP:    Was that a sound you heard in your mind’s ear and worked towards, or did it come out of your development as an instrumentalist.

TYNER:  I think it was already up here.  I think your sound is who YOU are.  That’s exactly what it is.  You can’t create it if it’s not there, and you can’t embellish on it if it’s not yours.  We have our own sounds!  When you talk, when people recognize who you are, I’ll say, “That’s Ted.”  You have your own sound, and it comes out when we play an instrument.

TP:    But if I put my hands to a piano, people would say “shut up!”  There’s truth to what you say, but there’s also a craft component.

TYNER:  Have you studied piano?

TP:    Many years ago, and I’m not suggesting I couldn’t develop a certain proficiency…

TYNER:  If you ever played the instrument enough, you would hear Ted coming out.  You have your own identity, man.  I think we all do.

TP:    Many musicians would tell me that the instrument is an extension of themselves, and that music is just another vocabulary…

TYNER:  A language.

TP:    And they say it gets passed down.  One of the great things about jazz is that the oral tradition still holds true.  Who for you are some of the people who passed down that oral tradition…

TYNER:  I was very fortunate.  I met Bud Powell.  He lived around the corner from me when I was a teenager.  My mother was a beautician, and my piano was in her shop.  So Richie Powell was on the road with the Max Roach-Clifford Brown band, and Bud occupied Richie’s apartment.  It was right around the corner for me.  And my mother did the superintendent’s wife’s hair.  So she came and she said, “There’s this piano player around the corner who doesn’t have a piano; can he come around and practice on your son’s piano?”  So I asked my mother who it was, and she said, “Bud Powell.”  I said, “Of course.  He can come around any time he wants.”  But he was a hero to us.  We used to follow him around.  We had a place where musicians would hang out, and we’d get him to go up there and play.  His recordings were fantastic.  And Thelonious.  I used to… But I didn’t listen to them to copy them.  What I heard was individuality, the fact that they focused on who THEY were and they did their thing. But they were very inspirational to me.  And later on, Art Tatum, because [LAUGHS] he was an impeccable musician. But stylistically, Bud and Monk were really major influences on me — and then John, of course.

TP:    There’s that German word, the “zeitgeist,” of the time.  They were absolutely one with their time!

TYNER:  Yes, that’s right.  And they were so inspirational.

TP:    So it wasn’t so much that Bud Powell said, “Here’s how I do this voicing” and so on.  You soaked it up.

TYNER:  No.  You have to do that yourself.  You have to find out what your voice is yourself.  That’s it.  Not only is it lasting, but you can develop something from your own personality, your musical personality.  Otherwise, you’re not going nowhere with it.  You’re just limited to whoever the guy is you’re copying, or you’re trying to model yourself after.

TP:    Were there any pianists you did that with?  Herbie Hancock told me that when he was 13, or maybe 11, he found a guy in his class who could play, and he’d been playing Mozart and classical music and was a prodigy, but he couldn’t do this.  Then he found out it was George Shearing, and his mother had a George Shearing record at home, and so he played along with it until he got the accents and phrasing, and that launched him.

TYNER:  Bud Powell was that image for me.  I had Bud’s records, and I was trying to play things like “Celia” and things like “Parisian Thoroughfare” and a couple of other things.  But then I knew that, “Hey, that’s Bud Powell.”  Because that’s just the way it is.  You can’t go but so far.

TP:    But those were things as a kid, you memorized and…

TYNER:  Well, you have to… A lot of the horn players were playing as well.  Actually, what it was, we knew certain pieces like from Clifford Brown-Max Roach and Dizzy’s music and Bird’s music, all these guys playing Charlie Parker’s music.  So I had to learn that stuff in order to play with them.  When I was a teenager, Sonny Stitt would come through… I would play with different people.  Sometimes Sonny Rollins would come through, and Sonny Stitt.  I was playing around locally with a lot of the older musicians.  So I had to learn the tunes.

TP:    Was that at a place called the Red Rooster?

TYNER:  Well, that was I met John, at a matinee.  It wasn’t far from where I lived.  It was a local kind of…not an elaborate place, but a fairly decent place, and people used to come there to listen to music.  I was playing in Cal Massey’s band.  Cal was the friend who introduced me to John.  And Jimmy Garrison was in Cal’s band, and Tootie Heath.  John came out and checked the matinee.  He was on sabbatical from Miles, there was a little period there, and then he came up and he and Cal got back together… Cal was a composer as well.  So that’s how I met John, one afternoon.

TP:    But back in 1960, you weren’t the average 22-year-old.  You were a pretty experienced musician.  I think you recorded with Curtis Fuller in ’59.

TYNER:  Yes, my first record.  I think it was “The World of Trombone” or something for Savoy.  That’s actually before the Jazztet was formed, and after that they had a meeting with Art and Benny and Dave Bailey and Curtis, and they said they wanted to form a band, and I said, “Okay, but when John leaves Miles, I’ve got to go.”  It was a tough one.

TP:    Did you play with any vibraphonists then?

TYNER:  Yes, there was a vibraphonist around Philadelphia who was very popular…

TP:    There was Lem Winchester in Wilmington and Walt Dickerson.

TYNER:  Walt was the guy.

TP:    And he had an expansive concept himself.

TYNER:  Yes, he had an expansive concept.  Absolutely.

TP:    As I recall, the “Time For Tyner” record was a live record in North Carolina?  That’s when you and Bobby first hooked up.

TYNER:  No, it wasn’t live.  Let me tell you what happened.  People have made that mistake because of the way the guy wrote the liner notes.  I played a concert at this university in North Carolina, and the guy came down and reviewed it.  Then for some reason, he happened to mention that on this recording, and it left people with the idea that it was recorded live — and it wasn’t.

TP:    But was it a working band?

TYNER:  No.  Bobby and I never worked extensively together. But we knew each other very well.  We came up in the same generation, so…

TP:    And you were both on Blue Note.

TYNER:  Both on Blue Note.  Wayne and a lot of guys were all on Blue Note at the time.

TP:    What’s interesting is that a lot of the things that were recorded on Blue Note were just in the studio and didn’t have to do with working bands.  Was that the case with you?

TYNER:  Yes, after late ’65, when I left John… It was almost six year.  Which records are you talking about?

TP:    “Expansions” or “Time For Tyner.”

TYNER:  No, those weren’t working bands.

TP:    “The Real McCoy.”

TYNER:  No.  Joe Henderson just happened to be in town, and they wanted to do a date.  I did some recordings with him.  “Recorda-Me”, I think.  Kenny Dorham was on it.  But I didn’t have a working band at the time.  Ron Carter did a lot of recording with me, too, but I didn’t have a band.

TP:    But with Bobby Hutcherson, it just emanated from…

TYNER:  Our musical association.

TP:    And it just kept cropping up again.

TYNER:  Yes, exactly.

TP:    Does the record label you’re recording for have any impact on the type of music you’re recording, or does it just have to do with the time and the place.

TYNER:  No.  Telarc is basically a jazz label, as far as I know.  But they have no bearing… They know when they ask me to record what they’re getting into.  I don’t do that.

TP:    So all the projects you’ve done for Telarc have been at your initiative?  The trio and “Jazz Roots.”

TYNER:  Absolutely.  If they make a suggestion, maybe I’ll try this or that or whatever conceptually, but I have the final word on everything.  If I don’t like it, I won’t do it.

TP:    Are you exclusively with Telarc now?  Or are you still a freelancer?

TYNER:  I’m not signed with them, because I like to be a free agent.  But I have done some consecutive work for them.

TP:    Since that thing for Impulse, “McCoy Tyner Plays John Coltrane,” I think everything you’ve put out has been on Telarc.

TYNER:  Yes, that was done in 1997, but they released the tapes in ’99.

TP:    Tell me about the Jazz Roots album, the tribute to your various influences.

TYNER:  It wasn’t so much influences.  It was a dedication to the musicians that I knew — and know — and who were part of the history of this music, and guys who passed on and a lot of them who are here.  It’s a tribute to jazz pianists.  That’s basically what I was doing.  Erroll Garner, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Chick, Bud Powell, Thelonious… It was just a conglomeration of different people.

TP:    was it easy to choose the repertoire, or a difficult process?

TYNER:  Not really difficult.  Because I chose songs that I thought fit these guys, and did the best I could to do that.  I felt pretty good about it, the choice of songs for each guy.

TP:    Is performing in front of an audience for you a very different experience than performing in a studio?

TYNER:  It’s different.  The thing is, it all depends.  If you’re working with people consistently for a long period of time, it has to make a difference.  Like, “A Love Supreme” was sort of a culmination of all the musical experiences that we’d had with the quartet, and it was a high point.  But we knew each other.  We knew each other’s musical vocabulary.  If you talk to a person long enough and you live around a person long enough, you begin to get familiar with how they phrase, in terms of the words the pick, whatever.  Even if you can’t nail it right on the head all the time, but you have a sense of where they’re going with what they’re saying.  And it’s the same if you play with somebody for years.  You don’t have to second-guess.  You can just about go where you’re supposed to.

TP:    Your solo records are so rewarding.  I have the three solos or duos you did for Blue Note, and then this one…

TYNER:  I like to play solo.  I really do.

TP:    You sound free when you play solo.

TYNER:  Yes, because you can go where you want to go.  You don’t have consider if the bassist is following you.  Well, you can hear.  You don’t have to worry about the drummer, if you’re dealing with the rhythms or the melody or with the harmonic content. It’s all about what YOU want to do.  And that’s a lovely thing.  I like playing with a group, because if you can bring that kind of sensitivity to a group setting, it’s wonderful to have two or three or four guys or a big band do that, be sensitive to what’s going on, and listening and responding.  But if you really want to talk in terms of empathy, I think you can’t beat solo playing.  It’s about you.  You’re the only one there.  You can’t lay the blame on anybody!

TP:    Do you still practice a lot?

TYNER:  No, I don’t.  Not at all.  I should.  But I play a lot.  I perform a lot . But I try to compose.  I hear things in my hear and try to do that.  But I really don’t spend time practicing.  I used to years ago.  But my whole career, I’m very fortunate that I was working a lot with John… I haven’t really practiced since I was a teenager.  I spend time at the piano composing. That’s about it.

TP:    If you were going to practice, what might it be that you’d want to work on?

TYNER:  You know, Miles never practiced either.  There’s something about… When you play before the public, it’s better than practicing, I think.  Because you know that there is a communication that has to be made.  The music is about communication, too.  And I don’t mean playing down to people.  I mean just acknowledging the fact that they’re there, listening, and you’re going to take them on this journey.  I think that’s basically what it’s all about.

TP:    Philly Joe Jones once made the comment that he knew exactly what his hands were going to do, so why did he need to…

TYNER:  Yeah.  Well, see, you want it to be automatic.  You want it to be real self-expression.  And practicing is… I already had the tools that I need to work with.  It’s just a matter of ideas and how you present it.

TP:    You said that Miles didn’t practice, and he didn’t rehearse either.  And I gather you have a fairly liberal attitude about rehearsal.

TYNER:  Yes.  Because we didn’t rehearse… With John, I think we might have had… Well, I wouldn’t say a rehearsal.  We ran over some material we were going to record, maybe the Ballads album, and all I did was get like an intro and an ending, and that was it.

TP:    So getting together with Bobby for the European tour and presenting this new material, how did you let it evolve?

TYNER:  Well, we had to run over the material, because there were certain things I wanted to emphasize. But I wouldn’t say practicing.  It was just reviewing the music.

TP:    Because you’ve known each other so long.

TYNER:  That’s what it is.  It’s true, what Philly said.  Because if you have the tools, what are you practicing?  If you HAVE the tools, then it’s just a matter of the ideas and the feeling.  That becomes paramount, as opposed to “let me get in a couple of more runs under my fingers.”  Eventually that happens if you play enough over a period of years, that you can execute without thinking about it.

TP:    Would you talk a bit about the distinction between composition and playing?

TYNER:  I like to play my songs actually.  But then, again, I stuck that Duke Ellington song in there, “In A Mellow Tone,” because I like it.  And Duke’s songs have a tendency to swing!  Just playing the melody itself.  But basically I do like to play on the songs that I have written.

TP:    I guess they suit your style.

TYNER:  Yes, that’s what it is.

TP:    I’ve heard many musicians refer to improvising as spontaneous composition.

TYNER:  That’s a good phrase.  That’s exactly what it is.  And a lot of times, you’ll come up with a melody based on something you’ve played — that you are playing.  “I’ve heard that before.” “Oh, I played that last night.” [LAUGHS] Maybe you think about that.  I don’t know.  You don’t know where exactly it’s from, but it’s part of your expression in some kind of way.

TP:    I don’t know exactly how many records you’ve done, but there can’t be many things you haven’t done in your career.  I’m wondering if you have any aspiration that you haven’t fulfilled yet.

TYNER:  We’ll see.

TP:    You’ll let it come along.

TYNER:  Yes.  Something will tell you.  You just do it, and something will say, “Well, yeah, that’s the right thing.”  It just comes to you.  If music is your world, or whatever it is, it becomes intuitive. You don’t have to sit down and plan it for a year.  I can write a whole date in a couple of weeks in advance.  I wouldn’t advise people to do that.  But I’m just saying that when I’m placed under pressure, I do pretty well.

TP:    Pressure is the great motivator.

TYNER:  Yes, it sure is.  When you have a deadline.  But that’s good, because you learn how to deal with it.

TP:    You bet.  And it makes you stronger.

TYNER:  That’s right.

TP:    So this summer, are you going to be out a good bit, and any with Bobby?

TYNER:  I’m going to Italy and to Japan for about three weeks, and George Mraz and Lewis Nash will be playing with me.

TP:    You’re just getting all the second stringers, aren’t you.

TYNER:  George is a wonderful bass player.  He knows how to play with a piano.  For some reason, you can go where you want to go, and George is right there.  He’s a nice man, he’s fun to be around, and it’s nice to have that kind of selection of people.  He played with Oscar, he played with Hank, he played with Tommy Flanagan.  He knows what to do when it comes to piano players!  He’s not trying to take it out.  He’s the kind of guy that likes to blend into what’s going on.  But when he solos he’s got a beautiful sound on the instrument.  I love George.

TP:    You’ll have fun with Lewis, too.

TYNER:  I did an album of Bert Bacharach’s music that Lewis is on.  I host at Yoshi’s in Oakland every year (this will be the tenth year), and a lot of guys play, and each week is a different band.  Lewis and Christian McBride, who’s one of my neighborhood guys, played very well together.  This year it’s going to be Tain Watts.

TP:    Tain told me a story about having an initiation with you, back in ’87, when he played with you and put out all his stuff on one tune, and he said that after that he was hanging on for dear life, because he’d played it all already.  You were just beginning and he’d played all his stuff.

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Well, he’s increased his knowledge.  He seems to have a lot left.

TP:    Well, he told the story with relish. It was, “Yeah, McCoy got me.” But again, Art Blakey did it, Miles did it… You’ve become this jazz elder…

TYNER:  Elder statesman? [LAUGHS]

TP:    Well, a jazz elder griot type of thing, where the material gets passed down in this manner to so many people who then sustain it.

TYNER:  I’ve been fortunate to have known a lot of great people who were great inspirations, and I’m very thankful for that opportunity — or whatever you would call it.

* * * *

McCoy Tyner (7-25-03):

TP:    I’d like to talk first of all about your summer itinerary, the configurations you’re working in, the musicians you’re playing with.  I gather you recently did three weeks with Lewis Nash in Japan.

TYNER:  Yeah, he went with me to Japan, and we did a tour of the Blue Notes in Japan.  It’s very nice; Blue Note franchised out the name over there.  It was a great reception.  I’ve been going to Japan since 1966.  The first time I went over was what they called the Drum Battle (it was more like a reunion to me) between Tony Williams, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey.  It was the first time I went over, with Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Owens, and I forget the bass player.  Of course, I’ve gone back after that with my own bands over the years.

TP:    You did a number of recordings there.

TYNER:  I did a solo piano thing, “Echoes of A Friend,” which was dedicated to Coltrane.

TP:    You did it in ’72.

TYNER:  Yeah, something like that.  But there’s a solid base there.

TP:    Japan is part of your regular touring itinerary.  I guess the trio with George Mraz and Lewis has a certain type of tonal personality. Do you go in a different direction, say, with that personnel than, say, with Charnett Moffett and Al Foster.  Or if Jack DeJohnette were playing in a trio with Ron Carter.  I’m just throwing out names.  I’m wondering how different musicians of different attitudes affect the way you respond and listen.

TYNER:  Well, it’s always like that anyway, when you play with people of different characters and characteristics, different personalities.  It’s just like meeting an old friend.  You can’t compare him to the one you ran into yesterday.  They’re completely… Well, they’re not completely different, but what it is, they know what my style is like.  So what they do is, they know they have to listen, and that’s all I ask.  Because I wouldn’t have chosen to have them on this tour if I didn’t think that they could perform with me.  And individually, they have.  George played with me and Al when we did this Coltrane tribute, and Lewis did the Bacharach thing and something else with me.  So they know what they’re in for basically.

TP:    Do you know what you’re in for beforehand?

TYNER:  No, I don’t want to know.

TP:    Do you like the surprise?

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Yeah.  I’m surprised all the time.  Because they’re growing, and I say, “Oh, wow, there’s something different this time.”  It’s always different anyway, but it’s nice to hear them move in a positive way and develop.  Because we’re all growing.  That’s what it’s all about.  One tour you do with a guy one time, and then the next year or so it’s different.

TP:    But you had a working band for many years with Avery Sharpe and Aaron Scott.

TYNER:  Yes, I did.

TP:    You did other projects, but that was basically the band.  Now it seems like you’re experimenting with different configurations.

TYNER:  Yes.

TP:    What was the reason for disbanding at this point?

TYNER:  Well, everything runs its term.  What I’m saying is that everything has a term.  I had a great rhythm section with them for years, but then I thought it might be a good time to do something different.  I think if you force something to happen, even if it’s change, you can have a negative response. But if it happens naturally… In all the bands I’ve had, it reached a point where it served its purpose for that time period.  Then it was time for me to choose something else.  But I didn’t force it.  Avery was with me for 20 years and Aaron was close for 17-18 years, so it served its purpose.

TP:    Can you describe what the purpose might have been with that band?  I mean, they were obviously very suitable to you.  You had a three-way affinity.  You’re not going to do anything you don’t want to do for two decades.

TYNER:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    Talk about the qualities.

TYNER:  It was very good qualities.  The thing is that they were very consistent in what they were doing, and determined.  They were eager to learn and develop.  And that’s one thing I do like about people who work with me.  I hope that when it’s served its purpose, that they walk away with information that they didn’t have before they joined my band, and had the opportunity to develop.  I think that’s very important.  But I think it went as far individually as it could have gone, and as a group, consequently, if you don’t move, then everybody is sort of stuck in a situation… You want to be organic.  You want to be healthy no matter what the configuration is.  You want that healthy attitude.  And we can only do what we can do.

TP:    It sounds to me as though you’re now in a mind space where it suits you to play with as many different empathetic personalities as you can, and are able to give yourself a lot of leeway.  Would that be true, or are you looking to find a steadily working group again?

TYNER:  As long as they’re compatible, is what I’m doing.  If they’re not compatible… I can tell sometimes by listening to people.  I heard Eric when he was with Betty Carter.  We were in actually, of all places, Beirut, Lebanon!  They invited us over.  I was a little hesitant at first, but then I’m glad we went.  They were very nice people who invited us there.  Eric was playing with Betty then, and I was playing I think with the Latin band opposite her.  I had a chance to hear Eric then.  I had met Eric actually as a teenager in high school in Houston.  I went to the university to give a little bit of a talk, and met him.  He was a kid at the time.  Of course, he’s developed quite extensively from when I met him with Betty, but it was nice…

TP:    She raised him good.

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Well, the thing is that we were able to play together and have fun, and that’s good.  He plays with Terence Blanchard and other people, and I think he was with Charles Lloyd recently.  I think Charles heard him in London when we did the thing in London, and said, “Oh, I want that guy to play with me.”  It’s not a steady gig, but he definitely has been making some appearances.  But hey, whenever possible.  That way, I don’t have to dependent on any one guy — on one bass player or one drummer.

TP:    So there’s the trio, and are you doing anything with Bobby Hutcherson this summer also?  Or are you resuming that quartet in the Fall?

TYNER:  I think we’re resuming in the fall.  We’ve come back from Japan not too long ago, maybe ten days ago, and we’re doing something at Lincoln Center on August 2nd.  Dave Valentin is playing flute, and Charnett Moffett and Eric on drums.

TP:    I’d like to ask about the Latin band a bit.  This will take me back a bit and focus on that Philadelphia territory.

TYNER:  Are you from Philly?

TP:    No.  I know a lot of people from Philly, though, and I’ve talked with a lot of musicians who are your peers and older than you and younger than you, like Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath and Reggie Workman and various people.  When we spoke earlier, you said there was an African drummer in Philly whose name you couldn’t quite recall the spelling of, who taught you in the early ’50s…

TYNER:  He didn’t teach me, but I was in his presence.  He taught guys who percussion was their thing.  That was their instrument.  I played piano.  I was just messing around with him.

TP:    You said you did fool around with the drums, but it damaged your fingers.

TYNER:  Yeah, in the joints.  That’s why you see a lot of conga players who have tape on the joints.  They say, “I’m not going to ruin these babies.”

TP:    The crown jewels!

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] I had enough intelligence even during that time!

TP:    You mentioned Garvin Masseaux, Robert Crowder…

TYNER:  Rob’s still there.

TP:    Eric Gravatt might have been an extension of that.  But what this guy was doing filtered into your consciousness, sort of became imprinted on the way you think about music.  Then there was a quote in Lewis Porter’s biography of Coltrane from your former wife Aisha that Latin music was very big in Philly, and everyone danced the merengue.  So all this stuff was percolating for you when you were a young player, in formative years.  I wondered if you had anything to say about how that environment became more solidified as you became a more mature musician.

TYNER:  I was exposed to African culture when I was a teenager because the atmosphere was conducive to that.  So Saka coming to study at Temple University (I think it was political science or something like that), and bringing his sister over to teach African dancing was very appropriate, because at that time people were involved and being conscious of who they are in history.  From that point, we then… Of course, we met Olatunji in New York.  Although my association with the dancing school at the time is where Saka came to teach the other guys, the percussionists.

TP:    So when his sister would teach African dance, he’d come in and play or bring those guys in to play with the class?

TYNER:  Yes.

TP:    And did you play in the dance class that he was teaching, or the drummers?

TYNER:  No, the drummers would.  The only thing I did was, I composed a…not composed, but I just played a little piano for one of those things they did, a kind of South American production, along with other things…

TP:    I think you said “Viva Zapata.”

TYNER:  Yes, “Viva Zapata.”  I played that for the dance company.  Because they did some choreography for that, and that was kind of a big…

TP:    But when you started composing music… You said your first charts were with that R&B band you had, but I’d think your more mature compositions began when you were 19-20-21…

TYNER:  No, before that.

TP:    What’s the earliest composition of yours that you recorded?

TYNER:  Well, I did an album called Inception on Impulse!, and there’s a song called “Sunset.” “Effendi” is another thing.

TP:    “Effendi” you wrote in Philly?

TYNER:  No, I didn’t write that in Philly.

TP:    I just wondered if there was anything when you were 18 or 19…

TYNER:  Yeah, I wrote a song, but it was so long, I should have called it “When Is This Going To End”?  I wrote a few songs, but I don’t remember exactly the title of the song.  It was something I wrote for my R&B band. But what we did was play “Flying Home” and some Tiny Bradshaw stuff…

TP:    You were how old then?

TYNER:  14 and 15, like that.  I improved very rapidly, you know.

TP:    It sounds like your learning curve was immense.

TYNER:  Yeah.

TP:    You didn’t play until you were 13, but by the time you were 17, Coltrane was impressed!

TYNER:  Yes, it was meant to happen.  I played with a lot of people.  Red Rodney moved to my neighborhood, and he knew Oscar Pettiford, and Oscar came in.  We played one week at a local place called the Blue Note.  Red had played with Bird, and he moved into my neighborhood, so he found out about me.  Then, of course, I met Calvin Massey way before that, and that’s who introduced me to John.

TP:    People in Philly born in 1938 include Lee Morgan and Reggie Workman and Archie Shepp.  Pretty good company.

TYNER:  Yeah!  I used to play with Archie and Lee.  Lee and I used to play fraternity dances.  We did a graduation at Cheyney College outside of Philly.  We did gigs around.  We went to Atlantic City, which was fun.  Then Max Roach came through.  I met him when I was 18, right after Brownie and Richie had passed, and he was trying to get me to join his band.  But Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham were playing on there, and George Morrow.  That was a heck of a band.  But I didn’t travel.  I did the week at the Showboat.

TP:    The story you told about Max was that he asked, “Do you know ‘Just One Of Those Things’?” and you played it at his tempo, and he said, “Ah!”

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Yes.  I loved playing with Sonny.

TP:    So the standards were high when you were coming up.

TYNER:  Yes, the standards were very high.  Appearance, presentation — you had to be on point for that.  It was good training, because things to changed as time went on, and people started looking at it completely differently.  The musicians, basically, the way they presented themselves, and… Of course they were very talented people.  But still, I think presentation is a major part of the music.

TP:    You’re obviously someone who pays a lot of attention to personal style.

TYNER:  Uh-huh.

TP:    It’s obvious, just seeing you now.  It’s 90 degrees, and Mr. Tyner is in a very nice, dark blue…is it a silk shirt?

TYNER:  Yes, silk.

TP:    A beautifully textured silk shirt, a white patterned silk tie, and it looks like white linen pants.

TYNER:  Yeah, that’s what it is.

TP:    Now, maybe you have someplace to go now.

TYNER:  No.  I just…

TP:    But you always look tip-top when you’re performing.

TYNER:  Yes, that’s important.  I came up in an era when Art Blakey used to say “People see you before they hear you.”  It’s just a respect for yourself and what you’re doing that I think should emanate before you go up.

TP:    No doubt.  Your mother was a beautician, had a beauty shop.  Did she have a lot to do with your personal style and sense of presentation?

TYNER:  My mother had a lot to do with everything in my development!  Her name was Beatrice — Beatrice Tyner.  She was just the ultimate classic person.  Very, very elegant, my mother.  I don’t mean that in terms of using clothes or to make her better than anyone else, but just her demeanor, her personality.  She’s a very honest, very likeable person.  People really loved my mother a lot.  She was caring, a very caring person.  She loved music.  She loved piano actually.  She didn’t play, but sometimes we’d go to somebody’s house who had a piano, and she’d tinkle a little bit.  But when anything came up that she thought I should be interested in, she’d let me know — and be very supportive.

TP:    It surprises me, just because of your level of technique and fluency with the instrument, that you started playing at 13.  It sounds like you were listening to music from way before that.  It sounds like all this was in your head and your body by the time you started playing.

TYNER:  Yes, I’d say so.  I listened… From my affiliation with the dance school and the fact that I had two good teachers in the beginning, one guy who taught the beginner piano and then I had an Italian teacher who went through the books and all that.  That was kind of before I formed my R&B band.  I was 13, 13-1/2, whatever.  Then about 14, I put the books kind of the side, and just started studying a little theory.  I went to Granoff School, but that was more like… It was a basically European approach, and that wasn’t what I was looking for.  And the (?) Music Center, which was a nice place…

But I think that mine just came from… I had the facility, because I used to practice all the time.  But like I say, you can’t describe why you have certain treasures, why certain things emanate from you, why certain things just emerge.  It’s hard to explain a gift.  I mean, how can you explain that?  It’s just one of those things.  You keep doing it.  And of course, I had the encouragement of a lot of older musicians around Philadelphia.  Even before I met John, there were guys who were very encouraging — older musicians who heard about me.

TP:    Piano players?

TYNER:  Well, there were piano players around town that were very nice.

TP:    Who were some of your mentors?

TYNER:  Well, Bud Powell was around the corner from me.

TP:    Was he personally encouraging?

TYNER:  No, not personally encouraging.

TP:    Did he have a wall around him at that time?

TYNER:  Well, he was kind of like a child prodigy.  But he needed care.  He needed somebody to be with him.  He needed somebody to take care of him.  He couldn’t function alone.  So he always had these guys.  I don’t know how sincere they were, but they were around him.  But the level of musicality around Philadelphia was on a higher level.  The jam sessions… We used to have jam sessions all the time.  See, what you can’t do… If you’re going to add to what’s there, if you’re going to contribute something, you can’t copy from… You can’t copy people.  It has to be there.  It has to be something that you’re born with.  I never wanted to play like… As much as I loved Bud and Thelonious, I learned a lot from them, from listening to them, and then, of course, meeting Bud and meeting Thelonious later…over the years… They taught me… And Monk was adamant about it.  He respected you when you had your own direction.  He loved that.  I mean, I learned a lot.  I used to kind of try to (?) Monk when I was still (?).  But not to the point where I wanted to be them or wanted to sound just like them.  But Monk was definitely the kind of person, like, “You have your own thing?  Great!”  Because that was the way he was.  I was very fortunate to know him kind of on a personal level.

TP:    There’s that old jazz cliche, “make a mistake; do something right.”

TYNER:  That’s right.

TP:    Benny Golson had a story about playing maybe with Buhaina at the Cafe Bohemia, and his eyes are closed, and he looks up, and there’s Monk in his shades, and after the set he made a comment to the effect that he was playing too perfect, and he just stop thinking about being perfect.

TYNER:  Yes, that’s true.  A lot of things come out of so-called “mistakes.” Really, it’s how what you do with it.  How you shape music.  Nothing’s a mistake.  It’s how you resolve.  When you play something, how you resolve it.

TP:    Thinking on your feet.

TYNER:  Yeah, thinking on your feet.

TP:    At this stage of your life, do you ever make mistakes that you resolve?


TP:    There’s a certain sense of magisterial authoritativeness to the stuff you do!  I don’t know how else to describe it.  But there are times when it sounds as though you’re allowing yourself to get to the other… It sounds like you get into separate spaces when you play, that sometimes it’s just the way it’s supposed to be and presentation, and sometimes that it’s more open-ended.  Now, I don’t know you at all, but am I anywhere close to the reality?

TYNER:  Yeah.  Well, the thing is, I sort of have a controlled sense of experimentation.  That’s what it is.  I go out, but I have to come from something.  Whatever it is, there has to be something there to work from.  Or it can be created.  If it’s sort of a song that’s open, like one of the songs on the record…I forget what I called it… Not “The Search,” but the title is something like… We didn’t have a melody, but it was conceived that way — no melody.  So we just used tonal centers, moved from one tone to another, from one sound, one cluster to another — that kind of thing.  Which I had that experience paying with John.  But I try to use that when it’s appropriate for me, as opposed to using that as a main way to express myself.  It’s another tool.  That’s all.

TP:    It’s interesting that you can go in and out of those attitudes.  A lot of people who have a total sense of their music, who are composers, don’t allow themselves to get into that space, or very rarely so. And you seem able to access both parts of yourself.

TYNER:  Yes.  I have sort of a mixed personality in that respect.  I can do that.  I’m not trying to prove anything…to no one.

TP:    I wouldn’t think.

TYNER:  Just trying to have some fun, and trying to find out more about myself musically.  And sometimes, you find out after you listen back at something.  You say, “Wow, that’s what I did.  Where was I going?”  Because I don’t want to reach the point where everything is predetermined.  It’s not artistic when everything is predetermined.

TP:    I don’t want to burden you too much by dwelling on your time with John Coltrane, but your comment makes me think of a comment I read in a French magazine, where you spoke of your contribution to the evolution of that music, and that it was rooted particularly in your time, in the authority of your left hand, that he always had a home base to come back to somehow, and that you always have a home base to come back to somehow.  I wonder if you could talk about that for the purposes of this conversation.

TYNER:  Well, something’s got to come from someplace, go somewhere, and then return to someplace.  Maybe it might be a different place that you ultimately return to.  But I think it’s good to have these different dynamic dimensions, to go from here to somewhere, using that as a base, and go somewhere and then from there to return…or to resolve it.  Resolution is very important.  Sometimes you listen to people and they go into very interesting places, but then they leave you hanging.  Where are you going from here?  You going to leave me here?  Whatever.  But I always like to make it a complete journey — a departure, a flight and then a landing. [LAUGHS] Sort of what I do normally when I travel!  A good analogy.

TP:    You haven’t crashed yet.

TYNER:  Hopefully not.

TP:    You said you were interested     in drums before encountering Saka.  Who were some of the trap drummers who were favorites of yours in your pre Coltrane years?  I imagine Philly Joe Jones must have been one.

TYNER:  Yes.  I didn’t know Philly when he was there, though.

TP:    Specs Wright.

TYNER:  I knew Specs.  Philly had left, because he was with Miles — him and Red.  But I knew they’d been around Philly a long time.  But there were guys from my generation who were around Philly.  Tootie Heath.  We jammed together.  Lex Humphries was there; he left to go with Dizzy, but he was around for a while.  A guy named Eddie Campbell, who passed; he was a good Art Blakey style drummer.  There were a lot of good guys around who played well.  We were very fortunate in that way.  I mean, we did have good musicians around.

TP:    Were you leading trios around Philly?  Actual piano trios?  When you did Inception, was that just something you went into the studio and did, or had you put some time into that format?

TYNER:  I did some things trio, but not many.  When I’d go to Atlantic City, there would usually be a horn player.  The first time I went was with Paul Jeffries.  Paul came from Philly, and some kind of way Paul got that job in Atlantic City.  We worked at a place called King’s Bar.  That’s really what it was, a bar.  The guy liked my playing so much, he went to Philadelphia and bought a piano.  He bought a little spinet.  Because his piano was horrible.  So Paul and I, we worked together down there for a while.

Then I went down with Lee Morgan.  With Eddie Campbell one time.  I know once with Lex Humphries.  There was a place called the Cotton Club, big-time, that had two stages.  Dinah Washington came in, she was on one stage with Wynton Kelly on piano and Jimmy Cobb on piano.  Then J.J. Johnson came in with Tootie and Wilbur Little on bass and Tommy Flanagan on piano.

TP:    A heady summer.

TYNER:  Yes.  We spent a couple of summers down in Atlantic City.  I think we came back to that same club, the Cotton Club.  It was nice, because we’d have jam sessions late at night after everybody got off at the Steel Pier, all the big bands, and they’d converge on this club until dawn.  How I learned how to play was hands-on.  It wasn’t examining somebody.  Just okay, sit down and play for a while, and then when you’re done there’s another piano player, get up and let him sit down and play.  So everybody had a chance.  When I used to look back and see the line of tenor players that were looking for me to comp, and there would be about ten guys, each looking to play.  Then my mother’s shop was a favorite place.  And a lot of the homes.  Another place called Rittenhouse Hall.  This guy loved the music, and he loved to have dances on the weekend.  People danced to bebop music.  It was the music of that period that I came out of.

TP:    You said somewhere that in doing the gigs, you had to learn the tunes of the day by Bird and Dizzy and Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins.  Sonny Stitt might come through and call those tunes, so if you wanted to make the gig, you had to learn the tunes.  It was an organic thing.  Your quotidian, as they say.

TYNER:  What was so unique about playing for Sonny Stitt, was that whenever Sonny would come to town, there would be four or five tenor players in the club waiting to sit in and cut Sonny.  What he would do… He solved that very easily.  When he saw these guys, he said, “Come on up!  Come on!  Don’t be hesitant.”  The cats would get on the stage.  He’d say, “‘Cherokee'” – [CLAPS FAST] Like this.  And then he would modulate half-steps.

TP:    He’d play every key.

TYNER:  Every chorus he would go up half-steps.  B-    flat, B, C, C-flat… Then the guy would be shaking… “What’s wrong with the saxophone?”  He solved that problem.  Sonny was an amazing musician.  And then, to work with Sonny Rollins and K.D. was… From playing with Max, I really had a chance to meet some very fine…

TP:    Had you chosen to leave Philadelphia in 1958, say, you would have been equipped to do so.

TYNER:  Yeah.  I was ready.  I was ready to do the album John required, Giant Steps.  I knew those songs.  Of course, he used Tommy.  Tommy was in New York.  I guess he felt, “This guy is so young.”  But I was really poised to be on that date.

TP:    You’ve expressed that in print on many occasions.

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] But to question his judgment… Then eventually, of course, I moved up to New York.

TP:    Well, you seem to have had such a sense of certainty that you were meant to be with Coltrane.  Anything I’ve ever seen written about you, you express with utmost certainty that it was meant to be from years before it started.

TYNER:  Yes.  Because he was like family to me.  His wife at that time was very close to my girlfriend, who was going to be my wife, and then, my sister-in-law was a singer.  He was like family.  I didn’t have a big brother.  So he was like a big brother, and his Mom… I’d go to his house, and sit up while he composed “Countdown” and all those songs.  So we had a beautiful, friendly relationship.  It’s almost, like I said, like a family.

TP:    Walter Davis, Jr. would talk about being a teenager and going to Bud Powell’s house when he was composing “Glass Enclosure” or “Hallucinations,” and Walter Davis would play motifs so Bud could hear it.  There was that synergy, so he felt totally intimate and at one with Bud’s music and with Bud.  It was a destiny thing.

TYNER:  Walter Davis was a beautiful guy.  I miss that guy.

TP:    But it seems it was the same way for you with Coltrane.

TYNER:  Yeah.  It was more than just me being a piano player.  He used to call me “Coy.”  “Hey, Coy, what about this?”     It was a very, very close, more of a family kind of relationship.  He had confidence in me, and he knew that that’s where I needed to be, whatever he’d want in his band.  Of course, it took a while, because Miles had to figure out how to get used to him not being there. [LAUGHS] It’s hard to get rid of a guy that great!  Anyway, there was no question that’s where I belonged.

TP:    I’d like to talk about the solo record, Jazz Roots.  Maybe I’m overstating the case here, but I wonder if you could give me impressions of some of these piano players who you signify on here.  Is it okay?

TYNER:  Yeah, if you want to ask me questions about it.

TP:    Let me start with one who isn’t on here, Ahmad Jamal.  When I listen to your earlier records, it seems you were listening to him a lot at that time.

TYNER:  It’s hard to cover the whole spectrum of pianists because there were so many.  I knew Ahmad very well.  But I think I was mainly influenced by Bud and Thelonious.  I really think that was my main influence at the beginning.  Of course, being with John… John was really maybe the number-one instrument, but on the instrument, Bud and Monk.  But the thing is that playing with the Jazztet, when we did “Killer Joe,” that situation kind of reminded me of Ahmad’s playing. Miles loved Ahmad, and I think Benny picked up on that.  So that might have been what that was.  But I just did what I thought Benny wanted for that song.  But Bud and Monk were my main influences.

TP:    I’m not so much looking for what you picked up as your impressionistic sense of what it feels like to hear them.

TYNER:  Individuality.  You see, that’s the key to the whole thing.  You cannot be anybody else but yourself, even if you want to be!  I would like to be like this guy.  Why do we need those kind of heroes?  A guy is already a hero, whether you acknowledge it or not, any time they make that kind of impression on the scene — on music, I should say.  It’s nice to give people the props and give them the praise for what they’re doing and what they’ve done.  But to make them supersede what you ultimately want to be by being them, it’s impossible!  You can never be them.  You have to be yourself.

TP:    Does everyone who plays with you have to have that quality, too?  Do they all have to be straight-up, individualistic players?

TYNER:  I hope so.  In other words, at least look for that.  I think we spend a lifetime, or at least we should, trying to find out who we are as people, as individuals, as opposed to “Let me copy that guy, let me copy that guy…” It’s a blind alley, I think.  Because you can be a spy about somebody, but to say, “Okay, wow, let me stick to this for the rest of my life” is crazy.

TP:    Is it harder to find those type of individualistic personalities now than it was, say, when you started leading groups in the mid-’60s after you left John Coltrane?

TYNER:  Well, yeah, it became a little difficult, I guess.  Everybody had graduated, and I had my band and some of them formed their own bands and carried on with their own lives, and I thought maybe that was very good.  You can’t get attached to someone to the point where you restrict them from doing what they have to do ultimately. So if they’ve learned something from working with me, then I have to continue to look, to see what’s next on the agenda, who’s going to be the next guy that works with me.  That’s it.  Who knows?  You never know.  I had my previous trio for a long time, because I hadn’t really heard anyone — and I knew there were guys around — who could really do what I was looking for.  Then they came along.  Lewis. Of course, Al was around, but he was busy; he worked with Miles for many years.  So it was one of those kind of things.  It always come around eventually, if you keep trying.  The right thing comes around.

TP:    You made a comment in our previous conversation that.. [END OF SIDE] ..what might those qualities be?

TYNER:  You have to have an open mind and the ability to execute the ideas that you hear within your limitations — or within your conscious limitations.  Because you might be able to do a lot better than you think you can.  I think not being afraid to take chances, not being afraid to feel the situation at hand, as opposed to feeling, “Oh, I’m limited; I can’t do this.”  It’s not good for an artist to feel that kind of fear.  If he wants to consciously do something particularly simple or maybe for this particular song he wants to keep it simple, that’s different.  But being afraid to explore, I think is… I like guys around me who are willing to take chances, but do it on a level of professionalism that stands out, as opposed to just doing… But it’s a very personal thing, because you’re asking a person to be honest with themselves and not be afraid.  And most of us have fears and sometimes we’re not honest! [LAUGHS]

TP:    On that level, of chance-taking in a professional way, I can’t think of a more deft foil for you than Bobby Hutcherson.

TYNER:  Yes, Bobby and I play very well together.  His wife said that sometimes she listens to the way we phrase, and she said sometimes it’s hard for her to tell who’s playing, or which is playing, the vibes or the piano.  We phrase very much alike.  We have a similar approach.

TP:    It seems you read each other’s minds.

TYNER:  That’s right.  He’s a very responsive and creative individual.

TP:    Listening to this record through headphones is a lot of fun!

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Now, that’s a main point.  You said what are the qualifications of people playing with me.  You like to have fun.  I love to have.  It’s very important.  You’ve got to have fun!

TP:    If you’re a performer, you can’t communicate that sense to other people unless you’re experiencing it yourself.  It may not be a qualification for other professions, but as a musician…

TYNER:  Yes.  You’ve got to be able… You’re out there… I remember a guy told me one time… I was playing a solo gig, and he said, “Yeah, you’re out there, you put yourself out there.”  He admired that, because he knew that took courage.  Playing music, you have to love it, but you can’t be afraid to express yourself.  You’ve got to just jump in and do it.

TP:    At this stage, the name McCoy Tyner is known around the world.  You have a world-wide audience, you have a visibility beyond the jazz audience.  In some ways, you’re almost as iconic a figure as Coltrane was in his day. You’ve lived another 35 years at a high level of creativity and accomplishment.  I did a piece on Sonny Rollins a few years ago, and he said to me, “I’m supposed to be a legend, right?”


TP:    “But I still have to go up there on the stage, so what good does it do me?”  Something to that extent.  How do you respond to that persona?  Obviously, you’re living your life day-by day, you put your pants on one leg at a time.  Blah-blah-blah.  But you also know that you’re McCoy Tyner.

TYNER:  Well, you have to keep that in mind, that you put your pants on one leg at a time! [LAUGHS] Don’t lose sight of that!  Right.  The simplicities of life are very important.  And I think when you start riding on this high horse and thinking of this and that… I only did what I was supposed to do, and basically it… I mean, people think it’s fabulous.  And when I look back at my musical history, I’m very thankful for the opportunities I’ve had and to have been able to rise to the occasion.  I think it was really great to have been in that kind of environment and been able to do that.  But as far as labels and so on, I think that one should never down play one’s contribution or creativity or look down on themselves.  I don’t do that.  I feel as though I did the best I could.  And I thought it was pretty good!  It wasn’t bad!  Some people sort of might want to rest on their laurels or they don’t feel good unless somebody’s putting them on a pedestal.  I’m a very simple guy.  I like simplicity in life.  But I don’t downplay what I’ve done, not at all.  I have the confidence in myself.  That’s very important to me.

TP:    Can I ask you what you like to do in your off-time when you’re not playing music?  Are you a reader?  Do you watch films?  Do you go fishing?  Do you work out at the gym?

TYNER:  There’s one four letter word I like to use — “r-e-s-t.”  Rest.  I do like to rest, and I drink a lot of health juices.  There’s a juice bar across the street from me.  I’ve been doing that since I was a teenager — carrot and celery juice and all that stuff like that.  I need to exercise more, but sometimes I’m so tired from going through airports… I like going out to the theater.  I’ve seen musicals on Broadway, and various plays, and I like that.  I have friends that enjoy me asking them out to dinner and then a play.

TP:    Are you vegetarian?

TYNER:  No.  It’s funny, because I do like the vegetarian cuisine, and I do have friends who are vegetarian.  But I’m not like…

TP:    You’re not a fanatic.

TYNER:  No, I’m not a fanatic.  No way.  I’m not a vegan.  But I like the juice.  I have a juice machine at home.  I don’t use it, because when the juice bar moved across the street I said, “I’m not cleaning this machine!”  I go to his place and let him clean his machine!  I love the diet, but I’ve never claimed to be… I like meat and chicken and fish.  I have a pretty normal diet. But I try to eat good and healthy, and not overdo it.

TP:    Are you someone who thinks about music all the time?


TP:    There’s stuff around us right now, and some people would say, “Ah, I hear music in the rustling of the trees; I can put that into a composition…”

TYNER:  I think it has to be like osmosis.  I don’t think you necessarily should consciously say, “Wow, man, that leaf is so gorgeous, I see a song!”  But I think when you put yourself in good environments, or you happen to be in an environment that’s uncomfortable, whatever it is, you will get something from it.  I think it should be an unconscious assimilation.  When I say “unconscious,” it’s nice when you can absorb things without saying it.  You can feel it if you’re getting something.  To sensitize yourself.

TP:    But you don’t practice.

TYNER:  No.  Not any more.  Somebody asked Miles that, and Miles said, in his blunt way, “Practice for what?!”  What it is, once you attain a certain amount of technical ability, then it’s what are you going to do with it?  It’s not about attaining more.  John even said it.  John said, “After a while, you have enough technique” — because he used to practice a lot to do thing that he wanted to do, that he heard.  And I think he reached the point where he felt like he had enough.

TP:    Really?  He stopped practicing?

TYNER:  No, he would practice.  Because he was hearing a lot of things.  But he reached a point where I guess he felt as though he had enough of a facility, but maybe he was practicing for another reason — for sound and things like that.  Because if you step away from your instrument for a long period of time, you don’t lose the connection, but it’s not the same.  I feel as though I’m in a very good state when I’m performing.  If I stay away from performing for a long time, from playing for a long time, being in contact with music, it’s not as healthy for me as when I’m playing.  I feel very good when I leave the gig and I’ve had a good night — I feel elated.

TP:    Do you keep a sort of steady but not overly… There are a lot of people who say that they just practice on the bandstand or at soundcheck?

TYNER:  You see, what it is, like I said before: The physical side of playing is having a facility to execute certain things — to have the ability to execute.  But how you… Like Lance Armstrong, for instance, this guy who had that bout with cancer.  He’s won the competition now for how many hears?  But there’s something that kicks in that has nothing to do with the fact that… I shouldn’t say nothing.  But maybe it’s more the ability of wanting to win or wanting to overcome or whatever it is, to show just how far you can push the envelope.  whatever.  So I think that’s sometimes more important than having the facility to do things.  The physical aspect is one thing, but if you don’t have the motivation, then that’s…

TP:    The will.

TYNER:  The will.

TP:    Do you ever write stuff for yourself that’s beyond your technique to give yourself a challenge?  Maybe there isn’t anything that’s beyond your technique.

TYNER:  I never do that. [LAUGHS] I never do that!  I don’t want it to be an exercise.

TP:    I’m not suggesting it would necessarily be an exercise.  But is there anything you conceptualize that you have to stretch to play?

TYNER:  Why strain myself? [LAUGHS] I like me!

TP:    Maybe that’s what it is. If that’s your answer, that’s your answer.

TYNER:  What can I tell you?  If I do write something that’s challenging, it’s good!  It’s good.  Like the rapper say, it’s all good.

TP:    I think that precedes the rappers.  I think it comes from the jazz musicians.

TYNER:  I think so.  They took a lot of things from the jazz musicians.  And then when you tell them, it’s “Hmm, really?” [LAUGHS]

TP:    So your attitude about technique is that it’s at the service of…

TYNER:  It’s a facility.  That’s all it is.  Look what Thelonious did with so little.  That to me was miraculous, how he would take a very simple idea and with the feeling he interjected into that idea… It wasn’t about how many notes he played, not at all.  It was about the idea and the feeling that came out of that situation.  He would tell Charlie Rouse… Charlie would want to do another take in the studio, and Monk said, “sorry, that’s it; whatever we did, that’s all you’re going to get.  That’s it.  I’m not doing another one.”  The immediacy of it all. The spontaneity.

TP:    Did you spend a lot of time with Monk?

TYNER:  What happened is that John had worked with Monk for a while, with Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware.  I heard that band.  Oh my God!  I walked into the Five Spot… Before I came to New York, my wife and I actually came up… We knew John.  Like I said, it was a big family.  I heard he was playing with Monk, so I said, “Oh, man, one of my heroes…” I walked into the Five Spot, and Shadow was set up right near the door.  And that cymbal beat, and then Wilbur… Oh, man!  Monk was up at the bar dancing and John was taking a solo.  Oh, man, I’ll tell you.  Whoo!

TP:    Imprinted on your memory.

TYNER:  Yes, it sure did!  But it just goes to show you how important simplicity is.  It’s so important. Sometimes even more than having the facility.  Having facility… It’s what you do with it.  It’s the idea you’re trying to portray, more than having… Look, it counts for something.  Everybody has their own way.  Bud was different.  And he loved Monk for that reason, too.  A simple idea and the depth that he was able to demonstrate with simplicity is amazing.

TP:    Your style has so much ornamentation, but there are always very melodic ideas, and it never gets far away from the melody no matter how far out it might get.

TYNER:  [LAUGHS] Yeah.  John said that in one thing he wrote.  He said that I try to make things sound beautiful.  I don’t know about that…

TP:    Maybe that’s just part of who you are.

TYNER:  Yeah, you can get away from yourself.  That’s for sure!

TP:    I’ve been listening as much as possible to your various records, and a lot of the songs sound like they were made to have lyrics put to them.  Have you ever written a song that got onto mainstream radio?

TYNER:  I did an album called Looking Out for Columbia, on which I had  Carlos Santana and Phyllis Hyman. That’s when Bruce Lundvall was at Columbia; he got a lot of jazz guys on the label.  So they wanted me to do something they felt was a little more accessible.  I knew Carlos, and Carlos loved the music I did with John, John was a big hero of his.  So he said fine, and I tried that.  I wrote a song for Carlos kind of in the Latin Rock kind of thing.  I liked it.  My mind is very wide.  I deal with the situation at hand.  So I wrote a song called “Love Surrounds You Everywhere,” and Phyllis sang it.  I wrote the lyrics for it.

TP:    “You Taught My Heart To Sing” just seems like a natural.

TYNER:  I’ll tell you.  I wanted Barbra Streisand to do that.  I kind of felt as though she could do a good job with that.  Of course, Diane Reeves recorded that.  Sammy Cahn wrote the lyrics.  Somebody mentioned that to Sammy, and he’d heard me… I went up to his New York apartment, and Sammy was on the typewriter, we were back-to-back that way — he had a little spinet.  Sammy said, “Play that again.”  He wanted to hear the actual melody.  He said, “Just play it straight.”  And he was typing away!  He must have had a good…

TP:    Did you play much with vocalists?  Apart from the Johnny Hartman Trio, for which I can’t imagine a more sympathetic trio… Did you have much experience?

TYNER:  Just my sister-in-law, that’s about it.  Because she was around locally in Philadelphia.  I did a thing with Ernestine when she came through Philly.  I worked with a few vocalists around Philly.

TP:    I think of the Bradley’s school of pianists, or someone like Jimmy Rowles, who knew the lyrics and chords for the whole American songbook?  Are you like that?

TYNER:  No-no, those guys are special. Jimmy Rowles and Ellis Larkins.  They’re special!  That’s their thing, and nobody… Also, Jimmy Jones, who played with Sarah Vaughan.  Norman Simmons, who played with Carmen for years.  They’re special guys.

TP:    But in your tunes, is there a narrative, a message, some sort of story?  Are they musical ideas and the story comes later?

TYNER:  Well, that’s what accompanists do.  They learn… I have an idea what the song means.  But those guys know the lyrics so they can construct their chords and the nuances to the music.  But a singer may phrase something, and she says, “It’s raining,” and it sounds like water running off of a rock — whatever.  If he knows that, he’ll accompany her at that moment to give a description musically of what’s happening.

TP:    So in Jazz Roots, when you’re playing “My Foolish Heart” or “Sweet and Lovely,” you’re not thinking so much of the lyrics as of the musical ideas you’re trying to express.

TYNER:  Yeah, and I don’t want to sound like the guy that I was honoring.  I want to sound like me.  It’s just something that reminded me… I had a thing called “Happy Days” that kind of reminded me of Keith, and “My Foolish Heart,” Bill Evans had recorded that, and Monk and Bud Powell… I wasn’t trying, “Oh, let me sound like Bud here.”

TP:    On “Night In Tunisia” you sort of did, but I think it was an accident.

TYNER:  Well, I’m guilty.  Okay? [LAUGHS] Guilty as charged!  You got something on me.  What can I say?

TP:    Are you in the planning stages for the next record now?

TYNER:  I’m thinking about it.  I’ve got a big band date coming up at the Chicago Jazz Festival.  It’s been a while since I recorded it.  We’ve won two Grammies with it.  The big band is still a baby.  I need some time to work on some new charts and new directions I’m hearing with the band.  That’s an ongoing kind of endeavor that I need to…

TP:    You have the big band, the trio, this quartet, the Latin group, the solo activity.  There are these files of activity that overlap and intersect with each other that you can return to and refresh yourself.

TYNER:  Yeah.  I’m not a one-dimensional guy that way.  I try to confound myself. [LAUGHS]

TP:    Do you?

TYNER:  No, it’s not conscious.

TP:    Some people do.

TYNER:  Some people do, that’s true.  Everybody functions on a different level.  What makes one guy happy confuses another guy.  So everybody has whatever vibe, whatever level they’re functioning on.

TP:    You seem like one of the most grounded musicians I’ve ever met.  Did that come from your mother?

TYNER:  I think so.  My mother gave me many gifts, and I think that’s one of the things she gave me.  I either learned or got it from her, inherited certain things… You don’t expect too much.  Just do the best you can.  That’s all you can do!  Do the best you can.  Sometimes we set these goals for ourselves, and we want this… I didn’t set a goal for myself.  I just did the best I could.  I think that’s all you can do.  You start setting goals for yourself, “I’ve got to get here, if I don’t get here by next year…” Come on!

TP:    But it’s obvious that you have a certain sense of destiny. You just said “those are accompanists,” which means, “I don’t think of myself as an accompanist.”

TYNER:  I adapt.  When I did something with Johnny Hartman, Carmen heard that, and she said, “Oh my God!”  She thought it was good!  That’s all.  All it is, is my…

TP:    And when you played sideman on those ’60s Blue Note dates, it was obviously a different mindset.  Obviously, a Wayne Shorter date with you and a Wayne Shorter date with Herbie Hancock are two fundamentally different sides of Wayne Shorter.

TYNER:  That’s right.  Because he and Herbie do well together.  It’s wonderful.  That Miles thing, whatever it is; I don’t know.  They’re very tight.   Bobby and I have that kind of affinity.

TP:    He has that sort of groundedness also…

TYNER:  Well, if you don’t ground yourself, you’ll fall off the handle!

TP:    He can go all the way out like this, but comes back…

TYNER:  I like that about him.  We’ve learned some good lessons over the years, I think, and that’s great!  It’s good to learn from this.  It can be arduous at times, and demanding and challenging.  But as long as it serves you, that’s… It always has to serve you.  You don’t want to be a slave to this.  I love it. I mean, music is a whole other story.  I don’t think you should be a slave to music or anything like that.  I think it should work for you.  It is very demanding, the level that you want to perform, but you can always rise to that occasion if you have the right focus and realize what it is — that it’s there to serve you.

TP:    You always seem to come back to Ellington.

TYNER:  Yes.

TP:    My first record of yours was Plays Ellington, before I even knew about Coltrane.  I didn’t know anything about jazz.

TYNER:  I still play Ellington.

TP:    Did you see Ellington when you were a kid? Did he make a big impression on you always?

TYNER:  Yes, I saw him, and I knew everybody in his family.  I knew his sister, I knew Stevie, I knew Mercer.  But the thing  is, he represented an era in the music that was… I mean, all of it is important.  Louis Armstrong.  Fats Waller.  All those guys.  But Duke had an iconic kind of image in his music.  Duke was a hard worker, traveled a lot.  He really paid his dues and really earned his rep.  He was a consummate genius of music, always writing and always totally involved.  And that kind of sacrifice isn’t… I mean, it’s nice if you can do that.  I like being dedicated to music, but not to the point where it just consumes my every minute.  I’m not that kind of person.  I like a balance in life — whatever balance is.  But a balance for one guy may be not a balance for someone else.

TP:    You’re born in 1938, and when you’re 10-11-12 is right when big bands start to decline.  People like Jimmy Heath talk about going to the Earle Theater to hear the big bands, and playing hooky for school.  Was that any part of your experiences, going to hear those bands, going to dances, things like that when you were younger?

TYNER:  Yeah, we had a band.  Tommy Monroe had a band…

TP:    But did you go to hear the traveling bands?  Say, Basie when you were 15?  Or if Ellington played in Philly in 1953 or 1954, would you go to see him?

TYNER:  I was kind of young.  But I was able to hear the records and things like that… Dizzy’s band.  Lee Morgan joined Dizzy’s band as a kind of child prodigy.  When Lee was about 17, he was in Dizzy’s band.  Benny Golson and a lot of big players were in that band.  Melba Liston, Walter Davis.  So I had a chance to hear Dizzy’s band more than Basie and Duke.  I saw Basie and Duke on TV, and I heard the recordings, but I didn’t actually physically see him until later.

TP:    Did you attend the Ellington Meets Coltrane session?

TYNER:  I couldn’t get there.  I tried.  My car broke down.  I was so disappointed.  Because I knew Mercer. I knew his family.  But I wanted to meet Duke in person.  Stevie told me he knew who I was after I did that album of his music.  But I couldn’t get to the session.  That’s the way it goes!  Now, I heard Duke’s band at the Newport Jazz Festival [1962-3].

TP:    But your mother… So there was a musical environment for you all the time, but she wasn’t the type… A lot of people I’ve spoken to, their parents would take them to live music from early on.  It sounds like she let you be a kid until it was time for…

TYNER:  Thank goodness for that.  I took her to cotillions.  I was very close to my mother.  She was a wonderful person in my life.  I was very lucky.  I wrote a lot of songs for my mother and my sister, my ex-wife, whatever.  I had a very close relationship with her.  So I can conclude by saying that life is good!

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Filed under Article, Jazziz, McCoy Tyner, Piano

An Interview with Alvin Fielder, July 2002

Following up on the previous post, which contained a couple of interviews with Kidd Jordan, here’s one with drummer Alvin Fielder that I initially conducted for what I’d hoped would be a Downbeat feature on the pair. DownBeat wanted to go shorter, and gave me permission at the time to run the verbatim transcript of each interview in Cadence. Now it’s time to post this on the blog. A  lot of valuable information.

[for a retrospective, read John Litweiler’s wonderful Jazz Times article from 2001. For an oral history with Alvin Fielder, Sr., link here.

Alvin Fielder (7-1-02):

TP:    Let’s start with the standard boilerplate questions. You were born in ’35.

FIELDER:  Yeah, on November 23rd, in Meridian, Mississippi.

TP:    When did you start playing drums?

FIELDER:  Oh, back in ’48, when I was in high school.  About 12-13.

TP:    Was your family musical?

FIELDER:  Yes.  My father had studied the cornet, and my mother was a violinist and a pianist.  My grandmother was a pianist, and my uncle was a clarinetist.

TP:    So playing music was something you did.

FIELDER:  Back then, practically everybody did.  Every household had a piano. Everybody did something — poetry, dance or something.  Not in a professional way, but they just did it.  Well, TV wasn’t out then, so I guess you had to pass the time.

TP:    What line of work were they in?

FIELDER:  My father was a pharmacist, and my grandmother worked for the Federal Government.  She was a home demonstration agent.  She worked all over the county. She would go out and teach the country women how to can and preserve foods, about sewing and various things. My grandfather was a brick mason and a stone mason, and he had a crew of about 15 or 20 men.

TP:    So these were people who had survived and built firm roots in the South.

FIELDER:  Oh, yes.  All the neighborhoods were pretty mixed.  When I say “mixed,” I mean this.  On the corner we had the high school principal. Next to the principal was one of the town’s biggest plumbers, and next to him was a butcher, and on the corner was a guy who owned a big tavern.  On our side of the street, we lived next door to a man who was a Colonel in the U.S. Army, a black guy, and on the corner was an apartment complex that my people owned.  We had a variety of people in our neighborhood.

TP:    When did you start playing drums?

FIELDER:  Back in 1948, when I was 12 or 13.  The latter part of my freshman year. The school band had just started there.

TP:    It was segregation, separate and I’d imagine not very equal.

FIELDER:  Well, not really.  But we didn’t know the difference.  I’d been in Mississippi all my life.  That was the way it was!  I’d done a little bit of traveling, not much.  I hadn’t seen that much.

TP:    Was it only a school rudimental situation, or were you listening to records, too?

FIELDER:  I can remember early on I used to listen to people like Louis Jordan and Joe Liggins and Ella Fitzgerald.  Early on. There was a trumpet player who had been in World War II whose name was Jabbo Jones.  He came home, and he brought back all these records which he’d carry around to the neighbors’ houses, and play — all the Fats Navarro stuff and early Kenny Dorham and Dizzy…

TP:    Oh, so he brought bebop to town.

FIELDER:  Yeah, he was a real bebopper.  I happened to hear…it was a Savoy 78. “Koko” was on one side and on the other side was “London Fog,” by Don Byas, which was valuable.  I think that’s the first modern jazz thing I heard.  I was quite impressed with Max Roach’s 32-bar drum solo, and I wanted to play drums after that.  I had studied piano from when I was about 6 or 7 up until about 10, but I didn’t really like it, so I stopped playing piano and started playing baseball and football. Then I heard Max Roach and Charlie Parker, and that was the turning point of my life.

TP:    In what part of Mississippi is Meridian located?

FIELDER:  It’s right on the Mississippi-Alabama line. Meridian had three ballrooms and 10 or 12 clubs. A lot of bands came through. One band was led by Red Adams, a tenor player who played out of the Coleman Hawkins thing. He had a trumpet player by the name of George Frank Sims[(?)], who had worked with Barnum & Bailey, who was a good friend of Louis Armstrong.  He could play.

TP:    So he was one of those carnival cats.

FIELDER:  Well, he had worked in the carnivals.  But he was a jazz player.  He even spent some time in New York.  At that time, his people owned two funeral homes. A well-to-do family.  He would work the country clubs and everything.  Everybody knew him.  He was a good dresser, always drove a Cadillac, had a lot of money, and just a real nice guy.  So I got a chance to play those jobs with him at the country club.

Then I was working with another group by the name of Lovie Lee and his Funky Three.  He was Muddy Waters’ piano player.  I saw him recently on a “BET on Jazz” thing that had been filmed six or seven years ago. He was a boogie woogie piano player, a blues player. I played those kinds of jobs.

TP:    So you were playing jobs in Meridian during high school.

FIELDER:  Yes.  I started playing jobs after the first year or so.  I wasn’t playing very much, but…

TP:    You could keep time.

FIELDER:  Yeah.  Keep time. I learned how to use the brushes right away, playing the dances and stuff, and of course I was playing the shuffles, too when I played in the blues clubs.

TP:    You didn’t want to get too abstract in those blues clubs.

FIELDER:  [LAUGHS] Yeah. But going back: In Meridian, everybody passed through.  B.B. King was through at least once a month.  Ray Charles came through once a month.  Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie — everybody came through town.

TP:    So on Dizzy’s southern tours, he’d stop at a ballroom in Meridian.

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  And that’s the first time I saw Kenny Clarke.  I was 11 or 12.

TP:    Kenny Clarke left Dizzy in ’47, and Joe Harris took over. But they did a southern tour in ’46.

FIELDER:  I think it was called the Hep-Stations.  The man who brought them there is still alive.  He’s about 97-98, and I usually go by and see him.  His name is James Bishop.  He owns a funeral home.  He brought in all these bands — Buddy Johnson and Lionel Hampton.  I got a chance to meet a lot of these people.  I met Jymie Merritt very early, in ’49 or maybe ’50, in Meridian when he came through with B.B.’s band.

TP:    Which means you had a chance to observe professional drummers early on. So as a kid you learned your rudiments, and then started playing.

FIELDER:  I didn’t learn the rudiments right away, see.  I didn’t get into the rudiments until I got to New Orleans and Houston.

TP:    Didn’t you have a teacher?

FIELDER:  I had a teacher, but of course, the teachers were like clarinet players or trumpet players.  I enrolled at Xavier College in New Orleans in 1951, when I was 15, and started all over again. I got with Ed Blackwell, and Blackwell had me transcribing stuff.

TP:    Describe the New Orleans scene in the early ‘50s.

FIELDER:  I met Ellis Marsalis in ’52 when he was going to Dillard.  He became a good friend. He was playing tenor saxophone then, and a little piano.  His teacher was probably the first bebop pianist in New Orleans, Edward Frank.  I think he was a violinist in the beginning, and then he started playing piano. He was out of the Bud Powell thing.  He played his left hand things with some of fingers sometimes, and then he’d play with his elbows and stuff.  He could play!  He was part of the first of the bebop movement down in New Orleans, with Ellis and Alvin Batiste and Blackwell… There’s a drummer Ed Blackwell used to listen to…

TP:    Are you referring to Wilbert Hogan?

FIELDER:  That’s right.  Wilbert Hogan.  By the time I got down there, there were several fellows.  Harry Nance was a left-handed drummer, a very good reader.  He could write anything.  He wrote everything in 16th notes, and he would tie those notes together… Yeah, he was precise, a very good player. Then there was another drummer by the name of Tom Moore, who worked with Dave Bartholomew.

TP:    Earl Palmer was down there, too.

FIELDER:  Earl was there.  But Earl was playing more out of the Shelley Manne thing.  He could play, though. He was working the good jobs.  And he had a day job, too.  I think he worked for the railroad or something, and he was working probably five-six-seven nights a week.  Always working.  I had approached him about studying, and he referred me to Blackwell.  He said, “I just don’t have time, but there is a drummer here — Ed Blackwell.” That was how I met Ed.

TP:    So you approached Earl Palmer for lessons, and he sent you to Blackwell.  What was Blackwell like?  Did he have his modern sound, or a different type of sound?

FIELDER:  Blackwell was basically playing out of the Max Roach thing.  He was practicing every day with a tenor player and a trumpet player.  The trumpet player’s name was Billy White, who used to sound a lot like early Miles Davis, and the tenor player’s name was Booty.  That wasn’t his real name.  He’s in New York now, and he used to work with Idris Muhammad a lot.  They would be practicing all day long.  I’d go to pharmacy school, get out of school at 4 or 5 o’clock, and go right down to Blackwell’s house and watch them practice.  They were playing all of the early Charlie Parker things, “Buzzy” and things like that.  I didn’t hear them play “Confirmation” then.  I didn’t hear them play too many of Dizzy Gillespie’s things.  I didn’t hear them play Monk.  Mainly Bird’s things.

TP:    Things that Max was on.

FIELDER:  Yes, Max.  I really didn’t find out about Kenny Clarke until later.  I didn’t find out about Roy Haynes until later.  Blakey I found out about in ’52.

TP:    Were you dual-tracking, or devoting most of your time to studies?

FIELDER:  To studies.  Blackwell was the first one to put me in a book.  It was a rudimental book, the “100 Rudimental Drum Solos” by Ludwig, if I’m not mistaken.  That was just for the hands and to get me disciplined.  That’s what we did.  I was with Blackwell for about maybe a year-and-a-half, until I transferred from Xavier to Texas Southern in ’53.  I met Blackwell probably after being in New Orleans for half a year or three-quarters of a year, and then all of the second year.

TP:    Was there any scene to speak of for modern-thinking musicians in New Orleans then?

FIELDER:  It was more or less a mixture, because there was a lot of rhythm-and-blues. But the rhythm-and-blues at that time was different than the rhythm-and-blues is now, because all of the rhythm-and-blues bands had a bunch of bebop players playing in them.  All of them!  All the drummers I heard — people like Tom Moore, Harry Nance, June Gardner — either came out of the Max Roach or the Blakey thing.  They were playing the shuffles, but they were hip shuffles, not like the backbeat type shuffles.  That was a help after I got into Texas.  I ran into a trombone player there by the name of Plummer Davis, and I played in Plummer’s band.  I don’t know how I got that job.  I took Richie Goldberg’s place.  Richie Goldberg was a drummer out of Houston who went on to work with Bud Powell, Ray Charles, and with Roland Kirk’s band. Good bebop player. He was a drum-maker… He made all of Billy Higgins’ drums in later life.

I got a chance to study with a lot of drummers in Texas.  Every time they’d come to town, I’d be there. I met G.T. Hogan, a very good drummer who had worked in Earl Bostic’s band with Benny Golson and Coltrane and Tommy Turrentine.  Another drummer by the name of Jual Curtis, J.C. Curtis.  He used to play with Al Grey’s group with Bobby Hutcherson, and also Wilbur Ware.  I got a chance to practice with Jual all the time.

All the bands were coming through. When Gene Ammons came through, I would practice with his drummer, whose name was George “Dude” Brown.  I got a chance to spend a lot of time with him.  James Moody would come through and he had Clarence Johnston.  That’s how I had a chance to learn my paradiddles; he taught it to me the easy way.  Then Bennie Green would come through with Charlie Rouse and Paul Chambers and a drummer from Newark, New Jersey, by the name of Chink Wilson.

TP:    So you picked up this and you picked up that and you picked up something else.

FIELDER:  Right.  And I would write everything down, and I’d write down all their books.  Clarence Johnston would come through with a trunk-full of books on the road.  He could read his butt off.  George “Dude” Brown couldn’t read at all, but a swinging drummer.  I also studied with Herbie Brochstein, the guy who owns Pro-Mark drumsticks.  I was one of his students, and so was Stix Hooper.

TP:    So you were a very analytical young guy.

FIELDER:  I think too much.  But it all paid off.  I’ve got just books of things.  I’ve got books of Max Roach’s four-bar solos and Roy Haynes’ extended solos — stuff like that.  I don’t even look at them now.  Well, I look at portions of them, but that’s all.

TP:    So you’re in Houston, you graduate Texas Southern, and then what’s your path to Chicago?

FIELDER:  I graduated in ’56. I had taken the State Board of Pharmacy and passed it, but I was 19, so they wouldn’t allow me to practice pharmacy any place except with my father until I was 21.  I went back to Mississippi, and just lolled around, until I decided to go back to grad school.  I went to the University of Illinois, the Medical Center Branch on South Wood, studying manufacturing pharmacy.  In the meantime, I met Sun Ra…

TP:    Did you have family in Chicago, like a lot of people from Mississippi?

FIELDER:  I had an uncle and cousins, and a lot of my mother’s family.

TP:    So you had some roots there.

FIELDER:  I hadn’t been there.  But I had a lot of kinfolk there.

Let me tell you about my first night in Chicago.  I told my cousin, “Look, I’d like to go out and hear some music!”  He said, “Fine.”  So we went down on 63rd Street.  This first club I went in was on Stony Island between 62nd and 63rd (I can’t remember the name), and it was Lester Young, Johnny Griffin, Norman Simmons, Victor Sproles, and a drummer by the name of Jump Jackson.  He was big in the union politics.  He could play time, but he really wasn’t one of the premier drummers there.  He wasn’t like Dorel Anderson or Marshall Thompson or Vernell Fournier or James Slaughter or Wilbur Campbell.  But he got the job!  I thought, “Oh God!  If these guys are using this drummer, I know I’m going to be able to work.”  So we sat, we listened.

Then we drove to a club named Swingland on Cottage Grove in between 62nd and 63rd.  Lo and behold, I go in Swingland, I hear this BAD music, unbelievably terrible.  Johnny Griffin, John Gilmore, Bill Lee, Wilbur Campbell, and Jodie Christian. They’re playing “Cherokee,” Wilbur Campbell asleep on the drums, but I mean, BURNING.  Oh, man!  I couldn’t believe my ears.  I had never heard anything that bad in all of my life.  I sat there and I listened, man, and I got nervous.  I had to leave the club.  Of course, I came back the next night.  But I went down the street, and at the Kitty-Kat Club there was Andrew Hill, a drummer by the name of James Slaughter, who was really burning, too, and Malachi Favors.

So that was my first night out.  Then, look here, I haven’t been the same since.  Believe me, I heard three different types of drummers.  Wilbur was a musician and a beautiful drummer.  He was more or less out of that Elvin Jones thing from the ’50s.  And I heard some Roy Haynes then.  I didn’t hear much Max Roach or Kenny Clarke in it.  A beautiful touch.  James Slaughter was a rudimental drummer, the type of drummer who would go on a set and say, “Well, I’m going to play the drag paradiddle throughout this whole set, and see what I can do with it.”  He would turn it inside-out, and play it off the cymbal or the snare toms.  Beautiful cat.  He showed me a lot about the rudiments, and I really appreciate it.  I talk to him all the time still.  He isn’t playing any more.  He has arthritis.

TP:    So you’re in Chicago, and you start to get yourself into the scene.

FIELDER:  Right.  I started playing around, and met a tenor player named John Tinsley.  John was out of the bebop thing, although he wasn’t like Nicky Hill or George Coleman, any of those players.  But he would always keep a quartet together, and had a good group. I was working a dance thing with him on the West Side, and lo and behold, the pianist was Sun Ra.  I’d never heard of Sun Ra.  Sunny and I started talking.  He asked me where I was from, and I told him I was from Mississippi.  So he said, “Look, man, I bet you can play some shuffles.  I’d like for you to come by and practice with me.”

So I did.  Went down to this big auditorium.  I don’t even remember where it was.  All these people were there.  James Spaulding was on it, and Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Hobart Dotson, a trombone player named Bo Bailey who was one of Julian Priester’s teachers, and Ronnie Boykins.  I see nine or ten other people sitting out front. I didn’t know it then, but they were drummers.  Bugs Cochran was out there, and several more drummers I didn’t know.  They called a tune, and I played it, then he called another one and I played it.  I thought I was playing well, but as I look back, I’m sure that I wasn’t.  Anyway, Sunny invited me to join the band.  So I did.  He was using two other drummers then, sometimes together and sometimes not — Bugs Cochran and Robert Barry.  I guess I listened more than I played.

TP:    Was that your first time in a situation where you were outside the norm?

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  I was way above my head.  Everything was way above me.  John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, all those guys.  But it got to be interesting, and…

TP:    How regularly did you play with him?  I know he was rehearsing all the time, but not gigging all the time.

FIELDER:  I was with him part of ’59 and’60. We’d play on weekends at various places.  I guess we played more at the Queen’s Mansion than any place.  But we would play all over, on the West Side… Of course, the money wasn’t that great.  But then again, as I look back, I should have been paying him.

But from that, I was working with Ronnie Boykins’ trio. I was working in Spaulding’s quintet.  He had a group with Bill Lee and a trumpet player by the name of Dick Whitsol.  I just wonder where he is now.  I can’t remember the piano player.  We used to play a lot of the colleges.

TP:    So basically, taking you up to the early ’60s, you’re playing with Sun Ra, playing gigs that are more straight-up with people from Sun Ra… Were you doing other things?

FIELDER:  I was working with several groups.  I was working with a tenor player by the name of Cozy Eggleston.  Steve McCall was working with him some; DeJohnette was working with him, too.  And I thought of the drummer’s name who influenced Jack.  His name was Arthur McKinney.  We all played around.  But going from Sun Ra, though:  One summer I went to Denver with a saxophonist named Earl Evell(?) and a pianist named Daniel Ripperton. Actually we were going out to California, stopped over in Denver while passing through, and met a bass player named Sam Gill who was working in the Denver Symphony. He used to work with Randy Weston; he was in school with Gunther Schuller and Max and John Lewis. He was telling me he and Richard Davis had gone out and auditioned, and he got the job.  He was a great player.  We were working after-hours.  We did that for six months.  That was in 1961, I think.

TP:    Let me ask you a more general question.  Obviously, the way you’re hearing music is starting to change, or there’s something in you that’s looking for something different…

FIELDER:  Well, not at that time.  I was still tied up in Max Roach.  Max was like my Daddy, Granddaddy, Great-Granddaddy, everything.  I’d heard Blakey on those early Miles Davis things down in New Orleans, “Tempus Fugit,” the ones with Jimmy Heath and J.J. Johnson.  And I’d heard Kenny Clarke.  Wasn’t that impressed with Klook at that time, until I learned better.  Roy Haynes?  I heard Roy, but I didn’t really hear it.  But early on, in Chicago, ’60-’61, I was still listening to Max.

TP:    Well, Sun Ra was always swinging at that time.  There comes a point where you go from a notion of swinging and keeping a pulse to a notion of time being something different.

FIELDER:  Interacting and stuff, yeah. But I hadn’t reached that level musically.

TP:    For instance, Jack DeJohnette is someone who would feel very comfortable playing both time-based things and bebop, and then also going into other areas.

FIELDER:  Jack was always very loose.  I can remember him playing at sessions at the Archway, where a lot of drummers came, and Jack was always the loosest of them all.  You can attribute that to Jack being a pianist, knowing the music, knowing how the changes were falling.  Most drummers know the structure of tunes.  One of the things I try to teach my students is how to recognize the II-V-I turnbacks, the cycle of fourths, and what a minor-III chord is, the sound of the VI, and things like this.  But Jack was a pianist.  He knew all of that then, whereas Steve McCall didn’t.  I was somewhat familiar with it, but I didn’t really know it.

TP:    I’m trying to get at what brought you from a swinging drummer to the person who is playing on Sound.

FIELDER:  [LAUGHS] All right, we’ll get to that. In 1962 I spent about eight months in New York.  Pat Patrick showed me around. I had a chance to play with Bernard McKinney, Tommy Turrentine, Wilbur Ware, all of the beboppers. But it was a little clique thing; all the musicians from Boston, Detroit and Chicago played together every day.  During the summer.  Tony Williams had slipped away from home and came to New York to stay with Clifford Jarvis. Clifford Jarvis was at all the things, and another drummer from Boston, George Scott.  I was playing every day. I was listening to Billy Higgins and Elvin by this time, a lot to Philly Joe and to another drummer by the name of Arthur Edgehill. I went back to Chicago later that year, and somehow got with Muhal. Muhal had a trio with Donald Garrett, and I replaced Steve McCall in the trio.

TP:    What sort of gigs were you playing?

FIELDER:  We were rehearsing. We did a lot of practicing.  Then he brought in a tenor player by the name of Bob Pulliam, who lived on the West Side.  Good tenor player.  I don’t know what’s happened to him. I first started to loosen up after meeting Muhal.  Roscoe Mitchell came to a rehearsal I was doing with Muhal, Kalaparusha and Lester Lashley. He just sat and listened, and asked me could I play free. [LAUGHS] I said, “Yeah, I play free.”  So he invited me to a rehearsal with Freddie Berry and Malachi Favors.  That’s how the original Roscoe Mitchell Quartet started.  Of course, then I was still playing like Max, Blackwell and Billy Higgins, and trying to play Elvin’s cymbal patterns.

I think the turning point in my life was one night when I was at the Plugged Nickel — Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd, Howard Johnson, Beaver Harris.  Sun Ra had always told me, “Al, loosen up.”  I didn’t know what he meant, really. I wasn’t familiar with Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille at that time.  When I heard Beaver, I said, “This is what it is!”  It was like he was playing time, but there was no time. He was playing all across the barlines. If they were playing 4, he might play 4-1/2, another cat plays 3-1/2… It was like a conversation.  It wasn’t like 1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4, BAM.  It was just flowing. I developed a philosophy there that I wanted to play my bebop as loose as possible and I wanted to play my free music as tight as possible. That way, it can all blend in.  Billy Higgins is a good example.  Andrew Cyrille is a good example.  So is Elvin.

My drumming went in a different direction for a long while.  Then I was tight, I guess.  None of the bebop cats would call me any more, once I started working with Muhal and Roscoe.  Of course, the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet led into various groups.  We tried various people, like Leroy Jenkins for a while, and Gene Dinwiddie, but that didn’t work out.  Somehow, we got Lester Lashley, and after Freddie Berry left, Lester Bowie came in.

TP:    Still, there’s a process of transition going on.  Because Sound doesn’t sound like anything being done at the time.

FIELDER:  It wasn’t.

TP:    It sounds wholly unto itself, it’s totally realized and virtuosically played. Yet you say in ’64, you were playing more or less straight-ahead.

FIELDER:  In the beginning, I heard Ornette and Eric Dolphy in Roscoe, which I guess is conservative when you think of Albert Ayler and Frank Wright.

TP:    I don’t know if “conservative” is the word I would think of…

FIELDER:  Maybe the word is wrong. Omit that word. [LAUGHS] Insert another word.

TP:    Well, the music of Ornette and Eric Dolphy and Roscoe has form, and there’s very little in Albert Ayler and none to speak of in Frank Wright.

FIELDER:  Yes.  But see, the first compositions we played in Roscoe’s group were very much like Ornette’s music.  “Outer Space” and… I can’t even think of the tunes.  He’s still playing those tunes.  And they were actually swinging.

TP:    Would you say that Roscoe in ’64-’65 was on a world-class level as a musician?

FIELDER:  Look, let me tell you something. I remember Joseph Jarman, and all of the guys in the AACM.  Only a few players could compare to Roscoe.  Of course, Muhal.  At that time, Jodie Christian, of course.  Fred Anderson.  But I do believe that Anthony Braxton wouldn’t be who he is today if he hadn’t heard Roscoe.  Joseph Jarman either.  Absholom Ben’Sholomo was another one of the saxophonists in the AACM.  Now, Braxton’s playing always amazed me.  Because when I first heard him, man, I heard a lot of Paul Desmond!  He was swinging, but it was a different type swinging.  When he got around Roscoe, his swing got a little deeper.  But it was never as deep as Roscoe’s. Roscoe was the most advanced saxophonist in the AACM by a long shot.  He influenced ALL of the saxophonists.  Roscoe was in the middle at that time.  He would always tell the rhythm section to play straight, but of course, the front line could play totally free.

TP:    He did that in the Art Ensemble, too, with Moye playing a straight four swing beat.

FIELDER:  Yeah, he had me doing that.  And when I left the group, I formed a trio with Anthony Braxton and Charles Clark.  We used to play opposite Roscoe a lot. Then the group expanded into a sextet, with Leo Smith and Kalaparusha and Leroy Jenkins — trumpet, alto, tenor, violin, bass and drums.

TP:    Did that group have the seeds of that trio where there’s very little kind of pulse, or were you the pulse?

FIELDER:  That group swung a lot.  We were In and Out.  It was very flexible.

TP:    With Charles Clark, I can imagine.  Tell me what it was like to play with him.

FIELDER:  Oh, unbelievably easy.  It was floating.  In a way, it’s like working with William Parker now, but Charles was lighter.  William has a pulse… Oh, he’s one of my favorite bass players, along with Henry Franklin and Malachi Favors. There’s an electric bass player in New Orleans, Elton Heron, who’s a beautiful player.  I just finished a record date with William and Elton, and they played beautifully together.

TP:    I realize that things were changing in Chicago during that time, and straight-up jazz was on a decline.  Places were closing down.  But suppose someone like Sonny Stitt had called you, if Ajaramu couldn’t make it, given the way you were thinking at the time, would you have done that type of gigs?

FIELDER:  I played with Gene Ammons and Bennie Green and Pat Patrick and Sun Ra and Malachi Favors.

TP:    Right before the AACM years?


TP:    So you weren’t rejecting bebop.

FIELDER:  Oh, definitely not.

TP:    Because a lot of the people who were taking things out were rejecting bebop.

FIELDER:  Bebop has always been a challenge, and it still is.  Bebop is the foundation for everything I play now.  Even when I’m playing totally free, my phrases are going to be bebop phrases, but I might play them looser, slower, or faster.  I have developed a way to apply the rudiments to bebop and to so-called “avant-garde,” free music. I think it can be done.  I have tapes of probably 90% of the concerts I’ve done since the ’60s  I go back, I listen, and see what I have to leave out or didn’t play.  But of course, the Chicago years were the turning point.

TP:    Why do you think that sensibility was emerging at that time, to incorporate so many different approaches to music into an improvisational aesthetic?

FIELDER:  It was mainly because we weren’t working. Where could Joseph Jarman work?  So we had to set up our own network.  And the thing was to play original music.  It wasn’t to play Charlie Parker’s music.  It wasn’t to play Coltrane’s music.  That was part of the AACM bylaws.

Everybody was playing in different situations.  Muhal was working with everybody!  He had worked in Woody Herman’s band and in Max’s band, and was playing all types of jobs around town.  Jodie was, too.  I was playing everything. I was playing barroom music with Cozy Eggleston, and… But some of the musicians weren’t really working at that time.  I just think that we all took on Muhal as a father figure.  Muhal is a genius.  Genius!  If any Chicago player were going to get the MacArthur Award, it should have gone to Muhal.  See, Braxton is a beautiful player, and a very smart fellow, but I think it should have gone to Roscoe before him.  But first and foremost, it should have gone to Muhal.  He was everybody’s teacher.  Everybody’s.  I can remember MJT+3, when you were dealing with Booker Little and George Coleman, Bob Cranshaw and them… Muhal was the strong man in that group in the beginning.

When I really made the change, I had no alternatives. I either had to play one way or the other.  There were different camps at that time, and being able to play free with some kind of control… I guess I’m not like Sunny Murray, who is just a creative force.  I think of Sunny Murray the same way I think of Max Roach in the music.  Because when you think about it, all modern drummers come from four sources.  They either come from Max, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes or Kenny Clarke.  Kenny Clarke first, of course.  And the newer drummers, the free drummers, the avant-garde drummers, all come from Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille or Beaver Harris.  I don’t know why, but they come in threes and fours.  Andrew Cyrille I like to think of as the Max Roach of the free drumming.  I think of Sunny Murray as the Roy Haynes of the free drummers.  I think of Milford Graves as the Art Blakey of the free drummers.  And I think of Beaver Harris as the Kenny Clarke of the free drummers.

TP:    Pittsburgh, there you go.

FIELDER:  That’s right.  And Beaver Harris studied with Kenny Clarke.

TP:    Chicago was isolated enough that you could develop your own music, but sufficiently big and cosmopolitan that what you did had to be on a very high level of sophistication, and there was enough other artistic activity to provide a template against which to bounce off.

FIELDER:  And see, I didn’t know it then, but there was a drummer there by the name of Ike Day.  Ike Day — I guess indirectly — was an influence.  I was listening to Wilbur Campbell also, and Wilbur comes from Ike Day.  I was listening to Vernell Fournier.  Vernell came from Ike Day.  I was listening to Dorel.  Dorel was from Ike Day.  And the stories I’ve heard about Ike Day… I used to sit down and just talk to Wilbur Campbell and Vernell and to Slaughter about him.  Somebody needs to write a book on Ike Day, really.

TP:    Andrew Hill described him as sort of layering rhythms in the African manner.

FIELDER:  Stacking the rhythm.  Yes.  But the bottom line was that he reminded them all of Big Sid Catlett.

TP:    He was a great show drummer, apparently.  Buddy Rich dug him.

FIELDER:  Yeah, Buddy and Art Blakey, when they’d come to town, they’d want to see Ike.

TP:    So you’re in Chicago, and you are the drummer on one of the landmark records of the mid-’60s.  Sound is kind of like Shape of Jazz To Come because it doesn’t seem to have any antecedents.

FIELDER:  It was done at the very same time as Unit Structures.  That was different than the Chicago way of playing…and I guess the New York way!

TP:    But you’re the drummer on this, and then you leave Chicago when, in 1969?

FIELDER:  August 1969.

TP:    Take me from Sound up to 1969.

FIELDER:  Okay.  At the time we recorded Sound, I was just about getting ready to leave the group, because Roscoe and Lester Bowie had brought in another little drummer, and we were rehearsing with him… I can’t think of his name.

TP:    Philip Wilson?

FIELDER:  No, Philip came in a little later, after a guy who was also from St. Louis.  I can’t think of his name.  So it was three drummers sometimes, and we had started to play the little instruments a lot, and I wasn’t playing the drums that much.  Actually, nobody was.  Everybody was playing everything else.  I felt the challenge had left that group.  I wanted to play.  I wanted to swing.  I wanted to develop in a certain way.  I was listening to Elvin Jones, listening more to Blackwell also, and to Billy Higgins constantly. I was listening to Wilbur Campbell a lot, too.  So I felt I had to leave.  Anthony Braxton had just gotten back in town, and I approached him and we formed the trio together, and then the sextet I told you about. We were working every Thursday night at some club, making $10 a night…

TP:    But you weren’t exclusively a musician.

FIELDER:  I was working in pharmacy.  I was married.  I started working in pharmacy again six months before I got married.  When did Kennedy get killed?

TP:    November 1963.

FIELDER:  Well, I started working six months before then.  But I wasn’t working full time.  I was working to make enough money to play.  But we were working every Thursday night at some club, making $10 apiece.  I suggested to the guys, “Why don’t we approach the club-owner, rent the club and take all of the door and pay ourselves?”  They didn’t want to do it.  So I left the group, and turned the drum chair over to Thurman Barker.  Then we formed another group, Fred Anderson, Lester Lashley and me; that was called The Trio.

TP:    Lester Lashley was playing bass?

FIELDER:  He was playing bass, cello and trombone.  Very good group.  Michael Cuscuna reviewed us in Coda.  He loved it.  I was in that group until I left in August of ’69.  I can remember when everybody was getting ready to go to France, Roscoe and them; they had a concert out at University of Chicago, and Philip couldn’t make the job, so I played it.  That was the last job they played there.  I left two or three days after they did.

TP:    They went to Europe and you went back to Mississippi.

FIELDER:  Back to Mississippi, yeah. [LAUGHS] And after I got back to Mississippi, I got involved in politics, with the Republican Party and stuff.

TP:    The Republican Party?

FIELDER:  Well, they enabled me to bring in Roscoe, Kalaparusha and all the AACM people, and Clifford Jordan and Muhal and everybody!  I used to work out of the White House.  I worked out of the White House for two-and-a-half years.

TP:    You mean in the Nixon White House?


TP:    Who did you know there?

FIELDER:  I was on the Executive Committee of Odell County.  My grandfather had been in the Black-and-Tan Party.  He had been the State Treasurer. My father was a Republican.  My whole family.

TP:    I guess that was an act of rebellion in Mississippi at that time.

FIELDER:  Well, in Mississippi, you have to remember that Blacks couldn’t even talk about joining the Democratic Party back in the teens and the ’20s and the ’30s.  That was like a death wish.  So all blacks then were Republican.  Since I was raised up in that type house…

TP:    Were they able to vote?

FIELDER:  No.  You had to pay a poll tax, I think $2 a year or something.  I have all of those records.  I’m in the process of putting the house back together like it was back in 1913.

TP:    So you went to Mississippi, and your family connections were such that you immediately stepped into a very strong community role and were able to make things like this happen.

FIELDER:  Yes.  I belonged to everything — the Lions Club, Chamber of Commerce, ACLU. I don’t belong to anything now.  Anyway, I was able to get grants from National Endowment, from Mississippi Arts Commission… I worked most of my concerts at the Meridian Public Library.  Roscoe and Malachi Favors and John Stubblefield worked the first job. Stubb and I had worked in Chicago, too, in a group with Leroy Jenkins — violin, tenor and drums.  That was a great group.  So that’s what I did after I left Chicago.

TP:    You had your pharmacy business, you expanded the pharmacy business, and you played.

FIELDER:  Right.

TP:    How did you meet Kidd Jordan?

FIELDER:  I met him through Cliff Jordan.  I was working with Cliff a lot in a quartet — tenor-piano-bass-drums.  Cliff had come to Mississippi, and I’d play all the Mississippi dates with him.  I had written a tune for Kenny Clarke and Max Roach and Billy Higgins, and we always played it.  Of course, Cliff went back to New York. In 1976, Kenny Clarke had come through town, and he was going to Chicago to work the Jazz Showcase for a week with Clifford, Al Haig and Wilbur Ware.  Clifford told Klook about me.  So Kenny Clarke called me at the drugstore.  “This is Kenny Clarke.” “Come on, man. Whoever you are, don’t play with me.”  “No, I’m Kenny Clarke, and Cliff Jordan told me about you.  I’d like to invite you up to Chicago.”  So he sent me a ticket, and I went to the Jazz Showcase and watched him play. Kenny Clarke was a very slick, busy drummer, but very quiet, with a touch unlike any other drummer.  Actually, Philly Joe Jones played a lot of Kenny’s stuff, but louder, and he played a lot of Max’s stuff and Blakey’s stuff.

Anyway, Cliff and I got to be very close friends. Cliff went to New Orleans, and did a clinic at Kidd’s school, Southern University of New Orleans. He called me and said, “Look, Al, there’s a saxophone player down there who’s a helluva saxophonist, but he’s getting ready to stop playing.  Go down there, talk to him, and play with him.”  So one Sunday I drove down with a bass player named London Branch (he’d been in Chicago; good bass player), and we looked for Kidd all day long.  Couldn’t find him until 6 o’clock that evening.  We sat and talked for a minute, and Kidd said, “Let’s go play.”  So we went out to the school, just the three of us, and we played til about 9 or 10 o’clock that night.  Kidd said, “Man, look here, I haven’t this much fun in a long time.”  I said, “Neither have I, man.  I’ve been playing some, but this is… Wshew!  What we need to do is just come back down here.  We’ll be back next weekend.”  When we came back down, Kidd had gotten together a tenor saxophonist, Alvin Thomas; Clyde Kerr on trumpet, a percussionist (I can’t think of his name); and another saxophonist by the name of Curt Ford.  We played all that Sunday.  God, we just played-played-played.  I’ve got everything on tape.  When we went back the next week, it was a quintet — Clyde, Kidd, London, Alvin Thomas and me.  We brought in some arrangements.  Then we decided to name the group Improvisational Arts Quintet, to keep it together and start playing.”

TP:    It seems the operative assumptions of the saxophonists you played with in Chicago were a little different than Kidd’s.

FIELDER:  They were.  You must remember, a lot of it is environmental.  Kidd is from Crowley, Louisiana — Cajun country.  I don’t know of any other saxophonist in the South who plays like Kidd.  Now, I have played jobs where Kidd has sounded like Johnny Griffin.  And he’ll play Johnny Griffin tunes.  At the end, though, he’ll stop and laugh — heh-heh-heh.  He loves Johnny Griffin.

TP:    But he just can’t bring himself to go there.

FIELDER:  He chooses not to go there.  Our trio with pianist Joel Futterman… We have some unbelievable tapes.  Joel is from Chicago.  He once had a quartet with Jimmy Lyons and Richard Davis; they did an album, and it took them three and four months to learn the music he wrote.  After that, Joel said, “I don’t ever want to play any more written music.”  He’s a beautiful pianist.  Joel is bad!  We’re going to put some of our tapes.

I guess Joel and Kidd reached a point where they just don’t want to play any more written music.  However, Kidd is very versatile.  Have you heard that date with Kidd and Alan Silva and William Parker?  Well, he’s done another one with Bill Fischer.  Bill Fischer is another genius.  He was my college roommate. He did a lot of writing for the McCoy Tyner Big Band and Cannonball.  He’s from Jackson, Mississippi.  He was a tenor player, and switched to cello.  He and Kidd did an entirely written thing, with Bill playing synthesizer and Kidd on alto.  Kidd had music stretched out over rooms, and he read it all. Kidd is an excellent saxophonist.  He studied a fellow by the name of Fred Hemke at Northwestern .

TP:    Donald Harrison and Branford Marsalis have both talked about Kidd as a teacher.  Donald said Kidd told him about his intervallic concept.

FIELDER:  Yes.  And he plays all the reeds — clarinet, flute, alto, tenor, soprano, sopranino.  He plays everything.

TP:    To me, his musicianship is beyond question.  My question is why the imperative to play on the tabula rasa all the time? And do you feel that you can get there consistently, or is there a sort of predictability within the process?

FIELDER:  In working with Kidd, I always am surprised.  Because Kidd works it off a different angle. He’ll work off a cymbal. He’ll work off of a rim-shot. He’ll work off of a tom-tom sound.

TP:    Does he listen mostly to the drums?

FIELDER:  He listens to everybody, all at the same time.  His ear is phenomenal.  I’ve heard him play opposite Brotzmann and Fred Anderson and Frank Wright.  Kidd is a chameleon, with all this technique and knowledge; he can go anywhere, at any time, at the drop of a hat.  I’ve been extremely fortunate to play with saxophonists like Roscoe… Cleanhead Vinson was another great player!  An unbelievable violinist.  Most people don’t know it, but he played good bebop violin.  When I played with him in ’55 and a portion of ’56, his saxophone skills were out there.  He played all kinds of ways.

TP:    The musicality isn’t what I’m talking about. It’s the mindset.  You’re a guy who came up in the South in an environment where metrical swinging was the imperative at all times. Again, the question is becoming more pronounced because of the climate of the times.  The younger musicians aren’t grabbing onto that sensibility.  They’re blending it all with other things, picking and choosing from styles and periods.  Why does the tabula rasa remain the main imperative?

FIELDER:  I think there is something even past this.  Younger students often ask me, “Is there a formula?”  There is no formula.  I think that in order to play this music, you’ve got to have a working knowledge of bebop and a working knowledge of swing — of all music — and be able incorporate all of it. I told how the drummer Harry Nance would break down everything in 16th notes and tie it all in.  With so-called free music, I can analyze everything. Everything I play, I can write. I used to sit down with Billy Hart and do that.  Every time I talk to DeJohnette, the first thing he brings up is, “Are you still writing everything, Al?”  No, I don’t any more.  I’ve gotten past that.  I’m writing it in my head, and I play it.  Really, I still hear everything in 1/1 time.  Everything is one.  However, you have your phrases, your fallbacks.  If you listen to my solos, even in the so-called free music, they are all based on two-measure phrases, four-measure phrases, eight-measure phrases.

TP:    Small cells.

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  I’ve made it my business to track rhythms, going back to Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton, O’Neil Spencer, Kaiser Marshall, Cuba Austin.  I like to track things.  I did a study of Art Taylor.  Most people think Art Taylor is from Max Roach and Art Blakey, but he’s not.  He’s from J.C. Heard.  J.C. Heard has just a branch of Big Sid Catlett.  He took just one little branch.  That’s like Al Foster.  Al Foster took a branch of Tony Williams, and he’s working that into his own thing.  Everybody took a little branch of somebody.  I like to listen to drummers play, and I say, “Oh yeah, that’s a pattern I heard such-and-such a person play on such-and-such a record. Really, there’s nothing new.

TP:    It’s like you have this enormous Rolodex of rhythms going on in your mind and you cross-reference them at any given moment.

FIELDER:  On the spur of the moment.  And I go through so many books.  I’m going through a book now, Charlie Wilcox’s “Rollin’ In Rhythm.”  He has a study on a five-stroke roll, a six-stroke roll, and the extended rolls and stuff.  I can work one page of that, and I can play gigs for a month.  If you listen to it, you’ll hear Max, you’ll hear Philly Joe…

For instance, I went in the studio with a quintet about two or three years ago.  I decided to play all Monk and Charlie Parker things.  We were playing “Confirmation” and “Little Rootie Tootie” and so on.  The tapes sounded great. I make it my business to be able to play a strong cymbal pattern that way.  I’ll play the same cymbal pattern playing looser music, but I loosen it up.  I combine what I would play on the snare drums on both my cymbal and snare drum.  And it fits perfectly.

I used to practice with a lot of drummers, but I don’t any more.  I can’t find drummers to practice with.  Everybody is stuck on doing this particular thing. I think the rhythms of, say, 1994-95 and up, tend to be a little bit herky-jerky, whereas the rhythms in the ’40s and the ’50s flowed a lot more.  That went on through the period of Sunny Murray.  I don’t think the younger drummers have really listened to Sunny Murray.  Sunny has so much to say!  Andrew Cyrille I think is just as important as Tony Williams on the shape of drums…on the shape of musical drums.  You have drummers and you have musical drummers. Andrew is a musical drummer.  Sunny Murray is a rough musical drummer.  Sunny would say his music is controlled chaos.  I like to think of Andrew Cyrille as being the same way, really controlled.  Andrew is a whiz.  DeJohnette is a whiz.  Billy Hart is a whiz.  These are the drummers, outside of Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin, Blakey, Philly Joe and so forth… I hear younger drummers like Billy Drummond and Kenny Washington (fabulous drummer) or Carl Allen, Herlin Riley… I hear these drummers as drummers that could have played in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s quite easily.  But I’m hearing a newer rhythm in the drummers coming up. I’m not saying it’s bad.  But I think jazz has lost its street thing. I don’t mean the New Orleans street thing. I’m talking about the street thing that Philly Joe Jones had.

TP:    You’re talking about the attitude.

FIELDER:  Yes.  See, if you listen to the drummers from Boston as compared to the drummers from Philadelphia, to the drummers from Pittsburgh and Washington, the Chicago drummers, the Midwest drummers, the St. Louis drummers… There was a drummer named Joe Charles from St. Louis who was phenomenal drummers, sort of like Wilbur Campbell.  Wilbur was a little more disciplined than Joe.  But if you had to pick a St. Louis drummer, Joe would be the one.  And there’s one in every town.  Wherever you go, you’re going to find somebody.  In Pittsburgh, there’s Roger Humphries.  In Philadelphia, Mickey Roker and Edgar Batemen are still there, Edgar Bateman is still there. But Joe Charles had rhythm above that.  Billy Higgins told me about him.  Kenny Washington always talks about him.  Elvin talks about him.  If you can imagine a drummer with Kenny Clarke’s cymbal beat, Elvin Jones’ left foot-right foot-left hand, and a person who thinks like Sunny Murray, you’ve got your sound.  He made one record.  It was called “Buck Nekkid.”  You need to get it.  It’s BAD.  He was Ronnie Burrage’s teacher, I think, and Philip Wilson’s teacher.  A guy who never left town.  Guy who had a big family, worked in a meat market, and he worked with Grant Green and Jimmy Forrest and that was it.  But BAD.

But there’s somebody in every town.  There’s G.T. Hogan.  Billy Boswell up in San Francisco.  Other drummers in Los Angeles.  They all have a different rhythm.  I can tell a Boston drummer from a Midwest drummer.  I can tell a Midwest drummer from a West Coast drummer.  No matter who he is; that includes Larence Marable or whomever.  But it’s the same way.  You can usually tell a ’40s drummer from a ’50s drummer from a ’60s drummer, and so forth.  And of course, there’s further breakdowns.

But what worries me now about the drummers is they don’t have that roughness about them. If you listen to Philly Joe and Sunny Murray, there’s precision, but a roughness, too.

TP:    Did you perceive in the ’60s — and today, if you did see it that way in the ’60s — what you were doing as something that was avant-garde?

FIELDER:  I didn’t think of it as that.  I knew that I heard something different being played, but I just thought of it as an extension of bebop.  Most of the cats could go either way.  Most of them could.  I didn’t say all of them.

TP:    How did you see the music of the ’60s in relation to the culture and politics of the time?

FIELDER:  I’ve always associated changes in the music with world events, and I saw this as part of the Vietnam conflict and the Civil Rights movement.  But I never thought of myself as trying to be… It was more like a challenge for me to play some of the things that I was playing, and I wanted to see how I could work them out — from a coordination standpoint and a musical standpoint — and how I could interact with various players.  For an instance, in the Improvisational Arts Quintet, we had a bass player, London Branch, who was basically a bass player from Pettiford’s era, but he wrote from the Mingus thing — gorgeous arrangements and compositions.  We had Clyde Kerr, a trumpet player who was on the fringes of freedom but he played good bebop.  Alvin Thomas was not quite as far-out as Clyde was; great player and everything, but more of a bebop player.  Clyde had one foot in bebop and one foot in, say, the avant-garde music.  And Kidd was totally out.  So in any one composition, I had to play three different ways.  I could play the cymbal thing in back of one, and I could play a little dizzier and loosen up behind the next player, and with Kidd it was like go for it!  It was a challenge.

I found that more of a challenge than with some of the Chicago musicians, other than Muhal. With Muhal, I could go either way, and it never bothered him.  I could play as straight as anybody, and then I could just loosen it up and be totally free, or play a stream, or play air, or anything.  Of course, the music would always fit him, no matter what.  Roscoe was pretty much the same way.  But I never thought of it as being something different.

TP:    So the word “avant-garde” doesn’t mean anything to you.

FIELDER:  No, not to me.  I like to think of it as playing looser, stretching rhythms, stretching the time, stretching the pulse.

TP:    And it has to do with the internal satisfaction and interest.

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  I know when I’ve played well on a given night, and I’m very pleased after that.  And I know when I haven’t played well, even if I’ve gone back afterwards and watched videos, and it sounds fine.

TP:    You were referring to the younger drummers projecting a qualitatively different sound.  And when you’re talking about the musicians in the South — in Mississippi and Louisiana — who are playing free, you’re talking about people born before the Baby Boom.

FIELDER:  But you must remember, you don’t have but a few so-called free players down South.

TP:    Well, you were saying it’s you and Kidd and Clyde Kerr…

FIELDER:  And Joel Futterman.  He lives in Virginia Beach. Whenever we do a festival, we are the only ones there not from Chicago or New York.

TP:    Why do you think that this way of playing music hasn’t appealed to, let’s say, the brightest talents of the younger generation?  Presuming that’s true.

FIELDER:  Like you were saying, they were raised on a different diet.  They came up in a different area.  I talk to young kids in schools now, and they don’t know anything about FDR or Martin Luther King even.  Harry Truman, George Washington Carver — nothing.  No sense of history.  If I get a student, the first thing I do is talk to him about what was before Tony Williams.  But they don’t know anything about Kenny Clarke.  They don’t know anything about Papa Jo Jones. They don’t know anything about Chick Webb. They listen to the way Tony Williams tuned his drums after he started playing with Lifetime, not even the Tony Williams prior to that.  I knew Tony when he was 15, and Tony went through every drummer — Kenny Clarke, Max, Philly Joe, Jimmy Cobb.  So he could PLAY this.

TP:    Sam Rivers told me that Tony when he was 14 would play them and then play his variation on it.

FIELDER:  That’s correct.  I met Tony when he was 15.  I used to practice with him in New York.  Every day, he would go to the music store and buy another drum book. That’s what he was doing.  Just an unbelievable talent.  I don’t see that drive in players today.  And I see a lot of young drummers.  The guys can play their butts off, but they can’t swing.  Well, they swing in their way.  But a drummer like Billy Higgins could play like minimal stuff and just wipe all of that out.  Kenny Washington can do it.  Jeff Watts… I was listening to Jeff the other night on Jazzset, and the compositions he was playing, nothing was really burning; he was playing ballads and stuff.  But it was sounding beautiful.  I’m not saying that Jeff is young; he’s about 41-42 now.  I remember him early on.  He’s another Pittsburgh drummer.  He’s just another extension of what Pittsburgh has turned out.  I don’t know what’s in the water there.  But they have something.  when you think of Art Blakey, Joe Harris, Beaver Harris, Kenny Clarke, or Roger Humphries, who’s there now… Every time Roger Humphries came to town with Horace Silver, I would drive him around, and I’d take him out to the Slingerland Drum Factory. I always loved Roger’s playing; he played those parts so beautifully in Horace’s band.

TP:    We should talk about your situation with Kidd and your teaching.  How much does the group play?

FIELDER:  Now we probably play five-six times a year.  We used to play in little clubs, like a place in New Orleans called Lu & Charlie’s where we played a lot.  But most of our jobs now are festivals.

TP:    Who else do you play with?

FIELDER:  I work with a pianist in Memphis by the name of Chris Parker.  We have a trio together.  London Branch on bass, Chris and myself.  We play a lot of the music of Elmo Hope and Monk.  We just finished several jobs with the tenor player Harold Ousley in Tennessee and Mississippi about a month or so ago.  And I did a tour of Texas, Louisiana and Atlanta with Assif Tsahar about a year-and-a-half ago.

TP:    And do you teach around Meridian?

FIELDER:  No.  I teach at the jazz camp in New Orleans.  Herlin Riley… We have four drum instructors.  There’s a great drummer from Baton Rouge, Herman Jackson, who plays with Alvin Batiste.  Alvin is on the faculty.  Kent Jordan, Kidd, Germaine Brazile…

TP:    Sounds like you’d like to be playing more.

FIELDER:  I would, but I’d like to be playing in the right situation.  I’m not that fond of playing in clubs any more.  I like the festival thing.  We just can’t find a good manager.  So we don’t work as much as we should.  The trio with Joel Futterman and Kidd is a helluva group.  William Parker plays with us two or three times a year. I’ve played some with Peter Kowald, too.  Peter, Kidd and I just got through working together on April 28th.  We’ve got a great video.  It was a beautiful concert.

Kidd is like a twin, really.  He’s my daughter’s godfather.  He’s a beautiful player, a beautiful person.


Filed under AACM, Alvin Fielder, Cadence, Chicago, Drummer, Uncategorized

An Interview with Kidd Jordan, July 2002

This interview with speculative improviser Kidd Jordan, best known internationally for his white-heat inventions on the tenor saxophone (and also the father of master musicians Kent Jordan [flute], Marlon Jordan [trumpet], and Stephanie Jordan [singer]) was taken for a short piece in DownBeat about him and drummer Alvin Fielder, his long-time friend and musical partner. Both interviews were published in their entirety in 2004 Cadence (the transcript of my conversation with Alvin will follow soon). The addendum at the bottom is the transcription of a separate conversation with Jordan for a commissioned Studio 360 piece on the nature of the avant-garde in the 21st century framed around that year’s edition of the Vision Fest.


* * *

Kidd Jordan (7-08-02):

TP:    I’d like to get some basic facts and figures.  Were you born in New Orleans?

JORDAN:  I was born in Crowley, Louisiana.  That’s in southwest Louisiana.

TP:    In what year?

JORDAN:  1935.  I usually don’t tell people my age.  I played music in elementary school and high school, in regular school bands, marching bands, and then I went to Southern University in Baton Rouge.  I played there in the stage band and the dance band, which did all the dances in the area.  I started gigging around Baton Rouge.  A guy there named George Reed had a band, and all the cats who could play a little bit played in his band, a gig or two on Saturday night and Friday night.

TP:    What was your first instrument?

JORDAN:  C-melody saxophone, then alto saxophone.

TP:    Were you listening to records? Were you checking people out?

JORDAN:  In my early days, yeah, I checked out people. Illinois Jacquet was from Broussard, which is near my home town.  In fact, he used to come visit us riding a horse, because he was out… That was like the country, maybe 15 or 20 miles from where I was.

TP:    Can you tell me what kind of country it was where you grew up?  I gather one of your sidelines is raising thoroughbred horses.

JORDAN:  I’ve had horses since I was a kid.  My daddy used to deal with horses.  But it wasn’t thoroughbreds.  Some of them were quarterhorses, and they had little races.  But it wasn’t like what I’m doing now.

TP:    What is it like in that part of Louisiana?

JORDAN:  It’s closer to Texas than it is to New Orleans. That part of the country is where zydeco music comes from; Clifton Chenier is from that area. It’s strictly Zydeco and Blues from way around, and that’s what I came up listening to.

TP:    What did people do there for a living?

JORDAN:  During that time, it was the rice capital of the world.  They had about 15 rice fields when I was a kid.  Rice was a big thing; they’d have a big rice festival and so forth.  All that is dried up now.  But there were always musicians, with cats playing blues and also bands with cats playing horns.  When I was in high school, I was playing with some older men who had a band.  They played stock arrangements for three or four saxophones, and I would play with them at Christmas and Easter when they had some of their gigs.

TP:    If you were born in 1935, Charlie Parker was already well-established by the time you came of age.

JORDAN:  I heard Charlie Parker when I was in high school, after the fellows came back from the war — they were talking about Charlie Parker.  I was fascinated with it.  That was the new music.  I started listening to Bird and everything else I could.

TP:    In high school, did you have a band teacher who gave you enough tools to start breaking down what he was doing?

JORDAN:  No, I was playing by ear.  I could read music, but I was playing the licks I got from Bird by ear.  In the early Downbeats they would transcribe some of his solos, and I started reading some of them, and listening to the records.  I listened to Sonny Stitt also, and everybody else I could listen to.  But Illinois Jacquet is the cat who gave me the first idea of playing free when he was with Lionel Hampton.  The honking tenor players with Hamp.  That gave me an idea that music could be done another way. That was the first glimpse, the first conscious attempt I had of that.

But I played alto a long time, and then when I heard Ornette Coleman, I liked him better than anybody, so then I started sounding… Well, ordinarily by the way I was playing, I was into something else.  I was trying to sound like something else.  But when I heard Ornette, that convinced me that I wanted to go another direction.

TP:    When did you hear Ornette?

JORDAN:  I guess the first record Ornette made.

TP:    I know Ornette came through Louisiana for a quick minute.

JORDAN:  Yeah, Ornette was down here with Melvin Lastie.  But they would come through them towns in them blues bands.  Ornette used to play with Clarence Samuels, who was a blues singer, who died in May. He played with Clarence Samuels and Roy Brown and a lot of them blues singers around here, and they would be touring around here.  I wasn’t paying no attention to them.  I was just paying attention to the grooves.  I had developed by the time I heard him on record, and then I knew there was another way, and I liked that and started dealing with that.

TP:    So you were 23-24 when you heard those records.


TP:    Well, Ornette’s first record was in ’58.  But you’re probably talking about “The Shape of Jazz To Come” or something like that.

JORDAN:  He made a record with a piano player.

TP:    With Walter Norris.

JORDAN:  Yeah, that’s the record.

TP:    That was on Contemporary.  It was recorded in ’58.

JORDAN:  All right.  This wasn’t  “The Shape of Things To Come.”  It was another one.  He played a standard tune on there, “Out of Nowhere.”  And the way he played that was practically all he ever did with what Bird and everybody else had been doing.

TP:    So by that time you’re 23…

JORDAN:  Yeah, I had finished college.  I could wail on my instrument.  I could play my horn then.

TP:    At Southern did you major in Music Education?

JORDAN:  Yeah, Music Education.

TP:    So you got your teaching thing and your pedagogy out of your education at Southern.

JORDAN:  Right.

TP:    You’re a little younger than Alvin Batiste.

JORDAN:  Right, about three years younger.

TP:    Were you at all linked up with him and some of the New Orleans modernists?

JORDAN:  We were in college together.  He was a year ahead of me.  In fact, we finished college together, because I caught up.  They had been in before me and were older me, but I caught up with them by going to summer school all the time.

TP:    So you were in a hurry.

JORDAN:  Well, I was just trying to play my instrument. I was just dealing with it.  Alvin and I were together in college, and we’ve been together all our life since the college days.  He’s my brother-in-law.  We married two sisters.  We’ve been in the deal all along!  But he was in a lot of jazz things.  I was playing rhythm-and-blues.

TP:    Was that just because there weren’t other types of gigs you could do?  Was it a practical matter?

JORDAN:  Well, it was a money-making issue,  but also I was trying to work on something else. I was trying to separate myself from all them tunes that they was doing, to arrive at something of my own and not just play what everybody else was doing. When I understood how “Cherokee” went, when I understood how “Giant Steps” and all them tunes went, it wasn’t interesting any more. I’m not a cat that just plays tunes.  I’m trying to get at me.  And I can’t get at me doing what everybody else is doing. Not that I’m trying to reinvent the wheel, but I’m trying to play my convictions and what I think about it.

TP:    So that’s just something that was innate, part of your personality.

JORDAN:  Exactly. You hit it right on the head.  I’m one of them that can’t tolerate a whole lot of stuff.  I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.  Now, playing in them rhythm-and-blues bands, a lot of times I played baritone.  I didn’t have to learn the tunes; all I had to do was solo.  I still play baritone a lot in bands, for shows and so on.  Very seldom do I play tenor.  Every now and then I play alto.  But in the Rock-and-Roll bands they always needed a baritone player, somebody who could play the notes on the bottom.  I’d just hear what they were doing, and follow the bass player or whatever, so it went easily.  A lot of times, with everything going on and since the microphone isn’t put up to me, I could practice on my horn without being so noticeable

TP:    So you heard Ornette Coleman.  Were you ever at any point in the ’50s or early ’60s playing jazz?

JORDAN:  Well, see, when you say “jazz” around here… Yeah, we had little jazz bands out here, but they wasn’t makin’ no money.  I mean, we had bands where we’d play Charlie Parker’s music and our own music.  Every now and then we’d get a gig, but no steady gigs playing that. I learned the chart, but I was trying to solo in a different kind of way.  When I was college, they used to call me weird.  I was at a reunion the other day, and they said, “Man, in college, man, we didn’t understand what you were doing; we still don’t understand.”  I don’t have no problem with that.

TP:    As long as you understood it.

JORDAN:  I hope I understand it.  But my main thing is that I just wanted to be a good saxophone player.  And the majority of the cats who play jazz are not good saxophone players.  That’s the first thing.  I mean, technical-wise. I mean, they play jazz, but to play a saxophone the way I want to play it, I’ve got to practice and deal with it on another level.  I’ve played a lot of the classical repertoire. I’m trying to play the instrument correctly, and I’ve put a lot of time into doing that.

TP:    In other words, you can get a so-called “legitimate” sound… You can make the saxophone sound pretty much any way you want it to sound.

JORDAN:  Yeah, I’ve played solos with orchestras, with swing orchestras, and all of that.

TP:    Do you have a favorite among the saxophone family?  One you feel most at home with.

JORDAN:  Probably alto, but I don’t play it too much.  I’ve played the alto longer than I’ve played anything.  But I couldn’t express what I wanted to express on alto. I’ve played alto, soprano, sopranino… I used to practice all of them.  The whole gamut.

TP:    So given a certain set of circumstances, if you were in practice, you could express yourself on an orchestra of instruments like Roscoe Mitchell does.  Have you ever played all of your stuff on one particular set?


TP:    Who were some of the people you were playing jazz gigs with?  Was that always around Baton Rouge, or were you going back and forth to New Orleans in the ’50s.

JORDAN:  Oh, in Baton Rouge we’d be playing with Alvin Batiste and all the dudes that was in school.  And in New Orleans, anybody who was on the scene, like Johnny Fernandez, Alvin Batiste, and the drummer…who was that boy…Blackwell.  Blackwell used to practice with a trumpet player named Billy White. I’d go there almost every day and practice with them.  Then there was Eddie Williams, and a trumpet player named Samuel Alcorn.

TP:    He was Alvin Alcorn’s son?

JORDAN:  Yes.  Samuel died.  But he was a good trumpet player.

TP:    Did you know Nat Perrillat there?

JORDAN:  Yeah.  I used to play with Nat.  Nat used to play with us around there.

TP:    And Ellis Marsalis, too?

JORDAN:  Yes.  I mean, all the cats was on the scene.  But Alvin and Ellis and them had a regular, organized band together.  But when we’d go jam, I’d go play with everybody.  We had a band with Samuel Alcorn and Eddie Williams, a tenor player around here named James Rivers, an alto player named George Davis, who was also a fantastic guitar player.  George played in “Chorus Line” for about twenty years.

TP:    So you were going back and forth between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

JORDAN:  When I was in school. But I moved to New Orleans in 1955.

TP:    So you’ve been living in New Orleans since ’55.

JORDAN:  Since ’55, right.

TP:    When you say you did rhythm-and-blues gigs, does that mean the type of thing that became famous as New Orleans rhythm-and-blues, Dave Bartholomew and so on?

JORDAN:  I used to go out on the road with people like Guitar Slim and whoever needed somebody.  See, Ray Charles used to make bands up around here.  Big Maybelle.  Anybody who came to town. Sometimes they’d come to town by themselves, and then put a rhythm section together and get some horn players.  Big Joe Turner, anybody who needed a band.  I remember one time me and George Adams went out with somebody named Chuck Willis, who was a blues singer.  George was playing tenor and I was playing baritone.

TP:    The George Adams who played with Mingus.

JORDAN:  Yes.  George was a bad cat.  He was terrible.

There was a cat named Lloyd Lambert who had a good band. He used to back up different singers and what-have-you.  A dude named Choker Campbell out of Memphis or somewhere, would come through and need horn players.  Anybody who was on the scene and needed some horn players, some of us would go out with them and deal with them.

TP:    Were those gigs satisfying for you in any way?

JORDAN:  Yes, they were satisfying for me, because there was a feeling that you’d get from dealing with that.  I’ve played with some of the great female vocalists, from Gladys Knight to Aretha Franklin, or Big Maybelle, Little Esther, Lena Horne, and there’s an aesthetic in dealing with those people that a whole lot of people don’t get to.  And the aesthetic from the blues is a part of the thing that I want to have in my playing.  I don’t care how out it gets

TP:    Can you describe that aesthetic?

JORDAN:  You can’t describe an aesthetic.  I know when it’s there, and I can tell when a whole lot of… I’ll give you an idea. The difference between what the Rock, like what David Bowie and them were doing…what do they call those new Rockers?  Acid Rockers or whatever.  That music is devoid of that aesthetic; I mean, the aesthetic that’s supposed to go along with that music.  And if you don’t know, you don’t know.  But those who know, know.  And there’s a certain aesthetic that Trane, had, a certain aesthetic that Bird had, and it’s not what they’re doing, but the aesthetic part of it.  That’s missing in a lot of the music people do now.  So many people can’t feel the aesthetic and don’t know what it is, and when they hear it, they don’t know where it’s at.

TP:    So that aesthetic comes out of playing dance music…

JORDAN:  Not necessarily.  The aesthetic comes from listening to somebody and hearing somebody like Muddy Waters or Big Maybelle or Dinah Washington, as opposed to somebody who don’t have any feeling in what they’re talking about.  Like, when you go to a church and hear one of them Baptist preachers who really get out and say what he’s got to say.  It may not be grammatically correct, but I mean, there’s a feeling.

TP:    Was that part of your early experience, too, the church thing?

JORDAN:  Not really.  I went to all churches when I was young.  I went to Catholic church as well as Baptist church.  But there’s an aesthetic that I knew was coming from the Baptist church that wasn’t in the Catholic Church.  It’s the way Gregorian Chant sounds in relationship to somebody who is really doing one of them “Precious Lord” kinds of things.  When you hear Aretha Franklin do “Precious Lord” or Martin Luther King talking about he went to the mountaintop and saw the Promised Land, that’s the same kind of thing. I told a dude the other day who asked me about playing jazz, “go listen to Martin Luther King’s speech, and then come back and we can talk.”  If you have none of that, then there ain’t no sense in us talking about that.

TP:    So that’s the sound you’re looking to get on your saxophone or when you play yourself.

JORDAN:  To a certain extent.  But that’s the kind of aesthetic that I would like to get.  I don’t get it all the time.  Because when I’m really out, I’m trying to do it.

TP:    When did you start to try to take it out?  After you heard Ornette?

JORDAN:  Not really.  I always had that idea.  When I first heard Illinois Jacquet, that gave me the idea.  I started flirting with that.

TP:    Or Arnett Cobb later.  People like that.

JORDAN:  Yeah, all them Texas tenor players.  I mean, them honking tenors.  I could hear something in there that I could deal with on a conscious level, not just learning what they was doing. See, that’s why I couldn’t deal with solos that’s all dressed-up, like practicing solos and getting them down and what-have-you. I’ve got to come up with a feeling.  I’ve got to come at it like it’s new all the time.  I just can’t come up with something that I’m playing over and over.  If I practice like that, I might as well be practicing classical music.  I’ve played concertos and all of that, and I don’t play them no more.

TP:    What was the impact Ornette Coleman had on you when you heard those records?

JORDAN:  Well, I knew that it was somebody serious and the music was serious and it was going another way.  So that’s the main thing.  Like, right now, when I start listening to Ornette, and start feeling good and pick my alto up, sometimes… Maybe Ornette is the reason why I’m playing tenor, because I gravitate to not wanting to sound like that.  It feels good, though.  But there ain’t gonna NEVER be no more Ornettes.  You can forget that.  I hear some people playing like Ornette, but Jack, they will never play like that.

TP:    Why is that?

JORDAN:  [LAUGHS] Because he has a way of playing!  That’s another thing.  You can copy somebody note-for-note, and can be so far off as far as the phrases and aesthetics are concerned, it’s not even funny.  So deep down with him… To me, he plays like Bird.  But it’s so amazing that he can play all that Bird stuff, and when you hear him play… Ornette told me one time, that’s the difference between a player and somebody who can improvise.  Players learn whatever anybody plays.  But you can give improvisers three notes and they’ll come up with something.  And if you’re really serious about improvising, you’ll improvise on the material you get to deal with.  That’s why I don’t deal with a whole lot of tunes no more.  I just want to get out and play on what I hear. If I hear something to play, I play it.  In fact, I’m at the mercy of the rhythm section or the people I’m dealing with.  If they give me something to play on, then I can play.  And if they don’t give me nothin’ to play on, then I’ll just try to hear what the drums are doing and play off the drums — or play off anything.  Other than just playing something for the sake of playing it.

TP:    So you need a dialogue.

JORDAN:  That’s the way.  When people play bebop, they dialogue.  They play off of changes.  So when I’m dealing with somebody else, I’ve got to play off of what they’re giving me to play off of.  Then you’ve got to react to that very quick.  If they go into the different keys or timbres or whatever they do, you’ve got to react to it.

TP:    So you’re in New Orleans from ’55 and going out with these bands and making some money, but then at a certain point you start teaching.

JORDAN:  I always taught.  I’d go out on the weekends and in the summertime.  But there was a whole lot of rhythm-and-blues records, a whole lot of rock-and-roll being made, and when the first line cats who was in the studio would get tired, we’d do it at night sometimes and on the weekends.

TP:    So if Lee Allen or Red Tyler were tired, you’d go in the studio.

JORDAN:  Right.  A lot of us would make some of that stuff.  And I was with one of them little hot bands down there that they called the Hawkettes, that went into the Neville Brothers.  So we always had some good grooves.  Idris Muhammad was the drummer in that band with us, and a drummer around here named Smokey Johnson.  John Boudreaux was the drummer before Idris, and he was a helluva drummer.  We always had good drummers in the Hawkettes Band.

TP:    Where were you teaching?

JORDAN:  I was teaching in a town called Norco, about 20 miles out of New Orleans in St. Charles Parish, at Bethune High School.  And then I came to Southern University in New Orleans.  I taught out there for maybe eight or nine years, and I’ve been at Southern now for 25 or 30 years, something like that.  I don’t know how long.

TP:    I’d like to talk about the relationship you developed with Alvin Fielder. The story I think you told me once is that Billy Higgins and Clifford Jordan were in town and played with you, and Clifford told Alvin he should go down and meet you because you were just about to burst with frustration.

JORDAN:  Well, at the time I wasn’t playing with nobody.  I was playing with myself. I was dealing with a lot of students, and they hadn’t gotten to the point where we could play together.  I mean, there were people I could play with, but I was into what I was doing. I was making gigs, playing dance music, playing whatever somebody had to play, but I wasn’t playing what I play with no bands. They wasn’t playing what I was playing.  They wasn’t playing free music.

TP:    It’s the difference between doing a gig and being a creative musician.

JORDAN:  Exactly.  There was no creative outlet for me.  I was playing by myself, and I was just starting with my students, so they weren’t to the point where I could get them together to play it.

TP:    How did you keep your inner strength to keep developing on your own?

JORDAN:  I’ll tell you, I could stop and play concertos.  I played every concerto there is on the saxophone.  People think that I have to play jazz.  But sometimes I play classical music, and I can go in and play clarinet and flute and stuff.  My main thing is to play music. It doesn’t have to be jazz.  It never was like that.  I was playing a long time before I heard any jazz that I really liked.  When I was in junior high school, I wouldn’t listen to no jazz.  I heard jazz later on.  But I was trying to be a musician, and trying to be a musician is one thing, and playing jazz is another.  I’ve had a lot of difficulties with jazz musicians, because a lot of them can play jazz, but they don’t play their instrument very well. And I always would try to play my instrument as well as people in symphonies can do.  I mean, being able to do on my instrument what any of those can do. If you get that frame of mind, you can practice on fundamental stuff.  I was practicing on fundamental things today, like tonguing and scales and all of that.  In fact, I believe you’re no better than your fundamentals. Trane was practicing fundamentals when he died.

I’m one of them that don’t care one way or the other.  I don’t care if somebody likes the way I play, if they like it or don’t like it. You still be playing what you got to be playing. If somebody listens or nobody listens, I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do. A lot of cats used to say, “Man, you ain’t never gonna hear Kidd play until you go to his house,” and when I’m really screaming and really playing, they say, “Man, don’t you do that on a gig?”  Because I don’t want to.  I play in my house. A lot of times I just play in my house, and think, “Man, if I was on the stage, they would really dig this,” and a lot of times it don’t ever come on the stage.  I mean, that’s just the way it is.

TP:    That’s just you.

JORDAN:  It will always be me.  I’m going to meet it on my terms.  If it’s not on my terms, then I’m not going to deal with it.  If I would never play another note, I could go out to the barn in the morning and feel just as good with the horses, dealing with them.

TP:    But still, Billy Higgins and Cliford Jordan were telling Alvin Fielder that he’d better go down and see you because you were so frustrated.

JORDAN:  Right.  When I was playing with Billy he found out I was frustrated. He told Alvin and Clifford Jordan and all of them, and Alvin came down and found me, and immediately we hooked up and started dealing.  That’s probably one of the best things that happened to me.

TP:    Why are you and Alvin so simpatico?

JORDAN:  I don’t know.  We’ve been playing so long, it looks like we can almost read one another’s minds.  I can anticipate some things; he can anticipate what I play.  We lock in.

TP:    You both have a scientific attitude towards your instrument.  He speaks about the drums in the same manner, like compiling almost an inner rolodex of rhythms and patterns that he might access at any particular time.

JORDAN:  Mmm-hmm.  And I’ll react to the patterns.  Whatever he lays down, then I’m going to react to it. He can collect them all and then lay them down, and then I’ll play over them.

TP:    So you meet around ’73.

JORDAN:  I’m not good with dates.  I can’t remember nothing about dates.

TP:    And you were teaching all this time.  Did you develop a particular pedagogy that’s yours, that’s individual to you?

JORDAN:  Well, I’ve got some things that I run my students through. We used to have bands, big bands that were completely free, and they would be writing some stuff.  Some of my older students now, we can get on a bandstand and just start playing.  Elton Heron still plays with me.  He’s one of the bass players that I use — an electric bass player.  Every time William Parker comes down, I use Elton and William together, and they work very well together. Some of those students I can call on right now.  We can play a gig in the morning, and won’t even have to say a word.  Back then, they were all playing free, writing songs and so on.  But after the music went conservative, then we started playing big band charts.  I teach them anything they want to deal with.  I don’t tell nobody how they got to play.  If they want to play Dixieland, we can get together a Dixieland group.  Whatever they want to do. All I want to do is teach them.  But when we start playing creative music, some of them latch onto it and start writing tunes and doing all kinds of stuff. We had some things that we’d go through every day, and right now I’ve got some students going through this.

TP:    What sort of things do you go through every day?

JORDAN:  It’s the system of what we do. I mean, hearing things. If you talk about being a jazz musician, the number-one thing you need is to be able to hear.  Not playing the same tunes every day, but setting up different sounds, hearing them and playing off of them. Setting up different scales and making scales up.  Setting up different timbres and playing off of them.  Hear the sound of that.  With guitars and pianos and synthesizers, you can get all kinds of sounds.  I’m playing with the strings of a piano now; no keyboard at all, just the strings of a piano.  They just run some metal objects over it like a hawk.  I’ve got a band where we use that, and I’m crazy about that instrument. We can do fantastic things.  I’m definitely dealing with that now.

TP:    How isolated were you, exactly, in the ’60s and ’70s?  Were you in touch with other similar-minded musicians?

JORDAN:  I was in touch with everybody in the city.  I was playing with different cats with the entertaining music.  But when I did what I was dealing with, I was doing it myself.

TP:    Where that question is leading: In ’76, you put together the first World Sax Quartet concert.  I’m presuming you knew those guys.

JORDAN:  Well, I was in New York for about two months during the summer that year, which was the year of the Bicentennial. I was going to Ornette’s house every day and playing in the loft.  Ornette was getting the electric band together. They was coming in there from Philadelphia, the bass player [Jamaladeen Tacuma], and I was playing in the lofts with them, and with David Murray and Hamiet Bluiett and others where David stayed at, over the Tin Palace.  I was playing every day with them.

TP:    So at the end of the 1975-76 school year you visited Ornette, spent the summer, and then organized that concert in the Fall?

JORDAN:  Actually, it was the last day of the semester.  School was out in December.  Because that was the only thing going on in the school, and I got that together.

TP:    Were you in touch with what the AACM was doing in the ’60s and early ’70s?

JORDAN:  Yeah, I was in touch with them, but they wouldn’t let me join, because I wasn’t in Chicago.  Muhal told me I had to be in Chicago to join. [LAUGHS]

TP:    Who did you know who was involved in that in the ’60s?

JORDAN:  I knew Muhal. I knew a lot of cats around Chicago. I was trying to catch Fred Anderson and Billy Brimfield, but I could never deal with them.  I knew the drummer, the cat who was in Air — Steve McCall.  One time I was in Chicago, and Steve was trying to get Muhal to let me play, and Muhal said, “Man, anybody who comes from the country can’t play this kind of music.” [LAUGHS] He wouldn’t let me play.  I always tell him about that.  But they had so many cats on the stand, I could understand why.

TP:    You knew them from your travels in bands?

JORDAN:  Yes.  I’d go into Chicago every now and then.

TP:    So you’d go with bands that weren’t just local in the South, but traveled around the country.

JORDAN:  In the summertime or Christmastime, I’d travel with anybody.

TP:    So you’d travel the country with these bands, and that’s how you met musicians everywhere, like a lot of people have.

JORDAN:  I met a lot of them in bands.  But every now and then, I’d go to Chicago or New York or somewhere where somebody was doing something.  Very seldom on the West Coast.

TP:     Describe the evolution of your band with Alvin Fielder.

JORDAN:  We used to write tunes.  I had a lot of tunes I used to write.  We had three horns on the front line at one time.  I was playing alto, we had a guy named Alvin Thomas playing tenor, and Clyde Kerr was playing trumpet.  So we used to write tunes: we’d play a head, and then we’d play off the head.  Then after a while, Alvin said, “Man, let’s stop.  We ain’t gonna play no more tunes.  We’re just gonna go on the bandstand and start playing.”  That’s stopped me from writing tunes. Every now and then, we play some of the old tunes that we’ve produced.  But the majority of the time, we just go out and hit.  Whatever comes, comes.

TP:    Do you think there’s something in the music that you and Alvin and the people who play with you make that’s distinct from people who are playing out music in other parts of the country or the world?  Is there a distinctive sound or approach that other people aren’t doing?

JORDAN:  I don’t believe so.

TP:    When did you start going to Europe?  When did the European audience and musicians start to embrace you?

JORDAN:  Alvin Fielder would probably know better.  The first trip we did was the Moers Festival.  I don’t remember the year. It was over 20 years ago.

TP:    How is it for you playing with the European musicians?

JORDAN:  Well, I react to whatever anybody does.  You stand there and deal with it.  You don’t want to be a drag.  But that’s my thing;I adapt to what people are doing.  I just fall in line.  Their aesthetic thing isn’ t there on a lot of it, but I can do what I do and feel good about it, and don’t be bitching about it.

TP:    Is there anyone you particularly like playing with there, like Peter Kowald or…

JORDAN:  Yeah, I like to play with Peter.  I like to play with Louis Moholo on drums.  I like to play with an electric bass player there named Frank Wollen(?).  When I go to France, Sunny Murray and the piano player Bobby Few are there, and Alan Silva is around a lot. If I’m in Germany, I can always find good musicians.  There’s a piano player named Fred Van Hove who’s good, and Schlippenbach is good.  Basically, it’s just a different thing to me.  I don’t worry about it.

TP:    So there’s a community around the world of people you can function with.

JORDAN:  Exactly.

TP:    Most of those people are older musicians.  Not so many of them are younger.  Why do you think that is?

JORDAN:  Because the young cats, they started looking back.  They started playing bebop again and traditional music.

TP:    Why do you think they did that?

JORDAN:  I don’t have the slightest idea.

TP:    Well, you’re a teacher.  You know some of these musicians well.  Some of them are really good musicians, too.

JORDAN:  That’s right.  I don’t know.  My thing is that people have to play what they feel comfortable in playing.  I think they feel comfortable with that.  And probably a lot of musicians now are playing music to make a living, and you can’t make a living playing the kind of music that we play, so I guess they choose to play music that they can probably make a living from.  I’ve always been a schoolteacher, so I didn’t have to make a living playing music.  That’s why I play like I play.

TP:    Well, it seems to me that most of the people born after 1955 didn’t come up living bebop, and felt that if they didn’t learn it they were missing something.  They didn’t have Charlie Parker right there, didn’t have Illinois Jacquet right there, didn’t have the rhythm-and-blues right there.  It wasn’t part of their life, and they felt they were missing something, and they had to go back and learn it.  I think they felt they’d be incomplete musicians if they didn’t do it.

JORDAN:  I’ve got a thing in my case now where Charlie Parker is saying he wasn’t a child of the Swing Era.  They’ve got that in one of them old Downbeats.  I’ve got it in my case now.

TP:    That may be, but he learned every one of Lester Young’s solos at 16 and 17.  He took them apart and learned them all and played in those bands.

JORDAN:  Well, I’ve got my doubts about that.  People say that.

TP:    He said it.

JORDAN:  Well, he said he wasn’t a child of the Swing Era.  I’ve got that in a Downbeat right now.

TP:    I don’t think the two statements are mutually contradictory.  But everybody comes out of a time and a place. Everybody starts from a first principle.

JORDAN:  I don’t know.  Bird could have did that without going through Lester.

TP:    Maybe so.

JORDAN:  Ain’t no maybe about that.  Bird had stuff that ain’t nobody else had!  Number one, Bird could outplay everybody on the saxophone.  That’s the first thing.  Lester couldn’t play the saxophone like Bird played.  This is another thing that I firmly believe.  Technique determines how you’re going to play.  Lester played a certain way because he had a certain technique.  But Bird couldn’t play like Lester, because Bird’s technique dictated that he had to play another way.  See, once you start dealing with the instruments… This is why, when you keep on shedding, if you’ve got a concept, it’s going to have to evolve, because the more technique you get on your instrument, the more you can do, the more you’re going to stretch it to another end.  If what you’re saying about going back and learning was the case, we’d have to go back to Scott Joplin and all of them old Dixieland players.  You’d have to go learn all of that.  See, this is why I deal in principles.  Once you understand how something goes, you don’t have to worry about it.  If you want to do it, you can do it.  But if you don’t understand the principle, then you’ve got a problem.  See, once you learn “Cherokee,” “I Got Rhythm” and the Blues, you can play anything.  There ain’t nothing in none of them repertoires that’s different.  The only different thing was Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”  After that, you could play all night and all day, and just play on “I Got Rhythm” and the blues and “Cherokee.”

One of the things that turned me off with bebop is it’s so repetitive.  Cats didn’t play but three or four different phrases — after you sit down and listen to it.  Sometimes I hear people play all night and all day, and they’ve played only ten different phrases.  They keep playing the same the same thing in a different place in a different time.  I’ve got to do something else.  And if I do something repetitive, it ain’t because I’m putting it in the same spot. It’s that I’m hearing something at a certain time, and it’s coming out. It ain’t like just taking this phrase and turning it around and doing this or doing that.

A lot of people don’t sit down and analyze.  I can sit down and listen to a whole lot of people’s playing, and it sounds good to a certain extent.  But it’s just like eating red beans and rice or gumbo.  They got some GOOD gumbo down here.  But I can’t eat gumbo every day.  I’m sorry.  I can’t eat red beans and rice every day.  I’ve got to have something different.

TP:    How are the students you have now?

JORDAN:  Not too good.

TP:    In what sense?

JORDAN:  Well, they’re not really trying to be good musicians.  Some of them are dealing with Pop music, some of them are dealing with Rap music, some of them are dealing with jazz.  I mean, they’ve got little studios that they’re dealing with, hooking up electronic stuff.  And they’re basically trying to do the kind of music that’s currently popular.  I wouldn’t want to tie them down with nothin’ that I’m doing, because I mean, they’ll never make a living doing this. All I can do is give somebody the fundamentals and techniques in order that hopefully they can continue to thrive and do what they want to do.

TP:    What do you teach, by the way?

JORDAN:  I teach Band, Saxophone, Ear Training and Music Appreciation.

TP:    What’s your title?  Are you head of the department?

JORDAN:  Associate Professor of Music at Southern University in New Orleans.

TP:    Is there an educational philosophy that differentiates Southern from other institutions?

JORDAN:  We just try to give the students what we think they can do.  Well, Alvin Batiste has a Jazz Institute at his place in Baton Rouge. He’s at the main campus of Southern University and I’m at a branch in New Orleans.  I don’t have a Jazz Institute.  Mine is music education. I teach jazz bands, but at my school they don’t get credit for jazz. They just do it because they want to. They get credit in Alvin’s Institute.

TP:    So basically, you’re now able to take your horn around the world and play with different people by having stuck it out as a schoolteacher.  Otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to sustain yourself and your family.

JORDAN:  Exactly.

TP:    You have two sons, Kent and Marlon, who are strong players. Were you very proactive in their education?

JORDAN:  No.  I got them good music teachers, and they started playing.  Both of them, truthfully, could be symphonic players now as well as play jazz. My thing is to be the best instrumentalist you can, and then do whatever you want. They saw me playing classical music all my life, and jazz, and playing with concert bands, and playing solos with orchestras and bands.  I just wanted them to be musicians.  And when you’re a musician, you can play a whole lot of stuff.  I’ve played a lot of Broadway shows.  I’ve played every Broadway show that came through town.

TP:    You played all the pits.

JORDAN:   Yeah, all the pits. And I played at the Fairmont, in a band over there.  The contractor is a dude named Herb Tassin.  I’ve been playing with him for about 25 years.  He gets every big show that comes to town

TP:    You’re still doing that?

JORDAN:  We do it, but not as much as we used to.  Herb Tassin was the main contractor in New Orleans, and I’ve been playing with him for thirty years on shows and whatever.

TP:    Were you involved in NOCCA?

JORDAN:  In the early days I used to teach some kids saxophone. But I don’t have time for that now.

TP:    Is that when you instructed Donald Harrison and Branford Marsalis?

JORDAN:  When I had them, NOCCA wasn’t even started.  Ellis was out on the road with Al Hirt. I just had workshops in school, and young kids would come around and play in the band, and I’d deal with them, and then they would play with the college students. But I was giving Donald and Branford private lessons when they were young kids, in junior high school and high school.  My son Kent was in the first class at NOCCA.

TP:    In a previous conversation we had, I was expecting you to agree with me about the benefits of the street music that people can do in New Orleans, and you stated that isn’t the case.

JORDAN:  Well, you get a good groove out of doing that, but you can be doing it all your life. After a groove there’s some other things supposed to happen.  I mean, you don’t live and die with grooves.  For instance, I like the groove Max Roach plays, but shouldn’t I love Elvin Jones’ groove also?  If you can understand what I’m saying.  It’s good to get a feeling like that, but I mean, I’ve seen some kids live and die with that same thing.  Some of them are 35 years old and they’re playing like they did were when they were 15 in the street.

TP:    Do you see some kids who were on the street who went on to do something else?

JORDAN:  Some of them go on to do something else. I guess it’s a personal thing.  After you learn about a groove and see where it’s at, then maybe you’re supposed to develop it and bring it somewhere else.  There’s a groove they call “Two-Way Pockaway.”  I figure I’ve been hearing Two-Way Pockaway all my life.  There ain’t too much you can do with that.  Or that groove that Professor Longhair and them played.  I played with Fess.  I would be a damn fool to be playing that same groove now! [LAUGHS] I loved Fess, don’t get me wrong. But man.  Shit.

TP:    Well, there are a lot of young musicians who would kill just to be able to get that groove.  It’s a fact.

JORDAN:  Well, they just don’t know.  They’ve got to try to listen to what somebody else is doing.

TP:    How many horses do you have?

JORDAN:  Between me and my nephews, we have 10 or 12.  We have about 7 of them running.

TP:    Do you raise these horses?

JORDAN:  No, we buy them.  We go to Kentucky and buy some as 2-year-olds, or maybe a yearling, and then we put them in training to run them. We’ve also got some Louisiana Reds.   We don’t have them raised in here at all.  I’m thinking about raising one for my grandson.

TP:    Any horses that have done well?

JORDAN:  Oh, yeah.  They’ve won some races.  We win races all the time.

TP:    What are the names of the horses that win the races?

JORDAN:  Dirty Red is a very good horse.  That’s one of them catchalls! [LAUGHS] We’ve got so many nicknames.  We had one name, Redbone.  That’s Dirty Red’s little brother.  We’ve got one named Mississippi Sound.  Got one, a young horse, we’re going to call him Kidd Stuff.  He’s never ran.  He hasn’t been tested yet.  So he’s going out at Kidd Stuff.

TP:    Are there any parallels between training horses and being a musician?

JORDAN:  Horse racing is like improvising.  You don’t ever know what they’re going to do. I go look at a horse race and see more improvisation than when I hear somebody play. When you bring the horses out there to the racetrack, they can be prepared, they can be the best out there, and depending on how the jockey gets them out of the gate, what the jockeys do, depending on how they feel, all of those… You say they’re going to do what they did the last time, and they do something altogether different.  So that’s some serious improvisation!  [LAUGHS] You see? Because sometimes when I hear people play, they play the same shit all the time. They don’t improvise.  They’ll be playing everything they know.

TP:    They play patterns and whatnot.

JORDAN:  Exactly.  I mean, they’ve got everything down.  They’re not improvising.

TP:    Well, there are some people who play bebop who sound pretty free with it.

JORDAN:  I’m not talking about bebop.  I’m talking about music, any kind of music.  They’ve got everything down that they’re playing.  Which is good, in a way.  I don’t have no problem with that.  But I want it to be just like when I go to a race, where you don’t know what’s going to happen.  How they’re going to get out, how they’re going to get in the stretch…It’s just improvising.

TP:    What happens when you’re not feeling the spirit?  Do you have cliches?  Do you repeat yourself ever?

JORDAN:  I always feel the spirit.  Yeah, I repeat myself if something comes to me.  I mean, there are some things that you will play, sometimes consciously or sometimes subconsciously.  But you don’t try to do it.  And there are certain stimuli.  I mean, you react to certain things the same way.  But you don’t do it as a conscious thing.  It’s subconscious.  Because you’re trying to hear.

TP:    But it’s always with the intent of trying to play something new.

JORDAN:  Going for broke, that’s what I call it. Always trying to do something off the top of your head. That’s the definition of improvisation. Taking it off the top of your head and trying to do what you do, and listen to what somebody’s doing and react to it.

TP:    How long does it take a student to get to the point where they can do that and not be bullshitting?

JORDAN:  I don’t know about that.  You’ve got to develop an ear to do that.  See, the majority of the people who play have learned by some hook or crook, but they don’t have a certain ear to develop in order to deal with that.

TP:    Can anybody improvise?

JORDAN:  I think anybody can improvise, myself. It ain’t gonna sound like what you want to sound like, but you can improvise.  You know, Beethoven improvised. And I’m sure Bach was a helluva improviser.  And Mozart.  They improvised, but it was just a different way.  They didn’t have the snap in it, and it was a different kind of groove, but it was improvised.  I had a little girl in a class one time.  You know the little pre-school instruments?  Man, I turned her loose; she played some stuff that was frightening.  I never will forget that.  Donald Harrison used to play some frightening stuff when he didn’t know what he was doing.  Sometimes, when they learn what they’re doing, it gets so sophisticated, it don’t come out.  It’s another thing.  I want mine to always be like it’s on the edge! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Is there more of a local audience for you now in New Orleans?

JORDAN:  Oh yeah.  Every time I play, they got cats coming out.

TP:    When did that start happening?

JORDAN:  Over the years it started building up.

TP:    Do you have disciples in New Orleans?  Are younger players coming up under you?

JORDAN:  We’ve got a few cats around here who can play. Some of them are playing rhythm-and-blues.  There’s a saxophone player here named Gary Brown that I put a saxophone in his hand about 35 or 40 years ago.  He’s playing in a club on Bourbon Street.  He’s one of the baddest saxophone players I know.  You can catch him at a club now, probably walking the bar, but Jack, look, sit down and let him open up on you and see what happens. [LAUGHS] Fred Anderson couldn’t believe his ears when he heard Gary play!  Lord have mercy, that boy can play.  I’m serious.  He’s terrible!


[7:34] TP:  Let’s just cut right to the chase since that’s what you do in a musical situation. What does the word “avant-garde” mean to you, first of all?

KIDD JORDAN:  I don’t usually like that word, “avant-garde.”  I usually talk about “creative music.”  Instead of saying avant-garde, I’d rather say “creative music.”  You’re creating the music on the spot like we did tonight.  I didn’t have any idea what’s going on, but you take all your skills and listening and practicing and developing it, and then listen to what people do and play on it.  I’ve heard some avant-garde people who play music that they just make a lot of noise.  I mean, they play a lot of stuff, but it’s not like music.  This music is a continuation of playing changes. And I played changes for a long time, and used to study changes, and now we study timbres and sounds that people make from the drums to the bass.  Like, tonight I was conscious of the tones that he was playing on the bass and I was conscious of the things that William set up, and when he [Milford] started singing I was conscious of the key that he was dealing with and conscious of the mood that he was dealing with.  So you’ve got to listen sometimes a little bit more carefully in this kind of music than when you’re playing music with changes.  Because when I used to play music with changes, I knew where they were, and a lot of times I’d practice a lot of the things, and they’d fall right where they were supposed to fall.  But with this music, you don’t know what’s coming.  So you’ve got to use your ear and deal with it, so you’ve got to create instead of “avant-garde.” I’d rather think about creative music, music of the time.

TP:    What do you think the term “avant-garde” means?

[9:18] JORDAN:  Well, the term “avant garde” started out years ago.  It started as a military term, the advance party.  The people who went before and covered the beaches…or the Marines were avant-garde, so they could get everything out of the way so the other people could come.  And it developed through every… In every age somebody has been avant-garde.  Beethoven was avant-garde in the Classical period. Everybody who was doing something different, they say they were avant-garde.  Each musical period, from the Renaissance we could somebody like…one of them church composers… Palestrini was avant-garde.  Beethoven was avant-garde.  In all those periods, you had somebody who was doing something different, and they put that “avant-garde,” being advanced, being an advance party.  It was a little bit more advanced in what they were doing than the other people.

TP:    Do you think that would apply to the area of music that you purvey?

[10:14] JORDAN:  Yeah, you can say it applies to it.  But I just don’t like… The reason why I don’t like “avant-garde”… See, I’ve been around a long time.  When this music first started here in New York, people would get up and just do anything, play any kind of stuff.  “We’re avant-garde.”  And that kind of turned me around.  And I prefer to think… The term “avant-garde” is cool, but for it to apply to music… Music is so close to my heart, I don’t want to apply anything to music I think that doesn’t really fit it.

TP:    Do you think that the concept of the “avant-garde” is something that means something at this time, not just in music, but all cultural forms?

[10:56] JORDAN:  Yeah.  It means something. It just means people that’s on the cutting edge, people that’s a little more advanced.  And they apply the term to the things… Because the people in… The warmongers, they’re avant-garde.  Look at all them sophisticated missiles and things.  I read the other day where they tested a plane that made its rounds, and it can go in and do much more damage than the old planes.  I don’t know what they call them.

TP:    They call them drones.  They used them in Afghanistan already, unmanned planes.

JORDAN:  But they got something a little more sophisticated.  They made the test run last week.  They said it was more sophisticated than what they did in Afghanistan.  So still, we can use that term in any situation.

TP:    A lot of people in the ’60s identified the term “avant-garde” with a political attitude or an attitude toward the social order of the world.  Is that operative for you?

[11:52] JORDAN:  Yeah, that’s operative for me.  Because always people had to do things to open… You know, I lived in the South, and I’ve been through almost apartheid down there.  Some people don’t know, and they’re beginning to know.  But I went through a whole lot.  And if it wasn’t for the political activists, things wouldn’t have changed as soon as they’ve changed.  So it’s relative as far as society is concerned and everything else.

TP:    So do you feel that the way your expression evolved, from someone conversant with changes and the tradition and the continuum of the music to playing with no preconception at all has anything to do with that, or is it more of an organic development of the way you came to hear things.

[12:37] JORDAN:  It’s more of an organic way that I came to hear things.  I’ve always wanted to express.  And you know, by my playing all kinds of music… I’ve played rhythm-and-blues, rock-and-roll, bebop, and with all of those, I couldn’t express myself.  I was looking for an expression, and I found out that this as the best way for me to express myself.  Because when I was playing those other kinds of music, I was trying to play like other people, I was trying to play other people’s expression and trying to sound like somebody, and then I wasn’t sounding… I could sound like other people who were very famous, but I wouldn’t feel good about it.  I’d have to practice to do it.  But now I practice over my ear.  I practice things to hear, and when I get to a situation where if somebody presents something, then I’ll be able to hear it on the spot.  Like tonight, somebody talked about Albert Ayler.  I wasn’t thinking about it.  I hadn’t thought about Albert in a long time.  But I started playing that kind of expression that Albert would play.  Not trying to… I haven’t thought about Albert in a long time.  But I’ve heard the music, but I’ve been through it… But I expressed me through the way Albert sounded — for a minute.  And God knows, there will never be another Albert.  And this is why you’ve got to try to express yourself.  Because if you’re trying to express somebody else and somebody who really did it… I mean, there’s a lot of people out there that think they sound like Charlie Parker.  But I heard Charlie Parker.  And once you’ve heard somebody and you know how they sound, you know nobody else… See, Sonny Stitt didn’t sound like Charlie Parker.  So… [LAUGHS] That’s something that people have…musicians have to come to grips with.  And some people don’t ever play their expression.  They’re always playing somebody else’s expression or trying to sound like somebody.  You never will get to your soul if you;’re trying to find somebody else’s soul.

TP:    Do you think the ability of being able to express your soul through music and being able to come to that is in itself being ahead of the curve, what might be referred to as avant-garde?

[14:44] JORDAN:  Well, I’d have to agree with you on that.  But it’s a term… It’s something that you have to work on, and it’s something you have to take a lot of abuse with.  Because I’ve been abused with this music.  People say “shut up, so-and-so-and-so.”  The thing about it is that people don’t understand what you’re working for, what you’re working towards.  And they base what you do on their expression of what they’re trying to do.  And they don’t know that if you’re working on something, sooner or later you may hit it — but you may never hit it.  And when you hit it, you feel good about it, but you’re still reaching for something else.

TP:    Can someone attain that level of expression dealing with the continuum, and not something akin to what we just heard you and William Parker and Milford Graves do?

[15:33] JORDAN:  Well, it comes out of the continuum.  See, once you understand the continuum… And we were swinging, we could swing, we could do all of this, and when he started playing, I would jump on it.  The continuum is listening and playing.

TP:    So it’s dialogue.

[15:46] JORDAN:  That’s right.  It’s dialogue.  Listening and playing.  And it comes out of a development.  But, now, if you don’t practice that development, you’ve got a problem.  Like, for instance, the day before yesterday, I was waiting on some kids to come to school, and I was in the band-room just practicing, and they said, “Man, that doesn’t make sense; what’chu doin’?”  Well, people who know me said, “Man, you know,” and they was listening… Then finally, it all came together, and they said, “Oh, man, I hear where that’s coming from; I hear the scale and I hear this and I hear…” I said, “Oh, I’m glad you hear that, because this is what I’ve been setting up.”  And I was wishing I could hear that tonight.  But what they played tonight didn’t suggest that.  But one of these days, somebody will suggest what I was dealing with the other day.  Not directly, but the sound, the timbre, all of that will fall together, and it will mean something.  It’s like stored in a computer.  And you start recalling the sound.  When somebody gives something, then you jump onto it, and add something to it, and take it and take it and stretch it on out.

TP:    Are there aspects of the vernacular culture of New Orleans, which I’m presuming you played when you were young, that contain the seeds of avant-garde music within them?

[16:58] JORDAN:  No.  I have to say no.  Because the majority of the people around New Orleans are content with playing… New Orleans is a town where people come to be entertained.  And you’ve got to play entertaining music. This is one reason why I say New Orleans is good in a way and it’s bad in a way.  It’s good because the kids play a lot of music.  You hear music in the streets.  You hear music everywhere.  But now… When we were coming up… I talk for the generation of Alvin Batiste and Ellis Marsalis.  When we were coming up, we didn’t play the traditional music.  We were playing bebop.  And then rock-and-roll came on the scene.  Well, we were playing rhythm-and-blues.  Rhythm-and-blues is the basis for everything.  But in the middle of rhythm-and-blues, here comes rock-and-roll.  But we were playing bebop at the time.  You know, the learning stages.  They were more advanced than I.  I was a couple of years younger than them.  But I was following them, I was hanging, trying to learn how to play bebop.  So here comes Rock-and-Roll out of rhythm-and-blues.  Now the kids in New Orleans, they don’t play bebop.  They’ll play some fusion music or they’ll play traditional music.  And they’ve got a lot of little Dixieland bands (we call it Dixieland) playing fusion, Dixie and what-have-you, but they’re not really trying to stretch.  New Orleans hasn’t been a town that encouraged people to step out.  Because I took a lot of abuse, people would look at me and say, “Oh, man, what you doin’?  You ought to stop.”  But they didn’t have an idea of what I was working on.  And it took a time for it to develop, because for a while I was just around there playing with myself.  And Clifford Jordan came to town, he and Billy Higgins, maybe about 35 years ago, and told Alvin Fielder (Alvin was playing in Mississippi; he’d just come down from Chicago), “Go down and play with Kidd, man, because Kidd’s about to lose his mind.  Ain’t nobody down there playing with him.” [LAUGHS] They came to town, they came to give a concert at the school, and we jammed in the band room all day long! [LAUGHS] I was hungry to play.  So it isn’t a town that encourages that.  But because of people playing music to entertain people.

TP:    Well, the reason I asked is because there are some people who cite the polyphonic aspects of the older music, and the marching band music, and particularly the rhythmic aspects of second-line beats as seeds for what people then did that might be construed as avant-garde.  I wondered what your perspective was on that?

[19:37] JORDAN:  Well, the music was hipper.  The old men who did it, some of the older men had a hip conception of what they did.  But the youngsters came back, and they didn’t develop that.  They went backwards instead of coming… Because some of them things they did in them second-line things… I remember old man Paul Barbarin… I mean, nobody…none of them youngsters could do it like that.  And some of them beats they had, I mean, they REALLY were hip.  But the youngsters behind them, some of them wasn’t good musicians; they only wanted to go out on the streets and play music and go out in the Quarter and have people throw money at them and go hustle with it.  It wasn’t a real thing of them really studying the music.  They were using it as a hustle.  And the study aspect of the thing got lost in it.

[20:29] They talk about the Young Lions.  When John Fernandez, he taught at Xavier, and Alvin Batiste and myself, when we started teaching around there and really putting the stick on some of them fellas, then this is where the young lions started coming from.  The age of Wynton Marsalis and Branford, and Donald [Harrison] and [Nicholas] Payton and all of them, I mean, we put another vibe on them, you know, that they had to learn their instruments well.  I have two sons… My son, Kent, Wynton and them used to come listen to Kent practice.  He’s a little bit older than them.  Because he was playing in the clubs with Ellis Marsalis when he was 12 years old, and Wynton and them would come to listen to them.  They were playing rock-and-roll when he was playing “Giant Steps.” So it’s a matter of that whole generation.  Then they started a school that they called the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and Ellis started teaching, Alvin Batiste was teaching… So some people think it was an accident, but it wasn’t no accident.  They were studying with cats who had mastered their instruments, and would point them in a direction to play jazz.

There’s one thing about me.  All my students that I teach, I don’t tell them what to play or how to play.  I give them the tools and tell them the things they’ve got to work on, if they want to play Dixieland, if they want to play bebop, or if they want to play… Because I know that you’ve got to find your own means of expression, and if you can’t… Because I couldn’t express myself in any of those modes other than what I’m doing now.  And I feel good about it.  And I played them gigs, and I say, “Man, I’ve got to go back and practice.”  Because when I was up here, I missed some of those notes, this wasn’t the right change, and so on and so on.  Now I get on the stage and just listen.

TP:    There are people who think that these days the term avant-garde is almost an outdated term.  For one thing, so much has been played, so much development has occurred that you have a couple of generations trying to catch up with everything!  How do you see the state of the music today in general?  You get to see a wide spectrum of it as an educator, performing around the world.

[22:38] JORDAN:  Well, in America, this is the first generation that looked back.  All the other generations were looking forward.  The movement we talked about, they were looking forward.

TP:    Where do you think this generation starts?  Would you give a point of demarcation for it?

[22:53] JORDAN:  This generation?  I would say with the groups around Wynton Marsalis’ age.

TP:    So we’re talking really two generations.

JORDAN:  Yeah, two generations.  I think this is the generation that started looking back.  And not because they wanted to, but the recording companies, they found out that they could make money… Like, all those old LPs, they couldn’t sell that, they started reissuing them, and a lot of those kids hadn’t heard that music before, and they thought this was something new.  And the people who run the recording companies knew that if the young kids would develop, they could continue to sell that kind of music.  I still believe there isn’t a trumpet player here who can outplay Miles and that can express on a trumpet what Miles did, and all of them came up after Miles, and Miles kept going on… People used to bad-mouth Miles about his fusion, about whatever he was doing.  But Miles was keeping… All the old people…Trane…they kept going on. But this generation has sort of stopped, and settled for what they’ve done.  And hopefully, they’ll get out of it, but as long as they’re making money and making gigs…

[23:48] There’s not too many people going to hire a band every night to play what we play.  In the old days, Trane and them got away with it, which was good.  But I don’t think we could get away with that.  I would love to play in a club a five nights a week.  Any club that would hire me for five nights, that would be a delight in my life; you know, going and play what I do five nights a week.  That would be beautiful.  But that won’t happen on more.  So they’ve got them playing the music that people would probably… Well, I’m not going to say they didn’t enjoy this, but music that they could feel better with.

TP:    Do you think one reason why what we’re going to call for lack of a better word the avant-garde flourished in the ’60s is because people were able to work five nights a week?  Because they did, even around New York at different places.  The AACM was able to make their own work.  Do you think that had something to do with it?

JORDAN:  That’s a good point.  I think so.  And maybe the economy can’t afford it.  The people that they got, they’ve got to have some people there that’s going to ring some people into the club and make some money, and sell some liquor, I guess.  I don’t go to clubs.  I don’t know what’s happening there.  But you’re probably right.  That’s probably what’s happening.

TP:    One other question, then I’ll let you go.  In formulating your concept, not just of music but of art, you’ve presumably drawn on other areas besides just music.  Can you talk about what you’ve incorporated and how it inflects what you do?

[25:30] JORDAN:  Well, I played with some Germans over in Germany. A.R. Penck.  You ever heard of Penck.  He’s a helluva German artist.  Butch Morris played on one of those concerts together.  Ask Butch about that session, that time we did some real hip stuff in Germany with Penck.  [26:10] And Markus Lupus(?) and Frank Wahlman(?) and all that kind of stuff, really.  That has influenced some of the things that I do.  And this cat just told me tonight, a cat from Germany, he’s in the audience tonight, and he said the TTT, the triple something…he said they’re putting out a record with us that we did with me and Alan Silva and some others over there.  He said, “You know, you’re an official member of the TTT.”  Because I’ve been playing with them since Frank Wright died.

TP:    How do you think the American notion of the avant-garde differs from the European notion of the avant-garde?

[26:43] JORDAN:  Well, the Europeans have more…other kinds of things that’s dealing with avant-garde.  The visual artists and different kinds of things.  The kids come up seeing more..for lack of a better term…a more out kind of thing.  The way they dress, some of them.  I used to see those kids over there 20 years ago with the earrings and their nose and different kinds of hair and stuff, and then maybe later, maybe about five years later, I started seeing it in the United States.  But the whole environment, it gives them more of an outlook of something.  People don’t frown on some of the things that they do here.  It’s a more advanced kind of thing.  And with art, I think… I know, as far as art is concerned. they can… I’ve played in museums with Penck and some of them, and boy, some of that art that people be buying, I’d look at it and say, “Boy, I know I’m missing something; I need a course in art appreciation.”  And they would be into it.  And as it went, I started to say, “Yeah, well, I’m seeing some of the things and how some of this is put together.”  So it has an impact on my subconscious, I would say.  And conscious mind also.

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Filed under Cadence, DownBeat, Kidd Jordan, New Orleans, Tenor Saxophone

A Jazziz Feature on Nicholas Payton From 2001

Although “never assume” is a motto I try to abide by, I would be surprised if anyone who checks out this way-station is unfamiliar with the latest firestorm that Nicholas Payton has combusted with his always thought-provoking blog with the statement that “jazz died in 1959.” I tend to agree with the notion that no art form is dead if best-and-brightest practitioners of the idiom continue to play it. But terminology is personal, and Nicholas stands in a line of world-historic artists — Max Roach, Duke Ellington, Roland Kirk, the Art Ensemble of Chicago — who take issue with the notion that “jazz” signifies the totality of musical production.

I’ve followed Nicholas’ own musical production with interest since he emerged on the international scene in the mid ’90s, and presented four or five interviews with him during my tenure at WKCR, beginning in 1995 (a Musicians Show from that year is posted at the bottom of the page). In 2001 I pitched and was given an opportunity by Jazziz to write a feature about him, which appears immediately below.

Nicholas Payton Article for Jazziz (2001):

On a muggy September Tuesday afternoon in a third-floor rehearsal studio nestled between the two bus terminals of Manhattan’s Port Authority, Nicholas Payton is running down a series of Duke Ellington small band transcriptions with a 10-piece unit culled from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, including tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and singer Diane Reeves.  It’s two nights before opening night of a 23-concert tour called Duke in Small Doses, and Payton is guest musical director for the project.  He’s dressed for the part, dapper in a well-tailored grey suit that contours his compact, powerful frame.  The soft-spoken trumpeter doesn’t need to say much; the ensemble has internalized the music’s groove and flow. while Reeves is fine-tuning her interpretations of songs like “Mood Indigo” and “Azure.”

Payton calls “Poor Bubber,” Rex Stewart’s 1941 paean to Bubber Miley, the King Oliver disciple whose assortment of signifying growls, smears and vocalisms established the tone of Ellington’s ’20s “Jungle music.”  With an embouchure that seems to begin at the back of his neck, he projects an immense, thrilling sound, warm and round and enveloping through the full range of the trumpet.  Never in a rush, he milks the elemental line, creates melodies, sings his song, telling a story that channels Miley’s animating spirit while sounding fresh and in-the-moment.  It’s the kind of performance Payton — now 26 — has been pulling off since he was a teenage phenom in New Orleans, when his ability to infuse Classic Jazz repertoire with idiomatic authority and life force elicited a comment from the late trumpeter Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham — who played with the seminal masters in the ’20s, and was 91 when he recorded with Payton in 1996 — that Payton, born two years after Louis Armstrong’s death, came as close to the Armstrong essence as anyone he had ever heard.

Not that it preoccupies him, but as his career surges, Payton draws skeptical scrutiny from observers who confuse his virtuosic navigation of older styles with a sensibility drenched in atavistic revivalism. It’s the same critique numerous jazz scribes hurl at the oeuvre of J@LC Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis, who a decade ago, as a sign of his regard, sent his 15-year-old homie a trumpet.

The charges don’t hold up. Consider Payton’s diverse 1999-2000 activities, which bespeak an ample comfort zone with the full jazz timeline.  He’s just finished mixing “Nick@Night,” the fourth album by his highly interactive quintet, which has worked steadily since 1996, and sounds like it.  The intricately composed tunes cohere like an extended suite; they explore the polarities of nighttime experience — restfulness and peace versus the spirit of partying.  The orientation is optimistic, decidedly Modernist; references include Bebop, the collective improvisation and harmonic alliteration of post-1965 Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, the sophisticated grooves of CTI-period Freddie Hubbard, and a range of R&B tropes.  Now Payton’s pondering the next record, a Y2K Armstrong Centennial project featuring a group of Armstrong tunes scored for a 12-piece band, concurrent with a Winter 2000 J@LC commission for an original composition exploring the rhythms and sounds he grew up hearing in New Orleans.  Then there’s the still unrecorded 8-9 piece electrified funk group (he adds an effects unit and wah-wah setup to his arsenal) with world-class local musicians that he leads during his increasingly infrequent New Orleans downtime.

You might call Payton’s ancient-to-future aesthetic a birthright.  His family lived across the street from Louis Armstrong Park, once known as Congo Square, the 19th century locus of the slave trade, perhaps the only place in the Antebellum South where Africans were allowed to play the drums.  Located in the Tremaine district, the neighborhood was home base for numerous seminal New Orleans musicians.  During formative years, Nicholas played in the Young Tuxedo Brass Band, a unit formed at the turn of the century which specialized in traditional repertoire, and also in the All-Star Brass Band, a group of peers deeply influenced by the rhythmic and harmonic extensions introduced to local vernacular by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.  He soaked up the feeling of Second Line and Mardi Gras Indian rituals.  His mother, Maria, was a former operatic singer and a classically trained pianist who eschewed a career to raise her family; his father Walter, a bassist-tubist and retired educator who is a mainstay of the thriving Crescent City trad scene, would take his young son to Bourbon Street gigs.

After the gigs, Walter Payton would call midnight rehearsals at the house, and from his earliest years Nicholas heard the nocturnal sessions, soaking up music, experimenting on his father’s expensive German bass, the family piano, and drumkits left by drummers like Herlin Riley or James Black, who didn’t care to lug them home in the wee hours.

“He just sat there like a little sponge, observing, absorbing information, not making a lot of noise,” Riley — the nephew of cornetist Melvin Lastie, a pathbreaking figure in the city’s R&B scene, and the grandson of Frank Lastie, a drummer who played in the 1910s with Armstrong in the foundling homes — recalls fondly.  “He was very mature, with a whole package that showed his  potential to blossom and become a great artist.  I think Nicholas is the spirit of Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden and those kind of people; it lives in him more than any other trumpet player from New Orleans.  He was raised into a TRADITION.  The sound of New Orleans traditional jazz was part of his upbringing; that’s where his roots are.  It wasn’t something he had to reach back for; he took his roots and extended beyond.”

As the youngster entered his teens, he got calls to play in a variety of R&B horn sections, and attended numerous jam sessions at which postbop was the operative lingua franca.  During those years, Payton attended the New Orleans Center of the Creative Arts (N.O.C.C.A.), where Clyde Kerr — a fourth-generation musician whose father, also an educator, hosted ’40s workshop rehearsals attended by important New Orleans musicians like Red Tyler and Alvin Batiste — took him under his wing.

After telling me that he and Walter Payton played their first Mardi Gras parade together in 1960, Kerr recalls his amazement at hearing a 10-year-old Nicholas on trombone with a young brass band “playing lines like a trumpet player would play.  I used to go to those late night rehearsals when Nick was 8 or 9, and he would sit beside me on the sofa and try to play the music.  It might have been over his head, but he approached it from a very serious perspective, the way it should be done.  By the time he was at N.O.C.C.A., he had a vast repertoire of traditional music; I asked him where he learned it all, and he said, ‘Man, I don’t know.  I just know it.’ It made me think a bit about reincarnation, that he’d been here before.  Then also, I did a record called ‘No Compromise’ where I play a solo where I’m stretching, trying to find new sounds, approaching the trumpet like a saxophone — Nicholas was able to sing it verbatim as a young guy.  Once he hears something, he never forgets it.”

Payton credits progressive New Orleans elders like Kerr, drummer Alvin Fielder (he appeared on Roscoe Mitchell’s paradigm-shifting 1966 recording Sound) and saxophonist Kidd Jordan (the father of flutist Kent Jordan and a world-class speculative improviser with close ties to Chicago’s AACM) as mentors who imparted to him the notion of a global aesthetic.  “When I was at N.O.C.C.A., Clyde Kerr never taught us patterns,” Payton recalls during a lengthy conversation in his hotel room the night after the rehearsal, “When he caught us doing it, he would put us in check, saying, ‘No, the heart is what counts.’  He told us to feel.  His manner of teaching and his expression still impresses me.

“New Orleanian musicians have always had a hip thing about the way they play; some of the world’s best musicians live there — you walk up the street and there they are.  A lot of attention is focused on the pioneers — Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton.  But New Orleans produced great, forward-thinking musicians, such as Ed Blackwell or James Black, who were innovators of the drumset.  James Black was swinging out in straight-ahead 5/4, not playing 3/4-2/4 patterns; he referred to Elvin Jones and Ed Blackwell and Max Roach, but had his own conception of the drum.  He lived right around the corner from us; he’d come to our house like at 3-4 in the morning and play, and I would sit at the piano and he would try to show me these things.  I was only 12 or 13 around the time he passed,  but I learned a lot about composition from him.  He’s one of my heroes.”

Not that Payton’s taking his music to the outermost partials, but he shares the iconoclastic sensibility of his mentors.  “I loved science, particularly chemistry, when I was in school,” he declares.  “I contemplated studying to be a chemist, but by high school I knew I wanted to be a musician, and nothing interested me more.  Music is a science.   What’s similar is the feeling of exploration from mixing and combining the bits and pieces of different elements towards an infinite number of possible outcomes.  I like to think for myself.  I’m not the kind of person who can memorize an end result and regurgitate it.  I have to understand the source, so I can create my own perspective, and not go by someone else’s interpretation.  In school I’d want to know why a particular theorem took its form, what a concept actually meant, and I’d get frustrated when people couldn’t explain those things to me.  I spent a lot of time in the library researching the information, and I would challenge the teachers, which got me in trouble sometimes.

“In music I realized early on that I wanted to stay away from the books with patterns and chord changes, from ‘play this on a C7.’  I felt it was too easy, that it wasn’t a way I could get at what I heard on the records at my house.  I wanted to find my own notes, to find the feeling.  So I went to the records to research what Miles Davis was doing on a particular tune on Four and More, which is the record that made me decide I wanted to play jazz, or to investigate Lee Morgan or Clifford Brown or Kenny Dorham, and tried to formulate my own idea about what actually was happening.  It’s almost like I started in the ’60s, then worked my way back to New Orleans.  When I began to play, I was doing a lot of traditional New Orleans gigs and playing in the brass bands, so I wanted to listen to something different.  It took me a couple of years to get back to Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, and study them in depth.  I feel very comfortable and liberated playing that music — I grew up doing it, it’s quite natural for me, and I can do so without feeling like I’m not free.  I’ve tried to understand their trumpet styles so well that I’d avoid replicating their solos and not play cliches within what they did.

“I love playing in different styles; to me it’s not old or new, just a different means of expression.  Whenever I play, regardless of the context, I’m inspired by that moment, and I try to fit in.  The music of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five won’t sound right if you play some pentatonic tritonal substitution.  I’m all for updating arrangements on old tunes, but it works better when you play within that specific style.  You can be just as creative and free in that sound as in an Ornette Coleman kind of sound.  There’s no harmonic or any other limitations in playing the older music.  You’re not going to play anything Louis Armstrong didn’t play, or think differently about rhythm.  Things that cats calculate now, he was doing naturally years ago — playing 5-over-4 or 3-over-4, playing flat-IX over a major-IX chord or a major-VII over a dominant VII chord.  All we’re doing is an extension of those things, and there’s greatness in all of it.”

Like many musicians of his age group, Payton is fascinated with rhythm and its connective permutations.  “It’s interesting how African rhythms blossomed differently according to what region slaves were brought and what culture they were mixed with,” he reflects.  “You can hear the clave in all the Caribbean rhythms, and even in New Orleans rhythms; there are so many different transmutations of that same thing.  Now, I’m not keen about the term ‘world music’; there’s been a trend to put a big umbrella over a whole range of sounds which are specific to certain cultures and regions, which neglects the depth and nuance and complexity of each entity.  But jazz was always a hybrid and mixture of numerous influences.  In New Orleans, the African and Indian rhythms were mixed with the European classical influence among Creole families, which you can hear most notably in the contrapuntal improvisation of someone like Sidney Bechet or the compositions of Jelly Roll Morton — and then the Blues and Spirituals.

“I don’t want to clutter up my music, because to me the most important thing is a strong melody.  I’m a harmonic freak.  Sometimes the guys in the band get on me, because the more I write, I keep sticking in chords, and it’s not that easy to play.  I just love a beautiful chord and the way harmony moves, and I love Classical music, particularly the Impressionist composers like Debussy and Ravel.  But I love rhythm, too, because I grew up playing in the brass bands with that bass drum and snare drum.  Kenyatta Simon, the percussionist who plays with my funk band and has worked with me on my Louis Armstrong project, has turned me on to the rhythms of Mali and Ghana and shown me a lot about using percussion.”

Asked what he’ll listen to on the road, Payton animatedly pulls out CDs by a pan-diasporic array of ambitious composers, including Brazilian visionary Hermeto Pascual and Pascual’s associate Carlos Malta, as well as Gil Evans, Claire Fischer, the late ’80s orchestral recordings of Wayne Shorter (“his music contains everything”), Ralph Irizarry’s up-to-the-second Salsa, a variety of Afro-Cuban records — and Frank Zappa.  “I have all of Zappa’s records — ‘Jazz From Hell,’ ‘Yellow Shark,’ ‘Studio Tan,'” Payton exclaims.  “He wrote things for symphony orchestra that are unbelievable, and did amazing things metrically, contrapuntally, harmonically.”

Impeccably performed like his three previous quintet recordings, “Nick@Night” lays a tantalizing beat behind Payton’s learning curve; like the others, it’s a remarkably candid document of his personal work-in-progress.  “In a way I was searching to tailor the music more for the personalities of the guys I work with, and let them speak, in the tradition of Ellington,” he noted last December in a follow-up phoner.  The virtuoso band — suave early-30s saxophonist Tim Warfield, who offers breathe-as-one precision in the ensembles and passionate tone and convincing narrative in his solos; 28-year-old pianist Anthony Wonsey, an immaculate comper and spot-on soloist with pristine touch who studied with ’30s Armstrong arranger Zilner Randolph as a Chicago youngster; Reuben Rogers, a fluent big-sound bassist with Swiss watch-precise time; and energetic drummer Adonis Rose, Payton’s N.O.C.C.A. classmate — rises to the occasion.

“My career actually has been a slow process, which is what I think allowed me to grow and survive and keep a band out there,” Payton remarks.  “All the major labels approached me about signing from when I was 15 or 16, and I put it off for four years.  I didn’t want to jump on that whole young lions bandwagon.  I wanted to take the time to learn what I needed to learn and develop a foundation so that I would have something to rely on.   When I started touring with my band, we had maybe two weeks worth of gigs the whole year.  My second record was received pretty well, didn’t sell that great, but there was a lot of buzz.  When I performed and played, we tried to give people something personal, and they didn’t forget it; the next time they brought somebody, and the next time they told someone else — and then I was working 9 months out of the year.  It wasn’t some big media blitz.  It was just from me trying to play good, honest music.

“I want to maintain that throughout my career.  No matter how far we stretch out, which we like to do, I think it can be done in a way that doesn’t alienate people.  We can play something that grooves, something that totally burns out, even something totally free; people can see the history, how everything is tied together, and they dig it.  The audience is and always has been very important to me, maybe because of my roots in New Orleans, which is very people oriented.  For me there’s not even such a thing as playing for myself, because if it doesn’t move anyone else it does nothing for me.  Nobody wants to be alone in this world.  Nobody wants to be not appreciated.  Now, that doesn’t mean you have to compromise yourself or your artistic vision.  This music is vast, and I don’t like to box myself into any particular style.  I like to present how I’m feeling and what is real to me at that moment, and I always want to do that.  It’s worked for me thus far.”

It’s certainly working at an exuberant second-night concert at Alice Tully Hall; Payton — part and parcel with his holistic conception — pays strict attention to the function.  “To me Duke Ellington’s music is as modern as it gets,” he declares.  “Here we’re playing arrangements on tunes that probably weren’t played live, because the small band recordings were primarily studio  projects; the voicings that sound as fresh and hip as if somebody wrote it yesterday!”  By the tour’s 23rd and final concert a few weeks later in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the band is crisp, playing with spontaneous heat and joyous beat, caught up in the ebullient spirit of the music; “Poor Bubber,” set up as a down-home blues feature for Payton and Lovano, brings down the house.

A few months later, Lovano — who spent about 30 days on the road with Payton in 1999 in encounters including a winter 10-concert Japanese tour with the Ray Brown Trio on which the two were co-equal guest soloists as well as the subsequent “Duke In Small Doses” junket — is happy to offer a considered, cut-to-the-chase encomium.  “Nicholas is a total musician who draws from a rich vocabulary,’ the tenorman begins, “Though he loves all kinds of music and is up on everything happening today, he embraces the whole history, not just the way certain people played at his time.  You can hear that he grew up studying the personalities that emerged in jazz, how they played as well as what they played.  There’s a deep-rooted concept of feeling in his sound, not brash and edgy, but filled with warmth and beauty, no matter what tempo or what kind of tune it is.  You feel his sound at the mention of his name.  Nicholas plays from a beautiful place, and beauty is a rare thing — it either happens or it doesn’t.

* * *

Nicholas Payton Musician Show (3-15-95) — (WKCR):

TP:    What’s impressed me and a lot of other people since I first heard you is the quality of your sound, your ability to project a real volume from the instrument while keeping a capacious burnished tone.  It’s the type of sound you’d associate with brass players from New Orleans historically, where you’re from.  I think I could tell without knowing you’re from there.  You’ve been playing the trumpet almost from birth.

PAYTON:  I’ve been playing since I was 4 years old.

TP:    Let’s talk about your early years and your family history and so forth.  Both your parents are musicians, and your father’s a professional musician.

PAYTON:  Correct.  I asked my father for a trumpet at age 4.  I’d always been fascinated with the trumpet.  It symbolized some sort of strength or whatever.  The trumpet player usually played the lead or the melody, and I just liked the sound of it, moreso than the instruments.  I was fascinated with the trumpet the most.

TP:    Now, when you’re saying that, the implication is that you were seeing trumpet players already through your father’s activity, I would assume.

PAYTON:  Yes.  Well, my father used to bring me out on gigs with him and there were many rehearsals at my house.  I grew up listening to trumpet players like Leroy Jones, Wendell Brunious, Clyde Kerr, Jr., Teddy Riley.  So there were a lot of great trumpet players.

TP:    Now, in New Orleans, for reasons that combine economics and culture, there’s a lot of traditional music and older styles of playing are active and current and in the air moreso maybe than in other places.

PAYTON:  Right.

TP:    So you were hearing a wide range of approaches to trumpet, I suppose, from that early age as well.

PAYTON:  Definitely, from the early beginnings of the music all the way up through to now.

TP:    Talk about the dynamics of the New Orleans scene, how the older music intermingles with the newer, and the sensibility of the players.

PAYTON:  New Orleans is basically a tourist town, so the entertainment industry is geared toward older styles of music basically because people who travel to New Orleans expect to see a certain thing.  That’s good, in a sense, because that helps perpetuate that music, but in another sense a lot of the players who are more interested in more modern forms of the music don’t get as much of an outlet to perform and work in New Orleans unless they go elsewhere.

TP:    Another aspect of the music in New Orleans is the perpetuation of the second line and marching bands, some of which have been going on for several generations, some back to the time of Louis Armstrong, which is another source of continuity.

PAYTON:  Definitely.  It still goes on til today.

TP:    You were playing in marching bands from what age?

PAYTON:  I started doing that I guess around 9.

TP:    So what was happening with you between the ages of 4 and 9?  Your father, Walter, is a bass player, and your mother, Maria, is an operatic singer?

PAYTON:  Yes, she’s a former operatic singer.

TP:    Talk about your earlier musical career?  Was it a natural thing?  You picked it up, you did things, they said, “here, if you do this, you can achieve such-and-such”…

PAYTON:  No.  I mean, the first time I learned how to play I was extremely sad.  Everyone, my father and other musicians, encouraged me to play.  Throughout that period they were very supportive of me.  I remember the first gig I did, where I was hanging out with my father while he was getting ready to do a second-line parade (he plays tuba as well).  He took me out with him, and I had my trumpet with me.  So the musicians asked me to play, and I did the whole parade,  It was like two hours we were walking, and I was extremely tired, but I hung in there, and at the end of the gig all the musicians chipped in and gave me a little bit of money, like ten dollars.  I thought I was rich!  But that was like my first experience as far as being on the gig.

TP:    How about formal tuition on the trumpet.  I know you studied with a very strong trumpeter in New Orleans named Clyde Kerr.

PAYTON:  Right.  I studied with him.  He was one of my early influences.  I remember having rehearsals at my father’s house; Clyde would be on the gigs a lot of the time.  I used to sit by him and play his parts with him, or just watch him.  He knows a tremendous amount about the music and the trumpet, and the love and the beauty of the music in terms of… He has a real lyrical sense, and he really turned me on to Clifford Brown and a lot of different things.  I’m always grateful to Clyde for that.

TP:    One thing about the older musicians in the New Orleans area is their combination of functionally having to play the traditional music, and mastering it and respecting it, but also being very interested in contemporary music and new developments.  People like Kidd Jordan and Alvin Batiste and various visionaries have come through there.  Louis Armstrong himself combined that sense of being rooted in the vernacular and creating something entirely new, and we’ll start out the Musician Show with two classics by Pops.  Now, you’ve been pretty much immersed in performing his music publicly in the last six months to a year, and I’m sure way before that.

PAYTON:  Well, I didn’t really get into the music of Louis Armstrong until later in my playing, when I was 17 or 18.  Before that, I was just really into Miles and Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro and Lee Morgan.  Then I started listening to Louis Armstrong.  I took that style of playing for granted because I had grown up in New Orleans, and I had heard it a lot, but I didn’t really see the beauty of Louis Armstrong’s playing until I started listening to the recordings.  Then I saw how great he was.  I had an image in my mind of Louis Armstrong just being an entertainer and joking around.  I didn’t take him seriously as a trumpeter.  When I went back and started listening to his recordings, I realized how great he was.

TP:    This has been done ad infinitum, but I’d like you to briefly talk about the characteristics of his style that are pertinent today, to you.

PAYTON:  First, he had a huge sound, a very great sound.  It was very personal and very distinctive.  He had tremendous amounts of endurance.  A lot of the pieces that he played, especially in the ’30s period with the big band, like “Swing That Music” and “Jubilee” and “Chinatown,” where he takes these extended solos where he plays all these high notes and ending on like F’s and G’s.  I mean, a lot of people say, “Well, Louis Armstrong didn’t have the technical training” or whatever.  But I’d like to see trumpet players play that now.  It’s incredibly hard.  Rhythmically, he took the music years past what was before him.  Also harmonically.  As Miles Davis was quoted saying once, you can’t play a note on the horn that Louis Armstrong hadn’t already played, and that’s true.  I mean, a lot of things he played with phrases like bebop musicians played later on and whatnot.  So he’ll always be the definitive voice in jazz forever, regardless of how far the music goes.  His place in history can never be denied.

TP:    Now, you’ve had to both replicate his solos and improvise on the solos as well, I guess…

PAYTON:  I never replicated his solos.  I just…

TP:    Okay.  But what are the challenges of playing Louis’ solos for you?

PAYTON:  Well, I guess I’ve sort of gotten accustomed to it because I’ve listened to it so much.  I grew up listening to that style of music, so it wasn’t as hard for me as it may have been for some to approach the music.  But to me, when you’re learning a person’s music or style, it’s not so important to me to know exactly what they’re playing or learn every solo when you’re playing in that style, or to play exactly what they played.  To me, it’s always been more important to get their concept and where they were coming from.  Why did they play this here?  What actually were they doing?  What was his mindset when he was actually playing that.  To get the concept.  That way, when you’re playing in that style, you can be free in whatever you’re doing, and be creative and bring yourself into it, rather than give some kind of recreation of what it is.  Because it’s never going to be as great as what has already been documented.

TP:    Well, Pops came up under King Oliver and formed a lot of his ideas from hearing him play, but of course it’s something very different, and the recordings they did in the early ’20s.  We’ll start with “Dippermouth Blues.” Before we hear it, a few words about King Oliver.

PAYTON:  King Oliver was a great trumpeter.  He had a real hip, bluesy feel.  He influenced a lot of trumpet players, especially with the wah-wah conception that people like Bubber Miley and Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams later employed.  This solo here is one of his most famous solos.  Trumpet players such as Louis Armstrong, Harry James, Rex Stewart…when you play this tune, you almost have to play these three choruses, because it just becomes monumental.  When you play this tune…all the trumpet players who have really played, play this strain when they’re playing this blues.

[MUSIC: Pops/King Oliver, “Dippermouth Blues” (1923); “Potato Head Blues” (1927); Roy Eldridge, “Body & Soul” (1935)]

TP:    Nicholas, would you address what Roy Eldridge did that’s jumping off from Pops, and his own conception.

PAYTON:  Well, one thing is that Roy Eldridge, along with being heavily influenced by Louis Armstrong, was also very influenced by the great Coleman Hawkins.  As you can see, Roy is playing a lot of the longer, linear lines, like Coleman Hawkins was dealing with in the ’30s.

TP:    Trying to play like a saxophone.

PAYTON:  Exactly.  Yet he still has the punchiness and the attack like Louis Armstrong, and was heavily influenced by both.

TP:    What’s interesting is that Coleman Hawkins sat next to Pops in the Fletcher Henderson band in the mid ’20s and was very influenced by him.

PAYTON:  That’s correct.

TP:    You have a piece on your new record that’s very much in the idiom and vibration of Roy Eldridge, a version of “Taking A Chance On Love.”  Talk about the dynamics of his style.

PAYTON:  Roy bridged the gap between the older style, the real straight style of playing, to playing lines more flowingly, more of a linear conception of playing the trumpet.  And he influenced a whole generation of trumpet players, mainly Dizzy Gillespie, who really was influenced by Roy.  Especially on the real early recordings you can tell how much he was into Roy.

TP:    That interaction was memorably record in 1954 for Verve on 9 tracks bringing together Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie.  Nicholas selected “Algo Bueno.”

PAYTON:  You’re about to hear some great trumpet playing.  It’s history being recorded.  These two trumpet titans are really… It’s a good experience to hear where Dizzy was heavily influenced by Roy, but he took that thing and made it his own, and these two trumpet players playing their own style… Stylistically, there’s a difference between them, but Roy wasn’t that much older than Diz — maybe four or five years older.  But they were both great trumpet players.

TP:    One aspect of Dizzy Gillespie’s impact wasn’t just his harmonic innovations, but his rhythmic innovations as well, bring the Afro-Cuban sound into the idiom.  But in New Orleans there’s an implicit Caribbean aspect as well.

PAYTON:  There’s a lot of multicultural influences in New Orleans, being that there were different settlers from all over.  You had French, you had Spanish settlers, you had the Indians.  So a lot of different cultural expressions all culminated into that.  All that goes back to the meetings on Sunday in Congo Square, where the people would get together and play.  That all comes out of that.  The second-line street beat comes out of all those influences.  It comes out of the influence of the march and… Sometimes you see those things where it’s the piccolo and the drum, or also the Afro-Cuban rhythms… It’s all mixed in, and it all comes together…

TP:    That lives on also in the Mardi Gras Indian bands.

PAYTON:  Exactly.  That comes directly out of all that.

[MUSIC: Roy-Diz, “Algo Bueno” (1954); Bird-Fats, “Street Beat” (1950); Clifford Brown, “Donna Lee” (1956)]

TP:    Again, put on the professor’s hat and talk about Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown, the evolution of trumpet sensibility.

PAYTON:  All those trumpet players came out of Dizzy Gillespie.  Fats came out of Dizzy, but he had a different thing, a real personal sound.  He had a huge sound.  He played very lyrically but at the same time being very virtuosic in being able to play long, complex phrases, while at the same time he utilized space and also played lyrically, which is beautiful, which is something that Clifford Brown was very influenced by — the playing of Fats Navarro.

TP:    Talk about playing melodies.  You’ve been quoted — and I can hear this, too — that you always create a melodic phrase even out of very convoluted type of harmonic lines.

PAYTON:  To me that’s the beauty of music.  That’s what it is for me.  Just being able to play a clear, sensible melody is one of the hardest things you can do.  And that’s something I think all the great jazz musicians strive to do over the course of their lives, is just be able to deliver the melodic line.

TP:    How long have you been composing for groups?

PAYTON:  I’ve been composing seriously for three years?

TP:    Do you do it off the piano, off the trumpet?

PAYTON:  It’s a combination of things.  Sometimes I’m sitting sat the piano and something might hit me, and I go on and write it from there.  Sometimes I hear something in my head, and I go to the piano and work it out.  But I never try to write from an instrumental or theoretical standpoint.  I try to hear something that’s singable to myself in my head, something that someone who doesn’t necessarily like jazz or know anything about it could maybe come to the gig or hear it on record, and it’s something that will be singable to them, that could be catch, maybe they’d be whistling on their way home.  I try to think of melodies in those terms.  And I try to write melodies that lead the tune.  I don’t write changes.  I don’t try to write complex changes and then fit some kind of contrived melody over it.  I write the melody to lead where the progression of the tune is going.

TP:    You’ve recorded some standards as well on In This Moment, like “Taking A Chance On Love” and “You Stepped Out Of A Dream.”  Do you follow the dictum of knowing the lyric and keeping it in mind?

PAYTON:  Definitely.  I don’t feel I’m really playing a tune unless I know what the lyrics are and what the meaning of the tune is.  Then you can do whatever you want with it.  I find a lot is lost when you don’t know the melody for yourself as a reference.  I mean it’s good to know what other jazz musicians have played on tunes, definitely.  But you need the score really to see, so you can bring whatever you can bring to it, instead of just getting someone’s interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation, and by the time you get it the whole melodic structure of the tune may be gone.  So you need that as a reference point, I feel.

TP:    I’d like to talk to you a little bit about sound as well.  At the top of the show I said that I think the one thing that strikes everyone on hearing you is just the breadth and warmth of your sound.  Is it a sound you’ve had in your mind’s ear?  Is it a quality of combining hard work and embrochure and so forth?

PAYTON:  Well, sound is something you always are working on.  As a musician, you’re always trying to develop your sound.  And your sound matures as you grow older.  To me, sound is the most important aspect of playing.  Because that’s the thing that people can most readily identify with — your musical sound.

TP:    It’s your voice.

PAYTON:  That’s right.

TP:    Was this very expansive sound in your ear from your early years of hearing brass bands and other music?

PAYTON:  Well, it’s a culmination of different experiences and different influences.

TP:    We’ll leave it at that, and turn to a trumpet player with one of the most beautiful sounds, Joe Wilder, who spent most of his career in the studios, but has recorded a number of extraordinary small group albums where he improvises at wonderful length, and one was done in 1956 for Savoy, a trumpet and rhythm date with Hank Jones on piano, Wendell Marshall on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums.  We’ll hear “Cherokee.”

PAYTON:  When I first heard this, I didn’t really know much about Joe Wilder.  I had heard his name before.  I knew he had been a member of several different big bands.  But he hadn’t been involved in a lot of solo projects, or really gotten out there. This is an example of some of the great musicians who have been in our music but have never really gotten the opportunity to get their due.  He was a great player, and I think he deserves to be listened to.

[MUSIC: Joe Wilder, “Cherokee” (1956); Clark Terry/OP, “Brotherhood Of Man” (1963); Sweets/Ben Webster, “Did You Call Her Today” (1961)]

TP:    What came to mind hearing those tracks is that all three trumpet players had mastered and assimilated modern harmonic developments, but kept the phrasing and pace and feel of an earlier generation.

PAYTON:  Well, they sort of fit between the mold of the old-style Swing period and the Bebop period.

TP:    A few words about each.  Harry Sweets Edison has a very vocalized style, almost like he’s having a conversation with you.

PAYTON:  Sweets was a truly great trumpeter.  What I love about him is he has great time.  He really gets into a rhythm.  He can swing one note to death.  A great phraser.  Plays beautiful melodies, too.

TP:    Clark Terry is really a total musician.  Miles said because he heard him in St. Louis in the early ’40s, when he went to 52nd Street nothing he heard surprised him.  He seems able to play every area of music with a totally personal conception.  And you’ve had a chance to associate with him in the last few years.

PAYTON:  Clark has helped me tremendously.  Besides me, he’s helped many young instrumentalists.  He’s a great educator, and he’s very patient with young students of jazz.  Besides being a great musician… I’ve stood on the bandstand with him many a night and listened to recordings.  He’s just another one of those great musicians who never really was able to get established on his own, which is really unfortunate.  Clark influenced many musicians, like Miles…he’s just great…

TP:    He’s a musician who played in the big bands, then stayed in the studios because of the economics of raising a family.

PAYTON:  Yeah.  He was one of musicians’ favorite trumpet players, even though he never got exposed to the masses.  Duke Ellington and Count Basie were quoted as saying that he was their favorite trumpet player.  So he had the respect of the whole musical community.

TP:    I’d like to talk a bit with you about phrasing.  On the one hand, people who come up in different times and are affected by what goes on around them think and phrase in different ways, and yet that type of phrasing we heard with Sweets and Clark Terry is classic, part of the idiom.  Let’s say you were approaching that type of material.  Is putting yourself in that frame of mind something you have to think about, or does it come naturally with playing the piece.

PAYTON:  I think I just try to play that way, period.  I always try to think in terms of phrasing, regardless of the period.  To me, it’s all jazz and they all consist of the same elements.  There are differences within different styles of music, but the foundation is always the same.

TP:    With Mulgrew Miller, Peter Washington and Louis Nash at this Vanguard this week, you have a rhythm section that’s capable of both playing extremely creatively in their solo aspect and also totally supportive.

PAYTON:  They’re great.  Mulgrew and Louis are two of my favorite musicians playing today.  They’re both very tasteful and supportive, but at the same time being very great individual soloists.  I couldn’t think of too many people I’d rather work with than those guys.

TP:    Coming up is Miles Davis, a piece we heard you play last night, albeit under its original title and not the royalty-avoiding one.  This is George Shearing’s “Conception,” which Miles Davis recorded in 1951, then subsequently in 1954 as “Take-Off” for Blue Note.  Within your own personal framework, how does Miles Davis come in?

PAYTON:  Miles has been a tremendous influence on my playing.  He totally changed the concept of the trumpet.  Once Miles Davis’ playing came in the picture, that added a whole new thing to the art of jazz trumpet.  He’s a masterful musician, a master of lyricism and phrasing and timing — and had a wonderful sound, of course.

[MUSIC: Miles, “Take Off” (1954); “Old Folks” (1961)]

TP:    We’ll hear three performances featuring trumpeters with Duke Ellington, two of them by Ellington trumpet players.  Nicholas, you’ve had a chance to play quite a bit of Ellington’s music now with the J@LC.  Ellington used his trumpets in so many different ways, had trumpeters with different personalities, and wrote and arranged for the personalities of those personalities, going back to Bubber Miley and Cootie Williams and Freddie Jenkins and Rex Stewart.  Was your first exposure to Ellington’s music as a kid listening to records?

PAYTON:  When I started listening to Ellington, I didn’t realize the magnitude of the great music he composed.  To me, Duke Ellington wrote “Take The A Train” and “Satin Doll,” and that was my extent of my knowledge of what he did.  It wasn’t until later on, when I got into a lot of his extended works that he and Billy Strayhorn both worked on, like “The Far East Suite,” “The Perfume Suite” and all those type of pieces… I remember talking about the Ellington days with Clark Terry, and he shared a lot of memories.  He said, you look at the Ellington band, and you can take the trumpet players who went through that band and get the whole history of trumpet playing practically, just out of the trumpet section, different people who passed through there.  So there’s a lot of rich history in the Ellington band, not only with the trumpets, but all the instrumentalists as well.

TP:    It must extremely useful to you as an improviser to be able to play the music of the great classic composers of jazz, more or less the music’s building blocks, within the Lincoln Center Orchestra, and then come out as a contemporary improviser with your own sound.

PAYTON:  Yes, I’m very fortunate to get an opportunity to play a lot of this music.

TP:    You get involved in its inner dynamics.

PAYTON:  Definitely.  I mean, it’s great listening to it, but it’s a totally different thing when you’re right there in the middle of the band and you can really hear all the parts clearly and really see what’s going on, and you can really see yourself the range of difficulty this music entails.

TP:    And I think what you want to make clear to people is that it’s not imitative, it’s a processing, then filtered through your consciousness, and something contemporary and new is coming out.

PAYTON:  Yeah.  And that’s what Duke Ellington’s thing was about.  When Clark Terry came in the band, he didn’t make him play like Rex Stewart or anybody.  He let him be Clark Terry and based the band around that.  And I think any great leader has the ability to do that.  Like Miles,  To be a leader doesn’t mean to tell your sideman what to do.  It simply means you create an outlet for the player to express themselves, and let them bring whatever experiences and talents they have into it to make it great.

TP:    One of the great individualists in the Ellington band was Ray Nance, who had the trumpet chair for many years, and we’ll hear a feature for him from 1959, “Pie Eye’s Blues.”

PAYTON:  Ray Nance is a great trumpeter, another who was very respected among musicians but never could really get too much out of the big band circuit.  He was a master of muted playing, and also playing with the hat, and had a gorgeous sound.

TP:    We’ll also be hearing a Shorty Baker feature on “Mood Indigos” from Indigos.

PAYTON:  Shorty was a great phraser.  He had a very sweet, sensual tone.

[MUSIC:  Ellington/Nance, “Pie Eye’s Blues” (1959); Ellington-Baker, “Mood Indigo” (1959); Ellington/Diz, “UMMG” (1959)]

TP:    We’ll program a marathon set featuring four trumpeters — Kenny Dorham, Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little, Art Farmer.  You recorded one of K.D.’s compositions and performed during last night’s first set — “Fair Weather.”  We’ve spoken of individual voices on the trumpet; no one was ever more so than Kenny Dorham.

PAYTON:  Yes, he was definitely an individual with his own conception of sound.  Unfortunately, again, he’s another one of the trumpet players who never got very wide recognition but was very well respected in the musical trumpet.

TP:    As Miles Davis said, he was playing his own thing and was original.  He developed his own conception, as evident on his recording.  He also influenced Freddie Hubbard, who came up here once and said that K.D. had been a saxophone player earlier and had developed a lot of his attitude from his saxophone experience, as you mentioned earlier about Roy Eldridge.

PAYTON:  Freddie is one of the greatest, personally one of my favorite trumpeters.  He has all the aspects of trumpet playing I like.  He has a warm, big sound.  He has a pile of chops.  Is capable of playing very complex lines that are virtuosic, but at the same time has a  beautiful, lyrical quality about his playing.

TP:    Almost operatic in his scope when he’s really on, from lovely ballads to gladiatorial type trumpet pieces.  Born in the same year as Freddie was Booker Little, and they emerged at the same time.  But we’ll never know what Booker Little would have done since he died at the age of 23.  But people are still grappling with what he did.

PAYTON:  Yeah, he was amazing.  Again, an amazing technician as well as a great trumpet player.  He was very virtuosic, but at the same time played lyrically, as you’ll hear.  The way he plays over time is so free and flowing, but at the same time you could still hear the continuity of the piece within his freer time even though he’s playing over the beat.  Booker Little never really developed his full potential because of his untimely death, but all the trumpet players at the time, when Booker Little came, were frightened by him.  I heard Freddie telling about Booker Little, that when he first heard him he was scared.  He said he’d never heard anyone play trumpet like that.  He was great, as well as a great composer.

TP:    Talk a bit about what was great and distinctive about his compositions, and the implications of what those compositions might subsequently have been.

PAYTON:  His music was very intellectual, but at the same time a lot of the melodies were very  simplistic while being complex, which I love.  He had the ability to appeal to people’s highest sense, but at the same time, it’s something someone could relate to on the most tangible level.

TP:    Kenny Dorham also had a lot of trumpet players note his slickness, his ability to go in and out of phrases, and connect…

PAYTON:  Yeah, he was a master of playing turnarounds and stuff like that.

TP:    Finally, concluding the set, we’ll hear a 1964 performance by the Art Farmer Quartet with guitarist Jim Hall on “Stompin’ At the Savoy.”  We’re talking about another of the great individualists of the trumpet, and someone whose every note seems clear as a bell, whose thought process you can hear.

PAYTON:  Yeah, Art Farmer was and still is a great melodist, a great trumpet player.  He was a big influence on my playing.  One of the tracks I do on my record, “It Could Happen To You,” which I do with guitar and bass and drums, comes right out of the quartet stuff we’re going to hear.

TP:    Another thing about Art Farmer is that he never stops challenging himself conceptually and compositionally.  He’s always bringing in new material, and it seems that the harder the piece, the more he wants to play it.

PAYTON:  Yeah.  He has no limitations or any hangups about playing material.

TP:    Well, Nicholas Payton seems to be going in that direction himself, and he’s at the beginning of what promises to be a very interesting career to follow, which I’ll certainly be doing.  You can hear where he is right now at the Village Vanguard.


[MUSIC: KD, “Lotus Blossom” (1959); Freddie, “One Finger Snap” (1964); Booker/Max, “Garvey’s Ghost” (1961); Art Farmer, “Stompin’ At the Savoy” (1962)]

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